Friday, January 30, 2015

Finding Diamond in the Rough: Girlhood Director Céline Sciamma Interview

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With two very lovely coming of age films (Water Lilies and Tomboy) under her belt, Céline Sciamma charts a new, yet still familiar, territory with her most accomplished film to date, Girlhood. Unlike her previous films, Girlhood stars all black girls in 'da hood' suburban Paris and reflects their lives in astonishing detail and authenticity. As a big fan of both of her previous films, I was very eager to meet her, despite her plane being delayed (she was attending Sundance) because of a big snowstorm that never was here in New York, and talk about her new film which happens to be the first great film I've seen this new year.

How was Sundance?

Céline Sciamma: It was great! I got stuck there because of fake snowstorm. (laughs) But we didn't know at that time it was fake, I mean there were no planes and stuff. The good part is that I really got to see what the festival was about- going to see movies and meeting people. Have you been there?

I haven't been. I have a friend who was just there and saw your film. He's been telling me how great it was!

Oh Cool.

Was it your first time?


How was GIRLHOOD received there?

Well the rooms were full, so it got some interest there and the Q & As were really cool. People were asking really interesting questions and there were good interactions. It wasn't that different from France actually. And the screens and projections are beautiful there which I am very peculiar about. (laughs)

That's awesome.

So after two previous films about white teen/preteen girls (WATER LILIES and TOMBOY), you made GIRLHOOD, about black teen girls. It seems kind of a departure for you. How did it come about?

Well, there still is a continuity because it's my third coming of age story, also set in the suburbs. But this time it's more contemporary. It's like the official suburbs cinema which in France is 'the hood'. It has a different social backdrop and I guess I wanted that. The project for me was to have another coming of age story but with a stronger narrative and a classical plot"-  a young girl who wants to live her life and has to put up with the time and place she lives in and the family which is a typical novelistic tale. But the idea was having very contemporary characters and to connect this notion of a romantic heroine with a black girl in that fiction.

GIRLHOOD feels more like an epic- the way it was shot, more characters, everything seems bigger and more ambitious than your other films. Can you talk about how the casting process was?

Yeah. The casting was a long process and a very passionate one. It was 4 months of meeting girls and talking to them. We met about 300 girls, mostly randomly on the street. We had different agendas because we had to build a group - it's friendship and it's alchemy, but we also wanted to find strong individuality in them. The characters were specifically outlined and we had to find girls who were able to really put up with the lines because the script was very much 'written'. But they also had to be able to improvise because there were four to five comedic scenes which mostly were relied upon improvs, so they had to be prepped for that too. So that was something.

And we had to find the leading part, a girl who would be solid enough be in every frame and go through this transformation. It's a difficult part and also a fun one because you have to be so many different people. And when I met Karidja Touré, I knew it had to be her, I had no other choice in mind after seeing her. She was the one.

There are all these great moments in your films and GIRLHOOD is no exception. That Rihanna scene was so great. It just felt so authentic. I was wondering how much of that was improvised and how much was written.

The Rihanna scene, we had to prepare a lot because it was intense and technically complicated. It was choreographed to fit the miss-en-scene: each girl had to be in the frame at certain point of the song, and so on. It was written as a narrative piece- It tells the birth of a friendship. It reflects that how friendship is like choreography- Vic (Karidja Touré) being an observer looking at the group and they are so synchronized and she suddenly steps in and being in the center and finally them getting their voice together, so that was pretty accurate depiction of their friendship. But obviously chemistry between them and the way they move, that was totally in the moment- I mean those kind of moments you don't get to shoot too many in your lifetime. I was obsessed with that scene. I always wanted to shoot that scene and it was very precise in my head. And it has to be this magical moment that you can't really prepare. Then there they were- they are so graceful together in showing their collective joy. You can't ask anything more than that.

It felt very instantaneous and very real. Was Diamond the song you chose?

Yeah, I was thinking about the song when I wrote it. It was released around the same time I was writing it. And I thought that I was never gonna get (the rights to) it. I mean who are we, we are nobody. And they would certainly ask a lot of money. Actually, my producer was very brave, saying 'we should go for it' and the record company gave us a deal and we were like, hey we can afford this!

So we shot the scene and during the editing process, we realized that we didn't have the rights actually, because we had to get Rihanna's consent. So we sent the scene to her with a passionate letter I wrote but it didn't work out. But then we sent a scene to the management and they called us and they said, "you know what, we've never done this but the scene is beautiful and we will make an exception." But it's not like they gave it for free. It was quite symbolic money for them, for us yes it was still a lot of money but something we could afford. It's also the first time I put a song in my films.

In its entirety too.

It's a big hit and it's very powerful.

That's a really good story.

Thinking about the look of the film, it's more energetic and stronger than your other films. I noticed the steadicam shots. Is it also shot by Crystel Fournier (Water Lilies, Tomboy)?

Yeah, but for the first time I did use the steadicam...and I loved it. (laughs) It's a great tool. I think differently with it. There are three different steadicam shots in the movie - when they go home, when they are in the shopping mall- you have to use it because you can't lay down anything on the floor, so it wasn't an artistic choice there and when Marieme/Vic finds that red dress and goes to the white people's party in chapter five which is very Scorsese-like. Really cool to do. (laughs)

It was awesome. I was thinking, "wow she's doing something different here."

The beginning was very striking with an American football practice. And I didn't know if it was a thing in France. Is it a thing?

It's not. I mean it exists and it's in the beginning stage in France. So I didn't make it up. But it's not a big thing. The team in the field is a real team and everything. But I picked it because, the first reason was that i wanted them to have helmets on so people will think they are boys at first. Also it kind of symbolizes the theme of the film- they are girls in a team, playing violence for fun, being loud and energetic and hitting touchdowns together and feeling empowered. And also the aesthetic reason, because you don't think you'd expect the American football in some French art house film. I like the fact that it blurs the line and you feel you are watching the cinema.

I think that what defines this film in this trilogy it that it believes and relies the most in cinema- the fact that I used all the tools to tell what I want to tell and show what I want to show. It could be a hit song, it could be a great score, it could be the use of the steadicam, it could be... Everything that is at reach I wanted to use, believing that I can make it more epic. It's the feeling that grows in each film. It was there since the beginning but I was trying to refuse that supposed frontier of art house films with reasonable economy with the socially conscious subject that should call for certain kind of aesthetic, you know,  which means, naturalistic way of looking at things. That   versus a movie that is entertaining, an epic, uses the mythology of cinema with a colorful...

It's ambitious and you pulled it off beautifully.

Thank you.

Girlhood still retains your aesthetics and feelings of your previous films though. But I am at a loss how you manage to make things so authentic with the inner lives of three different girls from different backgrounds, social standings, age groups. Is it from your personal experience? The universality of girlhood? JUST HOW DO YOU DO IT!?

I rely a lot on the fact that there is something universal in it and that we can make it universal in fiction too. It's because all three characters are really observers, observing the life around them. That's the common point there. It's creating the intimacy between camera and the actor and actors and the audience. They are three different characters but all three films rely on one single character, so we are mentally stuck in one head and one body. There are no grownups, there are no boys. The boys are just archetypes, so you can't relate to anyone else but her. You have to.  It's a sensual proposition. My movies are not very talkative, so they rely on the rhythm and how actors are being accurate about the body language and choreography of the girls are moving in the world.

I know that you don't have any control over this but who would be the intended audience for this film? My wife is a inner city High School teacher and I want her students to see this film. As any so called art house foreign films, it will play in some art house cinema in Upper East Side and won't get distributed widely. How do you feel about that?

Well here in the US it's true that I don't know how it's going to be distributed in what kind of cinema. In France, my goal, my dream was it would get widely distributed not only art house cinemas but also multiplexes, my dream was that the youth would go and see it. And it actually happened! The room was filled with the people that usually never meet- the cinephiles, the usually old people (laughs) and the youth. The mental picture I have of that room is... priceless. It was amazing.

We have strong education cinema programs in France and I hope the film will get into that. Tomboy was seen by 200,000 kids because of the program last year.

Wow. that's awesome.

I hope that Girlhood will get the same treatment.

Since you are finished with the coming of age trilogy now. what's next for you?

Well, I'm gonna go elsewhere. I want to work with actors. I know that now. I want to work with a strong female character in the center. My obsession with transformation and gender will still be there but I am thinking of 70s horror movies.

Now that's exciting!

My review of Waterliles

My review of Tomboy

Shine Like a Diamond

Girlhood (2014) - Sciamma
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Girlhood is Céline Sciamma's third and best film to date. It's an epic size film about Marieme (Karidja Touré), a 16 year old black girl from the suburban projects near Paris. Maybe it was our collective consumption of life in the ghettos through various media that I made certain presumptions of what the film is going to be like. But one of the many things I really like about Girlhood is how Sciamma's script manages to avoid all the 'urban genre trappings' while managing to see the affecting, clear-eyed coming-of-age narrative through.

Unlike Sciamma's last two white protagonists, Marieme is first seen at an American football practice. She is failing school and is told to look into vocational schools because she won't get into regular High School. But she doesn't want to be like her mom who is a cleaning lady at a hotel or a sales clerk at a clothing store. But she also needs to look after her two younger sisters and contend with her strict and often violent older brother's orders. Marieme starts hang with a group of bad girls who like to have fun and get into physical fights. They are slightly obnoxious teens who are into shoplifting, taking selfies and singing Rihanna songs out loud. Things get complicated when she starts seeing her brother's friend and gets involved with a local drug dealer.

Marieme is not an angel by any means, nor is she a neighborhood slut. With her physique, she can be imposing and mean to others. But deep down, she is just a struggling young woman who is trying to find her place in the world as best she can. Even though the film is not a Dardennesque docudrama populated with decent folks, as we see Marieme hesitating in making every difficult decision in life, we feel for her all the same. Girlhood is the first great film I've seen in 2015.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


The Music of Chance (1993) - Haas
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Jim (Mandy Patinkin), a straight-laced drifter picks up Jack Pozzi (James Spader), a ratty, beaten up gambler on the side of the road. On the way to New York, Jack tells Jim a wild story about a poker game with a couple of rich old kooks, Bill and Willy (Charles Dunning and Joel Grey) in their mansion that he needs $10,000 to get back into the game. Jack is really good at the game and thinks he can wipe the floor with these old brothers. Jim decides to take his chances with this shady total stranger and back him up with his money after testing Jack's poker skills.

So they go to the mansion, pass the creepy caretaker (M. Emmet Walsh) at the gate, and meet the brothers. Bill and Willy show them around the place, including Willy's rendition of the miniature model 'world'. Once the card game begins, Jack is destroying the brothers. But the luck turns the other way, after Jim steals the trinket from 'the world' during the break. Jack loses everything (including Jim's car) and they owe the brothers $10,000. The brothers have a proposition: they can build the wall in their property to pay back the debt while living in the trailer park. Jack is outraged by it but Jim doesn't see any way out of this predicament, they agree to build the wall and earn their wages to pay back the debt. It's going to take a month or so, probably.

Based on Paul Auster's story, The Music of Chance is an intriguing film. The questions arise: Are the two brothers god and Jack and Jim paying the penance for whatever sin they have committed? Is the stone wall that serves no purpose a metaphor of some kind, that we are all trapped in this rat race of a life whether you want to escape it or not? Jim keeps listening to classical music. There is no music of chance. Music is orchestrated to a T by a composer. Jim, a man of strong moral, who doesn't believe in luck, always taking things in stride, gets tested in this story.

The Music of Chance is an intriguing puzzle piece full of seductive power. A perfect movie to ride out the snowstorm with.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Je suis Timbuktu: Abderramane Sissako Interview

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A lot has happened since I talked with Abderramane Sissako last October at the New York Film Festival. Islamic terrorists' attack on the headquarter of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store in Paris this January shook all of Europe. And Sissako's film Timbuktu got nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscar this year.

The anti-Islam sentiment and jingoism are on the rise in Europe. With that, unfortunately, Timbuktu is embroiled in controversy on the eve of its theatrical release in France. (Read the full article from Washington Post here) It's a pity because Timbuktu is such a beautiful film and a strong condemnation of religious extremism.

The film struck me very strongly. For the little time I was given for the interview, I was fully committed to have Sissako speak about the film the whole duration. But however passionate and knowledgeable he was on the subject, he wasn't interested in schooling me about what happened in Timbuktu, he was more interested in engaging in conversation. For that I am very honored and grateful.

The film opens in New York on January 28 and January 30 in Los Angeles. And in my humble opinion, it should win an Oscar.

TIMBUKTU is such a powerful, tragic film. I know I don't get much time with you so I won't bother with bunch of silly questions. I just want you to talk about the film.

Abderramane Sissako: (laughs) No no no. Of course you can ask questions.

TIMBUKTU is based on/inspired by a true story. I'd like to know how you went about building a film around this true story.

Sometimes you feel that a film is useful and also necessary. I don't know if this is true but it's possible that that is true. It's not that I felt obligated to do so but I felt it was important for me to tell the story and to tell it quickly. Because I think what's happening in this part of the world is not usually told well. Because in the West, we only report about it when it's something that specifically touches us - namely, a hostage. Of course, a hostage is a dramatic situation. But we forget that on a daily bases there are people who are being held hostage and humiliated. When Timbuktu was under siege by Islamic militants, people were having their hands cut off - a guy sees that an air conditioner doesn't work so he goes there to fix it, they think he's stealing it and cut off his hand! It's just horrible. And it's as awful as hostage, but we don't talk about these arms and legs being cut off. So I think what filmmaker needs to do is that he needs to focus on ordinary people and their everyday lives.

People whose daily lives don't appear in the news. To really directly answer your question, this film really took sustenance from the city itself and the beat and the life in it.

One thing that struck me about the film was how diverse the city of Timbuktu is. There are several different languages spoken and different culture presented within the Muslim community. It is a reminiscent of other occupations who bring in their own laws and completely oblivious about the culture and customs of the people who are living there.

Timbuktu is an old city and it's historic. It's always been a meeting place, situated at a crossroads. People from different cultures have always lived there. And that was one of the reasons why they had decided to take Timbuktu, as a symbol. The parallel I can make is in New York after 9/11. What happened in New York, not only people who lived here but everyone felt like a New Yorker because what was happening. Because here every English speaker speaks another language. If you ask anyone on the street they will tell you. And it's this diversity and culture that the city was attacked because it was a symbol and that's why so many people reacted.

You made a film about Poverty of Africa with your last film BAMAKO. It's about the influence of the World Bank and the West and they are literally on trial. This one, even though extreme Islamic fundamentalism stems out of that western influence but you don't talk about the West in this film at all.

I think that's a very good question. With Bamako, I wanted to talk about the fault of other people and I didn't want this film to be like that. In this film, I wanted people to look inward, to look inside themselves and to understand that this is something that that's happening and we could say it's brought on by foreigners but those foreigners are not so distant from who we are. And Timbuktu was liberated by the French army. But I didn't want to show that. What I wanted to show was that the first revolt was by the citizens themselves - people who play soccer without a ball, that's what the resistance is.


A woman who sings and they beat her and she sings anyway.

I read about the retreating occupiers burning down the famous Ahmed Baba Institute. I'd like to know if the sense of normalcy came back to Timbuktu after what happened in 2012.

I think the destruction of the library really had a huge impact on many people. The same thing with the mausoleums: the ground burial sites. But what's important to know is that before that happened, a lot of the people in Timbuktu have saved these artifacts. (read about it here) And today the situation is better.

How was your collaboration with your DP, Sofian El Fani (BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR), because there are a lot of handheld sequences and a lot of running around?

I knew his work. When I chose him, he also wanted to work with me on the project. So things were very simple between us. He works a lot with (Abdellatif) Kechiche and Kechiche is always about handheld camera and they are very tight shots. What makes El Fani a really great cinematographer is his adaptability. He knew right away what I was looking for in framing.

There were discussions of course. I don't really like closeup shots in cinema. I always want to create space because, for me, that space is an invitation, to enter into it. When I make a film I don say, "look!" I say, "come in".

I know that BAMAKO was funded in part by actor Danny Glover because no one was funding movies of African origin. Was it the case with TIMBUKTU? Was getting funding just as difficult?

No. With Bamako, what Danny Glover did was extraordinary. He was the first person who really believed in the kind of film I wanted to make. And I knew Timbuktu was supposed to be made very quickly, so the funds came very quickly too. So it wasn't really necessary to involve many people.

Oh good.

It was important to move quickly.

How long was the entire shoot?

All together, about six weeks.

Six weeks!? Wow, that's fast.

And these are distances where you are on the road full day. It was very difficult. And of course there were no trails or anything. It's also difficult to deal with people who aren't professional actors for 6 weeks. But you know, sometimes, things are difficult.

But you pulled it off beautifully.

Thank you.

What's next for you?

Without talking too much about it, it's going to be about China and Africa. But a love story.

I will very much look forward to that.

Read my Timbuktu Review Here

Monday, January 26, 2015

Ninja in America

Ninja III: The Domination (1984) - Firstenberg
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Ninja Cutlery
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Come to me, you sword of doom you
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Christie can't help herself dancing uncontrollably when haunted by the ninja ghost
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Badass ninja from JAPAN
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Who could have guessed that the Bouncer arcade game Christie owns is a portal to ninjaland!
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Ninja showers
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Ninja art of seduction
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Bad ninja breath
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Raccoon eyed ninja
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Ninja soul escaping

Christie (Lucinda Dickey) is just ordinary working gal: she works for a phone company, climbing up the telephone polls in a cute jumpsuit, then changes to a neon colored leotard to teach an aerobics class. She encounters a dying ninja who just killed about a hundred LA cops along with his intended victim. His soul gets transferred to Christie and she becomes an unstoppable cop killer. Ninja III, mired in 80s b-movie cheese and unrealistic settings, Patric Nagel, squiggly neon tubes, is loads of fun.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Class War

Heaven's Gate (1980) - Cimino
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Here is the basic plot: James (Kris Kristofferson), a Havard graduate law man, joins the frontiers of Wyoming in 1890 as a hired sheriff in the town of Casper, Johnson County. He goes head to head with the Cattle Rancher's Association, the Freemason like, all powerful group, comprised of the New England elites poised to stop the flood immigrants (mostly Eastern European hodge-podge) moving in to the New Territory. They put out an illegal warrant to kill 125 'thieves and anarchists' among these relative newcomers. James is involved with the French madam of the whore house, Ella (Isabelle Huppert), but her heart belongs to working class muscleman hired by the Association, Nate (Christopher Walken). The assault/massacre of Johnson county is impending.

With the majestic Wyoming backdrop (lensed by Vilmos Zsigmond), Cimino tries to paint the ruthless frontier Americana with bold strokes that back then wasn't much different than today. It's an ambitious project, taking on the grand theme of class warfare: the rich aggressively persecuting the poor with violence, in not sharing that piece of American pie. It's a pleasure to see something this epic, with thousands of extras and cast that includes, Kristofferson, Huppert, Walken, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif and Mickey Rourke. But despite all the beautiful visual poetry, the film lacks a narrative pull, mainly because of its unhurried pacing and lack of urgency. It contains perhaps the most lackluster large scale stagecoach-style gun battles even though body count aplenty.

I haven't come across Huppert being this beautiful and magnetic in any other films yet. Playing a woman in love with two men of the opposite spectrum, she is completely arresting whenever she's on screen. Walken is brilliant as always, as a cold, vulnerable, tragic anti-hero. Kristofferson's James, born into privilege, not fitting anywhere, gets away with snarls like- (to Ella) "This is mo yer country than mine!" and falls victim of criticism, "You know what I hate about you James? Even though you are rich, you pretend to be poor." It's his false Eastwoodian sense of righteousness that irritates me as a character.

But Heaven's Gate is from James's point of view: it starts out with extravagant graduation ceremony at Havard, with Billy (John Hurt), a wisecracking valedictorian making jabs at the establishment. The sequence is full of whimsy, excess and unfiltered hope, for they are the future leaders of the still burgeoning country full of possibilities. In the film's end, James reflects on his experiences of the wild west, thinking about all the bloodshed that built this country, on his yacht off Rhode Island. This is how it is- that in America, no one can't escape the position they are born into. Oh, throughout a 3 1/2 hr duration, you really want to shoot Sam Waterston in the face 15 times! He is that evil in this film.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Free as a bird

Bird People (2014) - Ferran
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A fleeting fairy tale of sorts, Pascale Ferran's Bird People is unexpectedly charming and touching without being coy. It begins from a bird's eye view of the Paris airport and people, as we swoop down and move from one person to another, as we eavesdrop their thoughts and conversations. We know that airports and hotels are not their final destinations. They are places people go through temporarily. Bird People evokes this empty feeling - loneliness, absence of human connections, very delicately. For the first half of the film, we follow an American businessman Gary Newman (Joshua Charles). He lands in Paris to attend an important business meeting en route to Dubai. He has a sort of mid-life crisis and decides to leave his job and his family. After a long emotional breakup session with his resentful wife (Radha Mitchell) over skype, Gary is ready to embark on a European tour by himself. Then we move to Audrey (Anaïs Demoustier), a college student who works as a hotel maid, whose aimless life consists of repetitive house-cleaning work and peeping other people's lives through the window across her apartment. Things go weirdly wonderful from there.

What I like about Bird People is that Ferran is not in a hurry to make some obvious point about urban loneliness. Her wispy tale of people connecting in a truly unexpected way is as light and soft edged as bubbles from a children's shampoo. But it carries as much depth and poignancy as any films about urban loneliness.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Making Film is a Bitch

Passion (1982) - Godard
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Film financing is a bitch. After reading Richard Brody's book on Godard, funding seems especially messy and difficult every time Godard have made his films. And many of his films are about, in some ways or another, making films. Passion is also one. Jerzy the Polish film director (played by Polish actor in exile, Jerzy Radziwilowicz) is trying to make a film in the West. Taking cues from the masters of western art- Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix in a TV studio setting, he is trying to conjure up the opening scene. The production is stalled because of some unknown lighting problems and already 4 million over budget. With civil unrest in Poland in mind and under pressure by the film's Italian financiers while keeping his German wife Hanna (luminous Hanna Schygulla) happy and entertaining the possibility of getting involved with a beguiling, Wałęsa inspired factory worker Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), Jerzy's struggling to keep everything under control. There are talks of censorship, public appeasement and subversiveness in art, in relations to those masters work and film. Is going to the USA, just like his producer and only friend (László Szabó)'s suggestion, the end of all problems or end of creative freedom?

As usual, Godard mixes up current political affairs with his lifelong examination of film medium, the rise of video technology, beauty, representation of truth in art. The usual slapstick comedy is there along with discordant soundtrack and out of sync dialog. The other Godard regulars include Michel Piccoli as the ruthless and greedy factory boss, Miriem Roussel as deaf-mute ingenue. Again, Raoul Coutard provides some beautiful images and there are so many babes/boobs in this movie. Another delicious concoction.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Top 20 Discoveries of 2014

Bulk of my cinematic exploration came early this year: there was always dependable Rendez-vous with French Cinema series of course, providing me with my #2 pick of the year, Love Battles, then there was the best film series I've ever been part of in a long time, the first inaugural Art of the Real, presented by FSLC. The series encapsulated everything I was interested in cinema now - blurring the boundaries between film and reality, fired up by people at Havard Film Ethnography Lab (Leviathan, Manakamana, Iron Ministry). Then there was annual New York African Film Festival which fueled my interest in African films. Needless to say, It's been a very good year for films.

Top 20 in order watched:

Drowning by Numbers (1988) - Greenaway
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Another Sky (1954) - Lambert
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Still of the Night - (1982) - Benton
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Le Notti di Cabiria (1957) - Fellini
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Under the Sun of Satan (1987) - Pialat
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US Go Home (1994) - Denis
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Libera Me (1993) - Cavalier
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Touki Bouki (1973) - Mambéty
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Yeelen (1987) - Cissé
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Sinbad (1971) - Huszárik
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Phaedra (1962) - Dassin
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Goodbye Again (1961) - Litvak
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Koumiko Mystery (1967) - Marker
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L'Avventura (1960) - Antonioni
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Détective (1985) - Godard
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Rendez-vous (1985) - Techiné
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The Public Woman (1984) - Zulawski
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Strayed (2003) - Techiné
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Buffet Froid (1979) - Blier
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Viola (2012) - Piñeiro
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