Docs

SXSW ’22: “Self-Portrait” director on the “incidental beauty” of surveillance

In Realscreen‘s interview with SXSW programmers Janet Pierson and Jim Kolmar about the documentary line-up at this year’s festival, both singled out Canadian filmmaker Joële Walinga’s Self-Portrait as one of ...
March 11, 2022

In Realscreen‘s interview with SXSW programmers Janet Pierson and Jim Kolmar about the documentary line-up at this year’s festival, both singled out Canadian filmmaker Joële Walinga’s Self-Portrait as one of the most exciting entries in the selection.

The doc certainly has an intriguing premise. It’s a found-footage work comprised exclusively of images gleaned from unlocked surveillance cameras from around the world, presented absent of any commentary and with only the structuring motif of a seasonal cycle (winter to autumn) to serve as any kind of evident organizing principle. Even with other political concerns currently more often dominating headlines, Self-Portrait still speaks to a timely issue in the omnipresence of surveillance.

But to a great extent, what is being surveilled in Self-Portrait is less humans themselves than evidence of their existence. It’s the spaces and structures of the built environment that dominate, interact with or seem to be entirely absent from a natural world that, despite all we have done to it, still retains its sovereign power in the images of wind-whipped seas and misty, forested mountain peaks that Walinga presents to us.

Of course, the very fact that these images were captured in the first place bespeaks an encroaching human influence on these environments. But in her selection of images, Walinga seeks out those visual beauties that can derive from automatism, from a lack of human intentionality. Locked in place and, for the most part, deprived of movement, these dully, ceaselessly open camera-eyes hit upon striking compositions that couldn’t be bettered if a filmmaker had tried to capture them.

It’s tempting to try and read some master narrative into Self-Portrait, but as Walinga’s very title tells us, any meaning one draws from these autonomously shot but carefully arranged images will reveal more about you than about the work itself. To offer one such self-revelation, given that today’s world is governed by relentless, tyrannical scrutiny, Self-Portrait acquires an almost liberatory power as it shows us some of the many things that go on when (maybe) no one is watching.

Walinga spoke to Realscreen shortly before Self-Portrait‘s world premiere at SXSW on March 12.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

What was the origin of this project, and what drew you to these images in the first place?

About four or five years ago I found out that, if people didn’t lock their [surveillance] cameras, there were basically these windows that you could find online. And I became obsessed with them, I just stared at them all the time, and kept collecting them. It was like catching glimpses of things you wouldn’t see otherwise.

When I first learned about these cameras, I would search a specific IP address and then I would be able to see whatever camera was there. But then I started finding databases where people have compiled all these [open] cameras. The one I use most is called Instacam.org, and they have a thousand pages with I think nine cameras on each page, and you can just scroll through them.

Eventually I started thinking that there’s got to be an idea [for a film] here. I kept waiting for some sort of big through line, and then I just realized, oh, you don’t need that. It was just about, “is this a beautiful frame.” That’s what blew me away about [these images], I’m so excited by the incidental beauty.

Given that the film is billed as “a portrait of humanity as captured by its surveillance cameras,” a lot of the film isn’t devoted to images of humans so much as images of human activity.

Well, on a very practical note, I really wanted to be respectful of [people's] privacy. But what I thought a lot about was — do you know the Voyager golden record, the record they sent out into space? I was thinking about that a lot, that these are the images that you might pick up off a satellite in space. It’s all evidence, the infrastructure, what we’ve done to the Earth. I was interested in the way our evidence reveals who we are, rather than our actions.

Why did you choose the seasonal cycle as one of your structuring motifs, and what else helped guide your editing choices?

With the seasons, I think it was the only way I could make [the film] feel like a cohesive whole. But in terms of editing, it was really about rhythm for me. I can’t tell you why that rhythm emerged, but it does have a lot to do with the sound. All the footage is silent, so the shots were selected based on what kind of aural atmosphere I could create. Every time I liked a shot, I would do an hour of sound design on just that one shot, even if I didn’t end up using it — because I had to, or else I wouldn’t know [if I wanted to keep it].

What was the process like to build up the film’s soundscape?

If you’ve seen an edit timeline on Premiere Pro, you have these undefined tracks that you can layer. I think for each clip, there were probably at least five tracks [running simultaneously], with all the sounds downloaded from places like Freesound.org.

It was really exciting choosing the sounds, because [the sound designer and I] were able to imagine fictions within [the images]. The space beyond the frame was screaming at me — what else is there, what’s over there, what’s over there? I don’t know why [I felt that] in this project more than another project; maybe it was because I had these static frames, and I knew that the “director” hadn’t chosen that frame. So I was more open to thinking about what’s beyond that frame than I might be with another film, where the director and the cinematographer had actually made those decisions.

I take a lot of inspiration from Alice Munro in all my work. Her stories are really concise, she’s not flowery with her language, she never over-describes anything. When you finish her stories, you feel like you’ve just spent months with these people, or that they’re you and your friends — but then you realize that you don’t really know much about them at all. There’s something about those absences [that she leaves], the way you have to fill in all these gaps in your head. And that somehow makes [the work] even larger and more real, because you do that work.

In your career so far, you’ve moved between the gallery and the cinema. Do you think of Self-Portrait as a piece that needs to be experienced in a theater, or do you think that it can function equally as well, if obviously differently, in a gallery space?

I do have a gallery version, but to be honest I did that less from a confidence that that was a great way for people to experience the project so much as it was out of insecurity. I think I felt that, if people didn’t have the agency to enter and leave this project whenever they wanted to, I didn’t know if I’d be able to hold them. But I really do want viewers to experience it with the rhythm I designed, rather than the rhythm of their attention span. With gallery viewers, the statistic is something like, they spend 10 seconds [looking at] each piece.

It’s so hard to make something that you love, that feels like a hobby. Because this was really just my stuff, and then later I was like, “oh yeah, I’m making a movie.” Other films you develop, you have a team, but this really felt insular, in my own head. I knew I loved it, but I had no idea if other people would.

But I think the lesson is, and I’m trying to make sure I remember this, if you make something that interests you, then you can communicate with people more than if you make something you think other people will like.

Self-Portrait made its world premiere at SXSW on March 12.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.

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