Visual / Film
Sirus F. Gahan
Interview by James Whiting
Visual content courtesy of Sirus F. Gahan
As seen in our very first print edition - along with extra bits we couldn't squeeze into 40-something pages - we sat down for a conversation with Australian-born cinematographer and filmmaker now based in Oslo, but working all over the globe. And by sat down we meant use the internet and all sorts of gadgets to discuss things from opposite ends of the earth.
TJ: Hey Sirus, first of all I know you’ve been travelling around a bit recently, so where are you now and why?

SFG: I am currently sitting at Oakland International in California about to fly back to London. I try and keep moving as much as possible, and this particular trip to America actually has some partially funny/ interesting/ heartbreaking motivation behind it, which I can’t go into. But I was primarily here to shoot a music video for Spencer Radcliffe’s new release with Bay based director, Dolan Chorng.

I think I first came across your work in the days of lurking around online skateboarding forums. In between the home videos of kids kick-flipping in their garages, there were a few people you could tell were really pushing to make videos, including yourself. Did filming skateboarding open the doors to cinematography for you, or was it the opposite?

Filming skateboarding definitely introduced me to cinematography. I’m into films, but honestly not as much as I should be, or as much as basically anyone else I know is. Filming skating for me was such a great way to learn about cameras, editing, light etc. Everything. It takes months of sitting in gutters for hours on end shooting the same thing over and over to make a skateboard video, so the hours of hands-on practice add up pretty quick!

From those beginnings, was there a specific community that informed or inspired you to perhaps broaden your tastes and to make more deliberate and considered work?

In terms of skating, the influences are endless. For me it’s often seeing lower grade production that gets me psyched to make new work. Sometimes watching clips made by the greats like Jason Hernandez or Russell Houghten is actually a bummer - everything they make is so polished and incredible and it feels unachievable. The motivation, for me, can and has come from seeing something really badly filmed or edited, which pushes me to try and make films that are cohesive in style, whilst also being well filmed, or at least interestingly put together. There isn’t necessarily a specific community that directly informed the way I started making films, but the Arizona scene was a huge influence for me growing up. People like the O’Shea bros and Jackson Casey made videos which were totally engrossing and felt fresh, whilst also featuring unbelievable skating. Otherwise the greatest skateboarding filmer of all time, Matt King, and the Ssquirted crew, is a constant inspiration. In terms of cinematography, there again isn’t an exact community from which I drew influence, and as I touched on I don’t really watch that many films so my pool of influence & inspiration is shallow. A piece that stands out to me as having a big impact on how I now produce work is Emily Kai Bock’s music video for Oblivion by Grimes, shot by Evan Prosofsky on 35mm. I remember watching it and feeling completely enlightened on how the process of filmmaking could be altered to be so seemingly simple but rough. I loved the authentic portrayal of a space (a motocross stadium) cut together with stylised narrative sequences featuring the artist, and all ostensively shot in secret, on the fly. I took a lot from that, and more than anything it made me realise that music video as a format is only limited in form or arrangement by your own capacity to ruminate.
Music video stills for a new release from Spencer Radcliffe. Directed by Dolan Chorng.
In terms of generating new works, is there a particular nature or disposition to a concept that draws you to undertaking it over another? For example what kind of place does the idea to document Northern Europe's highest lying mountain village, Skåbu in ‘A Place Good Enough’ come from?

The first point for me when it comes to considering what to work on, and what not to, is whether the people you’re working with are chill. Nobody wants to work with people that are gonna be acting up or have an ego - let’s all just have a nice time! After that, it’s whether the film someone wants to put together is even going to be interesting; have I seen basically this exact video on Vimeo five times already this year? Probably yes. Anything that’s out of the ordinary is interesting to me. If the director can’t find a reference video for the kind of shot they want, that’s a major positive in my opinion. Mostly the projects that I get drawn to work on particularly are the ones where there’s some adventure involved. Obviously, it’s a lot of fun to be shooting whilst in a new place, or traveling between locations, but I actually think it’s of vital importance to the production too. When you plan a shoot in a different setting and even getting there is a mission in itself, your eyes are wide, you absorb your surroundings, you’re experiencing something different, and I think that sensation of vivacity is undoubtedly transferred onto the film. The concept of APGE was developed over a long period, and was very much informed in the end by occurrences and coincidence whilst we were shooting, which is often and should really always be the case with documentary. The director Emilie Norenberg’s family has a cottage in Skåbu, so she was well acquainted with it in terms of it’s layout and physical geography, but was curious to find out what stories lay hiding under the guise of the quiet mountain village. Having the cottage as a base allowed us to dig into the community and uncover the characters hiding there. It was really pure curiosity that I believe drove Emilie to produce it, but what kept us going was the constant objections from our university at the time, the ongoing difficulties of shooting on film on the top of a snowy mountain and the insane stress of being a 3 person team, not really knowing what we’re doing. Without that struggle and that fight, I don’t think the film would have come together in the same way that it did.

Is the trajectory toward resolving a project more a process of rigorous research, networking and planning, or does it come to realisation more as it unfolds upon itself?

This really depends on the project, but for me it’s rarely a case of heavily researching, and I’m the world’s worst networker so it definitely doesn’t come down to that. I prefer to keep things natural in the way that they unfurl. In my own work there’s possibly a little too much thought behind individual aspects of a film, but I personally need that for it to have meaning for me. As long as the reasoning is there in the background, I like to set parameters for shooting, such as a time or place, and from there allow projects to flourish organically.

As odd as it may sound, the piece of yours that I’ve undoubtedly watched the most is your 2016 reel which is a montage of various works from that year. It has such visual and atmospheric cohesion from start to finish. Regardless of each project not being linked whatsoever, the works connect up so perfectly, and even more so with Waking Up Is Hard To Do by Attic Abasement playing as the soundtrack. Has there been any deliberate process towards cultivating your style or has it been more of a subconscious development from one project to the next?

I guess to some extent there’s a degree of consideration towards my own personal style from project to project, but there’s certainly not a huge amount of thought that goes into it. Again, I think it comes down to making sure what you’re doing feels natural. My main influences in terms of style are an amalgamation of photography (which I find far more interesting than moving image) and my own experience shooting everything. Finding some kind of harmony between the images that I’ve viewed and loved, and what I know will or won’t work for a shot, is probably what informs my manner of shooting most heavily. Obviously, working with different directors will absolutely tweak the nature of how you’re shooting, but generally if you’re working with them and they’re working with you it’s because you have some kind of concurrence of style.
In a collaborative scenario like that you make changes to the way you shoot, which is a positive aspect of working with someone else with a vision, as this is what will end up developing your own style. I like to try and do something at least a little different on every project - it’s pointless if your visuals start to stagnate and everything ends up looking the same.

One quality to me that has always been so pronounced and outstanding in your style, aside from perhaps the skateboarding work, is such a feeling of tenderness. From the music choices - both in artists you’ve work with and pieces used in soundtracks - the portraits, locations, how subjects are directed and the aesthetic sum of these parts; it occasionally becomes almost desolating. Is this something you consciously push for, or even intend at all?

It’s not something I consciously impel towards, but possibly comes down to the inherent waythat I see, or want to represent things. Every film I’ve personally ever written or created, has been about me, in some form or another. I’m my only real point of emotional reference. It’s undoubtedly a selfish way to create work but I would also hope that it’s not necessarily overtly obvious. I think to be able to direct or shoot somebody and allow them to embody something you’ve felt is a strange form of catharsis for me, which is really the only reason I do any of it. I also hold a sense accomplishment if somebody watches a piece I’ve made and they tell me it made them feel something, anything. So the union of the locations, direction, music etc is really all in a bid to make a viewer undergo the experience of a sensation, whether that’s in line with whatever I was feeling at the time or not.
Spencer Radcliffe’s ‘Relief’.
For BRNS’ ‘The Way Up’.
Alex G’s ‘Sorry’.
Back to your roots in skateboarding, which has now led to producing work in collaboration with clients like Vans, Converse and Sidewalk Magazine. Do you ever feel a sort of separation or tension between the colder, macho uniformity of the skateboarding world that is only now starting to diminish and the softer, more tender and humorous style that you seemingly tend towards?

Yes, I do. There’s a giant divide between the two sides you talk about and it’s often exhausting trying to stay part of either, regardless of whether you want to or not. It’s something I personally struggle with, because as you say the work I try to produce is more in line (I would hope) with the latter, but there can often be a dissonance between the situations you are put in to and the video you want to create.
Chris Oliver – Nollie BS Heelflip
I’ve noticed you’ve worked with director/filmmaker Emilie Norenberg quite a lot across different projects. How did that relationship start up and has there been anything you think you’ve learnt from working with someone across multiple projects?

Emilie and I met at university and both had similar interests musically, which translated quickly to the visuals that we both shared a curiosity in. There’s definitely a lot to be learnt from working with someone over time, on different productions. It takes a lot for me to feel like I really gel with somebody on a production. It’s rare to synchronise my wavelength with another person’s, but with a director as passionate and aware as Emilie it’s something that occurred quite naturally, at least after some initial rockiness with lining up working styles, which is normal. You definitely learn about how to compromise on certain aspects of what you’re making to benefit the product as a whole, rather than getting stuck on a subject and delaying the process. Mostly I’d say you reach a higher level of self awareness, as you work closely with another person for a long period, you realise how the way you act and react to aspects of shooting can make your colleagues feel. Because of this you begin to be considerate of how you could take measures to improve the way you communicate or acquit yourself to let things run as smoothly as possible.

From what I can see you’ve been travelling a whole heap recently. A bit around the USA and the UK, but also to Rocinha, Brazil to work on a film in collaboration with GOMA Collective. Could you expand a bit on that?

I shot and directed a couple of short documentaries over the last year in collaboration with Mikey Krzyzanowski and his social enterprise, Goma. Mikey had been out to Rocinha, the largest Favela in Brazil previously, and got to meet some of the kids living there and started to get involved with helping out a surf school there. Mikey, with help from fellow traveler Joseph Izzard, both with hearts of gold, got inspired by what they experienced on their adventure, and wanted to go back to help out the incredible community in the Favela. Pollution is a big problem in the area, and water contamination is something that has slowly been destroying the surf scene in Rocinha. We went out to shoot a documentary in the Favela, delving into the issues the community there face on adaily basis, in attempt to shine a light on the unbelievable affect an activity like surfing can have on redefining a younger generation seemingly lost in a bustling, handmade city. The documentary will be the surfers’ story, and how their future lies in the balance of some basic environmental issues being resolved.

Have you found any similarities or really distinct differences in the energy in the Brazilian communities compared to something like the skateboarding school you documented in the West Bank, Palestine?

With everywhere that I’ve been lucky enough to travel to and have some kind of contact with kids through an activity like skateboarding or surfing, you can always guarantee almost the exact same reaction. They’re excited, intrigued, hyperactive, mischievous and dangerous all at once. Other than obvious cultural differences between somewhere like the Middle East and South America, the response and energy expelled is really similar, this is especially recognisable when you can’t communicate through a common spoken language, but through action, facial expression and falling over, you manage to learn a lot about each other.

What do you think or hope the future could hold for communities such as the one in Rocinha and others like it?

Mostly just a spreading of awareness of what life is like in communities like Rocinha. I think it’s important to have some level of connection and relation to these places. I feel like that needs to be in place in order for the necessary help to be provided, if it is necessary. Otherwise somewhere like a Favela is looked over, and thought of as totally self-sufficient world, which in some cases may be true, but often a helping hand from the surrounding world would go along way, which in part is what the documentary I’m making is about.

Just on the idea of work and lives intertwining I’ve recently read an interview with an indigo worker where he speaks about his time at the indigo farm as just life and living as opposed to work, which I found very interesting and even somewhat familiar. Do you see that applying to your work at all?

Absolutely. I think that was a necessity for me, and I realised it growing up. Having your life be 75% work, 25% “life” seemed illogical to me. I definitely didn’t have some extraordinary plan to counteract that, but with the way it’s worked out for me, I certainly feel like everyday “working” is part of a larger tapestry, rather than being separate, wasted time.

Following from that, and to finish up, is there anything you really have your sights on in terms of your video or cinematographic work? Not necessarily in regards to clients or scale of the work, but something you want to achieve for yourself, outside of the explicitly physical or visual?

I’d love to be a part of making some work where you create enough interest for someone watching to not look at their phone for the three or so minute duration, or for them to be excited enough to actively seek out a monitor larger than an iPhone to view it. In the modern world, it’s the simple things.
See more from Sirus, GOMA and Emilie here: