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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!
Macedonian filmmaker Teona Mitevska’s film Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija or God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, begins on an ordinary day in the life of Petrunija. Her mother brings her breakfast, which Petrunija eats under the covers, but her mother has actually come to inform her that she has set up (another) job interview for her daughter—wear something nice, she suggests.
Petrunija’s day unfolds, at first, much like the many that have come before—after she’s left, her mother chases her down to remind her not to tell the boss that she’s 32 years old—tell them you’re 25, she pleads, it sounds better. But Petrunija, somehow fiercely independent and stubborn despite her obvious dependencies, has no intention of lying about her age or pretending she has more job experience than she does (she has nearly none).
So when Petrunija winds up swept up into being spectator at a an annual orthodox ceremony of swimming for the cross, she instinctively jumps in the water to compete. And even she is surprised when she actually catches it. Chaos and near-violence ensue—when the men who were swimming grab the cross from Petrunija, the head priest is torn between what’s “right” (Petrunija clearly caught the cross) and “tradition” (women don’t swim for the cross). It seems none of the men think she deserves to keep the cross and the year of good luck it brings.
Thus begins, Macedonian filmmaker Teona Mitevska’s Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija or God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, a funny and endearing film about how gender bias passes for tradition, and the female resistance it inspires. The more the system fights Petrunija, the more she digs her heels in to resist—her courage comes not from any lack of fear or desire to be a hero, but from the simple declaration of what’s right is right.
Mitevska’s previous film, When the Day Had No Name, screened in Berlinale’s Panorama Special in 2017, and she returned to Berlinale this year with Petrunija as a main Competition film. The film won two independent juries prizes at Berlinale, Best Film from both the Ecumenical Jury and the German Film Guild. Petrunija will begin theatrical screenings in Macedonia and North Macedonia on March 15, with a release in France on May 1, and a worldwide release to follow.
Here, Mitevska talks with Michele Meek about the initial inspiration for the film, the creation of the work as an international co-production, and what her film says about courage.
Michele Meek: I read that the film is based on a true story. Can you talk about your inspiration for the story?
Photo of Writer/Director Teona Strugar Mitevska
Teona Strugar Mitevska: Every 19th of January for the holiday of Epiphany, the throwing of the cross event takes place in almost all of the orthodox world of Eastern Europe, which means: Bulgaria, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia included… In 2015, [when] a woman caught the cross in the village of Novo Selo, Stip, her act was deemed as an outrage from the local population as well as the religious authorities. Women were not allowed to participate in the event. Consequently they tried to take the cross away from her, but she would not give in. Next day she gave an interview for the local station encouraging more women to jump for the cross in the future.
I remember Labina [Mitevska, producer and actress] calling me, very excited—I was in a process of editing our previous film—and saying to me: I think we have our next film. I called Elma [Tataragič, co-writer], and we got working. Many persons we interviewed and contacted in the beginning of our writing process were bewildered by our interest in the story of that “crazy,” “disturbed,” “troubled” young woman, as she was unfortunately labeled. To us these reactions exposed a natural reflex of social conformism; they also reveal the misogyny that is supported by the deeply [embedded] patriarchal norms within our society. It was frustrating and maddening. The story of Petrunija rose from this frustration—we had to react.
The actress Zorica Nusheva makes an incredible performance—funny, sad, inspiring. Can you talk about working with her? What was the hardest scene?
Mitevska: I saw Zorica in a theater play and I loved the quiet strength she projected. She is mostly a comic actress, therefore she has a very good sense of timing within a scene.
I adore working with actors, the creative collaboration that is established is essential to the creation of the character, but the base of it all is the writing. Basically it is difficult to create a good character without a good dramaturgical structure. Everything after is a balancing act, one that takes hard work, long hours of rehearsing and researching. We rehearsed three months before shooting, believe it or not, but that’s a comfort the production allowed us, and for me is primordial. This time of rehearsal is not so much used on rehearsing the dialogue but mostly giving the time needed for the actor to be the character, live the character, enter into the essence of the character—once this is managed all is possible. Petrunija defies the established rules, jumps in minus degrees water, takes upon the state and the religious establishment, does what many dare not do, all this because of her strong belief in justice and truth. Her road is quite complicated and hard, and it was important that her character’s reactions vary to each situation she encounters—as you mentioned, she laughs, she cries, she challenges, but mostly she persists. I guess the hardest scenes were the physical ones like jumping for the cross in minus degrees cold water, the fight with her mother—whenever violence is involved it becomes a challenge not to over do it!
Can you talk about the ending of the film? What is meant by her changed state at the end, and how is the police officer she meets connected to that?
Mitevska: Very quickly we realized that in order for the film to work the character of Petrunija needs to be a transcending one, that within the 24-hour time frame the story takes, she need to grow from a naivety to a force of change, a true heroine of her village….She is a historian by education, by her [final] act she becomes a symbol of change, one that will carry tradition into modernity wisely. With the character of the young policeman we wanted to put forward the idea that not only is Petrunija as a woman a victim of the flawed system of ideas of her society but also is he, as a man. They are both prisoners of it, but it is Petrunija who manages to escape it.
What do you think the film says about courage?
Mitevska: We live in a world of compliance, a world of certain comfort that imprisons us. During the festival, Agneska Holland said something interesting regarding the choice to react—basically she was saying that in our world although many have the choice to react, many don’t because of the comfort factor, and she is right. But, we forget that this applies to maybe 10 percent of the world, the western hemisphere. My question is what happens when you don’t have even this possibility. And this is where the courage comes, having the courage to create this essential liberty for yourself. Without it, we, human beings are nothing. That is why the character of Petrunija is of importance to us all—across borders, she reminds us that we all have the power to react and change things, make the world a better place and this power comes from the courage of one. Justice, equality and equity for all is what we all do/should strive for.
Essentially this is a story of a struggle of the little man against the social norms that are obviously unjust, but accepted as customary and therefore allegedly justifiable. Moreover, it is a film in which the main character is not only a little man, but she is a woman as well.
It is a story of a woman against patriarchal norms, but it is more a story of an individual fighting against social stratification/power structure/chain of command/hierarchy and the institutions that underpin it.
How were you able to fund your film? I see this was a co-production across countries.
Mitevska: The European system is based of co-productions. When you come from a small country such as Macedonia, the only way to make a film is by involving a co-producing country, this allows you not only to complete your budget but also it gives you the possibility to collaborate with film professionals from all over Europe. I am a firm believer in this opportunity. In Macedonia, for example, we have no post production facilities, also we lack sound professionals. For many years, we didn’t even have cameras and lights—now things are better. I have a crew that comes from all over Europe, a crew I have been cultivating for years now, my DOP comes from Belgium, as well as my sound crew and the editing crew, my make-up artist and costume designer come from Slovenia and so forth, and the system of co-production makes this possible. I also work a lot with women, whenever it is possible for me I try to do this. Of course I don’t choose my collaborators based on gender only, but if an opportunity opens I go. We can safely say that most of the head posts, 80 percents on Petrunija are European women.
Can you talk about your experience screening at Berlinale?
Mitevska: The world premiere went surprisingly well. Never have I had a film where the audience has reacted in such a vivid way, they laughed and they cried with Petrunija, in that hour and a half the audience was Petrunija. Since the premiere, the reactions have been inspiring—the film will be distributed in many territories all over the world. This is a great achievement for us—the film is an art house film with large dose of satire that is appealing to the audiences.
I see the film will be released theatrically in March—congratulations! Will you travel to screenings?
Mitevska: Everytime you make a personal film, it is essential that you as a filmmaker defend it, present it. And this is not always easy, it requires a lots of energy and time, but in the atmosphere of today’s distribution market when films such as ours go against big hollywood titles we must do the best we can. After all films are made to be seen, intelligent films also not only blockbusters. We must never underestimate the audience.
The early spring grace notes of living-at-the-movies in Manhattan are blooming. Just look at what’s free—yes, f-r-e-e—in this 24th annual edition of Rendez-vous, co presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance:
On Friday March 1 at 5:00pm, you can listen to master French artisan Bertrand Tavernier in conversation with novelist/poet Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter), UniFrance’s American ambassador to this 2019 festival of 22 features, most of which are having their North American, U.S. or New York premieres. On Saturday March 2 at 6:30pm, the spotlight is on the rules and boundaries of new French comedies, discussed by a panel in formation. On Monday, March 4 at 6:30pm, get the lowdown on filming abroad by veteran French and American pros.
Plus—If you’re under 40 (damn!) and in town to catch some Rendez-Vous features, the Francophile website Frenchly invites you to submit a review of your favorite fest feature by March 8. The winner will receive a roundtrip flight to Paris and a one-year subscription to TV5Monde. So, if you’re dying to one day take the place of your favorite movie critic (whoever she or he may be), dig in.
To make your selection a bit easier, here are this viewer’s top three Rendez-Vous selects out of 18 features viewed:
Invisibles; Louis-Julien Petit; France, 2018; 102 min.
You can never tell how a movie will be received locally, but the response to Invisibles, Louis-Julien Petit’s new drama of homeless French women, appears to have struck a significant chord in Paris.Petit told Variety (1/18) that “Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, saw the film at festival in August and then went on to open a shelter in Paris. Since December 13, 45 women have been given a secure place to live in Paris’s City Hall. Hidalgo told me that she saw the movie and wanted to act, and she did.”
Petit should be thrilled, for the opening of his drama, set in an unnamed French city (and filmed in a metropolitan suburb two hours north of Paris) starts with the local authorities closing its female day shelter. Most of its regulars had come in for warmth, essentials and companionship. Nearly all spent their nights in a cluster colony of tiny tents, which is bulldozed away by the town government. One official glumly points to “a four percent success rate at reintegration” into mainstream society.
Audrey Lamy (center)
Unbowed, the women who ran the shelter find an empty warehouse and illegally move in the female population they protected, permitting them to stay 24/7. Invisibles shows how, through bonding, imagination and sheer determination, the staff helps prepare its residents for eventual reintegration. The movie obviously moved the mayor of Paris, as it will surely move you.
Inspired by Claire Lajeunie’s documentary and book, Sur La Route Des Invisibles, in addition to Petit’s own fieldwork in women’s shelters, this picture has a singular pedigree: You’ll never mistake it for either a documentary or, for that matter, a docudrama. It’s a movie whose shelter leaders are acted by well-known actresses—Corinne Masiero, Audrey Lamy, Deborah Lukumuena and Noemie Lvonsky. They’re the lead quartet in the big photo above.
But most of the women surrounding them are multi-ethnic, multi-racial nonprofessionals, and the one you’re likely to remember longest, “Chantal,” is Adolpha Van Meer Haeghe, a former prison inmate who killed her abusive husband. This is Invisibles’ cutting edge, and it gives the picture artistic credentials as well as street cred—shaping what you might call a cine-memoir.
Deborah Lukumuena (left) and Audrey Lamy
The heart of the picture is the women’s transformation of their building into separate work areas in which they reawaken old skill sets and develop new ones—sewing, typing, repairing appliances, assembling a library, putting together resumes and introductory videos, learning role-playing, running an exercise class, applying makeup. Many are looking for work in which age won’t shut them out. Not every woman regains hope, and one is dismissed to a regional institution. There are disappointments and discouragement, but there are tiny victories, too.
A lively, salty sense of humor is born anew. “Better a two-star center that lasts than a five-star center that closes,” says one of the organizers with admiration, noting that too much dependence on a social worker can lead to relapse in the outside world. Like anonymous recovery groups worldwide, most of the women know each other by nicknames they’ve taken or acquired—here, Chantal Goya, Edith Piaf, Simone Veil, Francoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot, even Brigitte Macron.
In the Variety article referenced here, director Petit reflects that Isabelle Adjani told him movies should either entertain or reflect hard truths, “and I wanted this film to do both.” Mission accomplished, Monsieur Petit: invisibles turn into visibly healthy and productive citizens before your very eyes, and in this movie it’s not entirely illusion.
Invisibles shows Thurs. March 7 at 6:15pm and Fri. March 8 at 1:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater. (Q&A with Petit and Lukumuena follows the Thurs. showing.)
Paul Sanchez Is Back!; Patricia Mazuy; France, 2018; 110 min.
The shaggy-dog crime thriller hasn’t been entirely ceded to Ethan and Joel Coen. Even the opening shots of an anonymous, bland strip mall near the Roquebrune rock buttes are interrupted by the rat-tat-tat percussion, synthesizers, guitar and bass of John Cale, director Musay’s principal musician and composer. (Cale was Patti Smith’s bass player at an early live show at The Bottom Line in 1975, and had a far larger local following.) Right away you sense something is going a little haywire.
What slowly develops in this oddball procedural is that the area’s most wanted criminal, Paul Sanchez, who vanished in the late 90s after killing his wife and four children and burning their house down, has been spotted again. This isn’t especially surprising, because Sanchez (Laurent Lafitte) has successfully reinvented himself as a local swimming pool salesman named Didier Gerard, with a new wife and three new children. Director Mazuy gives us this vital information right away, both through a car salesman and a family who think Gerard is going to take them in his Spa Pool van to an installed model pool. We get the movie’s basic concept upfront.
Sanchez and his family are living practically under the noses of the local police precinct. What we don’t discover until much later is that Sanchez not only murdered his first family and burned down their home, he’s now wrestling with doing in his second nagging wife and gimme-me gimme-me kids, as well as his company boss who’s belittled Paul for seven years and won’t even pay his medical bills after a concrete mixer bangs up his arm installing a pool. So Paul’s left home again, burning the company van and getting around mostly on foot, growing angrier by the minute as he takes refuge in the foothills and cliffs of Roquebrune. The movie’s cat-and-mouse puzzle rests on whether a newbie constable, Marion (Zita Hanrot) and her cynical journalist crush, Yohann (Idir Chender) can find and stop Sanchez before he kills again.
Like the Cohn brothers’ inventions that so cleverly mingle satire with savagery, Paul Sanchez Is Missing! gives a slew of vignettes over to detailing the endless routine of the precinct’s inspector and municipal officers. They’re not inefficient oafs, just overworked souls who’ve prioritized concerns like dog dirt on the sidewalks and whether Johnny Depp should be charged with having sex in his car. “Paul Sanchez is hot air,” says the precinct inspector dismissively. We know Marion and Yohann are the ones truly dedicated to criminal pursuit when they halt having cunnilingus to read and consider an email from Sanchez. Who but the French.
Everything in this slightly wacky movie hangs on our believing Laurence Lafitte’s jittery, unhinged interpretation of Paul, and he’s an uncanny choice. You know Lafitte’s work from taking apart Isabelle Huppert in Elle. Here he’s behaving like a grim-faced Bogart in W.R. Burnett’s classic 1941 noir, High Sierra, which this drama begins to resemble when Paul takes refuge in a mountainside cave with a shotgun. Lafitte even mirrors the portrait of evil etched by Jack Palance in High Sierra’s 1955 remake, I Died a Thousand Times.
Mazuy’s movie has logic and continuity holes big enough to drive a swimming pool van through. But none of that matters because, as in the stories and novels of Cornell Woolrich, Mazuy and Lafitte establish a firm “line of suspense” that fastens you to the screen. That music score of John Cale is another bizarre asset, sometimes counterpointing, sometimes ratcheting up the fear index. You’re not sure where this movie is going, even with a couple of tacked-on epilogues that knit together a frazzled sense of closure. The Coen brothers could learn a thing or two from this one.
Paul Sanchez Is Back! shows Fri. March 8 at 8:30pm and Sat. March 9 at 5:45pm.
Raising Colors; Helene Fillieres; France, 2018; 100 min.
Institutional authority gets a bad rap in Invisibles and Paul Sanchez Is Back!, but it’s the core value in Helene Fillieres’ carefully observed and smoothly accomplished second feature. Written by Mathias Gavarry and Fillieres (who’s also aces in a small but key role), it’s this festival’s popcorn movie—a coming-of-age journey following Laure (Diane Rouxel), a delicate, privileged, Sorbonne-educated 23-year-old ( 5’3”, 106 lbs.), who speaks Russian and joins the French Navy because it’s the best offer she gets. She’s thinking of one day becoming a Green Beret, even though she’s in a minority of women at the Navy Fusillier Academy.
The film’s emotional center is not just Laure’s attempts to meet the grueling demands of combat training, but her terse longing for her commanding officer, Rivlere (Lambert Wilson), a ramrod-straight precisionist who’s been second-in-command for 25 years. It’s a tantalizing, look-but-don’t touch relationship that both Rouxel (a svelte, porcelain-skin newcomer) and Wilson (a furrowed, graying veteran) seem born to play.
Laure is initially assigned a Midshipman’s desk directly outside the Director of Training’s office. Her job as protocol officer is to update the website, take photos, write articles for the Academy magazine. His byword is “valor and discipline,” period. She’s bored. But she’s drawn to the severe seven-week training regimen, slithering through mud, climbing ropes and scaling walls, under the stern supervision of the chief training officer (Alex Desces, superb, the toughest field instructor since Adolph Caesar in A Soldier’s Story).
They’re training to become a Green Beret equivalent of the WWII French Navy Commando Battalions, a key operational support. It’s all male but Laure wants in, echoing the proverb “No women in the Navy, no men either, just sailors.” Maybe she’s looking ahead to a tour of duty in Afghanistan, like her boss and his training pal just returned from. When Riviere sends Laure off to officer school for two weeks and quietly tells her “I can get along that long without you,” we sense the ambiguity of the line.
Director Fillieres makes it clear they’ve started thinking about each other, night and day. When Riviere turns down her request to join commando training, Laure starts getting in shape anyway, knowing she can’t yet clear an 8-foot wall. She gives up smoking as well as a boyfriend back home during a leave. Riviere watches her in moonlight, attacking the ropes and the wall again and again. She goes over Riviere to his female commandant, who approves her application.
Will Laure pass all the physical tests? Will she be approved for Special Ops support training, simulating actual combat situations in which she’ll have to use her knowledge of Russian? What will happen to the short female and male fuses of Laure and Riviere’s hearts that are building to—something? First and foremost, it’s Rouxel’s movie to win or lose. She’s given first-tier support by Wilson as well as Curentin Fila, on point as the gay, black midshipman who becomes Laure’s trusted wingman. Location work, production design, cinematography and especially music—including a song by Nick Cave, “Into My Arms,” that adds the right touch at the right moment—are all A-level.
Once Raising Colors pulls you in—and it does this very quickly—you’re in writer/director Fillieres’s capable hands, and you trust her instincts implicitly. The one other director represented in this festival you could say that about is Francois Truffaut, whose 1959 classic, The 400 Blows, is being given a much-deserved encore showing Sat. March 2 at 1:00pm.
Raising Colors shows Fri. March 1 at 4:00pm and Sun. March 3 at 5:45pm. (Q&A follows with Fillieres)
This concludes critic’s choices. Watch for Brokaw’s favorites in New Directors/New Films, March 27-April 7.
PARK CITY, Utah — Filmmaking dynasties like the Coppola and Huston clans, the Fondas and the Barrymores’ respective bloodlines are well known for proving that families who film together, oftentimes stick together. On a far more modest scale fueled by a resilient, independent spirit, Writer/Director/Producer Robert Machoian Graham (the filmmaker goes by his middle name in the credits of his work) embraces this mantra of familial artmaking in his own filmmaking practice to startling effect. For instance, when Machoian decided to write, direct and cast his charming short film The Minors, chronicling the day-in-the-life misadventures of a grandfather awakened by his grandsons for band practice, the filmmaker looked no further than his own father Bruce Graham and his three young sons Arri, Ezra and Jonah to portray his screenplay’s down-to-earth characters in a cross-generational punk band.
While in character, Bruce Graham is awakened for band practice by his real-life grandsons in his filmmaker son Robert Machoian’s award-winning short film The Minors.
Central casting be damned, Machoian and his family members find a wonderfully organic, on-camera chemistry and rapport that never feels forced or contrived. The 10-minute film’s deceptively simple narrative of a grandfather briefly jamming with his three grandchildren gradually blooms into a poignant meditation on the hard choices that many artists face when juggling family commitments with the private calling to follow one’s muse. And this question is framed by the filmmaker’s offbeat sense of humor and enthusiasm underscored by the subtle hint of the grandfather’s buried regrets.
But you won’t find any regrets when it comes to Machoian drawing inspiration from his family as his primary resource for actors and cinematic storytelling alike. The gamble of the 40-year-old filmmaker and associate professor of photography at Brigham Young University’s Design department paid off with his short film not only making the final cut as one of the 73 shorts featured at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, but his cinematic poem to the joys of domestic life won a well-deserved Short Film Jury Award for directing. The Minors is Machoian’s third project to screen at Sundance. In this Q&A interview, Machoian reveals his modus operandi for corralling his father and kids to join him on his journey to bring The Minors to fruition with a surplus of tender family love thrown into the mix.
NK: Your live-action, short film The Minors is a family affair on multiple levels since you cast your own father and your children as the film’s lively characters. During the writing process did you develop the characters with your parent and sons in mind? How did your father and sons react to your decision to cast them in such prominent parts where their performances would make or break your film?
RMG: Yes, it was a family affair! I have been working with my Dad and children for a while now. My father has been in most of my stuff actually. I try and get him in my films whether he is a man character or not. My children were in a feature I co-directed called God Bless the Child, though Jonah was one-and-a-half, and Ezra was four. The boys had been bugging me to do a film since that time, so I sat them down and asked if they were serious because I was about to spend some serious money. They said “yes,” my Dad said “yes,” and so I went to work writing. I only will do films with my kids if they want to. I want to be collaborators with them. So, if they are serious, then I’ll do something with them. If not, then I will write something else.
NK: Where are you from originally and when did filmmaking become your artistic medium of choice? Did you grow up with a camera as a means of expression, or did you pursue other creative pursuits before making short film as an indie filmmaker?
The cast of Writer/Director Robert Machoian pedal away on their way to band practice in The Minors.
RMG: I grew up in a small town with one video store, and for a short while a theater. I didn’t know filmmaking could be a dream or a medium. It was just the way I grew up. I knew working the farms or going to college were career paths. I didn’t even know what one did in college except learn more or get a certificate to teach like my father. I played in bands in high school and took painting courses, and thought I would do those things after high school was over. I am color blind and my painting teacher told me not to become a painter, and the band broke up, so I spent a period driving a truck for a dry-ice company with no clue what I wanted to do. I worked with a guy who was in his fifties and I found out at some point that he made 50 cents more than I did though he’d worked there for 25 years. Point is I realized I needed to go back to school, but I had no clue what for, so I tried and failed a few times. It wasn’t until I had my daughter, and I made a little documentary on her that I realized I had found something I could do, and would love doing, once I knew that I quit driving a truck and I went to school and plowed through it.
NK: Your father’s genuine and heartfelt musical performance at the film’s conclusion feels lived in and authentic, suggesting that the character had a life before the story began and a life that extends beyond the closing credits. How much did you draw upon your father’s own past as a musician to shape his performance in front of the camera?
RMG: I am so glad hear that! It is very much what I was going for! I draw on my father a lot. He’s my hero and a wonderful storyteller. He taught music for over 45 years, kindergarten all the way through high school. I had written that song years ago, thinking about how we dream when we are younger, and make promises we don’t understand we can’t keep. As I was writing the script, that song just kept asking to be in the film, so I finally put it in, and it just seemed to work. My father being a musician has such an amazing ability to put himself in the story. While lost love isn’t his particular story, he knows it. I also think it speaks to his skills as a performer, and I think writing it, I knew he’d just do such an amazing job.
NK: Collaboration can be a tricky balancing act, especially if your collaborators have a long, personal history with the filmmaker. What were the challenges of directing your father and your children, and what did you learn about them and yourself by going on this cinematic journey together as a family?
RMG: I think being in bands (as a young person) embedded in me the desire to collaborate. I think it helped me learn that while I might write a good chord progression, others will make it far better than what I brought into the practice room. I think I look for that in filmmaking as well. I want to see how collaborators will improve upon what I’ve laid down. I think my collaboration with Dad is always a struggle that I am very serious, and he is very cheesy, so there is always this back and forth in the beginning. I think we are getting better at working through it. I think this film in particular is the happy medium between both of us. The kids always have a hard time working long hours, so I have learned to be prepared before I bring them on set. These kids are pretty serious about making movies, and, maybe, that’s because they’ve grown up in a house that’s made films. I have learned two important things from them, which is rehearse, because it helps them be more natural, and to separate the filmmaking from home life. They have taught me it’s not fair to bring my frustrations home. Their work is work and home is their safe space.
NK: How do the intimate and personal themes of The Minors relate and/ or connect or, perhaps, depart from your earlier efforts in filmmaking?
RMG: I believe filmmaking is very similar to speaking. In the beginning of learning to speak, you use basic words that convey important needs: Hungry, tired, happy, and potty. As you grow and learn to be able to suggest ideas, convey thoughts. My early work is very much like that. My first feature is about death. It is a single note film that plays for an hour-and-a-half. That’s heavy. I think I am getting better at speaking as a filmmaker, and trying to convey ideas, as opposed to single needs. To be honest, I felt very naked sharing this short. I am not sure if people would get what I was trying to say.
NK: Were you in a punk band as a youth like the film’s pre-adolescent characters?
RMG: Yes, I played in punk bands and a ska band when I was younger. Jonah the youngest kid in the film is dressed as a homage to two huge influences in my life: Ian Mackaye and Henry Rollins. So much of my moral foundation is based off growing up listening to them.
NK: How has the film’s successful festival run thus far with winning a directing award at Sundance suggest or plant ideas for future projects for your filmmaking practice?
A character takes a moment in Robert Machoian’s short film The Minors, winner of a Short Film Jury Award for Directing at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
RMG: I dream of making larger works, something Oscar worthy. But I am also a punk kid from the middle of nowhere and the DIY ideology of my roots pushes me to just keep making work without regard. I am currently editing a feature film I shot in December, prepping a short to shoot in March/April and my Dad, brother and I are working on a feature idea that I think is pulled from the Minors. This idea of a man in his seventies who was in a one-hit-wonder band in his youth, and now retired from a job he has worked forever, heads back out on the road. I am watching a ton of ‘60s and ‘70s films as reference! Two-Lane Blacktop is one of my all-time favorite films!
NK: What do you hope viewers will find and discover as they encounter and observe your ragtag, rough-around-the-edges, yet endearing characters tap into their creativity during the band’s fleeting band practice? Funny and strangely hinting at buried regrets, The Minors appears to be asking questions about artists faced with the dilemma of choosing life paths. Does one embrace having a family with all that such a lifelong commitment entails or pursue a more solitary path as an artist or musician? How do you find the right balance in your own life as a father and son with an aging parent?
RMG: Realism in cinema often addresses tough issues with living. And while I love those films, and have made them, I also wanted to talk about more complex things than just social economic status issues. I think it’s because as a teacher I am finally in a place where I know what allows me to feed the kids. As a father, I am able to provide. Now the question I have been having is as an artist is where am I going to push myself. I am in this dilemma!
I don’t know that balance is a thing an artist can achieve – not if they are going to push themselves into the unknown. I think when artists talk about achieving balance, they are really addressing acceptance. For example, if I said to myself, “I won a jury award at Sundance. As an educator, I have received all the credentials I need to teach students film for the next 30 years.” If from this point on I just made a short every few years, and taught and raised my kids, I would be achieving “balance” though acceptance of a certain life. I respect individuals I know that come to some form of balance. Unfortunately, I don’t function that way. While I don’t dream of making a blockbuster, I do dream of making a Two-Lane Blacktop or a Scarecrow, or a Last Picture Show. I am always chasing the unknown. The result is I find I am just keeping the plates spinning, keep my job happy enough not to fire me, my students happy enough not to complain, my kids happy enough not to hate me, and my wife happy enough not to leave me, so I can make the next film the best it can be! So, I wouldn’t claim any balance at all.
NK: What’s next for you on your adventures in the wilderness of independent filmmaking and can viewers view your film online?
RMG: I am trying to update my Web site (http://robertmachoian.com) so content will be available, but I did a series of documentaries with my common collaborator Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck called American Nobodies, about 40 short docs on people and the interesting things they do. I am also working on the above-mentioned stuff. With the Sundance win and assessing how I can grow, I am wondering if, maybe, John Leguizamo would consider making a film of some sort with me! Will people take meetings with me with a win? I’ve got ideas!
NK: Getting into the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is quite a feather in your cap. Do you have any advice for aspiring and/ or emerging filmmakers trying to tell their own stories during this particular moment when the rules of cinematic storytelling are changing due to new platforms and a glut of content competing for our attention?
RMG: Yes, make work, make lots of it, fail and succeed. Indifferent work is also important! Learn to speak, and speak well because the result can and has changed the way we see the world, and understand it! It takes time and a lot of work. The platforms are changing, but so is the process of making work, you don’t need $30,000 just to say something in nine minutes. See things as a liberation. If a Panda farting and sneezing can get a billion views, what can you say to compete with that? Then, email me because I haven’t found that answer yet! Just make work. If you love it, keep doing it.
Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin is a cult classic ready to happen. A truly original, weird, and eerie film that melds the genres of teen film, horror, feminist fantasy, and thriller, it brims with lush sets, ghostly acapella music, and strangely compelling characters.
Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Knives and Skin is Reeder’s first feature. Before this, she wrote and directed numerous acclaimed short films like Blood Below the Skin and A Million Miles Away that screened at festivals like Sundance, Rotterdam, and Berlinale. Reeder received funding for the film through a 2015 Creative Capital award, support which she remains grateful for, knowing “it can be quite hard to finance a film like this in the U.S.” After her film’s recent premiere at Berlinale, Reeder here talks about her influences as a filmmaker and her big vision for the film and for women filmmakers, saying, “This is a super-charged time to be a woman behind the camera. We are here. We are ready. We are coming for your jobs and your awards.” I believe she is. Watch out.
Can you talk about your films, particularly Knives and Skin fitting into a history of the teen film?
Jennifer Reeder: For me, teen films are a great way to experiment with art direction and the visual tone of a film, because youth is where so many experiment with their own private art direction, especially girls—fashion, make-up, music, culture, politics…it can be a game of dress-up with long term and meaningful impact. I like to say that “coming-of-age” is a lifelong process and yet we really only let young people evolve and only one time. The young people in my film are in transition because they are young…they are just trying to survive their daily life, while it’s actually their parents (the adults in this film) who are going through major life changes. In this film and many of my other shorts before this, I try to present unexpected roles and outcomes. Usually, the adults are making all the mistakes and the young people are standing by waiting to offer the sage advice. For me, this is true in real life. We need to trust young people…they know things…
I read an article in IndieWire where you say that this film takes on the challenge, “How do you make a feminist teen horror film where you still have a dead girl, who’s dead within the first 10 minutes of the film?” Can you talk about that?
Reeder: Firstly, I am a feminist and with the exception of one, all 50 or so of my films have been about the experiences of girls and women—especially the unruly ones. I have always loved teen films and more recently I have been really into genre films like thriller/horror but specifically by female directors and/or directors of color. A trope of so very many thriller/horror films and television however, is a dead or missing girl which is problematic for a feminist. So in this film, I wanted to deal with this issue directly. My dead girl is not just emblematic, she has purpose and will. Carolyn Harper is not erased or even erasable. Her death is not meaningless, it’s a call to action—a grrrl power battle cry. Additionally, she is all at once, a princess, a ghost and a magical monster.
What do you think of the comparison that author makes of your work to Lynch, Waters, Solondz—all male directors? Which directors do you admire?
Reeder: I don’t mind those comparisons. I love all of those directors plus other men like Todd Haynes, Francois Ozon, and Steve McQueen. The visual influences for Knives and Skin however, can just as easily be attributed to the films of Maya Deren or the visual art of Francesca Woodman, Ana Mendieta or Jenny Seville. There is one scene in particular which is a direct reference to Jeanne Dielman by Chantel Ackerman. In terms of characters, I love how Kelly Reichardt, Andrea Arnold and Lynn Ramsey all portray difficult women. There are so many great films that have been made by men, but perhaps they should be done now for a while. This is a super-charged time to be a woman behind the camera. We are here. We are ready. We are coming for your jobs and your awards.
A still from Jennifer Reeder’s film Knives and Skin
The music in Knives and Skin is incredibly powerful and eerie. Did the actresses perform the songs themselves?
Reeder: Most of my recent short films (see below for links) have included some sort of choir performance and in particular a lullaby-like arrangement of a pop song. I know exactly how these scenes function in the films. So when I set out to write this feature length, I knew the girls would sing, and I hand-picked all the songs in the film. They are very specific. We indeed cast actresses who could sing and those are their own voices. We recorded a few of the songs with them prior to the start of principle production and the singing truly bonded those young women together before they stepped foot onto set. This film is bursting with song and yet it’s not a musical. The choir scenes for me present a kind of harmony and synchronicity that does not exist among the characters in so many of the other scenes. Unlike Lynch, my parallel worlds and heaven and my real worlds are hell.
Knives and Skin is not quite traditional horror—in a way, it’s creepier, because of some of the realism and midwest setting mixed in with what feels like almost magical or extra-worldly elements. Can you talk about how you feel about your film fitting in or not fitting in to genre?
Reeder: For me, the teen film as a genre is the perfect base with which to introduce whispers of other genres, like horror, thriller, family drama, the musical. I am a visual filmmaker…I actually came to filmmaking through visual art. And for me, horror in particular is a very satisfying way to introduce unexpected visual elements, like much of the VFX that appear in Knives and Skin. Plus I have always been drawn to stories about trauma and coping—humans and specifically women, raising to the challenges of their lives…surviving what they think they cannot. This kind of character arc for me, when folded into a certain kind of horror thread can be quite moving. I do not intend to make messy films, but complex films…films that have more sharp edges. Audiences should not see what is coming around the corner, for better or worse.
Where will Knives and Skin screen next?
Reeder: I have just returned from an outstanding Berlinale experience…five of five sold out screenings and the most robust audiences. The film does have a North American premiere confirmed but that information is not public yet. I am anticipating that it will have a theatrical release and be the must-see film for everyone on the planet this coming summer… I want to see people pouring out of theaters singing (and believing) girls just wanna have fun.
Clip from Knives and Skin
Exclusive first look at KNIVES clip #5 - YouTube
Reeder’s Recent Short Film: Blood Below the Skin
(screened at Berlinale 2015)
Blood Below the Skin - Vimeo
Reader’s Short Film: A Million Miles Away
(screened at Sundance 2015)
Winning the Generation KPlus Crystal Bear for Best Film at this year’s Berlinale, Une Colonie, directed by Geneviève Dulude-De Celles, tells the coming-of-age story of Mylia as she enters her first year of high school. The story is wonderfully depicted by several young actors—many of whom make their debut here—such as Emilie Bierre as Mylia, Irlande Côté as her younger sister Camille, and Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoie as Jimmy, a boy from the Abenaki Reserve they befriend. Dulude-De Celles works a quiet pacing into the film compelling us as an audience to linger in some of the awkward and difficult moments of growing up, as Mylia tries to figure out who she wants to be in her new world.
Director Geneviève Dulude-De Celles / Photo by Julie Caron
In this interview, director/writer Dulude-De Celles talks about finding and working with the cast of the film and her decision to depict more of the story as “non-said” through characters’ actions.
The youth in the film are incredible actors. Can you talk about finding them and working with them?
Geneviève Dulude-De Celles: It took us five months to find the actors. Eventually, we decided to go outside of the casting agency process to find new talents.
For two months, we focused on a lot of rehearsals and coaching together since for several of them, it was their first experience on a film set. Those rehearsals made them more comfortable and it gave us time to create a real complexity between the characters. I had a specific strategy for the actors—I would discuss the script deeply with some actors (the main protagonist, for instance) and then I didn’t give the script to other actor (to make sure the actor knows as little as their character). I used improvisation to give more spontaneity to the scenes.
The scene in the bathroom with Mylia and Vincent is so uncomfortable to watch, but feels important in the film, especially in the midst of our current conversations on consent. Can you talk about that?
Dulude-De Celles: When we shot it, we made some clear boundaries so it was done with respect. In the film, there is a mix of different things: it’s Mylia who brings Vincent into this situation, and he interprets it as a sign of interest. But then things change, and Mylia realizes she doesn’t want to be there. So it’s on the fine line of consent. A complicated situation.
I couldn’t help but wonder how the faux gun scenes would play somewhere like America where youth violence is all too real. Can you talk about the intention of these scenes?
Dulude-De Celles: This symbol for me is not that violent coming out from the character of Mylia—it’s more just play. I was inspired by a film of Lucian Pintilie (The Oak). For me, it was a tribute to that film which was important for me. The idea was also to represent Mylia as a hunter (as Jimmy used to say) and, in a more abstract way, to represent her desire to break free.
Emilie Bierre as Mylia in Une Colonie
This film is an unusually quiet film—it’s almost as if the point is for us to imagine what’s going on in her head. Can you talk about that method of writing and directing?
Dulude-De Celles: I don’t like to reveal too much through dialogue. I prefer the “non-said” so the viewer must guess what is going on. I think we can get easily what’s happening in Mylia’s mind. And in reality, I don’t think this character would be the kind to speak out loud and verbalize her feelings; she would keep it to herself.
How did the screenings go at Berlinale?
Dulude-De Celles: We had a beautiful exchange with the audience at Berlinale, and we sold out the 1,018 theater for our premiere! We felt that the public enjoyed our movie and people came to us after and said they recognized themselves in the character. We learned at the end of the festival that we won the Crystal Bear for Best Film in our category—that was fantastic!
Trailer de Une colonie (HD) - YouTube
Une Colonie premiered at Berlinale in February 2019, and it will screen in Sweden at the BUFF Film Festival in March 2019. Follow them on their Facebook page.