Friday, November 27, 2015

45 YEARS (2015)—An Evening Class Question For Andrew Haigh

Andrew Haigh's 45 Years (2015) is misleadingly calm in its early scenes as it chronicles Geoff and Kate Mercer (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) in the week before their 45th wedding anniversary. Geoff receives an unexpected letter with news that conjures up unsettled memories from decades past, long before his marriage to Kate, upsetting same with regretful revelations. One could argue that the entire film is intent upon reaching its final image where—at their anniversary celebration—Kate reveals her wounded, conflicted reaction to Geoff's seemingly misplaced regrets. Whether her reaction is oversized in relation to how long the two have been married, there's little doubt that Rampling's chances are sure at being included in Best Actress considerations during the upcoming Awards season. Anticipating same, the San Francisco Film Society offered a special screening of 45 Years to its membership, with director Andrew Haigh on hand to answer questions from his audience.

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Michael Guillén: You've entered my filmic awareness handling young, unknown actors or up-and-coming actors in Weekend (2011) and the television series Looking (2014-2015). Can you speak to how much of a contrast it was working with seasoned actors such as Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay?

Andrew Haigh: The weird thing was it was pretty much the same. I don't even know how you would speak differently to seasoned actors than unknown actors. It was through conversations that I realized I didn't need to treat them any differently whatsoever. In many ways 45 Years was made in the same way my first film was made, with a very small crew, not many people, remarkably similar. As a director, you create the space where actors can do their work and you let it happen.

Charlotte, especially, is very good at understanding when something feels truthful or not in a script. That comes from experience. So when she doesn't think something is working, you know to sit back and adapt to change. Both Tom and Charlotte were really nervous the first day we started. I was shaking. Then I walked on set and Tom was just as nervous. Even though he's not that well-known, he's still been nominated at the Oscars®, and is an experienced actor, but you realize that even for them every new film they do is a new experience and they have to start fresh again. They have to be open to the experience.


Shane Twerdun and Andrew Dunbar are no strangers to Canadian independent film. Twerdun has been working behind camera on sound and electrical for short films since at least 2006, as cinematographer since 2007, and as screenwriter since 2012; but, first came to my attention as the lead actor in Larry Kent's Exley (2011). Dunbar's background is equally varied, including TV stints on Battlestar Galactica, SGU Stargate Universe and Arrow. Between the two of them they share over 20 years of professional experience, joining forces in 2009 to establish White Buffalo Films, which creates "brave original stories" for the genre circuit.

When asked, "Why White Buffalo?", Twerdun responded: "The reason we're called White Buffalo is a bit of an esoteric one. I was in Northern BC around Squamish on a traditional Indian sweat with a medicine man and local chief and he took the group through a vision quest to find our spirit animal. After half a day in a sweat lodge (teepee) in the middle of October I saw a White Buffalo charging through the plains. I came back after the trip and told Andrew about it and White Buffalo Films was born. The White Buffalo signifies progress and prosperity and harmony and is rare and majestic. That's what we're going for." White Buffalo Films' production signature offers lean narratives buttressed by honest, symbiotic performances from a talented ensemble that share production duties for each others' films. The team dynamic is admirable.

They began by shooting a documentary about Larry Kent (Are You With Me?), which they've worked on for six years and are only now in the process of cutting, followed by a couple of films that never really got out there; films that they, in effect, "sharpened their teeth on" (Hastings Street, Two Married People). Most recently, Twerdun and Dunbar rallied with Larry Kent to put out She Who Must Burn (2015), which had its World Premiere at Fantasia 2015 and its U.S. premiere at the 12th edition of San Francisco's Another Hole in the Head Film Festival. Not only did they both act in She Who Must Burn, but Twerdun co-wrote and Dunbar helped produce.

At Variety, Dennis Harvey categorized the film as "strong meat, unabashedly melodramatic but also direct and harrowing enough to feel credible." Harvey's trade review arrived just in time to celebrate White Buffalo's double-bill at this weekend's Blood in the Snow (BITS) festival where She Who Must Burn will have its Toronto premiere just before the World Premiere of White Buffalo Films' most recent venture: White Raven (2015).

Andrew Moxham—who played Mac, the handsome deputy sheriff struggling to protect his wife in She Who Must Burn—claims the director's chair for White Raven along with screenwriting, cinematography and editing credits. In David Bertrand's exclusive Shock Til You Drop interview with Moxham for White Raven's BITS premiere, Moxham admits that wearing so many hats—though "less of a collaborative style"—is "definitely more efficient."

Bertrand observes that White Raven "is thick with a sense of dread from beginning to end", a "steady drunken march to doom" that's never derailed by "cutaways, left field twists, or cinematic ambiguity." This relentless forecasting gave She Who Must Burn its narrative traction as well, so Toronto's BITS audience will have a rare opportunity to recognize White Buffalo's signature through-line between these two feature films, programmed back-to-back.

White Raven concerns itself with four men—Dan (Twerdun), Kevin (Dunbar), Jake (Aaron Brooks), and Pete (Steve Bradley)—long-time friends who hook up for an annual camping trip into remote wilderness; but, something's off. Their joking camaraderie, mock punches and beer shotgunning, is framed as evasive behavior from the get-go. "Men don't really talk to each other," Dan admits as all four guise troubles they're having at home, particularly Pete who the other three begin to notice is acting weirder than usual. As it becomes apparent that Pete is mentally and emotionally unhinged, their fun getaway weekend becomes one they want to get away from.

When Shane Twerdun first offered me an advance opportunity to view White Raven, he explained: "We wanted to make a film about a certain part of male culture. Men who refuse to grow up, are unable to communicate, and treat life like one big party without consequences. As a culture right now there seems to be a lot of young men who are just aimless, yet entitled." My take on that would be that—though we live in a mediated and commodified culture where such behavior is readily more noticeable—men refusing to grow up has psychological precedent going back generations, undoubtedly even before the so-called birth of psychology. In Jungian parlance, in fact, such behavior is grouped under the archetype of the puer, the eternal child, and can be recognized by an unwillingness to commit in relationships that leaves emotional devastation in its wake (shown succinctly in the film's opening sequences as the men spar with their respective partners), plus an uneasy avoidance of yet another archetype, the Shadow. The most famous puer story remains that of Peter Pan who, one might recall, is constantly trying to escape his shadow.

Light and shadow thus become the presiding visual dyad of White Raven, which scripturally incorporates Pacific Northwest Native American lore concerning a white raven who steals light (i.e., differentiates consciousness) from an old man who punishes the raven by burning him in a fire and turning him black. Early on their trek, and again here and there, the men spot a white raven in the woods and Pete ominously suggests, "If you see a white raven you're in a part of the world where the light can't reach." Only men avoiding their shadows could ignore the darkness they're rapidly approaching. Or, as Shannon Page notes in review at Wylie Writes: "the film shreds apart conventional notions of the healing capacity of nature, isolation, and booze." Darkness prevails, no matter how much you try to escape it through whatever means. Or as Bertrand synopsizes: "White Raven is a savagely honest thriller about dependency, aimless stunted manhood and the gasping illusion that a soul can be cleansed through isolation, alcohol and violence."

The film is layered with yet one more stylistic element worth noting and that's a haunting choral score by classically-trained mezzo soprano Red Heartbreaker who lays down multiple tracks of her voice to create a suggestive gendered critique of the drunken masculine shenanigans taking place deep in the dark woods, even as it simulates the voices of the trees that the troubled Pete hears in his head.

Friday, November 20, 2015

ADDAMS' FAMILY VALUES (1993)—The Evening Class Interview With Joshua Grannell

In recent years San Francisco has seen dramatic shifts in its filmic landscape. First we saw the death of so many repertory houses as audiences shifted to flashier cineplexes. Then we watched the decline of cinema's physical culture as celluloid was replaced by continuously advancing digital technologies. Critically, we've seen the Fourth Estate become anemic with online venues gaining precedence as sources of information, often with unprofessional content by unpaid writers. And now we see a city under siege by socio-cultural forces intent upon dismantling so much of what the City once represented to its residents and the world at large. What was public has become increasingly privatized. Ethnic diversity has become a quaint notion of the past. Liberal and progressive politics? Forget it! Education? Too expensive! Social services? Go home to Mother! The City has been bought and has become a playground for the rich who have created one of the worst housing crises in recent memory, as long-time residents are evicted from homes converted into AirBnB havens, even as incessant high-rise condominiums are constructed for the criminally insane.

I could weep in my tea for hours if not for fierce individuals like Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ) who have negotiated these alarming cultural trends with creative perseverance and some good belly laughs. Low income and ethnic minorities may be exiled from the city but Joshua and his colleagues have (metaphorically) boasted on the marquee of the Castro Theatre: "Drag is here to stay." With his popular send-ups of beloved films, Peaches Christ Productions keeps something alive in San Francisco that we desperately need and, perhaps more importantly, finds new converts among a new public in San Francisco. That new public has a fiendishly funny opportunity to convert with this weekend's presentation of Barry Sonnenfeld's Addams Family Values (1993). My thanks for Joshua for joining me for iced coffee at Café Trieste, an appropriately San Francisco tradition, for a discussion of this weekend's event.

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Michael Guillén: Y'know, Joshua, you just keep going and going. I have major respect for your continuing contributions to San Francisco's cultural landscape.

Joshua Grannell: Thank you.

Guillén: In recent years I've been especially impressed with how you're starting to collaborate with the city's fine art museums, lately with the San Francisco Symphony, such that you now strike me as one of the few individuals I know who is bridging so-called high culture with so-called low culture. Can you speak to that? Why is it important to do that? Was that anything you expected to be doing?

Grannell: I never really expected it because, honestly, I never really even expected to make enough money to have a career doing Peaches Christ, or making movies. When I started, it was always a dream to be able to make a living doing what you love; but, it seemed so unrealistic and outside my grasp. For years and years it was fine to lose money as a performer and filmmaker—which I did for a long time—so, goodness, I didn't really believe it when institutions started asking me to collaborate with them.

It started in Europe first. After my short films had started playing in film festivals like Frameline, some horror film festivals and underground film festivals, a museum in Belgium brought me over to do a retrospective. It blew my mind and I thought it was a fluke and a random once-in-a-lifetime thing. Later, when it started to happen with more frequency, as with the deYoung or the Academy of Sciences, it just seemed surreal. I never expected it. However, now that I have a foot in both worlds, it makes sense when they reach out to those of us in the underground because, in some ways, we're actually able to present their audience with something really fresh and different that they're not used to. It's been interesting to bridge those worlds.

Guillén: With this true measure of success in mainstream venues, do you still consider yourself underground?

Grannell: I don't in terms of the drag world. As a drag performer, I've become very successful in that universe and have entered the top echelon of performers. But as far as in more mainstream entertainment and art worlds, I still feel very underground. It really depends on the context. If I'm appearing at DragCon, I feel pretty fabulous. I can sit with RuPaul and feel, "Okay, I've put 20 years into this and I've earned a certain amount of respect." I feel confident there. But send me to the Cannes Film Festival, and I feel real underground. [Laughs.]

Guillén: So it's a constant negotiation with scale and context?

Grannell: Yes, it is.

Guillén: And further, I'm aware that you have a range into the hinterlands. Even folks in Boise, Idaho know who you are.

Grannell: That surprises me as much as anyone else. I feel like I live in the bubble of San Francisco.

Guillén: I'd be interested to survey who's accessing your work online in contrast to the live performances. Culture has achieved that kind of alternate access, though of course that doesn't hold a candle to watching you in live performance. Case in point, your upcoming send-up of Addams Family Values. This is a new show for you?

Grannell: It is. This is the first time we've done anything Addams Family, which may seem a little bit odd, but there was a sense of the first film coming out [The Addams Family, 1991] and enjoying the performers in the movie and loving the cast.

Guillén: Christina Ricci as Wednesday!!

Grannell: Oh God, Christina is brilliant! Anjelica Huston is brilliant! Raul Julia's brilliant! Christopher Lloyd! The casting is so inspired—but, not really loving the movie. I appreciated it. I enjoyed it. I liked it but it left something to be desired that was completely filled with Addams Family Values. It's that rare case where a sequel comes along that is better. Someone said to me, "Oh, you just like it better because it's campier" and I said, "No, it's a better film." It's better written. It's one of the best-written screenplays of the last 20 years. The dialogue alone is so hilarious, on par with an early John Waters film. Every line of dialogue is so great and inspired and the performers are at the top of their game. It's wild, the pacing is perfect, and it taps into all the things about the Addams Family that you would want it to. This is one of the few times, with the exception of The Evil Dead, where we've actually done the sequel and not the original.

Guillén: I'm well aware that a Peaches Christ event is a team effort with many people involved, and—because this is a new project—can you give me a sense of how the team decides on what they want to do next? How you negotiate an approach to a film? How does that process work?

Grannell: I have a list of ideas that's probably longer than actual dates that we can do. It's been fun moving over to the Castro Theatre from the Bridge Theater because—unlike Midnight Mass, where it was a summer series and I had to do a different show every week, which is limiting to the amount of work you can put up on a weekly basis as we got more and more ambitious—by moving to the Castro and spreading things out bi-monthly, it's allowed me to open my mind to doing these bigger spectaculars and theater pieces and pursuing that tradition of queer parody, which has existed way longer than I've been on the scene.

When I moved to San Francisco, I remember hearing about The Dolls, the drag version of Valley of the Dolls. I never saw it live but did see it through a bootleg copy. Then there was Christmas With the Crawfords. Seeing this theater tradition of primarily gay men dressing in drag and sending up these things that they loved so much. At the Bridge, where we were locked into a midnight format, we could do it but it was tough to do a big theater show every week. Moving to the Castro has been such a joy.

There are movies that I've been wanting to celebrate for years. Even movies that we parodied at The Bridge, like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?—which we'd done a number of times—we never got to do the big theater send-up. It's been really fun moving to the Castro and I've been writing a lot of new content for the last couple of years. Next year we're going to bring some of those older projects back because we've got really good ones that San Francisco would enjoy again.

We've also launched a lot at the Castro that then go on to other cities and have longer legs. For example, we did Return to Grey Gardens two years ago and Jinkx Monsoon and I haven't really stopped doing it.

Guillén: That's actually the last time I interviewed you, when you launched Return to Grey Gardens.

Grannell: That's right!!

Guillén: Every two years or so I start whimpering to talk to you to try to catch up with all you've done inbetween. Especially now that I live in Boise—even though I come back to San Francisco frequently—I'm struck more than ever by how much is changing in San Francisco, which only makes me more pleased how well you're doing in continuing this tradition. Do you have a sense of how your audiences are changing? Are they significantly different than the audiences you had at the Bridge? Are you pulling in a lot of the young tech kids who have recently moved to the City?

Grannell: Yes. We sell more tickets when I show a '90s film because there are more young people here now than there have been in so many years. Young people with money! Young people who want to go out on the weekends! The good news is—while the city is changing, and it's awful, I'm very afraid of it and I have a lot of anxiety around it—unlike what I feel I experience from friends living in Manhattan where Wall Street and Rudy Giuliani steamrolled over the East Village and a lot of the counterculture underground scene and where a lot of those bankers and brokers really didn't have much interest in getting to know that culture, I do find that with a lot of the new people moving to San Francisco—yeah, they're some assholes for sure—but, there are also a lot of creative, interesting, fun, engaged nerds who aren't afraid of a drag show. They'll come out and support what we do. And it's been both men and women. It's interesting to see that a movie like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a harder sell for me because it's in black-and-white. It's an older film. There's no nostalgia for it from people ages 20-40. The nostalgia for Baby Jane is from 40+. It's a constant balancing act for me now trying to figure out how to program and do shows that I enjoy and like and that will also put butts in seats. I can't do all-'90s movies all the time—that wouldn't be interesting or inspiring for me—but, balancing that with stuff that might feed my personal interests a little bit more has become a creative challenge. Yes, the new demographic in San Francisco is evident. As producers and artists, we all feel it.

Guillén: You raise a fascinating cultural point: the connection between parody and nostalgia. How essential is nostalgia to effective parody?

Grannell: Very! They're entwined. I tend to call it a cult. There needs to be a strong cult following for a movie. The audience has to have a certain amount of nostalgia, even as they experience it for the first time. Even if you didn't grow up with Pink Flamingos, people really remember the first time they were exposed to it. That could be a kid who saw it no less than five years ago or someone who's older and saw it in a movie theater. They have a connection to that experience that's a part of their personal history. Then the cult builds and you try to determine, "How big is this cult? Is it a big enough cult that I can do a show at the Castro Theater where I need hundreds and hundreds of people to break even financially?" That's the down side of doing a show at the Castro. Some of the niche films with smaller cults—like, let's say, David Cronenberg's Rabid (1977)—strong cults but smaller in numbers, often are the films that I'm most inspired by, like George Kuchar's Thundercrack! (1975). It's a real guessing game. My partner once said to me, "You're in the gambling business." With all these new shows, I'm basically guessing. There isn't a survey I can do. I have to sense it and feel it out.

Guillén: Pursuing the process of what goes into mounting a new Peaches Christ production, specifically the upcoming Addams Family Values, how do you cast? How do you strategize? I'm sure most folks think, "Oh, Joshua's up in his midnight attic coming up with his outrageous ideas."

Rehearsal selfie, courtesy of Peaches Christ Productions.
Grannell: Addams Family Values has been one of those movies that's been on a list. We have an ongoing list that's quite lengthy with possibilities and I would say Addams Family Values was towards the top 20 movies that I would consider doing. But honestly, when Jinkx Monsoon's album came out unbeknownst to me—she made her album while we were prepping for Return to Grey Gardens—she had a track on the album called "What About Debbie?" I listened to it and it's her doing a parody of the Joan Cusack character. Jinkx created this whole gospel song "What About Debbie? What about me?" I listened to that song and thought, "That's it! We're doing Addams Family Values." That song is incredible. Jinkx Monsoon as Debbie Jellinsky is hilarious. I thought, "We're just going to do it!"

I said to Jinkx, "What do you think? Should we do Addams Family Values?" Jinkx and I are—what's the word?—almost trouble together because we have too many ideas. We brainstorm big and a lot. We've done tons of shows together in a short period of time. We really inspire each other. So it was Jinkx who actually said, "Oh God, how can we do Addams Family Values? Sharon Needles will kill me." Sharon's the Queen of Gothic, Ghoulish, and Dark. I said, "Well, then Sharon should be Morticia, but I'm definitely going to be Wednesday!" And that was it! That was the conversation.

Then I brought it back to the team and I was, like, "Hey! Jinkx and I have this idea!" and, of course, the team was like, "Can you afford to have the two of them?" Because we have to look at whether or not Addams Family Values would be a big enough draw since those girls aren't cheap. Then, on top of that, there's 10-15 more people in that show. It's not Return to Grey Gardens, which is essentially a two-woman show.

The rest of the casting was group-think, except Heklina. We actually toyed around with—I don't want to say who—but, a bunch of different, really funny lesbian comedy people in the scene. Then all of a sudden I had this lightbulb kind of moment when—this is going to sound terrible and she'll kill me if she reads this—Heklina and I were backstage and she was talking to me without her wig on and I saw Uncle Fester! Somehow! It was not something she said yes to right away—she said no, actually—because it's kind of a lot to ask a drag queen who's a known character performer to take off her wig and put on a bald cap and be a ghoul, y'know? Basically, I kept twisting her arm and saying, "You're the funniest queen I know! This is a challenge!" It was more that she just needed to be convinced that it was all for the right reasons. Then I said, "Rewatch the movie because you'll see that it's his story. Uncle Fester is the protagonist in a lot of ways in Addams Family Values." I think that's what sold her on it. She realized it was quite a big part and not a secondary role.

Guillén: In developing the pre-show parody, can you speak at all to what that process is like? How do you pull the main beats from the original movie that you think will translate to live performance on stage?

Grannell: I basically sit and think about all the moments that the fans most want to see re-enacted because—if you're doing Mommie Dearest, for example—you know that you've got to have the "no more wire hangers" moment in there. You know that you've only got about an hour to hit on probably more moments than can fit into an hour. I pinpoint what I think are crucial and then I look at their story or whatever the narrative is and I apply it to the characters I'm writing for, which are always a hybrid of our drag characters and the characters in the parody. Instead of just doing the film as a straight-up re-enactment—which a lot of drag performers will do and which I quite like; it's interesting no matter what when a person decides to re-do something, even if verbatim—I tend to not do that. I tend to come up with a different twist. Sometimes the plot is generally the same, but sometimes even the plot is different. The third act of Whatever Happened to Bianca Del Rio? turned into a slasher, where Baby Bianca murdered all of us. Everyone was dead by the end of that parody. Since I knew we were going to be doing it in October, I wanted it to have a horror finale. That's not what the movie is at all, but I thought the audience would like that. [Laughs.] And they did! And it went well! I go in, decide what the twists are going to be and then usually the first draft is too long and I go back and edit it and figure out what's strong and what's not.

Guillén: With cast members living in different locations—you in San Francisco, Jinkx in Seattle, Sharon Needles in Pittsburgh—how do you rehearse? Do you use modern tools like Skype to negotiate ensemble performances?

Grannell: Sometimes. The process is really ridiculous. It really should all be more of a failure than it is. When theater people hear about it, they think it's insane. Drag people get it because we're used to, "Okay, let's meet for a run-through and then do it." It's more of a drag number mentality than it is a theater production.

They typically get the script about a month ahead of time, or sometimes even less time, they give me any feedback they have—if a joke isn't quite right for their character; I always say, "Please make sure this is all within the realm of your comfort"—so then I'll take those notes, adjust the script, and then we figure out the dance performances with our choreographer Rory. We usually put rehearsals on video, which are sent to the out-of-town leads who are then able to see what the dances look like so they can start to formulate their own choreography, or—if they have specific choreography—we teach it to them via video. That's also how we do road shows a lot of the time. The Provincetown chorus for Return to Grey Gardens got those videos ahead of Jinkx and I arriving so that the chorus who were cast locally were rehearsing with those videos before we ever arrived. They learned from the choreographer on an instructional video. So, yes, we are using technology quite a lot.

With the upcoming Addams Family Values, Jinkx and Sharon won't roll in until Tuesday night, we get them to the hotel, and then the whole cast rehearses Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday night for the show on Saturday.

Guillén: I'm looking forward to it! Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me today.

Grannell: Thank you!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) concludes its ambitious 2015 Fall Season this weekend with French Cinema Now, a four-day, 11-film mini-fest whose line-up ranges from Cannes champions to under-the-radar indies to an animated box office behemoth. The festival's eighth edition is also notable for the fact that nearly half its entries were directed by women. Here's a subjective primer on the promising choices available to local Franco-cinephiles this Thursday through Sunday at San Francisco's historic Vogue Theatre.

If I could only partake in one day of FCN2015, I'd choose Sunday's quadruple bill that begins with Guillaume Nicloux' Valley of Love. This Cannes competition contender boasts Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu, co-starring for the first time since Maurice Pialat's Loulou in 1980 (the year Huppert also appeared in Heaven's Gate). The iconic duo plays ex-spouses on a pilgrimage to Death Valley at the behest of a son who committed suicide. Their characters are famous French actors named Isabelle and Gérard and said son has promised to "appear" if they follow explicit instructions he left in a letter. Reviews for Valley of Love were decidedly mixed, with critics uneasy about the film's—as Variety's Guy Lodge put it—"muddling of the metaphysical with the just plain meta." Critics did agree that the immense charms of watching Huppert and Depardieu's reunification, coupled with the spectacular Death Valley scenery trumped most misgivings over the movie's specious spirituality. Depardieu's performance was particularly singled out for accolades. After this year's impressive turn in Abel Ferrara's Welcome to New York, perhaps it's time to once again take this guy seriously and blot out the bloated lout we've observed pissing in planes and pandering to Putin.

I have two other reasons for highly anticipating Valley of Love—Death Valley is my third favorite place on the planet, and I recently had the chance to watch director Nicloux's two previous features. Both were compelling for different reasons and now I'm very curious to see what he's done next. Unfortunately, neither The Nun (in which Huppert has a supporting role as a horny Mother Superior) or The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, a comically fabricated documentary about France's gadfly writer / intellectual, have ever screened in the Bay Area. Fortunately both are available on Netflix streaming, providing ample ammunition against the whiners who claim Netflix' library is all crap.

Sunday's FCN roster continues on a meta tip with Léa Fazer's Maestro, which riffs on the production of the final film by French auteur Eric Rohmer (here renamed Cédric Rovère). The script is based on the experiences of Jocelyn Quivrin, an immature and struggling young actor who struck up a mutually edifying friendship with 86-year-old Rohmer during the filming of 2007's pastoral costume drama, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. (Quivrin died in a 2009 car accident at age 30, followed by Rohmer the following year). Quivrin's character is played by Pio Marmaï, who has become one of my favorite French actors and is certainly no stranger to SFFS audiences. I first took note of him five years ago as the sexy drug trafficker in Living on Love Alone (SFIFF2011), followed by acclaimed appearances in Aliyah, Nights with Theodore (SFIFF2013 FIPRESCI prize-winner) and last year's FCN opening nighter Paris Follies (playing Isabelle Huppert's side dish). Resurrecting the memory of Rohmer / Rovère is venerable veteran Michel Lonsdale, with another personal favorite, Déborah François (The Child, The Page Turner, Populaire) in a supporting role as Quivrin's imagined co-actor/love interest.

Situated in Sunday's third timeslot is the FCN movie I'm most dying to see, Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man. It won the best actor prize at Cannes for Vincent Lindon in a performance Variety's Scott Foundas called "a veritable master class in understated humanism." Like Pio Marmaï, Lindon has been a fixture for FCN audiences in films such as The Moon Child and Welcome. Here in the U.S. he's best recognized as the married building contractor who falls for his son's homeroom teacher in Mademoiselle Chambon, a work that was also directed by Brizé (and which played for several months at Landmark's Clay Theatre back in 2010). In this outing with the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Lindon portrays a laid-off factory worker struggling to support his family before finally finding work as a big-box store security guard. That new job, however, proves an unending source of personal moral conflict. Shot in long, unbroken takes with a mostly non-professional cast, I'm expecting The Measure of a Man to be the kind of heart-wrenching social drama that seems the exclusive provenance of humanist French-language filmmakers like the Dardenne Brothers and Robert Guédiguian.

FCN closes on Sunday evening with In the Shadow of Women, yet another messy male / female relationship drama from post-New Wave auteur Philippe Garrel. While I'm not exactly a fan—for me the director's greatest achievement was spawning his impossibly handsome son and sometime collaborator, actor Louis Garrel—I'll jump at any opportunity to catch his films on the big screen. Garrel's protagonist this time out is a documentary filmmaker (played by Stanislas Merhar, the Almayer of Chantal Akerman's Almayer's Folly) whose wife is also his film editor. Over the course of the movie they'll both enter into extra-marital affairs, rendering In the Shadow of Women a pointed examination of the double standard applied to women when it comes to infidelity. The film opened the Director's Fortnight sidebar at this year's Cannes and was well received by critics. Some detected more humor than is usual for a Garrel joint, and others remarked that his debut collaboration with legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière resulted in a more cohesive and focused storyline. What hasn't changed is the impressive B&W widescreen cinematography and participation of son Louis, who provide off-camera voiceover narration. In the Shadow of Women clocks in at a brisk 73 minutes, making it the perfect film with which to end an exhaustive day of festival-going.

FCN2015 gets started four nights earlier with Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days, a prequel to his 1996 film My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument. The movie premiered in Cannes' Director's Fortnight to solid raves, with Variety's Justin Chang calling it "some of the most fluid, emotionally resonant filmmaking of Desplechin's career." A handful of critics even decried the fact that it hadn't screened in the fest's main competition, unlike his two previous works, 2013's wrongly maligned Jimmy P with Benicio Del Toro (never screened in the Bay Area but available on Netflix streaming) and my personal Desplechin favorite, 2008's A Christmas Tale. My Golden Days takes the characters originated by Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos in My Sex Life and re-imagines them as teenagers, now played by non-professionals Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet. Amalric is on hand to reprise his character in several scenes as well.

As chance would have it, the final films on Friday and Saturday night both concern themselves with PTSD-stricken Afghanistan war veterans. Both are also directed by women. Described as a "character-driven home invasion thriller," Alice Winocour's Disorder is that rarest of animals, a female-directed genre film. Belgian heartthrob Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead, Rust and Bone) stars as an ex-soldier turned bodyguard hired to protect the trophy wife (Diane Kruger) of a shady Lebanese businessman. Disorder is Winocour's follow-up to her 2012 feature debut Augustine, which looked at the treatment of female "hysteria" in 19th century France. (Winocour also co-scripted Mustang, the Turkish film that now oddly finds itself France's Oscar® submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film). Disorder premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar to positive reviews, with a number of critics singling out the film's nerve-jangling sound design for special praise.

The Afghanistan war vets at the heart of Sarah Leonor's The Great Man are recently returned French Legionnaires, one a Chechen immigrant who enlisted so he'd have a shot at French residency (newcomer Surho Sugaipov) and the other his best friend (the always memorable Jérémie Renier) whose life he saved when the two were out on an illegal mission in Afghanistan. Now back in Paris and living a marginalized existence, the Chechen is killed, compelling the friend to raise his young son. The Great Man premiered at Toronto in 2014, winning kudos from the New York Times' Manola Dargis, who called it "an emotionally affecting, political exploration of identity, trauma and the limits of empathy…so suffused with generous humanity that you're never sure who the title actually refers to." Director Leonor, whose previous film A Real Life played FCN in 2010 (and also proved to be the final screen appearance of Guillaume Depardieu) is expected to attend Saturday night's show.

Two additional FCN2015 films directed by women are Savina Dellicour's All Cats are Grey and Sophie Letourneur's Gaby Baby Doll. The former stars bear-ish Belgian actor / director Bouli Lanners (Eldorado, The Giants) as a detective hired by a teenage girl to help find her unknown father. As it turns out, he doesn't have to look far. The film is a feature adaptation of Delicour's identically titled 2009 short. Then in Gaby Baby Doll, Lolita Chammah plays a flighty libertine who can't stand being alone, setting her romantic sights on a reluctant rural recluse played against type by pop singer / actor Benjamin Biolay (a familiar face to FCN attendees from such films as Stella, Bachelor Days are Over and last year's The Easy Way Out). Chammah is also known for being Isabelle Huppert's daughter, with whom she starred in FCN's 2010 opening nighter, Copacabana.

Rounding out this year's FCN roster are two completely disparate works. Jean-Paul Civeyrac's My Friend Victoria explores race and class via an episodic tale of one French-African woman's ambivalent and shifting relationship with a bourgeois white family. The Doris Lessing short story from which it is based was originally set in London. Last but not least, there's Asterix–Mansion of the Gods, an animated feature that was a French box office smash last winter. Set in 50 B.C. and based on the wildly popular Belgian comics—the series' 34 books have sold over 300 million copies worldwide and been translated in over 100 languages—this 13th Asterix film adaptation was co-directed by Louis Clichy and Alexandre Astier. Clichy, a former Bay Area resident who worked on Pixar Studio's Wall-E, Ratatouille and Up is expected to be a special guest at Saturday afternoon's screening.

Cross-published on film-415.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

THEEB (2014)

Winner of the Orizzonti (Horizon) Award for Best Director at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, and Jordan's Official Selection for the Academy Award® for Best Foreign Language Film, Naji Abu Nowar's feature film debut Theeb (Jordan, U.A.E., Qatar, United Kingdom) has earned its festival pedigree and now segues into a theatrical run.

As the opening credits roll, we hear a father speaking to his son Theeb ("Wolf"): "He who swims in the Red Sea cannot know its true depth. And not just any man, Theeb, can reach the seabed, my son. In questions of brotherhood, never refuse a guest. Be the right hand of the right when men make their stand. And if the wolves offer friendship, do not count on success. They will not stand beside you when you are facing death."

We realize swiftly that these are the words of a recently-deceased Bedouin sheik from the western province of Hejaz, a near-forgotten corner of the Ottoman Empire, and that events are taking place in 1916 during World War I. We watch his elder son Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) take on the responsibility of raising and mentoring his younger brother Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), who would rather tussle and play mischief than learn how to properly draw water from a well. Both non-actors, these two young men portraying Hussein and Theeb display an engaging, natural, heartfelt bond, confirming Bresson's supposition that a spiritual component resides in non-actors, absent in professionals. Their performances are absorbing and believable.

It also falls to Hussein to honor and maintain his late father's reputation. As per Bedouin custom, he must offer shelter to two strangers, a British Army Officer and Marji, his translator, who emerge ominously out of the darkness and are led to the light of the camp fire. The Officer (Jack Fox) is blonde, handsome and arrogant and—to the young Theeb—equally strange and mysterious. At night, Theeb watches the sleeping Englishman wrestle with nightmares.

The Officer insists that Hussein guide him and Marji to a water-well on the old pilgrimage route to Mecca, a well that draws water from the sacred Wadi al-Rummah. Again, to honor the reputation of his father, Hussein complies, knowing that—without his assistance—the strangers will not survive their journey on the old trail, now besieged by rebels and thieves. As Hussein escorts the Officer and Marji into these treacherous territories, Theeb follows and stows away and thus begins—as Jay Weissberg writes at Variety—"a classic adventure film of the best kind, and one that's rarely seen these days."

As beautiful as they are dangerous, the Arabian desert and roseate sandstone canyons of Southern Jordan are stunningly displayed in widescreen grandeur through cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler's elegant, distanced compositions, but Thaler's camera is equally immersive—one can nearly smell the stench of the sulking camels—and in one particularly beautiful visual rhyme, he shows Theeb, now discovered and being argued over, sitting on a cracked silt bed idly edging a stick through the earthen fissures, transitioning to the camels sinuously moving through the bending ravines. This play on perceived scale provided narrative traction via the most economic of segues.

Many reviewers have commented on the similarity of the film's panoramic landscapes with those filmed by John Ford in Monument Valley, thereby allowing descriptions of Theeb as a "Bedouin Western" that "riffs on oater themes", but Variety's Weissberg is quick to distinguish that Theeb is "no Western knockoff but a well-told WWI-era story grounded in Bedouin-specific customs."

At Slant, Oleg Ivanov provides historical context and socio-political depth: "Theeb opens with a vivid portrait of Bedouin society, particularly the highly formalized rituals of praise and hospitality that mark the arrival of guests and strangers into their midst." Ivanov adds that Nowar has "crafted a nuanced look at the collision of East and West that occurred on the Arabian Peninsula during World War I, the outcome of which would ultimately bring the triumphs and trauma of modernity to the Arab world."

Under Naji Abu Nowar's powerful and assured direction, the anticipated sentiments of a child-in-peril narrative are both confounded and invigorated by unexpected plot twists. Theeb's adventures range from harrowing to heart breaking as the plot pivots in one direction, only to switch back to thrilling initiations that test Theeb's capacity to survive, while—harkening back to his father's last words—he must discover a manhood within himself, beyond his years.

Interviews with Naji Abu Nowar can be found at Cineuropa, Variety and BFI. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Opens November 13 at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Camera 3 in San Jose, and then on November 20 at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Saturday, November 07, 2015


When we first see Brian (Brian Wimer) pacing in his cell, nervously trying on one outfit after the other, we clue in pretty quickly that he's gay, and shortly thereafter—in dialogue with his wooly-bearded partner Doug (writer / director / actor Doug Bari)—that they're both werewolves. An introductory headlines montage reveals how werewolves were discovered among the public sector, how their saliva proved to have healing powers, and how they were subsequently exploited, rounded up and incarcerated in lycanthrope reservations. Maine is the only state in the union with a sanctioned tolerance of werewolves and so Brian and Doug escape from the reservation and embark towards freedom on a road trip that allows them a detour to visit Brian's family who—though aware that Brian is a werewolf—don't know he's a "faux paw"; i.e., a gay werewolf, and that his partner is old enough to be his father.

Faux Paws (2013) might sound cringingly simplistic at first, and requires some patience getting into its languid rhythm, but it slowly unfolds into an unpretentious and charmingly droll tale, with situations that are ridiculously amusing. A funny bone for your inner lycanthrope to gnaw on, Faux Paws also suggests that the family that brays together, stays together. But if you're expecting Taylor Lautner and his gang, you're in the wrong multiplex. Faux Paws' script (and undoubtedly its budget) goes in an altogether different direction or—as the film's poster itself attests—"werewolvin' ain't what it used to be."

The first third of the film shows these bickering gay werewolves on the lam and sets up a back story of how Doug met Brian as a young pup. This intergenerational erotic has served to socialize Brian with the fact that he's a faux paw, and though it might all seem silly and inconsequential, I have to give a shout-out to Bari here for tackling what is an almost taboo subject, even within gay circles. I mean, look how Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy were treated by their peers, let alone straights. And consider how narrow-mindedly homophobes perceive such an interaction as predatorial recruitment. When Brian's own sister meets Doug, she pulls no punches in voicing the "creep" factor that Doug is old enough to be Brian's father. But this is the point: admittedly moreso in the past than now, young gays had no social role models to help them individuate and become mature gays and an intergenerational romance often became the means by which a young gay male learned "the code." But what is particularly touching in the relationship between Doug and Brian is how Doug has passed his prime just as Brian is coming into his. There's a tender commitment written between the lines here that I find affecting, satisfying and—no matter where one stands on the intergenerational issue—admirably honest.

Likewise, I'm equally pleased that the two actors don't resort to stereotypical lisping or simping to articulate their gay characters and to achieve the film's intended humor. Male vanity is on display, yes, both are constantly concerned with their appearance—what to wear, how to fix their hair—but, otherwise, these are two surprisingly normal guys, weird as they might be, who are incidentally gay and werewolves. Well, "normal" might be stretching it a bit. Doug has the bug-eyed vibe of Christopher Lloyd's Doc Brown and the endearing habit of hiding joints within his wooly beard and Brian really shouldn't be baring his midriff.

Faux Paws also speaks to how genre forms can be used to contain socio-political concerns in ways that are entertaining rather than didactic. For example, look at the many ways that zombies and vampires, let alone werewolves, have been used to express multiple social concerns ranging from consumerism to racism to sexism. This simple, funny film is way more sophisticated than it admits on the surface. Homophobes continually argue that gays are nothing short of animals, which becomes the droll running joke of this movie because these gay werewolves, "faux paws", might be animals, yes, but they spend more time worrying about their wardrobe, how to bake a strawberry rhubarb pie or how to make perfect kettle corn. Further, there's a certain precedent to acknowledge here. The melding of gays with werewolves has pre-Christian roots in the vargr-argr tradition and, later, with the Germanic berserks.

The film begins to really kick in when Doug and Brian stop to visit Brian's family. Brian's "coming out" involves allowing his family to watch him "change" during a full moon, which is a wry comment on acceptance as a family value (and executed in a no-nonsense, low-budget way with tufts of hair here, tufts of hair there, and a couple of la de das). Brian's Mom (Boomie Pederson) and Dad (Raymond Lawrence Kennedy) love their son unconditionally, which is lovely to see, and though Brian's sister Joyce (Lana Young) has some issue with Doug being so much older than Brian, she warms up to the duo as well. Joyce's son Daniel (Laurence Taylor), Brian's nephew, emerges as the comic discovery of this ensemble. His enthused reactions to his unquestionably weird uncles is infectious and delightful and reflects the attitudes of many young people today that the gay thing, even the gay werewolf thing, doesn't really matter. However, when Brian changes, he does scratch Daniel, which is not cool, and their reconciliation scene is oddly sweet and spot-on appropriate.

It's Daniel's step-father Bill (John Emm) who complicates this family get-together with his conservative prejudices. Like the film's other faux-paws bashers, he's prone to chanting: "They're here, they're were, don't get used to it." He violates the family bond by conspiring with the national police forces giving chase and a pair of redneck bounty hunters Barney (John Johnson) and Tank (James "Ike" Eichling). Tank sports a "Jesus Wept" tattoo smack dab on his forehead in case you had any question identifying his hillbilly fundamentalism. Barney and Frank hate "were-huggers" and collude with Bill to do harm to Doug and Brian; but Brian, empowered by changing in front of his family, steps in to save the day, which underscores the film's essential moral, voiced by Doug when he tells Brian: "You're not just a faux-paw; you're a werewolf." Which is to say that—as much as homophobes want to believe that gays aren't really men—they are, and moreso.

I can't even imagine the difficulty Faux Paws will have promoting itself on any festival circuit, whether genre or LGBTQ. It's subversive both in subtle and smack-in-your-face ways. But I'm grateful, as ever, that Holehead gamely takes this film on for its audience and hopeful that audiences will accept this film with the respect and enjoyment it rightfully deserves. Doug Bari is expected to be in attendance at tonight's West Coast premiere.

Thursday, November 05, 2015


Netflix appears to be cornering the market on documentaries chronicling people's revolutions around the globe. Following up on Jehane Noujaim's The Square (2013)—which took us into the heart of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution at Tahrir Square—their latest immersive documentary is Evgeny Afineevsky's Winter On Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom (2015), which debuted on Friday, October 9, 2015, both as a DVD rental and on Netflix streaming. I was fortunate enough, however, to watch Winter On Fire as a For Your Consideration (FYC) screening with director Afineevsky present to interact with his audience. An additional public screening has opened the San Francisco Film Society's Fall Season with their newly-launched Doc Stories.

Over 93 days from November 2013 into February 2014, Ukranians placed their bodies on hostile front lines to wrest back their freedom and human dignity from the repressive regime of President Viktor Yanukovych who—in cahoots with Russia's Vladimir Putin—deliberately violated the will of the people, reneging on negotiations to join the E.U. in a backhanded attempt to hand Ukraine back to Russia. Peaceful protests erupted into searing carnage and—with a team of over 25 cinematographers—Evgeny Afineevsky coordinated a blow-for-blow account of events, clarified by effective graphics that map out the key moments of the revolution by demarcating its geopolitical locale, street by street, institution by institution.

What strikes me most about Afineevsky's chronicle is its precarious balance between objective observation and emotional manipulation. He broke my heart (through the adagio-like refrains of Jasha Klebe's plaintive score) at the same time that he enraged my heart with his footage of atrocities beyond imagination. The mix is a powerful witness of history in the making.

Some might argue that the documentary fails to provide a contextual political analysis of events, but I accept Afineevsky's assertion that his goal was never to create a piece of agitprop, but more to pursue the most ancient of themes: that of the humanity of man in timeless struggle with the inhumanity of man. Watching masses of people press against each other to hold the line of dignity is unforgettable and—in our country, weakened by a lack of political will—a searing reminder of what is possible when people have had enough.

This transcript is cobbled together from the Q&A session following the FYC screening. The questions have been rephrased for conversational flow.

* * *

Q: Can you speak to the genesis of this project? And to whatever internal tensions there might have been during the Euromaidan protest?

Evgeny Afineevsky: Den Tolmor, who is my business partner, phoned me and said, "Evgeny, come to Maidan; there's something happening here." This movement was different than the Orange Revolution that happened in 2004, which was a politically-created strike movement. I came to Maidan for two weeks and ended up staying for six months. It was a long journey. More and more people came to the square to join in the protest. As you can see in my film, more than a million people were there. So I can't say that there were internal tensions because the unity of the people blew my mind: all religious groups, all ages, all social classes. I saw ladies parking their cars a block from the square and walking into the tents in high heels to offer coffee and sandwiches. It was amazing to see the unity of people from the rich, social class with the poor, social class. All together they were fighting for one goal.

Another thing that blew my mind was that the religious authorities were on the side of the people. Usually religion is on the side of government and becomes an instrument to manipulate people. Not at Maidan. If there were any internal tensions, they were between the opposition parties who wanted to join the forces and become the leaders, and the people who were already self-organized. The people had the power, which is the interesting thing that this documentary presents: people are the real power. They gathered in Maidan. They stood their ground. As a filmmaker, to observe this from the side and to be able to capture it, proved for me that people were the real power.

Q: How did you coordinate all the footage?

Afineevsky: When I arrived to Maidan and the events started to unfold, with people first being kidnapped, and then killed, this was something no one expected. The movement started to grow, more and more people started to join, and more professionals started to shoot what was going on. I was already there and circulating and my team was also growing. The people knew that I wanted to tell their story, so more and more professionals came to me to share their footage. They knew that what was happening in Maidan was a historical moment. They wanted to share these incredible images they were capturing under bullet fire. We all joined forces. It's just another example of the unity, which is the presiding message of this movie: when people unite together, they can create something. As more professionals joined forces, we were able to create more powerful stories. I was able to capitalize on the willingness of these professional photographers and filmmakers who wanted to share their footage to tell this story. They all became part of my team by the end. They were using everything from Go-Pro cameras to cell phones, DSLRs to iPads. We used every possible resource we had to capture this story. We even used a couple of drones, which were shot down. We were trying to capture every second, every moment, because we didn't know what was happening here or there. So everyone was shooting. I could only have dreamed of such collaboration.

The beauty of this story is its humanity. It's technically a human story behind the headlines. What was beautiful was that every night we had a concert. On the stage people were singing all the time, bringing culture to this political event. I wanted to show this cultural element because it reflected the humanity. When the government released its draconian laws, the people kept their sense of humor. They knew to laugh at these draconian laws. One humorous situation that I observed but that, unfortunately, no one captured on film was when—a day after these laws were released—a group of Ukrainians undressed themselves in the freezing weather, threw themselves on the barricades, and taunted the police: "You will not take us naked!!" This was the irreverent spirit that was running throughout the square.

A couple of years ago I met Jasha Klebe. He composed some music for the film Captain Phillips and for The Dark Knight. As a filmmaker, I felt blessed to have young individuals like Jasha on my team. Also Will Znidaric, this editor who I've been working with for the last two and a half months finishing the edit, and Jasha who was scoring the film.

Q: You have a lot of footage from behind police lines. How was that coordinated? And was there any attempt on the part of the police to interfere with your filming?

Afineevsky: First of all, I was international press. A press badge was created for me, which served as protection because it identified me as a foreigner. Even though I speak Russian, I was identified as a foreigner. I had other professional friends who were also international press and who were also able to capture events from different angles. As I said earlier, this film is the labor of a huge team.

Q: How do you differentiate Winter on Fire from The Square?

Afineevsky: The Square was more political. With Winter on Fire I tried to stay away from politics, because my main story was about the people. I was fascinated by these people. I didn't want to get close to any political side and sometimes couldn't. I went to the police to hear their side but they wouldn't comment because they weren't allowed to talk to cameras. As for politicians, if you ask them a question they give you an answer about their entire political party, trying to advertise themselves and how great they are. That's not a human story.

Q: Was there any discussion among your photographers and cinematographers about when to put down the camera and step in to offer humanitarian assistance and help the wounded? Did you ever question being an observer and not a participant?

Afineevsky: There were medical professionals in Maidan. As a filmmaker, I had medics around me all the time, just as we had hundreds of cameras around all the time. These were people who were committed to capturing events as they unfolded. But, again, there were medics around at all times to tend to the wounded. I know how painful it is to watch people being shot, and even some of my cameramen were injured, but there were medics there to take care of them. Our responsibility as filmmakers was to document the situation, just as the medics had their job.

Q: Do you feel safe returning to Russia? Will there be consequences for you having made this documentary?

Afineevsky: You know what? I'm not feeling safe. From the beginning when I arrived at Maidan I knew that my cell phone conversations were being listened to. All of my voicemails, messages and texts were arriving at my phone once a day so I could tell that someone was checking them before releasing them. But I am an American, even though I am of Russian heritage, and I have no immediate plans to return to Russia. As an American filmmaker, I exercise my freedom of speech, but I stay far from Russian soil. Hopefully at some point this situation will be better, but right now I know I would be in danger if I returned to Russia.

Q: Have you shown Winter on Fire in Ukraine? If so, how have they reacted? If not, do you plan to?

Afineevsky: I haven't yet screened Winter on Fire in Ukraine. Right now I am promoting the film in the U.S. We plan to show it there in February of next year on the anniversary of the end of the protest. Their American ambassador has already contacted me and he also is thinking of February. I do know that Ukraine is grateful for the film and those who were on my team and have seen it have all loved it. We did have a screening in Washington, D.C. for delegates from the Ukranian government and the reception was exceptional. It's been amazing to receive recognition from the heads of Ukraine. Ukranians are waiting for this movie because they want the film to serve as a reminder to their government that they, the people, are in power. They want to remind their officials that they are chosen as representatives of the people. Those in government remember how this movement started in Maidan, and the Ukranian people want them to remember.

Q: When you went to Maidan, did you already know that Netflix would pick up your film? Had that been negotiated beforehand?

Afineevsky: When I was in Maidan, I was already trying to sell the rough cut. When I assembled what was the partial rough cut—which is completely different than what the film is now—I sent it to my friend Lati Grobman who shared it with John Battsek, an amazing documentary filmmaker and one of my mentors. John and Lati showed it to Netflix who had a lot of questions. All of them asked me to come back to the United States to continue the final assembly of the movie here. John contacted Angus Wall, who had been a producer for Errol Morris's movies as well as an editor for David Fincher. Angus offered to help us reshape the footage to reach the widest audience. By then, we were all talking to Netflix to create the final product.

Michael Guillén: As you were saying, humanity is such an important focus in your truly brilliant documentary. I was particularly horrified by the inhumanity of the Berkut and the Titushky. I found their actions insufferable. I'm curious, after the events in Maidan, how did they re-enter the society? Do you have a sense of what their role is now in Ukraine?

Afineevsky: Most of the Berkut went to Crimea, which—as you know—is under the Russian government. So most of them are there now. Some of them who stayed in Ukraine underwent investigation but most of them immediately fled to Crimea.

Guillén: And, similarly, what happened to the Titushky?

Afineevsky: I can't tell you because all of them disappeared.


The 12th edition of Another Hole in the Head ("Holehead") kicks off Friday night, November 6, 2015, courting the morbid, the sordid, and the gleefully dark with the Bay Area premiere of Nina Forever (2015) [official site], the debut feature of British brothers Chris and Ben Blaine (who have been recently nominated for the Douglas Hickox Award for Best Debut Director at the British Independent Film Awards 2015, as well as winning the Melies d'Argent at the Lund International Fantastic Film Festival, and audience awards for most original film and best editing at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival). Nina Forever had its World Premiere at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), where it was billed as "a fucked up fairy tale." Interviewed by Crave at SXSW, the Blaine Brothers chronicled their difficulty in creating a horror film to satisfy horror fans without capsizing into camp, keeping the tone believable enough for audiences to relate to characters beset by supernatural circumstances. In their conversation with Marc Savlov for The Austin Chronicle, Ben Blaine emphasized that they did not want to ask permission to make a film; instead, they made the film they wanted and invited others to become involved in the process.

Critical involvement has been high. At Crave, William Bibbiani writes: "There's nothing like it, really. It's a unique exploration of horror, love and loss. It's a sexy, funny, morbid and beautiful film for horror lovers with a heart, and romantic audiences with a dark side. Nina Forever digs up your skeletons, lays them out on the bed and dares you snuggle up. Take the offer. Trust me." At Bloody Disgusting, Patrick Cooper claims Nina Forever is "ridiculous and emotionally affecting all at the same time ... delightfully morbid ... sure to satisfy even the most twisted horror fans." At Indiewire, Oktay Ege Kozak adds the film is "fresh, original, and surprisingly tender." And at its Canadian premiere at Fantasia, Mitch Davis synopsizes in his program capsule: "Nina Forever is a gloriously individualistic film. It is equal parts an unconventional, deadpan comedy and a sorrowful examination of grief and the various ways we mourn romantic loss, woven with a dreamlike atmosphere that evokes a hypnotic sense of sleep-paralysis. As outrageous as its concept is, this is a devastatingly beautiful film that gracefully balances tones and never loses emotional credibility amidst its witticisms. Poignant, sexy and uncannily well-scripted and performed, it mines poetry and astoundingly dark laughs from the struggles of moving on from the kind of tragedy that offers zero possible closure."

"Don't even mention the word 'closure'," a bloody Nina (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) cautions Holly (Abigail Hardingham) when she catches her having sex with her ex Rob (Cian Barry) at her gravesite. You heard me right. Rob and Holly are bumping uglies right beneath Nina's tombstone. Nina, killed in a gruesome car accident, has left behind a grieving boyfriend who is trying to move on by becoming involved with Holly. The problem is that whenever Rob and Holly have sex, Nina drenches the bed sheets with blood as she lifts her broken and bloody body to observe and ridicule.

Nina Forever offers a ménage à trois like no other as it argues for death being the ultimate aphrodisiac. It's the edgiest threeway—not only for blurring the line between necking and necrophilia—but, also, for situating itself right at the bloody edge of the death horizon or, as Rob phrases it, "a field with a broken fence." There's some insightful and meaningful pillow talk taking place on these bloody sheets, which—in a droll, practical, if alchemical impulse—shift from white sheets, to red, to black.

As an event horizon, Death exerts a gravitational pull on living survivors. But we're not talking about a haunting here; we're alluding to a revenant who crosses over into the physical world, blood and all, spreading grief like contagion. Still, even though Nina might be dead, she's kept her standards and is critical of Rob's failed attempt at suicide, his abandonment of his doctoral pursuits, and his relationship with Holly, whose primary concern of not wanting to appear too vanilla, evaporates swiftly the moment Nina makes her first appearance. Especially intriguing is how Holly takes to Nina, even as Rob freaks out that she keeps showing up during their sex. Training as a paramedic, Holly seems almost comfortable with this field and its broken fence. She keeps patients close to death alive, as equally as she keeps the dead present and close at hand. In its sophisticated and horrific exploration of coming to terms with loss, Nina Forever subverts its genre to achieve something sublime.

Nina Forever benefits from an intercut narrative that compresses the before and after in a seamless time stream that compels traction. It also employs a judicious use of cyber-decoupage by layering and texturing the visual field with text messages. And its soundtrack, supervised by Vicki Williams, deserves a special nod for being both lively and thoughtful, with such standout tunes as Adam Faith's 1963 "What Now?" and Noel Gay's 1933 "Letting in the Sunshine."