BUITENHUIS: GUNS, GIRLS AND GUERRILLAS
INSIDE THE PLEASURE DOME:
FRINGE FILM IN CANADA 1997
Penelope Buitenhuis is a Canadian independent filmmaker who
has been living and working in Berlin for the last decade.
She has produced and directed fifteen
short films in Canada, the US, and Germany and has a couple of features to her
credit. Her new narrative works are set in the ghettos of urban centres -- New
York, Berlin, Toronto, Vancouver, and Rome -- and are edited so that the West
appears as a single, vast necropolis of decay, neglect, and ruin. As someone
who consistently shows her work in a number of different countries, she understands
the limitations of linguistic address. Her work relies, instead, on a symbolist
ethos, training its lens on a variety of counterculture punks, drop-outs, and
outsiders. These are angry tales from the outside, filled with bad girl attitudes
and a romantic lean toward revolution. Inveighing against police violence, atomic
weapons, and state control, Buitenhuis has knit together a series of dramatic
encounters between stated and stateless, set in the ruins of history and the
failed project of Western civilization. Working primarily in super-8, Buitenhuis
posists a cinema of resistance and protest, lending voice to those left behind.
did you learn about filmmaking?
PB: I tried to get into a school in Paris, but my residency
papers didnt come through at the last minute. As a contingency
plan, Id applied at Simon Fraser University because I heard
it was one of the few schools that didnt follow a commercial
vein and they paid for your filmmaking. I never had any money,
so if I was going to do it, I had to do it there. I never considered
movies an art form, I just went for fun, like every other kid.
When I was eighteen, I got this education about European film and
realized there were other possibilties. I was outraged that I hadnt
even heard about this work. I think its still true, that
unless you live in the privileged artistic world, you dont
hear anything about it. After the course, I went to Paris and got
involved with some documentary filmmakers and caught the bug. I
also realized that Paris wasnt the place to be a female filmmaker.
I wasnt interested in being an actress, and they could never
understand why I would want to learn anything technical. Editors
and script girls are about the only roles open for women in Latin
countries. Its very much a mans world. Canadas
the same, but Germany has women working in all facets of filmmaking.
MH: Tell me about They Shoot Pigs Dont They? (15 min
PB: I started making Pigs when I came down to San Francisco
in 1987 to show political documentaries from Germany about the census.
I dont know if you heard about it here. Its an obligatory
census that everybody had to fill out about their income and personal
statistics, and if you dont comply theres a five hundred
mark fine. It posed questions about what the government should or shouldnt
know about your personal life. I wanted to demonstrate to America this
enormous resistance because here we tend to give out information so
willingly, without knowing how its going to be used. On the way
from Germany to show these documentaries, they wouldnt let me
into the States. They were very suspicious about the tapes. In the
end, they found me in the computer, and it turned out there was a warrant
for my arrest for some car insurance thing five years before, which
I didnt know about. I was handcuffed at the airport and taken
to the police station, and basically, that started my rage against
the police. That summer Id been stopped by police a number of
times and taken in for ridiculous reasons. Charges were always dropped,
MH: This was in Germany?
PB: In Vancouver. I felt there was a real tendency in Canada,
more so than in Germany, towards a kind of vigilante police activity.
If the guy didnt like your face or the way you talked or if you
said what you thought about things, then it was quite easy to have
false charges laid against you. Im a white middle-class person,
so I can imagine for others it must be a lot worse.
was ironic because I was coming to San Francisco to show how the
computer is used against the individual, and thats just what
happened to me. Theres quite a strong anarchist community
in San Francisco, and I asked some people if they would like to
make this film with me. Thats where I started shooting. It
was an ongoing process for the next three years, making bits in
New York, Berlin, and Vancouver. I didnt ever write a full
script. I adapted it as I went along.
I wanted to show that certain portions of society never get media access, and
that the only way to get it is to forcefully take it. The other thing about
the film is that in Germany, particularly, theres a nostalgia for revolutionary
images: the Baader Meinhoff, Che Guevera, the fist, the black flag. All these
things that are constantly re-used in demonstrations and leftist rhetoric.
I feel those kind of symbols and Down with Imperialism rhetoric
are no longer applicable today, and that a new form of resistance has to be
developed. Constantly recalling this sort of nostalgic imagery of revolution
makes it absurd. The main character in the film, Yvonne, the black woman, is
surrounded by these posters, and shes obviously a part of this imagery,
affected by it. At the same time, shes never lived a revolution in her
generation, so in a way its a dream thats never been fulfilled.
triggers events in the film is the killing of this man Keane in Harlem
by police who claimed afterwards he was a crack dealer. But neighbours
said hed never been involved with crack; he was an accountant.
The cops said they found a vial of crack in his larynx, which everyone
claimed they planted after he was killed in order to justify his
shooting. In They Shoot Pigs, the Women Attack Pigs Revolution
begins with a takeover of ABC-TV and begin a national broadcast that
reads an anti-Pig manifesto. Police everywhere become the targets
of this revolutionary coalition. Eventually some members get hurt,
and the revolution is called off to avoid any more bloodshed. The
remaining members hijack a plane to Germany to start again. In the
end, the film fails because its not clear enough. In a way
it becomes a slapstick comedy about revolution. They end up hitting
police on the head with sticks, but what Im really getting
at is that these ideas of takeover are really not feasible anymore,
MH: Within the organization of the revolutionary group a very
distinct hierarchy is set-up. There are a couple of people who talk,
and the rest follow orders. Yet one of the things theyre fighting
against is exactly this alienation of duties and responsibilities.
Theyre protesting a lack of media access which has become too
centralized, which we can only passively accept into our living rooms,
and yet this same kind of top/bottom split exists within the group
PB: Anarchys idea of all leading all is nice,
but this quickly becomes chaos, so, in a sense, I criticize the idea
of anarchy as much as dictatorship. In the revolutionary groups of
the past there were leaders. Thats the only way it could work.
In non-urgent situations, collaboration and non-individualism can function,
but in situations of direct action, I dont think it can. Part
of my mandate in making films is that, because I dont pay anybody,
I allow them creative input as compensation. The women reading the
manifesto made a lot of changes to it. They decided on choreography
of the guys behind them, and the costumes they wore, for instance.
I didnt tell them to wear black bras; thats how they showed
up. I said, Youre supposed to be tough leaders -- interpret
that how you will! Some feminists feel uncomfortable with that
representation, but thats what those women chose to do. I did
the same with the soundtrack: I gave the Rude Angels, a band from Berlin,
free rein. I would go in every couple of days and listen to it, and
if I really didnt like it, I would talk to them, but basically
I didnt tell them what I wanted.
MH: Guns are a recurrent motif.
PB: For me its amazing that they could take guns away in America
and drop the murder rate by half. Guns are such a cold way of killing, you
dont need any physical contact. In Europe, a lot of people are uncomfortable
with Americas use of guns. People I would never imagine have them in
their homes. The gun is an admission that youre prepared to kill.
MH: You show Keane murdered in the film.
PB: Thats the one element that actually happened, this guy was killed,
and for that reason I made it quite graphic. Its not a revolutionary
dream; he died unjustly at the hands of the police. Not to forget.
MH: Most experimental film has very little to do with violence.
PB: Is it a collective denial? Perhaps theres enough violence
in other forms of representation that we can leave it out of ours. Pigs takes
place in New York, which is a very violent city, and the cops are everywhere
showing their cocks, their guns. Its there in the papers everyday.
But Pigs is also a criticism of revolutionary forms, because
violence creates violence. Any revolution that tries to undermine a
system often ends up using the apparatus theyre fighting, and
Im against that. Unfortunately, though, to fight you often have
to use the same method of destruction.
MH: Its a real quandary for makers -- whether to use a
form people can understand, like narrative for instance, and then have
it appropriated by the mainstream. On the other hand, you can find
a different kind of form, which quickly leaves most in the dark. How
does your work function -- who would see a film like this?
PB: Generally Im a kind of packrat filmmaker. I just take
my films around, as Im doing now, to the Euclid or the MOMA or
the American Institute of Film in Washington. I move them myself, since
my experience for short films and no-budget films has been that there
isnt a lot of incentive for distribution companies to push them.
Theres no money in it.
MH: But do you see the films working as a form of direct action?
How do they function politically?
PB: The reaction in Europe has always been very interesting
because, although I live in Germany, much of my work is based in America
and American culture. Even people in alternative cultures have a certain
image of America which I think is incorrect. They assume a very glossy,
complete picture, so people are often surprised at the decaying ghettos
in my work. But most insight comes out of discussion rather than in
direct response to the work, because when I show my films at six at
a time its a real overload of information and images. People
are overwhelmed. Response comes when we start talking.
MH: Tell me about Disposable (14 min super-8 1984-86).
PB: Its about disposable North American culture, an ironic
idea for Europeans because theyre surrounded by tradition and
history. They dont even realize how much tradition plays a part
in their understanding, and those that do suggest its an impediment
to your freedom of thinking, a weight theyre forced to carry. Disposable is
set in an America which has turned its brief history into a throw-away
culture of television and magazines which fosters a cultural amnesia.
That leaves museums and institutions as the places of our public memory,
and I feel uncomfortable with their agendas. If youre in Paris
or Berlin, the shape of your space, the architecture, the statues and
monuments, are a constant reminder of what went on before. In North
America its difficult to remember anything.
MH: From a European perspective, North America was
founded on removing our indigenous people. Our foundation is already
one of erasure and genocide. Disposable takes up this question
of the custodians of memory. You show two men, one arguing for the
importance of the past, the other lost in the present.
PB: Both have validity. Europeans envy America because an intuitive
response to image making still seems possible. But I dont think
were children; its not possible to be naive or to go back,
any more than it is for the Europeans.
MH: Your filmwork is also straining the traditions of a certain
kind of experimental film work.
PB: Even though I really enjoy working in an experimental vein,
when I took my films around to places that didnt necessarily
have educated film audiences, I would lose them when it became too
obscure or experimental. I want to form another kind of narrative,
a new narrative thats not linear in its juxtaposition of sound
and image, and tries to disturb the typical formulas of narrative film.
I want to make it entertaining for people to watch. I dont want
to lose them. Im very much against this tendency in North America,
with its endless superimpositions and text, where I lose whats
going on; it becomes intellectual masturbation. Maybe it works for
other filmmakers, but my purpose is not to preach to the converted.
shown just about everywhere, in warehouses, cafés, and out-of-doors,
really trying to reach other kinds of audiences. A lot of peoples
response is, Oh, weve never seen stuff like that, this
is really strange, I never knew work like this existed, and
thats what I want to get at. I want people to realize there
are other ways of telling stories or talking about issues or presenting
opinions, but I think its necessary to maintain a certain
narrative line. So, in the last six years, Ive turned much
more towards narrative.
MH: What about the people who say that your work casts off the
tradition of fringe film entirely, that theres nothing left of
it anymore, its not experimental, its something else?
PB: Experimental means in any form or way in which
you wish to make it. Experimental lies outside mainstream form and
beyond that, Id say its free rein. At the Experimental
Film Congress in Toronto (1989) there seemed to be an accepted definition
of what constitutes experimental film, which I found shocking. How
could there be? How could it continue being experimental if
it could be pinned down with words? Curiosity about the forms of communication
has dwindled because its not so new any more, and a lot of people
are fed up with obscurity. At the Experimental Film Congress I really
sat back and wondered, What were they saying in that film? I
didnt understand some of the work, and Im an educated film
goer, so I can imagine for the uninitiated it must have been totally
confusing. Im not suggesting you need to dictate what youre
saying, but why do you make images? You want to bring something across
to people. You dont want to leave them totally confused when
they leave. I think new narrative is a way we have to go now to be
able to reach an audience that is fed up with experimental obscurity
or endless superimpositions or layering text. Im trying to make
experimental film fun to watch, and I dont think thats
such a bad thing!
formal film experiments seem increasingly to emerge from a certain
kind of privilege, that has the time to worry about things like film
as film. As well the increasingly academic and institutionalized
context for work is heading production off in a certain direction.
PB: I agree. Im continually surprised at the similarity
of films in Canadian festivals. At the Insight Festival in Edmonton,
all the documentaries took a form that was in tradition of the National
Film Board; the experimental work took a very obscure academic form,
and when I showed my work, people were really shocked because it didnt
fit. Although people think German film as being innovative, they dont
have nearly the history of experimental film that we do in America.
Its not institutionalized like it is here. Generally film schools
teach you how to make film, rather than film theory, and as a result
theyre not so patient with experimental forms.
MH: One thing thats different between your work and other
German fringe films is that many makers have a strong aversion to language.
Long stretches of work will have no dialogue or titles, whereas North
Americans seem obsessed with text. Your work is relatively wordy when
compared with German work.
PB: As an English-speaking person in Germany, I have a different
relation to the language, even though I speak German. Many sounds provide
a non-verbal dialogue. I think sound is an international form of communication
-- triggers thoughts and associations. But particularly in Germany,
where languaged has been abused by Hitler and other orators, filmmakers
are wary of their own language. Words dont seem the same now.
English can be brief and succinct in a way that isnt possible
in German; it doesnt have the same freedom of juxtaposition.
In English, you can put words next to one another in a stream of consciousness
which is understandable because the words have an integral meaning
in themselves. But in German, each word is very dependant on the words
surrounding it. So you cant free it from its history. Because
Im not German I look at the way theyve put their language
together -- like the word geschlectsverker which means
copulation, and it is the word schlecht, which means bad,
and verker, which is traffic. I used to think it meant bad
traffic. But they cant see that the word holds its own
moral. When youre in your own language you dont realize
the way the language has been impregnated by culture, the way your
mouth shapes understanding. Or Leidenschaft, which means
passion, and leid is pain. The Germans never notice, of
course, just as we dont. In the same way, experimental film is
concerned with the form, of how you do something, and when you make
the form strange youre able to see it, until the form becomes
too strange and you cant see it at all.
MH: Tell me about Indifference (20 min super-8 1988).
PB: That was shot in New York and Toronto with Samantha Hermenes.
Shes so talented but never uses it, so I invited her to New York
to make a film. We wrote the script in a day and shot it in two. We
wanted to show that city living requires an indiffernce to the horrors
you see around you. I still get tears in my eyes when I see the bag
ladies in New York. But to survive you have to build up a certain disregard
in order to remain optomistic and creative. So this woman sees a lot
of ugly things which she ignores; theyre an everyday occurence.
She passes a murder, a dope deal, arguments, and corpses. Shes
even blasé about her personal life -- her apartment is trashed,
she gets kicked out -- but nothing really gets inside. Then it turns
out that these events have been planned by a guy who is trying to inflict
his paranoia on her. Hes bothered by the fact that she can live
without being affected. All these things that have happened to her
have been set up for her to see.
PB: Yeah, its very much to do with constructing a film.
The paranoid guy is like the filmmaker whos saying all these
events were no accident. She says shell stay indifferent and
survive. Some say thats a call for apathy, but I dont think
MH: The paranoid suggests to her that all these circumstantial
events -- the murder, the dope deal, the person lying dead on the sidewalk
-- are coming from one place. They make up a narrative in which shes
implicated. This is related to her in the form of a letter which she
opens at the end, detailing the events of her day, showing their origin
in the word. This letter has the form of a script, and this person
then becomes analogous to a filmmaker.
PB: Most filmmakers are paranoid about understanding. Thats
why they make dramas.
MH: Two things in her apartment seem to offer her some degree
of comfort: her parrot and her mirror. I think theres a distinct
narcissism at work; shes able to escape from her surroundings
in the image of herself.
PB: Shes an extreme case. After shes cut off the
world, all she has left is herself. The mirror falls because the violent
argument next door, and this splintering of the mirror shows the outside
world really stepping into her life, breaking her image. Thats
when she gets the angriest.
MH: Theres a suggestion that there is no inside, that
its impossible to be alone.
PB: Thats why it all continues even when she gets home.
The neighbours are fighting, the landlord boots her out, the paranoid
telephones. In the film, I use a heavy soundtrack by Mechanik Kommando
because in New York you never escape the noise. I couldnt live
there because of the overwhelming sound. Youre never out of New
York when youre there. All my films are shot in ghettos, decaying
parts of the world. Its not random where I shoot or whos
in them. Fighting the Hollywood image thing is impossible, but despite
their image overdose, people come out of my work with some sense of
the unjust, fragmentary, dirty, decaying world. A lot of that has to
do with the soundtracks. For far too long, sound has been secondary
to image, but I try to bring it forward, to make them equal.
MH: Which film is shot off the television set?
PB: Combat Not Conform (4 min super-8 1987). Its
basically a summary of activities and
demonstrations. Now its irrelevant because Reagan is in it. The demonstrations
were against nuclear plants, which were only good for money in the end. Inside
all of this a few people are trying to fight for something fundamental: no
nuclear weapons in our country. I wanted to make an image of this resistance,
to show its still possible.
MH: You made a film about the Berlin Wall coming down.
PB: Its called Llaw (9 min super-8 1990) which
is wall spelt backwards. Its a personal diary about the days
leading up to, and succeeding, the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. I
was in the woods of British Columbia this summer, writing a script,
and I kept seeing via satellite all these reports about the mass exodus
from East Germany. Everyone said to me, You should be back in
Germany, its really exciting, but I wondered what difference
it would make. It was deeply ironic sitting ten hours from any city
and still seeing images of what was happening at home, or what I call
home. I returned to Berlin on the third of November, and showed this
in the film via pixillation.
On November 4, there was a demonstration of one-and-a-half million people in
Berlin Alexanderplatz, which was broadcast on East German television, and they
were saying extremely subversive things, that the government should step down,
theyd had forty years of oppression and now it was over. Writers, intellectuals,
and poets spoke to the crowd. I watched it with a number of people whod
escaped from East Germany, and they were stunned at what was being said on
television to the whole country. We knew then that there was no turning back,
that it was just a matter of time. The broadcast said it all.
On November 9, the wall came down -- I was on my way to a concert of Faith
in the War. I heard the news on the subway at 7:00 p.m. and everyone started
shouting. My equipment was locked in my apartment, which had been confiscated.
I was having personal problems, so I didnt get my camera until November
11, so visually I shot off the TV and shot a lot afterwards.
November 10 begins a metaphorical dialogue between East and West. Its
set in the hallways of Brittania House, and revolves around the idea that weve
been enemies for forty years, but all of a sudden weve decided none of
that was necessary anymore. We see the camera move into a room where a couple
beat up on each other and kiss in the end.This is intercut with images of 1961,
when the wall went up and images of today, when guards are standing atop the
wall and people are handing them flowers. Thats the power structure metaphor.
The next day is November 11, photographed in the next hallway. Its about
East Germans getting 100 marks when they come over, the whole money game. Inside
the room, a business man opens up a suitcase filled with money and tries to
give it to the same woman as before, now dressed as a typical communist. [laughs]
Shes reading a book and tries to ignore the money, but eventually she
takes it and stuffs it in her pocket and eats bananas. Bananas became a symbol
of capitalism and exoticism because they didnt have bananas in East Berlin,
so when they saw this fruit in West Berlin...
MH: They went bananas.
PB: Exactly. The third scene had to do with the marketing of
the wall, the selling of freedom and democracy. An American consortium
offered fifty million dollars to buy the wall, but I dont think
theyre going to get it now; both British and French Museums have
stakes. The whole world wants a piece of history. Theres not
going to be much left at the end of it. I call it the pet rock of history.
The last section shows a woman lying in front of her TV. An American survey
taken after every major broadcaster was talking live from the Brandenburg Gates,
showed that after five minutes most Americans switched the channel, so history
brought the ratings down. [laughs] The films about the media spectacle,
cashing in on the change of borders. The last statement goes: History
makes me suspicious; who will be the next enemy? Its about the
artificiality of politics.
MH: When the news reports started coming in about the wall,
I imagined all the filmmakers I spoke with in Berlin beginning to make
work about it. The wall would create a whole new genre of filmmaking.
No sooner did I get back than you arrived with Llaw.
PB: Everyone was there with a camera, looking at everyone else
who was there with a camera. A lot of people were chipping away at
the wall, which is a crime because the wall belongs to the East. At
the beginning they tried to arrest a few people, but in the end they
gave up because everybody was doing it. Its not that easy to
get a piece because cement doesnt chip that well, and the only
people who made a profit are the ones who came with jackhammers. West
Berlin became horribly crowded, the subway was impossible, the shops
were filled, the smog was unbelievable because the East German cars
have no emission controls, and everything was sold out. So, all of
a sudden, your normal everyday life was like New Delhi. A lot of West
Berliners were fed up with the whole thing just in practical terms.
I left on Decmber 23 and it still hadnt gone back to normal.
Friends of mine were disturbed because theyd spoken up in the
past and had to go to prison or leave as a result, but when a mass
movement begins, everyone sings along. My friends from the East are
looking at all these right-wing assholes who never said anything before
and wondering whats up. The reforms are good but does that mean
Eastern Europe will become another capitalist stronghold, another market?
Theres a striking juxtaposition between the events in Eastern
Europe and the American invasion of Panama -- is this the freedom everyones
MH: The real question is -- what kind of shape will an oppositional
force assume? How is it possible?
PB: There was a crazy euphoria thats still going on in
a way. When I go back Im going to show my work in East Berlin
and take my bike into the countryside. But the artistic world is frightened,
because Berlins peculiarity came in part from being surrounded
by a wall; it had something special. The strangeness of its circumstance
brought many international artists to Berlin. Thats over now.
Everyones wondering how the culture of Berlin will survive.
MH: How did you find your way to Berlin?
PB: In 1984 I made a film about squatting in London, Amsterdam,
and Berlin, Alternative Squatting (15 min super-8 1984). I was
fascinated, and it was really cheap, and where I was living at the
time, in Paris, it was very expensive and there was little alternative
culture. So I moved to Berlin. There arent many places that have
a strong alternative movement with an audience and press. Berlin is
fantastic. Super-8 in Berlin is respected; I get a whole page in the
newspaper about my work. People are really curious, and I never found
that anywhere else. Its cheap to work, theres a co-operative
mentality, theres not a hierarchy of importance. Theyre
more interested in what youre showing, not the format. Now Im
quite well known, and theres the possibility of doing longer,
more expensive things. Everythings possible there because in
Berlin there are no rules. I think Germans are quite open to seeing
different kinds of work. I dont think thats true in Canada.