Interviews

Interview David Verbeek

People can be like black holes; they can consume you

By Young Film Critic Paige Lim

In An Impossibly Small Object, David Verbeek plays a Dutch photographer who wanders about the streets of Taipei one night and spots eight-year-old Xiaohan playing with her kite in a parking lot. Captivated by the little girl, he takes a photograph of her, and the audience is soon transported into her life. Xiaohan is the best of friends with her classmate Hao Hao, but the two face separation when Hao Hao learns that he will be migrating to New York.

Verbeek pays homage to the vibrant nightscape of Taiwan once again with his latest feature, which marks the third film he has shot in Taipei following R U There (2010) and How To Describe A Cloud (2013). Nominated for the VPRO Big Screen Award, An Impossibly Small Object is a gentle meditation on childhood, innocence, relationships and urban alienation, partly inspired by the director’s memories of his own life.

An Impossibly Small Object teleports us into the life of eight-year old Xiaohan, a cheerful and lively girl whose parents own a bustling street restaurant in Taipei. How did you conceptualise the backstory of your main protagonist?
I spent a lot of time in Taiwan. I was very fascinated with its environment and I wanted to capture that. At one point I was living somewhere in Taiwan and right downstairs, there was this pepper shrimp restaurant, which is featured in the film. The restaurant triggered my imagination. What you see in the film is this restaurant on the street, then a stairway that goes down into the darkness, then a world of people doing the dishes, and a ventilation shaft and so on. I found this to be a very intriguing and mysterious atmosphere, and I was just wondering what it must be like to grow up there, perhaps being the son or daughter of the people that run this restaurant.

The film portrays the complex relationship between a photographer and his subject. Can you elaborate on this aspect?
When you take a photo of somebody that you don’t know, at that moment of time it takes one person to see the other to take the photo, and the other person to also exist in front of the camera. So at that moment in time, these people are both together, otherwise the picture cannot be taken. There are a lot of questions about time that arise from the act of taking a still photo. It's a snapshot in time, but is it just a memory, or is it just a creation? I had many philosophical questions about this so I chose to make a film out of it.

David Verbeek

Studied Film, Photography and Philosophy at the New School University in New York, and film directing at the Netherlands Film Academy, where he graduated in 2005. During his studies he completed his first feature, Beat (2004), which was selected for IFFR...

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In An Impossibly Small Object, snapshots of your life as a roving photographer are interspersed with Xiaohan’s life in Taipei. Both of you share similar experiences relating to childhood, loneliness and urban alienation. How much of the film is autobiographical?
The film is not a documentary, but it has some things that are very close to my own life. I choose to play myself, and some people in the film are very close to me too. I also shot the film in my own house in Amsterdam. We see the struggle of the photographer because he is always travelling, and he doesn’t feel at home in one place anymore. This is something that I’ve also been dealing with my own life. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to do this myself, even though I’m not an actor.

In the opening scene, the photographer is persistently questioned by two sponsors about the intention behind his photographs and the context they can offer to audiences. Was this scene meant to be some form of critique on the nature of art?
There are many people who want to make something, and they have to explain why they want to make it, because subsidies cannot be given to everyone. So the film is not a critique of that, because I don’t think there is a way around this. But I am using the predicament of having to always explain what you’re doing as a way to talk about what art is; how is art created, and how is a film created.

For example, An Impossibly Small Object came about through an inquisitive process, not a knowing process where I knew exactly what I was going to do. It was a process where I had some ideas that interested me, and I was going to go on this adventure of making a film and seeing how they would come together. That’s why the film opens with that argument — the fact that the photographer in the film is interested in something, but he can’t quite explain why. That’s also the mentality that I had while making this film.

Voices

An Impossibly Small Object was part of the Voices selection at IFFR 2018

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Can you explain the meaning behind the film’s title, An Impossibly Small Object?
An impossibly small object
is an object that creates a black hole, because it sucks up all the light. This means that everything is drawn to that impossibly small object very strongly. It echoes how Xiaohan is drawn to the boy, Hao Hao, and being with him. The old woman on the airplane also says that people can be like black holes; they can consume you. So it’s just how we can be consumed by another person, or by an idea, by ownership, by anything.

The symbol of a life-size Chinese god puppet recurs throughout the film — the photographer finds it lurking in the basement of a residential building, and later photoshops the image into the background of a photograph with Xiaohan. What does the puppet represent? 
These puppets are gods, and they are a presence that is all-seeing. This is linked to the photographer who is also an observer, whose occupation is to capture certain moments. So the puppet is an observer — a mysterious observer — and we never know what this observer will do with all these observations. Whether it will judge us, or if it will just know and understand with compassion. We don’t know.

Photo in header: Portrait David Verbeek at 47th IFFR © 31pictures.nl