Of the handful of contemporary filmmakers who have found their own fruitful, imaginative twists on the essay film, the Paris-based artist Eric Baudelaire stands apart. Born in Salt Lake City, Baudelaire took up photography after having already established himself as a gallery artist. Soon after, he started devoting himself more seriously to filmmaking, which he continues to treat as one element of a broader artistic practice that also involves installation work, photographs, written texts and the staging of live performances.

Baudelaire’s two most recent nonfiction films—generous works of fierce intelligence sometimes belied by their serene visual textures and careful pacing—both revolve around unsimulated exchanges of letters. In the case of Baudelaire’s exchanges with the Japanese radical filmmaker Masao Adachi in The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images (11), the mail in question was electronic. In the case of the prolonged correspondence he kept up with Maxim Gvinjia starting several years ago—the exchange that eventually became Letters to Max, his new film—their exchange left, against many odds, an actual physical trace.

At the time of his correspondence with Baudelaire, Gvinjia was part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a country that did not, technically speaking, exist. Since the fall of the USSR, Abkhazia—a small Soviet splinter state in the Caucasus—has been lobbying for recognition as an independent state. Its recent history is profoundly contested. In the early Nineties, the Abkhaz expelled thousands of Georgians from the region during a highly chaotic civil war that spiraled into a widespread, horrific program of ethnic cleansing. The Abkhaz, however, insist that they were the victims, not the aggressors, of a system of ethnic and cultural domination. Many Georgians with roots in Abkhazia are still barred, as Baudelaire suggests late in Letters to Max, from coming home.

The movie leaves much of this story unspoken, but not unfelt. Its subject is the great difficulty of creating a historical narrative around a place, of making a place divulge its secrets, and, by extension, of orienting oneself in a place—physically and morally.  

FILM COMMENT spoke with Eric Baudelaire on the eve of the film’s U.S. premiere at the 52nd New York Film Festival last fall. Baudelaire will appear at the Museum of Modern Art tonight for a special screening of Letters to Max.

Letters to Max

What is the weather like in Abkhazia?

In the summer it’s hot and sunny. In the winter, it’s very moist and foggy. It’s a subtropical climate, and so it’s a very strange climate: all the heat from Turkey glides over the Black Sea and then it gets stuck in the Caucasian mountain range, which is very high. Abkhazia is almost like a diagonal country, because it goes from sea level to 15,000 feet in the course of a few kilometers. The horizon isn’t diagonal.

How did you first encounter the place?

I have an old friend who is one of the foremost political science specialists in the small field of those who study de facto breakaway regions in the former Soviet Union. He’d been telling me about these different states, and one summer we planned a trip together. We went to Transnistria, which broke away from Moldova, Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, which broke away from Azerbaijan. This was in 2000, and that’s the first time I went to Abkhazia—with this friend, Leon Colm.

Did you shoot anything there at the time?

As a photographer. It was one of my first projects as a photographer, even though I was already 27 years old. It was a time when I was starting to veer away from what I had been doing and was becoming more and more interested in images. I took thousands of photographs. I never did anything with them, but they were the first layer of work that I had done in that region.

How did you meet Max?

He came to pick us up at the Russian army base where we were staying the first morning. He was kind of sent over by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because he’s a good English-speaker. He showed up at the army base wearing, I remember, sunglasses, blue jeans and an “I Love New York” T-shirt. He was 24 years old, and we just immediately hit it off. Every time I returned to Abkhazia, we reconnected. He came to visit me in New York in 2001. We were friends before anything else. At the time, he didn’t have many responsibilities: he was a relatively low-level employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As he rose on the ladder, I was gradually moving away from photography and towards film, so we sort of had this parallel movement in our lives—but at the same time, it had become very clear to both of us for a very long time that we should make a film together in Abkhazia.

Letters to Max

But you shot the footage we see in the film after your correspondence with Max had already ended.

Yes. All of the footage was shot in September of 2013. It was all shot a year after I had sent the letters.

To what extent did you find yourself choosing what to shoot based on what you knew the content of the letters to be? And to what extent did you find yourself led by what you found there at the time?

I’d say it’s a bit of both. Because I’d photographed so many times and places in Abkhazia, Abkhaz, my friends there joke that I’ve been to more places in Abkhazia than they have. It’s a small country, and I’ve driven around for weeks and months at a time with the same person—Sergei—in the car. I’m very familiar with the landscape there, and so while writing the letters I was often thinking about particular places. Then when I listened to Max’s responses a year later, I would often think of places to film in. But this is really what my work as a filmmaker has been about for a while: the relationship between sound and images. It’s an asynchronous relationship.

There’s not a direct correspondence.

Yes, but there’s also a gap in time. We’re used to, in film, thinking about the sound and the image being synchronized. That’s what film is about: synchronicity of sound and image in time. I have been very interested in messing with that relationship, and Letters to Max is very much a film that’s based on asynchronism.

Was there any characteristic of the landscape of Abkhazia that you were hoping to bring out in the visual texture of the images themselves?

There are some images that have always been in the back of my mind when I’ve been photographing or filming in Abkhazia. When I say images, I mean something like visual universes. One of them is Kafka’s The Castle, which is allegorically a little bit like the story of a filmmaker or photographer who’s going to a place. In the case of Kafka’s book it’s a land surveyor who’s trying to survey the land of a castle that’s nowhere to be found, cannot be surveyed because it cannot even be reached. The castle, allegorically, is the state: it’s the structure of power under which the community is organized. In my project that’s been going on for 15 years—trying to chronicle the non-existing state of Abkhazia—there’s something akin to this character wandering around the landscape, trying to find the castle. I think in my mind I’m trying to shoot the castle, find it. That’s one of the reasons why there’s always a lot of fog in the films. A lot of impossibility of seeing things.

There’s also a big visual relationship to Tarkovsky’s Stalker. In many ways, Abkhazia is the Zone: the place where you come to fulfill your dreams, the place that is impossible to reach. You need a stalker to take you around; it’s a place where the relationship to time and space is different. The vegetation and the landscape also remind me very much of Stalker.

Letters to Max

Having traveled to many of these breakaway Soviet states, was there anything that surprised you about Abkhazia in particular?

I think there are 150 different ethnic and religious groups in the Caucasus, which is a region smaller than Texas. Some of them are completely unique. The Abkhaz language has 56 consonants, a handful more vowels and no roots to any other known languages. It’s a completely autonomous cultural existence. There are very few languages that have no known roots to other languages. It’s a very weird thing. This speaks to the nature of Abkhazia as a community: it exists in no relation to anything else. In a way, the fact that they’re an unrecognized state today is not a surprising change in the setup. They’ve always been autonomous—linguistically, culturally—and yet absolutely mixed with all the other cultures and ethnic groups in the Caucasus.

If you look at a Soviet map of the world, fold it into four pieces and open it up again, the region of intersection—the cross-point of the folds—will be Abkhazia. They always joke about the fact that they’re the place where the North and the South converge and the East and the West converge. And that’s very true. There’s something very Eastern about Abkhazia and something very Western about it; something very Northern, and something very Southern. It’s a place where, culturally speaking, these four regions of the world connect: Asia and Europe, Slavic lands in the north, and the Black Sea and Arabic lands in the south. It’s a point of convergence.

The epistolary form is notoriously hard to express on film. Some critics argue that including too much text on screen sinks a movie, or that the nature of letter-writing is somehow anti-cinematic. There are great films involving the movement of letters through space, but not that many having the actual form of a letter. How do you go about structuring a film like this?

I wouldn’t know how to describe why it is that the epistolary form occurred to me. In The Anabasis, it was natural that I would have an e-mail exchange with Adachi because that’s how we meet people today.

The reason it’s a letter with Max is that I wanted to send him something that would not arrive. I’ve been sending e-mails to Max for 10 years now. But I really wasn’t sending him a letter the first time; I was sending a letter to the French postal system. I wanted to see what would happen when a French post office worker had to look up the country in the system and it wasn’t there. What would they do? What would be the big red rubber stamp they would put on the envelope? “Wrong address”? “Address does not exist”?

And then I forgot about it. When I got an e-mail from Max 10 years later, I was very surprised. Soon it became a ritual. I knew he wasn’t getting my letters for 10 or 12 weeks, and some do get lost and returned. It was like a meditative exercise in the morning trying to figure out what to say to Max today, knowing that he won’t hear it until much later—and that I won't hear back from him until much later after that. What happens when you break a conversation down into these very stretched-out time frames?

How do you go about adapting an exchange of letters into a film? What shape do you give it?

I think that maybe 10 or 15 letters into the correspondence, when it became clear that we were going to make a film, I started to think about the letters as one thinks about a screenplay. The structure of the film starts to emerge. When you interview somebody, the order in which you ask the questions is extremely important in driving the narrative of the response. This is something I’ve been working on since The Anabasis. The rhythm in which you ask questions, the rapport you establish: it all gives a particular texture to the response. Making The Anabasis, I did six hours of interviews with May Shigenobu; it was all over the place. When I met Adachi two years later and did his interview, it ended up in the film almost unedited. I’d thought about the structure so much that I knew the exact order in which I wanted to talk about things.

With Max, it’s similar. By letter 10, I was really thinking about when to raise what questions. How do we develop the character? When do we want to hear about Max’s family? Since I’m not hearing his responses, it’s a one-way scriptwriting exercise. Then it comes back, and it’s obviously completely altered by everything that he had to say. But if you look at the Final Cut Pro timeline, it’s fairly linear. We start with letter one and end with letter 74, although there’s some mixing around in the middle, inversions, and things that are removed.

Letters to Max

What other films have struck you as useful in thinking through these methods? Were there any works in particular that motivated your transition to filmmaking?

I feel Chris Marker is an extremely important filmmaker for me, but the form in which Marker made his films—with written commentary, which is beautiful—also determined the fact that I refuse to work with written commentary in my films. I cannot out-Marker Marker. A lot of contemporary filmmakers work with commentary now that the essay film has come back very strongly, and very few can write it the way Marker did.  

The other end of it is, obviously, Godard and his particular use of commentary, which is far more entertaining, based in dialogue and fictional characters.

Though less so in some of the later films. In Histoire(s) du cinéma, you’re getting a more Marker-like mode of address, if not a more Marker-like voice.

Yes. So then how do you make a film about the real if you’ve also rid yourself of using archival material—which is another decision I made, to avoid using archival material as much as possible, and only use it for very specific reasons—and set aside the traditional vocabularies of the essay film? I’ve always been a great admirer of oral historians. How do you make a film around that? One of the differences is that the histories in my film are highly edited.

I’ve gradually developed this self-made theory about the relationship between images and sounds—when they’re very much in tune with each other, and when they’re disjunctive. That’s the language that became my little space in filmmaking: interview-based films and correspondence. Then, it really becomes about what you film and how you piece it together—how you close and open up gaps between the sounds and the images.

I’m curious how you see your first-person voice within this framework. In a late Godard film, for instance, the first-person voice is the guiding intelligence behind the film and the movement of the images. There’s still an “I” addressing a “you”—and that’s a very traditional essayistic mode. The “I” in your films, I find harder to place.

I tend to become a character in the films. The “I” is placed by the subject of the film, not by me. Adachi will talk about Eric in the interviews. He’ll say, “When Eric does this…” because he’s talking to my translator, so he talks about me in the third person.

He’s directing you.

Yes. And Max is addressing me because he’s answering me. I think maybe my place in Letters to Max is easier to identify. My address to him places me as the letter-writer, and he addresses me in return. But as to who I am…

Letters to Max

Of course, you’re also the author of the images, which do have a kind of first-person perspective. That’s especially interesting when they’re layered over a soundtrack on which Max is addressing you.

And the ultimate control is that I’m the editor of the films. The cut is really where all of this gets organized.

To what extent do you see a tension between the person through whom the images speak and the soundtrack?

That tension is the creative tension in the works. Obviously, you appropriate the material. Everything becomes yours. The six hours of tape become yours. You cut them, invert them, and turn them into whatever you want—even if they weren’t yours initially, but something you collected. But that appropriation, and the juxtaposition of that appropriated voice with the images, is really the place of creation for these films. It’s the land from which the film grows.

Think of Marker’s Sans Soleil: whose voice is speaking there? It’s a fictional cameraman writing letters that he did not write to a woman whose voice is read by Simone Signoret, speaking about this fictional cameraman in the third person and the past tense. Where is the voice of Chris Marker? His voice is that entire construction, plus the images that we’re seeing, plus the editing. And for me, my voice is a kind of collusion as well. You can enter it wherever you want; you can identify it as either the entire construction, or just this “Eric” that is sometimes referred to within the film.

To be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to plan that. A lot of these films are very organic processes: I wrote the letter, I didn’t expect it to arrive, then I wrote a bunch more, then it slowly became a film, then I set it aside and was busy with The Ugly One for almost a year, then The Ugly One is released in Locarno and two weeks later I’m on an airplane to Abkhazia with a camera. In that process, the question of how to construct the voice of “Eric” is not at the front of my mind. It occurs a bit more on the editing table. But I’m comfortable with the fact that the voice is the entire film, from the credit typography to the music that’s chosen. The position of “Eric” is ambiguous in that construction—and I’m OK with that.