Interview with Declan Clarke

1. Saturn and Beyond has a structure that recalls the form of a dissertation, divided into chapters and sub-chapters, using a scientific and academic register, to then deviate into an intimate and personal tale. How did you develop this structure and the scenario of the film?

I developed this technique in a short film I made about Rosa Luxemburg (Mine Are of Trouble) in 2006. I wanted to tell a personal story in the context of Luxemburg’s life and work. It felt glib and cheap to do so without fully contextualising Luxemburg’s extraordinary contribution to the political landscape in the early 20th century. Naturally, the film became more about Luxemburg and the personal perspective a minimalised coda. As in Saturn and Beyond I narrated the film, as it felt important that the narration conveyed the subjectivity of perspective. When introducing a personal narrative it made sense that it would differ, and so I removed the voice (my voice) for the written word via intertitle, and created a detachment from representations of the self. I am not interested in myself, or my lived experience, but if it can be used in a filmic sense to make a connection with the viewer and to better convey the perspective of the film I am trying to make, then I sometimes incorporate it. I find it grounds the film in a very simple way, and allows the more abstract or expansive elements to feel less constrained.

2. Apart from the voice-over, the film is extremely silent. What led you to take this decision?

Material film is a silent medium. I am very much interested in the native aspects of any medium I use, and I try to let the medium instruct me in its nature and to how I should use it. I find it tiresome that any time 8mm or 16mm film is used in a film it is accompanied by the burring flicker of a projector. It’s a dreadful cliché that fails to understand the essence of material film. Even in the digital era, image and sound are separate elements that are brought together. For me, filling up a moving image with noisy clutter shows a lack of faith in the moving image, which surely, is the single most important aspect of any film. Even Derek Jarman’s Blue is essentially a beautifully projected blue rectangle. Cinema reduced to its most rudimentary qualities is still captivating and compelling. Trust that.

3. The film mixes still and moving images, using a wide range of formats: 35mm and 16mm film colour and black and white film, DV video, 35mm still and dia slide film. Could you comment on this variety of media?

If possible, I always shoot on 16mm and the archive I was using had been shot in 35mm slide film. The videos I had taken happened to be DV or low res digital as I hadn’t intended to use them for work. 35mm film is one of the greatest technical developments of humanity. Now becoming obsolete, it felt to me that it was the only possible format to shoot the abandoned museum of broadcasting with. It was also the first time I had a sufficient budget to cover the costs. I used about 98% of what was shot.

As I was depicting the technological development of communication instruments, it seemed augmentary to do so by incorporating each phase of the development of moving image film. Saturn and Beyond is in a sense about the death of everything, even film, unfortunately.

5. The film is punctuated by sequences in which we see a detective (played by yourself) in an office, analysing various documents (dossiers, files, photographs, etc.), in a style reminiscent of 1940s and 1950s cinema and echoing your previous works, notably the Geist Trilogie – We Are Not Like Them (FID 2013), The Most Cruel of All Goddesses (2015), Wreckage in May (FID 2016). Why this treatment and how did you work on the mise-en-scËne?

The Agent character was developed first in the film We Are Not Like Them, and so effective and useful did it turn out from my perspective, that I have used the character in five subsequent films. The character is both me and not me, in the sense that in We Are Not Like Them, the character is walking around a series of locations, which I had to do firstly to research the locations, and secondly to shoot them. So in a way, the character in We Are Not Like Them is literally depicting how the film was made. But also, the character is a detachment mechanism. In a period when the personal and subjective perspective (usually emotional) is becoming ever more foregrounded I think detachment is increasingly necessary. Society is not a personal thing, it’s a group thing, and to include all perspectives one needs a detached overview. Emotion and outrage are counterproductive, and deeply self centred.

In terms of mise-en-scéne my films are influenced by the history of cinema, particularly central European cinema of the mid 20th century. Previously I had seen my essay films as being separate from the narrative cinematic films, and approached them differently. In Saturn and Beyond I decided to incorporate the character in a manner similar to how the character was used in We Are Not Like Them. The character in Saturn and Beyond is looking through the archive of the former museum of broadcasting – so in a way, is again illustrating how the film was made. I also shot it at the desk at which I work, so the detritus of the filmmaking process becomes the mise-en-scéne of the film itself. That’s the problem with art and cinema, it feeds off everything around it, and ultimately, everything becomes consumed. Cinema is a hungry medium.

6. Your films often deal, directly or indirectly, with the emergence of socialist and communist movements and the continuous attempts to prevent the establishment of an organised left-wing movement against capitalism. And I suppose it’s not irrelevant that in the film we can see busts of Lenin and Marx. How did you come up with the idea of including them in the film and for what reason?

Film is done a large disservice when it is used to illustrate the word. For the section of the film that describes diminishing activity in the human brain, I didn’t want to show ‘a brain’ – I find such choices reductive. I work with a bust of Lenin on my desk, and have a bust of Marx nearby – it seemed organic to incorporate them. Additionally, even though Saturn and Beyond is not an overtly political film – everything is always political.

I didn’t anticipate that people would necessarily recognise Lenin and Marx due to the manner in which the busts were shot, but I felt that to include them could perhaps quietly suggest that we are going through a period of political amnesia. There is much media chatter about the rise and influence of the far-left, but at no point in the last 120 years have the values and principles of Marx and Lenin been further from the political landscape than they are currently. I personally feel that is to our collective loss.

7. Thirty seconds after the end of the credits, images follow showing a series of objects presumably from the collection of the Irish Museum of Broadcasting. Why did you choose to include them there and so much after the end of the credits?

I figured most people would be long gone from the auditorium by the time they appear on screen. The film is melancholic, and ends in a rather fatalistic way; but dying is part of living. When we shot these extraordinary devices against these bright felt backgrounds they looked incredibly alive and vibrant. Very current, despite their evident antiquity and the dust and cobwebs that adorned them. Dead things can still transmit loud signals, but you need patience to receive them.

Interview by Marco Cipollini