The People Behind The Film
I’d like to pretend that the first thing you become aware of, when talking to Gregory Gan, is his intellect. Or his ability to arrange his answers so that he effectively delivers a concise academic treatise. Or his moment of consideration as he arranges his replies. But no. It’s his hair. There can be no avoiding the fact that he has a LOT of hair. Looking like a pre-raphaelite version of Rasputin, his locks and beard create the air of a man who has devoted his life to the service of academia. Which he has. He’s currently studying for his PhD in Anthropology and his films are very much influenced by his learning, with symbolism, metaphor and rigour abounding. His answers to our questions were so thoroughly constructed, that it was very difficult to know which parts needed to be omitted without ruining the overall concept that he was explaining. So, with our collective brains running on overdrive, we randomly hacked the interview and hoped for the best.
To try to regain that closeness, that empathy, that compassion is a life goal.
Gregory was born in Russia, and spent his early years in Moscow before emigrating to Canada after Perestroika. He’s a documentary maker (mostly) and has been making films for ten years. He started when he realised, while working on an organic farm in Argentina, how visual language was able to convey what he had to say, far more openly than reductionist, academic writing. As he started filming people, he became very aware of the distance between himself, behind the camera, and his subjects. He was very conscious of how uncomfortable people could be and he became fascinated in ways to reduce that distance. He describes himself as self-conscious when film-making, but uses the term in its literal sense rather than loading it with ideas of insecurity.
I’m always conscious of the power of cinematic language.
We wanted to know whether he considers his films academic or artistic products. While being aware that his films may not be “communicatable” to everyone, he does feel that film is a way to transcend academic ideas, rigid boundaries and to be able to express creativity – whatever that may mean – such that, interpretation rather than “fact” is the goal. The title of Ghost in the Machine is a reference to the critique, by Gilbert Ryle, of René Descartes ideas of the separation of mind and body. The body, being physical, was subject to the laws of nature but the mind wasn’t – however, it could be influenced by the body. While Ryle thought the concept absurd, Gregory liked the analogy of mind / body and mind / bike. As a former courier he wanted to convey how a bike and a person could be so intricately connected and, while he was at it, reconcile C20th modes of thought with Cartesian philosophy. And you thought it was just a film about couriers. Shame on you.
When it works out, it’s like the euphoria of hammering it down the hill.
Gregory chose a courier company as his subject because he likes the idea of movement and also the freedom that couriers have to regulate their own time – to “subvert the idea of capitalist time.” Of course, they are still working within the capitalist system for large corporations, and Gregory enjoys the contrast of the perception of the courier as free spirited rebel vs the courier as someone subject to the same dictates as the rest of us. The use of 16mm ties in with both the idea of circular motion, and time passing – 24 frames per second. He used a soviet era wind-up camera, where possible, and used a DSLR rig for other shots. Creative honesty is important for Gregory and that is the reason he left the oversize mask on the 16mm portions. He wanted 16mm to look like 16mm. Conversely he also wanted the video portions to look like video and didn’t take the obvious course of “dating” it with post-production effects. Throughout the interview it was remarkable how Gregory was able to link the filming process to aspects of being a cycle courier. He obviously misses it and we all think he should forget the PhD and just ask for his old job back.
I became a member of a radical Ukrainian sect, trying to discover happiness through mathematical formula.
For a the last couple of years Gregory has been working on a project called The Theory of Happiness. It started with his history film, Turning Back the Waves, for which he returned to Russia to film women, from within his own family, as they related their roles in the last seventy-five years of Russian, dissident history. This was the creative element of his masters thesis from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, and is the first part of what he now calls his Russian Trilogy. His particular interests within anthropology “include identity politics, modern state ideology and gender in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.” And so, after a chance meeting at a demo in Moscow, he eventually decided to film The Theory of Happiness. In order to do so he had to join the PORTOS sect, who believe that happiness is attained by following the simple formula of adding all your good deeds, and subtracting the mistakes. Although he doesn’t mention it in this interview, the consequences were more serious than you would normally find in a film production. Initially the ideology of the sect seemed charming enough but as his time with them progressed he grew to understand that there were strong undercurrents of power and abuse, and he had to leave. The situation actually became potentially dangerous for him, and he developed post-traumatic stress – feeling guilty and vulnerable, even as he was being pursued by the sect. Gosh. His next project is tentatively called The World in a Suitcase, and has as a subject Russian emigration from the 1920’s to the present. It’ll be another ethnographic piece and I bet his course tutors are genuinely looking forward to his dissertation.