It generally requires a certain arrogance to make a documentary about any subject that will inevitably serve as a definitive portrait of it for someone else, particularly when it concerns something so subjective as art. In staying true to his own experience as an American filmmaker at a Hong Kong art fair to make “Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window,” that was a quality that Andrew Hevia’s revelatory and refreshingly unassuming new film was simply never going to have.
“In order for anyone to talk about art in an authoritative way, you have to have opinions fully formed and I always feel that is such a risky proposition, especially when you’re not familiar with the context,” says Hevia, a day removed from the film’s recent premiere at SXSW. “I always feel underprepared to talk about art. There’s always someone who has a Ph. D in this thing and I don’t, so the question is how do you express the experience of good art without killing what makes the art special, that’s the question I wanted to answer.”
In avoiding either pretension or condescension while articulating the giddy excitement of emotionally connecting with any given painting, sculpture or performance piece while at the Art Basel Hong Kong, an offshoot of the famed Florida showcase for contemporary art, Hevia has created a work of art as invigorating as anything he encounters during his travels. Make no mistake, he has shown demonstrably good taste throughout the years as a co-founder of the Miami-based Borscht Corp that gave rise to such innovative films as “Moonlight” and “Sun Don’t Shine,” but smart and humble enough to know what he doesn’t know, Hevia sticks to what he does in “Leave the Bus,” allowing the unknown about the foreign country he’s in and the art he’s taking in only gradually come into focus as he begins to forge an understanding of it.
The film, which takes its title from the inadvertently poetic admonition that is found on local public transportation in case of emergency, accompanies Hevia as he experiences a minor crisis of his own, packing his bags after the end of a long-term relationship and unable to speak any form of Chinese, finds himself on gallery tours with local artists and witnessing political turmoil in the streets that he can’t entirely comprehend. However, letting his curiosity lead him, beauty eventually follows when Hevia can begin to take meaning from what may have been at first mysterious and naturally what may seem elusive about “Leave the Bus” starts to take hold for anyone who has felt a sense of alienation.
While “Leave the Bus” slips so casually into the mind (before refusing to leave), it was hardly easy for Hevia to create such an out-of-body experience that grows intimate, reworking the film continually during the 10 months he spent in Hong Kong and then for years after, taking full advantage of the Fulbright Student Research grant that came with no set delivery requirements to experiment. Working with editor Carlos Rivera, the filmmaker bends sounds and images in the way his own mind was rewired by being immersed in another culture, coming to employ an AI narrator named Alice and having fun formally with the notion that his professional purpose in Hong Kong is falling apart before his eyes and piecing together a mosaic from the rubble. As Hevia was in Austin for the world premiere of “Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window” en route to an international debut at CPH: DOX in Copenhagen, where it will be premiering this evening, he spoke about unexpectedly finding himself in the middle of his follow-up to his first foray to Art Basel, the 2012 film “Rising Tide: A Story of Miami Artists” and feeling out the boundaries that could shape to presenting his experience.
How did this come about?
I had won a grant to go to Hong Kong to make a documentary, [along the lines of] a conventional survey about Art Basel, the largest and most prestigious contemporary art fair in the world [that’s based in Miami], they had opened a satellite fair in Hong Kong four years before I arrived. Based on my experience in Miami, I knew when Art Basel opens a fair, it is a massive, destabilizing influx of money and attention and cultural credibility and felt in Miami there had been a pretty sizable impact on Miami’s cultural community. Now, 18 years later, Miami’s unrecognizable as a city, largely because of the catalytic impact of that fair, so I’d written a proposal to go to Hong Kong to see how it was affecting local artists and thought I could transfer what I knew from the Miami world to Hong Kong. [Once I] got there, I realized pretty quickly how totally wrong I was. So instead of the documentary about art that I set out to make, I made a documentary about art, but also the reasons that motivated me to go to Hong Kong in the first place, like the heartbreak [in my personal life] and the things I was running away from and also Hong Kong as I experienced it.
You’ve said this change radically in the edit from your initial conception. How so?
What my proposal was that I was a one-man band, so I could shoot an art opening and then I’d go back to my laptop and I would string out a timeline of that show, but at the time what I was doing is I’d show the art and then I’d freeze frame and then I’d have someone explain the context of the art, so it’d be like they’re talking about this [particular work] — there’s a moment in the [exhibit] “Child,” a really beautiful show where there’s this audio conversation of the artist interviewing his niece and he was talking to her in Cantonese and she was using these Mandarin phrases and the conversation was about how certain words were taking on a different cultural context – words that had a lot of significance for him because of their political impact had no impact for her. So he’d ask her a word that for him had all these associations and she wouldn’t have them because she was growing up in a different generation, so it was about how the generational shifts were already occurring. Her version of Hong Kong was going to be different than his because of their lack of shared experience because of her age. But that was a heady concept that required you to speak Mandarin and Cantonese and understand the context of Hong Kong. And I had none of that.
I had people explaining it to me and I was trying to understand the context and that was what the original assembly [of the film] was doing and when [my editor] Carlos [Rivera] came in and saw that, he said, “Listen, this movie is a lecture. The parts that are interesting to me are the moments where you have to go in and figure out what you don’t understand and the journey that [you as a] character make, makes this movie watchable because we’re not just being lectured.” That was a pivotal shift that took our assembly into the movie you’ve seen.
Even when you make that decision, were you comfortable putting yourself into the film as much as you end up doing?
It’s deeply uncomfortable. [laughs] But the way I’d phrase it is that Carlos, who is my very close collaborator on the film, was part-editor/part-therapist. It’s only because of the trust that he and I have because we’ve known each other for 15 years that I was able to trust him and he could work me into an emotional space where I could lay it out there. If it weren’t for that, and I was working with people I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. And then the great challenge in the edit for us was to find the balance where the personal story could reflect my Hong Kong experience. It was important for me going in that I not take an authoritative position on Hong Kong. What became increasingly clear to me as the experience of living there continued is that I was not an authority on Hong Kong and in no way could I be one. Not only did I not have the necessary background, I didn’t have the time to earn it and I was very wary of making a movie that claimed any sort of expertise I did not have, especially in the more humbling failures of like getting lost in the very well-laid out, easily navigable shopping mall. So [I realized I had] to make it my story and use my story as a way to explore Hong Kong as I experienced it, which I think is an important distinction – it’s not so much about Hong Kong as it is, it’s Hong Kong as I understood it, so then I could do both. My personal story could reflect Hong Kong without taking an unearned position of authority or expertise.
When it’s a foreign language, is there something that once translated becomes really exciting to you?
Oh absolutely. Although my rule was if I didn’t understand it, I wasn’t going to let the audience understand it. When we meet the artist Mak Ying Tung and she does her karaoke song, Mak comes in and has a conversation with Trevor [Young, a fellow artist] that’s basically like, “Who the hell is this guy? [Referring to me] Why has he got a camera on you? What’s going on?” And then she’s like, “Oh, it’s a documentary about art.” And then she jumps onto it in English, but that moment in Cantonese I think is more charming not in a language I understand and because of that, I didn’t want to translate it for an audience.
Naturally, you’re making decisions about what you want to reflect about the country by what you choose to shoot in the first place. For instance, it seems like seeing the domestic workers line up in tents along the street was intriguing, so I wonder what were you initially attracted to once you got there?
The parts of Hong Kong that I was trying to reflect were the parts I was trying to reflect as they came to me from the art. Ultimately, I felt I was there to document an art scene, so if the art scene was discussing the domestic worker environment in the context of Hong Kong, then I wanted to reflect my experience in that world. When I arrived in Hong Kong and I saw the domestic workers on a Sunday having the picnics, that struck me as an outsized level of curiosity as an outsider, and no one local considered this weird. But it was so abnormal for me that when I found an art piece that was speaking to it, I connected to that art piece — that art piece spoke to my experience, so I needed to explain the context of that by showing myself as a character going through that. That became something that had to go in the film.
It was the same way with the protests. There was art that was dealing with the political climate and environment in Hong Kong, which gave me license to talk about it and I took my cues from the art world in that way, so if the artists felt it was important, like if Trevor was talking about the plant life and the organic juxtaposition of urban and natural, untamed wilderness, that gave me license to cut to shots of the trees moving and juxtapose my urban experience with the greenery. So I always tried to take my cues from the art world because that ultimately I thought was my greater purpose.
As more people came onto the production such as Carlos and the producer Sarah Winshall, was there something you couldn’t see about your own experience that you discovered about it?
This entire process has been such a discovery. And it’s funny. In most of my professional life, I work as a producer, it’s been so weird wearing the filmmaker hat because I’m caught between several loyalties and in some ways, I feel willfully blind to the thing in front of me because the job requires it. [This has] given me so much more sympathy to all the directors I’ve worked with, like “Oh I get it now.” It’s hard to do both and [the different roles are] in conflict where like, “I want this one thing as a filmmaker” and as a producer, you’re like “That doesn’t happen unless we do these things…” I hear myself saying things where another part of me is like, “Really?”
How did the voiceover guide the edit?
Alice [the robot voice] was a great collaborator. Originally when I was building the assembly of the movie, I was working in a shared office space and it just was not an environment where I could endlessly record spoken voiceover [because it] requires the room to be quiet and it’s such a repetitive and exhausting process to get the sound right and I’m weirdly particular about these kind of things. So I found this text to speech program where I could type it in online, download an mp3 and insert it [into the film] as a temp voiceover. But I got good at speaking robot – learning to write phonetically, so she would pronounce a certain way, adding spaces or dashes— and it got to be really fun to build out her timing so it could amuse me. Like if [Alice] held an extra beat on a line and then came in with this robotic voice, it started to dialogue with the video in a way that I not only got used to, but I learned to build her into the process.
When Carlos and I started the actual edit, we started the conversation, “Do we replace her? Do we not?” But [Alice] became organically part of the voice of the movie, mostly because it was such a perfect encapsulation of the feeling of being out of your element. One of the things I experienced living in Hong Kong for a year is that in so many ways, it is a very familiar city. It functions like any other urban environment. It has an excellent transportation system. It’s easy to navigate. It’s got a well-worn ex-pat community, so I didn’t even feel like that much of an outsider. I just felt like I was in unfamiliar space. So the subtle differences [are things like] what way is the car coming? Am I looking in the right direction when I run across the street? What is the sound of the crosswalk signal? What is the sound of the ambulance going by? One of my favorite Hong Kong moments is when you go into the subway — it’s very handicap accessible — so they have a raised walkway that’s basically braille for your feet. It guides you to a music box that has a braille map of the subway station and this music box just plays everywhere you go. It’s this totally silent thing that no one in Hong Kong recognizes, but as an outsider, you hear those things, and in a destabilized environment [for me personally], the voice allowed us to represent the outsider/insider dynamic where it feels like you were not on firm ground because it did not feel like a human, but it had a warmth to it despite being a very cold voice. I cannot think of another way to take what I felt about being an outsider in Hong Kong and let me share that with an audience in a way that was unexpected, but achieved the result.