Esther Rots writes, directs and edits all of her work. After her first two short films were consecutively selected for the Golden Palm Competition in Cannes, her first feature film “Can Go Through Skin” premiered in the Berlinale Forum in 2009 and won numerous awards among which the Fipresci Award, the Ingmar Bergman Award and three Golden Calves. Together with her brother Hugo Rots, she founded the production company Rots Filmwerk in 2006. Esther Rots’ associative narration mostly revolves around the tricks of the mind, the beautiful logic of the subconscious; the intense difference between knowing and feeling, between the conscious and the unconscious, between the reality and illusion of everyday, between accepting feelings or shutting them out. By being as intimate as possible with her characters, and bringing the “I” perspective into the context of the film experience, her work is felt, not told.
Within the framework of the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Voices of Women in Film,” Tara Karajica talks to Esther Rots about women in film and her riveting and unsettling second feature, “Retrospekt,” a tragic and enigmatic story about domestic violence, trauma and memory, told over multiple fragmentary timelines, part psychological thriller and part experiment.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Esther Rots: It was clear to me from when I was about sixteen that I wanted to work with stories, images, sound, atmospheres, everything… And film allows you to play with all of these things.
How did Retrospekt come about?
E.R.: It started with this feeling of unrest I witnessed with the people around me, myself included – people who have it all. But when everything seems possible, meaninglessness always lurks in the shadows. This vague, nagging but very recognizable and contemporary feeling of unrest manifests itself in the many facets of life, disguised by a thick layer of daily targets, priorities and the embodiments of success. With the diminishing of religion, politics and family values as mainstays in our individualistic society, the reason for being must be sought again and within ourselves. With Mette, this turmoil manifests itself in her need for control and it is precisely this control that she loses several times in the film.
Retrospekt tells a fractured story that mirrors the fractured memories of its main character with a series of flashbacks and flashforwards that spiral through time. In fact, one timeline goes forward and one goes backward and they meet at the end. Can you talk about the choice of this intricate puzzle narrative?
E.R.: I am fascinated by the concept of “now” versus “retrospect.” The biggest enemy of our carefully designed priorities and control over our lives is perhaps time. The unexpected can expose the vivid futility of a well worked out plan; the millisecond everything changes. Retrospekt plays with this absurdity by giving it a pivotal role in the story and also using it as a focus in the structure of the film. This time-play is an essential part of the audience’s experience of Retrospekt. The non-linear chronology is a necessity that results in a feeling of displacement and disorientation that is essential for the perception of Mette’s perspective. This physical framing lets Mette fluctuate between what she was, is, wants to be but can’t be.
The viewing process of your elliptical storytelling for the audience involves piecing the puzzle together in a very sensory experience that also retains a tantalizing air of mystery. Was this your intention all along?
E.R.: Retrospekt is a film that is seen and felt through Mette’s perspective, in the “I” form and in an arena that I refer to as sensory cinema. I work intuitively and associatively where conveying a feeling is as important as telling a story. I do not want to illustrate Mette’s life, but I want to show her interpretation of that life, her experience, her fractured reality with all its clumsy negotiations. Therefore, it was important to show the story to the audience as it unfolds itself to Mette. Drip by drip. Emotion above ratio.
The soundtrack was especially written for the film and is filled with self-mockery and irony. Can you talk about the sound and the score’s role in Retrospekt?
E.R.: The use of music and sound design has always played a very important role in achieving this sensory cinema and the oscillation between the objective and subjective. I always work with sound director Dan Geesin – he works on a parallel trajectory alongside me, using the same elements that I use to develop the film without illustrating the script. The music in Retrospekt drives the idea and feeling of a fairy-tale. The brutally operatic music is romantic, absurd and dramatic. It narrates a parallel emotional development and uses humour to create distance where either the audience or Mette need a little space or hindsight. Its absurdism is at the other end of the spectrum, showing us the fragility, the clumsiness and cartoonesque feature of the human struggle. Combining this music with the images and story of social realism places the audience right in the middle, right next to Mette, torn between the absurdism of the grand scheme of life and the little, down-to-earth, personal drama.
The editing also follows this choice, i.e. Mette’s logic, way of thinking and state of being. It is, therefore, based on emotion. Can you talk about the film’s editing that you did yourself?
E.R.: The editing was a long process because it took me quite some time to figure out why some scenes work really well together and some don’t. When you watch the film now, the order of events might feel random, but one’s mind can’t be fooled that easily; it is striving for order, so there has to be a logical chronology. And a logical chronology doesn’t have to have linear time. So I re-edited it based on emotion. Because I think one’s memories don’t follow timelines. It jumps from subject to subject triggered by emotions, smells, forgotten sounds… It was a highly intuitive process that had to be worked out in detail before we could know we were on the right track. And then, suddenly, the editing worked.
Mette is struggling with the lack of purpose in her life. Is this state of being the consequence of today’s way of life, of the modern society? Did she really need this collision?
E.R.: Some say she needed this force to stop, to think, to reflect upon life. Because all she did was trying to keep afloat, staying busy whilst slowly drowning, avoiding the big void, the horror vaccui. She lost herself. I hope this is not true. I hope people are able to find relief without such a forceful stop.
Retrospekt is a study in trauma and domestic violence, that is never portrayed on screen. Can you elaborate on that? Do you think your film will change the situation of women in abusive relationships?
E.R.: Abusiveness in relationships and any violence for that matter are deeply rooted, sometimes passed on from generation to generation. It is a huge problem that can only be changed by society as a whole. There will always be violence. What can be changed is the shame connected to it. The subtext of the term “victim.” Because “victims” are still seen as weak, as losers. But violence can happen to everyone – also the strong. The shame has to go. And also, violence is still seen as pure evil, but it is desperation as well. Frustration. It is a handicap, not knowing how to express yourself, how to be heard.
The film portrays two women whose lives at home are tumultuous in different ways. How do you see them?
E.R.: For me, both of them are searching souls. Strong women who dare to be open, dare to fail, dare to confront themselves. They’re both impulsive, naive in a way, and flawed. Lee however has learned early in life she can’t rely on many people, that she’s on her own; that in order to be happy she has to take care of herself first. But for me, the biggest difference between them is that Lee is living her life to the fullest and Mette doesn’t know yet how to do that. At the end of the film, when Mette is a tram chauffeur – doing what she wants to do instead of what she thinks she needs to do – she is getting a much clearer picture of who she is. For me, this is a happy end, a start of a new phase in her life.
But reading an article about Retrospekt being called “downright irresponsible,” just because it portrays women as multilayered creatures – both good and bad – makes it clear to me that women are still being seen as either victims or bitches.
What was the best advice you were given?
E.R.: It has taken me ten years to get this film made. Financing this script was very difficult. During this time, people told me many times to go on, keep the faith, persevere. But I’ve thought many times about a quote from Bergman where he talked about his early work – films he did not like much himself. He said he would have filmed a phonebook if it meant he could film. Persevering a concessionless way of working is very time-and-energy-consuming. And after finally making Retrospekt, I still don’t know if it is the right way to live your life. Maybe, my next project is filming a phonebook.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in Film for the past year and a half. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in The Netherlands?
E.R.: In the Netherlands, we have quite a few successful female art-house/low-budget filmmakers. We get a lot of chances and make good work. But somehow, it seems that (some) women feel more comfortable doing small low-budget projects, about intimate personal subjects. Some – but not many – do the bigger budget projects. We have really good female producers, unfortunately not many camerawomen. But overall, we are doing fine.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
E.R.: I still don’t know what being a feminist entails. Some find a film about a woman or with multiple women leads that show a female point of view, a feminist film, but of course, that’s nonsense. There are many films about men without these being called chauvinistic. I am a maker who works with what she knows best, and who just happens to be a woman. But reading an article about Retrospekt being called “downright irresponsible,” just because it portrays women as multilayered creatures – both good and bad – makes it clear to me that women are still being seen as either victims or bitches. I’m interested in portraying the grey, the real flesh and blood, the real difficulty of violence and the roles it entails.
What are your next projects?
E.R.: Right now, I am very enthusiastic about an eight-episode television series we’re developing: Offerlings. It’s a mystic psychological thriller that is based on real historical data and forgotten Dutch myths. It suggests that our country’s History can be seen as supernatural; a new point of view for the reasons why Holland desperately has been fighting water for centuries. And yes, it is about women (and men) and it debates the ambivalence of the role of power in general, and more specifically for women. It’s a dark fairy-tale with a disturbing perspective on motherhood as a synonym of female love; the inconclusiveness of and society’s perspective on motherhood, and pre-assumptions, demands and judgements by the Western society as a whole.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: