At a press party at last month's Tribeca Film Festival, I had the chance to speak with Geoffrey Alan Rhodes and Steven Eastwood, co-directors of a bizarre quasi-documentary called Buried Land. The movie is about three ancient pyramids, even older than those in Egypt, that some people claim can be found beneath three large hills in central Bosnia. Think of the supposed vortexes of Sedona, Arizona, on a grander scale. Geoffrey and Steven told me that they made the film because they wanted to explore why people will persist in believing unprovable, even irrational claims in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Their film has been called "an inventive hybrid of fiction and documentary." I found it both fascinating and disturbing on several levels. Last week, I followed up our conversation at Tribeca with an email interview. I thank Steven and Alan for taking the time to thoughtfully answer all of my questions.
How did it feel to be making a film in Bosnia, a place that, not long ago, was savagely torn by war and ethnic strife? How did you deal emotionally with the skepticism you faced from some of the locals?
I think the war is more recent in our minds in the US and the UK, because that's really the last we heard of Bosnia. As you can see in the film, we worked with a group of 15-year-olds that had no real memory of the war, and were instead interested in the new possibilities of travel in a unified Europe. That said, of course the war, and in particular the major diaspora it brought about (both internal to Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia and those that left the region entirely), is omnipresent. We traveled there, both in our research trip and during our principle photography, with a student from Buffalo, Dalibor Stare, who had emigrated when he was a teenager at the beginning of the war and was now acting as our production assistant and translator. He had grown up very near to Visoko and hadn't returned many times. In many ways we experienced the effects of the war and what Bosnia is now through him, and in fact his ambivalent encounter with his home country (was his allegiance with the Western outsiders or with a community he had become estranged from?) formed the basis of the fictional character we developed. The skepticism we encountered from the Pyramid Foundation and from the locals really only had to do with the Borat accusation in a national newspaper. We went to great lengths to rebuild trust in that period. Having a Line Producer, Assistant Director, and Casting Director from the town helped. We had a pretty open and inclusive way of shooting, so we were able to adapt and work some of these inevitable tensions back into the frame of the film.
I thought the film was most engaging when you explored the reasons why some of the citizens of Visoko want so badly to believe that the pyramids are real. Why did you choose to make a partly fictitious quasi-documentary instead of a traditional documentary? Why did you choose to give two actors -- playing Emir and Adam, the only non-locals in the film -- such key roles?
There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, when we came across the news story we were instantly interested in this phenomenon of a community changing their identity very rapidly around something that might be fictitious. We always knew that we would be coming at this as outsiders, and we constructed our ideas of what story to tell around this -- a story told through an outside lens, a story of outsiders coming to town and seeing. Secondly, we felt that a documentary would have to get caught up with sorting out the facts and fictions of the pyramid discoveries, because fact is such a basis of that genre, and we wanted to instead focus on the people and the inscrutability of the subject.
How much of the film was scripted as opposed to a more cinema verite approach?
We did the Kiarostami method, where we scripted the narrative but not the lines. We worked from an eight-page document that planned the sequence of scenes and the basic journey that our actor, Emir Kapetanovic, would take: people to meet, places to see, general actions to take, and the story arc (essentially a return home story, with a gentle rise and fall) for his character. We kept this loose and added what came our way, rewriting during principal photography. So, for example, the scene in the nightclub we developed after spending an evening at that club and talking to the owner. We understood that a scene there could take place within our narrative as part of the cathartic night after Emir's film shoot, and so we planned it for one of the final shooting days. Other contributors like the Imam and the Farmer evolved in a similar fashion. For example, for the Imam scene, we had given Emir some general points and directives about diaspora and faith, but we were not permitted inside the mosque, and so the conversation took its own shape in spite of us.
It seems to me that, like Fellini's 8 1/2, your film is a movie about making a movie. During a few scenes, we can see and hear Emir giving direction to the participants, and there are several screen tests which at times strain the patience of some of your subjects. Why did you choose to emphasize the movie-making process by including these in the final cut?
8 1/2, Stardust Memories, Closeup by Kiarostami, and especially many of the films of Andy Warhol -- these were all in our heads while we were developing the project. One reason we were interested in a self-reflexive form is that Steven and I both come from art backgrounds -- making work for the art gallery as well as for the theatrical space. I think we both believe that there is a certain power in self-reflexive work -- that, by not using the standard production practice of repressing all the aspects of production going on during a shoot, you can represent a certain integrity and freshness in your subjects that is otherwise elusive. As well, we realized that filmmaking could stand in for the issue of seeing and belief in the film. Like this community that has come together around an image of a pyramid they haven't seen, filmmaking is a group of people that come together around the idea of creating an image that no one in the production has ever really seen. The casting scenes were a direct reference to Warhol screen tests (Emir's big and failed film shoot day is also a reference to Warhol's Kitchen). These scenes were very carefully constructed using shallow depth of field lenses to evoke an ethnographic or National Geographic style portraiture whilst shoring up all of the discomfort we feel at these kinds of points of view. In these scenes you are given the face of the other, of "Bosnians," but you are also made to question why you are looking in this way, or certainly why media looks in this way.
Toward the end of the film, a conversation between Emir and Avdija reveals her dissatisfaction with the staged Fellini-like carnival scene atop the Pyramid of the Moon. Was the true point of your film to illustrate the difficulties facing documentary filmmakers when deciding how much to get personally involved in shaping the story? This aspect of the craft fascinates me.
It's interesting that you picked up on that scene. This was one of the few scenes where we used a technique also used by Kiarostami in some of his car conversations. Avdija was speaking to Steven, telling him what she thought of our film and our filmmaking, especially around the time of the defamatory newspaper article, and then we shot Emir to cut into that scene. So she really was, in a sense, talking directly to the film. The two of us both find ethnographic film very problematic. Documentary film that represses the ambiguities of place, people, or set of events in favor of a clear narrative and a feeling of authority is troubling. Especially considering our subject matter, we wanted that ambiguity evident in the film itself.
Your film seems to reflect an honest self-examination, a hard look at what you got yourself into once you were committed to the project. As I asked the directors of Sons of Perdition, another film at Tribeca, were there times during the making of the film that you doubted that you were doing the right thing?
There was a really dramatic turn of events the first week we arrived to shoot. The week before, a journalist had printed a story on the front page of a national weekly that claimed Buried Land was coming to Bosnia to do what Borat had done to Kazakhstan. The story was based on our website, where we described the project as combining fact and fiction and real people with a single actor. As well, the reporter was reacting to a trailer we had produced that featured some of the "war torn" parts of Visoko, and he was reacting to these similar to the way the Chinese reacted to Antonioni's Chung Kuo, Cina. We had to repair our relationships with all our contacts there in Bosnia, especially the Pyramid of the Sun Foundation, and promise that we weren't making a film whose goal was parody. During this time we also received a response from the ethics committee at the University where Steven teaches in London, which was asked to review our project, in which they stated that our project was essentially unethical. We came to the conclusion that film, in general, especially factual film, is always in essence unethical or at least ethically challenging, and how our film was going to negotiate this was by making that evident within the film.