Filipino filmmaker John Torres discusses his embrace of being an outsider, the fight for an audience, and how a mishearing became his latest feature film Lukas the Strange.
While the advent of digital video changed the face of cinema the world over, for the Philippines it represented a veritable deliverance. Stretching back over a century, the Philippines possess one of the oldest and richest cinematic histories in South East Asia. However, following the so-called “Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema,” which featured figures such as Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal and ended along with the dissolution of martial law in 1981, the country’s film industry plunged into a commercial black hole, gradually expunging all artistic merit from its output.
The increasing availability of cheap digital film equipment at the beginning of the millennium reopened the floodgates, however, and within a few years hundreds of independent features and countless more shorts were shot on digital. The rising popularity of indie cinema back home and the success of directors like Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza on the international festival circuit paved the way for a young generation of filmmakers that would otherwise never have been allowed—or, rather, would never have agreed—to practice within the studio system.
This was the case with John Torres. His original intention had been to move to the US after university and work in IT, but playing around with his father’s digital camera and editing software opened his eyes to the potential of the filmmaking process. Shooting feverishly and on impulse, he recorded random segments of his everyday life and later edited them together into abstract shorts, seeking to capture the essence of his present state of mind. The success of his shorts at local indie festivals led to his first feature in 2006, Todo Todo Teros, which was showered with acclaim and accolades at festivals abroad and established him, along with the likes of Khavn De La Cruz and Raya Martin, as one of the key members of this new generation of independent Filipino filmmakers.
Documentarian Trine Laier and Producer Lise Saxtrup talk about turning family history into a whole new medium.
There is no shortage of documentary films that deal with a filmmaker’s family secrets and the decision to expose them. Danish animator and filmmaker, Trine Laier, is no different and has an exceedingly interesting story to tell. However, in investigating the intense confidentiality and secrecy behind her mother’s and father’s work for the Danish Intelligence during the Cold War, Laier has decided to wade into the brave new world of cross-media to tell their story in the format of a game application with dossiers and documents, animation and voiceover. The content will be distributed to users via personal tablets and the web.
These Cold Warriors were clandestine operatives of the secret service arm of the Danish Army, fighting the “Red Menace” in a fantastic reality of double identities, top secret documents and coded signals, keeping their real identities hidden, even from their own daughter. Trine was 39 years old before she stumbled upon the truth, and decided to start her own counter-espionage project by searching for the hidden truth in her family’s history.
In addition to the interactive story of personal intrigue and family secrets that plays like a good old-fashioned soap opera, a companion supplementary application filled with historical research about the Cold War, with interviews of various participants, including Trine’s father, will also be created as part of the game’s platform. The project is supported by public funding and by The Danish Film Institute to develop a script along with further development of the prototype, examining game mechanics and controls whilst staying loyal to the authentic narrative. The prototype is Trine’s critically acclaimed graduation project from the Danish Film School.
Made with producer Lise Saxtrup of Klassefilm, who has an extensive background in traditional documentary production, and a software composer who has never made a documentary project before, Cosmic Top Secret Experience was one of the projects to participate in the pilot year of Scandinavian World of Innovative Media, known as SWIM— a trans-media development workshop launched at last year’s CPH:DOX. CTSE is one of the initiative’s “guinea pigs” and Saxtrup and Laier pitched the project at the cross-media forum at this year’s festival, as well as pitching it at the roundtable pitches at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, Europe’s largest documentary pitch forum.
I met Saxtrup and Laier at the recent edition of DOK Leipzig in Germany at the beginning of November. They were participants in a panel discussion I hosted there, one of the Animadoc Case Studies talks called “Refresh Your Mind.” Intrigued by the project and impressed with their presentation, I took them to lunch to talk more about the challenges of producing a project in this wide-open new field.
A revival of Leos Carax’s 1986 film showcases the director’s wholly original vision.
In 2012, no other movie even vaguely resembled French director Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. In 1986, his second feature Mauvais Sang stood equally alone in the cinematic landscape. Paradoxically, Carax makes highly referential films (for Mauvais Sang, it was Godard, Chaplin, silent film in general, and the repressed tradition of poetic French cinema) that turn out unique to the point of being beyond classification. Though Carax may be against the times he lives in—denying reality in Mauvais Sang by shooting on studio sets with a highly restricted color palette (it’s nearly a black and white movie in color, with a splash of red here and there)—he is not disconnected from them. Who else in 1986 shot a sex scene by showing a young woman (the incandescent Julie Delpy) slide a condom out of her box of Tampax, peel the packaging, and kneel to place it on her lover? The film world his characters live and die in revolves around the most salient, terrible fact of the period: AIDS. Mauvais Sang (literally: Bad Blood) is a love story and a heist film in which the central metaphor is a virus that attacks those who make love without emotion. Carax is a romantic, an artist who can turn the worst tragedy into a desperate call for true love. Thus he is also a tortured soul, whose contradictions mean that love in Mauvais Sang is impossible and that the heist—the object of which is a sample of the virus that could lead to a vaccine—is so easy that he omits the breaking and entering.
Aaron Schimberg on dominance, avoiding naturalism and psychoanalyzing a character.
I was exposed to Aaron Schimberg’s cinema before we actually met. Aaron submitted work for the first-ever screening my work, a spread of short films curated with Showpaper in 2009. Among the usual thumb-sucking Coney Island mope-core and corporate-ready thesis films, Aaron’s trio of miniDV shorts (made with his wife and producer Vanessa McDonnell) immediately stood out, made with both a knowing physical lightness and utter precision of tone. Unpredictably hitting new note after new note whenever I thought my eyeballs had settled back down, the films were playful, dark, conversant with death, never enamored of their own beauty, but not self-flagellating either. (The whole trio is available as a standalone short, Late Spring/Regrets For Our Youth, here.)
Later on, I heard murmurs that Aaron was making his first feature, holed up in a former paint factory in Greenpoint. That film became Go Down Death and has been in production for more years than I can count on one hand, filmed entirely indoors (no ceilings) on Super-16 with a cast of dozens-if-not-hundreds. Death would have an uphill battle on its hands even if it weren’t excellent: under the reference points cosmetically affixed to Schimberg’s mise-en-scene (David Lynch, Tom Waits, Guy Maddin) lies an almost terrifyingly bleak worldview, served up in a final scene that knifes straight through the preceding 80 minutes and makes you reconsider everything you just watched.
On the intricate emotional architecture of Philippe Garrel’s autobiographical classic, based on his own romance with legendary chanteuse Nico.
No one films faces the way Philippe Garrel does. The French autobiographical filmmaker does not rely on a special lens or light to achieve the luminous presence he captures when he films a man and, especially, a woman. He succeeds because he hones in, filming only what he loves—there are no extras in a Garrel movie and of course no explosions. Naturally, the films are also about love. But Garrel makes no attempt to account for the reasons we slip in and out of each other’s lives, placing narrative far behind presence and psychology deep below that. His masterpiece I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991), which plays at the Alliance Française on Tuesday, offers the paradox of a rich surface with endless depth. The depths are in the way the weather changes in his magnificent actors’ eyes but mostly in the ellipses, the months and sometimes years that pass between two shots, the major events—what others would call plot points—that happen off-screen. Garrel films the simple moments, the stroll down to the beach or the hurried drink at the café, two lovers alone in a bare apartment and what happens when the toilet paper runs out, reeling in from the unconscious what he doesn’t show but what we’ve all felt—the break-up or first kiss—anchoring it in tangible reality. And so your own feelings come alive inside the movie and you leave pulsing with the intensity of your own life.
Czechoslovak New Wave filmmaker Jan Němec discusses jazz and making movies under communism.
Any cinephile would jump at the chance to interview Jan Němec, an at-times undersung hero of the Czech New Wave. Alongside Forman’s tongue-in-cheek naturalism, Chytilová’s psychedelic ennui and Menzel’s literary agitprop, Němec forged a path either blistering in its clear-headed sorrow or almost naughty in its willingness to poke fun at the organs of totalitarianism—sometimes, as in A Report on the Party and the Guests, both at once.
As an innovator of new ways to express internal flights of fancy and despair, Němec receives his first career-long retrospective beginning November 8th at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He graciously agreed to a brief interview from his apartment in Prague; armed with a muscular cup of coffee, I began my day volleying questions to him via Skype.
Steve Macfarlane How are you?
Jan Němec Oh, I’m fine. It seems you’re the guy who wants to talk with me about my films.
SM Yeah, if that’s cool with you.
JN Go ahead.
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.
Matt Porterfield discusses the degrees of accessibility of his films and the process behind his most recent project I Used to Be Darker.
For a guy whose breakout film sometimes felt like a once-in-a-lifetime intersection of Nan Goldin and Andreas Gursky, Matt Porterfield talks about his characters with unexpected kinship. Putty Hill’s tiptoeing reveal of Baltimore’s loneliest working-class peripheries—one fragment at a time, local color simultaneously embalmed and isolated by Porterfield and cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier—finds no obvious echoes in I Used To Be Darker. Cowritten with Amy Belk, the new feature retains Porterfield’s earlier, almost militantly 1:1 realism; that said, the filmmaker has deftly surprised the (many) heads who merely anticipated a (slightly) more expensive still-life docudrama by cranking out his most verbose—and thus, emotionally messy—picture yet.
The film opens on Taryn (Deragh Campbell), a shiftless 19-year-old visiting the Jersey shore from Northern Ireland. After slashing an oil painting of a beach at a despondent house party, she flees these interminable days to surprise-visit her cool indie musician aunt Kim (Kim Taylor), her husband Ned (Ned Oldham), and their same-aged daughter Abby (Hannah Gross). What Taryn doesn’t realize is that Kim and Ned are in the middle of a brutally painful divorce, making nearly every scene in Darker a study in pent-up volatility or compassion, bruised and unrequited family allegiances. The film opened at IFC Center on October 4.
Steve McFarlane Gotta say, you had me feeling bad for Taryn from scene one. Who puts on “Swishas and Dosha” at a party?
Matt Porterfield Aha! When she escapes from that party, it’s the most proactive she is, really, in the whole film. In some ways, UGK was a pretty big influence; not directly on the material, let’s say, so much as an inspiration for me. I’ll give you an anecdote: a week or two weeks out from production, we were still finalizing some private equity deals but we had no money in the bank. Driving south on 83, the Jones Fall Expressway, listening to UGK’s “Gravy”:
We grind to eat, and eat to live
This shit for real, these ain’t no tricks
Today’s agenda, get that dough cause the clock is tickin, time is pressin
No second guessin, make your mind up, step your grind up and get that pay
At the end of the day that’s about commitment, and that’s when I decided to get the film’s title tattooed on my arm. I wasn’t “whipping my Mercedes” though; it was a ‘95 Volvo.
Filmmaker Jason Osder discusses his documentary Let the Fire Burn, an investigation into the 1985 bombing of the MOVE collective in Philadelphia.
Over a decade of conflict and antagonism between the Philadelphia police force and a group of African American revolutionaries known as MOVE, culminated with an epic tragedy on May 13, 1985. MOVE members had taken over a multi-story row house in a lower-middle class, mostly Black, West Philadelphia neighborhood where several members—men, women and children—were living off the grid together as an extended family.
On that day, after an hours-long extensive gunfight and stand off—and after evacuating the neighborhood—police commissioner Greg Sambor authorized a bomb to be dropped from a helicopter on the MOVE compound. The row house caught fire, and following a directive from Mayor Wilson Goode to “let the fire burn,” all the residents trapped inside the house—except for one little boy and one woman—were killed. Almost the entire residential neighborhood was destroyed. Until now, this incident has been a mostly forgotten moment in recent American history. Filmmaker Jason Osder, a Philadelphia native who was 11 at the time of the tragedy, set out to find out what happened that day—and, more importantly, why.
Osder is currently a full-time assistant professor at the Documentary Center at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs in Washington, DC. Let the Fire Burn is his début feature and is constructed entirely of archival materials: the televised community public hearing that followed the conflagration; 13-year-old Michael Ward’s filmed deposition and testimony (the boy was then known as Birdie Africa); segments of the local TV news coverage; and, a very odd and stilted black and white documentary done on the MOVE group and its activities. It is an exceedingly powerful and emotional journey into a very, very dark moment in contemporary America.
The film was part of the International DOX competition at this year’s edition of DokuFest in Prizren, Kosovo in August. Never having been to this part of the world before, Osder joined us early, excited to be taking the film to such unexpected places. Before the festival began in earnest, we had a chance to sit at a local café and chat about the long road to make this film.
Filmmakers and friends Swanberg and Decker—who both have features at the 2013 La Di Da Film Festival—discuss the immorality of not making comedies and the challenges of making sexually charged films.
Joe Swanberg and Josephine Decker have amassed a fascinating body of work that seems to continually intersect. Swanberg, who has directed over twenty films in less than a decade, has been receiving phenomenal reviews for his most recent film, Drinking Buddies, while Decker, who has frequently appeared as an actress in Swanberg’s films, has been receiving rave reviews for her short feature Butter on the Latch, including a New Yorker article that called her film “an utter exhilaration of cinematic imagination.” Separately, they have established strong, original voices that continue to garner praise. Together, these two boundary-breaking artists often grapple with themes of community and sexuality in highly intricate and nuanced ways. With both filmmakers screening work at the upcoming La Di Da Film Festival, Swanberg and Decker sat down to talk about their films and the challenges they are working to tackle.
Josephine Decker I’m heading down to Sidewalk [Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama] this weekend. Are you going?
Joe Swanberg I wish. Drinking Buddies is opening this weekend and they need me to do press. There’s a lot more to do and there’s a lot more interest, people are really watching this one. It’s already been a big success on VOD.
JD That’s great! It’s a great title, too.
JS People who love the movie think it’s too mainstream of a title and people who hate the movie get really upset because they feel misled by a title that makes them think it’s going to be a really fun romp.
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.
David Lynch discusses painterly filmmaking, the importance of having final cut, and his latest musical project, The Big Dream, released July 16th.
David Lynch’s elegant, gray house—the same one that appears in his film Lost Highway—seems to be strangely turned away from the road. Lynch’s assistant opens the door and leads the visitor through a screening room and a recording studio. In the orderly kitchen, a coffeemaker is running. Lynch is a notorious coffee consumer, and for a while he sold his own brand, David Lynch’s Coffee. Some of the furniture and lamps—which also appeared in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive—were built by Lynch himself. The assistant opens a back door into the garden. A winding, rain-soaked path leads to Lynch’s studio, where, smoking and drinking coffee, David Lynch sits, wearing his trademark buttoned-up white shirt and a dark jacket.
Though his new album The Big Dream—a moody, funny, and typically Lynchian work—is about to be released, his biggest project may well be imminent. For forty years, David Lynch has been practicing Transcendental Meditation and, with the David Lynch Foundation, he aims to collect enough money to establish a worldwide network of “peace palaces” to teach and promote the ancient Indian meditation practice. The approach and ambition of this project could perhaps be compared to Joseph Beuys’ late political work in which the artist claimed that once everybody thinks for themselves (and thus thinks like an artist) no totalitarian system will ever succeed again—a thought originating with Socrates and continued in the teachings and writings of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt.
The following is a conversation about art and peace with David Lynch.
Michael Saur A few years back you had an art retrospective in Paris at the Fondation Cartier in which you put pot roasts, dead mice and ants in your paintings. You like organic matter and decay?
David Lynch Take the rose. The rose grows, a flower appears, and it blooms, and it is very beautiful, and then shortly after, it starts changing again and they say the bloom gets off the rose. Eventually, the rose is gone. I like all the steps.
Frances Bodomo discusses her films Boneshaker and Afronauts, how she found a Zambian desert in New Jersey, and mythologizing “home.”
Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo was inspired to make Boneshaker by a generation of kids with nowhere to call home. The thirteen-minute short follows a Ghanaian family as they travel across Louisiana in an attempt to cast a demon from their daughter, Blessing, played by young Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis.
Bodomo grew up on four continents—in Ghana, Norway, California, and Hong Kong—before moving to New York to attend Columbia University as a Kluge Scholar. After receiving her B.A. in English Literature and Film Studies she became a MFA Candidate and Dean’s Fellow at NYU’s Graduate Film Program. In her own words her work features “doppelgangers, imaginary friends, ventriloquist dummies, and the un-institutionalized crazies who constantly break society’s view of itself.”
We spoke at her apartment in Bushwick for about an hour before she had to rush to the editing studio at NYU. She’s in the middle of editing her new film Afronauts, and trying to keep up with Boneshaker’s busy festival run. Afronauts is an alternative history of the 1960s Space Race, based on the true story of Edward Makuka Nkoloso’s Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research and Astronomical Research, and his team’s attempts to be the first to send a rocket to the moon.
Boneshaker had its world premiere at Sundance last January, and has recently exhibited at the Maryland Film Festival and Seattle International Film Festival. It will be at Rooftop Films on July 12th.
Katie Bradshaw You shot Boneshaker on Super 16. What format do you prefer, film or digital?
Frances Bodomo I knew I wanted to shoot Boneshaker on 16 mm because this movie is about not having a land, not having a place to call home. I started thinking about memory a lot, very early on, which had to be the feel of the movie. It had to be film, sort of grainy, intensely colored… it couldn’t be digital, it couldn’t be sterile. In that sense I much prefer working on film, because of the quality of the image. That’s telling the story as much as the writing or acting is. Ultimately I prefer film because I tend to want to tell stories that are nostalgic, stories sort of reckoning with who we are or who we were or who we’re supposed to be.
Sam Fleischner discusses the dramatic process of completing his new film Stand Clear of the Closing Doors.
Sam Fleischner’s poignant, well-scripted drama Stand Clear of the Closing Doors won a Special Mention for its premiere at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Shot entirely in the Rockaways over a three-week period with a crew of fifteen, the story is about Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), a 13-year-old-boy on the autism spectrum who elopes when his older sister Carla (Azul Zorrilla) doesn’t pick him up from school one day and rides the subway for an agonizing couple of days—until [the real] Super Storm Sandy intervenes. Capturing Ricky’s intense mode of perception through expert point-of view cinematography and editing, the narrative contrasts Ricky’s quiet concentration and growing resourcefulness as he learns to fend for himself with the emotional turmoil of his hard-working mother Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz) ; it also explores the effects of his elopement on the family dynamic. (They are undocumented Mexican immigrants.) An unusually muted color palette, as well as subtle changes of camera focus, greatly enhance Fleischner’s portrayal of the special nature of autistic perception. Story: Rose Lichter-Marck; screenplay, Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg.
How the films in BAM’s TransCultural Express: American and Russian Arts Today shed light on the similarity between Siberia and Brooklyn.
On one of the first hot days of summer, I sank into an armchair in the swanky Soho House screening room. Beside me was an Upper East Side type with big gold earrings, slicked-back gray hair, and massive sunglasses. The women of the West Village, overdressed as always but more naked than usual, were strolling down the street outside; I propped my feet up on an ottoman and watched a Belarusian peasant dig his own grave. The film was In the Fog, Sergei Loznitsa’s rather heavy-handed morality tale about World War II partisans and collaborators. (Spoiler alert: collaborators will be punished.)
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.
Jodie Wille and Maria Demopoulous discuss their recent documentary on The Source Family, a past zeitgeist of trust, and the popular perception of cultists and communes.
Jodie Wille and Maria Demopoulous’s new documentary on the Source Family— an LA-based cult, psych rock group, and health food restaurant operation—offers an often underrepresented picture of radical living in mid-century America. The film follows the trajectory of the Family and it’s charismatic leader, Father Yod, highlighting the group’s practices—from free love and white magic to yoga and health food—while maintaining a more objective criticism of the issues within the community. By drawing from the successes and failures of this experiment in alternative living as a sort of case study, Wille and Demopoulos ultimately celebrate the vivacity, creativity and purpose of the Family’s lifestyle, leaving the viewer with a much more rounded view of the cults and communes of the 1960s.
Jonathan Andrews The first thing I wanted to know was how you guys got exposed to the Source Family.
Jodie Wille The first time I ever got exposed to them was in 1999, when a friend had showed me this deluxe box set of Source Family music that was put out by Captain Trip Records, which is this Japanese psychedelic label. I was just shocked, because I had been researching fringe religious groups and cults for, like, 20 years, and I’d never heard anything about them. I saw the album covers, which blew my mind, as well as photographs of the Family, but it was all done in Japanese so I couldn’t read anything about it and there was nothing online anywhere! So for about five years that just sat around in the back of my brain.
But one day my ex-husband Adam Parfrey had come home with this student film he found about the Source Family that had very limited release through Amoeba Records. I was very excited to see something! It was definitely a student film, but when we saw the interviews with the Family members, I was just blown away by how articulate and charming the people were. I just didn’t expect that, that level of self-awareness. I saw that there was a Ya Ho Wa/Source Family website, and contacted them to see if they would be interested in publishing a book with one of my companies, Process Media.
Isis Aquarian [associate producer on the film and an original Source Family member] wrote me back right away to say, “That’s so funny your contacting us now; I’ve been working on this book with my brother Electricity and we just finished it.” So we worked to expand and rework it—that was how I first got to find out about the Family and first got to meet them.
Wolf’s film Teenage truncates the nuance and diversity of the source material, but offers flashes of individual introspection on a few historical figures.
It is the unfortunate tendency of the archival documentary to make the past seem as if it’s really past. When cut and compiled, film’s eternal present tends to stutter and slip into the past tense; the film stocks, the faces, and especially the voices of yesterday are reduced to readymade signifiers of their era. Smoothed into historical fact, the documentary image loses the slippery, overdetermined quality that keeps it breathing.
There are, of course, countless exceptions, but the flaws of the form are particularly acute in Matt Wolf’s recent short I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard (2012), a portrait of the Tulsa-raised writer and painter. The deftly edited soundtrack fuses a recording of Brainard reading his epic autobiographical poem with the recollections of his longtime friend, the poet Ron Padgett. To supplement Brainard and Padgett’s memories of ’50s boyhood, Wolf employs the now de rigueur clips from mid-century educational films and newsreels, shrouding the writers’ concrete reflections in clichéd imagery of mid-century naivety. Brainard’s poem is a marvel of autobiography that moves gracefully between highly specific personal memories and broad cultural touchstones, as well as nearer and more distant pasts in deceptively casual language. Underneath this, Wolf’s montage of shopworn signifiers reasserts the gulf between now and then that Brainard’s text had bridged.
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.
Rachid Djaïdani discusses his new film Rengaine (Hold Back), and the advantages and hazards of guerrilla filmmaking.
Rachid Djaïdani’s unusual career spans from mason, boxer, actor, writer, to filmmaker. Although he made two short films before his first feature-length film, Rengaine (Hold Back) (2011), these films garnered little critical attention, despite having been shown in a number of festivals—Sur ma ligne (2006) and La ligne brune (2010).
In the first, Djaïdani filmed himself in the process of writing his second novel Mon Nerf (2004). The film aimed to prove that he was indeed a writer, after his authenticity was questioned by his editor at the publishing house Seuil. In the second, he filmed the pregnancy of his wife over its nine months. It was shown in the Festival Pickpocket in Paris. In both, Djaïdani isn’t in a hurry. He seems interested in taking his time. He filmed both in an improvisatory, spontaneous manner, composing sequences of images that often aren’t well explained that but revolve around a single face or a single object.
We can certainly say the same about Rengaine, which won the International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI) for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, 2012. Djaïdani worked alone and without studio support during the nine years it took to complete this film. In the following interview, he describes the difficulties and the joys of the filmmaking process, as well as the choices he made along the way.
Translated from French by Matt Reeck
Laura Reeck What led you to make Rengaine? What idea did you want to explore?
Rachid Djaïdani As far as I can remember, the idea came about when I was working on Peter Brook’s Tierno Bokar. Little by little I began to invent the story of a black man who falls in love with a rebeu [person of North African descent], and how that was complicated by the fact that she had brothers. Then, by the end of the play’s tour, I had the idea of giving her forty brothers.
LR Did your parents’ relationship influence the story?
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 Andrew Lampert and Stom Sogo, who tragically passed away last year, trade impressions in an unpublished conversation from 2000. A retrospective of Sogo’s work will be at Anthology Film Archives from April 5–7.
In the movie no one is going to make about my late teens and early twenties I will be a side player to Stom Sogo. You could not stand next to him without feeling his heat. Looking closely, you might have seen steam rising off his head. As a married father re-reading this piece today, our crazed conversation feels like it was recorded a loooong time ago. I’m guessing that we spoke/wrote the following text in 2000 before he left NYC to attend grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute. He had originally moved to the US in the late 1980s to attend high school, migrated to NYC in 1993 for college at SVA, and landed a job at Anthology Film Archives. In those days, he was a central presence in the experimental film community, constantly inspiring all of us with his flickering forays into deeply spaced out territory. During those freewheeling days and mostly late nights he created an epic amount of densely packed, highly lyrical films and videos that turned heads and created incidents in various festivals, exhibitions and contexts.
Stom only enrolled at the Art Institute to get a student visa, otherwise it meant returning to Osaka, which he eventually was forced to do anyway in 2004. In Japan, Stom worked for his family and remained productive. He periodically issued DVD and CD care packages of new works to friends, however his screenings and communications became more sporadic. Stom Sogo, who in his lifetime had already grown into something of a myth to his friends and admirers, passed away in July, 2012 at age 37.
All through the 1970s and ’80s, the sole inhabitants of a grand loft space in an old beautiful, industrial building on North 11th Street in Williamsburg had been pigeons fluttering undisturbed under the splendid cathedral-like ceiling. In 1990, filmmaker Su Friedrich and painters Cathy Quinlan and Martina Siebert transformed a full floor of this rusty palace into a communal place where they lived and worked for many years while the neighborhood changed around them. When the coexistence of artists and light industries came to a sudden end with the 2005 rezoning laws, which allowed the notorious Toll Brothers and other developers to build one brash, shiny apartment tower after another, Su Friedrich began counting—and filming. Gut Renovation is a systematic yet highly personal response from this cinematographic auteur to a particularly rapid and ruthless version of urban renewal.
Claudia Steinberg Your film starts with a bang. You push open the door and there’s a gasp of disbelief. What happened? There’s this sense of shock: the pigeons have moved back in. Almost 20 years of your life have been obliterated—gone, gone, gone.
Su Friedrich Well, I found that really traumatic. It made me understand what it means for people whose houses are destroyed by fire or bombed in a war. Here was this architecturally exquisite cast-iron building from the 1890’s and we had tried everything we could to maintain its quality. It’s one thing to see the walls you put up taken out, but the vaulted ceilings had those bands with finely carved, detailed floral motifs—
Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord and Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me are abstract in different ways, but for the same reason: lack of funds.
Movies made with little or no money tend toward either a documentary approach to their material or, conversely, turn towards abstraction, enhanced artifice and theatricality. The first tendency (a very American one) is exemplified by a tradition that surfaced with Cassavettes and continues today up through the Safdie Brothers. The second can be seen in the work of filmmakers like Luc Moullet and Jacques Rivette, but also in films like those of Robert Downey Sr. and the young Argentinian filmmaker Matías Piñeiro (whose great Viola is screening this week as part of the New Directors/New Films series). Over the next few weeks, BAM is screening two films from this latter school of low-budget filmmaking: Jacques Rivette’s mysterious, paranoid, and funny Le Pont du Nord and Bob Byington’s goofy, affectless and flattened vision of an unfulfilled life, Somebody Up There Likes Me.
Le Pont du Nord (made in 1981 but only now receiving its US theatrical premiere) is an enigmatic fable that refuses to yield to interpretation, and a key piece in the filmmaker’s career-long obsession with games and restraints.
Filmmaker and photographer Olivia Wyatt on her new film, working in East Africa, and maintaining balance between analog and digital techniques.
Olivia Wyatt’s documentary Staring Into the Sun—funded with a shoe-string budget using grants from Sublime Frequencies and money from Kickstarter—is a kaleidoscopic exploration of various tribal cultures in rural Ethiopia. Shot and edited by Wyatt, Staring Into the Suns cacophony of music and images makes it more of a visual essay than a traditional documentary. By keeping commentary and ethnographic contextualizing to a minimum, the sights and sounds of the countryside speak for themselves without the benefit (or hindrance) of description. Moving between humor and seriousness, ritual and daily life, Staring Into the Sun gives us an outsider’s perspective on a variety of East African cultures, yet remains refreshingly unconcerned with their interpretation or valuing.
A Brooklyn-based filmmaker and artist, Wyatt had studied photojournalism at the University of Missouri before moving to New York several years ago to work for Magnum Photos and later Magnum in Motion. It was then that she first began making documentary films, including a number of films documenting voodoo rituals among New York’s Haitian community. I spoke with the filmmaker about Staring Into the Suns upcoming screening next week (along with a number of other incredible films) as part of BAM’s Saharan Frequencies series.
Jonathan Andrews What prompted your interest in Ethiopia in the first place? How did the idea for the film first come about, and how did you manage to fund the project?
Olivia Wyatt Ethiopia fascinates me because there are around 80 diverse ethnic groups, and since the landscape is so harsh, many have maintained their traditions and are living as they have for thousands of years. So I decided to apply for a Fulbright to work on a project with the Dassanech tribe in Ethiopia. While I was applying, my boyfriend at the time sent me a link to the Festival of a Thousand Stars, which showcases the music of each of the 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. I said, “If I get the grant, we gotta go to the festival together.”
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.
Listen to Kleber Mendonça Filho discuss his short films and his first feature, Neighboring Sounds, as part of last month’s First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image.
This podcast is presented in partnership with Museum of the Moving Image, where Kleber Mendonça Filho participated in a Q&A with Dennis Lim following a a retrospective of his short films during the Museum’s First Look 2013 showcase on January 13, 2013.
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.
Listen to Joana Preiss discuss her film Siberia as part of last month’s First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image.
This podcast is presented in partnership with Museum of the Moving Image, where Joana Preiss participated in a Q&A with David Schwartz following a New York premiere screening of Siberia during the Museum’s First Look 2013 showcase on January 5, 2013. BOMB will be publishing more podcasts from MOMI’s First Look series in the coming weeks.
Read a transcription or listen to a podcast of Nicolás Pereda discussing his recent film Greatest Hits as part of last month’s First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image.
This podcast is presented in partnership with Museum of the Moving Image, where Nicolás Pereda participated in a Q&A with Rachael Rakes following a New York premiere screening of Greatest Hits during the Museum’s First Look 2013 showcase on January 11, 2013. BOMB will be publishing more podcasts from MOMI’s First Look Series in the coming weeks.