Gary Tarn & Hugues de Montalembert: The Assassinated Light

interviewed by Jonathan Marlow, 21-February-2007

Arguably the most unconventional documentary to air on television this year, Black Sun uses a series of remarkable audio interviews as a foundation for distinct ways of seeing the world around us. The film has played numerous festivals to much acclaim since its 2005 debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. Viewers tuning in to the program (Cinemax, 28-February, 7:00pm ET/PT ) relatively unawares will be rewarded with a thought-provoking and innovative account of overcoming adversity.

In 1978, painter/filmmaker Hugues de Montalembert was attacked when returning to his New York apartment. During the resulting struggle, one of de Montalembert attackers threw paint thinner into his face, permanently blinding him. Unwilling to be undone by this life-changing experience, de Montalembert traveled to Bali alone the following year. He wrote about these experiences in the celebrated book, La Lumière Assassinée (known in North America and the United Kingdom as Eclipse).

While others have noted the work of Chris Marker as an apt reference point, director/composer Gary Tarn uses the interplay of images and sound to different ends. He succeeds in a better understanding of his subject than traditional documentary techniques alone could convey.


Using Hugues de Montalembert's Eclipse as a starting point, Black Sun expands on your usual expectations of a documentary film, both in its approach and its construction. It deviates greatly from customary aspects of narrative filmmaking. Does the film owe much to your initial reading of the book?

Tarn: Eclipse was written a couple of years after the attack and it's really about his process for those first couple of years. The film, made twenty-five years later, is about a very different period of time and has a much more philosophical edge to it. I certainly agree that it's not a traditional documentary but it was never my intention [to make a typical documentary]. The idea was to see what you could do within the documentary context and what I could do to push the medium a little bit.

de Montalembert: Eclipse is a story and the film, Black Sun, is not a story. That is an enormous difference. It is a meditation, a reflection, an illustration of thinking. It is like a Ping Pong game played between somebody who talks and somebody who visualizes what he's talking about. Gary had total freedom. I didn't have anything to do with the visualization. I am only responsible for the words.

The audio recordings predate the period when you were traveling and filming the images. I presume that you used these words as a guide for your photography?

Tarn: The text that you hear in the film was carved and edited out of a couple of interviews that we did when we first started [in 1999]. When I met Hugues, we started recording interviews quite quickly, just as you and I are talking now. Just the two of us in an apartment; in a very casual, relaxed environment. Once I had a few hours of talk, I took those transcribed interviews and went off and started shooting.

de Montalembert: I must correct something. I don't talk about that subject in a casual way. I write my words in my head. Gary may think it was casual but, for me, the subject is never casual. It is fully formed in my head as a result of hundreds of hours of meditation and thinking. If you are attentive, you can tell this in Black Sun. It is not like a conversation in a cafe. I cannot talk about it in that way.

As a filmmaker, you refrained from representation as much as possible. You interpret the area around the dialogue without creating a direct visual representation...

Tarn: There really is no point in doing that. That seems to be telling the same story twice. I don't know why people do it.

Neither do I.

Tarn: On occasion, if I can bare to, I watch documentaries on TV and I think, "What is the point of this? This would work better on the radio." I don't get it. If someone is talking about a shipwreck and I'm seeing dodgy images of a shipwreck that don't even look as good as a second rate movie, what's the point? Show me someone leafing through a book of beautiful 18th century boats while you're talking about it. Find some other way of attacking the story. I think the viewing audiences of a lot of television is given a lot less credit than it deserves. I think that people are not quite as stupid as broadcasters believe them to be.

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