There are few things in life with as much unifying power as dance. When Spanish filmmaker Martí Arbaizar found himself freshly minted with London life, facing the drop out of a project but impelled by an overwhelming need to shoot, he dove deeper into his love, knowledge and passion for dance, found the ideal locations and created his experimental documentary short I Shut My Eyes in Order to See. Featuring an eclectic array of Londoners, all cast through Instagram with completely different lives and jobs, Arbaizar’s film weaves together their stories and worlds to find a shared unity. I Shut My Eyes in Order to See proffers a vintage aesthetic through the grain and grit of 16mm but juxtaposes the tone with modern and progressive conversations edited together with a graceful fluidity. Arbaizar spoke to us here at DN about drawing inspiration from hoofing – a style of tap, what he was looking for when gathering his diverse ensemble and challenging himself with his most improvisational piece of work to date.

Beyond a love of dance and movement, what inspired this piece?

The first thing I knew about the film were the locations it would take place in. These empty old halls were so inspiring to me, they provided a blank canvas for anything to happen. At that time, that thing where a topic keeps randomly coming up in your life happened to me. It was tap dance. I had just discovered and was obsessed with this tap dancer from the US called Cartier Williams. After a few weeks of talking with him and his manager, I had a treatment for the film. It was going to be a sort of portrait of him and his practice that would also tap into the history and nature of tap dancing. Sadly he cancelled just a few days before shooting.

I decided I still wanted to make a film in those halls. Using a lot of the ideas and general tone from what I was going to do with Cartier, I cast some people through Instagram. I knew I wanted it to be somewhat like a dance film but more focused on the themes of connection and improvisation, a central element to hoofing, a style of tap dancing. Some of the people that appear in the film are dancers, but there are also actors, a gardener, a movement director and models. It was more about what energy they brought than anything else.

I knew I wanted it to be somewhat like a dance film but more focused on the themes of connection and improvisation.

What is your relationship to dance and why do you find yourself drawn to it in your filmmaking?

I have always been drawn to dance. As a kid I had an obsession with tap dance for a while. I never took any lessons but I have always enjoyed watching performances of all genres. Together with music, I see dance as one of the few art forms that can best reach our soul. More recently, dance has been more present in my life largely due to my discovery of Pina Bausch’s work. Seeing Kontakthof and Nelken live is one of the best things I have ever experienced.

How do you pick yourself up and plough on creatively and energetically after the disappointment of having a subject cancelled at the eleventh hour?

Those days before the shoot were definitely stressful but the idea of cancelling the shoot didn’t cross my mind. I had moved to London less than a year before so I was still going through some of the great experiences one has when moving abroad, meeting lots of people and discovering new places around the city. I felt like I had such a fresh energy inside me, some kind of urge to shoot something. I wanted to make a film that felt like a welcome gift to my new hometown.

Knowing you wanted to lean into themes of connection and identity, what were you looking for in the cast and when do you know someone is right?

I don’t recall looking for anything very specific. Looking back, I was more drawn to people that showed some sensitivity and connection with their inner self. I prioritised people who had a unique relation to dance or any mode of self-expression through the body but it wasn’t a requisite. Face to face meetings are probably the best way to work at this stage but I didn’t have time to do that so I cast them through Instagram. I just followed my instinct to know if someone was right. Sometimes, a photograph where they looked a certain way was enough. Other times it took some digging to get to know more about them as well as brief conversations around the themes of the film. They also had to feel right and representative of a city like London but that just came naturally.

I prioritised people who had a unique relation to dance or any mode of self-expression through the body but it wasn’t a requisite.

We shot for two days. The first one was at Deptford Town Hall, where we shot more experimental, improvised and fun stuff. The second day was at Goldsmiths University Great Hall, where we shot all the interviews and some of the performances as well. I sent the chosen cast a few questions in advance to get the ball rolling around the general theme of the film. Upon arrival, I talked to them for about 10 minutes to know what questions had resonated more with them. Then we recorded the interview (15-30 minutes) and lastly, we asked them to improvise some moves to a song of their choice, or sometimes mine. I really think that talking about all those things before dancing somehow impacted their moves in some way. I also told them they were allowed to shut their eyes, at least at the beginning of the improvisation. I thought that could help them forget about the camera and everything else. In some cases, it really did.

Do you enjoy working with improvisation and what do you find it brings to the set?

This is by far the most improvisational project I have ever done. From the conception of the idea, to the interviews and performances, all the way to the editing, everything in this film is permeated with improvisation. It is obviously a risky, and expensive, approach to making a film. Sometimes you just keep rolling hoping something good will happen. At times that’s the case, most often it’s not. When something unexpected happens, the surprise can be felt both in front of the camera and behind. Everyone on set reacts and feeds each other’s reactions. It could be a certain gesture from whoever’s being filmed or a certain camera movement done by the cinematographer. I usually prefer being more in control of what’s going on, having a detailed treatment, shotlist, etc, but I feel like committing to this approach has given the film a very special, intimate and personal feel I wouldn’t have achieved with a script.

When something unexpected happens, the surprise can be felt both in front of the camera and behind.

We know the added textures and tactile preferences for working on film but what else inspires you with the medium and is it always a requirement for you when possible?

To me, translating life into celluloid, a tangible and finite thing, makes it more of a sacred and valuable thing, which asks for more respect. This generally translates to a more focused energy from everyone on set. When shooting on digital I am able to try more things and do more takes, which only sometimes gets you somewhere interesting. When I’m shooting on film I am more careful of details while at the same time I allow things to be and move naturally. On this film there wasn’t time for much rehearsal either so the performances you see are the first and only take we did. The finiteness of the film together with this improvised approach meant we were constantly relying on chance to make everything come together – I think there’s some beauty in that.

Working with film has been sort of a requirement since I started directing but I have never had to fight heavily for it. Except for the occasional client who prefers the safeness and instantaneity of digital, I have been lucky enough to work on projects and surround myself with people who love working on film. Cinematographers I have worked with like Juanjo L. Salazar are mainly the ones to blame for my love of film. However, I am currently more open to shooting digital if the project requires it.

I love the tracking shots which focus down on who we are watching in the interviews. How did you create the intimate, very personal touch to places which, as you mentioned, are empty old halls?

Thank you! When shooting the interviews I would just have the essential crew members on set: cinematographer, 1st AC, sound recordist and myself. We also used portable panels to create a separate and more intimate space in each corner of the hall we were shooting at. So it really felt like we were having a one-to-one conversation.

The finiteness of the film together with this improvised approach meant we were constantly relying on chance to make everything come together.

Was it a challenge dealing with the different locations, different lighting and equipment for each shoot?

We had very minimal equipment on both days. That allowed us to be very agile but at the same time limited our ability to innovate. We also didn’t have many hands to help. We didn’t have a gaffer, loader, AD or even a producer… It was definitely a challenge, but we managed. We embraced these limitations and set out to work with this DIY approach, which I think ended up blending perfectly with the film’s overall theme.

Do you remember at what point in the edit you found a confluence of these voices, stories and beautiful movement?

The editing process has been a key element in finding this unified feeling. It was a long, trial and error based approach where I experimented with the footage, constantly changing the selected bits, moving and cropping. It has taught me some lessons I want to remember for future projects: avoid developing a strong attachment to the footage, cut it shorter so that only the essential remains and show it to people, they will give valuable insight. The film suffered so many drastic changes along the way, some of them were returns to the initial idea that even I had forgotten about, and somehow reappeared towards the end. I think some sort of collectivism and unity can be sensed between the people in the film and their thoughts.

I remember one day I was showing a new bit I had edited to my friend Adela. I was showing it on my phone and as I scrolled back to play it again she pointed out how beautiful the flickering effect of the fast scrolling was and suggested I experiment with more footage on top of the interviews. That opened my eyes in terms of the possibilities of the footage. Seeing Gabriel Moses’ film Ijó at 180 The Strand and Jeremy Shaw’s Liminals, sent to me by my friend Pablo Serrano who did the music and sound design of the film, were also key discoveries that inspired this new direction I went for in the film.

How much of an experimental approach did you want and why this touch?

I didn’t deliberately think about how experimental I wanted the film to be. However, I do believe an important part of a film, which can help carry the message further, is to give it a strong and all-pervasive emotional feeling. Creating an environment made of images, sounds and cuts that speak for themselves, without the need of dialogue. Trying to find ways to communicate that are intrinsic to film and that will take the medium further. In this respect, I am hugely inspired by director Jenn Nkiru’s work methodology. One of her main concerns is stretching what film language and form is. I love and share how Nkiru sees filmmaking: “I think very experientally about filmmaking. It’s not just about what people see. It’s also about what people are feeling and also what’s lingering. It’s almost like the lingering of the work is something that I’m honoring more sometimes than the immediate satisfaction of seeing a work.”

Where have you found inspiration next?

Recently, I have been fascinated with mirages, the desert and communities that live there. I find the silent grandeur of the desert captivating. I still don’t know how this project will materialise, for now I’m just having fun doing research and writing down ideas.

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