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Desires of the Flesh is one of the most magnetic shorts I’ve seen in 2019. It effortlessly pulls the viewer into the world of queer adolescence and the unwieldy nature of desire by telling a story about two teenage girls with a strong attraction to each other. That attraction is complicated by an equally strong repulsion stemming from their Christian guilt, and further challenged by the normal turbulence of adolescence.
Set in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, and written and directed by Rafaela Camelo, the inspiration for Desires of the Flesh came in 2016 when Pope Francis allowed women to take part in the washing of the feet ceremony. Despite being influenced by Catholic mythology and Biblical stories, its symbolism evokes a modern quirkiness through the awkward beauty of youthful attraction and relentless obsession. The blood that represents life itself, the body of Christ, and the holy water, among other metaphors in the film, create a visceral, unsettling experience for viewers.
Although I wasn’t raised religious and or in the Catholic community, I still related to the story because, like the main characters, I grew up in Latin America and I am queer. I understand how important it is for other Latinos to hold on to their beliefs and religious values, in spite of their inner conflict about them.
Because I connected with Desires of the Flesh so strongly, I felt inspired to talk to Rafaela about how she managed to shoot this queer film in a Catholic church, about some of her behind-the-scenes decisions, and about how she packed all of the symbolism into her uniquely Latin American story, which plays in July at OutFest in Los Angeles.
The poster for Desires of the Flesh
Kaina Dominguez: The the film’s symbolism caught my eye—the water, the blood, the wound, the food…what does this mean to you? What did you want it to say?
Rafaela Camelo: All these symbolisms, water, blood, food – all of them came from Catholic mythology. They are symbols that allow me to reflect on the stories in the Bible. The blood is related to life. The Sacramental Bread is the body of Christ itself. This adds layers to the film, that is the matter of this passion. This passion is conflicting because you either don’t know if you are in love with someone or if you want to be this someone. There is the moment during the film when she puts blood in her mouth that kind of represents stealing someone else’s personality, having this person inside you.
KD: What about the dualities?
RC: In several moments during the film, I put Giovana in this status of sin and salvation. I always work on both sides of the spectrum. In this case, she is the attraction and the repulsion. The sin and the muse. The god and the demon. She is always on both sides. She is treated as a God, she is idolized by the Priest himself, by Camila, who stares at her as a muse, but she is also the devil when she is drowned when she spits. So there is this duality of attraction and repulsion and there are a lot of moments where I use it. Giovana is even resurrected during the film. So, there is a lot of representation, symbolism, and metaphor.
KD: Do you see a connection between youth and the desire to experience closeness through taste and smell? Do you think Camila’s sensory curiosity is related to her youth and inexperience?
RC: Yes, definitely. There is a connection between this thing that is primitive and sensorial about the desired of the food. Something that you taste in excess. The food matter comes because of it. Liking something a lot, and wanting it fast, in great quantity. This has to do with arriving at adulthood, experiencing things that you’ve never lived before. And all these feelings are something very tasteful to experience for the first time. So, the taste brings a metaphor along.
KD: How did you manage to shoot a lesbian film in a church?
RC: The church scene was definitely the most challenging. There was this challenge to get permission from the church to shoot a film that brings these themes along and, in fact, the Catholic Church is really against this kind of theme. Most of the churches do not allow any kind of shooting. So, for sure, we went to at least 20 churches, we went to a lot of places. The church where we shot was the only one that gave us permission and I’m not even sure if they asked anything about the story. They actually did not want to know much. Our intention was not to offend or generate a situation that would be uncomfortable for them. But at the same time, we needed to shoot the film. So, maybe being completely honest about the story would be putting the whole production of the film at risk, so it was a dilemma.
The scenes we shot there, we tried to do with the most discretion, and it was really hard to do. We have a dance in the film that we had to explain to the extras who were also people from the community. So we asked them if they had seen Whoopi Goldberg’s film, Sister Act, in which she sings and dances in the church. So, we told them that we wanted to do something like that. It was an easy way to explain to them without turning it into something uncomfortable.
KD: I found the dance scene in the church to serve as a really interesting midpoint in the film—did you view this scene as a turning point for the main characters?
RC: The church entrance and the dance inside the church is a turning point. It’s the moment when the film brings something weird, something away from the reality that maybe is the clue for you to doubt what’s going on. It’s Camila’s peak in which she feels Giovana is answering to her. So, to me, there is a lot of symbolism, very clear: the woman inside the Catholic church, always representing sin, someone avoidable, someone terrifying, someone who represents the evil. It’s a moment in which Camila and the other girls are together, holding an apple, representing the role of a sinful woman with a “deal with it” attitude.
KD: Camila and Giovana’s performances in the film are showstopping. Where did you find them? Did they act before or was this their first project?
RC: The two main actresses are grad students in Performing Arts at the University of Brasília. Although they seem to be much younger, one is 19 and the other is 20-years-old. They were chosen in an open casting process.
KD: How did you take the characters’ intentionality into consideration while making the film?
RC: This was a script that went through lots and lots of treatments. It was a transformation process, finding the story itself and most of these changes happened after the casting. I had this idea of two girls representing two opposites but the way it would happen relied on the actresses themselves, their bodies, their inner characteristics. I tried in casting the coupling process. When I was choosing the actresses, I always had the girls in pairs to check how they would work out. As the script has so many blanks, I think some of them were filled by what you imply in the situations.
The girls brought themselves to it. Bianca brought some sort of innocence. She gives either a passive look and a psychotic look, and she showed that in the casting. Pamela is a very beautiful sensual girl. All of this affected the characters after the actresses were selected. It was not something that was necessarily planned. The script is not based on actions but on an interpretation of what you have in the scenes; not only what is being shown but wondering what is not. Imagining the blanks. So, all of these things we were filling during the rehearsals only made complete sense during the editing. So, I made some discoveries while editing.
Director Rafaela Camelo
KD: Are you working on any new projects?
RC: Now I’m working on a full-length script. In Brazil, I’m graduating in scriptwriting and I’m due in October to handle this script. This new story brings also some things that I worked before in the short film. The matters of religiosity, coming-of-age, and the mix of genres as melodrama, horror, terror, and suspense. This new project also presents a teenager girl as a protagonist but it is set in a family who are from the Jehovah’s Witnesses church. The story begins at the moment the girl just got a heart transplant. The organ transplants and blood transfusions are a very strong taboo among the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As they allowed the daughter to get the transplant, the family chose their kid instead of the church. But that brought a curse to the family. They were completely isolated by the community and the girl starts to show some problems of changing personalities. This comes from research that I did in which both science and the Church describe that from the moment you do a heart transplant you assume the risk to embody the personality of the donor. This is described in science as it is in the religion. I think the theme is very interesting and instigated me to write the story.
For more information about the film check out its trailer and to learn more about Rafaela read this Sundance profile on her.
You’ll be conscious from its opening seconds that the preeminent novelist Toni Morrison—unlike all the other distinguished writers, poets, editors and academics gathered for this stirring literary biography—is staring directly at you when she speaks. Just as in the still above.
And she speaks a lot—probably more than any other subject of a feature-length biopic since 2015, when Brian De Palma conducted a sit-down 150-minute master class (titled De Palma) on how the Hollywood system bent but hasn’t broken him through decades of creating shivery scare pieces.
Morrison offers eye-to-eye contact in all of her sit-down scenes newly created for this documentary. It’s a natural choice for director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who’s both an acclaimed portrait photographer as well as a skilled documentarian. It’s especially striking upfront, as she makes clear how she eliminated the ‘white gaze’ from her writing—the tendency of African-American storytellers to assume their readership would be primarily white people. She first explained it in a 2009 interview in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine:
“From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean. No African-American writer had ever done what I did—none of the writers I knew, even the ones I admired—which was to write without the white gaze. This was brand new space, and once I got there, it was like the whole world opened up, and I was never going to give that up.”
Morrison wants you to know she originated this “brand new space” with confidence and pride. Her manner most often is infectious, disarming, mischievous, instantly appealing. She has a big, hearty, approving, empathetic laugh. It’s a piece of oral emphasis she adds to dozens of observations. The more Morrison describes pieces of her life at age 88, the more you want to hear. “I like her,” she’s said of her own on-camera scenes directed by Greenfield-Sanders.
Right from the start of her 11 novels, beginning in 1970 and extending through 2015, Morrison began removing the white gaze from her approach. “It’s what Jimmy Baldwin called ‘the little white man that sits on your shoulder’” she tells us, and she flipped him off her shoulder nearly half a century ago.
Ten of Morrison’s novels
Morrison has drilled down into the lives of black women over four centuries— a child raped by her father; a woman who sleeps with her best friend’s husband; women enduring conventional lives in Michigan and Virginia communities; a cook and butler, married, locked in pleasant servitude; a woman who kills her tiny daughter rather than see her slip into slavery; pre-Depression Harlem women carving out wild existences; an Oklahoma household of women caught in Civil Rights strife; a mother and daughter lost in an abandoned seaside hotel; farm orphans in the late 1600s; children on a brutal horse farm; sexual abuse in the lives of a young woman with pitch black (Morrison calls it “blue black”) skin and her lighter-skin mother.
Fearsome concepts. Fearless novels. Except for her exposition on Beloved, Morrison doesn’t do much explanation of her often harrowing plots. The director has assembled a wide, deep bench of literary lions to interpret and assess her artistry. The author’s main job is sharing and narrating the half century of her life before she became a full-time writer, which is a full-tilt documentary adventure in itself.
A reader by age three, Morrison (then Chloe Wofford) was raised in Loraine, Ohio. Her grandparents were Alabama sharecroppers who’d moved north from Birmingham as “white boys began circling” black children. Her mother was a domestic worker, her dad a welder.
“We were poor when poverty was not shameful,” she remembers. Drawn to the local library, Morrison was hired to catalogue books.
By the time she enrolled at Howard University, she’d changed her name to Toni because few folks could properly pronounce ‘Chloe.’ She majored in English but preferred the drama department because her English professor refused to let her write a paper on four black Shakespearean characters. She pledged a black sorority, not realizing she’d picked the one that preferred “lighter-skinned blacks.” After graduation, she took a master’s degree at Cornell, then returned to Howard and married an architectural major, divorcing him six years later and taking on the responsibility of raising their two sons.
Morrison responded to a mail order ad for an editor at the L.W. Singer textbook company in Syracuse, and got the job. She earned a raise, telling her male boss “I am head of household, just like you. When he said, ‘yes, but—‘ I repeated myself: ‘I am head of household…just…like…you.’”
Morrison as editor at Random House
Serendipity—Singer was acquired by Random House, and Morrison moved to Manhattan. She would eventually link up with Robert Gottlieb, who was building his career through Simon and Schuster into Random House’s premiere imprint, Alfred Knopf. (Gottlieb has edited all but one of her novels.)
Through Morrison’s nearly 20 years at Random House, she edited autobiographies by Angela Davis and Muhammed Ali, along with books by Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. One after another, her own novels starting with The Bluest Eye in ‘70 and Sula in ’73, began to appear. Author Paula Giddings, who was at Random House typing The Bluest Eye, was immediately struck with the alliances Morrison formed with black female authors, as well as the close friendships between women in her novels.
In ’74 Morrison completed assembling and published The Black Book, a sprawling cross between a scrapbook and a museum, what critic Hilton Als calls “a jumble of black American life” from slavery to modern times.” (“It was more like planting a crop than making a book,” Morrison has written, and it includes the history of an enslaved woman who killed her own daughter, later to become Morrison’s core concept of Beloved.)
Plus she was also raising her sons and commuting to Princeton University to teach literature and writing, where she’d tell students not to write about themselves (“you don’t know anything”), but instead to create a story about a Mexican girl who doesn’t speak English who works as a waitress in Houston.
How did she do it all? Morrison credits her family and relatives with a lot of loving help. For years she got up before dawn, and mornings are still her best writing hours. Angela Davis remembers her jotting constant notes when they were commuting to work together into Manhattan. Morrison’s primary residence today is a converted boathouse overlooking the Hudson River in Rockland County. She bakes a legendary carrot cake. Author Fran Lebowitz assures us she loves presents.
Morrison has won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award (for Song of Solomon) the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the American Book Award (for Beloved), the National Humanities Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (presented by President Obama), and the Nobel Prize for Literature (“they really know how to give a party in Stockholm.”).
Toni Morrison in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
These honors echo the accolades from colleagues and fellow writers. The late John Leonard, former editor of The New York Times Book Review, was the first cultural critic to recognize The Bluest Eye as “history, sociology, folklore, nightmare and music…her angry sadness overwhelms.” Novelist Russell Banks uses the metaphor of a pyramid of white male writers capped by Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, finally being toppled by Morrison. Walter Mosley (the Easy Rawlins creator) speaks of her work as Shakespearean in its drama and tragedy, “while staying reflective of everyday, pedestrian black lives.” Harvard professor David Carrasco says “she’s the Emancipation Proclamation of the English language.”
Some tributes are deeply personal. Poet Sonia Sanchez chokes up as she reflects on “a white light around Toni, that some people you know really are the blessed ones, that they are put here to make us review ourselves, so we can walk, finally, as human beings.” Oprah Winfrey recalls the line spoken by a character at the close of Song of Solomon, “And she was loved’—that’s the anthem for any life, Toni captured the essence of what it means to be alive, and to have done well here on earth…and we can say the same thing for her, ‘And she IS loved.”
Besides Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, two artisans working overtime fitting the pieces together are Johanna Giebelhaus and Kathryn Bostic. Editor, researcher and co-producer Giebelhaus has knit dozens of original black paintings into vivid, cinematically enriching vignettes. One example: Both Morrison and Columbia professor Farah Griffin make the point that black writers long felt themselves expected to write for white audiences. There’s a moment when Morrison is critical of Ralph Ellison’s monumental novel, Invisible Man. “Invisible? Invisible to who?” challenges Morrison, and the image Giebelhaus chooses as counterpoint is Kerry James Marshall’s “Past Life,” one of the most buoyant and alive paintings of black women, children and men enjoying a picnic, boating, water skiing and golfing in one glorious mosaic.
Bostic scored Clemency, already The Independent’s lead review in the 2019 New Directors/New Films fest. Here she’s building a tippy-toe bass line, moody motifs, aching laments—plus a final vocal/piano/keyboards Bostic original, High Above the Water, boasting the kind of gospel stride and soul windows that organist Shirley Scott once splashed around.
The combined power of Morrison’s career pieces makes you rethink the old Hollywood chestnut, “If you liked the book, you’ll love the movie.” Try this Summer-of-2019 variation: “Whether you’ve read all or none of Morrison’s books, you simply must meet the author.”
Watch for Brokaw’s reviews in The New York Film Festival, Sept. 27-Oct.13.
Carlito Leaves Forever; Quentin Lazzarotto; France/Peru; 2018; 8 min.
Carlito Leaves Forever
If you don’t instantly recognize the ‘supervisor’ of this splendid short, here’s a few choice snippets from his current Masterclass video pitch for what he calls his Rogue Film School:
“I’m talking to future filmmakers. I have come through all of this, I have learned it all on my own, and I know something I can pass on. …I don’t use a storyboard,
I think it’s an instrument of the cowards. …Hold the camera, look through the camera, don’t look at the flip screen. …Here is one book I would ask you to read (J.S. Baker’s ‘The Peregrine’) if you want to make films …You spend way too much time in the film school, it costs way too much money. You can learn the essentials of filmmaking on your own within two weeks. …Young filmmakers come excitedly to me and say ‘look! I just shot 450 hours of film!’ and my heart sinks. We are not garbage collectors. We are filmmakers. We are thieves who get away with loot from the most beautiful and the most scary and the most spectacular places you can ever find. …I’m Werner Herzog, and this is my master class.”
One of Herzog’s young alums, writer/producer/director/cinematographer/editor Lazzaarotto, was selected last year to join Herzog in the Amazonian jungle to create his unusual concept (only his second professional short film), under his teacher’s mentorship. Set in the traditional village of Palma Real, an Ese ‘Eja community of Peruvian natives, we follow the young Carlito (Carlito Tirira Meshi) as he packs a few belongings and bids his mother farewell. “You are very different. It is no place for people like you,” she tells him without a trace of emotion. Carlito steals a motorized boat and heads up river—but to where?
Lazzarotto’s subsequent reveal could have been shot anywhere, but its impact has a universality taking place in an indigenous jungle community not far from where Herzog shot his epic Fitzcarraldo in 1982. As a Herzog protege, the director executes simply and directly, confident his basic Big Idea will play even bigger in its remote setting. The best proof is that it made the cut as one of 63 Tribeca fest shorts out of 5,131 submissions.
The Neighbors’ Window; Marshall Curry; USA 2019; 20 min.
The Neighbors’ Window
O. Henry was among New Yorkers’ favorite storytellers at the beginning of the 20th century. His timeless tales of travail, many set in the struggles of working class couples and families, often had melancholy twist endings. The author called his audience “the four million,” and Manhattan was his “Baghdad on the Hudson.” There was a tiny smile embedded in the tears shed by readers at the conclusion of many an O. Henry tale.
If you toned down, cropped or more discreetly blocked the sex scenes that inform the early minutes of The Neighbor’s Window (inspired by Diane Weipert’s The Living Room), you’d have a classic, perfectly formed short that writer/director/co-producer Marshall Curry could have easily made in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s.
For audiences in 2019, the nightly antics and couplings of the newly installed couple across the street (played by Juliana Canfield and Bret Leda) are the perfect viewing device to snoop on. Hitchcock’s Rear Window established the premise in 1954, except what James Stewart was viewing through binoculars across an interior apartment building courtyard was Raymond Burr, who’d murdered his wife and buried her under the building’s courtyard plantings. (Not an O. Henry story, thank you, but another New Yorker, Cornell Woolrich).
Like many modern-day residents in urban high rises, the couple across the way in Marshall Curry’s short make love with the lights on, never pulling their shades, so initially they’re kind of fun for Alli (Maria Dizzia) to spy on. After all, she’s a tireless mom raising two small button-cute kids—she’s very pregnant with her third—and some of the fizz in her marriage to nice guy show-biz producer Jacob (Greg Keller) has started to fade.
Alli thinks the guy she’s watching is pretty hot. “Do you really think they’re getting off on this?” she asks Jacob. “I really don’t think they care,” answers Jacob good-naturedly, though he becomes less than thrilled when his wife starts spending her evenings glued to a set of binoculars.
Like Hitchcock, director Curry is more interested in studying the reactions of the spy (James Stewart and here Maria Drizzia) than in the activities they’re spying on. Alli’s a voyeur, but she’s also an intelligent mom inelegantly trapped in the cocoon of a marriage that’s already feeling slightly stale, even with its potential vacation in the Catskills. Greg Keller, who works at home “because the Skype signal’s better,” adroitly fulfills the thankless role of the guy she loves and married, maybe thinking this was the best she’d find. It’s a vintage O.Henry setup.
Seasons pass. Their third child arrives. Alli nurses her baby by moonlight, watching, watching. She and Jacob rarely go out as a couple, but that couple across the way keeps carrying on and hosting parties full of young, well-dressed millennials. Years pass. Alli and Jacob’s toddlers are suddenly little people who go off exploring the Museum of Natural History. But is this oddly absorbing movie ever going anywhere?
Then, gradually, it does…and it wouldn’t be even remotely fair to tell you what happens across the street, except events shift into a scenario you never, ever expected. There is a denouement, and then an epilogue, that are so O.Henry you will weep with gratitude. The Neighbors’ Window is easily the best narrative short shown at Tribeca 2019, and Marshall Curry—who received a third Oscar nomination in 2018 for his riveting 8-minute documentary, A Night At The Garden—maybe just needed to switch formats to win one.
The History of White People in America: These American Truths; Ed Bell, Clementine Briand, Pierce Freelon, Jon Halperin, Aaron Keane, Drew Takahashi; USA 2019; 4 min.
Last year’s Tribeca shorts introduced viewers to a nine minute “pilot episode” of a planned 15-episode animated racial history. The concept was demonstrating “how skin became color, color became race, race became power,” from the 17th through the 21st centuries. The six directors above have stayed the writers, art directors,animators, vocalists and co-producers.
This 5th episode, clocking in at a mere four minutes, earns its coveted spot in Tribeca’s 2019 fest by diving fearlessly into the hotly debated issue whether President Thomas Jefferson, following his wife’s death, took up with an African-American maid and domestic servant in Jefferson’s household (Sally Hemings), and fathered at least six children. Sally began giving birth at age 17, in the late 1700s through the early 1800s.
While Jefferson eventually freed all of Hemings’ children, he didn’t grant freedom to any other enslaved family unit. DNA links plus written and oral accounts indicate Jefferson may have fathered at least one (and possibly all) of these ‘love children,’ but other learned accounts maintain that Thomas and Sally had only a casual relationship, and that Randolph Jefferson, the president’s younger brother, was the more likely father.
Clementine Briand and her team take the position that Thomas Jefferson fathered all Sally’s children, who became the third enslaved generation born from African women and English men. The animators’ formal black-and-white etchings illustrate the first grown son, Eston, and his mother mourning Jefferson’s death in 1826, with Sally giving Eston a book by the president, Notes on a State of Virginia.
Jefferson writes that “the first difference which strikes us is a difference of color…the difference is fixed in nature.” He goes on to ask whether this difference is of no importance—“Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races…Are they not the expressions of every passion in the color white, (which are) preferable to the eternal monotony, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?”
Jefferson’s comparisons of blacks and whites get very specific and very nasty, and Briand’s drawings furrow with agitation, zig-zagging titles, darkening shadows. In imagination, writes the president, blacks are “dull,” “tasteless” and “anomalous,” and the titles zap the screen. They’re illustrating a racist screed that will conclude with Jefferson’s recommendation that all blacks should be relocated to the slave coast of Africa.
At which point Briand unleashes her full arsenal of graphic images, vividly bipacking side-by-side contrasts of suffrage platforms, blackface minstrel comics, 19th and 20th century lynchings, civil war and contemporary protests and standoffs, civil rights demonstrations and Ku Klux Klan parades, cities in flames, the carved-in-granite legend that “All Men Are Created Equal.” It’s a barrage of anger in visuals, narrative and song.
Sally concludes reading Jefferson’s lines, superimposed in white letters on a black screen. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” It’s repeated by her son. Your reviewer concluded last year’s critic’s choice recommend with the thought, “what a movie this is going to make.” That’s worth repeating this year: “What a movie this is going to make.”
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl); Carol Dysinger; UK 2019; 39 min.
Still from Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl)
Here’s a friendly tip to any filmmaker looking to get a short into a major festival worldwide: Try to get one—just one—recognized professional involved in your production. As you’ve read above, Quentin Lazzorotto lucked out by taking Werner Herzog’s Master Class and ending up having Herzog himself supervising his eight-minute Carlito Leaves Forever in the jungles of Peru.
It certainly didn’t hurt Laura Moss to have Broadway/movie veteran Amanda Plummer acting a backwoods waitress in her thriller short, Fry Day, two years ago at Tribeca. (Plummer’s back this year playing the bank-robbing Momster in Drew Denny’s impressive and memorably titled short film.)
At the 2017 New York Film Festival, Kevin Wilson, Jr.’s superb short film on the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, My Nephew Emmett, was mentored and supervised on its Mississippi field location by Wilson’s NYU professor and film teacher, Spike Lee. The short won an Oscar nomination. Jean de Meuron, a former student of this viewer at The New School, co-produced Timo von Gunten’s La Femme et le TGV, (The Railroad Lady), a touching, Oscar-nominated tale of a chance romance between a baker (Jane Birkin) and a passing train driver.
Having a real pro onboard will help ensure your film is better acted, better produced, or even has a better look. Exhibit A of the last quality is Carol Dysinger’s portrait of life in Kabul, Afghanistan, at the Skateistan Schoolhouse and Skatepark. Since its founding in 2008, Skateistan been entirely run by Afghans and has served over 4,000 girls and almost as many boys, supported by the international skateboarding community.
Dysinger’s cinematographer was Lisa Rinzler, who shot Hitchcock/Truffaut for Kent Jones, Don’t Blink – Robert Frank for Diane Israel, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan for Martin Scorsese. She’s a two-time Emmy Award winner (Soul of a Man) and nominee (Silence in the House of God), and was DP on Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, Trees Lounge, Pollack, and Three Seasons (1999), the latter being the first indie feature shot in Vietnam.
In Dysinger’s Kabul doc, from its first harrowing minutes in the capital city’s ruined streets, we sense we’re still in a vulnerable warzone. So do the eight- to 12-year-old girls filing into the school after being searched. They define “courage” as the sheer act of making it to school without incident. They’re from poor homes with strict and ultra conservative parents; most can’t read or write; and many spent their early childhoods selling chewing gum or tea in a Kabul bazaar. Yet they’re eager and ready to learn life skills, math, reading and writing the Persian language Dari…and, especially, how to skateboard.
One by one, the girls learn to stand, to push off, to turn their boards, to attempt an incline, to tik-tak (control the board), to skate the ramp. It’s an indoor, protected space away from street harassments, weekly explosions, even kidnappings which in Afghanistan dishonor the family. Everyone fears the possible return of the Taliban, though it formally fell 17 years ago.
Rinzler often shoots tight and the girls respond without hesitation or camera consciousness. They’re obviously comfortable with her. In this leisurely, smoothly fashioned documentary that could have been stretched to feature length but wisely stays at a trim 39 minutes, we watch a courageous band of females—patient teachers and unafraid girls—learning how to make a sentence the same day they learn how to make a heel flip on a board.
Watch for Brokaw’s reviews in The New York Film Festival, Sept. 28-October 14, 2019.
Gay Chorus Deep South; David Charles Rodriques; USA; 2019; 100 min.
Tim Seelig, center, leader and conductor of San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.
“There is a storm, and we have to learn to dance with the storm.” The storm here is not the tornado raging rampant through Southern states, but a resurgence of faith-based anti-LGBTQ laws. That’s why the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) did a Lavender Pen bus tour last year through five southern states, performing in churches as well as community centers and a few concert halls. Imagine—25 shows in Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama plus North and South Carolina. The SFGMC strategy is explained by its leader and conductor (whose father was a Southern Baptist minister and whose mother was a singer with Billy Graham), Dr. Tim Seelig: “Why are we singing religious music?” asks Seelig during a rehearsal of “Amazing Grace” in San Francisco. “Because in the South, you don’t make any kind of effective change without going to the church. For me, saying ‘I once was lost but now am found’ was the day that I came out. And the rest of my life has been about truth telling.”
Seelig is the complex, tenacious anchor of this exceptional feature doc debut by David Charles Rodriques. The chorus director is a quiet authority figure, the kind of man who listens more than he talks. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas, and has conducted at Carnegie Hall. His piano is surrounded by photos of “my favorite queens,” including Harvey Milk and Queen Elizabeth herself. Shepherding a bus tour into the Deep South, through his former social and professional milieus, is a role Seelig never imagined he’d play.
Director Rodriques pays significant attention to Seelig and two chorus members who’ve lived through terrible experiences in the South. The choir master tells a long, heartbreaking history of building a career as associate minister of music at a megachurch in Houston, as an outwardly straight married man and father who finally came out and was promptly fired—the church even financed litigation against him, making sure he’d lose his home after his wife moved away. Jimmy, a member of the chorus, speaks of his dad in Mississippi who told him at age 48 he wished his son had never been born. Another singer, Steve, tells of growing up in Birmingham where it was okay to be both homophobic and racist, and where his own late parents rejected him. For all three men, being gay was viewed as the ultimate betrayal.
These painfully articulated pasts never paralyze Rodriques’s doc, but they cast long, dark shadows. They also lend the film the possibilities of conflict and confrontations on the road. The director has nimbly mapped and edited the cinematic journey as a series of alternating pluses and minuses, wins and losses. Most instances involving a back-and-forth conversation—at a trans outreach seminar, in an alt-right radio station with a surprisingly sympathetic host, in a support group with a chorus member who’s transitioning, in a simple round circle of quilters—things move forward.
Jimmy reconciles successfully with his dad as well as other family members. An interfaith gospel choir from Oakland (representing 13 religions and with a membership that’s one-third LGBTQ) joins the tour and helps pave the way into churches that might have turned down an all-male chorus. A gay pastor—surprise!— thanks the bus riders for getting one parishioner who initially voted against his hiring, to give him a hug after the concert in their church.
But teenage Riley, who nervously hopes to get to a concert, reveals how her parents removed her from school to get her away from a trans teen she’d started to see. Another church with a minister Seelig says is both a homophobe and a bigot, refuses The SFGMC/Oakland offer to perform. Many churches in the Carolinas simply aren’t ready to welcome an interfaith choir flanked by 200 gay men. There’s one nasty warning by phone, and a few teens carry protest signs outside their church. “God is the Supreme Court,” reads an ominous parish sign off the interstate.
Gay Chorus Deep South inevitably will remind some viewers of this past year’s Oscar winner, Green Book. In that dramatic biopic, the African-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) tours his virtuoso classical and jazz talents through Southern states in the 1960s, encountering resistance and hostility almost everywhere off the concert stage.
In this documentary, Dr. Seelig is way beyond seeking a Southern veneer of hospitality and tolerance. He’s searching for real attitude shifts toward equal protection for the LGBTQ community, and he believes—ironically given his bitter experiences in the institutional church—it has to start with churchgoers.
An LGBTQ bus tour today is worlds apart from a drama of a 20th century black musician on a similar tour through Southern states. But director Rodriques is asking the same question Don Shirley was probably asking half a century ago: “If we open our ears, will our hearts follow?”
The Apollo; Roger Ross Williams; USA 2019; 98 min.
The Apollo theater on Harlem’s 125th Street
Harlem’s Apollo Theater and Tribeca’s annual film festivals have been uptown and downtown New York neighbors for 18 years. Part of the West 125th Street theater’s mission statement defines the Apollo as a “catalyst for new artists, audiences and creative workforce…envisioning a new American canon centered on contributions to the performing arts by artists of the African diaspora, in America and beyond.”
While Tribeca has added to its platforms over 18 years, embracing not just features but shorts, TV, online work, VR/AR and music, its mission continues the belief of co-founders Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro that “stories are the most effective tools we have to entertain, to educate, to inspire, to heal, and to bring us together.”
It’s been a long time coming, but Tribeca proudly opened its 18th fest April 24 with a full-tilt, exhaustively jam-packed documentary that in less than two hours captures the Apollo’s legendary past, vigorously celebrates its vibrant present, and—perhaps most urgently—hints at a relevant future bursting with new voices and expanded venues. Like Barry Jenkins’ rendering of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk which had its premiere at the Apollo during last October’s New York Film Festival, the April 24 premiere of The Apollo unreeled on the big screen right above the stage it applauds.
The Past.It’s easy to sense that director Roger Ross Williams, who’s already won one Oscar, is an appreciator and an enthusiast, as he methodically works his way forward from 1934, piling layer on layer of rich archival performances. Let’s see, there’s young, promising vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, comics like Moms Mabley and ‘Pigmeat’ Markham, dancers like Honi Coles and the Nicholas Brothers, orchestra leaders like Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, Amateur Night contestants like Lauryn Hill and James Brown, plus glimpses of and commentary by community and national leaders like Charles Rangel, Percy Sutton (who bought and renovated the Apollo), Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson, President Barack Obama.
Williams has the passion of a completist (this doc had six years of editorial research and whipsmart assembly) and he’s anxious not to forget any Apollo name of importance, so he keeps returning to roots, integrating more and more legendary entertainment clips into—
The Past and The Present. Amateur Night is America’s longest-running talent show on any stage. It’s an acute, no-nonsense demonstration of how Harlem audiences possess the sharpest elbows, the fastest thumbs-down, and the biggest welcoming hearts of any New York audience in the city, maybe in the world. While everyday contestants aren’t auditioning to do seven shows a day like their elders routinely endured, “Be Good or Be Gone” is still the M.O., and there’s a “resident executioner” whose job is sweeping bad talent off the stage. (Showtime at the Apollo was a 21-year television series, produced by Sutton, with 1,093 episodes.)
Director Williams has engaged the Apollo’s keenest and most knowledgeable observers of this never ending phenomenon: Apollo CEO Jonelle Procope, executive producer Kamillah Forbes, journalist and educator Herb Boyd, Apollo host and guide (for over a half century) Billy Mitchell, professor and musicologist Guthrie Ramsey, plus original owner Frank Schiffman’s financial ledgers and terse comments on his booking cards. All these pros provide invaluable insights into the place “where stars are born and legends are made.” This is the history on which is built—
The Future.Toni Morrison has written that “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin had died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” The voice and vision we’re drawn to most memorably throughout The Apollo documentary is neither an entertainer, an entrepreneur, nor an administrator. It belongs to author/journalist Coates, seen in rehearsal scenes as well as last year’s staged performance of his Between the World and Me. Written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Coates takes his title from Richard Wright’s poem of the same name, published in a 1935 magazine, and won the National Book Award in 2015. It’s a portrait of the intimidation, fear and violence that’s forever been wielded against black people.
Coates, who’s 44, grew up in Baltimore, the son of a Vietnam veteran and former Black Panther. He graduated from Howard University and has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. (He also appeared in Tribeca’s feature length doc on the Wu Tang Clan, Of Mics and Men, giving excellent perspective on how Wu Tang Clan members have transcended poverty and invisibility growing up in the projects of Staten Island and Brooklyn.) Coates tells his son he didn’t experience the revelations of supporting a black president, nor “social networks, omnipresent media, and black women everywhere in their natural hair.”
From Coates’ onscreen prominence, It’s possible to conjecture that Williams sees Coates as the lineal link between The Apollo’s past, present and future. That the author’s staged work might one day be joined by that of Toni Morrison as well as so many neglected and marginalized black writers besides Richard Wright—James Baldwin, Ann Petry, Chester Himes, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Iceberg Slim, Clarence Cooper. That when the historic Victoria theater almost next door to The Apollo is restored and redeveloped next year, this new Apollo Performing Arts Center will include 25,000 square feet enclosing two performance spaces with 99 and 199 seats. Either or both might be a performing space traditionally known in theater as a black box. The Apollo’s dream future is woven into The Apollo.
Georgetown; C.Waltz; USA 2019; 99 min.
The impostor movie has always been an entertaining genre, as far back as 1961 when Tony Curtis acted a real-life multi-faceted con man in The Great Impostor, ending up assuming the persona of the FBI agent who’d been assigned to track him down. Or as recently as last year, when Oscar-nominated Melissa McCarthy played a real-life failed author in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, who becomes a rare ephemera dealer by forging letters supposedly written by famed dead playwrights and authors. Plausible impostor movies can be irresistible to watch, because often, as above, they’re inspired by true events.
Just days ago, The New York Times reported that a beautiful but destitute Russian immigrant, “with aspirations of becoming a member of Manhattan’s upper society,” was found guilty of reinventing herself as a German heiress who swindled banks and bilked patrons out of millions. The Times story, headlined “The Trial of the Fake Heiress Who Snowed Manhattan,” also noted that Netflix has bought the rights to one version of her story, with the producer of Grey’s Anatomy onboard.
Another future entertainment Torn From Today’s Headlines.
In Christoph Waltz’s Georgetown (directed by Waltz under a teasing “C.Waltz” abbreviation), the actor plays a fictionalized version of the smooth-as-silk German con artist, Albrecht Muth, who successfully passed himself off as an Iraqi general who insinuated himself into the upper echelons of Washington D.C. society. Muth hobnobbed with defense secretary Robert McNamara, billionaire financier George Soros, even supreme court justice Antonin Scalia. He claimed to know Dick Cheney and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on a first-name basis, playing the host at intimate dinners where he personally cooked and served roasted duck in bitter orange with venison pate. The movie replicates all this in delicious detail.
Muth started out a penniless, Ponzi-style schemer with a fast, Teutonic wit and a photographic memory, courting and in 1990 marrying the journalist and socialite Viola Drath, 44 years his senior. (Drath is played byVanessa Regrave, who’s 82 and acts a 91-year-old with vibrant ferocity). Muth became her butler and consort, using her as a door opener into Washington high society, though he regarded her more as a door stop, and called her “madam.”
While they slept in separate beds, Viola was Albrecht’s willing facilitator, charmed and flattered by his blue-eyed attention. She gave him a $2,000 monthly allowance. It took her a long time to realize she was being used and even abused, though Viola’s daughter, Connie Drath Dwyer, an astute LA judge, immediately sensed her new stepfather was a total fraud but was powerless to help her mother. (Redgrave’s daughter is acted with chilly, biting precision by Annette Benning, who’s as persuasive in the drama’s key supporting role as anyone you’ll view this year.)
In August, 2011, Drath was found dead, beaten and strangled in the posh three-story Georgetown row house which she owned. Muth told police he believed his wife had been mistakenly killed by Iraqi assassins; his curt statement to police included “I have to take a slain wife out to Arlington, bury her, and then find her killer.”
Drath’s murder is Georgetown’s opening, and the movie is a series of cat-and-mouse whodunit flashbacks. Like the very best impostor movies, this is a quicksilver entertainment of mounting intrigue and tension, enriched with a literate and visceral screenplay by David Auburn (Broadway’s Proof), as well as a glossy, opulent production via producers who get that sumptuous, luxe settings are vitally important to the menace.
Georgetown is the odd duck movie in this Tribeca festival, because it feels wildly out of place with its Hollywood stars and the kind of budget Megan Ellison often writes checks for. Waltz as usual tries to dominate another movie, just as he ran rampant in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds. He’s barely in control again as he jackrabbits and motormouths his way through scenes with a slick, volcanic veneer that barely masks a gutter mouth and rageaholic temper.
Waltz could flatten and destroy lesser actresses than Redgrave and Benning, but both these powerhouses can equal and even best him, and C. Waltz, bless his crazy director’s heart, lets them. He even seems to encourage them. Redgrave’s fury at finding her husband at the Plaza Hotel in bed with another adult is something to behold. Ditto Benning’s merciless scorn and ramped-up horror of the man she believes may have killed her mother. Georgetown is quite the snazzy ride.
Other Music; Puloma Basu, Rob Hatch-Miller; USA 2019; 83 min.
A still from Other Music
Could all those people parading somberly through New York’s East Village be mistaken for a New Orleans funeral cortege? There’s a brass section of trumpets, trombones, saxophones up front, clearing the way, tooting a weirdly cacophonous version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
But this is a neighborhood of music loving New Yorkers, turning out on a June day in 2016 to mourn, of all things, the closing of a record store at 15 East 4th between Broadway and Lafayette. Other Music is a meticulously detailed, lovingly brushed-and-combed (and occasionally animated) history of that store’s 21-year run, zooming in on its last six weeks of operation. As a New York documentary, it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Bill Cunningham New York, Joe Papp in Five Acts, Miss Sharon Jones and Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes— authentic docs you crossed-your-fingers would get their beloved subjects right, and miraculously did.
Other Music (OM) was a no-nonsense, 750 square foot space that started as a pre-Internet source for 16,000 vinyl and CD titles you wouldn’t find in many shops—and especially not across the street at its massive competitor, Tower Records (which closed in 2006 with no parade). OM was a store “for people who still trusted the opinion of other people,” because they knew what they were talking about.
You could also read the staff’s opinions on handwritten note cards propped up next to favorites. Bands formed other bands which formed still other bands, thanks to being exposed to a vast panorama of Other Music’s indie rock, jazz, noise, experimental, funk, hip hop, electronica, roots, soul, dance, reggae, digital minimal and international pop (to name a few categories). What shoppers discovered, every time they walked in, were shelves of artisans who made music that was truly surprising.
Chris Vanderloo and Josh Madell, along with Jeff Gibson, seeded Other Music while working at Kim’s Video Underground in the early 90s. Kim’s was a tightly curated collection of rare, experimental and bootlegged VHS movies. Chris and Jeff were the guerrilla record guys in the back room. They saw how the movie operation was infinitely more geared to downtown New Yorkers’ tastes than anything Blockbuster could imagine stocking. They also surely observed that some Kim’s staffers weren’t (to put it mildly) the most welcoming movie buffs. So when they decided to set up their own retail operation in ’95, they figured being across the street from Tower might be the perfect spot— with a passionate staff that could run rings around Tower employees.
Directors Basu and Hatch-Miller allot major screen time to OM’s incredibly knowledgeable and friendly workers—Jim, Pamela, Geoff, Gerald, Scott, Katie, Dave, Michael, JoAnn, Maris, Chris, Phil, Amanda, Jenny, Duane,Nicole, Daniel, Clay, Pamela, Tunde ,Karim, Lisa, Dan, Regina, Stephanie, Brendan, Karen, Josh’s wife Dawn, Chris’ wife Lydia, and more. This sounds like an impossible payroll to meet, but no one was getting rich, including the owners.
Like its founders, OM’s staff was heavy with full-spectrum music listeners who spent their nights covering the local music venues. Some were working musicians. Half the expert staff were women…something you rarely saw (or see today) in any record store. At Other Music, personal service was the magic elixir. Friendships with customers formed in the ’90s, years before friending was something you did on a device.
While there could be an elitist quality to the music—as there certainly was to the obscure movies at Kims Video— it rarely trickled down to the OM seller. One thing you feel strongly in this beautifully crafted doc is that seller and buyer were comfortable striking out together in uncharted waters. “Other Music symbolized something that I find important,” remarks Matt Berninger of The National: “If your bar on art is high, then your bar on kindness is high. When art and movies and TV get dumber, we all get dumber and meaner.”
The store became a tiny in-store performance space for artists like Revlon 9, Beans, Vampire Weekend, Mogwai, Yo La Tengo. St. Vincent, Lee Renaldo, Gary Wilson. It launched a mail order website in 1998 and an online MP3 store in 2007. Other Music provided the first distribution outlet for dozens of New York composers, songwriters and bands who’d burn their own CDs and bring them in on consignment. Getting your own name card in an OM bin was, for many who make music, a recognition of the highest order.
OM’s best year was 2000, and 2001 was on target to beat that—then 9/11 struck the city and its downtown neighborhoods. It was the beginning of the end for many, many mom-and-pop walk-in businesses. (Composer William Basinski, a good friend of the store who’d worked with Antony and the Johnsons, created “The Disintegration Loops” with a slowly dissolving analogue spool that paid a respectful, ever changing elegy to the tragedy and its after-effects.)
While Other Music didn’t encounter a calamitous rent hike, the growing dominance of the Internet in the first decade cut deeply into CD and vinyl sales. A lot of music lovers quickly grew accustomed to not paying for music. In 2003 we learn the store didn’t make any money. “Conversations online began to replace conversations in the store,” recalls Nicole. Ironically, when Tower Records packed it in, a fair amount of foot traffic drawn to the block also disappeared. The East Village was no longer the hub of the music scene—it was, summarizes Josh, “disconnected from it.” The combined losses weren’t sustainable.
The last two days, with its “everything must go” signs and customers lining up—finally—to haul home bargains, is filled with a soft vulnerability and tearful hugs. The filmmakers stay close in, but somehow maintain a respectful distance. Emptied out, OM becomes another “Space To Let.” New York City will forever go on reinventing itself, and its music, but Other Music had an unforgettably innovative run for over two decades. In this town, that ain’t bad.
Watch for Brokaw’s reviews in The New York Film Festival, Sept. 28-October 14, 2019.
The Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF), the festival that boasts “Cutting-edge films—and films with a cutting edge,” celebrated 21 years this year, by continuing its rich tradition of delivering the some of the most unique underground films from all over the world to Boston cinephiles.
Taking place over five jam-packed days at the Brattle Theatre from March 20-24, BUFF once again assembled a diverse lineup of genre-spanning narrative and documentary films, many of which this critic was fortunate enough to consume. The following collection of reviews is a smattering of some of the best new release films screened at the festival.
Hail Satan?; Penny Lane; USA, 2019; 95 min
Hail Satan? isn’t just a goofy title meant to evoke the comic uncertainty of someone flummoxed like Ron Burgundy; it’s an actual question that Penny Lane’s uproarious and informative documentary asks and answers. Lane’s question isn’t whether to worship Satan, but whether we should support The Satanic Temple in their fight for religious freedom in the United States. Her reply is a resounding, “Yes!” Through hilarious interviews, Lane’s zippy film deftly traces the origins of this modern organization by laying the historical groundwork for its formation, mainly as a counterpoint to an unconstitutional government preference for Christianity that has gained momentum over the past 70 years in the U.S. As she explains, The Satanic Temple, based in Salem Massachusetts and helmed by its delightfully mischievous founder Lucien Greaves, doesn’t preach worshipping Satan and they don’t advocate for violence, death, chaos, or destruction. For them Satan is a symbol of rebellion against authority and an icon “who questions sacred laws and rejects all tyrannical impositions.” Guided by a set of seven brilliant tenets, they exist to troll the status quo by fighting for secularism and pluralism, but also to provide a place of belonging for outcasts who feel unaccepted by mainstream society and reject traditional religion. What emerges from Lane’s film is a compelling portrait of an activist organization with a wicked sense of humor and diverse membership (like the “zesty” bow-tie-and-suit-wearing Southerner) engaged in a noble legal battle against authority for liberty and justice for us all. Hail Satan? Yes, please!
Tone-Deaf; Richard Bates Jr.; USA, 2019; 95 min
Amanda Crew fights for her life in Tone-Deaf.
Richard Bates Jr.’s Tone-Deaf had the most clever title at BUFF this year. Its entertaining double entendre is both a reference to its protagonist’s poor musical skills and its villain’s unawareness of his outdated political views. In this comedic horror thriller, Olive (Amanda Crew of Silicon Valley) is a struggling Millennial who attempts to clear her head by renting a house in the country owned by Baby Boomer Harvey (Robert Patrick). Their generational labels are key to the equation because they help frame both the moral and physical battle that ensues after Harvey is “triggered” by Olive and decides to kill her. Richard Bates Jr.’s use of their fight as a metaphor for the ethical and political war occurring between Millennials and Boomers in the U.S. is whip smart, and his ability to mine this conflict for comedy is impressive. Not only is the picture tense and freaky with some drawn-out maneuvers by Harvey that pay off in unexpected ways, but it’s comically crass too. Amanda Crew is fantastic as the rebellious heroine, as is her commune-dwelling hippie mother played by Kim Delaney, although the film’s greatest strength is Robert Patrick, who inhabits Harvey with the greatest of gusto. Patrick has several scenes where his character breaks the fourth wall, speaking derisively to the Millennial audience in rants about the good-old-days, an approach which could have been disastrous in another actor’s hands. Instead Patrick nails those moments with his gravelly tirades, making Harvey the perfect villain. When all is said and done, it’s not surprising who emerges victorious in this throwdown between Olive and Harvey, however that doesn’t make the film’s resolution any less satisfying. Tone-Deaf’s ending is certainly anything but.
The Nightshifter; Dennison Ramalho; Brazil, 2018; 110 min
Daniel de Oliveira surveys a corpse in The Nightshifter.
If corpses could talk, what would they say? The answer is something that graveyard shift morgue attendant Stênio (Daniel de Oliveira) understands all too well in Dennison Ramalho’s horror film The Nightshifter. Stênio communicates with the dead while he cleans them, often informing them of their unfortunate demise, hearing their final confessions, and in rare cases, reaching out to their loved ones let them know what happened. Understandably, his job and its hours put a strain on his home life, but he reluctantly accepts his station—until a corpse lands on his table with key information about someone he loves. Desperate to make a change, Stênio selfishly uses this intelligence to his advantage, which unleashes violent hauntings upon his family. Prior to the hauntings themselves it’s important to mention that the special effects in the film are topnotch, particularly the unsettling animations used to make the corpses faces come alive as they talk to Stênio. The ensuing torment inflicted upon him for violating the dead’s trust is also supremely creepy and twisted with terrifying moments that effectively mine his job for scares. If the film has any flaw, it’s that its scary moments are too far apart, which accentuates the picture’s sleepy pacing and prevents it from establishing a compelling rhythm. When it arrives at its epic showdown, the conflict itself is engrossing down to the film’s final shot, however The Nightshifter would have been more lively if the whole thing demanded the viewer’s attention in the same way individual moments do.
Knife+Heart; Yann Gonzalez; France, 2018; 110 min
Vanessa Paradis surveys a nightclub in Knife+Heart.
For a Giallo-inspired Parisian horror film about a masked killer murdering male erotic film stars in 1970s, Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart is appropriately atmospheric. Gonzalez establishes the perfect slick ‘70s vibe through his use of lush color palettes and charged electronic music by his former band M83. The combination of these elements with hyper-stylized violence create an atmosphere so thick and rich, it could be cut with, well, a knife. The movie centers on Anne (Vanessa Paradis) a filmmaker and purveyor of blue films, whose actors start turning up dead. Part slasher, part murder mystery, and part tragic love story, Knife+Heart follows Anne’s desperate attempt to save her failing relationship with her editor Lois (Kate Moran) and her quest to find the killer before her friends end up dead. The film’s kills are entertainingly drawn out and memorable for their gruesome nature, but they also look incredible. What prevents the movie from being a total success however, is that the murders themselves are spaced too far apart, and the plot revolves too much around Anne’s somber solo trip to the French countryside to learn the killer’s identity. These issues throw off the film’s rhythm, preventing it from gaining the momentum necessary for its tense resolution inside—you guessed it—a movie theater. The finale itself worth the wait for its suitably violent conclusion, but the extended dream sequence that follows just feels superfluous. Knife+Heart is the kind of movie that doesn’t understand when to call it quits, which is unfortunate because it’s sharp and vital most its runtime.
Mope; Lucas Heyne; USA, 2019; 105 min
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett gives it his all in Mope.
Simply put, Mope is a disgusting film. Lucas Heyne’s narrative about the unbelievable true story of two men (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Kelly Sry), who were willing to do anything to make it in the porn industry, feels just as filthy to watch as it sounds; the kind of movie that leaves the viewer craving a shower afterward. What makes it so gross is that it’s true, which requires viewers to imagine real people living in the nasty conditions depicted in the film, subjecting themselves to the horrendous treatment they endured just for the misogynist glory of a career in porn. As repulsive as the subject matter is however, the story itself is bizarrely captivating. Part of that is due to the fact that the entire scenario seems so completely implausible, it keeps audiences glued to the screen just to see how it all gets resolved. Another part of that is driven by the can’t-look-away atmosphere that Heyne creates with his music selection and his sets. What really brings it all together though, is the absorbing performances of its leads—which shine a spotlight on the characters’ astounding delusions of grandeur and their inability to understand just how attainable their dreams are. Watching that realization come to a head is like bearing witness to one of the most harrowing slow motion train wrecks committed to celluloid, a train wreck so haunting and bloody viewers will feel dirty just by association.
Kanarie; Christiaan Olwagen; South Africa, 2018; 120 min
Schalk Bezuidenhout leads one of Kanarie‘s beautiful song and dance numbers.
Tone-Deaf may have had the most clever title at BUFF, but Christiaan Olwagen’s Kanarie certainly had the most unique premise: a coming-of-age war musical. Set in 1980s South Africa at the peak of the Apartheid regime, Olwagen’s moving film concentrates on Johan (Schalk Bezuidenhout), a young man from a small town who is conscripted to military service and joins the South African Defence Force Choir and Concert group known as the “Canaries.” Led by priests, this unit must straddle the impossible line between religious ambassador and ambassador for the military, as it travels around South Africa, performing during a border war. What makes this mission all the more complicated for Johan is that he is closeted, grappling with his sexuality, trying to reconcile it with his strict religious upbringing. As if his life wasn’t already a pressure cooker, he also falls in love with one of his fellow Canaries, who much to Johan’s dismay, doesn’t want to stay in the closet. This poignant Afrikaans and English drama is elevated by beautifully choreographed song and dance numbers that pay homage to ‘80s pop music with references to giants of the era like Michael Jackson, Prince, and David Bowie, but it also gives more personal nods to Johan’s favorite bands like Culture Club and Depeche Mode. Boy George in particular serves as Johan’s personal hero, a memorable ideal of what he wishes he could be and an example he hopes to emulate once he can free himself from the bonds of his situation. Kanarie’s emotionally moving and meaningful commentary on war, religion, and sexuality during the ‘80s becomes even more impactful due to some of the smart artistic choices Olwagen makes, such the effect of actors frozen in motion like they’re in still photos. This particular effect when used to demonstrate the terrors of war and racism sears the disturbing imagery into the viewer’s brain, creating a haunting slideshow of that keeps playing long after the Canaries have stopped singing.
If you like playing Ms. or Mr. First Nighter at the New York launch of filmmakers who’ll shape the future of cinema, ND/NF is your fest. Since 1972, first films and other early work by Pedro Almodovar, Sally Potter, Spike Lee, Kelly Reichardt, John Sayles, Chantal Akerman, Steven Spielberg, Marielle Heller, Todd Solondz, Charlotte Zwerin, Richard Linklater, Courtney Hunt, Wong Kar-Wai, Laura Poitras, Michael Haneke, Su Friedrich and Guillermo del Toro have been among choices that continue to unreel each spring on MoMA’s midtown screens as well as Lincoln Center cinemas on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Coming up are 35 features and shorts from 26 countries, nearly half directed or co-directed by women. Eleven are by first-time feature filmmakers. The diversity is staggering. Your critic hunkered down to view everything available before opening night, and here are five favorites. None of these directors are household names—yet:
Clemency; Chinonye Chukwu; USA, 2019; 113 min.
Two years ago, the New York Film Festival chose the first documentary in its 54-year history as its Opening Night, Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Her doc powered deep into the 13th amendment to the constitution (“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States”) and its effect on incarcerated black men.
Aldis Hodge in Clemency Photo: Shadow and Act
This year, the curators at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA have chosen Chinonye Chukwu’s chilling and often heartbreaking drama, Clemency, to launch the 48th edition of New Directors/New Films on March 27. It’s a movie that will open accompanied by its own real-life moment of clemency, an electrifying life-imitating-art-imitating-life decision by the governor of California that makes Clemency exactly the right movie at the right time.
The news was summarized in The New York Times lead editorial on March 14, headlined “A Pause for California’s Death Row”: “Gov. Gavin Newsom of California announced Wednesday that no executions will occur on his watch, granting temporary reprieves to all 737 inmates on the state’s death row. Mr. Newsom’s execute order also withdraws California’s lethal injection protocol, which has been mired in litigation for years. ‘I do not believe that a civilized society can claim to be a leader in the world as longs its government continues to sanction the premeditated and discriminatory execution of its people,’ Mr. Newsom said.”
In the fiery script written and directed by Chukwu, this is exactly the dilemma that’s wearing down Bernadine Williams, the warden in a maximum-security prison. She’s played by the familiar screen veteran Alfre Woodard with a mix of dignity and desperation that’s new and fresh on a motion picture screen. This is a black warden who’s witnessed a dozen deaths, mostly of black men, and the most recent execution that opens the movie seems to take forever (see photo above). The attending medic can’t find the right vein, and the anguished man begins bleeding to death.
Chukwu goes to considerable lengths showing how warden Williams’s emotional reserves are being shredded by events like this. Besieged by constant protesters whose outdoor chants she can hear at her office desk, she’s become stand-offish to the media. We observe the strains in her marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce, solid and empathetic), a college professor who shares passages from Ralph Ellison’s novel with his classes while privately lamenting “the empty shell” his wife is becoming in their marriage bed. Bernadine is drinking too much after work, both at home and in bars with her loyal assistant (Richard Gunn) who becomes her designated driver home. We’re caught in her slippery-slope nightmares in which she dreams she’s the one strapped down and awaiting a lethal injection.
Chinonye Chukwu, Director/Writer of Clemency
The warden’s strict attention to daily ritual and procedure is counterpointed by the shrinking life of convicted cop killer Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who’s been imprisoned through 15 years of appeals after an officer died trying to prevent a convenience store holdup. Woods admits involvement but denies he was the killer. His lawyer, Marty (Richard Schiff) is watching the clock tick down on unanswered pleas for clemency to the governor. This is Marty’s last case before retirement, and he’s all worn out by a justice system that’s awarded him too few victories.
As Woods maintains his innocence, the movie withholds recreating the holdup scene. Instead, director/writer Chukwu balances the cold fury of the slain officer’s mother (Vernee Watson, effective in a key role) who’s convinced Woods killed her son and is more than ready to watch him die, with a late-movie visit by Woods’ girlfriend (Danielle Brooks, equally effective) who’s always believed in his innocence. The warden’s job is carrying out a decision she had no part in rendering, as humanely as possible. She’s not judge or jury, but she’s the executioner. It’s a soul-crushing experience.
(The state in which Williams’ prison is located is not identified. Though it goes unspoken, it may dawn on you that unless the warden receives a last minute telephone call from the governor granting clemency, Woods will be the 13th prisoner to be executed on her watch.)
Alfre Woodard has been honing her craft since she stepped onto Joe Papp’s Public Theatre stage in 1977, in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. She’s piled up recognition, nominations and awards in Passion Fish, Down in the Delta, Miss Evers’ Boys, Steel Magnolias, The Practice, 12 Years A Slave, Crooklyn. At 66, Woodard can do anything, and one thing she does with supreme grace in Clemency is yield the screen to her volcanic young co-star, Aldis Hodge, whose work is acting the rage, fury, hope and exhaustion of a man sentenced to die for a crime he may not have committed.
Alfre Woodard and Chinonye Chukwu Photo: Paul Sarkis
Whether he’s aimlessly circling a patch of ground bouncing a basketball, or methodically battering his head over and over against a concrete wall until the guards come running, Hodge does the movie’s heavy lifting with a brio that may break you even further than the warden’s reigned-in suffering. Their scenes together have a quality that occasionally lifts this movie into places more often found on the indelible pages of Ralph Ellison, but maybe that’s just one viewer’s blurry tears. This is Academy-level work.
“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” is the last line of Ellison’s towering novel, Invisible Man.
One footnote about Chukwu worth thinking about when you see her distinguished drama: She’s the founder of a filmmaking collaborative called Pens to Pictures, that teaches and empowers incarcerated women to make their own short films. In under three years, five films have been made in partnership between women in Dayton Correctional Institution, and artist communities in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Clemency shows Wed. March 27 at 7:00pm and 7:30 pm at MoMA, and Thurs. March 28 at 8:00pm in the Walter Reade Theater.
Mexico Without Walls—The Rural Side, The Urban Side
Last fall, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma was instantly perceived by cineastes as a pioneering New York Film Festival selection—maybe the best in its 55 years of dramatizing the mutual interdependence of the rich and the poor. Roma is Cuaron’s partially autobiographical cine-memoir, inspired by his own professional family and its indigenous caregiver/housekeeper. Shot in a subdued wide screen black-and-white and set in a pre-Internet Mexico City, it was both epic in its dramatic sweep yet timeless in its poetic intensity. Ironically, its 65-mm panoramic splendor and intricate Dolby Atmos sound mixing is now being streamed to the world’s devices and ear pods. This undeniably lessens their Oscar-winning impact—it will never be an ideal airplane movie. But one in this festival is:
Fausto; Andrea Bussmann; Mexico/Canada; 2018, 70 min.
Read any good movies lately? The best reading in this fest is Ms. Bussmann’s 70-minute anthology of short stories. It would make the perfect reading if you’re flying, say, from New York to Washington D.C., because you wouldn’t want to look up from the subtitles, and even if you did, the visuals are rarely more than a framing device for the text.
Map of Oaxaca on Mexican coast (storytelling locales of Fausto)
Bussmann is a 39-year-old Canadian writer/producer/director/cinematographer/editor. She has two master’s degrees, one in social anthropology, the other in film production. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, who is Mexican, and when they vacationed on the coast of Oaxaca, she brought along a Sony A7 and an out-of-the-box concept: using Faustian mythology as a metaphor for folkloric Mexican tales. Everyone is a bite-sized, one- or two-minute gem, and here’s one example from what’s become her first feature film:
“Ziad works for Alberto translating documents. But now he is making a map for him. This has been a particularly difficult task, as the coastline is constantly shifting. While they won’t say what the map is for, I know they are looking for a shadow. A young Frenchman came to this place, and asked to stay in exchange for his labor. Intrigued by his charm and beauty, they accepted his offer with one condition, that he leave something behind for them. He agreed to leave them the only thing in his possession, his shadow. After several months he left them. …When the moon is bright, they look for his shadow.”
Digging a trench in push back the ocean in Fausto
The search for the shadow leads them to the various townspeople, among them a one-armed zookeeper. He only comes to town at night, explaining that he’s afraid of his shadow. The shadow of the zookeeper’s missing arm appears at random. Shadows, you see, are “uncontained memories.”
This tale starts another. All the zookeeper’s animals are blind. and only make noise at 4:00 am. They can sometimes be seen and heard on the beach, in a deserted place called The Enchanted House, which is cleaned regularly and where a gorilla was once seen banging on a bedroom window. As the animals are blind, there is no need for cages. They’re nonjudgmental, and pose no threat to local authorities.
What you’ve read above are stories segueing into stories. The reality today, the narrator insists, is different: soldiers patrol the beaches and jungles at night, looking for drug traffickers. They used to only kill animals when their safety was at risk. But soon they discovered rare specimens could bring top dollars on the black market. So, they kill animals and bring them to The Peruvian, who runs a silent zoo deep in the mountains. Silent zoos exist everywhere, even among stuffed animals, even in dioramas at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. And by petting or studying these animals, one can receive messages from the future. Blind animals are the most telepathic of all.
Andrea Bussmann, director of Fausto
This questionable narrator, as you suspect, may be yet another gentle weaver of stories. Along Bussman’s vacation beach, people like the zookeeper become stand-ins for Faust, for a devil “with dark eyes, a piercing gaze, a malicious smile.” The few people we actually see on the picture-postcard sands are either grizzled expats who look like they’ve wandered out of tropical novellas by Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham, or natives engaged in endlessly shoveling sand into makeshift dykes to push back the sea. But the ocean keeps flooding the dykes. Like the young Frenchman in the first fragment, the workers and other natives we’re shown are figures in a fluid narrative, sometimes posing as the devil’s victims. Like Faust, they’re “trying to unlock the keys to the universe and themselves.”
Bussman notes that when people vacation along Oaxaca, their computers often stop working. The power will be on, but the screen remains black. The sand, she explains, is full of iron, which is why the beach has a black tinge. The iron also produces “physical alterations” which she doesn’t elaborate on. Artificial lights are banned on the beach, because it’s believed lights confuse the turtles and prevent them from finding their way back to the sea. Are you taking notes on all this?
Heady stuff, the fabled rural side to a Mexico without walls. Fausto shows Sat. April 6 at 3:45pm at the Walter Reade Theater and Sun. April 7 at 1:00pm at MoMA.
Midnight Family; Luke Lorentzen; Mexico/USA; 2019, 81 min.
The urban side to a Mexico without walls is a documentary taking place in today’s Mexico City. It’s a reality check of the first order, for the local government operates fewer than 45 emergency ambulances to serve a population of nine million. Thus a loose system of private ambulances has taken over much of the city’s emergency healthcare.
Writer/director/cinematographer/editor Luke Lorentzen shows how a father/son paramedic team, Fer and Juan Ochoa, barely eek out a nighttime living hauling the city’s sick and injured to hospitals in their gleaming red MED CARE ambulance. The brains of this outfit appears to be 17-year-old Juan, who’s administering first aid to a gunshot victim. He’s enormously likable. It’s a startling reveal that will hook any big city dweller instantly.
Per, Joeuv and Juan Ochoa in Midnight Family
The Ochoa unit functions like a well-oiled machine. Radio dispatchers broadcast the location and code the emergency situation. Juan is the driver; Per is on a squawk box ordering taxis and busses to clear the way. (A younger son, 9-year-old Joeuv, whose job is cleaning and polishing the family ambulance, tries to stay strapped in back as the vehicle speeds and careens to its destination.) The city is vast and even at midnight many of its boulevards are filled with traffic.
Most city ambulances came off the assembly line in 2006 or before. Chances are the Ochoas will beat out a city ambulance to the victim. If the Ochoas make the pickup before their independent competitors, and if the victim has money to pay for the transport, Per and his family scrape by another day. This is largely a poor-serving-the-poor operation, and when Per tells Juan a victim had nothing to offer them but gratitude, both father and son understand.
An urgent transport is billed at 3800 pesos (around $200). Somehow the Ochoas go on paying for stretchers, medicine, bandages, splits, oxygen, saline solution, neck braces, uniforms, gas, oil, and the occasional bribe. (The mother, whose day job is not defined, doesn’t look thrilled with any of this.) We observe the ambulance running out of gasoline—it has to be pushed into a service station. The family has learned to skip a meal. The men sleep on the floor in a simple apartment.
Juan and Per in Midnight Family
Papers are demanded by the police, who frequently pull over and check paramedics for proper plates and “protocols.” Private ambulances can be impounded. We recognize Mexico City is stuck with another gummed-up administration. Instant decisions have to be made, sometimes with the victim’s consent, whether to drive to a government hospital or a private facility. Many citizens have no medical insurance. Often government hospital emergency entrances and waiting rooms are clogged and filled.
Per’s role here is to provide comfort to the victim. He’s very good with blankets and hugs. Per does all this knowing that a broke, stoned dad with an unconscious infant can’t be turned away, nor can a daughter who’s fallen four floors and is laying on the pavement with a critical head injury.
Lorentzen’s production is smart, sharp and assured. It’s an earnest, no-frills examination of an empty pockets occupation that seems both doomed and vitally necessary, sometimes in the same breath.
Midnight Family shows Thurs. April 4 at 8:30pm at MoMA and Fri. April 5 at 9:00pm at the Walter Reade Theater.
Two Turkish Delights
There was a time when finding one outstanding Turkish film in ND/NF would have been a true rarity. This year there are two—the best evidence, as with the two Mexican selections applauded above, that filmmaking is growing by leaps and bounds, worldwide. It helps that Manhattan and surrounding boroughs have well over 50 indie screens to showcase the surge. A continuing shout-out to Richard Pena, who spent a quarter century running NYFF and ND/NF festivals, digging out what was new and exciting in ancient spots like downtown Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
Honeyland; Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov; Turkey, 2019; 85 min.
In the opening seconds of this beguiling doc, a creased woman of 55, followed by the camera, makes her way slowly, cautiously, along the side of a sheer mountain outcrop. The wind is howling, the siren-y music is grating, where are we this time and what is this poor soul searching for? With calculating care, she removes a chunk of rock, exactly fitted to conceal wooden frames holding thousands of clinging bees, all calmly hovering. Her head covered, she scoops cones of bees into her basket and makes her way back down to her isolated stone-and-earth home in a valley. This is Hatidze Muratova, surely the one woman in a primitive landscape who’s making her living as a solo beekeeper.
Hatidze wails and chatters to the bees. She passes her hands through them. In her spartan home, she feeds and attends her mother who’s 85, blind in one eye, bedridden. Mom believes she is becoming a tree. She tells her daughter she’s not dying, just “living to make your life miserable.” Outside, Hatidze rescues more frames, coated with honey and layers of bees. Crooning away, she siphons off half the honey she’ll take to market and sell. The rest stays with the bees to insure their sustainable future.
Hatidze Muratova in Honeyland
On the bus heading to Skopje, the largest city in North Macedonia, we glimpse a teen, who neither she nor the filmmakers are paying any attention to, who’s sporting a mohawk. In the market, which is startlingly contemporary, Hatidze demands 16 euros for a jar “straight from the beehive, with honeycomb, pure and unsugared,” from the merchant, who is Bosnian/Albanian. She settles for 10 euros a jar. (At an outdoor flea market, she seems to do better.) Hatidze shrewdly barters her way along the stalls, picking out a chestnut hair color, (both mother and daughter color their hair), bananas, a peacock’s tail that’s been shaped into a fan to wave the flies away from mom.
One day a flatbed truck arrives and unloads a house trailer, tractor, husband, wife, chickens and unruly children galore. They grow corn and raise cattle who immediately roam into Hatidze’s outdoor honey land. Maybe this is how it works in rural Macedonia—migrating Turks move in and unload all they own, then throw up a tin roof shelter. Hatidze keeps a wary eye on these interlopers, though she makes friends with the children. But she makes a mistake in sharing her beekeeping and honey making secrets with the father, who obviously views his next-door neighbor as a bag of money. Urban as well as rural viewers worldwide will sigh, recognizing this cagey dad and his brood as the proverbial neighbors-from-hell.
Sure enough, Hatidze finds she’s inherited a second-class competitor and a first-class headache. The father’s in this for all the honey he can produce and sell. Even his children recognize their dad as a honey thief. The kids get stung repeatedly. The family sells too early in the season, causing combs to collapse. Finally fed up with her neighbors as the riffraff they are, Hatidze tells the father to pack up and get out. He responds by setting their surrounding grasses on fire.
Hatidze and mom in Honeyland
As documentarians, Kotavska and Stefanov realize they’ve stumbled on a doozy of an ethnographic set-to, and they let it play out. They’ve built a mini-classic of how territorial imperatives still exist in lands without borders or fences. Their first-rate production is steady and confident. Best of all, Hatidze and her mom, like the paramedics in Mexico City, are wily survivors with good hearts. They have the will to carry on with their labor and their honesty, and we never doubt they will.
Honeyland shows Wed. April 3 at 6:15pm at MoMA and Fri. April 5 at 6:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater.
Belonging; Burak Cevik; Turkey, 2019; 72 min.
If you’re watching two dozen movies, one after another, in an esoteric film festival, it’s easy to stumble and get..
The book Independent Female Filmmakers is available for order via Routledge and Amazon.
Michele Meek, editor of the just-released Independent Female Filmmakers: A Chronicle through Interviews, Profiles, and Manifestos (Routledge) sat down with Emily Watlington, a critic and curator who contributed a chapter on Ericka Beckman to the book. Independent Female Filmmakers recounts the legacy of 15 groundbreaking female filmmakers from Deepa Mehta to Cheryl Dunye to Martha Coolidge, while also highlighting the history of The Independent itself. Each chapter follows a then-and-now approach, with a filmmaker interview or manifesto originally published in The Independent, alongside a new filmmaker profile, interview, and/or manifesto.
On the occasion of the book’s release, Meek and Watlington discuss how gender affects what we value in film; the obstacles women filmmakers face; and the need for critics, curators, and teachers to turn to more eclectic bodies of work in order to include marginalized voices.
Emily Watlington: The book takes a then and now approach: you’re pairing historic interviews from The Independent Film & Video Monthly with new ones, and all of the filmmakers are born in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s [The Independent was founded in 1976]. Did any patterns stand out in this then and now comparison? To put it bluntly, are things getting better? It’s hard to feel like it given this year’s Oscar nominations…
Michele Meek: There was a widespread sentiment expressed by the women in the book that they really hoped things were getting better. Some of them expressed that in their early careers, they didn’t actually recognize some of the discrimination that they were facing. It was only later, on reflection, that they were surprised that they didn’t see it. Martha Coolidge has a quote at one point where she says, “it’s nice to know that I, too, lived in the illusion of ‘you can do anything you want.’” Lisa Cholodenko too talks about how earlier in her career she was put off by the question, “what’s it like to be a woman filmmaker?” because she felt that it was stigmatizing or limiting. She wanted to be a great filmmaker—why should it matter that she was a woman? But she says that now as we’ve started to talk more openly about harassment and discrimination, there’s more awareness around that question. It’s not just about why are you in this niche? It’s more about why have so many filmmakers been cast aside?
Watlington: That makes sense. Because when you see the pattern, you might think, oh maybe it is because I am a woman.
A still from Meek’s Instagram campaign for the book.
Meek: Right, and I think that becoming a filmmaker is a difficult career choice with so many obstacles anyway that a lot of the women filmmakers were not surprised to encounter obstacles. It seemed like, of course it’s hard to make a career as a filmmaker. So at the time they thought, maybe it’s not hard just because you’re a woman. But then on later reflection, seeing how some of their male counterparts were able to get so much further in their careers than they were, there was more acknowledgement of, wow, that really wasn’t right.
You look at someone like Martha Coolidge who directed films like Valley Girl and Real Genius. It’s easy to imagine that if she weren’t a woman, that she wouldn’t have been a major motion picture director in Hollywood with a very stable career after those two films. Many of the filmmakers talk about how difficult it is for women to fail. A female filmmaker who had a hit but then a bomb would be done for, while one good or even not so successful film might propel a male filmmaker forward.
Wes Anderson was discovered as a result of his short film Bottle Rocket, which was at Sundance and starred Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson, who were clearly talented actors. But the studio gave them an enormous amount of leeway and time to develop a feature out of that short. I think they had over a year on a studio lot to write. They then released the feature film Bottle Rocket and at the time, it was really a commercial and critical failure. Any female filmmaker who had had that trajectory—not only would she not have been given a year on a studio lot to write whatever she felt like writing, she would have never been given another chance after that kind of failure. I actually love Bottle Rocket, but you get my point. Women who had success didn’t even get second chances.
Anther pattern that emerged is how women-directed films are seen by critics and the academy. I talk about that in the introduction: a lot of women mention how that has been an obstacle. Miranda July talks about how her films have been seen as personal, even though they’re not. There are critics who call her work “twee,” and other comments that would never be said if she were a male filmmaker.
Watlington: I’ve definitely seen this. I reviewed Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not, which got a lot of backlash for being indulgent and sentimental by male critics, but I just felt like, no, it’s just not revolving around the sexuality of straight, able-bodied men.
Meek: It’s really interesting to hear who male filmmakers’ role models are too; rarely are they women. That’s a problem. It’s hard for people to see their own privilege and biases, unfortunately. I’ve realized this as I’ve been putting myself out there more on Instagram promoting women-directed work and receiving backlash from white men who really think discrimination doesn’t exist. When I posted about the Oscars, one commented, “well isn’t it just the best films?” and tried to suggest that no one removed a film from the list simply because it was directed by a woman. But that’s not at all the point I’m making.
Watlington: Right. The jury might not be conscious of who is making a film, but still, our culture privileges masculinist values.
Meek: Exactly. That’s the thing that’s harder to see. Why is one film about this particular subject, or with this kind of focus, or this type of story structure, less valued than this other type of story? There’s a reason for that. It’s just hard to see.
Watlington: I’m curious about some factors that went into your selection of filmmakers.
Meek: It was very difficult. To say it was an objective task to choose the filmmakers in this book would be false. I had my own preferences and biases clearly. As you recall, when we were trying to put together the list, I initially thought we wouldn’t be able to include a chapter on Ericka Beckman. Your pushback on that, questioning my decision to cut someone who had already been cut in so many different arenas, and how work like that tends to be cut, really was a helpful wake-up call. I wanted to try to be inclusive without really being able to fit everyone.
In general, I tried to narrow it down to women directors whose work still resonates today. In some cases, this made a hard sell for the filmmakers, because some of them weren’t working as filmmakers any more. For example, Maria Maggenti, who I see as a very instrumental filmmaker because she made the film Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls In Love, which was one of the first positive coming-of-age lesbian stories, had really switched her career to being a television writer after meeting funding obstacles as a director. Yet I felt it was important to include her because her work still resonates today, and we should still be talking about and teaching that film. That was a big part of my motivation for choosing people: is their work still something we should be talking about, teaching, writing about, etc.?
Ericka was a perfect example of that, because her films had been marginalized throughout her career. And yet there’s been a new discovery of her career in the art world now.
Watlington: Right, so she’s made her films as installations. And they’re great!
Meek: But it’s still like, how does she fit into an independent female filmmakers collection? So I took that term a little bit loosely, to include people whose work remains relevant.
Watlington: That’s a point I really love from your introduction, that to be more inclusive of female filmmakers is to necessarily be more inclusive of these more eclectic bodies of work. Rather than only feature-length films in a signature style, also shorts, web series, performances, television series, installations. For me, as someone who writes on video art, this is a big motivating factor for what I do, especially in the ’70s and ’80s: many women who would have been influential feature filmmakers didn’t have budgets, and made what is now considered DIY, even avant-garde, which they were, but often by necessity.
I’m curious if you have more thoughts on these categories, like “video art,” and how they could inadvertently marginalize people’s work.
Meek: I think it absolutely does. Even the idea of romantic comedies…
Watlington: and melodrama!
Meek: Right. Genres intended for women audiences are often seen as less serious works of art. Everywhere you look—independent film, art film—you still find the same level of discrimination. Ericka talks about how, early on in her career in the experimental film world, people only thought of Stan Brakhage, etc. They weren’t always incorporating women filmmakers into what was seen as lasting or important work. We really need to reflect on A) how we’ve built those kind of categories, but also B) maybe even more importantly, who is considered great in those categories. Because no matter what category you go to, no matter how obscure it seems to be, you’re still finding that white men are considered the “heroes” of that genre.
Watlington: I just saw a documentary on Pauline Kael [What She Said], the female film critic, and she was saying that women in the arts and in film are doing quite well as muses and actresses. But for her, as a critic, allowing space for women to reason and make arguments is when men start to get scared and want to hold their power. She’s interesting; she’s actually a quite well-respected critic—a staff writer at the New Yorker—but she still never made a living wage from her work. This was only a small footnote in the film that was really profound to me, and really discouraging.
Meek: So even critics!
Watlington: Right, who are the sort of “taste-makers.”
Meek: And you look at something like the University of Mississippi Press collection that I critique in my introduction: 108 films and 7 of them are women. The curator of the collection is Gerald Perry, who is an older white male. When I reached out to him, he was not very receptive, which is unfortunate. This is what I mean about not seeing our biases. It’s in all of us—I have biases too. In the collection, I talk about how, years ago, when I was interviewed about Boston filmmakers, I picked three white men as examples. When I rediscovered this article in my research, I realized—wow! I thought I had a relatively tuned feminist consciousness, if not race consciousness at that point. But I had to educate myself.
Watlington: Right, the thing is to be aware that there’s a systemic reproduction that privileges the same voices. So it’s our job: there are great films by women and people of color, but you might have to look harder because they’re not in your face.
Meek: Exactly. Look at the 100 best films by AFI. AFI is an organization that has a program to support women directors; supposedly they are actively trying to be champions of women filmmakers. But if you look on their website at the 100 best films of all time, I don’t think they list even one film directed by a woman. What is that telling us? What is that telling future filmmakers, film fans? It’s unbelievably frustrating and depressing. Like you said, look at the Academy Awards this year. No women were nominated for best director. Why is this happening, when there are clearly active contenders in this category? What are all the machinations that are keeping this work from really being able to be seen and appreciated in the way that it deserves to be?
A still from Ericka Beckman’s film Cinderella
Watlington: I’m interested in the idea that lack of access to resources are both a limit, and also double as a creative restraint. So Ericka’s films are often handmade props in a black box, which reads as a signature style. You talk about “independent” to mean low budget and DIY, but also “independent” as in excluded from the resources and the audience. One huge constraint has been that women lack access to time in the form of feature-length films, which I can’t help but thinking as analogous to man-spreading (taking up more room than is fairly his on the subway), or mansplaining (hogging space in a conversation). Has anything emerged as to what prevents women from making features?
Meek: Studies, like the one done by Annenberg, found that there are a number of reasons, and funding was a significant one. There were others, like family responsibilities: a stereotype that often limits what people think women can do, and one fathers don’t seem similarly impacted by. In the movie Half the Picture, several women talk explicitly about that issue, and how they have to prove themselves sometimes.
Another significant factor is the lack of mentoring; I think this is starting to improve some. Women have started to become more conscious that they need to mentor other women. Maria Maggenti talks about how, on the heels of Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls In Love, she did get attention and interest, but when she started to have meetings, but she didn’t know how to conduct herself or play the game in order to get what she wanted. She had no guidance. So she was true to herself, but that may not have actually been the most effective method for getting what she wanted. Although you have to wonder if that has been true for male filmmakers; why don’t they have to conduct themselves in some kind of professional manner in order to be taken seriously? They don’t!
Watlington: That’s a good point. And also men see themselves represented among famous filmmakers, or are conditioned to be forward and ask for mentorship. There are also men like Woody Allen and so many others who have royally messed up, but people hold up a separation between their work and their actions, while women aren’t often allowed the same privilege.
Your introduction opens with the question, “independent by default or by choice,” which I really love. It questions whether independent cinema is a promise of freedom from Hollywood, or an exclusion from it: especially its resources and audiences. I see this as related to your other project, which is about consent puzzles, in that it asks, how do you know when you’re choosing something? Or even, what is freedom or independence? Does that resonate?
Meek: Yes; I think that are choices are always constrained. They’re constrained by a great deal of societal pressures, beliefs, and traditions. Why would someone choose to be independent? It’s about creative control, being able to make the film you want to make. The question is: how often are some people allowed to make the kinds of films they want in a Hollywood system? I think when given an opportunity, almost every filmmaker is going to want more impact, more audience. There’s no one who says, “I’d like to keep my work in this little corner of the world where not that many people see it.”
Watlington: Or, “where I have to fundraise.” “Independent” is a hilarious word when you put it that way.
A still from Mehta’s film Water, nominated for the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars
Meek: Not all of the filmmakers talk about the discrimination that they faced. Someone like Barbara Kopple, for instance, received an enormous amount of mentoring from the Maysles brothers and early on she took charge, learned how to do everything, and was able to assert herself. I think because she was in the documentary arena, perhaps she was able to make a lot more headway than some of the fiction filmmakers. The other one who doesn’t really acknowledge much discrimination is Deepa Mehta. She’s an Indian filmmaker who made films in Canada; her more positive experience may also have something to do with the Canadian system. She didn’t get funding always from the Canadian government, but she did get funding from the local government. I think there was less of a shock of her being a filmmaker in Canada than there is in the U.S. Those are two filmmakers out of the 15—and they don’t say that discrimination doesn’t exist, they acknowledge it and recognize that it’s been a problem, but they don’t feel personally that it’s hindered their careers. And you know, Deepa Mehta has had an Oscar-nominated film and Barbara Kopple has two Oscar awards. These are two filmmakers that, maybe because they’ve reached the same level of success that male filmmakers can, don’t feel it has affected them as much.
Watlington: It’s curious to know if discrimination didn’t hinder their success, or if they didn’t experience it visibly in their day-to-day, or if they simply never identified it as that. And there’s no way for us to know. A lot of women, after #MeToo, had not previously thought of themselves as having ever been sexually harassed because it’s so normalized, but see it differently now.
Meek: Right. Natalie Portman recalled that, upon first hearing about #MeToo, she thought she didn’t have a story to tell. Then on further reflection, she realized, I have a hundred stories of sexual harassment in Hollywood to tell. It had become so embedded into her everyday experience that she didn’t see it at first.
Watlington: Exactly. And that gets back to how things get internalized, and then the paradox of “independence” that your book is about!
The book Independent Female Filmmakers is available for order via Routledge and Amazon. To learn more about Michele Meek visit her website at michelemeek.com.
There are 1440 minutes in a day, and in just 24 of those minutes Camille Hollett-French manages to create a lasting impression and an uncanny reflection of life and the pivotal moments we can encounter. Her Story (In Three Parts): No. 3: In the Absence of Angels tells Crystal’s story. Crystal is raped in the middle of the day on her way home. Later, the audience shares an incredibly intimate moment with her in the bathroom as she begins to clean herself off, she gives herself a once over in the mirror moments before walking in to see her boyfriend and tries to act as if nothing had happened. The overlay of Crystal’s boyfriend shouting at the horror movie is particularly chilling, as he is distracted and unaware of what Crystal is going through all the while shouting at a female character who is unable to escape from a terrible situation. In the Absence of Angels tackles important topics like how society often victimizes survivors of rape, the internalized shame often experienced by survivors of rape, and the influences of behavior based on gender. In order to engage in these conversations with a larger audience, Hollett-French decided to combine her many artistic talents through film to tell this story. Camille wrote Crystal’s story to incorporate her own, and those of the women around her, experiences to make Crystal’s character come to life.
Crystal (Camille Hollett-French) Giving her face a once over shortly after her attack. Photo credit: Veronique Duplain
Camille grew up with messages condemning her for taking up too much space, physically and metaphorically, because it was unattractive and made her undesirable. Of course, she had friends growing up, but that didn’t stop her from on the outskirts of social situations. She was, as she recalls, a lonely fat kid with a sadness running through her because she yearned to create, feel, and express with others but wasn’t able to. Camille became thinner as she grew older and experienced another side effect of this culture, a new set of societal expectations and boundaries already in place. A system that she noticed, perhaps more than before, was based entirely on looks. She was praised for taking up less physical space but still criticized for the other spaces she took up.
Now, Camille uses film as an avenue for her to express her experiences and unique voice. She no longer has the time or energy or even desire to create films that simply scratch the surface or tiptoe around their subject matter. Camille is a filmmaker set on going for the jugular. What Camille wasn’t able to do, or didn’t feel capable of, as a child has led her to demand space as a director. She uses her directorial platform to share stories, send messages, and provide hard truths. The industry still favors the small, dainty, and silent woman and because of this there have been times that Camille has released a project and received no return. Throughout this process Camille has taught herself, and urges others, to fall in love with the film making process and to fight to remain in love with the process. She says that once that love and passion is gone there’s nothing else, you’ll simply be caught in the highs and lows. Fortunately for us, and her, Camille was able to get back to her roots and address societal issues in Her Story (In Three Parts) without encountering radio silence.
Crystal (Camille Hollett-French) and Derek (Brett Donahue) turning down the distractions from a horror movie in order to have a serious conversation. Photo credit: Veronique Duplain
Camille Hollett-French, the triple threat award-winning Trinidadian-Canadian writer, actor, and director premiered Her Story (In Three Parts), No. 3: In the Absence of Angels, at Slamdance in Park City, Utah in 2019. As we sat next to one another she smiled with relief, finally feeling as though she can take a breath from all of her hard work and relax. But, Slamdance is the calm before the storm. When Camille returns to Canada, she will be back on set doing it all over. Camille, like many of us, puts her soul into everything she creates. She experiences an internal crisis and questions her own sanity, she wonders if anything made sense, and even asks if it was worth it. As a fan of her and her work, I urged her that it did and that it was.
Camille has spent the majority of her life working toward this very moment. At the young age of four she won a pencil for her award-winning Halloween story, The Monsters on My Wall. She also grew up watching countless films she watched with her mom, dad, and sister which only accelerated her love affair with every film. For Camille, the natural progression as a young girl and predominantly exposed to the household names of male directors, was to enter the exhilarating world of acting. This too, with no surprise, came naturally.
Behind the scenes with Camille Hollett-French Photo credit: Veronique Duplain
As an undisputed artist, songwriter, potter, sculptor, painter, and one of her personal favorites, practicing pointillism, Camille soon made the connection that loving film meant she could tell this story through film. She had written Her Story and with the support of her partner, she realized she was capable of taking on more than just writing and acting in these stories: Camille could also direct the films as they came together. Realizing this helped push Camille into directorial roles and she felt as though there was no going back. Camille and her partner decided to move, selling their condo to pay for Her Story and renovating an old school bus that took them from Toronto to Vancouver. Living life with equal parts excitement and terror are well known to her partner, for when Camille wants to do something, she really wants to do something and will stop at nothing in order to go all in.
Director Camille Hollett-French going over lines with co-star Leevia Elliott Robinson (Destiny) Image 4: Photo credit: Veronique Duplain
Camille hopes Her Story (In Three Parts) will help her develop and establish herself as a director. It might have taken her 30 years, but she is happy to continue moving in this direction and to step into the directing world. It comes as no surprise that with Camille’s many passions and talents she plans to continue acting and writing. She would love nothing more than to direct someone’s script or write and act in something for a director she admires. Much like In the Absence of Angels, Camille’s story began intimately. Her life and the art she creates lend themselves to the multitude of layers throughout her work.
We interrupt this report to bring you a special news bulletin: Be encouraged to break the silence, take up space, challenge the norms, go for the jugular. No radio silence here. Camille, if you are reading this, you are completely sane. Over and out.
The inspiration for MS Slavic 7 first emerged when Sofia Bohdanowicz first discovered a correspondence in Polish between her great-grandmother, the poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, and fellow poet, Nobel Prize nominee Józef Wittlin. She knew she wanted to develop a work based on the letters, and her collaborator Deragh Campbell had the idea of creating a film that unfolds over a few days. The resulting film, MS Slavic 7, c0-written and co-directed by both Bohdanowicz and Campbell, tells the story of Audrey, the literary executor of her great-grandmother’s estate, who researches a correspondence between her great-grandmother and another poet—discovering the two appear to have been lovers. Her curiosity and its resulting revelations provoke deep-seated family resentments and conflicts, along with her own existential crisis.
The film threads drama with comedic moments and a traditional narrative structure with a slower pacing and reflective scenes. Even its length is somewhat unconventional at 64 minutes. Having recently premiered at Berlinale this February, the film has two upcoming MOMA screenings on March 30 and April 1, 2019.
The filmmakers are adept at indie film budgeting or what they call the “microbudget.” Rather than fly to Cambridge, Massachusetts, they were able to recreate the look of Harvard University locally, and they found a house with wood paneling to serve as a library. Campbell played the protagonist Audrey, while Bohdanowiczowa worked the camera as DP. And together they edited the film in collaboration. Their collaboration represents a simplicity and efficiency unique to independent film. In a review in The Hollywood Reporter, writer Deborah Young notes Bohdanowiczowa’s “marked preference” as DP “for the simplest, most basic camera setups and lighting.”
In this interview, Campbell and Bohdanowicz talk about creating and funding their film, sharing some of the tips they’ve learned along the way, such as keeping the shoot to a minimal number of days, finding locations that would offer space for free, and raising funds from Canadian grants and screening fees.
Michele Meek: Can you talk about how you funded MS Slavic 7?
Deragh Campbell: This film was produced on a personal line of credit, but we were very lucky to get a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts for post-production which allowed us the time we needed in editing as well as a really excellent sound mix and design from Matt Chan and Elma Bello at SIM international which was essential to the film. In Canada there are art councils that exist on a municipal, provincial and federal level (and can be pooled together for one project). They are juried and awarded on the merit of the application so they are really amazing for giving filmmakers access to funding, especially near the beginning of their careers.
Sofia Bohdanowicz: I have often followed the model of putting out an investment on my line of credit and then hiring myself back as the editor once an arts council grant comes through for post-production. In addition, I am also able to pull myself out of debt with the sale of my film or small screening fees. This is a modest way of making work, my profit margin usually isn’t huge, but it has gained me the ability to continue to make work that I am motivated to be making in that moment. I sometimes find that waiting a few years to make the film of your dreams can leave an idea feeling stale once you are finally able to execute it. It’s certainly a risker way of making work but this method has brought me pretty far.
Courtesy of Lisa Pictures
What are some of the tips you’ve learned about keeping to a budget that other filmmakers might benefit from?
Deragh: Sofia is very technically adroit and did camera and sound on set while I performed and did art department so we made up the entire crew, save for a few moments when our producer Calvin Thomas helped us on set for a day or two. We also shot for a total of only six days. This is obviously not appropriate for every project, but I think if you focus on structural experimentation and inventive dialogue, you can create a film that is engaging for an audience but doesn’t involve too many expenses.
Sofia: When I am making a film, and I am looking to make it right away, I look around me and name variables we could use (equipment, props, locations etc.) that are free and then go from there. We worked hard to keep our budget down with sponsorships, had all of our locations donated, and many of our friends pulled through with favors. We were very fortunate that the TIFF Bell Lightbox, The Polish Consulate and a few other restaurants in Toronto let us shoot in their milieus or made lunch for us free in exchange for a mention in our credits.
We worked with a small cast and they either deferred their fees or did a trade for services in exchange for their performance in the film. In addition, we approached a local film equipment rental company and asked them if they would be interested in giving us a deal. You’d be surprised at how much people want to help you if you are able to list your needs, outline what your film is about and articulate what their support would mean to you in a clear and cogent way. It can be a little intimidating, but what we’ve realized is that you really have nothing to lose in asking.
Is there anything particular about funding films in Canada?
Deragh: Again, I think the arts councils are really an exceptional thing in Canada. We also have Telefilm Canada which has specific programs for micro-budget filmmaking and then moving into higher budget brackets. We are really lucky to have these institutions that support you from an early stage and that you can really grow with.
Sofia: On that note, I would agree that we are very privileged to have institutional support from regional, provincial and federal funding bodies but it should be noted that takes time to secure and land these grants. There is an art to writing them—it’s definitely a muscle you have to develop. It can be a little tedious at times because I have submitted applications that I feel quite confident about and then have not gotten them because the competition is too tough or maybe my project is not what the jury is looking for at that time. While I recognize that Canada is singular as far as offering these kinds of opportunities to artists, they aren’t always guaranteed. It has taken me a long time to fine-tune my writing and pitching skills for juries, and even then it’s not always guaranteed money. I try to remind myself of that whenever I submit an application, because having an approach where you believe that you are entitled to the funding can be a little dangerous.
Can you speak about shaping this story, which came from real events, into a narrative film?
Sofia: I think that everyone can relate to the experience of trying to find their voice as an artist, and this is a film which follows the trajectory of a young woman attempting to self-actualize. Although the narrative is about an individual who is yearning to explore a career in literature, I think this is a situation that can be applied to any artistic practice. When you decide to become a filmmaker, actor, painter or any kind of practising artist for that matter, no one is going to knock on your door and offer you this vocation. It is something that is self-appointed, you have to will it into existence through an exhausting amount of effort and trial and error too.
I think that developing my voice as a filmmaker and discovering what interested me was challenging but I found a safe space in the discovery of my great-grandmother’s poetry. In reading Zofia’s work I was able to better understand where I came from, the weight of my family’s history and how I move through the world as a result. For me, I think that in getting a closer understanding of my origins, I was able to find a stream of thought and a story that I found worthy of sharing.
I was lucky that Deragh was able to so clearly delineate this journey of research and yearning for connecting through her monologues and depiction of the research process. It was so satisfying for me to see how she crafted this character who could move from being ecstatic about certain discoveries but also devastated if she couldn’t articulate or grasp her thoughts. This early stage of artistic development is rarely depicted in cinema and it was really interesting for us to delve into it together.
Deragh: I think that by trying to be very honest and detailed, really trying to articulate the particulars of your experience, you are more likely to connect with an audience than if you try to say something universal that can often be vague and imprecise.
PARK CITY, Utah — Horror and apocalyptic visions took the 2019 Sundance Film Festival by storm—plainly in the case of Writer/ Director Just Philippot’s terrifying short film Acid. This nerve-wracking exercise in terror bursting from a world trapped in the thrall of environmental collapse emphasizes action. The filmmaker jettisons all exposition from his narrative allowing pure cinema and visual storytelling to reign supreme on the screen.
Philippot’s film never explains how and why his fictional world is plagued with such ominous dangers from above. Rather, his riveting, 18-minute short film immediately drops us into the middle of the pulse-racing action with a brilliant opening shot of a discarded child’s teddy bear laying on the side of a traffic-congested road, as the toy gradually dissolves with every drop of acid rain falling onto the scene. Without cutting away from the disintegrating teddy bear, we hear shouts become screams as people race for cover off screen. The haunting image of a child’s toy being destroyed by the deadly effects of an inexplicable airborne cloud of molecular acid immediately sets the story’s nightmarish tone. And the melting teddy bear is a warning that all bets are off in this cinematic, fatalistic landscape where climate change has gone completely amok.
The short film’s end-of-the-world narrative follows the plight of an unnamed family (portrayed by Maud Wyler as the mother, Sofian Khammas as the father, and Anthonin Chaussoy as their young son) traveling on a single motorcycle in a race against time to avoid the next potentially lethal downpour of acid. As encroaching storm clouds gather on the horizon, the family’s motorcycle grinds to a sudden halt and the suspense mounts to an almost unbearable degree.
Just Phillippot, director of Acid, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Caprice Films.
The filmmaker’s fictional family unit running from certain death functions as the on-screen surrogate for viewers – like you and me – wondering what we might do under such dire circumstances if they came to pass. Throughout the family’s desperate flight for shelter, we are confronted with the unspoken question: How does one retain his or her humanity in a world gone mad from ecological disaster or worse?
As a genre hybrid, Acid is part scary, speculative fiction laced with horror and part cautionary tale for our uncertain future when climate-change deniers and their demagogue-like enablers in the political power circa 2019 refuse to believe in scientific facts and evidence to the contrary. As our planet drifts perilously towards the precipice of ecological destruction, who knows what tomorrow will bring.
This Q&A interview with Philippot examines the filmmaker’s intent and the narrative’s subtext camouflaged by the film’s edge-of-your-seat suspense generated from watching a corner of our fragile planet descend into total chaos.
NK: In troubled times, there is an attraction to horror and apocalyptic narratives, and your film Acid is no exception. What sparked the idea and concept for this terrifying end-of-the-world scenario? Did the story and its desperate characters emerge from other works of apocalyptic literature like J.G. Ballard and others? Or was its imagery born out of viewing other films and/ or visual art?
JP: To start, I have to put this project in the starting context. Two years ago, I was invited to participate in a writing residency around the genre film. Without necessarily having ideas at the beginning, I drew my inspiration in my childhood nightmares. The films The Fly and Robocop were very present. I can still see the scene in which a bandit has just taken a bowl of acidic products on his head. The destruction of the bodies with acid, the corrosive aspect of chemicals make me extremely afraid.
To write Acid, I decided to tap into this disgust to imagine a very black movie. Very dark. A real disaster movie and not a nice movie to watch. To believe in this project, I had to believe above all in this nightmare. My references were multiple (and) they ranged from Elem Klimov’s Requiem for a Massacre to Alan Clarke’s Elephant and Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. These references allowed me to develop the themes around which I write a lot: What is left of the family in the most difficult moments? What can I do for the people I love? How far am I able to go to save them?
A still from Acid by Just Phillippot, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Capricci.
NK: One of the greatest challenges of writing a compelling short film is the act of compression and decisions of what to leave in and what to cut out of a story. Can you describe your writing process as you developed these characters under unimaginable duress and how the theme of family and sacrifice become part of the film’s subtext?
JP: The production process forced me to go very quickly in writing the script. To write Acid, I had to find the most violent question that could resonate in me. This question was “In a moment like this, will I be able to save my child before saving myself? Am I a good father?”
I think this question, which is at the heart of the short film, is the one that terrifies the most. Because it sends us back to our parenting fear. It is only by chance that the film starts on the abandonment of a newborn in a car. It was a way for me to say, “Look what we can do. We are not heroes. We are just human.”
NK: Like all art, films are artifacts of their time reflecting the concerns of the time period from which they emerge. Would it be too much of a stretch to say that your film is using its horror/ science fiction narrative as a dark mirror to address anxieties ranging from environmental collapse to the scapegoating of immigrants as “other”?
JP: Acid talks about the ecological disaster that awaits us and how our children will have to grow up much faster. Just like this little boy coming out of his cave, our children will have to become adults much more quickly. There are no other topics. I never wanted to find parallels between this cloud and the problem of migrants. In Europe, we are inhuman in this situation.
I would say that this cloud is rather nature that takes back its rights. The man was stupid. The consequence of this stupidity is as simple as a catastrophe in which nothing can be done. It’s just the end of the world.
NK: What were the “happy accidents” that might have occurred during your film’s production? Did the film’s script change during production, or is the film’s final form completely faithful to your screenplay?
JP: The shooting was very complicated and very short. But (we were) very well prepared. There was no happy accident. But luck smiled on us during these six days. We did not have enough money to do the opening sequence I wanted. Initially, I wanted to follow my characters on their bike as (they race) between cars. But it was way too expensive for us. From movement, I moved to something immobile. I did not have 200 extras. We were 20 (actors) on the set. I had to choose my six or seven plans to start well. The most difficult was to realize the special effect of the teddy bear that was to melt. For my decorating team, it took a big week of testing to achieve this effect.
Sofian Khammas appears in Acid by Just Phillippot, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Capricci.
NK: What do you hope viewers will find as they immerse themselves in the terminal landscape where death literally rains down upon your unfortunate, yet resilient characters?
JP: I would like them to imagine their children abandoned in a devastated world. It’s cruel. But I want (viewers) to feel sadness, anger. No fear. We must do something before it’s too late.
NK: What is next for you in your filmmaking practice? Do you have a feature-length work in the works, and if so will it explore similar themes and concerns mapped out in your short film?
JP: I have a lot of projects in preparation. I wrote Acid as a feature film. This summer, I have to do a horror movie about a farmer of grasshoppers. I wrote a road trip with orphans and a dead body, and develop for French radio, a series on a highly polluted area at the foot of the mountains. Since Acid, my career has taken off in France. In the U.S., I was able to meet many production (companies) and many managers who wish to discuss (film projects) with me. This is a great time for me.
NK: What advice do you have for other filmmakers honing their storytelling skills with creating short films?
JP: It’s hard to give good advice. I would say that the most important thing is to not forget the rhythm of one’s film. Go as straight as possible! And do not watch yourself make a movie. Take risks for the viewer!