Affection and Longing: an interview with Dheeraj Akolkar about the architecture of film and the structure of life.

In Uncategorized on 6 February 2015 at 10:28 AM

Juliana de Albuquerque Katz

Dheeraj Akolkar is an Indian filmmaker internationally acclaimed for the documentary “Liv and Ingmar” (2012), a film about the lives of Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Mr. Akolkar is an architect graduated from the University of Pune, and wrote his master on film at the University of London. He is also the head of Vardo Films, a young film production company based in England. The company is currently having two titles in production. On October 23rd, 2013 Mr. Akolkar finished working on a new film, a documentary about the life and work of another Scandinavian genius, the painter Edvard Munch.

Edvard Munch's 1886 Breakthrough Masterpiece THE SICK CHILD

I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Akolkar just a few days before my trip to the Ingmar Bergman Estate at Fårö, Sweden. The place where Bergman lived and worked from 1969 until his death in 2006, and which inspired him to develop a kind of cinematic existentialism, where the language of film becomes fragmented and minimalistic, and the human condition emerges as cinema’s only natural resource. When I told him about my trip, Mr. Akolkar said: “The island is so minimal and simplified. It’s almost Zen-like. It shows that life can only exist between a couple of things— between survival, between presence and company of each other. There is not much distraction. It sets the atmosphere for Bergman.”


Upon hearing that, all the questions I had planned ask Mr. Akolkar lost their importance. After a two-hour Skype call between Tel Aviv and London, I discovered that I had not interviewed Dheeraj Akolkar and, instead of simply reading and answering my questions from a script, we have had a real conversation. What you can read now in Yod is a fragment of the ideas Mr. Akolkar shared with me about life, Bergman, and the spatiality of film.


YOD: Hello, Dheeraj! Before we begin to discuss your documentary, I have a question about your background. It says on IMDB that you graduated in architecture at Pune University. What made you choose architecture in the first place and how do you think architecture contributed to the way you work with cinema?


D.A.: I don’t think you ever stop being an architect. For me, architecture was a great advantage because it introduced me to a very physical process. I had to start from a concept and work for weeks until the design was made; until the project was made…and as you begin from a tiny little dot of an idea, to a three-dimensional structure, you start to think about things spatially. I look at cinema very spatially— when I’m writing the script; when I’m sitting with my editor, or when I’m editing my notes, I unconsciously use architecture as a guide. Architecture really, immediately guides you through the creation process. You can see this when you are adjusting a frame, and you ask yourself “where is this force diagram going?” The same happens in painting. I paint a little. When you start a painting you notice that you’re actually trying to figure out how the force of the painting is working. And now I see architecture more cinematically; more as an emotive medium. So, if I design a building, I will probably design it like cinema.


And now a very interesting point: now that you’re going to Fårö, please walk from one end of the Bergman house to the other. I wanted to write an article about the architecture of Bergman’s house as a theme from his cinema. Walk from one end of the house to the other and you will see exactly what I am saying—


There is one particular spine in the house and the rooms fall on either side. Most of the exterior of his house is stone, the interior is glass. It’s a long, fragmented house with different rooms set away from each other, yet joined from this one walkway like “Scenes from a Marriage,” or the original “Fanny and Alexander” (…six or seven different chapters connected by a single theme of two or three characters running throughout, exactly like the house.


YOD: I never thought about cinema in relation to space and, when I am working with Bergman, I always try to prioritize the element of time. Mostly because I believe that the reality of man, the truth about human existence reveals itself in time. But what you say about space is very interesting because, the discontinuity of time in space makes you wonder if each chapter of Bergman’s TV productions could be represented as an aphorism…in a sense that they grow with you, just like the space of a house that is built like that.


D.A.: Coming from architecture I don’t think that he looks at cinema very spatially. I think his films, as you rightfully said, are so much about time; about the moment. He gives a lot of importance to that. They are also very, very human. But when you look at his house you say “oh, this house is also cinematic,” his cinema translates into this house.


YOD: Did he draw the house?


D.A.: Yes. The architect said “give me all the directions of how you want this house to be and then I will design it for you.” The house is very Scandinavian in terms of its elements. There’s privacy, so that the exterior is completely impenetrable. You come there and you don’t know where to go. The entrance is so casual, it’s not grand. The house is hidden; it’s not a showoff kind of a place at all, which is also his personality— he’s drawing you in. He’s not giving you anything immediately, even in his work. And all these things are translated into his house. I have so many different interpretations of that house as an architect, and parallels with his cinema…it’s amazing.


YOD: What you say about the interior is very interesting and it really draws from his philosophical influences; from authors like Kierkegaard or even Rilke. For instance, Rilke writes about an inversed pyramid of our subjective constitution and, in a way, I believe that most of our concerns are always revolving about depth and interiors.


D.A.: Absolutely. If you imagine some of the interiors designed by architects like Le Corbusier, where you have gray concrete and white surfaces, you would look at Bergman and probably suggest that he is going to be all about the blacks, and the whites, and the grays. But that is not the case. He’s into the warmth of really beautiful red interiors. I say interiors, not exteriors because the exteriors are always dark.


Imagine a man with a really harsh exterior who, from the outside may appear like a monster, or may appear unperceivable, on the inside is all transparent. It’s all about the inside. The colors inside are warm and transparent, and overlooking the ocean. And what that ocean represents, really? It’s constantly buzzing; it doesn’t rest. That restlessness is what Bergman has opened his house to.


YOD: But that’s interesting too because for me it touches…going for the warm colors and leaving the exterior toward the interior…many people believe that Bergman is a nihilistic filmmaker. I don’t think so. Okay, his characters struggle to achieve forgiveness and redemption but they don’t actually achieve it. But he doesn’t exclude the possibility of forgiveness; there is always the thin little hope that something will happen.


Yes. I agree. The best scene to describe this happens in the end of “Passion of Anna.” This scene speaks a lot about this “thin little hope” that you talk about. All his films are open-ended, really! In that scene, the car drives away. Anna (Liv Ullmann) drives away and Max von Sydow’s character walks back and forth, back and forth, as the camera pulls back until he decides he doesn’t have enough strength or courage to follow her. But he’s trying to, you see? We can imagine that, if the film continues, there is still a tiny possibility that Anna will feel guilty and turn around; that she will come back to the man. There is always the possibility that they will meet. The reason why “Scenes from a Marriage” ends in that beautiful scene of the couple in bed, which is all about that intimate hope of togetherness and, the man says “Oh my back is cold,” but the beautiful possibility of togetherness he explores in “Saraband” thirty years later.


YOD: Yes, I was thinking about Saraband. That’s also a movie with an open end. Although it merges with scenes from a marriage in the beginning…


D.A.: But I think “Saraband” is more close-ended. Remember, at the end of the movie she says “today I touched my daughter for the first time.” I think that you cannot truly touch anybody before you have forgiven yourself. I think that something comes to an end in “Saraband”; something is solved or achieved— Bergman feels ready for forgiveness at the end. He has given forgiveness a chance in the end.


YOD: Now that we are talking about closure…why did you decide to make a film about Liv and Ingmar? Scandinavian film and culture, how did they come to you? Growing up in Latin America, Scandinavia seemed to me a whole other world to me. So, what was your experience?


D.A.: I was asked this question before, but never in this way. You ask it more interestingly. Many people are very surprised to learn that I’m an Indian filmmaker living in London. They ask me what I am doing with a film about a Norwegian actress and a Swedish director. My answer to that is—the film is about being human.


Cinema is about emotions. No matter where you are, we feel just in the same way. Art is the only place, literally the only place, where boundaries dissolve creatively and in an enterprising manner. When we come to a Philip Glass concert, or a Bergman film, we go in together with a lot of different people and in the darkness we experience something together. Art is the last place on this earth where borders don’t matter.


I really think that one of the most beautiful aspects of creating art is this lack of boundaries. I have stories in all parts of the world, and I should be able to tell them. So for me, it is not really Scandinavia, the film isn’t about Norway or Sweden. While preparing the film, what appealed to me was a passage in Liv Ullmann’s book. There is a moment in that book when she describes the day when Ingmar lost his mother. He told Liv “mama died today, now I have no one.” Then she writes “in that moment I knew I could never leave him and in a way I never have.” Liv says, I knew. She doesn’t say I felt or I thought. She says I knew, and that knowledge is love.


That line of the book became the theme for “Liv and Ingmar.” Our film is really about a very unique kind of togetherness. You don’t have to be under the same roof; married to a person; in a relationship of any kind to be each other’s soul mates. You have to be connected. You have to be connected in one moment of truth. That’s what being a soul mate is about.


That isn’t a Scandinavian emotion; that’s a human emotion. For this reason, we don’t divide the film into “Persona,” “Hour of the Wolf,” or “The Passion of Anna.” We divide it into “Love,” “Loneliness,” “Pain,” “Longing,” etc. You know, it’s a human story.


YOD: Upon my first contact with Scandinavian culture, I had the impression that people in that part of the world are more open to talk about their emotions; to express their strengths and expose their weaknesses, etc. I had the impression that they feel more comfortable in their own skin. Their behavior helps me understand what you said earlier about art as an expression of the human condition.


Yes. I went to Scandinavia to do this film because they were very positive about it. Nordicstories, the production company in Oslo, wanted to make the film. They took a chance on me. Since it was a story told from Liv’s perspective, it was possible for the Norwegian Film Institute to come on board. But I like that you fell in love with Scandinavia, I really fell in love with it— with the landscape and the people, because they may look cold and harsh on the outside but on the inside they’re really warm. And they’re so content in the land that they live in.


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