My Way or the Norway

The land of Vikings, reindeer, and church-burning metal bands

Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites spent the last year and a half interviewing convicted murderers, neo-Nazis, and arsonists for a documentary called Until the Light Takes Us. The filmmakers weren't located in the bowels of some Texas prison, though; they were living in Norway, one of the richest, cleanest, and most socially conscious countries in the world. And these subjects weren't your run-of-the-mill menaces -- they were "black metal" musicians.

For the record, Ewell and Aites are not metalheads. During an interview at a Lower Haight cafe, both locals profess their allegiance to experimental indie rock. (Aites even records his own noisy tunes under the name Iran.) But back in 1999, their friend Andee Connors -- drummer for P.E.E., A Minor Forest, and Lumen -- kept hounding them to listen to these heavy Norwegian acts.

"I didn't realize there'd be ... a lot of common ground with the music I like and the music I make," Aites says. "It really took us both by surprise."

After buying a couple of discs, Ewell says, "We liked Burzum more than we liked Ulver, and I thought, "That's weird, because that guy's a murderer and a church burner, and so now we're getting into murderer metal.'"

Black metal, it turns out, isn't the wussy, flounce-around-in-spandex kind of metal. Black metal is dead serious -- so serious that in 1992 the drummer for influential act Emperor stabbed a Norwegian Olympic skier to death; two days later, he and other members of the black metal scene burned Oslo's Holmenkollen Chapel to the ground. In the next year, a dozen more churches would go up in flames, and Burzum's leader, Varg Vikernes, would slay his rival Euronymous. The media grabbed hold of the story and ran sensational reports, depicting the musicians as a Satanist cult that kidnapped and sacrificed young virgins. The truth was far different, of course -- the artists believed they were protesting Christianity and its coddling of the weak -- but as the black metal scene grew, it spawned copycat bands that were more interested in using the genre's scare tactics and harsh sound for commercial purposes. Vikernes and many of the original musicians were eventually thrown in jail, while their disciples torched the occasional church and shouted at the devil.

When they heard the story behind the music, Ewell and Aites went looking for a movie about the events, but they came up empty. After doing further research, they decided to head off to Norway to shoot the documentary -- even though neither of them had made one before.

They soon found themselves sitting across the table from musicians who advocated the slaughter of anyone stupid enough to listen to their music. Amazingly enough, the documentarians discovered they liked their subjects. "I've seldom met a person before with as much integrity as [Fenriz, leader of Darkthrone]," says Ewell. "He cared so much about creating this kind of music that could not be co-opted, that was so ugly and extreme that it would never be a commercial thing. ... He's amazing and funny and smart -- and also very depressed."

"Fenriz and I have a ridiculous amount of common ground," Aites says.

"It's kind of freaky," Ewell admits.

It was clear the planned six-month shoot would take far longer. It didn't help that their subjects had a natural suspicion of American media, or that Aites and Ewell's Bergen landlord allegedly burned down their building and then told the police they'd done it. "We now know what it's like to be interrogated for arson -- through an interpreter," Aites says ruefully.

One complaint about the film they got from Norwegians is that the documentarians didn't plan to interview any of the victims of the metalers' crimes. Ewell explains that the movie isn't intended to be a journalistic view of both sides of the story; rather, it's an unnerving look into the minds of intelligent men who became so isolated from the rest of the world that they found it natural to commit heinous acts. Ewell says the film's also about recontextualization -- how the followers' mistaken ideas of black metal became the reality to the rest of the world.

"There's a particular sadness in that [the artists] specifically set out to do something that couldn't be appropriated or commercialized, and it was," Ewell says.

Ewell and Aites plan to spend the rest of the year editing Until the Light Takes Us. They've received interest from distributors in the U.S. and abroad and will be sending it out to festivals. For now, though, they're having a difficult time readjusting to life in the States. "It's hard to get used to urine in the street," Aites says.

Sorry, wrong numberThe booking number for the Tempest was misprinted last issue -- it should've been 364-1895.

 
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