Famed performance artist Ulay moved from Amsterdam to Ljubljana in 2009. That same year, he met Slovenian director Damjan Kozole (Spare Parts, Slovenian Girl) and the pair talked about making a film together.
The film became a different sort of story because when Ulay was diagnosed with cancer. The resulting feature documentary, Project Cancer, shows Ulay battling cancer as well as doing a “farewell journey” around the globe to see friends. “I remember he called me and said, ‘There’s no sense to make this film, it will be a short film, I’ve got cancer,” the director recalled yesterday at the Motovun Film Festival in Croatia. “But I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ He said, ‘I want to save my life now, I don’t want to make films now.’”
Ulay said he is glad that Kozole pushed ahead. “Damjan is a tough guy, he knows what he wants. I was suffering from cancer, now I have a director on top of it,” he recalled with a smile. “He had a lot of trust in me…right from the beginning of the film Damjan gave me more or less carte blanche. It was a very pleasant collaboration from the beginning.”
The pair agreed from the outset they would shoot scenes only once. As Ulay quipped: “I became a body art performance artist because I’m a bad actor.”
With long-time collaborator Marina Abramovic, Ulay was a pioneer of body art. So did he see a connection between pushing his healthy body and healing his sick body? “Pain has never been a condition you can demonstrate….With Abramovic and myself, the rule was we would stop the moment it would feel like it’s looking painful. That was not the message at all.”
Project Cancer became a kind of healing tool. Kozole said: “It was a kind of film therapy and I’m glad it worked.” He added: “I’m happy in the end that our film was a long film not a short film…I hope we capture part of the spirit of Ulay.”
Ulay, who brings some “laconic” humour to the screen, said: “The film brought my attention away from this terminal cancer ordeal.”
Of course, it’s not just filming that has him in recovery: “I did a lot of self help…you have to deal with it.” He pursued Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathic treatments, acupuncture, biogenetics and changing his eating habits. Mediation was also key for him, hours a day, focusing on an “unbelievably beautiful” image of a healthy neuron cell.
But some old habits remain: “I didn’t stop smoking and drinking,” he said with a smile, sipping a glass of Istrian red wine in Motovun, where the film played in the festival’s Life is a Performance strand.
While in Motovun, Ulay also did a performance piece entitled “Increased film temperatures” that manipulated films on the big screen.