Sunday, April 24, 2016

IFF PANAMÁ 2016: EL APÓSTATA (THE APOSTATE, 2015)—The Evening Class Interview With Federico Veiroj

Federico Veiroj's long-awaited third feature El Apóstata (The Apostate, 2015) had its world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, continued on to the 63rd San Sebastian International Film Festival (where it won both the FIPRESCI Award and a Special Jury Mention), and made a striking appearance in the rich, diverse Ibero-American Portal programmed by Diana Sanchez at the recently-held 5th edition of IFF Panamá.

As synopsized by José Teodoro in IFF Panamá's program capsule: "Sleepy eyed madrileño Gonzalo Tamayo (co-scenarist Álvaro Ogalla) is a dreamer. Though well into his 30s, he has no career, no compulsion to complete his studies and no romantic life to speak of. But he has decided on one clear goal, one ambition to animate him with a sense of purpose: to apostatize from the Catholic Church. Will the Church's archaic bureaucracy prove too labyrinthine for our slacker hero to navigate? Imaginative, sexy, and composed of one elegantly rendered image after another, Uruguayan Federico Vieroj's The Apostate is a sophisticated, Iberian spin on the man-child comedy."

The Apostate is scheduled for two upcoming screenings in the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), currently in progress, where Robert Avila notes in his program capsule: "More than a portrait of a man unwilling to fully grow up, The Apostate prompts subtle questions and subversive pleasures in its battle of wills between a would-be renegade and some of the more intimate institutions of social control."

Lead actor / co-writer Álvaro Ogalla is expected to attend these SFIFF screenings and—in anticipation of my own scheduled conversation with Ogalla—I offer my earlier conversation with director Veiroj from IFF Panamá, in turn anticipating the film's North American theatrical release through Breaking Glass Pictures, who acquired the film from FiGaFilms, who have likewise sold The Apostate to a host of territories, including France, Mexico, Brazil, Panama, Argentina and Central America.

As profiled on the SFIFF website: "Born in 1976 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Federico Veiroj began making short films in 1996, first entering festivals with As Follows (2004), a warm and witty coming-of-age tale set amid the filmmaker's own Jewish subculture of Montevideo. His first feature, Acne (2007), premiered in the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes and garnered accolades internationally. His follow-up, A Useful Life (SFIFF 2011), a loving and deftly drawn black-and-white homage to a life in the cinema, won the Coral Grand Prize for Best Film at the Havana Film Festival."

[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]

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Michael Guillén: In your conversations with Danny Kasman at MUBI's The Notebook and José Teodoro at Film Comment following the film's world premiere at TIFF, you've made it clear that The Apostate is less concerned with a sociopolitical critique of the Catholic Church, and engaged more with the fanciful query of whether or not one can break with the past and, in gist, erase its effects. The presumed answer is no, and this is confirmed by the lovely image where we are shown our madrileño protagonist Gonzalo Tamayo (Álvaro Ogalla) with his shoe laces untied. The camera pans around the room and returns to his untied shoelaces, though now on Gonzalo's boyhood shoes, suggesting that he has not changed since childhood. Is this image a wry comment on the impossibility of the task Gonzalo has set for himself because of the very nature of his character? Can you speak to how in your films the strength and / or purity of image guides narrative? Alternately, how image becomes the script, is the script?

Federico Veiroj: One of my first inspirations was to work on a film based on an impossible task for the main character; let's say, to change something from his own past. But, working on a film and all the fantasy possibilities that it gives me as writer and director, I wanted him to really achieve it. So, with regard to your question about "images that guide narration", I would totally say yes, they do. I knew the ending of the film before having the last version of the script, and found myself in the grip of this very powerful image of Gonzalo that I knew was symbolic and poetic and that was dictating what the narration needed for its ending.

The sequence with the untied shoe laces was something very important for me during the script process because it was exactly that—Gonzalo's own mirror—and for him to even react (with a smile) to this memory was impossible to escape, which I now recognize every time it appears. The shoe lace sequence had to be strong because it was the only moment where we are in touch with a "harsh" or "aggressive" sensation from Gonzalo's past, but it had to be done with poetic simplicity. That's the kind of sequence that I imagine during script writing that is then difficult to shoot because there are many levels of interpretation that I need the audience to feel. Each decision as to the details of such a sequence, no matter how small—the kind of shoes, the trousers, that particular leather jacket he was wearing, and obviously the tiles of the floor (like a life transition)—are all important. I also had in mind the action of his stealing a vinyl single, which for me was the perfect size, because it stood in as a metaphor for his being a child. I guess I felt that his stealing a big LP would have been over-acted or seen as something overly important, and I didn't want that sensation.

Also, I would like to say that some of the music that I knew I was going to use was also an inspiration for some of the film's sequences, providing mental images. That was the case with the mellow classic music from NO-DO (Franco's documentary and newsreels department which made propaganda films, but also "anthropological" documentaries on traditions, on geography and many aspects of Spanish life and social life from 40's to late 70's). I was aware that some parts of this NO-DO music would elicit special feelings of the past that I had to take advantage of.

So, to summarize, I would say that in my case a film is made out of sequences that will be built together with my production designer and art director during the process—two people who I trust a lot—combined with other sequences I've already scripted, which we build as we adapt to shooting conditions. Sometimes there are elements that appear during scouting. In all cases, what guides me is always the mixture of narration, emotion and poetics. I rely and trust in this mixture because I believe in beauty and complicity with the audience. Sometimes deep emotions within certain shots or sequences arise from this combination.

As for the sociopolitical elements you mention, they appear when all the elements of the narration are in place. In any case, I am not naïve. I knew that the political act of a man questioning the ambiance of his present situation in Spain, which—more than criticizing the Catholic Church, I would say, admits to its big influence on every aspect of life—was also going to be a multiple level metaphor.

Guillén: How important was it to add an epistolary layer; i.e., the voiceover of Gonzalo writing letters to his "friend" to explain and / or justify his desire to apostatize? Instead of, let's say, writing an email? Clearly, his desire to apostatize is not just a religious gesture? As you've indicated elsewhere, "To apostatize is not something that you do just with religion. You can do it with your life. It's about embarking on life's journey on your own terms." I'm aware this film is based upon Álvaro Ogalla's personal experience of trying to apostatize; but, have you felt this impulse similarly anywhere within your own life? Or, more specifically, within your filmmaking?

Veiroj: First of all, the idea of Gonzalo writing a letter to a friend was a cinematic and universal device intended to place the film in the world of a fable; a world where all could be fantasy or memory built for a letter narration. An email is not like a physical letter whose imprint will remain (which bears relation to his purpose in the film "to erase" his past) but also I wanted to use correspondence as a means to blur the definition of time, to suggest that this story could be located in our contemporary moment or 30 years ago. I thought a letter provided the perfect mode to combine his confessions and inherent intimacy.

Further, I believe Gonzalo's approach to life operates at a high romantic level, as with Álvaro Ogalla—the actor, co-writer, and inspiration for this story. Álvaro's real-life attempt to apostatize from the Catholic Church in Spain was truly inspiring to me not only because of the peculiar fact of its meaning, but also because I knew in a film it would offer different levels of interpretation. Gonzalo is questioning himself about religion, family, work, and every established institution that reigns and guides our lives. He just wants to live life in his own way. Obviously, there's something completely utopian in such an endeavor, which is the kind of issue or idea that in a film becomes real. For this film, I liked the idea of working on that level of unrealistic purpose because it was the perfect way to narrate Gonzalo's mood and his place in the world.

As for your more personal question towards me and my film making, I can only say that I am a curious person. I let myself go every time I can. I always need new challenges for my work. So far, I haven't had any desire to apostatize from anything because I always do what I want. I can't give up my ambition to make new films or to build new artistic relations while making films; it's beautiful and so gratifying. Without new film challenges I get bored. I always want to dive into new oceans—or, at least, to have my own fantasy of diving into new oceans—and I've never liked to do things that I knew I would be good at, or efforts with predictable results. I guess making films for me is like gambling with aesthetics and emotions, and I like it. And since I also want to discover new music, new art, new films, etc., I can say that I can't give up something that's a passion. So, if no decay of the passion arrives, my plan is to keep doing what gives me pleasure, in film and in every aspect of life. Finally, I believe "to apostatize" from something is simply synonymous with recognizing the importance of it. That's also a way of having a close relation with something—even with something that you want to avoid—because it's consuming your energy and thoughts. Again, I feel that Gonzalo's intention to abandon something which he fully represents is so beautiful because it's his way of expressing how important these issues are for him.

Guillén: There's a bit of masochistic pleasure derived in Gonzalo trying to step away from the Catholic Church using the rules of their bureaucracy. Does this align him with the flagellant witnessed early in the film? Can you speak to the illicit aspect of pleasure that Gonzalo is experiencing by chafing against the Church?

Veiroj: The flagellant could be Gonzalo. He could be any of us who are victims of our beliefs and desires. In any case, the bureaucracy is justified because I wanted Gonzalo to feel the frustration that his case isn't an issue for anyone inside the Institution, nobody cares about him, he is just one more person. That sensation kills him, yet gives him more energy to achieve his task. For Gonzalo, receiving negatives from the Church deepens his desire to apostatize. Admittedly, the difficult process and bureaucracy to apostatize presented in the film is not based in reality but I wanted to exaggerate it because I needed that funny, tender and aggressive tone of Gonzalo's reaction.

When I talked about fantasy before, I meant to say also that I like to explore a character's reaction to things that would only happen within a film on a screen; the symbolism and the emotions are the important aspects here. If we judge Gonzalo by the laws of the real world, we could say his actions are illicit; but, within poetry, aesthetics, and the film world he lives in, his actions are totally licit. In any case, Gonzalo considers what the Catholic Church is doing to him as illicit, causing him unnecessary suffering, even if it's not really that much nor important for other people. The point of view of the film is necessarily Gonzalo's; his codes and laws are the ones I have to follow for the narration. His journey includes some pleasant moments, like recognizing the ring of the priest, recognizing some old religious lessons during his conversation with the bishop, and I am sure his final act is full of pleasure; it's all mixed because he is seeing himself in the past and remembering things, remembering old feelings and bringing them into his present (like his relation with his cousin), and even old complicities (like the one he has with the friend he is writing to). So, yes, I agree with you that Gonzalo may be enjoying some masochistic pleasures.

Guillén: Pursuing how the text of a script can be textural, i.e., layered, your choice of non-diegetic music is essential to shaping and presenting this epistolary fable. You incorporate the music of Hanns Eisler, Federico García Lorca on piano for "Romance Pascual de los Pelegrinitos", and Prokofiev's music for Alexander Nevsky. As much as Gonzalo is trying to break away from the past, the music in your film insists on a historicity that clings affectionately to the past? Explain your purpose in setting up what feels almost like an archival impulse? Certainly, archival practice is present in your unearthing Lorca on the piano and the aforementioned music you've used from the Franco-era NO-DO newsreels. This impulse comports with the archival flourishes in A Useful Life. How do archival practices influence your imagination and scriptwriting?

Veiroj: I thought Lorca's romance was perfect to present Gonzalo's character, because—apart from its beauty—I believe the sound situates the audience in the film, in the fable. And I also knew NO-DO music was going to be used in some parts of the film because of the sweet and melancholic emotions they inspire. All of the music, especially the NO-DOs, were part of an investigation that I've been doing together with Álvaro Ogalla at the Spanish Film Archive, the place where we first met and the place where we belong. I've mentioned how important discovery and curiosity are to me, and to have had the opportunity to dive into archival materials is one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had, and I still have it sometimes when discovering different materials every time I visit archives, especially the archive in Madrid.

Working at the Spanish Film Archive, I found color documentaries from NO-DO that weren't the official footage customarily associated with Franco opening a hospital or a march-past, but narrated footage of Spanish traditions, values and social issues that needed the aesthetics of orchestrated classical music, such as we hear in The Apostate. It's an unknown music that was specially created for those NO-DO documentaries. I admit that archival materials were a main inspiration for The Apostate and I believe they will be for my future films. To be more precise, I can say that I have grown up in film, not only by watching and making feature films, but also by learning from archival materials with an anthropological point of view.

As with my second film A Useful Life, I worked with the music that best suited the film to bring the right emotions to the surface. With The Apostate, I needed to think of the particular multi-layered portrait I was trying to build. Non-diegetic music was obviously a very important device to guide the audience where I wanted them to be. Both the investigation and the music work are two very special aspects of film making that I enjoy immensely.

Guillén: Several reviewers have referenced the Buñuelisms that have surfaced in The Apostate, most notably José Teodoro, who writes: "The Apostate recalls Buñuel’s cinema in its deadpan approach to perversion and senseless desire, its dearth of delineation between reality and reverie, and its curious mixture of irreverence and almost fetishistic fascination with the rites and institutional mysteries of Catholicism." Such comparisons are the craft and sport of film writers, but was an homage to Luis Buñuel intentional? Within the archival impulse we've just discussed, how much does the work of earlier filmmakers influence your own filmmaking? What movies, let's say, have you placed and cited within The Apostate?

Veiroj: I can't avoid being a filmmaker who adores Buñuel; especially Nazarin (1959), and many others. But when making this film (or any other) I never thought to do something "à la Buñuel" or "à la X director; but, naturally, he is close to me because I think a lot about his films, as I do with the films of Murnau, Bresson, Eustache, Sternberg, Woody Allen, and many other masters whose emotional generosity has made me laugh and cry (and still do).

With The Apostate, which was shot in Spain and leads with religion, tradition, oppression, family, among other issues, I knew that someone watching it could be thinking of Buñuel's influence—and, obviously, I am really happy for that because of my big admiration for him—but, I was not making an homage to him with my own film. I'd like to add that the most influential films in terms of emotions that were close to The Apostate were L'udienza (1972) by Marco Ferreri, Opera Prima (1980) by Fernando Trueba, and another masterpiece by Carlos Saura called La prima Angélica (Cousin Angelica, 1974). These were films that I love and that, in some way, helped me and convinced me that I had to make my film.

Guillén: None of which I've seen, and which now rise rapidly to the top of my film watching queue! Thank you for those recommendations. Clinging tenaciously to Buñuel, however, one particularly Buñuelian moment in The Apostate that I'd like to explore is when Gonzalo is confronted by the "inquisitional" assault of the replicated Bishop, speaking to him first from one window, then from another. Can you speak to that fevered, visually fractured moment?

Veiroj: That sequence had a total of seven minutes of text. I had originally conceived to show it only from one window. At the time of preparing for the shoot and during, the art director of the film (and co-writer) Gonzalo Delgado said that it was maybe too much text for a "close to the ending" sequence, and suggested that we should experience the "crazy" feeling not only with the spoken text but also with the changing windows. I agreed it was only perfect to try it and to cut many of the lines; so we shot it in two versions. It was tough to cut; but, in the end, what really counts is the film's needs and internal balance. Prokofiev's music was my reference for the editing and we were lucky to be able to keep it in the sequence (it's Claudio Abbado's recording of "The Battle on Ice" from Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, which is wonderful).

In any case, what I tried to show with that sequence was the continuation of the battle between the man and the big institution, and—even more important—Gonzalo's resignation of purpose. I think there's beauty when Gonzalo admits his weakness and there's maybe a trace of abandoning his purpose; in effect, apostatizing from his attempt at apostasy. In any case, I needed Gonzalo's fractured defeat and also the metaphoric dialogue between he and the bishop, because at some point the ending of the film is there. Maybe I wasn't that clear before that the final sequence was, in a way, an inspiration for all of Gonzalo's journey. We had to build the development of the film quite specifically for that great finale. The "windows sequence" was part of that emotional crescendo.

Guillén: At film's end, after jumping through one hoop after another and not obtaining the result he seeks, Gonzalo ends up ripping the page out of the baptismal record that contains his information and stealing it. This transgressive sequence—which understands transgression as a heroic act—is composed through an intricate series of images that I would love for you to unpack a bit. First, his accomplice is Antonio, the young boy he has been tutoring. They see two nuns dressed in white habits climbing stairs (a profoundly incandescent image that thrilled me to the marrow). The theft is committed, and then—honoring the ancient rituals of apostatism—he faithfully adheres to those rituals by walking backwards away from the altar, even as confronted by the angered judgment of the altar boy who has taken a vow of silence. Talk to me about how you constructed this fantastically imagistic, and thoroughly enjoyable, denouement. There's a lot that is rapidly delivered in this sequence. Lay it out for me.

Veiroj: As I said before, that final sequence was very important when writing the script. The day we finally knew what Gonzalo was going to do at the ending of the film—to walk backwards away from the altar as suggested in the traditional ritual, and to do so in complicity with his friend Antonio, the kid, his alter-ego, and to "go back along" his life—we knew the film had to be built up in just such a way as to make that sequence as big as possible. That's also why we used Prokofiev's music there.

To explain more about the narrative order of the film, I need to mention that for Gonzalo the idea of making such a transgressive act is also part of his past. With the complicity of Antonio (who has made his own transgressive act of skipping school, with his teacher no less), I wanted the accent to fall on Gonzalo's regression in the present. The nuns are conducting him, leading him, to his past, to his education, and to this place where he belongs, in a very natural way surrounded by old buildings reminiscent of the middle ages. And the fantasy that emanates from Gonzalo's entering the Church is also a road to his past where he has to walk to the altar and endure difficult obstacles, such as the priest watching him (surveillance), or the chorus singing the same song his cousin sang (the desire), and all of it mixed with the nerve of the present.

When he finds the baptismal register with his family's imprinted name, and his specific record of baptism, he wants desperately to be erased from there. I like the idea of his disappearance from that record as an internal and symbolic consequence, which is the secret of the film: what is the real importance of ritual, symbolic acts? How do they truly affect one's life? How do they answer all the questions we are all the time thinking about as living, thinking creatures? Once Gonzalo is done with his record, he still has to "fight" with bureaucracy and the duel between him and the parishioner means the real and symbolic act of apostatizing from Church, but also from his past. Naturally, all this is my interpretation and I have explained it with the film's code of fantasy that I've used to make the film and, especially, this particular ending sequence.