"Until the Light Takes Us," a new documentary by Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites, tells the origin story of black metal without getting involved with that annoying musical stuff. Instead, it focuses on the two main pioneers of the genre, Gylve "Fenriz" "Nagell" and Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes, and lets them explain their social and political reasons for creating this unique and highly controversial scene. While the violence, church burnings, and occasional murders associated with black metal were real (Vikeres is serving a 21-year sentence for fatally stabbing a fellow musician), the media made up the motivation. Satan was not involved at all. Although paganism (the original Norwegian religion) was part of it, the crimes had more to do with cultural imperialism than anything secular. Apparently, Satan gets a lot of undeserved credit for the world's mistakes.
To get a peek at the truth behind the scenes, Ewell and Aites moved to Norway for two years and completely immersed themselves in black metal. The result is a film as raw and gritty as the music that inspired it. Jessica Baxter of Film Threat spoke to the pair about their inspirations, the arduous process of making documentaries and why these Norwegians are so upset.
How did the two of you start working together?
AUDREY: We were developing a feature film when we decided to make this documentary. The documentary came about because we live in San Francisco and a good friend of ours has a record store called Aquarius Records. And he knows we're very into experimental and lo-fi stuff like The Dead Sea, if you know it, or Throbbing Gristle or a bunch of other stuff. But it's not really metal. So he basically sat us down and had us listen and we kind of fell in love with the song and started researching it just out of curiosity. Naturally, this led us to assume that someone would have made a documentary about it. And there was no one. So that was the trigger for the idea of doing it yourself.
Did you make documentaries before that?
AUDREY: That was our first... and last documentary.
AARON: Yeah, none of us have worked in documentaries before. Basically, we only made narrative films. This is my first job as a director, but I've done all sorts of teamwork on many narrative films. And I directed some videos.
AUDREY: And before that I was working on a romantic comedy. So the documentary was something that came out of that idea. And I think it was our naivety about the documentation process that made us think we could do it because it took so long. I mean, we shot for two years and came back with hundreds of hours of footage, so it was actually a much longer and more complicated process than we ever imagined before we left.
Who was the target audience for this film? Did you take conscious steps to make the film accessible to an uninitiated audience?
AUDREY: The film is not for the fans, although we know the fans will see it and enjoy it. The film is not...despite dealing with a music scene...it is not a rock documentary and that is an expectation that many people bring to see it that is changing rapidly. For one thing, there are no concert shots in the film. It's really a portrait of a group of people who, while they've been involved in the music scene... and that's what brings them together... it's really about what's going on with that particular group of people at that particular time and what's happening in that country at in particular, who are reacting to global pressure and also embracing all violence. And it's very much about the music scene in the sense that in the film you play the two main characters, Varg Vikernes and Gylve a.k.a. "Fenriz" Nagell from the two bands Burzum and Darkthrone. And by telling their two stories and their intertwined stories, we're able to tell the larger black metal story. Because Gylve was the guy who released the first black metal album... and he was never involved in crime and he was very fond of making anti-commercial and non-commoditizable music, which for him was very much like a work of art. On the other hand, his once best friend, Varg Vikernes, was deeply involved in an ideological struggle with the world. So by showing their different paths and the consequences of the actions of one and how it affected both, we can tell the larger story of black metal. So it's not really a rock documentary.
AARON: But to answer your question, it's for... I mean, you certainly don't need to know anything about black metal before you see the film, and I think the film will appeal to fans of black art films... Definitely, everyone watching is guaranteed to understand the story.
Who influenced you in making this film?
AUDREY: Actually, we're not generally fans of documentaries. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of documentaries I really like. Someone who you would say has some kind of influence on us is Chris Marker. I particularly like what he does with the documentary form. Sans Soleil is one of my favorite movies. I wouldn't necessarily call it a documentary. But I like the idea of the film essay. It really comes from him. And in terms of our cinematic influences, we really like French and Italian New Wave material from the 70s. [Michelangelo] Antonioni is one of my favorite directors.
AARON: [Jean-Luc] Godard.
AUDREY: Yeah...we like [Lars] Von Trier and the kind of stuff he does.
Aaron: David Lynch.
AARON: I would say maybe Chris Marker... even before we went out there and built the whole movie on paper, Chris Marker was an inspiration to us. I don't think the movie will come out like Chris Marker, but...
AUDREY: No, I don't think so.
AARON: ...but we really thought about it and tried to use it as inspiration.
AUDREY: When we were editing... one thing we thought about structurally was "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" because it mixes two different time periods and two different stories. That's one thing that was done really well in this movie. And therefore there are not many examples of such films. So that was one that came to mind, but I wouldn't necessarily say we really got a lot out of it.
The film has a gritty look that somewhat emulates the lo-fi quality of black metal. How did you decide on the look of the film?
AUDREY: Oh, that was something we knew we were getting into. Or maybe I'll let Aaron take this because I'm babbling around...
AARON: We decided that the style of the film would emulate the visual aesthetic of early black metal records. And it went so far as not only did we shoot the dark lo-fi stuff, but we also did a lot of the 35 [mm] exterior shots and the shots for the interviews. And a lot of those records will have these beautiful images of the Norwegian countryside, or these really lo-fi, almost copyable images of themselves, and we decided that would be a good way to have the aesthetic of the film. The first thing we did when we went there was just test different cameras and stuff and try to get the look we wanted.
When did you decide it was necessary to move to Norway to make the film?
AUDREY: From the beginning. I mean, it just wouldn't have been possible to make this movie about a very closed scene without actually going to live there and developing trusting relationships with the musicians. It simply would not have been possible otherwise.
AARON: Basically, the musicians are the only ones who speak in the movie. There's no narrative or anything like that, so we really had to get to know them to get what we needed for the movie.
AUDREY: Yes... and that was very important for the style of the film that we wanted to make. I CANNOT watch any documentaries with commentary. It's so irritating to me. So we knew from the beginning that this had to be part of the methodology.
Did you have a two year schedule or did you just keep shooting until you felt you were done?
ARON: No, no, no. Little did we know it would take two years. We may have thought twice before actually doing it. But um, that's how it happened. We thought it would be a quicker process than it turned out to be... Again, we've never worked on a document before, so the question arose: 'when should we stop?' [Laughs] Do we have everything we need?” And even when we came out after two years, we thought, "Well, maybe we'll have to go back there and get something...", but we had three hundred and fifty hours of footage, so there were absolutely no problems, our ninety-three minute movie at least that we got.
AUDREY: Part of the problem was that the musicians lived in different cities in Norway, so you had to spend a certain amount of time in each important place to really build that level of trust. So that... really was more than anything that took the time. And also there are so many things in a documentary that you can't control, like people just not showing up for the scheduled interview... So yeah... it was a long process and we didn't think it was going to work out. be so long.
How did you approach the musicians in the film? Did you have any problems getting her to act in the movie?
AARON: We tackled each one individually, starting with Gylve and Varg, the two main characters in the film. We went in there knowing that we had to have them as the two main characters to make the movie we wanted. So we just approached them... We met Gylve through his record label and hit it off right away. And he really wanted to make the movie and he told us, 'You can shoot whatever you want. Film as much as you like. Display everything you need on the screen to get what you want. I'm never going to see the movie, so don't worry about it." So that was the best scenario you could imagine.
AUDREY: I think one thing that really helped when we approached them was that we weren't really metalheads or even metal fans. I guess letting them know this was going to be a more serious documentary and not some kind of memorabilia or anything... And they also really appreciated that we warned them that we weren't going to bring in experts to do the analysis of the scene or put some kind of outside perspective. in it. That's another thing that drives me crazy about a documentary. I mean, I don't like a lot of documentaries. I don't like it that particular way... unless I'm watching something on the history channel... It's just not very interesting to me personally. So that wasn't the kind of movie we wanted to make. And because they had all those things in the early '90s that the media circulated with these pretty fabricated reports of them as Satanists and, you know, all these crazy things that were reported about them that weren't true, they really liked that aspect that there would be no outsiders who would force any crazy ideas about the scene on them in the movie. So I think that helped too.
AARON: Going back to your first question, if you can say that the audience we made the movie for was just ourselves.
AARON: But I hope other people will too.
AUDREY: Umm... but Varg was really a very different case from everyone else. He's in prison and he was incredibly reluctant to do the movie. It took eight months of correspondence with him before he even agreed to meet with us.
AARON: ...while we were filming.
AUDREY: ...And at any point we were willing to stop the movie and go home and just move on to something else if we didn't have his input because we felt like he was doing it because the story we were trying to tell was important. Eventually he agreed to meet and Aaron flew to Tromsø where he was in prison and met with him. And at that point he agreed to act in the film. And at that point he also agreed to just see it through and be very forgiving. So, we were really lucky to get him to play in the end.
Was it difficult to gain their trust as Americans, as they directed so much of their general anger at American culture?
AUDREY: Oh, um... well, you know, it's an interesting thing. There's a point in the movie where Gylve says... where he's talking about the Norwegian personality and how they're not very close. And I have to say... it's a much more reserved culture. Even before we Americans came to make a film about black metal, I think there would be more difficulties. They hold things close to their chests. So there was an obstacle to be overcome. And, you know, there's a huge hurdle to overcome when someone puts a camera in front of your face and says, "Tell me about your crazy story that made the front pages and caused so much buzz in the past." it was a lot to overcome. Whether we are American or not, I would say no. But I can't say for sure. We know that they had occasional meetings about us, where they would talk about us and discuss whether or not they should make the film. One of them told us that this happened during filming. [laughs]
AARON: Yeah, apparently we had lobbyists on the scene both for and against us.
Why do you think black metal is so specific to Norway as opposed to other countries that have gone through a similar American capitalist invasion?
AUDREY: Well, the first thing I should point out is that Norway is much more Americanized than other places in Europe. We have traveled a lot in Europe and I have to say that the number of American companies scattered across the country is really much more. And I didn't really realize this until I've traveled extensively in Europe, but there are McDonalds and 7-11s and American TV is the norm and it's all in English. They don't dub in their own language. And the movies are in English. It's really... there's a shocking amount of Americanization in Norway. That's one factor, I think, that there's a lot of it. Also, there are a few different things. One is that Norway is not a member of the EU. They kept their own currency and stayed out of it. They have a bubble economy. you have oil And so they don't have to be so financially connected to Europe or the rest of the world. And that, I think, kept them a little more culturally closed off. So I think at the same time as this massive invasion of global culture is coming, you can really tell the difference. It's very present.
AARON: I would say that since the Norwegian black metal scene started, black metal has spread to many countries. Basically every country in the whole of Europe. I think because it started in Norway maybe it was the influence of American culture. What's happening now, when these boys were kids.
AUDREY: And we also started looking at it in a postmodern sense and the idea of loss of a narrative and people trying to find a thread that connects them to their own past. And I think what happened here was mainly that. And a lot of that came through Varg Vikernes, who was the one who started a lot of the crimes, the church burnings... He kind of drew a symbolic and metaphorical line between cultural imperialism and the Americanization that was then taking place and traced that lineage back to 900 AD when Christianity arrived in the country and changed the cultural landscape of the time. It was the last wave of cultural imperialism. And he drew a connection between the two things that no one immediately saw. And why should it be?
The musicians in the film talk about the political and religious reasons behind their movement, but not so much about the artistic influence. Do you know where the sound of Black Metal comes from?
AARON: Of course. And that also fuels the whole postmodern aspect, which I think is inherent in black metal. Their influences are bands like Venom and Bathory: bands that essentially recorded these low-fidelity albums. Not because they wanted to be like the Norwegian black metal scene, but out of necessity because they couldn't get a budget for a recording studio. They basically took a bunch of pretty obscure metal and kind of codified it and made it their own thing.
Audrey, since you identify as a fan, obviously there is a female Black Metal fan base. But there doesn't seem to be any female creative involvement in the scene. Why do you think this is?
AUDREY: Yes...Usually when we did a Q&A, someone in the audience would ask why there weren't any black metal bands with female members. And I wish there were. That would have been an interesting dynamic. But they just don't exist. It's quite common, not just in metal but also in rock, that there are far fewer women involved...
AARON: ...but then again...
AUDREY: On the other hand, a very attractive thing about black metal is that it's not misogynistic at all. You don't see half-naked women on record covers. They don't have misogyny in the lyrics. And to be honest, this is really refreshing. There's something about other forms of metal that I really can't stand. It's not... it just doesn't have that cheap quality. So while there are no women involved in black metal, there are no misogynists either.
So you said you're done with documentaries for good, but what are you working on next?
AARON: We have a feature film that we're working on. The working title is “The Living Day”. It's a thriller set in a Vermont woods community.
AUDREY: A modern commune...so it's about family and property and the strange little society that these people have created for themselves.
AARON: I guess you could say we like weird little parties.
AUDREY: Actually, we are. That's something we're really interested in, is people building their own societies and getting involved in what they create.