The Winter Ghost is a short dance film. Shot in Berlin, Germany during the last embers of 2020, it aims for a subtle mix of environmental textures. Dancer and dramaturge Katja Vaghi is the winter ghost, a spirit who appears inside our empty living spaces after they’ve been vacated. However, this time, it’s not just the building’s memories that she has for company…
Both Katja and myself had been looking for a suitable shooting location in Berlin for ages. And then, out of nowhere, we had access to an empty flat space. However, we would have to be quick as it would only be empty for a few days. So, after a quick visit in November, we did some test shots and video so as to explore how the space could best be used. The first thing that really hit me about the place were all these drill holes in the living room wall. Like clear echoes or signatures of the past, it made me wonder what scenes and conversations they may have witnessed.
On the U-Bahn home, I wondered about what happened to a building’s lingering memories. Do they just circle around like disparate spirits ready to either shriek or sing at each new entrant? Or was there some kind of a benign spirit who would appear out of the walls and absorb all the words that have been left behind. And this is where Katja and I developed a loose outline for The Winter Ghost:
” I kept thinking back to Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House, about this idea of “wounding the air”, and how you deal with an atmosphere and what a really strong idea it would be for Katja to run with.”.
This was 2020, so we were all still very much in pandemic mode and as such this was never going to be a big shoot. In the end, it became just Katja and myself where everything was shot mostly handheld. This is where Katja and myself we synched up well. In film-making there is this tendency to want everything scripted and fixed before the filming is done whereas for this project we put everything on its head, and that gave us permission to experiment freely.
The one thing I did insist on was starting super early in the morning as I wanted to shoot in natural light. Given the building’s relationship to the sun, there was really only 3-4 hours of serviceable light before everything got all “murky-Berlin-winter-like”. That all said, there was something really liberating about this shoot and filming hand-held. Since I didn’t know exactly what Katja was going to do or when she was going to do it, everything became very instinctual. Now, in a way, having worked as a photojournalist, this actually felt like the most natural thing in the world. In just responding to events as they unfold, it really gave a very loose and organic approach to the shoot.”
The other starting point for Katie was the costume and the notion of skin. She would move inside what basically is an enormous stocking and we had no real idea how it would look like. However, after a few hours inside it, we could that it had a very womb-like quality. Everything felt very delicate and soft, as when touching something very fragile.
Credit must be given to Katja for allowing both myself and Ashley a lot of trust when it came to editing and assembly of the story. In a way that was what was needed. Given the way that I had shot, there was a lot of leeway in how the story could be told. Yet, in its own way, this also created a different kind of pressure. Suddenly there were multitude of alternatives and it can be difficult to know which creative door you’re going to have to close.
“We already knew the stillness of Katja’s performance was exceptional but the real challenge was layering the narrative in such a way that it didn’t announce itself.”
By this point, I’d got most of the shots together and I was thinking about Ashley’s track and then he called me – literally two days later. Totally out of the blue. It really was one of those moments where the universe not just answers you but kicks-the-door-in and says you need to speak to this guy.
However, upon seeing the imagery and instantly connecting with it, Ashley felt that a new piece of music would better serve the project. To start with, heworked to a long edit pieced together from the rushes Mark and Katja’s had filmed. It was about 18 minutes long but it suggested the pacing, mood and tone of the music.
Working with a lot of field recordings from the apartment, that really helped lend a sort of conceptual element to the sound design. As such, many of the sounds in the end film were created using recordings from within the space itself. As such, it needed to be minimalist and yet also occupy the location without feeling forced either.
Screenings, Festival Circuit
After working on the final score and sound design for four weeks, it was time to preview the finished result. Immediately it was clear that this was something that needed to be sent out the dance film festivals. To date, The Winter Ghost has be screened at:
- FuoriFormato Festival 2021, Italy
- WildDogs International Screendance Festival 2021, Canada
- Experimental Film and Dance for Camera festival IMMAGI]NA, Italy
- IMAJITARI – International Dance Film Festival, Jakarta, Indonesia
- InShadow Lisbon Screendance Festival 2021, Portugal
- CMIFF Central Michigan International Film Festival 2022, USA
- FilmFest by Rogue Dancer: Quiet!!! Edition , 2022
- Wild Dogs’ Wolves at the Door Ukrainian fundraiser, 2022, Canada
- FlickFair 2022