After finding himself inspired by the music and artistry of Chino Amobi during the making of his short film La Bicicletta, director Nathan De Paz Habib reached out to the artist seeking permission to use one of his songs which quickly saw the pair develop a shared understanding of artistic and creative intentions, the fruition of which being Eroica. The hallucinatory and enigmatic short, adapted from the opening to Chino’s namesake novel, explores complex notions of mythology, the African and Jewish diaspora and our desires to escape our present. With such epic and wide-reaching themes, Eroica visualises an opening to the exploration of worlds beyond our reality with luxurious cinematography, a mind-bending sonic landscape and seamless editing. With Eroica having completed its well-received cinematic screenings, DN sat down with De Paz Habib and Amobi for the film’s online premiere to delve into how their ongoing collaboration evolved, the pair’s shared experiences of diaspora and translating such a richly epic piece of work to the screen.

[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]

How did you two connect and come to be making this short film?

Nathan De Paz Habib: I have been a fan of Chino’s music and his 2017 album Paradiso was a big inspiration for my short film La Bicicletta. For the trailer, I wanted to use the track WARSZAWA and reached out to Chino over Instagram to ask permission. Following that conversation, I suggested the possibility of a collaboration and found out he was in Paris for an exhibition of his artwork. I decided to go meet him and he gave me a copy of Eroica the novel. There was an instant connection and understanding between us and I was inspired to translate his work into a short film.

Chino Amobi: I agree with that. When we connected in Paris, we realized we had a lot in common, similar visions and from then on it was a really organic connection and collaboration. There was an instant brotherhood.

Suddenly I found myself exposed to new concepts within cinematography, aesthetics from European, African and South American cinema and the power of storytelling in a short film format.

Chino, what about Nathan’s work spoke to you and inspired the trust you needed in working with him to translate Eroica into a film?

CA: Growing up I was always very into watching independent films. At home in Virginia we had these cable subscriptions with bonus channels like Sundance and I remember watching a lot of international films and segments with short films which expanded my mind. Before then, I was only really watching domestic American films but suddenly I found myself exposed to new concepts within cinematography, aesthetics from European, African and South American cinema and the power of storytelling in a short film format. When I came across Nathan’s work, it felt in line with a lot of styles and directors that excited me but simultaneously, Nathan was doing certain things very idiosyncratically that felt very unique and something that I wanted to be a part of. After talking to him, I felt like he understood the places I was coming from but was able to create a hybrid linking towards his own work as well.

Nathan, how were you able to translate the huge mythology and history within Chino’s work into a modern and more accessible form?

NDPH: As I mentioned, I had engrossed myself in Chino’s art and work for almost three years before shooting the short. He sent me two hour long tracks, made to be listened to whilst reading the book which I did so on a loop and which then immersed me into the cinematic universe of Eroica. The book is a contemporary odyssey like Dante’s Inferno or Homer’s Odyssey which reads like an epic movie. So, I entered into that atmosphere from the sound and some of the little stories in the book. I took the music and I divided it into smaller ten minute sections and then created scenes for those sections which all linked to each other and which became the film Eroica. As I mentioned, the book is colossal so I could only focus on the introduction which is why we see “End of the first episode”. Chino is a long way from committing onticide. It is the beginning of his voyage and the transition from the known world, the world that we live in, to another world, to another atmosphere.

Chino’s music was obviously a huge inspiration and one of the most striking elements of Eroica is the ethereal almost muffled sonic landscape.

NDPH: The original songs are pretty similar to the ten minutes you experience in the film. For example, the sound of the sea was already in the music. The songs were a perfect way for me to enter into the exterior chaos and the reflective interior search of our characters on screen and the sounds of the sea really begin the moment Chino abandoned reality. For me, the music and what I chose to extract and put into the sonic landscape of the film deal with the condition of the diaspora in the contemporary age. You are connected with very ancient traditions which for Chino are African and Nigerian. And for me, I feel this kind of condition with the Jewish diaspora. I deal with old, ancient traditions that have existed for thousands of years but I am part of a contemporary society. The sounds of the trains and electronic noises invade you and clash with the older themes which wholly represent Chino’s work and make up the music of Eroica.

The music and what I chose to extract and put into the sonic landscape of the film deal with the condition of the diaspora in the contemporary age.

Chino, how is your involvement in ensuring the music and sound were true to you and your original intentions?

CA: I come from that space Nathan is mentioning. I’m very into the religious type of ceremonial intensity that just immerses. Being in these spaces is very cinematic to me. In cinema, you transcend and those moments of religious ecstasy or spiritual revelation are what I try to bring out in my music. Music has the power to create in your mind, body, and soul and through my personal revelations with sound, I really try to be a vessel through my music. What Nathan is talking about with the sound design – the contemporary sounds, things that we hear, electronic sounds, digital sounds, this synthesis of the old and the new traditions is something that I carry deeply within my work.

Working with Nathan we found that the diegetic sounds combined with the sounds that I composed don’t work against each other but they enhance one another and bring it closer towards the heart of the sound that I created as a base. That diasporic sound is critical to the film, working with Nathan and his Jewish ancestry and different actors from all over the world combined with the sounds worked seamlessly and I feel like you can even smell it. You can smell the visuals and it all comes together in the film in a way that means you can’t take it apart. That’s one of the things that is really important to me, the whole. There are so many details to the point where it becomes almost overwhelming – and that’s the beauty of it.

This fight between them, with Chino sitting in the backseat like a child was one of the trickiest parts of the adaptation.

Eroica is incredibly emotive and immersive. The scene in the car, with all of the POVs and different angles wholly invites us into that world.

NDPH: The car scene for me, represents that uncomfortable, primary condition of the diaspora which is so integral to my research and work as a filmmaker. It centralises those thoughts of what am I doing here? Not only for Chino but his parents. Why are they in the car, why are they going through that part of the city? This fight between them, with Chino sitting in the backseat like a child was one of the trickiest parts of the adaptation. They aren’t screaming or having a conversation out loud yet it feels so familiar to those watching. We can’t clearly hear what they are saying, they are in the contemporary age but their dialogue and those voices could be from anywhere. There is very little dialogue in Eroica but when the mother asks “Do you believe in God?” and then says, “If we don’t believe in God, it’s not that we don’t believe in anything, we start to believe in everything,” was so tricky to put on screen. We hear their voices among the muffled sounds but we can’t contextualise it.

Chino, how were you able to approach that moment in the back of the car considering the weight of everything you were both trying to convey in the scene?

CA: I just actively said to myself, “I’m in Eroica, I’m in the novel,” In that regard, I was trying to just be myself. This was my goal, to not think too much about it, and reflect on my family, my relationships and also, simultaneously, it’s a very dream-like situation. I dream pretty often, and I write down the ones I remember and that leave an impact on me. In this regard, it’s like this feeling of being in a dream but you’re not certain that you’re dreaming, so you’re not acting – you’re just in it. Then you see it in hindsight, but there’s something about the audio and the disembodied quality that, when you wake up, makes you wonder what just happened.

I think about this as part of the structure of how it was filmed. Dreams, memories, subconscious, and all these types of things are very much at the core of Eroica and the dialogue that was written is referenced from the book in the car scene. That was very much this hallucinogenic space, trippy multi-sensory, multi-camera angle experience that I was really trying to get into this headspace of. Nathan also directed me well. He gave me some good notes the day before we shot it, places to come from, places to channel, and also listening into the audio, listening to the argument.

Dreams, memories, subconscious, and all these types of things are very much at the core of Eroica.

NDPH: The car itself is also very important, because the car for me, and also for Chino, is something that gives you this idea of the future. The car exists and it’s a known place, something that you cannot escape from when it is going down the highway. You are inside, you feel uncomfortable, and you don’t know how you can get out of it.

CA: There’s a sci-fi tradition of being in a vehicle and being transported into the future. But simultaneously, when we’re talking about the Odyssey and these old mythic narratives, you’re in this vessel, whether you’re talking about the ship in Odysseus or the belly of the beast in Jonah, it’s like you’re being transported in a way that is beyond your control. And that can tie into genetics and your parents. There are certain things that you inherit from not just your parents but their parents, their parents and you’re in this vehicle moving forward. So it’s definitely in relation to those themes.

NDPH: It’s also important that Chino starts to take control of things and his own life from the moment that he exits from the car. Because before, he’s in the backseat, being transported by the parents, who, as Chino said, are the parents of the parents of the parents of the parents.

Talk us through the filming of that final scene, stepping into that journey and the wonderful lighting you used.

NDPH: It took a while to find the right location. I spent a lot of time with our DOP Andrea Munafò in the suburbs of Milan, in the parks and in the gardens outside Milan to find the right place. It was both winter when we shot the film and when we were scouting and when we found this park, it was dark and foggy and it felt like the perfect situation however when we arrived to shoot there was a beautiful sunset, no fog and the exact opposite of what we were looking for but it still worked. From that shot you can see all of the little lights in the background which were so perfect. It gave us the feeling of abandoning the light, abandoning the city, abandoning what you know and leaving the real world for another existence. Reading the book and listening to the sounds of the music and thinking about the film I knew we needed a long shot with the dolly following Chino, just watching him walking into the darkness. Then, that close-up on him in the darkness, where that big light floods in and he disappears – he goes to another condition. For me, it was not necessary to shoot a lot of coverage or to overthink about this. It was just this location, this perfect calm climax into the darkness.

Chino, this must have been an incredibly emotive moment for you knowing what comes next and the meaning behind this scene.

CA: Yeah, that was one of our earliest shots on the first day. It was a cathartic but also pretty intense scene to shoot. It was super cold outside which helped me to get into it with my bodily reactions, heightened senses and extremities. And the team, who I wanted to comment on, worked so professionally and were so in sync. That whole experience being on set was my first time being a part of a production, and that whole experience brought me deeper into the reality that sparked with writing Eroica, was expanded through Nathan, and then supported through the team and the gallery that I’ve been working with.

All these things coming together and then my dialogue over the scene felt really magical in a way that reflects my love of sci-fi and mythology because these things become reality. In that moment, I felt it become that reality in a way that I had never experienced before. That also translated into my life, the words that I say in that monologue have become my life. That to me proves the power of writing, the power of cinema, the power of art becoming reality in real time. But also in the recorded freeze of the film, accessible to people all over the world – it was very powerful.

The whole world built and developed in the film as you say is incredible and very much leaves you wanting more. How did you feel when you saw the whole thing finished and edited?

CA: Completely mind blown, to be honest with you. I almost couldn’t watch it because it was so well done. Growing up watching so many films, and seeing this level of production coming together – the DOP, the sound design, the color correction and everything else was amazing. I sent it to my friends and all of their minds were blown. Sometimes I take months without watching it and when I revisited it today it honestly still feels like a hallucination to me.

Nathan, this is someone whose work you’ve admired and followed for years, to be able to translate that cinematically must feel like a wonderful accomplishment.

NDPH: The collaboration has been amazing since the start. When you admire the work of another artist, of another person, and then you start to create something with him. Chino also left me a lot of freedom, he trusted my vision and what I wanted to do with Eroica. He also told me that Eroica was a book written in order that other people create other things from it. Sometimes, in collaboration with other artists you have to be careful of what they want but in the making of this short film – it was not the situation. I also loved the actors Chino included, the Chinese detective, the parents, the child. It’s a short film where the actors created the characters because there was no script. It was more like a visual and not a linear story where you follow the development of the characters so the actors were able to create their own stories. The Chinese detective, played by Shi Yang Shi, a well known actor in Milan, and I spent a lot of time inventing and trying to create his role beyond what is in the book which was a lot of fun. Our cinematography, by Andrea, who completely understood the atmosphere and editing sessions with Jacopo Ramella Pajrin were so satisfying – seeing this movie take shape was so important.

This sense of wonder and curiosity is something that I feel was captured in the film and his involvement in it is very critical.

CA: And that child-like quality and openness is something that is very critical to Eroica. When we’re kids we have this openness and expansiveness, and a lot of these things which get closed down as we get older. So this sense of wonder and curiosity is something that I feel was captured in the film and his involvement in it is very critical. We premiered the film at this art show that I did in Paris and I had my paintings and sculpture and garment production and furniture. I felt like after this, I could retire, you know? The film is everything to me, a moment of great accomplishment because it was bigger than me as well. It involved so many different people and in a way that was extremely successful and captures everything that I’m about. There’s an intimacy there that is also contained within the expansiveness.

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