“Until the Light Takes Us”, a new documentary by Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites, tells the origin story of Black Metal without getting into any of that pesky music stuff. Instead, it focuses on the two main pioneers of the genre, Gylve “Fenriz” “Nagell and Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes, letting them explain their social and political reasons for creating this unique and very controversial scene. While the violence, church burnings, and occasional murder associated with Black Metal were all true (Vikeres is currently serving a 21-year sentence for fatally stabbing a fellow musician), the media fabricated the motivation. Satan was in no way involved. Though 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 misdoings.
To get an insider’s look at the truth behind the scene, 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. Film Threat’s Jessica Baxter spoke with the pair about their inspirations, the arduous process of documentary filmmaking, and just what those Norwegians are so pissed off about.
How did you two start working together?
AUDREY: We were developing a narrative film when we decided to do this documentary. And the way the documentary came about was we were living in San Francisco and a good friend of ours runs a record store there called Aquarius records. And he knows that we’re into a lot of experimental stuff and lo-fi stuff like The Dead Sea, if you know them, or Throbbing Gristle or lots of things. But not really metal. So he basically sat us down and forced us to take a listen and we got pretty into the music and started researching the music just out of our curiosity. So naturally, what came out of that was that we assumed someone had made a documentary about it. And there wasn’t one. So that’s what sort of prompted the idea to make it ourselves.
Had you done any documentary filmmaking before that?
AUDREY: This was our first…and last documentary.
AARON: Yeah, neither of us worked on any documentaries in any capacity before this. We’d basically just done narrative films. This is my first as a director but I’ve done all kinds of crew work on many narrative films before. And I’ve directed a couple videos.
AUDREY: And I’d done work on a romantic comedy prior to this. So doing the documentary was something that just kind of came up as this idea. And I think it was kind of our naiveté about the doc process that made us think that we could do this because it took so long. I mean, we were shooting for two years and returned with hundreds of hours of footage and so it was just really a much longer and more involved process than we’d been aware of before we left to do it.
Who was the intended audience for this film? Did you take any conscious steps to make the film accessible to an uninitiated audience?
AUDREY: The film is not for the fans although we know that the fans are gonna see it and do enjoy it. The film is not…although it deals with a music scene…it’s not a Rockumentary and that’s an expectation that a lot of people bring to seeing it that is quickly amended. For one thing there’s absolutely no concert footage in the film whatsoever at all. It’s really a portrait of a group of people who, while they were involved in the music scene…and that’s what sort of lets it coalesce…it’s really about what happens in this particular time in this particular country with this particular group of people who are reacting to global pressures and also getting involved with all of the violence. And it is very much about the music scene in the sense that in the film you’ve got the two main characters, Varg Vikernes and Gylve a.k.a. “Fenriz” Nagell of the two bands, Burzum and Darkthrone. And through telling their two stories and their intertwined story, we’re able to tell the larger story of Black Metal. Because Gylve was the guy who released the first Black Metal album…and he was never involved in the crimes and was very much about making anti-commercial and un-commodifiable music which, for him, it was very much like a work of art. And on the other hand, his one-time best friend Varg Vikernes was very involved in more of an ideological battle with the world. So by showing their diverging paths, and the fallout from the actions of one and how it affected both of them, we’re able to tell the larger story of Black Metal. So it’s really not a Rockumentary.
AARON: But to answer your question, it’s for…I mean, certainly you don’t need to know anything about Black Metal before you go to see the film and I feel like the film will appeal to fans of, sort of, dark art films…It’s definitely made so that anyone who walks in to see it will understand the story.
Who were your filmmaking influences when making this film?
AUDREY: Actually, we’re not documentary film fans in general. I can count on one hand the number of documentaries that I really like. Somebody who you would say is sort of an influence for us is Chris Marker. Just in that I really like what he does with the documentary form. “Sans Soleil” is one of my favorite films. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a documentary. But I like the idea of the film essay. That really comes from him. And as far as our filmmaking influences, we’re very into 70s French and Italian New Wave stuff. [Michelangelo] Antonioni is one of my favorite directors.
AARON: [Jean-Luc] Godard.
AUDREY: Yeah…We like [Lars] Von Trier and the kind of stuff that he’s doing.
AARON: David Lynch.
AARON: I would say that Chris Marker might be…before we even went there and we were sort of building the whole film on paper, Chris Marker was an inspiration for us. I don’t think the film comes out anything like Chris Marker but…
AUDREY: No, I don’t think it did.
AARON: …but we did actually think about that and tried to use him as an inspiration.
AUDREY: When we were editing…one thing that structurally we thought about was “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control”, because it blends two different time periods and two different stories. That’s one thing that’s done very well in that film. And so, you know, there aren’t really that many examples of films like that. So that was one that just crossed our minds but I wouldn’t necessarily say that we really pulled a lot from it.
The film has a gritty look, which, in some ways, emulates the lo-fi quality of Black Metal. How did you decide on the look of the film?
AUDREY: Oh, that was one thing that we knew going in. Or maybe I’ll let Aaron take this one because I’m blabbing away…
AARON: We decided on it going in, to have the style of the film emulate the visual aesthetic of the early Black Metal records. And that even went as far as, not just the gritty lo-fi stuff but you know, we shot a lot of the exteriors in 35[mm] and the setups for the interviews. And a lot of these records will have these beautiful pictures of the Norwegian landscape or these really lo-fi, almost Xerox-quality pictures of themselves and we just decided that would be a good way to have the aesthetic of the film be. So that was the first thing that we did when we went over there was to just test different cameras and stuff and try to get the look we wanted.
When did you decide that it was necessary to move to Norway to shoot the film?
AUDREY: From the get-go. I mean, it just wouldn’t have been possible to make this film about what has been a very closed-off scene without actually going there and living there and developing more trusting relationships with the musicians. It just wouldn’t have been possible any other way.
AARON: Basically, the musicians are the only ones talking in the film. There’s no narration or anything like that so we really needed to really get to know them to get what we needed to make the film.
AUDREY: Yeah…and that was a very important thing for the style of the film that we wanted to make. I can NOT watch a documentary with narration. It is so annoying to me. So right from the get-go we knew that was going to have to be part of the methodology.
Did you have the two-year timeline mapped out or did you just shoot until you felt you were done?
AARON: No, no, no. We didn’t know it was going to take two years. We might have thought twice about actually doing it. But um, that’s just how it turned out. We thought it was going to be a quicker process than it ended up being…Again, we never worked on a doc before so it kind of came to the line of, “When should we stop? [Laughs] Do we have everything we need?” And even when we left after two years, we left thinking, “Well, we may have to go back over there and get something…” but we had three hundred and fifty hours of footage so it was absolutely not a problem making our ninety-three minute film out of what we got.
AUDREY: Part of the issue was that the musicians were living in different cities all over Norway so there was a bit of having to spend significant periods of time in each important location to actually build that degree of trust. So that…it was really that more than anything that took the time. And then, also, in a doc, there are so many things you can’t control like people just not showing up for their scheduled interview…So yeah…it was a long process and we were not thinking it would be as long as it was.
How did you approach the musicians in the film? Were there any problems with getting them to agree to be in the film?
AARON: We approached them each individually starting with Gylve and Varg, the two main characters in the film. We went over there knowing that we had to have them as the two main characters to make the film we wanted. So we just approached them…With Gylve, we met with him through his label and we got along really well right off the bat. And he was eager to do the film and he told us, “You can film whatever you want. Film as much as you want. Put whatever you need to up on the screen to get what you want to get. I’m never going to watch the film so don’t worry about that.” So that was pretty much the best-case scenario that you could ask for.
AUDREY: I think something that really helped when we approached them was that we weren’t really metal heads or even metal fans. I think that letting them know that this was going to be a more serious doc and not, like, a fan piece or, you know, whatever else… And they also very much liked that we let them know that we weren’t going to be bringing in experts to dissect the scene or bring in any sort of outside perspective on it. That’s another thing that just drives me nuts in a documentary. I mean I don’t like a lot of documentaries. I don’t like that specific form…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 film we wanted to make. And because they’d had all the stuff in the early 90s with the media running with these fairly fabricated reports of them being Satanists and, you know, all this crazy stuff that was reported about them which was untrue, they really liked that aspect of it that there weren’t going to be outside people imposing whatever crazy ideas they had of the scene onto them in the film. So I think that helped as well.
AARON: Going back to your first question, if you can tell, the audience that we made the film for was just ourselves.
AARON: But hopefully other people will like it too.
AUDREY: Um…but Varg was actually a totally different case from everyone else. He’s in jail and he was incredibly reluctant to do the film. It took eight months of corresponding with him to even have him agree to meet with us.
AARON: …while we were shooting.
AUDREY: …And at any point we were prepared to stop the film and go home and just move on to something else if we didn’t get his participation because we felt he was so important to the story we wanted to tell. Finally, he agreed to meet and Aaron flew over to Tromsø where he was in prison and met with him. And at that point he agreed to be in the film. And at that point he also agreed to just do it all the way and be very forthcoming. So we were really lucky, in the end, to get his participation.
With a lot of their general ire directed toward American culture, was it difficult to earn their trust as Americans?
AUDREY: Oh, um…well, you know, it’s an interesting thing. There’s a point in the film where Gylve says…where he talks about the Norwegian personality and how they don’t stand too close to each other. And I have to say that…it is a much more reserved culture. Even before we Americans came over to make a film about Black Metal, I think there would have been a greater degree of difficulty there. They do hold things close to their chest. So there was already that hurtle to get over. And, you know, there’s a huge hurtle to get over when somebody’s putting a camera in your face and saying, “Tell me about your crazy history that’s been splashed all over the front pages and sensationalized so much in the past.” So there was a lot to get past. Whether or not us being American was a hurtle, I’d actually say no. But I can’t say for sure. We do know that they occasionally had meetings about us where they would discuss us and discuss whether or not they should be doing the film. One of them told us about this, that this was going on during the filming. [Laughs]
AARON: Yeah, apparently we had lobbyists within the scene both for and against us.
Why do you think that Black Metal is so specific to Norway as opposed to other countries, which have experienced a similar American capitalist invasion?
AUDREY: Well, the first thing I have to point out is that Norway is so much more Americanized than other places in Europe. We’ve traveled a lot in Europe and I have to say that the number of American corporations that are dotted all over the landscape…it’s really so much more. And I didn’t actually realize that until I’d traveled quite a bit in Europe but there are McDonalds and 7-11s and American television is the norm and everything is in English. They don’t dub into their own language. And the movies are English. It’s really…there’s just a shocking amount of Americanization in Norway. So that’s one factor, I think, that there’s so much of it there. Aside from that, there’s a couple of different things. One is that Norway is not part of the E.U. They have retained their own currency and they stayed outside of that. They have a bubble economy. They have oil. And so they have no real need to be that connected with Europe or the rest of the world in a financial sense. And that, I think, has kept them a little more closed off culturally. So I think that at the same time this massive invasion of global culture coming in, you can really tell the difference. It’s very present.
AARON: I would say that since the Norwegian Black Metal scene came into existence, Black Metal has spread to lots of countries. Basically every country throughout Europe. I think maybe why it started in Norway was because of the sort of, like, influx of American culture. What’s happening right at the time when these guys were kids.
AUDREY: And we also started looking at it in something of a post-modern sense and the idea of the loss of a narrative and of people trying to find some thread that connects them to their own past. And I think largely what happened here was that. And a lot of this came through Varg Vikernes who was the one who prompted a lot of the crimes, the burning of the churches…He sort of drew a symbolical, metaphorical line between the cultural imperialism of Americanization that was occurring then, and drew that line back to 900 A.D. when Christianity was coming into the country and changing the cultural landscape of it at that time. It was the last wave of cultural imperialism. And he drew a connection between the two things, which was not immediately obvious to anybody. And why would it be?
The musicians in the film talk about the political and religious reasons behind their movement, but not as much about artistic influence. Do you know where the Black Metal sound came from?
AARON: Well sure. And that also feeds into the whole post-modern aspect that I think is completely intrinsic to Black Metal. Their influences are bands like Venom and Bathory: bands that recorded, essentially, these lo fidelity albums. Not because that’s how they wanted them to be like the Norwegian Black Metal scene did, but out of necessity because they couldn’t actually get budgets to go into recording studios. They basically took a lot from fairly obscure metal and sort of codified it and turned it into their own thing.
Audrey, since you identify yourself as a fan, there is obviously a female Black Metal fan base. But there doesn’t seem to be any female creative involvement in the scene. Why do you think that is?
AUDREY: Yeah…When we did Q&A, someone in the audience would usually ask why there aren’t any Black Metal bands with female members. And I wish there were. That would have been an interesting dynamic. But there just aren’t. It’s pretty typical, not just in metal but in your rock music, that there are far fewer women involved…
AARON: …but on the other hand…
AUDREY: On the other hand, one thing that was very appealing about Black Metal is that it’s not very misogynistic at all. You don’t see the half-naked women on album covers. You don’t have any misogyny present in the lyrics. And that’s, frankly, really refreshing. It’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 making Black Metal, there also aren’t misogynists.
So you said you’re done with documentaries forever, but what are you guys working on next?
AARON: We have a narrative film that we’re working on. The working title is “The Living Day”. It’s a suspense film that takes place on a commune in the woods of Vermont.
AUDREY: A present-day commune…so it’s about family and ownership and the strange little society that these people have made for themselves.
AARON: I guess you could say we’re into strange little societies.
AUDREY: We are, actually. That’s something that really interests us is people building their own societies and sort of cocooning themselves within what they create.