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Spectres of Shortwave: An Interview with Amanda Dawn Christie

Amanda Dawn Christie is an interdisciplinary artist working in film, video, performance, photography and electro-acoustic sound design. In 2014, she received Shaw Media-Hot Docs funding for her first feature documentary Spectres of Shortwave, an experimental documentary about the Radio Canada International shortwave towers. The film uses images captured on 35mm film over four seasons and is accompanied by multilingual stories; it ends with the demolition of the historic site near Sackville, New Brunswick. We caught up with Amanda the day after a work-in-progress screening for Spectres of Shortwave in New York. 

Hot Docs: How was the screening yesterday in Brooklyn?

Amanda Dawn Christie: It was great, it was a good crowd. We had a really nice long Q&A and feedback session afterwards, which was really useful. This is the third time I’ve done that—I get a film to a certain point and then I like to show it to an audience. What was great about this was being in New York. It’s an audience that’s not familiar with my subject matter, so to show it to an audience in New York where no one knows the site and get the same kind of reception it’s gotten in Moncton from people who are really familiar with it was really good.

HD: When you do a screening like this, do people give the constructive feedback you seek, or are they just really nice and encouraging?

ADC: It’s a blend. People do tend to say positive things, but for me to get the most out of it, I have some questions for them. Though hearing people’s initial reaction is good because I get to hear what stands out to them, because it might not be the things that stand out to me. There were a few little specific things that I was struggling with, so in order to get the really honest feedback I have to ask direct questions, but it is a tricky line. There have been a few suggestions people have made where you say, “Ok that’s nice, but I’m not doing that.” I take everything with a grain of salt.

HD: You started developing this project five years ago. It must get harder and harder to distance yourself.

ADC: At least five years ago, because it was borne out of two other art projects that I started in 2008. So it was even longer that I started doing research. I was doing interviews for this art project and as I did them I thought, “Oh my gosh this is a film, I need to make a film.” I’m the producer, director, camera operator, cinematographer, editor and sound designer; I’m doing everything and that’s where things slowed down post-production. I did a cut and then I thought, “I need to step back and I need to hear how it’s resonating with other people.” An important part of the artistic process is that things never turn out the way you originally plan, you have to allow them to change, and I think I was feeling too married to the original treatment and I need to open it up to look at what I actually had and what it should become. 

HD: Can you talk about what Spectres of Shortwave is to you at this point?

ADC: I consider this an experimental documentary, and it’s an observational film. There’s a lot of slow, exploratory footage. What you’re seeing, the machinery, equipment, is never really explained to you, you’re discovering it the way I discovered it when I first when to the site and walked through. Meanwhile, you’re listening to stories told by locals, and it’s laid out over four seasons. What’s changed is that originally I was going to really cut those stories up and abstract them, but they’re really beautiful stories and even as I’m editing I like listening to them. I never meant the film to be as narrative as it is, but it has developed a narrative. In theory I was supposed to be done the film there, but when I started filming they announced they were tearing the site down, and I thought it would be horrible to finish the film and have the site be demolished two months later without documentation. So I wound up staying on stand-by for a while. I didn’t do much travelling, I always stayed in New Brunswick because the towers could fall at any time.

When it came time for the demolition they had to accept bids from different demolition companies. In fact, I looked into making a bid to possibly buy the site. I was kind of naively hoping they’d sell it for a $1. They were very generous in that normally you would never be allowed to film a demolition site because they’re afraid of people catching accidents, but because I already had this long relationship with them, they knew me, they knew that my film was more about the towers, and trust had been built up. The demolition took three months and it was brutal. It was tricky to film too because I was shooting 35mm film—a thousand feet for like 10 minutes—so trying to figure out what to film and what not to film was difficult. Everything else I had filmed I could really take my time to frame it up, but this was really my first experience documenting an event. I went through so much film. The demolition crew would be there 7am-5pm each day, and I would show up at 5am to get my camera ready. There were several days I stood in the freezing cold all day and nothing happened, but other times they’d drop three towers.

HD: You almost seem to really suffer for footage. For instance: getting night time-lapse footage on film by manually advancing the shutter, all night long.

ADC: I wanted to have a few night sky time lapses, where the red lights of the radio towers would stay still while the white stars in the sky would move past them.  However, my camera, an Arri 35mm BL4 isn't compatible with any intervelometers that allow you to set variable exposure times. There's an inching knob inside the body of the ArriBL4, but you can only access it by opening the door, which would expose the film. So I found the place where the inching knob was positioned when the frame is open, and I marked it with a little piece of tape, so I could feel the position with my fingers. Then I set up my camera just before sunset, and put a changing tent over top of the camera, with the lens sticking through one arm sleeve, and my arm in the other sleeve, so that I could have the door to the camera body open without any light getting in.  My hand could move the inching knob inside the camera body. It wasn't the sort of set-up where you could just walk away, it involved me sitting with the camera, manually advancing the film with my hands all night.

I set myself up in a chair next to the camera, with one arm inside the tent and my hand on the inching knob, and the other hand controlling my iPhone. I set my iphone to ring an alarm every 30 seconds so I could advance the shutter. This allowed me to get one 30 second exposure every 30 seconds.

Each time lapse involved me sitting up with the camera for about 8-12 hours doing this process all night. It was gruelling as it was relatively cold on the nights I chose, and in spite of being bundled up in warm clothes inside a military surplus sleeping bag, I still wound up being covered in wet dew by morning when the sun rose.  It was quite exhilarating however, to be up all night, and to be able to literally touch the film inside the camera as I was capturing these images. I wasn’t certain that the process would work, but was pretty sure. In the end, the images turned out great. 

HD: Can you talk about what inspires that level of devotion to the art form and to analogue? It’s very pervasive in your work.

ADC: A lot of my interest in my art practice is the relationship between the human body and analogue technology in a digital age. In an age where we can do things easily, what does it mean to work with older equipment?  A lot of people ask me why I don’t just shoot digitally. Analogue is a different look, but for me it’s also a physical exertion. I also come from a dance background, and lots of my performance work has to do with exertion and risk. My 35mm camera weighs 40 pounds without film in it, and without a tripod. I think that affects the outcome of the imagery more because you’re more cautious. You don’t just shoot randomly, you have to think: “Is this worth it? Is this shot worth what I’m going to do to my body to get it?” I don’t start rolling unless it’s amazingly breathtaking shots. It’s got to be perfect.

There were definitely times when I was filming this film, when I thought: “What am I doing, who am I kidding, is this really worth it, is anyone going to want to watch this?” Especially the days I was filming in a blizzard and the RCMP had closed off the highway. I got my climbing certification, and insurance, and I climbed two of those towers. I didn’t take the 35mm camera because I couldn’t quite figure out how, so I went with go-pros, and the footage just doesn’t match. I looked at the footage and went, “Well it’s just not going to go in.” 

HD: Prior to the demolition, did you plan for a conclusion to the film, or was that not even a consideration because it was going to be more experimental and didn’t necessarily require an ending?

ADC: Well exactly. I have difficulty with the beginning, middle and end structure of traditional filmmaking because I feel everything in life is middle. There are no real beginnings and endings. So in some of my films, those I show in an art gallery, almost nothing happens. I’m really interested in presenting experiences rather than story art. When I was seeking funding I was referring to my influences: Michael Snow’s Wavelength or James Benning’s 13 Lakes, which is an observational landscape film. The general public might not be super into these types of films, but there is an audience for that, and it’s a beautiful type of filmmaking that I like.

When the demolition was announced obviously that was an ending, and I was really conflicted. Partly because I don’t want the towers to fall, it’s a really important infrastructure and a huge loss. But partly because it added a lot more weight to my project and I felt a little bit crushed by that. Do I now go really mainstream, make it really accessible and pedagogical? Do I make this an educational, informational documentary? Or do I stay true to my vision of the more experimental experience of a doc?

HD: This has been five years in the making, all the while as a one-man-band. Is there a desire to be free of it now, or are you sad to let it go?

ADC: It’s very close to being finished, but emotionally I want it to be over. This project has been incredibly emotional exhausting. But I’m not going to let it go until I’m really, really happy with it. The fact that I work alone and run my own production company, I have the liberty to take risks, which is privilege, but it’s also sometimes a curse.

HD: I’m sure the isolation had its benefits for this type for film.  

ADC:  I did have some really amazing experiences I wouldn’t have had if I was working with a crew. At a certain point I was camping by the towers; I had a tent literally just on the outside of the boundary. I would camp in the marsh, and it was just beautiful. It was just a privilege to have that reason to be out in nature for so long. I’m all alone out on the marsh, me and my equipment. There were so many animals around, like deer, foxes, pheasants, rabbits, owls, etc. When I look back I’ll probably be nostalgic.

HD: Did you film the interviews as well?

ADC: No, and I think what was nice about not having a video camera was people felt more free. People forget about a microphone pretty quickly. In one instance a man is telling a story about when he proposed to his wife, they were driving along the highway and passed the towers on the way to tell his parents he was getting married, and at that moment knew they were on that right track and that life was coming together as it should, and he starts fighting back tears. I don’t know if he would have done that if I had a video camera. There’s something so powerful about hearing people choking back tears, but not being able to see them when you can hear the emotion in people’s voices.

HD: Were you surprised that people had so much to say about the towers?

ADC: That’s how the film started. I think the most endearing interviews were the first ones I got at that fall fair. It was an agricultural fair with a corn maze and goats. I had no idea I was going to be doing a film at that point; I was working on another project. Then when I went to the site, the technicians were just amazing. The film opens with an interview with a woman who is 98 years old. She was there when it first opened in 1944 and she married one of the men who worked there in 1950, and then he died of cancer. She was actually a young girl when the site was built, so that was a really precious interview. She’s probably 100 now. I was told in September that she is still alive so I really want to finish the film in time for her to see it.

After my last shot, the demolition crew had left, I was on the roof of the building. I filmed this pan around the field of all the towers that had fallen, and they were like dead bodies lying there in the snow. There was nothing left to film, so I’m packing up the van and just before I leave I think, “This is probably my last time on this site.” The moon was out and the stars were out, and everything was reflecting off the snow. This was the first time there were no red lights. I walked out to the last tower that had fallen, and I can’t really explain it, but for some reason I just felt compelled to lay my hands on it. Immediately I was overcome with emotion and just wept. It’s kind of embarrassing. It’s an inanimate object but it’s as if the molecular structure of the metal had somehow retained the memory of 70 years. It was as if there was something dying. I stayed until it kind of dissipated. Whatever was just here had gone. I felt like I had to honour it, just standing there in the snow. I went and got in the van, drove back to Sackville, unloaded the film and sent it off to the lab and that was it. It’s one of those things that will only ever come up in a Q&A. It was something, definitely.

Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo. 

Categories: Director's Notebook


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