Madi Piller: An Interview

May 22, 2019 | Interviews

Here we present a fragment of the interview made by Mike Hoolboom to Madi Piller in 2016, included in the book Shock, Fear, and Belief: The Films and Videos of Madi Piller, edited by Clint Enns and Mike Hoolboom in the ocassion of Madi Piller’s retrospective in Pleasure Dome.

Mike: When you came to Canada, some of your earliest movies are animated. How did your interest in animation begin?
Madi: I’ve always liked animation, it’s a way of expressing things. You don’t need to wait for anything to happen, you just start creating. When I worked in advertising, you see all the planning that goes into a scene of a family eating, or a guy drinking a soda. You spend three hours to set it up and someone takes a drink and that’s it. You wind up with thirty seconds after two days of filming, it’s ridiculous. But when we did some TV commercials that were animated, I liked the way animators were left to work on their own. You give them instructions and after a few meetings you trust them to bring in what you need. I admired their craft, and the fact that they could work by themselves. That attracted me.
I never tried to do any animation myself when I was producing commercials, but I did shoot a lot of super 8. I remember making a commercial for Clorets with a couple kissing each other. Kissing, kissing, kissing. It won a prize actually. But the client never wanted it shown on TV because there was too much kissing (laughs). I shot it on super 8 with a creative director who gave me the idea. That was in Colombia where I worked for an ad agency from 1992-99. In the final years there I was in transition, living in both Colombia and Canada. I had a Canadian permit to go overseas and work. But you only get this permit for three years, after that I had to decide whether I wanted to stay in Colombia or move to Canada. I decided to come here.
How did you start working on super 8?
I was coming to Toronto to visit my family. My twin sister had moved here from Peru and eventually brought my parents. While I was in Colombia I often came to visit them, and also to watch films at the Toronto International Film Festival (now TIFF). The first festival I went to was Hot Docs, which was held in a bar on College Street. Then Splice This! I was encouraged by Margaret from Exclusive Film (were I was developing my Super 8) to submit my work to this festival and that’s how I met Kelly O’Brien and Laura Cowell, the organizers. It was a festival dedicated to super 8 films. I continued coming every year to visit my family but I did not see them much because I was completely immersed in films screenings. I took my holidays specifically during the time to attend the Toronto International Film Festival. I started seeing contemporary films that had more experimental tendencies, not the regular mainstream fare. I was always looking for discoveries in the catalogue, anything that had a description including mentions of “super 8 film” or experimental.
I met my future husband on an airplane. We were pen pals for ten years before we married. On one of my visits to Toronto he gave me a super 8 camera that he had, because I mentioned that I was looking for one. Most of the films I shot in Colombia were made with the first camera that I got from him. It was totally automatic; you couldn’t do anything but a bit of zooming. Later on I bought a Nizo from a pawn shop on Queen East. I had my sister here so I would send my films by mail from Bogota, and she would take them to Margaret at Exclusive Film Lab to get processed. Lili, my sister, was the contact between Colombia and Toronto (laughs). I submitted a film to Splice This! which was accepted, and then I sent another. Those acceptances helped me to continue.
That’s the way I started with super 8, making a lot of mistakes, carrying my camera everywhere, even while doing mountain biking. I went into productions and shot my own takes on the side, trying to figure out my vision of the scene been shot. It was a way of training myself. My job in Colombia was director of production at J. Walter Thompson, a big transnational company. Very fun. I opened a gap so that the people at the agency could think differently about how to make commercials. I experimented with creative processes and relations with TV commercial directors in order to realize the full expression of their vision.
I wanted to work between the two worlds of the creative director of the agency and the director at the production house. Once I had a storyboard I would look for imagery and edit from outtakes, found footage, from other TV commercials, music videos or films. Then I would bring this to the creative director at the ad agency and the TV commercial director and try to design the production with them. In this way I was trying to extract the most from the creative people I was working with. It wasn’t just a question of following a storyboard. I opened the door for many young directors.
Were there people in Toronto who opened doors for you?
Roberto Ariganello, the former director of LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) was very inspiring for me. One day I was ready to make Vive Le Film (2006) and I arrived at LIFT. I wanted to do a test first, and Roberto showed me how to use the Oxberry animation camera. He gave me a few fast instructions, the way he always used to do. He said to me: “Madi, you’re going to be alone on this, so you better learn quickly”. I got the tests back from Niagara Custom Lab and prepared my artwork for the film. The day I arrived with all the material to start shooting I learned that Roberto had passed away. He drowned in a swimming accident. He has been in Nova Scotia to deliver film equipment to another film co-op. At that moment I felt terribly sad and remembered his comment and Yes, I was alone with this. Of course I had to continue to make the film.
I worked with pictures that were boiled, optically printed and then painted. There was a craft to making these images, it wasn’t just scratching or drawing on film. For the countdown leader in the film I started bleaching the black and white film, manipulating only part of the image, and then adding paint. I thought of how it would look as an inverted image. If I needed blue, I would paint yellow. The whole thing would be reversed in printing. I made a stamp that read: FILM IS DEAD and another LONG LIVE FILM. I stamped the film with bleach, and then applied colour paint. The movie is a memory of all the things I learned from Roberto. He was a connector, an amazing guy.
7200 Frames Under The Sun (2011) is a dual-screen landscape project, sometimes shown as installation, sometimes as single-channel video. It feels related to these questions of territory.
It has a very light feeling, like a trip to the cottage. But I’m talking about the earth and mining and what people fail to notice. It has two screens, both shot on super 8, and they’re about what we don’t see when we’re in that amazing space. We don’t see the history, the mining of these prehistorical lands.

While you’ve always been a prodigious worker, you’ve been particularly prolific in 2016, completing a number of short projects, along with a trilogy of beautiful, black-and-white movies in Peru called Untitled, 1925.
I have a poster, Filtrin vs Banarer (Banarer is my grandpa) from 1925 that triggered my Untitled trilogy project. Banarer is my second last name. Madi Piller-Banarer. My grandpa participated in a big international boxing match against Victor Filtrin, an Argentinian, on September 20, 1925 in the Plaza de Toros in Cusco. I went to Cusco, but in the place of the bullring I found a wall at the end of a street, a deteriorated house wall forming a corner, that’s where the bullfighting arena must have been. We explored this adobe wall, trying to pull out its memory and history.
We visited the archives of the newspaper El Sol in Cusco, which was a room full of old newspapers, not even in boxes. Ok, let’s look for something around September 1925. There were no pictures of my grandpa but we found an article written after the match. It says that Filtrin delivered a technical knockout in the fourth round. My grandpa was beaten (laughs). Slowly I realized that Filtrin was a professional boxer (there was a picture of him in the newspaper), a man trying to build up his rankings. My grandpa was just an accessory, the guy who volunteered to fight a professional for some money. I found that beautiful.
I travelled with my husband and Greg Boa, who helped me with filming. I set up the camera frame and Greg would shoot. It was a beautiful way of working together. We both love photography but I have a condition called familial tremor that makes my hands shake. Some days I shake more than others, and you don’t want to go all the way to Peru and rely on your nerves to be steady for the day.
Did you know when you went to Peru that you would make three films?
No, I never thought about that. I thought I would shoot a lot, so I brought 2000 feet of black and white, and more rolls of colour. We had so much film but in the end it wasn’t enough. We spooled it down into small boxes of 100’. Going through customs we had rolls in our pockets, all over the place.

Were you worried about dust?
No, although you want to have nice clean shots. We had some shots that had marks on the lens, but I used them in a different way. That’s part of filmmaking. Everything was processed at Niagara Custom Lab here in Toronto.
I wanted to make Greg part of the film, he had never gone to South America. I wanted to have somebody with me that wasn’t just a camera person, but who would be discovering a new space, a new land. Seeing through his eyes would help reimagine how my grandpa might have approached these new spaces and travels. How do you face adventure? How do you open your eyes and wonder at the marvelous and terrible things you see along the path? I wanted to share that seeing with him.
When we came back he processed the rolls and gave me all of the negatives which I transferred to digital files. He encouraged me to rework some of the material by step printing on the optical printer, but I didn’t want to add more artifacts to the film. I said I would like to have the Andes footage solarized and he did that. For me solarization brings an aspect of luminescence to the film, a layer of silver that is revealed. Since the Incas, the Andes have been mined for gold and silver. Solarization is about bringing the silver that’s in the image to the surface. We solarized only these parts of the film and it’s used in the second part of the trilogy. The first part Untitled, 1925 Part one (2016) is clean, like a clean slate of black and white, you see the contrast of the black and white, the contrast of the old city and the sea.
In the second film of the trilogy, Untitled, 1925 Part two (8:45 minutes 2016), you see the church against the sky, it’s so imposing, the same way religion and values were imposed. This is the way my grandfather would have regarded these structures. He came from the small town of Bălți in Romania. More than half the population were Jewish, but here every corner has another tremendous church. The churches are as big as mountains.
During his three years in Peru, including the time in Cusco, he became a Peruvian citizen. He was a referee for a boxing match, he appeared in photos with athletes racing on bicycles and locals on motorcycles, and teams of soccer players. It looks like he participated in many different sports so he must have met lots of people in Cusco. I’m learning about him through these pictures. For instance, he never told me he was a boxer. The pictures were probably made by Martin Chambi de Cusco, the most amazing photographer of indigenous people in Cusco. I showed the pictures to his grandson and he said that they must have been taken by his grandfather.
Although I always mention my grandpa as a character in the trilogy, this isn’t really a series about him, it’s about seeing the world the way he saw it, and how I see it after him. What I see makes me suffer a lot, the same problems we had in 1900 are still here today. What I’m bringing is a camera verité. I’m not trying to construct anything.
For Untitled, 1925 Part three (2016) it was timely for us to be in Cusco when the biggest ever strike was held to protest about everything! Mining, education, health, all sectors were there. The roads were blocked by the unions, so no one could leave or get in. I felt I was back in the time of 1925 when social consciousness was been raised to a high level.
The indigenous movement in Cusco was happening when my grandfather was there. I don’t know if he was involved, but years later when he came back to Peru, escaping from Europe’s pre-war days, he became involved with the Masons who did a lot of community work in Lima.
With this movie I’m opening questions and questioning myself. What is my relation to these events? I’m white in a country that is primarily indigenous or mixed, so the relationship is not easy. You’re always singled out as a white person, a gringa. Gringa. But I feel the ambience and social problems deep in my skin. It’s very difficult to cope with.
The tourists want the ambience to be crystal clear so they can see the glory of Machu Picchu. But the mist for me contains the aura of the Andes. Once the mist rises you can see flora and fauna. I’m trying to look past what a tourist sees in Peru. I’m trying to say there is life here, drops of water on these flowers, and then I’m going down to witness what is inside the city. I see people who live a natural life, fighting internally, living their own culture — how they grow potatoes, how they build their houses, how they live their lives in the markets.
Cusco was the center of the Inca empire. If you look at the history of Peru, the Inca Empire occupied a huge territory from Colombia to Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, even a bit of Chile and Argentina. In the early 1900’s professionals and intellectuals in Cusco started to give a central place to the indigenous people, but there was always politics working against them. Since 1900 people have talked about change, while so little has changed. We sat with people on our journey and were invited to take potato soup with them on the roadside. They told us stories so we could hear how the politics are. Why aren’t they allowed to prosper? It is very sad.
We stopped at a hanging bridge that was made by hand. We were so afraid to cross or even to step on it. Then we filmed at a small town bullring where every seat is numbered, painted by hand. I thought of the Spaniard’s bullfighting ring but, foremost, of José Maria Argedas’s novel The Yahuar Fiesta.
The third film reflects on the malaise in the politics of South America, it’s a film of despair. I think about the lack of education opportunities. Some still don’t know basic math or how to read. You see them carrying flags and fighting for a cause in a system that hardly gives them a chance. I saw that during my youth. I grew up in a military state where you can’t do anything, you can’t comment or you disappear or wind up in jail or don’t get your piece of bread. Every day we wake up to another beaten generation. Every year there is another South America country dying of something. It’s like a contagion. A political virus.