Capitol Hill silverbacks and their proteges… immigrant clotheshorses in Holland… the tween debutants of Manhattan’s Upper East Side… globetrotting, German-born filmmaker Julika Rudelius is an unquenchably curious student of all sorts of people and the profundity welled up in their mundane behaviors. Treating expressions of superficiality and intimacy in equal measure as the densely coded socio-political languages that they are, she crafts portraits of nameless people who congeal as subcultural types. And rather than penetrate these scenes, Rudelius skims their surfaces, watching with a delicately distant eye. In her latest video, Rituals, this remoteness is more palpable than ever, as her camera dances without words with well-coifed boys on the streets of Guangzhou.
How do you scout your subjects or match a ceremony with a place, as you often do?
I like the word ceremony a lot. It's close to worship and observance, which I think is an interesting link to the video Rituals, and also to a lot of other works I’ve done.
Most of the time I don’t really scout, instead I am usually busy with a certain theme. In the case of Rituals, I was looking for rituals or behaviors linked to capitalism and then I started seeing these young men, first only out of the corner of my eye, but eventually they took over my entire vision and I couldn't look anywhere without seeing them. Even then I didn't want to make them a part of the film. Only after they became so overwhelmingly present in my life did I decide to film them.
Were you able to speak with all of them about what you wanted to do? For some was it a non-verbal exchange in which the presence of the camera explained itself?
In all of my other work, language and therefore the ability to understand the psychology and relationships of groups of people is extremely important. After a couple of visits to China (first in 2009 for the Shanghai Expo), I purposely chose to make a film in China in order to experiment with how I could make work in an environment where spoken and written language is not accessible to me, to see how this would impact my images.
As for the actual contact: to make the final arrangements for shooting the film, I worked with two friends who also translated as I talked to them on the street. But there wasn’t actually much talking at any stage. I had hung around in the textile market area for weeks. I was a very recognizable person—a 6'1" blonde Caucasian woman on street corners for hours at a time is a very unusual sight in this area.
In the beginning I didn’t think anyone noticed me...there were no signs of recognition, but I took a lot of photos during the process, too, and only later did I realize that a couple of the guys I asked to film were in my photos looking straight at me, several times. Nearly eerie.
For example, the magician in the film: I saw him at a couple of marketing events and was obsessed with him because he reminded me of a figure out of Mona Lisa Overdrive. Suddenly, he started following me around and showed up all the time, crossing my path. So sometimes I wonder who chose whom after all.
How did you direct the boys?
I realized that one of the assistants had a very good understanding of my body language or rather a similar body language. I would pose for him and he would interpret my movements and make them legit, mimicking them to the boys who were then copying him…. We must have been quite a sight doing this on the street.
Have they seen the finished video?
Some have, the rest will when I return to China.
Most of your videos are multiple channels, usually a diptych like this one. Can you talk about this choice and how you arrived at this format? There's always a strong duality of inside/outside, observer/observed in your videos.
I never thought about the possibility that the duality you mention, which I really want to have, could also come from the multiple channels. Historically in film, double projections are often used for juxtapositions, but I use them to avoid the autobiographical. I want to show the “true” feelings of my collaborators because it heightens the intensity, but I don’t care about the details of a person’s private life— those I try to avoid. I hope that when I show multiple people expressing similar feelings next to each other, the feelings will become more universal. It becomes about more than just this one person in the film. By using rhythm and simultaneity, I can work with the imagery in a different way, and it’s easier to create a mood/feeling and tell a non-narrative story.
To what extent do you see a project like this, or any of your work, as documentary? It feels as if you're steering reality, directing performances that are nonetheless drawn from natural behaviours.
For me this discussion is a totally different one. Linking documentary to natural behavior or reality is of course a thing that comes up a lot in art, but when I look at documentary filmmakers or photographers I consider to be really good, they always tamper with reality in to get a poignant, concentrated image that provokes feelings or reactions in viewers.
Then again, for me this is not so much the question of documentary or not but rather of making a good film, as the genres have no clear separation to me and never really did. I think the moment you frame an image—when you choose a distinctive, subjective frame of the situation—you are already one step into fiction or rather into the interpretation and staging of that image.
Everybody is so camera savvy now, sometimes I feel like it's an anachronism that the actors in fiction films pretend that they're not posing for the camera. I would be much more interested to discuss how we can still talk about 'natural behavior' when our lives are so infused with images of everybody basically displaying repetitive evidence of their successful private life.
In your statement you mention the camera seduces the boys with the promise of fame -- did you intentionally play this up?
This seductive quality of filmmaking is a function of the camera itself. When the camera is on people respond to it as an opportunity to be seen; it is practically an automatism. And no, I didn't play this up. I tell all of the people I film that they will never be famous through my film: that they will only be shown in an art context and that it is extremely unlikely that they would be discovered by participating in one of my pieces. But I do tell them that they are beautiful and perfect for the camera, which I think they are.
Interview by Kevin McGarry