Kaleidoscopic is one of the words used to describe the work of Clayton Vomero, his narratives finding their flow not in the rules of time but in the intricate routes of the mind. His new film 3OHA will have Sheffield Doc/Fest (6 -11 June) as the official stage for its UK premiere. Maria Mendes caught up with the New York-born artist and filmmaker ahead of its screening.

Your visual language is particular, singular. There is something ethereal about it, but at the same time it is remarkably real. How would you describe your journey into finding it?

That’s hard to answer but a very kind and generous description to hear about work that I really hope feels that way. I’ve boxed myself into an almost mental puzzle of what I think films should be, which at times I feel really trapped in, but I feel really strongly with each thing that it’s something only I can make. Not in the sense of some mastering of craft, but more in making each film a very direct communication of how scattered and fragmented my own thoughts and memories are. Film being an inherently abstract medium, it’s always laden with the possibility of being used in a strange and magical way. There’s no other medium that can play with time, sound, and light simultaneously to hypnotize us. It’s powerfully transformative. I try to apply an awareness of this in a way that breaks temporal narratives so that time and reality are questioned themselves, but fact and truth aren’t. But, short answer, my journey to finding it is just always being drawn to experimental and abstract films and wanting to communicate my own ideas in a way that resembles how thoughts look inside my own brain. Which is a mess.

You seem to navigate the reality/dream line in a way that lulls the audience into a state that has their mind opening without them having to make a conscious decision to do so – is that a deliberate choice on your part?

I love narratives that jump around to tell a better more exciting story. I love the editing of Scorsese films in how they bring internal voices out into real life and events. Those jumps in time that make you feel surprised and excited, but also make you question if you’re seeing someone’s thoughts or if you’re watching actual events. I think combining these two perspectives makes the illusion that you try to follow rather than the one that tells you what to think. I hate didactic films that don’t allow people to put themselves into the ambiguity and figure it out on their own. I want to create vases for people to pour themselves into. I think, in structure, 3OHA is a comment on mass media’s simulated responses and feedback loops, but because the narrative is broken it allows you to enter the image at an angle rather than straight on as we’re accustomed. Like as if the emotional space in 3OHA were the bookshelf scene in Interstellar. All the iconography is present, but you can shuffle it in a way that makes you think differently.

Concepts such as identity, belief, freedom and vulnerability seem to permeate all your work so far. What are the essential cornerstones that lead you to exploring a certain idea?

I try to find people that exist in their own way, outside of structures and status quo; which has really just become an extension of myself. I’ve been out of place my entire life. Everywhere I’ve ever been. NY is really my only home and what NY has become has just chased me out into the world and I don’t know anywhere that I feel very welcome, so in that I’ve just ended up living more internally. NY makes you into a very specific kind of person that only other NY people understand. We’re not really for mass consumption on a personal level. We’re too this or too that. When you get out into the world you encounter clichéd perceptions of who people think you are, but they can’t really understand. There’s a core of NY that most people will never live and it’s a no rules, no laws, no traditional morals way of living. As I keep making films, I find I’m not looking for people who live this way outwardly as much as internally. I think outward projection of who you are is too much show and kind of boring. I want to hear what people really think and if you really have the courage to think differently than everyone around you. So, conversation is the biggest part of all of my films. Real conversation, about life and death and raw moments in between. Because that’s what I need to make something interesting. Raw people who are tired of being told how to live.

There is something extraordinarily organic about the way 3OHA flows. How do you tap into these realities without having them feel as if you are looking at them from afar?

I try to spend a lot of time with people before we shoot and also try to create a context for what we’re making where I never impose my ideas directly. I ask a lot of questions, give a lot of encouragement to just be yourself, and share stories of myself and my past. I always cast people that I feel I can relate to. I’m always trying to create a family for each film and expect people to take very seriously the idea that films exist forever. I don’t want to make anything that feels like contrivance. Every film I make I’m committed to making it worth everyone’s time. And if film is forever then I need to treat everyone’s time as if they’re giving it to me infinitely. It needs to be worthy of that.

These are strong, self-aware voices that you depict. Is there something you would hope the audience to hear?

Just that people are strong enough to stand up and belt it out even in the absence of cool aesthetic comfort. Like get out and live and fight with people and make naked things worth watching. It’s so easy to make film these days but it’s really hard to make something worth everyone’s time as we’re all being pulled in separate directions. This homogenizing of culture is turning us into such aesthetic avatars that it’s hard to separate what’s real and what’s an image, and I think it’s really important as a filmmaker to keep this culture away from film. We shouldn’t make everything so aspirational or performative because the more we hold unattainable ideals in images the more the imperfection of everyday life will disappoint us.

3OHA, 2019. 63 mins, film still

You look at specific existences through angles that are not commonly seen, acknowledged. How do you know when to walk away, when to say the final cut?

I don’t know. You never feel like you have enough and then you always end up with too much of the wrong things and not enough of the one thing you needed the most. I think your instincts get sharper but then you need to be careful about not being comfortable. I really don’t know. It’s a frustrating job making a film but it’s a beautiful thing when it comes to life in its own way. None of these things even feel like mine. They’re so abstract with so many people working with you on them and then all of a sudden they just become flickering light on a wall somewhere. It’s the ultimate thin air. All of this effort just becomes light that shines on a wall.

There is a lot of talk about success in the film industry. What does it look like for you?

I just want to keep making things that challenge people’s comfort. I want to get under the ideas that we keep recycling and turn them over a little bit and make people see them differently. I think that was the challenge of making 3OHA because it was so easy for people to take a view that the West is great, “these sad Eastern people have it so wrong” and the truth is we’re the same. Except the soul of Russia is so much deeper and beautiful than anything American. America is a product, and I think if there’s anything completely antithetical to America within Russia’s soul, it’s an opposition to the American idea that it’s ok for our souls to be commodified. 

Was there ever a project that you felt needed more time before you embraced it and shared it with the world?

Of course. All of them.

Where do you see yourself going next?

To Italy. To Basilicata to find my ancient family.

3OHA trailer from Clayton Vomero on Vimeo:

Clayton Vomero’s 3OHA makes its UK debut on Saturday, June 8th at Sheffield Doc/Fest (sheffdocfest.com/films/6734). For more information see: claytonvomero.com/3oha.

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