Memoria

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Originally published on Ink 19 on June 28, 2022

Memoria
directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

To be able to be free, you need to get yourself out of everything. You have to be outside your own experience. You shouldn’t see yourself as a subject or as an object of the experience. You have to be outside. You have to be an observer without the intention of being an observer. You, just aware of the awareness.

In Memoria, the book, we have the privilege of seeing into the nervous system—the multi-dimensional graph of stories, thoughts, places, concepts, histories, research, and images—that constructs the manifestation of Memoria the film. In the closing of an early section titled, “4 April 2017 Talk with Joseph,” the quote above appears, which perfectly articulates how the film itself is structured and how we, as the audience, in viewing it, depart from our own seats in dark theaters, from the psychological space between our reality and the film’s fiction, and arrive at a plane of existence connecting us to each other across time and space and beyond our normal range of perception and cognition.

Though its ability to allow us to transcend our reality and the world of the film itself is profound, Memoria’s core plot can be summarized in a few basic sentences. Jessica is awakened by a thunderous sound. At first, she thinks the sound is coming from outside of her, but soon she realizes it’s emanating from inside of her own head, and she gradually begins to understand it through her many interactions with others.

As a scientist herself (though she’s out of her typical domain here because she’s an orchidologist), Jessica initially takes an active, investigative measure to comprehend the sound. Naturally, given that it is something that only she can hear, she hopes to extract it for herself to review and study on demand. To accomplish the extraction, Jessica meets Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), a sound engineer recommended by her brother-in-law, Juan (Daniel Giménez Cacho), and with Hernan, she attempts to replicate the sound as she perceives it. As she struggles to precisely describe what she’s hearing, Hernan compounds different sounds and processing techniques, and she quickly discovers that there may not be a well-defined ontology for the sound, or at least one that can be verbalized. However, Hernan manages to produce something that is quite close, but the near-reproduction doesn’t bring Jessica any closer to the sound’s origins, which may be more subterranean or more primordial than she previously believed.

Thus, as Memoria proceeds, Jessica’s process to understand the sound abandons any formal methodology and instead becomes more instinctive and subconsciously reactive as her interactions with the people and everything around her quietly direct her movements and her experiences. They take her to a park where Hernan shares the marriage of her sound with his own personal music and then to a warehouse where the two shop for fridges to preserve flowers. They point her to Agnes (Jeanne Balibar), an archaeologist studying remains from a construction site who shows Jessica the trepanned, ancient skull of a young girl. They drift her toward a practice room where an ensemble is casually performing in front of a small audience. They lure her to the countryside near Agnes’s excavation site where she meets an older version of Hernan (Elkin Díaz), who may or may not have lived an entirely different life. Jessica observes and listens, but she’s not trying to form any hypothesis, so as she moves from different spaces and interacts with the surrounding living and non-living things, her senses transform into deep awareness and open consciousness, both of which allow her to happen upon the extraterrestrial, otherworldly source of the sound.

We, as the audience, can try to be analytical about Jessica’s experiences as we see them on the screen and attempt to determine the relations between encounters, but the fluid, interconnected soundscapes of Memoria pull us away from such acts and coax us into a state where we can absorb all layers of the film at once without ever feeling the need to cognitively register each individual piece. And, here, in this entrancing, conductive state, we can connect to Jessica and ultimately our own present and past counterparts to distill what is fundamental in all of us: a desire to comprehend the unknown and our strategies to cope when the unknown remains beyond the reach of our senses.

In tandem, Memoria the book and film underscore how cinema is one of our strategies to accept and explore the unknowns of our individual and collective realities. Given that Memoria is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first feature film made outside of Thailand, both the book and film transmit Weerasethkul’s learnings, experiences, and reflections of a new, foreign environment. The book forms the foundational, mosaic textile that Weersethakul drapes into the exquisite, hypnotic moving sculpture that is the film, which reverberates with the lights and sounds of history and humanity and pulsates with a freedom of experience and expression, bringing us to a new height of cinematic and human awareness.

https://memoria.film

Lily and Generoso Fierro

A Chiara

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Originally published on Ink 19 on June 1, 2022

A Chiara
directed by Jonas Carpignano

Back in 2017, we sat down with director Jonas Carpignano shortly after the AFI Fest screening of A Ciambra, the second installment of his Calabrian triptych set in the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro. During that conversation, Carpignano eschewed the term “trilogy” for “triptych” in describing his series of features, which sees its conclusion with A Chiara, the winner of the Directors’ Fortnight Award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. There is good reason for a clear delineation of terms here when describing Carpignano’s triptych of MediterraneaA Ciambra, and A Chiara. These films are, as the director stated in 2017, “tied together through overlapping characters and motifs, even less than narrative logic.” As with a triptych like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s BlueWhite, and Red, you can experience each film individually on its own merits, but it is their collective power that confirms the overarching significance of their unity.

With Gioia Tauro as a constant throughout, Carpignano’s triptych utilizes the familial motivations of its three central characters, who possess different ethnic and economic backgrounds, to examine how each character’s actions are conceived and received based on the varying degrees of acceptance from their own or surrounding community. In Mediterranea, we follow Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), who has made the perilous journey from Burkina Faso to Italy with the goal of finding any work that could help him send funds back to his family in Africa. Although he finds work in Gioia Tauro as a migrant laborer, he is not accepted by the bulk of the residents in his new environment, and his presence is often met with overt resistance or dubious opportunities for survival. In A Ciambra, Ayiva returns as the friend of Pio Amato, a young teen who is part of the Romani community in Calabria that is somewhat adjusted to life there, but is not fully accepted by the native Calabrians. As Pio and Ayiva have both been ostracized from the broader community due to their backgrounds, they become close friends, but when a dire situation arises within Pio’s family, the differences between the two friends overshadow their commonalities.

With A Chiara, Carpignano places a female in the lead for the first time in the form of 15-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), the middle daughter of upper-middle class parents Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) and Carmela (Carmela Fumo) Guerrasio. Chiara is a quintessential Gen Z Italian teen. As the film begins, she works out on a treadmill in a fashionable gym before readying herself for the lavish, but warm, festivities surrounding her elder sister Giulia’s (Grecia Rotolo) eighteenth birthday. At the party, Chiara makes it clear to her adoring father that she understands, and is content with, the quasi-normal family dynamic and order her parents have created, and she joyously dances and blissfully documents the celebration on her phone with the knowledge that her worldview is secure.

However, when Chiara steps out from the festivities and is confronted outside of the party venue by her cousin, who frowns upon on her smoking and rebellious attitude, Carpignano veers the viewer toward a classical coming of age film but shifts away from such a conceit when Chiara, later that evening, sees a firebomb destroy her father’s car in front of the family home. Her father soon becomes a fugitive for his connections to the ‘Ndrangheta, and Chiara is awakened from the fantasy that her family’s protection and her non-Roma, non-African ethnicity have afforded her up to this point in her young life.

With the grim news spreading to her school, Chiara is humiliated and flabbergasted by the realization that she has lived for so long without any knowledge of her father’s illicit activities. As she seeks to find the truth, she digs through her home and discovers her father’s abandoned hideout while virulently confronting her mother and her older sister, Giulia, about what they know. When their answers prove less than satisfying to Chiara, she embarks on a mission with a clue from Ayiva, whom she meets outside of her cousin’s café, that leads her to Ciambra, the center of the Roma community in Gioia Tauro and the neighborhood of the Amato family, whom we lived with in Carpignano’s previous entry of the triptych and whom we briefly see again in A Chiara. The residents of Ciambra, whom Chiara has looked down upon and even mistreated at times, express their familiarity with her father, bringing forth a revelation that further erodes the comfortable social gap that Chiara once believed existed between her and them.

As Chiara feels her social status and trust in her family dissipate with each new finding, she takes out her frustrations by committing a violent action against a Roma teen girl, resulting in a governmental order for Chiara to live with a wealthy family helmed by a pediatrician in Urbino, a walled city known as the birthplace of Raphael with a center declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Urbino symbolizes the pure essence of Renaissance Italy, and Gioia Tauro, the once planned industrial hub, exemplifies the country’s failure to modernize the south. Thus, despite her perceived level of “Italianness” over Ayiva and Pio’s respective communities, Chiara must now assume the role of immigrant in her own country as she departs the place of her birth, the place forever associated with the criminality of her family, and a place with a radically different culture and history than that of Urbino.

Essential to A Chiara’s profoundly unapologetic, determined mood, is Carpignano’s continued commitment to using non-professional actors who clearly understand the region depicted in his triptych. Swamy Rotolo, whose only other acting credit is a small role in A Ciambra, assuredly handles the task of playing a difficult, and at times unsympathetic, character with a fierce bravado offset by a palpable angst that pays homage to Monica Vitti’s performance in Red Desert. Whereas Vitti’s character’s naïveté and cloistered world shatters with her growing awareness of the poisons of industrialization led by her husband and lover, Chiara’s innocence disintegrates as she discovers the role her family plays in distributing drugs in the aftermath of failed industrialization.

However, Chiara dominates the screen, not landscapes of the aging portside waterfront nor portraits of the broken promises of 20th century modernity, and this tighter focus on Chiara draws you deeper into her questions, experiences, and decisions to complete the triptych’s connective notion of sacrifice and status. Ayiva sacrifices himself for the future of his family. Pio sacrifices his friendship with Ayiva for the sake of his familial ties, and Chiara sacrifices her family for the sake of her own future. What each character ultimately sacrifices becomes a representation of the vast difference in choices available for each based on their current socioeconomic status and how long they and their families have lived in Italy, and altogether, the three characters and their respective films illuminate how decades, even centuries, of history can collide in a single place in a single point in time through different communities and their perceived and true state of acclimation to contemporary Italy.

A Chiara is currently showing in limited theaters in the United States. Featured image courtesy of mk2 films.

neonrated.com • mk2films.com

Lily and Generoso Fierro

Best of Film 2021

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Originally published on Ink 19 on December 6, 2021
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

Joy. Resilience. Limitations. Isolation. Four words to describe cinema in 2021.

With the pandemic still in the foreground of life, the films we saw this year had a bittersweet quality to them. Some celebrated the survival of cinema. Others the joy of life. And others tested the limitations of film as a medium. But, all had a deep understanding of the dire realities within or surrounding the narratives and experiences on screen.

Our favorite films this year heightened the awareness of the loneliness and chaos of contemporary life and explored the many ways in which we try to deal with both. These films articulated our anxieties about the present and our fears about the future. Some showed how we try to assert control and fail. And one particularly embraced the relinquishing of control and celebrated the unpredictability of a surreal, irrational world.

In a time where news images have become paradoxically more powerful because they allow us to see reality when we are not allowed in it, but more trivial because we are primarily experiencing all of our lives through images on screens, the films that moved us were the ones that reflected on the power of the moving image and challenged the traditions, expectations, and restrictions of the form.

We should note that there are some films that are sadly absent from this list because we did not get the opportunity to see them. This includes Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s much heralded Memoria, Hong Sang-soo’s In Front of Your Face, Jonas Carpignano’s A Chiara, and Gaspar Noé’s Vortex. Regardless, our viewings in 2021 were most certainly still strong and as relevant to our rapidly changing times as they’ve ever been.

A special thanks goes out to the good folks at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, Independent Film Festival Boston, the Brattle Theater, and the Coolidge Corner Theater for their exceptional programming efforts that provided us with an immense amount of joy and inspiration throughout this year. We ask you to please support these festivals, microcinemas, and independent theaters as they are essential to the growth and enlightenment of our communities.

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Malmkrog / Romania, Serbia / dir. Cristi Puiu

The moment Malmkrog ended, we took a deep breath as the words of the closing speech and fragments from the discursive, philosophical exchanges in the two hours plus prior faded down from the center of our minds, and we returned to reality. Immediately, we felt that we needed to read more and listen better, for Malmkrog is dense in its dialogue, composition, and ideas in a way that tests the limits of both cinema and cognition. But then, as the last reverberations of scenes pulsed in our thoughts, we understood: the world (and life) exists beyond the words, sounds, and images we ingest and digest in our confined spaces, and sometimes the world reacts to what we read and discuss (and vice versa), but more often than not, the world invades our thoughts and philosophies before we can ever come to any logical solution for the past and the future. Malmkrog is entirely contained on an estate in Transylvania near the beginning of the 20th century. Inside the opulent home, five aristocrats move about in clusters challenging and questioning each other’s opinions and projections on a variety of important topics, including war, Christianity, and the state of Europe. The five are waited on by servants who move in and out of frame throughout, and, for a few moments in the film, take over the screen, providing short breaths of relief away from the realm of theory that the aristocrats continuously explore throughout the film. Malmkrog appears bloated with intellectualism, so with its period setting, you may be deceived into believing that it is a merely pretentious exercise of philosophy and history. However, when your mind struggles to reconcile the images you see on screen, the subtitles you’re reading, and the tones in the voices you’re hearing, relish in the fact that you are seeing the growing pains of the cinematic form in front of you and know that from such discomfort comes change, which is in the room now and will be constant until the end.

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Diários de Otsoga (Tsugua Diaries) / Portugal / dirs. Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro

COVID-19 remains at the top of our collective consciousness (and will likely remain there for years to come), so it is no surprise that it made its way into the films that premiered in 2021. Tsugua Diaries, on the surface, is about coping during the pandemic, but step away from the protocols of quarantine life—the masks, the cleaning and sterilization procedures, the testing protocols—and you’ll see a triumphant ode to the endurance of cinema. Told in reverse, Tsugua Diaries theoretically documents twenty-two days on the set of a film production in the late summer of 2020. In order to produce the film safely, everyone involved lives and works in a large country house and limits their exposure to the outside world as much as possible. The cast and crew have no choice but to live, work, and play together, and in turn, they become their own close-knit community. We see moments of life and play influencing and reacting to the film that the cast and crew are trying to make within Tsugua Diaries, and all of this is gloriously captured by the camera for Tsugua Diaries itself because, after all, everyone we ultimately see on screen is an actual member of the cast and crew playing themselves. Reality collides with fiction, and both fold on top of themselves and each other, to the point where the scenes that co-directors Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro capture for the film within and the film that is Tsugua Diaries become simultaneously representative, symbolic, abstract, and expressive. This convergence is the affirmation of the purpose, joy, and strength of cinema, which, despite the rapid, disruptive changes of COVID-19, thrived on the home, set, and stage of Tsugua Diaries.

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Slow Machine / USA / dir. Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo

Films about members of the American artistic class can be unbearable, and the directors of Slow Machine, Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo, know it. So, instead of centering their film on a dead-eyed, overly aware, unsympathetic contemporary bohemian, they cast all eyes on Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes), a theater actress who may or may not intentionally place herself consistently in volatile situations and, consequently, is always on the edge of an adverse reaction. Early in the film, Stephanie tries to escape her claustrophobic living situation by going on a bender and stumbling along the sidewalks of Brooklyn. She passes out, and when she awakens, she’s in a studio apartment that could double as a panic or hostage room with Gerard (Scott Shepherd), a man who claims to be an intelligence agent with an affinity for experimental theater. The two begin a peculiar relationship of attraction and repulsion, and as Stephanie’s breakdown becomes more palpable, we begin to suspect that Gerard is a vehicle for the cultivation of her paranoia and instability, two characteristics that enable her to shape-shift and transform at any moment, whether she wants to or not. In stark contrast to the spaces where Stephanie and Gerard clash, we also see Stephanie in an idyllic artist compound in upstate New York helmed by Eleanor (Eleanor Friedberger). In the manicured spaces surrounded by musicians who are more interested in the sounds they create and tag football than the human condition, Stephanie attempts to re-center herself away from Gerard and the frenzy of the city. But, inevitably, when she must interact with the others, her erratic reactions resurface and push her to finally meltdown. Slow Machine at its heart asks, “What does it mean to be yourself, everyone, everything, and nothing?” And as Stephanie tries to find the answer, she treads into hazardous and destructive places, all of which drive the engine of great performances—the ones that are unnerving, striking, and soberingly human.

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Gûzen to sôzô (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) / Japan / dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

When describing the ethos behind the triptych of films that became Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi stated that they are explorations of “coincidence and imagination.” As these occurrences and abilities play out in the lives of the characters contained in the three stories that comprise the film, the characters’ consequent improvisations and performances become the practical machines for Hamaguchi’s explorations, and it is this need to adapt and reply to situations, both contrived and spontaneous, that is the power behind Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. As we watch the female protagonists of each story assume a fabricated persona in response to an uncomfortable situation, we see how their role playing creates a method to better understand the people they’re engaging with, while simultaneously allowing them to step away from who they are to clearly see themselves. The transformative effect of impersonation plays out in the first segment of the film, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” through Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), a fashion model who must conceal her true self when she finds out that her best friend has fallen in love with her ex-boyfriend, whom she still has feelings for. In the second story, “Door Wide Open,” Nao (Katuski Mori) is coerced into taking on the part of a seducer in order to trap and embarrass an esteemed literature professor, and in the final story, “Any Day Now,” a lonely housewife named, Nana (Aoba Kawai), role plays as the long lost classmate of a woman named Moka (Fusako Urabe). Even though the women’s actions elicit a vast array of emotional reactions from us, including sadness, violent discomfort, and being overwhelmingly touched, we admire them for their righteous ability to neglect their desires for the sake of others and celebrate with them as they gain a greater insight into who they are and what they really want.

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Doraibu mai kâ (Drive My Car) / Japan / dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Though the images and sounds of movement through space and time are often the first things that come to mind when you’re thinking about cars, there’s something more fascinating about the gray area between public and private space when you’re inside of a vehicle. In Drive My Car, Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor and theater director, feels the safest in the driver’s seat of his red Saab 900. It’s where he can control his physical direction. It’s where he absorbs and recites the words of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. And, it’s where he has the deepest connection with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), whose voice reads out all the parts except for Uncle Vanya’s, leaving space for Kafuku to respond. Since the death of their child, Oto and Kafuku have remained loving and respectful towards one another, but they also keep each other at a distance: Oto has had multiple affairs, and Kafuku knows about them, but neither have ever spoken about the transgressions. After Oto’s sudden death, Kafuku drives to Hiroshima to direct a multi-lingual performance of Uncle Vanya at a theater festival. Upon arriving, he is immediately informed that he will not be allowed to drive the vehicle for the duration of his preparation of the production, and he’s assigned a driver: a taciturn young woman named Misaki (Tôko Miura). The car is Kafuku’s home, office, and crutch, and now, he must attempt to process his work as a director and his fears as an actor alongside his grief and his unresolved, conflicting feelings toward Oto, with another person along for the ride. As they drive, Kafuku continues to fill in the silences between Oto’s recitation of Uncle Vanya, and slowly both his and Misaki’s respective external shells begin to fall away and allow them to better connect with everything in the present and past around them. The red Saab is undoubtedly a symbol of Kafuku, but it also is a physical manifestation of our self-imposed separation from others as we attempt to direct our lives (and the possible self-isolation that may become habit due to the pandemic). However, as Drive My Car reminds us well, we can still find ways to share the space inside the car, and we can most certainly step outside of it too. And, we’ll be better artists, colleagues, friends, parents, children, and individuals when we do either, or better yet, both.

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Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre (Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time) / Hungary / dir. Lili Horvát

At the center of Lili Horvát’s impressive debut feature is Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork), an Hungarian-born doctor in her 40s, who has been living in the States where she is a well respected leader at a prominent neurosurgery center. On the surface, everything is going well for Márta, but after decades of living abroad, she makes the abrupt decision to travel back to her native Hungary to rendezvous with a fellow countryman and neurosurgeon named János (Viktor Bodó), whom she met at an academic conference in New Jersey. Upon arriving in Budapest, Márta heads to the Liberty Bridge, the mutually agreed upon location of her scheduled tryst with János, but when she gets there, he is nowhere to be found. Márta responds to the snubbing by tracking János down for an answer, but when she confronts him, he has no idea who she is, and she falls unconscious. Distraught and confused, Márta decides to stay in Budapest and rents a shabby apartment with a view of the Liberty Bridge, reminding her of the failed reunion with János daily. She takes a position beneath her abilities at a dilapidated hospital in Budapest where János works, despite the warnings that she receives from an old colleague who assures her that her immense talents will be ignored by the patriarchal agenda of the surgical team there. Then, she sets out on investigating if she and János actually made a promise to meet again in Hungary and if she ever knew him at all. In her use of formal elements of romantic cinema to actualize her protagonist’s reawakening of cultural identity, Horvát imbues a constant ambiguity between inner and outer realities to externalize the disorienting cross-conscious states and cross-cultural spaces that Márta is trying to navigate. As we observe Márta excelling in her duties at the hospital where her skills are steadily gaining notice, the question becomes less about her being recognized by János, and more about whether her voice can finally be heard in her own homeland. Read Generoso’s full review of Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time here on Ink 19.

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A Night of Knowing Nothing / India / dir. Payal Kapadia

The act of performance can take on many forms, and in Payal Kapadia’s debut documentary feature, A Night of Knowing Nothing, we have the the pleasure of experiencing it in a multitude of ways, which altogether allow us to understand the complexity and ambiguities of being a filmmaker and student hoping to make the future a better place while entrenched in a period of political unrest. The film opens up with a striking, grainy, black-and-white shot of young people dancing. Instead of music, we hear the voice of a narrator reading letters found in a student hostel at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and we’re introduced to L, a student filmmaker, whose unsent letters to her lover become the sinew between the images and other sounds of A Night of Knowing Nothing. At first, L’s letters are focused on her despair that her lover has left her because of his family: she’s in a lower caste, and his family refuses to allow him to marry her. But, as L’s life continues, her letters begin to center on her reflections on the student protests happening in India in 2016, and her thoughts as she emerges as a political being start to overlay and bridge sounds and images from protests, found archival and mobile phone footage, and shared footage from Kapadia’s own friends at FTII. A Night of Knowing Nothing contracts and expands its visual scope and conceptual breadth throughout. Moments after we see a person in silence in a sparse room, we often see large groups joining together to protest the inequalities of Indian society. We hear audio from the protests and speeches from key representatives cross fade into L’s reflections on herself and her thoughts on Pasolini and Eisenstein. A Night of Knowing Nothing is like a living organism growing into consciousness, moving its attention fluidly inwards and outwards and learning throughout, and this progression emerges as a performance too, one that beautifully shows us what it means to develop into a more aware being. We spoke with director Payal Kapadia at AFI Fest 2021, and that conversation can be read here.

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Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream / France / dir. Frank Beauvais

A shining example of contemporary anxiety stoked by isolation and the consumption of images, Frank Beauvais’s film essay Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream assembles scenes from over four hundred fiction films that the director viewed during a six month period of seclusion in a village in Alsace around the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. The film vacillates between therapeutic exercise and neurotic compulsion as Beauvais attempts to find comfort in cinema away from his struggles emanating from his split with his partner, his feelings of hopelessness to change the oppressive climate following the state of emergency after the November 2015 Paris attacks, and his relationships with his parents. However, no matter how much Beauvais attempts to immerse himself in the images of films, he remains aware of his distance from society, and thus the images recalled from his binge watching become reflective of his mindset. There are neither faces nor particularly iconic images in the scenes that serve as excerpts, reactions, and memories, so, as each film clip flashes on and off the screen, we see worlds often resembling our own appear, disappear, and re-emerge in alternate forms. Reality and fiction pass by, and we continue to watch alongside Beauvais while his voice elaborates on the experiences and anxieties that motivated his departure from Paris to the countryside and memories that return to him as he sits in front of the screen. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is the perfect pandemic film not made about the pandemic itself. In fact, it serves as a reminder that the alienation exacerbated by COVID-19 has been with us in our digital, post-truth era for years, and it’s most likely here to stay as images on screens of various sizes pull us away from our surroundings into smaller and smaller physical and psychological spaces.

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Titane / France, Belgium / dir. Julia Ducournau

The most formative event of Alexia’s childhood was a car accident: it led to the installation of a titanium plate in her skull and marked the moment when her trust shifted away from her father (who partially caused the accident when he turned around, while driving, to reprimand a very young Alexia because she was kicking the back of his seat) to machinery, specifically cars. As a result, adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has little regard for other people, and her complete lack of humanity is on full display in frightening and absurd ways in the first act of Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning Titane. When we see Alexia as an adult for the first time, she’s a wiry, intimidating dancer who writhes on top of muscle cars. She’s feral in the presence of others, be it other dancers or her parents, and she’s a serial killer who’s racking up victims. After killing a house full of people and setting her childhood home ablaze, Alexia takes on the identity of Adrien, a young boy who went missing years ago and would now be in his late teens. Much has been made about the scenes of gruesome body transformations and violence that occur up until this point in the film, but these are the least surprising parts of Titane. When Alexia meets Adrien’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a firefighting chief, he brings Alexia back to his station and attempts to integrate her into the family of men he’s created in the years since Adrien’s disappearance, placing Alexia in a space more masculine, yet more tender than she’s ever known. Though her aggressive tendencies come out from behind her disguise at first, Alexia’s guard begins to fall as she receives love and care from Vincent and as she sees his struggles to maintain his muscle-bound body. Gender notions and roles switch back and forth between Alexia and Vincent, but some return to their original states, and consequently, we end up seeing fundamental elements of Vincent’s and his men’s masculinity redeeming Alexia’s humanity, which is an unexpected, new territory for films about women told by women and for storytelling overall. Male brutality and abuse of power have been in the headlines and at the forefront of societal discourse for the past few years since the Me Too movement. Yet, with Titane, Ducournau presents the male form in the most honest, vulnerable, respectful, and loving way possible, and that is far bolder than any of the images and sounds of viscera that are luring in and shocking audiences.

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Mandibules (Mandibles) / France / dir. Quentin Dupieux

Upon its U.S. release earlier this year, I (Generoso) finally had the opportunity to review Quentin Dupieux’s 2018 phantasmagoric crime comedy, Au Poste! (Keep An Eye Out). In my review, I anointed Dupieux as the heir apparent to the great Bertrand Blier as Dupieux possesses the same surrealistic and audacious approach to comedy that Blier trademarked throughout his career. Back in March, after Dupieux’s feature Mandibles screened as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival through Films at Lincoln Center, the director described his new comedy as his first positive film with an elevator-pitch of “E.T. meets Dumb and Dumber,” but given my anointing of Dupieux, I of course saw Mandibles more as “E.T. meets Blier’s Les Valseuses (Going Places),” with infinitely less random sexual debauchery than Blier’s notorious masterpiece. Set around a small beach community in the South of France, Mandibles is a caper story centered on lifelong downtrodden friends in their 30s, Manu and Jean-Gab, who are portrayed to slack perfection by Grégoire Ludig and David Marsais, who are known in France mainly through their long-running sketch-comedy television program, Palmashow. As Mandibles opens, we find the homeless Manu comfortably asleep on the beach, where he is awakened by a friend who offers Manu a seemingly easy mission that could put 500 Euros into his empty pockets. Without the car deemed necessary for the job, Manu hotwires an old Mercedes and then corrals his friend, Jean-Gab, to do the deed. All is well until the pair hear a loud buzzing coming from their trunk, and after investigating, they discover a docile housefly that is the size of a three year old child. Only slightly spooked by this development, Jean-Gab doesn’t panic, and instead, he imagines a future where he and Manu train this fly to rob banks for them. Like our anti-heros in Going Places, Manu and Jean-Gab haphazardly roam the countryside and find women to offer them a bed, but they are less concerned about sex or wreaking havoc and more fixated on finding a place to train their buzzing partner in crime, now affectionately named Dominique. Mandibles does a lot in its lean 77 minute running time. It’s a very funny and oddly sweet surrealistic comedy that somehow manages to also address issues of class and privilege while never pulling you too far away from the strong friendship between Jean-Gab and Manu and their new buddy, Dominique. Generoso’s full review of Mandibles is available here on Ink 19.

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SUPPLEMENTAL LIST

Saint Maud / United Kingdom / dir. Rose Glass

In 2021, descents into sin are the norm, and ascents to sainthood are the exception. With her film Saint Maud, Rose Glass looks at why someone would strive for saintliness today and how they may get misguided in a life of rectitude. Maud has become a private hospice nurse after changing her name and leaving her previous life where the care of a patient went horribly wrong. She’s also become a devout Catholic attempting to be an ascetic, but when she takes on a new job caring for Amanda, a former dancer dying of cancer, Maud’s conception of faith gets rattled, and her interior state begins to crumble as remnants of her past behaviors resurface. Everything surrounding Amanda exists in stark contrast to Maud’s current beliefs. Amanda is a hedonist. She lives in a lavish home with dark jewel tones and rich textures everywhere—on the walls, the upholstery of the furniture, and the fabrics that drape Amanda’s failing body. Maud dresses in pallid tones, and her apartment is a bleak room with only a single bed, kitchen table, and a homemade altar to Christ on top of a set of drawers. During their initial encounters, Amanda and Maud grow towards each other, enough for Maud to share her relationship with God and invite Amanda to be a part of it. But as Amanda’s artistic past and lover Carol enter her home, the worldliness that Maud once tried to engage with, but now shuns is on parade in front of her, launching an obsessive mission to bring Amanda to the light that also forces her to confront her own earthly desires. Maud is undoubtedly a fanatic, but Glass shows us glimpses into Maud’s past promiscuity, loneliness, and traumas to allow us to completely understand how she arrived at this current life of extreme piousness. So when Maud’s faith get entangled with her mental instability, pushing her away from God, away from earth, and towards an abyss within herself, we sympathize with her because we can see how the sharp conflict between her noble motivations to be a nurse and a savior and her past experiences of failure and alienation distort her senses. Religious zealots are easy antagonists, and Maud’s approach to faith is subject to ridicule and horror, but thanks to Glass’s commitment to ensuring that we comprehend Maud’s life, motivations, and fragile state, the terror of Saint Maud lies in seeing Maud’s disintegration and standing by, as the audience, completely unable to help.

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Siberia / USA , Italy, Germany / dir. Abel Ferrara

During the middle of the lockdown last summer, I (Generoso) reviewed Tommaso. That film was Abel Ferrara’s first purely non-documentary feature since his 2014 triumph, Pasolini, where Ferrara inventively sidestepped all of the deep-seated traps of the biopic to form his sublime and personal piece on the slain poet/director of Teorema and Mamma Roma. Though Tommaso was formed as a hybrid-fiction film, many of its core elements depicting the artist’s conflicts between the creative process and the mundane were clearly drawn from Ferrara’s experiences in depicting Pasolini’s life at and away from his camera and desk. Willem Dafoe portrayed Tommaso, a film director living in Rome who is struggling to find balance between his addictive past, his shortcomings arising from being an older man with a young wife and child, and his pains in creating his newest work, Siberia, a film whose storyboards depict a sole male character confronting the frozen wasteland surrounding him. Whereas Tommaso becomes Ferrara’s stand-in for the frustrations of his day to day life in Rome, Siberia’s Clint (also played by Dafoe) serves as a guide through Ferrara’s inner psyche in tumult. In the actual version of Siberia, Clint is a keeper of a remote outpost in the eponymous wasteland who tends to his patrons, who speak to him in a language that he does not know, but somehow understands. These dreamlike communications build out as Clint travels from his establishment on a dog sled through the tundra, eventually finding the destinations of an African desert, snow-capped mountains, and the somewhat purgatorial deep recesses of the earth. Regardless of the journey’s end, Clint is mired by an Oedipal complex and the challenges of fading masculinity that mirror Tommaso’s late night excursions through the streets of Rome where he looks in vain for anything that might allow him deviate from his present or distance himself from his past. As for Abel Ferrara, Siberia evidences that he is keenly aware of how he can never evade his previously immoderate lifestyle and his filmography of obtuse genre cinema, but we understand that he will always continue to move forward, taking his past with him as part of wherever he goes next.

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Cryptozoo / USA / Dash Shaw

It’s been five years since Dash Shaw released his first feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, a collaboration between Shaw, who was the director and writer, and his wife, Jane Samborski, who was the animation director. The film accomplished a handmade, playful, and bold style indicative of Shaw’s comics that perfectly matched the whimsical plot. For their second feature, Cryptozoo, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and the Sundance Film Festival in 2021, Shaw and Samborski expanded their scale and pushed their animation style and techniques to new heights in creating an astonishing kingdom which stretches reality into a fantastical, dystopian world. Set in the 1960s, Cryptozoo presents as its protagonist Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), a champion of cryptids, creatures that exist based on folklore, myths, and individual accounts, but have never been identified as known species by the scientific community. Lauren has committed her life to rescuing cryptids in trouble after a baku consumed her bad dreams as a child and has been the lead conservationist and veterinarian of the Cryptozoo, a sanctuary for cryptids funded by an eccentric heiress named Joan (Grace Zabriskie). However, the Cryptozoo, in its noble intentions to protect cryptids and raise awareness around the creatures, treads into the same shaky moral grounds that zoos face when trying to preserve endangered species while showcasing them in captivity in order to sustain and finance their conservation efforts. Like the Cryptozoo itself, the film traps the viewer in an era and setting where we know the outcome. Though the cryptids are fantastical by definition and in their visual design, their introductions within the Cryptozoo evoke less wonderment and more unease because we invariably know that the fate of the Cryptozoo will be grim based on the actual history of the environmental optimism and good intentions of the 1960s that came to nothing (and even sometimes to the malevolent) in the decades to come. In August of this year, we spoke with Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski about their influences and animation process for Cryptozoo.

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Les Sorcières de l’Orient (The Witches of the Orient ) / France / Julien Faraut

Constructed primarily from the perspectives of Major Leaguers who played for some of the Japanese professional ball clubs, Robert Whiting’s 1989 book, You Gotta Have Wa, offers readers a unique and fascinating view into the mindset and history of baseball in Japan. Through the players’ viewpoints combined with a retelling of stories drawn from Japanese baseball folklore, Whiting’s book effectively illustrates key differences between American and Japanese culture via the idiosyncratic ways that each nation handles the same sport. As we read the book, it becomes clear that although we approach the sports from different angles, the one major aspect of baseball that links the United States and Japan is how it has historically brought up our morale in desperate times. In the early 1960s, Japan was at a crossroads. Still dealing with the devastating aftermath of their defeat in World War Two, Japan was making incredible strides forward in rebuilding and industrial growth, but the country was still searching for a win that went beyond baseball and onto an international stage as a means of repairing some of the negative impact that the war inflicted on the nation’s cultural identity. It is at this critical point where we meet the heroes of Julien Faraut’s dynamic documentary The Witches of the Orient, the legendary women’s volleyball team Nichibo Kaizuka. The winners of a record 258 consecutive matches between 1961 and 1966, the Nichibo Kaizuka team was recruited from a pool of factory workers by the owners of a textile plant in the small town of Kaizuka, near Osaka. Coached by a combat veteran named Hirofumi Daimatsu, who justly earned the moniker “The Demon” due to his fanatical training techniques, these women worked their full shifts at their plant, and then subjected themselves to regular all-night sessions of the most physically demanding practices that would rival anything contained in the pages of You Gotta Have Wa. To construct his narrative that connects sport and national identity as Whiting’s book did decades earlier, Faraut provides abundant cultural context through archival footage while offering the direct testimonies of the surviving members of the Nichibo Kaizuka team who discuss their experiences leading up to and including their monumental gold medal triumph at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where the Nichibo Kaizuka won a tense match against a powerful Soviet squad only hours after the Japanese men fell short of a gold medal in judo. Much to his credit, Faraut’s blending of a rapid editing style, contemporary music, and vintage anime created to deify the Nichibo Kaizuka keeps the pace frenetic throughout as it builds towards the team’s Olympic win. As a result of Faraut’s sharp choices, The Witches of the Orient never treads into overly sentimental territories as he highlights the uniqueness of Japanese culture through the achievements of this group of hardworking women who sacrificed their personal lives to unite as a formidable team that gave their country a much needed victory.

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Les Olympiades, Paris 13e (Paris, 13th District) / France / dir. Jacques Audiard

Modern Love seems like an obvious alternate title for Paris, 13th District, but upon watching the film’s main characters’ intimate relationships, along with their communications with each other, start, intensify, stop, and begin elsewhere, a more appropriate secondary title is Modern Honesty. Adapted from short comics from Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying and Optic Nerve, director Jacques Audiard transplants Tomine’s sense of isolation despite being amongst people to Paris and adds in technology as a conduit and barrier between people who know each other in physically intimate ways. Emilie (Lucie Zhang) is a Sciences Po post-grad living in an apartment in a tower of Les Olympiades in the 13th arrondissement. Camille (Makita Samba) is a schoolteacher who responds to an ad for a room in Emilie’s apartment. The two immediately hook up and begin a roommates-with-benefits relationship until Emilie calls things off. Nora (Noémie Merlant) is a new graduate student in law at the Sorbonne. She’s excited to leave her former life in Burgundy for a more cosmopolitan Parisian one until she’s mistaken for the cam-girl Amber Sweet. Emilie, Camillie, and Nora’s lives crash, tangle, and separate, and at every intersection, each fail to share what’s really going on in their lives, histories, and communities even though there’s plenty of time shared in bed. Given such a conceit, Paris, 13th District may sound caricaturish, but in our modern era where texts, in-app messaging, and timed video chats have condensed our communication into hyper-concise, reactive phrases and images, which our characters often rely on to speak to one another in Paris, 13th District, director Jacques Audiard connects such a communication style to the way that people selectively compose their outward image and their consequent failure to build meaningful relationships. The characters of Paris, 13th District often substitute physical intimacy for self-honesty, and that isn’t a new idea, but Audiard, along with his co-screenwriters Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, overlay it with modern brashness and disjointedness that permeate individual interactions, which together form a vital, sympathetic, and acute look at what it means to be a twenty- or thirty-something today.

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A Metamorfose dos Pássaros (The Metamorphosis of Birds) / Portugal / Catarina Vasconcelos

“Objects have their own secret lives.” This spoken statement resonates throughout The Metamorphosis of Birds as director Catarina Vasconcelos weaves together her pensive and beautiful feature debut by painstakingly focusing her camera on objects with the hope of creating the lost story of her grandparents, Beatriz and Henrique. Henrique was a naval officer who wrote impassioned letters to his wife, “Triz,” while on duty at sea. Triz passed at a young age, and as Henrique prepared for his own demise, he asked to have his love letters to Triz burned after he passed, leaving Catarina without any knowledge of the grandmother whom she never had the chance to meet. Sadly, Beatriz and Henrique’s son, Jacinto, Catarina’s father, also lost his wife at a fairly young age, and with Catarina and Jacinto mourning the passing of each other’s mothers, there comes a reconstruction of the story lost in the burnt letters by the individual memories evoked by the objects and living nature around them. As Catarina, Jacinto, and other family members narrate above the elegantly lensed images, we become witness to a poetic catharsis that the recollection of memories can provide, and similar to Payal Kapadia’s exceptional hybrid-documentary from this year, A Night of Knowing Nothing, we are given the rare pleasure of observing the change of personal perspectives within a filmmaker through their implementation of a unique process of investigation that organically evolves throughout their project.

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Atlantis / Ukraine / dir. Valentyn Vasyanovych

Set in the year 2025, Valentyn Vasyanovych’s dystopian feature, Atlantis has as its canvas the war-ravaged Eastern Ukraine landscape that we in the West only know through the images and reports emerging from the region after the 2014 Russian invasion, which displaced well over a million and a half residents from occupied Crimea and Donbas. At the film’s opening scene, Vasyanovych depicts a grim future for this area by holding us at a distance while watching two men dragging a third into a shallow grave for an execution by gunfire. Shot on infrared film, this already gruesome undertaking achieves an addition layer of dehumanization, which sets the stage for the introduction to our protagonist, a former soldier afflicted with PTSD named Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk), as he and a fellow soldier take target practice on human silhouettes made of metal. Without an active conflict to engage in, Sergiy and his comrade have found work at an American-run steel factory, but as it about to cease operations, Sergiy is forced to find new work as a truck driver delivering potable water to areas that no longer have access to due to pollution caused by years of war. On this job, Sergiy crosses paths with Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), a volunteer worker who has made it her mission to exhume the war dead with the goal of providing these victims with a proper burial. As Sergiy assists Katya with her endeavor, they grow closer, and in turn, he begins to see some glimmer of order and humanity in a place he once deemed as devoid of hope. Though Atlantis could easily drift into mawkishness, Vasyanovych and his camera skillfully adjust the distance by which we experience Sergiy’s shift in outlook, allowing just enough closeness to understand his situation but not enough to fully grasp his psychological state. In the end, we are certain that the decimated world where Sergiy lives will not change, but any small moment of contentment that he achieves in his small, controlled space will have to suffice for now.

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BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE (TIED)

What Happened Was… 4K Restoration / USA / Tom Noonan

Universally praised upon its release in 1994, when it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival, What Happened Was… is the brainchild of Tom Noonan, who independently produced and directed the film from his screenplay adaptation of his own stage play. Similar to Louis Malle’s My Dinner With AndreWhat Happened Was… is a purely conversation-based feature that stars a cast of two: Noonan and stage actress and Hal Hartley regular Karen Sillas. Sillas and Noonan portray Jackie and Michael respectively. Jackie is an attractive and cautiously friendly administrative assistant in her 30s, while Michael is an snarky and ostentatious paralegal in his 40s, and both are employed by the same Manhattan law firm. The pair make a plan to meet up at Jackie’s apartment for a first date dinner, but unlike the free-flowing intellectual dining discourse in Malle’s classic, What Happened Was… provides the viewer with some of the most gratifyingly painful moments in American independent cinema history. At its awkward core, Jackie and Michael arrive at their date with misconceptions about each other based on the superficial workplace interactions between them. Evidenced by their early date repartee stumblings, Jackie sees Michael as a quirky scholar, while Michael’s frequently demeaning responses suggest that he views Jackie as nothing more than a pretty face. But, as the evening slogs through and the wine removes Jackie’s inhibitions, she feels confident enough to showcase her ample talents and express her true inner self, which, in turn, exposes Michael’s hubris and emotional and professional shortcomings. Sillas and Noonan are brilliant in What Happened Was…, but a significant amount of credit must also go to set decorator Andras Kanegson and production designer Daniel Ouellette, who created a space for Michael and Jackie that amplifies the loneliness and foreboding of their encounter into a dating house of horrors where the walls seemingly tighten around every misspoken word. Many thanks to O-Scope Pictures for their masterful 4K restoration of this seldom-seen, but essential work of cinema, which has gained an even greater relevance today due to our growing inability to openly communicate with one another face-to-face.

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De Quelques Événements Sans Signification (About Some Meaningless Events) / Morocco / dir. Mostafa Derkaoui

Featured image: Still from Malmkrog. Courtesy of Shellac

This vital 1975 work of docu-fiction was, for many years, thought to have been lost, but was recently discovered and presented at the Doc Fortnight 2021 festival hosted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A film-within-a-film, About Some Meaningless Events is set in Casablanca, primarily in a smoky dockside tavern where Derkaoui and a group of filmmakers flirt with women, discuss Marxism, and solicit on-camera opinions from patrons about the purpose of contemporary cinema in their country. Many of the interviewees state the need for film to be an important tool in highlighting relevant social issues, and as the conversations continue, the crew realizes that one of the men whom they spoke with may have actually killed his boss, a gangster who was pilfering his wages. Here, the film veers into crime genre, and the conversation between the filmmakers manifests into a discussion of their concerns about what they can capture on film, the complicitous nature of their actions, and the potential for retaliation they might incur from the forces in power. About Some Meaningless Events examines finding inspiration from reality or capturing it as the mission of filmmaking, while acknowledging how and why filmmakers can fall quite short of such an accomplishment. Remarkable in its structure and energy, but sadly ironic in its censorship by the Moroccan government, Derkaoui’s debut feature was banned in its home country shortly after it was screened in Paris. Thankfully, a negative of the film was discovered in the archives of Filmoteca De Catalunya in Barcelona, and the institution’s restoration re-introduced the world to this kinetic film that is exceptionally pertinent to current questions about the purpose of fiction and documentary filmmaking, especially in unstable times.

Featured image: Still from Malmkrog. Courtesy of Shellac


Araceli Lemos

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 29, 2021
by Generoso Fierro

This year’s AFI Fest, which just wrapped up on November 14th, had many remarkable aspects, but the most notable was the impressive output from first-time feature film directors who showed there. In fact, in the seven years that Lily and I have covered the festival for Ink 19 and other outlets, we have never seen anything close to this number of compelling and diverse works created by young auteurs.

Shortly after AFI Fest wrapped, I spoke with director Araceli Lemos, whose provocative debut feature, Holy Emy, received a Special Mention Award earlier this year from the Jury for First Features at the Locarno Film Festival in the Cineasti dei Presenti section.

An emotionally complex film that defies normal classification, Holy Emy follows two close Filipina sisters, Teresa (Hasmine Killip) and Emy (Abigael Loma) as they struggle to find acceptance inside and outside of their ethnic community in Athens, Greece. With their mother forced to emigrate back to her native Philippines due to ominous reasons, Teresa and Emy suss out an existence on their own, and do so working at a neighborhood fish market where Teresa is secretly involved in a sexual relationship with a native Greek man named Argyris (Mihalis Siriopoulos). When Teresa becomes pregnant through Argyris, Emy’s body exhibits a physical manifestation of her own that relates to the mystical healing power that was the cause of the rift between the girls’ mother and Mrs. Christina (Eirini Inglesi), a wealthy Greek woman who seeks to use Emy for her inherited supernatural abilities.

Lemos’s film examines the exoticisization of ethnic groups as a troubling entry point of assimilation for immigrants through the character trajectories of Teresa and Emy. By utilizing sometimes extreme, visceral elements, we observe the sisters’ dramatic transformation of their bodies as a response to their exploitation, and as their forms take different paths, we gain deeper empathy for their predicament as outsiders.

During my conversation with Lemos, we discussed the inspiration for creating Holy Emy, her thoughts on the relationship between exoticization and assimilation, as well as her research process, which included interviewing members from the Filipino community in the neighborhood in Athens where she was living during the inception of the film. Lemos also shared her thoughts with me on the casting of veteran actress and Lav Diaz regular, Angeli Bayani, and actresses Hasmine Killip and Abigael Loma and the resultant collaborative process between the actresses themselves and with the non-professional actors who made up the predominance of the cast.

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Often, the sad truth is that the only way that some immigrant groups begin to assimilate into a new country is through their exoticization. Was this something that you had in mind when constructing the two different trajectories that Teresa and Emy take in your film?

This has always been my understanding with the Filipino community in Greece. When the Greeks try to engage with the Filipinos, on many occasions it is done in a limited way. In Holy Emy, this is not only expressed through Teresa’s relationship with Argyris, but also through Emy’s relationship with Mrs. Christina. For Emy and Teresa to feel like they can belong, it becomes a bit like a wall because, on the other side, these people only see these small parts of who they really are. In Teresa’s case, she is sexualized by Argyris. In Emy’s case, she is used by Miss Christina for her healing gift. So, I found it interesting that they were not accepted as a whole package, but as small fragments and only if they could be put into a box.

Teresa and Emy are very close in the film, but as they begin to distance themselves from each other, they each exhibit physical manifestations of the separation. These manifestations are seen in Teresa’s natural change during pregnancy and in Emy’s bloody tears. How did you and your co-screenwriter, Giulia Caruso, settle on such intense bodily changes as the expression of growing apart?

The idea was to catch these two young girls, who were raised together and have lived very similar lives, at the moment when their desires diverge. It starts with Teresa wanting to get a boyfriend and start a social life, which pushes Emy to also discover what she wants, and that forces her to realise that they don’t want the same things. For us, we found it a good narrative choice to embody this change in a more heightened way. In the case of Teresa, you see her body actually become bigger and different from Emy’s. And that change awakens in Emy a part of her that was dormant, the gift that she inherited from her mother that allows her to flourish and that pushes her to follow her path and destiny, but in a more bizarre and intense way than Teresa.

You made the decision to have Teresa and Emy’s mother appear only through their video calls throughout the film, and have the reasons behind her exile back to the Philippines remain mysterious and ominous. Can you talk about these choices?

I think that their mother is a kind of ghost in Emy’s and Teresa’s lives, as they both carry so much of her inside of them, but she is not physically there to guide them either. I found that to be a very important element of the story because I think that at the heart of most immigrant experiences is a carrying of aspects of their lineage and family inside of them to this new place, but because the cultural context is absent, and the family is not there to explain things, a disconnect forms between the things you carry and the place where you have landed. So, that is the main reason why we decided to not have the mom physically present, but I also liked that in the narrative itself the reason why she was not there was because she was a kind of mystical person who was too big for this reality.

There is one more aspect to the mother’s absence: she’s a warning to Emy. Like a looming threat of what could happen to her, the mother’s story is, in a sense, a warning to the girls to not fall into their mother’s footsteps and end up like her. Everyone around them has attempted to brainwash them about the terrible fate of their mother, and these stories came about due to these people never fully accepting their mother in the first place. Basically, the people around Emy and Teresa are using their own mother to say that if you do not conform, then you will suffer the same fate that has befallen her.

You’ve stated in articles that the Filipino community in Greece is very insular, but that you were able to connect with them through the Charismatic Catholic church that we see in the film. Was there ever a moment at the church when this well known mystical healing power that Emy exhibits in the film was ever openly discussed with you?

So, I went there as an observer mostly, and I was very welcomed as a guest by the congregation. I had many conversations with people there, and they all had a very diverse range of beliefs. There wasn’t a strict canon of beliefs in the church. Some people said to me that if someone has a gift, and they have been blessed by the church, then it is like doing the work of God. Other people said no and condemned the gift completely. Those same people would say that this is a way that believers are mislead, and these are works of the devil. Many were skeptical and doubted this power, and then a few would say that this gift is not part of the church, but that they’ve seen it happen and have people in their families who have this gift. So, empirically they shared with me these first-hand stories. In the end, I found that members of the Filipino community in Greece had very diverse opinions on the subject. The Greeks also have equally diverse opinions, but in general, many are skeptical.

When it comes to your experiences in that church, the thing that is a bit unclear to me is the chronology on how you and Giulia developed Holy Emy. Did you begin to formulate your screenplay with Giulia prior to your observations in the church or after?

Because I have been writing it for so many years, I have also lost track of the chronology. (laughs) I’ll say that I think that inspiration comes in waves. Sometimes you have a lot of ideas, and magically they all come together. I think that it all began with this short story about two sisters and how I found their relationship interesting because one of the sisters was acting jealous and feeling like she was being pushed away by the other sister when she became pregnant. I then had a desire to expand on that relationship by making the girls Filipino, primarily because I was living in the Filipino neighborhood in Athens, and I then went to the church and discovered this link between the spiritual and healing. That link intrigued me further, and so I ascribed that ability to Emy because it brought back memories from when I was younger and my mom was looking into alternative forms of medicine. So, I think that was the chronology, but, at the same time, I recently met an old teacher of mine who remembered that years ago I was working on a project that sounded similar to this, which had a different entry point that I had totally forgotten about. So, admittedly, I am a bit lost on the exact chronology of how this all came together. (laughs)

As far as casting, I know that the extras in your film are from the Filipino community, and that Abigael Loma, who plays Emy, is Greek-Filipino, but Hasmine Killip, who portrays Teresa, is not. How did you prepare Hasmine to understand the diaspora so that she could prepare for her role?

That was the nice thing about Abigael and Hasmine—the way they exchanged experiences and information with each other. As Hasmine was an experienced actress, she shared her thoughts on acting, which was important as Abigael did not have any on-screen acting experience before my film. Also, Abigael was very good at letting Hasmine know about the dynamics of being a Filipino in Greece. Because Hasmine took extra time and arrived in Greece two months before shooting to do rehearsals, she went around and asked Abigael as well as the other women who worked on the film questions that pertained to her role, such as how common or uncommon was it for someone in their community to date a Greek man?

Another benefit of putting Abigael and Hasmine together was how Abigael possesses this natural instinct to change the way that she spoke and how she acted a bit shy when she spoke to elder Greeks like Mrs. Christina in the film, but Hasmine didn’t have this attitude, and that was a good thing as I felt that the characters of Emy and Teresa should be more rebellious anyway because they were raised by a mom outside of the community, and so she would’ve taught them to be more independent and to think for themselves. The introduction of Hasmine’s attitude led me to encourage Abigael to lose a bit of her shyness when it came to her interactions with the Greeks as I realized it befitted her role more.

I love your selection of Angeli Bayani to play the role of Linda. Lav Diaz’s film, Norte, the End of History is one of my favorite films from the previous decade. In that film, Angeli is heartbreaking as Eliza, the wife of an innocent man who is sent to prison. What had you seen from Angeli’s previous work that convinced you that she was right for her role in Holy Emy?

I had seen Angeli in Lav Diaz’s work, but also in some short films. I saw her perform well in very different roles in a few films, so I appreciated that she had such a wide range. Also, she had a great deal of experience working with non-professional actors, which made her perfect for Holy Emy as she would have to be part of the community where everyone else was a non-professional actor. We spoke before she arrived, and she told me about her other experiences, and then I asked her if she had any notes for me about the script, and she admitted that she had no idea about what life was like for the Filipino diaspora in Greece, and that facet was a huge reason as to why she was interested in the project because, for her, it would be like a new world. I found that to be a very insightful note. I knew that Linda was a very demanding role, and I just didn’t feel right casting a non-professional in the part, so I found her to possess the perfect balance of having the right experience and comfort with the situation.

Lastly, I saw that AFI Fest listed Holy Emy as a horror film. When I saw Holy Emy, I somewhat sensed a nod to David Cronenberg’s film, Dead Ringers, which utilizes some body horror elements in a story where twin brother surgeons react adversely to changes in one another. I myself wouldn’t specifically categorize your film as horror, but were you and Giulia cautious about that classification when you began using body horror elements?

It has been a bit tricky because we certainly don’t want to create false expectations. We like the idea of playing with elements of suspense and blood motifs that usually exist in more violent or gory films, and reinterpreting these motifs in a predominantly female world. Because there is suspense and mystery here, I believe that there is an element of fear in a psychological sense, and that’s because this film is very much about this creature Emy, who the audience cannot be sure of. We are uncertain about what she is capable of, and consequently, we do not know whether or not we should be afraid of her. So, there is this sort of fear, but for me where it gets interesting is that Emy herself doesn’t know if we should be afraid of her, or even if she should be afraid of herself, and that takes it into the territory of psychological drama. So, since the story changes tone the more we get Emy to open her Pandora’s Box, the film becomes something else. Yes, it has been a challenge to classify this for sure.

I understand that there is that danger associated with genre cinema, being that if you are labeled as a horror director…

Yes! And that is why I haven’t labeled this as horror or thriller. I have tried to stay away from these classifications, but I could see how a festival could see the elements in Holy Emy and think of it as horror. For me, the film is just Holy Emy. (laughs)

Holy Emy had its North American premiere at AFI Fest 2021.

https://www.nonethelessproductions.com/holy-emy-1

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Featured photo courtesy of StudioBauhaus and Utopie Film.

Payal Kapadia

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Originally published on Ink19 on November 24, 2021
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

It was an honor to interview director Payal Kapadia during AFI Fest about her distinctive and powerful full-length film debut, A Night of Knowing Nothing. Earlier this year, Kapadia was the recipient of the Oeil d’or (Golden Eye) award for best documentary at the 74th Cannes Film Festival, which was a remarkable achievement for a first-time feature director, made even more impressive as her work was in competition for the prize against new offerings from legendary filmmakers: Todd Haynes (The Velvet Underground) and Marco Bellocchio (Marx Can Wait).

Set against the backdrop of the violent student protests that erupted at university campuses in India during the middle of the last decade, A Night of Knowing Nothing is driven by the voice of a narrator reading the found unsent fictionalized letters written by a female student, known only as L, to her lover who once actively engaged in the demonstrations, but ultimately was unwilling to defy his family who refused to allow him to marry a woman from a lower caste. As L’s words are read aloud over images shot by Kapadia and cinematographer, Renabir Das, along with scenes from found archival and mobile phone footage and shared footage from Kapadia’s own friends at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), we are compelled to consider the grey area between one’s participation in direct public action and the self-examination which ideally leads to personal and familial confrontations that are essential in enacting lasting societal change.

In our interview with Payal Kapadia, we discussed the origins of A Night of Knowing Nothing, as well as the director’s creative process working with co-writer Himanshu Prajapati, who helped create L’s letters. Kapadia also revealed the editing method that she and Ranabir Das implemented for fusing the narrated letters from L to align with the diverse sources of footage seen in the film and her thoughts on avoiding the cinematic romanticization of protest.

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Your film begins and ends with images of young people dancing, and throughout, there is a parallel between the performative nature of dance and protest. Was there a specific visual approach that you and your cinematographer, Renabir Das, aimed for when capturing bodies moving in space to some sort of rhythm, be it music or chants?

We didn’t actually keep it in mind while shooting. But I guess you are right, inherently, protest and dance have this similarity. Dance has a sense of abandonment, as does protest. It was perhaps decisions that we made while editing where we began to observe this. We wanted to talk about people in unity, coming together as a collective, and that idea resonated with these shots.

As we understand, when you and Ranabir began shooting your footage in 2016, it was originally to serve as a portrait of your friends at FTII, but otherwise you didn’t have a clear narrative structure at that time. Was there a particular interview or moment of protest that encouraged you to form your film in the way that it eventually came together?

It was not one particular moment, but rather the events that were taking place while we were shooting, even if we were not present there. Things were changing around us, and hence the film started changing too. But, one thing we had shot quite early on, and wanted to lead up to, was the speech at the end given by my friend, Harishankar. There were times we thought of letting it go…but kept coming back to it.

Harishankar’s speech is, in a way, the thesis of your film, so it makes sense that you continued to return to it. Where did it fall chronologically in yours and your friends’ experiences?

It was the starting point of the editing of the film. We shot and edited this sequence in 2017, which was when the student union election was taking place at FTII. This speech was given to the new students who were joining the film school. Harishankar was the outgoing president of the union, and he was talking about the responsibility of a student union. He was speaking about the political climate and how it was impossible to now be “apolitical,” and as filmmakers, we need to be conscious of how we make films. I think what he meant was a larger idea of the word “politics,” which comes from a collective action to bring about a more ethical society. What I like about his speech is that he does not polarize the discussion and alienate people, but instead tries to instil a sense of responsibility within every individual. Every individual action is a reflection on the collective, which is why we each need to be conscious of what we do and make.

Given the place of cinema in French culture, the May ‘68 riots have been extensively depicted through both narrative and documentary film. A few of these films, such as Phillipe Garrel’s, Regular Lovers (Les Amants réguliers), romanticize the moments before and after the events of May 1968. As you and you and your co-writer, Himanshu Prajapati, were writing L’s letters, which would become the primary voice of your film, how consciously did you want to avoid the romanticization of the events that were happening at the protests?

Both Himanshu and I were very much a part of the protests at the film schools, so it was something that we felt very strongly about while we were a part of it. But as the years passed, we had also become critical of some of the decisions we made or how we were thinking of things then. I guess that is also the process of growing up.

For both of us, it was the first big protest we had been involved in, and it was pretty overwhelming. So, we thought of the character also as someone who is not overtly political, but is sort of becoming more aware of things as time goes on. There is a romanticized fervor present especially in student protests. However, we didn’t want to romanticise the protests too much, especially through the eyes of the character. We wanted her to be there, experiencing things around her, and not always be entirely certain about things. It is ok, I think, to be vulnerable and honest and keep questioning the world you inhabit while also questioning yourself.

We understand that you and Himanshu wrote L’s letters while you edited the found footage and the footage that you and your friends shot. Was there ever a moment where you wrote a letter that you felt was integral to L’s voice and wanted to shoot something new to support it?

We arrived at the idea of the letters a bit later in the process of filmmaking. By the time we started thinking of them, a lot of the film was already shot. We did shoot a few things after we started to write the letters, keeping them in mind. But mostly, we went with the opposite approach—we would watch the rushes that we had shot or collected and discuss them, and then, think of possible letters that would work with the material. This way, the editing and letter writing happened simultaneously. Himanshu and I would write the letters and then propose them to Ranabir, who would edit them. Sometimes a letter worked, other times, it would not and would be rejected. Finally, we had a lot of unused letters too…This is why I like to call this a found footage film, because we only discovered the meaning within our footage as we edited it.

In regards to the reading of the letters, did Bhumisuta Das see any edited footage before she recorded her voicings, or did you want her to read the words separately from the rest of the film?

No, she watched the film. We watched sections many times with the complete sound design as it was important to understand the feelings those scenes were inherently creating.

By the end of the film, we have an understanding that cinema should not be a dogmatic political voice, but rather a view of society through the eyes of individuals, even if those experiences are not completely complementary to the political actions occurring. How did you approach blending personal perspectives with political rhetoric in order to provide a fuller context around the protests?

Indian society is very complicated with a lot of inequalities. Gender, caste, class, and religion all determine one’s identity and political position. Without talking about these, it is impossible to talk about protesting students. Rather than get into a long discussion about these elements, we tried to make them an inherent part of the form of the film.

The reference to Pasolini’s sympathy with police that you include in the film raises a common question about the effectiveness of student protests, and L’s disappointment in her lover refusing to confront his parents over the caste conflict underscores the discrepancy between intention and commitment. Is this a suggestion that protest can raise awareness, but real change occurs through the confrontation of societal issues ingrained in individual relationships?

Absolutely. I am very happy that you brought this up. This was the main reason to have these elements in the film. Can we really hope for political change without social change? People seem to think that people come to power out of the blue, but this is not true. Society festers certain ideas, and those ideas find form in a political figure. We need to acknowledge the inherent problems in the society and within ourselves, and only then will politics start to align itself to the change we hope to bring.

https://squareeyesfilm.com/features/anightofknowingnothing/

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Featured image: still from A Night of Knowing Nothing courtesy of AFI Fest.

AFI Fest 2021

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 22, 2021
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

Thankfully this year, the festival triumphantly returned to the TCL Chinese Theatre and the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood from November 10th to the 14th and presented 115 titles in a program that represented works from fifty countries. Six World Premieres were screened at AFI this time around, as well as award-winning features from acclaimed auteurs Apichatpong Weerakethakul, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, and Joachim Trier. Back again were the Red Carpet Premieres which featured new offerings from legendary filmmakers Pedro Almodóvar and Jane Campion, and returning for its third year was the AFI Conservatory Showcase, a collection of short fiction films from the most recent graduates of the AFI Conservatory.

This year, as it has always been for us in years past at AFI Fest, we leaned heavily on the World Cinema section for our viewing and reviews. We were fortunate to have had the opportunity to catch and revel in new works from Céline Sciamma, Miguel Gomes, and Radu Muntean, while seeing some of the most outstanding first-time features that we have ever seen at AFI Fest, including a few efforts that made it into our favorites, which you’ll read about below.

As far as its overall presentation, AFI Fest 2021 was reminiscent of past iterations, but there were a few recurring motifs running through the AFI Fest program this year that we feel were clearly inspired by last year’s lockdown: we saw an uncommon amount of road films and more than a few features that touched upon the enduring power of cinema in the face of isolation.

We viewed an impressive array of features at this year’s AFI Fest, and below are our reviews of our essential films beginning with our favorite.

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Diários de Otsoga (Tsugua Diaries) / dir. Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro

COVID-19 remains at the top of our collective consciousness (and will likely remain there for years to come), so it is no surprise that it made its way into the films that premiered in 2021. Tsugua Diaries, on the surface, is about coping during the pandemic, but step away from the protocols of quarantine life—the masks, the cleaning and sterilization procedures, the testing protocols—and you’ll see a triumphant ode to the endurance of cinema. Told in reverse, Tsugua Diaries theoretically documents twenty-two days on the set of a film production in the late summer of 2020. In order to produce the film safely, everyone involved lives and works in a large country house and limits their exposure to the outside world as much as possible. The cast and crew have no choice but to live, work, and play together, and in turn, they become their own close community. We see moments of life and play influencing and reacting to the film that the cast and crew are trying to make within Tsugua Diaries, and all of this is gloriously captured by the camera for Tsugua Diaries itself because, after all, everyone we ultimately see on screen is an actual member of the cast and crew playing themselves. Reality collides with fiction, and both fold on top of themselves and each other, to the point where the scenes that co-directors Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro capture for the film within and the film that is Tsugua Diaries become simultaneously representative, symbolic, abstract, and expressive. This convergence is the affirmation of the purpose, joy, and strength of cinema, which, despite the rapid, disruptive changes of COVID-19, thrived on the home, set, and stage of Tsugua Diaries.

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Doraibu mai kâ (Drive My Car) / dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Though the images and sounds of movement through space and time are often the first things that come to mind when you’re thinking about cars, there’s something more fascinating about the gray area between public and private space when you’re inside of a vehicle. In fact, at this year’s AFI Fest, four of our favorite films demonstrated why this space between car interiors and surrounding exteriors should be examined. In Drive My Car, Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor and theater director, feels the safest in the driver’s seat of his red Saab 900. It’s where he can control his physical direction. It’s where he absorbs and recites the words of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. And, it’s where he has the deepest connection with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), whose voice reads out all the parts except for Uncle Vanya’s, leaving space for Kafuku to respond. Since the death of their child, Oto and Kafuku have remained loving and respectful towards one another, but they also keep each other at a distance: Oto has had multiple affairs, and Kafuku knows about them, but neither have ever spoken about the transgressions. After Oto’s sudden death, Kafuku drives to Hiroshima to direct a multi-lingual performance of Uncle Vanya at a theater festival. Upon arriving, he is immediately informed that he will not be allowed to drive the vehicle for the duration of his preparation of the production, and he’s assigned a driver: a taciturn young woman named Misaki (Tôko Miura). The car is Kafuku’s home, office, and crutch, and now, he must attempt to process his work as a director and his fears as an actor alongside his grief and his unresolved, conflicting feelings toward Oto, with another person along for the ride. As they drive, Kafuku continues to fill in the silences between Oto’s recitation of Uncle Vanya, and slowly both his and Misaki’s respective external shells begin to fall away and allow them to better connect with everything in the present and past around them. The red Saab is undoubtedly a symbol of Kafuku, but it also is a physical manifestation of our self-imposed separation from others as we attempt to direct our lives (and the possible self-isolation that may become habit due to the pandemic). However, as Drive My Car reminds us well, we can still find ways to share the space inside the car, and we can most certainly step outside of it too. And, we’ll be better artists, colleagues, friends, parents, children, and individuals when we do either, or better yet, both.

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A Night of Knowing Nothing / dir. Payal Kapadia

The act of performance can take on many forms, and in Payal Kapadia’s debut documentary feature, A Night of Knowing Nothing, we have the the pleasure of experiencing it in a multitude of ways, which altogether allow us to understand the complexity and ambiguities of being a filmmaker and student hoping to make the future a better place while entrenched in a period of political unrest. The film opens up with a striking, grainy, black-and-white shot of young people dancing. Instead of music, we hear the voice of a narrator reading letters found in a student hostel at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and we’re introduced to L, a student filmmaker, whose unsent letters to her lover become the sinew between the images and other sounds of A Night of Knowing Nothing. At first, L’s letters are focused on her despair that her lover has left her because of his family: she’s in a lower caste, and his family refuses to allow him to marry her. But, as L’s life continues, her letters begin to center on her reflections on the student protests happening in India in 2016, and her thoughts as she emerges as a political being overlay and bridge sounds and images from protests, found archival and mobile phone footage, and shared footage from Kapadia’s own friends at FTII. A Night of Knowing Nothing contracts and expands its visual scope and conceptual breadth throughout. Moments after we see a person in silence in a sparse room, we often see large groups joining together to protest the inequalities of Indian society. We hear audio from the protests and speeches from key representatives cross fade into L’s reflections on herself and her thoughts on Pasolini and Eisenstein. A Night of Knowing Nothing is like a living organism growing into consciousness, moving its attention fluidly inwards and outwards and learning throughout, and this progression emerges as a performance too, one that beautifully shows us what it means to develop into a more aware being. We spoke with director Payal Kapadia, and that conversation is forthcoming here on Ink 19.

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Les Olympiades, Paris 13e (Paris, 13th District) / dir. Jacques Audiard

Modern Love seems like an obvious alternate title for Paris, 13th District, but upon watching the film’s main characters’ intimate relationships, along with their communications with each other, start, intensify, stop, and begin elsewhere, a more appropriate secondary title is Modern Honesty. Adapted from short comics from Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying and Optic Nerve, director Jacques Audiard transplants Tomine’s sense of isolation despite being amongst people to Paris and adds in technology as a conduit and barrier between people who know each other in physically intimate ways. Emilie (Lucie Zhang) is a Sciences Po post-grad living in an apartment in a tower of Les Olympiades in the 13th arrondissement. Camille (Makita Samba) is a schoolteacher who responds to an ad for a room in Emilie’s apartment. The two immediately hook up and begin a roommates-with-benefits relationship until Emilie calls things off. Nora (Noémie Merlant) is a new graduate student in law at the Sorbonne. She’s excited to leave her former life in Burgundy for a more cosmopolitan Parisian one until she’s mistaken for the cam-girl Amber Sweet. Emilie, Camillie, and Nora’s lives crash, tangle, and separate, and at every intersection, each fail to share what’s really going on in their lives, histories, and communities even though there’s plenty of time shared in bed. Given such a conceit, Paris, 13th District may sound caricaturish, but in our modern era where texts, in-app messaging, and timed video chats have condensed our communication into hyper-concise, reactive phrases and images, which our characters often rely on to speak to one another in Paris, 13th District, director Jacques Audiard connects such a communication style to the way that people selectively compose their outward image and their consequent failure to build meaningful relationships. The characters of Paris, 13th District often substitute physical intimacy for self-honesty, and that isn’t a new idea, but Audiard, along with his co-screenwriters Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, overlay it with modern brashness and disjointedness that permeate individual interactions, which together form a vital, sympathetic, and acute look at what it means to be a twenty- or thirty-something today.

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Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt? (What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?) / dir. Aleksandre Koberidze

As we process the tragedy and begin to accept the new normal of this last year and a half, filmmakers have responded in kind by creating works which offer a gutcheck of their art. In the case of Aleksandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky, he gives us a feature that uncovers the magical power that is inherent in the medium. At the beginning of this modern fairy tale set in the Georgian town of Kutaisi, we observe the chance first encounter between a pharmacist named Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze), and a talented soccer player named Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze). Later on that evening when Lisa and Giorgi enjoy a second fortuitous encounter, they make a date to meet up the next day, but as movie fate would have it, a curse has been placed on them—the pair will wake up the next morning not looking like themselves, and with this change of appearance, there also comes the removal of Lisa’s medical knowledge and Giorgi’s football talents. Now, with no ability to recognize one another and their original job skills stripped away, our lovers each descend on a small sports cafe where they each find jobs helping the owner out during the World Cup. The setup here might sound too enchanting, and maybe even a bit too sentimental, but it is the starting point that precipitates the strength of Koberidze’s film: the expansion of the story into the fantastical elements of the town and its inhabitants who cross paths with Lisa and Giorgi at one point or another. As we survey the activities of stray dogs on a mission, local tricksters, and strange bakers surrounding our cursed lovers, these odd elements all blend together because they are part of a cinematic kingdom that elevates Lisa and Giorgi’s curse of their brand-new day-to-day routines into a cosmos with bodies and objects that move harmoniously together.

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Agia Emy (Holy Emy) / dir. Araceli Lemos

For her impressive debut feature, Holy Emy, director Araceli Lemos adeptly utilizes body horror elements to examine exoticism as seen through the lives of two young Filpina sisters living in their small community in Athens, Greece. With their mother forced to emigrate back to their native Philippines, sisters Emy (Abigael Loma) and Teresa (Hasmine Kilip) are left to suss out an existence for themselves by working in a small fish market. As the pair struggle to assimilate in their city, they each are found to possess different purposes to the locals: Teresa becomes the target of affection of Argyris (Mihalis Siriopoulos), a Greek sailor who inadvertently falls for and impregnates Teresa, and Emy, who despite having been stricken with a supernatural phenomenon which causes her to tear blood, also possesses the much desired ability of being able to heal the sick with her touch. With a baby on the way, Teresa and Argyris begin to plan for the future, and Emy reluctantly moves away from her sister to live in the home of an affluent Greek woman who takes advantage of Emy by having her heal her wealthy friends and their children. By incorporating an erratic editing ethos, Araceli Lemos, and her co-editor, Raphaëlle Martin-Holger, keep the viewer in an uneasy state that allows the social commentary inherent in the narrative to be delivered under the horror genre framework, keeping the political message from ever being too overt and leaving plenty of space for personal interpretation. And although the editing style sometimes results in the introduction of characters who are never fully realized, the overall impact of the film’s chaotic structure is very effective. Teresa’s and Emy’s unease and alienation as they are exoticized by those around them gets under your skin, and you understand how such self-serving fascination with a marginalized culture can grate the strong bond between sisters who have relied on each other to survive. Generoso spoke with director Araceli Lemos, and that conversation is forthcoming here on Ink 19.

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Jaddeh Khaki (Hit the Road) / dir. Panah Panahi

During the post-screening conversation at this year’s AFI Fest with the director of Hit the Road, Panah Panahi, we finally understood why so many seminal post revolution Iranian films have transpired inside of automobiles. To paraphrase Panahi, as Iranian law requires women to wear a full hijab on the street, you gain the freedom of being able to film a woman’s face if she stays in the car, for filming can continue if the hijab happens to slips a bit. That piece of information has of course altered my thoughts on so many of the Iranian films that we love, from Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten to the 2015 film Taxi, which was directed Panah’s father, Jafar Panahi, who, in 2010, was issued a six-year prison sentence and a twenty-year ban on directing any movies for creating propaganda against the Iranian government. Given the hijab law and the fate of his father, it is no surprise that for his first feature, Panah created a road film which is as joyous and funny as it is condemnatory of the state of filmmaking in his own country. Hit the Road has four main nameless passengers: a curmudgeon of a father (Hassan Madjooni), a doting mother (Pantea Panahiha), and their two sons—one, a funny, overly vociferous and rambunctious adolescent (Rayan Sarlak), and the other, a sullen twenty-something who carries the weight of the world on his face (Amin Simiar). This family has a clandestine destination that Panahi purposefully obfuscates throughout the film, but in brief, the mission involves the eldest son’s disappearing act of sorts. Though the need for this young man’s exodus is unclear, we are free to assume that any of a myriad of crimes or misspoken thoughts most likely led to this decision. One doesn’t need to look any further than the fate of the Panah’s father to gather why less said the better. As our family drives through the countryside, they speak of Western cinema, both large and small works, whilst they listen to pre-Revolution Iranian music with glee, and that is how Hit the Road excels. The film ultimately reminds us that although we in the West feel that cinema is in retreat, it will always exist in the small moments and imagination beyond edict and virus.

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Întregalde / dir. Radu Muntean

Serendipitously, just a few weeks before AFI Fest, we caught one of the many pre-Hollywood gems from director Peter Weir that feels oddly prescient, a clever and somewhat amusing piece of social commentary wrapped up in a horror frame entitled, The Plumber. In this odd feature from Weir in 1979, you have an upper class Master’s student in anthropology researching African culture from the confines of her apartment being driven to panic by her exaggerations of every small transgression committed by an unmannered, yet affable plumber who arrives to fix her bathroom pipes. Though a few generations have gone by, Weir’s rarely seen film does function in a similar way that Radu Muntean’s new feature, Întregalde does, as both films deceptively operate as chillers while making hard statements directed at those with wealth who create their noble intentions from a safe distance, leaving them poorly equipped with the right tools once their “lessers” are standing in front of them. Întregalde follows a group of affluent inner city humanitarian aid workers who travel to the remote Transylvanian village of Întregalde to hand out zip tie-secured bags of junk food to the inhabitants there whom they believe cannot fend for themselves during the winter. All is well for our band of yuppie do-gooders as they take their massive Land Rover up mountain roads to find recipients of unneeded assistance, but their trip becomes derailed when they stumble upon a fragile and slightly deranged elderly man named Kente (Luca Sabin) who is in need of a ride to a more desolate and environmentally treacherous area of the countryside. After some squabbling, our aid workers decide to throw caution to the wind and give Kente a ride, but once their car becomes submerged in mud and their cell phones fall out of range, our group’s altruism begins to sour, and their true selves emerge. One of the central figures of the Romanian New Wave, Radu Muntean has created a seemingly slight film with Întregalde, but similar to the aforementioned work that his Australian New Wave counterpart created some forty plus years ago, it is a biting feature that further stresses the ever widening abyss between the image that we want to create for ourselves and the reality in front of us.

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Razzhimaya kulaki (Unclenching the Fists) / dir. Kira Kovalenko

Contemporarily set in Mizur, a mining village in the mountains of Russia’s North Ossetia, Kira Kovalenko’s second feature, Unclenching the Fists, grimly reminds us of the lingering damage left by the 2004 Beslan school siege, one of the largest terror attacks in Russian history, which left over 300 dead, the predominance of whom were children. Ada (Milana Aguzarova) is a young woman living with her father (Alik Karaev) and her emotionally needy brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov) in a claustrophobic apartment in Mizur, which is where the family relocated to after Ada was severely wounded during the Beslan attacks. Though Ada survived the assault, she is in dire need of surgery outside of Mizur, but her ailing father keeps an overprotective stranglehold on her and refuses to allow her any moment of freedom. Her father forbids her to see men, and he even goes as far as to hide the key to their apartment and her passport. Left with no options, Ada’s entire existence outside of the home is spent working at a local grocery store where she dodges the amorous advances of Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov), a boy who evidences a lack of maturity similar to her brother Dakko. With few options, the only potential escape for Ada appears in the form of her brother Akim (Soslan Khugaev), who has returned home for a visit after somehow managing to evade the grip of their father. Though the dourness of the exposition of Unclenching the Fists sets expectations for an unrelentingly sorrowful film, Kovalenko and editor Mukharam Kabulova keep the viewer off-balance throughout with scenes that frantically jump past each other, which form a disquieting mood that amplifies the anguish emanating from Aguzarova’s bravura performance. The Grand Prix winner of the Un Certain Regard program at this year’s Cannes, Kira Kovalenko’s film follows a long line of works that detail a singular woman in a desperate situation struggling to simply suss out a basic existence. Every generation has produced an entry into this series, from Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, to the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta, to Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, and this valued cinematic tradition urgently brings home, through an empathetic and personal view, the disenfranchisement of women who typify the eras and places they represent.

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Petite Maman / dir. Céline Sciamma

It’s difficult to believe that it was twenty-five years ago when five-year-old actress, Victoire Thivisol picked up the Volpi Cup, which is awarded to the Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival. I (Generoso) felt then as I do now that the media attention on Thivisol’s age created a kind of novelty factor that overshadowed her heartbreaking performance in Ponette, where she portrayed a child who copes with the tragic loss of her mother. That film’s director, Jacques Doillon, boldly chose to examine how this preschool child worked out her sadness for her mother’s passing by showing Ponette’s limited contact with adults and by primarily observing her actions with other children and her conversations with her mother’s spirit. In Céline Sciamma’s, Petite Maman, we meet Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a girl only slightly older than Ponette, but one who possesses an otherworldly air of composure when confronted with the death of her mother’s mom. We quickly gather that Nelly understands death and accepts its reality as she tries to comfort her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse), who is now tasked with clearing out the country home where she grew up. Once at her grandmother’s home with her mother and father, Nelly becomes curious about the small aspects of her mother’s childhood. She examines her mother’s workbooks from school and seeks to find the hut that her mother built as a child in the surrounding woods. When Nelly does finally stumble upon the enchanted pile of sticks and leaves from her mother’s stories, it is surprisingly in the process of being built by her mother as a child (Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s twin sister). While helping little Marion build the hut, Nelly and Marion grow close, and through their interactions together, Nelly can start to see her mother as someone other than her mother. Sciamma’s unique approach in allowing her young actors to communicate with each other has a natural feeling that is affecting without ever being maudlin. As Petite Maman plays out, you never think of the mechanics of the setup, or of the ages of the actors, as it magically transcends time while closing the generation gap between this mother and daughter.

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Vera andrron detin (Vera Dreams of the Sea) / dir. Kaltrina Krasniqi

Actress Teuta Ajdini Jegeni brilliantly portrays Vera, a middle-aged woman who works in present day Kosovo as a sign language interpreter. Having grown up during an era when women were not expected to have a career and as the daughter of a deaf woman, Vera’s ability to sign has remained as the only marketable skill that she gained from her upbringing. As the film begins, Vera is excited to learn that the small country home that she and her retired judge husband Fatmir (Xhevat Qorraj) have owned for many years is now worth a great deal of money as the mostly quiet farmland is in the path of a new highway. Thrilled with the possibility of retiring in style with their new found fortune, Vera excitedly explains the real estate deal to Fatmir who shockingly responds by taking his own life, leaving Vera grief-stricken and with many unanswered questions surrounding her husband’s decision. Sad but always practical, Vera immediately returns to work after the funeral while trying to find solace in her only child, Sara (Alketa Sylaj), a single mother who has been struggling to support her own daughter by working as a theater actress. Sara needs financial assistance, but Vera’s ability to help her daughter is quickly challenged by Ahmet (Astrit Kabashi), Fatmir’s down and out cousin, who visits Vera and informs her that Fatmir verbally promised to bequeath their country home to him and not her. Since Ahmet cannot provide any written proof to support his claim, Vera alone must investigate the truth for herself by visiting the country home in question, but by traveling to speak to the village elders in a rural community seemingly frozen in time, Vera comes face to face with the patriarchal world of her youth that has always refused to hear her voice. Working off a script by Doruntina Basha, first time feature film director Kaltrina Krasniqi gives us a compelling anti-hero in Vera, a woman, who for the sake of necessity, has had to compromise much of what she wanted for the sake of others, but is also someone who symbolizes the need to let future generations know the truth behind the sacrifices that have been made so that they can move forward evolve into what they want to be.

All films were screened at AFI Fest 2021. Many thanks to AFI for another spectacular year of cinema and conversations, and a special thanks to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, who made our festival coverage possible.

Featured photo courtesy of Rob Latour/AFI/Shutterstock

https://fest.afi.com

Alonso Ruizpalacios

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Originally published on Ink 19 on October 20th, 2021
by Generoso Fierro

Having greatly admired Alonso Ruizpalacios’ work since viewing his auspicious debut from 2014, Güeros, I knew that the day was forthcoming when the native Mexico City director would have to take on a more visceral approach to confront the unethical elements of his society that plagued the main characters of his first two feature films: the aforementioned Güeros and his highly-acclaimed follow-up, Museo.

A Cop Movie, Ruizpalacios’ third feature, which was nominated for Best Film at the Berlinale where it won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution, sees the director not only abandoning temporal settings decades in the past—Güeros and Museo examine the institutionalized dysfunctions of previous eras in the ’90s and ’80s respectively—but also sees him incorporating a daring hybrid cinema approach that creates empathy for his characters, while he closely investigates the human costs of police corruption that is omnipresent in and around Mexico City.

As our film opens, we witness Teresa, a lone police officer who is patrolling her sector of Mexico City, being called to respond to an apartment where a woman is giving birth. Teresa arrives on-scene, but without an ambulance in sight, she wades through the bystanders amassed in front, and is questioned by them as to the absence of emergency personnel who had been called some time before. As Teresa is a veteran officer, she sadly knows full well that EMTs, who are in short supply and in high demand in Mexico City, will most likely not be arriving anytime soon. Still, she pleads with her dispatcher to send an ambulance, but receives no helpful reply, so she is forced to deliver the baby herself, a feat that Teresa executes bravely with her only pair of rubber gloves to grab the baby and children’s scissors that the expectant mother’s husband has on premise to cut the umbilical cord. It is a miraculous moment of valor, and when the mother’s state raises concern after the birth, Teresa has no choice but to call in a favor with her life partner, Montoya, a fellow officer, who normally has better luck in getting the dispatcher to do her sworn duty.

Through filmed recreations of Montoya’s and Teresa’s exploits on duty, which Ruizpalacios adeptly combines with direct to camera interviews with the pair, we gain knowledge of this couple, who, despite taking different paths that led them to their careers in enforcement, are still confronted with similar negative outcomes from their time on the job. We see these officers struggle in their interactions with a public who refuse to view them as anything but corrupt, even though it is made clear through Teresa’s and Montoya’s own testimony that it was never their intention to be complicit with the graft that is the hallmark of their department. Their fellow officers also provide no relief to their feelings of persecution either, as Teresa and Montoya must begrudgingly pay cash to them for the use of the very gear that is essential for them to do their jobs.

As A Cop Movie progresses with its erratic construction that purposefully keeps the viewer off balance, we become immersed into Teresa’s and Montoya’s turbulent world, and thus, we develop a great deal of sympathy for their situation. This is the case until the halfway point of the film, when Ruizpalacios makes an abrupt shift in the structure through the use of a surprising reveal—a reveal that makes us question the reality of what we have seen until that point, and potentially opens up preconceived notions that we may have about law enforcement in Mexico.

I was thrilled to have an in-depth conversation with Ruizpalacios about his new feature. We discussed his original motivations for making A Cop Movie, as well as his decision to incorporate a hybrid documentary approach and his unique methods for preparing his actors for their challenging roles.

Q (Generoso Fierro): I see a parallel between your previous feature, Museo, and A Cop Movie in that both films delve into the normalization of motivations and behavior that clash with society’s expectations and morality. In Museo, Benjamin and Juan are middle class, whereas Teresa and Montoya come from working poor families. After you made Museo, was it important for you to examine this societal issue from a different socioeconomic perspective with your next project?

A (Alonso Ruizpalacios) : Yes, it is a very interesting link, the one that you’re making here, Generoso, and I think that it’s probably there, but in a very subconscious way. I will say that the motivations for this project came from a different place, but then, of course, it ends up happening that once you’re doing something or even when you are finished doing something, you realize what was really behind your motivations. Also, I should say that at some point during filming, I realized that I am making another road movie in Mexico City (laughs). You know during this one moment, when we were shooting that patrol car around town, I thought to myself, “Shit, am I really doing this again? Why, why am I shooting people in cars in Mexico City!?” (laughs)

But for me, the starting point was to do something to address a kind of false hope of feeling useful somehow, as I don’t believe that cinema is useful at all, but that is also why I like it. I think that it gives us the illusion of somehow being able to do something that will be a useful tool, and so I did have that urge of wanting to create something useful at the end of the Peña Nieto period.

Peña Nieto, the former President, towards the end of his term was operating at an all-time high of impunity and corruption, so I wanted to make a movie that addressed that, and I got together with Elena [Fortes] and Daniela [Alatorre], my producers, to start thinking about some way to comment on this situation. So, it didn’t all start off as specifically being about the police force or about someone being in a lower sphere of the social ladder, but that kind of came together organically as we all began exploring the subject matter.

Q: I do feel that through the story of Teresa and Montoya in A Cop Movie, you do exemplify the absurdity of the corruption of the Peña Nieto period. I also believe that, although A Cop Movie exhibits you taking a different kind of approach than the ones you took with Güeros and Museo, you still have as central characters people who want to exact some kind of change in their lives, but who are all stymied because of the reality of a corrupt or unethical system in front of them. With Güeros, which is set in the late ’90s, and Museo which is set in the mid-80s, we have a chance to look back and judge in hindsight the negative effects of the venality of the past, but with A Cop Movie being contemporary, how do you view the corruption of the past eras that you explored with Güeros and Museo in terms of how they led to the institutionalized corruption that is present with the police in Mexico today?

A: That is an interesting question. For me, it is very sad to realize that corruption is still so pervasive and that it rules over Mexico. It is one of the biggest cancers in Mexico, and it is one of the main sources of all that is going wrong with our country, particularly, I mean, corruption combined with impunity. So, frustratingly, it has not been solved. That is the big wager with the current government in Mexico; they came in saying that they were going to fight corruption and that it is their main agenda. We’ll see what happens and if they have any success, but I don’t think that it has been fixed.

We discussed this issue a lot when we were developing this movie. This movie had a long period of gestation when we spoke with academics, very smart people who specialize in public order and public policy as well. We had some key advisors who accompanied us through the whole process of making the film. Even during the editing period, I was still having conversations with these advisors, three key people who work in police reform and public policy who assisted us along the way.

I remember one of these early conversations, we even went as far as discussing the foundations of Mexico. I remember asking an advisor, “Why is corruption so pervasive in Mexico, and why is it so much a part of our psyche?” His reply was very interesting. He said, “When Mexico was a Spanish colony, and the laws were dictated from Spain, the laws were made in Spain for how España, the colony of New Spain, was going to govern themselves. It was made by people who were not physically there—they were thousands of miles away. So, the legislators in New Spain had this saying between them: ‘We abide by the law, but we do not obey it.’” That was a common saying. And so, Ernesto López Portillo, who shared this with us, was serious when he said that this attitude comes from the foundation of Mexico. There is this huge distance between the law and what is achievable in reality. And I still think that is kind of the case. It is a very complex issue.

Q: As corruption is such an overarching dilemma in Mexico, it makes me wonder how some of the police cadets whom you interviewed for your film felt about how they could make any difference. And here, Alonso, I am particularly thinking of the one cadet in your film who stated that she joined up because of the tragic epidemic of femicide. Did any of the cadets, or the veteran officers whom you spoke with, express to you that the corruption which encumbers officers from doing their job effectively subsequently contributed to the rise of this particular crime?

A: That is a tough question, and there is most likely some relation, but the issue of femicide is again, a very complex problem. I think that a lot of the cadets whom we spoke to come in with a real desire to change things. That said, for many of them, it is frankly just a job, a way of making a living, and for others, it is a family tradition. But for a small number of the cops, it is a vocation. But in the end, you have this body of people who are undertrained, underpaid, and those factors are going to bring out all sorts of problems, but the femicide problem is beyond my comprehension and theirs. It is a tragedy, a sickness, and there are too many factors playing into it.

Q: Thinking about your process in creating A Cop Movie, I understand that you were originally approached by your producers to do a conventional documentary, but then you ultimately made the decision to utilize actors, even going as far as sending them to police academies and to patrol the streets, which ultimately created a work of hybrid cinema. What I found to be an interesting choice was that you waited until the middle of the film to show the audience that we are indeed watching actors portraying Teresa and Montoya. Can you talk about that decision?

A: The premise that we set out for ourselves was that we were going to find the form as we went along. We were not going to predetermine anything, and we were going to let the material tell us how it was going to be shot and how it was going to get shaped. And so, it was a very organic process of investigation for me, both thematically, because I was going to dive into something very foreign for me, and also formally. It was very freeing in that sense. I think that every decision was a solution for a particular problem.

Originally, we were not going to have actors portray the police officers. When we found Teresa and Montoya, our first instincts were to record them and somehow illustrate what was said, and then we thought, how are we going to illustrate all of these things that they are talking about that are very sensitive and impossible to capture on camera? All of these acts of corruption, their relationship with the public, the racism, it seemed impossible for me to capture all of that, so we are going to have to use fiction elements for this to work. Also, I have a soft spot for actors. I trained as an actor myself. I have a theater company. I am married to an actor, so the acting process has always fascinated me, and so, that is how the idea came to me, to make that a part of the movie. Why don’t we register that process, and that will be the audience’s process of getting to know the world that Teresa and Montoya are portraying.

So, finding the structure and doing that reveal in the middle of the movie was something that I wanted to give as a little shock to the audience to change lanes. There are really two stories in one: There is the story of Teresa and Montoya, and there is the story of Raúl and Mónica. There’s not one story, there are two stories, and Raúl’s and Mónica’s story is as important as Montoya’s and Teresa’s story.

Also, I thought that by that point in the movie people are going to be wondering, “What about everything that we know about the police? Where do I stand as a citizen and as a viewer with what you are showing me? I have all of these ideas about this, and they have not been addressed. The film has spent this whole time being empathetic to these characters, but what about my feeling of insecurity when I see a policeman? And what about my knowledge of corruption?” And so, I wanted to address all of this through the actors, and I thought that once we became engaged with Teresa and Montoya, it was going to be a good shift, and we were now going to address your problems with the police. I like this structure where this happens in the middle of the movie, as it switches lanes and abandons Teresa and Montoya, but then we circle back to them, and the stories reunite. And so, when you meet Teresa and Montoya after you’ve just been listening to their voices, I think that it comes as a surprise. To discover the structure along the way is a different process for me.

Q: As far as the preparation that Mónica and Raúl did for this role, did they listen to Teresa and Montoya’s dialog and then offer an emotional interpretation of what they heard, or were they directly reciting what was said to them?

A: The process was that we recorded Teresa and Montoya during interviews that took many days, and then we transcribed the interviews; we edited them; and then, we created a script, we meaning myself and a friend of mine named David Gaitán who is a playwright whom I worked with in the theater before. So, together we did the structure for what the actors were going to play, and while we were doing that, writing the script and deciding what we were going to shoot fictionally, the decision of always using the real voices was there. I knew that I never wanted to lose the voices of the real Teresa and Montoya, so then we cut the interviews into what was scripted, and we gave that to the actors, but we only gave them the sound. I didn’t want the actors to see the real Teresa and Montoya. They had no image, so they had to memorize by sound because I never wanted the actors to do an imitation of Teresa and Montoya. I wanted the actors to become them just with their voices. And so, they did the training first, and then they had two months to learn the lip sync. Raúl and Mónica worked their asses off, and they were pitch perfect.

So, they rehearsed, but they never saw the people whom they were portraying until the final day when we were shooting, and we brought Teresa and Montoya to the set where they met for the first time. We recorded that moment actually, and it was originally going to be part of the movie. But these things never turn out the way you think they will, because for me, I realized that that moment didn’t need to be seen.

A Cop Movie will be released globally through Netflix on November 5th, 2021.

https://www.netflix.com/ACopMovie

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photo courtesy of Netflix.


Jane Samborski and Dash Shaw

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Originally published on Ink 19 on August 18, 2021
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

Some time back in 2013, we were perusing the shelves of our local comic book shop, and a short comic book, ambiguously entitled Three New Stories, hypnotized us. Its layered color washes, unexpected collages, and heavy figure lines pulled us into the world and aesthetic of Dash Shaw, and we’ve been admirers of his comics ever since.

In 2016, we had the privilege of interviewing Shaw to talk about his debut animated film, My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea. A collaboration between Shaw, who was the director and writer, and his wife, Jane Samborski, who was the animation director, the film accomplished a handmade, playful, and bold style indicative of Shaw’s comics that perfectly matched the whimsical plot. For their second feature, Cryptozoo, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and Sundance Film Festival in 2021 in the midst of the pandemic, the duo increased the scale of their film and pushed their animation style and techniques to new heights, and the outcome is a spectacular visual world simultaneously grounded in fantasy and reality that meets the demands of the narrative and themes of Cryptozoo.

At the opening of Cryptozoo, we meet the hippie couple, Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera), on a prototypical self-discovery experience in a forest somewhere in California in the 1960s. The two find a large, ominous barrier wall and scale it, expecting to find something defense related, but their hopes of discovering a nefarious governmental secret fade when the two encounter a unicorn roaming the forest behind the barriers. In an act of foolishness that becomes a perfect representation of how the desire to experience anything and everything can go utterly wrong, Matthew, in attempting to touch the unicorn, startles the creature and is gored by its horn. And Amber, in her grief, kills the unicorn and wears its horn on her neck. Gone are the peace and love hippies we met at the beginning: in their place, on full display, is the ugliness and mess left behind when members of the naive love generation tread into places where they should not be and try to experience things they do not (and cannot) understand, cementing a theme that flows continuously throughout the film.

After the shock of the unicorn death, we meet Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), a champion of cryptids, creatures that exist based on folklore, myths, and individual accounts, but have never been identified as known species by the scientific community. Lauren has committed her life to rescuing cryptids in trouble after a baku consumed her bad dreams as a child and has been the lead conservationist and veterinarian of the Cryptozoo, a sanctuary for cryptids funded by an eccentric heiress named Joan (Grace Zabriskie) and the place that Amber and Matthew unfortunately trespassed into. However, the Cryptozoo, in its noble intentions to protect cryptids and raise awareness around the creatures, treads into the same shaky moral grounds that zoos face when trying to preserve endangered species while showcasing them in captivity in order to sustain and finance their conservation efforts. When Lauren embarks on a mission with Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a cryptid who can disguise herself as a human, to find and save the baku from the US military, we watch on with curiosity to understand how deeply Lauren has bought into the vision of the Cryptozoo, and dread that the baku will inevitably end up in captivity either as a spectacle for entertainment or as a counter-intelligence weapon.

Like the Cryptozoo itself, the film traps the viewer in an era and in a setting where we know the outcome. Though the cryptids themselves are fantastical by definition and in their visual design, their introductions within the Cryptozoo evoke less wonderment and more unease because we invariably know that the fate of the Cryptozoo will be grim based on the actual history of the environmental optimism and good intentions of the 1960s that came to nothing (and even sometimes to the malevolent) in the decades to come.

We sat down with Samborski and Shaw to unpack the consequences of environmentalism and conservationism in the 1960s, the influences for the rendering of the cryptids along with considerations to avoid problematic exoticism in Cryptozoo, and the role of manga and comics in the animated films that the duo create. 

Q (Lily Fierro): Jane, it’s so nice to meet you! We interviewed Dash in 2016 at AFI FEST for My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea. We’ve long been fans of Dash’s comics, and we’re so excited for you both on the success of Cryptozoo. A lot has happened in five years for you both: you left New York for Richmond; you started a family; you did an animation for an episode of 13 Reasons Why. How did all of these events blend together and lead into the genesis and creation of Cryptozoo? What did you take away from your experiences from My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea and the projects you’ve done together since?

A (Dash Shaw): There was definitely a whole lot going on at once when My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea premiered: Jane was pregnant; our baby was born in November of 2016; Trump was elected; and, we moved to Richmond. There was so much there all at once, so I felt like I spent a couple of years afterwards just recovering from all of those things happening. The 13 Reasons Why piece was really wonderful, as we enjoyed doing that little two minute animation, and that sort of became the foundation for how we approached Cryptozoo. Jane learned how to do a structured production line for Cryptozoo from that 13 Reasons Why section. Also, I drew the characters in that 13 Reasons Why clip based on the actors—they aren’t rotoscoped from the actors, but they are figure drawings of the actors, and that kind of became the hope for what Cryptozoo would look like.

A (Jane Samborski): One of the big things that we learned from My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea is just—and every person in the world who wakes up and goes to work in the morning knows this—that you get up; you do your project; you have a structure; and, you complete it all little by little, and having that structure is integral, absolutely critical to finishing things. And all of that gets thrown out of the window when you have these huge life changes. I remember feeling adrift until I started working on Cryptozoo and 13 Reasons Why. A project is the thing in my life that frames the other things. There needs to be a separation between the two, but they don’t need to conflict with each other. By having time to devote to the art and to the larger project, I don’t feel like I am floating around. Right now, for example, I feel floaty because we are in between projects, and I am aching for the next project to start because being in the project is where I am the happiest—knowing that I get to wake up and solve animation problems.

Q (Generoso Fierro): There are many references and inversions of Disney animation conventions in Cryptozoo. A significant one is the opening scene, which we feel is a nod to the killing of Bambi’s mother, a moment which is sometimes considered as a spark for the modern environmental movement. How influential were those early perspectives and efforts of environmentalism on your decision to set Cryptozoo in the 1960s?

A (DS): When I started writing the movie, I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library, and one of the other fellows there was researching countercultural newspapers of the 1960s, and the New York Public Library had all of them in their archives. So, there would be this 1967 free weekly paper from Brazil and another alternative paper from that same week in Chicago, and both would have that same kind of incredible utopian optimism, as well as a particular stylistic quality that was consistent across all of these papers that is almost like a Winsor McCay, thin line, famous new artists look. When I think about people discussing all of these different key moments of the 1960s, the one that was key for me in the genesis of Cryptozoo is the moment when Walt Disney died, and Epcot Center, which was supposed to be an actual city where people would live, was turned into just another amusement park. Amusement parks are products of imagineers, so these places are supposed to be dream worlds where anything is possible, but of course, in actuality, they are very dictated spaces where you feel kind of trapped. And this becomes especially clear in a place like Epcot Center where they are trying to present the whole world to people who haven’t been all over the world, and the choices in representation that were made can seem bizarre. So, in regards to Disney as an influence, I was thinking more about Epcot Center than the Bambi moment, but totally, when you’re rendering the death of a unicorn, it’s something that is so symbolic that it needs extra attention to also be realistic. Jane gets ninety percent of the credit for making that moment actually painful and not a joke and not simply a symbolic, abstract thing happening. That was super important to the movie. You know, Amy Taubin wrote about Cryptozoo for Art Forum, and she mentioned the relation to the Bambi death scene as well, and she described the scene as “hyperreal,” and I think that that is a perfect thing to say about the death of the unicorn, hyperreal.

A (JS): Something else that makes the 1960s a good pairing for this film is that when you think of the 60s, you think of this intense idealism and this drive to fix things, but we are many years out from then, and we know that it didn’t exactly work out. And so, when you’re telling this story where you know from the beginning that the Cryptozoo is going to fall and that the principle discussions that the characters are having with each other are about “how to make the world better,” the 1960s are a time and place that set up a good framework that resonated well with the themes in the movie.

Q (LF): In the film’s narrative, Dash, you touch on how the Cryptozoo theme park, in its displays of mythical creatures from all around the world, treads into problematic territories of exoticism. We understand that, Jane, you designed all of the cryptids, and naturally, in rendering them, you could have also tread into similar difficult areas. How did you ensure that the cryptids weren’t overly exoticized or caricaturish? For example, the baku’s swirls allude to similar swirls in Japanese prints, but they are respectful in their homage.

A (JS): I think honestly that is just me having fun, as I love to paint. I really enjoy the act of painting, and so, I am approaching each of these creatures as a kind of puzzle. I am looking at early renditions from the source cultures, because every cryptid is from its own culture in real life, and it wasn’t difficult because every time I would look at those images, there would be something in them that I was excited about. But, it is all going to come through the filter of Jane. I am the artist that I am. I can only change it so much. And so, I think just focusing on the joy and the honesty of the source material and what I was going to bring to it, I would then end up with a genuine product, I hope.

A (DS): What you are talking about is something we definitely spoke about while making the movie. The goal, I believe, is that, just like all the characters in the movie, to have sincere reasons for why we’re doing the things we do. So, the movie is somehow a collage that is looking at these different motivations and their relationships with each other and with the audience. We were definitely aware of thinking that they have to have a very good reason for creating and running the Cryptozoo that we can believe, but we are also outside of it and judging it as an audience member, and so modulating our experience of that was then the hard thing to keep our eyes on while making the movie.

Q (GF): In making the film, did your perspective on the role of the human in conserving the natural and the unseen evolve over time?

A (DS): So, this is my art school answer to your question: it used to be that people would see a landscape painting as a kind of frivolous, low-genre painting that is cheesy and that has nothing to offer us. There is a Brecht poem that states, “What kind of times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime,” meaning that there is all of this other stuff going on in the world, so why would you paint a landscape when it is totally lame and unnecessary relative to everything else? And now, someone like David Hockney is spending years painting those trees, and, in many ways, they are the most politically relevant paintings that you could make. They are so powerful and important, and so I hope that the landscape paintings in Cryptozoo have some of that feeling because now I feel that it is a crime not to talk about the trees.

A (JS): I think the other thing is that the world had changed a lot over the course of the making of the film. Dash wrote that script before Trump was elected. We had the summer of racial justice as we were coming to a close. We had a very surprising resonance with a line early in the film. I think that when we wrote it, it felt very theoretical. Of course, we were interested in the idea that we were presenting, and believed in those ideas and those questions, but by the time the film actually came out, they felt very real.

DS: You know they played My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea at a theater near where we are and watching that movie again now has a lot of different things that relate to it too.

LF: I think that Cryptozoo is incredibly relevant because there have been more studies coming from academia and conservation that are thinking about how humans can play a role in other species’ evolution. This film is very timely because questions about if and how humans should help species adapt and survive are becoming more important as the environment changes. A great example is in the Great Barrier Reef where, right now, there are scientists who are trying to breed heartier types of coral that can survive the rising temperature of the ocean, but that also has a variety of implications on the environment in the future that we just don’t fully know about today. And so, I think that Cryptozoo plays with similar ideas very well.

JS: Yes, that’s a great example of someone who has this really wonderful idealistic notion, and it’s great if it works, but we always have to be checking in with our idealism to make sure that it’s still steering us in the right direction.

Q (LF): There’s a moment when Lauren and Phoebe go to Kentucky that sticks out in our minds. Lauren suggests that Phoebe would have an easier time in a large, more liberal city. Phoebe informs Lauren that having more space and privacy would be better. It made us realize that the city looms over the film as a concept, but we never really see it. How mindful were you both of the role of physical distance and isolation in the work of Lauren, Joan, and Phoebe? Cryptids, after all, live on the periphery of our notions of reality.

A (DS): Well, I think that you should be our therapist, Lily (laughs) because you’re tapping into something here. I didn’t consciously do this, but yes, at this moment right now, I am consciously thinking about how Lauren would think that the city would be more progressive than how Phoebe sees the reality of it.

A (JS): I remember this more clearly than Dash, I think, but Dash was the impetus for leaving New York. I was fine to stay, but Dash got to this point, especially after his fellowship ended where he said, “I cannot handle people everywhere,” and I get it because there is nowhere that you can go in New York without people everywhere. In our apartment, we could hear other people all of the time, and he started to find that very oppressive. And now he finds the lack of people oppressive (laughs).

DS: I love New York!

JS: But he was desperate to escape. He just doesn’t want to remember that (laughs). And you know, absence makes the heart grow fonder. You remember what you loved about the place that you lived in before. But the thing that you pointed out, there is even more to that because there were a couple of shots that took place in cities that were cut, but they were all in that crazy mayhem section of the film at the end, and so we were just destroying the city, and that was the only city-related content. So, not only did you see what was in the film, but you magically saw what was not in the film too!

LF: It might just be a personal bias because I’ve experienced that feeling of how the city drives you nuts, and you decide to leave it, and then you have some fondness for it, but finally you are glad that you’ve left.

JS: Yeah, that one snuck in under both of our radars, so I’m glad that you alerted us to it.

Q (GF): One of the strongest elements of Cryptozoo is this convergence of reality and fantasy throughout the film. One excellent example of this is the sequence in which Lauren talks about her childhood in Okinawa, where there’s a blending of illustration and archived imagery, and altogether, they pay homage to gekiga illustration styles and topics. Could you talk about the research and development process for this sequence?

A (DS): Well, I thought that Lauren needed to be connected to her childhood because many people have this love of mythological beings that’s rooted in their six year old selves. So, that had to be a real enough motivation for her to do what she does. It’s not like in Indiana Jones where they establish early on that this is the good guy of the movie. Once they [Lauren, Phoebe, and Joan] are buying the child cryptid, you can see that this is kind of fucked up, but this is also why we thought that we shouldn’t start the film with her and why we should start with these hippies stumbling across the Cryptozoo. Therefore, I thought that rooting her character in her childhood was the most important way to show that she had a sincere motivation. In terms of the gekiga, I first heard about the baku in an experimental manga anthology called Comic Baku, but I had never heard of the creature before that. I should also say that I was a sixteen year old living in the south of Nagoya as a teenager, so I have had this love of Japanese comics in me from that time in my life. Also, in high schools in Japan, the whole school takes a trip together, which is a bit weird because you end up in a hotel with all of your classmates in your junior year, and you all go to baths together, but it is a standard thing. And on our particular trip, we all went to Hiroshima. I bring this up because it has some conscious or subconscious influence here.

GF: Thank you for sharing that, as I found the blending of ideas there to be an interesting choice.

DS: To clarify, is your question more about the technical blending or the story blending?

GF: It is a bit of both actually. There is a technical element in that we believe that it is the only scene where any archival-like footage exists.

DS: The idea of the collective trauma of the bombings of Japan during World War Two is played out in so many anime where they are still processing this horrible event that happened. Also, with incidents like school shootings, the archival footage has a similar connection to this kind of “duck and cover” imagery, which I think is traumatizing for a lot of children today as well. As for that decision on the combination of archival and drawn images, I think that it is about the boundaries of our fantasy movie where the fantasy world and reality are close to each other and how that can be disorienting. This is opposed to so many fantasy movies where there is a very clear allegorical space that is removed from our world, and you are kind of outside of it: Cryptozoo is closer to our world, and it’s bumping up against our world, which is unusual and interesting.

JS: Yes, I think that a lot of those decisions come out of this place where we need to express this idea and ask: what visual ideas can we throw in there, on top of it, that make sense? I know that originally there was just straight archival footage there, but it didn’t feel right. And that is a very intuitive process and part of what is so fun and joyful about the film is that Dash and I were doing the bulk of the creation of assets, and we had a lot of other people coming in, so each scene is kind of compartmentalized, and we were looking at this space and asking, “How can we make this as exciting as its own little short film?” And how can we marry these elements and be true to the intent of the original artist? And so, the whole film is very much a collage and very much about how we can make this work.

DS: There are collages that try to melt everything together, and then there are collages where things still have their individual integrity as separate elements, and you are creating the associations and connections between these separate parts. I think that I lean more towards the latter.

Q (LF): Manga definitely has influences on the visual style of Cryptozoo, but I also wanted to talk about the influences of comics on the dialogue in the film. Economy and compactness of dialogue is a part of your comics style, Dash. How much of that approach to dialogue did you transfer or walk away from when creating Cryptozoo, which is more complex in concept than My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea, and yet feels more sparse in its conversations and narration?

A (DS): The best way that I can answer that, and I don’t know if this is a good answer, is that comics are so different from movies and that one thing that helps out in comics is that words take up physical space, so you learn to reduce things down. Even when you are lettering a panel, you’re often, in the act, deciding to cut certain words out. Good comics writing is like Peanuts or something like that, in that it has a very reduced and refined kind of an exaggerated abbreviation, and that is sort of like Hollywood movie dialogue. Meaning that people are speaking in this kind of heightened way that is a little more effective than the Rohmer version of dialogue. There are definitely parts of Cryptozoo where I tried to tap into that.

A (JS): Also, with this project, we knew that we could potentially get some really amazing actors. With My Entire High School Is Sinking Into The Sea, the film was created with normal dialogue for normal people to say, but with Cryptozoo, we had more confidence going in that we could have more heft with the words.

A (DS): But, I do think that there is some kind of alternative comic contrarian impulse in me to write some cartoonish dialogue and then see a weird positive quality emerging from it in the film. There are some key scenes in Cryptozoo that I can think of as an example of that quality, such as where the antagonist Nicholas says, “We’re not so different.” That is such a cliché to have him say that, but, in a way, it is like a moment you would expect in a Hollywood movie, and cartooning is often a similar exaggeration of a pre-existing thing or idea. So, in the end, I think that it is a contrarian impulse.

https://www.cryptozoofilm.com

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

A Dark, Dark Man

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Originally published on Ink 19 on April 8, 2021

A Dark, Dark Man
directed by Adilkhan Yerzhanov

Like many of you who love cinema, I was devastated upon reading the news that the great director Bertrand Tavernier passed away on March 25th. Throughout that day, I felt genuinely blessed to have had the opportunity to speak with him in person four years ago on the occasion of a small retrospective of his work that took place at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, California. In many ways, that moment for me was a culmination of a lifelong appreciation of Tavernier’s work which began with a stroke of luck of sorts, as the first film of his that I ever took in was his widely appreciated 1981 feature, Coup de Torchon, which years later, when I eventually devoured the rest of his filmography, was still the film that I always returned to when I thought about the distinct strengths and artistry of Tavernier’s work.

Truth be told, I was barely a teen when I saw that film, and I had not read the Jim Thompson novel that it was based on (Pop. 1280), but there was something that appealed to me in the way that Tavernier approached the ugliness that was inherent to the film’s setting of a corrupt and floundering small town in colonial French West Africa in the days before the Second World War. The film’s antihero, a bumbling sheriff named Lucien (played by the brilliant Philippe Noiret) is a drunken philander who is so marginalized by those around him that he willfully becomes a non-entity in the place where he is supposed to represent some semblance of the law. In the early moments of Coup de Torchon, Tavernier applies an almost Chaplin-esque level of buffoonery to the hapless Lucien, but when our sheriff casually decides to execute and frame all of those in his way to inadvertently right the environment around him, the shift in tone illuminates and further amplifies the evil inherent in the colonialist practices of the era and the uselessness of trying to uphold the policies of a place whose mere existence is a crime.

In Tavernier’s honor, and for the first time in a decade, I rewatched Coup de Torchon on the evening of March 25th, and perhaps due to it still being fresh in my mind, when I watched Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s neo-noir, A Dark, Dark Man, the next evening, I felt an effective, and perhaps an unintentional, nod to Tavernier’s masterful film.

Yerzhanov’s feature is set in present day Kazakhstan in a region that is as far off the world’s radar as the 1930s West African village in Coup de Torchon. And similar to the opening of Tavernier’s film, at the start of A Dark, Dark Man, we observe the silent interactions of a group of people in an expansive space where the neglected natural setting has left little to consume for personal survival. At the center of this interaction in this opening scene of A Dark, Dark Man is Pekuar (Teoman Khos), a harmless-looking man with a cognitive disability, who is joyfully playing an elementary school game in a depleted cornfield with his girlfriend, Adema (Adema Yerzhanov), and a young boy. We then cut away to a law enforcement official in a barn examining a very grim crime scene involving a small dead child under a bloody blanket. As the officer emerges from the barn, he collects Pekuar and bribes him with chocolate bars to masturbate into a cup, the contents of which are then planted as evidence onto the dead body by the officer. As this bleak moment unfolds and leads to Pekuar thoughtlessly agreeing to take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit, we see the other officers on the scene engage in an absurd and infantile game of pantomime that seems pulled out of an Aki Kaurismäki comedy, but placed against the vile framing that has just occurred, it only serves to amplify a feeling that we are in a place where normal societal rules have been completely abandoned.

It is here where we meet the film’s antihero, a young policeman named Bezkat (Daniar Alshinov), who stoically rides into this tableau in his nondescript black sedan, complete with a Tangerine Dream-like score blaring on his radio and a cowboy hat on his head. Cinematically, Bezkat is being set up as a might of right, but that possibly heroic role ends quickly when Bezkat is commanded by our previously pantomiming officers to collect the planted evidence found on the dead child’s body to seal Pekuar’s fate. As our hapless officer does his duty and chronicles what he discovers on the lifeless body in the barn, he casually gobbles down a bowl of ramen. Clearly, Bezkat has had to fulfill this role on more than a few occasions, and when he returns to the station with his suspect, our young detective is charged with another task that also seems too familiar to him—the task of murdering Pekuar to close the case, which Bezkat also agrees to do without complaint.

With no real agency or desire to resist, Bezkat sets off to keep this endless cycle of horror in motion, but before he can do so, a journalist from the city named Ariana (Dinara Baktybaeva) has arrived in town to follow Bezkat to ensure that an actual investigation of this child’s murder will be done properly. Ariana’s concerns about a miscarriage of justice have brought her to this village where a recent spay of murders of several orphaned children have led to a different bodycount of captured suspects who have all been mysteriously found dead from suicide while in police custody. And so, with the officers who rank above Bezkat unable to do little more than squawk about Ariana’s presence because of some unknown outside power that has sent her there, she is off to bird-dog Bezkat, who must now also take Pekuar and Adema with him as he goes through the facade of finding the real killers.

As with Lucien in Coup de Torchon, Bezkat in A Dark, Dark Man is able to commit his crimes without any real opposition, which sets up both men who serve as law enforcement officials to become pure representations of the failures of their respective governments to monitor their actions—Lucien in a far flung West African French colony on the brink of war, and Bezkat in the last of the Soviet Republics to declare independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Where A Dark, Dark Man differentiates itself from Tavernier’s film is primarily seen through the impact of Ariana on Bezkat. True to its pre-World War II era, the idealist schoolteacher Anne in Coup de Torchon, a character whose arrival should inspire in Lucien a sense of order and fairness, instead becomes another traditionally virtuous entity who is usurped by the dysfunctional colonialist social order. On the other hand, Ariana, a big city journalist in contemporary Kazakhstan who must stand tall against corrupt local government officials, crooked cops, and gangsters, manages to exact some influence on our antihero through her decency and commitment to the truth despite the constant threat of violence against her. As Anne in her day was limited to just the chalk and a blackboard in her schoolhouse to communicate with those around her, does Ariana’s strength then emanate from the possession of modern devices that can eliminate the geographic isolation of this small Kazakh village, or is it Ariana’s keen understanding of her native country that provides the necessary connection to Bezkat to affect him? This mystery behind Ariana’s ability to persuade then becomes a key reason as to why A Dark, Dark Man excels as a modern noir.

Though there are no direct references to Coup de Torchon in Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s impressive feature, our director, with help from Galymzhan Moldanazar’s score and Aydar Sharipov’s cinematography, instead alludes to a myriad of noirs such as Felix Feist’s The Man Who Cheated Himself, Michael Mann’s Thief, and Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks to misdirect our belief in what the outcome of the film will be. From the very beginning of A Dark, Dark Man, we have an understanding of who the evildoers are and how desperate they can be, but we still attentively watch to see if anything will be done to distance this community from a corrupt status quo and move it towards a place where it can afford to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

https://adilkhanyerzhanov.com/en/films/a-dark-dark-man/

Generoso Fierro


Mandibles

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Originally published on Ink 19 on March 23, 2021

Mandibles
directed by Quentin Dupieux

Earlier this month, here on Ink 19, I enthusiastically reviewed director Quentin Dupieux’s 2018 surrealist crime comedy, Au Poste! (Keep An Eye Out), a film that had finally received a full release in the U.S. years after its French debut. Though I had capsule-reviewed Dupieux’s 2019 film, Deerskin, for our AFI Fest coverage that year, my lengthy piece on Au Poste! gave me a greater opportunity to explain in detail my affection for Dupieux’s work, affection that has grown stronger in the last decade as I’ve watched him progress as a filmmaker following his third feature about a tire turned killer, Rubber.

My piece on Au Poste!, a film which bears similar themes to the 1979 feature by Bertand Blier, Buffet Froid, also allowed me the opportunity to confirm my long-held position that Dupieux has become the heir apparent to the great Blier, who like Dupieux, had taken an even more surreal and ridiculous approach to comedy than Buñuel had done before him. If you have been watching Dupieux’s work over this last decade, but are unfamiliar with Blier, all you need to see is the scene from Blier’s underrated 1976 sex comedy, Calmos, where the miniature versions of actors Jean-Pierre Marielle and Jean Rochefort hang glide into a vagina to sense that Blier and Dupieux are audacious, kindred spirits with absolutely zero restraint between them.

Though Dupieux fans in the States had to wait three years to see Au Poste!, his newest dark comedy, Mandibles (Mandibules), which premiered at Venice last fall, was shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival that was held virtually this month through Films at Lincoln Center. In a conversation with programmer Dan Sullivan that followed the screening at the festival, Dupieux described Mandibles as his first “positive film” with an elevator-pitch of “E.T. meets Dumb and Dumber,” but since I am fixated on this “Dupieux is the next Blier” rap, I think that it is fair to say that Mandibles is actually more like, “E.T. meets Blier’s Les Valseuses (Going Places),” but with a lot less sex than Blier’s notorious 1974 film. Actually, there is no sex at all in Mandibles, but all of the cluelessness, random violence, and whimsical theft exhibited by Jean-Claude and Pierrot in Les Valseuses are on full display in Mandibles via its anti-heroes, Manu and Jean-Gab. As for a creature like E.T. in Mandibles, you get an entity that is less glowing and sweet than Spielberg’s extraterrestrial, and something that is more in line with the economic status of its downtrodden rescuers.

Set around a small beach community in the South of France, Mandibles is a caper story centered on lifelong downtrodden friends in their 30s, Manu and Jean-Gab, who are portrayed to slack perfection by Grégoire Ludig and David Marsais, who are known in France mainly through their long-running sketch-comedy television program, Palmashow. In short form, visually and philosophically, Manu and Jean-Gab are that perfect personification of a tourist destination that is only frequented during the summer months and mostly abandoned for the rest of the year. As a tourist, you gleefully go to an idyllic spot for your yearly vacation, and although your life has progressed in that time since you last visited, the place you return to every year has eerily remained the same.

As the film opens, we find the homeless Manu comfortably asleep on the beach where he is awakened by a friend who offers Manu a seemingly easy mission that could put 500 Euros into his empty pockets. This possibly nefarious assignment is of course the classic cinematic setup of picking up a thing from a guy and giving that thing to another guy fifteen miles away for the loot, but there is just one snag…Manu has no car to do the drop. To fix his transportation issue, Manu simply hot-wires a junked Mercedes he finds unlocked and is now clear to start his task, but before he can do this achingly easy job, he must pick up his friend Jean-Gab, who is lazily attending to his mother’s shabby gas station. After laying the assignment on Jean-Gab, Manu and his best friend share a secret horned-fingered handshake that is combined with the exclamation of “toro,” and they are now off to do the job…

Driving down the road to their destination, Manu and Jean-Gab hear a loud buzzing coming from the trunk of the car, which they first deduce as the sound from a hair dryer. Yes, that is who we are dealing with here. Unfazed, the pair shrugs off the noise, but after a few repeats, they stop and find inside of their trunk a docile housefly that is the size of a three year old child. Only slightly spooked, Jean-Gab doesn’t panic, and quickly he imagines a future where they will train this fly to rob banks for them. This plan is not a hard sell for Manu, who then plots out a location where they can train their new accomplice in the art of fetching cash. Of course, just going down the road to finish the job they set out to do is not even an option at this point, so the pair forcibly evicts an old man from his dilapidated trailer to serve as Jean-Gab’s and Manu’s makeshift fly school. Unsurprisingly, the former owner of the trailer did not stock enough food in his fridge to feed two men and a giant fly, so in true Jean-Claude and Pierrot fashion, Jean-Gab and Manu take the gun that they found in their newly acquired trailer and relieve a local nebbish of all of his groceries.

Once back at home with supplies in hand, Jean-Gab begins training his fly, and Manu cooks a meal for them all, but as uncooked food needs fire and a chef with some commonsense, Manu accidentally sets ablaze their new insect training center, which forces our beat trio to find shelter elsewhere. With no gas in their Mercedes (I guess that getting petrol at Jean-Gab’s mother’s gas station required too much foresight), Jean-Gab and Manu must tow their car with the unicorn bicycle that managed to survive the fire.

On the road with no place to go, they get picked up by a young woman named Cécile (India Hair) and her carload of posh friends and family who offer Jean-Gab and Manu a place to stay after Cécile mistakes Manu for an ex-lover of hers from school. Having no other choice for a home base, Manu plays the role of the boy who had tryst with Cécile, so they can all settle down in their new comfortable digs, but he and Jean-Gab must hide Dominique, their newly named fly, from everyone, but especially Agnès, (a grandiose over-the-top supporting performance from Adèle Exarchopoulos) a well-to-do woman who is afflicted with a consistently full volumed speaking voice due to a ski accident. Lacking any social graces of her own, Agnès is also equipped with an abnormally heightened sense of suspicion with the bonus added feature of a 24/7 need to define class prerogatives and manners to the new houseguests. Though Jean-Gab and Manu must lie to everyone in order to hide Dominique, they are polite when confronted by Agnès and offer frank insights into their own poor upbringing and apologies for their consequent lack of refinement. As Agnès continues to boorishly lash out about manners, Dominique ostensibly becomes less repulsive and even borderline adorable through her infant-like cackles and overall calmness.

There is a lot going on in the compact seventy-seven minutes running time of Mandibles. The film succeeds beyond just the fun and positive experience that Dupieux had hoped to create, and the humor is as inventive, funny, and surreal as it was in his previous effort, Deerskin. In addition, Mandibles draws another similarity to Deerskin in how it builds on an interesting point about the ways that friendships are formed and sustained within economic lines, and like Les Valseuses did forty-five years ago, the insertion of the extreme in both films provides an excellent diversion that allows you to personally discover the class and cultural observations that lie underneath the madness.

Sure, I admit that this might seem like an exceedingly pretentious read on a slacker comedy about a cute giant fly and a couple of hapless deadbeats, but Dupieux deserves a lot of credit for his ability to address issues of class and privilege while never pulling you too far away from the strong friendship between Jean-Gab and Manu, and their new buddy, Dominique. With its distinctively Dupieux blend of sweet, bizarre, and comedic, Mandibles highlights the bedrocks of friendship, time together and unconditional love, which ultimately allow Jean-Gab, Manu, and Dominique to move forward in their lives as a united trio, a unit far stronger than their individual spirals to nowhere when apart.

http://www.magpictures.com/mandibles/

Generoso Fierro