Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Lovely Contemplation on Nature, Filmmaking and Human Connection

Geographies of Solitude (2022) - Mills Geographies_of_Solitude_Landscape We are presented with a night sky; thousands of stars are twinkling, a shooting star appears and crosses the screen. It's so picturesque it looks almost fake, very graceful but nonetheless a computer-generated animation, perhaps. Then the horses at the bottom of the screen begin to move. Then a moving lantern. It is dawn, and we realize the scenery that we are introduced is real. So, starts miraculously beautiful Geographies of Solitude.

Zoe Lucas is a naturalist/environmentalist. She first came to Sable Island, a patch of land 20 miles long and one mile wide, 100 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1971 to study wild horses living there. She fell in love with the island and couldn't wait to get back on. She got a job as a cook in the seal population research team, then off and on, spent some 9,000 days there and made it her home. She has been meticulously logging data, not only on the horse population, but also sorting through mountains of plastic debris being washed up ashore, diligently cataloging them, leaving records of environmental impacts of the Anthropocene era.

Her shed is full of found treasures both alive and stationary - stacks of note books with daily written reports, photo slides, petri dishes, wind chimes made out of washed up materials and crystals, meticulously cataloged insects and other specimen in jars, patches made out of thousands blown balloons, plastic vats of yet to be cleaned and cataloged debris washed up ashore...

Filmmaker Jacquelyn Mills, in collaboration with Lucas, lovingly documents all that a windswept remote island can offer - sand dunes, horses, seals and insects, its intricate ecosystem. She also comments on the human footprints on environment through Lucas while capturing some of the most breathtakingly gorgeous images on 16mm film. It includes naturally exposed film stocks only by moonlight and hand printed footage using natural surroundings, like horse dung, sand, kelp and yarrow.

Soundscapes play big part in the film too. It’s filled with humming of the seals, insects, never ceasing winds, neighs of the horse, waves… Using small contact microphone, in Mills’ hand, tiny insects’ footsteps, the creaking of an abandoned wooden structure turn into music.

As Lucas says in the beginning of the film, her life on the island has been the process of discovery. I'm grateful that through Mills, we too could discover, albeit second hand, the grains of sand becoming the twinkle of the stars and dead horse becoming the source of new vegetation.

Later in the film, after a day of collecting samples in the field, Lucas says that because of being on the island was so rewarding, engaging and fulfilling, she lost track of everything else in her life. As they turn back to go back to the shed, Mills insists that she wants to stay in the field to collect some sound. “You don’t really need me to stay here for that do you?” Lucas quips, “No but this way we can spend some time together.” Mills shyly responds. Solitude takes a comforting tone in Geographies of Solitude. The film is one of the loveliest feature debuts in years.

Geographies of Solitude plays part of this year's edition of Hot Docs Festival on 4/30 and 5/4. Please visit Hot Docs Festival website for tickets and info.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Vibrant, Youthful Take on Old Paris

Paris, 13th District (2021) - Audiard PARIS 13TH DISTRICT - Still 2 Known as Les Olympiades, named after cities across the world which had hosted Olympic games, are the middle income high-rise residential buildings built in the 70s, near shopping malls and pedestrian overpasses, situated in the 13th District (13th Arrondissement), which is commonly regarded as a Chinatown of Paris. It's a place far from the images associated with the famed city. With its diverse population and nondescript modern buildings, shops and business offices and constantly changing landscapes due to new developments, it can double as any other modern Asian city. This is the backdrop of Paris, 13th District, a new film by Jacques Audiard, the supreme purveyor of French outlier cinema (Prophet, Rust and Bone, Dheepan), chronicling the stories of immigrants who make up and represent the face of the increasingly diverse nation.

After delving into the Western genre with wry The Sisters Brothers, Audiard takes yet another unexpected turn with Paris, 13th District, delicately sampling American cartoonist Adrian Tomine's 3 decades spanning work- specifically, Hawaiian Getaway, Amber Sweet and Killing and Dying and situating them in to contemporary Paris setting. Shooting in crisp monochrome, with kinetic camera movement and editing and a diverse cast, with the script co-written by Céline Sciamma, the film has a distinctly modern and youthful feel to it. Skillfully interweaving Tomine's stories of urban ennui, mistaken identities, and human connections in an Internet age, Audiard captures vivid and lively portraiture of an emerging new generation and while doing so, reinvents the notion of Parisian romance.

Émilie (luminous newcomer Lucie Zhang), a Taiwanese transplant, is a rootless, rudderless, lonely young woman living in her grandma (who's in group home due to her Alzheimer’s)'s apartment, rent-free. It's in one of those high-rise in Les Olympiades. She subsists her living with a telemarketing job she hates and getting a revolving array of roommates. After mistaking Camille (Makita Samba) who responded to her web classified for a roommate, for a female because of the female sounding name, she reluctantly agrees to their new living arrangement. Soon they start a no-strings-attached sexual relationship. But Camille is a disillusioned, cynical public school teacher with know-it-all attitude. He has aspirations to have a business of his own. Soon he starts lecturing about Émilie's lazy millennial lifestyle while she grows feelings for him. Would he help her to get her life in order? Would she melt his cold, calculating heart?

Then there is Nora (Noémie Merlant of Portrait of a Lady on Fire), a nebbish 30-something country bumpkin who is fleeing a disastrous marriage and just excited to be a student again (at Sorbonne), only to find her life turning upside down when she is mistaken for a popular web porn star Amber Sweet (played by singer Jehnny Beth of Savages), the constant harassment at school makes her impossible to continue her study. Would Nora let her frigid self go and let herself loosen up by way of connecting with Amber?

The breakout star of the film is definitely young Lucie Zhang as she inhabits her character with ferocious physical intensity and abandon. She understands the power of her youthfulness and knows exactly how to use it. Her portrayal of Émilie's wayward lifestyle and urban ennui are so natural and authentic, you see her great potential as a major acting talent in the making. Makita Samba is also great as a self-assured individual finding his priorities slowly, so is Noemi Merlant, as a bookish woman letting things go, so is Camille Léon-Fucien as Eponine, a sassy, precocious young woman on her way to her Internet stardom.

Coincidences and chance meetings weave these Parisians' lives together in an Internet age in Paris, 13th District. With Tomine's astute insight to his characters' psyche intact, Audiard creates sexy, vibrant and ethnically diverse portrayals of youthful love stories that upends the postcard-ready and homogenous Paris romances we are presented with. It's a welcoming change.

Paris, 13th District opens in theaters 4/15 via IFC Films.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Jacques Audiard, Lucie Zhang on PARIS, 13TH DISTRICT: Chinese Food, Covid Lockdown and The Internet

AudiardZhang Jacques Audiard, known for his superb thrillers (Read My Lips, The Beat that My Heart Skipped), became the supreme purveyor of French outlier cinema, chronicling gritty immigrant experiences in an increasingly diverse nation with such films as The Prophet, Dheepan and even to some extent Rust and Bone, comes out with a slight, sexy romance film based on Adrian Tomine's graphic novels called Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades, Paris 13e). With its diverse cast and unusual setting (a lesser known and seldom seen neighborhood, in films anyway), Audiard is upending the typical notion of romantic French film taking place in Paris.

He also introduces us his new ingénue, Lucie Zhang, a 21 year old French actress of Chinese descent, giving a star making performance as Émilie, a disaffected, live-by-the-moment millennial who tries to navigate ever so complicated human relationship in the Internet age. They both were in New York for Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in March and I was able to snag an interview with them. It took place in Midtown Regency Hotel in Manhattan. Audiard, an industry veteran who worked with many great actors over the years, is a fast talking gregarious man, whereas Zhang by comparison, is much more subdued and shy, unlike the uninhibited charactor she portrays. It was an interesting dynamics that I got to witness.

Paris, 13th District opens Friday 4/15 in theaters statewide.

I know that the 3 narrative threads are based on the work of American graphic novel artist Adriane Tomine, I am curious how Paris, 13th District all came about?

Jacques Audiard: I’m afraid my answer might be a little uninteresting. At the time I was looking for a subject for a film. I didn’t have anything specific in mind. And a friend of mine recommended these graphic novels by Adrian Tomine, saying, “if you read them I’m pretty sure you will find something you might like,” and I wasn’t really familiar with him at all. And I read some of his work and I really loved them. So it was a good suggestion. And what I found interesting about Tomine as an author, is that for a graphic novel, it has a lot of psychological analysis - it had characters that are complex and he also left things unexplained in them. At the same time, his drawing style, he doesn’t beautify things- he just shows the reality of what they are like and that appealed to me as well.

Um hmm.

JA: I really didn’t know the popularity of Tomine. So when I started working on the project, people asked me what I was up to and when I tell them that I am doing this project based on Tomine’s work, I was surprised that everyone knew his work. I was the last to know! How does Tomine’s work translate to the Paris setting? Is it because the stories are universal? AJ: I don’t know. I think, the psychology of it, to me it is very individual and even very local. But what I think he does is he creates these portraits of complicated people. (pause) Ask Lucie. She will know. (laughs)

Lucie, What’s your relationship with Les Olypmiades?

Lucie Zhang: My answer is not that interesting either. I have a very good friend living there right now. And my parents met each other for the first time there and fell in love. I don’t live there but I often go there to get bubble teas and food and shop with friends.

What is your relationship with the place?

JA: My relationship is historical. I’ve lived there for a really long time. I moved away after between my first and second film. It’s an area that I know very well. I like it very much. It’s very diverse and always has been. It’s also an area that the last 15-20 years has really undergone a lot of physical change. And the sensation that you get, when you are there, is that you are in Paris without being in Paris, because it doesn’t have the look that we are all familiar with. Particularly, by filming it in black and white, it gave me an opportunity to show an illusion that it could be not even Paris, that it could be an Asian city. It has that kind of look to it. This is true, particularly when you go to Les Olympiades (the 4 high rise residential buildings and shopping malls), that give that kind of feeling. Well, its not like New York high rises in comparison. (laughs) It also feels very young because there are two branches of universities, so there are a lot of young people there. 

I mean, I go to Chinatown here in Manhattan all the time to eat and shop.

JA: Are we far from Chinatown here?

It's just a subway ride away downtown.

LZ: I was looking for it yesterday but took the subway and ended up in Queens Plaza.

Oh no. You took it to the wrong direction.

LZ: Oh really? I wanted to go to a Chinese restaurant because I was craving some good food. I ended up in some place and the food was not so good.

I should've known. I know some good places. How was the casting process?

LZ: Three sessions. First I saw it on the internet. I sent the email and met with Christel Baras (casting director). Second, it was a call back because she liked me, even though I wasn’t the obvious choice because at the time I was 19 and I believe the character was 25 I think. They thought I looked too young and too childish- I am still, I think. So they rejected me. Then the covid lockdown started. And during it I got a phone call again. Then I met with Jacques.

And how did you get to choose Lucie?

LZ: I won’t hear. (Laughs)

My question stirred up a frantic conversation in between Audiard and Zhang in French. I can only make out when Zhang says in English, looking at me laughing - "I lacked confidence," in response to what Audard was saying.

JA: Christel suggested several actresses for the part. So even though the casting process seemed very long for Lucie, it’s quite normal how we did it. What I learned from this process is I shouldn’t always trust my instincts because my first choice for a particular role can turn out to be a completely a wrong person. And for this film, with Amber (Jehnny Beth) and Nora (Noémie Merlant), were also a similar kind of situation. I think for me what worked here was Christel who really pulled the cast together. so you have to be really careful what to say when you are a director.

LZ: How do you what point you know if it's the right person or wrong person for the role?

JA: Well, I worked with you in rehearsals and found out. It's actually very interesting because it concerns the timeline of how long it takes versus when I knew you were the right actor, for you it is the exact moment but for me it was working together for a while that I knew. That it wasn't temporal. Does it make sense?

LZ: I understand.

JA: I think the moment I knew was that Makita (Samba) who played Camille, came in that you guys work together very well. It's when they were talking and listening to each other that I knew.

This conversation was revealing in a lot of ways how Audiard's process with actors works. That it's not necessarily choosing the right actors but it's a bigger process and sculpting the actors during the rehearsal.

Obviously this film was shot during Covid Pandemic. Was it difficult for you?

JA: Of course there were a lot of protective restrictions and constant testing...and in a way it was kind of funny because after you come on to the certain part of the set, you test, you wear the mask, then you come on to the actual set, you take off your mask and take off your clothes... so it's a peculiar situation. But interesting thing during the lockdown is that you basically have a whole population that are forced to be inside, but here the actors were able to come to work and it was a really good time for them because it gave them some place to go outside. The french word here is confinement because they were really confined.

The party scene with the DJ, there were about 100 extras and all of them have been tested, tested and tested again to be able to come. And when they came they were really partying because it was a liberation for them, to the point they didn't want to leave! We had to usher them out because it was the first time they were out of their room in 3 month!

The film is vibrant and has a lot of great energy and has a hopeful ending. The world we live right now is not like that. It's full of disasters and wars. As a generation Z, who went through all these difficult times - The Gulf Wars, the financial collapse, pandemic and another war or invasion happening right now all in your lifetime. Do you feel that your generation is hopeful for the future?

LZ: It's a very hard question. I feel there are two types of people. One is people who are feeling really ill at ease and sometimes they feel they are victimized by all the things that are happening. For these people, they feel there is no hope. The other type is people who are more cognizant of history and what happened in the past that there were worse situations in the past and people managed to survive through them. And they are more optimistic. So it's really hard to say.

Internet. Is it helping or a hindrance for human connection?

JA: We can't make that kind of black and white distinction. It's bad in a sense that its a conveyor of conspiracy theories, fake news, all of that. But at the same time it helps people to connect with culture and broader idea of society, in that aspect it is good. If I can give you a brief analogy in the political world: In France right now they banned RTTV. the purveyor of propaganda. Personally I don't think its a good idea to ban it. We all know it's propaganda, we all know it's fake news, we all know that they are rallying against the liberal agendas and trying to rewrite history with their own fairytale in what is really happening. But at the same time, if we leave it there, we know we can look at them, see how they think and how they are progressing. But if we ban them completely, it robs us of that possibility. And sometimes people do stupid things (like banning) in the spur of the moment but I think it's better for us to leave it. OK. that's my bit of intellectualizing for the day. It's a time for a cigaret break!

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Love (is) Unclassifiable

Yeh Freedom Life (2018) - Sen Yeh Freedom Life Priya Sen's film, Yeh Freedom Life, sketches out two queer love stories in bustling Delhi streets. Parveen is a street bendor who has strings of female lovers and currently in love with a married woman who keeps vascillating, going back and forth from her family to Parveen. Sachi works at a local beauty parlor. She fell in love with a woman who works as a security guard, their stories unfold in Ambedkar Nagar, a densely populated neighborhood in Old Delhi, India. It feels very real and intimate. The film starts with a mass 'baby shower' that Indian Gov. initiatives to 'educate' pregnant women and these officials rhetoric are some of the most sexist I've ever heard. They all culminates to 'if you don't follow these common rules, your husband will leave you" variety. The radio show overheard in driving car shot suggests that women are inferior intellectually is also very demeaning to woman. It's as if making the rudimentary case for intelligence equals emotional intelligence. In a later conversations with the subjects and one of the 'aunties' saying queer love that Sachi has for her lover is 'too strong' to be natural, seems to be based on observation soley based more on emotional level, as if it is a bad thing.

Yeh Freedom Life makes an interesting pair as I saw another Indian (actually Sri Lankan) queer documentary last week at Art of the Real, If From Every Tongue It Drips by Sharlene Bamboat. Unlike ordinary subjects in Sen's film, Bamboat's subjects are well-known Tamil feminist activists, as the director records their intimate daily lives together and touches upon the repressed desires. The two films contrasts and accompany each other in terms of its subjects' class differences and human desires and love. Sen's subjects, in discussing their love, are more direct but quite unconcerned with their sexual identities. It's their uncluttered nonnomative view on love, even in highly heteronomative and extremely patriarchal society that is refreshing and hopeful, especially in the context of India decriminalizing homosexuality in 2018.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Chamber Piece with Thousands Stories

The Girl and the Spider (2021) - Zürcher Screen Shot 2022-04-02 at 10.00.52 AM Screen Shot 2022-04-02 at 10.05.43 AM Screen Shot 2022-04-03 at 12.37.41 PM Screen Shot 2022-04-03 at 12.42.15 PM Screen Shot 2022-04-03 at 12.33.45 PM Screen Shot 2022-04-03 at 12.23.05 PM Twin siblings Ramon and Silvan Zürcher's second film, after enigmatic The Strange Little Cat (2013), is yet another chamber piece as a microcosm of people's inner yearning and desire to connect in the modern society. And The Girl and Spider is just as ambiguous and non-conclusive as the former, if not more so.

The plot is pretty simple - one of the two roommates (who seem more than roommates), Lisa (Liliane Amuat), is moving out and getting her own flat. Mara (Henriette Confurius) with striking dark blue eyes, with herpes on her upper lip prominently displayed, is the one who is left behind. Like their debut feature, Zürchers concentrate on the indoor flat settings with a camera firmly fixed on the confines of the flats with several characters crammed in, squeezing by one another, making the places claustrophobic and devoid of any room for privacy. There's Lisa's mother, their friends, flirty neighbors, a handyman and his son, a cat, a dog, rowdy kids and of course, a hefty spider from the title who usually sits on the corner of the ceiling and makes unannounced appearances from time to time. Also like their previous film, The Girl is a very wordy film. Everyone has a story to tell, whether it falls on deaf ears is not as important. No communication is direct, no one would blurt out that they want to sleep with each other, or being extremely judgmental or cruel. Our society is too polite for that. It's in the slight touches on the shoulders and glances.

The human relationships are fickle; there are a lot of missed opportunities, one night stands, jealousy, yearning and desire that are not fulfilled - all these are happening around Mara, our static figure on the sidelines. She's not immune to be the object of desire, as she gets attention from both sexes. Is she taking a break from the sinewy human connections because of the STD? Or is she somewhat autistic the way talented people are (she sketches gorgeous portraits of people around her). She is also capable of cruelty. Does the spider which gets passed on from Mara to others and back, signify a disease or desire or both?

Only solvable mystery is the case of missing cat. It was the neighbor upstairs- a lonely old lady who took the cat in to her apartment. Does she need our scorn or empathy? Therefore, however complicated we see ourselves to be, do we need to be scorned for our jealousy, desire and cruelty or do we need empathy? Everyone, in Zürcher's films, imagined or otherwise, like the shop girl at the window, the chambermaid who left the piano in their apartment and went on to work at a cruise ship, even inanimate objects - plant, drawings, styroform cups, feathers, paint, have a story to tell and needs to be heard and deserve our empathy.

Stylistically original, but The Girl and the Spider reminds me of the ending of Kieslowski's Red by way of Schanelec in its enigmatic storytelling and it's wonderful. I can't wait for Zürcher's The Sparrow and the chimney as they conclude the trilogy.

Friday, April 1, 2022


What Farocki Taught (1998) - Godmilow Screen Shot 2022-04-01 at 4.33.33 AM Harun Farocki, a German filmmaker, made a short film The Inextinguishable Fire in the late sixties. It was a fierce anti Vietnam War film that implicates not just the US Government and the Dow Chemical but it implicated the ordinary US citizens in its atrocity also, while explaining the napalm production in such a detached, scientific manner. To put it better way, instead being confrontational by showing the pictures such as the iconic 'napalm girl' or other atrocities and turned the viewers off, it explained how modern division of labor- 'the building blocks' of the Dow Chemical company, where each individual worker makes only one component of the bomb, surreptitiously hides its true intent on what those individuals are contributing in making. The film broke down scientifically how it's done and how the thought of individual responsibilities in those kind of endeavor dissolve. It was short. It was emotionless and it was to the point.

Jill Godmilow, an American experimental filmmaker, watched the film in the 90s for the first time and thought it was perfect. It was a documentary unlike any other, but far more effective than any documentaries that plead to the viewer's emotions with 'shocking' evidences. She was just disappointed that she didn't make it herself. So she decided to remake it, shot-by-shot, but this time in English and in color. She would make it in the US and closer in vicinity to where the Dow Headquarters were situated. With the colleagues and collaborators, Godmilow seeks exact copies in reenactment scenes. Farocki's minimalist and obviously fake staging of Dow Chemical offices are reenacted in the same manner. The burning of the lab rats, non-actors portraying scientists, delivering lines in monotones are exactly the same, except it's now in English and people in period costumes. Godmilow sometimes superimposes Farocki's film directly over her image, making sure that viewers see it is the exact replica. The message remains the same. The times have changed but the atrocities commited in our name have not.

Considering that, just like any other decade, 90s were riddled with wars as it is now and the modern military industrial complex is fully in place with the thought of individual responsibilities in the atrocities of war getting further and further away from our consciousness with more complex division of labor, What Farocki Taught reminds us that things haven't changed much. And it's quite remarkable the far reaching influence of Harun Farocki, as a writer, philosopher and filmmaker, to generations of filmmakers both in experimental and narrative field.

What Farocki Taught is also a good reminder of the state of what is considered as a documentary nowadays. Since the explosion of topical liberal documentaries in the 90s, the word is hijacked by the news media - every major newspaper now has its vlogs, CNN has its own documentary production division, streaming platforms are awash with its own documentary productions, all catered toward shocking revelations and appeal to your emotions with 'real footage' and 'truth seeking' manipulating viewers this way or that way. Is showing the shocking images and playing with your emotions with a narrativeized documentary a right way to go about discovering the truth? Or is the truth elsewhere, in a cellphone shot footage of war in Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Ukraine put on youtube? Our critical analysis of what we see is necessary. The context matters. How we approach to seek the truth is important. Farocki and Godmilow shows more effective way to communicate and it's valuable.