Since the age of 19, with his accomplished documentary about his aunt, Chasing Buddha, Amiel Courtin-Wilson has been swimming through a sea of never-ending work (“I just really love what I do, so I try to do as much as I can.”) When FilmInk catches up with him in Paris, he is working with composer and sound designer Nicholas Becker (Batman Begins), about to board a plane to return to hometown Melbourne as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) for a screening of his new film The Silent Eye, as well as a 10th anniversary screening of his documentary Bastardy.
Running just over an hour, The Silent Eye is a contemplative performance piece that sees Japanese dancer, 72-year-old Min Tanaka collaborating with free jazz pioneer, 88-year-old Cecil Taylor; the pair having known each other for over 30 years. It’s a stripped back affair that contrasts with Amiel’s previous narrative work.
“I’ve been doing these shoots that take years and years, I wanted to do something that was discreet and very contained,” he explains. “I was really interested to see if I could shoot a feature in a few days, in a single room and setting those kind of creative constraints.”
As Amiel tells it, the film came about almost fortuitously. Whilst co-habiting with Cecil for his 2018 film An American Time Traveller: The Cecil Taylor Project [Cecil Taylor is synonymous with the term ‘Free Jazz’], Amiel reached out to Min to discuss using some archive footage of the two artists as part of a large scale retrospective at the Whitney Museum.
“We got to talking about how beautiful the atmosphere is in Cecil’s [Brooklyn] home,” Amiel says. “Min had always wanted to make a film of him dancing with Cecil playing in his house. When I heard that, it was such a beautiful idea.”
That was at the end of 2015. By January 2016, the film went into a three-day production and by April, it had its premiere. Reminiscing over those three days working with the artists, alongside his cinematographer Germaine McMicking (Holding the Man), Amiel talks about how the project took on a life of its own. Yes, he and Germaine had an idea of how they wanted to film (“I knew I wanted the film to breathe in that way, to step in and out of these real world spaces to these subjective, heightened, impressionistic spaces.”) but away from the technicalities, the content was really in the hands of Min and Cecil.
“Cecil can be hilariously and marvelously contrary when it comes to being asked to do anything,” Amiel laughs. “I’d tried to film him playing at his piano for literally two years and he’d refused on every single occasion even though I’d lived with him for nearly a year. But as soon as Min arrived, it was so beautiful. He arrived at 10am and Cecil without saying a single word, didn’t even say hello to Min, got up from his bed, walked across to his piano and started playing. And Min just started dancing.”
Whilst Amiel enthuses about the synergy and energy shared by Cecil and Min, there appears to be a similar relationship with the aforementioned Germaine. Having worked together for over 15 years, their friendship may not yet have the longevity of the jazz pianist and dancer, but it’s no less creative.
“I probably wouldn’t have made the film if he wasn’t available,” Amiel admits. “There’s a rapport he and I have… where we almost don’t have to speak when we’re shooting. He just knows what I want so instinctively. Vice versa, I know when to let him breathe and explore something.”
Whilst The Silent Eye positions Amiel discreetly behind the camera, his film, Bastardy, sees the director taking on a minor role in the life of actor and Melbourne legend, Uncle Jack Charles.
“Previously my films were highly authored, and had a lot of recreations and were highly scripted. I’d come from a school of filmmaking that was inspired by English filmmakers like Peter Watkins (Punishment Park), and Chris Marker (Tokyo Days),” Amiel reminisces. “I thought I would shoot for three months and that would be it. Then seven years later, I found myself making a longitudinal, observational film and seeing this man’s life transform. As a filmmaker, I’ll never be the same after that process. It changed me as a person, I spent most of my twenties making that film.”
The film follows the then homeless Jack over seven years in Melbourne. As well as showcasing Jack’s personable nature, it’s an honest and frank film that starts with Jack taking drugs and later sees Amiel having to confront him about thefts made behind the scenes. And whilst Amiel admits that he had to dragged ‘kicking and screaming into the story’, there’s a positive outcome to Bastardy.
“When the two of you become friends,” Amiel explains, “and there’s a moment when the friendship overtakes the film, and it suddenly becomes two friends making a film, that’s when you really know you’ve hit a really interesting space.”
From outside, Bastardy and The Silent Eye are seemingly two distinct films. However, look deeper and you’ll be rewarded with similarities. As Amiel himself points out, his subjects share a common love of the arts, of holding court and sharing with others, of rising above what threatens to drag you down.”
“I find myself drawn to people who faced great adversity in their life for whom their artistic practice has a necessary kind of urgency,” Amiel says. “Theatre literally saved Jack’s life and music literally saved Cecil’s life.”
Apart from Bastardy, The Silent Eye, and the aforementioned An American Time Traveller: The Cecil Taylor Project, Courtin-Wilson is also at work on The Empyrean, described as “a deeply moving series of interconnected portraits of young love. The essayistic film follows three real life couples and a young telepath entwined on visceral journeys as they attempt to transcend mortality through sex, violence, and the profound delicacy of love.” Following a 2-year research process, The Empyrean was shot with non-professional actors sourced from 15,000 casting tapes and photos scoured across Oklahoma, and will encompass a traditional film release and a video installation. Also in the works is a photo book biography of Jack Charles; 1950/1979, a debut album in collaboration with Courtin-Wilson’s father Peter Wilson; and Underwood, informed by The Empyrean, described as “a documentary film exploring love, sex, death, the afterlife and the apocalypse, all told through the narrative lens of dreams and nightmares from the collective subconscious of the American mid west”; plus others that are just in development.