Sunday, September 30, 2007
My interview with blue-eyed contrarian and long take meister Béla Tarr is up at Greencine’s main page.
Photo courtesy of David Bordwell.
Friday, September 28, 2007
The Idaho International Film Festival (IIFF) launched its fifth year with the U.S. premiere of Paul Schrader’s The Walker at the historic Egyptian Theatre in downtown Boise, Idaho. Warm t-shirt weather and a handsome attendance marked an enthusiastic start to the festival’s four-day run, despite competition of a local Broncos game.
Dave Hudson and David D’Arcy at The Greencine Daily offered initial takes on Schrader’s The Walker when it premiered at this year’s Berlinale. Neither were particularly enamored with the piece. After a concise synopsis, D’Arcy concluded: “Schrader could have done a better job plotting this one, which is watchable, but lacks anything really chilling at its core, like the concrete consequence of corporate crooks walking in and out of the White House, or the ruthless tactics that they've been willing to use to stay there.” He’s quick to add, however, that Woody Harrelson plays the hero well. “The problem,” he reiterates, “is that the villains of the real scandals in Washington are far more dramatic, colorful and downright sinister.”
Hudson was significantly more “rankled” by the film’s one-note delivery of bon mots and snide asides, which he suggests lacks the necessary political sophistication and a certain “rhetorical flair” to make the script compelling, let alone genuine. Though conceding Harrelson’s performance was “probably” a good one, he complains that “the problem is, it really doesn't look it.”
The Guardian’s Ryan Gilbey, on the other hand, champions Harrelson’s characterization of Carter Page III as “the performance of a lifetime” if not the reinvention of a career. Bravely broaching the subject of a recent trend of straight actors playing gay characters, the ensuing commentary at Ryan’s blog deserves a canasta game all its own to host the bitchy innuendoes. It’s always entertaining to hear straights wince (and in some cases whine) reverse discrimination.
D’Arcy wonders if “walker” Carter Page III wasn’t patterned after real-life walker Jack Abramoff—“the guy who seems to have had carte blanche to walk anywhere where top Republicans were running things, the unelected fixer who walked corrupt politicians through legislation that they wanted passed”—but Variety’s Leslie Felperin cites Jerry Zipkin—who "walked" Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale among others—as the source for the term’s coinage. I catch whiffs of Gore Vidal myself though, as Dave Hudson insinuates, had Vidal been a stronger influence on Schrader’s film the black frogs spit out on the canasta table would have been much more poisonous. Despite the film’s scriptural and directorial weaknesses, Felperin likewise commends Harrelson’s ingenuity at finding “new ways of making smarm charm, his gestures and gait convincingly suggesting affected camp without slipping into caricature. His signature line, ‘I'm not naive, I'm superficial,’ nails the character beautifully.”
Perhaps it is performativity itself that is the saving grace of The Walker. Though it might be true that some of the political commentary lacks bite, it rings familiar enough to prove amusing, as the laughter at last night’s audience indicated. True, we already know that voters don’t elect Presidents, but at least we’re past our disillusionment enough to laugh about it a little. Whatever warmth can be fanned from cynicism, The Walker’s ensemble locates. Though I found Lauren Bacall’s character Natalie Van Miter impenetrable as to motives (which might have been the point), she is always a wonder to behold, a true “star” who rarely fails to illuminate the screen. Lily Tomlin as Abigail Delorean drips just enough venom to make you question the twinkling mirth of her eye. And Kristin Scott Thomas as woebegone Lynn Lockner does (as Felperin so wryly puts it) “that brittle, haute-bourgeois siren schtick she does so well.”
Not Schrader’s best, The Walker is nonetheless a welcome addition to his “Lonely Man” series of films. Woody Harrelson’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. Whatever one thinks about straight men playing gay characters and how liberating that might be, he does a respectful job and dodges no bullets. His onscreen kiss with his German-Turkish lover Emek (Moritz Bleibtreu) lasted just enough to bring it on home.
Cross-published on Twitch.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
"Amusingly enough, a great many psychiatrists and analysts [i.e., film critics] have had a great deal to say about my movies. I'm grateful for their interest, but I never read their articles, because when all is said and done, psychoanalysis [i.e., film criticism], as a therapy, is strictly an upper-class privilege. Some analysts—in despair, I suppose—have declared me 'unanalyzable,' as if I belonged to some other species or had come from another planet (which is always possible, of course). At my age, I let them say whatever they want. I still have my imagination, and in its impregnable innocence it will keep me going until the end of my days. All this compulsion to 'understand' everything fills me with horror."—Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh (University of Minnesota Press Edition, 2003:175).
I became conflicted when Flickhead first announced his blogathon on Luis Buñuel. For a few reasons. Not the least of which is what I perceive to be an increasing lack of reciprocal commentary at these blogathons, which I feel fundamentally undermines the exercise of building online community and peer rapport. This is personal acumen: the last blogathon I attended, I responded to several entries and received not a single response to my entry from anyone else, including the host! If a blogathon is merely a device to foist one's opinion out into the ether with no regard to anyone else's opinions—then what really is the point? What is shared? What is learned? I favor the communal symposium with all its attendant synergies, rather than the hierarchical lecture. It's much more rewarding to talk with others regarding a subject of mutual interest rather than to be talked at. So I approach this blogathon gingerly and with an eye towards its level of reciprocity. It will determine whether I participate in future blogathons.
Further, I am haunted by something Phillip Lopate said to me when I asked him what he thought about online film writing. There's a tendency to get "too geeky" he complained. I've mulled that comment over and over in my mind for months trying to determine exactly what "too geeky" means and I have decided it is a kind of academic film writing, notoriously on line, conspicuously cerebral, in most cases masculine, that reads like a bird list of film directors and their films where one by one directors are checked off and one by one their films are checked off, the more obscure the better. Having led ecotours in Central America for many years, including obsessed groups of Audobon Society birders, I can attest there is nothing more disheartening than to have a group sitting on a log with binoculars up to their face, all moving in exact unison when one says, "Little blue, 12:00." This while a rainforest of teeming diversity—not just birds!—thrives all around them. Comparing and sharing checklists becomes more a passion than, say, taking a walk and learning something unknown and unexpected about an environment's flora and fauna. Buñuel himself disfavored this kind of mentally exhibitionist approach, noting that in Spain such academic writing is termed sienta cátedra.
Which is to say that words—especially in the form of opinions—remain notoriously inexact and thoroughly ineffectual. And I mean that especially in reference to my own. That is why—making up this film writing thing as I go along—I've become much more interested in hearing what others have to say about any given auteur and his/her oeuvre. I prefer critical overviews to any single review. I think Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily is clearly my guru in this respect. More specifically, I am most interested when a director speaks about his or her own work. That's why I guess time has found me soliciting interviews with the people who make films, even though they are much more arduous to transcribe than some kneejerk capsule written in reaction to something I've seen.
I have a critic friend—who considers herself a true critic—who tells me that she wouldn't possibly trust a director to talk about their own film. For her it's folly to presume that a director's intention has anything to do with the quality of a film and certainly has no bearing on how she will critique it. Hearing that, I decided once and for all that I hope to God I never become a film critic. Solipsistic to a fault and encaged in remedial opinion, I would much rather look not so much at film as artifact but at filmmaking as artistry, which we all know—even without asking—is a messy and complicated process, fraught with frustration and frequently with failure, and truthfully all the more glorious and interesting exactly for that.
So as I debated which Buñuel film I should analytically terrorize—Los Olvidados? Exterminating Angel? Nazarín?—the other day I found myself with an hour to kill in the East Bay and wandered into a used book store where I found a copy of Buñuel's autobiography My Last Sigh, most notable perhaps for how little it actually says about movies and how much it explores the fullness of a creative life, in which filmmaking is but one aspect. "This is it!" I thought, "what better way to approach Buñuel than through his own words?" What entranced me reading the book on BART were imagistic moments in Buñuel's childhood and budding adulthood that found their way into his films. I offer here a picnic selection of my favorites, taken from the University of Minnesota Press edition, translated by Abigail Israel. Buñuel believed that the imagination was a spiritual quality that, like memory, could be trained and developed. Melding memory and imagination became a frequent calisthenic for him.
* * *
"[A]lthough I'm not sure why, I also have always felt a secret but constant link between the sexual act and death. I've tried to translate this inexplicable feeling into images, as in Un Chien andalou when the man caresses the woman's bare breasts as his face slowly changes into a death mask." (2003:15)
"When I reached my early teens, I discovered the bathing cabanas in San Sebastián, fertile ground for other educational experiences. These cabanas were divided by partitions, and it was easy to enter one side, make a peephole in the wood, and watch the woman undressing on the other side. Unfortunately, long hatpins were in fashion, and once the women realized they were being spied upon, they would thrust their hatpins into the holes, blithely unconcerned about putting out curious eyes. (I used this vivid detail much later in El [This Strange Passion]." (2003:15-16)
"The drums of Calanda beat almost without pause from noon on Good Friday until noon on Saturday, in recognition of the shadows that covered the earth at the moment Christ died, as well as the earthquakes, the falling rocks, and the rending of the temple veil. It's a powerful and strangely moving communal ceremony which I heard for the first time in my cradle. Up until recently, I often beat the drums myself; in fact, I've introduced these famous drums to many friends, who were all as strongly affected as I was. …I don't really know what evokes this emotion, which resembles the kind of feeling often aroused when one listens to music. It seems to echo some secret rhythm in the outside world, and provokes a real physical shiver that defies the rational mind. My son, Juan-Luis, once made a short film about these drums, and I myself have used their somber rhythms in several movies, especially L'Age d'or and Nazarin." (2003:19-20)
Buñuel included this comment by his sister Conchita: "In Viridiana, there's a scene where a tired dog is attached by a rope to the underside of a cart as it rumbles along the road. Luis suffered when he shot this scene because in real life it was so very common. The habit was so ingrained in the Spanish peasant that to try to break it would have been like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. When we were on location, Luis had me buy a kilo of meat for the dog, or for any other animal who happened to wander in." (2003:38)
"If I had to list all the benefits derived from alcohol, it would be endless. In 1977, in Madrid, when I was in despair after a tempestuous argument with an actress who'd brought the shooting of That Obscure Object of Desire to a halt, the producer, Serge Silberman, decided to abandon the film altogether. The considerable financial loss was depressing us both until one evening, when we were drowning our sorrows in a bar, I suddenly had the idea (after two dry martinis) of using two actresses in the same role, a tactic that had never been tried before. Although I made the suggestion as a joke, Silberman loved it, and the film was saved." (2003:47)
"When I returned to the Residencia, all the lodgings were full, so I shared a room for a month with Juan Centeno, the brother of my good friend Augusto. Juan was a medical student and left early every morning, although not until he'd spent a significant amount of time combing his hair. The odd thing was that he always stopped combing at the very top of his head, leaving the hair in the back, which he couldn't see in the mirror, in complete disarray. This absurd habit, repeated day in and day out, irritated me so much that after a couple of weeks I began to hate him. I was grateful to him for taking me in, but I couldn't help it; it was an irrational aversion prompted no doubt by some dark detour in my unconscious mind. Years later, I still hadn't forgotten it; there's even a scene in The Exterminating Angel reminiscent of Juan's eccentricity." (2003:52-53)
"[While at the Residencia] I was … responsible for inventing the ritual we called las mojadures de primavera, or 'the watering rites of spring,' which consisted quite simply of pouring a bucket of water over the head of the first person to come along. Shades of this ritual worked themselves into the scene in That Obscure Object of Desire where Carole Bouquet is drenched by Fernando Rey on a railroad station platform!" (2003:65)
"There was a cemetery in Madrid called the San Martín, where our great romantic poet Larra is buried. It hadn't been in use for several decades, but it had a hundred of the most beautiful cypress tress I've ever seen. One evening the entire peña [a clique of intellectuals], including d'Ors, decided to pay it a midnight visit; we'd given the guardian ten pesetas that afternoon, so we were free to do as we pleased. The cemetery was deserted, abandoned to the moonlight and the silence. I remember going down several steps into an open tomb where a coffin lay in a beam of moonlight. The top was ajar, and I could see a woman's dry, dirty hair, which had grown out through the opening. Nervous and excited, I called out, and the others immediately rushed down. That dead hair in the moonlight was one of the most striking images I've ever encountered; I used it in The Phantom of Liberty." (2003:70)
"You aren't free, no matter what you say. Your freedom is only a phantom that travels the world in a cloak of fog. You try to grab a hold of it, but it will always slip away. All you'll have left is a dampness on your fingers." (2003:109)
"Afterwards, on our way back to the inn [where we were staying in Toledo], we made the requisite pilgrimage to Berruguete's tomb of Cardinal Tavera, where we meditated for a few minutes by the cardinal's alabaster body with its pale and hollow cheeks. (This is the model for the death mask shown with Catherine Deneuve in Tristana.)" (2003:72-73)
"I love dreams, even when they're nightmares, which is usually the case. My dreams are always full of the same familiar obstacles, but it doesn't matter. My amour fou—for the dreams themselves as well as the pleasure of dreaming—is the single most important thing I shared with the surrealists. Un Chien andalou was born of the encounter between my dreams and Dali's. Later, I brought dreams directly into my films, trying as hard as I could to avoid any analysis." (2003:92)
"When I arrived to spend a few days at Dali's house in Figueras, I told him about a dream I'd had in which a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half, like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali immediately told me that he'd seen a hand crawling with ants in a dream he'd had the previous night. 'And what if we started right there and made a film?' he wondered aloud." (2003:103-104)
"Another dream, habitual with people in the theatre or movies, is the kind where I absolutely must go on stage in just a few minutes and play a role I haven't learned. I don't know the first word of the script. This sort of dream can be long and very complicated; I'm nervous, then I panic, the audience grows impatient and starts to hiss. I try to find someone—the stage manager, the director, anyone—and tell them I'm in agony, but they reply coldly that I must go on, the curtain's rising, I can't wait any longer. In fact, I tried to reconstitute certain images from this dream in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie." (2003:93)
"No one's really interested in other people's dreams, so I won't dwell on the subject, although I find it impossible to explain a life without talking about the part that's underground—the imaginative, the unreal. Perhaps, then, I'll just indulge myself through one or two others—for instance, the dream about my cousin Rafael: macabre, of course, yet not without its bittersweet aspects. (I reproduced this dream almost exactly in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.) Rafael has been dead for a long time, and yet, in my dream, I meet him suddenly in an empty street. 'What are you doing here?' I ask him, surprised. 'Oh, I come here every day,' he replies sadly. He turns away and walks into a house; then suddenly I too am inside. The house is dark and hung with cobwebs; I call Rafael, but he doesn't answer. When I go back outside, I'm in the same empty street, but now I call my mother. 'Mother! Mother!' I ask her. 'What are you doing wandering about among all these ghosts?'
"I had this dream for the first time when I was about seventy, and since then it's continued to affect me deeply. Yet a bit later I had another dream which moved me even more. In it I see the Virgin, shining softly, her hands outstretched to me. It's a very strong presence, an absolutely indisputable reality. She speaks to me—to me, the unbeliever—with infinite tenderness; she's bathed in the music of Schubert. (I tried to reproduce this image in The Milky Way, but it simply doesn't have the power and conviction of the original.) My eyes full of tears, I kneel down, and suddenly I feel myself inundated with a vibrant and invincible faith." (2003:94-95)
"When I was fourteen, I fantasized a scenario that was eventually expanded into Viridiana. The queen retires to her bedchamber, her servants help her undress, she gets into bed. When the maids have left, she drinks a glass of milk into which I've poured a powerful narcotic, and an instant later she falls into a heavy sleep. At that point, I slip into her royal couch and accomplish a sensational debauching." (2003:97)
"Dali sent me several ideas [for L'Age d'or], and one of them at least found its way into the film: A man with a rock on his head is walking in a public garden. He passes a statue. The statue also has a rock on its head!" (2003:116)
"I also tried working for Robert Florey, who was making The Beast With Five Fingers, starring Peter Lorre. At his suggestion, I thought up a scene that shows the beast, a living hand, moving through a library. Lorre and Florey liked it, but the producer absolutely refused to use it. When I saw the film later in Mexico, there was my scene in all its original purity. I was on the verge of suing them when someone warned me that Warner Brothers had sixty-four lawyers in New York alone. Needless to say, I dropped the whole idea." (2003:189)
"My last abortive American project was the time Woody Allen proposed that I play myself in Annie Hall. He offered me thirty thousand dollars for two days' work, but since the shooting schedule conflicted with my trip to New York, I declined, albeit not without some hesitation. (Marshall McLuhan wound up doing the self-portrait in my place, in the foyer of the movie theatre.)" (2003:194)
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
The San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, better known as SF Docfest, launches its sixth and largest edition yet starting this Friday, September 28th. Headquartered exclusively at the Big and Little Roxie Theaters for the first time in its short history, this year's festival boasts a brimming selection of 45 films spread out over 32 programs in 13 days. The breadth of themes and subject matter is so vast, I can't imagine anyone not being able to find something of interest. Based strictly on my own irregular tastes and preoccupations, I had no trouble picking eight selections from the line-up to preview for The Evening Class.
Every festival needs a first-rate film for opening night and Docfest has just such an animal—the West Coast premiere of Rob VanAlkemade's What Would Jesus Buy? The film documents the antics of The Church of Stop Shopping, led by long-time San Francisco actor and performance artist Bill Talen in the guise of Reverend Billy, a preacher hell-bent on saving us all from the Shopocalypse. We merrily follow the Church on a cross country crusade during the 2005 holiday shopping season, beginning in Times Square ("a Stonehenge of logos") on Black Friday and ending with the infiltration of Disneyland's Main Street parade on Christmas Day (Mickey Mouse being the Reverend Billy's "own personal anti-Christ"). Among the en route pit-stops are Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, AK ("you can't compete against slave labor") and a performance at the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. This is relentlessly thoughtful, entertaining and hilarious stuff, especially if you consider yourself a member of the choir to whom the reverend is preaching his anti-corporate, anti-globalization, anti-consumerism, anti-dehumanization message of love.
I can also strongly recommend Jeremy Stulberg's Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa, a compelling look at a quasi-collective of societal renegades who inhabit a beautiful, but barren 15-square mile patch of New Mexico desert. Among the dozen or so individuals profiled in the film are Maine, a veteran who suffers from Gulf War Syndrome and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; ex-psychiatric nurse Mama Phyllis; Gecko, a single father who lives in a trailer with his four home-schooled kids (home-schooling consisting of learning to drive cars, shoot guns and make pancakes); and Stan the benevolent pig farmer who takes in runaway kids. We learn how they subsist in such a remote location, often impeded by severe weather conditions. Deliveries from the Food Bank of New Mexico are the main food source, and bathing requires a five-mile hike to the Rio Grande. The local economy, such as it is, is fueled by marijuana (a half-ounce will buy you one solar panel). The weed also helps keep things mellow, with the mesa becoming violent only when the pot runs out and people start drinking. In a place where the only law is to be a good neighbor, serious conflict arrives in this harsh paradise when a group of nearby teen runaways start stealing food supplies. Learning how the mesa dwellers deal with it is just one of many affecting moments you'll find in this portrait of a uniquely American alternative community.
When I first looked at the festival program, the film that really jumped out at me was American Scary, John Hudgen's look at the golden age of TV horror movie hosts. While growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s and 1960s, nothing topped spending a weekend with my monster movie-lovin' granny. We'd bond over the hijinks of John Zacherle broadcasting from his TV studio dungeon in Philadelphia (and then later, New York City). When I moved to the Bay Area in 1975, I immediately became a fan of creepily mild-mannered Bob Wilkins and his KTVU show Creature Features. Both men are profiled in American Scary, along with dozens of other hosts from around the country such as Svenghoulie, Doktor Ghoulfinger and Crematia. A significant chunk of the film is devoted to Ohio, which was apparently some sort of ground zero for the whole phenomenon. Leading the pack was Clevelander Ernie Anderson's beatnik-flavored Ghoulardi (whose son would become filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson).
The documentary does a fine job of examining how the whole thing got started in the early 1950's, when Universal Studios released a 52-film syndicated package of horror classics to local TV stations across the country. The host concept was inspired by radio thrillers and Cryptkeeper comix. And because so many of the movies were dogs, local hosts were brought in to spice up the viewing experience. The concept had a long heyday, but it all pretty much came to an end with the arrival of the TV infomercial. Director Hudgen enlists some fine authoritative voices in the film, including John Bloom (Joe Bob Briggs), Chris Gore (Film Threat) and Joel Hodgson (Mystery Science Theater 3000), as well as those TV hosts who remain among the living. My main complaint with the film is the same one I have with most historical/pop cultural documentaries—that is, too many talking heads and not enough archival material. (I always wonder if the problem is lack of available material or budgetary concerns). I also grew weary of the generic-sounding surf-rock music that permeates the film. That said, you can be pretty sure this will be the only film ever made on the subject, so don't miss it. I can promise that the vintage footage of former B&D cheesecake model Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, will be well worth your 10 bucks.
Living their own version of American scariness are the elderly inhabitants of an East Berlin apartment building in Jessica Feast's Cowboys & Communists. Several years after the fall of The Wall, they found themselves living above White Trash Fast Food, a combination restaurant/bar/tattoo parlor that features live music, Bettie Page look-alike contests and an African-American transvestite who shoots eggs out her ass and does faux-menstrual paintings. The filmmaker, who hails from New Zealand and is also a WTFF waitress, documents firsthand this clash of cultures and battle of wills. At first, one's sympathies lean toward the bar's ex-pat, personal freedom-seeking owners and employees. But as Feast befriends Horst Woitalla, the steadfast retired journalist leading the fight to oust the bar, a different picture emerges. Although he's an abject apologist for the old communist regime (claiming that 70% of East Germans were pro-wall and that Stasi was a necessary evil), I was moved by his discourse on how freedom is a relative thing. Sure, East Germans are now "free"—free to be jobless, hungry and subjugated by the cultural crassness of the West.
From formerly communist East Berlin to the formerly communist Ukraine, Andrei Zagdansky's Orange Winter documents the public battle for the presidency that played out in the streets of Kiev in 2004. After opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko is poisoned (by Agent Orange, it would eventually be discovered), his supporters begin camping out in the city's main square. A highly suspect and fraudulent run-off vote takes place, and government candidate Viktor Yanukovych is crowned winner. Then all hell breaks loose as hundreds of thousands of supporters for both candidates take to the snowy streets. The protests continue until a month later, when the Ukrainian Supreme Court orders a re-vote that produces an entirely different result. Director Zagdansky does an excellent job of laying out the chain of events that produced this peaceful revolution, giving the viewer a strong and immediate "you are there" perspective. I was a bit put off by the film's sonorous narration, and sometimes had difficulty understanding the relevance of frequent cut-aways to an operatic performance of Boris Gudanov, as well as clips from the Aleksandr Dovzhenko film, Earth. Out of all the films I saw for this festival, however, Orange Winter contains what was for me, its most thrilling and uplifting moment. While a bimbo news anchorwoman on state-run TV cheerily announces Yanukovych the run-off winner, the courageous woman simultaneously signing for the hearing impaired gives a different accounting—telling her viewers that the election was completely fraudulent. This was one time when only the deaf got to hear the truth.
Perhaps the most high-profile film in the festival is Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine's anti-Michael Moore doc, Manufacturing Dissent. This has gotten a lot of press since its debut at SXSW, and being a huge fan of the guy, was not something I'd been looking forward to seeing. And now that I've seen it, my admiration remains fundamentally intact. Most of the charges brought against him by the filmmakers are things I can live with—the man is rich, has a massive ego and is a bit of a megalomaniac. While making TV Nation he stayed in nice hotels while his crew stayed in dumps. While editor of the Flint Voice, he never paid his $10 monthly subscription fee to Rock and Roll Confidential. He supported Ralph Nader in 2000. He betrayed Ralph Nader in 2000 (Moore gets blasted either way). The filmmakers also do a lot of whining because Moore (who certainly knew they were making a hit-piece on him) refused to meet with them, made access to his public appearances difficult, and boo-hoo, wouldn't let them plug into his soundboard. Director Melnyk also does the film no favors by narrating it in a chirpy style befitting Entertainment Tonight. Nader, Errol Morris, former Film Comment editor Harlan Jacobson (with perhaps good reason) and author/producer John Pierson ("Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes") all join the chorus of on-screen naysayers. The latter takes the cake for fatuousness, proclaiming that if Gore had won the 2000 election, Moore would have had no more career. He also declares, "Every time something goes really well for Michael Moore on a personal level, on a fame level, on a bank account level, things get worse for the country." Please!
I did appreciate the film for bringing to my attention some of Moore's more legitimately unflattering moments. I was very disappointed to learn that Moore had actually spoken twice to Roger Smith during the making of Roger and Me, and then asked people to flat-out lie about it. The film also nicely debunks the scene in Bowling For Columbine where Moore walks into a bank and walks out with a gun. These things will certainly cause me to see his work with a more critical eye in the future. Irregardless, the man remains a hero to me. Manufacturing Dissent opens with his anti-war outburst at the 2003 Academy Awards. When was the last time an American public figure displayed a bigger set of balls than that?
The last two documentaries I previewed, while certainly not without interest, proved to be somewhat disappointing given my interest in the subject matter. Bob Ray's Hell On Wheels meticulously details the setting-up of a modern day women's roller derby league in Austin, TX. We sit in on a lot of meetings filled with pettiness and infighting, watch the girls train and get injured, and witness setbacks and financial calamities. Unfortunately, none of the film's subjects possess the kind of outsized personalities and oversized egos that might have given the film some oomph. They do come up with some great team names, however, like the Hell Marys and the Putas del Fuego. Far more compelling was the roller derby documentary JAM, which won the audience award at last year's SXSW and screened here in the Bay Area at this year's Frameline.
Noelle Stout's thematically unfocussed, but nicely shot Luchando, seems to fancy itself as some sort of exposé of the gay Cuban sex trade. The word "luchando" literally means "fighting" in Spanish, but in Cuba it's also synonymous with having sex for money—as in fighting to get ahead or fighting to survive. The problem is that none of Stout's subjects seem to be fighting for anything—they just seem too unmotivated to try and do anything else. A case in point is 19-year-old "pinguero" (i.e. straight trade) Yuris, who has already fathered four children by different mothers and his greatest ambition is to father six more. We watch as he visits and squabbles with the various mothers, which is a tiresome as it sounds. There's also irascible 34-year-old Masciel, aka "La Gorda", an obese, alcoholic lesbian who has sex with men for kicks and money. She does have an interesting personality, however, and it's one of the film's few saving graces. The film finally manages to achieve some poignancy in the end credits, when we learn that Yuris has been sentenced to one year's hard labor for being a menace to society, and Masciel's girlfriend Yalisis has been sent to a re-education camp. For what it's worth, anyone seeing this film out of a purely prurient interest is bound to be disappointed. There's a very brief shot of lay-about Manuel, the film's real eye candy, taking a shower, and a very lengthy, very grainy scene of Masciel rubbing her breasts while an equally corpulent customer masturbates on the bed below her.
These are only a few of the 45 documentaries on offer at this year's festival. If these eight don't sound like your kind of thing, have a look at the schedule and I'm sure you'll find something that is. There are several more films I hope to see during the festival, which were not available to preview: Esther Robinson's A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory about Andy's lover/fellow filmmaker; Bruce Schmiechen's Every Beat of My Heart: The Johnny Otis Story about the Bay Area R&B star; and Alex Gibney's Tribeca award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Earlier this year at the Frameline Film Festival, Vince DePersio's documentary Semper Fi: One Marine's Journey—a portrait of Lance Corporal Jeff Key's staged protest of the Iraq War ("The Eyes of Babylon")—galvinized Frameline's audiences. They voted the film their favorite documentary. It's now being included in Frameline's "Best of the Fest 2007": a one-day film event featuring audience favorites and award-winning films from Frameline31: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. Semper Fi will be screening Saturday, September 22, 1:30PM at the Roxie Film Center.
Reaching back into my untranscribed coffers, I've dusted off an interview I conducted with Jeff Key during Frameline that I never had the chance to process. Now seems the perfect opportunity.
Jeff Key, the subject of Semper Fi, arrived late and disgruntled to our interview, having circled the block for a half an hour looking for parking. He hailed me from the curb, I jumped into his car, and we found a parking garage from where we scurried to a quiet lounge where we settled into iced lattes and tried to maximize the little time we had left before his next appointment.
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Michael Guillén: Congratulations, Jeff, on winning the Audience Favorite at this year's Frameline. It's always interesting for me to contrast public reception to critical response and Semper Fi is a classic example. Have you read your Variety review?
Jeff Key: I have not.
Guillén: Brian Lowry, who reviewed Semper Fi for Variety, is not—let's say—as appreciative of the film as your Frameline audience; but he did raise an interesting point that was likewise brought up in your local radio interview, and that concerns the reactions of your friends when they found out you enlisted in the Marines for active duty in Iraq. Not only your friends Stateside when they found out about your enlistment, but the friends you made while you were in Iraq when they found out about your coming out. Both sets of friends are so loyal to you and I found that truly impressive.
Jeff Keys: Does Brian Lowry give my friends a review?
Guillén: No, he just comments that the reactions of your friends is what he found "most interesting" about Semper Fi. All in all, he wasn't wild about the film.
Jeff Key: I don't care what critics say, obviously. My not having read the review tells you what [matters to me]. The fact that we won an audience award is what [matters]. I'm an activist. I'm someone who's interested in spiritual connections with other humans and I don't think that's what reviews are about really. Since the film aired, I've gotten a hundred emails from people who went to some lengths to get to me to share their personal stories, some of them gay, some of them vets, some of them who have grown up in a fundamentalist background, some of them writers that felt some connection to "The Eyes of Babylon" as part of it, and then the film too. These were incredible stories, especially from people who were not gay who had served with gay people in Vietnam. One letter was from a man who—with some measure of contrition—admitted he had lived a life of spitefulness towards gay people and he said he watched Semper Fi and had a change of heart. He felt like he wanted to apologize to me personally for all the hurtful things that he's done to gay people over his life and that he wouldn't do that anymore. Those are the responses that matter to me.
Guillén: Absolutely! And that's what I was trying to aim at by setting up this somewhat false polarity between public reception and critical response, to underscore that—as an activist—you've secured your popular response. Semper Fi was exceptionally well-received here in San Francisco. How did you feel at your Castro screening?
Key: From seeing the film, you know what my experience has been and it's similar to a lot of people who grew up gay in America, that I've had periods of great self-loathing, long periods of darkness. It becomes a habit. That becomes the norm. Experiences like last Saturday [the Castro screening], I'm having to get used to that. It's a wonderful experience standing there and having people give you that much love and then, afterwards, to have one after the other say such very nice things. I have to say, that's the process that I'm going through, being able to open myself up to that overwhelming amount of appreciation, love and gratitude, and just be right-sized about it. Because there was a time when it would probably have killed me. Like that Variety review. If the people that tell you you're a good person make you a good person, then when people tell you you're not a good person, you believe it as well.
Guillén: Surviving the judgment of others, whether good or bad, intrigues me. In Semper Fi there's the suggestion, perhaps in your personal story, certainly in the stories of many other vets, that the return to civilian life is as problematic as shipping out to combat duty. Returning vets have to carry and process their own experiences. In your case, you turned to the stage. What prompted you towards the theatre to work out your experiences? And then, subsequently, film?
Key: I didn't really turn to film. Doing "The Eyes of Babylon" was a natural outpicturing of the journals, which was my way of sharing with my fellow Marines when I was in Iraq, and sharing the experience with people when I came back and they were curious of our time there. It was just sort of natural. I'm Southern and the play is in the Southern storytelling vein. In a lot of one-person shows people are continuously playing many characters, which I don't do—I give voice to certain other people who are mentioned along the way—but, it's very clearly me telling a story and giving voice to them. It's not me portraying them per se.
I've learned so much from Vietnam veterans. They have been like great brothers and sisters to us and—as I look at them—some met such terrible ends after they came back. To one degree or another I saw that those who were able to turn their feelings outward in some way were the ones who survived and the ones who were able to help other veterans. When people shut down, then all that anger and frustration and sadness boils inside. My work now with the Foundation is to encourage other veterans in whatever is their medium. My roommate who deployed with my unit draws. He's an artist. That's his way of expressing it.
Guillén: Which foundation are we talking about exactly?
Key: The Mehadi Foundation.
Guillén: Ah yes, named after the young boy you met on your tour of duty?
Key: Right. It's a dual purpose organization. We work with veterans here in the States after they come back. It's very popular to say, "Support the troops!", everyone's got the magnet, but a third of our homeless are veterans. The lowest number of suicides from the Iraq war is 111. There's another few score that are under the investigation of non-combat accidents where their buddies would say it was a suicide.
My degree is in theatre. It's kind of natural to me that theatre would be my way. The film came about because the producer saw the play and brought in the director and they made the film. I performed the play like I've done many times and did the interview. One of the very best things about the Saturday Castro screening for me—other than I have really come to love San Francisco; it's like another home for me and it's like my family, my people, up here saying, "Good for us! It's really a victory for all of us! We're in this together!"—but, to be able to introduce those gay vets and have them stand—I'm sure they get props along the way for being vets—but for them to stand up as gay men and lesbians and say, "Yeah, this is something about me and I'm a veteran" to get it on a more completely honest level. Some of the people who give such praise to our troops are the same ones who give such persecution to gay people.
Guillén: When you returned—and clearly you had a glimpse of something you could no longer support or believe in and you wanted to speak out against U.S. policy—why did you decide to push that protest through the fulcrum of your sexual preference? Why didn't you just do a Jarhead thing and simply comment upon the situation? Why did you feel it important to stage your protest through the lens of your sexual preference?
Key: Anthony Swofford [the author of Jarhead] was out of the Marine Corps. and he was done. I would likely have been deployed and—I say this with some caution—I know people who are in the military still who are opposed to the Bush Administration's foreign policy and think it's extraordinarily dangerous, if nothing else dangerous for our nation, and they choose to stay in because they feel like they can influence other military members to behave well while deployed to the Middle East, to treat the Iraqis with respect while being cautious and protective of their fellow service members, instead of the things we saw from Abu Ghraib and the other horrible stories we hear. One of my closest friends comes to mind in particular. He says, "You remember when the leadership was not that great? I want to be a good leader to younger Marines." They do it also because they want to protect their fellow service members in a very dangerous war. As I've said before, if I thought I could save one more life by being there, I'd be there today. But I believe firmly that what I'm doing when I go and speak to members of Congress, when I go out on the lecture trails from place to place in America, I think I'm able to do more.
All that said, when I made the decision, I was not a conscientious objector in the truest sense of the word. A conscientious objector as I understand it is someone whose religion tells them they may not bear arms, they may not kill. At that point I was still . . . and, y'know, maybe still if I were in a room full of children and somebody came in there killing the children, am I really going to stand by? No. I'm going to use violence to stop it, I would say.
I am willing to stand up for representative government and to defend defenseless people with violence. Therefore, I'm not a conscientious objector. And I cannot be a party to this organized crime that is this administration, which they have set up as a fascist system. That's not hyperbole. As Mussolini defined the fascist system, it didn't have to do with race; it had to do with the corporate interests fueling the government, fueling the corporate interests. If we don't have that, I don't know what it is; we have that. If you look at the stock profiles of the companies that have contracts in Iraq, you'll wish you had invested in them four years ago, from a purely financial point of view. Those are the companies that support the campaigns of the people who push this colonization of the Middle East in this war in perpetuity, this so-called war on terrorism. The war on terrorism is ludicrous. You can't have a war on a tactic. Terrorism is a tactic and all that terrorism says is that you use the maximum force you have at your disposal to perpetuate your point of view. In that way, all war is terrorism.
Guillén: I've been reading a lot lately on Cold War rhetoric and queer identities. These studies have helped me understand more fully what the real paranoia is behind the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Speaking quite generally, your average populace would say that a butch lesbian or an effeminate gay man is really no problem because—being easily defined—they are easily dismissed. It is the "straight-acting" gay man or the feminine lesbian that—within Cold War rhetoric—is a complete security risk because it connotes a fluidity that is feared will undermine rank and file. Keeping that in mind, one of the things that most struck me about this documentary is the loyalty of your straight troop members who did not find your gayness to be any kind of security risk. I don't think I've ever seen a documentary where straight military personnel have defended a gay soldier so strongly. Was it difficult to secure their participation in this documentary? Did they have any qualms, reservations, or repercussions from their superiors for their defense of your actions?
Key: I don't know. You'd have to ask them. But one thing I do know about those men is that they're a representation of the many Marines who knew me. That's a reason why—one more time—our private lives are not necessarily of anybody's business; but, it's important for gay people to come out. There's the glass closet, as they say. If all the gay professional athletes right now came out, the ban would be lifted tomorrow. Don't Ask, Don't Tell would be lifted tomorrow if all the people in the military came out. The commitment of those men who are in the documentary, their support of me, is as much a function of who they came to know as Jeff Key as a Marine. None of them—if you held a gun to their head and said, "You must tell the truth: would this man die for you?"—they would all say many times over that they know that. They know that I love them. They know that I would never do anything to compromise my commitment to them. I'm not naïve enough to think that would always be the case. But I'm really confident in who I am. I've been through it. I've been through a battlefield my entire life. I have done the work. I know in the center of my soul that I'm okay, that homosexuality is a part of nature, and that God loves me. That's not the case with all 17 or 18-year-old people who find themselves in the military, who came from Kansas, who heard nothing but lies their whole life.
Guillén: On the IMdb profile for Semper Fi, along with the Variety review, there was a user comment—and you have probably heard several of these—but, a straight ex-Marine said your film enlightened him and for the first time he really saw what was wrong with the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Your activism is what really shines throughout this project from stage to screen.
Also—my mind works in mysterious ways so bear with me—but, when I went to the Frameline Closing Night party, I was delighted to see you hanging out with RuPaul. As I was looking at the two of you, I thought, "This is the incredible spectrum of masculinity. These are men who know how to be men in a lot of different ways." To add to the complexity, you are an emotional man. That comes right across. You're loveable. That's why audiences take to you and find you charismatic. In the scene in the documentary where you're sent home with the hernia and your troop mates are dealing with your no longer being there among them, I was impressed with the emotional anchor you had provided for them, and how they became aware of the loss of that anchor once you were gone. I'm an armchair anthropologist and have long noted the role of intermediaries that gender variant people play between fixed, gendered identities. How they can, for example, inspire a woman to tap into a strength society doesn't customarily allow her or soften a man who has become too hard by guiding him to his emotional resources. I don't know if you've ever been part of the Men's Movement inspired by the work of poet Robert Bly, analyst Jim Hillman, and storyteller Michael Meade; but, they taught me that there is a specific masculine emotionality, a nurturance in fact, that is not an imitation of anything feminine at all and that is unique to the male being. You exemplify that masculine nurturance to me. It's rare to see it on the big screen so I'm glad that—whoever saw you in your stage production—saw the worth of transferring it to the big screen.
Key: Wow. Thank you for that. I haven't thought of that probably ever. Nurturing can be . . . is a very masculine trait. It's part of who we can be as men. People will say, "He's operating in his feminine nature" when he's being nurturing; but, that's not necessarily true.
Guillén: There can be that, of course, but what you were demonstrating—proven by the testimonies of your friends—is an emotional power necessary for men to survive under such a difficult situation.
Key: Our culture robs women of their ability to be strong and assertive and men of their ability to be sensitive and nurturing. They do it from the get-go. Little kids, the way we treat them based upon their genders, is incredible. Just go to the playground and watch the way adults treat boys and the way they treat girls. Especially with regard to women's issues, we're not where we were, hopefully. And maybe we're not quite where we're going yet.
My mother's family is Cherokee and they called us two-spirits because we could flow more easily between those roles. I've been a really good friend to straight men in my life because I help them to understand feelings that have not come naturally to them, and women too. As far as gender issues go, when you really look at the relationships in this culture between men and women, gay people for all our quirks kind of have it all over them. I'm so grateful I'm not straight.
Guillén: I'm glad you mention the two-spirit tradition because that underscores the historicity of it, the longstanding tradition. Have you ever read Zuni Man-Woman?
Key: No, not yet.
Guillén: Well, Will Roscoe is a friend of mine and I've learned a lot from him. What I've learned primarily is that the history of these traditional roles—which I agree are robbed from contemporary gay people and I wish much of that could come back….
Key: Maybe we'll reclaim it?
Guillén: That's probably why that sequence stood out for me in the film because these men were giving testimonial to that spirit in you. I thought, "Look, they are acknowledging and praising a quality that he had that helped keep them together as a troop." Their loss was so tangible.
Another scene that struck me in the film, borderline controversial, was your flirtation with the Iraqi, rendered through the sharing of the chapstick. I loved that scene but it seemed provocative as well because this would be what I think many people would—on the other side of the fence—say is exactly why there has to be a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and why gays pose a security risk.
Key: Right. I'm really surprised that the people who hate me haven't pulled that out. When there were protestors in Kentucky, they did. That's the part they targeted. They did the insufferable. This local clergy who was running for court room sweeper or whatever organized this protest among the local fundamentalist Christians and had made out a little pamphlet and had not only taken that part of the play but edited it. I was like, "That's the last straw right there, buddy. You're fucking with my writing. Don't fuck with my writing there, dude." I've really been surprised that more critics haven't pointed that out. I even thought about not including it in the play, to keep it to myself, not including it in the book. But it's an important part of my experience. What I do know is that—in that culture—the Iraqis were told by Saddam Hussein that, "They'll come for your women." That's part of the war culture. "They're coming for your women. They're going to take your women." In that situation where the interaction happened with the gay Iraqi, we were going to town in soft covers. We were no longer wearing helmets. It was in the beginning. I left Iraq and had never heard the word "insurgent." We went to town to make friends. We carried our weapons and we were cautious but my other Marines around me in that moment when that was happening were off buying scarves and liquor, which they were not supposed to be doing, and falafels, and in and out. It's not how people think of Iraq now where—everywhere you go—it's much more dangerous now than at that time. I thought, "Well, they're going to think that my buddies are in a firefight and I'm over there flirting with some Iraqi" and then I thought, "Well, what if some straight Marine had described a similar situation with an Iraqi woman?" Because that sort of interaction would have been absolutely forbidden for an American Marine to find this beautiful young Iraqi woman attractive and they both knew that their situation precluded any kind of interaction and they had this cautious interaction where maybe a chapstick was shared? I mean, America would cream all over themselves! How sweet! How beautiful! There it is. We are there and how would people think about that story if it was told by a heterosexual?
Guillén: That was actually in effect one of Brian Lowry's criticisms. He said that though the film might go a long way towards undermining stereotypes, it would depend upon the unlikely supposition that those holding such stereotypes would bother to pay attention.
Key: Who is this man? Was he talking about my acting?
Guillén: He said your acting is "stagy and precious".
Key: Oh good! [Laughs.] I don't care! But, no, I do, it hurts my feelings.
Guillén: Jeff, why I even bring him up is because I always like to give a person who is being criticized the chance to defend themselves against their detractors. I have ambivalent attitudes about film criticism. I'm not a film critic. I am interested in the personalities that make up film culture. It's a different process. But I do believe in the dialogue between audiences, critics and the people who make the movies. Differences of perspective are to be expected. I did pull out of his review what Brian thought was good about the film but his main complaint—as I understand is—is who is this movie really for?
Key: Well, I guess it's for all the people who are wondering if "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a good policy. I guess it's for anybody who's an American citizen who's concerned about the fact that we may be about to blow this nation to Hell by our ignorant foreign policy. I guess it's for people who have struggled their entire life either with their feeling towards gay people or their feeling as gay people. Is there anybody I haven't covered?
I used to pretend that when people didn't like me or didn't like something I did, it didn't hurt. It's the way of our culture. I don't do that anymore. It really hurts my feelings and I understand that that's his job and I don't care; it hurts.
Guillén: Well, as I positioned it early on, I'm glad you've had the chance to counter this one man's critique against the hundreds who have shown you how much they have appreciated your activism and your artistry.
Key: Oh my God, yeah. I'll tell you what, if I'd gotten as many of the responses I've gotten now from the performances in the play and wherever the film has screened, the love and the acceptance and kudos I've gotten from all those people, do you think I'd trade that for one critic thinking that I did a good job? You're out of your fuckin' mind.
2007 TIFF: MUNYURANGABO—The Evening Class Interview With Director Lee Isaac Chung and Scriptwriter Samuel Anderson
I seem to be on something of a Robert Koehler love fest recently, which I assure you is purely coincidental; but, when a critic of Koehler's stature champions a small, unknown film like Lee Isaac Chung's Munyurangabo, it serves to emphasize what I think is best about this medium of film writing. Koehler's Variety review penned from Cannes motivated me to catch Munyurangabo at its sole Toronto International P&I screening. Koehler proclaims that Munyurangabo is the flat-out "discovery of this year's Un Certain Regard batch" and "is—by several light years—the finest and truest film yet on the moral and emotional repercussions of the 15-year-old genocide that wracked Rwanda." I couldn't agree more.
Cameron Bailey's TIFF program capsule likewise extols: "In the future, films like Munyurangabo might not seem so startling. But for now, this counts as one of the most audacious achievements of the year." "Nothing short of a marvel," Bailey continues, Munyurangabo is "[c]rafted with dramatic precision and deep humanity" and "rises to a stunning plea for reconciliation."
Munyurangabo practices the same kind of grass root aesthetics that lends Cochochi its organic integrity. Both films escape Western manipulations by putting the script and the camera's perspective into the hands of its indigenous subjects. Likewise, where Cochochi is strengthened by its usage of the Tarahumara language, Munyurangabo boasts the distinction of being the first film rendered in Kinyarwanda. Ethnography effectively meets the art house in each of these commendable gestures to world cinema. After watching Munyurangabo, I chased down director Lee Isaac Chung and scriptwriter Samuel Anderson who agreed to meet me in the lobby of Sutton Place, from where we found a café up the street where we could talk about their film.
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Michael Guillén: I'm sure I'm not the first one to express that it's somewhat startling to have the best African feature at the Toronto International be the work of a Korean-American and a White guy. [Laughter.] How did that come about?
Lee Isaac Chung: Thank you for saying that. It came about originally because my wife had been doing volunteer work in Rwanda for the last three summers. She does art therapy and she wanted me to come with her. We had just been married and it was the first summer after we'd been married. She wanted us to go together and she asked me to volunteer as well to do something. I figured cinema and filmmaking is all that I know that I could teach so I figured we were going to teach it. But as I was looking at the sort of films that were coming out of Rwanda, it seemed a little sad that there was nothing that focused on contemporary Rwanda. Everything just seemed to recreate what went on with the genocide. Also, all the films are very much for Western audiences from the Western perspective using Western actors, they speak English, maybe with an accent or something like that; but, nothing in Kinyarwanda, their local language. So that was the beginning of the project.
I asked Sam if he could write with me for the film and one of the first goals that we set was that we wanted this film to be for the Rwandans; that they would watch it and enjoy the film. We knew that if we did that, it would be a better film even in an international sense—if it was true to them and their audiences.
Guillén: Clearly the Rwandan participation is evident. It's my understanding, Samuel, that you actually approached them with a nine-page outline of the general film you and Lee were trying to create and basically developed the film with them through improvisation. As the writer, can you describe how you went about doing that?
Samuel Anderson: The writing process started out with Isaac and I working together. He had the basic story idea and we started dialoging about it, talking about thoughts that brought up between us. At first, a lot of it was just talking about different questions that we had that we wanted to address or see addressed in the film.
Guillén: I've been monitoring films on Rwanda for the last few years, beginning of course with Hotel Rwanda through various features and documentaries that have come along subsequently. As you were saying, Lee, either you get a Western perspective on the genocide, almost a compulsive attraction to that atrocity with all the attendant handwringing and guilt, or the coin flips and you get these feel-good documentaries chronicling efforts to glue everything back together. What I appreciated about your film, your story, was the evidence that the racism is still there—it hasn't magically gone away—and that it's still manifesting in continuing problematic ways. The most painful scene of the film for me was Sangwa's banishment from his family home. While you were developing and shooting the film, was there any evident conflict with the Rwandans about depicting that still-existing racism?
Chung: It's something that we had to be sensitive to. The whole idea of the racism being there in the movie came out of accounts we were reading about what's happening today. But also when we got there, we definitely encountered people who would talk about experiences they had personally of racism, even though on a public level there is such a push for reconciliation that there's almost this automatic response: "Oh yes, there's no more racism."
Guillén: That's what I'm saying. That's what I respect about your film's depiction of Rwandan life. It seems honest though sobering.
Chung: It was interesting because—once we told the students what we were going to do—it's as though they agreed, "Yes, we need to talk about this"; but, we never really had to talk about it together up front—"What did you experience as a Hutu or Tutsi?"—or anything like that with the students. But as we were shooting, it was evident that these concerns were on their minds. For instance, you're no longer allowed to say "Hutu" or "Tutsi" in Rwanda. It's a big taboo. So as we would film, I'd have to ask, "Would this situation happen?" and they would tell me yes or no. Or we would have to prepare them before scenes like the one where Sangwa is outed or when his father is saying racist things about Tutsis. We'd tell them, "These things are going to be said. We just want you to be prepared for them." But everyone took on this—by "everyone" I mean the crew who were locals—they seemed to take on a demeanor of, "Let's get this done because it needs to be said and spoken" so it felt right that we were doing this.
Guillén: Let me be sure that I'm clear on the structure of this. You went to help out your wife at some center in Rwanda where you decided to recruit the students into the development of the script and the making of the movie?
Chung: My wife volunteers at this Christian organization called Youth With A Mission ("YWAM") based in Kigali. It's primarily run by locals there. I taught a class of about 15 students. At first I was teaching photography and one of our other co-producers Jenny Lund—she didn't come to Toronto—she taught with me. We also trained them as the crew. Together we also talked about the story a lot and the details of what we wanted in the film. Then we brought on two actors who are street boys and orphans, the two that you see [Josef ("Jeff") Rutagengwa as Ngabo and Eric Ndorunkundiye as Sangwa], who we connected through YWAM because they do outreach to street boys in helping them find work and also helping them get off drugs and stuff like that. That's how we connected with them. It all took place through YWAM, working with this class of boys, and making the film together.
Guillén: Have they seen the film?
Guillén: How has their response been?
Chung: Very positive. They're very excited about it.
Guillén: They realize they've done something good and helped turn something around?
Chung: Yeah, the two actors especially were very excited.
Anderson: They were at Cannes with us when we showed the film there.
Guillén: Really? That's wonderful. My understanding is you're admirably developing opportunities for more films to be made in Rwanda by Rwandan filmmakers?
Anderson: We definitely want to see great cinema come out of Rwanda. Working with the folks we worked with on the film, we could definitely see the ground being laid for that.
Guillén: I'm disheartened that there isn't more African cinema here at the Toronto International.
Chung: Yes, definitely.
Guillén: That's why—even though your film slips through the categorizations and isn't defined as African cinema—I commend your usage of Rwandan locals in both cast and crew to create a film that—in my estimation—is primarily for Rwandans as well as a Western audience. How did you formulate that game plan?
Chung: Before we went to Rwanda, we had decided that goal. I don't know exactly how that conversation came up where we really set that goal…?
Anderson: I'm not sure, but that was our goal from the beginning, even while we were talking about it beforehand and coming up with ideas for the film, wanting to leave it very open so that—once Lee got to Rwanda—his encounters and interactions could continue to shape the film so that even during the shooting process actors and crew could shape the film.
Guillén: What were the logistics of working in Kinyarwanda, a foreign language?
Chung: It's not too difficult. I had made a documentary in China and I don't speak Chinese. Among my short films, one of them's in Spanish. I've built up to doing this kind of thing.
Guillén: Do you prefer the creative challenge of working in a foreign language?
Chung: I think now I would like to work in English because there are problems and obstacles; but, over all, it's not as difficult as you might think.
Guillén: The poem at film's end recited in Kinyarwanda by Edouard Bamporiki Uwayo, could you speak a little bit about him? I understand he's Rwanda's poet laureate?
Chung: He's just directed his first film in Rwanda. I went back to teach again this Summer and he wants to be a filmmaker as well. His name is Edouard Bamporiki. "Uwayo" is kind of a pseudonym. He's a pretty young guy, maybe 22 years old, and already well known in Rwanda for his poetry. We showed the film in Rwanda this past summer and—when the audiences were listening to the poem—they just started laughing at parts. I asked, "Is it funny to you?" They said, "It's funny that he's so good at poetry" because he comes up with all these complex rhyme structures and what he says is so clever that so much is lost in the translation.
Guillén: I could feel that as I was watching the film. As a viewer, you have a visceral reaction to the almost hiphop rap of his recitation and I knew the subtitles were not matching the enthusiasm of his cadence.
Guillén: Don't get me wrong, the translations of the subtitles were still lovely and meaningful, but it's the enthusiastic rhythm of his language that didn't translate. I was glad we were able to watch and listen to him recite.
Chung: The elements that we wanted to put in the film were traditional Rwandan elements. The music that you hear is traditional Rwandan music that, I hear, is dying out now after the genocide. We found someone who could do these traditional Rwandan songs and had her perform. The dancing and the poetry, we wanted to include these as part of the film, as a theme of someone exploring his memory and constructing his identity from what he remembers. When I heard Edouard reciting his poetry, I knew it should be in the film. He's actually one of the students in the class. I had made an assignment for the students that they had to listen to a poem and do some photography based on the poem. I had Edouard recite a poem, because I knew he was a poet, but I didn't realize how gifted he was until he actually recited it. Once someone translated the poem to me, I said, "We should put it in the film."
Guillén: Edouard's poem helped articulate Ngabo's spiritual transformation, rendered as it were through your silhouettes of him. First, machete in hand, with revenge on his mind and then, without the machete, ready to draw water to sate thirst. What can you say to the fact that the enemy he has pursued throughout the film has become afflicted with AIDS? And is it believable that Ngabo would abandon his desire for revenge to caretake this individual? To bring him water to sate his thirst? Is that a dynamic that would genuinely happen or is it more your hope projected onto film?
Anderson: I think it is a hope more than necessarily a reality. We wanted the film to end with an image of reconciliation, yes, but I guess with a surprising image. It doesn't necessarily seem realistic but at the same time it seems possible.
Guillén: Like an ideal to hold aloft? And interestingly, comparable to the resolution achieved in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Daratt wherein it becomes the spiritual responsibility of the individual to transform his anger and his hunger for vengeance into reconciliation. Another focus addressed by Edouard's poem that I much admired was his focus on the necessary role of women in restoring and rebuilding Rwanda to health. There have been a few documentaries that have addressed that issue (God Sleeps in Rwanda comes to mind). Because so many men were killed during the genocide, it's my understanding that it has fallen to female survivors to repair the infrastructure. Did you find that to be true?
Chung: In a way that is true because there are so many widows in Rwanda from the genocide. From the work that we know going on around us, a lot of people are trying to mobilize widows and young women to become more actively involved, to get young women into schools. It's definitely an issue.
Guillén: How has this been for you, Lee? Dealing with this material? Listening to the testimonials of survivors? To bear witness, in effect, to these experiences? Have you had to necessarily place yourself within the safety of a bell jar? To distance yourself from the historical atrocities?
Chung: It's definitely such a dark thing to hear. My wife and I have talked about this a lot. There's this traumatizing experience of actually encountering people and listening to their stories. I suppose that somehow it becomes a part of you in a necessary way but I don't know how to actually express that.
Guillén: Has it strengthened you as an individual?
Chung: It's changed me, though I don't know if it's strengthened me. I don't know how to qualify.
Guillén: As the writer, Samuel, I imagine you were likewise hearing many of these survivor testimonials while developing the script. How have you been impacted?
Anderson: It was quite an experience. It was different being over there than what I imagined. When we first started talking about the script, one of the main texts that I read to try to educate myself more on genocide was a book called Machete Season where French journalist Jean Hatzfeld interviews a number of men who are in prison who were killers during the genocide who, through interviews with them, basically goes through what the genocide was like. It's horrifying to read and deeply deeply troubling. But when I came to Rwanda and met the people there, it gave me much more hope than I felt before going over there as far as how it is possible to face something as awful as that was and still find healing and find reconciliation.
Chung: And maintain humanity.
Guillén: Perhaps it's not so astounding that the machete itself has become the quintessential symbol of the Rwandan genocide. Your usage of it in Munyurangabo as a symbol, namely in the initial image where Ngabo envisions blood on its blade, is ominous. I'm further struck by the theme you set up of how the racism is still brooding though lying dormant. Sangwa, in his own way, is trying to reconcile the conflict. He befriends Ngabo and has even agreed to help Ngabo on his mission. But along the way, when they stop in to visit his family, Sangwa feels the pressure of his family to maintain racism and is—in one of the film's most painful scenes—thrown out of his father's house for not doing so. Is that a circumstance that has been reported to you? Have young men been exiled from their families for not supporting racism? For wanting to move on?
Chung: The basis, for me at least, was one experience with a girl Jacki who is doing reconciliation. She works with the Reconciliation Center in Rwanda. She told me that her father is so angry that she would help Hutus when she was Tutsi and I knew that created a lot of tension in her family that was still yet to be resolved. That was the basis for going into that. I didn't meet anyone else experiencing that issue.
Guillén: For me it was heartfelt and powerful for being unanticipated. Of course in retrospect it's only obvious that such tensions would exist within families; but, it was painful to watch in the film. And very well acted. Very believable. Yet, you're using non-actors, right? Acting off the passion of their own experiences?
Anderson: In many ways. Even the scene where Sangwa returns and meets his mother for the first time and the things that he brings his mother, that was reconstructed from the actor's own memories of when he had actually gone home.
Guillén: So what are you two working on next?
Chung: There's a poem by Gerald Stern, do you know the poet?
Guillén: I'm sorry to say I don't.
Chung: He's an American poet and he wrote a poem called "Lucky Life" that I really like. We're trying to make a film that follows the emotions of the poem. I like the relationship between poetry and film.
Guillén: I was going to commend the poetic sensibility within Munyurangabo. The ideals that you're holding aloft—as we were discussing earlier—are poetic ideals. I too like the melding of those two mediums and will look forward to that project.
Chung: I hope we can get it done and get it made.
Guillén: Well you're earning good credits with Munyurangabo. You got great press coverage at Cannes.
Chung: So far. The Variety review surprised us when that came out.
Guillén: But it shouldn't! Yours is a solid, good film. Has it been picked up for distribution?
Chung: We have a sales agent now [Umedia Sarl] and that's the most recent development. I know they're working on it.
Guillén: Well, I wish you much luck with Munyurangabo and thank the two of you for taking the time today to talk to me about it.
Cross-published on Twitch.