Sunday, June 16, 2013

YBCA: THE PARADISE TRILOGY: The Evening Class Interview With Ulrich Seidl

Fresh off the success of his New Filipino Cinema program, Joel Shepard and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) score another programming coup with Ulrich Seidl's Paradise Trilogy, providing San Francisco / Bay audiences a rare opportunity to see all three films in sequence. It's an experience I envy, having only seen the first installment of the trilogy (Paradise: Love, 2012), in conjunction with Strand Releasing's U.S. theatrical rollout.

As profiled on the YBCA website: "Ulrich Seidl is one of the most controversial and provocative filmmakers working today. His portraits of the private lives of everyday people are disturbing to the core, and yet they are also often quite humorous. Obsessed with finding the beauty in ugliness, and a world-class smasher of all things taboo, Seidl vastly expands his reach with the epic Paradise trilogy."

As profiled at MUBI: "Ulrich Seidl was born in Vienna in 1952 and grew up in the town of Horn in Lower Austria. He studied journalism, art history and drama in Vienna, supporting himself with odd jobs, before entering the prestigious Vienna Film Academy at the age of 26. In 1980 he made his first documentary, Einsvierzig. Following the controversy surrounding his second film, Der Ball (1982)—a wickedly satirical portrait of the graduation ball in his home town—Seidl was asked to leave the Film Academy. In 1990 he returned to the scene with the feature-length documentary Good News. Within the decade Seidl was to make seven more documentaries for cinema and television, winning much acclaim and many prizes for his work.

"Hundstage—Dog Days, his first fiction film, was released in 2001 and won several important awards, beginning with the grand jury prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2001. The same year also saw the release of Zur Lage / State of the Nation, a critical survey of Austria under its far-right coalition government. Seidl initiated, oversaw and co-directed the project, which also contains episodes directed by Barbara Albert, Michael Glawogger and Michael Sturminger."

Seidl's most recent provocation, his Paradise Trilogy, launched with Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe, 2012), which premiered in competition at the 65th Cannes Film Festival, where Dave Hudson gathered up the critical response for Fandor's Keyframe Daily. Hudson continued monitoring the reception when the trilogy's second installment Paradise: Faith (Paradies: Glaube, 2012) appeared in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Paradise: Hope (Paradies: Hoffnung, 2013) appeared at the Berlin Film Festival, alongside the previous two installments.

My thanks to Marcus Hu and Strand Releasing for the invitation to interview Seidl during his L.A. press day, and to Robert Gray for helping with translation. The first installment Paradise: Love is currently in theaters via Strand Releasing. The Paradise Trilogy continues at YBCA through June 30, 2013.

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Michael Guillén: I've read conflicting reports regarding the source of your story. Was it directly inspired by Ödön von Horváth's 1932 play, Faith, Hope and Charity?

Seidl: Well, as you know, originally the film was going to be a single film involving three separate protagonists. The title of the single film was going to be Paradise. When it turned out that the project was developed into three separate films, I had to come up with individual titles for those three separate films. Hope, Love and Faith seemed appropriate to me. So, my film was not so much a reference to the Horváth play, as it was to the three Christian virtues. I should also point out, however, that—while I had to come up with a title for each of the three separate films—the titles apply to all three episodes.

Guillén: You developed the script with your wife Veronika Franz. Can you speak to how the two of you collaborated to develop this script?

Seidl: I've been writing with my wife for many years now. Technically, our process is that I will write a scene and then she will read it and comment upon it. Sometimes she'll just make suggestions; other times she will re-write the scene. It's a kind of ping pong. With this project, where we were dealing with three female protagonists, it was especially useful to collaborate with a woman.

Guillén: I'm aware that your scripts develop once you start filming on location and begin interacting with your actors. Does Veronika join you on location when these changes are taking place?

Seidl: No, Veronika was only present on location on occasion, not for the entire period. The script forms the basis for beginning the work. It allows me to scout for locations and to start the process of casting. Veronika is in touch with all of these processes because it's important to have the input of her close collaboration. She's involved with the casting, which is a lengthy process, and I like having her on hand to discuss choices.

Guillén: With the Paradise Trilogy opening theatrically in the U.S. with its first installment, now is a good time to look back on its film festival trajectory, which has been admittedly unique. Each segment of the trilogy has premiered at a major international film festival—the first in competition at Cannes; the second winning awards at Venice; and the third shown with the other two at Berlin—yet all within a festival year. Were all three films ready to go at once?

Seidl: The first film I completed was the second part Paradise: Faith and I submitted it a year earlier to both film festivals; but, shortly thereafter, I finished the other two segments and had a better idea of how to show them at separate festivals. There just wasn't enough time to complete production on all three and that delayed their premiere as well. I also felt it was important that the films be seen in their correct order, which meant it was important to start with Paradise: Love. When it was invited into competition at Cannes, at the same time I decided to go with Venice for the second film, and shortly thereafter Berlin invited the third and final installment of the trilogy.

Guillén: As I'm interested in reception studies, I'm curious if—by unveiling the project at three separate film festivals—if you noticed a detectable difference in your audiences?

Seidl: Paradise: Love, which showed at Cannes, was the most popular. Cannes was the best place to show this film because it allowed the most exposure for the film. The Venice film festival was the best place to show Faith because of its components and, finally, I was very happy that Berlin wrapped up the trilogy and allowed me the opportunity to gain a retrospective view with the screening of all three films together. That was very useful to help publicize the trilogy to German audiences.

Guillén: I imagine you prefer that all three films be shown together? I'm sure that would reveal complexities within the narrative across the three films. So the Berlin experience must have been particularly rewarding. But now, as the films approach their theatrical distribution, once again they are being necessarily divided into individual releases. Does that feel at all like you are stepping backwards?

Seidl: First of all, the release of the film is subject to the dictates of distribution and it would be near to impossible to expect spectators to sit through all three installments. Many would be unwilling to do that. I left that decision to the distributor. But I would very much hope that audiences around the world might have an opportunity to see all three films together, perhaps as a special event? The response is quite different when you see all three films at once. You make associations, links, that make each film much more powerful in relationship with each other.

Guillén: Fortunately, in San Francisco audiences will have that opportunity as all three films are being shown by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Seidl: I'm very happy about that.

Guillén: You have described yourself as your "first spectator", but that you don't really consider audience reaction while making a film. But as you shepherd a film around the film festival circuit, does audience reaction factor into your ongoing relationship with your films?

Seidl: Of course, I am very grateful for the opportunity to talk to audiences and to hear their different responses. If those responses conflict with choices I have made, it doesn't make me look at my film differently but it does allow me to, perhaps, make my next film in a better way, based on what audiences (and critics) might think.

Guillén: And yet you are a filmmaker of integrity, often railed against as a provocateur, but true to your own vision, despite critical reaction?

Seidl: For a long time my films were criticized and attacked by a certain group of critics; but, I kept on making films in the way I believed was important. Interestingly, after many years several of those critics have reconsidered their positions and opinions. It's essential to remain true to your convictions. Work, like life, is a process that you are constantly re-evaluating.

Guillén: Your framing, your staging of reality, your observational aesthetics, have been emphasized as stylistic elements of your work for many years. If camera angles can be said to produce specific feelings, what is it about the planimetric approach that feels emotionally appropriate to your themes?

Seidl: My visual style was present from the very beginning with my first film. At the same time, my interest in film developed only after my initial interest in painting and photography. The environment is important to me and that's why it's so present in my films because the environment says a lot about the protagonists moving through it. Over the years I've been able to perfect my tableau images to create a more concise answer to the questions I have about the world. My films are a product of two different elements. The first is so-called documentary film, which remains for me the way you capture things as they happen, but which also allows a lot of room for chance. The other element is a more artificial and artistic element. Much like a painter composing a painting, I am able to make choices about the decoration and the lighting.

Guillén: I'm glad you mention your background in painting because it's your films' painterly effects that affect me emotionally. Painting essentially taught me the capacity of an image to contain several conflicting elements. For example, some of your most serious scenes likewise reveal comic undertones. Two separate feelings, two separate attitudes, are being shown at the same time. Images also exert a gravitational pull, a fascination, and your films equally fascinate.

Seidl: I'm attempting to capture various layers of meaning through my tableaus. I leave room for multiple interpretations, rather than imposing moral perspectives on the scene. This allows for a much more open-ended and richer experience. At the same time, I like presenting the absurd and comic aspects of serious events. In the face of something disturbing, there are always opportunities for laughter, even if it is laughter that gets stuck in the throat.

Guillén: I'm also glad that you mention your love for photography. I understand that Diane Arbus had a significant influence on your work? Can you speak to what it was about her work that influenced you? And, secondly, your films are often compared to the work of Martin Parr and I was wondering if you find any resemblance in your films to his work?

Martin Parr, "Common Sense"
Seidl: There are numerous photographers who have influenced me; too many to name. But among them, Diane Arbus and Nan Golden would be direct influences upon my work. Simpler, black-and-white photographers interest me. I discovered Martin Parr's work much later, so I can't say he was an influence, but I do think we share many interests and themes in common. [Note: A more thorough analysis of the similarities between Seidl's work and Parr's can be found in the essay "Critical Strands: On the Beach with Ulrich Seidl and Martin Parr", cross-published at retinalechoes and MUBI.]

Guillén: I would be remiss not to mention Margarete Tiesel's brave performance in Paradise: Love. Can you speak to your on-set strategies to create trust among your actors to deliver such revealing and intimate performances?

Seidl: I direct precisely. I describe everything to my actors in detail. But I never really write dialogue; that's something I develop with the actors. I also always work with an ensemble cast that combines both professional and non-professional actors. In Paradise: Love, all the roles of the white women were played by professional actors, whereas all the black men, the so-called "beach boys", were non-professional. To prepare them for their roles before we begin shooting on the set, I spend a lot of individual time with the various actors discussing their parts as well as who they are as actors. The role depicted in a film is the result of the encounter between the role as written and what the actor brings to the performance of that written role. I require actors to be able to improvise and to let go of the notion of trying to protect themselves when some subjects appear taboo. I help them work against self-censorship. Being able to improvise requires that an actor know the intention of the film and how to factor their performance into that intention.

Also, I'm always inspired by the locations where I'm shooting. Locations often give me ideas. That was exactly the case with Kenya where so many of my shots were determined by things I saw. But I present those shots in a specific manner that allow me to say a lot visually about this other world. You can feel the complexity of the world when you're faced with scenes like that.

Guillén: How do you achieve your admittedly disturbing nude scenes? Do you have a closed set with a skeleton crew?

Seidl: When you're doing a film like this, from the very beginning when you're talking to your actresses during casting you have to admit there are going to be these intimate scenes in which they will have to be naked in bed with black men. They have to be willing to display their bodies, however imperfect they may be on camera. Part of the preparation with my cast in the months before arriving on set and then when actually on location is to develop the trust, which is a context in which the actors feel that they can be free. This also requires shooting in a way in which the technical aspects of filmmaking play as little a role as possible and won't impede the atmosphere on set.

Guillén: I was impressed with Paradise: Love's post-colonial critique of sex tourism. There has been much discussion about the mutual exploitation of the characters within the story; however, I felt Margarete Tiesel's performance revealed an alarming sense of self-exploitation. Can you speak to how her character has colonized her own desires by conforming to social mores and standards?

Seidl: During the course of the film, Margarete Tiesel's character has to go through several experiences, not the least of which is recognizing that she is not seen as a woman in her own right by the beach boys, but as a white woman who has economic potential for the black men. By the end of the film she has decided to go along with this, but it departs from what she truly desires. Often love relationships are commercial arrangements that involve mutual exploitation.

Guillén: If the film's critique is that there are these economies of desire, that love—as you say—is more often than not a commercial arrangement that reflects inauthentic feeling, when can desire bring happiness?

Seidl: Desire and happiness are quite different. What interests me is showing people who are attempting to fulfill their desire to escape the trap of their isolation. I'm not so much interested in the individual fate or destiny of my characters, their happiness, as I am in presenting a mirror of our global society.

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