Interview with David Blair

David Blair speaks about the stories that inspired Finding the Telepathic Cinema of Manchuria. The interview took place in October 2010.


Let's start in Manchuria, it's history [especially during the 20th Century] is one of conflict and dispute. It's identity shifted and was altered with each successive regime...

Well, Manchuria is specifically the name of the modern nation engineered by the Japanese in the Northeast of China after the terrorist 'incident' of 1931, a country that lasted until the Soviets arrived in 1945. From the 17th to the 19th Centuries, it was a different sort of national void, homeland of the Manchus who had invaded China, and in theory off limits to anyone but the Manchu. Becasue I started my work in the early 1990s, I came to Manchuria through Japan, partly attracted because it wasn't well known in the West. There are more than 10,000 titles referencing Manchuria in the National Library in Japan. You'll get 200 or so if you go to the American Library of Congress. The conflicts, the voids… the official Chinese name for Manchuria is still roughly Fake Manchuria… and the need to populate these voids, all attracted me.

Do you consider your film to be a sort of documentary or perhaps a fictional documentary?

Well, yes, I would say that it is both. I think often of the phrase "working it up", used to describe how a historic fiction is constructed. I'm not a historian, I don't read the languages involved, and any commissioned translation still kept me at the second or third hand, at best. I am truthful… I have had a lot of time, have read everything available, visited places, memorised all the pictures and reconstructed spaces from them. I have more than 100,000 stills in my media database, and you can point to any and I'll tell you what it is and tell you a little story. But I am just a liar. I am telling a fiction inside an upside down documentary.

Where did your interest in Manchuria begin?

Like with my previous project Wax, I walked into the New York Public Library with a 6 word phrase, started to look it up, and pretty quickly the train started to lay tracks in front of itself. That was in 1992. By 1993, I had got as far the Jewish Ghetto in the Japanese controlled Shanghai. When I visited Tokyo that year I arranged an interview with the former assistant to the Japanese official in charge of film production in Shanghai, and in an aside he mentioned how much he hated working with the criminals at the Manchurian Film Corporation. I took a leap from that.

Finding the Telepathic Cinema of Manchuria is part of a bigger project, The Lost Tribes, tell us more...

Yes, the larger project has been going since about 1993 or maybe a bit earlier, and I've been pretty much full time at it since 1995, including a couple research years in Tokyo. The start, and center, is a graphic feature called The Telepathic Motion Picture of The Lost Tribes, about the making of a lost telepathic movie in Manchuria after 1931. The video I've made for Animate Projects is standalone, but is also an entry to the feature, which I hope to get into 90 minute form this next year. Along with that I've constructed a sort of story/archive world, a bible you might say if it were a series. That defines the movie, and is also used to construct what at the moment are roughly ten projects around it. These recreate various emphemera from that world. For instance, there is installation work, such as the 100 Telepathic Paintings, which I did with Michael Bianchi, which are just that, 100 emphemeral oil paintings used by characters in the film, or in the making of the lost film. Or there are the 100 Telepathic Places; in the spring I recontructioned the prototype for the Manchurian Pavillion at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale in Paris. There is also performance, in the 100 Hours of Live Telepathy, live video mix concerts that I've been doing with the classical violist Fabienne Stadelmann.

From the start of the project, I was tracing the contradictory history of the Japanese and the Jews. Back in the early 1990s, some bookstores in Tokyo had a separte section just on that topic. In the early 20th Century, some Japanese Protestants thought that the Japanese might be the Lost Tribes. Aum Shinrikyo's last major publication before the 1995 Tokyo gas attacks was an illustrated anti-semetic tract, and part of the reasoning for the attacks, using Nazi gas, perhaps included the thought that the Japanese were the Lost Tribes. And of course, the Lost, that is a broader topic.

In your film, as in its real history, the railway is key to Manchuria...

After beating the Russians in 1904, in many ways through the application of borrowed technique, the Japanese basically got a small corridor of land from the coast up to the center of Manchuria, land leased for the railroad. Manchuria was the expansion of the idea of engineered development from that small corridor up to the size of a nation. So, anyway, I've always liked the story of a technique. Back in 1980, when I got started in video, it was easier to piece together the story of television history than the circuits in the repair manuals kept at the library. Nipkow worked building a signal system for the Berlin streetcar company after he invented mechanical television. So, among many other things colliding in Manchuria, railroad & movies is a natural.

Where did the telepathic movietalker or narrator characters come from (is it from the translators that were a regular feature in rural Asian cinemas throughout the 20th Century)?

In most countries, at various stages of early film, there were live narrators who appeared during the projection. In Canada, they were called bonimenteurs, and in Japan they were called katsuben, or benshi. At the beginning in Japan, they retold the story of the unreadable intertitles, and put in context unknown places and customs. By the 1920s they were integral to the exhibtion system, and in fact benshi were often the top talent, listed above the title of the film on the marquee. The art film movement hated them, since benshi determined the interpretation of the film. The government started to regulate them when the anti-communist Thought Control laws were passed. And the coming of sound killed them. In my fake story, they live on as telepaths in colonial China.

The soundtrack is also a collage of elements and music, some scored and performed, some archival and treated or manipulated, can you tell us about how you work with these elements?

The music mainly comes from the live mix concert that I did with Fabienne Stadelmann in the spring at an I-R-L event in Paris. The image/sound idea was the needledrop effect… that with well designed sound and image, the two will often re-emphasize each other in completely unexpected ways, in the mind of the audience. That works in concert, and with this film, though of course there is a lot of deliberate re-montage. About half of the music was original, written by Fabienne. Some pre-written music arrived by higher synchronicity, the half-supernatural accidents that happen a lot when I make a story. And some of the music was rewritten by machine… for instance, Japanese pop songs I resampled as midi piano, or scores I scanned and reversed in a composition program, and which Fabienne then played, and then played again to her own recording.

I mentioned documentary earlier... you use a variety of styles and tools and to construct the film: found footage, animation, live action, photography - can you talk a little about your process?

In documentary, you tell a story that exists, that you find… and often you construct your telling as you find the story, rather than write it ahead of time. This project is like that, but since it is a fiction, and a graphic one, there is a complete back and forth between what pre-exists and what is invented, and in fact, so to speak, there isn't really a chicken or egg. Pictures tell the story, story tells the pictures, and both remake each other. I like to use a lot of tools, too many tools, too many techniques, since this is a graphic fiction, and that gives a simultaneous sense both of a real world, and an invented world. Tools and technique are part of both picture, and story.