The filmmaker reveals the challenge of making her debut feture.

History's Future

“It was certainly challenging,” artist and filmmaker Fiona Tan reflects on the struggle to maintain her own distinctive voice while working with a big crew and a host of different funders on her immensely ambitious debut feature History’s Future, a world premiere in Rotterdam’s Tiger Competition.

“I did somehow manage to maintain my normal practice, exhibiting and making new pieces.”

Tan adds that she doesn’t see “a strict divide” between the movie and her exhibition work. “There is quite a lot of overlap. There was an exhibition I made last year whit was actually dealing with a lot of the same thoughts and I actually filmed in the exhibition in the feature.”

What Tan (who was a co-producer on History’s Future) did find taxing “and not so much fun” was the whole “getting the funding together thing.”

History’s Future starts with a man (Mark O’Halloran) losing his memory after being beaten up. His condition puts him at risk - he becomes a missing person, “MP” - but also enables him to look at the world around him in a very fresh and offbeat way. As he travels across Europe, his predicament seems to mirror the seething social and political uncertainty around him. Tan includes documentary elements. There are interviews in which real characters are asked about their hopes and fears.

The director suggests “that some of the documentary scenes are so much weirder than the fictional scenes” that she doubts whether audiences will be able to tell between the two. Viewers are thus put in a similar position to that of the protagonist, who is struggling to make sense of the world around him.

There is one eerily comic scene early on in which “MP” wanders into the wrong house and sits watching TV with the neighbours’ kids, unaware that he’s not in his own home.

“Actually, that came from something I did, a bit embarrassing really. I live in a street in Amsterdam which is a very nice street but all the doors are exactly the same…I had been out to a party and I came back late one night. I was having trouble opening the door and suddenly I realised I was trying to open the neighbour’s door.” She adds that the scene is also a reflection on Dutch architecture. “Everyone is supposed to fit in also, into the same box.”

One of the sparks for the movie came from when Tan was in Venice in 2008. “I had just been asked to do the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale the year after. I was sitting in the hotel room with the curator who had just flown in from New York, watching CNN and waiting to see whether Lehman Brothers was going to collapse,” she recalls. “I really did become quite obsessed with that whole situation. It took me a few years to realise it was a rolling catastrophe.”

Tan steeped herself in the work of historians and sociologists like Rosalind Williams and Zygmunt Bauman.

“What I also realised is that was sociologist and historians do is to figure out narratives. They tell stories. As an artist, I’ve become increasingly interested in the narrative which is why I guess I ended up making a film.” Tan was also fascinated by how people make sense of their lives by creating “a narrative self,” seeing themselves as characters in an ongoing story.

The director was full of admiration for her actors. O’Halloran had an innocence and charm that appealed to her. “But he also has the ability to be quite changeable. You get the sense of this person trying on personas like trying on a coat.” She was similarly impressed by French actor Denis Lavant (best known for his work with Leos Carax) as the “blind” lottery ticket seller. 

“I became very curious about how it is to work with actors. I love it. I think it is amazing what they do. They’re such brave people. I have a huge respect for them.”

Future History was shot in multiple locations - in many different countries. Tan filmed parts of it herself with a skeleton crew. The movie was an exhausting process. “Well, I felt a bit guilty toward my family. My children and my partner has to do without me for quite a while but I am pretty good at being organised. I’m quite used to having to juggle more than one project at once. I had a fantastic line producer and so she saved me. I somehow managed to pull it all off.”

Having made one feature, Tan is already hard at work on another. She won’t say much about it other than to say that she is editing it and the working title is Ascent and that “it is again a very experimental piece wavering between fiction and documentary.”