The short documentary Nowhere Place stunned the room at the Cinefringe London screening last month, wrapping the heady themes of existence and consciousness of self in awe-inspiring footage. It interweaves pieces from the life-defining journeys of Dutch mountaineer Wilco van Rooijen, former Mars One candidate Stephan Günther, and in abstract retellings, of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters from the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. These three stories share a common question, which is that of the human restlessness that comes with trying to understand oneself as a living being, and what purpose we assign to our being-ness, if we so choose.
Nowhere Place is a poignant filmatic essay which gave me pause, and I was thrilled to be engaged in such deep philosophy in just over 20 minutes by a director who, at the time, was still a student of the Dutch Film Academy. It’s safe to say Susanne has quite the future ahead of her.
She’s unafraid of questions of existence. Her ability to explore this theme is prominent in her other films, such as the fantastic, borderline Blade Runner-meets-Fight Club documentary Simulacrum, which observes the role of mimicry and tech-age overstimulation in human psychological development.
I’m excited to bring to you a short interview with Susanne. Enjoy!
This is a beautiful documentary on existence from a very unique series of perspectives. What made you choose these three stories?
From the beginning of my studies (and actually before that) I’m searching for the boundaries of genres. Both visually and in substance. This movie is the next step for me. One moment contrasting, sometimes invigorating, but with a clear flow, where the rhythm of the one passes into that of the other. I want to disorient the viewer, and have them look at the ‘now’. I don’t want to leave the audience with facts, but with a certain feeling. A sense of challenge, excitement, the quest for the ultimate. A sensory film that the viewer must feel in his stomach. Like the height when hanging from a crane and the grim of the mountains. The implacability of nature. The more exciting it gets, the closer we get to death. In this quest, there is no place for logic, only for feelings. That is why I chose that to be the most important aspect of the film.
What was it like to interview Wilco and Stephan? Were they on board with your idea right away?
Before I found Wilco and Stephan, I have spoken with many other adventurers and aspiring astronauts. When I met Wilco it clicked right away. In his field he encounters mostly young people who don’t understand why there’s the need to train for years to climb a particular mountain. They expect something like that to be fairly easy so they can post a photo on Facebook, just for kicks (and likes). He understood what I was talking about and wanted to go on this adventure with us and participate in the film. That was very special. Stephan also gave me complete freedom, but shooting with him was different than with Wilco. Stephan was already picturing himself on Mars, while Wilco is much more down to earth.
I feel privileged that I was allowed to peek into the lives of the characters in this documentary. Stephan Günther made it to the final 706 candidates of 200,000 applicants, but failed to reach the final round. Wilco van Rooijen is one of the few Dutch professional adventurers. He climbed the highest peaks of the Alps, the Himalayas, the North and the South Pole. In 1995, he was seriously injured at K2 and in 2008 he went missing after an accident there. After three days he came back from the ‘death zone’. Eleven other climbers perished on the mountain. Third-degree frostbite cost him all of his toes. Still, Wilco talks with so much passion and dedication about the mountains that his emotions and doubts are palpable. It is special to talk about these essential questions in life with someone who has been through so much.
Has there been a reaction from the families of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold?
I haven’t sent the documentary to the families, maybe I should. I don’t know.
Why the Columbine Massacre and not a different tragedy?
The underlying idea of Eric and Dylan are different from those of similar shootings. They did not shoot, like Breivik, out of an ideal. That’s what has always fascinated me. The diaries of Eric and Dylan, shooters at Columbine, were the starting point of this documentary. I’ve been researching this tragedy for about six years, and one of the lines I read in their diaries really struck me. It reads: I want to be free, to exist in a timeless source hopeless place of pure happiness. This really intrigues me. Not that I agree what Eric and Dylan did of course. Their goal wasn’t the inspiration for this film, it was their search. In this documentary you see several people who are searching for the meaning of their existence, and one is going even further than the other.
Was there a particular event or circumstance for you that brought you to make a film about existence?
My film is called Nowhere Place. Nowhere Place is a place you won’t find anywhere on a map, but you still want to go there. And where is it? You won’t know until you’ve reached it. In my films I want to discuss thematic issues and try to examine them in the light of the times in which we live. Nowhere Place is an example of that. The film starts with a quote: “The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being,” a given fact that is the underlying tone in most of my films.
When are you someone? Why do we always look for more, and [why] aren’t we satisfied with this time and place? And where will you find that light? I ask these questions with two extreme examples: one from the past (the shootings at Columbine High School) and the other in the future (the trip to Mars in 2023). The characters in the documentary attempt to give meaning to their lives. For these people there is no bridge too far, even more, the answer is often to be found beyond the last bridge. I feel like I’ve succeeded when this film encourages the viewer asks himself those questions.
In watching your other films, like Simulacrum, you often take apart the ideas of reality and meaning. Have your projects brought you answers to your own personal questions about reality?
I’m not sure if it brought me any answers, or more questions, but it brought me a lot of new insights. One of the most interesting parts of making documentaries is to discover other meanings, opinions, life styles. As a person, I know that you can find the real essence of existence in simple daily things. Closer to yourself, instead of somewhere else. But… I still have to learn this myself as well. I tend to believe that I need excitement to find my essence, but I do believe that it has to be found within yourself. I don’t want to answer these questions in my films, that’s up to you. That’s the reason why Nowhere Place ends with a really important question: What do you think, when you look up in the sky at night, and see all the stars?
What brought you into the world of film?
I’m still not sure exactly. When I was young I always wanted to tell stories, via plays or books. When I was 16th I entered a film competition in my hometown with two friends and before we knew it we won the first prize and the audience prize. Part of the prize was a filmworkshop, and there I met a teacher who asked me the question: did you ever heard of documentary film making? I’m not sure why, but it didn’t click. While studying there I went to the United States for a documentary project, and when I came back I discovered documentaries. That’s when I applied at the Dutch Film Academy, and I got accepted.
Will you be appearing at any festivals to discuss your work? What are you excited about the most for your upcoming projects (that you can discuss)?
Nowhere Place had it’s international premiere at the Zagreb Dox Documentary Film Festival. After that it’s screened at several other festivals, and when I can I try to attend. Last year I went to a Human Rights Filmfestival in Kiev and several other Film Festivals (Bilbao, Istanbul, Kendal). In the Netherlands, the film won the Documentary Wildcard, awarded annually by the Dutch Film Fund to the best graduation films nationwide. A real honour!
Now I’m able to develop a new documentary. I’m also working on a project which I started in 2010, a documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church. This is a really difficult and intense project, and I’m not sure when it will be finished, but I’m thrilled to share it one day with you.
You can learn more about this and other films by Susanne Opstal via susanneopstal.nl