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by Olivia Creamer
June 10th, 2014

A film by the surrealist artist Man Ray called “Emak Bakia,” which means “leave me alone” in Basque, inspired the filmmaker Oskar Alegria to retrace Ray’s footsteps and create a documentary about his journey. As he travels along the Basque coast, Alegria takes many detours, creating a documentary that goes beyond Man Ray’s story. The “search” refers to all aspects of “Emak Bakia,” as Alegria is more interested in the journey, not the destination. We spoke with Alegria about how Man Ray’s path informed his own, and how he stayed true to his own style while paying homage to “Emak Bakia.”

The Search For Emak Bakia screens THIS FRIDAY, June 13th, on the roof and in the courtyard of The Old American Can Factory. Get your tickets online or at the door!

Rooftop Films: Why did you use slides instead of doing a voice over?

Oskar Alegria: It was pure accident, as most of the great human inventions are. Penicillin, champagne, calvados, viagra, LSD…all of them were discovered by involuntary mistakes. Man Ray trusted in mistakes, failures and accidents. His famous rayographies were born when somebody suddenly switched on the light in the laboratory and the objects left by chance on the photography paper printed involuntary. The main eurekas are out of our control. I began working with slides and written texts like in silent cinema because I didn’t speak french at that time, and I needed to make a first cut of the film to show in France. That was my accident. But that personal lack opened a world full of possibilities for how to use the silence. You can’t make a film about ghosts with your voice over, you need to put in your breathing.

RTF: How did you decide which moments to recreate? Was there a distinction between the moments that you decided to split screen and the moments when you layered the two films on top of one another?

OA: That’s like a dance, it depends on the melody. The film is a dance between two sets of footage, Man Ray’s film and mine, shot with 83 years of difference but in the same places, and sometimes it was one film that set the pace, other times the other took the tone, maybe sometimes one stepped on the other. When time is the melody player, the screen is split and you see the distance in years between the two images: for example Man Ray’s characters are full of vitality, they move nimbly, whereas mine are in their last years, so they follow their predecessors limping and with some difficulties. When space takes the lead is when the two films are layered one on top the other, like sea waves that are filmed in the same beach but with almost a century of difference, the color and the black and white move together in a unique water dance.

RTF: There were a lot of close tight shots of hands–is this particular to your style? Was the general style and structure of the film imitative of Man Ray?

OA: I love films made with the hands, particularly films that show pictures held by hands. You see the picture or the photo, but at the same time you see the hands that hold them. It’s much more related to craftsmanship skills than to artistic ones. Handmade movies are human movies, with all the imperfections and flaws we were talking about before, more if they are also foot-movies. Emak Bakia is a search for a mysterious house made by feet, walking and wandering around the Basque coastline. It is only by feet, with that human rhythm that you are able to discover the treasures that are hidden in the corners and ditches beside the path, that’s more important than the goal or the finish line. It is not the same for road movies, not even for a bike movie, as they both go too fast. It is only at human speed that you realize the importance of taking detours and drifting from your objective. Let me give you the headline for this interview: ‘Speed is the death of small stories.’

RTF: Why did you decide to make a film about Emak Bakia? How long did it take?

OA: It took me three years, and I decided to do it because of the Basque expression that is in the title: Emak Bakia. As I am a Basque speaker and passionate about the Basque language I wanted to know why the hell Man Ray decided to use our ancient expression for naming his second film. I also wanted to baptize a series of sculptures that show the top part of a cello with horse hair disheveled as broken cords. They are also called Emak Bakia, which in Basque means “Leave me alone!” For Man Ray that was a gift from the heavens, it was the name of the house where he spent his holidays near Biarritz. Think about that: a house called “Leave me alone!” He was captivated by that. Firstly, the sonority, so respected by the dadaists, of that AK AK repetition in EmAK bAKia. Secondly, the mystery of a language like ours, the most ancient of Europe. Mostly the meaning of the phrase: “leave me alone,” it was perfect and it was like a motto for his artistic purposes: I want to do whatever I want, so leave me alone! When he premiered his film in Paris, he said that some critics told him that his film was not a film because it didn’t tell a real story. Man Ray used to respond to that: ‘Emak Bakia, so leave me alone.’

RTF: Why did you choose to start and end with the clown? And how do you think it compliments the Emak Bakia narrative?

OA: In my research and wandering, I found by accident the tombstone of a clown in the cemetery of Biarritz, with his portrait dressed as a clown on it. It is one of the most powerful images I have ever seen, a clown looking at us from the beyond. By chance, one month after I found the tombstone an Italian circus company came to my hometown, Pamplona, with an show that talked about the death of clowns. Incredible! They were performing a play with Fellini as the main character because the Italian filmmaker loved clowns and in his film about them, called The Clowns, he asked a lot this question: “But can a clown really die?” So, I saw that was a great detour to take out of the path on my way to the house Emak Bakia. As I have said, my film and trip is full of meanderings and detours, it is constructed wandering aimlessly, like a tribute to the curve, an ode to drift. So that was a great chance for another swerve and I took that secondary road to try to know a bit more about the immortality of clowns. And the detours, magic and chance, who, let’s say, are members of the same family, guided me again to a clown in the end of the film.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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