Taking the approach of an anthropologist, Mikala Krogh criss-crossed the world, gathering material for her cinematic laboratory in "Everything Is Relative". Her experiment examines how the human scale for basic qualities of life tends to change according to the circumstances. The result is an ambitious, all-embracing document somewhere between documentary and personal essay.
"I didn't want to make a "Mondo Cane"-type film showing the exotic lifestyles of people to Africa, we had to avoid the temptation to come home with footage confirming the cliché about the poor starving people in Africa." Mikala Krogh
That may sound abstract, but it's not really. The film's deceivingly loose mosaic of staged scenes and documentary fragments takes up something quite specific: the basic conditions and feelings shared by all people, regardless of cultural, racial and religious differences. How, on the surface of things, we people are able to adjust our expectations and criteria for happiness and sorrow according to the circumstances. More profoundly, the film shows us that we are made of the same emotional stuff. Sure, technology is advancing faster than a speeding bullet, the wheels of globalisation are turning ever faster, but on a number of fundamental points humanity remains unchanged.
"I was always fascinated by the human ability to adapt," Krogh says. "It should be emphasised, though, that the film in no way seeks to justify the enormous economic and social differences that exist in the world. Everything being relative should never be taken to imply that it doesn't matter that some people are living under horrendous conditions. That it's okay that people in Africa are starving, since then they are happy just to get a few spoonfuls of food. Not at all. For me, the film is mainly an exploration of the phenomenon that, despite all our differences, there is something that ties us together. It's a statement that every human being demands dignity. And it's an homage to humanity and our ability to survive."
"Everything Is Relative". Photo: Manuel Claro
A MULTITUDE OF LANGUAGES
"Everything Is Relative" employs a plethora of cinematic moves. The film's basic tone is documentary, but cinematic languages and methods vary from one sequence to the next. The material is divided into seven main sections centring on a specific emotion or condition of life. Each section spotlights a series of examples or flashpoints. In the section titled "Love", three old married couples from different places in the world talk about how they found one another. Their accounts are juxtaposed by a scene of a young Japanese couple on the street, succumbing to lust and spontaneously getting a hotel room to have sex.
"Illness" drops us right in among the mourners at a funeral in Mozambique. "Happiness" shows a scene from a Texas airport of families awaiting the arrival of fathers and husbands coming home from war. "Time" introduces us to an engineer from Bangladesh indefinitely stranded under slave-like conditions in Dubai and an old woman who spends an eternity buttoning a button in her blouse.
Most of them we see only once. A few make repeat appearances – most striking, a young woman with cancer, in a series of video journal entries, confiding her thoughts about her illness and the chemotherapy she is undergoing. Alongside the documentary fragments we are treated to a series of posed tableaux in the studio, a lab of sorts illuminating the different themes in subtle or stylised ways. Finally, the film features six monologues by screenwriting guru Mogens Rukov, small vignettes putting words to the themes and offering a lens or frame of interpretation.
"Everything Is Relative". Photo: Manuel Claro
RULES ARE STIMULATING
"Everything Is Relative" is partly inspired by Krogh's preoccupation with Edward Steichen's "The Family of Man", the American photographer's famous selection of images of the world's peoples and cultures composed to showcase the universality of human emotions. First shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1955, the images have been circulating ever since in a book that has sold more than four million copies, making it one of the most popular visual testimonials to humanity.
Another element was Krogh's desire to experiment with the documentary format, a distinctive quality of several of her works.
"Everything Is Relative" presents a series of moments strung together like beads on a string. A mosaic, collage or anthology, a cinematic essay in encyclopaedic form – Krogh's film especially brings to mind three noted filmmakers of the older generation: Michael Glawogger of Austria (in particular, his 1998 "Megacities"), Roy Andersson of Sweden and the Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth, a kinship Krogh readily acknowledges.
"I like the encyclopaedic form. It's fascinating to take different elements, independent portraits or stories, and combine them to see what they give each other, what they say together that they couldn't say on their own," Krogh says.
"The new film actually started out being a lot more sampled than it is now. I've made so many different films, and at one point I began to think it would be interesting to gather all the many ideas in one film," she says. "I was even thinking about including outtakes, both from my own and other people's films. As a filmmaker, you tend to end up with so much footage you like a lot, but simply can't fit into the given structure. I got a lot of footage together, but as I was looking it over, I realised that I couldn't use it for this film. It wasn't shot with the right optics. So we ended going out and shooting everything ourselves."
"Everything Is Relative" was shot in Mozambique, Dubai, Tokyo, Texas and Denmark. Add to this a smattering of archival footage, plus a single sequence from Siberia that had to be commissioned for practical reasons. The film could essentially have been shot anywhere. The big problem wasn't so much finding suitable locations or people but defining what to include.
"Working with Mogens Rukov was a big help in terms of formulating certain rules of game for the project. This was necessary to avoid getting lost in the individual stories and to be able to exclude all the other exciting things we could have shot at each and every location," Krogh says.
"Content-wise, it was important to show everyday situations that anyone could identify with. I didn't want to make a Mondo Cane-type film showing the exotic lifestyles of people in Papua New Guinea and that kind of thing. Going to Africa, we had to avoid the temptation to come home with footage confirming the cliché about the poor starving people in Africa. Rather than trying to include everything, we decided to let a lot of things be implicit. We wanted to show a series of flashpoints from people's lives, snapshots with no before or after."
Did you find it limiting not to be able to follow the individual stories over a longer period?
"On the contrary! Subordinating myself to these rules was enormously liberating. As I was shooting, it allowed me to focus on what was essential without constantly having to worry about what had come before or how a story was going to develop," the filmmaker says. "I consider it a huge privilege to get a chance to explore the medium in this way. The traditional way of looking at things says there's a whole film waiting inside every little story. But it simply wasn't our job to do those stories this time. I wouldn't rule out doing a more straight film in the future that could be inspired by my experiences from this film. Anyway, it's far from certain that I will even get to do more films of this type. It may be a once-in-a-lifetime thing".