Director Isabell Heimerdinger talks to Business Doc Europe about her painterly and contemplative short documentary, shot on a remote island off the coast of West Africa.
Time is of the essence in artist/filmmaker Isabell Heimerdinger’s Soon It Will Be Dark, and the film’s title isn’t a mere throwaway comment.
On her unnamed equatorial island location (unnamed at least until the credits roll at the end) the sun sets vertically, and therefore very quickly. If you are shooting a film miles from base in the densest of jungle, then organisation is key within such daylight restrictions.
“Light structures the day,” Heimerdinger comments. “Eight kilometres is a long way considering the roads are very poor, so sometimes you are in a place and at 2pm you have to start to go back because soon it will be dark. The sun will always go down at 5.30.”
Light also permeates Heimerdinger’s film in terms of its patterns, its nuances and its degrees of luminosity, depending on the time of the day. In slow, painterly shots of the jungle, illumination and shadow perform a delicate and constant dance while silence is banished by rich and persistent birdsong.
But the film offers more. During the day we see elaborate ruins from the island’s colonial past, and at night men gather at a shack to eat grilled corn while listening to pop music.
We see daytime human activity within the jungle terrain, whether meditative or work-oriented. One character sits silently, listening and calling to the birds, while another clears the lower branches within a patch of plantation with deliberate and regular swipes of his machete, cultivating and maintaining order within the area.
“Soon It Will Be Dark came together very intuitively,” comments Heimerdinger, adding that she and DOP Ivan Marković approached the project with no “pre-conceived ideas” ahead of the two-week shoot. “We followed our memories and the threads that we found in the material, and created this film. It is not a classical documentary film, but it’s also not a narrative film. It reads more like a poem, or something very abstract.”
“You find the men in the jungle, you see the colonial buildings abandoned within nature so you know that there has been some kind of a history, and you also get the sense of it all being very fragile, this cosmos,” she adds.
Speaking to FID Marseille before the festival Heimerdinger underlined how, “there is a certain loneliness in the day scenes, sometimes the character seems to be the only existing human being. This feeling is contrasted by the night scenes, when the music comes in and the people pursue their evening activities in the village. The night is very soft and comforting, more an internal feeling than a reality.”
This chimes with the overall sense of harmony on the island. Yes, the people are poor but the island offers comfort and sustenance in abundance. “It is very fertile, and there is a lot of water. Everybody can grow their own food and the fish come from the sea, so it is a very idyllic and happy place if you don’t measure it against [global] economic standards,” says the director.
FID Marseille looks to eschew traditional lines of demarcation between documentary, fiction and experimental, and therefore the selection of Heimerdinger’s work seems apt. “As an artist first, most of my previous films have been shown within an art context, in galleries, which gives me another kind of freedom to approach a film because I am not thinking so much of the market.”
In essence, Soon It Will Be Dark is part of a future project that will have a stronger narrative seam, which is why director Heimerdinger refers to it as a “detour”. In her previous short film Blind Date she took a similar approach, shooting ostensibly documentary footage in Beijing before fictionalising it with an overlay of dramatic telephone dialogue.
“Needless to say [Soon It Will Be Dark] is only the beginning of a longer working process,” she affirms.