Tuesday, April 15, 2014

EDEN INTERRUPTED—Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller On the Unreliable Narrators & Self-Made Mythologies of The Galapagos Affair, and Nathaniel Dorsky's Involvement With Ballets Russes

I'm pleased to announce that my friends at Fandor have published my conversation with Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller on the occasion of the theatrical release of their most recent documentary The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden. In this piece, Goldfine and Geller talk unreliable narrators and self-made mythologies. A reminder that the body of this duo's remarkable work can be streamed at Fandor.

Anyone who knows me realizes that, for me, conversations are like liquid gold and I hate to waste a drop. So, though not necessary for a conversation on their latest documentary, I did enjoy asking a few questions about Goldfine and Geller's previous film Ballets Russes (2005).

* * *

Dayna Goldfine: I remember with Ballets Russes, the first time we looked at some of the archival footage, we were sitting in the Library of Performing Arts in New York and we didn't know the dancers yet. I don't think we had even done more than one or two interviews. So we were looking at these rare, grainy black and white images on little screens and they didn't mean a thing to us. It really took these beautiful living human beings to talk about them, moving back and forth in time between them; it took that kind of effort to make those images mean something to an audience.

Michael Guillén: Along with your skill at editorial timing. One of my favorite moments in Ballets Russes was when you were profiling Nathalie Krassovska. I adored her! Those uplifted, insouciant eyebrows! And her ostentatious jewelry! And when you were focusing on her ill-fated love affairs and the one marriage that ended in divorce four months later and you cut to her and she's coyly laughing with an innocent, demure air. Brilliant.

And since we're talking about Ballets Russes, I'm intrigued by Nathaniel Dorsky's involvement as an editorial consultant. Can you speak to his involvement?

Daniel Geller: He came on to Ballets Russes early on. He was the first editor on the project. He brought it to the point where we got a lot of the scenes on their feet. It was a hard movie. We had all these characters and wonderful stories about their origins, their feelings about dance, and all this history. We had actually done a couple of cuts with Nick. One focusing on characters only, not worrying about any of the history, and another one laying out the tracks of the history. At that point, I think we were all exhausted. Even Nick said, "Maybe it's time to take a break and bring someone else in with some fresh eyes to edit." That's when Gary Weimberg came in with a fresh blast of enthusiasm and his own eye and artistry and really jazzed up the two of us as well. We melded those two editorial strains into one movie.

Goldfine: But, also, Nick is a huge George Balanchine fan.

Guillén: I didn't know that!

Goldfine: If you ever go to the ballet and there's a Balanchine program on, look up at the standing room only area behind the seats and you'll see Nick there. We didn't know that when we called him. We just loved his films and had looked at the film on Paul Bowles that he had edited for Owsley Brown (Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles, 2000), which we thought was a beautiful collaboration.

Geller: And we had worked with Nick before on our follow-up to Frosh (1994), Now and Then (1999).

Goldfine: We had called him to see if he would be interested in our subject, the Ballets Russes. He said, "Oh my God, I revere Balanchine and ballet." So Nick definitely brought a certain musicality to, especially, our initial approach to the footage and those sections.

SFIFF57—Michael Hawley Peruses the Line-Up Elsewhere In Europe

The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF57) is set to begin in ten days and so far we've taken a glance at this year's awards and special presentations, as well as the impressive line-up of French selections. The festival will also present a generous number of European films from outside France and here are some thoughts on the ones which have grabbed my attention.

Four films from the UK and Ireland made my SFIFF57 must-see list. All have major U.S. distribution, so we'll see if I catch them at the fest or wait for their respective upcoming theatrical releases. (At this point, it appears none have directors or other talent accompanying them to the festival). Like many people, I'm especially dying to see The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom's sequel to 2010's The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as comically annoying versions of themselves out on the road. UK director Richard Ayoade follows up his acclaimed 2010 directorial debut Submarine with what appears to be another critical success, the Dostoevsky-based, dystopian doppelganger dramedy The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasilkowska (opening May 16 at the Landmark's Opera Plaza). Also returning with a lauded sophomore film is Irish director John Michael McDonagh, whose black comedy Calvary drew raves at Sundance and Berlin. This is his second collaboration with actor Brendan Gleeson (The Guard), here playing a village priest threatened with murder by an unseen confessor. Calvary is a last-minute addition not listed in the festival's printed program. Then in Lenny Abrahamson's absurdist indie-rock fable, Frank, Michael Fassbender's handsome face remains hidden through an entire movie, whilst he delivers lines from under a giant fiberglass head.

From the continent's Eastern extremes, SFIFF57 brings us a pair of Georgian films. In case you haven't heard, the former Soviet Socialist Republic is the world's latest hotbed of emerging film talent. This "new" Georgian cinema movement is loosely thought to have begun with Levan Koguashvili's 2010 neo-realist junkie saga, Street Days. While that film has yet to appear in the Bay Area, the director's follow-up film Blind Dates, has earned a slot in this year's SFIFF line-up, along with Zaza Urushadze's anti-war tale Tangerines. I understand the Pacific Film Archive will be doing a Georgian series later this year and hopefully Street Days and Nana Ekvtimishvili's In Bloom, a terrific Georgian film I recently saw at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, will be included. From Georgia's neighbor Turkey, SFIFF57 is bringing us Zeynep Dadak and Merve Kayan's rambunctious female coming-of-age tale The Blue Wave, which is competing for SFIFF57's New Directors Prize. It might be remembered that last year's prize went to a debut Turkish film, Belmin Söylemez' Present Tense. Lastly from The East, I'm very grateful the festival has programmed Romania's When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, another captivating-sounding exercise in cinematic formalism from Corneliu Porumboiu, director of 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective.

Rounding out the list of SFIFF57 European narrative features I'd like to catch are a trio from Scandinavia (albeit at its most loosely defined). Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best! is said to be a return to the ebullience of his early films like Show Me Love and Together, following a string of four gravely dour projects that marked the Swedish director's output in the Aughts. His latest follows the ups and downs of an all-girl punk band in the 80's and is scheduled to open theatrically on June 6. While violent genre films from anywhere in the world are rarely my cup of grog, I've read enticing things about Alex van Warmerdam's Danish entry Borgman. The festival's capsule write-up suggests it's like Boudu Saved from Drowning as directed by David Lynch instead of Jean Renoir, and that's exactly how it comes across in the trailer. Along with François Ozon's Young and Beautiful, it's one of two SFIFF57 films that were in Cannes' main competition last year. Then in Benedikt Erlingsson's dryly humorous Of Horses and Men, a series of inventive vignettes explore relationships between man/beast and man / man in the Icelandic countryside. Friends who caught this 2014 Icelandic Oscar® submission at Palm Springs had only great things to say.

Four non-French European documentaries also make my SFIFF57 must-see list, starting with Joaquim Pinto's What Now? Remind Me, a 164-minute rumination on the director's year-long co-habitation with toxic, mind-altering drugs used to combat his HIV and Hepatitis C. The film won FIPRESCI and Special Jury Prizes at last year's Locarno Film Festival. I missed seeing Lois Patiño's Coast of Death at Palm Springs and am therefore grateful to find it here. This narration-less portrait of Spain's rugged Galician coast employs a device whereby human figures are miniscule within long-shots of nature, but their individual voices are heard crystal clear on the film's soundtrack. One of my favorite films of last year's festival was P.O.V. award-winner Jem Cohen's Museum Hours, which was largely set inside Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. Johannes Holzhausen's The Great Museum takes an in-depth, Frederick Wiseman-like look at this revered institution's inner workings as it prepares for a 2013 renovation. And last but certainly not least, Mark Cousins follows up his staggeringly great 15-hour doc series The Story of Film with the self-explanatory A Story of Children and Film.

Cross-published on film-415.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

SFIFF57—Michael Hawley Previews the French Films

Now that we've gotten the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival's roster of special programs out of the way, it's time to get into the nitty-gritty of this year's promising, 103-feature film line-up. In my next few dispatches, I'll be regionally surveying the titles which have grabbed my interest. As always we'll be starting with France, because that's where most of the films I wish to see hail from.

In addition to being alphabetically first in the festival catalog, Catherine Breillat's Abuse of Weakness is the film I'm most jonesing to see at SFIFF57. In this essentially autobiographical work, Isabelle Huppert plays a movie director incapacitated by a stroke, who falls prey to a handsome conman (portrayed by French rapper Kool Shen). Breillat has a long history with the festival, and appeared here in person when The Last Mistress opened the fest in 2008. Since then, SFIFF has brought us the director's two fairytale adaptations, Bluebeard (2009) and The Sleeping Beauty (2011) and I'm pleased they've followed through with her latest. Isabelle Huppert shows up again in the SFIFF57 selection Tip Top. She and Sandrine Kiberlain star as detectives investigating police corruption and a small town murder. The film has been described as a perverse, screwball neo-noir and comes from writer / director Serge Bozon, whose odd WWI musical La France played the festival in 2008. Alas, the fest has chosen not to bring us Huppert's turn as a horny mother superior in 2013's The Nun.

If memory serves, it's been a while since a bona fide French movie star attended SFIFF—Ludivine Sagnier accompanying Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two in 2008, perhaps—so I'm excited at the prospect of actor Romain Duris being here for the April 26 showing of Chinese Puzzle, along with director Cédric Klapisch. Duris, for those who can't place the name, co-starred in last year's SFIFF audience award winner, 1950's speed-typing rom-com, Populaire. I first took note of him when the festival showed Tony Gatlif's Gadjo Dilo in 1998. His new film closes out a loose trilogy, all directed by Klapisch, that includes L'Auberge Espagnole (2002) and Russian Dolls (2005). While there's only one screening at the festival, Chinese Puzzle will open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 23. Another SFIFF57 French film scheduled to open soon locally (May 9 at Landmark's Opera Plaza) is François Ozon's Young & Beautiful, a matter-of-fact portrait of a teenage Parisienne's dabblings in prostitution, which screened in competition at Cannes last year.

SFIFF tends to pass on most films of LGBT interest—I've always assumed out of deference to the Frameline LGBT film fest which takes place each June. I was therefore surprised and not displeased to find at least seven such films in the 2014 line-up, four of them French or French co-productions. I'm most looking forward to Salvation Army, by first-time director Abdellah Taïa. Based on his autobiographical novel, it's the two-part story of a gay Moroccan teenager living with his family in Casablanca, whom we meet again 10 years later residing in Geneva. The film has received raves since its premiere at Venice last September and features cinematography by the incomparable Agnès Godard. Also on the LGBT tip is Robin Campillo's Eastern Boys, wherein a middle-aged Parisian gets more than he bargained for upon taking up with an Eastern European train station hustler. Campillo is best known for screenplays co-written with Laurent Cantet (Time Out, The Class) and Eastern Boys is the first film he's directed since 2004's zombie flick, Les revenants.

Actor Niels Arestrup is always recognizable for the older, macho types he's played in such films as The Beat My Heart Skipped and A Prophet. It should therefore be interesting to see him play a worn out, missing-persons detective who happens to be gay in Yossi Aviram's The Dune. The film co-stars Israeli heartthrob Lior Ashkenazi (Late Marriage, Walk on Water) as a long-estranged son and has been praised for its authentic depiction of an elderly gay couple. Finally, while I couldn't care less about haute couture and have shunned the entire glut of recent fashion designer documentaries, I'm intrigued by SFIFF57's bio-pic of Yves Saint Laurent. That's because Jalil Lespert, an actor I've always admired (Human Resources, the titular Le petit lieutenant), has for some reason chosen this as his third directorial feature. Lespert attended the festival in 2005 when he accompanied Robert Guédiguian's The Last Mitterrand to San Francisco. Yves Saint Laurent will also open at Landmark's Opera Plaza on July 4.

Two additional SFIFF57 French narrative features have caught my eye. If you've attended recent editions of the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now, you're familiar with the droopy-eyed, stringy-haired countenance of actor Vincent Macaigne. He starred in last year's FCN opening nighter 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, and the previous year's double-billed shorts A World Without Women and Stranded. Those shorts were directed by Guillaume Brac, whose new film Tonnerre finds Macaigne playing a rock star whose life gets complicated during a hometown visit. Then in Sophie Fillières' If You Don't, I Will, two of my favorite French stars, Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, pair up as an out-of-sorts couple (as they've done before in the films of Arnaud Desplechin). Amalric, it might be mentioned, is said to have an unforgettable cameo in the aforementioned The Dune.

One of the nicest surprises to be found in this year's line-up is the documentary Agnès Varda: From Here to There. In this 5-part French TV mini-series which originally aired in 2011, the 85-year-old "Godmother of the French New Wave" journeys around Europe doing what she does best, which is simply being Agnès Varda. Her itinerary includes conversations with directors Chris Marker, Alexander Sokurov, Carlos Reygadas and Manoel de Oliveira. The series can be enjoyed in one fell 225-minute swoop or spread across five short weekday matinees. Another French doc I'm looking forward to is Julie Bertuccelli's School of Babel, an intimate look at a Parisian "reception" class for immigrant students. Bertuccelli's last documentary to play the festival, 2007's The Whistling Blackbird, followed the production of veteran French-Georgian director Otar Iosseliani's Gardens in Autumn, and was considerably better than the film it observed in the making. Bertuccelli is also known for her narrative features Since Otar Left (2003) and The Tree (2010).

Finally, as a 20th anniversary tribute, the festival will screen a 159-minute restored director's cut of Patrice Chéreau's Queen Margot, starring Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Virna Lisi and Vincent Perez. Steven Jenkins' florid description of the film in the catalog will jog your memory as to why it deserves to be revisited.

Cross-published at film-415.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

SFIFF57—LATINBEAT

National cinemas and international film festivals go together like meat and salt, and I'm especially pleased that the 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) has gone elbows on the table with no less than nine films from the IberoAmerican and Latin American sectors. In alphabetical order:

All About the Feathers / Por Las Plumas, Neto Villalobos, Costa Rica (2013)—A security guard who wants to get into the cockfighting trade buys, befriends, and becomes inseparable from his rooster protégé Rocky, in this winsome feature debut from Costa Rican director Neto Villalobos. As Nicole Gluckstern has noted in her SFIFF program capsule, All About the Feathers is a "subtle, absurdist comedy" that hinges on the stellar performances of its mostly non-professional cast. "Sedately paced, yet quietly observational, the near-documentary feel of this quixotic fiction is enhanced by ... astute cinematography." Villalobos is expected to attend the festival. IMDb. Facebook.

All About the Feathers had its world premiere in the Discovery sidebar at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival where Diana Sanchez characterized the film as "a bromance between a man and his rooster." She added: "Villalobos cultivates a dry comic style reminiscent of early Jim Jarmusch: cockeyed, minimalist, and affectionately attentive to behavioral quirks—both human and avian." The film followed up with its U.S. premiere last month at the Miami International, which awarded Villalobos its Encuentros Award the previous year, enabling the film to achieve completion. At Cultist, Hans Morgenstern praised the film's deadpan humor, warm wit, and resemblances to the films of Wes Anderson "without being too cute about it." He writes: "First-time director Neto Villalobos, who also wrote and edited the film, shows a keen eye for timing throughout the film, which runs a neat 85 minutes. He lets the camera linger on many scenes, building on a rhythm that seems to celebrate a love for the gradually unfolding moment and the Sisyphean myth of persistence. His original style never feels slow or dull, as it allows for the layers of ironic behavior to pile up for genuine laughs, well-earned by the charms of these characters." Univers/Ciné conducted a video interview in Spanish (with French subtitles) wherein Villalobos outlines the film's development over a persistent seven years. Another Spanish video interview can be found at LatAm Cinema.

The Amazing Catfish / Los insólitos peces gato, Claudia Sainte-Luce, Mexico (2013)—Set in Guadalajara, The Amazing Catfish follows the quiet transformation of a solitary young woman informally adopted and absorbed into a rambunctious matriarchy in a state of crisis. Filmed by Claire Denis' long-time cinematographer, Agnès Godard, Claudia Sainte-Luce's debut feature—based loosely on events from her own life—blends a wry and moving naturalism with moments of inspired comedy. IMDb. Wikipedia.

The film premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival, where it won two Junior Jury Awards and was a nominee for the Golden Leopard. It had its North American premiere in the Discovery sidebar at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where programmer Diana Sanchez noted: "Some families we're born into; some we build. And some families simply come to us, unannounced, when we least expect it. The story of The Amazing Catfish falls into that last category." Amazing Catfish went on to win Toronto's FIPRESCI Discovery Prize. Eric Ortiz Garcia interviewed Claudia Sainte-Luce for Twitch at the 2013 Morelia International. He determined that the film's title came from the fact that catfish live together in families, which Sainte-Luce likened to the family in her film. "I think every member of the family is amazing," she told Garcia, "and their force is staying together."

Bad Hair / Pelo Malo, Mariana Rondón, Peru / Venezuela (2013)—A nine-year-old boy's preening obsession with straightening his hair elicits a tidal wave of homophobic panic in his hard-working mother in this tender but clear-eyed coming-of-age tale from Venezuelan writer-director Mariana Rondón. As Dennis Harvey amplifies in his SFIFF program capsule: "Without ever spelling anything out, Mariana Rondón's prize-winning feature addresses potent issues of economic pressure and homophobia within the family unit. She displays a fine understanding of the unspoken tensions that can create a divide—and the occasional words said in anger that can seal it. Bad Hair is a finely acted, deceptively small-scaled drama that subtly works its way toward a big impact." Mariana Rondón is expected to attend the festival. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Winner of the Golden Seashell and the Sebastiane Award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival; Best Director and Screenplay at the Mar del Plata Film Festival; the Bronze Alexander and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Thessaloniki Film Festival; a Special Jury Prize at the Havana Film Festival; and awards for Best Female Performance by Samantha Castillo at the Montréal Festival of New Cinema and the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema, Bad Hair has likewise garnered unanimous critical acclaim. At the Toronto International, Diana Sanchez writes: "The slippery nature of identity—how it forms in us, the ways it tells us how we might want to look or who we desire—is at the heart of this third feature from Venezuelan writer-director Marina Rondón." At Variety, Jay Weissberg proclaims that "Mariana Rondón's impressively multilayered drama brings a powerful specificity to the story of a boy and his embittered single mother." Weissberg furthers: "Though Rondón had a script, she never showed it to the cast, preferring to work with them through improvisation. The results are a testament to the skills of all concerned, and performances are uniformly strong." At The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney concurs with the film's strength as "a spare neorealist drama that holds attention and emotional involvement with its deft balance of toughness and sensitivity." He contextualizes: "In loose scenes drawn out of improvisation work with the naturalistic actors, the standoff between mother and son is etched with unflinching honesty. Rondón's detached observational approach and parsimoniousness with plot details may be frustrating for audiences wanting conventional storytelling. But a complex, compassionate picture emerges of the external forces that can cloud a mother's love, and of the lengths of abnegation to which a child will go to secure a parent's affection." At IndieWire, Vanessa Martinez finds Bad Hair "a bold, gripping drama." At Twitch, Pedro Ponte observes: "Caracas becomes a character in itself, a violent, hostile character, with its largely crowded, prison-like apartment blocks where families live cramped and hopeless."

Club Sándwich, Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico (2013)—While vacationing at a seaside resort, a single mother faces the inevitable when her 15-year-old son—and best friend—finds himself overwhelmingly drawn to a girl his own age. Mexican writer-director Fernando Eimbcke explores the awkwardness of both adolescence and parental separation anxiety with great sensitivity and a decidedly light comic touch. As stated by Gustavus Kundahl in his SFIFF program capsule: "In limning what may be the least verbal romance in cinema history, director Fernando Eimbcke employs a delightful restraint that brings forth an intimacy, acuity and comic release that few films can match." Fernando Eimbcke is expected to attend the festival. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Winner of the Silver Seashell for Best Director at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, Fernando Eimbcke proved as charming (and funny!) as his films when we met last Fall at the Morelia International Film Festival where Club Sándwich played to his enthusiastic fanbase. At Variety, Rob Nelson extols Club Sándwich as the "essence of evocative simplicity" and "a minimalist film with maximum pathos." At The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney's bottom line is that Club Sándwich is "an intimate snapshot of separation anxiety" and concludes: "This is a modestly scaled film, but a refreshing one, laced with unforced humor. Eimbcke's observational style is dry and detached yet perceptive, channeled through the limpid gaze of Maria Secco's fixed camera. The Hockney-esque composed shots of the hotel swimming pool are used with particular effectiveness, and the lethargic rhythms of Mariana Rodriguez's editing are essential to the movie's general restraint. There's not a false note in the performances, from the internalized work of the two young leads to the more expressive countenance of [Maria Renee] Prudencio's Paloma, herself not so far removed from adolescence in her tender vulnerability." The Film Experience interviews Dánae Reynaud. At Keyframe Daily, David Hudson rounds up the reviews from the film's New York Film Festival screening.

Coast of Death / Costa da Morte, Lois Patiño, Spain (2013)—At any given film festival, there always seems to be a film that eludes me and, earlier this year at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), that film was Coast of Death, which sold out before I arrived, and had no screener for press review. Winner of the Best Emerging Director at the Locarno Film Festival, Lois Patiño directed, shot and edited this debut feature, an experimental documentary billed by PSIFF as a gorgeous and magical film about the people, land and sea that make up this special place in the far northwest region of Galicia, Spain. Lois Patiño is expected to attend SFIFF57. Official site. IMDb.

At Nonfics, Daniel Walber describes Coast of Death as "a starkly beautiful documentary about nature's troubled relationship with mankind, set on the rough coast of Northeastern Spain. Director Lois Patiño transcends the typical fare of this genre with an inspired device that splits the audience's perspective between the landscape and its people." Walber observes that the "governing style of the film, present[s] the inhabitants of Galicia as tiny figures surrounded by the towering beauty of their environment" but that Patiño allows the audience to hear what these Galicians are saying, no matter how distant. "With this device," Walber concludes, "Patiño can play with the relationship between Galicia and the Galicians. …The people are in the landscape and the landscape is in the people, and Costa da Morte is a beautifully crafted exploration of this simultaneity. And while it enmeshes itself in the particular topography of Galicia, it's hard to imagine a place that wouldn't have some relationship with this same natural dialog."

At Sound on Sight, Christopher Clemente has a more guarded perspective: "Characterized by the titled location, Costa Da Morte is an amorous tale like no other. A love affair between its maker, Lois Patiño, and its coastal surroundings, the film is a small, intimate display of compassion between cinematographer and landscape. Capturing beauty and immortalizing natural liveliness is indeed accomplished with great triumph by the young director, but unfortunately for the masses, that same director might be the film's biggest and possibly only fan." Also: "Yet this is so much more than a nature documentary; the film stimulates the senses. Close your eyes and you are transported to Galica, which isn't the worst of places to spend 80 minutes, but may feel like 70 minutes too long. Because the film doesn't use a structured script and character development, aside from the embodiment of the coast itself, the journey can seem a little too prolonged and a bit too personalized from the filmmaker's point of view." At The Film Experience, Glenn Dunks more fairly negotiates spectatorial expectation by accepting Coast of Death on its own terms: "Costa da Morte is the type of film I would expect more from the people that brought us Sweetgrass and Leviathan. Patiño’s film may have found itself under the banner of 'avant-garde' thanks to its lack of traditional documentary elements such as talking heads and overriding narrative, but it's far more standard than the term 'avant-garde' would suggest. It's a nature documentary first and foremost; an anthropological study into the way people integrate. For some I guess that's weird and strange, but for me it's just life."

History of Fear / Historia del miedo, Benjamín Naishtat, Argentina / France / Germany / Uruguay / Qatar (2014)—Paranoia runs rampant in this accomplished first feature, instilling a disorienting sense of dread in the viewer. Are the strange occurrences in an affluent Buenos Aires suburb evidence that the skittish residents are actually being targeted? Naishtat foregoes ready explanations or assurances in favor of foreboding suggestions in a film that is sprawling both in scope and implications but astonishingly exacting in its execution. Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia.

History of Fear had its premiere in the competition section of the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. At Variety, Peter Debruge notes that in Naishtat's hands, "the subtext intimidates even as what's happening on the surface sometimes seems inscrutable, the helmer aiming not to confuse so much as to allow audiences to project their own interpretations." The bottom line for Boyd von Hoeij at The Hollywood Reporter is that History of Fear is "an impressive debut feature that relies on visuals and the power of suggestion to talk about abstract notions such as angst." At IndieWire, Eric Kohn writes: "Buenos Aires is a haven for paranoia and confusion in Argentinian writer-director Benjamín Naishtat's mesmerizing debut History of Fear, though its title is something of a misnomer. Rather than chronicling the timeline of the listless quality that characterizes Argentina's suburban class—and, by extension, those around the world—History of Fear hypnotically sets its gaze on the present. Borrowing the beats of a disaster movie without ever giving the invisible threat a name, Naishtat explores the tenuous constructs that allow a subset of the population to deny the harsher ingredients of the world beyond their safety zone—until it's thrust right in front of them."

Manos Sucias, Josef Wladyka, USA / Colombia (2014)—A reluctant smuggler and his eager neophyte brother shepherd a dangerous narco-torpedo up the coast of Colombia, posing as fishermen. Paramilitary, guerrillas and hardscrabble desperation suffuse every inch of the jungle and waters that surround them, eager to separate the siblings from their only opportunity to escape the circumstances of their lives. Manos Sucias is the recipient of two 2013 San Francisco Film Society KRF Filmmaking grants. Director and co-writer Josef Kubota Wladyka, co-writer Alan Blanco, and producers Elena Julia Greenlee and Márcia Nunes are expected to attend the festival. IMDb.

The Militant / El Lugar del Hijo, Manolo Nieto, Argentina / Uruguay (2013)—As noted by Miguel Pendás in his SFIFF program capsule, a packinghouse workers strike forms the backdrop to this coming-of-age story set during the economic crisis in 2002 Uruguay. "This sensitive, multilayered film, brimming with metaphor and suggestion," Pendás writes, "was the most-awarded film at the Havana Film Festival, winning second place for best narrative feature, best cinematography and the film critics' FIPRESCI Prize." IMDb. Facebook.

Jonathan Holland's bottom line at The Hollywood Reporter is that The Militant is a "deceptively rambling, serious-minded coming-of-age drama with a sharp political point, built around a central performance that fascinatingly combines blankness and intensity." Comparing Nieto's effort with Santiago Mitre's El Estudiante, in its focus on "the political disenchantment of a disenfranchised generation", Holland synopsizes: "It's a comic, fish-out-of-water setup that generates some broad verbal and visual comedy, but far more urgent themes are bubbling under the surface, themes relating to a generation that has lost its way under the burden of a bad political and economic inheritance, consisting of people who are playing the roles of political activists without quite knowing what it is that political activists do."

The Reconstruction / La reconstrucción, Juan Taratuto, Argentina (2013)—"The Reconstruction's beauty," Judy Bloch writes in her SFIFF program capsule, "is in its challenge: to make an asocial character human. As in Bresson, empathy comes through the smallest revelations. Pay close attention to them, as the director Juan Taratuto and his star [Diego] Peretti have so skillfully done. Each character in this fine ensemble contributes to the others' redemption. In this way, love proves transmutable." Peretti won Best Actor at the Havana Film Festival and director Taratuto won the Critics Choice Award at the Valladolid International Film Festival. IMDb.

At The Hollywood Reporter, Jonathan Holland observes that one of the film's most unique accomplishments is "its directorial U-turn from comedy to tightly focused, character-based drama for both Argentinian director Juan Taratuto and star Diego Peretti." He continues: "Particularly strong in its atmospherics and performances, especially from Peretti, who reveals previously unsuspected depths, this miniature tale of a damaged heart is admirable."

SFIFF57—Michael Hawley Peruses the Line-up: Special Programs

The SF Film Society (SFFS) revealed the full line-up for the eagerly anticipated 57th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF57) at a Fairmont Hotel press conference last Tuesday. In addition to the previously announced opening and closing night films, Founders Directing Award and live music events, the following special programs were unveiled by Executive Director Noah Cowan and SFFS's team of long-standing programmers.

Writer and film historian David Thomson will receive SFIFF57's Mel Novikoff Award, which "acknowledges an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." The sure-to-be engaging Thomson will be interviewed by author Geoff Dyer, followed by a screening of Preston Sturges' 1941 screwball comedy, The Lady Eve, with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

The festival's 2014 Kanbar Award for screenwriting will go to Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Rules of Engagement), in a program that will feature a screening of 2005's Syriana.

The Persistence of Vision Award, which "honors the achievement of a filmmaker whose main body of work is outside the realm of narrative feature filmmaking," has been awarded to British filmmaker (Young Soul Rebels) and installation artist Isaac Julien. The on-stage interview will be conducted by none other than writer / critic B. Ruby Rich. A showing of Julien's 2010 installation piece, Ten Thousand Waves starring Maggie Cheung, will follow their conversation.

This year's Centerpiece Film is going to be Gia Coppola's teen drama Palo Alto, adapted from the short story collection written by James Franco (who also has a significant role in the film). Director Coppola, who happens to be Francis Ford's granddaughter, is expected to attend this Centerpiece presentation. (Palo Alto opens in theaters on May 16.)

A Conversation with K.K. Barrett, featuring the renowned production designer of such films as Her, Where the Wild Things Are and Being John Malkovich, has been added to the festival's Live & Onstage sidebar.

Amongst this year's Master Classes and Salons, I'm especially drawn to "The $11 Billion Dollar Year", a panel discussion about the film industry's future with reporter / critic Anne Thompson, Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow, Telluride's Gary Meyer and SFFS's brand new Executive Director Noah Cowan.

As of this writing, the Peter J. Owens Award for acting and the State of Cinema Address remain TBA.

In a sign of the times, I believe it's worth noting that with the exception of Tod Browing's 1927 The Unknown, and a handful of shorts, all SFIFF presentations this year will be digital, including the restorations and revivals.

Cross-published on film-415.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

SFIFF57—Michael Hawley Anticipates the Line-up

I've had the good fortune to attend every San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) since 1976 and the privilege of covering it as accredited press for eight years running. The 57th SFIFF opens on Thursday, April 24 with a screening of The Two Faces of January, which marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove). The film premiered to positive reviews when it screened out of competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival, and the SFIFF Opening Night slot will be its North American premiere. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac, the movie is based on a Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) novel and is set in a lushly photographed Greece and Turkey in the early '60s. Director Amini is scheduled to be in attendance. This year's opening night party will be at the SOMA nightclub Public Works.

The festival closes on May 8 with another directorial debut, this one from actor Chris Messina (who I had to IMDb because I obviously don't watch enough television). His film is called Alex of Venice and it stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead (had to look her up as well) as an attorney whose life changes when her stay-at-home husband (Messina) decides to take a break from it all. Both Messina and Winstead are expected to attend the screening. Alex of Venice arrives in San Francisco very soon after its world premiere at Tribeca. SFIFF57's closing night party takes place at The Chapel club, in the heart of the Mission District.

This year's Founder's Directing Award goes to none other than the fabulously eclectic and talented Richard Linklater, whose debut feature Slackers played the festival in 1991 and whose most recent film, Before Midnight, closed last year's fest with the director in attendance. Linklater's tribute takes place at the Castro Theatre on Friday, May 2, with an on-stage interview, career clips reel and a screening of his 18th and most recent feature, the wildly acclaimed Boyhood. This event is destined to be a huge highlight of SFIFF57—I arranged to take the night off from work the minute I heard about it.

Artist: Zach Bellissimo
One of the festival's most popular events is the annual pairing of a silent film with a newly composed score, performed live by a contemporary music artist. Four years after his campy (and somewhat divisive) accompaniment to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Magnetic Fields' front man Stephin Merritt returns to SFIFF with his take on Tod Browning's 1927 creepy circus crime thriller The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. (The film last played the Castro Theatre during the 2008 SF Silent Film Festival, with director Guy Maddin doing a live translation of its French inter-titles.) The second SFIFF57 live music event at the Castro will be Bay Area musician Thao Nguyen and her band, The Get Down Stay Down, performing alongside a diverse selection of short films that includes Chaplin's The Pawn Shop, animations by Harry Smith, vintage newsreels and some of Nguyen's own video work.

Eleven films will compete for 2014's SFIFF New Directors Prize. I'm especially excited they've programmed Salvation Army, Abdellah Taïa's adaptation of his autobiographical novel about a gay Moroccan boy who later immigrates to Europe. It's a critically acclaimed film I wasn't expecting to see until June's Frameline LGBT festival. The other New Directors Prize contender I'm hot to see is Benjamín Naishtat's History of Fear, a dystopian nightmare set in the Buenos Aires suburbs, which has drawn comparisons to the early works of Michael Haneke since its Berlin premiere. I've also heard terrific things about the Icelandic film, Of Horses and Men, and Mexico's The Amazing Catfish. Both the latter film, as well as Taïa's Salvation Army, boasts cinematography by renowned DP Agnès Godard.

Eight films are in the running for SFIFF57's Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition. The only one even remotely on my radar is Hubert Sauper's We Come as Friends, which examines the human cost of neo-colonialism in the newly formed nation of South Sudan. To this day, Sauper's 2004 Oscar®-nominated Darwin's Nightmare remains the most disturbing and dispiriting doc I've ever seen. Perhaps his latest will make me feel even worse.

Cross-published (in an expanded version) at film-415.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"THE BEST OF THE DISPOSABLE FILM FESTIVAL" AT TREEFORT

In March of 2011 I had the good fortune to be introduced by publicist Amber Kaplan to Carlton Evans, Eric Slatkin and Katie Gillum, the founding members of San Francisco's Disposable Film Festival (DFF), who had come to my attention through a series of staged "bike-ins". My first piece on DFF was an overview of their shift away from the Roxie Theater—audiences since their launch in 2007 had grown so large, necessitating a larger venue—to the 1400-seater Castro Theater, which each year since 2011 has sold out to capacity crowds. With so many community film festivals in San Francisco suffering low attendance, I was struck by DFF's popularity and wanted to see what the enthusiasm was all about so Carlton Evans agreed to an interview. Shortly after that conversation, we met again for beer at The Front Porch; a welcome diversion from the sale of my home on Bernal Heights before resituating assets to Boise, Idaho.

My first experience of DFF was revelatory. Not only did the Disposable Film Festival democratize the means of film production by celebrating the affordable cameras available to aspiring filmmakers, but they likewise democratized the joy of learning by providing informative panels and workshops free to their public. I had never seen educational outreach be so effectively egalitarian.

A little over a month later DFF co-presented a special screening of Oscar®-winning film director Kevin Macdonald's Life In A Day—a user-generated feature-length documentary shot on a single day (July 24, 2010)—that enlisted the global community to capture a moment of their lives on camera. Culled from over 80,000 videos to YouTube, the 90-minute feature pulled together deeply personal, powerful films from contributors from Australia to Zambia, from the heart of bustling major cities to the furthest and most remote reaches of the earth. Life In A Day director Kevin McDonald and editor Joe Walker were present for a Q&A following the screening. I was unable to attend but sent Evening Class intern Dominic Mercurio to cover the event.

Relocating to Idaho, it didn't take long to observe that Boise had a thriving bicycle culture and I began to think that DFF would be a perfect fit for the city, so I initiated discussions with the now-defunct Idaho Film Office to investigate bringing DFF to Boise, perhaps in conjunction with Boise Bike Week. We had multiple conversations about how we might effect that but nothing seemed to work. In the meantime, Carlton invited me to be a judge for the 2012 edition of DFF the following January, along with Ted Hope and Joshua "Peaches Christ" Grannell. He gave a rousing introductory speech to the opening night of that event:

"Thank you all for coming to the 5th annual Disposable Film Festival opening night! It's wonderful to be back at the Castro! In addition to the audience here tonight, we're broadcasting the program to Sony PlayStation's 26 million users in the Home virtual world.

"The program this year is absolutely stellar. We received some of the best films yet made on accessible equipment like mobile phones, webcams and other inexpensive devices. We also received an enormous number of films this year that were made without the use of cameras. Using screen capture software, several of the filmmakers in tonight's program turned to the massive archive that now exists at our fingertips and remixed and reframed existing footage to create some of the most compelling work we've seen.


"5 years is a milestone for us—an opportunity for reflection. 5 years ago, the fact that digital video technology had become so inexpensive that it was literally disposable was incredibly exciting. It seemed that soon everyone would have access to cameras and other tools needed for visual storytelling. But no one could have predicted what has happened since then. The change has been so complete and so quick that it seems impossible now to remember life before it. We can capture high def footage and then broadcast it all over the world, all with a swipe of our touchscreens. And the line between disposable and industry has become increasingly blurred as the DSLR is rapidly becoming the camera of choice for both camps. Making it more clear than ever that what makes a film isn't the equipment it's made on, but the concepts it's built around.

"What has come in the wake of this transformation is incredible. Not only the work we'll be showing tonight and throughout the weekend (which we hope will inspire you to make your own films), but video that has changed the world in the past year. It's hard to imagine the Arab Spring without the evocative medium of video. And Occupy Oakland taught us the power of mobile video to show perspectives omitted from official records. But in a broader sense, disposable video speaks to our shared reality. It's the way we've come to understand the world around us. It tells stories that speak to the moment."


In August 2012 Carlton visited me in Boise to get a sense of the place and to pursue discussion about bringing the Disposable Film Festival here. It's with heartfelt gratitude that Benjamin Morgan and the Treefort Film Festival have arranged to screen "The Best of Disposable Film Festival" at their inaugural event on Friday, March 21, 2:00-3:00PM, making my dream of bringing DFF to Boise come true! Please support this event to further the chance of DFF bringing an annual event to Boise, with attendant workshops and special events.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

GRAND COMME LE BAOBAB / TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE (2012)—The Evening Class Interview With Jeremy Teicher and Alexi Pappas

Jeremy Teicher's Tall as the Baobab Tree (2012) [Official Site / Facebook] boasted its U.S. premiere at the 56th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival, as part of that festival's Youth Education Program. Joanne Parsont—who runs that program for the San Francisco Film Society—synopsized in her program capsule: "While most American kids might consider school a daily chore that they're forced to endure by their parents, there are many parts of the world where attending school is a distinct privilege, and education may not always be a parent's first priority." Such is the case with Coumba and her 11-year-old sister Debo (played by actual sisters Dior and Oumul Ka), the first in their family to attend school in the nearby city. But when an accident threatens the family's livelihood, their father decides to sell Debo into an arranged marriage, inspiring Coumba to devise a secret plan to save her.

As Filmmaker's Brandon Harris dispatched from the 2013 Rotterdam International Film Festival: "It's been an especially bogus year on the 'privileged white filmmakers going to far-flung locales and making mildly exploitative movies about impoverished indigenous people (or bayou people) front,' especially when there's kids involved, but Jeremy Teicher's Tall as the Baobab Tree puts your fears to rest about its intentions very quickly. The 24-year-old New Jersey-bred filmmaker's debut is a smart, rhythmic and altogether respectful look at the attempts of two young women to self-actualize in a rural Senegalese village."

Jeremy Teicher studied film and theater at Dartmouth College and first went to Senegal when he was 19 to work on a promotional video for an NGO to promote digital literacy. Inspired by the people he met, he went on to make a short documentary, This Is (2011), which was nominated for a Student Academy Award. That short inspired his first feature, Tall as the Baobab Tree, which began production when he was just 22. It won the Doha-Giffoni Best Feature Narrative award at the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival, an award selected by a jury of high school students from around the world. In July 2013, Teicher was named one of Filmmaker Magazine's 25 New Faces of Independent Film. My thanks to Jeremy and his "partner in crime", co-writer Alexi Pappas for taking time to sit down with me in the coffee shop of New Cinema to discuss their debut feature. This transcript is cobbled together from that conversation and their public Q&A.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Can you speak to the genesis of this film and its necessary collaboration with its Senegalese subjects?

Jeremy Teicher: Tall as the Baobab Tree is the culmination of now over five years of work, collaboration and relationship with Dior and Oumul Ka and this group of students who live in this village in Senegal. It started when I was a junior in college studying film. I had an opportunity to travel to Senegal with an NGO, an educational group, to make a video for them. Before this, I had no experience in Africa or with African cinema or documentary; but, I took the opportunity. When I was there for this two-week trip, I met this group of ten students who were the very first kids in this village to ever go to school. Before them, never in the history of any of their families was there ever a history of education. That was really interesting to me because—as a storyteller and filmmaker—I was interested in coming-of-age stories, mostly in American films, but here there was quite a unique and powerful coming-of-age story that engaged me personally.

I did some research when I got back home and found that all the media that was being made about education in rural Africa were tearjerking efforts that induced pity for everyone on screen, whereas I had felt inspired by meeting this group of students. I got funding to go back to do a documentary with them because I felt that there deserved to be another voice to show how determined these students were despite the challenges they faced, and how optimistic they were about their future. In the course of making that documentary, this story about early marriage in the village emerged; something which I knew nothing about either. That documentary This Is found a great audience and did well here in the U.S. and from that I was able to get the funding and the support to continue my collaboration and turn some of their real stories into the plot of Tall as the Baobab Tree. Alexi helped me condense real anecdotes from the documentary into single characters within a plot and helped me develop the emotional arc of the story.

Guillén: Alexi, were you part of the making of the documentary as well?

Alexi Pappas: I knew about the documentary and its development, but I didn't come on board as a collaborator until this narrative fiction.

Guillén: Speak to me about the baobab tree and the traditions around that.

Teicher: In the first montage we see the feeding of the cows. That montage moves a little fast, but you see the baobab leaves falling and the herd gathering around the base of the tree where they eat those fresh leaves. Villagers climb up those trees and chop down those leaves. Baobab trees are huge, hundreds of years old, with so much tradition and spirituality tied into them. They're quite a visual fixture as well. For me, in picking the title of the film for instance, they spoke to the permanence or non-permanence of tradition and change.

Guillén: How did you go about casting the film and what was it like for you directing non-actors?

Teicher: The casting started with the initial first generation students that I met when I first traveled to Africa at 19. They were probably 16 or 17. Dior, Oumul and anyone who looks to be around that age in the film were the kids I worked with from the get-go. They were my champions. Without their passion, these projects wouldn't have continued. I knew that Tall as the Baobab Tree would start with them and I knew that Dior playing Coumba would be the main character. She has a little sister, which was perfect, so that was an easy casting choice. To cast the rest of the family, we had informal auditions in the village. Everyone who came out to audition had known each other their entire lives and everyone's role in the film was close to their real personalities and roles within village life. As the director I was looking for people who were outgoing and energetic enough to let their guard down, knowing that there would be a camera there.

The script that Alexi and I wrote didn't have lines of dialogue. It was more of a 50-page detailed synopsis with the beginning, middle and end of each scene and the key moments that needed to happen. We developed the script with the students and their actual words were improvised. We would have group discussions at the start of a scene where I would give everyone their motivations—"Try to make her laugh. Don't let her feel sad whatever you do."—something like that. Then they would play the scene. So it was a matter of getting their motivations clear and then, of course—if there were any key plot points that needed to come up—making sure that they remembered those. Then getting them to work with my cinematographer [Chris Collins] to be as non-invasive as possible to play out as naturally as we could.

Guillén: This somewhat sad tale is held emotionally buoyant by the beautiful music you've incorporated throughout the film. Can you speak to how you selected that music and if it's local to the region?

Teicher: Sure! I knew the music would be a huge part of it. The culture of the village is Pulaar. It's not really in their tradition to be super expressive. Dramatics, yelling or raising voices, does not happen—their subdued way of talking is natural—but, I knew that as a film the music would pick up and be an emotional guide. There are a lot of local musicians in that area and we would pay them and record them playing for 45 minutes with our boom. Sometimes it would be groups that were singing; other times, guitar players and drums. We mastered some of that raw music and put it into the film. I worked with a composer in New York [Jay Wadley] for most of the score. He studied the local music and then wrote a custom score for the film. We used musicians in New York to record that score.

Guillén: I suspect most American audiences don't understand that other cultures express themselves through different emotional valences. They have a different way of expressing emotion so they don't cater, let's say, to melodrama as we are so used to in the West. Will there be a soundtrack?

Teicher: Yeah. I'm working on it with the composer. He just emailed me two days ago. It's on the internet and we're going to put it on our website.

Guillén: Has the film been shown locally in Senegal? If so, what was their reaction? Did they feel this narrative was an accurate portrayal of their culture or a Westernized portrait?

Teicher: The movie has been shown in the village. We haven't had theatrical screenings throughout Senegal but last summer when we finished the final cut we set up a projector in the village and everyone came out to see it, which was great. It was so important to me from the beginning, from the documentary four or five years ago, that every element of the film was their voice, as much as possible. I didn't want it to be Westernized at all. That was my challenge and how I responded with this work. I wanted to make as non-sensationalized a film as possible.

For the documentary, the students could pick any topic they wanted to make a story about. For example, there was a whole section of that film that was just them cooking dinner and nothing else. That was wonderful because it was them showing their lives without any political twist. We tried to bring that into Tall as the Baobab Tree as much as possible, in terms of capturing the day-to-day village life. Of course, we did get into talking about these cultural issues of tradition and change; but, everything that's in the film is coming from the students that I worked with. That's why the film doesn't come right out and condemn early marriage—the central, social issue of the film—as forcibly as one might think it should.

Usually in the West when we think about forced early marriage, we might react with shock, or disgust—"How can people do this to kids?"—but then, in the village when you talk to the students about it, they say their elders are making a big mistake by doing this and that they should all be going to school, but in the same breath they'll talk about how proud they are to be from the village and how they don't like to go to school in the city because they have to leave the village. So this subject is a grey area of loyalty to tradition but wanting to enter the modern world. That is the feeling I tried to put into the film. I guess since I am a Western person who directed it and oversaw the editing, it's debatable how much of my personal opinions made their way into the film; but, I tried as much as I could to have the film be a window.


Guillén: I imagine you've kept in contact with these kids?

Teicher: Yeah! I'm still in touch with them. Some of the older kids have cell phones so I can call them every now and then. Mostly I'm in touch with the school teachers: the school principal, who plays the principal in the film, and the hotel owner who is played by one of the teachers. We're in touch by email regularly.

Guillén: How was the village compensated for their participation in your film?

Teicher: We brought money into the local school. We worked that into the production budget from the get-go. Everyone was paid. The way the film was financially structured was that we received fiscal sponsorship from the non-profit I originally worked with, so—as the film makes its money back—some of it goes to the local school and some of it goes to support this educational NGO. Hopefully, as the film has success, they'll feel a benefit directly in the school, if not this specific village.

Guillén: Were you influenced much by Senegalese film?


Teicher: I, of course, have seen some Sembene. Unfortunately, I haven't seen contemporary films—let's say from this year—coming out of Senegal. Sembene tends to be more cynical than I wanted to be with this film. I wasn't picking up any of those feelings from the kids that I was working with. The film that most influenced me in making Tall as the Baobab Tree was Munyurangabo by Lee Isaac Chung. Narrative has been my interest throughout, even when I made the documentary. I thought narrative could reach the emotions of this issue. I didn't know how to begin until I saw Munyurangabo. Lee Isaac Chung filmed it in Rwanda in 2005 on a super low budget, three-person crew, using real locations and non-actors. It was an amazing story that made it to the Cannes Film Festival.

Guillén: It's interesting that you reference Lee Isaac Chung's Munyurangabo. I spoke with him when his film screened at the Toronto International. Both of your films pose a problematic in terms of the programming of national cinemas, specifically African cinemas, within film festival culture. At a time when so little African cinema is being programmed in international film festivals, how do you situate yourself within that predicament?

Teicher: It is a hard thing; but, I feel that my movie is an African movie. If I wasn't there in that village working with these kids to bring their voices out onto the screen—because I know how to make a movie and I can access the financing to make a movie—who would? Does it make their story less legitimate because I'm the one who happens to be doing that? It's almost unfair to deligitimize the film because I'm the one who made it. Frankly, the cultural difference between a villager and someone who has the know-how and financing to make a film from, let's say, Dakar would itself be totally different from the villagers I was working with. The culture of the village is so radically different from the culture of Dakar. It would be more of a culture shock for someone from the village to go to Dakar than it would be for someone from Dakar to go to Manhattan. On the Excel lists of film festival programmers, all the check boxes would match up with a Dakar filmmaker, but would journalists be asking this question of that filmmaker?

Guillén: I feel my question is legitimate as it addresses what I'm configuring as the out-datedness of the concept of a national cinema within the international festival circuit. When I saw Munyurangabo in Toronto, I was struck by how it was the most African film in the entire program, yet Lee Isaac Chung was not only an American but an Asian American. I found this problematic and indicative that, perhaps, the category of a national cinema is capsizing in the face of—as you admit—the realities of financing. When I spoke with Lee Isaac, he argued that what he was trying to do was to make a movie whereby he could train Rwandans to go on and make movies on their own. Do you feel that in working on this project with these Senegalese kids and exposing them to this platform of self-expression it's going to help them continue in filmmaking or imagemaking?


Teicher: Yeah. It's great what Isaac has done and the people he worked with have gone on to make movies. We worked with different sets of people, however. I don't know so well exactly who he was working with, but my feeling is that the socio-economic situation of our art to our respective areas is very different. Ten to fifteen years ago there was no such thing as school in this village. What I saw, and why the school teachers were so excited to facilitate this project, was that—yes, the kids were passionate about having their voices heard and making a movie—but for the teachers it was proof to the villagers that schooling could connect these kids to the outside world. In that way, the documentary and this feature film contributed to the village by helping this particular school plant a stake in the ground. The principal's main job has been convincing village parents to send their kids to school, which is not easy to do at all. That's why we had so much support from him and the teachers.

I definitely think it's important to have African filmmakers from Africa—I'm not downplaying the importance of that by saying that it shouldn't matter that I'm an American who made this film in Africa—but Lee Isaac's project and mine were different in that his was more cinema-focused from the get-go and mine was more educational and about the school.

Pappas: Yesterday Jeremy mentioned in a Q&A that in another 5-10 years in this particular village the youth growing up there might not be so aware of what life was like before. That makes Tall as a Baobab Tree a timely project. I think it will serve the village well over time.

Guillén: It provides a certain ethnography?

Teicher: Right! That's what the village elders were happiest about. They were glad that this record of this particular time in the village now exists. The village will never be able to go back to the way it was.

Pappas: I think they're proud of where they have come from and where they are going; but, this project, this film, was the turning point for this generation of students that Jeremy has been interacting with. That's what's special about this film.

Guillén: So perhaps if in the future some journalist asks you the national cinema question, you can state that you weren't trying to create a national cinema; you were trying to ethnographically capture a moment in time?

Teicher: To bring this around to your original question, yes, I think the kids who participated were really excited about the fact that they were actors and would do it again, but at the same time it's not like they've emerged from this one cultural situation without reflecting back on it. For example, the younger sister Oumul Ka just dropped out of school and got married. So I think there's a couple of steps to go before these kids can think about writing grants to fund films. There's still a lot more fundamental work that needs to be done. Hopefully, making this film will serve a valuable purpose as people are struggling with going to school for the first time.

Guillén: And the nature of education is premised upon the concept of choice, in that people become more able to make informed choices because they have become educated.

Pappas: Right.

Guillén: In terms of the writing, my favorite scene in the movie was the interaction between the mother and the daughter at the well. It's a beautiful scene that encapsulates the thrust of your film. The mother states powerfully: "Don't change your culture. Understand your culture." I think Tall as the Baobab Tree effectively represents that the mother is not unhappy with her lot in life and that, for her, there has been value in traditional ways. For starters, she has beautiful children.

Pappas: It was important to us for there not to be a pointed right guy wrong guy good or bad perspective, which was difficult for us in writing it because we're used to the structure of most films leaning on such perspectives. As you said, it was important for us that the differing perspectives all have their own voice. That seemed reasonable.

Teicher: I do appreciate what you're looking at in terms of national cinemas in film festival culture. The guy in New York who translated Tall as the Baobab Tree is also one of the organizers of the ASA, the Association of Senegal and America, the community center for this huge African immigrant population in New York. He shows this film every weekend and says that—any time someone has immigrated from West Africa, or are second generation, or even someone who has spent time there—see the film, they're so glad this film exists and that it's not like War Witch with people with AKs (incidentally, the director of War Witch is Canadian). So many people appreciate that this film exists. Who cares who made it? Only festival people. What's most touching to me is that people like my translator, whose kids are growing up American—all they know of Senegal is maybe when they took a trip there—and so he shows them this film to show them how their grandparents grew up. That's valuable. I'm sure essayists could write persuasively about why it is important that I'm the one who made this film but, generally, among most people, it's only when I'm at a Q&A that this seems to matter.


Guillén: I guess the gist of my argument is that nowadays a national cinema is a financial cinema, often a co-production between many countries and many influences, categorized within film festival culture as to a specific curation. For that matter, Senegal as an expression of African cinemas has had a long history of co-production with France, so these considerations are hardly new.

To go back to the beginning of our conversation, what is it about coming-of-age stories that appeal to you? Why is this such a compelling dynamic in your artistry?

Teicher: My thesis film took place on an elementary school yard. My next film is about a teenager who's training for the Olympics. Maybe it's because growing up was not so easy for me? I felt I was very aware of growing up as I was growing up and then suddenly one day I was grown up! Right now that's what I'm interested in. I grew up on fantasy books and video games and I didn't have much of a social life. I mainly grew up in this massive multiplayer online video game world.

Guillén: As you came out of that insular world and began connecting to the outer world through your education and your filmmaking, were there other coming-of-age narratives that spoke to you about your own experience? About your own transition?

Teicher: I guess you could say that most of my desert island films are classified as coming-of-age films, even if not so much happens in them like Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. I can watch that film over and over again. Coming-of-age stories are great at capturing a moment in time and I don't think that coming-of-age stories necessarily have to be about adolescence. I think you can have a coming-of-age story at any age. Perhaps coming-of-age stories are just a type of genre of films that exist to capture a feeling of a place and a time, which is what we were trying to do with Tall as the Baobab Tree. Dazed and Confused captures the last day of high school. A movie that's been on the circuit this year—Eliza Hittman's It Felt Like Love—does a great job of capturing sexuality among pre-teens. There are films that are trying to be snapshots. Even Woody Allen's Annie Hall you could say is a coming-of-age film because it captures that relationship in that special way that Woody Allen captures relationship.

Guillén: Which obliges me to say that coming-of-age films that appear to be about the experiences of individuals, are often collectively-shared experiences. We all have memories of our first sexual stirrings, our last day in high school, and relationships. In other words, if a filmmaker does a coming-of-age film well—as you have with Tall as the Baobab Tree—you capture a culture that is coming of age.

Teicher: Right.

Guillén: So will the two of you be working together again on this project about the young person training for the Olympics?

Teicher: It's about a young woman. Alexi is co-writing, and is going to star in it as well, as a lot of it is actually based on her own experiences. She ran in the Olympic trials in 2012. The subject of the film now lives in Eugene, Oregon, training for 2016. Her's is an interesting subculture that will make a great lens to talk about American culture today. We're excited about that.