My first conversation with Andreas Horvath was right after I’d seen Views of Retired Night Porter at the Dawson City International Short Film Festival.
The movie is his intimate 38-minute portrait of a security guard who’d come across as a monster in From a Night Porter’s Point of View, a 1977 film by director Krzysztof Kie?lowski (best known in North America for his Three Colors Trilogy).
Three decades later, Horvath offered a more nuanced portrait. When I asked the Austrian photographer and filmmaker what he really thought of the man, he said starkly, “He has his contradictions, as we all do.”
So I suppose it was inevitable that I would look for Horvath’s own contradictions as I spent more time with the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC) artist-in-resident. They weren’t hard to spot—and not just in his films.
Some are trivial oddities: he is, for example, a classical music lover from Salzburg who disdains Mozart, the city’s most famous son. More interesting is his face, which always seems to serve up either a brooding grimace or a mirthful smirk.
And then, when I sat down to interview him at a picnic table outside Macaulay House, where KIAC artists-in-residence stay in Dawson, he confessed to being nervous, especially because I was recording our conversation.
“I can hardly say no as a filmmaker, can I?” he said, noting the paradox. “But I am just being honest, I don’t like it. I don’t like to express myself with words because you say something and it’s in black and white and for me it’s always more complex.”
(Later, he added, “I’m lazy with words and I don’t care very much about talking.”)
Born in 1968, he spent a year of high school in small-town Iowa. Understandably, he struggled at first because it was so different and it took a while to find like-minded people.
His father, an architect and avid photographer, had given him an Olympus camera and he was more interested in taking pictures than hanging with jocks. But he survived the alienation and loneliness and learned to accept other cultures with a curiousness that would later serve his filmmaking well.
The American Midwest remains one of his favourite places to visit. During one trip in 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq, he talked to people about the war. The result was This Ain’t No Heartland, a film that is at once angry and empathetic.
The Americans he interviewed were shockingly ill-informed about what their country was doing in the Persian Gulf. But the movie—which The New York Times called “grimly funny”—doesn’t mock these people (as, say, Rick Mercer’s Talking to Americans does). Instead, Horvath takes us from the political to the human by letting us see his subjects in vulnerable moments.
Throughout the film, the camera pans over objects and possessions, especially flags, bunting and other bits of patriotism porn. He uses the same technique with the security guard’s apartment in Views of Retired Night Porter. This aspect of his style likely comes from his background in photography, but it’s also why he now prefers film.
“I like to juxtapose images. That’s why I am getting more and more bored with photography and feel more comfortable with time, rhythm and movement.”
As the sky above our picnic table shifted from bright sunshine to big, dark clouds and back again, Horvath admitted to being distracted by the light, the passing cars and anything else in his line of sight: “I have a hard time concentrating on discussions.”
Objects, on the other hand, tell us much about their owners—and vice versa, he points out—but it’s more than that.
“I like interfaces. Where people and animals meet or where people and objects meet. In my photography, I like to use a wide-angle lens. A portrait of someone with a blurred background is hardly interesting for me. I like to see how someone occupies space or how space occupies someone. And in film, you can elaborate on this more.”
A film brought him to Dawson. In 2009, while researching a still-unmade fictional movie, he needed a place to stay. He figured it was just a tourist town, but as soon as he crossed the bridge over the Klondike River, he was mesmerized.
He was also fascinated to learn about miners and prospectors who work on their own, rather than for large corporations, and about claim staking—a system that allows people to own mineral rights under other people’s land, which would be unthinkable in Austria.
He shot 10 hours of footage, staked a claim and spent the next three years trying to return to make a film about mining. The KIAC residency was crucial for securing Austrian funding because it counted as money and support from Canada.
His first time here, he bought a Dawson panorama taken from the Top of the World Highway and put it above his desk in Salzburg. For three years, he stared at that photograph, daydreaming about a second home in the Yukon.
Now that he’s back, he drives up the Midnight Dome several times a week.
“Even in Austria, it’s important for me to get out of town and see the world from above. That helps me to think and to see the place in a different light and context.”
All the better to spot the contradictions, I guess.
PHOTO: Tim Falconer