Interview with Filmmaker Jess Irish (THE MORTAL PLASTIK)

THE MORTAL PLASTIK played to rave reviews at the November 2021 WILDsound Festival.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

For the last five years, I’ve been active in bringing a critical awareness to shale gas infrastructure (aka “natural gas”) in New York State through a collaborative design project I run with my partner titled Visualizing Pipeline Impacts (vzpi.org). It’s a terrible form of energy at every single stage, from climate impacts to community health, to plastics production. It is the feeder for most of the needless single-use plastics both here and abroad. While I began with the design to take a critical look at the broad “making of” plastics, I decided early on to approach it from a more humanist, philosophical lens. Despite seeming like a really boring problem, plastics are genuinely a phenomenal substance, as are fossil fuels, which is why we can’t stop using them. It’s important to acknowledge this, I think, before asking the hard questions of what costs we bear in our over-use of them. For plastics, it’s a pretty crazy story — to literally go from nowhere to everywhere in one human lifetime. The more I learned, the more awesome and terrifying the scope of it became. Ultimately I decided to consider “what’s at stake” for me on a personal level, and I chose my daughter’s love of whales and the ocean as the departure point for this. When I wrote it, my mother was also in the final months of her life, though we didn’t know it at the time. Hence, the theme of mortality.

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

I began in June 2020 and finished it a year later. At least five months was spent on the research, and my own visual wanderings of how I might tell the story in a relatable and engaging way. I spent a good two months writing it, one month storyboarding it, and the last four months making it.

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

“poetic provocation”

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

Definitely figuring out the approach: how do you make a compelling film about a subject that seems incredible uninteresting? I didn’t want to replicate what had already been done very well in environmental documentaries such as “The Story of Plastic.” Instead, I wanted to consider the element of time as a departure point, to explore the strangeness of it as a phenomenon and be playful with how this unfolds.

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

Wow, I felt so incredibly validated and humbled. All of the intentions I set for myself — to have it be playful as well as serious, to let the viewer make their own connections, to bring in a mix of genres — were appreciated by everyone who spoke about it, which is really so rewarding for me to hear. It’s really hard to work so hard on something by yourself (which I did during the lockdown) and then have an online film festival offer zero feedback, so I really really appreciated hearing audience reactions.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

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

My background is as a visual artist, and I still Identify that way. I’ve worked in many forms fo media, but found myself drawn to film after getting my second MFA in poetry. I had written a lyric essay that needed a visual delivery, and so I created it as an “animated film lyric” — which isn’t really a thing, but should be. After it screened and got some awards I realized ‘oh, these are experimental documentaries.’ I’m interested in playing with how documentary works, how hybrid writing can shape a different kind of film experience.

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

Fantastic question! It is probably a toss up between “Hair” (Miloš Forman, 1979, the film version of the 1969 musical) which I watched obsessively with a friend one summer, and “Man with a Movie Camera” (Dziga Vertov, 1929), which I love screening in my beginning time-arts classes. Both are just so gorgeous, utopian, fun, and weird.

8. What other elements of the festival experience can we and other festivals implement to satisfy you and help you further your filmmaking career?

What I love most about being in festivals is having the chance to see other films and being about to talk with other creatives after the screenings. To me, this seems to be one of the main points of connections festivals offer.

9. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway. How has your experiences been working on the festival platform site?

Super. I love that it is very easy to submit.

10. What is your favorite meal?

Hm, I would have to say a really excellent Japanese meal is hard to beat. Even cheap places have a good aesthetic experience, and it is always delicious, fresh and healthy.

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

I am currently gestating something ocean-related that came out in my research for This Mortal Plastik. It will likely take form as another film, but am doing with more reading, writing poetry and also making oil paintings. It’s tough to always be on the computer, rushing to make the next thing. I want to take my time and slow down. Right now I’ve started a series of plankton portraits, which is really fun and a new challenge for me. I’ll eventually post them on my site: http://www.jessirish.com

By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival www.wildsound.ca

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