Teenagers (21 filmed portraits), Ángel Santos, Spain, 2011, 63', Loop, without sound, digital projection.
In the style of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, the director Ángel Santos presents a series of 21 portraits filmed in silence and directly looking at the camera. They are boys and girls from Galicia, in small or large groups, couples or alone on the streets waiting for time or something to pass.
An observational view of adolescence in which it is possible to recognize (in the details, gestures, glances) the modes, places and concerns of youth, a video piece that refers directly to our cycle of images of youth, The Atomic Age, as the first guest work for The Wall.
Interview with Ángel Santos
"The concept of adolescence and it's image has always fascinated me, its aesthetics, so powerful and full of contradictions."
Question: I would like to start this conversation on teenagers by referring to Andy Warhol’s Screen Test. Your film uses a similar mechanism, but with variations. They are portraits that last as long as a 16 mm film, a little less than 3 minutes, and capture a person or persons looking at the camera. Did you have a clear idea from the beginning about how to portray these teenagers? How did you get the idea and the way of filming it?
Answer: Since I started filming, I have had a certain preference for frontal shots and in one way or another it is a formal recourse to which I return repeatedly, especially in portraits of characters. I remember having read something, before entering film school, which Wim Wenders said about "looking at things from the front” (I think about the cinema of Raoul Walsh) and somehow this idea became ingrained in my subconscious.
Warhol was there, obviously, but if I may, perhaps more unconsciously than reflectively. However, in the process of carrying out the project, other icons came to shape the idea that I had about the film in a more direct manner: I had always been fascinated by the portraits that Jem Cohen did of those present at Fugazi concerts in Instrument, but I also remember having revisited Guerin’s portraits in Innisfree and, of course, the more or less recent discovery at that time of the cinema of James Benning - which provided certain keys with regard to structures and the duration of the shots set by the production means. When you are facing a portrait, the duration is not determined by any action or line of dialogue, so establishing an external pattern helps me to set a structure. Generally, I like to establish my own rules before shooting and then try to respect them, as if it were a table game - something that Bresson spoke about, establishing strict rules which are hard to disobey. Moreover, the concept of adolescence and it's image has always fascinated me, its aesthetics, so powerful and full of contradictions. It is a project that comes from observation and the irresistible drive of getting close to something you love.
Q: One of the variations of the mechanism that surprises me most is that you get rid of the tripod and the presence of the person behind the camera is much greater. How did you reach this decision?
A: At first, it seemed obvious that the proposal called for mounting the tripod (Benning), but this is where Jem Cohen’s fascination for shaky, fleeting images came in, which seemed to me to poetically transmit the fragility and determination of adolescence. At some point, I thought it was important in a project like this, in which I was going to get close to a number of unknown boys and girls to ask them something as personal as to let them be portrayed, that the presence of the person taking the images and those being portrayed was balanced in some way; if they give me something, I should them something back in return. Moreover, the shaking, the insecurity of the framing, despite the most closed mechanism of structure, was a reference to the ephemeral and urgent nature of adolescence itself.
Q: We see very different attitudes in the teenagers portrayed. For example, there are some who, despite the gusts of wind blowing their hair about or moving the pages of their books or who want to laugh, try to remain immobile. However, there are others who smoke or drink in front of the camera or carry on watching the skaters going past. What were the instructions that you gave them?
A: Immobility was the first premise, although I was aware that it was going to be a difficult challenge to complete - especially at those moments when the images were in crowded spaces and the off had an important influence on what happened in front of the camera - but, at the same time, this would produce something interesting, like two forces colliding. This is the same method that you can use to direct actors in a fiction film: you set guidelines and standards knowing that there are certain issues that it is better not to articulate so that chance plays its part and things take place spontaneously, intuitively.
A specific decision was imposed for each portrait, based on what I saw in the people being portrayed at that time, their character, their environment, their safety or lack of it. I talked to them for a while, explained the project to them and my idea of what we could express through these portraits and they accepted the game based on the nature of each one.
Q: How did you choose the teenagers and locations?
A: The choice of each portrait was guided by chance. There was a long period before the ideation stage when the project was developing and setting its own guidelines and rules, with a large part of these related to the structure and spatial interrelationship of the portraits, but I knew that I could not and did not want to hold a "casting" prior to the portraits; I think that it would have spoilt the idea. Basically the shooting consisted of appearing for a few days in certain spaces and portraying the groups or individuals that we met, setting up small groups who talked in the same space. The compositions, their positions and attitudes in the frame were not specified for the film; in any case, it was the position of the camera which had to be adapted, not them. What interested me fundamentally, beyond the portrayal of a few faces on celluloid, was how certain meeting rituals are unconsciously set and mix-ups about the "waiting areas", where teenagers do not do anything but see how time passes, observe. And that, from this observation of places and faces, the film could gain meaning beyond the small provincial town in which it is set.
Q: How was the experience for you? Would did you feel holding these gazes? What is there in the portrait of self-portrait?
Adolescence is a fundamental step for each of us and to identify yourself in certain attitudes or gestures with one of the people portrayed, that "recognition" is wonderful
A: Without any doubt, "Adolescentes” (Teenagers) is the film where I have most enjoyed the process. It was also the easiest to tackle once the decisions were taken. As I say, it is a pure relationship of fascination (which is inexhaustible, as the possibilities of portraits could be extended almost infinitely) and, in a certain sense, cinema for me is all about this, about approaching what I would not otherwise have the capacity or determination to approach.
In holding the gaze of the other person, a connection is established, a round trip, an identification, something shared; moreover, adolescence is a fundamental step for each of us and to identify yourself in certain attitudes or gestures with one of the people portrayed, that "recognition" is wonderful. With regard to self-portrait, I think that someone is always displayed through what they film and I see no fundamental differences between this film and any other I have done, whether it is a fiction or a diary.
Q: We are talking about a montage. Each of the portraits could be a film in itself. How did you put them in order? How many did you have to leave out of the film?
A: In the end film, about half of the portraits filmed are shown. Another of the rules we set ourselves was not to repeat any take. Each portrait is the result of a unique, unrepeatable, spontaneous moment. In this regard, there was almost no shot that was not "valid" in terms of montage (I think that there were only two takes that were not usable out the whole set). The structure and decisions were determined by the dialogue established between the different spaces; the film ended up being structured in a series of blocks of time and space, which determined their own internal rhythms. A large part of the editing work was to do with the a posteriori reconstruction of a sound space for each of these blocks. Initially, the film was to begin with a shot to the "exit of the Lumiere factory” and the exit of an institute and we even started to film it, but this idea was finally rejected. The objective was that the film, beyond the portraits, would have a "narrative," casual, rhythmic, emotional development, meaning a journey more than a sequence - and here is where it separates more from Warhol.
Teenagers are always waiting for something and adventures in adolescence can be shaped by the smallest events; but above all there is waiting. And in this waiting (for life?), there is, in my opinion, something powerful, an indescribable beauty
Q: To conclude, I would like to talk about time. The time spent on each portrait, something less than 3 minutes, waiting for the 16 mm film to finish and, at the same time, the time spent by those portrayed, adolescence, a few years that can also seem like a wait for maturity to arrive.
A: Often, we forget that it is in those moments when teenagers are not in the classroom or at home, that they learn to live, to interact with each other in their own environment, under their own rules. In this regard the concepts of space and time increase hugely in importance: we have already talked about space, the street as a meeting place; time, for its part, expands exponentially, making the concept of waiting a key premise. Teenagers are always waiting for something and adventures in adolescence can be shaped by the smallest events; but above all there is waiting. And in this waiting (for life?), there is, in my opinion, something powerful, an indescribable beauty. With this project we wanted first to record that intangible aspect that affects adolescents and also confront it with the television image: duration, format (using celluloid as a fine material, like a sculptor), etc., trying to join the poetic and political. If we stop to observe, in that interval of less than 3 minutes (a 16 mm reel) perhaps we can find part of these doubts and concerns and fear implicit in the process of maturity; but also innocence, pride, complicity, etc. Therefore, our work was to find these spaces and capture that time and these faces in images. Perhaps that revealing moment is only at some point in the film, hard to see in each portrait, but in my view the search is worth it.