Blog: Unforgettable encounters with Phil Collins and Chantal Akerman

By Saskia Monshouwer

Phill Collins’ first feature film Tomorrow Is Always Too Long is a colorful string of images, scenes, stories, and songs interspersed with television commercials, animated scenes, and short stories told by ordinary Glaswegians. The film interweaves a range of voices from institutions and communities that define the complex character of the city of Glasgow, in a fast rhythm bound together by songs of Cate Le Bon, and introduced by an electronic soundtrack of de Scottish band Mogwai’s piano player Barry Burns. The 2014 film’s screening was an uplifting experience, immersing the viewer into the city of Glasgow as we’re being led by its inhabitants. Although it was the first time that filmmaker, visual artist, cultural organizer, and educator Phil Collins made a film of this length, it refers in many aspects to his earlier works. 

During an informal one hour-long talk with Helen Westerik at W139 an absolutely talkative and friendly Phil Collins discusses the making and the meanings of the film. “I always wanted art to be for everyone”, he says. “Not only for a certain group of people. Art should be colorful and within everyone’s reach, even my granny; therefore I love to work with music and colors. I also allow emotions in my work. We all have emotions watching films, they are an important element in films. It becomes an experience.”

Phill Collins has a rich and diverse oeuvre, consisting of films made at special locations, and always working with amateurs — participants from his surroundings. Like the group of youngsters from Ramallah in Palestine that danced to a succession of pop songs in the installation they shoot horses (2004). Or the people Collins filmed in Colombia, Turkey, and Indonesia for The Smiths Karaoke The world won't listen (2007). For each part, Collins spent more than two months researching the project, interviewing, building stages and filming. Collins’ works are an eclectic mix of glamorous photographs of young people, graphics, installations and texts related to advertisements and the imaginary worlds of film, television and social media. 

But at the heart of his work is the camera. No wonder he starts his presentation in W139 pointing out that his work is all about ‘encounters’. “Working with a camera is always about encounters, about sharing space and time. There is a profound rhythm of interchange. It is not only a possibility to show and experience who we are, the camera is also an agent”, Collins says. So at the start of every project he reaches out to the people of a specific location. Talking to them, hanging out with them, and, in the case of Tomorrow Is Always Too Long, inviting them to a small studio he rented were they can participate in his film. 

Collins was born in Glasgow and is he particularly fond of the city and its inhabitants. Striving for a lively and straightforward representation of the population, especially with the vulnerable and the poor, he gathers schoolchildren, inmates, and elderly in a dance hall to sing musical songs and to perform. In the years he is working as an artist Collins developed a special way to communicate with the amateur cast members and to cast them. Casting to him is more like building a relationship than to typecast. “In a script you might write down that you’re looking for six bakers, but what kind of bakers are you looking for? Factory workers, a mother? So when I’m casting, I enter a process in which I meet people, and our relationship is developing. I don’t just choose, partakers also offer themselves to me, so to say.” 

Collins is talking so enthusiastically about Glasgow and the people he works with, you would almost forget that he also films — although it’s clear that he is obsessed with film and some aspect of television judging from the many references he makes, ranging from Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen (2002) to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969) with Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. The soft colors of films from the 1970s and the 1980s, the sleaziness of late night television commercials; it all returns in his work.      

Watching Tomorrow Is Always Too Long it’s almost too much. This film should be watched several times to remember all the details. But it is quite clear that Collins has compassion with every one that struggles to make a life for himself, a bit of freedom and happiness. Singer and actor Paul Robeson who visited Glasgow’s May Day Parade in 1960 is one of the film’s leading themes. Collins used footage of a recording of that day. Queens Park in Glasgow is another theme. Like all city parks this a location where histories piles up. You need free spaces like parks even if they can be dangerous in the dark (Collins mentions two murders). 

So besides the sensible photography, and the deep and sincere interest in the people Collins works with, you will remember some songs and scenes. I particularly liked the prison scenes. If guys have a problem they’re so often confronted with violence instead of understanding, which I find moving. The same emotional streak I had with the song of an older lady who did a duet with a man with a beautiful voice. Just because I know now that getting older, is so very different from what I expected when l was young. I still have the same longings and feelings I had before. 

Much harsher is Chantal Akerman’s reality, portrayed in the moving documentary I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman (2015) by filmmaker Marianne Lambert. Sitting on what appears to be two enormous rusty metal object in front of some rocky hills in Israel, Belgian experimental filmmaker Akerman talks about her life and work. It is an impressive story, direct and convincing. It makes you want to watch her films all over again. This special directness, created by many frontal shots, following the images and actors painfully close, are characteristic of her way of filming. To ‘crack the frame’ she uses a fixed camera position and often a meticulously symmetrical composition. From there she lets her actors show how time is passing. She unveils a state of being in an almost crude and shameless way. It is tragic Akerman killed herself after her mother died in 2015. She lived and died in the shadow of her mother’s past in Auschwitz. But her films and artworks are strong and alive, a good reason to not only see the documentary, but an Akerman retrospective as well.