Elise Kermani creates experimental films that tell in new ways historical and mythical narratives. Her latest work, Jocasta, is a short film that re-envisions the Oedipus story. Filmed on site at the Shaker Museum and Library in Chatham, NY, the film combines modern and classic elements in its creation of another option than suicide for Jocasta. The collaborative effort between various artists creates a visual striking film rich in sound textures and layers of images and language. The film is currently showing at various festivals. In March 2009, Jocasta won the Best Experimental Theater Film Award at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. I recently caught up with Kermani via e-mail to discuss Jocasta and her future projects.
Gina Myers: Jocasta was filmed on location at the Shaker Museum and Library in Chatham, NY. What initially drew you to the location? Were you looking for a site to film Jocasta, or did discovery of the site pre-date the idea of the film?
Elise Kermani: My husband and I accidentally found the site on an exploratory drive in 1998 — many years before we thought about making the film. Originally, I wanted to do a performance there — invite the audience to sit in the lawn, have live musicians and dancers on the scaffolding and windows. But, the logistics of getting an audience there, and of having performers on an unstable structure was too daunting and unrealistic to actualize. I returned to the site many times after that initial discovery — taking videos and photographs, and creating small poetic works about the architecture and the origins of the alphabet. I also wrote many grants to create a large- scale piece there, but after 8 years, and no grants in hand, we decided we would do the piece anyway with personal funds. I was in the final stages of writing my PhD dissertation on the origins of writing, and soon after reading the Euripides' play as research for my book Sonic Soma, I realized that the barn and the play went together. At first I thought it would be an abstract multimedia performance video, along the lines of my previous work, but then the play became the sole focus of the work. But this was only after 8 years of musing and thinking around and about the piece.
GM: What was it specifically about this site that seemed to call for a new telling of Euripides' classic Phoenician Women?
EK: The process was very organic. The early smaller works I created at the barn were loosely about a goddess, Hestia, whose essia--spirit, or essence-- inhabited the barn. And she created letters of the alphabet from the things she saw at the barn — the shape of a window became the Phoenician letter 'H', a hole in one of the stones became 'aleph' or 'A', the full shape of the barn became 'bet' or 'B', and finally, she fills the barn with water and creates the letter 'mem' or 'M'. Some of this early 'process' work can be seen on my web site at www.elisekermani.com/jocasta.html
When I re-read Euripides I realized his play was also in some sense about the origins of writing, and I took what seemed to me a logical step in modernizing the Oedipus myth: to have Jocasta live because she realizes that she is an ancestor to Io, the Egyptian goddess and inventor of writing, and that Oedipus and Jocasta's relationship is not literal but rather symbolic, based on ancient rituals of the agricultural societies. Jocasta's shame is a result of history getting her story all wrong!
GM: The barn, after being damaged in a fire in the 1970s, was scheduled to be reconstructed, which pushed up the production schedule. Why was it important to capture the barn before reconstruction began?
EK: The year after we shot Jocasta, the museum began reconstruction, and the workers needed full access to the space. They are still arguing about the final form the barn will take--that is, will it be a museum and gift shop open to the public, or will it be left as a ruin, as the Europeans do with their historical treasures (Parthenon, Stonehenge, etc.). My vote would emphatically be to stabilize the walls but keep the barn in its current state of ruin — because if you build a gift shop and run electricity and plumbing through the building the inner walls will no longer be exposed, and we will lose the original beauty of the structure. We Americans do not yet know how to value our own historical treasures. My father, Norbert Schaaf, who was an architect, gave me an appreciation for the aesthetic value of classical forms. The barn has these magical 'golden' proportions of beauty; it must be protected.
GM: Jocasta has now been scheduled to screen at the Shaker Barn. What does this screening mean to you?
EK: It will not be screened inside the barn itself, but on the same land — that is, at the New Lebanon Shaker Village. It will be shown at a building called the Forge, which is a nineteenth-century house built by the Shakers with the same exquisite woodworking that is now a valued Shaker trademark. I feel that the project has come full circle! When it is shown at the site where it was filmed, Jocasta can be seen in context of the specific site. It feels like this screening is a piece within a piece, a mirror of itself. People will be able to walk over to the stone barn before and after the screening, and see where the actors were standing.
GM: The costuming and images throughout the film are striking. Stylistically, what were you striving for?
EK: Our production designer, Barbara Kilpatrick, is experienced in designing sets and costumes for dance, and much of her own visual art work is influenced by and grounded in Greek history. So, it was an easy and natural fit for her — we decided that the actors would be dressed in a combination of ancient and modern clothing — and that the colors and the textures of the Great Stone Barn would inform all of our decisions.
Alan McIntyre Smith, the cinematographer, is also a classically trained visual artist who draws from Greek mythology for his own filmmaking. As the cameraperson, he became a kind of performer. I wanted to get the sense of the cameraperson being an internal part of the story. Often Alan was alone with the actor, choreographing his movements around the performance. I want the viewer to feel like they are THERE, alone in the same moment with the performers, so I took away any extra people who might get in the way of the intimate performances.
GM: Layering seems to be an important aspect of this film. There are layers of language — voices, text, music, images, dance, sign language, symbols, et cetera — which might suggest discord. In the end, however, these elements seem to come together to say that stories need to be told by whatever means possible. What was your intention with the various types of language used?
EK: That's interesting. I guess I believe that 'telling' can come in many forms besides words and speaking. I felt that Antigone could not speak. She is forced to use movement and sign language to tell her story. Then, Antigone and Jocasta do a call and response through sign language at the end of the play. The playful waltz at the end communicates reconciliation. The trombones' ominous drone communicates the approaching war. I thought that since most of us already know the story of Oedipus, I had the freedom to play with the ways in which it could be told. I am also influenced by the films of Peter Greenaway and love the way that he uses music, dance, and textual layering in his films.
GM: I hear you are currently at work on a new project, another site-specific piece. Can you tell me a little about that?
EK: "Poe and the Museum of Lost Arts" will be performed at the 3LD Art and Technology Center in lower Manhattan in August 2010. We are currently in pre-production, writing the script and deciding on the multimedia elements. This piece was initiated by the visuals of the Bannerman Castle, a gothic ruin on the Hudson River that evoke for me the works of Edgar Allan Poe. When I mentioned the project to a friend, she asked me if I knew about the relationship between Poe and Baudelaire, his French translator and staunch advocate. So we've done the initial research, dramaturgical, and textual work, from which we are now drawing to create the larger production. We have secured the performance of Rinde Eckert as Baudelaire, and Theo Bleckmann as Poe, and little by little the piece is coming together. In the end the project will be made into a film that will screen at festivals.
GM: What do you like about writing and directing for specific sites? Do you ever feel restricted when you limit yourself to a single site? Or does it allow your creativity to open up in different ways?
EK: I think that limiting a production to a specific site gives an authenticity and anchor to the work. For the Poe project, we are making use of a site in lower Manhattan, where he lived and worked in the 1840s, as well as upstate New York around West Point, where he trained as a cadet. This site specificity feels very different than how we used it for Jocasta, as the American Shaker culture and history was a backdrop for the Greek story of Oedipus. For Poe, we are digging through the archeology and history of nineteenth-century New York to come up with clues about Poe's life. What makes us excited this time is to walk the same streets where Poe lived when he first came to New York. In fact, serendipitously, his first boarding house is just a few blocks north of where we will be performing at 3LD Art and Technology Center on Greenwich Street. We feel like we are scientists uncovering a work of art that is just waiting to be made!
Gina Myers is the author of A Model Year (Coconut Books 2009) as well as four poetry chapbooks, most recently Behind the R (ypolita press 2008). She lives in Saginaw, MI, where she makes books for Lame House Press and works as the reviews editor for H_NGM_N, an online journal of poetry and poetics.
Jocasta can be viewed at artfem.tv.