Sasha Litvintseva on geological filmmaking

The reason my work exists and the only thing it is ever going to do is give rise to feelings in humans.

Dora Cohen
April 25, 2017
Sasha Litvintseva (b. 1989, Russia) is an artist, filmmaker, researcher and curator based in London. Her films and research are situated on the intersection of geological, embodied, and historical temporalities and materialities. Her work has been exhibited worldwide, she's a graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art she is currently working on a PhD proposing the concept of geological filmmaking at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she is a founding member of the Screen and Audiovisual Research Unit. She is also an independent curator of contemporary moving image and co-curator of the November Film Festival. We sat down with her to discuss her unique take on artistic documentary.
What is geological filmmaking and how did you get into it? 

I have studied fine art but then I became fascinated with moving image. Now I am doing a PhD at Goldsmiths that proposes the concept of geological filmmaking. All of my work has led to it. Different relations to time and space in my films have always been key. And that has continued to develop in various ways, for example in the exploration of time outside of human capacity – like in ‘Immortality, home and elsewhere’. Or in other films there is an interest in spaces, which betray time outside of the present: facilitate eruptions of the past or eruptions of the future. I started out the PhD with a project that had to do with temporalities that allow time outside the present to arise in the image, in the filming and the viewing. This idea has shifted throughout the past year but actually not too much. The films I was planning to make had to do with territories that are either about to emerge or about to disappear, and somehow all of this ended up converging in this idea of geological filmmaking: of on the one hand trying to sense time beyond the body, and on the other – of film being able to participate in geological formation, either creating or preserving land. That was my starting point; then it took on a total life of its own. It has become a lot less about territories and landscapes and a lot more about something more elemental. Time is still a big part of it, but geology is made up of matter and time, process and hard matter, be it dust or continents, rocks or mountains – and everything in between. 


What are you working on at the moment? 

I've made two films this year, both collaborating with different people. I am really into collaborations at the moment. The most recent film, a collaboration with my dear friend and artist filmmaker Graeme Arnfield, is about asbestos: a geological material that reveals the contrast and continuity between the extraction industry and the removal industry, and as such the discontinuity of scientific/technological/industrial progress. The asbestos mining industry was huge in the first half of the 20th century and it never really left us: it rather progressed into the asbestos removal industry. In both cases what takes place is the transporting of matter into different contexts. In the film itself we are contrasting material that I filmed – extracting images out of matter, with found footage – extracting images and recontextualising them. I travelled to the township of Asbestos, Quebec, which is named after the mineral (not the other way round) and is home to the mine that produced most of the world's asbestos and was only closed in 2012. In the film there's a real contrast going on between the fragility of bodies and the persistence of matter, which is one of the things I'm trying to work out at the moment. In the ecological/geological crisis we're living in now it's really challenging but crucial to learn to think on scales that are beyond the human/embodied, both temporally and spatially. We have to learn how to empathise on those scales. I don't know how much my filmmaking can change anything but it feels like by far the most important thing going on right now and I can't really think of anything else.

From Exile, Exotic
Next to you lays a book with the title 'Ecologies of the moving image'. Does it correlate with your work? 

Yes, it's part of my research, or you know – something to read on the tube. This looks at both the way ecologies are portrayed in film and also the ecologies of filmmaking. But it’s quite different to my project in that it deals mostly with cinema, narrative film, which of course is by definition industrial and very embedded in ecologies: from labour power, locations, and equipment, including all the geology that had to happen for that equipment to exist in the first place, to how it is distributed and how its images enter and alter social ecologies. All of that is very valuable, but the big difference is really that it focuses on fiction narratives, the kind of film that even the author of the book describes as putting nature, or landscape, in the ‘background to human drama and action’, which is exactly the problem. My project is trying to do something very different. I am trying to call it something like elemental filmmaking, made up of the base line elements of film: images, sounds, and durations, which can then be taken wherever they need to go. 


The role of humans is very different in your films, people are rather part of the landscape, and the landscape is more in the foreground...

In ‘Evergreen’ the landscape commands attention, yet it is very artificial. It seems to have everyone wrapped around its finger, but is also dressed up in a very anthropomorphic way. I was trying to impose the things that are natural to cinema, like lighting, composition, spectatorship, into the nature that is portrayed by making it technological and pictorial. Did I say natural to cinema? That's totally the wrong word! (laughs)


Normally films are narrated, tell stories, deal with human connection and find romanticism in something. Your films are very much linked to science and objective things. In the description of 'Immortality, home and elsewhere' (2014), you explain that it sets the premise that lives are a summation of all the information we consume and process. 
Why does this way of seeing the world fascinate you more?

I don't think they're that separate though. I just feel like a better way of accessing all of that is not through writing fictional characters that have fictional feelings. For me, the work that moves me, and the work I make to try to move others, does it in ways that are not centered on protagonists. I am not necessarily against romanticism and all that and again, as much as I might be making work that is not about human feelings, the reason the work exists and the only thing it is ever going to do is give rise to feelings in humans. Films are always anthropocentric, as no matter what the subject of the film is, the viewing subject is a person, or people. So I don't think those things are that separate, they are just different ways of trying to evoke a certain affect.

In 'Immortality, home and elsewhere' one of the things that I was interested in while making the film was precisely the need of humans to be on the forefront of something that is a lot larger than individuals. So there is all that footage that I got really obsessed with of extras in disaster films, hired in their hundreds to be shot for a handful of frames at the very moment of their death, which is also the moment of the supposed end of the world. Even global destruction requires a close-up of a frightened suffering face – apparently. I find that very telling, and it kind of brought me back to my personal history, and its tangential brush with a global nuclear catastrophe. My parents where working in a nuclear power station when I was a child, and my father was meant to be down in Chernobyl the day of the accident, but didn’t go due to a fluke distraction. Had he gone, I would have never been conceived. I dwell on that often. And how unimportant I am myself to the actual event. But of course, the only way one can engage with these subjects is as yourself and beyond that, as a collective. So I guess what interests me is the (un)importance of individuals in all of it. But in the films these ideas don't necessarily have to come from portraying individuals.

There is always a feeling of remoteness in your films. 'Exile Exotic' was directed,  shot and edited by you. Is being alone crucial for your filmmaking, to connect with your surrounding and to focus on your work?

I don't have any overarching wisdom of what others should do but for me that is how it happens. My films have a very two-step process: filming and then editing. Both are a kind of writing. The filming is a case of engaging with the landscape, environment, or situation as it is. I'm not very stressed during shoots these days, because at the end of the day I'm interested in what's going on, so technically nothing could be disappointing, although of course there are levels of what makes compelling images and what doesn’t...

So the shooting is about trying to see what the landscape is doing and react to it, document it, frame it. And for that I feel that being alone really helps me to see more, I kind of dissolve into the situation.

Although on the other hand it does help to have someone with me doing sound, because when I'm on my own, even if I see more, I always have to remind myself to listen. 

I'm a very visual person, even on a day-to-day level I can't really listen to the radio or talk on the phone: can’t concentrate on sound if I don't have a visual referent.

And so then the second stage is the editing, where the footage becomes an environment itself. So I almost have to forget what was going on in the reality of shooting, and address the footage as its own environment/landscape/world, and help it do what it is trying to do, even if that does not match up with what was going on in the ‘real’ environment – and it never does. I also never really use the sound that comes with the actual video, even when it reads as totally diegetic it’s constructed, but often there are musical scores in my films and all my collaborations until recently have been on those. If sound is not your strength, it is always an amazing experience to have someone bring something to the project that transforms it in ways you would have never expected. The handful of times I worked as a cinematographer on narrative films I also saw how working with good actors is a constant process of being surprised by what they bring. So I'm all for cinema that is made by huge groups of people who each do their job really well. But the work that I make wouldn't exist unless I could just walk around by myself, and I could never delegate the shooting or the editing – that’s where the work is done.