Norwegian Erik Poppe started his career as a photojournalist, covering war zones in several different countries before deciding to direct films. Many elements in his latest feature, A Thousand Times Good Night, the story of a photojournalist torn between career and family, are autobiographical (he admits that some lines in the movie came from his own children). He recently took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about the personal life experiences that lead him to create A Thousand Times Good Night.
What elements in your childhood and early years pointed you toward film and photography? Toward documenting human pain and tragedy?
For me, covering conflict was a personal form of protest and a need to test my own courage. I’ve always been interested in photography and conflicts abroad. I was raised in Portugal during the dictatorship in the sixties and have been fascinated by conflicts and the topic of refugees since.
At the same time, it was the intoxication of knowing to what extent I was able to control my own fear.
I also feared the flat, bland life people lead at home, and so off I went, again and again, heading for new places, new conflicts.
What is it about your character and background that made it possible for you to direct a film like A Thousand Times Good Night?
My early career as a print and photographic journalist came to an end in the mid-eighties when I was a war photographer in various parts of the world. This was a life I myself had chosen, and it was one I was always eager to go back to.
All the trips I made, all the assignments I undertook, were fueled by a desire to draw people’s attention to what war is and to increase their understanding of it.
I was captivated by the notion of using the camera to show people the ??nitty gritty” of life. On numerous occasions, I represented the only voice the victims had.
I wanted to tell my readers all over the world. ??This is what you should be concerned about. This is what you should be enaged with.”
I wanted to get people by the throat on a Saturday morning when they saw my pictures on the front page.
I thought of my camera not only as a witness, but as a mighty weapon in the struggle for our common humanity, and as providing testimony of a greater truth. To an outsider, it can seem foolish to move around in a war zone armed only with a camera when everyone else has guns. But oddly enough, I felt safe behind my camera despite all this.
The first weeks after I got back to Norway were always an enormous challenge. I saw sheltered lives and spoiled individuals everywhere, and it riled me. It was a sheltered, rosy vision of life that was a constant reminder that my job had been in vain, or wasn’t yet done. I wanted to go back in order to take even stronger pictures and scream to the rafters with my camera, to wake up from the doze here in Norway, or wherever the hell you are. Part of the world is in flames right now, and these people are being ripped to shreds! Finally, I crashed and burned.
Too late, I realised that this life exacts a price. In my case, it wasn’t first and foremost post-traumatic stress disorder that floored me, but a virulent infection I’d contracted that put me in Ullevål Hospital. In quarantine, I had time to think through the past few years. I had an awakening, but it came too late.
I had a strong relationship with the woman with whom I shared my life, but it couldn’t sustain the choices I’d made. I loved this person very much, but my ego was bigger than my love. Fortunately, we didn’t have children, but even though we were grown up people, the wounds were raw and open.
(To be continued.)
Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.