Recounting the horror

Recounting the horror

                                                                                                       Photo: Niels Hougaard

Renowned filmmaker Jørgen Leth talks about the devastating earthquake in Haiti and his redemptive journey into the jungles of Laos, as detailed in his IDFA competition title I Walk

Jørgen Leth takes a seat in the reception area of the Eden Hotel in Amsterdam, sipping coffee. The 82-year-old director and author seems steady enough on his feet, an important point given the title of his new feature documentary I Walk (in IDFA main competition).

Leth is a near legendary figure in Danish documentary whose best known films – from The Perfect Human (1967) to The Five Obstructions (2003, which he made with Lars Von Trier) – have long had cult followings.

In 2010, as I Walk (sold by Sigrid Jonsson Dyekjær for Danish Documentary Production) shows us in terrifying detail, Leth was caught in the middle of an earthquake in Haiti, where he had lived for many years.

What is it like to have the ground disappear from beneath you? Leth (who is also receiving a lifetime achievement award during IDFA) remembers all too vividly the moment the quake struck. He was in his home in Jacmel with producer Marianne Christensen and two other Danish film technicians who were editing his film The Erotic Man (2010).

“We were talking downstairs. We were sitting, talking about the film… and then in the afternoon, at 4 o’clock, I said I was going upstairs and that I wanted to rest in my own room, on the third floor,” he remembers of the events nine years ago.

The filmmaker went up to his room and sat down. He kept his shoes on. At exactly seven minutes to five, he heard a rumbling that he first thought was a tractor going through the streets. The reverberations continued and they grew stronger.

“Things began to crack. Suddenly, there was a wall falling down…it was shocking, shocking.”

Leth’s brain seemed to go into “slow motion” as he tried to digest the enormity of the devastation happening around him. He recalls that he felt strangely cool and detached, as if he was an observer, not a participant.

At first, though, he wasn’t able to record anything or to think about how to fashion a narrative from his own trauma. “This was just a moment of survival or of dying. Those were the options.”

After a few minutes, his assistant came up the stairs. He was a black man but was white from head to toe because of the dust from the falling masonry. The assistant told Leth he had to leave. The filmmaker could hardly work out how to respond. “For me, it was not clear what to do or what not to do.” 

Leth was wearing shorts and shoes. When he eventually left, the one possession he took with him, instinctively, was his computer. He noticed that many others fleeing did the same – and he still can’t work out exactly why. “I wasn’t looking for money or extra clothes.”

The director walked gingerly down the broken staircase and joined up with the others. All four Danes in the house survived. It took Leth some time to realise he had just been through an earthquake.

Out in the street, he wasn’t sure where to go next. Heading to the beach could be risky. Maybe there would be a tsunami. He was upset when Marianne went back in the house to take pictures.

Suddenly, a UN car came by. Leth and the others were eventually taken to a UN camp and found a place to stay. There were aftershocks every 20 minutes. “The lack of stability was very shocking for the mind.” He was depressed and disoriented.

In the wake of the earthquake, the director found it harder and harder to use his legs.

His son Asger had been preparing to shoot a film in Mexico about the drug cartels (later abandoned). He moved fast to secure a helicopter from the Dominican Republic to retrieve his father. 

Leth was in the UN camp for four days. The helicopter arrived in the third day. “I didn’t sleep one night of these four because there was crying; there was screaming and the singing of psalms, It was hell. It was very frightening but also very moving because I loved the Haitians. The situation was very bad. We were Europeans trying to find our way out.”

The scene with the ‘copter was similar to that in Saigon when the US and their allies are fleeing at the end of the Vietnam war. Eventually, they made it out but in two separate trips.

After the earthquake, Leth stayed in the Dominican Republic. Eventually, a few months later, he moved back to Haiti, to the north coast. He couldn’t face the idea of being back in Copenhagen and being asked to talk about the earthquake at dinner parties. Haiti meant too much for him to turn his experiences into anecdotes.

However, it’s typical of Leth’s approach as an artist and filmmaker that he soon began to think about his plight from the point of view of a storyteller. His incapacity was another obstruction that he, as an artist, needed to overcome. With Asger’s prompting, that is what led him to embark on I Walk.

Toward the end of the film, Leth is shown going down river, through the jungle in Laos, like an older Danish version of Willard in Apocalypse Now or Marlow in ‘Heart Of Darkness’. The difference was that his journey wasn’t about pestilence, madness and disease. It was cathartic and redemptive – a journey during which he managed to walk again.

“To find life again,” is how Leth muses about the meaning of his trip.

Going to Laos had nothing directly to do with the earthquake but the director had always been obsessed with jungles. He loved their chaos. “I said I would like to see the Mekong river and the forests there,” he told Asgdr. By then, he was far into the process of making the film. He intended the documentary to be “more like a notebook than a fluent, written story.”

Leth’s old colleague, Lars Von Trier, has now watched I Walk. Generally, Von Trier doesn’t share opinions about other filmmakers but he has written to Leth to tell him he liked it. “He wrote to me that it was a wonderful film. I was eager to have his comment on it.”

Leth’s health has been improving since he recently had a dramatic operation which involved fluid being drained from his brain. His balance is better and he can walk more easily. He is as lucid as ever and keen to work again with Von Trier. One project he is hathcing is for the two directors to work together on a new version of his 1975 film Good and Evil. “I want to do it in some kind of collaboration with Lars,” he says. “It’s easy to update it.”

Photocredit Niels Hougaard