Nils Clauss is a Seoul-based filmmaker focused primarily on cinematography. His crisp and enigmatic visuals elevate all of his work, whether it is documentary, music videos, narrative films, or promotional videos. In this interview we talk his storied and adventurous career, language barriers, influences, and his good-natured search for truth in his work.

RH – Can you tell us about some of your recent projects?

NC – At the moment I’m trying to finish off two projects, one is titled “This Island is ours”, which looks at activism behind an island conflict between Korea and Japan. The second project is on Sewol, which was the name of the ferry that sank in 2014 killing 304 people.

RH – Wow.

NC – With the Sewol project there’s still a lot of anger in the families of the casualties, and there are a lot of things that are unclear. From the time I heard of it, I wanted to do something about it and then an opportunity came along. I’m not focusing on the accident itself, it’s not going to be journalistic in the sense of trying to discover what is true and what it not true. I’m focusing on the families of the deceased through an approach of documentary and fiction. It has really helped that time has passed, because still after two years it’s been really hard to get access to the families and gain their trust.

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RH – Can you tell us how did you end up living in Seoul?

NC – I’ve been here a little over ten and a half years now, which wasn’t planned. (laughs) I never came here with a deadline in mind. When I graduated university in Berlin at the time, I wanted to go somewhere else and try something new and be in a culture that was completely different from my own. And about five years prior, I gained a huge interest in Korean films. When I was in Hong Kong writing my master thesis on Wong Kar-wai, the idea brewed: Why not Korea? Why not go there after I graduate?

RH – That’s so cool. So how do you think that living in places like Australia, Hong Kong, and Korea and the worldly experiences that these experiences have brought you informed your work?

NC – I think they informed my work on various levels. I think there’s a huge influence that comes from being exposed to a different culture, no matter where it is, which can have a personal effect on you and shape your character, and hopefully it can make you more mature and make you reflect on things in a different way. Over time it has helped me to understand my own personal background. For example, what it means to be a German – in a  good and in bad way. The spatial distance gives you an opportunity to figure out what you like and dislike in terms of your background.  So I think personally this has been a huge influence and benefit for me.

By living in a different culture you are obviously exposed to things that you wouldn’t be exposed to if you never would have left home. Although, if it is hard to emerge yourself or access the new culture you find yourself living in, there is always the danger that your work stays superficial. You might express things in a way that isn’t actually the case. So it takes time to evaluate where you are living and if what you’re working on is valuable or not, and to avoid clichéd subject matter. I was in Australia for a year and Hong Kong for 3 months and in retrospective, I would say those time periods are not enough to fully understand a culture. In that sense, being here for over 10 years, I have realized how my perception of Korea constantly has changed. After 10 years there are still things that I don’t understand fully. And this will continue, I suppose.

RH – Would you say that those experiences through travel that have changed your perception are necessary for someone who wants to work in filmmaking?

NC – Definitely not. I only think that personally for me it felt necessary. I was at a point in my life where I was comfortably able to make that decision: I just graduated from university and I didn’t have a job. Also I didn’t really want to stay and look for work in Germany, so I was ready for that move. If I would not have left, I guess I would have had regrets in the end. But definitely I don’t see this as a prerequisite to become a filmmaker. There are too many great filmmakers, who never lived overseas. It is a very personal decision after all.

RH – Very personal.

NC – Right, and I remember Susan Sontag saying something along the lines of “Really good work is done right in front of your doorstep.” I guess this was meant in a way to prevent exoticism to slip into someone’s work. After I read this, I really felt the necessity to make an effort to dig into the culture and try to look at stories here in Korea rather with a local instead of a Western mindset.

RH – Right, so I can imagine that with all of that moving you faced some language barriers in your life and I’ve noticed that in some of your works like Orchestral Maneuvers in the North and Bikini Words, language is very important, and you know in Orchestral you’ve got musicians transcending that language boundary through playing music with one another, or the workers in Bikini Words kind of making sense of their oppressive experiences with their new language and terms. Were those just coincidences to maybe how you faced similarities of language problems? Or do you seek out projects that deal with that kind of thing?

NC – Yeah, language has always been a struggle. When I first arrived here, I felt like it was really important to me to learn the language. I studied Korean for two years, and despite speaking the language now, I always felt there is more room to improve. But I also need to weigh that up against what I have on my daily schedule and what time allows. But also when I started to feel comfortable using Korean, I sort of stopped studying. It is a pity, because since a few years I don’t feel like progressing so much anymore. But then I’m always aware, the more immersed I’m in the language, the easier life and work is for me over here. It’s all connected and hard to become fully satisfied.

The importance of language in Bikini Words is more of a coincidence. Bikini Words in the first place was a commissioned job. The client was the Geumcheon regional district office here in Seoul. Most of the industrial factories of the 1970’s and 1980’s were located in that area and the district office decided to set up an exhibition featuring a catalogue of 99 words, which originated during that period due to circumstances of the factory life. So the vocabulary research was already done by Soongsil University prior to my work on the project. For the exhibition of the words along with the history of this district, I was asked to make a video as part of the event. I had a lot of creative freedom and was not tied to any specific topic, but the new vocabulary created due to the conditions of life for the workers, just struck me as being so interesting. Who knows maybe my interest was subconsciously related to me as a language learner. But I can’t tell you for sure.

With Orchestral Maneuvers of the North there was a commission for the Goethe-Institut Korea to go to North Korea and they asked me to join them. At the time before we went they enrolled me as a photographer because they weren’t sure if I was actually going to be allowed to shoot video. All I had with me was a DSLR and we asked upon arrival if there was a possibility to do a video with it. Fortunately they agreed, but certainly we had to deal with a lot of restrictions during the shoot. Before we left, I was recommended to use a translator as if I couldn’t speak the language. That made it really awkward for me, because I understood what people were saying. But due to the setup I would have to respond through the translator. Sometimes the translator was also a little bit reluctant to ask questions that I wouldn’t have been. So that made it hard for me as well.

RH – I wonder why they wanted a translator?

NC – I am not sure. Maybe they thought the fact that I had been living in South Korea for so long could be a cause of concern in North Korea. But even still, on record they probably know all of this anyway. That made it sort of awkward for me. There were also situations where I responded without thinking. Simple phrases like “Oh, no!” once in a while would slip out. It made it quite difficult. Then I kind of thought: “If I return to North Korea for another job, I would not want to be in that sort of situation again.” But if I would return and suddenly speak the language, I’m sure this would also not go well on record (Laughs). It’s interesting how language can shape certain circumstances.

RH – So, switching gears a little, in Translating Furniture, Korean furniture artist Kwangho Lee says – and I’m paraphrasing here – “In order to create something you have to abandon your influences.” Do you think that is something that is true for filmmaking as well?

NC – Not necessarily. Theoretically speaking, it’s a great approach to abandon influence and and I think it is honorable, because it is definitely not always the case. When I was in film school here in Korea, for example, I often felt a different vibe. It seemed to be generally accepted to copy. For example, my master’s thesis at university almost got identically copied by someone who graduated the year after me.

RH – Wow.

NC – That was a huge surprise to me. I found out through coincidence because another friend was reading my and the plagiarist’s thesis for his own reference. Then he came back to me and said that both texts are very identical. It’s surprising, as I wrote about my graduation film and he wrote about his own film. Still he managed to copy about 90%. At first I was reluctant to take some actions, but then I went to the university and reported the plagiarism. I thought this would be a big issue, but the people at the university administration just said, “What’s wrong with the film department? Why are do so many students copy other people’s work?”. That was it and my complaint was dismissed.

(Both laugh)

NC – In a way this example shows the lack of respect for creative content. So with Kwangho, I respect what he said and think it’s wonderful. But personally I would say we should also not underestimate the subconscious. When I start working on a script or an idea, all of a sudden my ideas will start to be sculpted to look a certain way, so I think that the influence can come through a lot of things we have been exposed to. This just sort of happens. Still, if you’re aware of your influences it’s important to be respectful. One way would be to develop existing ideas into something new or fresh, or otherwise at least credit the creators who are responsible for certain ideas. These days with a lot of online content there seems to be a lack for proper regulations. In general people seem to have a tendency to just copy certain styles, but recently more and more I also have seen examples where filmmakers credit their influences as well. I think that is a fair and honest approach.

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RH – Would you say that you have any big-time influences in your work?

NC – Definitely, I do. There are a lot of filmmakers and artists whose work I like and respect. Probably if you look at my work, you can trace similarities between them. But despite my influences, I also try to make each new piece of work relate to myself and my own interests as much as possible. With that in mind, hopefully I am able to create something unique and different. Most of my work can be traced back to a general theme of space and architecture. Back in Germany I wrote my master thesis on space and architecture in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together. That is sort of the origin of my focus on this theme. For example Bikini Words deals with this topic. Just look at the camera floating through the spaces, which date back to Korean industrial period of the 1970s and 1980s. Now with the Sewol project I am using that same stylistic approach, as Bikini Words, the Sewol project and one further film are meant to shape a trilogy about Korea in the end. Within the Sewol project I’m meeting the families who relate to victims of the accident in their homes. The camera floats from room to room with a strong focus on the spaces of the deceased. I really think that my master’s thesis on Wong Kar-wai really shaped me as a filmmaker and photographer. Wong Kar-wai himself and his cameraman Christopher Doyle have been a big inspiration for me as a director and cinematographer. Especially their early work was amazingly strong in my eyes, and Chungking Express was my first introduction into Asian cinema.

RH – So I see that you have done some narrative film as well as documentary, how does the process of making a narrative film compare to documentary?

NC – I shot a lot of short films and I have shot one independent feature narrative film with my long term friend, partner, and collaborator Neil Dowling. I come from a background of photography and so visuals are what have mainly be driving me. Storytelling initially has been more of a necessity in order to visualize ideas which I felt interesting to be turned into a short film. So I think in most of the strictly narrative work I have been involved in, I took on the role solely as a cinematographer, whereas in most of my personal work which is a mixture of narrative, documentary, music videos and promo films, I often take on multiple roles where I work as a cinematographer but also write, direct and edit or collaborate on all of that with Neil or some other close friend. Sometimes it’s also a necessity based on budget and the scope of the project. I don’t really consider myself an editor by trade. But if we talk about language, I feel that at least I should edit everything with Korean content. But as much as it is important to understand the language, I also think it is important to understand the culture the content is based on. So it gets a bit complicated and then I often think, it might be best if I just do it myself.

RH – So with your Sigur Rós video, were you keeping in mind how your documentary style film would relate to their material? Or was adding in the music something that would totally come in later?

NC – Music videos trace back to my huge interest in music. Before I came to Korea I was collecting and listening to a lot of music, but when I came here I kind of felt: “Ok, so I’ve got filmmaking on top of photography. If I keep music as well as a major interest, it’s just too much.” Before I left for Korea, I kind of set a preference and left all of my music back home. I started my life abroad with a new non-music chapter. But then later when I got into music videos that was really pleasing in a way. I felt it was a great opportunity to combine my passion for music with what I do in filmmaking.

Maybe my background in music also explains my tendency to give the music in music videos the most respect possible. I think there is a beauty as a filmmaker or as an editor to make the music the main thing, not the video. So this is why, if you watch my music videos they are very much cut on the beat, and they are really driven by the music itself. Also, if I do videos which are not necessarily music videos but they use music like Bikini Words, for example, or for promotional work, it’s very much also cut to the music. I get good feedback and response by the people who I work with. With Sigur Rós I felt like the music was really able to enhance the mood and to explain the situation that the character finds himself in, so it’s important to me that those things go together.

RH – So how do you know when you have successfully told someone’s story?

NH – I think, if they’re happy I’m happy. When talking about the Sigur Rós video it was really important for me that the homeless person we portrayed in the video was happy about the final result. When I teamed up with my friend Namhui Park to shoot the video, we went there and realized that the people were not really open to having us around. They have had negative experiences with camera people, mainly from television. They come and want to show them drunk or sleeping on benches or the naked floor. Their work is based on stereotypes, which leads them to portray them as lazy people. That’s not what we saw. The people we met are all working, mainly collecting recyclable materials. They’re doing something, and they’re all managing to live without financial support. You see how in the video how they work, buy their groceries and cook with each other. Sometimes they even use small savings to go on a trip for fun for a day or two somewhere in the Korean countryside. They managed to build a real community.

It took a lot of time to gain their respect and understanding for our project due to a lot of negative media coverage. We made the film and then we finished it with a deadline for a group exhibition here in Seoul. Before we officially screened it, we went to them in order to show it to make sure that they liked it. We took a car battery – because there’s no power where they live – and hooked up a projector and attached white linen to a concrete wall and screened the video for them. And that’s what is in the end of the video you see. You see that the protagonist got a haircut indicating that some time has passed and you see how he’s satisfied. That was really important to me and the real success story of the film. If I see that he likes it, then in a way respect has been paid, because they open up their lives for you to film, and if you exploit that and then don’t show it to them, I think that’s wrong.

That’s also the same case for me now with the families regarding the boat accident. The stories they tell me about their children are so tragic. The shoot so far has been really exhausting because it’s so emotionally draining. Again it’s really important to me that the families get to see this video and hopefully like it. I hope the film will be something for them to take with them that reminds them of their children in a positive way. Right now the families have to deal with so many negative issues. Due to the government’s ignorance, they are left in the dark and therefore keep protesting simply for their right to know. Until now they didn’t have a chance to put things to rest and work on their own personal grief. So I just want to give them a little something, which hopefully emotionally supports them. If they feel that, then the film will have done some good.