Sunday, April 30, 2006

2006 SFIFF—Gabrielle

Patrice Chéreau's Gabrielle, with—as Beverly Berning has noted in her program capsule—its ready comparison to Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage, was just opening in Paris when I was there last September, trailers were screening in the cineplexes and posters were ubiquitous in the metro, so out of a sense of nostalgia I felt compelled to catch the screening at Pacific Film Archives. Press had been teased that Isabelle Huppert might actually attend so I also went on the slim chance that tease would manifest. Alas, no Isabelle. Nor, if I understand correctly, will she be showing up for the Pacific Film Archive's Huppert June retrospective. A pity. I would have loved to have seen her in her incandescent pale flesh.

Winning a special jury acting award at the 2005 Venice International Film Festival, even though the film itself was assailed with boos after its screening, Huppert maneuvers Chéreau's cumbersome chamber drama with customary aplomb. Shifting from a restricted interiority to a scandalously candid resignation, she is a complete pleasure to observe even as she withholds motivations. The skin beneath her left eye flinches in nervous recognition of distasteful insights. Her nostrils flare as if the atmosphere of her strictured life smells foul.

As Moira Sullivan reported to the Greencine Daily from the Venice International, "Patrice Chéreau's Gabrielle, based on Joseph Conrad's The Return, proves to be an overambitious project that literally doesn't work on screen." One of the film's primary problems is "the decision to project letters and plot developments onscreen as text. The effect is poor, even embarrassing for its lack of ingenuity." I must agree, as does Daniel Kasman, reporting last September from the 43rd New York Film Festival who felt Gabrielle was "inconsistently energized by title cards yelling dialog [her husband] Jean fails to say."

Kasman, however, does commend one of the film's best scenes, and perhaps the gist of Joseph Conrad's concept of "the return": "[P]erhaps the most incisive and invigorating remark in this dully antiquated drama is a rare moment of self-inquiry from Gabrielle . . . who tells her husband that loving the man she was going to run off with was 'too demanding' and that if she truly loved Jean she could not have been able to return; she is only able to come back, face him, and live life as normal because their lack of love makes such interactions easier. These are stunning spoken admissions, and ones far more candid and insightful than any of Jean's bumbling attempts to explain or repair the clarity of his marriage's loveless basis."

Though writing about Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times, Juan Manuel Freire notes: "The initially intrusive use of silent movie subtitles becomes another successful stylistic flourish, emphasizing the artifice of intercourses in a society that hides every passion and truth beneath luxurious costumes and furniture." In regretful hindsight, I wish I could have seen Three Times to compare these stylistic intertitular flourishes with Gabrielle. A pity they were not more successful in the latter.

What worked for me the best, however, along with Huppert in the title role, was the film's disturbing score by Fabio Vacchi. Reminiscent of Hermann's work for Hitchcock, the score leant an anguished and jolting anxiety to the film's depiction of social complacency.

2006 SFIFF—The Evening Class Interview With Lev Yilmaz

At the opening night party—inbetween my first Skyy martini that was already enough and my third which made me thirsty for a fourth—I was introduced by my filmbud Gustavo Fernandez to Lev Yilmaz, creator of Tales of Mere Existence, which will be included among the collection of animated shorts—Drawing Lines—this coming Thursday noon at the Kabuki. Sample sketches of Tales of Mere Existence"The Times I Have Smoked Pot", "Horny", "My Successful Friends", "Goodlooking" and "Pickle"—can be found online. They only whetted my appetite, however, so Gustavo loaned me his copies of the first two dvds of Tales of Mere Existence available from Lev's website. I found them hilarious and approached Lev for an interview.

* * *

The Evening Class: How did you start going with Tales of Mere Existence? Did you have training in college?

LY: To a degree. I went to art school. I didn't really study film. I studied art video and other forms of drawing, painting and whatnot. I really did wind up adding an unusual approach to it. I never learned anything about doing the proper narrative. I've been doing my own video work for a while and then I did the first piece in this style just completely as an experiment. But it was so simple and it was so much fun that I just did another one. And then after maybe about three or four I started thinking that it actually could be a series because I had never really done anything that was a series before. So through the evolution of that I think is really when that—the more I did it—the more important the story became to me every time and now it winds up being absolutely the top of everything. Everything is very story-oriented.

EC: A perfect voice for you! Just as an aside, have you seen Art School Confidential?

LY: Sure.

EC: What'd you think? Any similar experiences with that?

LY: Some. Weirdly enough, even though I did go to art school, I think I related to Ghost World more. Art School Confidential has, perhaps, a lot more normal moviemaking sensibilities to it. To me, anyway, Ghost World was one of the greatest little portraits of this general sort of alienation that really really hit home to me, probably I think one of the best documents—one of the really best high-profile documents of freak pride that I've ever seen.

EC: The technique that you use in your animation, how would you describe it? Is it parchment paper you're using?

LY: I actually completely lifted the technique really from an obscure old arthouse movie called The Mystery of Picasso where the filmmaker [Clouzot] spent a few days with Picasso in his studio. Picasso painted on transluscent canvases and [Clouzot] shot him from the other side, shot the canvases from the other side. I sort of took that and just added narration to it. Naturally, my drawing style is incredibly crude and I only care about getting the point across then I will stop the drawings there.

EC: The point getting across is the point! The narrative. I'm sure Picasso did not have your acerbic witty narrative.

LY: He made up for it in other ways. [Laughter.]

EC: That's what is pleasing people. When I first saw it I just busted a gut because there's something about the combination of the simplicity of the line drawings in process, and then the voiceover. So what I was wondering was, do you film first, and then you add soundtrack?

LY: Oh no. The part that takes the longest is definitely getting the story right. It's not just getting the story right, but it's also just making sure that there isn't a single wasted word in there. Generally the way that I'll do it is I'll write it and then I'll do a mock recording. I'll just read it out, and then I'll listen to it, I'll listen to it a few times. Usually, I'll drink about a half bottle of wine. I figure if it holds my attention if I'm half-drunk it will hold anybody's attention when they're completely sober.

EC: So it's real-time as it's filmed? You're actually drawing and talking at the same time?

LY: No. Because I record the soundtrack first.

EC: Gotcha. That's what I was wondering about.

LY: If there's any animator in the world who doesn't record the soundtrack first, I don't know about them. Somebody must do it but very very few people do.

EC: That just draws focus on just how excellent the timing of the editing is, the way you've already structured a picture and then just add a few things, then the voiceover, it's so skillfully done. Are you really that character? Who is that character?

LY: It's definitely like, y'know, it's part of me. I think as a person I definitely cope better than I think the character does but it's probably definitely the part of me that doesn't feel like coping. That sort of thing.

EC: What I like about him is he's a guy with dark thoughts. Your portraits of envy, of bitterness, of jealousy are acute and spot on. I was watching it again for about the fifth time, every time I show it to a new friend because I keep turning them on to it, and it's always interesting to me to see them go, "I know that! I know that!" Especially the most popular ones are "Procrastination". Everybody knows that one. I've had several guys relate to the one about the ex-girlfriends and the sex they're having with their current partners. A lot of people like that one. I've only seen the first two and you have a third one coming out?

LY: Yeah, it's going to be coming out pretty soon. The more that it goes on, the more that it expands. And probably my favorite piece which I am going to be showing on Thursday at the festival is a piece called "Conversation" that is probably one of my favorite episodes of the series, I think. It's different because it's a conversation between two people and I'm saying, "And then I said" "and then she said" and just kind of narrating it out like that. But it's the conversation that the couple has in the video store trying to figure out what to rent and it winds up completely bringing up all this fucked up stuff that's happened in their relationship.

EC: Great! So where do the ideas come from?

LY: Where do you think that one came from?! [Laughter] I almost didn't have to write that one. That one was taken moreorless verbatim from a conversation with a girl … a wonderful girl that I was with for a few years, but it didn't work out. But it was taken essentially verbatim from that.

EC: I enjoy the pacing of the humor. Especially I noticed by the second one, I watched the first one and you had developed certain ideas, but by the second one you got a little tighter and you started to do this very rapid delivery. The timing is hilarious. Do you have certain comics that you emulate or that you picked that up from, that kind of comic timing?

LY: The funny thing is that a lot of the influences that I wound up having are influences of probably a generation before mine. I was very much a loner when I was a kid so the sorts of things that … and really, more than watching t.v., I stole a bunch of my dad's old comedy records so that a lot of—I bet you that a lot of the pacing kind of comes from just listening to comedians from the early 60s. I was a huge huge fan of the early Bill Cosby comedy records, the ones that he did before he became America's favorite t.v. dad. He was just an outstanding stand-up comedian, a storyteller really. Him, and a bunch of old Mike Nichols and Elaine May records. It's just something that I began to just sort of … the more that I was playing with material of my own, I began to really realize that even a quarter of a second can be the difference between not funny and funny.

EC: Exactly! That's what I'm saying. The timing is impeccable and it's counterpointed against a drollness, kind of a throwaway delivery. That's what makes it work. It's perfect.

LY: The droning delivery, that I definitely started in the early pieces. Everybody starts from somewhere and that delivery was absolutely influenced by Stephen Wright but then it changed after a while, it really evolved.

EC: Tell me about the Comedy Central gig; what's that about?

LY: What happened was that I was on a—it still shows every once in a while, I don't think very often—but it was this late-night stoner program called Jump Cuts. Usually when they first brought it out it was on at midnight and now every once in a while still they'll have—they only made four episodes of this thing, I was in all four episodes—but now they have marathons every once in a while starting at two and ending at four and just show all four episodes of Jump Cuts. Since then, now that a lot of the material is out on their podcasts, you can get it online. If you find it, let me know. I don't have a video Ipod so I haven't actually even seen it myself.

EC: I'll go looking for it. You're primarily a completely independent entrepreneur, right?

LY: Absolutely, I'm a one-man band.

EC: I'm impressed with that. How is the website working for you?

LY: My website?

EC: Yeah, do you have outreach? Are you getting orders through the website?

LY: Absolutely! That's one of the things that's been pretty amazing is that I've really managed to move a remarkable number of copies of the books. It is completely doing it myself. I'm surprised that it's worked as well as it has. I'm not really part of the comics community much but guys in the comics community have said that the number of copies I've been able to sell just entirely by myself without a distributor even has been very competitive to like the average—not like a Marvel comic release but an alternative comic release—that I've really given them a run for their money.

EC: That's great! Is that an independence you want to maintain or are you looking for a distributor?

LY: I would love to find a distributor! I would love to find a publisher! The thing is people are just … how easy do you think it was for the first guy who invented the smoothie to get it off the ground? It's an apple, right? No, it's not, it's kind of an apple and an orange. But is it an orange or is it an apple, I can't tell? People will freak and fuck out anytime you do anything that is even a little bit out of the ordinary like that. It's been hard to get your normal comic strip distributors or your book distributors to pay any attention to it. If I don't find a distributor, it's really not that bad to continue to do it myself. Whatever.

EC: Would you do stand-up comedy, anything like that? Is that something you'd be interested in?

LY: When I hear the term "stand-up comedy" I practically twitch because I've seen so few stand-up comedians that I really like. But I've got a great admiration—instead of stand-up comedy I kind of wonder when I don't know if I want to carry on this form of thing—I wonder if storytelling appears to sort of work in this same kind of vein, closer to the way when you hear David Sedaris talking, it's hilarious, his delivery is great.

EC: Or Guy Maddin! Have you heard Guy Maddin?

LY: I'm not sure.

EC: He's hilarious.

LY: The ones that I've heard the most of is mainly Sedaris. I've heard Douglas Adams reading a few of his books, which were wonderful, so I wonder about that. I've started to give that a little bit of thought. I've done … there's a few … because I've started to do it actually, to do some storytelling live, and it's totally fucking nervewracking but it's also an awful lot of fun.

EC: Where do you do that?

LY: You're a local, right?

EC: Yes.

LY: I did Porchlight once and that was a blast! It was really really a lot of fun. And then I did a reading over at—I don't even remember what the show was—sometime late last year. And then did it again over at some smaller places, these like small performances that my friend puts on. But I'm thinking about getting more into it.

EC: Do you ever go to the Bad Movie nights at the Dark Room on Mission?

LY: Jesus Christ, of course!

EC: You would be a great funny guest commentator. You know how they have three or four guys, usually in front, commenting on the movie?

LY: You know something? There are very different kinds of senses of humor that people have. I'm not one of those people. I'm lucky that, occasionally, if I'm really comfortable with people then I can be a fast commentator. Do you ever know some of those people who are incredibly incredibly funny on their feet and can react and respond to anything and really make you laugh? And you would think, wow, I betcha this person would be a great comedy writer! It almost never works. Because since their sense of humor they're able to express in this way, they don't have a need to express it in another way. The people who are funniest on paper are just because they're frustrated, they can't think fast enough on their feet, they're funny in another way, another avenue. It's something I've seen a million times. There are exceptions of course, but, it's a tendency I've seen.

EC: You have the third disk coming out. So what's in your future? What are you aiming for? What do you see going on?

LY: I would really like the most if I could find a publisher or distributor or whatnot. I wonder if it would happen easier actually in Europe rather than here because the stuff has gone over rather well in America but the audiences respond even stronger in Europe.

EC: You've tested that?

LY: I actually did a little French tour early last year!

EC: Cool! That's cool! I think you're one of the finest young comic talents that I've seen in a long time. And I watch a lot. I really appreciate that you give me the time to talk a little bit. I want to watch what you do. I'll definitely see you this coming Thursday at noon!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

2006 SFIFF—Artists on Other Artists

Jean-Claude Carrièr on Luis Buñuel:

I was a priest in Diary of A Chambermaid, and in The Milky Way a little later I was a bishop, up in the hierarchy. Buñuel was telling me all the time, "You're a very good actor, very good, but only for ecclesiastic professions, don't try to play anything else." So one day in another film not made by Buñuel I played—because we were lacking money—I played a veterinarian, y'know? A vet. We showed the film to Buñuel, we liked it, the film was full of animals, an interesting French film. At the end I asked Buñuel, "How did you like my acting?" And he said, "You're a very very good actor, but only for ecclesiastics and veterinarians."

Carrièr quotes Buñuel: "We always have to follow people who are looking for truth and run away from people who have found it."

* * *

Tilda Swinton on Derek Jarman:

I was asked yesterday some question about my time with Derek Jarman and I had a strange kind of wormhole moment when I … for a second my mind imagined—but really only for a split second—my own history without having met him. It was the strangest experience. He's kind of in my dna I think. The privilege of having met him and lived alongside him for nine years, I don't know, I'd also been looking for him on some level. He lit a torch and so many of us who knew him, worked with him, were young at the time and he was our first experience of not only making cinema but making art …. He was really a parent and I mean that in the least creepy way. He was extraordinary as I sort of maybe tried one version of a letter to him actually. I think it's possibly because of my letter to him that Graham [Leggat] might have asked me to come tonight. …That letter to Derek was trying to bring him up to date with what might have happened in the last—at that stage it had been eight years since he unaccountably left the building—and it's still difficult to believe that he has, but, there was this very strange time after he had when it really felt like all of us couldn't really do very much. Slowly we started to wake up again. His effect was to channel something, which was just the idea of living as an artist like him, more really than what he was doing. The fact that he was doing anything at all in the way in which he did it, particularly at the time at which he did it, was really a privilege to be around. He taught us all to be lawless or encouraged us all to believe in our own lawlessness, which I can't recommend more highly.

SFIFF49 2006—The Evening Class Interview with Fernando "Pino" Solanas

My heartfelt thanks to Hilary Hart and the San Francisco Film Society for granting me 15 minutes to talk to Fernando Solanas [official Spanish website], director of The Dignity of the Nobodies (La dignidad de los nadies, 2005), which had its U.S. premiere at the 49th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) in association with the United Nations Association Film Festival and Global Exchange [my earlier write-up is here]. What a welcome opportunity! With my broken Spanish and the able translations of Oscar Arteta, I was able to touch upon a few points with Solanas.

* * *

Michael Guillén: When I first saw Dignity of the Nobodies, I was both sad and hopeful; sad because it seemed to me something that could happen to U.S. citizens if we aren't careful and vigilant, and hopeful because the Argentines are setting an example of what people can do in such a crisis. Do you remain hopeful? As hopeful as when you were making the documentary?

Fernando Solanas: Yes, of course. Yes, yes.

Guillén: What can people in the United States do to help the Argentine people in this situation?

Solanas: Look, one of the things that occurs to me—we were talking about it earlier today—is of course the development of different kinds of information because the information given by this film does not reach the media, it doesn't arrive to you. The U.S. society is a very misinformed society. They end up thinking that in Argentina nothing happens, there's no reaction. It's a scandal to me! I see in all the press here there is no news about Latin America and in all our countries every day things are happening. There's nothing more dangerous than censorship and the lack of information, because those are the same mediums through which demons are invented.

Of course, people read inbetween the lines, search on the web, in magazines, to find other information but the majority are victims of this censorship and lack of information. So what do you do to make the information system in North America and the United States more democratic? How do you change it? Nothing happens, it's terrible! It's been a week since I've been here. I started in L.A. I spend many hours in the hotel and at night I don't go out; I stay in the hotel. It's sad, the misinformation, or the lack of information, how poor the newscasts are. On the other hand, there are no alternative distribution systems or channels for a film like The Dignity of the Nobodies.

Guillén: Is this what you mean by the "culture of defeat"?

Solanas: Oh yes, of course, of resignation, of giving up, of believing it is impossible to bring about change, that the neoliberal movement cannot be changed, that globalization cannot be changed.

Guillén: That's what was so inspiring to me about the documentary: it provided a model of change.

Solanas: Of course.

Guillén: I saw the film more as a radical poem than a documentary. It reminded me of a short poem by Antonio Machado. Do you know Machado?

Solanas: Yes….

Guillén: Do you know this poem? [I recite in Spanish]: El ojo que ves no es / ojo porque tú lo veas / es ojo parque te ve. [His eyebrows lift and he nods his head approvingly.] What this reminds me of in your work is how—as a documentary filmmaker—you don't just observe, you allow the people you're filming to become real and engaged, you grant them sovereignty. I understand that when you were filming The Dignity of the Nobodies, you had to change cameras in order to achieve that communication, switching from a larger shoulder-borne camera to a handheld. Can you speak about the uses of various cameras to create a more realistic portrait?

Solanas: Well, in this movie Dignity, there are nine minutes of archived material that I did not film. The rest, an hour and 50 minutes, is material that I filmed myself looking to find the same cinematic language. Most of it is like a very subjective camera living alongside the people. It's a camera with a wide-angle lens that is always in my hand. Half of this film is filmed with this little camera [he shows me a photo of a mini-DV] and the other half is filmed with a Sony DVcam 150, which is also a small camera.

Guillén: But the smaller one worked better to establish friendship and cooperation?

Solanas: They're both cameras that people don't regard as professional cameras from television. Aside from that, the people know me, they have affection for me, they respect me, they know that I make movies that express them very well.

Guillén: I was interested also that you brought back the tradition of the copla to introduce each character. Can you talk a little bit about the payador tradition and why you use it?

Solanas: In the popular tradition in the 19th century there was the payador, he was like the one that chronicled life on the pampas. He would ride around the countryside on his horse with his guitar and when he would get to a puntenilla, which was like a mixture of a meat market and a corner store in the middle of nowhere, it was like a house where a gaucho could go, he would have a drink, and tell stories, his chronicles, for the coins people would give him. But he would tell his news with some kind of art; it was the art of popular poetry.

Guillén: The combination of the two—your using modern, small cameras to capture campesino testimonials while utilizing this ancient payador tradition—was fantastic!

Solanas: I thought it was necessary to have a more sensitive level, a synthesis, to summarize and introduce each one of these stories, especially the characters. So each character has a copla that follows the tradition of the gaucho poetry, which was initiated by Martín Fierro. Martín Fierro is the poem that is most well-known and the most beautiful poem of all Argentine poetry, written in 1872, and it talks about the odyssey of a gaucho who was persecuted. The army used to go to the pampas and try to inscript the gauchos—who were free—to go and fight against the Indians, the natives. Gauchos and Indians, they lived in peace before. So this is the poem and The Dignity of the Nobodies follows that tradition, but with a more simplified language, one that is more urban. Though not exactly, it approximated the gaucho language and in that way each character was introduced with verses. I like it because it creates a certain environment, it gives a heightened level of sensitivity. Some people don't like it at all but, inside of a work of art you can have different levels of language.

Guillén: Yes, the film is multi-layered.

Solanas: Exactly! That's the way it is.

Guillén: You have stated that you are hoping "to preserve memory against oblivion." So it seems to me that you're saying memory is a political act that counters the systematic erasure of history.

Solanas: Memory is good. In the '90s until now the media in Argentina has lied a lot, has falsified history. The media is financed by big corporations and the banks. Hence, it was necessary to make a film of opinions that would analyze what had happened and why. Of course for the economic powers of neoliberalism, the banks and all of them, this film is just pure trash.

Guillén: But we know better!!

Solanas: [Chuckling.] I'm making these films and trying to chronicle history. They're films that over there will be more or less public but they will last because they are real testimonies. At the same time, I want to—because I am making a movie—I want to write it very well, to film it well, because the same information could be taught by a professor in history or sociology. It would have the same information but without the emotional impact. This movie, The Dignity of the Nobodies and its predecessor A Social Genocide [Solanas actually translates it as Memories of a Plunder], they have been declared in Argentina to be of educational interest. So with regard to the news that the teacher can bring his students, now all the students can bring him to see the film, and then have a debate over it. More than 40,000 students in high school have seen Memories of a Plunder—that's high school students!!—through a program that allows low ticket prices, almost nothing. The programs are aided by the Ministry of Education or the Institute of Film.

Guillén: Well, they're telling me I have to wrap it up here. Before parting, I must say that I consider you a magnificent teacher!! Thank you for your all your work.

[Solanas then asked if he could take a look at my digital recorder. He was fascinated by it. He asked me how it worked, if it had a cassette, and I told him, no, that it recorded digitally with a memory stick and that I could then upload the recording to my computer for transcription. He asked if he could hear what I had recorded and I played it back for him to listen. He whistled approvingly. I told him that, if I had two of them, I would gladly give him one. Next time!! We laughed.]

05/13/06 UPDATE:
Josh Wolf at The Revolution Will Be Televised filmed Fernando Solanas during his Q&A following the SFIFF screening of The Dignity of the Nobodies. David D'Arcy interviewed Solanas for The Greencine Daily.

Cross-published on

Thursday, April 27, 2006

2006 SFIFF—Famous Directors and Their Funny Animal Stories!!!

The on-stage appearances of both Guy Maddin and Werner Herzog have proven immensely entertaining! Steve Seid and David Sterritt, respectively—and with skilled professionalism—allowed themselves to be turned into straight men for their interviewees who each unexpectedly transformed into stand-up comics!

After complaining that Shelly Duvall was better known for her role in Popeye than in his own Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and that Frank Gorshin's "touchingly antiquated" impersonations weren't everyone's cup of tea (his Jack Nickolson was "amazing" but his Jack Nicklaus was "lame"), Guy Maddin reminisced on Twilight of the Ice Nymphs:

"I remember that whole movie. There's a lot of ostriches in that movie and it was a kind of humiliating experience because I found that I could direct the ostriches better than I could direct the people. They're birds, right? So when it's dark they go to sleep. A couple of times they stampeded around, and I was warned by the ostrich wrangler, 'Watch out for the ostriches, especially the males, they can kick your face off.' Things like that. And then there was a stampede where they destroyed most of my sets one day and we started turning out lights, and they kicked some lights over, and some lights went out, and they immediately got calm. And so I learned that you could direct them by dimmer switch! So it's just a matter of having someone—not a focus puller but an F-stop puller—so while you're dimming the lights you just open the aperture up more and you could agitate the ostriches and then calm them down. It was humiliating to me that I was reduced to sort of just going, "NOW!" These animals would perform perfectly. Because see, you're always told never direct children or animals, it will drive you nuts and things. …They aren't likeable animals. They were constantly pecking at things. Modern slates are made with little Velcro numbers—well, real modern slates now they're all digitalized—but these ones I felt were pretty modern, they had Velcro numbers and all the numbers were missing. And then we'd watch in the rushes, we could see where the ostriches were sort of pecking them off when no one was noticing. And they would peck off your eyeglasses at this distance. And they're about eight feet tall. They're like the reproductive organs of flowers, very strange, that's all I remember, I don't remember Frank Gorshin frankly or anybody else."

* * *

As if Guy Maddin's ostrich anecdote wasn't hilariously engaging enough, Werner Herzog got his audience roaring responding to an inquiry by a woman in the audience who had read a story about a man in Holland who had been in charge of finding thousands of brown or black rats for one of Herzog's films and had ended up painting some of them the color Herzog wanted. "Anyway, it was a fascinating story," the woman said but admitted she hadn't seen a film of his with thousands of rats in it and was wondering which film it was.

Herzog replied the film was Nosferatu and qualified, "It's actually eleven thousand!! They were white laboratory rats, snow-white laboratory rats, and no one on earth can paint them individually. We had cages, four hundred of them, and dipped them into the paint." He then went on to recount about the man who was in charge of the rats. Herzog had this big conflict with that man because he misappropriated money meant for feeding the rats. So Herzog took the rats back by force and the bozo almost ran him over with a caterpillar. He was enraged and shoved the caterpillar through the windows of Herzog's car. Herzog jumped out of his car and sort of lay down on the ground in front of the caterpillar hoping to try to stop him but the idiot continued forward and was just about to run Herzog over when the cinematographer pulled him out of danger's way. "So you see," Herzog communicated drolly, "I have conflicted feelings over those rats!"

2006 SFIFF—Alice Braga's Introduction and Q&A for Cidade Baixa (Lower City)

Introducing Sérgio Machado's Cidade Baixa / Lower City, Alice Braga—niece of the radiant Sonia Braga—stated, "Sérgio always says when he introduces the film that he and Karim [Ainouz], the co-writer, they wanted to know who were the young people in Brazil nowadays and where they are and what they do. He chose to do Salvador because it's where he was born. So he portrayed a love story."

Returning to the podium for a Q&A after the screening, Alice made us laugh by admitting she was even more shy now that we had seen her naked! I certainly respected her bravery! Of course, if I looked that hot and that beautiful, I could afford to be brave!

Asked how long it had taken to make the film, Alice explained all three actors rehearsed with an acting coach, the boys for six weeks, she for three (she had been traveling and came into the project later), followed by eight weeks of shooting.

One of the audience members had heard that most of the cast of City of God were, in fact, non-actors and wondered if that was the case with Alice? How had she become involved in that project?

"It was funny," she replied, she was just doing theater when they cast her in City of God, she had never acted in a movie and was trying to decide what she wanted to do with her life. Being cast in Lower City was equally as "funny" and Alice claimed she ended up in this film "in a really really crazy way." She was coming to the U.S. to do Oscar press for City of God. The day she was leaving to the airport, Sérgio phoned and said, "Hey, I have a film!" He explained they had a girl they were considering for the role of Karina and that she was great, but, he kept looking at her and saying, "It's not her, it's not her." So he was still looking for the actress to play Karina and wanted to see what Alice might do, could she come and audition? She said, sure, but first she had to go to the U.S. for a week. She came to San Francisco, her first time here, met Carlos Bolado to negotiate Sólo Dios Sabe, then returned to Brazil, accepted the role of Karina in Lower City and worked on that for three months before launching into Sólo Dios Sabe; a "quite crazy" time in her life.

Alice qualified that Karina was her first true opportunity to act, because even though her character in City of God was beautiful and close to her, the director had purposely insisted they not act, he didn't want them to try to do anything. He just wanted her to be a girl living in a different time, in the '70s, that's all. Being Karina was totally different because she was 20 years old—practically a girl—but the rough circumstances of her life had made her a strong woman.

Asked about how the ending of the film was configured, Alice admitted it was an editing decision. The actors were given a script to work with—and Alice bemoaned how long it took her to learn the script—but the script was more to help the acting coach develop the delivery of their lines in a natural way. "We knew what the character needed to talk," Alice explained. Once they got the natural delivery down, then they began to shoot, varying from the script. The film had alternate endings. In one ending they shot a scene with all three of them walking the streets as if they had ended up staying together but it was decided that was too happy—and inauthentic—an ending for a film like Lower City. Sérgio decided to experiment with a more open ending. So first, Alice described, "He did something that was really bizarre on the set. He put a kid dancing and I was like, 'Why? How come you're going to end up with a kid dancing? It doesn't say anything.' "

They shot a lot of film the day they were filming the ending and what was funny was that Sérgio didn't decide until seven months after they had ended filming what he actually wanted. The final close-up of Karina's eyes was shot seven months after the rest of the film. Sérgio had decided that he didn't like Karina looking down at the end, he wanted her character to look up because she was a survivor, a fighter, and she wasn't about to go down no matter what. So Alice had to dye her hair blonde again just to get the final shot.

So as many ways as the ending could have gone, it was decided in the editing not the filming. The script didn't have this ending. "It's hard, isn't it, to do a film?" Alice mused, "Because so many things happen on the set that you can make another film." So many things from the script never made it to the film. "Like at the beginning," Alice offered by example, "the woman that just sell her the sandwich, it started the film with the two of them having sex with her just to show that they used to have women that they used to share." Sérgio elected to cut this out to focus on the triangle with Karina.

One young woman in the audience expressed her surprise to hear Alice state that Karina was her first true acting role. She wondered what it was like for Alice to have to act in the nude, "very compromised." The young woman praised Alice for coming off so natural, so effortless, something she'd rarely seen in a debut performance.

Alice thanked the young woman and admitted the nudity was a huge challenge. "When I read the script," she joked, "I was like, 'Whoa…!' " But the moment she read the script Alice knew she really wanted to play the role. She knew she would learn and grow as an actress, as well as a human being, because Karina, as a character, was such a strong person.

Let alone that she would get to work with the "amazing" Maria Fatima Toledo—who served as the acting coach in such films as City of God, Central Station, Hector Babenco's Pixote, and Andrucha Waddington's Eu Tu Eles—and Wagner Moura, one of her favorite Brazilian actors, and Sérgio Machado, who had worked with Walter Salles for many years. So she knew Lower City was a really good project to be involved in and that they would take care of her as a new actress. The moment she got into the rehearsals with Fatima and the other actors, she learned to shake off her fear and shyness, and to not let anything block her performance.

Before stepping on to the set Sérgio had a huge meeting with the whole crew, explaining that the crew would be reduced for the nude scenes, because Sergio knew how difficult it would be to achieve the intimacy required by the film. He spoke to the crew and asked them to help the actors because they were going to be exposed, physically and emotionally, and needed the crew's protection.

The moment the actors got onto the set, Alice described, everyone was so helpful, it was such a beautiful environment, everyone was taking such good care of them and everyone wanted so badly to film the story that Alice felt completely secure. Before shooting, or every time she had 15 minutes off, the acting coach would be on the set to give her exercises. The entire crew focused and prepared, just like the actors, so the moment Alice had to disrobe, she wasn't even thinking about it, so caught up and crazy about what was happening, that she completely forgot she was naked. The thing that has made her really happy in retrospect is that everyone that sees the film acknowledges her courage.

As an acting coach, Alice says Maria Fatima Toledo believes in connecting actors to the feelings of their characters. She wants to put those feelings into the actor's skin, their body, so their performance will be natural. The process is intense. By way of example, Alice says the scene where Naldinho discovers Karina has moved out of their Lower City apartment, and he hits the door and breaks the mirror, wasn't planned. Wagner Moura was so intensely into his character's passion that he just shattered the mirror with his fist. It's the kind of acting that Sérgio wanted, to be really true to the story, so the audience who sees the film will see that these people exist, and believe in their existence, that they could go to Bahia and find Karina in the streets.

Toledo leads the actors through many exercises, such as Kundalini yoga which is a specific exercise to open the chakras. She encouraged the actors to dance a lot to get into their bodies; Alice danced all day long. She also did exercises to feel the weight of life. Since Karina is a character who has been lonely since she was a kid and has carried that weight of loneliness her whole life, Toledo guided Alice through exercises that helped her achieve that feeling of world weariness. In one exercise Alice used to lay down on the floor and one of the guys from the crew would lay down on top of her and not let her go until she was desperate. "He was the weight of life on my body," she explained, "so that I felt desperate for air."

One woman—who had traveled to the city of Salvador where the film was shot—wanted to know why Sérgio Machado had chosen Salvador as the film's particular setting? And why he had focused exclusively on this underbelly neighborhood when Salvador has so much more to offer?

Alice was glad the woman brought up that inquiry. She answered that Sérgio was from Salvador so he wanted to show it in his first feature, because he loves the city, and even loves the world where Karina and Naldinho live, Cidade Baixa, Lower City, which is the name of the neighborhood. Alice said Sérgio was going to be really glad that the woman had made that comment because he didn't want to shoot Salvador like everyone shoots Salvador. He just wanted to show Lower City, a neighborhood that no one gets to know because it's not on the tourist trail, a neighborhood that Alice describes in Portuguese as sugmundo, a world that society sometimes forgets and purposely hides. Even those places in Salvador that are on the tourist trail, like the elevator that is so often depicted on postcards, Sérgio shot from different angles in hopes of breaking the postcard's perspective.

Understanding that City of God is something of a contemporary barometer of Brazilian film, Alice asserts nonetheless that Brazilians want more than anything to tell a story, even if it is about common everyday people that are specifically Brazilian. City of God opened a lot of doors internationally. It was a film that showed that reality—even a negative reality—could be depicted artistically, professionally, with really well-done editing, cinematography, the works. Alice hopes the Brazilian film industry can keep going and maintain its current pace. She praises new directors like Machado and Marcelo Gomes, whose film Cinema, Aspirinas e Urubus has been receiving international attention. It's a completely different kind of film than Lower City but Alice feels that diversity in the filmmaking is good. "We need to believe more in our country."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

2006 SFIFF—The Evening Class Interview with Alice Braga

As I mentioned in my earlier entry on this year's Latino Line-up for SFIFF, Alice (pronounced Alicia) Braga has the sweet distinction of having two films screening at this year's festival: Sólo Dios Sabe and Lower City.

I caught up with Alice after yesterday's screening of Lower City. She was excitedly on her way to her first American baseball game but graciously granted me time for a brief interview.

* * *

The Evening Class: Alice, I write for a website called The Evening Class and I'm reporting on Latin-American film to a Canadian website called Twitch.

AB: Nice! Where you from?

EC: I'm from here, San Francisco. I actually know your painter friend Ana Fernandez.

AB: Ah, Ana!! She was here. Yeah, I met her yesterday; she's so sweet!

EC: Well, you have the fortuitous opportunity of having two of your films screening at this year's festival so I thought it would be great to talk about your two characters: Dolores in Sólo Dios Sabe and Karina in Lower City. Both roles are beautiful women dealing with issues of relationship and pregnancy. I just watched you in Lower City and the pregnancy there was left somewhat open-ended whereas it played a crucial role in Sólo Dios Sabe. Not to pit one film against the other, but I loved Sólo Dios Sabe! It's been great to see your work in both films; I cannot believe you're a brand-new actress!

AB: Yeah, I just decided. Actually I started last year, the year that I shot Lower City. I did Lower City, a week after I [finished] Lower City I came to San Francisco to meet the director Carlos Bolado from Sólo Dios Sabe, and I did it. So it was a year that I was just throwing myself into acting.

EC: So you're working with all the fresh young directors? Carlos Bolado, Sérgio Machado, Heitor Dhalia!

AB: Yeah, yeah, it's really nice. It was really great because, after City of God, a door opened for me, I started to study more and to try to grab more stuff so as soon as I started to work in different films I had to quit my university, just [stop] a bit and leave it there to working. But now I'm studying, coming and going, I did some theater when I was in school, I'm just living, step by step, but I was really lucky that I got two beautiful characters to play.

EC: Well, there's luck, but you're following through with the work. You're doing very good work.

AB: Thank you!

EC: Alice, you're such a troublemaker in Lower City! I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about Karina's inability to choose between the two men?

AB: She's really a challenging character for me because she is 20 years old and she has had such a strong life and so many things that she's been through for a girl alone in the world; but she's a woman. So there was this—how they say?—being a woman and a girl at the same time with the same intensity was quite challenging for me. And you asked about choosing between them, right?

EC: Yes.

AB: It's hard because she loves both. Sérgio always said to us—like, for me—that they love each other with the same intensity. It's like an equilateral triangle. Like Deco [Lázaro Ramos] loves Naldinho [Wagner Moura], Naldinho loves Karina, Karina loves Deco and Naldinho with the same intensity. So I think she loves their relationship and their friendship. That's why at the end of it I think she tries to leave and [not] be with them because she knows they're going to kill each other. They can't support sharing her. It's hard to explain. But she loves them both with the same intensity. She loves things in Deco, she loves things in Naldinho, that she can't choose. It was hard! It was hard for me because sometimes [on] the set everyone started to think, nah, but she needs to go for this way or that way, but she can't! And I loved both actors. It was funny because they were always like, "Don't love him more. Don't love him more. Don't love him more than me!" And I was like, "Oh my god!" And it was challenging for that. What do you think? Do you think she loves one more than the other one?

EC: No, I didn't. I thought the ending was perfectly balanced, that you felt all their pain.

AB: That's great! Because it was challenging for us. Sometimes in the script when we read, lots of the people from the crew thought that she liked Deco more. So Wagner, Naldinho, he was like freaking out!

EC: There's a quality that you bring to the Lower City character Karina but also to the character Dolores in Sólo Dios Sabe that I admire—it's in both of them—a quality of worldliness beyond years. Both characters are girls really but you have an ability to communicate with your eyes a mature woman's worldly experience.

AB: Thank you very much. That's so beautiful to hear that, listen, it's good to hear this response.

EC: Can you talk a little bit about Dolores? What drew you to that role? I loved her character!

AB: That's great! She's a really tough role. They have such a thing that shows life, Karina and Dolores, they're both lonely people. Dolores has a mom, her father died when she was a kid, and she doesn't have a good relationship with her mom. She's been far away from her house so she lives in another country, a foreign country, by herself. Karina never had a family, she lives by herself, she's alone in the world. They're two different roles but with similar life, similar feelings, like loneliness.

EC: What I loved about Dolores is that she starts out in Sólo Dios Sabe cynical because she's been taken advantage of, and skeptical of anything spiritual, and yet in the final scenes of that movie I realized that she's the one who believes in this invisible world more than anybody else!

AB: Exactly! She just needed someone to sit down with her and show her a little bit about love and life, and to be in a relationship.

EC: Do you know Andrucha Waddington?

AB: No. I met him in Brazil really briefly, like really fast. But I haven't met him.

EC: I was talking with him yesterday and he told me his new film is going to be Conquistador; it's about Hernan Cortez. You should play Malinche!

AB: But she talks Spanish. I do talk Spanish but I don't know … I don't know, I'm not sure if he has me in his mind….

EC: The next film that you're doing?

AB: A Journey to the End of the Night. It's an American production. They shot in Brazil but it's an American film. We shot in October, last October. My character's a really nice girl. She lives in Brazil. She's one of the survivors, those girls that just survive in the big city and a big environment and she gets a ride with Mos Def's character. He's in the film; it's Mos Def, Brendan Fraser, Scott Glenn, and Catalina Sandino Moreno.

EC: You're getting to work with everybody!!

AB: Yeah, it's really nice! The director [Eric Eason]'s a really independent guy and filmmaker. His first film was Manito. It was really good experience. And now I'm going to start back to release that. I think it's fine. It's a really nice film, this one.

EC: You'll be here also for the screening of Sólo Dios Sabe?

AB: No, I won't be able because I'm going to be there doing press for that one. [A Journey to the End of Night is having its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday, the 28th.]

EC: Oh, well, then I'm really glad I caught you today!

AB: Talking about Dolores, she is the kind of people that seems tough but is really sweet inside. She just needed someone to grab her hand to get her together. I think she was a really nice character to do because it's about protecting yourself and trying to let it go. And it's something that we need to do nowadays because sometimes we're so, like, trying to protect ourselves from everything because the world is so hard with us. Sometimes we need to let it go and open the door for the destiny, or for a love.

EC: What was it like working with Diego Luna?

AB: Amazing! He's a really nice person. A really amazing actor and really giving and really sweet. I had a great time. I learned a lot from him. He's been an actor since he was a baby!

EC: What do you want to do next?

AB: I want to do theater! I haven't got a chance to do theater professionally. Just having classes and everything. So I want to do a bit of theater. I want to study, maybe coming to New York, or San Francisco. Just opening doors. And now I want to keep doing cinema, that is my passion, that is what I love. But theater! To grow up and keep going.

EC: Well, I have to tell you, I think you're heading for a brilliant career. I'm a gay guy myself but I could almost go straight for you!

AB: [Laughing] Thank you very much! That's BEAUTIFUL! I LOVE IT! [She gives me a big kiss.] I'm going to say like, "Now, you're going to be straight. I'm going to meet you in San Francisco and say, okay! Let's go for a beer!!"

Photos courtesy of Jeff Vespa, Cross-published at Twitch.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

2006 SFIFF—The Evening Class Interview With Andrucha Waddington

Casa de Areia / The House of Sand is Andrucha Waddington's first feature-length fiction film since his 2000 award-winning Eu Tu Elles / Me You Them (Official Selection Cannes Film Festival / Un Certain Regard and Toronto International Film Festival; and Winner, Best Film, Karlovy Vary Film Festival). It features Fernanda Montenegro (Academy Award nominee for Central Station) and her real-life daughter Fernanda Torres (Best Actress for Parle-moi d'amour at Cannes), two of the most renowned actresses of Brazil, brought together for the first time in a film's leading roles. I met up with Andrucha Waddington early Monday morning at the Hotel Adagio for coffee and conversation. I'm keeping Andrucha's broken English intact because I found it charming and uniquely communicative.

* * *

Michael Guillén: First of all, I wanted to congratulate you on winning the Alfred P. Sloan award at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Andrucha Waddington: Thank you very much.

Guillén: Sundance has been very good to you! They initially gave you $10,000 for the development of the film, did they not?

Waddington: They gave more! They gave $150,000. It was $10,000 for development and $140,000 for a pre-buy NHK deal, that when we had the film ready, NHK bought the film for t.v. in Japan. So then it was a guaranteed pre-buy so you could count on that money for production.

Guillén: And then at this year's Sundance you won the $20,000 Sloan award?

Waddington: Yes, it was amazing! I couldn't believe that! And actually, for me it was very touching because the jury was made by scientists, and actually Antonio Demasio which is an amazing neurologist and he's a guy who studied about human behavior and I read many of his books and when I saw him in the jury, . . . I was really moved and I said, "I can't believe, Antonio, that you are on the jury; it was my dream to meet you!" And then I went to L.A. after Sundance and I went out with him and we became friends. So besides the honor to get the award, the money, I got a friend!

Guillén: That's absolutely the best perk! The Sloan Award is presented to an outstanding feature film focusing on science or technology as a theme, or depicting a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a major character. The expedition that features in House of Sand was a true historical scientific expedition, was it not?

Waddington: Exactly. This expedition was sent to Brazil by Albert Einstein to prove the general theory of relativity. He sent two expeditions: one to Africa and one to Brazil. The Brazilian one was leaded by Cromley, which was an Irish—if I'm not wrong—an Irish scientist and they made this picture of the solar eclipses, the total solar eclipses, that took place in May, 1919. Actually, the sky was cloudy in Africa so the theory was proved in Brazil by this picture. This picture was taken 200 miles from where it was shot so we did this small political … no …

Guillén: Artistic license?

Waddington: Artistic license! And we brought this expedition to the camp of dunes and we actually saw many pictures in the research about how was this expedition, how they had equipments, because they had photographed documents about their day by day during this expedition. So we tried to recreate as it was and actually there is something that was a challenge for us because I didn't want to put dates in the screen, just in the beginning to set the audience really quick where we are, but, from this moment on I didn't want to have like, okay, 1919, 1942 written in the script, so we had to find a way to have a locator on time. We noticed that being out of society, being away of everywhere, the only connection would be from the sky.

So we used the 1910, the Haley's comet, with the appearance was really really astonishing and it's very subtle in the film, but, it's there. [The night when Aurea first arrives to her new "home", she scans the sky and Haley's comet can be seen off towards the horizon.] The solar eclipses of 1919. The war planes that used to fly during WWII used to fly from U.S. escaping from the German U-boats that was patrolling the North Atlantic. They used to fly through the north shore of Brazil and we are almost in the shore. So when I went to make a research in that place I was talking to some people that was alive in that time and living and there was no radio, no communication, no nothing, and suddenly started to fly like hundreds of planes went over their heads every day. And they said that they were really scared in the beginning and then they started to get used. But in the beginning everybody used to run and didn't know what's going on, so we took that as a locator as well. And, finally, the man on the moon in 1969. So we choose like four events that would locate in time and would connect them to the rest of the world by the sky.

Guillén: The element of time is fascinating in House of Sand. Not only did you have this direct reference to Einstein trying to prove his theory of relativity but you actually folded the theory into the film. It's a very challenging film to an audience. You're asking the audience to accept certain conventions. And one of them was this leapfrogging of the actresses over the generations. When it first happened, it was a very interesting feeling in my body because I didn't know what was going on mentally, but, I knew what was going on visually. House of Sand has a unique visual signature—quintessentially cinematic in that way—and exquisitely rendered by your stunningly beautiful desert location. Why did you choose the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park? Was it from the photograph?

Waddington: Yes, from the photograph. First I want to go back to what you said about the intelligence of the audience and to don't underestimate the audience. Yesterday in the Q&A here a guy asked me, listen, I like a lot the film, but I didn't understand why you choose this kind of time lapse. I took a couple of seconds or minutes to understand and I said to him, I did it because I don't like to be underestimated when I am an audience, so I believe that the audience likes to think and realize things and understand—not in the cut—but take a couple of seconds to understand and to read it and to think about. And I think this is something that we don't see too much in the films in these days. It's something I think the cinema was counting more the intelligence of the audience in the old times, in the old films, and here as we were exploring like—actually, it's an original story that it's almost a tale, but we tried to make it as real as it could be, but this idea to believe that the audience is capable to read, to understand, without being explained and to take their conclusions is something that I appreciate a lot when I am watching a movie. When I answered that, the whole audience was like [hurrah!], they liked it! Because it's a kind of a gift to the audience. To don't underestimate them.

Back to the photograph, how this film started, it's really odd how it started: Luiz Carlos Barreto, he's a great producer in Brazil, he was coming from a trip from Ceará, which is another environment with dunes in the North of Brazil. They have a couple of dunes around. He was in a bar and on the wall of bar was a picture of a house half-covered by sand. He asked it to the owner of the bar who was living in that house? And the guy said there was a woman who was fighting against the sand for almost her whole life and when she died the sand took over her house. He arrived in Rio and there was a party, I was coming in, he was going out, we met at the door. He grabbed my arm and said, "Andrucha, I was going to call you, because I arrived from Ceará today, I saw this picture and I was thinking on you in the last 24 hours and you need to make this film." And I didn't took too serious, I went home, and I had seen Woman in the Dunes from Hiroshi Teshihagara two weeks before and I went home and I had a dream and I mixed in the dream the image that Luiz Carlos Barreto described in color with the images from the Teshihagara's movie. So I woke up in the morning, totally in shock, then I called him, I said, "Barreto, you told me this story, I didn't took it too serious, but, it's in me and let's make the movie." So I went to his house, we spent like six-seven hours talking about how the movie could be. After this first session we called Elena Soárez, the screenwriter, to develop the original story with us, Fernanda Torres and Fernanda Montenegro, and said, "We have this idea. We will write this script for you. As soon as we have this script we will send it to you." So this script was totally written for them. Actually, when I saw Teshihagara's movie and mixed everything, the other film that made me be really strong about this story could be a great story, was The Exterminating Angel from Luis Buñuel, which talks a little bit with this idea, being in this place that you cannot leave you cannot leave you cannot leave you cannot leave. Those are films that you don't see very often in the contemporary cinema.

I was talking to Walter Salles, which is one of the co-producers, and he said to me, listen, you are really going against the current because here in Brazil now everybody is making films that's very contemporary about political statements or the day by day life, but, you are making a film that is totally against the actual current of the Brazilian cinema. I said, this is a compliment! So let's do it and I was really happy because, in the beginning, was a film difficult to … I think all the time there was a doubt how successful the film would be. The film in Brazil was very successful with critics. It was released as an art house movie with 35 prints. And it did really well for the amount of prints we released. So in the end of the day I was really happy. Now we have distribution here in the U.S., we have distribution in France, in England, in many countries of Europe, in Asia. So it's something that you never know when you make a film if it will achieve the audience and if you will be able to distribute a film and to bring them to the audience. So now I am really happy because I am here, like the film is being played in a very nice way, and the best thing is the fact that the film is against the current makes the film different.

Guillén: It is different!! Someone was asking me yesterday—because they're going to see it today; I'm also going to see it again today—they asked, "Is it a costume drama?" I said, No. I mean, It has that. For me it was almost like a very subtle piece of science fiction.

Waddington: I love it!! I love what you said. My wife, Fernanda Torres, she always say it's 2001 with no money, with no space, 2001 in terms of it's a science fiction. And she describes the film as a science fiction every time we talk about the movie. [Chuckling.]

Guillén: That's how I saw it. I saw the time lapse scene as very similar to Tarkovsky, to Solaris.

Waddington: Yes!! Which is a film that I loved. Tarkovsky is a master!

Guillén: Another movie that's at the festival this year is one out of Mexico, Ricardo Benet's News From Afar. It has a similar introduction in the sense that it has a woman who is taken to a place she does not want to go with a husband who forces her to go there and is trying to eke out a living in a place where it's impossible. Both husbands die, in News From Afar and in The House of Sand, and the women are left to discover their destinies. Were you trying to talk about patriarchy at all in Aurea's husband Vasco?

Waddington: The idea it's very simple. We talked a little bit about the foundation of Brazil. Brazil was founded—Brazil as it is these days—was founded by immigrants so we have a tripod in this film, which is, like, the runaway slaves, which was very important for the population of Brazil and there is a huge black community in Brazil that came from all the ships that brought the slaves and when the slavery was abolished they had to set their lives in a new way and, like, there was no help to establish them. They were, like, thrown to the sharks, you see? Okay, slavery is abolished, so now you have to find a way to survive. So that's why there was like the quilombos that were made by runaway slaves. They were hidden far away and a couple of quilombos lost a lot of time to understand that the slavery was abolished. So this was one element.

The other element is Vasco, which is the Portuguese, first generation, that arrives in Brazil and wants to settle a new life, to settle and starts to create a new life, and he bought that land but he was cheated, there was only sand over there. And he actually paid the debts of his wife and, by paying the debts, he had her as his wife and she had the compromise to come with him. So the women at that time used to be a kind of slaves as well. She had no way out. She could not complain. She had a deal with him. So when he dies and this is like the male kind of imposition on the women of that time, so there was like this dual slavery—slavery of the woman, slavery of the slaves—and they were two released, these two segments, the women and the runaway slaves they were, they found each other in the middle of nowhere and I think the union of Aurea and Massu tells a little bit about the next step in the Brazilian society. This was something that I didn't planned, but this is something that I can read as—because for a woman at the time to accept to be with a black man was impossible. That's why I think Aurea, it took for her ten years to understand that she was in love with Massu.

Guillén: But it shocked her daughter Maria.

Waddington: Maria was shocked by—in my opinion—by two things. First, to see her mother having sex, it could be with anyone, when you are nine years old you see that. But I think the main reason she was shocked was because her mother was promising her that she would leave that place since she was born and when she saw Aurea having sex with Massu, she understood that she would not leave any more. And, before that scene, she says to Maria, "Let's go home." And then she cut the hair. It's the first time she says "home." She says, "Let's go home, Maria." When she sees that the expedition has gone and then she walks back to the hut and she says, "Let's go home, daughter." They arrive in the hut, it's night, Aurea cut the hair, and it's like a cut to the previous life and she starts a new life from that moment on.

Guillén: People are always looking for ideal relationships. I was taught, however, that you don't need to look for relationships because you are already in relationships; you just need to recognize the ones you're in. What I saw in this movie was a landscape that was in relationship to these women. They were in relationship to the landscape. They just didn't understand that relationship.

Waddington: The mother understands first.

Guillén: First. But it took her about ten years to understand that and eventually her daughter comes to the same understanding. What were you trying to effect with that landscape? How were you hoping it would define the characters of these women or, more appropriately, isn't the landscape itself a major character?

Waddington: It's a character that brings isolation, that brings them out of the society and allows them to create a new way of living, her statement, their statements, they create a tiny little small society with their rules, with their new way of facing the world.

Guillén: But with memories too! The thing I thought was so beautiful….

Waddington: The music?!

Guillén: Well, yes, the music. But not just the music. The film is very subtle and multilayered, interconnected. True, it was beautiful that when Aurea heard the music in the expedition camp, it reawakened memories, reawakened her sexuality, reminded her of someone else she had been, could be. This was equivalent to a natural fact about the desert. Those sand dunes in Lençóis Maranhenses become lagoons when the rains come and the lagoons, amazingly, fill up with fish! Where do the fish come from? They come from the sand.

Waddington: That's right!

Guillén: Because there are eggs dormant in the sand just waiting for rain. It's like there's something there already. And in the final scene, where Maria returns to her mother with the gift of music, she plays Chopin's Prelude Opus 28, #15, "The Raindrop." I thought that was a brilliant touch! Music for Aurea was like rain for the desert; it brought so much back to life! How did the choice of the Chopin piece come about? You obviously have a very keen sense of music, I know you've worked with many Brazilian musicians . . . .

Waddington: Yes, but, I will tell you there, I will be frank here. Because there was no music in the film and then there is this gift that comes in the end. I selected like tons of cds to try to experiment. The first music we put in the film was that raindrop prelude. And when we saw it, myself and the editor, we looked at each other and said, "It will be very hard to replace. We will not find anything better." And we kept trying for months. Every day at the end of the sessions of editing we spent one hour listening, trying to find the right music to be there. In the end of the month we said, okay, it's done. And so then it was like a gift that came from casuality but I think it matched. It's a piece of a puzzle that came first that didn't allow any other piece to replace it.

Guillén: There's an organic feel to the movie that way. It does feel like it was created in process. That comes across in the film. As I was reading the press notes, I came to the understanding that the actors contributed to the film.

Waddington: A lot! A lot. Actually, in all my films, I really like, I really appreciate like I think—to have a . . . I don't believe that the director can have a vision by himself only. I think to build a film and to build up a clime of working and to put everybody in the same mood and to understand the film you are making, I think these table reading discussions are the most precious things that you can have. So always like four months before I start shooting, I start to make these sessions with the actors, and without having any problem to be confronted, to be argued, so I really open the script, okay, let's read, everybody have the right to say anything so we should, like, criticize and understand which is the doubts and everything, so session by session this makes the script more powerful because you work in the lines, you argue about the scene that is there, but why this scene is here? And when you let the actors speak—because they will live their roles—they start to really think from the inside so when you start shooting everybody knows who they are. Like the actors they are in the roles already. We understand, I think I as a director, I absorb a lot from these sessions. I think cinema is a group work. Of course, the director is the one who chooses, okay, this I like, this I don't like, this I want, this I don't want, but a film is made by many eyes. So to not use these eyes I think it's a mistake because you are losing something that could improve a lot the movie. So I really believe that in the process if you have like these readings with the actors, and with the head of the departments involved, we create something that you became like a real group that will make something all together. You create a soul that belongs to this group that is working.

Guillén: Group soul. Kind of an ensemble vision?

Waddington: Yeah, exactly.

Guillén: When you have a film like this one and your previous one which did so well in the festival circuit, as you're traveling around from festival to festival are the audiences different? Do you find a commonality among the audiences?

Waddington: Actually, the film is different! The other film was a dramatic comedy, which in a sense relates a little bit to this one, but really tiny line because I think it's a different subject. There it's a woman … the only thing that is really connected to this film is that, in isolation, you create your rules and your statements. This is something that you have in both films, but, it's two totally different films and, saying that, the reception The House of Sand is having around the world it's almost the same of Me You Them. It's so warm as Me You Them was, even not being a comedy. In like the last five minutes of the film there is three spots where the audience is totally taken and laugh and when I made the editing I never thought that people would laugh over there. And it was because everyone was relieved. It's a kind of relief that the audience feel because they understand that the circle will close. Because I think the film has something that … the film drives the audience to somewhere that you don't know where you're going to get. So the conclusion comes really in the end. And I think this makes the audience really relieved.

Guillén: It's a relief because it's an acceptance. You see the characters accept. And accept not in a bad way….

Waddington: It's a reconciliation at the same time.

Guillén: It's a reconciliation, yes. I can live this life. I can stay with this man. I can stay in this place. And it is my life. It's a good feeling that you get from that. They're not prisoners, which I really liked.

Waddington: Yeah.

Guillén: In terms of music, the guy that you had playing Massu when he's older, Luiz Melodia, is an actual musician?

Waddington: Yes. Seu Jorge as well.

Guillén: Oh? I know you've done a documentary on several Brazilian musicians, who I love. I adore Gilberto Gil.

Waddington: I've done a documentary on Gilberto Gil. I've produced a documentary on Caetano Veloso. I'm doing a documentary now about Maria Bethania. I like to do documentaries and I don't know what I started to make these documentaries about this artists and actually music, it's something that's very interesting, and I love very much Brazilian music, so it was something that appear in my life, and it happened, it was not too planned. It was something that I just grab it and then I let it go.

Guillén: So what's coming up next? You're doing this documentary….

Waddington: Yes, I'm doing this documentary that I'm finishing right now. I have one day of shooting when I arrive in Brazil on the 10th of May, then I finish it. It will be released over there by September. And I'm starting to prepare a film called Conquistador, which is a story of the conquest of Mexico. It's the story of Hernan Cortes. This is a Hollywood gang production, which is based in L.A., and it will be an American, Mexican and Spanish co-production.

Guillén: Excellent!

Waddington: It will be a Spanish language movie.

Guillén: Well, thank you so much for your time. I'm looking forward to seeing the film again today.

Waddington: Thank you very much. I will be there waiting for you!

Cross-published on Twitch. Photographs courtesy of Outnow.

12/23/06 UPDATE: Kendall's Quest has an evocative response to House of Sand. Despite watching the film with friends who were less than enthusiastic, Kendall appreciated the film on its own merits and offered a great and pertinent paraphrase by Oscar Wilde that "women turn into their mothers: that’s their tragedy."

Kendall's final paragraph is lovely: "Would I be as moved by the film as I am, if I had not had my own adventures in the rust-red dunes of Namibia? Blinded, dazzled, and nearly overcome by heat stroke among those snaking mountains of sand, I doubted I would ever see anything that dramatic again in my life. I haven’t, till I saw this film. But the Khoisan people who live in the dunes of Namibia have the most difficult lives imaginable, foraging for desert melons and sucking precious moisture from them, pumping hours for drips of brackish water from nearly-dry bore holes, and erecting tin or plank shacks to screen out the sand, the wind, and the killing sun. Every man and woman born in that landscape ultimately makes some kind of life. That is the miracle–as Faulkner said, not that we survive but that we prevail. House of Sand raises all the attendant questions about the ways we prevail; the film pays its respects to all the people, especially the women, who prevail in the most inhospitable places of the earth. I will play it again and again in my mind’s eye."

Monday, April 24, 2006

Imagining the Real—Paul Rusesabagina: An Ordinary Man, A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books Reading

Last Friday, April 21, 2006, Paul Rusesabagina was in San Francisco for the day, delivering a luncheon lecture at the Marines Memorial Theater for the World Affairs Council and then later that evening promoting his recently-published book, An Ordinary Man, to a capacity crowd at A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books. I frequently attend readings at this bookstore but have never seen such a crowd! People were stacked on top of each other and lingering in crowds outside the doors. Anticipating same, I had arrived an hour and a half early and had a front row seat. Prefaced by an embarrassingly hagiographic introduction, Rusesabagina humbly took stage. Here is my transcription of his talk:

* * *

After such a speech, many times I am myself speechless. But tonight of course I cannot tell you all it is about. An Ordinary Man will explain everything in details and maybe in a better way than what I can do tonight. But I would like to share with you a few questions that many people many times do ask me.

Many times people do look at me and tell me, ask me that, "Paul, have you ever been scared in your life?" Yes. And very much. That was on April the 9th, 1994, when after the government that has been beheaded on April the 6th, a new government was put up and they sent me some soldiers to come and evacuate me from my house and take me to the hotel because they had taken over the hotel where I was the general manager and all the hotel keys for the many rooms which were not occupied the previous night when I left on the 6th I had kept them in my office. …So when they took over the hotel they had no other alternative than sending soldiers to come pick me up and bring me to the hotel.

Everything went very well until the time when we took off from my house and a mile away—not on the hotel compound as you have seen on the screen in Hotel Rwanda—just a mile away I saw those guys 20 soldiers in two jeeps, pulling to the side of the road, and all of them they had been very kind with me all over, and that time I saw everyone jumping out of the jeeps and everyone pointing his gun on my head. I knew that those guys were not joking because all along the street there were so many dead bodies. Some of them, their heads cut off. Others, bellies opened, mutilated, and yet all of those people were very well known to us. We had been staying in that neighborhood for seven years. We knew each and every one and each and every one knew us.

The very same captain who was the leader of that team just came to me and told me, "Listen you, traitor, we are not killing you today but have this gun and kill all of your cockroaches in these cars."

I looked at him and just like a few minutes ago I stayed speechless for five minutes. After five minutes of looking at him, watching him, I told him that, "Listen my friend, myself I do not know how to use guns, but, even if I knew, I do not see any reason why I could kill this old man." There was an old man, Michel, who was my neighbor. From day one of the genocide I already had 26 neighbors who came to stay in my house and when I was evacuated that day I was with them. So I pointed out that old man and told him that, "Listen my friend, I don't see any good reason I can kill this old man. Are you sure that this old man is the right person we are fighting today?" There was another young lady, also a neighbor, holding her baby, her second daughter who was three months old. I pointed out that baby again and told that young captain that, "Listen my friend, I do not think that the enemy we are fighting today is this baby who does not know anything about what is going on."

Sometimes you have to trick people accordingly, call their ego, catch that sensitive point of life. I told them that, "Listen you guys, I do understand you. You guys are hungry, thirsty, tired, stressed by this war, but such problems, we can solve them otherwise, we can find other solutions." Then we started finding other solutions and after two long hours they drove us up to that diplomat hotel and I went to my office, I went to the safe, just took some money, and paid what I promised. That day I was scared and very much.

Many times people look at me and tell me that, "Listen, you have made so many decisions. What toughest decision have you ever made in your life?" On May 2, 1994, in the afternoon the United Nation executives who had remained behind because all the UN soldiers had been evacuated and they all left town with the 2060 soldiers during the genocide. They pulled out and took more than 2000 soldiers, left us with 200. So a few executives, who were working with those soldiers, the rebels army and the regular army, the Rwandan army, had been sitting together, trying to find a way to exchange refugees, the Milles Colline refugees, with the refugees who were in the National City Stadium. The National City Stadium being controlled by the rebels and the Milles Colline by the army.

That day, that May 2, lists came out in the afternoon and all my family members' names came almost first on the list. Then that day—when my names, my family members, all of them came on that list, including myself—most of the Milles Colline refugees came to me and told me that, "Listen, please, tell us, are you really going to leave this place tomorrow?" I said, "No." "If you are going to leave this place, tell us so that we can go to the roof of the hotel and jump." Our problem was no more to die, but how to die. Were we going to afford to be tortured? Killers were coming and cutting a hand, going and coming after many hours, cutting the other one. Cutting again after some other hours, cutting a leg, torturing their victims. So they told me, "If you are leaving, there is no way we can afford to be tortured like that. Please tell us so that we can go to the roof of the hotel and jump." I told them that, "Listen, my friends, I am not leaving." No one could believe me. No one.

That night I went to sleep at a very late hour but I was a very disturbed person because I had made a decision I won't wish to make any more in my life. I had decided to send [away] my wife, my children. Where? With what hope to survive? None. Remain behind. Doing what? Nothing. Without any hopes to see them anymore. I went to sleep at 1:00 a.m. the following morning. When I went to sleep at 1:00 it was due to . . . phoning the international community, sending faxes all over the world, disturbing each and every one because in any case I had nothing to lose.

So when I arrived in the room my wife and my children were playing, not sleeping at all, but they noticed that I had changed. That change they saw it in my face. Each and every one was just looking at me but they couldn't understand. I said, "It's okay, I'm tired." Then I tried to find courage to tell my wife and children that I am not being evacuated with them. But I couldn't. Until a time when I decided to pretend that my children were not there and I told my wife that, "Listen, tomorrow you are going to be evacuated." When I said that word that you are going to be evacuated, each and every one looked at me. And in a drained voice almost they told me that, "Listen, you are saying us. How about you? Aren't you coming with us?" I said, "No. Today my advisor, my own conscience, has told me not to leave these people because if I happen to leave today and these people are killed, I will never be a free man. I would be a prisoner of my own conscience. Please, do accept. Leave and go to a separate place without any hope of meeting anymore."

The following day in the afternoon around five, I escorted my wife and my children. I just helped them to climb into the UN trucks. I saw them off. That experience itself was heartbreaking. I have never never suffered that much in my life. To see them off. I watched them leaving, the first truck, the second one, the third, the fourth. As the last truck was just crossing the hotel main gate the radio, the media, the radio was reading the names of all the people fleeing and being evacuated from the Milles Colline hotel, urging militia men to set up roadblocks, stop all those Milles Colline cockroaches and kill them. Because, the radio was saying, if you don't kill them, if you don't forgive them, they will never forgive you.

Well, those people couldn't make it for more than two miles. They were stopped, beaten to death, until a time when they started killing them and the first bullet from a militia man killed a soldier. Then soldiers and the militia men started fighting each other. Soldiers saying that, "Militia men are killing us!" That was the moment when the few UN soldiers who were driving them, who had surrendered actually and were hands up for many hours, they brought down their hands, started pulling the victims from the tarmack, throwing them in the backs of the trucks.

When they came back, my wife was not as you have seen on the screen, shouting, "Give me back my wedding ring!" She was lying flat in the back of a truck, unable even to talk and even to turn herself. I took her up to the room where she stayed for many weeks even unable to move.

Many are the times when people have asked me, "Paul, have you ever been sad in your life?" Yes. On July the 12th, 1994, just almost a week after the 100 days, the three months of the genocide, my wife, a friend, and myself decided to drive south and go to where we belonged to, our homeland. That was our first real trip outside Kigali, the capital, to see how the country looked like. All along the way, the whole country was nearing death. All along the way, there was no human being alive. All along the way, we could see only all over a lot of flies. There was no animal alive. We could hear dogs barking from the background, very far. We drove up to my homeland. When we arrived I was lucky enough—even now I call it to be lucky—because my older brother was there. I went to his house. I started asking him, "Where are our neighbors? Where is so and so?" He started telling me that, "Listen, so and so have been killed by militia men. Others have been killed by the army. Others are being killed by the rebels who had already taken over the country. Others are being burned in those houses you see burning there."

At that time my eldest sister, my younger brother, had just been killed by the rebels. My brother at a given time looked at me and told me that, "Paul, please do me a favor. Leave this place. Because if you don't, even these walls you can see have eyes and ears, they do listen to what you are saying, they are looking at you. Please, leave this place." I recall his message.

We drove down south to see my mother-in-law. When we arrived, before we arrived even, her two houses had just been destroyed. She had been killed with her daughter-in-law, six grandchildren, all of them thrown in a pit where we used to mature bananas in order to make banana juices and banana beer. That day we sat down in the wind and like young babies, we cried. We cried and we drove after a few hours we drove back to Kigali where we stayed until a time when I was almost assassinated, almost killed in September, 1996, and fled the country, went to Belgium, where I live until today. That day I was very sad.

Have we learned a lesson? To you: have we learned a lesson? All of that was taking place in Rwanda. Last year I went to Darfur myself to see what was going on in Darfur. Exactly what I was seeing in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994 is what is going on in the Sudan. Rwanda, by 1994, the day before the genocide, we had more than a million people surrounding Kigali who had fled the rebels because the rebels were inviting men for meetings, killing them; inviting their sons to join their army, killing them. So the people had been fleeing the zones they occupied. And by 1994, early before the genocide, we had more than a million surrounding Kigali, without shelter, without food, without water, without education for the future generations, for four years those people had been frustrated just like that, and when the genocide broke out they were the first ones to take machetes, go down to the streets and chop each and every one into pieces.

Today in Darfur we have more than two million people in that same situation. In Darfur there are government helicopters just destroying villages completely and a few individuals who have been just to flee the burning villages are being killed by the Jajaweed militia men on horses, again armed by a government, just like the Rwandan militia, who were just hunting us, killing many people by 1993. And the whole world is standing by, watching, and doesn't do anything. When their children saw us when we there, they just gathered and demonstrated. When they were demonstrating, they had a blackboard on which they had written, "Welcome to our guests but we need education." Is that not a shame to mankind? Have we learned a lesson?

I'll end up, wind up my speech tonight and An Ordinary Man will take over, will start far ahead of me and go farther than I. . . . Thank you.