In attendance were Paula van der Oest (Accused), George Ovashvili (Corn Island), Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan), Alberto Arvelo (The Liberator), Zaza Urushadze (Tangerines), Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu) and Damián Szifrón (Wild Tales).
Feinberg welcomed his audience and gave thanks to PSIFF Artistic Director Helen du Toit and her programming team for making the panel possible. He equally thanked the panelists for making films that were such a pleasure to watch this year. He promised that by the time we were through with the panel discussion, we would want to seek these films out, an opportunity unique to PSIFF: nowhere else would all nine films on the Oscar® shortlist be available for viewing. After viewing clips from the films, Feinberg introduced each of the panelists, synopsized their films, and began his line of questioning.
* * *
Scott Feinberg: To begin with, I want to do the general question that people are probably wondering: what initially inspired or sparked the idea for the film that brings you here today? Alberto, maybe we can start with you?
Scott Feinberg: Abderrahmane, how about you? What was the root of the idea for Timbuktu?
|© Gerhard Kassner / Berlinale|
Scott Feinberg: Paula, people may or may not know that the story at the center of your film is a real one. What was it about that, that resonated with you to the point that you wanted to make a film about it?
Scott Feinberg: George, it's a part of the world that you know, but why did you feel a need to help us learn?
Scott Feinberg: I don't know what Vegas would say, but I've got to say that the odds are great that of the nine short-listed films, and the seven we have here, two of them deal with this disputed territory of Abkhazia. Zaza, can you tell us what brought you to your side of the same story?
Scott Feinberg: Damián, from what I understand you grew up enamored with short story anthologies and it was a frustration with other projects that led, in a way, to Wild Tales and the short stories that comprise that. Can you tell us more about that?
Scott Feinberg: Andrey, the story you tell in Leviathan, it's a film very much about Russia, but amazingly it was inspired by a situation in Colorado, right?
Scott Feinberg: I want to turn the focus to something that is one of the few things that filmmakers in every part of the world share, which is frustration at trying to finance your movies. Some of these films were made for, basically, nickels—it's amazing how much art is on the screen for so little money—some have bigger budgets in the tens of millions. But in every case I know that people have had to fight for everything they had at their disposal. So I want to direct this to a few of you guys, but please anyone jump in who feel they have something to add. I want to start with Andrey. People who have seen Leviathan understand it is a film that doesn't just tow the line and paint a totally flattering portrait of Russia. In the same way that all of our countries have things that we are more proud of, less proud of, Leviathan shows Russia's warts and all. And yet, people might be most surprised to learn that a large chunk of the financing came from the government, right?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: The assumption is correct. Initially, one of the co-producers was willing and ready to finance the project completely; however, over the course of time, 30-35% was offered by the Russian Ministry of Culture, which was basically how we got the project going.
Alberto Arvelo: It was a roller coaster of 10 years, basically, invested in this dream. We all felt that we needed to make this film. It took us 10 years of trying with equity from Germany, Spain, South America, from all around the world. If you want to make a film about the biggest military campaign of mankind, then it was the only way to do it. An epic is a difficult genre because, in some way, you're asked to lend reality to the past and that is the only way to do it. So you're not free in some strange way. You have to serve that story and what happened there. Getting back to what I said at the beginning, the Bolívar military campaign was the longest campaign of humankind; 40% of his army died crossing the Andes. There was only one way to do this: by showing the immensity of this tragedy, of this hope.
Scott Feinberg: I'd like to ask the rest of the panel maybe by just a show of hands or if you want to add a little more after that, I think for a lot of international filmmakers it's sort of a situation where the government does help out in a way and I wonder if that was your experience? For which of you did the government help to finance your film? Paula?
Paula van der Oest: The biggest part of our industry—I can't even call it industry because we make only about 30 films a year—but they're subsidized. But every now and then there's a check, and then it's canceled again, so for this movie money came from Sweden (composer and an actress), Belgium and Luxemborg for financing. This film was about 2,000,000 Euros but also it happened once that I couldn't get a film financed and we made it together with a group of friends with some TV money. But, yes, the main part of the movies are subsidized but people are starting more and more with crowd funding. That's what's happening now.
Scott Feinberg: Damián, did the Argentine government contribute?
Damián Szifrón: Yes, it helped when the movie was being made. We have a system where a percentage of every ticket that's sold for American films goes to a place and then they use that money to help Argentine directors to make their films. I have to say it was not hard to get the money for the film. I'm very lucky. Agustín Almodóvar and Pedro Almodóvar from Spain read the script and they were immediately on board. It's a big movie for Argentina—it was almost a $4,000,000 budget—but it was not impossible. So, for me, the frustration did not come from the money part, no.
Damián Szifrón: [Teasing] Zaza went with a gun. [Laughter.] "I want to make this film." "Okay!"
Zaza Urushadze: The budget for our film was just 600,000 Euros. It was enough.
Scott Feinberg: A simple man. How about you, George, what was your budget?
George Ovashvili: We collected the money for three or four years. My budget was 1.5 million. I have five countries as co-producers. That means that each country came with just a little bit of money. Georgia was 25%. Then Germany, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, France, Spain. It's very hard to find money in our country because the industry is at a very low level and has no money. But we have an institution which gives money every year by a radio competition, but just for two or three projects a year. When the co-producers came on board, they read the script and they thought, "Oh, that's a very simple story, just two characters, one location (an island), so that's very easy." Only later did they realize how difficult the project was because we had to create the island, we had to create the cornfields, and we had to wash away the island at the end of the film.
Scott Feinberg: Abderrahmane, Timbuktu was at Cannes. You've been there before. Have you found that it's gotten easier over time as you've become more established to find the funds you need to make your films or is it always an uphill climb?
Abderrahmane Sissako: For me it never was really difficult to finance my film. First, because they are not very expensive and, practically, the financing came from the French television channel Arte, as well as the other television channel Canal+ and CNC, the national fund for supporting film in France. The financing for Timbuktu came together really fast, I believe, because of the burning subject matter. Our first intention was to shoot in Mali but because of safety issues—there was a suicide bombing and things like that—we were not able to shoot there. I ended up shooting in Mauritania whose government was supportive of our project. There is really no organization for film in Mauritania but they supported us by providing security. There were over 200 soldiers attending to our shoot. At the time there were lots of abductions of foreigners and our crew was international: French, Belgian, and African as well. It was important to have strong security around the film. The government of Mauritania also provided a little bit of financial aid. We also had a lot of sponsorship and product placement, who provided gasoline, cars, things like that.
George Ovashvili: Before my first film, I did a few short films that had no words of dialogue. It's my approach. It's not original thinking, but for me cinema is the visual way to tell a story. I've always tried to use less words to tell what I want to say. If I can't show you on the screen, then I can just tell you my story. In Corn Island we have just a few lines. While I was working on the script, I felt the relationship between the characters didn't require them to say anything. I felt they could understand each other perfectly without words or explanations. My storytelling goes very slow, step by step.
Scott Feinberg: Alberto, you can fill the space in a movie with words, you can fill it with silence, and you can also supplement either with music obviously. You have Gustavo Dudamel—who people know not only as the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic but, appropriately enough, the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar—providing the first score he's ever done for a film for The Liberator. How did that come to be? And what do you think it adds? It's one of the best scores that I can remember.
Alberto Arvelo: Music is very important in this film.... This man Simón Bolívar, when he started, suffered a huge amount of loneliness. That's something you can't transmit with words. That's basically, for me, a territory of silence, and music (which is a way of silence). I was in some way attracted to that loneliness and that passion behind this romantic character. As Lord Byron said, Bolívar was one of the most romantic characters ever. Music was fundamental. I spent time with Dudamel trying to understand how to create that music and to talk about Bolívar as the spirit of Latin America. We are made of music at the same time. We are living music always. Music is a part of our lives. With the music we created a character but also a people. This music is about the creation of Latin America in some way. Bolívar was very complex. Dudamel and I worked together before creating a contemporary opera for the L.A. Philharmonic; it was a fantastic collaboration. I went to him to ask him advice about the score for The Liberator. I remember one day when we were at Cannes he sat down at the piano and he was playing and he said, "You should do this in one of the battles" and "you should have this music in a Tchaikovsky choir here and there" and at one point we realized that he was already composing so I said, "Come on, Dudamel, compose the film" and he said, "No, I'm a conductor. I'm not a composer." It was fantastic, he finally said, "I'll do it." I think he got the essence of—not only the sound of Latin America—but, of Bolívar's loneliness. His score is what I feel makes this epic contemporary.
Andrey Zvyagintsev: The very fact of submission of Leviathan for this year's Oscars® came as a pleasant surprise for me. Majorly, this has been the tremendous work one of the producers Alexander Rodnyansky has done on the movie. Partially, the very fact of the submission was also based on a huge backlash that we had in the media back in 2011 when the then-submission caused a controversy in the Russian media. People in the mass media were basically dissatisfied with the then-nominated film. That's why, partially, this contributed to Leviathan eventually having been submitted for the competition.
Scott Feinberg: Paula, your film also points to a pretty dark chapter obviously in the history of your country and one that has been described as "the biggest miscarriage of justice in Dutch history." It shamed the judicial system, and yet it was a huge ticket-seller at home and it's now an Oscar® submission. Did you have any pause about tackling the story? Do you feel a certain responsibility when you make films to share aspects and stories about your country—good, bad, ugly, whatever they may be—is that part of your mandate you feel as a filmmaker? To share stories about your country to the world?
Paula van der Oest: Yes. I'm afraid I don't have a career plan. I started filmmaking and half of the films that I've made I've written myself and they tend to be comedies. I was nominated in 2003 and that was a three-sister comedy. Sometimes producers come to me with scripts, plans, but I always go for story, subject. Therefore, I don't have a very consistent oeuvre—comedies, a film about a South African poet, a dark fairy tale cult movie—every time a new kind of film. This one, I felt it had to be made. Also, it was rather satisfying or important that the nurse, the real nurse, was still around. It was not that she had a veto or had big influence and could stop the movie, but she read versions of the script and saw edited versions of the film. At first, with the first versions, she found it very boring. She said, "I hate it." Finally, she was happy. When we premiered in Amsterdam, it was very weird. After everything that had happened to her, all her years in prison, after all the people who still said "she did it" after she was released from prison, when she walked on the red carpet into that screening, the whole audience rose. It was very moving. She was fragile on stage and I think the film did more for her than the fact that she had been released because people could see how it worked and what had happened and how lonely and desperate she had been all those years. If it weren't for those people who thought, "This isn't right"—there were a few people who kept saying, "This isn't right"—finally, they were proven right. So I felt it very important to tell this story and this was more related to our country or to society. Sometimes I want to make a film I think is important because it says something about people, about life. It has to have a meaning.
Abderrahmane Sissako: My first "technique" in Mauritania is that I have no choice. There are no actors. So you have to work with people that really have the desire to do this. So we do what we call a wide casting. We look around for people with personality. As far as the main couple in my film, a man and a woman, they are a Tuareg couple. I needed them to be able to speak Tuareg. In my film there were several languages. In order to find them, I requested that we look in the world of music. My casting director looked on Facebook and she found this Tuareg musician who lived in Madrid. The actress who plays his wife is a Tuareg singer who lives in Paris.
Scott Feinberg: They were also fantastic, but I'm actually talking about the daughter and the shepherd.
Abderrahmane Sissako: In the script the part of the child was a three-year-old girl so I went to visit a Tuareg camp in Mauritania where there are 70,000 Tuareg refugees. I went looking for a mother with a three-year-old child, and I couldn't find them. Every time I entered the tent where we were doing the casting there was this 12-year-old girl who was always there and who always showed up in every picture we took, so my casting director said, "You have to look for a part for this one." So I said, "Look, let's make the child 12 years old." Problem solved.
Scott Feinberg: Zaza, Tangerines is one of the most effective anti-war movies I think you could find. I would imagine that for your country it's probably what All's Quiet On the Western Front was for others for things like that. It makes you see how a lot of what people do during war is stupid and futile. Were there earlier films or filmmakers that influenced the way that you told this story? Obviously, it's a story that is its own conflict, but in the way that you wanted to present it, did you find others to be helpful?
Zaza Urushadze: Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
Scott Feinberg: Just the insanity of it all? That was a much louder film but, yeah, there were some crazy folks in that as well.
Zaza Urushadze: It probably didn't influence me so directly.
Scott Feinberg: As an unrelated follow-up, the main character, the older man in the film (Lembit Ulfsak), is—I understand—one of the greatest Estonian actors. He's had 40-50 years in Estonian theater and film. Tell us a little bit about him because you can see that he knows what he's doing very well.
Zaza Urushadze: I knew him when I was a child. He was famous in the Soviet Union. I would have to say that—when I was writing the screen play—I knew that he would play Ivo.
Damián Szifrón: What you're describing is a great way to leave the theater. I don't think I would ask for more. Regarding my sense of humor, I think of my parents. Both of them were very funny, probably because of their origins. My grandparents on my father's side came from Poland, they were Jewish, and came from the war. They survived and went to South America with nothing at all. Sometimes humor is a powerful tool to improve your life, to create relationships and to move on. So probably that's in my genes. I permit myself to think that humor is a form of expressing themes and issues that—without humor—would miss the target. When you tell a story with solemnity, sometimes a lot of people don't relate to that because everybody has their own problems and life is not easy for different reasons. But with humor, you can establish a strong connection with people. Sometimes in art humor is not that well considered; but, not with moviegoers. Moviegoers do remember what makes them laugh. Humor is a complex way of communication. It includes every other layer. It's like an orchestra with a lot of instruments. You say something humorous and the other person laughs very fast. You communicate fast. In a movie theater packed with people laughing at the same thing makes you feel less lonely in a way. You can understand that we all suffer from the same things, we all get angry about the same things, and that establishes a connection.
Scott Feinberg: Now, in the same way that—if a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there to hear it—if a great film doesn't get talked about or seen, it doesn't matter how great it is. I wonder for each of you what the key was to getting your film seen and talked about? Was there a person? A festival? A moment that was instrumental in helping your film come to the attention of a larger audience? I know a number of you premiered at Cannes, Toronto, Karlovy Vary, Warsaw. Were festivals important? What was key to raising the profile of your film? Alberto, I'm calling on you.
Alberto Arvelo: Our premiere in Toronto was fantastic, I have to say. It was especially important because when I was a teenager in Montreal where my father was a researcher, I wanted to make films. I went to most of the film festivals in Toronto and Montreal and I'd feel the excitement of their red carpets. Being there with my film was fantastic and amazing. People were laughing, crying, clapping in the middle of the projection. I definitely think it was that moment, no doubt. Most of the actors came to join us in that amazing moment. Art is about loving, hugging, feeling and—when you have that equation around you—that's, by far, the fire.
Scott Feinberg: Abderrahmane, Cannes is a special unique place. If they don't like your movie, they let you know. They'll boo. If they love your movie, they'll applaud it for 20 minutes. What was it like for you having been there with Timbuktu and to be so well-received?
Abderrahmane Sissako: It was exactly one year that I was still shooting the film and I arrived in France three days after the end of shooting to do the post-production. So we were really trying to hurry all the post-production to have the chance to enter into the Cannes competition. We were only able to give the finished version of the film about eight days before the festival. I'm telling you that because even I first discovered my film in Cannes. So I had really no distance and absolutely the fact that it was such an incredible response of the press and the public was something very important.
Paula van der Oest: Yes. We got very good reviews. Box-office wise, they could have been better; but, that was okay. The strangest thing is that everybody here on this panel have been selected by major, interesting, very important film festivals; but, my film wasn't. Actually, nowhere. I feel confident about the movie. I love it. I am very proud of it. People are moved when they see it. But so far, no festivals. So out of the blue I was selected as the Dutch entry for the Oscars®, and now I'm on the short list. For me, this is great!
Scott Feinberg: George, you guys premiered at Karlovy Vary, right? That was the beginning? Was that where the momentum for your film began?
George Ovashvili: We had the first version without any sound in 2014. We sent it to Cannes and they refused. At the same time, we got an invitation from Karlovy Vary to be in main competition and we started to think about whether we should go there or not. At the same time we got an invitation from San Sebastián to be in main competition. So it was a bit of a dilemma for my producers to decide where to go. Finally, they said, "We don't have to wait until September. In July we have to go to Karlovy Vary." We went there and I was not expecting anything, but before the closing ceremony the director of the festival asked my producers if they were going to stay for the closing gala and I said, "No, I have a ticket and I need to fly out." They said, "No, no, no, you stay. You have to be there." Nobody told me why. We won the Crystal Globe and the Award of the Ecumenical Jury. It was a good start for the world premiere of my film. When I was selected by my country as the candidate for the Oscars® it was a big surprise for me as well because there were a few good films in competition. Finally, when I was shortlisted, I really could not believe that. I said, "There must be some kind of mistake."
Scott Feinberg: Zaza, you guys started in Warsaw?
Zaza Urushadze: The Warsaw premiere was our first festival and we won Best Director and the Audience Award. After, at different festivals, we got about 20 awards.
Scott Feinberg: Damián, Cannes for you as well must have been an experience? I don't remember too many comedies even being necessarily in competition there. So how did it play over there?
Damián Szifrón: It was amazing. I truly work for the audience. When I write, I never aim for film festivals. Actually, this is the first film I've done that went international. So probably the next one I'm going to think of festivals! But not this one. Yes, I finished the first cut and I showed it to the people involved in the film and they said, "We should send this to Cannes." I said, "Cannes?! You really think so?" Then when I received the call from Thierry Frémaux, he said, "We want the film" and he put the film in the main competition and then he put it on the first Saturday at 9:00 so I was, of course, terrified. But, yes, the reception was magnificent. All the team was there, with the actors, and we began to receive some calls from people who were inside the press screening earlier and they said, "The critics are laughing out loud. The critics are applauding between the episodes." It was a great place to show the film, of course, yes.
Scott Feinberg: Did you run into Andrey out there at Cannes because that's where Leviathan also premiered, right?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: That is correct. We had the most amazing round of applause from both the press and the film critics. One of the festival organizers insisted on our being present for the closing ceremony. We had gotten very revved up and our expectations were set very high. Everything we hoped for actually came true so we were very thankful for this warm reception.
Scott Feinberg: Okay, so with our remaining five minutes, I'm going to ask you to be brief in your response to this, but I think one of the neat things we can do here is to acknowledge how special it is to be on the short list. There were, I think, 83 films that were submitted by countries from around the world. Nine made the list. Seven are here. Five will go on January 22, but regardless, it is a huge honor to have made it this far. I want to ask you about the moment and the meaning to you and your countrymen when you found out from your compatriots. I'm going to direct this specifically to Abderrahmane: Your's is the first film that Mauritania has ever submitted for Oscar® consideration and you've made the nine. That must feel pretty special?
Abderrahmane Sissako: Yes, no doubt, it is something extraordinary for me to have made the short list and to be here at the Palm Springs International with all of the other directors. It's very special. Maybe there's a difference for me than all the other directors because I have the feeling that it is not only my country that I represent but the whole continent of Africa as well.
Scott Feinberg: Andrey, you came close 11 years ago when Russia submitted your film The Return. This time you made it and I know, as you said, it was not necessarily a slam dunk. What was your reaction when you found out that it had happened, beyond being a pleasant surprise? How did you celebrate? [Andrey made the audience laugh by seeming perplexed by the obviousness of the question, spreading his arms out to encompass the immediate experience.]
Andrey Zvyagintsev: It is, of course, an absolutely astounding experience. Our team could not believe it at first; but, as I said, the story goes back to 2011 when the Oscar® committee in Russia was expanded. About 30 people were actually in the committee and they included independent filmmakers, actors, screenwriters, and they helped us to get the project going. This is how, I guess, partially, the movie was greenlit. So, all in all, this is a very interesting and long story and our reaction was, of course, nothing but ecstatic. We were excited and this has been a truly wonderful experience.
Scott Feinberg: Damián, in the 53 years since Argentina first submitted a film for Oscar® consideration, only six have made it as far as yours has now. As a cineaste and a student of film history, that's got to mean something to you?
Damián Szifrón: Of course! It means a lot for us. Everything what's going on with the film is just overwhelming. Sometimes I think that my body can't take that amount of happiness, you know? All this good news! We've been celebrating since the film screened at Cannes. Every month we have a boost. The Oscars®, and having the chance to be here with these immensely talented people, it's wonderful. Sometimes it's a bit strange because of the element of competition, which is strange to art, I would say. It's not natural for an artist to compete. When you're a football player, you have to win and somebody has to lose, and that's the idea of the whole thing. But here, when you work, you're not thinking of what other people are doing. You're not clashing against anything. I don't want to fight him, especially. [Demian nudges Zaza; the audience laughs.] Art has to transcend the competition, and also the nationality, I would say. Sometimes you're more connected to filmmakers from places that are very far away from your's than your neighbor. That makes you a bit anxious because it's not in your nature, I would say.
Scott Feinberg: Zaza, of the other films from Estonia that have been submitted for Oscar® consideration over a period of 22 years, yours is the first that has ever been shortlisted.
Zaza: Mostly, I can't believe it. First a Golden Globe nomination, and now the shortlist? It's amazing for small Estonia and a small Georgia too, since it's an Estonia-Georgia co-production.
Scott Feinberg: Congratulations to you all.