Q&A with Michael Madsen (Into Eternity)
- Posted: 18th Nov 2010
- Category: Articles
- Tags: Into eternity,  michael madsen,  onkalo,  nuclear waste documentary,  sheffield doc/fest green award
Into Eternity is the new documentary by Danish director, Conceptual Artist and all round creative heavy weight, Michael Madsen. The doc deals with Onkalo, a nuclear waste unit in Finland that must remain untouched for 100,000 years. Naturally, this throws up all kinds of mind boggling ethical and philosophical questions. Laura Thornley at DFG spoke with the director to find out how a filmmaker approaches such an existential scenario and if his art background helped or hindered this task.
Can you tell me about how the making of this film came about and what made you decide to approach the subject matter as you did?
I think when I first heard about this facility being built and being foolproof for 100,000 years, I wondered how these people go about working with this? Only 100,000 years ago, we as homo sapiens left Africa for the first time! These people who have to make [Onkalo] safe would necessarily have to have some kind of scenarios for the future in which they will try to predict human behaviour. I wondered what these scenarios would look like and how these people would relate to this time-span, so that it is not just an abstract number that doesn’t mean anything. This is what I was interested in trying to find out. It is the first time in our history that we are producing something that has consequences in this time span. Not only is the knowledge of nuclear power the epitome of technological achievement and insight into the universe in terms of scientific understanding but it also seems to have this other side that produces a problem that, in mind anyway, is almost incomprehensible.
It strikes me as an unusual angle to take. Do you think your background as a conceptual artist affected the way you approached the film?
This is of course something I would not know; because I am in the forest, I cannot see the nature of the forest. The previous two films I made clearly have an existential approach. [All my films] are interested in what you could call basic categories concerning what does it mean to be human and so on. I am not the type of documentary filmmaker who has this idea that there is a kind of social justice… that this is wrong and now you have to make it right by disclosing something or revealing something. That’s not how I think about it. It could have been a Michael Moore type film [but] it would have been a filmmaker bitching about a big corporation. I think the subject matter is much bigger than this.
I think that asking the question about the human legacy in 100,000 years is far more interesting
For me that is the core of it. And in that sense it is not about a technological engineering marvel, it is about acting responsibly… in a situation where the scale of the problem is perhaps outside our comprehension. That is why the company would prefer to talk about technical aspects because you can talk about that, like reinforced concrete with titanium and so on. The real problem … should be [how we] try to warn the future, can we warn the future at all?
The film feels highly stylized to resemble say, Science Fiction. Can you tell me about your influences in making the film?
I have been talking about and showing the crew L’eclisse by Michaelangelo Antonioni, a little bit from Elephant and the opening of Alien. The reason I mention these films is that they have an incredible precision in cinematography and editing. Antonioni does these incredible renderings of how these people feel inside. I wanted to make a film that could at least give some intuitive understanding and what this timespan actually means. It seemed obvious to [make] the film as a kind of address to the future and therefore transport the audience into the future looking back. We trained with the steady cam so that… the basic design feature of the facility, to operate without any human hands, [would be communicated]. [We imagined] the camera as a visitor from the future, it sort of drifts around but has no clarity in the way things are filmed – if there are humans in the shot it would not necessarily go to them, it may chose a red colour instead because maybe that is more interesting to this future visitor. It's important to consider how you look at reality, what kind of perspective you put on it because otherwise you just end up reproducing something that is already there and I don’t think that is useful.
Lucy walker, director of the film Wasteland, made her documentary specifically for the art gallery – how do you feel about this as a venue for your work?
Of course I would like that. Recently at CPH:DOX festival there were speeches by someone from the Tate and other places and of course I would like that to happen. But I read an interview, partly with me but also with the communications manager that is building this facility. He refers to the film now as a piece of art, which of course is a very carefully designed way of talking about the film, meant to reduce the film's significance in relation to what they are doing. That the film has artistic qualities should not diminish the reason why I am working with documentary: reality. That is the bedrock of the film.
I read in another interview that European TV will not buy your documentary, is this true?
That is not strictly true, that was not recorded correctly. What is true is that we have encountered great hesitation from several, important television stations because they find that the form is difficult. I don’t know why they say that because I just made the film as I thought it should be made. Perhaps it is [because it is not a programme about discovering a mega structure], it is something different. I think that when you are confronted with something like this, I mean, there is nothing like this, you have to find a [new] way to tell the story. In my mind to get the audience to ponder about these questions is much, much more interesting than presenting something that is sort of a done deal.
Do you propose your documentary should be left to the future?
Well of course I don’t think that this is such a great film it will last throughout the ages but I can say that the film was a real attempt at communicating with the future. There was a graphical dimension to the film [which was not realized] that would follow this Rosetta Stone approach. You would have several but simultaneous layers so, even though you [may not be able to] understand English or [other languages], you would still be able to decipher what the film talks about. There is a scene with a worker touching another workers chin, and there is intimacy in that shot. I think the real thing to understand about our generation or civilization that as humans we do have feelings and that is something that goes beyond this purely scientific approach, which is what will actually be left behind if this facility… remains in the future. There is only rational thinking behind this facility. I think the future audience and audience today is probably incompatible but… it has been an inspiring way of talking about the film.
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Michael Madsen's film won a special mention from the Sheffield Doc/Fest Green Award.
Into Eternity is currently being shown in selected UK cinemas. For information on where to catch a screening click here
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