All That Passes by Through a Window That Doesn't Open: Five Questions for Martin DiCiccio
We put five questions to Martin DiCicco Director / Cinematographer of the stunning All That Passes By Through A Window That Doesn't Open which is playing this weekend as part of our On the Line season. The film is a journey by rail through opportunity and regret in Azerbaijan and Armenia. The future, past and present are fluid, with men floating through the expanse - striving to fill their days and dreams, as much as their pockets.
Martin DiCicco is a cinematographer whose documentary work has been broadcast around the world. Commercially, he has shot campaign spots for Google and Red Bull. He shot and directed episodes of the series, UnDrafted, which was nominated for a 2015 Emmy Award for Best Documentary Series. His feature-length documentary filmography as cinematographer includes Nick Sherman’s Soundtracker (2010), which was selected for Hot Docs, and Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell’s Pump (2014), which screened at the Zurich Film Festival. All That Passes By Through A Window That Doesn't Open is his feature directorial debut.
Can you talk about how you first came across this story and these characters?
My first trip to the Caucasus was just wandering around trying to see where this railroad was being built, the film itself began as a sort of freight-hopping daydream. I came across the first camp of Azerbaijani workers in Georgia, and it was something where they were quite indifferent about my presence there after the novelty wore off. But especially with the younger ones, I became close to them over the years of shooting, which is where the voiceover for their section was born from, a kind of mutual sharing of our experiences working together (albeit in different roles) on this railroad. Hagop and the station crew in Armenia was a tip from the filmmaker I was working with in Gyumri, Arthur Sukiasyan. He had known about the railroad, and we just showed up, and Hagop and his comrades were pulled straight from Beckett. We both knew this was a special place to film.
The film is divided into three parts, each of which is very different, can you explain why you chose to structure the film in this way?
The films' editor, the brilliant filmmaker Iva Radivojevic, proposed a challenge to expand the film beyond the informational and more toward something that hints at the meditative - so you may not walk away with knowledge about the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but (I hope) you get a sense of the force that repetition, routine, and time has on laborers. The three chapters attempt to get at both the dreams and realities of the worker's lives and where the railroad fits into that. So Part I in Azerbaijan, the idea is that the propaganda of the 'Iron Silk Road' bestowing greatness upon the region is juxtaposed against the often banal, uncertain future of those building it. Similarly, in Part II of Armenia, any hopes and dreams of becoming a functional station, reclaiming the greatness of it's former past, is halted because of political wills of the past. Part III, 'The Window', represents both the Azerbaijani workers, the station crew in Armenia, as well as the audience, only being able to see the present, stuck in a sort of suspended time as the train passes by them: the future is uncertain, only the last man will know.
One of the things that struck me straight away was the cinematography. There is a beautiful quality of light to many of the scenes and lots of very still shots almost like photographs. How did you come up with the visual look of the film?
Normally I'm a cinematographer for other directors, so since this was my first film, I wanted to shoot without thinking about it, without considering the final product. After my first meandering trip, I kind of decided that Armenia, like it's border situation, should be locked off, without any movement whatsoever. I guess I was purposefully framing Hagop at the extreme bottom or side of frame to isolate him in a void, but the station also has amazing wallpaper, so I needed to capture that too. But the Azerbaijani part always seemed to me to be a mix of constant motion onboard the trains, and stillness in quiet moments, so all of this was more or less floating about in my head as I shot. And then I don't know if it's apparent or not, but there is an orange motif throughout, a color that is shared between the railroad workers in both countries. So together with the talented colorist James Norman, we played with that, selectively over saturating the oranges or their compliments.
The film is screening as part of our On The Line season, can you talk about work, both fiction and non-fiction as well as any other art forms that influenced how you approached the subject?
Well I must admit that both Turksib and Night Mail were influences while I was shooting this film, so it's fantastic and humbling to be screening alongside these gems. I'm a huge fan of Michael Glawogger's films, and I think William T. Vollmann is one of the greatest writers for filmmakers to read, but I found most of my inspiration from photographers working in the region I was shooting in. The film really didn't take off in my head until I saw the photography of Rena Effendi and Mila Teshaieva. Photobooks are the greatest inspiration for me to research.
You're credited as the Director, Cinematographer, Producer. Were you shooting on your own and if so, how did you find this process?
Yes, I shot and directed and produced, but I didn't make this on my own. I do owe a huge debt to all the translators I worked with while shooting and those who worked on the footage before the edit, they are my SAVIORS. I was incredibly lucky on this film to be doing whatever I wanted, without anyone to answer to, and incredibly lucky to receive the institutional support I did, yet at the same time it was a very lonely process. I guess working on documentaries alone, one can easily slide into self-doubt. I ended up living in Georgia to make the film as it progressed, and looking back on this, I'd say that you have to be living where you're shooting long enough to make both lovers and enemies. I'm confident now that I can't make another film without making both of these, but I'm not sure what the healthy ratio of one to the other is...