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.
Listen to James Benning discuss his recent film Easy Rider 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 James Benning participated in a Q&A with Dennis Lim following a New York premiere screening of Easy Rider during the Museum’s First Look 2013 showcase on January 12, 2013. BOMB will be publishing more podcasts from MOMI’s First Look Series in the coming weeks.
Caveh Zahedi chats about pools and poetry, the analogy of marriage and yoga, and his controversial recent film The Sheik and I.
Late last November, I invited Caveh Zahedi to my apartment to discuss his films. Over the last 20 years or so, in films such as I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, In the Bathtub of the World and I Am a Sex Addict, Caveh has used filmmaking as his vehicle for navigating the turbid currents of contemporary life.
His most recent film, The Sheik and I, has a complicated history that I will try to avoid giving away, except to say that for a while legal complications made it uncertain whether the film would ever be released. With legal obstacles cleared and a distribution contract secured, a second controversy was set off when Mr. Thom Powers, programmer of the documentary component of Toronto International Film Festival and “a powerhouse in the documentary film world,” attempted to persuade his colleagues on the film festival circuit not to screen The Sheik and I. The irony that a film dealing with the issue of official censorship abroad should stand threatened with unofficial censorship at home, all on account of one influential individual, did not go unappreciated.
Miguel Gomes talks about his latest feature Tabu, which has been the talk of this year’s arthouse circuit.
Miguel Gomes’ first two featuresThe Face You Deserve in 2004 and Our Beloved Month of August in 2008—piqued the interest of critics through their whimsical filmic tributes and meta-cinematic experiments, with some flagging the Portuguese director as an auteur worth keeping an eye on. This initial enthusiasm was validated by the premiere of his next film in the main competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Standing out as the most stylistically intrepid entry in an otherwise rather timid selection, Tabu was awarded the Alfred Bauer Prize for a work of particular innovation and went on to take the international festival circuit by storm, generating a torrent of acclaim that has consistently seen it ranked among best films of the year.
Split in two chapters—“A Lost Paradise” and “Paradise” (borrowed, along with the title, from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 Tabu)—the film is initially set in present-day Lisbon, where Pilar, a lonely spinster leading an emotionally vicarious existence, spends her days advocating human rights and worrying about her increasingly senile neighbor Aurora. The death of the latter initiates the second part, which is set in an unnamed African colony and is narrated by Aurora’s former lover Gian Luca, recounting their youthful love affair whose tragic end coincided with the fall of the Portuguese empire.
More than a simple exercise in style, the film touches on deeper issues, for example drawing parallels between one’s inevitable loss of innocence and youth to the contemporary psyche of Portuguese society and its relation to the legacy of colonialism. Still, whether Tabu does more than scratch the surface of these issues is open to debate, which is why I wanted to get the director’s take while he was in town for the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival.
Giovanni Marchini Camia Tabu is a very nostalgic film, not least towards cinema. As it stands out from most contemporary cinema, I was wondering how you would position your own work in relation to that of your contemporaries.
Miguel Gomes For me it’s very difficult to make a generalization. I know that I’m a Portuguese director making films in 2012. Even if there is a connection—as in the case of Tabu with a cinema that does not exist anymore, like silent films and like classical American cinema too—even if I know that these films existed, that there is a strong connection with this kind of cinema, I’m aware that I’m doing a film nowadays, a contemporary film.
Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing explores the experience of tragedy and horror of genocide in Indonesia through imaginative recreations made with the killers themselves.
Originally hailing from Texas, Joshua Oppenheimer now makes his home in Copenhagen, Denmark. This is where I encountered the director in November, the day after his latest film called The Act of Killing took the big prize at this year’s tenth edition of CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival.
Oppenheimer’s haunting and surreal film tells the story of Anwar Congo and his friends. With the director’s help, they make their first film, an autobiography of sorts, about their time as mass murderers. When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, these men were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie theater tickets on the black market, to death squad leaders who helped the Indonesian army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year, making it one of the most horrific—and woefully underreported—genocides in recent history. These days, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organization, and is a celebrity, of sorts, in Jakarta.
Oppenheimer challenged Anwar and his friends to develop fictional scenes about their experiences of the killings, adapted to their favorite film genres, which encompass gangster films—naturally—but also Westerns and musicals. Playing both themselves and their victims, the filmmaking process catalyzes a severe emotional and psychic journey for Anwar in one of the most extraordinary performances seen in documentary, at least in my recent memory. Oppenheimer has been producing films in Indonesia for close to a decade, his work focusing on the victims of the mass genocide and their families, using what he calls “documentary of the imagination” to traverse and push the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction storytelling.
In a nod to the film’s surreality, I was sitting next to three young Indonesian men at the awards ceremony in Copenhagen the night before. These same three men were filming an interview with Oppenheimer at a café called Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus, where I met the director. I couldn’t make this stuff up. After expressing some suspicion about what they wanted from him, Oppenheimer realized they were simply young filmmakers and journalists wanting to talk to him, not representatives of the Indonesian government there to cause him trouble.
Chris Sullivan discusses the emotions behind his epic Consuming Spirits, and reflects on being an animator.
Chris Sullivan’s experimental short films and theater pieces often begin like the setup for a dark joke: an alcoholic journalist driving a school bus hits a wayward nun and leaves her in the woods to die; a deranged psychiatrist presents a new form of Aggression Therapy©, designed to send the client through a nervous breakdown and into an emotional breakthrough. The resulting stories, told mainly through dialogue full of quick turns, absurd gestures, and subtle comic asides, swing abruptly from surreal comedy to vulnerable, heart-stopping examinations of emotional pain.
My first exposure to his groundbreaking experimental short films and theater pieces was the 2010 one-man show Mark the Encounter. I was immediately struck by the timing and buoyance of his complex storytelling, as Sullivan swept the audience through an expressionistic monologue-based passion play as he morphed characters, transforming from a vulnerable anti-hero feigning grief over his brother’s death to the aforementioned unhinged psychiatrist Daphne Richards, with Sullivan in deadpan drag, to a slick doctor condescendingly explaining an increasingly impossible fatal medical condition involving a “homuncluous” (which turns out to be a Peruvian mountain man setting up camp inside the client’s heart).
Since 2010, Sullivan—a professor of film, video, and new media at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago—has presented the longer theater piece Aggression Therapy along with The Outer Giants and Their Moon, an understated two-person play about romantic heartbreak aboard a space station. He’s also continued to produce short animations along with satirical essays and videos that skewer art-world affectations. For the past 15 years, he’s also been quietly on the film that is his most ambititous work to date: Consuming Spirits, a two-hour plus epic feature that combines found images, stop-animation, and multiple hand-drawn and tabletop animation processes.
Director Andrew Bujalski discusses his career in the event of the tenth anniversary of his debut Funny Ha Ha.
As much as the filmmakers whose films it designates may have grown to hate it, the label mumblecore is pretty much indelible at this point. And while their resentment towards the term is understandable (it doesn’t have quite as romantic a ring as Nouvelle Vague, does it?), it nevertheless refers to the most creative and influential wave of films to come out of the US independent scene since the early ’90s. In this regard, it should be considered a badge of honor.
The film that started it all was Andrew Bujalski’s debut feature Funny Ha Ha. Produced in 2002, it spent three years accruing word of mouth on the festival circuit before receiving a theatrical release. When it finally did, it quickly turned into a small sensation. Shot on a shoestring budget with a cast of non-professionals, the film’s lo-fi aesthetic and highly naturalistic, unsensational portrayal of early adulthood was met with overwhelming critical enthusiasm and helped turn attention to the work of a number of other young, similarly inclined filmmakers.
Bujalski’s following two featuresMutual Appreciation and Beeswax, released in 2006 and 2009 respectively—confirmed his early promise and established the direction of the35-year-old director. This year marks the tenth anniversary of his debut and a newly restored 35mm print is traveling across the country to celebrate the occasion.
Giovanni Marchini Camia It’s been ten years since you made Funny Ha Ha. When did you last see the film?
Andrew Bujalski In January. There was a new print, which I’d never seen before. I wanted to take notes on the colors in case there’s any reason to make another print down the line, so I watched it with an audience in Berlin. It was a strange experience, because it had been a few years. At the time that I made it, I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me that anyone would have any trouble finding their way into it. I thought it was a very straightforward story told in a very straightforward fashion. But watching it again this year, I thought, Wow, this is completely personal and completely particular and completely peculiar. It kind of amazes me how lucky I was that people did find it.
GMC I feel that your films are the type that viewers will relate to differently depending on what stage of their life they’re in when they watch them.
GMC So watching Funny Ha Ha in 2002 and 2012 could be a completely different experience. Have you noticed such a development with audiences?
AB Yeah. I mean, I would assume so; I haven’t done a thorough scientific survey of everybody who’s watched the movie. Although, just last week I was in Boston, and I was having a drink with a couple of old professors of mine and they were saying that they saw it differently now, because now they have kids who are in their early 20s. (laughter) It was a different experience for them to watch the movie thinking it was about their kids.
Watch a video conversation between filmmaker Cristian Mungiu and Liza Béar, an excerpt of the interview from BOMB’s forthcoming Winter Issue. Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills screens this week at Lincoln Center as part of the Romanian Film Festival.
Cristian Mungiu’s latest film Beyond the Hills screened at the 50th New York Film Festival following its premiere this year at Cannes, where it won Best Screenplay and the Best Actress award shared by its two leads. The story is based on a tragic incident that occurred at a monastery in Tanacu, Romania, in 2005, and explores the relationship between two young women who had grown up together but whose lives took different paths. Mungiu’s previous film, the riveting and unsettling 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
The full interview will published in BOMB’s Winter 2012 issue, on newsstands December 15.
Beyond the Hills will screen at the Walter Reade Theater as part of Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema, an annual series organized by the Romanian Film Initiative, running from November 29 to December 5. The series schedule and lineup can be found at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s website.
Michael Robinson provides insight into the methodology and philosophy behind his collaged films.
In the early days of public television, programs such as The Medium Is the Medium were produced specifically for experimental video by artists like Nam June Paik to present their work; in today’s world of digital ubiquity it’s as if this early video art has been diluted and disseminated to the myriad of screens we interact with daily, creating a wash of video art noise that hums as consistently as power lines. Many artists who work with video, such as Ryan Trecartin or Actually Huizenga, successfully shout through the wall of simulated video reality with high-volume weirdness. Even more video artists are confined to the art world in gallery-only viewings. Michael Robinson’s work is striking because it communicates without transgressing modern media’s spectacle while, against all odds, accessing the humanity among the digital noise.
Robinson’s new film Circle in the Sand, which premiered at the New York Film Festival, is a 47-minute fantasy of the aftermath of a future American civil war. I asked him a few questions over email about that film and his previous work in hopes that I might gain some insight into his process and general philosophy. Michael’s responses offer a view into how these films work: how they manage to lull the viewer into a hypnotic state with media that has dreamlike familiarity and then hammer in some cruel reality about the state of the world.
Forrest Muelrath One of the first things that struck me as I started to appreciate your films, was how easy they are to watch, and how affecting they are emotionally, despite feeling dissociated from any characters and struggling to locate a traditional narrative. I think it was during Victory Over the Sun, as I began to realize I was listening to an instrumental version of “November Rain,” that I first had this thought. Is this accessibility something that is intentional or preconceived?
Michael Robinson Absolutely. I’m not opposed to inaccessibility, but I think beginning from a point of familiarity or comfort makes it more purposeful to then to twist things and go elsewhere. The emotional arc of my films is really central, and it’s hard to activate that without some level of seduction. And as much as we long for things we can’t have, we are also drawn to what we know.
Photographer Gregory Crewdson and filmmaker Ben Shapiro discuss their new film Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters.
Ben Shapiro’s documentary Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounter challenges the brevity of Gregory Crewdson’s photographic encounters. The film situates each picture within the husk of Crewdson’s elaborate process, which has been described as “operatic” and likened to a film set. While films and operas unfold through time and sequence, Crewdson’s are frozen within the simplicity of a single moment. Their statement is no less potent, and their germination no less extraordinary. Each “moment” relies on the technical expertise of a sizable crew and the suspension of local goings-on. In this case it really does take a village, but these villages in northwestern Massachusetts have grown accustomed to Crewdson’s presence. The manifold interactions between the film’s subject and his subjects are yet another silent factor responsible for the depth of each brief encounter with Crewdson’s camera.Part 1: Gregory Crewdson
Wendy Lotterman Brief Encounters documents the evolution of your work across a long stretch of time. In many of the eerie domestic shots from your earlier series, Twilight, the figure takes up a considerable portion of the frame. In later photos, particularly those in Beneath the Roses, the figure becomes dwarfed, more remote, rendered in lesser detail. In your most recent work at Cinecittà, the figure has disappeared completely—instead we see the ghost town of a town that never really existed. Have you zoomed out as far as you can with respect to the figure, or is there something to follow?
Gregory Crewdson Wow, I never really thought about it that way. For sure, the earlier pictures from Twilight are more blatantly narrative, more extraordinary or spectacular.
Filmmaker Rick Alverson on his confrontational and remarkable new film The Comedy.
The Comedy, Rick Alverson’s third feature, delights in subverting expectations. It’s hardly a work of traditional comedy, and viewers unfamiliar with Alverson’s nontraditional directorial style—and furthermore, the absurd performative leanings of its leading man, Tim Heidecker—may find the film rough going. The movie opens with a Bacchanalia: in the aftermath of a Williamsburg loft party, Swanson (Heidecker) and his friends disrobe and grind on one another in a slow motion, booze-fueled delirium. The scene is abundant with painful detail: full-frontal nudity, sweaty gyrations, and tumescent stomachs in heavy swing. This unpleasant proximity is sustained for the duration of the film; The Comedy suspends the audience at an uncomfortable remove from Swanson, and we’re often left too emotionally distant to penetrate his repugnant public exterior, but too close to dismiss him entirely.
RS The Comedy certainly isn’t a comedy in the proper sense, and I wondered what your intentions were as far the genre of this film was concerned at the outset—did you want to go in a particular stylistic direction, and what are the stakes of calling this movie “a comedy”?
RA [It was] sort of in keeping with the general desire to create an imbalance or destabilization in the thing from the foundation up, to some degree. In my previous movies, I tried to do that in a quieter way by utilizing stereotypes and then working against them—making the attributes muddy.
Few filmmakers have been as prolific and influential as Jean Rouch, the late anthropologist, ethnographer and godfather of cinéma-vérité.
Anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch (1917 – 2004) is one of those paradoxical figures in film history. His work has received exuberant praise, he is consistently hailed as one of the most innovative and influential filmmakers of his time, and yet, few have actually seen his films, which to this day remain very difficult—in many cases impossible—to get a hold of. This is especially true outside of his native France and only a fraction of his oeuvre has received distribution in the English-speaking world. Anthology Film Archives has partnered with the French Institute/Alliance Française to offer New Yorkers a retrospective of Rouch’s work throughout November. Assembling a remarkable selection of shorts and features, it provides an extremely rare chance to explore the work of one of cinema’s most eclectic and inventive pioneers.
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.
Letourneur discusses her film La vie au ranch, a film that observes, in fine detail, the flowering and dissolution of a group of young women.
Released in her native France in 2010, La vie au ranch is the first feature-length film by 33-year-old Sophie Letourneur. Following a number of short and medium-length films that have garnered her awards from festivals across Europe, her debut feature continues her preoccupation with the theme of friendship among young women, frequently drawn from her own experiences.
In La vie au ranch, Letourneur turns her camera to a group of college girls living in a cramped apartment in Paris. A seemingly carefree and tight-knit life of parties and next-morning hangovers quickly reveals a deep-seated dissatisfaction in the protagonist Pam who, over the course of the film, grows increasingly detached from the friends she has had since high school, eventually escaping from Paris’ suffocating familiarity for the bohemian utopia of Berlin.
While the subject matter is hardly original, it is its treatment that makes La vie au ranch stand out. Demonstrating subtle tact and a keen sense of observation, Letourneur gradually constructs a compelling portrait of her characters through highly naturalistic dialogues and situations, which perfectly convey the characters’ emotional conflicts without resorting to sensationalism or ponderous sentimentality. Beyond successfully capturing a very defining transitional stage in a young person’s life, this deceptively simple film also addresses broader issues pertaining to the representation of femininity in cinema.
La vie au ranch is screening through Thursday, October 25 as part of BAMcinématek’s current series on the young French cinema group ACID. Although Letourneur was meant to be present for her film’s US premiere, the advanced stage of her pregnancy forced her to cancel her visit to New York. Fortunately, I was able to speak with her on the phone, learning about the extremely protracted and painstaking pre-production process that lent the script its striking authenticity and about the role gender politics play in her filmmaking.
Translated by Giovanni Marchini Camia.
Giovanni Marchini Camia At the end of the credits you included the message “with nostalgic recollection of the group that we were.” To what extent is La vie au ranch based on your personal experiences?
Sophie Letourneur The initial drive to tell this story is linked to events that really happened, that is, to my departure from a group of friends. As for the characters, they’re completely based on people from my life.
Director Ted Kotcheff discusses his rediscovered Australian film classic Wake in Fright.
“It’s a friendly place. Nobody worries who you are, where you’re from. If you’re a good bloke, you’re all right. You know what I mean?” These friendly words offered upon arrival in the outback backwater of Bundanyabba serve as an introduction to hell in Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, an Australian film that despite receiving overwhelmingly positive critical reception when it premiered at the 1971 Cannes film festival has been all but impossible to see for the last forty years. Now, a new restoration by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia offers an opportunity to see this long-lost gem of Australian cinema.
In true Conradian fashion, the supposedly sophisticated John Grant arrives in town full of contempt for its yokel inhabitants—whose life seems to consist exclusively of binge drinking, gambling and fighting—only to be seduced by their savagery and readily turn into as depraved a beast as the worst of them. With stunning cinematography and truly remarkable performances, the film offers an unsparing portrayal of the Yabba, as the residents affectionately call the town, as well as the darkest recesses of the human soul. Though superficially comparable to the ‘hicksploitation’ wave of the 1970s—from Deliverance to The Hills Have Eyes —it offers a far more nuanced and terrifying study of its protagonists than these films with which it is regularly grouped. In fact, if there is one blessing from its disappearance, it’s that—by being re-released now—it transcends and subverts this established genre that the film actually preceded.
Ted Kotcheff went on to direct other, more immediately successful films, such as the first installment of the Rambo series, First Blood. I met with him on the evening that the restored version of Wake in Fright celebrated its American premiere at New York’s Film Forum. In a genial mood and not without manifest pride, he recounted the film’s incredible four-decade journey from distributors’ pariah to reinstated classic before discussing the themes and style that make his film as trenchant and haunting today as it was at the time of its original release.
Giovanni Marchini Camia I wanted to ask about the history of the film. There are various accounts of why it disappeared for so long. What is your take?
Ted Kotcheff Well, you know, when a film fails at the box office—which it did—the people who distribute who are only interested in profit lose interest. The film didn’t do well in Australia, which is where it was made. I think the Australians perhaps took affront to the way Aussie males were depicted in the film.
Feliz Lucia Molina talks with filmmaker Leslie Thornton about the concepts behind her films, X-TRACTS, Jennifer, Where Are You?, and Peggy and Fred in Hell.
Filmmaker Leslie Thornton is a contemporary of visionary image-makers such as Chris Marker, Chantal Akerman, Michael Snow, and Harun Farocki. The poetic breadth and conceptual depth of Thornton’s work—which bridges the gap between video and cinema—express a commitment to the vulnerabilities and complexities of the human condition, the guiding thread in her work. I imagine a rope pinned at to the trees different points in a dark forest, something to hang onto while moving through the dark cinema sky.
Thornton spent her early teens living in rural New York with her family. It was there that she was first exposed to experimental film, through screenings of contemporary works that a minister of a local Unitarian Church put on every Sunday. When she went to college at the State University of New York at Buffalo, she studied under some prominent figures in Structural Film, such as Hollis Frampton, Stan Brakhage, Peter Kubelka, and Paul Sharits. Thornton made her first 16mm film X-TRACTS while in graduate school in the 1970s at the Hartford Art School, a film that marked the beginning of an extensive body of work. The artist is currently a professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, and also teaches film at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. This summer, she collaborated with students on a film involving athleticism and trampolines, which was somewhat inspired by Werner Herzog’s The Great Ecstasy of The Woodcarver Steiner (1974) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Phantoms of Nabua (2009).
The following conversation with Leslie Thornton and her partner, artist and scholar Thomas Zummer (who teaches Theory at the European Graduate School), took place at a coffee/tea bar in the tiny town of Saas-Fee in the German-Swiss Alps, where the EGS is located.
Feliz Lucia Molina I was watching some of your films on UbuWeb and I was wondering about X-TRACTS, the first film you made. I’m curious about the stuttering, the hesitations and hiccups that happen through language and sound paired with the cuts.
Leslie Thornton I made that film when I was in school as a graduate student. Up until then I was painting which was my life when I was a young teenager. But I was painting in a way that was reductive. It was during a period of Minimalism moving into Conceptualism.
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.