San Francisco-based filmmaker and artist Jay Rosenblatt works with archival footage, original images, voiceovers, and ominous classical pieces by the likes of Arvo Part to create new stories that explore dark, ironic themes ranging from the personal habits of dictators, as in 1998’s “Human Remains,” to the heartrendingly confessional meditation on grief, 2005’s “Phantom Limb.” Honored this year with the Camerimage award for achievement in documentary, the former psychologist returns to Bydgoszcz, Poland to screen a new film, “When You Awake,” and to speak about his work.
What qualities do you find in film (and found film) — as opposed to digital filmmaking — that lend themselves to your method of assembling new stories and themes?
It is a very different process to work with images that already exist than with something you shoot. For me it has led to a more poetic/metaphoric way of working. When I am looking for a specific image then it is more similar to shooting, but many times it can be more transformative to re-contextualize an existing image.
And do you follow your instincts when going through the hundreds of reels you’ve collected — many discarded from public schools?
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For me, it requires some access and trust in my unconscious. Found footage also has this collective unconscious aspect to it, so there is a familiarity for the audience.
You’ve said that you didn’t think of yourself as a documentarian at first, but as new genres of the form gain traction at festivals and with distributors, you’re now more comfortable with the label?
Yes as a documentarian but also essayist, collage artist, experimental filmmaker, provocateur, entertainer and, not to sound presumptuous, at times a healer.
Are you more comfortable to be working without a producer so that you can experiment on a film until you’re completely satisfied with it?
Yes and no. I need the total freedom but I yearn for someone to help handle all the non-creative aspects of filmmaking, of which there are many. I think the “right” producer would be a godsend. Ever since my early films I do not consider a film finished until I am totally satisfied and feel I have done all I can do. I don’t want to later regret not waiting. I also never believed in having a pre-determined length to a film and I think many films suffer from this.
In all that time making adjustments, what insights have you gained about editing? It seems almost a mystical process to many filmmakers.
Absolutely, it is mystical, organic, intuitive and requires extreme perseverance to experiment and adjust. When the cut “feels” right you just know it.
Your endings are sometimes quite surprising, as in “The Phantom Limb,” inspired by the death of your younger brother, which considers how life might still go on in some way for those we mourn, using a passage from Victor Hugo’s “Le Revenant.”
It was in someone’s book that I was reading about grief and I just thought it was such a beautiful story. It seemed like a great way to end the film. To end a film about death with birth and like multiple births.
Your new project, “The Ants Are Still Burning,” is a follow-on of your film from 22 years ago, which examined sort of sociopathic behavior and a boy’s battle with his feminine side, right?
Yes, I am finishing a brand new short called “The Kodachrome Elegies” and am working on a proposal for the longer project you mention that revisits the unbelievable and bizarre experiences I had in making my 1994 film, “The Smell of Burning Ants.”
What can you reveal at this point about what happened?
It’s about the nature of trauma, of memory, a lot of layers — a revisiting of this film that had all these synchronistic occurrences in the making and in the aftermath.
As a filmmaker, what perspective do you gain from your role programming the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival?
I know it from both sides — how filmmakers feel and how difficult it can be to curate and all the variables that go into programming. Rejections are still hard — to receive and to notify someone else. I am particularly sensitive to this and it is especially hard when I know the filmmaker and respect their work.