A winner at the 2013 Tromso International Film Festival, Saeed Taji Farouky tells Alex Jackson how his film highlights the plight of the Arctic and questions the morality of exploration
Shot over a two-and-a-half week sailing voyage on a tall ship carrying twenty artists around Norway’s remote Arctic islands, award-winning filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky’s surreal, dream-like, futurist fantasy There Will Be Some Who Will Not Fear Even That Void reinvents the classic documentary. Prompting us to debate the future of the Arctic – and thus our planet, it forces us to confront our fate in the face of changing climates.
Your film begins like a typical documentary, but it quickly becomes a lyrical piece. What was the reasoning behind turning the usual doc on its head?
I wanted to posit that if we look at the environment’s influence on us – how it can hypnotise and seduce us, or scare and push us away – we can better understand how we need to approach it in order to stop destroying it. Why don’t we alter our behaviour towards the environment? It’s certainly not because we don’t have the information we need so I didn’t see the point in making an informational documentary. This was also an explicit attempt to challenge the mainstream ecological film, that didactic plot and lesson plan that we’re so used to seeing has been overdone so much that it fails to be effective any more. I think the documentary form is in a crisis mode and I think we need to discuss that.
Why focus on the Arctic?
It’s where changes in climate have the most acute repercussions for the rest of the globe, the front line in the deterioration of our environment. It also has so much romantic imagery tied up with it. This fascinated me. I wanted to understand the Arctic of our imaginations. Often that image is a benign, mostly blank canvas on which we project our fantasies. I wanted to get beyond that and find something horrific underneath. Why? Because that region will one day become horrific if we don’t change our approach to it.
So, from what does the Arctic need saving?
From three forces competing to devour the region. The first is financial – it’s likely the Arctic region holds the planet’s last undiscovered oil reserve and controlling shipping lanes across the Arctic Ocean would be a license to print money.
Controlling interests in the region requires force number two: militarisation mainly led by Canada, the US and Russia, invisible to most of us yet happening right under our noses.
Which leads us to the third force – hubris, driven by that itching feeling that there’s somewhere on the planet we still don’t dominate. Arctic countries want to feel they’ve complete dominance over their entire domain and the uncertainty of the region makes them feel uncomfortable. We can now dominate almost any place on the planet, the question is no longer “can we”, but “should we?” I believe 21st century exploration will be limited and defined not by technology but by morality.
How did the opportunity to visit the Arctic with so many artists come about?
The trip’s a nomadic artist residency, organised every year to sail around Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. I was invited to apply as part of a team of four – an aerial drone designer, a man who’d build a ship, and an underwater performance artist. I’d be the camera tying all three strata together. But then things started to fall apart. We kicked one person off the team because they weren’t doing any work. The second refused to sign the indemnity form, and the final person was accepted into graduate school. So I was on my own, with 19 other artists I didn’t know.
As I watched and filmed, I tried to look at these artists, doing some very bizarre things, out of context. Similarly, when we watch a documentary we generally assume the filmmaker is “telling the truth.” But what if the filmmaker has a view of reality that’s not mainstream? Their “truth” is not our “truth.” But are they lying?
We wanted to make fact and fiction so finely balanced that it could all, potentially, have been true – but when you’re filming a performance artist, for example, what’s fictional?
Each character having inherent “qualities”, determining/affecting their reasons for being on the mission seemed almost Chaucerian. The Canterbury Tales, of course, was all about pilgrimage – is there a connection?
The question of pilgrimage is absolutely right. NASA’s latest Mars mission was an early influence on the film idea. NASA is calling for volunteers to be the first humans to reach Mar but there’s a catch: you can’t come back. Essentially it’s a mission to your own lonely death. Perhaps that’s the definition of a pilgrimage – a journey that’s its own reward?
In our film, the site of the pilgrimage was Pyramiden, a real abandoned town in Svalbard. It was a Russian community that somehow, despite the harsh climate, supported a stable and proud community until a plane crash in 1996 in which all 141 passengers were killed. That was the end of Pyramiden, a cost too high for them to bear. I found it hard to be excited by what was essentially the wreckage of the lives of hundreds of people. So our pilgrimage site was this town where I felt we could both honour those residents and question our perverse aesthetic celebration of crumbling cities.
Even That Void also feels very personal. Are you suggesting that as well as being ethically questionable to conquer nature, it’s similarly debatable whether we should delve into and (re)conquer our pasts?
I was, in some ways, forced to make it personal when my mother died two months before the expedition. The profound sadness over the destruction of the natural world became the profound sadness of losing my mother, with all the complex and contradictory emotions that a contentious relationship brings with it.
But I wasn’t suggesting we shouldn’t delve into our past. I was wondering why we feel the death of someone we know so deeply but we can so easily and wilfully ignore the death of the natural world.