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Grant Gee: The Rings Of Saturn

The British filmmaker takes on an adaptation of W.G. Sebald's book for a epic and contemplative journey through film

A solitary walk across Norfolk that shoots off in daydreams to contemplations and memories, to Napoleonic battles, to Chinese opium wars and torturous concentration camps, and then back to a worn out armchair of a cheap hotel. W.G. Sebald’s book 'The Rings Of Saturn' doesn't make for an obvious film adaptation, which could never convey the leaps of fantasy or prose (“Not even Coleridge, in an opium dream, could have imagined a more magical scene for his Mongol overlord, Kubla Khan”).

When you’re making a documentary about something you love, it’s really important not to lock it down and therefore take what you love out of it

Yet British filmmaker Grant Gee takes the inspiration stirred by Sebald as the subject of his film Patience (After Sebald), sewing together the locations Sebald came across with a flurry of narrations from thinkers and writers such as Hackney poet Iain Sinclair. Dazed Digital spoke to Grant about recreating the nebulous world created by Sebald. 

Dazed Digital: Is the film specifically for those already familiar with Sebald’s work?
Grant Gee:
Anyone who consumes any kind of culture; books records, theatre whatever, there are going to be things they fall in love with that take them over. Most basically, the film is about that. By the end of it you have people showing you that there’s an entire universe within the covers of this book. It’s just about how enormous a cultural artefact can become; hopefully people will pick up on the obsession. 

DD: What leapt out of the pages to make you think it was filmable?
Grant Gee: What really is filmable in The Rings Of Saturn is the walk. It’s absolutely literally doable. It’s there, it’s described, so that was the hook. The first line is, ‘I went for a walk through the county of Suffolk,’ you can film that, it’s sign posted. I knew that once I had that spine of a landscape, which is shot right through the book, then you can hang all kinds of things around it. In some way the walk is an alternative to narrative; walks have got beginnings, middles and ends and events along the way, it just doesn’t have a dramatic ark, necessarily, but it’s a kind of narrative.

DD: Rob Macfarlane commented in the film that his biggest mistake was to copy the walk. Did you find a similar analogy to making the film?
Grant Gee: It’s very different making film to writing a book. Rob has to go there and imagine himself into a psychic space and then report back, and if he can’t get to that psychic space then he’s got nothing to write about. Whereas I could go to the maze at Somerleyton and go ‘there it is.’ Whether or not you experience anything from viewing that image is up to you as the viewer.

DD: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while filming?
Grant Gee: That image Jeremy Miller took of the fireworks smoke. I went online and started pulling off some close ups of Sebald’s face to see how this smoky pattern might match. There’s one that gave me a cold shudder when I laid the photo over the smoke; that was very surprising.

DD: Did you see that as a characteristically Sebaldian image?
Grant Gee: Yes. The way that something completely open and meaningless, i.e. a little puff of smoke, there’s literally nothing there, but something in your consciousness will impose a pattern on it. And I think that experience of willing pattern and meaningful shapes onto the world is a central theme of the book.

DD: Were you trying to avoid projecting a set interpretation onto the book?
Grant Gee: When you’re making a documentary about something you love, it’s really important not to lock it down and therefore take what you love out of it. I think when you love something in culture, it’s because it can keep changing with you over time; that you can read a book ten times and it’s slightly different each time, you can listen to a record and it can keep giving you something new. So if you go in saying, ‘what I’m going to say about this book is this…’ it’s really dangerous because you start funnelling down to one single point. 

DD: Do you have a favourite passage in The Rings Of Saturn?
Grant Gee: Off the top of my head, when he’s in Southwald and he’s looking out to sea, he does this extraordinary thing where he says, I’m looking at the shape of the clouds which reminds me of a mountain range that I saw in a dream once. So without any flash or obvious trickery he takes you from a piece of journalism, he’s sat looking out to sea, then he goes into a bit of nature writing, talking about the shapes of clouds, and then it becomes this psychic journey. You’ve travelled this enormous distance across reality, dreamscapes and continents it really destabilises you and producers and extraordinary effect, it’s just beautifully written as well.

Out this Friday