Sunday, April 29, 2012


Hora menos / Hour Less, dir. Frank Spano (Spain / Venezuela, 2011)—In terms of camera style, Hour Less is 180° away from the calm compositions of Route of the Moon, and—though less a road movie in its usual sense—is every bit as much of a transformative journey. The film begins with archival helicopter footage of the 1999 mudslide that devastated La Guaira, considered one of the worst catastrophes in Venezuelan history. 15,000 victims succumbed to a torrent of muddy water, which is shown sweeping away houses and cars. It is every bit as horrific as the archival footage that begins The Tsunami and the Butterfly (2012) where the documentary evidence of disaster unites humanity in a shared, tragic experience. My heart literally leapt to my throat to see how quickly lives could be destroyed by water. And yet Hour Less seeks to suggest that the water that destroys families also creates them at the same time.

From its opening archival perspective, Spano and his cinematographer Gabriel Guerra shift to a frenetic hand-held approach to best approximate the emotional frenzy and psychic turmoil directly following the Vargas disaster. Isabel, a 49-year-old nurse (Rosana Pastor), hunts desperately among makeshift encampments littered with drowned corpses until she locates her dead husband. Yudeixi, a 16-year-old woman-child of the barrios (Erika de Santiago), has to have her dead baby wrested from her arms. The two women, having lost those they love, turn desperately if reluctantly to each other to survive, especially after being repatriated to Canarias, Spain, where an overtaxed bureaucracy abandons them to fare for themselves.

In effect, the camera’s POV becomes the audience’s, a third character who accompanies Isabel and Yudeixi in the journey they must take in order to come to terms with what they’ve lost and the new family they’re destined to create. Trouble trails after tragedy as they meet and fall under the manipulations of Alfredo (Alfredo L. Fernández) who seeks to involve them in his illegal immigration trade. This feminist narrative is all the more remarkable for having been written by Spano, who spent four years getting to know his two female characters. Embodied by his lead actresses, Isabel and Yudeixi emerge as two remarkable women brought into relationship despite their disparate backgrounds and classes. Through an intriguing, if sometimes confusing, flashback structure that reveals secret motivations, the narrative complicates and enrichens, as its central theme of families destroyed and created by water plays out.

The film's title derives from Yudeixi’s gradual awareness of time zones and how Venezuela is time zones behind Canarias, and Canarias is an hour behind the rest of Spain. She becomes determined never to let her life be an hour behind, or an hour less, than anyone else’s anywhere in the world.  It also comments upon one of Spano's flashback sequences that takes the viewer back an hour before the disaster to indicate how Isabel and Yudeixi's paths are destined to cross.

Hour Less is the opera prima of Panamanian / Venezuelan actor and director Frank Spano, and was twice awarded at Madrid Imagen in 2011. Spano deftly skirts the limitations of melodrama to elicit an emotionally authentic drama of survival. The film has important musical assets like the Venezuelan Aquiles Baez, guitar player and composer, and the Panamanian Roberto Blades, who sings the original track of the film. Spano admitted to me that he is especially proud of the soundtrack and mentioned that his father—a well-known musician in Tito Puente’s band—offered him music to use in his film, which he only later discovered was a tune his father had written to court his mother. A perfect fit for a movie about mothers who give birth to new lives.  By film's end Spano's camera has calmed down and we, as witnesses, feel hope that Isabel and Yudeixi will find new lives tempered by the strength of love. IMDb. Facebook.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


Ruta de la luna / Route of the Moon, dir. Juan Sebastian Jacome (Panama / Ecuador, 2012)—Tito, an introverted bowling champion must, suddenly and against his will, travel from his native Panama to San José in Costa Rica to take care of Cesar, his father who has fallen ill. They have a disaffected relationship. Cesar and Tito barely know each other. Tito's only wish is to go back to Panama as soon as possible to be able to participate in a Bowling Tournament, but Cesar has different plans for him. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

The waxing phases of the moon (i.e., the “route” of the moon) provide a visibly-insured transformation in Juan Sebastián Jácome’s La Ruta de la Luna, which is having its world premiere at IFF Panamá on Sunday evening at the historic Teatro Nacional in Casco Viejo. Less assured is whether the contentious relationship between an overbearing Cesar (Luis Antonio Gotti) and his hectored son Tito (Yimmy David Suárez) will achieve resolution, desite their having to spend three days together driving back to Panamá from San José, Costa Rica.

Lost in his glory years as a “boxing trainer of champions”, Cesar is suffering from a heart condition and only his albino son Tito is available to look after him, albeit against his will. Tito would much rather be bowling. In self-denial about the seriousness of his condition, Cesar defies his doctor’s orders and exasperates Tito by doing everything he shouldn’t: jogging for exercise, insisting on a marathon drive of 13 hours, and picking up a stray young woman (Victoria Greco) and her filthy dog along the way.

Yimmy David Suárez excels as the put-upon, petulant and irritable Tito who sleeps as much as he can to get away from facing the forced company of his judgmental father who, it’s assumed, has given Tito ample cause to be resentful. A philandering husband, Cesar was never around to help raise Tito. Embarrassed by his son’s albinoism, and traditionally machismo, Cesar mocks Tito’s masculinity, calls bowling “gay” and insists it’s not really a sport. But illness has made him experience momentary pangs of guilt for not being more supportive of Tito while he was growing up and so he latches on to Tito’s chance to compete at a bowling tournament as if prepping him for a boxing match. Tito, however, approaches bowling not as a competitive sport but more as a stress reliever. He prefers to play alone when the lanes are being polished, compensating for his bad eyesight by mastering technique and form. Cesar insensitively claims that Tito is not willing to compete because he’s “afraid to show his white face.”

Enter Yadia, a penniless young woman trying to get home to her family in Panamá. She quickly senses the tension between the two men and tries to defuse it through Panamanian superstition by making an offering of a pumpkin and a plucked hair from Tito’s head. The pumpkin, she explains, is to be left on the road so that it will be smashed by a car, releasing the tension. She tries valiantly to negotiate the pent-up animosities smoldering between father and son but ends up putting them into further competition for her attention and affection. It’s an unexpected near disaster that make father and son come to terms with each other, though by film’s end those terms remain irresolute and tentative, adding a poignant touch of reality to the narrative.

Juan Sebastián Jácome has a no-nonsense shooting style. His camera rarely moves and is, instead, meticulously placed to stress framing and planimetric compositions. Little movement occurs within the frames, which is curious for a film that is admittedly a road movie in which Cesar’s blue car becomes as important a character as himself, his son, Yadia, and the street cur. Towards the end of the film there is a sudden shift as the camera appears to be moving on curving roads, weaving through a rainy fog, which comes across as dream-like compared to the deliberate compositions up until then. Music by Xavier Muller greatly enhances the journey.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

ALREADY GONE (2012)—The Evening Class Interview With Peter Katz

I first met producer-innovator Peter Katz in 2008 when he and his brother Evan L. Katz brought Adam Wingard's Pop Skull to San Francisco's IndieFest. We met in a grungy Tenderloin noodle shop to have a conversation. Subsequently, Peter kept in touch and we talked some when he was exploring the application of neuroscience to cinema (i.e., neurocinema), as detailed in Curtis Silver's write-up for Wired and Steven Kotler's for Popular Science. Katz was exploring if neurocinema could help genre filmmakers craft scarier films, as explained in his segment for CNN's The Screening Room.

Ever attentive to marketing trends, Peter recently contacted me to tell me about his 3-minute teaser reel for a proposed project Already Gone (2012) [Facebook], directed by Ross Ching, based on a feature script by Bill Balas, produced by Katz and Don Le, and starring Shawn Ashmore (Iceman from the first three X-men movies) and Harry Shum, Jr. (Glee).

Compact, visceral and atmospheric, the Already Gone promotional short advances the "teaser first, movie later" marketing strategy centered on the concept that—as Hugh Hart states it for Wired—"one moving picture can be worth several thousand words when it comes to sounding out the sizzle of a fantastical tale." As Hart details, "The trailer-first, movie-later phenomenon works both ways. Would-be directors get a chance to show off their chops by creating DIY clips made with inexpensive video software. On the other side of the equation, busy studio types get a quick and easy-to-digest peek at what a project might look like on the silver screen, without committing to a big budget." Numerous success stories with this strategy abound: Tron: Legacy, Panic Attack, Iron Sky, Goon, several pitched as YouTube demonstrations of what these projects might look and feel like.

My thanks to Peter for being willing to hop on the phone to discuss his involvement with this 3-minute short.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Talk to me about this short sizzler you've produced to pitch Already Gone.

Peter Katz: I definitely want to make sure to establish that Ross Ching has done this kind of work in the past. He has this forte as a director to do short form content. He has a load of experience with doing commercials and has developed his own style. He comes from the position: "How can I create an interesting experience?" That doesn't mean he doesn't value his actors or what the project might become, but he wants to provide a cool experience from the kernel of an idea, from the tip of an iceberg. If an interested party were reading the full feature screenplay, it would have the dramatic story elements; but, in his short films he wants to encapsulate it all in a visualized experience.

Guillén: As one of the producers of this short film, did you approach Ching with this idea or did he approach you?

Katz: Well, Ross is a friend of mine and I hang out with him and with Don Le, another producer on the project, and since we're buddies Ross said, "Hey, I've been doing short form content and I'm looking for a feature screen play to do what I did with 3 Minutes (2011)." 3 Minutes had no screenplay; it was a short idea that turned out really well and he enjoyed doing it.

Ross said, "Let's mix it up a little bit. Let's film a script. Find me a script that's really action-packed and hyperkinetic." So I went onto this screenwriting site called Fresh Voices. They have really good taste and there's cool stuff on there. The guys who run that site really know their stuff. They sent me a lot of really good scripts. What caught my attention was a high concept idea of a criminal who robs other criminals, kind of how Dexter is a serial killer who kills other killers. That idea alone had a hook.

Guillén: I'm presuming your short was shot digitally as a cost-effective pitch to find financial backing for a full feature?

Katz: Yes, it was shot on The Red. What's going on is this: Don Le and I are producers on this and there's also an executive producer Joel Mendoza [Attraction Entertainment], so we all have relationships; but, the thing is, even if you're a friend of mine, if I send you a screenplay you're probably not going to read it. It's just a fact. People will read scripts if they really have to, but the key is how to present something that's accessible so you can pull people in? A short can capture the experience. When we first presented the short, we were covered by Wired [in a piece by Curtis Silver]. A short makes it easy for your idea to be communicated. How can you easily communicate a screenplay? You can't! Rather than have a producer interpret a screenplay, a director on a short film can show in a few minutes the kind of choices he will make with regard to, let's say, the action in a shot. Through that, anyone who wants to finance the film or any actors that might want to get involved, they can make a decision based upon this sampling of the director's vision.

Guillén: Exactly. Now, is this something unusual to approach a pitch this way? Are you one of the first to be doing this or is it part of a trend?

Katz: It's been done for a while. One of the first examples I'm familiar with was Saw, which started off as a short film. They sent in a VHS tape, back when people had VHS, and they said, "Hey, this is a project. This is the sense of it. Check it out." So it's been going for a while. More than anything, screenplays aren't easy to read. It's not like they're a graphic novel or a book. Someone can write a really beautiful script but it doesn't lend itself to being consumed easily. It takes more words because it has to be denser and detailed, but it's not laid out so the reader can lay back and relax. It usually takes more work to process it. So anything you can do to make it easier for me to process is better. The reason people want short films over a script is simply because it's easier to process and you can spread the idea around faster. If you're a financier and you have five other people you need to share an idea with, if you get a short film it's easier to do.

Guillén: It all sounds straightforward in concept, but looking at the credits for this short film, I'm amazed how large a crew was involved in putting this together. Did you finance it? How did you find the money to do the short?

Katz: I can't put the number out but it was actually a very low budget. A few of the guys have all put a little bit of money in; but, there is definitely a lot of work that went into it. On Facebook, there's a picture of everyone involved in the project and it's a huge friggin' army of people who all volunteered. It was serious. There are stunt men involved and everything. But the thing is that it's a good inbetween. You know that as talent you're always doing something so if someone says, "Hey, we're going to film this in a day" it's a lot better than holding someone up for three or four weeks. When it takes only a day, then it's a fun thing you can do. It's not like a serious feature where your whole life is put on hold. After a day's work, you get to call it a day.

Guillén: Well, it's—as you said—a visceral way to experience an idea and to promote the sense of the atmosphere of a film and the visual style of the filmmaker, so I applaud you in the effort, hope you keep me abreast of developments, and certainly wish you luck with advancing to the feature.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

PANAMÁ IFF: JUAN OF THE DEADThe Evening Class Interview With Alejandro Brugués

Alejandro Brugués' Juan de los muertos / Juan of the Dead (Cuba / Spain, 2011) [official site] is not your papi's zombie flick! Sure, it has hordes of the walking dead who swarm upon the island of Cuba on the anniversary of the Revolution, and it has loads of guts and gore to make you squirm and squeal, but Brugues inflects his Havana-set homage to predecessors Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) with regional affects that make it a welcome and culturally distinct addition to an already ubiquitous genre. What sets it apart is its wry sociopolitical tone and an everyday acceptance of Death that is uniquely Latino.

As synopsized by Panamá IFF: "A mysterious plague unleashes on the streets of Havana, with zombies starting to be seen and multiplying exponentially by the minute. The authorities blame imperialistic maneuvers from the North on the vicious takeover, and are soon overwhelmed by the mounting chaos. The apocalypse seems irreversible. But before all hope is lost an unlikely team is formed that can possibly defeat the odds: Juan, a middle-aged man of unspecific occupation and his pal Lázaro are luckily on a fishing excursion at the beginning of the outbreak. The two men quickly realize there is a business opportunity if they stay alive, and start offering their zombie extermination and removal service to the living that can afford it. 'Juan of the Dead, we kill your loved ones' is their slogan."

At Twitch, Josh Hurtado writes: "The film is filled with clever dialogue, plenty of solid gore, the blackest of black humor, and geek humor for miles. There are very inventive zombie kills, including one in particular that involves a truck, a wire, and about three hundred of the undead that is really the piece de resistance of Juan of the Dead." Quiet Earth declares "how much fun it is to see the zombie apocalypse in yet another new locale, and the Havana alleyways, rooftops, tenement buildings, and beachfronts are consistently lush and brim with detail and character." And Latin Horror reports: "Brugués and his partners created their production company 5a Avenida and secured a whopping $2.3 million for special effects via financing from Spain's La Zanfoña Producciones."

Screenwriter and director Alejandro Brugués was born in Buenos Aires. He graduated from Cuba's International Film and Television School of San Antonio de los Baños. He co-owns and writes for 5a Avenida Productions. His first feature Personal Belongings (2007) secured worldwide distribution. Anticipating its popular appeal, Panamá IFF has booked his sophomore feature Juan of the Dead for one of its late-night en plein air screenings. My thanks to Blanca Granados and the Toronto International Film Festival—where Juan of the Dead had its world premiere—for providing the opportunity to sit down with Brugués to discuss his film.  [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]

* * *

Michael Guillén: Straight off, Alejandro, I want to say that I found Juan of the Dead to be an accomplished genre piece in its humor, sterling special effects, and wry but lighthanded sociopolitical commentary.

Alejandro Brugués: Thank you very much.

Guillén: Tell me about your background. This is your second film, no?

Brugués: This is my second film as a director but my sixth film as a screenwriter. I just wanted to be a writer when I got into filmmaking so I studied screenwriting and my career began as a screenwriter. Then I started to not like the films that directors were making out of my scripts. Of course, when you're a writer and you're on the set, the director's role looks easy—he just tells the actors what he doesn't like and what he wants them to do—so I thought, "I can do that. If someone's going to screw up my screenplays, it might as well be me." So I started directing. I made my first feature film Personal Belongings—which is a completely different film from Juan of the Dead; it's a social drama—and then, when we were doing the post-production on Personal Belongings, I had the idea for Juan of the Dead. I began writing. When I talked to my producer for the first time, he told me, "This is going to be big." Then when he read the script, he said, "This is much bigger than I originally thought." So it became a matter of figuring out how to raise the money.

Guillén: Which you did. You raised $2.3 million through Spain's La Zanfoña Producciones.

Brugués: Yes, when I finished making Personal Belongings, I met Javier Iglesias from La Zanfoña who was helping us to finish the film. I told him my idea about Juan of the Dead: a zombie comedy set in Havana, which he thought sounded like it would be fun to do so he jumped in. From there it was just a matter of finding the right people. We were very lucky because all the people we talked to shared our enthusiasm for the idea.

Guillén: It's a great idea that works on many different levels. Not only is there a lineage of films about zombies associated with tropical islands, but zombies in themselves can be used to embody almost any kind of social commentary. You used your zombie outbreak to comment upon U.S. imperialism and capitalism, but—more importantly—the survival of the Cuban people in the face of consistent aggression.

Brugués: When I started in on this project, I wanted to talk about how Cubans react when faced with problems. I knew it was going to be fun because I was taking things I'd seen happen in real life but adding zombies to the mix. You wouldn't believe how much truth is actually in the film. When things get bad, Cubans usually keep on living as if nothing has happened. They either capitalize on what is happening or try to leave the island for someplace else. Those are equally wrong approaches. If you really like something, you have to fight for it. That's something I wanted to say in the film.

Guillén: Which is exactly what Juan expresses in the final sequence when he decides to stay and fight?

Brugués: Juan in many ways is a parable about living through the past 50+ years of revolution in Cuba. Cubans see Havana deteriorating but they just keep on living. So many people leave but I've always said, "Why would you leave? If you really like it, stay and fight for it."

Guillén: I like how Diana Sanchez wrote it up for the program capsule. She wrote that Juan of the Dead "depicts Havana as a place where elevators rarely function and medicines are usually out of date; things are falling apart, yet people know how to have a good time." You cleverly make sure that your protagonists find rum first, and then food. And because I am dealing with my own little viejita of a mother, the scenario that most spoke to me as real but hilarious was when Juan is being attacked by a zombie while his mother is gossiping on the phone. I howled at that.

Brugués: Thank you. I think anyone can take something away from the film that has a basis in their real lives. What comes to mind, for example, is when Juan is teaching the neighbors how to defend themselves by using a ninja star. I took that from a real-life self-defense class. I was taught that—in case we're invaded by the Americans—we had to be able to defend ourselves with anything. I was taught that you can cut ninja stars from the lid of a can. At the time I thought, "Is this guy for real? C'mon. If the Americans invade us, this is what we're going to do?" But the truth is, yeah, the Americans better be prepared, because we will.

Guillén: You described your first film as a social drama, what inspired you to turn towards genre?

Brugués: I love genre. I would like most of my career to be spent making genre films; but, at that time, I had two scripts: one was genre and the other was this love story social drama about a guy who wants to leave the country and a girl who wants to stay; a take on Romeo and Juliet but very Cuban. I did that film because it was easier to fund and also because at that time the Cuban attitude was, "We don't do genre films." Most Cuban films were comedies or dramas so it was easier to get Personal Belongings done. But Juan is more the kind of film I want to do.

Guillén: I'm intrigued that you talk about a Cuban cinema and distinguish it from your own ventures into genre. In fact, I've been told now and again that some filmmakers specifically use genre to move past the concept of a national cinema to reach an international audience. When you first imagined Juan of the Dead, did you see your audience as an international one?

Brugués: Of course! That was the case even with my first film. Films have to be international so that audiences can understand them no matter where the film is from. The point was to make a film that had international appeal but at the same time one about how we are in Cuba and make it interesting. In the case of Juan, I also had to make sure it was a good zombie film. I'm a big fan of zombie films. So I had to please the zombie film crowd at the same time that I offered social commentary about what I observe as an artist.

Guillén: Has there not been a genre film like Juan out of Cuba before?

Brugués: There was one in the '80s, Vampires in Havana (1985). It's very good but it was a cartoon. I also have to talk about one filmmaker, Jorge Molina. He actually plays Juan's sidekick Lázaro in my film, though he's not really an actor; he's a genre film director. He's a cult filmmaker. He loves to do very gory horror stuff with lots of naked women and all that. He's awesome and he was great in my film.

Guillén: You qualified earlier that you felt under pressure to make a good zombie film. The quality of your special effects have helped you achieve that. Your practical blood effects are great and the scenes of Havana falling apart, the buildings on fire and smoking and collapsing, are really well-done. Who did you work with to achieve those effects?

Brugués: First of all, there's a lot of Havana that's actually falling apart. [Laughs.] That's one of the things I wanted to show. Sometimes there are locations in the film that you might think we've retouched or that have had some art direction; but, no, those places exist like that. Also, we had a Cuban team for the practical effects. Three Spanish companies were in charge of the CGI and a Mexican team for the make-up. Since Cuba doesn't do a lot of genre films, there was a lot of stuff that was being done for the first time there that Cubans didn't know how to do, so we had to bring in specialists from other places.

Guillén: Will Juan kickstart a wave of Cuban genre filmmaking? How big is the filmmaking community of independent filmmakers in Cuba?

Brugués: It's not that big. There's only one production company in Cuba and it's run by the State. Most Cuban films are funded by them; but, ours wasn't. I think a lot of Cuban filmmakers are trying to make more independent films, though I'm not sure they will be genre films. Cubans tend to talk about their problems in straightforward ways. I just thought it would be a lot of fun using zombies. Even though I don't think there will be many genre films coming out, I hope Cuban filmmakers will continue to make independent films. You can feel the change in the filmmakers who have grown up in my generation who have had different influences. I can tell you for sure that I will keep making genre films.

Guillén: Talk to me about your La China, your gay character who—though effeminate—kicks ass. His performance carried political subtext.

Brugués: The actor Jazz Vilá who played La China was in my first film, where he was amazing. The character of La China was different in the original script; but, I met with Jazz in Spain where he's living now and we had so much fun together that I told myself, "I have to write a new character for him because I really want to work with him again." So I created the character of La China and I knew how I wanted him to look and all that; but, I let Jazz improvise most of his dialogue because he's a genius. He's brilliant. It's lovely to work with him. So most of La China's dialogue is his own invention. It's interesting that you think his performance was political because my sole intention was simply to work with him again.

Guillén: That's fair. But, as a character, La China adds a lot to your ensemble of characters. Let's talk about that ensemble and your casting. You've already mentioned that Juan's sidekick Lázaro is actually a genre film director. How did you develop the rest of your cast of characters?

Brugués: I wrote the script with the two main characters for Alexis Díaz de Villegas to play Juan and Jorge Molina to play Lázaro because—when I first thought about this film—I had this image of Juan standing with his oar ready to fight. I wanted these two guys to be like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and I wanted them to be 40-something because that is a generation that has gone through a lot in Cuba. They were born right after the Revolution and they have seen the best of that time and then—with the fall of the Soviet Union—there was their disenchantment. They saw everything change into bad times. Their's is a generation that has a lot of sadness to it. What I told them was, "What you have felt in all these 40 years, I want you to recreate it in the moments that take place in the film. I want to see in Juan's eyes the sadness and the worry that life around him is falling apart." Lázaro I just wanted to be funny.

Then I added the character of Lázaro's son Vladi California, played by Andros Perugorría. I wanted him to represent the new generation, which is a generation that doesn't care about anything. Things happen to people within the country and they just don't care. I believe that's sad. It looks funny in the film but when you think about it, it's sad to be living like that. Juan's daughter Camila, played by the Spanish actress Andrea Duro, is part of the Cuban society who has left. If you're Cuban you probably have someone you love who has left Cuba. La China's sidekick is the big black guy El Primo.

Guillén: The fainter! You used the gag of him fainting at the sight of blood repeatedly and it worked every time.

Brugués: But you know what? We discovered that while we were rehearsing with the actors. They added so much to the script. Eliecer Ramírez who played El Primo is a bodybuilder; he's not an actor. I found him on the street. One day I was driving with my producer Claudia Calviño and we saw him. I stopped the car and said, "That's the guy!" He was lovely and—when we were reading the script and adding stuff—we came up with the idea of a big muscular guy who faints.

Guillén: Can you speak to that process of adjusting your script to accommodate the improvisations of your actors? Do the improvisations get set in rehearsal or do you just turn the camera on and let them go?

Brugués: Each actor is different. Each actor has their own world. For example, Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) is a very mental actor. With Jazz Vilá (La China), it's all about improvisation. Jorge Molina, being a film director too, knows how to steal a scene. He's a fucker! [Laughs.] Sometimes we would be shooting and we'd be thinking, "What the fuck's he doing?" And then you can't cut it when you're editing the film because it's brilliant. He knows where to stand. He knows how to get the light. I usually tell my actors that—except for specific lines I want them to say—the script is just a starting point. I can tell when we're rehearsing which actors are going to improvise and which are not.

Once when we were beginning to shoot the film, I was wearing my headphones and the actors didn't know their mics were on and I overheard them talking about what it would be like if Juan and Lázaro were in a TV series like CSI? It was fun listening to them because they knew what they were doing. I relaxed when I heard them because I knew they were into their characters and—once I knew that—I could change the scene and have them remain in character.

Guillén: In the opening scene of your film when Juan and Lázaro are fishing on the raft, they encounter the first zombie, kill it, and then decide, "Let's keep this a secret between us." What was that about? Why wouldn't they want to go back to the mainland and warn everyone they'd just seen a zombie?

Brugués: When I grew up it was difficult to see zombie films. I had to go to a lot of trouble to see all the zombie films I wanted to see. Since shooting Juan, and because it was such a big production and got so much attention, there's now more awareness about zombie films; but, initially, Cubans didn't really know what zombies are. That's what I was playing with in that scene. And because Cubans don't really know what zombies are, that's why I could play with letting the television announcers talk about "dissidents." The authorities could blame the United States for the zombie outbreak.

Guillén: In other words, it would be more trouble than it's worth to try to explain it to anybody?

Brugués: You probably didn't notice that the zombie in the water was wearing a Guantanamo Bay t-shirt?

Guillén: I didn't notice that and, undoubtedly, I need to watch the film again to catch these little details. But now I understand how you're playing. In the later scene where Juan and Lázaro are saved by the American and he says, "Kick ass for the Lord", that's a quotation from Peter Jackson's film, isn't it?

Brugués: Yeah.

Guillén: Since you're clearly citing other films, what earlier zombie films influenced Juan? Other than the obvious references to Dawn and Shaun?

Brugués: I knew from the beginning I was doing something special for which there really wasn't a reference. I'm aware that there are some people who come to my movie and think they're just going to see a Shaun of the Dead rip-off; but, that's not it at all. That's not the point. And that's not even the reason why "Juan" is in the title. The character of Juan is based on my brother Juan, who is pretty much like that character—except for the killing people part—but there are a lot of stories about my brother in the film. For example, the raft. Or the guy jumping to the neighbor's balcony. That's my brother Juan. But I won't deny that I'm paying homage to zombie films. In this case, obviously Peter Jackson, Shaun (as suggested in the title), and The Evil Dead, which—even though it's not exactly a zombie film—felt like one when I was a little kid. The social commentary is obviously taken from Romero. I managed to make a zombie film with a lot of social commentary. I also wanted to have some fun with the ongoing argument about "fast" zombies vs. "slow" zombies. I wanted to have both in my movie. Why not? But most of them were slow because I like slow zombies.

Guillén: A choice that allowed humor. Some funny bits danced around the slow zombies. One thing that lifted my eyebrow, however, was the killing of innocent people, along with the killing of the zombies.

Brugués: That is mainly in Lázaro's character. I wanted him to be the biggest fuck-up. I'm not sure how many ended up in the actual film, but I think his body count of innocent people is seven. I should do a film just about Lázaro because he's such a mess.

Monday, April 16, 2012

SFIFF55—14 Capsule Reviews by Michael Hawley

Only a few days left until the longest running film festival in the Americas launches its much anticipated 55th edition. Benoît Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen starts it all off on Thursday, April 19 and over the next two weeks the San Francisco International Film Festival will present 174 films (105 of them features), as well as honor such cinema luminaries as (director) Kenneth Branagh, actress Judy Davis and documentarian Barbara Kopple. In my fest coverage thus far, I've spotlighted the special programs and awards that were announced early on, then offered up a two-part overview of the complete line-up (Europe and everywhere else in the world). Now here are 14 capsule reviews of selections I've had the chance to preview (all seen via DVD screener, with the exception of Where Do We Go Now?).

Guilty (France / Belgium, dir. Vincent Garenq)—Based upon "the greatest French legal scandal in living memory," this intensely harrowing film recounts the living nightmare of Alain Marécaux, a bailiff wrongly accused of pedophilia nearly a decade ago. After being dragged from his home in the middle of the night, he spent three years in prison awaiting trial, during which time his family and business were destroyed (there were also several suicide attempts and a hunger strike). TV director Garenq conveys this ordeal with unsparing, exacting detail, and is especially skillful at portraying Marécaux's acute sense of isolation. Enough can't be said for the riveting lead performance by Philippe Torreton, an actor with whom I was previously unfamiliar (he makes another SFIFF55 appearance in Rebellion). More than any other film I've previewed, this one has really stuck in my gut.

Golden Slumbers (Cambodia/France, dir. Davy Chou)—Between 1960 and 1975, Cambodia produced nearly 400 movies, in a Golden Era that ended with the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. All that survives today are a handful of clips, love songs from soundtracks, some memorabilia and the recollections of those few who survived the genocide. That anyone could assemble such a haunting and lyrical tribute from such scant resources is a small miracle. Particularly enchanting are interviews in which people wistfully recall film plots, most of which seem to involve ghosts, genies and demons. One ardent fan reveals that—while he's forgotten the faces of family members—he can effortlessly conjure up precise images of his favorite stars. We visit karaoke bars where the music of the era lives on, and a former 1,000-seat Phnom Penh cinema, which now shelters 116 households. Golden Slumbers begins with the camera traveling backwards along a dusty road at dusk, while voiceovers reminisce. It ends with a montage of the era's few surviving film fragments, tantalizingly withheld from our view until now and projected in a manner that's sheer poetry.

Neighboring Sounds (Brazil, dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)—An upscale residential street in Recife serves as a microcosm of Brazilian class relations in this extremely well-crafted narrative feature debut. In nearly every intricately conceived scene, well-to-do residents interact with maids, security guards and deliverymen with politesse, while the film's sound design hints at an underlying ominousness. When that moment of denouement finally arrives, it's almost beside the point given the richness of all that's rendered up to that point. Neighboring Sounds also features my favorite fictional character of the festival—a weed-smoking housewife who's obsessed with a neighbor's barking dog and has a special relationship with her household appliances. This should be a strong contender for SFIFF55's New Directors Award.

Smuggler's Songs (France, dir. Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche)—Louis Mandrin is popularly considered the Robin Hood of France, a mid-18th century brigand who foiled the king's tax collectors up until his martyrdom in 1755. Smuggler's Songs is a thoroughly engaging history lesson about the clandestine band of followers who built upon his legacy. It's a radical departure for director Ameur-Zaïmeche, whose first three features all dealt with contemporary French-Arab immigration issues. He injects his first period piece with a rascally charm, some fine period detail and a charismatic supporting cast (and he also stars as the group's ringleader, Bélissard). Actor / director Jacques Nolot (Before I Forget) is especially memorable as the Marquis who betrays his class and lends emphatic support to the cause of les Mandrins. A movie to inspire the 99 percent.

The Day He Arrives (South Korea dir. Hong Sang-soo)—In this, Hong's 12th musing on thorny male / female relations amongst his country's creative class, a lapsed film director visits Seoul for several days of bumming around with friends, colleagues and exes. Like last year's Hahaha, the tone is pleasingly less contentious than in previous Hong outings and his ubiquitous fracturing of the narrative, once revealed, raises a smile rather than a roll of the eyes. What's new this time around is crisp, B&W cinematography that's wholly suited to the film's wintry, urban backdrop. Droll, disarming and the perfect length at 78 minutes.

¡Vivan las Antípodas! (Germany / Netherlands / Argentina / Chile dir. Victor Kossakovsky)—Antipodes are any two diametrically opposed points of land on the earth's surface and are rarer than one might think, given that 70 percent of our planet is covered by water. This visually stunning documentary contemplates four pairs of these antipodes without ever really making a point beyond the obvious ones of contrast and juxtaposition. Director Kossakovsky's success at conveying a sense of people and place ranges from the negligible (a barely seen Miraflores, Spain, whose antipode is Castle Point, New Zealand) to the sublime (a remote homestead in Entre Rios, Argentina, where two middle-aged brothers live a solitary existence maintaining a small bridge—their antipode is Shanghai, China). The film shines brightest in its breathtakingly creative transitional sequences, which should register impressively on a big screen (the fest is scheduled to show this in 35mm).

The Exchange (Israel/Germany, dir. Eran Kolirin)—A young, married physics professor breaks his well-established routine one day, setting off an existential crisis in which he becomes emotionally detached from the everyday. His newfound worldview manifests itself in ways ordinary (playing hooky from work and ignoring his wife's phone calls) and unordinary (exposing his genitals in his apartment building lobby and impulsively tossing a stapler out his open office window). This is a weird and oddly compelling little film that I can't pretend to have fully understood. It was certainly a bold way for director Kolirin to follow-up his 2007 arthouse charmer, The Band's Visit.

The Double Steps (Spain / Switzerland, dir. Isaki Lacuesta)—This fever dream of a movie was the surprise winner of the 2011 San Sebastián Film Festival's top prize and is constructed around three shifting, interrelated narratives: the works of contemporary artist Miquel Barceló, the legend of French writer / painter François Augiéras' hidden Saharan military bunker of painted frescoes, and the fantastical wanderings of a young African man who serves as some kind of Augiéras alter-ego. But phooey on all that. Best to just relax and take in the film's sensory pleasures—a funky desert dance party, the mud architecture of Mali's Dogon people, a nocturnal visit to an albino village, exotic animals and wandering bandits, all set to a Spaghetti Western-inspired score.

The Orator (New Zealand / Samoa, dir. Tusi Tamasese)—In a Samoan village, a dwarf with legitimate claims to chiefdom lives an unhappy life of ridicule with his wife, who was banished from her own village at a young age, and his pregnant step-daughter. When his wife dies, a conflict arises over the proper arrangements for her burial. It takes almost 90 patience-testing minutes for the film to reach this dramatic juncture, during which time we're unhurriedly exposed to the customs, rituals and pacing of Samoan village life (all lushly photographed). I confess that I struggled to stay awake. But the film utterly redeems itself in the profoundly moving final act, when our protagonist summons the courage to do the right thing. This is the first feature film ever made in the Samoan language, and it was New Zealand's recent submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar®.

It's the Earth Not the Moon (Portugal, dir. Gonçalo Tocha)—Corvo is a remote volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic with 450 inhabitants, one town and one road. In the opening moments of this epic documentary, the filmmakers vow to literally film everyone and everything on the island. We watch craftspeople at work, witness pig slaughters and baptisms, visit the island dump and hear bad karaoke at a strobe-lit café. The inhabitants all come off as genial—not an outsized personality amongst them—and there's some nice photography, particularly of moody seas and skies. It's a not uninteresting portrait of a uniquely isolated place with a long history, but nothing surprising or revelatory is ever arrived at. The charm of the ordinary almost seems to be the point, but at 183 minutes (the longest film of the festival), it's a journey not everyone will consider time well spent.

OK, Enough, Goodbye (Lebanon / United Arab Emirates, dir. Rania Attieh, Daniel Garcia)—In this slow-moving deadpan comedy of sorts, an elderly mother walks out on her peevish live-at-home son and forces him to get a life apart from insulting customers at his down-on-its-heels pastry shop. This entails engaging the services of a prostitute and a recalcitrant Ethiopian maid with whom he can't communicate. As is often the case with deadpan, your mileage may vary. Of greater interest are the intermittent injections of melancholic travelogue, which portray the film's locale, Lebanon's second largest city of Tripoli, as a place that has seen better days (much like the film's protagonist).

Unfair World (Greece / Germany, dir. Filippos Tsitos)—A hangdog-faced police interrogator sinks into a morale morass after committing murder in this dour tale of perceived injustice in our modern world. Director Tsitos, who won the director's prize at San Sebastián, is clearly emulating Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki with deliberate pacing, absurdist conceits and monotonal acting. There's even a rock and roll scene. But this is Kaurismäki with all the life and soul sucked out. Providing significant diversion to all this agonizing austerity are some truly inspirational widescreen compositions and choreographed camerawork.

Bitter Seeds (USA, dir. Micha X. Peled)—Doc director Peled (China Blue, Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town) completes his Globalization Trilogy with this sobering look at why a quarter-million Indian farmers have committed suicide in the past 15 years. The blame rests squarely on Monsanto Corporation and their genetically modified cotton seeds, which must be repurchased every year and incur multiple hidden costs. Farmers turn to bank loans or illegal moneylenders and are driven to suicide when a bad crop year results in confiscation of their land. The stakes are higher for families with daughters, whose marriages require huge dowry sums. Peled's film does a decent job of explaining these issues, albeit in a repetitive, simple-minded way. A self conscious and stagey narrative thread involving a village girl studying to be a journalist is as distracting as it is effective. Artless and uncinematic, this generic, issue-driven documentary is mostly of interest for the information imparted.

Where Do We Go Now? (France / Lebanon / Italy / Egypt, dir. Nadine Labaki)—Muslim and Christian village women unite to manipulate their menfolk away from religious violence in Nadine Labaki's follow-up to 2007's popular Lebanese rom-com Caramel. While this premise is indeed admirable, it's executed with the broadest possible strokes, even for a story which is clearly intended as fable-esque. The absurd lengths to which these women go—hiring a gaggle of Ukrainian prostitutes and getting the men zonked on hashish baked goods—is so far outside any conceivable reality it renders the director's message meaningless. Other problems include a tone that lurches from mawkish melodrama to chirpy musical comedy and a score which telegraphs every emotion. Don't even get me started on the Virgin Mary statue that cries tears of blood.

Cross-published on film-415.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

HBO: GIRLS (Or a Generation and its Discontents)—By Ryan Lattanzio

The sometimes painful, sometimes funny world of twenty-something sex is Lena Dunham's specialty, and her new HBO series Girls is the 25-year-old woman at the height of creative powers. She really is the voice of her generation, as her character Hannah, an unpaid intern at a New York publishing house, tells her skeptical parents. "Or at least a voice, of a generation." Dunham's self-deprecation is also her signature, and this self-consciousness is what raises Girls above an outmoded series like Sex and the City. And as much as I have endlessly enjoyed Michael Patrick King's mythic comedy, Dunham's show feels like a manifesto for Gen-Y. It's one for all the misanthropes out there who've worked for free, had a lot of sad sex and tried to navigate a society indifferent to their fashionable pessimism—and humanities degrees.

In 2010, Dunham was the toast of the town, having directed her debut feature Tiny Furniture, in which she also starred, about a recent Oberlin film studies grad who returns to New York to move back in with her bohemian artist mother and harpy, overachieving younger sister. Girls treads with equal deft in the terrain of post-undergraduate malaise, with more warmth and less affectation. But Dunham's worldview isn't a completely hopeless one.

As a writer, director, artist and actress, Dunham is a masochist of the margins. She revels in her cynical temperament but also uses it as the means for a weirdly empowering, body-positive narrative. Dunham / Hannah loves darkness, but beneath her blasé exterior is an admirable sense of self-esteem. She knows herself, what she is and isn't capable of. Hannah has no "Special Skills," as she puts it in resume parlance, but her feelings of social uselessness are the makings of great art.

The Judd Apatow-produced Girls, which airs this Sunday (April 15, 2012), concerns Hannah (Dunham) and her gal-pals Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), who all lead lives of sexual and personal frustration in New York. There's no Carrie, Samantha, Miranda or Charlotte here. Dunham does away with comfortable archetypes, though her women are also lovably flawed. Unlike the Sex and the City girls, each of whom corresponds with a particular feminist (or not) position of the Y2K era, these Girls aren't so easily categorized. Their philosophies and issues often overlap, and the banter isn't as harmoniously timed as the SATC ladies' sex-glutted conversations at breakfast. But I'll stop comparing those shows. They are entirely different, and it would be an injustice to Dunham to suggest otherwise. Still, she has obviously seen the show as many times as I have.

Though Hannah chafes against her upper-middle-class privilege, she is unafraid to acknowledge how it inevitably enables her smart, quippy brand of self-loathing. My personal favorite line from the pilot ("It costs a lot of money to look this cheap") perfectly expresses the angst that comes with vintage-clothing-clad entitlement. Dunham is so good at these kinds of quick-witted maxims.

Like her character Aura in Tiny Furniture, Dunham's Hannah puts herself in degrading sexual situations. Her obtuse, self-important fuck buddy—an actor/carpenter—is a total dud, but trouble-loving Hannah willingly takes his verbal abuse. Maybe it will make for good memoir-writing material. She's writing one of those, a series of personal essays, which is one of the show's shrewdest, most of-the-moment bits of satire.

But it's not just erotic freedom that makes the girls in Dunham's harem the modern women of the times. Hannah bemoans her unpaid internship; Marnie is disenchanted with her doting boyfriend of four years and Jessa is a world traveling free spirit whose transitory life is thrown into confusion over a pregnancy scare. These age-related existential problems might not work for older audiences who "couldn't be paid to be 24 again," as Hannah's gynecologist says. But for someone with a pending liberal arts diploma and a general sense of "what the hell do I do now?" this series really spoke to me. I finally feel like I'm getting a real representation of my generation and its discontents onscreen.

Lately, I'd almost venture to say that TV is better than the movies. What elevates Girls above its sistren of gender-politics-flouting comedies is how cinematic, and hilariously tragic, this show really feels. And it feels real. Two episodes in, and I'm ready to tout Girls from the ramparts. Lena Dunham, here is my white flag.

PANAMÁ IFF: BONSÁIThe Evening Class Interview With Cristián Jiménez & Diego Noguera

With his wistful sophomore feature Bonsái (Chile / France / Argentina / Portugal, 2011), Cristián Jiménez reminds me of what it is that I detest in Hollywood rom coms. They're nowhere near as brave, or sexy, or truthful as Bonsái's delicate exploration of a young writer's first love, and how eight years later it becomes a story intricately manicured by his memory. The metaphor is, perhaps, apparent but effective: by trimming the roots and finding the proper container, a story of the past can be shaped to aesthetic purpose. Thus, editing is aligned to gardening. With deft strokes of humor and a seesaw narrative structure that bounces back and forth across time over an eight-year period, Jiménez achieves considerable charm in his portrait of first love, its loss, and the role of literature in mending the rupture. Bonsái suggests that memory itself is a craft to be honed.

As synopsized by Strand Releasing (who has picked up the film for distribution): "Julio is a struggling young writer who has hit a wall. Unemployed and involved in a half-hearted relationship with his neighbor, things are finally starting to look up when he gets an interview with a renowned author to transcribe his latest work. Things don't go as planned, however, and Julio doesn't get the job. Instead of admitting the truth to his girlfriend, he pretends to be transcribing the novel when actually writing his own story. Searching for inspiration and a plot, Julio revisits a romance he had eight years ago when studying literature in Valdivia. As Julio's novel progresses, so does his fondness for the past and of the love he let slip away. Based on an internationally acclaimed novella [by Alejandro Zambra], Bonsái is a subtly affecting examination of the lies we tell ourselves in order to get by."

I first caught Bonsái at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival where the film had its North American premiere. It continues on its festival rounds with an appearance at the 55th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (co-presented by Litquake), and then on to the inaugural edition of the Panamá International Film Festival.

The critical reception has been favorable. At Variety, Robert Koehler characterized Bonsái as "one of the finest accomplishments from the freewheeling new generation of Chilean filmmakers", adding that by turns the film is "gentle, deadpan, droll and sarcastic." At The House Next Door / Slant, Oscar Moralde wrote that Bonsái "throws out suspense as one of its tools with a flourish that makes it obvious it has far more at its disposal." Finessing the film's title, Moralde added: "It may come as no surprise that the titular tree is used as a metaphor for Julio's writing; he's told that the goal of bonsai is to 'reproduce the effects of nature on the tree,' a process which aptly describes what the film accomplishes as well." At Eye For Film, Amber Wilkinson described Jiménez as "an imaginative—if occasionally unruly—talent to watch" and complimented the film's "considerable humor and charm, particularly in its portrayal of the fumblings, posturings and overexuberance of student love."

Born in Valdivia, Chile, in 1975, Cristián Jiménez longed to be a stand-up comedian but wound up studying sociology and penning short stories before embarking on a film career. After some collaborations and short films—El tesoro de los caracoles (2004) and XX (2006)—Jiménez wrote and directed his first feature Ilusiones óptica (Optical Illusions, 2009), which premiered at the San Sebastián Film Festival in 2009 and screened around the world, with a commercial release in Europe, Chile and the United States. My thanks to Blanca Granados for arranging time in Toronto for me to sit down with Cristián Jiménez and Bonsái's lead actor Diego Noguera, whose deadpan performance as the fumbling protagonist Julio brings a comic authenticity and poignant longing to the role.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Cristián, Bonsái is adapted from Alejandro Zambra's novel. How faithful is your film to his novel?

 Cristián Jiménez: Zambra's novel is a particular kind of novel; it's very short. It's about 90 pages long and when it first came out many people said, "This is not a novel." This was pretty much the debate that was the subject of the novel itself. It's a novel about fiction. Its structure, its shape, and its language deals with the same issues that the story is dealing with. I thought that was interesting because that's pretty much how I see filmmaking: as storytelling that has many angles; a screenplay that has to be illustrated somehow. The language in the novel is general. It doesn't have scenes. It's not a novel that you could easily adapt. So—though I kept some stuff—I basically got rid of a lot and had to invent a lot; but, I kept the spirit of the novel. One could say that the film reads the novel and that there is a sort of synchronicity with the book. I discussed that with Alejandro and he agreed that some things are the same and some things are different—based on my personal life and from the town where I grew up—but there still remains a strong connection between the book and the film.

Guillén: When you say your film is faithful to the "spirit" of the novel, how would you define that spirit?

 Jiménez: On the one hand, the spirit relates to the tone, which I would describe as sober and austere; but, at the same time, it's a bit funny and light with hints of humor. It's on the edge between melancholy and humor. What I felt I had to adapt when I was working with the novel was not just the story, but the project of the novel and the idea that I was going to make a bonsai film where bonsai is fiction. I wanted to make a film that could be thought of in different ways, but that was not something obvious. We had to discuss what the novel meant and how we could translate that meaning and tell it from a filmic point of view. I don't think that's a straight answer to your question, but I hope the film raises feelings and questions about that issue. The film is always showing something and then telling it again. It's not just words.

Guillén: I admire the film's literary quality and the central metaphor of the practice of bonsai, where a gardener trims the roots and keeps them tightly contained to produce a desired effect. I think that's what people basically do with their memories. When you look back on the past, you—in effect—go back to the root and cut off the excess so that what your life becomes by way of memory is something that has been manicured and shaped and—in a sense—reconfigured to match your self-identity in later years.

Diego, how developed was the script by the time it came to you? Or did the two of you work together to develop the script?

Diego Noguera: The script was already done and finished.

Guillén: I ask because the film has an improvisational feel and I was wondering if that came up during the process of shooting.

Jiménez: Diego can answer from his perspective, but I don't really improvise. As a director, I want to have a little bit of distance and I think that comes out of precision. The French say le juste, just the right point, and to get to that point it's important when I'm shooting, for example, to just shoot without letting the actors do anything else other than to find their positions on the set, not rehearsing the lines or anything. Even though the actors had not rehearsed, I did so many auditions that, in a way, the auditions were the rehearsal. So we didn't rehearse with the sound man—we just did it—and then if it didn't work, I start fixing it and doing the fine tuning until it's done; but, this is not one of those films that has a spontaneous approach.

Guillén: No, it has a definite structure but it does have a spontaneous feel.

Noguera: There was a strong structure to the script, but—within the strength of that structure—we, as actors, could find bits of liberty even though there was no improvisation with the text. There may have been some improvisation with the timing, the tone, but not the text, whose structure was clear to us from the beginning. When a structure is so clear, as an actor you get to find spots of liberty inbetween the text.

Guillén: In terms of your characterization of Julio, how did you craft the difference between how he was when he was younger and how he was eight years later? How did you decide to show that difference? Or to register his regret?

Noguera: There were two levels to doing that. The first level was simply the physical level—that he'd grown a beard, that I had to do a lot of exercises to lose weight—and the next level was more a psychological level, but it shows in concrete terms. His eyes are not the same. Julio's not lost everything from his youth—he still looks at the world with a lot of curiosity—but, perhaps, he hides it a little better? He's learned how to hide himself better than when he was young and open-eyed by looking down and away. It was those little things that helped me age him. It was difficult because it was only an eight-year difference. It's not like he was 50 years old where you could apply make-up and show the aging more visibly. It was only the difference of eight years and how do you show what you've lost or won in the period of eight years? I had to do it through little things—the eyes, the rhythm of the character, how he looks at the world, what he expects from the world—those things come together and make that difference.

Guillén: What I liked was that Julio was still close enough to his original experience of love that he was still processing it, in contrast to—let's say—being 20 and then 50. I'm nearly 60 years old and so my memories of being 20 have been long processed and manicured and suited to my own personal mythology, appropriate to the self-understanding of my middle years. In your performance, however, Julio is still processing the loss of his first love.

Noguera: Yes, that's one of the great things about the character of Julio. While he's processing, he adds a little bit of fiction through his memories, you know? He configures the world in a certain way that helps him accept the world. That's why he lies a little bit. He's not lying in a bad way.

Guillén: He's imagining a better past that he can be at peace with.

Noguera: Yes, a more interesting past maybe.

Guillén: Which made me question whether some of the things we were seeing in the film had actually happened? Or if the film's narrative wasn't, in a sense, depicting his fantasies? For example, I got a real kick out of the scene where he was trying to read Proust on the beach and fell asleep with the book on his chest and woke to find himself sunburned everywhere except where the book had been lying on his chest. How hilarious but how embarrassing for him! Yet, the way he remembered it was so light and clever that it was sweet, which in a way served to ease his humiliation. In other words, thinking back he would want to remember that experience as sweet rather than simply as an awkward and stupid situation.

Jiménez: I think that comes from when Julio is writing—the moment of the experience and the moment of his reflection—and though we don't know exactly what he is writing, we know what is being said about the writing and what is being said about the experience and we know that somewhere inbetween some of what is being said doesn't really fit; but, at the same time, we understand that there is no actual exact fit. There is just the construction of another new layer. In a way the character is coming to terms with that fact: the fact that he has to construct these new layers for himself. He needs the story.

Guillén: The film's seesaw narrative device of going back and forth between the eight years, was that in Zambra's novel?

Jiménez: Not really.

Guillén: You applied that structure to the film?

Jiménez: Yes. The "fake" novel comes fairly late in Zambra's novel. It's, in fact, the way Zambra closes his novel. But he has chapters, which is something I wanted to keep, and the point of view is much more divided between Julio and the girls. Zambra's novel has a really strong narrator who is stronger than any other character, making comments, jumping around in time, starting to tell something and then saying, "But that's not relevant. What matters is Julio." It's the narrator who puts the story in front of the reader, which we felt was important to do, but in a more cinematic way.

I'd like to add something onto what Diego just said. I agree that—when we were working on how to depict the difference over eight years—what was key were the small things. Because the body doesn't change so much in just eight years. I mean, sometimes it does; but, that wasn't really so important. It's the small things that add up. You have four or five small things that you look at and, through them, you can sense the time that went through those few moments. A lot of the work we did had to do with those little things. With regard to what Diego was saying about improvisation while we were directing, basically we had the structure to the scenes; but—when we were working on the little things like a word or a movement—we kept repeating the scenes until we achieved the meaningful images we were looking for.

Guillén: When I first watched Bonsái, I considered it a sophisticated study of human relationships and it helped me realize why I hate Hollywood romantic comedies, which are sketched so broadly.

Jiménez: Everything is black and white.

Guillén: Yes. Whereas your film was full of attenuated moments that felt authentic and natural in terms of depicting relationships. I also considered Bonsái quite brave in its frank depictions of sexuality. It seemed much more sensual than an American film would be with its nude love scenes, etc.

Jiménez: Truthfully, I hate the way sex is normally portrayed in films. This was the first time I actually filmed a sex scene. I had avoided that. And I had really thought that I was part of this school of directors who focus just on the characters and don't shoot sex scenes. But when I came to this story and began thinking about how to make the film, I understood that it was so important as part of the path of Julio's character to see him in bed with this girl. So there was no way out.

The bonsai metaphor is the metaphor of an object and I thought, "This needs to be a material film. We're going to look through the camera at the trees and the plants, and we're going to look at the books as well, and the bodies." In the same way that you can observe and describe a book and have it be interesting in a film, you're not looking at the story, you're not reading it, you're looking at the book as an object and how it can play different roles in the film. You're not reading it as he does in the film. I thought that—since we had this biological metaphor, this gardening metaphor—we would look at their bodies as if they were elements of nature. Not necessarily in a scientific way but more with the approach of curiosity, as if you're looking at a plant, without showing the nasty differences between the way you look at a girl and the way you look at a boy, trying to just be open about it.

Guillén: One of my favorite moments in the film is when Julio is writing the false book in longhand and then feels the need to put a coffee stain on it to add authenticity to the manuscript. For me, this revealed Julio's commitment to creating this fantasy as thoroughly as possible. Can you speak to that moment and how it came about?

Jiménez: Actually, that is part of the novel. It's one of those moments in the novel—there were not many—that was really visual. In one single action it shows the absurdity of what Julio is doing. One could say that these days with the sort of political economy that rules the world, spending time to write is novel is crazy but pretending to write a novel, pretending to be transcribing somebody else's writing, is even more crazy, though he's doing it in a meaningful way. In his own twisted way.

Guillén: And, perhaps, what comes across as most meaningful by the end of your film is that Julio has matured in the process of engineering this delicate deceit. He has, in fact, become a better writer. You get the sense that he as a person, as a character, has started to learn how to shape his memories—returning again to the metaphor of the bonsai—how to take his regrets and creatively transform them into illuminations.

Jiménez: Also in that moment, though Julio is faking the manuscript so that it will look like an original, at the same time he's learning that being a storyteller means to fabricate an object. Storytelling means you make something. It's not just an intellectual exercise. There's a point when the story becomes something in the world, something that's made. That's something I liked in the novel that it says about literature, but I would also apply that to film.

Guillén: I like how you're speaking of the materiality of both books and films; that they are physical objects in the world that the author or filmmaker must make, not just imagine. This tracks with the Proustian references in your narrative in an inverted way. Proust proved to us that something as tangible as eating a madeleine can, in turn, trigger a whole suite of memories.

Have the two of you worked together before?

Noguera: No.

Guillén: Will you work together again?

Noguera: Yeah, maybe.

Jiménez: It's not so easy for me to keep working with the same actors. Some directors like to do that, but, I need a little bit of time and need to change them. If, for example, I were to make my next movie with Diego, I would feel like I was making Bonsái 2 and that would bore me.

Guillén: [Chuckling]. So no plans any time soon for a Bonsái franchise?

Jiménez: No, no.

Guillén: Let's discuss your film within the parameters of a national cinema. Do you identify yourself as a Chilean filmmaker? Is Bonsái a characteristically Chilean film? Or do you think that by its presence in international film festivals it's something more?

Jiménez: I wouldn't say it's more. It's a Chilean film that talks about a problem that is, indeed, Chilean; but, then again, Chile is part of a global society. Many of the experiences that these characters have are experiences to which people all over the world can relate. The other day someone from Agnieszka Holland's crew was here from Poland and he said, "I saw your film and it reminded me of my college years in Poland." That's great! And someone in Chile might look at some tiny element in the film that they understand is a private joke just for them that international audiences might not understand. For example, when they're in the garden drinking liquor from a bag, that's something typical of the south of Chile, which is kind of funny and strange and weird. That's almost something of a regional joke. We have those things too. So there are layers to this film that people can relate to in different ways. Everyone approaches an object like a film from their experience, knowledge and education and somehow something happens that is unpredictable.

Guillén: Out of curiosity, did you write your script in longhand?

Jiménez: No. I do a lot of handwriting. I write a lot of notes in notebooks. Normally I develop the structure by hand and—when I research and do interviews—I always take notes; I don't use a recorder. But then, when the writing moment comes, that's when all those handwritten notes get translated into the computer.

Guillén: I relate to that because I have always written, ever since I was a child, partly because I always felt that I was somehow invisible and that I needed to write in order to prove to myself that I existed. Even now, I often return to my handwritten journals of when I was 16 or 17 for the tactile pleasure. It's almost like braille. I like the feel of how hard I used to write into the paper, the inks I would choose to use, the way my penmanship was then in contrast to now. These days because I do so much writing and it all has to be produced so fast, I rarely write by hand but I really miss it. I sometimes think that writing in longhand is a youthful activity, moreso than when you're older. Do you agree?

Jiménez: Yes, I agree.

Noguera: There's the scene in the movie where—when Julio finishes the false manuscript—he touches it and there's a little bit about what you're saying.

Jiménez: There's textures. There's colors. There's life. There's a moment when it was written. There's a moment when what has been written is being read and—though it's not the same—there's still a connection.

Guillén: So from Bonsái, where are you going?

Jiménez: I'm developing two projects. One is more developed than the other. I'm still working with the guys who co-produced Bonsái; Chilean friends who were the co-producers. It's been a great experience so we're going to do those two new films together. If everything works out well, I hope I can begin shooting next year.

Guillén: I've interviewed several young Chilean filmmakers, and some more established filmmakers like Miguel Littin, and it makes me curious if there is a strong community of Chilean filmmakers? Do you all know each other? Do you work with each other?

Jiménez: We all know each other, yes, and there is quite a bit of collaboration. I've worked with Alicia Scherson, for example.

Guillén: She was the first Chilean filmmaker I ever interviewed, back when she brought Play to the San Francisco International and was really why I became interested in Chilean film. I remember at the time I asked her whose work I should be watching from Chile, which has become something of a stock question for me. I pose the same question to you. Who are the filmmakers in Chile that you watch and admire and hope international audiences will discover? And in conjunction with that—because I'm concerned that North America does not receive Chilean film criticism—who are the film critics and journalists working in your country who you most admire?

Jiménez: Returning, first, to your question about the film community in Chile. There is a scene. Everyone knows each other. We talk with each other. I talk to people I have nothing to do with artistically. There are certain "gangs", one could say, and there's collaboration within those gangs where the work fits in. There is a community, though there is no common discourse or common project. It's not like at the end of the '60s when Ruiz and Littin had these manifestoes, which expressed their differences. The Littinistas were the realists and the Ruizianos were more expressionistic; but, they were all left wing and wanting to change the society. There's not anything like that now; but, there is a sense of something that unites us. There's quite a bit of help and encouragement, I would say.

Guillén: Chile doesn't have a lot of government subsidies for filmmaking, do they?

Jiménez: There's more than compared to 20 years ago, when government subsidies literally didn't exist; but, they remain small even by Latin American standards.

Guillén: I'm trying to put a finger on it because—of the Chilean films I've had the good fortune to see—I find I really like them and I'm trying to articulate for myself why they're different than Argentine films or Brazilian films and I'm trying to determine if there's a common aesthetic to them.

Jiménez: That's a question I cannot answer, though it's a question that's frequently asked and which I've often discussed. I've been on panels with other Chilean filmmakers and critics talking about this exact subject and we always come to the conclusion that it's too early to talk about it. The new generation of Chilean filmmakers are still coming up. In the '60s there were the Littinistas and the Ruizianos and any new guys could choose: they could go this way or that way. That was it, you know? Then there were people making documentaries. Now, the Chilean film scene is still being built and shaped. This year there's actually going to be a book brought out by the Valdivia Film Festival—in which I have been interviewed—that will profile 21 Chilean filmmakers. I think that collection of interviews will be an attempt to answer your question; but, I would say I know most of the work and to me this is a tricky question. It's hard. For example, every two years or so there's a new wave of films and positions move a little bit.

But getting back to your question about who to watch, if I think of my parents or grandparents who were making films before 1973 and are still making films, I would have to mention the documentary filmmaker Ignacio Agüero. His films are so unique. They have a magical and light touch, even as he deals with the most complicated social and political issues; issues that are tragic, but in which he finds what is fun and fresh. His work is very intelligent and there's something about his films that really make me think that they are exceptional, even though they're relatively unknown outside of Latin America. He's becoming more and more appreciated within Chile, which is a start.

Among the young filmmakers in their mid-20s, there's already a whole group at that age making films. They're about 10 years younger than me. I would mention "Che" Sandoval. He's making strange male coming-of-age stories about guys who basically want to have sex. His films are telling that story, but underneath they go beyond that and become more philosophical and profound and concern the quest for masculine identity. I know some people who hate his work but I think there's something powerful in what he's doing. It's honest and fresh material and has some connection to what is called the mumblecore movement in North America.

Those two are Chilean filmmakers who are not well-known and—not only should be—but will be.

Guillén: And Chilean critics?

Jiménez: La Fuga and Mabuse are the two strongest sites.

Guillén: You trust their writing and their perception of films?

Jiménez: They are competitive and have their differences, but—with the decline of print journalism, which is happening all over the place—it's only been good news with these guys. The real thoughtful film criticism is happening on the Net. Even the writers who have space in the newspapers have such limited space that they only can only write short observations, whereas La Fuga and Mabuse organize events and are now starting to publish books. The fact that the scene we have in Chile is so vital is linked not only to the fact that we have directors and writers and actors who have built up professional expertise, but also to these guys. Mainstream film journalism in Chile is cornered by the limitations of print. These guys write great stuff on their own blogs.

Portraits of Cristián Jiménez courtesy of Antoine Doyen. Portrait of Diego Noguera with bonsai courtesy of Carla Pinilla, El Mercurio. Portrait of Alejandro Zambra courtesy of Omar Faundez, The Nation. Production stills courtesy of Strand Releasing.