Eduardo Williams is an Argentine filmmaker whose debut feature, The Human Surge (2016), has received significant critical acclaim on the festival circuit. A constantly moving film about young people at work, exploring spaces, and engaging with the internet across Argentina, Mozambique and the Philippines. The film had its North American premiere at TIFF 2016, where Eduardo discussed his methodology with Christopher Heron.
The Seventh Art: I’m interested in your screenwriting process. I know you’ve described it as “vomiting words”, but I’m curious for The Human Surge what ideas you had going into it and what came out of filming?
Eduardo Williams: Yeah, vomiting in the first moment, then I watch the vomit and start separating one thing from the other and giving it some sort of shape. But yeah, lots of things changed, that’s true. The general structure did not change, but the filling of that structure changed because I didn’t know Mozambique or Philippines [where the second and final thirds were shot]. I didn’t go with something very strict, so it was quite open. Then I discovered a lot of things: languages, the way the people speak, the things they do, lots of dialogue is invented by [the performers], some of them are things we talked about before and I told them to say, other scenes are just things they said in the moment. Some of the dialogues I liked the most were the ones they invented in the moment, some of them I discovered them when I was editing afterwards because sometimes I wasn’t very near or they’re speaking a language I don’t know. Lots of things changed, not the general structure, just the different movements, places and dialogues. Then I discovered the cultures of these countries and the history that the guys told me. I think one of the things I wanted was to get to know how these places are, because we know some things about colonialism – in Argentina it was different and similar – but I discovered that more in going then reading before. I really like to discover things by talking with the people I meet. In Mozambique a lot of guys were really into the history of their country, knew a lot and liked to talk a lot about it, but in a very natural way. It’s not that I was interviewing them or asking them, we were just drinking beer and they would talk to me about lots of things. It was great, discovering that more with a body than with… well, also with a mind, but you know, passing through that to discover things. I think the movie is more or less about that: giving yourself to this way, discovering things as you walk. You don’t stop, but you’re always discovering.
Did you have the idea for the spaces you would shoot in before the idea of the film, or did the idea of the film come after you decided which locations you would go to?
I had a general idea. When I knew I had the film or for me I had the necessary structure to advance with the film, it was when I knew about the three countries. At first I wasn’t sure which country I was going to go to in Africa, I wanted to go to sub-Saharan Africa, but I was open to lots of countries. Not because I think they’re the same, but what I needed I knew I was going to find in many of the countries. I didn’t need anything very specific. The connections between the places was very important for me, that I had an idea of before. I had the beginning in the Argentina, the flood, that was one of the first ideas. That was an important part of the film for me. In the Philippines I discovered a place through Google, that’s called Chocolate Hills that’s quite touristy, it’s amazing. It’s the first place we see in the Philippines, that was a place I wanted to go, that’s why I went there. Then the other places of that part, what I had written was different, but I did not find what I wanted. So I found other places that I really liked. Then in the end, in the factory, that was something I was looking for and I couldn’t find in the Philippines, so we did it in Argentina. In Mozambique, I didn’t think of any specific place, I discovered everything. I was there for a month just wandering about in the city and I found places I really liked. I think it’s half and half. In Argentina, I went to new neighbourhoods that I didn’t know. I did some shorts before in Vietnam, Sierra Leone and France, so I wanted to have a little bit of this I liked of travelling, but getting it back into my own country. So I went to new places. Buenos Aires is a huge city with the suburbs even bigger. For my first shorts, the places gave me the idea, were based on discovering the places or having very specific locations to have the idea, but now I just have some key locations I really want and then I try to discover.
When you have your specific aesthetic of following behind a character, it’s not as fluid as you would expect, the image jerks around, there are sharp movements within it. How did you decide on that look for the film?
There’s something I really like about using a film camera, which is something really old nowadays, in the same way that we use phones [to film]: not caring about being very steady. I didn’t tell the guys to shake it, I just didn’t care that much and I think they perceived that I wasn’t telling them to please be very careful, to have a steady camera. Then there are specific moments where I did tell them to please not move the camera a lot. I like the sensation that someone is behind the camera, but not too much. In some moments I needed that the audience didn’t feel like the guy behind the camera so much. I like the mixture, something that’s not identified with nowadays, like the film camera, and something that’s more like YouTube videos we see on the internet. Then the long shots I wanted because I’m really interested in connection of places, how places change. I am really interested in the physical connection between places. Another thing I really like about the shaky camera is the sensation of it being unstable, you can’t focus really well on something, anything that passes through is made for you to see. I don’t like these really constructed films where you feel like everything is placed there for you as a viewer. This creates a sensation that you are there, being a part of something that is already happening, even if the scenes have dialogue and are fiction, pure fiction, except for the people who are there that are just passing through. I feel like the dialogues are for me very strange in some moments, very fictional or constructed, the choreography can be very constructed, but it’s combined with the movement of the camera that seems to be very “I don’t care” or how young people use their cameras. I really like movement that never stops, you can’t stop your thinking, you’re always going to another place and that’s important because that’s how we made the film; we advanced without caring, we didn’t stop to think how we are going to go to Mozambique or Philippines, we just did it and things happened. That’s the thing I like the most about the film, I wasn’t expecting to have amazing theories or well-rounded ideas about the world, but more this energy and wanting to discover, this young energy. I prefer now to share the energy and the curiosity of wanting to explore.
I’m glad you mentioned the idea of youth, because there’s a consistency between the ages of the people in the film. Were these people as interested in the future as the film is with this recurring theme? Or was that just part of the script they were performing?
I think most of the times where they talk about that it’s scripted, but for example in Mozambique, there’s one moment where they talk about past/present/future and that was invented by them. I don’t know why, we never talked about that. Then they said the verbal tenses that they use, they asked, “What do you prefer?” I don’t know, that’s something they invented in the moment that I discovered when I was back editing. It was great, I don’t know if we talked about the future with them before, I don’t remember. At least we didn’t talk much about it. Most of them were more in the moment.
Is that reflecting class? There’s a very specific social class in each section, as well.
Yeah, I think that’s the class world that I am interested in or feel better in, working with and showing. I feel more excited by discovering it, it came in a very natural way. I didn’t think I wanted to do a film about a particular social class. There’s something about [the theme of] working that interested me in the film, but that’s in every social class. Even if you are from a high social class, you have more economic benefits from your work, but you are someone who is working. It’s not the same thing, but the idea of dedicating your life to work is the same thing for everyone. I feel it’s horrible for everyone to dedicate it to one job. I also feel that in cinema I see a lot of films that are from a higher social class and I’m a little bit tired of it. And then [when the class depicted changes] it’s like lower social classes can only talk about their social class and about their issues, they cannot talk so much about the future or wondering, thinking, fantasies. That’s something that’s only for the higher classes. Maybe I’m not watching all the cinema that’s available, but that’s something that interested me.
Another theme is obviously the internet and it seems that for different class groups that’s an important thing because it can come closer to evening out access to information, thought, different cultures, which we’re seeing in the film, as well.
Yeah, the internet is something that for me was very important all my life. It was a basic thing in my life. From the internet I made friends, I knew places, a lot of people that acted in the film I looked for them through Facebook, some locations I went to was because I saw them on the internet before, a lot of communication with other people for me is through the internet… It’s something that changes my brain. Especially in one moment in my life, I spent more time chatting with people than speaking in person, that changes a lot the rhythm with which you speak. You’re used to having different times for thinking or not, it’s not so immediate. It also opens you to other parts of society. For me, when I was a kid, I went to a school that was okay, but I didn’t find lots of people to relate to, but through the internet I can know other parts of the society I lived in – even if they were not too far away. Then I took that further maybe by wanting to get to these other countries. I’m really always trapped in this thing where the internet is such a central thing for me to communicate with others, but it’s also a service that you have to pay for or that you have to get – sometimes it doesn’t work. You feel it’s a central part of you, but something very external at the same time that can disappear at any moment. I really like this thing of looking for the internet, it’s something that happens to me, and it’s something we share with a lot of the guys in the countries we went to at different levels. The service changes a lot in different countries. Everyone I met is really attached to it and it’s something that connects us and it was good to connect [the different sections of] the film.
How did you earn that trust or connection with the people you worked with as performers in the film?
Just by passing time with them, I think, that was very important. In Argentina, I visited some guys I had met before, we talked, wandered about – we did just a bit what the film does. The most important thing for me, because I’m not too good at explaining the film, I don’t know how I can explain it, but I think I explain it by presenting myself, by being with them. I think they can understand a bit of the film when they see me, share time with me. They see how I am, how I relate with them, and I think that talks about the film more than what I can say in a sentence. Then in Mozambique it was different, we did a casting, but then we had a group that was selected. I went also to their houses, we hung out together. I like to go to them, also, not to make them come to me all the time, as if I am the chief or something – that’s not good for the film. Then in Philippines they were a lot more shy, but the guys that act there were from the neighbourhood where we lived, that was called Buenos Aires, which was very funny. But at first they were really shy, but after some days of being there we were friends. Passing time together made them understand the film much more. In Mozambique, the dialogues I was talking about before, they were so good for the film that that was when I said, “Okay, they understood something about the film.” Before I never know, I’m not sure and I think they’re not sure, either. We’re bouncing together because I think we like each other, so we know we want to do that film together, but then they are not very sure what they are doing exactly. At first they expect one thing of films because they have certain ideas of what cinema is, but then they see me and that’s not what they’re expecting exactly, not with a production behind with a structure. I think that’s one of the important of the film, how we relate before doing the film. That creates this sort of connection, a certain spirit of wondering about and speaking that’s very similar in the three places.