Director Corneliu Porumboiu

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Originally published on Ink 19 on December 16, 2019

It was a distinct honor for me to briefly speak with director Corneliu Porumboiu at AFI Fest this year where he accompanied his latest film, the intricate comedic noir, The Whistlers (La Gomera). My adoration of Porumboiu’s work began over a decade ago after a chance screening led me to his impressively dry and satirical debut feature, 12:08 East of Bucharest, and shortly after seeing that film, I was fortunate to have the chance to see and program a couple of his promising early short films: A Trip to the City and Liviu’s Dream, at a small festival that I co-curated in Boston. The director’s 2009 feature, Police, Adjective, the winner of the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a masterwork that creatively reflected on the after effects of the 1989 Romanian revolution, a subject of so many of Porumboiu’s subsequent films released throughout this decade.

The Whistlers, Porumboiu’s sixth feature, finds the director returning to the realm of police work and the subject of language. To expand on Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), the protagonist of 2010’s Police, Adjective, Porumboiu places his detective in a drug ring operating alongside a corrupted law system; however, Cristi is less occupied by the interpretation of the Romanian language these days. Now, he is learning Silbo Gomero, a language composed entirely of whistling in order to undetectably communicate with his drug ring partners. But, Silbo Gomero is only one of the many types of languages in The Whistlers. In order to form his discourse on methods of communication, Porumboiu weaves together film noir conventions, his own cinematic language, and music into the crime drama plot of The Whistlers to create an experience that toys with our notions of how image and sound can tell a story, evoke an emotion, and modulate our expectations and reactions.

Q: I understand that the origins of The Whistlers began a decade ago when you viewed a television program on the Silbo Gomero language. Language has always been such a large part of many of your films, especially Police, Adjective, so did seeing the program somehow inspire you to revisit the character of Cristi, or were you always looking to examine that character’s progression after a decade, and the discovery of the Silbo Gomero language was a perfect mechanism?

A: In the beginning, I was really fascinated by what I read about the language, and after studying it more, I came up with the idea to put what I learned into that character from Police, Adjective. So yes, first, it was about the language, and then, it was about the exploration of the character. Because for me, the Silbo Gomero language is fascinating in that it is like a code, but it is also poetic, and at the same time it is like a bird language, which made me want to read more about it, and the more I discovered about its origins, the more I knew that it would have to be the center of the film. So then, I thought of Cristi. The reason being is that, for me, this character has always stayed in my mind due to the fact that someone like Cristi has an ideology, a way of thinking that is very inflexible, and that kind of one-dimensional thinking just simply cannot endure in the future, so I wanted to explore Cristi further by exposing him to this multifaceted language.

Q: With Police, Adjective, you took the standard urban crime genre, and you twisted the tropes of the genre by making it dialog-driven for the purposes of examining language and ethics post Ceaușescu. On the other hand, The Whistlers, by utilizing film noir as a construct, is in many ways the polar opposite of Police, Adjective, because the noir genre has so many strict demands for you to adhere to in order to be considered as noir that you cannot stray too far from the established motifs. So then, when you were imagining Cristi a decade after Police, Adjective, how did the noir motifs assist you in creating that character?

A: I should say first that I have always liked film noir a great deal. I knew that I wanted the characters in my film to exist in a setting where they felt like they could easily get double crossed and where they would have a hard time trusting communication, so the decision to go into genre film came down to something that could be seen in a character like Gilda, who is living in a world where she would have to play a role, and so she would play a role that she could borrow from cinema. My goal was to have this type of tension between the camera and the character because, in the beginning of cinema, the camera was used to tell stories. So, I decided that I wanted to have this style of two cameras, one used in the way that we are using cameras today as surveillance, but also another as a storytelling device. There were a lot of decisions that were made which were like these, and thus I went deeper into genre because I wanted a film that was more of a visual expression and not very realistic, considering that in my mind, I was thinking a lot about these niche characters and how they can build their identities due to their playing to this surveillance camera. It is this kind of second nature that develops through this second camera that becomes more important than the first, which drove me even more intensely into genre cinema.

Q: I see how you play with this genre’s archetypal characters like the anti-hero protagonist/corrupt cop and the femme fatale. And, in terms of visual motifs, you played with flashbacks, a common method in a classic noirs like The Killers, where the technique is used to recall the past to build characters, but you chose to use flashbacks to illustrate how Cristi is learning the Silbo Gomero language.

A: Yes, and the reason for that is that I wanted to have as the center of the film Cristi’s process of learning the Silbo Gomero language and form a double movement. At the beginning of the film, when he is going to learn this language, he is going to learn it to use it for something nefarious, but at the same time while Cristi is learning the language, he is reflecting on his personal history, and so there is a movement inside of the learning process. A film noir construct allowed me to do this. Otherwise, if I tried to do this in a more traditional style of storytelling, the language would appear in the middle of the film, but the metaphor would be revealed at the end.

Q: I so appreciate your casting of Catrinel Marlon as Gilda, but I understand that your search for the right actress for the part was a burdensome one. My curiosity is, given her character’s name of Gilda and how that name evokes a classic noir reference, was part of that difficulty because you couldn’t decide if the actress should or shouldn’t possess Rita Haymorth’s look and qualities?

A: It was indeed a difficult casting process for that part, but what I liked about Catrinel is that she had a type of style and body language that would allow her to become the character and build it her own way. Also, when I cast the character of the mother, for example, I wanted to her resemble Gilda in that she is an ex-femme fatale, and it is this kind of play on the imagery that I wanted in the film as well.

Q: One usually thinks of jazz music in film noir like John Lewis’ score for the 1959 film, The Odds Against Tomorrow. Could you talk about your unexpected use of classical pieces, such as Jacques Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” or Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”, in The Whistlers?

A: At first, I used classical music to build the character who worked at the hotel, to make him very unpredictable, as that clerk doesn’t want people to stay there, but then I started using music for many other purposes—for example, to create a more personal moment or to build contrast to add humor to a scene.

Q: To me, your use of music as a contrast comes through the most at the end of the film in artificial garden in Singapore. When did you decide on that particular piece of music for the final scene?

A: The music was there at the park in Singapore already. In my original script I wanted to have Iron Butterfly’s song, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” but when we got to the location and I heard them playing this other music, I thought that it was better for the scene, so I used it instead.

Q: That park was a perfect setting for the end of the film. Was that a location that you had scouted out prior to writing the script?

A: Since the beginning of my project I wanted the film to end in a certain kind of garden, a futuristic paradise, you can say, because of the way that gardens are consistently seen throughout the film. The island of La Gomera, for example, is a kind of garden, as is of course the actual garden that the mother tends to, and this is very important to what I wanted to do with The Whistlers. So, I really wanted a kind of technologically advanced garden to appear at the end of the film, and I had an instinct that I could find such a garden in Asia, in either Hong Kong or Shanghai, and I was fortunate to find one in Singapore.

Interview conducted by Generoso

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Feature photo courtesy of mk2 films.

www.thewhistlersfilm.com

DIRECTOR Sofia Bohdanowicz

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Originally published on Ink 19 on December 19th, 2019

In the first seconds of MS Slavic 7, directors Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell present an open book with side-by-side Polish and English versions of, “To Józef Wittlin on the Day of His Arrival in Toronto – 1963,” a poem written by director Bohdanowicz’s own great-grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa. The film then immediately cuts to the image of Audrey Benac (Deragh Campbell) entering a minimalist hotel room followed by a visit to the Houghton Library at Harvard to explore the correspondence between Bohdanowiczowa and Wittlin. A hybridized character combining Bohdanowicz’s experiences and family history, Campbell’s perspectives and interpretations, and elements of fiction, Audrey is the great-granddaughter of Bohdanowiczowa, and as the literary executor of the Bohdanowiczowa estate, she wants to shine a light on her great-grandmother’s work.

As MS Slavic 7 proceeds, the letters guide Audrey towards a fluid path moving between the present and the past in her memory space, allowing her to form connections to Bohdanowiczowa’s writings and more broadly to her own heritage, family, and artistic research process. As part of AFI Fest 2019, I had the opportunity to speak with director Sofia Bohdanowicz about incorporating documentary elements in her practice, portraying the research and archive process, and overall, interweaving and mirroring hers and co-director Deragh Campbell’s experiences and perspectives to create and progress the character of Audrey Benac.

Q: Before we dig into MS Slavic 7, I have to ask: were you able to access your great-grandmother’s letters before or since the film’s completion? I know that the archive access approval can sometimes be difficult to attain.

A: When we were first doing research, when I was just looking for the letters themselves, I didn’t actually go to Houghton library. I found the letters online, and I was able to request and receive PDF scans of them. But, that doesn’t make for a very interesting film!

Before shooting, we didn’t get a chance to visit Harvard, so we did a lot of research and imagined what it would be like, and then staged everything in Toronto, and we amazingly captured some uncanny resemblances in some architectural pieces on the University of Toronto campus that made the film look and feel like Harvard. We actually saw the letters in September because we were invited to screen the film at the Harvard Film Archive. It was a very easy process, and they were really warm and welcoming because we were invited guests. But, in general, those archives are open to the public, so there are some hoops you have to jump through, and it is a little bit of a process, but it’s not so bad.

Q: That’s great to hear! Getting into some university libraries can be difficult. So many require targeted, very specific searches for the approval process.

A: It’s funny. The film has brought up tensions about institutions and archives, which is not something I completely expected. I’ve had people say to me, “We’re really interested in how you’re critiquing institutions and sticking it to the man. We can tell you’re frustrated with Harvard.” I don’t feel this at all! The dissonance that’s present between access and archives wanting to preserve and venerate letters is fascinating. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the approval process; it is there for a reason. Archives put in great work to preserve artifacts, so they need to know who is looking at them because those objects must stay protected. Although the access process can be very frustrating—for example, I was just in archives in Cambridge in the UK recently, and it took us two hours to get set up—I have an appreciation for institutions and how they protect important artifacts because if they weren’t doing that, then we wouldn’t have any way of accessing our history and telling these stories.

Being able to see my great-grandmother’s letters for the first time in September was such a moving experience because the letters were just there in Houghton, waiting for me to access them. It’s very touching that they’ve been there for over fifty years, and they were taken care of and preserved all of this time. Had they not been, I would not have had the opportunity to make MS Slavic 7 and to explore my family’s history through the film. When I was holding the letters in my hand, I was doubly moved: I was moved by the fact that were my great-grandmother’s letters, her words written by her hand, and I was also moved by this act of preservation. These letters still exist. They are intact, and they are still collected together because of how much care and thought has gone into this archival system.

Q: With MS Slavic 7, you have taken the literary tradition of writers’ own roman à clef novels and made it cinematic. In literary roman à clef, the intertwining of reality and fiction is in the psychological perspective, but in cinema, the intertwining is in not only the psychological but also the audiovisual perspectives. How did you integrate how you feel, see, and hear into what Audrey does, sees and hears on screen?

A: In editing and in discussing the film, I’ve consistently stressed that Audrey is a very sensitive person. She’s a very anxious person, and she’s very layered. She’s a weighted character, so, when I think about the interactions she’s having with the archivist, with her aunt, and with the translator to a certain extent, I think sometimes they can be perceived as reality, but other times they can be perceived as her own internal perspective of an experience because this film is very much about the act of remembering and oscillating between the past and the present. That’s how the film is constructed: we’re going back and forth between Houghton library and this family reunion that she’s remembering. There’s this point of oscillation, and MS Slavic 7 is not a perfectly cerebral film in any way, but in our editing process, we kept asking ourselves, “Is she perceiving this in the here and now, or is this something she’s remembering?” because memories of interactions with people and stories we retell are perpetually changing in our minds and are sometimes modulated by what we’re experiencing in the present moment.

As for the letters themselves, we wanted to focus on three important components of what the letter as an object is, what it represents, and how you can explore that on screen. The first way that we wanted to do that was to try to simulate the experience of what it feels like to hold a letter in your hands, to hold an object that is of holy value, something that is sacred to you. So, exploring the letter as a sacred object and also trying to capture this moment of discovery were the goals of Audrey’s first day at the archive. We did that by using macro lenses, so we could have a nice, shallow depth-of-field. We focused a lot on foleying, and we were able to get these nice crinkling sounds, so you can hear the texture of the letters. We also wanted to play with subtitles at the bottom of the screen, to experiment with this idea that even though she doesn’t understand Polish, the weight of the letters’ history is still present—her great-grandmother’s spirit is still lingering, and her words are about to be discovered.

Whereas the first day focused on the object properties of the letters, the second day in the archive focused on the spirit of the letters—the letters as talismans or objects that hold magical properties. We did that by playing around with acetates and showing projections of the letters to give Audrey a different perspective to observe them. I feel the way that the scene in the archive was staged gives the letters this kind of ghost-like aura. We wanted to represent all of the distance that the letters have traveled, and she talks about that in her monologues. What kind of powers do these letters hold because of their rich history?

And finally, on the third day, we wanted to focus on the content, not only the translation, but also a recital of the letters. We wanted to capture what they sound like when they are spoken aloud. In many films, letters are explored in only one, standard way, but in making MS Slavic 7, we tried to sit down and think mindfully about different experimental ways to depict the research process and the beauty of discovery accurately.

Q: As a former researcher myself, I appreciated the veracity of your portrayal of the research process. Audrey’s attempt to digest all of her research feels so honest and real. When you dig into a topic, you can get extremely overwhelmed by the mess of information in front of you, and you know that it all comes together in some way, but getting there feels like trying to find a path in the dark. And, without an academic framework, you’re left to your own devices to find the way. You capture all of this so well. Could you speak about how you worked with Deragh to elicit this disorienting sense?

A: The monologues were Deragh’s idea. I discovered the letters, and she pitched a very intelligent structure for the film. One particular element that I was interested in were these monologues that she envisioned with a locked-off camera on a tripod, all shot in a single take. When Deragh works on a film, she really likes to focus, especially when she’s building a character, on genuine connections. She is an actor who likes to react in the moment to experiences, which I think is a brave and courageous way of operating. To prepare for the monologues, the night before shooting one of them, she read one section of the letters for the first time. And, I threw in my own notes on my great-grandmother’s words and what I thought along with some historical anecdotes, and she read those as well, and then she proceeded to fill up her own notebook with her own thoughts and ideas. The next day, we would go to a restaurant that a friend of mine managed, and she would deliver those monologues. For each one, I think we did about eight or nine takes, but they were always done in one continuous shot.

This feeling of frustration and difficulty and strangeness in articulation actually came out of the situation that we were shooting in. The film was made very cheaply with a production budget of about 5,000 dollars. My friend offered the restaurant location for free, and we went for it. He told me that the restaurant was going to be empty, but when we were filming, he would open it up for coffee in the morning. I would be all set up and ready to shoot, but then people would come in and out of the restaurant, so it was a distracting space that wasn’t great for Deragh to act and be vulnerable in. She was trying to deliver these beautifully crafted thoughts, but was being met with disruption. It was really frustrating, and we weren’t sure how it was going to work. At the same time, we didn’t have a choice. We went along with it, and thankfully, what it yielded was this effect where you can tell that she was frustrated and having a hard time pulling out her thoughts. And, I think if you were actually synthesizing and digesting your research and discovery in a busy restaurant, it would be that challenging, so everything ended up working in our favor in the end.

I love to work within the realm of what some filmmakers call process cinema. If something happens when I’m filming—for example, this situation with this restaurant that was supposed to be quiet and closed down, but was open and busy—instead of looking at it as a problem, I try to look at it and ask: What are the variables that are being offered to me right now? How can I work with them to make my film unique? How can I look at these unexpected situations as gifts? It can be an incredibly hard thing to do, but if you’re open to creatively embracing those elements, I always find you can come up with something exciting.

Q: Your film is literary in its subject but not its approach, and that’s quite an accomplishment. How did you approach the challenge of avoiding literature-in-film clichés (i.e. re-enactments of moments or letters, voice-over narration)?

A: I was recently at a film festival on the Canary Islands with Shengze Zhu, who made a film called Present.Perfect. She works in hybrid cinema as well, and she said to me, “You know, Sofia, hybrid filmmaking is cheap.” And, I started to laugh because it’s true. It’s an inexpensive and excellent way to tell a story with a small amount of money. For us, re-enactment wasn’t an option because we just didn’t have the means to go there. As for a narrator, my practice stems from a place of collecting documentary footage first, so with this project, we collected the family reunion footage before we went into shooting MS Slavic 7. It was the first thing we filmed, and we treated it as an exercise. What you see is my actual aunt and uncle’s wedding anniversary! Deragh went as a guest. She sat down at the table, and she engaged with my family. From then on, we had that footage as a base, and I could intersperse acts of restaging, so instead of having a talking head or a voice-over narration, these scenes at the reunion became the stitching fiber to tell the story.

I’m always interested in different ways that we can propel a narrative without relying on the typical tropes used in a documentary. The other thing to consider about the film is that it didn’t have a strict outline; the script was very, very loose. We knew what Deragh would be doing over the course of three days. We would go to those environments, and we would shoot those scenes, but I would shoot them very much like a documentary. For example, on the first day, when Deragh sits down to look at those letters, and she’s holding them in her hands, we shot for about forty-five minutes in silence. She continued to look at things and give her small directions here and there, but we kept it very open. Consequently, it took about nine months to edit the film, to find its voice and its trajectory, which was challenging. It was hard to find what felt right within the grammar of the film when Deragh and I were editing. But once we discovered it, we were excited that we found such a strange, compelling little film in all of the footage. We couldn’t quite believe that it existed. It just emerged from a lot of conversation, trial and error, and dedication. We met two or three times a week to edit the film.

Q: What an excavation project. What’s amazing is that it seems like your editing process ended up aligning with Audrey’s process of digging through the letters. Perhaps the energy of Audrey’s search through the letters to find the connective thread between herself and her great-grandmother led to a similar feeling of trying to find the thread between you, Deragh, and Audrey in the film, forming a resonating circle between the letters, your family history, the film’s narrative, and the film’s editing?

A: Throughout making MS Slavic 7, I had my own process when I discovered and explored the letters, not in their physical form, but in their translated, digital form. Then, when filming, there was this double layer of capturing Deragh’s live responses to the letters based on my reflections, which created a lot of mirroring and bouncing back and forth between the information, reactions, note-taking, and research practice. This process worked very well. We both feel comfortable being very vulnerable with one another. We have an open practice and a close relationship. I believe the film has such a strange and unique voice because we were so supportive of one another throughout the writing, filming, and editing process.

Q: Your closeness and trust with each other definitely comes through. Given that Audrey is somewhat of a stand-in for you, how much of Deragh’s perspective of you, which may be different from how you see yourself, is integrated into her performance?

A: It’s a fascinating thing. Audrey is a character Deragh and I developed in my first feature film, Never Eat Alone, which is about my grandmother searching for her long lost love from her twenties. She was a character who was built out of experiences that I had with my grandmother, named after my cousin, Audrey Benac. In the film, Deragh, as Audrey, lives in my cousin Grace’s apartment, and throughout, she is wearing my clothing or some of my grandfather’s clothing. So, to make Never Eat Alone, Deragh got to know my family well, and she could look at my traits and my other family members’ traits and carry them forward in her own creative decisions within her own process. Over the course of the evolution of the character from Never Eat Alone to Veslemøy’s Song to MS Slavic 7, I feel now more than ever that Audrey is a co-synthesis of mine and Deragh’s inputs. That’s a major reason why Deragh became a co-director on the project.

Originally, I was the sole director of MS Slavic 7. Deragh had pitched me the structure, and we were going to be co-writers, but for the first time in our collaborative relationship, I truly felt that I couldn’t come up with all of the answers. They weren’t all coming from me, and that was a positive thing. I just didn’t know, and it was a mystery, and ultimately, I realized Deragh’s voice was the other half of the equation. I think that speaks greatly to her investment in the film and in her work as an actor. She throws herself in and deeply invests herself in the world that the filmmakers are trying to create. She gives herself reading lists and watches a lot of cinema, and she is very involved in the wardrobe. With this film, I remember her and Mariusz Sibiga, the actor who plays the translator, sitting down in the restaurant, planning out their dialog scene and how that was going to go because that scene was largely improvised. I found myself feeling so touched and moved by how well-studied she was in regards to the letters, my great-grandmother’s work, my own thoughts, and Józef Wittlin’s work. I feel lucky to work with a collaborator who cares as much about my family as I do.

Q: In previous conversations, you touched on how funny and strange it was to explore a little of Audrey’s sexuality and overall her intimacy with others. Could you expand on that tension? Intimacy can be more difficult to convey for the female roman à clef protagonist as compared to a male one. To me, creators like Kerouac and Bukowski struggle with intimacy because when they pursue it, their own definitions don’t always align with others’. Audrey appears to struggle with intimacy because it may not be her priority right now, but it is something she wants and needs.

A: I love that. I was having a conversation recently with a friend about being self-partnered. It was something Emma Watson said recently because someone had asked her, “Are you dating someone? Are you single?” And she just replied, “I’m self-partnered,” which I think is a beautiful thing because even though you’re single, that doesn’t mean you’re available. You might not want to be partnered with someone. You might just be happy being by yourself.

It’s funny. I’ve been told that the scene with Audrey and the translator in bed is scandalous because it looks like Audrey is using the translator to get what she wants from the letters. When the translator kisses her on the shoulder, and she has no reaction to it, people misinterpret Audrey to be a really cold person. It’s an interpretation that I completely disagree with because Audrey is a thinking, feeling, sensitive being, and the whole film is about how she has a hard time articulating and expressing herself. She’s finding her voice and trying to ask for what she wants and say what she wants. Just because a person isn’t able to express themselves clearly doesn’t mean that they’re not feeling things deeply.

What that scene actually was for us was an opportunity where we could explore the overlap of two things that Audrey wants: she wants a recital of these letters, and she wants to sleep with this man. She wanted him to read the letters aloud, and he does. And, they do sleep together, but ultimately, she doesn’t want their relationship to go any further. Plus, MS Slavic 7 is not a film where this person is having a hard time completing her thoughts, and her thoughts are completed by a male counterpart. This is a film about a person who has the desire to complete her own thoughts and to self-actualize on her own terms. She’s not looking to rely on a man to fill that void. She wants to continue the search.

And for me, on-screen intimacy was a big thing missing in my work. I’m a very private person in that regard, and the scene in bed was Deragh’s idea. It was enlightening for me as a filmmaker, artist, and person to confront how uncomfortable I felt and to realize I was moving into new territory as an artist to talk about this element of myself, this element of Audrey, and this element that Deragh wanted to talk about. It was a challenge for me to film the scene, and I’ve been quite surprised by people’s reactions to it.

Q: Self-discovery as an intellectual or artist through family history can be simultaneously uplifting and deflating, depending on the discoveries made and the reactions that come from them. Do you foresee a moment when Audrey will walk away from creative works and research that use material or inspiration from her family history?

A: Funny that you should ask—I have a new film coming out with Audrey called Point and Line to Plane. It’s about a friend of mine who passed away very suddenly last year. He was my first producer and collaborator, and I wanted to find a way to honor him. I started writing a letter to my grandmother, and this eventually evolved into a film about trying to find him or traces of him through artwork made by Wassily Kandinsky because he was an artist whom we mutually admired. For the first time, one of my films is much less concerned with family history or with archives, and instead it deals with regret, mourning, and grieving. Point and Line to Plane also explores Freud’s theory of magical thinking, which Joan Didion appropriated in the book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which is about looking for signs, coincidences, and messages from a person when they pass away because of your inability to cope or navigate that person’s loss. So, this new film is about my attempt to communicate with this friend of mine after his sudden passing.

Q: That’s beautiful. I love The Year of Magical Thinking. I found Joan Didion’s approach to the passing of her husband to be a compelling way to look at grief.

A: I found myself very much relating to her words and her perspective in a way that was extraordinarily validating. I thought, “Yes, I feel all of these things so strongly!” Reading that book propelled me to make the film. I didn’t know about the phenomenon of magical thinking, nor did I possess the language to investigate it or to describe it, but when I read that book, I realized, “Oh, this is the virus that I’m sick with right now,” and it gave me an entire spectrum and palate to start expressing myself.

Q: Didion has a gift for examining realities. Play It as It Lays says so much about Los Angeles. The Year of Magical Thinking says so much about love, grief, and attempts to rationalize both.

A: Contrary to what you may believe about me after seeing MS Slavic 7, I don’t read as much as Deragh does. Audrey’s literary references in the film all come from Deragh. The Year of Magical Thinking is the first Joan Didion book that I have ever read, but I hope to continue to read more.

Q: I know getting time to read between living, working, and seeing cinema is hard. I think it’s harder now than it’s ever been.

A: It’s such a challenge. Deragh said to me recently that books are like friends—you just have to nurture the relationship, so that’s something that I’m working on right now.

Interview conducted by Lily

Feature photo: Still from MS Slavic 7

 

Director Ivana Mladenović

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 19th, 2019

One of the most compelling films that we have seen so far at this year’s AFI Fest is Ivana the Terrible (Ivana cea Groaznica), the second feature by acclaimed Serbian filmmaker Ivana Mladenović, whose debut directorial effort, Soldiers. Story from Ferentari, not only garnered major prizes at the 2018 Trieste Film Festival and San Sebastián International Film Festival, but also in its production and release, led to the formation of significant personal experiences for the director which were woven into her new film. Co-written by her Soldiers. Story from Ferentari collaborator, Adrian Schiop, Ivana the Terrible stars Ivana and her real life family, former lovers, and friends (included amongst them is Romanian-Canadian singer-songwriter, Anca Pop, who tragically passed in 2018 in a car accident) in a narrative that draws from Ivana’s sojourn back to her hometown of Kladovo for a much needed, but sometimes humorously disturbed, period of recuperation following the tumultuous events that accompanied the release of her debut film. Centered on the Romanian-Serbian friendship festival in Kladovo, Ivana the Terrible emerges as personal study of the historical and contemporary relationship between the two nations and the alienating experiences of leaving and returning to one’s family and home. We spoke in depth with director Mladenović shortly before the premiere of Ivana the Terrible at this year’s AFI Fest about her inspirations for the film, her second screenplay collaboration with Adrian Schiop, her experimental process in rehearsing her own family and friends for their roles, and her thoughts on the late Anca Pop.

Q: We’re at an exciting time in cinema where many narrative films are moving toward hybrid documentaries that vacillate between reality and fiction such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark and Quý Minh Trương’s The Tree House, and your film certainly exemplifies this approach. What becomes interesting in this paradigm is the idea that sometimes fiction can be truer to the feelings in reality than the real moment itself. As you were writing and filming Ivana the Terrible, how did your memories of real moments of your difficult summer of 2017 impact the creation of a scene? Did the emotional impact of a memory lead you to create more of a true re-enactment or more of a fictionalization of the memory?

A: My first film, Soldiers. Story from Ferentari, is based on the autobiographical book written by Adrian Schiop. Adrian plays himself in the film, together with another brilliant non-actor. It is the story of an anthropologist who moves to the ghetto to write his PhD thesis on manele (contemporary Roma music) and starts an affair with a Roma ex-convict. But, not all of the people performing in the film act as themselves or have lived the moments written in the book and the script. Here, in Ivana the Terrible, I try to expand on this concept. I invited all of the people involved in my summer 2017, my friends, my family, my ex-boyfriends, to relive the emotions that happened then, but this time in front of the camera.

As Andrei, one of the characters, says in a scene in the film: “Whenever you want to talk about your family, you have to realize that you are talking about your family from your point of view, as you perceive it, not as it actually is”—so, this whole story has passed through my filter. And, my point of view on what happened, once written, began to change. We started rehearsing, and by talking, we realized that our memories don’t match. Eventually, we decided that it’s the emotion that matters, and although the characters at first didn’t quite reach the level of emotion that I considered to be genuine, I eventually managed to evoke and capture it while shooting.

Q: We understand that Ivana the Terrible was conceived to be your personal therapeutic method to understanding that summer. As you sought to study yourself in the film, did you also seek to create a personal anthropological study of your hometown of Kladovo?

A: How you feel about your life somehow almost always has to do with your family and the place where you were born and grew up. Even though some memories seem to be hard, now, I find them to be funny and maybe even childish. Just like Soldiers, this film also doesn’t fully reflect reality. I decided to write with Adrian Schiop again for Ivana the Terrible because I enjoy working with him. He is more cynical than I am, and the way he relates to reality is much more interesting and funny. I didn’t want to make a serious movie. The process was strange because at one point, while rewriting the things that happened, they started to get further away from reality, and even if it’s a personal experience, you no longer feel it’s about you. By reliving experiences several times (reality, writing, rehearsals, and shootings), things get easier and make you evolve or change. But in the end, you realize who you were. From this perspective, I find what I did to my character quite funny. The hardest part of it all was getting my family and friends involved in this experiment.

Q: As you mention, this is the second time you’ve worked with anthropologist and writer Adrian Schiop. How do you feel his approach to field studies and, overall, to understanding humans informed your filmmaking process?

Adrian focused his PhD thesis on manele music, but the thesis concentrated on people who lived in the community, not the music itself. In writing about his experiences in Soldiers, he presents the story of a forty year-old anthropologist whose girlfriend recently left him and who decides to move to a ghetto (Ferentari) to conduct research for his PhD thesis on manele music. While there, he meets Alberto, a poor ex-convict who promises to introduce him to Roma musicians, and very quickly, they begin an unpredictable relationship. In transforming Adrian’s book into a film, I never wanted to make an ethnographic study of Ferentari, but through the relationship between Alberto and Adrian’s character, we talk about societal issues that arise in the book and film: we address homosexuality, poverty, marginal communities. And, all of these are always seen through my characters’ points of view.

Of course there is a temptation to concentrate on the exotic parts of a community, because gazes can be diverted. And there in Ferentari, you just want to film everything you see. I felt the same way when making Ivana the Terrible. I placed the story in the middle of the folk festival dedicated to the Serbian-Romanian friendship, and instead of making an ethnographic study, I chose to talk about the Serbian-Romanian relationship through Ivana’s relationship with her small-town community and new friends from Romania who are visiting.

Q: Our deepest sympathies to you on the passing of your friend Anca Pop, who is wonderful in the film. Could you discuss your process of creating her character in the film, given that Anca in real life straddled not only multiple cultures and nationalities but also sexualities? How much of her reality did you want to infuse into her fictionalized form?

A: Besides being an amazingly talented musician, she was also very, very generous in her energy and was inspiring to other people. When I was writing her character, I wanted to make someone Ivana’s character is not only jealous of, but also amazed by. Ivana tries to hide the relationship with the younger boy, and at the same time, she presents herself to her family and her community as a progressive person, without any confidence issues—which is why I have put her in all these moments of conflict in the film. She would very much like to be open like Anca, but it’s harder to take responsibility for that. It’s much easier for her to criticize when she is not accepted.

Q: Throughout Ivana the Terrible, there is this precarious balance between progression toward the future and adherence to old traditions that may be mired by past conflicts between Serbians and Romanians. Was then your desire to book Anca and Andrei’s characters’ experimental folk duo for the friendship festival based on a real effort that you undertook, or was it a manifestation of your frustration about the tendency of your community to dwell in the past?

A: The Romanian-Serbian friendship festival has already been happening for some years in my hometown in Serbia. History reveals a good relationship of cooperation between the two countries. During Ceauşescu, they would come to us for food and supplies, and during the 2000s, we would go to them, but there are some small jealousies between the two cities on the border, and there are jokes about each other depending on the moment in history. We thought crossing from one country to another, and how Ivana changes in relation to the two, is important in the film.

The problem is, or let’s say the humor is, that Ivana is so desperate to teach her small community what she learned abroad, yet she is not ready to accept those things herself. As some nice people said: This is a film which is a portrayal of a generation that seems to be stuck in eternal puberty. Maybe they’re too smart to continue the lives of their parents, but they’re too weak to build the new world.

One thing the two countries have in common is that both citizens want to emigrate. In Ivana’s case, she is kind of stuck in between. Like most of the people who leave their home country, Ivana, too, has to ask herself if she made the right decision.

Q: As a follow up to the previous question, was Anca’s disappearance before the scheduled festival performance indicative of yours or her frustration, or was it simply a moment that actually happened?

A: Anca’s not showing up to the performance is not inspired by reality. While talking about reality and fiction intertwined, that summer, I was reading a lot of Marguerite Duras, and in one of her novels, Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night, the character was drinking a lot, and while reading it, I was thinking that if I ever make that film, Anca should play that character. Also, the novel featured a similar trio of characters with two women and one guy. Maybe that inspired me to make those scenes of maximum frustrations for Ivana’s character not happen in my life, but happen in Anca’s life in other moments.

Q: This final question emerged during the scene when you, Andrei, and Anca meet with the mayor and the festival committee, and Anca goes on about bringing her movement of clitoris bronzing to Serbia. This immediately made us think about the gilded penis in Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie, which he made after fleeing Belgrade and settling in Canada, as Anca’s family did. In that scene, it is as though Anca has taken Makavejev’s creation back to his homeland, but has spun it towards her more modern feminist perspective. Was that a conscious allusion to Makavejev? If this is the case, is the primary underlying current of Ivana the Terrible about the wisdom of travel and creation abroad and how that can be translated when one returns home?

A: He inspired me a lot, and Anca inspired me as well in forming that scene, since she was organizing a real clitoris festival in Romania. Those were some serious topics, but I believe if we discuss them through humor, we might succeed in bringing people closer to the issues. She is my favorite character in the film—the feminist Anca organizing a clitoris festival in Romania and trying to talk about it with Serbian women. I think that little dialogue says a lot about women’s societal positions in both countries.

Interview conducted by Generoso and Lily

The Tree House

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Originally published on Ink 19 on October 12th, 2019

The Tree House (Nhà cây)
directed by Quý Minh Trương
starring Hậu Thị Cao, Lang Văn Hồ, Quý Minh Trương
Levo Films

 

Whilst living on the planet Mars in 2045, a filmmaker decides to capture the world around him. After a playback of sounds heard on Mars, the screen presents a Ruc woman speaking about the cave where she was born, followed by a HMong family eating dinner, followed by the disembodied voice of the filmmaker himself speaking with his father about their home. It seems that our filmmaker’s memory has begun to erode, and thus, he must make these calls to find a necessary glue to assemble the footage that he is capturing on the red planet with footage he has captured in the past in the hopes to reconstruct his own past on Earth, which is eluding him now as he sees his current surrounding terrain and recalls the homes and/or remnants of homes of the people he once interviewed. As the filmmaker journeys through the mountains of Vietnam with his camera, he presents the stories of Hậu Thị Cao of the Ruc people and Lang Văn Hồ of the Kor people, both of whom are from isolated ethnic groups who were forced to leave their homes. Ms. Cao once resided in a system of caves with her family and relocated from cave to cave in order to avoid being forcibly moved from her ancestral land and way of life, but eventually once the Vietnam War had ended, she and her family were forced to move to a constructed village by the North Vietnamese government. Similarly, Mr. Hồ lived in trees of a forest for decades with his father after the village where they called home was bombed, and in 2013, local authorities discovered him and his father and forced them to integrate into society.

In The Tree House (Nhà cây), director Quý Minh Trương skillfully and seamlessly blends the super 16mm images from cinematographer Son Doan and sounds from the day to day life and shared stories conveyed by Ms. Cao and Mr. Hồ with archival footage shot by the United States military during the war of the burning of the homes of the Kor people in Quảng Ngãi province, and then mixes all of this together with the whirling sounds of our director’s space journey to Mars and his reflections on filming communities far different from his own, all of which successfully functions in forming a timelessness that blurs the lines between past and present in order to allow us to sense how these multimedia forms and storytelling methods play into the construction of memory. By establishing this method early in The Tree House, Trương begins to suggest that although we believe that photography, film, and even drawing will help us preserve our memories, history and the subjects of the film have shown us that our reality and our memories stay with us most if we live in them or revisit them in our minds and dreams.

Furthering an assertion that we rely too heavily on physical media to construct memory, Trương narrates about his inability to recall any memories before the age of four, citing that the absence of photos taken of him prior to that age have led to the void early memory space. But, when Ms. Cao states that she remembers the moments during her own birth, this prompts the director to repeatedly ask her if that was indeed her own story, and when she insists that it was, Trương realizes that regardless of the veracity of her memory, it is still valid because any relayed (or even imagined) story and the memory have fused into one, and that combination may be stronger and truer to Ms. Cao’s experience than any footage capturing the moment of her birth. In turn, the director also suggests that the myriad of physical structures that the Ruc and Kor people inhabited, be it the tree house that Mr. Hồ and his father fled to, or the caves that Ms. Cao lived in, have become, in a sense, a home for memories to perpetually inhabit. Or, as evidenced by one of the Jarai tombs for the spirits of the dead, which were constructed and visited once by nearby communities, but lie unattended at the end, structures and their connected memories can symbolize the systematic dissolving of the traditions and even the languages that existed with these ethnic groups as they move away from their original homes. As The Tree House proceeds, it subsequently reveals a conundrum that Godard addressed in his feature from earlier this year, The Image Book, that is inherent in the production of all visual media being produced today: in an age when you cannot always trust what you see, what then is the need of capturing reality at all, especially when the act of capturing it pulls it away from the real and is inherently biased based on the capturer’s perspective?

And consequently, what if culture indeed is less preserved by filming than it is by the capturing and direct retelling of stories and experiences through people’s own memories? If film then serves any purpose according to the director, it is as a disruptive element between history and personal interpretation, and here, he would also argue that empathy is not created in documenting those moments because the camera places an outsider between the subject and the audience. To these ends, Trương presents a moment of accidental filming that occurs as he and his cinematographer walk with the camera unknowingly on and alludes to a contemporary of Godard’s, the late Agnès Varda, and a similar moment she called, “The Dance of the Lens Cap,” in her superb 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I where her unattended camera begins to film. As Varda ultimately depicts in her film, perhaps the accidental capture then becomes the sole unbiased way for the camera to remain as an observer and, consequently, the way for cinema to maintain its vitality.

As The Tree House culminates to an undetermined conclusion, the ideas of ownership of images, memories, and stories are fully brought to the forefront, and it is here that Trương questions his place to capture the stories of these people and make them into a film that will bear his own name. He doesn’t own their stories, their memories, so he maybe shouldn’t keep on trying to capture them and present them as a work of his own creation, but as the languages and cultures of these ethnic groups are vanishing, perhaps the need to document is more crucial than ever, and this open level of introspection that the filmmaker continues to raise throughout the work is the strength of The Tree House. With his clever use of his underlying science fiction construct, Trương can at least maintain an imaginary time and distance buffer between himself and his subjects, which allows him (and us as the audience) to observe them as objectively as possible while simultaneously examining the current implications of the necessity of cinema.

But, with such an experiment, does Trương trivialize the lives of Ms. Cao and Mr. Hồ and the HMong and Jarai communities, whose stories and images are the elements used to construct his discourse on the documentation and preservation of reality and memories? Trương confesses the problematic nature of his position as an outsider and filmmaker, but his admission doesn’t prevent him from ultimately creating and presenting the film he wants. And in the execution of his concept, we see vignettes of his subjects, enough to keep us engaged but not enough to leave the film with any belief that we’ve deeply explored the history and culture of the Ruc, Kor, HMong, or Jarai people. As a result of this approach, the director avoids creating a sterile ethnographic work where we are passive, distant viewers and leaves us with a series of questions that lead us toward an analogous discomfort about our own role as the audience and how we use image, sound, and word to believe that we understand worlds far beyond our own after seeing a film.

Thus, in The Tree House, Trương gives enough basic knowledge and instills enough curiosity in us that at the end, if we want to we go out and learn more about his subjects, that exploration is now our own responsibility. But, he has armed us with skepticism for any media we consume where an outsider is placed between a subject and skepticism for our own desires to interrupt worlds where we do not belong as we seek experiences as visitors who will most certainly leave. The Tree House isn’t a documentary that we could ever walk out of feeling like we necessarily learned a lot about the history and current plights of minority ethnic groups of Vietnam, but it is a documentary where we as audience members are made to feel more responsible and curious about our experiences of home, our motivations for our intrusion into others’ homes and memories, and our obsession with capturing reality. That’s an enormous victory for any piece of art.

 Review by Lily and Generoso

No Place Like Home

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Originally published on Ink 19 on October 9th, 2019

No Place Like Home
directed by Perry Henzell
starring Carl Bradshaw, Susan O’Meara, and P.J. Soles
Shout! Factory

Having spent three decades living in Boston, I always have felt a special attachment to Perry Henzell’s groundbreaking debut feature film, The Harder They Come, the movie that shepherded the growth of reggae into a phenomenon in the United States, whilst simultaneously turning the film’s lead actor, singer Jimmy Cliff, into a global star. Though Henzell’s exciting adaptation of the real life exploits of the notorious Jamaican outlaw, Vincent “Ivanhoe” Martin, was released in 1972 in the States with screenings in New York and Los Angeles that resulted in positive press and a distribution deal with Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Henzell chose to promote the film on his own terms, and in 1973, the director cleverly sent a print to film programmer Larry Jackson of the Orson Welles Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The theater, which had just opened its doors in 1969, was looking to program daring cinema for its midnight film series, so when Jackson saw Henzell’s intense, reggae-fueled crime film, he was floored. Midnight screenings of The Harder They Come began in April of 1973 with a word of mouth campaign that elevated the film to a local phenomenon, which resulted in packed houses at each screening at the theater for the next six years, a trend that would soon spread to other cities around the country, making The Harder They Come a bonafide cult classic and its soundtrack album close to a necessity.

Unfortunately, the Orson Welles Theater, where the film continued to show regularly for years following its initial six year run, burned down in 1986, only a few short months before I moved to the city where I would call home for the next 29 years. I became a reggae disc jockey at a Cambridge radio station for twenty of those years, and I saw firsthand the long term effect that The Harder They Come had on the city. Boston was a cultivator for homegrown reggae bands, and given the city’s fertile Jamaican music scene as well as its large West Indian diaspora communities, Boston was also a mandatory stop for touring bands who performed Jamaica’s national music. So unsurprisingly, given the success and the pervasive influence left by The Harder They Come in my adopted city, the question that I would often hear many ask and then would ponder myself was: “Would there ever be a second feature from Perry Henzell?”

For years, many of us had read rumors of a follow up film that Henzell had begun to direct, but completion funds were difficult to raise, and thus, the project remained dormant. That is until 2006, when Henzell, then at the age of 70 and in poor health, painstakingly recut his existing footage of his second feature which was also shot in 1970s Jamaica entitled, No Place Like Home. In September of that same year, with a finished cut of his follow-up feature finally ready to be shown, the director accompanied his film along with its two stars, Carl Bradshaw (The Harder They ComeCountryman) and Susan O’Meara to the Toronto International Film Festival for a screening in front of an enthusiastic full-capacity audience where it was met with a positive reception only two months before Henzell sadly succumbed to cancer. For the next thirteen years, No Place Like Home would be next to impossible to view, but thankfully a new restoration of the original 16mm film elements hit theaters in New York City and Los Angeles this past August, and those screenings were even sometimes coupled with a new 4K restoration of the original 16mm negative of The Harder They Come.

With a plot that is somewhat reminiscent of John Boorman’s excellent and seldom-seen debut, Catch Us If You CanNo Place Like Home begins with that certain feeling of unease which can only exist whilst under the artificial pall over reality created by advertising execs. Here, a film crew from New York is brought to the beaches of Henzell’s Jamaica to film a “naturalistic” shampoo advert for television centered around the forced waterfall and beachside frolicking of an American actress named P.J. (P.J. Soles of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Halloween fame). At first, P.J. is up for the shoot, but after a day of monotonous fabricated naturalism, she is soon faced with the daunting task of repeating that day’s efforts once the newly rebranded product is rushed to the island. Dreading having to go through that endeavor once again, P.J. takes off without notice to discover the real essence of Jamaica, but like our protagonists in Boorman’s film, she soon faces a military-led raid on the peaceful people who are housing her, and consequently, she flees once again.

As the commercial’s sole actress has gone missing, the production becomes halted, which forces the hand one of the shoot’s producers, Susan (Susan O’Meara) to ask Carl (Carl Bradshaw), a well-connected Jamaican who is assisting with the filming, to accompany her in retrieving our missing star. At first, as the pair gleefully travel around the island in search of P.J., their joy increases as they speak candidly and begin to understand one another while they take in the scenic beauty of the landscape and the people with whom they encounter, but as they travel further and discover the ugly truth behind P.J.s disappearance, the harsh reality of the co-opting of Jamaica for massive commercial development, along with Carl’s and Susan’s growing complicit roles in that endeavor, veers the film towards a finale that is now eerily prophetic and in many ways is even more grim than the bullet-ridden ending of our protagonist in The Harder They Come.

Born in Jamaica in 1936, Henzell left his homeland as a teen to attend McGill University in Montreal, and then he subsequently went to Europe where he became a stagehand at the BBC, before eventually returning to Jamaica in the 1950s to direct television commercials. While viewing No Place Like Home, it is abundantly clear that the influence of Henzell’s ad work experience combined with his personal feelings about the subversion of his native country plays heavily into the narrative, and although the pacing of No Place Like Home does not possess the same relentless intensity of Henzell’s debut feature, it is no less compelling and vivid in displaying the dark reality that lurks behind a media fabricated image.

As Boorman had done in the mid-1960s with Catch Us If You Can in his examination of that era’s perversion of “the pop musician identity” for profit, and as Robert Downey had done with Putney Swope just a few years later in showing that even “soul” was for sale, Henzell’s final film pokes gaping holes into the 1970s commodity for all things “natural” by presenting its seldom-seen destructive consequences that extend far beyond the marketing of a product. All three of these exceptional films erratically utilize music and slick advertising visual sensibilities to further underscore the inevitable subversion of an authentic element for profit, and although it took No Place Like Home many generations to finally come together and get a proper release, the underlying message of the film is no less relevant than it was when Henzell first began shooting it over forty years ago.

Review by Generoso

LILY AND GENEROSO’S TOP TWENTY-NINE FILMS OF THE 2010s

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Post-truth. It’s the compound term that has annoyingly bombarded us in news reporting of all forms throughout this decade, and it’s the term that has set into motion a global feeling in cinema that reality and fiction are dizzyingly colliding. In a sobering response to this feeling where reality is fictionalized and fiction is realized, this past decade has given us a bold new type of film: the hybridized documentary, where elements of documentary are weaved together with fiction storytelling techniques, evoking a fundamental question that we all must face in the digital age: If everything we see and hear can be manipulated, then what can we trust to be the truth? 

According to most of the films that you will find on this best of the decade list, the answer is simple–yourself. Given that so much of our lives are spent in front of screens with content that is biased, we can only really trust our own perceptions, our own memories, our own dreams, and our own emotions, and of course, these are all inherently flawed, but they are all we have. 

This list consists of our favorite twenty-nine films over the past decade. Why? Well, Robert Johnson only recorded twenty-nine distinct songs, and there has always been a hope that the magical thirtieth song can be found. So, even though we watched hundreds of films over the course of the decade, we feel there is a magical thirtieth film that we may have missed for some reason—lack of distribution, lack of appearances at more publicity generating festivals, etc.—and as thus, we’re going to leave a placeholder at thirty for this unknown film.

In selecting these twenty-nine, we had to define some criteria to allow us to filter and rank our favorite films that we’ve seen over the past ten years. For eligibility on this list, we considered three criteria that we tried to make as mutually exclusive as possible: 

  1. Concept: What is trying to be accomplished? How unique is it? 
  2. Execution: How is the concept realized? How innovative is the execution?
  3. Impact: Has the film been so singular in its vision that people have tried to copy it? 

Each film was graded on an A-D adjusted scale, keeping in mind that lower grades in this context were not representative of outright failures but rather weaknesses compared to other favorites, and then these grades were used to inform rank order. Below is the outcome of this process. 

We hope you enjoy our list of our favorite twenty-nine films from 2010 to 2019. Let’s start off with our favorite of the decade…

1) Arabian Nights (As Mil e uma Noites) / Portugal / Dir: Miguel Gomes
In 2013, we placed Miguel Gomes’ Tabu at the number two spot on our best of list of that year. After that magnificent, romantic mess disguised as a postcolonial statement that featured snippets of The Ramones and a sad crocodile, we had patiently waited for Arabian Nights to be released in the US, almost a year after it had debuted at Cannes, and three years after Tabu came to our local theater, it arrived, and it was well worth the wait. To prepare for the film, Gomes sent out reporters throughout Portugal to acquire stories, and these people returned with tales from everyday life, some quiet and nuanced and others so absurd, and ultimately heartbreaking, that for Gomes, the question of making anything remotely near a traditional narrative became impossible for him to do, as evidenced in the first twenty minutes of the film when we witness the director actually running away from his own film crew when faced with the task of making a narrative film under the overwhelming presence of Portugal’s economic crisis that has been brought on through brutal austerity measures. That funny but honest moment is soon followed by the sumptuous image of Scheherazade crossing your screen with the sound of Phyllis Dillon’s rocksteady version of Alberto Domínguez’s “Perfidia” in the background, which is followed by “The Men With Hard-Ons,” a Bertrand Blier-esque comical scene where bankers and government officials appear to be sexually revelling in the work of financially screwing over humanity. As jarring as these moments are in their depiction and sequencing, they only serve to better set up the gut-punching reality of stories such as “The Bath of the Magnificents,” which centers on the annual trip to the ice cold ocean for the unemployed, a Portuguese version of the Polar Bear Swim Club.

Gomes borrowed/stole Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom to lens Arabian Nights, and the combined efforts of Mukdeeprom and Gomes led to an outcome that is years ahead of what we saw in the decade. Gomes’ never loses sight of the fact that he gets to make art for a living while those around him are suffering, and in turn, he has made an epic work that is multifaceted, audacious, and even wild in its approach but is absolutely clear in its urgency to tell the stories of people who are living in desperate situations. Be prepared to ask yourself: “Why am I looking at this?” repeatedly through viewings, and each time, you will find a better answer, especially when you see the chaffinches of the third volume or the ghosts in the second volume. Gomes understands the full range of every human emotion in times of strife, and the stories in Arabian Nights collectively capture how strong, weak, happy, sad, insane, and reasonable we can be.


2) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat) / Thailand/ dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
There are fewer ways to measure the impact of a filmmaker than the increasing use of the director’s name to describe a specific approach to cinema. In the 2000s, Apichatpong Weerasethakul made films that made him one of the pillars of contemporary Thai cinema, but upon the release of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Weerasethakul became the king, one whose construction, subjects, and aesthetics have since been imitated and never successfully replicated. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is magical, bizarre, dream-like, languorous, whimsical, and if you look back on original reviews of the film, many describe it in experiential terms, like basking in a foreign world far outside of one’s usual frame of reference. Yet, despite the great attention given to its fantastical elements, Uncle Boonmee is grounded in something incredibly real–memory and perception. Boonmee is on his deathbed and in his final days, his memories and his current reality fuse together, and this merging allows us to see into Boonmee’s past, his current conscience, and eventually into how he too will be remembered and remain in reality through other’s memories and sights. Buddha, upon attaining nirvana, could recall his past lives. Boonmee, despite the title, does not (and perhaps cannot) recall his past rebirths; however, in looking into his memories and seeing incarnations of them realized as he’s dying, he sees into his past lives as a husband, father, and soldier in his current total life, and altogether, he reaches a different kind of enlightenment where the perceptual barriers between what’s inside of him, what’s in front of him, and what’s beyond fall, and everything merges into one sumptuous plane of being that we, as the audience, amazingly get to experience too. 

In 2016, we had a chance to speak with Apichatpong Weerasethakul about his work. The interview can be read here


3) La Flor / Argentina / dir. Mariano Llinas
One could argue that La Flor belongs on this list simply because of its grand scale. In fourteen hours, director Mariano Llinás gives us six chapters that each separately examine the role of fictional storytelling and the necessity of actresses in cinema. Could the exercise have been tedious? Absolutely. Could it have been completely pretentious and unwatchable? Of course. However, every second of La Flor is captivating, for Llinás embeds his analysis on the nature and future of fictional filmmaking into rich stories gorgeously helmed by his four lead actresses: Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa. In doing so, we get to see kaleidoscopic performances from Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa as they flourish in a vast array of roles that demand something completely different from each other, and as a result, we understand the power of the actress as a muse for great creation and how this power can only manifest itself in fictional filmmaking. Much of this list consists of films that experiment with the lines between reality and fiction, and one of the chapters in La Flor does playfully examine Llinás’ own reality as the director of a massive film that required many years of dedication from his actresses, but overall, La Flor is a celebration of all that fiction can accomplish. It awes us. It underscores our fears. It makes us feel in an abstracted space away from our daily lives. It allows us to escape beyond the barriers of the self. And most importantly, it doesn’t lie to us, for it doesn’t pretend to be the truth, but it does hope to evoke true emotions. Our full review of La Flor is available here. 

 

4) Holy Motors / France / dir. Leos Carax
Here,  we are a bit biased as we truly love all of Carax’s films and have been especially pulling for him since the unfair critical drubbing that he received over Les amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers On The Bridge), which despite its well-publicised overly lavish and costly production, still contains two otherworldly performances from a young Juliette Binoche and Carax regular, Denis Lavant.  After Lovers On The Bridge, eight years passed before Carax’s next feature, Pola X, an adaptation of Herman Melville’s defiant novel, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities,  which marked Carax’s sole entry into the “New French Extremity” movement of the late 1990s/early 2000s. Though we so appreciated Carax’s statement, style change, and boldness with Pola X, it failed both critically and commercially, and thus, this failure, coupled with the death of Carax’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer,  Jean-Yves Escoffier in 2003, meant that we would not see a new feature from Carax (minus his segment in the 2008 triptych, Tokyo) until 2012 when he masterfully returned with Holy Motors, his elegy to both his colleague Escoffier and film itself. In one of the most intentionally varied and brilliant performances of the decade, Denis Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, an actor who travels around Paris in a  limousine/dressing room to various parts of the city to assume a multitude of different “roles” including a drug dealer, a single dad, and our favorite role, a reprise of Monsieur Merde, the flower and money eating monster whom Carax created for his piece in Tokyo. With Holy Motors, Leos Carax, returned to assess the medium of film in a way that is as irreverent as his earliest efforts, but with an informed perspective and questioning that can only be accomplished by a master filmmaker.


5) A Prophet  (Un prophète) /France / dir. Jacques Audiard

With his 2005 film The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon cœur s’est arrêté), director Jacques Audiard sharply reenvisioned  James Toback’s deliriously deranged 1978 crime drama, Fingers, by expanding on the “lost love” aspect of Jimmy Finger’s childhood so as to create a richer portrait of a violent borderline sociopath who must balance his reinvigorated passions with his familial guilt and unspoken nefarious commitments. Though not directly an adaptation like The Beat That My Heart Skipped,  Audiard’s 2010 film, A Prophet, operates in many ways as a modern cinematic correction of the character of another 1970s gangster, Michael Corleone from The Godfather. In A Prophet, we follow Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a sheepish French teenager of Algerian descent, who is sentenced to six years in prison for the accidental injuring of a police officer during a robbery.  Once inside, Malik meets Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the Corsican mob boss who is in control of the prison and coerces Malik into the murder of Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), a Muslim witness in a trial. Though Malik grudgefully carries out the killing, he is reluctant to engage in more crime, but he is again forced to assume a larger role in Luciani’s organization as its members are released from prison. In a smart contrast to The Godfather, as Malik ascends in power throughout the film, he is strengthened by his faith through the apparition of Reyeb, as opposed to Michael Corleone’s Faustian fall from God’s graces as he assumes control of his family. Furthermore, in A Prophet, we too watch the odious rise to power of a member of a contemporary marginalized ethnic group, but absent from Malik’s ascent is the lavish period detail and iconically dark Gordon Willis’ cinematography that surrounded Michael Corleone’s, and in its place is a bleak, desperate, claustrophobic prison and connected criminal world, making Malik’s eventual rise far uglier, yet more heroic. Key to Audiard’s execution of this narrative is the singular performance from young actor, Tahar Rahim, who delivers one of the most impactful performances of an actor of this decade in one of the finest crime films that you will ever see.

 

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

 

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

 

8) The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo) / Philippines / Dir: Lav Diaz
Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story, God Sees the Truth, But Waits, this exceptionally realized, nearly four-hour long drama (a short one for Lav Diaz, actually) is set in the director’s native Philippines during a kidnapping epidemic that took place in 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to China. The Woman Who Left follows the story of Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos-Concio, our best actress pick for this year), a self-educated, forceful, and righteous woman who is released from prison after serving thirty years for a crime that she did not commit. Upon leaving prison, she seeks revenge on the man who framed her, an ex-lover and a wealthy crime kingpin who hides in his home in fear of being kidnapped himself. Despite this setup that seems more suitable for an action blockbuster, Diaz’s film slowly and gracefully unfolds into a final statement on fate and forgiveness through interactions with people who must live and try to survive in the face of corruption led by the government and the Catholic Church, who together appear in league against the basic needs of the common people. And though The Woman Who Left takes place in a Philippines of twenty years ago, you cannot divorce yourself from the relevance of the statements on the strangling arms of corruption raised in Diaz’s film when you see the devastation caused by the anti-drug bloodshed happening on the streets of Manila today.

 

9) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da) / Turkey / dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan
In 2012, Ceylan followed the success of his tense familial drama from 2008, Three Monkeys (. Üç Maymun), with his understated masterpiece of a societal study disguised as a police procedural, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia.  Based on the real life events of a doctor who was forced to work in the Anatolian town of Keskin in order to gain his licence, Ceylan slowly constructs his narrative around the search for a murder victim in the area around Keskin by a group of men including some grave diggers, policemen, and a doctor, all of whom are all led in their hunt by a police commissioner named Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan ) and a suspect named Kenan (Firat Tanis), who has confessed to the crime, but as he was badly intoxicated at the time of the killing, he cannot remember where he buried the body. The brilliance evidenced by Ceylan here is through his unique construction of the narrative that allows the audience to painstakingly examine the repetitive actions and small pieces of dialog that the characters exhibit during the myriad of conversations and stories which are seen and heard throughout the film. This technique, which is skillfully employed by Ceylan by way of small negative revelations of the characters which occur against the flow the natural environment where they all toil, ultimately suggests to the viewer that any progress the people in society would like to attain is inevitably thrown into chaos by their consistent inability to see what is in front of them. 

 

10) Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv) / Romania / dir: Corneliu Porumboiu
Police, Adjective, the exceptional second feature film from Romanian New Wave auteur, Corneliu Porumboiu, picks up right where he left off with 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?) in his framing of his native Romania, which is still mired in uncertainty many years after the revolution. Using Bressonian attention to even the smallest detail, this funny and, at times, dire Romanian dark crime comedy is as much about the letter of the word as it is about the letter of the law. Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a young detective,  questions the ethics of his mandated enforcement of a drug law, one born during the police state of Ceausescu, that will soon be changed once Romania joins the EU. As our dogged officer sets out to trail his suspects, a group of high school students with a tiny amount of hashish, he comes to grip with the reality that his execution of this draconian edict from the former dictator might possibly result in these teens serving serious jail time, which leads our detective into an almost fanatical dissection of language of everything from the laws that he must enforce to the crooked sentimentality inherent in the lyrics of his wife’s beloved pop song. Cristi’s hysterical examination of words soon leads him to doubt and question what he has witnessed with his own two eyes, leaving his chief no choice but to use the dictionary definition of the words about his charge as the only way to define reality against the definition of fairness that might be considered as truth within Cristi’s conscience. 

 

11) Right Now, Wrong Then (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da) / Korea / dir: Sang-soo Hong
Directors Sang-soo Hong and Nuri Bilge Ceylan seem to genuinely appreciate how vile and brilliant they are as human beings. Their films consistently take their worst intentions to task with the difference being that Sang-soo has a lot of fun pointing out the more lascivious aspects of his persona. Utilizing the same Jungian structure as his previous two films, The Hill Of Freedom and The Day He Arrives, where the outcome of one’s life comes down to small decisions, the protagonist of Right Now, Wrong Then plays out alternative courses of a day on screen in different segments prompted by contrasting neurotic interactions. Right Now Wrong Then’s fill-in for Hong’s alter ego is Han Chun-su (Jung Jae-young), an arthouse filmmaker who visits a small mountain town where he proceeds to spend the day trying to bed a beautiful but shy former model turned painter named Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee). The film is divided into two segments where Han uses opposite but similarly insincere techniques, one self-effacing and the other brutally honest, to get Hee-jung to love or at least sleep with him. Awkwardly painful in a way that a young Woody Allen would be proud of, Right Now, Wrong Then (which is actually reminiscent of Allen’s Melinda Melinda) is perfectly executed by the cast and Hong. You leave hating yourself for spending even one second hoping that Han and Hee-jung will hit it off, but you admire Hong for getting you to that point of recoil.

 

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

 

13) Kaili Blues (Lu bian ye can) / China / Dir: Gan Bi
Gan Bi’s Kaili Blues was the most impressive debut feature that we saw in 2016. Though Gan’s film borrows a small portion of its narrative and visual style from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, its uniquely constructed, forty-minute long, single take scene on a motorbike is so clever that it demands to be on this list of the best of the decade. At the beginning of the film, Gan displays the following Buddhist text from the Diamond Sutra: “the past mind cannot be attained, the present mind cannot be attained, the future mind cannot be attained.” The reasoning behind these words remains elusive through the first half of the film as we follow the story of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew who has been sold to a watchmaker, but, when the aforementioned gorgeous single take on the bike occurs, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Gan challenges the medium of film in a bold and compelling way that even few master directors dare to, and for that, Kaili Blues earns its spot on this list. 

 

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

 

15) The Wailing (Goksung) / Korea / Dir: Na Hong-jin
The Wailing was the first horror film since Neil Marshall’s 2005 scare, The Descent, that ranked this high on a top ten list of the year, and like The Descent, Na’s film transcends the genre. Na masterfully uses some fairly grotesque visuals and concepts as diversionary elements in The Wailing to throw you off the trail of not only the cause of evil in the film but also his core social critique of a nepotistic Korean society that chooses to direct anger towards ancient enemies while rotting from within due to outdated familial imperatives that keep people from forming the necessary communities to battle evil as a whole, united front. Na’s striking visuals and moments of intense suffering may cause you to feel a level of confusion due to your own empathy for individual characters and may also distract you from the director’s thesis detailed above, but that is indeed Na’s intention for his beautifully executed allegory. The Wailing will most likely go down as one of the finest uses of the horror genre as metaphor for a society’s woes, meeting (and maybe even surpassing by a tiny bit) the high standard set by George Romero’s use of the zombie trope in Night of the Living Dead to examine America’s issues during the civil rights movement.

 

16) The Duke Of Burgundy / England / dir: Peter Strickland
Since his 2009 debut, Katalin Varga, English director Peter Strickland has been on a roll. In 2012, Strickland took the nebbish Toby Jones to Italy to record foley splatters for giallos in the clever film, The Berberian Sound System. Strickland’s love of sound design comes to the forefront again early in The Duke Of Burgundy, as does his affinity for the mid-1960s brown hues you would recognize from British fare like The Collector. The Duke Of Burgundy follows a housemaid named Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) who is sexually subjugated by a butterfly scholar and collector named Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Is Cynthia actually in charge? We cannot be too sure based on the sexual role playing and alternating dominatrix play that occurs in their home. The Duke of Burgundy bears down on Evelyn and Cynthia’s idiosyncratic tendencies within their relationship and, in turn, what the pair is willing to do in order to maintain their myth of togetherness. This isn’t the worthless pap that is Fifty Shades Of Grey, which was essentially written to make middle American housewives rebel at their pathetic lifelong aversion to sexuality. Strickland expertly weaves his two characters together who are constantly redefining themselves both intellectually and sexually through what they view as growth. Both Cynthia and Evelyn strive to distance themselves away from developing into domicile, “bedroom and kitchen” women, but through their feigned intellectual study and trite sexual endeavors in role playing, the two, especially Cynthia, travel closer to what they are trying so hard to run away from.

 

17) Cemetery Of Splendour (Rak ti Khon Kaen) / Thailand / Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Much has happened in Thailand since Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century, which articulates the director’s reflections on his country’s shift in attitudes from the time of his birth to the present day as seen through the daily activities of a Bangkok hospital staff. In 2014, the Thai army launched a coup d’état and established a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to govern the nation, and to emphasize the contrast in his society from a decade ago, Weerasethakul has again chosen a hospital of sorts as the setting to reflect the current state of his nation—a nation that now sees an importance of the military as its first concern, leaving its citizens to fend for themselves and look towards the west for a means of survival during the military state that is the prevailing government. In Cemetery of Splendour, a ward of soldiers suffering from a sleeping sickness are being treated with the latest in medical technology in a makeshift clinic housed in a school that was built on an ancient site. We meet a volunteer named Jenjira (longtime Weerasethakul collaborator Jenjira Pongpas), who watches over a soldier without a family and then starts up a friendship with a young medium named Keng who uses her abilities to assist the unconscious soldiers communicate with their loved ones. In Syndromes and a Century, we see a country that is steadily favoriting western attitudes, whereas Cemetery Of Splendour shows a Thailand that has been put into a position where it must struggle to simply preserve its beliefs and identity as they are being rewritten by a military force that has its influence everywhere. Cemetery of Splendour is a masterfully realized film composed of understated performances and sublime visuals that have become the standard of Weerasethakul’s work these last twenty years.

 

18) Dogtooth ( Kynodontas) / Greece / dir: Giorgos Lanthimos
This bitingly dark and, at times shocking, satire fittingly begins with an audio tape playing a language lesson in which the word for “sea” is  “armchair.” The parents (Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley) who recorded this tape are creating a world for their three innocent, yet elder captive children, a world where zombies are wild flowers, cats are deadly predators, and pussy is a bright light. Such is the reality created in this middle class fortress which is complete with its massive garden and giant walls. The children and their mother know full well the limits of their movement, which ends at the front gate, and they are told that the only safe travel is via the family car, which can only be used by the father. The father’s plan goes as well as can be expected until the only outside visitor to the home, a security guard from the father’s workplace named Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), is brought in to satisfy the sexual needs of his teenage son, but when Christina is oddly left without parental supervision to interact with the daughters, she begins to plant the seeds of rebellion in them. Produced directly after the beginning of the Greek government-debt crisis of the late 00s, which led to a series of sudden reforms and austerity measures that caused a massive recession, Dogtooth suggests that, given our grim economic outlook and diminished ability to take part in society, we are fast approaching an era where people will withdraw even further from outside human interaction, leaving them only with the Web to create their own realities based on whatever online doctrine they need to accept as their own in order to make sense of the horror awaiting them in the future. 

 

19) Tabu / Portugal / dir. Miguel Gomes
Miguel Gomes’ comically executed and insightful third feature, Tabu, begins during the era of the Murnau 1931 film of the same title, and here, we witness a lovelorn explorer and his native guides trudging through the thicket of the “dark continent” while on the search for a melancholic crocodile whom our passive adventurer gives himself up to willingly. The tribesmen who have accompanied our martyr to his end respond to this sacrificial moment by dancing with joy, and then, surprise! You are now in a movie theater in Lisbon and are face to face with the middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who sits alone with a bewildered stare as the title card above the scene introduces, “Part One: Paradise Lost,” the title of the second part of the homonymous Murnau film. The devoutly Catholic and beneficent Pilar resides in the same apartment as Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly woman who frequently gambles away all of her money and whose maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), is a Cape Verdean woman and voodoo practitioner who Aurora fears is plotting against her. As we examine the mistrustful interactions between Aurora and Santa, there exists a purposeful allusion to the barbarous remnants of Portugal’s colonial past. As part one of Tabu continues, Aurora’s health fades, and she tasks Pilar with locating a Gian-Luca, a man from Aurora’s past whom she believes is longing for her. When Pilar locates him, part two of Tabu begins, a segment entitled, Paradise (again, the inverse title from Part One of Murnau’s film), where Gian-Luca’s voice details his life with Aurora in early 1960s Africa before the Portuguese Colonial War began. It is in the second half of the film where Gomes employs the subjective nature of Gian-Luca’s memory during this ugly period of imperialism to recall moments from his past with Aurora, small moments in their lives that resulted in actual historical consequences. As Murnau’s film of forbidden love in Bora Bora exploited the colonial backdrop of that place and era for tragic romance, Gomes brilliantly transposes the narrative of Murnau’s film to stress contemporary Portugal’s selective memory when dealing with the evils of its colonial past.


20) Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Di qiu zui hou de ye wan) / China / Dir: Gan Bi

In his impressive debut feature, Kaili Blues, Gan Bi told a story in two halves of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew, who has been sold to a watchmaker. In that film, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra he presents by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Like Kaili Blues, Gan Bi’s alluring and immensely enjoyable latest feature, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also divided into two segments, with each distinctively challenging our understanding of time, narrative, and character to setup a contrast that dares us to unravel all of our notions of cinema, storytelling, memory, and experience. Through a pastiche of scenes that seem all too familiar, Gan playfully utilizes cinematic language primarily through tropes found in Hitchcock’s Vertigo that could be seen as homage, but serve more importantly as references that force us to draw from our memories of moments and characters in Vertigo and other film noirs so deeply embedded in our consciousness, to take us further away from the story that we are witnessing on our own, leading us to distort our interpretation of the main narrative with our recall of similar images and how they impacted us. As much as the first part of the Long Day’s Journey Into Night utilizes cinematic tropes and symbols, narrative construction, and memory recollection to assemble the characters’ disjointed realities, the second part of the film strips away all of that and becomes purely an experience, one that is languid and trance-like, but is perhaps the truest way that we navigate psychological representations assembled from reality, and in turn may be the way we interpret and understand reality itself. Whereas Godard’s recent film, The Image Book, addresses the failure of cinema to capture reality by using jarring images and sounds in an entirely experimental framework, Long Day’s Journey Into Night addresses this same problem with the contrast between the two parts of the film. Our full review of the film is available here.

 

21) Güeros / Mexico / dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios
Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is a teenage malcontent who lives in Veracruz with his mother. After pulling one nasty prank too many, mom sends Tomás to live with his layabout college student brother Federico/Sombra (Tenoch Huerta), who lives in a miserable apartment in Mexico City with another slack named Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris). Neither is actually in school because they are sitting out the student strike at their university caused by a change in policy that will now charge students for tuition for the first time in history. Shortly after arriving, Tomás tells his new roommates that his and Sombra’s favorite rock singer, Epigmeneo Cruz is dying in a hospital, and they have to see him before he goes, which is fine for the boys, since their large downstairs neighbor is about to kill them for stealing electricity. Set in 1999, their comedic voyage through the streets of Mexico City leads them to encounters with protests, dangerous gangs, and freaks on their quest to find their rock hero, and these elements on the surface appear to setup Güeros as a sentimental homage to both the raw looseness of the French New Wave and the embracing of the “experience” inherent in the American road films of the 1960s, but what Ruizpalacios cleverly presents to you instead is a cinematic bait and switch, as none of the grand cathartic moments that you’ve come to expect through the aforementioned setups actually transpire. You leave Güeros having enjoyed the humorous interactions of our leads, but after being served this seemingly nostalgic journey, you now question the value of cinema’s past efforts in romanticising crucial sociopolitical issues.


22) Jimmy P: The Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian ( Jimmy P: Psychothérapie d’un indien des plaines) / France / dir. Arnaud Desplechin

Since the beginning of his outstanding feature film career in the early 1990s which started with The Life of the Dead (La vie des morts), director Arnaud Desplechin has excelled in working with ensemble casts, but with his 2013 film,  Jimmy P., Desplechin presents to us an intimate portrait of a real life doctor and patient relationship that breaks away from many of the previous cinematic depictions of psychological case studies. Jimmy P. is Jimmy Picard (portrayed by Benicio Del Toro who delivers one of his finest performances), a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe and a World War II veteran who suffers from hallucinations, headaches, temporary blindness, and anxiety attacks, and as a result, he is admitted to the Topeka Military Hospital, an institution that specializes in diseases of the brain. There, Jimmy is first diagnosed with schizophrenia, but this opinion is challenged by Georges Devereux (another bravura performance from Desplechin regular and frequent alter-ego, Mathieu Amalric), an ethnopsychiatrist who once lived with the Mojave. Devereux became a disciple of Freud after observing how crucial dreams were in Native American cultures that he lived with in the United States, and it is that aspect of his professional experience combined with the doctor’s own outsider cultural background as a converted Catholic who was born a Romanian Jew and whose family fled to France following World War I that provides him with the unique and necessary tools required to delve into the complex issues that are causing Jimmy to suffer. Desplechin never rushes towards dramatic climaxes, and he gives his two protagonists ample space to play off of one another as they work towards the root of Jimmy’s trauma, but nothing is resolved cleanly, and there is no miracle, curative breakthrough here. As Jimmy progresses in his treatment, what becomes the takeaway of Desplechin’s film is what we learn about Jimmy and the Blackfoot people and some of the many transgressions against them, transgressions which this soldier has internalized while trying to serve the country that has rejected him.

 

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

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

 

24) A Touch of Sin / China/ dir. Jia Zhangke
Babylon is burning, and violence is becoming people’s only solution to the desperation stemming from the widening income gap and surges of corruption in China. Inspired by four news stories representing a sample of this exponentially increasing trend for the worse, Jia Zhangke strips out any poetry, any breath of relief from A Touch of Sin, giving us one of the most deliberate and unrelenting films of the last decade. In four parts, we see how societal inequality is pushing people outside of the wealthy class towards destruction. A mine worker has had enough of his boss’s exploitation of his village. An angry man on a motorcycle returns home and sees the radical difference between the meager lives of his family and the lives of the wealthy in the city. A spa receptionist refuses to be abused any further when two local politicians beat her after she refuses to provide them with sexual services. A sweet young man arrives to the city, works at a brothel then a Foxconn factory, and finds out the bleakness of trying to survive. Every image in A Touch of Sin has a meaning, and together, they remind us of the forgotten beliefs in Communism and Buddhism and launch us into a broken world where the winners have it all and will push to retain their luxury goods and power by oppressing everyone below. A Touch of Sin is violent, urgent, angry, and it’s desperate to show the world the hearts of darkness behind China’s economic growth and national news media reports. 

 

25) Night Moves / USA / dir. Kelly Reichardt
To us, Kelly Reichardt, is one of the few great voices left in American independent cinema. Since her debut film, River of Grass, some twenty years ago, Reichardt has established herself as the queen of minimalist filmmaking here in the States. She was noticeably absent for a period after her 2010 gem Meek’s Cutoff, but she returned after three years with her best film of the decade, Night Moves. With less of the pure observational construction of her earlier films such as Old Joy, Night Moves is a critical indictment of the modern environmental movement that Reichardt skillfully crafts from strong performances from her three leads. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) live among faux-liberal collective farms, ignoring their own privilege as they plot to destroy a seemingly unimportant hydroelectric dam with the help of Harmon (Peter Saarsgard), a hypocritical and marginalized Gulf War veteran. Josh and Dena seem to be existing in an era that no longer exists and only plot this destruction to prove to themselves and others that they are true believers in the cause. The film and the boat used for Josh, Dena, and Harmon’s terrorist action are interestingly named after the long lost Arthur Penn film from the 1970s when such explosive actions of protest were used and yielded mixed long-term results. 

 

26) The Tree House (Nhà cây) / Singapore | Vietnam | Germany | France | China / dir. Quý Minh Trương
Part naturalist documentary, part space diary, part discourse on ethnography, part thesis on the value of physical media, The Tree House (Nhà cây) weaves stories about home from members of the HMong, Jarai, Ruc, and Kor people together with the reflections of a film director (portrayed by director Quý Minh Trương himself) on Mars in 2045 recalling his previous filming activities in Vietnam as he attempts to begin a new project documenting the red planet. In his film, Trương primarily focuses on Hậu Thị Cao, a Ruc woman who grew up in a remote cave system, and Lang Văn Hồ, a Kor man who grew up in a tree house deep in the jungle of Quảng Ngãi province. Both Ms. Cao and Mr. Hồ were displaced from their original homes by war or the ruling government, and in presenting their stories and memories of their original homes and their experiences of becoming outsiders in their own country, Trương opens up a line of questioning that first addresses the physical and mental representations of home as a concept, then naturally expands into the right to ownership of the physical, be it the home or the image, and then finally suggests the value of memory over the physical. By the end of The Tree House, Trương leaves us with many questions about the purpose of any attempt to document reality and the moral quandary of doing so in environments where we don’t belong, making us wonder about the purpose of his own work, yet forcing us to face our own tendency to document everything in our social media age and our desire to see into places far away where we have no investment, all of which lead us to fail to look and experience what’s in front of us and what’s in our own memories. Our full review of the film is available here.

 

27) The Image Book (Le livre d’image) / France / dir. Jean-Luc Godard
As with Godard’s work over the last few decades, The Image Book is a montage piece, editing together concepts and created with a narrative, or rather the creator’s personal thoughts, that appear selected by the current era. We must gaze upon this work as an installation piece, gathering the combination of sounds and visuals as a combined form in a single viewing and releasing any sense (and expectation) of traditional film language, as it has been Godard’s goal to further the language of film past any sense of where we feel entirely comfortable viewing it. When experiencing Godard’s construction here, you see attempts to look at the ability of sound and image capturing and playback to actually freeze, perceive, and repeat reality, and without being pessimistic about the form, for this may be the director’s way of dismissing the medium, The Image Book’s primary concern is whether or not film is an appropriate conduit to capture reality. We understand that we experience what is real and recall what is real in desperate ways, and fundamentally, if cinema does the same, then it may be the closest way to show how we understand our world, even though that recollection, that attempt to recall the real may result in a falsehood. Fundamentally, the overwhelming success of The Image Book, as with most of Godard’s work throughout his career, comes primarily from the experiments attempted. Successful or not as these experiments may be, they operate within the structure of the film to create a unique cinematic language. With his 47th feature, Godard, through the daring exploration and manipulation of old and new visuals and sound, has been able to duly note and thoughtfully deconstruct the core facets of cinema in order to find paths for its continued evolution as a vital device for interpreting reality. Our full review of the film is available here.

 

 28) Interruption / Greece | France | Croatia / Dir: Dir: Yorgos Zois
Set in a theater in Athens, Zois’ daring film, Interruption, uses a post-modernist adaptation of Aeschylus’ classic Greek tragedy, Oresteia, as the center of his meditation on the Dubrovka Theatre incident. While a performance of the play is taking place, the armed Chorus, consisting of seven people, forcibly takes the stage and apologizes for the “interruption” and then soon calls out for a group of audience members to take the stage so that they can establish an order for the remaining narrative. Now, several more members of the audience mount the stage, which prompts the leader of the Chorus, who takes a seat in the front row, to interview this new assortment of audience volunteers one after another, asking about their professions and even going as far as asking some of them personal questions regarding their romantic relationships. In this group of audience volunteers is one professional actor whom the Chorus leader casts in the role of Orestes, who, based on the original text, has the intention to murder his own mother, Clytemnestra. Now onstage are two people portraying Orestes, and the line further blurs between spectator and actor, and with it, a debate that argues the necessity to carry out Orestes’ act of matricide from a moral standpoint against the original narrative of the play, further breaking down the structure between the intended goal of the author and the role of the spectator as a passive observer. So, what role does the filming of this event serve in this adaptation? As Zois explained at a screening: “I wanted to create a cinematic world where the viewer could use all his senses and experience a voyage to a world that blends the limits between life and art, fiction and reality, logic and absurdity—a cinematic enigma that offers no single solution but offers you the chance to see a different view each time you look through a different view. This film is about the art of viewing and what does viewing mean and the point of view, and no one sees the same thing in the same way.

 

29) Drug War (Du zhan) / China / Johnnie To
Johnnie To has made a career of cinematic one-upmanship, consistently challenging the limits of the action genre, and whether it’s The Mission (Cheung Foh) or A Hero Never Dies (Chan Sam Ying Hung), To seems to have an endless imagination in constructing characters and situations that make other director’s entries in the genre look tame by comparison. With 2012’s Drug War, To even surpasses his own oeuvre by making one of the most intensely nihilistic and downright nastiest crime films of this decade. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is a notorious drug lord and epic rat whom dedicated police captain, Zhang (Honglei Sun) milks for information so that he can get in tight with the top bosses. For the first portion of Drug War, To seamlessly allows the conflicts between Zhang and Timmy to build tension and drive the narrative towards the second half of the film where action completely takes over. Drug War then progresses in Johnnie To’s wheelhouse, that feverishly haywire space where the construction of the scenes feels shambolically put together, but To’s method successfully adds to the surprise that you feel when everything comes apart in a manner that you never see coming. Though Jia Zhangke’s vital 2013 film, A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) addresses a wider range of crucial criminal and social issues that are currently plaguing mainland China, To’s Drug War urgently delivers its singular message of the country’s rapidly growing dependence on illegal narcotics and the governmental response to that problem, which is being handled in a way that is more haphazard and deadly than the offense itself. 

 

LA FLOR

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Originally published on Ink 19 on July 30th, 2019

La Flor
directed by Mariano Llinás
starring Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa
Grasshopper Film

Over the next few months, many of us who write about film will dig through our journals from the last ten years to try and create a canon of the cinema that has profoundly impacted us, and in this excavation and reflection process, we will begin to discover recurring themes and concepts brought forth by those filmmakers whose work we have so appreciated. As I personally have begun to dig through the many “best of” lists that I have created since 2010, what I found during this time that has distinguished this era of filmmaking in terms of the redefinition of the form is the melding of documentary and fiction, which has been indicative of this time period when the ability to change the perception of real events through media has never been easier. Many of the films that have topped my lists during these last few years such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time It Gets Dark and Gürcan Keltek’s Meteors have come to represent this vital trend in contemporary cinema which reflects the emotional and physical outcomes of the media manipulation of real events. Though this analysis of the medium in addressing its own place in capturing reality is essential to the progression of cinema, such self-examination does raise concerns about the potential loss of drama in storytelling and its ability to engage using known classical structures and to evoke sympathy and/or empathy. But thankfully, a few years prior to the beginning of this decade, Argentinian director, Mariano Llinás began to conceive a massive project of six parts entitled La Flor, which would take the next decade to be completed as it would experiment with nearly all existing conventions of narrative construction in film and all within multiple genres under the aforementioned paradigm of cinematic assessment, contemplation, and reflection.

As with his much heralded 2008 feature, Historias extraordinarias (Extraordinary Stories), a film where Llinás explored different storytelling methods, La Flor furthers his attempts at dissecting the value in established narrative forms, and this epic undertaking begins in a similar fashion to Miguel Gomes’ superb and equally medium examining/expanding 2015 film, Arabian Nights, with our director stating his intentions for what you are about to see directly into the camera. Unlike Gomes, who relies on a structure similar to the one set in place by Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Llinás draws a graph using primarily single-direction, non-terminating arrows that begin at a central point and all together form the shape of a flower to represent the construction of his six part film and then places us in part one—a campy B-grade mummy film. This segment provides us with our first glimpse at Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa, the four actresses from the Argentine theater who are the emanating center of the flower and who would subsequently work with Llinás over the next ten years, carrying the weight of this undertaking while exhibiting versatility and depth of performance in the many roles that they play. The narrative construction isn’t the only domain of experimentation in La Flor, as the dominant aspects of the characters whom these actresses must portray are sometimes purposefully reversed as we go from segment to segment, as seen in episode two, when Pilar Gamboa, who has just served as a shaman in episode one’s horror film, must now play the talented half of a separated popular songwriting duo, but in episode three, the longest episode of La Flor, clocking in at almost six hours, Gamboa must embody the role of a Cold War era spy who has nary a word of dialog as she was born a mute. For all four of our actresses in La Flor, these dramatic, yet playful shifts in genre, storytelling methods, and cinematic language provide them with a continuous stage to develop and display their abilities in an eclectic way that has never been attempted at this scale.

As episode four begins, Llinás, via a stand-in filmmaker, vents his frustrations, or perhaps the frustrations we as the audience expect/imagine, that emerge when working on a film of such scale as La Flor. Here, we meet a director, dressed almost identically as Llinás, attempting to make some sort of an environmental horror film, which is part of a fictional graph-based film, La Araña. However, this genre-film segment of La Araña backfires when the actresses (Llinás’ essential four) step out of their roles to question the proceedings and ambiguity surrounding the entire film. This embedded breaking of the fourth wall sends Llinás’ proxy comedically fleeing from his cast after six years of working together, and against his actresses’ and much of his production team’s wishes, the director embarks on a wide search for the perfect trees to film, which regrettably ends in frustration and forces him to undergo a reimagining of the drawn schematic for La Araña‘s construction. This documentary-styled meta-exercise becomes a farce that leads Llinás’ stand-in to fervently search the internet and a network of booksellers for ideas, but his search within established literary sources sends the proxy into madness and causes him to vanish, allowing Llinás to pivot the rest of episode four towards Gatto, a paranormal researcher who investigates the filmmaker’s disappearance. In tracing the lost director’s steps, Gatto’s work culminates in a purposefully clumsy adaptation of a lost episode from the life of famed lothario, Giacomo Casanova, which forms a visual acknowledgement of Llinás’ proxy’s demonization of the four dominant actresses who are essential to his work. But, that contempt and La Araña itself are works of fiction (even if some of the sentiments of frustration could have come from the reality of filming La Flor), and Llinás cascades the scenes summating his proxy’s struggles with the actresses into sumptuous, silent portraits of Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa, ending episode four with a loving, almost sentimental homage to the women who are the foundation of La Flor.

After this tribute to his actress quartet, Llinás leaves them behind in episode five in order to address the tradition of the cinematic remake, creating his own silent version of Jean Renoir’s post-war featurette, Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country). In this episode, Llinás repositions the characters’ actions as a comment on the roles that men have constructed for women and themselves in cinematic history. He achieves this by creating a modern outcome for the female characters, forming a different take than Renoir’s film as he reimagines the women as independent of the men with whom they have shared a tryst with, which sets up La Flor perfectly for its final part, an episode that sees a return to the screen for Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa as they become the embodiment of the struggles in the journey of a 1900s rural English teacher, Sarah S. Evans, who was lost in the desert for a decade after escaping her Indian captors. With scenes and quotes taken from accounts in Evans’ journal, in this last episode, we see our actresses’ toward the end of the journey through the harsh desert terrain through the director’s diffused lens, and their triumph in escaping the desert and being able to look toward any future in Evans’ world parallels the world for women in cinema and predicts a future where women can acknowledge their past representations and can move forward by gaining control of their own stories and performances, leaving another episode of La Flor open-ended, but in a way that creates an optimistic vision of what is hopefully to come in the medium as far as new narratives are concerned.

Much will be made of the necessity of La Flor‘s 14-hour running time, but as we approach the end of this decade of filmmaking, the cinematic fictional-storytelling gut check that La Flor provides in its exhaustive review and investigation of language, performance, and perspective is greatly welcomed and is key in re-establishing the importance of fiction and the creation of the imagined. Through the bold performances of Llinás’ four leads that shine through the concentrated and varied storytelling techniques incorporated to analyze all of the elements that consist of filmmaking as an art and a practice, we gain a newfound appreciation for the emotional impact that such performances provide when a narrative is faced with the biases and clichés that are found in traditional film production and when the medium is placed into a meta-examination as is necessary in this time. With La Flor, Llinás has found the balance between the immersiveness of fiction, the awareness of non-fiction, and the enlightenment of self-examination, making his film a perfect culmination of the past decade and a welcoming step towards the next one

Review by Generoso and Lily Fierro

www.filmlinc.org/films/la-flor

grasshopperfilm.com/film/la-flor

PASOLINI

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Originally published on Ink 19 on May 10th, 2019

Pasolini
directed by Abel Ferrara
starring Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli

In the period leading up to his brutal and controversial murder on November 2, 1975 on the beach at Ostia, iconoclastic Italian poet, writer, and film director, Pier Paolo Pasolini was working on the edits of his last feature, his loose adaptation of the book by the Marquis de Sade, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which was released weeks after his death, a screenplay for his next film, Porno-Teo-Kolossal, and an experimental novel, Oil (Petrolio). In the film Pasolini, American director Abel Ferrara brings the auteur’s final works to cinematic realization and interweaves these pieces of Pasolini’s artistic and intellectual being with moments from his reality in the days before his death, creating a portrait of one of the most important artistic figures to emerge from post-war Italy which breaks away from the rigid constraints of the biopic by allowing the subject’s creative output and voice to endure far beyond his all too brief existence.

Through the performance of actor Willem Dafoe as the titular character, Ferrara recreates the final days of Pasolini’s life in a somewhat traditional fashion. We observe Pasolini’s creative process and his interactions with his mother (Adriana Asti), friends, and colleagues, and it is these intimate views that form the fragile human element of Pasolini’s portrait, which Ferrara combines with acted out excerpts from actual interviews conducted with Pasolini leading up to the release of Salò and an internal dialog based on the director’s own correspondence to give us a glimpse into his complexity as an intellectual and somewhat prophetic being. However, these interactions and dialogs primarily establish Pasolini, the Man, so in order to capture Pasolini, the Creator, Ferrara intermittently shifts his focus away from the representation of the last hours of his life and devotes a significant percentage of the film to the vivid productions of the last artistic and unfinished works of Pasolini. In the creative efforts that we see, Ferrara draws a clear distinction between what was realized during Pasolini’s life and what he was planning to release. We see a moment in the studio where Pasolini works on the final cut of Salò, and here, there is no attempt by Ferrara to recreate the footage of that film. In contrast, Ferrara stages his adaptation of moments from the incomplete novel, Petrolio as well as scenes from the screenplay for Porno-Teo-Kolossal, going as far as casting Pasolini’s lover and actor Ninetto Davoli as the protagonist of these never before visually realized segments of Pasolini’s unfinished creative output. In combining the extracted scenes of Salò with the staged interpretations of Pasolini’s unreleased works, Ferrara amplifies the tragedy of the director’s death by exhibiting the loss of potential while simultaneously extending the immortality of his artistic expressions and intellectual thoughts well past his own physical mortality.

In previous interviews, Ferrara had stated that his original intended approach for this production was an in-depth examination of Pasolini’s murder through multiple perspectives of the crime in order to present the audience with the different theories that have been suggested in the forty plus years since his death. Though Ferrara didn’t elaborate on why he considered then abandoned that approach, one can only imagine that given the turbulent aspects of Pasolini’s life, you could gain a greater understanding of his complex persona via the plethora of enemies whom he acquired during his life through his incendiary statements made in his art or direct interviews. Pasolini has often been described as a Catholic Marxist, but neither his Marxism nor his Catholicism was in line with the dogma associated with either ethos. Adding to the resentment shown towards him while living in a primarily Roman-Catholic country, in 1963, Pasolini contributed the segment, La ricotta to the compilation film, RoGoPaG, and it was that film which saw governmental prosecution of its creators due to an outdated law from the fascist era that banned “insulting the religion of the State,” which subsequently resulted in a large fine for the producer and a suspended prison sentence for Pasolini. He was a consistently ardent and vocal critic of consumerism, and in 1975, shortly before his death, Pasolini accused the Christian Democratic party leadership of a number of crimes including: collaborations with the CIA, cover-ups of bombings by neo-Fascists, , and ties with organized crime, and, thus, the number of potential assassins who could’ve been culpable for his death is high.

Consequently, Ferrara could have easily constructed a piece that relied more on a factual analysis of Pasolini’s life through the perspective of those who disagreed with him who could have contributed to his demise, but that approach would have diminished the pure essence of the man who most importantly was a creative being. As such, in order to understand how Pasolini dealt with the negative aspects of the world around him, the most effective approach to representing his existence is the one that Ferrara eventually decided upon and employed in Pasolini, for the images from Petrolio and Porno-Teo-Kolossal that we see onscreen as interpreted by Ferrara depict Pasolini’s internal self: his belief in the freedom of hedonism, his revulsion of the loss of identity in Rome, and his reaction to societal loathing of homosexuality. These moments from his works now visualized say more to the fact that, although Pasolini was in conflict with the world around him, he was still creating art to depict a world that he would feel free to dwell within.

A fact that I found stunning in this production was that not only did Ferrara have the ability to shoot at many of the locations that Pasolini frequented, but also he was fortunate to have access to many personal items belonging to the late director which allowed him to further combine the imaginative and real. In his performances illustrating Pasolini’s daily life, Dafoe wears Pasolini’s own clothing. And, in the final frames of the film, we see an object that solidifies one of the greatest dichotomies about the writer and director: his appointment book. Ferrara presents the book open to the following day’s page, allowing the audience to clearly see that despite Pasolini’s pessimism about the future, he had hoped that the next day would be one where he could continue to reimagine and challenge reality through his art

Review by Generoso Fierro

www.kinolorber.com/film/pasolini

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

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Originally published on Ink 19 on April 12th, 2019

Long Day’s Journey Into Night
directed by Bi Gan
starring Huang Jue, Tang Wei, and Sylvia Chang

In his impressive debut feature, Kaili Blues, Bi Gan told a story in two halves of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew, who has been sold to a watchmaker. In that film, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra he presents by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Like Kaili Blues, Bi Gan’s alluring and immensely enjoyable latest feature, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also divided into two segments, with each distinctively challenging our understanding of time, narrative, and character to setup a contrast that dares us to unravel all of our notions of cinema, storytelling, memory, and experience.

The first part of the film spans a timeline between the year 2000 and present day that begins with Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returning to his mountain hometown of Kaili for his father’s funeral. Here, Luo unrelentingly searches for the woman whom he once loved, Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei), beginning his quest after he finds a photo of her behind an old clock. As the memories of their relationship are recalled in a fragmented manner that purposefully confuses the sequence of events and the past and present identities of the characters in a nod to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, Gan plays with the clock to create an element of uncertainty in the viewers’ perception of the real and the unreal.

Through a pastiche of scenes that seem all too familiar, Gan playfully utilizes cinematic language primarily through tropes found in Hitchcock’s Vertigo that could be seen as homage, but serve more importantly as references that force us to draw from our memories of moments and characters in Vertigo and other film noirs so deeply embedded in our consciousness, to take us further away from the story that we are witnessing on our own, leading us to distort our interpretation of the main narrative with our recall of similar images and how they impacted us.

Gan also starkly employs color to pull us between the world he creates and the world he knows we imagine, seen most evidently in the choice of the green dress that Quiwen wears, evoking memories of Kim Novak while blending Quiwen into the natural surroundings, making manifestations of her appear like hallucinatory events that further the misinterpretation of real moments through potentially clouded, passed memories. As the flashbacks of Luo and Quiwen’s troubled, violent beginnings are deliberately obfuscated by Gan using the aforementioned approaches, what remains for the viewer is a sharp comment on the role that the police and restrictive government has played during the elapsed era between Luo and Quiwen’s affair at the beginning of the millennium and today.

Apart from the delivery of the crucial political comment realized in the first half of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, what that section of the film establishes is an important setup for the much heralded 3D tracking shot that sends Luo after he wakes up (or perhaps doesn’t wake up) in a movie theater on a new journey under tunnels, down cables, through Kaili as he further searches for Quiwen. In the second half, Gan examines the same themes as the first, the same characters, the same moments with a somewhat similar approach by referencing his own tracking shot in Kaili Blues, but while we are thinking about that great accomplishment in Kaili Blues or are paralyzed by our awe that such a continuous tracking shot is happening, Gan forms a different, clearer visual aesthetic that sends us into a dream state where the weaving of memories into the dream takes an oddly linear form, free of the impediments caused by the natural stimuli response and activation encountered in a conscious state.

As much as the first part of the film utilizes cinematic tropes and symbols, narrative construction, and memory recollection to assemble the characters’ disjointed realities, the second part of the film strips away all of that and becomes purely an experience, one that is languid and trance-like, but is perhaps the truest way that we navigate psychological representations assembled from reality, and in turn may be the way we interpret and understand reality itself. Whereas Godard’s recent film, The Image Book, addresses the failure of cinema to capture reality because the medium’s conventions are antithetical to reality with jarring images and sounds in an entirely experimental framework, Long Day’s Journey Into Night addresses this same conundrum with the contrast between the two parts of the film. The continuous shot that forms the second part of the film feels documentary-like, but the moment we are reintroduced to Quiwen as a new character, we start to see how the dream can emphasize the real, resembling how we reimagine people in our lives, places we’ve seen, and ultimately ourselves in our dreams. If the first part of the film presents reality in constructed, contained moments in non-linear order like how we recall our memories, then the second part of the film explains how we intuitively, instinctively perceive all of those moments when we travel to the deepest parts of our unconscious mind and explore. 

Review by Generoso & Lily Fierro

www.kinolorber.com/film/long-days-journey-into-night

Babylon

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Originally pubished on Ink 19 on March 6th, 2019

Babylon
directed by Franco Rosso
starring Brinsley Forde
Kino Lorber Repertory and Seventy-Seven

There is a single, glaring line from the obituary for director Franco Rosso that was written in The Guardian by Quadrophenia and Babylon screenwriter, Martin Stellman, that I am compelled to begin this review of Babylon with, solely for the reason that I feel that this film in particular and Rosso’s life are forever intertwined:

“Babylon marked him [Rosso] out as a fearless chronicler of the dispossessed.”

I don’t usually isolate quotes, but I have always felt a deep kinship with director Franco Rosso, as we were both children of Italian immigrants who had left the homeland shortly after World War II to the countries that had defeated Italy: Rosso’s parents emigrated to England, specifically to Streatham, south-west London, and my parents to the United States, to a working-poor section of South Philadelphia. We both grew up in areas where Italians were few, and we were both inexplicably drawn to Jamaican music, as that music, like it has been for so many who have felt isolated, became an anthem for our feelings of alienation. In my mid-20s, I took my lifelong love of ska and reggae and became a DJ at WMBR, an FM station in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and thankfully in his mid-20s, Franco Rosso, who had worked as an assistant on Ken Loach’s classic British film, Kes, and as an editor on John and Yoko’s documentary, Bed Peace, became a cutter on what many consider the first documentary on reggae music in England, director Horace Ové’s chronicling of the 1970 Wembley concert that featured Desmond Dekker, The Pioneers, and the Maytals: Reggae.

In 1973, Horace Ové co-produced one of Rosso’s earliest directorial efforts, a short documentary entitled Mangrove Nine, which was a critical view of the arrests that occurred during an action where black residents protested the longtime police harassment of The Mangrove Restaurant, a community activism center in Notting Hill. The landmark case that followed the arrests resulted in the first judicial recognition of “evidence of racial hatred” in England. As Stellman also noted in his obituary for Rosso, “The film [Mangrove Nine] was so uncompromising in its portrayal of police racism that the BBC delayed its transmission.” Stellman also noted that for years after the Mangrove Nine documentary was shown, Rosso found it difficult to get a project going and felt that he had been blacklisted for his views. It wasn’t until 1979 that Franco produced another stark and honest documentary, this time on Jamaican dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson entitled, Dread Beat an’ Blood, which focused on Johnson’s work and his desire to use his words to detail the injustice in the London community where he lived. Dread Beat an’ Blood remains as one of the most powerful examples of the pervasive influence that Jamaican and reggae culture had on 1970s England, and it was out of these efforts that Rosso’s 1980 film, Babylon, was born.

Fittingly, the funding for Babylon came together through the efforts of Gavrik Losey, the son of American director, Joseph Losey, who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and Mamoun Hassan, the Saudi-born head of production of the British Film Institute, who, since the early 1970s, had furthered the BFI’s “radical” policy of assisting low-budget experimental and narrative films with a political agenda. Like Perry Henzell’s seminal reggae film starring Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come, the movie that Babylon is often compared to, the small budget worked to the film’s advantage, as the cast would consequently be comprised of mostly unprofessional actors, led by Brinsley Forde, founding member of the British reggae group, Aswad, who was the perfect choice for the film’s lead character, Blue, a sympathetic young English-Jamaican auto mechanic and sound system operator who cannot get over with his family, his neighbors, the police, and even from time to time, his fellow West Indians whom he calls friends. Blue’s raison d’être is to build up his young Ital Lion sound to clash against the mighty and notorious Jah Shaka sound system, but in the days leading up to the event, everything around him is falling and obstructing his path.

Given the extraordinarily difficult struggles that Blue and Ital Lion go through in setting up their sound in Babylon, the score of the film had to capture the chaotic intensity of a sound system clash mixed with the constant racial tensions that existed in late 70s London, and this vital score was provided by former South London Jah Sufferer sound system operator and dub producer, Dennis Bovell. The Barbados-born Bovell spent nearly a year in prison in the mid-1970s after he was arrested during a police raid at a sound clash he was performing at in the Carib night club in Cricklewood Broadway in 1974. Bovell’s conviction was eventually dismissed on appeal, but it is evident that the impact of the incident heavily played into the formation of the soundtrack and also the construction of the narrative of Babylon. With the actors and soundtrack in place, for the visuals, director Rosso called on his former collaborator, cinematographer Chris Menges BSC, ASC (Local Hero, The Killing Fields), whom Rosso had previously worked with on the aforementioned British classic, Kes, a film with a keen eye for the plight of working class youth. With his bold kinetic framing and hazy tones, Menges added an essential element to the raw aesthetic of Babylon which succeeds in presenting a grim view of England that offered its young people limited possibilities.

One of relationships in Babylon that epitomizes the state of racial tensions in 1970s London, comes via Blue’s friendship with the only person he can really confide in, Ronnie (Karl Howman), a white man who has been a friend of Blue’s going back to their youth as skinheads. A hint to the length of their time together is cleverly suggested in a scene where Blue and Ronnie discuss their inability to get into the very 1970 Wembley reggae concert that resulted in the film that director Rosso edited a decade earlier. It should be noted that this particular concert transpired during a time in England’s history when skinhead culture was primarily a combination of working-class white youth and young Jamaican immigrants who came together because of economic status, music, and style.

It is during this scene that we can suspect that the character of Ronnie is the film’s stand in for Rosso, because Ronnie is the only main character in the film who is white and loves reggae music, and neither Blue, because of his race, nor Ronnie, because of his affiliation with Blue and Blue’s sound system crew of young Jamaicans, are accepted by the working class whites around them, as this is a different England than the England of the early 1970s. This is an England that, by this point in time, had over a decade of the National Front’s influence and Thatcher’s implementation of stricter immigration policies, and thus, in the scenes that Rosso constructs where the Ital Lion sound system crew is verbally attacked by their neighbors, there is no distinction in the level of disdain directed toward Ronnie or Blue and his Jamaican friends by the racists around them.

Throughout Babylon, Blue is consistently singled out for punishment regardless of his best intentions, and thus he becomes the embodiment of the frustrations of immigrants in England as he is harassed over and over again for simply trying to work his auto repair job, set up his sound system, tend to his younger brother, and walk home late without being abused by the police. To try to alleviate his feelings of alienation, Blue seeks out a Rastafarian leader from his neighborhood. And, in searching for some hope and guidance after being tested like the Biblical Job, Blue attends a prayer vigil where the group’s leader welcomes him and utters the following line, which solidifies in Blue’s mind his bleak status as a disenfranchised member of the society around him:

“To the East, Africa, to the West, Jamaica, first Babylon. To the North, England, second Babylon. Babylonian triangle of captivity.”

Since its release in the UK in 1980, Babylon has only been available in the United States through poorly transferred versions with fuzzy visuals and muddied sound, where much of the patois is lost on American audiences due to lack of subtitling, but the recent restoration by Kino Lorber corrects all of these former shortcomings, so now, we can see Franco Rosso’s masterpiece for all that it was meant to be: an energetic, brutally honest, and again, uncompromised statement by Rosso on the treatment of West Indian immigrants in London during Thatcher-era England. The movie, as seen now in theaters, pulsates with Bovell’s life experiences in sounds now clear, raw performances by the cast that you now fully understand, Stellman’s knowing screenplay, Menges’ daring cinematography, and a narrative that gives empathy to all of us who feel like we’re on the outside looking in, no matter where we are living, regardless of the time. With Babylon getting a long overdue theatrical release in the United States, I am beyond glad that I was able to see the film the way it was meant to be seen and also that I finally have the opportunity with this review to say publicly: Grazie, grazie mille, Mr. Rosso.

A sincere thanks as well to Martin Stellman for his obituary on Franco Rosso that appeared in the January 2nd, 2017 issue of The Guardian.

Review by Generoso Fierro

www.kinolorber.com/film/babylon