Lily and Generoso Fierro at AFI Fest 2016

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Even though this was our second year attending, it is still sometimes difficult to believe that the American Film Institute Festival transpires in the seamless way that it does each year. An event that is entirely free for all who wish to attend, AFI Fest features films from around the world, which are usually accompanied by stars and directors galore who stay after screenings to discuss their work and to answer audience questions. The event is administered by an endless team of happy volunteers and staff who even make the process of waiting in line an efficient one by handing out numeric placeholder tickets so that you can exit the line to eat for thirty minutes or so; and, those numbered tickets also work well in quelling the usual social dilemma of endless morons in line in front of you who decide to let in twenty or so of their friends who show up a few minutes before doors open to go in ahead of you. This version of line organization is no small feat of administration, we’ll have you know, as we have seen such line-cutting indiscretions in the Northeast lead to countless screaming matches and even odd public displays of the pugilistic arts. Not sure if folks in Los Angeles would go toe to toe over a spot in line, but we find that these things are best left as a mystery.

We had a wonderful time during the 2015 festival because, even though we ended up reviewing the event, we mostly spent our time running from screenings into more screenings armed with a bag of free tickets for U.S. premieres of films from directors we greatly admire such as Jacques Audiard, Arnaud Desplechin, Hong Sang-soo, and Hirokazu Koreeda, and in terms of directing talent, AFI Fest 2016 was shaping up to be another fine year, especially considering that they were able to screen this year’s Palme d’Or winning film at Cannes, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion winner,The Woman Who Left, from Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, and Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, the winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. This year’s AFI Fest was also able to acquire the most recent effort from the always entertainingly self-destructive talents of Hong Sang-soo, whose film Yourself and Yours had the love and frenzy you expect from him, and Paul Verhoeven, who presented his much heralded and controversial new film, Elle.

In total, we saw twenty new features (and one amazing retro screening of David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster with the director himself and star, Lily Tomlin, in attendance) at this year’s AFI Fest, which surpassed last year’s total watching by seven films. This ability to see such a staggering amount of films was partially made possible by the wonderful pre-festival press screenings at the AFI main campus, which allowed us to preview many of the films participating in the “New Auteurs” section this time around. These New Auteur screenings outside of the festival allowed us extra time in our festival schedule, which we filled up by conducting interviews with the directors of a few of the films that we enjoyed (links to the interviews are contained in the short reviews below) and attending the documentary panel and even the gala screening and after party for Elle, where we chatted with Paul Verhoeven and his wife, Martine, and where Generoso blew his one and only chance to speak with one of his all time favorite actresses, Isabelle Huppert. Believe us, he has regretted this every day since.

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Lily Fierro with director Paul Verhoeven at the Elle screening after party

We’ll get deeper into other extracurricular activities such as the award ceremony later in this article, but let’s get to the films that we were lucky enough to have seen this year.

The film reviews below are presented in order based on their rating score (that we define on a scale of one to ten stars). The highest rated films stand at the top of the list, and the lowest rated films sit at the bottom.

In first place for our AFI Fest 2016 film list, and high on our Best Of list for the year, is the aforementioned Golden Lion winning film from Lav Diaz, The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo). Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story, God Sees the Truth, But Waits, this exceptionally realized, nearly four-hour long drama (a short one for Lav Diaz, actually) is set in the director’s native Philippines during a kidnapping epidemic that took place in the year of 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to China. The Woman Who Left follows the story of Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos-Concio), a self-educated, forceful, and righteous woman who is released from prison after serving thirty years for a crime that she did not commit. Upon leaving prison, she seeks revenge on the man who framed her, an ex-lover and a wealthy crime kingpin who hides in his home in fear of being kidnapped himself. Diaz’s film slowly and meaningfully unfolds into a complex final statement on fate and forgiveness in the face of corruption that is led by the government and the Catholic Church, who together appear in league against the basic needs of the common people.

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Still from Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left

Issues of hypocrisy within the Catholic Church and the devastation that it causes are also the subject of another one of our favorites from AFI Fest 2016, Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation of Philippe Djian’s controversial 2012 novel, Oh…. Isabelle Huppert delivers her usually brilliant performance as Michèle LeBlanc, the CEO of a videogame company who bears the shame of being the daughter of one of France’s most infamous mass murderers, a Catholic zealot who, during a crisis of faith, decides to brutally slaughter a neighborhood of parents and children. Early in Elle, Michèle is brutally raped but refuses to report the crime and allows for further transgressions against her as part of a self-imposed penance brought on by Catholic guilt. As the violent atonement proceeds, the identity of the rapist and his relationship with Michèle emerge as an allegory for the unholy alliance between the traditionally vilified Semitic participation in banking and the pious and benevolent public appearance of the Roman Catholic Church. More volatile than anything released in this decade so far, Elle, has been selected as France’s entry into the 2017 Academy Awards and rises as one of the finest films of Paul Verhoeven’s long, turbulent career.  

One of the biggest surprises of this year’s AFI Fest came via the New Auteurs programming section with Buster’s Mal Heart, the second feature by Sarah Adina Smith, who directed the unique and regrettably overlooked 2014 film, The Midnight Swim. Much will be made of the layered performance of Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as Jonah in Buster’s Mal Heart, and this praise is indeed deserved, but much credit has to be given to Smith for making an exceptional drama that, although is set in and around the Y2K panic of 1999, presents an excellent allegory for disenfranchised people today who find themselves economically and racially out of sync with the current version of a successful society. Smith deftly balances the present and past through memories and dream logic to create an antihero who in appearance seems insane but in reality may have the key to survival. Generoso sat down with Sarah Adina Smith during AFI Fest to discuss her film in depth. You can read the interview here.

Cristian Mungiu, who along with Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu, represents the leading force behind the Romanian New Wave of the last decade. Both Puiu and Porumboiu have released features over the last few years to varying levels of acclaim, but Mungiu has been oddly silent since his 2012 film, Beyond The Hills, which earned the Best Screenplay prize that year at Cannes. Arguably the most revered of his Romanian peers, Mungiu returned to AFI this year with his Palme d’Or nominated and Best Director at Cannes winning family drama, Graduation (Bacalaureat). Adrian Titieni portrays philandering surgeon, Romeo Aldea, who is trying to balance relations between his wife, his mistress, and the one person he truly loves, his college-aged daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus). Even though Romeo is a ranking surgeon at the local hospital, his distinguished career doesn’t pay him enough to afford to send Eliza abroad to Cambridge University, a dream that he desires for her seemingly more than she does for herself. When Eliza is violently attacked on the street the day before her state exams, she performs poorly on the first of the exam series, which puts her scholarship in jeopardy. Left with few options, Romeo must engage in unethical favor peddling in order to secure his daughter a high grade on the second and final exam. Cristian Mungiu’s talents in encapsulating larger issues within his country into a small personal drama are in full display in Graduation, a film that does not strive for the sense of frenetic tragedy of his previous film, Beyond The Hills, yet it is no less gripping due to the moral struggles behind the decisions that his characters need to make.

The fractured state of society was a consistent theme throughout many of the strongest films in this year’s festival, and one of the finest examples came from the brutally honest storytelling of veteran director Ken Loach in his Palme d’Or winning tale, I, Daniel Blake. For the entirety of his fifty-plus year career, Ken Loach has called out the woes of society, whether it is the racism that falls upon the schoolteacher in 2004’s Ae Fond Kiss…, the dangers of privatizing British Rail in his 2001 film,The Navigators, and everything in between that befalls the working-class protagonists in the episodes of his own BBC series that aired back in the 1960s, The Wednesday Play. In I, Daniel Blake, veteran BBC actor, Dave Johns plays the titular character, Daniel, a middle-aged carpenter who has suffered a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctor to remain unemployed to heal. After a poorly performed physical incorrectly classifies him as being fit for work, Daniel is forced to systematically hunt for a job so that he can be become eligible for unemployment insurance. One day while asking for assistance at the unemployment office, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two children who is also getting the bureaucratic runaround. These two marginalized people soon become platonic friends who try and help each other survive while the broken system that is supposed to assist them begins to miserably fail. There is no silver lining here, as Loach clearly lays  on all of the tragedy stemming from globalization combined with a government that is woefully inadequate in compensating for the failing economy. Our packed screening of I, Daniel Blake was eerily silent with the only exception being the sound of crying from the audience, which was most likely composed of many people who, given the Monday early afternoon time slot, had a lot in common with our film’s heroes.

On a lighter but no less contemporarily-relevant front is the Finnish film based on a real-life event, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies), the second feature from director, Juho Kuosmanen. Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) is about to become the 1962 World Featherweight Boxing Champion, a title predicted and desired by everyone in Finland except for Olli Mäki himself. Olli has just met Raija (Oona Airola), the love of his life, so the fact that the current champion from the United States, Davey Moore, is flying in for a title fight, which will be seen by thousands of his countrymen at the stadium in Helsinki, now seems of lesser importance. Are his love for Raija and the manager-mandated absence of her causing this doubt in Olli? Is his doubt about fighting against a proven champion or the non-stop commercial hype machine around him that makes the whole event seem like a long con making him nihilistic about winning? Expertly shot in glorious black and white by cinematographer, J.P. Passi, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a cynical, albeit sweet retelling of this small moment in Finnish sports history that meant more to the actual people involved away from the ring than those inside of it. We met up with director Juho Kuosmanen and cinematographer J.P. Passi at the Roosevelt Hotel right after the AFI Fest wrapped up to find out more about their inspiration and production methods for the film. You can read their thoughts in that conversation here.

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The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki Q&A

Hong Sang-soo has built a body of work based on a formula that relies on his main character’s self-destruction. In most of Hong’s films, we see a relationship fall apart; sometimes we see it begin; sometimes we see it repair, and all of these activities occur in a warped sense of time where the present is never the present, and the past is not the only past. Yourself and Yours is true to the purest of this signature Hong form. In this most recent film, Youngsoo (Kim Joohyuck) struggles to trust his beautiful girlfriend Minjung (Lee Youyoung), and as a result, the two part ways. As he attempts to recover from the breakup, we, as the audience, see Minjung take on multiple personas as she spends time with various men. We gradually get a sense that these personas represent all of the ways that Youngsoo and his meddling friends look at her, and quickly, we realize that in all of these different versions of Minjung, we have lost the true Minjung, or we may have never known her at all because she might have never existed. This confusion surrounding the truest form of Minjung amplifies because all of the men who show affection for Minjung in her different states are creators who may also look at her in some idealized form. Youngsoo himself is an artist. One man (Hong favorite Kwon Haehyo) is a writer. Another (Yu Junsang) is a director. So, we must ask: is Minjung just a muse that cannot be reached for all of these men? Is the real Minjung not Minjung at all because “Minjung” is just the name of a heightened representation of a woman of another name who exists in reality? Hong does not provide a direct answer to the identity of Minjung, for what is most important in the film is the shedding of all of the perceptions of Minjung (or not Minjung) in order to allow Youngsoo to love unconditionally. Yourself and Yours could have benefitted from a more cinematically expansive visual style (it looks more like 2010’s Oki’s Movie than 2015’s Right Now, Wrong Then or 2011’s The Day He Arrives), but its small screen look does help the film feel like a derailed soap opera romance that is steering wildly onto no clear path into a place where no soap opera has gone before.

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Still from Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours

Winner of the American Independents Audience Award at AFI Fest 2016, Donald Cried exemplifies the strengths of American Independent cinema: simple premises with sharp execution, solid dialog, impeccable acting, and characters and energy that remind you, sometimes too much, of moments in real life. Director Kris Avedisian stars as the title character, Donald, the metalhead who never quite grew up but has a humble sweetness to him that always reminds you of being a teenager, and in contrast to Avedisian, Jesse Wakeman portrays Pete Latang, an uptight stockbroker who left his former life in Warwick, Rhode Island behind for a more serious Manhattan city life. Set in the dreadful, gray, slushy New England winter, Donald Cried focuses entirely on Pete’s return home to tie up various affairs in the wake of his grandmother’s death. When Pete arrives back to Warwick, he hopes to quietly return and leave without notice; however, fate wants something else, and Pete loses his wallet in transit, and his only transportation, a car frozen in the driveway of his grandmother’s house, fails, so he must cross the street and ask for the help of his neighbor and childhood friend, Donald. As Pete and Donald spend time together, we constantly feel uncomfortable about how little Pete wants the reunion and how much Donald does, and, sometimes, we do not know what to do but laugh to try to release the discomfort. Donald Cried plays with Pete’s guilt and how it manifests in his own demeanor and Donald’s actions, and by the end, regardless of who you identify more with, you empathize with both, even if you are neither a cold stockbroker nor a loveable metalhead, because both men are acutely aware of their past and current worlds, which simultaneously unite them while guaranteeing that their futures will be apart from each other. Avedisian overwhelmingly succeeds with his debut feature; his scope, humor, pacing, and setting for Donald Cried are all just right, and together they create a film that reminds us of why we really cannot go home again—especially if we try to do so on purpose or by accident.

One of the finest debut feature films from this year’s AFI Fest is the highly stylized satire on upper middle class apathetic Brazilian youth from director Anita Rocha da Silveira, Kill Me Please (Mate-me por favor). Our often grotesque social commentary film begins with a murder of a call girl that leads to more and more bodies turning up in the fields of the West Side Zone neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, where a group of teenaged girls led by Bia (Valentina Herszage), Michele (Julia Roliz), Mariana (Mariana Oliveira) and Renata (Dora Freind) sort of go to high school, text constantly, perform dance routines for imaginary cameras, and gossip their way through the bloodbath, with the growing carnage providing our pack of teens the necessary faux concern needed to balance their lives against unlimited opportunities of banal, ill-advised sexual adventures. Kill Me Please is a riveting and fast-paced critique of apathetic youth that goes out of its way to avoid exploitation while consistently playing with you in a visually inventive way, compelling you to watch it all unfold into a kind of sick glee.

In his debut feature film, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, Dash Shaw takes all of his best techniques from his comics and pushes them into the time-based medium of animation to create a visually alluring whir of moving painted backgrounds and shifting colors, patterns, and textures paired with a story about redemption, love, and friendship. Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts) are writing partners. Dash has a flair for the fantastic, and Assaf has a preference for journalistic integrity; and together, they write stories for their DIY paper. When the editor, Verti (Maya Rudolph), convinces Assaf that the pair should write separately, Dash lashes out at them with libel and ends up alone, leading him to the discovery that his high school is not up to building code, so the heralded new rooftop addition will cause the school to plunge into the nearby sea the moment the earth trembles, which it does. Though My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea shares its foundation with any classic coming-of-age tale, it has Shaw’s characteristic whimsy, humor, and awkwardness, which makes the film far funnier and more engaging than most John Hughes-esque films about teenage angst and paths to maturity. The film fuels itself on the absurdity of teenagers’ myopic perspectives on their own world, even in times of crisis, and as a result, even though the film does structure itself around Dash and Assaf’s reconciliation, the major hero of the film is the wise Lunch Lady Lorrain (wonderfully voiced by Susan Sarandon), the burly lady who looks at her job as a responsibility to the wellness of the students and who, in turn, saves many in the wreckage by strapping them onto her body and carrying them as she navigates through the disaster. For the animation style, Shaw and lead animator Jane Samborski take visual cues from American Pop, Spider-Man, and Yellow Submarine, so My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea has wonderfully psychedelic imagery that mesmerizes, which compensates for the moments where some of the voice acting from Schwartzman and Watts fail or the moments where the plot gets a little too clumsy. We had a chance to speak with Dash Shaw about the labor-intensive process behind the making of his film; you can read the conversion here.  

Inspired by her own pregnancy, Alice Lowe wrote, directed, and starred in Prevenge. Always enchanting, Lowe has been an actress for Ben Wheatley and Simon Pegg, and if you love Snuff Box as much as we do, you also may remember her excellent take on David Bowie. In Prevenge, Lowe plays Ruth, a pregnant young woman who has recently lost her partner in a climbing accident. Ruth’s baby seems to have more than a touch of evil in her, and she speaks to Ruth and encourages her to murder people. As the bodies pile up, we begin to see that the victims may have played a role in the death of Ruth’s partner, but Ruth’s motivation for vengeance may not actually come from her apparently sinister baby. The first half of Prevenge struggles to find its identity, tripping in between a slapstick comedy and a visceral slasher, so some of the early killings have too much of an awkward campy feel to them, but by the end Lowe focuses the tone into one of direness, and Prevenge becomes a well-crafted, introspective work of psychological horror. Throughout the film, Lowe is excellent, playing Ruth sympathetically while slowly conveying her broken psyche, and as a result Prevenge is a fun little flick that will be perfect for midnight screenings at your favorite arthouse theater.

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Prevenge Q&A with director Alice Lowe

Charlie Lyne’s engrossing second feature, Fear Itself, is a sometimes effective cinematic essay on the artistic method of creating fear within the horror genre. The entirety of Lyne’s film utilizes horror clips from the well known to the rare, which range in era from classic works like Murnau’s 1922 film, Nosferatu, to David Robert Mitchell’s critically praised 2014 scarefest, It Follows, in order to illustrate how the genre uses the calm, the buildup, and in some cases the actual delivery of terror to draw your fear. Using a similar method to Mark Rappaport’s video experiments, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg, Lyne differentiates himself from Rappaport by only using over-narration, which is provided by actress Fairuza Balk, whose unemotional delivery of the film’s core thesis begins to drone on about thirty minutes into the watch, as her voice eventually gets superseded by the thoroughly intense imagery onscreen. The final result of Fear Itself is a piece of cinephiliac porn that is more entertainment than it is essay.

One of the most exciting parts of AFI Fest is the opportunity to see award-winning features from international filmmakers, and we were looking forward to seeing Ralitza Petrova’s Golden Leopard winning, debut feature Godless (Bezbog). The film is already being compared to Barbara Loden’s Wanda, but it lacks something essential to that seminal film that starred the director and writer herself: minimalism that unrelentingly commits to its central character. Though uncompromised in its severe mood and tone, Godless fails to place complete focus on the fascinating protagonist of the film, Gana (Irena Ivanova), a morphine-addicted nurse who sells her elderly patients’ ID cards to people who use them to open up fraudulent credit accounts. Gana is unfazed by most things; the blatant corruption of the police officer and judge that she works for does not bother her. Her complicitness in the accidental murder of one of her patients does not shake her. However, Yoan, a former prisoner under Bulgaria’s communist rule, finally begins to change her, but only too late, and Gana will need to find her own way to pay for her sins. Over the course of Godless, moments with Gana are meditative and intimate, so much so that you never want Irena Ivanova to leave the screen. Consequently, when we see scenes such as the corrupt judge and police chief chatting before entering an orgy or the close up of a funeral wake in an ornate church, they add contextual drama to the film and underscore the direness of the society Gana lives in, but they interrupt our study of Gana and the nuances of her transformation, which are the strength of the film. As a debut feature, Godless has promise in it, although it falls short of any of the careful studies of a person attempting to navigate a crumbling societal structure seen in Cristian Mungiu’s films, including the aforementioned Graduation.

Drawing an editing style from Stan Brakhage, Dean Fleischer-Camp’s 52 minute spastic ode to the evils of consumerism, Fraud, shows us a family in credit freefall. The film begins with our family of four going on a teenaged spending spree at the local mall before coming to the shocking realization that the bills will soon be coming due. As the debt mounts, mom and dad torch the home and take the kids on a trip with their ill gotten insurance funds. All of this is captured by the dad-child who never lets go of the camera—he even goes so far as to film the arson (yes, I thought that was a bit much as well). Even though they know that the law is in hot pursuit of them, our band of plastic card wielding villains still stop a few times to take in the sights, pick up survivalist-grade firearms, and eventually make it over the Canadian border for some more shopping with the bonus of an even higher sales tax rate. Fraud ends with Fleischer-Camp’s essential cautionary tale about globalization and consumerism, which is delivered loud and clear and at about the right length.  

The most disappointing aspect of Joshua Locy’s debut feature, Hunter Gatherer, is the waste of an excellent performance by the film’s star, Andre Royo, who most audiences know from The Wire and more recently Empire. Andre Royo plays Ashley, a neurotic, recently released from prison, middle-aged man who must live with his mother while figuring out his next move. One day, while trying to sell a ladder, Ashley befriends a simple man named Jeremy (in a fine performance from George Sample III), who Ashley cons into helping him with his refrigerator disposal business. Not satisfied with just having a good friend and business partner, Ashley heartlessly hooks up with Jeremy’s aunt, Nat (Kellee Stewart), while still relentlessly hounding his ex-girlfriend Linda to pick up where they left off. Royo is the shining star of Locy’s debut film, which sadly borrows too much of its style, both visually and in offbeat character construction, from the early films of his colleague, David Gordon Green. Locy, having worked as an art director on previous Green efforts, Prince Avalanche and Manglehorn, should have infused the film with more of his own style as Hunter Gatherer, despite a few fine performances, comes off as just a pale imitation of Green’s best early work.

It has been a dozen years since Yang Chao won Special Mention at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for his film Passages, where a young couple go on a planes, trains, and a slow boat escapade through Mainland China in the search for a special wild mushroom that becomes a metaphor for dissatisfied Chinese youth. Yang was immediately lumped into the “Sixth Generation” movement of Chinese cinema, but Passages, though promising, offered a commentary that was nowhere near the level of scathing social critique that Jia Zhangke, a true member of the movement, had displayed with The World, which was released in the same year. After twelve years, Yang has returned with master cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping Bin (In the Mood for Love, Café Lumière), to deliver Crosscurrent (Chang jiang tu), a meticulously shot, pretentious bore of a feature that works more like a picturesque National Geographic triptych up the Yangtze River for Western audiences than an acute cultural statement of present day China. A writer travels by boat and makes love Wong Kar-wai style with the same woman at each stop. Literary references abound, and the whole film exists as a metaphor between humanity and art and the eternal with absolutely no desire to establish a link between the characters and the changing landscape in order to draw you into the allegory.  

When Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska took the stage before the screening of her debut feature, the musical mermaid film, The Lure (Córki dancingu), she proudly announced that she comes from the country of Krzysztof Kieślowski, but as he hated musicals, her country never makes them. Well, if Krzysztof were alive, I doubt that he would sway from his position as The Lure does nothing to advance the genre, and it even fails to just simply entertain you. The Lure is the story of a pair of entrancing mermaid sisters who find a home in a tawdry cabaret. One of the sisters enjoys the humans and demands love from them, while the other sister views the humans as a food source. Smoczynska throws “shocking” sexuality and campy tunes your way in the hopes that you will be happy with telling your friends that you have seen a sexy Polish mermaid musical.

Sadly, the film that received more than a few awards at this year’s AFI Fest was one of the most feeble attempts at a crime-drama, coming-of-age film that we have seen in some time. Houda Benyamina’s Divines is a wretched blending of high-gloss Hollywood style (with a bit of cellphone video for that “edgy” touch) and a dizzying collection of cinematic clichés, most of which were borderline infuriating to watch. It is as though Benyamina thought that she was doing something unique in giving a contemporary update to a thirties gangster film, or if she was actually trying to be hard-hitting, you must wonder if she has ever seen a Jacques Audiard film before making Divines, the story of Dounia (Oulaya Amamra), a teenaged girl who grows up in a Roma camp and dreams of becoming a drug dealer to get out of her predicament. As clichés abound, Dounia must have the good hearted friend who goes along for the ride, only to end up caught in the crossfire, and the love interest, a dancer who our budding crime kingpin spends days watching from the rafters of a local theater. I assume that most of the credit goes to Divines for switching the gender of the protagonist, but this is a paltry nuance for a genre that has already been done to exhaustion.  

What in the world has happened to Kim Ki-duk? The once promising director of Bad Guy, 3-Iron, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring has degenerated into a sloppy, melodramatic mess as of late, and no film typifies his recent downfall more than The Net. With his new film, Kim reduces the ideological struggle between North and South Korea into what appears like a Lifetime Channel family drama that uses the ethos of both nations as convenient plot devices to further a thin narrative about a North Korean fisherman whose net gets caught in his motor, which forces him to drift into South Korea where he is arrested and detained as a spy. Kim clumsily presents South Korea as a hypocritical state that boasts of peace while under the rule of rampant, soulless consumerism where decent women are forced into prostitution, and brutal cops offer no semblance of fair treatment. These may very well be true critiques, but the manner by which they are handled here leaves these claims as unfounded as names called across a school yard. The performances are quite poor overall, as is the film’s visual aesthetic that looks more like a student project than the 21st feature film of a veteran director.  

We were massively underwhelmed by Maren Ade’s previous directorial effort, 2009’s Everyone Else, a toothless romantic drama that was utterly flat in its concept and execution. Since then, Ade has thankfully stayed away from directing, concentrating her efforts on production, which have resulted in two of our favorite films of this decade, both by Miguel Gomes—2012’s Tabu, and our favorite film of this year, the three-part masterpiece that is Arabian Nights. Given these production successes with Gomes combined with unparalleled positive reviews, we were indeed excited to see Ade’s nearly three-hour father-daughter comedy, Toni Erdmann, that unfortunately we will now refer to as the biggest disappointment of this year’s AFI Fest. Inspired by Andy Kaufman’s audacious alter-ego Tony Clifton, Toni Erdmann is just a slightly ruder Capra-esque father-daughter story about an uptight, cutthroat businesswoman named Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is brought back to humanity by her wild and crazy dad Toni, who poses as a “consultant and coach” for the chief executive of Ines’s company in an attempt to teach his child a lesson. I suppose that brandishing Austin Powers-styled fake teeth qualifies as great German comedy these days, which in and of itself is quite sad, but Toni Erdmann’s ham-handed attempts at social commentary are even more clichéd and painful to watch than its attempts at humor.

On the last day of AFI we were invited to the Awards Brunch, a lovely event which was held in the same grandiose room that a few nights earlier had housed the Elle gala after party. There were a few surprises in the awards that were announced that morning, and AFI has been kind enough to list those winners here. We must note that we were thrilled that one of the more impressive short films that we saw, The Send Off, a heartfelt look at the prom preparations and festivities of students in a depressed rural American town, was honored. Directed by Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan, the short film was presented with a Live Action Short Special Mention for Documentary. The brunch also gave us the opportunity to talk with other critics about this year’s strong programming at AFI, and to give a special thanks to a few of our favorite volunteers and AFI Staffer, Johanna Calderón-Dakin, whose assistance was invaluable in helping to set up interviews and press screenings. See you all next year!

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Generoso with legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple

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Interview With Cartoonist and My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea Director Dash Shaw

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Director Dash Shaw speaking with Lily Fierro

We have long praised the comics of Dash Shaw. After our introduction to Shaw’s intriguing, layered visual style through Three New Stories, we have always kept an eye out for any of his creations. Consequently, when we heard that his debut feature film, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, would screen at AFI Fest 2016, we were excited to see it, and we were even more excited to get the opportunity to sit down and speak with him about his approach to image-making. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is lighter in tone than books such as Doctors or Bottomless Belly Button, but it condenses all of Shaw’s clever, innovative visual techniques into a hypnotic array of animated sequences, conveying Shaw’s and lead animator Jane Samborski’s abilities to create and experiment within a time-based visual medium.

LF: For those who are familiar with your comics work, could you explain where the development of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea falls into the course of your career? Did you start working on it at the same time as New School?

DS: Well, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea originated as a comic short story that I had written around 2008, and the initial impetus for it was that when I was a teenager in the 90s, the main kind of opposing schools of comics were the alternative comics that were mostly autobiographical and the mainstream, boys’ adventure, superhero comics, and I liked both of them, so the joke of the story was that I combined the two. It had a character named Dash, but it was clearly showing his warped fantasy view, so it engaged and combined both of those schools. I tried to make another animated movie, a different one for many years, starting around 2007, and I did an IFC series in 2009, but I was thinking about making an independent movie as soon as I saw that the tools to do so were easily accessible using a scanner instead of a camera and using Photoshop to make traditional animation with a computer. Up until that time, all of the computer animation that I had seen looked too “computery,” so when I figured out that I could scan a painted background, and it could look the way I really wanted it to, I was encouraged, and then I was off and running, but the discovery of the creation process I wanted, overall, took a long time.

I did the Sundance Labs in 2010 on a different project, which ultimately didn’t get made, but during that same year, I wrote the script for My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. Bodyworld had just come out at the time, and I was working on New School and Cosplayers while I was making this movie, which took many years to finish. I picked this story because it felt the most doable; even though a lot of other great artists worked on the project and painted backgrounds, I initially didn’t know that they would come onboard to help finish the film. This story all takes place in a school, and I thought that it was completely feasible to paint all these backgrounds myself because I was not sure if, in the long run, I would be able to communicate what I truly wanted to other artists who may work on the project. I kind of thought of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea like Sam Rami’s Evil Dead—we see that he had a cabin locked in for the setting and very limited means, but the film gets by on energy and enthusiasm. So with my film, it felt doable with what I had and what I thought I could do by shooting as much energy into the movie; even though it’s only composed with drawings, I felt the film could succeed based on how energetic those drawings could be. We only had the actors come to the project in 2014, and by then, I already had a majority of the movie drawn. And then, I re-drew things based on what the actors provided and had them come back to record more, creating this cycle of my drawing updates based on their recordings, which repeated until the film was completed. I hope the next one will be faster.

LF: With the total creation process spanning over such a long time, did the story change over time, or did you have fixed storyboards in place?

DS: The good thing about my animation process is that everything is malleable. If I needed a shot, I could paint it and stick it in, and there was a lot of that. It was boarded around 2011; the boards were made in color markers, so there were indications of how the film would look, but My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea changed like a collage made over time. I would have one background in place, and a year later, Andrew Lorenzi, a great artist, would re-paint that background and make it better, and then a year after that, I would think, “Oh, this figure could go there,” so I would draw it and plug it in. The whole creation process was very collage-like.

LF: In terms of the acting, which eventually influenced your drawing calibrations for the film, we understand that you met Jason Schwartzman through your comics work. Given the character of Dash and the plot of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, was Max Fischer from Rushmore in your mind when you approached him for the voice of your character?

DS: Strangely, I didn’t. Another reason why I felt the movie was doable was that I didn’t think I would get major actors for the parts. I thought I would be able to just record it with friends, so I tried to write a script that was basically like an action movie in its simplicity, but with the joke that even though the movie is centered on a disaster, the characters continue to speak mostly about high school stuff, their writing, and books. With that script, I thought that I could do it with people I know, and it would be interesting in an experimental theater way where there’s this dissonance between how people are reacting and what is going on around them.

Then, I realized I had Jason’s email, and Jason, Lena Dunham, and John Cameron Mitchell, who I work with often, understood the sensibility of the movie because of their familiarity with my work, and when we went to people we didn’t know, they thankfully understood that sensibility as well. In approaching the actors who would suit the part, I thought to myself, “Would this actor have hung out with me eight years ago? Would this actor be drawn to the material?”

Jason, who would have played all of these writers and had that sensibility that we know from these other movies, also is the kind of person who would hang out with a comic book artist. And so, when he came on board, I was absolutely delighted because I think he is great, and the reason why he’s played a lot of writers and why we recognize these other characters he’s played in those roles is that there’s something genuinely writerly about him. He would want to hang out with me from having made books, and in the recording sessions, he was very good at altering words in sentences because he’s a writer himself, so he was the perfect person for the role of Dash.

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Dash Shaw and AFI Programmer Lane Kneedler

GF: I had not realized that you have worked with John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Itch). What are the works that you have collaborated on outside of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea?

DS: I made the comic book seen in Rabbit Hole, the movie he directed. I also did all of the artwork in his adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” which is coming out next year. A character in that film makes zines, and I made those. We also co-wrote the video for Sigur Rós’ “Seraph.” And, he was the producer of that project that went through Sundance Labs, so I hung out with him at least once a week for years.

LF: Some of the most beautiful sequences in the film are the advances between the school floors and the corresponding grade levels, where each journey seems closer to some state of enlightenment and/or maturity symbolically and to rescue literally. Could you speak about how you mixed in your own reflections of high school in creating the floors and the journey that Dash and Assaf experience as they ascend the floors?

DS: Well, I wanted the high school structure to have many purposes in the film. When I thought of each floor being a different grade, that became an organizing structure for the script. For example, we know that cafeterias in school are where students divide themselves in the middle of the day, so in the middle of the movie, there should be this scene where students are dividing themselves but instead in a disaster relief ward. And so much of the movie is about making literal feelings; there are these scenes in movies that we’ve also seen in real life such as the bully that goes into the restroom, and so we’re just heightening these familiar moments and feelings by making them fantastical or tragic inside of this setting in the school.

Also, the floors gave the film a videogame-like structure. I never played a ton of videogames, but I grew up watching other people play them. There’s a joke in games and in the film where it seems like society is telling us that we get better, so we move up through floors or grades—that seniors are smarter than juniors, and you’re somehow working to some kind of success, which in my mind, is not true. When Dash says, “We’ll move up to the Senior floor and graduate to the roof,” I ask myself, “What does it mean to be on a roof?” It’s silly. It’s a parody of how people think about getting better or moving up through society or school, and also, it is a parody of movies that have rising levels of tension to some kind of party at the end, so the high school structure did all of this at once in a very simple way.

Speaking of the influence of videogames on the movie, when characters move into a different room, there’s a zooming through door shot that comes from the Resident Evil games. When I first saw that technique, it seemed like a graceful way to solve the issue of how to draw someone moving into another room because it is very complicated to draw someone getting smaller as they move through space. It’s a really hard problem, and that game solved it, and the zooming through door technique also gave the room movements an experimental movie quality; it looks like a shot in a film you would expect to see at the Anthology Film Archives where there is this single door that is opening for you. Also, a lot of the conversations are action sequence based: “We have to climb through that bus to trigger this thing,” and that, to me, is very much like action movie and videogame logic. I liked that movies, videogames, and experimental films could meet in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, and those moments where they do are the most visually exciting ones for me.

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Still from My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea

LF: With your film, you use collage techniques seen in your comics, and you use many shifts in textures as well. Particularly, some of the most interesting shifts occur with the characters themselves, who we see represented in flat, realistic color or in one solid color or in varying brushstrokes. Could you speak about how you decided when to use the flatter, more traditional comics representation of the characters as compared to the more painterly representations?

DS: When I was a teenager, I loved anime. I particularly loved a period when they were trying to animate more illustrative techniques. Fist of the North Star is a good example. This animation period looked at comics drawn in a densely illustrated, hatched style, and when you try to animate that, it’s hard. So, when someone punches another person, the hatch marks of the arm are flickering and changing; that inconsistency, that wrongness to the animation was something I found super awesome. It felt like not only is there this story about this guy punching another guy but also there’s a formal story about lines changing and colors changing. The more wrong that the cartoons got, where one frame could be completely off from another frame, the more it felt like I was watching some crazy alive drawing—that there were these two tracks of what’s happening and how it’s being presented that are changing. This was exciting, and it was also produced a kind of stonery effect too. It’s well known that stoners like to watch cartoons and zone out and see the changes in airbrush textures, and I wanted the animation to work in that way where the film could be a light show for people.

GF: And the swimming scenes also reminded me of Ralph Bakshi’s psychedelic backgrounds for ‘67 Spiderman.

DS: Definitely. Ralph Bakshi was a big influence. When you draw comic books, you are drawing the same thing over and over, and the inconsistencies can be maddening, where you look at one page and say, “Man, this character’s head is drawn this way here, and six panels later it is drawn differently. I messed up.” Some cartoonists embrace the inconsistencies; every cartoonist has a different way to execute repetition in panels, but in animation, I liked it better when things were changing because the images are flying past you in time, so they are not frozen in a way that allows you to see them next to each other in one single moment, which would make it easier for you to see where something is incorrect. Instead, what that character looks like is always morphing in animation. In figure drawing, someone will take one pose, and you’ll draw it one way, and then they’ll turn their head, and the light will change, so you’ll pick up a conté crayon to capture how it is different in that moment, and the drawings don’t have to be read. We understand it is the same person; it’s just that different sides of this person are being drawn, and so, these changes for each character flying past in time, I thought, would look super cool.

GF: Given the consistency concern in comics, do you think that having My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea set in one place in one fixed period of time made it easier or harder to create?

DS: That helped make the project doable. The characters don’t change clothes, so that helps make the process easier. You’re working on this whole thing over many years, and you’re working on different parts at different times, so we know that a character will always be recognizable if they are always wearing glasses.

LF: This film is visually beautiful, which is always indicative of your work. What’s fun about My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is that it is an exploration into codes of nobility regarding love and friendship. Your comics always understand the complexities of human relationships well; are there any specific relationships you want to explore further or revisit in the future, whether in comics or in animation?

DS: Hmm…I have to think about it. I’ve been drawing comics for many more years, so I feel much more skilled as a comic book artist. I learned so much making this movie that I feel that for the second movie, I can be more ambitious with the complexities of the characters and what’s happening. Part of the fun of this movie is that it is very broad and videogame-like, but I have made all of these comics, and they are very different from My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. I think that I can now use some of those things from those other comics and apply them to animation with more confidence. Something that was really amazing about animation is that actors can project anything through any line—that a character can be talking about one thing but somehow because of the actor’s ability we can understand that what they’re really talking about is something else. In comics, that is very difficult to convey. The reader can look at how something is drawn, but they are hearing the words with their own interior voice. So, actors provide a voice, which creates a new arena of subtlety for me, especially in terms of how characters interact with each other. Now that I made this and amazingly figured out how to get all of these great actors, I know I can enter the next one foolishly assuming that I can get great actors who can contribute a lot to those characters. I can then try to write something that provides richer material. I hope to just do better overall.

LF: Lastly, there have been rumblings that Doctors will be made into a live action film. Is that still happening? How involved will you be in the process?

DS: I’m not very involved. Mike Cahill (The Path, Another Earth) will work on it. I know they have a screenplay written and that everyone is psyched about the script. I hope that it goes through to the finish line, but I’m working on my own stuff. I hope they make it, and I hope it goes well.

GF: Is it tough to let go of?

No, because that book was a whole long haul for me, so I’m done with it.
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Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso Fierro on Tuesday November 15th at The Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

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Interview with Buster’s Mal Heart Director Sarah Adina Smith

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Buster’s Mal Heart Director Sarah Adina Smith

I was thrilled to speak with director Sarah Adina Smith after viewing her impressive second feature, Buster’s Mal Heart, our favorite film of the New Auteurs programming section at this year’s AFI Film Festival. Set during the Y2K panic but eerily relevant for present day, Smith’s film presents a complex antihero named Jonah (Rami Malek), a hotel concierge who decides to take refuge in the empty vacation homes of the wealthy while being hunted by the law. As the mystery of Jonah’s crime unfolds via a clever and ambitious blending of dream logic, fantasy, and reality, we start to get a portrait of a young man who is barred from acceptance into the community he so desperately wanted to become a part of for the sake of his family, and whose apparently insane actions might be fueled by an abundantly clear vision of society that is seemingly on the brink of disaster.  

One of the aspects of Buster’s Mal Heart that struck me is the way that you deal with issues of class and race within the film. Jonah is a Hispanic and working poor man who is trying to take care of his family in a predominantly white, middle class area during the Y2K panic of 1999. What do you feel is important in terms of that era and the class and race relations that you are trying to say with the film?

It was extremely important to me that Jonah’s character be a bilingual person of color at the center of this class struggle that you especially feel more acutely when you are part of a community that doesn’t look or sound like you. So, I wanted Jonah to be at the center of that hurricane of social pressures. In terms of setting it near Y2K, for me, that was a very interesting moment in time. I was in high school and was completely convinced that the world was going to come to an end—that it was going to end in a nuclear holocaust, and then I had this absurd feeling when nothing actually happened. (laughs) I liked the notion of setting it during Y2K as part of a sort of psychotic break or part of this feeling that the end was nigh or that all of this was leading to a more cosmic rift in the universe. For Jonah, these social pressures don’t just end on a socio-political level; the social class pressures translate into this larger problem of whether or not it is possible to be free in a universe governed by causality and the oppression of a God, or lack thereof, or nature or whatever you want to call it—this way in which we are oppressed on a cosmic or spiritual level. So, I wanted to tie all of those things together in his psyche to fuel what, on appearance, may seem like a psychotic break. I don’t know that I chose Y2K for any particular historical reasons in terms of the economy and the history of racism. It just felt like a strange moment that had all of this momentum moving towards it, but then suddenly the hysteria seemed to be forgotten the next day.

I was reminded while watching your film of Ondi Timoner’s documentary, We Live In Public, about the first internet millionaire. For years, that was the definitive film that captured the hysteria of Y2K and the things that people were envisioning as a potential outcome, with people gearing up for conflict and/or going off the grid. That’s why I must give you extra kudos for casting DJ Qualls in Buster’s Mal Heart as “The Last Free Man.”  His performance truly embodies that grim level of panic that existed at the time. Which of Qualls’ previous performances made you think that he was perfect for the role?

DJ Qualls is just amazing. I had seen DJ in so many films where he, for lack of a better term, plays the “nerd,” or the guy without much confidence, and I thought it was be a twist to have him play this character who is a hyper-confident/borderline arrogant man, which was something we had never seen him do before, and I think that is why he had so much fun playing that character…the guy who owns the room. Mostly, I knew DJ from Hustle and Flow, but even in the Road Trip scenario, his character was designed to be as though we are all in on this joke about this nerdy kid, and then we find out in the end that he can be cool. I just liked the idea that he is the guy who has all of the answers at the beginning, and then later in the film, when he is weaker and vulnerable, we see his realization that he needs some human connection and wants to be loved.  

In terms of comparison between your first feature, The Midnight Swim, and Buster’s Mal Heart, when I think about The Midnight Swim, I think of a natural setting where you have main characters who on appearance seem broken, even obsessive. The characters in The Midnight Swim immerse themselves in the natural environment, whereas Jonah seems to be happy to subsist with what humans make out of that setting. Could you explain that shift in your approach to human relationships with nature?

There is a scene in Buster’s Mal Heart when Jonah has an argument with Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) in the kitchen where Marty angrily says, “You don’t even know how to build a fucking house!” Jonah has all of these ideas about being this self-sufficient mountain man who is in communion with nature, but he isn’t that. Like so many of us who would love to have that connection with nature, we just do not have the skills to know how to survive when push comes to shove. So, I thought that there was something particularly sweet and sad about a portrait of an American man during this time when our environment is rapidly dwindling, and our relationship with nature is disappearing with it. It feels that soon we will not remember how to survive in the wild without the trappings of civilization.

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Rami Malek as Jonah in Buster’s Mal Heart

I’m glad that you mentioned that moment in the kitchen when Jonah and Marty have an extremely ugly argument. Jonah appears fairly docile up to this point in the film, and that is the first time we see his anger take over his persona, which in context becomes more startling. You have very real scenes like this balanced against moments of absurdist humor such as the genteel kidnapping of the elderly couple who enjoy Jonah’s homemade Christmas dinner. The somewhat comedic scenes blend well into the film and seem to happen naturally within the flow of the narrative. What were your thoughts about adding these elements to the film?

For me, the humor does come into the film naturally. I was interested in reflecting the tone of our experiences in life—that struggle and suffering that meets absurdity within our human existence and a lack of grace in our darkest and most dire moments. We start to expect that we will be part of this perfect narrative of our lives in some way, but it usually doesn’t work out like that because life is clumsier than the way that we imagine it. There was one image that came to mind very early in the process of writing this film, and that was the image of Jonah walking up a snowy hill and stumbling back down again, over and over, and not being able to gain traction. That sad portrait, which is absurd and comical too, is almost like this Sisyphean image of being this eternal joke. Part of the tragedy of this story is Jonah’s lament from wanting to become free of being the butt of this joke, and he is seeking a reckoning with the powers that be, and he just wants out and wants to become free, but that is directly in conflict with love, as there always seems to be this paradox between freedom and love, and the movie asks whether it is possible to have both at the same time and, at the end of the day, which is the stronger force.

Jonah is a truly tragic character for those reasons. He wants traction in the “real world,” but he doesn’t have the skills/tools necessary, so he ends up as a concierge in this hotel where he gets walked on by both the guests and the management.

When we meet him, Jonah is the most stable that he has ever been in his whole life. I only give hints of this in the film, but you can imagine that Jonah has has struggled with mental health issues for most of his life. He was homeless when Marty meets him, and he is saved by her and her church, and, in some ways, he has gotten it together by getting the job in the hotel, so when we see Jonah at the beginning, he has started to behave like a functioning member of society, and he wants to be functional because he loves his family. He doesn’t want to have a bad heart, so his own struggle is really against the heart that he is born with, which is not his fault. None of us choose to be here. None of us get to choose the circumstances into which we are born. None of choose the heart that we are given. Jonah wants to heal his own heart, and from this desire, he almost achieves the ability to function in normal society, but I think this sleeplessness cracks him.

This might be a strange reference, but I remembered an episode of the Korean war sitcom, M*A*S*H, when Hawkeye, the character Alan Alda plays, endures an intense few days of insomnia that cause him to go into an almost trancelike state where he seems to experience clarity about the war and the situation that he is in, which reminded me of Jonah’s condition in your film.  

(Laughs) I think that this is true that sleeplessness can allow a trancelike state of mind to take over, where you have a kind of honesty in ideas and feelings that you do not normally have access to in a regular frame of mind. There is an easy interpretation of this movie where Jonah struggles with mental illness in a world that is not meant for him, but I do think that there is another interpretation of this movie where Jonah is a visionary and a rebel in some ways who sees more than we see and who is rebelling against a system that is rigged against him.

I also accept the latter interpretation of Jonah in the way that you visually construct his inner conflict through “The Last Free Man,” who to me represents his alter-ego, one that desires to go completely off the grid yet also is someone who has avarice and craves a room in the hotel when it is cold outside. In normal consciousness, he sees the system that he cannot survive through, but this insomnia state gives him the clear message that he must completely get out of the system that is sublimating him. What I wondered about when watching Buster’s Mal Heart, in terms of improvisation, is that given the different states of Jonah’s being that you depict in the film: the reality of the present day as a mountain man, his past with Marty, his current employment at the hotel, and the dream sequences on the boat, it became clear that the structure of the film did not lend itself too much room to go off of the script, since balancing these states must have been difficult. Was there a place for the actors to improvise?

The process was very structured and specific in terms of creating the architecture of the film, but within that architecture there was quite a lot of improv, although improv may not be exactly the perfect word for my process. The script that we used was more of a weirdo document outline/short story with images and bits of fully scripted dialog and bits of stuff that were more lyrical in nature, so there was a lot of room to flush out these characters together on set in a very sort of deliberate way; the improvisation was rarely, if ever, a free-for-all; it was much more directed, which is a credit to the tremendous cast who dove in and were willing to go through that process with me. We all just really trusted each other. In the case of DJ Qualls’ character, “The Last Free Man,” he was much more fully scripted because he is this almost otherworldly vision or messenger, so there is a certain heightened quality to his visitations, and so that needed to be fully scripted, whereas the scenes with the family at home are much more organic as we wanted the audience to feel that they we are simply observing their world.

Thank you so much Sarah and the best of luck with your film.

Interview conducted by Generoso Fierro on Nov 16th, 2016

Official Trailer for Buster’s Mal Heart


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Interview with Director Juho Kuosmanen and Cinematographer J.P. Passi of The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki

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Cinematographer J.P. Passi and Director Juho Kuosmanen

In the midst of the frantic final day of this year’s AFI Film Festival, we were very excited to sit down with director, Juho Kuosmanen and cinematographer, J.P. Passi to discuss their wonderful new film, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, which was honored with Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Their film is an endearing but critical look at the true story surrounding the highly publicized World Featherweight Title fight between the Finnish born Olli Mäki and the American champion, Davey Moore, which took place in Helsinki in 1962. Kuosmanen creates a unique boxing film, one that is less concerned with the Hollywood cliché of building up to the big fight and more interested in the manipulation of the media and the creation of a false heroes. In our conversation, we discuss Kuosmanen’s approach to telling this well-known story, the input he received from the real life Olli and his wife Raija, the challenges contained in hiding present day Helsinki to allow the film to appear like the early 1960s, and the good and the bad associated with making film in Finland under the shadow of the nation’s most applauded director, Aki Kaurismäki.

GF: I understand that you were born in the same town as Olli Mäki, and so you knew of him, of course, but what aspect of his famed fight inspired you to tell his story?

JK:  I think that came down to a moment after I had done some research about Olli Mäki when I discovered a documentary that was made about him during the period when they were trying to make him into the next world boxing champion. When I saw the documentary, I thought that there was something comical inherent in the contradiction of people wanting Olli to become a hero when Olli himself had the feeling that he had no chance of winning the fight.

GF: After speaking with Olli, do you feel that his belief that he was unable to win the fight was more from his inability as an athlete to beat Davey Moore or the fact that he felt that the promoters and his manager were building the whole event up in a way that wasn’t honest to Olli and the people who were buying tickets?

JK: Olli knew at the time that the whole thing was fake—that the whole world that he is being dragged into is being built out of these images that weren’t real at all. For example, in the scene where Olli sees the photo advertisement of himself where he is taller than model standing next to him as he and Raija are walking down the street, he knows that, in reality, he had to stand on a stool to be taller than the model; he knows he is living in an environment where everything is false.  

GF: Was Olli aware of how good of a boxer Davey Moore was at the time?

JK: Olli did know Moore’s record, but Olli and his manager also knew that Moore had issues with his weight and that he (Moore) was a bit past his prime at the time. So, even though Moore was the better boxer, he had weaknesses, so Olli’s manager did believe that there was some chance that Olli could win or at least go for more rounds so that the fight would make for a better event. Olli himself said that there was no chance of winning, and that is why everyone annoyed him so much as they kept insisting for their personal reasons that he would be the champion.

GF: Being from a boxing town (Philadelphia), I myself boxed when I was young. I have a genuine love for the sport, which is one of the reasons I really wanted to see your film, and I genuinely enjoyed it for how realistically you depicted boxing. One thing did strike me as odd when I watched your film. For many years, I remember there being a three-knockdown rule in place to protect fighters in the event that they hit the canvas three times. In your film, during the second and final round, Olli does get knocked down three times, but the referee allows him to continue fighting. I know that you studied the actual footage of the Moore/Mäki fight; is that what actually happened?

JK: We did exactly reference the footage of the actual fight. At the time of the Moore vs. Mäki fight, the rules of the match could be agreed upon before the fight by both sides, and in this case, both Moore’s and Mäki’s team agreed to allow the fight to continue in the event that either boxer was knocked down three times. But again, this rule has to be agreed upon before the fight occurs as it did here.  

GF: J.P., I wanted to compliment you, as the cinematography of the film is quite remarkable; it seems to fit the era perfectly. You said in the post screening Q&A that the film was shot on 16mm, but did you use a special film stock or an older camera or vintage lenses?

JP: The film stock I used is Kodak 3X Reversal black and white stock. I used a modern camera, but I used very old Zeiss lenses.  
LF: J.P., yesterday, during the Q&A as well, you said you dreaded making a boxing film due to the fact that there are so many other boxing films that this film would be compared to, which is understandable. Can you talk a bit about filming the final fight sequence? That scene has some gloriousness to it, and it is beautifully shot, but it is not like any of the fight scenes in more legendary Hollywood boxing films like Raging Bull. Instead, Mäki’s final fight is shot in a way that magnifies Olli’s thoughts on the insignificance of the event.  

JP: We wanted there to be a clear difference between the way the sparring matches were filmed and the way that the final bout was filmed. We shot the sparring scenes with cameras in the ring with Olli, but when it came to the title fight, we wanted Olli to be alone in the ring with Moore, with the camera outside the ropes to create distance so that we could amplify how Olli was feeling alone during the fight. It was much easier overall to shoot the final fight. The sparring scenes required us to be very close to the fighters, and to do this, we had to study their choreography, so we could get in close for the best shot while trying to avoid accidentally getting hit in the process.  

Jarkko Lahti as Olli Mäki

GF: That level of intimacy does come through during the sparring with those closeup shots but also with the sound design, which was excellent in conveying how brutally the punches echoed when a boxer was hit. Did you use live sound for that, or was it all foleyed in post production?

JK: Both actually. We did use the original sound, but we added so many foley layers.  

JP:  Truthfully, the original sounds were not very fierce because the actors were not allowed to hit each other with real force, so we had to compensate for that.  

JK: When we did the foleys, we wanted to have more than the punch itself. We wanted to add textures to the sounds like sweaty skin; in the scene when they are sparring in the rain, we wanted to add wet layers. We worked with this Danish sound mixer, sound designer, and foley artist who were involved with the film even before shooting began, so yes, we had many discussions about the sound design before filming those scenes. They were all extremely talented. We knew that if you didn’t include these textures of leather, skin, and water that, in the end, it would end up sounding artificial.

GF: The film is set during August, but given that a large portion of the film is shot outdoors, and in Finland, you really only have a few months on the calendar in which you can shoot without fear of wintry weather, did that cause issues with filming?

JK: Not really. We started shooting on the last day of August and ended in the last week of October—six weeks in total.

GF:  Were you able to shoot the film chronologically?  

JP:  We did shoot all of the countryside scenes in the film in the first week. We broke the chronology early, but we tried to maintain the chronology as best as possible after that because it really helps the feel of the film when you can shoot in chronological order. That said, even though we were shooting in the countryside at the end of August, when we filmed the scene where Olli swims in the lake, the temperature was 10 degrees Celsius, which is quite cold.  

GF: Have Olli and his wife Raija seen the film yet?

JK: Seven times actually!

GF: They must really love it then, but was there anything onscreen that they objected to?

JK: Both Raija and Olli saw the script beforehand, and the only thing that Raija objected to was that her character was smoking in the film, and she never smoked. We added that into the script because there were many scenes where Raija is just standing there with no dialog, and we thought that if she were smoking that it would make her appear less tense about what was happening, but since the real Raija didn’t like the idea, we removed that characteristic.

LF: Your film is not a period piece, but there is a difference between 1962 Helsinki and present day Helsinki. This isn’t so much an issue when shooting in the countryside, but how did you scout city locations?

JK: It was very difficult at times. We wanted to shoot in many directions, but that was very hard to do sometimes.

JP:  The format was a huge help here. For example, there are a few scenes that we filmed where there are modern cars in the background of the shot, but because of the black and white texture and because we shot from a long distance, we were able to hide them from the audience.  

JK: We also filmed most of the city scenes at night, and post-production helped as well. In one of the shots, there was a large building that we had to wipe out, and we did that in post. In the scene at the airport, which we wanted to shoot 360, we would always have something modern in the background, but there was enough in the foreground that we could work with in order to make it look correct. We could move a camera one way, and if someone could position themselves in front of a modern object in the background it would work; in one case, we even put an extra in front of a new garbage can that we couldn’t simply move. It sounds hard, but it was fun.  

GF: This might be an odd question, but what inspired it was a screening that we attended this past Sunday when we saw a Polish mermaid musical called, The Lure. Before the screening, the director felt that she had to explain that she was happy to finally be able to make a musical in Poland because, for years, no one wanted to because Krzysztof Kieślowski hated musicals. What influence, if any, did Aki Kaurismäki, Finland’s most prominent director in the eyes of most of the world, have either directly or inspirationally?

JK:  Well, first I should show you this photo of Aki, Olli, and Raija. Aki actually arranged the screening and the afterparty for our film. While it was going on, he said lots of nice things, and he was joking when he said to me, “I have been waiting thirty-five years to have a colleague in Finland.” He also said that we shared two of the same locations and exactly the same images that are in his new film. Particularly, he pointed out the scene where Olli is walking alone with his suit on when he is traveling the post-fight party; Aki has the same scene except that his character is walking the other way in the same place.  

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Juho shows us a photo of the real Olli and Raija Mäki sitting with legendary director Aki Kaurismäki

JP: I think that he is one of a kind in Finland. Finnish financiers, for example, don’t expect anyone else to do the kind of films that Aki makes.

JK: Outside of Finland, people are always trying to find similarities or differences between our film and Aki’s films; some people feel that the ending to our film is similar to Aki’s work, but if you watch classic films, you will also see similarities between our ending and those of other classic Hollywood films. One other fact of note about the ending is that the older couple who walk past the actors playing Olli and Raija are actually the real Olli and Raija themselves.
 
GF: That is wonderful.  Were the real Olli and Raija on set for a lot of the shooting?

JK:  They were in two other scenes in the film as well. They are in the wedding scene that takes place in the countryside, and they are also in the stadium scene because, that day, they were both being interviewed for the newspapers about our film.

JP:  They used that opportunity to stage a photo shoot with the real Olli in the ring for the newspapers so that they could commemorate the occasion of the fight after fifty-four years.

Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso Fierro on November 17th, 2016 at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki Official Trailer

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