In pursuit of a visceral cinematic language
Mariska van den Berg and Katarina Jazbec discuss film as a medium for imagining what is unseen or unspeakable. In its striving for veracity and truth, documentary film often aims to access worlds remote from those of the filmmaker and viewer. But we need to delve further to better understand the full potential of a documentary approach. Deleuze already stresses that cinema may depict the world yet simultaneously produces a reality in itself, creating a space-time that can present ways of seeing that do not coincide with the world as we know it. Considering this, they discuss Katarina’s working methods, the conversational format and cinematic language. The notion that cinema can make us think, see and speculate isn’t new but is currently gaining new substance.
This exchange around cinematic approaches is part of an ongoing conversation between curator Mariska and artists Katarina Jazbec, Lavinia Xausa and Heidi Vogels, which informed their exhibition series Joined Narratives.
Mariska van den Berg: In Joined Narratives, you show two films that stem from your interest in the joint reading of literary stories. Our Bearings brings the women of your family together to read The Woman with the Wolf.  For Permeating Hearts, you engage with a reading group of young inmates in a Belgian prison to discuss various short stories. Their reading sessions provide an intimate space in which the stories bring out fear, anger and hate but also hope, friendship and courage. You conducted these conversations based on your view of what literary fiction can do. Could you tell me more about this?
Katarina Jazbec: Essentially, I’m interested in how art, in this case, literary fiction, can shape you. My fascination with what fiction can do, especially when reading together, was informed by my perplexity about how divided the world is, with all these borders everywhere that are sometimes invisible but always defining. It made me question how to live together in a world where the tendency toward separation is on the rise. How do we build mutual understanding? For me, this requires empathy, making an effort to gain the perspective of the other, and making such an effort without knowing what it will bring. By ‘the other’, I mean everyone with different moral values, ways of knowing, backgrounds and life experiences. Permeating Hearts strives to create a work where everyone involved is given the space to make this effort, including me as the maker, the participants and the audience. Gaining an understanding of the other person is a laborious and courageous undertaking. We must often first deal with our fears, insecurities, inertia and cynicism. What I see happening when you read literary fiction together is the story becomes a physical and imaginary in-between. It becomes a kind of ethical playground. When reading together, you can map a society’s values and try to discuss beliefs or views that the group may not share or endorse. I made a conscious decision to embrace all perspectives.
MvdB: Your conversations with these young men manage beautifully to create a space for expressing different viewpoints and sharing experiences, which, at times, are gripping. The layered narrative you unfold makes all those different voices interact: those contained in the fictional stories, the voices of the inmates, as well as the ghostly voice-over. These very different perspectives are anchored in the film’s overall structure. By making the texts that are read out in the film available in the exhibition, you invite the audience to read and think along. What informed this approach?
KJ: It was important to visualise the potential of reading together and this rich world that unfolds as a playground for dialogue where one withholds judgement. When you prepare for this carefully, many beautiful, strange and conflicting things can happen in this space. I wanted to make this visually and audibly tangible through the way the participants read out loud and ensure the different perspectives were not only seen and heard but also equal. This was because some voices are more vulnerable or quiet than others and require a space for mutual vulnerability. These concerns guided my selection of the stories we read, the filmic choices, and the editorial decisions. 
Blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality was equally important. It isn’t always clear in the film whether a story comes from the book we read or a personal story or reflection. But it doesn’t really matter, because we find ourselves in a new narrative space we create together. While reading different stories, from the Balkans to the Caribbean, we are all together, so to speak, ‘at the bottom of the sea’. This imaginary setting, which I borrow from a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez , is a fantastic literary device that invites the reader, or viewer, to change their point of view. His story also features marine turtles sleeping on the seafloor. This sea animal travels between the two very different environments of deep waters and shores. The ghost, the voice-over that I embody myself, is capable of exchanging perspectives in a similar way. These are all metaphors that point to the process of empathy. Therefore, as a viewer of the film, you can also travel like a turtle or a ghost between these different perspectives. Most of the time, you are probably somewhere in between, either conflicted by opposing viewpoints or touched by the act of mutual understanding and recognition.
MvdB: Your recent film, You Can’t Automate Me, premiered at IFFR in 2021. I would say Permeating Hearts came from a desire to connect with people in different places who have other perspectives, opinions and beliefs and live in different worlds. This approach takes on an additional dimension in your new film.
KJ: Whereas Permeating Hearts is about reading, talking and storytelling, in You Can’t Automate Me, I want the body to speak and emphasise non-verbal communication. I started by asking how human and animal bodies experience the harbour of Rotterdam. When I began visiting the port, it was a difficult space to enter and gain access to people. I was lucky to come across a group of lashers, about 650 men doing the invisible work of manually connecting and disconnecting containers on mega container ships. Though surrounded by self-driving vehicles and remotely operated cranes, they are among the last in the harbour who do heavy physical labour that remains beyond automation. As they perform their daily jobs, their very survival depends on their physical ability to respond to their environment. Their work is dangerous, and they must pay the utmost attention with all their senses.
My focus was on visualising this physical experience of the port. The film opens with a group of lashers performing a Deep Listening exercise, imagining listening as if one has ears all over the skin, activating every part of the body to listen to one’s surroundings. I’ve always been intrigued by contemporary dance. When I started researching this project, I wanted to include Butoh, a form of Japanese dance theatre, because I know it also deals with imaginary bodily transformations into animal and plantlike shapes. I invited Angeliki Diakrousi, a Rotterdam-based artist from Greece who has been practising Butoh, Deep Listening, and Feldenkrais for years, to join the project as a choreographer. I invited lashers for in-depth interviews to learn how they work, how they prevent injuring their bodies, and how they move according to specific techniques. To really understand their work and have it inform the development of scores and movements exercises, Angeliki and I wanted to choreograph the lashers through the actions with which they are already familiar. I wanted to develop a visceral cinematic language. Since it was all about physical experience, it was essential to stay close to the body, the skin and sensory alertness. These men are incredibly focused, and capturing this alertness was paramount.
The voice-over in ‘You Can’t Automate Me’ represents the voice of the body, but I also see it as the voice of a container. It’s a monologue taken from an interview in a dark container with Martines Simmons, who cleans the inside of the containers. He talks about self-destruction, the knowledge of the body and the importance of pain but also pride and the necessity of work and movement. It touched me deeply.
MvdB: When you began visiting the harbour, it gave you a headache. You experienced it as destructive for your body and the environment. This also refers to a text you wrote during the film’s making in which you reflect on how the separation of humankind and nature ‘inevitably leads to self-destruction’. Donna Haraway wrote that we need another understanding of the world and our place in it: we need to become response-able to the situation we find ourselves in.
Staying with the Trouble
Donna Haraway’s book Staying with the Trouble approaches the world as an entity of multiple species in deep interconnectedness. She argues that human exceptionalism and individualism have become unthinkable – ‘not available to think with’ – because these notions were manufactured in frameworks that no longer suffice. Everything is situated and connected, tentacular and interdependent. The human being is only one player among many. Therefore, we need a different understanding and approach to the situation we find ourselves in and the damage humankind inflicts on the planet. We need other stories, stories that go beyond an anthropocentric view and will enable us to act in a way that does justice to tentacularity. Moreover, to know – to think – is not enough. We need to feel the pain, says Haraway; we need to learn to embody.
KJ: What speaks to me is how Haraway emphasises why ‘staying with the trouble’ is necessary as a condition for response. My desire to interrogate how human and animal bodies experience the harbour relates to an ability to sense what is there and become aware. We tried to do this with the listening exercises. Performing the choreographic scores with the lashers were exercises in rendering one another’s ability to respond. It’s also about learning how to respond to our increasingly automated bodies. We are the workers of the Capitalocene. You Can’t Automate Me is a call that says we cannot be automated, we have a body, we have these tools, and we can respond and feel pain.
What also appeals to me is Haraway’s plea for other kinds of stories and what she calls stories for earthly survival. We are all struggling with the logic of the economic chain, which the harbour represents. We are entangled with it, and at the same time, it is pushing against the limits of our bodies and exploiting Earth’s resources. The film floats around the idea of what else? What other stories could we tell besides that of capital? When I started working on my film, I wasn’t familiar with Haraway’s book. The crucial notion of embodiment she writes about had intuitively become my motivation to do this project. I’m happy to relate to her writings now because we urgently need some shared language.
MvdB: In your pursuit of a visceral cinematic language, you took the dynamic agility that is an everyday part of the lasher’s profession as your starting point. Parallel to this are scenes of a different nature in which playfulness and imagination have free rein. Is ‘imagination’ the right word?
KJ: I call the film an experimental documentary with fictional elements. Working with film allows me to extend imagination into reality. I love how Jacques Rancière puts it in his book The Politics of Aesthetics when he writes: ‘Documentary film, film devoted to the “real”, is … capable of greater fictional invention than “fiction” film, readily devoted to a certain stereotype of actions and characters.’ This sentence stuck with me. To illustrate this, we filmed the lashers in the canteen playing cards, telling stories and watching films. These activities are also part of their jobs because they work in shifts, and sometimes, at night, they have to wait for hours before a ship is ready, so they often use this time to nap. This waiting time was the moment to introduce dreamy scenes as a parallel world. You see the men sitting in the white space of their actual canteen, initially with their eyes closed and later asleep, with some of them even lying on the floor. We did a Butoh exercise to arrive at this dreamlike state. Angeliki instructed them to spend fifteen minutes in complete silence, listening to their own bodies and gravity. You could hire a group of actors and film a fictional narrative with a script based on the lashers’ stories, but asking actual lashers to perform a Butoh exercise together is something altogether different.
You need trust and time for the situation to evolve and to be open to the unknown. In a scene on the Maasvlakte beach – part of a massive human-made extension of Rotterdam harbour – one of the lashers shared a story about his friend who died while working on a ship. This ship actually passed by while he was telling the story, which is something we couldn’t have planned. It was unbelievable. Another example was when they were walking at night in the port with their long lashing bars. The deserted area provided a space for imagination, storytelling and play as a proposition for that which is not yet but might be. In this way, you discover the beauty of stories potentiality unfolding. It is a dream space that allows for a transition to what could be.
MvdB: This resonates nicely with how Deleuze writes about dream sequences in his influential books on cinema, which both Haraway and Pedro Neves Marques – who we’ll discuss later – refer to.
An Existence Placed Halfway
Philosopher Gilles Deleuze approached film as a mode of thinking. Where philosophy consists of creating and inventing concepts, cinema concerns blocks of movement-duration. The way these filmic space-times are connected – or are in disjunction – determines the very mode of thought it enables. In film, the disjunctive process of layering (disconnecting pieces, unlikely linking of visual or sonic and linguistic elements) especially provides the potential for making meaning.
Deleuze does not consider cinema as mimesis or a representation of reality. He sees the cinematographic image on the one hand as depicting a reality outside itself and on the other as something that constitutes a reality of its own – a space-time that is still related to the world but in varying levels of actuality and virtuality. For Deleuze, the actual is the present. However, the present is infused with the past through memory and with the future through desire, both of which inhabit the virtual realm. Film images come in many shades of actuality and virtuality. Deleuze, therefore, distinguishes three types of time-image – recognition, recollection and dreaming – which he connects with different states of consciousness. Recognition is automatic, a habit. Recollection is more deliberate and requires an act of reconstruction to make it present in the present moment. Dreaming has the greatest distance to the present and concerns images of reverie, memory and fantasy. Apparently, Deleuze particularly liked filmic dream sequences that challenge realism and oppose straightforward linear narrative. He also liked flashbacks that reveal different possibilities, such as a fork in time where things could have turned out differently. For Deleuze, the best examples of dream imagery leave the audience ambivalent about what is a dream and what is reality, and what is the past and what is the present. This is where cinematic images relate to thinking or, more precisely, to what could be thought of as yet unknown possibilities. As Laura Marks writes: ‘Deleuze does not read images: he sees with images, using them as a source for what can yet be thought, not as a record of what has already been thought.’
KJ: This notion of revealing other possibilities is at stake in the non-functional time of You Can’t Automate Me, such as in the exercises or the night walk with the lashing bars. Deleuze associates dreams with a different state of consciousness, and this is exactly where I want to be, between hallucination and everyday life and showing how they are intertwined. If you’re going to make another proposition concerning reality, there must be an ambiguous boundary between what is real and what is a dream. I believe the film manages to stay within this demarcation.
It makes sense to understand cinema as thinking. Making this film was not about writing, and it is not just a story; it is a proposition for thinking. I also like how Deleuze distinguishes two strategies of thinking and knowing as recognition and encounter. While recognition involves matching our experience with our culturally acquired knowledge, encountering challenges our routines of experiencing and perceiving the world through creative tracings, unexpected associations and unpredictability. Unlikely encounters formed the language of this film. How likely is an encounter between a traditional Japanese dance and lashing? I hope the film also works as an encounter, in the Deleuzian sense, for the viewer – that it breaks the fourth wall.
MvdB: Challenging our routine perceptions also involves breaking with the automatism of human-centred ways of seeing. Haraway’s emphasis on multiple, deeply interconnected species entails a toning down of the central position of humans and speculating on a non-human perspective. Deleuze also wrote about the ability of the cine-camera–as a machine–to give us a non-human or objective view.
KJ: I started thinking about animal perspectives from the very start. How would a wolf, for example, feel in the port? I used animation to introduce stowaway animals into the film. Actually, animals do sometimes end up in the harbour on cargo ships. When Deleuze reflects on the camera’s potential to depict non-human perspectives, he suggests human subjects may be affected by things moving with their own life and relating to one another without human intervention or even human knowledge. Most of the animals in the film pass by almost unseen. I try to combine multiple worlds. At the same time, I want to enhance something that is not yet there or not there all the time, like stowaway animals. Their subtle presence testifies to the wildlife that is already there and symbolises my hope for its future abundance.
MvdB: This notion of multiple worlds and how to imagine them is the subject of Mimetic Traps: Forests, Images, Worlds, an intriguing essay in which writer and filmmaker Pedro Neves Marques interrogates culturally different ways of seeing and creating images. They argue that the image as we have come to know and use it – to understand the world we inhabit – established a division between self and other instead of bringing about rapprochement or understanding, thus paving the way for domination over what was there to investigate. How does one approach and imagine a world that is different from that of the viewer without dominating it? Neves Marques proposes a twofold understanding of the image as a kind of doubling of what is seen and, simultaneously, as a ‘space in between’, an interval between worlds and between different ways of seeing and experiencing the world. In this proposition, the image is a relationship and a ‘portal into worlds’. They quote Yanomami shaman David Kopenawa, saying: ‘The image exists as that which mediates between a here and a there; the image-skin as a liminal space, keeping ontological worlds at bay as much as connecting them.’ The challenge is how to inhabit this space in-between.
KJ: Mimetic Traps was a great revelation for me. The text helped me find a vocabulary for what was in front of me and how I understand liminal space. For example, you can tell a story about lashers, or you can try to envision the whole ecosystem and how the lashers are embedded in the reality of the entire harbour. The latter is a story about intertwined worlds and our dependence on one another. Martines, who cleans containers, is the in-between, the shaman and the interpreter pointing to this invisible liminal space. Another example would be where we imagine being a lashing bar in one of the exercises.
Neves Marques also brings up Michael Taussig’s book Mimesis and Alterity and his concept of mimesis as a sort of bodily knowledge arising from confrontational alterity, which is a means of contact between seemingly distant beings, spaces and attributes. Taussig says: ‘Mimesis is actualised most strongly in liminal moments, that is, when borders are inhabited (and the skin, fur, clothes, feathers, and tattoo are borders).’ With Angeliki’s Deep Listening exercises, we were already trying to work on what the body senses at an intuitive level, but this text helped us get an even better grip on what we were trying to achieve, with skin as a portal to a potential world.
I also like how Neves Marques talks about the Amerindian understanding of the forest, in which the human, the non-human (spirits, animals, plants), the visible and the invisible all play a part, thus making the forest a convergence of diverse perspectives and experiences that are different but equal. I knew this was how I could introduce animals in the film. Their presence is very subtle, and some people don’t notice them, but they are there in their rightful space, experiencing the harbour their way.
I agree with Haraway on the importance of relating to the situation in which we find ourselves. We should be able to respond to now – a now that is thick and consists of the present, past, and future. We need this phase of grieving and acknowledgement. The urgency to explore our relationship with our bodies, surroundings and nature is about imagining something different: a proposal for creating an unlikely new and interconnected world together. The kinds of stories she calls for are also a form of speculative fabulation, mobilising delusion as a constructive force for a future that consists of a certain type of hope.
About The Dialogue Room
How can we make time and space for sharing thoughts, inspiration, and the things that currently occupy our minds? From this question we have initiated a series of ongoing conversations with divergent Rotterdam-based artists. The Dialogue Room is an editorial platform where we publish these conversations as long reads, with online access to related artists’ projects. The platform simultaneously functions as an impetus for both contributors and readers to slow down, and to give time to enrich our perspectives and our imagination. Independent from exhibition and event calendars, the conversations held in The Dialogue Room provide an occasion to delve into the ongoing research, lived experiences, references and reflections running through artistic practices.
Mariska van den Berg studied Art History at the University of Groningen. She was a curator at SKOR – Foundation for Art and Public Space – and currently teaches theory at the St. Joost Master Institute of Visual Cultures in Den Bosch. Her writing is published regularly, and she initiates diverse projects, such as publications and the exhibition series Joined Narratives at TENT (2020–22).
Katarina Jazbec is an artist based in Rotterdam. She holds a BA in Economics and an MA in Photography from AKV | St. Joost. Challenging the storytelling capacity of lens-based media, she uses interdisciplinary collaborative artistic approaches including movement scores, reading groups and rituals. Her work explores the vulnerability and agency of human and nature in the current economic system, and reflects on how to live together in the increasingly divided world, embracing non-institutionalised ways of knowing. Her works have been shown at the International Film Festival Rotterdam; the FIDÉ Festival International du Documentaire Émergent, Paris; the International Festival of Contemporary Arts City of Women, Ljubljana; EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam; and TENT Rotterdam. She was the first recipient of IFFR’s RTM Pitch Award.
1.’The Woman with the Wolf’ is a tale by Slovenian writer and philosopher Mojca Kumerdej (2016).
2. KJ: In ‘Permeating Hearts’ I followed two criteria for the selection of stories: first, the unfolding of the narrative structure of emotions, and second the blurring of reality and fiction. Every story was carefully chosen and differently received by the inmates. Two stories by Zoran Knezevic, a Serbian author, were specially translated for the reading sessions in the prison to Dutch. https://www.katarinajazbec.com/artists#/permeating-hearts-1
3. Katarina Jazbec, ‘Gentle stranger, I hope this email finds you well’,
4. Laura Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham and London: Duke University Press (2000), p. 26.
5. Pedro Neves Margues, ‘Mimetic Traps: Forests, Images, Worlds’, http://www.pedronevesmarques.com/texts/PedroNevesMarques_MimeticTraps_2017.pdf
Nicholas Chare and Liz Watkins, liz, ‘Introduction: Screening Embodiment’, in: Paragraph, Vol. 38, No. 1 (March 2015), pp. 1-6.
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image. University of Minnesota Press (1989, oorspronkelijke uitgave in het Frans 1983).
Gilles Deleuze, ‘What is Creative Art and Having an Idea in Cinema?’ (lecture, 1987),
Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, in: Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (1988), pp. 575-599.
Haraway Donna, Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press (2016).