Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Winging in from the Iberian Peninsula come seven Spanish films ready to roost at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF). I'll admire this flock in alphabetical order.

Anything You Want / Todo lo que tú quieras (Achero Mañas, Spain)—Landing in PSIFF's World Cinema Now sidebar, this Spanish dramedy had its International Premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, where I had the chance to watch it. In her official description for TIFF, Diana Sanchez commented: "In a world where parental responsibilities continue to follow traditional gender roles, Achero Mañas's third feature imagines how a father might respond to being thrust into a role traditionally held by a woman." That opportunity arrives when four year-old Dafne's life becomes unhinged after the sudden death of her mother Alicia. Her father Leo (in a brave turn by Juan Diego Botto) tries to be both father and mother to her, but Dafne (adorable Lucía Fernández) really just wants her mom. Leo strives to be just that, and in the process, nearly loses his own identity. "As displayed in his previous work," Sanchez praised, "Mañas has the ability to strike an emotional chord that audiences can relate to, while also presenting morally complex situations with intelligence and compassion. His latest film conveys some wonderful messages about love, tolerance and acceptance. ...Anything You Want demonstrates the power of unconditional love."

It also—in my humble opinion—tests the power of unconditional patience. As much as I wanted to appreciate Anything You Want, I couldn't get past its fatuous and somewhat ingenuine premise. Dafne's handsome father Leo dresses in drag to help his little girl overcome the trauma of her mother's death and—in order to "look" the part—solicits the help of an aging female impersonator (who he can barely stand to be in the same room with) to help him dress and apply his make-up correctly. An admittedly sentimental confection—how can you not admire a father who wants to protect his daughter so earnestly? The "aw" factor is immense!—I doggedly kept up with the film's costume changes and gender acrobatics until the father promises his daughter the titular "anything you want" and begins to dress in drag in public all throughout his work day. This went beyond silly and began to feel insulting. I mean, c'mon.... What? Four-year-old Dafne's spying on Dad at work? I just couldn't accept that Leo wouldn't know the consequences of dressing as a woman in public. His naivete struck me as sheer parental irresponsibility, for which it appears he will be held accountable in the film's final sequence (as the sirens approach). Just what this little girl needs: to have her dad taken away for not respecting anybody's boundaries, including the film's audience. IMDb. Facebook.

Black Bread / Pa Negre (Agustí Villaronga, Spain)—Also situated in World Cinema Now, PSIFF synopsizes: "In the harsh post-Civil War years in rural Catalonia, a shockingly vicious attack takes place. Ten-year-old Andreu (Francesc Colomer) encounters the victims, a father and son. Leaning over the dying boy, Andreu hears him whisper "Pitorliu"—the name of a monster supposedly haunting the village. When Andreu's father is wrongly accused of the murder, the boy sets out to find the real killers and brings to light long hidden secrets. The film's violent opening is an apt foreshadowing of the brutal coming-of-age in store for Andreu in a world of adults nourished by lies, myths and wicked revelations. One of the most creative and individual Spanish filmmakers of his generation, Agustí Villaronga's adaptation of a novel by Emil Teixidor keeps the story moving relentlessly to dark and sinister places while questioning the decency of the human spirit. The breathtaking cinematography and a brilliant ensemble cast made Black Bread one of the best and most discussed films at the 2010 San Sebastian Film Festival."

Dispatching from San Sebastian to The Jigsaw Lounge,
Neil Young notes that Nora Navas won Best Actress for her role as the put-upon wife of an anti-Francoist farmer in 1944 Catalonia. Over all, however, he found Black Bread to be "a fairly stodgy tearjerker with mild supernatural touches that nod to Spanish-language forerunners such as Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and Erice's enduringly seminal 1970s classic The Spirit of the Beehive. Such comparisons are decidedly not to the advantage of Black Bread." Ronald Bergan suffers the same comparisons at MUBI, where he notes those movies "say much more in a less obvious and direct way" and complains that Black Bread is a "never-ending rambling melodrama which pretends to be making a statement on Franco's Spain, but muddies the water with a rights-of-passage drama, 'shocking' sequences, a folk tale of a monster, and a boy that wants to fly. Unfortunately, the film never lives up to its first impressive sequence of someone being killed by a hooded man, and a horse toppling over a cliff." Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Facebook.

Born to Suffer / Nacidas para sufrir (Miguel Albaladejo, Spain)—Again, in PSIFF's World Cinema Now sidebar, this darkly humorous tale proves the bonds of family are stronger than those of commerce and that the suffering theatrics of mothers—especially in competition—have the strongest grip of all.
Official website [Spanish]. IMDb.

Even the Rain / Tambien la lluvia (Icíar Bollaín, Spain / France / Mexico)—Though not officially listed in PSIFF's Awards Buzz program, Even the Rain is Spain's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®. It had its World Premiere in the Contemporary World Cinema program at TIFF 2010, where—unfortunately—I missed it; I'm grateful to catch up to it at PSIFF. Essentially a film about hope, Diana Sanchez writes in her official description for TIFF: "Focusing on the continuing exploitation of Latin America, Bollaín shows the inspirational change that is possible when people band together to fight injustice." The injustice in question is the Cochabamba Water Crisis of 2000 when the Bolivian government decided to privatize the water company, resulting in a 300% increase in water costs. With its narrative premise being that of filmmaker Sebastian (Gael García Bernal) and his film crew arriving in Cochabamba to make a cost-effective film on Christopher Columbus's first voyage to the Americas and finding themselves mired in local protests, Even the Rain effectively blurs the line between fiction and film, past and present. As Sanchez writes: "Effective on many levels, this film within a film draws subtle parallels between the exploitation of the past and the continued exploitation of Latin America by richer countries and multinational corporations. Bollaín's thoughts on the introspection inherent in filmmaking, or in any work of art, are expressed through Sebastian. He has only the best intentions of denouncing the injustices of the past, but little patience for the present dilemma, especially when it starts to impede his shooting schedule."

At Exclaim!,
Christine Estima writes: "This is a bad place we are in, you and I, make no mistake; the world darkens on a daily basis and it seems only a matter of time before the stars themselves go out. Most movies I see take perverse delight in screaming into the void, but while Even The Rain screams, it also attempts to make the void that much smaller." Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

For 80 Days / 80 egunean (Jon Garaño & José Mari Goenaga, Spain)—Situated in PSIFF's World Cinema Now sidebar, in For 80 Days the nuance of an intense childhood friendship is re-explored decades later when two old friends are unexpectedly reunited. While visiting their respective relatives in a shared room of a San Sebastian hospital, two women reconnect some 50 years after their childhood friendship commenced. Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Facebook.

Garbo: The Spy (Edmon Roch, Spain)—Programmed in True Stories (PSIFF's documentary sidebar), Garbo: The Spy offers a fascinating account of an extraordinary Spanish double agent during WWII who helped change the course of history. Garbo: The Spy (aka Garbo, the Man Who Saved the World or Garbo: El Espia) premiered at the Rome Film Festival in October 2009 and concerns Operation Fortitude, codename for the deception operations used by the Allied forces during World War II in connection with the Normandy landings. Fortitude was one of the most successful deception operations of the war and arguably the most important, engineered by the Spanish-born double-agent Juan Pujol—the Nazis called him Alaric; the British called him Garbo.

Julia Barbosa wrote in her program capsule for the San Francisco International Film Festival: "Garbo the spy successfully worked for both the Allies and the Third Reich partly due to the credibility he earned through his impressive knowledge of classified information—information he accounted for with reference to a web of 27 fictitious subagents, supposedly under his command. Honored as a hero on both sides at the end of the war, Pujol subsequently disappeared. Rumor had it he died in 1949 after contracting malaria in Angola—until he was discovered more than 30 years later living a new life, yet again, in Venezuela. Telling the incredible story of this secret agent, who British Intelligence named Garbo for being the 'greatest actor in the world,' director Edmon Roch relies on a collection of eloquent interviews that fluidly guide the viewer through the many lives of a true master at the art of deception. Imaginatively mixing these with archival footage and excerpts from spy films to create a suspenseful and witty tone, Roch constructs a narrative that not only deciphers a fascinatingly complex character but ultimately implicates the documentary process itself in its analysis of the truths to be won from a canny mixture of facts and fictions." Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Paper Birds / Pájaros de Papel (Emilio Aragón, Spain)—Programmed in PSIFF's New Voices / New Visions, Paper Birds is a touching tale of the bonds of friendship amongst the members of a traveling entertainment troupe in post-civil war Spain. The film celebrates the lost art of vaudeville and features superb performances by Spanish acting royalty Imanol Arias, Lluís Homar and Carmen Machi. Winner, Audience Award, Montreal World Film Festival.

At the Montreal Gazette,
Bill Brownstein enjoys synopsizing the plot and concludes: "As added bonuses, the acting is inspired, the choreography and costuming are stunning and the cinematography is exquisite." Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Facebook [Spanish].

Cross-published on


Along with my previously-posted entries on the Argentine film Carancho (1, 2) and the Peruvian entries October and Undertow, the 2011 edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) is rich with representative entries from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica and Venezuela, which I'll explore alphabetically by title.

Hermano (Marcel Rasquin, Venezuela)—Situated in PSIFF's Awards Buzz sidebar as Venezuela's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the 2011 Academy Awards®, Hermano scored multiple honors when it premiered at the 2010 Moscow International Film Festival, including Grand Prix for Best Film, Critics Choice for Best Film, and Audience Choice for Best Film. It went on to win the Cinelatino Audience Award for Best Feature at its North American premiere at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize for Opera Prima (First Film) at the 32nd edition of the Havana Film Festival.

As synopsized by PSIFF: "Two brothers who grew up playing soccer in the dirt fields of their barrio, have their prayers answered when a scout gives them the opportunity to try out with the Caracas Football Club. Daniel, the striker, dreams of being a professional player, but Julio's more pragmatic goals of providing for the family lead him down a darker path. As the details of their lives unfold through the simple act of baking a cake, a raucous party or rooftop romance, we see the sinister undercurrents that threaten to derail everything they hope for, and the bonds of family pushed to the limit. Venezuela's entry for Best Foreign Film tells a bittersweet tale of a brother's love and loyalty being put to the test. With fast-paced, exhilarating action, director Marcel Rasquin captures the raw talent of the young hopeful players, and demonstrates the unifying power of team sports played in a vacant lot."

At Variety, Dennis Harvey notes that Rasquin's engaging first feature "escapes cliché by dint of unpretentious presentation and winning perfs." Also reported at Variety, Music Box Films has recently picked up U.S. rights for Hermano and plan a spring release. Latino Weekly Review acknowledges that soccer is an international sport beloved worldwide and praises Hermano for showing how the power of the sport—as played in vacant lots throughout the world—serves "to unify and create peace even as the darker forces of human survival are played out with every movement of the ball and its agile players." Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Life of Fish, The / La vida de los Peces (Matías Bize, Chile)—In the Awards Buzz sidebar as Chile's official submission to the Oscars®, The Life of Fish likewise boasts its U.S. premiere at PSIFF. Andrés (Santiago Cabrera) is 33 and has been living for 10 years in Berlin, where he works as a travel writer. When he returns to his native Chile on holiday, at a friend's birthday party he rediscovers the world he left behind, including his old love, Beatriz (Blanca Lewin). Director Matías Bize explains: "My idea was to tell the story as simply as possible and follow Andrés through his process. I wanted to tell the story in an emotional way, using the camera to penetrate deeply into the characters. The dialogue is very important in this film, but in some cases, what is not said—the silences and looks—are even more important." Taking that cue, PSIFF synopsizes: "It is not what the characters say so much as what they don't say. Their smallest gestures speak volumes. Their collective pain is never fully articulated but is all-pervasive. The weight of missed opportunities leaps off the screen making you question your own."

At Variety,
Boyd von Hoeij appears to have the best handle on why Bize's latest effort is his most accessible. Though he's quick to characterize The Life Of Fish as a "slow-burning yakfest", he nonetheless finds it "loquacious and ultimately poignant" and discerns that it represents "an impressive leap forward" for Bize whose "by now familiar Linklater-esque approach finally feels like a solid fit for the material, with both the mise-en-scène and the screenplay ... less claustrophobic and inward-looking than usual. ...Real-time pacing is thankfully accomplished through artfully edited sequences rather than endlessly long takes, and the naturally acted dialogue is what will keep auds hooked." He concludes, "The strong suit of Fish is that it focuses not on possible things in the future or concrete ones in the past, but the nebulous notion of what might have been." Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Lope (Andrucha Waddington, Brazil / Spain)—Seeing its North American premiere in PSIFF's Modern Masters sidebar, Lope serves as a romantic introduction to the passionate life of Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. The young poet returns to Madrid from war and gets his foot in the door of Madrid's most important theatre troupe—quickly charming his boss's daughter. His childhood friend, Isabel de Urbina, also falls under the spell of his poems. So much seduction eventually brings misfortune and he must flee Madrid. Says Waddington: "The screenplay and subject fascinated me: a young man becoming an artist. Plus, it's set when Spain was the center of the world."

David Hudson rounded up the Screen and Variety reviews from Lope's world premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, where I too caught the film and found its most intriguing image to be that of Lope de Vega's staging of the conquest of the Americas. For me, this was a reflexive moment: a historical theatrical reenactment within a historical cinematic reenactment. It made me wonder at what point the "contemporary" would raise its relevant head? Perhaps within such historical reenactments, it could rightfully be said that the modern motivations of the characters bridge their historicities into the contemporary? El Séptima Arte has an image gallery, the trailer (in Spanish), and a second gallery that includes a music video of Jorge Drexler's title theme. IMDb.

Lula, The Son of Brazil / Lula, O Filho do Brasil (Fábio Barreto, Brazil)—Whether the Brazilian biopic Lope is more swashbucking than Lula, Brazil's official submission to the Academy Awards®, remains to be seen. The most expensive Brazilian film ever made upon its release, Lula chronicles the arduous journey of a penniless child of the slums to a man on the brink of greatness. Adapted from Denise Paraná's biography of the same name, Lula is a sweeping tribute to Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva, who rose from the poverty of northeastern Brazil to the presidency of the fifth most populous nation in the world. Robert Koehler's Variety review is respectful of this lavishly-staged "prole to power story", though he criticizes the screenplay as succumbing "to many of the most unfortunate narrative tendencies of biopics, including a proclivity for piling on incident after incident as a substitute for real character insight." Perhaps more importantly, the film "fails to powerfully dramatize the ruthlessness workers and anti-government forces would face over the next two decades, perhaps ironically buttressing claims by political foes who dismiss the pic as mere pro-Lula propaganda." Official website [Portuguese]. IMDb. Wikipedia.

My Life With Carlos / Mi vida con Carlos (Germán Berger-Hertz, Chile)—As synopsized at PSIFF, "My Life with Carlos is the journey of a son in search of the memory of his assassinated father. More than 30 years of silence are broken when Chilean-born Germán Berger-Hertz starts to piece together the puzzle of his father's life. In 1973, when Berger-Hertz was only a year old, his father was brutally killed under the newly installed Pinochet regime. Berger revisits the legacy of the man he never knew and the regime that devastated the country. This lyrical and personal documentary combines the emotions of an intimate melodrama with thriller-like tension. Berger weaves his first person narration with beautifully shot scenes, candid interviews, and chilling videos of Pinochet-era violence. In a country where the past remains mostly in the shadows, his exploration of how the pain of injustice permeates not only his family but also the fabric of the country transforms his work in a cathartic and ultimately healing experience for everyone involved." Official website. IMDb. Facebook.

Of Love and Other Demons / Del Amor y Otros Demonios (Hilda Hidalgo, Costa Rica / Colombia)—Situated within PSIFF's Awards Buzz sidebar as Costa Rica's official foreign language submission to the Academy Awards®, Hilda Hidalgo's debut feature is a masterful interpretation of Gabriel García Márquez's powerful and moving novel. As synopsized by PSIFF: "Her dreamlike landscapes are a luscious counterpoint to the narrative backdrop of the smothering restraint of the inquisition." At Variety, Andrew Barker praises: "In her startlingly assured debut, Of Love and Other Demons, Costa Rican writer-director Hilda Hidalgo has seemingly unlocked the key to translating the cerebral sensuality of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's writing into film, providing one of the few screen adaptations worthy of the Colombian novelist's source material. She's aided immensely in this effort by two impeccable lead performances and painterly cinematography, but the seemingly casual mastery of difficult narrative rhythms is all her own." Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Puzzle / Rompecabezas (Natalia Smirnoff, Argentina)—Nominated for the Golden Bear at the 2010 Berlinale, Natalia Smirnoff's debut feature figures its way into the World Cinema Now sidebar at PSIFF 2011. Its central premise of a housewife quietly asserting her independence through a passion for solving puzzles instantly reminded me of Queen to Play from last year's PSIFF line-up. At The Flickering Wall, Jorge Mourinha writes: "Sensible, charming character study that effortlessly overcomes its slight narrative through attentive performances and handling." At Phil On Film, Philip Concannon observes: "Having given one of the best performances of the past year in Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, María Onetto displays a different side to her character in Puzzle, giving a warm and thoroughly engaging turn as bored housewife María del Carmen. ... Natalia Smirnoff's charming debut film is a gentle drama about a repressed woman gradually blossoming in the most unexpected manner, and her screenplay is full of perceptive, witty touches." Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Square Meter / Metro Cuadrado (Nayra Ilic, Chile)—As indicated earlier, Square Meter sees its North American premiere in PSIFF's
New Voices / New Visions sidebar. Francisca and Andres settle into their love nest, their pasts continue to intrude upon the idyllic situation they both had envisioned—the baggage they cannot shed much like the boxes they seem unable to unpack. As further synopsized by PSIFF: "In this extremely capable and self-assured work, Ilic does not shy away from letting the actors have their moment. There is a simplicity in the way quiet moments and awkward silences are captured, allowing audiences the rare treat of understanding what the characters are thinking without their having to say a word." IMDb.

Waste Land (Lucy Walker, Brazil)Recently shortlisted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's for Best Documentary Feature, Waste Land has won numerous awards on the festival circuit, kicking off with Best World Cinema Documentary at Sundance 2010. As synopsized by PSIFF, Waste Land is "an up-close-and-personal look at one of the world's leading visual artists—the magnetically charismatic Vik Muniz—as well as a community portrait of the catadores—pickers of recyclable materials at the Jardim Gramacho landfill. The film tracks a three-year collaboration between the Brazilian-born Muniz, and several catadores. Under his direction, they recreate giant photographic images of themselves out of garbage. The project yields surprising results—both as finished works of art and as a potentially life-changing experience for the catadores. Visually dazzling, the film—aided by Moby's deeply resonant soundtrack—packs a powerful emotional punch." If the External Reviews at IMDb don't satisfy you, David Hudson has rounded up some choice reviews at MUBI. Official website. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Cross-published on

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

PERUVIAN CINEMA: CONTRACORRIENTE / UNDERTOW (2009): The Evening Class Interview With Javier Fuentes-León

Positioned in the Awards Buzz sidebar of the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) as Peru's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®, I thought now would be a good time to revisit my conversation with Javier Fuentes-León, conducted when Undertow screened in Frameline34's spotlight on South American queer cinema. It won that festival's Outstanding First Feature Award, having already scored the World Cinema Audience Award (Drama) at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Our conversation can be found here.

Monday, December 27, 2010

PERUVIAN CINEMA: OCTUBRE / OCTOBER (2010)—The Evening Class Interview With Diego Vega

This has been a great year to engage with Peruvian cinema. Not only did I have the chance to speak with Claudia Llosa whose film La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow, 2009) was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Academy Award®, but I was able to follow-up with Dr. Kimberly Theidon, whose research informed Llosa's film. Also, I had the opportunity to speak with Javier Fuentes-León, whose Contracorriente (Undertow, 2010) has seductively haunted the hearts of festival-goers the world over and earned the honor of being Peru's official submission to the foreign language category for the 2011 Academy Awards®. Further, I was fortunate to sit down with Diego Vega—half of the brother team behind Octubre (October, 2010)—upon the occasion of October's North American premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). October's full dance card on the festival circuit required filmmaker brothers Daniel and Diego Vega to divvy up rounds. While Diego introduced the film at TIFF, Daniel was off in Vladivostok introducing October to the Russians. Most recently, October has been announced in the World Cinema Now lineup at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF).

Money-lender Clemente (Bruno Odar) only knows how to relate to others through transactions. His life is turned upside down when someone leaves him a baby in a basket. When a client, Sofía (Gabriela Velásquez), steps in to help tend to the baby, Clemente is faced with new possibilities during Lima's October celebration of the Lord of Miracles. As further synopsized by Diana Sanchez in her official description for TIFF: "Austerely shot with careful attention to framing, October signals the arrival of a distinct cinematic voice from Latin America. The Vega brothers compose a moving and charming film, balancing themes of loneliness and disconnection with an absurd comic tone that steers the narrative away from melodrama."

[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]

* * *

Michael Guillén: October is an enchanting fable and the line that jumped out of the movie at me was: "Poor is not someone who has little but he who wants a lot." This struck me as the lesson of your film's fable, particularly because your main character Clemente is a money lender who somehow misses the true value of his transactions. How did you and your brother go about developing this story? Did one of you write it? Did you both write it?

Diego Vega: We started on October quite a long time ago. The first idea came after I graduated from film school—I studied at Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión in Cuba—and when I came back to Peru, I was full of films and emotions from having been at the school. I liked Robert Bresson's films a lot and had seen his last film L'Argent many times. As you might remember, L'Argent is about a counterfeit bill that crosses the lives of many characters with tragic consequences.

Guillén: Fascinating! I failed to make that connection.

Vega: Well, also in Peru, we have a lot of fake money in circulation. Peru has a "fake" culture in the sense of piracy. Everything is sold as something it's not. You buy something and it's not the real designer label; it's not the original. It's common for Peruvians to be suspicious and scrutinizing when anyone pays them with paper money. Whether it's paying for a taxi, going to a small store, eating at a restaurant, anywhere, people will always check the money you are handing them to see if it's fake. So the influence of Bresson's L'Argent and this cultural practice in Peru of doubting authenticity were the origins of October.

I'm the screenwriter so I took the idea and began to write the script. My brother Daniel and I talked a lot but I wrote the first draft, and then he read it and offered comments. Even though October has a counterfeit bill in it, we left it as a source image. It doesn't move or travel in our film. It stays with Clemente.

Guillén: He can't get rid of it.

Vega: But that counterfeit bill is the source of the story. At the beginning, we had many different families involved but we ended up telling a story about attempting to build a family, even if in our film it is a strange and bizarre family composed of individuals who have no connection to each other yet find themselves together as a family for the birthday party, for the climax.

Guillén: Just so I'm clear, the counterfeit bill in October is 200 soles. Roughly, what would that be in American dollars?

Vega: It's about $70; a bit more than about half of the official minimum wage per month in Peru, which is around $100. Thus, 200 soles is an important bill in Peruvian currency. Some families only have 200 soles to live on for the month. It's distinguished for bearing the image of Santa Rosa de Lima. But it's not a common bill and it's not one that anyone in Peru wants to have in their possession, because they're too often fake. Peruvians prefer a 100 soles bill, or 50, or 20; but, not 200.

Guillén: Let's return to this interesting idea of the constructed family. Are you playing with the idea because there has been so much social upheaval in Peru? Resulting in many Peruvians losing their original families? Or is it because Peruvians are migrating to the cities and losing touch with their original families? Why was it important for you to create the portrait of a constructed family for your narrative?

Vega: The fact is that many original families—including my own family—are dysfunctional families. Either that or one of the parents has abandoned the family, or one of the family members is missing, or they don't get along. Though, yes, I constructed the family for my film, it's not for the reasons you've stated. Daniel and I didn't think about migration into the city or anything like that, even though during the violence of the '80s and '90s many Peruvians did migrate into the city. But that wasn't what we were thinking about. Originally, if I recall, we started to build five families with the fake bill traveling between them and they were all dysfunctional families and that's primarily because that's how Daniel and I grew up. All of the parents of my friends have either split or are dysfunctional in some way. But this isn't a tragic way of seeing the family or anything; it's just like that, no? It's difficult to put people together and keep them together for 30 years. In Peru, my parents' generation is just that way, no?

Guillén: Is Daniel older or younger than you?

Vega: Daniel is 11 months older than me.

Guillén: So I have a sense now of how the two of you negotiate to develop a script; but—when it comes to the actual shooting—is one of you more of a director than the other?

Vega: We split duties. Daniel takes care of the visuals, the cinematography, and works closely with the DP during the shooting, while I stay with the actors.

Guillén: How did the two of you come to that arrangement?

Vega: It was organic and natural. I'm the one who starts the writing and—since I'm the one who comes up with and develops the story—I understand the characters and their motivations and can thus guide the actors better. My brother comes in and has an overall view which has developed from our conversations but has not experienced the lonely process of creation. The actors asked a lot of questions that he couldn't answer so it became easier for me to answer those questions for them. So we came to this arrangement organically. Plus, my brother has always loved cinematography so it's natural for him to be caught up in the film's visuals. Before the shooting, we talk a lot to decide what we want to do so that we're clear and decisive when the shooting starts. But even though we've divided it so that I'm the one who gives notes to the actors, Daniel can always offer comments to the actors as well. Or I can suggest certain framings to the cinematographer. There have been times when I've said something to an actor and then Daniel has come along and said something opposite and the actor complains; but, we just laugh about it and work it out.

Guillén: Clearly the collaboration with your brother works because one of the strengths of your first film October is how your characters are so well-developed and how the film is so visually interesting. I don't know if you can speak for Daniel or not, but in terms of the look of the movie I became keenly aware of how the camera rarely moved. Was that decision partly an economic one?

Vega: We had always visualized the film in that way, though perhaps not so much. We had thought about some small, slow movements, maybe towards the beginning; but, when we sat down with the money we had, and started to draft our shooting budget, we decided to get rid of all of the movement, perhaps to the extreme? Though we had thought of making a film in that way, probably we would have moved the camera a bit more if we could have. Our ideas were conditioned by the budget.

Guillén: Are you and Daniel intending to work together again?

Vega: Yeah! In fact, we are developing our next script. October took so much. It took years to get the funding. But now it's finished and it's working and we're very happy and pleased about that. But during the process of pulling October together, we had time to do a lot of other things—my brother had two kids, continued working while we developed this feature film, and I wrote a couple of scripts—so now that we have put October out into the world, we've returned to one of those scripts and are rewriting it together. Now—because everything is functioning—we're going to keep working.

Guillén: Can you speak about Sofía's ritual of adding her pee to a glass of water she then offers Clemente? At first, I thought it was a vengeful act but then it gradually dawned on me that it was more a form of feminine magic?

Vega: Yes, that's right, and it's common in Peru. Not everybody practices it, of course, but ladies in their forties to sixties are familiar with the ritual. They probably know a friend or two who have done it. For me it's a symptom of desperation. Sofía is a religious woman, a devotee to the
Lord of Miracles, and she expects the Lord of Miracles to answer her prayers; but, when she doesn't get what she wants from the Lord of Miracles, then she goes the other way. It's a kind of voodoo, no? Sofía thinks, "The Lord of Miracles is not giving me what I want—which is this man, this family—and so I'll try to catch him with this panty tea."

Guillén: Panty tea?

Vega: In Spanish we call it te de calzón. You've seen Persepolis?

Guillén: Yes.

Vega: Well,
Marjane Satrapi—who wrote Persepolis—also wrote a small comic called Borados. I don't know how you say it in English?

Guillén: Embroideries.

Vega: Ah. Well, one of Satrapi's main female characters in Borados does a similar thing. After performing sex, the woman puts a key in her vagina in an effort to catch her lover. But she has to perform the ritual quickly, within 20 minutes of having had sex. Not only does she have to immediately put the key into her vagina, but then she has to boil water, remove the key from her vagina and put it in the water, and then serve this "tea" to the man.

Guillén: A love spell, eh? Yikes! After Sofía performs this love spell on Clemente, he goes to have sex with a whore and, apparently, the magic has worked because he can't get it up to fuck the whore. What impressed me in that scene was the whore's wise response when she comforted Clemente by telling him, "Well, you know, you can't stay the same." I admired that you invested such common sense wisdom into this lady of the night.

Vega: I'm not sure if you remember but that same woman wears glasses. After she finishes having sex, she puts on her glasses, which reveals that she's actually a grandmother, or something like that. We wanted to keep far away from stereotypes of prostitutes and prostitution and to remember that prostitutes are the women men go to in order to feel warm for a moment. Clemente, being the kind of man he is, goes to this woman to feel a moment's warmth, to feel he is at home, but the minute he's finished with her, he rises, cleans himself, and gets out because, probably, afterwards he feels guilty. But during his time with her, he feels okay and a little more human and that woman, of course, she understands this in Clemente, she understands this in men in general. Through that scene we wanted to give a tip to the audience that Clemente is missing something; he's missing an opportunity. We were too subtle and needed a bit more and by having her say that—"You can't stay the same"—audiences understand better the necessity of Clemente's character arc. They understand that Clemente himself is beginning to understand he needs to change. What's beautiful is that this insight arrives through his involvement with a prostitute who is—in effect—a grandmother.

Guillén: As a character Clemente is quite interesting, but profoundly sad.

Vega: Yes.

Guillén: What struck me was that—whereas Sofía had her faith in the Lord of Miracles to rely upon and (failing that) feminine magic—Clemente had neither. In fact, the film's final image of Sofía walking in the procession of the Lord of the Miracles while Clemente walks against it seemed so telling at how at odds they were. It's as if—though he senses he needs to change—he still doesn't understand why. He doesn't get it.

Vega: He's stubborn, yes. He's too cold, too dry, and—though he has understood something—maybe he hasn't changed? He's understood that he has to do something, he has to move forward, change; but, he resists. That image you bring up of him walking against the procession was the original ending of the script and has stayed through the end of the film. But when we were in the editing room, we felt it was too dark and we wanted to add some light to the final scene. Because of his resistance, we couldn't put the light and the hope in him; so we decided to use Sofía to close the film because—in a way—it's the sensation of a happy ending, even though it's not a happy ending.

Guillén: It ends on a note of faith, which is to say hope.

Vega: The truth is that—even if Sofía and Clemente get together—it doesn't insure happiness. They're difficult personalities and maybe they'll get together but won't know how to be happy? But the sensation at the end of October is that you feel the light of hope, which is what we wanted, because October is dark, it's difficult, and it's sad. We needed the film to end the way it did.

Guillén: Let's touch upon the story of the old man and his poor girlfriend in the wheelchair. You have them leaving the city at film's end. Where did they go?

Vega: They're going off to die.

Guillén: But at least together?

Vega: Yeah. He wants her to die with him somewhere outside of Lima, which is too big and annoying and hard for old people. I think they're going to find a small town somewhere where they can just live at peace until they die together. It's a small thing this man is doing but by the end of the film it's a big thing because they're together. He risks a little bit by kidnapping her, no?

Guillén: Though I have been brought up religiously, I can't say that I am a religious person, though I can say that I am a superstitious person. I believe in the invisible world and am fascinated with the Catholic religion's negotiation with the invisible world, especially as inflected through different cultures. Catholicism in Guatemala is a totally different animal than Catholicism in Peru, though they're both spotted one-eyed cats. In your film October the month of October is associated with the Lord of the Miracles and I'm wondering if that's actually true in Peru?

Vega: Yeah, yeah.

Guillén: Can you speak a bit about that tradition?

Vega: It's a huge tradition in Peru that started up some 400 years ago. It's origin is in Black Peruvian culture. A slave from Angola who had been brought to Peru in the 17th century painted an image of the Crucifixion on a wall. This painting survived earthquakes and floods and—because of that—people began to venerate it. Then they built a church to house the mural [the Sanctuary of Las Nazarenas]. After hundreds of years, the veneration of the Lord of Miracles has become what you see in October. Throughout the month of October, the image is taken out of the church and moved through a series of six processions from one church to another throughout Lima. The first procession is a small one to the center of Lima but the others are huge, long processions that carry the anda—I don't know how you say it in English—for kilometers. It's become quite popular and is rooted in the modest people, the people with needs, and is now called the Purple Month. That's why Sofía is wearing a purple habit. So, basically, the processions of the Lord of Miracles is from Lima and worshipped primarily in Lima, though—if you go to New York—the Peruvian community there would probably do the same thing. I'm not exactly sure about New York, but I wouldn't doubt that it's the largest procession of the Lord of Miracles outside of Lima, Peru.

Guillén: Is the Lord of Miracles the patron saint of the poor?

Vega: No, he's not. We have a lot of saints in Peru with a lot of different associations. For example, this Lord of Miracles in Peru is also associated with a soccer team named the Alianza Lima. In October, this team changes their regular outfits to purple ones associated with the Lord of Miracles. And though the worship of the Lord of Miracles had its origin among the marginalized Black slaves, it now has less to do with the marginalized and more to do with the lower middle class. In Peru, for example, we have Sarita Colonia; she's a younger saint for the criminals, the marginalized, the prostitutes, no? She's related to the port in Callao. The worship of the Lord of Miracles has to do with much more than that, even though—because of its origins—it's rooted in the lower classes.

Guillén: So are you saying that faith in the Lord of Miracles has more to do with the dreams of the middle class who are still aspiring and want a little bit more?

Vega: That's right. They don't ask for big things.

Guillén: More material things, like a washing machine or something like that?

Vega: That's right. The faithful of the Lord of Miracles wear the purple habits during procession because they are expecting something from the Lord of Miracles. If you remember, the white cord with which they tie their habits have knots and the more knots the cord has, the more they are expecting from the Lord of Miracles. Some folks wear these habits the whole month of October. It depends on what they are expecting. For me, these religious practices are efforts to explain what cannot be explained or to fill the emptiness, right? In the case of the Lord of Miracles, I think the faithful are feeling emptiness and are asking for—not just material things—but spiritual things as well: to have a better year, let's say. It's common for the people to thank the Lord for the miracle of being alive.

Guillén: Well, Diego, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today about October. It's a lovely film. Congratulations on being picked up for North American distribution by New Yorker Films.

* * *

Note: Incidentally, after the fact as I researched the matter, it appears there is a strong following for the Lord of the Miracles among the Peruvian community in San Francisco, who honor him with mass and a procession on October 17 each year.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

TIFF 2010 / PSIFF 2011—Three Takes On the Poetic Impulse

It is, perhaps, a belabored cliché to consider how films speak to each other across time and space; however, it's difficult not to observe when films speak to each other contemporaneously for being proximate in space by being programmed in the same film festival. Such was the case at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where three stylistically distinct films addressed the suffering source of poetry: South Korea's Poetry (Shi, 2010), the German / Austrian / Estonian co-production The Poll Diaries (2010), and the Russian film Silent Souls (Ovsyanki, 2010). In a word, Poetry was incandescent, Silent Souls elegiac, and The Poll Diaries morbid (though beautifully so). I'm quite pleased that all three will be speaking across to each other once again at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The Poll Diaries (Germany / Austria / Estonia, 2010)—I've spoken with Chris Kraus regarding his fourth feature The Poll Diaries, a semi-fictional narrative set in turn-of-the-century Estonia depicting the effect of tumultuous historic events upon the tender sensibility of Oda Schaefer, a young girl whose destiny as a poet is influenced by her interaction with a wounded Estonian anarchist she nurses back to health. Reconciling her family's aristocratic indiscretions with a compassionate concern for the downtrodden, Oda's innate poetic sense is enflamed when she is forced to acknowledge scientific inhumanity, political injustice and social inequality.

Poetry / Shi (South Korea, 2010)—In their brief synopsis for Lee Chang-dong's most recent masterwork, TIFF quipped: "Rhyme and crime intertwine in Poetry, the moving portrait of an elegant old lady in the initial stages of Alzheimer's, as well as a lyrical take on creative discovery and an upsetting look at juvenile violence."

Dispatching to MUBI from Poetry's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Danny Kasman observed: "Films about artists or someone creating art are incredibly difficult to pull off. It has something to do with audience verification—if we just hear that someone is a great painter or writer, we can take the film's word for it, but if we see them painting or writing, suddenly the viewer can cast instant judgment on that work and thereby the character and thereby the honesty of the film itself. Lee's film risks it all by including both artistic creation—we see our heroine thinking about and composing poetry—and the art too, since she eventually reads to us her composition. And the film wildly succeeds on both accounts, and at something even more challenging too, which is by painting Yun Jung-hee's character as an almost simple-minded or daft free spirit, which makes the believability of composition, creation, and exposition something requiring terrific subtlety and nuance. That her work is moving even before she finishes her poem, simply in her looking at the world around her and the way her new observations start to trickle through her conversations, is a resounding accomplishment for director and actress." Also at MUBI, David Hudson rounded up the subsequent Cannes reviews (where Poetry won Best Screenplay), as well as the resoundingly favorable reviews from the film's screening at the New York Film Festival (NYFF).

Myself, I caught the film at its North American premiere at TIFF. Straight off, I was struck by how frequently cinematic narratives spring from the body of a dead girl; a thematic domain—if not a genre—unto itself. In Poetry, it is the corpse of teenage Agnes floating down the river. She's committed suicide after being raped by a gang of boys. Somehow it is her spirit that informs Mija's desperation to write one poem before she loses her mind to Alzheimer's. In the role of Mija, Yoon Jeong-hee—who came out of a 16-year retirement—permeates her performance with a wistful sweet sadness.

One of my favorite images from Poetry is when Mija—struggling for inspiration—sits beside the river staring at the bridge from which Agnes leapt to her death. With notepad in hand, Mija sits poised to write; but, a sudden rain arrives before inspiration. The white pages of Mija's empty notepad become startled by dark drops of rain; the cinematic image itself sheer poetry.

Further, the fugacity of human experience is aligned with the natural cycle of growth and decay, which easily becomes one of the most fundamental templates of poetic expression; i.e., the fate of flowers and fruit becomes the fate of human beings or—as Mija herself says in a moment of senescent insight—"apricots are sweetest once they have fallen from the branch."

Silent Souls / Ovsyanki (Russia, 2010)Aleksei Fedorchenko's third feature film aligns thematically with Lee Chang-dong's riverside reveries in his mesmerizing focus on the obscure pagan practices of a small community of Finno-Ugric people, the Merya, who—as Dimitri Eipedes explains in his official description for TIFF—"never got over their infatuation with water, settling along riverbanks whenever and wherever they could" and all because "they believe death by drowning to be the ultimate release." Silent Souls becomes the filmic version of a novel written on a father's silted typewriter perched on the sides of dead fish: to drown, to drown, to drown....

Again at MUBI, David Hudson has rounded up the reviews from
Venice and Toronto 2010, then again from NYFF. Likewise at MUBI, Danny Kasman weighs in independently from TIFF's North American premiere, observing that art cinema hazards blowing small filmic subjects out of proportion with distorting grandeur. He praises that Fedorchenko "keeps the sense of scale intact" and remains steadfast to his simple story about two men dispersing the ashes of a woman they both loved. "Compositions are in wide screen," Kasman describes, "but it is always roads, rivers, doors and paths that extend down the center and into the distance; the weight of solemn grey fixed camera shots lifted to a tranquil, almost nostalgic tone by this continual hint at journey and death."

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