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

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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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

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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

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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

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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.

May 12, 2013
Discovering Jacques Rozier at the Arsenal

 

Jacques Rozier is often conspicuously absent from tributes to the French New Wave. Even though his debut Adieu Philippine (released in 1962) was considered a landmark film of the emerging movement, championed by Godard and Truffaut and featured on the cover of Cahiers du Cinéma’s special edition on La Nouvelle Vague, its commercial failure set the course for Rozier’s subsequent career in cinema. It would be 10 years until his next features, Du côté d’Orouët (73) and The Castaways of Turtle Island (76). Again, his films were received exuberantly by critics, with many hailing Rozier as the realist successor to Renoir and Vigo, but these too flopped, instigating another decade-long hiatus for the director.

He returned in 1985 with Maine-Océan, his penultimate film to date. Widely regarded as Rozier’s best work, it was one of the 30 films the late German critic Frieda Grafe listed among her favorites in Steadycam magazine. The Arsenal cinematheque in Berlin is currently screening all 30 titles, and the turnout for Maine-Océan was impressive (all the more so considering it was shown at 9pm on a Friday), testifying to the importance of a director whose entire oeuvre remains virtually unavailable outside of France.

Like all of Rozier’s films, Maine-Océan’s plot is little more than a premise by which to explore the social realities of the protagonists. A series of arbitrary incidents bring a group of disparate characters—two train-ticket inspectors, a sailor, an upper-crust lawyer, a Brazilian samba dancer and her Mexican impresario—to the Île d’Yeu, off the coast of western France. The film initially pits the characters against one another, defining each by their social status and using their reciprocal prejudices to set off a chain of comical vignettes that culminates in their arrival on the island. Once there, pacified by the sea air, good food, samba music, and, most importantly, plenty of wine, they set their hostilities aside for the night and come together in a cheerful Bacchanalia before the sobering dawn returns them to the mainland and to their everyday routines.

Rozier’s love for his characters is palpable and in his treatment of social issues his affinity to Renoir, whom he has called the greatest French director, is apparent. Although Maine-Océan highlights the disparities generated and/or sustained by class hierarchies, immigration, and globalization, the film has no villains. Rozier’s critique, while markedly Left, is never vitriolic nor patronizing. Failed communication lies at the root of all these problems and this provides the film’s central theme, brilliantly illustrated through a dexterous use of language. Like a miniature Tower of Babel, Maine-Océan’s characters all speak in a different tongue: the inspectors and lawyer speak the French of their respective classes, the sailor spews an impenetrable vernacular not unlike Popeye, and the dancer and impresario speak Portuguese and Spanish. Each character’s social standing is thus delineated and the film derives a lot of its humor from emphasizing the absurdity and arbitrariness of these separations.

This is an excerpt of an article written for Film Comment’s series on repertory cinema, “Rep Diary”. You can read the full article here.

April 9, 2013
'Bestiaire' - Interview with Denis Côté

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Canadian director and former film critic Denis Côté began his filmmaking career with Les états nordiques (Drifting States) in 2005. In the following eight years he released six more features, exalting the critics at Locarno, Cannes and Berlin. His latest, Vic + Flo ont vu un ours (Vic + Flo Saw a Bear), was one of the few truly excellent entries in the main competition at this year’s Berlinale, going on to win the Alfred Bauer Prize.

From the 12th till the 23rd of April, Arsenal is holding a full retrospective of his work to coincide with the release of his film Bestiaire. Côté will be in attendance at many of the screenings as he is going to stay in Berlin for three weeks to teach a film seminar at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin. I spoke to him on Skype and he told me about his plans for the seminar after discussing Bestiaire, his phenomenal, genre-defying portrait of animals at a Quebec safari park.  


To what extent did you refer to traditional bestiaries when coming up with Bestiaire

It was just a way to explain to my team what I wanted. In the beginning, when you say want to go in a zoo but don’t have a script, you still need to use some words. So I talked about these books, which were about how not to forget what an animal looked like, because there was no photography at that time, and under that animal there was a moral about life. So I said, “Let’s make it a sort of book, but there won’t be a moral to it.”

Still, it’s impossible to watch the film without having moral reflections.

[Laughs] Yes, that’s true. I wouldn’t say that the film is bigger than what I intended, but it’s certainly surprising to see how much darker it is. I went to that place without any intention of showing someone who is diabolical, or a situation that is shocking, or anything. I just asked myself: what is a zoo? For me, is a zoo a sad place? No. For me, is it a cruel place? No. So, what is a zoo for me? It’s an absurd place. You go there and you pay money to look at animals – it’s like an absurd ballet. So I thought, ‘Let’s make a film that’s going to be a sort of absurd song.’ But for a lot of people the film is sad, for a lot of people the film is shocking, for a lot of people it’s a pamphlet against zoos. Of course here and there you can feel the shots are telling you something, but I don’t want to be the one telling you what to think – as a director I’m ready to take all interpretations.

What are some of the more interesting interpretations you’ve received?

A woman at Sundance said, “That film is a horror film, sir. For 70 minutes there’s a sense of menace and I was always feeling that something would happen.” That for me was an amazing compliment, because the sound in the film has been created as a menace somehow. I told my sound editor, “Can you place a menace over the zoo?” That’s why the film for me is not a documentary, it’s more like a fiction, because there’s a desire for fiction. Another woman said, “It’s not a film about animals, it’s a film about an audience watching a film.” [Laughs] That was very interesting; I remember the second screening in Berlin was on an Imax screen, so I told my producer, “We need to stay, it’s an Imax!” There was a guy in front of us – he didn’t know we were the producer and director – and at some point he stopped watching the film and he started looking at everybody’s face in the cinema, for like two minutes! I don’t know what he was looking for. Maybe he thought, ‘Oh, it’s so boring, are people sleeping? Are people smiling, are they shocked, what?’ But he felt it was time to look at people’s faces. [Laughs] I’m about cinema, and I’m about language, and I’m about viewer expectations, so to me those are all compliments, much more than talking about, “Do we need zoos? Are zoos supposed to disappear?” Still, it’s a film with animals, I shouldn’t lie – these animals are my characters, but somehow I think it’s a film about cinema, about the act of viewing. 

I’ve noticed that animals appear in all your films in some form or other and it’s always in a disquieting relation to the human characters.

[Laughs] It’s very hard to answer that, but you’re right, there’s always an animal somewhere, like a mirror effect, or… I wouldn’t say symbolism or metaphor, because I don’t like that. I think it’s the easiest way to create mirror effects, because we think animals are so related to symbolism, that in the end we do it, consciously or unconsciously – they infiltrate our narrations and we just let it go. But I don’t have a specific definition to give you, maybe I should stop with that animal stuff… [Laughs]

You mention sound, which plays such an important role in Bestiaire. Could you describe how you directed your sound editor?

For me, sound is always very important, to create the off-screen, the hors-champ. With Bestiaire, I told my sound designer, “I want menace. Give me the feeling that something can happen at any time.” He said, “Like, an alien invasion?” I said, “Yeah, why not?” He said, “A zombie attack, something like that?” I said, “Yeah!” He’s been my sound designer for six films now, so we know each other pretty well. 

There are a lot of parts in the film – I shouldn’t tell you where – that are lying to you, big time. Like when you see the lions and tigers being aggressive in the cages, they’re not at all, they’re so happy to see us! Some zookeepers in Salt Lake City said, “You’re lying so much! We know how to look at tigers and lions, they’re so happy to see you and you pretend they’re angry at something.” I said, “Yeah, thank you very much.” I like to create something myself, I don’t want to abandon myself to reality, so I’m pulling the strings – I’m the puppet master. [Laughs] I would say 60% of the sound is totally recreated and I have no problem with that. Some documentary people, they look at me in a weird way when I say that, because for them you should never, never lie about the reality you’re filming. But I’m sorry, I’m a fiction filmmaker and I will always lie about that reality and it’s my pleasure to do so.

This is the second film you make that is in large part a documentary. In Carcasses you blended in a fictional narrative, while here you touch on elements of the art film and film essay, so obviously you’re not interested in strict documentaries. What does interest you in the genre?

When I started my first film, Drifting States, I thought reality was sacred and I should just film it without ever pushing it or deranging it. But then, around the Carcasses days, I thought, ‘We can’t just film that man all day long collecting these cars.’ More and more, I have a desire for fiction that I want to use against reality. Reality is not enough for me anymore, so when I go inside a zoo, I don’t feel it’s interesting to make film number 35 about a zoo. You will probably never see me do a full, normal documentary. I like films to look like reality, but they’re not actually possible. Like Curling: everything looks possible in that film, but not really. People who don’t like Curling say, “Well, that’s not possible. This young girl, she finds eight bodies in the snow and she doesn’t tell her father.” [Laughs] Except it is possible, but not really – it’s just a distorted reality. I like making films that look real, but there’s no real point of entry from a reality perspective. I’m attracted by this ‘one foot outside the world’ relationship with reality.

Although you didn’t write a script for Bestiaire, how did you plan it?

I knew there would be seasons and that would be the minimal structure of the film. Then, I knew I wanted to film energies between humans and animals. I wasn’t sure how to achieve that, but every time I would meet the zoo employees or other humans, I’d try to make them interact with the animals, lying or not, fiction or not. And I knew that I wanted to show the life of the animals, the death of the animals, the representation and the resurrection. But I made sure not to have too much structure, because in the end it’d look like a thesis film, like I’m trying to prove a point. The film is free for the viewer to associate stuff but at the same time you need to make sure it doesn’t look too random. Some people that don’t like the film say it’s random and there’s nothing. People who loved the film too much, they give me so many intentions, it makes it look super intellectual. I still think it’s a naïve film, for viewers that are ready to be viewers. I feel like today you just sit there and you wait for the solution. This film is not about solutions, it’s about being free enough to look for your own solutions. Those are my favourite type of films.

What are some examples of these films?

Sometimes my favourite films are films in which I think about something else – I’m not even watching the screen anymore, I’m thinking about the next film I’m going to make. Sunrise by Murnau – I’ve watched that film maybe 20 times, but I’ve never really watched it. It starts and I’m travelling around in my head and I think about other films I would do. Or when you watch a Claire Denis film, you know it’s not really about the quality of the narration; it’s about ellipsis and how she’s jumping from one sensation to the next. When I watch Beau Travail, I’m not really into her film, I’m somewhere else and that’s a good sign. Or Apichatpong [Weerasethakul], of course. We don’t say he’s one of the best filmmakers around for nothing. He gives you the liberty to be a viewer again. That Uncle Boonmee film, what is that? We can’t really say what it is, we just know it’s fascinating. 

I really like those films where you can’t say, “Oh, it’s a film about this, or that…” I’d prefer for people to say, “You need to see Bestiaire, I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just animals looking at you – you need to see that!” We should find that naïve way of looking at things again. It’s easy now to be cynical when you watch a film, so I just hope Bestiaire is… for kids! Some guy said, “You know that my cat watched your film?” I started laughing and he was like, “Really! My cat stayed there and when there was a human, he would look away, and when it was an animal he would stay inside your film.” That is so stupid to say, but it means something, there is something there – I don’t know how to put it into words, but some people say, “I watched it with my two-year-old and he was completely fascinated.” [Laughs] There’s a desire to go back to something very primitive with that film, I guess.  

So, you’re coming to Berlin for your retrospective at Arsenal?

Yes, I’m really happy about that retrospective. We like to say there’s Paris, New York, London or Berlin, so when it happens, I’m very proud. They also invited me as a teacher at the DFFB, so I’m going to be in Berlin for a full three weeks. In the beginning it’s to show the films and then I start at DFFB to give a seminar to nine students.

What’s the focus of your seminar?

I can do anything I want with nine students. They told me, “They should look at your work, they should attend screenings and you find something to do with them.” So we’re going to do short films – we’re going to sit down and talk about their ambitions and they’re going to do some exercises. I want them to go shoot 90 seconds of anything they want in a fixed shot and explain to us in what way those 90 seconds are interesting. That will be quite challenging for them, I hope. 

Have you taught before?

I was at Le Fresnoy in France. It’s a very elite school in the north of France and it’s very, very intellectual. I wouldn’t say I was fascinated by this intellectual aspect, but I went there and I’m a very concrete and pragmatic guy – I made seven films in seven years, so at some point you don’t have time to intellectualise too much. I don’t want to sit there all day long and hear about Jean-Marie Straub and Gilles Deleuze, you know? I’m more about how to find your leadership and your personality, find a camera and rent a truck and go improvise a story somewhere. When people will look at Bestiaire and you tell them that there was no script, it was shot in eight days over eight months and that’s the film now and it’s travelling all around the world, students are very sensitive to that. They feel it’s possible to make such a low-budget film and have it travel, so that’s what I want to share with them. 


Miguel Gomes, also a critic turned filmmaker, won last year’s Alfred Bauer Prize with Tabu, which was one the biggest arthouse successes of the year. Other than being a nice omen for Côté, who would amply deserve to enjoy the same success with Vic + Flo, I was struck by how closely Côté’s views about cinema and what film should achieve coincided with those Gomes shared in our interview about Tabu a few months back.  

No Comfort Zone – Die Filme von Denis Côté (12.04 - 23.04.2013) | Arsenal, Potsdamer Str. 2, S+U-Bhf Potsdamer Platz

All films in the original French (Quebec) with English subtitles. Full programme here.

A shorter version of this interview was originally published by Exberliner.

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