20,000 Days on Earth | Berlin Film Festival 2014
The winner of two – directing and editing – awards at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the mash-up of fiction and documentary 20,000 Days on Earth hits the Panorama section of this year’s Berlinale, offering a glimpse into the curious mind of Nick Cave, musician and international cultural icon.
As the story goes, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (the director duo) have known Nick personally for over seven years. While they were shooting some promotional footage for his new record Push the Sky Away, the idea of making a film came up and so the gathering of documentary footage began. When Nick disclosed his personal diaries, Forsyth and Pollard got inspired and asked him to expand more on certain topics.
Cave’s texts about what it means to be human, feel, create, perform, remember and fear become the voice-over narration structure for a fictional plot, which rests on the assumption of what the 20,000th day in Cave’s life might look like from morning until dawn. His poetic reflections are nicely broken down by performances of some of the most popular songs like Higgs Boson Blues and the famous Push the Sky Away.
The chosen form and execution of this movie is quite experimental. Rarely are the subjects of the documentary actively involved in its making – usually it is up to directors to mythologise them by quietly observing from a distance (cinéma vérité) or tangling their way through archival footage. Forsyth and Pollard, on the contrary, disagreed that “seeing the “real” Nick Cave would somehow reveal something more about Nick Cave.” Instead, they reached out for a more profound level of truth by allowing Nick to enact himself and actively guided his efforts. As the musician comments, “this [fictional] day is both more real and less real, more true and less true, more interesting and less interesting than my actual day, depending on how you look at it.”
The scripted pieces of the story sometimes look intentionally silly – Cave at the cabinet of a straight-faced psychoanalytic puts an ironic twist on the conventional interviewer-interviewee roles. Other pieces look like a collection of random events and memories: a guy urinating onstage during one of the early Nick and the Bad Seeds’ performances; Nina Simone’s chewing gum story; falling in love at the V&A; conversations with Kylie Minogue about loneliness, etc.
Although carefully scripted, the pieces of the puzzle are scattered and non sequential, so the portrait of the performer reminds more of an impressionistic sketch. However, Cave’s persona in itself is elusive, and the ephemeral nature of the documentary only emphasises that.
20,000 Days on Earth might not be very informative, but it is intuitively insightful and enriching. The musical pieces alone manifest the energy possessed by very few other living songwriters – and that is perhaps the best reason to see this film.
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Watch Nick Cave talk about 20,000 Days on Earth here: