June 22, 2014
Fireflies Issue #1 – Pasolini / Apichatpong

image

I haven’t posted much on these pages over the last few months as I’ve been dedicating most of my free time on a new project: since the start of the year, my good friend Annabel Brady-Brown and I have been working on the debut issue of Fireflies: a film zine.

Though it meets as good as none of the defining criteria of a zine, we felt ‘zine’ captured the spirit the project more accurately than ‘journal’ et al. For each issue, we pick two directors whose work we love and we invite writers and artists to contribute – what they contribute is entirely up to them, our only requirement is that their contribution be a personal and creative response to one or more films by the given directors.

For our first issue, we chose Pier Paolo Pasolini and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. We were blessed with a truly amazing range of short stories, essays, poems and visual art from 16 different contributors and after much blood, sweat and tears, we’ve finally managed to complete the issue, which totals 96 gorgeous pages. We sent it to the printers this week and now we’re eagerly awaiting the delivery of our 500 copies.

Here’s the two beautiful covers for Fireflies Issue #1, featuring artwork by Sudanese artist Dar Al Naim Mubarak, and below you can take a peek at what’s inside:

image

image

 

Pier Paolo Pasolini

  • Thoughts on Filming Miracles, by Alison Smith (Liverpool, UK): This essay considers the challenge Pasolini tackled in making Teorema: How does one represent a miracle on film?
  • Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, by Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir (Reykjavík, Iceland): A poem inspired by Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew.
  • Anteinferno, by Octavia Bright (London, UK): This short story’s sexually voracious protagonist finds a similarly inclined partner online, hoping to enact the fantasies aroused by Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
  • Interview with Ninetto Davoli, by Giovanni Marchini Camia (Berlin, Germany): Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini’s close friend and muse, spoke to me about his friendship with the legendary director and about the nine films they shot together.

 Artwork by:

  • Luis Miguel Bendaña (Chicago, USA), inspired by The Gospel According to Matthew
  • Leith Maguire (Melbourne, Australia), inspired by The Hawks and the Sparrows
  • Anna Marchini Camia (Bern, Switzerland), inspired by Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
  • Ned McAliece (Melbourne, Australia), inspired by The Canterbury Tales
  • John Waters (Baltimore, USA), inspired by the pimpled youths in Pasolini’s films

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

  • The Arboreal Filmmaker, by Vadim Rizov (New York, USA): This essay explores the key role played by the jungle in Apichatpong’s filmography.
  •  thirdworld Syndrome, by Jon Auman (High Point, USA): A poem-cum-review of Apichatpong’s early short thirdworld.
  • Open Plan, by Eloise Ross (Melbourne, Australia): By assessing the link between architecture and Apichatpong’s cinema, this essay evaluates the transcendental experience of watching his films.
  • Watching Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in This New House I Just Moved Into in Darlinghurst, by Oliver Mol (Melbourne, Australia): The title captures it quite well.
  • Interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, by Giovanni Marchini Camia (Berlin, Germany): Speaking to Apichatpong easily ranks amongst the highlights of my professional career thus far. 

Artwork by:

  • Aaron Billings (Melbourne, Australia), inspired by the animal spirits in Apichatpong’s films
  • Leith Maguire (Melbourne Australia), inspired by Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
  • Grégoire Perrier (Paris, France), inspired by the eroticism of the jungle in Apichatpong’s films
  • Ole Tillmann (Berlin, Germany), inspired by the monks in Apichatpong’s films

Excited? Our launch is on the 4th of July. If you’re in Berlin, come by our launch party at the jungle-themed bar Dschungel (Friedelstraße 12, Neukölln). There will also be a Melbourne launch on the 23rd of August at Longplay (318 St George’s Road, North Fitzroy). Copies can also be ordered on our website.

http://fireflieszine.com | @fireflieszine 

           

 

April 26, 2014
'Sparks of our being' - Group discussion with John Torres, Sherad Anthony Sanchez and Keith Deligero

image

As Filipinos, John Torres, Sherad Anthony Sanchez, and Keith Deligero are children of the innumerable revolutions that have shaped their country’s tumultuous history. As filmmakers, they are children of the digital revolution that liberated Philippine cinema from its prohibitive institutionalization.

The digital revolution democratized cinema the world over and it is fitting that the most interesting products of this democratization should be found in countries with poor democratic records. The Philippines is a case in point. Its current democracy, instated after the end of Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship (1965–1986), has always been plagued by widespread corruption and a lack of transparency. The fall of the dictatorship coincided with the end of the so-called Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema, which had featured figures such as Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka. What ensued was a period of escalating commercialization in the mainstream that effectively expunged all potential for dissent, political as well as artistic, from its output.

Independent cinema was largely inexistent in the Philippines prior to the advent of digital video. But once cheap digital filmmaking equipment became available at the turn of this century, a flood of creativity was unleashed. Torres, Sanchez, and Deligero are representative members of the new generation of filmmakers that emerged during those years. Each in their own way, they have blazed a trail into territories shunned by the mainstream and contributed to the revitalization and diversification of a moribund national cinema. Their films’ avant-garde aesthetics, firm anchorage in national identity, and embrace of neglected, often taboo thematics has won them frequent comparison to those of the Third Cinema movement. In discussing their work, however, these directors couldn’t be more removed from the dogmatism and hubris that characterized the Third Cinema filmmakers. Instead, they reveal refreshingly modest personalities with a resolute dedication to their own as well as each other’s art, keenly aware that their struggle is ongoing and victory far from guaranteed.

 

Giovanni Marchini Camia: Whenever your films are discussed, you’re always described as revolutionaries. Do you consider yourselves this way?

Sherad Anthony Sanchez: Probably in what we’re doing, yes, there’s something revolutionary. But if the question is whether there is a revolutionary movement, then I don’t think so; I don’t think there’s a conscious revolution on our part. There just happens to be this explosion of energy that pushes us to make films our way.

John Torres: I kind of agree with what Sherad said. For example, I took on film for very personal reasons and after I made a short or two, I realized that some other people had been doing this as well. This was roughly ten years ago. It’s just the feeling of, “Hey, it’s nice that other people are doing it, I get to meet them too, and some of them are like-minded.” Although, admittedly, it is the support of this group of people that keeps me encouraged and moving forward.

SAS: The energy comes from each other’s support, especially the support in exploring language and our own, individual aesthetics. But you can see this from two perspectives: from inside, there is no revolution, but from outside, there is. What’s dangerous is if people from the inside believe that there is a revolution as ascribed by the writers from the outside and then forget their own individual source of anger, their personal issues, aesthetics and principles.

JT: Yes, and another thing: other aspiring filmmakers also want to ride on this label, that this is a revolution, because this could be their battle cry: “Wow, this is something that we could latch on to, this could encourage us. We’re part of the revolution!” It sounds so romantic, so they also want to partake in this “revolution.” It’s like, “Oh, we’re part of something big, this is for a cause.” [Laughs]

SAS: It is OK for me that people write about our movement—if there is such a movement [laughs]—describing it as a revolutionary act, but from our point of view, what’s important, as a community, is the sincerity of the filmmaker. And sometimes sincerity is removed by allowing a person to believe in a purpose, or a reason for doing films, aside from his own.

GMC: Do you feel the same way, Keith?

Keith Deligero: I guess we have the same thoughts, yeah. For me there is no intention to take over anything. I just love what I do and most of the people I know feel the same way. Like John said, there are those who would like to say that they are participating in a revolution, but it just depends on how you describe a revolution.

GMC: When you say that you value sincerity as the most important element in filmmaking, is that a reaction to mainstream cinema in the Philippines?

SAS: Our desire to make films stems from a complicated reaction to the mainstream. Each filmmaker has his own reasons for making his own cinema. I don’t think that the lack of sincerity in the mainstream is our reason because there have always been artistic currents parallel to the mainstream that value sincerity. I don’t know if this is a very Filipino thing, but we always value sincerity in other people and their work, and I think this has always been present. Even at the time of Brocka and Bernal, sincerity was always valued; even in the nineties, when there were sex films—Elwood Perez and stuff—if you talked to them, sincerity was also important.

JT: It’s also relevant to speak about the audience. They have heard that mainstream films are dictated by the producer, so maybe they think that the filmmaker is losing his voice. And maybe they think that now filmmakers are regaining their voice due to these more fun, playful and free styles that they see in cinema. And as far as my experience goes, it really is fresh for them. For example diary films, like some of my works—it’s still very new to them, seeing how filmmakers can be very, very personal in telling their story. In a sense, then, yes, it can be a very fresh and new and, you could say, revolutionary experience.

This is an excerpt of a group discussion originally published by La Furia Umana for their symposium on “Cinema and Revolution”. You can read the full discussion here.

February 15, 2014
Berlinale 2014 - Concluding Thoughts (Whingeing)

image

The 2014 Berlinale’s Competition is over and the award winners will be revealed shortly. This was my fifth time attending the festival and the third consecutive year in which I saw the Competition in its entirety. The selection had been growing steadily stronger each year, with the last edition being a downright doozy. Humour me for a second: I absolutely loved Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons, Denis Côté’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear and Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 (all three made it in my top 10 for 2013). Then there was Calin Peter Netzer’s Golden Bear winner Child’s Pose, Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria and Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, which were excellent. And that’s just the really good ones. Even the titles I wasn’t crazy about were still worth seeing:  Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain, Wong Kar Wai’s Grandmaster, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Hope, andGuillaume Nicloux’ The Nun. Hell, although I couldn’t stand Hong Sangsoo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (someone really, really needs to explain Hong’s appeal to me sometime – I want to get it, I honestly do), for many it was one of the best films of the year. That’s eleven films I was happy to have had the privilege of seeing and provided ample material for riveting discussions with similarly inclined obsessives.

Now let’s look at what 2014 had to offer. Below I indulged in the somewhat masochistic exercise of ranking this year’s Competition entries, which revealed the following statistics: I loved one film, liked three, was partial to two, and the remaining 14 I could happily have done without. Riveting discussions were not the order of the day this year. Rather, critics whined to one another and those that were lucky enough not to have to report on the Competition simply gave up after a while and went to see Citizen Kane et al. in the Retrospective.

I’m not sure what grand conclusions to draw from this, I simply wanted to vent my frustration after a truly dispiriting festival and now I’m going to go get drunk and raise many a glass to the hope that next year will be better. 

  1. Boyhood, dir. Richard Linklater
  2. Kraftidioten (In Order of Disappearance), dir. Hans Peter Moland
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel, dir. Wes Anderson
  4. Black Coal, Thin Ice, dir. Diao Yinan
  5. ’71, dir. Yann Demange
  6. Die geliebten Schwestern (Beloved Sisters), dir. Dominik Graf
  7. Jack, dir. Edward Berger
  8. No Man’s Land, dir. Ning Hao
  9. La tercera orilla (The Third Side of the River), dir. Celina Murga
  10. Praia do futuro, dir. Karim Aïnouz
  11. Aimer, boire et chanter (Life of Riley), dir. Alain Resnais
  12. Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross), dir. Dietrich Brüggemann
  13. Stratos, dir. Yannis Economides
  14. Historia del miedo (History of Fear), dir. Benjamin Naishtat
  15. Macondo, dir. Sudabeh Mortezai
  16. Blind Massage, dir. Lou Ye
  17. Zwischen Welten (Inbetween Worlds), dir. Feo Aladag
  18. The Little House, dir. Yoji Yamada
  19. La voie de l’ennemi (Two Men in Town), dir. Rachid Bouchareb
  20. Aloft, dir. Claudia Llosa

In the spirit of fairness, here are some honourable mentions from outside the competition: 

  • Nymphomaniac Vol. I, dir. Lars von Trier
  • Journey to the West, dir. Tsai Ming-liang
  • Snowpiercer, dir. Bong Joon-ho
  • The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, dir. Guillaume Nicloux
  • Blind Dates, dir. Levan Koguashvili
  • Joy of Man’s Desiring, dir. Denis Côté

My Film Comment blog for this year’s festival:

#1’71; Two Men in Town; Snowpiercer

#2Stations of the Cross; Life of Riley; Journey to the West

#3Boyhood; Black Coal, Thin Ice; Blind Dates

My blog posts from last year, in which I review all of the titles I listed above, can be found here.

December 19, 2013
Top 10 Films of 2013

image

I’ve never compiled a Top 10 list before. I’d like to cite a long list of ideological reasons, but really, the principal reason is laziness. This year I was asked by Film Comment to submit my top picks for their annual contributors poll and it was actually quite a fun exercise, so I thought I’d share my favourite films of the year here as well. This list is slightly different from the one I submitted to Film Comment, as their poll focuses on U.S. releases (meaning I voted for some films I’d actually seen last year) and differentiates between distributed and undistributed. The titles below are simply the ten new releases I saw this year that I loved most, with a link to my review if I wrote one: 

  1. Leviathan (dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel)
  2. L’inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake, dir. Alain Guiraudie)
  3. Harmony Lessons (dir. Emir Baigazin)
  4. Vic + Flo ont vu un ours (Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, dir. Denis Côté)
  5. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
  6. Workers (dir. José Luis Valle González)
  7. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)
  8. Camille Claudel 1915 (dir. Bruno Dumont)
  9. Après mai (Something in the Air, dir. Olivier Assayas)
  10. Sun Don’t Shine (dir. Amy Seimetz)

December 6, 2013
'Lukas Nino' - Interview with John Torres

image

While the advent of digital video changed the face of cinema the world over, for the Philippines it represented a veritable deliverance. Stretching back over a century, the Philippines possess one of the oldest and richest cinematic histories in South East Asia. However, following the so-called “Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema,” which featured figures such as Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal and ended along with the dissolution of martial law in 1981, the country’s film industry plunged into a commercial black hole, gradually expunging all artistic merit from its output.

The increasing availability of cheap digital film equipment at the beginning of the millennium reopened the floodgates, however, and within a few years hundreds of independent features and countless more shorts were shot on digital. The rising popularity of indie cinema back home and the success of directors like Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza on the international festival circuit paved the way for a young generation of filmmakers that would otherwise never have been allowed—or, rather, would never have agreed—to practice within the studio system.

This was the case with John Torres. His original intention had been to move to the US after university and work in IT, but playing around with his father’s digital camera and editing software opened his eyes to the potential of the filmmaking process. Shooting feverishly and on impulse, he recorded random segments of his everyday life and later edited them together into abstract shorts, seeking to capture the essence of his present state of mind. The success of his shorts at local indie festivals led to his first feature in 2006, Todo Todo Teros, which was showered with acclaim and accolades at festivals abroad and established him, along with the likes of Khavn De La Cruz and Raya Martin, as one of the key members of this new generation of independent Filipino filmmakers.

His early films earned him distinction as the most personal director amongst his peers due to their highly autobiographical content. The romantic tribulations at the heart of Todo Todo Teros are drawn from personal experience and he used his next feature, 2008’s Taon noong ako’y anak sa labas (Years When I Was a Child Outside), to process the discovery that his father had a secret second family. While in narrative terms he subsequently strayed away from autobiography, his focus has remained the same. At their core, his films are considerations of the inherent complexity of identity, on a personal as well collective/national level, perceived through the prism of memory and subjectivity.

In Lukas Nino (Lukas the Strange) his fourth and latest feature—and the first he shot on 35mm—these themes are addressed through the protagonist Lukas, a 13-year-old boy whose father leaves home after telling him that he is a tikbalang, a folkloric half-man, half-horse creature. Simultaneously, the arrival of a film troupe in Lukas’ village sends the entire village into an excited frenzy as everyone hopes to be cast in the film. The engendered personal, familial and collective crises are conveyed through a heavily fragmented and elliptical narrative that weaves a poetic stream of consciousness out of the characters’ memories, fantasies and dreams, conveyed through an equally anarchic aesthetic. The image quality fluctuates wildly, the sound is out of synch, subtitles don’t always match the dialogue, voice-overs and inter-titles present a discord of mostly unidentified voices. The tone of the film is in constant flux, with a sequence of acute Lynchian dread followed by a scene of light-hearted slapstick, which in turn gives way to an orchestral interlude that invokes the feel of silent film.

Personal as well as historical references, metaphors, and allegories abound and the film lends itself to any number of analyses. However, just as Tarkovsky’s The Mirror can be transporting without knowing a thing about the director’s biography or the specifics of Soviet history, Lukas Nino is rewarding for the uninitiated, as the disorientation fuels a viewing experience that is spellbinding precisely because it disallows the cerebral. When I spoke to Torres, he actually encouraged such a viewing—which makes sense, since walking into a cinema without any prior knowledge of the film provides a perfect analogy both to his purely instinctual approach to filmmaking and to the serendipitous path that led him there.

Lukas Nino is not an “accessible” film, especially if one isn’t familiar with your style. How would you present your film to an audience unfamiliar with your work to ease them into it?

That’s a very difficult question. (laughter) But what I tell them as an entry point is that I started Lukas Nino with this boy in mind due to an error on my part, a mishearing. One night, my friend was telling me about his childhood and told me that his father, an ex-soldier, once told him, “Son, I am a tikbalang,” which is a creature that is half horse, half man. I was thinking that he must have thought that he himself was half horse because he had taken after his father. In all the stories that he told me that night, I was imagining that he was half horse. I was so enamored by this. This was an interesting enough story for me.

But this was an error on my part, a syllable that I missed. In Filipino you say, tikbalang ako, which means, “I am a tikbalang.” But if you miss one syllable, which is na — “natikbalang ako” — there’s a totally different meaning. It means, “a tikbalang tricked me.” That’s also very interesting because a tikbalang is a figure in our folklore, a trickster. He makes people lose their way. I wanted to retain this idea, this character of a boy—what if he thinks he’s really half horse? His father disappears the next day and as the boy is going around the village, he sees that the landscape, the people, have changed their appearance, because of a film shoot. 

What would you say with regards to the style, which is so anarchic in this film?

It was really due to my experience watching films in the ’80s. Filipino mainstream films in the ’70s and ’80s, when I really started watching films, were almost surreal. You could tell that the dialogue was not in synch. The visuals, the colours weren’t even close. Everything was, you could say, not properly done. In that sense, I imbibed the technical aspect of it. I also wanted to describe and show the fact that I’ve seen all this mishmash of tapes and the very, very rough aesthetics of ’80s Filipino filmmaking, which I grew to hate, but later grew to love, and grew to embrace. Also, there’s the fact that I don’t really remember the stories behind those films, I don’t really remember the narratives, so what I have are just these snapshots or images and their combination with dialogue or sound that’s not in synch. As you say, “anarchic,” really. (laughter)

This is an excerpt of my interview published on BOMB magazine’s blog, BOMBlog. You can read the full interview here.

August 7, 2013
48th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

image

While some veterans of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival claimed that the atmosphere this year did not live up to previous standards, to a newcomer this was extremely hard to believe. A feverish and infectious spirit pervaded the tiny thermal town for the entire week, with streets and public venues devoted to the festival and packed with crowds chiefly made up of young people. All screenings were accessible to the public for little more than $3 a ticket, and every morning saw lengthy queues at the box offices (along with a few sleeping bags). Audiences didn’t shy from showing their enthusiasm, not least during the deliciously self-deprecating trailers starring previous lifetime achievement award winners such as Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, and Miloš Forman. Combined with the distinct ambience offered by each venue, which ranged from a lavish 19th-century opera house to an inflatable outdoor cinema, this all made for a refreshing experience untainted by the exclusivity and snobbery prevalent at the A-list festivals.

When it came to the films, the main competition presented a mixed bag. Disappointingly few entries pushed the envelope, particularly in narrative terms, and most of the attempts at social comment were trite. The latter weakness marked two of the top award winners, both from Eastern Europe. Hungarian film and stage director János Szász received the festival’s Grand Prix for The Notebook, an adaptation of Agota Kristof’s bestselling World War II novel, told from the perspective of 13-year-old twins living in an unnamed Eastern European country. Sent to live with their tyrannical grandmother and witnessing nothing but hate and violence in the world, they decide to expunge all their emotions through severe physical and psychological self-training as a means of surviving the horror that surrounds them. The film has grandiose allegorical aspirations, withholding characters’ given names and nationalities (apart from the Nazis) and offering the twins as emblematic of the postwar generation. But the symbolism is heavy-handed, and the story overuses tropes to the point of banality. The cinematography by Michael Haneke’s regular DP Christian Berger, however, is superb, and the beautifully expressive lighting supplies much-needed nuance.

Jan Hřebejk won the Best Director award with Honeymoon, the only Czech film in competition. An intruder crashes a wedding reception claiming to be an old schoolmate of the groom. Unconvincingly, considering his awkwardly hostile conduct, he is allowed to stay. After antagonizing the entire reception, he reveals that he has come to seek revenge for the brutal sexual abuse suffered by his boyfriend at the hands of the groom and his friends at school. Here too the story serves a bluntly metaphorical function: the men attended an elite art school where the children of the rich and powerful were awarded high grades and faced no repercussions for their actions, whereas those accepted on artistic merit alone were left to fend for themselves. Unelaborated, the film’s routine commentary on the Communist legacy of corruption and oppression fails to strike a chord, and as an indictment of homophobia, it’s even less successful.

This is an excerpt of my festival report written for Film Comment. You can read the full report here.

July 15, 2013
Review - Csak a szél (Just the Wind)

image

Considering it was one of the absolute highlights of the Berlinale’s 2012 Competition, taking home the Jury Grand Prix, it’s shameful that it has taken this long for Just the Wind to finally receive a theatrical release in Germany (not to mention its lack of distribution most everywhere else…).

In terms of cinematic portrayals of Romani people, it is one of the best and also one of the most uncompromising. Based on a series of violent attacks against Romani families that occurred in Hungary between 2008 and 2009, the film depicts a day in the life of such a family living in a squalid woodland community. Five families have recently been brutally murdered by unknown assailants and with the authorities all too happy to look the other way, the entire community has fallen victim to acute paranoia in anticipation of the next attack. 

Employing increasingly oppressive cinematography, Just the Wind builds up to a stupefying climax rendered no less horrifying by the fact that there’s never any doubt about the film’s inevitable conclusion. The most commendable feature is the film’s unwavering refusal to embellish its characters, instead embracing negative stereotypes for the specific purpose of underlining the humanity the Romani people are systematically denied.

Csak a szél (E: Just the Wind)| Directed by Benedek Fliegauf (Hungary/Germany/France 2012) with Katalin Toldi, Gyöngyi Lendvai, Lajos Sárkáni, György Toldi. Opens July 18

Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Exberliner.

June 24, 2013
Review - World War Z

image

With $100,000, George A. Romero managed to make Night of the Living Dead (1968), one of the most outstanding examples of the zombie film. With $200 million, Marc Forster managed to make World War Z, an incongruous flip book (in 3D!).

World War Z is less a film than a constant barrage of images discharged at a pace so freneticthe average shot length can’t be over two seconds – it renders any attempt at following either narrative or action completely futile. We know that a zombie apocalypse has somehow gone down without anyone realizing and now the entire world is under siege by hordes of zombies with supernatural strength and agility (think 28 Days Later on meth an analogy that can be extended to the film as whole); however, exactly who any of the characters are or why they should fly to South Korea and then Israel before randomly stumbling upon the key to humanity’s salvation in Wales are trifling particulars we are never burdened with.

In its final act, the film mercifully switches mode, employing long, ominous takes and bloodcurdling silences to generate suspense in an unexpectedly effective climax. Pity that by the time it comes most viewers will be too plagued by nausea or migraine to care. 

World War Z | Directed by Marc Forster (USA/Malta 2013) with Brad Pitt, Mireille Einos, Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu. Opens June 27

Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Exberliner.

June 1, 2013
'Après mai' - Interview with Olivier Assayas

image

Born in 1955, Olivier Assayas was 13 when the wave of revolt swept across Europe in 1968. In writings and interviews, he has always credited the experience of growing up as a teenager in the aftermath of ’68 as the formative period that unexpectedly led him to cinema. With Après mai (Something in the Air) he revisits these crucial years, the same era he so wonderfully portrayed in his 1994 masterpiece, L’eau froide (Cold Water), this time using his personal trajectory to shed light on the fervour, the conflicts and ultimately the failure that defined the 1970s. Après mai shares many of its predecessor’s strengths, conveying the disorientation of the post-68 generation with the same ethereal cinematography, which though steeped in reverential romanticism, nonetheless achieves a majestic evocation of the tempestuous spirit of a youth at a time when everything seemed possible. 


Après mai is in large part autobiographical. To what extent is it based on your personal experiences?

From one angle, the film is based on memories, on facts, on things that I observed; there is extremely little fiction in this film. At the same time, everything is fictionalised, in a way or another, because it’s a movie, and in a movie you can’t really deal with the specificity of autobiography. The whole logic of filmmaking is the opposite of autobiography. The process of casting, choosing the sets, condensing in a screenplay the experience of a few years… it’s something that is very similar to the process of fiction, so I think it’s a fictionalized autobiography. But in the end, it’s also closer to collective history than to personal history. I think it’s the one movie I have made where I represent myself as being part of something bigger than myself, which is the collective history of my generation. So, paradoxically, it’s a movie where I use very specific personal elements but ultimately it all fades, it all mingles, into something that is the history of a generation.

If there is something that is specifically personal, it’s the weird path that took me to filmmaking. If you want to sum up a movie like Après mai, it’s really about a kid who throws ink on a piece of paper and gradually gets reconciled with the notion of cinema as a way of filming real life and the face of a real person. So yes, it’s the strange path that took me from the abstraction of painting to the figuration, the representation of cinema. But of course it’s a story that has no sense if it’s not embedded in the collective history of my generation, because what is specific and personal, obviously, is the path of Gilles. The other characters are based on friends and usually it’s the condensation of one or two characters, but their history, their path is what gives some kind of… I mean, the story of Gilles would have been impossible in another context. It’s completely defined by his surroundings.

This is the second time that you revisit this period of your adolescence through film. What did you want to explore this time around, which you felt you hadn’t with L’eau froide?

Since I made L’eau froide I’ve had this frustration. As much as I love the film and I was really proud of it when I made it, I stayed with the frustration that I did not represent the specificities. I mean, L’eau froide was a more poetic version of the 1970s and I did not describe the specificities of the high school politics of that time, I did not represent what the counterculture was about at the time, and of course I didn’t represent what was essential for me at that time, which was some kind of artistic vocation. And this is a frustration that dates back to when I made L’eau froide and I was not sure I was ever going to make this film, I was never sure I would find a solution to deal with this frustration. But it stayed with me and in the end I made this movie, which deals with the same times, but from a very different perspective. 

In your writings, you’ve argued that film can’t capture the truth of reality but that it can put loss in perspective. What is the perspective that you intended to gain or offer with Après mai?

One element of it is certainly that the 70s have always been misrepresented – they are majorly misrepresented, because they’re either caricatured or idealized, and both are wrong. It’s very easy to make fun of the 70s because they were extreme, they were crazy, over the top… But nothing of it was ridiculous because it all involved questioning the materialistic values of the time and it was really about cutting with the society that was becoming archaic, that was archaic. And on the other hand, they’re idealized, you know, “Oh, the 70s were great, because you were involved politically and now blah blah…” I think that the politics of the 70s were complex – they were conflicted, they were not simple. 

What I’m also trying to represent is that you had very antagonistic poles. In the sense that you had counterculture on one side and the dynamic of the counterculture was about transforming the very fabric of society, the values of society – the good questions: how to conquer individual freedom in a society that had very stiff values? And on the other side you had dogmatic leftism, which was opposed to everything that had to do with transforming the fabric of society. The dogmatic leftism was anti sexual liberation, anti soft drugs, anti Rock’n’Roll, anti whatever you wanted. They considered that all that distracted the working class goal, which was the social revolution. But in the memory we have of the 70s it’s one and the same thing. It’s not; it was extremely violent, extremely antagonistic.

This antagonism is very present in the characters’ debates about the relation between aesthetics and truth in cinema – does Après mai represent your solution to this debate?

Yes and no. Every filmmaker has to define his own position. What I am saying in this film is that I grew up in the 1970s and the 1970s were defined by those questions, which are questions that date back to the early 20th century. It’s like the discussion between avant-garde and social realism or something – that’s what it boils down to, really. The 70s were obsessed with those aesthetic questions, which are now completely forgotten. I’m not saying I am ready to take a position on one side or the other, what I am saying is that I come from a world when you had to define yourself based on those questions – you had to acknowledge the existence of those questions. After that, you know, you do whatever you have in yourself. I’ve made 13 films; I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m on the side of narration and a solid belief that movies are about representing the real world. But still, whatever I am asserting in the way I am making my films is my answer to those questions. But you can’t ignore the fact that those questions do exist. If I am making Après mai in the way I’m doing it, it’s because of an evolution of style, but the origin of that style are those questions.

Do you wish that those discussions were still important to today’s filmmakers?

The thing is that when those issues are discussed, the language of the time is abstract, is a bit crazy, but ultimately relevant in the context of the time. In the sense that in the 70s you didn’t have 100 TV channels, you didn’t have DVDs, you didn’t have the Internet. So what a lot of militant filmmaking was about, it made sense – this idea that there could be, that there should be an alternative information channel that could only exist through the work of militant filmmakers who would film the factories, film workers, film the struggles, which was the obvious thing, the one important historical thing happening at the time. Then again, their language was extremely dogmatic, it had its terrible limits, and so on and so forth. But at least it was something that was meaningful, because what they wanted to do no one else was doing. But then, because the times were dogmatic, there was this obsession that if you were doing this, you couldn’t be doing that. Meaning that if you were representing the world, doing some agitprop and representing the struggles of the time, you were not allowed to do fiction. Which obviously led to crazy exaggerations. For instance, the way a movie like La maman et la putain by Jean Eustache, which was really one of the masterpieces of the 1970s, was completely rejected by leftist filmmakers. It was considered bourgeois at the time. It’s a complex debate.

Your cast in this film was really young, all from a different generation than the one they portray. Did you feel that they understood these issues? 

They did not get the politics. Honestly, they did not. And they’re very smart; they are smart kids and they want to do things and they define themselves as radicals, I suppose. But the politics of the time is something they have zero grasp on, which was fairly disturbing for me, because I did not realize to what extent they were ignorant of the social history of the 20th century. But what was even more disturbing – and surprising – for me was during a specific scene in the film, in the printing plant where Jean-Pierre works. At some point he’s part of a group discussion and they’re discussing what they will put in the next newspaper. For that discussion I used radical political militants in real life, guys who are doing agitprop in France now. The immaturity, the difficulty they had to understand the dialectics of the politics of the 1970s was stupefying to me. And again, they are smart, but the history and the nuances of Marxist ideology is something that is lost on that generation.

When you compare your generation to the youth of today, do you regret their lack of political convictions?

I mean, you can’t do better than your times. The 70s generation was nothing special, but it was carried by an energy that somehow… you know, in ’68 in France you had what was the closest to a revolution – it came close to overthrowing the French government. And you had this movement of youth in the whole world, so you felt you were pushed by something that was very powerful and that was connected to the social history of the 20th century. So yes, the kids in the 70s were politicized, but they were politicized because that was what their present was about and there was really the conviction that what was crystallizing around the movement of that time, the old world, would be overthrown. May ’68 was perceived as a failed revolution and there would be a successful revolution coming in the next few months, in the next year, two years at the most… So you felt this sweep of history and you wanted to identify with that history, so you read about the Russian revolution, you read about the Spanish Civil War, you read about the history of Marxism, whatever. Not so much because you were interested in history, but because the history informed the political nuances of your time, and it was only in learning about the mistakes of the past that you would get the coming revolution right. So there was this faith in the future, there was this interest in the past that defined a hope in the future, a belief in the future. 

What is gone now is the hope in the future and the knowledge of the past. But you have a lot of youth who are interested in the politics of that time and it’s coming back. It’s coming back, but it’s very different from what was going on in the 70s because the 70s were utopian. The 70s only believed in overthrowing society, anything less than that was considered reformist and reformist was an insult. I would say that the politics of today are defined by reformism because they’re very pragmatic. Ultimately, if they can achieve something, if they will achieve something – which I hope – it’s because they are pragmatic. But it’s a different world and it’s a completely different metaphysic.

Do you feel that your generation is to blame for this evolution?

No, I don’t think so, I just believe in the wheel of history. I don’t think that it’s individuals who moved away from politics, I think it’s politics that moved away from people – at least that’s the way I perceived the end of the 1970s. In the 1970s a lot of people were there on their own. They were involved in the politics of the time and gradually the world was changing around them, and they were losing their grasp and they were left alone. I’m a filmmaker, I’m not a politician, but I think that the mistake of European leftism was dogmatism, gradual dogmatism. It was being extremely complacent with totalitarian ideologies, specifically in China and Russia. Leftists were anti-Communist but they were extremely shy of confronting the Communist Party on human right issues. And leftism at some point moved into terrorism, which scared everybody away, it freaked everybody out. I think the terrorism in Europe was the last disastrous act of the history of leftism, and in the end, it led to the failure of something that carried the hopes of so many.

Après mai (E: Something in the Air / D: Die Wilde Zeit) | Directed by Olivier Assayas (France 2012) with Clèment Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Carol Combes. Opens June 6.

A shorter version of this interview was originally published in the June 2013 issue of Exberliner.

May 23, 2013
Review - Leviathan

image

A film shot on a fishing ship without dialogue, characters, plot, context or even an apparent structure is an extremely difficult sell. Those willing to take the risk with Leviathan, however, will be rewarded with an extraordinary and purely cinematic voyage as absorbing as anything they’ve experienced on the screen before.

Fixing their GoPro cameras everywhere, co-directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel captured the brutal reality of life on the high seas from myriad perspectives – the fishermen’s, the nature’s and that of the ship itself – giving each equal priority. One moment we are surging forwards with the ship’s bow, splitting the raging waters of the North Atlantic, the next we are flying alongside the boat amongst a swarm of ravenous seagulls before being thrown back on deck, into a deluge of convulsing fish excreted by giant fishing nets dangling from an unseen above.

The editing masterfully conceals the cuts, creating a seamless and perfectly choreographed sequence of shots that combines with the visceral, relentlessly violent ambient sounds to engender a stupefying ballet that ensnares the viewer, leaving him utterly breathless in front of this staggering demonstration of the force of nature, human enterprise and, not least, cinema.

Leviathan | Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel (France/UK/USA 2012). Opens May 23. 

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Exberliner.

Liked posts on Tumblr: More liked posts »