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"It has always been my dream to explore inhospitable, isolated places."

— Dorian Jespers

interview by Michiel Philippaerts

Dorian Jespers is a Belgian film director. He studied Cinematography at INSAS and Film at KASK. His graduation film 'Sun Dog' was selected at Film Fest Ghent, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Vienna Shorts, Short Waves, among many others.

The rapid succession of consecutive festival selections and prizes for Dorian Jespers’ graduation film ‘Sun Dog’ is almost as impressive as the hallucinatory origins of the project. After accolades at Film Fest Gent, Rotterdam & Short Film Festival Leuven, COVID-19 had slowed down Jespers’ travel plans but this month he is lucky enough to rekindle his journey. First up: Poland’s Short Waves Festival, where ‘Sun Dog’ is competing in the international competition.

During a drunk party in Moscow the director met someone who passionately told him about his hometown of Murmansk, resulting in Jespers — in a daze of intoxicated enthusiasm — buying a train ticket to the largest city above the Arctic. When he woke up on the train with a heavy head but a missing wallet, the director turned out to be completely at the mercy of the locals. One of the first people he met in the High North was a locksmith. Not being able to communicate — Jespers not speaking Russian, the locksmith not speaking English — he discovered the Russian city on the Kola Bay in complete silence. One by one, doors were opened by the man that would eventually become Fedor: the protagonist of ‘Sun Dog’.

I meet Jespers in a brown café on the Brussels Fish Market — just after his double victory at the Rotterdam Film Festival, but also after receiving a special mention at Film Fest Ghent with his work-in-progress version, winning a Wildcard worth €60.000 from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund and accepting the prize for best graduation work at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK). Surprised yet cautiously, he shows me the impressive list of festival invitations for his film after its premiere at IFFR: New Directors / New Films at MoMa, Short Waves in Poland, and Vienna Shorts, where it would eventually win the Vienna Short Film Award, worth not only a monetary prize but also a ticket on the longlist of the Academy Awards. This author’s inexcusable procrastination means that at the time of writing this interview, the lion's share of the festivals has been cancelled or moved online due to the global corona crisis. A big blow for the starting filmmaker.

Our conversation gets off to a good start: we talk about the similarities between ‘Sun Dog’ and the subjective camerawork in Alexander Sokurov's films. As in the oeuvre of the Russian grandmaster, the camera slides at an uncomfortable distance from its subjects and at times characters turn to the lens as if it were a living organism; something between phantom and human. Eduardo Williams gets mentioned as well: the young Argentine filmmaker that startled the international festival circuit in 2016 with ‘The Human Surge’, thanks to his free-form aesthetic that connects, muddles and blurs different continents, storylines and visual textures. Jespers sees no reason to be secretive about his creative examples, because though his visual aesthetics are certainly very inspired by the likes of Sokurov and Williams, he emphasizes the highly personal core of his film.

As the evening progresses, I discern the silhouette of a hunter-gatherer in the 21st century: Jespers' work is like putting together a puzzle, consisting of lived experiences, absurd web memorabilia and obscure Instagram accounts. All this without the filmmaker ever becoming entangled in an unnecessarily complicated web of hypertextuality or his work degenerating into ironic meta-quatsch. Thanks to Jespers' wild, nearly childish imagination as a connecting factor, the individual pieces neatly come together. Whether the Boschian puzzle can be easily read is another matter, but that it forms a whole is indisputable; an accomplishment that is more than the sum of its parts. Dorian Jespers asks the first question, starting at the end.

Jespers: Do you know the story of the bombastic music in the closing scene?

Michiel Philippaerts: No. Although I would have liked to ask you about it.

J: About two months after returning from my first visit to Murmansk, I visited an exposition at the Pompidou Center in Paris. I have to be honest: at that moment I had no idea that I wanted to make a film about my strange journey. But suddenly this song started playing — Winter by Sergey Kuryokhin — and out of nowhere all kinds of cataclysmic images from Murmansk raged through my head. I saw the darkness, I saw buildings collapse and I saw a peculiar, magical sun rise over the city. Those strange images of a huge catastrophe were instantaneously etched in my head, they were the first idea of the film. Afterwards, when I researched the music, it turned out that it was composed by Sergey Kuryokhin, who — believe it or not — was born in Murmansk. That was so fucking weird. At that moment I realized ‘Winter’ was not only going to be the soundtrack to the film, but to the entire creation process.

MP: So pure chance led you back to the city?

J: Right. Another strange coincidence: the locksmith's character was initially called Anton, but during post-production I found it didn't feel right and changed the name to Fedor. When I then tried to clear the rights to Kuryokhin's piece, I came across the fact that his only son was called Fedor. That’s when I knew we were on the right path.

MP: When you received a special mention from the jury in Ghent, you exclaimed: "To the absurdity of encounters!"

J: Absolutely! This film exists thanks to the boy at the Moscow party, thanks to the Murmansk locksmith who took me under his wings, thanks to the whirlwind of calamitous images that was unleashed by Kuryokhins ‘Winter.’ But also, thanks to that one girl in Murmansk who spoke English and who stood between me and the Russian locals as a kind of medium. One night we sat inside an apartment for a drink when Russian music was played and suddenly, she started translating the lyrics for me. That was such a magical moment that I immediately filmed everything with my smartphone — the video can now be found on my Facebook page. The event resonates in the film, when a girl turns to the camera to translate the music. I realize now that this was probably the real beginning of ‘Sun Dog’.

MP: I think it’s not unreasonable to state that Murmansk, like Fedor, is a protagonist in the film. Is that how you always work: starting from a location?

J: My teachers at KASK asked me if I could also make a film in Flanders: why did I have to go so far? I believe the themes of love and the nostalgic longing for the outside world are universal and can certainly be transported to a Flemish setting. To anywhere, really. But in Murmansk, the contrast simply intensifies, because the city itself is so isolated. At times the city feels almost alien.

MP: Is it that alien atmosphere that attracts you?

J: Certainly. (thinks) I must confess that I already knew something about the region before I was approached about it at the party in Moscow. I used to spend a lot of time on Google Streetview…

MP: We have a common passe-temps.

J: (enthusiastically) It's a great way to pass the time! You discover the most amazing places and often you wonder whether they still belong to this world. So strange to be connected to those faraway places, but also so easy: with one click. It has always been my dream to explore these inhospitable, isolated places.

MP: So far you have always travelled to old Soviet Union countries. Not only for ‘Sun Dog’, but also as a director of photography for the films of Déni Oumar Pitsaev, which are set in Moscow, Kazakhstan and Chechnya. Is there anything that attracts you specifically in the Soviet region?

J: I don't know if it’s a specific preference for the region. Thanks to Déni, I ended up in this area — so it was also thanks to him that I ended up drunk at the party in Moscow and later took the train to Murmansk. I'm curious by nature and he introduced me to an exotic world: isn't it obvious that I started digging further, looking up certain places again? If Déni had been Brazilian, I might have made films in South America.

MP: During the film, certain characters randomly turn to the camera. This way the camera indirectly takes on the role of outsider, who, together with the viewer, discovers this new, dark world. But Fedor is also assigned the role of outsider. Why is everyone so mean to him?

J: (laughs) In the first drafts, people were even meaner to him. The final cut is not so bad. I think people don’t like him because he's detached. He has completely disconnected from the here and now. He dreams of faraway places, of a girl.

MP: What girl exactly does he dream of?

J: She’s called an American girl in the film. She’s a ghost, an idea. She represents the outside world that Fedor is longing for. The idea originated in Rotterdam last year, a few weeks before we started shooting. Heartbreak had completely paralyzed me; it had been years since I had felt such intense emotions. It made me question all previous ideas of the film: suddenly certain aspects felt too theoretical and I knew I had to seek out emotion. That’s how the American girl unexpectedly got a more prominent place in the story. Though she is never seen in the film – she is elusive. She only exists in Fedor's fantasy. I think that’s why the Murmansk people are so mean to him: they want to make it clear to him that he's in love with a chimera.

MP: Suddenly a talking fish appears.

J: For the fish, I was inspired by an Instagram page that I had been following for some time: rfedortsov_official_account. He’s a deep-sea fisherman out of – you’ll never guess — Murmansk, who shares his most terrifying catches on social media. (scrolls through the Instagram page) It's fucking crazy! I've never seen this kind of fish! (laughs) At first, I contacted him to use one of his fish, but unfortunately the guy never answered me. So, I dropped the idea of the fish until I was already well into post-production here in Belgium and I realized I would need the scene anyway. Subsequently I hastily summoned a crew: “I must film this scene by Saturday — we need snow and a fish!”

MP: The scene was filmed in a studio?

J: Yes, very last minute! We shot that scene in KASK's studio, but secretly. If my teachers had known I wanted to film another scene, they would have locked me up.

MP: How did you manage to get the fish to talk? Was it still alive?

J: No, though you are not the first to think that. (shows photos of the set) A pump that was outside the set ran under the snow, ending just underneath the mouth of the fish. By keeping the monkfish moist, it looked extra realistic. In the end, it was definitely worth that last-minute stress. And of course, we ate it together later.

MP: The fish asks Fedor a question: "To go where?"

J: Right. Everything circles back to Fedor, the locksmith who dreams of the outside world. Suddenly he is confronted with this monstrous sea-devil, that looks like it emerged from the deepest, darkest depths of the ocean. As if it has been everywhere. Now it’s dying in the cold snow, and at the end of its life it asks Fedor, "To go where?" I was really touched by that idea.

MP: And what about you? Where will the next project take you?

J: We have only just started writing. I can't say much about it yet, only that it was inspired by the Cadaver Synod, an ecclesiastical mock process for which the corpse of a deceased pope was dug up. In any case, it will take place in a strange world once again: a world that is distorted and bent by the psychology of the protagonist. In this way, the inner world of the main character slowly merges with the outside world. It’s a visual way of thinking about psychology. (laughs) We'll see.

© Images

1 Dorian Jespers
2 'Sun Dog' (Dorian Jespers)
3 Behind the scenes of 'Sun Dog'

This interview was previously published in Dutch on Kortfilm.be.