The memory of the world

Neville Elder on trauma, the past and Anamnesis [Part One]

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Anamnesis [Part One] director Neville Elder: “The footage that I did shoot in the film was absent of people because it was May or June of the pandemic [in 2020].”
Anamnesis [Part One] director Neville Elder: “The footage that I did shoot in the film was absent of people because it was May or June of the pandemic [in 2020].”

When I met with DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers, we discussed the DOC NYC U programme which includes films from Hunter College’s MFA Program in Integrated Media Arts. Thom told me: “I think of the filmmakers who’ve passed through this program over the years and have come back in later years with their first film.” Neville Elder’s Anamnesis [Part One], screening in the DOC NYC U: Hunter strand is a highlight of the 12th edition of DOC NYC overall.

Neville Elder with Anne-Katrin Titze: “The guitar and the spacey noisy music was mine and a French musician Sourdure [aka Ernest Bergez], he was very gracious and let me use his music.”
Neville Elder with Anne-Katrin Titze: “The guitar and the spacey noisy music was mine and a French musician Sourdure [aka Ernest Bergez], he was very gracious and let me use his music.”

A boyhood trauma. An attempt to fish in time for a memory not fully formed or half forgotten. What really happened on the day a best friend was lost? During the pandemic, decades later, Neville Elder revisits through this film a pivotal moment of his past. Archival footage of families and friends at play illuminate the recorded memories of the 20th century. How do they mark and alter what the reality of the past looks like in your head? With each remembrance of a memory, the memory itself changes, said William James.

The reality of the 2020s, the ghost ferry on the East River of New York, communicates with an elegant Hollywood zombie of the Thirties and with what happened when you were 11 and playing and carefree; the moment when adulthood, death, and the future showed their grinning face to you unprepared.

From Brooklyn, Neville Elder joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on his award-winning short Anamnesis [Part One].

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello! Hi!

Neville Elder: Hello!

AKT: Before we talk about Anamnesis [Part One], I’m curious to hear what filmmakers inspire you, filmmakers that you admire.

NE: Chris Marker would be the big one. I remember watching some of his films and not understanding them and it took me a while to understand what he was doing. The essay film in general actually, I suppose is a very recent thing for me. Adam Curtis - do you know Adam Curtis?

AKT: No, remind me!

NE: He’s actually a BBC researcher/journalist who makes essay films, some of them about Britain in the Seventies and Eighties, but also the Iraq war. Adam Curtis uses a lot of archive footage from the BBC, not so much just pictures of Margaret Thatcher, but he’ll use pieces of the interview that were never broadcast. Her blowing her nose or something. It’s very irreverent and witty as he’s kind of a Situationist. He thinks about the idea of the most extreme situations becoming normal to us. In his film HyperNormalisation he talks of exactly that.

Neville Elder: “I always wanted to be Fred Wiseman, you know, the idea of the fly on the wall.”
Neville Elder: “I always wanted to be Fred Wiseman, you know, the idea of the fly on the wall.”

Gradually we understand that all politicians are liars and they are in it for themselves, yet we still go along with it all. He compares it very much to the Soviet era of the 1980s where everybody knew that the government was full of shit and there was poverty but everybody was like whatever, just get on with it. That concept of being in the here and now, the self-awareness against the prevailing obviousness of life, you know.

AKT: The decision that people make to forget that most of what you see on TV news is fake fits right in with this. I just watched Bruno Dumont’s France, which is very much about that. What was the kernel for your film? The archival footage you found? A childhood accident?

NE: It began, because I wasn’t able to shoot anything. This film started in the very early days of the pandemic. I always wanted to be Fred Wiseman, you know, the idea of the fly on the wall. I was a photojournalist for years and years, working in newspapers, so I was always fascinated in other people objectively.

I never imagined I’d turn the camera around, even though I’m not in the picture, but metaphorically turning the camera around and point it at myself. But I was really at a loss as what to do for a class I was working in, called Hybrid Documentary, which was very much based around the concept of essay film and Chris Marker and these ideas. I have been trying to get this story out and it is a part of my own trauma, this PTSD about this childhood accident.

Neville Elder on the ferry and shots of New York: “What I tried to do there was establish myself in the present.”
Neville Elder on the ferry and shots of New York: “What I tried to do there was establish myself in the present.”

AKT: So it is an actual accident and something that happened?

NE: Yes, I think the purest form of documentary. There is no truth, there is only perspective, there is only opinion, and when that opinion is flawed because memory does not come easily or it comes fragmented because of trauma, that’s really the idea this comes from. The idea of archival footage came out of necessity. The footage that I did shoot in the film was absent of people because it was May or June of the pandemic [in 2020].

AKT: The ferry and shots of New York, that was your footage? That’s what I thought.

NE: Yes exactly. What I tried to do there was establish myself in the present. It could be anywhere, it could be Milwaukee, it could be Berlin, it’s kind of irrelevant. But it was important that I was grounded, that you realize this was now; this wasn’t just a story, if you like, of the past. Also the concept of the documentary was very important to me as well. This was my truth.

AKT: It was clear to you that you would have the voice-over narration?

NE: Thinking back on it, I think that the voiceover came first. In fact the way that I tell the story is based on three takes of me just … verbal stream-of-consciousness. It’s made up of three takes or four takes, but it’s just pure vitriol and emotion. The voiceover took a character of its own.

Anamnesis [Part One] poster
Anamnesis [Part One] poster

AKT: You talk about the earliest memory and if it is actually a photograph and not really a memory.

NE: Exactly. When we talk about memory, are we talking about what we remember or what we recorded and then present to ourselves over and over again? I think that gets in the way of a pure access to that memory in your head. There’s a barrier there because of the photograph. That’s one of the ideas.

AKT: Do you like Hitchcock’s Spellbound?

NE: Yes, I love Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

AKT: I thought about it while watching your film in regards to memory.

NE: Yes, and Marnie as well.

AKT: Oh yes, I love Marnie.

NE: In terms of voiceover, that is a character. It is me obviously and it is rooted in me. It’s a composite of me now and me maybe 20 years ago, when I was angrier.

AKT: You composed some of the music yourself?

NE: Yes, I did. The guitar and the spacey noisy music was mine and a French musician Sourdure [aka Ernest Bergez], he was very gracious and let me use his music. That’s the theme song, if you like, throughout. It has a maritime feel to it, a haunting nautical theme that worked very well with the ferry and bay scenes.

AKT: It does and it’s so interesting how we start out thinking, okay this is one family. And slowly it becomes clear that this is the memory of the world you’re shooting for. This isn’t one person but a universal trauma.

NE: Absolutely. I’m glad you spotted that. Some people are like, wow you had so much great footage from when you were growing up. And I’m like, no, no, you haven’t seen the film, you haven’t looked at the film!

Neville Elder: “When we talk about memory, are we talking about what we remember or what we recorded and then present to ourselves over and over again?”
Neville Elder: “When we talk about memory, are we talking about what we remember or what we recorded and then present to ourselves over and over again?”

AKT: All over the decades!

NE: If you look at the character, I think it’s interesting, the character of myself as an 11-year-old boy is present in several boys, several children, but they actually remarkably look very similar. Because all 11-year-old boys kind of look like that.

AKT: If you asked me at 11 about 11-year-old boys? They were all the same.

NE: Exactly. I have tried to create a visual world in the archive footage that has a through-line. It really is about that moment in a boy’s life where he’s about to change. And this accident happened at exactly that time, so that change is diverted, corrupted really. So the visual language is of all the boys before that corruption, before that horrendous violence.

Then my voice is of course my recollection of the boy at that moment and afterwards. Because there are very few occasions when a middle-class white English boy growing up in the country will see somebody killed. To watch my friend - or not watch it as the film sort of relates because it’s very confused - but to see that sort of violence in front of me, it’s unusual for a child to see that, certainly where I grew up. The reaction to it was, in terms of the support I got - I did not get any. That was the era it happened in.

AKT: Left alone with your trauma and to figure out so many things! There’s a film in DOC NYC called Objects [directed by Vincent Liota], about meaningful objects, which you might enjoy. There is a sugar egg that one of the people in the film received as a child and kept. It is a boyhood memory. He kept the egg for so many years and it represented to him that once upon a time he was invited to a birthday party. Just that fact: I am a person who was invited to a birthday party. It’s important.

White Zombie poster
White Zombie poster

NE: That is fascinating, yes. It’s a lovely idea.

AKT: It speaks a lot about memory.

NE: Oh absolutely.

AKT: The clip of the funeral, that’s a fictional film, isn’t it? It looked like some Sjöström Swedish film, I don’t know. Where is it from?

NE: That’s actually a [Victor] Halperin film, it’s White Zombie from the Thirties. It’s a Hollywood movie. You look at a film once it’s finished and you have doubts about it, but I don’t have any doubts about that but everyone else seems to. It makes sense to me in the sense that this is how an 11-year-old boy is presented with death and seeks it out, is in horror movies. That is a film, I don’t think I saw it at the time, but that Dominic and I would have watched.

The anecdote is that we are in a church together at a funeral mass, giggling and laughing, because we are excited to see a corpse for the first time. But we frame it in a way that is that we know, which is in a comic way in an exaggerated horror movie. Those silly B movies, you know, the RKO monster movies. That one isn’t one of the classics, that’s Bela Lugosi in fact, walking up the steps. I’m not sure if that was too subtle, but that bit I left in for me. I love that clip.

AKT: I do too. Did you see the recent documentary, Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster?

NE: No!

AKT: I interviewed the director [Thomas Hamilton and co-writer/producer Ron MacCloskey] about it. I’ll send you the link to the conversation.

NE: Oh please. I’d love to see it. “Pull de stringg! Pull de stringg!” [quoting Bela Lugosi] I love that!

AKT: The most profound ideas, death of all things, and what do we think about? Movie images! You are absolutely right. We imagine Ingmar Bergman scenes of playing chess with Death. I teach a course on fairy tales and storytelling at Hunter and we talk a lot about the long tradition of folktales that tried to make sense of it.

Neville Elder on White Zombie: “That is a film, I don’t think I saw it at the time, but that Dominic and I would have watched.”
Neville Elder on White Zombie: “That is a film, I don’t think I saw it at the time, but that Dominic and I would have watched.”

NE: That film in particular is another in-joke. That woman, she rises from the dead, it’s called White Zombie, it’s about zombies. One of the first zombie movies. And of course I don’t have to explain how that fits in with the idea of the story.

AKT: The title says it’s Part One. There’ll be Part Two?

NE: I’m working on Part Two right now. Part Two is an interview with myself and my sister. Because the film leaves off with the idea that I can’t remember where she was at this time. The second part is about my interview with her and what she remembers. My quest in the first one is to find this memory. Can she help me find it?

And as I discover, she herself was a witness to the accident but in a different way - she heard it from an open window. And went down to raise hell to get people to help because she knew what had happened. She guessed, she was nine. It’s the idea of her then being ignored. Because everything was swirling around me because I was the one who saw. And then she steps back and she literally talks about being invisible.

AKT: Competition in who was the witness. Witness competition, I don’t know if that exists.

NE: That’s interesting. It fits in quite well with the concept of sibling rivalry as well.

DOC NYC 2021 poster
DOC NYC 2021 poster

AKT: The title is perfect because of the different meanings of the word. One of the definitions of anamnesis is that you think you remember a previous life - does it feel like a different life to you?

NE: I hope this doesn’t sound cynical, but when I was searching around for a title, I literally just searched thesaurus and was digging around for the idea of remembrance. So it’s kind of a $10 word for trying to remember. That suits it in terms of what the object of the film was, which is the academic thesis.

AKT: Nabokov wouldn’t mind, he did things like that. You’re in good company. Thank you for this. I really like your film. I found it fascinating.

NE: Thank you, Anne-Katrin. It surprised me, the attention that it got actually. It won best short in the Chicago Southland International Film Festival. For a film of this nature that I’ve never tried before and to find out that I’m on the right track is incredibly rewarding and the prestige of being in DOC NYC, of course.

DOC NYC 2021 in cinemas (IFC Center - SVA Theatre - Cinépolis Chelsea) runs from November 10 through November 18 with select films screening online in the US from November 19 through November 28.

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