Friday, July 31, 2009

DIASPORA BY THE BAY: SFJFF—The Evening Class Interview With Program Director Nancy K. Fishman and Program Coordinator Joshua Moore

As the 29th edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) draws near to wrapping up at The Castro Theatre—its San Francisco venue—and continues on through August 8 at Berkeley's Roda Theatre and Palo Alto's Cinearts, I felt now would be a good time to present the first in a series of research interviews I'm entitling "Diaspora By the Bay." This research is for a paper I'm writing for the next volume of The Film Festival Yearbook, which hopes to explore issues of disaporic content and constituency within the film festival circuit. SFJFF Program Director Nancy K. Fishman and Program Coordinator Joshua Moore were the first to make themselves available for this research project. Peter Stein, the festival's Executive Director, was hard-pressed to launch the festival and apologized for not being able to participate.

Establishing straight off that SFJFF follows the now-standard non-profit model of film festivals, bolstered by public funding, private donations, and supplementary membership/box office income, Nancy Fishman also advised that SFJFF is the only Jewish Film Festival in the United States that receives money from the National Endowment for the Arts. Locally, they receive funding from the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund.

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Michael Guillén: There has been some scholastic indication that Jewish film festivals were the first to organize themselves internationally with regard to community outreach and collaboration amongst each other, rather than the more customary competition expected between film festivals. Certainly, as I reviewed this year's program for SFJFF, I was struck by the festival's community involvement.

Lately, when I read festival programs, I find myself less interested in the capsules—whose synoptic purpose I respect but whose promotional incentive I've come to distrust—and more intrigued by who is co-presenting and co-sponsoring the films. In laymen's terms, could you state the distinction between co-sponsorship and co-presentation?

Nancy Fishman: Sponsors give us money. We're very grateful to have their money and—especially with individual donors—it makes them feel more connected to the festival because they will often gather a crowd of their friends to come to the film they've sponsored. Co-presenters are the people who help us spread the world about a particular film. Basically, we try to match up films with groups that are organized, fit well with that film, or will help us reach a particular constituency. There are probably 60-65 co-presenters at this year's festival. They cover a spectrum. We try very hard to work with a variety. We work with both Jewish and non-Jewish groups, several film groups like the San Francisco Film Society and the Mill Valley Film Festival. At this year's festival, the Asian American Film Festival is co-presenting
A Matter of Size, a film about sumo wrestling in Israel. We also interact with groups across the political spectrum.

Guillén: I'm intrigued by SFJFF's diversity of co-presentation. Reviewing this year's program line-up, I saw more community organizations than consulates co-presenting programs. What is the nature of your festival's interaction with consulates?

Fishman: It's hard to get money from consulates. Consulates often fall inbetween sponsors and co-presenters because they don't have enough money to offer full sponsorship but they often will give us a little bit more. Last year, for example, we did a program on Italian Jews during the Holocaust and the Italian Cultural Institute gave us $5,000. That allowed us to bring in a 78-year-old Italian survivor from Auschwitz. This year the French Consulate—who has been hit by the same economic crisis as everyone else—gave money to the San Francisco International and to the Seattle International, who are part of their Northwestern purview. They try to give us help, sometimes through diplomatic pouches; but, we're not as big fry as the San Francisco International, so they don't give us the same amount of financial help. The Goethe Institut has always been very helpful to us, and sometimes the British Film Council, so we definitely work with them and have a friendly relationship. In the cases where we do a large program like last year's Italian program, we usually have been successful at getting more substantial funding.

Guillén: Without ongoing consular sponsorship, it's all the more remarkable what SFJFF has achieved through community outreach, addressing diasporic constituencies. For example, a year or so back SFJFF had a program on Ethiopian Jews. Quite honestly, until then, I didn't even know Ethiopian Jews existed. I interviewed Sirak Sabahat, one of the actors in that year's closing night film Radu Mihaileanu's Live and Become. I thoroughly enjoyed that revelatory conversation and have, since, begun monitoring how SFJFF constructs its programs to be inclusive of these disparate diasporic communities, both abroad and in the United States.

Joshua Moore: Speaking of Ethiopian Jews, at this year's festival we have an Ethiopian film called Zrubavel, based out of Israel. It's a wonderful film about a young boy who envisions himself as a Spike Lee film director and documents his family. His father is a street sweeper and the film shows this small Ethiopian community within Israel, thereby showing a diverse Israel.

Fishman: It's the first Ethiopian feature film made by an Ethiopian.

Guillén: The comment made about Jewish Film Festivals leading the pack in collaborative ventures and having an existing network they can rely upon, do you find that to be true?

Fishman: It's true to a certain extent, though I would say the Lesbian and Gay film festival circuit is incredibly organized. The Asian film circuit is a little bit smaller. The SFJFF was the first Jewish film festival in the world and now there are about 100 of them; 60 in the U.S. and 40 outside. The Jewish community already existed. If you think about the immigrant status of Jews in this country, Jews have been here for a long time, as opposed to some younger communities. There already was an infrastructure to some degree; but there have also been organizations that have played a role. Our's has been one of them. For a long time on our website we kept a list of other Jewish film festivals around the country and then the
Foundation for Jewish Culture—which is based in New York and used to be called the National Foundation for Jewish Culture—has every 2 years over the last 6-8 years convened a meeting a Jewish film festivals from around the country. That really helped Jewish film festivals get organized. But it depends in what context. I go to the Berlin Film Festival every year and programmers from the Jewish film festivals still have to read through every program note and decide: "Could that be Jewish? The name of the director is Jewish or the name of one of the characters is Jewish…." Usually, we all read through the program and meet for lunch and discuss, "What do you think of this one?"

Years ago, I used to work for Frameline, San Francisco's gay and lesbian film festival, and when I went to Berlin for them, it was the same thing. But now in Berlin the Panorama office, which is one of the sections of the Berlinale, they actually do all the work for the gay and lesbian programmers. When they arrive, they're handed a list of every single gay film in the festival so they no longer have to do that "underground" thing of meeting in cafes to determine, "Maybe this is. Maybe this isn't." The same thing is now happening at Sundance. The Sundance press office provides an entire list of GLBT films. Different diasporic film festivals are probably organized in different ways; but, I do think it's true that the Jewish community has an infrastructure in most of the cities where Jewish film festivals are venued. Some Jewish film festivals are part of an institution; the Seattle festival is part of the
JCC, for example. And some are independent like our's.

Guillén: It strikes me that SFJFF is commendably concerted in its effort to represent the diversity of the Jewish experience as expressed through diasporic content programmed for the festival. This year, by way of example, you have films addressing—as you mentioned earlier—the Ethiopian Jewish community within Israel, you have another about Argentine Jews, and yet another about the Australian Jewish community. How do you become aware of and acquire films with diasporic content? Do programmers from various Jewish film festivals recommend films to each other? Do you consolidate efforts to bring talent to your festivals?

Fishman: What film festival programmers do is not so different from what acquisition executives do, in that you have a tracking database. You look for films. We don't have very much money so we tend to only go to Sundance and Berlin, maybe one other film festival a year. I obviously wish we had the money to be flying all over; but, we don't. A lot of our programming is accomplished by looking at other film festivals—we keep a tracking list, a chronological calendar of festivals that we're interested in—and then Josh and I (more Josh, actually) go through and look at the websites of different film festivals. Of course, there are the key international film festivals: Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Tribeca, whatever. We also look at Jerusalem, Haifa, and Docaviv—the documentary film festival in Israel—and then we look at the program line-ups at other Jewish film festivals all over the world. We talk to other programmers. We definitely talk to the people at the UK Jewish Film Festival, the Amsterdam Jewish Film Festival, and the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival. We also talk to programmers from mainstream film festivals and ask for advice. No one wants to do the work for you, but, you develop relationships over a period of time and you can ask about certain things. A lot of it involves maintaining relationships with filmmakers and distributors as well.

Guillén: With regard to interacting with other film festivals in the Bay Area—you've already mentioned a few—how does that collaboration work? Once you've solicited films, recognized their content, and decided to program them in your festival, do you then go through your rolodex to find the organizations or festivals that would best serve co-presentation? I'm trying to get a sense if there is a professional community of festival programmers whose collaboration is distinct to the Bay Area, in contrast to elsewhere. Also, in the process of interacting with other Bay Area film festivals, are you sharing content? Or costs to bring in talent? Or coordinating calendars to maximize the exposure of films and filmmakers in the Bay Area.

Moore: Yeah, there definitely is collaboration between film festivals in the Bay Area. As we mentioned, CAAM is co-presenting a film this year. We're in constant communication with the San Francisco International. If a film has played in another Bay Area film festival, and has already received a lot of press coverage, we will pass on it for our festival because it's already had its moment here. That's a consideration with all the film festivals, knowing what we are programming, so we don't schedule a film that has already played elsewhere.

Guillén: Whereas you do have a notable exception this year with Jenni Olsen's 575 Castro Street, which I believe has already shown at Frameline?

Moore: With shorts we're not so concerned about that. A lot of the shorts do play around. It's mainly feature films I'm talking about.

Guillén: I like how you acknowledge the importance of a film's "moment" within a festival. One of the avenues of film festival studies is an examination of the value of time and space and how it shapes festival experience. Time, and timing with regard to programming any given film for any given festival, speaks to the impact a film can have by being situated in any particular festival at any particular time.

Fishman: Most festivals want premieres.

Guillén: If a film you programmed in the festival is received well by your audiences, do you let other festivals know? Let's say the Seattle Jewish Film Festival was thinking of showing a film you've shown in your festival, would you tell them: "This film really worked for us and, even though it's not a premiere for you, it's worthy content"?

Fishman: I don't know what the San Francisco International's policies are now; but, most festivals want a Bay Area premiere. I don't know if the San Francisco International insists on a U.S. premiere for certain films. For a community-based festival like ours, I just want a Bay Area premiere because—in order to sell tickets—we receive so many films that it doesn't seem fair to give a slot to something that just played, y'know, a month earlier, with the exception of shorts.

There is a lot of communication between festivals. A lot of the programmers from other Jewish film festivals come to our festival; usually every year about 8-10 of them attend. We usually meet with them for bagels and coffee. People call and ask for advice. We don't have a print source list yet on the website so people are calling me and Josh every other day asking us to please send our print sources. The relationship between Bay Area film festivals is collegial. For example, if I go to a festival and I see something but I didn't end up picking it up for my festival, or even if it's not Jewish, I'll call one of my friends at Mill Valley and say, "This is great." I saw this film at Berlin this year about the slow food movement and I phoned Janis Plotkin—who now works at Mill Valley—and I said, "This would be a perfect Mill Valley film. I think people do that all the time.

We can't all show the same films and a lot of it is based on—for especially the more high quality films—that they're more likely to be bought by distributors or are in the middle of being sold. A lot of what films you get is based on the distributors and whether they want to give you the film and whether it fits into their release schedule. It's not that capricious. It's not that they like you or don't like you, or that you have such a great relationship with them or a terrible one. It helps if you've worked with a distributor year after year and also if you've helped them promote a couple of other films during the year; but, a lot of times it's whether it fits into their release schedule.

What distinguishes our festival from a lot of the other Jewish film festivals—not from all of them but a lot of them—is that we adhere to a tradition started by Janis Plotkin and Deborah Kaufmann, continued by Peter Stein who is the head of the organization and also programming, in selecting high quality films. Josh has only been here a year but one of the reasons I enjoy working with him is because he has fabulous taste in film. So we are excited about showing great films. But in terms of competing with other festivals for U.S. premieres, insisting—let's say—that Seattle can't show a film before us, that's not going to help either the film or the filmmaker. And it's not going to help us sell any more tickets.

We love it when we get a U.S. premiere; we're not so
kumbaya that we don't care about having some North American or U.S. premiere. It's always nice to tell the press that; but, we're not going to say to a film, "You can't play here because you played in Seattle three months ago."

Guillén: With regard to the spectacular dimension of your festival, how do you negotiate and secure talent?

Fishman: It's usually connected to a film. It's usually hard to bring talent if they're not in a film. It's expensive for community-based festivals to get high-level talent. It usually requires business or first class tickets and I always joke that—when you say the word business or first class—it's like saying "communism" to Senator McCarthy. We have gotten some high profile people here. We had
Gila Almagor here and she's the grand dame of Israeli cinema. We've had Amos Gitai who's a major international director. We do try to get high level talent here; but, it's not always easy. Sometimes it involves paying more money for a ticket.

Moore: This year we tried to get Natalie Portman to come because we found her directorial debut, a short film called Eve, which debuted at Venice last year, I believe. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get her.

Guillén: In negotiating for high-level talent, is that where collaboration with regional festivals and local organizations might help?

Fishman: It's very hard to organize. We brought two documentary filmmakers last year—the Heymann brothers—and we collaborated with a museum in Los Angeles. We shared the cost of their air tickets. But it's very hard to coordinate. Most stars want to come for just a day. I used to work in publicity so I've dealt a lot with talent. It can get very expensive and costly. They sometimes want to travel with a spouse or a friend and—though we usually have drivers hired by the festival, driving nice Toyota Priuses loaned to us thankful to Toyota San Francisco—that's not good enough. You have to get a limo to go pick them up at the airport. Some stars require hair and make-up. I've actually encountered stars who only have certain people work on their hair and face so then you have to fly in the hair and make-up person because it's not acceptable to get the best hair and make-up person in the Bay Area. It can get very expensive.

It's hard to collaborate. I think also because our festival is in the Summer, it's more difficult to collaborate with the universities. If we were situated in November, we could call the Jewish Studies Department at Stanford or—not even just Jewish—we could call the Mideastern contemporary, political or film department and say, "Would you like to split the cost?" We are collaborating with the Israel Center and the JCC to bring in Ari Folman in October. That's a case where three organizations said, "Let's split the cost for this." We're going to show Waltz With Bashir and bring him in.

Guillén: Thank you for those examples. I'm glad to hear such collaborations do exist. So once you've shaped your program with its diasporic content, I'm interested in how you then address diasporic constituencies to encourage them to come see the films? How do you get the word out to them, or do you even try?

Fishman: We certainly try. We have an outreach coordinator. We have marketing people. When we did the Ethiopian program, we distributed flyers and I believe we had them translated into
Amharic. I live in Oakland and personally went up and down to every Ethiopian restaurant in Oakland and dropped off flyers. With the Russian community, we occasionally translate fliers or emails and send them out. We've made an effort to reach the community. Not everybody is internet-savvy. For a while there some communities were more internet-savvy than others.

Guillén: So hypothetically then, on your rolodex you have listings of local organizations of specific diasporic identities that—when you get a film that has a particular diasporic theme—you're able to readily contact those people and access their mailing lists? And they're cooperative?

Fishman: Yes, they are. We even do co-presentations with the Arab Film Festival.

Guillén: I am much impressed with SFJFF's policy to maintain dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian communities.

Fishman: We enjoy it. They've co-presented films at our festival; we've co-presented films at their festival.

Guillén: I also admire SFJFF's awareness of the social activism potential in film. This year you're even sponsoring a panel "Reel Change: Social Justice Films" wherein social justice is examined as an element of Jewishness.

Fishman: With our help, Peter Stein curated that program. There was a range of high quality documentaries this year that dealt with different issues of social activism. I get a little uncomfortable personally when people talk about Jews having a monopoly on morality or the whole concept of
tikkun olam—healing the world—which is something that's deeply engrained in Jewish culture, both secular and religious. I don't believe we have a monopoly on it. I think other communities are also committed to social activism. Perhaps it's more recognized in Jewish culture? It's a tradition that a range of people in the community have been proud of. Peter has done an excellent job of maintaining a commitment to social activism; but, it started with Deborah and Janis. When the festival was founded, it was somewhat exclusive, whereas now we've become a part of the fabric of the Jewish and cinematic communities.

The festival was founded in reaction to the fact that there weren't many positive images of Jews on film, which is so ironic because there are a lot of Jews behind the Hollywood industry. Also because a lot of mainstream Jewish media didn't deal with either the conflict in Israel or Jewish GLBT representation. Both Janis and Deborah were not lesbian but were prescient and forward-looking in terms of actively pursuing gay and lesbian films to share with the Jewish community, which was pretty radical at that time. Twenty-nine years ago no one would imagine that the Jewish Community Federation would have a gay and lesbian section where people paid to go to this work. There have also been environmental films, like the work of Judith Helfand (Blue Vinyl, 2002). Social activism covers a range; but, it is exciting and has always been a part of our festival. It's something we do well.

Guillén: In terms of press tiering, do you have different categories of press for your festival?

Fishman: No.

Guillén: I'm glad to hear that. I'm aware that many festivals have distinct accreditation for red carpet press assigned to handle celebrity journalism and "regular" press covering the films. But when press is accredited for your festival, they're on equal parity?

Fishman: Yes.

Guillén: And you don't play favorites with any local press?

Fishman: No.

Guillén: That's so nice to hear.

Fishman: It is nice. That's part of being a community-based festival. If we had Natalie Portman or Woody Allen, we'd probably get a red carpet—though we ordinarily don't have a red carpet—but, we wouldn't tier the press. We might engage in some more pomp and circumstance, but we wouldn't start tiering.

Guillén: SFJFF is clearly internet-savvy, how about distinctions between print and online press?

Fishman: We don't distinguish, in terms of amount of time we allow for interviews or access to films. Every accredited journalist is on Karen Larsen's press list. The only event where we sometimes don't have room for all of the press is opening night; but we set aside 55-70 tickets. The Castro is huge and it's very rare that press can't get in. All press can come to everything.

Guillén: Why do you use an external publicist rather than handle publicity in-festival?

Fishman: Because Karen Larsen is fabulous!

Guillén: She's the best in the business, isn't she?

Fishman: Also, it's very hard. During a film festival it's like trying to put an elephant through the eye of a needle. We have so much work. There are times when Josh and Peter and I work 70 hours a week just trying to get everything done. I happen to have a PR background, but most programmers are savvy about it but don't develop the year-round relationships; that's another critical reason to hire an outside publicist. I talk to press people at a few festivals a year when I see them or during this crunch period of time, but someone like Karen is on the phone or email with everybody 10 times a day. It makes much more sense to hire a professional.

Guillén: As a festival, what do you expect or hope press will do for you?

Fishman: I hope that they would help us find an audience. I'm a practical person. I like press who are smart and do their homework because we've all worked very hard. Obviously, if you're writing for 7x7 you're writing a paragraph so I don't expect their writers to watch 20 films; but, I love it when press gets something. Occasionally—like when we did a program of Jews on the Hollywood black list—it's clear if a press person has read about the subject, thought about it, watched the films, and they write about them with insights we hadn't even thought about. That's exciting. I love working with press. They're usually smart and interested and excited about what they're working.

Guillén: In the shift towards digital formats—not only in how films are made and projected—but, in how press can access and preview a program line-up, I commend SFJFF for retaining literal press screenings where journalists can watch a film on a screen as it's meant to be seen. These days, however, most festivals are asking journalists to watch films on DVD screener, with which I'm conflicted. Do you ever fear that by asking press to watch films on screener, they're not actually seeing the film? And can't truthfully review it?

Moore: That's always a concern. We sometimes wish we could attach a webcam to journalists checking out screeners to see if they're genuinely sitting down to watch them or if they're doing their laundry and folding their socks while watching them.

Guillén: How did you know I was folding my socks while watching screeners? [Laughter.]

Moore: The hope is that—whether you watch a film on the small screen or the big screen—you can connect to it.

Guillén: I watch films on DVD screener to catch narratives and storylines; but, I often feel I'm not able to comment on the visual elements of a film, for fear that—as James Quandt recently articulated for me—I'm watching a facsimile. In terms of the shift to digital exhibition, roughly how many films in your festival are on celluloid?

Fishman: I would say maybe a third. It could be a little less.

Guillén: Have your audiences noticed or responded to that shift in technology? Do you think they're even aware that they're watching a digital projection?

Fishman: I would say this is where a community-based audience is maybe less savvy than an audience going to, let's say, the San Francisco International. There's HD and Digibeta, and they're looking better all the time, but I think audiences respond to archival prints, especially if the film is not available on DVD. If you actually list the film as an archival print in the program, or that it's a recently-struck new print, audiences are excited. Audiences still recognize the depth of film.

Guillén: That's another thing I've been observing about the spectacular dimension of film festivals: it's not only about scoring talent, but frequently archival prints. The prints themselves have become like movie stars and you half expect cans to come walking up the red carpet.

Fishman: I went to see Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence when it played at the Castro and they had the guy from the UCLA film and television archive come up to talk about the film for five minutes. Here's a guy who's normally behind a desk who suddenly has his five minutes of glory and he was very articulate. It was exciting to hear him talk about how they restored the print. The audience was rapt and hanging on every word. So I agree with you. People who are veteran cineastes have a taste for knowing what that is and how it's changing.

Guillén: When I recently discussed this with James Quandt, he mentioned that familiarity with DVD commentaries has created a necessity for exhibition "add-ons", either talent, parties, scholars….

Fishman: Value added.

Guillén: Has SFJFF felt a need to satisfy that appetite?

Fishman: Yes, to some extent.

Moore: Within our budget, we try to get as many filmmakers as we can, especially for the discussions afterwards. Q&As are what make a film festival more of an event than just going to a movie.

Guillén: How do you go about structuring what you're going to program? I imagine it's a piecemeal process? You've mentioned you attend festivals and catch films there, or gather recommendations from colleagues?

Fishman: All festivals could do a better job. We could too. Sometimes you end up doing retrospectives or sidebars based on zeitgeist. Suddenly you realize there's a whole bunch of films about Ethiopian Jews. That was actually the case that year with the program on Ethiopian Jews. We did not set out to do that program. We just suddenly realized we had several films on the topic, and they were new and important to showcase. Some years we plan programs in advance. For example, the program on the Jews on the Hollywood black list, the one on Jewish boxers, last year's program of Italian Jews during Fascism, sometimes you realize you have a group of films that fit together in a certain way. For the larger events like the Freedom of Expression Award where we're doing a filmmaker retrospective, we really need to plan in advance. Sometimes it's really the programmer's interest because you're slaving away sending emails back and forth and sometimes you need something that excites you. This year Josh created an animation program. When he hired on he said he wanted to do an animation program and I said, "Go for it."

Moore: "Jewtoons" is the first-ever collection of animated shorts; 15 shorts from Israel and the States. Several of these animators are coming out of Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and the Minshar School of the Arts in Tel Aviv and they are the future of the animation world. This last year—with Waltz With Bashir being released as the first Israeli animation feature and all the accolades that went along with that—it got me thinking of all the animation in Israel that we don't know about. These young animators coming out of these schools are doing tremendous work and, hopefully, that's indicative of the "Jewtoons" program.

Guillén: Without going film by film, can you state what you are most excited about with this year's festival?

Fishman: I'm excited about Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the documentary by Aviva Kempner. Some filmmakers make tons and tons of film but she hasn't made that many films—maybe four or five—but they've taken 10 years to research. Her documentary on Hank Greenberg was also like that. Aviva's done a great job with Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. We're actually showing four archival episodes of The Goldbergs, a television series from 1946-51. I watched about 15-20 episodes and narrowed it down to these four.

Guillén: As a curatorial aside, where did you find those television episodes?

Fishman: Some were housed at the Jewish Museum in New York and some at UCLA's Film and Television Archive.

Guillén: And you, Joshua? Other than your animation program, is there something else you're really excited about?

Moore: I'm excited about our music program actually, which is called the Puppet Folk Revival "Rockin' Puppet Mayhem." It's based off of street performers in Tel Aviv who performed folky-rock songs as puppets. It caught on and they developed a TV show about it called Red Band, about a struggling musician who can only play in Israel because he's so burnt out everywhere else—a '60s rocker washed up—and it's kind of South Park humor meets The Muppets, with Spinal Tap elements.

Guillén: This is the live performance?

Moore: Yes.

Guillén: What is the role of a live performance in a film festival?

Moore: That's a good question. Like Nancy said, it's the value added. It's something else to offer people beside a film. Obviously, it has to have a relation to film and Puppet Folk Revival will have media that they'll be showing as part of their performance. It's more than just a music event.

Guillén: Another "add-on" that I'm finding has become popular among Bay Area festival programmers is the token, free-to-the-public open air screenings. I note that SFJFF is co-presenting an open air screening of Manhattan with the San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation. Have you done open air screenings before?

Fishman: We have not. It's exciting and should be fun. Hopefully it will be warm that night.

Guillén: The only drawback in San Francisco.

Moore: As Nancy was saying, when we start to program all the films, we notice patterns and evolving themes, and one of those this year was coming-of-age stories, films that focused on teens or people in their early 20s discovering their sexuality or overcoming family tragedies, so we've included several of those films, many of which are from first-time directors.

Guillén: Federico Veiroj's Acné is in that group. Which leads me to another question. Acné premiered last year in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and then touched down on North American soil at the Toronto International where I found myself wondering who would pick it up for the Bay Area. Would it be the San Francisco International? The Jewish Film Festival? The International Latino Film Festival? It could have been programmed in any of those festivals. How is that negotiated between Bay Area festivals? Do you put out an alert: "I have dibs on Acné?"

Fishman: No, no, no. Sometimes there is some conversation between festival programmers about a film; but, it's rare. Mostly, we just all try for it. My guess is that—with the San Francisco International—it wasn't on their radar or they didn't like it, who knows? Sometimes—with some of the larger film festivals where some of the programmers are more conscientious or may have worked in a community-based festival before—I have called and said, "I want this film for my opening night. Would you consider not going after it?" Some programmers have been very responsive.

Guillén: Interesting. I would say that the programmers with the San Francisco International are "personality" programmers who choose films largely based upon their personal likes and dislikes. You can almost bet that if there's a Latin American film in the festival, it will be a slow-moving character-driven narrative because that's what Linda Blackaby likes. That's a generalization for purposes of discussion and, of course, more power to SFFS. However, what I admire about SFJFF is that it appears the programmers are making efforts to cater to your community. You don't program just what you like.

Fishman: That's what's different about programming for a community-based festival. You have an obligation to think about what the community is interested in. If you program a lesbian and gay film festival and you're interested in slow experimental films but never show a transgender film, you will eventually hear from your community that you're not serving them, or serving part of them. With good reason. The community supports us. As a film festival, we're not beholden to them; but, if you're truly part of the community, you need to keep in mind what people are interested in seeing.

Moore: That being said, we're still looking for the best quality of films that are out there and available. We might not program a film on orthodox Jews simply because there's not one we feel is strong enough. We don't want to throw one in just because we don't have an orthodox Jew film.

Guillén: In terms of new digital platforms, can you talk about SFJFF's New Media Initiative?

Fishman: Yeah, we launched the New Media Initiative when we received some funding from the Righteous Persons Foundation. The New Media Initiative has several components. We are now streaming a short film every month online.

Moore: We debuted with two shorts, which will be up until the end of July. After that there will be a new short every month. The first two are also showing in the festival but it's a chance for people to watch the full version on our website and, hopefully, that will get them excited about the other shorts that we've programmed in the festival this year. One of them is an Israeli animated short called Escapism and the other is a Hungarian short called With A Little Patience.

Guillén: What prompted or motivated the New Media Initiative?

Fishman: The whole world is going in the direction of digital media. It was forward-thinking of Peter Stein.

Guillén: He's pretty smart, isn't he?

Fishman: He's very smart. He didn't want to miss the boat. Over a year ago, he convened a group of new media/new technology people for a visioning session and then he applied for the funding from the Righteous Persons Foundation and received it. It's a phased project. Years ago you could browse our archive, but now it's been updated so that you can browse the entire archive of 1,200-1,400 films that we've shown in the festival over all 29 years. You can look at photos and eventually what we would like to do—though we're not going to go into distribution—we'd like to point people to print sources or advise if the film is available on Amazon, Netflix, or whatever. But it's an exciting resource to be able to search the films by country, language or a specific actor. With most film festival websites, when you want to look up a film that's been programmed in a previous festival, you have to play the shell game and figure out first what year it was in, etc.

Guillén: Does this resource include program capsules?

Fishman: Yes, it does. If someone's doing research 50 years from now, it will be great to look at a film—whether it's Acné or a more political film like Rachel—and compare the program notes from 50 different film festivals, some that were Jewish, some that weren't, to see what people say about it.

Guillén: My final question concerns volunteers. How do volunteers help you run this community-based film festival?

Fishman: We couldn't do it without them. We have more than 200-250 volunteers. We screen at four different venues so we do volunteer solicitation in each community. We gather in our volunteers and do volunteer training. They help us before the festival with office administrative work. They help us by distributing catalogs and the whole marketing effort. And then they help us during the festival taking tickets, showing people their seats, everything. We absolutely couldn't do SFJFF—it couldn't function—without volunteers.

Guillén: Does SFJFF offer internships to young people wanting to break into film festival management?

Fishman: We do. In fact, right now we have probably five or six interns. Sometimes it's for college credit. We have one PR intern right now who goes to Hampton University in Virginia and she's getting college credit by working with us. Some people intern as a way to understand how the festival works. I did some internships when I was younger and the worst thing is to show up and have nothing to do so it's important for a festival to structure its internships so that their interns have something interesting to do.

Guillén: Do you consider SFJFF the mothership of all Jewish film festivals?

Fishman: I'd call it the grandmother of all Jewish film festivals.

Cross-published on

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

NOIR CITY: CHICAGO—The Evening Class Interview With Eddie Muller

As announced in Eddie Muller's introduction to this year's edition of Noir City, the festival's traveling road show—already situated in Hollywood, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.—will include Chicago to its roster of cities, come Friday. Venued at the Music Box Theatre, Noir City: Chicago will give Muller an opportunity to once again share the stage with Foster Hirsch—who Eddie once quipped has forgotten more about noir than he'll ever know—as well as the legendary Harry Belafonte (in conjunction with a screening of the 1959 film noir Odds Against Tomorrow). By phone, Eddie Muller and I discussed this upcoming event.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Eddie, let's talk a bit about your taking Noir City on the road. Are these programs one-shot events or are they annual?

Eddie Muller: There's no contract with these people to say Noir City must be an annual event. Quite honestly, Michael, repertory cinema these days is not only a year-by-year thing; it's a month-by-month thing it seems. The economy of the festival circuit is such that you can't really count on anything at this point. Noir City has been fortunate in that—in Los Angeles for example—we've been one of the biggest-earning festivals at the Egyptian Theatre each year. Whenever we bring Noir City to a new city, we go in on a trial basis and see how it does. So far, so good. All the venues definitely want Noir City to become an annual event.

Guillén: Speaking of venues, you host Noir City in San Francisco at the Castro Theatre, the Egyptian in Los Angeles, and the Music Box in Chicago. Can you speak to the importance of "fitting" the festival to its venue?

Muller: Certainly. The reason the festival is so hugely successful in San Francisco—and that one far outpaces all the others in terms of attendance—is because of the perfect match between films and venue. In addition to San Francisco being a great film community where people actually believe in going to the movies, there is one main thing required of a venue in order for Noir City to work and that is that they be able to properly present archival films. On the technical end, that is a requirement. One of the things we do—as you obviously understand—is that we show films you can't see anywhere else. A big part of the draw for Noir City is you can't see most of these films on DVD or even in many cases on broadcast TV or cable TV. You need to come to the theater to see these movies; but, in order for that to happen, the venue itself must be certified to show archival prints because in many cases we are showing the only existing print of a movie. When it turns out that the theater is also a wonderful vintage theater like the Music Box in Chicago, that's a bonus. We can market that. We can say, "See these films the way they were originally screened, in a vintage theater that's as close to the movie going experience of 1948 that you can possibly get." We love it when that happens. I'm aware of the venues when we do this because—part of what you have to do to make a festival successful—is to make it a communal experience that people will leave their house for. It has to be something they cannot get at home.

It's so funny, Michael, I feel at times like I am actually living through the exact predicament that the movie business faced in the original film noir era, right? In 1948-1949 they were asking, "How do we make people come to the theater when they can stay home and watch that newfangled damn television?" It's exactly the same thing going on now.

Guillén: So along with adding Chicago to Noir City's national road show, you mentioned in your introduction to this year's San Franciscan edition of Noir City that you're also considering taking it to France?

Muller: That's definite. I'm going to France in October. But that's not technically a Noir City event. I was invited by the
Lyon Film Festival to come over and present a rare noir series as part of this year's festival. We're not marketing it as a Noir City event; but, there's a fine distinction. I will certainly be there as a representative of the Film Noir Foundation to advocate that the French come to San Francisco.

Guillén: I think it's great that you're strengthening the axial conversation between France and San Francisco. As a film historian, can you speak a bit about the relationship between film noir and its influence on the nouvelle vague?

Muller: Especially in cinema, and in the genre of literature that I enjoy, there's always been this wonderful relationship between France and the United States. It's not breaking news that the French in many ways understand noir and American hardboiled fiction better than the average American; that's a given at this point. Part of the reason that I've made these in-roads in France—I'm delighted to say—is because the French have embraced my fiction. My two novels [The Distance and Shadow Boxer] have been published in France to some acclaim. What's interesting is that in France I'm known primarily as a novelist and then—what a surprise! Look!—I'm also into film noir and the director of a foundation that promotes film preservation, which is gravy. Whereas in the United States, it's the other way around. Here I'm known as the guy who restores the films and all that and: "Oh, he wrote a novel too? That's interesting!"

Cross-published on

Monday, July 27, 2009

TIMELESS SPIRAL—"I'm Still Here" x 6

In the final act of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, the leading characters' emotional troubles are reflected as a string of vaudeville-style numbers before returning to the theatre for the end of the reunion party. The plum supporting role of Carlotta Campion, the seen-it-all ex-Follies girl who sings the showstopping "I'm Still Here," was created by Yvonne De Carlo in 1971, and has subsequently often been given to a celebrated veteran performer. What follows are some of my favorites.

Yvonne DeCarlo from the 1979 Follies television special:

Yvonne DeCarlo on David Frost:

Eartha Kitt at the Olivier Awards during her run in Follies in the late 1980s:

Eartha Kitt at a 1986 Canadian Concert, Redux and Even More Relevant:

Shirley MacLaine from Postcards From The Edge:

Carol Burnett at the 1985 Lincoln Center "Follies in Concert."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

THIRST (BAK-JWI, 2009)—Q&A With Park Chan-wook

The Bay Area premiere of Park Chan-wook's Thirst was previewed at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinemas to a capacity audience composed of the combined memberships of the San Francisco Film Society and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and made possible by Focus Features. CAAM's Festival Director Chi-hui Yang moderated the Q&A between director Park and his capacity crowd, with translative assistance from Moho Film's Project Development Manager Wonjo Jeeng. This transcript is not for the spoiler-wary.

As synopsized at Cannes: "Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a beloved and admired priest in a small town, who devotedly serves at a local hospital. He goes to Africa to volunteer as a test subject in an experiment to find a vaccine to the new deadly infectious disease caused by Emmanuel Virus (E.V.). During the experiment, he is infected by the E.V. and dies. But transfusion of some unidentified blood miraculously brings him back to life, and unbeknownst to him, it has also turned him into a vampire. After his return home, news of Sang-hyun's recovery from E.V. spreads and people start believing he has the gift of healing and flock to receive his prayers. From those who come to him, Sang-hyun meets a childhood friend named Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) and his wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). Sang-hyun is immediately drawn to Tae-ju. Tae-ju gets attracted to Sang-hyun, who now realizes he has turned into a vampire, and they begin a secret love affair. Sang-hyun asks Tae-ju to run away with him but she turns him down. Instead, she tries to involve Sang-hyun in a plot to kill Kang-woo."

Synopses are rarely as wry as Maggie Lee's for The Hollywood Reporter: "Korean auteur extraordinaire Park Chan-wook's Thirst is a torrid expression of predatory instinct and insatiable, all-consuming love, embodied through its protagonist's difficulty in holding his day job as a priest-cum-miracle-healer, and his night shift as an accidental vampire and fornicating murderer." Okay! There you have it.

Initiating the questioning, Chi-hui Yang noted that Park Chan-wook had been a film critic before he began making films, accounting for his keen sense of storytelling and genre. Park's play with genres—the political thriller, the revenge film, the fairy tale, the vampire film—typify his films but likewise defy and upend audience expectations by transcending genre. Chi-hui asked director Park how he liked to play with genre in his films?

Park responded that, for him, genre is a kind of chain and a bit of a headache. As a commercial film director who's granted a considerable amount of money to make his films, genre has become a fence delimiting his filmmaking. He can't seem to escape it. To remain within the limitations (i.e., fences) of genre is incredibly boring. But the real problem is the fact that he doesn't really hate genre and the specific genres that he plays around with are the thriller, horror or film noir. A genre he would like to tackle in the future would be science fiction. The thing is, however, that—despite their limitations—he loves these genres, even though over a long period of time these genres have become related with old conventions, which he sometimes embraces; other times destroys; sometimes only partially changes. That's how he plays games with these clichés. As Tae-ju says to Sang-hyun in Thirst, she considers him a "germ" that has infected their happy family, creating havoc. Much in the same way, Park considers himself a "germ" who has infected the realm of genre conventions.

Scott Macaulay addresses this in his career overview for Film In Focus. Macaulay writes: "The genre-savvy cinema of Park Chan-wook is one that delivers true movie-movie kicks, but it's also one that embeds its shocks within the ethical dilemmas posed by the world around us."

Chi-hui next asked Park how he thought about his audiences when creating his films? Of course, like many other artists and filmmakers, what Park strives for in his films is to try and pose a question, but he has no illusions that his questions are original and haven't been posed by many filmmakers and artists before him. Questions like: where is the end of revenge? What are the consequences—or rewards if you like—of revenge? Why are we born into certain conditions? Where do our identities come from? These questions have been repeatedly posed by a great number of artists; but, what's important is—not how the question is posed—but how a director makes the question relevant to the audience? Or how he can make the audience acutely aware of the questions? To that end, Park designs many of the visual and sound elements in his films; he develops the narrative structure so that it flows; and envisions how the actors will perform. He attempts to control each and every required element in hundreds of shots so as to build and pose this question.

These questions posed by film directors are usually conceptual and can be expressed in sentences; however, a film should not be doing that. A film in all cases should try to convey and present these questions in the most sensual way possible. In Park's opinion, that is the point of filmmaking. That's why a filmmaker uses all kinds of mediums—music, sound, imagery—to pose the question. Furthermore, when Park makes a film, he tries not to just use aural or visual senses; but, also a film that you can touch, or almost smell. Although not always successful, he strives for that level of sensory filmmaking.

At the
Cannes press conference, Park answered similarly: "My top priority was to make a film that would appeal to our five senses. I was careful to think about how the film would feel physically. I wanted Thirst to be seen, heard, and felt, either by smell or touch. In each shot, I strove to keep the audience's five senses constantly tingling."

By example, when Sang-hyun goes to Africa there's a scene where he's playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach on his recorder. He starts out with Bach's beautiful cantata melody but it turns into the sound of blood gushing out of every hole of the recorder. To transition this beautiful Bach melody into the sound of blood spurting out of all these holes, Park isn't just seeking horrific effect. The scene is a metaphor for the main character Sang-hyun who is noble and holy and has risked his own life to save humanity. He contracts the virus that initiates the disease in his body. At the same time, this scene foretells what's to come in the rest of the film and how Sang-hyun will experience a moral downfall and ends up as a creature, or being, that has to commit horrific wrongdoings in order to survive.

One more example would be the observing eyes of Lady Ra (Hae-sook Kim). When Sang-hyun kills Tae-ju and is sucking on her blood, his eyes meet those of Lady Ra's and it becomes a shocking moment. But why should it be so? Lady Ra is a paralyzed person whose gaze taunts (haunts?) Sang-hyun. For an audience member, a close-up on Lady Ra's eyes is not just a close-up; rather, it feels like needles are coming out of her piercing eyes. In a sense, Park is trying to create a physical shock through a sensory experience. Also at film's end when the sun is coming up, Park has many shots of the sun coming up but it's not just about the sun rising; it's also about creating the feeling of hundreds of thousands of needles coming out from the sun.

Asked why his scenes are often contained in small, nearly claustrophobic spaces, Park explained that he is trying to make the questions he's throwing at the audience as clear as possible. Confined spaces serve as a device to help clarify his questions. In limited or confined spaces, there are only a limited number of variables that a director can come up with. How characters interact with each other within confined spaces reveals the true nature of the question.

At the Cannes press conference, Park answered this question alternately: "The movie is not in a single room, but a single house. In Thirst, incarceration is psychological rather than physical. I like the motif of incarceration. That's because these places are miniaturized universes. These are the spaces where existential circumstances that people face are more clearly revealed. Also, it saves on the budget to shoot on sets like these."

At film's end, however, he has the characters come out of the confined spaces into a wide open space at the edge of the ocean. There's a sense of liberation coming out of the claustrophobic environment. Energy applies to vast spaces as well. There are conditions of course. These wide environments need to not have much else going on; they should be spatially simple, spare and clear. Similarly to his confined spaces, these vast open spaces simplify and purify the questions he's trying to ask. By doing this, Park maximizes the effect of his film's ending. The effect he's aiming for is to try to create a simple background, much like a film screen itself with little projected upon it. By minimizing what you see in the background, Park woos the audience to consider their own thoughts and to come to their own conclusions after watching the film. Would his characters be happy after going through all this? What will become of them? Is this a happy ending? In order to give the audience space to think about and answer these questions, a clear space is required so they can focus on these questions.

As for why he made his protagonist a Catholic priest, Park offered that his idea was centered around a truly noble character who—regardless of his good wishes or intentions and (if you believe in God) due to God's will or (if you don't) due to some unforeseen forces—becomes a being who is farthest from what is noble. He experiences a great downfall. In telling this story, he thought, "What if the main character was a Catholic priest? Catholic priests always pray for others and live to serve others." This character—now a priest—was to do some truly good deed which backfires and makes him a vampire, an evil being just by the fact that he lives on the blood of humans. This transition—or, more accurately, downfall—from a high position of nobility to the lowest point of immorality is the key idea of the story. Priests are a group of people who—by vocation—have to drink the wine of transubstantiation each time they conduct mass and the wine represents Christ's blood, of course. Drinking the wine, they contemplate the mystery of Christ's blood that was shed to save and redeem humanity. But having become a vampire has inverted the sacrament. The blood Sang-hyun drinks is not to save or redeem mankind; but, to insure his own survival. He's not ritually drinking wine but literally drinking human blood. Park didn't intend to ridicule or mock Catholicism in any way. Vampirism and Catholicism were simply devices to tell the story of this noble character's downfall.

Asked a similar question at the Cannes press conference, Park Chan-wook replied: "When I made the hero a priest, my idea was not to criticize the calling or the religion, both of which I respect. I was just looking for the purest and most humanistic job a person in our society could have, and the priesthood seemed obvious to me. To have a character who practices charity and does good deeds in daily life, and who needs to drink blood to stay alive … I was curious about the dilemmas that could create, and what the moral of the story could be…. When I was mulling over this project ten years ago, I wanted to avoid all the usual vampire flick clichés, like the manor house, the cloak, the garlic, or the Christian cross. Vampires are always shown in a romantic way, with their fangs, and all … I wanted my own vampire to be quite realistic and even scientific."

Of related interest: The
video of the Cannes Press Conference with Park Chan-wook and his leading actors, Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-bin is available at the festival's official website.

And though Dave Hudson has scooped up most of Thirst's Cannes coverage at
The Daily @ IFC, I might add Brian Hu's recent review for Asia Pacific Arts. "It's often said," Hu writes, "that what made Kurosawa's Shakespeare adaptations better than any of Hollywood's is that the change in culture and setting liberates the material from the need to create Shakespeare. Park Chan-wook's vampire drama Thirst benefits similarly." Hu notes the film contains "moments of pretension, interspersed with operatic brilliance."

One of my main reactions to Thirst, however, pivots around the issue of timing. Park admitted Thirst has been a project brewing for 10 years and I'm curious if that delay lost him an element of surprise? Writing for
Austin360, Charles Ealy observed: "If you've ever watched True Blood, you'll spot the similarities immediately." Alan Ball's HBO series True Blood, which premiered in 2008, includes a young vampire named Jessica Hamby, "made" by the protagonist vampire Bill Compton as a part of his punishment for murdering a fellow vampire. Raised in an overly strict environment, Jessica relishes being made a vampire because—through vampirism—she achieves emancipation. But her newly-won freedom based on ravenous instinct proves problematic. Sound familiar? Watching Tae-ju's character arc in Thirst, I was immediately reminded of Jessica Hamby in True Blood. What would the reception for Thirst have been like if Park had been able to get it filmed even two years earlier? I sense it would have hit as hard as Oldboy. Instead, because Thirst has come out a year after True Blood—whose vampiric erotics are now part and parcel of American pop culture—Thirst's reception has been weakened for feeling derivative, though as Ealy also qualifies: "[T]his doesn't mean that Thirst should be dismissed. It's quite stylistic, with the unmistakable imprint of an auteur." I mentioned this to the film's publicist who admitted that, indeed, timing was an issue in the film's reception; but, he wasn't convinced that the audience for Sookie Stackhouse's story would be the same audience for the subtitled Thirst. Still, the popular trope of vampire conversion as feminine emancipation is intriguing.

My favorite visual in Thirst was that of Tae-ju's veins nearly glowing beneath her skin. I'd never seen lust represented like that before. Not only Tae-ju's thirst for erotic gratification, but Sang-hyun's own thirst gone "irreversibly sexual." Brian Hu has written that the sexual energy in Thirst—more than being visual—is fabulously tactile and sonic. I wish Park could have spoken to how he worked with his sound designer to effect horror and how he and frequent collaborator Cho Young-uk decided upon baroque pieces of music to effect the film's romantic melancholy?

Finally, comparable to our discussion on the distinction between guilt and culpability, I wish Park and I would have had time to discuss the nature of Sang-hyun's righteousness. Park stated that he felt this was an example of nobility, from which he could stage the character's moral downfall; however, I actually took Sang-hyun's righteousness as the proverbial pride before a fall; not quite as noble as Park attests. In his righteous zeal, Sang-hyun allows himself to be experimented upon, resulting in his vampirism. At what point must one be responsible to the pride of righteousness? And what can be said of the dangers of conversion, whether religious or vampiric? "Vampires are a metaphor for all kinds of exploiters. I certainly do believe in the existence of exploiters," Park has said. I wish we would have had time to discuss the exploitive danger of conversion, both vampiric and religious.

Surprisingly enough, Park's attendance at San Diego's Comic-Con appears to have been overshadowed by the buzz over other studio projects. I haven't seen a smidgen of coverage from the
Los Angeles Times—who has been cranking out reports on the convention (maybe I just haven't seen it yet?)—and Ryan Connors' dispatch to ScreenRant described the Comic-Con panel for Thirst as "the Anti-Twilight." Noting that the crowd thinned out after the Kick-Ass panel, "only a few hundred hard-core fans remained for acclaimed Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook's first Comic-Con appearance, promoting his vampire-romance Thirst. [A] trailer for Thirst was played for the partly empty crowd."

Thirst opens in the Bay Area on July 31.

Cross-published on

THIRST (BAK-JWI, 2009)—The Evening Class Interview with Park Chan-wook

Winner of this year's Cannes Jury Prize Ex-aequo, Park Chan-wook's ninth feature Thirst polarized audiences arguably satiated with blood and violence in a festival line-up described as the most sanguine in Cannes history. Surveying the aggregate compiled by Dave Hudson for the IFC Daily, Thirst received a fierce dismissal from Daniel Kasman at The Auteurs Notebook—who found the film apparently stupid and hollow—as well as a gushing endorsement from Blake Etheridge at Cinema Is Dope who tagged it "the first masterpiece of 2009." In his admittedly more moderate concurrence for Screen Daily, Darcy Paquet stated that at "its best moments, Thirst offers something of the poetic force of cinema's timeless masterpieces." Poetry being a glittering crown to place on the head of a narrative, one has to take such anointments with a smidge of caution. Todd Brown's assessment for Twitch weighs the pros and cons quite fairly, ultimately queuing in the con camp.

"While hardly a favorite of the festival," Eric Kohn dispatched to The Wrap, "Thirst succeeds as a lively crowd pleaser." The film did well with its Korean audiences on opening weekend, scoring nearly $6,000,000 in box office. Thirst contains several firsts: 1) It's Park Chan-wook's first vampire movie and, indeed, his first venture into the genre of supernatural horror; 2) it's the first mainstream Korean film to feature full-frontal adult male nudity from one of its leading box office stars (which might have had something to do with its opening weekend box office); and 3) it's the first Korean film co-produced by U.S. studio Universal Pictures International, distributed by Focus Films. Focus, in fact, has done an admirable job promoting the film on its website Film In Focus. Not only have they provided a succinct and well-written career overview by Scott MacAulay, but they've included three intriguing slideshow surveys: Nick Dawson profiles 12 of the directors grouped into the "New Korean Cinema"; Anne Billson provides a short history of the vampire film; and Peter Bowen addresses the issue of "sexy priests".

By separate entry, I'll finesse the film in more detail; but, for starters, here's my transcript of a conversation I had with Park Chan-wook when he was in San Francisco for the film's press junket. My thanks to John Weaver at Terry Hines & Associates for setting up this one-on-one and to Moho Film's Project Development Manager Wonjo Jeong for his translative assistance. Further thanks to the suggested query from Twitch teammate Ard Vijn. Warning: This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!

* * *

Michael Guillén: Welcome to San Francisco! Have you been driving around like Jimmy Stewart in compulsive pursuit of some elusive object of desire? I understand that's the specific scene from Hitchcock's Vertigo that compelled you to venture into filmmaking? Did I Confess have anything to do with Thirst's sexualized priest?

Park Chan-wook: For me, the film Vertigo itself is an object of desire. I've seen a limited sampling of locations where Vertigo was shot while in San Francisco; but, I didn't have enough time to make it to the cemetery at Mission Dolores, which is of course an important location for a pivotal scene in that film. But rather than seeing any particular San Franciscan location, what has been most attractive to me about Vertigo is Jimmy Stewart's literal pursuit of Kim Novak's character. That's what I like in Vertigo. There isn't a particular scene or bit that I like in the film; it's Stewart's overall pursuit that I enjoy. There's several point of view shots and endless roads and streets that he travels following her.

Pursuing Vertigo as an object of desire, however, is a desire that cannot be filled because so many things are different now than when the film was shot: the atmosphere is different, the air at the time, the kind of sunlight at the time is something that cannot be recreated. My pursuit of a Vertigo "experience" is something that will probably remain elusive forever.

Speaking of Hitchcock and influences, especially from his film Vertigo, the surrealism that Hitchcock captures in realistic moments is something I'm always trying to achieve. Looking at North by Northwest, for example, its villainous, bitter and dark sense of humor is also something I always strive for. But I Confess? Though Montgomery Clift is an actor I like very much, the film itself not so. In all honesty, I can't even recall the film very well.

Guillén: Via Twitch teammate Ard Vijn: Some of your movies, notably Oldboy, have been based on mangas, and often feature sequences which are full of visual jokes and fantastic elements. I'm A Cyborg… especially contained some stunning, playful and abstract images. Are you interested in creating a fully animated movie?

Park: A lot of directors say during film production that—if they had more money—they could build a set that they could destroy, take a wall out and move a camera around, and be given total freedom to shoot a film in whatever way they want. There's also the restriction of the "magic hour": there's a very limited time of the day when you can utilize the beautiful sunlight as it sets during the magic hour. Directors always complain about these restrictions and limitations placed on them while creating their art. That being said—with so many directors complaining about restrictions and limitations—why don't they all switch to animation? There must be a variety of reasons.

Speaking for myself, my reason is that there are no actors involved. What I mean by that is that—in my filmmaking—I thoroughly prepare storyboards. In fact, I prepare a storyboard for an entire film from start to finish. This is a means of controlling my production as much as I can. I try to plan ahead as much as I can from the earliest pre-production stages. However, an actor's performance is the only element that cannot be calculated 100%. Often your film will depend upon your actor's performance, ability and passion. Amid all these things that I've predicted and prepared for and the plans I've set in place, the only thing that still holds an element of surprise is an actor's performance. It's by always being ready to be surprised by an actor's performance that I'm able to still be tense during a film shoot. If it weren't for that variable, shooting film would be a boring process where everything is predictable and everything goes according to plan.

Animation is a fully-controlled environment, as opposed to a live-action film where there is still an element of surprise in an actor's performance that the director can't fully control or anticipate 100%. Just for the sake of argument—and not because I think directors are God—but, if directors were God, would this God prefer a world where every human acts in accordance with His will? Or would this God find it more interesting to watch over a world where humans are given free will with which to act? Within that metaphor, an argument could be made that it's preferable to be a live-action director than an animation director. Despite the fact that it probably is more interesting to be in a situation where humans act off free will, when I watch animation films like Mamoru Oshii's Ghost In the Shell or Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira—very well-made animation films—I feel a desire to do animation films. So who knows? I might actually go ahead and do an animation.

Guillén: Can you speak to the connective tissue between Emile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin and your film? When did you first read the novel? Why did it speak to you? And what did you sense was potentially cinematic about it? Accordingly, what elements have you felt have most successfully transferred over into Thirst?

Park: I began thinking about this story one night 10 years ago and—even within that first imagining—it included the scene (which made its way into the film) where Sang-hyun strangles Tae-ju. Despite being overcome with sorrow, he can't resist his lust for blood and he begins to drink her's. Within moments, however, he realizes how animal-like he has become drinking the blood of someone he loves so much. He decides to give his blood to her, thereby reviving her, but as a vampire. All the details of that scene came up when I first thought of this story 10 years ago.

After I first thought of the story, it ended up on the shelf for years. Where this woman came from, how he fell in love with her, the details of their relationship, were all left blank. Then one day I came across Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin and—when I first read the novel—I meant to make a separate film; but, then I thought, "Why not fuse Thérèse Raquin and the vampire story?" Why I felt I could do this was because—when I fused the two together—I felt Thérèse Raquin filled in the blanks left by the vampire story. I first visualized this scene where Sang-hyun turns Tae-ju into a vampire—and his subsequent realization of the true nature of his sucking the blood from someone he loves, being shocked by his own behavior, and his attempt to reverse the process by turning her into a vampire—10 years ago. I first visualized that moment of realization as taking place in the bath room where Sang-hyun would catch his reflection in the mirror and realize what he was actually doing. But I didn't actually like using this device of the mirror because it was the easy way out. Anyone could think of using a mirror in this situation.

Instead, I came across Thérèse Raquin. I felt the character of the mother-in-law (Madame Raquin in the novel; Lady Ra in the film) could stand in for the mirror. Rather than using the actual mirror in the bathroom, I could use her observing eyes. When Sang-hyun's eyes meet hers during this scene, reflecting her shock and horror, he realizes what he's doing. As an audience member, you might consider this a minor detail; but, for a filmmaker like me, it's possibly one of the most important decisions made making this film. Once I came across this piece of the puzzle—inspired by Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin—everything else fell together.

Guillén: You have said "No one will be able to conceive of the religious issues that are embedded in Thirst." Let's take that on. For me the strongest religious issue in Thirst was the subtle distinction between guilt and culpability. Did you intend to address that distinction? How do you distinguish guilt from culpability?

[At this juncture the interpreter asked me what I meant by "culpability" and I said that—as I intended it—guilt is an emotive response of conscience; feeling "bad" about something one has done—whereas, culpability is something at fault within an individual, inherently "bad", for which an individual is truly blameworthy; but, for which—notwithstanding—he or she must likewise be responsible.]

Park: You have actually put your finger on a point I repeatedly emphasize in my films. This priest Sang-hyun has become a vampire despite his wanting to do a good deed. He didn't ask to become a vampire. What's worse, he was actually trying to do something good. Vampirism has befallen him. His identity has become defined for him. His choice was not involved in this process. Perhaps he could have just accepted his fate and become a "good" vampire living by whatever his desires dictated? He might have even found happiness living the life of a vampire the best he could? Instead, Sang-hyun struggles against his identity as a vampire, which opposes his teachings in the Catholic faith and his moral standards as a human that include not committing murder and so on.

In Sang-hyun's struggle to live as a vampire while holding onto his human faith, we see him fall into ridiculous, contradictory situations. Ultimately, he ends up killing a woman he loves, turning her into a vampire. This she-vampire is honest to her instincts. She revels in the fact that she has become a vampire and finds pleasure in killing people. Sang-hyun, as priest, feels responsible for this and—despite the fact that committing suicide is also a sin in Catholic teachings—he takes responsibility for creating a creature who he knows will kill many other people. Sang-hyun is a character who—as you say—feels culpability. He tries to take responsibility even though he probably doesn't have to—he was forced into his situation; he didn't choose to be a vampire—but, whether it's right that he tries to take responsibility right up until the end or whether it's wrong, whether it's a smart or stupid thing for him to do, accepting responsibility is up to each and every individual to decide. I find Sang-hyun's decision to take responsibility for his vampirism, noble and heroic. He achieves integrity through his attempt to accept responsibility for his actions.

To take a specific example from Thirst to highlight where I've made a distinction between guilt and culpability, I cite the scene where Sang-hyun is trying to justify his killing people who want to commit suicide anyways. He says that—when he meets these people who want to commit suicide and whose blood he drinks—they seem to have a comfortable and peaceful death. In a way he feels he is helping them somehow. That's, of course, a ridiculous justification—it's only an excuse for taking their blood—and killing them in the process is, of course, a sin. Yet, in order to avoid the sin of committing suicide—in this case indirectly because if he chose not to survive, if he chose not to drink other people's blood, he would (in effect) be committing suicide—Sang-hyun kills because he needs other people's blood to survive. Thus, in order to avoid committing the sin of suicide, he's helping kill those who want to commit suicide. Of course this is not logical; but, this is nevertheless Sang-hyun's attempt to avoid guilt. It's his attempt to stop feeling bad about the wrong things that he does. By film's end, he ultimately realizes his behavior is morally corrupt, he has committed sins, and he takes responsibility for them. That's how I distinguish guilt from culpability.

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