Some documentarians are not content with being journalists, searching for the objective truth of a subject. Directors Even Benestad and August B. Hanssen pushed their medium to its limits in Pushwagner, a “documentary” (if that’s the right word) tracing a Norwegian pop artist known for dystopian sketches in a disarmingly simple, comic book style. “Maybe we could do this ‘Portrait of an Artist’ in a different, new way,” says Even in Sutton Place Hotel, Toronto. Pushwagner is having its North American premiere at Hot Docs. “Art documentaries can be very boring, in a way,” adds August, “You have the experts, the archival material, stuff which will be there after the artist is dead.” They mused about a documentary in which the audience “hung out” with the late Edvard Munch (Scream). When a producer asked them to do a doc on Pushwagner, they began following the hard-living artist for four years.
Terje Brofos, stage name Pushwagner, is a tough nut to crack. He is a seemingly un-ending series of masks – what Northrop Frye called a layered onion without a core. Even and August have worked with difficult subjects in the past, such as Even’s transvestite father (All About My Father) and former spaghetti western actor Fred Robsham (Natural Born Star), but Brofos may be the most evasive, the hardest to pin down. Four documentarians had tried to follow Pushwagner, but they were all “thrown out”. I ask them if they feel they got the heart of Brofos/Pushwagner. After all, this is a man who drives backwards on bicycles through rings of fire for gallery openings, a manic-depressive who is expected to be theatrically drunk in front of reporters. He lampoons artists for wearing berets, but wears one (ironically?) himself. “This is a guy who changes personas all the time, and he’s done it for years,” he says, “I don’t know if he knows himself anymore.”
“That’s the statement of the film,” adds August, “It’s his constant need to set the stage, to recreate his own image. It’s about the man hiding behind the phenomenon.” There is one wretched moment when the mask slips a little: after gulping down a bottle of whisky, Brofos breaks down and tells the camera how difficult it is to draw: “You get blue nails, you hurt yourself, you cry and you scream.” During Brofos’ bad drinking spell (which seems to have lasted a year), the filmmakers only had a small window of opportunity to shoot before Brofos became to incoherent, or kicked them out. In one scene, a hospitalized Brofos claims he drinks to “keep down the butterflies in my chest at bay.” August stresses how delicate an issue the drinking was. “We were really conscious of not exploiting the hard-core drunken moments.” “If we crossed that line, it would have been social pornography,” says Even. He adds, however, that Brofos was happy with the final cut: “When he saw the movie he said ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could do shit.’”
When Brofos is asked why he has a copy of Byron’s poems, he replies: “One should live what one reads.” “He likes to play that part,” says August, “to live up to the artist’s myth.” His role models – Dylan Thomas, William S. Burroughs – were substance abusers themselves. If the hard-living is an act, then it’s an act that has become Brofos’ reality.
Although Pushwagner is not a courtroom doc, Even and August began shooting when Brofos fought his former assistant over the rights to his work. Even calls this Brofos’ “emotional trigger”, causing him to turn to his legacy, and perhaps made him ore open to being followed around by cameras. And it is telling that despite all the hell the filmmakers went through, they still have enormous respect for Brofos.
“He has no filter,” says Even, “He says whatever he wants. He’s a rebel in the arts scene.” “The way Rupert Albert describes his Indian guru reminds me of Pushwagner: being like a child,” says August, “but at the same time being extremely profound.” With so many of his paintings in Norwegian museums, Brofos is undeniably a part of the arts establishment, but he makes a point of deviating from the norm. He has been known to trade paintings for beers, to purposely “devaluate” his work for the public. The filmmakers’ approach is more aesthetic and emotional than journalistic. “Our films are approached as films, not as documentaries,” explains August, “In Norway there’s an artificial division between documentaries and fictional films.” Brofos’s often maniacal need for control of the process made the directors reconsider their art, and their next project will prove even more experimental. Or “weirder”, as Even puts it.
They are planning a “musical memory” of Oslo’s Club 7, the social center of the 60s counter-cultural revolution in Norway. August says they will go for an “impressionist style”, looking for ideas from Canadian visionaries Guy Maddin and Arthur Lipsett. In the first archival photograph of Club 7, Even and August spotted a familiar-looking man with his back deliberately set to the camera. It was, of course, Brofos/Pushwagner.