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

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


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

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


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

 



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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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


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

 



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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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



 

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

 

 

SUPPLEMENTAL LIST

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

 

 

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

 


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

 


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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

                        MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM

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

 

                                         
                   BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turn Left Turn Right Official Trailer:

 

The Thin Construction of Spettacolo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Originally published in Ink 19 on May 22, 2017

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

 

Interview conducted by Generoso Fierro

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Alexandru Margineanu as Mihai


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


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

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

Speaking With Director Kivanç Sezer of My Father’s Wings

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Originally published in Ink 19 on May 25, 2017

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

İbrahim (Menderes Samancilar) reflecting after gambling away his money

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Yusuf (Musab Ekici) and Nihal (Kubra Kip)

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

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

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

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

Our Conversation with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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Originally published in Ink 19 on Oct 31, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A scene from Syndromes and a Century (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A scene from Tropical Malady (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A scene from Cemetery of Splendor (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generoso and Lily’s Bovine Ska and Rocksteady: Remembering Nora Dean and JJ Label Spotlight 10-4-16

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Rest In Peace Nora Dean

The October 4th, 2016 Bovine Ska and Rocksteady began on a sad note, as  the wonderful singer, Nora Dean,  passed away on Thursday in Connecticut at age 72.  Nora had been living in Connecticut since moving here from New York in 2010.  Nora Dean began her career during the rocksteady era with Coxsone Dodd, recording her first song, Mojo Girl, at Studio One in 1968.   She would achieve larger fame when she recorded the racy reggae cut, Barbwire, for Byron Smith at the Baron’s label in 1969. Dean cut so many tracks that we love, as not only a solo artist, but as a prominent member of The Soulettes and The Ebony Sisters.  Due to Mixcloud policies that prohibit us from playing more than four songs from one artist, our tribute to Nora was contained in eight songs that began our show this week.  We included many wonderful cuts in this memorial and we hope that you appreciate her sweet and expressive voice on these songs.  Rest in peace Nora.

We thought that for our record label spotlight, given that last week, we presented a ska, rhythm & blues, and rocksteady spotlight, we thought that this week, we must have a reggae one! In thinking of reggae, there are many producers whom we love here on the Bovine Ska and Rocksteady, and in thinking about which one to feature this week, we arrived at Carl Sir JJ Johnson, a label owner and producer who was exceptionally prolific in the early reggae era. We know a little bit about Sir JJ’s early years. Carl Johnson was the son of Bromley Johnson, the man who created the Magnet Bus Company, which was one of the first bus providers that ran to and from rural Jamaica. Carl Johnson, who would be known as Sir JJ was as business oriented his his father, but he directed his efforts on the music business. Sir JJ first started as a jukebox distributor. Eventually, like other folks involved in the jukebox industry, he decided to open up a record shop, picking 133 Orange Street for his center of business, a prime location because Beverly’s was right next door For his signature label that bore his nickname, Sir JJ recruited outstanding talent. 

The house backing band for the Sir JJ label was Bobby Aitken and his Carib-beats. For the label, the group was called the JJ All Stars, and the members were:  Bobby Aitken, the leader of the group,  on guitar,  Winston Richards AKA Grennan on drums, “Iron Sprat” on bongos, Vincent White on bass, Alphonso Henry on alto sax, Val Bennett on tenor sax, Dave Parks on trombone, Mark Lewis on trumpet, and Bobby Kalphat on keyboards .  Of course, given that we are talking the JJ Label, we had to play “The Selah,” which is one of the most successful Sir JJ tracks, with many versions of the track made in the same year that the original was released.

Generoso and Lily’s Bovine Ska and Rocksteady: Linden Pottinger’s Gaydisc Label 9-27-16

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Roy Panton and Millie Small on Gaydisc

We started off the September 27th, 2016 Bovine Ska and Rocksteady with two sets of dazzling reggae beginning with a version to version produced by one of our favorites. Keith Hudson.   After a fun set of mento, we went into a long ska set beginning with our continued tribute to the late Prince Buster with the cut, Cincinnati Kid from 1965.  The ska set ended with a super rare cut that was also produced by Prince Buster, but performed by Lloyd Barnes in 1964 entitled, Time  Is Hard.  We then went into our spotlight of Lindon Pottinger’s Gaydisc Label.

Before Lindon Pottinger ventured into the music industry, he was an accomplished accountant and businessman. With his wife, Sonia, who would become one of the most distinguished women in the Jamaican music business, Lindon opened up a recording studio in the Pottinger home. This studio served as the center of recording for the SEP and Golden Arrow, and the label of our spotlight tonight: Gaydisc. The label started out in 1962 and was prolific until 1967, so this spotlight will contain ska, ballads, and rocksteady productions from Mr. Pottinger. We’ll start off with Al T. Joe’s “I’m On My Own”

In 1964, Lindon sold the recording equipment in his and Sonia’s home studio to Duke Reid, and in 1965, Lindon and Sonia parted ways.Despite these major changes, Lindon would continue to produce for Gaydisc. And, he would continue to manage his record pressing plant as well.

The Cables…Though the Cables formed in 1962 with Keble Drummond, Vincent Stoddard, and Elbert Stewart, they did not enter the recording studio until 1966. The first producer they visited was Lindon Pottinger, and their first single was “You Lied,” which was backed by Bobby Aitken and his band. You’ll heard The Cables’s debut single, which was released on Gaydisc.

Generoso and Lily’s Bovine Ska and Rocksteady: Prince Buster Memorial Part 2-Rocksteady 9-20-16

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Buster’s Rocksteady on Olive Blossom

Hello Bovine Ska and Rocksteady Listeners,

Last week, we focused on the ska productions and recordings of Prince Buster, and this week, we are going to focus on his rocksteady output and his excellent reggae productions.  By the arrival of rocksteady, Prince Buster’s stable was not as strong as it was in the rhythm & blues and ska eras. With its slower tempo, rocksteady put more focus on vocal harmonies, and as a result, the rhythm led to a rise in popularity of the vocal groups. Buster did not have as many groups on his various imprints as the other major producers, but he could still rely on the the great voices of Dawn Penn, Roy Panton, and Larry Marshall. As a result, Olive Blossom, which was Buster’s main rocksteady label, had exceptional performances and productions, but these singles were still not as popular as his earlier work

But, ever the innovator, Prince Buster did, of course, tap into the minds of his audience in the rocksteady, and he would find great success in the rocksteady rhythm when he recorded and released, “Judge Dread,” Buster’s response to the ever increasing violence caused by the rudeboys in Kingston.  Here, Buster takes on the persona of Judge Dread, a court judge who deals out huge sentences to rudeboys, especially when they commit black on black violence. This led to follow up recordings by Buster, The Appeal and Barrister’s Pardon.

Buster has always had a reputation as a tough man. We know well that Buster got his soundsystem start by providing security to Coxsone Dodd’s Downbeat sound and Buster was a boxer himself, and his love for boxing resonated through his music. Generoso got a chance to speak about boxing with Buster, and we also heard an excerpt of that conversation.

On the Bovine Ska, we adore Big Youth, and, unsurprisingly, our favorite Big Youth record is produced by none other than the mighty Prince Buster. The match between Big Youth and Prince Buster was a natural one; Youth was not a deejay who only intended to spruce up tracks for dances. Big Youth told stories and included political and social messages in his lyrics and his toasting A great example of this was his first big hit, “S.90 Skank,” which Youth recorded to remind his friends to be careful when riding on motorbikes. Similarly, the track that we are going to feature as our favorite Buster production has intelligent lyrics from Big Youth, who takes cues from The Last Poets, “When Revolution Comes”

Generoso’s Favorite “Fractured” Christmas Films

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Generoso’s Favorite Fractured Christmas Films

There is definitely a felonious element running through this list of our favorite “fractured” holiday films as I have found that the evil that we do really becomes more glittering when placed in a usually festive, “joy to the people,” holiday setting. Three of the five films that I have assembled for you this year represent the following subgenres: Christmas-horror, Christmas-western, and yes, even a really downbeat Christmas-film noir. I truly hope that these five intense Christmas films will help you cut through the noise of the endless array of suburban paradise holiday specials and made-for-tv films that depict a holiday experience that so few of us actually encounter this time of year. Joy to the world!

1) Comfort and Joy / dir Bill Forsyth / 1984
Popular morningtime radio disc jockey, Alan ‘Dickie’ Byrd’s (Bill Paterson) gorgeous kleptomaniac girlfriend Maddy (Eleanor David) unexpectedly moves out a few days before Christmas, which thrusts Dickie into an lonely existential crisis. One night while looking for meaning in his life and perhaps a new girlfriend, Dickie stumbles upon and intervenes between an extremely violent and silly ice cream truck war that is being waged between two rival Italian families in freezing Glasgow. Dickie tries, in vain, to counsel the two warring clans, but more often than not, his prized BMW takes the brunt of the hostility. Forsyth (Local Hero, Gregory’s Girl) is the all-time master of the dry, absurdist comedy, and his film, Comfort and Joy, expertly reinforces the maxim of William Blake, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”

Comfort and Joy (Meeting Mr. Bunny)

2) The Day of the Beast (El día de la bestia) / dir: Alex de la Iglesia / 1995
Father Ángel Berriartúa (Álex Angulo), a Basque Roman Catholic priest has been fervently studying The Book of Revelation and is certain that the birth of the Antichrist will happen on Christmas Day. The good father devises a plan which involves his committing every sin in the book in order to attract Satan so that he can sell his soul to the devil and be in a position to kill the Antichrist when he is born so that the world can be saved from the apocalypse. As he needs a crew, Father Ángel recruits the Italian Cavan (Armando De Razza), a TV host of a show on the occult, and José María (Santiago Segura), a shotgun-wielding, drug addicted, death metal shop employee. Day of the Beast is as frenetic as de la Iglesia’s previous feature, Acción Mutante, but it is more focused on its plot and is oddly endearing due to its flawed but intense characters.

Day of the Beast trailer (English dub)

3) Blast of Silence / dir: Allen Baron / 1961
Written, directed, and starring Allen Baron, this grimmest of grim of film noirs takes place during what should be the merriest of seasons. Frankie Bono (Baron), is a Cleveland hitman who decides to spend the holidays in New York as so many do, but instead of wandering the city streets in search cool big city presents, Frankie is trying to find that perfect spot to whack a low-level mobster named Troiano (Peter H. Clune). You can’t whack empty-handed, and as Frankie needs a gat for the big day, he stops by the deplorable digs of Big Ralph (Larry Tucker), a morbidly obese gun dealer who has a bit of a rat fetish to put a heater on order. I should mention here that while all of the gleeful holiday magic occurs before you, the gravelly voice of Hollywood-blacklisted actor, Lionel Stander over-narrates the voices lurking deep inside Frankie’s head, which are as as jolly as you would imagine coming a lonely, cold-blooded killer on Christmas Eve. In fact, these voices go into an even epically darker place when Frankie mires in his depression while having a beer alone in a one-armed joint. While wallowing with brew in hand, Frankie runs into Petey and Lori, who are, of course, childhood friends from the Catholic orphanage where they all grew up in misery together. The pair invite Frankie to a joyful Christmas party as, “No one should be alone on Christmas Eve,” but with Frankie, perhaps an exception should be made for that rule. I have long been a fan of film noir, and there are a few more within the genre that are set during the season of giving (Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday comes to mind), but Blast of Silence may be the best at using Christmas as a loving backdrop to emphasize the grimness of its characters’ circumstances.

Blast of Silence Trailer

4) Will It Snow For Christmas? (Y’aura t’il de la neige à Noël?) / dir: Sandrine Veysset / 1996
A mother (Dominique Reymond) is being exploited, along with her seven children, as slave laborers on a farm in Southern France by the family’s bastard of a father (Daniel Duval), who is taking the profits from their work to fund a life of splendor for his “proper” family that lives across town. What has always set this film apart for me is the bravura performance by Reymond as a mother with few material means who strives to create a loving connection between her and her children as the holidays draw near. With Christmas approaching, things become even more tenuous when the mother’s resolve starts to wane as she wakes up to face her and her family’s grim predicament of being penniless during the holidays. Veysset’s bold first feature is as harsh as it is honest about pain of maternal love when faced with a society that could give less of a damn about the love that you have for those whom you have created.

French trailer for Will It Snow For Christmas?

5) Trail of Robin Hood / dir: William Witney / 1950
This action packed, Christmas seasoned western starring everyone’s favorite singing cowboy, Roy Rogers, might be a bit too violent at times for the Hallmark crowd, but it still manages to come up with a wild cornucopia of outlandish crowd-pleasing ideas to fill its good versus Grinch plot that runs amok through its 67 minutes. Real life silent movie western star, Jack Holt, plays Jack Holt himself, who is now retired from the picture business and is content in playing out his days raising affordable Christmas trees for poor families. Unfortunately, Jack’s altruistic tendencies are being noted by nearby loggers who aren’t so happy with Holt’s undercutting of their budding, high profit tree operation. And, here’s where the film really goes off the rails…The logging goons rough up Holt’s men, going as far as to kill a few, and then the thugs decide to burn down the building where our retired film star is hosting a Christmas tree tying party. Holt goes into a slight coma, and the goal for our protagonists becomes a race to get the Christmas trees to families before the evil loggers cut all access to town. Roy Rogers is of course the gallant hero who comes to save the day, but the tough stuff is mostly handled by thirteen year old Carol Nugent who plays Sis McGonigle. Sis is a gun-toting, shooting fool who straightens out men thrice her weight and keeps company with a giant turkey named Sir Gallahad, who she won in a skeet contest. Bizarrely, this film was released the same year as the 1950 French novel Le salaire de la peur (The Salary of Fear) by Georges Arnaud, so one has to wonder if Witney was mind-melding with his French counterpart, for the final scene of Trail of Robin Hood involves racing wagons filled with flammable Christmas trees over a burning bridge, which creates the same level of precarious tension that fills the pages of the Arnaud’s novel. Indeed, this is some nutty stuff for a Roy Rogers western.

Trail of Robin Hood (full movie)