SxSW 2020 Interview – ECHOES OF THE INVISIBLE director Steve Elkins

“There is a poem called “The Silence of the Stars” by David Wagoner, about an encounter between the Bushmen of the Kalahari and a British man who cannot hear the stars singing.  The Bushmen are in a total state of disbelief. These men of the Kalahari, “who plant nothing, who have almost nothing to hunt, who live on almost nothing”, simply don’t understand how it is possible not to hear the singing of the stars.  

Editor’s Note: While SxSW was officially cancelled on March 6th, 2020, the below interview was one of many that already took place prior to the festival. To respect the creators, all already performed interviews are presented in their unedited entirety below. All of the below works WILL make their way out into the world in one way or another, and we will update this article with updated information when we have it. — JW

“They walked him slowly

Like a sick man to the small dim

Circle of firelight and told him

They were terribly sorry,

And he felt even sorrier

For himself and blamed his ancestors

For their strange loss of hearing,

Which was his loss now.”     

In late 2019, several companies (including SpaceX) began launching satellites into low Earth orbit that immediately began interfering with our view of the night sky, disrupting astronomy research around the world, streaking the sky with light pollution from 19 satellites in particular.  In the next decade, there are plans to launch tens of thousands more, creating constellations of satellites that will outnumber the stars visible to the naked eye. The idea is to provide high speed internet to some of the most remote parts of the world. We may be among the last generations to know a sky that isn’t man-made.  

ECHOES OF THE INVISIBLE is a meditation on this moment in human history, when our relationship to technology is rapidly and radically altering the world we are handing down to the next generations.  It is reflection on what is being lost and found in the digital age from a mosaic of perspectives: a blind man running alone from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere to the highest mountain peak in the U.S.  Artist Rachel Sussman’s global journey to photograph the oldest continuously living things on Earth. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s 21,000 mile “Out Of Eden Walk” retracing one of the entire migration routes through which our ancestors first discovered the planet.  Astronomers and physicists attempting to see into the furthest depths of time and monks probing the most extreme environment of all – the human heart.” Director Steve Elkins on ECHOES OF THE INVISIBLE which screens at the 2020 edition of SxSW Film. 

Welcome to SxSW! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

I’ve performed at the SXSW Music Festival several times as a drummer for The Autumns.  But this is my first time presenting a film at SXSW. I will be attending all three screenings!

So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on before!

Filmmaking became a part of my life unexpectedly while I was pursuing completely unrelated interests.  For one thing, I devoted about seven years of my life to nearly constant traveling. I was interested in learning about cultural diversity, and better understanding the complexity of the world through others’ eyes.  I processed it through writing, photography and music. I became a long distance hiker and walked across several countries. I challenged myself to keep my interests and passions as broad and fluid as possible, noticing, for example, that hiking made me a better musician.  Music made me a better writer. Writing made me a better photographer. However, filmmaking wasn’t really on my radar. I was working as a private investigator and rowing couples through the Newport Beach harbor on Venetian gondolas. Eventually I realized that filmmaking was a way to combine many of my interests into a unified goal.  But also, the idea of filmmaking really scared me. At some point I decided I needed to face that fear.

There’s another thread to this story.  In my late teens and early twenties, I became really interested in how the human brain works and where peoples’ sense of “the meaning of life” comes from.  But I was primarily interested in what music can reveal about these questions. Musicians who practiced what is sometimes called “free improvisation” – getting up on stage making sure you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to do – struck me as a unique peephole into how people derive meaning and beauty from the world in real time, because it involves directly confronting the unknown; revealing, or battling, impulses and habits, and sculpting from disorder and chaos.  The extremely diverse and often contradictory ways people locate signals within noise can reveal a lot about who we are and what drives us.         

So I began videotaping and interviewing a lot of free improvisors.  In the early years, I focused a lot on Nels Cline, Zeena Parkins, Ikue Mori, Pauline Oliveros and Fred Frith.  The revelations that emerged from those interviews and countless others over the next seven years led me down some very unexpected paths.  And eventually I realized I could make a film from the material I had, on a wide variety of topics.  

My first feature THE REACH OF RESONANCE was the result.  The themes of the film evolved far from the initial impulse, but still remained true to it.  It wound up focusing more on how music in general can transform our inner sensitivity to what the world is actually like by following the creative paths of four extraordinary individuals:  Miya Masaoka using music to study the social patterns of insects and plants. Jon Rose using a violin bow to turn barbed wire fences in conflict zones into giant musical instruments. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams transcribing weather and other natural phenomena into music.  And Bob Ostertag uses music to illuminate the nature of human conflict and power imbalances. Kronos Quartet is also featured as a connecting thread between some of the artists.

How did this feature come together?

The idea came to me during production of THE REACH OF RESONANCE which plunged me into themes that “Echoes” would explore from new angles.  For example, the tension between human bodies and technology at this moment in history. Also, the diverse ways music can allow us to experience, through our bodies, aspects of the world around us which would otherwise remain invisible or intangible: the Earth’s magnetic field, the social lives of plants, the physical and emotional forces that shape our relationships to each other turning barbed wire fences into musical instruments in conflict zones or transcribing riots into string quartets.

As part of this journey, I found myself in Toronto in 2008, where I was documenting John Oswald’s permanent sound installation at the Royal Ontario Museum, in which thousands of events happening around the world like cultural, biological, celestial and so forth are heard simultaneously in the main atrium at the exact moments they happen in their respective parts of the globe: drum rituals in Africa, Big Ben chiming the hour in London, the call to prayer in Mecca, whales singing as they migrate through the oceans.

This massive attempt to make a sonic map of the entire globe got me thinking about how each of us forms our inner maps of what the world is actually like. One week earlier, I had visited the Very Large Array telescope in New Mexico where technicians laid railroad tracks on the ground, one at a time, to move twenty-seven 230-ton antennas across 23 miles of remote desert, to gain a deeper understanding of the larger context in which we live. Then I thought of Buddhist monks I had seen in India, bowing their way across the entire country (flattening themselves face-down on the ground in between every step), pushing the human body to its limits to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the human mind. The contrast of these two painstaking and slow undertakings – one track at a time, one bow at a time – struck me as a moving contrast of the extremely diverse paths we can take to connect deeply with who we are and where we come from. That we all carry within us, from the time we are children onward, untapped depths to accomplish that which seems intuitively impossible, to see the invisible.

As I set out to explore this human impulse on film, the internet and high speed technologies were expanding their ubiquity as the primary tool we use to “see the invisible,” to make us feel more connected to the world and everything in it we may have overlooked.  But as these technologies expanded their reach into our lives, it became clear that they were in some ways making us more disconnected than ever. Not to mention making many things invisible by the way they direct our gaze. “Echoes of the Invisible” developed into a reflection on how each of us connects the dots of the world within ourselves, and what is gained or lost in the paths between them. 

ECHOES was mostly made as a one-man crew.  I directed, shot and edited it myself. But it would not have been possible without my executive producers Scott Cronan and Jan Cieślikiewicz.  The scope of the project was too big and complicated to pitch to a traditional production studio, but they believed in it from the beginning. As the project evolved in unexpected directions over the course of eight years, they provided continual patience and trust in the journey this film required.  They gave me the time and space I needed to hear my inner voice, but also the guidance to keep me on track when I felt lost in it all. I am very lucky. 

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

I’m inspired by unexpected twists in a path.  By the transformative moments when I realize that my preconceived ideas are wrong.  It’s a joy to constantly be shaken out of a limited perspective. In this way, filmmaking becomes a great tool for life in general.  For example, I have learned to appreciate things not always going according to plan, because they take me places I never expected to go.  

When I first began a film in 2002 about guitarist Nels Cline, I had no way of knowing I was beginning a journey that would involve conducting extensive research on the history of convicts in Australia, consulting with scientists firing rockets into the aurora borealis near the arctic circle, or searching for a singing dog halfway around the world.   

Likewise, when I began work on ECHOES I had no idea I was starting down a path that would lead to drinking vodka with Russian physicists on the frozen surface of the world’s deepest lake in Siberia, corresponding with the King of Ladakh, making a pilgrimage to a 200-foot tall clock inside a mountain built to last for 10,000 years, or researching the potential need to backup Earth’s dying languages by encoding them in bacteria or the DNA of passenger pigeons. 

What was your biggest challenge with ECHOES, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

This project had so many unique challenges, it’s hard to pick one.  Filming in sandstorms which partially disabled our camera in Chile. Free climbing with monks up nearly vertical cliffs to reach remote filming locations in Ethiopia.  Struggling for years to get a special visa to film in a restricted military zone on the border of India and Tibet, then fighting off altitude sickness while hauling film gear through the Himalayas on foot and horseback once we got there.  Dodging knife fights in Kyzyl and shaking off Russian police on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  

The greatest reward was probably seeing it all come together in the final years, after an eight-year journey around the world.  But often it’s a constellation of little moments that stand out to me. Filming by candlelight half a mile under the earth. Climbing to the highest mountain peak in the continental U.S.  The profound silence of remote places few people will ever see. Discovering the best chilaquiles of all time in El Paso. Whiskey-drenched late-night conversations with neuroscientist Gary Lynch in his lab where he devised ways to photograph memories being formed in the human brain.  Meeting a group of physicists in Switzerland who started a blues band that writes songs about the Large Hadron Collider. All the things you wouldn’t believe were possible when you started.  

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie and how it was shot.

The primary camera was the Sony PMW-F3.  But I had to switch to a much smaller, lighter camera for production in Ethiopia and India, where we had to climb sheer cliffs to reach our locations.  For that we chose the Sony A7S because of its phenomenal ability to film in extreme low-light conditions, which was necessary to capture monks living in remote caves in Tigray.  I sometimes filmed with a drone. The film is shot almost entirely in natural light, which reflects the film’s subject matter, and tends to be my aesthetic preference.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

This year’s SXSW is facilitating an unexpected reunion of people from many spheres of my life, which is probably what I’m most looking forward to, thanks to the incredible cross-section of people it brings together.  A physicist I filmed at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, Steve Goldfarb, will be there for unrelated reasons, which will enable him to join me for Q&A on March 20th. Throat singers I met in Tuva will be performing at the festival.  Stuart Brand, who was the subject of a deleted scene in my film about his involvement in the construction a massive clock in a mountain built to keep time for 10,000 years, will be featured in another documentary at SXSW called WE ARE AS GODS focusing on his new project to resurrect extinct species, such as the Wooly Mammoth, through biotechnology.  

Edward James Olmos and Rafael Agustín will be at the festival speaking about their many programs building social-emotional empowerment of at-risk youth, through programs I work for like the Youth Cinema Project, which teaches film production as a medium to build empathy, communication skills, and competent problem solving for under-represented communities.  Julia Payne will be flying in to join me for Q&A about her work as Project Manager for National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek on his Out Of Eden Walk.” And many old friends from my years as a musician, such as Jeff Schroeder whom I’ve largely lost touch with since he asked me to audition for The Smashing Pumpkins in 2009. His band Night Dreamer is slated to play.  But I won’t lie; what I’m looking forward to most is Texas BBQ. 

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

More film festivals, starting with ArtFIFA in Montreal where we are flying the day after our final screening at SXSW.  It will be a busy but exciting month.

If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

While filming in Ethiopia, I met these incredible children in a village who built their own movie theater out of tree branches and scraps of tarp.  We kept in touch as pen pals for a little bit, and I would sometimes send them DVDs to show in their little theater. I would love to show my film there.  

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive, like talking and texting through a movie, even if it was a screening of your own?

I’ve never understood why people do this.  I’m sure I would be annoyed, but I’d probably just use it as an opportunity to practice focused listening.  As Thomas Merton once said, “If you have never had any distractions, you don’t know how to pray.”

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Don’t appeal to the industry to get into it.  Show the industry something they didn’t even know they were looking for.  And remember, if the obstacles in your path seem high, walls are only there to show us how badly we really want something.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I saw an amazing film about Anish Kapoor at the 2011 Art FIFA Festival in Montreal.  But it’s far from my favorite film. I have a holy trinity of favorite films. Ingmar Bergman’s WINTER LIGHT,  Andrei Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV and Nicolas Humbert slash Werner Penzel’s STEP ACROSS THE BORDER. However, a lot of my favorite cinema comes from Iran and Africa. 

For more information on this film and to follow its progress into the festival world, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film!

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