Interview with Filmmaker Sam Asaert (экзальтация / exaltation)

экзальтация / exaltation was the winner of BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY at the June 2021 DANCE Film Festival.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

A combination of three things motivated and inspired me to make this dance film. The first was the location. The space beneath a multilane highway overpass had been completely cleared for heavy-duty construction. Entering the construction site one evening inspired me to utilize the space between these massive rugged concrete pillars. The second motivational factor was Juliet Burnett. Aside from being a close friend of mine, she’s also a balletic tour-de-force and we’d been talking about making something together for a while. Her presence, her strength and her quality of movement make her a natural star.

Third, was Christopher Hill. He’s a former ballet dancer and now a talented choreographer, as well as a close friend of both Juliet and mine. When the three of us where able to spend some time together over the Summer of 2019, everything kind of fell into place and we decided to create this film. And so really, having the luxury of getting the three of us together — a dancer, a choreographer and a dance filmmaker — was the true motivation to create something.

Having a dancer as talented and as stunning as Juliet was of course a responsibility as well, as it necessitated the creation of a film worthy of how special she is as a performer, as a strong female artist, and as a soulful and mesmerizing presence. Knowing our standards, our work ethics and levels of expectations, we all knew that this film would be terribly demanding work — especially for Juliet who performed outside in the dust barefooted. But it was also tremendous fun!

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

The pre-production lasted just over a week. I provided the initial visual concepts and thematic narrative, influenced both by the location and by Juliet as the performer. The choreography that followed out of this thematic narrative, was created over the course of a week, with Christopher creating on Juliet and her adding traditional choreographic elements from her native Indonesia.

I would attend the rehearsals and give input regarding the relationship of the choreography to both location and — what would work on camera and what wouldn’t, within the chosen location and with what lenses. I storyboard every dance film I make and so I took a day to fully translate the choreographic language of dance into the filmic language of dance cinema. The film was then shot over the course of two days. The location was under heavy structural renovation, which limited us to shooting in the afternoon, when the construction was halted and we had the site to ourselves.

The post-production was a far lengthier process. It’s not immediately obvious, but this film contains quite a few visual effects shots. The dance film was conceptualized to start with an altering of the gravitational axis of the cinematic landscape, to symbolize the shift into sentience, and I wanted there to be a tranquil and slow-paced interplay between close up and wide shots throughout the rest of the film — the whole film is shot on a 200mm and a 500mm lens. What wasn’t initially conceptualized, however, and which I discovered after I had finished a first cut, was that the film worked a lot better if Juliet was in the center of the frame as much as possible. This allowed the eye of the spectator to flow with the choreographya lot more fluently. Mirroring the background became the natural way to extend the cinematic landscape in order for Juliet to be able to retain a centralized position. The editing and
post-production process therefor lasted several weeks in order for me to composite the necessary shots
and achieve picture lock.

Building the soundscape was a gradual process that I worked on as the edit progressed, so that by the time I had picture lock, there was a very rough sketch of what the soundscape could be. I approached Russian composer Andrey Dergachev for permission to use one of his absolutely mesmerizing music pieces and was elated that he obliged. His almost angelical score really lifted the film to new heights and in accordance to the atmosphere his music added to our images, I completely redid the soundscape within 24 hours.

From start to finish the production took about half a year to complete. But with the Corona pandemic happening, this process was a lot more spread out than initially planned. Shot in 2019, the dance film was only finished by the start of 2021.

3. How would you describe your film in two words!?

I would use only one: Exaltation…

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

Besides the obvious challenges of the Corona pandemic, the biggest obstacle was more of a creative challenge: to do Juliet justice. It’s easy to film dance, it’s hard to make dance cinema and create a cinematic experience that exudes the level of experience and sophistication of the dancer in every single frame. Dancers, and especially ballet dancers like Juliet, train their whole lives to achieve a certain level of physical prowess and artistic perfection — sacrificing much in the process. A filmmaker can undo those years of hard work and dedication by not knowing the choreographic vocabulary well enough, by being careless or unprepared or rushed, or choosing the wrong approach, the wrong angle, or the wrong take. When a dancer gives me their confidence to capture them on film, that always comes with a great responsibility. And that can be a daunting, but ultimately very inspiring, challenge.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

I was really touched to get such intimate feedback and such personal takes on our film. As an artist your raison d’être is to create, but no creation is truly complete without it being received by an audience.

So, it was absolutely lovely to see and hear the audience talking about Exaltation. Once a film is made it belongs to all who view it and it’s a real treat to get an insight into what they make of it, what they read into it and what they enjoyed. Hearing one audience member noting that the body can be “grotesque and statuesque in the same realm,” really resonated with me as truly delves into the meanings of this film.

In times of corona, where live events have been lacking, this was a real treat and I applaud you for organizing this!

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. When did you realize that you wanted to make films?

When, at the tender age of four or five, my dad let me sneak a peek at Gene Hackman chasing a metro train in the French Connection I was hooked on the medium of film. When around 10 years of age I saw the Alien trilogy by Scott, Cameron and Fincher (Jean-Piere Jeunet hadn’t made Alien Resurrection yet), I knew I wanted to make films. I’ve been blessed with very art-minded and liberal parents who allowed me access to a lot of films that perhaps are deemed too much for young children to handle, but that ended up impressing within me a deep love for the artistic world-building and the creative storytelling of cinema.

When at the age of 21 I saw my first ballet performance — The Return of Ulysses, by Christian Spuck
— I knew I wanted to make dance cinema.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

That’s a hard question, because when I get into a new film that I like, I watch it over and over to analyze and scrutinize. At this point I think it’s probably a tie between Ridley Scott’s Alien and Andrey Tarkovsky’s Zerkola (The Mirror). Though Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario and Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us are hot on their trail at this point…

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are your feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

I think platforms like FilmFreeway are a great way to democratize film festivals and create direct accessibility between curators and filmmakers. Over the years FilmFreeway has allowed me to build up a steady relationship with several international (dance) film festivals, something which would have been a lot harder without. For one, FilmFreeway is a centralized hub on which you can seek out film festivals far and wide, from larger and more prestigious film festivals to smaller niche festivals. And second, all communication can be done through one platform. I’m a big fan!

9. What is your favorite meal?

Having lived in Iran, I am an absolute sucker for Persian cuisine. On any given day I’m down for a nice, homecooked Gormeh Sabzi. Which is the most delicious and succulent herb stew.

10. What is next for you? A new film?

I’m currently in post-production for another interesting dance film project. I can’t say too much about it at this point, but it’s a truly cinematic and riveting translation of a choreography by one of the great choreographers working in ballet today. It’s a set of different movement phrases for ten dancers. The dancers where filmed performing individually in front of green screen and will be composited together digitally, into an artistic and poetic mosaic of evocative ballet.

I’m also in pre-production on a personal project of dance cinema. It’ll be about the juxtaposition between the natural, nurturing notion of growth and the manmade, violent notion of growth. Currently I’m working in tandem with the choreographer and making some conceptual storyboards. It is poised to become a truly cinematic pas de deux for two female ballet dancers. I’m looking forward to sharing both projects with the world within the coming months…

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