LAURA CITARELLA

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 29, 2022
Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso

It’s been just over a decade since the premiere of director Laura Citarella’s feature Ostende, the film that first suggested the character of Laura, who appears at the center of her newest feature, Trenque Lauquen. During the time since Ostende, Citarella has enjoyed great success as an integral part of the famed filmmaking collective El Pampero Cine, a major force within the New Argentine Cinema movement. In 2015, Citarella, along with Verónica Llinás, co-directed the critically acclaimed naturalist feature Dog Lady (La Mujer de los Perros), and Citarella followed up that directorial effort with the release of Mariano Llinás’s 808-minute, six part masterwork, La Flor (The Flower), one of our top ten films of the 2010s, which she acted in and produced over a ten-year period. And in 2019, she co-directed the documentary Las Poetas Visitan a Juana Bignozzi with Mercedes Halfon.

Presented into two parts, Citarella’s Trenque Lauquen transforms Ostende’s passive lead character of Laura (Laura Paredes) into a determined botanist who has vanished from the titular town where she had originally been sent to complete a scholarly plant cataloging assignment. Part one begins with the introduction of the two men who are trying to track down Laura: her boyfriend from Buenos Aires and university colleague, Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd), and Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri), a hapless municipal driver who has become infatuated with Laura after they shared a passion for the old letters sent between two lovers (Carmen, a teacher in Trenque Lauquen, and Paolo, the father of two of her students) that Laura serendipitously found tucked into the pages of books in Trenque Lauquen’s library donated by the estate of Martín Fierro, the eponymous protagonist of the epic poem by the Argentine writer José Hernández.

Part two of Citarella’s film expands into the history of Laura’s involvement with Trenque Lauquen’s doctor, Elisa (La Flor’s Elisa Carricajo), who has asked Laura for a sample of a yellow flower. This seemingly normal botanical solicitation leads to an event where Laura uncovers Elisa and her partner Romina’s (Verónica Llinás) vocation of protecting the half-human, half-amphibian child that exists in the town’s lake, compelling Elisa and Romina to ask Laura for her assistance in cultivating plants for a habitat that can support the child’s development. Laura complies, and when Elisa, Romina, and the child must leave their home, Laura assumes a greater role in their collaborative efforts while finally and fully connecting to the world around her.

A nominee for the Horizons Award for Best Film at this year’s Venice Film Festival, we adored this emotionally complex and engrossing feature when we saw it at AFI Fest 2022, where we picked it as one of our top watches. In our discussion with Citarella, we spoke about Trenque Lauquen’s connection to José Hernández’s Martín Fierro, the evolution of the character of Laura, the shortcomings of Rafael’s and Ezequiel’s theories, and Citarella’s love of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” and her use of it as her protagonist’s ringtone in both Ostende and Trenque Lauquen.

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GF: The name Martín Fierro is a galvanizing clue for Laura in Trenque Lauquen. Martín Fierro, of course, is the legendary protagonist from José Hernández’s duet of poems El Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) and La Vuelta de Martín Fierro (1879). In addition, the poems were written in a distinctively lyrical style that was inspired by payadas. Were Hernández’s poems a launching point for the structure and the musical nature of Trenque Lauquen? And if so, how much of the writing/experiential process of Hernández, who was well known for being a writer who lived alongside gauchos in the pampas, go into the construction of Laura’s character?

LC: As you may know, I am a part of a group of filmmakers called El Pampero Cine, and El Pampero is a wind that blows in the province of Buenos Aires, so we always work with Buenos Aires as an idea for making films, and so this is the pampas! If you go out from the city of Buenos Aires, you have the province of Buenos Aires where there are different cities, and if you go to the west, you will find Trenque Lauquen, and there you will find the pure pampas of the gaucho and everything in the world of Martín Fierro. Working in this atmosphere is a continuance of working in this place, which is very flat, and I believe that most filmmakers are afraid of shooting there because you never know how to frame it because it is a landscape that has no borders, but we love that. We love to find excuses or stories to invent that could take place in this scenery. That said, when we started working there years ago, we decided that this place would give our production company its name, El Pampero Cine. In 2011, I made a film there called Ostende, which is like the first part of Trenque Lauquen because the concept is to move from one town to another with the same character and build stories about each one, but always with the thought of portraying the pampas. We not only like to shoot in the province of Buenos Aires, but we also like being there, which is very strange as this is a province in Argentina that you usually just travel through to get to the next stop. Needless to say, this area also has an important relationship to Argentinian literature.

LF: One of the most entertaining and fascinating motifs connecting Ostende and Trenque Lauquen is the “Suspicious Minds’’ ringtone on Laura’s phone. Though the song itself and how it is played are identical in both films, the character of Laura has a different relation to the song in each. Whereas the character of Laura in Ostende is a bit lost in her life—she’s currently unemployed and living with her mom—the character of Laura in Trenque Lauquen is an accomplished researcher. Under these different circumstances, Ostende’s Laura’s actions are based on her suspicions, whereas Trenque’s Laura’s actions are based on her instincts. Was this evolution of suspicion into instinct something you wanted to be a directional guide to moving the Ostende series forward?

LC: Yes, that ringtone was chosen for this idea, apart from the fact that, back then, “Suspicious Minds” was my own personal ringtone because I have always been a huge Elvis Presley fan! My dad was a big Elvis fan, and every week, we would always watch Elvis movies together, so “Suspicious Minds’’ is a very emotional song for me. I kept that ringtone for Trenque Lauquen because I wanted to give you some clues that the character is the same, but the character in Trenque Lauquen has no past; her past is not Ostende. It is almost like The Simpsons (laughs) in that whenever a new episode comes out, everything starts again. So that was the idea, but I also wanted to confirm that the character was the same, so I chose to do this with different hints, such as the ringtone or the photo of Laura that Rafael shows everyone when he is trying to find her, which is the photo of Laura that we used for Ostende.

Apart from that, when we finished Ostende we wanted to use similar procedures of scene construction, but some years later, in the next film. However, as years go by, you are no longer the same person as a director. In between Ostende and Trenque Lauquen, I made two more films as a director, and then I also produced La Flor and other films for El Pampero Cine, so as a creator, you change, and with that, your point of view changes. So suddenly, this character that was in Ostende that was always watching situations and thinking about them alone is now involved with what is happening with the fiction of the film. In both films, she is a fan of finding fiction in places, but in the case of Ostende, she only keeps this as a mental activity, but in Trenque Lauquen, she puts her body in the situation. Therefore, if I had to say something concrete about this, it’s that I feel that, as a filmmaker, you always make the same film in one way, but you change with the years, and in some ways, I feel that the evolution of this character parallels my experiences and growth as a director. The character used to just watch, but now she is brave enough to be part of the adventure! She once was like the character in Rear Window, whereas now, she is like the main character in Vertigo.

GF: The unreliability of our own individual observations and theories is a recurring concept throughout Trenque Lauquen that impacts the experiences of many of the characters and even us as the viewers by the end of the film. The second part of the film particularly amplifies this when we find out that all of Rafael’s and Ezequiel’s hypotheses around Laura’s disappearance are proven wrong. At what point in the filmmaking or writing process did you decide that this would be the case?

LC: I like this idea, as I usually don’t like to speak directly about feminism and boys and girls, but suddenly I felt that there was an idea there: that the men are always incorrect, and the women are always right (laughs). I liked the concept, just like that of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, of a woman who disappears, and as a result, people begin to look for that woman. In the beginning, when we wrote this script, it was the other way around. It was a linear structure, but then we decided that it was much better to bring in these two men who are like bad amateur detectives. For us, this was the best way to show that this woman has disappeared. We found it more interesting to see Laura’s disappearance through the experiences of these two men, than by just seeing it directly. Also, I made a film before Trenque Lauquen called Las Poetas Visitan a Juana Bignozzi, which was a documentary, and in the structure of that film, we discovered that Juana Bignozzi was a poet who died. We were tasked with trying to reveal her profile with our film, and to accomplish this, we spoke about her and showed all of her objects until the middle of the film, when suddenly we showed a video of the poet herself. Through this process, I learned that it is very affecting to begin learning about a character through the eyes of someone else or through their objects, and that is why I waited until an hour and forty minutes into Trenque Lauquen to show Laura, and suddenly when you see her at that point, she has a mystery about her because you already are aware of the fact that she has disappeared, which makes for a stronger method of telling her story as you are imbibed with a feeling that you already know her destiny. You see her in flashback, but you, as the viewer, know that something will happen because she has vanished. Also, I liked this idea of different people having different points of views and versions of Laura, which puts in your head the idea that Laura isn’t any definitive way. It becomes more possible to surround her and not define her.

LF: In the first part of Trenque, we see Laura leading initiatives — she leads the cataloging research project, and she leads the hunt for the letters between Carmen and Paolo. And, in her leading efforts, she’s quite goal-oriented, and that applies often to her interactions with people. However, by the second part of the film, when she becomes entrenched in Elisa and Romina’s life, she becomes a contributor to their work to covertly raise the possibly amphibious child, and at this point, she becomes more open to experiences and seems warmer overall. How did you strike the balance between these two versions of Laura? It seemed quite precarious, because going too far with either side could have disconnected her from the audience.

LC: In a way, what I wanted was to make a mutant film that changes all of the time. This idea of changing also involves the character of Laura. I wanted her to experience this same synchronistic change in her ways of behaving. I feel that this film comes from a fantasy of mine to have many lives in one lifetime. But, I know this is something that I cannot do as I live in a society where I have a daughter, and the actor who plays Ezequiel in the film is my husband, so I have this order in my life, and that means that this fantasy of having multiple lives would be viewed as crazy by most standards, so I am living this fantasy through the character of Laura, who embodies this idea of being present in your life and being so alive that you can fall into things without even thinking about the ramifications. It is kind of an instinctive way of behaving that starts in a very rational way in Trenque Lauquen with the discovery of the letters which then transforms into this world with the creature and these women and then everything else changes. Also, when Laura gets to know these women and when the creature appears in the lagoon, I think that some kind of fantastical element changes the logic of the characters. It is something that invades the rational world.

I also believe that, at that point, she dares to have this life, and the men surrounding her also get pulled into the adventure. The difference is that they can only go so far. I feel that Laura experiments with something that helps to make her feel alive, and Rafael and Ezequiel are, in a way, also moved by this. For the first time in their lives, when Rafael and Ezequiel turn into these amateur detectives, they feel that they can also take part in an adventure, but until they attempted these roles, they were both boring people. One is an academic, and the other one is a divorced man with two kids and an ex-wife, living in a little town and working for the municipality of Trenque Lauquen. And, suddenly this idea of moving everything and getting into an adventure is something that Laura has produced.

Furthermore, I feel that what draws Laura’s attention to the Kollontai book [where she finds the first letter between Carmen and Paolo] is this note from the editor that expresses this idea that with the collective, the first person, the singular person “I” becomes “we.” So, in a way, this is also what happens when Laura meets the two women because they work as a team, believing that you can live in that situation and that can only happen with a group mentality, which mirrors the way we all work in El Pampero Cine, which is fundamentally a collective.

Ultimately, I believe that men need to find the logic within things, but women just need to be there. Now, I am not saying that all men are a certain way and all women are a certain way, but in the context of this film, I think that Laura finds in these women a way of living that doesn’t require constant language, explanation, or logic, but instead they live in a way that is more instinctive, and that is really what Laura has been searching for her whole life.

GF: Trenque’s strength lies in its ability to transform myth into reality and vice versa, and one of the most interesting places where this occurs is around the yellow flower that precipitates the relationship between Elisa and Laura. We don’t officially know the name of the yellow flower, but it becomes an important narrative and symbolic device for the second part of the film. How did you go about selecting that flower, and what were your motivations behind leaving the exact species name unknown?

LC: This is kind of a Hitchcockian idea: in a specific element, you build a tension and a mysteriousness. The flower is the excuse for Elisa to approach Laura, and the flower is the excuse as to why Laura goes to Elisa. The mystery is there! I mean, why would Elisa be so obsessed with wildflowers? Perhaps this is a MacGuffin, but the flowers move the characters, and you eventually find out that the flowers provide a source of food for the creature. We need to give it flowers, or else it will die, so this was also a way of not speaking so much about the creature, but speaking more about how it survives. We added the flower into the narrative because, if we did not have an external element to join these women, we would have to reveal too much of the mystery behind this being. Laura went to Elisa’s house because of the being, and without the flower, we realized that we would be in a dangerous situation where we would have to show or speak more about it once Laura arrived, and we didn’t want that because we wanted the being to be a mystery in the midst of many other mysteries. We were concerned that one mystery would supersede the others in the film, so the flowers helped us to organize the enigma surrounding the creature without directly showing any part of its form. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Featured photo courtesy of Laura Citarella.

https://produktion.grandfilm.de

Joana Pimenta

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 25, 2022
Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso

Less than a week after voters selected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the next President of Brazil, we had the opportunity to speak with Portuguese-born director Joana Pimenta on the occasion of the AFI Fest screening of Dry Ground Burning (Mato Seco em Chamas), her newest feature, which she co-directed with Adirley Queirós.

We first encountered Pimenta’s immense talents as a storyteller when she lensed Adirley Queirós’s low-budget dystopian science fiction film, Once There Was Brasilia (Era uma Vez Brasília), one of our top ten films of 2018. Set in the struggling district of Ceilândia, Once There Was Brasilia effectively repurposed cinematic tropes as a tool to expand on how the political landscape of its respective period impacted a community that had long suffered since the construction of the city of Brasilia. However, even though it is set in the same district and also incorporates and recontextualizes known film references, Dry Ground Burning diverges from Brasilia in how it integrates documentary to play against genre cinema images, amplifying the dour reality in Ceilândia and adding a fierce urgency to the film’s depiction of the current political situation in Brazil and the programmatic incarceration of its citizens.

Dry Ground Burning follows the exploits of Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) and Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), life-hardened half-sisters who have tapped into an underground pipeline that provides them with the gasoline that they then sell to bikers in their favela of Sol Nascente, an area in dire need of any form of economic infrastructure. Concurrently, Chitara and Léa’s friend, Andreia (Andreia Vieira), who enters the film as a fellow gasolinheira, shifts into a political role by drawing together her community to support her campaign to become Sol Nascente’s district deputy candidate for the Prison People Party. Throughout Dry Ground Burning, Pimenta and Queirós provide their actors with ample space to engage each other in dialogues that build empathy for their situations, while the actions playing out around them provide us with a clear and biting metaphor of their government’s failed policies that led to the economic despair in their part of the country.

During our hour-long, in-depth conversation with Pimenta, we discussed her approach to Dry Ground Burning in her roles as both a cinematographer and as a co-director, the complex issues connected to the casting of Léa, the construction of the very real campaign of Andreia, the role of the Evangelicals in her film and in Brazil, and the election of Lula, which happened only days before our talk.

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LF: We were fortunate to see Once There Was Brasilia at Locarno in Los Angeles in 2018, and it was one of our favorite films of that year. Whereas Once There Was Brasilia leans heavily on action and visuals for its narrative, much of the weight of Dry Ground Burning is carried on the shoulders of the conversations and interactions of Léa and Chitara. How did this difference shape your approach as a cinematographer?

JP: We wanted to make a film about the daughters of the women who built the city of Ceilândia. If you’ve seen Brasilia and this film, you may know a bit of this story already, but in the 1960s, the President of Brazil at the time decided to build a new capital in the geographic center of the country, so he drew an “X” on the ground in a place that was only just desert before. To facilitate this project, they had to bring in construction workers in open trucks from all over Brazil. Once Brasilia was built, they created this thing called the Campaign for Eradication of Invasions, which is where the “CEI” that is inside the name Ceilândia comes from, and they proceeded to remove everyone who worked on the development to a city 50 km away from Brasilia, which became Ceilândia. After they removed these construction workers, they also removed the women who had been brought to the workers’ city to work as prostitutes because the laborers had not arrived with their families. Many of these women brought small children with them or were pregnant and became single mothers. As a result, because the men were working, they relied on these women to build the shacks and find water and electricity, so these women were the ones who actually built Ceilândia from the ground up. One of these women in Dry Ground Burning is Léa’s mother, and the other is Chitara’s mother, whom we filmed a lot, but unfortunately those scenes didn’t make it into the final cut. And, as discussed in the film, Léa and Chitara both shared the same father, so all four women’s stories are representative of the history of Ceilândia itself.

We knew that we wanted to work with these daughters of the women who had built Ceilândia, this second generation who are also single mothers and who also have an important leadership role in the life of the city. This is where all of the conversation in the film comes from in Dry Ground Burning. These women are not like this new group of women in the city who are in their 20s and are taking over the streets. They have a different kind of body, a different way of dressing, even a different kind of music — they listen to funk, whereas the generation of Léa and Chitara mostly listen to the kind of rap that you hear in the film, and in that way, we thought of Léa and Chitara as these kind of old cowboys who would hang out on the corners in a place where many of the people have been to jail and are unemployed, so they spend their time telling stories.

Thus, the cinematography had to create that space for us because we were not working with a script, and we needed a space for them to mobilize their memories and to be able to depart from the film’s constructed fiction so that they could bring in their own memories and make them the central part of film instead. We were a very small crew of five people, and because of that scale, we had a great deal of time — about eighteen months for this film — which gave us the space to establish the shot and wait for something to happen.

GF: Leá is magnetic — she devours the screen. Since seeing Dry Ground Burning, we’ve been immensely curious about the inspiration behind her performance. How much was her casting based on her own personal experiences and how she recounted them to you and Adirley?

JP: This was complex. We spent six months looking for Chitara. Chitara is a character that we had initially written. We wrote a script, but because we don’t film exact lines, it was more like a structure, a script that functioned for us as a primer so that we could communicate to our actors what kind of film they are getting into. They then knew that it was going to be political, that there was going to be a war, and that made things very clear to them going forward. This communication was super important to us because we were working with non-professional actors.

We had written about this woman who worked at a gas station, who smoked a lot and whose body was so covered and impregnated with gasoline that she was always on the verge of catching fire. This was the archetype for that character, and then it took us about six months to find the actress to play Chitara. We looked everywhere! It must be said that there is no cinema in Ceilândia. In fact, the closest cinema is an hour away, and therefore, there isn’t a tradition for the kind of work we make, and that made it very tough to approach people and convince them to come and have a conversation with us. Eventually, we found Chitara six months after the search began. She was amazing! We read the script together, and she was like, “Well, I smoked a lot. I worked at a gas station, and I know how to shoot a gun, so I’m in!”

At this point, Léa was still in jail for real. She had been in prison for seven years, and because of her behavior, the police kept looking for excuses to keep her inside, leaving us with no idea of when she was getting out. Andreia, who was also in Once There Was Brasilia, and Chitara would always talk about Léa. So, we began shooting and filmed for about eight months, and during that whole time, Chitara and Andreia kept telling stories about Léa, so she became something of a legend while she was still in prison! They would say things like, “Léa is this tall, and her hair is down to her knees, and once she took seven rubber bullets in jail and wouldn’t fall when most men would fall after getting struck with just one bullet.” Chitara and Andreia were constantly building off of their memories about Léa, and that made me and Adirley concerned because she wasn’t a character that was part of the film initially, so we then felt that we had to start searching for an actress to play Léa. But, out of nowhere, the real Léa got out of prison, and only two weeks later she was filming with us!

As you noticed in your question, Léa was even more than anything that we could’ve ever hoped for because she is an amazing natural actress. She just seemed to instinctively understand acting. For example, from the moment that we began filming with her, as soon as one of us would say, “Cut,” she would take off, and we would find her outside smoking or on the corner or on top of the roof. She had been in prison for seven years and didn’t even know what a cellphone was when she got out, but here she was, back in her life, and she was making a film!

In the beginning, Léa may have wanted to work with us because we wrote a twelve month contract with all of the actors, so they all knew that they are going to be paid in a place where it’s hard to find work that can be sustained for a long period of time. But, then, she quickly figured out that she was very good at her job. For instance, when we would tell her that we need to repeat a scene and to do it a certain way, she would respond with, “Oh no, don’t worry. I completely understand because this is the same way that it was in prison. You would have to tell the same story a million times, but every time you tell it, you have to tell it with belief because otherwise the other prisoners would stop listening to you and then you lose your voice of command.”

So, of course, as soon as Léa began working with us, we had to change the tone. We had already filmed for eight months at that point, but we had to make Léa one of the lead characters, and that changed the film into one that was more about her relationship with her half sister. We didn’t have a closed script, and because we had a small crew, we could use our money to buy ourselves some time to film for as long as we possibly could. There was always room to change things so that we could react to things that were happening politically, as well as things that were happening on set.

LF: One of the most striking tone shifts in the film happens when we get to spend an extended amount of time with Andreia as she goes from work to church and to her canvassing and rallies as Sol Nascente’s District Deputy candidate for the Prison People Party. In this section, you and Adirley offer a greatly contrasting trajectory for Andreia. After her time as a gasolinheira, Andreia expands her focus of impact beyond her immediate crew and seeks reform at a community wide level. The gasolinheira life was highly reactive, whereas Andreia’s following chapter is more proactive. Was this contrast something you intended from the beginning, or was it something that came out of editing with Cristina Amaral or Léa’s expanded role in the film?

JP: I think that more than anything, at this point, we were reacting to this idea of incarceration as a public policy. We were filming in a place where 90% of the population had either been to prison or had a direct family member in prison. In fact, everyone in our cast has either spent time in prison or has a mother, father, or son who is incarcerated right now who they usually visit every two weeks. When we started filming, two major things happened: First, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, our former President, went to prison, and at the same time, political campaigning was happening in the streets because of upcoming elections. And so, we got together with Andreia, who was always going to bring politics in a direct way into the film, although we weren’t initially certain on how we were going to make that happen, but as soon as both of these aforementioned events occurred, we decided to make a political party that dealt with incarcerated people because they are the people who live in Sol Nascente, and because we work with non-professional actors, we made everything happen in this very concrete way.

We registered Andreia and the party for the campaign, and we opened up political headquarters on the main street of Sol Nascente. Unfortunately, none of this made it into the final cut because we were filming for eighteen months and most of what we shot didn’t make it into the film, but we did create a real campaign. We went door-to-door, we went canvassing, we created a jingle together, but most of all, we wanted Andreia to get elected for real! Since there were 16,000 prisoners awaiting trial who still had their voting rights and we needed 20,000 votes to get elected, we worked on organizing these inmates to vote, and if we could also get these inmates’ families to vote as well, then we could get Andreia elected for District Deputy.

When we started putting the campaign into motion, Andreia’s election, for her and for us, became a real possibility. This was important because we were living in a place where there is a programmatic incarceration of people who are black, poor, and coming from poor districts, and so, to a certain extent, there is a belief that every prisoner in Brazil is a political prisoner. At a time when all of this attention was directed at Lula being a political prisoner, we wanted to create a clear statement with Andreia’s campaign: if one part of our population is imprisoned systematically, then that part is consistently robbed of their right to vote and in turn are political prisoners too. Thus, our party was going to fight for prisoners’ rights from this standpoint.

The importance of the party’s focus became even clearer when Léa was arrested for a second time. Adirley and I actually went to speak at her trial as character witnesses, and we attempted to convince this judge that Léa has a job and a contract in our film, and although the system makes it sound like prison is an opportunity to retrain these prisoners to re-enter society, we had someone in Léa who already had been re-integrated. We asked the judge, “Wouldn’t this be a case for you to not put her back in jail?” But, the judge told us that Léa’s past had condemned her, and that meant to us that Léa went back to jail based on this public policy of systematically incarcerating people.

GF: Given that we are speaking about Andreia’s role in the film, we must ask: what is faith to her? We wanted to discuss this because the scene in the church is fascinating, as there’s so much at play there: the streets flooding outside, the other attendees in the periphery, Andreia’s countenance. We can sense the surrounding instability and the seeking of hope and redemption all in this sequence, yet there’s a lot that feels left unseen and unexplained. How important was this balance between the seen and unseen in constructing Andreia’s church attendance?

JP: That is a good question, as I feel that so many people react violently to that church scene because they feel that it shouldn’t be part of the film. Sometimes, I feel that many progressive people have difficulty in understanding other people’s religions. We ended up having to fight to keep that scene in the film—every filmmaker who saw the final cut wanted us to remove that moment, but we felt that it was crucial to the film because Andreia, Léa, and Chitara are Evangelicals.

There is an Evangelical church on almost every single corner in Sol Nascente, so we knew that we had to address faith. Also, Lula almost didn’t get elected as President this past week because the Workers Party still refuses to acknowledge the importance of Evangelicals in Brazil. It is almost like the people on the political left don’t even know how to start engaging with the Evangelical communities, so they pretend that they don’t exist. At the same time, I am not defending the Evangelical Church as an institution. I myself am not an Evangelical, and I am completely aware of everything that they do that is problematic, but within the context of this community, they fulfill a super important role.

It is impossible to go to an Evangelical church, especially with people you know, and not get very moved. These are people who are humiliated in their jobs, and they spend three hours a day commuting to Brasilia to do menial work, and so when I received this question about the church scene at a film festival here in the States, I explained that, in the US, many people have the need and means to see therapists or psychoanalysts, and I don’t see that practice as being radically different from going to an Evangelical Church where you give your testimony. All of a sudden, for half an hour, there are up to a hundred people who will stop and listen to you and hear about anything that you have done, and it is all understood by this group of people. Adirley and I discussed this a lot because every time people film at an Evangelical church in Brazil, they film outside and don’t go in, and thus they make the parishioners seem like caricatures. But in a space like Sol Nascente in Brazil, the Evangelicals occupy a very important function, so it was essential that we showed the interiors of the church.

As for the flooding outside, when we made the decision to film inside, we filmed over many days, and one day, it rained a great deal, and because of the poor infrastructure, the rain came cascading down the street, and the scene became almost Biblical. We also made the decision to shoot everything from the pews, and we removed the preacher from the scene because we just wanted to see parishioners singing and communicating. We just found the whole scene so beautiful, watching them sing with such passion and sincerity. It was very moving for us, and so we wanted the church to become more about what it meant to the actors, and less about how the church has been viewed politically. I’m glad that you both found that moment important because it was so very important for us too!

LF: While watching your film, we felt this instinctive link to Antonioni’s Red Desert. The dependence on fuel and chemical refinement is certainly a part of it, but, more importantly, both films express a dystopian future set in a contemporary space. Antonioni hints at the future through the distinctive experimental score by Giovanni Fusco so that you see the present, but imagine the future through sound. What elements in Dry Ground Burning were the most significant to you in establishing this convergence of the future and the now?

JP: Oil, for us, was a mark of the past and of the history we wanted to mobilize. In Brazil, oil is nationalized, and at the end of the Lula government, a law was created that said that 75% of the royalties from oil had to go to culture, education, and health. So, for a little bit, there was almost the promise of a complete revolution in Brazil because the government was injecting so many billions into key areas that needed help. Then, there was a coup that took President Dilma from power, and then the Temer government and the Bolsonaro governments sold off the oil fields to multinational companies for the price of bananas. So, today, Brazil has not retained much of its oil rights after these two administrations. Basically, the oil that is in our film is the opposite of what you are saying — it is the elegiac mark to the past and to what could’ve been.

When we decided to take ownership of the oil and approach it from a popular narrative, we began to think about what it could mean if the oil belonged to the people. In turn, I think that there were two aspects that looked towards the future for us. First is the militia car. We started thinking about surveillance, and we had this image of how the police always operated in the district by only seeing citizens from inside of their vehicle or through cameras, so we came to the conclusion that if you only see people through these methods, then it is impossible for you to see them as anything but monsters. To explore this idea, we asked our friends, who are also members from the Movement Without Land, to portray these militia members in the vehicle. They played the opposite of what they do in their daily lives! For their motivation, we told them to imagine that they have not left this car for the last ten years and that they were lost inside of it while observing the city. Then, this officially became the future forward element for us when we eventually disassembled the car and burned it in the end.

You wouldn’t know this from watching the film, but this car was only one of five that was made in Brazil during the end of the dictatorship. It was supposed to represent the promise of a new Brazilian car manufacturing industry, and now this car has become an icon of the extreme right. We acquired the car from an old man in São Paulo who refused to sell it to our art director because she was a woman, which meant that we had to get a man to buy the car. Thankfully, our metal worker, who is also an actor in the film, picked it up, but the old man made him promise to take good care of it. We did burn it, of course, but because the car was so expensive, we stripped it for the parts first and then burned only the frame.

The second piece of looking forward is the last shot of the film that has Léa riding on the motorcycle with all of the other drivers behind her. The song that plays is a song that Léa used to listen to all the time while we were shooting, but neither Adirley nor I knew what it was. At some point, we gave up on guessing, and we just asked her what she was listening to, and then, we contacted the rapper who wrote the song back in the 1990s, and we got it to use in the film. The reason why that is future-looking for me is because it reveals where the film stands at the end in a more straightforward way.

The film could have ended with Léa going to jail. Then, it wouldn’t have been two-and-a-half hours, and instead, it would’ve been more like an hour and fifty minutes, which would’ve made it easier to distribute. It was also a naturally clear ending because we knew that it would be hard to come back from Léa going to jail again. It’s a tough watch because that became such a major closing point to all of this, but we made a deal with the actors: they were not going to lose. They had to take over the streets and become the queens of the neighborhood! So, when we go to the burning of the car and the end with Léa becoming a legend, parading across the city, we felt that the film points to a possible positive future. I mean, for me, if there is any hope for Brazil, it is in them to an extent because their strength, curiosity, and generosity makes me personally want to carry on and make this kind of work. So, for me, it is these two things that direct the film towards the future.

GF: Early in Dry Ground Burning, when Léa gets her shotgun back from her brother, you evoke motifs of the western genre (i.e. gunslinger getting out of jail and receiving his gun back), and as a result, you show a future that has regressed quite far back into the past. In light of the election on Monday where voters brought Lula back, did you have a sense that, politically, people would be looking to the past in response to Bolsonaro too?

JP: I guess that was the hope. Because there is no movie theater in Ceilândia, we kind of have to work with the actors with references that we can share, which are mostly from the late night films that our actors watched on television, usually westerns, kung fu films and classic Hollywood movies. When they were all growing up, there actually was this single cinema in Ceilândia that had one show a day called Sex Karate! That meant a double feature of a porno film and a kung fu film, and so it was in this kind of cinemagraphic space that we tried to collaborate. Obviously, the western became more useful here in terms of the aesthetics that we were trying to propose in terms of scale. We wanted wide shots to be super wide, and we wanted close-ups to be quite close, so we were thinking about an elasticity of scale that would allow us to work with bodies and landscapes in a way that Adirley and I were interested in while also allowing us to mobilize archetypes and the idea of what constitutes a legend in a way that we can all watch, discuss, and think about together. That is how these references to genre, and particularly westerns, came into the project.

As far as the past, I think that what makes me sad is that we, as the left, have lost this narrative battle. The only person who could win an election from Bolsonaro was Lula, and he barely made it! We haven’t in all these years been able to build and rethink what it means to do politics, and I think this is somewhat similar to what’s going on in the US too. It’s almost like we are barely coming to terms with the ascendants of the right, when they are the ones reinventing narrative, reinventing language, reinventing how you make political campaigns. The motorcycle drivers, truck drivers, and the delivery people are a good example of this. They are a huge force in Brazil, and Bolsonaro cleverly assembled them for his campaign, which means that the far right is still winning the political mobilizations, especially these large groups that constitute the majority beyond the city centers, but we, the left, are still under the impression that a voter in Rio or São Paulo is more important than a voter in Ceilândia when they all count the same! We have not been able to motivate the voters or form a political campaign in places outside of Rio and São Paulo that speaks to people who are Evangelical or who are without a job, and that means we are still shying away from going to the heart of how that could translate into a political form that could serve us all.

That said, the one person who has achieved that in the most brilliant and wonderful way is Lula because he loves people. I think that he has done the right things, such as rebuilding the northeast. So, looking to the past is more of a sign of our failure in progressive politics to rethink who are the people we should be campaigning with or doing things for right now. In Brazil, voting is mandatory, and yet, here we are still campaigning towards the politics of the center when that doesn’t represent the majority of the electorate.

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

Dry Ground Burning

Miryam Charles

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 16, 2022
Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso

There are many aspects of this year’s AFI Fest lineup that warrant special distinction. In the eight years that we have covered the event, the programming team has consistently expanded on their commitment to discovering and showcasing emerging talents, with this year’s selections going far beyond previous iterations in terms of their international outreach. AFI Fest 2022 also curated an astonishing amount of documentary features that applied experimental methods in order to distinctly tell their narratives while simultaneously expanding the genre.

Amongst our favorite features this year at AFI Fest were a trio of innovative documentaries that used a plethora of unorthodox techniques to delve into their subjects and topics: Alain Gomis’s Rewind and Play, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica, and Miryam Charles’s Cette Maison.

Throughout her early career, Miryam Charles, a Canadian-born filmmaker of Haitian descent, has explored a myriad of issues related to trauma and displacement in her short film work, and now, with her compelling debut hybrid-documentary feature, Cette Maison, Charles examines how the tragic death of her cousin Terra, who died in 2008 under mysterious, violent circumstances at the age of fourteen while living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, impacted her and her extended family. Charles’s film is not concerned with any investigation into the causality of Terra’s death and instead opts for an approach that imagines Terra living in an adult state, which plays out in Cette Maison through a formal staging with actors assuming the roles of Terra and her family. These dramaturgic moments are combined with traditional documentary-like footage and over narration that freeze and shift time to add focus and distance to mirror the emotions behind Terra’s death and the Charles family’s concept of home.

We spoke at length with Charles at AFI Fest on the morning of the screening of Cette Maison and discussed how her short films equipped her to tell such a personal story, her philosophy regarding the use of fictive and documentary elements, her approach to recording the film’s over narration, and how Charles’s family’s immigration to Canada from Haiti affected her life and the construction of her film.

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LF: Throughout your short film work, you’ve explored trauma in multiple situations. Given that your cousin’s death occurred when you were a young woman, how important was it for you to explore these outside traumas in your previous works before confronting the loss of your cousin more directly in Cette Maison?

MC: I think that I was actually preparing myself in a way, not consciously, to work on Cette Maison, because, as you said, all of my earlier films do address trauma, and so I think I was creating these films to work up the courage to take on this project and confront the death of my cousin. For years, my family and I were in a bit of denial about what happened, so we tried not to talk about it. But young women were normally at the center of my short films, and they were always trying to overcome trauma and get answers and find the truth, so in creating these works, I was eventually better prepared to make Cette Maison.

GF: Your short films are also highly experimental in nature and consistently blend documentary-like footage with fictional elements. In Cette Maison, you distinctively heighten fictional and nonfictional parts with the black-box theater staging of certain scenes and dialogs. How did you decide which moments would be shot and presented in this staged form?

MC: From the beginning, when I was writing the script, I knew that a scene like the one at the morgue was such a strange and traumatic moment in real life that I decided that I was going to leave that space almost blank and add elements of set design to accentuate the sense of loss we all felt at that time. Also, since I went into this knowing that I wasn’t going to make a traditional documentary, I met with family members to talk about my cousin, her life, and certain memories. When I went to Connecticut to do interviews, I wanted to also film some scenes using my cousin’s mother’s real-life, beautiful garden, but I realized it would be too emotionally difficult, so as a means to protect myself, I made the decision to recreate that garden in the studio to retain that connection to flowers and plants as an homage to my family because they are very much in tune with nature.

LF: Could you talk about your approach and methods for recording and processing the narration? The volume, the cadence, the distance, and the slight distortion add so much additional depth to the images of the film.

MC: I wrote the script, and then I spent a few weeks with the two actresses who narrated the film. We took that time to discuss the text, to which they added elements of themselves, and then we went into the studio together, drank tea, and talked about life in a very calm, loving, and relaxing way. Thanks to this process, the actresses understood from the very beginning that this was a very emotional story, and it all went well. I then did the recording with the two actresses together. The producers had asked me if I wanted to record them separately, but given that we were doing the three voices of the film, I very much wanted to record our voices together.

GF: Some of the most beautiful images of Cette Maison come from your exploration of what returning to Haiti would look like for your cousin had she lived. What was it like to go back to Haiti to try to capture the sense of place through the imagined perspective of your cousin rather than that of your own?

MC: Actually, when I started to work on the film, it was very important for me to go back to Haiti to shoot the film there because I am of Haitian descent, and my cousin never got the chance to return before she passed. It was a very symbolic moment for us to go back there together, but in the end, we didn’t. When we started shooting, it was the beginning of the pandemic, and the situation in Haiti was somewhat difficult, so the insurance company would not insure us to film there. I was very saddened by this, so the producer asked me if I wanted to wait a year and a half to shoot the film, and we decided to wait. Unfortunately, then, there was the situation involving the President of Haiti, and the insurance company again said that they could not insure us, so instead of waiting longer, which I didn’t want to do as I had an emotional need to get this going, we chose to film in St. Lucia and the Dominican Republic. I then altered the script so that when the characters talk about returning home and they look at the map, they are unsure of where they are, which was a way for me to suggest that they weren’t really there at all. This added to the nostalgia of the film because I myself had never been to St. Lucia or the Dominican Republic, so all of the images that I shot were from a distance—just landscapes and not a lot of people. Those images created a feeling of wandering and trying to find a home while knowing that home is not there.

LF: That feeling of not knowing where home is greatly resonated with me and Generoso because of our own familial histories. Your parents departed during the regimes of the Duvaliers in Haiti, but there’s no explicit mention of the political state of Haiti in Cette Maison. Was the impact of the Duvalier family’s government something that subconsciously impacted your family? Did it make you feel more distant from Haiti?

MC: I would say that this exclusion is really coming from what I experienced in my family, and I also have a lot of friends whose families left Haiti during the regimes too and had similar experiences. In my home, my parents wanted to distance themselves from what they fled, and they expressed that through their hopes for us to be integrated into Canada. They really wanted us to be Canadians, and they made sure that we learned French before we learned Creole. That, of course, created some distance between me and the homeland of my parents. I was in my late teens when I finally learned Creole, and, if you know the language, I think that you can hear that in the film because when I narrate in Cette Maison, I do it in a very thick French accent. It always bothered me in a way because, given the history of Haiti and its colonization by France, speaking Creole with a French accent is very difficult and loaded for me. But, I decided not to correct it in the film because this nuance tells the story of displacement and the story of how I learned about my family’s culture at home.

GF: Feeding off of this idea of immigrant upbringing, we wondered about the selection of music in your film. Assimilation for immigrant families is always inconsistent, and each family has their own way to preserve culture from their homelands and to accept outsider culture too. How did your music selections for Cette Maison reflect your family’s approach to assimilation?

MC: Very early in the process, I was telling my cousin’s story, but I was also telling my own story, and I wanted to stay close to home. My parents were classical music lovers, so that’s what we listened to in our home, not the more traditional Haitian music genres such as kompa or zouk. When I met with the film’s composer and he suggested a score that was more Caribbean, I told him that I just didn’t grow up with that kind of music, so we filled the score with classical music as an homage dedicated mostly to my dad instead.

LF: For us, the use of classical music in the film also created its own sort of timespace. Nothing feels dated, but also nothing feels explicitly now either. As a result, the film exists in its own independent timespace that is non-linear and separate from our current reality. Can you talk a bit about the creation of this unique and distinct area?

MC: Cette Maison is a film about memory, trauma, and trying to deconstruct or reconstruct souvenirs, and grief distorts time in this process. When you lose someone, it is difficult to attach that moment to an exact time, even when you know what year it occurred. My cousin’s death happened fourteen years ago, but it feels simultaneously so close and yet so far away. Grief does such strange things with time…

GF: Now that you have created Cette Maison, which is such a personal and emotional story, have you begun thinking about your next project and whether that will be a personal story as well?

MC: Yes, I think that my project will be personal, and it will be a comedy about a Haitian family living in Montreal. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Featured photo by Claudie-Ann Landry.

Cette Maison

Memoria

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Originally published on Ink 19 on June 28, 2022

Memoria
directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://memoria.film

Lily and Generoso Fierro

Director Alice Rohrwacher

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The eclectic World Cinema programming at the American Film Institute Fest is always exceptional, as year after year they have brought the most eagerly awaited new features from established talents who have consistently garnered prizes at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, and this year was no exception as AFI Fest 2018 welcomed the newest and justifiably distinguished works from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Jafar Panahi to name a few. As strong as the features were from veteran directors, what distinguishes the curation this time around was the work of some of the newer voices in international cinema, most notably the brilliant third feature by Italian director Alice Rohrwacher titled Happy as Lazzaro, which earned her a Best Screenplay award at Cannes. Amazingly, given that Rohrwacher’s first feature, Heavenly Bodies, was only released seven years ago, this 2018 Best Screenplay win for Happy as Lazzaro is not her first award at Cannes, as her accomplished 2014 feature, The Wonders, received that year’s Grand Prix.

Like The WondersHappy as Lazzaro shares that film’s timeless and naturalist core narrative of rural people who are out of sync with the modern world. Both films also interestingly utilize the talents of veteran actresses playing against type (Monica Bellucci in The Wonders, and Nicoletta Braschi in Happy as Lazzaro), and the two features both contain exceptional performances from the director’s sister, Alba Rohrwacher.

Happy as Lazzaro follows the titular character, a pure spirited man (played by the seraphic-faced Adriano Tardiolo) who works amongst a community of sharecroppers in the mythical town of Inviolata where they toil for a tobacco overlord, the Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi). Through the use of organized religion and a certain amount of twisting of the truth, which convinces the workers that they are environmentally unable to leave their village, the Marchesa exploits the sharecroppers who are overwhelmingly unhappy with their situation, except for Lazzaro, whose unblemished soul allows him to complete his farming tasks without issue while he even becomes the unknowing victim of his already exploited community. Regardless of his treatment, Lazzaro lives beatifically in the hills above Inviolata until one afternoon when Lazzaro befriends Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), a young nobleman and member of the Marchesa’s family who wishes to remain separate from his people as well. Shortly after sealing their friendship, Lazzaro hides Tancredi so that this cynical privileged man can fake his own kidnapping to make some funds to escape his own predicament, but the subsequent search for Tancredi uncovers the ugly truth of the Marchesa’s activities, which have a ripple effect that forces the workers of Inviolata into the urban landscape, bringing them face to face with an even more grim reality.

I spoke with Alice Rohrwacher during AFI Fest 2018 about her meditative feature, focusing on her symbolic use of the Roman Catholic religion, her comments in the film on systematic exploitation, and the use of surrealism and the grotesque to draw attention to urgent contemporary economic and social issues.

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Q: After the family’s liberation from Inviolata, Antonia regales to Pippo on the bus a story of a saint and a wolf. You do not identify the saint as St. Francis of Assisi, but given the story, are we to assume that this is a reference to St. Francis’ experience with the Wolf who terrorized the town of Gubbio, and who St. Francis eventually appeased by offering it food from the very people whom it had terrorized? If it is a direct reference, then is what we see as the inability of Lazzaro to appease the wolf of the modern, urban society beyond Inviolata due to the fact that this wolf is an unnatural being?

A: There are many ways to explain this. Let’s say that Antonia only knows stories of saints. In fact, she is unable to tell any other kind of story, but somehow with the power of these narratives, she can bring us to another time. Of course there are references to the Wolf of Gubbio and St. Francis of Assisi, but I think that Lazzaro is a saint that exists outside of religion, so we can see similarities between Lazzaro and St. Francis, but I wanted Lazzaro to exist outside of that world. He’s almost prehistoric. He’s beyond a formal human era.

For me, in my film there are two religions: On one side is Roman Catholicism, and it is a very historical religion, and in a way, it is part of the problem in the film because it is an instrument that is being used by the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna to keep the sharecroppers in ignorance. So, in Happy as Lazzaro, the Catholic religion is a very strong force over people, but there is another religion in my film, a religion of the people who believe. It is the religion of innocence, and there is no name for this religion — it is just the belief that human beings have in other human beings, so in Antonia’s story, you can see how the individual names of these saints could be connected, but there is not a direct reference.

Q: What I find interesting in your film is that the exploitation comes from the sharecroppers as well as the Marchesa, suggesting that exploitation and even cruelty is an essential part of natural existence, and here I am thinking of the moment when Pippo is being teased when he was a child that his mother committed suicide because of how ugly he is.

A: I wanted to establish that there are behaviors that are good and bad in this film, and we cannot simply make the conclusion that the peasants are good and the Marchesa is bad, as this kind of exploitative behavior is like a chain effect in that the people who are being exploited will occasionally seek out others to exploit who they feel are beneath them, but sometimes there are miracles because, in this ugly cycle, there are people who remain free of this need to take advantage of others, and they are considered by their peers as fools, but maybe they are in fact, saints.

Q: In terms of the geographic change that occurs in your film from a rural to an urban landscape and how that change plays out as far as the behavior of your characters, do you suggest that nature provides a protection of sorts for innocence? I ask this question as I feel that your film, in terms of its message, has a kinship with Lee Chang-dong’s most recent feature, Burning, in which two of the protagonists, both rural characters, find themselves in Seoul for different reasons, and the various challenges of urban existence and their inabilities to react quickly enough play out in tragic ways.

A: From one side, I think that over the last fifty years the world has changed in such a dramatic way that we are sort of stunned, and for that reason, we don’t acknowledge the good and the bad the way we used to — we just acknowledge the size of the change. Before all of this rapid change that has occurred recently, humans moved in conjunction with what had occurred in the eras before them, but now, like what happens to Lazzaro in my film, we seemed to have jumped from one era to another without any link to the past. Now, I am not saying in any way that it was better or worse in the past. I am not nostalgic, and as a woman, I have absolutely no desire to return to a time long ago, as it was even harder than it is now, even with the problems that the world is seeing today, to have been a woman in any point of the past, but I do feel a need to show to my children and the people in my life that something monumental has happened to humans, that we once had a common language somehow against enemies, that we now have passed from a social middle age to a human middle age. So, I think that if you were making a movie about this phenomenon you need to do it right now, because things are moving so fast that in a few years, even the storytelling language will be fantasy, and for that reason I feel that this generation is on the precipice of something, and we have to document this before we move on.

There is something available for these rural people to use in the city, as I show with the group from Inviolata finding the chicory to eat right by the squat where they live, so there is nature thriving in the city, but this isn’t as much about the urban environment making nature unavailable as it is about there being no place for innocence. I tried to create an atmosphere in Happy as Lazzaro that is timeless. When the sharecroppers are in Inviolata, they do not know about the outside world, and so they are able to maintain their sense of innocence, so they aren’t necessarily good or evil because the definitions of good and evil are not clear to them, but now that they have experienced the reality of the outside world, they have become skeptical, and I feel that my film tries to divide these two times. As for nature, it is always there, and it is consistent to all experiences, just like the wolf that you see in the bank and in the street with cars, you also see the plants that grow on the borders by the side of the train, but the problem is that people do not want to see it.

Q: As in the way the sharecroppers harvested tobacco for the Marchesa, but yet, could not identify the plants that they could easily eat in the area around them because they were never instructed in Inviolata on how to sustain themselves?

A: Yes, and because of being so insular in their environment in Inviolata, they ate only what the Marchesa gave them, so now, when living in the city, they only try and eat processed, packaged food that they steal.

Q: There’s something that I discussed at last year’s AFI Fest with your colleague, director Jonas Carpignano, when we spoke about his film, A Ciambra, regarding the dilemmas faced by rural people who are being thrust into more urban situations, that I’d like to discuss with you. There are moments in his film that, to me, conjure up memories of the Italian grotesque films of Ettore Scola, Marco Ferreri, and Lina Wertmüller. Specifically in your Happy as Lazzaro, there is also an absurd, but no less real possibility of people today living like the people from Inviolata, who are forced to live in city and have no choice but to squat in an abandoned oil tanker and who would have to steal an entire display of potato chips from a gas station to feed their group. Do you feel that these moments in your film appear because the dire economic and refugee situations that exist in today’s Italy, and throughout the world, mirror the era when the Italian grotesque films were being produced? Do you feel that given the extreme issues going on now, that a more exaggerated, almost surrealist treatment needs to be employed in order affect audiences, as the grotesque films did in the 60s and 70s?

A: I didn’t make any direct references to any particular scenes in those Italian films, but I very much do feel that, specifically how the platforms of most politicians have become so nightmarish, even yes, grotesque as their agendas are not based on what anyone would see as rational thought, so during this time, I truly feel that we do indeed need more surrealism in cinema to get people to understand their reality. For example, let’s look at the scene in (Happy as) Lazzaro when Nicola is selecting refugee workers to pick olives, and he is having them outbid each other so that he can select the workers who will work for nothing. The scene, as I created it, is done in an absurd, surrealistic manner, but in this desperate time, it plays out more realistically than a scene using realism. So, sometimes you indeed need to be grotesque to understand reality when the reality is this vulgar.

Q: Finally, this is a personal question, but it has been quite a while since we’ve seen Nicoletta Braschi in a film, and so my wife and I were thrilled to see her in Happy as Lazzaro. We love her work, especially her films with Jim Jarmusch where she plays wide-eyed, sweet characters. In your film, her performance as the Marchesa exudes a conniving insipidness that I have never seen her do in a film before. To my knowledge, she has never played a villainous role before, so why did you feel that she was right for this part?

A: I always love to work with great actors and to ask them to play against type, the way that we imagine them in our imaginations, like the way that I used Monica Bellucci in my film, The Wonders. So, for Nicoletta in Lazzaro, it was fun for me to have her play a villain because she almost always plays characters who are good spirited and sweet, like the parts she plays in Jarmusch’s films, so I felt that it added something intangible to her role as the Marchesa.

Nicoletta Braschi as the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna, Credit: Cinetic Media

Special thanks to Rachel Allen at Cinetic Media for her valued assistance with this interview.

Happy as Lazzaro is available now on Netflix.

https://www.palacefilms.com.au/happyaslazzaro/

This interview was conducted by Generoso Fierro and was originally published on Ink19.com.

Director Tarik Aktaş

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Year after year, AFI Fest, through their New Auteurs section, dedicates a substantial amount of their programming to the feature film work of new talents, whose usual port of entry into festivals that are this prestigious is through the short film programming. AFI Fest’s robust New Auteurs selections draw from works from all over the world, and in 2018, the amount of features that were screened in the section went up to eighteen as opposed to the eleven that were shown there in 2017, and in fact, two of our most appreciated films came from the New Auteurs section last year, both best described as having experimental narratives: Júlia Murat’s Pendular, and Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar. This year, our favorite film to come out of the New Auteurs selections was the confident first feature by Turkish director, Tarik Aktaş, Dead Horse Nebula, which to be candid, we also felt employed an experimental narrative construction like Pendular and El Mar La Mar, but after my conversation with Aktaş, I now realize that I was mistaken in a way.

Utilizing naturalist elements and a sparse, but effective amount of dialog, Dead Horse Nebula follows Hay (Baris Bilgi), who first experiences death as a boy by way of interacting with the titular deceased horse. As Hay stands in awe of the horse, he begins to poke at the rotting horse’s stomach and then witnesses the life that is subsisting within the animal’s organs, which creates a thought in Hay’s mind about the transitory/cyclical nature of death. The film then jumps to Hay as an adult, who we then observe having more interactions with death, and we see how these cumulative experiences and his memories of these moments shape his behaviors as he encounters more episodes dealing with mortality. Impressively executed in its 73 minute running time, Dead Horse Nebula succeeds by allowing the viewer to clearly examine the experiences of Hay, the passive protagonist, and interpret how Hay’s memories determine his future.

My lively and meditative conversation with Aktaş examines the director’s own particular method of production, his preference for working with non-professional actors, the challenges and rewards that choice presents, and his thought process for creating his central character.

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Q: I’ve been thinking about the pure definition of a nebula, a dark cloud that blocks light while forming an environment where stars and planets can form. If we are to assume that mortality is the dark cloud that shadows Hay’s thoughts, how then do you see that nebula allowing for Hay’s ability to grow in the world around him?

A: Actually, I never thought about the nebula as a darkness, but perhaps something that is just material that has no life, but in the end when it comes together, and there is an explosion, the planets are formed, which leads to organic life. In another way, regarding the material world, the incidents that we see also, through memory, shape this one particular soul. I have always seen the film as having two parallel motifs: one motif is for the material world, and the other is for the more metaphysical side.

Q: Hay first observes death with the horse, then partakes in death by way of slaughtering the sheep, and then faces his own death in the end. In terms of the construction of the film, how do you feel that his earlier experiences address Hay’s mindset on the construction site as he is almost killed while behaving a bit recklessly?

A: I think that death merely initiates his skill of observation. Death is of course important; it is something that is important for every human being because of its inevitability, and because of this inevitability, it is something that ignites a fire in someone’s character. If you look at Hay’s friends, for example, in the scene at the beach, they are concerned about the dead bodies on the sand, but not in the way that Hay is concerned, as they have a more ethical question, and ethics always emerge after reality. The reality is the boy’s lying dead on the sand, and then if you start talking about the ethics of the situation, it becomes something else, a way of reacting as we tend to do as human beings. Similarly, when we see the women in that scene crying, we understand that they are having an emotional reaction, but as you can clearly see, the effect overall is indeed very material. So for Hay, death is something material, but the emotional side of his reaction is somewhat lacking because of the previous incidents that he experienced, such as the way that he saw the dead horse—it was no longer a living animal, it was material, but from the dead animal, he saw life coming out of it. Of course, since he experienced the dead horse as a small child, he could not intellectualize the moment at that time, but he did find an awesomeness in the experience. There was a huge body, and it was dead, but when he saw the animal’s insides come out and witnessed the living parasites on the organs, he understood death produces more life, and this understanding carries through his perspective as an adult.

Q: Then, in terms of the perception of life, and here I am thinking of your film in contrast to Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, like Frammartino’s film, you have a naturalist setting, but in his film you witness a transitional progression of life from man to goat, from goat to tree, and then finally from tree to mulch, whereas in Dead Horse Nebula you see death as a looming obstruction more than a natural transition inherent in life. Frammartino’s film is about the circle of life in reincarnation, so death is not an obstruction, but again, in your film, even the removal of the horse takes on an element of conflict by having the need to blow the horse to bits in order to clear it from the field because it is a potential impediment to the community’s water source. Then, while slaughtering the goat, Hay almost dies from cutting the artery in his leg, and by the end, Hay takes the tree he and his friend have chopped down and brings its processed planks to a building site, but Hay almost dies working on it. So, to me, in your film, there is always this obstruction that appears in the cycle of life. How does that play into Hay’s perception of death?

A: I think that in our daily routine we mostly miss the point of death. Maybe this is just me who does this, but I am pretty sure that I am not the only one, but I see things, and I find some value in almost everything. For example, right now I am sitting in my hotel room, and looking at the curtains, I see a value there and that value is in the crafting of the cotton, and then I see agriculture in it, and then I see our civilization in it, and that is what I do. So, in our daily routine, no matter what our industry is, let’s say education or really any other work, there is always a meaning there. For Hay, this obstruction as you say, is like a veil between life and what life carries as a meaning, and for him that veil is becoming more invisible. At a certain point, when Hay sees the bird when he is hanging from the ledge in the construction site, he sees that bird as a savior, not that the bird could physically save Hay, but the bird is a savior because he looks into his eyes. The bird’s existence itself is already a savior for Hay.

Q: I find that very interesting as I saw the bird in that scene as something completely different. I wouldn’t say that I thought the bird was mocking Hay, but I interpreted that moment as one where Hay might feel that the bird’s natural ability of flight, which allows it escape the unnatural predicament that he is in where he could potentially fall to his own death on the worksite, is kind of taunting Hay, who killed the tree, a natural material, which has now become the structure that might end his life.

A: That is not too far from my point then if you feel that the bird is mocking Hay in that situation, or mocking death to be more specific, because Hay already has already confronted death, so he will not be so sorry if he dies, and he shouldn’t be, given what he has seen so far in his life.

Q: This is your first feature Tarik, and it has been described as having an experimental narrative, but compared to your short film work, Dead Horse Nebula seems to have a more conventional structure, especially visually.

A: Indeed, my early short film work has much more of an experimental nature than Dead Horse Nebula does. And although I do understand why you might call my feature experimental, I myself would not call it that. My short films use elements of illustration, and I incorporate small fragments from very well known movies and other found footage to build up a narrative. I am fortunate as when I made them, they soon were accepted to national film festivals and then to international festivals. But again, about Dead Horse Nebula being experimental, or why does my feature have such a structure? I will say that my next feature will possibly not have have a structure like this film does in its fractured, fragmented sense of time. As I see it, reality is completely fragmented, at least in terms of memory, for when you try to remember moments, you rarely to never remember them chronologically. You might remember a sound or an emotion, or a smell, so there is an illusion in your mind that you remember that day, but in reality it is very fragmented, and your brain combines these pieces, and that combination becomes your memory, whether you are fond of that memory not, and that is why this film has this structure.

Q: Narrative structures similar to yours are normally assessed as works of “dream logic,” but I appreciate that in your film, you are trying to replicate the narrative through the way we recall memory. Will you further explore this kind of narrative with your next feature?

A: This might sound even more abstract, but my next film will be about what I mentioned before, and that is the “veil.” So to explain further, Dead Horse Nebula is about, “seeing,” and more specifically, when the veil disappears. In my second feature, you will understand how to move once the veil vanishes, so it is then about movement and the will to do it. In Nebula, Hay is a very passive character. He just observes, but in the next film, the character, though not in the very beginning of the film, will begin to learn how to move to change his fate.

Q: Not to dwell on this point, but Hay is, as you describe him, a completely passive character, but do you feel that any of his actions lead to his potential demise or to an implicit tie between the events leading up to his death?

A: I think these two things, passiveness and assertiveness, merge together, and by this I mean, that if you do something or if you do nothing, the nature of your action or inaction will lead to this conclusion. For example, Hay is not the one who says, “Hi friends, I have found a job for us. We will chop down this tree and sell it to this construction company.” Hay is just the friend of the person who is being proactive in getting work. So, when I say, “passive” or “active,” I am referring to a person who makes decisions, and in the case of my film, Hay is never the person who makes the decision. In the first edit, for example, I had Hay asking, “Why don’t we go fishing tonight?” to his friends, but of course, I edited that moment out of the final cut because it shows Hay as being more of an active participant than he really is.

Q: I must ask then, how did that moment of proactive speech come about in the earlier cut?

A: That line came about from a motivation for the actor. You see, these are all non-professional actors. Baris Bilgi, who plays Hay, just a few months before shooting the film, was working as security guard in an apartment building. The characters were all played by my friends and family, so when Baris asked me, “Why don’t I ask my friends to go fishing?,” I said, “Sure,” because it was part of the process, since there was no script for him to reference. None of the actors in this film actually had to read a script. We would all just meet in the morning on location, and I would give them direction like, “Now, let’s cut down this tree,” and they would all say, “Sure, O.K.” We bonded so well because I started working with the actors three months before shooting, but I never actually rehearsed a scene with them because I wanted their natural reactions to come through.

Some directors, I feel, make a big mistake when they select non-professionals to be in their film, but then apply acting methods on them, which destroys the natural feel of their performances. So, I never discussed the movie with my performers. I never had them read the script so that they could simply focus on the physical activity that they needed to do that day.

Q: I really appreciate that method and your philosophy there Tarik. Almost twenty years ago, I was very fortunate to have interviewed Abbas Kiarostami, and he told me something that I keep with me to this day. I asked him if he still preferred to use non-professional actors, or if he was unable, since the revolution in Iran, to find actors whom he really wanted to work with on his films? As a response Abbas asked me, “Do you know the game of polo?” and I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Well, in polo you are on the horse, and you are supposed to control the ball, correct? But, the ball is always in front of you, and that is why I insist on using non-professional actors.” I didn’t understand it at first, but it soon became clear. You must direct these performers, but the flow of movement and of the pitch will send them places that are more natural, even with your direction.

A: Yes, exactly. But, do not get me wrong as everything on Dead Horse Nebula was indeed scripted, and in this film, as was the case in my short experimental films, I draw up storyboards for every scene. Everything that you see onscreen has been scripted and drawn up prior to filming. Let’s take the scene where the Ömer character delivers the monologue where he talks about the time when he almost drowned in the sea. Well, that scene is a mixture of Ömer’s own memory and mine. There was a moment like that in the script, but the scene came about as such: I told Ömer that in the scene, “You need to come up with a memory of your own, so what can you recall that involves this moment and that moment?” I gave him the keywords, and we made the scene happen together.

Q: I am not sure if he continued it throughout his career, Tarik, but, to me, your method is somewhat similar to what Mike Leigh did with his 1996 film, Secrets and Lies. Leigh would take Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste to the shoot location, and before a scene would start, he would hand the actors each a slip of paper that would have written on it, something to the effects of, “This is your mother, who you are meeting for the first time.” And then, they would have to improvise the scene from there. How did your method come about?

A: In my art school, we also had an acting department, but even with that talent there, I always used my friends or family to act in my short films instead because I could place them on the frame wherever I wanted to place them. You just cannot take how the acting should be done for granted, more specifically, what kind of acting does your film require? Perhaps in my second feature, I will need professional actors, but as a director you have to think about it, and truthfully, I am not sure if every director thinks about the kind of acting their film needs prior to shooting. For example, we can see the difference between a director’s approach to the camera: the framing, the lighting, but we usually don’t focus in on the director’s choices for the acting.

As you mentioned Mike Leigh, you can see how realistic the acting is in his films, and I recently showed one of his shorts to my students, and it really was incredible, the acting in his films, especially the flow, and I feel that filmmakers are indeed using this powerful kind of tool in their work, and that has always been my approach, and I have never thought about acting differently.

Q: Once you have selected the type of acting you require, and given that you, at least for this film, preferred a more natural reaction from your performers, did you then only rehearse a scene on location?

A: Since I didn’t want them to overthink the scene, the only rehearsal that took place was on location. In Dead Horse Nebula, there are two or three monologues that take place, and like I stated earlier, I only give keywords, and those words are incorporated in the dialog, but what is really open for improvisation is the structure of the sentences, which I feel is important, as it is necessary for the idiosyncratic aspects of the Turkish language to come through.

Generoso: Thank you very much Tarik, and best of luck on your next film.

Tarik: Thank you so much. This was a very nice experience.

Still from Dead Horse Nebula, Credit: AFI Fest

Thank you to Johanna Calderón-Dakin for her valued assistance in making this interview possible.

Featured image credit: AFI – Manny Hebron

This interview was conducted by Generoso Fierro and was originally published on Ink19.com.

Tyrel

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Tyrel is directed by Sebastián Silva and stars Jason Mitchell, Christopher Abbott, Michael Cera, Caleb Landry Jones.

There are a multitude of clever, small tension-building mechanisms at play in Sebastián Silva’s newest feature, Tyrel, which due to the specific casting, will of course draw comparison to last year’s Get Out, but here, what will become the strongest generator of tension is our concern for the outcome of the main character based on our understanding of what can occur in Silva’s work, which is usually aimed at challenging the ethos of Americans who consider themselves progressive. Specifically here, I am thinking about Silva’s controversial 2015 feature, Nasty Baby, which had as its protagonists, a gay couple who wish to have a child, joined by their female friend who is acting as their surrogate mother, and the grief that they endure and the action that they regrettably take once they are threatened.

In fact, the Chilean-born Silva, in his relatively short career as a director, has had his way in poking sharp holes into the American left’s perception of their own racial and social tolerance, tolerances that are usually coupled with the image that we hope to present to others as non-ethnocentric beings. Usually, Silva attacks this image by portraying the affluent left as a group who will invariably betray their deeply held beliefs the moment their safety is threatened, or in the case of the narrative of Tyrel, when a copious amount of alcohol or mind altering substance is in play, which was also the case in another of Silva’s features, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, which starred the director’s favorite ugly American, Michael Cera (actually Cera is a Canadian, Sebastián). We’ve been on these finger-pointing excursions into the American left with Silva before, and with those cinematic experiences firmly implanted in our memory, we are about to meet Tyler.

Jason Mitchell is Tyler, or Tyrel, as he is called in a misunderstood introduction, the first micro-aggression committed against our protagonist by a friend of his friend Johnny (Christopher Abbott), who is taking Tyler up to the scenic mountain home of an old Argentine friend, Nico (Nicolas Arze), for a brotastic weekend to celebrate the birth of Pete (Caleb Landry Jones from Get Out), another of Johnny’s friends. Tyler, who is heading to the country to avoid the familial intensity stemming from his girlfriend’s sick mother’s decision to reject dialysis treatments, is now going to be the new guy and the only African-American on this retreat surrounded by Johnny’s old buddies, which will naturally make him feel out of place, but the many possible sources of uneasiness is what is key here: How much of the general awkwardness that Tyler seems to feel is coming from just being in a house of strangers? How does this discomfort change with those strangers’ growing level of intoxication? With their awkward insensitive racial remark? And perhaps, with the overall need for any group of animals, humans or otherwise, to test the new being in the group by seeing how far they can push him? What will send the friendly Tyler into a rage? Adding into the tension is the setting of a comfortably snowed-over Martha Stewart-ish winter home, complete with Christmas light adornment, a home that might potentially be a blackout away from a setting closer to John Carpenter’s claustrophobic horror classic, The Thing, with the invasive alien entity being replaced by the time period of the film, the winter after the 2016 election that won Trump the White House, which was the culmination of a campaign that we all know caused more violent verbal riffs about race and class than any campaign in recent U.S. history.

What becomes apparent and admirable about Silva’s construction of characters and situations in Tyrel, a construction that is intended to have the audience gyrating in their seats as they fear the oncoming conclusion, is that given recent films like Get Out and Silva’s own filmography, the director can reference a plethora of moments to bombard you with cinematic cliches that you will immediately recognize as beneficent. You get the overly sympathetic gay man in the group, who will of course side with Tyler, and the kind hearted foreigner (the Sebastián Silva stand-in) who provides outside wisdom of how the world truly is, and who will try in vain to explain the way it should be to counteract the vulgar utterances dispensed by the drunken Americans in the group, who will of course team up against our beleaguered hero Tyler, who at one point is even put to the ultimate test of having to participate in a fate worse than death: an impromptu R.E.M. fireside sing-along of the group’s obnoxious hit, “Stand,” which in this author’s mind is a moment that should never occur in any free society that values basic human decency. Tyler’s reaction to this does appear like he is feeling out of place, and so he appears annoyed as many of us would, but is it really this particular outpouring of suburban white pride that is getting at Tyler, or is it something else rumbling under the surface?

A key moment that might shed some light on the answer occurs early in the film. Before any of the frenetic drunkenness takes place, Tyler leaves the home to find a cell phone hotspot to speak with his girlfriend, Carmen, who begs Tyler to stay on the phone and pray along with her and her family in Spanish. During what should be a solemn moment, we see Tyler looking disinterested and checking out prank videos on his phone and playing on Instagram. Juxtapose that with a moment later in the film when the bro gathering begins to scrutinize and then burn a bunch of religious paintings. In this scene, Tyler appears to become agitated again and is slightly calmed down by Johnny, who tells Tyler that there is no intended anti-religious meaning behind the burning, and that, in fact, burning items is just a common release for the group, suggesting that Tyler’s anger is less about Johnny’s friends entitled acting-out or blasphemous behavior, and more about how this moment of immolating religious imagery recalls Tyler’s own guilt for feigning interest during his failed moment of prayer with his girlfriend.

There clearly are moments in Tyrel where Tyler’s race becomes the brunt of jokes, and Silva does set up these scenes for the audience to create empathy for his protagonist and to drive the tension to build towards a dramatic climax, but we also see Tyler as someone who rarely cares about anyone else but himself throughout the entire narrative as well. Sure, he doesn’t want to (nor should he have to) partake in the R.E.M. sing-along, but why is he so adamant against playing ping pong? He is at a birthday celebration after all. And, why did he decide to go to a birthday celebration of someone he does not know instead of being with his girlfriend, who needs his support as she tries to cope with her mother’s grave and fatal decision? If Tyler does not want to be around this group of strangers, nor around his girlfriend and her family, where does he want be?

Thus, is Tyler’s alienation his overreaction to the mindless titular name mistake that begins the weekend with Johnny’s friends? Or, is he regretting his decision to spend a weekend hanging out instead of being with his girlfriend? Does being around Johnny’s friends bring out a nagging guilt about what Tyler has had to do in quashing his own identity to become a successful restaurateur, or is there simply nowhere that Tyler, or any person of color, will feel comfortable in this post-Trump election America? Tyrel does an amazing amount with its small and larger observations in its short 84 minute running time, and the film is a huge step forward for the always provocative Silva, who for the first time with his storytelling devices, leaves the target of the finger-pointing for the audience to determine.

Tyrel is directed by Sebastián Silva and stars Jason Mitchell, Christopher Abbott, Michael Cera, Caleb Landry Jones.

Tyrel is in theaters and available on-demand now.

http://www.tyrelmovie.com/

Written by Generoso and Lily Fierro, Originally published on Ink19.com

A Doorway into Terror: Dave Baker and Nicole Goux’s Suicide Forest

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Hello hello hello comicbook and graphic novel lovers!

Many months have passed since my last review! Seasons have changed; timed has moved forward and probably not given you a chance to catch up. A nasty election season is finally over, and for us, the major comic con season is over as well.

Since the last review, we attended Long Beach Comic Con and Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con (formerly known as Stan Lee’s Comikaze), which means that I have collected some new (and of course old) comics to spotlight for you.

To kick off the return to comic book reviewing here on this blog, I have selected Dave Baker and Nicole Goux’s Suicide Forest. At Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con, we had one of the most refreshing and energetic conversations about comics as a medium rather than an incubation arena for films with Baker and Goux, and their dedication to making comics a visual communication form unbounded by the panel-to-panel, page-to-page conventions that have often defined comicbooks shows in Suicide Forest.

The beautiful cover of Suicide Forest

The beautiful cover of Suicide Forest

Taking cues from the theater tradition of the single room setting meeting horror à la Paranormal Activity, Suicide Forest starts and ends in a child’s bedroom. Each page presents half of the bedroom, giving plenty of space to examine each action and every detail. As you turn each page, a new action, large or small, occurs, and with each turn, you notice a new detail that you missed on the previous page. The plot of Suicide Forest is simple, and some may argue its plot devices are derivative of horror cinema; but, its elegance comes from its execution.

On what looks like any normal night in American suburbia, a child sleeps in her bed. We see her hugging a teddy bear fast asleep with a full moon casting a soft light in the room through a window. The room has various pictures and toys surrounding a bed with built-in drawers (remember the popularity of those beds in the 90s?); it is a standard child’s room you would see in the idyllic suburbs. Everything looks calm, but of course, we know that something will change.

Within a matter of a four pages, we see a thin, hunched, masked figure, dragging a baseball bat and walking in the hallway, all through the doorway of the bedroom. Quickly, sounds of a struggle flow into the tranquil room, and after seeing/hearing the sounds, we see a fight between a mother and the figure occurring.

We as the audience see most of the major action for Suicide Forest through the door, which acts not only as peephole for us to see sequences through but also as an entry point where a terrifying outside world not too far away will invade and conquer the child’s room. Consequently, as we anticipate the action that will come through the door, we also feel this enormous dread about what we will see with each page turn, and this desire to see what happens while being concerned that what comes next will be something unpleasant is the strength of Baker and Goux’s technique. The thin, hollow-faced man has changed the lives of the family forever in a matter of small moments, and even though he never steps into the room, we know that all innocence has been lost.

The moon does not change. The Sailor Moon sketchbook does not change. The toys in the basket stay unmoved. But, we know that life for the child and for the entire family will forever be haunted by the man and his actions in their house, and as a result, the house itself, the inanimate setting will disturb them as well.

When you see the masked man in Suicide Forest, you will immediately think of Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween, but do not be fooled by the character similarities (though you could argue that the experiments in perspective in the two make them closer), Suicide Forest shares more with Richard McGuire’s Here than it does with Halloween. Like Here, Suicide Forest uses the fixed, one room setting technique to elicit not only emotion out of the plot and the page changes but also an overall viewer experience. In Suicide Forest, you watch the actions ensue as if you were standing in the corner of the room, and as a result, you feel the impact of every step, every scream, and every word.

Though I personally would have liked Suicide Forest to be longer because the visual technique is one I would have loved to spend more time with, the graphic novel accomplishes what it intends to achieve with a supremely minimalist approach. Suicide Forest strikes quickly, just like its antagonist, the masked man who you fear to see in your doorway.

Suicide Forest is independently published by Dave Baker and Nicole Goux; it can be purchased here

Failure, Success, and Life in Turkey: Özge Samanci’s Dare to Disappoint

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When Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis reached worldwide audiences, the book legitimized the graphic novel form as a medium for nonfiction, personal perspectives on historical events. With Persepolis, Satrapi materialized a subject we would expect more in literature than in cartooning, opening the floodgates for other autobiographical stories to emerge in graphic novels and to be taken with seriousness and read by audiences inside and outside of the comicbook world. But, despite this climate ripe for more “serious” graphic novels, few other autobiographical stories have received such broad appeal and even fewer have given glimpses into historical topics and cultural traditions bypassed by western media and schools.

Thankfully, within the last year, multiple graphic novels have risen to carry on the flame of history based stories told through a relatable narrator. Sonny Liew’s outstanding 2016 novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, employs a fictional memoir to recount an unbiased view of the modern history of Singapore, and Özge Samanci’s 2015 release, Dare to Disappoint, gives us insight into the cultural and political of landscape of Turkey during civil war, martial law, and afterward.  

When you open Dare to Disappoint, you may have the temptation to draw parallels between Samanci’s work and the seminal Persepolis, but let me prevent you from doing so. Do both document the effects of cultural and political turmoil on a person? Yes. Can both books be classified as a Bildungsroman for women? Yes. Do both look at the Islamic fundamentalism? Yes. Are both autobiographical? Yes.

The two books have a substantial amount of content in common, but Dare to Disappoint has four factors that distinguish it from Persepolis: its tone, its visual style, its setting, and its narrator’s journey of maturation. Consequently, silence any initial instincts to dismiss Dare to Disappoint as a Persepolis wannabe because if you do not, you will miss out on an intimate view into Turkey in the 1980s and an encouraging tale for adolescents to think for oneself.

Cover for the light-hearted and relevant Dare to Disappoint

In Dare to Disappoint, Samanci captures the familial and societal pressures for professional success in a culturally repressed world and how all of those forces can influence and shape growth from childhood to adulthood. In under 200 pages, we see Samanci transform herself based on her desire to please various people in her life. Her teacher, Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, her father, and her sister all impact Samanci’s decisions throughout childhood and adolescence; the satisfaction of others takes first priority during these formative years. Even though Samanci has a wildness in her spirit that stems from her mother’s side, she mostly represses her desires to see the world and sea like her idol Jacques Cousteau and to work in the arts. As a result, by the time Samanci prepares to attend the same prestigious college as her sister, she has little self-confidence and possesses almost no understanding for what she really wants in life.

After continuing to follow the standards of others into adulthood, Samanci finds herself with a math degree she has taken too long to complete and a failed attempt to get a drama degree. Doing what will garner oohs and ahhs from neighbors and extended family has led her to failure in multiple ways, and ultimately, no one is happy, especially Samanci herself. Fortunately, failure tends to awaken a person, and by the end of Dare to Disappoint, Samanci finally realizes that thinking for herself has more value than her current course of conforming to the expectations of others; even though making her own decisions may lead to failure and disappointment, the disappointment in herself weighs heavier than the disappointment of others, especially since they will most likely be disappointed regardless, which she sees through everyone’s disappointment in Pelin, Samanci’s sister who graduates with a praised degree in engineering from the best school in Turkey but does not succeed in the field and works instead in a bank.  

As Samanci progresses, we see the changes happening to the Turkish political and cultural climate woven into the story of growth. Samanci’s observations on the severity of Turkish government on the daily lives of the nation’s citizens grow in depth and acuteness as she develops, and through these comments, we receive a perspective into Turkish history delivered without an overburdening omniscient narrator or a cold, sterile textbook presentation. This personal approach makes the understanding of Turkish history richer and more enjoyable. Occasionally, Samanci’s visual and tonal playfulness borders on the edge of too light, making the illustration of some moments in Turkish history feel far too jovial to be considered as an example of irony (one glaring case is the silliness of the drawings of the killings of the civil war between the liberal left and conservative right and the resulting military coup), but overall, the style effectively conveys the self-effacing nature of Samanci’s reflection on her own life.

With its vivid and lively visual style that mixes cartooning and artwork synthesized from images of real objects, Dare to Disappoint will appeal the most to teenagers, but it also has value for adults in its perspective on Turkish history. If you look at Dare to Disappoint and expect to find Persepolis, you will not get what you hope for, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Samunci’s Dare to Disappoint centers itself more on the road to failure via the desires of others and the realization of this truth, making Samanci’s path to adulthood far different from that of the strong-willed and impassioned Satrapi. Both novels inspire; both inform; both offer complex views into cultural and political change. They just take different paths to get to their final messages of enlightenment.

Created by Özge Samanci, Dare to Disappoint is available via Margaret Ferguson Books.

The Distance of California in Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying

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When completing Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying, only one word could describe my first reaction: distance. When reading Killing and Dying, you always feel like an outsider looking into the world of the people in the six stories. You never feel close to the characters, and the visual style has a sterile perfection to it that reinforces this sense of distance. Reality inspires the world of the graphic novel, but a genericness to the scenery makes every setting seem like a faceless suburb somewhere in California, giving way to a coldness in the delivery of each story.

However, this distance is not a bad thing, and it makes plenty of sense when you live here.

Yes, I’m late to this renowned graphic novel of last fall, but after living in California for a year, the atmosphere of the book makes more sense now than it would have in October 2015. This state has an abundance of beauty in it, and it still has an undercurrent of untamed energy that you can trace back to the wild west of the past, but California, despite the sun, mountains, trees, and ocean, has this palpable sadness to it. Maybe it comes from the lost hope from dreams that never came true or maybe from the interactions that never happen because so many spend a large percentage of time in their cars, making a sense of community feel far away, but regardless of the reason, this dourness lies just under the topsoil that sees the frequent sun. This gloom manifests itself in many ways, and one of them emerges in distance between people.

Adrian Tomine perfectly captures this sullen mood of life in California with his stories in Killing and Dying. Similar in its construction and tone to Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels, but with desperation and sadness stemming from a different place than the return of Hong Kong to China, each story has similar elements of compulsion and absurdity stemming from miscommunication or misinterpretation by people and their actions.

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The Cover for Killing and Dying with a composite of California and a Denny’s from Pasadena

 

In “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture,’Harold, a gardener, finds inspiration in the thoughts and work of Isamu Noguchi and begins a new creative enterprise, which he terms as “Hortisculpture.” Part formal sculpture, part horticulture, Harold’s art fuels a passion in him for his work, and this passion develops into obsession as his Hortisculptures fail to attract the attention and capital of his gardening clients, his colleagues, and his own family. The Hortisculpture fixation lasts six years, and it consumes his existence and tears up his family. In a state historically looked at as a beacon of opportunity, Harold’s story resembles that of every actor, actress, technologist, and inventor whose creations and work fail to gain the attention of people, making it an excellent opening story to set the tone of the book. He gives everything to his creativity, but it goes nowhere and takes him far too long to realize when his artistic dreams need to be placed on a hiatus.

In the title bearing story, the daughter in a family wants to test out comedy as a potential for a career. The mother offers unbounded support and gives the daughter the opportunity to try out this creative outlet, and the father, the pragmatist, offers his skeptical opinions. As we see the daughter’s development and failures in comedy, we also see how the mother’s illness shapes the father’s bitterness, the daughter’s fearlessness, and the mother’s optimism. The strongest of the six stories included in the graphic novel, “Killing and Dying,” condenses killing in a comedic sense, dying of embarrassment, dying of humiliation, and death into a quiet story constructed entirely from conversations and comedic performances, good and bad. The dream to become an entertainer makes “Killing and Dying” a California-centric story, and its disappointments coming from failures and life further place the story here.

Killing and Dying closes with “Intruders,” hearkening again to Wong Kar-wai, but this time, to the film Chungking Express. In between tours, a man returns to his home city. Unwelcome by his family and lacking a permanent home, he establishes a base camp in a hotel room, waiting to travel again. During this period, he gets the keys to his old apartment from a young woman who once house sat for him, and he begins to live in the apartment in the hours that the current tenant leaves it for work. Like “Killing and Dying,” “Intruders” toys with multiple interpretations of the term intruder, and it concisely sums up the book, for by the end, you also feel like you have intruded on the lives of all of the people in the stories, and as a result, you will most likely have one of two reactions. You may want to start narrowing this separation from others, or you may want to make it larger and only view people and places through your windshield.

Killing and Dying has received adulations from the literary and alternative comics world, and that praise is well deserved. Tomine understands the motivations, disappointment, and derailment of people, and he discusses them with minimalism and detachment that draws empathy without pathos, allowing you to see the underlying sadness of the setting, which exactly feels like modern day California.

California is a place where people can become larger than life. California is a place where people can fall far from grace. California is a place where finding your own identity and understanding yourself feels far harder than anywhere else because others always feel far away physically and emotionally, and Killing and Dying examines this distance and resulting melancholy with a sharp eye and efficient tongue, reminding all that not everything is golden on the edge of the Pacific.  

Killing and Dying is written and illustrated by Adrian Tomine and is available via Drawn & Quarterly.