Saturday, October 19, 2013


Situated in FICM’s Mexican Feature competition, Mariana Chenillo’s Paraíso (Paradise, 2013) cooks up a delectably sentimental offering, albeit from a slim premise. Carmen (Daniela Rincón) and Alfredo (Andrés Almeida) have been childhood sweethearts since secondary school, living sequestered and happy lives in a small town, oblivious to their mutual obesity. But once Alfredo achieves a work promotion that relocates them to Mexico City—and after attending their first office party where Carmen inadvertently hears Alfredo’s workmates refer to them as “Boteros” (which, distraught, she looks up on the internet)—Carmen succumbs to the pressures of fitting into a body-conscious society. She insists they both go on a diet and join a weight loss group and—though at first Alfredo is resistant—he acquiesces, commits himself to the program, and begins to lose weight (whereas Carmen does not). As their body image shifts, so does the image of their relationship, which suffers as a result.

Paraíso is a romantic comedy, plain and simple, and its adherence to formulaic fantasy all but assures that audiences will leave the film feeling satisfied. Though it touches upon serious issues regarding the tension between self-image and social conformity, it skirts these issues effortlessly by offering the panacea we all want to hear: love conquers everything. In this formulaic fantasy, being overweight simply means there’s more to love, as cliche as that might be. One certainly can’t begrudge Chenillo for that, and audiences won’t, judging from the chuckling response from FICM’s audience.

Chenillo’s pairing of newcomer Daniela Rincón with veteran Andrés Almeida is an astute casting choice. Rincón’s naifish and sweet vulnerability makes it easy for Almeida (and audiences) to love her and Almeida’s big puppy dog eyes express his love devotedly. Almedia’s transition from a “pumpkin” to a slimmed-down bank executive is both believable and inspiring. Amusing comic support—most notably by Luis Gerardo Méndez as a slightly effeminate fitness coach, and a clutch of middle-aged women with whom Carmen takes a Mediterranean cooking class (rather than attend yoga)—allows Chenillo her light handling of the subject of Mexico’s rising obesity. An aquarium blowfish that Carmen finds beautiful for reminding her of a bird provides an interstitial metaphor throughout, balancing weight with levity. There’s all kinds of fish in the sea, after all. Chenillo raises awareness by poking fun at the issue of obesity, without actually asking for much resolution, though the film commendably—if backhandedly—celebrates culinary creativity. Carmen joins the ranks of loveable characters like Tracy Turnblad of the Hairspray vehicles, though she lacks the meaningful self-agency achieved by Ana Garcia (America Ferrara) in Real Women Have Curves. Paraíso achieves light entertainment for the guiltily overweight.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

DETROIT UNLEADED (2012)—The Evening Class Interview With Rola Nashef

I met Rola Nashef in Panama City during the 2013 Panama International Film Festival. We fortuitously sat beside each other on the transit shuttle from the festival's Midnight Mojitos Boat Party to the after-party in Casco Viejo. Within minutes, she had me laughing and our ride to the discotheque afforded the opportunity to ask her about her film at the festival, the Lebanese American romantic comedy Detroit Unleaded (2012) [Facebook], which had premiered at the 2012 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, winning the inaugural Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award. Though it had not been on my original itinerary, I made sure to catch it and—as is often the case in such instances—lucked out by doing so.

Detroit Unleaded was also one of 12 films chosen for the inaugural edition of the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival A2E initiative. And its festival run continues October 19, 2013, at the Los Angeles Arab Film Festival.

* * *

Michael Guillén: First of all, I have to go on record to say that I completely admire your ability to carry a drink to three different locations without spilling a drop!

Rola Nashef: Thank you very much.

Guillén: We talked a lot on the bus last night and you laid out for me the trajectory of your film Detroit Unleaded, but we'll need to reiterate a bit.

Nashef: Yeah, sure.

Guillén: Can you tell me about your background in filmmaking?

Nashef: It's really diverse, actually. I did all kinds of stuff during my college years. I had six or seven different majors and kept switching, switching, switching, but nothing clicked. I went to four or five different colleges and universities, but nothing clicked. I was learning, but I was still lost. I dropped out of school at Michigan State, moved to Detroit, and was studying to be a paralegal. I had never taken an art class before. I had never been introduced to my creative, right brain, and a poet friend of mine told me, "I don't know what you're supposed to be doing but it's not this. You're not supposed to be a paralegal." I argued, "But it has benefits." She insisted, "I don't know what it is, but it's not this."

At the same time, I became lost in my career path. I had always been a leader. I had always been that person to bring people together, whether it was through the Arab student organization in college or my church group. I had always been the kind of person who would pull elements together to do events and, at the same time, I was a storyteller. I always told great stories and made people laugh. At 25, I started working at the Arab Community Center for Family Services in their cultural arts department and it was the first time in my life where I met creative people....

Guillén: And aren't they a crazy bunch?!

Nashef: I thought, "Who are these crazy people?" I related to them, without even knowing that I was really relating to them. It was more like I admired them and was liking what they were saying. I asked myself, "What is this?" At the community center I was giving tours on Arab culture and I felt there was a better way to translate the information instead of simply talking to groups of people visiting the center. Then I met my first filmmaker. He was a Lebanese American filmmaker, which is so rare anyway and the fact that I met him felt like fate. I was like, "Film school is so cool. Only cool people go to film school." Then it hit me. I wanted to make a documentary about Arab women, or something like that, and I approached him about it and he didn't give a shit about my little idea.

Then I found out about producing and I thought to myself, "I think I'm a producer. I think I've been doing this my whole life. Pulling all these elements together and making them line up." So—even though he wasn't into my idea—all of a sudden that very year when I was really lost there was a new film school that opened up in Detroit. Me and my friend were driving and I spotted an ad in the paper and the ad literally said, "Hey YOU, go to film school!" I started screaming, "Oh my God! This is it!" As soon as I saw that ad, at that moment, I said to my friend, "I'm going to film school." I used her cell phone to call right away, applied the next day, got in, and my very first day at that school I knew this was what I was supposed to be doing. The very first time I went on a set, all the things that made me weird or odd or anal or just different all had a place on the set. It was the first time in my life when something hit me that solid, that hard, and I never turned back and never questioned it.

Guillén: You wrote the script for Detroit Unleaded?

Nashef: Yes.

Guillén: So you're a director-writer. Do you consider yourself a director-producer as well? You also produced Detroit Unleaded, right?

Nashef: Yes.

Guillén: So you're actually a director-writer-producer, which is somewhat rare.

Nashef: Right. I would definitely like to drop the producing part, however. I would like to have multiple projects going on at the same time and I'd like to be able to write more, and focus solely on the creativity. Producing can be creative, but I don't want to be that person anymore. I just can't.

Guillén: Producing can be creative, but it's more the left brain. It's more of a business sense.

Nashef: Exactly. I'm so glad I did it because I think it makes me a better director and writer. I know it was the right path, the right thing to do at the time, even though it was torturous.

Guillén: Let's talk about the script for Detroit Unleaded. You've received much acclaim for it, including the Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. I have to believe that accolade was the direct result of the storytelling.

Nashef: Right.

Guillén: When I first started watching Detroit Unleaded, I wasn't quite sure if I was going to be able to relate to the story. I was concerned that it might be too subcultural for me; but, then the story started to morph and you achieved and communicated—through humor—the story you were seeking to tell. Can you talk about why this was the story you wanted to tell? Why did you set your romance in a gas station?

Nashef: I came to the gas station in a couple of different ways. I had grown up outside of Detroit about an hour and 15 minutes away in a smaller community, not such a concentrated Arab community, and one that was actually pretty mixed: White, Black, Latino. When I moved to Detroit, it was the first time I lived amongst such a high concentration of Arab Americans. I was like, "Yeah! My people! This is great. I've never been around so many Arabs before. Everyone gets me. No one asks me where I'm from. No one asks me, 'Do you speak Spanish?' They know I'm Arabic." My identity crisis came to some closure. I was meeting all these great people and making new best friends and was hearing so many great stories and listening to wonderful dialogue and felt, "This should be in a film."

As for the gas station itself, every time I walked into a gas station there was some young Arab guy behind this glass. Of course, they were all gorgeous and I kept thinking, "What is this image? Why does it keep repeating in my head? Why are all these young Arab men here trapped in this little glass cage? What's their story?" It always looked like they had a story. Then I began to question the glass divider itself. What was this tangible barrier? It seemed bizarre to me. I kept thinking that it had to change your perspective as a clerk. It had to change your perspective on how you viewed the world. Sitting in a gas station hours on end? It has to do something to you because, to me, that glass divider criminalizes people and it's there to protect you from the other. Whoever walks in is a dangerous threat to you, no matter what the circumstances are. I wanted to explore that perspective.

Within the gas station itself, I found so many hilarious interactions. I also found it to be a place where a lot of camaraderie was built between Detroit's Arab and Black communities. It seemed to have a neighborhood feel to it. Detroit can be economically and racially segregated. Everyone lives in their own little neighborhood. But as a gas station, that doesn't hold true because it's a driving city. You always have to go to a gas station. So often times you'll see that people are really mixed within the setting of a gas station. I thought that was an interesting metaphor that embraced many themes that I wanted to explore and that worked out beautifully in this central place, this turnstile, where people come in and out of each others' lives.

Guillén: And that was not only visually represented, but also revealed in the musicality of language. You offered not only your own Arabic language, but many other languages, including slang from the Black community, or the weird way that Roger—the White guy who took care of the parking lot—spoke whenever he came to the window. It was interesting to hear this community of distinct voices. This is, for me, what became the value of your portrait of this ensemble of races and how, surprisingly, they got along. You have an ear for dialogue that you have translated visually. Can you talk about that? About the musicality of language? And why you decided not to do just a Lebanese American narrative?

Nashef: I think that had a lot to do with my own personal upbringing. Because I did not grow up in such a concentrated Arab Lebanese community and grew up, instead, in a mixed community. That was my first nature: to always be in relation to other types of people. That element of the script came from my personal way of relating to others. And, as I said, the gas station itself was such a mix of people, which I basically found more interesting.

I knew that the romantic couple were going to be Arab American; but, one of my pet peeves about Arab characters in film, especially romantic films, is that Arab characters always hook up with non-Arabs. At least that's what I've always found in films. I knew that I wanted a young, hot Arab American couple; but, I wanted to surround them with this bouquet of people who represented, first, people in Detroit and, second, the kind of people they were trying to steer clear from. They wanted to date in private, but here were all these people coming in and out of their lives that bust up the romantic scenes or interrupt the drama or interrupt the comedy going on behind the glass.

Guillén: There's also a musicality to the editing. The sound of the door opening and closing was like a percussive lietmotif, and it drew attention to the film's pace and rhythm, by way of the editing. Editing, I understand, is something difficult to talk about, being largely intuitive, but why was that percussive punctuation important to you?

Nashef: Every single ding was written into the script. I come from a musical background. I grew up playing piano. My brother's a professional musician. Within our family, we call it the Nashef ear. We can hear a pin drop three flights up. My little nephew has it too. We don't know exactly what it is, but it's very sharp hearing. We feel lucky. So the musicality you're talking about was inside me the whole time. When I was writing the dialogue it was, as you said, musical. I always felt it needed a ding, a note. It was like that in the script from the beginning and I loved that, I loved how it sounded, and I constantly worked it in every time I had a new scene, either intentionally or naturally. The script for Detroit Unleaded is where I developed my style. Because I worked the script for so long, the editing followed the script.

Guillén: When you say you "worked" the script, how do you mean that? In workshop?

Nashef: I worked the feature script for two years and it was a torturous process. It was the first time I had ever written a script. It was a huge learning curve for me. I had a problem with structure. That was my biggest issue and I brought two writers on board towards the final draft to help me structure the script; but, what kept me going, was the joy of the dialogue and writing the dialogue. It was musical for me. It felt like composing. The characters were often born from the dialogue. I would hear a line of dialogue in my mind and think, "That's hilarious. Now I have to write a character that goes with this dialogue." Dialogue, for me, is first nature. I could write dialogue all day long.

Guillén: The interruptions that you described earlier—these moments of quite brilliant humor—how did you develop and incorporate them into the script's structure?

Nashef: Thank you. You mean the customers?

Guillén: Yeah.

Nashef: That element of the comic interruptions came from witnessing it or being on the phone with a couple of dear friends of mine who I would call to chat and be constantly interrupted by customers. It made me think about these Arab guys in the glass cages and how frustrated they must be. They're there for twelve hours of their lives but still have to conduct a life, still have to have relationships, but those relationships are constantly interrupted by customers. The characters were inspired by many different things.

Guillén: Where did that weird character Roger come from? Was he mentally challenged?

Nashef: He's just a character who was in my head and, yeah, he was just off. I always saw him living in another dimension that we don't live in; but, you still like him. I never specifically labeled him. Sometimes you meet people like him and you don't know what their story is. You don't know what their capacities are. You just know that maybe they live in another dimension than you and that's cool. I'm all about time traveling and all of that; go for it! Often times I would see homeless people who "worked" in the parking lots of gas stations. His name came to me first. Roger, he's the guy who works in the parking lot. To me he represented real freedom that Sami, the protagonist, the Arab guy in the glass cage, never had. But he lived in the parking lot and kind of lived in outer space. He thought gun shots were fireworks. What an interesting way to look at life. "You're missing the fireworks show." Which, in a way, represented what Sami was missing. He had something Sami didn't have. Roger started off as a character in the parking lot and he turned into this thing that interjected some magic into Sami's life. You didn't always get it or understand it, but you knew there was something about him that acted for something else.

Guillén: Since you bring up Sami, let's talk about him and Naj (EJ Assi and Nada Shouhayib, respectively); what a beautiful couple.

Nashef: Gorgeous, right?

Guillén: Truly. Sami's story touched me for being complicated. He's under so many subcultural pressures as a young man. I was disturbed by the scene where Fadi (Steven Soro), Naj's brother, forcibly takes her away from Sami. Does that really happen between brothers and sisters in Lebanese American culture, where the brother dominates the sister? Further, I couldn't quite get my bearings with her. I was a bit confused at film's end when Sami asks Naj on the phone, "Where are you?" and she says, "I can't tell you" and then you discover that he does know where she is. Can you explain to me what you were trying to communicate in that sequence?

Nashef: Sure. First of all, I like Fadi. I have known people like him. I didn't want to criminalize or demonize him. I didn't want to make him into the bad guy because there really are no heroes in the film.

Guillén: With regard to your earlier statement, it strikes me that Fadi is the guy who would have ended up with a girlfriend who wasn't Arab American.

Nashef: Oh yeah, for sure, he's a total player. You hear him on the phone complaining about having a headache from having gone out to the club the night before, whereas when Naj goes to the club, she has to run away when she sees her brother. Of course you will find that double-standard, but I think you would find it in a lot of other cultures as well, not just Lebanese American.

Guillén: You seem to want us to read affection into his behavior. As you say, he wasn't really a bad guy; he was just obnoxious and mean?

Nashef: Exactly. And has a temper.

Guillén: So I guess my curiosity is that—if you're trying to present an image of Lebanese American life, and you're presenting these qualities of that life—you're not really critical of these qualities?

Nashef: No, I don't want to judge them. I don't want to judge Fadi. If you're like that in your life, that's really your business and it's up to Naj—the victim of his obnoxiousness—to break free of that. It's not up to me to say that she should do this, this or this.

Guillén: Are you trying to say that she always knew her own direction?

Nashef: Yes, exactly.

Guillén: And that's what we, as the audience, have to accept. She's not really a victim; she's just temporarily in a victimized situation.

Nashef: Exactly. If you notice, she always knew that she was leaving. She had a plan. She had no intention of running his empire forever, no way, and sometimes—you know what?—you need someone like that to push you. If she didn't have a brother like that, would she have wanted to leave? Would she have wanted to go in another direction? I don't think that when people like Fadi are in your life that they are necessarily monsters who are going to destroy you; they're antagonists. They can push you in directions that aren't always so horrible. I've encountered many people like that—maybe not necessarily in the Arab community—who have pushed me and made me suffer; but, looking back on it, I think, "Wow. If that person hadn't made me suffer, I wouldn't be where I am today."

Guillén: I was intrigued by Fadi's use of the term "up do" girl. Is that Lebanese American slang? I've never heard that term before.

Nashef: I made it up.

Guillén: Ah, well, notwithstanding, the girls in the car were hilarious.

Nashef: Right?

Guillén: You should do a sequel that focuses just on those girls.

Nashef: That's my next film! It's about four Lebanese American girls trying to get married. When I moved to Detroit, I would see these girls who would go to the salon and get "up dos" and then go to public events like engagement parties and weddings to be seen. It's so bridal. It's a way of presenting yourself as a young woman who's ready to get married.

Guillén: That reminds me of a young woman I recently saw in San Francisco who came out of a nail salon with her nails done like eyelashes, which seemed like flirtation on a level I'd never seen before.

So if Fadi personified a subcultural constraint that encouraged Naj's emancipation and the couple's romantic freedom, it was predicated upon the fact that, in themselves, they were an incredibly sexy couple; but, sexy in terms of restraint of desire, and Sami's respect for Naj. You could have easily had them kissing or making out, but the fact that you held back made their desire even stronger so that—when they finally kissed—there was a collective gasp of relief in the audience.

Nashef: That's so cute! I love it.

Guillén: Is that restraint subcultural? Are young Lebanese American men and women compelled to that kind of restraint?

Nashef: Yes. Young Arab women are conflicted. I know I was. There are a lot of taboos that we deal with all the time. For me, they're being under the counter represents a couple of different things. If you look at them, they're so close, right? But they're also separated by this little piece of wood. Yet they're so intimate and sharing all these things.

Guillén: In the realm of such restraint, her dropping her scarf becomes provocative.

Nashef: As is the passing of the Skittles, and the passing of her phone. For me, these moments serve a metaphor of Arab American relationships that I was always witnessing or having myself where you're not supposed to touch each other. A lot of times in our communities we're supposed to know each other, but we're not supposed to date each other. We're just supposed to get engaged. He's supposed to come over with his family and ask for my hand. It's a culture of permission. That's what getting engaged is all about, really. Let's get engaged so we can actually be boyfriend and girlfriend in public in front of our parents and friends and then everything is okay; but, before that, we're not supposed to touch each other. But how are we supposed to get married if we're not supposed to touch each other? It's something we both embrace and rebel against; but, even if you rebel against it, you grow up thinking that way so the taboo is still present.

Guillén: I've often said that the principle of revolution still binds you to whatever you're rebelling against because you're in orbit around it, revolving around it, even as you're revolting against it. Taboos exert a gravitational field, even when you resist them. Since you've commented on this aspect of Lebanese American culture, have you shown Detroit Unleaded to Lebanese American audiences? How will they respond?

Nashef: We showed the film in Dubai, which had a predominantly Arab crowd, and we're working day and night to secure a distribution deal so we can put the film in theaters in Detroit, and I can't wait because the Arab American / Lebanese American people who have seen it are absolutely in love with it. It's the first time they've really seen themselves on screen as young, hip, cool and sexy. If you notice, you don't know what religion the characters are at all. There's no mention of fucking 9/11. There's no politics. There's no apologizing for being Arab American. There's no explanation of who we are as Arab Americans. There isn't a didactic approach—"This is Islam. This is our culture."—there's none of that there. It's just a fun, character-driven narrative. For me that means so much.

I've been receiving emails from young Arab American women who have only seen the trailer and tell me, "I can't believe this movie exists." I know that when I was growing up, I never saw anyone that looked like me, or any family that looked like mine, or representation of any of the issues I was dealing with, and—if they were—the representations were completely racist. It was a twofold phenomenon: we were either completely missing or completely bombarded with negative and racist imagery. So where was everybody inbetween? My absolute "favorite" is the apologetic explanation for terrorist images. "No, no, no, we're perfect. We are pious and religious and perfect people." That's boring! Nobody's perfect.

Guillén: It bores me when Christians do that, let alone Muslims.

Nashef: Right? We don't always need to be reacting to this representation. If we actually ignore it and make our own stories, that's more powerful than saying, "No, that's not us."

Guillén: In other words, defining oneself by default. Do you think your film will come under fire for bravely asserting its own self-representation? Isn't the film a bit out of the subcultural safety zone?

Nashef: It's honestly hard to tell. So far I've just received great reactions, to the humor, and to the authenticity of the characters. The reactions I've heard from Arab couples coming up to me after the screenings in Toronto and at other film festivals is: "You nailed it. You nailed the dynamic." They can identify with it. Any fire I might receive might be from people who just aren't comfortable with the film's honesty, with how the film discusses dating, which is fine. They can have that opinion but at least the discussion is out there and people are talking about it.

Guillén: Talk to me about the character of Sami's mother. She wasn't as adversarial as Fadi but she drove me to distraction. If I would have been Sami and my mother was snooping around in my room throwing away my things, I would have been furious. Can you speak to how you developed her character arc so that she finally became independent enough to allow Sami to pursue his own life?

Nashef: Throughout my life I've dealt with issues of mourning. Within the Arab community, we have a cultural tradition where the older women—not so much the younger women—are in mourning forever if their husband dies. They'll never wear color anymore. They'll never date anybody. They'll just sit and wait to die, basically. I always found that so sad and such a waste of life. My relationship to death is different than that cultural norm. To me, she represented this cultural norm, which also has something to do with what other people are going to say if a widow rejoins life. That concern over what other people are going to say is a cage. It was her cage.

Guillén: She was in a cage as Sami was in a cage.

Nashef: Exactly.

Guillén: But why wouldn't she even allow herself to interact with her neighbors? Even when they're Arab American and asking her to come visit?

Nashef: It's a form of self-punishment. "I will not have a good time here. I will live in mourning. I will no longer have friends. I will no longer live life to the fullest." It's a form of survivor's guilt. You see that a lot in my culture and it's sad. I had this one Italian woman come up to me after a screening in Toronto and she said, "That was my mother for 20 years." Whether Christian or Muslim, it's a Mediterranean thing.

Guillén: What makes her shift attitude and achieve her arc?

Nashef: Knowing that she's not really alone. When Sami says to her, "No matter where I am, you're never going to be alone." First of all, just hearing that helps her.

Guillén: Was it because he finally let go? He had been playing into her survivor's guilt?

Nashef: Right. That's exactly it. It's almost as if Sami is enabling her by never confronting her about her survivor's guilt. He begins to confront her slowly by planting ideas in her head, like "You should try that dress on. No, I'm not going to let you throw out all your colorful clothes." By his gradually resisting, it helps them work together. She also realizes she has to let him go. She tells him, "You have your whole life ahead of you. You deserve to fly in this world." That's her way of telling him that she doesn't want to weigh him down anymore. She wants him to be free. She doesn't want him to feel guilt-ridden over her and be forced to live with her and stay with her.

Guillén: It was an interesting shift in consciousness because, until then, she had been laying quite a few guilt trips on him. She started out accusing him of leaving her alone, but then she somewhat abruptly switched gears and accepted his statement that she was not alone. Her husband had already told her that she needed to let him fly, but she had to come to her own acceptance of letting him fly.

Nashef: Right.

Guillén: And in terms of narrative detail, I remain curious as to how Sami knew where to find Naj?

Nashef: I'll admit that there was a little bit of a breakdown in the narrative at that point and in its execution. In trying to establish an ending there were certain things I wanted to achieve. I wanted them to leave together. I didn't want anybody to know where she went or where they were going together. It was her secret and I didn't want to tell the audience her secret. There's a kind of superstition in my culture that—if you tell someone something secret—they'll potentially put a curse on you.

Guillén: Ah, the evil eye?

Nashef: You'll often hear people say, "If you're pregnant, don't say anything, because they'll curse you." I've always found that superstition interesting because, for me, superstition always stems from some real place.

Guillén: And as I understand it, the evil eye is based on envy and jealousy, right? So the way I read that "secret" was that—if you are in a subculture where your individuality is repressed and what people think matters—then that is the evil eye. You're collectively stalled in your individual momentum. It holds true in Latino communities as well. Gossip can tether you. I was talking to a Japanese American friend of mine once where we realized both our mothers did the same thing: they "enemy" people. My Mom can go into a room full of strangers and she'll turn to me and say, "That person doesn't like me." And I'll say, "Mom, you haven't even met that person. You don't know if they like you or not." "Oh no," she'll argue, "I know they don't like me."

Nashef: That's hilarious!!

Guillén: So, as an audience member, I have to be content that this is Naj and Sami's romantic secret that I'm not privy to?

Nashef: Yeah. We had an option to keep shooting to explain things more, but I just wanted to end it. I knew the audience would get it. I left it up to their imagination.

Guillén: Even without exactly knowing what's going on, the result is still satisfying.

Nashef: Yeah. But I do get that question a lot. Perhaps if I did it over again, I might elaborate a little bit more. There were a couple of options for the ending, but this is the one we went with.

Guillén: I did love the final image of the gas pump and of the car driving away and then turning around and driving off in the other direction.

Nashef: It's sweet, right?

Guillén: Finally, let's talk about your Toronto experience. I consider it a pretty remarkable feat that you got into TIFF with your first feature.

Nashef: Thank you.

Guillén: Let alone that you received an award and critical accolades. Can you talk a bit about how you got into TIFF and why you elected not to traffic the film first in, let's say, the Arab American film festival circuit?

Nashef: I want as wide a distribution as possible. Detroit Unleaded was inspired by my community; but, it was made for everybody. The older I get and the more experience I get, I find it more and more difficult to put myself in a box of who I am. I don't want to put this film in any kind of a box. I wanted it to have a world-class international premiere so that it would have the exposure it deserved.

Guillén: How did you negotiate getting that international premiere?

Nashef: Honestly, it was based on the quality of the film. I went through the IFP Labs in New York. They're wonderful. They take films in post-production. They sign your rough cut and they mentor you through the completion of your film and then through the premiere. They started hooking me up with film programmers and all of that; but, Jane Schoettel at Toronto was actually the one who reached out to me. She had heard about the film through IFP and she thought it might be a good fit for TIFF. The first year she reached out was in 2011, but the film wasn't done yet. In 2012, I wrote her to advise that the film was near completion and I could show her a new film. We had made a couple of reshoots by that point to make the film better. Our post-production took a year and a half. We had two or three reshoots and the script changed a lot. We just kept making it better and always sending it out and consulting, "How can I make this better?"

Once we got it up to this level, that's when Jane said, "I think you did it. You achieved what you were trying to achieve last year." So it was a matter of my understanding that the film was not done, trusting my gut intuition, and knowing it needed further cuts. I think young filmmakers often make the mistake of rushing through post-production because they just want to get the film out there. I had already been working on Detroit Unleaded for a year so patience was no longer an issue with me. I didn't care. I didn't want to put it out prematurely. I can see now that—if I had put it out even a month before—it would not have been the same film. Every single step we took was to raise the quality of the film.

Guillén: How did you negotiate financing the film?

Nashef: Four private investors in Michigan. It was a low-budget film so people who were the closest around me watched me trying to raise the money. Then my family, the four investors, came to me and said, "All right, we have this amount"—which was a fraction of what I was going for—and, at first, I was like, "I can't make a film for this amount" and then I thought, "Yes, you can. You can do it." So I took that first chunk of money that my family invested in the film and—as soon as that came in—another chunk came in, and then I called on my community. I started pulling in favors. I found my DP Keir Yee who invested his time and his equipment because he loved the script so much. He was a well-known commercial DP in Detroit and this was his first feature film. He also became a co-producer because he put in so much in-kind support.

Honestly, it was the script that sold the film. People came down on their rates. People donated all kinds of stuff. We had tons of free food. It was a 23-day shoot and restaurants around us were thrilled to support us because it was rare that someone in Detroit was making a film and it was a positive portrayal. All the products in the gas station were donated.

Guillén: Your community support is good to hear because Detroit has a bad rap. Almost everything I hear about Detroit is that it's in dissolution.

Nashef: But this wasn't like that. It wasn't sugar-coated, and even if our environment is delapidated and broken down in all these ways, Detroiters are not; they have such a strong spirit. I wanted to capture that positive spirit in the film.

Guillén: Rola, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Nashef: Thank you for all your support.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

RETURN TO GREY GARDENSThe Evening Class Interview With Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ)

I think I read on Wikipedia or some other reliable source that Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ) is genetically inclined to reappropriate films for his (her) own purposes. "Nothing is sacred," the infamous drag star impresario is rumored to have said. Specifically not the Maysles Brothers' 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, which depicts the everyday lives of two reclusive socialites, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (1895–1977), known as "Big Edie", and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (1917–2002), known as "Little Edie", who lived at Grey Gardens, a decrepit mansion at 3 West End Road in the wealthy Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton, New York.

The narrative thrust of two women living together for decades with limited funds in increasing squalor and isolation is just the kind of tale that no one—not even the discriminating Peaches Christ—can leave alone. It's the perfect tale to divert our attentions from the Tea Party takeover of the U.S. government. The Maysles documentary was adapted into an Emmy®-winning HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore; two plays—Little Edie & The Marble Faun by David Lally and A Few Small Repairs by David Robson; plus a Broadway musical. But hang onto your head scarves, bitches, because Peaches Christ has licked her finger, stuck it in the air, and declared it's Monsoon season! Or maybe she exposed her tits, I'm not quite sure, but one way or the other she's gotten herself banned from Facebook. Honestly, Peaches! On the very week that you need to ramp up? Really?

Jinkx Monsoon, who has been milking the Grey Gardens schtick for decades, dons her revolutionary costume again as she reprises her now-famous Little Edie routine in the upcoming stage show Return to Grey Gardens. In this Peaches Christ adaptation, the S-T-A-U-N-C-H queen is living in a dilapidated theater with her crazed drag mother. Paired with a screening of the original Grey Gardens, the production comes to San Francisco's legendary Castro Theater on October 12—just in time for a little pre-Halloween thrill. Sharing the stage with Jinkx and Peaches is everybody's favorite, Mink Stole. Post-show, Mink will be signing copies of her new CD Do Re Mink; that is, Peaches quips, "If Jinkx is awake."

My thanks to Joshua for taking time to meet me at a noisy greasy spoon during my last visit to San Francisco to talk about this weekend's main event.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I'm always curious how you and your team decide which film to adapt for your stage shows? Why Grey Gardens?

Joshua Grannell: When we made the leap from the Bridge Theater to the Castro Theater a few years back, we re-imagined a lot of our "signature" shows like Showgirls, Purple Rain and Mommie Dearest. That whole first year was spent re-creating shows we had done on a much smaller scale on a big scale to see how it would go. Then, in these last two years, I'm surprised by the fact that we've been doing all new productions (with the exception of Showgirls). Honestly, it's refreshing and exciting for me because I was worried that we weren't going to be able to do that. I worried that new projects weren't going to be able to fill the house at the Castro. It's so expensive for me to mount a show there that I have to have minimum attendance just to break even. The Castro Theater—I don't think this is any secret—rents for $6,000.00 for a Saturday. The film rental is always expensive. It's often a big chunk percent of my ticket price. Unlike any other event promoter, I put on giant productions. The queens get paid. The crew gets paid. We rent outside lighting and sound and that's all before marketing, the cost of graphic design, and advertising.

Guillén: I haven't talked to anyone who hasn't acknowledged how professional your stage shows are.

Grannell: I'm glad everyone thinks that. Sometimes I think, "How do I make money doing this?"

Guillén: Wait a minute, I thought you were in it for the fame and the glamour?

Grannell: I used to be in the early days. [Laughs.] Obviously, getting to make a living doing something I love is still a total joy; but, as the years go on, you start to think about what you're going to do to sustain a living. It's been great. It's been really really good. There have been shows that have not paid off where I've lost money; but, the good side is that—from a business point of view—we're doing a good job. These shows and new events and new guests and new ideas are proving themselves more often than not to be a viable business plan for me, which is really exciting.

So we've been experimenting with a lot with movies that have been on a list and Grey Gardens has certainly been on that list for years. But I had certain reluctances. You remember Midnight Mass in its early days? It was a debaucherous midnight free-for-all. Certainly, I encouraged that, created that, and celebrated it with such things as drag queen roller derby. We turned a blind eye to the amount of drunkeness. So there were movies for me that were bona fide cult classics, but I was maybe afraid of my own audience's interpretation of why I was screening them. I never wanted to screen something where I felt like the audience might laugh at the movie in a way that I wasn't comfortable with. Since we had set up this sort of debaucherous Showgirls-type environment, Grey Gardens for me was almost too precious. I loved the two Edies so much, I loved the movie so much, and I've watched it so many times, that I would have been heartbroken if I ever felt that any single person wasn't getting the spirit with which we were celebrating these two women.

So it took a certain number of years for me to approach Grey Gardens as a viable project. Moving to the Castro Theatre and doing shows at 3:00 and 8:00, instead of midnight, and having become an older, more established performer, has made me better able to direct the spirit with which we present things. I was nervous to present Paris Is Burning earlier this year, but we did that and it went well. I don't know if everybody was on board for our pre-show because we attempted to authentically re-create a ball with actual ball participants—both on the judges' side and on the contestants' side—and so in the spirit of a ball, it was way too long. It was vicious. [Laughs.] The judges weren't afraid to turn against the audience. Things that people at a Peaches show are not used to. So I did get some feedback but I was like, "Well, I promised to give you a ball and I gave you a ball, so...." But it went well. The things that I was worried about were not an issue. We were celebrating those subjects and their legacy and obviously all of the significant players are no longer with us so there wasn't an option to bring one of the queens in. We had the blessing of Jennie Livingston. Jennie and I corresponded a lot before the event. I really felt that we did it correctly.

A bit earlier than that event, I met with Jinkx Monsoon over at Stacks, we had lunch, and it was the same afternoon that her Little Edie episode on RuPaul's Drag Race was airing. It hadn't aired yet when we got together to talk, but I had seen the commercials and I could tell from the marketing that she was going to do well. They were really featuring her as Little Edie in the build-up to the next episode. Jinkx just happened to be in town to do a viewing party at one of the Castro gay bars and so we had lunch and she was very generous and sweet and actually showed me pictures of me and her when I had gone to Seattle in past years. We, of course, had corresponded via email—she could quote All About Evil, all of it—and it was a mutual lovefest. I told her, "I love you on Drag Race, I love what you're bringing, and I think you're one of us for sure, and I would love it if maybe you and I could do an event together."

Whenever I had taken Peaches to Seattle, Jinkx would come to the shows; but, we had never performed together. We did a Trannyshack event together in Seattle, so we had met before, but we didn't really know each other very well. So when she came to town, we had a three-hour lunch. We talked and talked and talked. Finally, I said, "You know, I've seen the commercials for the Drag Race episode airing tonight and I've been wanting to do Grey Gardens and certain things have stalled me over the years, like the Drew Barrymore project and then the musical; but, now that I feel that they've done their thing, if you're up to it, let's do it!" Jinkx was very excited about the idea, giddy, and jumped on board, and added, "Wait until you see the episode tonight! I think you'll be even more excited." I said, "Oh, do you win?" But, of course, she couldn't tell me, but she said, "I think you'll be pleased." The episode was even better than I could have imagined because one of the things that came out in the episode was how many of the other queens weren't familiar with Grey Gardens and were looking at Jinkx like, "What are you doing? You're crazy. You're performing as this person that nobody knows." What was great was that the cool, cultured gay response was, "Shame on those queens for not knowing who Little Edie is."

Guillén: You say Grey Gardens has been on your list for a long time, and you tell me this reaction of the queens to Jinkx on Drag Race, do you have concerns that your audience will even remember Grey Gardens?

Grannell: Well, I think Grey Gardens is in the pop culture zeitgeist, but I don't know how many younger people have actually seen or studied the Maysles Brothers film so I told Jinkx, "Let's screen the original documentary and do a drag pre-show that's very much us. We're not going to do the Drew Barrymore / Jessica Lange thing"—which was actually very well done, I was a fan, and though I haven't seen the musical, Jinkx was a fan of the musical. So what was great was that we didn't dislike these things that had previously come out based on the documentary, but we agreed to do our own thing. I guess I felt it was a risk to some degree to commit to doing it, moreso than The Craft with Sharon Needles. I knew that was going to do well. When I saw The Craft back in the '90s in a theater here in San Francisco, we were already doing Midnight Mass, and I was like, "Oh, I'll do that someday. Give it time." Me and Martiny talked about it. Whereas with Grey Gardens, I'm still not sure three weeks out how it's all going to go; but, the enthusiasm for our production is there.

Guillén: Gauging from your Facebook event page, you already have quite a following committed to coming.

Grannell: We've already sold over 1,000 tickets. We've even added a second show. So I'm not as worried as I was initially. The good news is I'm not freaking out the way I normally would be if it was three weeks away and we had only sold 100 tickets. We had to add a second show because our VIP seats sold out almost immediately for the 8:00 show.

Guillén: So you don't normally screen documentaries?

Grannell: Well, we did Paris Is Burning. And, actually, Truth Or Dare was our first documentary many years ago. I can't think of any others.

Guillén: So give me a glimpse of your process and how you develop a show like this. You and Jinkx got together and decided to do it, then what? Did you have follow-up pow wow sessions where you bantered around ideas? Did you come up with a script?

Grannell: No, usually I first decide on the style of the show. If an iconic celebrity is involved who I want to interview or get inside their head then I use a model—much like I do for SF Sketchfest—of bringing someone, like Cloris Leachman, and show a movie of her's; but, the show is more of a tribute to her with a sit-down interview where the show is about me and that person.

Guillén: Idol worship.

Grannell: Exactly! Idol worship is what I always call it. Then, lately I've been having so much fun—even though it's way more expensive and lots of work—doing giant sketch comedy parodies where we appropriate the narrative through the lens of our own characters. That's what I've been really inspired by lately. So we're not doing what Heklina and the girls have done with Golden Girls or Sex in the City where they do a verbatim re-creation of an existing script, which is very funny and its own theatrical device. I, instead, live with the movie for a while, watch the movie over and over again, and adjust it to the world of our characters. For example, with The Craft it was very much Sharon Needles and Honey and Alaska as these existing witches, but they were also very much themselves: drag queen witches who had all been on Drag Race and were evil and bitchy. A kind of mash-up with Peaches as the new girl moving to L.A. to become one of them. So convincing was my announcement that I was moving to L.A. that people were devastated and emailing me and I had to assure them, "No, that was all part of the show. I'm not moving to L.A. I'm here." The other day I was at the Castro and someone was looking at the poster for Grey Gardens and another woman said, "I thought Peaches had moved to L.A.!"

Guillén: There you go starting rumors about yourself again! Now, you'll be doing the Grey Gardens show in Seattle as well the following week. What's involved with that? With transferring a show?

Grannell: A lot of times when I do out-of-town events, it's essentially a watered-down version of what we do in San Francisco, in the sense that it's maybe me in costume working with a local group. With All About Evil, we tried harder to re-create the experience everywhere we went. In Seattle, only once did we actually move our show, about eight or nine years ago when we brought Purple Rain up there; but, it was so hard and so much work that, since then for the next 10 shows I've done up there, it's been me on an airplane re-creating the show with a number or maybe an Idol Worship show, bringing in Mink Stole or whoever, which has been fabulous. But because Jinkx's home town is Seattle, and there was a less-than-subtle, almost angry, outcry from Seattle that this event was happening only in San Francisco, my good friend Jason Ford who runs Seattle's queer film festival asked me, "What would it take to bring it to Seattle?" I said, "For a show like this that's so high-profile and generating so much excitement, it's going to take more than just putting Jinkx and I on stage before the film. Let's move the show." So we have our crew renting a truck driving all the props and costumes up to Seattle; everything's being transported. The chorus will be re-cast with local queens. I mean, imagine the expense that would be involved in trying to fly the local cast up there? We have four raccoons, four cats, to flesh this out into a Peaches show. It couldn't be a two-woman show for an hour. We needed it to have my silly drag sensibility thrown into the mix. Yeah, there's a talking raccoon.

Guillén: You have a silly sensibility?!!

Grannell: I do. Believe it or not!

Guillén: Will Mink also participate in the Seattle show?

Grannell: Sadly, no. That's a bummer.

Guillén: Other than for the fact that she loves working with you, what's the rationale for casting her in this production?

Grannell: Yeah, because it's random! And I know it's random. I'll be really honest. I was home in Maryland in June, spending a lot of time with Mink in Baltimore, and she and my mom and I went shopping and we were talking about how much fun we had on the All About Evil tour. Her new CD Do Re Mink has just come out, and I love it, it's fabulous, so I said, "You should come out to San Francisco and do a concert. Let's do it together." But, again, the reality of bringing her band and doing a concert correctly would be so much work. We may do that someday, but that's a different project. Then I said, "Well, you know Mink, any time that you're available and I'm putting on a show, I will find a place for you." That was basically it. So she said, "Okay." I told her, "When I get home, I'm going to send you the dates for my upcoming shows for the rest of the year." I emailed her the dates. The only one that worked out with her schedule was Grey Gardens, because she's doing a Tennessee Williams festival in November for this show she's getting rave reviews for. I think it premiered in Provincetown and now it's going to do a run in New York. Between rehearsals and her other show, the only date that worked was Grey Gardens. So I said, "Okay, we'll figure it out."

When I sat down to do the rough writing of the pre-show, I actually knew I wanted Mink to be in it and it's too bad you're not going to see the show because I think we make it work. Ladybear plays Jackie O in the pre-show. I mean, we take liberties! [Laughs.] But without giving too much away, the conceit of our Return to Grey Gardens is that it's set 40 years into the future. Jinkx came to San Francisco on October 12, 2013 in the middle of doing her sold-out run in New York City—which is what she's going through now; her vaudevillian show has gotten rave reviews and has been extended and extended and keeps selling out—but we've set it up so that our event was already on the books so we have to pull her out of New York so she can come do Grey Gardens in San Francisco, and the conceit is that Peaches won't let her leave for 40 years. They're performing the same show in the Castro Theatre, which has gotten completely run-down because no other movies have screened there, Peaches is this megalomaniac who has insisted that they keep doing this show, and so that's where the show picks up: an empty auditorium, no audience, and we're up on stage going through the motions. Mink plays herself. There's a big birthday party scene where Mink is there, awkwardly, but it's actually part of an intervention. Of course, with this narrative set-up, we won't skip any of the moments. Jinkx will still present the costume of the day. There's a Jerry Torre, who just happens to be openly gay and living in the Castro. It'll be fun!

Monday, October 07, 2013

FICM 2013—Arturo de Córdova Retrospective

Arturo de Córdova (May 8, 1908–November 3, 1973), considered one of the most important actors from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, will be honored posthumously as part of the International Film Festival of Morelia (FICM), whose eleventh edition will take place October 18-27, 2013 in Michoacan's capital. De Córdova will be remembered 40 years after his death by way of a retrospective of some of his most beloved films, to be screened in restored 35mm prints. This cycle of films, out of a body of work of 100 films, have been selected for the festival retrospective.

Daniela Michel, director of the FICM, announced the retrospective at a recent press conference, indicating that a tribute to de Córdova was long overdue and emphasizing the necessity to pay tribute to a Mexican actor who—though not the typical image of the charro cantor (i.e., the singing Mexican cowboy)—nonetheless reflected the shifting Mexican perspectives of his generation. She added: "He was a contemporary actor who not only worked in Mexico, but also in Spain, the U.S. and Argentina."

The de Córdova restrospective will span the actor's career, beginning with his first screen appearance in Celos (Jealousy, 1936), directed by Arcady Boytler; continuing with Cielito Lindo (Beautiful Sky, 1936), co-directed by Robert Quigley and Roberto Gavaldón; La Zandunga (1938), directed by Fernando de Fuentes and co-starring the "Mexican Spitfire" Lupe Velez; La Noche De Los Mayas (Night of the Mayas, 1939), directed by Chano Urueta; El Pirata y La Dama (Frenchman's Creek, 1944), a Hollywood vehicle directed by Mitchell Leisen and co-starring Joan Fontaine; Crepúsculo (Twilight, 1945) written and directed by Julio Bracho; La diosa arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess, 1947), Casanova aventurero (Adventures of Casanova, 1948), En La Palma De Tu Mano (In the Palm Of Your Hand, 1950), and El rebozo de Soledad (Soledad's Shawl, 1952), all four directed at the peak of de Córdova's career by Roberto Gavaldón; Él (This Strange Passion, 1953), directed by Luis Buñuel; and El esqueleto de la señora Morales (The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales, 1960), directed by Rogelio A. González.

According to Michel, the goal is to project the films on 35mm, a task that has involved an arduous process of restoration with the collaboration of the FICM, the UNAM Film Archive, and producer Alex Garcia, grandson of the artist, who said he was "proud and excited " by the tribute to his grandfather. In addition, Garcia has started to search through family photos, many never seen before by the public, to add onto a photographic exhibition of production stills from the actor's career to be mounted in Benito Juarez Plaza.

"This is the first time a festival pays tribute to Arturo de Córdova, a prolific man whose films deserve to be seen by the public, especially by young people. No doubt it is a cycle that will go down in history as one of the most important, because it includes productions that have not been exhibited in decades," said Daniela Michel.

Born in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, Arturo de Córdova (née Arturo García Rodríguez) moved around a lot as a child, first to the U.S., then Argentina where he was educated by Jesuit priests from the age of 11-20. Later his parents sent him to Switzerland for language studies. It's believed his family pilgrimages were due to a fearful desire to flee the revolutionary turmoil that then shook Mexico. After completing his studies in Switzerland, he returned to Argentina in 1928, where he acquired the distinctive accent that later—combined with his deep voice—became a signature characteristic of his screen performances. His journalistic vocation took him to Santiago de Chile to serve as a correspondent and deputy director of the news agency United Press. In 1932, he sought to emigrate to the United States, but during the trip stopped to visit his home town Merida for several months, where he became "haunted" by a pretty young girl named Enna Arana, and stayed. They married on August 23, 1933.

While in Merida, he took advantage of his impeccable diction and his clear, sonorous and manly voice to become a radio announcer.  Eventually, he left Enna behind to seek his fortune in Mexico City, where he continued announcing at the XEW. His theatrical talents were demonstrated through characters he played on the radio, notably Charles Lacroix, who he immortalized. Legend has it that the velvety timbre of de Córdova's voice soon caught the attention of Russian emigré Arcady Boytler, a director and producer who offered him a good role in his film Celos (Jealousy, 1935), co-starring Don Fernando Soler and Vilma Vidal. At this juncture, his friend Robert Cantu suggested he change his name, arguing that Arturo García Rodríguez sounded too common, whereas Arturo de Cordova implied an aristocratic ancestry. Entering the Mexican film industry in the 1930s, it didn't take de Córdova long to become a major star, specializing in action and adventure films.

It would be in Robert Quigley's Ave Sin Rumbo (Wandering Bird, 1937), co-starring Andrea Palma (who publicists had nicknamed the "Mexican Marlene Dietrich") where de Córdova began developing his classic persona as a tragic and tormented heartthrob, always beset by inner doubts and a strong sense of guilt, unable to prevent his fatal destiny ... except through love and redemptive sacrifice; an enterprise complicated by femme fatales seeking to sink him in the mire of dishonor. This characteristic facet appeared again and again in such titles as Ave Sin Rumbo, El conde de Montecristo (The Count of Monte Cristo, 1942), Crepusculo (Twilight, 1945), La selva de fuego (The Forest Fire, 1945), La Diosa Arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess, 1947), Dios se lo pague (God Bless You, 1948), El Hombre sin Rostro (The Man Without a Face, 1950), Paraíso robado (Stolen Paradise, 1951), Cuando Levanta la Niebla (When the Fog Lifts, 1952), Él (This Strange Passion, 1953), La Entrega (The Delivery, 1954), Feliz Año, Amor Mío (Happy New Year, My Love, 1957), and Miércoles de Ceniza (Ash Wednesday, 1958), among others.

Alongside this persona, he perfected his air of being a "man of the world"—a gallant bohemian, cavalier, irresponsible and casual, inspiring sympathetic interest from ladies who he could easily conquer and make fall limp into his arms—a practice witnessed in such memorable and fun films as Su Ultima Aventura (The Last Adventure, 1946), Cinco Rostros de Mujer (Five Faces of Women, 1947), Mi Esposa y la Otra (My Wife and the Other, 1952), Las Tres Perfectas Casadas (The Three Perfect Wives, 1953), Bodas de Oro (Golden Anniversaries, 1956), Canasta de Cuentos Mexicanos (1956), A Media Luz los Tres (1958), El Hombre que me Gusta (The Man That Pleases Me, 1958), Mi Esposa Me Comprende (My Wife Understands Me, 1959), Mis Padres se Divorcian (My Parents Are Divorced, 1959), and La Cigüeña Dijo Sí (The Stork Said Yes, 1960).

As specified by Hal Erickson at Rovi: "Having lost Rudolph Valentino in a 1924 contract dispute, Paramount Pictures never gave up hope of discovering and nurturing a new 'Latin Lover' type. Thus it was that Paramount signed Mexican actor Arturo de Córdova, popular in his native country's films since 1935, to a Hollywood contract in 1943. De Córdova was showcased in the small but memorable role of Augustín in Paramount's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), then starred in a handful of subsequent features, the best of which was Frenchman's Creek (1944), in which he co-starred with Joan Fontaine."

Along with his turns in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Frenchman's Creek (1944), de Córdova also starred in Hostages (1943), Incendiary Blonde (1945) with Betty Hutton, A Medal For Benny (1945), and New Orleans (1947) with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday. He was the leading man in each of these movies except For Whom the Bell Tolls. However, after a few attempts in lower-budget films, de Córdova returned to Mexico to continue his career there, eventually surpassing his previous fame and also becoming a major star in South America and Spain until his premature retirement in the early 1950s. "On the whole," Erickson opines, "Arturo de Córdova's Spanish-language roles were more rewarding than his Hollywood assignments, especially his feverish portrayal of an insane aristocrat in Luis Buñuel's El (1951)."

Most of de Córdova's films were made in Mexico where he won three Silver Ariels for Best Actor (En la Palma de tu Mano, 1952; Las Tres perfectas casadas, 1954; and Feliz año, amor mío, 1958), while receiving four other nominations. He endorsed the phrase "That is of no importance" quoted in several of his films.

His specialty was tormented characters who often sank into madness. His good looks and elaborate elegance made him a favorite of the public. By some, he was called the "Mexican Clark Gable." As noted at Cuba Now, "His most typical image was that of a handsome man with a chequered suit, penetrating eyes and a deep tone in his voice. With brown and wavy hair, small moustache, a ductile face and with a cigarette between his fingers, Arturo de Córdova played good and bad characters with the same mastery. 'With his personality, he created a style. And with the grey hair on his temples he made the best middle-aged heartthrob of Mexican cinematography,' wrote distinguished Cuban critic Rodolfo Santovenia in the weekly Orbe in 2009, conferring upon him two essential conditions: charisma and ability."

In 1948 he filmed Medianoche (Midnight, 1949) the first of 11 films where he and Marga López worked together. One of the most popular couples of Mexican cinema, they were romantically linked through the last years of his life until de Córdova's death at 68 by stroke in Mexico City on November 3, 1973. In the mid-'60s he had separated with (though, apparently, never divorced) his wife Enna Arana. He went to live with Marga López, who was his great love, both in film and in real life. Apart from Midnight, they worked together on the hilarious comedy Mi Esposa y la Otra (My Wife and the Other, 1952), where an eight-year-old Angelica Maria appeared as the daughter of Marga López. The melodrama Feliz Año, Amor Mío (Happy New Year, My Love, 1957), based on the book Letters of an Unknown by Stephen Zwieg, is one of their most successful pairings.

There are several online filmographies for Arturo de Córdova, including Turner Classic Movies, MUBI, Fandango, Blockbuster, Amazon, Film Guide and Optimum Gambling.

I guess it should be expected that a star who shines this bright will inevitably cast a shadow of scandal. Although his relationship with Marga López was considered one of the great romances of Mexican cinema, a news item entitled "Neurotic Chronicles: A puddle of blood" published in the September 18, 2006 edition of El Universal implicated de Córdova in a homosexual tryst with fellow Mexican actor Ramón Gay. No one might have given this item much notice had it not been authored by Rafael Pérez Gay, who recalled that his father and Ramón "were cousins and friends inseparable during his teenage years." Rafael Pérez Gay later incorporated this article and expanded his suspicions in his published exposé Nos acompañan los muertos (We accompany the dead) (Planeta, 2009), wherein he expressed that it took his grandparents several years to admit that Ramón was gay and having sex with Arturo de Córdova. Miguel Angel Morales has tried to follow up on the story but hasn't revealed much more than hearsay. The same with Guadalupe Loaeza.

As detailed in the piece for El Universal, Ramón Gay was murdered on the morning of May 27, 1960, in front of actress Evangelina Elizondo by Elizondo's ex-husband, petroleum engineer José Luis Paganoni. Evangelina Elizondo and Ramón Gay were friends and were working together on a play 30 Seconds of Love at the Roundabout Theatre. One of the first people to be notified of Gay's murder was de Córdova and there was no question that de Córdova was emotionally impacted by the death of his protégé, who he had hand-picked to play the character Carlos Lacroix for the film Las Aventuras de Carlos Lacroix (1959); a character he had initially originated on radio to great success.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

BIG BAD WOLVES (2013)—Fantasia Q&A With Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado

It's an oft-stated supposition that one of the redeeming values of genre films—particularly horror, sci-fi, and thrillers—is the capacity to reflect the anxieties of the predominant culture. This cultural component is essential to framing an appreciation of Big Bad Wolves (2013) [Facebook], the sophomore effort by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (Rabies, 2010), which seeks to introduce the violent revenge thriller to home turf audiences more accustomed to dysfunctional family dramas and war-torn narratives. Keshales and Papushado have negotiated this challenge by premiering Wolves first at Tribeca (where it emerged as the single best-reviewed title in that festival's lineup) and then at Fantasia (where it won the juried Cheval Noir Award for Best Film, as well as Best Screenplay) before opening theatrically in Israel. Their strategy appeared to have worked as critical buzz rallied anticipation of the film's theatrical release and earned Wolves eleven nominations for the Israeli Ophir Awards, resulting in five wins (best cinematography, best makeup, best production design, best original music and best original soundtrack). Even though Wolves lost out to Bethlehem (2013) as the Israeli submission to the foreign language category of the Academy Awards®, their negotiated distribution strategy remains a compelling achievement, let alone that the film is enthralling entertainment that satisfies international appetites even as it challenges national ones. Yet another argument for the international reach of genre films. Big Bad Wolves will be released by Magnet Releasing.

Described in its official marketing as "a brutal comedy for a mad mad mad mad world", this gripping, genre-bending tale of vengeance and fury kicks off in Lars von Trier slo-mo with a game of hide and seek, beautifully lensed by Giora Bejach and powerfully scored by Frank Ilfman. In an elegant, throwaway visual reference to the Grimms fairy tale, a little blonde-haired girl in a red jacket is abducted and brutally murdered. A suspect spotted near the scene of the crime (newcomer Rotem Keinan as mild-mannered schoolteacher Dror) is apprehended by local official Miki (charismatic favorite Lior Ashkenazi) who enlists two thugs to beat Dror up during questioning. Unbeknownst to Miki, his tactics are caught on cell phone by an eyewitness who broadcasts the footage on YouTube, ensuring his captive's release and costing him his job. This narrative detail shimmers with relevance as it underscores how citizen surveillance hobbles the ability of law enforcement to do their jobs, even while it cogently critiques the violence with which those jobs are effected.

Miki goes renegade, stalking Dror, while at the same time the two are stalked in turn by the dead girl's father Gidi (veteran actor Tzahi Grad). This triangulation ensures mounting vigilante tension in the vein of Dirty Harry. What ensues are some nail biting chase scenes, unexpected twists and turns, and a moral ambiguity about the nature of vigilante justice. All of this might seem like overly familiar territory but what elevates this effort is how Keshales and Papushado balance their drama with mordant humor; another blend generally unfamiliar to Israeli audiences. The balance between action, drama and comedy is brilliantly pitched, which distinguishes it from such films as The Silence (2010) and Michael, let's say, where the unwholesome subjects of infanticide and child abuse are never played for laughs. Which leads to a minor, but for me interesting, point. In Dark Nature, Lyall Watson's study of the nature of evil, Watson proposes a hierarchy of evil that determines all subsequent definitions. The ultimate evil recognized world-wide, Watson suggests, is any crime that works against the preservation of the species, of which the murder of children is consensually ranked high on the list. There's no ambiguity there. Ambiguity arises in the evils committed in response to such a horrific act when men take the law into their own hands to avenge the death of children.

Although Keshales and Papushado are insistent that they have purposely avoided politicizing their film, its violence aptly reflects the perpetuation of vengeful atrocities in the Mideast. Keshales and Papushado introduce an Arab character on horseback who contests all stereotypes and who insinuates that the true threat to Israeli society comes from within, not without. This is, of course, a prickly subject and it will be fascinating to see how Israeli audiences react to the implication.

To celebrate the theatrical success of Big Bad Wolves and its quintet of Ophirs, I offer a transcription of the film's Fantasia Q&A session.

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Introducing the one-off Fantasia screening of Big Bad Wolves at Montreal's Imperial Theater, Aharon Keshales identified himself as "the short guy" and jokingly recalled that he and Navot Papushado had attended Fantasia three years previously with their first film Rabies and that, afterwards, they couldn't stop talking about Fantasia for an entire month. Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis was one of Rabies' biggest fans and Keshales worried that their follow-up would disappoint Davis. When they sent the screener of Wolves to Davis, they were terrified what he would think—Had they betrayed his confidence? Would he be sorry for having believed in them?—but Davis sent them one of the most touching acceptance letters they'd ever received. "Mitch writes with his heart," Keshales asserted, "I got a love letter from Mitch. How many of you can say that?" The letter made him so emotional that he phoned Papushado up immediately and read it over the phone to him, who started crying on the other side of the line. Keshales seized the opportunity to underscore that as gruesome as the narrative might be in Wolves, he and Papushado actually have kind hearts.

Navot Papushado stepped up to the microphone next and recalled that three years ago when they brought Rabies to Fantasia, they knew nothing about genre film festivals and their audiences. They did the exact opposite with Rabies than their strategy for Wolves, opening it first in Israel and then letting it roll out on the festival circuit, including Fantasia, where they couldn't believe how incredible the audiences were. They went back to Israel and related their experience in the vein of a bedtime story; they said, "Listen. There's a place called Montreal and there's a place inside Montreal called Fantasia and the audience freaked us out." Of course, people didn't believe them, so this time Papushado begged our indulgence. Their PR agent insisted that he and Keshales film their audience as proof. He asked us to raise our hands and shout out the name of the film so that the footage could be broadcast on the 8:00 news back in Israel. Everyone stood up and starting cheering thunderously, howling wolf calls and chanting, "Big Bad Wolves, Big Bad Wolves, Big Bad Wolves" over and over, no rehearsal necessary; a thrilling and exciting moment of anticipatory reception. "Aharon and I can die happy now," he beamed.

Their smiles were no less radiant when they returned after the screening to conduct an on-stage conversation with Mitch Davis, who congratulated them on making their extraordinary film. Davis asked them to talk about the genesis of the film.

"We wanted to make a drama about a suspected pedophile seen through his point of view," Keshales responded. "Then we wanted to do a film about a vigilante cop. Then we wanted to do something like a Korean revenge film where a grieving father takes control. Then we said, 'Let's do those three movies in one film. That's even better.' " That was how they pitched the film and the producer was enthused enough to say yes.

In terms of metaphors and allegories, Davis proposed, Wolves starts out as a discourse on the insanity of violence leading to vengeance and more violence; in other words, the cycle of violence begetting violence. He asked, slyly, if there was anything in their history that encouraged them to pursue such a story? Although Davis asserted he didn't mean cultural history—that he meant personal history—Papushado insisted the film could not be divorced from the history of Israeli, which he facetiously referred to as "a peaceful place." He and Keshales, he explained, were born into a specifically complex situation. They didn't intend to make a political film; they first and foremost wanted to make a film that would entertain. But no one can escape the politics from where they're born. Political subjects arise every day. Having never had to take justice into their own hands, he couldn't say the film was personal; but, conceded that the film feels like it comes from a country that will do anything it needs to do to survive. Davis qualified that he asked because both films—Rabies and Wolves—deal so much with suspicion and guilt.

In terms of casting, Davis wondered if they had these well-known Israeli actors in mind when they wrote the parts? He considered them so well-chosen. Papushado confirmed that he and Keshales write their scripts for actors; but, it was more a fantasy that the big actors of Israel would come and play with them on such a low-budget film. Still, it happened! The characters of the cop, the father and the grandfather were written specifically for the actors who played them; but, for the suspected pedophile, they cast a newcomer so that audiences wouldn't have any preconceptions or expectations. Wolves was only Rotem Keinan's second role. He's better known for his commercials for a children's snack. Even the cameos in Wolves are played by several big stars in Israel, including Dvir Benedek as the head of police. Benedek is Israel's biggest comedian and is currently playing the Ricky Gervais role in the Israeli version of The Office.

Davis then accepted questions from the audience, the first coming from a young man who wondered how difficult it was to incorporate comedic elements into a narrative with such serious subject matter? Keshales responded that they played with fire even though they shouldn't have played with fire. Combining comedic elements with serious subject matter wasn't difficult for them because they're nearly as bipolar as their country, laughing one minute and crying the next. It's said that Jewish people invented dark humor, he said, but, surprisingly, you don't see many comedies in Israeli cinema. So they decided to show the Israeli psyche and what life is like in Israel. "You have killing all around you," he explained, maybe not all the time, but certainly for periods of time that are uncomfortable. He was living in Tel Aviv when there were buses blowing up every day and he was riding buses that ended up blowing up a few days later. "When you live this kind of life every day," he said, "you live with a sense of danger and survival." You have to have a sense of humor, because—if you don't—life would be unbearable: you would cry all day or want to commit suicide, neither of which are viable options for either of them. As a people, the Israelis have learned to tell jokes. Though it's frowned upon to tell jokes about the Holocaust, if you get a few Jews in the same room talking about the subject, everyone will have a ball. Such horrific historical events and the hardships they have suffered as a people have taught them how to laugh.

Only if you live in Israel can you understand how hard it is to live in Israel. It's not so black and white as people outside of Israel might think. You could say Israel is doing all the wrong things, that nothing is right, but living there you know it's more complicated than media reports let on. Whenever he watches international news it's always about Israel doing this or Israel doing that. He cares about his country. He cares about his neighbors. He's served in the Israeli army. Even though he comes from a left point of view, he doesn't believe either side of the conflict is right or wrong. Both sides often act like children. They each insist they're right. If they were acting maturely, they would recognize there are problems on both sides, which would precipitate understanding.