#Big Truths: An Interview with Rolf de Heer

The most special thing a film can do is overwhelm its audience, and who better to prove this than filmmaker Rolf de Heer. Yes, I just wrote that sentence, and yes I thought reading Timothy Morton on Dazed was better preparation for an interview than watching Rolf de Heer’s work. How else to prep for an interview with Australia’s most caring auteur, who in essence is Werner Herzog without the Vice paycheck, a collaborator in dialogue with others, a savant sans nihilism?

Rolf de Heer is one of three people (alongside Molly Reynolds and Mark Eland) on The Waiting Room, premiering at MIFF 2019 in its VR section. His notable works ⁠— many collaborations with David Gulpilil (Charlie’s Country [2013], Ten Canoes [2006]) ⁠— bypasses ‘sad textbook academia’ in search of bigger truths. He is the people’s auteur, and able to expose the vastness of humanity. 

Imagine the idea our civilization has bailed, or that Earth has dealt with destruction. Audiences at MIFF 2019 can sink into such in The Waiting Room. In it, ‘Osca’ is a shamshackle creature living on Earth (a Justin Shoulder-esque costume but more papier-mâché): so how does it survive? If our World were reborn, what would its new babies look like? These are my sole impressions of a work that saddle with Anohni, Björk, and Lynette Wallworth, lumped as ‘eco-alypse now’ cinema. Molly Reynolds, Mark Eland, and Rolf de Heer bring an innovation to life, and I was able to speak with Rolf ahead of the Melbourne premiere.

Film criticism is a runway of hyperboles, so brace yourselves when I declare Rolf de Heer our go-to radical auteur.

André Shannon: I’m really interested in your work so you’ll have to stop me if I go too long.

Rolf de Heer: [Laughs] Okay, on we go.

AS: What’s your relationship to raw-nature, seeing as your film The Waiting Room is about the environment? 

RDH: Ok, let’s just slightly rephrase the question. Firstly, it’s a virtual reality work as opposed to what might classically be called a film, and secondly I think it’s a mistake to call it ‘my’ film. I’m one of three contributors, and not even the main one. If it’s anybody’s project it is that of Molly Reynolds. But she, Mark, and I share the creative credit.

AS: I’m glad you brought that up because I feel like so often in collaborations only one person gets credit, and often women don’t get the credit they deserve. 

RDH: Absolutely, and this is Molly’s vision. If we try to break it down into classic film roles, which of course don’t quite work here, then she would be the director and I would be the producer. It’s more complicated than that of course, but that doesn’t stop me from talking about it!

[Both laugh]

RDH: In my life, apart from the first five years or so when I lived in Holland (where there’s not much nature left), we moved to Indonesia and central Sumatra in the jungle, and as a child I just ran rampant in this jungle. From there, we moved to Australia, and again next to the bush. My brother and I would spend long, long hours in the bush, being part of it. And in the films I’ve done, some of them quite clearly have been close to nature. 

AS: Tell me if I’m generalising but filmmaking isn’t a very sustainable medium; how did you three grapple with that while making The Waiting Room?

RDH: You’ve just presented one of the great dilemmas in life. Does Al Gore cash a debt in order to move the message? 

All we can do is try to be very sensitive and very aware, use the resources really carefully, and try not to waste anything that could be wasted. In the end, if we stop creating the message because it might cost energy then the message doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a fair call and it’s a difficult one to overcome. 

AS: In The Waiting Room,Osca’ is a supernatural being. It got me thinking: do you think you have to include a magical element in ecology so that people will actually give a shit about the fact that the planet is out of control? 

RDH: No, I don’t. It happens to be what was chosen, but there are many different ways of speaking about the topic and this is just one of them. 

AS: I recently re-watched the Andrew Thomas Huang/Björk VR music video, the one about romance and the environment. What music did you play to prepare for the film ⁠— maybe you’ve seen the Björk clip?

RDH: [Laughs] Look, from my personal perspective I find it very difficult to listen to music to prepare for something. The way music affects me is so strong that it unhinges what I’m trying to do. Peter Weir knows to play very specific music on set in order to set moods. If I did that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. 

AS: Do you mind explaining your idea of capturing wildlife?

RDH: I’m currently going through the whole process about that! It’s an obtuse way to answer the question, but never mind, I’ll do it. 

One of the most extraordinary creatures in the world is the Okapi ⁠— the third largest land mammal. I make my point here because most people don’t know it exists. It’s an utterly beautiful animal; nobody knows that it exists so therefore it might as well not. It’s almost certainly headed for extinction as many of the largest land mammals. There really aren’t that many of them, and then I think, ‘Yes, it doesn’t actually matter…’. And maybe that’s the way to look at it, and maybe that’s the way to continue on with life, and time; it’s just to cut memories from our way of looking at things because, for most people, we live with this extraordinary animal and they don’t know what it is! 

We are becoming much more ‘present’ and ‘future’ then we were in the past. That’s going to be one of the things that makes us able to bear the loss of our young planet.   

AS: A lot of films depicting our world are often picturesque and ‘pretty’. Sometimes I worry if people see that in film it’s like, ‘The old male painter, painting the beautiful naked woman’ ⁠— beautified and general, without actually going to the core of what can be ugly. Like, why can’t nature be ugly?

RDH: These are the thoughts that I have, exactly the same way. One of the things that Molly and I have talked about is, ‘What would we do to make the other side of the coin of The Waiting Room?’. Instead of it being beautiful, it’s as ugly as we can find. And then, let’s have them back to back in a way. I think there’s an advantage. 

AS: You go to a film festival and whatever you see, no matter what it’s about, it will have a very picturesque view of the world.

RDH: I would argue that doesn’t apply to every film but yes, most films, absolutely. And the thing is the ugly films have a harder time being seen ⁠— it’s not what people want to see as much. 

AS: So true! Rolf, I don’t know how much time you’ve been allocated but I’ll start to wrap up.

RDH: Go on the way you feel…

AS: How do you think people can contribute to the conversations you’re having in your films without erasing what’s happening in them ⁠— for example, in your work on Indigenous culture, how can a non-Indigenous person contribute to the conversation without overriding the voice of the Indigenous people in the film?

RDH: [Pause] Okay… look, with great difficulty. And the need for endless sensitivity I guess, and they’ll make mistakes and that doesn’t matter because they need to make mistakes to find out how to do it. 

It’s about learning, about the other way of looking at things. Not our way of looking at things but the Indigenous way of looking at things, and understanding what that voice is and why any contribution to a dialogue is a useful thing, unless it shuts it down.

I used to get asked a lot when I did Q&As on Charlie’s Country, people would see the film and feel lots of things and ask, ‘What can we do to help?’. And fuck, I’m lost, I can’t tell you that, I have no idea! I don’t know how you turn around stuff like that! 

What I keep saying is you start with being interested enough to come to a Q&A about this stuff; though clearly we have a long way to go, and a lot needs to be talked about. You need to talk about it the best you can, because I don’t think supporting something eradicates the voice that it is supporting, necessarily, particularly if you have some sensitivity. But yes, it’s problematic, and it’s difficult.

AS: I’m reading film reviews of The Nightingale by Jennifer Kent, which was a film that made me want to engage more deeply with what the film reveals, but a lot of people have written it off.

RDH: I know that film had genuine Indigenous consultation happen on it and that the Indigenous roles, and how they were portrayed, was something that the Indigenous consultants and actors had a great deal of genuine input into. Their voice was part of it. It’s partly that some people might not know enough about it, or aren’t sensitive enough, and they’re making assumptions that are wrong, and that can happen. 

The Waiting Room is available to experience from 9-16 August 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival’s VR program.

Visit the MIFF site for more info.

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André Shannon is a Sydney-based queer filmmaker and film critic. André co-hosts many podcasts at FBi 94.5 and his Twitter is @andreshannonfr.

André Shannon

I'm André Shannon; film critic, filmmaker, and huge fan of everyone's work on Rough Cut. I make podcasts about film, host a weekly film segment on radio, interview filmmakers, and my mum's cousin is Tilda Swinton which is bonkers to me!