Filmmaker Omer Fast on storytelling, stopping time, and turning Mia’s photo galleries into a waiting room

A few years ago, Omer Fast was presented with a dilemma. The Israeli-born filmmaker had been invited to create a solo show at the Martin Gropius-Bau, a prominent contemporary art space in Berlin, Germany, where he has lived since 2001. He would have seven galleries to fill—a tall order in any case, but they were also all in a line. “You could only go forwards and backwards in space, a very linear experience,” he says. “And my work is not linear.”

A still from Omer Fast's 2016 film "August," about an imagined night in the life of iconic photographer August Sander.

A still from Omer Fast’s 2016 film “August,” about an imagined night in the life of photographer August Sander.

The storytelling in Fast’s short films, which have earned him accolades, awards, and a living in the art world, have been described variously as non-linear, cyclical, or circular. It’s a style that began as a solution to a problem he’d noticed of showing films in galleries. “I’d come in, something’s being projected, and a minute or two later the credits are rolling, and I’d get this feeling of having missed something,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense to tell a linear story when you don’t know when your audience is coming into the story. So, for me, the impetus at the beginning was, how do I craft a story so that doesn’t matter so much?

Fast’s latest installation, “New Pictures: Omer Fast, Appendix,” which opened last month at Mia in the second-floor Harrison Photography Gallery, features two of his short films. The 2008 Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.) is an experimental documentary about New York morticians, who are never seen in the film, their interview responses instead voiced by child models. The 2016 August, a lush, 3-D story about a sleepless night in the imagined late life of renowned German photographer August Sander, came out of grappling with the Martin Gropius-Bau’s space issues.

The Berlin museum’s director at the time had told him that a show of Sander’s work was among the first exhibitions in the space. So Fast first thought of re-installing Sanders’ photos in the seven galleries and then drawing around the frames, extending the scene with figures, foliage, etc., to suggest what Sander had cropped out of the shots. Then he decided to extend the frame in three dimensions—restaging the photos to show what was left out—some strange or perverse detail—and filming it in 3-D. Finally, he came around to the narrative now showing at Mia.

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A still from Omer Fast’s 2008 film “Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.).”

Sander’s real-life attempt between World Wars I and II to capture German society in all its diversity filled 45 portfolios with 600 portraits of workers, officials, circus performers, even Nazis—an epic quest that eventually led the Nazis to confiscate some of the images. “He was reflecting society maybe too complexly instead of a myth about German society,” says Fast. Sander’s son, also a photographer, was thrown in jail for his activism, where he died of a ruptured appendix.

In Fast’s film, Sander is haunted by some of the people he photographed—as well as his son. “There’s a sense that time for him has stopped working in a linear way,” Fast says. “It keeps conjuring these figures, almost phantasm-like.”

The two films playing at Mia share this obsession with stopping time and making images, through photography and through the usually unseen art of “making the recently deceased presentable to an audience for their last public appearance,” as Fast puts it. “Creating an illusion of timelessness…in order to have a last memory of that person before that person disappears.”

At Mia, as in Berlin, Fast deepens the disconnectedness by opening the installation with a waiting room—literally, a detailed re-creation of a doctor’s waiting room. A place where almost everyone has experienced the sense of time being stopped.

Top image: August Sander creates one of his iconic photographs in a scene from Omer Fast’s 2016 film August, now playing at Mia.