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Two Poems by Jørgen Leth

Thursday, March 21, 2002

An Afternoon Poem For Lars


 The Five Obstructions

February 25, 2004

Dear Susan,
I am, as you know, in the middle of reporting chaos. Haiti seems to be falling apart. Therefore I have had no time to concentrate on writing a new essay for
FLM, but instead I suggest that they choose between two texts, already written.
One is a few paragraphs from a longer piece I wrote for the Rotterdam film festival (printed in Dutch translation) just a month ago:
Notebook as film, film as poem.
The other possibility is one or two poems that I wrote after the
Obstructions– conversations with Lars von Trier. That was something he asked me to do, as part of the deal. They have not been used yet, but will probably be part of my next collection of poetry.
Best regards,



When I am writing a book about the Tour de France, or when I write my memoirs of life, I make a list of items I need to cover, stories I don’t want to forget.

And then I choose to start with what I feel an appetite to write about. I write one chapter, then another one, I take from my list what inspires me at the moment.

I send my stories, or the chapters, as they are written, one after another to my editor. Finally the book is written. I mean there are enough letters, enough words. Enough volume.

Then I discuss with the editors, and they would maybe say that now we need to put some editorial touches to the writing, filling out, leading from one thing to another,
making it reasonable.

I don’t agree with that and I reject it. I tell my editor that the order of sequences is the order in which they received my stories. I don’t want to do any beautifying additional writing. I like the rawness, or, if you like, the authenticity of the way it was written. I like to celebrate the process itself.

And I tell them as an argument that this is also the way I prefer my films to be edited.

This of course is an approximate method. But with my films I know that my editor Camilla Skousen will respect that I don’t have a preferred storyline. She can do what she likes with the material. As long as it doesn’t become too rational, too reasonable.

I never tell her this scene is the opening scene. I prefer to see what she proposes. I prefer to wait for her to come up with something.

Then at one point I might step in and discuss certain elements to be put in other places.

It is a cardinal point that material is material. The process is nature or something like that. I don’t want this to sound religious. Because really, I just write, I just produce.

• • •

I always work with lists. When I work on a new film, I make a list of scenes I want to have. And when I view the rushes with my editor we each make our own list. I put stars, one-two-three, for preferences. Then I go to Haiti and leave her to do the job. Later she will send me a first cut, and I might accept it as the near-final cut immediately. Or I might tell her I need to have this and this scene because I like it too much to leave it out. She might think that it will be difficult to place it in the context, but she knows that she must try to make me happy.

I believe very much in my notebook. I take notes all the time when I am getting into a project. Sometimes I take notes for several projects simultaneously. Why is note taking important? Because you don’t want to forget what you have seen or what you have thought. I don’t trust my memory. I know a thing is there when it is there. I want to write it down. Plus I like the aesthetics of notes. I like the spartan way of writing down your ideas. Sometimes I can use this raw language as it is, in poems, or in films.

Notebooks are the most important tool for me. I teach the usefulness of note taking at film school. I show examples, how three words can be lifted out and used directly. Less is better than more.

There is more to it. I like notes because they represent unstructured material. They come as they come. They come out of nothing, out of moods—good or bad—they are points in blank space. They are absolutely born without storyline. That’s the beauty of notes. I like that notebooks seem loose, I take notes of things that are insignificant, and things which are more solid right there. I admired The Beach Boys for the looseness of their songs, suddenly fading out in murmurs and whispers, and then tightening in choral harmonics. They have been one of my idols. Another has been the composer John Cage who worked with silence punctuated by sudden sounds. I want my films to be like notebooks. To keep the spontaneity, the sudden changes, the contrasting textures.

• • •

Anyway, I learned everything from writing poetry. I like to say that my films learn from my poems.

The magical thing with writing poetry is that you simply start from the upper left corner with some word, and then continue down the page. I never know where it will lead me. If there is some hidden sense. It’s all surprise and exploration. When a poem is finished I don’t touch it again. This again is not a religious notion. It is simply that the poem seems finished right away.

I would like to transfer this way of working to films. That’s why I insist on reducing the technical complexities to a minimum. I want to be able to create right out in the blank space with no hold-back. I want it to be as simple as writing. There is nothing there, and then there is suddenly something.

It may be misleading to attribute all this to a mysterious belief in chance. What I really believe in is that I am here.

I have arranged a situation, I have put up the frames for something to happen. Then I will just wait for something to happen within this frame. I am very patient with time. I like to have time passing through the camera. And I like to wait for something to appear in a given space. Something to happen. I will wait for the moment.

Jacmel, Haiti 2004


In Lars von Trier's debut entry into the world of documentary, he challenges his hero and former teacher, veteran filmmaker Jørgen Leth, five times to remake Leth's 1967 cult short The Perfect Human, a film von Trier claims to have seen thirty times. For each remake, von Trier imposes a series of obstructions (some formal, some downright metaphysical) and discusses the outcome with Leth before sending him off to shoot the next version. Playing the part of a naïve anthropologist, Leth attempts to embrace the cunning challenges set forth by the devious and sneaky von Trier.