Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Stephen Parr continues to curate some of the most interesting programs in the Bay Area at his delightfully informal afficionado's salon Oddball Films. This last Friday I caught his "Night of Hell" Halloween offering, "an evening of apocalyptic mayhem" which showcased "cinematic scraps from the devil's junkyard", including rare exploitation horror shorts, idiotic Goth public access clips, San Francisco devil-worshipping cult icon Anton La Vey, teenage Super 8mm home movie monster films, and the gory Seytan (a Turkish Exorcist remake). The unquestioned gems, however, were a classic Scopitone of Joi Lansing singing "Web of Love", Serge Gainsborough singing, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", and the rare LSD: A Case Study, which proves once and for all that hotdogs and hallucinogens just don't mix!
This coming Saturday, November 4th at 8:00 PM I'm anticipating Oddball Films' presentation "Myth and Music—Sita Sings the Blues", a screening of Nina Paley's mythic, animated work-in-progress opus plus animated gems. Sita Sings the Blues is a unique combination of the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, the 1920's torch vocals of the great Annette Hanshaw, and classically informed and inventive, eye-popping animation.
Nina Paley admits the subject matter of Sita Sings the Blues is controversial: "While I've been greatly encouraged by the overwhelming positive response from desis (South Asian expatriates), some viewers in India have been outraged. The Ramayana is a perplexing tale, and Sita is its most misunderstood character. I've heard from more than one Hindu American woman that Sita Sings the Blues is the first Ramayana retelling that offers them a real connection to Sita. My retelling is also humorous, which some people interpret as irreverent, and therefore an affront. Not that this has any bearing on my work; as I learned from The Stork, the greater the risks in art, the greater the rewards. I have nothing but love and admiration for my source material now. I hope to show how the genius of The Ramayana transcends societies and generations, and is as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago."
At the Sita Sings the Blues website you can view Quicktime clips of the first five chapters of Paley's work-in-progress, including Dandaka Dharma (with Hanshaw singing "Here We Are"), The Abduction of Sita (Hanshaw sings "What Wouldn't I Do For That Man?", Hanuman Finds Sita ("Daddy, Won't You Please Come Home?"), Battle of Lanka ("Who's That Knocking At My Door?") and Trial By Fire ("Mean To Me").
Relating the genesis of Sita Sings the Blues, Paley writes: "In June 2002 I moved to Trivandrum, India, following my (American) husband who had taken a job there. Upon my arrival I was confronted with his mid-life crisis, a complete emotional withdrawal. This left me without support in a city in which women were second-class citizens, unable to walk alone at night, and not expected to have an identity separate from their husbands. It was in Trivandrum I encountered the Indian epic, The Ramayana, for the first time. Like many westerners, I initially considered The Ramayana little more than misogynist propaganda. Meanwhile I was in the midst of developing a new comic strip for King Features Syndicate, The Hots. After three months in Trivandrum, King Features flew me to their New York headquarters for a launch meeting. Then my husband dumped me by email.
"Unable to return to my former apartment in San Francisco, or my new apartment in Trivandrum, I moved to Brooklyn. My professional life benefited, as I began teaching animation at Parsons School of Design and acquiring New York freelance clients. Emotionally, however, my relocation commenced a terrible year of grief. The Ramayana took on new depth and meaning for me.
"It no longer resembled a sexist parable; rather, it seemed to capture the essence of painful relationships, and describe a blueprint of human suffering. My grief and longing for the man who rejected me increasingly resembled Sita's; my husband's withdrawal reminded me of Rama. In Manhattan I heard the music of Annette Hanshaw for the first time. A radio star of the late 1920's, Hanshaw specialized in heartfelt blues and torch songs. In my grief-addled state, her songs, my story, and The Ramayana merged into one: Sita Sings the Blues.
"Originally, I hoped to expel my demons of heartbreak with a single short film, Trial By Fire (2003). This set a pivotal scene from The Ramayana, Sita's walk through a funeral pyre, to Annette Hanshaw's 1929 rendition of "Mean to Me." Trial By Fire won second Place in New York's 2004 ASIFA-East Animation Festival, and screened in festivals in San Francisco, Latvia, and Red Bank, but I refrained from promoting it further. Audiences loved the design and animation, but were not sufficiently familiar with The Ramayana to really understand the story. Furthermore, my demons weren't adequately expressed; I was still tormented by grief and heartache. When another relationship failed in November of 2004, I saw only one course of action: I had to tell the whole Ramayana story from Sita's point of view. Sita Sings the Blues, a 72-minute feature, would be my salvation.
"I began production in December 2004. In April 2005, a popular weblog called BoingBoing reported on my work-in-progress; within hours, thousands of viewers were downloading the movie clips I posted online, temporarily shutting down my web site. Reviews began appearing on hundreds of other weblogs, all positive. This was followed by print newspaper and magazine coverage in Switzerland, Korea, and India, as well as India Abroad in New York. Artwallah, Los Angeles' South Asian Arts Festival, solicited and screened a chapter called Dandaka Dharma, which also won an Excellence in Design award from ASIFA-East's 2005 festival."
Nina Paley's career began in 1988 with her self-syndicated comic strip, Nina's Adventures, which appeared in several alternative newspapers and two paperback collections, Depression is Fun and Nina's Adventures. She created two solo comic books for Dark Horse Comics, and various graphic short stories for Last Gasp Comix, Rip Off Press, Laugh Lines Press, Grateful Dead Comix, Kitchen Sink Press, and the Japanese artist volume Jarebong. Her first mainstream daily comic strip, Fluff, was distributed internationally by Universal Press Syndicate between 1995 and 1998; in 2002 she drew The Hots for King Features Syndicate.
Comics burn-out drove Nina to animation. Her first film, Luv Is... (1998), was clay stop-motion shot with a vintage super-8 camera. She went on to make three more films in 1998, each exploring a different medium or technique: Cancer (drawing and scratching on 35mm), I Heart My Cat (16mm stop-motion) and Follow Your Bliss (traditional pencil and ink on paper). In 1999 she made the world's first completely cameraless IMAX film, Pandorama, and received a grant from the Film Arts Foundation to produce Fetch! (2001), a short film incorporating optical illusions. In 2002 she created a controversial series about overpopulation and the environment, including The Stork, which won first prize at the EarthVision Environmental Film Festival and an unsolicited invitation to Sundance (2003). Cancer, Pandorama and Fetch! will be some of the additional animated shorts included in the Oddball Films program.
In addition to making independent animated festival films, Nina teaches at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. She lives in New York with her cat, Bruno.
Oddball Films is located at 275 Capp St. Info and reservations at email@example.com or 415-558-8117. Admission is $10.00 (Limited Seating RSVP Preferred).
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Deliver Us From Evil marks Amy Berg's directorial debut. For the past five years, she has produced documentary segments for CNN Investigations and the CBS News program 30 Minutes of Special Assignment. Her work at CBS News earned her Emmy Awards in 2003 and 2004. In 2005, she launched Disarming Films to produce long-form documentaries for theatrical release.
Berg's reports have delved into a variety of hard-hitting topics, including: sexual assault, women in prison, clergy abuse, battered women, unsafe public playgrounds, poverty, illegal drug dispersion, illicit medical doctors and toxic pollutants. She has also produced stories on important issues relating to parenting, social welfare and innovative science and medical breakthroughs.
Prior to working at CBS, Berg researched and developed stories for Silver Creek Entertainment, a producer of segments for ABC News. Many aired on Good Morning America, 20/20, and Extra. In addition, she has written numerous articles for the National Organization For Women, the Jewish Journal and a number of monthly and weekly periodicals in America and France.
Amy Berg is currently working on a narrative feature entitled This Is Not America about the decline of the Alaskan culture and the hybrid culture that now exists in the small villages of Alaska.
Shortly before an interview with KPIX, Amy Berg agreed to meet with me at the Roastery in Levi Strauss Plaza to exchange some quick notes about her disturbing documentary, Deliver Us From Evil.
* * *
Michael Guillén: First of all, congratulations on such a sterling first feature and for winning the Target $50,000 award at the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Mill Valley Film Festival. That must have felt sweet!
Amy Berg: It's great! We've actually had some great success with the film festivals. We won the Patch Film Festival and we won an award at the Boston Film Festival. So we've had a fun run for the festival work.
MG: I wanted to commend you on prefacing your documentary with the quote from The Gospel of Thomas—"If you bring forth that which is within yourself, that which is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth that which is within yourself, that which is within you will not save you."
Berg: It seemed quite suitable for the content. Thank you very much.
MG: I had the great fortune to study with the Dutch theologian Gilles Quispel who—under the behest of Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung—smuggled The Gospel of Thomas out of Egypt. He taught me at that time that The Gospel of Thomas was initially "tainted" with its Gnostic appellation but has since gained credence, so I was pleased to see you quoting from it. It's my understanding that it's the gospel that critiques most directly the concept of apostolic succession.
Berg: Yeah. [Father] Tom Doyle [a canon lawyer and historian who has become a leading advocate for survivors of clerical sexual abuse] has used quotes from Thomas and he has enlightened us a lot on that. It seems to reflect his mission and what he's doing right now.
MG: You mentioned last night during the Q&A that one of your initial reasons for doing this documentary was your objection to the Vatican's strategy to blacklist homosexual priests.
Berg: That was one. Another interesting thing was that I would do investigations for CNN or CBS and—whenever we were about to air—the Church would call our legal department and try to get them to stop it from going on air. They would try to refute things that were irrefutable, in my estimation, like police reports and depositions and really strong accounting. But it happened and it would scare the legal department for enough time to block it a little bit and not allow us to be real reporters. If you ask for an interview with the Catholic Church, they ask you to submit all your questions in advance and then they decide if they're going to answer any of them and they usually only answer what they want and not in a face to face, by email, which is not giving you an opportunity to really report. Most importantly was the fact that this priest was willing to come forward and that was something that we hadn't seen before. I felt his story was very important.
MG: O'Grady's coming forward like that was a unique signature to this documentary. It's my understanding that you had been in telephone contact with him and then he elected to come forward in front of the cameras because of his irritation with the promotion of other members of the Catholic hierarchy?
Berg: When Roger Mahoney went to Rome for Pope John Paul's funeral and Cardinal Law was presiding over the mass, Mahoney and a number of other bishops and priests walked out in protest. It made the news—Mahoney protests Law because of his connection with clergy sex abuse—and O'Grady thought that was inappropriate, being that Mahoney has more priests under him accused of sex abuse. He felt it was hypocritical of Mahoney to do that. Then Monsignor Kane was given a Lifetime Achievement Award recently, last year, and these were the people that [O'Grady] went to when he had a problem and they basically protected him from something that he paid for later.
MG: That's another intriguing angle of the documentary. You're more than fair in your assessment of O'Grady's "problem" and actually the thrust of the documentary appears more to be a critical investigation of all these officials who covered up O'Grady's crimes.
Berg: Yeah. And it could have been any organization. It's more damaging because it's in the Catholic religion but, yeah, you're right.
MG: Your access to O'Grady was amazing. You got him to be so candid and personable. What did that feel like for you? I recently interviewed the documentarians for the Al Franken documentary and I was struck by their being in the middle of this hyper-conservative milieu. What was it like for you to be in the presence of Oliver O'Grady?
Berg: I was just there as a journalist. You know how you do interviews when you're really excited to meet somebody and you're really interested? It wasn't that. It was more like I was taking notes. This was an assignment for me in my mind and I stayed there as a journalist and I reminded myself that it happened to him too and that it was part of a bigger issue.
MG: A comment was made in your film that there's a psychosocial context for the attraction of priests to younger individuals because of arrested development; that, in effect, they're attracted to someone whose age approximates their state of mind?
Berg: The therapist who said it [Mary Gail Frawley O'Dea] tried to explain to me that basically—when someone is abused—their sexual development ends there, unless they get help for it. [O'Grady] was retriggered because he never got any help for the abuse that he experienced so that—when he was then thrust into the seminary, and he was then in this very sexual arena, and then he saw children as a free man with power—he was back at the age of seven basically, sexually, that's how she explained it.
MG: Another theme of interest to me is the definition of the Catholic "Church." Clearly, your documentary aims at the corruption of the Magesterium but do you distinguish between the hierarchy that runs and governs the church and the church as it is defined by the congregation?
Berg: Yeah. I feel like the issues that I'm addressing in this film are not … there are plenty of global hypocritical issues that I could have attacked that diverge from this but have some relation. I am just looking at how they deal with clergy sex abuse cases in the Catholic Church, that's it, period, and the issue of pedophilia and maybe why he did what he did. I think the congregation and the people are totally separate. The Catholic people that have been coming to these screenings and coming up to me afterwards say, "This is the thing that we are ashamed of in our church. Thank you for giving this some light because we want our church to be a healthy place again. We don't want it to be about sex abuse. We want it to be about why we are here." I think it can be empowering if you look at it like that. There were a lot of Catholic people [at the screening] last night.
MG: I was further disturbed towards the end of your documentary of your reportage that President Bush has pardoned the Pope from any pending prosecution. So much for the separation of Church and State.
Berg: The fact that the Vatican pushed for [President Bush] to make a formal statement is really the issue within that story because, as the head of state, he is entitled to [grant] immunity, that's basically in the letter of the law. It's interesting to make this public proclamation that he's above dealing with this because it just takes the solution out of the mix again. If [the Pope] was the person who was the main responsible party in analyzing these cases and discussing how they would go, he would have a lot of important information that they're just saying, "Oh, he doesn't have to share that."
MG: What do you hope for this documentary? How do you think it will help the Catholic faithful?
Berg: I would hope that this be a call to action. We were just talking about the difference between the congregation and the hierarchy, I would hope that the congregation who look at people who have been abused will welcome them back into the church instead of creating this huge divide. I would hope that the people who were responsible for shuffling the priests around—even though they were obviously criminals from police reports and confessionals—were not in office. They should have to do time just like any other person.
MG: Finally, what's on the horizon for you? What are you working on next?
Berg: I'm working on a story about a girl who lives in Alaska, she's a native, and she was a product of our efforts to Americanize the culture. That's all I have so far but I'm working on it. I'm trying to find time to work on it!
MG: Well, good luck with that and congratulations on the success of Deliver Us From Evil.
Berg: Thank you, Michael, and thanks for coming last night.
Cross-posted at Twitch.
Friday, October 27, 2006
Amy Berg's Deliver Us From Evil opens this weekend at San Francisco's Landmark Lumiere Theater after a successful festival run that scored her the Target Documentary Award and its unrestricted $50,000 cash prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Most recently, the documentary won the audience favorite award at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Deliver Us From Evil profiles Oliver O'Grady, a defrocked priest and one of the most notorious pedophiles in the history of the modern Catholic Church. He violated dozens of individuals across California for more than two decades. Despite complaints from several parishes, the Church lied to parishioners and law enforcement and continued to move O'Grady from parish to parish. Remarkably, writer/director Amy Berg persuaded O'Grady to participate in the making of her documentary and he chillingly tells his story without remorse or self-reflection and, in fact, with a truly disturbing twinkle in his eye. Berg also presents never-before-seen footage of the deposition of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony as well as interviews with former priests, lawyers and the abuse survivors themselves.
I caught a press/word of mouth screening earlier this week where director Berg fielded questions from her agitated audience. Right off one woman wanted to know if there were any studies to indicate if clerical abuse in the Catholic Church had comparable instances in other Christian denominations and in other religious faiths or if there was a higher percentage in the Catholic Church precisely because of the requisite vow to celibacy?
Berg cited cases of sexual abuse in almost every religion with the abuse of power playing significantly into the equation. Generally, however, she said the percentages were much smaller in cases where priests can marry, in contrast to the larger percentage in the Catholic Church where they cannot.
One audience member mentioned that he had read in the news that it was rumored Oliver O'Grady had fled Ireland and was on his way to Canada. Berg said she had read the same rumor last week in the Irish Independent but didn't know if it had been verified.
Berg was asked if the film would be shown in Ireland and she responded that it's scheduled to screen at the Dublin Festival in February with follow-up distribution already lined up in Ireland.
"Has the Catholic Church complained about this film?" an elderly woman queried. "Extensively," Berg quipped and her audience laughed. "They wouldn't talk to me while I was making it and now they can't stop talking about it."
Another gentleman asked if Berg had evidence for the existence of an annuity waiting to be paid to Mr. O'Grady in two years when he reached the age of 65. She stated O'Grady had himself admitted it and that the attorneys have the evidence. That being said, Berg mentioned there is a decent chance that O'Grady might have shot himself in the foot by speaking publicly about the annuity and that he probably won't get it at this point, particularly since—in essence—such an annuity would be funded by the laity.
One fellow expressed that the Catholic Church's responsibility was clear and he couldn't understand how the legal system would allow O'Grady to serve only a portion of his sentence for the crimes he committed. He enquired what was happening generally with other cases of clerical abuse and why it was so difficult to apprehend these offenders? Berg deferred to an attorney-friend in the audience to respond to that inquiry. (I only caught his first name, Larry.) Larry explained that the prosecution of hundreds of sexual abusers, including several instances of clerical abuse, were prevented by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Stogner v. California, which concluded that retroactive application of the statute of limitations was not constitutional. As a result of that decision, over a hundred investigations in Los Angeles were abandoned and dozens of convicted child molesters were released from prison a little less than three years ago. California has some of the most stringent laws against child molesters in the country but California is still the only state in the United States to have suspended the statute of limitations to allow any sexual abuse victims to file claims against the Church that are over one year old.
A representative of the San Francisco chapter of Voice of the Faithful stood up to indicate their support of victims of clerical abuse. He revealed what he suspected most folks in the audience already knew, that their organization has been given a hard time by the archdiocese of San Francisco. Archbishop Levada, the head of the diocese in recent times, put the word out to his priests that he would not object if they did not allow Voice of the Faithful to meet on church property. Further, they were locked out of the Catholic paper so that when they held meetings, the Catholic paper would not record the fact resulting in Catholics not knowing that the organization even exists. Archbishop Levada is currently in Rome taking Cardinal Ratzinger's place. In other words, he's been moved up. "The reason I'm telling you this here," the Voice of the Faithful representative clarified, "is because this crisis in the Catholic Church is going to continue because our own cardinals and bishops will not address the real problem."
One audience member objected to the scapegoating of gay priests for the pedophilia scandals, adding it has seriously impacted the self-image of the gay subculture. Berg advised that one of her motivations for making this film was when the Vatican issued a statement that they were going to get rid of all the homosexuals in the Church so that they could "solve this problem." But as the documentary attests, Oliver O'Grady liked boys and girls equally and many abusers have the same traits as O'Grady. A new study being conducted by Tom Doyle, Pat Wahl and Richard Sykes shows that it's closer to 50-50 in terms of boys and girls being victims, which indicates the abuse is not so much about sexual preference as it is abuse of power. "It's the difference between sex and rape," she said, "That's the point of this film and the message."
One young man commended Berg's "incredible" access to O'Grady and wondered how she was able to establish such an ongoing "relationship." Even though she knew what he meant, Berg took exception to the term "relationship", which she felt was too strong. Once O'Grady withdrew his offer to meet with his victims so he could apologize to them, his brother asked him not to speak to Berg anymore. Apparently, O'Grady's brother is a famous entertainer in Ireland and he was horrified that O'Grady participated in Berg's documentary because the family name has been tarnished. "I'm sure this is hard for a lot of people to listen to," Berg expanded, "but I've always looked at the fact that he was abused as a child and he was not taken out of the church. He shouldn't have been in harm's way of children. I try to remember the cycle because that's really important. With pedophilia, it's a cycle so that's how I stay balanced with it."
One man objected, admitting he had a hard time with that theory, especially in light of recent events with Congressman Foley. He felt the theory was misused. "I was raped by a priest when I was 14," he confessed, and disclaimed ever having had a fantasy to, in turn, do anything to a child. He's confident that the majority of those who have been abused have, likewise, never had fantasies dealing with abusing children. Such theorizing, he criticized, was not unlike the scapegoating of gay clergy and gays. "I don't agree with that theory at all," he insisted, "That because [O'Grady] was abused, it gives him permission to abuse."
Berg replied that she understood his criticism but that statistically 99% of all pedophiles have been abused themselves so it's a fact requiring acknowledgment.
"I acknowledge that," he countered, "but in using that, it comes back on me, it comes back on somebody that's gay, it comes back on a gay priest that's never had a fantasy to do anything with children."
Berg agreed it was important to make the distinction that—just because you were abused—doesn't mean you're going to abuse. "But it's a separate statistic that we're talking about."
"But I also didn't hear that in your film," the man argued, "and I think it's important to bring that distinction out." If Berg wasn't going to mention it in her film, he felt it was important to bring it up for discussion in audiences such as this.
"I didn't bring up either statistic in the film," Berg qualified, holding to her guns. That's why she elected not to have a narrator, she furthered, she wanted the audience to take the information where they need to take it. She invited the fellow to discuss the matter further after the Q&A.
Omar Moore of PopcornReel.com was present in the audience and he asked Berg if she had a sense—in the course of speaking with Oliver O'Grady and his coming forward to her—if O'Grady felt that by speaking to her he was beginning a process of his own healing? "Because to me, quite frankly," Omar admitted, "I really feel that he comes off at the end as being very smug and arrogant and there's an air, a deep air, of self-denial and self-satisfaction."
O'Grady, Berg advised, was clearly upset with the fact that his superiors to whom he admitted his abuses had since moved up in the Catholic hierarchy, becoming powerful, while he lost the church. He wanted to make an apology to his victims but he clearly did not have the follow-through to execute what he had started. "The dissociation explains it for me," Berg answered, "He's totally disconnected and he doesn't have a real sense of what he feels."
Berg was asked whether Cardinal Mahoney—who seemed to be perjuring himself on screen—would face prosecution for covering up O'Grady's crimes, among others? She said that Steve Cooley, District Attorney of Los Angeles, is working on their case right now and they've told her the film has heightened the excitement. "I know the District Attorney has seen it," Berg offered, "and [Deputy District Attorney] Bill Hodgman's been working for four years on this case and he's only just received some of the documents that he's requested. So they're optimistic." Two new cases have just been initiated where it appears Cardinal Mahoney has basically tampered with witnesses and evidence and has tried to keep priests who were out of the country away from the country so that they wouldn't be prosecuted. In fact, the plaintiff in one of those cases—Luis Godinez—was in the audience. He thanked Berg for the film, which he feels has arrived at the right time. He had been up since 4:00 in the morning, preparing for and the attending a press conference with representatives from SNAP. After the press conference he walked a letter over to the cathedral and dropped it off for Cardinal Mahoney and Todd Tamberg, asking for Tamberg's resignation. "It was a good day," he said, and to finish it off watching Deliver Us From Evil was great. He was tired but his exhaustion was worthwhile.
Cross-posted at Twitch.
12/06/06 UPDATE: Dave Hudson at the Greencine Daily is on top of the recent reparations flare-up.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
The official 9th United Nations Association Film Festival kicked into gear today and continues on the Stanford campus through Sunday, October 29, 2006. What follows are some recommendations from what I caught at the San Francisco prescreenings.
In her preview for the Greencine Daily, Hannah Eaves commended the UNAFF's "refreshing" parity of short documentaries alongside longer fare, particularly in the case of Tom Eldridge and Annalisa Hodgkins' 8½ minute Beyond Iraq, which celebrates the tenacious spirit of disabled vets as they learn to ski, snowboard and sit-ski the snowy Rocky Mountain slopes of Colorado through the Challenge Aspen program. With no regrets about the hand dealt them in the service of their country, and no time for self-pity during their rehabilitation, these severely-disabled veterans conquer their wary skepticism to explore opportunities for athletic expression and spiritual recuperation.
That's the "after" picture once vets have decided to move on with their lives, committing themselves to recovery. The "before" picture—or, I should say, the "during" picture—is not as enjoyable to watch. In fact, I strongly caution the weak-stomached to think twice about watching Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill's Baghdad ER. Hannah says whoever comes to watch this film should bring a handkerchief and, yes, the documentary might move you to tears, if it doesn't move you right out of the theater first. It is perhaps one of the most difficult pieces of film I have ever sat through. I was squirming in my seat and every now and then had to avert my gaze. For someone who is such a fan of the horror genre as I am, I found it nearly unbelievable how true dismemberment, amputation, blood and guts—divorced from entertainment value—are difficult to stomach.
At the same time, the humanity exhibited in this film conforms to the festival's objectives. The dedication of these surgeons in the 86th Combat Support Hospital to save lives and salvage damaged bodies lends to the somber—though important—statistic that wounded troops in Iraq have a 90% chance of survival, the highest rate in U.S. history. The gallows humor necessary to survive emergency and operating rooms that resemble the kill floors of a slaughter house hardly alleviates the extent of the carnage. Severed fingers, hands and arms are carried off. Eyeballs are stitched up. Wounds are opened up and probed for shrapnel. Young soldiers die on gurneys despite valiant attempts to keep them alive. It's visually intense and—as I mentioned—not for the weak. You feel for doctors coping with an endless onslaught of wounded human beings even as their own humanity is curtailed to a one-block radius and the occasional rooftop cigar break. Essential, but truly difficult, viewing.
UNAFF founder and executive director Jasmina Bojic advised that the festival received nearly 25 documentaries relating to the Iraq War this year and the above are two of the three chosen. Beyond Iraq and Baghdad ER screen Friday, October 27, 2006, at 8:20 and 8:40 p.m., respectively, in the Annenberg Auditorium (Cummings Art Building), Stanford campus.
Malcolm Ingram's Small Town Gay Bar reflects a different kind of resiliency and a different battle zone altogether, namely the back woods of Bible Belt Mississippi. Urbanite that I am, I have trouble understanding why queer folk would remain in such small towns (I took off like Ricochet Rabbit first chance I got) let alone make a bar a frequent hangout. But when it's all you've got, you welcome the chance to congregate among your own kind, I guess. Still, the issue of why they remain is largely unexplored in this documentary, which might have made it a more powerful piece of reportage. Small Town Gay Bar screens on Saturday, October 29, 2006, at 10:00 p.m., Annenberg Auditorium, Stanford campus.
Diminishing resources for mentally ill youth is the thrust of Karen Bernstein and Ellen Spiro's Are the Kids All Right? Of course, they're not. How could they be when legislators keep cutting funds and social services? Add this topic to America's heap of shame. Early scenes that show the emotional breakdown of a young Chicano boy was almost more than my heart could bear. This documentary provided few answers but it sure as hell painfully articulated the question worth repeating. Screening Sunday, October 29, 2:30 p.m., Cubberly Auditorium (School of Education) on the Stanford campus.
Detailed information about the festival's line-up can be found at the UNAFF website.
Introducing the Mill Valley Film Festival screening of Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu thanked the programmers of the festival for making it possible for he and his family to be in attendance. He added it was the first time he would be receiving an award in recognition of the body of his work. "I can't believe it still," he admitted, "I'm too young, I think." His audience laughed. Notwithstanding, he felt proud and claimed he would never forget this important, special moment in San Francisco, a city that he loved.
I suspect Mill Valley residents cringed a bit to be conflated with the city across the bay, but, no one dared object outloud. They politely allowed Iñárritu his reminisces of first learning about San Francisco through his father's Scott Mackenzie and Tony Bennett records and applauded his acknowledgment of his wife and children in the audience and how pleased he was to have them sharing this experience with him.
He said all three of his films were dedicated to family members; Babel specifically to his daughter and son. "As you know," he prefaced, "Babel is the third and last piece of a trilogy that I started with Amores Perros and 21 Grams. I call them a trilogy because, basically, the three films are about parents and children. Beyond the fact that the first one was in a local perspective, the second was my first foreign film in another culture, another language." Babel travels further, beyond even the implicit political and social comments within the film, to address global concerns. "Part of the stories," Iñárritu explained, "and all of the structure and form of the art has to deal with the same elements. I think the three of them deal with the same but at the end Babel—the film that we will see—for me is basically a quartet, basically about four stories about parents and children, those intimate and complex relationships in which I think we can find everything—all the drama, all the joy, all the hope, all the pain, all the complexity" within which Iñárritu believes human beings are confronted with the best and the worst of themselves. "For me, as a parent, it's the most challenging."
Babel is a film that took Iñárritu nearly one year to shoot over three continents, four stories, five languages. Basically for Iñárritu, Babel is a film about borders—not necessarily the physical ones constructed by governments and memorialized by maps, which he asserts are not important—but, the truly important, more dangerous borderlines constructed within ourselves. Ironically enough, when he started shooting Babel, he thought the film would be about the differences that separate human beings. Instead, as he and his family experienced the making of the film, as they traveled to the film's various locations, their compassion was toggled by their exposure to—not only the film's characters—but the communities they encountered. Everyone associated with the film was transformed by the experience of making the film. The film itself, he qualified, transformed itself and he ended up making a film quite different from his original intention. By the time he reached the editing room, he realized Babel was not about the differences that separate human beings, but about what connects human beings, which in essence is their humanity. Babel comments upon the compassion that Iñárritu is concerned we have lost. When people become overly critical, when they become judgmental, they lose compassion. Iñárritu hopes audiences will see that Babel is about human beings, not about Japanese or Mexicans or Americans or Moroccans. That's one of the aims he was trying to accomplish.
Babel is Iñárritu's first film with non-actors. Complementing the established names that propel the story forward are real people from the filmed communities who had never seen a movie camera in their life. Admittedly, their participation was a fortuituous accident. The day before he started shooting in Morocco, Iñárritu had only the big names in place and didn't have a single actor for the subsidiary roles so he went to the local mosque where the imam announced by speakers an open call for participants. The experience was such a positive one for him that he elected to replicate the process in Mexico.
"This is a film where I tried to take out ideologies," Iñárritu expanded, "because I think ideologies have been hurting the world." Children also have a big part in Babel because Iñárritu believes children around the world have been paying the consequences of adults who have not been solving the problems associated with borderlines.
Following the screening, festival director Mark Fishkin joined Iñárritu on stage to facilitate the Q&A. Fishkin began by noting how the relationship between parents and children was so strong in Babel and that—though all the themes in the film prove universal—could Iñárritu comment in particular upon what he was exploring in the parent-child relationship?
Iñárritu conceded that most audiences might not be able to look past "the political thing, the governments." What happens between governments and cultures, however, happens between people close to you, your wife or your kids. Iñárritu is now a ripe 43 years of age while his father is 78. He has a great relationship with his father but now also a growing relationship with his own daughter and son. He finds himself "in the middle of this mirror." He looks up and sees his father and, whether he wants it or not, he is aware of becoming his father. Then when he looks "down the other mirror" where he projects himself, he sees his kids becoming like him, "which is really scary." Whether this process is good or bad pales against its complexity. Sometimes, Iñárritu suggested, you can't explain things to your children, let alone yourself. You can't explain why they should not be like you are.
These complexities are what strike Iñárritu as human. Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina that what makes families similar is their happiness, but Iñárritu completely disagrees; he believes that what really makes families similar is what makes them miserable and sad, their shared pain. That pain stems from our inability as human beings to give love and receive love. That inability is the most tragic thing that can happen to a human being and children especially—being fragile and vulnerable—are the ones most hurt by this tragic inability. When these truths are exposed on the screen, when audiences watch characters suffer these themes, that's when they suddenly realize and reflect upon what is important in life.
Fishkin stated that he had read that—for Iñárritu—Babel was a journey in the making, four different countries, five different languages, not only did the characters transform themselves but the actors and the crew and Iñárritu himself transformed as well. He enquired how the process had affected Iñárritu?
Iñárritu responded that it took him two years alone to develop the script and, by the time he was finished working with the film, he had spent three years and a half. When he started the project, he was a different person. As arduous as script development had been, the shooting was equally intense. "When you shoot these scenes in the morning, you got those scenes with you at night. You know what I mean? You can't sleep." He wished he could have been like those doctors who perform brain surgery and walk away without caring. He wished he could have detached himself from the movie as professionally as he should. He wished he could have been like a psychiatrist or psychologist who listens to you and then goes to your house for dinner. But you can't do that with filmmaking. Movies, Iñárritu suggests, "impregnate you in a way."
The filming was further intensified by the length of the shoot and the many collective experiences en route. For example, his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's mother died during filming. Prieto was his right arm and his brother during the film so it was painful to share this experience, especially since—while they were Morocco—Prieto's parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. He left the Moroccan set for the last 10 days of shooting. For Iñárritu this was a big loss but he couldn't deny Prieto the opportunity to celebrate his parents' 60th anniversary party. Two months later, while shooting in Tijuana, Mexico, Prieto received word his mother had died. The association between the jubilance of their anniversary and the tragedy of her death were so connected that the entire crew experienced Prieto's pain. They had a ceremony to commemorate his loss, he attended his mother's funeral, but was back on the set the following day, a soldier for the project. Things like that affect you a lot, Iñárritu confessed.
As another example, Iñárritu related how Cate Blanchett's three-year-old son accidentally scalded his one-year-old brother with boiling water while on the set in Morocco, eliciting second-degree burns. It was a humbling experience for Blanchett who had to wait things out in the Moroccan hospital and then return home to London with the child, balancing her professional responsibilities as an actress and her "role" as a mother.
Due to the length of the shoot, the actors and crew became a family while traveling and sharing these experiences, these great lessons of life. Further, their experience was impacted by their experience of the communities, such as the ones in Morocco where they had nothing, not even a single chair, no electricity; but, they kept smiling. They gave the Babel cast and crew goat milk, dates, tea, everything they had. They were generous with the few things they possessed. It confirmed for Iñárritu that it might be true after all that the less you have, the happier your spirit. All those experiences marked him.
A doctor in his audience admonished him not to underestimate how deeply affected brain surgeons are by their patients and to allow that they do, indeed, care. Of course they do, Fishkin volleyed. The doctor then queried what it was like for Iñárritu to have his children present to watch Babel, a film difficult enough for adults to watch?
Iñárritu recounted that his children traveled with him to Morocco and other locations during the run of the shoot so they could spend as much time together as a family as possible. He wanted them to take advantage of having a father who travels a lot. He wanted them to share the experience and felt they would benefit and learn from the various communities they visited. For him, one of the most beautiful rewards was watching his children play with kids from Morocco without their understanding each other. Language was not a barrier; childhood united them. "It's as adults that we are spoiled with prejudices and stereotypes," he said.
Granted, they still don't quite understand why he won't let them see Amores Perros, but, he has promised them that in six years they will rent a cinema, watch the film, and have dinner with a drink afterwards. It's hard for him not to show them that film but he knows they're not yet ready. Still, he felt proud and honored that they were present for the Babel screening because they had experienced and understood the process. They had benefited from the human experience of filming the film, and being exposed to these situations, good and bad.
Another audience member was curious about the film's timeline and wondered if Iñárritu had worked this all out while writing the script or if it came together later during the filming?
Of the three films he has done, Iñárritu responded, Babel has the most straightforward chronological linear narrative. He doesn't think it was too difficult to get. Only Brad Pitt's phone call played with the narrative continuity, backtracking a bit to reflect that Amelia's Mexican story actually started a day after Brad and Cate's characters were in the Moroccan hospital. Time, Iñárritu offered, is a great tool to use in the cinema. Experiencing cinema is always in and of itself an emotional, fragmented experience. To have a film where scenes are shot in different locations, different times, where editing fuels juxtapositions, makes films dramatic. How audiences then fill the gaps with their own brains is what makes cinema beautiful. Iñárritu claimed he takes advantage of these narrative devices because time as a tool provides great tension. The extreme exercise for that was 21 Grams. That was an extreme, experimental use of time. But he liked it and felt it helped the story.
Iñárritu was asked about his reliance on global perspectives. He replied that, as a Mexican citizen, as a Third World citizen, he hadn't been exposed to a lot of American film as he was growing up, but, from what he had seen, it seemed American films often only showed one side of the story, one vision. In war films you saw one side of the battle. Kurosawa's Rashomon was Iñárritu's first experience of a cinematic narrative that provided relative perspective, where the audience was allowed to see and experience the three perspectives on the crime by its victims, which Iñárritu thinks is important to understand the whole situation. A good novelist, he offered, makes you aware of each character's consciousness and you become so involved in a good novel that you can practically smell it. Films don't always do that. When he was young, he would think about the other guys in the war. Why were the Germans always bad? Maybe there were young German soldiers who were likewise victimized by Nazism and why shouldn't they have a voice? He objected to a Manichean division of good and evil and, in his own films, has struggled to fight against such polarized morality. One of the things Iñárritu likes in characterizations is contradiction. The more contradictory a character, the more interesting, the more human. Human beings are not exclusively good or bad. They are both good and bad at the same time. The more he inspects that, the more interesting it becomes for him. A Manichean approach to characterization makes them the stuff of melodramatic soap operas, and Iñárritu is more interested in complex characterizations. Because he was first a Mexican citizen who then moved away from that comfort zone to the United States with his family, he has a perspective of being both the insider and the outsider, the native and the migrant. Without that perspective, he could not have conceived the border complexities of Babel.
At this stage of the Q&A, my blood was beginning to chill with all this talk about his movie, his script, his perspectives. I felt it necessary to grant credit to Guillermo Arriaga so—as diplomatically as I could—I stressed that the script was amazing and that it was my understanding that—contrary to the presumption of the audience—it had been written not by Iñárritu but by Guillermo Arriaga. I asked him to speak about their creative dynamic and—since it was rumored their creative collaboration was winding down—where his own writing was heading?
To his credit, Iñárritu looked me straight in the eye and graciously responded that their's has been a very beautiful and provocative nine-year relation, a strong and intense collaboration, that began with Amores Perros. Every film, he conjectured, is made in different stages and the first stage—which is so great—is when you dream and theorize about what film you can make. At that stage, Iñárritu offered, Guillermo has been an extremely amazing collaborator because of their shared vision. Even when they obviously saw things differently, when they argued about things, about what was good or what was wrong for one character or one story, that intensity ultimately was of benefit to the story itself. It's an intense interminable exchange of ideas and processes that has been good. Iñárritu added that Arriaga is now interested in producing a film, and wants to direct, so from now on he will explore that while Iñárritu explores stories he has been working on independently for some time and which now he can pursue more thoroughly. "But we are very proud, both of us, of what we have accomplished in this relation."
Iñárritu was asked what was the seed of the film's complex story and from where it had evolved? He said for him it had evolved from a moral position. After two years of living in the United States while developing 21 Grams, he felt a need to talk about what was going on in the world. He had arrived in Los Angeles four days before 9/11. The country changed. The world changed. He began to think how one little decision made by some guy in another country could result in family trauma and tragedy 20,000 miles away. He wondered if that "human tsunami" could ever be understood from one side or the other, if they would ever know each other? He felt Babel, with its three continents and its four stories, would be a great way to end the trilogy, first local, then foreign, then this butterfly effect where the flapping of delicate wings in one part of the world produced a horrific storm on the other side of the world. He invited Arriaga to collaborate and they started talking, how they could make this idea work through characters who would never touch or see each other. That was the exercise predicated upon their moral commitment. In the beginning they had drafted more political scenes, governments talking between each other, that sort of thing, but he decided to back away from that focus on politicians, to make the film more about the politics of human interaction and how the world can be reflected in those stories.
At this juncture festival programmer Zoë Elton joined Iñárritu and Fishkin on stage to present Iñárritu with MVFF's Spotlight Award. He accepted it nervously but happily, stating that his journey—which started a year and a half ago—has ended so beautifully with this acknowledgment of his work. He recapitulated the journey's challenges, one of the biggest of which was to find the visual language to put together these four, diverse stories to create one piece that held sense and meaning. Often he didn't think he was going to succeed, that he was losing his mind and his hope, challenged on every level—intellectually, spiritually, physically—and to now receive this award recognizing the body of his work made him feel humble and excited. He paused and admitted that at this point he didn't quite know what he was saying. His audience laughed. But he was clear on being glad that his wife and children were there to share the moment with him. Life is beautiful, he concluded, and love is the solution and our only way out of our problems.
Cross-posted on Twitch.
03/30/07 UPDATE: Lennon Aldort has created a music video for Babel combining edited footage with Mozart's Lacrimosa. It's a creative piece that registers much emotion.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
What can the most successful doll on the planet show us about being Jewish today? What do Barbie dolls and the history of the Jewish people have in common? Quite a lot, according to filmmaker Tiffany Shlain (daughter of physicist Leonard Shlain), whose The Tribe uses the doll's Jewish inventor Ruth Handler as a jumping-off point for an 18-minute riff on the heretofore unseen connections between Jewish culture and Ken's plastic girlfriend. Narrated by Peter Coyote, the film mixes archival footage, graphics, animation, Barbie dioramas, and slam poetry to tell two seemingly disparate histories that nevertheless converge in unexpected ways. Hey, if it was good enough for Tricia's wedding….
In the last year since Tiffany Shlain's The Tribe premiered at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, it has gone on to screen at various film festivals—Sundance, Tribeca, Silverdocs—winning Best Short Documentary at the Nashville Film Festival, the Audience Award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Director's Choice at the Black Maria Film Festival, and Best Historical Documentary/Spoken Word at the San Francisco Women's Film Festival. Now it's part of the 9th UNAFF, screening Saturday, October 28, at 4:45 in the Annenberg Auditorium (Cummings Art Building) at Stanford. I caught it at the Roxie Film Center prescreening and found it to be an entertaining, satisfying and—frequently—laugh out loud funny assemble edit.
There is no doubt in my mind all these years later that my G.I. Joe was just a guised replacement for Barbie. Let's face facts. I stripped his camoflauge uniform off him lickety-split to transform him into a fabulous bare-chested circus trapeze artist! On the very Christmas morning I received him beneath the tree, I threw Joe up into the air to do a triple flip. He landed on the pavement and one of his arms went shooting off somewhere, never to be found again. So now I had the first one-armed fabulous circus trapeze artist!
Even though I admittedly fell within that small percentage of the pie—"Boys who liked Barbies"—I could never come out of the closet enough to actually own one. Let alone afford all the accoutrement required to satisfy her evershifting persona and the fickle hounds of fashion. "Hear! Hear!" a feminist like Gloria Steinem might applaud, even though—according to Jamie Babbit in a recent interview—recontextualizing Barbie and not throwing her away is this season's feminist fashion statement. Babbit would even like to do her own film on Barbie someday.
In recent years, along with discovering that Mad Magazine's ("What Me Worry?) Alfred E. Neumann had been adapted from anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda, I heard a rumor that Barbie as well had been created by a Jewish woman from a German counterpart. The Tribe confirmed this was indeed the case and identified the German doll as Lili. Tiffany Shlain's husband, Ken Goldberg—who co-wrote The Tribe—was on hand at the Roxie prescreening to represent the film and to answer my query about whether or not it was known who had created the Lili doll and what was meant by the film's assertion that the Lili doll was a toy for men?
"Good question," Goldberg responded, "It's a little big vague and I think this is a great topic. As a professor, I think this could be a good master's thesis. I don't know the full history. A friend of mine who is a student in history said the Lili doll—Lilith—is a Jewish reference and was to a kind of loose woman, a woman of loose morals, and it was an association of Jewish women and loose morals that went back. This was the time of German fantasy that these Jewish women were more accessible in some way. He conjectured that the Lili doll was actually in some way linked to that reference, to Lilith, so that it almost comes full circle that Ruth Handler sees that doll and then connects it back and creates this hyper non-Jewish doll." Lilith—as some might know by legend—was thought by some to be Adam's first wife before Eve, a demoness intent upon destroying marriage, tempting men away from their wives. Barbie, as we all know, is much too busy accessorizing to wreck anybody's home.
Goldberg was asked if the wealth of footage in the film was difficult to gather and expensive. It was expensive, he admitted, but they worked with Getty images and they were a great resource. The shots averaged about $500 a shot for 10 seconds so they had to make some hard choices. While they were composing the film they downloaded everything they wanted for free but had to necessarily give up about half of what they really wanted when the time came to actually make the film because it was just too expensive. It was a tradeoff. On the other hand, if they had tried to film certain sequences themselves, it would have likewise been expensive.
Responding to one audience member who admitted—as a feminist—how much she hated Barbie, Goldberg conceded that Barbie is a lightning rod who is certainly reviled by many feminists. Yet Barbie's stature as a cultural icon cannot be denied and exploring why she has such a magnetic force could prove valuable. It's important to ask why, Goldberg reminded us. "As much as you say boys shouldn't have guns and girls shouldn't have Barbie dolls, they still want them. We're trying to understand: what is that magnetism? One of the things that came to us is this idea of projection, of being outside and wanting to be in." For little girls to be part of a big girl world, Barbie factors heavily. For that matter, for little boys wanting to be girls, Barbie factors heavily. And even a fabulous one-armed circus trapeze artist named Joe doesn't quite hold a candle.
To further engender discussion on the intriguing links between Barbie and being Jewish, the film-makers provide a home screening kit on the film's website that includes a dvd of the film, The Guide from the Perplexed film guide (which amplifies information from the film), and one set of the Tribe conversation "flash" cards. Goldberg reminded us that the kits are aimed at Jewish adults who are in their 20s and 30s and admittedly disconnected from the Jewish faith. He suggested showing the film for friends, having a dinner party, and then placing one of these flash cards beneath each dinner plate to kickstart conversation. He revealed that they had also hoped to include a chicken bouillon cube in the kit but that didn't work out. Notwithstanding, he stressed, they're great Hanukkah gifts.
Monday, October 23, 2006
I'm grateful to my friend Tere Romo, curator for The Mexican Museum, for introducing me to Sergio de la Mora at a recent Galería de la Raza platíca. Sergio de la Mora is an Assistant Professor in the Chicano/a Studies Program at the University of California, Davis.
Sergio had his publisher, the University of Texas press, forward me a review copy of his recently-published Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film, which I have found thoroughly captivating and essential reading for anyone interested in Mexican film, gender studies, and theories of queer spectatorship.
In a preface, intro, four erudite chapters, and an epilogue, de la Mora accomplishes some major work, offering in his first chapter a survey of major developments in the discourse of the prostitute and transgressive sexualities that engages feminist insights on the role of women in nation building. In the next chapter he considers a parallel narrative, the multivalent masculine role models embodied by Pedro Infante in his "buddy movies." Provocatively, de la Mora applies a queer reading of Infante's films and appropriates Infante as a screen idol for an alternative queer film legacy. In Chapter Three de la Mora explores how representations of male heterosexual machos in popular Mexican films from the 1970s are riddled with ambiguity and anxiety elicited by the presence of gay men, imaged as flamboyant queens (namely Arturo Ripstein's memorable portrait of La Manuela in El Lugar Sin Limites / Hell Has No Limits). Finally, de la Mora extends his analysis by moving the gendered national discourse into the contemporary period, examining the renewed attention awarded revolutionary melodramas and the global popularity of the new Mexican cinema.
The read is thorough and accessible, specific to Mexican cinema, but applicable to all "national" cinemas. San Franciscan audiences have the keen privilege of hearing Sergio de la Mora read from and about Cinemachismo this coming Thursday, October 26, 2006, at 7:30 p.m. at Modern Times Bookstore, 888 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110, free.
Anticipate an Evening Class interview with Sergio de la Mora in the near future! But for now, don't miss his Modern Times Bookstore appearance!
Evening Class contributing writer Michael Hawley alerted me to the short films of Bay Area film-maker Steve Pandola, specifically Steve's most recent short Lunch at the Lake featuring Nathan Laver, an enterprising piece of digital camera pixelation that caught my attention and took me to the Pandola Brothers' website Stain and Cake to view more minutes of entertainment.
In conjunction with the Red Vic midnight screenings of the Stain and Cake oeuvre coming up this Friday, October 27, 2006, I spoke with Steve about his short films.
* * *
Michael Guillén: Steve, I was intrigued by your independent methods of exhibition. That you're planning to have this Red Vic screening of your short films. It appears you have created an ensemble film-making team made up of family and friends under the aegis of Stain and Cake. What does Stain and Cake refer to?
Steve Pandola: It's not dirty, which is what some people immediately think. Basically, it's an inside way of saying Pandola Brothers Films. It means basically Tony, Steve and Brian in a very obscure way that means nothing to anyone but the three of us. That's essentially what it means.
MG: How did you three get going? You're obviously using a digital camera. Have you always wanted to make films and just decided to do it?
Pandola: Basically the three of us have always been interested in making films. We were making films in third-fourth grade with our dad's big huge VHS camera way back when and then I went through college and actually got a film degree at UC Santa Barbara. From that point on I got distracted by a "real" job after college and then just remembered what my passion was and decided to move to San Francisco where my family's based and make films, regardless of anything else, just continue to make movies.
MG: I'm glad to see that, hear that, because you have a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor that proves attractive in your films. The first one I saw—as I mentioned—was Lunch at the Lake. How did you effect that?
Pandola: I was up in Tahoe with a friend of mine who is also a film-maker. He does work out of Boston with a sketch comedy group Hooray For Funn! ["the extra n is for extra fun"]. The two of us were up there and we make a movie every summer in Tahoe and this time there were only two of us there. I was trying to think of something that we could do with only two people. I remembered shooting a pixelation in college, which is essentially taking a still frame for every frame of film, so 24 frames per second. In college we had used a 16 mm camera where we plunged one frame at a time. Once I got out of school and didn't have access to a film camera, I wasn't sure how you would do that with video. I didn't really get how that would work with interlaced fields and all that. I realized that with digital cameras these days and their gigantic memory cards, you can get quite a few photos on a memory card and did some quick math the first night up at Tahoe and realized we could shoot a 3-minute film with my still camera. I also brought an aquarium in case we wanted to shoot anything underwater. I tried to think of what would be a cool idea for a pixelation that somehow incorporated being underwater because I figured there had probably never been an underwater pixelation before. We shot that with a still camera; about 1,500 images.
MG: It was truly remarkable and clever and the piece of yours I most enjoyed. Is your style for scripting improvisational or do you have the film fully scripted before you start shooting?
Pandola: It varies. Most things are scripted to an extent. For example, Ahead Of the Game and Hide Your 'Stache, we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do. I feel when you're working with non-actors, it's best to not give them a direct line. It's best to give them a question that leads them to the answer you're looking for; but, we talk about what the answer is, but not word for word. We have a script. We have an idea of a beginning, middle and end, but as far as where that might take us and how long the interviews might go on, that's indefinite and almost like a documentary. The shooting ratio is very high. We shot almost three hours of footage for Hide Your 'Stache, most of that being very long interviews, which give you these genuine moments where someone has finally gotten comfortable in their character 10 minutes into the interview and answered this question in a funny and honest way. Today's the Day was obviously scripted beginning to end. It's very straightforward. Lunch At the Lake, as it went along, we came up with the idea. Originally, he was going to go into the water, grab a fish, go back up. Then when we started looking for the prop for the fish, I found the oven mitt and thought, "What a perfect ending if he actually uses it as an oven mitt." That was sort of an improv.
MG: I enjoy the banter in your films. Obviously that must come from bantering around with your brothers as you were growing up. It's a good feel. Often, with independent amateur films using non-actors, you don't often get the timing as good as that and you guys have got the timing down really well. Are your hopes to do future comedy or live skit work or film skit work? Do you know the group Uphill Both Ways?
Pandola: I don't. Uphill Both Ways, they're a sketch group?
MG: Yeah, they're a sketch group that incorporates short films into their comedy. I was thinking you could easily do something like that.
Pandola: That sounds interesting. I came to San Francisco with the intent of doing a pilot for a t.v. show with my brother. We were both inspired by The Office, the British version, and loved the idea of six episodes that are great. Not this idea of doing 22 episodes that some are good, some are kind of hit and miss. We liked that idea of two people working solely on a project and doing a six-episode season that—stand alone, the episodes would be great; but, there's also a story, there's an arc that's going along for all six episodes. That was our goal: to write six episodes, shoot one episode, and see what we could do with it. It was a little bit too much to bite off with both of us having jobs and the other things you have to do in life. The short films became an outlet for me in the meantime but that's something I'd like to revisit. That's something I'd like to eventually do.
MG: In terms of the themes in your stories, what is it you're trying to say in Ahead of the Game? One part of it is obviously a funny send-up on kids living at home and having no ambition, but what is it you were trying to say with that film?
Pandola: The character was an amalgamation of so many people we know. Both of my brothers and I find this somewhat humorous in our generation, this idea of these extremely grandiose dreams with no intent on hard work and plan. It's just: "I'm going to be something. I'm going to be great. Wait until the world gets a load of me." Without any sort of plan. It's also ironic, we're the generation that's been told from day one you can do anything, you're capable of anything, you can be a rock star if you want to be one, you can be a film-maker if you want to be one. A lot of our generation took that to heart and are waiting for it to happen without taking any initiative. That's what that was about. Part of the interview that didn't make it into the film, he talks about being a rock star and he's got a band with some friends and thinks that's going to work out. That's what we're sending out, that this whole generation [thinks] things just sort of happen without having to do anything. You can live with your parents, mooch off them, and someday you'll be famous.
MG: It's wanting to be in demand without meeting the demand in any way. Hide Your 'Stache, what I found most hilarious was the pan to the moustachioed animal head. I liked that.
Pandola: Again, I love getting into the situation because all these things build. That was not in the script. That was not like—oh, we're going to have a pan to the animal head with a moustache on it—it was: I walked into the room, one of the people had brought some fake moustaches, we put one on there and thought, "That would be really funny to have a pan to that while everyone's having this conversation about moustaches." Being able to get creative and have these ideas of what would they do? What would the room be like? What sort of snacks would they be eating? Of course, they'd be eating Pringles and playing Monopoly. That's fun and that comes out of being in the environment. Not all of that was scripted.
MG: Today's the Day struck me as mildly nihilistic and a subtle spin on the contest between individual will and predestination. What were you going for there?
Pandola: It's a similar theme to Ahead Of the Game. This idea of people constantly saying that we're going to do something. It came from myself. I can't tell you how many times I've gone through many of those pieces of the day. I'm not going to hit snooze, I'm going to get up today. And you don't. And you're late for work. Again. As always. Today is the day I'm really going to start working out in the morning, do my push-ups or do my sit-ups. I think that's human nature and I think it's very relateable. The message at the end is obviously—maybe a little too obvious—you never know what might really happen and you might as well take control of the things you can because you're only here for so long, we're only here once, and obviously no one says today's the day I'm going to die. That doesn't come up. No one thinks of that and yet that will eventually happen one day. So, yes, I could see that as a nihilistic take on life but it was more meant to be motivational.
MG: I'm impressed with the independent way you're exhibiting your work. You offer them on YouTube, offer them on your website, and have now decided to rent the Red Vic to project the films on a large screen. What inspired that? What are you hoping to achieve?
Pandola: The inspiration for that was really to let the people involved in the films and anyone who's become a fan of them online to see the films the way films are meant to be seen. If you like the films, the only option right now is to watch a tiny box on your computer screen. There's nothing like seeing a film on a big screen, as I'm sure you know. Even doing the run-through at the Red Vic, I was just tickled to see the films on a big screen like that. It's really for anyone who has been involved and anyone who like the films. It's the right way to see a movie and, hopefully, people will be able to take advantage of that opportunity if they want to.
MG: I agree 100% and I admire your insightful bridging between the two exhibition modes.
Cross-posted at Twitch.
Friday, October 20, 2006
Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob have been partnering with documentary legend D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop) since the 1970s, turning their handheld cameras on diverse subjects ranging from politics to rock and roll. The trio recently codirected HBO's Elaine Stritch at Liberty, winning two Emmy awards for their work. Hegedus was awarded the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentaries for Startup.com (2001). Doob has shot a number of Pennebaker-Hegedus films including Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), The War Room (1993) and Only the Strong Survive (2002). Earlier, in 1979, he traveled with Murray Lerner to China and shot the Oscar-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart.
Al Franken: God Spoke screened earlier this year at the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival. During its recent commercial run in the Bay Area, I had the opportunity to meet up with Hegedus and Doob at the Chancellor Hotel to discuss their profile of the obstreperous Al Franken, commencing with his highly-publicized feud with Bill O'Reilly to his relentless campaign against George Bush and the Right Wing in the 2004 election. Doob and Hegedus were granted entré to Al Franken's world as he fearlessly confronts pundits and politicians, blurring the boundaries between political satire and impassioned citizenry.
* * *
Michael Guillén: I have to admit right off that I feel somewhat fraudulent sitting here with you two today—certainly I hazard coming off as a complete fool—because I'm not really very much of a political animal. I'm not very good at formulating ideas about socio-political themes; but, I do think of myself as an average movie goer and hope you will bear with me as I try to articulate a response to Al Franken: God Spoke. Karen Larsen encouraged me to watch your film—she knows my limitations [they chuckle]—but she encouraged me to watch it. I enjoyed it very much even though it's not a film that I would have gone to see on my own. So I guess the obvious question is: who is this documentary for?
Nick Doob: Everybody who goes to see it—I mean, we sort of sit there trembling in the back watching the film as other people watch it and we sort of watch when people go out to the bathroom because you're thinking, well….—but, we don't lose anybody. That's sort of one of the great things. Our audiences are—once they're there—they're really great. But I think there is—what you're saying—why do you go there in the first place.
MG: Because it's so polemicized.
Nick: Yeah, that's offputting to people. What we'd like people to know is that it's a funny film. It's a funny film with a definite political side to it but it's an entertaining film.
MG: I'm not sure "offputting" is fair to yourself. The documentary is polemicized, but, the only drawback to that would be that people probably come to the film with such sharply etched attitudes that nothing's going to change or, rather, they think nothing is going to change within them when they come to see the film. Liberals will be liberals and conservatives will be conservatives and will not be swayed one way or the other.
The image that struck me, however, after watching the course of the documentary—which seemed to build up to this moment—was when Al Franken wept at John Kerry's concession speech. That was when—as your husband D.A. Pennebaker has described—we saw the leopard grow his spots. Franken suddenly seemed very frail and human to me at that moment and that's when I finally and truly entered the film. Until then, for me the film was a spectacle of argumentative polemics. Did Franken have any problem with his vulnerability being shown like that? You obviously had his unbridled cooperation . . . .
Chris Hegedus: No. Al says he'll cry at a commercial with children in it. He has his emotions on his sleeve.
MG: And yet that doesn't really come across at first in the documentary. Some criticism I've read against the documentary has said, "Here you give us so much Al Franken but we never really see Al Franken." What you see is his comic mask, his bravado. I think that's why that image of him crying affected me so much because I finally caught the person, the human being.
Chris: You see him turn the corner there. That's the moment where he's motivated to really do something, to step out of the comic shoes, and take the other road, the road to committing himself to some kind of a more serious political life. I think you see it in that moment when he's upset about Kerry and then afterwards he's watching Bush. His eyes could drill daggers into that television set because it's the time to do something.
A lot of people who are actors and comedians and who like to be on stage, that's what their personas are like. We get that criticism sometimes on this film but people who know Al, that's what he's like. People who like to have an audience when they speak tend to be on stage for a lot of their life in all different situations. But I think you see the other Al. You see the bungling Al. When we showed the film to Al and his wife Franny and his daughter, they loved [certain] scenes … like there's a scene right before on election night when everybody thinks that Kerry's going to win, and it seemed like Kerry was going to win for almost everybody. Al and his team are considering what to do for the next day's show and how to gloat about the win that's going to be happening several hours later. So you see Al gloating and then afterwards it's almost like the karma police come and get him. He goes to walk away and he gets his backpack all caught up in the chair. He's just such a bungling human being, which is the other side of Al, so I think you do see many sides of him. But he is a person who's on stage a lot.
MG: Because I saw that human side, and what I would now say to my readers and why I would encourage them to go see Al Franken: God Spoke, is this film is not just about confirming who you do or do not like or what your political point of view is on specific hot button issues; this is a film that shows a very human trajectory. This is a film that shows a man who reaches a point in his life where he—as you say—can enter a new field, a new arena.
Nick: That's exactly what this film is, much more than anything else.
MG: I think it is but, somehow, it's not being sold that way . . . .
Nick: I know, I know.
MG: . . . And that actually is what it is. I like to confirm my ideas because—as I said—I sometimes feel insecure about them. But I became concerned for Al Franken. Because I'm not sure—and you suggest this in the final scene of your documentary—what will he give up to win?
Nick: That is exactly right. That's just dead on about what it is. I feel concerned. We do. Al seems so innocent in some funny way.
MG: In the first part of the documentary I could admire him, I certainly thought he was hilarious, but I would never have the courage to do what he does. I could never walk into a room of my enemies and confront them with such biting humor.
Nick: It's unbelievable.
MG: It's unbelievable but it also seems hazardously naïve. It's not enough to say these people are liars—they know they're liars—and they really don't care they're liars. Yet he cares. He cares that they're liars and he cares that he's telling the truth. That's what concerns me. I feel like he's going right into something I'm not sure that's where he's supposed to be.
Chris: Our film shows part of that, but people who follow Al and people who watch the film and get motivated to listen to his radio show, he does more than pointing at the lies; he really tries to get at the truth and what they're doing and where it's going and I think he does that pretty comprehensively every day on his radio show. You see bits of him trying to do it in the film too with Michael Medved, trying to take apart how the facts that he's presenting from the speech the night before by Governor Zell [Miller] are being distorted. But it is a very tricky game and for Al it's his personal quandary on whether he does better what he does now or whether he'll be able to stay true and be as effective as a politician. He's searching for this and exploring this right now in his life. But I think anyone who steps into the political realm, you're going to give up a lot. Are you going to be the human being who can stand up to the corruption of power in Washington? That's another aspect to it even beside being true to yourself.
Nick: But you have a point. His opposition is very effective and you're scared for him.
MG: I'm scared for him. I was reminded also of this new vehicle that's coming out with Robin Williams where Williams plays a comic who's running for the presidential race. Do you think there was any borrowing from Al Franken's story?
Nick: I don't think so just in terms of timing. I didn't realize it was that close.
MG: I get the sense it's about bringing humor into the political arena as a humanizing tool or strategy, which is what I feel Al has done.
Nick: Somebody asked us that question but I didn't realize why they were asking it; but, it's really that close?
MG: The similarity, the resemblance, struck me immediately, though it might be sheerly coincidental. Again, I consider myself a typical person in my reaction to politics. I'm extremely disillusioned with bipartisan politics in the United States. It's hard for me to put one foot in front of the other to go to the voting booth because I just don't believe it affects anything, and yet I know I have to believe that somehow voting will make a difference. Regarding the 2004 re-election campaign that you monitored in this documentary, I remember the lines to the voting booth were unlike anything I had ever seen in my adult life and they gave me a momentary rush like, "Oh, we're actually going to make a difference!" Then when it didn't, the disillusionment was so steep and that's why I think Jonathan Marlow, when he interviewed you for Greencine, said your film was depressing. But I think it's past that.
Nick: I think it's past that.
MG: Maybe I already knew what Al wanted—in terms of questioning the media—even before I listened to what he had to say on the subject. I don't listen to mainstream media. When President Bush was first elected and gave his state of the union address and started talking about the axis of evil, I just got so mad. I got cold and mad and I turned the t.v. off and I decided then and there that I just could not watch him anymore. I refuse to watch him and his ilk. And that's where your documentary was probably good for me, because that's not really the best response. I know it's a dangerous response that might give power away. I appreciated the documentary because you profile all these conservative personages who I've avoided becoming informed about and, quite frankly, I find them a bit stunning for being so conservative.
Chris: Same for me.
MG: Ann Coulter! It's my understanding there was incredible footage with Ann Coulter that you were not allowed to include?
Nick: There was a debate.
MG: There was a debate. In online circles, snippets of that have come out. Anthony Kaufman has admirably disregarded admonitions not to repeat what was said and has published a sampling of some of Coulter's comments at his site. ["When a moderator asks the two nemeses which historical figure they would be, Coulter says she'd be Franklin D. Roosevelt so she could prevent the New Deal. Franken says he'd be Hitler so he could prevent a little thing called The Holocaust.' Point: Franken."] Was there a legal issue involved?
Chris: The Forum where we filmed the debate had an arrangement with the performers that we could not put out material from that debate without their agreement to it.
MG: How unfortunate.
Chris: [Coulter] decided not to do it. We were hoping we didn't have to do that because there were press there and news there covering it at the time but—because of the nature of theatrical—we didn't fall exactly into the news category so we had to go specifically to her in the end and she said no, which was too bad. But I think with what we added to the film in some other way brought it in another direction, not having seen that. But most of the stuff that we had in, if you read any of the articles about that night, they almost describe verbatim what we had in. So you can get it online.
MG: Well, I want to say you guys are subtle but you're not! [They laugh.] The footage you have of Ann Coulter getting into her car—all bones and butt in a tube mini-skirt—is hilarious. It's amazing what a simple image will get across. That's why I depend more upon images than ideas; I think images carry ideas more effectively than just in themselves.
Chris: I hadn't known who she was or many of these people either because—living in New York—you tend not to listen to the radio as much and I just wasn't aware of them and it was appalling actually to see the language that they use.
MG: It was appalling and it reminded me of caricatures from The Simpsons or something. [They laugh.] I mean they look like characters from The Simpsons. You think, "How can this be so obvious and yet nobody does anything?" What do you hope the documentary's going to achieve?
Nick: There's this whole idea of preaching to the choir that you're not supposed to do; but, if it does sort of energize a certain sympathetic base, that would be good in this election. That's one thing we're really hoping it will do in the mid-term election, is that it will help people get more interested in voting, period. As depressing as the 2004 election is to some people, there's a kind of new optimism now about the mid-term.
MG: Well, there needs to be.
Nick: Well, there is, I think.
MG: We had a huge protest rally here in San Francisco yesterday—I don't know if you know about that?—down in Justin Hermann Plaza. I keep telling myself you need to remain vigilant, you need to remain mobilized, you cannot allow defeats like the 2004 election to stop the good work.
Nick: That's the thing. If Kerry—just speaking in selfish terms about the film—if Kerry had won the election, we'd have another kind of film. That was the thing that I find stirring about the film, was that Al—you can see it in his face—that he knows there's things he has to do. You can't just sit down and cry about it—he did—but he has to go beyond that and do something about it. There's something really wonderful about that.
MG: The risk he has to take—which is the one I'm concerned about—is the risk we all have to take.
Nick: That's a really wonderful way to put it.
MG: It's what I'm feeling. It's what I felt when I saw your film. Your film inspired me to think, "Okay. Maybe you don't really believe in voting so much. But there's still things you can do. At the very least, you've got to be jester in the king's court. At the very least." And that's what Al has done so brilliantly.
Chris: He has.
MG: Had you known much about Al before you started on this documentary? I understand you were actually on another documentary track first, the "other" Al documentary?
Chris: Right, the Al Sharpten documentary.
MG: Then this one came into fluorescence?
Chris. Right. I didn't really know a lot about Al before. I mean, I knew him from Saturday Night Live. I think I barely knew the Stuart Smalley aspect. In a lot of ways making these films we get to drop into peoples' worlds and really learn about them. That's why in a lot of ways our film is for somebody like you. Because we're not overtly political people. We're not issue people. There's films like The War Room, they're not issue films, they're about history I guess, they're about people at a certain point in their lives. We try to do them about people who are trying to do something good too as opposed to take on the enemies or make a film about Rumsfeld or something like that. What I saw in Al—in what he was trying to do with his book—right off was somebody who was trying to get at the truth in a bad world. It's an experiential film. I hope it motivates by action in the same way that in literature action creates character. By watching Al and seeing these villains that he comes up against in the media, it will motivate you by way of his action and his belief.
MG: I like how you express that documentary film-making "drops" you into the lives and experiences of other peoples' lives. Myself, I used to work for an Associate Court justice for the State of California who has since gone on to be a Supreme Court justice. The work was spirit-killing. I had to move away from it. I became sick because of it. The whole nature of law enforcement, the power of that kind of language and its self-referential rhetoric, became troubling and problematic for me. Film writing and interviewing film personalities is all new for me and it revitalizes me because I want to know what peoples' lives are really about and how others are recording them, not how others are trying to control them. Larsen Associates has a strong focus on documentary film-makers and the work they're doing and documentaries have become so validated, I would say, in the last decade especially. Have you noticed a shift like that?
Chris: Sure, having been in it for decades.
MG: Does it make it easier for you to do your work now?
Chris: It's the same thing. For the interest that I've had for all these years, we're looking for characters and stories and people that are passionate about something and ready to take a risk; stories that have a dramatic arc, the same as a fiction film. But you still need the same thing: you need a good character, you need a good story, you need access, and you can't create those like in a Hollywood film. You have to find those and be taken into their lives somehow. So it's not easier in that respect. It's cheaper. It used to cost us $400 for 10 minutes of shooting; now, it costs $6 for an hour. It's an incredible difference that the tools have been put in the hands of the people, which is very exciting for me because people can tell their own stories now in a way that they couldn't. It was always like some other culture being looked upon by these few people that had their hands on the equipment. Now they can do their own. So that's very interesting. It's a fascinating time for documentaries.
Nick: There's a lot of good films being made now. There are really smart, good films being made now. Probably there's much more of a market now. There seems to be much more of an audience for it. [Documentaries] don't have the life that Hollywood movies do but they do have a life and there seems to be a new reception for this kind of film-making.
MG: Some of the films you have made have had quite a long life. Some of the early documentaries that your husband made, the rock documentaries, were true templates of a cultural moment in time, which strikes me as what is one of the goals of a documentarian, isn't it?
Chris: Yeah, if you're lucky.
MG: You catch the atmosphere?
MG: Another scene in your documentary that blew me away was to see Al Franken impersonating Kissinger to Kissinger! How does somebody do that?! [They laugh.] How would you have—well, the talent number one—but, the courage to do that? That just seems so irreverent to me that you have to love Al for it.
Chris: He just does it so well and it's so appropriate right now with everything that we're hearing about Kissinger.
Nick: He couldn't keep himself from doing it. It's not as though he's getting up his nerve; he just couldn't not do it. He knew that Kissinger was in the room. That happened after that closet scene. There was a little waiting but he found his moment and you could tell, it was like he was drawn to a magnet.
MG: Reiterating what we were discussing before about Al's unguardedness that—if he goes into political office—he might forfeit. Like you were showing in the last scene, he can't crack that joke? What does that mean? What will he lose, like we were wondering before.
Nick: I don't think he even knows. That's the thing. He says, "I can be true to myself and not tell that joke." But I don't know if he knows what that means; it's really interesting.
MG: For yourselves, as documentarians, who were in Al's wake—because he did have access to these corridors of power, or at least these cocktail parties of power—what was that like for you being among these people? Do you interact much with them or do you keep away?
Nick: You don't keep away. You keep eye contact. That's important. There's no bullshit about whether you're there or not, you're there. In fact, at that Newsweek party, the camera had to be really close just to get the sound. That's maybe more important than anything else, that you're straightforward about how you shoot and that the person sees who you are shooting. You are, you're keeping eye contact. That's the great thing about these new cameras is that they're little and you're not behind this big machines, you're next to the machines.
MG: Can you speak a little bit about that technology? When you say these cameras, what are you talking about?
Nick: We shot with little cameras.
MG: Are they digital?
Nick. Yeah, digital. They're not real little, but they're about a box like that, and you can hold them down like this, or up to your eye, and they're much less threatening to somebody who's being shot. It looks a little bigger than a home movie camera. And everybody's got them these days. Everybody on the street is shooting movies so it's not too different. I think you put it a good way, that we're in Al's wake. There's something that people like Kissinger, and whoever else, they sense that they're walking into a little arena that Al is creating around himself, they're entering a proscenium….
MG: The Al Zone. [They laugh.]
Chris: Of films that we've shot, following Al Franken was one of the more fun films to do because you're always waiting to see what Al's going to do. You just don't know when you're following him.
MG: I was waiting to see when he first woke up if he was going to crack a joke right off; but, at least he said good morning first. So what is next on the horizon for the two of you now that this film is off and it's had its festival run and is now opening commercially? What's your next project?
Chris: We don't really have a next project yet. We're waiting until we give birth to this baby here. Going around the country doing an independent opening of a documentary is a lot of work for film-makers, especially if you don't have a major studio behind you. You have to help it along; help it have a life. It's a lot of work.
MG: When you're making a documentary film like this, obviously you've shot hundreds of hours of footage, right? I'm intrigued by that openendedness, that aesthetic that you really don't know what the story's going to be until it unfolds. You were saying if Kerry had won it would have been one documentary; but, the fact that he didn't win engendered this moment, which really was quite profound and as dramatic as anything I've seen in any feature where they're striving for a moment like that. It was a genuine moment of transition and transformation for Al Franken. The timing and the placement of that moment towards the end of the documentary seemed choice. The documentary had pretty much run its full course and then this moment arrives and suddenly my perception of the film went off in all directions, and started grabbing different scenes from throughout the documentary to make sense of this moment. That was a powerful recapitulation. How do you decide editing-wise between the two of you? Is there a strategy you've developed? Is it project by project? How do you effect that?
Chris: For this film I felt when Al turned the corner we had the end and part of it was the scene that you're describing after the election and part of it was when he goes back to Minnesota and takes a life-changing decision and works it out in front of an audience and then decides, "Can I really do this or not?" Then I felt we had a film and a story there; but it's waiting through it because, for me, I didn't know who Al was in the beginning outside of Saturday Night Live. I wanted to make the film so that—I always think, "Can my kids understand it? Will they know who Al Franken is?" Or this and that. I want it so that people understand who the person is and where they came from and what the story is.
MG: How have audiences reacted at the various festivals you've attended? Has the reaction been favorable?
Chris: Yeah, we've had amazing reaction. The hard thing—as you say—is getting people to understand why they should see this film. Once they get in there and see it, they've been incredibly moved by it. We've had great reactions. The other day when we showed it, Al was at that screening, and the audience was very moved and said, "What can we do now?" Al said, "Well, actually if you really want to know what you can do, there's this candidate in Minnesota that I'm raising money for, that I can't give any more money from my pack to him but he's a school teacher, he's a great candidate, and his name is Tim Walz, W-A-L-Z, Tim Walz." The next day he gets a call from the Walz campaign saying, "What's going on in New York? We got all this money!"
MG: Excellent. So it's nice to know there can be an effect.
Chris: Yeah, so there can be.
MG: So you don't have a specific project lined up, do you have a dream project? Any figure you've been wanting to monitor? Researching your work, you have a strong focus on the arts, which is admirable.
Chris: A lot of times we wait until people walk in the door and say, "We've seen this film and we think you'd be great at this other subject that we know about." This being individuals, it's not like you're a news organization and you have feelers out all over the place of where the stories are. So a lot of the time we rely on people coming to us. Then we're also waiting—I don't know if we'll do more with Al if he actually takes the jump.
MG: I was going to ask you if you thought he would. We don't actually know if he's going to do it yet?
Nick: I don't think he knows. I truly don't think he knows. I don't think he's being coy about it. Apparently, there's no other Democrat that's really out there right now. Somebody said he's maybe sucking the air out of any other Democratic person that might be thinking about it. [Senator Norm] Coleman would be a rough [opponent]; it would be a touch race. As much as people like Al—people really do like Al in Minnesota; he taps into this thing called "Minnesota nice", people really like him—but Coleman's got a big machine behind him. He'd be a tough candidate. He was ahead of [Senator Paul] Wellstone for a good part of the campaign. Wellstone had just gotten ahead of him towards the end.
MG: Wellstone was another personage that I appreciated learning about from your documentary. I wasn't familiar with him. Again, that's the value of your documentary. If you can get people to go out, not only will they be entertained—because they will definitely be entertained—not only is there this spiritual risk taking that we've been talking about; but, there's this kind of current who's-who of who's lately been involved in these bipartisan debates.
Chris: There's that chilling moment where Wellstone is addressing about the Gulf War, where he's saying that—if we go into it—we'll set off the entire Arab world. It's so chilling almost.
MG: It is chilling for being so prescient. Well, thank you very much. I appreciate you at least pretending I know what I'm talking about.
Nick: Look, you're so dead on about the film. It's validating to hear this. It's nice to hear someone who really gets it. Really. The way you've been seeing it, is the way we've were hoping people would see it.
Chris: We made it for people who aren't super-political. People who are super-political in some ways find fault in it because it's not political enough for them and that's not really what we were trying to do. It's not an issue film.
Cross-posted on Twitch.