0K: Zero Killed and an interview with director Michal Kosakowski
Don't worry. No one dies in this article.
Sixteen years in the making, Zero Killed looks at the dark side in all of us -- the fascination with killing and death that, more than anything, points to the issues in our waking lives. Director Michal Kosakowski's work has long revolved around violence and the motivating issues beneath it. "Fortynine", the video art installation displayed in a mirrored room, was the precursor to the Zero Killed film that exposed people to 49 looping films showing very real-looking murders. From tortures to suicides, psychopathic one-on-one's to quick-and-clean poisonings. Shootings, "accidents," war crimes. As much as it sounds like TV news, these are the real fantasies of the main victim or perpetrator in each film, a living dark fantasy now made immortal thanks to the medium of film.
Michal Kosakowski is the prolific director of more than 70 films, a mix of shorts, documentaries, and original fiction. Often critiquing and interpreting the effects of media on the perception of human interactions and violence, his style is intelligent and disturbing. From a chalk outline exhibit to a collection of Hollywood film clips depicting the Twin Towers that "helped" in the public absorption of 9/11, Michal has long kept a close eye on how and why human beings act the way they do in the arena of violence.
Upon watching Zero Killed, I couldn't help but imagine whether the whole process was traumatic or cathartic, or some shadow in between for them. What does it mean to be murdered, or murder someone else on screen for any and all to see? And what does it mean that people will pay money to see such things?
Probably for the same reason you're reading this article, and the reason I just HAD to talk to Michal about it myself.
I had a great time talking to Michal about Zero Killed.
Celeste Ramos: This film stood out to me among the many excellent ones at the Raindance festival, particularly because it's one of the strangest concepts I've ever heard. So I'll start with the obvious question -- where did this idea come from and why did it take 16 years to make?
Michael Kosakowski: The idea was born in the year 1996 when I was already doing a lot of short films at that time, and mostly I was working with actors. Then I just tried to figure out some new ways of making it so I could involve normal people/amateurs into acting. It started out really just like a little fun. I had this need for something more hardcore, shocking people with werewolves and zombies wasn't enough to me, so maybe I could shock people with reality. And this was connected to my real life and what I saw in reality and violence. So I came up with the idea of like, are there normal people who have murder fantasies and killing fantasies, and would they play in a film about it? They put their hearts into the roles because it was their own fantasies. I offered them my skills as director to shape the film, and added dramaturgical structure.
It became a kind of obsession. I met more than 160 people around the world, who were interested in this question and idea, and almost none of them refused to participate in the project. They wanted the opportunity to do something else in their life. In the end, I also used actors who had their own fantasies. So it was 20% actors, 80% non-actors. I spent a lot of time with the participants because we couldn't just go, ok here is my idea and then start shooting. We had to talk a lot, we had to really get to know these people and how to translate their fear or rage into a film.
CR: What did the participants experience or learn about themselves by being a part of the project? And what did you learn as a director?
MK: The participants especially learned about themselves after seeing the finished films. Many people said they felt very free, or relieved, to have lived out their fantasy, and to have them on screen. So in a way they'd become "murderers" but in a very playful kind of way of course. Some of the people didn't have a clear idea for how to actually kill someone, so we developed scenarios together out of their greatest fears, and this of course took a lot of conversation and their trusting me, having them open their minds to me, in order to do that.
The interviews you see in the film were done 10 years later, in a way because of an accident. Once I finished the 49 short films in 2007, I made the exhibition "Fortynine" in a huge mirrored cube that you could enter. But it was such a large and expensive installation, and involved tons of steel, that we realized that we couldn't travel with this show. So I thought, why don't we just put all these killings together in a film and circulate that? But then it became a very voyeuristic string of murder films, and ended up doing the exact opposite of what I wanted it to do. In the installation, you had the "critique" there of the media via the screens, all reflected upon one another, and you also saw yourself in the mirrors. I got the idea to make a trailer to bring the films together, and I thought about what it would it be like to interview these people about their memories and the killings, and so on. Then the interviews became very interesting, because the conversations moved from their experience to talking about general violence in society. Violence in the media, politics, things like legalizing torture, what is good and evil to you, what would you do if someone hurt someone you loved, etc. It took me about 2 years to find everyone again, and cover questions about the films, and while the questions appear banal the answers were very interesting. But then I also learned that many of the fantasies people had seemed to be built right out of the things we see in the media every day.
CR: You mentioned the military definition behind your title, where it was a term used to mean that there were no casualties during a mission. I found it clever too that it abbreviates to 0K, or "okay," where in the context of this film points to a kind of socio-moral question: are murderous thoughts and fantasies okay to have? Are they a natural product of the human mind, and actually healthy? What makes us "okay" vs the people that do go out and commit deadly crimes?
MK: Well you know, there were more people interested in participating in the film than there were who turned it down. The people who participated opened their minds to me in a very deep way, and I think the people who refused to are probably the ones worth being scared of. People who are afraid of looking into their own abyss are the dangerous people. Like my friend, a horror director, put out a film and his mother saw it and she came to hate him because it's a very violent movie. She doesn't want to look into her own abyss. Many people don't understand violent and horror movies because they think the director who makes them must be the same way. It's exactly the opposite. It's good to look into this part of yourself, and to ask yourself where these thoughts come from. That's a question I kept looking at, where are these thoughts coming from.
Almost 90% of the people I talked to about this project, had idea that really just came from television. News, wars, TV series, movies, and other chronicles of things that people are doing to each other. So when you watch Zero Killed, the scenarios aren't "new," you've seen them before in films or TV. People say that now violence is happening more and more often when in fact things were just as violent in the 60s or 70s, for example, but you just didn't hear about it because the exchange of information was not as fast as it is today. Now you can watch live bombings and other things as they happen. So we become desensitized, we see a bomb go off in Iraq and we don't even give a shit anymore. It shows a kind of mental addition to violence; you see something violent, it's shocking, and the next one you see has to be a bit more shocking to shock you. And more, and more. So it keeps getting more intense.
CR: How does your message in Zero Killed and "Modern Wars" relate to the issue of social conditioning?
MK: All my recent works as of 1999 deal with reality in fiction, and how we define the two, and how easily they interchange. At Union Docs in New York I'm doing the "Modern Wars" presentation that will feature the shorts Holy War, Sleepers, Just Like the Movies, The Heart of It, and Deep Water Horizon. The presentation shows, through these films, how violence looks more and more like the films we are so familiar with, and vice versa. Many people when watching the images during 9/11 kept saying, wow, this is just like the movies. Through constantly seeing images of the towers and attacks around or near the towers in films, it's like people had already subconsciously framed and made familiar the scenario of a devastating attack. Via my work I want the viewer to ask themselves, how do I deal with these images -- the fictional and real ones. It's about really questioning yourself about what you've just seen.
Final thoughts: Watch Zero Killed. It'll make you question what really makes your heart and mind flip from love to hate. There's one woman's point in the interviews that I agreed with, when she said violence is an extension of low self-esteem. It's a disconnection between who we are as a human being, and what we do in the world. I feel that in an act of violence, there are so many forces at work. Internal and external forces can cause people to make some terrible decisions. But I think what tips the scales is whether or not certain levels of self-understanding and clear judgment are present.
Then there is of course the factor of the "killer within," the Shadow that lives in us all that, if not reigned in and kept in that secret, fantastic place most of us keep it in, can easily destroy everything. For me, an interesting question this film poses with regard to the Shadow is whether or not that Shadow is intrinsic to a human being in general, or, if it is intrinsic to a human being living in this modern age -- so many of our interpretations of and acts of violence often mirror each other and what we've seen on TV and the movies. Food for thought.
Zero Killed is showing at 92Y Tribeca on Halloween, as part of FlahertyNYC's look at "works that deal with the issues that have so effectively divided our nation." Check out the schedule here. (Note: due to Hurricane Sandy this may be cancelled or rescheduled. Please check with the venue.)
In connection with the theme of media and violence, literal and otherwise, Michal's other project, Modern Wars, will be at Union Docs on Friday, Nov. 2. Check out the schedule here. (Note: due to Hurricane Sandy this may be cancelled or rescheduled. Please check with the venue.)
For info, trailers, interviews, and more about Michal Kosakowski: Michal Kosakowski Films