Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell's Until the Light Takes Us was one of the most unusual entries at the 2008 AFI FEST held in Los Angeles in early November. In the words of co-director Ewell, the film is “a feature length documentary chronicling the history, ideology and aesthetic of Norwegian black metal – a musical subculture infamous as much for a series of murders and church arsons as it is for its unique musical and visual aesthetics. This is the first (and only) film to truly shed light on a movement that has heretofore been shrouded in darkness and rumor and obscured by inaccurate and shallow depictions.”
I'd never heard of Norwegian black metal, which flourished in the early 1990s, but that didn't prevent me from becoming engrossed in – and highly disturbed by – the bizarre, violent stories of some of the participants of that musical scene as presented in Until the Light Takes Us. There are murders (at one point, a black metal veteran expresses his joy that fellow black-metaller Bård “Faust” Eithun, from the group Emperor, murdered a gay man), suicides, rabid nationalism, anti-Judeo-Christian diatribes, anti-Americanism, church burnings, media sensationalism, faux satanism, and, in my view, the pervasive sensation that we live in a very, very sick world – one in which violence and hatred are perceived as not only valid but also as desirable manifestations of dissent.
Aites and Ewell spent two years living in Norway so they could interview the chief creators of that country's black metal scene. As a result, Until the Light Takes Us features exclusive interviews with several musicians, including early black metal figure Varg Vikernes (below, currently serving a murder sentence), who sounds like a cool and composed – and hair-raising – ideologue; rare footage from the early days of the black metal's “Inner Circle”; and music by the likes of Burzum (that's Vikernes), Darkthrone, Enslaved, Gorgoroth, Sunn 0))), Thorns, Ulver, and Black Dice.
Aites and Ewell (above, right) have kindly taken part in a q&a for Alt Film Guide, explaining their motivation to make Until the Light Takes Us and their take on the cultural relevance of black metal. See below.
More information on Until the Light Takes Us can be found at http://www.myspace.com/blackmetalmovie.
Photo: Rico Gagliano (filmmakers)
Where did the idea to film a documentary on Norwegian black metal musicians come from?
We were introduced to black metal by a friend (Andee Conners, who owns Aquarius Records in San Francisco) and we both really got into it (almost obsessed with it). We were both working in film and we were in the early stages of working on a narrative feature together. Basically, to answer your question, we really wanted to see a documentary about black metal and there wasn't one. That's where the idea came from.
Was it difficult to get people like Varg Vikernes to open up to you on camera? In Until the Light Takes Us interview subjects don't seem to have any qualms about chatting away, all but bragging about the crimes - some quite horrific – they or their fellow musicians committed.
It was very difficult to get the musicians to open up to us. It took 8 months to even get Varg to agree to meet us, let alone participate. They were extremely wary (I'm sure you noticed that Bård “Faust” Eithun is disguised in the film, this was at his behest). And beyond just the access, there was then the whole issue of getting past all the posturing and the myth-building that they've become so practiced at. Yes, it was hard. It took years. This is why we spent about two years living in Norway. It was necessary to get at the deeper truths and the more complex emotions of the musicians. It was very hard. At the same time, we were very fortunate to click immediately with Gylve, whose story is in many ways the story of black metal and plays into all the wider themes we wanted to explore.
Would you say that the Norwegian media – acting in a sensationalistic manner, e.g. , accusing the church arsonists of being satanists and making it sound as if Norway was under siege – helped to create an aura around those young men as larger-than-life, anti-establishment rebels?
Also, those no-longer-all-that-young men may have a good command of English, sound coherent, and have curious things to say about cultural colonialism and the like. However, to my ears at least, some of them also sound totally deranged – not at all different from fanatical ideologues of any persuasion. In an article for Moving Pictures you refer to the “purpose and intelligence” in both their speech and their music. Could you please elaborate on that?
Clearly the Norwegian media, but also the worldwide media was involved in creating the mythos of evil, anti-society devil worshippers. I think the media bears a certain responsibility to do a bit of fact checking when young people make claims such as theirs. But that calls into question the idea that there's really still a line between news media and tabloid exploitation of a good yarn.
A lot was going on in the world at the time that these events were unfolding. Globalization was really getting under way full swing. The news was in fact sliding toward tabloid journalism. The formula for commodification of all types of dissent seemed to have found its flash point and had become recognized as something of an inevitability.
Noam Chomsky, who was not actually someone that we were paying a lot of attention to when we got interested in this story, but whose ideas influenced many of the people we were paying attention to, published three works in 1998: The Culture of Terrorism, Language and Politics, and of course, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (with Edward Herman), which all deal directly with either the percolating world factors that led to the actions that took place in Norway in the early '90s, or which can help to explain the media's reaction to it.
A few years later, the venerable editors of The Baffler, a fantastic (albeit sporadically published) lit journal released a paperback called Commodify Your Dissent. In the late '90s and early 2000s, people like Thomas Friedman and Benjamin Barber were putting into words what Norwegian black metal exemplified in action: that the world's youth, at least the portion of it that resided in countries that allowed for the luxury, were getting plenty pissed off at the simultaneously homogenizing forces of popular media coupled with the dilution of any power youth might once have had to dissent. Because at this point in time, the message they garnered from the ascending global corporate hegemony and the consolidation of media outlets was sounding to them a lot like this: “Rebel. Please. We will only profit from it. “
Youth, and in particular this group of Norwegian musicians, felt that they were being stripped of the right that had until then been considered practically a God-given right: to rebel, to protest, and in so doing to attempt to change popular perception about whatever it was they objected to. With this weapon removed from their arsenal, and operating more out of rage than forethought, they decided to protest in a more extreme manner: by engaging in acts of domestic terrorism, violence, and symbolic (and violent) acts of culture reclamation. All the while, making music with the worst possible production values; an effort to rebuke the commodification that had become recognized as the enemy of change and of personal power.
So, yes we do see an intelligence and purpose behind their actions. You just have to understand that they were also quite young, some as young as 13, and living in a fairly sheltered society where the line between activism and terrorism was surprisingly difficult to pinpoint. Plus, if you've read Lyotard, Baudrillard, or other seminal post-modern theorists, you might marvel at the similarities present in the musicians' lyrics (especially Gylve's and somewhat even more surprisingly, Eithun's) with ideas about a post-narrative world; a world without a history, a world cleansed of its past, a rootless, centerless, mutable world that creates a queasiness in those struggling to understand their place in the world with any sort of cultural or historical context. This was the beginning of the era of alienation, at least to those coming of age amidst the global reorganization of power.
What was it like for you to talk to those men? Was particular care taken so as not to pass judgment on the people you were interviewing? And were you ever concerned about how they would react to Until the Light Takes Us?
It was very, very interesting spending a few years in this world. We actually did not have to strive to not pass judgment. It wasn't something that we were inclined toward. That's just not how we approach life. That's sort of antithetical to a curious mind, which isn't to say that we are amoral people. We're actually very moral, and have a great sense of justice and truth. The most dangerous thing is when people are told what to think. If you give people the chance, we believe they will prove themselves capable of analytical thought. And we believe this makes the world a better place. Basically, we're just hippies with cameras and maybe a darker aesthetic.
Are there any major female black-metallers?
While there are no major female musicians in the scene (although there have been one or two female members in a couple of the bands), it's impossible not to notice that there are also no images of sexualized women adorning album covers. This is a different kind of metal. It is not promulgated by the same angry white males who are generally from a lower socioeconomic bracket, as metal is in America. The anger is present, but the perceived attack is not on their masculinity, nor their ability to succeed in a more educated, less working-class playing field. It is, by definition, a more intellectual rebellion.
Does black metal remain a fringe musical movement in Norway or has it gone mainstream?
Black metal both remains on the fringes and in the mainstream. It isn't a group with a leader, dress code, and rule book. It's a scene – if you can even call it that at this point – made up of individuals.
At the same time, black metal has largely been co-opted by second-wave bands who saw the media reports of Satanic metal bands burning down churches in the name of Lucifer and created just that. We mentioned Post Modernism earlier – this is the perfect example of Simulation and Simulacra played out on a mass scale. At any rate, once the media ran with the story, it became big, fast. It's huge now, all over the world. The only point we'd like to make here though is that it's a matter of opinion whether black metal is huge, or whether the distorted facsimile of itself that black metal has become is huge.