Jørgen Leth hates being called “a multimedia artist,” but the fact is that “filmmaker” doesn’t really do him justice either. Now 82, the Danish polymath has a number of strings to his bow, including poetry, journalism and a passion for sports and cycling that means he truly believes is most famous in his homeland for being a TV Tour De France commentator.
Leth arrived at IDFA in Amsterdam for two reasons: the first was to collect the festival’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award to celebrate 56 years of making films that defy categorization (his most commercial effort being 2003’s “The Five Obstructions,” made in collaboration with Danish enfant terrible Lars Von Trier). But Leth was not just resting on his laurels: he also came to compete, with his latest film “I Walk.” Assembled from journals and random footage snatched on his iPhone, the film documents the fallout from a serious earthquake that destroyed his house and whole swathes of Haiti, Leth’s adopted homeland, in 2010.
The film shows the impact of that cataclysmic event on Leth’s health and his psyche, as he comes to terms with old age, ill health and his own mortality.
Variety sat down with him during IDFA to discuss these issues and more…
“I Walk” has been a long time in development. When did you realize that you had enough material to make this film?
When my son told me. The earthquake was a very traumatizing experience, of course, as you can see in the film. I was unable to grasp what had happened, and everything was in slow motion in my mind. But the one thing I that could understand was the instinct of documenting myself in that situation, which is part of the film. And my son Asger came over to visit me, as he did a lot. He still does every year. He’s a filmmaker too, and he said, “There’s a film in that—you should continue shooting.” So that’s where I became aware. I had the feeling already that this was more than just a note, but I didn’t really know for sure.
I’m always writing notes. I use it for my poetry—it’s almost unchanged from notes to finished work. And I believe in a spontaneous process for everything. So, for me, notes are essential. But I didn’t think of this as a film before my son told me. So, from that moment, I became more conscious of it. But, even then, I was just documenting daily things, daily practices, daily happenings et cetera. And then continuing to shoot on the iPhone. And it became clear to me, also, that the fact of shooting on an iPhone was a realization of some ideas I had about the simplicity of constructing a story. I mean, there’s no storyline here. There’s no script. It’s just an adaptation of notes, one after another. I’ve always been closer to experimental art, in painting and writing et cetera. So for me it was a confirmation of this basic idea that experimentation leads to sense, leads to understanding. So I continued that way, because it was an inspiration for myself.
Why did you use an iPhone?
Well, I don’t want to make a commercial for it, but it was really a big experience that it worked so well. I mean, I’ve never used a film camera myself. I always worked with great cameramen. I worked with Dan Holmberg on many films, and with other cameramen, like Henning Camre on “The Perfect Human” et cetera, but I never shot a film with a film camera myself.
So, for me, this was perfect, because I felt that this was something I could do without further professional training. I could just do it. It’s just a matter of imagination. It’s just a matter of believing that you can shoot crazy things and you can frame in crazy ways. And I always liked images, I’ve always been working very closely with camera people. I’m interested in photography, but not as a practitioner of photography myself. So in this case, it became natural for me.
And that on another level it made a lot of sense for me, because I when I teach film, I always talk about “the personal film”—I always told young people to do personal films. Here, it was evident for myself that I could do a very personal film in shooting on an iPhone. The iPhone is just an extension of your arm or your eye.
What was the editing process like?
It was not concentrated in one period, it was edited over several periods. And it was almost the structure of the film itself. Some periods were spent intensely working with [editor] Jacob Thuesen, in Denmark. Other times I was sitting in Haiti, and I was not directly in touch with the daily editing. I learned many years ago that sometimes it’s best for me to delegate part of that process to editors. And in this case it was great, because there was some very innovative editing by Thuesen. But there was also a lot of discussion, because the material became enormous. I was always afraid of forgetting some of the material, and at the same time I didn’t always make notes about everything thing I’d filmed, so I couldn’t remember exactly what I had. But that was part of the fun with this process.
Well in some ways that’s the theme of the film: letting go.
Letting go. Yeah, that’s a very important part of the thinking behind this film.
Obviously it’s a personal story, but did you intend it to be so personal about your state of mind, and where you are in your life?
Yes. Well, I have two related tracks in my life. I write poetry and I make films. And I was at that stage, I chose to have a new clarity and simpleness in my poetry, which I wanted to have also in my filmmaking. So, yes, I felt I was ready to go that far. And I felt that with this idea, starting with the experience of the earthquake, would lead to a new way of seeing my life. So, yeah, I thought it would be a very personal film. I was not ashamed of that.
You’re being presented with a lifetime achievement award here at IDFA. How do you feel about that?
[Laughs] Well I’m happy about it!
Are you ready to look back? Can you already see where “I Walk” fits into your filmography?
I look back at my work with some satisfaction, I must say. And I think it makes sense. I mean, if you look at my work as a story, I’ve always been working with my own passions. I never made films about something that others said was important. And I always made a point out of choosing things that, in the literary, world, was not interesting, like sport. Sport is not something that is regarded highly in the cultural world.
So I have been faithful to my own fascinations, and that has been my point of departure every time. And when I look back at my work, there’s a story in it. First of all, I’m honest to my fascinations. I never did a film that I didn’t want to do. This has always been carried by my curiosity towards life in general, curiosity, but then also personal taste and personal desires. I’ve always been asking questions. I’ve always said, when I’m teaching film, that curiosity is the most important ingredient in good work. Curiosity, always. I think I’ve done that. And then I think when you see this last film—it’s my new film, I will not call it my last film—it’s a confirmation of that.
Do you have any plans for another film yet?
Well, that’s a natural question. I mean, I could end with this film, in a way, I’m drawing a conclusion to my work in this film. But it’s not my intention to stop now. I want to go on. I have other ideas, and the idea that I think I’ll work with right now is a new version of “Good and Evil,” which is a feature film I did in ’75. It’s an essay about life, an organization of life into good and bad things. Very stylized. Lars von Trier made it very famous. Somebody asked a number of well-known European directors to choose a favorite film of their country, and Lars von Trier chose mine, “Good and Evil.” That was very important, because the film had been almost neglected by the public and wasn’t very well-regarded by the critics either. But Lars von Trier’s praise meant they made a new print of it and it was on the European festival circle for a while. He gave me new recognition many, many years after, and therefore, it’s natural that I also think that he should produce it. I think he would like to be involved with that, and I would like to renew that connection, because I think it was fun to make “The Five Obstructions” with him. I think it was fun. We became friends out of that. I also have an idea about a film with a jazz musician. I’ve already shot parts of it with some great American jazz musicians. Lee Konitz is in it. The Danish guitarist is called Jakob Bro and that’s already … the material is already there. It just waits to be edited. I have a few projects, but this “Good and Evil” is going to be interesting.
How do you divide your time with your poetry, your film, and your sports interests? Are you a very regimented person?
No. No, I’m not. No. I wish I was more regimented. Sometimes, I find it difficult to have the discipline to work. I’m lazy and I’m slow, also, at times. I like slowness as a principle in art also. I like slowness, but my own slowness is a problem.
Do you have any ambitions that you have left unfulfilled?
That’s a hard one. I just want to continue or finish my career with dignity. That’s my most important ambition. And, at the same time, be close to the friends, the people, my children and people I love. That’s all. Simple.