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Peter Mettler: A Portrait, By Veronika Rall, Excerpt from Director’s Portraits Swiss Films

Any attempt to describe Peter Mettler and his cinematic universe leads the writer inevitably to the “in-between.” Born in 1958 in Toronto, Mettler is both a Canadian and a Swiss citizen, and it is difficult to say where he is really “at home.” He speaks Swiss German just as fluently as English, attended schools in Europe and North America, studied film, photography and drama. He shoots his films – neither pure documentaries nor pure experimental films or fiction features – on all continents. He has created highly personal auteur pieces, and worked on multi-million-dollar productions for film and television. His filmed images have also been used for musical performances, while the soundtracks for his films often stem from live recordings. Sometimes it seems as if Peter Mettler is at home in precisely this difference, this non-identity. Again and again, he has taken his artistic practice on the road: asking questions, keeping his eyes open, listening, and surveying boundaries.

These motifs can already been found in his earliest works, the films he made in high school and at art college. Reverie (1976) pits the world of the dead against that of the living; Poison Ivy (1978) compares human and animal behaviour; Gregory (1981) treats the split between mind and body. The subject for his first full-length fiction film, Scissere (1982) was found one day when Mettler suddenly felt the urge to go out on the road and start hitchhiking. By chance he landed in an old monastery on the outskirts of Neuchâtel, realizing only gradually that the place had become a rehab centre for drug addicts. He stayed, took pictures, came back again, made friends. And began making a film that confronts the external world with a different one, which creates its own awareness of things.

If one speaks of “confrontation” in Mettler’s work, it is not in the sense of violence and harshness, but the opposite. Scissere is about a young man with identity problems: Mettler was fascinated by his “soft, open attitude,” and the film is “an attempt to emulate it by filmic means.” This attitude, and its filmic emulation, can be found throughout Mettler’s work. In Gambling, Gods & LSD, where water provides the determining metaphor for a path that provides resistance while adapting itself to circumstances. In Tectonic Plates, where identities grind against each other without eroding one another. In Balifilm, which observes and follows the infinitely gentle movements of the dancing women. In Eastern Avenue, where the chain around a woman’s neck stands out. In Picture of Light, where a velvety off-screen voice asks questions, discusses the different words for snow in the Inuit language, or asks the audience: “Are you cold yet?”

Mettler’s soft, open approach has nothing to do with irresponsibility or indifference, but rather with a certain radicalness, a deep search for truth, an interest in philosophical inquiry that is not only subjective, but also constantly attempts to communicate. A third characteristic of Mettler’s films is thus their reflection on the medium itself – film, video, cinema – in terms of both production and audience reception. How do I make images of the world? How will others perceive those images?

The most consistent inquiry into the representation of reality through images is in Picture of Light, Mettler’s attempt to capture the Northern Lights on film. In order to do so, the filmmaker embarks on a voyage to the polar desert of the Canadian arctic, the end of the world, as it were. Extensive technical preparations are required to be able to run a film camera in the extreme cold, and even with the special camera, nature can thwart the crew’s plans at any time. Images filmed in a snow storm don’t look like anything but a white screen. “It is often necessary to go to extremes in order to discover something that jolts us out of our usual thought patterns and rhythms, or provides a new perspective on those thought patterns,”
comments Mettler.

His projects are mostly conceived as open-ended; he seldom knows in advance what the outcome of the filmic process will be. “If even the continents drift apart and clash against one another,” asked the Swiss film critic Martin Schaub about Tectonic Plates, “how can we understand the human yearning for security and stability, and the compulsion to render everything harmless through naming and definitions? Not only in Tectonic Plates, but in all his films, Peter Mettler proposes an authentic, more than just superficial mobility – by producing it in his own art.”

This process is both extremely humble and at the same time all-encompassing. For example: choosing to make a film about transcendence, working out a concept, planning, travelling, experiencing, and then completing the project, against all odds, over many years. Any other filmmaker attempting such a project would be called a megalomaniac, but not Peter Mettler. This is due, for one thing, to his simple (but definitely not banal) way of communicating such goals. “I think it’s about the process of trying to understand the world I live in,” he says. For Gambling, Gods & LSD he travelled across 3 continents and spent more than 3 years shooting and editing over 120 hours of footage. Asia, Europe and North America encounter and inspire one another. Global and local problems. The most diverse religions and models of salvation. Micro- and macrocosmos. And, always, human beings.

Mettler never puts himself above the people he is filming: he encounters them at eye level. At the same time, he succeeds in achieving a critical distance. His analysis is never cutting or pedantic; his off-screen commentary is always spoken in a gentle, mellow voice. It’s a voice that makes possible the transfer from everyday rationality to uncanny dream existence. Mettler’s filmmaking may stem from difference, from non-identity, but the films themselves contain a sense of reconciliation: something infinitely kind and generous, a state of grace.

Canadian director Jeremy Podeswa, for whom Mettler has done camera work, has written about the “humanity and sympathy, love of life and of the beauty of nature that goes beyond formalism” in Mettler’s films. Actress Christie MacFadyen, who starred in The Top of his Head, says: “It is rare to find someone who sees with as much sympathy and tact as Peter, and I have never felt as comfortable in front of anyone else’s camera as I did with his.” Swiss visual artist Pipilotti Rist, who, like Mettler, is a founding member of the Alpenhof artist centre in Appenzell, writes: “Funnily enough, Peter Mettler’s films resemble the man himself: big, beautiful, and gentle. They move slowly, but confidently and precisely. Like an animal in a trance, that is deep in thought. His films are his eyes, in the same shade of light blue.” Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema has said: “I think Peter is a visionary, a poet and philosopher, whose gaze extends beyond the immediate, physical, photographic world, which the cinema claims to represent. I always have the impression that his gaze is focused on another world, where he glimpses miracles and brings them back to us in a new form. And then, miraculously, what he has captured brings us closer to something concrete, a strangely familiar place: ourselves, our home.”

Living and working between Canada and Switzerland, Peter Mettler melds intuitive-associative processes with drama, essay, experiment or documentation. A strong supporter of independent creativity, he has collaborated with numerous filmmakers, artists and musicians including Atom Egoyan, Fred Frith, Robert Lepage, Andreas Züst, Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, Michael Ondaatje. His films and collaborations continue to hold a unique position within cinema and other disciplines, also resulting in works such as live image/sound mixing performance, photography and installations. Meditations on being, Mettlers films transform the inner worlds of their characters and audience alike, into sensorial cinematic experience.