Montréal filmmaker Theodore Ushev’s animation is a sight to behold. Drawing on influences from his background in graphic design and from growing up in Soviet-era Bulgaria, his work combines the psychological finesse of Eisenstein’s montage theory with a modern technical approach. Describing the attraction of his work, Canadian Film Institute (CFI) Executive Director Tom McSorley pointed to “The graphic power and the use of irony, humour, fatalism, and music, striking imagery and rhythms. His work is hard to forget once you’ve encountered it.”
This weekend in conjunction with the launch of their new publication about his work, Dark Mirror: The Films of Theodore Ushev, the CFI has helped organize a screening of some of Ushev’s animated shorts, as well as a live improvised performance featuring musical accompaniment by Hilotron’s Michael Dubue. I was fortunate enough to have the honour of interviewing Tom McSorely, as well as Ushev himself, about his work and the events this weekend.
Apt613: Your professional career began with posters and other graphic design projects. How has your education influenced your sensibility when approaching moving images?
Theodore Ushev: The benefits of having a graphic design education are in the capability to think in short forms. Graphic design is a communicative art, it deposits directly to the public. This is what my films do. They may not be linear as script and construction, but always tend to deliver a message: as a poster or graffiti on the street.
You currently live and work in Montréal, however you began your life, and your career in Bulgaria. How have the two arguably very different cultures come together to influence your work?
Ushev: Actually I don’t think they are too different (strange, eh?) The first thing that hit me was that the Quebec cinema reminded me enormously of the Bulgarian cinema. Always when I go and watch a Quebec film, well, it can be a Bulgarian one. So, the mix came naturally. I don’t feel a stranger in the Montreal “milieu.”
And what I love is that it doesn’t exist as such. Montreal is neighbours, little places. Every place has its own culture, people, languages, habits, pulsations… I love my neighbourhood enormously, it is my inspiration. Cote-des-Neiges is a place where immigrants from all over the world seem to mix naturally with students from Montréal University and Franco intellectual small spots like Library Olivieri. It is everything that I love in this world. All the colours in their exuberance…
Apt613: Your animation is clearly influenced by modernist aesthetics: abstraction, expressionism, collage… forms traditionally presented as static pieces. What made you think these would work in animation?
Ushev: Well, I tried, and it was working. The technology helped me a lot. My films are influenced by the artistic avant-garde movements. But they are so, because the artistic avant-garde movements were influenced by the political and ideological changes. The only difference is – my films are more Post-Modern than Modern, as the Avant-garde was. They mix the styles, tendencies, quotations and time to deliver a message-or to hide it. It is like reading a book of semi-abstract philosophy or cultural essays. Not an easy task. I always move to the edge of the razor, risking not to be understood clearly.
Your work also employs montage techniques and creates and acutely visceral socio-political message. Do you subscribe to the Soviet theory that montage is the best technique for communicating these types of messages?
Ushev: I definitely subscribe to the Soviet early cinema. It is so, because the gang around Vertov, Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Pudovkin were the first to transform the cinema into the field of art. And it was Art not for art’s sake, but an Art full with power, propaganda, force, emotions. And the editing was an essential part. It is not a secret – you can take any raw material and make a powerful film.
It is not a secret, that the [National Film Board] was also created as a propaganda machine. [John] Grierson who was an expert in psychology of propaganda followed the principles of the Early Cinema pioneers very closely. Grierson’s emerging view of film was as a form of social and political communication – a mechanism for social reform, education, and perhaps spiritual uplift. It was him who said – I look on cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a propagandist.
And those two explained everything. So, we can say – it was not only the Soviet authors who formed my aesthetic, but the NFB directors as well. Somehow I find my best place working at National Film Board, because of the basic shares of the values and ideas we had in common. I guess, I stay somewhere in the Liberal middle. Let’s say a political cynicism. What I believe in is that the Cinema and the Art in General can change. Or as Lippman said: “When quick results are imperative, the manipulation of the masses through symbols may be the only quick way of having a critical thing done. It is often more important to act than to understand…there are times…when two conflicting opinions, though one happens to be right, are more perilous than one opinion which is wrong.”
Though currently residing in Montréal and working for the NFB, Theodore Ushev was born and educated in Bulgaria. In what way, and to what degree, do you think Canadian film aesthetics are affected by these “adopted” cultural histories?
Tom McSorley: There is always an exchange of aesthetic influences, and it flows both ways. Ushev himself has been influenced by Canadian animators such as Norman McLaren, Christopher Hinton, etc. His work, with its distinctive Eastern European inflections, is also influencing younger Canadian animators.
Ushev: It is said that Canadian cinema cannot find its audience. But if you think deeply, you’ll see, that in 2014 such a thing as a consistent Canadian nation doesn’t exist. I know people who work here, in Canada, but their minds are somewhere else – they watch their own TV channels, their own films online. The Canadian art and cinema is not enough only to point on Canadian values. It has to point on the private, little personal values and stories – because the personal is the new Global. This is where the problem lies – not to dissect the society or a community, but the person himself. The new propaganda is the propaganda in the bed. Not in the public.
Currently you have an interactive installation piece, “Diagonales” at La Grande Bibliothèque in Montréal. This experience is very different from watching a film; each interaction can ultimately affect how the work is perceived. How does this change your approach to the creative process?
Ushev: It removes the feeling that the artist is the only one who controls the situation. I like this feeling. Basically, everything can happen. And this is kind of exciting, to change my mind and not constantly looking into perfection. It helps when the things are happening by chance, through the hands of the public… But then the concept has to be so pointedly clear, almost as a poster.
This weekend you will be collaborating with Michael Dubue (of the Hilotrons) to create a live improvised performance piece. What inspired the collaboration?
Ushev: When Chris Robinson pointed me to this musician I heard some of his works, and they were absolutely in the same direction as my films. He creates spaces, ambiance, and feelings with his music, and this absolutely clicks with my work. I’m very impatient with the result and the happening, how we will get lost into this labyrinth…
So it’s fair to say that music is a big component in much of your work. Would you say the music guides the animation, or is it the other way around?
Ushev: Always the music guides me. I let the rhythm and the structure of the music to embrace everything. I respect the music as one of the highest points of the Art.
How does curation affect your personal reception or experience of an artist’s work?
McSorley: It is interesting to see the relationship the artist has to his or her work. Also, the selection process by the artist tells you a lot about where he or she is in his or her development and in what direction he or she may be traveling. Retrospectives always have the energy in them, I suppose.
How do you feel about having, at this point in your life, a book published examining your work?
Ushev: Like a retirement? I still cannot swallow it. I always try not to take myself too seriously – so let’s say – an end of a period, beginning of a new one. Maybe it is a peak, or just a basic station – will see. The almighty DJ only knows… All is good. I only know that I have still ideas flowing into my veins and when I have ideas, I have the habits to realize them.
McSorley: His work is substantial enough to warrant a mid-career examination. This is a book of responses that reflects his impact on animation to date.
The launch of Dark Mirror: The Films of Theodore Ushev is this Friday, May 2nd 2014 and will take place in conjunction with the film-screening presentation Café Ex: The Films of Theodore Ushev. The screening will take place at Club Saw at 7:00pm. Admission is pay-what-you-can and a cash bar will be available. The live animation and musical performance by Theodore Ushev and Michael Dubue will take place Saturday May 3rd at 8:00pm at St. Luke’s Anglican Church of Canada (760 Somerset St. West). Admission is also pay-what-you-can. Theodore Ushev will be in attendance for both events.