Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Triple Take

The Beaver Trilogy (2000) - Harris
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Comprised of three grainy shorts strung together, Trent Harris's the Beaver Trilogy is a fascinating artifact from the 80s. First one, The Beaver Kid #1 records a chance encounter with Gary the Beaver kid and Harris when he was testing a new 'video' camera in the parking lot of local 2 news station in Utah,1979. This overly enthusiastic young man, thinking he is on TV, starts doing bad impressions of John Wayne, Rocky and Barry Manilow. His nervous energy is palpable as he shows his white Chevy Impala's red velvet interior and the windows adorned with bad engravings of his idols- Farah Fawcett and Olivia Newton-John. The next scene is Harris reading the letter kid sent him. The kid arranged a talent show at a local High School, and he wants him to come down to film it. He is getting his make up done in a town's mortuary that morning for the show. So come on down. The show comprises of typical small town talent show. Nothing really special, until the Beaver kid, now Olivia Newton-Dawn, singing "Please, Don't Keep Me Waiting" in a high-pitched voice in full drag. After his number, he is carried out in the arms of some old man in grotesque makeup.

The first part feels like an absurd serial skit from a John Waters movie. Only, it is a documentary. The overall tone is not sad. Gary, a blonde, good looking 21 year old kid, comes across as a kid who never really has grown out of playing dressing-up in mom's clothes. There is an innocence and sweetness about him.

The Beaver Kid #2, shot in black and white video, is a shot-by-shot remake. Except it's young Sean Penn who is portraying Gary. He is dead on. But the whole thing has a sinister tone. Trent Harris is now Terrance, a sleazy TV man manipulating Gary in the sole purpose of making fun of him. At the end, Gary, feeling he might have made a fool of himself, tries to talk Terrance out of not airing the footage. Terrance says no. Gary puts the shotgun in his mouth, only to be saved by a phone call from a fan who thought his performance was funny.

The Orkly kid, now shot on film with higher production value, stars Crispin Glover as Larry from Orkly, Idaho. Same stuff. But Harris now provides some backgrounds in the kid's life. He is an outsider who gets bullied around, a butt of a joke in a small town. He surprises everyone with his Olivia Nutron Bomb on stage which he thought was hysterical but ends up being accused of a fruit. But the third one also has a tacked on, heavy handed, "I am what I am, and proud of it," happy ending.

It doesn't hit you as a great movie or anything until you hear the This American Life episode featuring Harris, explaining how this 1979, 81 and 85 shot shorts were gathering dust in his closet then decided to put them together in 2001 as a whole film and why he made it three times. Listen to the This American Life episode:

It's Act One.

The Beaver Trilogy plays as part of traveling retro of Trent Harris, tomorrow at 92y Tribeca, 7:30pm. Harris will be in person for post-screening Q & A moderated by Starlee Kine.

Devil Inside

Post Tenebras Lux (2012) - Reygadas
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With its 1:33 aspect ratio and spherical double image effect, Post Tenebras Lux opens spectacularly, focusing on a toddler Rut (Reygada's real daughter) as she runs around the wet field just before the storm hits the lush Mexican countryside. The orchestra of dogs, cows, wind, rain, kids dominates audio/visual landscape which overtakes the title of the most stunning opening of the movie ever from Silent Light, also happens to be a Reygadas film. But what's been regarded as semi-autobiographical film, Lux suffers from all too self-conscious preciousness, obtuse for the sake of being obtuse. It features swingers bathhouse rooms named after philosophers, the red glowing devil, non-linear structure, we-understand-everything-before-we-die philosophizing and a decapitation. It does have some truly beautiful moments, like the wife playing Neil Young's "It's a Dream" on the piano.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

'We Search for Our Own Paradise but We All Fail.': Ulrich Seidl Interview

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The Film Society of Lincoln Center hosts Ulrich Seidl, controverisial Austrian director of Dog Days, Import/Export and now the Paradise Trilogy, in a special Film Commend Selects series. It's a rare occasion to watch Love, Faith and Hope, back to back to back, the way they were intended. The screenings are on April 26-27 (with Paradise: Love getting a separate week run). Our interview took place at the posh Austrian Cultural Forum building in mid-town in the sunny afternoon. Mild mannered and personable, Seidl doesn't really give you any impression that he is the director of those depravity filled, human misery films.

*I had to share my time slot with the esteemed film writer Oleg Sulkin in prodding Seidl, the other Austrian provocateur (Oleg and I among others also shared Haneke last year). I thank him for his camaraderie.

Was the Paradise Trilogy originally conceived as three separate films or was it conceived as a whole?

Originally it was intended as a single film consisting of three episodes, dealing with three protagonists. The stories were going to be interwoven similar in structure to previous films of mine: Import/Export which consisted of two episodes and Dog Days which consisted of six episodes. So here we have three episodes, each with a female protagonist and each dealing with their search for fulfillment and longing. The decision to make three autonomous films only came when I was editing the material.

How much footage are we talking about when you conceived it as one film?

When I found myself in the editing room, first time I had about ninety hours of rushes and when we first attempted to cut it in to a single film, the result was over six hours long. But the length wasn't the problem, you can make films that are six hours long. The problem however was that dramaturgically and emotionally the film didn't work. It was too heavy, too intense for an audience to follow it and to stay involved.

Faith, hope and love are famous Christian virtues. I noticed that you changed the usual order of these notions. Does it have any special meaning behind it?

First of all, the order of the films I presented, in my mind, is a correct one. For example you couldn't start with the film about Melani (Hope), just as you couldn't start it with Faith. So titles have to follow in that respect. First film, about Teresa is love and the others follow as a result. Do you understand that?

(I think he was referring to Corinthian 13:13- And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Hence, Love first)


Why focus so intensely on nakedness and sexual relations in people?

In all my films, sex and relationship to bodies are very important. I am always interested in looking behind the façade because the world we are living in is flooded with images by media which paints completely distorted picture from the our true selves. If we look at ourselves in the mirror, what we see is very different from the images in the media. For me it's very important to look and present reality.

Also the power struggle between the sexes and couples are carried out through sexuality. The mutual exploitation is also a theme that I'm always interested in exploring.

Judging by your filmography, you seem to be very interested in photography and painting. It looks pretty evident that it is very important to you to create amazing visual images which sometimes don't need any dialog. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

Those were my beginnings. At first I was seeking not to confront reality but to deal with the artistic process. It's the question of gaze. My interest was in painting and photography and they were what led me into film. My background isn't in writing but pictures.

That's my approach. I try to share my gaze with the audience and by sharing a specific gaze through my films would hopefully increase their awareness. It hopefully will give them different view on things and allow them a new consciousness, new awareness of reality.

Speaking of photography, I'd like to know how your professional relationship began with an American cinematographer, Ed Lachman.

Indeed, Ed Lachman (The Limey, The Virgin Suicides, Far from Heaven) is an American. But he is very interested in Europe. He hasn't devoted himself to working only in Hollywood but he is interested in cinema. He'd seen several of my films and many years ago, we first met in Vienna and felt a sense of kinship. Two years later when it came time to make Import/Export, I asked him if he wanted to work with me and he said yes. Of course, in the 70s Lachman already worked with Wim Wenders (Lightening Over Water, Tokyo-Ga) and Werner Herzog (La Soufrière). So it was nothing new to him.

I could be mistaken but the last part of the trilogy is more warm-hearted and delicate than the others. Does it have to do with the subject of hope: because the doctor overcomes his desire- his sexual temptation and did not become pedophile? Is that what you mean by hope?

No. (laughs) My relationship to the three female protagonists is identical. I feel the same compassion, same tenderness for them. But it's true that the last film is less provocative, probably it's because there is no abuse that takes place. That's how I wrote the script. Had the abuse taken place it wouldn't have been provocative and would've gone in a very different direction. But you are right. As children/teenagers they have far greater potential for hope.

The notion of paradise is very important for three of them in the trilogy. They dream of it but they never get close to it. Does it mean you are pessimistic about the human nature in general?

That's what we all do. We search for our own paradise and happiness but we all fail.

That's... (we all laugh)

Do you have a different opinion?

No. I ought to agree with you unfortunately.

You have a great background as a documentary filmmaker. I notice that you cross the border between narrative and documentary. Is it important for a cinema to have these definitions?

No. In fact when I was first starting out I was criticized for mixing those two together. But with time there have been many other filmmakers started working in a similar fashion- melding documentary and fiction. So times have changed.

On that note I have a question on authenticity of your films. I can't never tell when I watch your films which is fictitious and which is authentic. Does the notion of authenticity matter to you?

The so-called authenticity is developed because of the actors and their performances. The audience sees and identifies with these protagonists on screen, people they can recognize: 'that's my mother, my neighbor, my brother or my friend'. That authenticity is my intention when I seek to create and that leads me to identify with the world and to recognize my responsibility in my participation in it as a filmmaker.

When you work with actors, do you leave a lot of room for improvisation? What's your method?

It would require days to explain my shooting method. It's something I often talk about with film students. I can just say all of the scenes, whether with professional actors or non-professionals, are improvised. I never write up dialog. They are improvised by them.

And there are various circumstances: on the one hand there are scenes in which you have everything down to an inch determined- where people are going to sit in exactly what position and what exactly they would do. On the other hand you have a scene with Teresa involving striptease where you create an area, a shooting space in which actors can move about with much more freedom and spontaneity.

Is the filmmaking hell or paradise for you?

(A big pause) Paradise. (laugh) Well, very often hell but occasionally paradise too.

The Paradise Trilogy plays in the correct order: Love, Faith and Hope at FSLC 4/26-27 in conjunction with US theatrical release of Paradise: Love. The standalone releases of two films will follow in coming months.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Still Immune to Desperate Living

Paradise: Hope (2013) - Seidl
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This is more traditional. A diet camp. Crush on much older camp doctor. Heartaches. Obviously Seidl couldn't subject his thirteen year old actors to an orgy scene. The doctor leads Melanie (Melanie Lenz) on for uncomfortably long time, but it doesn't go extreme like in his other films. Like the other two in his Paradise Trilogy, Seidl here achieves that intimacy with young actors, but more tender and subtle. The banality of pre-pubescent life is still somewhat immune to Seidl's depiction of desperate living of the adults. Does hope exist only in childhood or is Seidl being ironical just like naming the trilogy Paradise?

Teresa, Annamaria and Melanie, the protagonists of the trilogy, grapple with the society where they (themselves included) are viewed in a certain way. They look for paradise in all the wrong places. Wait for some answers as I get to interview Seidl and ask him questions later this week!

Seidl will be present at FSLC special screenings of the Paradise Trilogy by Film Comment Selects this weekend. Paradise: Love starts its theatrical run concurrently. For more information, please checkout FSLC website.

Review of Paradise: Love

Review of Paradise: Faith

Unflattering Humanism

Paradise: Faith (2012) - Seidl
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The second installment of the Paradise Trilogy by Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl, Paradise: Faith first had its premiere at the Venice Film Fest last year (Love at Cannes 2012 and Hope at the Berlinale 2013). And it will be screening as a part of Film Comment Selects preview at the FSLC this weekend (April 26-27). It is by far the strongest and most affecting effort among the three.

Paradise Faith tells a story of Annamaria (played with an uninhibited gusto by Maria Hofstätter), last seen in Paradise Hope, helping her sister Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) prepare for her vacation to Kenya. She is a Catholic whose devotion verges on fanaticism. Like her sister, Annamaria is taking the summer off. But instead of going on a third-world sex tour, she is staycationing: taking a break from her job at a medical lab so she can devote herself to door-to-door missionary work. She is seen flagellating herself in front of a giant cross, atoning for everyone's carnal sins in her immaculately kept, sterile house. She is also seen hobbling around on her knees from room to room, wearing a metal cilice around her waist while praying. If that's not too crazy, she sweet-talks to the portrait of Jesus on her bedside table. It is quite apparent that her love for Christ is something more than spiritual: she even takes the cross to her bed.

Given Seidl's reputation for depicting an unflattering side of humanity, one should expect that any new film by him would be an uncomfortable ride. But with Faith, Seidl seems to be pushing the envelope a little further, making the film a borderline absurdist comedy. Among the trilogy, Faith is definitely the most laborious one in terms of a plot development. But it doesn't diminish its greatness one bit.

Annamaria, with her hair in a tight bun, is almost cartoonish, typifying general image of what 'the church lady' looks like. Why does she think the world is such a sick, ugly place? Seidl answers this question with her stumbling upon an outdoor orgy: the sight is uglier and more graphic than the one in Dog Days. Annamaria, horrified but frozen, watches it for a long time before she turns away. Then, more of self-flagellation. She believes that god is testing her. But lately, these tests seem to be more frequent.

As we wonder about just what made her the way she is, her estranged paraplegic Muslim husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh, a non-actor in his first role) shows up in her life again after 2 years absence. I mean, this premise could easily be the next TLC reality TV show Sweet Jesus, I'm Living with My Paraplegic Muslim Husband. Actually, it's a real life story based on one of the participants in Seidl's documentary, Jesus, You Know. We learn that his current invalid state is the result of his drinking problem (automobile accident). And Annamaria took it as a sign of her sinful life, hence her fanatic devotion to Christianity. He is back now, fully expecting to continue their lawful matrimony. Things soon turn sour. It's a vicious physical battle as well as a spiritual one. This is all too much for Annamaria. Something's gotta give!

In line with 'the Seidl method', Faith has actors and non-actors alike improvising scenes without a script, shooting in real locations and in chronological order. And the result is a truly authentic experience. In Faith, when its all said and done, despite its many ridiculous, over the top situations, we can still take away witnessing some of the most miraculously uninhibited performances. There are some really tough physical scenes as Annamaria violently wrestles with her unwilling convertees and have a tit-a-tat swatting match with Nabil. These long takes are hilarious and fascinating yet one can feel the real physical danger. For the fact that Seidl manages to make these normal people bare their body and soul in front of camera so naturally, transforming themselves into little brandos before your eyes is quite astounding. The trust that these performers have in him must be enormous.

In the end, as Annamaria struggles with her faith, one feels overwhelming empathy for her. There is definitely a method in Seidl's madness and behind all his antics and ugliness, there is a wealth of humanism. Definitely one of the truly great films I've seen this year so far.

Ulrich Seidl will be on hand for a discussion about the Trilogy. For more information, please visit FSLC website.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Old Fashioned Therapy

Jesus, du Weisst/Jesus, You Know (2003) - Seidl
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Seidl's doc on individual prayers gets blessings from many of participants, praying for film's success in the beginning of the film. As they pray to Jesus in front of the camera set on pew level, in various grand empty churches, which usually starts "Jesus, du weisst..." (Jesus, you know..., hence the title), you feel that their faith in god is more to do with solving their earthly problems (mostly relationship/marital) through talking to themselves. Seidl's detached approach in these tableaux can be seen as ironical or mocking since Catholicism is losing grip in Europe and other alternatives have taken the place of religion (therapy, happy pills, etc). But I'd like to think that it is sincere reflection of our society where religious faith seems extraordinarily old-fashioned and out of place. It is still a feat to get ordinary people's innermost thoughts in their most private moments (but this time, with their clothes on) on film, as they ask for guidance/strength in killing their spouse with poison, in avoiding having erotic fantasies involving the bible, in getting over fear of dying, etc.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Cronenberg 2.0

Antiviral (2012) - Cronenberg
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Brandon Cronenberg, the son of David, makes an intriguing debut in a fitting genre - body horror. Antiviral imagines the society where celebrity worship reached its creepiest form, where people willingly pay money to get infected with diseases of celebs (flu, herpes, etc) to be closer to them or eat the lab cultivated meat from the cells of their idols. A ginger lab technician Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) at Lucas Clinic smuggles out such celeb diseases in his body to sell them at the black market, despite tight security measures at the lab. When one of the biggest star Hanna Geist (Sarah Gordon from Cosmopolis) gets seriously ill after a visit to China, it's Syd who gets to collect the blood sample for the clinic. After injecting her blood into his system, he gets gravely ill and also becomes a target of interested parties who see his body as a commodity. Cronenberg makes the most of Jones's physical frailty and creepy stares and has a great visual sense that are quite different from his dad (more antiseptic). Still, Antiviral also features some similar motifs in machine/body argumentation that Cronenberg Sr. is known for. All in all, it's an impressive debut.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The House with a Thousand Windows

 In the House/ Dans La Maison (2012) - Ozon
With In the House, François Ozon, best known for his Hitchcockian, genre-twisting little psychological thrillers (Under the Sand, Swimming Pool), offers up one of his best films in years. It is clear from the beginning, with the title sequence on a school notebook and as Fabrice Luchini's jaded High School Literature teacher cynically commenting on a new rule on school uniforms at the first day of school that something deliciously sinister is brewing.

Germain (Fabrice Luchini) notices Claude (Ernst Umhauer)'s writing while correcting mountains of his students' weekly assignment. It's the 16-year old's description of his friend's mom that catches his eye, "that unmistakable odor of a middle-class woman," which stands out among the sea of mindless scribbles about cell phones and pizzas. He reads on and sees potential. His interest is piqued. After reading more of Claude's 'observations', Germain is hooked. He zeros in on the boy, tutoring and egging him on to go on his writing about his friend's 'perfect family', even if it means the story becoming increasingly, uncomfortably voyeuristic. Claude gains an access to the family and the house in the pretense of tutoring his friend Rafa on math. This 'perfect family' consists of Rafa, an affable, ordinary kid, Rafa Sr. (Denis Ménochet), a macho man obsessed with sports and everything China and Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), an alluring but bored housewife. Claude strategically advances on and pulls back from the family under Germain's instructions. Is Germain precariously living his desires and unfulfilled ambition through his young pupil? What's his endgame?

As usual, Ozon's layered, sophisticated pulp is impossible to resist. It pulls you right in with the promise of voyeuristic pleasure. But just like Julie in Swimming Pool, it's young Claude who becomes an unreliable narrator. He starts out seemingly as an innocent pupil, writing up everything he sees to please his teacher. The thing is, we know nothing about Claude: we never see his house nor his parents. Ozon teases us with the notion of what's fiction and what's real. As the 'spying' goes along, it's incensed Germain who loses control and helplessly falls victim to the narrative he helps to create.

The acting is superb all around. Luchini's usual self-absorbed upper-class nebbishness is a perfect fit for the role of a failed writer/depressed High School teacher. Kristin Scott Thomas is just as immaculate as Germain's superficial wife who manages an art gallery that displays dictator themed blow-up sex dolls and penis swastikas. The newcomer Ernst Umhauer shines as fresh-faced Claude who can turn the tables on manipulative and overbearing Germain and go mano-a-mano with him on storytelling.

It is very hard to do a comedy about writing well. In the House takes on classic storytelling how Spike Jonze's Adaptation took on screenwriting, without cheeky showmanship or self-referential cleverness. It is seductive, witty and deliciously naughty piece of filmmaking.

In the House opens on April 19 in New York and LA followed by national release.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tim Hetherington Remembered

Which Way is the Frontline from Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington (2013) - Junger
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Tell me if I'm wrong, but I think it is the fantasy of many young men to travel to the hot spots of armed conflict and be a war photographer.

It's that combination of danger, wanderlust, detachment from material world and freedom from daily grind we call life. It's that 'freedom that you can leave your world behind with a drop of a hat' thing. I think in every men there is a sense of longing for that coveted place called solitude that is far deeper and greater than just a misguided machismo. With this in mind, Tim Hetherington, combat photographer, journalist, humanitarian, director of Restrepo, who died in Libya in 2011, is remembered by his fellow combat journalist and co-director of that documentary, Sebastian Junger.

It was the Liberian soccer team that changed Hetherington. They needed someone to document the sport teams from the country still reeling from a civil war. After traveling with the rebel soldiers and experiencing deadly firefights, he went over to neighboring Sierra Leone. There he visited the school for the blind, where thousands of war orphans gave evidence of being victimized by soldiers who seemed to believe in an eye for an eye retaliation quite literally. Everywhere he went, he produced many profound photographs.

With many interviewees in the doc and video footage of him, we get the sense of Hetherington's ease with his subject. He had a good head on his shoulders. He wasn't there just to get the perfect shot. He was there to bear witness. Then came Afghanistan, where he immersed himself with those combat soldiers. As I flip through Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold, his book of photographs, I am certain that he was smart enough to know that moral outrage doesn't equal engagement. He also knew witnessing carried a certain responsibility.

It is ironic that his death came right after he repeatedly said he was done with combat journalism. He was 40 and in a serious relationship. Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? not only pays tribute to Hetherington but gives a real insight into the psyche of combat journalists at large. It's not only a thoughtful tribute to a fallen brother in arms (or rather, brother in camera) but a strong, revealing documentary. Soon after the death of his colleague, Junger launched a program to provide emergency medical training for freelance combat journalists - RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues).

Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington premieres April 18 at 8 p.m. on HBO and will be playing at IFC Center in New York on April 23. Junger will be at the screening for Q & A.

Sebastian Junger Interview

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Which Way Is The Frontline From Here: The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington is a documentary about a well-regarded combat reporter who died in a rocket attack by the Gaddafi troops in Misrata, Libya, in 2011. It is directed by his friend and colleague Sebastian Junger. Few years back, together they made an award-winning documentary, Restrepo, while embedded with a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's deadly Korengal Valley. I got a chance to sit down with Junger past week. Perhaps best known for his best-selling book, The Perfect Storm, Junger exudes masculinity and charisma as he speaks freely about his friend, war and dangers of combat reporting.

Which Way Is The Frontline From Here: The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington airs on HBO on 4/18 and gets a theatrical release in New York.

First of all, I just have to tell you that WHICH WAY IS THE FRONTLINE FROM HERE is a beautiful tribute to your friend Tim.


Is being a filmmaker natural progression for you after a best selling author, then an award winning journalist?

You know, I think if you told me that I would be a filmmaker ten years ago, I'd be shocked, really shocked. But then I realized that in war the situations are moving to quickly to take notes but perfect for video. Nobody takes notes during combat in a note book: you write, feel stupid, can't read them afterwords, just ridiculous right?


But it's perfect for shooting video. So I learned to shoot video and quickly liked its immediacy. I mean it's the whole other way of seeing and recording the world. And so I had this idea of spending a year with a platoon on an assignment for Vanity Fair and writing a book about it. And then I thought, "if I'm going to be out there for a year off and on and spend that much time there, I might as well shoot video. The very least I can give it to ABC, so they can use the footage or maybe I can make a documentary."

To me, it all seem like a part of journalism. I didn't feel like I was switching from a writer to a filmmaker. It all felt like a different facets of journalism, just different way of recording information. They actually compliment each other quite well. Now I don't think I can choose one way or the other and I don't feel like I need to.

Then I brought Tim to the project on the second trip into the Korengal Valley in September 07. And one of the reasons I really wanted to work with him was because he shoots video and said he would be willing to think about participating in the project. As soon as he got out there, he was very interested.

With your book War and Restrepo and this film, there is this shared theme: the attraction to war, not only in the soldiers but in the combat journalists as well. Was Tim's attraction to war: going to the world's hot spots, being dangerous situations the same as that of the soldiers?

Well, they are very different roles. If you are a soldier, you have a gun in your hand and you have some moral responsibility but if you are shooting with your camera, you have a much less responsibility. I am not necessarily against wars. I think there are wars that are unavoidable. I'm not categorically against it, although I still think it's awful. But I do understand that the world is complicated and messy place. And sometimes, using armed forces is better than standing aside and watching something really bad happen.

I think for Tim and for soldiers in a general sense, the attraction of the war is partly because it is incredibly meaningful: the stakes are very high and it's incredibly intense, to the point of being intoxicating. Also, I think, at least out of Restrepo, there was such a deep bond among everyone who was there. The shared emotions, the emotional connection there can't be found anywhere else. I think those two things that make war so weirdly appealing to young men.

I'm not sure about being a soldier but I myself kind of had fantasy growing up traveling the world and going to dangerous places and have those intense experiences that you talk about. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who had those kind of fantasies. How did you get into the war reporting business?

I sort of muddled my way through my twenties, trying to be a writer. I was writing short fictions and articles but not very successfully. When I was thirty I felt my career was kind of languishing, although it wasn't even that much of a career. (Laughs) I grew up in a very affluent suburb and I felt like I've never really been tested as a person. Ultimately, I didn't really feel like a man. There is kind of an idea in our society that war kind of turns boys into men. And there was war in Bosnia and to me, it was seen as sort of ultimate test. 'If you pass it, you will emerge as a man.' It's a bit of a myth but I think there is some truth to that. Going to Bosnia as a war reporter was a professional move but also a personal move that had to do with finding the sense of myself.

It is very ironic that Tim died after he publicly said he will be moving away from combat reporting. He was in a serious relationship and thinking about settling down.

Yes. I think he wanted to believe that he could live a quieter life- which meant two things: it meant not going to war zones and not traveling so much because he was almost never home. Of course you can't have a deep relations if you are not around most of the time.

I think he wanted to believe he was capable of that but also worried that he wasn't capable of settling down. When he died I think he was in the process of figuring that out.

I think in Idil (Idil Ibrahim, filmmaker, Hetherington's girlfriend), in addition to his love for her, he saw a chance to become the person he hoped to become- at home and leading a more stable life.

But war is pretty compelling. And in some ways that war is more compelling than marriage and children and society and everything else. For some people, at some point in their lives it trumps everything else. I think Tim was really in the middle of struggling with that.

I know that he was about ten years younger than you were.

Yeah, he died when he was 40. I'm 51 now.

Did you go through the same thought process when you were about the same age as he was?

When I got together with my wife, I was 40, just the same age as Tim was. But no, I did start war reporting before I met her. But we had conversations about it. I said "There will be a point when I'm going to stop. But it's not now." I told her when I was preparing for Korengal that if I could devote myself for a year to it fully, I might stop doing the war reporting. That's what I've said. I'm not sure if entirely believed it though. But that was what I was trying to believe.

Where do you stand with that belief today?

Well, after Tim got killed, I made an absolute, instantaneous decision not to cover war anymore. I've never regretted it since. I am happy with the decision. There is no ambivalence at all about that.

How did it come about that you didn't go to Libya with Tim?

We were supposed to be on assignment together. At the last minute some personal things that came up in my life and I couldn't do it. It was just the wrong moment. I told him that and he just went on his own.

Was Tim any way a political person?

Yeah. He was.

When you were making Restrepo, what was his reaction on the ground, since the film is very apolitical?

Oh he was very thrilled to have the amazing amount of access to the military. It was an incredible chance to see the US military in a very very intimate, exposed way. He was amazed that there was that much unguarded openness in the US military. He was grateful that there was no censorship at all. And he felt that we were quite lucky.

Can you tell me a little about RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) for those of us who are not familiar with it?

Sure. Tim's wound was not necessarily mortal. He was hit with Shrapnel and bled out. Yes, it was a very dangerous wound in the femoral artery but he died of blood loss on the way to the Misrata hospital in the back of a pickup truck. And had the journalist around him had a combat medical training, they might have been able to do things to slow down the loss of blood and maybe he would've arrived at the hospital alive and maybe he would've survived. I don't know but it's possible, certainly more possible than what happened which no one could do anything
and he just died.

So I started a group called RISC. It's only for freelancers because freelancers do most of war reporting in the world. It's not for network reporters but for young freelancers.

That's how you began your career as in Bosnia, no?

Yes. It's only for experienced freelancers, not for people who just got of j(ournalism) school. We just don't have enough resources to train those. It's just for people who are already working in the field. They come back from front lines and we train them and send them back out. It's completely free of charge to them. Freelancers typically don't have a lot of money so we pay for the hotel in New York City and pay for the training done by experienced medical instructors, some of whom are former military and medical kit is free. All free except you just need to get here. And there is a long waiting list. We take 24 people at a time. RISC is entirely non-profit and exists solely on people's generosity. I truly believe his kind of training could've saved my friend's life. And hopefully it will save others in the future.

I checked out Sebastian Junger Community website. It's pretty expansive.

It came about when my book War and Restrepo came out. Frankly I haven't frequented for a year or so. I need to revive it a little. I thought in 2010 that what we needed was a place where civilians, military personnel and vets can come and communicate with each other. I felt that there was huge gulf between military population and everybody else. The thing is, we are all same people, all Americans and there should be more dialog among us. I hope that the community helps furthering that.

You think that we are pulling out troops and the war being officially over and now John Kerry, a Vietnam vet, is the Secretary of State, there will be a more positive change in the government to help our returning soldiers?

The thing is that they come home and they are no longer in the military. They disperse into the population. So they can't be dealt as a group. I think military is quite good at dealing with groups -with platoons, companies and battalions and so on. But once these people get absorbed into population, the government has no authority over them. I think they do quite a lot. I mean there is psychological counseling, the VA has a whole medical program and the GI Bill. The problem though, is that the VA is an enormous bureaucracy. It's well funded and well meaning but it's huge, cumbersome and inefficient. I think government should make the VA more effective.

Any advice for the young people who want to be combat journalists?

Mostly, you just have to go. Don't wait around for an assignment cause you won't get one, because there are a lot of people who are already over there. You just have to go. And be careful. It is always possible that you could get killed and your family will really grieve. But the job is for keeps. This isn't a movie. It's an important work and it was an experience that radically changed my life. And I feel quite lucky that I've been able to do it for twenty years. The most important thing you can do is just go.

What's next for you, now that you are not a combat journalist anymore?

Well, there are lots of things to write about that are not combat. And some of them are quite interesting. (laughs) I try to reorient a bit. War is the most dramatic thing but that doesn't mean it's the most interesting thing. Eventually you realize that there is a difference between dramatic and interesting. They are actually two separate categories. There are other meaningful things to write about back home but it is actually harder to write about. But I'm trying to acclimate my head toward that side of life more. I have another documentary project I am working on for HBO and the book that is connected to it. Can't really tell you the details yet because we are not finished shooting but it's a really interesting project.

HBO has been helpful for you?

HBO has been amazing. There has been an incredible support from the first day when Sheila (Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films) OK'd the project. Her and Sara Bernstein (producer)- they've been absolutely fantastic partners.

Is your wife happy now that you are not in harms way?

Now she has to deal with me all day! (laughs) So I don't know. We'll see.

For more information about the film, please visit HBO website.
For more information about Junger's RISC, please visit risc.training.org

Thursday, April 11, 2013

More Like Cialis Commercial

To the Wonder (2012) - Malick
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Is your erectile dysfunction ruining your marriage? Cialis can help!

In retrospect and in comparison to To the Wonder, Tree of Life, Malick's arduous, ambitious magnum opus was the true masterpiece (that is if you wipe off the memory of ever seeing the meta beach walk). It was an uphill battle to criticize when a film is about, well, life. The theme of To the Wonder is just as intangible, if not all encompassing theme of...love. Then why does it feel like an afterthought, or a bastard stepchild, a true nihilistic camera-movement exercise by Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki?

We are introduced to a couple (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) as they coddle each other in picturesque Paris, then Mont Saint-Michel just as the tide is coming in. The girl wispily whispers in French her being in the blissful state of being in love. "open me, enter me, we are one," and so on and so forth for two hours. If this wasn't picture perfect enough, she has a button-nosed, cute preteen daughter. Off they go to Malick's Americana - open vistas, horses, big empty houses, wheat fields, churches and billowing curtains. For a while the couple and the kid are in a blissful state. But the square jawed, archetypal stoic American man is caught looking at other females around him from time to time. You see, he'd been hurt before (by a foxy farm girl Rachel McAdams) and has a hard time committing. So off again the Frenchy and the daughter back to Paris. But she can't forget him. So she comes back after ditching the child to her biological father.

It's all grand and pretty- the camera glides around beautiful leads in the magic hour on the beach, in the field, against the window and behind the curtain. And who doesn't want to see enchanting Kurylenko twirling around like the whirling dervishes licking morning dew off of tree branches for hours? She's adorable in that childish way. But she is not a child. She's not Pocahontas nor one of the children in Tree of Life. Then there is Javier Bardem's doubtful priest, who takes up about 20 minutes of screen time, asking the presence of god.

Let's get to the nitty gritty: If they gave out awards for one's earnestness in films, Malick would've won every time he comes out with a new movie (and more frequently it seems, with 3 new films in post-production). New World was stewing in it, so was ToL. Malick to me, is a quintessential filmmaker of flower power generation- well intentioned, earnest and worst of all, too goddamn naive. His lyrical quasi-meta wise man films work best when it's set in specific time frame or place but falter when it's not. The modern setting of TtW and Paris/Texas has no bearing on it to be taken seriously. It is quite obvious that his idea of love is limited and doesn't get beyond the realm of Judeo-Christian belief. More over, he seems to have a very limited knowledge of women. In his movies, they are always a child, a child trapped in women's body or mother. However adorable Kurylenko in Ttw gets, I can't shake off the dirty feeling that she is and always will be a daddy's girl, never a grown woman. So then, he made a real mess out of the theme of love- by very unceremoniously marrying the idea of god's unrequited love and a silly child woman's infatuation. God is in us, god is in all our fleeting interaction, Malick feebly suggests. A cynic in me almost shouts, what do you make of one night stands? What about our worldly desires? What about Cialis? What about gluttony? This ain't 60s man, bums lost.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

I Want Candy

Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) - Rivette
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Great Fun! Céline (Juliet Berto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier) go down the rabbit hole laughing all the way. They are dynamic comedy duo, sabotaging each other's love life and career. With the help of some magic candy, they alternately have visions of some stagey murder mystery that has no beginning or end in a grand mansion. After three hours of tomfoolery, they are right back where they started. Rivette is having a grand time here poking fun at the movie as a spectator sport. Céline and Julie Go Boating is a silly, spontaneous, inventive, absurd and brilliant comedy.

I also liked how free the girls are from conventional female buddy movies where they inadvertently get sexualized. Not that Céline and Julie are not sexy, far from it, but they don't subject themselves as sexual beings. There is something fresh about that.

Friday, April 5, 2013


A beautiful short film I came across today, by Lynne Ramsay, director of such films as Rat Catcher, Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Americana Up North

Northern Light (2013) - Bentgen
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If one must categorize Northern Light, a new documentary from a talented director/producer team Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff, it could be regarded as a sports movie - the trials and tribulations of two snow mobile racers. Silently following them and their families' daily lives between two racing seasons in economically depressed Northern Michigan, the filmmakers here achieve something more than a mere doc about I-500 (the grueling 500 mile endurance race in the snow and ice which in itself alone can easily be worthy of a cinematic subject). Bentgen possesses a painterly eye and visual grace scarce in documentary filmmaking and zen-like patience and maturity in acutely sketching out this side of Americana- rarely in films, driving through a snow storm, a lone street lamp, a white breath of a silhouetted hunter looked this beautiful. Native to the region, Bentgen understands his subjects and surroundings, and knows when and where to place the camera. What Bentgen accomplishes here is showing that the I-500 is a metaphor for dashed hopes and dreams of not only the enduring inhabitants of Northern Light, but of all of us.

After making a World Premiere at True/False Film Festival in March, Northern Light is making an appearance at Hot Docs in May 1st. Please check for more updates on northernlightfilm.com