Tekst (smal)

IFFR Harbour: The Waste Land by Chris Teerink

Interview by Nick Cunningham

The Dutch filmmaker takes on one of the undoubted masterpieces of 20th Century literature in his latest creative documentary, world-premiering in Rotterdam.

Still: The Waste Land - Chris Teerink

It is just over 100 years since T.S. Eliot’s seminal poem The Waste Land was published. It is a work that has taken on mythical status over this period. Some see it as visionary, others as impenetrable and overly packed with obscure literary allusions and lines written in Latin, German, Italian and Sanskrit. For other readers it is a blank canvas upon which they can continually reflect on the world, whether in emotional, economic, scientific or environmental terms.

Dutch director Teerink admits that, like many before him, when he finally sat down to read The Waste Land he found it difficult and to some extent indecipherable. Nevertheless the poem had a deeply haunting quality. “It stayed with me,” he tells See NL, and therefore decided to make a film about the work.

His approach would be very particular, focussing on the theme of uncertainty that runs through the work, both in terms of Eliot’s verse and the impression it leaves on the reader. 

“You don't know what it is you have actually read,” the filmmaker says. “It's like being on a carpet that's constantly pulled from underneath you. That feeling, that sensation, that was the real meaning of the poem for me, and became the focus of the film.”

“In a world where uncertainty is only getting greater, we need to learn how to live with that and how to determine an attitude towards that. And that was the thing that the poem had to tell me. So yes, there are all these different aspects and different languages and references and allusions, but this was the main thing, that this world is all about uncertainty and this fragmented existence.”

2022 saw the 100th anniversary of the poem’s publication. Teerink had finance in place for the film by 2019 and had begun shooting in 2020. But then Covid struck, therefore scuppering all possibility of a 2022 release, but the film is now complete and world-premieres at IFFR in the Harbour section.

The director gathers an impressive array of speakers who discuss Eliot’s poem from their own perspectives, from economist Guy Standing to sociologist/urbanist Richard Sennett, from critic and poet Roz Kaveney to opera director Tatjana Gürbaca. Referencing the poem’s profusion of languages, Dutch novelist and poet Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer intones wisely, how “if everyday language is inadequate, we may need to change the language.” Imagining the wasteland that our planet may one day become, an unnamed artist foresees the survival of the human species, but within a future characterised by Mad Max mayhem and folk living in highly protected gated communities.

All of the contributors read lines from the poem, as does Eliot himself, accompanied by images of the original manuscript, replete with annotations and corrections. 

“I really wanted to make a film about the poem, not the poet, but it's good to have a sense of the person who actually wrote it,” says Teerink, adding how the notated manuscript marks “one point in time, proving there was a person who actually sat down and wrote this. And to hear his voice, it's fascinating in its own way. It's a nice contrast with the different ways that people read it.”

Another contributor is a random stranger who was taking photographs of empty parking lots outside the house where Eliot was born in St Louis (US). When he is told about the revered poet’s connection to the building he is very surprised but, even more surprisingly, quotes from the poem and refers specifically to Dante’s influence on it.

Teerink was always a huge fan and admirer of experimental filmmaker Chris Marker, especially his Sans Soleil which opens with a line from Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday. Indeed it was this quote that “made me curious about Eliot,” says Teerink. Furthermore, while he argues that his film bears little visual resemblance to Sans Soleil (in essence it is more like La Jetée with its creative use of still images), he was nevertheless fascinated by Marker “taking the liberty to combine everything with everything, and go from one place to the next [The Waste Land spans 10 countries].”

“And not to worry too much about what other people within film school are being taught about following a dramatic line of development. Sans Soleil shows you that that's not always necessary. In that sense, Marker was a huge influence,” Teerink ends.

The Waste Land** is produced by and sales are handled by Doc.Eye Film.

IFFR takes place on January 25 - February 4, find the Dutch line-up here. Or discover IFFR on https://iffr.com/en.


*Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund
**Film is supported by the Production Incentive

Director: Chris Teerink
Festival: IFFR