The Norwegian Black Metal scene counts as one of the few localized happenings in music history to truly infiltrate the international consciousness; like DC hardcore, Detroit techno, or Jamaican reggae, it was a case of a few influencing many. But no scene was ever as otherworldly, intense and downright misanthropic as that of Black Metal. Who would have thought that twenty years down the line, the pagan terrorism, Nietzschean philosophy and buzz-saw guitars that made the scene so infamous and at the time seemed so utterly rejecting would come to inform music, fashion and art so distinctly? Film-makers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s 2008 documentary ‘Until The Light Takes Us’, which Empire called “an expertly made, gripping, disturbing and fascinating film”, is the first to truly deal with the genre in a non-sensationalist way. Living in Norway for several years, the American couple gained unprecedented access to key figures in the original scene, most notably Gylve Nagell (‘Fenriz’ of Darkthrone) and Varg Vikernes (‘Count Grishnakh’ of Burzum). The film is especially notable for Vikernes’ participation. Perhaps the most notorious musician in the scene, in 1994 he was convicted of the murder of his Mayhem bandmate Øystein Aarseth, better known as Euronymous. Vikernes was convicted of four counts of arson after burning several historic churches, and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. Notoriously hermetic, he has just released new material for the first time in a decade under the Burzum moniker (new LP ‘Belus’), so their interview has even more resonance, especially thanks to his recent release on parole. I talked to Aaron and Audrey about their film, as well as the modern perception of Black Metal, its relevance, and their filmmaking experience in Norway:
NOUSE: The film doesn’t seem to give a judgement on the Norwegian black metal movement. Did you approach the subject as outsiders or from within the scene?
Aaron: No, we don’t pass judgement on it. It’s a little bit frustrating that in this day an age, the documentary film world is so completely dominated by Michael Moore and issues-based docs with clear editorial agendas, or docs that actually focus on the filmmakers themselves, that the entire idea of a documentary that doesn’t pass judgement on its subjects is baffling to a lot of people. Don’t get me wrong, I love Michael Moore and Audrey and I both are cut from the same political cloth that he is, but we are influenced as filmmakers by people like Chris Marker more than Michael Moore. We are trying to provoke thought, rather than guide opinions.
Audrey: I’d add that in addition to Marker, our influences run more to narrative filmmakers and style than documentarians. Antonioni, Von Trier, Kaurismaki, and several other narrative filmmakers have made much bigger impressions on us and on our style, so I think that our approach with this film was more influenced by a narrative sensibility. And a somewhat dark and oblique one at that, since that is what we like. We don’t shy away from dark subjects, nor do we pass judgement. Our film is a portrait, from and of, a secluded but very real world, not a treatise on whether or not it should exist.
Aaron: And we approached the story very much from the inside. Neither of us are what you’d call metal heads, but we lived there for two years and one of the goals of the film was to have the story told by the musicians themselves. Not by us, or by outsiders, or by “experts.”
NOUSE: Count Grishnakh of Burzum, real name Varg Vikernes, is almost a Charles Manson-type figure in Norway. How did you go about securing the interview and what was it like?
Aaron: It was difficult. We made the decision that Gylve and Varg had to be the central characters of the film before we even made our first trip to Norway. There’s simply no way around it. In our minds, a film about this subject that didn’t include the two of them wouldn’t be worth making and we were unwilling to make it without both of them. We wrote back and forth with him for about 8 months while we were in Norway filming (knowing that we were going to scrap the project and head home if we failed to secure his participation), and his response was that even if we made exactly the film that he himself would make, he still wouldn’t participate. But we kept writing, and eventually he agreed to meet with me so I flew to Trondheim and met with him. Once we were able to sit down together and I could answer all of his questions directly and explain what the film was going to be like, he agreed to participate. And once he did agree, he really threw himself into the project. I think you can tell from watching the film that he was very open. It wasn’t just one interview though. We filmed about 40 hours with Varg over the course of a year.
NOUSE: Fenriz of Darkthrone is perhaps the most ubiquitous person in the black metal world when it comes to talking about the actual music. What was his input into the film and did he seem to be in a different mindset to other characters in the scene, as he often interacts with the media in a more open way that black metal musicians are wont to do…
Aaron: Well, he has become fairly ubiquitous hasn’t he? Still, he’s a very private person, and he has never agreed to a project of this kind before. Gylve was fantastic to work with. Once he agreed to do the project, he told us to film whatever we wanted to and not to be afraid to put whatever we needed to up on the screen as he was never going to watch the film. We have tried to get him to watch it since it’s been released, but he still refuses. The people in the film are all individuals and are have very different mind sets. Although he is a central character of the film and of the scene, he didn’t really have any input on the film other than to let us film him. Nobody had any input on the film other than Audrey and I.
NOUSE: The film is much more focused on the landscape and culture of Norway than you would expect from a metal documentary, and your aesthetic choice was very different from the endless shots of headbanging we’ve come to expect from docs like ‘Heavy Metal Parking Lot’ and ‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey’…
Audrey: Well, that didn’t really come into it for us. We don’t really watch films like that. It’s not really part of our vocabulary. I mean, we saw HMPL, and it’s good, but it’s really just a different kind of movie altogether.
Aaron: We don’t consider the film to be a “metal documentary” or a “rockumentary.” It is a documentary film with one particular group of people as its focus.
Audrey: A portrait, in many ways. A portrait from the inside looking out. We wanted to reflect the world as seen through their eyes, because that’s a much more compelling vantage point. And so we needed to construct their world, and establishing the tone of it was so important. That’s why things like having Boards of Canada in the soundtrack works. Because it has that icy, displaced vibe.
NOUSE: You seem to focus more on the idea of black metal as an art form rather than its modern sensationalized manifestation. How has this point of view been accepted by the fans, a lot of whom seem to be more traditionally ‘heavy metal’ in outlook?
Audrey: Actually, that is not quite right. We focus on the ways in which the original scene has been recontextualized and changed through a process of mediation. First the newspapers reported on it as a Satanic movement, then kids read those reports and took it at face value and created that reality by forming “satanic black metal bands” and burning down churches “for Satan,” and then artists were inspired by that and did gallery and museum exhibits that brought it further into the unrecognizable. It’s really about the process of simulation and simulacra. Stop me if you’ve fallen asleep, but the idea of simulation and simulacra is a tenet of postmodern theory that says that if a thing is copied enough times and disseminated widely enough, the degraded and unrecognizable copy supplants the original and becomes the thing in question. And that is what we focus on. Because that is what see happening in the world, in all sorts of unexpected places. This was one very strong example of the process.
NOUSE: Did you ever sense that the counterculture in Norway still has the potential to ignite a similar chain of incidents when shooting the documentary?
Audrey: Definitely not. This movement started at a very specific time, at a time when globalization was really hitting Norway, with mostly American culture (if that’s what we’re calling McDonalds today) moving in and replacing indigenous culture. Some of the people in this scene equated this with cultural imperialism of Christianity coming in and destroying pagan sites and putting their churches on top of these holy sites. Now that globalization has come so far, it’s unlikely that this would happen again. It was a very specific confluence of the new world economy meeting an anti-commercial music scene that counted among its members anti-social people who took a historical perspective, in a fairly isolated nation that has a strong sense of national pride and a culture that includes concepts and artists like Kittelsen who work within the framework of “national romance.”
NOUSE: Why has it taken so long for the film to get the proper screening treatment in England?
Aaron: It has been a bit of a struggle for us to secure release of the film around the world because, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, film distribution companies don’t think people want to see the film. I think many of them were expecting (or wanting) the film to be a shocking expose or something that focused on us.
Audrey: Well, it’s also the state of the industry since the Bush economic collapse. Distributors are being very cautious about which films they take, and a film about supposedly Satanic musicians burning down churches and yet still being co-opted by the mainstream apparently isn’t a safe bet.
Aaron: This is mostly because we didn’t make it salacious enough, and the conventional wisdom says that it must be, in order to sell. The conventional wisdom is also that film audiences are stupid and need to be titillated by exploitation content, whilst being told exactly what to think. We disagree.
Audrey: The film industry is not in a good way right now. Within the industry the alert level is at RED RED RED and the old guard are panicking. The new guard? Not so much. It takes a lot of work, that’s all. The film will now see a theatrical release in six territories around the world, plus many more that will get DVD only, so… it’s been tremendous work, but that’s what it takes. The film industry is basically one giant torture chamber that people are fighting tooth and nail to get into. I don’t know what to tell you.
NOUSE: This was your debut feature film as directors; why the subject of black metal in particular?
Aaron: We simply wanted to see it. We were actually developing a narrative film when the idea to do it came up. Audrey and I were both into Norwegian black metal, and we assumed there already was a film about it out there, and we just wanted to watch it. Audrey tried to find one, but when we realized that there wasn’t a proper film about Norwegian black metal, that was when the idea of making it first came up.
NOUSE: Do you think the ideology and shock value of extreme metal is still as potent or relevant twenty years down the line? Jonas Åkerlund is now directing Lady Gaga videos after all…
Aaron: I don’t really think that there is shock value to extreme metal. At all. Although conservatives in the past may have been “shocked” by Ozzy Osbourne biting the heads off of plastic bats or perhaps a Slayer album would shock a vicar if he sat down and read the lyrics, extreme metal is a musical style. Most of the people listening to it are people who know what to expect from it. People may be shocked by some of the things in our film, but the people who did those things were individuals making their own decisions. I think the global society that they were reacting against still has the ability to inspire artists and individuals to shock people with the depth of their disdain for it, but I’m not sure that metal itself truly shocks anyone, or ever has. Alice Cooper inspired a lot of controversy in his day, but he performed on the Muppet Show. As for Lady Gaga, I haven’t been keeping up on her videos, but I’m not sure that she’s all that different than Alice Cooper, when it gets right down to it.
NOUSE: Have you got any more film projects in the works?
Aaron: Absolutely. We have several projects in the works for film as well as television. In fact, we may be talking to British broadcasters about one of the television projects.
Audrey: I’d like to add to this that we actually love good television and we’re very unhappy that BBC cancelled Survivors, and I urge all of your readers to fill out a complaint form with them, please. I’d really like to see what happens next and I think that Max Beesley is a fantastic actor in a fantastic role and I’d like to see more. Thanks.
Until The Light Takes Us plays at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, beginning May 8th. Go watch the movie, tear your shirt off, and go running with the wolves in the woods.