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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

GMC: Do you feel the same way, Keith?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

October 23, 2012
'La vie au ranch' - Interview with Sophie Letourneur

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Released in her native France in 2010, La vie au ranch is the first feature-length film by 33-year-old Sophie Letourneur. Following a number of short and medium-length films that have garnered her awards from festivals across Europe, her debut feature continues her preoccupation with the theme of friendship among young women, frequently drawn from her own experiences.

In La vie au ranch, Letourneur turns her camera to a group of college girls living in a cramped apartment in Paris. A seemingly carefree and tight-knit life of parties and next-morning hangovers quickly reveals a deep-seated dissatisfaction in the protagonist Pam who, over the course of the film, grows increasingly detached from the friends she has had since high school, eventually escaping from Paris’ suffocating familiarity for the bohemian utopia of Berlin.

While the subject matter is hardly original, it is its treatment that makes La vie au ranch stand out. Demonstrating subtle tact and a keen sense of observation, Letourneur gradually constructs a compelling portrait of her characters through highly naturalistic dialogues and situations, which perfectly convey the characters’ emotional conflicts without resorting to sensationalism or ponderous sentimentality. Beyond successfully capturing a very defining transitional stage in a young person’s life, this deceptively simple film also addresses broader issues pertaining to the representation of femininity in cinema.

La vie au ranch is screening through Thursday, October 25 as part of BAMcinématek’s current series on the young French cinema group ACID. Although Letourneur was meant to be present for her film’s US premiere, the advanced stage of her pregnancy forced her to cancel her visit to New York. Fortunately, I was able to speak with her on the phone, learning about the extremely protracted and painstaking pre-production process that lent the script its striking authenticity and about the role gender politics play in her filmmaking.

Interview translated from French by author.

At the end of the credits you included the message “with nostalgic recollection of the group that we were.” To what extent is La vie au ranch based on your personal experiences?

The initial drive to tell this story is linked to events that really happened, that is, to my departure from a group of friends. As for the characters, they’re completely based on people from my life. I was living in a flatshare with my best friend, with whom I had a falling out; we all went on holiday, as they do in the film; and there’s even aspects of the film that I took directly from videos and recordings I had made at the time. The entire script was pretty much constructed around my memories, whether recalled or from these documents that I had made. I recorded a lot of things back then. There’s even whole sequences in the film that are reconstructions of dialogues that I had recorded.

So far you have always worked with highly personal material. Is this crucial for you or could you imagine working on stories that completely depart from your personal experience in the future?

Actually, I’ve just finished co-writing a script, which took me three years to complete, and though I feel very close to the material, it isn’t at all inspired by my own experiences. Ultimately, it is always related to me in some way, I can always somehow identify with my characters, but I think that’s the case for a lot of directors. I couldn’t write something that is too detached from my own personality, about a subject completely external to myself.

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

October 18, 2012
'Wake in Fright' - Interview with Ted Kotcheff

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“It’s a friendly place. Nobody worries who you are, where you’re from. If you’re a good bloke, you’re all right. You know what I mean?” These friendly words offered upon arrival in the outback backwater of Bundanyabba serve as an introduction to hell in Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, an Australian film that despite receiving overwhelmingly positive critical reception when it premiered at the 1971 Cannes film festival has been all but impossible to see for the last forty years. Now, a new restoration by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia offers an opportunity to see this long-lost gem of Australian cinema.

In true Conradian fashion, the supposedly sophisticated John Grant arrives in town full of contempt for its yokel inhabitants—whose life seems to consist exclusively of binge drinking, gambling and fighting—only to be seduced by their savagery and readily turn into as depraved a beast as the worst of them. With stunning cinematography and truly remarkable performances, the film offers an unsparing portrayal of the Yabba, as the residents affectionately call the town, as well as the darkest recesses of the human soul. Though superficially comparable to the ‘hicksploitation’ wave of the 1970s —from Deliverance to The Hills Have Eyes — it offers a far more nuanced and terrifying study of its protagonists than these films with which it is regularly grouped. In fact, if there is one blessing from its disappearance, it’s that — by being re-released now — it transcends and subverts this established genre that the film actually preceded.

Ted Kotcheff went on to direct other, more immediately successful films, such as the first installment of the Rambo series, First Blood. I met with him on the evening that the restored version of Wake in Fright celebrated its American premiere at New York’s Film Forum. In a genial mood and not without manifest pride, he recounted the film’s incredible four-decade journey from distributors’ pariah to reinstated classic before discussing the themes and style that make his film as trenchant and haunting today as it was at the time of its original release.

I wanted to ask about the history of the film. There are various accounts of why it disappeared for so long. What is your take?

Well, you know, when a film fails at the box office—which it did—the people who distribute who are only interested in profit lose interest. The film didn’t do well in Australia, which is where it was made. I think the Australians perhaps took affront to the way Aussie males were depicted in the film. It did well, because of the Cannes festival, in France, but that’s the only country in the world where it did any business. And then they opened it here, but the distributor, United Artists, didn’t believe in the film at all. They said to me, “Americans aren’t going to come see this film. They’re gonna be repulsed by the kangaroo hunt.” And they opened it in New York, at a small cinema in the East Side, without any publicity whatsoever, on a Sunday night, in a heavy blizzard. Nobody came. They were right. They told me, “See, we told you nobody would come.” (laughter) So everybody just lost interest.

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

June 24, 2012
Video Interview - The Family in the Films of Yorgos Lanthimos

Earlier this month I posted my interview with Yorgos Lanthimos, published in Exberliner.

I had also made a recording of the interview for Cine-Fils’ series of thematised video interviews with filmmakers, which was published today. Our theme was ‘Family’ and you can watch the video on the Cine-Fils website.

Unfortunately, this time there is no accompanying essay. However, here are two excerpts from Mark Fisher’s excellent analysis of the role of the family in Dogtooth that elaborate nicely on what Lanthimos himself says in our interview:

“ “It’s very striking to see that, as the century draws to a close,” Alain Badiou writes in The Century (Polity, 2007), “the family has once more become a consensual and practically unassailable value. The young love the family, in which, moreover, they now dwell until later and later. The German Green Party … at one time contemplated calling itself the ‘party of the family’. Even homosexuals … nowadays demand insertion within the framework of the family, inheritance and ‘citizenship’” (66). It is possible, despite all the parental cruelty, to read Dogtooth as a satire on the sociological tendency of the young to “dwell within the family until later and later.” But the significance of the film, particularly in the decade of Fritzl, is to highlight what Badiou calls the “pathogenic” qualities of the family. For Badiou, the consolidation of the family has been part of a massive restoration of power and authority; instead of debating alternatives to the family as revolutionaries did during the radical moments of the twentieth century, the family has once again assumed a totally dominant ideological position, a position that the actual collapse of the nuclear family in western societies and the challenges to heterosexual normativity have done little to upset. “The overwhelming majority of child murders are carried out, not by sleazy unmarried paedophiles,” Badiou reminds us, “but by parents, especially mothers. And the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse is incestuous, in this instance courtesy of fathers or stepfathers. But about this, seal your lips! Murderous mothers and incestuous fathers, who are infinitely more widespread than paedophile killers, are an unsettling intrusion into the idyllic portrait of the family, which depicts the delightful relationship between our citizen parents and their angelic offspring” (76).

[…]

What disturbed some about Natascha Kampusch was her moral conservatism; soon after her release, she spoke of the benefits of being kept hostage—it meant, she said, that she could not smoke or fall into bad company. “I hope your kids have bad influences and develop bad personalities,” the father spits at Christina, just after he has savagely beaten her. If you stay inside, you are protected is the slogan of  social conservatism, and it is as if Lanthimos is demonstrating what the ideal conditions for such conservatism would actually need to be. The outside must be totally pathologized: the children have to become literally xenophobic, terrified of everything that lies beyond the limits of their “protected” enclave. Dogtooth’s study of the pathogenic family is also, then, a study of the psychology of captivity.”

- Fisher, Mark. 2011. ‘Dogtooth: the Family Syndrome’, Film Quarterly, vol. 64, No. 4, pp. 22-27


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June 18, 2012
'Tomboy' - Interview with Céline Sciamma

In her 2007 debut Water Lillies, French director Céline Sciamma depicted the blossoming sexual experiences of three girls during early adolescence. With her second feature Tomboy, which again tackles issues of sexuality and gender, she has turned her camera to an even younger protagonist.

The story of 10-year-old Laure pretending to be a boy to the world outside her home was a critical favourite when it premiered at last year’s Berlinale, where it also won the Teddy Awards’ Jury prize, and has since gone on to become an arthouse hit worldwide. I met with her in the event of Tomboy’s German theatrical release and we talked about her experience working with children and of her film’s role in the still nascent gender discourse in France.

Both your films explore adult themes through very young characters. What do you feel are the advantages of this perspective?

I like coming of age stories because they’re really strong, you can really identify with the characters. It’s life but it’s kind of bigger than life, you know, it’s the first time. With Water Lilies, I felt it wasn’t adult themes, it was really… the rise of desire and sexual awareness, which fit with teenagehood. Tomboy is much more subversive in the way that it puts that matter at the moment of childhood. But that’s what excited me about it, the fact that it offers a new perspective on that subject and also allows to tell about childhood in general. Childhood is the time of life where everybody pretends to be somebody else for an afternoon. You invent yourself, you’ve got that freedom of fiction in your life. And I think that’s why people really connected to it. In France it was a huge success, they felt they had their childhood back. I like the balance between those two subjects.

The children’s dialogues in Tomboy all feel strikingly authentic. What was your approach in writing the script?

There’s very little improv in the film, it’s all written. I try to write the dialogues as simple as possible, I didn’t try to mimic the way children talk. I wanted the movie to be from the point of view of a child, I didn’t want to have my adult look on things, so that’s why there’s no psychology at all. She’s not thinking about what she’s doing, she just experiences it. So it’s really written as an action movie – kids are always doing stuff. And that was also a strategy in the screenplay, thinking about the fact that I was going to direct kids.

How was the experience of directing children?

I didn’t want them to be waiting to say their lines, so they were always in action. On set, for instance they’re in the bathtub and I’m giving them toys and they are playing just freely, and I’m already shooting. Not to get improv but to get them to be in that natural feeling at the time I need them to say the line. I was shooting very long takes, I was never cutting, because for them it means that they have failed if you cut. I would always talk to them and make it a non-dramatic event, to be making a film. You have to treat them like actors, have them to know their lines to be focused, to understand their character – I didn’t want to be a puppeteer – but also you have to make it fun, which actually is kind of cool, because you start believing it’s fun, though it’s your job, and it’s hard.

To what extent were the children aware of the film’s larger themes?

Well, they read the script and I talked to them about how I was going to shoot every sequence. It was important for me that they know. I didn’t have big talks with them about what it means. I did talk to my main actress, of course. About the character, and about her, because she was kind of boyish in life, so we shared that.

Were they ever hesitant about playing a scene?

The kids that play in the movie, the gang of kids, they’re actually her real friends in life. They hang out, they play football every day, so it wasn’t far from what they’re living. When they had to shoot the scene where they check if she’s a girl, of course everybody was kind of tense. But they weren’t reluctant at all and I felt that they were actually much more educated on the subject than myself when I was their age. Like, they knew the word transsexual for instance, which I didn’t know at all. “Oh, so she’s a transsexual?” “Well, you know, we can talk about it…” [Laughs] But they knew the word, little kids from the suburbs of Paris. That kind of made me optimistic actually.

At the end of the film, the intrusion of the adults back into the story introduces intolerance, which up to that point didn’t exist in the children’s world.

I didn’t want the adult character to be ‘right’, or to be ‘wise’. You know, when movies are about adults, which is 99% of the time, children can be the cliché of children. In a movie with children, I didn’t want adults to be the cliché of adults: “I know what to do.” So I wanted them to be complex fragile characters with doubts and not to give them the ‘right’ reaction but to give them the reaction that would be kind of true to the subject and give the audience strong emotions. And to me there’s a two-step reaction, the first is cruel. and then they talk. You can see that the mother is actually trying to be protective. And I think it’s true to life, I mean, to protect your own child from violence you can become violent.

And Tomboy’s been taken up in the curricula of French schools. Did you originally envisage this pedagogic potential?

No, I mean, I really wanted kids to be able to see the movie, I was really longing for their opinion actually. When the movie came out in France, parents were taking their children, I was really, really happy with that. And I’ve done screenings with kids and I was amazed at how we really connect. They had kind of the same questions as the adults, but they identify super-strongly, of course. I remember when I was a kid there were a lot of movies with kids, there were all those Spielberg productions, a lot of movies where growing up was an adventure. Now the kids have Pixar movies and stuff, they identify with the parrot in Rio, so it was striking to see them moved by the fact that the story’s about them. In France we’re not very open on gender studies, it’s really beginning, you know. When Tomboy was selected to go to schools, at the same time the parliament refused that the gender question was introduced in the schoolbooks. But it’s strongly political that we got there, so I’m really proud of it, actually.

Shorter version of interview originally published in Exberliner

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