Francis Fukuyama created a stir with his 1998 essay (and later book), “The End of History?” His gist was this: What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. German historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte, might have argued that this sounds a bit fascist and only a partial truth. There is an entire world of metaphysics, meta-politics, meta-arts, meta-science – meta-design that we are failing to count into our quest to understand. Meaning – there are forces of energies that run through our creative and inquisitive processes intimately linked to a notion of space and time that often remains hidden from our perspective.
Then when one encounters the work of director and cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, one finds the evidence of yet something deeper. Something that is and isn’t. Something that says and says not. There is art, and then a step above that is philosophy and yet a further step above that is a conversation.
Bangladeshi cinematographer, Rashed Zaman (Aynabaji), contrasts Doyle’s work: When Hollywood over-lights, directing the audience to look and feel something specific, Christopher Doyle says “discover it.” Zaman calls Doyle a visual philosopher. I say he is a master of conversation in his creative process and his final cut.
His passion and profound respect for Chinese aesthetics, the variations in Chinese language, and the Chinese people opened up for the international audience a way to see, not just China, but Asians with dignity outside the confines of “orientalism”. Of course he leaves his audiences mesmerized but not in an “Asia is so mystical” sort of way, rather the audience is pulled in (whether living in Boston, Bristol or Barisal), the audience is not deeply imagining being Leslie Cheung (Days of Being Wild), Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love), the audience is them, in love with an gynoid in 2046, speaking in Japanese without any animosity toward the sound of Cantonese. Essentially, Doyle creates a world without space and time, everything is stacked upon itself and the separation of East and West is lost.
No wonder that when Dhaka Tribune caught up with Doyle for an interview, right after he won the Hollywood Reporter Award for outstanding achievements in the international film and television industry at Film Festival Cologne, his first sentence was “If people in Bangladesh love my work, then I must be doing something right.”
Are you familiar with Bangladesh and how you inspire filmmakers there, that from colour correction to the mood, feel, movement of space and characters, you have inspired, even led the way to tell the world how it feels to be of Asia?
Of course, I’m familiar with Bangladesh. I hope and believe we are in the same s** together. Film doesn’t have language barriers. If Bangladeshis know me then I am honored because we are sharing something so personal. I believe that if what you make is true to you, it will be true to the world. When you are true to yourself people will feel it. I left Australia 46 years ago. I feel closer to Bangladeshis.
About 35 years ago, I got arrested for trying to walk into Burma.
Why were you walking into Burma?
I was on my way home.
Where was home?
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: Australia.
So, you wanted to walk to Australia? What were you doing in South Asia in the first place?
I was living in Bihar and volunteering my time in service to Biharis. I did this for about three years.
How did you make it to Bihar?
A nun convinced me to be of service. Faith. Trust. Conviction. If you believe in something strongly enough, you believe in the energy that faith gives. This basic push towards sharing, to make the world a better place is powerful. Religion should be about making this world better. The beauty of a place – how light falls on water.
So you became interested in films while living in Bihar?
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: I began to notice the attitudes toward life that one should use in making films. Let me tell you a story. Bihar is a dry state. No alcohol allowed. But the locals, they say, “No one died since Thursday. Let’s have a drink.” That’s the attitude you should have toward filmmaking.
After collecting these images and attitudes in Bihar you decided to walk home?
I had no money. So, I decided to walk. I made it all the way to the Burmese border but then I was arrested and put in jail for about 20 days. I suppose it wasn’t so bad in jail. Drugs, women coming and going.
What happened after 20 days?
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: They deported me to Singapore. I worked there for a bit and then made my way to Hong Kong for the love of language. I love languages. I had already begun to notice in India the many languages people speak there. Ultimately, I think one of the most beautiful languages in the world is Chinese.
And that’s where you began making films?
Yeah, I was about 32 years old when I first held a camera. Before that I was never interested in films. I learned from life. Every minute of every day we make movies. A filmmaker is a cultural athlete. You have to balance between the physical and the mental. You have to engage with people. When I am working, I am sharing.
What is always captivating is your working rhythm with Wong Kar Wai. You worked without scripts, often used music to share the mood with your creative team and gave each other and your artists ample room to improvise. It’s like our South Asian classical music, khyal, in which artists work a lot with their internal and external moods as well as time and space. Can you tell us a little more about improvising?
Let me tell you a story of how films should be made. When I was in Bihar, I was invited to a night performance in a village. All families were there, kids running around, people eating, having a good time. The performers were preparing. I think we arrived around 10:00 pm. The night wore on, 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., soon after 4:00 a.m. the program started, people continued on with what they were doing. The performance was going to last for more than 36 hours. Then the performance came to a point that made everyone stop what they were doing. The audience began taking it all in because they felt, they knew – this was the best part.
What is your next film?
The next film will be The White Girl. It will be co-directed with Jenny Suen. She and I also directed our last film Hong Kong Trilogy, an experimental portrait of the city, using voices of three generations of real Hong Kong people.
What is the future of film?
It is not the equipment. It’s the emotions. It’s the energy you bring to it. Just do it. You have no excuse now not to. Take your phone, take whatever little gadget you have with a camera on it and just share your story. If the image connects with your audience then it’s true. How we see the world – we are all Nobel Prize winning Bob Dylans. As long as you make it, it’s valid. As long as you share it, it’s from the heart.