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.

April 8, 2013
Review - Bestiaire

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In the Middle Ages, bestiaries were books made up of illustrations of animals accompanied by descriptions containing moral lessons for the reader. With Bestiaire, Côté has reclaimed this tradition, merging elements of the documentary, the essay film and the art film to craft a superb cinematic equivalent.

The film consists almost exclusively of static shots portraying several dozen species of exotic animals held at a Quebec safari park. Although without extra-diegetic soundtrack and virtually free of dialogue, Bestiaire derives much of its impact from the perfect synergy between image and sound. The first half, for example, shows the animals held in a warehouse during the park’s winter closure. In depicting these beautiful animals in a world of concrete and corrugated metal, the meticulous composition of the frame heightens the scene’s artificiality while the menacing ambient sounds of the warehouse – the echoing laments from other enclosures, the hollow reverberations of clanking hooves and banging cages, the snowstorm raging outside – compound the already violent absurdity of the image, rendering it immediate and inescapable.

While indisputably haunting, to consider the film an animal rights treatise would be reductive. Côté’s bestiary is not didactic; it invites introspection. Never tedious or repetitive, the film’s masterly executed minimalism generates a deep level of empathy in the viewer, which then inevitably reflects back, engendering a confrontation with one’s own morality that reaches far beyond the gates of the safari park

Bestiaire | Directed by Denis Côté (Canada/France 2012). Opens April 25 for a week-long run at the fsk - Kino am Oranienplatz. It will also screen on April 18 at the Arsenal as part of their Denis Côté retrospective.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Exberliner.

February 19, 2013
Berlinale Blogs 2013

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At this year’s Berlinale I wrote two daily blogs, one for the New York film magazine Film Comment and the other for Berlin’s English-language magazine Exberliner. Here are the links to all of the blog posts, with the titles of the films reviewed in each.

Film Comment

  • Day 1:   The Grandmaster, dir. Wong Kar Wai
  • Day 2:   Paradise: Hope, dir. Ulrich Seidl  /  In the Name Of, dir.Małgośka Szumowska
  • Day 3:   A Long and Happy Life, dir. Boris Khlebnikov  /  Gold, dir. Thomas Arslan  /  The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, dir. Fredrik Bond
  • Day 4:   The Nun, dir. Guillaume Nicloux  /  Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, dir. Denis Côté
  • Day 5:   Layla Fourie, dir. Pia Marais  /  Child’s Pose, dir. Calin Peter Netzer  /  Workers, dir. José Luis Valle
  • Day 6:   Closed Curtain, dir. Jafar Panahi, Kamboziya Partovi  /  Camille Claudel, 1915, dir. Bruno Dumont
  • Day 7:   An Episode In The Life of an Iron Picker, dir. Danis Tanovic  /  Gloria, dir. Sebastián Lelio
  • Day 8:   Harmony Lessons, dir. Emir Baigazin
  • Day 9:   Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, dir. Hong Sang-soo  /  On My Way, dir. Emmanuelle Bercot
  • Day 10:   So Much Water, dir. Ana Guevara Pose, Leticia Jorge Romero  /  Habi, the Foreigner, dir. María Florencia Alvarez  /  Coming Forth by Day, dir. Hala Lofty  / The Meteor, dir. François Delisle

Exberliner

  • Day 1:   The Act of Killing, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer  /  No Man’s Land, dir. Salomé Lamas
  • Day 2:   Lose Your Head, dir. Stefan Westerwelle, Patrick Schuckmann  /  In the Name Of, dir.Małgośka Szumowska  /  Paradise: Hope, dir. Ulrich Seidl
  • Day 3:   Gold, dir. Thomas Arslan  /  The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, dir. Fredrik Bond
  • Day 4:   Maladies, dir. Carter  /  Interior. Leather Bar, dir. James Franco, Travis Mathews
  • Day 5:   Interview with Ulrich Seidl
  • Day 6:   Closed Curtain, dir. Jafar Panahi, Kamboziya Partovi
  • Day 7:   Child’s Pose, dir. Calin Peter Netzer  /  An Episode In The Life of an Iron Picker, dir. Danis Tanovic
  • Day 8:   Harmony Lessons, dir. Emir Baigazin
  • Day 9:   Report on award winners

3:55pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Z2u9yweW1EW6
Filed under: Berlinale 2013 
February 3, 2013
Berlinale Tickets Go On Sale Tomorrow — My Recommendations


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This year’s Berlinale kicks off on Thursday and tickets go on sale tomorrow morning at 10:00am. Considering the ridiculously large number of films on the programme, buying tickets is always a bit of a gamble. Having seen a fair number of this year’s films already, I thought I’d put together a selection of recommendations to help with the daunting task of sifting through the programme.

Reporters are not allowed to review any of the films that will hold their world premieres during the festival until the day of the premiere, so all of the titles below have already screened elsewhere. For the world premieres make sure to check out my blogs for both Film Comment and Exberliner where I will publish reviews every day of the festival.



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The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Of the 40 or so I’ve seen thus far, this is hands down the best entry in this year’s programme (and I don’t think it’s premature to say that it’ll be amongst the best films I see all year). This documentary, which impressed Werner Herzog and Errol Morris so much that they jumped on as executive producers after watching it, portrays a group of men responsible for the torture and killing of thousands of ‘Communists’ and other undesirables in Indonesia during the sixties. Oppenheimer’s stroke of genius is offering them the chance of filming re-enactments of their killings. Having to thus recall and process their actions in such minute detail forces a deep level of introspection on these men and over the course of the documentary we witness a gradual and entirely organic evolution from exuberant bravado to violent recognition of guilt, offering one of the most compelling considerations of the nature and universality of evil ever captured on screen.


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 I Used to be Darker, directed by Matt Porterfield

Porterfield’s previous film Putty Hill, which also premiered at the Berlinale in 2010, was a small arthouse sensation, receiving rave reviews across the board. Now he returns with I Used to Be Darker, which in my opinion is even better. While I felt that the former suffered from its lack of a script, with his third feature Porterfield shows that he is just as accomplished a scriptwriter as a director. This wholly unsensational story of divorce and its emotional consequences for all involved manages to make do with all sentimentality and nonetheless crafts an incredibly poignant portrait, thanks in equal measure to the perfectly pitched realism and to the excellent performances by the cast of non-professionals.  


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Le météore (The Meteor), directed by François Delisle

Of the three recommendations here, this is the most experimental and certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. However, for the more indulgent, this is one of the most interesting and successful formal experiments I’ve seen in a while. The story centers on a man’s imprisonment for manslaughter and the psychological effect this has on him and those around him, particularly his wife and mother. The whole film is told in voice-over, with each of the different characters reflecting on their predicament while the screen shows either the characters themselves or images that illustrate and complement their monologues, for example a long single shot of a slowly setting sun to accompany the mother’s death. The images are arresting and often strikingly beautiful and the way they enrich the voice-overs imbues the narration with poetic resonance, resulting in an innovative and deeply absorbing mode of storytelling.  

January 20, 2013
Unknown Pleasures: Viewing U.S. Indie Cinema From Afar

Catering to virtually every niche, Berlin offers some 70 film festivals each year. Since 2009, the first on the calendar has been the Unknown Pleasures Festival. Held during the first two weeks of January at the historic Babylon Cinema in former East Berlin, it is a work of love run entirely by three enthusiasts of US independent cinema, providing a sorely needed platform for recent American arthouse films.

This year’s edition opened on a disappointing note with the German premiere of Michel Gondry’s The We and the I. Typically saccharine and contrived, Gondry’s latest portrays a group of Bronx teens on the bus ride home after their last day of school. During the improbably long journey each makes major discoveries about themselves, their friendships, the virtues of loyalty and the woes of bullying. With nothing new to say, it compares miserably to films with an actual feel for adolescent realities, such as Laurent Cantet’s The Class.

Gondry was one of a handful of big names on the program, which also included Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Werner Herzog. While sometimes stretching the indie label, these titles attract the largest audiences each year and guarantee the festival’s survival. The true highlight, however, is the always excellently curated selection of microbudget films, as the majority would be all but impossible to see otherwise, having little hope of being picked up by a German distributor.

The greatest discovery this year was Amy Seimetz’s feature debut Sun Don’t Shine. A worthy addition to the rich cinematic tradition of young lovers taking flight on the American road, it’s everything an indie film should be. Fully transcending its budgetary constraints, the film employs a bare premise – a runaway couple’s desperate attempt at getting rid of a body, kept within a 24-hour timeframe and involving only three other characters – and focuses on capturing the lovers’ manic intensity as they fall victim to increasingly acute paranoia. The excellent lead performances (Kate Lyn Sheil is particularly superb) create compelling characters whose actions, though often hysterical, never beggar belief, while the feverish 16mm cinematography anticipates their undoing from the very first frame, imbuing their predicament with tragic resonance.

Interestingly, both Mark Jackson’s Without and Nathan Silver’s Exit Elena center on a girl in her late teens / early twenties who takes up a job as caretaker for a senior as an attempt at emotional escape. While Without benefits from higher production values, Exit Elena is the more accomplished film. In Without, the protagonist is left alone with her charge in an isolated house and Jackson plays with horror film conventions, using red herrings to build up intrigue and suspense around the trauma that haunts his heroine, sacrificing psychological depth at the service of a strained and unsatisfying denouement. Silver approaches his material more subtly, relying on the titular Elena’s awkward though increasingly intimate interactions with her invasive host family to hint at her backstory without ever fully revealing it, thus painting a far more nuanced and involving portrait.

In Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, approaching adulthood forces 17-year-old Jackie to overcome her longstanding sexual attraction to her older brother. In a manner distinctive of a lot of American independent cinema – Juno being the most successful example – the dialogue-heavy script presents young characters that are uniformly blasé and wise beyond their years, which may up the hip factor, but radically undermines the realism aspired to, robbing the film of any real import. Considering how the same themes have been used to brilliantly probe and deconstruct the institution of the family in recent Greek cinema, as in the work of Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari, the appropriation of the arch-taboo topic of incest here merely serves to spruce up an otherwise conventional coming of age story.

This year’s program featured a number of documentaries, the most outstanding being Thom Andersen’s Reconversão, which continues the director’s preoccupation with the filmic representation of architecture. Made up primarily of stationary shots running at a few frames per second and accompanied by a steady and soothingly monotone voice-over, the film works like a particularly fascinating and philosophical lecture on the oeuvre of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. No small credit goes to Andersen’s DP Peter Bo Rappmund, whose own Tectonics was also shown at the festival.

In an extraordinary and purely visual essay film, Rappmund photographs the entirety of the US-Mexico border in 200 shots, also played at a few frames per seconds. Without voice-overs or titles, Tectonics finds a happy medium between photography and film, inviting the distanced appreciation and scrutiny characteristic of the former all the while maintaining the latter’s contextualizing linearity. Impeccably composed and often arrestingly poetic, Rappmund’s images elicit a deeply introspective consideration of the geopolitical circumstances they portray and of the infinite associations they conjure.

Article originally published by Filmmaker on 17 Jan 2013.

Unknown Pleasures #5  01-16 Jan 2013, Babylon Mitte, Berlin. Full programme on their website.

December 20, 2012
'Tabu' - Interview with Miguel Gomes

Miguel Gomes’ first two features—The Face You Deserve in 2004 and Our Beloved Month of August in 2008—piqued the interest of critics through their whimsical filmic tributes and meta-cinematic experiments, with some flagging the Portuguese director as an auteur worth keeping an eye on. This initial enthusiasm was validated by the premiere of his next film in the main competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Standing out as the most stylistically intrepid entry in an otherwise rather timid selection, Tabu was awarded the Alfred Bauer Prize for a work of particular innovation and went on to take the international festival circuit by storm, generating a torrent of acclaim that has consistently seen it ranked among best films of the year.

Split in two chapters—“A Lost Paradise” and “Paradise” (borrowed, along with the title, from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 Tabu)—the film is initially set in present-day Lisbon, where Pilar, a lonely spinster leading an emotionally vicarious existence, spends her days advocating human rights and worrying about her increasingly senile neighbor Aurora. The death of the latter initiates the second part, which is set in an unnamed African colony and is narrated by Aurora’s former lover Gian Luca, recounting their youthful love affair whose tragic end coincided with the fall of the Portuguese empire.

While the narrative, particularly in the Lisbon chapter, does at times tend to meander,  Tabu’s constant supply of stylistic flourishes is truly beguiling. Shot in gorgeous black and white—a velvety and highly contrasted 35mm in the first part and a grainier, almost tactile 16mm in the second—and projected in Academy ratio, the entire film pays loving tribute to a bygone era of filmmaking, adopting and playing with the trademarks of classic cinema to innovative effect. Most striking among these experiments is its revamp of the silent film in the second chapter: Gomes retains the diegetic sounds but keeps all dialogue muted except for Gian Luca’s melancholic voice-over. This device provides a novel manner of representing memory through film, for since Gian Luca is narrating to Pilar and Aurora’s maid Santa, we are never sure whose version of the events we are witnessing.

More than a simple exercise in style, the film touches on deeper issues, for example drawing parallels between one’s inevitable loss of innocence and youth to the contemporary psyche of Portuguese society and its relation to the legacy of colonialism. Still, whether Tabu does more than scratch the surface of these issues is open to debate, which is why I wanted to get the director’s take while he was in town for the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival.


Tabu is a very nostalgic film, not least towards cinema. As it stands out from most contemporary cinema, I was wondering how you would position your own work in relation to that of your contemporaries.

For me it’s very difficult to make a generalization. I know that I’m a Portuguese director making films in 2012. Even if there is a connection—as in the case of Tabu— with a cinema that does not exist anymore, like silent films and like classical American cinema too—even if I know that these films existed, that there is a strong connection with this kind of cinema, I’m aware that I’m doing a film nowadays, a contemporary film. So despite the connection with this cinema of the past, I hope it invents its own way to get there. I’m not just trying to copy formal aesthetics, to reproduce the way that cinema was made in the past. I want to invent a way to get to the sensations that I had watching these old films.

Of course, in contemporary cinema there are things that I enjoy and things that I don’t enjoy, but there is something—because cinema is more than 100 years old—there is something I miss. I think that cinema has lost its youth. The characters in Tabu, in the first part of the film, I guess they are missing their youth; I think that’s what they are missing, really. And I also think that cinema misses the youth of cinema. For instance, in Murnau, in the ’20s and the beginning of the ’30s, I think that viewers were more available to believe in the things that cinema was showing them, and I miss this innocence that was lost. So when I make films, I try to regain this kind of innocence and give it back to the viewer.

In contemporary cinema there is another director whose work I really like: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He’s also very attached to this idea of trying to regain something that in the history of cinema was lost, which is innocence. Cinema is like people: when you get older, you no longer believe in Santa Claus. But cinema, which I think is very linked to childhood, is a way to regain: even if you know that the things that you’re seeing are not true, you can regain—in the space and time of a film—something of this innocence. This is why you get touched by the unbelievable things that cinema shows you.

Is this why you generally avoid realism in your work?

Well, it’s just the fact that we are in a cinema theater: I think that real life is outside the cinema. For instance, I am really attached to musical comedies because I believe that cinema is better at inventing and not at trying to capture or reproduce reality. In most of the films that attempt to recreate reality, I think reality is better, because it’s more real. Cinema will always lose in this attempt, so I think it’s more interesting to have something that is not reality. There are different rules—the rules of a film should be invented for each film. But, of course, there should be a connection with the real world. If it’s only fantasy, it lacks interest for me, but I think that the world, the things that people do, the way they talk, everything that appears in a film should not be the attempt at reproducing reality, because cinema will always be less real than reality.

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

December 10, 2012
'Funny Ha Ha' (10th anniversary) - Interview with Andrew Bujalski

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As much as the filmmakers whose films it designates may have grown to hate it, the label mumblecore is pretty much indelible at this point. And while their resentment towards the term is understandable (it doesn’t have quite as romantic a ring as nouvelle vague, does it?), it nevertheless refers to the most creative and influential wave of films to come out of the US independent scene since the early ’90s. In this regard, it should be considered a badge of honor.

The film that started it all was Andrew Bujalski’s debut feature Funny Ha Ha. Produced in 2002, it spent three years accruing word of mouth on the festival circuit before receiving a theatrical release. When it finally did, it quickly turned into a small sensation. Shot on a shoestring budget with a cast of non-professionals, the film’s lo-fi aesthetic and highly naturalistic, unsensational portrayal of early adulthood was met with overwhelming critical enthusiasm and helped turn attention to the work of a number of other young, similarly inclined filmmakers.

Bujalski’s following two features—Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, released in 2006 and 2009 respectively—confirmed his early promise, establishing the 35-year-old as an auteur. This year marks the tenth anniversary of his debut and a newly restored 35mm print is traveling across the US to celebrate the occasion.

It’s been ten years since you made Funny Ha Ha. When did you last see the film?

In January. There was a new print, which I’d never seen before. I wanted to take notes on the colors in case there’s any reason to make another print down the line, so I watched it with an audience in Berlin. It was a strange experience, because it had been a few years. At the time that I made it, I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me that anyone would have any trouble finding their way into it. I thought it was a very straightforward story told in a very straightforward fashion. But watching it again this year, I thought, Wow, this is completely personal and completely particular and completely peculiar. It kind of amazes me how lucky I was that people did find it.

I feel that your films are the type that viewers will relate to differently depending on what stage of their life they’re in when they watch them.

Certainly.

So watching Funny Ha Ha in 2002 and 2012 could be a completely different experience. Have you noticed such a development with audiences?

Yeah. I mean, I would assume so; I haven’t done a thorough scientific survey of everybody who’s watched the movie. Although, just last week I was in Boston, and I was having a drink with a couple of old professors of mine and they were saying that they saw it differently now, because now they have kids who are in their early 20s. (laughs) It was a different experience for them to watch the movie thinking it was about their kids.

Obviously, it’s such a particular moment in a person’s life and we made that movie very much from within that moment. When I made Funny Ha Ha there was nothing ethnographic about it: I wasn’t trying to make a grand statement about what I thought it was to be 24, I just was 24. All that stuff was very real to me. So I think, if anything, if the movie resonates, that’s why: because it’s not told with critical distance, you’re really just looking at the Petri dish. So, who knows? I always intended it to be a personal experience for everybody who watches it. I think when you make a certain kind of movie—if you make a thriller, then you want everyone to jump out of their seats at the same time and if you make a slapstick comedy, you want everyone to laugh at the same time, but with this, I wasn’t leading an audience through a preordained set of responses. The movie only works if you bring your own thoughts and feelings to it and everybody’s gonna have a different feeling.

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

November 13, 2012
Review - Argo

Considering the way in which Iran dominated the U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy, Ben Affleck’s Argo, released in the States a month before the election, arrives just in time to stoke the fires of paranoia and xenophobia.

Recently declassified information revealed that during the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, six members of staff managed to escape. They hid in the Canadian ambassador’s residence until the CIA camouflaged them as the Canadian film crew of a nonexistent film and ushered them out of the country on a commercial flight right under the Iranian officials’ noses. A true story this unbelievable would be any filmmaker’s dream; too bad it landed in the hands of a filmmaker with about as much tact as a Tea Party zealot.

Even ignoring the politics for a second, it’s not a particularly good film. Consider this painfully formulaic structure: a maverick (Affleck himself – who else?) presents an outlandish scheme to save the day; his superiors first dismiss him and then give in, mainly because of his charisma and wisecracks; he assembles a team of equally wisecracking experts; a number of obstacles arise, all of which threaten to destroy the mission but are heroically overcome at the last second; the day is saved, the maverick is a hero and his former sceptics are forced to admit that he was right all along.

Not only is nothing new, but everything is overdone. The relentless wisecracking is truly unbearable – you’d think everyone in the CIA spoke solely in witty one-liners, regardless of how drastic a diplomatic crisis lay at hand – and the number of mission-threatening obstacles piled up in the last 10 minutes becomes so ludicrous, it completely kills the suspense it so desperately tries to build (yet again, we know they made it, so how suspenseful could it really get?). 

Now for the politics, which upgrade the film from trite to despicable. Reminding us that Cold War-style dichotomy is alive and well in Hollywood, Argo presents the Americans as upstanding champions of freedom, democracy and all other values that are good and righteous, while the Iranians, what little characterization they get, are shown to be but a bunch of violent and deranged animals, barking their incomprehensible language while waving Kalashnikovs in the air. Yes, there is one exception, included no doubt to absolve the film of the criticism levied here: the Canadian ambassador’s servant who refrains from betraying the hostages. However, not only is she in her teens, still too young to have been corrupted by her nefarious environment, but her character isn’t given so much as a minute of screen time – to consider her inclusion as providing a balanced portrait is like arguing that the single shot depicting a pile of bodies in Roberto Benigni’s farcical Life is Beautiful does justice to the horror of the Holocaust.

Vilifying an entire population evidently wasn’t enough and the film’s climax makes sure to extend the discrimination just that comfortable bit further. Even though the plane has taken off, the group is still terrified and it’s only once the captain announces that alcoholic beverages may again be served that they start celebrating their escape. Ah, alcohol, that good old signifier for freedom. Affleck probably cut out the next bit, where one of the hostages happily munches on a bacon sandwich while his wife quips that now he has to start respecting her again – that wouldn’t have been subtle.

Argo | Directed by Ben Affleck (USA 2012) with Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman. Opens November 8

Originally published in Exberliner.

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