By Justin D. Hilliard | Indiewire November 16, 2012 at 11:54AM
Most filmmakers find inspiration in the work of those who came before. But this fall, I was fortunate enough to make one of my biggest artistic breakthroughs with the direct help of a creative idol — and one of cinema’s most notorious enfants terrible — Lars Von Trier. Well, with an assist from Paul Gauguin and August Strindberg.
Mid-summer, I was in a pretty dry place creatively as an artist. My last feature, the road movie “The Other Side of Paradise,” played in more than 30 festivals, winning some awards along the way, and culminated in a theatrical release in New York in December 2009 to mostly positive reviews. After that film, however, our producing team started a documentary that drained us all physically and creatively. I didn’t feel free as an artist anymore. Then, in June 2011, my wife gave birth to our son, and while it provided a very different perspective from which to create, my attempts to reinvent my process were completely stymied.
But in early August, I stumbled upon a New York Times article calling for submissions for a user-generated film project, “Gesamt,” to be produced by Von Trier and directed by Jenle Hallund (“Limboland”). The rules stated that artists could submit multiple art pieces (no more than five minutes in length) on the condition that they reinterpreted and were influenced by at least one of six once-controversial works of art selected by Von Trier by the artists Albert Speer, Cesar Franck, James Joyce, Sammy Davis Jr., Strindberg and Gauguin.
Few filmmakers or artists have influenced me as much as Von Trier. Aside from the beauty and inescapable truths in his work, I’ve greatly admired his discipline when it comes to advancing his art and storytelling sensibilities through guidelines or visual alternatives. He’s an expert at switching paths before work or style can become stagnant. Years ago in film school, I remember my teacher Bart Weiss emphasizing the importance of establishing parameters for one’s work, even referencing Von Trier’s Dogme 95 rules as an example.
I thought that “Gesamt” — it means “entire,” “total” or “global” in German — may be just what I needed.
From the beginning, the association with Von Trier allowed me to start from a darker, more psychologically murky place. I had many ideas, but because of time constraints, I decided to focus on a combination of Strindberg’s “The Father” (Act III, Scene VI) and Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” I thought Gauguin’s painting would serve perfectly as bookends to my reinterpretation of Strindberg.
With it being election season in the United States, I felt passionate about utilizing Strindberg’s use of gender reversal in “The Father” as a way to shine a light on some of the arrogance, patriarchal control and rights issues that were surfacing on both political and religious fronts. I also found some themes involving the doubts of fatherhood intriguing because of Von Trier’s own history. As documented, his mother told him on her deathbed that the man he thought was his father was not and that she had engaged in an affair with a man whose genes she thought would serve her son better in the future.
I set the basis of the art piece: A father’s life’s work would be represented by the chopping of a tree. The embattled women in his life watch on as he guides the family’s path through his will and work. The destruction of nature has a paralleled effect on these women. The man chops until he reaches a humanlike vein in the tree. Feeling threatened, he attacks the vein as it continues to shoot forth blood. The women remain strong and survive him. The doubt planted in his mind will ultimately lead to his insanity or his death. All his sins, past, present and future possibilities, some real and some imagined, flash before his eyes as he closes them for a final time.
The source material really connected the idea of this relationship struggle and battle of the sexes being at the core of this story of man versus nature. It is a man’s realization that he has very little of the control he thought he had in his life and in his relationships. Women have the ability to create and men are left with the power that a patriarchal society gives them to try to control them. By the end, the story begins to represent science and reason versus faith and religion, a struggle as ancient and confounding as the battle of the sexes. Or, it might just be a story about a man chopping at a tree.
And Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From?” laid a groundwork that allowed me to frame the short with scenes that focused on newborn life and innocence, gender and awareness of sexuality, quest for knowledge and a man on the verge of death, or insanity, mirrored by his memories as a child.
Before submitting the piece, I was already personally pleased with the final result. The project itself was a major catharsis. The block that had been weighing me down was lifted and I was already inspired to write and create more art. In early October, the creators of “Gesamt” announced the artists whose work was chosen as part of the film. More than 400 individuals worldwide sent in 501 submissions, and 142 artists were chosen. Fewer than 20 were chosen from the United States, and I was thrilled to see my name among the selected artists.
Soon after the announcement, they released the trailer for the film, now called “Disaster 501: What happened to man?”, and I was overjoyed to see multiple clips from my piece featured in the minute-long teaser alongside so many talented artists’ work.
Hallund, the director of “Gesamt,” said of my submission, “Justin Hilliard’s work excited me because of its visual and symbolic strength. He clearly wanted to tell a story and courageously transgressed taboos and let us enter the mind of a broken man. It was a complex piece of film, which denied the American moralizing and played competently with the seduction of religious manipulation on the psychology of man. It was homage to Lars Von Trier’s ‘AntiChrist.’ The theme of sexual violence against women and children by the hands of a self-imposed male Christ-like figure is a proud baby step towards depicting the souls of the fathers who rape.”
Regrettably, I was not able to attend the film’s opening at the Kunsthal Charlottenborgin Copenhagen in October, but I will make it a point to attend the Stateside premiere. The producers behind the project intend to have it tour other festivals and museums before any official distribution is explored. I’m proud to be a part of this project along with so many other original artists from around the world. I can’t wait to see their work in the finished film.
But this was such a freeing experience that it has led, for me, to an overflow of inspiration. And for that I can only thank Von Trier, an artist who truly understands the great freedom in limitation.
Watch the NSFW trailer for the Von Trier/Hallund project as well as Hilliard's complete short (also NSFW), below: