Wednesday, September 30, 2009

TIFF09: HADEWIJCHThe Auteurs Notebook Interview With Bruno Dumont

In Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch, Céline (Julie Sokolowski, in a compelling first turn) has taken on the name of Hadewijch, the patron saint of the convent where she has been received as novice. At the convent her self-mortification in the name of Christ is disruptive to the rules of the nunnery; her behavior perceived as evidence of vanity. As penance, she is sent back into the world of her former life in hopes that she will gain a clearer understanding of how her spiritual calling might apply to the real world. Reluctant to re-enter the bourgeois environment of her Parisian diplomat father, Céline struggles with finding a way to reconcile her passion for God with her social world. She befriends two Muslim brothers Yassine and Nassir who introduce her to the dangers of religious extremism and force her to make a life-determining choice.

Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch boasted its world premiere in the Special Presentations Program at this year's Toronto International, where it was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize. At The Auteurs Daily, David Hudson has gathered reviews from the film's screenings at both Toronto and the NYFF.

My thanks to Stephen Lan for facilitating this interview, to Robert Gray for his interpretive assistance, and to Danny Kasman at The Auteurs for publishing the transcript, which can be found

Cross-published on

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Since interviewing the Katz Brothers in a seedy noodle shop in San Francisco's Tenderloin when their film Pop Skull screened at IndieFEST 2008, producer Peter Katz has kept me abreast of the film's trajectory through the festival circuit; the 2008 Comic Con panel he organized on independent filmmaking; the 2009 Comic Con panel he organized on translating genre comics into films; Pop Skull's acquisition by Halo 8 for late July DVD distribution; and most recently Pop Skull's participation in advancing neurocinema. As producers go, Peter is definitely hardworking and unquestionably innovative.

In late August, Peter Katz and Matt Pizzolo (president of Halo 8) teamed up with researchers at the San Diego MindSign Neuromarketing facility to conduct a neurological scan on a test-subject watching Pop Skull. The technology of neuromarketing, previously explored in Time, seeks to determine if it is possible to monitor specific areas on the brain when activated by thoughts, feelings and memories.

Using a Siemmens 3T fMRI scanner to scan subject Brigette's brain as she watched selected scary scenes from Pop Skull, MindSign researcher Philip Carlsen analyzed the data from the scan and was able to pinpoint exact moments when her brain was lit up with fear. Here, Peter explains the process and what they discovered.

The results of that experiment have been further detailed at
Mental Floss, and in recent interviews with Wired and CNN.

Though, admittedly, cost-prohibitive to use for current genre fare—already struggling with shoe-string budgets—the Pop Skull experiment hints at what might be coming in the future and raises thorny questions about marketers accessing people's amygdalas to tailor fear and aggression, scientific intrusion on the creative process, and perhaps more importantly—as we were taught by Jurassic Park—that "nature will find a way" to circumvent such manipulations and what that might ultimately mean.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

JAPANESE CINEMA: Nagisa Oshima's Tomorrow's Sun (1959)

My thanks to Frako Loden for turning me onto Tomorrow's Sun (Asu no Taiyo), an early short film from the legendary Nagisa Oshima, in the style of a trailer for a feature that doesn't exist.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

TIFF09: THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES / EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOSThe Evening Class Interview With Juan José Campanella

Yesterday's announcement that Juan José Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes / El Secreto de sus ojos (2009) has been chosen as Argentina's Oscar® submission for the 82nd Academy Awards® toggled me to transcribe my conversation with director Campanella from the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, where The Secret in Their Eyes received critical acclaim and sold-out audiences to its international premiere, following suit with a similar response at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Trade reviews on the film have been strong. At Variety, Jonathan Holland hailed the film as "mesmerizing"; at The Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young called it "riveting"; at Screen International, Mike Goodridge cited that the film "packs an emotional punch"; and Twitch teammate Todd Brown characterized Campanella's direction as "remarkably steady and assured."

The Secret in Their Eyes is also making history in Argentina, as the number one box office hit film for the past five weeks. Audiences have been raving and discussing the film in the media and in cafés and restaurants throughout Argentina.

Campanella—who was previously nominated for an Oscar® in 2001 for his film Son of the Bride—responded to the news: "I am very proud of my film, and the response it is getting from audiences around the world and in Argentina is tremendous. I am excited to represent Argentina in this year's Oscar® competition." Campanella works in both Argentina and the United States. In the U.S., he continues to be a favorite director amongst TV shows including House, MD, Law and Order: SVU, and 30 Rock.

The Secret in Their Eyes concerns Benjamín Espósito, a secretary of a court in Buenos Aires, who is about to retire. He decides to write a novel based on a case that deeply affected him 30 years past. Espósito's tale crosses Argentina's turbulent years during the 1970s, when nothing was necessarily what it seemed to be. As Diana Sanchez writes in her TIFF program capsule: "Campanella's tightly paced feature pairs smart dialogue with powerful, moving performances. Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil, two of Argentina's best actors, bring an electric sense of unspoken longing to their scenes together, an intimacy of mutual suppression."

Campanella and I tucked away into the bar at Sutton Place to discuss his film where—above the frenetic din—he held me captivated with his enthusiasm and affable sense of humor. My thanks to David Magdael for arranging same. [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]

* * *

Michael Guillén: Juan José, the script to El Secreto de sus ojos is attractive for being complex. Can you speak to its structure? Did you write the script? Was it based on a novel?

Juan José Campanella: It's based on a novel La Pregunta and I co-wrote the script with the novelist Eduardo Sacheri.

Guillén: I presume the novel was popular in Argentina?

Campanella: In terms of popularity, Sacheri is a popular writer of short stories. This was his first novel and I don't think it did as well as his short stories, though of course now it is selling more than it sold in the last four years.

Guillén: My understanding is that an image in the novel of an old man eating by himself provoked your adapting it into a film?

Campanella: No, that's not completely true. I'm a fan of Sacheri's so—when I was reading the novel—I wasn't reading it with the idea of making a movie. The novel started with a writer starting a novel in several ways—which we kept in the movie—and I thought, "Wow. It's more cinematic than I thought it was going to be." But then I got lost in the story and I really liked it. For a while I fiddled with the idea of making the novel into a movie. I worked with Fernando Castets, my writing partner for my previous movies, including Son of the Bride (2001); but, we abandoned it. As a filmmaker, I couldn't find what resonated with me so we dropped it. But for a year, that image of the old man having dinner by himself—an image that didn't end up in the movie, by the way—made me sad.

For some reason when women become widows, they start living. In restaurants all over the world you always see four old ladies having the time of their lives, chattering and laughing. That doesn't seem to happen with guys. When guys are alone in their old age, they become sad for some reason. That image kept coming back to me and the fact that it could trigger a police story, a thriller, with a great mix of genre and humanity, a human drama. The novel also gave a strong personal motivation rather than just finding the criminal. The story was not just about a detective trying to solve a case; he's trying to solve his life, which is what I liked the most about the novel.

The main change from the novel was to make the character of Irene (Soledad Villamil) bigger. In the novel she's just a sort of Dulcinea. She's a woman who's worked at the court all of these years that Espósito (Ricardo Darín) has been in love with; but, she has no involvement in this case from the past, none whatsoever. She's just an image he sees all through these years. When I thought of bringing her story forward and making it as strong as the procedural aspect of the story, that's when it clicked in me. It took over a year for that to happen.

Guillén: So when you decided to serve this story—as you phrased it—"like a piece of meat on a plate of genre", and approached the novelist, was he willing to work with you?

Campanella: I had told him, "I would love to work with you." He had worked in the justice system in that building for many years and knew the legal language well. Also, I wanted the experience of working with another writer; but I told him, "You have to pretend that this is a game. We're going to toy around and deconstruct and make a different version out of your novel." It's as if I were working with Shakespeare and making Hamlet in space with Chinese actors. I told him, "If you have fun with that, then it will be great. If you start defending every word from the novel, then it's not going to work out."

Guillén: It's wonderful that Sacheri was willing to cooperate with you.

Campanella: Totally! But believe me, at some points I had to stop him.

Guillén: I imagine one of the reasons the story spoke to me is because I am retired from the judiciary where I worked for an Associate Justice. I grew tired of the judiciary for many of the selfsame reasons Espósito grew tired: bureaucratic delays, internal corruption, and court politics. My editor at Twitch commented that there are three narratives going on at once in your film—a crime thriller, a political editorial reflecting Argentina's past, and a love story—but, truthfully, I felt the real story was the love story.

Campanella: I think so. It starts and ends with that.

Guillén: It starts and ends many times. [Laughter.] Can you speak to that provocative narrative device? I'll be honest with you, when I caught the film at its press screening, it came towards what we thought was the end of the film, it faded to black, and we started to get up to leave when suddenly the next scene came on. So we sat back down, the scene unfolded to what we thought was the end, it faded to black and we got up to leave and, once again, the next scene started. This happened about five times!

Campanella: That physical confusion only happens at press screenings in a film festival because critics are already anticipating when they're going to leave to get to their next screening, so they're often leaving five minutes before the film is finished—it's maddening!—but, I can explain.

Guillén: Please do.

Campanella: Returning to the structure of the film, there are two strong themes. I was very much into Beethoven at the time three years ago. By chance, just before we started shooting the film, I had started listening to one of those audio courses offered through The Teaching Company about Beethoven's sonatas. I started thinking, "Wow, these sonatas are like the perfect structure for a script." This solid structure of the sonata played perfectly with two themes: the tonic and the dominant with the modulating bridges. In going from one story to another, I tried to make sure that we wouldn't be changing tempo and theme at the same time. When we switched from one narrative to another, we were still in the same energy. We would only change the energy within one theme. We had to find all these bridges to modulate from one narrative to the other easily, to flow in and out of all the themes: starting with theme one, theme two, then back again to theme one, theme two, and then the development of the coda; the end where everything gets mixed up. We worked with that sonata structure in mind. I became obsessed. All I could hear for a year was Beethoven sonatas, just to incorporate them into the film instinctively. This script in particular is patterned on Beethoven's piano sonata no. 14, the "Moonlight" sonata. As one theme would start to end, the other would start one bar before so that you never felt a fall. For me, the end of the movie, the end of the dramatic piece, is the scene with the cage.

Guillén: Interesting. When I was speaking to my editor about this, he felt the scene with the cage was the film's true ending and I agreed to a certain extent, except at the same time I understood the next scenes: the visit to the graveyard and the eventual commitment of Irene and Espósito to each other.

Campanella: To continue speaking musically, it's returning to the home key. That's the love story, which is the one that starts Espósito's fate. But that scene is more of an epilogue. The dramatic climax is the scene with the cage. I had two challenges there. In order for the scene with the cage to be surprising, for it to totally work, it had to be based on Morales (Pablo Rago) and his stated assertion that he did not believe in the death penalty. When he tells Espósito the story about how he killed Gómez (Javier Godino) in the trunk of the car, that had to play as the climax of the movie. If it wasn't played as the climax with the swelling music and the whole thing, then as an audience you would have an inner feeling that something was missing, like there's one more beat, and you're going to start looking for that beat. So that scene has to play like it's the end of the movie. A lousy end, a very obvious end, but I don't mind if for a second you think that it's a bad ending; it has to feel like the ending. So that comes at the price of already having one ending that is not the real ending, you know? But I feel that was an appropriate price to pay for the surprise of the dramatic ending of the scene with the cage.

Guillén: That false ending of Morales confessing to Espósito that he had killed Gómez did strike me as formulaic; but, I didn't buy it really because of that one moment when Morales drew the curtains. You gave us that cue. I knew he was hiding something and what he was hiding had not yet been revealed.

Campanella: Ah, you picked that out?

Guillén: Yes. I took your hint that there was something still hidden despite Morales' confession.

Campanella: Many people suspect that Morales killed his own wife.

Guillén: That suspicion also crossed my mind. Did you intend that?

Campanella: Through a lot of the movie, yes. We had to have another suspect. I mean what kind of a thriller would it be without more than one suspect?

Guillén: I recall a specific montage where you implicate Morales in his wife's murder and cast suspicion upon him; but, it didn't stick with me because—as Espósito explained to Irene—Morales' eyes revealed just how much he loved his wife.

Campanella: It was one of the toughest parts of the movie. Not the toughest part to act but the toughest part to make the right acting choices. Because Morales is a guy where two contradictory personalities co-exist: one is a guy who is passionate enough about the wife he's lost that he's stuck for his entire life in the memory of her and the memory of their broken love. But at the same time he's a guy who's so cold and methodical that he can—step by step, without telling anyone—prepare the cage to imprison Gómez and keep him there, visiting him twice a day without speaking to him. He's a hot personality and a cold personality at the same time. Our choices—I don't know if they were the right ones or not—were to make Morales contained in his emotions when he first hears about the death of his wife. Because he didn't break down and start crying, some people suspect him of the murder.

We actually didn't intend that in the first draft; but, I have six or seven people I trust to read my draft scripts, and a few of them said, "You know, I thought the murderer was Morales." That was a great help because I needed another suspect. I needed more options. C'mon, we all love thrillers and we like to try to figure them out with the protagonists in the film. The more options, the more that can happen, the better. So from the second draft on we played in a subtle way with the idea that Morales could be the murderer, even though when you see the movie it's apparent he's not.

Guillén: I think a thriller works best on a first viewing. Later, when you've pieced together all the clues, a thriller can be appreciated for its mechanics, for all its questions and red herrings.

Campanella: But, at the same time, I didn't want to end everything with question marks, even though I wanted to leave it to the audience to decide whether Espósito tells on Morales or not. That's actually what audiences in Argentina are going crazy about. They argue, "Is Campanella supporting vigilante justice?" I knew that was an answer I didn't want to provide in the movie; but, I wanted to provide at least one answer and I wanted to end the last story, the love story, and come back to the home key.

When we started writing the script, I knew we couldn't go from the scene with the cage—which, hopefully, if it worked, would be a strong dramatic scene—to the next scene where Espósito professes his love to Irene. I needed a little bit of time for the audience to make the transition and that's when we came up with the idea of Espósito taking flowers to the grave of his friend Sandoval (
Guillermo Francella). It was related to the case because Sandoval was killed during the case; but, it was also related to the love story. Sandoval is associated with both stories. That scene served as a bridge and perhaps also contributed to the feeling of yet another ending. I can understand the criticism that the film has too many endings, but it was the best of the possibilities I had to work with.

Guillén: I admire the quality of the meta-narrative in this film, as if the story was being written and the film was being shot through Espósito's memory. As if memory was questioning itself and trying to get the story right through multiple drafts. That was especially pronounced in the scene where Irene has read Espósito's manuscript, which ends with the parting scene at the train station, and complains that—if that was really what happened—why didn't Espósito do anything about it? Why did he leave her behind? With a certain amount of vested resentment, she criticized, "This is a lousy ending." That's why the film's final love scene feels so satisfying because he actually does something about their love for each other, even if "it will be complicated." You got the sense it was going to finally work between them.

Campanella: [Laughs.] Yes.

Guillén: As the film's title suggests, this is definitely a movie about eyes, about clues in the eyes. The rhyme between the group photograph that reveals Gómez staring at his future victim, and the group photograph that reveals Espósito staring longingly at Irene, is an exquisite rhyme. Was that in the novel?

Campanella: No. The group photo of Gómez looking at his future victim is in the novel but I came up with the other one.

Guillén: A deft stroke! It made me concentrate on the faces of your actors and, of course, their eyes. All of your actors have amazing eyes. Which leads me to ask, once you developed the script and went to cast the film, can you speak to how you found the eyes you needed to reflect the titular secrets of your story?

Campanella: Luckily, I have known all of these actors from other films where we have worked together. Except for Guillermo Francella who plays Sandoval, I worked with all the others. This was my fourth movie working with Ricardo Darín. In fact, both Ricardo and Soledad were the couple in my first movie several years ago. I had made a mini-series with Pablo Rago, who plays Morales. I think Pablo is a little Pacino. He's great and he's going to age in an interesting way. He's only in his early thirties. Even though I'd never worked with Guillermo Francella, he's a number one star in Argentina. At the box office, he's bigger than Ricardo, but more as a comic. He's kind of like Jim Carrey, not so much in style, but in his popularity for his broad humor.

Guillén: He lends considerable humor to your film as well.

Campanella: Exactly; but, not anywhere near the wild antics you can see him do in his other movies. I needed a strong actor with less screen time who could be equally and emotionally heavy as the other actors. No other supporting character actor had that ability. I needed a leading man to play that mousey character. But you're right, they all have amazing eyes, which I think are the markings of a movie star. They tell you it's in the eyes. It's not because they're green or blue—because Pablo has black eyes and you still see a lot in them—but, it's their acting ability. Even Javier Godino who plays the murderer has ambrosian features. I knew they were all going to be right.

When I was reading the novel, I had three actors immediately in mind: Ricardo, Soledad and Pablo. I saw Pablo playing the accountant Morales even though in the novel he is described differently as tall, lanky and blonde, which has nothing to do with Pablo; but, for some reason I imagined Pablo because I had just worked with him and I realized his eyes would work. I had never done such extreme close-ups before. I even had to find excuses to isolate the eyes. I wanted to have key moments where the audience would only look at the eyes.

Guillén: You captured excellently the choreography of looking, how a glance happens, most effectively in the scene where Irene catches Gómez obsessively staring at her breasts, convincing her that Espósito might be correct in his suspicion that Gómez was the murderer. That interchange of glances, without any words, was excellently rendered.

Campanella: Thank you so much.

Guillén: Though I'm admittedly unfamiliar with the work of Soledad Villamil, you elicited a wonderful performance from her. There was so much humor and love expressed in her eyes; what Diana Sanchez described in the program notes as "unspoken longing" and "an intimacy of mutual suppression." They also expressed her complicity and the compromises she had made.

Campanella: And the repression! There's a scene that I love so much where's she's really good. Espósito is asking her to reopen the case. At first she thought he was going to propose to her and then it ends up that he wants her to reopen the case. We hear his voice saying about Morales, "You cannot imagine what this guy's eyes look like. It's like love." She looks at him with such longing in her eyes flecked with anger that she can't talk about it. Soledad is wonderful, yeah.

Guillén: For a police procedural with such a grim subject—the rape and murder of a young bride—I was surprised by the film's ongoing humor. The humor was pitched perfectly alongside these horrific events.

Campanella: Thank you.

Guillén: Was that humor in the novel?

Campanella: Some it was, yes. Sandoval's habit of answering the phone and always pretending that he's somewhere else, that's in the novel and is based on reality. That's based on a character that worked with the novelist who always used to do that. His joke was to come up with increasingly wilder places. But, of course, there are whole scenes that are not in the novel. For example, Espósito and Sandoval never go to Gómez's house to look for the letters. The soccer stadium scene is not in the novel. The fact that they catch Gómez because of his passion for soccer is not in the novel.

Guillén: That rhythm of pacing the humor with the film's more serious aspects, does that come for you in the editing process?

Campanella: No, in the writing. I tend to write more humor than ends up in the movie. Ricardo and Guillermo are accomplished comedians—Guillermo, as I told you, is a comic—and we share a similar sensibility so that during read through and rehearsal, several weeks before we start shooting, we start choosing the humor that helps a scene and crossing out the humor that stops a scene or makes the scene too self-conscious. Basically in two afternoons we pared down the script. After working with that kind of style through a few movies, the writing becomes more intuitive so that there's less to correct when we get to rehearsal. I remember in Son of the Bride we did a lot of trimming.

Guillén: I'm intrigued by villainous portrayals. In El Secreto de sus ojos there are bad guys who I would characterize as cut from dark broadcloth. They're obviously bad and corrupt and you don't like their characters from the moment they're introduced and they never redeem themselves throughout the narrative. However, the villainry that affected me the most in your film was all the complicity with governmental corruption; the willingness to look away to further personal ambition, which—as an audience member—forces me to question my own capacity for complicity, my own lapses in integrity. Would I make similar choices? Would my job be more important than love or securing justice?

Campanella: You're observing all the mysteries in the main characters, the good guys. That's actually part of the debate in Argentina about the movie. Everyone understands in Argentina the choices they made in the past. As a society, we made choices. Evil crept up on us. It's a little bit like what happened to Americans after 9/11. Many liberties were taken away and people accepted that because they were afraid. In this story, when these corruptions begin happening in the government, guerillas were killing people, bombing, there was terrorism, and the Argentine people started looking the other way. Not with regard to saying, "Come kill them all", no, no, they would never do that; but, just looking the other way.

The scene that plays powerfully in Argentina is the elevator scene where Gómez has evaded punishment and threatens Irene and Espósito. Thank God it works because—when I was editing it—I was doubtful: "Does this work?" But it did work because it represents a society that has shut up and shut down; a society that has accepted fear. That's why I chose to set the movie in the pre-dictatorship days rather than during the dictatorship because everyone in those pre-dictatorship days were already succumbing to fear by refusing to talk about it. I wanted to show that moment where they make the choice of shutting up, looking away, and running away.

Guillén: For me that scene was important because it revealed Gómez for the unbridled monster that he was and, thus, later when I discovered Morales had kept him caged for years and had punished him further by never speaking to him, I didn't feel pity for Gómez, his punishment seemed justified, and—if anything—I felt for the darkness in Morales.

Campanella: You know, these kinds of things happened at that time. The military and government would have meetings with union leaders and start off negotiations by placing their gun on the desk. It was an intimidating act. It was a definite phallic symbol, even though these thugs knew nothing about psychology or phallic symbols.

Guillén: But they understood intimidation and power.

Campanella: Exactly. Still, there's a distinction in the movie that Gómez has not been freed by justice. He confessed and was convicted by the justice system. Morales hasn't taken justice into his own hands; but, he has taken over the execution of the justice that had been meted out by the court.

Guillén: By indirectly referencing the political shadows of Argentina's past, do you mean to suggest that the love story in El Secreto reflects a healing for Argentina?

Campanella: I think so. There are certain questions in the night that one might choose at a certain moment for whatever reason to not answer; to just let go. But those questions will always come back to haunt you. Argentina as a country is revisiting the '70s and those questions that have been haunting us. Unfortunately, in the '90s we sought to cover them up and ignore them; but, the truth remains that those questions will always come back to haunt you. These are questions that have to be dealt with in order for Argentina to move on. There are several things in Espósito that help him finally talk to Irene. He acknowledges that, in a way, though it seems he is stuck in the cage with Gómez and Morales, he's likewise been stuck in the cage of his impossible love for a woman who he has lost because of the impossibility of his love for her. There was a brief mention that he had married but was unable to love his wife. He shut himself off to love. In that scene with the cage where we see the three men through bars, Espósito is the one who can truly get away. Knowing what has happened, he heads for his love.

Guillén: Well, Juan José, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. I wish you the best of luck with this project. I predict it will be Argentina's submission to the Academy Awards®.

Campanella: Well, there has been no other film that's won any festival awards.

Guillén: You're being far too modest. The film is enormously entertaining and ambitious. I believe audiences are going to be attracted to the film.

Campanella: It's the third movement of Beethoven's 14th sonata.

Guillén: Enjoy it!

Campanella: I will. Thank you so much.

Cross-published on


I fretted a bit about what should be my thousandth post here on The Evening Class and elected instead to simply use this entry as a benchmark from which I can look back to how this has all come to pass, and look forward to all I have yet to learn.

Thank you to all my readers, and all the publicists, film festival personnel, authors and filmmakers who have granted me access into the brightly lit hub of film culture.

FILM FESTIVAL YEARBOOK 1—A Response to Section Two

With the 47th edition of the New York Film Festival currently in progress, I thought now would be a good time to follow-up on my response to Section One of Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit, edited by Dina Iordanova with Ragan Rhyne, published by the Center for Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews and Wallflower Press; namely because Section Two of the Yearbook provides six festival case studies, including Rahul Hamid's informative and fascinating historical essay "From Urban Bohemia to Euro Glamour: The Establishment and Early Years of the New York Film Festival" (2009:67-81).

As stated in Iordanova and Rhyne's introduction, Hamid's contribution to the Yearbook plumbs the depths of NYFF's archives to narrate the establishment of the festival through a description of the institutionalization and organizational politics of NYFF's first edition. I was particularly captivated by this strategy because—in essence—by laying out the conflicts, issues and compromises that characterized the first years of the NYFF, it addresses "the curatorial challenges still faced by the festival today and can offer insight into the epicurean world of contemporary film festival culture." (2009:67)

"Epicurean" is a lovely and apt term to emphasize the role of curatorial taste in shaping any festival's given program and how conflicts in taste texture festival experience. What has become perhaps the most important value of my appreciation of Hamid's case study of the NYFF is how it has provided an ameliorative perspective on some of my ongoing complaints about the San Francisco International Film Festival, which I now understand are neither specific to SFIFF nor "original" in any sense of the word. Said complaints have longstanding historical precedent and reflect the ongoing challenges compromised by curatorial choice. That choice can (and perhaps should) always be questioned by audiences and press; though that's not to say the challenges become resolved even if the choices are commuted. More and more I've come to understand the staged irresolution of these conflicts through the film festival platform. No one is to blame. It is the nature of the beast; film festivals the cage within which the beast paces.

Hamid situates his discussion by deferring to the seminal work of Thomas Elsaesser, who "describes the post-war film festival circuit as a direct response to the growing power and hegemony of Hollywood and the US film industry. This antagonistic relationship to Hollywood colored much of the international discourse around festivals, situating festivals and the European art cinema they programmed as anti-commercial 'high art' and American cinema and theatrical distribution as the province of the masses and lowbrow commercialization (though famously, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut challenged this distinction)." (2009:67-68) As the awkward fate of commercial distribution of films presides over the future of so-called festival "art film" and alternative exhibition practices, this current concern appears to have been built into the film festival phenomenon from its onset.

Amos Vogel—along with his wife Marcia—created Cinema 16, which had a direct influence upon how the NYFF was initially programmed. His 1975 book Film as Subversive Art was (as Hamid describes it): "Part manifesto, part celebration, and part detailed cinematic catalogue, there is no better introduction to Vogel's curatorial philosophy, which prioritized the examination of form over content, allowing industrial film, experimental work and auteur cinema to be appreciated on an equal plane." (2009:70). Vogel and his compatriot Richard Roud—then director of the London Film Festival—were instrumental in the establishment of the NYFF.

The NYFF helped to elevate the stature of cinema on parity with more established art forms, such as theater and literature, largely due to the advocacy of
Andrew Sarris at The Village Voice and Eugene Archer at The New York Times; both of who did not see film as subordinate to the established art forms, in contrast to older critics (like Stanley Kauffmann at The New Republic) who did (2009:75).

Kauffmann emerges as a problematic figure in discussing the formative years of the NYFF, especially for his 1965 essay "Are We Doomed to Festivals?" in the October 2 issue of The New Republic. As detailed by Hamid: "In 1965, Kauffmann viciously attacked the [NYFF], homophobically complaining that Roud's descriptions of the films were written with a 'limp mind and wrist'. He called Special Events a 'circus sideshow', maintaining that festivals were for selling films and not for the display of art. Good films will be released, so ran the logic, and the rest were not worthy of the exalted status given to them by the festival in the first place. Kauffmann argues that the festival films should be shown in small venues year-round like Vogel's Cinema 16 (Kauffmann 1965:30-32)." (2009:77) I'm not familiar enough with Kauffmann's work to know if he has since retracted his initial impressions, though Bart Cardullo—in his important
Bright Lights Film Journal interview with Kauffmann—bravely circumambulates around Kauffmann's opinions shaped by nearly 50 years of film criticism.

Kauffmann was, by no means, singular in his criticism. Several older critics and the business establishment itself complained throughout 1964 and 1965. This criticism was compounded by that of younger critics who took objection to the establishment of the "hold review" policy (which has since become de rigeur for festival press coverage). "According to Sarris, the rule that films could not be reviewed during the festival (because this was too far in advance of their theatrical releases and therefore not useful for film promotion) grew to become a major cause of anger among critics, who were not primarily interested in the films' profitability." (2009:77).

Again, to be made aware that this longstanding conflict with the hold review policy has been in place since the onset of the NYFF serves to mollify my disgruntlement with the hold review policy at SFIFF. I now more fully understand the compromise struck between commercial and art cinema within the parameters of the film festival proper as a tension that is hardwired into the festival experience. That concession being made, however, I am still critical of the questionable policy of the tiering of press at film festivals, where celebrity "red carpet" journalists are granted more privilege and access than journalists who—like myself—elect to focus on first-time directors from the Global South or auteurial cinema. If reliance on studio fare provides essential financial backing and a spectacular dimension to film festivals—which I can appreciate—it should not, however, occlude the role of film journalists in advancing the work of non-studio fare. I plead for more parity in this instance.

Finally, "The NYFF also pushed the culture of film festivals one step further by being, in a sense, a festival of festival movies. The films selected were for the most part self-consciously artistic, created for an educated, international audience. On the other hand, the NYFF was non-competitive and stayed away from the hyperbolic atmosphere that surrounds festivals like Cannes and Venice. It was created as a haven for art appreciation. A staid and reverent atmosphere remains at the festival even today, as it approaches its fiftieth year. Further insulated from a promotion-crazed commercial atmosphere by the proliferation of festivals on this continent (Toronto in particular), the NYFF seldom hosts any North American premieres any more. Contemporary critics might also view the event as elitist and think of the festival as a completely bourgeois and irrelevant institution, but ironically that was part of the original point of the festival—to give film a place in the cultural establishment of the city." (2009:79-80)

In summation, Hamid's historicization of the NYFF serves as a template to understand the organizational precedents of international film festivals in general, drawing into focus the perhaps necessary contention between art and commercial cinema and the role of film festivals and their audiences in negotiating that tension.

The remaining case studies in Section Two of the Yearbook include Charles-Clemens Rüling's organizational analysis of the Annecy International Animation Festival as a "field-configuring event"; Kay Armatage's hands-on recollection of the 1973 Toronto Women & Film International, which examines—as the editors state in their introduction—"the ephemeral history of women's film festivals through her own memory" (2009:3-4); David Slocum's look at two African film festivals: FESPACO and the Zanzibar International Film Festival; and, finally—of related interest to the NYFF's current Masterworks series
"(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949–1966", expertly graphed out by Kevin Lee at The Auteurs Notebook—Ruby Cheung's narration of how the Hong Kong International Film Festival transitioned from a government-run program to a model influenced by corporate efficiency and sponsors, and Ma Ran's examination of how "that policy and aesthetics collided as underground Chinese cinema found its way onto the international film festival circuit, much to the chagrin of Mainland Chinese bureaucrats" (2009:4).

All of these essays are fascinating, informative reading that broaden an appreciation of the film festival experience in its contemporary unfolding. I would also recommend Richard Porton's erudite Moving Image essay
"The Festival Whirl", wherein he references the Yearbook in his consideration of "the utopian possibilities—and dystopian realities—of the modern film festival."

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

GLOBAL LENS 2009—Latinbeat

The 2009 Global Lens Film Festival launches today at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center with 10 award-winning, narrative feature films from Argentina, Brazil, China, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Morocco and Mozambique.

"By presenting Global Lens 2009, we are delighted to renew our association with the
Global Film Initiative, the Bay Area nonprofit that curates the series," said Richard Peterson, director of programming for the Smith Rafael Film Center. "In 2004, 2005 and 2006, the Rafael offered the area premiere of the first three editions of Global Lens, and we're impressed with the quality and depth that this annual series continues to deliver."

Partial to Latin American, I'd like to single out the official synopses for the following three titles; the first from Brazil, the second from Argentina, and the third from Ecuador:

Mutum (Sandra Kogut, 2007)—A hardscrabble farm in a remote Brazilian community is the setting for this extraordinary depiction of childhood innocence and wisdom. Burdened by his parents' unhappy marriage and his dour father's abuse, the sensitive Thiago sometimes retreats into solitude, other times joining his siblings in the daily diversions and discoveries of youth. Meanwhile, with brother and bunkmate Felipe, he tries to make sense of the violence and uncertainties of the adult world slowly fraying his family. Enveloping an unforgettable cast in natural light and sound, Sandra Kogut's poignant drama achieves a rare authenticity in its enthralling perspective on events great and small. I reviewed Mutum for The Evening Class when it screened as part of the 51st edition of the San Francisco International.

Variety, Jay Weissberg acknowledges the film is "completely carried on the fragile shoulders of the exceptional, non-professional young lead [Thiago Da Silva Mariz]", whose "big eyes register every perceived hurt." At Getafilm, Daniel Getahun praises that Mutum breaks the unflattering film portraits of Brazil in recent years and adds: "The hand-held cinematography featuring breathtaking and peaceful landscapes provides a striking contrast to the turmoil in young Thiago's life." Despite his cogent distrust of films of this genre, Darren Hughes at Long Pauses remarks: "I'm deeply ambivalent about films like Mutum. They're a kind of genre, really—stories of the poor in the developing world, shot by well-educated, middle-to upper-class filmmakers, that are then taken to film festivals, where they're easily digested by well-educated, middle-to upper-class audiences. A surefire cure for those annoying bouts of liberal guilt that plague folks like me. When children are the focus of the story, it's even easier. Kogut seems to be aware of all of this and has crafted a solid film from the source material, a classic Brazilian novel by Joao Guimaraes Rosa. The key to the film's success, I think, is Kogut's camera, which never escapes the subjective perspective of her protagonist, a ten-year-old boy who struggles to make sense of the adult world around him. Because of that p.o.v., the film is full of ambiguities and, occasionally, oversized emotion."

Possible Lives / Las Vidas Posibles (Sandra Gugliotta, 2006)—Clara searches for her husband after he disappears in remote, sparsely populated Patagonia. There, alone and bereft, she makes a startling discovery: a man with an uncanny resemblance to Luciano but with another name and another wife. Obsessed with the mysterious, emotionally subdued Luis and his unaccountably sad spouse, Clara ignores entreaties from her sister, who arrives as police discover a body that may be Luciano. Shot amid majestic, lonely vistas and suffused with lush, vibrant color, director Sandra Gugliotta's feature unfolds like an anxious dream and a moody, hauntingly romantic study of grief and letting go.

Ray Bennett at
The Hollywood Reporter found Possible Lives to be an "engrossing" mystery. Variety's Jay Weissberg, however, found it "implausible" and "plodding." "Possible lives yes," he quips sarcastically, "but improbable ticket sales."

My Time Will Come / Cuando Me Toque A Mi (Víctor Arregui, 2008)—Starting with a predawn murder, a series of loosely related private tragedies and desperate acts make their consequences felt in Quito's city morgue, where the recently deceased meet Doctor Arturo Fernandez. On the retreat from his father's ruthless upper-middle-class ambition, the lonely, sardonic coroner finds some solace in the company of the dead. But life catches up to him here too, forcing Arturo to confront his own desperate existence and emotional isolation. Capped by the aching strains of its title song, Víctor Arregui's brooding, poignant film casts a society in disrepair as a poetic ode to Ecuador's capital city.

Margarette's Feast / A Festa de Margarette (Renato Falcão, 2002)—Also from Brazil, Renato Falcão's funny and touching homage to silent comedy—a highlight of the first series in 2003—has been appended to this year's Global Lens as "Chairman's Choice". A poor worker sets out to throw a birthday party for his beloved wife, in a story told in pantomime and music, with adventures reminiscent of both City Lights and Modern Times (but adding a touch of the samba). This charming film also honors Chaplin's penchant for mixing comedy with a social conscience. I wrote this one up for The Evening Class back when I had the good fortune of watching it projected in Susan Weeks Coulter's back yard beneath an ancient magnolia tree.

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THE BURNING PLAIN—Peter Galvin's Review

Guillermo Arriaga’s writing style is familiar by this point, and you know what you’re getting into even before you get it. Over the past 10 years, he’s made a name for himself writing sprawling ensemble pieces such as Babel and Amores Perros, films that cross borders and flux backwards and forwards through time without warning. Some viewers may find his approach maddening, but at the end of the day Arriaga is doing what a screenwriter does best: deciding when and how an audience should receive information. In 2005, his screenplay for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada gave us a complex narrative that, when unraveled, was revealed as a somewhat quaint western—a quietly sentimental rumination on friendship and loss. In his feature debut as a director, Arriaga presents The Burning Plain, the unraveling of which reveals nothing more than an old-fashioned melodrama.

At the outset, we are introduced to five main characters and what seem to be five separate stories. Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is a hostess at a fancy restaurant in Oregon and spends all her free time in bed with strange men. Santiago (Danny Pino) is a crop duster, who brings his daughter Maria (Tessa Ia) on trips with him. Gina (Kim Basinger) is an unhappy mother having an affair in New Mexico, where a young Mexican boy grows interested in her teenage daughter. And there’s the bonus sixth story of why a mobile home is on fire in the middle of the desert. Eventually, they’re all going to come together, but revealing how and when would be spoiling the fun.

Yes, fun.

I absolutely loved putting the pieces of the story together; the film’s disjointed narrative functions as a mystery and I refused to let the truth be unveiled before I could figure it out for myself. Who’s going to meet who? Which part happened first? Oh boy!

Of course, this approach to the film isn’t going to work for everyone, and for the rest of you, the individual scenes perform admirably enough on their own to be worth watching—even if you have no idea why you’re watching them. The acting is commendable, most distinctly in Charlize Theron and young newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, both playing women hell-bent on escaping their respective sins. Visually, Arriaga wrenches the most out of the New Mexico landscape by employing frequent P.T. Anderson cinematographer Robert Elswit, and Oregon is suitably dreary. There’s no doubt, the film looks good.

Where The Burning Plain starts to falter is when all the pieces connect—the puzzle you worked so hard to put together lays solved on the table, and you realize: this isn’t the Sistine Chapel on the box; it's just a picture of McDonald’s. A third act wrought with tired clichés such as hospital bed confessions and teary-eyed apologies betray the often subtle nature of the rest of the film. Arriaga has gussied up a rather bland drama of guilt and tragedy by concealing its histrionic nature until the last third of the film. While such a ‘cheat’ is not uncommon to his oeuvre, this marks the first time the talented writer’s style has overshadowed the actual writing, leaving us with a sour taste and a film that ultimately disappoints.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Early on at this year's Toronto International, I had the chance to sit down with programmer Diana Sanchez to discuss the Latin American fare she'd programmed for the festival. Interested in whether or not she targeted Latin American audiences for Latino-themed TIFF films, she admitted she did not because there's not much of a Latino demographic in Toronto to target and, truthfully, most Latinos are not interested in the kind of Latin American art house fare favored by film festivals; preferring, instead, testosterone-charged action and sexy rom-coms. It's primarily non-Latinos who are interested in films by such art house luminaries as Lisandro Alonso and Lucrecia Martel, Sanchez suggested; a sobering if familiar insight I've heard from programmers of Latin American cinema, especially in the States, and now from Canada.

Nowhere was that divide in public taste more apparent than at the world premiere of Josh Crook's
La Soga, a U.S./Dominican Republic co-production which is the only film I caught at this year's festival that received a standing ovation (the first of several, I understand, among its public screenings). The TIFF emcee for the world premiere commented that she hadn't seen such a public reaction since Slumdog Millionaire. Perhaps more important than La Soga being the most popular Dominican film at TIFF is its claim as the first Dominican film to play the fest. My thanks to Lauren Tracy and Scott Feinstein of 42West for pulling me a ticket for the world premiere screening.

As Jane Schoettle writes in her TIFF program capsule, "La Soga is a film of such raw energy and ragged beauty that these elements alone would justify its viewing. Beyond this, though, it contains a story both timely and timeless, brutal and elegant, for what is at stake is the redemption of a man's soul." Schoettle adds that La Soga is "a work of such poetic ferocity that much of its imagery will be stamped on the viewer forever." Well, forever is a long time. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that La Soga delivers what its audience seems to want right now: favela thrills, sultry erotics, torturous violence, and poverty beautifully lensed by Zeus Morand. If you're a fan of City of God (an acknowledged influence on La Soga) or Elite Squad, or even Sin Nombre, the film's flashy visuals and driving music score will fully satisfy you. It's not my café con leche, but I respect that it was beloved by its audience, some who bragged driving all the way from Boston to see it. At the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein writes that "La Soga is as much a meditation on the embattled Dominican culture as it is a crime drama" with a "soulful intensity."

There's no question that La Soga's writer/producer/lead actor Manny Perez has—as Stephen Holden at The New York Times phrases it—"charisma to burn." Whether or not his "redemption" is believable is another negotiation altogether, as it concerns recovering a lost innocence ("We all are born innocent," the poster's tagline reminds us) more than expatiating for murders too numerous to count. As director Crook states in the press notes: "In the film we follow a lost, hollowed-out shell of a man. He is a professional killer searching for the soul he lost a long time ago. I tried to bring to life that space we all live in when we were innocent, before we lost our way, when we knew who we were intuitively. The world changes all of us and while this is inevitable, we feel a longing for that self that was lost in the process. La Soga takes place mostly in the neighborhoods outside of Santiago, but La Soga, the man, searches for his soul in a place we all visit; a dream of what we were like before the world corrupted us."

Perez admirably tackles the conflicting nuances of Luisito, the sensitive vegetarian son of a village butcher (the film's original title was El Hijo del Carnicero / The Son of the Butcher) who—after witnessing his father's death at the hand of Rafa (Paul Calderon), a drug dealer deported from the U.S.—becomes the chosen assassin of General Colon (Juan Fernández), the head of the Dominican secret police who keeps promising to deliver Rafa to him for revenge. Luisito becomes "La Soga", which refers to the rope noosed around a pig being led to slaughter. The film addresses how the blind thirst for vengeance can leave one susceptible to corrupting forces; i.e., law enforcement in both the D.R. and the U.S. Lots of pigs get butchered in this film, as do a lot of deported drug dealers, and the resemblance is intentional if not overbearing. By film's end you want all these meatheads to be led to the chopping block, even if you don't necessarily want to hear them squeal. It's akin to not wanting to know how packaged meat gets into your local Safeway.

The audience for the world premiere had the opportunity to interact with director Josh Crook, writer/producer/lead actor Manny Perez, actor Juan Fernández, and actress Denise Quinones in her first feature role as Jenny, the childhood sweetheart who restores "La Soga" to his original innocence.

Perez related that he had worked on the script for La Soga for seven years, which grew from two seeds of experience. Born and raised in a small town called Baitoa in a rural area outside of Santiago, in the Dominican Republic, Manny and his family moved to Washington Heights in the United States when he was 11. Returning to Baitoa one summer, he adopted a piglet. The day before he and his Father were getting ready to return to the States, he woke up to what sounded like a child screaming. It was six in the morning. Manny got up and ran outside to find the local butcher stabbing the piglet to death, preparing it for his going-away party. The screaming of that little pig left a traumatized impression on him.

On a subsequent summer vacation, Manny met up with a childhood friend who had "gone bad" and been deported back to the D.R. from the U.S. While they were chatting, a bullet-ridden car pulled up, three men chased and apprehended his friend, who they dragged to the middle of the town and shot summarily in the head. Having witnessed both events, Perez later learned in test screenings of the film that such executions were happening not only in the Dominican Republic, but in every third world country. "So it's a universal theme," he emphasized. "It's not just about corruption in D.R.; it's about corruption worldwide." He's unsure of how the film, which offers a frank critique of political corruption in the Dominican Republic, will be received in its home country; but, he hopes La Soga will put the Dominican Republic on the Hollywood map in the same way City of God put Brazil on the map.

Asked what La Soga meant, Perez said it referenced a rope and that it became the nickname of his character. In the film when "La Soga" fucks with one of his victims, he says he's going to tighten the rope around his neck. It's a secondary meaning of what the rope means: to play with a victim, to let them go and then pull them back in.

Of all the stories that could be told about the Dominican Republic, Perez was asked why this one? After witnessing the death of his friend (on whom La Soga's character Fellito was based) Perez had to come to some kind of understanding of what he had seen. Without saying a word, this man dragged his friend to the middle of the town and shot him in the head. "I had to find the heart to get to the man who did that to a friend of mine. That's the reason for why this story came about."

Though Josh Crook admitted shooting the film was a complete pain in the ass, he acknowledged it was equally a profound experience to stay true to Manny's vision. Refusing auteurial credit, he emphasized the film was a thoroughly collaborative venture, from everyone in the crew, to all the people of Baitoa who fed them food and kept them going during the shoot.

Juan Fernández added that—when he first read the script—he recognized it as a story about the human heart. "It's a love story. That's what I felt after I read it. I made my decision after a second." Then he arrived early on the set to look into the eyes of Josh Crook to gauge who he was, how genuine he was, and how committed to the work.

Seeing La Soga at its world premiere was the first time Denise Quinones had seen the completed project and she was visibly proud of her first feature role. "I fell in love with Jenny's character," she confessed. "She's like La Soga's conscience that brings him back to life. She reminds us that those people we think are monsters really aren't; they're human beings."

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