Film Show 042: Kalil Haddad
An interview with the Canadian filmmaker about finding beauty in the viscerally ugly, thinking of found-footage films as a form of remixing, and seeking creative inspiration in limitations
Kalil Haddad is a Toronto-based experimental filmmaker. He has written and directed Farm Boy (2019), The Beautiful Room is Empty (2020), Vampires Drink Blood… I Drink Sorrow (2021), and The Taking of Jordan (2022), among other works. His films have screened internationally at festivals and gallery exhibitions in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, as well as in various community spaces both local to Toronto and on the internet. As an editor, he’s collaborated with filmmakers like Sophy Romvari on Still Processing (2020) and It’s What Each Person Needs (2023), and John Greyson on International Dawn Chorus Day (2021), which received the TEDDY for Best Short Film at the 71st Berlinale.
Haddad’s films employ various experimental and narrative strategies to negotiate questions of history and memory. His Smell (2023) finds the filmmaker working with a central actor to explore modern alienation in city and suburban spaces, as well as the sometimes-inexpressible grief that accompanies desire. Victim of Circumstance (which will be released in 2024) archives images from an all-male adult magazine to build a cinematography of desirous images desiring something like connection, while Paul and Eileen Had Four Children collates still-images from Haddad’s family to show the movement of time in still cinema. Taken together, the three new shorts articulate a truth about the narrative drama, desire, and remembrance of living: we already have access to these sensations, we need only look at them.
Following the fall release of Haddad’s shorts, Frank Falisi spoke to the filmmaker on September 5th, 2023 via Zoom to discuss the music inside moving images, found object artmaking, and rendering a life in experimental art.
Frank Falisi: You have three new shorts that you’ve been working on, is that right?
Kalil Haddad: Yeah, three new shorts. I think two are coming out this year. The other, Victim of Circumstance, will premiere at the beginning of next year. His Smell is premiering this Sunday, actually, at Fringe in the UK. And then it’s going to be at Indie Memphis next month.
Do you find yourself always working on multiple projects at a time?
Yeah, I do actually, especially more recently. I feel like I’m always working on two or three things at once and I kind of bounce around between them. I was working on His Smell and Paul and Eileen Had Four Children simultaneously. And you can kind of see the crossover of DNA, both these ones being about grief and remembrance. Those two are very much almost a double-feature. Then I’ve been working on this larger project that The Taking of Jordan and this other film, Victim of Circumstance, are part of. An ongoing film cycle. It’s kind of balanced: Paul and Eileen is more personal archival stuff, and then Victim of Circumstances is more of a porn film, or a porn archival kind of thing. His Smell is a drama. I like working in these different modes at the same time, maybe sharing themes but kind of expressing them in these different ways.
The spillage that you mentioned—on the one hand feels inevitable? You’re thinking about the same things, moving between registers. I feel like all three new films are navigating history and memory, how we archive those two things. Can you talk a little about how memory is working in these films?
I think across my filmography, time’s arrow is a big theme. And the way that our past ripples into our future and affects us going forward. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the older ones, like Farm Boy (2019) or Tiger Eats a Baby (2021)? Those are my only other two dramas, my more narrative works. They’re also very much about memory. I would say… trying to find a more elegant way to put this, but I guess I’m just very enamored with how we grow from ourselves and how these things continue forward.
I don’t know if there is a more elegant way to put it. Like the more elegant way to put it is to make a film about it, right? The film sort of becomes this new comment on old memory. On experiencing memory.
I think of my films as being expressionistic, about memory, but also being alive. And trying to convey something more experiential. Putting you in the headspace of the subject, and really wanting my films to feel more like an emotional—I mean all art is—but more of an emotional experience than a narrative proper. Time is more of a continuum, I suppose. Very early on, I was very inspired by Slaughterhouse Five, just in terms of the way that it looks at all time as happening simultaneously. And we’re just seeing little moments but these moments do ripple into the future, into the past. And I think that’s the thing I’m prioritizing with this project. You see it in The Taking of Jordan, the idea of time looping, but the entire film cycle is really just about this continuum.
It registers on such an emotional level, this experiential feeling you describe. One of the ways the films get beyond narrative and move towards an emotional state is the sound design, which plays with the spectator’s emotional state.
Especially as I get older, I feel like I’m much more inspired by music and audio than I am by other filmmakers. I feel like music is so direct and can put you in this emotional headspace in a way that film as a visual medium can’t always do. Working with The Taking of Jordan, for example, and the way that’s edited, I really see these found-footage films as remixing. The Boys of Summer (2021) and Vampires Drink Blood too, I would say I almost feel like a DJ working with samples. And I feel like what I’m doing as an editor is very musical. I find a lot of inspiration with that, just in terms of how quickly you can change a vibe in a song or a beat switch-up. That’s just such an emotionally direct way of reaching an audience. So many films I see really prioritize image over anything else and I feel like that’s just one element that we’re playing with. Just like how a performance is one element of a film, sound design is an essential element. What are the different elements that we can be playing with to convey feeling, other than just image?
That idea of remixing feels so fertile. In Paul and Eileen, these recognizable pop songs, “Silver and Gold” and “I’m On Fire,” appear. But they’re distorted. There’s how we remember those songs, and also what those songs represent to and for these people. These sort of very recognizable sounds get remembered in ways they no longer are.
I feel like discovering vaporwave years ago helped me connect it: yeah, this song sounds fucked and distorted and ugly and it shouldn’t sound this way. But you discover this kind of emotional aura that you get out of this thing being “incorrect.” I take inspiration from “incorrect.” I went to film school, so I don’t mean to call myself an outsider artist, but I almost feel like that’s the mode I’m interested in working in. Working these kinds of incorrect attributes into the film proper. Like I really love Donnie and Joe Emerson.
Oh my god yeah, isn’t there a movie coming out about them?
Yeah, Dreamin’ Wild. I’m afraid to watch. I discovered them around the time I was making Farm Boy (2019). I got really enamored by the perfection in the imperfect. Or even a more contemporary example, I’ve been very interested in Brazilian dance music [baile funk] recently, and I’ll hear this like, post-hyperpop feeling. It’s like using a jackhammer drill as the beat, with this screeching and all these sounds shouldn’t sound correct together. But when they’re compiled together, I’ve never heard anything like it. And so I am, in some way, trying to recreate that indescribable experience with film: all these attributes feel wrong, but when mixed together, it’s what creates this new form.
Distortion is definitely a feeling I keep coming back to with some of your films. And these aren’t horror movies per se, but there are moments of unease in them. How intentional is that?
I mean, I love horror films, especially Italian exploitation stuff. I guess what I really love about those, what I connected to as a teenager, was their ugliness, their dirtiness. Especially in, like, a Fulci film: how viscerally ugly they are, how they find beauty in that. What strikes me about those films is they have these repulsive, gorey images but they’re always accompanied by these beautiful, tranquil songs. I find that juxtaposition so fascinating. I love the idea of cinema being unpolished, dirty, underground. I think that’s what really attracts me to it. I also think shooting on a camcorder helps: there’s an aesthetic part—I like the grittier look—but for me, in terms of its production method, I love the directness of it. You’re not worrying about setting up a camera on a tripod and lighting the shot and it’s not that there’s no care put into what you’re doing—His Smell has lighting in it—but it’s just a different kind of process.
I started making films when I was nine years old, just on a camcorder. I love working with a small group of friends. Especially with His Smell, there was, what, four crew members on it, only three of them on set. Being able to just do it very directly and not having to worry about the bureaucracy of making a film in a “professional” kind of way… I just get the raw heart of what really attracts me to the process.
Do you have a shot list when you’re shooting on a given day? Does it feel more emotionally drawn in the moment of filming?
A lot of it is improv-based. There’s no script for His Smell. I had specific scenes I wanted to shoot, just very small scene outlines. Otherwise, it was a lot of experimenting on set. Talking about remixing: being the editor of my films means really finding the film in the edit, too, being able to more thoroughly construct the film in that regard. It’s like: I’m going to want to sample these shots of the actor, so I have to get those. The infrared shot in His Smell wasn’t something I had initially conceived of when we were on set. That was something I discovered in editing from my own personal archive of footage that I have. That was footage I shot back in high school. So it really is this memory of high school in the film proper, as opposed to a staged thing.
What is it like—like on His Smell—to be working with an actor?
I had spoken to him and we had many phone calls beforehand, so he knew what the film was and the direction we were going in. Nothing was too much of a surprise for him. This film is the first time I’ve worked with a professional actor and so this was an interesting experience for me, realizing the amount I could get just by letting the performance speak for itself, too, without any kind of editing interference—just letting those shots play out emotionally. It was funny, actually—I had broken my leg two months prior to shooting this and I was still on crutches at the time we were shooting. So there’s an element of that too: literally approaching this film in a different way. My last few films had been more montage-based, and so I really wanted to prioritize working with an actor as part of something narrative, kind of what they’re going through. And in that sense, keeping it formally simple, but more direct, too. So I think the idea of knowing this limitation—of me being on crutches—meant I couldn’t be running around the city telling this story. How do we tell a story in a very intimate way, in terms of this one location, this one actor?
Ever since film school, I love the idea of using your means to your advantage, or using a disadvantage to your advantage. I always feel like I get so much more creatively out of the challenge of a workaround. I suppose if I had like two million dollars and I could do anything… I don’t think that would be as creatively stimulating for me. I like the idea of “yeah, it’s small, it’s dirty, and it’s just gonna get at it”—of challenging myself to solve this puzzle, except I’m creating the pieces.
I was just watching a De Palma interview this morning, and he was talking about a shot in Sisters, the one where the blood is on the couch. And he’s like, yeah, we couldn’t get the camera to dolly low enough, so the blood is higher than it would have been if the guy had actually been in the couch.
Spielberg couldn’t show the mechanical shark. It wasn’t working. How much more do you get out of that film just in terms of its suspense and its atmosphere by not being able to show you that thing?
I wonder if we could talk a little bit about when there isn’t strictly an actor there. Victim of Circumstance has these found images of gay male models from old issues of Jock Magazine—they’re kind of the actors in this movie. You mentioned that with His Smell you realized that you can scrutinize the face and the body in certain ways. And I feel like you’re doing that in this movie as well, but purely through editing, right? You’re working with all of these preexisting pieces. When did that crop up for you as a strategy for filmmaking?
I had never done a found-footage film proper until The Taking of Jordan. During the pandemic, I had an entire reserve of footage shot a while ago for a movie that I kind of decided to abandon. And so, just sitting around bored during COVID, I remade this abandoned footage. I re-edited and recontextualized the images into their own individual films. And so it was my own footage, really, but that was my first real kind of experience with sampling footage, remixing stuff. With The Taking it Jordan, I wanted to challenge myself: how can I make a film entirely based out of other material? I can get so much out of working with an actor, but also realizing what I can do with no actor at the same time. And how integral sound design can become in terms of creating an atmosphere and emotional effect with no actors present—just with pure visual editing under sound.
Paul and Eileen feels sort of like a silent movie? There are these intertitles that comment on the image, pull us through the movie. Just to make sure I’m understanding: that’s your family, in Paul and Eileen, right?
Yeah, The Beautiful Room is Empty is about my dad’s family, and Paul and Eileen is about my mom’s side.
They both feel like stories about people who can feel ignored by art: their lives aren’t “cinematic,” or aren’t interesting or compelling in the ways we think art is. I’m projecting, as someone who comes from a family that doesn’t think a lot about art, but maybe because a lot of art doesn’t always think about them.
Eileen, my grandmother, was a housewife. Paul, my grandfather, worked at the GM factory, like across the river from Detroit. My family’s from Windsor. My grandfather died before I was conscious. But I was hearing these stories about my mom’s life and her upbringing. These aren’t stories that are cinematic in a traditional way. Not traditional… I shouldn’t say that. They’re not speaking to the bourgeois class. But they’re stories that are real and felt for me. Finding the beauty in the unremarkable, or the beauty in the almost forgotten.
What was it like to collaborate with your aunt on The Beautiful Room is Empty?
That was a really interesting process. A lot of the stuff in that documentary I didn’t know about until we made it. I had made my own kind of personal documentary back in 2018, about my own coming out process and how I relate to my sexuality. And her seeing that film, watching the generational differences in terms of how I was able to talk about my sexuality—because she came out really late in life—that really inspired her to want to open up, and we had been talking for maybe a year before the film, wanting to do some kind of documentary together.
But when we started it, learning about all of that abuse… it was, for her, this release of trauma. And I feel like you can feel that in the film as well, especially in that final scene where she’s in the field alone. I mean, it was incredible. It was a very intimate, personal experience. We would just do Zoom calls that I would record—that’s where all the audio comes from—just doing these hour-long conversations, two-hour-long conversations, and finding and crafting the story itself. I think we probably had six hours or something of just interview footage. And that was also an amazing experience as an editor: how do you succinctly construct this entire life story over 20 minutes? Especially with a documentary, when you’re constructing a narrative from the ground up, basically, just out of this audio, it’s like a confession can be bold or can mean something, but what does it mean in the greater context of everything else, right?
There’s a sequence in His Smell where we’ve been in the room with the main character for a while, sort of in this one space, in this one mode. And then there’s a cut from this city environment to a shot of a suburban street—he’s in this memory of this traumatic event from the past. Do you think about the suburbs a lot in your moviemaking?
I’m from the suburbs. That’s where I grew up. Now I live in the city, but I grew up in a suburb outside of Toronto. In His Smell, we see this guy living in the city and it’s been years and years, presumably, since his friend died, and he’s still haunted. And you can change location, you can change who you are as a person—he has this whole new roommate, he has a potential kind of friend there—but what was still defines you in some way.
And the way you have no control in terms of who your family was and how they react to who you are. I thought some about All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, these home movies and portraits, what the suburbs do to people.
I guess that’s the juxtaposition I’m making in His Smell, like I see his suburbs as very repressive. I like the juxtaposition in His Smell of this repressive area actually being this source of freedom in some way from all of the noise, all of everything going on in the city. He’s in this future space where, okay, I’ve moved on from the suburbs, I should be happy, but I’m still haunted by what was.
It’s not just repressive, you’re totally right. In Victim of Circumstance, the camera pans over the personal ads and “straight-appearing” crops up a few times—it’s a little heartbreaking, the way the pictures on the page have to reflect something they aren’t. And those pictures are so beautiful. Did you grow up around cameras much?
No, it was a big deal when I got a camera. And so it started off as me just playing around and making little skits for fun. But I don’t come from a family of artists or filmmakers or anything like that. Like as a little gay kid, film was my way of expressing that kind of world around me. Even if it wasn’t directly about that, it was like, where do my life experiences fit into the world that I live in?
Does memoir seem like an easy fit for cinema to you?
I think so. I think I’m in all of my movies. And my thought is, by putting it out there in a very intimate kind of way, that other people are able to connect with it on that level. And even if it’s maybe confrontational at times. Not trying to sugarcoat, not trying to shy away from any of the ugliness or the depressing qualities of the films, just kind of letting those speak for themselves. Again, finding beauty within that kind of traditional ugliness.
I would honestly rather show The Taking of Jordan in a fucking disgusting, smelly basement than I would at the TIFF Theater. I think a regular audience can connect with these films. This imagined mass public can take so much more than is expected of them to take. People are much more interested in compelling forms than they are given the opportunity to be, I think. And I think that’s the issue with modern cinemas. I think that audiences would respond to films like this, given exposure to them.
More information about Kalil Haddad’s films can be found on his website.
Thank you for reading the 42nd issue of Film Show. Find beauty in the ugly.
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