Inside the Anthill:
An Interview with Eduardo Williams, director of The Human Surge
By P.M. Cicchetti
Eduardo “Teddy” Williams has the look of someone who has been on the road for a long time, and has been enjoying the ride. Dressed casually, quick to smile, thoroughly unpretentious, the 29-year-old director sat down with me in the inner courtyard of a 19th-century palace during the Locarno Film Festival. As we talked, the hissing and steaming of the espresso machine behind us punctuated the conversation.
Soon after we started, he confirmed my impression of something nomadic about his persona, as he admitted to not having had a proper home for various years now. After studying at the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires, he moved to France to attend the Fresnoy, a renowned art school that has garnered a reputation as a center for audiovisual criss-crossings in contemporary arts. More recently, he has been traveling across three continents, Africa, Asia, and South America, filming his first feature-length film, a bold, formally daring piece of work called The Human Surge.
Young though he may be, the Argentinian director has developed a recognizable visual grammar, made of meandering characters and sequences, long tracking shots, a faux-amateurish digital aesthetic (even when he is not using digital cameras), and a remarkably keen eye for the layered dynamics between people and spaces. The Human Surge builds on and amplifies traits that were already evident in Williams’s shorts—most notably Pude ver un puma, presented at Cannes in 2011, and the most recent Tôi quên rôi!, screened last year at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Reverse Shot: You have said that procuring funding for The Human Surge was not simple.
Eduardo Williams: Well, yes. I started shooting in Argentina, and then used those materials to pitch the project to more producers. I needed something to show them what I was doing: if you don’t know me or my shorts it’s hard to visualize what this type of film will look like. And then it took a lot of informal talks. We went to a couple of labs, but in the end the film was mostly the result of informal talks.
RS: You talked about how the experience of traveling, and being exposed to new languages, was crucial for you. I think this is apparent in the interaction between camera, characters, and environment. I wonder though, is that something specific to your experience of traveling, or is that something that we can generalize, and see as part of contemporary life?
EW: Traveling helps to be in that state, but of course you can have these processes in you anywhere. It has more to do with accepting the possibility of shifting your point of view, or rather, with being aware of the number of points of view that are available to you at all time. The film explores that concept. When I travel, what is around me changes a lot in different places, in ways I can’t guess or I am not interested in guessing, because I like just going there and seeing what happens. But at the same time, what I myself mean to what surrounds me changes, as a director within the film, and also in time, as I travel.
RS: Is it a conscious decision, an effort to see things differently?
EW: No, no, not a conscious decision. More like a curiosity, a disposition, or an attraction to change. For me it wasn’t conscious: it’s just that I hadn’t traveled a lot before. I started after I started making my shorts, to show them around: and that experience of traveling naturally led me to discover these new sounds, this new air, this new way of approaching everything.
RS: By which you mean places, but also people. How does this openness you describe translate to your work with the local actors?
EW: It’s important for me to work without a locked script, and without giving strong directions. I prefer to give more general explanations, so that the actors can figure things out for themselves. I prefer much more to have a film where I am the container, if you will, but others retain their freedom in filling out the shape. That way, from my experience of traveling something gets created that is not just mine, but the record of an interaction. Plus, the actors I work with are also nonprofessionals, so the film is a bit like a foreign space for them. They know they want to be part of the project, because we create a nice work environment and climate. They don’t know where the film is going—and I don’t know either. But I like that, that’s how the film advances.
RS: So you don’t give them directions at all?
EW: It depends on the scene. Some scenes are directed more in detail, but lots of them are not. There is always at least some level of direction, as in “walk that way,” but usually very small things. I think the biggest and most important direction I can provide is the situation I am able to create with the actors. They start understanding what I want to do, and I start understanding what we can do together.
RS: So do you plan for that specifically, as you prepare for the shooting?
EW: There are different moments. When I prepare the script, sometimes I just write down whatever comes to my mind, without thinking. I see the project from a faraway point of view, so to speak. But then, when I am in the middle of the shooting, I realize sometimes I am just with them, and some other times I pull back, remove myself, and approach the situation from another perspective. It is difficult to explain this process in retrospect, but as I am working it feels like I have this object in mind that I want to try to create, together with these groups, and I am always looking at it from so many different points of view. But when someone asks me later, I have to reconstruct where I was at a certain point in the process, and that’s not easy.
RS: It’s like you are trying to be simultaneously very close and very far.
EW Yeah, exactly. Close-far-close-far, that is my way of thinking, my approach to narration, and I think you can see that in the film: there is not one overarching theme, I see it more like a cloud of things.
RS: Where does it start, though? What makes you stop and think: I want to see what I can find here, with these people, in this place?
EW: I think my first shorts were more about responding to specific places. I knew, going in, that a certain space would be at the core of the film. But as time passes I am getting more interested in people, though it’s always a mixture of people and places, of course.
RS: Watching your work, one gets this strong impression of interconnectedness. We seem to be constantly freely flowing between spaces, from one character to the other, from one continent to another.
EW: I think it’s obvious that everything is connected with everything. It sounds like a slogan when you spell it out like that, but to me it is really useful to think in those terms. A lot of our culture is concerned with keeping things separated—nations, ideas, concepts in language—but I prefer to think that things are always converting into other things.
RS: You talked about how you like to approach foreign languages as music. Does that mean that the dialogue is less important in the film?
EW: I think what’s great about listening to people speaking in other languages is that you are forced to adopt a different sort of understanding. It goes back to point of shifting your point of view. With my films, I want you to be able to watch them without looking at the subtitles. It’s not that dialogue is not important: each line adds something, but at the same time I want my viewer to be open to the situation as a whole, and to all its various possibilities. In Argentina, for example, it’s difficult to detach yourself in that way, because obviously you cannot deactivate your knowledge of the language. Though for example I am getting really interested in the made-up words people use among closed groups, or also strange sounds. In the Philippines there was this girl who would make a strange sound at the end of her phrases, something like “aaaag,” as a sort of commentary to what she had just said. I discovered it when I was editing.
RS: Does the linguistic barrier affect the shooting process as well?
EW: Yeah, and that’s great. The actors know I’m not understanding what they are saying, so they have this sort of freedom, and it’s also easier for them to have the sense that I am not there, since in that moment I am not understanding. And when I do need them to say something, I just trust them to do so.
RS: So there are things that they say just because they just feel like, and other things that you ask them to say?
EW: Yes. And it’s so surprising for me at times, because what they come up with is so perfect for the film. You must wonder, would they normally say that? Or is it something they have invented after meeting me, hanging out together, possibly influenced by the other lines I gave them? Some of their dialogue is really great for me; you’d think those are the most scripted parts.
RS: Can you expand on how you negotiate your directorial input and presence with your desire to let the situation speak for itself?
EW: It is a balance. If you look at the film, there is a very strange thing there, which is me, but at the same time, that thing is somehow in the middle of everything, it’s part of the process. The whole film is a mixture between one thing that came from outside, meaning me, and the people I meet. You can say that what we see is the result of the encounter between my will to make a film and their willingness to be part of it. We are not seeing me or them, but the relationship between us.
RS: At the same time, your relationship with those characters never comes to a full mutual understanding. It’s like you are always looking at them from a distance, even though you are in the middle of everything.
EW: As I said, it’s about embracing the possibilities of multiple points of view. Like in the scene inside the anthill. Normally we see ants moving and operating as a collective organism, but I like to believe that actually ants think of themselves like we do, in terms of individuality and uniqueness, and that we only see them this way because we observe them from our point of view. So you get close, and they are so small, they seem to inhabit another dimension. You can see their different parts, observe details of their bodies, their expressions. You notice movements you didn’t know they made. But still they seem to ignore us, or to be in a separate way. I like that, that you can go near, and yet see them in that particular way.
RS: Does that contrast with the final sequence?
EW: That sequence for me was really about the illusion of escaping. Throughout the film you see these characters struggling to cope with the need to work, which is the same everywhere. They try to use technology to communicate, create different connections, possibly escape. There is a certain rhythm in the film too. In the first segment, in Argentina, we feel lost, confused, and even the character doesn’t seem to recognize what’s happening to him: first he says he was fired, then we see him work again. But then in Mozambique, that character is already more aware of his situation, and he seems to be advancing, even though we don’t know where and why. Finally, in the Philippines, it seems like we are now in this beautiful natural place, very far and free. But ultimately you can’t escape. And with the final sequence we are back in a factory. And we usually think of factories as very real places, but this one is actually very strange, maybe because we have not seen many of them, but also because of the lighting. In some way, it feels like a very digital place. Perhaps we are inside a computer—or maybe we are creating one. And that word, “Okay,” repeated over and over, by a mechanical voice coming from nowhere. That says a lot, for me.
The Human Surge played Sunday, October 9, at New York Film Festival as part of the Projections section.