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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Highlights from 2011 DOC NYC

“Girl with Black Balloons” – (Corinne van der Borch; U.S.A. and The Netherlands)
(screened with the short film ‘The Party in Taylor Mead’s Kitchen’)
“Girl with Black Balloons” bears some similarity to a documentary that showed at DOC NYC last year called “Lost Bohemia,” about the renovations to Carnegie Hall that involved kicking out residents in apartments and studios, mainly of whom were artists in their sixties and above. The artists were elderly, had dedicated their lives to the arts, and had great stories to tell, yet were absolutely destitute without anywhere else to go. “Girl with Black Balloons” tells the story of an artist named Bettina, a resident of the Chelsea Hotel since the 1960s. She has spent her life dedicated to her artwork, anonymous save for one public showing in 1980, and knows that the drive to create is unstoppable. Unfortunately, the Chelsea Hotel is being closed for renovation, and evicting many residents, much like Carnegie Hall did. Filmmaker Corinne van der Borch brings Bettina’s story to the screen, painting her with a warm and touching sensitivity to an unknown and semi-reclusive artist.
Van der Borch met Bettina by chance in the hotel, being invited into her apartment, which was barely livable. Bettina’s myriad of artwork was packed into boxes, but crowded all over the apartment, leaving only narrow walkways and spare room for guests. Bettina, from the outside would appear as an eccentric bag lady, an elderly woman with overdone makeup, a cobalt-blue wig, and getting around Manhattan on a scooter with a few black balloons tied to it. But behind her unusual appearance is a very intelligent, funny, and astute woman, devoid of any pretension. Bettina had been a very mysterious beauty in her youth, valuing her independence in traveling the world and being an artist, either by photographing people, painting Rorschach-like figures, or creating posters listing words that sound similar, like “constitution, retribution, institution, convolution,” etc. Bettina had given up a lot for her solitary life as an artist, with very little contact with friends and family, but still maintained that her work is her life.
Slowly gaining trust with van der Borch, Bettina lets her guard down, showing more of her art and smiling at ease, letting the outside world into her home. She expresses some regret over losing relationships over favoring her work, but knew that she was never cut out for a domestic way of life. She states that she never wanted children, and never married because the men would then expect a child. There is curiosity about her family, who Bettina is estranged from, and who obviously did not participate in the documentary.
While people may romanticize about brilliant artists who had mental illnesses or debilitating social phobia, Bettina does not strike as being neither mentally ill nor socially incapable of making friends. She had invited van der Borch into her life with a camera, and is not only friends with her, but is friends with a filmmaker/artist named Sam, who is her neighbor in the hotel. He is currently making his own film about her, and is inspired by her as a muse.
While watching the film, there was some concern that Sam and van der Borch were using Bettina for their own creative gain. An eccentric elderly woman who lived as a recluse with no close family or friends, who looked odd on the outside, and spoke with frankness and honesty. It seemed as if she was ripe for a filmmaker’s documentary, as if she was something of fascination for artists to make money off of. But as the film progressed, those notions went away, as both Sam and van der Borch were truly involved in Bettina’s life and well-being. In a scene where Sam and his friends are cleaning up Bettina’s apartment to make it more livable, Sam is clearly annoyed at van der Borch’s filming of the clean-up, essentially telling her that this was not a show, and if she wasn’t going to help clean up, she had to leave. Van der Borch gets the message, and leaves her camera rolling in a stationery spot as she pitches in. It quickly showed how special Bettina was, and how filming her was not for exploitation or amusement.
Van der Borch spent two years with Bettina, filming her life, and Bettina is a dazzling star of the film, with her high cheekbones, deep eyes, and knowing looks. The final scenes of the film, showing Bettina using a handheld camera to film passing ships at a harbor, reveals a once isolated woman opening herself up to the world beyond the four walls of her studio, accepting relationships without a fear that her independence will be taken away.
“The Island President” – (Jon Shenk; U.S.A.)
Whenever the world has heard about the threats of climate change, and seen the effects of it with this year’s cataclysmic earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and floods, it is often written off as just nature, to assuage people’s fears of rising sea levels that would swallow up land. But climate change is not happening in the future, it is happening right now, as evidence of the Maldives islands in danger of becoming a real-life Atlantis. In “The Island President,” documentary filmmaker Jon Shenk (“Lost Boys of Sudan”) profiles the charismatic and courageous president of the lowest-lying country in the world, President Mohamed Nasheed. In a lifetime spent fighting the oppression of the dictatorial president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom through protests and imprisonment, he faces a greater challenge than ever before – the sea levels of the Indian Ocean rising and submerging all 1200 islands of the Maldives.
The Maldives, to the world’s view, is seen as a tropical paradise, where British rock stars go to hang back on beaches shaded by palm trees, where divers go deep amongst brightly colored fish traveling in schools, and where life is at a peaceful standstill. The overhead shots captured by Shenk show the country as a gorgeous series of islands, surrounded by rich blue/green coral reefs, a stunningly beautiful arrangement of an island dream.
But that tourist fantasy masks the reality of the turmoil and hell that the country went through for thirty years. The country had liberated themselves from British rule in 1965. Their first president, Ibrahim Nasir, served from 1968-1978, and is credited with making the country viable for tourism, improving the economy, and modernizing the fishing industry, which provides a major source of income for the Maldives today. President Gayoom instilled a regime that eliminated all history of previous rule, insisting that schools only teach about him and nobody else. His administration imposed terror against anyone who disagreed with his rule, throwing people in prison or having them die of “natural causes” while their bodies show severe beatings. Nasheed was one of these prisoners, held in solitary confinement once for 18 months, surviving through his sheer willpower.
After thirty years of this hell, and the public made aware of the fatal beatings, a democracy movement was formed, with Nasheed at the head of it. Nasheed, despite all of the torture and pain he has gone through and witnessed, appears as a very likable and optimistic man, somebody who truly believes in his people and will not stop to bring them justice. Successfully, Nasheed won the people’s vote and became president in 2008. But while that ended Gayoom’s reign of terror, the difficulties in Nasheed’s term had only just begun.
The symptoms of climate change plays out like an omen of things to come. Fishing has been extremely low, fishermen only bringing in less than a quarter of their usual catch. Deep erosion has wiped away shorelines, revealing rocks that would normally lie beneath the surface. In one scene, Nasheed’s deputy undersecretary, Aminath Shauna, is telling her family about work, and they are light with her, asking her to “save them” so they don’t get “swallowed up.” They are both joking and serious, and it is a strange feeling to have, watching people who know that they may lose their lives to the ocean, but are trying to maintain a sense of humor about it to deal with the inevitability.
“The Island President” follows Nasheed through his first year in office, trying desperately to grab the world’s attention about the threat to his country while knowing that he is up against superpowers like India, China, and the U.S., who have their own interests at hand. Shenk’s crew have unfiltered access, sitting in on private meetings that would normally be classified, showing that behind his genial charm, Nasheed is very shrewd and dead-set on getting media attention, by any means necessary. He even stages a media stunt of an underwater cabinet meeting to make his point. The film culminates with the Copenhagen Climate Summit, where Nasheed and his dedicated staff hope to gain support from major developed countries to reverse these changes to save the world. Nasheed speaks with the kind of honesty and candor that many politicians would shy away from, like “”It won’t be any good to have a democracy if we don’t have a country.”
What is sad is that climate change is very real, and that in time, rising sea levels will not only engulf The Maldives, but will submerge coastal cities and lead to catastrophic terror and untold deaths of millions. It is a slow-moving threat, and even if it has already been noted in extreme weather, if these forces of nature happen far away, people assume that it can’t happen to them, that they are safe or protected by a rich government. Nobody is immune from these global changes.

“The Children Were Watching” & “The Chair” – (Richard Leacock; U.S.A.)
DOC NYC is celebrating the career of documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock (1921-2011), a filmmaker whose documentaries were a call for social activism in the name of human rights. His films, often so stark and revealing in people’s prejudices, ambiguities, and brutal honesty, would be prevented from being aired on television, too controversial at the time. Along with filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Robert Drew, they made films like”Primary,” about the 1960 Wisconsin Primary election between John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President. Getting unprecedented access, using light cameras, and filming a la cinema verite, it was a breakthrough and innovation in the world of documentary filmmaking. Leacock’s career paved the way for many documentary filmmakers to film subjects with private access, capture candid moments, make social statements, and open audience’s eyes to worlds they never knew about before.
Two of his films that demonstrate that kind of candidness and brutal honesty were “The Chair” (1962), a feature about lawyer Louis Nizer’s fight to save his client Paul Crump from the electric chair, and “The Children Were Watching” (1960), a made-for-ABC-TV short about school integration in New Orleans. “The Chair” is gripping with courtroom drama and a sense of dread, while “The Children Were Watching” shakes audiences to the bones with the absolute hatred and steadfast prejudice spewed out of ordinary people due to social changes.
“The Children Were Watching” is right in the midst of the controversies that surrounded school integration at the time. In New Orleans, history is made when Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old girl, became the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. Mobs of white people who were pro-segregation gathered on her daily walks to and from school, yelling hateful epithets and threatening violence against this child, escorted by U.S. Marshalls to ensure her safety. The vitriol that came out of people’s mouths regarding African-Americans was absolutely horrendous. Talk of “these people,” that “they are trying to be white, and they’re not white,” and that they “have it good” only kept their perspectives narrow and close-minded. The sound quality of the 1960s audio made it a little difficult to understand people’s deafening yells, but the message was clear.
In retaliation, white parents pulled their children out of schools that supported integration, sending them to all-white schools that they had to be bussed into practically the next district. The narration was clearly in favor of integration, pointing out the benefits of integration would have children learn together as equals, and that the attitudes of these parents seeped into the minds of their children, infecting them with racism that they would carry on into adulthood. One man even stated that he thought school integration was a Communist plot, like an infection of American values of capitalism and freedom.
The mobs’ racism was not reserved only for African-Americans, but for white parents who supported integration and sent their children to schools with black students. The film focused particularly on the Gabriel family, a middle-class white family with six kids. Mrs. Gabriel escorted her daughter to and from school, nearly losing in amidst the mob that practically wanted to swallow them both up. But even when they got home safely, it wasn’t over. The mob continued yelling outside of her house, their roars nearly shaking the glass. The children inside, both watching from the window and being distracted with toys by their mother, were trapped, as if there were riots or a war going on outside. The mob was unrelenting, and their influence was close to destroying the lives of the family through social pressure and the high status that race plays in society.
The Chair was unusual in that it was not the case of an innocent man being on death row, as one might surmise from the description of a lawyer saving his client from the death penalty. Paul Crump was on death row for killing a security guard during an armed robbery of a meatpacking plant in 1953. Over the past several years, his lawyer, the famed Louis Nizer (clients included celebrities and journalists) gathered evidence that, while Crump was guilty, he showed that he could be rehabilitated into a civil, individual who showed contrition for his crime, and that killing him would only stop progress of successfully rehabilitating other prisoners to become law-abiding citizens. The film is a stirring drama of the uphill battle to convince a court that an admitted murderer can be reformed, especially playing into any racial politics at hand (Crump was African-American).
The film was a collaboration between Leacock, Drew, Pennebaker, and filmmaker Gregory Shuker, and their work as a team showed magnificently. Leacock’s depth of perspective was evident as he followed the prison warden through the long, winding hallways to the death chamber, where the electric chair waited for its next victim. The chair had a medieval appearance to it, with straps for the ankles, chest, and lap, and a screwed-on headpiece, as a true torture device for those both guilty and possibly innocent.
The hearing itself, while it mostly advocated for Crump to not receive the death penalty (with one or two prosecutors questioning if Crump was truly remorseful for his crime), brought the audience along with its suspense, dependent on the governor’s decision the day of Crump’s execution to save him or not. Even throughout the majority of the film, Crump is not seen, only spoken of by his defenders and reading a statement he made declaring that he has reformed for the greater good of humanity, while accepting whatever fate is bestowed upon him. Without knowing the ending, there is a fear that somebody would be executed, and Nizer would be shown sweating bullets in his office, staring at the telephone as if willing it for good news. The friendly and jovial relationship shown between him and his amiable secretary, who often eased his anxieties with good humor, were light and likable moments in the film.
Both films were landmark documentaries for their time, about the need for change in social issues regarding integration and the death penalty, and Leacock is to be remembered for his pioneer work not only as a documentary filmmaker, but as an advocate for social reform and positive change in the world.
“First Position” – (Bess Kargman; U.S.A.)
“First Position” takes the audience into the nerve-wracking world of ballet competitions, where a performance can make or break the path of a young dancer’s career. At the Youth America Grand Prix, ballet dancers aged 9-19, from all over the world, compete not only for medals, but for chances to be accepted at the world’s top ballet schools and companies. These dancers have been training their own lives, only focused on making a career as a successful dancer with an elite company. “First Position,” directed by Bess Kargman, centers on five young dancers, each with their own path and story of what dance means to them.
The children featured have very unique and interesting backgrounds. 11-yr old Aran, raised in a military family, continued his studies of ballet while living outside a U.S. military base in Naples. Michaela, 14, was an orphan from Sierra Leone who was adopted by an American couple, finding her talent in ballet. Rebecca, 17, is a bubbly teen girl who may come off as an average cheerleader type on the outside, but possesses unusual flexibility and a refreshing sense of humor about herself. Miko, 12, and Jules, 10, are brother and sister of mixed British/Japanese heritage, and Miko is even home-schooled so she can devote more time to her ballet training. And Joan Sebastian, 16, is a teenage boy from Colombia who is determined to make it big as a dancer so he can send money home to his family. All of these dancers possess both budding and extraordinary talent, with a preternatural maturity that is preparing them for careers as young adults in the unpredictable world of dance in a shaky economy.
One of the standouts was an 11-yr old Israeli girl named Gaya, who competes alongside Aran in the European finals of the Grand Prix. Her performance drew out a very dangerous and captivating energy, performed in a very mature and adult manner for a very young girl. This is not to say it was too mature for her; on the contrary, it showcased the intelligence and awareness that she possessed to be challenged by difficult material.
Of the dancers, Joan Sebastian was the most mature, simply because he was practically living on his own, far from his family. He left his small town in Colombia to pursue his ballet studies in NYC, living with his ballet instructor. At 16 years old, he is more of a man than a boy. He purchases calling cards to speak to his mother, who hopes that he isn’t eating too much fried food in America, and, while he is in a tough situation, doesn’t cry or get overwhelmed, composing himself with the kind of self-confidence that will serve him well in his career.
Ballet is a very expensive undertaking, and the families ranged from being well-off (enough to afford $80 pointe shoes or hand-made tutus) to very poor, relying on their child to find success in dance. For the mother of Miko and Jules, there was a sense that she had wanted to be a dancer herself or had been, and while Miko possessed the talent and drive, when Jules expresses doubts over dance, his mother is visibly upset, as if it was her dream to have successful ballet dancer children. The expenses are extremely great, and if the dancers don’t become successful, if it doesn’t “pay off,” then all the money would seem for nothing. Hence, the importance of gaining a scholarship to an elite school or a job with a respected ballet company.
Even when the stresses and difficulties of ballet are shown – Michaela’s tendonitis threatening her Grand Prix performance; the presence of injuries from overworking the body to do unnatural moves like overextending; and the sacrifices made to keep the ballet dream going– the subjects chosen are still healthy children graced with charm and poise who have important goals set ahead of them, while also still having fun with friends or other activities, not growing up too fast. The documentary leaves the audience wanting these children to succeed, and understanding the hard work and dedication that it takes to make these dreams come true.
This post originally appeared in Cinespect

A Selection of a Few Gems at Latin Beat 2011 in August

Latin Beat, the annual showcase of the most diverse range of films from Latin American countries, is in its twelfth year at The Film Society of Lincoln Center. This festival features films that challenge audience expectations and give examples of slice of life storytelling that make the festival a stylish and fresh addition to the many summer festivals offered in NYC.
Of the films offered at the festival, there are a few with significant buzz and critical acclaim that should be noted. The Chilean film “The Life of Fish,” directed by Matias Bise, is a sad and poignant drama centering on the handsome vagabond Andres (Santiago Cabrera), who has been out of the country for a decade covering the world’s cities and landmarks as a travel writer sent on location. He is preparing for another business trip, and spends one last night in Chile, revisiting past friends at a birthday party.
What was remarkable about the film was how much is revealed in such natural ease. The dialogue doesn’t hit audiences like clunky exposition, but rather unfolds slowly, be it with Andres’ friends’ jealousy over his glamorous life, the adolescent crush had on him by the sister of an old friend, the fascination by two young boys over his experience in drugs and sex, and finally, the painful revelations revealed by his former lover, Bea (Blanca Lewin), now in a domestic and stable life from when he knew her. The film has minimal music, and an atmospheric blue lighting that gives the film a feeling like wading through water, slow and steady and controlled.
“No Return,” an Argentine psychological thriller by Miguel Cohan, is tightly paced, but is frustrating due to the selfish actions of its teenage protagonist, Matias (Martin Stipak), and the consequences of his parents’ actions to protect him. Matias is introduced as an ordinary teen boy driving with his friend from a party, while Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a roguishly handsome ventriloquist, is driving home to his wife and daughter. A double tragedy occurs that evening when a young male cyclist is run over twice by both men in the same night. Federico merely hits his bike and leaves after arguing with the cyclist, who is then immediately hit by Matias. Matias, in a panic, leaves the cyclist for dead and rushes home, telling his father a bogus story to avoid the reality of the hit and run. The cyclist dies, and, with Matias being protected by his parents, refuses to own up to the reality, leaving Federico to be wrongfully imprisoned.
The sight of seeing a sniveling teenage boy being coddled by his parents over fear of going to prison was absolutely disgusting, and the story in the second act follows the retribution planned by Federico upon his release from prison. The film takes on a more dangerous atmosphere, as the warm and safe personality Federico had had has given away to a cold and calculating presence, a la a hardened criminal despite not having done anything to deserve that life.
“Long Distance,” a Cuban film directed by Esteban Insausti, is a drama centering on politics and fractured relationships. In 1994, Cuba experienced a mass exodus as Castro declared that the government would not stand in the way of those wanting to flee the island during their economic crisis. More than 35,000 people went to the United States in hopes of a better life, leaving friends and family behind. This film focuses on a young woman, who, on her 35th birthday, is struck with the emptiness that many of her friends are gone. She reminisces about her past friends, picturing them as attending a dinner party in her home, and the film tells their individual stories of pain and struggle, and it also uses documentary-like interviews with those who fled the country years before to escape poverty. The cinematography is stark and cold, reflected in the woman’s large apartment with minimalist art and spotlessly clean kitchen counters. The apartment is beautiful, but it feels like a tomb rather than a warm home.
“The Death of Pinochet,” directed by Bettina Perut & Ivan Osnovikoff, had the potential to be a thoughtful and objective documentary about the reactions to the death of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 2006, such as the supporters who argued that he brought economic stability and prosperity to their country, or the protestors who said he only brought death and destruction for over thirty years. But while the documentary did capture the explosive energy in the streets following his death, and gave both sides equal attention, the choice to film the interviewees with close-ups of their mouths as they spoke was jarring and irritating to watch. It was difficult to stay interested with their mouths filling up the whole screen, instead of pulling back to film their faces in an ordinary way. The choice was garish and over the top, and was bothersome to watch while staying informed about the impact Pinochet’s death had on Chile and their future.
The festival has many more selections and offers, which runs through the 24th at the Walter Reade Theater at The Film Society of Lincoln Center. To see Latin American films from a wide range of countries and experiences, the festival is highly recommended to be seen.
This story originally appeared on Cinespect

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Guest Post: Interview with Sophia Takal - Writer/Director of Green by Melissa Silvestri

Actress/writer Sophia Takal’s directorial debut, Green, is a film that is both dark in its themes of jealousy, yet shines with a natural ease depicting the burgeoning friendship of two very different women. Green focuses on a young Brooklyn couple, Sebastian (Laurence Michael Levine) and Genevieve (Kate Lyn Sheil) who come out to a cabin in the woods where Sebastian is going to cover gardening and country life for his hipster blog, a city mouse meets the country sort of feel. Genevieve puts up with Sebastian’s pretentiousness because she doesn’t have a secure identity of her own, and it takes the friendship of Robin (Takal), a local woman, to bring out her confidence. But though Genevieve and Robin share an ease with one another, it slowly twists into a dark path in Genevieve’s mind, when she concocts cheating fantasy scenarios between Sebastian and Robin that threaten to destroy her relationships.

Green is slow-moving, and despite its dark moments, has a light and lush beauty to it, thanks to the gorgeous cinematography and long takes captured in wide camera angles, that really give the audience a chance to walk with the characters and understand them from the inside out. I spoke with Takal via phone, after Green had played at BAM’s BAMCinemaFest.

Women and Hollywood: : The title of the film has a double meaning, to both indicate nature and jealousy. How did you develop the story?

Sophia Takal: The story came up in an outline one night. I knew that I wanted to shoot with the other two actors (Sheil and Levine), and I had that house for location because it was my dad’s house. I wanted to explore jealousy, and the emotions that I’ve been going through my whole life, really intensely in the year before shooting Green. And the last movie I made, Gabi on the Roof in July, was all in New York City. I wanted to get out of New York and into nature; I thought that would be really nice. The plot itself just came out of nowhere. It was based on some themes that I had been sort of playing around with.

WaH: The cinematography was absolutely lush and gorgeous. How did you and Nandan Rao get together to collaborate?

ST: He had shot another film called Bummer Summer. Both Bummer Summer and Gabi on the Roof in July premiered at a festival in California called Cinequest, and we became friendly and stayed in touch. I love the way that it was shot. He’s really talented. And [I was using] the Canon 5D, and a lot of people said that it was hard to focus with. But I knew that Nandon knew the camera really well. But mainly he’s really talented, and more than being just a D.P. He was really patient with me because it was my first time directing, and he always knew what questions to ask to help me figure out what I was trying to get at. It was really helpful, because I don’t know if I’m the most articulate person, so anyone that can help me to get what I want, I really want around.

WaH: There were interesting camera perspectives where, during conversations between the two women, the camera was placed far back and stationary, and it was like listening in on private conversations. What was the thought behind that kind of staging?

ST: I really wanted to do as much in one shot of each scene as possible. I really didn’t want to cut a lot during the scenes. As they’re getting to know each other, the camera gets a little wider. But there’s a scene on the swings where Genevieve is upset, and they’re having their first real heart-to-heart, and the camera is closer in. But I feel like whenever there’s a cut in a movie, it gives the audience a millisecond to re-set and re-focus. I just wanted the audience to sit and have to watch everything as it was unfolding.

WaH: You reference back to older films where scenes were shot with fewer cuts and it allows the audience to take the film in more rather than be interrupted by jump cuts or stylish editing.

ST: I wanted the movie to be slow and meditative. I was really influenced by the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. He did a lot of static shots, where everything unfolds, and it’s all really naturalistic. Imagine mundane conversations, but there’s a lot going on underneath. I wanted to mirror that feeling.
Despite that there is a thread of jealousy in the film, the film’s strength comes from the relationship between Genevieve and Robin. Genevieve sees Robin as strange, but her lack of pretension is refreshing. The dialogue flows very naturally between them, that it almost felt improvised. What was it like developing those scenes?
Well, Kate and I are actually best friends in real life, so it was really easy to pretend to act like friends. We became friends while shooting Gabi. For me, I thought the most important relationship was the one between the women. Something about the supportiveness of females and friendship, and that Robin is giving Genevieve an opportunity to become more fully realized, not only defining herself by her man. It’s really important to me, because in my own experiences with women, I have a harder time trusting women and feeling comfortable, but I find that when I finally do break through, I can get a lot closer than I could with a man. So I wanted to look at that, I thought that was really important.

So even though there’s jealousy and the love triangle, the tragedy for me is the non-supportive nature of the two women. Genevieve turns so quickly against Robin, even though Robin hasn’t done anything, it’s all in [Genevieve’s] mind. But if women were more supportive of each other instead of viewing others as threats, maybe we could all feel stronger and undefeatable.

WaH: Genevieve really goes through an evolution in the film, as if nature is bringing out her primal side. How did you develop that character?

ST: I really wanted to start off with a character who doesn’t feel safe to show who she really is. And I feel like it’s rare to have a female protagonist whose identity is so unclear and unformed. But that was intentional, because I feel that Genevieve had defined herself by outside expectations. And that’s something that I’ve struggled with. Like, “who am I?” in relation to this person, vs. “who am I?” on my own. So I wanted to show her progress, and with the female friendship, show a potential way she could be. Like being comfortable in her own skin, comfortable to say what she does and doesn’t want, and comfortable in saying no to her boyfriend without being afraid that he’s going to leave her. That’s a really scary thing, I think. Forming an identity, and being comfortable enough to acknowledge who you really are, and get rid of all these poses of what you think you should be. So I think that she has the opportunity to grow, but because she’s not being supported [by Sebastian], she shrinks back to the way she was before. So that was the arc that I wanted to see with her character.

WaH: The music was very sparse, yet during Genevieve’s fantasy/jealousy scenes, it reminded me of 1970s horror films, most notably Carrie, due to Genevieve’s appearance. What kind of music was developed for those scenes?

ST: Ernesto Carcamo, who did the music score, is really talented. It sort of sounds like found objects, and he turns them into music. He can take the sound of a car driving and manipulate it to make it into a tone. Or people having sex, he can make it sound like a weird, ethereal instrument. He did a lot of stuff like that. I also wanted it also to be rooted in nature, like wind chimes and Native American instruments. He made it very other-worldly.

I wanted it to have the tone of a horror movie, because in those scenes Genevieve is becoming a monster, but I didn’t want it to be a horror movie. So I tried to have the music translate into what would sound like a horror movie. The horror of everyday, and the way that people are against each other, with psychological manipulations.

This post originally appeared in Women & Hollywood

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Interview: Goran Hugo Olsson (The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975)

Posted by Melissa Silvestri on Apr 06, 2011
Source: Exclusive

The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 is a fine example of a documentary that blends the past and present, using the visual medium of film as a “mixtape” to collect images of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s while being entirely narrated from new and archived interviews with activists such as Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, and Kathleen Cleaver, and musicians such as Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, and Questlove. The film’s footage was filmed by Swedish filmmakers who made documentary segments for Swedish television of the black power movement, and chronicling how a cycle of poverty, structural racism, and the need for equality using intellectual thought was pertinent during these years. These issues were spearheaded by the Black Panthers who, contrary to popular belief, were not advocating for violence but for education and reform in the black community.

The film was directed by Göran Hugo Olsson, who had previously directed Am I Black Enough For You (2009), about the life of Billy Paul, the sound of Philadelphia soul music, and the relationship between Paul and his wife, Blanche. The Black Power Mixtape was at Sundance in the World Cinema Documentary Competition category, and just played at New Directors/New Films. I spoke with Olsson this March in NYC.

Melissa Silvestri: How did you get involved with putting together this film and its footage?
Göran Hugo Olsson: I was doing research for another film. I decided that film should take place only in nighttime, so I wanted to have night shots of America from the 60’s and 70’s, and in the archive, I started looking for those images, and I also found this, the material that makes up the mixtape. It was only broadcast once in primetime, and never again. So as a filmmaker, you’re looking for topics and subjects that you think would be a good film, but also a topic that you are engaged in, so you can dedicate two or three years of your life to it. So when I discovered this much material, I realized this is a good film, this is something I want to do. So was my duty to take these images from the basement to a wider audience.

Black Power

Silvestri: Were the subjects interviewed particularly for this film or were their interviews taken from other sources?
Olsson: Archived films, they can get claustrophobic, in a sense, because however good the images are or how interesting, you’re confined in the space of the archives. So I wanted to add voices from today, more oxygen into it. I needed voices and information that put the images in context. Also, I was inspired by commentary tracks on DVDs, where you can put on commentary. And sometimes that makes the film even better, where you can see Taxi Driver with Martin Scorcese talking over it. Maybe Taxi Driver is not better that way, but I enjoy that very much, so that’s what I wanted to do.

Silvestri: What was it like meeting and speaking with some of your subjects? Did you interview them yourself?
Olsson: I screened the material, made it five minutes, then I asked them to comment on the images. So it was like interviews, but they also comment on what they just have seen.

Silvestri: The Swedish filmmakers captured a side of America that was ignored or downplayed by the American media. Was it because they were outsiders that they were able to be more objective, or because their work had more freedom to be shown on Swedish television rather than American television? And how did they gain more trust, being not only white but foreigners?
Olsson: That was a lot of different questions. (laughs). The mainstream media just had shows and entertainment and news. Black people only appeared on the news when they were connected to crime or court cases. And I think they (the Swedish filmmakers) got access that no American could get that easily. They just knocked on the door and were like, “Hello, we’re from Sweden.” And it’s obvious even for me that when I’m meeting the voices of today that they understand that I can’t understand the whole history. I don’t have the whole history. But they’re very generous and try to explain things. I think it would be very hard for an American to do this film. With the original material, they had access to this environment that I know that when the Black Panthers had this big conference in San Francisco, they allowed no white people in, but there was a Swedish team, and it was like, “OK, you’re from Sweden, you can be in for ten minutes, that’s OK.” And also, there were very strong ties between the civil rights movement and Sweden. It started with Dr. King receiving the Nobel Prize in ’64. It grew from there.

Silvestri: That’s interesting, I didn’t know about that.
Olsson: He came to Sweden, and all of these people came to Sweden to lecture in universities .

Silvestri: So by Dr. King winning the Nobel Prize, more Swedish people would be aware of the civil rights movement in America?
Olsson: Very much so. And connecting the civil rights movement to the establishment in Sweden, and the mainstream people of Sweden were aware of this. And it meant a lot to Dr. King, and Sweden followed Dr. King very carefully after receiving the Nobel Prize.

Silvestri: I feel like a film of this magnitude should be shown in high school classes on the civil rights movement, that it presents a much wider sprectum of civil rights activists and intellectuals, combined with soul music that speaks with social commentary, than any watered-down program would. I was surprised by Questlove’s assertion that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination was possibly a conspiracy because he was getting to be too radical, and it did make sense. What do you think this film could teach students about America’s history with racial politics?
Olsson: That I can’t answer because I don’t know that, but what I do know is that when I saw this material, my goal is to reach the libraries of schools and universities [everywhere]. In order to reach out to the libraries, and make the people who make the decision to buy them to the libraries, you have to package it. Editing the film, adding voices and music, be in film festivals and be in theaters to make it more attractive. Because if you just have the DVD where it says “for educational purposes” on it, it’s not so easy for people to find it. But if you have more [the contemporary artists], it’s more attractive in the light. And the goal is that the film can be on the shelf in the library besides books. And if you’re interested in that, you can see the film as a complement to the books.

Silvestri: I felt that the film would be beneficial in education because while young students may not know Angela Davis or Stokely Carmichael, they know Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli and The Roots. So having contemporary artists there could tie between the present and past to make it more relatable.
Olsson: That’s exactly the purpose. Those people could be the bridge between the film and younger people. They are not young anymore, but they talk to a younger audience. Maybe even the teachers at the school, they listen to The Roots.

Silvestri: How did Cory Smyth, the music producer, get involved in the film?
Olsson: He is a key figure, thank you for asking that. He did Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, he put that together musically. My co-producers in America, Josyln Barnes and Danny Glover, they worked with him before, so they put us together. I did the exact same thing, I showed some material to Cory, and we talked and came up with different names and recorded them, and so on.

Silvestri: What is sad is that the film is so honest about governments introducing drugs and encouraging gang violence in ghetto neighborhoods to keep black people in poverty, yet many people would blame black people for those things. Gang violence was stopped or shut down because it posed no threat to the white patriarchy, yet the Black Panthers were portrayed as boogeymen or dangerous figures because they were intellectuals and eloquent. What are your thoughts on that?
Olsson: I think it’s obvious. It’s not a conspiracy or anything. When hard drugs hit the inner cities of America, in connection to the Vietnam War, there is no way that that could happen without the knowledge of the C.I.A. or the army. There was no private plane carrying heroin from Southeast Asia to America. And I think the situation is very much the same. I’ve been to Mexico, and of course, (it’s the same). I don’t think that anyone is saying that the C.I.A. did this, but they didn’t do anything to prevent it from happening.

Silvestri: They would say that it’s a problem, but blame it more on the black working-class residents than looking outside of the neighborhood or a higher power.
Olsson: And it’s so connected with the Vietnam War as well, because people got hooked in Vietnam. It’s just sad, it’s just sad that it happened.

Silvestri: The film’s subjects and its times are very relevant today, due to a poor economy, wars, cutdown on education, and structural racism. How do you feel the events in your film relate to today’s world?
Olsson: Several ways. I think, first of all, you have to remember, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, and the Panthers, they came not of rage or aggression or something like that. They came out from university, they were well-educated. They used education as a tool to see these mechanisms in society. All of them, they came out of Berkeley. And the only important thing is to have an education system that is equal to everyone. In education, as in sports, it’s important to cultivate any individual as much as possible. So equal opportunities in education is the only thing that matters.

The other thing is when we started this film, friends of mine said that revolutions and demonstrations, that’s history, that’s something that happened before and will never happen again. But as we’ve seen in the last couple of months (in the Middle East), there has been mass demonstrations that led to revolution. On my television screen, I’ve seen revolution in Tunisia, in Egypt, etc. So those mechanisms have been in human society since the days in Egypt five thousand years ago, and it will always be there. Like Dr. King said, “No lives lost forever.” Because when the ruling circus ignored younger people for too long, they will have to eat it up.

Zeina Durra and Elodie Bouchez The Imperalists Are Still Alive! By Melissa Silvestri

From the opening shot of artist Asya (Elodie Bouchez) naked save for a machine gun and a hijab on her head, one can tell that The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, written and directed by Zeina Durra, is looking to flip the victim image of Muslim women on its head with a subtle sense of humor and observation. The Imperialists Are Still Alive! tracks moments in the life of Asya, an artist of mixed Middle Eastern background who lives a rock’n’roll lifestyle in NYC with a hip crowd while keeping tabs on the missing whereabouts of her friend in Lebanon. She lives her life day to day, and Durra keeps the films fresh and fun by never making Asya a self-pitying martyr, nor making light of life post 9/11 for people of Middle Eastern descent in NYC. Elodie Bouchez (of Alias and The Dreamlife of Angels) plays Asya with a keen awareness of her surroundings and a deep inner life that isn’t always obvious on the outside.

I spoke with Durra and Bouchez last week in NYC.

What was the genesis of this project, how did you get started?

Durra: Basically, I went to film school because I knew I wanted to make films. I knew I had a lot to say, and I was really working out what was I about, what did I want to do, what did I want to make films about. And that’s how this film came about. It took me ten years. It’s much more a meditation, rather than it being a story, about how one navigates one’s world with this kind of crazy political backdrop. And if you take that to wider themes, it’s about how we basically live. In every moment there are sort of very big things and very trivial things. So how do we digest that in our brains as we’re walking around?

Elodie, what attracted you to this film?

Bouchez: First of all, what really matters to me is the quality of the script, because I’m very sensitive. I really loved the script when I read it and I totally got her vibe even though I didn’t know her yet. And I enjoyed the quality of the writing itself. And that was funny because right at the same time, I was deciding whether to do this big French comedy that I wasn’t so sure to be part of. [But] I really loved it [Durra’s script], and the two movies were going to happen at the same time, and I thought “That’s the kind of movie I really want to do.” Then I met her and knew that we could get along.

How was it learning Arabic for the role? Was it difficult or with relative ease?

Bouchez: Arabic is not an easy language, especially for the accent. But we worked really hard on it.

Durra: People think her Arabic is so convincing because of her body language. Because often when you speak a language, you don’t have the body language that goes with it, so it seems forced. People don’t understand – cinema’s all about body language. When you edit the finest details of body language, that’s what really gives away an actor’s performance. Because film has that magnified. So what’s really interesting about this is when Elodie would say something and we would all laugh, we’d say “Just open your wrist a bit more.” She would do it, and then it would look so much more real. That was really interesting for me as well, discovering how to teach her how to speak Arabic.

I enjoyed the multi-lingual vibe of the film, and how characters moved smoothly between languages very often as if it was nothing.

Durra: People who speak more than one language are often immigrants or super-educated. But what’s interesting in the film is that rather than focusing on the privilege that lots of languages can give you, nowadays, the world is so globalized that wherever you go, people really do flip between languages. And no one just speaks one language anymore, people just throw in different bits of other languages. And I’m really interested in how that’s evolving. I’ve seen it a lot in cinema. I’ve got my ears to the ground like “Oh, are they doing this too?” And in the last five years, a lot of films have been throwing in a bit more languages here and there.

I appreciated the relationship between Asya and Javier, and how they really understood one another, and being in America where their ethnicities may be marginalized by threats of terrorism or immigration fears. They seemed to find a bond together.

Durra: There’s definitely a true bond, and it’s enhanced by the fact that when you are living in the States, and you don’t have people around that can have that cultural understanding. Latin America, for example, is a perfect place to choose, because both Latin Americans and Middle Easterners suffer from similar prejudices. I had a friend, who was a lawyer, and people were like “Oh, you speak English really well for a Mexican.” He had a law degree! And we were at a really nice dinner party. And it’s like “Who are you, where did you come from?” Meanwhile, he and his friends have PhDs and have been studying law at Yale. That’s the kind of things that really kill me, and when you’re living away from home, it’s really nice to be around people that get that.

Is this film based on events in your life, or is it all fictional?

Durra: These are themes that I’ve been aware of or that I’ve been interested in or things that I’ve experienced. Luckily I haven’t had a friend abducted, but most things are worries that I have had, that something has gone missing.

Aysa’s life is split between two different existences, but at the same time, it’s one world.

Durra: That’s the thing, If I did a Danny Boyle split-screen, you’d have her brain split in two with one of her running around and one of her always concerned about her family and politics. But the challenge was to weave in my ideas about these themes, which were that you continue living, while you have all this stuff going on. Just because you live your life, doesn’t mean you’re not concerned. It’s unrealistic to portray someone living abroad who’s from a war torn country just sitting at home thinking of where they’re from. They get up, they have an interaction with someone while they’re grocery shopping. Whatever level you play it at, Asya has a ridiculous, rock’n’ roll downtown life, but you deal with the fact that you have to get up in the morning, you take a shower, you have lunch. And that’s how we live.
And often, a lot of white male directors do the “poor victim” thing, which is a minefield. I’ve often found that Western films dealing with ethnic minorities going through a struggle are often handled in a patronizing way. And it’s always the same story being told. It was very hard for me to have this cool, feminist girl who wasn’t having problems covering up or with a religious father—people just didn’t get it. It was hard to make, because we weren’t doing the classic “Do I go to college or do I help my father make kebabs?” People just didn’t understand.

The Imperialists Are Still Alive! is now playing at the IFC Center in NYC.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Guest Post: Desert Flower Review by Melissa Silvestri

Desert Flower is a deeply emotional drama (with light comedic moments) that tells the true story of Waris Dirie, a Somali woman who had undergone female genital mutilation at 3 years old, escaped her rural home village before an arranged marriage at 13, became an indentured servant to the Somali ambassador in London, and then, by chance, was discovered and became a supermodel. But despite her fairy tale rags to riches story, Dirie was still haunted by her past, and all the celebrity brought on by her looks couldn’t deny that what happened to her as a child was an unnecessary act of violence, so she used her position and fame to raise awareness about the issue and became a UN spokeswoman against female genital mutilation (FGM).

Director Sherry Hormann (Father’s Day) tells Dirie’s remarkable story, and supermodel Liya Kebede stars as Dirie, in a performance that was deeply honest in portraying a complex woman. Dirie is introduced as being homeless on the streets of London, speaking limited English and dressed in fine scarves and wraps. Through a chance encounter, she befriends aspiring dancer Marylin (Sally Hawkins), who initially treats Waris like a lost puppy, but comes to find her as a caring and sensitive friend.

The scene where Waris slowly begins to understand that FGM is not the usual practice for all women, via speaking to Marylin about sex, is an incredibly sad and painful scene. Kebede plays this scene as if Waris has just been punched in the stomach, horrified that she is denied the pleasure which Marylin can take for granted. And Hawkins, up until this point, has played Marylin as a bit self-absorbed and flighty, more of a girly-girl friend who is unaware of her new friend’s cultural background and history. In this scene, she is just as shocked as Waris at this injustice that has been forced upon her due to traditional ideas about women and their sexuality being controlled by others. From this moment, Waris and Marylin’s friendship grows deeper, and with a richer meaning than just being friendly girlfriends.

The second half of the film focuses on Dirie’s modeling career, after she is discovered by photographer Terence Donovan (Timothy Spall), while working mopping floors and cleaning up trash at a London McDonald’s. She is completely clueless to the superficial world of fashion and marketed beauty, but Donovan’s trust in her gives her more confidence and freedom in the world. The fashion world scenes are more comedic, poking fun at the superficiality of the fashion industry, as exemplified by Waris’ agent Lucinda (Juliet Stevenson.) But, even with more mobility and success in the world, it doesn’t erase the pain that Waris feels at being an anomaly in more ways than one.

Waris’ courage in speaking openly about a deeply painful subject is commendable and truly brave, and her advocacy to end FGM for all women is a step forward in taking back control due to sexist ideas about women and their sexuality. Desert Flower portrays Waris Dirie as a strong woman who, through challenges and adversities, became a hero for many women around the world. Kebede plays her as a touching, compassionate human being, and her story leaves an indelible mark on the viewer afterwards.

Desert Flower opens in NY and LA on March 18.

Cinespect Presents: Impressions of the Korean American Film Festival New York Pt. 2

Editor’s Note:

Cinespect is proud to bring you coverage of some of the highlights from this year’s 5th edition of the Korean American Film Festival New York (KAFFNY), which runs from March 17-20. The festival promises many more films than the amount that will be covered here on the site but it is our hope that you’ll find yourself curious and eager to explore beyond what is reviewed here. This year’s edition offers more than 14 features and 25 shorts to choose from, which range from early Korean cinema up to the most current Korean American films.

For this second part of the coverage we have contributor Melissa Silvestri reviewing “The House of Suh,” which screens this Saturday, March 19. For tickets and information be sure to visit: KAFFNY – “The House of Suh”

Enjoy the festival.

Review of “The House of Suh”

“The House of Suh,” a documentary by Iris K. Shim, revisits the murderous brother and sister pair of Catherine and Andrew Suh, who collaborated to kill Catherine’s allegedly abusive fiancé Robert O’Dubaine in 1993. While 19-year old Andrew was the one who fired two shots into O’Dubaine, Catherine orchestrated the murder, and, going into their family history, had always had a strong sense of control over her younger brother, who always valued family loyalty. “The House of Suh” is less a murder story than a family drama of the Suhs, a Korean-American family in Chicago who held strained relationships with one another, and both siblings suffered tragedy early on.

Growing up in Chicago, the Suh parents were Korean immigrants, and had two very different children. Andrew was the reliable one, the one used to be the English interpreter for his parents during transactions, doctor’s appointments, and work-related tasks. He obeyed his father without question, an old-school father whose attitude was “My house, my rules, my way.” Andrew was also favored because he was the boy, whereas Catherine was not only the girl, but much more rebellious and questioning of authority. She always questioned why something was the way it was, and was at contentious odds with her father, at one point even battling to the brink of death with him. Catherine left home as a teenager, while Andrew, 11, was a child who attended to taking care of his father as he was succumbing to cancer in 1985.

Two years later, Andrew’s world was shattered when his beloved mother was murdered in a still-unsolved case, leaving Andrew an orphan and in the care of his sister and her new boyfriend, Robert O’Dubaine. Andrew lived a double life from then on. At home he was closely guarded by the couple, groomed to obey them and know that they were his only family, O’Dubaine being the big brother he never had. At school, to hide his family problems, overcompensated by being incredibly popular and well-liked, a charismatic football player, and a fun-loving guy. These two worlds played side by side for years, until, due to familial pressures, he could no longer keep up the façade, seeing himself as the “lonely popular kid with nobody to talk to.”

The film succeeds with its candid interview with Andrew, who is currently serving a 100-year sentence in prison. He is open and funny and talkative, while well aware that he is marked as a murderer for a crime that he was pressured to do. He doesn’t so much express remorse as rather saying that he was a very young man back then, and may have not been thinking rationally in the name of protecting his sister from O’Dubaine’s abuse. While there is a glaring omission in the film of Catherine Suh’s presence (who did not respond to the filmmaker’s request for an interview), she isn’t really missed, as the film takes Andrew’s POV as the pawn in Catherine’s scheme to kill her fiancé. But as it is known, revenge for abuse never brings the closure or peace that one hopes for. Andrew states that he had “tried to destroy the monster, but in turn would become the monster.”

“The House of Suh” fascinates with its look inside the twisted binds of loyalty in family, and how control and manipulation can pull family members in deeper because of the idea that nobody else can love you as much as your family can.

Cinespect Presents: Impressions of the Korean American Film Festival New York Pt. 1

Editor’s Note:

Cinespect is proud to bring you coverage of some of the highlights from this year’s 5th edition of the Korean American Film Festival New York (KAFFNY), which runs from March 17-20. The festival promises many more films than the amount that will be covered here on the site but it is our hope that you’ll find yourself curious and eager to explore beyond what is reviewed here. This year’s edition offers more than 14 features and 25 shorts to choose from, which range from early Korean cinema up to the most current Korean American films.

For this edition of our KAFFNY coverage we have contributor Melissa Silverstri reviewing three films by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, who is being honored by KAFFNY this year with a retrospective that includes six films. The screenings of two of her films, “Sa-I-Gu” and “Wet Sand: Voices of L.A.,” will be followed by a talk between Dai Sil Kim-Gibson and Charles Burnett.

Enjoy the festival.

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson

Review of “Sai-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives” and “Wet Sand: Voices from L.A.”

The L.A. riots in 1992 were a tragic moment in the history of L.A.’s race relations, not only between black citizens and corrupt officers in the LAPD, but between black people and Korean-American people co-existing together on the same streets, where many Korean shop owners had black customers. Years of hostility between Koreans and blacks due to misunderstandings blew up during the riots, when many stores owned by Koreans were destroyed and burned down, and lives were lost in the terror. In the 1993 documentary “Sai-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives,” and its 2004 follow-up “Wet Sand: Voices from L.A.,” director Dai Sil Kim-Gibson records the stories of the Korean women who were devastated by the riots, and who lost husbands and sons amidst the chaos. The film explores race relations, poverty, and the immigrant experience of making it in America, and how decades of hard work were lost within one week due to the riots.

Sai-I-Gu is Korean for April 29th, the day when the riots started. In L.A., many Koreans had come over and settled in an area known as Koreatown, where it was like their own country. No white people, no outside influences, their home culture within a new landscape. Many Koreans opened convenience stores, and the majority of their customers were black people. The local racism carried over into these stores, where black people viewed Koreans as being like white people, trying to assimilate by assuming the criminal worst about black people, and not treating them with respect. And Koreans would be seen as the foreigners, the ones who refuse to learn more English, the strange immigrants. Some of the women will admit to these perceptions of blacks by Koreans as having been carried out by others, and stating how if one is to have a store in a neighborhood, one should get to know their customers instead of openly disliking them or treating them like potential thieves. This would all come to tragic consequences during the riots, when stores were destroyed, particularly as revenge at Koreans who didn’t treat their black customers fairly.

More so, this film is about the disillusionment of the American dream. As stated by one of the women, “I thought America was perfect, since she helped others abroad. After the riots, I feel there is a huge hole in America.” When Koreans came to America, saving for years and packing up their families, instead of coming to the America as seen on TV, they came to the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of South Central L.A., where they had to struggle to survive all over again and work hard to ensure that their children would have a good future. When their stores were destroyed, anger was not at the black citizens who did it, but at the LAPD and state government who favored protecting the wealthy and middle-class but allowing the blacks and Koreans to “fight over crumbs,” because it didn’t affect white supremacy.

One of the saddest moments in the film is Mrs. Lee speaking of her son Edward Jae Song Lee, who was killed by a Korean who thought he was a looter. Her disbelief at her son’s death (and still in disbelief and grief a decade later) is palpable, and her realization that he died based on seeing his photo in a Korean-American newspaper is heartbreaking.

“Sa-I-Gu” is a raw and emotional film that can be hard to watch because it puts such innocent faces over a tragic event, but it is painstakingly honest in showing the cracks in a flawed society. Its follow-up “Wet Sand,” revisiting the events and tracking how race relations have gone in L.A. since then, doesn’t offer much hope. Despite the formation of activist groups like the Association of Korean-American Victims, the Korean-American and black citizens of L.A. deny that there is a problem between them, and that the media played up the supposed rivalry to avoid confronting white/black tensions. The lack of good public education in L.A. leads many young people to the streets to make quick money, and the money that would go to education would go instead to wealthy developers. There isn’t a happy ending to either of these films, but a wider awareness of the immigrant experience in America and the tragic consequences when race relations is escalated to deadly ends.

“Broken Silence: Korean Comfort Women”

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s 1999 documentary “Broken Silence: Korean Comfort Women” is a difficult documentary to watch, because the wounds that the elderly Korean women interviewed received as a result of being made into sex slaves by the Japanese army during WWII are still palpable. The Japanese military coerced or kidnapped Korean women and took them all over Southeast Asia to be sexual playthings for war-weary Japanese soldiers to use and abuse, raped over and over again. Yet decades after these violations of human rights, Korean comfort women are not recognized as victims of the war and not given public and legal reparations. It took a lot of bravery and honesty for these women to speak of these painful memories before the camera, capturing these stories before their ultimate passings (many of these interviews are from the 1990s and the women were quite elderly at the time).

These ranged in age from young adults to being as young as twelve years old, taken from their families and schools either by force or with the promise of job opportunities abroad. This is much like the human trafficking trade of today with Eastern European women in impoverished countries promised great jobs in Italy or Germany, but tricked into becoming sex slaves instead. In WWII, the military ships would pick up and drop off girls in foreign countries all along Southeast Asia, taking Korean girls as far as Thailand and Indonesia. Every girl was given a forced hysterectomy to ensure that there would be no pregnancies. They belonged to the government, and their bodies were to be taken advantage of until they were of no use to anybody. In a chilling recollection, a woman describes seeing half-dead girls being dragged out in front of new recruits, and the soldiers telling the new girls that if they don’t obey, this will happen to them, before shooting the wounded girls in the head. It is unbelievable how one can go through life having seen such horrible torture and death and not lose their mind, or not lose faith in humanity. When one woman states that she wishes that she could “have her youth back,” or another says that she would wish to be a man instead of a woman, it’s all one can do to not scream in agony at these horrible acts forced upon these women in the name of war and power.

The women weren’t just used for sex, but also used as expendable fighters, trained to kill Chinese civilians with bayonets, and forced to do it. Another woman remembers eating human flesh. Their dehumanization as comfort women broke their minds down to become mindless fighters and slaves, one woman even forgetting how to speak Korean and never re-gaining the ability, in regret as she lives on her death bed.

Japanese men appear throughout the film, mainly a teacher, a soldier, and scholars, in plain denial of what these women went through, or downplaying their stories as not being as bad as they say it was. It’s as if that if men say that women are crazy or exaggerating, then the patriarchy won’t take them seriously, and not see them as true victims of war.

Kim-Gibson’s film excels because she captures the stories of several women who are willing to speak on camera about such a horrific past, and ensure that they will be remembered and not forgotten after their passings for audiences today to be educated and aware. It is a stunning and unforgettable documentary, without any pomp or flash, just honest stories from women who could be your grandmothers.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Interview: Monia Chokri (Heartbeats)

Posted by Melissa Silvestri on Feb 26, 2011
Source: Exclusive

Heartbeats, directed by Xavier Dolan, is a romantic drama from Montreal that concerns the close-knit friendship of Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan), a straight woman and a gay man who create their own hipster enclave of Spanish-language pop songs and vintage 1960s bohemian flair. But when they both develop a crush on their mutual friend Nick (Niels Schneider), their competitiveness threatens to tear their friendship apart. The Cannes Un Certain Regard selected (here's our coverage of premiere night) film stands apart for its gorgeous slow-motion segments where music tells the story and the screen is filled with vibrant colors, a la Almodovar. The film has a marked influence of both Godard films starring Anna Karina as his hipster muse and Wong Kar-Wai films with Tony Leung mourning the loss of a lover, and is truly splendid yet opens up that uncomfortable feeling of when one has projected their own fantasies onto a crush then faces reality. Released by IFC Films theatrically yesterday in New York and March 4th in Los Angeles, I did a phoner interview with the French Canadian actress who is now preparing for Dolan's third film.

Melissa Silvestri: How did you and Xavier meet?
Monia Chokri: We met a few years ago by a common friend. The guy plays his boyfriend in I Killed My Mother, his first feature. His name is Francois Arnaud, who is an actor who is very talented.

Silvestri: What attracted you to this script?
Chokri: Well, it was not about attraction. I was at the beginning of the process, so I knew where I was going with it. And also, to work with my two good friends, Xavier and Niels [Schneider], so the basis of the project was working together, editing the script, and filming. It was a really interesting way of seeing love, or our idea of love.

Silvestri: The film has been compared to Truffaut's Jules et Jim, in terms of romantic love triangles between friends and having a mutual crush. Would you agree or disagree?
Chokri: Yes, I really love that movie, actually. It’s a movie that you see when you’re 17 years old, and it’s a normal way of seeing typical Francophone culture.

Monia Chokri Interview

Silvestri: It had a way when watching that film that it felt very modern and fresh, not dated at all. I really enjoyed how in Heartbeats, the slow-motion musical moments were like music videos, and really brought a slow beauty to the film.
Chokri: We didn’t think of a music video when we were shooting the slow-motion musical segments. But we’ve grown up with videos, we’ve probably seen more videos. It’s something to see and affix to. For us, in my generation, it’s a way to think of editing in cinema right now. It’s such a natural way to film. So it’s a less stressing art for me, and it’s a big part of our narration, and a lot of great directors came out of music videos. You can see really great short movies in music videos too. When you think of Fever Ray, a band whose music is in the film – a big important aesthetic is the music video. So I think it’s a way that we see cinema now. It’s not a thing that we do on purpose, thinking in the music video way.

Silvestri: It was beautiful to watch, it expanded the film into a piece of art, between the first-person interviews about peoples’ failed relationships and the relationship between Marie and Francis as they both care for one another and compete over Nick. The music moments brought something colorful about the film.
Chokri: Yes. I believe that when you’re in love, or when you think you’re in love, there is this way of having this floating moment. Everything seems more beautiful and colorful and in slow-motion. Because we’ve grown up with those images of love, because of cinema. And I think it’s really important when you’re young. Most of the people who buy CDs or buy music are people from age 18 to 25, so music is a big part of youth. And every moment in your life, you can relate music to, to a relationship. And you can create this universe of color and music, and it’s part of love, too, in a way.

Monia Chokri Interview

Silvestri: Was the character of Marie a collaborative process between you, Xavier, and the costume department, or was it singularly from Xavier’s script?
Chokri: It was in the script. I mean, with her dresses, Xavier really wanted something 1950s/1960s, because from that, he wanted to mix contemporary references. Because love has no age. Even as generations change, love is the same. It was a way to attribute to older generations who felt the same way about love. So it was in the script first, and then when we started with the dresses and everything, Marie appeared. I was thinking that if you dress like that, you have a way to see the world, and show yourself to people.

Silvestri: I’m reminded of the scene when Marie and Francis enter a party, dressed as James Dean and Audrey Hepburn, and the party is very much a contemporary scene, with House of Pain’s “Jump Around” playing, and they clearly stick out as vintage heads amongst the modern youth.
Chokri: I actually really love that scene, because we don’t see them a lot with people. We forget that they are really odd, or really awkward [laughs]. And when they enter that party, you realize that they’re really weird. I mean, they arrive with presents, even though it’s not the birthday of Nick. They are really like that, really weird.

Silvestri: There is this competitiveness over Nick between Marie and Francis, when they don’t really know him very well. Like in the scene when they’re talking about their presents for him, and one-upping each other. Why do you feel they become so competitive over him, and jeopardizing their friendship?
Chokri: It’s a game of the movie. And the thing is that there is no competition, because Nick is not into either of them.

Silvestri: Yes, because in the end, he has completely different ideas about each of them than they had thought.
Chokri: Yes, of course. It’s the idea of the movie. It’s not about love, it’s about the idea that you have of someone, and the projection you can have on someone, and thinking that you’re in love with that kind of person.

Silvestri: Exactly, that kind of projection messes up one’s own view of a person. My last question is, what are you working on now?
Chokri: I’m starting my third movie with Xavier, Laurence Anyways. We are in preparation right now.

IFC Films releases Heartbeats in New York on the 25th of February and March 4th in Los Angeles

Monday, February 14, 2011

Interview: Iciar Bollain (Even the Rain)

Posted by Melissa Silvestri on Feb 14, 2011
Source: Exclusive

Actress and filmmaker Iciar Bollain has had a stellar career in her native Spain, directing powerful dramas such as Hi, are you alone? (1995) Flowers from Another World (1999), and her crowning opus, Te Doy Mis Ojos (2003), which won seven Goya awards including Best Picture.

She returns with Even the Rain, a drama about colonialism in both the past and present. Filmmakers (led by Gael Garcia Bernal and Luis Tosar) head with their crew to a small town in Bolivia to make a movie about the Spanish conquest of Americas. The indigenous townspeople are chosen as extras not only because they look right, but also because they can be used as cheap labor. While this unconscious brand of colonialism is taking place, protests based on the real-life Cochabamba protests in 2000, where the government privatized water, threaten to put the town and the filmmakers in serious danger, and the filmmakers question their own ethics of the story they’re trying to tell. The TIFF 2010 selected film is an emotionally wrought story with an uncomfortable truth, made the shortlist of this year’s Academy Awards as the Spanish entry for Best Foreign Language film, and was just nominated for a record 13 Goya awards. I spoke with Bollain in December.

Interview Iciar Bollain Even the Rain

Silvestri: How did you get the idea to blend the real-life Cochabamba protests with the story of the filmmaking crew?
Iciar Bollain: The idea comes from the script writer, Paul Laverty, who first wrote an entire period piece film. Then he decided to bring it to the present somehow, and update it, and he read about and researched this real struggle in Cochabamba in year 2000. To link such two distant events, he got the idea of a film crew, doing this period film in Cochabamba while the riots begun.

Silvestri: Sebastian (Bernal) maintains a sort of innocence as the director, believing that he is telling a great story, while his producer Costa (Tosar) has more of a cutthroat agenda. They both go through a deep evolution, learning more about humanity for Costa and reality for Sebastian. Tell me about those characters, and the character development that Paul Laverty, Bernal, and Tosar went through.
Bollain: I guess there is a cross journey, Costa goes in a direction and Sebastian in the opposite one. I found that very attractive about the script, the "moral" journeys of both and thought that was the spine that hold together those three stories the film unfold. I talked about it a lot with Tosar, because is his journey that actually carries us along the film, and we try to find the moments in which he does the changes, little moment of reflection, a look here, a silence there. With Bernal was finding the dramatic moments, like when he breaks down or making the decision of betraying Daniel. Spotting those actors the moments in which that journey was told and stress them.

Silvestri: Carlos Aduviri was very memorable as Daniel, a man who was a warrior in both the film within a film and the protests. Given that he only has two screen credits, I was wondering if he was a professional actor or found at an open call? He was found in an open call.
Bollain: There are not that many actors in Bolivia, and we couldn't find any with his profile, so we went on an open casting door by door... It was a long process, that took several months till finally Carlos happened to come. He did a number of auditions and we thought, as Gael in the film, he had an amazing face and presence. Working with him was basically helping him to go through the scenes, the lines, to communicate the character as written.

Interview Iciar Bollain Even the Rain

Silvestri: You had worked with Luis Tosar on your film Take My Eyes. He is probably Spain's most accomplished yet unknown actor. How did you perceive him prior to your first film with him, and has that perception changed?
Bollain: I met him even before Take My Eyes, he did his first film with me Flowers from Another World. He had just done television and it was his first film and he was already very deep, very profound and very true in his performance. Since then I have seen him gaining confidence and experience but never losing his truthfulness. I really believe Luis is the most extraordinary actor.

Silvestri: What was the financing like for this film? How were you able to get support to make the film?
Bollain: It was quite hard to find the finance. The budget is a bit bigger than what you can get within Spain, so producer Juan Gordon had to find it abroad, which with a Spanish-language film is never easy... I think the film looks more expensive than it really is!

Silvestri: Even the Rain had made the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Not only is that a great accolade in addition to Te Doy Mis Ojos' seven Goya awards, but you are noted as the first female Spanish film director to be submitted in that category. Is it notable for you, or do you prefer not to be singled out as a woman?
Bollain: I'm always happy to see a woman breaking through since there is so few of us directing. I would really would like to see the day in which it is not an exception or a first time anymore, I would like to see many more films directed, written and produced by women. I think film talks about how life is and how we see it, so it makes all the sense to have every version of it, not just half of it!

Silvestri: What are you working on next?
Bollain: I'm about to do a film in Nepal, about a Spanish teacher [Vicky Sherpa] who went over in the early nineties and tried to teach there and create her own community project. It is inspired by a real woman.

Vitagraph Films releases Even the Rain in theatres this Friday.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Claude Bessy, Lignes d’Une Vie (Traces of a Life)

Posted by Melissa Silvestri on Feb 09, 2011
Source: Festival Coverage

This year marked the 39th anniversary of the Dance on Camera Film Festival, held in New York City's The Film Society of Lincoln Center with events spread out a little bit everywhere in the city.

Claude Bessy is considered one of France’s greatest ballerinas of the 20th century. With Bardot-like features and impossibly long legs, she brought a combination of sensuality and womanliness to the often strict world of classical ballet. But what made her an innovative artist was that she did not rest on her laurels with the Paris Opera Ballet, and expanded her repertoire, performing jazz pieces with Gene Kelly and experimenting in modern dance. She knew that versatility was of the utmost importance to a dancer, and in Claude Bessy, Lignes d’Une Vie (Traces of a Life), directed by dancer and choreographer Fabrice Herrault, her remarkable life from training as a child in ballet schools to mentoring future artists as director of the school is captured in beautiful archival footage.

Bessy, during the tumultuous years of WWII, studied diligently in the Paris Opera Ballet’s school, pushing her body and focus to one day became a danseuse etoile (prima ballerina). Ballet was all about perfection and repetition, yet she wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. Bessy got her wish in 1956, when she was promoted to danseuse etoile after years in the company in the corps de ballet. She carried within herself a vibrant sensual grace, not so much a cold removed quality that can be found with many a ballerina. Besides her central work with the Paris Opera Ballet, she danced with the American Ballet Company as a guest performer, and developed a friendship with Gene Kelly, who was eager to introduce his Hollywood audience to the greatest ballet dancers around, featuring her in his 1956 film Invitation to a Dance. Their jazz duets were smolderingly cool, just hinting at a deep intimacy (albeit platonic) between the two artists.

Even when Bessy was sidelined by a serious car accident that fractured her leg, she was able to heal miraculously and return to the stage in eight months in a triumphant return in Ravel’s Bolero, dancing opposite her partner Maurice Bejart.

Bessy danced with the ballet until 1972, before she became ballet master and head of the Paris Opera Ballet School, nurturing such ballet stars of tomorrow as Sylvia Guillem and Laurent Hilaire. Her teaching was strict with the children, to prepare them for adult careers, yet encouraged them to pursue jazz and modern dance, to expand their repertoire and become versatile artists. Bessy retired from the school in 2004.

The film is a gorgeous celebration of a truly one-of-a-kind artist, and Bessy, interviewed amongst her old haunts in the studio and theater, lovingly reminisces about the joys she had being a dancer. As an elderly woman, she still shines with a beautiful youthful glow and a delightful sense of humor.

Included with the screening of Claude Bessy, Lignes d’Une Vie at the Dance on Camera film festival is an excerpt of a film by Nicholas Ribowski entitled Les reflets de la danse (Reflections of the Dance) from 1979, where students in the Paris Opera Ballet School, including Guillem, Hilaire, and Elisabeth Maurin, practice with militaristic-like repetition at the barre, moving in perfect unison. The film is all in French with no subtitles, but it is not necessary, as the majority of the French is ballet instructions, with voiceovers from the children expressing their dreams for a future in ballet. It is the kind of hard work that children go through in order to be the best in their craft, and is truly admirable to watch.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

2011 The Cinema Eye Honors: Gift Shop and Last Train Home Win Big

Posted by Melissa Silvestri on Jan 19, 2011
Source: -

It was a wonderful night celebrating documentary filmmaking at the fourth annual Cinema Eye Honors, held in the beautifully renovated Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, N.Y. on January 18th. Hosted by filmmakers AJ Schnack (Kurt Cobain About a Son) and Esther Robinson (A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory), the nominees comprised of some of the best documentary films of 2010, truly a celebration of nonfiction filmmaking rather than a competition. David Schwartz, the chief curator of the Museum, relayed the thoughts of many filmgoers who say that “the best films at festivals are the documentaries.”

The night kicked off with musical accompaniment by the Quavers and an excerpt of Utopia in Four Movements, performed by Sam Green. His excerpt was at both funny and poignant, touching upon a mix of history and comedy, segueing between 1960s ideas of the future world to stark photographs of Cambodian prisoners before they were executed by the Khmer Rouge. While that sounds dark, it was more about the power of documenting the real yet uncomfortable pieces of life.

Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home was the major winner of the night, taking home three awards for Production, Cinematography, and International Film, sharing the award with co-producers Mila Aung-Thwin and Daniel Cross. Last Train Home is a remarkable debut about the life of migrant workers in China trying to get an elusive train ticket to visit family during the New Year.

Exit Through the Gift Shop took the top award for Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking, as well as winning for Outstanding Achievement in Editing. Unsurprisingly, director Banksy was not there to accept his award. Schnack joked about the controversy surrounding the film, as to whether it is fictional or truth, alluding to the film before playfully pointing fingers at Laura Poitras’ The Oath, which ended up winning for Outstanding Achievement in Direction. For Outstanding Achievement in Debut Feature, Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol, about a man who recreates a WWII-era miniature town to cope with a life-changing accident, won the award to much applause.

Other winners included Juan Cardarelli and Alex Tyson for their graphic design and animation in Gasland; Norbert Moslang’s music score for The Sound of Insects – Record of a Mummy; the inaugural Heterodox Award, sponsored by Filmmaker Magazine, which celebrates artists who blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, went to Matt Porterfield for Putty Hill; the Spotlight Award went to Andrei Ujica for The Autobiography of Nicholas Ceausescu; Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking went to Vance Malone for The Poodle Trainer; and Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg won the Audience Choice Prize for Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

The presenters included James Marsh (Man on Wire), Louie Psihoyos (The Cove), actor/filmmaker Harry Shearer, They Might Be Giants musician John Flansburgh, and Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths).

The night held two loving tributes for two filmmakers who passed away this last year. Morgan Spurlock spoke warmly of director George Hickenlooper, who directed Mayor of the Sunset Strip and Hearts of Darkness and was greatly funny and modest about his own talents as a pioneering filmmaker, speaking that he made films for the story, not the money. And editor Karen Schmeer was given a special tribute by her friends, filmmakers Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World), Greg Barker (Sergio), and Lucia Small (My Father, the Genius), who truly brought her quiet yet headstrong personality to life onstage, speaking on how she completely immersed herself into editing, would identify so strongly with the subjects that she would adapt their personalities to the film, and yet maintained a lot of friendships by multitasking between emailing friends while editing films.

The Legacy Award was awarded to the Maysles brothers for their decades of excellent documentary filmmaking, especially highlighting Salesman and Grey Gardens. Their work exemplified true honesty and a deep respect for their subjects, celebrating the Beale family as unique and wonderful women in Grey Gardens. Albert Maysles, accompanied by his co-director Muffie Meyer, quoted Alfred Hitchcock in saying “In a non-fiction film, God is the director.” The award was presented to them by Lixin Fan, Jeff Malmberg, and Laura Poitras, all whom were deeply honored and touched to be celebrating these filmmakers.

The Cinema Eye Honors was a wonderful celebration of the best in documentary filmmaking, where the audience felt like they had all contributed, whether as filmmakers, press, or filmgoers. It truly felt like a big family there at the Museum of the Moving Image.