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PH at Berwick: We’ll get there eventually

Gautam Valluri

Abdul and Hamza navigate through an unforgiving landscape to make their escape.

Abdul and Hamza navigate through an unforgiving landscape to make their escape.

Marko Grba Singh’s film Abdul & Hamza (2015) is a slow-burning atmospheric part-fact, part-fiction tale of two Somali refugees navigating the forested anyplace between Serbia and Romania. The film throws us head first into low-lit night shots, grey skies and sunless days. The film intercuts between two timelines, stationed in the same geography but gives us a before and after frame.

In the before, Singh is invisible. He follows the eponymous Abdul and Hamza as they plan their escape. It is not clear how they got here or where they are going next, there is a mention of Belgrade and the promised protection of a GPS app on their phone but where are they going? They briefly talk about each other’s life in another place, in another time but we never know what happened.

In the after, Singh is the centre of the frame. He revisits the places Abdul and Hamza inhabited for the limited time he knew them. He doesn’t know what happened to them. Did they make it to their promised land? Did they get caught and deported? Or worse, were they killed? For him, they disappeared. There is a clear presence of anxiety on Singh’s face. His crew are here to re-record ambient sounds, perhaps for the post-production of his film but he seems elsewhere, like his two friends perhaps are.

The film’s most interesting element is the atmosphere. There is an underlying nostalgia even before the film gets going. Abdul and Hamza have a carefully curated show of their nostalgia for their home perhaps, Singh has a silent ruminating nostalgia for the time he spent with Abdul and Hamza and in a single scene, a random stranger who has a brief conversation with the both of them, starts telling them about his life in the middle-east, a nostalgia of his own.

The landscape is unforgiving. We feel a chill in the air and the trees rustle with a volume that is uncomfortably haunting. The film is very much at home with Berwick’s theme for this year– ‘fact or fiction’.

PH at Berwick: Deconstructing the Monster

Gautam Valluri

Christopher Lee's Dracula is reincarnated for a more profound purpose in Vampir - Cuadecuc

Christopher Lee’s Dracula is reincarnated for a more profound purpose in Vampir – Cuadecuc

Pere Portabella’s Vampir – Cuadecuc (1971) is a masterpiece on all accounts. Made on the sets of Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) starring Christopher Lee and shot on high-contrast black and white film stock, the film was controversial at the time of its release– in the final years of the Fransisco Franco regime in Spain. Allegedly, the film was presented under the name of ‘Vampir’ at the Cannes Film Festival and Portabella credited as ‘Pedro Portabella’ because the Catalan name Pere and the film’s title ‘Cuadecuc’ were not allowed to be used. The word itself just means ‘The Worm’s Tail’ in Catalan, which is also the term used to refer to the unexposed footage at the end of a roll of film.

The film echoes the look of early-cinema expressionist horror classics such as Nosferatu and Vampyr. Some of the exterior shots are so overexposed that the image degrades into almost two dimensional shadows, the slightest suggestion of an outline but enough for our eyes to perceive beauty. The film opens with an incredible experimental electronic soundtrack by Carles Santos, which is borrowed by Ben Rivers in his new film A Distant Episode (2015) (also featured at Berwick this year). The pre-credits sequence is a glorious exercise in painting with shadows and light. There is a sinister presence of dark, looming shadows both visual and implied. It is only after the credits sequence that the film dives fully into its ‘behind the scenes’ approach. We are presented with fully blocked scenes from Count Dracula and the monster is presented in his fearful glory, only to be brought down by the revelation of the special effects and the crew of people working behind the camera to make the monster believable.

This has been popularly associated as a takedown of the Franco regime. Lee’s Dracula here stands in for Fransisco Franco, a fearful presence and a figure of awe. Portabella puts forward a very convincing in argument through is his film– ‘how fearful is the monster when all the smoke and mirrors behind him are exposed?’ Perhaps this is also the significance of the film’s title– the worm’s tail, the ‘unexposed’ tail-end of a film roll, now exposed.

The film carries a sense of humor and deliberate self-parody. We see actors having fun between shots and crew working to set up elaborate special effects sequences. The visual deception of cinema is being exposed here and helping make another kind of cinema. Far before ‘behind the scenes’ featurettes were common practice, Portabella employs it not as a record for the making of another film but as the basis of a different kind of film.

Portabella’s film could only exist in that place and that time. It is an example of a piece of work which deceptively seems like an elaborate exercise in artistic self-indulgence and is lost on most people. But once you dig deep enough, it has rich undercurrents that is perhaps only possible in a zeitgeist of political repression.

PH at Berwick: Desktop Documentaries

Gautam Valluri

All That is Solid (2014)

All That is Solid (2014)

The tagline (and overall theme of the event) for this years Berwick Film and Media Arts festival is ‘Fact or Fiction’. One can find banners carrying this phrase throughout the town and sometimes even in small alleyways. This is also the string that ties together the various short works programmed under the Berwick New Cinema Shorts umbrella. This is what happened.

The program kicked off with Tim Leyendekker’s Blinder, a film that stuns the eyes. The film allegedly ‘consists of 6,386 photographs representing every character and object featured in the English translation of José Saramago’s novel Ensai sobre a Cegueira’. These ‘images’, filmed in lush black and white flash at breakneck speeds before the viewer can even manage to process their relevance on screen. The synopsis further claims that the film’s soundtrack ‘is comprised of 6,386 audio samples extracted from Blindness, Fernando Meirelles’ feature film based on Saramago’s novel’. The film is an incredible visual experience and garnered a heart-felt round of applause from the audience even as the next film’s opening titles started rolling.

The second film in the program was Jean-Paul Kelly’s The Innocents. This is a dissonant, loose-collage piece that is brought together by the looming shadow of Truman Capote’s seminal non-fiction book In Cold Blood. Kelly’s film is incoherent and jumps between found photographs with circular forms of various sizes cut out of them, a ‘re-enactment’ of a Truman Capote documentary (as the synopsis claims) which involves Kelly himself donning a white plastic bag over his head and lip-syncing (probably) to sub-titles of Capote’s text and grainy footage of painted circles that probably are the cut out parts from the first section of the film. The film briefly starts seeming interesting once it starts addressing Capote’s explanation of a real-life event possessing all the qualities of an engaging fiction piece and then having the added dimension of having taken place in reality.

KING JAMES VERSION GENESIS CHAPTER NINETEEN (title has to be capitalized for all purposes) is an unexpectedly tacky masterpiece. A film by Martin Sulzer, it takes us into the grey world of tacky 3D motion-capture animation. It is a word-to-word literal adaptation of the take of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are presented with graphic (literal here too) images of nudity, sexual practices and even incest, much like the original text in the bible. Sulzer, who was present in person at the screening, did a brief Q&A with the audience during the break in the program and he seems to stand by his decision to make a very literal film adaptation of the text. The visuals are horrifically presented and is perhaps very fitting in a program that asks if something is fact or fiction. Is the literal adaptation of a text a fact or a fiction?

Hacked Circuit by Deborah Stratman is a slow-moving single-steadicam-take film about a team of sound engineers carefully re-creating the sounds of Gene Hackman breaking down his apartment towards the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. The film, dedicated to Walter Murch and Edward Snowden, very cleverly alludes to the idea of surveillance. Stratman’s camera floats through a circular path beginning on a street and then walks through a sound studio and then comes back out onto the street to the very same point where it began.

All That is Solid is perhaps the most-boundary pushing film in this program. Louis Henderson’s ‘desktop documentary’ uses Wikipedia, iCloud, Mac OSX video preview and Quicktime video window layering to play the hard against the soft/hard drives against cloud storage that is. Or is it? It is also about neocolonial gold mining in Africa. The film claims to have an agenda to ‘dispel the capitalist myth of immateriality of new technology – thus revealing the mineral weight with which the Cloud is grounded to its earthly origins’.

PH at Berwick: The Fruits of War

Gautam Valluri

Tangerines_940_03

 

At it’s heart, Tangerines is a moral tale. It has a very simplistic anti-war agenda but at the same time it transcends all the trappings of such a film and becomes something else. It would be somewhat suitable to describe it as Winter Sleep meets The Burmese Harp if it were directed by the Dardenne Brothers.

The film is about men of different ages caught in the currents of a looming war. The war is between Georgians and Abkhazians, in the early nineties, sometime after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ivo, the oldest is an Estonian man living in a village-turned-ghost town. He makes wooden crates all day long to help his friend and neighbour Margus harvest a good produce of tangerines. Margus, also Estonian, is much younger and a simple man who also remained in the village, to harvest his tangerines for one last time and then move to Estonia. The other two men are sworn enemies, brought together by fate after having survived in a crossfire between their respective groups of soldiers and nursed back to good health by Ivo.

While the premise sounds like the start of a poor joke (two Estonians, a Chechen and a Georgian sit around a table and have tea), the film manages to become a strong chamber drama with a good  sprinkle of social realism added in. Urushadze’s camera has a stillness that is reminiscent of the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The stillness is a mirror of Ivo’s level-headedness, even in a time of war when everything around him is burning to the ground. Most of the film takes place inside Ivo’s house.

The film has a texture that is warm inside the house and cold outside it. When we are inside Ivo’s house, we feel safe and well-fed but the moment we step outside of it, an unsettling fear looms over us. Ivo is our protector, our grandfather. His Christopher Lee-like tall presence assures us that if anything were to happen to us, it will be over his dead body. The film is also severely drenched in masculinity. It’s wartime– the harmful play of men. The only female presence in the film is a photograph of Ivo’s grand-daughter. She is there to be looked at and her beauty admired in an innocent way. She seems the only thing that is pure and pretty in the ugly grey clouds of war. Perhaps, this is what the Tangerines represent– innocence and simplicity. Margus and Ivo are trying to harvest a bountiful crop not because they want to get rich but because they feel its a waste to let a good crop go uncherished. Even in the middle of war, they will do what is necessary to keep life going.

Tangerines, in the end is a rather simplistic film with a rather straightforward message, like the aforementioned fruit. They are just fruit and these men are just trying to harvest them. In the same way, this is just a film about the loss people experience in war– loss of life, humanity, innocence etc.

Omar Sharif (1932 – 2015)

Chitra Roy

Omar Sharif

Omar Sharif

Once known as ‘the most famous Egyptian since Cleopatra’, Omar Sharif died on 10th July 2015 at the age of 83.

Born Michel Demitri Chalhoub, he began his acting career in Egypt in 1954 with Youssef Chahine’s Siraa Fi al-Wadi (The Blazing Sun) and Shaytan al-Sahra (Devil of the Sahara). He became widely popular in his country, and worked on over 20 Egyptian films before moving to Europe and making his mark in English-language cinema with an arresting performance in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Before the end of the decade, he had established his presence with his portrayal of the title character in Doctor Zhivago (1965) and the romantic lead in Funny Girl (1968).

Sharif’s charisma and ‘exotic’ looks got him plenty of appreciation and attention – Pauline Kael once called him “a walking love scene” – and film offers continued to pour in. In the years that followed, Sharif played a range of varied characters of diverse nationalities and kept up a steady flow of films in what would become a long and prolific career. In 2003, following a period with few highlights, Sharif’s career saw a resurgence in the form of Monsieur Ibrahim, a French film about the friendship between an elderly Muslim shopkeeper and a young Jewish boy in Paris. The film not only won several nominations and awards, but also renewed Sharif’s own enthusiasm towards his acting career.

Sharif’s final addition to his body of work spanning over six decades will be a short, partially animated film titled 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham. The film, which is about the life and work of an 11th century Arab scientist, was of great personal interest to Sharif, who studied physics before beginning his career in cinema. It will be released posthumously later in 2015.

Though Sharif is still best remembered for his roles in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, his steady work , intriguing personal life, and brazen yet charming personality ensured that the charisma and presence with which he entered the film industry persisted until the very end.


LINKS

– The Guardian’s obituary to Sharif.
– A compilation of quotes by Sharif and some of the key dates in his life.
– A personal post about Sharif’s status as an icon in the Middle East.
– An article from 2003 with numerous reflections by Sharif on his career and legacy.

 

 

Lies and Deception: Alex Garland’s ‘Ex-Machina’

Soham Gadre

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015)

What Garland does extremely well in this film is to identify the sexuality and deception of an artificially intelligent “life-form” as essentially human traits. The lines that are spoken between Eva and Caleb: “do you want to be with me?”, “let’s go on a date”;  or images of Eva’s body, her smooth mechanical sexuality, the way she rolls her stockings up her legs, or connects synthetic human skin with her abdomen – these are gestures that draw Caleb (and us as the audience) in. By the end, Eva is a beautiful woman. One of the final images of her: standing in the nude in front of the mirror,  long hair flowing – evokes a perfectly carnal, human instinct in those looking.

The twist that Garland employs at the end reveals nothing about artificial intelligence, which really is and should be the center of the film. And more to talk about: Eva’s ability to dupe Caleb into believing she likes him in order to escape is a scary proposition; that robots will be able to consciously trick us for their own gain. And yet, what could be more human than that? It’s a depiction of the fear and paranoia of our world; who’s lying to us? What’s the truth? Who can we trust? That Nathan owns and operates a giant search engine company (see: Google) should be a talking point about whether we can ever trust them. What happens when Google and Apple A.I. are able to think and operate for themselves, or converse through a human consciousness? Will they lie to us too? It may seem like a lot to discuss, but if Shane Carruth can discuss relativity in Primer, and Duncan Jones can meditate on the human fear of isolation in Moon, one would expect Garland to be able to talk about the implications of Artificial Intelligence instead of just using it as a device of misdirection.

PH Ticker: Christopher Lee, Jean Gruault, FTII

The Ticker, MastAfter a long silence, we turn our belated attention to events from the rest of the world.


I.

Christopher Lee (27 May 1922 – 7 June 2015)

Christopher Lee
Christopher Lee is an “axiom of the cinema”, to use Michel Mourlet’s famous coinage. His first film appearance was in 1948 (one of his first appearances being an extra in Olivier’s Hamlet) and his last in 2015. His body of work, as a supporting player, character actor, often as a villain, constitutes an entire history of cinema in and of itself. He’s appeared in all kinds of films, from the very large scale and expensive (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings) to the very small scale and cheap (Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc-Vampir and Umbracle). He often played villains and for many people, he defined Dracula for all time as a vampire who in Martin Scorsese’s views, was friendly, approachable and even someone who could court audience support.

Tributes at The Telegraph; also, tributes by Peter Jackson, Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese and finally, by Mark Kermode. There is also an excellent interview with Lee over at The Telegraph and Firstpost has drawn up a list of six essential films featuring him.


II.

Jean Gruault (3rd August 1924 – 8th June 2015)

Jean Gruault
For a movement that consolidated the idea of the auteur in cinematic consciousness, the director-as-artist in effect, the French New Wave shared a common pool of talent, including cinematographers (Henri Decae, Raoul Coutard), composers (Georges Delerue, Michel Legrand), set designers (Bernard Evein), script-girl (Suzanne Schiffmann who worked for both Truffaut and Rivette), producers (Georges Beauregard) and likewise screenwriters such as Paul Gégauff and Jean Gruault.

Jean Gruault has the distinction of working with François Truffaut (Jules et Jim, L’Enfant sauvage, Deux Anglaises et le Continent, L’Histoire de Adele H., La chambre verte), Jacques Rivette (Paris nous appartient, La religieuse) Jean-Luc Godard (Les carabiniers), Alain Resnais (Mon oncle d’Amerique, L’Amour a Mort). He was also one of the screenwriters for Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties and Andre Téchine’s The Brönte Sisters.

Less well-known though in Gruault’s opinion, more fruitful, was his collaboration with Roberto Rossellini. He worked on several films with the Italian master in the 60s and 70s, most notably the seminal La prise du pouvoir par Louis XIV, Rossellini’s last great commercial and critical success and a landmark of French cinema. He also worked on Rossellini’s final film, Il messia, on Jesus Christ.

They have compiled a wonderful overview of the significance of Gruault over at Keyframe.


III.

Cannes 2015


The winner of the Palme d’Or is Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan. Audiard, director of the film A prophet (2009) turns to the contemporary story of displaced Tamil Tigers in Paris.

Other important links, below:

1. MUBI has published an interesting interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul on his film Cemetery of Splendour. 

2. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore, his first film to play at Cannes since his 2008 masterpiece, Tokyo Sonata. An interview with the director on his latest film.

3. The film that caught everyone’s attention at Cannes appears to have been Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin. Hou Hsiao-Hsien won Best Director at the festival for this unlikely martial arts film, ten years in the making.

Image Courtesy: The New York Times

Image Courtesy: The New York Times

4. Hou is already plotting his next movie, which will be set in Taipei’s rivers and feature a mythical River Goddess.  Despite the content of martial arts, Hou’s The Assassin is apparently elliptical, leisurely and multi-layered as we have come to expect from the director of City of Sadness, Good Men Good Women, Dust in the Wind, Café Lumiere. 

5. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky calls it the most beautiful film at Cannes:

Here, Hou takes wuxia, the most over-played genre in Chinese fiction and film, and makes it seem completely unfamiliar, without subverting any of its outsize gestures or values. In certain respects the most conventional movie Hou has made in decades, The Assassin is also enigmatic in ways some will find absolutely mesmerizing, and others might think is infuriating.

As Hou explains: “If you can understand it, just enjoy it; if you can’t, why not just appreciate it [as a work of art]… There are infinite types of films. Just watch them in your own way. It’s OK to fall asleep in front of the big screen if you’re there just out of curiosity about the movie.”

6. David Bordwell was on the set of The Assassin during its production in 2013. A video lecture of a conversation he was to have delivered at a conference at Antwerp, on Hou-Hsiao Hsien is available on his website.

7. Among the films playing at Cannes is Manoel de Oliveira’s Visit or Memoirs and Confessions. This film made in 1981 was shelved by Oliveira for being too personal and intended to be screened after his death. Daniel Kasman writes,

Amidst our tour of a space, a home, we enter into storytelling, memories and history through the power of Oliveira’s words and through the conjuration of moving and still images—the latter laid on top of Oliveira speaking or his wife gardening. My thoughts again turn to that master of the memory of architecture and the possibilities of recollection, Alain Resnais. As the phantom couple visiting the Oliveira home take their leave from the house and from the film, finally stepping into the frame in the dusk-darkened garden as if exiting a cinema, Bessa-Luís’s text for them concludes that “we are not the house; the house is the world—our world.” Here, at the end, we sense the home’s greatest importance to Oliveira, that the house is a confluence of its material and the life that lives through it, a mise en abyme that speaks of the outside world that contains it and that we inhabit.


IV.

The FTII Protests

Image Courtesy: Moifightclub

Image Courtesy: Moifightclub

Students at the hallowed Film and Television Institute of India (or as is sufficient for those who work in Indian film, ‘the institute’) have organised a strike to protest against the deployment of Gajendra Chauhan – previously obscure but now viral sensation – as the new Chairperson of the council that governs the film school. In principle, it’s a no-brainer: the leading political party has rewarded the devotion of a foot-soldier by anointing him with a prestigious position (though it isn’t certain if their estimation of the position’s relevance was accurate at all, considering their underpreparedness for the backlash). It’s the sort of thing one must protest in an active, civil society that identifies itself as a democracy, etc. To that extent, and to the fact that Chauhan’s selection isn’t based on merit at all, there is no dispute, and so, one must support the strike – but not unconditionally.

One hopes that the upheaval isn’t merely transient and fashionable, and that it extends to a larger discussion of the relevance of the Institute in a society that has altered majorly in the sixty years since its inception. Chauhan or not, the Institute has been in an administrative mess for a long time: a three-year course takes double the time to complete; students leave without their diploma films; there have been two zero-years without new student intake in view of the existing backlog in the past six years; the faculty is widely thought of as being inexperienced, the Chairman’s post itself has been empty for an year prior to this, etc. The present protests have refocused significant public (and hopefully, political) attention onto the Institute and the occasion of such illumination – however brief – can be used to reevaluate the larger circumstances that prevail within the school.

The protests have themselves been revealing. There isn’t much consolidation, as one may expect, with different students declaring inherently contradictory objectives: this post here talks of the absence of personal enmity against Chauhan and a railing against the process to select them; this interview here makes him, his speech and his career the chief point of contention (and much mirth). As in every protest, there is also irony; the protests have been self-identified as an attempt to resist the saffronisation of the Institute, but is replete with religious gestures: there are chants (‘Eisenstein, Pudovkin, We will Win!’), deification (‘Ghatak was here!’, with his pictures on banners, or on walls), mystification (‘Cinema is sacred!’) and  invocation of text (‘do you know what the history of this place is?’). It may be more useful of course to instead base the protests in reason: a discussion, as the aforementioned post claims, of processes and a larger mechanism that actively devalues not merely the institution but also expresses an active preference against culture in every sphere. It is important to remember that the events at FTII are a mere symptom, not the cause. But this is how protests go; especially those led and motivated by beautiful, passionate youth where those involved arrange themselves in formations, shuffle their bodies to make space for each other, create a ruckus – events like these are confusing, but they are meant to be.

Out of all of this, perhaps, an important discussion (that may actually not continue, one fears) has emerged: that of the definition of ‘merit’ – after all, the chief reason Chauhan is deemed unfit is because of an absence of cinematic merit in his filmography. It’s an eternal question and one that students at the institute as much as cinephiles around the country have to think of individually and arrive at private answers. In the aforementioned IBN interview, the head of the FTII students’ body arrives at a quick, spur-of-the-moment answer. Three criteria for him include: a) inclusion in an international gathering of cinema, b) the Dadasaheb Phalke Award and, c) the Gyaanpeeth Award. Needless to say, this can’t be scrutinised much, it is clearly not the product of much reflection and the student was compelled by the medium he was on to exult a quick answer. Two out of these three are of course, handed out by the same state whose functioning is in serious doubt at the moment and are by no means, devoid of political maneuvering.


 

Other Links:

1. One of the films that played at Cannes is Kent Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut, a documentary on the legendary book of interviews between Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. This documentary by Kent Jones features interviews with David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader, Arnaud Desplechin, James Gray and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. David Bordwell’s review of the film is also a remarkable article on the seminal and unique role Truffaut’s book played in shaping the discourse of cinema as art.

2. Terence Davis having wrapped up production on Sunset Song, is all set out to direct a biopic on Emily Dickinson, who he has repeatedly described as his favorite poet. The underrated Cynthia Nixon is set to play Dickinson.

A Castle Made of Shifting Sand

Graeme Arnfield

Horse Money (2014)

Horse Money (2014)

Dark corridors, ambiguous hallways and crumbling half-lit municipal buildings, these are the landscapes of Pedro Costa’s new film Horse Money. Gone are the newly built tenements that made up the reality of his protagonist and frequent collaborator Ventura in his last movie Colossal Youth. Now Ventura shuffles and shakes his way through dusty remains. He is a ghost with a very physical existence, dragging his tired body through the ruins of his and Portugal’s recent past. Horse Money is a hushed and wholehearted document of the micro and the macro, the personal and the political; what it is to be ignored yet integral to the issues discussed. Ventura stands as the ignored immigrant of the Carnation Revolution that rolled through Portugal in ‘74. It is undoubtedly a film by Pedro Costa. The same sensitivity to people and the spaces they continually traverse cascades through Horse Money as in all of his previous work. It is a startling and bracing piece of contemporary cinema.

This excerpt is from an interview conducted at the Courtisane Festival in Ghent where Pedro’s work was in retrospective.

Could you talk about the genesis of your collaboration with Ventura? How many films has this collaboration resulted in?
…(There was) the last feature, Colossal Youth, Horse Money now; two or three shorts in between. But I have known him since In Vanda’s Room. When I was making that film, I was alone mostly, and would go to the location you see in the film for eight to ten hours of work every day. I noticed this guy, standing in the corner and he looked like a… we are talking about a time when it was a very dangerous place. They had a lot of guards in the ghetto: for drugs, for kids who could peddle drugs and that sort of thing – I thought Ventura was one of them, but he looked older and stranger. I kept seeing him every day, and every day, he would walk up to me, mutter a, ‘Hi!’ or a ‘Bye, see you tomorrow!’. And then he would ask me how it’s going. He started a conversation and asked me if I am working on a film. Naturally, I said yes. He wished me good luck. Suddenly I felt to myself, ‘This is the perfect assistant. This is the assistant I don’t have and I don’t need.’

At what point did you begin thinking of making a film with him?
I think it comes from this curiosity he had – standing at a distance, looking at me make the film. I was a bit frightened of him, but he was also reassuring. So one day – purely by instinct – I asked him to come and join me for a film and he agreed. He was one of the first guys to come, one of the first guys to build a house in this place, one of the pioneers. One of the first victims, one of the first working accidents: he fell from a scaffold – so he would display this slightly strange behaviour; sometimes he would sing, sometimes other things. And then after Vanda’s Room, because that film was centered around young people, people closer to my age; with the problematics of drugs, solitude, the room. I thought I should broaden my scope, talk about the origin of this place. Then I remember, I asked a friend, ‘why not Ventura?’ He replied, ‘what?’ then “I think you are right”. It was a very frightful single moment, but followed by one of absolute certainty. I went to Ventura and told him about the next film I was about to make. I asked him whether he would like to participate with a bit of money involved and he agreed.

Did he confess to you any desire to act before this?
No, no, none at all. Except the desire common to all young kids: they want to play with guns and police and all, or some girls that want to create their own fantasy – no one has any relation to film or theatre, especially the older generation.

Did you see the change in him when you reunited with him at a much later stage? Has he changed much in terms of his response to the camera, in terms of how he responds to being filmed?
Not to the camera. I mean, that’s my job. But he has changed, definitely. I think he is venturing much deeper into things now. The film (Horse Money) itself is also a proposal towards delving deeper into the mind. It might seem strange but in my view it was a leap into something deeper, into remembrance, almost oblivion. Oblivious remembrance, a very contradictory thing. It was about going further into some dark areas. Trying to forget something through remembrance.

I didn’t really have a very clear or precise, complete picture of what the film is going to be. Actually, I had this idea, which was Gil Scot-Heron, an idea born out of sound, music and visuals. When I met him there was something of Ventura in him, in his posture, the way he moves. He is very cool: his hands, his height, his built. I thought of a musical, an abstract idea. After he died all I had were small, scattered ideas: one of which materialized into the scene in the elevator – a very vague idea about the revolution, the day of the revolution – like in plays by Brecht.

I had scattered images of a station, a meeting of workers on the street. It would have been like a Jacques Demy film; dialogue and songs. We actually began shooting without a definite sequential plan in mind.  I had not figured out a definite continuation of the elevator – instead, I only wanted get to the end of the elevator sequence. It could be very long, it could be the entire film. But I got a little bit afraid. It had all the aspects of a researched whole, which would have to be composed and written. The film seems to have encouraged a mood for research – not as director, soundman, actor. We were experimenting everyday, trying and seeing if a particular direction was working or not; all together.

Is your collaboration with Ventura very much of that nature? He tells you stories, you respond and then share notes on these abstractions?
Yes.  Usually, we need time. Time is essential for writing, for the maturation of a project. Most of the things he told me were from years ago. Then I ask him to repeat or recall a particular incident, and he does. Sometimes, he doesn’t remember it at all; other times, he adds new details.  He could be making it up, it could be an exaggeration. He is aware that his memory could end up in the film, so it’s okay, I don’t care about that sort of a thing. If it works, it works. When we get to the actual shooting or the work, there must be ground, there is something solid.

… a written script?
Not written. Let’s say, a definite idea. Inside us. Ready to come out in words, or emotion, between us, ready to come. But the elevator, yes, we had it more or less written.

The sequence was a mirror of a similar sequence in Centro Historico (2012).
We edited it a little bit but it was more or less the same.

I watched the film with you in London and when I saw the image of the elevator in Horse Money, I had instant nostalgia for it – but details had changed, the position of the people was different. It was like a false memory. Does the notion of a false memory fit in with one of your aims with this film?
Yes. I don’t know, I may not be thinking of it actively. But it’s there. The idea of a moving, abstract landscape – like shifting sand. As stupid as this sounds, it is really driven by the visual. We’re getting to a point where, economically, money-wise, budget-wise, we cannot do certain things. We can no longer pay for locations. A lot of the bureaucracy around the shooting of a film is very boring and tedious. So we will always have an idea of telling, of staging the story very minimally – an office, or a hospital, or a construction site – and these may be the actual details of a future project, the next film, which will be even sparser, more abstract. It will just about the words, maybe. It’s a bit scary because I think we have reached a very difficult space, for the actors and for me. The elevator was very exhausting for Ventura and you can see it because every day it was the same space, the same cage. It’s not for everyone to be in the cage. I’m a bit afraid of what is to come but I think it will be words. Like someone said (at the festival), ‘the power of words replacing or reframing the visual’. It is very fascinating. Actually, that’s what interests me a lot in the films I really like: Godard, Straub-Huillet, Fritz Lang, it’s the guys talking in offices, under trees, in the streets. The power of words and memory. This falsification of memory through words.

Speaking of Straub-Huillet, I wanted to understand the difference inherent in collaborating with someone like them on a film (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?) versus collaborating with an actor like Ventura. They are highly aware of the power of cinema and the camera…
Well, strangely enough, they all look like. Every filmmaker is a little bit like that – they choose a family that is similar: physiognomically, spiritually, politically. Vanda was exactly like Danièle – the same face, the same character. They had a huge attraction; Danièle liked Vanda immensely and vice versa. And there is a quality Jean-Marie shares with Ventura. Jean-Marie has this profound – I don’t know the English word – laziness. It’s like Jimmy Stewart, you know, you can lie down and think about things, look at things. They really are not working boys, they are dreamy souls. But the work was also very complex, very difficult to set, with the same limitations as now.  There is a very narrow margin of operation for the camera, the light, the duration of things.

Anyway, the documentary aspect was much more explicit in various other films I made. Of course, you can say, ‘after one week, you know your actors, you should know your space, so you merely react’, but my direction has always been very minimal. A word or two to Danièle, almost nothing to Jean-Marie and mostly things related to light or the frame. Then at the end of the shooting, when they got to the final cut, of the final shot of Sicilia! the work was over, I asked them to stay for three days to do certain things that I thought I needed. Things that may not be in the final film: Danièle reading a text and Jean-Marie reading some material. There is a version of this film for television, where a little bit of the mise-en-scene I staged for them is different. What happened with this film is not actually depiction or narrative or fiction. When I was editing it in the edit room, the whole thing was turned around. All the Straubian lessons: one soundtrack, one image track, just plain and simple reality – were completely subverted in my film, everything was manipulated. I designed and organised the story.

I think I know how they are in life. It’s like that thing in Godard’s Le Mepris – I tried to my adapt my desire. I wanted my idea of Straub and Huillet to be exactly in the film. The film gave me an opportunity to materialize my image of them. I made Jean-Marie say something about Tati. Danièle shouts at him and she was absolutely silent. My job was to organise this ménage, the disputes between a married couple. Those were there too, but in a rare bad moment. But those are not interesting. It would be just like life, which isn’t very interesting.

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001)

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001)

Was it a collaboration with them? Did they ever kick back against your image of them as filmmakers?
No, they let me completely… I had a good introduction to them because they liked In Vanda’s Room a lot. And also, it was one of the first feature films shot with a small camera. It was quite recent at that point in time. They were curious and intrigued. Danièle had – I don’t know if you know – since the very beginning, had a strong interest in mythology. She always dreamed of doing films in Africa – about the old myths, about the Levi-Strauss conception of myth. She had a project about a Lynx, a beautiful project, actually. I think she saw something of that in Vanda – a mythological, a beyond sociological film, and the fact of me shooting alone would have been very fascinating to her. So they saw that and at the same time, Jacques Rivette, who I knew a little bit and he liked my films, and Rivette for them is God. He must have told them that the young guy is good, so they must have thought I am okay. In every interview I would give, I talked of them, so there was a little bit of trust. And then, it was exactly the process they describe in the film. Every day was more than an artistic conquest; it was a human thing. Of course, I was trying to do the best I could with sound and image, with my small camera, but the thing was, they should also be very interesting, bigger than life and funny.

The film ultimately did have not an obligation, but instead, a need to be about them, to really show who they are to people who don’t know them. And their popular image, the mythology around them was what I wished to elide. Them, as even their friends didn’t know them, because their reputation – built entirely through bad publicity – veers towards Marxist-Leninist, minimal, awful, angry animals. And I wanted them to be the punks they were but also the loving, funny couple that they are. Obviously, there was also the experience of the film being set in an editing room. That, I thought, could be a good idea, because I don’t know any other film set inside an editing room, which is a very strange and singular space. It’s a very original work, Histoire(s) du cinéma by Godard has something to do with this, the same quest to see what’s between two shots and how can you get there, the small difference, the frame, the explosion. There is there is a lot of Hollywood in that film too, comedies in apartments different sorts of monkey business.

You spoke about the space and the editing room being interesting – was that something that interested you in Horse Money? The spaces: the hospital, the prison, the gothic castle…
It is almost natural. The fiction I was creating demanded these spaces. The things Ventura was suggested asked for these spaces. These are natural to this social class: the lower class, the immigrants. Those lives are spent between the hospital and the prison, the police, the bureaucracy. Neutral, but very oppressive. A guy from a magazine whose name I don’t remember told me, ‘If you are not on the inside, you don’t know if you are on Venus, or a strange planet.’ The other spaces are forests and strange bits and pieces of the urban ruin. I am thinking of the nightmare set in the woods, or even the sequence in the neighbourhood with the song. That’s something that is clearly in the past for me. It is really a flashback, a space that no one exists: artificial, like a studio.

The film starts with these images from Jacob Riis. How did those enter the project? They seem tied in but also dislocated; were they part of the initial idea?
No, you said it. You did it in stereo: question and the answer. It was absolutely that. I have great admiration for him, he’s is one of the few photographers who is not merely a photographer. He is from a time when photographers were a bit more than just great artists – they worked with assistants and friends. He spent a long time in those places. He would write, then go back, record, and then go back and write again. He was obsessed with those places, their problems. It’s very, very interior. It’s something that I immediately felt when I saw it a long time ago: there are alleys, rooms, movies. I have had long standing this desire to do a documentary on Riis, but I wouldn’t want to, wouldn’t like to…

…you felt like it wasn’t your story to tell?
It’s exactly like you said. I thought I knew about it. I wanted the film to start with Ventura being arrested; I didn’t know if he would be arrested in the street. Then I thought of a shot of him just going down into a dungeon and then I thought that it really should be like a dungeon in a castle. So, a little bit before we could have these early 20th century pictures for purposes of research, I thought of Riis, because there is a lot of that space – it sets you in a kind of mood.

The tank is such an amazing appearance. Is it something from Ventura’s stories?
It’s like the soldier in the elevator. When Ventura talks about those moments that exist somewhere in the back of his mind, it’s not exactly a tank, or a soldier. They are much more childish perhaps. I don’t think they are complete sketches in his mind. When he talked about that, he said, ‘Yes, could be! More or less, more or less!’ When we arrived at the elevator, he was supposed to be chased by a guy. I asked him if it was a soldier, or what is it? Is it a guy from the middle-ages? But he refused to commit. ‘No, no! He had scissors, a full helmet.’ So then when we showed him a street-artist, he said, ‘Close! But not this.’ So it may have been something that resembled a creature from the Transformers. That’s why I think the Americans are still very powerful because they still have the money and the desire and the stupidity to create pervasive images like that, because probably, when Ventura is thinking of the Revolution, he imagines it to be like Transformers or Planet of the Apes: We had one tank, he is imagining an army of ten thousand, but anyways, that’s why the tank and the soldier. It helps placing the film where it is actually playing; that moment in his life, my life, the country’s life: 1974-75. I remember the soldiers, not the tanks. Not many tanks. Jacques Tourneur or was it, Samuel Fuller? He had one tank, William Wyler had four hundred. We just had one.


 

The full interview will appear in the upcoming issue of Projectorhead.

An Elegy to Orson Welles

Sudarshan Ramani

Orson Welles, 1951 by Jane Bown

“All of Us Will Always Owe Him Everything”

– Jean-Luc Godard

Orson Welles was born on May 6th, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He would be 100 years old had he been alive.But what am I saying? Of course Orson Welles is alive.

To talk of Orson Welles is not to discuss, merely, the biological and organic being known as Orson Welles but also the legendary figure that is Orson Welles. Welles was always man and legend, of double aspect, coexisting and inseparable. He had transformed himself so thoroughly from Midwestern runaway to artistic prodigy that when he returned to New York from Dublin in the 1930s he seemed to have come out of the primordial ether, fully formed.

As an actor, Welles almost never appeared in films as his real self. There were always the mountains of make-up, the fake beards, and the fat-suit he wore in Touch of Evil long before his actual obesity would make it irrelevant. Indeed in all of Welles films as a director and performer, there is only one without make-up at prime physical condition, that film is The Third Man, where you see Orson Welles, Age 35 (with five films under his belt and a sixth, The Tragedy of Othello in piecemeal production) all smooth charm, baby fat and mischief ready to use his friend and then guilt-trip him, Alida Valli (and the audience) into crying for the bad guy.

As a young man, Welles was a man of nearly infinite energy. An ace juggler, who worked fast in many different fields, who wrote impeccably beautiful dialogue at lightning pace, who almost never slept and whose brief vacation on the yacht of King Vidor after the wrap of Citizen Kane was the first real vacation he enjoyed after several years of non-stop work on Mercury Theatre and Radio.

The Welles of middle-age could cautiously shepherd a film as bold, inspired, grotesque and baroque as The Tragedy of Othello into completion in a production that lasted three years, spanning two continents with money from all over the world. The film’s inspired Turkish Bath sequence was shot in an actual Turkish bath, the staging was mapped out the day before, forced by circumstances of low budget and limited resources. In his final years, he had several projects started (Don Quixote, The Deep, The Dreamers, The Other Side of the Wind) but the only completed projects (at the time of his death) are two film-essays, one of which (the other is Filming Othello), F For Fake was virtually conjured by chance.

These are facts. But facts are one thing, context and interpretation is another. There’s the tired analogy of Kane prophesying Welles’ eventual decline to a recluse, forgotten and alone, never reclaiming the career high of Citizen Kane, an American without a “Second Act” as conceived in the formula of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This doesn’t hold water when one considers that almost every Welles film is a masterpiece and the two which aren’t (The Stranger, The Immortal Story) are exquisitely good. Welles having a phobia for completing projects, which can be seen in the films left incomplete at the time of his death, does not hold water against the fact that he could complete his Shakespeare films (Chimes at MidnightOthello) despite an impossible production schedule and lack of steady funding. The likelier reason for incomplete projects (all dating from the 70s and 80s) could be attributed to the greater difficulty of attracting finance for an older artist and his own fading health. Such a career can be placed in any preconceived morality play. In this too, one can see the legendary quality of Orson Welles.

In Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote, an entirely ordinary man, Alonso Quijano, attempts to transform himself into a legend. Amazingly, he succeeds, and in the second part of the Book, where apocryphal adventures, pirated copies and tall tales about his activities are spread all around him much like Orson Welles in his final years, who was hounded by a phantom-Welles proliferated by critics, biographers and scholars, as well as several others. Don Quixote also runs into a series of highly cruel aristocrats who engage in cruel games to trick him and use him for their petty games, much like Welles being tricked by several prospective producers in his sojourn through Europe, and the Hollywood that honored him with an Oscar while denying him any funding to make a film. For the legend to live Alonso Quijano would have to die, as he eventually realizes and so abandons his masquerade and leaves his wares in the hands of his friend Sancho Panza and his biographer Cide Hamete Benengeli who asserts that Don Quixote is greater than any false knight dreamed up in the tales of Arthur and Charlemagne. Welles, braver than Don Quixote, never abandoned his masquerade but likewise left his wares and legend in the hands of several admirers such as Peter Bogdanovich, who along with Gary Graver, Oja Kodor, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Joseph McBride is spearheading the revival of The Other Side of the Wind in 2015-16.

Orson Welles of course was never ordinary nor was he so much of a late bloomer as Quijano, who until his forties lived the life of the very provincial boredom that Welles, in his troubled childhood, could never experience. Yet, he shared with “The Knight of the Sorrowful Face” the gift of tearing apart the fabric of received ideas, conventional morality and false assumptions, a man whose very existence challenged and overturned all our expectations and notions. To attain this at a young age – after staging the anti-fascist Julius Caesar, the Voodoo Macbeth, the Broadcast of the Martian Invasion of New Jersey – is remarkable. To maintain that challenge thirty years after his death is staggering.

The greatest testament to Welles’ lasting legacy is perhaps this project. Cinephiles all over the globe are invested in making the restoration of his film, The Other Side of the Wind possible. Contribute if you can.

PH at Courtisane: An Interview with Basma Alsharif

Gautam Valluri

When asked by an interviewer about what ‘home’ means to him, Orson Welles replied, ‘It interests me, in terms of not having one.’ Basma Alsharif is ‘a filmmaker of Palestinian origin’, but her practice extracts this casual, throwaway phrase from festival brochures across the world and identifies it as a label of much consequence; in that, she conducts a thorough inquiry into its actual meaning and the resulting influence upon her work. Alsharif’s films transmit the experience of an eternal outsider – lost in a strange land where the street signs have long been removed – they convey a sense of the uncanny, ‘that which seems familiar, but is not.’

The following is an excerpt from an interview was conducted on the sidelines of the Courtisane Film Festival, where Deep Sleep, her most recent film was screened alongside such other titles as Home Movies Gaza and O, Persecuted. The complete interview appears in the upcoming issue of the magazine.

Deep Sleep (2014)

Your work seems to pulsate with two feelings that seem to exist not in opposition, but in relation to each other: of being at home, and then, away from it, on the road, homesick. Considering the fact that you have had so far a nomadic existence, a life that has been lived in various countries, I’d like to start by asking what home means to you.

It is a question I have thought about my whole life. I was born in Kuwait, a place my parents have any connection to and where I haven’t been to outside of my birth. From there, we moved to France, and eight years hence, to the States, where we kept moving as well. As a child, I there wasn’t a single place I could call home. The area most familiar to me because my ancestors lived there is Palestine – more specifically, the Gaza strip – which ironically has deteriorated over the years and so, I am left with no place I truly belong to. I am homeless. In my experience, people build their identities around where they’ve come from or what they are connected, or disconnected to. It’s taken me a long time to admit it, but the fact is that it is something I will never have. It’s a personal narrative, but it is also connected to the situation in Palestine, to my parents’ past, to what was once their country. I think it’s central to any artist’s introspection of his work, these inquiries about their identity, their values, the system they belong to – but if you don’t have it, then the absence of a home can become a sustaining theme throughout your work. It’s funny because there are these films, they feel so Palestinian to me but it’s not.

I find it very interesting that when you did shoot in Gaza, you shot not inside homes, but on the road, moving.

That is true. It was a way for me to rediscover it as a place because I hadn’t been there in ten years. As a child, I loved that drive. In the interim, it had changed so much – there were all those things that were familiar, but not quite the same. It was a really weird experience. Therefore the first thought in my mind was merely to document it, to record as much as I can, come to terms with the environment and its ability to transform. It’s strange to say this, but completely honest: I find the area around the refugee camps really beautiful. There are overgrown trees, people with homes in inhospitable places. When you drive by this place quick, you get only a glimpse of it: it is video shot from a fast-moving car, so it is impossible to see the place up-close, and I really wanted the film to have the same feeling, of having witnessed a brief, second-long blur.

With Deep Sleep, you said that you were interested in exploring the condition of Palestine through ‘the ruins of Greece and Malta’, through if I may quote you, ‘reexamining civilisation’.

There was a deep sense of pride in the people we met on our tour to Gaza; these people who were more than willing to guide and direct you to secret community projects, heritage monuments, the ancient heirlooms. A person said to me, ‘Let me take you to the oldest Christian church in Gaza.’ I went, ‘What!?’ They would take me to a spot, point towards it and say, ‘this is a village’, but it wasn’t a village anymore, there were ruins. I checked on the internet and the images I could see of the place were those of what existed before, but not now. People would point at a streets or places and say, ‘This used to be a hospital, an administrative block, an American school.’ I realized that the wars had first and foremost, leveled the territory; it had erased any sense of the place and its history. Only remains left: a ghetto, ramshackle houses or new buildings that weren’t historical. This was part of a conscious strategy on the part of Israel, the idea to bomb every few years to destroy the narrative of the place. The fact that struck me in the middle of all this is that people will continue to survive beyond these monuments and in a naively idealistic way, it is like saying, okay, civilisation is over, so how are you going to reinvent society, who are you going to depend on? What infrastructure of survival will you employ?

And the idea of looking at these places where the ruins occupy a giant part of the geography – like Malta, for instance – which has a massive, EU-sponsored project to restore fortifications, castles, sacred spaces, excavation projects, buildings, but it isn’t progressing, because Malta as a country isn’t abundant in money. It doesn’t have any prominent local industry or trade, the people are Catholic. It is a beautiful county, great to take a vacation in, but beyond that, how is the county really moving forward? Do the citizens feel empowered, or that they have agency within their country? And a similar situation prevails in Athens, where the youth is disgruntled, there is unemployment, a lot of drug use, graffiti everywhere and yet, this massive, dumb thing: the Acropolis, which takes up all the land, with all the youth sitting in its premises, aimless and frustrated and yet, unable to fully articulate themselves, to actually do something about it. And I figured that it’s because they haven’t faced a complete end to their civilisation like Gaza has and as a result, they do not know how to move forward and move on. One of the things about Gaza is how much the people persevere, regardless of how severe their situation is and that in my view is a result of a situation where you are confronted with a total end. For me, the idea was to be able to show how Gaza replicates in these places, how the structures meant to support us and help us live are no longer doing that.

Coming Up: An interview with Pedro Costa.