Allan Sutherland interviews cult experimental film-maker Stephen Dwoskin during his retrospective at the BFI Southbank, London, in May 2009.
The American artist/film-maker Stephen Dwoskin has lived in the UK since the 1960's, making some fifty films. (For filmography see here). His archive has recently been acquired by the National Film Archive and he has just been the subject of a season at BFI Southbank.
He has been an important figure in the European avant-garde for five decades. I interviewed him about his life and his films which deal directly with disability subjects.
Dwoskin grew up in 1940's America, where films were the major form of popular entertainment. Dwoskin’s father made home movies, which he has subsequently used in films such as ‘Trying To Kiss The Moon’ (1994) and the short ‘Grandpere’s Pear’ (2003)
Dwoskin started as a visual artist, studying graphic design at New York’s Parsons School of Design. "The idea of design was that you have to know all the other arts. You studied photography, industrial design, painting, drawing - everything to be a designer."
He was part of the generation of artists who benefited from the development of affordable film equipment. "Suddenly sixteen millimetre cameras and all that equipment became quite inexpensive and it was quite common for artists to fool around with film. It was the time of Pop Art and abstract expressionism, so the whole environment was encouraging all kinds of experimentation. It was very reminiscent of the twenties avant-garde where people like Man Ray and Fernand Leger suddenly got their hands on cinema and started playing with it. In my case it became more serious, but it was started with that kind of impetus."
After graduating in 1959, Dwoskin became a well-recognised graphic designer in New York. In 1964 he came to Europe on a Fulbright scholarship. "I took the Fulbright as a year off, originally, to do my work, painting, on the pretext of doing design research for a book. But when I got here they asked me to stay. I don't if it was a good idea to stay but I did."
He brought with him half a dozen uncompleted films, which he subsequently edited. In 1966 Dwoskin helped form the London Film Co-op. It was an exciting time to be an artist in London. "A lot of avant-garde activity was passing through. It was an intermediary between America and Europe, though there wasn’t that much happening in film in sixties Britain."
A major development in Dwoskin’s career came in 1967, when his films won awards at the Experimental Film Festival (see here) in the Belgian coastal town of Knokke-le-Zoute - a leading showcase for new cinema at the time. "The films I made in New York earned me a big prize. The spin-off from that was enormous, particularly on the continent."
Dwoskin’s films have since had greater prestige in Europe - and therefore more funding - than in the UK. "German TV started sponsoring a lot of the new film work. It wasn’t big money but it was enough for me and a lot of others to be able to work." German money funded ‘Behindert’ (1974), Dwoskin’s first film to deal directly with his own impairment (‘Behindert’ is the German word for ‘disabled’).
Dwoskin caught polio at the age of nine, in the 1948 epidemic, and was in hospital for the next four years. "They didn’t expect me to live, I was in an iron lung in the home, a whole history of polio in one person. I spent many years in rehabilitation hospital learning to walk on crutches and getting muscle transplants. New York State Rehabilitation Hospital was where I grew up and where I went through puberty."
Instead of being on a children’s ward, the young Dwoskin was on a ward full of teenagers. "I made a big leap suddenly, being with kids sixteen and seventeen when I was only ten. So the vocabulary was like 'fuck' and 'shit' and 'boy', 'girl' and 'sex' and the rest were medical terms - there was no way of getting a good vocabulary there. When I left and went to high school, I failed every subject. I couldn’t even pronounce English properly. I read a lot when I was in the hospital, but I never knew what the words sounded like."
He worked hard to catch up and got into Parsons. "I was suddenly confronted with this great idea that art is a wonderful and magnificent place to be and was full of rebellion and experiment. All the possibilities were there."
Unlike other artist film-makers of a similar generation such as Michael Snow and Malcolm le Grice, Dwoskin has never been interested in removing the human figure from his images to focus on the formal properties of the medium. Though they contain little spoken dialogue, his films are full of people, predominantly women. His camera does not just record: it watches.
Dwoskin roots this approach in his early hospital experiences. "The themes of my work were born there in some ways because it’s really all about this world of relationships without much conversation. Finding ways of communicating and to express the world from that position: that was my childhood."
He first turned this gaze on to his own disability with ‘Behindert’. "It was an extension of my earlier work in terms of relationships. The impetus for doing ‘Behindert’ was that in a relationship, where one person has a physical disability, that disability becomes an excuse for the relationship not to work.
"I put myself into the film, with an actress, and we played out a relationship. ‘Behindert’ still uses the same elements I used in my other films - relationships between people, how they look at each other and relate to each other, how it fails and doesn’t work."
In 1981 Stephen and I worked together programming the ‘Carry On Cripple’ season at the National Film Theatre, the UK’s first season on disability in film. Dwoskin brought to it detailed knowledge of Hollywood portrayals of disability, gained during research for his book ‘Film Is..’ (1975). "I became well aware of the exploitation, and the kind of codification of certain looks in cinema, like, the bad boy always has a disability. There’s all these different notions."
He explored these ideas further when he made ‘Face Of Our Fear’ (1992) for a Channel Four disability season. "It’s about the notion of stigma. I think disability carries within it all the prejudice, not just about disability, but all prejudice about race and religion. It all comes out when people are confronted with disability issues. The notion of stigma comes from the tattoo mark that put someone into the slave class. Anything that appears to be different is stigmatised."
In the 1990's, Dwoskin moved into a phase of more personal, introspective work, partly provoked by his own declining physical condition. An exchange of video letters with another film-maker, Robert Kramer, led him to the autobiographical film, ‘Trying To Kiss The Moon’ (1994).
"It’s autobiographical, not in a literal sense, but in terms of using images from my own life and that relate to my life. It’s like a montage/collage film with old home movies, bits of my own movies, things friends sent to me. It’s like opening a drawer and finding all kinds of bits, old letters and photographs."
He then made two extraordinary and controversial films, ‘Pain Is ....’ and ‘Intoxicated By My Illness (Parts 1 & 2 Intensive Care)’.
‘Pain Is....’ (1997) was commissioned by the Fondation de France, a French philanthropic organisation. "They thought it might be interesting to make a film to open up the debate on the subject of pain. Having seen ‘Face Of Our Fear’, they asked me to write a proposal for them. The more I did, the more interesting it became as a subject, because pain is about feeling: if you don’t have pain, you don’t feel anything at all on any level. So pain is not just about being hurt, it’s an incredibly complex thing."
Though it received television screenings throughout Europe, the film was rejected by the BBC as ‘not scientific enough’. The Corporation’s distaste may be due to Dwoskin’s coverage of sado-masochistic practices. He defends this aspect of the film: "Pain is not, fundamentally, not negative only, it’s about sensation and the ability to engage in sensation both as pleasure and also as a measure of oneself. It’s about sexual engagement - there’s pain in sex as well as the pleasure, but the pain is not necessarily bad. Pain is a marker to know how you relate to things - pain has a diversity of uses.
"Pain is so multi-layered and comes from different directions and it’s not just a physical thing, it’s also an emotional thing, a cultural thing. Everyone relates to pain differently."
‘Intoxicated By My Illness’ (2001) takes its title from American critic Anatole Boyard’s book about his cancer experiences. "Boyard said that, if you stay quiet when going through this type of illness, people in the hospital - the doctors - don’t pay attention to you. If you don’t speak, the pain is greater than speaking.
"I was very sick at the time. I was going in and out of the hospital like a ping-pong ball and I started taking a little camera with me, filming the life in the hospital and the way they treated people. It was becoming like a dream, a whole bad dream. I remember I was delirious, I can remember all the doctors and nurses walking around me like they were on stage."
Dwoskin used computer manipulation of his own images and those taken, reluctantly, by friends during this time, to re-create that dream-like feeling, then added ‘dramatic and Hollywood-type music’ as a counterpoint.
It is unclear whether Dwoskin will produce further work. His declining health makes it more difficult to shoot new material, although computers make it possible to revisit past films. But he also states that "ever since Intoxicated, everything just gets more radical in my mind as to what I should do. And the more radical, the harder it is to get people to perform in that".
For more information about Stephen Dwoskin go to www.stephendwoskin.com
For futher reading on Stephen Dwoskin's film-making please look at the following essays:
Francois Albera: 'Stephen Dwoskin : the poetry of hinderedness' and 'Cathy Day: I film therefore we are'; Michel Barthelemy: 'On four films of Stephen Dwoskin'; http://www.renardfilms.org/english/edit/txtdwoskin.html
Daniel Campbell Blight: 'The Sun and the Moon: Eroticism and the filmic Avantgarde' http://3mmfoamex.blogspot.com/2009/05/i-have-never-seen-as-strong-piece-of.html
List of documents held in the British Artists' Film and Video Study Collection http://www.studycollection.co.uk/artistfiles/dwoskin.html