Interview – Nomotopowell

Interview with Brent Chesanek

NOMOTOPOWELL takes the form of a travelog to explore the area and surroundings of Geneva, a village in East Florida. Where did your interest in this place and the stories that run through it come from?

My work is extremely personal, but it is never directly about me or my family. I wanted a geographically contained project that would allow me to stay with my parents while in production. I am obsessed with the landscape where they live, and staying with them became a tradition I could thrive upon, having worked in this manner on CITY WORLD, my last feature. I’ve not only lived in and around the village, but I also helped my father build houses there. So there’s that, and then my mother’s side of the family are Powells.
Despite these personal connections, the first curiosity I wanted to explore was the brown metal sign KOLOKEE. I did not initially know the sign marked an extinct town; I wasn’t sure what it meant. This word doesn’t exist outside of that sign or the town that it once was. I noticed the other signs as I explored, soon realizing I was in the presence of ghosts of towns, rather than ghost towns. The impetus for the film and its travelog format came from literary traditions of exploring various civilizations past and present.
There’s a book by Darran Anderson called Imaginary Cities, in which he spells out ideas much more eloquently than I ever could. He goes on an endlessly fascinating series of journeys which all flutter around the fantastical and the matter-of-fact convergence of cities at a distance, whether that distance is physical, mental, or temporal. The book is incredible, and it provided an expansive way of thinking about the film’s possibilities within Geneva.

To the travelog of botanist John Bartram, who traversed this region in 1766, the film intersects passages from an adaptation of The Travels of Marco Polo. How did this idea come about?

I chose John Bartram because his is the first known written description of the Geneva wetlands region, with added significance in that he journeyed up to the area shown in the middle of the film and was forced to turn around and retreat, which mirrors the film’s structure. I embraced his whimsical and unofficial practice of naming places (“Came to Round Lake, so we called it, it being one of the roundest I ever saw”).
In regard to the wording of your previous question, and with relation to Bartram, East Florida is an antiquated term from when pre-statehood Florida comprised much more territory, extending west into what is today Louisiana. And before then, the entire territory of today’s continental United States was known by the Spanish as La Florida, marking land supposedly claimed from Hernando de Soto’s invasion in 1539. The de Soto link leads us to colonial genocide, and thus we must consider Christopher Columbus. Marco Polo’s stories are included in NOMOTOPOWELL for two reasons: One, due to their role in the colonial empire, being one of Christopher Columbus’ biggest inspirations. The text we are reciting is in the antiquated French that Columbus would have read. The other reason is because Il Milione was received as a fantastical and untrustworthy account. I wanted to welcome the possibility of supernatural forces while exploring the violence imparted by tourism under the banner of discovery, even today. I have considered and do acknowledge the fact that me making this film is itself an act of tourism guised as discovery. Hopefully I have not made these places seem enticing to those seeking wealth.

The film proposes an articulated and stratified exploration of this region and its history, evoking the many ghosts that reside there, through numerous sources that intermingle. However, these materials, sometimes read in voice-over, sometimes inscribed on the images, are not presented in their entirety or context, but rather in the form of hazy fragments linked together in surprising ways by the coincidences of time and space, evoking the traces and signs whose significance seems to have been forgotten. How did you select this corpus, and why did you opt for the way the sources are treated?

From the beginning I intended to use multiple voices. I sought out direct sources that offered the most amount of factuality with the least amount of information. I saw these sources as ghosts at a distance: voices and texts not occurring in the space of the village but which have great resonance upon it. Critical to the selection were pieces I could excerpt without using proper names or anything else too specific. There was possibly just a gut feeling about the ones I used, they spoke to the feeling of the film.

I realized my interest in imparting Geneva’s historical relevance required some basic explanation of circumstances and backstories. I thought of approaching this as a standard educational film, with a narrator and archival sources conveying information in a traditional way, but then I would turn away from the actual goals of that format, which are clarity and knowledge. I instead tried to offer a minimum of what can be considered knowledge. I hope no one comes away thinking I have any knowledge I am trying to impart.

The sense of mystery is also reinforced by the images and environmental sounds, which instead of clearly constituting a cartography, immerse us in this place by following a more sensory and impressionistic approach. What ideas guided the photography of the film? And how did you work on the sound aspect?

There is an idea that we have two souls, and that these two souls each reside in three places: in shadows, in reflections, and in light as it enters our eyes. This idea is inspiring. It is clear cut and yet exponential. It is also the cinema, no?

I began shooting reflections very early on and augmented that with wider tableaux and night scenes. Sound sessions involved recording overnight at the assassin’s grave, hiding along the tributary, grabbing village recordings, and so on. I assemble these sounds before or concurrently with pictures. Sound is never an afterthought.

I was lucky to have Owen Levelle as co-cinematographer for the most intense period of production. He and I will talk in pre-production about what we’re attempting, but then on set, we’re each off on our own capturing material and rarely talking. I like the practice of filmmaking in solitude, and so even when I’m working with Owen, I can still think and gather as if I’m alone.

The film opens and closes on the image of a yellow-green square on a black background. Could you make this choice more explicit?

An anecdote: Thomas Jefferson wanted the U.S. capital to be designed around a sparse grid system, what he called a checkerboard town. But the other federal city planners incorporated a radial spoke system for its major avenues. It is said this was partly for defense. It is also said that due to this design, the assassin Powell got lost as he was attempting to escape, which led to his capture.

Jefferson had this idea that when towns became too big, that is, became cities, then corruption and evil would flourish. He wanted a more agrarian country, which is how the southern United States developed. The same region that operated and profited on slavery. We still see the demonization of cities today in the United States, along with all of the not-so-subtle racism that goes with it.

In general, though, the square is related to everything— to the design of towns and cities; to the cardinal directions, to map insets, to road signs; to the language of both anthropology and geometry; to the idea of a reduction and simplification of form. A square is a loop with structure, divisible by two. It’s a journey around the block.

Interview by Marco Cipollini