The Reality-Eater or the Eye-Mouth: An Interview with OJOBOCA

The Reality-Eater or the Eye-Mouth: An Interview with OJOBOCA.” INCITE! Journal of Experimental Media, Back & Forth: Interview Series (August 18, 2015).

I first met Juan David González Monroy and Anja Dornieden [OJOBOCA] when they were visiting artists-in-residence at LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto). At their screening they showed A fleas skin would be too big for you (2013), The Handeye (Bone Ghosts) (2012), and performed A Home Inside (2013), a beautiful multi-projector performance piece which acted as the perfect companion to The Handeye

Juan and Anja’s films are lyrical, thoughtful, and sincere while playfully engaging with the politics of the absurd. Their films build complex narratives that operate on multiple levels, often requiring more than one viewing to fully appreciate them. Fortunately, their films have been screening frequently enough (at least in Canada) to allow the devout cinephile plenty of opportunities for repeat encounters.

This interview was initially recorded at their home in Berlin in June 2015 and revised by e-mail in July and August.  

Clint Enns: Was Awe Shocks (2011) the first film you made collaboratively? 

Anja Dornieden:
Yes, we made Awe Shocks together after moving to Berlin from New York in 2010. It was an attempt to figure out how to make a film here, that is, the logistics; where to get prints made, optical soundtracks, etc.  

Juan David González Monroy: We had both already started making films separately when we were in graduate school together in New York. I had been always interested in working with 16mm film. I had done 35mm still photography in Colombia while I was studying Anthropology and I really got interested in the photochemical process, developing the film, making prints. But I wanted to work with moving images, so I went to The New School because they were still teaching 16mm filmmaking. 

I studied Media Studies as an undergraduate in Germany. In the end the program was directed more towards PR and advertising, which I wasn’t interested in pursuing. I received a Fulbright scholarship to study in the United States, and they placed me at The New School. It wasn’t really my intention to study film, I was more interested in International Affairs, but then I took a course with Jeanne Liotta called Non-Camera Filmmaking and that got me started. 

CE: Did the two of you meet in that class?

JDGM: No, I wasn’t in that course. I was enrolled in so-called traditional filmmaking classes (how to shoot with a Bolex, read a light meter, three point lighting, etc.).

AD: But we did meet at the end-of-semester screening for Jeanne’s class. You liked my film, so we talked.

JDGM: The film Anja made was crazy to me. I didn’t understand how she had made it. I had never see anything like it. She found a hard drive in a trashcan or something.

AD: No, a friend of mine who works with computers gave me several used hard drives. I accessed the information and printed out the data on clear acetate and glued it onto clear leader. The information includes text, pictures, and random computer code. 

CE: That sounds awesome. Do you still show this film?

AD: It’s called Enter (2008). I’ve shown it a few times but I only have the original.  

CE: Can you talk about your collective name? Where does your moniker, OJOBOCA, come from?  

OJOBOCA came out of the necessity to form a production company to receive film funding in Germany. We needed a name for it. 

When we were thinking of names I found a quote in a book: an expression attributed to Pasolini. He said that the camera is an eye-mouth. So we took that, translated it into Spanish and it became the name we use for the work we do together. 

CE: Can you talk about your use of the industrial/educational aesthetic in your work? For instance, Awe Shocks and How To Catch A Mole (2009), one of Juan’s earlier hand-painted/optically printed films, both mimic these genres in order to present critiques of late-consumer capitalism. 

JDGM: For Awe Shocks, we found a kaleidoscope lens at a museum gift shop and decided to shoot the antithesis of what a tourist would use it for. We thought about it for a while and settled on computer porn. By shooting pornography through the kaleidoscope, it transforms it into something completely different.   

CE: Way sexier!  

The text in the soundtrack is essential for that work since the images weren’t enough. We had photographed the images and they were interesting but we felt something was missing. They needed a counterpoint. So we thought about using a narration. This is something that remains important in our work: narration, and using the soundtrack to work with or against the images. A lot of our films play in different ways with the relationship between sound and images; Awe Shocks was the first time we started to develop that aspect of it. 

I don’t think the films are simply critiques of late-consumer capitalism. I think they’re looking at certain manifestations of desire. The material used to make them might be relatively contemporary but I think the desires themselves are much older. 

CE: Can you talk about your use of extra-diegetic text? For instance, for Gente Perra (Dog People) (2014) you have a written text that describes how you discovered the story La Gente Perra by Colombian writer Gomati D. Wahn, and all of the footnotes by editor Francesco Francesconi, who provides insight into Wahn’s personality. For Wolkenschatten (Cloud Shadow) (2015), you construct an imaginative story about how you obtained the 35mm slide images that form a basis for the film. In both cases, the extra-diegetic material is only tangentially related to the filmic text; however, they enhance the viewer’s experience of each film if they are familiar with them.

AD: They are intended to be playful. For instance, the narrative for Gente Perra is already quite dense, so we thought it would be funny to have an even denser text accompany it. Plus, we weren’t very good at writing the standard synopsis that accompanies most experimental films.  

JDGM: They usually have a typical form and even a typical length. Many times it’s a quote from a poem or a quote from some other famous person. We wanted to experiment with that aspect of it, since it ultimately contributes to how the film is read or received by the audience. We started doing it with The Handeye. We just made a much longer synopsis than usual and when it was possible we would read it aloud for the audience before the screening of the film. 

But the films don’t necessarily need the text to be experienced. They’re meant to be complementary. Whether you read it or not is fine by us. 

CE: Gente Perra was too dense for me on the first viewing; however, the film benefits from multiple viewings, allowing the viewer to fill in many of the connections. The film is implicitly dealing with colonization, imperialism, cultural appropriation, and fetishism. The fact that the film is rich enough to warrant several viewings is one of the things that separates it from other contemporary experimental films.

DJGM: The process for making Gente Perra was similar to The Handeye. With The Handeye we shot in three different museums in Vienna. For each location, we applied a different formal technique. For instance, for one set of images we used ink on them, for another we used a technique learned from Richard Tuohy, which allows you to have both a positive and negative image within the same frame; and for the final set we solarized the footage. At first, we simply showed the three sections together. Although this worked formally, it just wasn’t interesting, so we re-edited the images and, together with the soundtrack, constructed something of a narrative. This method has since become common for us. We gather our material and then during editing we develop the narrative elements that complement or counteract the images. But we don’t set off with an established plan or script from the beginning.  

CE:  In these films, you allow the viewer space to construct their own mental images, for instance, with the use of text, the darkened screen, and the universal you. You play with this at the beginning of The Handeye, when the computerized voice of the narrator tells you to close your eyes and to try to open them. Of course, even if your eyes are open, you are sitting a totally black theatre, the illusion of having your eyes closed.    

JDGM: It comes from thinking through what the ultimate experience of watching a film is. Basically, cinema is a machine that talks to you, tells you a story. Given the dynamics of the cinema, the machine is programmed by the filmmakers to personally talk to each individual member of the audience. We started thinking about cinema this way by accident, but since this is what cinema in essence does, we thought we would focus on that aspect of it. Of course, the machine might be insane, it might be lying, it might be trying to convince you of different ways to view the world, or it might just be trying to entertain you by telling you a good story.  

CE: That is one of the things I like about your work: it creates a strong affect with an economy of means.

AD: Taking that literally, that was the thing that blew my mind with Jeanne’s class. I didn’t know that you could make a film on your own with very little. Once you realize that, it opens up a lot of possibilities. You realize that there’s no set way for making a film.

CE: Can you talk about the materiality of your work? 

AD: If by materiality you mean our work with analog film then yes, it’s something that‘s important to us. All of our films have been done, so to say, photo-chemically. It was how we started actually. My first film was a non-camera film and Juan’s How to Catch a Mole involved a lot of painting on found footage. I think it’s a very common experience for people that decide to work with film. They touch it, manipulate it, realize that it’s malleable and that it also has a life of it’s own. You get caught in this very interesting give and take relationship with it. 

When we moved to Berlin we joined the film collective LaborBerlin. A group of people had set up a space dedicated to analog filmmaking with a darkroom and all sorts of equipment. We started developing our films by hand, trying different techniques. Being part of the lab also opened up the possibility of joining a larger community of filmmakers, learning from them, sharing knowledge, and working together to support analog filmmaking.

CE: Gente Perra blends lyrical, diary, narrative, and ethnographic modes of filmmaking. At the same time, the film is incredibly strange, funny, and political, subverting traditional colonial narratives.  

It was never shot with a particular film or style in mind. We had all this footage from different trips. After a couple of years, we decided to do something with the footage and started to build the narrative.  

JDGM: We have problems with the label “ethnographic”… it seems to have become a trope.

We didn’t intend for the film to be read that way. “Ethnographic” implies a kind of methodology or a set of intentions to which we don’t subscribe. It also seems to have become shorthand to label very different kinds of films with very different intentions. It ends up being very reductive. 

CE: Are you not subverting some of the tropes within the film by emulating them in a form of pseudo-ethnography?

JDGM: That might have happened in the end but it wasn’t done on purpose. The film is made up of footage we had shot over some time. In the process of trying to bring the footage together the film’s structure and overall narrative arose. I think this goes back to the issue of economy of means. Because our footage was so diverse and shot with very little means over a long period of time, it took a lot of different narrative elements for us to build it into some kind of a coherent whole. It became some kind of epic or, better yet, a parody of an epic, since it’s only 25 minutes long, but it tries to tells a story that spans the conquest of America to 3000 years in the future. 

CE: Can you talk about the use of the gnomes in Gente Perra?  The sincerity with which they are shot contributes to the absurdity of the film.

JDGM: Some of the gnomes are from a theme park in Thuringia, the state where Anja’s from. 

It’s a park dedicated to garden gnomes. When we heard about it we knew we wanted to go there. We were sincerely interested in a place that would dedicate itself to something that at first seemed very banal. We just thought they were lawn ornaments. My grandfather had them in his garden. Then we learned about the park, went there, and realized it had a whole history and tradition. We shot some footage not knowing what we would do with it and then much later it became part of the film.  

CE: Did they make them from breast milk, like in Gente Perra?

JDGM: No, but there are traditional, artisanal techniques. It’s an old tradition with its own set of styles and rules. For instance, there are no female gnomes. All the gnomes are male. In this park where they have 5,000 garden gnomes there are no female gnomes.  

CE: The woman with the lion nose in the film is your grandmother?

JDGM: Yes. We shot that on a trip to Colombia. We wanted to film her because she is getting older. We had already shot her a couple of times, knowing she was going to be in the film. She was willing to wear some make-up in order to, so to say, delve a bit deeper into her character. 

CE: Were A flea’s skin, a film about a theme park in China called “The Kingdom of The Dwarves,” and The Masked Monkeys (2015), a film about Indonesian masked monkeys and spiritual transcendence, made using a similar methodology?  

JDGM: When we shoot other people, especially in place with different cultural practices, it is too easy to be judgmental, either reverentially or sarcastically; or to take an ironic stance. We don’t want to telegraph our point of view. We want to confound the viewer’s emotional experience… to provoke conflicting emotions.         

AD: With A flea’s skin especially,it would have been easy to victimize the workers. It was clear to us from the beginning that we didn’t want to make a documentary condemning these practices. It is more complex than that. We wanted to gain an understanding of them for ourselves. Our method was to observe and capture the daily activities of the park. We were interested in the tasks and routines that helped create the narrative of the amusement park, the fantasy that they called “The Kingdom of the Dwarves.” 

CE:  With A flea’s skin and The Masked Monkeys, you leave a lot of space for viewers to form their own opinions. How do you deal with the concerns around exploitation?  

JDGM: In the case of A fleas skin, someone might say these people are being exploited. This might true to an extent, but it is also the case that this is a job for them. Furthermore, this job provides them with independence, which they wouldn’t have if they were on the outside. For many of them being there allows them to fulfill their own desire to earn a living and care for themselves. 

AD: There can be a misconception that the workers at the park are unaware of their situation. They are not oblivious. They are aware they are being objectified, but they decided to do this. Some of them do it for a certain amount of time, and then move on to do something else. Others stay for longer. The fact is that the park was interesting to us not because it was a sort of freak show but because it was a place that had adopted a factory-like structure where a group of workers, because of their physical appearance, instead of mass producing cellphones or tablets, had themselves become the product of their own labor. 

JDGM: We want to challenge the audience to relate to these situations differently, not to re-affirm a moral stance they might already hold. Of course, with a film like The Masked Monkeys, we are not trying to condone these practices, but with our film we are not condemning them either. We wanted to understand where this tradition came from, who the monkey trainers are, and why they do it, in order to understand the larger social context that created the conditions for this practice to arise. We didn’t want to be exploitative, pornographic, or falsely ethically ambiguous, we were just trying to find a way, through the means of film, to communicate our experience. To be faithful to what our experience of these situations was. It took a long time to do this and still create enough space within the work for the viewer. We didn’t want our film simply to be a straightforward documentation of a cultural curiosity for their amusement or even worse, its condemnation to ratify their and our moral superiority. 

We were trying to see if we could be empathetic to all the subjects involved – the monkeys, the trainers, and even ourselves – and still be true to the context in which it takes place. There were differences of language, of background, and of species that we couldn’t ignore. The narration we used helped us to deal with these issues.