LILY AND GENEROSO’S 2018 TOP TEN FILM LIST, SUPPLEMENTAL FILMS, BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT, AND BEST REP FILM EXPERIENCE

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Between November 23rd and 26th, we lost three very distinct talents who were the creative forces behind some of the most innovative films of the 1970s: Nicolas Roeg, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Gloria Katz. During these three days when each of these artists passed away, we were in the process of writing the below list of our favorite films from this year and needless to write, but the conversations we had about these filmmakers’ works at the times of their deaths greatly influenced the selections that we made.Therefore, in keeping with these artists commitment to evolving the language of cinema, we feel that the films that we have selected from our feature film viewing from 2018 made valiant and substantial strides in moving cinema forward. We dedicate this year’s best of list to Roeg, Bertolucci, and Katz, and we cannot express enough our deepest thanks for their films that have meant so very much to us.  

We would also like to thank the following organizations for programming the cinema that made this list possible: The American Film Institute’s Festival, The Acropolis Cinema and their Locarno in Los Angeles Festival, The American Cinematheque’s Egyptian and Aero Theaters, and the Central Cinema.


1. Meteors (Meteorlar) / Turkey, The Netherlands / dir. Gürcan Keltek
Weaving together scenic and tumultuous images from nature with footage of people in the midst of political action and violence, Meteors stunningly and repeatedly layers these images on top of each other to form an elaborate discourse about the transient, fleeting nature of peace and violence in our societies and in our world. Director Gürcan Keltek uses two specific political events, the Turkish military’s breaking of a ceasefire with the Kurdish Workers’ Party and the Women’s Initiative for Peace, as starting reference points to capture the emerging political landscape of conflict in southeast Turkey. With the footage from these events, Keltek lures you into believing that Meteors will be a political film that will offer first person insights into the context and climate of these events, but when the images of hunters and prey, meteor showers, and even a solar eclipse takeover, and no deep explanations of the political conflicts are given, a larger conceptual discussion rises, asking the question: “Is violence a fundamental part of nature?” While the footage of aggressive moments across species (humans of course included), suggests that violence is inherent in our nature as animals, Keltek’s deft intertwining of more tranquil, meditative images reminds us that even though violence is part of us, we can have peace. Thus, like a meteor falling to earth, violence, though it catches our immediate attention, can and must fade, and it is our responsibility to remember that peace, like the meteor before it burned into non-existence, did exist and that the beauty of peace is something to be preserved, since we know it will end.

 

2. Occidental / France / dir. Neïl Beloufa
We saw Occidental in the first weeks of 2018, and it stayed as a highmark for us throughout the year. Nonchalant in its political ideas, audacious in its visuals, and purple-pink-soaked throughout, Occidental is a claustrophobic film of collisions that all take place in one night at the Hotel Occidental. With its set built entirely in director Neïl Beloufa’s studio, Occidental’s images are meticulously constructed with the hope that every character, every object, every sound will evoke a reaction from the viewer. Clashes based on race and ethnicity, gender, and sexuality emerge, simply based on how different characters interact with each other, and the film maintains an unwavering hysteria from a prolonged feeling of entrapment due to the political uprising happening outside the hotel and the possibility of some terrorist activity inside the building. What makes Occidental exceptional is one very basic thing: you cannot look away from it. Beloufa, who is primarily a sculptor and installation artist, throws everything he has at Occidental, and the outcome is a piece of art that has the visual mystery of an installation with a deceptively minimal narrative that makes you want to soak yourself in its intriguing glow and not leave until Beloufa forces you out.

 

3. Zama / Argentina / dir. Lucrecia Martel
Based on the novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, Lucrecia Martel’s first feature since The Headless Woman in 2008, is set on the coast of Paraguay in the late 1700s. Zama explores the grotesque legacy of European colonialism in South America by witnessing the mental collapse of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cachoa), a Spanish officer, who fruitlessly awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires. Our protagonist saunters through one borderline surrealistically hideous example of imperialist exploitation after another and descends on a course of continuous rejection as he visits his other Spanish compatriots who never fully accept him, as he is not of Spanish birth, and as Zama’s mood declines, so grows the cards against him as he is severely disciplined by his superior officer and then rejected by the indigenous woman who gives birth to his child. Martel’s bold storytelling devices are the true strength of the film, as she incorporates hallucinatory visuals and sound constructed into intentionally overlayed conversations so that you can share Don Diego’s psychedelic journey into madness. Just as Martel masterfully did with her central figure in The Headless Woman, with Zama, she has created a film that expresses a sharp social statement while delving so deeply into her central characters minds as they sense everything falling apart around them that you feel the regret in every poor choice they make.

 

4. The Wolf House (La Casa Lobo) / Chile / dirs. Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña

Filmed in a single astonishing animated sequence, Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s feature, La Casa Lobo, is the story of Maria, a German-Chilean woman who hides from danger in a dilapidated house with two piglets. Using a storybook construction to amplify the insipidness of the horror Maria is trying to escape, the plot of La Casa Lobo is based on the abhorrent Dignity Colony in Chile, a secret society founded by Germans who left their own country after World War II. The Dignity Colony, which existed for almost forty years and thrived under Pinochet, operated a facility that detained and tortured political prisoners, and was founded by a former Nazi and child abuser, Paul Schäfer. León and Cociña’s particular technique evokes some of the eeriness that is present in the work of the Quay Brothers, which amplifies the ugliness inherent in this tragic moment in their country’s history. Nothing written here will do adequate justice to the brilliance of the visual elements of this incredible and affecting film.  

 

5. The House That Jack Built / Denmark / dir: Lars Von Trier
Von Trier’s use of the grotesque pushes the limit on image-based studies of pain, which are all too common in today’s film and television. Today, we see many media studies that are so precise in conveying people’s pain under the veil of bringing attention to a social or political problem, when in reality, many of these media properties are simply created to appeal as banal eye-candy, or even worse, as exploitative imagery that is there to appeal to prurient or morbid interests. With The House That Jack Built, Von Trier deceptively pulls in the viewer’s natural desire to feed off of human misery to deliver a sharp critique of the creators (even going so far as to critique himself, and with the final scene of the film, the hubris that that consumes creators) of this type of media, and the audience members who devour it without conscience. The House That Jack Built is a must see for the fans of the Serial podcast and any other dramatized true-crime media who feel as though they are elevating themselves while thriving off of the pain of others, but ultimately are unaffected by their brief sense of thrill that they saw and heard a polished, non-offensive story about something forbidden (but really not forbidden). Von Trier throws at you all of the lurid images and sounds of murder that most crime-related media would avoid, and at the end, he mocks yours and his desensitization.

 

6. Burning (Beoning) / South Korea/ dir: Lee Chang-dong
It has been eight years since Lee Chang-dong’s eloquent and culturally critical feature Poetry, which has as its protagonist an elderly woman who attempts to enrich herself by taking poetry classes while desperately trying to solicit funds to compensate the victim of her grandson’s sexual assault. It is a searing critique of contemporary South Korea, and with Burning, Lee returns with a caustic statement about the loss of Korean identity for both older and younger generations. Loosely based on the short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning, like Poetry uses literary devices as its engine in stressing the importance of creating in a rapidly shifting world. Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo), a fledgling writer, runs into Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), a neighbor from the same rural village where Jong-su grew up and now resides in while his father, a failing farmer, awaits trial for assaulting a government official. After an intimate encounter, Hae-mi asks Jong-su to look after her cat while she’s on a spiritual trip to Africa. During Hae-mi’s absence, Jong-su develops feelings for Hae-mi, but when she returns, she arrives with Ben (Steven Yeun), an enigmatic young man of mysterious wealth who will come to represent the soulless realty of contemporary South Korea. Like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2017 masterwork, Loveless, Burning is a flawlessly executed allegory that cuts deep into a society that values status infinitely more than art or humanity.

 

7. Diamantino / Portugal and USA / dirs. Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt
Considering the gravity of the myriad of crucial world issues addressed in directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s fractured fairytale of a feature, Diamantino, it is stunning to us that the whole affair chimes in at a mere ninety-two minutes and is as enjoyable as it is. The whimsical and somewhat Guy Maddin-esque narrative construction is centered on the titular character (played by Miguel Gomes’ favorite, Carloto Cotta), a Cristiano Ronaldo stand-in, who carries the hopes and dreams of his native Portugal on the pitch, whilst images of giant fluffy puppies dance through his head. Prior to his World Cup Final appearance, we find our Diamantino lounging comfortably on his yacht without a care in his gleeful skull with the one person who has truly adored our soccer star throughout his life, his pure-hearted and loving father. However, during this day on the sea, Diamantino is confronted by something he normally does not have to deal with, as approaching his pleasure cruise is the grim reality of the refugee crisis in the form of people who are clinging to life on the waters outside of his luxurious boat. This moment of reality has finally inserted something in the head of our football star that is not in the shape of a mammoth Pekingese, and due to this intense reality, Diamantino blows the penalty kick that costs Portugal the World Cup. What follows isn’t an existential crisis for Diamantino, but rather an acknowledgement that a far different world exists outside of his life and football, which leads our protagonist into a conflict between the need to do good for those around him by adopting a refugee of sorts and the instinctive, naïve response to blindly follow the commands of his older, twin-hydra evil sisters, with Diamantino’s siblings being utilized as a fitting representation of modern greed and anti-European Union/and anti-refugee movements. Abrantes and Schmidt frantically and comedically present to us a Europe that is now struggling with the divide between its more benevolent identity of the past, and the grim fact that a growing faction of the population wants to desperately close all borders and cling to a mythical version of a Europe that has only existed in children’s stories.

 

8. Once There Was Brasilia (Era uma Vez Brasília) / Brazil, Portugal  / dir: Adirley Queirós
For the past sixty years, WA4 (Wellington Abreu) has been flying around the galaxy while dining on copious amounts of churrascaria, exiled after trying to squat on private land, but now, WA4 has been given the opportunity to legally acquire land for his family and to do so, he must travel to earth to assassinate Juscelino Kubitschek, the president who founded Brasília, on the day the city was to be inaugurated. Unfortunately, WA4 is desperately low on meat to grill and fuel, and crashes down in the middle of Ceilândia, a nighttime city on fire, where departing trains take away political prisoners. It is here where WA4 meets a colorful group of intergalactic space fighters (think Mad Max meets homemade Go Bots), who are hell bent on total anarchy as a political adjustment. Creatively drawing from the finest low grade elements of D-level science fiction films, and the cinematography of Joana Pimenta, who perfectly utilizes the darkness and burning to heighten the chaos, director Queirós uses the absurdity of his rickety homemade visuals and the unrestrained talents of his mostly non-professional cast to fuel a wildly inventive narrative that forces the viewer to experience the very real absurdity of contemporary Brazilian politics (Rousseff’s and Temer’s shenanigans are omnipresent here, of course). We are not sure if we have seen a better film so far this year that makes less so much more than it seems.

 

9. Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) / Italy / dir. Alice Rohrwacher
All is not well in the small village of Inviolata, a community that exists in a sharecropper state that has not been seen in Italy for generations. In Inviolata, we meet Lazzaro (played by seraphic-faced actor, Adriano Tardiolo), who is the gleeful recipient of two layers of exploitation. The primary layer comes from the Marchesa Alfonsino de Luna (how thrilling it is to see actress Nicoletta Braschi again, even as a villain), who uses the residents of the village to grow her tobacco that she sells at high profit, which keeps her and her family in the lap of luxury whilst the villagers barely subsist. And, the second layer comes from the villagers, who use Lazzaro’s puerile joy and motivations to mock him and to get the affable, good-natured Lazzaro to toil for them as well. The timeless and surrealistic quality of the narrative suggests that exploitation is not only a basic human trait, but also one that has and sadly will endure for generations to come. Biblical references aside (Lazzaro does translate into Lazarus, and the actions surrounding an encounter with a wolf loosely allude to the story of the Wolf of Gubbio that St. Francis tamed), Lazzaro functions in a somewhat similar way that Abrantes and Schmidt’s Diamantino and the Hae-mi character in Lee Chang-dong’s superb feature of this year, Burning, do, serving as an innocent, pure-spirited figure that allows the viewer to judge the evil around them more effectively. While Diamantino and Hae-mi offset malevolent societal imperatives of Portugal and Korea, respectively, Lazzaro functions to challenge the installation of morals through Catholicism. Furthermore, Rohrwacher, through her central character of Lazzaro, exposes a contemporary Italian population in economic freefall that is highly disconnected from its natural state due to its collective conscience’s reliance on guidance from organized faith and from government structures that have failed them over and over again. Using surrealistic elements that are more in tune with the hyperbolic Italian grotesque features of Ettore Scola and Marco Ferreri than those of the Italian neorealists to effectively amplify urgent issues to impact the audience more than any reality appears to do these days, Rohrwacher has made a heartbreaking and beautifully realized third feature film. Please check out Generoso’s interview with director, Alice Rohrwacher, on Ink 19

 

10. 3 Faces (Se Rokh) / Iran / dir: Jafar Panahi
Needless to write, it is always good to see any film these days that has Panahi’s name on it, given the governmental ban that has been imposed on him on producing any cinema. With a framework that offers a small, respectful nod to the late Abbas Kiarostami’s 1999 feature, The Wind Will Carry Us, 3 Faces has director Panahi and actress Behnaz Jafari playing themselves as they drive away from a film shoot towards a remote village after receiving an alarming video posted online of a young actress who commits suicide due to her inability to leave her hometown to attend the acting conservatory in Tehran. Once Panahi and Jafari arrive in the village, we soon understand the impetus of the suicidal actress’s thespian desire, as the young woman has befriended a reclusive actress who has been exiled in her home due to her work in pre-Revolution Iranian cinema. Absurdly comedic at points and clever in its utilization of an naturalistic metaphor involving cows, 3 Faces is an excellent companion piece to Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 feature, Certain Women, in that it exhibits the evolving role of women in society, and in turn, the resultant changing roles of men. In 3 Faces, the idealization of male gender roles is not progressing, and that is causing dangerous tension between men and women, and we see this tension compellingly play out in this small story that is expertly told by Panahi.

 

SUPPLEMENTAL FILM LIST


The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci) / Turkey / dir:  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Delivering his first feature since his Palme d’Or winning 2014 film, Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan returns with his most personal film since his 2006 comedic gem, Climates. As many of his films are at least semi-autobiographical, here the Nuri role is filled by Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol), a recent college graduate who returns to his rural hometown of Çan to live for a while in the home he grew up in, where his father (Murat Cemcir), an eminently-retiring teacher and notoriously bad gambler, lives in total disharmony with Sinan’s sister and mother. As a graduated literature major, Sinan has every intention of writing and publishing the great first novel, but in the midst of his decaying family, the young writer takes trips into the nearby town of Çanakkale for advice on his artistic ambitions, and the advice he gets comes from the local literary celebrity, who despite his success offers little more than cynicism, and as books need to be published with actual money, Sinan seeks potential funding from the local business head who offers Sinan advice on writing a book that would serve more as a guide for tourism. Throughout this engrossing, and at times humorous, 190 minute long Homeric journey, Sinan debates with himself his motivation for the creation of the novel he so badly wants to publish, and his experiences along the way include a telling phone conversation with a fellow literature classmate whose violent career choice is a reflection of the contemporary Erdoğanian Turkey, an illuminating conversation about how to interpret the Quran with two younger imams, and a constant witnessing of his father’s and his family’s movement away from teaching as a profession. In the end, The Wild Pear Tree becomes an interesting reflection for Ceylan at this point in his career, as the film cleverly references the director’s earlier features, most specifically, Clouds of May and The Town, works that harken back to the director’s original motivations for making art in the first place, and one wonders if the central message delivered in his newest feature is: given the state of his country, if that same young Nuri Bilge Ceylan was beginning his career today, would he even attempt to make a film?

 

The Nothing Factory (A Fábrica de Nada) / Portugal / dir: Pedro Pinho
Given the film’s subject matter of Portugal’s dire economic situation, and its forays into a multitude of genres during its three hour running time, it is nearly impossible not to compare The Nothing Factory, Pedro Pinho’s debut feature, to Miguel Gomes’ six-hour masterwork, The Arabian Nights, our favorite cinematic work so far this decade.  Whereas The Arabian Nights uses individual stories, sometimes farcical, sometimes humanistic, to reveal the facets of Portugal’s economic problems and its impact on its citizens, The Nothing Factory mixes humanistic storytelling with the distant political overnarration and staging techniques of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet to form a story of about the reaction of a team of laborers who are stunned when they discover that the corporation that governs their workplace is sending in crews at night to steal machines and equipment from their factory before shutting it all down. One by one the workers are offered a redundancy package, which they know will only last them so long, and when it runs out, they will be forced to be look for work in a fiscally strapped Portugal that offers them less than nothing. Armed with this knowledge, our embattled workers do the only thing that they can do: refuse to leave their factory so that they can stave off the evitable for at least some period of time. There is much to love in The Nothing Factory, especially when the film steps away from its stylistic desire to overextend into a variety of genres in order to create an empathetic frustration and situational confusion for the viewer which is not always successful. The narrative thread that follows the path of one of the workers, a family man who ponders endless issues and yet still progressively turns into a leader, forms the most affecting scenes of The Nothing Factory, which has so much to offer in terms of real empathy for the people trapped in this grave situation.

 

Knife + Heart (Un Couteau Dans Le Coeur) / France / dir: Yann Gonzalez
The second feature by French-born director Yann Gonzalez, Knife+Heart is a stylish, inspired, affectionate look at the gay porn industry of the late 1970s as imagined by the director Gonzalez through a cinematic language that includes the pornography of that era, giallos, the excesses of Brian DePalma’s 70s output, and, most notably to us, William Friedkin’s 1980 film, Cruising, which despite the negative backlash from the gay community against the film at the time of its release, has come to be seen as a rare glimpse into an era and culture that would soon be destroyed by the AIDS epidemic in the subsequent years to follow. Knife+Heart centers on Anne (a perfectly casted Vanessa Paradis), a gay porn producer whose substance abuse issues have destroyed the one relationship that matters the most to her, that being her longtime affair with her editor, Loïs (Kate Moran). Even though Anne and Loïs’ relationship is broken, and a killer has begun to target Anne’s actors, the show must go on, and many of the best scenes in Knife+Heart develop from Anne’s new film approach, which weaves in the tragedy around her and her film crew to create her masterpiece, which drives our producer to hunt for the truth behind the murders of her actors, which may be hidden in the past lives of some of her crew and even herself. One of the most inventive, provocative, and disarming films to appear in the midnight programming of AFI Fest these last few years, Knife+Heart captures the distinct voice, style, and approach of Yann Gonzalez, a director whom we very much look forward to seeing more from in the future.

 

Dead Horse Nebula / Turkey / dir: Tarik Aktaş
Our favorite of this year’s selection of New Auteurs film programming at AFI Fest is Dead Horse Nebula, the debut feature by Turkish-born director, Tarik Aktaş. The story centers on Hay (Baris Bilgi) and begins with Hay as a child during his first experience with death when the boy discovers the carcass of a dead horse in a field and encounters life contained within the dead animal. Throughout Aktaş’ confident first feature, we see Hay’s interactions with death through the results of his passive and active role in the passing of life, but what becomes the core essence of the film is how past memories play a role in Hay’s connection to the natural progression of life leading to death. Dead Horse Nebula in tone is somewhat similar to Michelangelo Frammartino’s 2010 film, Le Quattro Volte, in the way that it allows the viewer to naturalistically gaze at the states of life, but whereas Frammartino’s film is about the transition of a life into other forms, Dead Horse Nebula excels in allowing you to see and hear the moments Hay experiences first-hand that build his perception of the natural world around him. Tarik Aktaş has created for his first feature, a carefully constructed and fully realized essay on the circular nature of memory and experience. Generoso spoke at length with director, Tarik Aktaş about his film and his process during AFI Fest 2018 for Ink 19.

 

                            MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM

Dogman / Italy / dir: Matteo Garrone
In a huge step backwards in his development as a filmmaker, Garrone’s newest feature Dogman selectively takes aspects of the very real and gruesome case of Pietro De Negri, a dog groomer, who murdered and mutilated a local thug who had been victimizing him over the years. What Garrone does here is little more than an emotionally and cinematically empty revenge film that neither makes a substantial social comment, nor is produced in a way that sheds any light on the original story. Save for Marcello Fonte’s performance as the titular character, Dogman is a disappointing follow up to Garrone’s 2015 feature, Tale of Tales, which was an imaginative treatment of Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone. The real crime of Dogman is that it was selected as Italy’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar over some truly wonderful films from Italy this year, including Happy as Lazzaro.

 

BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE

Burt Reynolds in Person at The Aero Theater, March 23rd, 2018 /Films Screened: Gator and The End
We have been fortunate that during our time in Los Angeles, we have gotten to be face to face with many of our cinematic heroes, and now, we should write that in no way should the following statement be perceived as one that diminishes any of those experiences, but the moment on March 23 of this year when Burt Reynolds, one of the last of great shining screen legends, and an actor whom we’ve admired our whole lives, took the stage at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, our hearts, and the hearts of most of the audience, dropped a beat. Despite the cane he needed to walk, or the way time and lifestyle had taken its toll on his body, the smile and the attitude was all Burt, and we were so thankful to be in the presence of that man. The setup for this appearance and a few other Burt appearances that weekend was the release of a new film that 82-year old actor lent his talents to, The Last Movie Star, but given the widely reported state of his health, many of us in the crowd saw this as a chance to possibly say thank you for the final time. We sort-of didn’t care that the films that were screening on March 23rd were Burt’s directorial debut, Gator, a notoriously hot mess of a good ole’ boy smash ‘em up film, a genre that was made even more popular by Reynolds back in the day, and another Burt directorial effort, 1978’s The End (admittedly we love this one)–we were all just waiting for the screen legend’s comments during the Q&A session in between the two features, and here there was no disappointment. Burt seemed to light up when every question from an audience member was followed by some form of declaration of love, and he gave thorough, well-thought out, and grateful answers that showed a great deal of respect for the audience in attendance. The evening culminated when Burt, upon saying thank you, stood before the crowd for what seemed like ten minutes as people, many of whom were women, but to be candid a lot of men too (Generoso included), yelled out their undying love for Mr. Reynolds. Sadly, Burt passed away five months later on September 6th, but we are so thankful to the Aero for making this moment with Burt possible. Rest in peace Burt.

Burt Reynolds at the Aero Theater, 3/23/18, Photo by Generoso FIerro 

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Director Jonas Carpignano

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Originally published in Ink 19 on January 17th, 2018
Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso Fierro

It has been two years since we last saw Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), the African refugee from Burkina Faso who settled in the Calabrian port town of Gioia Tauro and who is the protagonist of director Jonas Carpignano’s much heralded debut feature, Mediterranea. What distinguished Mediterranea was its intimacy with Ayiva’s experience as a newly arrived immigrant, and this intimacy is continued in Carpignano’s second feature, A Ciambra, but with Pio (Pio Amato), a Romani boy, now teenager, whom Ayiva sporadically encountered in Mediterranea. As a resident of Gioia Tauro himself these last six years, Carpignano has a rare and honest understanding of his surroundings and the perspectives of the people who live in it, which enable him to create film experiences that are true to his fellow residents while being reflective of his own process of assimilating into the community.

Originally a peddler of small stolen goods in Mediterranea, Pio, in A Ciambra, has ambitions to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato), who subsists in the underground economy, the only economy that is accessible to the Romanis that offers any ability to ascend out of poverty. When a desperate need for Pio to contribute more to his family emerges, Pio develops a friendship and also somewhat of a partnership with Ayiva that draws into question Pio’s allegiances to his own family. As was the case with MediterraneaA Ciambra is fervently committed to its central figure, Pio, and as a result, the film serves as the astute second installment of a triptych of character-driven films that aim to form a comprehensive examination of the town that Ayiva, Pio, and Carpignano call home.

We sat down with Jonas Carpignano during AFI Fest this past November and spoke at length about how his experiences with the people of Gioia Tauro shaped his approach to telling their stories.

Q: Lily Fierro: We recently watched Ettore Scola’s Brutti, Sporchi e Cattivi, which focuses on a Romani family living outside of Rome and is also a really fine example of Italian grotesque cinema, a genre which also includes films such as Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy and Marco Ferreri’s Le Grande Bouffe. We think that a lot of people who see your film will probably connect it to either crime or neorealist genres, but, for us, we see your film, A Ciambra, as almost an update and a modernization of the Italian grotesque, mostly because it is completely unrelenting, which is a key feature of the grotesque. Even though the films that I mentioned somewhat play on comedy and yours does not, could you talk about your approach to making everything unrelenting, and in turn, perhaps updating and extending the grotesque?

A: Carpignano: I think that the major distinction to make, even though I love all of those films, is that you feel that those films look to contextualize those communities and those people within Italian society, and that is why I feel that those films come off as slightly comic, or completely comic, so to say. There is certainly a way of dealing with a real situation through humor, which is common in the tradition of comedy. I think that the major difference and the reason why people tend to connect my film more to the neorealist movement is that there is an idea, or better put, a desire here to make the protagonist of the subject matter also the protagonist of the film.

The goal of both Mediterranea and A Ciambra, and what was very important to me, was to show underrepresented communities, but through their actual experiences and not the way Italians experience these underrepresented communities. There is no let up. There is no moment to step back and say, “But this is the context that they live in.” This is their life from their perspective, and if it is not important to them, then it is not going to be important to us either. One of the things that people always harp on is, “Where are the Italians in these films?” and they always say to me, “Where is the port? Gioia Tauro is a major port town, so where is it?” For me, it is not important to show that because it is not important to the protagonist of the film. In Mediterranea, people always ask, “There is a mafia presence there. Why don’t you show that?” Well, if something is not important to Ayiva, who has just gotten off a boat, who is literally just looking for his next meal, and who is literally just looking for a way to bring his family over, then you will not see it. So, if the mafia is not going to be important to him, it is not going to be important to the film. It is the same thing with Pio. People always ask, “Where are the beaches in this town?” I’ll tell them, “Well, Pio never goes to the beach because Pio doesn’t swim.” So, if it is not going to be important to him, I don’t feel the need to stop and say, “This is his life, and also this is his context.” And I think that this is why my film feels so unrelenting, so to say, because they are systematically and dogmatically married to the perspectives of the people who are the protagonists of the films.

Q: Generoso Fierro: We can understand your exclusion of showing the mafia in the film as you have no need to contextualize things that your protagonists do not encounter as part of their experiences. However, that is not to say that Pio’s experiences and interactions are entirely insular to his own Romani community. A Ciambra captures Pio’s interactions with many people, and from them, we get a sense of the social structure that Pio sees and must learn to navigate. In one particular scene, where Pio almost gets run over by a car, and in the car we see a mirror with cocaine, you expose the different kinds of criminality that occur between the groups that Pio encounters. With the “Italians,” the criminality is seen through protection and strong-arming. With the Africans and Romani, their crimes are mostly petty ones and auto theft, yet with none of these groups do we see drug trafficking. Is your omission of narcotics sales a statement on these two groups’ limited powers of organized crime? Or, did you simply not experience that form of crime in these communities?

A: Carpignano: It gives me immense amounts of pleasure and satisfaction when people draw these conclusions based on these small details because, in my own life in Gioia Tauro, I have to figure things out like that through small observations. I made a similar reflection a few years ago when I realized that no one here (in the Romani community) is dealing drugs, and no one in the African community is dealing drugs. And then one day, just like you see in my film, a car rolled up like that, and I remember Pio’s mom telling me to hide because those people were drugged up, and they were people from the “Italian” community, and that’s how I sort of managed to put it together. If you are going to be dealing drugs in that community, or in that society, you need to be in a different place in the social hierarchy than the Gypsies and the Africans, and the more I did research, the more I realized that that was true. There is a very strict hierarchy that the film tries to lay out, but not didactically, because I hope that the audience can piece it together through these little details—like I had to in my own experiences—so the fact that you did, brings me so much pleasure. Also, when we were first putting that scene together, my colorist said, “I don’t think that people can see the cocaine.” So, we put a little window on it, and we changed the shading and placed a mirror underneath—I wanted to make sure that it “popped.”

Pio Amato in A Ciambra

Pio Amato in A Ciambra

Q: Lily: As you mentioned in the discussion after the AFI Fest screening of A Ciambra, you are creating a triptych of Gioia Tauro. You started with Ayiva’s story in Mediterranea, and Ayiva continues his thread into A Ciambra, but did you write something that details Ayiva’s progression in between the two films? What are we to assume about Ayiva’s integration into this world in the time period between Mediterranea and A Ciambra?

A: Carpignano: I didn’t write it, but it was something that sort of wrote itself just because I live with him (Koudous Seihon). I have seen the difference in his, and I don’t want to say “status,” but position in that community. Whereas in the beginning he was just someone who picked oranges, years later, he has become someone who can move in a different way around Gioia Tauro because of his charisma and because he has been living there for so long. So, I have been able to see what should happen to Ayiva through what has been happening to Koudous and to many people as they sort of try to move into the underground economy. Obviously, there is no place for them in the actual economy; no one is going to give them jobs as we’ve seen in Mediterranea, so where do you go when you are sick of picking oranges? What is that next step? And naturally, that next step is participating in a kind of commerce that is somewhat underground in background. And, where are those relationships where a commerce role can exist for Ayiva? Obviously, they are between the gypsy and African communities, and not necessarily where the other communities exist in the town. How I see what happened to Ayiva between his arrival and now, is in some way, parallel to what happened between Pio’s grandfather and his family in the years since they settled and became part of Gioia Tauro. That process of becoming sedentary, of deciding that you are going to stay and live in a specific place, changes your occupations and your possibilities within this underground economy.

Q: Generoso: In regards to the underground economy, there is a particular scene in A Ciambra that suggests that, at least in Gioia Tauro, the Italians and the Romani might be growing closer by how the two groups set themselves apart from the newly arrived African immigrants. The scene we are thinking of here is when Pio’s older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) returns from prison and tells his younger brother about how the Romani and Italians joined forces in jail and distanced themselves from the African inmates.

A: Carpignano: I think that very rarely, when a new kid comes in, the last new kid says, “Let me help you make your life easier here.” Faced with the option of helping the new kid, the last new kid most likely will make a jump to be with the group that was there before them, and I think that is what happens here. There is now a sort of lower rung on the ladder, which inadvertently brings us closer to where we want to be, which is to this more established community. They are basically saying, “We may be Gypsies, and they may be Italians, but we are definitely more Italian than the Africans, and this place is more ours than theirs.”

Q: Generoso: You in fact have a scene in Mediterranea, which is what brought up our comparison to the Ettore Scola film that we mentioned earlier, where Ayiva begins to experience the harshness of the conflict against him and his fellow African immigrants, so he responds to a rat that enters his room by stomping it to death. It seems to suggest that we have a natural inclination to step on someone in a lesser position to gain some sense of control?

A: Carpignano: Wow, do you two read my emails? You just say a lot of the things that we talked about as we made the film that no one has ever written into an article. I am feeling so weird right now (laughs). Yes, that scene of Ayiva stomping on the rat is a statement that says: “This is the thing that is invading my space. This is the thing that is reminding me of where I am, so if I could kill that thing or distance myself from that thing…” This is a moment where his frustration can come out.

Q: Generoso: Thinking now about that change from being nomadic to sedentary, which is an essential theme in A Ciambra, you show this shift with a motif of citrus fruits (oranges and lemons) in both Mediterranea and A Ciambra. In Mediterranea, we paid close attention to how Ayiva eats the oranges that he picks. At first, he doesn’t eat them, but by the middle of the film, we see him beginning to eat the oranges, but he does so by only peeling away a small percentage of the orange peel and eating, as if he is slowly uncovering the community where he lives. By the end of the film, he is sorting out just the peels on a conveyor belt. You then begin A Ciambra with an image of a young Emiliano, Pio’s grandfather, when he was still a traveling Romani, slicing a lemon and drinking its juice, which then cuts to the present day, with Pio handling a lemon in his kitchen. Thematically this is one of our favorite elements of your first two features.

A: Carpignano: You know you two are killing me right now, because the scene that was the toughest for me to take out of the film is a scene after Pio’s brother comes back from serving time in jail, where he and Pio are sitting together the morning after their grandfather’s funeral in silence when Pio cuts a lemon and gives himself some citrus, and then he gives his brother a slice, and his brother eats it, and then the little boy comes in and grabs a piece of lemon and sits down in the chair.

Q: Generoso: Oh no, why did you cut this?! We so wondered why we didn’t see the citrus used as much in the film.

A: Carpignano: I am going to my editor’s wedding on Sunday, and I am going to make him pay (laughs).

Q: Lily: Also part of our sadness is that Generoso’s family is from Campania, and you know they have the prettiest citrus there, so we were a bit sad not to see it. (laughs)

A: Carpignano: Yes, it is the dominant agricultural element of that region. The plain is famous for the citrus industry. People say even further back that the ‘Ndràngheta started to form because of the bergamot, that bigger yellow lemony-looking citrus thing. The bergamot was one of the first things that they exported, and they cornered the market on that, and that was the beginning of their agricultural syndicates. So, citrus is a very prominent part of the plain, and that is where they got a lot of their commercial viability.

Q: Lily: Speaking of motifs, there is also a key visual motif of Emiliano and his horse that appears throughout the film. You begin A Ciambra with a scene showing Emiliano traveling with his caravan and his horse, and then, Pio sees his grandfather as a younger man with his horse as a recurring image/vision. Why does Pio see this? Is Pio one of the last of the members of the generation who is connected to the past of his grandfather, or is this past just romanticized because he has heard about it from his grandfather?

A: Carpignano: It is all of the above. This is very much Pio’s story, and I think that the film tries to, through being very specific through Pio’s experience, arrive to larger truths about the Romani community in general, and one of the most important things I think about that community is this solidarity that they feel that they have. History has a weight on all of us, and this sense of tradition is what makes Pio’s decision at the end the inevitable one. I think that the greatest limit and the greatest potential of this community is its solidarity, because, on one hand, they have created this really intense social network that has kept them alive for years. There, they always say, “No one here is going to die from hunger,” and that is is because they have each other’s backs. But in another way, Pio is unable to transcend the social architecture of that place because that tight knit community won’t let anyone else in or out, and I think that part of that is because they feel that they all come from the same tradition. They still refer to the others, mind you, they are as Italian as anybody, but they still refer to the others as “Italians” and themselves as “Gypsies.” And, why is that? It is because they believe that they have a past that is different from everyone else’s, and to me, that is what the horse represents. Pio needs to feel tied to the past in some way, shape, or form. He needs to feel as part of this tradition to justify, even to himself, betraying someone who might be even closer to him than his own brother. The sense of community, the identity politics that we all fall back on, is something that I think comes from this constructed identity that exists within many communities, and most specifically this one.

Q: Lily: Staying on Pio for a moment, another of his characteristics that we wondered about was his fear of closed spaces, specifically being enclosed in a space that is moving. What is the origin of that fear?

 

A: Carpignano: First of all, just speaking about the motifs, thank you for using the word “triptych” rather than “trilogy” before, because when you look at the great triptychs, they are really tied together through overlapping characters and motifs, even less than narrative logic, so to say. When you look at one of the great triptychs of all time, the Kieślowski Three Colors films, the things that tied those films together are not only the motifs and the use of color, but also the recurring actions. But speaking about Pio, specifically his claustrophobia, to me, that is less of a dramaturgical device as opposed to a psychological one—to come up with that and to put that in a film and find the right context for it, I had to get to know him better because that is something that actually happens to him. The elevator where Pio panics is my elevator, and that apartment is my apartment, and Pio has never gotten in the elevator to get to the apartment. Every single time, we had to go up and down the stairs to shoot that scene, and we had to rebuild the elevator, putting it on the terrace so that there is a removable wall for him. Pio is actually afraid of enclosed spaces, and he is actually afraid of things that go fast, and I find that to be incredibly fascinating because we are talking about people who historically were on the road in small spaces, in caravans, and in boxcars, moving together. Now that they have become sedentary, they almost have this aversion to these things. Moving too much, moving too fast, getting in an airplane, and getting in a train are things that he just would hate to do. And, that is why the train is there as a reminder in the background. There is the possibility of movement, of mobility, but now paradoxically, the gypsies feel more true to their tradition and their people and their identity by staying put. It is as if they have gotten this piece of land finally, and they are claiming it and saying that this is ours, and now that land is the source of their identity. So, that to me was something that was very important to put in the film, because in the end, when Pio is finally forced to move, he is enclosed in this tight space in this train, and he gets flashes of everything at this one point. He begins to freak out as he is put in the position to do something that he doesn’t want to do, and that connects him to his past, his present, and ultimately, that is where he gathers the courage to do what he needs to do. I felt that putting Pio in a position where he isn’t able to reflect on what he is doing, like when he is living through this phobia, this paranoia, brings out the raw emotions in him, and that is why I felt O.K. to open it up to that dream-like space again in that scene.

 

www.ifcfilms.com/films/a-ciambra

Generoso Speaks with the director of “Loveless,” Andrey Zvyagintsev

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Originally published in Ink 19 on December 19th, 2017
Interview conducted by Generoso Fierro

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to see twenty two feature films during this year AFI Fest held in Hollywood from November 9th to the 16th. Many were from veteran directors whose work we have appreciated over the years like Hong Sang-soo and Laurent Cantet, who gave us wonderful new features during the festival, but it was director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who we have admired since his 2003 film, Vozvrashchenie (The Return), who provided us with our favorite film of this year’s AFI Fest, Nelyubov (Loveless).

In Loveless, Zvyagintsev follows Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), a soon to be divorced couple, whose constant battling has caused severe emotional trauma to their young son Alexey, who in the midst of his parents’ other ongoing dalliances, has gone missing, a fact which is not even noticed by his parents until days later. Loveless then becomes a film that plays with its audience by putting you in the position of the argumentative couple, who seem more concerned with their anger towards one another and seemingly unfulfilling affairs than the welfare of their own child. Throughout Loveless, we see youth as a commodity in contemporary Russia in terms of romantic pursuits, yet children are often seen as an encumbrance by adults for their attainment of more financial and status oriented goals. Another dichotomy that is also depicted in the film is the divide between religion and faith and how that plays out in the decisions of key characters, which became the focal point of my discussion with Andrey Zvyagintsev, along with a comment from Zvyagintsev’s longtime collaborator, producer Alexander Rodnyansky.

Q: In an early scene shot in a cafeteria that is adorned with religious paintings, we see Boris (Aleksey Rozin) speaking to a coworker about his boss, a character whom you never see, who has a requirement that all of his employees must be married. That scene drew my attention to how faith or religion is seen through certain key characters in your film. How does faith play a part in the narrative?

A: Zvyagintsev: So, the boss is not a completely fictional character. He is more of a composite of conservative ideals in Russia, but there is a person who we were thinking of specifically. There is a factory in Russia where the boss, Vasily Boiko, had 6,500 employees under him, and in 2010, he told all of his employees who were spouses to get married in a religious ceremony or else they would be dismissed. In terms of religion, for a true believer, there is a clear distinction like the one between an ostrich and an eagle, a clear difference between good and bad, and that line goes through that person’s heart. And for those who are not true believers like the boss, that line is between them and the world, so they truly believe in their own Pagan ideas, conservative views like the ones displayed by this character. So, in my film this character is quite satirical. Oh, and one more thing, Vasily Boiko has added “the great” to his title so now he is Boiko The Great. (laughter)

A: Rodnyansky: It was really important for us that the comments that we are making are not about faith, but about the religion. We want to make it clear that we are speaking about the church as an institution, and let’s say the intrusion of the church into secular life as an organization, so our film does not make any comment about faith. Of course, we have a lot of true believers, perhaps not as much as we used to have one hundred years ago, but we still do have a lot. When people speak about the church, we can see it is playing a role in what the people perceive as faith. The church is a kind of an administrative department of the contemporary government. That is why we believe that this is an extraordinarily effective tool to implement the so-called conservative values in Russia today. That is why when we speak about the “religious” people, we always have a distinction between the true believers and the ones involved with the institution.

Q: You show youth as a definitive commodity in contemporary Russian culture as seen through the extramarital affairs of Zhenya and Boris. I was impressed in the film by the intense level of the search that the private/non-governmental organization mounts when Alexey goes missing. Is that level of intense search more a function of the value of youth in Russian society, or more due to Boris and Zhenya’s affluent economic status?

A: Zvyagintsev: Because this is a volunteer organization that has existed for seven years called Liza Alert, the people involved work regular jobs and do the searches for missing people for free. This organization looks for all missing people, so it does not have to be a child who is missing. When they receive a request, there is no money that changes hands, so the economic status of Boris and Zheyna does not play a role here. It could of course be the parents of a lost child that the organization has been asked to help, but it could also be a wife looking for her spouse, or children looking for their parents, so age does not matter, financial status does not matter. It is the awakening of citizens and their ability to organize themselves, and they do this only because of their empathy and desire to help in a way that the government cannot.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) speaks to her son Alexey (Matvey Novikov)

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) speaks to her son Alexey (Matvey Novikov)

Q: Have organizations like Liza Alert become more prevalent recently because of a specific crisis, like the refugee crisis in Syria or the conflict in the Ukraine?

A: Zvyagintsev: No, not specifically the Ukraine or Syria, it is just a need that had to be addressed by citizens in a way that the Russian government was unable to do.

Q: I ask this question as you regularly show dire, almost apocalyptic political situations in Russia via news clips seen on television during your film. This brings me back to my initial thoughts on how religion and faith are exhibited by the characters and how there may be a divide between older Russians who are gravitating towards religion because of the state of their country, and younger people who have become more secular because of the failings of the previous generation. Organized religion as you stated earlier is being used to foster conservative ideals. In general, is the current political situation driving more Russians closer or farther from organized faith, away or towards being “true believers’ as you say?

A:Zvyagintsev: Statistics show that 74% of Russians say that they are believers, but when they asked that 74% if they had read the Bible or the central text of their faith, only 30% admit that they have actually read the text. It is essentially like Paganism in that there is a social sickness, and a lot of people who consider themselves “believers” don’t understand which god they serve. So, questions about growth of numbers really don’t reflect what is going on in society. It is a social sickness of Paganism rather than true belief. This sickness isn’t just unique to Russia, it is going on all over the world. There are a lot of people who look for God, but find a short God. So, the criteria for a person who is a true believer, a true Christian, like I mentioned earlier, is that he has his border between good and evil going through his heart. It is an epic battle between your real self and your fake self, and if the person sees that evil is not within him, like this religious person who considers the line between good and evil to be outside of him, then he is a fake and not a true believer.

www.palacefilms.com.au/loveless

Lily and Generoso at Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con 2017

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Originally published in Ink 19 on November 9th, 2017
Review by Lily and Generoso Fierro

Since moving to Koreatown in the spring of 2015, whenever we begin seeing the jack-o-lanterns adorning the lawns of the homes on our drive to work, we know that Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con (SLLACC) is just around the corner. Usually held in the days before Halloween, if not Halloween itself, this con is now becoming a fall fixture here, with this year’s installment (the seventh in its short existence) being the biggest one yet in terms of its Guests of Honor, which ranged from The Rock to Kevin Smith to Stan “The Man” Lee himself. Of course, Stan’s appearance is never a surprise, but it is always thrilling as he has begun every one of his cons that we have attended with a personal appearance to give an update on new projects by his company, POW! Entertainment. A friend described our SLLACC attendance as one of being “panel heavy,” and this is indeed true that we do love the panels a bit more than those who indulge on the one on one experience that is available on the expo floor or in the gaming rooms, but we feel that we did more than our fair share of admiring the work of cosplayers, talking to comic and show creators at their tables, and even buying the odd Rick and Morty pin too, as the popular Adult Swim show was well represented in every material form available at the con. We selected our favorite moments from this year’s edition of SLLACC to share with you.

It usually takes some resolve to wake up super early on a Saturday morning, but when presented with an opportunity to see Stan Lee in person, it becomes a much easier task to avoid hitting the snooze button for an extra fifteen minutes because that bit of extra sleep might cost us a prime spot near the main stage. The Stan Lee Panel did not disappoint, as we were all informed of the status of two upcoming projects being helmed by Luka Contents and Lee’s Pow! Entertainment: Chroma and Prodigal. Jim Krueger, the winner of the Eisner Award for the DC Comics series, Justice was on hand to introduce Lucy Kim from Luka and Gill Champion, who was representing Pow!. Krueger soon expressed his excitement for being able to write a new hero with the comicbook, Chroma, which the book’s sizzle trailer later described as Korea’s first superhero. Kreuger described his inspiration for Chromaas coming from reading the first thirty six issues of Stan Lee’s Spiderman and imagining how to create a character using modern writing techniques while capturing the spirit that went into Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s partnership, and the dynamic images that we saw for Chroma in the sizzle reel gave us a preview of the work that artist Drew Johnson of Midnight Society: The Black Lake and DC Comics contributed to the series. The story begins with Chroma as a young boy who is traumatized by the killing of his sister, who was burned to death. When the boy turns into an adult, he becomes a scientist who experiments with the regenerative skin of octopi to help burn victims, but he soon stumbles upon a corporate conspiracy and an attempt is made on his life. We then were told that the Chromacomicbook will soon become a Korean-language superhero film, the first of its kind, and the film will be directed by Jee-woon Kim, who is best known for the 2008 neo-western, The Good, The Bad and The Weird. Kim was unable to attend the panel, but he sent a highlight video of clips from his previous films, and an interview where he expressed his deep admiration for Stan Lee.

Prodigal director, Yong-hwa Kim, speaks as Stan Lee looks on

Prodigal director, Yong-hwa Kim, speaks as Stan Lee looks on


Prodigal
, based on an original idea from Stan Lee, was next up for discussion on the panel. As described by Kreuger, Prodigal is about a young adult named Warren, whose dad is a vigilante superhero, but Warren soon finds out that he is adopted, and that his birth father is a supervillain, which takes the narrative into the age-old questions surrounding nature versus nurture, with the two fathers battling over their son’s transformation into an agent of good or evil. It was at this point that Gill Champion invited Stan Lee to take the stage before any further discussion about the project. Stan was as sharp and funny as ever when he set up the Prodigal trailer by asking the crowd to “pay attention, as there may be a test afterwards.” A trailer with some storyboard images followed and ended with the announcement of the release date of summer of 2019. It was then that the director chosen to helm Prodigal, Yong-hwa Kim, was introduced to the audience. The director explained that his wife recently gave birth to their first child, so he has naturally channeled his personal experiences as a father into this project, which will be unlike what you normally see through DC or Marvel, as family is such an integral part of the Korean way of life.

Since the toy’s release some forty years ago, there have been many rumors about the production of a media property to couple with the popularity of everyone’s favorite rubbery hero, Stretch Armstrong. Films were slated to be made by Disney and Universal in the ’90s and 2000s, respectively, but alas, nothing came to fruition. Now, Netflix has picked up the gauntlet with the production of the animated series, Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters, which follows frantic teen, Jake Armstrong and his two best friends, who all have been exposed to a chemical that makes them super stretchy, and in response, they use their rubbery powers to fight evil. The sneak peak of the series that we saw had a ’67 Spidermanfeel about it as Jake and his pals wisecrack away whilst performing superhuman feats like turning themselves into human slingshots so that they can launch cars at giant monsters. Netflix seems to be going all out with this venture, as they have recruited some big name voice talent in the form of Steven Yeun, Wil Wheaton, Keith David, Kate Mulgrew, and Henry Rollins.

 The Stretch Armstrong and The Flex Fighters Panel

The Stretch Armstrong and The Flex Fighters Panel

As much as Stan Lee’s appearance brought out cheers from the crowd around the main stage, it wasn’t at deafening as the higher-pitched screeches of joy that emanated from the crowd when the original voice actors of The Powerpuff Girls: Tara Strong (Bubbles), E.G. Daily (Buttercup), Cathy Cavadini (Blossom), and Tom Kane (Professor Utonium, and HIM) were brought onto the stage. Released almost twenty years ago, this trio of kindergarten-aged superheros took the world by storm and are still enjoyed in reruns on the Cartoon Network. The quartet discussed their auditions for the series and the extended length of time it took before the series began to hit TV screens. Our favorite part of the panel occurred early on when the moderator asked our actors to give their favorite voice from their main character on the show and then a voice of a different character that they had done on The Powerpuff Girls. It was startling to watch adults instantly transform into four year olds right before your eyes, especially when the women sang “Love Makes The World Go Round” in their Powerpuff Girl voices.

The reunion of the original voice actors of The Powerpuff Girls!

The reunion of the original voice actors of The Powerpuff Girls!

So, if you did not have enough of a ’90s nostalgia injection with The Powerpuff Girls reunion, the cast of the crown jewel of ABC’s TGIF programming, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, arrived at Comic Con! Yes, they were all there onstage to represent their much-beloved show that was based on the Archie Comics series: Sabrina Spellman herself (Melissa Joan Hart), her aunts, Hilda (Caroline Rhea), and Zelda (Beth Broderick), her cat, Salem Saberhagen (Nick Bakay), Sabrina’s sweetheart, Harvey Kinkle (Nate Richert), The Quizmaster (Alimi Ballard), her coffee shop boss and crush, Josh Blackhart (David Lascher), her college roommates Roxie (Soleil Moon Frye), and Morgan (Elisa Donovan). First, they all spoke of the international appeal of the show, as evidenced by the cast’s ability to know the word “witch” in the different languages of the nations where the show aired around the world, and yes Caroline, “strega” is indeed the Italian word for witch (it is also a very tasty liqueur as well). We learned about the sometimes negative reactions of fans to Sabrina’s onscreen boyfriend selections and the cool tidbit that surprised us — Melissa Joan Hart’s mother, Paula Hart, was the executive producer of the show, and she was responsible for getting the show added to ABC’s Friday night lineup, a fact that Melissa was more than proud of to share with the attentive audience at SLLACC.

The cast of Sabrina the Teenage Witch

It was soon back to present day for us, as no SLLACC would be complete without a stop at one of the Troma panels, and this year we selected the Troma Entertainment Presents: Toxie’s Friendship Celebration panel, which was moderated by Megan Silver and included a brief visit from Toxie himself, who, after a brief introduction (without his signature broom which had sadly been confiscated at the con’s weapons check), had to run back to the Troma booth. After Toxie departed, it was the Lloyd Kaufman show for a bit, as the President of Troma regaled the crowd with some dark stories of their group’s banishment from this year’s Cannes Film Festival where they had been a fixture for over forty years. Hugo Award nominated author and Tae Kwon Do Master, Dr. Chuck Tingle, spoke of his recent writings, and battles with his Jerky Neighbor Ted. Also on the panel was professional wrestler and former WWE/NXT Tag Team Champion Simon Grimm, who talked about his experiences leaving the world of wrestling for life with Troma. As the panel veered towards its conclusion, we saw what we had all been waiting for, a trailer for the soon to be released Troma feature, Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High aka Volume 2</i?, which includes the last ever onscreen appearance of Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister. We love the Nuke ‘Em High series, and this one looks to be the goriest and silliest one yet. A more somber Troma panel than the ones we’ve seen in years past, but it was one that was still full of great laughs, stories, and encouragement to create independently. We also caught up to Lloyd Kaufman after the panel for an interview to soon be published here on Ink 19, where he expressed his thoughts about his former collaborator, director John G. Avildsen, who passed earlier this year, and what exactly occurred at the Cannes Film Festival that got Troma banned.

Troma Entertainment Presents: Toxie's Friendship Celebration panel

Troma Entertainment Presents: Toxie’s Friendship Celebration panel

After the Troma panel, it was back to the main stage for one of the most loveliest moments of this year’s SLLACC, A Tribute to Adam West. Moderators Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman sat with the late actor’s real life friends and Batman cohorts, Burt Ward (Robin) and Lee Meriwether (Catwoman) for a charming, sad, and at times, funny conversation about working with the late actor on the seminal 1960s TV show and the feature film. Ward brought up how West made him laugh from the very first moment they met at the screen test for Batman and told audiences that “the last thing that Adam would ever want you to do is cry for him, as he spent his whole life trying to entertain people.” Meriwether, who replaced Julie Newmar in the role of Catwoman for the feature film, revealed in a story of how badly she wanted that part, and how sad she was that West was not present at her audition for the role as she admired him on the television show. Story after story told onstage by those who knew West confirmed one fact over and over, and that is that West was the same funny and irreverent person off-screen as he was on it. Smith and Garman were excellent in their roles as moderators as they calmly straddled the line between excited fanboys and thoughtful interviewers.

The original Robin (Burt Ward) entertains the panel, and the audience at the Adam West Tribute

The original Robin (Burt Ward) entertains the panel, and the audience at the Adam West Tribute

As the heart of any comic con lies in the spirit of creating comics, we were eager to attend the Publishing Your First Comic Book panel which was led by Rylend Grant, the writer/creator of Aberrant for Action Lab Comics, who smartly led a discussion with five comic book, television, and film professionals. It never ceases to amazes us that no matter how many of these nuts and bolts panels we attend, we always come away with some new pieces of information about this very complex process. Much of the early conversation of this panel centered around the art of the pitch, specifically on what should be the length of what you submit to publishers: Is this a few pages, a few issues, or a completed book? Most of our panel fell on the side of a completed issue so that the publisher can see clear ability to tell a story with sequential art. This is the first time that anyone actually acknowledged and discussed the exact avenues to enter comics in a clear way, going so far as to having panelists who have experiences with publisher submission, independent publication, and anthology contribution. In the end, the Publishing Your First Comic Book panel was one of the most well moderated and helpful panels that we have attended at a con in some time.

 The Publishing Your First Comic Book panel

The Publishing Your First Comic Book panel

There are three absolutes for us at Stan Lee’s L.A. Comic Con: Seeing Stan The Man in the flesh for our first activity there, spending some time with the denizens of Tromaville, and the antithesis of the blood-spurting, four-letter word throwing activities that are akin to the world of Troma, Jordan B. Gorfinkel’s Heroes and Faithpanel. For all of our years of attending both professional and pop culture conventions, this panel is hands down the most consistently strong in terms of moderation and discussion, and much of that credit belongs to Gorfinkel, a former editor for DC Comics who supervised Batman for over a decade. The panel, which normally discusses the role of a specific motif from faith and religion (including atheism) in media and culture, chose as their focus this time around: hymns, rhythm and music. On the panel was David Sacks, writer/producer for The Simpsons, Lisa Klink, a writer/producer/novelist who has worked on Star Trek: Voyager, film composer Kurt Farquhar, who is working on music for the CW drama, Black Lightning, and composer James Covell, who is currently scoring Fast N’ Loud for the Discovery Channel. The panel was hit by Gorfinkel with intense thoughtful questions like the following: within the Old Testament, can you speak about a specific time when music is important to faith? Can you give some examples of where religious-type music is successful in enhancing and movie or television show? The answers that followed such questions created engaging conversations throughout the panel, and led up to the always exciting and illuminating lightning round of short questions that closes this event every year.

A group photo of the always thoughtful and entertaining Heroes and Faith panel

A group photo of the always thoughtful and entertaining Heroes and Faith panel

For our final panel of SLLACC 2017, we selected The Kaiju Kingdom Podcast Live: Tribute to Haruo Nakajima, and we were so glad that we did, as hosts Chris Eaton, Jessica Tseang, and Mark Jaramillo provided endless astonishing facts about the man who brought to life not only Godzilla, but also Rodan, Moguera, and many other kaiju in over one hundred films during his illustrious career. In fact, our respect for Nakajima grew exponentially as we heard stories of his struggles wearing costumes that weighed over 200 pounds, being submerged in icy water for hours upon hours while wearing those overweight suits, and even, on an occasion, being severely electrocuted while filming, yet still working later in the day. It indeed was a loving tribute as our hosts not only dispensed intriguing facts, but they also shared their personal memories of meeting the late actor at various events over the years. Sadly, the audio visual department at the con failed our panelists as they were unable to show the clips that they had collected for their presentation, but that didn’t matter as the love and respect that they gave to the actor, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 88, was felt by all of the attendees in the room.

The sweet and informative Tribute to Haruo Nakajima Panel

The sweet and informative Tribute to Haruo Nakajima Panel

We were somewhat lighter on the panels on Sunday (we only did the three), which did allow us significant time to travel down artist alley and the adjoining creator booths in order to spot emerging projects, and two have caught our eye that we would like to share with you.

The new science fiction comicbook, Oasis, attracted our attention due to the absolutely stunning cover art by Breno Girafa. We actually stopped by the Oasistable just to acknowledge how impressed we were with what we saw, and we were greeted by the comicbook’s writer, Alex Wills, who gave us an enthusiastic overview of the series which spans four volumes, with each volume containing two issues. Based on our conversation with Wills, we picked up volume one, and so far, we have been very impressed with not only the art, but also the writing as Wills and Girafa create a dystopian world that is somewhat reminiscent of the world Ballard creates with High Rise, for Oasis is the name of a protected city that is removed from the harsh reality of a futuristic downtrodden Los Angeles. After reading the first two installments, we are curious to read the subsequent volumes as our main character, Miranda, has assembled a sort of dysfunctional family à la Fagin of Oliver Twist, a master who guides his “children” in the same dubious manner, but here set in futuristic and more violent world with the class struggle being at its core. The situations our “family” are put into and the choices they make that challenge their own emotions are compelling after just a few pages.

Like many attendees these days at comic cons, we are always on the lookout for new cartoons that would fit into the realm of Adult Swim’s idiosyncratic, if not disturbing programming, so we were intrigued when we saw concept art on a monitor for a new animated pilot that is looking to be funded on Kickstarter entitled, The Oracle Of Outer Space, which is about the last-existing AM radio station in the cosmos that is about to explode and crash into the earth. We spoke with the show’s creator, musician and writer Carl King, who like us is a huge fan of the legendary CBS sitcom, WKRP in Cincinnati, which turns out is one of the key inspirations for the show that he wants to create. Assembled by King for this project is veteran animator Lance Myers, who amongst his credits, was the lead animator for Richard Linklater’s feature film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Also on board is famed voice actor Jon Schnepp, who has worked on Adult Swim shows such as Metalocalypse and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Given that we have been doing a radio program for the last twenty plus years ourselves and the fact that we love The Swim, we found this project to be one we would love to see come to fruition.

The creator of The Oracle of Outer Space, Carl King

The creator of The Oracle of Outer Space, Carl King

In 2015, when we attended our first Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con (then called Stan Lee’s Comikaze), it was housed in two exhibit halls at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and during that year’s three day run, both halls were fairly packed with the robust attendance. For 2016 and this year, SLLACC has been relegated to just the one exhibit hall, which we found somewhat odd given its growing popularity. We wonder if last year’s one-time decision by the group that handles San Diego Comic Con to move Wondercon, which is normally held in Anaheim, to the Los Angeles Convention Center was the cause for this downsizing of space. As Wondercon is now back in Anaheim, we hope that future editions of SLLACC go back to an even larger space as before as this is one of the most entertaining and eclectic collections of panels and speakers about pop culture in the Los Angeles area.

See you next year!

 

LILY AND GENEROSO’S 2017 TOP TEN FILM LIST, SUPPLEMENTAL FILMS, BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT, AND BEST REP FILM EXPERIENCE

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We dedicate this top ten list to David Pendleton, the brilliant and lovely co-curator of the Harvard Film Archive, who passed away on November 6th at the age of 53. We wholeheartedly feel that our education as cinephiles was enhanced greatly by not only the quality of programming that he presented to us at the archive, but also from the film knowledge that we gleaned from him before each screening from the podium and after the screenings in the hallway. We miss you.  


In 2017, we were fortunate to have had a greater access to international film screenings than ever before, thanks in large part to the efforts of a few organizations here in Los Angeles who were committed to bringing the finest titles that they could find to the film community here from abroad, and it was this unprecedented ability to see foreign titles that became a large reason as to why our list is so heavily weighted towards international cinema. We would like to thank the good people at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, the South East European Film Festival, Cinema Italian Style, Canada Now, Cambodian Town Film Festival, and Recent Spanish Cinema Los Angeles for their diligent work in bringing the best contemporary world cinema to our city.

If we had to isolate two major themes that were indicative of this year’s selections, they would the creative process and the suffocating nature of modern industrialization. This year there are multiple films that capture the experience of artistic experimentation and creation. And, there are multiple films that contrast nature to modern civilization. Appearing at the top of our list this year is a film that excelled in incorporating and expanding on these two themes, an exceptionally ambitious and complex work that immediately set the standard for exceptional film for this year.  


1. By the Time it Gets Dark (Dao khanong) / Thailand / dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong
Countering the current banal trend towards overly self-aware film referencing that many consider viable postmodernist cinema is Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time it Gets Dark, which has no novelty in its allusions to the history of cinema and yet, manages to maintain a lightness throughout its discourse on the role of cinema in capturing and retelling collective memories and realities. The film begins with a scene set in 1976, and a real event that is currently being suppressed in history books by the Thai government, Bangkok’s Thammasat University massacre, where a large number of student protesters were executed by the Thai military. This piece of history comes to the attention of Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), a filmmaker who locates a survivor of the killings, a writer named Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), who Ann has invited to a secluded country home for an extended conversation. In this setting, we encounter another woman, who becomes a recurring character throughout the film, who drifts from job to job. After Ann interviews Taew, we are introduced to an handsome actor named Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri) who is filming a more commercial film than the one that Ann is currently creating about the Thammasat University killings. With each of these characters’ stories, Suwichakornpong shows a different perspective and context of film history and its motivations. There is an ode to cinema and a chance for transformation there is also an undercurrent of how film was viewed during different political and social climates within the timeline of the progression of cinema itself. The director, in order to accomplish this ambitious dissection of cinema, blurs the reality of what is in the film or to be specific, the films within the films, to stress what is most likely a change of character or outcome that has been mandated for purposes of entertainment or sadly because of the failing of a nation’s collective memory about a real event that has been altered by media itself.

 



2. Loveless (Nelyubov) / Russia / dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev
We have been fans of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s work since his 2003 feature film debut, The Return, and since that feature, he has continued surpassing each previous work in quality. It has been three years since his previous, highly regarded film, Leviathan, so we were beyond excited to see his new film, Loveless, the 2017 Jury Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival. In Loveless, Zvyagintsev follows Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), a soon to be divorced couple, whose constant battling has caused severe emotional trauma to their young son Alexey, who in the midst of his parents’ other ongoing dalliances has gone missing, which is not even noticed by his parents until days later. Loveless then becomes a film that plays with its audience by putting you in the position of the argumentative couple, who seem more concerned with their anger towards one another and seemingly unfulfilling affairs than the welfare of their own child. During the AFI Fest screening’s question and answer session with Zvyagintsev, the director deflected assertions that were made by the moderator that his film is political and clarified that his feature is one that intends to shine light on the social and moral imperatives of a modern Russia that is quickly on the verge of breakdown. Alexey, who only occupies a tiny percentage of the film’s running time, becomes a brilliantly conceived symbol of a generation of Russian citizens who are fanatically striving to retain their own youth, which is the most precious commodity in the face of an uncertain future.

 

 

3. Sieranevada / Romania / dir. Cristi Puiu
Lary (Mimi Branescu) and his wife, Laura (Catalina Moga) begin Cristi Puiu’s film trying to get out of a traffic situation on a busy street in Bucharest. This all too familiar scene of urban misery deliberately plays out slowly so that you can take in every single moment of frustration that this situation can provide. Once Lary and Laura are freed from the car trap, you learn that they are off to mourn the passing of Lary’s father with his family, who will now become the human version of traffic jam they couple just escaped. The predominance of Puiu’s stiflingly grand film takes place in the apartment where Lary’s family has congregated, and over the next few hours you will witness their rants on political situations that have been gleaned through personal experiences and to a greater degree, various nefarious websites. You will then see the seemingly trapped guests drag in their friends with their miseries into the fray, whist all await the priest who will consecrate this beleaguered affair before dinner can be served. Puiu has reimagined contemporary Romania in Sieranevada as an ant farm where the inhabitants disgustedly move around their glass cage, expelling their frustrations with neither truth or faith serving as a guiding force to lessen their anger. No real answers are given to any of the concerns of our grieving clan, except perhaps during one short scene when Lary and Laura are accosted by neighbors when they venture outside to try to move their car. It is at this very moment that you begin to understand that at least the dysfunction they see at home, as oppressive as it is there, is infinitely better than the conflicts that exist outside of the familiar familial box. For the almost three hour running time, you are transfixed by every conversation that occurs in Sieranevada, and you watch, sometimes in disbelief, at how these frenetic moments are sewn together by Puiu.

 

 

4. The Workshop (L’Atelier) / France / dir. Laurent Cantet
In The Workshop, longtime collaborators Laurent Cantet and Robin Campillo deceptively set up a scenario where you expect a beneficent teacher to help needy adolescents understand themselves through the beauty of writing, which could potentially be extremely sanguine and unrealistic like so many “teacher changing student movies” à la Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. However, Cantet and Campillo weave together a film that gets to the essence of writing. Here, writing is not a lofty art form that brings some level of dramatic catharsis, but rather a way to explore and accept one’s own motivations and flaws. Cantet and Campillo use a bait and switch technique that plays on established cinematic clichés in the order to create an interesting narrative, but more so to illustrate the flaws in Hollywood’s films, which stress unreal expectations for a saccharine ending. Cantet and Campillo purposefully lead the viewer through their main character Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), a highly intelligent but brash and combative young man, on several potential clichéd thriller endings in line with the thriller that the students in the workshop are tasked to write. The selection of any of these potential thriller endings for the film is irrelevant, as each ending option only goes as far as to clarify the true purpose of the film: the self-realization that comes through in writing is more important than the craft of writing itself. The Workshop is an expertly conceived film that deftly builds its thesis by confronting the assumptions made by audiences, who might project their own expectations about the beneficence and motivations of teachers and students based on Cantet’s 2008 Palme d’Or winning film, The Class.

 

 

5. Personal Shopper / France / dir. Olivier Assayas
Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a young American woman living in France who seems adrift as she goes through the day to day tasks of her titular position, working for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) a vulgar parody of an American actress. We see Maureen in a state of perpetual limbo due to recent passing of her twin brother, Lewis, who has promised his sister a sign from beyond, which Maureen eagerly awaits for, and witnesses early in the film while staying at the abandoned house of her deceased brother. Maureen’s supernatural connections with Lewis do little for Maureen in terms of coming to grips with her loss, and so she continues to glide through her life with no connection to both her boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger), a computer programmer working abroad in Oman, who Maureen communicates with only through Skype, and Kyra, who sends purchasing requests to Maureen via phone. The aforementioned detached voices, including a new one in the form of an unknown text-messenger, add to this state of lifelessness we see in Maureen, who becomes somewhat of an apparition herself, a phantom who secretly parades around the apartment of her employer whilst wearing her bosses new expensive garments. Though some elements exist, Personal Shopper never operates on the level of standard genre horror film, though the film does contain moments of suspense through Maureen’s reactions to the mysterious and threatening texts that she receives. Assayas uses the combination of the unreal and real to solidify his thesis, a thesis that does more than simply examine the grief associated with physical death: it’s a look at not only the emptiness that coincides with that loss, but also the loss of physical connection due to global economics and subsequent distance between people in their methods of communication in our digital age.


6. Western / Germany | Bulgaria / dir. Valeska Grisebach
Valeska Grisebach’s first film in over a decade, Western, which was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is a surprising examination of the conflicting attitudes towards and evolving definitions of masculinity that are derived from predetermined notions of contrasting cultures. In the film, a team of German workers is sent to the outskirts of a small village in Bulgaria to build a hydroelectric power plant. Amongst the team, we are immediately introduced to Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), who is said to have been a French Foreign Legionnaire who has grown tired of war. Even though he does have some camaraderie with his German colleagues, Meinhard gravitates towards the villagers near his worksite, and he attempts to gain favor within the village as to earn a place there for some semblance of permanence, but perhaps even more so to exist within a community that eschews the trappings of self-serving aggression that historically is attached to Western practices of conquest and expansion. Through the use of a primarily non-professional group of actors, Western accomplishes its ambitious conceptual goals with a documentary style that allows the viewer seemingly unfettered access to Meinhard and the world around him. Grisebach has created, for the central character of her film, a complex and compelling study, as Meinhard’s former existence as a Legionnaire is an excellent device to explain his innate ability to acclimate to different interpretations of masculinity because of the international participation that exists within the French Foreign Legion. Given Meinhard’s desire to be part of a new community, combined with his ability as a Legionnaire to adapt to foreign cultures, will he be able to establish his value, which he believes comes from his ability to commit violence, but, in doing so, will his actions go against acceptable levels of aggression within the community he wishes to serve?

 



7. A Ciambra / Italy / dir. Jonas Carpignano
In the final scene of Mediterranea, Jonas Carpignano’s impressive feature film debut, we see the protagonist of the film, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), an African refugee who, since arriving in southern Italy, has tried to play it straight, entering a party at the home of his connected orange orchard boss. This simple act of entry by Ayiva, symbolizes his acceptance of the criminal code that governs his region. When we begin Carpignano’s follow up film, A Ciambra, we are reintroduced to Ayiva’s young friend from Mediterranea, Pio (Pio Amato), an illiterate adolescent from a Romani community who peddles stolen items. In A Ciambra, Pio lives with his family and does what he can to help out, including the aforementioned small-time thievery and stealing electricity for his home so that his family can dodge bills they cannot afford. As for Pio and Ayiva, despite their ethnic allegiances, they have become close friends with Ayiva assuming a protective role over Pio, as Pio’s older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) begins serving time in prison, a place where he begins to look at the ethnic divide in a different way. What we admire the most about A Ciambra is the film’s unwillingness to compromise its realistic vision of a Romani community in contemporary southern Italy and how that community functions in a static environment between established Italian nationals and a new migrant group, African immigrants, who draw some of the ire away from the Romanis. Though by genre definition, this is a crime film, we have come to realize that A Ciambra is more of a film about the stigma attached to immigrant groups from outside and from inside of their communities. We see three groups in the film: the Calabrians, the Romani, and the Africans, and we learn their perceptions of each other and themselves from their interactions.

 

 

8. Bright Sunshine In ( Un beau soleil intérieur) / France / dir. Claire Denis
In Bright Sunshine In, Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle, an older visual artist whose success in her career fails to translate into her inter-personal relationships. On the surface, Bright Sunshine In looks like an exploration on fleeting and turbulent love, an exercise on a quintessentially French premise, but Claire Denis uses love and relationships to form an intricate conceit about the life, interactions, and career of an aging female creator. On one level, Bright Sunshine In is about how an older female actress presents herself to the people and characters she meets in life, on stage, or in cinema impacts the course of her interactions. Throughout the film, Binoche comedically dresses as a caricature of a young French woman. She’s always in a miniskirt that barely meets the top of her audacious thigh-high boots, and whenever we see Isabelle’s outfits in Bright Sunshine In, we see a manifestation of Binoche the actress’s and Isabelle the artist’s need to prove to outside eyes that they still can carry the energy, beauty, and vitality of their youth. As much as the film is about the aging actress, it is also about Claire Denis herself as a female director navigating through the archetypal male characters in French cinema and the male actors who play them, which is why the film must end with scenes from Denis’s longtime collaborator Alex Descas and the iconic Gérard Depardieu. Bright Sunshine In appears like a lighter film for Denis, but it is a completely exemplary one because of its ability to show the creative process and experience for aging women in cinema who have seen the past and contributed their own work to it, but want to continue to progress, and for that it is a film that only Denis can present because her grace, honesty, and perceptiveness are evident throughout.

 

 

9. Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres) / France | Belgium / dirs. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Before we say anything else about Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan, let us say this: it’s not perfect by any means, but it is one of the most conceptually and visually daring films we saw at AFI Fest 2017. Cattet and Forzani’s latest blood-soaked feature is, at times, an outstanding display of ideas that draws visual and aural conventions from everything from low budget Euro-crime films of the 1970s to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s landmark novel of the same name that re-defined police stories, Let the Corpses Tan uses a violent heist as the galvanizing moment in the narrative, but the film is less about why the crime was committed and more about what each character sees, feels (in a tactile way rather than an emotional way), and hears as he or she has to deal with the consequences. As thus, there is an overwhelmingly impressive dedication by Cattet and Forzani to construct meticulous shots of the actions, big and small, of each character, which makes every scene in the film palpable. We can hear and see the paint that Luce (Elina Löwensohn), the owner of the home that doubles as the film’s stage, shoots onto a canvas. We can feel the sun beating down on the characters as they move around Luce’s sparse and desert-like property in Corsica. We see and hear shots fired from each perspective. We can even smell the pee that is part of Luce’s performance art. This action-focused approach bypasses any character development and exploration, but keeps you fully engaged because you would like to see, hear, and feel what is next, especially because Cattet and Forzani never present a less than intriguing scene. As part of the sensory explosion in Let the Corpses Tan, the directors include scenes from surreal performance artwork from Luce, and these moments emphasize why you should see the film: Let the Corpses Tan is a showcase of how the motifs that we know from genre cinema, when included and expanded in similar and contrasting contexts, can form their own kind of performance that is analogous to Luce’s strange, but also reference heavy, performances.

Let the Corpses Tan is a dazzling spectacle, and even if there are no characters and no firm narrative to hold onto, you’ll be mesmerized by all the sounds and images of liquid gold slathered on bodies, lamb meat being grabbed, bodies being beaten, and gunshots fired in close range and through windows interspersed with close ups of sweaty, furtive glances. As you can tell from that description, some of the scenes in the collage of Let the Corpses Tan may be overly masturbatory or fetishistic, which without key characters are made even more so, but as long as you give up trying to understand why this is all happening before you, you’ll have fun, too much fun experiencing this film.



 

10. On The Beach At Night Alone (Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja) / South Korea / dir. Hong Sang-soo
There were three features directed by Hong Sang-soo this year, which is a fairly standard output by the prolific auteur, who uses a different method in each film to examine his own personal issues, which has also been a mark of his career. One of the most candid talents working in cinema, his 2017 output, Claire’s Camera, The Day After, and On The Beach At Night Alone, are all different artistic treatments of Hong’s much-publicized affair with actress, Kim Min-hee, who, like her married paramour Hong, has been vilified by the South Korean press, in a similar way that Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini had been demonized some seventy years ago after their affair became public, and also as Bergman and Rossellini were able to do, Hong and Kim’s collaboration has led to some magnificent pieces of art, which brings us to On The Beach At Night Alone. The most structurally ambitious and affecting of Hong’s films this year, On The Beach at Night Alone begins in Hamburg, where Kim portrays Young-hee, an actress who has just departed South Korea after having an affair with a famous director. Kim is in Germany visiting a divorced friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), and the pair peacefully wander through the streets, shops, and parks of Hamburg, and in one funny scene, they even dine with a German friend where they engage painful conversation of poorly spoken English. Though this scene of misspoken words, combined with the redundancy of phrases is seemingly there for comic relief, it mostly exists as a harbinger for the final two thirds of the film that take place in South Korea, where a reunion of sorts with Kim’s director-lover occurs that stresses the power of language and the brutal honesty contained within words to convey pain. As strong as the construction is for On the Beach at Night Alone, its power primarily comes the emotionally complex performance by Kim Min-hee, who seems to have channeled all of the negativity that has been directed at her by people responding to the real-life controversy connected to her off-screen affair with Hong into her impressive range of abilities as an actress.  

 

 

SUPPLEMENTAL LIST

My Father’s Wings (Babamin Kanatlari) / Turkey/ dir. Kıvanç Sezer
An impressive debut feature from the Turkish-born, but Italian-educated Kivanç Sezer about his country’s worker safety issues that have been worsened by earthquakes in Turkey and subsequent shortages of properly built homes, My Father’s Wings uses as its narrative engine the story of master builder İbrahim (Menderes Samancilar), who labors at a construction site where payments have become nebulous and is in dire need of funds to support his family. İbrahim works at the site with his nephew Yusuf (Musab Ekici), a brash young man who is eager to climb the ladder of success and become his own boss. A pensive drama that is framed in the Italian neorealist tradition, My Father’s Wings provides the viewer with a glimpse into the growing crisis of housing demand leading to an exploitative situation for low wage builders who are trying to maintain a balance between survival and dignity. The flawless performances by Samancilar and Ekici create complementary perspectives on life for two different generations, and combined they form characters that express our own concerns and sometimes naïve optimism in our changing society. This is the first part of a projected trilogy that Sezer hopes to make that centers around the building of this property in the suburbs of Istanbul. We sat down with the director for an interview that you can read here.

 

 

Pendular / Brazil / dir. Júlia Murat
Whereas Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition is solely focused on what it means to see and show art from a creator’s and an audience’s perspective, Pendular is more self-contained in its discourse on the reconciliation between space and body. At the start of the film, we see a couple, the woman, a dancer, and the man, a sculptor, forming a line of separation in an abandoned factory that doubles as their home and studio. From this image of the line that splits the man and the woman’s working spaces, we immediately understand that invasion of space will become an issue—for him, the space needed to build his sculptures, and for her, the physical space of her body, the key tool of her work. As Pendular proceeds, the dancer and the sculptor battle to expand their respective physical spaces of performance/creation, and as a result, we see what happens when their need for expansion and creation in their work bleeds into the confines of their human relationship. Beyond our sculptor and dancer, there is a third creator who also wants space: the filmmaker. In conversations in Pendular, there are constant references to mainstream cinematic language and video game play. Then, in one brief moment, we see the dancer move towards the couple’s personal collection of films, which contains multiple works from Tsai Ming-liang and Claire Denis. All of these references to external media serve to try to relate the experience of the sculptor and dancer to known properties for the audience, but all of these references are interruptive and brief, almost in a jarring way, showing the filmmaker’s own battle for narrative space in the film itself in order to set cinematic language anchors for the viewer. Thus, Pendular emerges as an exploration into the experimentation and the struggle to find harmony between three artists: dancer, sculptor, and filmmaker, and in the closing, when the three finally come together, the outcome is a hypnotizing visual exhibit of space, body, and movement. Given the intricacy required to convey the concepts in Pendular, the film de-personalizes its central characters, but more moments of their personal interactions would have given more fluidity and spontaneity to the film. Regardless, Pendular ranks high on this list because it underscores the ability of cinema to provide a dialogue about art, of multiple forms, with time, images, and sound.

 


Hermia and Helena / Argentina / dir. Matías Piñeiro
The latest of Piñeiro’s ongoing “Shakespeareads” series of films based on The Bard’s heroines, Hermia and Helena is a charming, but no less poignant repurposing of the characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream taken over international borders. We begin our film with Carmen (María Villar) who is nearing the end of her arts fellowship in New York City and is giving practical academic, and not so practical romantic advice to her friend in Argentina, Camilla (Agustina Muñoz), who will shortly be switching places with Carmen at the university, a switch that may be packaged with the added bonus of an administrator named Lukas (Keith Poulson), a hipster doofus and notorious lothario, who has been spending time with Carmen during her appointment. Once Camilla arrives in New York, she takes advantage of the always amourous Lukas, while she attempts to balance a precarious mix of translating A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a search for her biological father and her long lost lover, and a preoccupation with whomever has been sending postcards during a cross-country roadtrip to Carmen’s apartment. The scenes contained in Hermia and Helena bounce freely from the stories going on in both Buenos Aires and New York, so in one way, Piñeiro’s film has a formal structure, but it is not necessarily a chronological one, which allows for the individual parts of the film to have impact on their own, like the scene where Camilla meets her father, yet at the same time they reflect on one another’s importance in the narrative. The effect allows you to delve into any part of the film without having to rationalize its place in the story. You can also view the film after digging up and digesting your Cliff Notes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from junior year of high school to refresh your memory of the play’s characters to draw comparisons, but it is not necessarily needed to enjoy this refreshingly alive film, which is as much about distance as it is about star crossed lovers.

 


Hello Destroyer / Canada / dir. Kevan Funk
One of the most impressive films in quite a while on the systematic cultivation of violence and the pervasive nature of sports on a society, Kevan Funk’s unrelentingly merciless feature debut, Hello Destroyer, features a powerful performance from Jared Abrahamson as Tyson Burr, a rookie forward for the imaginary Prince George Warriors junior team. Funk painstakingly follows Tyler’s horrific journey through an athletic system where he is first encouraged to by coaches and teammates to be aggressive on the ice, which then becomes a story of infamy as Tyler is subsequently ostracized for his actions during a game that lead to him permanently injuring an opposing team’s player. The film exposes the deep flaws of a sports culture that consistently enforces an ideal of teamwork, an idea that crumbles easily once the unspoken rules of the sport are broken. The structure and tone of Hello Destroyer is courageously uncompromised as director Funk never allows for even one positive moment to distract you away from the film’s dour central message, one that stresses the pressures that are internalized by a young person when they enter the arena to play their country’s most coveted sport and the life-changing ramifications that arise once the public feels that their beloved institution has been violated. Given the realistic treatment of the subject matter, combined with the raw performances in Funk’s film, it was impossible not to think of real-life NHL players Todd Bertuzzi and Marty McSorley, whose entire careers and lives were forever altered by their one moment on the ice where their aggression went too far past the normally prescribed violence that is expected by the fans and management of their sport.

 

 

The Girl Without Hands (La jeune fille sans mains) / France / dir. Sébastien Laudenbach
Amazingly for the second year in a row, we have been presented with a impressed feature that has been written, directed, and animated by one person alone. In 2016, director Nick DiLiberto released the film that he labored over for four years to hand-illustrate over 60,000 frames for, Nova Seed, his homage to the 2-D animated sci-fi/fantasy films of the 1980s, and this year, celebrated animator Sébastien Laudenbach wore as many hats as DiLiberto and faithfully adapted the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, The Girl Without Hands. The girl (Anaïs Demoustier) has chosen the pastoral setting of an apple tree near her father’s mill as her place of rest, but that place is forsaken when her father (Olivier Broche) makes a Faustian deal with the Devil (Philippe Laudenbach), which costs him not only his apple tree, but his daughter as well. The Devil further instructs the greedy father to cut off his own daughter’s hands, which he is heartbroken to do, but he obliges in fear of further retaliation. Without her hands, the girl slowly crawls into the woods where she is saved from drowning by an earth mother spirit (Elina Löwensöhn) who subsequently shows the girl to a castle where our wounded heroine meets a prince (Jéremie Elkaïm) who falls in with her and who makes for his new love, a pair of golden hands, but our story is far from over. Utilizing a flowing impressionistic style of watercolor strokes that form more than just a pretty effect on the visuals, Sébastien Laudenbach achieves a softness that impeccably compliments the naturalistic elements of the story, as this particular adaptation of the Grimm fairytale is indeed more than a simplistic hero versus villain story, as it becomes a parable about the pure redemptive power of the natural state against man’s need to be in conflict with that state.

 

 

Turn Left Turn Right (បត់ឆ្វេងបត់ស្តាំ) / Cambodia | USA / dir. Douglas Seok

When Turn Left Turn Right begins, we see Kanitha (Kanitha Tith), a quintessentially modern looking woman, decked out in her royal blue cocktail dress. Kanitha has a raw, almost childlike intensity to her stare and stance as she wanders quietly through the ruins of Angkor Wat while Khmer era music plays in the background. As the screen fades to black, the song continues, and you are presented with a title card announcing the beginning of “Track Two” and then the image of actress Dy Saveth, the star of the international 1970 fantasy hit, The Snake Man, and one of the few stars remaining from the Golden Age of Khmer Cinema, dancing to the same song that introduced us to Kanitha, who we now see watching the video of Saveth. Kanitha is taking a break from her unglamorous job as a waitress in a rock club, where she slightly bobs her head to the music while going through the motions of work, before ending her shift and riding home to fall asleep in her work clothes on a mat next to her sleeping grandfather. End of track two. Kanitha has two jobs: one as a waitress in the aforementioned nightclub and another as a hotel clerk, but she must still live with her grandfather and mother, who continue to badger Kanitha about her unmarried status and her lack of desire to create a family of her own. In the eyes of her family, Kanitha’s lifestyle may appear selfish, but her desire to remain outside of traditional roles appears justified when we witness the economic struggles of her friends and their lives in the marketplace. When her grandfather becomes ill, Kanitha and her mother discuss using their small amount of savings just so Kanitha’s grandfather can be treated in a hospital. Faced with such a grim financial future, Kanitha continues to work her jobs, but the dancing that once only occurred in her dreams, begins to find an unwelcome home in the reality of her day to day urban existence. It is only through her trips into the natural settings of waterways and her friend’s farm that Kanitha can finally feel unencumbered by the world around her enough to share her desire for freedom with others. In his short, but complete sixty-eight minute second feature, director Douglas Seok creates a compelling and elegant visual narrative that intertwines scenes from a rapidly changing modern life with glimpses into an era of Cambodia that has long since passed. Seok also mixes in contemporary and Khmer era vintage songs, minimal dialog, and physical expression, which altogether with the images, allows his protagonist to delve deeply into a dream state without ever losing focus of the film’s essential central construct of creating a character whose choices are influenced by the conflict between her own desire to live a simpler life because of the complexity of today and the expectations and needs of the people she loves who are fundamentally connected to traditional values from a time that no longer exists.

 

                        MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) / Chile / dir. Sebastián Lelio
During the Q&A with lead actress, Daniela Vega, after the AFI screening of Sebastián Lelio’s ultimately disappointing new feature, A Fantastic Woman, a clue was given as to why the film failed to create an emotional connection with us, despite an intense performance from the newcomer Vega. As she described her feelings towards reading the script that Lelio sent her for A Fantastic Woman, Vega uttered the following line, “I was fifty pages into the script, and it was all about my character Marina’s love interest, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), so, I had some second thoughts.” In the cut of the film that we saw, the character of Orlando barely has ten minutes of screentime, so we have to wonder if Lelio once intended to create a much more thorough portrait of the relationship between Vega’s character, Marina Vidal, and Orlando so that the audience would better understand Marina feelings for her partner and her state of mind when he passes away. Instead of witnessing that relationship first hand to empathize with Marina, we only see scenes where Marina is upset by Orlando’s family as they deny her the right to mourn Orlando and where she practices boxing to vent her frustration. In A Fantastic Woman, we only get dramatic devices to represent Marina; we get no character examination, which Lelio is more than capable of, as seen in his widely celebrated film Gloria. Another rift between the viewer and any emotional connection comes by way of the failing of the editing style, which removes space during scenes where Marina’s emotions could be absorbed by the audience in favor of a cut to the next scene. Much respect has to go to Vega in her first lead role in a motion picture, and we feel that the worst failing of A Fantastic Woman was its missed opportunity to capitalize on the actress’s raw talent. Because of the film’s shallow character construction and rapid editing, we only get glimpses of Vega’s abilities—we never see them fully exhibited. We both highly regard Lelio’s previous feature, Gloria, which was a top ten film for us in 2014, and we were very disappointed that A Fantastic Woman was not given the same level of breathing room and character development that made Lelio’s previous film so affecting.

 

                                         
                   BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE   

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2015, we attended a screening of a bizarre 70s exploitation film called, The Sexorcists. That night we got in line early as we had never been to the Silent Film Theater on Fairfax, and it was there where we met Monty Lewis, a gregarious and epically knowledgeable lover of cinema (and comicbooks). Monty was the first person to actually welcome us to the city, and that night at Cinefamily, he ran down a list of the numerous locations in L.A. where one could see great rep house fare, and for that we are eternally grateful. Sadly, Monty unexpectedly passed away on July 2nd at the age of 45. We both miss our chats in line with Monty before the films, and his booming laugh from the back row of the theater. So, before we offer up our favorite experiences in the rep houses in Los Angeles from 2017, we just want say thanks again to Monty for extending his knowledge and humor to us.

We are now midway through our third year as cinephiles here in Los Angeles, a city that up until the last few years was never widely regarded as being a real competitor to New York City in terms of its ability to present as eclectic an array of older titles on the big screen in repertory houses. These days though, on any given night in Los Angeles, you have not only the potential of seeing lost gems that you may have never seen before, but also the fortune of seeing them with the film’s director and stars, who are more than happy to regale you with stories from the film’s production, issues with certain prima donnas, or why some suit thought that a revisionist western starring a young Robert Duvall as Jesse James wouldn’t be worth a real ad push. We were so fortunate to have had a wealth of such moments in 2017 that choosing just one is almost impossible as we are not only judging the film, but that experience combining the film screening with hearing from these legendary talents.  

There was the night when the great Czech New Wave director Ivan Passer, who was as sharp as ever at 84 years old, showed up at the New Beverly to discuss his role in Fireman’s Ball, which he co-wrote with director, Milos Forman, or the Saturday evening double feature of La Vallée and More at The Aero in Santa Monica with director Barbet Schroeder and actress Bulle Ogier, whom Generoso has admired since seeing her decades earlier in Jacques Rivette’s 1969 masterpiece, L’ Amour Fou. We also spent a brilliant summer afternoon, again at the Aero, with director Bertrand Tavernier after he screened his massively underrated 2002 film, Safe Conduct. That day he spoke openly about his admiration for the filmmakers who worked for the French Resistance in World War Two. We loved seeing and hearing Jacqueline Bisset at the UCLA Film Archive discuss her bizarre experiences, most notably her being taken by boat to a deserted island, which led to her being cast in John Huston’s Under The Volcano. There’s also the time when actor Bruce Davison’s gave the crowd a spot-on imitation of Burt Lancaster, who Davison starred with in Ulzana’s Raid, which screened at the New Bev, or the lovely way that director Philip Kaufman thanked film critic Stephen Farber for championing Kaufman’s woefully underappreciated revisionist western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, when the film was released to lukewarm reviews after its initial release in 1972. We were so taken by that conversation that we transcribed the entire talk, and it was published on Ink 19.   

So, if it has to come down to one repertory moment for us this year, that would have to be when screen legend, Martin Landau, appeared at the Egyptian Theater after a screening of North By Northwest back in January, which was only a few months before he passed away at the age of 88. The actor arrived directly from a meeting held at the Hollywood branch of the Actors Studio, which Landau headed until his passing. Landau seemed so excited to address the crowd and was in rare form that afternoon, as he gleefully explained in detail his process when working with the late Mr. Hitchcock. Landau went into detail on his reasoning that went into his interpretation of the character of Leonard, whom he portrayed in the film as gay at a time when such things were simply not done in Hollywood. The actor then spoke of his unique preparation for his multi-faceted performance in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Generoso’s favorite film of Landau’s long career. The conversation never felt rushed that day, as it sometimes does when conversations of this type are done on a day when the venue has multiple screenings—no, Landau took complete advantage of that moment at the Egyptian as he was so giving with his answers. Even though he was in his late 80s, the actor spoke enthusiastically about his craft, and we will forever appreciate the knowledge dispensed to us from such a fine actor who enjoyed a such a long and distinguished career.

Working Through Modern Cambodia: Douglas Seok’s Turn Left Turn Right

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Originally published in Ink 19 on September 15th, 2017
Review by Generoso Fierro

On few occasions, when witnessing a central character’s actions without dialog, can we begin to form an opinion of that particular character’s overall ethos and intentions and how that character connects to the narrative of the film. When Turn Left Turn Right begins, we see Kanitha (Kanitha Tith), a quintessentially modern looking woman, decked out in her royal blue cocktail dress. Kanitha has a raw, almost childlike intensity to her stare and stance as she wanders quietly through the ruins of Angkor Wat while Khmer era music plays in the background. As the screen fades to black, the song continues, and you are presented with a title card announcing the beginning of “Track Two” and then the image of actress Dy Saveth, the star of the international 1970 fantasy hit, The Snake Man, and one of the few stars remaining from the Golden Age of Khmer Cinema, dancing to the same song that introduced us to Kanitha, who we now see watching the video of Saveth. Kanitha is taking a break from her unglamorous job as a waitress in a rock club, where she slightly bobs her head to the music while going through the motions of work, before ending her shift and riding home to fall asleep in her work clothes on a mat next to her sleeping grandfather. End of track two.

Within these early tracks, for his second feature, American-born director Douglas Seok establishes his commitment to an unconventional narrative structure analogous to that of a concept album, a method that allows movement and texture and the response to rhythm and melody to supercede dialog in allowing you unfiltered access into the mind and emotions of Kanitha, the film’s central character. It would be easy to dismiss Turn Left Turn Right as an “atmospheric exercise,” which was the fate that befell Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2001 feature, Millennium Mambo, a film that similarly took us through the days of a woman in her twenties as she tries to suss out an existence in a place where the past eras serve as an impediment and where some archaic familial attitudes still exist. The reality of that past emerges as track three begins, when we again see Kanitha in the ruins at Angkor Wat clad in her blue dress, except now she is carelessly and joyfully dancing in a way that is completely her own to a classic Cambodian rock tune playing behind her. Here, the single camera full frame static shot with a touch of Technicolor is reminiscent of the films of the Khmer era, creating a distinct visual contrast from the moments of Kanitha’s reality, which are shot with standard, in motion HD video that is common to the language of contemporary cinema, suggesting that in her dreams, Kanitha is trapped in between the past and the present.

Kanitha has two jobs: one as a waitress in the aforementioned nightclub and another as a hotel clerk, but she must still live with her grandfather and mother, who continue to badger Kanitha about her unmarried status and her lack of desire to create a family of her own. In the eyes of her family, Kanitha’s lifestyle may appear selfish, but her desire to remain outside of traditional roles appears justified when we witness the economic struggles of her friends and their lives in the marketplace. When her grandfather becomes ill, Kanitha and her mother discuss using their small amount of savings just so Kanitha’s grandfather can be treated in a hospital. Faced with such a grim financial future, Kanitha continues to work her jobs, but the dancing that once only occurred in her dreams, begins to find an unwelcome home in the reality of her day to day urban existence. It is only through her trips into the natural settings of waterways and her friend’s farm that Kanitha can finally feel unencumbered by the world around her enough to share her desire for freedom with others. 

In his short, but complete sixty-eight minute second feature, director Douglas Seok creates a compelling and elegant visual narrative that intertwines scenes from a rapidly changing modern life with glimpses into an era of Cambodia that has long since passed. Seok also mixes in contemporary and Khmer era vintage songs, minimal dialog, and physical expression, which altogether with the images allows his protagonist to delve deeply into a dream state without ever losing focus of the film’s essential central construct of creating a character whose choices are influenced by the conflict between her own desire to live a simpler life because of the complexity of today and the expectations and needs of the people she loves who are fundamentally connected to traditional values from a time that no longer exists.

Turn Left Turn Right Official Trailer:

 

The Thin Construction of Spettacolo

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Originally published in Ink 19 on August 30, 2017
by Generoso and Lily Fierro

April 6, 1944 will always carry a deep meaning to the older inhabitants of the Tuscan village of Monticchiello — it was on that day in the hills near the town of three hundred inhabitants that a group of seventy anti-fascist partisans fought for hours against an organized force of several hundred fascists who were about to set upon the town. The morning after that battle, German soldiers entered Monticchiello with tanks and artillery with the mission of executing every man, woman, and child there. After pleas went unheard from many, including the town priest, one woman from the village, a Mrs. Angeheben, was able to convince the German commander to not kill everyone as she was also from the commander’s hometown of Leipzig. We will soon learn, through a few minutes of narration and flashes of archived photos in ’s new documentary, Spettacolo, that this dire moment, years later, moved the people of Monticchiello to change their annual town play from one of adapted classic theater into one that uses their own stories and personal concerns to form an “autodrama.” As soon as Malmberg and Shellen whirred by this significant point of history and its future impact, my first concern emerged: “What became of Mrs. Angeheben?” And, this marked the beginning of a stream of similar desires for clarification and expansion on the documentary’s subjects, all of whom are handled by the directors in a cursory and inept manner in Spettacolo.

Like so many others, we first became aware of Jeff Malmberg’s work after seeing his deservedly award-winning 2010 documentary, Marwencol, which delves deeply into the immense power that the creation of art possesses as a tool in helping people unveil their true feelings towards real moments. Unfortunately, unlike Marwencol, which had the singular vision and dedication to the process and depiction of the artwork of Mark Hogancamp, as seen via the many model stagings he provides directly to camera, to allow the his work to convey implicitly his own personal journey, Spettacolo suffers from a lack a focus and awkward editing that consequently remove any moments of genuine emotion from the multitudes of short conversations that we see throughout this all too short (considering the scope of what is being covered), ninety minute documentary that reduces its subjects and history to a singular uninspired statement on globalization.

Malmberg and Shellen focus some of their narrative on Andrea Cresti, a founder and former actor in the play who has now become its central creative director for a predominance of its fifty year tradition. Early on, the directors present a shot of Alpo, another founding member of the troupe, who is sadly in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s. He is mostly seen in old footage, and we are to assume that he is unable or unwilling to be interviewed. Then, Alpo’s longtime wife and stage partner, Elda, who is battling cancer and is not participating in this year’s play, is barely heard from as well (for possibly the same reasons as her husband, but we are never given any nuance for any explanation). Shortly thereafter, the directors cast a quick glimpse onto Arturo, another founding member and one who is quick to point out the importance of Andrea and goes as far as to state that “nobody capable of replacing him has been born yet,” which may or may not be a slight against the young woman Gianna Fiore, who patiently and tenaciously works with Andrea in what appears to be an assistant director role. But alas, we have no idea, for she is never directly interviewed, and thus we do not know how she feels about her current role and if she has any future aspirations for the play. Andrea, the person who is the closest to the main protagonist in the broken and shallow narrative of Spettacolo, rarely discusses the well-being of his company, so we are left all too often to guess the opinions and motivations of the people of Monticchiello without much evidence to help us even create those guesses.

Quickly, after meeting and leaving the first set of players, we see the troupe members discussing their ideas for what this year’s play should be about, and after some un-momentous bickering, the theme of the faltering economy and its effect on the town of Monticchiello is selected. The issue with Spettacolo now becomes the fact that this is a play about modernity, but you rarely see how modernity intertwines into this world that almost seems too stuck in the past. The only glimpses into the outside world are seen through the usual method of a headline posted on the town’s newspaper box; no answers or comments on the current events in the town or outside of it are given. It is hastily mentioned that the town used to subsist from sharecropping, but that industry is gone, so are people now surviving off of some cottage industry, or are they heading into other nearby towns to work? We see Andrea’s son running his home as a bed and breakfast, and that is pretty much the only detailed glimpse into how anyone the town is surviving. We do see slick video shots of cargo-short-wearing, luggage wheeling, selfie-focused, out-of-place tourists interrupting the quaint and historic architecture of the village, but we know little about how anyone feels about these visitors or why the visitors have even chosen to visit the town. We later learn about a failed attempt by unidentified members of Monticchiello to build homes at the bottom of the mountain to encourage tourism and new tax money, but we see those homes unfinished due to some infighting, and of course, no one explains why. What are given as an answer to all of our accumulated questions of “Why?” is an endless array of travel magazine shots of the town and its rural bliss, which is perhaps Malmberg and Shellen’s way of stating that the town’s only use is that of a potential vacation village, but these shots did little more than to pound home what I feel is the intended goal of Spettacolo, which is to reduce Monticchiello’s noble fifty year theatrical tradition into another heavy handed, poorly-substantiated statement about the grim reality of globalization’s effect on history and cultural heritage.

Besides the actors, the depiction of the play in the documentary itself becomes another casualty of the directors’ intended message as the film offers just a few minutes of footage of what was a year of hard work by the villagers. Did the performance have any emotional meaning to the actors or audience? I guess that none of this matters as the goal of Spettacolo is to present the reality of economic collapse in a more dire and less poetic way than the actors and Andrea could ever do, but is this necessary to make the lives of the people involved and their art the sacrificial lamb for this exercise? If Marwencol’s goal was to show the catharsis that can occur through art, is Spettacolo saying that art can only be truly pervasive when the observations of its reality are being made and preserved by outsiders? The closing of the film with Andrea’s final thoughts of Monticchiello’s eminent demise as a tourist trap, with the alternative being only his fantastical, idealistic wish that the town could become its own constant performance as a means of self-discovery, provides us an answer to this question. Here, at the end of Spettacolo, Malmberg and Shellen patronize their lead, presenting him as a pitiful, woefully out-of-touch pessimist and idealist who is simply bound to be forgotten in the face of the town’s extinction. They close Spettacolo without any urgency, any passion; we only see defeat from Andrea and a smug resignation from the directors that seems to sound like: “Well, what are you going to do about the problem of globalization? It’s a real shame. At least the town is beautiful for now, and at least we documented some of the town before its major changes.”

In the end, Spettacolo‘s statement of the impact of globalization is lessened by the flippant treatment given to the village’s autodrama’s history and the poorly explained economic issues of the people of Monticchiello. We, as the viewers, come away from Spettacolo without any sense of loss for this dying tradition of autodrama because we have never completely understood its past, nor are we given a full view of the drama that the townspeople hope to express to us about its limited future.

Interview with Romanian director Anca Miruna Lǎzǎrescu of That Trip We Took With Dad

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Originally published in Ink 19 on May 22, 2017

During the next to last night of SEEFest (the South East European Film Festival), which took place in Los Angeles from April 27 to May 4th, I was thrilled to have a conversation that was long in the making…A decade ago, when I was co-curating the European Short Film Festival in Boston, we programmed a clever short film that we enjoyed from Romanian director, Anca Miruna Lǎzǎrescu entitled Bucuresti-Berlin. Five years later, we not only programmed her short, Silent River, but it impressed us to the degree that we awarded it our top prize. At SEEfest, our conversation centered on her wonderful feature debut, That Trip We Took With Dad, a sometimes absurd, comedic drama based on her own family’s experiences during a trip to Germany in August of 1968 that was disrupted by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  

 

Interview conducted by Generoso Fierro

GF: Back in 2007, I was co-curating the European Short Film Festival at MIT in Boston, and we selected your film, Bucuresti-Berlin, which stars Ana Ularu as a young Romanian woman who immigrates to Berlin. Her story is told urgently, but ends lightheartedly. Five years later, we awarded our top prize to your short film, Silent River, which is a story of three desperate people who attempt to sneak over a border in the dead of night that is presented as pure drama. When you were originally writing the screenplay of your family’s story for That Trip We Took With Dad, which some describe as a comedic drama, did you feel compelled to balance the tone due to the differences between your previous short films about immigration? Do you feel that your family’s story that you depict in your debut feature has naturally comedic elements in it?


AL: Yes, I would say that it definitely does. I grew up with this story, which I am sure that you have read about by this point. That Trip We Took With Dad is indeed based on my father’s story, and it was told to me so many times, usually at the Christmas table after presents were exchanged, so there was always this kind of nostalgia in the air, and whenever this tale was brought up, there was always a level of melancholy in the room that always presented the question, “What would have happened if we had decided differently and stayed in Germany?” I really did grow up with this story being an integral part of my lifein fact I cannot even remember the first time that I heard it. So, it was part of my family’s story, but it is also very common in Romania to tell such a tragic story with one happy eye and one sad eye, as people would say, so it is in my blood to tell such a tragic tale in a light and even an absurdist way so that in certain moments, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Starting with the story itself, it is a family story, one where the family is given a present that they don’t even want to have in the first place. It is a burden to make a decision of such importance about your future when this choice is one that you never imagined having to make. So, when I start writing a script, I am always analyzing, which I know sounds very rational, but I would say that it comes more from my gut because I really rely on my intuition to guide me in crafting the exact tone so that scenes hit the emotions of the viewer in the way that I want. In the case of my short film, Silent River, it is a straightforward story about three people who are trying to survive, and the characters have their own existentialist dilemmas as they struggle to cross the Danube and have to trust each other in multiple capacities, making the film more of a drama than a tragic comedy, even though a lot of criticisms suggested that Silent River does have some light, more relaxed moments. But, That Trip We Took With Dad does not have that same existential dilemma attached to the main character, Mihai, whose responsibilities as a makeshift maternal figure to his father and brother drive his behavior and actions. In the end, it is a family story, and that family is chaotic and has a main character who is juggling the problems they face to try to keep the family together. The character of Mihai does have a plan on how to fix things, but this plan gets challenged because of his dad’s health and his crazy little brother, who Mihai must act as a mother to because their mother has died. And then, even his backup plan gets ruined by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, so they end up in the middle of a socialist commune in West Germany, and that is why for me there was no issue in balancing the tone because what actually transpired was already so absurd.

The stars of That Trip We Took With Dad (from left to right) Razvan Enciu, Alexandru Margineanu, and Ovidiu Schumacher


GF: As I understand, the character of the younger brother, Emil, is your father in the story, but you center the film on Mihai, Emil’s older brother. Can you discuss your decision of making Mihai the center of your film?


AL: I loved the story that my father gave me, and I loved this idea of being able to love and to hate and to be full of passion for your dreams and ideals, as I was the same way between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, but when I started writing this, I was already in my mid-twenties, and at that time I felt that Emil was a perfect antagonist, a perfect troublemaker, perfect to cause a disruption of all of someone’s plans. For me, I was already embedded in my life in my mid-twenties, so I was too far away from seeing life in a clear, black and white way as I did when I was a teenager and was well aware that when I was older that most issues had shades of grey in them. In my first version of the screenplay, I tried telling the story with the characters being a mother, father, and an eighteen year old. I completed the entire first draft, but when it was all done, the story was just not there, and by that I mean it was just not as complex as I had hoped for. This leads me to the day that I killed the mother character, which was one of the best days of my screenwriting process for this script because I really felt that a female role in that car traveling from Romania to Germany was not what I wanted. I realized that the interactions between three men who forgot what it was like to fall in love and to have passion would create the tension and conflicts I was interested in, so that is when the character of Mihai, who is based on a real person, rose up as the central figure of the story, as the character and the real person did have a huge influence on me, but in reality, my father did not have an older male sibling, so I think that the final decision to make Mihai central in the story was that the character reminded me of myself in that time, and Emil was my father when he was young.

Razvan Enciu (left) as Emil, and Ovidiu Schumacher as William


GF: As we are discussing the character of Mihai, I understand from a previous interview that you wrote a backstory about Mihai and Ana Ularu’s character, Dr. Sanda Berceanu, that was not intended for use in the final cut of the film, but only to serve as motivation for the character of Mihai? Was there ever a desire to add these scenes as to more clearly define Mihai’s feelings towards his brother’s relationship with Neli and Mihai’s overall disillusionment with his own reality?

AL: Well, to tell you the truth, the director Anca is quite happy with the final cut of the film, but of course there are some details that I would like to shoot differently, but all in all, I am very happy with the film as it is now. Now, the scriptwriter Anca has a lot of questions like, “How can it be that such a huge, beautiful, long script had to be chopped?” and the answer is in fact quite simple. This romantic backstory that I wrote for Mihai that I thought, and many of my colleagues thought, was a very strong scene was one that we indeed shot and then had to delete, which you can see for yourself as part of the DVD extras when it is released on May 19th. I personally thought that it was a bit ridiculous to not give this handsome, young doctor a love story—I mean he cannot be a monk afterall! I had written this scene and was so glad that Ana Ularu came to casting and performed the scene, besides the fact that we are such good friends and have worked together before, her performance is wonderful, and I have issues with it not being in the film. Also, I felt for Mihai that there must be someone who ruined his possibility of a romantic relationship, for in the scene, she is pregnant and has a new husband, so I am somewhat bothered by the loss of this part of the film, but, in the end, the editors felt that it was an important cut as we agreed that being that the scene in question occurs early in the film, and that stylistically at least, given that the film is a road movie, we should not delay their travel scenes any further in the narrative.

GF: You show Nicolae Ceaușescu’s August 1968 speech condemning the Soviet aggression in Czechoslovakia, but a year later we know that Ceaușescu would invite Richard Nixon to Romania, which led to many Romanians disillusionment with their leader. We also see a disillusionment with Dubček occur after the Soviet invasion. Does the betrayal felt by Mihai’s father foreshadow the way most loyal Socialists would soon feel in Eastern Europe? Do you feel that betrayal is the underlying theme of your film?


AL: I thought about this a great deal when I was editing the screenplay. My main topic for this film is “How free are we to choose freedom?” because, my theory about freedom is the line that Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” so it is easier to speak about freedom and make the decision to be free when you have family, or if you have a burden, or if you have such a system like where I grew up, and so, I thought about this question for Mihai: How free is Mihai actually to choose freedom, and is the freedom in the west really the freedom that he is looking for, or is it some kind of inferior freedom that he is allowed to reach? I think that at the end of the film, he is as free as he would ever be. As far as Ceaușescu’s speech in 1968 that you mention, I grew up with a father who blamed himself for all of his life for the decision that he made to go back to Romania. He took almost two years to realize that he made the wrong decision because when he came back home, he and his girlfriend Neli really did break up the way I show it in the film, and Ceaușescu did not become the Romanian version of Dubček that he so hoped that he would become. So, this speech and this particular moment that my father faced in the west had a huge influence on his life because, whenever he told me this story, tears filled his eyes.

On the one hand, my father blamed himself for what he did, but on the other hand, he never felt the level of pride of being Romanian than the way that he felt during those days of being in West Germany during that time. Many people congratulated him on the street when they found out that he was Romanian. Even the German policemen, who picked them up on the road when they ran out of gas, congratulated them because of the speech that Ceaușescu gave, and my father, who always felt that he came from a country that was usually considered second class, suddenly he believed that he came from a place that could emerge as a strong voice in Europe, and maybe that this was indeed the right way to live your life, away from the capitalists who lived in West Germany. You have to understand that during this moment, Ceaușescu really believed that he was right, and, in fact, he was right in his condemnation of the Soviet aggression against Czechoslovakia, but as you know just a few weeks later Ceaușescu was called to Moscow, and after that, no one was allowed to even mention his speech in Romania. That is why I needed to add this speech into the film, and the result is that many people who have seen my film in the west, and even some back in Romania, discovered that they were unaware that this speech even took place.  

Alexandru Margineanu as Mihai


GF: I’m impressed you went as far as to create a band with a sound from the period called The Stormy Sundays. I know that budget may have played a role, but what was your impetus for doing this and not simply acquiring a song from a lesser-known band of the era? Being that this is a period film, was there a concern for using a song that may have been used in the past in another film that would have evoked different emotions and sentimentality that you wouldn’t have wanted?  


AL: When I was writing the film, Creedence Clearwater Revival was a huge influence on me; they inspired me so much. They were a good guiding point because, although their songs may sound uplifting, there is a depth to the lyrics, and here I am thinking of their song, “Bad Moon Rising.” The budget sadly wouldn’t allow for the use of their music, but we were so lucky to have found songwriter brothers from Nashville who recorded music that was perfect for the era. Also, with Mihai, I wanted something that truly belonged to him and whenever you start to imagine that Mihai would be a huge fan of Creedence, you would then immediately have an opinion on it, or as you say, it would draw up personal feelings and opinions. There is also the concern that people might start wondering if Creedence was even music that Mihai would have heard in Romania in 1968, so all of these factors played a role in acquiring music specially made for the film.  

GF: Thank you Anca for this interview and for your film.

Speaking With Director Kivanç Sezer of My Father’s Wings

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Originally published in Ink 19 on May 25, 2017

We saw over fourteen feature films at this year’s SEEFest (the South East European Film Festival) in Los Angeles, but the film that most impressed us was My Father’s Wings (Babamin Kanatlari), the debut feature from Turkish director Kivanç Sezer. Inspired by a workplace accident that claimed the life of a university student in the director’s native Turkey, Sezer’s film draws attention to the issue of poor worker safety that has become a crisis because of unregulated subcontracting practices in the high profit market of constructing new homes in high rise buildings that meet updated earthquake codes emerging after the destruction caused by the 1999 earthquake in Istanbul and the 2011 earthquake in Van, along with the ongoing concern of the impact of expected future earthquakes. We sat down with Kivanç Sezer to discuss his feature in depth, specifically focusing on how his education in bioengineering impacted his creative process, his character development, as well as choices in how he depicted the different cultures that exist in contemporary Istanbul in his film.  : After the screening at SEEFest of your debut feature, you stated that your intention for creating it was to draw attention to Turkey’s dubious distinction of leading Europe in worker-related fatalities. We know that some of these issues are due to an increase in construction because of the Turkish earthquakes in 2011 causing a severe homelessness situation. Has this already dire situation been exacerbated by Erdoğan’s decision to prioritize the building of an overpriced presidential palace? Was his action to disregard the crisis further inspiration for your need to create this film?

KS: The Van earthquake of 2011 actually did not affect the whole country. However, it had a very strong effect on the region and on our character, İbrahim, who is from there, but Istanbul was central to the script construction, and therefore it is the main setting for the film. Now, regarding the story, my main inspiration was a news article that I read in 2010 about a university student who was working on a construction site and was killed there. It deeply affected me, and this started my interest in the subject. After I began researching this incident, I began to realize that worker safety was a large problem that was not being covered by the news, and this situation is symptomatic of a system that does not give working class and poor people proper access to education, so they are forced to work these kind of jobs while attending school. The safety problems in many of these workplaces are well known, but the bosses are just concerned about their profits. When I started going to worksites to do research, it became apparent that the building industry is the driving force of the Turkish economy, but on the other side, the government does little to control the hazardous situations that many workers face every day. The government is just focused on the wealth that this industry brings in and little else, as there is high demand for the apartments that are being built, a demand that is not only coming from within Turkey, but also from Arab nations as well. Investors pump money into these projects and hire contractors who demand quick results. So, my main concern was to address this hyper-profit driven model and the resulting human stories within this growing but broken industry. As for Erdoğan’s palace, that is something else. It is a high profile example of the issue, but the safety problems going on all over Turkey are more dramatic. I am deeply concerned about these workers’ safety and wanted to make a film centered on them.

İbrahim (Menderes Samancilar) and Yusuf (Musab Ekici) and their colleagues at the building worksite


LF: Based on your film’s subject of building construction and your personal interest in workers’ stories, we would like to get a better understanding of your shift from engineering over into filmmaking. One of the things that I found interesting about your film is the way you put it in the context of fears of future earthquakes. In one scene, we see a couple interested in buying an apartment in this building because they want a space that is more structurally sound. Was part of your interest in human stories partially derived from your own decision to depart from engineering and to become a filmmaker? And, did your understanding of engineering lead you to focus in on this specific situation of construction dangers for the subject of your debut film? I ask this because, when you are a scientist or an engineer, scenarios happen a lot in the field where you create some sort of solution on paper, but you might not completely think of the impact of that solution on the people who have to build it.


KS: Let me add one additional point regarding the earthquake. Before the 2011 earthquake in Van, a very strong earthquake happened very close to Istanbul in 1999, and thousands of people died in the Marmara region. So after this incident, all construction regulations changed and adapted to prepare for an earthquake in Istanbul that the experts predict will occur in upcoming years and will cause thousands of death when it arrives. Coming to my education, yes, I do believe that my background in engineering had some influence on me in terms of this project, but my background is in bioengineering, so my work was mostly done in the laboratory. When I was studying, I appreciated the notion of optimization in engineering, and that, I do believe, affected me when I was creating my characters. In a way, I optimized my characters for the story. The story itself has a context and a backdrop, which in this case is construction, but it also has an internal aspect in it as well as drama, which both come from my heart and not my mind. My engineering background will always influence my mind in some way, but I am trying to find the stories that touch my heart, and then through my heart, I go to screenings to see audiences and hope that it reaches them in the same way. I put this husband and wife in the film because they are like many people who are looking for a place to live and who are afraid of the upcoming Istanbul earthquake, which they are sure will happen, and so they want to buy a new house which will be constructed properly. You see a predominance of the buildings that were constructed before the earthquake that were not built properly and were consequently damaged, and that is why this couple wants a flat in this new building. This couple is important to me as they are buyers, and they are the ones who will be paying for this apartment for ten or twenty years with a huge mortgage, so they are the ones who keep this system intact, and that is why they are going to be the focus of my second film of this trilogy. In the third film in the trilogy, I would like to then focus on the lives of the big bosses who make this building happen with all of the corruption and money that is involved. So, the connection will be from the earthquake to the construction and from the lower, middle, and upper class people involved.

GF: Hearing now about your plans to create a trilogy centered around this building, I cannot help but to be reminded of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue, which you know adapts the biblical Ten Commandments in a modern context by playing out each one through the lives of the residents within one housing complex. Was this series an inspiration to you at all?

KS: Actually, Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy was my inspiration for these films in terms of overlapping stories in three different films. For instance, you see a character from White in Blue as an extra in the background, and then in White, that character you saw in Blue is now the focus, and that is what I want to do in my trilogy. That is why I show the couple who is looking to buy an apartment in My Father’s Wings, for they will be the subject of the second film, and in the second film you will see a glimpse of the big bosses who will then be at the center of the third film. There will be a lot of interactions between them, all of which I feel connects them, which is important, for in life, we are not usually aware of these connections. You are usually not aware of who built your house, or if someone died while they were building it, and it is that kind of alienation that keeps us going, and I think that cinema can break this kind of alienation and obliviousness that we have.

GF: An aspect of your film that we also found interesting was the depiction of faith between the character of Master İbrahim and Yusuf. İbrahim is an older family man, who is seen praying at the mosque, whereas Yusuf uses colloquialisms attached to faith, almost with a level of disdain, and seems to be more of a secular being. Can you discuss your intentions with the faith depiction within these two men? Is this simply a comment on these two different generations?

KS: Faith is an important element in the film, and for İbrahim, his is a pure religious faith. He goes to the mosque to pray, but he also gambles as part of his character. The bad things that he has done in the past are also part of him, but then he decides to quit doing bad things, but his dilemma still remains: his faith is not enough to make his life better, which drives him to the edge where he must confront his reality of needing money. This leads İbrahim to the decision to commit suicide so that he can receive compensation money from the company that hired him which he can leave to his family, and this, of course, is a sin. Yusuf on the other hand, has little religious faith and only believes in himself and his future, a future that he believes will bring him success as he will rise through the ranks and no longer be a worker, but perhaps a contractor himself with his own company someday. In a way, their perspectives on life connect these two characters, because, to me, they are the different sides of the same coin. They both are looking in different directions, but at the same goal and with the same level of self-sacrifice. I should also say that without the character of Yusuf, the film would be too grim, giving little hope to the audience to sustain them throughout. Yusuf is also important in adding a level of humor and a look into the younger generation in Turkey that hopes for a positive future. One critic remarked that Yusuf is actually the central character of the film, and not İbrahim, which I am fine with as I am aware that they are very close to one another, so to designate one or the other as a supporting actor was not that important. Establishing the unity between this uncle and nephew was more important to me.

İbrahim (Menderes Samancilar) reflecting after gambling away his money

LF: In terms of their unity, İbrahim and Yusuf are different when it comes to faith, but can you speak of the halay (dance traditions) that connect them and many of the characters to the region they are from?

KS: İbrahim and Yusuf are Kurdish, and the Kurdish people express a good amount of their feelings through the halay. In demonstration, people dance the halay; at a wedding, of course, they dance the halay, and even while they mourn, they dance the halay. It is very common, and during my preparation for the film, I watched a lot of videos of workers dancing at construction sites. To me, it is a sign of life because in the construction site — where it is so cold, where it is so grey — they need something to carry on, and for these characters, dancing the halay is the will for life.

GF: Understanding the importance of dance in the Kurdish culture increases the impact of the scene when Yusuf, after speaking to his friend about wanting to become a boss, breaks up the dance that the Kurdish workers are teaching the Uzbeks at the construction site. It says a great deal about what sacrifices he is willing to make in order to succeed.  

LF: And, to that point, I love that you show the halay and its role in multiple moments throughout the film. One of my favorite scenes in My Father’s Wings is when you see Yusuf and his girlfriend dancing with a group of young people in the town square. Yusuf’s girlfriend, Nihal, is wearing a hijab, but you also see a mix of women who aren’t wearing a hijab and are dressed more in a western style.

 

KS: And that is what we have in Turkey. I think that many people who have never been there think that we all are still wearing fez hats like we did during the Ottoman Empire and that everyone wears a burqa or a hijab that covers everything but the eyes. In contemporary Turkey, the hijab is a common source of debate because, for many years, the secular people asserted that in schools and in public places the hijab should not be allowed. It has even sometimes been so much of an issue that students who wear hijabs have left the university. After Erdoğan came to power, the opposite began to occur, and now you see more women wearing hijabs in public. I have no problem with this either way, but this issue has two sides…The secular people sometime criticize me for depicting a woman wearing a hijab, and then the conservatives say that they like how I use the character because I show her fairly in that I don’t insult her or judge her in any way. The critics in Turkey liked the way that I framed the character of Nihal (Kubra Kip). It was her first film, and she does not wear a hijab in her personal life, but a lot of people thought that she wore it naturally. One conservative even joked and told her that she looked so natural in it that she should consider wearing it all of the time (laughs). She actually won three awards at three big festivals in Turkey for her performance.  

GF: I am glad to hear that as she is wonderful with her character. One aspect of Nihal that I find interesting as well is that as she is a more conservative person, I would imagine that it would be difficult for her to date someone like Yusuf because of the more secular way that he chooses to live his life, but she never tries to proselytize him in any way. I think that for western audiences it is important to see a character like Nihal who is so open minded.

KS: It indeed was very important for me as well, and even though her character is only onscreen for fourteen minutes, she adds so much to the film. She is so open about how she feels that she, in turn, opens up Yusuf’s character.

Yusuf (Musab Ekici) and Nihal (Kubra Kip)

LF: Lastly, beyond the building, we get some glimpses of the surrounding architecture, but for most of the film, the setting is extremely sparse. Is the focus on the building of this faceless development indicative of a movement to create new buildings with complete disregard for any history of the city of Istanbul or Turkey overall?

KS: I should say that the reason that I selected this particular place to shoot the film is because, when most international audiences see Istanbul, you usually see it depicted with a lot of older architecture, and we of course do have that, but in reality most of the population lives in the suburbs, and most of the buildings there are really designed in an inhuman way. I mean, how can people live normally on the fourteenth floor of a building, not being able to see any trees or having to look down to see people the size of ants? There are hundreds of blocks near Istanbul with buildings like the ones I show in my film. These buildings are also so very expensive, and given that so many people live so far from the city center, there are traffic jams everyday just to get to work. I wanted to show this side of Istanbul that you rarely see, and even though this district has its own culture, overall, it was not my goal to make a tourism video to sell Istanbul to the audience.

The skyline of the surrounding buildings in My Father’s Wings

GF and LF: Thank you Kivanç for your time and for your film.

Our Conversation with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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Originally published in Ink 19 on Oct 31, 2016

As part of his recent week-long visit to Los Angeles sponsored by the Los Angeles Filmforum, Film at REDCAT, and CalArts Film/Video, during which he taught classes and screened his globally acclaimed features at The Cinefamily and the Aero Theatre, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul visited the Billy Wilder Theater at the UCLA Film and Television Archive to take part in a two-night complete retrospective of his rarely screened short films. These appearances by Weerasethakul had long been circled on our calendars (and those of many others who attended the sold-out screenings) as we have joyously followed his career since seeing his exceptional 2004 Cannes Jury Prize winning film, Tropical Malady.

We were thrilled to have an opportunity to sit down with Weerasethakul for a short interview that turned into a fascinating and sometimes bizarre ninety minute discussion about everything from his filmography to the beauty and ugliness of Buddhism to censorship issues in pre- and post-military coup Thailand to the failure of media to represent innovations in science. Weerasethakul has exceptional sensibilities in capturing the many layers of reality around him, and for that reason his films and his conversations with us and the audiences who attended any of his screenings are engaging, giving, and outstandingly thought-provoking.

Lily Fierro (LF): One of the things I’ve loved about your films is that they are films of contrast. And this is especially true for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Syndromes and a Century, where you have very different characters, time periods, ghosts, and problems in and outside of the city. Could you speak about how you get inspired by the city and the places outside of it and how the two can exist in the same space even though they are so different?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul (AW): I grew up in a small town that now is big, so I’ve seen really rapid change all over Thailand and also Asia over the past 30 to 40 years. Also, these contrasts are even clearer because there’s this feeling in Thailand that everything is always part of a very centralized culture that revolves around Bangkok. So, I have had this feeling that I don’t like the city of Bangkok, and that lasted until now. When I started in movies, I tried to avoid Bangkok, and I just traveled around. And then with my next film, Tropical Malady, I was in the jungle in a small town, and with that, I was really interested in the contrast because even though the movie is staying in place, the emotion is shifting from the beginning, which starts very pleasantly, to the end, where even the same environment, the same sounds of birds become very oppressive, very heavy So, I think it kind of shifts, and also when shooting in the jungle, you see the shadow and the sun, and when you are waiting for something or when you are preparing during the day and night, you see different characters of nature, so that’s why I decided to make Tropical Malady about this difference between darkness and light, present and past.

LF: As a practicing Buddhist, I must say that you perfectly capture the conflicts and difficulties with living with the belief system in society, past or present. Here, in the West, it is rare to see the complexities of Buddhism on the big screen, and your films always have a Buddhist influence. For example, many of your films mention the merit system at one point or another, especially when a monk appears. Could you talk about how you look at Buddhism and how you integrate your perspective and thoughts on it into your films?

AW: In fact, I’m quite fascinated by the karmic law that we believe. And, it’s so hard to shake it off, especially when you were young and raised with those ideas, and I just feel that it’s a curse. I really feel that karmic law is so, in this century in a third world country, prone to abuse politically, and so people become quite passive. For example, they would say, “This is our faith. This guy gained good merit before, so he deserves to be that and that.” It creates a strong hierarchy system in Thailand, so that and also the awakening of the country’s narrative through different media and the internet over the years makes you start to feel that there was a lot of propaganda around when you were growing up. The identity of the country is kind of shaking, so with the history, politics, and religion, it placed Thailand onto a very dangerous path now, I think. For me, we have so many rituals dealing with Buddhism from Hindu influence, and I think that is a big problem, to install something so physical into these beliefs, and so over the years, I was less and less interested in the ritual and more into what to present from karmic law. It is so fascinating; it’s just so beautiful and ugly at the same time, this manifestation of the merit system. I’m also quite interested in the meditation parts and how Buddhist philosophy is so scientific.

LF: Yes, there are the cosmic planes! I really appreciate your description of the implementation of the merit system as “beautiful and ugly” because as someone born into the faith system in America, I always saw this in the temples here, and it is something I always struggled with, and it is why your films mean so much to me because they capture this paradox between the faith and the way it is practiced.

AW: It shows in daily life, and so for me when I make film, sometimes I add just a little jab, or sometimes I am just inspired by these actions of myself and people.

LF: Was this conflict of Buddhism in daily life something you noticed and had a discourse on before you went to America, or did you notice it more after your time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?

AW: After. After. Before, when I studied architecture in Thailand, let’s say, I still believed in reincarnation. Even the first few years after going back home, I still believed, but now, I don’t. I just feel that it’s such a waste of time, and also it doesn’t really make people see the beauty of life actually, of just living. Instead of opening their eyes, they always think about the future; they always think about just going to the temple. Physically, you know, it is beautiful; it is exotic, but in fact, there’s a trap, and I feel that is the wrong path of Buddhism in Thailand.

LF: It makes sense that Buddhism has led to passiveness because you’re always thinking about the next life, and you think to yourself, “I’ll get to that in the next life,” so you don’t do it in this one. Do you think this passiveness of people caused by Buddhism integrated into society is going to change after King Adulyadej’s passing?

AW: No, I think it might get worse because the King’s passing is prone to manipulation by the current government. The situation is already showing on the street. How this situation has been used to make people feel together is a good thing, of course, but at the same time, it can justify certain evil from the government. I never approved of the army government that used weapons to create fear in people and silence critics, so with this collective mourning time, people are really fragile, so they can follow things so easily, so I am very worried about that.

LF: Now that I think about it, you always include military figures or monks in all of your films. Is that because you see the military and monks regularly when you live in a town, or is it that they are supposed to be symbolic representations of forces at play in Thai society?

AW: Oh, did I? Not really for the monks. For the military, yes. But for monks, I did not consciously put them in because you can see them so easily in the street. For military, yes, it’s the role I’ve seen them take over the years to be more and more repressive figures.

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A scene from Syndromes and a Century (2006)

Generoso Fierro (GF): During the Q&A session from last night here at UCLA, you said that Syndromes and a Century was censored by the Thai government. I can see the issue that the post-military coup government might have with Cemetery of Splendor, but it’s unclear to me as to what issue the previous government had with Syndromes and a Century.

AW: It was not really a military time–we had a normal government then. They objected to moral issues because Thailand is super conservative, even though we have so many vices, but they just think of film as something that does not represent reality; it should serve some purpose. That’s why films in Thailand have a lot of fantasy, ghosts, or martial arts. With a film that is reflecting life and being done in such a natural way, they were alarmed about things like the doctors drinking, or the monk playing guitar, or the monk playing with the UFO toy, even though in real life, you see a lot worse. So, they really asked me to cut these moments out. At the time, the police department was taking care of film censorship, and they invited different people from different organizations that were linked to the film’s content, meaning that they invited people from a doctor’s association, a Buddhist group, and a journalist association along with a film scholar too to meet with a policeman around this round table, and I wasn’t allowed to enter the discussion until later when they decided, “We have #1, this scene, this scene.” And then, each one started to say, “Why don’t you make a film that shows doctors helping patients in surgery? Why don’t you make a film that shows the monks being good?” It was a really backwards way of thinking of film as propaganda that has to serve certain things. That was 2007; it was not 100 years ago, and the scary thing is that many people have this mentality until now, a majority of people, more than half, I’m sure. I was really angry, of course, and the film teacher from the university said, “Hey Apichatpong, you should stop making film. You should go back to school and learn how to make movies again.” That was really hurtful, but anyway, I just got out of that session, and I started the campaign for the Free Thai Cinema movement. We had protests, and we went to Parliament to try to change this law; it was an archaic law that had been around for a long time. And then, the censorship role shifted from the police to the ministry of culture, and so they have a rating system now, better but still a little backwards, but better than before.

GF: With Tropical Malady and any other time when you address homosexuality in your films, have the censors drawn issues with that?

AW: Not really. Now, somehow, homosexuality has been in the media for quite a long time. We have a very popular series about this teenager’s love, and it really is accepted. Thailand is one of those very odd countries in terms of human rights; there are many problems, but at the same time, people are very accepting of gay issues. It’s really common to see two men or two women holding hands. When you go to a 7-11, sometimes the people behind the counter are transvestites; this is really common. Transexuals also are often flight attendants. Sexuality is quite fluid in Thailand. I live with my boyfriend in a small village in a remote area, and people are very friendly and so accepting.

LF: We’re glad to hear that. Southeast Asia is still so conservative politically and socially, so it is fascinating that somehow, Thailand is at least somewhat progressive on issues surrounding sexuality.

AW: Thailand is still really xenophobic, but gay issues are okay somehow.

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A scene from Tropical Malady (2004)

GF: While Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has been often described as dream-like, I always thought of it more as an experiment of imagination because I’ve always wondered what forms people will take once they have passed away. How did you determine what form each of Boonmee’s visitors would take?

AW: Oh, the forms came up from my memories of media because Boonmee is a tribute to things that I love: old television, old royal costume drama, old horror movies. Actually, Boonmee has six reels; it’s the film that I knew would be my last film shot on celluloid, and it was, so I divided it into the film system because when you show the film, each 35mm can holds about 20 minutes max, so for me, the film has six reels, and each reel has a different representation. The audience might not notice because it creates one storyline, but if you look at each reel, there is some different shift in color, different shift in lighting, and even the acting style, which sometimes is really realistic or sometimes really stiff like old TV. And one reel is a royal costume drama, the one with the princess. And the jungle in the last reel is my old adventure tales memory. Compared to the jungle in Tropical Malady, which is almost like a realistic jungle, the jungle for Uncle Boonmee is a jungle of media, so it has this day for night shooting, so there’s a really artificial blue tint for the jungle. This is why I introduce this film as a collection of memories.

GF: In many of your conversations during your screenings this past week, you have mentioned your love for old science fiction. You have spoken of making a film called Utopia, which you originally said had a setting of the Starship Enterprise and would include notable science fiction film leading ladies like Jane Fonda from Barbarella. We have been hoping to hear word of you filming this. We love old science fiction, and this premise is too alluring. Is there any chance it will ever happen?

AW: I think it’s very hard because I think I need to rewrite a lot of that. Because for me when I do projects, it is always about, like Mekong Hotel, which is showing now, revisiting old ideas but then changing it because it represents myself; not me, I mean, I’m not the person in the past called “Apichatpong,” and now, everything feels really distanced very quickly for me, so Utopia needs to be rewritten, but of course, if someone gives me the money, of course I would love to do it. It’s quite universal, and it’s really relevant now actually. I don’t know why I wrote that originally, but Utopia is all about violence in nature. The whole film is about the collapsing of the landscape in North America. Not in the city, but in the snow mountains and in all of these places. It’s almost like a very violent nature.

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A scene from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

GF: Your regular cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, was stolen from you by Miguel Gomes for Arabian Nights, leading to him spending more time in Portugal than expected, which prevented him from being able to film Cemetery of Splendor. When you and Sayombhu work together, how much do you influence each other’s vision because you can definitely see elements of your style in Arabian Nights and Cemetery of Splendor has a different look in its use of artificial lighting and color?

A: AW: Yes, Sayombhu was stolen. With Sayombhu, it went back to Blissfully Yours. That was his first feature film, and he used to only work in advertising, but he really understands me; he’s one of the very few DPs who understands what’s the difference between advertising and cinema in terms of image, and he also studied at a Russian film school under the DP of Tarkovsky, so he has quite an eye and a philosophy of cinema, so we got along very well from the first film. And so he influenced me a lot, and also, he knows me and my preferences. It is the same with my editor and sound designer.

GF: You develop that personal relationship. We saw Leos Carax speak about his cinematographer who recently passed away. Though the two weren’t great friends, they ate breakfast together nearly everyday, and that’s not something you can easily replace. I can imagine that it was strange when Sayombhu was stolen. Did you get a chance to see Arabian Nights yet?

AW: Unfortunately no. It was at Cannes, and I was just too busy.

GF: It is a magnificent film. If it is a consolation, you lost Sayombhu, but he did phenomenal work on Arabian Nights.

LF: Cemetery of Splendor was filmed by Diego García who came recommended from Carlos Reygadas, a director whose sensibilities are not too far from yours. You have said that Cemetery of Splendor is most likely your last film shot in Thailand, and in last night’s Q&A, you mentioned that Latin America may be your next destination. Did working with García and/or speaking with Reygadas point you even closer to Latin America?

AW: Exactly. Not only Carlos, but also just being there in Mexico City because I have a gallery there that I work with for visual art, so I went there quite a number of times, and I think my draw to Mexico is because it is actually the reflection of Thailand because it’s so comparable. Something like Tropical Malady or other Thai myths and jungle stories that I liked were written in the ’60s and ’70s, and they were actually influenced by the American or European writers that went to South America to create stories about these adventures and animals during colonial times, and they wrote, really, about a romanticized jungle. So actually, for me, there’s a trace of this influence to make me interested in the allure of the jungle, so I think maybe going to South America is like going back to the source to this thing. I was in Peru, and it was like going home somehow. I don’t know why. To see the ruins and the technology of the past is almost like science fiction to me but reversed in time.

GF: When you see a Mayan temple, it really does feel as though you are entering a science fiction film. South America has become so fruitful in its cinema too–the new movements in Chilean and Argentinian cinema are just two of the scenes that are thriving, so it would be a wonderful place for you.

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A scene from Cemetery of Splendor (2015)

LF: Science is clearly something you love; it always has a visual influence in your films, and it also has a thematic role too. In Syndromes and a Century, science has a very interesting role in the way that it impacts our daily relationships. How much of your interpretation of science, its applications to the past and present and how it can make people more separated from each other even though it can help make life better, goes into your films?

AW: For me, science is like art. For me, they are very inter-woven. In Cemetery of Splendor, it is really about perception, and how our brain works and how loneliness can trigger something, and how dreams can manifest desire and imagination. I don’t know; it’s hard to explain, but it’s all these inner-workings when we sleep or when we dream that I am interested in, and I did quite a lot of research and tried to present it in the film–how some logic seems to be in our dreams, how some logic seems to be okay even though it seems so outlandish sometimes. So, this representation of dream is very interesting to me. It’s not like when you dream in let’s say mainstream cinema, sometimes you can see something like a Salvador Dalí painting, things melting or something like that, but for me dreams are really so ordinary, but there is some little chip of logic in them.

LF: And, that’s why you have the different colors of light in the hospital, right? I read that you had been interested in how colors can modulate brain activity?

AW: Yeah, there is really amazing research about how colors can trigger false memories in mice; it can introduce information there. I think maybe we already do that with film. When you look at cinema or media it’s already there, you know, you just put information in people. For me, the sleeping soldiers and all this shifting light maybe are about just putting all this narrative into their dreams. It’s like education; it’s like how we grow up: what we are told and how we are being lied to about different pasts.

GF: You had mentioned in a Q&A after the first night of short films that you were a big fan of Gattaca, so much so that it was part of one of the listening exercises that you conducted with students at CalArts this week to get them to be more aware of sound. Gattaca was so underappreciated here because I think that when most Americans think of science fiction, they think of Star Wars and that type of science fiction film. Gattaca is a very intelligently made film; I wish Hollywood would look at science fiction less as action cinema and more as an opportunity to operate a narrative in a genre that is so expansive; you can do so much with science fiction, but for the most part, it always turns into Guardians of the Galaxy. And, it doesn’t have to be that.

LF: And science in and of itself, has smaller things happening than space travel that are fascinating, and you can explore them in film. For example, we’ve seen research where microelectrodes can be implanted into a mouse’s brain, and a radio can be used to control their movements. There’s also active research about the neural encoding activity of birds as they learn how to form their own birdsongs. There are a lot of strange and amazing things happening in science that would be great platforms for science fiction, but I don’t think they will get used.

AW: I love Gattaca. This country is so big that the progress of science is so fascinating, the research. But at the same time, it is not reflected in the media, in popular media, so it seems like it is not really well synchronized. It should, no? Media should reflect the humanity of these times, so scientific progress should be in the media.

GF: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. This conversation reminds me of the one that I was very fortunate to have when I had the opportunity to interview Abbas Kiarostami many years ago in Boston before it became impossible for him to get a visa to visit the United States. A great deal of our conversation that day involved his issues in creating cinema during the Iranian Revolution and the continued censorship he had to deal with as a filmmaker. Understanding your current issues with censorship, we so appreciate your open candor in regards to not only your work but also your comments about the current state of Thailand.

We would like to give special thanks as well to Los Angeles Filmforum, CalArts Film/Video, and Film at REDCAT for bringing Apichatpong Weerasethakul for an expansive retrospective. We would also like to give additional thanks to Kelly Anne Graml of the UCLA Film & Television Archive for making this conversation possible.