Her films defy categorization. Instead of fitting into any one genre, Elida Schogt's films are a synthesis of the documentary, the narrative and other experimental elements - in fact they are almost meditative in nature. Her latest feature documentary, 'Zero: The Inside Story', was premiered at the recently-concluded Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and both its screenings were sold out.
With descriptions as varied as "a visual poem", "an essay", and "a documentary", 'Zero' reflects on the larger questions of life. Schogt, who is in her 30s, delves into a mathematical concept and weaves it into human consciousness. The film confronts our fear of voids and hidden demons through the narrator who excavates her own fears while researching the history of the zero. This film, like her previous ones, has a personal ring to it. "All of my films are inspired by personal experiences; but ultimately, I'm interested in exploring subjects that are of universal interest," says Schogt, who is based in Toronto.
Regarding the weaving of the narrator's personal journey (a rape victim who is attempting to define her identity) in the film, Schogt says there is a parallel between how zero represents emptiness and the void, and how the film's character feels emptiness. "The other parallel is the fact that the West is so afraid of facing emptiness, just as this woman is afraid of facing her secret. It is actually something that is within the emptiness. And you could say that the West is afraid of not so much the emptiness but what lies within it - the unknown."
A film is a vehicle through which we end up expressing ourselves back and forth, she says. "The work has to have a personal starting point but then I am always interested in finding larger thematic connections." The idea for 'Zero' came after reading the reviews of two books published on the subject (zero). One, she says, seemed to focus on the space inside the ring and the other focused on the space outside. That, according to her was an interesting conceptual starting point or a metaphor for an exploration of the inner world and how a person connects with the outside world.
When Schogt began her film journey, turning the lens inwards, the result was a trilogy on the Holocaust. Schogt's Jewish grandparents were killed in Auschwitz and her mother (who was sheltered by friends) had to conceal her Jewish identity.
Says Schogt, "The Holocaust films were about family issues, my own family history, but I placed them in the context of the analytical, scientific way in which Nazis dealt with killing in the first film. The second was about photographs and how we tell stories. I was comparing oral history with personal history and the last one was more about archives and collecting memories."
The films that form the trilogy - 'Zyklon Portrait' (1999), 'The Walnut Tree' (2000) and 'Silent Song' (2001) have been screened around the globe, garnering numerous awards. For her debut film ('Zyklon Portrait'), Schogt was awarded The Grand Prize at the Bilbao International Festival of Documentary & Short Films, and Special Mention for Best Independent Canadian Film of Hot Docs (at the Canadian International Documentary Festival).
It's hard to imagine that Schogt's foray into the film world began not with a camera but with account books! During a one-year stint as Executive Director of Images (a festival of independent film and video) in Toronto, she was surrounded by artists and saw "experimental expressions for first time". For someone who thought that the only cinematic expressions were the huge, glamour-rich films churned out by Hollywood, the festival made a deep impact. A smile creases her face as she says, "I was always interested in foreign films but didn't know you could do things on a much smaller scale till I saw the short films at the festival."
Such was the impact that she ended up raising funds for her first film. Although she did have "ambitions" for it and wanted to take it to major festivals, the overwhelming response and awards that came its way surprised her. The response made her think: "May be I should be doing this for a living."
That was in 1999. She made her second and third film in the next two consecutive years. In the meantime, she also enrolled for a Masters program in Media Studies at New School for Social Research in New York, where she studied film production and theory. The reason she opted to go there was because "they let you find your own way of expressing yourself rather than following some industry models. I wanted to go to a place that was more alternative. I liked the idea of doing theoretical courses, research and working on films."
Continuing her attempt to straddle different genres, Schogt's next project is a synthesis of sculpture and film. Conceived for an art gallery, the project will look specifically at ideas of scale (large and small) through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl. And what she seeks to portray is that "things are small and precious but are also large and overwhelming." This project, categorized as Installation Art, will use sculpture and video projections together to portray an idea. "It is usually a short film, much more abstract than a narrative film that you see unfolding. It could be a five or 10 minute piece that plays over and over and runs as people walk in and out of gallery," she says.
She is also working on another film, a tale of two cities - Berlin and Brazilia (Brazil's capital). "One has a turbulent history and the other is a city that was built as a Utopia without a past, a new capital of Brazil." Like her previous endeavors, this is also expected to defy simple categorization. "I like the idea that you can't slot my work," is her parting shot.