Saturday, May 31, 2008


"Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived."

"When people say they're looking for the meaning of life, what they're really looking for is a deep experience of it."—Joseph Campbell

In the active years of his retirement, mythologist Joseph Campbell became a popular seminarian, teaching at various venues across the country. In the Bay Area he had two surrogate daughters, Lynne Kaufman—program coordinator for U.C. Berkeley Extension—and Barbara McClintock—initially the program coordinator for the Dominican College Reminding Series, then San Francisco's C.G. Jung Institute and, later, the Pacifica Graduate Institute. In my early 20s, Barbara took me under wing as one of her protégés and provided me multiple opportunities to study with Joseph Campbell whenever he taught in the Bay Area. Campbell's was, in fact, the first seminar I ever attended and his influence upon my life—as upon so many others—has been indelible.

When Joe passed away at 83 on October 30, 1987, I remember sitting on the steps at the C.G. Jung Institute suffering the loss, not only for myself, but for all those who would never have the chance to experience his visceral gift for storytelling, what filmmaker George Lucas later described as a "life force" that poured out of him when he taught others. It was not just the ancient stories themselves that proved magical but Joe's unique manner of inflecting them with contemporary resonance and the mystagogical way he had of inspiring others to actively seek out their own spiritual adventures. Little did I know at that time that Joe suffered no fools and had been permitting prescient filmmakers to memorialize his lectures and interviews. Chief among them was Stuart Brown who had fallen in love—not specifically with Campbell himself—but with what happened to others when they saw and heard Campbell. Aware that Campbell was in failing health, Brown organized a production crew to follow Joe on his last major lecture tour, which included appearances at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts and the California Historical Society; events which I feel blessed to have attended. Despite the presence of cameras and cables, I didn't realize what was being endeavored.

This effort to memorialize Campbell's work resulted in the film The Hero's Journey. Phil Cousineau, associate producer on the film, had written its narration along with coproducer Janelle Balnicke and—though the Bill Moyers series on The Power of Myth is credited as having catapulted Campbell into national notoriety and a season of fame—it was this earlier venture by Stuart Brown and Phil Cousineau that was actually the first filmic vehicle to introduce Campbell posthumously to a new generation. When I first saw The Hero's Journey at its Castro Theater premiere, I was thrilled to consider the impact and reach of Joe's disembodied presence, this second life through the medium of film, this continued opportunity to be further educated by my admitted mentor.

Shortly after that premiere, I crossed paths with Phil Cousineau at a Robert Bly seminar and approached him to express personal thanks for the film. During the seminar's lunch break, Phil joined me down at the Ft. Mason docks where we ate our sandwiches and initiated what has become a strong, lasting friendship of many years; I dare say, brotherhood. Since those days, Phil and I have shared many stories, many ideas, several scotches, several coffees, and he has (to date) written 23 books and worked on numerous films—several of which I intend to profile in the weeks to come on The Evening Class. I am profoundly complimented that Phil has profiled my Guatemalan fieldwork in several of his books, and that he accepted my invitation to stowaway on an excursion down the Usumacinta River when I was leading ecotours and teaching wealthy Americans how to read Mayan hieroglyphs. We both have a love for ancient, indigenous traditions, for quotesmanship, and—is it any surprise?—for movies. Phil has taught frequently on the mythic import of cinema.

What I love about Phil's films is their sibling connection to literature; the "connective tissue" that David Lowery has written about so eloquently. Do you recall the opening sequence to Steven Spielberg's television series Amazing Stories where flapping books take flight? That's the image I think of with Phil. He has used the written word and the filmed image to remind us that imagination can be defined as a process of flight and that flight can lead—not only to the heights—but also the depths of aspiration. Frequently, his films have companion volumes, as if this lateral sibling connection should be neither denied nor resisted. Such was the case with The Hero's Journey, which—along with transcriptions of the documentary interviews—included Phil's editorial commentary.

Cousineau recognized early on the "treasure trove of material left over" from the editing of the film. He had been utilizing outtakes from the filmed sessions with Campbell in his "Myth and Movies" seminars and discovering that audiences were delighted with the material. He approached Stuart Brown "about rescuing the hours of outtakes from the obscurity of film vaults and organizing them into a book to meet the groundswell of interest." Brown granted him access not only to the film footage but to hours of videotaped lectures, generously encouraging Cousineau to create the companion volume to the film.

As Cousineau detailed in his introduction to the companion volume, the actual transformation of the transcripts into book form followed his exploration through the records of the original filming at Esalen Institute, the National Arts Club, and finally at the Campbell home in Honolulu. He also had the great fortune of being able to select passages from the videotaped lectures on "The Perennial Philosophy," "James Joyce and Thomas Mann," and "Psyche and Symbol" from Joe Campbell's last official lecture tour (which Stuart Brown—"with tremendous foresight and courage"—had videotaped between 1982 and 1983). Cousineau further consulted the audiotaped panel discussion after the West Coast premiere of The Hero's Journey at the Director's Guild in Los Angeles in May 1987.

Personal Aside

As I reviewed the film and its companion volume for this entry—the first of a series on Phil's work—I had that peculiar experience of returning to a book whose pages I had marked with post-its, flagging passages that held personal resonance for me at the time of my first reading. Nearly 20 years later I meditate on those marked passages, curious as to who I was then as opposed to now and what—at that time—I held of importance, much in the selfsame manner Campbell himself proposed when he suggested that underlining sentences was his practice of meditation.

My scholasticism at the time was steeped in seeking mythic relevance to my Mesoamerican studies in order to provide a psychological hook to my on-site lectures. I was shaping my voice in field by combining these two fields of academia. During the Esalen sessions when Campbell was filmed in conversation with a rich mix of personages, Angeles Arrien brought up the mythic motifs of water and rock. "Well, yes," Campbell responded, "and the tree and the rock are also motifs: These rocks are the enduring, and the tree the living symbol. James Joyce plays with it in Finnegan's Wake, where he speaks about the 'tree stone'—Tristan—the one who is wealthy, the eternal rock, ever-growing life." (1990:11) I loved that passage—and flagged it—because I had recently learned of the Maya term tetun, which means "tree stone", their description of their stelae, or monumental sculpture. This was just one more example of—not so much diffusionist contact—but the archetypal underpinnings of diverse cultural expression. I could list numerous other examples I found through the post-its I adhered so many years ago; but, rather, encourage your own exploration, through both film and companion volume. Suffice it to say that—after his death—I was the first person allowed to lecture with Campbell's own slides about his only-partially formed theories on Mesoamerican cultures. That remains one of the highlights of my personal experience.

The only other reflection I will mention, however, is to acknowledge the profound influence Phil Cousineau has had upon my interview technique, specifically in his handling of Joseph Campbell who had been long reluctant to reveal much of his personal biography. Phil was quick to observe that the template of the monomyth that Campbell taught to others was resident in Campbell's own life's journey. "There were choice passages here and there," Phil wrote, "in our own filming of him over the three-year period, in the scattered interviews found in library stacks, and during our casual conversations with him about how he had recognized, in meandering through the maze of his own life, the various stages of the hero journey: the calls to adventure, the mentors and allies, the threshold guardians, the dark forest, the bringing back of the boon to the community." (1990:xvii) Cousineau convinced Campbell that for the dramatic structure of the documentary, it would be compelling to chronicle the nature of Campbell's own learning process. "How did he discover the themes that became the crossbeams of his work? Why did he connect the Navajo material to the Hindu? When did he first align in his mind the twilight myths of the Celts with Joyce's nightworld novels?" (Ibid.)

It is this tendency to seek connections rather than divisions that informs most of my own work, including my writing on film, and my conversations with filmmakers. It is why I refuse to be a critic and why I insist upon remaining an enthusiast. It is my way of honoring my teacher Joe Campbell and to carry aloft—in my own way—the flame of his ideas.

2008 FRAMELINE32—Ciao

"Every parting is a meeting elsewhere."—Ursula LeGuin

"Hello good-bye."—The Beatles

Whether journeys are internal or external, whether the geographies traversed are the landscapes of different countries or the inscapes of grief, the mystery of desire is such that—whether inspired by lack or affinity—desire counsels, as did Rilke in the face of ruin: "You must change your life." This is not only desire's counsel; but, ultimately, death's as well.

Beautifully subdued, astutely nuanced, handsomely cast, Yen Tan's accomplished Ciao (site) tells the intersecting story of three men: Mark (who is killed in an automobile accident even before the film's narrative commences; his presence rendered evocatively through absence and memory); Jeff (Mark's longtime Dallas friend); and Andrea (Mark's Italian online dalliance). Jeff and Andrea, though strangers to each other, become brothers in grief over the course of a weekend visit and perhaps—the film suggests—they could become even more. Some say Death is the middle of a long life and Ciao's exploratory and open-ended character-driven narrative seems to promise just that.

What makes this film lovely is also its clearly collaborative spirit and texture. Adam Neal Smith, as Jeff, sustains a guarded vulnerability that is quite lovely to watch. Directed and co-written by Malaysian-born filmmaker Yen Tan, Ciao is co-written by one of its leading men Alessandro Calza (whose smoldering good looks and pronounced talent as graphic designer will—I predict—guarantee him a huge San Francisco fanbase). The atmospheric lensing by Michael Roy, in intimate partnership with the production design by Clare Floyd Devries, are leanly and deferentially enhanced by Stephan Altman's score, and consummately edited by a favorite around these parts—David Patrick Lowery—one of the film's co-producers. Thank you, David, for alerting me to this tone-poem of a film. The essence of the film's title implies its momentum—both hello and goodbye—heartfelt in one fell swoop.

A slideshow of black and white production stills entitled Bianco y Nero can be found on Facebook. And along with the YouTube interview with Yen Tan and Alessandro Calza offered below, Jerome Weeks interviews Tan for Art&Seek and Arnold Wayne Jones touches base with Calza for Dallas Voice.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

THE HOBBIT—The WETA Online Chat With Guillermo Del Toro and Peter Jackson

The official WETA website has posted the transcript of a great online chat with directors Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, in which they answer many questions about their collaboration on the forthcoming Hobbit films, for which writing and preproduction has already begun. There's a TON a great information in there for Rings fans.

My thanks to Eric Lilleǿr for the alert. Cross-published on Twitch.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Though I was not pleased to read at Text of Light that the print of Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life that Max Goldberg caught at its weeklong run at the Roxie Film Center "had evidently been around the block a few times", I was heartened that Max nonetheless appreciated Still Life's resemblance to Antonioni's films: "[W]here Antonioni's figures are existential drifters, Jia's are actual migrants—a more physically vivid vision of dislocation. Both directors like the idea of a fruitless search and both find something colossal in ruins and large-scale urban decay, but Still Life's lament isn't airless in the same way as Red Desert or L'eclisse." Max likewise felt empathic resonances with the news of the Sichuan earthquake. The film's images—"composed in form; raw in subject"—looped in his mind along with the radio reports, becoming inseparable. As if to enforce the resonance, he placed production stills from Still Life alongside photographs from The New York Times coverage of the damage in Sichuan.

It's perhaps best that Max's Text of Light entry went up after my San Francisco International Film Festival 75-words hold review. Including it there might have tipped the balance.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has now officially announced the local premieres of Jia Zhang-ke's newest films—Dong (2006) and Useless (2007)—screening June 5 and June 8. Dong ("east" in Mandarin) is the companion piece to Still Life, in which Jia "beautifully explores the possibilities of documenting life and art." With the Three Gorges serving as a stunning backdrop, Jia follows Liu Xiao-dong—one of China's leading painters—as he paints two portraits: one of laborers at the Three Gorges dam and one of young female models in Bangkok. "As with much of his other work, Jia examines fantasy, landscape and the underlying realities of ordinary people caught in a whirlwind of rapid change."

Useless examines the "spiritual life" of the Chinese clothing industry—the largest exporter of garments in the world. "First an assembly line in Canton, where under the thunderous noise of sewing machines women work silently. Next we meet acclaimed Chinese designer Ma Ke, launching her handmade anti-fashion clothing line in Paris. Finally we spend a dusty afternoon in Fenyang in a tiny tailor's shop."

And just when it seems San Francisco had belatedly caught up to Jia's output, along come the reports from the recently-wrapped Cannes Film Festival—compiled by Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily—that 24 City evocatively continues Jia Zhang-ke's concern with the onslaught of change in China. Echoing Max Goldberg, Anthony Kaufman dispatched to indieWIRE that "Jia's poetic vision of demolition and progress takes on disturbing new resonances after the recent earthquake that killed thousands of people in the same area where the film takes place. One has to wonder whether 24 City, the high-rise luxury apartment complex that has replaced Factory 420, is still standing."

San Franciscans should keep their fingers crossed that 24 City will be included in YBCA's Jia Zhang-ke retrospective scheduled for their 2008-2009 program (dates to be announced). The retrospective falls under the calendar year's topical aegis "Imagining Our Future." Imagining the unknowable and driven by a sense of urgency about the future, Jia Zhang-ke's oeuvre deals with themes of youth, contemporary Chinese history and globalization, with a minimal yet realistic aesthetic. His work speaks to a vision of "authentic" Chinese life, and his consistent return to the themes of alienation and disorientation fly in the face of the work of older filmmakers who present more idealized understandings of Chinese society.

As mentioned earlier in my interview with YBCA film programmer Joel Shepard, YBCA will further their focus on Chinese film with a September residency of radical documentary filmmaker Wang Bing, whose work examines China's past in an attempt to understand its future. Fearlessly delving into buried chapters of China's communist history and shattering the boundaries placed around personal memory, his latest film—Fengming, A Chinese Memoir—is being heralded as a remarkable cinematic hybrid. At once a devastating portrait of an era, a conceptual art piece and a fateful love story, Fengming is a riveting confessional by a woman who survived the horrors of Mao's China.

2008 IMPACT FILM FESTIVAL—Cinemocracy In Action

I've already mentioned Eric Byler's "United For Obama" YouTube Channel, and just received this press release today from the Impact Film Festival.

* * *

The power of film to enlighten and educate on the critical issues facing our nation's leaders will be on full display this summer as Democrats and Republicans convene for the national conventions. The Impact Film Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit announced today that it is bringing filmmakers to Denver and Minneapolis this summer as part of the Impact Film Festival ("IFF") to screen a series of topical documentaries and narratives for lawmakers, candidates and delegates to the conventions. In addition to screenings, each film will have a panel discussion featuring members of the filmmaking community alongside policy makers and other issue experts during the daytime hours of the convention, for lively and important discussions.

"The political conventions are an excellent opportunity to bring the two communities together and elevate some of the films that are dealing with our most important issues," said Jody Arlington, one of the Festival's three co-founders. "We are particularly pleased to be partnering with the Screen Actors Guild in a salute to the artists that bring these stories to light."

IFF will program new films on the Festival circuit that explore key domestic and international priorities that correlate to relevant social issues being discussed at each convention. The films will rally leaders and citizens attending the conventions, the private sector and the film community to engage in nuanced discussions about these important issues.

IFF's programming will be done by a committee of festival programmers and industry visionaries through a recommendation process that ensures IFF-goers are seeing the best films. Programmers for Toronto, Sundance, Independent Film Project (IFP) Tribeca, Los Angeles Film Festival and many others will nominate their selections as will the key doc acquirers for POV, Netflix and others.

In addition to the feature films, IFF will show shorts from the Denver Film Society and Denver Office of Cultural Affairs, "Cinemocracy" online film contest, seeking films defining the meaning of democracy. IFF will also show winners from the 2008 FYI-Film Your Issue online film contest. FYI-Film Your Issue is a two minute online film contest for young people age 14-24 to make films on issues most important to them.

In addition to the day-time screenings, Impact Film Festival will host late night parties at both conventions celebrating the filmmakers and a salute to the Screen Actors Guild.

FRENCH CINEMA—"L'origine de la tendresse" and Other Tales

The World According to Shorts has acquired all U.S. rights to six notable French short films and will release the films theatrically in New York as a package, under the title "L'origine de la tendresse" and Other Tales, on May 30 at Cinema Village, followed by a national release.

The program, created by Jonathan Howell, founder and director of The World According to Shorts, Inc., is the organization's second release, following the critically-acclaimed release in 2006 of an eponymous package of six award-winning international shorts, which was also distributed nationwide, and subsequently released on DVD by New Yorker Video.

The program features the work of a generation of young, up-and-coming filmmakers—the first program of such work from France ever to receive distribution in the United States—and includes a broad range of styles and genres, from animation to fiction to documentary, reflecting the diversity of both the visions of contemporary French filmmakers and the people of France—from foundry workers in Brest to Algerian immigrants transplanted to Paris; the malaise of la vie quotidienne for a wealthy married couple to flirtatious youths in the capital's Metro system.

The Films
Pen-Pusher (2006), dir. Guillaume Martinez, 8 min.

Private pleasures in public spaces and the dalliance of the unspoken underlined word reign paramount in Guillaume Martinez's charming Gratte-papier (Pen-Pusher, 2006), winner of the Silver Bear for Best Short Film at the 2006 Berlinale. Gautam Valluri provides an appreciative synopsis at Broken Projector.

Ma mère, Histoire d'une immigration (My Mother, Story of an Immigration, 2007), dir. Felipe Canales, 15 min.

This documentary reminisce is the story of the filmmaker's mother who left Algeria in 1956 to reunite with her husband in Paris. It is likewise the story of three generations of women: her mother, Zehira's; her daughters'; her granddaughters', recalled through a sequence of still photographs.

Je suis une voix (One Voice, One Vote, 2007), dir. Jeanne Paturle & Cecile Rousset, 13 min.

In the run-up to the 2007 French presidential elections, this animated short looks at the importance of voting. Its style is sketch-like with a two-tone emphasis on the colors teal and coral. With its admonition that voting preserves democracy, it struck me as simplistic. Likewise, its characterization of Venezuela as the poorest country in South America seemed factually inaccurate. I guess I am still soured by America's 2000 elections, stolen by time and other thieves. We won't get fooled again, indeed….

La dernière journée (The Last Day, 2007), dir. Olivier Bourbeillon, 12 min.

On July the 1st 2005, the 1867 Schneider and Co power hammer N°125 ceased operating at the former smithy of the Brest military harbor. This is the story of the machine and its workers' last working day.

L'origine de la tendresse (The Origin of Tenderness, 1999), dir. Alain-Paul Mallard, 32 min.

This centerpiece short, which won the Short Film Award at the Montréal Festival of New Cinema, provides a gentle portrait of Elise—in an understated slow burn performance by Isabelle Nanty. Elise is a quiet, solitary woman who works as a docent at the Bourdelle Museum in Paris. She leads a relatively uneventful life. However, "in a life in which nothing happens, no moment is devoid of meaning." Her quotidian existence is sketched out in calmly observed moments which reveal her kind nature. She listens to a friend's complaints, sweeps her apartment, waters her plants (and drinks from the same water glass), sleeps, fixes her bed and fluffs her pillow, distractedly offers sex to a workmate who discards her for her friend, does her banking by phone, suffers insomnia and sour milk, cleans her windows, washes her dishes, stops a dripping faucet, shelves groceries, encourages an artist sketching in the museum, tries to help a disabled widower locate the tip of a finger he's lost in an accident, offers phone card and chocolate to a mother and daughter in need—all seemingly random moments connected by a spirit of care that informs Elise and distinguishes her as a unique creature of light.

While reading a book in the park, Elise singles out a phrase that seems like a moment of self-discovery: "I've known people who've grown up in a room shared with parents, brothers, sisters and who—by night, covering their ears—read, stubbornly, beside the heater and who've made it out; outwardly generous and dignified, remaining—on the inside—sweet and well-inclined." This revelatory scene concludes with a focus on her bare toes playing with a ginkgo leaf.

L'origine de la tendresse is a lovely half-hour film and my favorite of the collection. Its narrative concludes philosophically: "I've given much thought—without finding any solution—to the origin of civility and of tenderness. As of today, I have no answer." Unconditional kindness has never seemed more mysterious.

Kitchen (2005), dir. Alice Winocour, 15 min.

This comic short was nominated for a Golden Palm at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. I guess you could call it a chamber drama between a woman, her husband and two lobsters; a recipe that turns sour, but not before shorting out all the fuses.

Cross-published on Twitch.

05/29/08 UPDATE: James Van Maanen reviews the collection and interviews programmer Jonathan Howell for The Greencine Daily.

At Slant, Rob Humanick finds Alain-Paul Mallard's centerpiece "an altogether suffocating non-story of one single woman's efforts to find meaning amid her joyless occupation as a museum guard and seemingly irrelevant existence in society. Originally made in 1999, Alain-Paul Mallard's film employs off-center, tightly framed compositions that deny the viewer a sense of place in which to take root, emulating the emotional void of central figure Elise's (Isabelle Nanty) own existence; even scenes that would suggest a release, such as when Elise visits a park and fondles a leaf between her toes, only add to the mounting stranglehold."

Ironically enough, this evening I was reviewing some notes on mythologist Joseph Campbell who—in his youth—had the opportunity to meet sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. "One phrase of his that got into my mind," Campbell recalled, "and it's been there as a kind of guiding phrase ever since: 'L'art fait ressortir les grandes lignes de la nature.' 'Art brings out the grand lines of nature.' " This, sadly, does not seem to hold true for Elise, whose life is demarcated by the simplest of lines.

Vadim Rizov's review for The Village Voice is less obliging. Regarding the centerpiece, Rizov writes: "Nicely framed and observed, there's no center here—no moment of change or self-realization, and no real reason to care otherwise." Mileage always varies, of course. Rizov considers Alice Winocour's Kitchen "the most accomplished of the bunch. It may not erase memories of Annie Hall, but it's the second-funniest use of lobsters I've seen."

Monday, May 26, 2008

IN ROTATION—One Way Street

"I'm in a halfway house on a one-way street and I'm a quarter past left alive."—Ricki Lee Jones

Alan K. Rode is a pal around these parts, not only because he turned me on to Charles McGraw, and not only because he's one of the head honchos of Noir City, but because he's a damn entertaining writer with a pulp swagger and about as insightful as they get on genre films. He publishes far and wide but sporadically gathers select essays at his site One Way Street, the latest addition to my blogroll.

Alan's most recent entry is his assessment of Victor Mature's "bum rap" as an actor. "Conventional critical wisdom long ago pegged Victor Mature as 100% Hollywood beefcake; a rare Tyrolean-Swiss steak from Knoxville, Kentucky who was a graduate of the Cigar Store Indian Drama School. Replete with a toothy, Tyrannosaurus-like smile and sporting a wavy pompadour glistening with 30 weight, Mature was dismissed by those who recall him as De Mille's bare-chested exponent of Philistine urban renewal in Samson and Delilah (1949) or being able to, as he put it, '…make with the holy look' in films like The Robe (1953) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). However, before Mature got biblically pigeonholed by Hollywood, his work on screen, particularly in darkened 20th Century Fox productions, proved to be diverse and distinguished."

Alan details Mature's diversity with some great photos and screen captures. Currently preoccupied with Asian representation in film, I've likewise taken note of The Shanghai Gesture wherein "an ensemble of American and European actors playing Asians in accordance with contemporary Production Code dictates" dish up a "mélange of opium dens, prostitution and torture." Tasty!

Dipping back into Alan's archives, he's paid tribute to the passage of such key collaborators as Richard Widmark and Jules Dassin (whose lustrous Night and the City was the closing night feature at Noir City 6). Alan has stated his "beef" about blood; There Will Be Blood, that is, and the lack of critical discernment he perceives in the accolades heaped on the film, especially the facile comparisons to Citizen Kane: "I can state categorically that not only does this much-ballyhooed film not hold a candle to Citizen Kane; it is simply not a very entertaining movie." He's spotlighted the legacy of character actor Percy Helton, the exemplification of "the downtrodden film noir schlemiel" who "uttered his lines with a breathy vocal lilt akin to the sigh of an exhausted calliope. When alarmed or threatened—a frequent occurrence—he reached a higher octave reminiscent of a damaged ukulele."

Would you believe it, before film noir Alan (like me!) was a "Monster Kid", still retaining a "soft spot" for films he knows "can't endure the slightest critical scrutiny." That being said, when asked by the American Cinematheque to come up with a program that might bear critical scrutiny, he settled on Journey to the Center of the Earth, World Without End, I Bury the Living, The Vampire and Return of Dracula. What I want to know is why he isn't willing to wander down that darkened memory lane with the willing in San Francisco?

Ever attuned to the glories of yesteryear, Alan has researched the near-forgotten Masquers Club of Hollywood. He's reviewed the fare at the 2007 Palm Springs Film Noir Film Festival. He's chalked his cue stick graphing out The Hustler and its symbiotic relationship to the legend of Minnesota Fats. And he's endeavored to revive interest in the careers of Robert Loggia and Richard Anderson, who clearly deserve more attention than they've received in recent years. Alan's attention to subsidiary players and diminished and overlooked careers is, in fact, one of my favorites aspects of his work. It's great to know he's got a site I can periodically check into to learn more.

MOVIESCOPE—Vol. 2, Issue 2

The challenges of independent film distribution are tackled head-on in Jonathan Marlow's incisive Greencine Daily editorial: "Studios didn't build their sales model for you." It's a fiercely opined, sobering, read and I thought I would supplement Jonathan's survey of the woeful state of distribution with a piece I've written for the current issue of movieScope—"Reinventing the Reel: How the Global Film Initiative is changing the business of independent film"—on the multi-platform distribution model adopted by the Global Film Initiative (on whose board I serve). My thanks to Susan Weeks-Coulter, Santhosh Daniel and Simone Nelson of the Global Film Initiative for their editorial assistance.

* * *

In 2004, a small and unassuming Uruguayan film, Whisky (dir. Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll) won the FIPRESCI and Prix du Regard Original prizes at Cannes. Later that year, it went on to win 17 awards worldwide, including top prizes at the Habana and Chicago International Film Festivals, and a Sundance/NHK award. Five years later, long after festival-favorites typically lose their theatrical "shine," Whisky is still in demand. It recently headlined the Latin Beat film festival at Lincoln Center and in 2008, is slated for television broadcast on LinkTV, a nationwide channel reaching over 29 million homes in the United States.

Here's the question on everyone's mind: how is this possible, especially in an industry where a film's shelf-life is often measured by just a few festival appearances? The obvious answer is that when a film is good, audiences will recognize its value regardless of when it first appeared on the festival-circuit. But ask industry-insiders and they'll say it's not just about the film but also about the distributor, which in this case happens to be The Global Film Initiative.

Whisky is one of many films supported and distributed by The Global Film Initiative, a U.S.-based distributor with one of the most dynamic distribution models in today's international film market. Co-founded in 2003 by Susan Weeks Coulter and Noah Cowan [of the Toronto International Film Festival], the Initiative touts itself as a "full service" distributor of films from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, offering production grants to filmmakers and a multi-platform release that includes a full year of high profile screenings through one of the most lauded touring festivals in the U.S. and Canada, Global Lens.

"We're trying to create visibility and credibility for our filmmakers, but also support the industry within their own countries," says Coulter. "If you don't provide some cash, films won't get made. If you don't provide a platform, filmmakers won't get recognized and make a second film. And, if you don't have a distribution deal, you don't have a vehicle to fuel and fund the next project."

Since its founding, the Initiative has awarded grants to support the production of approximately 50 films (including Whisky and 2005 Cannes favorite Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures), and distributed an equal number of films through its Global Lens film series. Anyone familiar with the Initiative will tell you these awards and distribution-deals have nurtured the careers of filmmakers such as Garin Nugroho and Kambozia Partovi, and fostered the growth of burgeoning filmmaking communities around the world, from Chile to Indonesia. Quite an impressive track record for a small, entrepreneurial distributor barely into its sixth year.

But perhaps what makes the Initiative truly unique is its ability to address the concerns of filmmakers in today's increasingly complex international film marketplace. "In the current environment, questions of funding go hand-in-hand with distribution, and questions of distribution are mixed with new technologies, festivals and concerns about home video release," says Simone Nelson, Director of Marketing, Public Relations and Development. "We offer funding for those who qualify, and when we distribute a film, we handle theatrical screenings and home video release, and also all marketing and publicity efforts, including relationships with major U.S. and Canadian festivals. It's one-stop shopping."

In other words, the Initiative is "filmmaker-friendly" with a keen eye for good business and as Nelson points out, is guided by the best interests of its filmmakers and their audiences, not GFI's bottom-line. For most distributors, such a philosophy is anathema to good business but for the Initiative—whose ostensible goal is to use its multi-platform format to generate both visibility and revenue for a film—it's the only way to be successful.

"In the case of Whisky, we supported the film with a grant and distribution-deal in 2003, closely followed its progress through the festival-circuit in 2004, and released it through the 2005 Global Lens series. The film was first screened in theatrical locations and a year later, released in home video and then broadcast television," says Santhosh Daniel, Director of Programs. "Throughout the entire process, we were in close contact with the filmmaker and producers. As a result, it's still playing in theaters and has likely earned more than what it might have through traditional distributors."

Whisky, however, is not The Global Film Initiative's only success-story. Fuse (dir. Pjer Zalica, Bosnia & Herzegovina), Night of Truth (dir. Fanta Regina Nacro, Burkina Faso) and Kilometre Zero (dir. Hiner Saleem, Iraqi Kurdistan) are just a few of the many films that have enjoyed similar success. Of course, this success is not only due to the Initiative's distribution platform, but also the rapidly growing audience for films distributed through the increasingly popular Global Lens film series.

In 2007, more than 20,000 people attended screenings of Global Lens throughout the United States and Canada. In 2008, the Initiative expects that number to increase dramatically, largely due to the rising popularity of Global Lens, and a shift in how the series is screened theatrically. Five years ago, when the series was first launched, it was an unknown entity and the only format for screenings was 35mm. But over the years, as the Initiative has "branded" the series through smart marketing and exemplary films, it has also used advances in digital technologies to make the series more accessible, resulting in an exponential increase in audiences that can see films in the series.

"Currently, our Global Lens 2008 series is screening in more than forty cities nationwide, on both 35mm an DVD," says Daniel. "The venues and hosting organizations range from the Museum of Modern Art and AFI Silver to small theaters and cultural institutions, as well as known festival groups, such as the Seattle and Palm Springs International Film Festivals. Films are showcased with only eight or nine other films, providing far greater exposure for a film than what occurs via traditional festivals. All of this occurs before we even consider releasing the film in home video to audiences."

If festivals launch a film into the public eye, audience-interest is what provides the film with longevity far beyond the festival circuit. Cultivating this "interest" is part-and-parcel of the Initiative's distribution philosophy. Perhaps the most creative example of how this is done is the Initiative's Education Program, which presents free educational screenings of selected Global Lens films for high school students wherever the touring series is shown. The Program focuses on instilling an appreciation for "foreign" film among age-groups that don't typically attend festivals and as Coulter explains, "It's critical to remember that—in order to avoid having our audiences die out—younger generations must be exposed to new cinematic perspectives in the hope of creating a future for these films."

This non-traditional approach to film distribution is a hallmark of the Initiative and as Coulter mentions, "Is what makes us appealing to filmmakers—we're not afraid to expand, adapt and innovate." Indeed. In the last year, the Initiative has expanded its Education Program to include a new web-based media program, Bluescreen, that can be used by students and educators to learn and study global arts and culture using Global Lens films. In previous years, the Initiative has shown films on airlines and in the coming year, it will explore expanded television distribution of films, global screening partnerships and the newest buzz in the film industry: Internet distribution.

All of these things contribute to the "shelf-life" of a film and ultimately, what is fast-becoming the "go to" distributor for international film in the United States and Canada. And, as Coulter says, "If you just want your film to be seen, take it to a festival. If you want your film to be remembered, bring it to us."

Cross-published on Twitch.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


The Evening Class is a great fan of the work of Eric Byler and it was a distinct pleasure to interview Eric when Tre screened at the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.

Now available on DVD, Ben Hamamoto has written a piece for Nichi Bei Times emphasizing Tre's "landmark" status as the first film directed by hapa writer/directors Kimberly-Rose Wolter and Eric Byler to feature hapa romantic leads, Wolter and Daniel Cariaga.

The DVD release of Tre features a seven-chapter Q&A commentary by Byler wherein he waxes eloquent on many aspects of his filmmaking process, including how "hybrid identity" folds into the layers of meaning in his films.

Other DVD bonus features include a behind-the-scenes documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Reuben Aaronson, and the inclusion of Eric's student film, Kenji's Faith.

This is all excellent news in and of itself, but I've likewise been meaning to single out Eric's consummate filmwork activism—most recently in support of the Obama campaign—for which he and his committed collaborators have created a YouTube channel "United For Obama" wherein Eric's various videos have been compiled for easy reference and appreciation.

Cross-published on Twitch.

2008 FRAMELINE32—Chris & Don: A Love Story

"We don't need no piece of paper from the City Hall keeping us tied and true…"—Joni Mitchell, "My Ol' Man"

Historically, the California Supreme Court's recent decision affirming gay marriage—while good news—doesn't take away much from the countless couples who committed themselves without sanction in decades past; the intergenerational partnership of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy being perhaps one of the most infamous, if not controversial. That lifelong partnership is affectionately documented in Guido Santi's and Tina Mascara's Chris & Don: A Love Story (site), which Variety's Robert Koehler describes as "focusing on the texture and sweetness of a particularly beguiling real-life gay love saga."

At The House Next Door, Keith Ulrich—fortunate to have been one of Bachardy's models—discerns that the film's "overall sense" is "of an ultimately unbreakable love's consecration." On the other hand, the disdain of Ulrich's cohort N.P. Thompson for "the dreary obsession elderly queer men have for young male flesh" and "the predatory (is there any way that it can't be?) relationship" (what he calls a "sycophantic love-fest") between Isherwood and Bachardy—colors his "review" with a shade just this side of homophobia, though it's perhaps best to simply call it unkind. Enthused by his condemnation, he actually mentions the documentary here and there.

Thompson's arched and disapproving eyebrow is hardly solitary, however. Even Dr. Evelyn Hooker—Isherwood's landlord at the time he met Bachardy—expressed disapproval of the relationship, necessitating their evacuating his beloved garden cottage. So much for praising the social adjustment of self-identified homosexuals. And Joseph Cotten—who the documentary suggests would never dream of confronting Isherwood directly—was fond of singling Bachardy out at parties to dispense vitriol about "half-men."

The documentary is composed of an astonishing wealth of home movie footage and archival photography; interviews with Leslie Caron, John Boorman "and even Miss Liza herself" (as Rod Armstrong understates it); and tender and insightful animated sequences where Isherwood and Bachardy's animal alter-egoes—an old horse and a young cat, respectively—reveal the complicated and nuanced dynamic of their love for one another. The film's final animated sequence confirms the necessary belief that love conquers death.

06/30/08 UPDATE: Kevin Thomas interviews filmmakers Guido Santi and Tina Mascara for The Los Angeles Times. I genuinely regret not feeling up to interviewing the two of them when they were in San Francisco attending Frameline, and especially missing the chance to meet Don Bachardy. I had wanted to ask him about William Goyen, having recently become aware that Bachardy's drawings of Goyen are in the UT archives in Austin.

In retrospect, I think what has always impressed me the most about the relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy is precisely the provocative charm of their intergenerational romance, no matter how it makes tongues wag and cluck. As a young man, I was repeatedly more attracted to older men than men my own age precisely because they afforded sociality and the advantage of experience. As much as N.P. Thompson would like to color this as recruitment on the part of "the dreary obsession elderly queer men have for young male flesh", the truth remains that—as a young man in my late teens—I was the aggressor in these seductions. For fear of repercussion and scrutiny, older men would try to veer away but I was the one in relentless pursuit. I would have my experience! The hunger of my youth would not be dissuaded.

It's a complete misobservation to presume that the innocence of youth cannot coexist side by side with determined calculation. The truth is as well that the pleasure my older lovers derived in being pursued by someone younger was not just about my "young male flesh"—though I'd like to think that was of some commerce at the time—but, more about being valued for their life experience and being offered the opportunity to share their accrued privilege and wisdom. Now in my mid-50s, I find myself sometimes inversely fantasizing on the same. Admittedly, I would never chase after a young man; but, if he came chasing after me, I would probably slow down to a sauntering stroll to see what it is I might possibly give him to help him individuate. Nothing is more wonderful than helping a youthful soul unfold. In the case of Chris and Don, this is eloquently expressed. Christopher Isherwood helped Don Bachardy become a creative spirit. If that isn't the ultimate love story; I don't know what is.

Cross-published on Twitch.

2008 FRAMELINE32—The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela

I wish Pee Wee Herman were still around. If he were, we could make "transtastic" the word of the day and scream outloud whenever it's used at the Frameline Film Festival, which will be often with regard to Olaf de Fleur Johannesson's docudrama The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (site). Billed as a transsexual Cinderella story, this Berlinale Teddy winner is amazingly engaging for its heady blend of gritty vérité and whimsical fairy tale. Why should I care about froggy-throated Filipina "lady-boy" Raquela Rios and the journey by which she lifts herself out of the gutters of Cebu City, through Internet porn, through Icelandic fish factories, to a delicately-staged freedom in Paris? Because it documents the desire each and every one of us has to achieve our dreams. Because each and every one of us deserves a better life. Because we're all orphaned royalty exiled from our true kingdom. If Queen Raquela can do it—however she has to—we all can do it, however we must.

Annika Pham spoke with Johannesson for Cineuropa when Raquela screened at the Berlinale. Aaron Hillis did the honors for Premiere at this year's SXSW Film Festival. Pop Matters' Kevin John rightfully describes Stefan C. Schaefer's pornmeister performance of Michael as "brilliant" and specifies that—far from a "pity piece"—Queen Raquela's "sounds and images insinuate rather than inform." The Austin Chronicle's Kate Getty describes Raquela's voice as "a tangled mess of transition."

Of notable interest is that—amongst the film's many co-producers, including Johannesson's own company Poppoli Film—is Blue Eyes Productions, run by Baltasar Kormákur (Jar City). I recall Kormákur referencing the project when we spoke at last year's Toronto International.

Cross-published at Twitch.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

2008 FRAMELINE32—Michael Hawley's Anticipatory Remarks

You've got to love it when festival programmers anticipate your every desire. That's certainly how I felt when Frameline Artistic Director Michael Lumpkin and Director of Programming Jennifer Morris announced the line-up for this year's event at a press conference earlier this week. There were seven films I'd hoped to find on the roster and I'll be darned if Frameline hasn't bagged all seven of them for me:

* Before I Forget—French actor/director Jacques Nolot's acclaimed follow-up to 2002's Porn Theater promises another arch contemplation on being geriatric and gay.

* Jihad for Love—A festival Showcase screening of Parvez Sharma's documentary look at the lives and struggles of gay and lesbian Muslims.

* The Amazing Truth about Queen Raquela—Winner of the Teddy Award for Best Feature at this year's Berlin Film Festival, Olaf de Fleur Johannesson's docudrama celebrates the fanciful international exploits of a Filipina tranny.

* Be Like Others—Tanaz Eshagian's documentary about transsexuals in Iran, where they'll stone you to death for being gay, but getting it cut off is AOK. Winner of a Berlin Teddy jury award.

* Japan Japan—Lior Shamriz' quasi-experimental featurette about the mundane and confused existence of a young queer living in Tel Aviv.

* La León—Winner of the top prize at the recent Torino International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, Santiago Otheguy's atmospheric B&W widescreen film contemplates one man's isolation and longing on a remote Argentine island.

* Otto; or Up with Dead People—Longtime Frameline habitué Bruce LaBruce sends up the zombie genre with his customary sex-and-anarchy aplomb.

Of course, those seven selections represent just the glowing tip of the festival's 88-feature film iceberg. For starters, this year's Centerpiece film is XXY, which was Argentina's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars. This bold portrait of a 15-year-old intersex teen stars renowned Argentine actor Ricardo Darin. I caught it at the Palm Springs International Film Festival earlier this year, and can definitely give it a recommendation.

In addition to A Jihad for Love, three other documentaries are getting the Showcase treatment at Frameline32. I'm most excited about Derek, Issac Julien and Tilda Swinton's collaborative tribute to the genius of queer British filmmaker Derek Jarman. (The film screens one time only at 4:30 p.m. on Pride Sunday, so I'm hoping no one too fabulous is headlining the main stage down at Civic Center). Frameline mainstays Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) will also be presenting their new HBO short, When I Knew. The film compiles on-camera confessions of the "a-ha" moment each LGBT youth experiences—the one that triggers an awareness of being "different" from one's peers. Frameline attendees will be encouraged to record their own stories at the When I Knew Video Booth located behind the Castro Theater, and the results will be screened as a companion piece to When I Knew. Finally, the festival will screen a restored print of the groundbreaking 1977 documentary Word is Out.

There are a whopping 37 programs in the festival's Documentary section this year, and four of them immediately caught my attention. Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band tells the story of everyone's favorite queer punk group, who gained notoriety and fame touring with Dookie-era Green Day in 1994. After the screening on Thursday, June 26, original band members will reunite for a gig at the Eagle Tavern on 12th Street. Seventies porn-star Jack Wrangler is the subject of Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, which focuses on his adult film career, as well as his 2nd and 3rd acts as legit theater director and husband to Big Band singer Margaret Whiting. The Kinsey Sicks: Almost Infamous follows the always hilarious Bay Area drag-a-pella political comedy troupe as they prepare for an extended engagement at the Las Vegas Hilton. Oscar-winning director Ruby Yang will be represented by two short films: A Double Life looks at the conflicted lives of three young gay men living in Beijing, and The Blood of Yingzhou District (for which Yang won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short) examines the effect of AIDS on a rural Chinese village.

The World Cinema section is always my favorite at Frameline, from whence hail five of the seven films on my wish list. Of the remaining 16 films in this category, I'm most anticipating the world premiere of Maher Sabry's All My Life. Lauded in the catalog capsule as "the most daring and sexually explicit portrait of homosexual life in Egypt yet put on screen," this 150-minute epic is about one young man's efforts to cope with life in Cairo after his boyfriend gets married and his best (girl)friend moves to San Francisco. Other films of note in this section are German-Turkish director Fatih Akin's excellent The Edge of Heaven (for those who missed it at Berlin & Beyond or during its Bay Area theatrical run) and Saturn in Opposition, the latest from Italian-Turkish director Ferzan Ozpetek (Steam, Facing Windows, His Secret Life). Those who enjoyed last year's Taiwanese Spider Lilies will certainly want to see director Zero Chou's latest film, Drifting Flowers. I'm also intrigued by Singaporean directors Kan Lume and Loo Zihan's Solos, a dialogue-free accounting of a sexual relationship between a student and teacher. Unspoken Passion is this year's Filipino rent boy melodrama.

All this is just a fraction of what's on offer at Frameline32, so you'll need to check out the festival catalog or website for the complete picture. For example, there are 12 titles in the U.S. Features section, all of which are unknown entities to me (although based on its title, I'm inclined to check into The Gay Bed & Breakfast of Terror). I'm sure there are many little treasures to be found in any one of the festival's 15 programs of shorts ("Worldly Affairs" contains Bramadero, by acclaimed Mexican director Julián Hernández of Broken Sky and A Thousand Clouds of Peace fame.) And I sheepishly admit that I'm almost certainly giving short shrift to the numerous lesbian programs to be found in each section.

Lastly, on a bit of a sad note, it's been announced that Michael Lumpkin will be leaving Frameline after 28 years of service. Lumpkin joined Frameline as a volunteer in 1979, was producing the festival four years later, and is certainly a prime reasons why it's become the oldest, biggest and best LGBT film festival in the world. The festival will be honoring Lumpkin with this year's Frameline Award, and the man himself has curated a retrospective of seven Frameline favorites from years past, which will be screened throughout the festival. They are Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche, Pedro Almodóvar's Law of Desire, Andy and Larry Wachowski's Bound, John Greyson's Lilies, Thomas Bezucha's Big Eden, Joseph Ramaka's Karmen Geï and Pieter Kramer's Yes Nurse! No Nurse!

2008 FRAMELINE32: THE SENSEIThe Evening Class Interview With Diana Lee Inosanto

Diana Lee Inosanto—who has written and directed, and stars as Karen O'Neil in The Sensei—spoke with me by phone in early December 2007, the morning after she accompanied The Sensei to Anchorage, Alaska (where it was screened as part of World AIDS Day). Diana was feeling gratified because the screening had played to a packed, appreciative audience. Further, she was struck by the odd beauty of the sun not rising until 9:00 in the morning and was anticipating visiting her first Alaskan glacier later in the day.

Though I had not yet seen The Sensei and it had not yet been confirmed in the Frameline line-up, I was nonetheless interested in helping to generate attention to the film's initial screenings.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Diana, exactly what is a sensei? Can you frame what kind of martial arts are being depicted in your film?

Diana Lee Inosanto: Sensei simply means "the teacher" in Japanese. The martial arts in the film are a metaphor. Karen starts off with the traditional martial arts taught by her family; but—after a five-year absence—she comes back to her hometown, at which time you can see that she is using diverse martial arts. The metaphor is about diversity. I tried to use that metaphor throughout the film to express my theme of tolerance.

At the screening last night someone in the audience likewise noticed that Karen was using multiple martial arts techniques and asked how that was possible. I explained that—because she was a woman—she had been denied the right to earn her black belt. In anger and frustration, she left home for five years and—during that time—she learned other forms of martial arts.

Guillén: The film's theme of tolerance is expressed in multiple narrative threads, not only how the martial arts community has excluded Karen as a woman, but how they have excluded the film's young protagonist McClain Evans (Michael O'Laskey, II) as a gay male. Can you speak to where the martial arts community stands on these issues of tolerance?

Inosanto: Even though martial arts are in the film, they're the background of the story, which is really more about Karen's relationship with McClain. The issue of the movie is about bullying and what it's like to be a gay teenager who's ostracized for being different. As the film goes along, this woman is able to help this kid achieve a peace with living. In McClain's back story, he had tried to commit suicide and Karen—through their relationship—is able to help him understand the wonders of living vs. being absolutely distressed with life.

Guillén: To further underscore your theme of tolerance, you've set the film at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic when—out of fear—the general public was at its most intolerant. I don't know if you're aware or not, but I seroconverted in the mid-'80s and have been HIV+ close to 25 years now. It was during the mid-'90s that this particular fire seared my life. I lost my longtime partner of 12 years and several close friends. It was an excrutiatingly painful time, not only to lose loved ones, but to face the apathy and/or the intolerance of people around me, even here in the mobilized Bay Area. The thesis of your film enunciates perfectly just how much more horrible it would have been to weather this period in a remote rural area.

I would like to say that in the 10 years since then my grief has dissipated; but, in fact, I live perpetually in the gravitational grip of what I call the Death Horizon. But I want to stress that this is a spiritual space for me that informs my life with consciousness and resonance. One thing I have become quite conscious of, especially in the last year or so, is an ongoing complacency that has seized the public consciousness. There are many who act as if the AIDS pandemic is overwith and who have already forgotten what so many of us endured and lost. That's frustrating for me to witness. Thus, I must commend you for re-creating the spirit of that crisis as a reminder that these issues are still very much with us and far from over.

Inosanto: Thank you, Michael. Oh my gosh, thank you very much. The inspiration for The Sensei was obviously a combination of the stories of Gilbert Johnson—who was the co-author along with my Uncle Bruce [Lee] for the Tao of Jeet Kune Do as well as my father's book, and of course the Matthew Shepard case—but, what really impacted me was when I went to the Ryan White Conference in Washington, D.C. one year after 9/11. I was shocked to learn that 30% of the people in New York who donated blood found out they were HIV+ or had full-blown AIDS and didn't even know it! This data wasn't even posted in the newspapers until 2005-2006 because national attention was on what was going on in the Middle East. That's insanity! I became fascinated, when talking to a doctor in D.C., when he said that the gay community had the support systems under control; it was the straight community that had gone underground and was trying to mask and disguise the disease as something else because they were afraid and didn't want anyone to know.

I found the same problem in Colorado when I went to go film in this small town called Sterling in the northern region. This woman who runs an AIDS organization was telling me that the people there are in hiding. We needed extras for our film and her organization helped to provide us with the red ribbons and all that and I said, "Bring people out here to be extras" and she said, "They would love to but they're so scared. They don't want to ID themselves. They just don't want people to know." This was 2005!

Guillén: Very sad. One aspect of my activism has always been honest disclosure of my condition so that people remain aware that this is something I fight with every day. I ask people to remember, to remain vigilant, to not forget.

You mentioned the influence Gilbert Johnson had on you. Could you talk a little bit more about how he was the inspiring heart for The Sensei?

Inosanto: Gilbert Johnson was a straight martial arts expert who contracted AIDS. Most people would have assumed at the time this news came out that AIDS was a gay disease. We know obviously that's not the case; that it can infect anyone. Gilbert was in a horrible car accident in Morocco and contracted the AIDS virus through a blood transfusion. What was amazing when he came back from Morocco was that he jumped into activism. He became an activist and stood beside the gay community. As a straight man, he said, "Listen, this is not just a gay disease but a disease that can affect anyone and we need to do what we can to stop it." He was like John the Baptist trying to forewarn everyone. I remember seeing him on local TV when I was a teenager and I remember thinking it was so gutsy of him to come out because the martial arts community is still very conservative. I hold him in such high regard for what he did while he was alive.

Guillén: Is the martial arts community still conservative with regard to—not only AIDS or gays—but their lack of parity in advancing women through their hierarchy?

Inosanto: Absolutely! They sure are. I know of many cases where women have not received their black belts or have not been allowed to advance that far. In fact they are often discouraged to discontinue their training and not participate in many of the systems out there. There are thousands of different styles of martial arts; but, yeah, to this day, there are still many systems that will not advance women and will not give them the credit they are due, which is horrible. It's getting better but still not as fast as I would like. I come from a very famous martial arts family who are wise.

I used to work in Hollywood as an actor and a stuntwoman; but, on the side, I would have to teach martial arts with my husband and so I would travel all around the world and visit all kinds of different martial arts schools. The subject matter came up a few times at some schools where gays wanted to learn martial arts because they were being picked on and some of the owners of these martial arts schools wouldn't allow gay students who were "out" because they were afraid of the repercussions that the community could turn on them and they could lose business. I thought that was fascinating and horrible at the same time. Here we are in the new millennium and this, for me, is horrible when a martial arts teacher—who in my eyes is supposed to teach people how to defend themselves—denies training to someone who needs the help. That became the heart of The Sensei. Along with secrecy. Karen's family—who won't teach McClain because he's gay—forces her to teach him secretly so he can protect himself.

Guillén: It appears The Sensei is trying to restore martial arts as a spiritual discipline and not just the action choreography that most people associate with martial arts.

Inosanto: Oh good, I'm glad you got that! Yes, that's my point. Absolutely. Through the characters of McClain and Karen, though they are very different individuals, they're able to find an inner peace, especially McClain, through martial arts. The film has no wire-fu, no flying or anything like that. We tried to make everything grounded and realistic. In fact, my husband Ron Balicki—who did the choreography for The Prodigy—also choreographed the martial arts in The Sensei.

Guillén: It's my understanding he sought to present the martial arts in the film as real and as something that could actually happen on the street?

Inosanto: Exactly. But that's the same thing he did in The Prodigy. Once you have the chance to see the fight scenes in The Sensei, you'll see that Karen is not completely the best martial artist because—even as well-trained as you are—sometimes you do get hurt; but, you have the tools to hold your own. Customarily, in most movies, you walk away unscathed. [Laughs.] But I wanted it to be as realistic as possible.

Guillén: McClain, your protagonist in The Sensei, is patterned after Matthew Shepard. Can you speak about your interaction with Matthew's parents Judy and Dennis Shepard and their foundation?

Inosanto: I'll tell you, it's quite interesting how this all happened. My associate producer Erin Quill had a lot of great relationships with people on Broadway because she had been a Broadway actress. Through another actor named Alec Mafa—who had a relationship with Judy Shepard—she told him about how she was an associate producer on The Sensei and how she really wanted Judy Shepard to know about the movie. We had had some political problems. We were really given a hard time by the Colorado School District who wouldn't let us film. Through our contact we were able to reach Judy Shepard and the Matthew Shepard Foundation and—when they heard about what we went through in Colorado and all the politics that went on around our filming—they reached out to us. My associate producer set up a private screening in Denver for the Foundation staff and they loved it. They said, "We're planning to do a film festival. Judy wants to help you. We want to showcase your film and do everything we can to help your movie." It's been such a blessing. From that point on, I've had expressed interest from representatives of the Human Rights Campaign and the Museum of Tolerance. The journey has been unbelievable, as has the number of groups who find The Sensei important—not only because it addresses the AIDS issue but because it also addresses the issue of hate crimes and intolerance.

Guillén: I'm aware you're just beginning to show the film at festivals; but, has there been any word on potential distribution?

Inosanto: We're waiting. The film is being represented by the William Morris Agency and they seem to feel there are distribution companies that they think will take on this film. From what I understand, the challenge is how to categorize the film. Though the film has a gay character, it can't really be called a gay movie even though it speaks clearly about tolerance. From different angles. On the other hand there's an Asian American family but you can't say it's an Asian American film necessarily. There's also a spiritual inspirational aspect and that might be how the Agency chooses to market it. It's weird how you have to pigeonhole your film to market it. [Laughs.]

Guillén: Since you bring it up, when you were in San Francisco you and I discussed the burgeoning genre of spiritual cinema. Can you speak of your own experiences or understandings of that genre?

Inosanto: I would love to. I do share that in the film. You must be familiar with the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross?

Guillén: Yes, I am.

Inosanto: One of her first books was called On Death and Dying. That book really influenced me on how I approached The Sensei. I was lucky enough that one of my good friends, who's something of a mother figure to me, was a protégé under Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as a nurse who worked with patients at a hospice center. Spiritually, I wanted the film to address not only tolerance but the inevitability of death. In America we have such a horrible attitude about dying and I wanted the film to approach it spiritually, that death is natural, that death is a transition. That's why I wrote the sequence with Tzi Ma as the Buddhist monk because I knew there were a lot of Buddhists out on the scene when AIDS first hit that were trying to compassionately help people with that transition. Tzi Ma's line—"What would happen if you sat down with Death and offered it a cup of tea?"—is significant about coming to terms with Death and achieving peace. Also, in life, we are each student and teacher for one another. In the movie Karen is learning as much from McClain as McClain is learning from her.

Guillén: Speaking of Tzi Ma, let's talk about your cast. You have some great actors working on this project—Tzi Ma, Sab Shimono, Keith David, Louis Mandylor—how did you secure them?

Inosanto: I was shocked and so happy that all these great people came on board. Mark McGraw—Tim McGraw's younger brother—is making his debut in my movie playing the villain Rick Beard. I'm very fortunate. There are also some very well-known character actors in the film, like Emily Kuroda (Ms. Kim from The Gilmore Girls).

Guillén: Did you do a casting call or did people sign on to the project through word-of-mouth and community?

Inosanto: I did both actually. It was really important in the beginning that I try to get some decent names who were willing to work for a small amount of money because of the indie budget. [Laughs.] The first two people we approached were Keith David and Louis Mandylor. When they both read the script, they said absolutely, we'll do the film. Louis did such a remarkable job and Keith was wonderful.

Then I went to Sab. He was supposed to have a smaller role but he said, "No, I really want to play your grandfather in this." I was like [incredulous], "Really?" He agreed to play the grandfather Taki Nakano. It was interesting because the film was shot in Colorado, not too far from where he was raised in the Colorado internment camps. For him, it was a return to his history as a little boy.

Emily Kuroda auditioned for me and she knocked my socks off. She was amazing. She probably gets the most laughs in the movie. There's humor in my movie too; it's not all just dreary and sad. As a writer, I knew I needed humor in the script so she was wonderful.

Guillén: Since you mention your role as writer, everyone knows it's the script that gets a project going. It's the script that helps a filmmaker solicit talent and financing. Can you speak about developing the script? How long did it take you to write it?

Inosanto: I would say honestly it was probably around seven years in the making. It started off originally as a story about a straight couple dealing with the AIDS epidemic; but, there always seemed to be this missing part to the puzzle. Then the Matthew Shepard case hit the headlines. As a martial arts teacher, I was so upset by that case. I thought, "I wish Matthew had been my student. I could have given him something." I wish that with a lot of bullied teenagers, whatever the cause. I came up with the idea of this paradox. I feel that the gay community gets hit with this double whammy of prejudice. First, they're discriminated against because they're gay and we live in a primarily Judaeo-Christian society and, second, the gay community gets hit with a scarlet letter because of the AIDS epidemic. They're the whipping boy.

It was when I went to the Ryan White Conference in Washington, D.C. that I became motivated to get this done. I had been trying to work on a documentary as well and nothing was moving fast enough because nobody wanted to talk about it. I wasn't getting the results that I needed as a documentary filmmaker. I decided, "Forget it! I would rather put this into a narrative." By 2005, everything was ready. I had written about 10 drafts initially.

Guillén: As a long-time survivor of the HIV virus, I can testify that silence has always been the main nemesis. To this very day. That's why I'm so pleased that you have tackled this issue, that you have broken the silence, and brought this story of human dignity in the face of ultimate crisis back to the forefront. I wish you the very best with this project.