Film, Interview

FIVE QUESTIONS: Filmmaker Ben Balcom


Celestial Object (2014) dir. Ben Balcom

While our focus here at Boston Hassle is, understandably, the Greater Boston area, it should go without saying that the rest of the state is filled with fantastic art events for those who know where to look– including independent film. Such is the case for Open Eye, a new Western Mass-based screening series focused on experimental and non-fiction film. This Sunday, Open Eye will present an evening of works by Wisconsin-based artist Ben Balcom at the Studio 4 gallery in Northampton, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker. We got the chance to speak with Balcom about his work, his influences, and the rewarding constraints of film.

BOSTON HASSLE: How did you first come to be interested in filmmaking?

BEN BALCOM: I grew up down the street from an amazing video rental store called Video Adventure. At a time when Blockbuster and Hollywood Video were still competitors, and video rental stores were still a thing, Video Adventure cultivated a more refined collection. Sure, they had everything your average moviegoer would hope to find, but they also had rare VHS tapes of art-house obscurities, carefully selected trash, and a wall in the back of the store devoted to the Criterion Collection. The clerks were young cinephiles, proffering their recommendations to eager youngsters such as myself. I started devoting a significant time holed up in my room, much to my mother’s chagrin, immersing myself in weird cinema. When they lent me a bootlegged copy of Un Chien Andalou, something clicked. I wanted to make something as perplexing as that! At the time I was studying jazz music and thought I’d spend the rest of my life trying to cultivate a musical practice, but something started to shift as my passion for cinema and storytelling grew.   

BH: What are some of the themes you explore in your work?

BB: It can be hard for me to find the language that applies uniformly to all of my films, but orientation has been a useful term in this regard. Each film is an exploration of different ways we orient ourselves in the world. As I understand it, the concept of orientation has to do with perception, communication, and the phenomenological connections we establish between ourselves and the world. Films such as Celestial Object and Ceol render the natural world uncanny and carve out a space for meditation and reflection. We also orient ourselves through narratives. How do we understand our relationships? Our connection to place and our sense of belonging? How do we make sense of the future? My more recent films Our Own Private Universe and Speculations borrow from fiction and genre filmmaking in order to investigate more complex systems of orientation.

BH: What mediums to you prefer to work in, and why?

BB: I tend to photograph all my films on 16mm film, due mostly to habit. It is the medium that I connected with deeply during my time at Hampshire College, and I have continued to work with it because it feels comfortable. I find that I respond well to the constraints of analog photography, and that the way I think through using these tools is very generative when conceptualizing a new project. My next project, for instance, is going to have a long sequence that emphasizes the flash of light that occurs when you start and stop and Arriflex camera. Sometimes, my ideas stem from the idiosyncrasies of the medium, which become small prompts for production. Most of my films are edited digitally these days. During editing, I can recover some of the freedom lost in shooting. Recently, I’ve been trying to introduce images and textures while editing that are specifically digital, such as found images, manipulations, and special effects. They are small moments of hybridity that interrupt our expectations of what the image can become. I used to place a certain philosophical investment in the medium, but I don’t anymore. The only thing that truly matters is the idea being communicated. Medium is mere preference. But there are wonderful ways in which the choice of medium and the idea can harmonize with one another.

Our Own Private Universe (2016) dir. Ben Balcom

BH: What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker at the start of their career?

BB: Cultivate a community. I think the most important thing to do is to realize that even the most individualistic type of art production is still a collaborative affair. None of the films in this program would have been possible were I not immersed in a community of friends and collaborators who would offer me honest feedback and discuss my ideas with me. Open yourself to criticism, and be ready to let your ideas change. I would recommend reading and watching as much as you can: watching because it’s so inspiring to see what other people are up to, and reading because you’ll find ideas here that might come in handy later. Make as much as you can, and don’t get stuck on any one project for too long. When you’re just getting started, try as many things as you can. Make something and move on to the next thing. I think a lot of questions get resolved as you move through projects and try to articulate yourself in different ways.

BH: What can one expect from the screening on Sunday?

BB: We’ll be watching eight short films made over the past five years. Each one is slightly different from the others. There’s a fair amount of abstraction. You might notice a proliferation of circles and an overabundance of language. There is one experimental melodrama and one science fiction film. The films attempt to sustain a productive confusion, so it would be best to ready yourself to zone out, get lost, and then snap back to reality as if waking from a daydream.

A selection of Ben Balcom’s works will screen Sunday, 6/10, at Studio 4 in Northampton. Screening starts at 7:00 PM, and will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker.

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