Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Preview: Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2013

The 18th Edition of this New York tradition, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema unveils perhaps their most diverse line-up in years. This range includes grand and engaging entertainments such as Régis Roinsard's Populaire (Opening Night film with its stars Romain Duris and Deborah François attending), uncompromising auteurs such as Jean-Claude Brisseau and Damien Odoul, rising independent voices including Héléna Klotz and Shalimar Preuss, and master filmmakers François Ozon, Patrice Leconte, Raymond Depardon, Nicolas Philibert and the late Claude Miller.

Here are some of the titles I had a privilege to have a sneak peek at:

Silly me, I never made the connection between Renoir the painter and Jean Renoir the filmmaker all these years. Anyway, Renoir recounts the last days of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's life in the sun drenched French Riviera. Even though wheelchair-bound and in obvious physical decline with two of his three sons in trenches of WWI, Renoir is as productive as ever, churning out those unmistakeable colorful nudes of round, apple breasted figures, thanks to the recent arrival of young redheaded model named Andrée (played by radiant Christa Theret). The old man tells her flatly that it's all about young women's velvety skin that seems to absorb sunlight. It's all about beauty, because nothing else lasts. Enter his 21 yr old, second oldest son, Jean, wounded in battle and on leave for recuperation. Jean falls for the young, libertine model who teaches him the meaning of carpe diem. Renoir is a shamelessly pretty picture. There are dark undertones hinted here and there- Renoir the elder lives in a room full of maids, all of whom may or may not have been his models turned maids and vice versa. The youngest son, a mere child (here played by Thomas Doret from The Kid with a Bike) who has a tendency to play with dead things is generally creepy. But these very underdeveloped negative aspects never overtake the hopefulness and sunny disposition of the film.

in the house.jpgDANS LA MASON/IN THE HOUSE

In typical Francois Ozon fashion, In The House is deliciously perverse. It would make a great double feature with his Swimming Pool. Fabrice Luchini is perfect as a failed writer and High School writing teacher, so is Kristen Scott Thomas as his passionless wife/gallery owner as is Emmanuelle Seigner as a bored 'middle class' housewife. The film is very good at keeping you on your toes. It starts out like a High School drama about a teacher/pupil relationship, with notebook line title sequence and everything. Then it becomes something else. Not that I didn't know it was directed by Ozon, but it still caught me off guard. When I realized it, it was too late. The film pulled me in and it was a totally engaging movie going experience.


A turgid morality play involving a car accident. Al (Raphaël Personnaz) is a young car salesman moving up on the social ladder, about to marry his boss's daughter. On the rawdy drunken night of the bachelor party, he accidentally runs over an illegal Moldavian worker, which is witnessed by Juliette (Clotilde Hesme) from her balcony. Despite Personnaz's soulful performance as the guilt ridden young man trying to do right and beautiful Arta Dobroshi giving the widow of the victim some dignity, the film is full of melodrama and not enough substance.


The movie follows a nameless beautiful woman (Marie-Eve Nadeau) going through hundreds of hours of videotapes left behind by her lover of 7 years, who disappeared without a trace, trying to reconstruct the man that she thought she knew. This self-reflexive visual essay by Damien Odoul is at once puzzling and engrossing. The seemingly random, grainy video footages- nature, reflections, driving, people, day, night are beautiful at first. Then a slight story begins to emerge around the man's past, mostly narrated by the woman. Then it becomes more coherent by the end as it tinkers with the notion of death.

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Niels Arestrup eschews every scene he's in as an overbearing father/owner of a reputable vineyard in France. The tragedy here is of Shakespearean proportions, supported by a great cast, including nebbish Lorant Deutsch as a never-good-enough-in-his-fathers-eyes son, Anne Marivin as a supportive wife and a father-in-law defying, sexy hothead and Nicolas Bridet as the-son-you-never-had-but-always-wished. With his stop-on-your-tracks stare and the lion's mane, the film belongs to singular ruthlessness of Arestrup.


Others films in the series I am very interested in seeing, are a remake of Jacques Rivette's The Nun, starring lovely Pauline Etienne (Restless), Raymond Depardon and Claudine Nougaret's documentary Journal de France and two animated features, The Day of Crows and The Suicide Shop.
The series runs 2/28 - 3/10 at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, The IFC Center and BAM. Please visit Rendez-Vous with French Cinema website for the complete rundown.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel on Leviathan and the Possibilities of Cinema

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Leviathan, a stunning piece of audio-visual whatsit shot on tiny HD cameras on a fishing vessel, made a splash last year at various film festivals, including Locarno, TIFF, NYFF and this year's Forum section of Berlinale. The film's receiving a theatrical release in New York starting on Friday, March 1.

I got a chance to talk briefly with its directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel at the office of U.S. distributor The Cinema Guild. Fiercely intelligent and academic, yet very passionate about their filmmaking, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel responded lengthily to  everything I threw at them, even though our interview took place in the latter part of their press day and Paravel was still reeling from jet-lag, having returned from the Berlinale just the day before. I thank them heartily for their patience and candor.

You both are anthropologists by profession?

Véréna Paravel (VP): We used to be.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor (LCT): We are recovering anthropologists.

VP: We still are. But we're just trying to forget this dark side of us. (laughs)

For those of us who don't know what the Sensory Ethnography Lab is, can you explain?

LCT: It's a little lab, as in an experimental laboratory, but not really scientific. We are not conducting experiments with controlled variables. It's experimental since we don't know what we are doing. There are a bunch of us working there. We are trying to do things with audio visual media -- with photography, sound, film and video, to do things that can't ordinarily be done or aren't ordinarily done either within anthropology or within film, especially documentary or within art.

We are definitely, like anthropologists, invested in the real world and the vagaries and different varieties of lived experiences and cultures around the world. But we are not interested in reducing that magnitude of that lived-in experience to sound bites or to discuss formulations or linguistic propositions that would summarize a culture or human existence in ways that are reducible to meanings that can be transcribed in language or written words.

We are interested in working with documentary in ways that pulls away from its affinity with broadcast journalism, with the lecture format and with talking heads to discuss the world rather than experiencing it. In that regards, I think our works, even though largely non-narrative or working against the conventional narrative structures, have a lot more affinity with cinema as a whole rather than just a straight up documentary.

We are also interested in, even though most of us are working with moving images, like film and video so far, unless of course working with sound, we are doing things that don't separate different art forms, different genres but seeking a way to bring all in, so everything is rubbing shoulders, so there is more friction and interstices between different art forms and different traditions and representations as well and to see where they can take us.

How many people are involved in this laboratory usually at one time?

LCT: It changes the whole time. Like when we teach, usually classes are kept at ten or twelve people and every year there is a new twelve. Then there are visiting post doctorates and different artists passing through. I'd say about a dozen people at any given time.

Are there a lot of people making projects similar to what you guys are doing?

LCT: Yeah. But we don't want it to be huge. We are not a factory. (laughs) 

I do feel LEVIATHAN is much more than just an observational documentary. I mean it's so cinematic. I've seen both SWEETGRASS and FOREIGN PARTS and I kept thinking that you must've had some sort of training as a filmmaker or photographer. I can't accept the idea that you guys just shot a bunch of footage and made your film out in the editing process.

VP: Well, for me making Foreign Parts was basically the first time I touched the camera.

That's crazy talk.

LCT: (To Paravel) Well, Foreign Parts came out of an amazing earlier work that you did on the No.7 subway Line (7 Queens).

VP: Yeah, I just borrowed a camera and made this short, very strange, non fiction film and I discovered the junkyard right there which became the subject for Foreign Parts. The only training I got was actually from the Sensory Ethnography Lab, where I spent a year watching films and reading poetry and not-too-academically written ethnography books. But basically no film or photo school for sure.

You just blew my mind!

LCT: We did have a yearning, even though we were trained as anthropologists, we both have PhDs in Anthropology and social science. (To Paravel) For a long time you had this yearning to break out of this academia. You were unsatisfied with academic work and wanted to work with images and sound.

VP: Yeah but I didn't know--

LCT: And moving from Paris to New York, you watched a lot of films and lots of documentaries and you told me (Frederick) Wiseman was a huge influence on you.

VP: But that's not really true, because I didn't start watching films too seriously until I really decided that I couldn't go any further with the written words. Something was deeply missing in my capacity of expressing myself, which I am still struggling with, all the time. I didn't figure out right away, but I knew deep down that there was something more in expressing myself through images. It was a huge bet within myself to see if I could go through with it. I had many ideas that could be expressed through film but I was really shy and scared when the camera was literally thrown into my hands. But enough about me...

LCT: I had a little more training. We had a similar but also very different childhood. In France and in England. Yours was completely peripatetic, always moving around and mine was not. I grew up in Liverpool but we didn't have television at home. My parents never went to the movies and I was never interested in visual medium. I'm still a very non-visual person in many ways. I'm hardly a cinephile. I hardly have seen any movies. I don't like movies unless it's incredibly good. I'm easily bored by a film. Now I'm middle aged, I fall asleep invariably while viewing a regular film, including 56 Up two days ago. (laughs)

But I ended up studying anthropology undergrad in the UK and being unsatisfied with it already even though I ended up doing PhD in Berkeley, CA. But at least I escaped the UK and anthropology and became a self taught, bad still photographer and ended up going to this program in South Central LA in visual anthropology and that was my first exposure to the field and that was the first time I had to deal with moving images instead of still images. 

It was really hard for me because I was always fetishizing compositions and the stillness, the cutoff-ness of the frames and so on. And the moving image with sound has obviously having an affinity with the flux of life and existence within the duration of time frame. So it was hard for me to make that transition. But after I've gone to this program in Los Angeles, after I started working with moving images and sounds, I, like Verena, found it much more demanding but much more fulfilling and much more potentially faithful to myself and to whatever little minuscule thing either of us could contribute to the world or to ourselves than anything I could do with the written words.

VP: The way we capture things is with our bodies. We don't necessarily look through the viewfinders but we are there, trying to experience the friction with the real world. I think that's why people tell me that our films are different. It's not from a cinephile's point of view.

I was at the New York Film Festival and attended your Q & As after the screening. It was funny to see a French filmmaker, Philippe Grandrieux being there and defending you from a barrage of silly questions. Subconsciously, I thought about how similar the experience was seeing LEVIATHAN with Grandrieux's work. What's the connection there?

LCT: We have quite a number of mutual friends. We've only met him two years ago in France. We both adore his films. We were blown away by his work because they are so visceral and haptic and deranged and disturbing and courageous and risky ... and because of all the common things we pursue artistically, we wanted to meet him. So we did and that's how we became friends.

So in Paris, we asked him if he could come to Harvard and teach, to take a break from the film world. And eventually he came to Harvard and has now been teaching for a year and is also very interested in coming back and be a part of the film studies program. It's a good break for him because for him, making film is so physically demanding, it consumes him body and soul. As it happens that he is just as invested in teaching even though he has never taught before, but he gives his all, exhausts himself teaching. It's been great for students and for him. He really gives all to life. There is nothing he does that is not 110 percent. That's what he's doing this year and it's been working out really well.

VP: It happened that he was in Montreal attending his retrospective. He had the Leviathan DVD but he refused to see it unless it's on the big screen on DCP, so he agreed to come down with us to New York. So we drove down together in our car: him and his wife and us having all these conversations. We got him in to the press screening and that's why he was there.

To go back to his form of cinema, the haptic cinema, as people call it, his cinema does something to you deeply, even the way you breathe. It affects you physically and emotionally in a very deep way and cinema should be like that, rather than you thinking about the next shot is going to be this and that.

I don't want to ask you about the technical questions. I'm pretty sure you get asked a lot about how LEVIATHAN was shot. The use of GoPro cameras in this movie is something we've never seen before though. So let me ask you about how you perceive this ever evolving video technology and if it is beneficial for your artistic practice.

VP: I have to tell you first that we are a complete technophobe and very spastic.

LCT: It's true, she is not being humble.

VP: When they asked me about these technical questions about my last project I couldn't help but being repulsed by it. (laughs)

But I can't imagine that kind of spontaneity and being that physical in LEVIATHAN with clunky big movie cameras. What was SWEETGRASS shot on?

LCT: It was shot on video but it was bigger, shoulder mounted camera. One thing I'll say about the miniaturization and automatization of the cameras can sometimes be really enabling. But for me it's more of a difference in degree than kind. And also paradoxically there is an inversion within, which is now with HD cameras whether they are big or small, they have clarity of resolution that to me is very non-real. You can have great depth of field but there is still this flatness that comes with HD. And these GoPro cameras have much more cinematic quality, the look is more filmic than video-y: the noise, the abstraction and the figurality of them resemble the film grain, the degree of abstract realism of the film camera. We could've shot everything with the film camera in a waterproof housing but the size of GoPro definitely enabled us.

As much as we wanted to come up with the film from the human perspective: the anthropologized representation of this encounter at sea with all the different players and agents, humans and non-humans, animals and non-animal, there was a danger in supposing that these shots are purely mechanistic. A kind of technological perspective that there is no filmmaking or directorial agency whatsoever, that you can just place these cameras and let them do the work. There are really four shots in the whole film that were not held by nor tethered to our bodies. All other shots were either held by us or attached to the fishermen's bodies. The shots of the camera going over and underwater were done, GoPro attached on the sticks held by us.

VP: It is the extension of ourselves. It's physically attached to sentient beings--

LCT: It's exactly the same discourse though when the 16mm and super 8 came in. It always goes back to what's great for democracy and the greater informality and domesticity but it greeted every new technological advances whether it's photochemical or video the same way. But it's true that the latest cameras are so small that you don't have to hold it at head high anymore and it's very enabling.

With the amount of attention LEVIATHAN is getting, being filmmakers is working out for you. Is it something you will be continuing in the future?

VP: Hopefully, yes, if we can survive.

Leviathan opens 3/1 at IFC Center in New York and rolls out to other cities later. Please go to The Cinema Guild website for more information.

My Leviathan Review

Sunday, February 24, 2013


White Epilepsy (2012) - Grandrieux
White Epilepsy is the latest from the esteemed French visual artist Philippe Grandrieux (Sombre, La Vie Nouvelle, Un Lac). It makes a US premiere here at this year's Film Comment Selects series.

It starts with a back side of an androgynous nude figure in the dark accompanied by the sound of nocturnal insects. The movement of this body mass is slowed down and as it lurches forward and back, it reveals all the nooks and crannies: every vertebrae, every flutter of muscles becomes subtly visible in an eerie muddy visualization that has become the trademark of the French auteur's haptic cinema.

While watching this 67 minute film, a sort of primal Adam and Eve story with no dialog, displayed in an inverted format (acting taking place only in a vertical rectangle in the center of the screen- like an iphone video) among the room full of adoring cinephiles (myself included), I realized that this is a product of the unavoidable conclusion reached by an uncompromising visual artist whose interest lies in human bodies and nature of violence. This interest was previously presented in a borrowed genre: film noir, in which only a skeletal narrative was present to help the audience move through a string of dark, visual 'sensations'. His 2008 film Un Lac (a slim folklore about a brother and sister told in the Grimm tradition) made me a Grandrieux devotee. Even watching it on a small screen with my headphones on, it was a mesmerizing experience. I just wished I had seen it on the big screen.

So I have been very much looking forward to seeing White Epilepsy in a theater. But stripped of any narrative pulses and plasticity of normal filmmaking, the film stubbornly refuses to be nothing but a moving painting. There are surely some hauntingly beautiful images. But even though I'm not a novice to experimental and challenging cinema, I couldn't invest my full attention to what Grandrieux was trying to achieve here. In the past, he managed to maintain his films from becoming gallery art installations. It was a fine balancing act. White Epilepsy would undoubtedly make a fine gallery installation.

Friday, February 22, 2013

What do you do about Korean men...

In Another Country (2012) - Hong
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"What do you do about Korean men,
They only think about sex."

A great lite comedy. It's a pleasure to see Isabelle Hupert running around being in three different scenarios in a deserted coastal town in Korea. Hong finds humor in repetitions in slightly different situations and awkward exchanges in English. As always with any Hong movies, it all comes down to excessive smoking and getting shitfaced on copious amount of Soju. And it's true. All Korean men are animals with only one thing in their minds.

Paradise Lost

Paradise: Love (2012) - Seidl
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Paradise: Love reaches its dizzying heights in terms of its brevity and authenticity using non actors to bring out the ugliest side of humanity. Compared to Seidl's work, Todd Solondz's stuff is a kid's play. Paradise: Love, the first of the planned trilogy (Paradise: Hope just played at this year's Berlinale), deals with the uncomfortable subject of sex tourism. It's pretty icky when it's the first world old white men on third world young women. It gets doubly gross when it's old, flabby white women (and no, they don't look like Charlotte Rampling in Heading South) on young black men. Seidl up the ante with its African setting (Kenya). Shot on location with mostly local people and non actors, Paradise is a two-hour, all-access glimpse into how the colonization still perpetuating dehumanizing effects on both side of the aisle. There are a lot of humor (intentional or otherwise) in the film but it's mostly oppressively sad and depressing. The most cringe worthy part is probably the scene where four droopy, old, naked white women trying to manage the young black stripper to get it up.

What Seidl achieves here is truly commendable. But dang, it's one of the saddest movies I've ever seen.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Invisible Gods

Hadewijch (2009) - Dumont
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Hadewijch is a film with immense power and beauty. The innocence and religious devotion are embodied by non-professional actor Julie Sokolowski. After getting kicked out of the convent because of her zealotry (refusing to eat and not covering herself against the cold) by concerned mother superiors, Céline (Sokolowski) is befriended by an Arab youth, who at first is attracted by her beatific demeanor, then impressed by her devotion. He in turn introduces her to his older brother who teaches Q'oran. Dumont serenely shows how an innocent can easily get bought into the martyrdom without judgment. It is not easy to buy into Céline's existence- a daughter of an extremely wealthy family, studying theology at her age, her unquestioning faith, etc. But Dumont's approach is so austere and sincere, these little set ups don't really matter too much. Elliptical climax threw me off a little but redemptive ending, with the constant presence of David Dewaele (the soulful lead from Hors Satan) really moved me as a whole. Hadewijch is definitely a great reward of a movie for adventurous filmgoers. I am really getting into Dumont.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Examining the Nature of Gaze

 photo e5d4eacb-8557-4909-b229-4b35ee513d2f_zps1f87f907.jpgAfter making its rounds at various festival circuits, and with his new narrative feature Vic and Flo Saw a Bear playing at this year's Berlinale, the adventurous Québécois film critic turned director Denis Côté's intriguing little documentary Bestiaire gets one week theatrical run at Cinefamily in Los Angeles, 2/19 - 2/27.

The documentary starts in an art class where a group of students sketching an inanimate object. They stare at the object intently. The whole sequence is tense and serious. It turns out that the object is a stuffed deer (or is it a baby antelope?). We are looking at the spectators looking at their subjects. Then we move on to grey concrete blocks that are animal holding cells in a zoo. It's Parc Safari in Quebec in wintertime. The film features a series of animals in exquisitely composed tableaux. Who knew that static close ups of animals bobbing their heads above and below the frame can be this hypnotic?

Lions bang on the cage, trying to get out of their small cells. Tigers aimlessly trots back and forth. Just like passive young caretakers of the Parc Safari, we partake in observing these animals in their natural state in captivity. But the film is not really about captive animals. Côté is not an animal rights advocate. Rather, he is interested in the relationship between spectators and their subjects.

, done in a deceptively simple way, has no narrative pull whatsoever. But along with Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Ilisa Barbash's Sweetgrass (2009), it's the best kind of observational documentary as it leaves a lot of room for audience to reflect. It gets interesting especially the beasts look back at you and you feel like you are locked in a staring contest with them. Who's zoomin' who now? 

apesmoving.jpgThe film will be preceded by two intriguing shorts Primate Cinema: Apes as Family by Rachel Mayeri and Moving Stories by Nicolas Provost, both have to do with our way of seeing things: while Apes gets the better of us emotionally instead of intellectually, Moving Stories shows us how easily we fall for narratives with such little devices.

Please visit Cinefamily for showtimes and tickets.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions of the world can be seen at

Monday, February 18, 2013

Children of the Damned

The White Ribbon (2009) - Haneke
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Masterful. I know I'm quite late in the game with this one. Haneke's examination of how the entire generation of people can be capable of atrocity or turn the blind eye to it is as complex as the history it is contextualizing. Think of it as Children of the Damned without being ironical or allegorical. It's deeper than that. There are definitely the economical disparity and religious hypocrisy at play in The White Ribbon. But what's most striking in the film is the attitude of grown ups not accepting the possibility of 'innocence' not existing. It is chilling because Haneke's view can be applied to any time period. But he suggests in the scene where the youngest son of the pastor presents the distraught man of God with his prized sparrow, that kids are not inherently evil. But do we start persecuting children when they reach 11? Where do we draw the line? Haneke doesn't give us easy answers and there are a lot to mull over. Perhaps the subtlest of all his films, White Ribbon is a lean, unblinking filmmaking at its best.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Sweet Observance

Sweetgrass (2009) - no director credit
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As far as observational documentaries go, Sweetgrass hits the right note for me in every way- it works as an anthropological study of sheepherders (cowboys) in their most natural state, works as a spectacular nature documentary with unbelievably beautiful surroundings (Montana and part of Wyoming in various seasons) and works as a hypnotic/visceral art film with colors, movement and its immediacy. I've seen this kind of work before- in Louis Malle and Robert Gardener India documentaries, Peter Bo Rappmund's Psychohydrography, James Benning's nature pieces etc. Conceived and executed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Illisa Barbash, the film is a marvelous achievement. The team seems to have found the perfect balance before it tipping over to become a gallery installation or worse, Baraka or Samsara. Castaing-Taylor possesses a kin, cinematic visual sense that is rare for this kind of filmmaking. Sweetgrass is an immensely watchable and engaging piece of work. I wished it being a little shorter though. 1 hour and 40 minute running time is quite an endurance test.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Abbas Kiarostami Interview

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In my short career as a film journalist/blogger, I have been lucky enough to interview some of my idols over the years -- Claire Denis, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Michael Haneke and John Sayles among them. But no one (not even Haneke!) made me as nervous as I was when I sat down for a round table interview with the master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami at last year's New York Film Festival. What could you possibly ask an artist who is infinitely wiser than you (not that others aren't), whose films leave you with awe and admiration, who seems to have figured out what life is about?

Having spent all day answering questions, Kiarostami looked tired behind those dark glasses (he has light sensitivity issues). And, unfortunately, our group occupied the last slot of the press day, so the interview felt very short and unsatisfying. I didn't get to ask any of the questions about restrictions and censorship put on his filmmaking. Looking back, without any nervousness I felt that day, listening to his calm voice again as I write this, I am now able to appreciate his warmth and generosity and his sense of humor a lot more than the first time.

I ask you this because you directed FIVE: DEDICATED TO OZU and seem to have great admiration for Japanese culture. What kind of conversation did you have within yourself before making LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE?

I am certain that my fascination with Japan has been with me forever, even before I got to go to Japan. Even my very first attempt at any kind of artistic expression, which were poems that I wrote when I was 20 years old, resemble haiku. I had no idea at the time, but I wrote poems that are very like haikus. And in my photography work, there are some kind of common forms found in traditional Japanese paintings. There is some sort of resonance in my practice and Japanese art. So there has always been real interests before my first visit there which was confirmed whenever I went back thereafter. I've been visiting Japan periodically over 20 years now.

Filmmaking for me is quite contradictory. It happened to all my films: whenever I feel attracted to a project there is this necessary heaviness -- the pre-production period is always longer than it should be. So I get bored and restless until things get ready. Deep down, I always wish something would happen to cancel it all. The more I am excited about a project, [the more] I want it be stopped by some kind of unforeseen event. The only exception was the production of Close-Up. Because it was the only film that didn't take long to prepare it. I came up with the idea the day before I started to shoot it, so I didn't have time to get bored. This double state of mind also happened in this Japanese project. I was very much looking forward to it except that I found its pre-production idling as it's always been as with others.

Did the tsunami affect the production of the film at all?

That tsunami was the exact unforeseen event I was telling you about! It was a sign for me because I couldn't find actors, even though the pre-production had started. I thought the project was not meant to be and I thought I would give it up.

This old close friend of mine, a Japanese woman who has been an assistant to a director for a long time (Nogami Teruyo, a long time assistant to Kurosawa Akira). She's always asked me why, what was it that I love so much about Japan and the Japanese people. She told me that just after the tsunami, she was a part of these people in Shibuya sitting on the floor and just seeing what was going on without any reaction or fear or despair. "I wish you would've been with us to see how Japanese people react to a catastrophe,"  she said. And love and admiration she had for her co-citizens, she was seeing them through my eyes.

There is a certain universality in your films that anyone can relate to whether they take place in Tehran, Tokyo or Florence. How did you cultivate that universality?

I think it's a lifetime practice, or habit or way of seeing things. I remember for a long time as a young man I wouldn't take what I see on TV for granted. I would never accept generalizing 'that's how Americans are,' or 'that's how Japanese are.' I was always much more interested in individuals rather than a culture or a country in general sense. This collective judgment or agreement on certain culture has always annoyed me. I deeply believe, excluding ideological positions, that we are the same. In details we can have our differences but in the main aspects of our lives -- our sufferings, joy and pain -- no matter if we are Japanese, American or Iranian, we are the same human beings. So if you have this as the principle of life and relationship, then it shows in your work.

The title of this film LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, sung by Ella Fitzgerald, is an American jazz standard. Considering the poetic nature of many of your films' titles -- TASTE OF CHERRY, WIND WILL CARRY US -- why did you choose this particular one? And are you a fan of jazz music?

I would say it's more of a generational thing. Jazz was a worldwide phenomenon when I was growing up. It would play on the radio and the LP came along and jazz came with it. So when it came to music for the film, I asked Mr. Okuno (Okuno Tadash, who plays professor in the film), what his character would listen to; even though he is ten years older than me, he said jazz because that's what he grew up listening to.

I think in Iran, the era of modernity was accompanied by this music. So the music came and the lyrics were translated and there are many singers who'd imitate jazz music. So I think of jazz as not the music that was born somewhere between America and Africa but as something that is shared universally in a certain generation. So for me the title is not a cultural reference, but came from a nostalgia for a certain era.

I was struck by the presence of many cell phones/telephones in LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE. We are living in a society where we depend on those almost exclusively as a means of communication. How do you feel about that?

There is not much I can do. Things come into our lives and become part of our everyday living. People's lives in my stories also rely on those devices and there is no escaping it.

I never had a mobile phone myself and never imagined having one until the day I was given one. That day I had left home and in the middle of the traffic, I realized that I forgot the mobile phone at home, so I had to drive back to get it. Then suddenly I realized that it's less helpful and more of a constraint, a restriction. Now it's part of everyone's lives: they visit me and they leave their phones at my house and there is a knock on the door....(everyone laughs)

The professor even says in the film that he doesn't have a mobile phone. He only has his telephone with an answering machine and complains that he has to check stupid messages other people leave for him. That's my sentiment too.

There is obviously a progression in your filmmaking over the years. So what's different now than when you first started making films?

Well, if there were any changes in my method, it should be reflected in my films. I think best way anyone put it comes from my friend Nogami Teruyo who told me a story. She hesitantly told me the reaction of Kurosawa when he saw my first (feature) film, The Traveler. She said, "I don't know if I should tell you this because I don't know if you will take it as a compliment or an insult." I said, " No, tell me. Tell me." It happened that he (Kurosawa) had seen my other films but it was much later that he saw The Traveler. And apparently he said, "Oh that Kiarostami fellow, he hasn't progressed a bit!" (everyone laughs)

I don't think my concept has changed since the beginning. All I know is that I don't rely on my previous efforts. Every film I do, I start it from scratch. If there is a change or progression, it's there on the screen. I can't tell you much more than that.

His new film Like Someone in Love opens on February 15 in New York and Los Angeles with a national roll out to follow.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Awful Truth in Pretty Pictures

Lore (2012) - Shortland
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After her well-received debut feature Summersault (2004), a small indie film about a young woman's sexual awakening that launched the careers of Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington, directing a WWII drama in Germany with all German cast is a curious choice for Aussie director Cate Shortland. But It's Shortland's knack for portraying a budding female's physical and mental struggle that connects the two films. Newcomer Saskia Rosendahl plays the red-lipped perfect Nazi youth whose world is shaken after finding out her parents' roles in the death of millions.

It's 1945. Hitler's dead. Hannalore (Rosendahl) and her four young siblings are left to fend for themselves after their Nazi parents are imprisoned. Having been informed that there is a relative living in Hamburg, the children set out on foot from their opulent mansion deep in the Barbarian mountains to an unknown, scary world. Things get hairy quickly as they run out of food (and milk for the baby) and shelter.

They team up with a suspicious young man, Thomas (Kai Malina), who crosses their path. Lore's younger siblings take a shine on him but she can't let her guard down. Germany is divided into zones with road blocks everywhere. Thomas, who may or may not be a death camp survivor, uses his street smarts to help Lore and her siblings to get to the British zone (because Soviets hate Germans, they were told). There is an obvious sexual tension between Lore and Thomas.

Rosendahl's typical Aryan beauty is accentuated by blissful cinematography, used effectively here as she gets battered, dirtied up and sun-blistered. There is a certain Grimm's fairytale quality to Lore's journey, with many grown up monsters in the woods waiting to pounce on a frightened little girl. The film makes a point of the war robbing one's childhood, that there are victims on both sides, several times. But thanks to beautifully balanced direction and great performances, the cliché-prone material never comes across as a didactic bore.

Lore opens February 8 in New York and Los Angeles and gets wide releases in March. Check the Music Box Films website for more information.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Moving Picture: Close-Up of Abbas Kiarostami at FSLC

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Coinciding with the North American release of his new film, LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, Film Society of Lincoln Center presents Close-Up of Abbas Kiarostami: a 9 day retrospective featuring the Iranian master filmmaker's documentaries, shorts and selective narratives. This retro is a rare opportunity to witness the evolution of one of the most prominent filmmakers working today.

Kiarostami's TASTE OF CHERRY winning Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997 put Iranian cinema and Iranian New Wave on the map, shedding a light on many other deserving Persian filmmakers (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, Amir Naderi among others) . Disarmingly simple yet highly sophisticated, blurring the line between documentary and fiction and defying easy categorization, AK's films are regarded as the prime examples of post-modern cinema. But the fact is, AK has been making films since the 70s: he helped establishing the filmmaking department at Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun) in Tehran and made series of documentaries and shorts concerning school children. All of his Kanun films will be shown at the retro.

My first AK experience was WIND WILL CARRY US. Its simplicity and humanism with great eye for landscapes impressed me greatly and made me a devotee ever since. What's most striking about his artistry is his effortless, seamless quest for truthful representation of life on film. Whether they are shot on 35mm or with a consumer grade handi-cam, the inquisitive interactions of non-actors with their natural dialogue often imply that there is no real distinction between cinema and reality.

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AK's depiction of children, from his Kanun days (THE BREAD AND THE ALLEY, BREAKTIME, HOMEWORK) to later films (KOKER TRILOGY, ABC AFRICA, TEN) is that of non-disciplinarian. In his feature documentary, HOMEWORK, it is obvious that the educational system in Iran is too strict and puts a lot of pressure on children, both in school and at home with a lot of homework. It's revealing that they all know what punishment means but don't know the meaning of the word praise. Then there are parents who say the system is too harsh on the children, that it kills their creativity and would end up producing a generation of mindless drones. Kiarostami seems to be agreeing with this sentiment.

Unlike many of other Iranian filmmakers who actively make political statements with their work (his former assistant Jafar Panahi being the most vocal one), AK's films aren't overtly political. But the given complexity of his films, Iranian government bans any exhibition of AK films in Iran, fearing that there might be hidden subliminal messages. But unlike the Iranian New Wave filmmakers of his generation who fled the country after the 1979 revolution, AK stayed and kept making films exclusively in Iran until CERTIFIED COPY in 2010. He accepts that restrictions and censorship are a part of life in a rigid society but always finds ways to express himself in changing environs.

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Cold and bitter, THE REPORT is nothing like his later films that are optimistic and life affirming. Firouzkoui is perhaps the least likable character in all of AK's protagonists- he cheats, lies and abuses his position as a tax investigator. After being accused of corruption and short on rent money, he resorts to beating his wife and neglecting his young daughter. Considering THE REPORT was made before the Iranian Revolution in which Shah was overthrown and The Islamic Republic established, the film is perhaps a snapshot of the state of things in the era, a report on petite-bourgeoisie, steeped in selfishness and materialism. It's also interesting to see the secular Tehran- women wearing revealing western clothes, men drinking and gambling, gridlocks in the city streets, etc. AK observes all this from a distance. THE REPORT is a hard film to like but I can see its merits.

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Any scenes with interior of moving cars became synonymous with an AK film. From bustling bottleneck traffic of Tehran in THE REPORT to TASTE OF CHERRY, WIND WILL CARRY US and TEN, the master reminds us that life with its ebbs and flows, is never stopping/always changing. If Tarkovsky tried to make us feel the 'passage of time' with his creeping tracking shots, Kiarostami achieves this in astounding simplicity- life is a moving car.

A middle aged man and his young son are on the road to Koker, a northern rural village leveled by the devastating earthquake in 1990. They spend most of the film's running time in their car. This is the premise of LIFE AND NOTHING MORE... It is only revealed later on that the man is a film director (a Kiarostami stand-in) who is looking for a child actor who starred in his previous film, WHERE IS YOUR FRIEND'S HOME? (AK's 1987 film also taking place in that region). As they encounter monstrous traffic jam and many victims of 'the god's will', the line between reality and fiction evaporates. Shot shortly after the real earthquake that took the lives of 50,000, and based on his own experience driving around (with his own son), LIFE AND NOTHING MORE... shows resilience of the people amid a horrible disaster. As they make ends meet, digging out their household items from debris, they still look forward to a better future. They fidget a TV antenna to watch a World Cup match in ruins. THROUGH THE OLIVE TREE (a fictional 'making-of' LIFE AND NOTHING MORE...), completes the trilogy that takes place in Koker. Elegantly simple and captivating throughout with an open ending, LIFE AND NOTHING MORE... is a beautiful film.

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In CLOSE-UP, AK retraces an imposter case starring real life participants. The result is a moving examination on 'life imitating art imitating life', rather than sensationalistic satire about fame and deception.

AK pays homage to Ozu Yasujiro in FIVE. The film consists of 5 static long takes of a coastal area in Iran without any characters or dialogue. The commonality of their films lies in humanism and respect for their audience rather than the camera placement. The final part where he traces the reflection of the moon on the surface of a pond with the chorus of its nighttime surroundings to the breaking dawn is a thrilling cinematic magic.

When AK first busted out onto the world cinema stage, critics didn't know what to make of his films: Roger Ebert gave TASTE OF CHERRY one star, calling it 'excruciatingly boring', while Jonathan Rosenbaum desperately tried to find some sort of reference in Western cinema tradition in his films. But as he says in 10 ON TEN that in simply showing austere reality with an open ending, AK believes, can entice audience to reflect on their own lives. I can't think of a higher compliment to the audience than what AK bestows upon us with his films.

The retro includes much praised TASTE OF CHERRY, WIND WILL CARRY US, CERTIFIED COPY along with the theatrical release of LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE.

For tickets and complete listings please visit FSLC website.