Bobby Liebling is Rock ‘n’ Roll, according to Demian Fenton and Don Argott, the filmmakers behind award-winning documentary Last Days Here.
Last Days Here details the most recent years in the life of Bobby Liebling, former lead singer of the doom metal band Pentagram. Bobby is a real relic of the ’70s, when Pentagram was at their best; he’s now a frail version of his former self, an aging rocker, with grey wispy hair, sucked in cheeks, and eyes bugging almost out of his skull—in fact, when the film begins we see Bobby living with his parents, and the three of them look about the same age. Years of drug use (Bobby has been addicted to crack and heroin for at least half his life) has taken its toll on Bobby, although he still has “rosy delusions” (as his mother calls them) of being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame someday. “I do think it’s good for him to have a dream,” his mom admits grudgingly.
Sean “Pellet” Pelletier is Bobby’s faithful sidekick, the story’s superman—he’s a young rock fan who found a Pentagram record in a store one day and fell in love. “It was like bumping into Jesus,” he says of hearing the music for the first time. Pellet became Bobby’s manager, and throughout the film makes a final, desperate bid at fighting to bring forth the former rock star’s slowly fading potential and talent. He began helping Bobby with his career, hoping to somehow get him rediscovered. Bobby wants to get off his parents’ couch and back on the right track, but just when he seems to be getting his act together, he’ll bail on a gig, suddenly lose his motivation, or do something to screw it all up again. “I don’t mean to do the things I do wrong,” Bobby tells the camera, his eyes welling up with childish sincerity.
When Bobby meets Hallie, a pretty blonde thirty years his junior, he feels as though he has a purpose again—though admittedly her presence in his life is a little distracting. Love proves itself to be the most powerful drug Bobby’s ever done; when he finally pulls together a show in New York City, the big “comeback,” he only really goes through with it to win Hallie back—his face is skeletal beneath the stage lights, but in his glittering paisley shirt and eyeliner, he obviously belongs on stage, and the crowd goes wild. I spoke with Don Argott (Rock School, The Art of the Steal) and Demian Fenton, the film’s directors, who followed Bobby with their cameras for over three years.
Director David France talks about activism, justice, and the ongoing struggle to find meaning, and his new documentary about the AIDS crisis, How to Survive a Plague.
First-time director and award-winning journalist David France’s debut film How to Survive a Plague takes audiences deep behind the scenes of the AIDS crisis, from the first tentative cries of pain to the eventual, unrelenting call for a cure. France himself played detective in scouring hours of personal archival footage from the past 30 years, most of it shot by AIDS activists and protesters themselves, to create what is not only a narrative account of the plague’s effect on America but an important historical document and a rousing, visceral experience. When the disease first became extant in the gay community in the ’80s, those afflicted were left to die by their peers. So the afflicted took matters into their own angry hands, adopting the slogan “silence = death.” With the materialization of the activist group ACT UP in Greenwich Village, a community was formed in which an outsider status would bring you inside, and an individual’s “otherness” and ailing isolation allowed them a place within a radical group fighting for a restoration of health. The waging of their war was tinged with both suffering and the emergence of an intense intimacy and sense of community. The effort to manufacture effective AIDS drugs and prevent the HIV diagnosis from becoming an automatic death sentence is painted by France as one long road that was ultimately worth treading. The tone of his documentary is solemn, but uplifting; yes, many died, but they did so that others could live, and those who struggled against society’s ignorance and apathy proved again and again the possibility of human reinvention and perseverance. Today, AIDS is no longer the burden that it used to be: there are helpful drugs, there are resources available to the sick, and above all, there is hope for longer lives that will be worth living.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Why do you believe the AIDS epidemic was so widely ignored by government officials and health organizations when the outbreak first occurred? Was this due to its stigma as a “gay disease?”
David France It’s really hard to remember! Gay people were so hated back then. Not just ignored, but hated, and in some cases feared. It was a different time altogether, one that I imagine is hard to wrap your head around for younger people who weren’t there. So when AIDS hit, it was considered politically to be a small problem in a meaningless community. The very first report about AIDS was 41 cases. And if we had mounted some sort of true public health response, we might have contained it. It may never have become the disease that’s now affected over 70 million people. And science knew that; epidemiology knew that. But what they didn’t have was any sense of urgency about protecting the lives of gay people who had the disease. In fact, there was so much religious stuff going on at the time; it was the dawn of the religious Right, that came into power with Ronald Reagan in 1980, and they really felt, and said out loud, that this disease was divine retribution for a sinful lifestyle. And who is going to step in and try to wrestle with divine retribution? So they thought they’d just let it happen. And what happened was a global pandemic that will be with us forever.
Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor on their visceral and experimental new documentary Leviathan.
Leviathan is a strange and gripping new documentary set aboard a fishing vessel navigating treacherous waters off New England’s coast. Filmmakers Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor took to the sea themselves, strapped cameras to their bodies and to the bodies of the fishermen they worked with, and were able to secure dizzyingly visceral footage exploring the extreme world of commercial fishing. In rough seas and freezing cold, Taylor and Paravel filmed the fishermen as they slaved without much sleep or pause or even the chance to get warm and dry; it isn’t difficult to trust that fishing boasts one of the highest mortality rates of any occupation.
Leviathan could be viewed as an art film, a collage of beautiful and chaotic images flowing together without explanation: hungry birds soaring above the boat in packs, piles of fish sliding on the slippery deck floor, smashing into one another, bleeding and dying, eyes bulging; the creaks and groans of machinery and the violent claps of the ocean hurtling the ship back and forth like a bath toy. It could be read as an anthropologic study, rendering the specific (and fast-vanishing) lifestyle of a commercial fisherman. The film could even be considered one of the first of its kind—a document of human activity seen not from the perspective of human beings, but from that of the natural world itself: the soaring point of view of a bird in mid-flight, a crazy kaleidoscope of sea and sky alongside the miserable viewpoint of the captured fish, clumped in nets, dying together.
As our conversation makes clear, Taylor and Paravel believe they have captured something important, in that their film can return us, once more, to the “fabric of the world”—a world that many of us have long since lost touch with.
Anya Jeremko-Greenwold enters the cold, calculating, and instinct-driven world of Werner Herzog at a roundtable discussion of his Into the Abyss.
Werner Herzog’s latest film might not boast the usual exotic locale (it’s set in Texas) or unearth a startling culture never before imagined by the movie-going masses, as so many of his previous projects have. Into the Abyss does, however, delve deep into a territory particular to the American experience, a territory most of us are lucky to be only vaguely familiar with: that peculiar culture of organized death, harnessed within the arena of capital punishment.
Rather than seeking to reveal objective truths, Herzog merely gathers information. In preparation for the film, he read 800 pages of the case file in question and perused every single transcript of witness accounts. He looked at every crime scene photo and video. “The cave film. Did I do that last year? Yes, last year. It’s going so fast,” Herzog remarked thoughtfully during our roundtable discussion, apparently bemused by his own crowded schedule. Next he will act in a movie alongside Tom Cruise; after that, he goes on to teach “Rogue Film School,” a workshop in which he instructs aspiring filmmakers on how best to forge documents, steal cameras, and generally sneer in the face of safe and sensible movie-making.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold talks with Israeli director Alma Har’el about Bombay Beach, a film heralded by the Tribeca Film Festival as the Best Feature Documentary of 2011. Har’el illuminates the process of her film’s creation and its implications for the people of Bombay Beach.
Bombay Beach, the first film of Israeli director Alma Har’el, documents the experiences of those people living on Bombay Beach, an abandoned resort town and now-desolate community on the edge of the Salton Sea, California’s largest (man-made) lake. Dwelling in this small desert neighborhood are a variety of low-income families, mostly down on their luck or floundering, but all of them with their own ambitions, jokes, and zest for life. Har’el films the animal carcasses that lie scattered upon the unforgiving desert floor, the broken-down signs still left standing from the fifties, the dirty living rooms and kitchens of the homes standing there; but she also catches the lovely sunsets that sink over the sea, and the delicate, darkened silhouettes of the locals who enjoy them. Three characters are focused upon: Benny Parrish, a sweet little boy whose adolescent behavior problems have led him to be prescribed dangerously high doses of Ritalin and Lithium, drugs with side effects his mother cannot understand; Ceejay Thompson, a black teenager from L.A. who aspires to be a football player and break free from the tradition of wasted lives and violence in his own family; and Red, a wizened old man who heartily drinks, smokes and basks in the relaxing glow of his remaining years. Using a combination of straight documentary techniques and choreographed, dreamlike dance numbers, Har’el paints the portrait of Bombay Beach and its inhabitants, the interspersed narratives of the three males at various stages of life weaving in and out of one another. I spoke to Har’el about her unique methods of filmmaking and the strong bonds she formed with the subjects of her project.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold I read that you both directed and shot the entire film yourself. Was there a crew besides you doing sound or producing, or were you completely alone?
Alma Har’el Yeah I was completely alone! I was doing both the sound and the camerawork, and I was producing too. I moved to Bombay Beach, so I was doing it without too much planning or scheduling. I was kind of just hanging out with everybody.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold talks to Azazel Jacobs about his new film Terri, starring John C. Reilly and rookie Jacob Wysocki.
Terri, a new movie directed by Azazel Jacobs and inspired by a series of short stories by novelist Patrick deWitt, tells the story of an overweight high schooler struggling to find his place in the world. While so many boys become crude or cruel during their adolescent years, Terri (newcomer Jacob Wysocki) is unassuming and dignified, with an air of patiently tolerating all the jerks and hypocrites around him. Having no parents and caring for his ailing uncle James (The Office’s Creed Bratton) by himself, Terri has to grow up fast. Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) is the high school’s vice principal, a man who becomes Terri’s gruff but comforting confidant. In this unflinchingly honest and funny coming-of-age tale we are left wondering whether coming of age is actually a good thing at all. But as Terri slowly begins to alter his loser status, making a new friend and attracting the attention of a pretty girl—both of whom have problems ever bigger than his own—he sees that life can be unpredictable in both the best and worst of ways; and it is this very changeability that makes it worth living. I spoke with Azazel in person during his two-day stay in New York City to promote the film.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold discusses near-death experiences, true callings and putting together the jigsaw puzzle of art and life with Argentine filmmaker Natalia Smirnoff.
Puzzle is the debut film of Argentine director Natalia Smirnoff. It tells the story of Maria del Carmen (played by Maria Onetto), a downtrodden housewife in Buenos Aires who discovers she is unusually skilled at putting together jigsaw puzzles. Maria’s husband Juan (Gabriel Gouty) and her children are unwilling to treat Maria’s new talent seriously, believing her role as mother requires devoting her entire life to their care. Maria begins to pull back from her family, training for a puzzle tournament with bachelor Roberto (Arturo Goetz). In watching Puzzle, we are made to consider the notion that our dreams might be the only truth we can depend upon—even if they do not work out the way we’d hoped. In completing her puzzles, Maria escapes into a fantasy world; doing what she is good at becomes the most important thing. Maria’s story depicts the heroism of daily existence, the patient survival of tedium, and the blossoming of a delicate, unaggressive feminism. I spoke with Smirnoff about her new film over the phone. Though she is conversant in English, Spanish is her first language, so some of what she said was communicated to me through a translator.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwood I read a memorable story you told about the origins of your career in the film industry: “One day, my plane almost crashed; thankfully it did not happen, but I envisioned the possibility of death very vividly. So a few months later, I enrolled into a college film program and quit my engineering course.”
Natalia Smirnoff That is a mistranslation! It was not a plane, but a car. I was driving a car and a motorcycle crashed into me. I thought for a second that the motorcyclist was dead. And that I could die—for a second I understood that life is something very fragile and could end at any second. I was 21 and decided to quit engineering studies and change to cinema.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold on the divisive Miranda July’s latest film The Future, in select theaters tomorrow. It’s narrated, apparently, by a cat.
Miranda July’s new film The Future stars Miranda herself—a wise choice, for who better to express the pain and joy of a character you’ve lovingly penned than yourself? July’s work has always been unapologetically personal, thus her dual role as director and lead actor can be deemed justifiably necessary. Critics of July often call her work “twee,” which means, I think, “excessively quaint, pretty, or sentimental.” July’s sensitivity—her self-consciousness and vulnerable reactions to things in the world—understandably causes viewers to be wary. We don’t trust such defenselessness in the twenty-first century. There’s got to be some catch. The much–popularized contemporary concept of a “hipster” is one fraught with discrepancies and plagued by varied, stalwart definitions; but we might generally understand this title to indicate a person who actively tries to be cool. July is often labeled as a hipster, but I’m not quite convinced. She probably doesn’t think of herself as cool; it would be difficult to find a more humbled, self-effacing performance than the one she gives in her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know—or in The Future, a less arrogant haircut.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold on Magic Trip, a documentary recently pieced together from Ken Kesey’s original 16mm tapes of his drug-fueled journey across America in 1964 with the Merry Pranksters.
Magic Trip recounts the story of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and his cross-country road trip to the New York World’s Fair in 1964. Kesey and those who traveled with him shot footage of their trip on 16mm, but never edited together what they had; Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Alison Ellwood were granted access to these tapes by the Kesey family, and together with the Film Foundation, HISTORY and the UCLA Film Archives, were able to restore over 100 hours of film and audiotape from an unquestionably wild era. The resulting film is more of a history lesson than anything else. The ramshackle bus in which Kesey toured, like a mobile Easter egg, is painted all over with psychedelic patterns. The bus bares the name Further, on a tag stuck proudly above her windshield: for these people wished to delve “further” into the realm of human experience. The reason for their now legendary trip was, put simply, “to experience the American landscape and heartscape”—and unofficially, to do a lot of drugs.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold sits down with director Alison Klayman to discuss Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, her documentary about the Chinese artist and outspoken social activist.
During the making of her documentary portrait Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, first-time director Alison Klayman gained unprecedented access into the life of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Throughout the filmmaking, Ai came into continuous conflict with the Chinese government as authorities shut down his personal blog, beat him so badly he had to have surgery, bulldozed his newly constructed studio, and detained the artist for three months to interrogate him. The artist has critiqued China’s oppressive rule through photographs of his middle finger flipping off Tiananmen Square, pictures of him dropping and shattering a Neolithic pot (demonstrating the need to break from culture and tradition), and poignant memorials for the more than 5,000 schoolchildren killed in carelessly constructed government buildings in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai’s work strives against an environment of strict censorship, using every available resource to get the public involved, including Twitter.
Klayman’s film frequently depicts the artist in the comfort of his home where he lives with dozens of cats, one of which opens doors by leaping up to a handle and pressing it downward. Ai notes that if he hadn’t met this one cat, he would never have known cats could open doors at all. This metaphor captures the artist’s project succinctly: it takes only one person (or, in this case, a feline) to defy expectations, to challenge the system.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold peeks into the mind of director Anne Sewitsky, whose new film Happy, Happy, is out now.
Happy, Happy is the first film Norwegian filmmaker Anne Sewitsky has directed. Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and featured in the New Directors/New Films festival. The film was just chosen as the official Norwegian entry for the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold You’ve said you made this film following some “Dogme” rules. Can you talk about that a bit?
Anne Sewitsky The production company that I was working with, they had made one film earlier following these rules. My scriptwriter and I went to our producer and said we would like to try it too. So we started writing the movie for two locations, a few actors, and it had to be very actor-driven. Also there was a maximum of 20 days for shooting, a lower budget, and a shorter time period was supposed to exist between writing the script and starting to film . . . but we ended up spending about two or three years on the script, so we broke the rules from the start!
AJG Your depiction of children in the film is wonderful. Instead of using child actors to manipulate the audience into feeling sympathy, making them appear sweet and innocent, you exposed a more truthful side to childhood: these kids are angry and even cruel at times. Why did you decide to allow these adult relationships to be viewed from a youthful perspective?
AS I liked the idea that the grown-ups are so consumed by their own lives they don’t see their own children or the harm they are inflicting upon them. I wanted the children to be on their own, without the grown-ups intervening. They are like normal kids; they play these games and they don’t know how cruel they’re being. I know I used to roll my own sister up in the carpet when I was young! (laughter)
Writer and director Shane Carruth talks about his latest film Upstream Color, Walden, and an integrated filmmaking process.
Filmmaker Shane Carruth’s 2004 debut Primer, completed on an inconceivably low budget, is a mindbending sci-fi film about time travel, with a narrative that’s rarely, if ever, linear or easy to follow. Yet, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and has garnered a kind of cult following among sci-fi aficionados. Carruth hasn’t made another film for the last nine years—until Upstream Color. Carruth wrote, directed, produced, shot, edited, and starred in the film, whose plot is, like his previous film, a little tricky to summarize. I can reveal that it involves a young woman named Kris (played by Amy Seimetz) who has been abducted and brainwashed by a mysterious parasitic organism. After she escapes from a period of mind control, Kris is left with no idea who she is—only scattered, potentially untrustworthy memories. She runs into Jeff (played by Carruth) who has been similarly treated and is similarly bewildered about who or where or why he is, and the two lost souls begin a romance. There’s also a farmer who keeps a drove of pigs, one of whom Kris has some psychic connection to. The film is comprised mostly of fragmentary, dream-like images that build a hypnotic rhythm, and which mimic the cycles of nature itself—not unlike a Terrence Malick film, although Carruth’s depiction of the natural world is slightly more sinister. Upstream Color explores the universal human desire to construct identity, to create some meaning, to impose a little structure on chaos.
Filmmakers Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq discuss their new documentary about the runaway children of Karachi.
These Birds Walk—a documentary shot in Pakistan—narrates the struggles of a runaway boy and the efforts of a humanitarian foundation to help him and scores of others like him. Neither Omar, the 10-year-old whose story is most prominently featured, nor Asad, one of the Samaritans from the Edhi Foundation, know quite where they belong or where “home” should be in their city of Karachi. The film battles with these questions too, as it tails characters in an almost haphazard fashion, through crowds of worshippers or bands of schoolchildren on packed city streets.
Asad regularly risks his life to reunite runaways with their parents—and sometimes, when money or space prevents the child from having a decent life at home, the Edhi Foundation takes the children in, granting sanctuary, support, and hope. Although Abdul Sattar Edhi remains Pakistan’s most admired philanthropist, he is glimpsed only momentarily on camera after expressing his disinterest in being included. He preferred the people working with him, their successes and tribulations, to be recorded in his place. Edhi’s established system of shelters, orphanages, and hospitals—and the many humble altruists who come together to work under his name—are in stark contrast to the country’s gang violence, ethnic conflict, and poverty.
However, the small details of These Birds Walk, rather than any grand socio-political commentary, are what elevate the film. Mullick and Tariq quietly train their camera on scores of young boys who have abandoned home in a quest for something better; their dirty feet, long dark eyelashes, and delicate little features can be shocking in contrast to their firm religious stances and tough talk. These Birds Walk is poetic and simple in its presentation, relying on uncontaminated emotion rather than on commentary or talking heads. The screen swells with vivid colors, textures, and the bustling life of Karachi—but is also steeped in the hard reality of the orphans. I sat down with filmmakers Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq to talk about the challenges of filming in Pakistan, and the ways in which documentaries might present a more fulfilling experience for their audiences than whatever 3D spectacle is getting the most attention at the multiplex.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Where did the title for this film come from?
Omar Mullick There’s an indie self-publishing photo blog-type thing called These Birds Walk. And we thought, “This would be the perfect title for our movie.”
Bassam Tariq It stuck with us. Our editor didn’t like it at the time and people wanted us to change it. But Omar and I loved it. It lent itself to a lot of the actions of the film and will make sense to the audience—or we hope it will.
Filmmaker Penny Lane on divisive personalities, collateral consequences, and the question of Nixon’s presidency as aberration in her new film, Our Nixon.
When Richard Nixon’s three closest companions, John Erlichman, H.R. Haldeman, and Dwight Chapin (three names that now live in infamy) began to film Super 8 home movies in the White House, they were young and idealistic, intensely devoted to their new jobs. They had, of course, no inkling that a few years later they would be in prison. These three carefully committed to film the Apollo moon landing, a historic visit to China, and many more day-to-day events—until the Watergate scandal broke. Their footage is not all what we might expect; Ehrlichman, for example, was especially fond of filming hummingbirds. The men filmed because they hoped and believed Nixon’s presidency would change the world, assuming they would wish to remember those moments, to treasure them.
Our Nixon, the first feature documentary from director Penny Lane, sifts through the thousands of hours of forgotten home movies shot by Nixon’s top aides during his presidency. Lane re-contextualizes the footage, filed away for 40 years since being seized by the FBI, and interweaves it with period news clips, excerpts from Nixon audiotapes, and pop cultural touchstones from the era. What emerges is a unique portrait of the 37th presidency, a reign that has long since wrought intrigue and outrage, and boasts the sole presidential resignation from office in United States history.
The film offers an unusually nuanced sketch of Nixon and his associates, leaving the audience to consider contradictory fragments of history and draw their own conclusions. I spoke with Lane about the new light Our Nixon sheds on the Watergate scandal, and on the complexity of the man behind it.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Why Nixon? Were you interested in his story because of its legacy, or because you thought people didn’t know the whole story? What new things, if any, does the footage in this film reveal?
Penny Lane Why not Nixon! It isn’t that I had some sort of burning desire to make a Richard Nixon film. I was not obsessed with him, and I didn’t even know more about him than the average person who went to college. But these home movies surfaced and they did something that was kind of hard to explain initially, that was different and surprising. It didn’t change the way I felt about Nixon, but it added a layer of something new. Something confusing and mysterious. Brian Frye (my co-producer) and I felt that right away. It sounds sort of banal to say, “The revelation is that these guys were human beings.” That is the revelation, but it’s hard to explain or pitch that without watching the film.