By Nathan Douglas
It’s the last day of summer in Vancouver. Someone is planning a party for tonight. In New York, some friends just finished a short film. In the online world of Vana’diel, the setting for a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, the hours are counting down to the final shutdown of the aging fantasy game’s servers. Taking one last look at the empty vistas of this world, two lovers separated by a continent wander in the virtual space that brought them together. By day’s end, Vana’diel will be gone, the partygoers will disperse to various late night reckonings, and the ineffable glare of a setting sun will fade into hibernation for another winter.
Many things—a virtual world, a neighbourhood, a romance—are on the cusp of ending throughout the 57 minutes of s01e03, the latest film by Vancouver-born filmmaker Kurt Walker and a collective of contributors scattered across multiple continents. Cutting elliptically between storylines in Vancouver, New York, and the aforementioned online world, Walker weaves together a series of faces, places, emails, chat messages, gaming footage, and music into the largely interior dialogue of a farflung community of 20-something artists standing on the precipices of change. Equal parts hangout film and hybrid work, but far more slippery than either category would admit, it’s a natural fit for DOXA—and its selection in this year’s lineup marks a homecoming of sorts for Walker, who screened his previous feature, Hit 2 Pass (2014), at the festival.
Like Walker’s poetic and laid-back debut, Hit 2 Pass— a documentary about a junk car race in Prince George that gradually cocoons into a meditation on friendship, happy accidents, and the joy of making movies—s01e03 focuses on a group whose collective love language rests in the act of making and sharing images. But where many of Walker’s confreres in the Kinet.media orbit (Walker is a co-founder of the site, which disseminates avant-garde work for free online) settle for didacticism or ephemerality, Walker elects for an emotional directness that cants his film gently but firmly towards narrative convention. Like Hit 2 Pass, what seems at first blush to be a rejection of conventional structure quickly reveals itself, in its fascination with embracing certain gifts of the moment, as a project in contact with the deepest reaches of human desire.
One can imagine the criticisms that might be leveled at a work content to simply watch characters roam a virtual landscape at length, but the gentleness, yearning, and warmth that characterizes this approach proves to be more than mere sentiment. S01e03 yearns for the sort of communion of lives and souls that can only be dimly and fleetingly apprehended by cinema, and only truly experienced beyond it. There is no ceiling, there is no sky, there is no depth to which this kind of cinema cannot descend in its pursuit of love.
As one who has enjoyed meditating on the gifts of Kurt’s work over the years and the privilege of calling him a friend, I jumped at the chance to interview him. It was a pleasure to have a conversation about his new film.
s01e03 is part of the 2020 DOXA program, and also streaming permanently at Kinet.media.
I had the privilege of seeing you film some of s01e03 (and, disclaimer, appeared as an extra in a scene) during the summer of 2016, and remember thinking it was going to be a pretty fast turnaround. But then you moved to New York and kept filming! Can you talk about the journey of making this film over the last 3-4 years?
In many ways, I’m still unfurling this movie’s shoot and its many experiences. It started incidentally one night when a friend and I started watching Gilmore Girls and accidentally saw something like the 14th episode, thinking it was the pilot the whole time. We were kind of in awe at its narrative ellipses, and it got me thinking about the potential of storytelling in excerpt form—as in something that exists in the middle of an overarching narrative that is withheld.
Meanwhile, I was developing a lot of friendships online. My previous workplace had me traveling a lot, for most of the last decade, really, and so a lot of those online friendships were gradually realized in person. There was a loose group of artists, filmmakers, musicians, and designers forming. One of the conduits for our interactions was a website called TinyChat—basically a chat room with an option for video conferencing. Within the chat room you can post music and soundtrack the chat while you’re in it. This was a key zone for us to chill and and spend real time together as a group.
I started writing a more traditional youth film, with the primary aim being to have it set in one day—beginning and ending at dawn. I like this timeframe for a film—I feel like it’s a nice storytelling space to facilitate respite and resolve for both the characters and the viewer. Except, I’m not a writer; and it wasn’t really working out at first. I was bouncing ideas off other collaborators and applied for some grants and whatnot. Those didn’t turn out and I realized this film should be made like my previous film and not be beholden to classical film production models. This script was abandoned in favour of a free-form scenario, and the Vancouver shoot eventually took place largely in summer 2016.
I’d planned to edit and complete the film by the following year yet was far from finished; there was a lot of time to fill, and I couldn’t conceive of what that would be. Then my job serendipitously relocated me to New York, which is where filmmaker Michelle Yoon is based, and we further developed the love story that became the center of the film. Once in New York, the film organically shifted into a tale of two cities.
Here I also began working more closely on the Final Fantasy XI shoot with Michelle and filmmaker Dylan Tachick. Prior to that, I was testing and leveling up my in-game character, so I could actually access the areas I’d hoped to shoot in. I was “scouting locations” in the game world of Vana’diel and figuring out how shooting in a video game works, which has been a lifelong question for me. And so we would write and shoot these scenes over long, oftentimes trying nights of video game play. It’s funny, in the end, I would say shooting in the video game was almost more challenging than filming in real life; the game doesn’t have the utility to actually execute basic shots. In the end, I broke into the game’s source code with Vancouver filmmaker Kerr Holden in order to realize some of the more ambitious shots.
How did you frame shots while in the game? Was it just a matter of you moving the character’s point of view around until you found a frame you liked?
We had three laptops running the game simultaneously. Little of it was happenstance—everything was largely blocked and even storyboarded, yet we still struggled to accurately weave these worlds together and have some aesthetic synchronicity between filmed “IRL” footage and this video game from 2001. I tried to install a shared visual syntax into both the video game and “real” images.
Film scholar Zach Campbell wrote on Letterboxd about the “sense of an ending” that permeates the film. It’s the last day of summer and the last day of this virtual game world. How did that specific element come about?
I’ve grown up playing MMORPG’s (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) and I’ve encountered tragic ends to online spaces and communities that are similar to the one this film documents. More intimately, I’ve also faced it living in East Vancouver for seven years and seeing homes, communities, and places shutter left and right. There was just a similarity between the two that couldn’t be ignored. Yeah, the erasure of an online world is not the same as gentrification per se, but there are synchronicities of loss that couldn’t be ignored. I think when these two forces live beside each other in a film, it creates a dramatic synergy. I was trying to make a melodrama of sorts.
Is that struggle specific to Vancouver, or did you find more to add to that angle of the film from your time in New York?
While the film specifically relates to the feel and geography of Vancouver, I think this is also, regrettably, a global narrative. Yet for me this film isn’t a didactic political film—I really just wanted to craft an audio-visual space in which one can hopefully begin to reckon with these truths, and perhaps also realize the people and places that are most important. Perhaps too, a healthy reminder, especially right now, of the potentiality of virtual space.
So that brings me to another question. At a point in the film, one of the characters states in a chat message or email that “The only images worth anything now are the ones that bring people together.” This has become kind of a catchphrase or rallying cry for early appreciators of the film. Can you talk about that concept?
That’s, so far, just the impetus of my filmmaking and where I want to be with images, you know? Everything just keeps going back to the fact that the production of movies is interwoven with a confluence of encounters.
I guess my experience with filmmaking and sharing images thus far has always ended up happily entangled with friendships. And so it’s just part of the work in a way; it’s simply there on an intrinsic production level. It’s certainly a gamble putting all your friends in frame and filming through this gaze of friendship and hoping it translates into some kind of tangible experience.
I think that does hit on an obvious (and positive) challenge of this film: it is tied to a specific group of friends with their own particular means of sharing intimacy. How do you open that up in a way that makes it more accessible?
For me the question that preceded this was “how does one film love?” and if I could perhaps, alongside many collaborators, answer this through the making of the film, then the insularity of friendship would hopefully be negated. I’m the last person to say whether I pulled this off. But I can say that I tried not to limit it to a single perspective in the hopes of expressing this shared love, which often realizes itself in exchange: like Michelle (and Douglas Dixon-Barker) sharing their film within the film, or the 16mm images caught by various people who came to Van for the shoot.
This idea of filmmaking intrinsically tangled up with friendship is so powerful and ideal to me, and yet there is the very real tension of the filmmaking landscape we are in right now, in Canada and beyond. It seems like we’re in a period where very personal, non-commercially-driven work is getting more of a platform, at least through the Internet. Some festivals have taken notice. But I think the general assumption of the professional filmmaking class is still that these works are going to remain ‘merely’ the ‘early’ works of an artist who goes on to have a more commercially-aimed career. I’m wondering where you see s01e03 in that landscape and within the question of forging a career in cinema.
I’ve been working in the film festival-and-exhibition world for the last 10 years and programmed for three or four of it. There’s a lot of great stuff and there’s a lot of stuff that feels like it exists just for a particular festival or belongs to an aesthetic trend or, frankly, is just entirely unoriginal and beholden to the creative DNA of a successful auteur. I’m tired of this careerism in movies. I think there is increasingly more work being made from artists who refuse these molds, some of whom I was lucky to work with on this movie.
I simply desired to make something that felt true—if it was to be accepted by the festival circuit, that’s cool too, but I did not want to yield to expectations in runtime, form, or arbitrary technical benchmarks along the way. I also don’t see in a lot of recent cinema I’ve encountered enough of what it actually feels like to be a young person right now. Frankly, there’s too much talking, plot, and handicam shots of people walking into bars and stuff. For many of us in our 20’s, a good portion of our days are often spent in stillness and in front of and connected by screens. This challenge of how to embody this experience in the shape of a movie is an exciting question. The film took six years to make in part because of this challenge. Admittedly, that did not make it easy for the many people who worked on it, who were very patient with many creative struggles, but there is immense value, I think, in taking that time. You can realize images that don’t exist in the timeframe of a traditional shoot.
One example: we shot at the after hours club 333 in 2016, and in spring 2019 we got the unfortunate news that it was shutting down that summer. I was in New York at the time but I emailed Alysha Seriani, one of the film’s producers, and she almost immediately went and filmed some shots on her phone that weaved perfectly into the film’s conclusion, which I’d had trouble solving for a couple years at that point. Under this production model, I think there are new possibilities.
One thing I want to ask you about is the role that colour plays in this film. It’s very pronounced; there’s such a variety of textures and colors in both the real world imagery of Vancouver and the game world. Not being from BC originally, I’ve always been struck by the intensity of colour you find during the seasons in Vancouver— springtime with cherry blossoms, the way the sun sets here on a late summer evening… Your film is full of this imagery, of natural beauty, flowers, mountains. What is the impetus for you in including these images in the film?
I think you touched on a part of what the impetus is—that perfect prevalence of flowers and seasonal shift is impossible to miss in Vancouver. I’m a seasonal depressive, and so when spring and summer finally hits in Vancouver, it’s just life changing for me. I think that’s true for many people who reside in the city and I wanted to try and articulate that shift. This incited an effort to capture the feeling of the seasons at the beginning of the film, so that the weight of this final summer day, already entangled with many endings, is fully felt
Sorry, but I have to ask one of those “topical” questions. The film’s planned release ended up during a pandemic. Any thoughts on that?
I know that this online release was always going to be the destiny of the film at any juncture. I just hope that no matter the context in which it’s seen, that it proves to be a reminder of the people and places that are most important. That, and what we can do with online space or virtual space as we try to realize a better world.
Any last notes? Open mic.
Please consider supporting the imperative efforts of Hogan’s Alley Society to help reclaim Vancouver’s black neighbourhood.
I also have to ride for DOXA. They do such great work and have been very supportive of my stuff from the start. I’m also excited to see the short film programmed with s01e03, Hân Pham’s To: You, To Night.
Lastly, s01e03 will remain available to view for free on Kinet indefinitely.