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LBB Film Club: The Hidden Dimension


Director Ben Galster on capturing the story of photographer Leo Maki with visuals, sound and colour grade, in order to represent two different worlds, writes LBB’s Nisna Mahtani

LBB Film Club: The Hidden Dimension

Passion and eroticism run through the work of Polish photographer Leo Maki. From behind the lens, he brings queer representation to the forefront of creativity, capturing a unique sense of intimacy and sensuality from each person he places in front of the camera. With his strikingly recognisable style, Leo’s aim is to encourage people to be unapologetically brave and bold in their queerness.

In ‘The Hidden Dimension’, director Ben Galster captures the photographer's style in a narrative which takes the audience on a journey through his life. Living in the polarising society of post-Soviet Poland, Leo has found his feet in Warsaw, surrounded by friends who share his passion for queer acceptance and even find themselves wandering in front of his camera to be his muse.

The short film depicting his journey covers the raw emotions and vulnerability of his life, and is complemented by a rich colour palette which likens itself to Leo’s work. Capturing both thoughts and memories, the duality of each shot provides a contrast to convey the story of LGBTQ+ representation in polarising societies, and this theme runs through the visuals, sound (from 86Tales) and the colour grade (by Company 3) of the piece. 

Ben speaks to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani about crafting a story through meaningful pictures, finding locations which match Leo Maki’s life story, and the importance of authentically capturing a person’s life.

[The Hidden Dimension trailer]

LBB> This is what you describe as ‘A cinematic portrait of queer photographer Leo Maki’. So, how did you want to invite viewers into the story?

Ben> Actually, in a very classic way, through a well-crafted story and meaningful pictures. Once we achieved that, we started to carefully dismantle the classic portrait format and moved into a more abstract and surreal direction, making sure we didn’t lose the emotional connection. I am very grateful for Leo’s trust, and for granting us limitless access to his life. 

LBB> What is the creative scene in Poland like, and how did you want to shine a light on the lack of LGBTQ+ rights?

Ben> A lot is happening in Poland in terms of art and LGBTQ+ rights, but there is still a long way to go in order to achieve a level of acceptance that is similar to the one we have in western Europe. Many artists emigrate because of this. I split my time between London and Berlin, and people often ask me if the topic is still relevant. Yes, it absolutely is. Once you get out of the cosmopolitan bubble, you are reminded that things are very different in other places in the world. I think as a filmmaker, it’s our duty to tell stories that have a social relevance. 

LBB> Aside from that, what were some of the other themes you were keen to explore?

Ben> The raw emotions and vulnerability of Leo highlight the transformative power of art and self-acceptance. Hopefully, the story stands as a testament to the universality of human emotions and the shared quest for identity.

LBB> Where did the title ‘The Hidden Dimension’ come from? Tell us about your inspiration from Edward Hall. 

Ben> The title derives partly from the interviews with the artist, and partly from Edward T. Hall’s book ‘The Hidden Dimension’. I bought it ages ago as it was recommended in ‘Mackendrick's: On Filmmaking’. Essentially, it’s about cultural and social cohesion. Hall developed a model of cultural dimensions, in which he compares the culture of a society to an iceberg with some aspects visible above the water and a larger portion hidden beneath the surface. In this respect, ‘The Hidden Dimension’ can be applied to the space between the photographer and his model, but it could also represent the reality of the people that are pushed to the margins of society because of their contexts, as could be in this case creating queer arts in a place like Poland. 

LBB> The sound and narration blend seamlessly to take the viewers on a journey. How did you create the script and combine it with the right sound design to convey the story?

Ben> Working with real stories is always special. Having Leo as the main motive of this short and portraying his real life is, as a director, honouring - but at the same time a big responsibility. We conducted several interviews with him beforehand, which served as a blueprint for the script. The editor, David Fabra, has also done a fantastic job in bringing the story to life and tightening it where needed. The film is so well paced and surprising. Every time you think you know what’s coming next, a new chapter opens. It’s like a train of thought, playfully connecting different aspects and jumping fluidly through different scenarios, but still retaining a strong and coherent storyline.

We had a close collaboration with the composer Gordian Gleiß of 86 Tales, and Dennis Beckmann, who did the SFX to create a score that embodies Leo's journey, drawing inspiration from modern electronic soundscapes. 

LBB> What were some of the challenges in conveying Leo’s photography style within the piece? How did you marry your filmmaking style with the artist's own vision?

Ben> Stylistically, we were not that far apart. His work is quite cinematic and influenced by classic art house films. We started with the colours of his pictures, such as orange, blue and red. The cinematographer, Bernhard Russow, then created a look that reflects this throughout the film. The aim was an edgy and raw style that is not too polished and matching the subject matter. 

Leo is also a night owl, so we therefore shot nearly the entire film during the night. This was not always easy, as the shoot took place in the hottest week of the year with the most daylight hours. 

LBB> In the film, some shots go from close-up, intimate moments to vaster expanses. What does the contrast bring?

Ben> The main purpose is to highlight the different emotional states the character is in. There are a few speaking shots, allowing the audience to emotionally connect and reminding us that this is a real story. Beyond that, I like to think that when we are creative, we are really free from boundaries, and that is best expressed through space, like in the nebula sequence. We created in the film two worlds, one real and one that is representative of his thoughts, working process and memories. This concept has also been followed through with the sound and grading.

LBB> The spot has some darker and lighter characteristics when it comes to colour. Can you talk through how you used light and colour grade to add depth to the film?

Ben> Storywise, Joseph at Company 3 and I talked a lot about the contrasts in the creative process and daily life. We wanted to allow the brighter scenes to really pierce through and have that serene quality which juxtaposed the darker interiors and urban environments. On the aesthetic side, I think a bit of range is always good, as it keeps the film energetic and impactful. 

LBB> What was the timescale on this project like? Did you face any unexpected setbacks?

Ben> I think we spent around two months from the first casting to shooting. The principal photography took place over a week in Warsaw, of which we shot four days and had one day reshoot a month later in Brandenburg for the lake and forest scenes (as the artist got ill on the last day in Warsaw). 

It requires a lot of sensitivity and carefulness, especially when the working context could be hostile. We had scenes that we could not film due to safety concerns. When shooting documentaries there are always eventualities of all kinds. While shooting a scene at Leo’s place, a large anti-Pride demonstration was marching down the street. It was the same day when queer people were shot during Pride in Oslo. As we were reading the news, we knew exactly why we were working on this film. 

The post-production took around three months (slightly longer than expected) as we wanted to work with a specific team, and that meant that we would have to wait for their availability. Merging different styles and techniques was key in capturing the dreamy nature of the story we wanted to tell. While we used pre-planned VFX shots, we also turned to AI techniques such as point clouds, manual distortion, and EbSynth for more abstract elements. We had to do a few rounds to get the look and feel right, without overloading the film. I love the destructive and raw quality that the Grotesk Group created with their work. The archive footage is from a real anti-Pride demo in Warsaw, and had to be sourced and licensed, which was not easy. State television is not too keen on licensing this sort of material!   

LBB> Where did most of the filming take place and how did you scout the right places?

Ben> We had an extensive pre-production period and scouted most of the locations online, with images and videos supplied by the artist and the producer Julia Groszek, who also lives in Warsaw. We wanted locations that are part of Leo's life and match the aesthetic of the film. Julia did a fantastic job and the film would have been very different without her. It allowed us to organise everything beforehand and create an effective shooting schedule. 

LBB> How did the collaboration with Leo and Container Love first come about?

Ben> Christian Ruess, who runs a boutique agency focusing on diversity and queer identities, has been discussing a new Container Love film with me for a while. Last year we shot the portrait series ‘Love Has No Label’ for the platform, which was co-produced by Iconoclast X and was also shortlisted for the Immortal Awards in the German edition. The work of Leo Maki, the main character of this short, has been featured multiple times on the platform. He is a fascinating photographer with imagery that is bold and unapologetic. We initially cast a few different people, but it was clear that we wanted to make a film about him. The fact that he is a queer artist in a conservative and very religious country gives him a unique perspective. 

LBB> Is there anything that we may have missed when we watched the film for the first time?

Ben> We wanted to create a film that is full of poetic imagery and references to the character's personality, which gives the narration a deeper meaning, whether this is a faceless figure disappearing in the dark night when Leo talks about opening up and leaving his old self behind like a shadow, or a couple kissing in the dark forest because they can’t show affection on the streets. Another scene of the film features footage of the film ‘Fantastic Planet’ playing on a TV in the background. René Laloux’s 1973 film is a story about being suppressed and living under occupation, and is one of Leo’s favourite films.

LBB> Would you like to share anything else?

Ben> As a director, I try to create discussion and awareness. I’m fascinated by people, their stories and their emotions. Films should make you think about the lives and feelings of others and in the best case, make you learn something new about yourself too. It’s an amazing way to contribute towards a more inclusive society. 

view more - LBB Film Club
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86Tales, Mon, 05 Jun 2023 16:00:00 GMT