Director Morgan Knibbe’s ambitious feature debut examines a serious social problem, the difficult and often hopeless lives of recent immigrants to Europe, via an ambitious, literary approach. Those Who Feel the Fire Burning (T/F 2015) forces us to adopt the perspective of a ghost, a man who drowns while attempting his own journey to Europe. As the ghost we float over crowded streets, journey down back alleys and enter into private rooms, observing the lives of the marginalized and searching for some sense of connection.
I recently got the chance to speak with Morgan on Skype ahead of his film’s screening at T/F 2015. It plays for the first time ever in the United States tonight, opening night, at 9:30 pm at The Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note.
True/False: How did you first conceive this film?
Morgan Knibbe: The concept was to tell the story of a ghost through a collage of stories from different people, who together are one. A guy drowns, shifts into a new reality and is dropped by some kind of mysterious power in a new universe. This universe turns out to be something like Europe — or hell — but not what he expected it to be.
We tried to give a strong cinematic power to documentary images, to say something much more than just the documentary quality of the image itself. The ghost is a metaphor for the lives of all these different people that you see in the film. He begins by roaming the streets and looking for where he actually is. Where am I? Where are the people that I love? Are they still alive? Can I find them somewhere? He sees people who could possibly be from his country and starts observing them. He feels more and more detached from reality as he sees how these people are living life in extreme poverty where they were supposed to have achieved their dreams, in Europe.
The idea was to create a perspective for the audience as if they were experiencing it themselves. But it’s hard if you can’t live with one character. We didn’t want to follow one character from beginning to end, but a wide diversity of people from different cultures, because we wanted to emphasize how big and complicated this problem is. We wanted to bring along many different people from different cultures with different personalities, but with a common problem.
So I was thinking of a way to tell a story of a bunch of different people without a very rigid, classical narrative structure. Yet in the end we ended up with something similar, because the ghost goes through a development. He enters the story with a problem. He tries to solve the problem, but he can’t. Ultimately, he tries to deal with the given.
T/F: How did you know when you had the complete story?
MK: I had written down a lot of the story before we began shooting. My sound recordist Taco Drijfhout and I were very close and were always talking about the development of the story, what elements we needed to be consistent from beginning to end. It was always based on what the ghost is going through. The ghost and the people together somehow need to go through a collective experience, where they all slip down further into some kind of an abyss or hell. At some point people get so desperate they start using drugs. The situation gets when worse when many people die. Finally, people are really trying to flee reality by holding on to a religious ritual used in their culture to express grief. They feel a very strong collective power of grieving.
T/F: Yeah, the film felt like it was building towards a feeling of religious transcendence, as both promise and peril. How do you see the religious aspect of the film?
MK: I really was inspired by a lot of religion during the making of the film. I thought I had a responsibility to understand what these people believe in. Most of them are Muslim, but they’re not all the same type of Muslim.
Even though I am not religious, I think religious stories are often quite epic and impressive. I think Hell is a very interesting story. How if you do something wrong you can end up in a very horrible place, but actually that place exists here on Earth. That’s what we tried to play with.
Religious stories often carry metaphors for big human problems and dilemmas. We tried to take something from these religious stories which more or less affects all human beings, to reach a state of equality between the audience and the people in the film. To make it a universal problem. What is good and what is evil? Is there a creator? What is the purpose of life?
But the universal also lies in very small things. Like the way a father speaks to his son in a loving way, how a little girl eats chips or how a man wakes up from sleeping.
T/F: How did you go about creating the voice-over?
MK: The text is spoken and written by someone who more or less experienced this. It’s a man from Iran named Ali Borzuee.
We were doing additional dialogue recording and still looking for someone to be the voice. We knew that we wanted the ghost to have very rich sound, a wise voice of an old man who looks back on his life or forward to hell or heaven or wherever he’s going.
Ali is one of the people who would do ADR, but he also brought a poem that he wanted to recite. Everybody was listening very carefully, and he had to cry. It was very intense and we all decided I think we should ask this guy to do the voice-over for the film.
It took quite a while before we found the right way to write the text. At first I was writing it, but it sounded a little bit artificial. So we asked this guy to improvise. We gave him some specific prompt, for example you have to tell the story of how you first met your wife, you have to name a lot of things from the country where you first grew up. That worked well.
T/F: The idea of perspective in this film is really interesting to me. There is always a perspective in nonfiction film, but your film really forces you to think about it by making it explicit.
MK: What I always say about the way we made this film is that in a way we are really honest about the manipulation. It is a film that is supposed to be very cinematic, and the only way to do that is to manipulate. So the point was never realism or objectivity, because I think that’s a big problem with the way this kind of subject is portrayed normally. There’s always this kind of objectivity that people try to use. But I think that’s not possible. It’s an illusion. That’s why we tried to get rid of that and make a very strong cinematic experience. I think that’s a more honest way of filmmaking.
I am very curious about the manipulation of images and sounds when virtual reality is in a further state of development, a place where reality and virtual reality are harder to distinguish from each other. In a way film has this effect already. People easily think they watch reality or the truth, especially when the film is ‘documentary’. In fact it is a subjective representation of what other people think, or how they observe and listen. Or how they want you to think.
I understand that journalist want to fight for objectivity, but I’m not sure if their battle will be very effective, since they are fighting for something that doesn’t exist.
T/F: Are there any films or filmmakers that served as a point of departure for Those Who Feel the Fire Burning? Particularly in regards to this idea of forcing the audience’s awareness the film’s perspective?
MK: Definitely! Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders. Enter the Void and Irréversible by Gaspar Noe. Irréversible is the best film I’ve ever seen and was also a huge inspiration. He has this crazy way of sucking up the audience in a cinematic experience that truly evokes primal emotions within the audience, but at the same time he makes the audience work and think and search for answers. I think Gaspar Noe could have been influenced by some of Eisenstein’s thoughts about “cinema of attractions”, a theory about stimulating the audience’s primal feelings instead of taking them along a conventional narrative.
Filmmakers like Noe and Haneke use these cinematic tools to evoke primal emotions, but at the same time add artificial elements that somehow make the structure of the film visible, which is actually a filmmaker being honest about manipulation and giving the audience space to reflect upon the medium and themselves. But this balance is always difficult, because you can lose your audience.
The use of darkness and suggesting tracking shots was also a key concept for Those Who Feel the Fire Burning. Some tracking shots out of Children of Men by Alfonso Cuaron were an inspiration.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives was a huge inspiration, especially for sound design, as was the indie game Limbo. We wanted to create hell on earth, or some sort of state in between heaven and hell, limbo or the purgatory. To do that we wanted to lift the images out of the realism and create a feeling of a huge void in sound design.