Archive for November 2012
Interview with Director Hiroshi Okuhara (“The Black Square”)
Hiroshi Okuhara’s “The Black Square” takes a story of time-traveling and enduring love into modern Beijing with wry commentary on China’s current art scene and the legacy of the history between Japan and China. We talked about the ideas and places that inspired him.
– First of all, do you live in Beijing now?
Hiroshi Okuhara: Yes.
– For how many years?
Okuhara: Four years.
– How did this idea for this kind of story come to you? What were you initial inspirations?
Okuhara: There are two things. One is that I visited Beijing for the first time in 2008. I didn’t know anybody there. I met various people and one of them took me to the Song Zhuang Artist Village in Beijing. Some people say 5,000 people live there. Some 3,000. But anyway, a lot of artists live there. I visited there a lot. Then I met some people. I became friends with them. We became drinking buddies. At that time I didn’t speak Chinese, but the whole atmosphere felt like science fiction, including the surroundings. I felt I could shoot a Tarkovsky-like movie in this place. In other words, the only theme that came up was a science fiction idea. That’s how it all began.
The second thing is themes of this film are about ghosts and love. And when it comes to ghosts, I actually felt it, in a way. Beijing has been one of the most important cities in China for more that 2,000 years and every time power changes they recreate the town. They paint it over and over again, whenever there’s a power shift. And when I read history books about China or Beijing you really feel the power struggles over the years. I mean, millions of people have been killed and massacred in Beijing. And I felt it. And perhaps one more thing that could be the third inspiration for this film is the Sino-Japanese War. And in this suburb there aren’t too many high rises. I really felt what was happening during the war. And when I was walking through the small streets I felt that if I turned a corner maybe some Japanese soldier might be standing there. So, I had this image and maybe that’s the inspiration I felt from the city of Beijing.
And the other theme of this film is love. Actually my first draft of the screenplay didn’t have this love story in it. But when the actor, Hideo Nakaizumi, came on board – when we decided to have him play Black Square – because he’s such a good looking guy, we decided to make it into a love story. I started a bit lightly, but as I was rewriting the script I realized that the love story and the ghost story might actually be the same thing. So this became the core of the story.
– I also wonder if the Black Square, a man out of time, out of place has a personal relation to you, being a Japanese person living in China right now.
Okuhara: No, it’s not really about my personal experience at all. It was more conceptual. We had an idea and it developed from there.
– Let’s talk about the black square, not the person, but the square itself and its beginnings as an idea for you. It starts off as a black painting. There’s a long tradition in art history of black paintings from Kasimir Malevich to Ad Reinhardt and beyond. Then it turns into something else. It turns into the door, the portal. Can you talk about how this developed, its symbolism and meaning?
Okuhara: In the Artists Village there are a lot of unsuccessful artists. When I visited the place for the first time it was during the bubble for modern art in China. A lot of American and European art buyers came to China to speculate on the art. So they started buying up works from all these artists to raise their prices. In this village a lot of the unsuccessful artist don’t have much money, so they just get together and get drunk and whatever. But sometimes one of them gets picked up by the buyers and they leave this circle. I didn’t meet any of the successful ones. The ones I met were the ones who remained there. Of course they still get together and get drunk and speak ill of the successful and rich ones who left. I thought it was very interesting and I wanted to recreate the feel of that scene. And I wanted to focus on the line, “Why the hell does this black painting cost so much?” Also, the black square wasn’t there in the beginning. I wanted to have something from which the man appears, but I didn’t want it have too much meaning. For example, I didn’t want to be too much like the monolith in “2002: A Space Odyssey.” That has a strong meaning. It has a weight to it. It’s a holy object. I didn’t want it to have that sort of influence on the black square, but I also didn’t want it to be too unrelated. If it weren’t related the audience would have wondered why it’s there, so they’d be thinking about it rather than following the story. Not too much, but not too little a relationship.
– The black square exist in this big open space. Is this like Tarkovsky’s zone in “Stalker?”
Okuhara: I just happened to use Tarkovsky’s name because it was easy to help explain the idea. I wasn’t thinking about science fiction when I was shooting. But we really thought about the location because it’s a very low budget movie. When people go to the theater they still have to pay the same price as a big budget film. Nowadays, small art cinemas are struggling and it’s very difficult to get audiences. So I thought, we could make a difference, make it worthwhile without spending too much money. I thought maybe, if we had a good location…
– Back to the art scene in there, could you tell me a little about Gouzi, the drunken writer performance artist.
Okuhara: Gouzi means dog.
– I understand he’s a genuine writer and performance artist.
Okuhara: Gouzi is actually quite a famous person in the underground scene in Beijing. He’s written a few novels and he writes criticism about theatre. I’ve never read any of his stuff. But the director Lim Kah Wai shot a feature film in Beijing featuring Gouzi. I was very impressed by him. I thought when I make my own film I’ll have Gouzi in it. I asked him to be in my film and he said he was busy looking after his kids and if he had time maybe he could show up.
– In the historical story there’s the Japanese soldier meeting the Chinese brother and sister. It moves forward to the present with the brother becoming Zhia Ping and he now has a Japanese girlfriend. So there are these Japanese-Chinese relationships. And there’s Lihua’s story. She talks about writing a novel that’s a key to what’s happening. Could you talk a little bit about these dualities? Her ideas of tribes and disappearing into love?
Okuhara: Lihua’s writing a novel. It’s funny that a lot of female university students in Beijing say that they’re writing novels or screenplays – even if they aren’t literature or art majors. Girls often tend to say stuff like this. I wanted Lihua to be like the students are now in Beijing. So that’s why I wanted her to be writing a book. That was beginning of that. But when you want to write a story about modern times and the past, you often have to compare them. And there’s a dichotomy that goes one. One tends to become very rigid. But I wanted have more development from that, so this novel was used to go out of, or beyond, the dichotomy. I didn’t want the Japanese-Chinese relationships to be too obvious, so what’s in the film is a pretty good balance. Not too much, not too little.
– You had mentioned that perhaps this film will be difficult to show in China now because of political relations and there are few art houses anymore. Where do you hope to show this film?
Okuhara: I do hope to show it in China, but it has to pass censorship. Nothing is allowed to be shown in cinemas in China with being seen by the censorship board – including independent films. As long as you are asking them to pay for it, it has to pass censorship. It’s OK if you want show it in a art gallery or wherever and you don’t charge for it. But I don’t want to do any free screenings because once you do that, it may show up on the Internet and it may be pirated. So it’s difficult. One of the producers of this film is Chinese and he really wants to show it in China. In order to get approval we may have to re-edit it. But right now, because of the Senkaku Islands problem, even if we re-edit it’s even more difficult. So maybe we’ll take our time. But my version’s finished. I’m leaving re-editing to the producers. But am at the same time, I am interested in showing the film in China. We need to recoup our costs. I’m sure the whole story is going to be re-edited and look nothing like it is right now. But when it’s released I curious as to where they’ll show it and how much money it will make and how many people will come to see it. I’m interested in those things.
– Good luck!
Interview by Nicholas Vroman
Interview with Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“What Maisie Knew“)
“What Maisie Knew” is a modern adaptation of a classic Henry James story. Maisie is caught between a rock and a hard place as her parents are splitting. The simple and strong domestic tragedy is brought to life for the 2010s by directing pair Scott McGehee and David Siegel. We chatted about collaborations, the stunning performance by 6-year-old Onata Aprile as Maisie and a few other things.
– You two have been directing films for a while. I’m interested in the process of how you two work together. Do you divvy up the duties? Or is there some other magical thing that happens?
David Siegel: It’s not that magical. We just sort of do it together. We didn’t go to film school, so when we were figuring out… and this was a long time ago – we’ve been working together for 23 years. We just kind of figured out our own process. Scott was going to be an academic. He was doing Japanese film studies at Berkeley and I was finishing an MFA at RISDE (Rhode Island School of Design). We know each other through his sister Kelly, who I met at the Art Institute of San Francisco. She still works with us. She’s our production designer. So we had no one there to tell us what to do. We didn’t know anything about filmmaking other than what we liked in movies. I had a background in photography, so I knew how to expose film a little bit. Scott took a weekend course at the Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco.
Scott McGehee: Something like the equivalent of the Northwest Film Forum [in Seattle].
Siegel: So we started figuring it out from there. I don’t think it’s so dissimilar from the way the Coens work or other teams – there aren’t many of them and there aren’t many that have lasted as long as we have who aren’t related to each other. It’s not so mysterious. We just do it together.
– Does someone, like, take a certain role?
McGhee: Definitely on set, David’s more forward. He takes the dominant, forward position and I definitely take the back position. Kind of listening, kind of consulting.
Siegel: Did you say insulting?
McGhee: Yes, insulting.
Siegel: “You call that a shot?” “What kind of note was that to give an actor?”
McGhee: We really do trust each other and rely on each other and do it together. That’s the model and that’s generally how it goes day to day.
– Speaking of actors, you’re obviously working with some of the best actors in the world…
Siegel: … and we’ve been very fortunate that way.
– … and you’ve pulled out some of their best stuff… in Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan and the newcomer, Johanna Vanderham. But, of course, the star of the film is Onata [Aprile]. Could you tell me a bit about working with her?
McGhee: She really ranks right up there with everyone else in terms of her innate abilities.
Siegel: She’s just an extraordinary child. She was six years old when we were making the movie and she came packed with talent. Sometimes we sound like we’re going overboard when we talk about Onata, but hard to really overstate what an extraordinary presence she was on the set. What was extraordinary was, sort of in a way, her unextraordinariness. She was just simply happy to be there. She was simple and natural in her scenes. She brought a generosity of spirit, in a way, to everything that she did. She almost never lagged and it infected everyone around her and made everyone feel they were making something special. I often say you have experiences that with other human beings in your life, sometimes where you really can’t express enough gratitude to them. And it’s a strange thing to say about a 6-year old child. That’s really what happened.
McGhee: I agree. She was blessing. She really was. We set out on the journey of making this movie without knowing we had her. Thinking back, that’s seems the most foolhardy thing to set out to do is to make this movie without knowing who that 6-year old is going to be – the fulcrum that everything turns on, the person who’s in every scene, who basically carries the whole film on her little back. We didn’t know we had an extraordinary little girl when we started the process. Had we not found one, we would have failed.
– How did you find her?
Siegel: Just in casting. Avy Kaufman brought her in to read. We were close to shooting. We were over 3 weeks away from shooting, so we were getting pretty nervous and Avy kept saying, “Relax. You’re going to find the perfect girl.” But we didn’t have a backup at that point it was like “Avy, we don’t have that perfect girl!” We were in the production office and she called and she said, “You have to come down right now.” And we did and we knew almost immediately. Of course, we got cold feet over the next week, worrying if it was the right choice, is it the right choice? Immediately upon seeing her and meeting here we looked at each other and thought, like, that’s the first one we could really imagine being Maisie.
– Susanna and Beale are incredibly self-centered. And it’s their flaw or their problem. Lincoln and Margo are younger, working their ways through life. They have a genuine love for Maisie. Do you think that people like Lincoln and Margo would change into people like Susanna and Beale. Is it their natures to be different, or do you think the cold hard world turns people into career-oriented self-centered beings?
McGhee: That’s way too much philosophy!
– I can imagine Beale and Susanna at some point in their lives being loving, caring people.
McGhee: I not sure they ever were. I’m not sure what to expect for Margo and Lincoln, or Maisie for that matter.
Siegel: We end the movie in motion, right? Scott and I believe really strongly in process. In the process of things. We believe in the process of the work. If you go into filmmaking interested in the results, you’re bound for a life of pain, because the making of the thing is… the thing. In that sense, the movie is about experience – the experience of the child. The movie’s told through the eyes of a child and we hope to convey, to some degree, the experience of a child. But in that, we hope you get a slice of, or a little window into those moments of the adults around her as well. You can say, “What will Margo and Lincoln become?” We don’t know what they’ll become, but we get to understand those moments of becoming in relation to the child. We see beautiful things both in Margo and in Lincoln. You can hope for or think about what the process in their lives might be. And you also see some degree of redemption and thought on the part of Beale and Susanna as well.
– You see Masie in motion. You see her getting her boat trip, the thing that’s been promised to her that she hasn’t been getting for so long, it’s like, she’s going to get on that boat.
Siegel: But she doesn’t get to the boat. She’s on the way to the boat.
McGhee: And you see her getting to the boat.
Interview by Nicholas Vroman
Interview with Director Anand Gandhi and Actress Aida El Kashef (“Ship of Theseus”)
— The “Ship of Theseus’ theme is based on this logical conundrum – when you replace all the old parts on Theseus’ ship with new parts, is it still the same? Apart from the theoretical concern what were the things that inspired you to develop these particular stories to demonstrate these ideas?
Anand Gandhi: All the concerns were largely philosophical. Probably it would be impossible to isolate the philosophical paradigms that stand at the root of all of the narrative pieces. There were lots and lots of questions that I had. And it seemed the possibility to put these questions together in some sort of a metaphor, in some sort of a narrative metaphor – that’s where the stories evolved. Lots of emotional exchanges from my own life – from things I observed in my friends’ lives and my family’s life and other people whom I’d observed closely – where I felt that their lives and the situations they found themselves in or I found myself in are good manifestations and metaphors for the philosophical concerns I had. So, for example, the stockbroker’s story – It occurred to me that the news that kidneys being stolen and live organs being stolen from people every now and then – being in India – it’s part of the news routine, that a scandal like that occurs at one place or another. What concerned me really, was the recipient’s point of view. I mean, there’s filmmaking that documents issues of concern, which is a very important kind of filmmaking – that these issues are discussed very actively and aggressively and openly. My concerns lie somewhere else, as there was an understanding of the place where it took place – that we find ourselves in this world where a kidney patient somewhere in Sweden is lying on a bed there. With the sheer lack of the number of people in the community, the availability for a live organ is much lesser. So, you’re on a list and you’re on your death bed and you don’t know if you’re going to make it. And then you hear of this – there’s another part of the world, with this huge population living below the poverty line, willing to sell their live organs ’cause they’ll never be able to make the kind of money for offering their live organ. Both are going to survive. They’re going to make it.
And then one goes and buys this kidney, because there’s this confrontation and the fear of death and there’s this false logic at play which does make sense at point – which makes sense that OK, you’re going to pay a certain amount money that the person living below the poverty line is never is going to be able to make in his entire life of labor. 20,000, 30,000 US dollars is what he’ll end up making in a lifetime of labor. It will take care of his family. It will take care of his children’s education. That kind of money will take care of a lot of things. And in return he’ll give you a kidney, which will help you survive. Now, at some level this logic seems falsely justifiable on paper. For me the observation of this situation is very important – that we find ourselves in a place right now in the world that we’ve built, where a system exists where this makes a sort of logical sense. That this being an extremely black and white reality – that you can not exploit another human being’s lack of resources, another human being’s lack of advantage or disadvantage – to your advantage. You can insist its ethically wrong so that it’s in a gray space and that is a reflection of how we are waking up to the failure of economic systems around the world. It’s a reflection for me of the Occupy movement. It’s an echo of all the movements around the world right now, which are waking up to understanding that there are systems that have failed us – economic and political systems. So for me, the stories are extremely closely, intricately woven with these philosophical paradigms. Each one of them.
— I was thinking though, in your talking about economic systems and things that have developed around this modern technology of organ transplants – it’s new to our world – do you think that with this change in technology, with this change in rebuilding the human body, the human boat, is it changing humanity fundamentally?
Gandhi: It is definitely. It is definitely. I wouldn’t have the presumption to attach any kind of value to it. Whether it is good or bad, it’s too early to say. Not good or bad, but whether it is sustainable or detrimental to the human species in a collective way. It’s too early to understand that. Whether this speedy change in our scientific, social, political, economic technologies and our biological technologies – which takes a good 30, 40 thousand years to change. One mutation crosses over at least a thousand generations before it’s allow to be or it’s crossed out. Whereas external technology that is created by human beings, but outside of their biology changes and evolves at a speed of accelerated danger to us. It changes so fast the dichotomy increases more and more and more. When we find ourselves at a point when for every stimulus in the environment we have a have a dual paradoxical dichotomic response. And the heart and the mind conflict. The traditional heart and mind conflict is essentially nothing but the nature versus nurture conflict – the traditional literature is now rephrased in the way I look at the world as biological technology versus human technology – at least our external memory technology technological conflict. So our biological technology has one response to the stimulus and our intellectual technology has another response to the stimulus and were constantly living in this balance and this dichotomy. Our body tells us that it’s fun to have sugar, so we have lots of sugar. But it’s bad for our body and our body does not know that as our body is still informed by technology that is 30 thousand years obsolete – because simple carbohydrates are desired by human beings 30 thousand years ago and were very desirable. Holding on to calories was very desirable. Jealousy was a relevant emotion 30 thousand years ago, because mating partners were rare and to hold onto mating partners was a very important response. So on and so forth, we have all these responses in our body, which are emotions, – which are extremely obsolete and are detrimental to our survival and hence, technology is very important. Hence it’s very important to suppress the beast, to repress this beast with relevant information, modern knowledge and modern understanding – and that’s what civilizations do. That’s what civilized cultures help to do. They help us replace this beast, but at the same time, it’s a dual edged sword. We are also finding ourselves in a fast-changing world where we don’t know how to assimilate all this information, all this data and all this technology that we are creating and producing. So, it’s an extremely important change and we need to really – I think my role as an artist and that’s what we keep talking about, that role as artists and being – at this point, is to be able to assimilate all this data that time is throwing at us, that knowledge is throwing at us and to make sense of it. And that’s what I think my film is trying to do – to make sense out of…I mean, we’re a few months into having discovered the Higgs boson particle for example. I don’t know what it means. I’ve not yet met any… and I have many friends who are really in tune with the way the world is right now and have a very, very good sense of their environment and themselves and nobody really understands what this discovery means to them.
Aida El Kashef: I read about it but it’s too scientific. And then the moment it turns into actual things or technology, then, you know… the technology is there because of this…
Gandhi: And still, we’re living in a time when – I was just talking to my brother and he told me that the laptop, for example, is – to make one laptop work, including the hardware and the software, there’s an estimate of about 2 million people, or something like that, who will put work into the working of one laptop. So, it’s immense the kind of collective technologies that we’re using and the way they’re changing us and the way they’re changing our reality. The total amount of people on the planet… from the biological technology we are using which is from about 30, 40 thousand years ago… it’s still the same genetic code we’re using. The total amount of people on the planet was about 20 thousand people. That’s the total number of people our forefathers ever came across in their lives or are our facebook friends. It’s really changing so fast and I think it’s… I find my role as a filmmaker, as an artist, relevant in that position, where I can possibly stand, observe, assimilate all this data, make sense of it and share. That’s probably my job, I guess.
— We’re talking about the technology of organ transplants that’s changing our bodies. Then you talk about the exterior technologies and these show up in each sequence. In the sequence with Maitreya, there’s the beautiful scene where he walks through the wind farm… and it’s outside of him even though it obviously affects his life, but Aida’s character is intimately involved with technology, that helps her experience the world. And in the final sequence, there’s probably a little less technology, but there’s one scene where you have this guy on a bicycle, in water – it’s on a television screen – and to me it was like a bicycle that’s been reconfigured to do some other activity, like go through water. So, obviously, you’re obsessed with technology.
Gandhi: I’m so happy you noticed that. Wow, it’s like you’re the first person to notice that. I’ll tell you about it.
— The first? Well tell me about it.
Gandhi: It’s the invention of this genius guy who lives in this extremely remote neighborhood in India – In Bihar – This old man, he’s never been to school. He does not know the alphabet. He’s not literate and he invents. He’s invented this bicycle that cycles on land… the moment it goes into a body of water, he just like flips it, he just like pushes a few levers and goes like… ftt, ftt, ftt, and then he pedals it all across water… and he goes across and it’s like a zero-budget bicycle. It’s an amphibious bicycle, runs on land, runs on water and it normally probably costs, like, fifteen or twenty dollars. This is like… it’s so inspiring what these guys are doing and there’s this movement in India called the National Innovation Foundation. It’s a great movement. That’s something that I find similar between a lot of eastern cultures – India, Japan – traditionally there is no notion of patenting. Traditionally, there is no notion of owning information, of owning knowledge and of owning a way of making something that belongs only to you and you are the one and your generation is the ones that make money off it. That is a way, historically a very non-American. And now these guys are beginning to kind of have to accept that this is the world were living in. Again, it’s a reflection of that, the way a notion is shared. I’m glad you noticed that. That’s one place where I kind of hinted that and how the grandmother is interested in that and they are not – the younger generation – because they don’t know. They represent another part of the world.
— In regard to your character, Aida, who uses this technology to create your art, I think that story brings up the idea that the technology helps you create the art, but it’s not what creates the art. It’s your character’s spirit, or soul.
El Kashef: For me, if I was not blind, there’s still a camera. So, a camera is a technology, that everyone has now. For example, everyone has a Cannon. And they all bring out good pictures, like even if you’re not a good photographer. But eventually there’s one or two or three photographers that will stand out even though they’re using the same camera, because it’s art. That’s where art comes from and that’s when it really separates from the technology, which is the camera, right? So, for me it was the same as if I were not blind, because in the end it’s just more gadgets added to the camera itself. So it would have been used the same way. You know what I mean? Like there’s nothing special about them in the sense of, like yes, they’re gadgets that are helping me to realize the light because I can’t see the meter in the camera. But they’re not doing anything other than that. – and so a blind photographer can use them and make good pictures. Another one wouldn’t because it’s still the same concept as just the camera.
Gandhi: That’s absolutely true. Yeah. That’s bang on. Instead of using biological technology, she’s using scientific technology created by people. But it’s essentially doing the same job, the same job that eyes do. We are all equipped with relatively similar technology. We’re all using eyes. We’re using our perception, but we perceive differently. Similarly, a few blind photographers using the same technology would each have their own expression and own perception and their own way of reflecting on that. The interface is not important at the end of the day. The interface can be biological. It could be non-biological. That’s what we’re all looking for.
El Kashef: ‘Cause, also the idea of photography is not… yes, it comes from you… biological. The thing is, you look and you see and you create memories. And the camera does that for you, so that’s the technological part of it. And so, the gadgets that help me realize where the f-stop, for example, or the color correction or whatever, it’s doing the same, instead of me looking and seeing the f-stop on the camera, it’s telling me what it is. So I mean…
— Who took the photographs. Did you take them?
El Kashef: Some of them…
Gandhi: A lot of them were taken by Shriti Banerjee. She’s our costume designer. And she’s also a very talented photographer.
El Kashef: … the pictures with the monkeys. But a lot of pictures are Shriti’s. I don’t know. I actually didn’t see my photos. Anyway, there are a few pictures that we used from the scenes themselves while I was taking pictures. Then they were also taken blindly.
Gandhi: There were a lot of blind pictures that she took while she was actually “blind.” In her act, she would have to blind herself, even if she’s seeing she could not develop that technique for a period of rehearsals, I think. Even if she’s able to see she would feel blind from inside and…
El Kashef: We had to… it’s as if you were looking inside your eye… you know, when your really concentrate a lot and then your sight gets kind of lost inside. It’s a very biological thing. It’s not a trick. It happens to everyone if you’re… you know when you’re really concentrating on something and then you…
Gandhi: Your vision improves, but you’re blinding yourself out somehow…
El Kashef: When everything is really out of focus because your eye’s really focused on something and then, you know what I mean?
— I think it’s like the idea of the persistence of memory. For example, when you hear a tone, there’s a certain point when you stop hearing it if it’s constant. If it changes, you go, oh, something’s changed. So, staring, if nothing changes…
Gandhi: …your mind becomes tired of it so gives up on focusing sometimes.
El Kashef: So that’s basically what we were using it for. Preparing… actually when I came… it was my second time in the movie to start shooting and… Anand kept me three days blindfolded.
— Oh really! Wow!
Gandhi: She didn’t see her boyfriend like the way she didn’t see him in the story for a while. So she didn’t see the actor and she… and after like four days of rehearsals and then they… I hoped that they would develop some kind of chemistry. They didn’t. She refused to have anything towards Vinay. But for four days while they rehearsed she didn’t see him. She didn’t know the way he looked. And after 4 days we took the blindfold off and she saw him for the first time.
— Aida, you’re also a filmmaker, photographer, activist…
El Kashef: Not photographer. I’m a filmmaker and… I am a filmmaker, not also… I’m not an actor.
— Yes! You are a filmmaker… and you’re also an actress.
El Kashef: Sometimes.
Gandhi: She’s only a revolutionary right now. She’s only a part-time filmmaker.
— My question is, in your work, personally, as an artist, how does that inform your character in the film? Did you bring in any of your personal philosophies into the character of Alia?
El Kashef: I’m not sure if it happened consciously, but I think it must have, because we also altered the script a bit because it was not meant for an Egyptian character. So like, for example, the way the character was dressed is actually how I’m dressed. The names that we chose… like everything that we chose around the character from the outside, it comes from me or things that I like in Egypt, or whatever. There was no conscious decision because also for me, it was a very new experience. First of all, India – like that’s the longest time I’ve stayed outside of Egypt. And also acting, which was really weird. And acting in English. I hope that something from me came out in the character, but there were no decisions taken consciously upon it.
Gandhi: I think it did come out. Her personality gave a very, very important color to the character, I think, when I look at the film. We’ve been editing it for two years. She hasn’t seen her own role, so I remember every moment, every line. I spent so much time on the material and I think… the script largely is the same, that was meant to be, but the way it was interpreted, the way each line came out was something that came from way inside of Aida. I saw it for the first time in Hanover in Germany when she had come with a short film there… and she was eighteen at that time. And when she spoke, people listened. She had this extremely strong aura about her. And that I think comes across a lot in her character, this very strong sense of identity, this very strong center that she has. That was given into the character. I mean, at a text level the character I would imagine was a bit softer. She brought in the edge, I think.
El Kashef: And also the way I was talking, like I talk naturally. We didn’t do any clear characterization other than, like, playing with… rehearsing the idea of being blind we didn’t even imitate blind people. We met a lot of blind people of different ages. We did not imitate how they moved. We just found out, like when I’m moving and I can’t see, I’m blind, how does that come out and then I imitate myself. So I think it was a very natural way of acting. Like there were no certain characteristics and also there was a space… like of course the dialogue was very precise. It was written before and Anand was very precise about every sentence and it was very hard for me because… his English is pretty hard – the vocab he chooses… and English is not my natural language. So then I really had to, like really, fumble a lot. It’s true. It’s not meant that the character fumbles, but I fumbled.
Gandhi: It was meant to be fumbled.
El Kashef: … but not to that extent.
Gandhi: It was! I think what was added – like one scene where her boyfriend is describing the photograph to her and Faraz speaks English the way the English speak English because he’s spent most of his life in London, so, it’s more justified in the way they talk. When he’s describing the photograph to her, he sometimes would use words which she didn’t understand because it’s not her first language. So he at one point says, “there’s a gabled roof” and she says, “gabled roof?” and he says “like a sloped roof.”
El Kashef: I was doing that in reality.
— Particularly the sequence with Maitraya, who’s very spiritual and trying to keep a correct ethical life.. and you also bring in Mukhktiyar Ali singing in that one scene.
Gandhi: In the stockbroker story?
— Yeah. So, there’s kind of a spiritual element that happens with this story of wild modern technology. Did you yourself have a spiritual upbringing or have some sort of spiritual philosophy?
Gandhi: I’ve been raised in a secular middle-class Indian unreligious family where religion has been quietly and politely replaced with modern spirituality. And classical Indian religions are more spiritual than dogmatic. Buddhism and Jainism are more inclined toward mono-ism and non-dualism than they are toward any kind of theism. So, I’ve been raised in that kind of a culture, but personally I am not sure if I can identify myself as spiritual because I’m convinced about our non-transcendental selves. I don’t have a relationship with anything that’s theistic or that’s remotely of a transcendental concept. In that sense I’m not, but, yeah, I’m extremely in awe of the mystery. And I’m extremely in awe of the last few hundred million years we have evolved and the rich complexity that we have arrived at in terms of who we are and where we come from and what we have built around us. I’m extremely, extremely in awe that magic and that engineering… that biological engineering, that human engineering. I’m extremely in awe of that miracle.
Interview by Nicholas Vroman
Interview with Director Michael J. Rix (“Accession”)
Michael J. Rix’s “Accession” is an unrelenting and brutal look at a South African man infected with HIV. His tragedy brings up a plethora of issues that plague life in the townships of South Africa – AIDS, child rape, poverty, the legacy of apartheid. Michael chatted about the big issues and the details of making his completely original and compelling film.
— Tell me about the actor, Pethro Themba Mbole. Is he a professional actor?
Michael J. Rix: He’s not. He’s an amateur at best. He acts in his community, in small stage productions that they put on… but nothing aside from that. Yeah, he’s kind of starting from scratch.
— Did he grow up, or does he live in a township?
Rix: Yeah, he lives in a community pretty much like what you see on camera there. So, we were drawing from that essentially. Just trying to get that into his performance, just his environment. I think he pulled it off.
— Oh I think he did too. Definitely! Growing up in a township, he probably grew up poor. Maybe he still lives fairly poor. Did he bring much of his own personal history into this role?
Rix: He doesn’t know anyone who has been through this, personally. We spoke about it quite a bit. And he obviously hasn’t been through this personally himself. But it is, in those communities, rife. So, they all know about it and can relate to it and kind of know the character just through hearing about it… what that character would entail. So, I kind of put it in his hands. And I kind of trusted that he was drawing on his own experience to get the right tone across.
— And so, in that sense, was a lot of it improvised or scripted or a mix of both?
Rix: It was a mix of both, yeah. I kind of gave him free reign, but we were working to a script. But he was able to improvise as necessary and it came out later if it was usable or not.
— There are many scenes where he appears to be in conversation, but the conversant is cut out. Were those scripted?
Rix: They were loosely scripted, shall we say, but also a big mix. It started with a scripted version and then I gave him free reign to go ahead and just converse. And then we got moments, just fractures of his conversation and his life.
— The character doesn’t have any redeeming qualities – and maybe that’s quite true to the character – but in regards to something you bring to a movie theater, that you want people to identify with something or someone and get a feeling or emotion…
Rix: Yes, he’s definitely the anti-hero, the antithesis. But I wanted it to feel real. That’s essentially how I approached it, so I didn’t want it to feel we’re watching something that’s being scripted and I’m waiting for the narrative to go into act 3 at this point. I think I needed it to feel like a slice of that life. I’ve heard that criticism before and I kind of agree with it, in a way. That’s a whole ‘nother movie. I don’t think it’s same experience. I guess when I go to the movies, that’s what I’m looking for… something to latch on to. But it didn’t seem right for this. I didn’t want any sort of cinematic tricks to be in the audience’s mind as they watch it. They just need to experience it as it is. Does that work?
— It works, but on the other hand, it’s distancing, it’s negative… it’s creepy.
Rix: I did kind of approach it as a horror movie. Creepy is a good word. It’s essentially a human horror. It’s like horrifically awful. You just sort of journey with that character on his downhill slide. It is what it is, I guess.
— Let’s go to your inspirations – the reason why you made this film?
Rix: Obviously it is an issue that affects a certain portion of our society in quite a staggering way. If you actually look at the statistics it’s frightening and it’s never been dealt with on film as far as I know. So I thought it needed to be out there. So that was obviously the original spark. And then in terms of the way it all came together, which was a combination of factors – it started out as a bigger idea, but I couldn’t get it financed. The finances shrunk down into a small compact low-budget… you know with me on camera and eventually doing the editing and the whole thing.
— So you did everything on this one!
Rix: I couldn’t find anyone else.
— People like these exist. Incidents of child rape and killing exist. Were there some specific incidents or newspaper stories that you drew from?
Rix: There are stories, once every couple of months, they make the papers, but not in any dramatic way anymore. It’s just page 3 stuff now. We know it goes on. But that’s just completely wrong in my mind. It should be… I guess the way I approached the film is to make people… ill. Because that’s how you should feel about that subject matter. We didn’t actually research a specific person and get to speak to that person who is one of these criminals. But we researched within the community in terms of people who had met this guy who had been a rapist or something to that effect. I guess it grew out of the community needs. The irony is it will probably never screen to this community.
Rix: Because they don’t have cinemas. They aren’t a cinema-going audience. They don’t have cinema in the culture. In South Africa, unless it’s a big Hollywood blockbuster, it’s unlikely to get a screening anywhere.
— Have you thought of yourself or anybody taking the film to the townships and setting up public screenings?
Rix: That’s a possibility. Absolutely. There are a couple of companies that have started that recently and they’re trying to set up mobile screening sites where they drive into the townships, put our chairs… they have a big inflatable screen and they screen these things. Again, it’s probably not the sort of subject matter that audience would want to see anyway. People would just rather ignore it. It’s tricky in that respect where I felt it needed to be out there, but now… how to get it out there is the stumbling block.
— And you were saying that it probably won’t get released in South Africa itself.
Rix: I doubt it. Well, you never know. We have a very niche market to begin with back home. As I say, 80 percent don’t go to the cinema at all. I mean they live in rural environments and rural communities. And the other 20 percent kind of just lost interest. The big multiplexes are barely full – maybe a Friday or Saturday evening. That’s about it. We just don’t have a cinema-going culture in that country.
— Unfortunately I think cinema-going is dying everywhere. I don’t know if you heard the news, today in Asakusa… Have you been to Japan before?
Rix: This is my first time.
— Asakusa is an older neighborhood. It’s kind of a tourist neighborhood now. But it’s the first neighborhood that got electricity in Japan. Therefore it was the first neighborhood that had movies.
— And it was rightly famous as this is where the first movie theaters were. The last of the old movie theaters closed yesterday. A couple of “pinku” houses and a couple of houses that showed old movies only.
Rix: Was this lack of attendance?
— Yes, lack of attendance, the changing nature of the neighborhood and what people want to go see. They’ve been tearing down the old stuff… daily. And I think they’re trying to make it a little more family friendly, so having some porno theaters there wasn’t… they said we don’t want those there. But things are changing all over the world, much to the chagrin of guys like us who like old movie theaters.
Rix: Old school, exactly. I mean you just don’t get the same experience from a DVD or a VOD or whatever.
— But you have showed your film at Durban,
— And what sort of reactions have you gotten?
Rix: It has been fairly controversial, I guess. And I wasn’t actually in London, but I had friends at the screening and they actually overheard a conversation after the screening saying, it seemed very realistic, but they don’t believe that this happens anymore. So, I don’t know if that perception is correct or if it’s changed internationally as to what’s going on back home. But the statistics are actually increasing, which is really worrying. In fact, it seems like the world is turning a blind eye. Durban… some people loved it and stayed for the Q and A and sort of blown away. Others were walking out and screaming at me on the way. It’s one of those films, I guess.
— Correct me if I’m wrong, wasn’t there a minister in South Africa who for several years was in AIDs denial?
Rix: You’re probably thinking of our president. There was a rumor… I think it was actually misinterpreted somewhere down the line, but the press got a hold of it and blew it all out of proportion – about the fact that he made some comment about taking a shower to prevent HIV. Yeah, it was kind of an offhand comment and it was out of context. Yeah, it’s been like that for quite a while. Those are the kinds of issues of privilege in African society. We have this miseducation stumbling block where the message is just not getting through to certain communities.
— Is there any real attempt to educate and…
Rix: Obviously not on the correct scale. They would be getting through, but this has been a problem. I think the first reported incidents of it for the South African community were over a decade ago. This is not being reported. I don’t know how to change the situation either. Except by making a film and someone seeing it and saying I’ve got to do something about that. I can’t get my head around it. Hopefully somebody else can.
— In the USA, the gay community, around the Act Up politics, really did change things. And granted, these people probably had much more privilege. They were a society that had more where-with-all to face the problem. But is there any sort of activist community that seems to be growing in South Africa, at all, that you know of?
Rix: Not that I’ve been made aware of, no. There are sort of government initiatives, but obviously not big enough. There’s no sort of community activists and organizations that are dealing with this sort of thing directly.
— That’s too bad. Have you show Accession to a township audience?
Rix: I have not. In Durban there were members from the nearest township that came to that screening.
— That said, has there been any reaction and comments from the black community regarding a white filmmaker mediating their problem?
Rix: I haven’t yet [got any reaction]. I guess I’m kind of expecting it in a way. Especially because there’s a black-white issue that still exists and even though apartheid is out – especially in that way, where black filmmakers are expected to tell black stories, white filmmakers are expected to tell white stories. I just want to tell stories that are interesting and powerful and this happens to be one of them. And I tried, as I said, to make it as realistic as possible. So, hopefully there won’t be that many comments that come back saying it isn’t and accurate portrayal. Because this thing is happening… on literally a daily basis. So, am I wrong to do that? To tell a story like that?
— I don’t think so, but I know that it can be an issue.
Rix: I hear you. I think it probably will be an issue. At some point.
— Good luck.
Rix: Unless it wins awards, then everything’s forgiven, I’m sure.
— Probably to an extent. But this film is such a brutal film that I think people will be a little less forgiving in some ways, ’cause maybe the film isn’t that forgiving. I do have a specific question. Three ships? How did that become a euphemism for HIV?
Rix: It’s a colloquial term that they use. I actually got that from the guys themselves. That’s how they refer to HIV. Three Ships is actually a local whisky back home. So, I don’t know where it actually came about, but that’s how they refer to HIV. For some reason it’s named after the cheapest whisky you can get. It actually came out during the shoot, because it wasn’t scripted that way. I think it was referred to as HIV in the script. And then they just threw in the three ships in there. What is that? HIV? Yeah. OK, so I’ll keep it like that.
— Let’s talk about the camera style. I’d like you to explain why you made this choice of this style? Having those establishing shots at the beginning of the different sequences and then following John so closely. In my count, there are 4 places where you broke this specific style.
Rix: At the end?
— I would say where he’s first informed of having HIV you use a telephoto shot for one of those shots.
Rix: Yes, that’s right.
— And then when he’s chatting with his buddy and the guy tells him how to cure AIDs – his misinformation.
Rix: Yes, that was with a long lens.
— And they seem to be very important moments in the film. The style changed enough for me, that I thought, oh, maybe you’re emphasizing something in this oblique sort of way.
— It could have just been a random choice.
Rix: I like to think it was intentional. The conversation that leads him to the HIV conclusions is actually… I don’t know if you picked it up… I wanted it to be kind of obscure, but in the background you see the little girl and the baby. Both characters are there. To defocus them, I chose the long lens for that one. So you kind of get a vague idea of these beings that will become relevant later, but they’re not, kind of, in your face. And the other one was?
— When he first gets told he may have HIV.
Rix: When the woman tells him, yeah. That one was actually shot from two different setups and I used half and half in the edit.
— I thought it was this incredible smart choice… and then the rape of the baby and the very final scene. They’re set up so the camera is still very close to him but it’s one of the few times you get him in the context of his room (in the baby shot) and in the very end, he’s in the foreground and he walks back into his shanty and you get the whole view and you’re suddenly distanced from the whole thing.
Rix: There’s a specific cut there from a close-up to that extreme wide shot that we end the film with. That’s kind of the moment of his acceptance of the situation and the fact that he’s about to die. So, I wanted that to be jarring. We suddenly break that close-up… well not for the first time… but you’re getting used to that close-up and then suddenly, we’re wide. Yes, for that exact reason, just to jar the audience.
— But going back to the basic mode of how you’re showing him, either very close up or behind his shoulder, what were the aesthetic decisions behind that?
Rix: I essentially just wanted to keep him in close-up as much as possible so you are just forced to be with this character and just take his journey, his downward spiral… with him. So, there’s no relief for the audience. They just have to stick it out. Or walk out, which some of them did.
— On to the bigger theme of this tragedy, this horror story. The question came up was A. is this for John, a personal, human nature problem of this character. I mean, basically, he’s kind of a psychopath. He has no feelings. He doesn’t know how to relate and he’s only concerned about his own skin, saving it any way he can. And he does it all wrong. Or B. because of the place, the townships, the culture, the poverty, lack of education, no future… all this stuff… has this turned him into a monster?
Rix: Well, that’s part of the debate, I guess. He’s one of hundreds a year… actually way more than that… The statistics we were working with when we first approached the project was… I think it was 25,000 reported rapes per year in South Africa, almost half of which were children. And 99 percent of these [rapes] were in these communities. It’s horrific. Those sorts of statistics are just mind-blowing. So, he’s literally on of tens of thousands of similar people out there. He might be one who’s just purely psychopathic. There might be others out of the desperation of the situation and they’ve heard this myth going around and they try, as you say, to save their asses. John as a character, has no redeeming features. He has psychopathic urges. But he’s just one. He’s the one that we happened to follow. Although the argument can be made that to go through that you would have to be psychopathic in some form anyway. I mean, all those characters are from the same mold. For me to say that is… I don’t know.
— For me Accession rides that line. Here’ this guy who’s like… danger. Don’t get involved with this guy ’cause he’s going to ruin your life… and the background, the places of his wanderings, which you don’t comment on too much. You just kind of show these shanties, these roads where these people are just kind of hanging out, nothing’s going on, where he’s looking for action most of the time… well he doesn’t actually find much action most of the time. Maybe that’s his problem – action in the sense of something meaningful to do.
Rix: Well that is, unfortunately, part of the reality for these guys. A lot of them are unemployed and they just stay that way. There just willing to work for bread, something to tide them over for a couple of days like a loaf of bread and they’ll be OK. There’s this complete disinterest in career. It’s not like their trying to build themselves up. Pethro, himself, is on the other end of the scale. He is actually trying to create an acting career and he works in a call center part-time to try and raise funds, but in the same sort of community. But in terms of following him around the township, part of that is living with that character and living in that environment. Maybe someone can piece two and two together and try and work out why this guy does what he does. But, I can’t.
— For me, it’s kind of like “Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer.” In both films, there’s an objective look at these horrible people. Their both strong films, not necessarily likable.
Rix: A sort of a love/hare relationship? For me it was important that the audience doesn’t get off the hook. Obviously there’s not a huge audience for the film but the ones that are going to watch it need to react to it. They won’t walk out with a Hollywood fluffy happy ending kind of thing.
— Where do you live?
Rix: In Johannesburg.
— Have you spent much time in townships?
Rix: It’s not part of my upbringing, but just in research for these projects. I’ve done a couple of little short film projects with guys from the townships. So, I got to experience them firsthand, maybe 8 years ago. I’ve spent some time in Nigeria as well in similar sorts of community structures up there, which I’ve spent time in.
— Is this is your first feature?
Rix: I’ve made two other features that really didn’t go out of the country – very tiny homemade features, one of them animated. This is the first one that’s being notices. Well, the animated one traveled the world at least to minor festivals.
— And your other feature, did it deal with similar themes and issues?
Rix: The other one was actually a wacky comedy which was a co-production with a UK-based filmmaker and two American producers. We put a deal together in Cannes and went off and made this zany surreal whack-job of a comedy horror epic, which I wouldn’t have done actually. So this was almost a direct reaction. I wanted to flush it out my system and start from the ground up again.
— You mentioned you made some shorts with some township folks. Were they dealing with issues within the black community.
Rix: To a certain extent. They weren’t as dark at this, but they did touch on issues of poverty and general everyday way of life situations. But this is a very specific tough issue that is aside from the other… I tend toward comedy most of the time, to be honest. This is my first straight drama. It’s either a new direction or a one off. I’m not sure right now.
— You were basically your crew, right?
Rix: I had numerous assistants – five or six. All around assistants, they were around wherever assistance was needed. That was the crew.
— Were there any issues involved with working in the township?
Rix: They were all from the actual community. We sourced them right there. That actually gave us a lot of leeway in may ways. And entirely white middle-class crew going in there and trying to take over would have been a different story. So we got a lot of access to areas that we normally wouldn’t have been invited into. Actually it was a help more than a hindrance. Absolutely.
— Do you have other film festivals lined up?
Rix: It’s going to Kenya next. It should be interesting to see it in Africa. I’m not sure what’s lined up next. Hopefully, Rotterdam early next year. So I guess its just traveling at the moment, seeing what happens.
(Interview by Nicholas Vroman)
Interview with Producer Daniel Marc Dreifuss (“No”)
Daniel Marc Dreifuss, producer of “No” is passionate about the universality of its story – how Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet fell from power. The story is brilliantly depicted by director, Pablo Larrain, with star, Gael Garcia Bernal. During Dreifuss’s very short stay in Japan, we chatted about how it all came together and the larger message that “No” has for all struggling for justice and freedom.
– How did you get involved with working with Pablo Larrain?
Daniel Marc Dreifuss: The way I got involved was – I’m L.A.-based, and I met Juan de Leos, who is Pablo’s brother in Los Angeles. I organize a trade mission – an immersion program bringing Ibero-American filmmakers to Los Angeles. So, people from Spain and Latin America, I bring them for a week around AFM. Actually, so, a couple of years ago, this guy named Juan came for a training before he pitched at AFM. He mentioned that he was here with a project called “No.” And then he basically pitched it for two minutes. I probably heard 28 pitches that day – I only remember his. Because the second he spoke about it, it was not that I wanted to make this film, but I needed to tell this story. And the reason the story was so important to me is… it’s a two-pronged thing.
On a personal level, I’m from Brazil. My father was a big political scientist and known author. His theme of work actually was the dictatorship in Brazil. So, I grew up in a very political household in a country that was also a dictatorship around the same time. When I was a child, Brazil was still a dictatorship. So it was my way of being in the United States and through my work, referencing my upbringing. Nearby, Argentine, Brazil, Chile all had dictatorships. It’s a very difficult, but common bond that these countries have. So, it was a way of referencing where I came from. That’s on me… and not as important as the fact that I thought to myself, yes, this will intrinsically always be a Chilean story and crucial to the Chile that we know today. However, if we do this as a co-production and we do this well enough – where it’s a little bigger and a little more universal, a little more accessible… and we do this well enough that it can cross over and reach other countries – countries that usually don’t get foreign films or Spanish language films. We have a real opportunity to inspire people, I hope. And this seems just so immensely timely, ever so timely, with the idea that these people in 1988, under a dictatorship, with so little were able to do so much and change the destiny of a country and a people. What could people today with the Internet, twitter, facebook, all this social media do to connect themselves and fight for their own rights? Fight for whatever their happiness may be.
And the semantic meaning of that happiness will change. In some countries as I mentioned earlier, it could be the right of a woman to drive alone. In another country it could be the right of a woman to go to a hospital or a doctor is she needs to without having to ask permission. If you ask some people living down the street from me in L.A., it could be the right of people marrying somebody of the same sex. In some countries like Chile right now, it’s the right for free education. So, the rights and the need for a voice they remain. What that right may be or what they’re speaking for, or what happiness is to an individual, in different cultures and different parts of the world may change, but the need is the same. And I said, here we are in 2012 still fighting for such basic rights in so many places in the world. I hope that people can look at these people in Chile in 1988 – even if they never heard of Pinochet or of Chile – and say, I see myself, I see my own fight and if they were able to do that with so little, what can I do today for my own happiness? And then, the political unrest in the Middle East happened and is still happening. And it just validated that feeling that, yes, look at everything they’re able to do in Libya and Cairo by using social media and organizing themselves and showing up at the square and all the changes that happened in bringing down a dictator and promoting change and unrest in the last 12 months. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. So, in that sense this film has to be told because I think it could inspire people today.
– The film itself shows a very positive outcome – getting rid of Pinochet, democracy for Chile after years of horrible times – but it also takes a critical stand about methodology of how it was done, commercial, popular advertising. Not the traditional ways of talking about the horror, bringing up the victims of torture. Our hero, Rene Saavedre says, no no no, keep thing positive, and plus he takes this idea of how to turn no into a positive thing. In the end when they win the plebiscite and there’s that wonder scene where he’s with his son walking through the crowds, he has this look on his face, which is partially shock, but also with this questioning look. That he won by using the method of the enemy, as it may be.
Dreifuss: I think that Pablo [Larrain] who is Chilean and comes from a political family mentions something interesting often. And he’s said it many times. The dictatorship left. But the way the transition took place is what consolidated capitalism and international money as the only viable way that the country could be put back together. And the fact is that the transition came through such commercial ways – the stone of using democracy as a product, which is a line in the movie when his counterpart in the no campaign say he’s not comfortable talking about democracy as a product. But it is, in that sense. It kind of sealed what Chile would be from then on. That international interests, international money and capitalism were going to be the way that the country was going to reorganize itself. By no means can you call it the dictatorship of capital because you cannot possibly compare it to the oppression of people being shot on the streets. But it is a fact, that after that time, a new system implemented itself, in part because of the way the transition took place. And I think that that’s described in the movie where he’s presenting the campaign and one of the people in the room gets up and says, “This is what you are. This is what you guys truly are. And I’m not going to stand here for this.” He said he didn’t only want to win, but he wanted to win and change Chile in a profound systematic way and other people only wanted to win. I believe that winning, obviously brought freedom and saved that country. It was the last one of the dictatorships in South America to fall. It was 15 years too late. What you say is absolutely accurate and I think it’s very perceptive. Even at the end, the rivals come together over an ad, a campaign and another product. Life continues for those characters through that angle. It is the reality that we all face. It’s not just Chile. It’s many places in the world.
– Had you known of Pablo Larrain’s work before you got this pitch?
Dreifuss: Yes, but I had only seen one of his two films. The other one I saw after I heard of the story and as I was already working on the project [“No”] actually. I worked on the project actually before I met him because I was in L.A. and he was in Chile. But yes, then I saw the second film [“Post Mortem”].
– Apparently there’s really another “first film” that I’d never seen.
Dreifuss: Yes, “Fuga.” But it’s not a movie that he often talks about. It’s definitely not part of an intentional trilogy. It’s his first film. I don’t think it rises up to the very high standards that he sets for himself. He’s a wonderful, wonderful person, in addition to being immensely talented. In fact, I have to say this. That the biggest joy that I had in this movie is the way people respond. In a visceral manner. Like this morning, there was a line of people wanting to thank me for the film. One girl came crying. And I thought, if we can inspire or touch people in that manner, I think that we did our jobs. That’s why we make movies – to entertain and hopefully inspire as well, because this movie does serve a certain social function. There’s a social action that can be attached to it. Right? And in that sense, Participant Media, the studio that financed the film is a studio whose every film it makes has a social action attached to it. Go to the website and check it out. I feel that this movie was made by a group of people, that when the movie ended, we were much closer that we were when the movie started – which in the movie world is rare. It’s a movie that I’m very proud of for the human element that was involved. Gael [Garcia Bernal] is immensely talented. Everybody knows it. But what I got to know is what a fantastic human being he is and how politically engaged he is. As well as Pablo. What a lovely human being he is. The whole troupe of actors. It’s one of those rare instances where people really came together and the human value is as great as the artistic merit of the film. Because you never know what goes on behind the scenes. You have great movies that were a tragedy on the set. This is a move where everyone was so close. It’s group of very special people that came together and I’m very, very happy that I was able to be a part of that.
– How did you get Gael Garcia Bernal on to this project?
Dreifuss: He was on the project before me. When I heard there was a very, very, very early draft of the script – that doesn’t resemble the movie at all – before it was an international production, Gael was already there. And my understanding is Pablo took the project to Gael. Gael is politically engaged, so he wanted to be a part of it. And then he saw Pablo’s work and became a fan and said I want to do it. But it takes that special guy. Not special actor. That he is. But a special person to say I want to tell that story.
– Here you have this great movie that’s winning awards at Cannes and getting great press. It’s a very particular story to Chile that has larger resonances, as you say. Do you think it’s going to be difficult getting this film into the international and North American market and receive successfully? It may be such a specific piece of history… many people in the USA might say, oh yeah, Chile, so what?
Dreifuss: Every time you say “foreign language” in the US market you have to consider the reaction. This is a broad question. Let me try to rein it in. We did not make a movie for the masses. This story is a political film. It’s a period film. It’s a Spanish language film. We would have done it with modern equipment to look pretty. It’s not what we were going for. Is it going to play in the mall in Kansas or Arkansas? No. I went to high school in Columbia, Missouri. Is it going to play in the art house theater in Colombia, Missouri? I hope so. Sony Classics bought the film for US distribution in Cannes. So we are going to theaters in the United States. But the, we aren’t “The Avengers.” We’re not “Transformers.” But then again, we were never meant to be. I hope that we truly speak to the movie’s audience. And in being as authentic and realistic as we can, using cameras from the 80s and the visuals and the original footage, I hope that we appeal to the audience and transcend that audience. But transcending that audience will never be mass market. It’s not what this is. It’s not going to be a mass market movie. However I do hope that the film is not perceived as “Chile.” It should be perceived as an inspirational story of how individuals were able to take control of their future and change a whole country. And that appeals universally. And the need for a voice is universal. So I hope that we fall in the universal themes and that people are drawn for the inspirational element of and not “Why Chile? It’s such a distant past,” because it may resonate with you today. To speak for something or to care for somebody else’s issue and then take part in it even if it’s not your issue. I think that equality and new rights are only achieved, when people who are sometimes outside of the very core group that needs those rights, speak and walk down the streets with those people. So, I hope it inspires people in that way. I am confident that the film will cross over. I think it will be bigger than the obvious, small foreign language film. I think that the indications that we have from the markets early on, the way the film has sold, is indication that people have expectations -but within the realm of foreign films.
– Has this film played in Chile?
Dreifuss: Yes it has. It opened in August.
– And what have been the responses there?
Dreifuss: I’m sure that some people felt it was a polemical film. But I think the response has been great. They had – I wasn’t there for the opening – I believe, there were three former presidents in attendance. You know about the student protests?
Dreifuss: So obviously, the country’s very engaged. This generation right now is going without compromises and asking for a lot. Not just no Pinochet. The people now want everything. They want free education. They are not compromising unless they get education. They are not going back. I think it is a country that is prime for this kind of material. Did it do well? Better than expected? Yes. It also opened against a record-breaking very popular mass-market Chilean movie that made a whole lot more money. Better that expected for a period, political, fascinating film.
– And it does have Bernal in it!
Dreifuss: I forgot to say this. The fact that we have Gael is not even the secret, he’s the declared weapon. He will take this movie to places – no matter how good the movie is without him – it would never go. He, absolutely, opens many doors that would never be opened otherwise.
Interview by Nicholas Vroman
Interview with Director Norio Enomoto (“Something Wicked Comes Over the Wall”)
The aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami has inspired a host of filmmakers. It certainly will for some time as Japan continues to deal with it. Norio Enomoto’s “Something Wicked Comes Over the Wall” takes on the subject with a novel approach. As the film breaks down genre conventions it comes to rest on an elegiac ending like something out of Ozu. We talked about inspirations, ideas and what the future holds for a generation of Japanese youth.
– I’d like to find out a little bit about you and your background. I understand you made a feature film, “A sky too far to see” a few years ago. I understand it had some festival showings. Could you tell me a little about this film?
Norio Enomoto: “A sky too far to see” was shot two years ago. I was 51 at that time. Before that I had been working in the same field, in film, but as an exhibitor – I was involved with distribution and production. But while I was working at all these companies as a salaryman, I was also writing scripts as well.
– I understand that you also teach scriptwriting.
– And have you been doing that for a while?
Enomoto: About ten years.
– And have any of your scripts been produced and made by other directors?
Enomoto: Yes, for sure.
– One thing that very much interested me about this film is the screenplay, the script – mainly in that its trajectory is always surprising about where it’s going – in regard to what’s revealed and the different genre ideas that develop. Could you tell me a little bit about the writing of the script and what you’re ideas and theories are about scriptwriting?
Enomoto: In the course of studying scriptwriting, I discovered one thing that’s very important. There’s a huge gap between what’s happening in the film festival circuit and what’s happening in the actual cinema market. And I saw this gap become wider and wider – I think it started about the year 2000. You can see from about this time that many films are well received at film festivals, but they don’t necessarily do well, boxoffice-wise. They’re not lucrative. In making low-budget – as I do – art-house films, I would get them into film festivals, have them well received and have that buzz transfer over to the cinema market. But that’s stopped working from about the year 2000. I really stared to consider what to do about it and I came to the conclusion that If you don’t have the power of story – if you don’t create that – then it’s not going to work in this age. And it also doesn’t help just to do a well-done story. That’s not enough. Act one, setup; act two, conflict; act three, climax and end. If you have this kind of structure with a big budget and you do it in a flashy way – and then you have your stars – then it will succeed as a piece of entertainment. But no low-budget film will be able to compete with this kind of commercially successful film – if it’s done that style. Nowadays, if you’re going to do something like that you need a good story, but it has to be something innovative, something that you haven’t seen before, something that’s not conventional. So my way of dealing with that was to jump over genres. That creates a surprise and a great film-going experience. And you sort of get hooked. That I tried with my previous film “A sky too far to see.” That was in a way an experiment. It was received pretty well so I decided, OK, I’ll try this in a condensed shorter 35 minute film. It’s not that I just want to try a new tactic, but I want to bring forth a new worldview. So it’s not just a new tactic for a new tactic’s sake. That’s not my intent. I can use that new tactic to convey what I perceive of the world – for example as you can see in “Something Wicked…” – how it jumps over the boundaries of genres. You perceive a certain thing in one way, but then your thinking changes midway. And likewise, in Japan, the way people perceive the world is totally different before 3.11 and after 3.11. So that’s where that whole tactic fits in.
– You have a road movie turning into a horror movie – going up the dark road into the night – and you wake up the next morning to a different sort of movie. The essential story of 3.11, I think, that I get from your film, is that it is a longer horror movie, in that the tsunami that came over the wall – with the final pan of the ocean – is still out there and it can come over again.
Enomoto: Yes, as you say, in a general sense it is a horror film, but the story is there to depict changes in people. You can see it by the end of the film. The protagonist goes through a slight change.
Enomoto: Yes, Leila. You can see that it’s affected her slightly. So, it doesn’t end in just a simple horror story. There’s something else after that.
– What I meant was at the beginning you see the sea – a calm sea. And at the end you see the very same sea, but now it’s been informed by the tragedy, the story. You see the sea differently.
Enomoto: What I really like to depict is that nothing is completely happy and nothing is completely sad. There’s a certain sadness in happiness. There’s a certain happiness in sadness. I really like American films, American cinema, but when those film end, I would like to have the idea that they could have unhappy endings, but with a certain degree, or a certain drop of happiness. That’s the idea that I like. Talking about endings, there are bad endings and good endings, of course. There are films that intentionally make the ending a tragedy to match the reality. I don’t like that. But then, having a happy ending is not totally truthful. What I like to do is to depict an almost happy or an almost completely happy ending. Yayagachi – which means not completely, but almost there. So I want a “yayagachi” almost completely there, but not 100 percent.
– One of the images/ideas that you bring up is the idea of walls. It’s in the title. There’s the personal wall that Leila has dealing with her family’s problems in Tohoku – her denial of it. And then there’s the physical wall, the seawall that was supposed to keep people safe, but didn’t. Can you talk about the walls of Tohoku and your characters, of Japanese society?
Enomoto: Speaking of wall, the walls as we all know, there was a wall that we believed to be completely safe, that it would protect us. Nobody thought the waves would come over at that height. It tells us that something we’ve built that we believe to be absolutely safe is not necessarily so. And when something like that happens, human beings have no choice but to desensitize themselves in order to get through it. It’s their way of dealing with it. That, in this film, is the wall that Leila has built inside her emotions. She’s desensitized herself. But at the film you see, at a certain point, she says “It came over the walls.” I don’t think that’s such a bad thing for us as human beings.
– Let’s talk about your influences in filmmaking.
Enomoto: I grew up seeing more American films than European films. I particularly like films from the 70s. In this New Hollywood era, the boxoffice wasn’t all that great, but there were many good, solid films made. And the same thing happened in Japan too, but ten year earlier in the 1960s. The admission numbers began to drop. But the quality of the films was very good. That sort of similar situation held for the New Hollywood films of the 70s in America. In this era, American filmmakers were influenced by European filmmakers. And other kinds of films I like are American-influenced European films.
– For example?
Enomoto: Jean-Pierre Melville. And to give you an example of the 1970s New Hollywood influenced by European films would be Roman Polanski. Of course “Chinatown,” which seems like an American film but you can see the European influence. You can see it was made by a European director. But when it comes to Polanski, compared to other filmmaker highly praised in the film festival circuit, you can see that Polanski is a bit more influenced by the entertainment genre – especially after he embarked on his filmmaking career in the States. And take for example, Theo Angelopoulos. I like his films, but I’m not influenced by him.
– In regard to “Chinatown,” it has one of the more perfect scripts of any film.
Enomoto: Robert Towne! A famous script doctor said that “Chinatown” is the perfect script. The subtitles aren’t that good on the “Chinatown” DVD available in Japan.
– Plus I think there are some things that do not translate at all into Japanese. There are the famous lines about the “grass” and the “glass.”
– Do you see some of those things, the American cinema of the 70s, Jean-Pierre Melville coming through in your own films?
Enomoto: I think so. I hope so.
– Your film talks about the effects of the earthquake and tsunami through these characters who are young people going up north, going through changes themselves. How do you feel about a young generation of people where the tsunami may be the major thing that has happened in Japan during their lives? Do you think it’s going to change a mentality for a whole generation of Japanese?
Enomoto: A lot of people say that it won’t change anything. This voice is especially strong among the younger generation. The way I see it is that, maybe it’s that the younger generation tries to somehow get accustomed to this devastation. Not desensitized, but try to handle it in their own way – like getting used to that sense of devastation. But to that I say no! That’s not the way to go about it. Don’t be complacent or say OK to that. The problem with this devastation is it’s not a tragic or shocking devastation. It’s the kind of devastation that sort of seeps in slowly. If it’s a tragedy that slowly seeps in, there’s a way to adjust to that, to adjust your tuning. People are able to handle that and therefore take it as it is. But that holds no hope for the future. And what I wanted to say in my previous film is that unless young people come up with a solid tactic to say no to that devastation, then you have no choice but to pick up what’s around you – to pick up the tiny happinesses. And say, OK, I can survive with this. I’m happy with this. But that sense that there is no choice but to go about it that way, I say no to that. That’s the message I want to convey.
Interview by Nicholas Vroman
Interview with Director Makoto Shinozaki (“Since Then”)
Makoto Shinozaki’s “Since Then” dramatizes how Tokyoites felt and reacted immediately after the earthquake and tsunami of 3.11. Shinozaki perfectly captures the eerie calm and uncertainty that gripped the “rest” of Japan during that time.
– You’ve had a long career of making films. You’ve made all sorts of films in different genres. Is there any sort of recurring theme, idea or inspirations that you see in your films – into this film?
Makoto Shinozaki: I don’t have a good answer because I haven’t been able analyze my own films. But if I were to pick one theme, I would think it would be the relationships between human beings.
– I understand that before you started making films you were a film critic – and you analyzed other people’s films.
Shinozaki: No I don’t think so.
– I found this film interesting because I seen other films, documentaries, that talk about 3.11, mainly describing what happened in Tohoku – talking with survivors and the big issues of the tragedy. But your film has a completely different focus. Where were you when 3.11 happened?
Shinozaki: I was home in Tokyo. I was about to leave home and then the earthquake started. And I wanted to call my wife but I couldn’t get in touch with her. And I was really worried about my children because as you know, the earthquake struck at 2:46, right when schooled ended – when the kids were on their way home. So, I offered some space to stay for the kids in the neighborhood because many parents were at work, a long way from home. So there were a lot kids at my place on that day. And I put up signs to notify the folks in the neighborhood that their kids were at my house. And I didn’t want to get the kids too worried so I didn’t turn on the TV and I kept talking to them until their parents arrived.
– I feel that you captured the feeling of what it was like in Tokyo when the disaster happened and afterwards. Did the characters of the story develop out of people you knew or some other ideas and feelings that you had? It’s not exactly your story of the disaster. It’s a woman’s story.
Shinozaki: There was actually a model for the character. The protagonist is a woman, of course. But this was more based on a buddy I had in college who was very emotionally traumatized for about 10 years. He had some psychological problems. He had left Tohoku. He was living elsewhere – a safe and sound life. And then the earthquake struck. Again, he became emotionally unstable. I couldn’t get in touch with him at that time for about one and half months. It’s not that the boyfriend character in the story is depicting that individual. It’s of course, a bit imaginative. But as a model, there was that one friend. And that friend had actually checked himself into a hospital. But after he checked out of the hospital he married his girlfriend.
– Great! Is your friend doing OK now?
Shinozaki: Of course. I went to him to ask if we could do their story… well, not exactly their story, but something based on it… and luckily he said yes. If he said no, we wouldn’t have made the film.
– Did the woman, in real life, have a similar problem to the character in the film in having a problem in getting in contact with him and was stuck in some limbo for a while?
Shinozaki: The situation with the girlfriend was that she had heard from the family that he had been taken to a hospital but apparently it wasn’t the hospital that he usually went to. So, none of the doctors there knew of his whereabouts.
– Let’s talk about the movie itself. For your protagonist, you chose her job to be the owner of a shoe store, particularly orthopedic shoes – special shoes. Could you comment on the reason why you chose that particular occupation?
Shinozaki: There were discussions with the students – I worked with students at the Tokyo Film School – about what this woman did for a living. First, there was the idea to have her work in a supermarket, to make her one of the procurement people. Because then, you could depict how after the earthquake there was no water, there was no food. But little by little, as daily life came back to normal, the rhythm [of life] came back. It would very well synchronize with arc the story. But we thought that would be a little too explanatory, so we did away with that idea. Instead, one of the students, Iwasaki, who was an assistant in the production, came up with the idea of the shoe store. And I had heard about how for women it was too difficult to walk in high heels, so they would buy sports shoes or sneakers. And another reason I thought it was a good idea was because it’s not all that often you see someone working in a shoe store in a movie. And also it’s the feet, among all the organs in the human body, are most sensitive to what’s happening on the ground. What’s your idea?
– I think that maybe in a larger symbolism, her job is to help people, with perfect shoes that make them walk through life easier. She herself doesn’t do that until the very end when she puts on her own sneakers that allow her to move forward and take control of her own life a little bit more.
Shinozaki: Your answer is perfect.
– I know! Somebody had posted a quick review of this film… obviously an English speaker… and they equated the idea of “soul” with “sole.” I thought that was going too far.
Shinozaki: That’s beautiful! We actually interviewed some people who do this as a profession. It was very interesting in that these people, as was depicted in the film, take measurements to make the perfect fitting shoe. Doing that also requires a lot of psychological analysis. So that by examining the soles of one’s feet you can tell if the weight is always on the right, or is it always on the left, what kind of profession does that person work in. So, these people take a lot of pride in what they do. It’s not just about selling products, which Japan is too often about, but it’s more about offering an outlet. I thought that to be very interesting.
– There are a couple of other very symbolic images in the film – the photograph of the sky and the bird mobile. Traditionally, on the surface, images of freedom, openness and flying, but they seem a bit different in the film. Can you tell me about them?
Shinozaki: Of course, there was a hole in the wall that you needed to cover up. There was a lot of discussion with the students as to what kind of poster to put there. There weren’t a lot of ideas forthcoming. I intuitively wanted a poster of the sky. It wasn’t premeditated symbolism or anything. It was just what I intuitively wanted.
– And then there was the bird mobile. That makes one think of the sky. There was one moment where you had a shot looking down at with the shadows of birds crossing her face and then it cuts back to looking at the birds in front of it. It made me think of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” for one second. I thought instead of an image of freedom and flight there was an image of total oppressiveness.
Shinozaki: Coming back to the first question you had – if there was a certain theme that threads through all of my pictures – when I see someone who is solitary, in a room which is not necessarily locked, in this case she could go out if she wanted to, but she doesn’t… she’s locked in, but she’s not – that kind of thing interests me. There’s another thing about the birds, as you mentioned Hitchcock. Birds happen to be the most sensitive of all animals. One of the students on the film, who was the production designer, saw this seagull mobile. She asked me whether we could use it. I checked the price and it was a little too expensive. So I decided to have the same kind of mobile made by a friend of hers. That was actually a hand-made mobile. And when you’re in that room, you have to depict the slightest tremors or wind, so that mobile came in very handy. It was a perfect way to depict those things.
– It seems there was a lot of collaboration with the students. Can you tell me how this worked?
Shinozaki: I had a basic storyline in mind, which I gave to fourteen students. But if I continued this way, it would have been a case of having too many cooks. So, I decided to go with my own idea and from then on, it became a project between me and my student assistant, Zenzo. There’s on particular idea of his I picked. You remember the scene at the wedding ceremony where she sees the video of her ex-boyfriend. That was Zenzo’s idea and I really like it. One detail that I added was that she and her boyfriend on screen would have eye-to-eye contact. So, the idea of having eye contact with someone who’s already in the past at that point – it’s a moment! There’s this kind of metastructure where you have someone connecting to the past, but outside of that, the audience watching the movie is connecting with the past.
Makoto Shinozaki (Director / left), Zenzo Sakai (Writer / right)
Interview by Nicholas Vroman