Butter Lamp

By Paul Risker.

The outset of Wei Hu’s filmmaking journey has taken the form of small steps, although the burgeoning young filmmaker admits that his two short films Le Propriétaire (2012) and Butter Lamp (2013) have infused him with a passion and belief in cinema. He explains, “I am confident in taking a path that exploits cinematographic research, and I do believe that cinema has a lot of potential and possibilities.” For Hu, the journey of art is ongoing and is ever evolving. Butter Lamp in which Tibetans pose for a photographer in front of a series of backdrops could be perceived as a reflection of film as an offshoot of not just literature and the written word, but also of the still image: photography and painting. In spite of its simple premise, Butter Lamp has the capacity to open up a rich discourse on the creation of the image, from the influence of the creator to the spectatorial interaction, whether it be either still or moving.

The 2015 Oscar nominated Live Action Short, which was also nominated at Cannes for the Discovery Award, paints a portrait of a multi-disciplined filmmaker who second time around engages with not just the directing and editing processes, but also the writing and production design. Before entering into a discussion of the philosophy of art and the creative experience with Film International that saw us momentarily rendezvous with the philosophy of Michel Foucault, Wei Hu shared the reason for choosing to dedicate himself to film and creating a doorway for his audience’s imagination through Butter Lamp.

Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?

Butter Lamp 02At first I wanted to be a painter, but I found out pretty quickly that I was not good enough to be a one. Also, ever since I was a little child I always wanted to share my dreams, but when I told them to my friends they were always disappointed; they couldn’t find the interest in them. Later on, I remember that I went to see a movie with a few friends and during the screening I fell asleep. Afterwards when we stepped outside of the theatre my friends asked me what I thought about the film; I said that I had slept through it. When I asked him what he thought about it and he told me that the film felt like a dream to him, sleeping at some points, but awake at others, I understood at that time that sharing dreams is impossible with words. There is only a limited amount we can reach through language, but with film you can show all emotions. So today I throw myself into my work as a filmmaker, so that I can express the dreams that I have in mind.

What was the genesis of the idea for Butter Lamp?

I think the still frame is what works tremendously in this film. Its proposition is such a radical dispositive than if you would throw out its still frame and image. This way it creates a wide open door for your imagination.

While watching Butter Lamp it occurred to me that a connection between film and photography; the moving and the still image are reflected upon – cinema not only as an offshoot of literature but also fundamentally of photography and painting. What are your thoughts on such an assessment and how it relates to your short film?

I think cinema is particular, and the only art that cinema could be close to would be music. These are the only two arts that build up and play with time lapses. When I make a painting or when I look at a photo, the work is done and it is dead already. But cinema shows the process of it, and when I make films I always think a lot about temporality.

With Butter Lamp were you also consciously trying to emphasis the story of the creative process as well as the capacity for story to be held and expressed within a single still image?

Once again throw out its still image and the dynamics change considerably. The proposition was to create a short open window of the world. The emphasis is on the audience to enter that window from what he or she sees, so that they can imagine the rest of the world and create it for themselves.

Butter Lamp appears to address or touch upon the manipulation of the idea of “truth and image.” While the image and more broadly creative art forms derive from reality, they are able to create an “independent truth” or “reality” within their still and moving images? How does Butter Lamp relate to this idea?

If we talk about reality, then it concerns the consciousness of each of us. If you talk to someone who doesn’t have the same consciousness as yours, then you cannot settle on the same level of reality. So I’ll talk about my personal vision of it.

In my early years of studying in Paris when I was at Beaux Arts de Paris, I studied Michel Foucault and his writings. When I was working on the script of Butter Lamp I always kept these texts in mind.

“First there are the utopias. Utopias are sites with no real place. They are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society. They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces. There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places — places that do exist and that which are something like counter are formed in the very founding of society — sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias. I believe that between utopias and these quite other sites, these heterotopias, there might be a sort of mixed, joint experience, which would be the mirror. The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.” (Foucault 1967: Des espaces autres).

When we settled on the preparations for shooting, we had the background picture in front of the mountains, and opposite of it, facing the camera, we had the Tibetan people. This place that we created became a heterotopia just as a theatre where cinema is screened is also a heterotopic place. So when people look at the movie I want them to have that kind of confused feeling; for example when you are in front of a mirror seeing yourself or as the movie does, seeing an image of two heterotopic places reflecting on one another. The Tibetans are looking at the audience that is looking at them through the camera and the screen.

The presence of the creators of the image or the vocal voice of the photographer speaks of the individuality of art through the single person who is often credited with its creation; whether it is the auteur in film, the writer in literature or the painter in art. From your own experiences what are your thoughts on the individual as creator versus collaborative creation in film in contrast to other artistic mediums?

Each art has its advantage and disadvantages. I’m also a painter, which is an individual art. When my painting is done it stays very close to my original idea. With collective art like cinema, the result can differ from the original idea. So collective art can get better through the process; it can be stimulated by other people’s ideas, and you can sometimes go further into your research. But I do not have a preference; I can just identify the differences.

Looking ahead to your feature directorial debut, how invaluable have your short films Butter Lamp and Le Propriétaire been in preparing you for your transition into feature filmmaking?

After those two films, I’m confident of taking a path that exploits cinematographic research, and I do believe that cinema has a lot of potential and possibilities. When I hear people say that the cinematographic language has already been found, I do not believe this, because I’m convinced that there still is potential for innovation.

If as Christopher Sharrett says, “cinema, at its best, addresses basic questions of daily life,” do you perceive your films to say something about you and offer us a window through which to view life or do you view them as a counter to such introspective and reflective ideas?

I totally agree with that quote from Christopher Sharrett. Cinema could be like a mirror-less complexion. When you have light you can see, but when it is dark you see yourself in introspection, and so it is not just a window, it is more a mirror.

Writer-directors often talk to me about how the two processes inform one another, specifically how as they are writing they are in fact directing. How do you view the way that the writing, directing and editing processes inform one another?  

Writing, directing and editing are three very different processes. Writing is intimate work; you do it alone. Directing is a collective one, and I would say that editing appears to be like installation work, using ready made objects created by the camera. But each step takes the re-writing of the story which goes on through those three different processes. The writing is fundamental in terms of the work that has to be done on the writing, and it is for me the hardest phase in creating a film. Again it is a very personal response, and my opinion may not be shared by other directors.

What is the place of the short film in modern day cinema?

Being a filmmaker is working on duration of time. You succeed in working on a short duration by using rhythm, silence, speed or anything related to it. I think that we cannot discredit a short film only due to its short duration; it is the same as a long feature film. In literature we have major writers, recognized everywhere in the world, who got there artist nobility through novels that they have written. We don’t judge them because of the length of their novels, and I think it should be the same in cinema.

With long form television drama in the midst of a golden age, do you think that film could be described as a short form medium and if so what does this do to redefine short films?

Yes, it is a golden age for television today, but we still need poetry. For me, short film is poetry.

I read that your intentions were, “to create a film between fiction and documentary, reality and drama, modern civilization and traditional habits.” This strikes me as the essence of cinema in that storytelling finds itself caught between reality and drama. The screen in its own way is capable of being defined as reality, and the ability of film through globalization is more capable than ever to cross over geographical boundaries. In your opinion what is it that allows cinema to achieve this?

The idea that I like to bring out through my filmmaking is to propose some kind of a reality that is not objective, a vision of the world where the audience have the place to create their own fiction using their imagination. Film should not give answers to the audience, but allow them to be built in each of the spectators’ mind.

Can you share with us anything about your upcoming projects?

I’m working on a new short film. Its form should be a little closer to classical live action, but it will be a very mysterious film.

Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering MythStarburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.

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