CONVERSATION BETWEEN CRITIC ALEXEY ARTAMONOV AND DIRECTOR MANUELA MORGAINE FOR THE SITE THEORY&PRACTICE
“For me, the lightning-hunter is the embodiment of the cinématographe.”
Manuela Morgaine, on Lightning
Lightning is a four-hour long myth that expertly mixes reality and fiction, lightning, psychiatric depressions, the story of Symeon the Stylite, the legend of the aphrodisiac truffle Kama, and the writings of Marivaux and Bertolt Brecht.
On 22 June 2013, a one-time screening of Lightning was organized at the museum of Multimedia Art as part of the Mediaforum Program (International Festival of Moscow).
It took director Manuela Morgaine nine years to complete the film.
In this interview for Theory&Practice we’ll discuss melancholy, lightning-hunters, and the relationship between science, legend and poetry.
In your film, lightning expresses a great many things: it is a metaphor for destiny, love, healing, and for all the energy that courses through our existence, bestowing life and taking it away. Tell us how you happened to choose this theme.
Between 2003 and 2004, I went through something of a black hole, a sort of inner death. It is too personal to go into, but I can tell you that a political event radically changed my life. It was like an eclipse: I lost all ability to distinguish colors, I saw everything in black and white. I didn’t think I’d ever come back to the light or to life. I was haunted by the 1939-45 period because what was happening to me related back to that period.
The cinema saved me. Since no one believed my story or the cruelty of what was happening, that it could kill me, kill my family, I picked up a little video camera and I filmed what was happening. Each week I brought the footage to the police, and afterwards I turned it into a film. In order to minimize the risk, the film was screened anonymously, but it changed my life and freed us from this persecution: this film turned out to be a force greater than justice. Filmmaking became a way of life for me, a way of breathing, of surviving. After that experience of melancholy and the sense of a cosmic black hole, I was given the opportunity of writing a radio piece for France Culture on the theme of energy; so I chose the most powerful energy there is – and that’s how I began my work on lightning in 2004. The title of this radio piece was The Electric Sky. It was while working on this sound piece that I met lightning-hunters and I immediately fell under their spell.
In that piece I had already made the connection between lightning and the coup de foudre – in French the pun is obvious. In English or Russian we say “love at first sight,” but the French expression suggests an actual electric shock. I also knew electric shocks were, in dire cases, used to treat melancholy, and combining these themes seemed self-evident – to understand how the body and mind can be touched by lightning, each in its own way.
Even after finishing the piece, the subject still fascinated me and so I continued meeting lightning-hunters throughout France long before I had the idea for a film.
I needed a voice able to convey the intensity and force of the subject – I approached rock star Rodolphe Burger about being that voice. His deep baritone, his rock ‘n’ roll eroticism was the perfect embodiment of Baal, the god of lightning.
Baal, the film’s narrator, is also a lightning-hunter, and numerous shots of lightning were probably recorded by other storm chasers. In your opinion, what makes these people tick?
One day I met Alex Hermant, a storm chaser, and he became the hero of Lightning, the embodiment of the Baal character. It was he who gave me the idea to make a film – he spent a week showing me photos and moving images of lightning from thirty years of archives. It was a powerful revelation, an intense creative exchange. I saw him like a sort of Bill Viola, a talented video artist who didn’t know the value of his work.
Baal is the god of lightning in ancient Syrian mythology and that’s why the film’s hero bears his name. Likewise Saturn lent his name to the character of the psychiatrist. The film was intended to become legend and I gave mythological names to all the characters.
Who are these lightning-hunters? Terrible lovers, for one, since lightning is their only true passion: it is both their wife and mistress, their dream and their fantasy and, above all, an obsession. They risk their lives to “possess” it. The only people I have met who are haunted in a similar fashion are God freaks. They live in another reality; that’s why the power and excess of this kind of passion can only be expressed on film. In this film I could use footage shot over a thirty-year period by a lightning-hunter, and then dematerialize him on-screen, since he preferred to appear in the film only through his shots of lightning. The lightning-hunter is for me the embodiment of the cinématographe, compelled by a passion for sound and image. He goes after the source of the cinématographe by capturing light. All the lightning-chasers are the Lumière Brothers. For them the pursuit of this supernatural phenomenon is the search for the movement of life, the quest for an invisible god. They aren’t religious, but deep down they are mystics. Thanks to Alex, to Baal, I was able to experience an aspect of this quest.
The film’s structure is complex and circular, divided into four seasons. It allows room for a documentary investigation of the case of the lightning-struck, the eastern legend of a sacred aphrodisiac truffle, musings on the psychotherapeutic potential of electricity, a play by Marivaux and a poem by Brecht. How did this cosmogony come to be?
The film’s structure corresponds to the zigzagging shape of the thunderbolt. For the lightning to leave one point and reach another, it must propagate outward, and expand its own borders. Lightning is not a straight line. The sky is vast and it encompasses the entire history of life and all the countries of the world, which is what enabled me to bring together all of these different periods: ancient Syria where the first electroconvulsive therapy was carried out by Galen, a doctor from Asia Minor, using a torpedo fish; then a 17th century play by Marivaux, Haydn’s music, rock, Brecht, an so on.
The sky is a universal, eternal phenomenon, which enables us to travel freely through space and time. It unites science and mythology, it contains its own cosmogony within it. I gave the film the structure of a legend, meaning I wouldn’t have to choose between a documentary or fictional form. A legend is both of these at once. The seasons allow the film to interweave different stories and colors within a single narrative form, like Tarkovsky’s Andrei Roublev or Kieslowsli’s Three Colors, for example. I preferred to break the film up into seasons rather than parts, both because lightning is a meteorological term and because our existences are divided into seasons. It’s a way of delving even deeper into legend.
The chapter devoted to depression seems to be at the heart of the film, in opposition to the rest – like the high and low-pressure zones which provoke storms; a comparison is drawn between depression and black holes. It seems that, while working on your film, you even wrote a book about melancholy with psychiatrist William de Carvalho (Saturn in the film). Can you elaborate?
Pathos Mathos (the expression is taken from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon) literally means “learning through suffering” but I translated it as “passion guides my destiny.” Indeed it is at the heart of the film as you so rightly pointed out. Clouds surround the soul in autumn (Baal), and invade it in the winter (Pathos Mathos). At the end of the film, during the summer (Atoms), the separation of two lovers appears to astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet in the form of a black hole. He is a famous scientist and specialist of black holes. It was essential never to lose sight of the fact that lighting is a rift in the sky and that we’re all the children of the sky, atoms, infinitesimally small particles, which can disappear at any moment.
Melancholy is a state of intense awareness and inner invasion. The shots of the dead cow at the beginning of the film accompanied by the excerpt of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal are there to remind us of our mortality, and that the light exists only in our eyes. That is all we need: to keep our eyes wide open. We are like the character of Danté’s Divine Comedy, we are holding a torch. I think the torch is our vision. In antiquity it was believed that light was engendered by the eyes. I feel close to that representation, I like the idea of the gaze, of staying alert, of the lookout.
We are lightning bugs.
By working with Dr. William de Carvalho on the book on melancholy, by probing deeper into this domain of human experience, by shadowing his patients, by observing how melancholy disappeared, I learned to combine cinema and reality, I learned to get a sense of other people, to get into their skin and emotions. That’s how I had the idea of filming the sharks in the aquarium. One of the patients, whom I called “Madonna of the Sharks,” told me she suffered from melancholy. She didn’t want to go scuba diving anymore for fear of “running into her melancholy underwater”– that’s why this image is present in the film. All the images expressing melancholy were invented by patients themselves. I came up with ways to film the pictures which emerged from their minds: it took several years before these patients trusted me enough to share their feelings and their imaginations. The same thing happened with the electroconvulsive therapy sessions. Neither the patients nor their families would have given their consent if I hadn’t spent years at their sides telling them about the project: I shot alone, without any crew. I brought the footage to them and we talked. The choice of the planet Saturn wasn’t an accident – it’s a cold planet and a symbol of melancholy.
While working on Lightning, you studied a great many documents and organically wove many into the mythology and poetics of the film. What is the relationship, in your opinion, between science, myth and poetry?
Poetry is a language that attempts to convey visions. For me there is no division or contradiction in these different approaches to human beings. The best we can do is to link them, as you did, by the word “organic.” Perhaps Lightning is an organic film and in this sense it connects science, mythology and poetry. Because poetry is, in my view, the most organic language of all.
Man lies somewhere in between science, myth and poetry. We are particles, atoms, blood, semen; we have veins; our hearts are drum machines. We have origins, the mythologies of our countries and religions, roots.
Music also plays an important role in this world: Baal is a DJ and, at the end of the film, all the characters, real or imagined, end up on the same dance floor. What does this symbolize for you?
Music is very important in both my life and work, but even more so in Lightning because a thunderbolt is both an image and a sound. I thought of this film not only as a legend spanning four seasons, but also as a tetralogy. This film is an opera in verse. The voice and sounds are very important and composer Philippe Langlois and I treated them as phenomena: we sought out the sounds of melancholy, the sounds of the thunderbolt, the organic sounds of the lightning. While scoring the action itself, the idea was to ask the film’s other composer, Emmanuel Hosseyn During, to transpose traditional Syrian music in his own style. Each season has its own sounds and its own music.
In French, a night club is called boîte de nuit which translates literally into “a night box.” When I was beginning to write the script, I knew there would be a prologue and epilogue. The prologue would plunge the spectator into the poetics of lightning, and usher him into the magical universe of Baal. My voice and that of Rodolphe Buger were meant to represent Adam and Eve, and testify to their first vision of a primitive world. After this world torn into different seasons and stories, the epilogue would have the task of gathering together the opera’s cast in a single chorus, a Greek chorus. I wanted all the characters to meet at a night club, as though the night were their common world. The night as a unity. The final dance is in a certain sense an homage to Florence Lancial, the dancer who was struck by lightning and is now wheelchair-bound – an homage to energy and life, to the unique energy of survival.
English translation (from a French translation of the Russian by Pierre Léon) by David H. Pickering.