The Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection recently acquired two titles by Jonathan Rattner, an intermedia artist working in nonfiction film and video. His films evoke elements of documentary and lyrical styles of filmmaking, often focusing on issues of place-based identity.
During the month of December, our Bentson Mediatheque is dedicating a playlist to Rattner’s films Further In (2016) and The Interior (2015), which document the daily life of famous dog musher (and Minnesota native) Brent Sass. Offering a snapshot of what some still consider the Great Frontier, Rattner highlights the challenges and freedoms that come with the territory (so to speak) of dog mushing. With daylight fleeting, a few things remain constant for Sass: the unrelenting cold, the appetite of his 56-dog kennel, and his infectious singing.
Ruben/Bentson Archivist/ Assistant Curator Ruth Hodgins reached out to Rattner to discuss how he started this project, his documentary approach to this subject, and his influences and inspirations.
Ruth Hodgins: The Interior (2015) and Further In (2016) are two of the most recent additions to the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, which includes a wide array of work from Georges Méliès to Sergei Eisenstein to Stan Brakhage. Can you tell us which artists or movements you learned about, and how they have influenced your career?
Jonathan Rattner: As a filmmaker, I’m a hybrid between experimental and nonfiction traditions, and my influences are all over the map. What has informed and most directly influenced my practice as a filmmaker are the writings and theories of Jean Rouch, Sergei Eisenstein, Andre Bazin, and Nathanial Dorsky. Rouch talks about cine-dance, Eisenstein talks about organisms, Bazin the magical possibilities of objective reality, and Dorsky balance. How I shoot: long durational shots, handheld. How I edit: collage, erasing, and then reconstructing. And the experience I’m searching for while I’m shooting, editing, and in the theater all come out of these filmmakers’ and theorists’ ideas and writings.
When I studied at the University of Iowa I was influenced by Leighton Pierce and Sasha Waters Freyer, two of my mentors there. Not everyone would agree with me on this, but I think there’s something about University of Iowa filmmakers in general that connects their work—a certain rough-around-the-edges, genreless sensibility.
Hodgins: It’s fascinating to hear about your influences from both your peers at the University of Iowa and leading historic filmmakers. Can you tell us more about what impacted your early career, as well as your practice and goals as an artist and filmmaker?
Rattner: My father is a sculptor and my mother is a teacher, so I grew up with a lot of art in the house and art making in the background. I have these early memories of walking down the basement stairs to my father’s studio and being both mystified and excited by my father’s intensity—his frustration and love—with these inanimate, abstract objects he was constructing.
As an artist, I’m concerned with narrative construction: how we tell our stories and the structure we use to form these stories. I do have a particular shooting and editing practice I designed to achieve a fresh sensual experience in production, postproduction, and in theater. During production, I shoot like an observational photographer. When I see something I want to photograph, my normal practice is to turn on the camera and stay still for a long period of time, waiting until I see something, an action, a color, a sound, that I did not notice when I turned on the camera. Once I’m in the editing room, I work very much like a collage artist. I take visuals and sounds from different times and places and look to create moments that act like those long durational shots by way of editing. Ideally when I screen my films, the audience experiences a glimpse into these worlds, which are real but also truly unfamiliar.
Hodgins: The protagonist in Further In and The Interior is dog musher Brent Sass, who I understand to be a celebrity in the world of dog mushing. Can you tell us about Brent—how you met and started the project?
Rattner: My good friend and Minnesota native Jonathan Johnson was an undergraduate with Brent at the University of Alaska. For years, every time we got together Jonathan reminisced and spoke about Brent and life in Alaska—about Brent living off the grid, Brent’s profession as a musher, and, of course, his mostly solitary life surrounded by his many dogs. Over the years, I became more and more fascinated. I’d heard of dog mushing before, read about it as a kid, and knew about Alaska, but the more I thought about it, the more unreal this place and his lifestyle seemed. The idea fit the work I’ve been doing for some time now—interacting, having conversations with, and questioning the narratives we construct around identity and place. Many of us have visuals and expectations associated with living off the grid, of living in Alaska, but like everything else it’s curious why such visuals and expectations are so solidified.
I decided on a whim to contact Brent and ask if he would be interested in working with me. I thought he would say no. Once you start reading about mushing, you see how famous Brent is in that world, and I thought there’s no way he would want to work with an experimental art-based filmmaker. Once I was in Alaska filming, I asked him why he agreed. He told me he was excited that I was interested in witnessing and capturing an alternate take on the experience of Alaska, and of dog mushing.
Hodgins: As you mention Brent lives off the grid somewhere in Alaska. Is there any community there or nearby perhaps?
Rattner: Brent lives in Eureka, Alaska, near Joe Bush Creek on a homestead built by Ed and Willow Salter in the early 1970s. In 2012, Ed and Willow sold their homestead to Brent, who has lived and trained there since. Eureka is located in the Alaskan Interior, which is about four hours north of Fairbanks and 45 minutes to the closest town, Manley Hot Springs, which has a population of around 80. Since there are no roads, only trails that lead to Brent’s home, once you get to Eureka you actually have to get out of the car and ride on a snowmobile for about 15 minutes. Brent mentioned having neighbors, but I think the distance between neighbors means something different to Alaskan homesteaders than to most of the rest of the American population.
Hodgins: As the films focus on the life of a dog musher, there are, of course, many incredible beautiful, dynamic, fast, and loud Husky dogs. What was it was like to live with them during your time filming?
Rattner: The dogs were incredible. I was concerned at first about being around so many, and you hear stories about how mushing dogs are treated. Yet Brent’s dogs are very much loved, and they were in no way violent, anxious, or unhealthy. They were very friendly and surprisingly trusting of me. Immediately, if you came up to them, they would walk up to you and lick you. Brent considers his dogs his family, and they clearly can feel that. It’s an amazing sight to see 30 or more dogs run free at one time, listen, and follow Brent around. Beyond two of his older dogs, all of his dogs, unless they are injured or sick, sleep outside. Yet almost every day Brent lets different dogs come and stay in the house to get time with him.
Hodgins: This year you won Best Documentary at the Ann Arbor Film Festival for The Interior. Congratulations! I’m wondering what’s next for you? Do you have any other plans to visit Brent Sass and his Huskies?
Rattner: Brent has invited me to return anytime. I would love to do a part three and make this project a triptych, one in which the landscape is foreground, rather than in the background, like it is in part one, and mid-ground in part two. I’m also thinking about making a work that is oppositional to The Interior and Further In in relationship, color, and climate.