It's a character type that pops up in feature films now and again – the pathetic nerd who can only face the world though a camera. Well, this type exists in real life, too. In fact, some of them are doing just fine. One has even translated her filter on life into a brilliant career. Her name is Phie Ambo.
"The camera is like a kind of social worker, an aide, who comes and puts a pair of glasses on me so I can understand my reality."
"It started out very journal-like. I would video family get-togethers and those kinds of situations. I have a ton of tapes at home of grandparents and other relatives. I never looked at the footage and I never made it into a film. Videotaping simply became a way of being in a situation while also detaching myself from it," the director says, well aware that her choice of optics sounds a lot like a disease.
"I don't think my story is unique. I think you could find a lot of documentarians who take the same approach to filming. It's not an altogether healthy thing. But you can choose to embrace your disease and turn it into an advantage," she says.
The camera as magnifying glass
Ambo has done just that. She got her first camcorder at 22 and when she applied to the documentary programme at the National Film School of Denmark a few years later, she already had a sense that she could put her camera fetish to good use.
"I had never made an actual film, but I had been filming. I understood my world through a camera. I videotaped a conversation with my dad, who had cancer and was going to die. We're doing a countdown, and we're sitting at the kitchen table, talking about it. The clip I submitted was maybe 13 minutes, totally uncut. It's just us talking, but I was ready to face the big questions in life."
While still in film school, she made her debut film "Family" (co-directed with Sami Saif), in 2001, and ever since she has been among the most prominent young Danish documentary filmmakers who have found international success. "Family" won the distinguished IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary in 2001. Two years later, she returned to Amsterdam with "Growing Up in a Day", a short doc about an African boy who has to learn to take care of himself after his father dies. She next took up the project that has shown her unique character as a documentarian: her trilogy about "fundamental human questions." What is a feeling? What is a thought? What is consciousness? Ambo asks these questions in "Mechanical Love" (2007), "Free the Mind" (2011) and "Ripples at the Shore" (in pre-production). "I think of the camera as my magnifying glass. Using it, I can see what things really look like. Taking it away, I don't have the same view of a situation. The camera is like a kind of social worker, an aide, who comes and puts a pair of glasses on me so I can understand my reality," she says.
"I use the camera to understand the world around me more than to make films. It's for putting myself here, in this life, on this earth. I use it on a very basic level to understand certain things that others may understand without looking through a camera."
This approach to the camera and the act of filming give "Mechanical Love" and "Free the Mind" their uniquely Ambo'esque tone. Ambo is above all exploratory. Like an old-fashioned scientist in a strange jungle, she roams around studying the world around her through her magnifying glass. Curiosity is an essential quality, even a virtue, in a documentarian, but Ambo's films are also permeated with the desire to ask questions – without necessarily getting any answers. She is not the type of filmmaker who wants to document that something actually happened, like a World War II documentary does, for instance. What interests her is the inscrutable world that surrounds her.
"I always marvelled at family connections. My mother and father were neighbours when they were kids, which has given me access to several different versions of parallel situations," Ambo says. "The two families might describe the same event in widely different ways. It always fascinated me that one event can be interpreted and experienced in so many different ways, that there is no one truth. Everything is fluid. I've used that, for entirely self-therapeutic purposes, to understand certain basic psychological mechanisms within a family structure."
Soft meets hard
This interest is evident in Ambo's "The Home Front". The documentary takes up a subject as dry as basic psychological mechanisms but serves it up in a way that made it palatable in prime time on a commercial channel. Gazing through her camera, Ambo studied five neighbour disputes that had escalated to the point where the authorities had to step in to arbitrate. The neighbours fought and discussed the most absurd trivialities in front of Ambo and her inquisitive camera.
"It's okay to ask stupid questions when you have your camera. I take my camera along as my slightly dim-witted friend. It represents all viewers, those who don't know anything about the situation, and when I have my camera, it's okay to ask questions like I don't know anything. The presence of a camera somehow adds significance. People take greater pains in their replies."
Ambo is currently going around asking stupid questions on the phenomenon of "consciousness" for the third instalment in her trilogy. It is pretty descriptive of Ambo's approach to documentary filmmaking that she is here sticking her camera into things we only know four percent of the answer to.
"What is consciousness? That's a super abstract question, but I want to have a scientific take on it. It's interesting to meet something very soft and fluid with something ice-cold and hard. There has to be a contrast. Only going the scientific route leaves so many things out. Only 4 percent of the universe has been explained. 22 percent is dark matter and 74 percent is dark energy, and we don't know what that is! We only know it's there."
While most other documentary filmmakers would find a subject like this too abstract to even document on video, to Ambo it is a treasure chest.
"It's a major point for me not to know the process when I make a film. I quickly lose interest if I know how it ends. The process of recording and researching is by far the most important thing. I rarely watch my own films. Once they are finished, they don't interest me at all. The thought of having to sit and watch all my old films with an audience at a festival is torture! I'm just in it for the journey".