A bewitching indictment of social pressure and the insidious power it exerts over us all, Merlin Camozzi’s music video for Són track Woods, sees coerced social cohesion invariably collapse under the weight of its own stringent expectations. DN invited to Merlin to explain how the universal rituals of the dinner table were transformed into this choreographed commentary on social conformity.

As an artist and creator, I’m interested in highly specific worlds that have their own rules. I’m also fascinated by social pressure and the power that it exerts on all of our lives. Woods is an examination of those themes, in the form of an experimental narrative about social conformity, told through movement. At the core of the narrative is a ritual. What the ritual means and why it matters is left to the viewer’s interpretation. What’s clear, however, is that the ritual is very important to the women doing it.

It isn’t expressly about any particular society but this piece was definitely influenced by our current political climate.

As the piece begins, the participants focus on learning the ritual from their teacher. From there, the group reaches a relative stability, reliant on social correction for those who stray from the routine. Eventually, however, chaos creeps in and the entire group collapses under the weight of the ritual, both literally and figuratively. It isn’t expressly about any particular society but this piece was definitely influenced by our current political climate, where all the rules seem to be collapsing and the level of chaos seems to be rising. I think it poses the question of whether any society can be sufficiently stable to continue indefinitely, or whether the weight of any particular social structure will eventually lead to collapse.

Julian Scherle and I got to know each other through a couple of my film projects that he scored. As he was creating the Són album, he asked me to direct one of the videos. I’m a huge fan of his work, so I of course said yes before even hearing the songs. Once he sent over the EP, I chose Woods because I was instantly drawn to the driving rhythm and the sense of narrative within the music.

I set the song as my morning alarm and for about ten days I woke to it each day. What began to form was a vision of a cult-like group, sitting around a table, eating dinner, but doing so in an incredibly specific and ritualized manner. In my mind, the story was about needing something and being required to conform in order to get it. In this imagined system of conformity — which of course isn’t so far from reality — I imagined that everyone had to learn the social rituals in order to get what they were seeking — food, of course, but also social acceptance and a sense of belonging — and that, while that would work for a while, eventually the system would break down because it was inherently based on behavior rather than emotion: i.e., the people in this imagined scenario were being rewarded with food/acceptance not because of who they were, but because of what they did, which I think is a complicated and ultimately dysfunctional way to mete out acceptance.

I approached one of my collaborators, Brigid Abreu, who I knew was well versed in movement-based work, and asked her to help me bring the piece to life. She immediately got what I was going for, and also improved it by making it more conceptual. What she proposed was stripping away the literal dinner table, and instead using the movements of eating a meal as the basis of a series of ritualized movements, while keeping the underlying dynamics the same. I loved this idea of abstracting the concept even further, and this version also had the advantage of not requiring to have a table or food, which was a huge help given the fact that this was basically a no budget passion project!

To develop the movement sequence, Brigid went to a café and spent the afternoon there, taking notes on people’s movements while eating lunch. Those movements were then formalized into the sequence that appears in the video. Throughout the whole process, we were looking a lot at the work of Pina Bausch, so she was a big influence on the project.

As we were developing the movements, we pulled together a really fantastic group of friends and performers to help bring the thing to life, including Reshma Gajjar, an insanely nice and talented performer who’s danced for everyone from Sia to Madonna and also played the Traffic Dancer/girl in the yellow dress in the opening of Lala Land. We also got Marc Patterson onboard to shoot the piece, and started developing the look. Because we were going to shoot in the woods and wanted a timeless look, Marc suggested we try to line up some vintage anamorphics. Doing so was fairly difficult at our budget level, but we ended up finding some nice Kowa Anamorphics that gave us a really distinct look.

One of the things I’m most passionate about is creating highly specific worlds.

Woods has been a really exciting project for me as a director, because one of the things I’m most passionate about is creating highly specific worlds. In the past, that has tended towards more explicit realism, so Woods was an opportunity to step away from that in favor of something more esoteric. I love films like Dogtooth, for example, where everyone is deadly serious about a world and a set of behaviors that seems absurd from the outside.

Because this video came to me without any guidelines from the artist, it was a fantastic opportunity to do something that was completely unique and build a bizarre and insular world from the inside out. I’m also extremely interested in non-verbal storytelling and movement based work, and this was a great opportunity to experiment further with that. I hope to do much more work in this genre, and I hope that people enjoy watching what we created.

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