Everything Transitory Is But an Image: Andrea Bussmann on Fausto

By Josh Cabrita and Adam Cook

Most people want to be kings and queens, but not enough want to be Faust.” —Jean-Luc Godard, Le livre d’image

When Goethe wrote his Faust, adapting the German legend about a scholar who makes a pact with the Devil to attain total knowledge, could he have foreseen how incisive his indictment of human hubris would be across epochs? How durable his critique of the Enlightenment would be, not only for his age of skepticism but also our own? In cinema, which benefited from pre-established knowledge in theatre, poetry, and prose, the Faust legend occupies a privileged place, ranging from Murnau’s indelible late-silent masterpiece to Sokurov’s Golden-Lion-winning reimagination of versions by Goethe and Thomas Mann in 2011. As early as 1903, Edwin S. Porter and Alice Guy-Blaché had adapted the supernatural tale, using its stable of fantastical imagery—demons and dames, murder and lust—as a subject of their films. Drawing inspiration from differing interpretations of the story (Porter adapted the Gounod opera, while Guy-Blaché’s borrowed more from Marlowe), these brief, playful trick-films experiment with near identical gimmicks: Mephistopheles, the story’s Lucifer stand-in, conjures miracles in and out of existence as jump cuts transport characters across the proscenium, aging and de-aging Faust with the wave of a hand, tempting him with the seductive Margueritte only to have her teleport offscreen in an invisible edit’s instant. Over one hundred years later, the effect is somehow still stimulating, instructive, and surprising. Altering reality through the simple stop-start action of its mechanism, exemplifying how the camera can see in ways we naturally cannot, cinema had joined forces with the Devil.

However unrelated it might seem to the films of Porter and Guy-Blaché, Andrea Bussmann’s hybrid ethnography Fausto subscribes to a similar thesis: too often burdened with the prerogative of verisimilitude, cinema ought to contradict rather than complement the conditions under which we see. Shot on Mexico’s Oaxacan coast, this follow-up to Bussmann’s co-directed 2016 feature Tales of Two Who Dreamt (made in collaboration with Nicolás Pereda) is a direct, rigorous, and largely theoretical adaptation of Goethe’s Faust that wholeheartedly adopts that text’s anti-empiricist ideals. It’s a portrait of a place and its inhabitants (deceased or otherwise) caught in limbo between what is and what was. In hushed narration, local myths commingle with the Faust narrative, while the images, shot digitally and transferred to 16mm, open onto a pre-colonial world, when land and capital were not so synonymous. (Much of the film could have been shot a thousand years ago, if photography had existed; the palette would be the same.) The landscape is treated as a wholly syncretic being unto itself, shapeshifting according to the perspective of those looking at it: Alberto, who is rumoured to be engaging in an unending building project similar to Faust in the final act of Goethe’s saga; the plethora of animals (dogs, cats, horses) whose perceptions differ from our own; the omniscient narrator (Gabino Rodríguez), who speaks exclusively in the past tense, recounting tales of disembodied shadows that roam the land, of colonizers that engage in a lustful search for an indigenous woman; or Christopher Columbus, who, according to the legend recounted in the film, put the literal fear of God into local tribes with his seemingly prophetic foreknowledge of a lunar eclipse (though the historical event is said to have taken place in Jamaica).

In Bussmann’s film, and the anthropological cinema to which it loosely belongs, the limits of human perception are bound up with the gaps in rigid, supposedly “objective” colonial belief systems. Like Robert Gardner’s proto-SEL film Forest of Bliss (1985), where death rituals in Benares, India, are documented without being explicated, Fausto treats the symbolic significance of its sacred setting as untranslatable to viewers not already familiar with the culture, language, and worldview of the peoples that resided in this region prior to colonization. By populating her film with indigenous peoples, tourists, and expats who all speak different languages, Bussmann ensures that meaning is mediated through the written word—a strategy of obfuscation that recalls her exploration of “inaccurate” subtitling in Tales. Here, however, it is the supposedly universal language of images that remain effectively unreadable to the foreign viewer.

“When the world was being remade…” whispers the male narrator in the opening line of the film, reworking a moment early in Goethe’s Faust Part 1 where our protagonist, frustrated by the stasis and opacity of the generative subject the “Word,” postulates an alternative agent for the universe’s origin: “In the beginning was the Deed…” Bussmann’s reinterpretation of John 1:1, related yet wholly distinct from its context in Christendom, opens onto a field of questions entirely in line with Goethe’s philosophy and its potential applications in cinema: if there was a world before this one—not one willed into existence at a precise moment in time, but one that has existed in various forms forever—how might we come to know it through our perceptive faculties? How might cinema, a medium that deals with imprints of finite time, come into contact with this potentially infinite prehistory?

Cinema Scope: Let’s start with the title and the film’s relationship to Faust. Your film contains a multitude of stories ranging from myth to legend to anecdote, so I’m wondering if Faust was something you had in mind before you were filming, or something that emerged as you saw echoes of it in your surroundings and the stories you were hearing?

Andrea Bussmann: Before I arrived to the Oaxacan coast, I did some research about the area related to its legends, contemporary issues, and the belief systems of local peoples. The narration was constructed mainly in Oaxaca and is a mix of fictional stories I invented around what I saw there, things I rediscovered reading and rereading versions of Faust, and tales by local people I spoke with. All of the stories told in an interview format—with the exception of James, the older gentleman who is an American expat—were scripted ahead of time. I knew who would say what from the beginning. For example, the story of Columbus using language to deceive native people needed to be told by whoever would play the Devil.

Scope: The film begins with three shots in extremely low light inn which we can just barely make out the sky and a man telling a story by campfire, which introduces this idea of what we can and cannot see and what that means. I’m curious, firstly, about the camera you used, how you shot and experimented in low light; and, secondly, what compelled you about these questions of perception?

Bussmann: The film was originally shot on the Sony a7S and was later transferred to 16mm. The camera was a gift from my husband, who bought it for me before our planned trip to the beach. My old camera was on its last legs, and he thought I could use a small camera that operated in very low light conditions with minimal infrastructure. When I received the camera I was enchanted by its technological potential, yet simultaneously questions about evolving technologies and cinema began to emerge.

At the time, I had just finished teaching a course that discussed moving images in relation to a variety of artistic practices. During the week on theatre and moving images I had introduced my students to Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights by way of The Wooster Group. In Stein’s version of Faust, Faust sells his soul—which he doesn’t believe he has anyway—for electric light. The libretto contains many fascinating ideas, but in relation to my new camera Stein’s critiques of technology and its relation to perception opened up a series of questions. For Stein, if the world is illuminated by electric light, why then does Faust still wander in the dark, grasping for peace and connection? Ideas around perception, the natural world, and identity began to take shape, and the seed of using Faust to engage with new, in this case cinematic, technologies was planted.

Scope: There seem to be common themes in the various stories, a clash between mankind and the natural world, between natives and colonialism, a sort of pre- and post-capitalist way of seeing the world.

Bussmann: The film is full of these kinds of tensions that I try to explore, whether it is the relationship between the seen and unseen world or the location itself, which is set in a very real place but also plays to the setting in Goethe’s Faust Part 2, when Faust and Mephistopheles are inhabiting the coastal land they acquired from the emperor. I would say that the pre- and post-colonial world is definitely a foundational part of the film, as is the role that colonialism played in the rise of capitalism, but also the technological innovations it sparked in that drive for capital. Technology brings with it new ways of seeing and experiencing reality. 

Scope: Going off of the low-light images and different ways of seeing, how do you see these ideas of perception, what we see versus what we cannot, relating to cinema?

Bussmann: The moment I received the Sony a7S I wondered about changing perception and technology. These questions are in turn inseparable from cinema, as a technological medium that we use to engage with and interpret our experiences and realities. With cinema, we are reminded of perception as an active and creative grasping of bodily experience and structures. Perception and cinema are both embodied by memory and imagined futures. To work with the cinematic medium is to create multiple ways of seeing through formal exploration. How do we understand being in relation to technology and perception? What is the relationship between the virtual and reality in cinema? How do images deceive? Is there a relation to the real that produces satisfaction? How can we gain knowledge through perception?

In the film the moment that encompasses your question and speaks clearest to it is the scene of the painting of Starry Night by Jean-François Millet. It is all about the experience and perception of the natural world and how we frame it, along with all the possibilities left outside of this subjective frame.

Scope: There are also lots of references to how different animals see differently than humans. You are constantly reminding us throughout the film that what we see and reality itself are different, even opposed.

Bussmann: I wanted to find a way to discuss differences in perception and reality, and animals seemed like a perfect fit. It also helped that I wanted to link metamorphosis and shape-shifting themes from Goethe and local stories, both of which involve transformations to and from animal forms. Animals obviously have different perceptual experiences than humans, yet humans tend to want to anthropomorphize things around them, rather than to acknowledge and embrace differences. I work with these differences without showing them. I’m not interested in making someone feel as though they can experience what an animal experiences. I like to create feelings and rememberings of difference, to use the unknowable to make the knowable at once more visible and yet also more mysterious. The use of animals I hope also works as a challenge to the anthropocentric viewpoint.

Scope: Could you also relate that to transferring the footage to 16mm?

Bussmann: Even though I was filming with this new digital technology, I knew early on that I wanted to transfer the material to 16mm. I aspired to create another tension in the film through my aesthetic choices: to evoke an image that has an organic quality to link to the nature theme in the film, but with puzzling elements. For example, people have asked me how I shot certain images in the film in such low-light conditions on 16mm, not realizing I shot the 16mm off a computer screen or why the image looks somewhere between Super 8 and 16mm. They recognize something doesn’t quite add up, and therefore question what they are seeing.

Scope: How did the beach where you filmed and its own narratives inform the film?

Bussmann: The movie takes place on a beach in Oaxaca called Mermejita, close to the town of Mazunte. Locals claim the beach is a liminal space between places of—for a lack of better words—good and evil. On the western end of the beach is a rock formation that is called the Punta Ventanilla. “Ventana” means “window” in Spanish, and this rock’s window-like form can be seen for miles. But the rock also has another name, the Witch’s Rock. I heard stories that its name comes from women who, in the past, would travel from more northern parts of the country to make sacrifices, and with instances of shape-shifting. On the eastern side it is bordered by Punta Cometa, a sacred hill. Here stories of healing, pre-Hispanic ceremonies, an Aztec military fort, and pirates all come together. What is amazing about this beach and the surrounding landscape is that they are linked to perception, to ways of seeing, whether through a panoramic view of the coast or a window into the beyond. I draw on several stories that I heard or things that happen regularly in this area—such as the incredible arrival of endangered sea turtles that come to this coastal area to lay their eggs—and utilize them to create moments, often with fictional elements, that become nexus points to tie the themes of the film together.

Scope: The narrator, voiced by Gabino Rodríguez, is such an important yet mysterious presence.

Bussmann: I had the voiceover in mind prior to shooting. This choice was partly linked to both obstructions and conceptual ideas. Since I didn’t know if I would even find anyone to work with on this film, I had imagined having a voiceover narrator from the beginning. I knew this way I could explore everything I wanted to, no matter what happened when I arrived at the beach. I decided I wanted the narrator to be a character, nature itself speaking. Right after I made this decision, I read that Goethe believed that nature had an unconscious, one that was not just alive but enchanted. In a number of versions of Faust, including Goethe’s, there is simultaneously a draw to and alienation from nature. In Goethe’s Faust, Faust turns to nature at several points; for example, he seeks refuge in nature after Gretchen’s death, but finds no satisfaction ultimately because he is not able to recognize that as a human he is part of the process of nature. Faust seemingly comes to the conclusion that neither history nor nature has much to offer. How the place itself would speak and imagining a point of view, I was further influenced by Goethe’s character of Lynkeus, the watchman—the one with eyesight so keen, he could see even in the dark from his watchtower. The watchtower, as with my narrator, is not just a place, but also a means of seeing or a way to reveal. In Fausto, nature sees all.

Scope: The “actors” drift in and out both as storytellers and subjects. I’m curious about their involvement in shaping the film.

Bussmann: I was really lucky that Alberto and Fernando agreed to tell my little stories and let me film them hanging around. They both are theatre directors and actors. Their friend Ziad is an actor and translator who just happened to be visiting at the same time as us. Victor had come from France to work on their project with them. He is a trained architect, but is also an artist. He was incredible and was up for anything. James I happened upon, and interviewed him over two days. Julia was a woman I knew from many years before, who told us the story of the Enchanted House; I thought it was a good fit for the film, so I asked her to tell it again for the camera. They informed the film through the stories they told, while we would be drinking at night or lounging in the hammocks, and also through their relationships with one another. After watching them and getting to know them, I could picture certain Faust characters each one could play. Also, details about their lives and relationships seeped into the film. This is one of the reasons I chose to use their real names. Fiction and reality became inseparable: they became the characters of Faust while simultaneously remaining themselves as people with relationships and stories.

Scope: While quite different, Tales of Two Who Dreamt and Fausto both have deep ties to texts and employ a theoretical setup to explore the reality of a place. Fausto feels more free, like its origins are theoretical and then, through opening with a set of questions and ideas, you search spontaneously for answers. Can you talk about that, and what role or meaning making films has for you? Does it bring you closer to something you’re looking for personally?

Bussmann: The processes of both share some similarities, but were developed in quite different ways. With Tales, the challenge I had was creating a film out of Nicolás Pereda’s material and my own material. It was meant to be two films, which eventually became one. I tied the films together with a theoretical framework. Probably that’s one of the reasons you feel Fausto is freer. There was a level of force needed to construct Tales of Two Who Dreamt, while Fausto is a film that was constructed throughout, not just in the editing process. Fausto is very much an intuitive cinema, a process cinema, constructed through exploration. The idea of the search or searching is central to all the Faust legends, whether that search is external or internal. I tried to make this visible in the film by having the Faustian characters being perpetually in search of something, whether a shadow, a man, or themselves. The search is so central and important that I wanted to make sure there was no resolution. I’m forever consumed by questions that seemingly have no answers, that just open up to more questions. In this way, it is the search that drives my work and life. It is as simple as trying to find ways to express and explore all these questions through the medium of cinema.

acook@cinema-scope.com Cook Adam