“Joy in the Small”—An Interview with Blanca García

by Maximilien Luc Proctor
with editorial assistance from phili c.

For the occasion of Revista Lumière’s upcoming NYC program (May 13 & 14th)Colección Privada: The Super 8 and 16mm Scene in Spain—Ultra Dogme presents an interivew with featured filmmaker Blanca García, preceded by an introduction borrowed from our recent Movie Club streaming program, ‘Three Films by Blanca García’.

The films of Blanca García are deeply invested in the sublime act of living. A filmmaker who works exclusively with reversal Super 8 stocks, her recent works that what moves: does the leaf know (2021) and breathing exercises (2021), flit between flora and human company, glaring sunlight and rich shadows, while the even more recent passages (2022) trades human presence for the fruit of their labors via filmed pages from the novel of the same name by Ann Quin.

that what moves: does the leaf know presents images of hands: García’s own as distributor of sunlight beams in the opening moments, an illustration of a pointing finger in a book, and those of her partner (and fellow filmmaker) James Devine opening a clementine, taking photographs, and drinking from a bottle, as well as holding a flower. In breathing exercises, hands are again important interlocutors of expression and existence, as the filmmaker captures the reflection of her own hand (playing to super 8’s strengths as a flexible, single-handed operation), palm turning up toward the sunlight in the mirror. Devine’s hand is captured running along the light that caresses a sheet. So too does that what moves offer various reflections of hands, albeit in windows rather than mirrors—fainter, translucent. In García’s cinema, hands act as vital translator between humanity and the natural world around us, which does not speak nor comprehend our verbal ramblings.

García glides through changes in exposure with grace, using her shifting control of light as a primary means of reconfiguring our field of view in real time, often turning scenes of broad daylight into confounding and otherworldly visions of glistening spots in seas of mystery. Hers are films enshrouded in the infinite comfort and enigma of nature.

What first compelled you to start making films? Did you start with Super 8 or did you make things before that? And what drew you to Super 8 as a medium/format?

Prior to starting working on Super 8, I hadn’t really done any moving image work. I have never had any formal training in fine art of filmmaking, and my only prior experience in image making was film photography, which I started as a teenager but also self-taught. In fact, I’ve always seen myself more as a writer, and my academic background is in literary theory. But I also know I am a very “bad writer”, in the sense of being a very anxious one; I am extremely controlling and never content, and have a very destructive approach to the phrase, rewriting and editing so much that it becomes completely amorphous.

This is where first photography, and then filmmaking came in: the possibility of making something poetic that I could not control in the same way. I saw the camera as an opportunity to still shape a vision of reality, but that mediation between my own body and the world through the machine meant relinquishing my controlling tendencies, as the world returned from the lens, from the film, always had an agency of its own. In a way, it was kind of a release, a very liberating practice.

Then, on the other hand, I’ve really been into experimental cinema since my late teens, and that really [helped me see] the possibility of another type of poetics. Especially being curious about that tradition that sees film-as-film, the materiality of it, the idea of making images conditioned by that materiality. Being able to take that into my own hands and play around with it was a very exciting possibility, primarily born from that curiosity, which I guess is why I ended up getting a camera.

Do you edit only in-camera? And if so, can you talk a little bit about that decision? Along with your decision to only shoot reversal [film]? 

I would say at the beginning, when I first started discovering the medium, it was less about choice and more just about what was accessible, which is why Super 8 was the choice and not 16mm. It’s just very easy to film with; to just shoot a Super 8 reversal roll, and project it as soon as it’s developed—and not have all the stages in between that negative film does. That was just a matter of circumstance. But as I was discovering the medium, it started becoming a choice.

And the choice for reversal was the discovery of something that really appealed to me, which is this sameness of the object between the act of filming and the act of projecting. It was discovering its indexical  relationship with the image, its trace, or its presence. The fact that the very material that I was filming, that was present at the moment of filming, was the object that is then traversed by the projector’s light, reproducing  that past present into another present. Obviously this all sounds very much like the “that has been” of Barthes in Camera Lucida, which I was reading a lot at the same time that I was starting to film in Super 8, so there was a bit of a feedback loop between those ideas and my own practice, but I became really interested in this idea of sameness between the past of the object and the present of the screening.

As for the in-camera editing, that wasn’t a choice at first either. In developing this idea of in-camera editing, there were two important reference points when I began experimenting with the Super 8 camera: translations that I was doing of both Margaret Tait and Helga Fanderl for my work with Revista Lumière. Both of them write poignantly and beautifully about the type of temporality that can only be experienced, that can only be recreated in the surface of the film, in the film as an object, as a strip, and by seeing temporality as this linear strip. Which resonates again with that interest in the sameness of the time of filming and the time of screening.

Because I am very interested in this idea of the experience with a camera, with what happens in the act of filming, and how it is transformed into this surface that can then be explored further in the act of projection, I started thinking that it might be incoherent to cut through that time and turn it into something else. Even though it’s obviously just a matter of practicality: cutting reversal [film] is not the cleanest or nicest, so it [lends] this kind of material aspect.

How do you approach in-camera editing? Is it mostly spontaneous? Is it mostly predetermined?

It depends a lot on what I’m filming and what my goal is. I would say there are two main ways that I edit in-camera. One is with a preconceived idea. If I have an idea of the rhythm I want or the concept of the roll I take notes, and then I try to balance the shots and create very deliberate rhythmic echoes throughout the reel. I try very consciously to create a coherent structure.

But the other type of filmmaking that I do more often is the diaristic, expressive, more personal kind, which is more [about] dialoguing with my environment rather than trying to do something specific. Then I’m just kind of responding to reality. And I’m lucky [enough] to have a good memory, so even though I’m not taking notes and I’m not being very intentional with the rhythm, I still keep a mental record of what happened in that reel and try to play around with it. In a way, it comes back to seeing myself as a “writer” and thinking about the linearity [of] a poetic sequence. I do have some idea about montage and about editing, now that I’ve studied film a bit and I know the theory, but I feel like my intuition still thinks about editing as writing, and about the way that words react to each other syntactically and lyrically, revealing each other’s meanings. It’s quite crucial in the in-camera editing process. You’re not just putting one thing after the other, but you’re trying to think about how one thing that may come to you three steps later reveals something from the past and vice versa.

Assuming there were no practical or financial concerns to impede the decision, do you imagine ever making the shift to shooting on 16mm? Or do you imagine that you would stay with Super 8 regardless?

Yes and no. Yes in the same sense that it was curiosity that drew me to Super 8 at first, I am very curious about the operation of the Bolex, about the possibilities of 16mm film itself, of editing negative, and especially of playing with multiple exposures, something that is extremely convoluted and rarely produces good results in Super 8. But I wouldn’t consider a shift. If there were no financial constraints—and that’s a very big if, because that’s the main reason why I originally chose Super 8 over 16 — it wouldn’t be a shift, it would just be something else. I would like to (and this is something that I’m thinking about a lot at the moment) continue this reversal Super 8 practice, because I’m very invested in what is left of it, in the spirit of the home movie that was made just to be projected by yourself, that was very do-it-yourself, almost like zines but in film format. So if I changed to 16, I would have to think of a different way to approach it. It would be very exciting, and in an ideal world it would be great to try, but it’s not within the ethos I’m interested in exploring right now.

Can you tell us a little bit about your connection to the cinema of Maria Klonaris and Katherina Thomadaki? You’ve translated some of their texts into Spanish, right? (For Lumiere?) How did it happen that Thomadaki gifted you the Ektachrome rolls that eventually became ipsae i/ii?

My connection with the cinema of Klonaris/Thomadaki came about in 2016, at a time when I was co-editing Lumiere magazine with Francisco Algarín, and we were invited to go to the retrospective of their cinema in Jeu de Paume in Paris. In preparation for that, we started translating a lot of their texts into Spanish, also with [the aim of] programming some of their films in Spain, but due to the lack of accessibility of the films at that time, my first contact with their thoughts and cinema was through their texts. This first [encounter] had a big impact on me, how they wrote about their ‘corporeal cinema’ in which the relationship between the filming subject and the filmed subject is very horizontal, very co-authorial. The idea of creating a female community through the act of filming was a big ray of hope at that point, because I had done a lot of work on experimental cinema, but never one that had such a strong programmatic approach from a female communal subject, and as a queer woman myself, it was a big revolution, so to speak. 

When we went to Paris we got to watch lots of their films, among which was Unheimlich II: Astarti on Super 8, with the projector in the room, hearing all the splices. It’s a monumental 165-minute film that transports you into a different dimension, where most of the black background of the film makes you feel like you’re floating or you’re in another reality with all these bodies interacting with each other and creating this fantastic realm. We spent a lot of time with Katerina Thomadaki during those days, and we did a very long interview at her studio (which will be published one day, I guess, although some of it was used in a piece I wrote for Walden magazine).

It was during that interview that—when we were talking about the materiality of Super 8—she said, “You sound like you actually know about all of this!” and I explained I was  starting to film on Super 8 and was very interested in the medium, after which she was like, “Oh! Just wait a second,” and left. When she came back she was carrying four reels of Ektachrome. This was at a time when Ektachrome was completely dead, which made me audibly gasped when she came back and said I could have them.

They were the remaining reels from teaching workshops they used to run before Maria had passed, and since those had stopped since her death she was happy for me to take them. Obviously I was very moved by this. But it also gave me a big sense of responsibility, not only due to the generosity of the gift but also to the legacy attached to it, and that’s how the ipsae project came about; following their ideas of recreating a female subjectivity that does not happen as one subject imposing herself on another, but in the relationship between us. I decided that the reels would be portraits of women who had been crucial in the configuration of my own identity. I decided to film my grandmother, my mother, my best friend, and my first girlfriend. It was important for me to create a safe and consensual, comfortable situation with the people I was portraying, so it was the way they wanted to be portrayed, the way they wanted to interact with the camera, which is also why each portrait was very different. It also took a long time to find the right time to complete these portraits. I actually kept postponing my grandmother’s; she never left the house, which is very dark and made filming difficult, but I’m glad I actually finally took the chance in 2020 because she passed shortly after. Even though the reel is almost black at some points, [I’m] lucky I was able to film her.

What camera do you have? Were all your films shot on the same camera?

Since you only shoot reversal, I only just realized that only means you’ve shot Tri-X in the past and that everything since your black and white films has been on Ektachrome? So during the period you mention when Ektachrome was completely dead, did you intend to only shoot on black and white so as to stick with only shooting on reversal film?

Almost all of my films have been shot on the same camera, except for the first ones which were shot on a Nizo 801, which is an amazing camera, but I got it on e-bay very cheap and the light meter didn’t work and the lens was slightly chipped. It was very frustrating. So to overcome this frustration, a friend temporarily lent me a Canon 814XL electronic, which then became a permanent gift from him, and my (hopefully) forever camera. I think that’s very indicative of the kind of environment in which I started filming. I probably wouldn’t have continued if I didn’t have this network of friends and people who were really supportive and gave me tips or literal physical tools like the camera. 

In terms of reversal stocks, when I first started filming, in 2015, Kodak only had Tri-X, and I shot my first few rolls with it as everyone encouraging me said that’s the best thing available. But I quickly realized black and white wasn’t my thing. Personally, I think it takes a very high level of skill to accomplish something beautiful and interesting with black and white, otherwise it gets very washed out, and as someone with little training it just wasn’t working for me. The color option back then was this repackaged Agfa stock from Wittner, called Wittnerchrome. It was a 200 ISO film that everybody hated, and everybody said to me, “Don’t film with that, it’s so ugly, it’s so yellow, the grain is impossibly thick.” But I wanted to make films that I could show myself in my own bedroom, and at the time I thought, “Well, if I shoot negative, I have to get the positive copies, and I can’t afford that.’ And Wittnerchrome wasn’t expensive at all. So most of my films were shot in Wittnerchrome, until 2020. I actually — even though, again, it’s not the most beautiful stock — I grew very fond of it, how yellow, how grainy, how…imperfect it looks.

Funnily enough, the same year that Ektachrome came back, the emulsion for the Wittnerchrome ran out and they couldn’t do it again, so one thing kind of took over the other. But going back to Ektachrome also meant a massive price increase, and at the time (early 2019), I was a student in London working part-time to make ends meet, and I just couldn’t afford it. I still had a backlog of Wittner, so I decided at that point that I would just see what I could do with what I had left, as I wasn’t very optimistic about the future of my filming in terms of affordability anyway. The last Wittner film I made was breathing exercises (the last one [made] by myself, the rest I filmed jointly with [my partner] James [Devine]). But it wasn’t until the first—well, the first that people have seen—diary reel of that what moves series that I started filming with Ektachrome. I feel like I’ve only just started to get the hang of it, and I’m finding the adjustment period difficult as I got so used to Wittner that it is a bit challenging to work with this finer grain, this perfection, these more balanced colors. But we’ll see what happens.

Since you mention doing shared reels with your partner James, could you talk a little bit about how the two of you tend to collaborate? He’s certainly a prominent subject in does the leaf know, and the series of that what moves films are inspired by the Swiss author Robert Walser, who seems to hold a deep importance for both of you. What does it look like when you work together or share a roll? And how does that differ from when you are simply filming him? 

I think it’s quite difficult to differentiate the way we collaborate creatively from the way we generally relate to each other as a couple. Our relationship is very dialogical, but it has never been the type of exchange where you try to assert yourself, your ideas, instead trying to see with each other, through each other. Walser is a great example: James had never read him before we met, but it was through his reading that I fully rediscovered the writing, which I thought I knew well! And it was in this discovering Walser together that we built on the common language and view of the world that can be seen throughout that what moves, which is reflective of what politically and aesthetically had brought us together in the first place, but also of how it drifts and flows when you let your ideas be reshaped by togetherness.

Working together is conversational in a very similar way. Sharing a reel is having an observational conversation: we see each other filming, imagine each other’s view through the camera, share the excitement of a specific shot or view, and then try to respond to that imagination of what the other’s seen. And I’d like to believe that filming each other is no different: what draws me to film James so often in my diary work is more an impulse to capture little gestures of his presence than his image. There is a scene in one of the last reels of the project, that what moves: a limber wanderer, where I am filming James filming through the kitchen window. I don’t think it was a very rational gesture, but I started opening the aperture dial at the same time he does, but captured in this doubly embodied gesture at that present time. Coming back to Walser, it has to do with this joy in the small, and smally approaching portraiture, which I also want to think it’s a more horizontal approach than pretending to capture the wholeness of a loved one, or mystifying their image. 

Maximilien Luc Proctor (MLP) is a French-American filmmaker and critic. He is the founder of Ultra Dogme and the avant-garde instructor at Berlin’s Art on the Run filmschool.

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