BERLINALE 2019: RETROSPEKT
The collaboration between artist and composer Dan Geesin and filmmaker Esther Rots stretches back to the late 1990s, when they worked together on The Garden (1998), then a series of Esther's short films followed by Can Go Through Skin (2009). Their latest work Retrospekt is selected for Berlinale Forum. Geoffrey Macnab reports.
The enigmatic and elliptical Retrospekt, supported by the Netherlands Film Fund, features scenes from the life of Mette (Circé Lethem), a domestic abuse counsellor. Rots has talked about the project as an example of "sensory cinema." In keeping with such a description, Geesin describes his soundtrack as "music from the body." Operatic and absurdist, it is a tribute of sorts to Geesin's father, Ron Geesin, and to his collaboration in the early 1970s with Pink Floyd's Roger Waters. One of their albums together was actually called "Music From The Body".
"That, for me, was a blend of melancholy and humour and the resonances that were set up between," Geesin reflects on that album. "Those are the two things I have always tried to use in my own work.'
Waters' son, Harry Waters, joined Geesin on the recording of the Retrospekt soundtrack. "We don't know each other. We didn't grow up together, but there was a taken for granted trust and respect between us from the beginning."
Tracks on Retrospekt have such off-beat titles as 'White Fluffy Bathrobe' and 'Breaking Off Branches' and some are sung by Dutch opera singers Luc Ket and Bas Kuijlenburg. "Esther and I have always worked to put the viewer in the middle of a visual and acoustic experience," Geesin says of the use of sound and music in the film. He describes their approach as "entropic crescendo... it's the moment before the fly hits the windscreen, everything comes into focus and then splatters into green yellow, black and red fragments!"
What is unusual about the collaborations between Rots and Geesin is that the music often pre-dates the shooting. 'White Fluffy Bathrobe' was written before the film was even in development but cites the same influences, seen merely from a different perspective.
Geesin spent his childhood in Sussex but headed to study in the Netherlands in the mid-1990s. Although he returns regularly to the UK, he has been based in Amsterdam ever since. This means he is well placed to pinpoint the cultural differences between the Dutch and the English. The artist and composer may live in the Netherlands but his work still reveals his British roots. "You can't beat British humour, the fundamentals of which are very present in Retrospekt," he says. "Laughing in the face of adversity, it's a survival mechanism, that aspect of British culture."
Geesin is active as sculptor, musician and filmmaker. "Conceptually, there is a lot of cross-fertilisation between disciplines," he says of his approach. If he is told that his ideas won't work in one medium or format, he will go off and try to realise them in another. "I don't take no for an answer," he says of his approach to his art. "If I have an idea for a film and the funding is turned down, then I go off and write songs." If he has an album of songs and can't finance the recording, he will start drawing instead. "I am constantly busy but in different arenas." As a live performer using his harmonium, his music has been compared to that of the famous Scottish raconteur and musician Ivor Cutler, as well as to 80's pop.
Geesin generally wants full creative autonomy on his projects. He adds, though, that he and Rots are open to working on other people's projects either internationally or locally. In the meantime, they're collaborating again on a version of one of their films, Men In Sheds, for the NNT Theatre Company in Groningen. Geoffrey Macnab
SEE NL Magazine #34 November 2019 / Sundance, IFFR, Berlin and Clermont Ferrand issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by Eye International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.