Dutch filmmaker Cyrus Frisch is a rare breed: a reluctant enfant terrible.
“The newspapers reported that I was one of the most provocative filmmakers in Holland,” says Frisch. “I don’t consider myself like that. I’m just trying to make exciting films. Stirring up emotions is just a means to that end.”
Nevertheless, in his home country at least, Frisch’s reputation as the wild man of Dutch film precedes him. One early film, Zelfbeklag (Self-Pity), consists of 70 minutes of footage of Frisch trying to drown himself in a fish tank while a famous Dutch film critic tears apart his graduation film.
For another, Ik zal je leven eren... (I Shall Honor Your Life), he recorded the final moments of his mentor, Dutch film scholar Hans Saaltink, after he suffered a heart attack on his doorstep, and then filmed the corpse lying in its coffin and as it burned in the crematorium. Critics accused him of gross exploitation and self-promotion.
In person Frisch comes off more like a man on a mission. He constantly pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable in order to explore his own relationship to the world. “It’s only when we behave immorally that we can raise a discussion on ethics,” he has said.
This proposition was the starting point of his extraordinary 2001 film Vergeef me (Forgive Me), for which he adopted the language of talk show and reality TV to make a point about the increasingly blurred lines between documentary and fiction. In the footage that opens the film, Frisch himself is shown on television agonizing over the violent images of war and mutilation that flit nightly across our TV screens and what effect continued exposure to such images has on our psyche. He then challenges himself to make a film that will be morally unacceptable to its audience.
“I don’t have the answers,” Frisch explains. “This was just one way to find out a little bit more about all this stuff for myself.”
To that end, he gathered together a gallery of Amsterdam outcasts — including Nico, an alcoholic with multiple sclerosis, his agoraphobic and alcoholic ex-girlfriend Chiquita, her wheelchair-bound ex Peter, and Achmed, a heroin-addicted Arab — and mercilessly interrogated and manipulated them on-camera, Jerry Springer–style. When the resulting short film is first shown and inspires fulsome praise rather than outrage, Frisch takes his project one step further and puts his addled collaborators onstage in front of a live audience as part of a touring show. Vergeef me records their deterioration.
Throughout all this, Frisch deliberately opens himself up to charges of exploitation. He even attempts to implicate himself in the death of one of his principles, Peter, whose alcoholism was apparently so exacerbated by his involvement in the project that it led to a tragic accident from which he never recovered. “Of course, I’m not really to blame for the death of Peter,” Frisch says now. “I see this film as a fictional film. But everything you see is happening for real.”
“I actually knew these people quite well,” he continues. “I worked for about five years with them. I also knew that they were used to cruelty in a very extended way. They are extremely cruel and honest to each other in ways that I didn’t imagine could be true before I knew them.”
Vergeef me gives the impression that Frisch is inordinately fixated on suffering and cruelty. The film he completed this year is a continuation of that preoccupation (although its genesis actually predates the former project) but filtered this time through genre conventions. Blackwater Fever is a road movie predicated on exploring “the mechanisms we use to armor ourselves against the world’s atrocities. Do we really care about war, about famine, about illness?” Frisch asks.
The film opens on a young man driving with his girlfriend through an immutable desert landscape in North America. He is utterly lost but keeps moving forward. The roadside details shift. North America merges into war-ridden North Africa. Trucks loaded with soldiers pass by in a blur. The man is so self-absorbed that he is completely inured to what is going on outside his field of vision.
Slowly we come to realize that the man is in the throes of a malarial infection (blackwater fever) and that what we are witnessing is entirely subjective; one long hallucination that is only pierced at the end, when the character wanders through a makeshift tribal village populated by naked Africans wailing and crawling in the sand.
“This character has the feeling that he’s not really there,” explains Frisch. “He’s driving through a civil war in Africa, but he might as well be watching MTV. I think it’s very important to zoom in on the reality we live in nowadays.”
Frisch had originally intended to film the final scenes in a food distribution camp in the Horn of Africa, capturing real suffering. Wary of his intentions, local NGOs put the kibosh on this plan. Instead, Frisch recreated a Sudanese Dinka village in Namibia and auditioned locals who looked sick enough to play its forlorn inhabitants. This decision caused a great deal of tension with his lead actor, Roeland Fernhout, who broke down in heavy sobs during the final scene and refused to talk to the director afterward or continue filming. Frisch was forced to cut the film with footage he already had in the can.
The final cut is a road movie in superficial form, but one almost entirely unladen by plot, character or, for the most part, dialogue. In other words, it is stripped of everything that usually anchors us to the experience of watching a film. Although it lasts just 70 minutes, Blackwater Fever stretches on as interminably as the road along which its character travels.
“I tried to edit it in such a way that you have to make your own connections when you look at these shots,” Frisch says, “because otherwise you’re totally bored.”
But Frisch’s films are anything but boring. And the brittle fictions he creates force us to ask uncomfortable questions about our own uneasy relationship to reality.
Vergeef me is available on the Dutch DVD label Reel 23 (www.reel23.com).