Interview with Brandon Holmes (80° North)

Brandon Holmes shared some thoughts with us on his short film 80° North


Why Svalbard? What lead you to on this specific expedition? 

BH: I’ve been interested in Svalbard since I was young. I discovered it through Phillip Pullman’s the Golden Compass. The story was fantasy, but Svalbard was real, although so far removed from Texas that it may as well have been a fantasy. As a young adult its remote location kept a hold on my imagination. As an adult, it came back to mind the more I learned about the relationship between the Arctic and global climate. There was a strange overlap for me between the book and real life in that Svalbard represented a place where, in a symbolic way, the fate of the world rests. It’s just a fascinating place as well in a number of ways I don’t have space to get into – from its geology, to its territorial and legal status, to the mixture of people who call it home.

I had an opportunity to finally visit in 2017. There is an arts program I applied for and was accepted into called the Arctic Circle Residency. The program places artists on board the Antiqua, the ship featured in the film, every summer and fall. The trip lasts a few weeks and offers the participating artists the opportunity to explore Svalbard and make work in response to the landscape. All of the subjects in the film were artists with me on the ship.


Why did you choose to shoot/edit the film in this way: voiceover of silent participants over images?

BH: My proposal for the residency was to film a documentary about the artists producing work in relation to the landscape and its connections to climate change. With 30 artists on the expedition and myself functioning as a film crew of one, that quickly became overwhelming. Days were needed for getting to know to fellow artists, understand their work, their motivations – all trying to find a handful of subjects I could document in vérité style and supplement with interviews. About 10 days in, I realized trying make that type of film was too ambitious.

I have a background as a photographer. My early work was grounded in environmental portraiture, photographing people in the landscapes they are rooted to. While the artists weren’t rooted to the landscapes we were exploring, they were, for a time, becoming a part of them. As outsiders from various parts of the world, with a diverse set of life experiences, they each brought perspectives to Svalbard that a Scandinavian living there might not have.

Out of desperation that a traditional documentary approach wasn’t working for me, I realized I needed to experiment. So I began filming some of the artists against the dramatic landscapes we found ourselves in, essentially in extended portraiture. I would ask them to stare into the camera and then I would step away for several minutes, letting them process their thoughts alone, just the sound of the natural elements around us and the camera staring back. The process was often meditative. I loved the balance of both the individual and the landscape in the frame that resulted. Himali was the one exception, as I choose to film her against a mural of the glacier Amelie was filmed in front of. I thought the contrast between the real glacier and its human depiction would create an interesting contrast given her concerns of how we represent and conceptualize the natural world.

This approach allowed me to interview them off camera during the brief periods we had between meals and our daily excursions, typically one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Having an hour to spend without a camera pointed at them, in the comfort of our cabins, over tea or whiskey, allowed an intimacy that was really conducive to the questions I was asking and the kind of discussions I was looking for. After reviewing the first portrait and laying in some audio from the first interview, I realized I’d discovered a form that was suited to the constraints of our schedule and my strengths as a solo filmmaker. The minimalism of the format also felt perfectly suited to the stark minimalism and solitude of the environment. While it presented a narrative challenge in terms of telling a traditional story, I felt the format was potentially strong enough to carry a short film.


What do you hope the DCEFF audience will take away from the film? and/or What are some additional thoughts about the film that you would like to share with the DCEFF audience?

BH: I feel it’s important to point out that Svalbard has few people rooted to it – I met a taxi driver who has lived there for 12 years, and he claimed he’s one of the oldest residents. There has never been an indigenous population. Many residents come for a few years, then move on, so it’s a unique place in that most people there are outsiders. So this eased my conscience about the potential conflict of giving voice to people passing through for a few weeks rather than longer-term residents, who I would have little access to given all of our time on a boat, traveling to areas where no one lives.

For audiences, I hope the film can act as a catalyst for conversation. I’d like to see more people having conversations around what is politely called climate change, but which would be better termed climate or environmental catastrophe. I feel we’re past the need for more facts and figures on these topics. We’re too far into this to worry about convincing people climate collapse is happening. I hope people will have more personal conversations about what the facts mean for our future with friends, family, even colleagues. Conversations that allow the processing of grief, anger, hopes, fears, even desires. I think that’s one way forward. It was deeply rewarding and cathartic for me to have the conversations that were featured in the film. I’d like more people to have that experience for themselves.

On a societal level, we’re sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe, so on a personal level, I think we need to be honest with ourselves about that fact and process what the consequences mean. I’m pessimistic about our chances to avert the worst effects of climate collapse, particularly in light of our government’s response to Covid-19, but I do think through honest acceptance and processing of the situation, individuals can find solidarity and community with others to meet this future. It sounds so basic and maybe even ineffectual from an activist perspective, but I think it’s one of the most important things we can do.