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Douglas Bernardt on 'Inside The Blind Iris' and finding fresh inspiration in London

Douglas Bernardt on 'Inside The Blind Iris' and finding fresh inspiration in London

David Knight - 14th Aug 2023

This summer, Stink Films' director Douglas Bernardt has relocated from São Paulo to the place that has inspired some of his most creatively rewarding projects - including the recently-released Inside The Blind Iris (above). So we grabbed the chance to talk to him about this remarkable film and other memorable work.

Douglas Bernardt is enjoying his current stay in London, despite a recent cycling accident which has him laid up, nursing a sore knee. This São Paulo native is not in London just for its disappointing summer weather. For him, London is an inspirational place.

“Creatively London is the city that interests me the most," he says. "For me, it's a big step, coming from Brazil."

It’s also where Bernardt has expanded his scope as a director, exploring the fertile British jazz scene, creating music videos for Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes and Ezra Collective, and extending into live shoots for Misch and Dayes and Arlo Parks. And now he has made a bold step into capturing dance on film which is hugely significant.

The most recent Berhardt-directed project is Inside The Blind Iris - a collaboration with British dancer/choreographer Botis Seva, as part of a commission through London dance venue Sadler's Wells. The 10-minute film fuses Seva’s expressive choreography with Bernardt’s virtuosity in creating memorable images, taking in the span of cinema history in the process. He references German expressionist and surrealist film with powerfully resonant monochrome imagery, but also creates blockbuster-worthy VFX in bringing the story behind Seva's choreography to life. 

Bernardt turned his hand to filmmaking in his early 20s, having established himself as a photographer. Both his photographic and film work can be described as ambitious, realistic yet lyrical - and it's always cinematically framed. He incorporates serious themes that are relevant to Brazilian life, through promos for the likes of Tagua Tagua, Baco Exu Do Blues and Nego Bala.

With Inside The Blind Iris he employs a different palette and toolkit to confront issues of oppression, alienation and mental wellbeing. Our conversation began with his collaboration with Seva and Sadler's Wells, discovering why it was such an invigorating and creative experience - and how it differed to his more musical work. 

Above: Douglas Bernardt (left) on set of 'inside The Blind Iris' shoot with dancer/choreographer Botis Seva (right)

I came up with an idea... to visually interpret the troubled mind.

How did the dance film Inside The Blind Iris come about?

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sadler's Wells created an initiative supporting filmic collaboration between directors and choreographers. There were three commissions available on the project, and Botis and I won one of them.

Botis found my work online and he invited me. I didn't even need to do a treatment. We had one initial chemistry call, and we just bonded from there. It was really nice. And then we had complete creative freedom on the job - we just had to do a dance film that was abstract, and didn't have a structured narrative. That was the commission briefing.

It’s a fantastic piece of work. When did you shoot it?

We filmed in August and September of last year. Then there were three months of post production. So the final film was delivered in February, but it wasn't released until June. 

So how did the collaborative process work?

I researched Botis's portfolio and found his choreography really inspiring especially because his movements are so strong. He always incorporates a lot of emotion in his dances, and it can feels like his dancers are trying to overcome something. We decided to use movement to explore what rebellion feels like, of fighting against oppression and the system. 

I came up with the idea of filming in black and white, and creating a known space - the hangar in the film - to resemble the character's mind. It would be an artistic interpretation of the troubled mind: to document pain or anxiety and imagine what it's like to fight your own demons.

I love Buñuel, German Expressionism... and how much easier it is to light when you're shooting black and white.

The dancers inside the building represent the haunted spirits following Botis. It's like a nightmare, but it ends up with a sense of hope, once Botis opens the portal and rips the wall out. It's a moment of freedom.

I'm not sure that Botis fully understood all of my ideas at the conception stage – but he trusted me. Once we found the shoot location, things started to make sense. The venue had a great exterior, which felt like a place that could be magical and surreal. Yet inside it felt really oppressive, with its huge concrete walls.

What and where was the location?

It was a former aerodynamics test site, for aeroplanes in the Second World War. So there have this big wind tunnel, where they used to hang the aeroplanes to test their capabilities.

And what about the references to classic cinema – including surrealism and even German Expressionism? Was that all there from the start?

Stylistically I wanted to do something different to my previous work. I come from a DP background, so the aesthetic is really important to me. The visuals can to enhance the narrative or convey certain feelings. But I’m a bit tired of the stereotype that Brazilian directors only use tropical colours!

I want to do something different that felt more European. I love Buñuel, German Expressionism and black and white movies - and I love how much easier it is to light, shooting in monochrome. It means you can focus on other stuff. By throwing a huge light source, you can draw amazing shadows and really focus on the movement, or think about how the dance arrangements fit into the narrative. It wasn’t the main reason we chose it, but in the end it helped so much.

Our DP Harry Wheeler, is a master with 16mm. I wanted to invest to shoot in real black and white 16mm inside the building, rather than grade it from colour – because we were using the film as a narrative tool as well. It meant we could separate what is real stylistically from what plays out in his mind's eye. To bring the sense of oppression.

Once you’re on set you also improvise a little bit - it's a nice way of incorporating dance into a narrative.

Onto the performance aspect - how did you figure out the balance between the choreography, the camera and direction?

The choreography was a really organic flow. Initially I didn't really know how to kickstart the process. So I began by presenting shapes to Botis, and he liked it. Once we had the location, we applied the shapes inside and started building outlines for each location – one circular setup, one was a line, a triangular setup and a square.

We created five dance setups, and spread them through the locations, and Botis adapted the choreography to fit the venue. Then we focussed on the music, and made five tracks relevant to each setup too.  It was a constantly evolving process - and we continued to improvise on-set. So it was a really nice way of incorporating dance into a narrative, because usually it’s the other way round - you bring the choreography in when everything else is set up.

Of course the classic payoff shot is Botis encountering the whale in the middle of the City of London…

So the idea behind the whale is that it represents this feeling of not belonging. It's abstract, of course, and there's room for interpretation. But how I see it is that this guy is so dislocated in the world that he feels outside and separate from reality - like a fish out of the water. And whales are so different from us, but at the same time, they're super-close to us - they're also mammals, the closest ally from the water.

The only warmth in the film is when he looks at the whale, and the whale is about to die.

So visually it's impactful and it builds an empathetic bond with Botis. No one looks at Botis with empathy, during the whole film. It’s the only moment of warmth in the whole film, when he looks at the whale, and the whale is about to die. It seems the animal understands the human’s struggle -as it’s dying in the middle of the centre of capitalism. Buses pass, people cycle on and continue to live their lives. No one has the capacity to really care or look at it. 

It's an abstract ending, but I think it does resonate with audiences, and that was the intention overall.

This provided you with more freedom than some of your music videos, and definitely any commercial jobs. When you're making something for Nego Bala or Tom Misch do you have to become a different type of director to who you are commercially?

Sort of. Every project has a goal that you need to reach. The Sadler’s Wells film was very much about how me and the choreographer worked together - a much more personal environment than my work for Nego Bala, for example. That’s his story, and I'm shooting on his behalf, so I have get into his mind as much as possible.

Above: Bernardt (left) and Seva on the location of the Inside The Blind Iris shoot.

Botis didn't always understand my initial ideas – but he trusted me.

Working with Nego Bala was about understanding his reality, what he went through. That meant interviewing him many times, getting important details, and considering how to present these on camera. We were trying to summarise his childhood, his feelings, his perception of growing up in prison.

Of course, I weaved in my own feelings, to make it feel more intimate. But its more about trying to translate what he told me about his reality. And It had a really important political side as well. There's a really important social aspect behind it to inspire Brazilian youth.

The Tom Misch video [for What Kinda Music] was more like the traditional process for a music video. I received the music, and loved it, then slowly found the visual to make the music stronger and tease out a story to match the lyrics.

You shot the narrative video in Ukraine, which led you to making live videos for Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes. How did that come about and how different are live videos?

From the get-go we agreed to do the two video concepts - the narrative for What Kinda Music and live video for Lift Off. I was more excited about the narrative one. But I alos thought it was cool to do a live shoot with a smaller budget and capture the band’s synergy without a fixed storyline to follow.

I didn't know I would have so much passion for shooting live performance.

But when we got on set of the live performance video, and I saw Yussef and Tom play, it was mesmerising. They are so soulful together, and it's just beautiful to watch them perform.

It was my very first time shooting a live video, and I didn't know I would have so much passion for it. But you're so in the moment. You have to be present, to find the right elements for the shot, including the right lighting and camera movements in the right moment of the track. I had to really get into the music, and try to translate that on-screen. It also felt I was playing with them while they performed. My instrument was the Steadicam.

I just got into the zone on set. And after that, I wanted to do more of these sort of jobs. It just has to be with a truly exceptional performer – because its 100% about the performance.

And that collaboration led to the Arlo Parks live video, for Softly?

Yes, Arlo is amazing and has a wonderful voice. So that was a natural fit. For that shoot we found a location in New York, while I was shooting a commercial in Mexico. It meant I had to do a one day trip to New York just to shoot this. I was testing for COVID the entire time, and then on the day we were meant to do the shoot, I tested positive. I didn't have any symptoms (and I still think it was a dud result) but I couldn't go.

It was more about Arlo’s expressions while singing. So the camera is much more about her.

I called a director friend of mine in New York, to help me out. I was going to direct remotely, but I needed someone there on set, to feel out the space. He was my eyes, and at some point our visions synced up.

It was a completely different experience to my first live video. With Arlo, it was all about the voice. We didn't need to navigate between instruments, we just wanted to capture Arlo's emotions and how she expressed herself. So having her front and centre in shot was essential. Even when moving around the band, she's always looking to the camera.

As you’re spending the summer months living in London, what are you enjoy most about being here?

Not the food. I’m joking...

I love the intersection of art in London. Music video-wise and commercially, the most creative work takes place here. You can see it in the fashion. I lived in New York before, and the two cities have a similar vibe. But I think in London it’s a little bit more… true. People really build a scene here, and that’s interesting.

It's quite hard for me to explain, but it’s a place where I fit, where I have friends. It's been easy for me to make friends here. I also like that the whole city is flat and I can ride my bike. São Paulo is full of hills, so cycling is much harder! 

My music videos have been like short films - now my treatments are getting more surreal.

I still do a lot of photography. That's how I started and though I gave it up for a few years, I came back to it recently. I'm investing in my photography more actively at the moment, and taking street pictures as I walk about. I love it.

I'd love to express myself in an easier medium. Films take a long time, so photography allows me to express myself immediately, every day. While I've been here I've been organising my pictures, creating series, and taking more. It's been fun, discovering new neighbourhoods, and feeling connected to people.

What else is in the pipeline for you in terms of films?

My ideas now are different to what I’ve been known for. The dance film has spurred a new career direction. My music videos have always been more like short films, with a fleshed-out narrative, like for Bluesman and Nego Bala. My treatments are becoming more surreal, and feeling-led. And I'm trying to nurture this new wave of thinking.

• Douglas Bernardt is represented by Stink Films for music videos and commercials.

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