Monday, February 29, 2016

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015)—MVFF38 Q&A With Brionne Davis

Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent (2015) screened at the 38th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival with Brionne Davis—the actor who portrayed Evan (the film's characterization of American ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes)—in attendance to field questions from the film's festival audience.

Explaining that he knew what he was experiencing in the Amazon was amazing, Davis was nonetheless blown away by seeing the finished film for the first time at Cannes. "It literally took my soul out," he enthused. Nine languages are represented in the film, including English.

Asked how he became involved in the production, Davis answered that he had shot a film called Avenged (2013) in the Mojave Desert. Jason Gurvitz, a producer on Avenged, was contacted by David Corredor, the production manager of Embrace of the Serpent, who asked him to name some actors he'd worked with who he enjoyed working with and who he felt could handle the experience of shooting Embrace of the Serpent in the Amazon. Davis was among his recommendations and he had the good fortune as well of looking like Schultes. All the magical pieces fit together for him to get the role.

He was in Colombia for two months shooting the film, which was shot in seven weeks; a testament to the passion and commitment of the crew, Ciro Guerra's phenomenal directing talent, and the willingness of the Amazon to have them shooting there. "We had to be blessed," Davis explained. "We had a shaman who blessed and accepted us. He prayed and chanted for 24 hours and, fortunately, the Amazon said okay; but, on one stipulation: we had to let Mother Nature be the boss. So we did."

Davis joined the shoot two weeks in, overlapping with his co-star Jan Bijvoet (who played Theo, the film's characterization of German ethnologist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg). He spent the first two weeks learning the Huitoto language. All his previous research on Shultes had been admittedly intellectual. Mainly he'd read One River, a phenomenal book by anthropologist Wade Davis, and a couple of others, trying to imagine what it would be like to explore the Amazon and what had driven Schultes to be so passionate about—not only the people—but their languages. Brionne Davis couldn't wrap his head around that passion and knew he wouldn't understand it until he was in the Amazon himself. Once he arrived, he became an observer. For 10 hours a day he worked at vocalizing and memorizing the language, because the written Huitoto in the script made no sense to him.

The adaptation of the diaries of both explorers was fairly close, given that they were the seed planted to tell the story. Theodor Koch-Grünberg's diaries were written in the late 1800s-early 1900s. Little of this actually made it back to the world and the little that did was what Schultes followed. Richard Evans Schultes' diaries were written in the early 1940s. Schultes, in fact, remained in the Amazon for 19 years, during which time he discovered more than 30,000 plants. He is the individual almost solely responsible for bringing this information back to the States and alerting the world to the ecological threat to the Amazonian region. The film embellished on their diaries, of course. The mythic plant yakruna, for example, was a metaphor for all the plants of the Amazon. There were a lot of elaborations, but they were all based on truth. All the madness of the Catholic indoctrination of the indigenous people happened, and worse, and was in effect another Holocaust.

All the actors were indigenous. The extras for the smaller roles were found in the villages. Antonio Bolivar (the elder Karamakate, Evan's traveling companion) and Nilbio Torres (the younger Karamakate) were both indigenous. Antonio, in fact, is one of the last surviving members of his tribe and their language is spoken by very few. Nilbio is a farmer. He was discovered because when they went into the villages and relayed the story of the film. He said adamantly, "I want to play this role." Looking at him and noting his passion, they realized it made perfect sense.

Scenes on the rapids in the Amazon appeared treacherous and Davis admitted some trick photography was used. They were in the rapids, yes, but they looked more dangerous than they actually were, and the crew canoeing were experts at it; they do it all the time.

My question engaged one of the film's most fantastic scenes: the vision of the jaguar killing the snake. Once he'd seen the film at Cannes, what did that scene mean for him? When you use archetypes in storytelling, Davis answered, it helps ground it in something deeper and reminds us what animals can tell us. He saw that scene as a warning that we all need to heed. It was written that the jaguar was running through the jungle and attacked the snake. It was violent. He's still sitting with that particular scene and still processing many of the sensations he experienced there.

In his first week in the Amazon a huge moth flew around him and landed on his shoulder. It then flew down and clung to his foot as he was walking along the river. He knew shamans felt that the presence of a moth or a butterfly signifies transformation and change. He realized his fears: that he would be kidnapped, that he would fall in the river, or that he would never make it back home. Yet alongside those fears was his awareness that he was open to and going to have one of the most amazing experiences of his life. It ended up being the latter. He realized he was about to go on a journey that—if he were open to it—would change his life and his perspective, much like his character Evan was going through something similar.

The only CGI in the film Davis is aware of is when Karakamate is sitting on the rock with all the butterflies fluttering around him. When they were shooting the B-rolls at their last location, they got to it just as it was about to rain. A group of butterflies were on the shore feeding on minerals. Ciro cleared the set and directed him to walk to the butterflies and let them fly around him. When they did so, Davis said it felt like there were thousands of them. That was not intended to be the last scene of the film—another scene had been written—so when he watched it at Cannes, he wasn't expecting it to be the final scene. It moved him incredibly and he lost it at the screening. He realized he and his character had gone through the same metamorphosis and that you cannot be in the Amazon without being connected to it in personal, meaningful ways. As a young boy in the Boy Scouts, he taught canoeing and rolling boats in the Ozark Mountains. In retrospect, he could see that everything he'd ever done in his life had led him to his transforming experience in the Amazon.

And then he had a singularly gifted experience. After two weeks, he was still trying to discover the character of Evan and working with Guerra to combine qualities in his own personality with those of Evan's. They hoped to ground his performance in similarities. On his second night of shooting, he returned to their lodge and was lying down on his bed. He felt grateful and appreciative for being there. He fell asleep and woke to the sound of a murmured chanting. When he opened his eyes, above him he saw an amber-toned figure moving over him. The figure chanted until he realized Davis was awake, who then backed up against the wall. The figure faced and looked at him then slowly moved to the foot of the bed, glancing back at him with something of a smile. He moved out of the room into the darkness. Davis followed, but he was gone. He turned on the light, looked under the bed, and freaked out just a bit. He had never seen a ghost before and had never really believed in them. He crawled back into his bed a little bit afraid because he didn't know what that encounter meant. A feeling of blessedness washed over him. A feeling that he had been welcomed.

The next morning when he relayed his experience, Guerra simply shook his head and said, "I have so much to say about that but I can't say anything until we finish shooting." When he told Antonio, he said, "Yeah, well, welcome to the jungle." "I was blessed," Davis confirmed. "I was meant to be there for every reason imaginable. This film is my philosophy on life and how in the world did I have this philosophy for 15 years of my life before walking into the jungle and being able to be a part of this story? If we listen and we serve our own purpose, if we listen to the Earth, then we'll get to do what we're supposed to do."

FICCI56: EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT—The Cineaste Interview With Ciro Guerra

Photo courtesy of Cineaste.
Ciro Guerra may not have won the Foreign Language Academy Award® for Embrace of the Serpent (2015); but, the film's nomination remains a stirring first in Colombian cinematic history and continues to be celebrated internationally as one of the year's most significant films. It has certainly inspired considerable enthusiasm among Colombia's filmmaking community and is being seen as an invitation for Colombian filmmakers to aspire towards an international stage.

At the 56th edition of the Cartagena International Film Festival (FICCI56) Embrace of the Serpent has been programmed into FICCI56's popular sidebar "Cinema Under the Stars", a non-competitive section of the festival during which the streets of Cartagena's Historic Center are transformed into a giant outdoor movie theater. Thanks to the sponsorship of EPM, RCN Radio Televisión, Bigvideo TV and the IPCC, the public will have opportunity to celebrate Embrace of the Serpent against a star-studded backdrop. FICCI56 has also arranged for the hearing and visually impaired to catch a special screening of the film at Multiplex Cine Colombia Plaza Bocagrande. Further, Guerra will be teaching a master class to filmmakers attending FICCI56.

It's with genuine pleasure that I join Colombia's celebration of Embrace of the Serpent with my recently-published conversation with Ciro Guerra, conducted over breakfast at the Palm Springs International, and published as a web exclusive at Cineaste.


Friday, February 26, 2016

LAST DAY OF FREEDOM (2015)—The Evening Class Interview With Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman

"Why are we trying to kill all the broken people?"—Brian Stevenson, Just Mercy (2014).

Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman's Oscar®-nominated documentary short Last Day of Freedom (2015) is, in essence, the little film that could. Framed within a heartfelt testimonial that lasts only 32 minutes, Last Day of Freedom concisely relays a painfully personal story that at the same time addresses a cluster of contemporary social concerns—the failure of our country to honor and help veterans suffering from PTSD who are incapable of returning to civilian life; the criminalization of the mentally ill and the homeless; a prisons-for-profit system that benefits from the death industry of capital punishment; and the secondary trauma experienced by marginalized communities and innocent families with relatives on death row—huge dimensions for such a small film! Few films, let alone an animated documentary short, have emotionally devastated me as powerfully, in precise sharp strokes, as Last Day of Freedom. There are a lot of reasons not to be interested in this year's Academy Awards® broadcast, already hobbled by controversy over its institutionalized racism, but Last Day of Freedom is not one of them. I have my fingers crossed that something as important and accomplished as this film will rise above Hollywood's pageantry of mediocrity to secure the honor it deserves.

In a hellish "third tour of duty" within his own mind, Manny Babbitt suffers a dissociative break and kills an innocent woman. Hoping to do the right thing, his brother Bill turns him in to the police, but is failed by the criminal justice system. Instead of his brother receiving the mental care he requires, he is expeditiously sentenced to death. In 32 breath-halting minutes, Last Day of Freedom searingly indicts institutional and infrastructural failures that capsize on each other like cascading dominoes. No help. No justice. No mercy. No closure.

Photo: Andrea Chase.
When they first started working on the film, Hibbert-Jones and Talisman couldn't secure major funding because no one wanted to put money into a film about the death penalty, considered too controversial an issue. They struggled for meager support. Yet, since first starting production, these issues have become increasingly prominent in the cultural zeitgeist, which they now believe might help to propel the film forward. We met for coffee to discuss the film no less than a few days after the tragic execution of Mario Woods at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department, which has inspired a groundswell of protest in the Bay Area, joining a nationwide uproar decrying police misconduct against the mentally ill, the homeless, and communities of color. Why, indeed, is there so much concerted effort to kill all the broken people?

Last Day of Freedom has been winning several awards on its festival run, most recently the Best Short Film at the International Documentary Association, which secured the film's nomination for the 88th Academy Awards®. It's an absolutely remarkable and assured effort from Mission residents and first-time filmmakers Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman. It is the first in an intended series of films for a proposed multi-platform project exploring secondary trauma by way of testimonials of family members who have relatives on death row. As part of her job with a non-profit offering media services to these families, Nomi Talisman and her partner Dee Hibbert-Jones—with whom she's been collaborating since 2004, exploring stories about "little people hurt by big systems"—recognized early on the potential of telling these stories to a general public. After securing permission from Nomi's employer, the two began interviewing several family members from three different families with relatives on death row.

"These people were amazing storytellers," Hibbert-Jones emphasized, "and their stories were so egregious." The challenge was to craft a linear narrative. Their research had given them a series of stories but Bill's story stood out in the unique way it was being told, and became the lead story by which they could address ideological issues of infrastructural and institutional failures for communities deemed disposable, and specifically the secondary PTSD trauma associated with the death penalty impacted on innocent family members.

As an experimental short-form documentary Last Day of Freedom achieves its linearity through a gradually-constructed process of unfolding information rendered through rotoscoped animation. The animation intrigues in how it simulates film, even metatextually incorporating leaders as chapter headings. The force of Bill's narration was so strong, textured and detailed that they knew they didn't need to literally illustrate it. Instead, the animation serves to visually enhance the emotional resonance of Bill's narration and his incremental style of revealing his story; a style that bears an authentic masculine reserve that resists being overcome with emotion.

As an animation choice, rotoscoping—though, at this juncture, no longer particularly radical or cutting edge—was important in relation to the content and allowed a fluid transparency between the visuals and the narrative. More plastic animation techniques would have caused a disassociation from the materiality of the image, which wouldn't have served the story. Above all, they were always aware of the responsibility of taking such a personal story and translating it to animation and it has been heartening for them that Bill has confirmed their creative decisions.

They wanted a layered narrative that wouldn't confuse the storyline. Once they had recorded Bill Babbitt, and edited that recording, they figured out when they needed to hear him, see him, and follow elements related to him. The rest they broke into sections to work out specific resonances and create what was happening either for Bill or for the external viewer. Sometimes they knew they wanted an interior close-up, whereas at other points they visualized him further away as he had larger perceptions. At the beginning, they wanted it to be a nostalgic, even romantic, glance at the past, before breaking into different emotional states.

The issue of the animated line quality became important. They tried out different approaches. How did they want to draw his face? How did they want to show that Bill was barely holding it together? When was it appropriate to move in close to his face to simulate an intimacy usually reserved for a family member? Their main concern was not to chase and illustrate the narrative but to layer it with emotional resonances. They figured out that, in Bill's mind as he tells the story, he's always on the drive to San Quentin to visit Manny in prison. What could they take out of the visual landscape that defined Bill's sad repeated drive over the years?

Having filmed and recorded Bill, I was curious why they felt the need to animate the footage? Why did they feel animation would give the original footage more force or artistry? Nomi offered a multi-layered response. Clearly, the film incorporates many more pieces of art and drawings than the usual documentary film (over 30,000 drawings). They knew how to draw, it was their strength, but they weren't as confident about how to make a documentary film. Rather than obsessing over documentary form, they proceeded with skills with which they were comfortable. One of the families they had interviewed before interviewing Bill required anonymity, which further promoted their decision to use animation.

By the time they decided to lead with Bill's story, they felt comfortable enough to develop a piece to secure further funding. They chose the final sequence of their dramatic narrative. Dee had the opportunity to present this sequence to a university class, which was only partially animated and still included raw footage, and discovered that the audience simply could not bear to watch a 70-year-old man weep on screen. Animation provided a comforting distantiation that made his suffering palliative. "Somehow that little bit of removal allowed people to step in." Animation universalizes so you don't become overinvested in details, she explained. Of course you can identify racial features, but a little distance provides for a universalized experience and a possibility for increased intimacy and identification. Animation allows an extremely graphic and violent story such as Bill's to be shown in a manner that doesn't sensationalize it or turn it into a piece of pornographic violence.

The filmmaking duo consider the families they've interviewed as being superheroes because their stories are so extraordinary. How does one tolerate or manage an experience where you're trying to save the life of a brother? Bill tried to do the best thing and then, all of a sudden, it went miserably wrong. Once they decided on how to animate his face, they sensed the potential to elicit audience identification, allowing viewers to feel they were Manny (such as when the windshield wipers segue into and signal Manny's chaotic subjectivity). When Bill specifically identifies Manny's illness as paranoid schizophrenia the animation becomes sludgy with slightly washed-out colors. Then they could depict moments that were clearly within Bill's experience. They could incorporate metaphors of stumbling and falling; moments where the past was seemingly romanticized. That's when they decided that everything having to do with Manny's veteran experience should exhibit a grainy, 16mm quality. Animation allowed the freedom to think about these experiences in complex ways that leant themselves to their strengths. They were looking at art history, looking at film, driving by billboards and thinking about images to support a really great storyline.

The interstitial imagery of street scenes—particularly the image of Manny walking down the street (where it's made clear that he is mentally ill)—they created on their own while some scenes, like the war sequences, were taken from actual footage of the Battle of Khe-Sanh, in which Manny fought (among several hazardous tours of duty). Nomi indicated she wouldn't be surprised if some of the Khe-Sanh footage that they used actually included Manny. But a lot of the interstitial imagery they shot themselves, composed, then sent to be rotoscoped.

They also looked at home movies. Often working with found footage, Nomi has amassed a collection of 8mm and 16mm home movies. She had already scanned several leaders from these home movies for an experimental piece she had done and—when Dee suggested they look to them as a potential resource—they discovered that, with a little color correction, they could be effectively incorporated. The first time these leaders appear is in company with the first sounds of war, which served as something of a chapter heading that finished the first chapter of Manny's deployment to the Vietnam War. The crackling radio conversation on top of the footage melds into the sound of the film running through a projector before fading away. They felt this sequence simulated old movies where you had to wait for reels to be changed that sometimes didn't happen rightaway. Manny's life was made up of all these chapters leading to the same tragic fate.

Of course, they had no idea that the film would traffic as far as it has and enjoy such a winning season. My eyes will be glued to my television set come Sunday to see if the little film that could achieves every filmmaker's dream.

Of further interest is Pam Grady's write-up for the San Francisco Chronicle and Patricia Williams' stirring essay for The Nation.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


The 56th edition of the Cartagena International Film Festival (FICCI56) takes place on March 2-7, 2016 in Cartagena, Colombia, South America. Ten narrative features are competing for the festival's India Catalina statue and over $100,000 in prizes. This edition of FICCI—the most prestigious film festival in Colombia and the longest-running one in Latin America—celebrates the creative boom Colombian cinema is currently experiencing and recalls the long road it has traveled to garner the international acclaim it now enjoys.

With only a few movies being made a year, Colombia's filmic ouput was near to negligible until 2003 when their government instituted Law 814 (the so-called "Law of Cinema") aimed at reinvesting resources generated by the film industry back into the industry. Colombia's National Council of the Arts and Culture in Film (CNACC) began granting filmmaking incentives through the country's Film Development Fund (FDF), a financing tool that distributes proceeds collected from tariffs legislated in Law 814.

* * *

Aquí no ha pasado nada (Much Ado About Nothing, 2016); Chile (dir: Alejandro Fernández Almendras)—An upper-class kid gets in trouble with the one percent. The film explores the consequences of class society and corruption on a group of privileged teenagers. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

Aquí no ha pasado nada had its World Premiere in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance 2016 and its European Premiere in the Panorama sidebar at the Berlinale 2016. Alejandro Fernández Almendras' previous effort To Kill A Man (2014) won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and his anticipated follow-up Aquí no ha pasado nada purports to be the second installment in an intended trilogy on "justice", this time addressing how the wealthy and influential classes pervert the judicial system towards their own interest at the expense of the middle class.

Based on a true story ripped from recent headlines in Chile, Vicente (Agustín Silva) is a handsome young man from a middle class family who is picked up on a beach by a group of wealthy kids who get drunk and accidentally kill a pedestrian with their car. The driver is the son of an important politician who can't hazard the scandal so he hires an attorney to pin the blame on the presumably innocent Vicente. According to Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter, the film's ominous set-up capsizes into mannered distantiation weakened further by disinterested characterizations. "Why should audiences care about apparently careless people who are falsely accused of anything?" he asks. Peter Debruge concurs at Variety. His review interestingly details the Chilean source case but complains that "the film adopts Vicente's free-floating attitude ... without ever quite getting into the heads of its characters" and without taking "a more overtly moral stand." By choosing to depict tagalong accomplice Vicente as the "victim"—as opposed to the dead pedestrian—Debruge feels Almendras has cynically courted controversy. He concludes: "It can be tough to discern which is harder to take, Almendras' cynicism or his characters' ambivalence."

Oscuro Animal (2016); Colombia / Argentina / Holland / Germany / Greece (dir: Felipe Guerrero)—Oscuro animal tells the story of three women forced to flee their homes in a war torn region of Colombia. Each of these women, reeling in terror, takes up her trek in search of peace. Once in Bogotá, each gathers strength to face the new course of her lost life. Official site (Spanish). IMDb. Facebook.

Oscuro Animal, which gained support from the Hubert Bals Fund, had its World Premiere in the "Bright Future" sidebar at the 2016 Rotterdam International Film Festival, where Charlotte van Zanten interviewed Guerrero for Roffa Mon Amour. Geoff Andrew likewise conducted an on-stage videotaped conversation with Guerrero.

Writing for Screen, Wendy Ide synopsizes: "The setting for Felipe Guerrero's debut feature is the lush forest interior of Columbia. At first glance, it is a verdant paradise. But armed paramilitaries roam the jungles and a messy, unfocused war rages. This is a world in which the poor are casually victimized and poor women fare the worst of all. It is perhaps for this reason that Guerrero has almost entirely stripped out the dialogue from this study of three separate women who flee from the war-torn rural areas to the relative safety of Bogota. Symbolically, and literally, the women have been denied a voice."

At Cineuropa, Roberto Oggiano notes that the "use of music plays an important role in the film's structure: the paradox of the modern champeta listened to by the paramilitaries in the countryside in contrast to the traditional cumbia vallenata listened to in a hotel in Bogotà is no accident: the guerrilla warfare, the changes in governments, the thousands of people killed were all for nothing, says Guerrero: 'there are many ways of interpreting conflict, and this is necessary. I was trying to find a new way of portraying war. I wanted to show the consequences of conflict, but I didn't want to make the film specific to Colombia. The country that is portrayed could just as easily be any other.' "

Historias de dos que soñaron (Tales of Two Who Dreamt, 2016); Mexico / Canada (dirs. Andrea Bussmann & Nicolás Pereda)—Nicolás Pereda and his wife Andrea Bussmann had the World Premiere of their jointly directed film in the Forum section of the Berlinale. Tales of Two Who Dreamt is set in a housing block in Toronto and pivots on representation and self-representation. Here, a Roma family rehearses the stories of their past for the upcoming hearing on their residency status. Yet the occurrences in the housing block are also spun into legends, whereby the boundaries between reality and fiction and the documented and the performed no longer apply.

Boi neon (Neon Bull, 2015); Brazil (dir. Gabriel Mascaro)—Slated for its Colombian premiere after winning the Critics' Prize at the Hamburg Film Festival, Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull concerns virile vaquejada Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) and his gender-bending daydreams of designing and cutting patterns for his sexy female fashion designs. He practices first by making provacative burlesque outfits for his no-nonsense truckdriving boss Galega (Maeve Jinkings). Machismo in Northeastern Brazil just ain't what it used to be. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

David Hudson dutifully rounds up the reviews from the film's screenings in Venice and Toronto for Fandor's Keyframe Daily. After Colombia, Neon Bull will make an appearance at New Directors / New Films in New York.

El movimiento (The Movement, 2015); Argentina / South Korea (dir. Benjamín Naishtat)—Premiering in the Filmmakers of the Present sidebar at the Locarno Film Festival, with support from the Jeonju Digital Cinema Project, Naishtat's follow-up to his acclaimed feature debut History of Fear (2014) is, as its title suggests, a narrative study of Argentina's tumultuous independence as led by Señor (Pablo Cedrón), the "banner and flag" of an anarchic movement hazardously teetering towards a "necessary" dictatorship. At the film's U.S. premiere at AFI, they describe him as "an educated man who seeks peace through blood." IMDb.

Characterized by Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema as "a compelling, experimental history lesson", Bell adds: "Austere in a way recalling the icy fatality of Haneke, while evocative moments of violence are comparable to Reygadas, Naishtat's film remains disconcerting throughout, aided by abrupt editing jolts and a superb menacing score from Pedro Irusta." At The Hollywood Reporter, Justin Lowe notes that "Argentina's 19th-century nation-building tribulations get a unique stylistic twist in this unusual feature", which he describes as "visually austere" "formally rigorous" and "defiantly non-commercial." He details: "Naishtat shot the film with support from Korea's Jeonju International Film Festival, where he won an award for his 2014 debut feature History of Fear. The festival grant required him to complete a film of at least 60 minutes within a very limited budget and timeframe. Those stipulations persuaded him to select primarily handheld, black-and-white cinematography, constrain the framing of scenes and almost entirely forego artificial lighting in order to minimize expenses."

Te prometo anarquía (I Promise You Anarchy, 2015); Mexico / Germany (dir. Hernández Cordón)—Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Latin American Film at the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival, and the Guerrero Award plus a Special Jury Mention at the Morelia Film Festival, Cordón—whose Guatemalan films Gasolina (2008), Marimbas from Hell (2010) and Polvo (2012) have been some of my festival favorites—returns with I Promise You Anarchy, in which he creates a portrait of Miguel and Johnny, best friends and lovers who have known each other since childhood. They spend their life skateboarding with their friends in throbbing Mexico City. Selling their own blood and getting donors for the ER black market represent easy money for them; however, a big transaction of blood ends up bad for everyone involved and Miguel's mother decides to send him out of the country. Away from Johnny, Miguel faces his own destiny. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

At Variety, Dennis Harvey complains: "A listless and drastically underdeveloped drama, I Promise You Anarchy scarcely begins to fulfill its title." He concludes: "Writer-helmer Hernandez Cordón seems to be primarily interested in the simple coolness of photographing non-pro actors (his leads were Facebook finds) skateboarding around the city. But these scenes, scored naturally to a mixtape of indie alt-rock tracks curated by the director himself, won't provide sufficient raison d’être for most." Stephen Dalton concurs at The Hollywood Reporter. His bottom line: "Skaters battle haters in this muddled, misfiring Mexican melodrama."

Mate-me por favor (Kill Me Please, 2015); Brazil / Argentina (dir. Anita Rocha Da Silveira)—Barra da Tijuca, West Side Zone of Rio de Janeiro. A wave of murderers plague the area. What starts off as a morbid curiosity for the local youth slowly begins to spoil away at their lives. Among them is Bia, a fifteen year old girl. After an encounter with death, she will do anything to make sure she's alive. IMDb.

John Hopewell observes at Variety that with her debut feature Kill Me Please Brazil's Anita Rocha da Silveira surfaces as "one of the new faces of Latin American cinema." Part of a growing trend of pan-regional co-production, Kill Me Please proceeds by "skewering the New Brazilian dream" while being a "half serial killer suspenser" as well as "a coming of age dramedy." At The Hollywood Reporter, Jonathan Holland is concerned that the film "packages its horrors too neatly into beautiful images" even as it advances the "pretty cool premise that there's a darker psychological side behind the perfect sheen of a privileged teen life."

La academia de las musas (The Academy of Muses, 2015); Spain (dir. José Luis Guerín)—Winner of Best Picture at the Seville European Film Festival and the Don Quixote Award at the Tromsø International Film Festival, The Academy of Muses boasts its Latin American premiere at FICCI56. When he returns from teaching class, a professor of philology is interrogated by his wife, who distrusts his pedagogical approach, and his Academy of the Muses which, inspired by classical references, is intended to regenerate the world through poetry. This controversial project sets off a series of situations dominated by language and desire. IMDb.

For Fandor's Keyframe Daily, David Hudson has grouped together the reviews from the film's premiere at Locarno.

Cartas da guerra (Letters From War, 2016); Portugal (dir. Ivo Ferreira)—Cartas da guerra premiered in Official Competition at the recent Berlin Film Festival and sees its Latin American premiere at FICCI56. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Boyd van Hoeij writes at The Hollywood Reporter: "Ivo M. Ferreira's third feature stars Miguel Nunes as the young Antonio Lobo Antunes, a combat medic who wrote the titular correspondence before becoming a celebrated novelist." Purposely epistolary by structure, van Hoeij claims Letters From War "is practically a feature-length illustration of the (untranslatable) concept of saudade—a type of longing for something or someone that isn't there and can't be there." The longing in this scenario is the combat medic's for his wife at home pregnant with their first child.

At Variety, Jay Weissberg shares van Hoeij's sentiment that—though gorgeous to look at and listen to—the film feels less than the sum of its parts. "Despite such criticisms," Weissberg qualifies, "there's no denying the impact of João Ribeiro's sumptuous two-tone lensing, richly taking advantage of the full complexity of darks and lights. The open Angolan plains, topped by clouds sculpted in the air, provide a sense of the geography being fought over, and scenes after landmine explosions or battles are suitably charged with senseless violence. Music is mostly sampled from mid-to-late 20th century composers like Fernando Lopes-Graca and György Ligeti, whose late Romantic scores, full of minor chords, add to the emotional pull."

Dispatching to Fandor's Keyframe Daily from Berlin, David Hudson writes: "The eye and the ear will luxuriate in this fragmentary essay, and the mind will wonder whether they should (yes, they should). And yes, it's been said many times before: War is hell. But it hasn't been said this eloquently since Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998)."

La última tierra (The Last Land, 2016); Paraguay / Chile / Netherlands / Qatar (dir. Pablo Lamar)—Artful photography and an expressive sound design earned La última tierra a Special Jury Prize at this year's edition of the Rotterdam Film Festival. FICCI56 marks its Latin American premiere. In precise, unhurried compositions of image and sound, Lamar's feature debut portrays a man and his dying wife, living in a remote hut in the hills of Paraguay. All the stages of mourning are passed through in a single day in this wordless account of an emotional earthquake. IMDb. Facebook.

At Variety, Jay Weissberg states The Last Land "strains for profundity in its poeticized depiction of death and loss" but feels Lamar is too young to tackle the subject with mature sensitivity and, thus, the film comes off as "beautiful but empty poetry." He credits cinematographer Paolo Giron for compositions that are "handsomely framed and have the gravitas of gallery-quality photographs, ultra-sensitive to shadow as well as natural light, such as the way the sun twinkles through tree branches like a star sapphire. Most notable is Lamar's sound design, richly filling the screen with evocative natural sounds. As an introspective study of man's place in nature, Last Land has its merits, but as a mournful reverie on age and death, the film grasps emptily at transcendence."


Monday, February 22, 2016


Where Tom McCarthy's Spotlight (2015) chronicles the Boston Globe's investigation of the sexual abuse of children among the Boston diocese, Pablo Larraín's The Club (El Club, 2015) underscores Spotlight's controversial thesis that the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is systemic and institutionalized. It accomplishes this by focusing on a Chilean chronicle of similar events; but, where Spotlight endeavors to make investigative journalism cinematic and suspenseful, The Club adopts a darker allegorical tone that dalliances disturbingly with acerbic irony. It takes as its narrative template one of the first acts of scripture: "God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness."—Genesis 1:4. That separation is observed achingly and with no shortage of compassion as The Club's narrative slowly unfolds.

The Club won the Silver Bear at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, where David Hudson rounded up the reviews for Fandor's Keyframe Daily. The Club was the Chilean entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards®. It screened in the Bay Area at the Mill Valley Film Festival and has opened theatrically at Landmark's Opera Plaza in San Francisco and Berkeley's Shattuck Cinemas.

SPOILER ALERT: The following reveals key plot points.

The film introduces a handful of priests and their caretaker living out quotidian lives in a shelter for prayer and penance in the small seaside village of La Boca ("The Mouth"), Chile. With waves crashing in the distance, they come and go from a yellow house, tend a small vegetable garden, share meals, and on the beach train their greyhound Rayo to race. By placing bets on Rayo, the priests secure a little money for themselves. They justify their local gambling by citing the greyhound as the only dog mentioned in the Bible. Otherwise complicit, Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers) administers the household rules and restrictions. She is, in effect, a glorified jailkeeper seeking glory through service, just as the priests are revealed to be serving out sentences of sort.

Enter Father Lozcano (José Soza), a troubled taciturn man in whose wake follows Sandokan (Roberto Farías), a former altar boy who accuses Father Lozcano—in strikingly poetic language, I must mention, shouted loud on the street in front of the shelter—of having molested him over the years. Sandokan is a burly bearded fellow with a dangling cross earring who struggles to lead a normal life he disconsolately insists the Church has denied him. The encounter between he and Father Lozcano does not go well and Father García (Marcelo Alonso)—a somewhat allegorized chracterization of the "New Church"—is sent in to investigate those at the shelter (which he refuses to categorize as a "retreat" or—as the film's title suggests—a "club").

Under the thinly-veiled pretense of bureaucratic process, Father García has come to shut the house down and send the priests packing, but first he seeks to obtain confessions from each priest. He wants them to acknowledge culpability of the crimes they have committed, whether child molestation, child trafficking, or complicity with the torturous Pinochet regime, and he wants them to admit the lies they have told themselves, let alone others and, above all, he wants them to fully commit to penance. In face-to-face confrontational interviews, Father García forces sleepy seaside La Boca to become a village where the mouth finally speaks, revoking the protection of silence. Father García is committed to ending the priests' isolated life of comfort made easy by denial and administers long overdue justice with unerring and righteous exactitude.

The film's score by Carlos Cabezas leans towards the liturgical and desultory, with solemn brooding cellos that meld atmospherically with Sergio Armstrong's muted cinematography, as if filtered through overcast skies and sea haze. Both serve a complex and aware script by Larraín, Guillermo Calderón, and Daniel Villalobos that addresses not only the improprieties of clergy, but underlying issues of class inequity and racial inequality.

The Club's provocative script is balanced by mature performances that respect the difficult subject matter, and that—as an ensemble—draw in rather than project out, especially Roberto Farías as Sandokan, the traumatized and tortured lamb of faith. He grounds the evident effect of a perverse childhood indoctrination in adult body language, ever furtive, spiritually lost and confused, and yet shrewd at turning disadvantage into opportunity.

As Father García, Marcelo Alonso personifies the new face of the Catholic Church (with his penetrating analytic countenance) seeking to fix a centuries-old problem. His most articulate adversary is Father Vidal, played by Alfredo Castro (the lead in Larraín's Tony Manero, 2008) who distressingly expresses the potential arrogance of homoerotic self-justification. As with all lost and abject individuals, Father Vidal suffers the countenance of evil, which reveals itself to others as a dark radiance; the sheen of sin. His arguments with Father García demarcate the separation of light and dark and equally demonstrate how each inextricably tempts the other. That struggle for occupation of the soul is the central housing crisis of this story, one might say.

Among the priests, it's Father Vidal who is most invested in the greyhound Rayo. He's the one who finds Rayo abandoned, saves him, and trains him towards championship. Father Vidal believes his interaction with Rayo somehow humanizes the dog, which leads Father García to question whether, inversely, Rayo animalizes Father Vidal? Clearly, Rayo as an abandoned dog stands in for Father Vidal as an abandoned priest who the Church seeks to scapegoat, and also for Sandokan as the abandoned victim of religious and sexual abuse. The human / animal dyad adds layered weight to the already existing demarcations of light and darkness, good and evil, heterosexual and homosexual.

It's precisely at these hinged dyads that The Club profoundly articulates the cathexis—the concentration of libido or emotional energy on a single object or idea—instigated by priestly sexual abuse. It shows how the irresponsible use of spiritual language for sexual gain can rewire the literate purpose of the sacred and profanely transform the sacrament of transubstantiation into a pornographic act, often with irremediable consequences, as proven by Sandokan's emotional and psychological damage.

Seeking to avoid insult to his beloved Church through a public, mediated scandal, Father García first attempts to reason with Sandokan, offering him shelter with a family elsewhere, and then offering to pray with him. It is during their prayer that the shadow of Sandokan's cathexis casts long on Father García's intent. When, in full confidence, Sandokan then offers to bring Father García children to penetrate who are younger than he is, a horrified Father García finds himself face to face with an impenetrable darkness he must set apart from light. It's then that he manipulates a chain of events to accomplish the justice and retribution this complicated scenario requires.

The triple parallel between the death of the dogs in the film's final sequences, and the dual beatings of Sandokan and Father Vidal, all serve to further synchronize each within a complex scripting of layered admonitions, in which animality is firmly aligned with avarice and sexuality, and humanity with vows of poverty and chastity. The film's final punishment is swift, fierce, and calculated.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

BAMPFA: CINEMA MON AMOUR—Guy Maddin on The Quay Brothers' Street of Crocodiles (1986)

The Quay Brothers at work of Street of Crocodiles, courtesy of MOMA.
To help celebrate their first year in their new venue, Pacific Film Archive programmers Susan Oxtoby and Kathy Geritz are curating a year-long series "Cinema Mon Amour", in which invited guests share and discuss favorite films. As part of his participation with the series, Guy Maddin recently introduced the Quay Brothers' short film Street of Crocodiles (1986), which Michael Atkinson (The Village Voice) has described as "the most sublime piece of frame-by-frame filmmaking yet accomplished."

In her introduction, Senior Programmer Susan Oxtoby relayed: "Guy Maddin's work throughout his career has allowed him to delve into the world of film archives to draw on the history of cinema in his own beautiful films and then to be a thoughtful commentator on why he loves the films that he loves. ...In the past year Guy's been teaching at Harvard University as a lecturer in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department, teaching students filmmaking."

* * *

I know the Brothers Quay personally. They're hilarious. They're unbelievably charismatic. They're twin brothers from Philadelphia, but have been in London since the late '70s. Like twins in horror movies, they finish each others' sentences and have weird psychic connections with each other. They're always getting involved in triangles and quadrangles and all sorts of odd things.

Some of you might be familiar with their work but you will quickly see how visually dense it is. When you visit them at their studio in their home, they have beds in their studio, which is exactly like their movies. You're really on their turf. There's a home field advantage to being in the Quay Brothers' studio.

I first heard of them in one of those horrifying moments. My favorite author for decades now has been Bruno Schulz, the author of the short stories The Street of Crocodiles (1934). Bruno Schulz is practically the reason I wanted to make films. I didn't make my first film until I was 29 years old; it was a short movie. I was hoping that at the end of 10-15 years of filmmaking to be good enough to be able to make a Bruno Schulz adaptation. What I love about Bruno Schulz is he can take childhood memories and make the experience of remembering your own childhood really come alive on the page. It's something I think only literature can really do, or poetry, but I thought, "Well, this is a lofty goal but I'm obsessed with my childhood memories for some reason." This was in my late twenties so it was still recent enough that I could remember them but remember them just unreliably enough to get high off the fumes of my unreliable memories.

So I had this vague plan to get better and better until somehow I could make a film that would be like what Bruno Schulz did on the page. The next thing I know, my screenwriter / collaborator George Toles called me to say, "Have you heard that The Street of Crocodiles is now a movie?" He was all excited but I was like, "No! My entire future is gone!" It was advertised to play on PBS that night so I watched it quickly, full of hatred, dying to hate the movie and to hate whoever made it. But it ended up being one of those things where the film was just so great that my feelings went beyond jealousy. Fortunately. Also, it turned out that the Quay Brothers were stop-action animators and I wasn't hoping to become one of those crazy people.

Also, their take on Schulz was so different that mine, but equally intoxicating so there were no turf wars between us. It was just a matter of my next step being an effort to meet these people. I had read a lot of interviews with them so I knew we loved the same authors. Another goal of mine was to make a film based on Robert Walser's novel Jakob von Gunten (1909), which the Brothers Quay promptly made as well as Institute Benjamenta (1996); this one with actors. Anyway, I had to meet them and start negotiating the parceling out of adaptations.

They've done things since 1986 that other filmmakers still haven't done. There's so much rack focusing. The camera never stops moving. They pride themselves on recycling junk. I remember them being disgusted with how much Tim Burton apparently spent to design the doll that stars in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993); something like $200,000 to build it. They found the rudiments of the star of Street of Crocodiles in the garbage somewhere and just fixed him up a bit. What they do with the refuse of the world is really beautiful. There are just so many planes of interest and focus. They think of the possibilities of the film world so differently.

They are animators so they do tend to start with music. Lech Jankowski, their long-time collaborator, is apparently very crusty. They're always hammering out deals with him that include horrible arguments; but, he reads their script and then supplies them with music and then they animate to his music.

* * *

Of related interest, Fandor has published a few articles on the Brothers Quay, including both Jonathan Marlow's interview with Stephen and Timothy Quay and Shade Rupe's interview, as well as Joel Bocko's film essay Manufacturing Dreams (2015). Several of the Brothers Quay's films are available for streaming on Fandor, including Street of Crocodiles. Also of note would be Sarah Scott's Senses of Cinema essay "Fetish, Filth and Childhood: Walking down The Street of Crocodiles" and James Fiumara's Kinoeye essay "The Thirteenth Freak Month: The influence of Bruno Schulz on the Brothers Quay."

Thursday, February 18, 2016

BAMPFA: CINEMA MON AMOUR—Three Evening Class Questions For Guy Maddin

To help celebrate their first year in their new venue, Pacific Film Archive (PFA) programmers Susan Oxtoby and Kathy Geritz have devised a year-long series "Cinema Mon Amour", in which invited guests share and discuss favorite films. In their opening week, PFA launched the series by inviting individuals who have been important to the institution, including Barbro Osher, Tom Luddy, Sheldon Renan, Edith Kramer and Lynda Myles. Their selection of films was followed by three days of films programmed by Guy Maddin.

As described by Oxtoby: "Maddin's aesthetic has long been one that mines and reinterprets the stylistics of earlier periods such as Soviet Modernism and German Expressionism or film genre conventions such as melodrama, documentary, or the dance film.... Over the years, he has also been a great advocate for and friend of film archives, where he often does research, trolling for rare and unusual treasures. An essayist, teacher, and diehard cineaste, Maddin's enthusiasm for cinematic expression is infectious."

Maddin's recent participation with PFA's "Cinema Mon Amour" series likewise commemorated my own involvement with the Archive, which began in April 2003 when I caught my first film there in conjunction with the 46th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival; notably, Maddin's Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary (2002). It was a genuine pleasure to revisit 15 years later not only that film but a few others in Maddin's ouevre and to ask him a few questions during each respective Q&A session, cobbled together here in the spirit of imaginal conversation.

* * *

Michael Guillén: One of the things I love about your movies, Guy, is their strangeness, which comes sensually applied in your films. One specific example would be the singer in the club in The Forbidden Room (2015) whose face has been scratched out. It inspires a bewildered emotion in me as an audience member. Can you speak to your creative decision to present the crooner that way?

Guy Maddin: That's a song sung by the L.A. pop group Sparks. They were favorites of mine when I was 18 back in 1974—I'm just turning 60 in a few weeks—but, I needed a song there. I had this movie that I'd shot, a lost film with the rather awkward title Fist Of A Cripple. I felt that in the movie's first act—there are three acts, believe it or not, in The Forbidden Room—that it needed some kind of musical number. We had already shot it as a straight drama but it ended up coming out more like a pop video.

I needed a song so I asked my friends Ron and Russell Mael, the Sparks team. I didn't have the money to fly to L.A. to shoot Russell singing so I just shot a friend of mine singing, but he didn't really memorize the words properly. I try to never think of a problem for more than a few seconds and I said, "Ah, we'll blob his face or something and we'll call him Blobulo." I had him do one more take and introduce himself—"Hello there, Ladies and Gentleman, my name is Blobulo"—but then I decided that joke was stupid. So then I acoustically blobbed his name Blobulo and ran it backwards. So both his face and his name are blobbed because we could and because, I guess, I didn't think we had enough sloppy accidents yet in the movie. So I just did it. Also, I knew it would be or hoped it would be inexplicable, yet here I am explaining it away. I also thought it was time for a long scrolling Spanish intertitle. It was just time.

Guillén: In several of your films, Guy, you brilliantly and respectfully use homoeroticism as a comic device. Can you speak to that?

Maddin: That's interesting; no one's ever asked me about that. It's been a presence, for sure, from the beginning. I've never really talked about my own sexuality, ever, especially early on. When I started making movies, I started using vocabulary units that I had picked up on the roadside of film history that—in the industrial haste of the industry—were abandoned. There was a lot of codified behavior and desires that were attached to these vocabulary units. If you put the bigger chunks of them up into your movie, suddenly you're sending secret messages to a queer subculture, circa 1935 or something like that. I quickly realized what I was doing with that and with other coded behaviors and I really liked it, regardless of whatever my own tastes run to. It felt mischievous.

I had my first cultish following in the late '80s in the dying days of that great wave of rep houses that used to be open where old movie queens loved to stick around afterwards. We'd hang out and talk old movies and stuff. But that's only one of the reasons, the accidental vocabulary inclusion, or just the loving vocabulary inclusion. I guess all along without really thinking it through, I felt these sexual signals all belonged together in the same world somehow. I've always believed it. I've never had to put it into words before. But it was fun sending signals out. I'm glad you used the word respectful. I hoped so; but, sometimes it felt mischievous too, because any time you put a secret code it feels mischievous. But it was always a code that everyone could recognize from older movies.

Also, growing up in my mother's Winnepeg hair salon influenced me enormously, I guess. I still feel I'm covered in hairspray and tiny hairs. The editing rhythms of a nape being trimmed are in my blood. This ties into the queer coding because I was crawling around on the floor beneath the burlap hosiery on the legs of women underneath a row of hair dryers roaring away at all times. Whatever stirrings were going on in me seemed to be defined out of the twin worlds of beauty salons and hockey rink changing rooms that I found myself in a lot. They made their way into all the films in one way or the other.

Guillén: Regarding Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary (2002), two quick comments and a question. I'm not sure if you're aware but today (February 14, 2016) marks the 85th anniversary of the first exhibition of Tod Browning's Dracula.

Maddin: That's a sacred day!

Guillén: It is. Secondly, I wanted to thank you for introducing your own film with Bill Morrison's short Light Is Calling (2004), which has to do with distressed film and leads to my question. Recently in the horror genre, distressed film has become a signifier for the presence of something supernatural or uncanny. You've often used distressed film in your movies as a visual element. I'm interested in what distressed film brings up emotionally in you and what you're hoping your usage of it will bring up emotionally in your audiences?


Maddin: I don't know if I've ever had much hope of bringing up emotion in my audiences. It would be nice. I had thought maybe with My Winnepeg (2007) I had done a little bit, but then I realized it was me being emotional. Or that the music got sappy in places.

I'm at a strange place in my family. I'm the youngest of four children and a real afterthought born years and years after. My parents were tired out by the time I was born. They brought me home, apparently the same day as the television. They put us on the floor facing each other and left us alone. In those early days of 1956, television only started broadcasting in the afternoons and evenings so I had whole mornings and afternoons to myself. Even later when I learned to read—and I really didn't like reading—I liked looking at picture books and photo albums of my family and my siblings. I could recognize them, their younger versions, all of them seemingly happy and full of energy. I didn't recognize the energy and the happiness. They were packed into station wagons and went on trips all over the continent. They seemed to be happier because I wasn't around. Or there just seemed to be more emotion had. I guess everyone was getting their act together for the camera, in other words. But it denotes a mythology for me that might have been better or idealized. I, at least, mythologized my own family's past and I spent a lot of time looking backwards as well as just around myself having snacks and naps.

When I started making films I didn't really know how to light properly so I started unplugging lights in a desperate hope to create atmosphere. I accidentally chanced upon a German expressionist shadow strategy to conceal the fact that I didn't have sets or props. I started adding in sound effects instead of building a set. Hand-in-hand, I started to quickly develop or default to a film style reminiscent of—but without being a perfect imitation of—the past. Eventually, taking it to its logical extreme, The Forbidden Room made in 2015 is, in places, as distressed as Bill Morrison's Light Is Calling. What I was trying to say was about the fragility of film and the art form, the fragility of our presence in the present, and the fragility of the past as it is remembered. All those things always enriched things for me. It's almost like music and photographs took on an extra quality just by dint of being old and—now that I'm old enough to have music that was once new in my life—it's now not just nostalgia; it's genuinely old, and aged in a new way.

It reminds me of the Vladimir Nobokov novel Despair where a guy is so vain that he likes looking at himself all the time. He gets more excited looking at himself than his lover. He perfects a way of arousing himself sexually by pulling himself out of his own body while having sex so that he can watch himself having sex. The farther away he can get, the better, but his bedroom is only so big so he puts a mirror on his bedroom door. When he opens his door at a 45º angle, he can go down the hallway and get a little farther away to watch himself with his partner. That, to him, is the most sublime sex act. I think that's what I'm doing, really, with these old fake movies. They seem more pleasurable to me.

I just thought of that now. I'm workshopping that metaphor. We'll put it back on the shelf for a while.