Sunday, December 03, 2006
BEYOND THE CALL—The Evening Class Interview With Adrian Belic (Pt. 2)
Guillén: So you're a storyteller who loves characters and yet you're a wary and shrewd traveler who measures character. Character, in its original Greek meaning, refers to an engraving tool, something that marks or inscribes, and the wrinkles in one's face, laugh lines and such, refer to the scratchings of time and the marks engraved on one's face by experience. How do you hope your films about characters will serve to strengthen character in the people who watch them?
Belic: Here in San Francisco I have a lot of friends who do video and activist work and they do it very well. I'm definitely far left of center. The way I look at storytelling or my art form is that the number one thing in terms of my relationship to the audience is that the film be entertaining. If it's entertaining, I have a better chance of reaching 90% of the audience who will come in and see the film for whatever reason—an interesting title, the people look like me, I'm interested in Afghanistan, my brother picked up a flyer off the street, whatever—I want them to go and come out at minimum and say, "That was pretty damn cool." Maybe they don't think of the film again, but, that's the minimum. If people are looking for something, or open to something, that's the self-reflective part, the part I have no control over, but, I try and imbue my films with stuff to nurture that. The number one thing for my films in terms of the audience and entertainment is that it leaves a self-reflexive resonance with the audience. Often you will see documentaries or fiction films that are so outlandish that you watch from the outside through a frame. When the credits roll it's almost like you close the shutters on that and it's over. It bounces off of you. Nothing settles in. The lights come up, you walk out of the theater, and it's almost like you've already forgot what you've just experienced because [it's outside of you]. Whether someone has a lot of money like Jim who can fund stuff, great. If it's someone like Ed who has these amazing social skills to get stuff done, maybe that. I love engaging with people who see my film because I love to hear how it resonates with them. I'm only half of that dance. They're the other half of that dance in discussion: where they've been, what they've experienced, what their resources are, what their dreams are. It's that meeting point where the synergy's created and where you get something from two relatively benign things—film and someone viewing it. If you're able to touch and connect, you get this synergistic catalytic reaction. That's what I love.
I go into environments where I don't know the language or the culture. I don't know the geography. So what I always tell my friends is that I don't assume anything and I anticipate everything. I use that same principle with my audiences. I assume nothing from the audience but I anticipate everything from the audience. Anything that the interaction can create.
Guillén: I appreciate your devotion to an aesthetic of entertainment because I agree with you that education flies more smoothly on the wings of entertainment. Recently, I interviewed Stanley Nelson for his Jonestown documentary and he expressed something comparable, that one of the things that most affected him from the many promotional screenings across the country was one fellow who came up to him and said, "That documentary was entertaining." He said it made the hairs go up on his neck.
Belic: I just got the same reaction!
Guillén: Another subject that came up briefly at the Q&A was that you felt a lot of empathy for the soldiers. I felt the audience bristle. We live in such a polemicized urban environment and one of the things I felt most successful about Beyond the Call was that it cuts through those polemics to focus on the humanity of not only the people attempting to be humanitarians and those receiving humanitarian aid, but all the various agents involved. I was struck by the scene where the Knightsbridge trio were interacting with the military personnel in the Southern Philippines and how surprised the military were that Knightsbridge were able to secure so much medicine through donations. As someone who describes himself as left of center, can you talk a bit about your experiences with stationed military personnel?
Belic: I have a moustache that's usually waxed like Dali and long hair and all the rest of it, but one thing that Ed Artis noticed in Genghis Blues—and I have now noticed in him—is that we all have this idealistic belief that everyone has a humanity. That no matter how they're bred or raised or painted or dressed or educated, that under all that everyone has a humanity and the idea is to try and engage with that. We're in such a hyper-polarized environment now. During the Reagan administration, yeah, I hated that guy but we could discuss stuff, we could discuss anything, both the left and the right, we sized the other side up and you were written off. One of the reasons we included the whole Southern Philippines mission is 1) because it happened, 2) because it brought the film full circle. If you were grooving on the humanity of the film and not just on all the details, that Ed's in Afghanistan, that he's old, that he's an ex-soldier; but, here's a guy who started on the mean streets of America, went into the military to avoid prison, in the military—it seems so incongruous—he not only saw humanity around him but saw his own humanity. Now here's this old guy coming back to where it all began in this place that no one would imagine one would find humanity and tries to give back. Again, for the hyper-polarized people, the hardcore lefties and righties, they're either going to love it or hate it. And it's broadening. Here we are the day after the elections and the Democrats have taken over and I think there's a broadening and freeing of the minds of many Americans to try and look at a third path. These guys in many ways represent vanguards in that. So in the Southern Philippines sequence you have the meeting of the young bucks and the old guy in this construct that should be completely devoid of humanity.
Guillén: Along with the many hats that you wear as a filmmaker, you have generated a persona of being a world traveler. I likewise consider myself a world traveler, I've been many places throughout my lifetime.
Belic: You're lucky.
Guillén: Lucky's a good word to use. You also said something at your Q&A that's recently been resonating with me regarding how traveling now as an American citizen is very different than it was when we were younger. In my youth when I was exploring the world it was exciting because, at that time, things hadn't accelerated into the globalized homogeneity you witness now. You could actually find places that were different and learn from that difference. You mentioned that traveling during the Clinton administration were almost party years and a huge contrast to traveling through the Bush years. Could you define that difference? It might seem apparent, but maybe not.
Belic: I agree. We sit here and it's so obvious, it's right in your face, but there's still a majority of Americans who don't own a passport. It's hard to describe and for me it's extremely sad how to travel around the world now and say you're an American means something completely different than what it did before 9/11 and the Bush administration. Even during the years of the Clinton administration, you could go down to Latin America—and we were doing all kinds of horrible stuff down there—but there was this separation: hate the government, love the people. After the 2004 elections, when it was clear what was going on in this country—the entire world saw it—when the American people voted George Bush back into office, well, disillusion would be an understatement. Then you would travel around the world and it would be like: "You know what? Screw your government and screw you." That sentiment persists to this day. We're still in the middle of it. It's funny, we're talking about this right after an election where it appears that the Democrats have won back both the House and the Senate so it may change, but, discussing traveling around the world as an American pre-Bush II and now during the Bush administration to someone who has never traveled is like Neil Armstrong explaining what weightlessness is to the rest of us and what it's like to see the beauty of the earth floating beneath you. That's how profound it is.
Guillén: In retrospect, as I think back on my own sojourns around the world, I feel how blessed I was to have that energy to explore, to be relatively fearless—maybe naïve—and to realize that now it's not the same. I just feel so blessed that I got to be part of a global experience that has shifted so dramatically and become much more polemicized.
Belic: I agree with you. One thing: I love hanging around with young people. I'm now 37 so I'm inbetween. I'm still looking up at all these elders around me and just reveling in their wisdom and all I can learn from them but yet I've moved on enough in my life that there are a lot of people who are younger than me that look up to my brother and I. The one thing that I'm always cautious about—because I remember hating hearing this crap from older people when I was young—is, "Oh back in the '60s, that was a kick ass time!" Because I was growing up in the '80s and the '80s it just sucked, it was like the '50s again. One thing I'm very cautious about is, yeah, it was great traveling during the Clinton administration, but I have complete faith that it will be great again. I just look at my German friends. My friends' grandparents lived during the Nazis. It kind of sucks here but we have no idea how bad it can get. Yes, we're at a very low point right now, but I have great faith that—like every other disease—eventually this will go by the wayside. The political-social disease that we have in this country and this insulary perspective that we have, it will all pass.
Guillén: So noted. I stand chastized. I often look at politics as if I'm watching a grandfather clock, watching the pendulum swing to and fro, and then at some point, I simply no longer want to watch the grandfather clock. There are other concerns to pay attention to. I want to go outside and work on my garden or take a bicycle ride. So, I recognize what you're saying, but my real question was more a personal reminisce of younger days. What I do like about your films—at least the two I've seen—and where I think they speak across the generations is in their emphasis on the authentic life. They speak to authentic purpose as the spine of an authentic life, not only in the characters that you're profiling but in your process of making your films themselves. Your brave documentary filmmaking provides a example of living an authentic life.
Belic: I try. We're all surrounded by polarizing crap. We're fed this junk all the time. Who are you? Are you rich? Are you poor? Are you a Prada person? Are you a Gap guy? I don't give a rat's ass about that stuff. I don't want to feed into that. And, again, I have total faith that everyone has their humanity, some are more in touch than others, but it is something we are all born with. If you want to talk about inalienable rights! We can layer it, we can reject it, we can fight against it, we can pervert it, but it's still there. I'm just very compelled and intrigued by that. I try to connect the character's humanity to the audience's humanity and, if you do it in a dynamic way that's entertaining, engaging and thought-provoking, that is the best way for people to feel empowered and inspired to get more in touch with their humanity. Part of your humanity is what the hell are your dreams? What are your wishes? What are your desires? What are your interests? What makes you happy? What gets you up early in the morning? What keeps you up late at night? Independent filmmaking does that for me.
Guillén: So where are your dreams, wishes, desires, interests and pursuit for happiness taking you next? You've worked four years on filming Beyond the Call, another year on editing, shepherded it through the festival circuit, and it's now just about to open in theaters so you're just about to let it go?
Belic: Kind of. We're independently distributing the film so I'm talking to Landmark, I'm talking to PBS, talking to Larsen Associates, no, I'm still hand holding the baby for another couple of months and, hopefully, by that time there will be enough people singing, dancing and skipping with it that I won't have to hand hold it as much and it will have a life of its own with all its new friends.
Guillén: Have you started any new projects? Or do you have to wait until it's skipping along on its own before you start developing anything new?
Belic: This is still the number one focus for me, but, one thing that we learned with Genghis Blues—and it was a very rude, shocking awakening—was when the film premiered at Sundance. We had been working five years on that film, finally got to Sundance, just like now raising money for the 35mm blowup and all that kind of stuff, my brother flew in from L.A. with the print inbetween his legs from the lab in L.A. We hadn't screened it yet. We were going to be screening it the following morning. We had arrived and we were enjoying talking to people, reveling in all this, and we totally didn't realize this but at Sundance no one cares that you're at Sundance because everyone's at Sundance. So the only question is "What's your next film?" We were totally not prepared for that. We were like, "Our next film? Dude, we got our second screening tomorrow, you want to come? Want tickets?" [Laughs.] So, to answer your question, there are a few projects that I'm developing. I was in Cuba earlier this year looking at a documentary project down there I'd like to shoot. One about Hugo Chavez; I know some people who were closely connected to him. I've always been intrigued by him when he came into power. There's a project in Venezuela. Then there's two in Laos in Southeast Asia that I'm looking at. I'm also looking at projects at different levels of complexity. The Cuba thing is about people who are leaving Cuba, the people who escape, and the whole idea of immigration and how people are seen. You stand on one soil and you have this paper and you're seen one way, then you stand on another soil and you have another piece of paper and you're seen another way. What happens if you're not on any soil and none of your papers mean anything anymore? That's going to be a passion project. I might find one or two benefactors who want to fund it. Venezuela, I think I can get some European funding for that one. The ones in Laos, one is just a short film about this amazing little village that uses all these ordinances to build canoes, some surreal Alice in Wonderland meets the Global War scene, and that would be like a PBS thing, Frontline, World, turn it in in a few months kind of stuff. Then there's another one in Laos about U.S. soldiers that were there during the Vietnam war, the special forces that worked with the people and the legacy there. Again, I met some key people when I was traveling with the Knightsbridge guys making Beyond the Call. So those are about four that we're working on.
Guillén: So you learned your Sundance lesson?
Belic: Yeah. We've always got stuff in the burner.
Guillén: Any narrative pieces? You said your agent was pressing you to create a narrative feature?
Belic: That's why I'm going to be in L.A. again in two days with meetings. We're going to do a 35mm blowup of Beyond the Call for the theatrical release but we also have meetings. One of the things we're working diligently on from many different angles is to turn Beyond the Call into a fiction film.
Guillén: Originally that was what you were going to do, right?
Belic: Yeah, that was the original idea. My agent was on my brother and I to turn our success with Genghis Blues into a fiction film so we could all make money. We don't know how to do that stuff so we did the whole Hollywood thing, took all these meetings in these fancy offices on Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset and, honestly, either the story sucked or the people sucked. Not that my brother and I are stuck-up or anything. Through a lot of hard work and some opportunities we did a film Genghis Blues that did well so we thought we can do this again so we decided just to pick wisely. So, through our agent, we took all these meetings and had to report back to him, "No way."
Guillén: Well, you mentioned to me after the Roxie Q&A that your childhood hero Harrison Ford has expressed some interest in the project and that you've provided him a copy of Beyond the Call, as well as George Clooney who you also admire. So we'll see, eh? Anyways, congratulations with Beyond the Call and good luck with its theatrical release.