“ECHO” Short Film Interview with Director Lieke Bezemer

Interview by Anna Harrison

Lieke Bezemer’s short ECHO breaks down film to its bare parts—moving images and sound. The images: the snow in Hokkaido, Japan. The sound: Bezemer’s voiceover, grappling with her sexual assault. The two seem somewhat disconnected at first; aside from a reference to “bleak landscapes,” it appears the image is simply there for us to gaze upon. As the film progresses, and Bezemer’s narration becomes more and more frantic, the two collide: the images become wilder, cutting with reckless abandon, and the sound of crows matching a flurry of wings on screen, all serving to illustrate the inner chaotic trauma that resulted from this assault. It’s a powerful move—we only see snow, waves, birds, but we understand Bezemer’s psyche better than if we had seen anything straightforward and “realistic.” In only six minutes, the film manages to convey what others cannot in two hours.

Which came first, the visual ideas or the script? They seem so connected, like you can’t have one without the other, and I was wondering you arrived at the combination of these exact words and these exact images.

Well thanks, that is a great compliment! Actually, the script came at the very final stage. For most of the process, I didn’t even think I was going to be writing one! Where the visuals are a more universal representation of trauma, the script is deeply personal. ECHO is based on my own experiences and before I started making this film I couldn’t talk about my traumas. Understanding, let alone communicating, what you’re experiencing feels impossible – which is actually scientifically acknowledged by brain scans. The rational brain half ‘shuts down’ when triggered by trauma, disconnecting emotions from language. But as I like to say, I ‘hacked’ the system. I wasn’t able to find the words to describe what I was going through, but I found visuals. Combined with stories of Japanese mythology, all of the research on trauma I did and the actual shooting of ECHO created a world tangible enough to then be put into words again: the voice-over where I speak about my sexual abuse. Maybe not a conventional workflow, but I couldn’t have found my voice any other way.

What specifically drew you to Hokkaido? Had you been there before?

I had been to Japan twice and developed a slight addiction to it. I hadn’t been to Hokkaido though, but I knew I wanted to shoot a film in Japan at some point. Japan and I had some unfinished business. The country and its mysteries lingered in my mind during the very first phase of researching for the film. However, I didn’t want the location to dictate the story: the story itself should be the priority. So I let Japan go for a while. The decision to use Hokkaido as the shooting location happened at the exact same time as deciding on nature to carry the narrative. Early on in the process, I decided that I wasn’t going to use people to tell this story of trauma. I was looking for a more abstract, poetic and interpretive narrative. Using nature made more sense to me, given my specialization in nature films. However, I wasn’t quite sure yet. When I randomly found a photo of Hokkaido by Jefflin Ling on Instagram—I was convinced completely. The photo, consisting of a few trees in a minimalistic and eerie snow landscape, touched me more than any piece of art on trauma that I had come across. I couldn’t explain why just yet, but this was the embodiment of trauma for me. This is what it felt like. Later on I discovered that the landscapes perfectly symbolized the dissociation I experienced with my PTSD, where you go into a state of numbness by pushing everything away: emotions, memories, passions, friends—anything that makes you feel at all. All that makes you feel alive. A very common survival mechanism where, on the outside, I started to stare into the distance for hours on end. On the inside, I was burying everything that could remind me of my traumas under a thick blanket of snow, and my mind just went completely blank. This was our starting point for ECHO.

How much footage did you get from Hokkaido? How did you go about cutting down said footage?

We shot a lot of footage for a film that’s just under seven minutes long, probably around eleven hours of raw footage. Cutting down came natural to me and my editor Erik van der Bijl: if a shot didn’t serve a specific purpose, it had to go. We rather wanted to use one long shot than three shorter ones. Rather too little than too much. Instead of going through all of the footage and lining up everything with potential, we created folders with the different types of shots, and searched for a shot when we needed it. With the whole edit being so associative, we made a bunch of different versions before we landed on a flow that we liked.

Once you had the footage, did you change the script at all? 

Well, yeah. I made the very first draft of the script. 🙂

How did you decide which clips went with which words? Did you have a clear idea before starting the editing process, or did you discover what fit along the way?

We knew the film had to go from dissociation (numbing) to an anxiety attack (intense fear), and we knew the importance and meanings of the elements like the crows and the abandoned home. After a few versions of the edit I started writing the voice-over with the three phases of that edit: numbing—increasing tension—anxiety attack. Four actually, if you count the returning to numbing at the very end. From this, we discovered that the edit needed a different build up. These phases were a gradual shift rather than an inner battle. So we came up with two setbacks in the second phase, and I rewrote the script. From that script we made a new edit. From that edit we minimalized the script. From that script we made the final edit. Finally, we changed one or two last words in the script. Then we might’ve changed one last shot in the final edit, but who’s counting?

Do you have any films or filmmakers that inspired you with this film? (I felt—and I might be making this up!—some Alain Resnais vibes.)

I understand what you mean, but honestly, not really haha! I actually get my inspiration from various sources and disciplines. Film isn’t necessarily the first source I turn to when making a film. It’s often a mix of things. For ECHO in particular, as I couldn’t find a live-action film on trauma that I could really relate to. All the more reason to make one myself. Obviously, my work is deeply influenced by the all of the nature films I studied over the years. With other documentary genres, Dutch director Marina Meijer inspired me in many ways. She often works with small crews, sometimes even doing the cinematography herself. She taught me how to choose a fitting ‘micro cosmos’ to tell a story, how every shot in the film should serve that story, and to not rush the process: take the time to do your story justice. So in short: the story is top priority, and every decision should serve this. Her comment on how a language barrier creates the opportunity to tell the story even more visual resonated with ECHO. Not only with filming in Japan, but also with being unable to find the words to speak about trauma. Another film that inspired me while making Echo was the animation film My Father’s Room on domestic abuse, by Nari Jang. A narrative fueled by images rather than a script. The metaphorical approach enabled by the animation process is without limits and inspired me adapt this way of thinking too. In both ECHO and My Father’s Room, there is little to no use of color, and negative space is just as important as filled space. There is strength in simplicity, modesty even. But what impressed me most is that it gave me, the audience, the unique opportunity to enter the mind of this specific abused girl—which from then on was the goal for ECHO too. 

I’ve always found that, ironically, the “unreality” of art often arrives at the truth of something more so than real life. What makes art—and specifically film—so effective when addressing traumas, despite being “unreal”?

I completely agree! It also depends on what your definition of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ is. Is reality what we all share together, the ‘truth’? Or does everyone have their own reality, more like someone’s perspective or experiences? Not everything that’s real is visible. There is a whole dimension to reality that isn’t tangible. Experiences aren’t tangible, but that doesn’t make them unreal. Art—and specifically film—are powerful tools for providing the audience with a new perspective. Film can show you the invisible: the emotions, thoughts, philosophies, memories, pain, etc. And say, you do describe ‘reality’ as the ‘truth’; where a tree is just a tree, and a rape is just forced penetration. There is no depth in that. It doesn’t do the complexity of the situation justice. Showing the reality of trauma is exactly that: just traumatic. Showing the reality of rape is too hard to look at and it doesn’t even serve the message. There is no layering in that narrative. There is no fluidity in time. There is no opportunity for interpretation. There is no healing, only struggle. No hope, only pain. The ‘unreal’ can be all of these things morphed into one: ‘reality’ layered with all of these invisible dimensions—creating a more full, complete story than ‘reality’ alone ever could. Another beauty of the ‘unreal’, is that it makes people want to watch a film with their guards down; because it’s not real anyways, right? But the story is, at its core, very real. And when the guards are down—souls are touched. 

What was your favorite movie of 2020 (or of 2021 so far)?
In all honesty, I’ve been so busy with ECHO during 2020 that I haven’t watched that many movies..! But on my ‘to watch-list’ are Rewind, House of Hummingbird, Coded Bias, To the Ends of the Earth, Nomadland, First Cow and Gunda.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

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