IFF Panama: Laurie Anderson – Making ‘Heart of a Dog’ Opened Up a New Language for Me

Artist talks about her latest movie, differences between live concerts and film

Laurien Anderson
© Laurie Anderson

PANAMA CITY — Laurie Anderson’s thought-provoking cine-essay “Heart of a Dog,” centered on her late beloved terrier, Lolabelle, will screen on Saturday, April 9, at the Panama Film Festival.

Commissioned by French-German broadcaster Arte and acquired by Abramorama and HBO Documentary Films, “Heart” had its world premiere at Telluride and has screened at multiple fests including Venice, Toronto, New York. The pioneering artist talked with Variety about the film and her visit to Panama.

Could you talk a bit about your experience of touring with the film to different parts of the world?

This is the first time that I’ve followed a film to different festivals, and it’s really been a lot of fun. Above all, I’m learning about people and filmmakers. It’s really great to have conversations and just hang out with them.

Why did you want to show your film in Panama?

It’s not a part of the world that I know and I wanted to see who is there and how film works in that part of the world. I’m curious to see how the film plays in other languages and to other audiences. Strangely, film has such a different function in each country. Lots of countries have a very established tradition when you go to the movies, others are still experimenting with new things.

Is screening a film very different from staging a live show?

Ultimately, it’s not so different from a live show. Obviously, I don’t have to be in the theatre while the film is being screened. But there’s the same weird connection because the work is originated in the dark space of a theatre.

It’s like a spoken theatre work that is translated into another form. It’s the opposite of a concert film, which was my main previous film experience, with “Home of the Brave.” That was complicated because there were two audiences – those who came to the concert and those who came to the film. With “Heart of a Dog” it is a re-created work, for a different kind of audience. You can adjust the sound, especially if it’s shown in a good theatre, to make it like a concert sound, but there’s a different link to the audience. In a weird way, I felt a lot of contact with the audience.

Did making this film open up new creative avenues for you?

Everything I do is a one-off event. I like to do what I can barely do, that’s a lot of fun for me. I didn’t come into this thinking ‘I’ll do a big feature film.’ I kind of slid into it. But it was great fun to do. Making the film did open up a new language for me. I’ve often worked in shows with multiple images. But they’ve been shown at the same moment in time. For example, having five simultaneous images projected on stage. They tend to be loop-like images. About half of the images used in “Heart of a Dog” are also very loop-like, that I could easily use in a concert. For example, images of driving in a car and watching trees go past. Or images that seem to be almost blank. Like the clear blue sky. They give your mind a lot of room to wander. I’ve also included certain narrative sections. But there are very few. It’s a film that’s meant to get people thinking. For example, the film explores childhood ideas of freedom, and we hear a complicated story about a guy who used to climb up trees and liked to live in trees. Nowadays, he would have been institutionalized. But in our town that was fine. As you hear his story, all you see is telephone poles going by. It’s a very challenging film. It asks the spectators to use their imagination.

What’s the difference between using images in a live performance and in a film?

This was really the first time that I was able to control all the sound and image elements with real precision. In live shows they’re more improvised. You can’t shape and edit them. In a film, you can cut the image right in the middle of a word. The element of timing gains even greater importance. That made a huge difference of course.

Did making this film enable you to explore different points of view?

Of course. In a film you get to see things from different perspectives and from different people’s eyes. Suddenly, we’re in a dog’s body and seeing things from a low angle. Then we jump to a high surveillance camera, which is similar in resolution – since neither CCTV cameras or dogs see very well. Sometimes it’s a little bit confusing, but I hope in a very interesting way. It was great fun. I didn’t have to show everything through my own point of view. There are lots of different perspectives.

Did the film make you feel even closer to your late terrier, Lolabelle?

Absolutely. As I was making the film, I had to think of what she saw and how she saw it. And it made me feel even more empathetic.