PRINT February 1993


I WAS PLEASED to welcome Ulrike Ottinger to the University of California, Santa Barbara, back in October. She was appointed Regent’s Lecturer and was in attendance at the screenings of seven of her films, beginning (out of chronological sync) with Freak Orlando, 1981, and closing with the U.S. pre-premiere of her newest film, Taiga.

Between Freak Orlando and Taiga there are still exemplary similarities that tell us something about the style or strategy of Ottinger’s work. In both the freaks movie and the Mongolian-shaman-cult film, there’s the interest in those traveling or nomadic cultures that to this day take us to the margin, which is the edge of where reality begins.

A special relationship to reality, that is, to the other, that is, to the future, is what Ottinger’s cinema is all about. And that’s why with Ottinger’s work we’re at movies that take the time it takes to encounter the other. In other words: what gives Taiga its staying power is the real or epic time taken to record shamanistic seances and other rituals coming from no standard time zones and no received place.

The slow time, the politeness it takes to approach the other or, in other words, reality can be followed throughout Freak Orlando. A premise of this film is that the tolerant and integrationist manner in which we look past or overlook the freaks among us is way worse than what their former freak status gave them: even under the fire of persecution and exploitation, they had access, as sideshow attractions, to the center stage of visibility (and that means to some kind of inclusion of their otherness). So, in Freak Orlando, we watch the primal time combo of inquisition, fascism, and normative psychiatry working overtime to assimilate—that is, efface—the freak, the other, reality, the future (you name it). But the film’s resistance is the time it restores to us to read complex combinations of images beamed up from many different time zones and levels of meaning. I caught one reference among the many interreferences to literature, architecture, painting, and film: it’s to Freaks, by Tod Browning, who’s otherwise responsible, remember, for Dracula.

Ulrike Ottinger works the margins which puts her on the cutting edge. The multiculturalism of her films is the kind that shoots up every identity, sexual or otherwise, with a megadose of difference. There is no other filmmaker.

The interview covers the theorems of Ottinger’s playfully monumental cinema. It took place in Santa Barbara on October 20, 1992, on the last day of her lectureship.

Laurence Rickels

Laurence Rickels: So how did it come to this focus in your work (and I mean not only the Mongolian movies but also the China film and Madame X)? How did you start out on this journey to the other?

Ulrike Ottinger: I think the early childhood period I spent locked up in Germany instilled in me a love of travel, perhaps transferred over from my mother whose attempts to escape the Nazi terror failed. And so I threw myself into the reading of travelogues which I really consumed rather than read—and in that pileup of texts there were many devoted to Asia, a far-off place that was truly foreign and other. That’s one explanation. There’s no doubt an unconscious motivation there too. But in any event there was a strong fascination which grew and developed: wherever I went on my travels I devoted considerable time to the Asian collections in all the local museums, often in the company of my mother, which gave the foundation to my early fascination. There was a time when I wanted to become an ethnologist, and I wavered for a long while between the choice of an artistic or a scientific career. It has taken a long time to connect these two approaches in my work.

LR: Your claims to ethnology have been substantiated by your new documentary, Taiga, which went where no professional ethnologist or ethnographer had gone before. And I see your achievement in the extended contest of visibility versus invisibility: in Freak Orlando what is crucial is that something be made visible again. The other problem (it’s really the same problem) is that others are reduced to sheer visibility, as so often happens in documentary films. So I’d be interested to hear a bit about the diplomacy you adopted in filming Taiga to make these others visible without reducing them to visibility, without making them disappear.

UO: You obviously can’t just come out shooting. Rather lengthy greeting rituals must be observed because the guest, in an area where there are so few guests from very far away, has a completely different meaning. Only after you have provisionally satisfied their curiosity about where you come from do they ask what it is you’re looking for or hoping to accomplish in their land. I tried to explain my wish, which was to record a way of life that no longer exists in the place where I’ve come from, in order to show the document to the people back home, who are very interested in the nomadic ways. At first this puzzled them, but then they thought, Yes, indeed, we too would be interested to know how your people live, and that brought up another wave of questions.

It’s important that the guest contributes to the entertainment of the people there, and in this way, one can even become quite popular. I was able to benefit from the Mongolians’ fervent wish to be photographed. Photographs are sought after and are placed on the family altars along with the relics. Because I knew about all this from my many trips to Mongolia in preparation for Taiga and also for Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia, I brought along a Polaroid camera. Word got around to such an extent that I became something of an official family photographer for the Mongolians. When I visited one yurt, people came from all around by horse or motorcycle dressed up in their glorious festive costumes to get their pictures taken. It meant a great deal to them. And it made my work that much easier. At first, however, they did not quite understand why I wanted to film their everyday activities, and so I explained to them that our everyday life was different from theirs, and that this was why this record was of such interest for us. (They themselves prefer to be photographed during the ceremonial exchange of tobacco tins, when they are dressed up in their festive robes.) Once they realized that I was interested in their everyday life, they took it for granted that I would also be interested in their religious ways, since they don’t separate the one from the other. I didn’t even have to ask to film the shamanistic seances, they just told me to go ahead, and they were interested in seeing the sequence afterwards because the shamaness, who goes into a trance during the séance, doesn’t remember what was said; she has a recollection of whether the trip went well or not, but not of various details. Since we could not develop the films there, we were only able to let them listen to the soundtracks, which fascinated them. The shamaness helped us to translate the Tuwinian parts, and this process gave me the opportunity to ask questions about otherwise unspeakable matters.

LR: The Polaroid is perhaps less uncanny, too.

UO: They have a very precise way of seeing. The Polaroid, which was brand new to them, was given the description that everyone picked up and used: “the camera that shits pictures.”

LR: What Freud called “primitives” indeed have a precise way of picking up on the technological object and of receiving it within their own readiness for such long-distance relations. I wonder if there are examples of a Mongolian cultic reception of technology perhaps comparable to the Melanesian cargo cult. I’d imagine that shamanism would be a place where a techno reception was already in place.

UO: During the shooting of my first Mongolian film, I went to a little settlement in the middle of the grasslands, a few small houses where the Chinese lived and traded and to which the Mongolians traveled from far away—from the steppes or from the desert—to buy a few essential products. In this town a tiny department store had recently been built. It was nothing more than two small rooms one on top of the other. This two-floor house was such a hit with the Mongolians that they came from all over just to see it. The most important instrument for the Mongolians is the two-stringed horse-head fiddle, and on the resonators of these fiddles some of them built up tiny wooden replicas of this department store, which then became a part of their narrative store, their history. Another example: a shamaness fashioned out of wood a small pocket calculator, which she no doubt first saw in the so-called department store being used by a Chinese merchant. She would press the wooden keys, then look thoughtfully into the skies, then look at the calculator again, then type some more. Finally she would-report an interesting answer, as though reading it off this instrument, in the course of performing prophecy.

LR: I also remember the tour of the telegraph office in Taiga, which was less a technological site than it was, due to its complete lack of functionality, a cultic place.

UO: At some time in the beginning, surely, the telegraph did work. But over time what fell apart couldn’t be repaired. But today one has the sense that the telegraph operator repeats the individual words a thousand times like prayers or litanies in the hope that they will arrive at their destination. It has the interesting side effect that everyone listens in on what the telegraph operator is repetitively trying to get across.

LR: In the so-called West, anyway in the United States, séance occultism arose or came back at the time of the telegraph’s invention. So I wonder if the telegraph, for example, introduced any new improvements into shamanism.

UO: Shamanism is of course the oldest recorded religion and has, as such, a measure of stability, and yet it isn’t ossified but vital. For the Mongolians every initiation must be marked by a séance. For example, when Mongolians were first drafted into the Chinese or Russian army, or now whenever a family member moves to the city or when any other important change occurs, it must be mediated by a séance.

LR: Were the Mongolian shamanesses herbal doctors and midwives, as was the case in Europe with the shamanskas?

UO: They seem to me to perform more of a psychic service: the healings are transmitted in a séance through the interrogation of the spirits. There’s a great concern with the causes of the presenting disorder. That’s why the whole family is also often present (though this of course depends on the nature of the complaint). Sometimes entire clans attend the largest seances. Seances always take place at night, start around midnight, but must end before daylight: otherwise the shamaness might not return from her journey. They see her as always at risk of remaining in the other world and of no longer being able to call the spirits. To this end they have developed interesting mechanisms for bringing back a shamaness in ecstasy. When one of the shamanesses I witnessed fell into a trance and then passed out and the usual incense couldn’t revive her, her assistant brought out a miniature bow and arrow and shot the arrow to bring her back from the trip. Sometimes regular-sized arrows wrapped in ceremonial veils are shot into the sky or simply stabbed upwards to indicate that they are being sent after her.

LR: In Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia, on the way from Europe to Mongolia, Yiddish plays a certain role, which brings us to your current project, Diamond Dance, in which the diamond trade presents a kind of primal structuring of long distance. Will the new film bring into ethnological focus a way in which the Jewish people have been rendered uncanny through their close association with what can already be called technology?

UO: In Johanna d’Arc I was concerned with the transfer of culture and the interesting pathways cultural ideas travel. There are only these mixtures and no separate and pure cultures. I’ve always been intrigued by this nomadization of cultural ideas—the obscure ways they take and flourish at one particular intersection and not at another. In my films I’ve often tried to recreate such a transfer. The new project, Diamond Dance, will travel the old trade routes that were the precondition for this nomadization of all highly charged cultural ideas. The Jewish people in particular, who, by force of course, nomadized over and over again along the trade routes, acquired a certain travel know-how. The diamond business is perhaps one of the oldest ones around; we know from Maimonides, the Talmud scholar and interpreter, that his brother was a diamond trader who at one point did not return from a business trip to India, where he presumably died. In the course of my research for this film it became increasingly clear to me that the Jews, who have so often been nomadic, because they had to be or for business reasons, nevertheless retained through their religion a strong long-distance connection, wherever they were in the diaspora. At each location or stopover in the long-distance network, there was a rabbi who was a person of trust; so, when the Colmar rabbi wrote the Constantinople rabbi to ask for help in some special mission, the assistance was granted and fulfilled in accordance with the ancient moral laws of the Old Testament and the Talmud. This incredibly correct, that is, efficient running of business across great distances was the occasion again and again, from the Middle Ages onward, of this defamation, this phantasm, of Judaism as the front for some international conspiracy. That’s what is so interesting about the diamond business to this day, namely, that transactions involving millions are carried out against the collateral of a handshake—of a belief and trust—that still conforms to the moral codex of the Old Testament.

LR: The last scenes of this new film show a condensation or intersection of diverse problems that might seem out of place together if it weren’t for your having juxtaposed them. Everything involved in the diamond business over time comes into our time as a connection linking traumatic neurosis through Nazi persecution, psychoanalysis, and AIDS.

UO: The connections are clear but, at the same time, the problem remains how to make them visible in an adequate artistic juxtaposition or form. One problem is that these connections have a long history of powerful connotations including a long history of misunderstandings.

LR: My free-association is that with AIDS it has become clear that we, together with our machines, form one body. There are no boundaries any longer; everything is given over to long-distance live transmissions. The whole world is no longer watching; now it’s contracting AIDS.

UO: Yes, it drives home our utter unprotectedness. I’ve seen, for example, several AIDS films and I found them sentimental; they were simply bad films that, in addition, did not do justice to the subject, one that does not tolerate sentimentality. So I tried to bring current fears together with the medieval ones in order to show the rhymes between the different anxieties that have plagued mankind under such diverse conditions over and over again. That’s why Jewish history was important here: anti-Semitism has emerged everywhere again, and I thought this eternal return of persecution and distrust of the Jew needed to be brought into contact with the AIDS crisis, where all of the medieval prejudices one assumed had long ago been overcome remain virulent—are back—in the most evil and conventional manner imaginable. You can’t do this work of juxtaposition in a Hollywood plot, which excludes everything that is really significant and not readily decidable.

LR: That’s what thinking is: it means juxtaposing what comes your way without being phobic about it.

Laurence Rickels is professor of German and film studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Aberrations of Mourning: Writing on German Crypts (Wayne State University Press, 1988) and The Case of California (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

Ulrike Ottinger’s most recent film, Taiga, premieres officially in the U.S. next month at the Film Forum in New York. A companion book to Taiga is just out from Dirk Nishen Verlag, Berlin.