Back to the future with Matthew Bate

Closer Productions’ Matthew Bate discusses his new film Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, which premiered at Sundance and will have it Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival later this year.

“This is the future,” Bate says, holding Google’s virtual reality goggles. They’re made of cardboard, and used simply by inserting a smart phone (with compatible video) into the front. “VR, man.” Bate is a documentarian interested in life and time. His 2011 feature documentary Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure examined the recordings of two quarrelling men, and their lives thereafter. His latest, Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, looks at the life of Sam Klemke, a man who has recorded his life on film for the past 50 years. Bate recently returned from his second Sundance Film Festival outing, where he premiered Sam Klemke’s Time Machine. Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure received wide praise at Sundance in 2011, and earned itself o fficial selection. His new film has done the same, making top 10 lists from visiting critics and the moniker of “an unclassi fiable film” from Variety. Putting down Google’s cardboard virtual reality apparatus, Bate says of Sundance, “It’s always a treat going there. You’re immersed in the belly of the beast for 10 days.” He is re flective on the di fficulty of fully engaging in the festival as a director, trying to make the most of what there is on o ffer and present his own work at the same time. Paradoxically, Bate says, “It’s hard to see films at Sundance, especially as a director.” Having already been to Sundance in 2011, Bate says that he “kinda knew the ropes this time”, so the chaos and variety of the festival wasn’t too di fficult to navigate. Sam Klemke’s Time Machine was entered into an unconventional category this year, the New Frontier. Indeed, this is a category for unconventional “genre busting” media, where “85 percent of the stuff there was virtual reality”. Bate’s film certainly de fies any typical description in terms of genre, as it juxtaposes the trajectory of Sam Klemke’s recorded life with that of the Voyager Spacecraft, still hurtling through space. While these two things might appear seemingly incongruous, Bate says the similarities between Klemke and Voyager are more than they look, and hold a certain “contemporary resonance” with today’s society. That is, both Klemke’s exploits in film and Voyager’s mission are “extraordinary sel fies”. Bate says film is “essentially about portraiture” and Klemke’s library and Voyager are in themselves self-portraits. In Klemke, you have a man who filmed himself for 50 years, and in 1977 started providing, in his own words, an “annual personal status report”. In Voyager, also launched in 1977, you have humanity’s own self-portrait, flying through space on a golden disc (the Voyager Golden Record). In an age where we are surrounded by “this idea that we can record our lives now,” Bate has made a film examining “narcissism, recording a life and self obsession,” all through the lens of two concurrent events. Obviously, there are stark differences between the voyage of a space craft and one man’s life on Earth, but in Bate’s eyes, they accomplish a similar goal. Bate, a vinyl fan, describes Klemke and Voyager’s similar mission of portraying humanity through the analogy of Voyager’s Golden Record. “Voyager is the classy, well produced A-side, while Sam is the messy, punky B-side.” Bate discovered Sam Klemke and his remarkable library of self-focussed film through YouTube three or four years ago. Klemke had posted a short film entitled 35 Years Backwards Thru Time, which progresses in reverse through a collection of his “annual personal status reports”, showing an obese older man morph into an idealistic young fellow intending to chronicle his life. The film had a short viral lifespan and can still be found online, but Bate got in contact with Klemke through the site, asking if he would be interested in participating in this project. After seeing Shut Up Little Man!, Klemke was impressed with the filmmaker’s straps and sent Bate “something like 200 hours” of his own footage, from a library that must span at least hundreds more. From there, Bate trawled through the video shot on Super 8 and VHS recorders, which he describes as “incredibly raw and real” including depictions of personal moments and feelings that Bate says he could not imagine any of his own peers doing now. Klemke, Bate says, is a “caricature artist at fairs” now, yet as a young man “had set out to be Orson Welles or Woody Allen but felt that he had failed” in that mission. Bate disagrees, because while Klemke’s work was never mass-consumed, nor is he a household name, he has created a “sort of punk version of the Seven Up! Series”. In his own short, 35 Years Backwards Thru Time, Klemke asks, around November of 1985, “Why do I do it? I’m fascinated with time. I have a fixation with the now.” As for Bate, he’s looking to the future. Having seen so much extraordinary VR work at Sundance, he hopes his next project will be firmly rooted in this new and emerging medium. Sam Klemke’s Time Machine will have its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival ( Thursday, October 15 to Sunday, October 25). Where it goes from there? Only time will tell.

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