Khavn de la Cruz is an artist with an output that is singular in its fecundity, a prolix daily output that is off the charts. Musician, poet, writer, filmmaker, Cruz is, however most well-known as “the father of Philippine digital filmmaking.” Pamela Cohn sat down with Cruz in Prizen, Kosova to discuss his prodigious output.
Pamela Cohn speaks with filmmakers Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri about their “small art-film documentary” October Country, their upcoming projects, and the struggles—and patience—necessary to bring an independent film project to fruition.
Matthew Porterfield’s latest film, Putty Hill, is an unabashed ode to shared memory and loss and a beautifully realized piece of work, making good on the artistic promise that many critics and supporters saw in his debut. He spoke with BOMBlog’s Pamela Cohn about his work, his turbulent past, and his approach to the technique and theory of making films.
YouTube starlet Jack Rebney, a.k.a. the Winnebago Man, faces a second round of national exposure–this time with a bit more cheer. Pamela Cohn talks to filmmaker Ben Steinbauer about his experience tracking down, getting to know, and growing to love the notorious Winnebago Man.
Sill in Motion sits down with Terence Nance, creator of the powerful new film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.
I encounter Terence Nance, creator of the startlingly fresh and emotionally stunning film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, in LA, virtually, via Skype. It is mid-morning there to my Berlin evening. The window on my computer screen displays a just-awakened Nance enjoying a breakfast of big, fat, cold strawberries which he will devour as we talk. His massive—really massive—head of hair is in bed-headed glorious disarray and swirls like a fluffy halo around his young handsome face, which is, more often than not, displaying a gentle gap-toothed grin.
His debut feature is about a young man’s love for a young woman, a woman who also happens to be his very close friend—a vérité documentary-feature narrative-animation-film-within-a-film (got that?). Nance takes great risks both creative and personal, and the result is a piece hauntingly evocative of how human beings experience emotions when they’re spinning out of control. His voice is a real discovery, straightforward and artful, exuberant, intelligent and very, very funny. Of all the copy I’ve read about Nance’s movie, I think my favorite thought comes from Brandon Harris of Hammer to Nail: “. . . [the film] is so winning and otherworldly, I was won over before I even knew what the fuck was going on.”
PC The film really resonates on such a deep level since you express so much of how I feel, particularly about romantic love. The shock of recognizing things I have also thought and done was surprising and wonderful. In cinema, especially, this is extremely hard to articulate meaningfully. People try to do it all the time.
As part of this articulation, you reference one of my favorite books ever, one to which you pay sort of an homage in the way you’ve structured your film, Louise Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace. I was obsessed with her characters for ages.
TN You’re the only person I’ve talked to who’s read that book.
PC The way Erdrich threads these different voices and experiences all radiating out from one protagonist’s experience is very similar to what you do in your film. In the book, her main character also talks eloquently about how love, and our quest for love and the way we suffer for love, is the main motivation for absolutely everything we do. Can you talk a bit about this notion of longing for something you never had in the first place? How did you figure out how to cinematically show this?
TN I’m not going to call what I attempted an experiment, exactly, but I did very much set out to develop this way of conveying experience that didn’t filter anything through the use of metaphor or the language of symbols. That was the guiding principle for making the movie. I consider it a children’s book way of making a movie—minimalist in its execution.
Pietra Brettkelly talks with Pamela Cohn about Maori Boy Genius, her new documentary about New Zealand’s Maori people and their Boy Genius, Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti.
New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly’s new feature nonfiction film is headed to this year’s Berlinale as part of the always fantastic Generation Program, a section of the festival that since 1978 has been devoted to children and young people. Brettkelly’s last film, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, one of the most intimate and disturbing portraits of a modern-day artist I’ve seen, debuted at Sundance in 2008, and went on to garner many accolades and win many awards around the world, including exhibition slots at the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Her latest piece takes us into New Zealand’s Maori community to tell the story of 16-year-old Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti, whose name roughly translates as “the energy around where lightning strikes.” His name is based on an old Tuhoe tribal saying, “Like lightning in the sky, here is an example on earth.” According to Maori culture, Ngaa Rauuira was born under very auspicious omens; much is expected of this young man from his native community. He is being hailed as a new leader, “a visionary who can directly tap into the wisdom of his ancestors.” He himself has quite high ambitions; at just twelve years of age, he began his first university degree. Brettkelly, along with her long-time director of photography, Jacob Bryant, with whom she also made Art Star, spent one year following the 16-year-old. As much as the film is about an extraordinary young man from a culture struggling to survive, it is also about a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood figuring out his place in the world.
Pamela Cohn talks to fillmmaker Drea Cooper about California is a place, his documentary web series of site-specific portraiture.
About a year and a half ago, filmmaker Drea Cooper and photographer Zackary Canepari created a website called California is a Place. Thus far, the talented duo has created eight short films, beautiful HD videos they embed directly on the site where they can be watched for free. Their latest piece called Aquadettes has been selected to exhibit as part of the US Short Documentary Competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. This is the first time that a piece from their CIAP collaboration will play at a major festival, and it doesn’t get more major than Sundance. Cooper and Canepari first met in the Bay Area of California when they were both working as commercial production assistants to help put themselves through college.
California is a Place, in both its concept and its content, has been an inspiration to me ever since discovering the site through another filmmaking friend. The work is of such high quality in look and feel, and the storytelling is first-rate. The site exploded virally as soon as they posted Cannonball, their first collaboration, a six-minute film about Fresno, California-based skateboarders who interpret the state’s foreclosure crisis in new and fresh ways. At this juncture, with the invitation from Sundance, a commissioned 12-hour series for MTV, and other high-pressure opportunities coming their way, I felt it was a key time to check in with Drea Cooper, someone I’ve been wanting to talk to ever since discovering his work.
Filmmaker Gary Tarn talks to Pamela Cohn about adapting Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet into a stirring visual odyssey set in the local homes and streets of Beirut.
Poet and writer Khalil Gibran, was born in Lebanon in 1883, and emigrated with his family to the United States just two years later. When Gibran was twelve, he returned to Beirut to study and learn Arabic. After losing a beloved sister in 1902, amidst other family tragedies, he went back to America, eventually settling in New York. In 1923, Gibran had a small book published entitled The Prophet. The story is of a dying man who arrives by boat to the shores of a fictional city called Orphalese where he encounters the inhabitants of the city there to greet him.
In a series of short poetic essays, the people of Orphalese ask the journeyman to tell them about what he knows of the world. The chapters are headed thus: Love, Marriage, Children, Giving, Eating and Drinking, Work, Joy and Sorrow, Houses, Clothes, Buying and Selling, Crime and Punishment, Laws, Freedom, Reason and Passion, Pain, Self-Knowledge, Teaching, Friendship, Talking, Time, Good and Evil, Prayer, Pleasure, Reality, Religion, and, finally, Death. Since its original publication almost ninety years ago, the book has been read by millions of people in twenty different languages and has, remarkably, never been out of print.
Composer and filmmaker, Gary Tarn, started shooting footage for his latest feature film, an adaptation of The Prophet, when his first film, Black Sun, played at the Magnificent 7 Film Festival in Belgrade, Serbia in 2006. Black Sun is a nonfiction feature narrated in first person by its subject Hugues de Montalembert, a French painter living in New York City. As the artist eloquently describes what life is like for him after being completely blinded in an attack in 1978, Tarn takes us on a cinematic journey with stunning and potent visuals and a deeply affecting original score, beautifully interpreting de Montalembert’s brave and moving story. It is one of my favorite films.
Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer is a portrait of Josh “Screech” Sandoval, a So-Cal skateboarding punk romantic. Pamela Cohn spoke to the filmmaker about the difficulties of capturing such a mercurial personality on video.
Tristan Patterson’s debut film, Dragonslayerwhich both took the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s SXSW Festival, and won Best International Feature at this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto—captures a primal year in a young renegade skateboarder’s life in suburban Southern California, land of the forever young.
In the time Patterson shot the film, his protagonist, local skate legend, Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, becomes a father at the age of 23 as his relationship with the mother of his infant son falls apart. Also during this time, Sandoval meets a young beauty named Leslie, just as lost as he is, and falls head over heels in love. Patterson, a screenwriter who hails from Los Angeles (as do I), portrays, in many ways, the quintessential Southern California punk skater experience in Dragonslayer. But unlike other films of the recent past that have portrayed punk skate posses living life on the fringe, Patterson intuitively stumbled upon an exceedingly intelligent, sensitive and riveting subject in Sandoval and frames him in a lush cinematic landscape befitting this unrelenting wild and free spirit, a kid with the strength and pathos of someone who lives life completely on his own terms, since he knows no other way of living it.
Drag City, the US theatrical distributors of Harmony Korine’s equally un-categorizable film, Trash Humpers, will launch a theatrical release of Patterson’s film in early November. I talked to Patterson, at home in Laurel Canyon, via Skype from my home in Berlin, and at the end of the conversation, I mentioned to him that the early-morning LA light he was sitting in, and the sound and timbre of his voice, made me feel so at home. He got up and moved his laptop to the window to give me a glimpse of that soft, gentle light glowing in his small backyard. There’s nothing like that light.
Pamela Cohn You’ve received some strong support and backing for the film, as well as a highly experienced, some might say “legendary,” exec producer in Christine Vachon. The film has won major festival prizes out of the gate, and now you’re looking at an imminent theatrical release. Heady stuff?
Tristan Patterson Yes, a bit. I mean, I made a film that I’m extremely proud of. But at the same time, it’s always amazing when someone shows up to see it. All the responses to it have been amazing.
Pamela Cohn talks to filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson and actor Daniel P. Jones about the process behind their intensely personal film Hail. Per Jones: “If your life is like a sponge, it’s quite easy to reach in and squeeze a bit of it out.”
“I was young. I was about five. Me mum had a hotel. It was one of Melbourne’s more notorious hotels. I used to run around the bar where my mum worked and these men would sit me up on the bar and sing “Danny Boy” to me and give me raspberry lemonade and sarsparilla, and sometimes they’d even give me shandies. I’d run around and when they were playing darts, I’d run up to the board and climb up on a stool and I’d pull the darts. And I’m running back to the guy and handing him the darts. And through the door of the bar comes this bloke and he’s pulling a sawed-off shotgun. He put it up to the guy’s head and fucking let him have it with both barrels. I was just handing him the darts, you know? It just exploded like . . . My heart nearly jumped out of me mouth; my adrenaline gland had just exploded and the smell of gunpowder . . .”
This was the world’s introduction to consummate storyteller, Daniel P. Jones. Cicada, a nine-minute tour-de-force directed by Australian filmmaker, Amiel Courtin-Wilson (Chasing Buddha, Bastardy), screened as part of the prestigious Directors Fortnight program at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. While documenting a production staged by a theatre company comprised of recently released prisoners, Courtin-Wilson, a documentary director, was struck by the presence and natural story telling ability of Jones, whom he met on the day Jones was released from prison.
Pamela Cohn meets Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco, the partners behind Give Up Tomorrow, the documentary behind an international human rights movement.
For his first feature, the hugely ambitious documentary Give Up Tomorrow, director Michael Collins did not flinch when faced with an exceedingly complex story. An award-winner since its premiere at this past year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it won the Audience Award, as well as a Special Jury Prize for New Director, the film also won an Audience Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK, and Best Activism in a Foreign Documentary at Michael Moore’s festival in Traverse City, Michigan.
Collins and his partner and producer, Marty Syjuco, have just spent the past week with their main protagonist’s parents, sister and cousin in Valladolid at the Seminici Film Festival in Spain, the country where Paco Larrañaga is currently incarcerated in a maximum-security prison serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Larrañaga was a student who—fourteen years ago, in July of 1997—was accused of the murder of two young sisters on the provincial island of Cebu in the Philippines. Give Up Tomorrow meticulously presents the gross miscarriage of justice Larrañaga underwent at the hands of the Philippine government, in addition to being tried and convicted by the tabloid press there before the court had even handed down a verdict.
MC My introduction to Paco was through a request to do some kind of animation project. I went to art school where I studied computer animation, photography and video art at Syracuse University [in New York] at the School of Visual and Performing Arts. I was an art director at a small communications company but was about to quit. Marty and I had been together a couple of years at that point. It was 2004 when Paco’s sentence was elevated to death. Marty didn’t really know much about what was going on, but from time to time he’d mention that something had happened to his brother’s wife’s brother. But it was really cloudy. No one really knew what happened but everyone was just waiting for the Supreme Court to fix it. It was a limbo period.
Marty had been living away from the Philippines for a long time, so he didn’t really know the particulars and we didn’t talk about it much at all. It was a very complicated thing to have to explain and the family was very quiet about it. But when Paco got the death sentence, his brother came to us, desperate. He asked me to create an animation for a web site that would illustrate some of the injustices that had happened during the trial. I needed to learn about the case and discover whether I felt that Paco was innocent or not, so asked him to send me some information. He sent me a letter from the “Unheard35,” the witnesses who weren’t allowed to testify who were with Paco the night of the girls’ disappearance. This is what they had started to call themselves. Point by point, the letter describes what happened, whom they were with in Manila, the photographs that were taken. They went to court and the judge did not let them testify. They went to the media and no one in the press listened to them. And Paco is sitting on death row. I was sitting in a café in the East Village while reading this and I just started weeping because it was so heartbreaking, the way they described in detail the injustice of it all. Paco, at that point, was my age. He was 19 when he was arrested and this was seven years later. For the past seven years of his life he had been in prison and seven years before that moment, I had moved to New York City.
PC You had a sense of what that amount of time felt like.
MC Yes, the time I had grown and changed and what all that meant, being in your 20s and out in the world on your own. I told Marty we had to do something. No one’s going to do anything; this guy is just going to languish in prison. We did some research and some soul searching, checked our bank account and our credit line, quit our jobs, bought a camera, and jumped in. Our first trip was to LA where two of those witnesses were living. After meeting with them, we just knew that this story had to be told. It was mind blowing, like a Kafka novel, the kind of thing you couldn’t even dream up.
Banker White takes us through the impermanence of memory and familial filmmaking in his documentary on his mother and mother’s mother, The Genius of Marian.
Artist Banker White’s second documentary feature, The Genius of Marian, tells the story of the filmmaker’s mother, Pamela White. When White started filming with her almost three years ago, Pamela was experiencing symptoms of what was to be diagnosed as early onset Alzheimer’s dementia—the same disease her own mother, Marian, had when Marian was in her 80s.
Using a collage of Super-8 family home movies and other evocative archival set against this intimate family drama from the White family home in New England, Banker immerses us in the daily life of Pam, whose relentlessly deteriorating condition threatens to wipe out the memory of her own mother, about whom she is writing a memoir when her symptoms start to worsen. The Genius of Marian retraces both women’s lives and legacies to create a complex and powerful portrait of motherhood.
Banker—whose previous film was 2010’s award-winning Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars—spoke to me from his home in San Francisco where he lives with his wife and baby, Dylan Tilly White. As he shifts gears from making the film to getting ready to share it with the world, we talked about the ways in which he created this moving and poignant piece of work.
The film will have its world premiere as part of the World Documentary Feature Competition at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Pamela Cohn I’m always interested in the process of discovery a filmmaker has about his or her own project, particularly those projects that are so personal. You welcome an audience in immediately by opening with family home movies. The reverberations of that footage mixed with the immediacy of lives lived now is always so affecting. The years you spent being, in a way, your family’s archivist, set you up perfectly to make this kind of film. How did you work with your editor, Don Bernier, in extracting the best narrative?
Banker White Even before I identified as a filmmaker, I would film every family vacation and any other family function. So did my dad. So for the film, I could easily go back into that material. I also continued to shoot after what you see as the end of the film, and suspect I will keep doing so into the future.
Lina Mannheimer talks about her relationship to French popular icon Catherine Robbe-Grillet, who is the subject of Mannheimer’s upcoming documentary, The Ceremony.
At the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) last year, I saw an exquisitely shot 13-minute film that takes place at a beautiful old chateau in the French countryside. It was entitled The Contract and was directed by a young Swedish filmmaker named Lina Mannheimer. The film depicts the relationship between an old woman and her much younger mistress. In 2005, Beverly Charpentier declared an oath of allegiance to Catherine Robbe-Grillet, thereby giving up her freedom for the rest of her life. Beverly is Catherine’s property—materially, mentally and physically. Although Beverly has never been attracted to women, she tells us that Catherine is her idealized, unattainable love. In part, the two women express their love for one another in choreographed, ritualized ceremonies directed by Robbe-Grillet. After seeing this short film, the images never quite left my consciousness.
This past November at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, a documentary project called The Ceremony was presented at the Forum. The Ceremony is the feature film Mannheimer has been creating on the life and work of Catherine Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet has been part of France’s intellectual élite for most of her life. She was married to famous writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, who died in 2008. For over fifty years, the two had an open relationship. Throughout their married life, simultaneously, she played the role of the perfect muse and wife, while publishing several works under both a male and a female pseudonym, Jean and Jeanne de Berg. Her first novel, “The Image,” was first published in 1956, shocking the citizenry of Paris so profoundly that it was publicly burned. Her work is often of a highly erotic nature, mostly inspired by her own life. For decades, she has organized sadomasochistic ceremonies and her book, “Cérémonies de femmes” focuses entirely on this aspect of her life. As curious as I was to know more about the protagonists I met in Mannheimer’s short film, I found myself even more curious to know who Mannheimer was and how she came to make this film. Recently, I had a chance to talk with her about her fascinating relationship with Robbe-Grillet, and the project they embarked upon together three years ago.
Still in Motion talks to Sara Garcia Villanueva about Play-Doc, the documentary film festival she founded with Ángel Sánchez.
“It’s about what I’m striving for, what we’re all striving for—every person, humanity . . . the wishes and desires of the people to ascend, to transcend.”
—Artavarzd Peleshian on his film Our Age, from an interview with Scott MacDonald in A Critical Cinema 3.
In 2005, Sara Garcia Villanueva, together with co-artistic director, Ángel Sánchez, founded Play-Doc: Festival Internacional de Documentais, which has taken place for the last seven years in the beautiful village of Tui, population 10,000. The picturesque town sits on the left bank of the Minho, a river that forms a natural border between Spain and Portugal in the northern region of Galicia. I first met Garcia and Sánchez last summer in Kosovo where Garcia served as a member of the Balkan Dox jury. The three of us have run into one another several times throughout the year at various festivals, and—well, one sort of instantly falls in love with both of them.
Garcia, a native of Valencia, and Sánchez, born and raised in Tui, are both exceedingly warm and vibrant, each possessing a rabid passion for nonfiction cinema, which has deepened over the years they’ve been programming together. This year’s eighth edition, as in every previous year, is a meticulously and intuitively curated cinematic journey. I will be jurying alongside Nicolas Azalbert, South American correspondent for La semaine de la Critique for the Cannes Film Festival, and Carlos Muguiro, teacher and researcher in the Slavic Studies Department at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.
The entire program consists of just 28 selections, the main competition consisting of only five filmsMirage by Srdjan Keca, Two Years at Sea by Ben Rivers, Vikingland by Xurxo Chirro, ¡Vivan Las Antípodas! by Victor Kossakovsky, and Yatasto by Hermes Paralluelo. Thematically, this year’s films, workshops and spotlight programs on American filmmaker Ross McElwee and Armenian filmmaker Artavarzd Peleshian, will explore the dual themes of landscape and personal filmmaking: “ . . . We find a desperate hunger for unraveling the mysteries of the universe, together with an inextinguishable desire to transcend them: life and death, agony and ecstasy, the fleeting and the eternal, the unbelievable capacity to survive, and the untiring search for happiness. Nature emerges majestic and fearsome, movingly beautiful and devastating—reminding us of what we are and the place we occupy on the planet.”
A couple of weeks before the festival, I had a chance to speak with an excited—albeit thoroughly exhausted—Garcia, shortly after she, Sánchez and their small team published the online program and delivered the catalogue to the printer. Without any significant backing, funding or other means of support, Garcia admitted to me that it is some kind of milagrito that this festival continues to exist and thrive every year. All it takes is unwavering dedication, the same kind the filmmakers they celebrate bring to their craft.
Pamela Cohn So many regional festivals desiring an “international” profile seem to have this insatiable desire to stuff their programs until bursting with way too many films. Not to mention having competitions where there can be as many as 25 selections. They also tend to be the same films that play, seemingly, at every festival, many of them films one can see on TV. It’s fairly rare to find programmers willing to stay this pared down, to present thoughtful, carefully selected programs for their local audiences. Obviously, it is a matter of resource, but with your programs you continue to propose very statements on about the nonfiction genre. How did this adventure begin?
Sara Garcia I do think it’s important for certain festivals to have these big programs and invite lots of industry people and have a marketplace, and so on. But, for us, we are focusing on showing things you can’t really find anywhere else, including most of these larger festivals. Here, there is a real chance to talk with the filmmakers in an intimate way. The most important thing at the festival is the works these filmmakers make. And we really feel that right now, documentary is the most cinematic genre.
Pamela Cohn talks to Grant Gee, the celebrated filmmaker who directed films about Radiohead, Joy Division, and most recently, W.G. Sebald’s novel, The Rings of Saturn.
“He takes you down these poetic cul-de-sacs. And you don’t care that you’re being led nowhere, of course, because you learn so much on the way.”
—Tacita Dean, artist, on writer W.G. Sebald in Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald).
I had the pleasure of meeting filmmaker Grant Gee at DokuFest in Prizren, Kosovo this summer. As part of a special music documentary program, we showed Gee’s film from 1998, Radiohead: Meeting People Is Easy (a personal favorite of the festival’s artistic director, Veton Nurkollari), a profile of the band’s vertiginous rise to fame and its surreal aftermath after releasing their OK Computer album.
We also took the opportunity to program Gee’s latest film about the late W.G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn. Gee’s film, called Patience (After Sebald), takes the viewer on a walk with the filmmaker in the German-born Sebald’s footsteps. Imitating Sebald’s book in its structure, themes, and contemplative tone, Gee’s wondrously poignant and haunting film gathers a constellation (to use his word) of poets, writers, publishers, thinkers and artists to talk about their love for Sebald, his meandering, profound mind, and its effect on their own lives and work. The voices collectively discuss a curious and wide-ranging mix of fact and recollection, accompanied by a series of glorious black and white images that reflect the interior of a deep thinker and a melancholy spirit. As we’re told in the film, these qualities often go hand in hand.
Born in Plymouth, UK, Gee is currently a Brighton resident and works pretty much solo and close to the bone. Over the years—in his commercial, music video, multi-media, and film work—Gee has created his own inimitable style of storytelling. Like artist and filmmaker Ben Rivers, whose Two Years at Sea Gee admires, Gee approaches filmmaking as a craft. With basic tools in a rucksack and his own two legs to carry him, he set out to re-discover the forking paths of thought laid out in Sebald’s books.
A couple of months after we met in Prizren, Gee and I reconvened for a Skype chat to catch up and have a more substantive conversation than was possible at the time. A gentleman’s gentleman, Gee is forthright, friendly, and humorous and exceedingly generous when it comes to sharing his thoughts and feelings about the work that brings him much joy. There’s a bit of torture thrown in, to be sure—but mostly joy.
Director and critic Mark Cousins on conveying the experience of traveling in his film What Is This Film Called… Love? and the potentials and limitations of film festivals.
For those of us that have watched and listened to all fifteen hours of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, it is, ultimately, that voice—its distinctive timbre and rhythm, the precisely articulated Irish brogue, the awesome sound of the passion and wonder—that stays with you long after viewing. Cousins has turned his obsession with all things cinema into a small cottage industry, spending his time writing about, teaching, curating, exhibiting and imbibing movies, spending the last couple of decades sharing his love for the “greatest” of art forms.
Currently, Cousins is also a busy moviemaker with two works traveling the circuit. First there’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a fifteen-hour series that aired on Britain’s Channel4, and which some festivals are now screening as a special viewing event.The series provides a guided international tour of the greatest movies ever made, telling the story of cinema through the history of its innovations throughout the centuries. His latest piece What is this film called Love? is as intimate and personal an essay film as The Story of Film is epic. Filmed in Mexico over three days, the documentary feature begins as a film about Sergei Eisenstein but becomes a humorous and touching ode to the nature of happiness. With the Soviet filmmaker acting as Cousin’s Virgil, the film explores the complexities of memory, landscape and memory as landscape, all traversed on foot.
I caught Cousins—speaking from in his book-lined study in Edinburgh, Scotland via Skype,—during a brief break from his increasingly frequent travels. Oddly, shortly before our interview, I found out that Cousins will be visiting my current hometown of Tirana, Albania in about a month’s time to jury at a film festival here and to present both his new works, including a screening of all fifteen hours of The Story of Film, to be shown under the stars over the course of three nights at one of the city’s most well-known landmarks, Enver Hoxha’s abandoned pyramid. He greeted me as only a fellow traveler would:
Mark Cousins: Where are you?
Pamela Cohn: I’m in Tirana, Albania and I hear you’re coming here in a bit.
MC: Yeah, I just booked my flight today, actually. I’m so looking forward to it.
Mia Engberg discusses her latest film, Belleville Baby, and trusting the filmmaking process.
Swedish filmmaker Mia Engberg’s elegiac and mystical film, Belleville Baby explores themes of personal memory and time as she recounts a passionate love story of her youth with a young French criminal. Using the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a launching point, she tells the story of the man she lost to the underworld, realizing when he calls eight years later that he has been in prison all this time. Using only voices and ambient sounds, a Super 8 camera and a mobile phone, Engberg refracts a re-telling of their encounter through the prism of the woman she is now. Like Pietro Marcello’s La bocca del lupo and Chris Marker’s classic Sans Soleil, Engberg creates a bespoke world of sound and vision from her fertile imagination, a cinematic evocation of a mythical archetype, and an excavation of memory from sources both real and imagined.
Engberg spoke to me from her home in Stockholm where she lives with her husband and two children and teaches and mentors graduate documentary film students at the Swedish Film Academy. Belleville Baby, her twelfth film, will have its cinema premiere in Sweden at the end of this summer in the midst of a robust international festival tour including the Viennale and CPH:DOX in the autumn. It will have its Balkan regional premiere in Kosovo at Dokufest this summer, as well as exhibition dates in the US at Seattle International Film Festival and Rooftop Films in New York.
Pamela Cohn I am madly in love with your film. (laughter) I also view it as yet another example of how narrative in filmmaking is changing. Nonfiction, especially, seems to be undergoing significant sea changes. The intimate, personal stories are the ones that seem to be resonating the most, not just for festival programmers, but for audiences as well. Films that deal with memory and re-vitalizing the past through a cinematic tale.
Mia Engberg I’ve been teaching documentary for almost 15 years, as well as making documentary films for that amount of time. More and more, we see new people coming into the business, which creates more points of view than ever before. When I started, I got the impression that it was only middle-aged, white, heterosexual men who made documentaries on things like war and history and economy. (laughter) There was a classical tradition of storytelling. Now you have all of these communities—gay, feminist, young people, people from the suburbs. There are so many new voices telling their stories.
Spanish filmmaker Chico Pereira on his first feature, Pablo’s Winter, filming its eponymous star, and the challenges of documentary film.
It’s pretty heady stuff to have your Master’s thesis film project make its North American début at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Spanish director Chico Pereira’s first feature, Pablo’s Winter (El invierno de Pablo), will be opening this year’s prestigious Documentary Fortnight—MoMA’s 12th Annual International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media, February 15th to March 4th. Not a bad start to what looks to be a bright and very promising career.
Already a prize winner this past year at both Germany’s DOK Leipzig and the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, the nonfiction feature is set in the director’s hometown of Almadén, Spain, a small place that held the world’s largest productively-mined underground mercury deposits. Fifteen years ago, all the mines in Almadén were shut down. Pablo, now in his 70s, belongs to the last living generation of these miners.
In Pablo, Pereira found a pure movie star whom the camera most definitely loves. And Pablo loves it back. Delivering both a contained and passionate performance, we witness the daily life of this man in his twilight years in a town experiencing its own twilight, as well as a re-birth.
I met Chico, and first caught a glimpse of his elegiac black-and-white film, a couple of years ago at the Edinburgh Pitch Forum in Scotland where Pereira was earning his degree at the Screen Academy Scotland: A Skillset Film and Media Academy. He showed a full rough-cut to a small group of industry professionals, as well as his mentors and executive producers, Noé Mendelle, Sonja Henrici and Finlay Pretsell. The three award-winning filmmakers run the Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI), a research center at Edinburgh College of Art dedicated to production, distribution and training in documentary. Their track record for supporting challenging, artful nonfiction is quite impressive.