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BERLINALE 2020 Forum

Viera Čakányová • Director of FREM

“I deliberately reduced any human element in the ‘narrative’ to the bare minimum”

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- BERLINALE 2020: Slovakian filmmaker Viera Čakányová talks about the constraints of anthropomorphic thinking while she was preparing her experimental sci-fi documentary FREM

Viera Čakányová  • Director of FREM

Slovakian filmmaker Viera Čakányová has unveiled her experimental sci-fi documentary FREM [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Viera Čakányová
film profile
]
, shot entirely in Antarctica and bearing the subtitle “requiem for the vanishing species of Homo sapiens”, as an international premiere at the 70th Berlinale, in the Forum section. The film attempts to reflect the current situation where mankind is starting to realise its unimportance and evanescence in light of the evolution of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, while also testing the limits of anthropocentrism. Cineuropa talked to Čakányová about the experimental nature of her documentary and the methods she used while trying to break through the anthropocentrism barrier.

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Cineuropa: You work primarily in documentary, but FREM is a combination of documentary essay, video art and cinematic experiment. How did the film come about?
Viera Čakányová
: I would not say I work primarily in documentary filmmaking. Up to now, I have been working rather on genre hybrids between documentary and fiction filmmaking, and I have also enjoyed experimenting with animation. In the beginning, I have a topic, and I try to find an adequate cinematic form for it. In the case of FREM, it was a years-long process of maturation and distillation.

Earlier material concerning FREM described a more conventional storyline with four characters. How did the film evolve so as not to have any human protagonists?
The film’s topic was maybe defined a bit too broadly in the beginning: transgressing the biological limits of mankind through science and technology – maybe artificial intelligence, but also genetic manipulation and other medical methods that tackle the process of ageing. It was then pared down to just artificial intelligence. I occupied myself with the topic for so long as a human, from a human perspective, that I started to imagine how the film could be made from the point of view of a non-human subject as the main character.

How did you emulate the “thinking” of artificial intelligence? Did you somehow apply a neural network to the footage while preparing the film?
We tried hard and very intensely, sometimes. It was painful because we are just people (and creators). So it was a constantly exhausting struggle against the limits of human imagination – especially to stop anthropomorphising, which is actually impossible. In the sound design, we experimented with granular synthesis and other methods to achieve the algorithmic decomposition of the sound material. Sometimes, the experiment generated interesting results, but mostly it did not, and human creative input was needed anyway.

I thought about the possibility that the film could be edited by an editing algorithm, as such “programs” do already exist. The reasons why we didn’t do this were ultimately pragmatic and were related to both time and production activities. Another argument was that it would probably not have led to us creating an audience-orientated film intended to be shown in theatres. I would like to experiment with these possibilities, but the fact is that the current stage of development of these algorithms is not yet generating very interesting results. However, we are not so far from the day when a film could be made and edited by some autonomous form of artificial intelligence. Another thing is, why would autonomous artificial intelligence do such a thing at all? It probably wouldn’t care about an activity like this, but that’s hard to say.

The shooting process itself seemed like a huge adventure. How did it go?
I can imagine preparing a fun travel lecture about it, as people care about exoticism and extreme conditions. In short, our experience and the problems we encountered on the location of the shoot have nothing to do with the final film, since I deliberately reduced any human element in the “narrative” to the bare minimum. I, as a human, experienced intense feelings there that I captured on a tape recorder and a second camera. Maybe it will lead to a separate, complementary film sometime – recounted from a human perspective.

You will continue to explore AI and other new technology in your next project, The Fruit of Wonder, in relation to governance and dealing with the climate crisis, but you are also opening up to more complicated topics, such as man’s place in the age of AI. Why do you think these topics are fitting for the medium of film?
I don’t think these topics are especially suitable for the medium of film – quite the opposite. But these are simply current topics that interest me, and I have not yet exhausted all of the possibilities of expression that are available through the film medium, which is the only one I happen to use. At the same time, I think that an era is coming when man has to confront the relatively painful idea, or accept the eventuality, that man does not have to be the dominant player on this planet or in this universe. It began with Copernicus when he came along with his uncomfortable discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not vice versa. That was actually the first blow to our anthropocentric way of thinking, and then came Darwin and Freud.

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