Thursday, January 26, 2017

Revenge and Shame

The Salesman (2016) - Fahardi
It's an earthquake: The building shakes, plaster tiles fall from the bedroom ceiling. You look out the cracking window to see what's going on. Then you realize that it's a track hoe digging for a foundation next door that caused your rude awakening. This is how Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman sets up the things to come, rather ominously, from the get-go for a young middle-class, childless couple living in bustling Tehran.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are theater actors who are preparing for their roles in a stage production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Their lives are rudely interrupted when their building gets condemned because of that construction snafu. Luckily, one of the cast members has a newly vacated property and suggests that they consider moving in. It's a spacious top-floor apartment but still strewn with other people's belongings. The man says the previous tenant will pick her stuff up soon. Gracious for the offer and desperate to find something fast, Emad accepts the colleague's suggestion despite Rana's misgivings about many personal items still left by the previous tenant.

Not long after they move in, Rana is assaulted by an unseen attacker while taking a shower and gets knocked unconscious while Emad is out. She buzzed the assailant in because she thought it was her husband. Physically and emotionally traumatized, Rana is having a hard time coping and has tearful breakdowns while performing in the play.

Emad, not trusting the authorities' ability to execute swift justice, starts investigating the matter himself. He is furious to find out that the previous tenant is a prostitute and the Rana's attacker might have been one of her regular johns. He is soon consumed by the thought of revenge as he gets closer to finding out who the attacker was.

Just like his award winning neo-realist drama, A Separation, Farhadi is superb at creating tension in The Salesman that plays out like a thriller in its first half. But that part is not the true selling point of the film. The film doesn't end with Emad finding the assailant. The meaty part of the movie only begins after. So this is by no means a spoiler: paralleling the story of Willy and Linda Loman in Death of the Salesman is not Emad and Rana, it turns out, but the attacker, an old man who delivers bread around the neighborhood who had a relationship with the former tenant, and his family who doesn't know his secret. This is where things get interesting.

Farhadi's mastery is in his densely layered script. Not only in the way he structures the story within a story with Miller's play, there is also another dimension involving audiences. It seems that public humiliation and making sinners to confront their loved one with the truth is the worst thing that can happen to a person in a socially conservative society.

Emad, whose passive, timid personality gradually changes after the home invasion, lets his anger cloud his good judgment. This parallels yet another story, Ingmar Bergman's Shame. The movie's poster for the Bergman's film is visible throughout the film in their abandoned apartment. In it, there is a childless couple. A war changes ineffectual and apolitical husband, played by Max Von Sydow, into a coward and ultimately a murderer.

As Emad's zealous pursuit of a punishment for the old man becomes more strained and agonizing to watch, Farhadi is, in effect, putting us the audience in Emad's shoes. Are we really prepared to live with the guilt and shame of the knowledge that we ruined someone else's life, even if the person did us wrong?

Both Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti do fantastic jobs as an ordinary couple struggling with the aftermath of a home invasion. The Salesman shows a man's failure to put himself in other people's shoes. Irony is not lost on him being an actor.

Farhadi has a real knack for portraying the guilt of ordinary people. The degree of guilt he is showing might be a little too dramatic to pass as a real life. But that degree is small enough to make us uncomfortable. Deeply philosophical with human entanglements, culture, tradition, class and morality, The Salesman is a complex drama with a great narrative pull that is a richly rewarding experience.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Interview: Asghar Farhadi on His New Film, The Salesman

With his latest film, The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi once again proves his mastery in presenting complexities of human relationships within the confounds of his native country Iran. But he also demonstrates that even when there are political and cultural differences among us, deep down, certain things in life are constant and universal. I was eager to talk to Farhadi about his richly layered human drama when he was in town before the theatrical release of the film on Friday, January 27.

* Many thanks to our translator Sheida Dayani of Harvard University. 

The structure of this film is very interesting. Loved how you set it up in the beginning with the broken window and cracked walls, as we learn that the foundation of the couple’s relationship is shaking with what happens in the middle of the film. Earthquakes aside, does this kind of construction mishap happen a lot in real life in Tehran?

Tehran is a very large city. Everyday, they are dismantling old buildings and building new ones, almost like New York in the 50s and 60s. Everything changes very fast. And all these destructions put harms on older buildings and make them collapse. This is not something that happens everyday but it happens sometimes.

But the structure of the film itself, there are two parts into it: One part is theater and one part is real life. This was the first time I was experiencing something like this. And I wanted these two parts to go parallel, reach for and connect with each other at some point. And i wanted it to be the case that by the time we get to the end of the film, the boundaries between these to merge and then turn into one.

People usually think that the couple in the film -- Emad and Rana -- is the same couple in Death of the Salesman, Willy and his wife Linda. But there is something else that I’d like you to know. The older man who comes into the film later, and his wife are the ones representing Linda and Willy for me.

Right. I get that.

Doing this was a very new experience.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Why that particular play?

When I wrote the treatment of the story, I thought about many plays. Then I got to Death of the Salesman which I was familiar with in my student years, it excited me in many aspects. The theme of the play and the theme of my script were very similar -- they had both stressed on the theme of humiliation but also contempt.
They were very close thematically but it was interesting for me that I had a character in my story that is very close to Willy in that play. In (Arthur) Miller’s play, there is a touch, there is a color or residue of sexual theme, especially when he goes into a hotel in Boston and he sees the woman and his son Biff comes in and catches him.


In my story, there is also a sexual theme. And there are also these subtle things and colors, minute connections that I later on developed but this theme really convinced me that the play was the best one that I can play with.

In some of your films, characters take the laws into their own hands, trying to do the right thing. Is it because the system too untrustworthy or because vagaries of human life need to be solved with a more nuanced approach? Can you elaborate on that a bit?

It could be all the things that you listed. But the most important thing is that applies globally is that people usually like to implement laws themselves. When a person is furious and angry, they don’t feel at ease with themselves until they take revenge. When you leave justice in the hands of law it takes a very long time and that doesn’t satisfy people.

Maybe you don’t trust law, maybe you don’t want this private issue to be revealed publicly. The thing that many people enjoy is when they do justice themselves and when they could stand up for their own rights. And this is when the retaliation and revenge begins. Revenge in a sense that you both judge and execute your own orders.

The scene that struck me the most was when Emad stops eating the food bought by the money that was left in the house and returning the money to the old man at the end. That would never happen in America. Is he just very traditional and old fashioned or is it his character that Rana later finds as faults in his character, and that’s why they are not going to be together?

The character has this impression of himself, the notion that he has of himself, the notion that other people have of him gradually changes throughout the film. When he is put in one specific situation, another side of him comes out. Even he is surprised of this change.

At that table when he doesn’t want to eat the food, he is not a religious character. But he comes to a point that personally, that food to him is polluted. And he feels that the shadow of that old man or that person whom he assumed as guilty is everywhere. Permeating everything he sees. And this is what leads him to revenge. He doesn’t decide to revenge but more like he is gradually thrown into it. You can’t say that’s a fault of his.


This is the characteristic of his personality. I believe he is oscillating between his modern and traditional behavior. And he himself doesn’t know about it.

I noticed Ingmar Bergman’s SHAME poster in their old apartment.

Ah! [Laughs.]

With them not having children and them joking about it made me realize that there is some kind of connection there, albeit very subtly. Am I right about that assessment?

In Bergman’s Shame, there is also a couple that doesn’t have a child. And because of war, the character of man [played by Max Von Sydow] changes like we wouldn’t believe. The woman doesn’t change but it’s the man who changes. And we see the side of character of that man we didn’t expect.


The same thing happens here except that instead of war, it is their surroundings, the environment that causes him to change.

With its title being SHAME, I was wondering if there is a connection between being an artist and apolitical in Bergman’s film and the characters in THE SALESMAN where both of them are artists and living a semi-comfortable life that there is a class distinction between them and the old couple.

In Bergman’s film, those characters are very sensitive people- they are close to nature and very vulnerable. Their relationship is very subtle and they always communicate their feelings with each other. The woman [played by Liv Ullman] plants flowers and has a very sensitive personality. And the man is very dependent on his wife and he always talks to her and reveals his feelings. Bergman does this because he wants us to feel the change in people who are sensitive and subtle to people who are aggressive.

In my film I turned this into people who are dealing with culture and they are theater actors. Being an actor means being someone who can put himself in other people’s shoes. We are surprised in this film because Emad is supposed to know how to put himself in other people’s shoes and play the roles but he fails to do that when he fails to put himself in the shoes of his wife- that he failed to see through her eyes.

Being an actor, yes I would say he is a cultural elite.

There is also life as a stage thing that I’ve been thinking about ever since I saw the film. As it ends with two of them getting their makeup on for the stage, the film takes on yet another, metaphysical layer to it. Much has happened and I don’t see Emad and Rana staying together. But ‘Life is a stage and it goes on’ no matter what happens?

One of the things you can sense is that life still goes on for everyone. But these people are not the same people that you know before it happened. In the last scene you see them going through their make up, they look older and tired.


Every night they have to go on stage and play the role of a family that they have cause into destruction and death. And this seems to be an endless torture for them. When I look at the last scene, I think about how they are going to perform the play after what happened. They have a sense of shame about themselves.

We lost of a lot of great artists throughout 2016. The most devastating for me was the passing of Abbas Kiarostami, one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Can you say a few words about what he meant for you as an artist?

This was the bitterest occurrence that happened in the cinema past year, because he was one and only. There was no one like him. There is no one like him. Many people tried to be like him or copy him but because their personalities are different from his, their films didn’t come out the way his films did.

I met him a few weeks before his death the last time. He was lying in bed in his house when I went to visit him with a woman who was a friend of his. When we entered his room the first thing he said to the woman was, “the flowers on your scarf are very beautiful.” I spent an hour with that lady on the way there and I hadn’t noticed that. He had always seen the world from a different angle. He had learned to see the beauty in the world. He respected life very much. He appreciated life but the life didn’t appreciated him unfortunately.

That’s for sure.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Cosmic Energy

Kosmos (2010) - Erdem
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A bug eyed stranger (Sermet Yesil) comes into snowy border town in northeast Turkey. Upon arrival, he saves and miraculously revives a drowned boy from the river. The boy's father, a local butcher, grateful, tells the stranger that he is welcome and can stay in an abandoned city hall building. But it's the stranger's eccentricity that attracts the locals attentions- it's his philosophical talk in a high pitched voice, only eating lumps of sugar at a tea house for sustenance, having no concept in labor or money, and is later revealed, has abilities to cure and heal people and even defy gravity. He impacts some of the locals' lives for the better, at first. After healing an old man's bad lung (he has to pick his patients up from behind and shake them like a rag doll), there's a line of sick and invalid people gathering at his door which he avoids.

The story of two factions in the village, ones who embraces opening the borders and by trading with the others that will bring the wealth, the other who blames the loss of cultural, traditional ways and recent social ills (mostly robbery committed by the stranger) on the foreigners, resonates the world we are living in. As the miracles fade and turn into tragedies, people start to resent the stranger they first saw as a savior.

This allegorical tale packs a lot of themes and stories in to a 2 hour running time. It reminds me of Werkmeister Harmonies and Tarkovsky's work. But unlike those clinically astute aesthetics of Tarkovsky or Tarr, Erdem's Kosmos is an energetically charged film from beginning to end. The stranger who calls himself Kosmos is always moving about, and the camera, through tracking shot and handheld, constantly move through snowy landscape and chaotic interiors: It being a border town in an unending conflict with neighbors, there are constant low booms of cannons heard from near distance. A satellite falls from the sky. There are also noises of cows from the slaughterhouse, birds, dogs and music- the film is cacophony of sounds and motion all of the time.

Neptün (Türkü Türan), daughter of the butcher, connects with Kosmos. There courtship is that of feral animals - they communicate by howling and running around. Perhaps she is the only one who understands when he says there is no difference between human and animals.

Kosmos is an unwieldy, messy, sprawling work. There are many moments of brilliance and striking visuals. But all that chaos is what Erdem is intending to show. But Kosmos is definitely not a moral lesson, there is no ultimatum or strong message. That the world is indeed chaotic, indecipherable, unknowable and mysterious. The director leaves it at that. Perhaps not narratively satisfying, but Kosmos is full of beauty and wonder.

Friday, January 13, 2017


The Passion of Anna (1969) - Bergman
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The Passion of Anna is a difficult work. Bergman had always tussled with the bleak view on humanity, commented on how vile human relationships can be- that people go on living together for the sake of living together. But at the end, we all die alone. With his regular actors who were still contractually obligated to work with him after Shame and the set from it still left over, Bergman made this small but more abstract film that is supposed to be a sequel/companion piece. But where Shame shows how war degrades humanity, The Passion looks more inward to reach the same conclusion and the result is just as devastating. His disgust with humanity is loud and clear, no doubt brought on by the raging Vietnam War.

Andreas (Max Von Sydow) leads a solitary life in a rural island. He spends his time fixing his house and doing daily chores. His wife has left him long ago. Occasionally he screams to the cold Swedish air out of loneliness, but he seems to be content most of the time. One day, he lets in Anna (Liv Ullman), a friend of the neighbor couple Eva and Elis (Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson) to make urgent phone call. He eavesdrops the conversation and looks through her bag and reads the letter from Anna's dead husband. Unlike her professing her love for her dead husband to anyone who listens, that her marriage was 'perfection', the letter tells the very opposite, her husband telling her that if they go on living together, it will end in psychological and physical violence.

Andreas hooks up with Eva, who in turn spills out her innermost thoughts- she has no thoughts of her own, no ambition and always following the lead of her intellectually superior, successful architect husband who seems to be away on business trips often. Elis's sarcasm and contempt for the world don't sit well with the other three. Being an amateur photographer, he laments on not being able to capture the human soul with his photos. But his clinical observation on humanity and how he sees it is obvious.

The passion is like Bergman's hit medley. His usual themes are all there, portrayed by four archetypes: Andreas - a vacillating coward caught between humanly desire and disgust, Anna - a guilt stricken, self-deceiving woman capable of intolerable cruelty, Eva - a naive, empty vessel trotting through doomed life and Elis - an arrogant, distant, soulless observer of humanity. The actors candidly talk about their characters in length on camera within the movie, as if in DVD extras.

Andreas then shacks up with Anna- the monotonous narrator tells us that they are living together without any passion. And we see them eating and talking like a normal couple. The union of necessities I suppose, to keep a warm body next to you. To have someone to talk to to alieviate loneliness.

Bergman, who found his home in remote Faro Island living in relative isolation and solitude while the raging war on the other side of the world is blaring on TV reminded him of the ugly humanity, reflects his sentiments in The Passion. The title is misleading since because Anna's passion of her past relationship is a bold faced lie. It questions if it will ever help Andreas, Anna and Eva go on their almost unbearable existence if they had it in the first place. The Passion ends with horrendous fistfight between Andreas and Anna, as predicted by the letter in the beginning, and Andreas literally walking back and forth, vacillating and collapsing under the weight of his own guilt and shame and desire both to be alone and be with someone.

Emotionally bare and structurally, technically jarring, The Passion of Anna is a deeply pessimistic, open wound of a film. Unlike his other depressing films I've seen, I failed to see the beauty in it.

Monday, January 9, 2017

It's Oh So Quiet in Kore-eda's After the Storm

After the Storm (2016) - Kore-eda
Kore-eda Hirokazu's new film, After the Storm, about a dead-beat dad getting over his divorce/letting go is as subtle as any other of his films. When I first heard the title, it immediately reminded me of the conversation I had with Kore-eda when he was presenting Like Father, Like Son. I asked him if the Fukushima disaster and the Great Eastern Earthquake of 2011 changed him as a filmmaker. He said the real impact of the disaster on Japan and its people was yet quite unknown. After a pause, he told me this:

But I think this time, in terms of making this film (Like Father, Like Son), there were a couple of motivations for it. One definitely had to be the earthquake. I think it really enforced the idea of bonds in Japan. The idea actually became very trendy. In a way, it wasn't so good in Japan before (in that regard). But the idea of bonds and people supporting each other and all of Japan becoming one has become very common in Japan. I've been thinking about that, about how we can reduce that feeling to a small community that is family. So I think in terms of how I came up with the idea for the movie about a man and his bond with his family, I suppose the earthquake played the role.

The idea of family bond is not a stretch for Kore-eda, considering his filmography. Then again, nor is death (Maborosi, Afterlife). But the implication of a incoming storm in After the Storm here is definitely about bonding and renewal than death and destruction.

A Kore-eda regular Abe Hiroshi (Still Walking, I Wish), a long, sad faced actor, plays a one-hit-wonder, washed up writer Ryota, still carrying the torch for his ex Kyoko (Maki Yoko of Bitter Honey, Like Father, Like Son). He spends most of his time blowing money (that he earned at the detective agency - 'research for a book' temp job which became permanent) at the racetrack. With the custody arrangement, and sandwiched between his always patient aging mother (always marvelous Kiki Kirin) and grilling sister, he has to resort seeing his son who's in elementary school only on the weekends and constantly being asked for alimony payments.

Using his private detective skills, he starts spying on Kyoko's new romance with a manly man who coaches his son in a little league team. He is not a bad guy, but Ryota can’t help constantly asking his son if Kyoko is falling for him or not. Obviously Ryota wants to give it another go at her, even though it is a pretty hopeless prospect.

The news of incoming storm as an excuse, Ryota takes his son to his mother's and maroon themselves there with furious Kyoko, over one stormy night.

The Typhoon season (in Summer) is a yearly occurrence in Japan. Just like earthquakes, violent storms are part of Japanese people’s daily lives. But nothing too dramatic happens in After the Storm. Ryota gets to relive one more night, just like old times, with his wife, son eating his mother's food. Spending one last time with them as gajoku/family, before he lets his old feelings go and grows up and moves on, thanks to the storm. Thanks to the mother nature to smooth things over.

Taking on many Japanese social issues - divorce, unemployment, elderly care, albeit very subtly, After the Storm is another gentle family tale with great measured performances from everyone involved.

In Kore-eda’s world, the storm is not a cause of destruction and pain but a helping agent to bond with each other- something the current Japanese society has lost due to modern life taking its course. But the film is so old-fashioned and soft-edged, it hardly registers on an emotional level. Still a great little film. But after the greatness that was Our Little Sister, After the Storm feels like a minor Kore-eda.

After the Storm opens in New York and Lost Angeles on Friday March 17.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Iranian Neo-Realism at its Best

A Separation (2011) - Farhadi
Riveting morality tale from Asghar Farhadi. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Layla Hatami) want a divorce after 14 years of marriage. Nader has an old father who has an alzheimer so he won't leave the country with his wife and 11 year old daughter. Simin's mind was set on immigration, for the future of their child. They go to a judge but he won't grant the divorce since Nader is not a bad man. Things begin to unravel when Nader takes up a caretaker to take care of his dad while he is working. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) with his young button nosed daugther in tow, starts working for Nader but taking care of the old man who doesn't know where he is most of the time and can't clean himself is just too much for her with hot tempered, unemployed husband at home. She is also pregnant.

Things get out of hand when Razieh leave the old man tied to the bed and go to the doctors appointment - Nader comes home with his daughter, finds his dad fallen off bed unconscious, goes mad, throws Razieh out when she comes back. In the scuffle that ensues, Razieh has a miscarriage. The intense court drama (in the office of a judge) begins.

Farhadi's moral dilemmas where no one is really at fault but everyone finds himself in bad circumstances in a deeply religious society is extremely well-balanced and beautifully drawn out. He is especially good at observing all these rigmaroles from children's perspective. Outstanding performances by all involved. A great example of neo-realist Iranian cinema.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Murder My Sweet

Ménilmontant (1926) - Kirsanoff
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With long cross-fades, handheld shots, jumpcuts and expressive close-ups and time jumps, Dimitri Kirsanoff's silent film Ménilmontant is a beauty. It tells the two country sister's journey (after their mum and dada get murdered by crazy axe wielding man) to the Paris neighborhood of the title. It's a typical melodrama of moral corruption and jealousy and redemption and stuff, but the presentation is nothing but. Nadia Sibirskaïa (Kirsanoff's wife) who plays the younger sister is a sight to behold. She is a cross btwn Anna Karina and Marion Cortillard. Her expressions in close-ups are as expressive as that of Maria Falconetti's in Joan of Arc.

Ménilmontant starts and ends with jarringly, frenetically shot and edited murder scenes. It's probably the most violent silent film I've seen but also the most lyrical. Beautiful stuff.

Heavenly Creatures

Our Little Sister (2015) - Kore-eda
The movie starts. Three Koda sisters gather in a mountain town for their dad's funeral. They hadn't seen him in more than 15 years. He had an affair with other women and their mother ran away long ago. It was the eldest, Sachi (Haruka Ayase)'s job to take charge of their old style home in picturesque seaside Kamakura and raise her siblings. They find out they have a wide eyed, 15 yr old little step-sister, Suzu (Suzu Hirose) who'd been taking care of their father in his deathbed. She doesn't get along with her step-mother (he was married 3 times). Sachi decides to invite Suzu to live with them. Suzu accepts the offer and they say their goodbye at the train station until their next encounter. The little girl runs after the leaving train... waving madly at the strangers she just met... like a puppy dog in a shelter who just got some attention...

I break down. It's only been twenty minutes into the movie and I am sobbing like a little girl. Fucking Kore-eda. He got me real good. Our Little Sister is such an old fashioned movie - a small town where everybody knows each other, sibling rivalry, life's little complications, family traditions.... But it's done in such a gentle, loving way, you can't deny its honest-to-god innate goodness in ordinary people Kore-eda's portraying. It's achingly beautiful movie.


0.5mm (2014) - Ando
Clocking just over 3 hours, 0.5 mm tells a sprawling journey of a young caretaker of elderly people (director Momoko Ando's little sister, Sakura) as she travels through Japan. It's a comical, tender and deadly honest look at aging Japan and its seemingly unbridgeable generation gap.

Sawa (Sakura Ando), is a comely caretaker of an bedridden old man- she changes his diapers, cleans his fluid tubes and feeds him every day. The man obviously hasn't long to live. Sawa expertly handles it all. One day, the man's daughter asks him if she's willing to sleep with the dying man- that it is his dying wish, and assuring her that he is quite flaccid. Breaking the agency protocols for a large sum of money and compassion, Sawa agrees to go through with it. But it only ends in a disaster that costs the old man's life. Something breaks in Sawa and she takes off on the road.

Without any money, she witnesses an eccentric elderly man (Tatsuo Inoue) who's compulsively going around town stealing bicycles and puncturing tires. She blackmails him into pressing herself into his life as his live-in caretaker. There are many funny moments in this prolonged segment as Sawa flirts and disinfects his desires, fights off a sleazy scammer of elderly people, until he decides to go to the fancy retirement home, leaving Sawa his long, worn-out winter coat and his beloved old vintage sport car which has been sitting in his garage.

Sawa moves on to another elderly man, a former professor (Masahiro Tsugawa), who pretends to go to teach every morning, but instead hangs out in the mall all day and spends his time looking at dirty magazines instead. No challenge is small for Sawa, as she pushes herself into the professor's life, guising herself as a former student and admirer of the professor, she forms an uneasy alliance with his older housekeeper and caretaker of his bedridden wife. Sawa insists upon taking care of the wife, who must have been a cultured woman, as she sings arias in the middle of the night. The professor was a navy captain in the war. He reflects contemporary Japan's directionlessness. With the collective will of the people, they could've moved a mountain 0.5mm if they wanted, back then. Just like his wife, he too, slowly loses his mind to aging.

Sawa travels to a small fishing village where she meets a slovenly mute boy whom she's known before and follows him to a shack where his brutish scavenger father lives. The boy turns out to be a girl underneath all the baggy clothing and Sawa and her father has several physical altercations.

With these encounters, Ando takes a current snapshot of Japan, where elderly population problem needs to be dealt with. That they need to be respected and seen with compassion. She also vilifies the post war generation who lacks compassion. They are passing responsibilities of taking care of elderly on to the directionless younger generation. In the center of 0.5mm is brave, ferocious, magnificent Sakura Ando. Not afraid of the physicality and wackiness of her character but also conveys deep compassion and understanding Sawa has for her elderly counterparts. With 30 percent of Japan's population over the age of 65, it's no surprise that Japanese cinema is the first to tackle growing elderly population problems. Biting, uncompromising and deeply poignant, 0.5mm is an impactful film mostly because its untethered, sprawling narrative. There are certain new breed of Japanese indie-filmmakers who totally ignore the typical 3-act narrative structure- Sion Sono, Shinji Aoyama  come to mind. I see Ando is also the cut of the same cloth. There is a sense of freedom, freshness to their storytelling.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Interview: Scott Barley on Sleep Has Her House

However dismal 2016 has been, I had a privilege to start the year discovering the work of a Welsh/Scottish filmmaker/artist Scott Barley. As it turns out that I also had a privilege to end and start another year with the work of Barley and conduct a second interview on his new work Sleep Has Her House. It's a monumental piece of pure cinema that is hard to describe in words. It was a visceral, immersive experience that I will never forget. Many of the questions I put on Barley here are about "how", since I know a bit of his background and his objectives from the last conversation we had, and mostly because the technician in me was wowed by his craft in SHHH. I was so genuinely invested in the experience, some of my questions came across as naive in hindsight. No matter.

Here is without further ado, my second interview with Scott Barley, accompanied by stills from Sleep Has Her House, courtesy of the filmmaker.

The texts in the beginning that starts with “The shadows of screams climb beyond the hills…” Can you tell me the origin of that poem?

Despite not consciously thinking of it at the time that I wrote the opening, I think that Thomas Pynchon’s, Gravity’s Rainbow was a big influence. It’s the opening line. Ever since reading it, it has remained with me like a scar – “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”

I also work in a stream of consciousness way, and don’t overthink what surfaces in my mind. I go with what feels right, always.

In our previous conversation, you talked about being lost in your work and only later you understand the meaning of a particular work that you’ve done. You talked about the importance of polysemy. I am wondering if there was any difference in your approach doing Sleep Has Her House, a feature that has to sustain a greater length and structure than your previous work.

I was conscious of that, and it frightened me for a long time whilst making the film. But it came to a point where I just decided to no longer be guided, or rather, to be anchored by this fear. Ultimately, I made Sleep Has Her House exactly the same way as I have made my previous, shorter works. I feel my way in the dark. I feel what feels right, and never question it, and never deviate from it. I feel, and feel alone. I love not being fully in control when making. I want the film itself to have its own autonomy as it is being made, and for it to always be a few steps ahead of me. I want it to give birth to itself. For me, making a film is largely the same as watching one. You must not resist. Once you let go, you are no longer a captive. Just let it wash over you like an ocean. Swim with it. Drown in it.

I think that my approach is more visible in Sleep Has Her House than any of my previous works, partly due to the longer running time, but also because of the stronger presence of the liminal, the mystic, and the unknown, which I feel took root with my short film, Hunter (2015), but is also there much earlier, in works like Nightwalk (2013) for example. All I am doing is going deeper, darker, and narrower.

Guessing from your images, those locations in Scotland you filmed have otherworldly beauty. What is your relationship as an artist with these places?

My heart is, and always has been in the Highlands. I have family there, and it’s where I feel most at home of any where I have been. Working in these landscapes and tenebrousness is a way of articulating and sharing my biophilia and nyctophilia. It’s also about sharing an aloneness with others. As Nathaniel Dorsky said, ”Sharing aloneness with other people is a great answer to loneliness.”

We must remember the difference. And in another sense, it’s about re-establishing a relationship with what we as a species have lost; what we have ignored, taken for granted, or destroyed, and how our attempts to control nature is a folly. We are guests in Her house.

How many days and nights have you spent filming up there? Do you usually travel and film alone?

For Sleep Has Has Her House, it was shot over the course of 4 separate days throughout 2015 and 2016; one day in the Brecon Beacons of Wales, and 3 days of traveling around West Scotland, with around 16 months of post-production in between. It seems ridiculous, seeing that in print, but that's how it goes.

I have traveled with others on occasion, but I always work alone, apart from some university projects, where having a crew was mandatory, i.e. Shadows (2015), Ille Lacrimas (2014). I am not against working with others, but as my work becomes more personal, I have found that my own process which I have developed does not easily permit communication and collaboration with others, as I don’t always know myself why I choose to do something a certain way. As I said before, I always go with my feeling, and trust that. I traveled with a friend and colleague whilst shooting some of Sleep Has Her House, but I worked completely alone. Every part of the process, whether that is concept, shooting, editing, or sound-design is performed by me alone. I think filmmaking, genuine art-making, regardless of whether you're working alone or with a crew is always a solitary endeavour – you are pouring your soul into something. It can be lonesome. And it can hurt.

As Emil Cioran said, ”Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” The same applies to filmmaking. And I would add, you put into your work what you would never even dare to confide to oneself, or even wish to understand. It is not a reveal, or a "pouring" of logic, it is nothing but a deluge of pure, unadulterated feeling; feeling alone. And pure feeling cannot and should not be translated into rational thought.

I am astonished by the fact that it was all shot on iPhone. Can you tell me the process from capturing those images and how it morphs into the final piece?

Firstly, I should probably mention that I always begin a film almost like one would keep a diary. I have no idea, or agenda to make a film. I simply document. I shoot what attracts me, random things, animals, variances in light, the water, the stars; simply what draws me in on different days, different nights, in different places. Once I have built up a body of footage, I start to see connections. These pieces of footage could be taken months or even years apart – and miles apart too. Just like in Hunter (2015) there are sequences in Sleep Has Her House which are comprised of shots filmed in two separate countries that are then invisibly stitched together. But these connections between different pieces of footage all happen organically. I never force these connections. I never force a film when it doesn’t come. The films find me – not the other way round. When they come alive and start to writhe, I simply hold on. All my films have been made this way. Some happen quicker than others. Once these connections are established, a narrative - through images - begins to germinate.

Sleep Has Her House was roughly 90% shot on my iPhone, the rest being made up of some drawings I did about 5 years ago whilst studying fine art, and some more recent DSLR footage. All of that was then superimposed together. Some shots, such as the 12 minute take of the sun setting in real-time, followed by the darkness, and finally the storm corrupting the night is comprised of nearly 60 layers of footage in 2K resolution. It took two months for that shot to render.

One mesmerizing shot after another, Sleep Has Her House is a truly hypnotic experience. But the techie in me was wondering as to how you accomplished the look of those images. For instance, those incredibly long waterfall sequences where we very slowly pull out to reveal the full extent of the landscape in the darkness. Or the scene of mist rolling over the forest and the trees change their colors.

Thank you. I hope you don't mind me saying, but just like the films themselves, I think it is best to be kept in the dark. Once we objectify, once we understand – we kill.

There was one visceral moment when the rainstorm passes through and from complete darkness comes the frightening (yet beautiful) forest fire which made me jump out of my seat! Even though the film is finished and obviously you are alive to tell me that it’s done, at that moment, stupidly on my part, I was very concerned about your safety and well being. Can you tell me about that experience?

As Michael Haneke said, “Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth.”
The fire is complete fakery, something that I composited, but I’m very happy - from your response - that it seemed genuine.

What do you think about in the middle of the night alone in the forest?

I think about the weight of the dark. Rather, I feel it. The heaviness. Sometimes you can feel the heaviness of the night. The dark - on different nights - has different colours. I feel its heaviness most when it is red or green. I do not mean that the colour of the night is red, or green, but I feel a colour around me. It absorbs me. It goes from the air into my core. Sometimes, the night has a hunger. It devours everything. In these moments, everything is unknown to me again. I listen. I hear. I feel the air. I feel the earth. The only thing I know is the earth under my feet. Everything is elsewhere. I am a child. I think about the same things that I try to show in my films. I think about all the things that are beyond me. I sense things dancing within the dark, out of reach. They disarm us. They seduce us.

I remain quiet. I remain still. Sometimes, I close my eyes, and I try to dance with them.

Sleep Has Her House has world premiere on streaming flatform, Tao Films, please visit their website

My 1st interview with Barley in February 2016