Walls of Fear: an interview by Marija  Katalinić (September 27, 2022)

(25FPS @ Art Kino Rijeka)

Marija: The form of your film Freedom from Everything appears to me as a mixture of film essay and documentary. It juxtaposes personal archives to publicly mediated fragments, thus reminding me of Adam Curtis’s work. Is he perhaps someone you can relate to through film language? Whom would you note as the influence that guides you, complements, or ushers your filmic expression forward?

Mike: I came to Adam’s work very late, and have seen very little. I think his projects are great, ditto for Raoul Peck and Kidlat Tahimik. I came out of what you could call “the traditions of the untraditional.” That meant artists making movies, everyone creating singular forms and contents. One of the central ideas was that you couldn’t use the master’s tools to take apart the master’s house. You couldn’t use corporate forms of cinema to criticize the values or ethics of a corporate society. If each life is unique then each movie should be unique too. Of course, I don’t believe that now.

When you look at a football or tennis match, they’re always filmed and cut the same way. But what if each match was presented in a different way? For many artists, the glamorous illusion was: by changing the form, artists would be able to part the fog of common sense and dominant ideology, we would understand that free trade was not free, that the equipment we had to share demonstrated a radical equality that was part of a deeply anti-capitalist project that rejected consumerism and exploitation. That’s why I don’t have a cell phone, a TV or a car.

My deepest influences are my friends. Jorge Lozano is my neighbour and every year we make several movies so we’re always looking at each other’s work, commenting on it, thinking about and getting inspired by it. Yesterday he sent me Fish and the Rain, a movie he shot while walking with his granddaughter . Amaya is very young, young enough to see everything for the first time. This short movie asks how she might become his teacher, how he might learn, or unlearn, the deep grooves that keep him from seeing what is right in front of him.

Marija: I particularly enjoyed your film, as I personally, and professionally, believe that through vulnerability we are able to bridge, reveal and showcase the humanness that is inherent to all that is sentient. How did you experience the mirroring process between your own personal and the filmmaking itself?

Mike: Your sentence reminded me of this phrase: “the tree people, the bird people, and the human people.”

I’ve had lifetimes of sickness, and after you’ve been sick for a long time, there’s this beautiful moment of re-entry, when you step back into the world. Susan Sontag described illness as going to visit another world. Sometimes, you get to come back from that place. After months of lying in a single room, I could go outside like a newborn and hear the sound of every car as it passed, make out the shape of every leaf. Everything was alive. And then after a few hours or a few days or weeks, those feeling disappear, and they’re replaced by the blablabla, the inner monologue that is always telling a story where I am the main character. The talking is an existential fiction, and it separates me from the documentary of what is actually happening.

Early in the movie there’s a scene where a friend of mine tell me that you can get AIDS from drinking in a water fountain. Of course she doesn’t know that I already have AIDS, I am that water fountain. The voice over says, “Shary wasn’t telling me that the HIV virus could be found everywhere. She was telling me that the virus of fear couldn’t stop spreading.” It’s so difficult to keep the virus of fear from spreading. As we saw in the recent election in Italy.

It would be really great to start a movie school where every class would be dedicated to creating something that feels alive. But what would you call it? Frankenstein?

Marija: On Friday evening, coincident to our conversation, Elton John was awarded by US president Joe Biden, the National Humanities Medal for his continuous work with AIDS. Elton stated, “We are striving for a future where people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientations and gender identities have the opportunity to live free from AIDS, stigma, injustice, and maltreatment – I ́m so grateful recognition like this brings us a step closer to making that a reality1”. Your film Freedom from Everything, in my opinion, is also a body of work that “runs with” and “builds on” these suggested opportunities. Can you comment on this?

Mike: The film says: “We’re all communists with our closest friends. All social systems, including capitalism, rest on a foundation of everyday communism. It means being in service to the ones who live in your heart. Could we structure an economy the way we exchange information while talking?”

I remember going with a friend to pick up a very young poodle. She was tiny and had never been in a city before. We took her out to the sidewalk, and every person she saw she approached with adoration and love. And then the next person, and the next person. It was confusing and overwhelming and so beautiful. She was so open-hearted, there was nothing between her and the world, she could say yes, to everyone, no matter what they looked like, or how they reacted to her. She taught me a great lesson that day, one I’m still trying to absrob.

How to make an image that would end the hatred of people who had sex differently than you did? Where would you begin exactly? When I hear the words “stigma, injustice, maltreatment,” I think these are all ways of saying that some people are human, and some are not human. In the 1960s my mother wasn’t allowed to have her own bank account. Why? Because women weren’t fully human. White men were born human, but women in Canada had to become human by marching on the streets, through political organizing, by going to court, by interrupting, by having hard conversations, by standing up to boyfriends, bosses and imperfect strangers who threatened and assaulted and violated them. I’m not trying to suggest that women and men are equal today, far from it, but because women kept standing up to “common sense,” their situation is better than it was.

Your question asks: how can we make images that will help us let go of the fear about what we are not. The fears of the emotional experiences we haven’t had, the immigrant experiences we avoided. I think these are very important questions, and a lot of movies could be made as a result.

Marija: You connect the notion of a virus, such as AIDS and/or COVID-19, to more complex questions of mortality, Foucault’s biopolitics, and the importance of care, thus examining whether care is universal or just another signifier for wealth and capital. I assume that, as a person suffering from AIDS, you have been thinking about these problems for quite some time, but was the pandemic a trigger to expand on the whole matter?

Mike: It was a shock to wake up and see that everyone was dying, and that I was dying. That was during the now-mostly-forgotten AIDS pandemic. Even though AIDS cases are rising sharply now, I wonder if people still believe that AIDS exists, I mean how can something exist that doesn’t appear in my newsfeed every day? But during that pandemic most doctors were afraid to see us. In that moment many created care teams. Even during neoliberalism there are always pockets of resistance, alternative worlds and societies where different values are lived between people. These care teams were a picture of a culture not based in money or fear, but based in minute-to-minute body-to-body care and grieving.

The word pandemic is from the Greek pandemos, meaning “all the people.” But we never dealt with the pandemic of all the people. Rich countries would get vaccines, poor countries would get nothing. New variants arise in places without drug access or home tests, the pandemic is ongoing because of vaccine apartheid.

And then there is the question of money. Perhaps money is the ultimate human being. Pfizer and Moderna used publicly funded government research to develop their drugs, and their profits are more important than the millions who couldn’t pay for the vaccines.

99% of the world’s population lost money during the pandemic. But the richest ten people in the world doubled their money. Why are we afraid to name it a class war? The next step in the war will be talk about inflation. This is a repeat of a strategy successfully used during the 1970s. Inflation is the cover story for suppressing wages and killing unions. The corporate media feeds us these cover stories of the ruling class. Another one is the so-called “labour shortage.” Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase? It refers to jobs no one wants because they don’t pay enough to live. The problem, according to the papers, is not that wages are unlivable, but that people won’t accept these jobs. Inflation is on the way to change that.

Marija: In your work, you speak of the concept of ́negative freedom, which you annotate through various examples (freelance labor, mercenaries). Is there any potential in thinking about freedom in a more positive aspect? Here referring to the work of philosopher Renata Salecl, Foucault, and Isabell Lorey (which you also note in your final references)?

Mike: You probably know the brilliant trans philosopher Paul Preciado. In a recent interview, they talk about what it meant to be in the world and seen as a man. What they’re talking about is wearing the clothes of freedom for the first time.

“The first thing I learned as a trans person was how to walk down the street and be seen by others as a man. I discovered that I was granted access to the privilege of universality.” And what is the “privilege of universality?” Paul goes on: “A peaceful and anonymous place where everyone leaves you the fuck alone.”

For every man who thinks that women are equal to men, please tell me: how many times in your life have you worried about being raped? Are you anxious about what neighbourhood you’re in at night, how you’re going to get home, whether or not you’re being followed? When you’re falling in love with someone, are you concerned that one day they’re going to get really mad and assault you and put you in the hospital? What a relief it must be not to have these terrible thoughts. What a relief not to have to drag around that heavy bag of fear. Instead, as someone who passes as a white man, I get to walk around and see myself reflected on every street corner, in every movie and advertisement. The whole world has been created to celebrate my existence. This doesn’t mean that happiness is guaranteed. It means that I get to live in “an anonymous place where everyone leaves you the fuck alone.” That kind of privilege has no price, you couldn’t buy it with all the money in the world. Though you could do what Preciado did, and illegally inject yourself with testosterone, until you began to cross over a gender divide that no longer looks so solid and permanent and reassuring. In place of the female/male split there is a spectrum of possibilities.

Do you remember the epic masterpiece of Peter Greenaway called The Falls? It is a three hour portrait of people whose names begin with the letters “f-a-l-l”. Marion Faller. Peter Fallwell. Etc. These portraits have been made after the “VUE,” the violent unexplained event. This event had a variety of effects that included multiplying the numbers of available gender choices. There are female males and male females, for instance, amongst many others.

Marija: I’d like to cross counter (but compliment at the same time) your notion that, I paraphrase, “the good herd immunity means trouble for the ruling class” with two examples from the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav space. One is Marina Abramović ́s work “The Artist must be beautiful” where the artist combs her hair forcefully in order to critique the public opinion of an artist needing to be beautiful, and the second this year ́s Eurovision representative for Serbia “Konstrukta” who sings; “The artist (female) must be healthy” – an homage, if you like, to Abramović’s work. Both artists evoke gender equality and as such, manifest publicly a political act through their work. However, in (and through) your film, you bring attention to the community and minority groups that are deprived of state support in terms of representation, care, and thus, equal rights. In this respect, your film is a political act as well, but (in comparison to the previous two examples) from a different struggle point. Could you perhaps comment on this?

Mike: I think the line from the movie is from French social scientist Robert Castel who argues that the welfare state creates herd immunity against the ruling class. Under neoliberalism that has broken down.

The examples you give – the performance artist and the singer – offer models of a different life, just like the care teams during the AIDS pandemic. I used to believe that it was important to change the form of our media in order to represent these alternative worlds, but today I believe that Serbia will change the world through Eurovision. Not a Trojan horse, but a Serbian one. Can we change the world through a song, a conversation, a movie? We must. As the movie asks: what kinds of pictures do we need now? What kinds of loving? I think we have to begin with each other, and we can’t stop until we’ve brought down the walls of fear that continue to separate us.


1 Quote from Article “Elton John awarded medal by Joe Biden for his work to end Aids” from “The Guardian“;