Jan Svankmajer: ‘Decalogue’

Picnic with Weissman (1968)

Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s creative dictums:

1. Remember that there is only one ‘poetry’. The opposite of poetry is professional expertise. Before you start making a film, write a poem, paint a picture, create a collage, write a novel, essay etc. Only by cultivating your ability for universal expression will you ensure you produce a good film.

Down to the Cellar (1980)

2. Succumb totally to your obsessions. There is nothing better. Obessions are the relics of your childhood. And the most precious treasures come from the depths of childhood. You need to always keep the gate to your childhood open. It is not about specific memories, it’s about feelings. It is not about consciousness, it’s about unconsciousness. Let the inner river flow freely through you. Concentrate on it but at the same time relax completely. When making your film, you need to be 24 hours submerged ‘in it’.  Only then will all your obsessions, your childhood, enter your film,  without you being consciously aware of it. And your film will become a triumph of ‘infantilism’. And that is what it’s all about.

Et Cetera (1966)

3. Use animation as a magical operation. Animation isn’t about making inanimate objects move, it is about bringing them to life. Before you bring an object to life, try to understand it first. Not its utilitarian function, but its inner life. Objects, especially the old ones, were witnesses to certain happenings, people’s actions, their fortunes, which somehow marked them. People touched them in different situations, while acting under various emotions, and they imprinted onto them these different mental states. If you want to disclose some of these hidden aspects of objects through your camera, you need to listen. Sometimes even for years. First you have to become a collector, and only then a filmmaker. Bringing objects to life through animation has to be a natural process. Life has come from within them, and not from your whim. Never violate objects! Don’t tell through them your own stories, tell theirs.

Another Kind of Love (1988)

4. Keep exchanging dreams for reality and vice versa. There are no logical transitions. There is only one tiny physical act that separates dreams from reality: opening or closing your eyes. In daydreaming even that isn’t neccessary.

Jabberwocky (1971)

5. If you are trying to decide what is more important trust the experience of the eye or the experience of the body; always trust the body, because touch is an older sense than sight and its experience is more fundamental. Apart from that, in our contemporary audiovisual civilisation, the eye is rather tired and ‘spoilt’. The experience of the body is more authentic, unencumbered by aestheticisation. But be aware of synaethesis.

Virile Games (1988)

6. The deeper you enter into the fantastic story the more realistic you need to be in the detail. At that point you need fully to rely on your experience of dreams. Don’t worry about being ‘boringly descriptive’, pedantically obsessive about an ‘unimportant detail’, documentaristic. You need to convince the viewers that everything they are seeing in your film concerns them, that it is a part of their world too, and they are submerged in it to their ears, without realising it. You need to convince them about that, through all the tricks you possess.

Don Juan (1969)

7. Imagination is subversive, because it puts the possible against the real. That’s why you should always use your wildest imagination. Imagination is the biggest gift humanity has received. Imagination makes people human, not work. Imagination, imagination, imagination…

Darkness-Light-Darkness (1989)

8. Always pick themes that you feel ambivalent about. This ambivalence has to be strong (deep) so you can walk on its edge and not fall to either side or even both at the same time. Only by doing that will you be able to avoid the biggest sin: the film á la thèse.

The Garden (1968)

9. Cultivate your creativity as a form of self-therapy. Such an anti-aesthetic attitude brings creativity closer towards the gates of freedom. If there is any purpose at all in creativity it is that it liberates us. No film (painting, poem) can liberate a viewer unless it didn’t liberate its author first. Everything else is a question of “general subjectivity”. Creativity as a process of permanently liberating people.

A Quiet Week in the House (1969)

10. Always put the continuity of your inner vision or psychological automatissm before an idea. An idea, even the greatest one, shouldn’t ever be a sole motivation for wanting to make a film. The creative process doesn’t mean stumbling from one idea to the next. An idea becomes a part of a creative process, not an impulse for suddenly becoming creative. Never work, always improvise. Script is important for a producer, not for you. It’s a non-binding document you should only return to when your imagination lets you down.

Although I have formulated this Decalogue on paper doesn’t  mean I have consciously refer to it. These rules somehow emerged through my work, they didn’t precede it. Anyway, all the rules are there to be broken (not avoided). But there is one rule which, if broken (or even avoided), becomes destructive to the artist: Never subordinate your personal creativity to anything but freedom. exists one more rule which if broken (or circumvented) is devastating for an artist: Never allow your work of art to pass into the service of anything but freedom.

Picnic with Weissman (1968)

Translated from the Czech by Tereza Stechlíková. Published in Vertigo, 3, 1, Summer 2006, 72.

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