September 2009

Last updated on September 1, 2009. Please check back later for additions.


The Cinema Lounge
Adam's Rib Gives the Ps and Qs for Q&As
Yoo-Hoo Aviva Kempner!
Lorna's Silence: Brief Q&A with the Dardenne Brothers
Amreeka: Q&A with Director Cherien Dabis
Still Walking: Seen in Toronto and Coming Here Soon
The Munich Film Festival
We Need to Hear From You
Calendar of Events

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The Cinema Lounge

The next meeting of the Cinema Lounge will be on Monday, September 14 at 7:00pm. Our topic is "Spring/Summer movie review; Fall/Winter movie preview".

The Cinema Lounge, a film discussion group, meets the second Monday of every month at 7:00pm at
Barnes and Noble, 555 12th St., NW in Washington, DC (near the Metro Center Metro stop). You do not need to be a member of the Washington DC Film Society to attend. Cinema Lounge is moderated by Daniel R. Vovak, ghostwriter with Greenwich Creations.

Last month at Cinema Lounge
On August 10, 2009, the attendees of the Cinema Lounge discussed "Journalism in Movies." I must admit that this column is written from Paris while I am on vacation, dining at an outdoor cafe. Next to me (on a sidewalk) is a journalism stand frequented by many people, proving there are still places in this world where news-on-paper has value.

The Front Page (1931 & 1974) and His Girl Friday (1940) set early standards for movies about journalism. Yet it was not until 1976 when movies in a pre-Internet journalistic era found their new standard with Network (1976) and All the President's Men (1976). Network (1976) is an unforgettable satire, with a mostly-unknown cast but a piercingly strong theme. Ironically, it was a movie that mocked journalism from the inside, though thirty-some years later it seems like a realistic portrayal of the new business of today.

All the President's Men (1976) featured Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman who portrayed actual reporters at The Washington Post whose Democratic political bias ultimately led to attack President Nixon for being aware of a trite breaking-and-entering charge by a handful of men at Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Apartments. The reporters painstakingly try to solve the mystery, seemingly unaware that the Republicans could be behind it. Unskilled at solving the mystery on their own, the reporters find an FBI agent ("Deep Throat") to rat out the President, whom he has sworn to serve and protect. (To show my lack of political bias, I would encourage screenwriters to write about the Iran-Contra Affair under President Reagan, as it was far more worthy of a movie topic and journalism in the '80s.)

The Paper (1994) is an excellent movie 90% true to actual journalism, staring Robert Duvall, Glenn Close and Michael Keaton. They work for The Sun, a fictional New York tabloid modeled on the New York Post. The film is probably the best portrayal of life inside the print journalism industry. However, I am certain that no newspaper would have stopped the press so late in the night for such a seemingly small erroneous detail!

Citizen Kane (1941) is the greatest movie of all time because it spoke truth to power. Imagine a modern movie playing honestly with the mostly-secretive lives of Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner. Such was the case of Orson Welles with William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane. Perhaps only today's Michael Moore has such a credible film resume, though his style is with documentary-like movies.

Also brilliant is Deadline USA (1952), with Humphrey Bogart, a fictionalized version of the death of the NY World. Absence of Malice (1981) is about ethics and the consequences of printing damaging information. The Killing Fields (1984) is a true story of photographer Dith Pran and a reporter during the fall of Laos and its aftermath. Broadcast News (1987) is about what is fake in the news business. The Pelican Brief (1993) stars Denzel Washington as a newspaper reporter, mixing children into journalism. The Truman Show (1998) is not really about journalism, but about America's television culture and its invasion into people’s personal space. Shattered Glass (2003) focuses on media ethics and how easy it is to ignore newsroom faults in media. It's based on the true story of Stephen Glass at the New Republic.

Good Night and Good Luck (2005) is the story of Edward R. Murrow and his fight against McCarthyism. Catch the scene when he smokes on air, a sin under the new MPAA rules. The Devil Wears Prada (2006) is an advertisement-driven movie focused about the fashion magazine. A young woman reporter is duped by a veteran journalist (Meryl Streep), who uses the naive reporter to further Streep's agenda and save Streep's job (and reputation within the industry). Lastly, I should note that Superman (1978) and Spiderman use journalists as superheroes. Both movies had many sequels and proved to be highly profitable.

Adam's Rib Gives the Ps and Qs for Q&As

By Adam Spector, DC Film Society Member

When done right, Q&As after a film can be both enjoyable and informative. But the success depends as much on the audience as it does on the speakers. Questioners must remember that they are not having a private conversation and that these sessions are an opportunity for every person in the theater. Good questions about the film or the special guest make the most of this opportunity. Anything else is a waste. To that end, here are a few tips in my
new Adam's Rib column.

Yoo-Hoo Aviva Kempner!

Q&A with Washingtonian and Film Director Aviva Kempner

By Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Member

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, a documentary about Gertrude Berg and her radio and TV show, opened in July and is still playing at the Avalon Theater. This Q&A took place at the Avalon on July 18, 2009.

Aviva Kempner: People always ask how I got Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be in the film. I had an appointment with her and said, "Hello Justice Ginsberg, my name is Aviva Kempner, and I made the film on Hank Greenberg" and she smiled, so I thought at least I’ve made it to second base. "I am interested in making a film about Molly Goldberg." Then she really smiled, so I thought a home run was coming up. So I said, "I am making the movie and I would love to interview you. If you saw the film about Hank Greenberg, you notice I have interviews with Sander and Carl Levin, and I am proud to be a DC film maker and am happy to have the voices from Washington." She agreed, and I came to the Lawyer’s Lounge of the Supreme Court and had one of the best half hours of my life. I said, "You know I’ve made a film about Greenberg and Goldberg, maybe I should make one about Ginsburg next. It would be a Jewish law firm." Some of you may know that I came to DC, went to law school and was a good immigration lawyer. But I don’t test well, so thanks to the DC Bar I am a film maker. However, that night after speaking to Justice Ginsberg, I went home and sent an e-mail titled: "Aviva finally makes it to the Lawyer’s Lounge of the Supreme Court," and I sent it to everyone I went to law school with.

Question: Why is Molly Goldberg almost forgotten?
AV: I think there are several reasons: (1) Her shows were never in syndication. The good news is that UCLA will put together her shows as a DVD collection, to be available at some future date. (2) I also think that she was such an early pioneer, you see this in science and medicine and other areas also, that the first one out is not always remembered. (3) I think the black list tagging really hurt her. Some call her the most famous American woman you never heard of. Imagine if 50 years from now, no one knews who Oprah was… I would think Wikipedia at least will exist until then. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Molly. My goal is to make films about little known Jewish heroes, and in this case a Jewish heroine.

Can I tell you the Steve McQueen story? I know some of you will ask this. I was in Santa Fe where Fuzzy McQuade, a famous TV actress, lives. Fuzzy said, “You know I should tell you about one of my boyfriends who was dying to get into TV and films, or anywhere and he drove a motorcycle." So what’s the story, Fuzzy? "Well I told him they need someone to dress in shorts and look like a gladiator, so I thought of my boyfriend and so we ran down together and tried out and got the part." What was his name? "Steve McQueen." That will be added to the DVD and be released for Mother’s Day. And her other story was about this other actress Anna Italiano that she used to curl her hair with who was very talented. She said she wanted to go to L.A. and make it in the film industry. She did and changed her name to Anne Bancroft.

If you wonder why Gertrude Berg’s kids aren’t in the film: When I started the project several years ago, unfortunately, her children were already dead. Also when I finally got the Anne Bancroft story she already had recently died. That’s why it is so important to do these stories while pertinent people are still alive and to make these historical documentaries sooner rather than later.

Q: Glen Smith is listed in your credits. Can you tell us more about that?
AV: Yes. Glen, who comes from Mississippi, is a historian. I obviously come from a background of a family of Holocaust survivors that wants to make films about Jewish heroes. Glen comes from another perspective, he is an American studies professor and historian. He teaches early TV, and when he saw some of the shows he immediately understood what an important media person she was. His next book will be on Phillip Loeb, and no, I will not be doing a film on him. Although the Post review was very positive, I don’t agree there was too much Phillip Loeb in the film. I think that Phillip Loeb and other blacklisted actors, writers, and directors is one of the great American tragedies for the entertainment industry and the fact that audiences did not see their work for many years. I cannot say enough to expose the blacklist; especially here in Washington where the witch trials went on.

Q: First I would like to thank you for your body of work. I took my sons to see The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and they didn’t know who he was.
AV: It’s all about education, education, education. The nicest thing is to see young children here tonight; I want to see three or four generations become aware of these people. Each generation needs to know what came before them and where we are going.

Q: What year was the interview with Ed Murrow?
AV: I am not quite sure, but it was in the 1950’s, you can tell by her dress. But without that important interview, I don’t think I could have presented Gertrude Berg as the non-Molly, because most of her TV appearances were more Mollyesque. And can I also tell you the story of the breakfront and Harriet? Did she get it? Harriet’s husband, Dr. Schwartz, said, “Harriet never liked it and didn’t want it.” It made for good TV but she really didn’t want it.

Q: I wondered why she never got knocked aside in a time when anti-Semitism was rising in America?
AV: I should write an essay on that. How did she succeed at a time there was so much rising anti-Semitism? I think when you have athletic prowess like Hank Greenberg, or a genius like Molly Goldberg, and I feel she was a genius, that you rise above everything else going on around you. It’s like the Jackie Robinson story. She was amazing. I think some of the new Jewish comics are gross, crude and really very lazy. I may be prudish but it is not really great writing. Molly had great writing which will be evident when the DVD comes out. The skit The Doctor and the Dentist is so funny. It was successful not because it was a Jewish show but because it crossed all cultures. It was an American show. Being from a family of immigrants, that always makes me cry a little. Lots of people lived in apartment buildings and had accents, so it went way beyond the Jewish culture. Andrea Roane told me she loved watching The Goldbergs growing up in New Orleans. We responded because it was a show about families. Susan Stamberg also agrees that it was just about families.

Q: Why did you pick Molly Greenberg?
AV: It’s a generational thing. People grew up listening to her TV or radio show, but it is still obscure. Also if you know your history of TV and radio or feminism, you know who she is. I was looking around for another little-known Jewish character. I went to the Jewish Museum and there was an exhibit called "Jews Entertaining America" and they recreated her living room. By the way, most of those other interview scenes were photographed in my house. My camera man said “I’ve done everything but the bathroom.” Also, when voting time came I would yell out the window, "Yoo hoo, let’s go to vote." So I have been aware of her for some time while this project has been brewing.

Q: Was there a surprise in making the film?
AV: I am filming the grandson Lou, an engineer who lived 30 years after his wife died. One journalist said she thought Molly’s husband invented the coffee that made the family rich. It was Molly who made the wealth. And have you ever seen product placement like on her shows? I would love to see a rip off commercial of this type during the Superbowl shows.

Q: Did she go to college?
AV: That’s a lie in her book. She said she went to Columbia. She didn’t, although she was a self-educated woman. I also found another lie in her book--she said publicly that she was born in 1899. I like to use a birth certificate. I looked at the New York records and there was no Tilly Edelstein (her birth name) in 1899. It was common for movie stars to lie about their age. We went back one more year and found her name in 1898, but her gravestone says 1899.

Q: Can you talk about the Cardinal Spellman story?
AV: Margaret Nagle was also trying to get a film off the ground about Gertrude Berg starring Bette Midler. In trying to make the film, Margaret got to to interview the daughter, Harriet. Harriet told her that Gertrude went to see Spellman and said, "You’ll never believe what the Cardinal said to me.” I don’t know if it would hold in court. As a documentarian I believe it. Margaret and I will be discussing many issues on a panel later. I grew up in Detroit, so I added the Coughlin story also and the footage about whites playing Amos and Andy which is incredible even today.

Q: What about your funding for this film?
AV: On Hank Greenburg I got funding after the film was done, but on this one, I was going to lose my audience if I waited too long. Ciesla Foundation is my company, named after my grandparents who died in Auschwitz. I am dipping into retirement funds and other monies to get this film out there quickly. People always ask how I raise the money. I like to say as Blanche did in Streetcar Named Desire, "I depend on the kindness of strangers." Of course, she was going to the looney bin and I am trying to avoid going to jail. Checks are tax deductible and you can find forms
on the website.

Q: How did Molly really live at home, did she have help?
AV: That’s really an interesting question. She had two servants to do cooking and cleaning. She had a very understanding husband, who typed her scripts. The family did lose out sometimes, she may have just not been there for her kids. Harriet had also married and left the house by then. The grandchildren always talked about how great she was and how she brought them gifts. But there is always that price to pay. One story was that she made so much noise in the library trying to write her scripts that she did have to go home sometimes and do it. Something none of the reviews have touched on is that here is a woman writing about this warm, affectionate mother figure, and she was denied that from her own mother. Use whatever pop psychology you want, but it is amazing that she developed this character of a mother that she didn’t have herself.

Q: What’s next?
AV: I co-wrote a script with Ben West, a fine scriptwriter here in town, on Larry Casuse, who was a Navajo activist I knew when I was in VISTA in the early 70s. It’s not Jewish, but it’s tribal. I would rather produce than direct it. I would like to go back in American history a bit and maybe do Samuel Gompers. Samuel Gompers was the man who started the AFL, but literally organized millions of workers. His statue is on Massachusetts Avenue near 13th Street, ironically near the Cato Institute. He is in a three-piece suit, with Justice and her children. That is one project. I was also inspired by hearing Julian Bond lecture about Black-Jewish relations. At the turn of the century the great philanthropist Julian Rosenwald, part owner of Sears Roebuck, partnered with Booker T. Washington to build over 5,000 schools in the rural South to teach young African-Americans education, education, education. I just think it is another great untold story.

Lorna's Silence: Brief Q&A with the Dardenne Brothers

By James McCaskill and Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Members

Lorna's Silence (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy, 2008) is currently in DC area theaters. This short Q&A took place at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008.

The latest film from the Dardenne brothers extends the theme of the renowned Belgian filmmakers' earlier work by offering a sharp critique of the injustices borne by society's less privileged. Lorna's Silence focuses on a young Albanian woman involved in a precarious immigration scam. Desperate to stay in the Belgian city of Liege and buoyed by dreams of a better life, Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) allows herself to be wooed by the schemes of an unscrupulous gangster, Fabio (Fabrizio Ronginne). The inner life of a Dardenne brothers film is always emotionally complex, and the moral compass of Lorna's Silence revolves around whether Lorna will stay silent about Fabio's plans or cast aside her own chance for prosperity. Having underclass city settings, natural lighting and minimal, if any, music, [the Dardennes] have evolved a characteristically hard-knock form of social realism. The film's restrained aesthetic only heightening the drams that unfolds in Lorna's stark life and adding an austere kind of redemption to her moral quandary. (Notes by Demitri Eipides from the TIFF catalogue).

Q: Tell us a little about the main actress in the film.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: Arta Dobroshi is a young actress from Kosovo. She has played in three films in Albania, and Sarajevo and went to the University of Christina.

Q: There are also some familiar actors that are in your other films.
Dardennes: Yes, Jeremie Renier, who plays Claudy, and Olivier Gourmet, who plays the inspector, have been in most of our films.

Q: As in some of your other films, you like to use real sound and organic noise or style that allows the viewer to concentrate on the actors. Don’t you like to use music in films?
Dardennes: Actually for the first time, we did use a little music at the end of the film. We like to think the voices and sounds of the actors and the surroundings are our music.

Q: Who is the film dedicated to and why?
Dardennes: Henry Ingberg, a government administrator who was responsible for the French language film industry in Belgium. He created a national center for films in Belgium. We have also done theater with him and he had passed away.

Q: Can you explain the title of the movie: Lorna’s Silence?
Dardennes: I think the film explains itself. If she keeps silent, Claudy will die. If she talks it would be a different story. So her silence is for the child.

Q: Why was Lorna so indebted to Fabio?
Dardennes: Because she could talk--it is dangerous for him and his associates, and also for Lorna and her plans.

Q: What is the process you use in rehearsing, making, and shooting the film?
Dardennes: We made repetitions or rehearsals for 2 months. We shot the film in 12 weeks.

Q: How is it to have two directors, and those brothers to work on the set?
Dardennes: At another recent screening a woman in the audience also asked this question. I think she wanted to hear that we had quarrels on the set. We have worked together for over 30 years, and rarely disagree about anything. We work together to do the casting and the making of the film.

Lorna's Silence opened on August 28th at Landmark's E Street Cinema and AMC Loews Shirlington 7 Theaters. It won the best screenplay award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and also won the 2009 Lumiere Award as the best French language film.

Amreeka: Q&A with Director Cherien Dabis

By Anita Glick and Annette Graham, DC Film Society Members

This Q&A took place on July 5 at the National Geographic Society's Grosvenor Auditorium. After a short discussion moderated by Fatima Rahmatullah, Hollywood Liaison, Muslim Public Affairs Council, questions were taken from the audience.

Fatima Rahmatullah: Amreeka was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this year. The film received a five minute standing ovation, winning [director Cherien Dabis] the prestigious Critics' Prize [FIPRESCI]. Cherien was recently named Variety's ten best directors to watch in 2009.

Photo of Cherien Dabis at the screening; thanks to DC Film Society member Janette Yeap.

FR: Where did the idea of this film first come about?
Cherien Dabis: The film is very much inspired by my family. It's semi-autobiographical and loosely based on true events. I grew up in a really small town in Ohio, a town of 10,000 people. We were one of a very few handful of immigrant families and for the most part we got by and everything was okay. My father was a physician and he was sort of the local town hero until the 1991 Gulf War when suddenly overnight he became the enemy. As in the movie, his patients walked out on him because they didn't want to see an Arab doctor. We got death threats on a daily basis for a time. The newspaper printed up letters to the editor saying things like, "Those Arabs should leave town." The Secret Service actually came to our high school to investigate a rumor that my sister threatened to kill the President. So all these events made a big impression on me at the age of 14. I became really obsessed with the news, the media and the way the media was perpetuating stereotypes of Arabs and the way those stereotypes were having a direct impact on me and my family. That was the spark of my drive to become a storyteller I think. It was really crazy to me that no one saw things from our point of view and that we weren't represented anywhere. And if we were represented we were grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. So I kind of made it my mission in life to do something about that and I didn't know how and I didn't know what I would do. It took ten years exploring all different ways in which I would have some kind of effect on the images that were being put out there into the world. When I moved to New York the week before 9/11 to start film school at Columbia University, it was funny because it was history repeating itself: the US invading Iraq again and I was hearing all these stories of Middle Easterners being scapegoated. It was the breaking point for me. This is enough. I can not believe that ten years later, twelve years later this is still happening and in some ways it got worse under the Bush administration with the Patriot Act. When I sat down to script the story I was very much inspired by my family and inspired by the love of my family and wanting to put that out into the world rather than focus too much on the heaviness of what happened to us, the drama, the pain of what happened. I wanted to put that in the background and make that the context of the film. And I wanted to build the film around characters that I knew. I really allowed my family to inspire me because I felt that there was no portrayal of an authentic Palestinian or really any authentic Arab family anywhere in the media.

FR: How important was it to you to make sure they were actual Arab actors, rather than taking local actors here in America?
CD: It was my number one priority. I repeated it over and over, probably to the point that my producers and my crew were so sick of me. But it was like I need to drive a point home. I wanted to make a movie that was authentic, real and had a sense of intimacy. It was authenticity, realism and intimacy that I was obsessed with. After 9/11 there were movies that portrayed Middle Easterners but they were very issue-driven films, they were politically didactic and kept you at an arm's length from the Middle Eastern characters. There was no warmth about them, no insider's point of view, no getting into the story. So I really wanted to create an intimate portrait of a Palestinian family and authenticity was my number one concern and really taking a look at a family from an insider's point of view, which is what I am, obviously. And so casting authentic actors was imperative to making that goal happen. It was really funny, because when I first started casting this--and it was a huge challenge to find the financing when you want to cast authentically--you're looking at very specific characters. For the character of Muna, she was written as slightly overweight. There were language specificities. She had to speak both Arabic and English. So there were physical and linguistic requirements. It's hard enough to find a good actor. The more specific you get the more difficult it becomes. When I started casting this and shopping it around there were producers who would say, "Well isn't Selma Hayek half Lebanese?" And I thought, well even if she was fully Lebanese, which she's not, she's incredibly Mexican-identified; she would not be right for the role of Muna. So it was that kind of thing I was constantly butting up against in this business. If you want to make a movie about real people with people who look like real people, then you're going to have to fight those battles.

FR: How were you able to get permission to shoot the film in the West Bank?
CD: I had actually shot there once before. My father is from the north of the West Bank and I went there in 2005 to make a short film [Make a Wish, 2006]. I spent three months there and it was just the craziest thing I'd ever done, because I had no idea how to make a movie in the West Bank. I was a relatively new filmmaker. There are so many challenges to making a movie, let alone making it in an area where there's so many politics around movement. So that experience actually set the stage for Amreeka because I learned the hard way what I needed to do to get equipment in and out of checkpoints and all that. But it's funny, because this time around, because I'd done it before I knew what the challenges were. We were so completely overly prepared. We had gotten permission from the Palestinian Authority which was the only permit we really needed. We could pretty much shoot in any location in the West Bank we wanted as long as we didn't go too close to any real checkpoint or the borders. We had an amazing Palestinian line producer as well, whose brother [Michel Khleifi] made the very first Palestinian movie Wedding in Galilee. He had produced a number of Palestinian films. So between preparation, having a great line producer in Palestine and a lot of luck, we ended up having the smoothest shoot ever. Shooting in Palestine was my favorite part of making the whole movie because in some ways it was so much more organic than shooting in North America where there was tons of bureaucracy, people working in unions and everything had to be down to the minute and you have to close down a store and fill it with extras. That's the way you make movies, you manipulate everything in front of the screen. Whereas in Palestine it was so much more organic and laid back. You didn't close anything down because that's not how it operates there. You leave things open and you actually capture life as it happens in front of you. Except for a few key scenes like the checkpoint which we had to entirely re-create. But for the most part I wanted to keep things open and I wanted to shoot it in a semi-documentary style and shooting in Palestine made that so much easier.

FR: What did you ultimately want to do with this film when you first started it and how do you see it now?
CD: I wanted to create an intimate portrait of a Palestinian family but even more than that, I wanted to create one that was really accessible to mainstream audiences. I wanted to create a character that was unexpected--a Palestinian single mom, very strong woman, a woman who has every reason to be cynical but is instead full of hope in spite of all the challenges she faces. I wanted to make a movie that was warm and touching and authentic but really accessible. And the way I set about making it accessible was to use humor as a way to allow the audience in. I was watching all these movies coming out after 9/11 like Rendition, Syriana and the politics may have been in the right place for some of those films. But there was no access point. There was no place where the audience could really bond with the characters or understand the characters or feel a sense of intimacy with the characters and that's what I wanted to do in this film. Based on the response that I've gotten, I feel that to a certain point I have succeeded in doing that which has been encouraging and exciting. And my ultimate goal, my biggest pie in the sky dream when making this movie was for the people in the small town in Ohio that I grew up in--the ones who called the FBI on my sister--I wanted them to see this film.

Question: Did you plan the end of the movie or did the distributor tell you to change the ending?
CD: No. The distributor picked it up as is, we just had to change some of the language slightly to make it a PG-13. For example, there were a lot more F-words in the movie before the version that you saw. We didn't do any picture editing, except to bring it down to a PG-13 rating. It was just the language and the pot smoking to minimize the joint touching the lips. That's how specific it gets. The ending was there. It was intact.

Q: How did you get people to invest in the film?
CD: I started writing the script in 2003 when I was in film school, so already I had the guidance of a community of filmmaking staff and peers. And I had some guidance as to where to go, how to go out into the world to get it noticed, get it seen and get it read by people. So I started taking it out around 2004-2005 and around the same time I made my short film which I shot entirely in Palestine in 2005. It did really well on the festival circuit 2006-2007. It went to Sundance [where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize], it went to Berlin, it went to Clermont-Ferrand which is like the Cannes of short film festivals and won 13 international awards. So it was really the short film combined with the screenplay that got me noticed. The screenplay alone wasn't doing it for people because it was such an execution-driven film. People thought it was episodic and very execution-driven. So it was really the script in combination with my short film that got people to stop and say, "Wait a minute--this could be interesting." And at the same time I was making the short and having success with that, I was applying to every program out there--and there's a ton of programs out there for emerging filmmakers--from the Sundance Institute, the Tribeca to Film Independent. It was through those programs that I started meeting people who could help me find the financing for this film. And it was specifically through Tribeca All-Access that I met my executive producer who put me in touch with my anchor investor and I think ultimately what convinced them was the combination of the script which I had developed over many years--by that time I had written about 18 drafts of and my short film that convinced people to invest in the film. And also the track record and the fact that we had gotten so many accolades from the independent film community. And there was a lot of support on the project. So I had this endorsement of a lot of different organizations which was really helpful.

Q: Movies are the key medium in the world for solving racism because for most people it's just ignorance. There was a scene, she [Muna] had just been rejected for a job, she was in an empty parking lot and there was a sign and at the bottom it said.... "we're open minded" ...
CD: It said, "God bless America. Hamburgers served 24 hours a day. We're open minded."
Q: Did you put that there?
CD: I did.
Q: Where did you get that?
CD: I put all the signs there. "Support our oops." That was in the script.
Q: Where did you find that initially? In another setting, another parking lot?
CD: I was looking for a lot of opportunities for visual irony, because I think Arabs in the middle of cornfields already is just visually funny. So I was looking for opportunities where there are double meanings. I'm kind of obsessed with signs--I grew up in the midwest and have seen a lot of crazy weird signs that can be interpreted in a lot of ways. I wanted to play with that a little bit. So it was probably a combination of things that I had seen and just coming up with my own interpretation of how to alter it, so as not to be ripping off someone completely.

Q: What's your next step for your career? Continue enlightening people or go in a direction more mainstream?
CD: I became a filmmaker because I needed to make change, I needed to do something, to make my impression on the world in whatever way that I could. I really had something to say and I still have a lot to say. So I'm going to continue making these kind of films. My next film is another cross-cultural themed film. I've decided I'm going to do a trilogy. It comes from my own experience. In some ways I'm really lucky because I grew up going back and forth from the midwest to the Middle East--two incredibly different places. I always felt I wasn't American enough for the Americans nor was I Arab enough for the Arabs. I never really fit in either place. What that did was give me a very outsider's point of view. My whole life I felt like I was this third person looking in on everyone including myself, observing. And I think that's where my story-telling instincts come from. I definitely want to continue along these lines and hope that if I continue to do what I love, it can be mainstream, rather than pursuing something that's mainstream and not following my heart. I'd rather follow my heart and hope that a lot of people end up going to the movies and watching these films.

Q: How hard was it to find trained actors?
CD: One of my biggest challenges on this movie was finding the cast. I had casting directors all over the world. I had people I was working with everywhere looking for these characters for me. I traveled all over the world for 6-8 months, doing auditions everywhere from the U.S.--we did NY, Dearborn, Chicago, Los Angeles; we got tapes in from all over the country. We cast in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Paris, Amman, Beirut, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Haifa. It was really intensive. And I had casting directors in the U.S.; I had people in Europe who were looking for me and I had people in the Middle East. They don't really have casting directors there; it's more like actors who act as casting directors. It was a huge effort. Not all of them are trained actors; some of them are non-actors. If you are looking to cast authentically, that's something you have to be able to deal with.

Q: Why did you make the characters Christian rather than Muslim?
CD: That's a good question, actually. First of all, my family is Christian so I felt very much that I had to write what I knew and depict my own experience. I didn't want to write a Muslim family because I felt that they needed representation. It's absolutely true but I didn't want to go outside of my realm of experience especially when the film was so personal and so inspired by my own family. Another thing that was interesting to me is that in some ways the film is about shattering stereotypes. And I wanted to minimize the whole idea of religion in film--as we know it's just a mention. As Arabs we're constantly politicized. Anytime for example that I say I'm Palestinian the next question is usually about politics or religion. I wanted to strip that away as much as possible and just portray a human story that people can identify with. I'm not making any statement on religion, it's just the point of view that I wanted to portray. And I also like the whole shattering stereotypes thing, that people think all Arabs are Muslim and all Muslims are Arabs. That was part of the desire to break that myth: look--sometimes we're this, sometimes we're that.

Q: Did you write the script in Arabic?
CD: I didn't. I speak Arabic but I read and write it on a second grade level. So it would have taken me a really long time to write in Arabic. I wrote it in English and had it translated shortly before we went into production. But I worked very closely with the translator on all the dialogue. We went over every line in the script and went over all the dialogue. And then I worked very closely with the actors to make sure that it felt natural for them. For the most part I was quite flexible working with the actors regarding the script and movement. I used the script like a map in general. I wanted to know where I'm going and what I need from the scene but if it's not working then I would like to change it. I think the process of translating the script made it easy to do that. It lended itself to that organic process of 'well it's going to have to change'--you can't directly translate a sentence of English into Arabic; you have to find the closest meaning but it has to sound natural. And that's what we did; in some ways we were improv-ing--if something didn't feel like it was quite working, we just found some other way to say it that was natural that was close to the meaning that was intended. Actually translating the script was a really interesting part of the whole process.

Q: When did you start filming and how long did it take?
CD: I started writing it in 2003 and we filmed it in 2008 so it took five years to fully develop the script and find the financing and get into preproduction and casting. I was in unofficial preproduction for months. The whole 8 months that I was traveling looking for the cast was unofficial preproduction. We had an official preproduction period of 4 weeks and we shot for 25 days. Eighteen days in North America and six days in Palestine. That's a very fast shoot.

Q: Were the actors from Palestine?
CD: The main cast was pretty much all Palestinian. The lead actress Nisreen Faour [Muna] is from a town near Haifa. Yussuf Abu Warda [Nabeel] is Palestinian from Haifa. Hiam Abbass [Raghda] who is the most well known actress in the film is Palestinian originally from Nazareth but has lived in Paris for the last 20 years and Melkar Muallem [Fadi] is from Ramullah. The eldest girl you might recognize from Arrested Development, Alia Showkat is half Iraqi and the two youngest girls, one is Palestinian-Jordanian and the other is Palestinian-Lebanese.

Q: Did you shoot on film or video?
CD: We shot the whole film on super-16 and transferred it to 35mm which is what this print is.

Amreeka is scheduled to open at Landmark's E Street Cinema on September 25.

Still Walking: Seen in Toronto and Coming Here Soon

By James McCaskill and Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Members

Sooner or later many films that are shown in film festivals gain distribution and open in the DC area. This short comment from Hirokazu Kore-eda was made at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2008). An exquisite meditation on family by acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. The past events around the untimely death at sea of their son engulf this tragic family.

At Toronto the director said, "Still Walking is based on a personal experience. I spent a lot of time with my mother during her last two hospitalized years, mostly talking about her childhood. I began the screenplay when she died. The film's rhythm comes from the everyday life in Japan. People tell me I make films about people left behind. I lost my father and mother in quick succession. Like the mother in the film, my mother made corn tempura for us and we also lived next door to a corn field. Unlike the father in the film, my father did not steal corn." The film plays like an homage to films made by Ozu and others.

Still Walking opens at Landmark's E Street Cinema on September 4.

The 2009 Munich Film Festival

By Leslie Weisman, DC Film Society Member

Photo from the Munich Film Festival website.

Film festivals are renowned for honoring icons of the past and present with awards and encomiums, and for drawing stars to their stages with premieres of their latest films. Rare, however, is the fest that manages to do it all — and still convincingly bill itself as a low-key, public-oriented, “come one, come all” event.

Munich Film Festival (Filmfest München), which in June celebrated its 27th year, is one that does. And while it may not be Europe’s largest film festival, it is increasingly becoming the fest to go to if you love film and all it’s capable of, and want the inside track in an intimate setting surrounded by fellow film lovers and the top tier of classic and cutting-edge filmmakers. Festival director Andreas Ströhl, who told Variety shortly before the fest’s opening this year that between 60,000 and 65,000 attendees were expected, was able to report at its end a record-breaking 73,500 tickets sold — 8,000 more than 2007’s heretofore record total, and a 15 percent increase over last year. Variety has even (as only Variety can) coined a classy catchphrase, calling it “a discerning festival with movie lovers in mind.”

Whisky with Vodka

That it is, and one with a reputation for shaking an intoxicating cocktail that’s equal parts screening showcase, movie set and cinema lounge. So it seems apropos to open this report with one of the fest’s most delightful surprises, Whisky mit Vodka (Whisky with Vodka, Andreas Dresen, Germany, 2009) an early favorite to win the Audience Award (it would ultimately go to the irresistible Keep Surfing), which would a few weeks later win for Best Director at Karlovy Vary [International Film Festival].

The press screening was at Munich’s — indeed the world’s — oldest continuously operating cinema, the elegant Neues Gabriel. Like the Neues Gabriel, Whisky with Vodka harks back to an earlier time — when an alcoholic East German film star who was deemed a production risk was doubled with a second actor who could fill in when the first fell off the wagon. The “competitive situation” had the intended effect: after two weeks, the star pulled himself together and was able to finish the film.

In an interview, screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase was asked if there was anything in the story that was especially close to his heart. “It was important for me to tell about [the star’s] father who was a mailman,” he said. “I wanted to show that outside the cinema, there’s still the real world — and that sooner or later, inevitably, it will appear. There’s one question that runs like a leitmotif through the film,” he continued. “How much of real life is in cinema? And how much cinema is there in real life?”

Of all the films seen at a film festival, the American indies should, almost by definition, have a monopoly on “real life.” Real life being what it is, though, at this year’s Filmfest München, the indies were both true to form and utterly unpredictable. Their theme? Out of it (“Neben der Spur”).

Everything Strange and New

Not true to life, but out of it? Wait: “... the tension between I and WE, between the individual and society.” Of course: The characters are “out of it,” not the films. But there’s another subtlety: Not the usual I and they, but I and we. These are characters who are out of it even among outsiders. In Everything Strange and New (Frazer Bradshaw, USA, 2009), which would win the CineVision Award for a film that is “innovative, goes in new aesthetic directions and is an outstanding contribution to the cinematic arts” (just weeks before, it had won the FIPRESCI prize in San Francisco) we see the woes of the middle class in times of financial crisis: You work like a dog, put aside every penny to buy or build the house of your dreams, and then? “You live where you can’t afford to do anything but hang around your f—ing house.” And hanging around the house soon loses its charm. Such is the lot of carpenter Wayne, who loves his wife and kids — “The kids are the best thing that ever happened,” he tells a friend — but has begun to ask himself the dreaded questions: Whatever happened to the hopes, dreams and promises of my youth? Is that all there is?

“We were persuaded by its fascinating structure and its style, its way of telling the story by means of a curious camera that never stops or lingers, observing the actors as they move through a rich and complex set,” wrote the jury. “Cups, flowers, sofas, streets, roofs, houses — all are storytellers. It is the human story of mediocrity, of doubt, challenge and the consuming wish for change that unfolds in this film, told in a way that keeps the audience on tenterhooks till the end. An approach toward minimalist storytelling, a poetic reflection on the conditions of human existence.”

And one told without the slightest hint of pretentiousness, and with a photographer’s eye for the painful absurdities of life. (Bradshaw’s website still identifies him as a DP; the film tellingly credits him not as director, but as photographer.) In one memorable scene we see Wayne, who entertains his small daughters by suiting up as a clown for their parties, respond to his wife’s heartfelt bedtime thanks for being so patient with her (her moods can turn violent), with a silent grimace, in full clown regalia. Swish pan, back in his PJs, he croaks an expressionless: “Glad I could be of help.” Guy talk between the beleaguered and confused Wayne and a dealer friend as they watch a porn film veers off into unexplored (for Wayne, anyway) territory which, in the hands of any other filmmaker, could be a turn-off for viewers of delicate sensibility when he says it’s been a while since he’s had a blow job, and his friend offers to oblige. Here the scene is played to perfection, a telling mix of pathos and hilarity.

Accepting the award, Bradshaw said that he was “really honored” to win it, “especially at such a distinguished festival as Munich,” adding: “It’s really gratifying to know that people get it.” Indeed; from the press notes: “My personal project as a filmmaker is to create work that opens viewers to themselves... For me, life is a tiring but amazingly gratifying struggle to find meaning.”

Journey of an Olive Tree

The attempt to make sense out of life is a theme frequently embraced by indie filmmakers, but not unique to them. In the absorbing documentary film Journey of an Olive Tree (Anton Pichler, Germany/Israel, 2009) the search is both literal and figurative, the struggle not just of mind and heart, but of will and physical being. In a larger sense, it is also a microcosm of the internecine and international conflicts that have ravaged people and countries throughout the world, regardless of race or creed. A project of the peace-seeking organization “Breaking the Ice”, the film follows the journey of 10 travelers from 10 different lands, each of whom has suffered personally and profoundly from an intractable military conflict — sometimes at the hands of one of the others’ countrymen — on a mission that seems doomed from the start: to plant an olive tree (they name it Oliver) in Tripoli, Libya. Why? As an international symbol of peace, the olive branch, thus the tree, will be a tactile, enduring symbol of the ability of people to live in harmony despite the differences that divide them. If they can make it on this grueling journey, or so goes the hopeful reasoning, so perhaps can their countries and, looking to the future, their peoples.

There is the New York firefighter who reflects on having lost 343 friends and colleagues on 9/11. “The dust is still in my shoes,” he tells us; there is no doubt what he means. He is wearing them on the journey: “I feel like I brought them with me.” He pauses, gathering his thoughts as tears form in his eyes and he tries to force a smile. “Hopefully, it’s the beginning of peace... so they didn’t die in vain.”

There is the former “body double” of Udai Hussein who was tortured by both his own countrymen and the CIA, and the former Israeli fighter pilot, tortured by guards in a Damascus prison. There is the Palestinian student whose best friend was killed by Israeli bullets, and the Israeli teacher whose mother was killed by a suicide bomber as she traveled home on a Tel-Aviv bus. There is the Iranian film director who made a documentary about the Iran/Iraq war after losing her best friend to it, and who now works to promote dialogue between the two nations.

There is the Ukrainian soldier who volunteered during Operation Iraqi Freedom and is still haunted by horrific visions of combat, the comrades he lost and the young men he killed. There is the seething Afghan refugee who cannot forgive America for the destruction wrought in his country, and the Vietnam veteran who, with memories of his own wartime experience and disillusionment, seeks to deflect the Afghan’s anger. And there is the Tibetan monk, witness to the recent violent uprisings in his country, who serves as a silent observer to the heated exchanges.

All hardened victims of lethal conflict, none under any illusions about this quixotic, maybe even simplistic quest, but all, abjuring experience and maybe even common sense, willing to try. There will be strong disagreements, at least one becoming physical; there will be apologies, one heartfelt, one forced; there will be surprising reconciliation, and a surprised realization — from those representing the two seemingly most irreconcilable sides — that “we are the same.”

“You cannot solve a problem with the same kind of reasoning that created it,” concludes one of the participants in a voice-over; is it the Afghan? If so, it is entirely apt. For it is not only his nation and its people who must wrestle with this conundrum, but also those who have used them as proxies for their own power games.

Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi

In Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi (USA, 2009), for which director Ian Olds was named Best New Documentary Filmmaker at Tribeca (the film premiered on HBO in August), corruption has become so endemic in a country that once choked under the yoke of the Taliban that many who yearned for democracy now despair at what it has wrought or enabled, or at the very least, failed to contain.

Ajmal Naqshbandi is a fixer — and here I quote from writer Robyn Hillman-Harrigan’s intro to her Huffington Post interview with Olds, because her definition is complete: “... a local person who makes contact with potential sources, estimates the level of risk in traveling to various areas and then facilitates the actual journey by driving the foreign journalist to the rendezvous points and serving as translator while there.” Ajmal (who is referred to by his first name in the film) is hired by Christian Parenti, a reporter for The Nation whose book, “The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq,” inspired Olds to develop what started out as a fiction script about a journalist and his translator. A series of occurrences over the next couple of years would lead Parenti to contact Olds and invite him to accompany him on his next trip to Afghanistan to research his film. It is that journey, facilitated by Ajmal and shot both by Parenti in the Jeep and by Olds following behind — and the fate some months later of the young fixer — that the film portrays. “Nothing’s happening here,” we hear Ajmal assuring Parenti early on. “It’s safe here. Of course there are bandits and thieves, but...”

It is not the bandits and thieves that Ajmal will have to worry about. Kidnapped along with the Italian journalist he is then accompanying by members of the Taliban, reporter and fixer are immediately accused of being spies, their insistent cries that “We’re journalists!” unheeded by their captors. Olds’s film would now have an unwanted postscript: It is in part in Ajmal’s memory that the research footage that was never to be screened for an audience would instead become the heart of a documentary seen (assuming a large HBO audience) by millions.

At the “cinetalk,” a rare, hour-long presentation held independent of (and prior to) the film screening, Ian Olds spoke with Katherine Crocker, American consul in Munich, and Ute Wagner Oswald, a Munich journalist and documentary filmmaker, about the experience of making the film. The film shows how there was a botch-up in the release of Ajmal, who was to be exchanged along with the Italian journalist for five Taliban prisoners, Olds explained. The Taliban then demanded a separate exchange for Ajmal; when it didn’t happen, he was beheaded. When Olds learned of it, he told us, he was so distraught he didn’t want to continue. But he had so much material, he felt that he owed it to Ajmal to tell his story.

Olds had been to Iraq, having gone there out of a sense of “anger and disbelief” at the U.S. invasion, seeing no connection between it and 9/11. From the get-go he was “much more nervous” about going to Afghanistan; having returned unscathed from Iraq, “I thought my luck might be running out.” In her repeated travels there, said Wagner-Oswald, she avoided known Taliban areas entirely, feeling that the potential gain “wasn’t worth the risk.” The job of the fixer is inherently perilous, she continued, but the pay is exponentially higher than what one could earn elsewhere in the region, so those who are brave, skilled or desperate, or all three, take a chance. Ajmal, who was all three, was supporting a large extended family, so the risk probably seemed worth it. Editors demand exclusives and exciting stories, she added, so there is additional pressure to deliver; if you don’t, your job — and the money it provides — will go to someone else.

The dangers on the ground are more subtle, but more lethal. “You just have to realize you’re in a different world. Journalism is not part of their culture,” said Wagner-Oswald. Despite the perils that threaten foreign journalists, added Olds, it is the Afghan fixers who face the bigger risk. “The Western journalists go home to their families, friends and countries”; the fixers must remain behind. “It is important to refer to the fixers as journalists, which they are, because the word ‘translators’ could put them in danger,” suggesting complicity with foreign powers, he noted. On the other side of the ledger, not speaking the language also opens the possibility that your fixer may not always translate things correctly, either out of fear or because he sees advantage in making a situation seem otherwise. Trust is essential, said Olds, but to be on the safe side, it’s always best to have more than one person with you who speaks the language.

There are many theories as to who actually engineered the kidnapping; the Taliban, we were told, sold the film of Ajmal’s beheading to the Italian government for $15,000. It is now being circulated widely, and even sold online. Olds quietly and movingly acknowledged the difficulty of reconciling the personal tragedy of Ajmal’s death with the fact that it is his murder that makes the film a draw.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

It was not murder but a sudden death that made the opening-night film even more of a draw than it would be under normal circumstances. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a French-Canadian-United Kingdom co-production by the maverick, multiple award-winning expatriate American director Terry Gilliam, features the late Heath Ledger in his last film. A movie that should be viewed at least twice but with sufficient time to let it settle, seeing it at the premiere was like being served a gourmet banquet of cinematic sounds and visuals, historic references and CGI capabilities without having time to breathe between courses. “We wanted as many people as possible to see the film,” Gilliam deadpanned as he introduced it to the audiences that filled several halls in the magnificent, $250 million Mathäser multiplex. “So we made it so it would look great on iPods. So I apologize if it doesn’t look good on these huge screens.”

On the contrary, the film, a feast for the eyes and the imagination, viewed in miniature would challenge not only one’s eyes, but one’s sanity. A traveling theatre-cum-carnival that gives shows in run-down London neighborhoods from the back of a 19th-century caravan has a repertoire of illusions and tricks that would be impressive — if only they worked. More often than not, however, they don’t, and the aging wizard Dr. Parnassus is compelled to take on a man the troupe saves from being hanged by pirates, who has an uncanny — and, it will turn out, unscrupulous — knack for making things work.

Aided by the doctor’s comely daughter Valentina, her lovesick admirer Anton and Parnassus’s indispensable factotum, a wisecracking (and wise) midget named Percy, Tony makes the troupe’s show successful beyond their wildest dreams, before it all (literally) comes crashing down around them. It’s all done with mirrors, and what’s on the other side rushes by so quickly in sometimes related, but more often disjointed yet arrestingly imaginative vignettes employing eye-popping computer graphics imagery, it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what’s happening at any given time. It’s not all smoke and mirrors, though. For Dr. Parnassus, now facing the end of his unnaturally extended life, made a deal with the Devil, who promised him eternity, but with one hideous condition. And Mr. Scratch, in his chillingly sly but businesslike manner, has come to collect.

The podium discussion was scheduled for 10:45 p.m. but began more than an hour later to allow Gilliam time, we were told, to disengage himself from his many admirers after the screening. The crowd at the Gasteig, meanwhile, had started gathering an hour before the scheduled start time; it would be the largest gathering for one of these discussions this reporter had ever seen. Gilliam told us that the complex story began in his mind, quite simply, with a wagon. Asked about the source of financing, Gilliam said that it was multinational and expressed astonishment that despite the presence of Heath Ledger (who played Tony) in what would be his last screen appearance, only Hollywood refused to contribute. (He was, he told us, in negotiations for U.S. distribution; a news release in mid-August announced that Sony Pictures Classics had picked up the film.) Asked about his legendary, long-delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam said he is again working on it and hopes to have it finished by next spring.

But back to Imaginarium: The cast and crew froze in London, where it was bitter cold during the filming, but were more committed than ever to finish the film after Ledger died. When the producers declined to pay his family for the work he had completed, Gilliam said, the other actors banded together, agreed to forego their salaries, and signed them over to Ledger’s family in tribute to him.

The idea of the mirrors was fortuitous in that it allowed Gilliam and his co-writer Charles McKeown to cast other actors ((Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) in the role of Tony to reflect other aspects of his character. It wasn’t easy emotionally, continuing on after Ledger’s death. Somehow, though, it seemed almost as though he were watching them. “Heath was old and wise beyond his years,” said Gilliam. “He affected all of us,” added Verne Troyer (Percy). “It was as if Heath left us a legacy of clues, directing us where to go with the film.”

Does the film hold any personal meaning for Gilliam? “It’s a bit transparent, this one,” he said, in that the character of Dr. Parnassus is contemplating the end of his career. Gilliam praised his cast to the skies, singling out Tom Waits (the Devil) and Andrew Garfield (Anton); Troyer commented that watching Christopher Plummer (Dr. Parnassus) “was like a master class.” Ledger created much of his character as he went along, fleshing it out, said Gilliam, and did a lot of ad-libbing. It wasn’t long before Garfield, playing opposite him, joined in. Why didn’t you use the music of Tom Waits, who in addition to being an actor is also an ASCAP Award-winning (for the TV crime drama “The Wire” in 2004) and Oscar-nominated (for One From the Heart in 1983) composer? “Tom just wanted to be an actor here,” said Gilliam.

The Tour

In Turneja (The Tour, Serbia, 2008), a very ready-for-prime-time film from the celebrated Serbian director-writer Goran Markovic, a bankrupt Belgrade theatre troupe goes on the road in war-torn 1992 Yugoslavia to entertain the troops. A noble endeavor to be sure, if one that could have used a tad more forethought — the latter being regrettably at a premium, fueled as our delightfully over-the-top thespians are by their duel (and sometimes dueling) backstage passions for gambling and the grape. The film won last year’s FIPRESCI Prize in Montreal, where Markovic also was named Best Director.

As they travel through the countryside, their rickety van by turns bouncing and leaping as a series of electrifying explosions, machine-gun fire and land mines (“That’s normal,” shrugs the driver as the terrified players grab their ears and hit the floor) interrupt their animated arguments about what play they should stage and who should play what part, the personality of each of these characters, at once archetypes and individuals, comes vividly to life. So, too, do those of their audiences and antagonists, as do the dangers all of them face — or create.

“It would be hard to shoot a movie about this war,” muses the weary-eyed doctor as he washes his hands, forgetting he’s already done so, “because the warring parties all look the same. You couldn’t tell the difference.” Indeed, the deep-seated internecine hatreds that would become fodder for international news headlines and for pleading, pontificating or dispassionate commentary — and for action that was, for too many, too little and too late — have so warped the hearts and minds of the combatants, they treat their own with the same icy indifference that allows them to brutalize their nominal enemies. In one unforgettable scene, a Croatian commander — who recognizes the bedraggled troupe and is apologetic that one of his soldiers, no doubt certain that this is what his commander would do in his place, has ordered them to walk across a plain seeded with land mines — calls them back. With a cold deliberation veiled by nonchalance, he tells the terrified young man to prove to them that there’s nothing to worry about, by going first. In a powerful economy of means we see nothing but the weathered face of the older actress in close-up as disbelief, supplication and agony flicker swiftly across it; ending at last, her lips moving rotely, rapidly, in what can only be a silent prayer for the dead. In the distance, the cries of the young soldier can be heard, imploring; the actors can only watch in horror. As did the world.

The Necessities of Life

The world is also watching — if only briefly — in Ce qu’il faut pour vivre (The Necessities of Life, Benoît Pilon, Canada, 2008), Canada’s contender for Best Foreign Film at last year’s Academy Awards. A stunningly photographed and quietly moving “salute to the Inuits of Canada and to the survival of their culture,” as the opening title has it, the film has won a slew of awards, including the Capital Focus Special Jury Award and a Capital Focus Award (Special Commendation) at this year’s Filmfest DC.

We are first introduced to the protagonist, an Eskimo hunter-fisherman named Tivii, through panoramic shots of the vast, barren, icy landscape that is his home and museum-like tableaux of the objects and tools that define his life. This distancing sets just the right tone for a docudrama that will slowly, inexorably draw us in, the landscape becoming almost a character in the story of this man and the alien place to which he will be taken, and in which he will spend the next two years: a mainland hospital.

It is the 1950s. Scene: a reverse Ellis Island-style processing activity aboard a ship, where people are being examined prior to boarding rather than disembarking. Tuberculosis has hit the island, and those who are found to be afflicted are whisked away to the mainland (Québec) with hardly a word of explanation to them or to their distraught families, few if any of whom speak French. We watch as Tivii takes it all in, his anger and confusion turning first to amazement as he is driven past the “wonders” of civilization, then to profound loneliness as he takes up residence in a sterile hospital room far from his family and the natural world. The relationships he develops there — with his roommates; with a pretty and sympathetic young nurse who helps him learn the language and the culture; and with a fellow patient, a boy who speaks his native tongue and has no family of his own — will help Tivii to survive emotionally, severe setbacks notwithstanding, while the medical staff works to ensure his physical survival.

In a Q&A following the screening, director Benoît Pilon told us that while the characters are fictional, Inuits, who constitute a small minority, did not in fact have linguistic or cultural support during their stay in Québec hospitals. Given the size of the Inuit population and the extreme hardship of the arctic weather conditions, which often prevented the ship from reaching the shore to retrieve passengers, this was not necessarily cause for reproach, he noted. The worst instances involved children who, because of language barriers or administrative error, were never reunited with their families.

Most of the cast are nonprofessional, although Nataar Ungalaaq, who plays Tivii, is a well-known Inuit actor, director and sculptor who gained international recognition for his work in Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner, 2001) and received four Best Actor awards at major film festivals for Ce qu’il faut pour vivre. It was crucial, Pilon said, to have a sympathetic lead actor for the role of Tivii so as to engage audiences’ interest in what might otherwise look at first glance to be a clinical historical documentary. Pilon was also pleased with the work of Paul-André Brasseur, who plays the young boy Khaki and had heard the language (his mother is Inuit) but had never spoken it. After working with the boy to see if he could handle the role, “I knew he had what it took.”

A Whole Life Ahead

Marta also seemingly has what it takes — as does the film that hilariously chronicles her woes, and has screened at festivals from Moscow to Tokyo to Istanbul to L.A., winning major awards at two. But is it enough to be an attractive, intelligent, hard-working, ambitious young woman who has played by the rules and made her mother proud by succeeding gloriously in academia, when it’s time to prove herself in the (sur)real world? Especially when it turns out to be that netherworld inhabited by those who interrupt us with shrill, insistent rings at the worst possible time to try to sell us products and services we do not want, have never wanted, will never want, when all-I-want-is-to-be-left-in-peace-to-eat-my-dinner-thank-you-very-much-goodbye? Tutta la vita davanti (A Whole Life Ahead, Paolo Virzì, Italy, 2008) answers that question in a film that could be described as what might have resulted, were such a thing possible, had George Orwell and Lewis Carroll collaborated on a 21st-century screenplay optioned by Federico Fellini and Vincente Minnelli.

Based on a bestseller that began as a blog, A Whole Life Ahead starts with deceptive infectiousness. Going about her daily business through the streets of Rome in supersaturated color, our heroine contemplates the people she sees in buses and sidewalks, shops and offices, buoyantly bopping to the beat of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Observing them with a puzzled look as if they are from another world, she seems content to watch them enjoy it. For Marta, fresh from a sheltered life spent immersed in the philosophy of Heidegger, has developed her own foolproof philosophy for success: “You just have to figure out the song, and move to the beat.” But real life is more Schoenberg than Beach Boys — ironically, closer to Heidegger, who wrote: “Everywhere, we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral.”

Marta learns this the hard way when, unable to find a job in her field (“This is the film every graduate has waited for, a satire that depicts the tragedy of the gifted but underemployed with merciless wit,” wrote a local paper) she takes a job at a call center. “While Marta’s whole life for all intents and purposes lies before her,” it continues in a choice selection of words, “instead it leads to Career Dead End Street, a blunted being-and-nothingness, a hellhole swampland of capitalism.” Whose devil, I might add, is in the details — and in its satanic boss, a Cruella De Vil of the call center, whose victims are not puppies but employees she drives to distraction, illness, even suicide. And the audience to gleeful — if rueful — recognition. Who among us hasn’t applauded less-than-deserving (well, to our eyes) co-workers at the annual awards ceremony, thinking: “It should have been me up there”? Ah, but Boss Lady takes the bitter pill and turns it into cyanide: Not only are the star pupils lavishly praised and rewarded, but the conspicuously less successful ones are forced to stand and cringe as they are ruthlessly strafed with public humiliation and mockery.

But, again as in life, the Boss Lady (Daniela, played by the luscious Sabrina Ferilli; daughter of an Italian Communist Party official, in a recent poll Italian males from 15 to 34 named her the most loved Italian woman) answers to a higher authority. And, as in the movies, they’ve had a torrid affair that will come to a violent and unhappy end — which many of us on the distaff side will cheer, while deploring the gore.

My Neighbor, My Killer

Everyone — except maybe the aggressors — deplored the gore that ensued in 1994, when Rwanda’s Hutus were incited to massacre their Tutsi friends and neighbors and wound up wiping out some 800,000 of them in little more than three months. As impossible as it may seem, the two sides now have largely made their peace, thanks to an extraordinary initiative by the Rwandan government. In My Neighbor, My Killer (Anne Aghion, USA/France 2009), which some DCFS members may have seen at this year’s Silverdocs, we watch the reconciliation process (Gacaca) in action as friends-turned-enemies return home from prison to face their victims or their victims’ families. They in turn are asked to listen to the others’ confessions, to confront and then forgive them and, in the end, to live with them again as neighbors.

As might be expected, the reactions to this radical proposal are as individual as the people involved, and Aghion takes care to allow each to have his or her say. As does, indeed, the government: No matter how horrific the details or how anguished or incensed the speakers become, they are urged, and at times compelled, to say what for seven long years (it was filmed in 2001) has remained repressed and unspoken. But uniqueness becomes universality as betrayal becomes a common theme of both the testimonies and the follow-up interviews. And while venting is plentiful and to an extent therapeutic, closure is elusive.

“They were our neighbors, our friends,” says a woman. “Do you think I could kill you? But that’s what happened... They grabbed my baby from my back, threw her on the ground, and hacked her to death.” One of the accused acknowledges his part in the madness, as if he himself cannot believe it: “We exterminated each other, although we were brothers.” His words eerily recall those of the doctor in the Serbian film Turneja, quoted earlier in this article, speaking of the other major fraternal genocide of that time. To speak the truth is risky. While many seem to do it safely here, oddly, the one who questions the process itself — “Some really think about it, what it means. Some just do it, like a game: ‘OK, now we stand, now we sit down’” — will die an untimely death.

At the end, some will forgive or be forgiven; others will not or cannot. “We all killed,” says a former Hutu soldier. “We were an attack group. Our mission was to kill, not thinking who or what.” There was no “mission,” objects another. There was no war, there were no patrols; the killing was one-sided. “It was a genocide,” says a third matter-of-factly — is it indifference, or is it horror so unbearable it’s gone beyond the point of feeling? “A genocide to terminate the Tutsi.”


“Everyone is guilty,” was the conclusion of a Munich paper reviewing Steve Jacobs’ Disgrace (Australia/South Africa, 2008), based on J. M. Coetzee’s novel of the same name, which won the FIPRESCI Prize for Special Presentations at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Here the tension and ensuing violence are more understandable, for the antagonists are not brothers, friends or even neighbors, but native peoples and their colonizers. John Malkovich’s David, a late-middle-aged poetry prof in Cape Town, South Africa, finds himself in a situation similar to that of another professor who falls deeply in love with a student in Isabel Coixet’s Elegy (also based on a famous novel by Philip Roth), which screened at Landmark's E Street Cinema last year. There is a significant difference, however: the feeling here is not mutual, and David is soundly rejected, then essentially given his walking papers by the school when he doesn’t take no for an answer.

There is another profound difference. In Jacobs’s film as in Coetzee’s novel, the affair is not the heart of the story; rather, it is a springboard to the professor’s entry into a world which he has, through self-interest or willful ignorance, been able to keep at a careful distance. Not so his gay daughter who lives alone on a farm, assisted by a black worker she has known for years and a rifle. Neither of these protections will be of much help when the worker leaves for a few days on family business and a gang of toughs see it as the perfect opportunity to score a hit, both sexual and financial. When it turns out that the worker may have known more about the attack than he admits, David and his daughter begin to see both their own lives and those of the blacks who share their lives and their land from a different, more nuanced perspective.


We certainly see things from different and nuanced perspectives in Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin (Iran, 2008), which places us in the unusual position of second-level spectators, watching the watchers. Our subjects are an audience of mostly women at an Iranian theatre watching a 12th-century play, “Khosrow and Shirin.” The play has been staged by Kiarostami for the sole purpose of providing a vehicle for the spectators, all of whom are well-known actors (while most are Iranian, a chador-clad Juliette Binoche is a conspicuous and amusing exception) to react to its melodramatic story. The play remains invisible to the cinema audience; but, as in radio plays of yore, the mellifluous voices paint images in the mind. Here, those images are complemented by the absorbing faces of the audience.

While Kiarostami has been taken to task for this boldly experimental work (it’s supposed to be real but it’s staged, the subtitles are a distraction, the use of famous actors pretending to be average cinema-goers is too precious when it is not deceptive), this viewer was struck by the intensity of the visages, seen in extreme close-up and exquisitely lighted, and the lingering attentiveness of the camera that seemed to be in love with each one in turn. Some are Liz Taylor lipsticked and eye-shadowed in a way that seems to belie the severity of their head scarves. Others are obediently drab, the pallor of their skin in painfully sharp contrast to the Arabian Nights-style vividness of the tale, whose poetry can be swoon-inducing (“Oh water embrace me, caress me like a lover, lather me in pure droplets...”). Some are so caught up in the tragedy of the tale, tears brimming in eyes filled with agony slowly coursing down their cheeks, we are sucked into the intensity of their emotions.

Yes, they are actors. But this is a film experience on several levels. Even if it isn’t a documentary, the faces, photographed as if by a master portraitist, draw us irresistibly to the screen. Would the fact they they were “real people” make the intensity of the viewing experience any more real? Filmgoers generally feel no obligation to apologize for crying at fiction films. And is that not what these women are doing? As is the cinema audience, in watching them? A thoughtful experiment by a filmmaker. And a thought-provoking experience for this filmgoer.

Know Your Mushrooms

There were more than a few thought-provoking filmic experiments at this year’s Filmfest München that were a bit closer to home, not all of them American indies (which have long held a special place in the hearts of Filmfest fans and officials), at least by name. One of these, with the double-take title Know Your Mushrooms, by Canadian director Ron Mann, was a particular pick of fest director Andreas Ströhl, who made a personal appearance at the late-night screening. Ströhl, who told a local film magazine that this was one of the films he was most looking forward to, proceeded to give the nearly sold-out cinema the lowdown on how and why he obtained this doc on the much loved, but often misunderstood fungus.

Returning from Cannes with his team in late May, the Filmfest director was surprised to find a DVD in his jacket pocket. Not giving it much thought and swamped with Filmfest München preparations, he put it aside. Sometime later he received an e-mail from the director, asking if he’d had a chance to screen it and promising he wouldn’t regret it if he did. Sure enough, although the slate had already been selected, “I laughed so hard watching the DVD, I knew I had to invite it to Filmfest.”

And laughter is only the half of it. This exploration of Everything Mushroom is an eclectic, psychedelic, kaleidoscopic, kinescopic, multimedia celebration of fungal fact and fiction. From frames of a 19th-century silent depicting long-bearded men landing not on the moon, but in mega-mushroom country, to excerpts from hoary forties-era Campbell’s Soup Kids’ cream of mushroom soup commercials, to stunning time-lapse photography showing the birth of bulbous white ’shrooms in extreme close-up, the film is something out of a stoner’s dream. And yet, it’s grindingly but still entertainingly informative, both showing and telling us everything we’d ever want to know about the tasty little devils. (Factoids: There are 485 species of them used around the world. Enoki mushrooms are proven cancer inhibitors. Oyster mushrooms consume oil, and are used in San Francisco to clean up oil spills.) We also take a ’shroom-hunting hike with “the Indiana Jones of mushroom hunters,” and visit the annual Mushroom Festival in Telluride, Colorado (which the film opened in 2007), where latter-day flower children parade in tie-dye, waving banners and smiling beatifically. As the credits roll, we are soberly assured in bold black and white with a final, sixties-socially-conscious (but 21st- century suit-conscious) sign-off: “No hippies were harmed in the making of this movie.”

No More Smoke Signals

Smoke of another kind is the backdrop for a Swiss film on the plight of Native Americans in No More Smoke Signals (Fanny Bräuning, 2009), which won several Best Documentary awards and screened at the New York branch of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian a week before arriving in Munich. Set in the barren hills of South Dakota, Bräuning’s deeply felt and provocative documentary was inspired by an assertion from her 5-year-old daughter, who informed her that the United States was settled by “people and Indians.” Concerned, Bräuning hastened to assure her that Indians are also people. “No they’re not,” returned the child. “They have feathers on their heads.” Unfortunately, that misperception is not limited to Swiss children.

No, Native Americans do not have feathers on their heads, nor do they send smoke signals. What they do, at least the Oglala Sioux nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, is have a radio station. “Kili Radio – The Voice of the Lakota Nation,” is the common source of news and information linking old and new, senior and young, tradition and progress, past and present. But while it joins them, it also divides them. The world is interconnected, observes a woman — “I can put something on eBay and someone from New Zealand will buy it,” she marvels — but not everybody is ready to buy in, out of fear of the new, or of losing touch with their roots: “Lots of people don’t want that.”

What they want, says the outspoken American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Leonard Peltier, is respect, and justice. (Peltier is currently serving two hotly debated consecutive life terms for the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. According to the press notes, 60 members of Congress, the European Parliament, the Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop Desmond Tutu, among others, have pleaded unsuccessfully for the case to be reopened. Bräuning would express surprise at one of Filmfest München’s intimate “podium discussions” that so few Americans know of Peltier or his work. Peltier was again denied parole in late August.)

While No More Smoke Signals is technically a documentary, the film’s score is highly cinematic, sweeping us into the arid magnificence, the canvas of gold and red earth of the Dakota plains. The people live in poverty — of the reservation’s original 150,000 square miles, only 5,600 remain; per capita income hovers around $6,000 and unemployment is near 90% — but they are fiercely proud of their heritage and are determined not to forget, or let the rest of the world forget, their tragic history. The Wounded Knee Massacre of a century ago, in which a misunderstanding led to the slaughter of some 300 Lakota Sioux men, women and children by the U.S. Cavalry, is still fresh, and its legacy lives on in the blighted lives of many who struggle with alcoholism and depression. Yet there is originality and creativity, and hope. We meet Derek Janis, a tattoo (and tattooed) artist and musician who regularly broadcasts his skillfully woven Native American chants and African American rap on Radio Kili (“I think it’s kind of cool,” an elderly woman told the director during filming), a constructive alternative to petty larceny or getting drunk (there being not much else to do on the Reservation).

And then there is the indomitable Roxanne Two Bulls, the mother of eight children fathered by four abusive men who has been dragged down repeatedly by addiction and alcoholism, only to bounce back by dint of her own strength and courage. Roxanne has found a home on Kili Radio, which she helped found (her show is so popular they have to cut off the phone lines to stop the calls). At the first screening in New York, Bräuning told us, Roxanne laughed — “You got us perfectly” — but cried the second time, homesick for her land and people. Or Buzi Two Lance, who started out as a volunteer and now serves as programming director. Living at peace in two worlds, he is equally at ease soldering cables or explaining his belief that a feather atop the antenna works as well as a costly lightning conductor.

At the post-screening Q&A, Bräuning was asked how Americans react to the charge of genocide implicit in the film. Not surprisingly, they are generally nonplussed (an excellent word here in that both meanings apply, depending on the person in question). “They’re totally blind to it, so far from reality,” praising Native American jewelry, art and other touristy souvenirs and reflexively blaming the Indians (drunk, lazy, unwilling or unable to live in the modern world), reluctant to confront the possibility that the “white man”may be at fault. Indeed, she was warned in New York that she might have to deal with hostile reactions from people offended by the implication that the United States might have something to answer for. But Bräuning (who worked on the film for 6½ years: “The Lakota call this ‘Indian time’; things take as long as they take”) felt that her outsider status allowed her to approach the project without prejudice or preconception.


That said, at times there can be advantages to being an insider. “I came of age in the early ‘90s,” said director Derick Martini in an unattributed interview of his film Lymelife (USA, 2008), a star-studded semi-memoir co-scripted with his brother Steven. The film won the FIPRESCI Prize for Discovery in Toronto last year. “I just grew up amid the ruins of Rome. There was this economic boom where people in the lower middle class were able to move ahead rather quickly. All of the families had problems, everything was falling apart, and what was always nagging at me was, why? Why? Why?” In this star-studded but unpretentious and deeply felt exploration of the suburban dream gone haywire, Alex Baldwin, Kieran and Rory Culkin, Timothy Hutton and Jill Hennessy play people caught up in the maelstrom of pretension, confusion, and frustrated expectations.

“They say wherever you are on Long Island, you can always hear the train,” the beautiful brunette neighbor, on whom he has a major crush, tells our teenage narrator. “You can never get away.” An interesting juxtaposition: imprisonment in the abstract by a vehicle of departure, which for most people is a tangible symbol of freedom. So begins this coming-of-age film as it portrays through his eyes the coming-to-terms with life’s contradictions and betrayals that is a painful if inevitable part of growing up, and the lacerating, often hidden wounds they leave. At its end, the fragile falsehoods that held relationships together will be exposed, and childhood’s implicit faith in the trustworthiness of the adult world will be shattered. Derick Martini’s urgent “why” may still go unanswered, but his compulsion to ask it, and his skill in portraying it, make it a question that reverberates long after that last train whistle fades.

Michael Haneke

Photo of Michael Haneke from the Munich Film Festival website.

There were plenty of questions at Filmfest München, and many of them were asked not at Q&As or podium discussions, or even at Berlinale-style press conferences — Munich is far too informal for that — but at open-to-the-public “interviews” in the intimate Black Box theatre at the Gasteig. This year’s featured two internationally renowned directors, both of whose films have found favor not just in the U.S., but specifically with DC-area audiences.

Bavarian-born director (and thus native son) Michael Haneke, fresh from a heady Palme d’Or win at Cannes for Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon), who may be best known to Washington audiences for 2005's Caché and 2001's The Piano Player; was this year’s CineMerit Award recipient for “extraordinary contributions to motion pictures as an art form.” And DC’s arguably favorite British helmer Stephen Frears was the subject of this year’s Filmfest München Retrospective. Two more different directors could not be imagined. The same could be said for their personalities onstage — although not quite in the way that might be expected.

The real stunner was Haneke, whose dark and brooding and often violent films and grim press-photo countenance seemed to presage an equally bleak or even brutish hour. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Clearly at ease in his hometown, greeting the packed hall with a warm smile and friendly eyes, the director was expansive in responding to questions from both his hosts and members of the audience.

The interview began with a comprehensive overview of Haneke’s career, then segued into a discussion of his films and influences. At the suggestion that the latter might include his filmic forbear and fellow Bavarian Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Haneke replied to the surprise of many that he’s really not much of a Fassbinder fan. The enfant terrible cum wunderkind of the New German Cinema (who was a great admirer of Douglas Sirk’s social dramas, but whose own films, like Haneke’s, did not shy away from violence) is for Haneke “too sentimental.”

To be sure, that’s an accusation that could never be placed at this director’s doorstep. Asked about the scene in his horror thriller Funny Games (2007) where the murder of a child is drawn out for five excruciating minutes (“nope, ten"), its impact intensified by the agonized groans of the parents, Haneke deflected the implication by noting that there was a four-minute scene in another film that was “the talk of Cannes,” adding that his own filmic violence is generally not onscreen and in-your-face. “You have to leave room for the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks,” he said. “The anticipation is worse than the realization.”

The White Ribbon, scheduled for a limited U.S. release on Christmas Day and rumored to be Germany’s submission for 2010's Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar (it also won the FIPRESCI Grand Prize 2009 for Best Film of the Year at the end of August), leaves plenty of room for the audience’s imagination, and does so in a way that is elegant, measured, and chilling. Set in a deeply religious northern German town at the close of the First World War, the film, shot despite the producers’ unease, in a time-appropriate black and white, has been seen as a commentary on the psychological mindset that allowed the Nazis to come to power. But Haneke was quick to caution this as too simplistic a reading: “There’s a fascism of the left and of the right. Any ideology can become absolutist if you take it to its extremes.”

That said, it is an über-rigid, repressive and unforgiving right-wing ideology that warps the hearts and minds of many of the inhabitants of this village and, as night follows day, will twist those of their progeny. But as they do not see it in themselves, they will remain blind to it in their children. Until it is too late.

In an interview with the newspaper Abendzeitung, Haneke, told that his films “leave us sitting there alone with lots of questions,” agreed. “The job of art is to raise questions, not to provide answers. Answers don’t get you anywhere. Questions, on the other hand, can help sometimes. That’s the principle of my films; they function as a ski jump. The viewer has to do the jumping himself.” And the violence? Haneke is “not a fan of guilt or violence, but they characterize our world and you can’t get away from talking about them. Dramas are for portraying conflicts, not idylls.” As difficult as his films may be for some, Haneke, in the words of actress Susanne Lothar, presenting the laudation at the CineMerit Award ceremony, “approaches the basic questions of life with humility, humanity and determination. He has the highest respect for the feelings of the audience.” Humility, in spades. As the director told Abendzeitung when asked about the paucity of music in The White Ribbon: “I don’t need a soundtrack. Music is too important to me for it to be used to hide my mistakes.”

$5 a Day

On the other side of the moral spectrum, hiding his mistakes is second nature to the aging but infuriatingly, delightfully incorrigible con man Nat Parker, played to a T by the protean Christopher Walken in Nigel Cole’s $5 a Day (USA, 2008). Nat is a supreme charmer who’s the bane of his beleaguered son’s existence — when we meet Flynn (Alessandro Nivola), he’s lost his girlfriend because he’d told her his Dad was dead, making it somewhat inconvenient when Nat calls to tell him he’s actually dying. Which, knowing the sly old fox as well as he does, Nat doesn’t buy for a minute. Nonetheless — just in case, on the slightest chance that this time, for once, it’s real — he lets himself be talked into driving X-ray-laden Pops to Mexico for an experimental, potentially life-saving treatment.

In classic road-trip movie style, the two travel the back roads of America (in a candy-pink convertible bearing the Sweet ‘n’ Low logo, which Nat acquired in one of his “deals”), meeting a panoply of off-the-wall characters whom Nat sequentially sweet-talks and defrauds, as often as not with the victim teary-eyed with sympathy, affection or gratitude as he exits. The less-is-more ethos that’s become increasingly attractive for some and a necessity for others makes him almost a hero to the hard-up, his motto “Everything’s free” irresistible to those for whom everything has suddenly become (or has always been) out of reach. This happy philosophy, however, cannot help but grate on his son, who served hard time in prison after getting unwittingly caught up in one of his father’s schemes.

There are some priceless vignettes, with plum perfs by Sharon Stone (as the classic whore-with-a-heart-of-gold), Amanda Peet and Peter Coyote, in addition to those of the two leads. And some of the one-liners are sure to evoke knowing if rueful nods, if not screech-level fury. Asked by his son if he really loved the son’s late mother, Nat tells him, oblivious to the pain it will cause: “You know what women are like. You say it in the heat of the moment, they think it’s forever.” But the sandpaper relationship between father and son gradually loses much of its roughness as the two are forced to see each other up close and personal, and begin to work through the accumulated resentments and misunderstandings that have, rightly or wrongly, kept them at arm’s length.

The Day Will Come

Distances, misunderstandings and one-sided resentments dividing parent and child have also accumulated in Susanne Schneider’s emotionally draining but potent Es kommt der Tag (The Day Will Come, Germany/France, 2009). As it screened in Munich without subtitles, your reporter did not foresee writing it up here, assuming that it was destined solely for European distribution. Not so: If you plan on being in Toronto this month, you’ll find that it’s part of the line-up at TIFF 2009; so a brief recap is in order.

The negative feelings between child and parent are considerably stronger here, the back story appreciably more intense, and involve not father and son but mother and daughter. Having discovered that the people who raised her are not her parents, Alice has done some spade work and learned that her mother was a member of a terrorist group in the 1970s (think: Baader-Meinhof), served time in prison for the murder of a bank guard, and has been living in a nearby town without anyone being aware of her past.

For Alice, the matter seems simple: Expose the woman’s deception, identify yourself as the child she selfishly threw away so she could pursue her iniquitous, criminal lifestyle, and rid yourself of the hurt, the feelings of rejection and betrayal, that have not allowed you a moment’s rest since you learned the truth. For Judith, except for being haunted by the memory of the little girl she entrusted to the care of friends 30 years before, the past is dead and buried. Now married to a kind man with whom she has two teenage children, none of whom has any idea of her past life, at the time she believed the sacrifice necessary to allow her to pursue her misguided dreams of, as she saw it, making the world a better place by violently ridding it of those deemed institutionally or individually responsible for its misery.

The film does not take sides; the viewer feels a measure of sympathy and anger toward both women, each of whom is portrayed with conviction (the daughter’s righteous passion is chilling, the mother’s resignation, eyes filled with memory and acknowledging defeat, heartbreaking) and for the untenable situation in which they find themselves. In the end there will be a grudging coming-to-terms with each other’s reality, but in far from Hollywood-feelgood fashion. “Reconciliation between the generations — between the fighters against injustice and their apolitical children — remains, as the film suggests, a utopia,” writes German critic Joachim Kurz astutely in Kino-Zeit (Movie Time). “In film, as in reality.”

From Mother to Daughter

For the women in Andrea Zambelli’s delightful Di madre in figlia (From Mother to Daughter, Italy, 2008), reconciliation is not an issue. These twenty mothers and their twenty daughters are bound not only by maternal and filial affection, but by a mutual love of music — to be exact, singing. In a tradition forged in the rice paddies, familiar to film scholars from the classic Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, Giuseppe De Santis, Italy, 1950), the madri — as the choristers in last year’s smash hit Young at Heart, now in their seventies and eighties — and their figlie travel around the world singing the ballads, pop tunes and protest songs that kept the mothers going as they performed backbreaking work during the desperate years of the second world war.

Despite their ages and the difficulties of their lives they haven’t lost a bit of enthusiasm or stamina, and the joy they find in living (and singing) is evident in the smiles on their faces and the intimately affectionate teasing they engage in. Eager to share their music, the ladies are intrepid world travelers. One of the most enjoyable parts of the film recalls their visit to Detroit in the summer of 2007. As singing seems to come to them as naturally as breathing, it isn’t long after boarding a tour boat that they strike up a song. Watching the other passengers react is like seeing an episode of the old TV show Candid Camera: first puzzled, then curious, then amazed, gradually about half the deck — black, white, hispanic, Asian, Native American — start clapping along, beaming with pleasure, developing a rousing, rhythmic accompaniment ending in cheers and applause.

While two more different films and kinds of life experiences could hardly be imagined, as the women in My Neighbor, My Killer, those in Di madre in figlia have come together to remember a shared past. An odd comparison to be sure. But the shock of seeing these two films, by sheer coincidence, one following the other accentuated their superficial similarities, and may have allowed a viewer’s feelings of helpless disbelief, which stayed just below the surface during the first film, to find release in the second. Though their common motto may be “Do not forget” (one waited in vain for the Italian ladies to warble the beloved Nat King Cole classic, “Non dimenticar”), it is remembrance of another kind that binds this remarkable chorus of singing seniors. Lifting their voices, still astonishingly strong and resonant, in tribute to their youthful victory over pain and want (and now, over the ravages of age), they affirm in ringing tones the resilience of the human spirit.

Tahaan - A Boy with a Hand Grenade

That quality is pre-eminent, but its holder the junior of those ladies by about three-score years in Tahaan (Tahaan – A Boy With a Hand Grenade, Santosh Sivan, India, 2008), part of the Kinderfilmfest (children’s film festival) slate but arguably a shade too complex and sophisticated for young children. While the boy himself may have seen sixty fewer summers than the women, the habitually erupting conflict in which he becomes ensnared is quite their contemporary. Eight-year-old Tahaan lives with his mother, sister and grandfather in Kashmir, a vast area bordered by India, Pakistan and China about six times the size of Maryland with a little more than twice the population, whose location has made it the object of territorial claims by all three nations since 1947. The father has been missing for three years, leaving them at the mercy of the local moneylender when the grandfather dies. That Dickensian villain promptly seizes all of the family’s assets, including Tahaan’s beloved donkey, which the boy immediately runs off to reclaim. His journey is the heart of the film.

While the story seems simple, its realization is anything but. It may sound hyperbolic to say that the director, the screenwriter and the cinematographer seemed to work as a single unit, but in this case it would be no exaggeration: Santosh Sivan served all three roles. Tahaan’s world is filled with poverty and injustice, but the wisdom and love he has absorbed from his family give him the acumen and fortitude not just to pursue, but to occasionally outwit his older and shrewder adversaries. The elderly grandfather’s edifying fables, which no doubt have their origins in folklore, are illustrated in luscious, breathtaking images of the natural world that take on new meaning when they are followed without pause by a gloomy shot of the grandfather’s body. It is such incomprehensible contradictions (including American tourists losing their way in sparkling convertibles trying to find reception in the primitive area on designer cellphones; a deeply empathetic and honest-looking young man who risks life and limb to help Tahaan — only to betray him in the end) that make up the boy’s world.

Samson and Delilah

In Australian director Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah (2009), the young people’s poverty, rather than being alleviated by the care and concern of a loving family, is instead exacerbated by the ignorance, cruelty, and stinging rejection of a primitive and equally impoverished society.

We find ourselves in a deserted wasteland in every sense of the word: scarcely a soul to be seen, wild dogs roaming a parched, trash- and garbage-strewn earth shrouded by a cold, insensate silence. Yet two teenagers who live in this outskirts of an aboriginal community, and whose lives we will come to share, have not yet been irreparably damaged by its brutality. Each is sustained by a love for something that allows them to reach beyond the bleakness of their lives: she, by pointillist paintings, which she creates with carefully hoarded canvases and cherished tubes of paint; he, by playing in a loudly percussive band whose members swear violently and otherwise try to discourage challenges to their authority. But they are unaware of the strength and unpredictability of their lanky, childlike, silent new colleague, and when they repeatedly disturb his sleep with their cacophony to a point past human endurance, his splenetic reaction is swift and lethal.

Oh yes: neither Samson nor Delilah speaks. But the poetry of their eyes and limbs, as filmed by Thornton, is more eloquent than speech. Poetry does not pay the rent, however. And when Delilah’s beloved grandmother dies, and Delilah is unjustly held responsible for her death and beaten bloody by angry neighbor women — and Samson takes revenge by going on a violent rampage, destroying everything in sight — the two join in a desperate flight from the only life they have known. The world beyond their borders is strange and full of wonders, but the dangers for two innocents are no less menacing.

At a Q&A following the screening, Producer Kath Shelper conveyed Warwick Thornton’s regrets for being unable to attend, explaining that the director (an Aborigine himself) was at work on a projected 3-hour documentary on Aboriginal art. Thornton, we learned, had initially planned on being a DP and even completed a degree in cinematography, only to find that he had “no gift for self-promotion.” Weary of waiting for offers to come in, he decided to just go for it and make his own films; Samson & Delilah is his first feature (the preceding four were shorts), making his Cannes “Camera” an even more remarkable achievement. (It is also the highest-grossing Australian film so far this year.) Fame hasn’t changed him, though: He still has no cellphone. And then there’s that other concession to civilization that Thornton hasn’t made, and that makes his achievement, while still remarkable, seem almost ineluctable: a DP to the marrow of his bones, Thornton “can read and write, but not very well. He thinks in images.”

A Shine of Rainbows

All cinematographers would no doubt lay claim to the second part of that description, although the gift seems more striking among those who likewise wear the director’s hat. Strikingly, another film that also connected the DP-director dots bears additional similarities to the preceding two. As with both Tahaan and Samson & Delilah, A Shine of Rainbows (Canada/Ireland, 2009) is by a non-U.S. filmmaker from a country where English is spoken and understood by most of its citizens; as with the first, it was a surprisingly sophisticated (but more easily accessible) Kinderfilmfest offering by an Indian-born director; and as with the second, it is by a director-cinematographer who also has roots in Australia. While this deeply felt and superbly photographed film has received astonishingly little press, the same cannot be said of its director-DP (and co-writer) Vic Sarin, whose vita includes four award wins (including two Emmys) and another 14 award nominations, as well as a Kodak Lifetime Achievement Award.

It begins like a fairy tale: Tomás, a small, redheaded eight-year-old with a speech impediment, lives in a Catholic orphanage where he is the object of taunts and treachery by his older, tougher, shrewder schoolmates. One day, without warning, he is whisked away to a faraway island by a beautiful, cheerful, lustrously redheaded woman who has decided to adopt him. And they lived happily ever after, cue titular rainbows, end of story, right? Not quite: like any child’s in a fairy tale, Tomás’s happy ending will come only after his princess has been rescued and his dragons slain. But these archetypical fairytale victories will be realized at a very adult, real-world cost. And along the way, several lives will experience a sea-change. The dragons will turn out to be complex creatures whose fiery breath is a pre-emptive shield. And the princess’s magic wand will transform his world by showing him how memories held close can be his own shield against loss; and how a rainbow’s true magnificence lies in its quiet victory over rain.

Father of My Children

There is no such victory in this year’s Cannes Special Jury Prize – Un Certain Regard winner, Le père de mes enfants (Father of My Children, Mia Hansen-Løve, France, 2009), whose director drew inspiration from the life and tragic suicide of film producer Humbert Balsan, for years a powerhouse in French and Middle Eastern film. Hansen-Løve, a former critic for Cahiers du cinéma, had more than a tangential, critic’s connection to Balsan: among the numerous projects he had under development when he died was a script she had penned.

The film was important for Hansen-Løve to make “not just because he wanted to produce my first film, not just because he was such a special person, such a beautiful person,” she told the audience before the screening, but because of his impact on French cinema. As we saw in last year’s What Just Happened? (Barry Levinson), a producer’s life is a never-ending stream of impossible suggestions, requests, demands and musts, pick-ups, hang-ups, drop-offs and drop deads, with — if he’s lucky — a few quiet moments with real human beings (otherwise known as “family”). But where Levinson’s film was a romp through the DDT-laden garden of Holly-weed, Hansen-Løve’s is a tribute to the multi-tendrilled vine caught in the crossfire, too fragile and overextended to sustain the blast.

From the get-go, we are plunged head first via agitated hand-held into the pressure cooker of a producer’s life, cellphone a permanent appendage, fielding and making calls and connections at lightning speed while obliviously navigating (or not) the perils of equally oblivious city traffic. Our producer is plagued by a particularly nettlesome production by a Swedish art-house filmmaker — some might call him a visionary or maverick — in whom he believes but whose endless films, while reaping critical praise, are reliably DOA at the box office. (At the time of his death Balsan was trying to obtain financing for a film by the Hungarian director Béla Tarr.) Negotiating unremittingly with money men, using every ounce of persuasion he can muster and scraping the bottom of his personal barrel, he refuses to let his friends help him, is too proud to go to his wealthy family, and keeps his wife and children in the dark, not wanting to worry them. A supremely decent and honorable man, and one with both a passion and a vision for film and all that it can be — pretty much the antithesis of the classic producer images on which we’ve been weaned.

As he sees it, there is no way out: Too many promises made that can’t be kept, too much time and money spent on a project that can’t be finished and is sinking ever deeper into disastrously unpayable debt. Too much pride, too much shame — “I’m a failure,” he tells his sympathetic, intelligent but ultimately helpless wife; too much love for his daughters, the eldest a moody, contemplative teen, the younger too feisty and adorable — to be able to look them in the face anymore. And so he does what he feels he must. The scene is handled with great delicacy and respect; we see nothing but his solemn resolve, and intuit what happens next. The second half of the film portrays the aftermath with a mixture of sensitivity tempered with a businesslike insider’s acumen, as the family attempts to sort out the emotional, professional and financial ramifications of his death.

“The important thing [in making the film] was not to focus on what was lost with his death, but what he left that will live on,” said Hansen-Løve. “This man was more than just a producer; he was an artist, not only through his work but through his character and his humanity. He should not be forgotten.”

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno

Films and people who should not be forgotten were a particular focus at this year’s Filmfest München. A spectacular example — one that also coincidentally came straight from Cannes, was a French film, and concerned a celebrated French filmmaker who suffered from serious depression (although in this case a more clinical one) — was L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, France, 2009). Long-lost footage of the legendary last, but never completed film of the “French Hitchcock” perhaps best known for Diabolique (1955) and Wages of Fear (1953) has been recovered and appears for the first time in this revelatory documentary. (Note: it will screen at TIFF this month.)

Introducing the film, director/producer Serge Bromberg told of a chance encounter in a stuck elevator with Clouzot’s widow, who told him of the footage: 185 cans of film, 13 hours in all. As the magnitude of this information sank in, he rang her up and asked whether the material could be screened. No, she told him, citing legal rights and other matters. Eventually they came to an agreement, and the images, “more mind-blowing than the legend predicted,” form part of a startling film that hints at what would have awaited film buffs had Inferno been completed.

The title of the documentary is itself revelatory, in that Clouzot’s “inferno” was not simply in name only. Nor did it stop, as did Balsan’s, with him. While every film has its behind-the-cameras back story, L’enfer, whose filming Bromberg calls “cursed,” is among those few in the history of cinema in which the director’s obsessive perfectionism ensured that the film whose hallucinogenic special effects so closely mirrored his own psychological state, remained unseen during his lifetime. “Clouzot wanted to explore the feeling of anxiety he had every night, but it would take too long to present what built up over a lifetime in a person’s mind,” Bromberg told us. It did indeed take too long to finish the film. But what Bromberg and Medrea have put together from its long-lost images, hidden away for half a century, allows us a harrowing look into those that must have filled Clouzot’s tortured dreams. And their interviews with surviving cast and crew members take us inside the set that formed the backdrop for their filmic realization.

We see Costa-Gavras recalling the careful attention Clouzot, “one of the true greats of French cinema,” gave to a suggestion Costa-Gavras offered for one of the scenes, studying it for a full 10 minutes so as to envision how it might work best. The film, we learn, was written for the young film star Romy Schneider, who had come to the attention of critics in Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962). The screen tests we see testify to her beauty and magnetism, as well as to her willingness to be put through the wringer, as Clouzot was wont to do. The other actors were less patient: Serge Reggiani, who plays her obsessively jealous husband and was selected for having “the face of a carved chestnut. Perfect for the role!” would leave after three weeks of being “tortured” by Clouzot. We are shown a meticulously detailed chart with hundreds of entries in which each of the hero’s moods is color-coded (even more impressive when one considers it was pre-PowerPoint and done entirely by hand). Chastised for his detailed planning by his young compatriot colleagues, the New Wave directors who had burst upon the scene in the late 1950s with a zest for improvisation, Clouzot replied: “I improvise on paper.”

But obsessive perfectionism has its costs, not just to those who are its targets, but to those who must keep reloading again and again, never satisfied with less than a perfect bull’s eye. In a scene where Schneider and another woman are locked in a passionate embrace, Clouzot approached to give the women direction, and collapsed. “It came at the right time,” says Catherine Allégret, who played the role of Eve. “He could not have gone on much longer.”

You Will Be Mine

Women locked in passionate embraces, French film and not being able to go on any longer bring us almost irresistibly to Je te mangerais (Sophie Laloy, France, 2009). The film’s English title in Munich was the anodyne Emma & Marie, which Laloy didn’t like, and no wonder: A more literal translation would be the wolfish “I will eat you up.” Because that is precisely what Emma would like to do to Marie, (Variety uses the more subtly menacing You Will Be Mine.)

The two are piano students at the Lyons conservatory, childhood schoolmates who haven’t seen each other in years. Marie, a vivacious brunette, decides that sharing her parents’ apartment with a fellow student will save needed money, and Emma, shy, pale and something of a loner, sees the mutual advantage and agrees to move in. “You seem different,” Marie tells Emma when she enters the apartment. “Maybe it’s the way you do your hair up...?” “Is that why you didn’t call me?” Emma responds sharply. And we’re off.

The tension is palpable, and to an extent understandable, as most students in the performing arts would no doubt attest. (The director studied piano at the age of 17 at the Lyon conservatory where she lived with another student: “Our relationship was full of unspoken things.”) An uneasy mix of fierce competitiveness and you-go-girl encouragement develops between the two, with Emma at one point assuming the role of protector when the more naive Marie is hit on in a bar and almost raped. “Your sweet, sparkly nature is great, but guys see it as a come-on, that you want it,” Emma instructs the traumatized Marie. A reassuring hug slowly slides into a sexual embrace, and Marie (who has now in effect been assaulted twice in one night) bolts.

But Marie’s initial fear and revulsion will turn to curiosity, and the two sleep together. Emma takes this as a sign that Marie has accepted her as her lover and guardian and becomes fanatically protective, embarrassing her at one point by railing at their teacher when Marie, unable to practice because her life has turned topsy-turvy, fails to place in the competition. Realizing that things have gone too far and unable to reason with Emma, Marie announces she’s moving out. And that’s when things get really nasty.

Threaded throughout this psychosexual drama are scenes seemingly cut from the pages of a memoir that capture the human side of conservatory life and competition. One that stays in the mind is the close-up of a young man intently watching his performance on television with friends and fellow students. His reactions — from shy embarrassment, to meticulous, riveted attention to each note, to quiet pride in which can be read a history of hard work, hopes, dreams and disappointments, with a flicker of sweet victory — is so real, it’s hard to believe that this is an actor. And the music, from Bach to Schumann to Ravel to (an uncredited) Schubert, sweeps the viewer along to a place where film and music at last find common ground.

Cinema in Concert

Music and film also found common ground in the exhilarating special program that opened Filmfest München, “Cinema in Concert: Filmmusik Made in Munich.” Emceed by actress Maria Schrader the program, featuring excerpts of scores from films either scored or produced in Munich, made exciting and imaginative use of cinema techniques in a theatrical setting. Three huge, white floor-to-ceiling rectangular panels placed at equal intervals across the rear of the stage served as screens across which scenes from each film flowed, hypnotically melding into, then superimposing each other. Or kaleidoscopically filter-altered video shots of the musicians (or selected parts of them, sometimes enlarged or miniaturized beyond recognition yet artistically rendered) as we watched them play. Talk about divided attention: One’s eyes went from screen to screen to screen to stage, not knowing where to look first, while being irresistibly lifted out of one’s seat by the music.

The music was provided by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester (Munich Radio Orchestra), its conductor so passionate and precise he effortlessly sprang three feet off the podium in the opening number (the overture to the popular and long-running German television series“Tatort,” or scene of the crime), swiftly slicing his baton through the air like a just-sharpened sword. Their thrilling rendition of Alberto Iglesias’s rousing, emotional score to Pedro Almodóvar’s Oscar-winning Hable con ella was Hispanic to the roots of its soul, tempting one to look around to be sure we were still in Germany.

Actress Maria Schrader (who is very popular there but less well known here; DCFS members may have caught her in Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstraße, which screened here a few years ago), lovely and elegant in tiara and satin gown, briefly described the films, their plots, and their backgrounds. She also spoke eloquently of the importance of music in expressing things in film that cannot be seen or spoken, in opening hearts and broadening minds. These subjects were also taken up in a half-day program offered in connection with the concert: “film, sound, style,” whose sessions included such topics as “Film music as emotional strategy,” “The sound of pictures,” and “Music — blood or heartbeat of a film?”


It’s a bit of both in Lance Daly’s multiple-award-winning (including Best Irish Film 2008 and audience favorite at this year’s Miami Film Festival) Kisses, where the songs of Bob Dylan and the implicit hope and friendship they offer accompany two Irish pre-teens living in a dingy, depressed area of suburban Dublin as they flee their abusive homes. Hopping a waterway raft as stowaways in search of the boy’s elder brother who made his break several years before and may, they hope, offer them shelter, the boy and girl find a few precious days of freedom, wonder, danger and shy affection in the world beyond their doors.

Kisses, which was shown at the AFI last year, is yet another film in which the director tripled as helmer, writer and cinematographer, and again, it shows. The hopeless grayness of the town and the river, filmed in black and white, are transformed through a child’s innocent eyes into a blindingly bright, gaudy, raucous, frightening yet seductive city. The boy’s name, Dylan, takes on new meaning when the barge captain asks if he knows that he was named after someone famous. Given the location, the audience would be forgiven for expecting to hear the fellow spout an illustrative line or two from “Under Milk Wood”; but Thomas is not the Dylan our immigrant captain has in mind. (Interesting that despite his Eastern European accent, he is no more difficult to understand than the other characters, whose regional intonations are so strong, the entire film is subtitled in English.) Determined to educate his hopelessly uninformed passengers, he sings a few bars of “Shelter From the Storm,” which will follow them in the ensuing scenes as a sort of extradiegetic angel.

But the legacy of abuse and poverty has followed Dylan’s brother, who they learn has been thrown out of one flat after another for drinking and rowdiness. Without a place to stay and with only the money the girl, Kylie, was able to snatch from her home in the urgent seconds before their mad dash to freedom, it is not very long before the excitement of being on their own is replaced by the harsh reality of being vulnerable children in a very adult world. Some will take advantage of their size and credulity; others will pass along their own hard-earned wisdom, or a bit of poetry. An African woman kisses Dylan gently, telling him that when you kiss, you give or you take. “I give you luck.” Before their adventure is done, they will have seen what we are given to be Bob Dylan coming out the back door of a night club. Eyes wide with wonder, then narrowed in skepticism, they demand to know if it’s really he. Asked in return what they’re doing, they tell him they’re running away. “I’ve been running away most of my life,” he tells them. What from? “Myself, mostly.”

Too young for such introspection, the two shrug and continue on their way. But they have matured in other ways. The memory of a kiss, inspired perhaps by the words of a wise African woman, will linger; and as they are led into their homes by the families they left the day before, their glances tell of things left unsaid.

West of Pluto

Not much is left unsaid in À l’ouest de Pluton (West of Pluto, Henry Bernadet and Myriam Verreault, Canada, 2008), whose characters have a few years (and more than a few hormones) on Dylan and Kylie, and whose lives we share for roughly the same period. While last year’s Palme d’Or-winning Entre les murs (The Class, screened in DC this year) viewed high school students from inside the classroom, West of Pluto follows them from the classroom to their homes, their friends’ homes and just about anywhere their cars will take them. For these are not the low-income kids of inner-city Paris, but the suburban teens who populate a well-to-do enclave of Québec. (The making of the movie itself took a page out of The Class’s book money-wise, although exponentially smaller: Shot on a Panasonic 24p mini-DV camcorder then transferred to HP film, the film cost all of $12,000 to make.)

As thousands of kids across the DC area as the school year begins are being asked, as a way of introducing themselves to each other and to their new teacher, to write essays on how they spent their summer vacation, so the high schoolers here are asked to give oral reports on their favorite things to do. There is the usual litany of mall hopping, movie watching and playing sports, recited in tones by turn either bored, assured, nervous or dazed, but so real, thanks both to the kids and to the camera, for a brief moment you have that sinking feeling it’s only a matter of time before the teacher points to you. (My personal pick was the boy whose favorite thing is squeezing peanut butter through the holes of those two-cracker sandwiches: “But like, the crackers break and you’re totally bummed.”)

There is one serious young man who has clearly given the question some thought. Diffident yet determined, he rises to protest the International Astronomical Union’s announcement that it is officially downgrading his favorite planet Pluto to the status of “dwarf planet.” This unconscionable act, he avers, has not diminished his loyalty one iota: For him, Pluto will always be a planet.

The film is a series of indie-style vignettes, each a snapshot of the kids’ lives as they sense their way through the ever-shifting cosmos of rules and relationships. There are the would-be rock stars trying to come up with a name for their “group” (the two of them on guitars) deciding that “Wet Dreams” has it all, and can even be advertised using the picture of a mermaid: “It’s even wet, yeah!” Or the two blissful potheads, lying on their backs in the bed contemplating what each of the butterflies on the wallpaper may be doing or thinking. The girls, meanwhile, have a heated exchange as to whether it’s better to be French or English (this being Québec, the question is not academic) and come up against an insurmountable wall when one skillfully rattles off all the things the British gave them, only to be cut off by her friend who just as convincingly laments their lost (French) heritage. Threaded through these fly-on-the-wall glimpses of teen life are story lines that take us more deeply into their lives, allowing us to see behind the bravado and into the alternating moments of sweetness and dysfunction behind it.

Sixty kids were auditioned, Verrault told us, and the ten selected spent six months workshopping their roles, sharing their own experiences with the team as they learned their lines. These in turn fed into their onscreen characters and occasionally would become part of the script (although not so as to change any of the plot line, which was firmly established). Care was taken to try to “equalize” the interaction between the professionals and the lay actors, as well as the way their individual roles were handled. Giving us a bit of insight into the challenges and disappointments that are a director’s lot, Verrault said that sometimes she would shoot twelve (!) versions of a scene that was ultimately cut from the film, and that in all, more than 100 hours were taped (“I have 200 cassettes on my desk!”). Asked why she chose to shoot on mini-DV, Verrault explained that a digital medium is easier when working with the twin uncertainties of improvisation and non-professionals.

And the title: What does it mean? What, exactly, lies “west of Pluto”? That’s something we don’t know, replied the director. And yet... “Maybe it’s like teenagers. They don’t know where they are either. But they want people to know they exist.”

Because We Were Born

And so do children. Although for the ones in Jean-Pierre Duret and Andréa Santana’s disturbing documentary Puisque nous sommes nés (Because We Were Born, France/Brazil, 2008), existence itself is far from a sure thing.

This is a documentary with the feel of a docudrama, although not a word was scripted. Duret and Santana followed two teenage boys living in rural Pernambuco in northern Brazil after being moved by the words of one of them at a gas station. “I don’t have anything,” he told them. “I only have my life.” What was behind those words? What sorts of plans for the future do those who have only their lives make? What gives them the strength to go on?

They are not, however, the first children we see. Rather, we are hurled into their world via the proxy of preschool-aged children playing along the highway as cars whizz by, just heart-stopping inches away from them. The cacophony of horns and motors is background music to their impromptu funhouse: An aqueduct becomes a makeshift sliding board. Dismounting, they stare at the corpse of a donkey, its unseeing eyes buzzing with flies, in the grass under the highway bridge. Briefly distracted, they soon resume their horseplay as huge supertankers roar past them. The tots are oblivious, giggling as they tightrope-walk along the edge.

Older kids sell knick-knacks, accessories, souvenirs and trinkets, bargaining with customers to get a better price. Cocada, 14, says it would help him get enough to eat if he got a higher price. What do you do when you don’t have enough to eat? “I buy a quick coffee. That gives me enough so I’m not hungry for awhile.” His father was murdered, he says; he will later confide that he died in his arms. “Nothing scares me except passing the spot where they killed him.” Cocada dreams of driving one of those monster trucks the little ones dodge on the highway. His friend Nego has it all figured out. “Tell one of them your father died, hitch a ride with them. Stick around, they’ll get to like you, you’ll become like part of their family. Soon they’ll let you work, and eventually they’ll pay you.”

Nego, 13, lives with his mother, pregnant with her tenth child, and his brothers and sisters. Inacia insists that her children make full use of whatever limited resources are available to them in this impoverished place so that they, unlike she, can someday escape it. Determined that they will do well in school, she takes the time from her endless, sometimes backbreaking labors to hover over Nego as he does his homework. Nego of course has his own ideas, and earns pocket money by helping people with their groceries, carrying several heavy bags at once (not an easy feat for a painfully slim boy) to their homes. At one point we see him wearing a red Spiderman shirt no doubt purchased with his earnings, most of which go to help his mother, who is likewise determined to bring some brightness into their lives. We watch her set the table with a colorful collection of mismatched plasticware scrounged from who-knows-where, spooning limited quantities of stomach-filling food into their bowls.

Indeed, color sprouts in the most unlikely places of this depressed area, perhaps as a defense against the overwhelming grayness and grinding poverty. Huge water barrels are painted in rich hues of teal blue and green, bringing a bit of cheer to the children who must run to them daily to fill disproportionately large, weighty barrels, which they then lug by hand back to their homes. Pack animals fill a similar role, forced to transport weights beyond their capacity and allowed to rest only when they collapse. Yet there is compassion: as a donkey lies dying, a man tells his son that he gave her medicine, and covers her to shield her from the blazing sun. But the flies have found her eyes too.

It is clear that the only hope these children have of not winding up (figuratively, and at worst, literally) like those poor animals is to find a way out. And it is clear even to them, at an age when kids who have never known such poverty, when it comes to travel, think mainly of what new and exciting place they can go to next. “We have to leave, to know who we are,” Nego tells Cocada.

Another improbable cinematic connection, in a sense recalling the one between My Neighbor, My Killer and Di madre in figlia: When it comes to the fundamentals of life and identity, these boys are not all that different from the privileged teens of West of Pluto who “want people to know they exist.” “This film is not a portrait of poverty or violence in Brazil,” write the filmmakers. “It tells a universal story: one of two children who are trying to find their place in the adult world.”

The Blessing

In Heidi Maria Fasst’s Göteborg Film Festival FIPRESCI Jury Prize-winning Velsignelsen (The Blessing, Denmark, 2009), two children are also trying to find their place. But the place they are trying to find is not so much in the world as with each other; for these two are not childhood friends, but mother and newborn. And Katrine’s youth is not so much a function of her age as of her inability to break free of her mother’s dominance and implied disapproval, and to bond with her baby daughter. While one would upon reading this be forgiven for quickly writing off this film as a movie-of-the-week, postpartum depression weepy, these are to The Blessing, to use a literary comparison, as Harlequin romance novels are to “Anna Karenina.”

The film is intimately shot, theoretically allowing the viewer to approach the characters and share their psychological space. Instead, the camera’s success in doing so emphasizes their distance from each other; their self-absorption seems to cut them off from meaningful human contact — including the viewer’s. Rather than feeling close to Katrine, we feel an estrangement perhaps akin to the one she feels from her baby, and are left with an uncertainty not only about her feelings, but about our own. “The power of The Blessing,” wrote the jury president in awarding the FIPRESCI prize, “is precisely in refusing to explain its drama, placing the viewer in a position to judge Katrine’s actions while simultaneously respecting her inviolable, unknowable subjectivity.”

The Maid

Another jury award winner, this one twice over (and closer to home, at Sundance) that pits the intimacy of the hand-held camera against the unreadability of its subject is Sebastián Silva’s La Nana (The Maid, Chile/Mexico, 2009). Raquel has been with the fairly well-off family for more than half her life. But when they surprise her with a birthday cake and the de rigueur round of “Happy Birthday to You,” she is painfully embarrassed, hiding in the kitchen until one of the daughters physically drags her out to the table set with balloons and party plates. Once there, she sits just long enough to take a quick bite before jumping up to clear the dishes.

The source of Raquel’s insecurity surely cannot be her warm and caring employers; indeed, a hint comes as she takes a congratulatory cellphone call, tellingly portrayed from her end alone. It is her mother, apparently chattering away about a string of incidental things, to which her daughter listens impassively. At last, no doubt having run out of personal news, mother asks daughter a question. “Forty-one,” comes the answer in a monotone, her face betraying nothing; saying nothing more, she bites her lip. Her resentment will find release in a subsequent series of childish reactions, both comforting to her and mildly unsettling to the observer, in the solitude of her own room. Violently throwing a gift sweater on the floor, she then grudgingly approves a brightly colored top and, as a final act of reassurance, meticulously arranges the row of teddy bears lovingly clad in colorful party dresses and bows along the back wall of her bed.

Our nana is in some respects a second-tier (and in the eyes of the family decidedly second-class) mama. Raquel does everything for the family, including two temperamental teens she helped raise but who now alternate between pulling her chain and reacting with puzzled hurt at her sudden mood shifts when it comes to their domestic needs. Cooking, cleaning, sewing, washing, packing lunches, giving advice, answering phones, dealing or arguing with solicitors and repairmen: you name it, she does it. But her employers have noticed something, and decide to hire someone to help her out. That “someone” turns out to be a pretty young girl from Peru. And that’s when the caca hits the fan.

Fish Tank

There’s plenty of it to go around in Andrea Arnold’s Palme d’Or-nominated (and Jury Prize-winning) Fish Tank (United Kingdom, 2009). Here, though, our teenage protagonist is more troubled than temperamental, and is more likely to actually use the word — and its even coarser cousins — in her struggle both to define herself within the context of her near-poverty-level surroundings and, more urgently, to find a way out of them. That way, she hopes, is through music and dance: hip-hop, to be precise. And when Mum’s new boyfriend offers to help her, Mia reluctantly allows herself to half-trust his openness and good nature. Which may not be the wisest move on her part.

In an interview with Abendzeitung, Arnold discussed her film and British filmmakers’ “penchant for depicting reality. The social differences, the concrete buildings, the social injustice face us every day if we don’t go about the place with our eyes closed,” she said. [Note: Although the interview was probably conducted in English, it was published in German. My translation, as with all in this article, attemps to come as close as possible to what was actually said.] “But I also want to spread optimism. So, no pitiful social drama about the ‘miserable underprivileged’.” Katie Jarvis, who plays Mia, is an absolute newcomer, unlike Michael Fassbender, who plays her mother’s boyfriend. How did that work? “At the beginning I only wanted ‘real people,’ people who had never been in front of a camera and had kept their innocence. After long and unsuccessful casting calls and searches in shopping malls, youth clubs and the usual meeting points, we spoke to Katie by chance at the railroad station. She could hardly believe it at first. [But] she possessed the necessary combination of anger, savagery and fragility the role demands.

“Then I wanted to place someone with experience next to her. I knew Michael from a few clips of [the British TV movie] Wedding Bells I’d seen and simply called him. I have to admit he was rather irritated that he wasn’t given a script.” How did you prepare the scene without a screenplay where she sleeps with him, her mother’s boyfriend? “There was always a mini-script. Michael Fassbender’s role is complex,” said Arnold. “If he’d known about the sex scene from the start, he might have intuitively geared his earlier behavior towards it. That wouldn’t have been good atmospherically. Out of fairness, I told Katie straight away what was in store for her. The characters developed through the chronology of the filming. We never rehearsed. It was an experiment, and for this film the right method.”

It was suggested to Arnold that at the film’s end, there seems to be a glimmer of hope. “Not in the sense of ‘All’s well.’ That would be false. But people are never hopeless. The circumstances in which they live are sometimes horrible. From our comfortable position, we can hardly imagine how these people must fight every day to survive. But they don’t give up.”

The Swimsuit Issue

Nor do the ones in Måns Herngren’s Allt Flyter (U.S. title The Swimsuit Issue; a truer translation would be the whimsical “Everything Floats,” Sweden, 2008). But these are not struggling lower-income families; no, these are middle-aged, middle-class husbands, divorcés and fathers who, feeling at loose ends, come up with a can’t-miss idea over a few beers. Their weekly meets on the floorball (a sort of indoor hockey) court having lost their meaning, commensurate with their loss of skill (and maybe gain of gut), Fredrik has a brainstorm after attending his teenage daughter’s swim meet: synchronized swimming. He assures his buddies that what he has in mind isn’t something they’d never live down, but a way to live it up and in the bargain get paid for it: Become a farcical diving team in outrageous drag, and rent themselves out for parties. Not only will they still be a band, but they’ll make a few bucks (not to be minimized, especially for Fredrik, whose daughter has just moved in with him) and not incidentally, get a kick out of it.

As luck would have it, they become so successful (their hijinks are laugh-out-loud funny) that as they steadily improve their skills they start taking it all more seriously, thereby losing the uniqueness that made them funny — and their audiences. Not the ones in the cinema seats, however, especially English speakers who didn’t know Swedish and had been focusing on the visual. For us the humor would cross over from the silent to the very verbal when Fredrik insists his tough-guy teammates trim their toenails, and a long-haired, rough-hewn, bearded bruiser out of the blue roars at him in perfect English: “NO F---IN’ WAY!!” But this is no Slap Shot. The film’s humanity sneaks up on us, not only as Fredrik and his daughter, heretofore almost strangers, find their way through the preconceptions and crossed signals that have kept them at arm’s length, but as Fredrik, when push comes to shove in the competition’s final moments, discovers in himself a sportsmanlike selflessness he never knew was there.

The Woman Men Yearn For

Cinephiles were thrilled to discover something most of us didn’t know was there, with the single screening of the film in which Marlene Dietrich had her first leading role: the silent classic Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt (The Woman Men Yearn For, Kurt [in Hollywood, Curtis] Bernhardt, Germany, 1929). Presented in the Gasteig’s spacious Carl Orff Saal with stirring live musical accompaniment by the Aljoscha Zimmermann trio, the film shows Dietrich at her sultriest, prefiguring by a year her iconic Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel). [Note: DC audiences saw The Woman Men Yearn For in 2001].

“Let women speak!” demanded the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung in its 1929 review, transported by “those lips pursed in a simple and artless, flawless judgment that renders men silent,” going on to describe in rapturous prose her “gliding, almost somnambulant movement... the eyelids languorously raised, remaining half-closed; the gestures those of a dreamlike, weary swoon.” A contemporary critic finding no need to pay tribute to Dietrich’s now iconic magic focused more on the filmmaker. “Kurt Bernhardt creates atmosphere... His camera connotes a small-town street, tracks down petty-bourgeois cafés and pool halls, and tickles our eroticism with the rendezvous on the train — themes from Shanghai Express greet us from out of the past...”


It isn’t a train that greets us from out of the past in the present, but a car (which in this film also, oddly enough, tickles our eroticism) in Andreas Maus’s ode to Russia’s immortal Lada, Ballada (Germany, 2009). Narrated by the car itself in a come-hither voice, Ballada tells of the boxy but beloved vehicle that has “conquered more countries than all the Russian tanks put together.” The film’s production notes say it best: “In Russia, cars are more than just cars. They’re living entities endowed with a soul. Lada in Russian means: The Loved One. Even 40 years after the ‘lunchbox on wheels’ became Soviet reality on the banks of the Volga River, most Russians still drive this vehicle – a direct descendant of the Italian FIAT 124, the car of the year in 1966.

Ballada introduces us to a number of Lada drivers – from Moscow to the Taiga, from the Caucasus to Siberia. Like their Ladas, they are all survivors, telling us their stories and taking us on a subjective and poetic expedition into contemporary Russia. A modern fairy tale and a real road movie – that is, whenever the engine decides to start.”

Stephen Frears

Photo of Stephen Frears from the Munich Film Festival website.

An engine one never has to worry about starting is the boundlessly creative motor of filmmaker Stephen Frears, whose 50 films and television episodes over a 40-year span have racked up 34 awards and 41 nominations. Honored with a retrospective saluting his work in cinema, Frears gave a wide-ranging interview before a highly receptive audience in the Gasteig’s Black Box theatre. His remarks were leavened with a dry humor and deadpan facial expressions that the capacity audience ate right up.

This was Frears’s third time as a guest of Filmfest München. His first was in the fest’s early days, with the TV film Walter (1982); the second just seven years ago, with Dirty Pretty Things (2002). This third time, however, was the charm: an eight-day retrospective encompassing all of his feature films. (“We could have used, easily, another eight days to include all of your television films,” the moderator noted.) Asked to reflect upon his early days, Frears said he’d wanted to work in the theatre in his teens — “There was a theatre company in the town where I lived and they seemed to be rather colorful, to lead rather more interesting lives than I did” — and did so when he came home from university. “I never wanted to be a film director; it’s all a big mistake,” he laughed, adding: “I really had a very, very respectable upbringing. My mother would be horrified.”

Frears began his film career in the late sixties as an apprentice to two legendary directors of the Free Cinema movement, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, who “changed the cinema world in the late fifties,” and Albert Finney. Reisz had seen one of Frears’ theatre productions, and invited him to come work with him on Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966). “I was like a parcel, passed around between them. And I learned how to make films, really. Or I started to learn how to make films. And then I made a short film” (The Burning, 1968, with Finney). His first film with Anderson, the Golden Palm-winning If... (1968) about student revolution at an English boarding school, is still recognized as one of classics of the sixties. A film “about revolution and the beginning of the new era,” it was one of the key films of 1968. What was it like then, at the end of the “swinging sixties,” when London was losing its innocence? “Well, the truth is, it was a time of foolish optimism. We thought we could change the world. We failed,” he added quietly, then added with a chuckle, “almost completely. It was a year of great optimism. But in the end, De Gaulle defeated the French students.

“But Lindsay was an extraordinary man. He was a great sort of critic really. I just remember If... was very, very enjoyable to work on, and very topical. I can remember it ends with a revolution at the school they’re at, and they shot the headmaster. One of the jobs I had was doing the collages that are on the boys’ walls. And the truth is, the events that were going on in the real world were in fact the same. In other words, I remember sticking photographs — cutting pictures out of papers — of students rebelling, up against soldiers. And there was one of a girl, sticking a flower down the barrel of a rifle. So it was very, very of the moment, and a very good script, and it came as no surprise to me that it was a very successful film.”

By then, the British cinema had been changed by people like Reisz and Anderson in the late ‘50s, who “started making films about the contemporary world — the British cinema had normally lived in an imaginary world of butlers and all that nonsense. Films about the working classes were expressly forbidden to be made.” But after the second world war, “the world changed and new subjects started being filmed,” and by about 1970, that period of “foolish optimism” had come to an end. “And then we were all working in television,” Frears with Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. By that time, “all of the most interesting work being done in Britain was really being done in television. And then the cinema gradually came back to life.” And that was possible because of broadcasters like BBC and Channel 4? “The truth of the matter is, it was really possible because of people like Mrs. Thatcher, I’m ashamed to say, who started to deregulate everything,” to break down the monopolies. “It was really more down to her than to anybody else. It’s a terrible thing to think of. One of the things I learned when I made My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) is that we all became small-time businessmen; we became everything that Mrs. Thatcher would’ve wanted. Even though the subject was an attack on her, it was humiliating.”

When were you actually bitten by the film bug? Was it in watching people like Anderson and Reisz? “Well, they were extraordinary people, and it was a very, very privileged education. But really, like all young people, what you’re trying to do is to find out how to earn a living; you know, who you are, all those sort of things. So after I started working with them I started making films, then I started being paid to work. And I really went on from there.” And Mike Leigh and Ken Loach: Were you friends at the time? Were you like a group, did you work together? “No-no-no, we loathed each other, we were in such fierce competition with each other. But in fact you can see a quite distinct generation of people. So you are both with your comrades and loathe them at the same time.” What’s your distinction, when you compare yourself to Mike Leigh and Ken Loach? “Well, I went to Hollywood.” No, no; at the time. “I don’t know, I never think about these things. I remember Mike Leigh saying to me — I ran into him in the Underground, and he asked me, ‘How’d you get to Hollywood?’ And what was your answer? “Go to the airport.”

What about the one theatrical film you made in 1970 among all the TV shows, Gumshoe, with Albert Finney? “The truth is, I was very, very lucky, because I did make a film in 1970 knowing absolutely nothing. And then I was allowed to work in television for 10 or 12 years, where I more or less learned my job.. Even though I was directing films it was more or less like a nursery; we were all learning how to make films then. And I really didn’t stick my head up until the middle of the 1980s, when I made My Beautiful Laundrette. It was very privileged and protected. I didn’t have to grow up in public, which was a great blessing.” Before actually going to Hollywood (“where the corruption set in”), in 1988 he went to Paris, where he made his first Hollywood film, Dangerous Liaisons (1988). “It was filled with people in silly clothes, and Hollywood was quite frightened by it. Then I went to America,” where his first film, The Grifters (1990), was made for Martin Scorsese and garnered Frears an Oscar nomination.

What is it like working with famous or important writers like Hanif Kureishi (who wrote the screenplays for Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) and My Beautiful Laundrette) and Roddy Doyle (1996's The Van and 1993's The Snapper, the latter a sequel to Alan Parker’s The Commitments)? How should we imagine the writing process? “I remember Hanif Kureishi coming to see me, he got the script to me. And I said, ‘This is very, very good, we should make it.’ But it was about Pakistanis, and I knew nothing about Pakistanis. So he had to come and explain it all to me. And in the process — you know, you start talking about the film, and you say, ‘Can we try it this way,’ and then this and this and this. What he actually said was that I was the first person who ever said to him, ‘Can you make it dirtier?’ He was a very serious writer, and he was very, very shocked, but he made it dirtier.” In any event, “he turned out to be an incredibly important person, the first writer from a slightly non-English world to be born in England. The truth is, I was very lucky; I struck oil. He’s a very wonderful writer. And a very interesting, complicated fellow.”

Now came questions from the audience. You mentioned Thatcher. What impact has Tony Blair had on filmmaking and cultural life in Britain? “Blair [two of Frears’ films, The Deal (2003) and The Queen (2006) feature the former prime minister] had almost no impact, no impact on the culture of Britain. Mrs. Thatcher was the sort of active enemy that you could go after with a gun, and it was very, very satisfying. Blair was a much more slippery character; he had no impact on culture at all. I think I made the first film about Blair, and then the second; now he’s on every program there is. But Thatcher was a much more radical thinker. Blair was much more elusive.”

From a young woman director-in-training: “How can I get a mentor like you?” Purring “well, you’re very, very nice,” Frears promptly invited her to come up to see him one evening, adding something in an undertone about corruption, then turned serious. “But it’s not like that. You make films. You make films, you’ll get better, I promise you. I did, [and] I got better.” And why would you want to be a mentor? “It’s one of ways they deal with old people. They give you a bus pass, and they make you a mentor. It’s a way of avoiding you, you know... It’s the way they treat old people. I’m sure the Queen has mentored several people. It’s just a cross you have to bear.”

What about cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, with whom you made so many films, including The Hi-Lo Country (1998) [as well as five of the films previously mentioned]? “Well, he’s a wonderful chap, and a very, very good cameraman. The first film he shot was My Beautiful Laundrette. And then I worked with him I guess for about 10 years. He was just very, very good, and a pleasure to work with. And he had some ability that I never really understood: He could somehow articulate, or make in precise images, the sort of muddle that was in my head. I was really very, very impressed by that talent...

“When I made the Laundrette, I made it with a lot of young people, and they were very, very invigorating to be around, “ he continued. “I mean, they had no idea how to make films, but they were lively. They were tremendously lively. You know, you get to a certain point where you go, ‘I want to be surrounded by young people.’ And that’s what happened with the Laundrette. I was surrounded by young people and discovered that I was the oldest person. Whereas I’d always been the youngest before. He was terrific.”

How did you keep from being seduced by Hollywood? “It was a tremendous struggle to resist the enormous checks that were being offered to me, but... I exercised one of my most heroic qualities...” Becoming serious, he noted that “I was very, very lucky. I was always really in love with the script. So I didn’t particularly care where the script came from. I remember coming back from Hollywood with Oliver. And we went from making a huge film to making The Snapper (1993). And I remember saying, I think we should play by their rules; we shouldn’t throw our weight around. So I was always protected by the talents I had from the beginning. I always have the ability to find good scripts. And I have great respect for the writer, because television is a writer’s medium. And I had a good taste in actors. And the more that I’ve stuck to those things, I’ve generally been all right. So I’ve had those guardian angels protecting me.”

What about High Fidelity, which was originally set in London. Was transposing it to Chicago your idea? “The film was bought for another British director and it was moved to America. And then he disappeared. And then they came to me — I remember John Cusack ringing me up and saying, ‘Would you be interested in this?’ — and the studio rang me up, and they said, it’s set in Chicago. And I knew this novel, that it originated in North London. So I thought this was going to be pretty dreadful, that it was a pretty stupid idea. But then I made the mistake of reading the script, and realizing that it didn’t matter at all. That actually what the novel was saying was universal, and in fact, even more than that, that John Cusack and his friends had had very, very similar experiences, and now wrote about Chicago much like Nick [Hornby] had written about London. So it was a pleasure to make.”

With you having worked in Hollywood and in Britain, we can’t avoid the question: What is the difference between the two? “In America they make studio films and they make independent films. Independent films are independent films, the same as anywhere else. Studio films are big corporate exercises, they are really different. And when I got into trouble, it was because I didn’t have the temperament to make studio films. They’re very, very public and they’re done by large organizations. They’re extremely good at their jobs, but that was when I got into a mess, the worst in my life. When I made independent films, I was generally OK.”

When Disney offered him High Fidelity, “the head of the studio rang me up and he said, ‘Make this like an independent film.’ And eventually I realized what a wise thing it was he was saying. In other words, he said that this is about young people... and we haven’t a clue. It was a very, very wise thing to say. So I made an independent film within an organization, having been liberated by the head of that organization.” So we just learned that there actually are wise people in Hollywood... “Well, there are a lot of wise people in Hollywood and a lot of extremely clever people in Hollywood. And the biggest mistake is to think that they’re all idiots. Some of them are idiots, but some are not. And some independent filmmakers are idiots,” he added sotto voce, one eyebrow raised.

Another question from the audience: How much did Malcolm McDowell (who played the lead in If...) have to do with the success of the film? And why did you never make another film with him? “Well, I don’t quite know what to say,” Frears began, no doubt trying to quickly recall what he might have felt 40 years ago. “I don’t quite know how to answer the question. The film made Malcolm very, very successful. The film was a better film because Malcolm was in it. I don’t know how you separate the two things, really. I don’t know why I never made another film with him.”

How about The Hi-Lo Country? “That’s the one the cowboys like. No really, they like it because it’s very true to their experience. Any more questions about cowboys?” Actually, there was one. What about all the fighting and shooting in The Hi-Lo Country? Frears was quick to concede the point. “Yes, there’s a lot of shooting in it, fistfights. That’s the kind of people they are,” he said, his voice rising. “They’re rough, dirty, rowdy, always fighting, drinking... Yes, sorry; go on.” The questioner’s follow-up was muffled, but audible to the director. “Well it’s a western, of course they had fights! Did you ever see a John Wayne film? It was written by an old cowboy [Max Evans], of course it’s got fighting. I remember Max, when he read Waylon Greeen’s script, he said ‘I’ve been waiting 30 years to make this.’ We made a film that was very faithful to what he’d written. (Including the fighting.)”

How do you cast your films? “I don’t know. Something comes into your head, someone comes into the room, and it all makes sense.” And how did you cast the part of Laura (played by the Danish actress Iben Hjejle) in High Fidelity? “It all happened at the Berlin Film Festival. I won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival... and this woman gave a speech, and she spoke in a sort of American [accent]... And I couldn’t cast the part in America. And eventually I went up to her and I said, ‘Would you like to be in a Hollywood film?’ And she looked at me as if I were proposing white slavery.” Undeterred, he took Tim Burton to Copenhagen to meer het, and then brought John Cusack. “And I took her over to people, and they said yes. They couldn’t pronounce her name, but they said yes... I approached it cautiously. But I couldn’t find anyone in America — you know, American actresses have got a hard life in a way — I couldn’t find anyone to play the woman in that film. I mean, who could stand up to John Cusack, because he’s quite overwhelming. Unless they were his mother. If they were older than John Cusack they could play his mother but they couldn’t take him on. And this European chick, she had no trouble.”

And what about casting The Queen? Helen Mirren does not seem an obvious choice. “Well, she was to the producer. He also produced the TV cop show Prime Suspect,” in which Mirren starred. “So he came to me and he said, ‘Would you be interested in a second film about Blair? About the events in the week of Diana’s death? And with the Queen as a character? And with Helen playing the Queen?’ Because he sat at a read-through, and thought Helen looked like the Queen. So I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to meet her first,’ So then Helen and I met and talked for about half a second and agreed it would be a good idea. And then the writer went away and wrote the script. So the truth is, it was easy... Boring story.”

An almost inaudible question from the back of the room brought the observation that “I know what other people like. I think that you like Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers... Am I right?” Yes. “And it was a surprise when I discovered it. Because you think we’re all bonkers. You think we’re all crazy. And I discovered that that was what really appealed, what people like about British films: John Cleese. Am I right?”

But that’s the British film of the ‘50s. Speaking of that era, I’m sure you know what François Truffaut said: that British cinema is a contradictory term. “Yes. And I want to make a film called ‘Bollocks to Truffaut.’ In fact he contradicts himself about two lines later. He was always something of a wimp; he was always hedgling his bets.” Of course; he was forgetting people like Michael Powell. But of course, he was being provocative. Maybe it helped the British cinema to come to grips with... “I’ve never met a provocative British filmmaker.”

His latest film, Cheri, was done with the same screenwriter he worked with in Dangerous Liaisons, Christopher Hampton. And both films are based in France. How did the process work? “All I did was read the script (based on a novel by Colette) and then read the novel. That’s all I did. And then made it.” You make it sound so easy. Where are the edges, where are the problems? “The edges come from people. But when they get too difficult, there’s something wrong with the film. Liaisons was a really, really easy film to make. Really easy. It was a sort of miracle it got made. But once we started making it, once we’d overcome the human problems, it was just a joy to make. It was just so funny and lively, and everyone was having such a good time.

“So in a way, that sort of simplicity — although I can see it conceals a lot of struggle — in the end they should be that simple. You know, like a Laurel and Hardy film: You just go out in the street and these two men are funny in front of the camera. It’s nothing more than that. And sometimes I come out of films and think, ‘My God! That was hard work.’ Being the age I am, somehow the director was more invisible. So a lot of the time you’re just clearing space for other people to work: for the actors to work, and for the cameraman to do his stuff, rather than striving to sort of put your mark on it. If you’ve got the script right, if you cast it well, there’s no reason for it to be difficult. If you cast something badly, that’s your fault. My fault.”

The next question dealt with starting out in films. “When I made my first film I was completely out of my depth really, but the script was very good. So the script had a sort of weight, a sort of modern quality. But I was completely inexperienced. Then I started making short films, and they gradually got longer.” As for the length of films these days, “they seem to be getting increasingly longer. I mean people do films that are more than two hours long. I don’t know how they can do it. I’m a ninety-minute man.

“I don’t know why films are as long as they are. When I was brought up, they were ninety minutes long. Any longer than that is not necessary. But they do require enormous stamina. Keeping a story going for ninety minutes is hard enough.” Maybe directors make their films longer because they’re always being told to take things out...? “I’m surrounded by people who tell me what an idiot I am. Get rid of that, get rid of that... So brutal. Also, I was brought up on Samuel Johnson, who said: Murder your darlings. It’s the bits you’re in love with that are always the problem.”

What should aspiring filmmakers do, and what should they never do? “You should make films. Nowadays it’s much easier to make films. You can make them on cameras, you can make them digitally very, very cheap. You make a film, and if people are interested they’ll go on supporting you. If you make a film and it’s interesting people will give you another film to make.

“The only way to learn is by making films. If you make a film, and if it’s good, you’ll be able to make another one. And if it’s not, maybe God is trying to tell you something. But you just go on and on making films. It’s easy.” Soft laughter rippled across the room. “They’re very cheap, aren’t they? You just make it, and edit it. Make it and edit it. And face up to the mistakes you make.”

Any upcoming projects? “I have two films I want to make. One is in England and one in America. The English film is a sort of rural comedy. And the American film I can’t begin to describe.”

You once said: One for the money, and one for the heart... “They all have to come from the heart with me. That’s what it’s all about.”

And that’s what Filmfest München is all about, and why more and more discerning movie lovers make Germany’s summer film capital the place to go for an intimate look at the best in international film and filmmakers. See you there next year!

We Need to Hear From YOU

We are always looking for film-related material for the Storyboard. Our enthusiastic and well-traveled members have written about their trips to the Cannes Film Festival, London Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, Edinburgh Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, the Palm Springs Film Festival, the Reykjavik Film Festival, the Munich Film Festival, and the Locarno Film Festival. We also heard about what it's like being an extra in the movies. Have you gone to an interesting film festival? Have a favorite place to see movies that we aren't covering in the Calendar of Events? Seen a movie that blew you away? Read a film-related book? Gone to a film seminar? Interviewed a director? Taken notes at a Q&A? Read an article about something that didn't make our local news media? Send your contributions to Storyboard and share your stories with the membership. And we sincerely thank all our contributors for this issue of Storyboard.

Calendar of Events


American Film Institute Silver Theater
"Cinema and the Spanish Civil War" is a series of films from the last 65 years offering different views of the period and its consequences. Both documentaries and feature films were produced in the US, Spain, UK, and France. Titles include Land and Freedom, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The War Is Over, Demons in the Garden, Bicycles Are For the Summer, Five Cartridges, The Spirit of the Beehive, Songs for After a War, The Heifer, Butterfly Tongues, Ay Carmela! and The Good Fight. The series runs from September 4-22.

The 20th Annual Latin American Film Festival takes place September 23-October 12. More than 30 films will be screened from Latin America plus Spain and Portugal and several special guests are expected to make appearances with their films.

New 35mm prints are available for the 40th anniversary of Easy Rider and Alien, both playing on multiple dates in September.

Freer Gallery of Art
The Freer takes part in the 6th annual US-ASEAN Film Festival, focusing on the countries of Southeast Asia. On September 18 at 7:00pm is When the Full Moon Rises (Mamat Khalid, 2008) from Malaysia; on September 20 at 2:00pm is A Month of Hungry Ghosts (Tony Kern, 2009), a documentary from Malaysia; on September 25 at 7:00pm is Fictions (Mouly Surya, 2008) from Indonesia; and on September 27 at 2:00pm is Agrarian Utopia (Uruphong Raksasad, 2009) from Thailand. More in October.

National Gallery of Art
"Alain Resnais: The Eloquence of Memory" is a short retrospective of work from the 1950s to the present. On September 5 at 2:00pm is Je t'aime, je t'aime (1968); on September 6 at 2:00pm is Last Year at Marienbad (1961); on September 12 at 2:00pm is a program of short films including Guernica (1950), Les Statues meurent aussi (1953) and Le Chant du Styrene (1958). On September 12 at 3:30pm is Muriel, ou le temps d'un retour (1963); on September 13 at 4:30pm is Stavisky (1974); on September 18 at 2:30pm is Melo (1986); on September 19 at 1:00pm is Mon Oncle d'Amerique (1980); on September 19 at 3:30pm is Same Old Song (1997); and on September 20 at 4:30pm is Coeurs (2006).

Leon Morin, Priest (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961) is on September 6 at 4:30pm. El Perro Negro: Stories from the Spanish Civil War (Peter Forgacs, 2005), assembled from home movies is an extraordinary view of contemporary Spain during the 1930s; it is screened on September 27 at 4:30pm and preceded by the short filmGuernica (Alain Resnais and Robert Hessens, 1950).

On September 26 at 2:30pm is "George C. Stoney: American Documentarian," a discussion and screening with documentary filmmaker George C. Stoney. Film professor Patricia Aufderheide will conduct the discussion; films include Flesh in Ecstasy (2008) and How the Myth Was Made (1979) as well as a work in progress, a follow-up to All My Babies (1952).

Smithsonian American Art Museum
As part of the exhibition "1934: A New Deal for Artists" is a screening of Stand Up and Cheer (Hamilton MacFadden, 1934) starring Shirley Temple on September 10 at 6:30pm.

Washington Jewish Community Center
On September 8 at 7:30pm is the documentary Trumbo (Peter Askin, 2007) about the blacklisted screenwriter. On September 13 at 3:00pm is D Tour (Jim Granato, 2008), a documentary about indie rocker Pat Spurgeon and his search for a kidney donor while touring with his band. On September 21 at 7:30pm is another documentary Holy Land Hardball (Brett Rapkin and Erik Kesten, 2008) about the making of Israel's first professional baseball league.

Goethe Institute
On September 8 at 6:30pm is a discussion and screening of The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, 2008). Stefan Aust, author of the best selling book on which the film is based, will be present for discussion after the film. The film, Germany's choice for Best Foreign Language Film, will open in Landmark's E Street Cinema on September 11.

A short series of films by Ulrike Ottinger begins September 14 at 6:30pm with Ticket of No Return (1979). On September 21 at 6:30pm is Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (1984) and on September 28 at 6:30pm is Prater (2007).

National Geographic Society
On September 21 at 7:30pm is Redwoods Transect about Mike Fay's 11-month walking journey across California's redwood forests. After the film, Fay will be joined by photographer Michael Nichols, writer Joel Bourne and Redwood Forest Foundation director Art Harwood to discuss conservation and resource management.

French Embassy
On September 9 at 7:00pm is Les Beaux gosse (The French Kissers, Riad Sattouf, 2009), "a well-observed portrait of a teenage boy's sexual awkwardness." (Screen Daily).

The Japan Information and Culture Center
On September 9 at 6:30pm is a screening of an anime film Evangelion 1.0--You Are (Not) Alone (Hideake Ano, 2006). This is the firsts chapter of a four-part adaptation of the popular "Neon Genesis Evangelion" anime series.

National Archives
On September 10 at noon is a 75th Anniversary Film Series featuring films from the holdings of the National Archives. This hour-long program includes short subjects from the Army-Navy Screen Magazine, cartoons and other humorous short films.

On September 23 at 7:00pm is a screening and discussion of Charles Guggenheim's Johnstown Flood for which he received his third Academy Award. The short film expertly weaves archival photographs, narration, and historical recreations to chronicle the May 31, 1889 flood which killed more than 2,000 people. A panel discussion follows with Grace Guggenheim, director of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association Richard Burkert, and two crew members.

On September 26 at noon is Raiders of the Lost Ark (Stephen Spielberg, 1981), part of the Archive's "Big" series.

The Avalon
On September 9 at 8:00pm is Elementary School (Jan Sverak, 1991), based on the childhood memories of screenwriter Zdenek Sverak and directed by his son.

The Corcoran
On September 15 at 7:00pm is Herb and Dorothy (Megumi Sasaki, 2008) a documentary about Herb and Dorothy Vogel who started collecting affordable art in the early 1960s. Director Megumi Sasaki will introduce the film and take questions after the screening.

On September 24 at 6:30pm is Died Young, Stayed Pretty (Eileen Yaghoobian, 2008), a documentary examining the underground indie-rock poster culture in North America. The director will introduce the film.

Anacostia Community Museum
On September 10 at 10:30am is Sweet Old Song (Leah Mahan, 2002), an hour-length documentary about the African American musician Howard "Louie Blouie" Armstrong.


The 20th Annual Latin American Film Festival
Now in its 20th year, the annual AFI Latin American Film Festival showcases the best filmmaking from Latin America and, with the inclusion of films from Spain and Portugal, celebrates Ibero-American cultural connections. Always one of AFI's best-attended events, this year's festival promises to be the biggest yet, with over 30 films from nearly 20 different Latin American countries. Each year the list of films includes multiple award-winners, international festival favorites, local box-office hits and debut works by promising new talents. Special guests and after-parties will be announced soon. The festival kicks off with its Opening Night film, Mexico's I'm Going to Explode, a New Wave-styled story of young lovers on the run. Other films of note are Dog Eat Dog from Colombia and Gigante from Uruguay, winner of the Silver Bear at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. The festival continues until October 12.

Third Annual Alexandria Film Festival
The Alexandria Film Festival runs from September 24-27, 6-9pm at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Please check the website for more information.

DC Shorts Film Festival
The DC Shorts Film Festival, now in its sixth year, will take place September 10-17. More than 100 short films from 18 countries will screened. There are two locations: the US Navy Memorial and Landmark's E Street Cinema. See the website for the schedule.

Crystal Screen Outdoor Films
"Superheroes" is this summer's theme, shown on Mondays and Wednesdays at 18th and South Bell Streets. September's superheroes are Batman and Robin. On September 7 is Batman and Robin; on September 14 is Batman Begins and on September 21 is Batman: The Dark Knight.

Rosslyn Outdoor Film Festival
The 2009 Rosslyn Outdoor Film Festival starts May 1 and runs through September 4. The theme is "the 1980s" and films are shown at dusk every Friday at Gateway Park, two blocks from the Rosslyn Metro. The last title in the series is Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) on September 4.

Thai Talents ‘09
Thai Talents ‘09 will showcase a variety of contemporary Thai arts, including films, literature, paintings, photos and music. Twelve feature films and 29 short films will be shown over three weeks on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. Film categories are Art Films, Rare Films and Drama Films, Films by Rising Filmmakers and Short Films. RSVPs are required for film showings.

In addition to the film showings, there is a "Literature and Screenplay Writing Night" on September 19 from 7:00-9:00pm with Jane Vejjajiva, an award-winning author, screenwriter and translator. A "Filmmakers Night" is on September 26 from 7:00-9:00pm where you will meet with new generation filmmakers ThaiNdY, a group of filmmakers from New York City who will discuss their inspiration, directing, and how their films were nominated for international awards.

Art films: On September 11 at 7:00pm is Tropical Malady; on September 12 at 1:00pm is Last Life in the Universe; on September 12 at 3:00pm is Syndromes and a Century; on September 12 at 5:00pm is 6ixtynin9.

Rare films and drama films: On September 18 at 7:00pm is Country Hotel; on September 19 at 1:00pm is The King of the White Elephant; on September 19 at 3:00pm is Wonderful Town; on September 19 at 5:00pm is The Happiness of Kati.

Films by rising filmmakers and short films: On September 25 at 7:00pm is a program of short films; on September 26 at 1:00pm is Dorm; on September 26 at 3:00pm is Shutter; and on September 25 at 5:00pm is a program of short films.

For reservations e-mail or call 202-298-4819.

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