Interviews

Europe as Hell: An Interview with Morgan Knibbe About ‘Those Who Feel the Fire Burning’

Director Morgan Knibbe’s ambitious feature debut examines a serious social problem, the difficult and often hopeless lives of recent immigrants to Europe, via an ambitious, literary approach. Those Who Feel the Fire Burning (T/F 2015) forces us to adopt the perspective of a ghost, a man who drowns while attempting his own journey to Europe. As the ghost we float over crowded streets, journey down back alleys and enter into private rooms, observing the lives of the marginalized and searching for some sense of connection.

 

 

I recently got the chance to speak with Morgan on Skype ahead of his film’s screening at T/F 2015. It plays for the first time ever in the United States tonight, opening night, at 9:30 pm at The Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note.

-Dan Steffen

True/False: How did you first conceive this film?

Morgan Knibbe: The concept was to tell the story of a ghost through a collage of stories from different people, who together are one. A guy drowns, shifts into a new reality and is dropped by some kind of mysterious power in a new universe. This universe turns out to be something like Europe — or hell — but not what he expected it to be.

We tried to give a strong cinematic power to documentary images, to say something much more than just the documentary quality of the image itself. The ghost is a metaphor for the lives of all these different people that you see in the film. He begins by roaming the streets and looking for where he actually is. Where am I? Where are the people that I love? Are they still alive? Can I find them somewhere? He sees people who could possibly be from his country and starts observing them. He feels more and more detached from reality as he sees how these people are living life in extreme poverty where they were supposed to have achieved their dreams, in Europe.

The idea was to create a perspective for the audience as if they were experiencing it themselves. But it’s hard if you can’t live with one character. We didn’t want to follow one character from beginning to end, but a wide diversity of people from different cultures, because we wanted to emphasize how big and complicated this problem is. We wanted to bring along many different people from different cultures with different personalities, but with a common problem.

So I was thinking of a way to tell a story of a bunch of different people without a very rigid, classical narrative structure. Yet in the end we ended up with something similar, because the ghost goes through a development. He enters the story with a problem. He tries to solve the problem, but he can’t. Ultimately, he tries to deal with the given.

T/F: How did you know when you had the complete story?

MK: I had written down a lot of the story before we began shooting. My sound recordist Taco Drijfhout and I were very close and were always talking about the development of the story, what elements we needed to be consistent from beginning to end. It was always based on what the ghost is going through. The ghost and the people together somehow need to go through a collective experience, where they all slip down further into some kind of an abyss or hell. At some point people get so desperate they start using drugs. The situation gets when worse when many people die. Finally, people are really trying to flee reality by holding on to a religious ritual used in their culture to express grief. They feel a very strong collective power of grieving.

 

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image from Those Who Feel the Fire Burning

 

T/F: Yeah, the film felt like it was building towards a feeling of religious transcendence, as both promise and peril. How do you see the religious aspect of the film?

MK: I really was inspired by a lot of religion during the making of the film. I thought I had a responsibility to understand what these people believe in. Most of them are Muslim, but they’re not all the same type of Muslim.

Even though I am not religious, I think religious stories are often quite epic and impressive. I think Hell is a very interesting story. How if you do something wrong you can end up in a very horrible place, but actually that place exists here on Earth. That’s what we tried to play with.

Religious stories often carry metaphors for big human problems and dilemmas. We tried to take something from these religious stories which more or less affects all human beings, to reach a state of equality between the audience and the people in the film. To make it a universal problem. What is good and what is evil? Is there a creator? What is the purpose of life?

But the universal also lies in very small things. Like the way a father speaks to his son in a loving way, how a little girl eats chips or how a man wakes up from sleeping.

T/F: How did you go about creating the voice-over?

MK: The text is spoken and written by someone who more or less experienced this. It’s a man from Iran named Ali Borzuee.

We were doing additional dialogue recording and still looking for someone to be the voice. We knew that we wanted the ghost to have very rich sound, a wise voice of an old man who looks back on his life or forward to hell or heaven or wherever he’s going.

Ali is one of the people who would do ADR, but he also brought a poem that he wanted to recite. Everybody was listening very carefully, and he had to cry. It was very intense and we all decided I think we should ask this guy to do the voice-over for the film.

It took quite a while before we found the right way to write the text. At first I was writing it, but it sounded a little bit artificial. So we asked this guy to improvise. We gave him some specific prompt, for example you have to tell the story of how you first met your wife, you have to name a lot of things from the country where you first grew up. That worked well.

T/F: The idea of perspective in this film is really interesting to me. There is always a perspective in nonfiction film, but your film really forces you to think about it by making it explicit.

MK: What I always say about the way we made this film is that in a way we are really honest about the manipulation. It is a film that is supposed to be very cinematic, and the only way to do that is to manipulate. So the point was never realism or objectivity, because I think that’s a big problem with the way this kind of subject is portrayed normally. There’s always this kind of objectivity that people try to use. But I think that’s not possible. It’s an illusion. That’s why we tried to get rid of that and make a very strong cinematic experience. I think that’s a more honest way of filmmaking.

I am very curious about the manipulation of images and sounds when virtual reality is in a further state of development, a place where reality and virtual reality are harder to distinguish from each other. In a way film has this effect already. People easily think they watch reality or the truth, especially when the film is ‘documentary’. In fact it is a subjective representation of what other people think, or how they observe and listen. Or how they want you to think.

I understand that journalist want to fight for objectivity, but I’m not sure if their battle will be very effective, since they are fighting for something that doesn’t exist.

T/F: Are there any films or filmmakers that served as a point of departure for Those Who Feel the Fire Burning? Particularly in regards to this idea of forcing the audience’s awareness the film’s perspective?

MK: Definitely! Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders. Enter the Void and Irréversible by Gaspar Noe. Irréversible is the best film I’ve ever seen and was also a huge inspiration. He has this crazy way of sucking up the audience in a cinematic experience that truly evokes primal emotions within the audience, but at the same time he makes the audience work and think and search for answers. I think Gaspar Noe could have been influenced by some of Eisenstein’s thoughts about “cinema of attractions”, a theory about stimulating the audience’s primal feelings instead of taking them along a conventional narrative.

Filmmakers like Noe and Haneke use these cinematic tools to evoke primal emotions, but at the same time add artificial elements that somehow make the structure of the film visible, which is actually a filmmaker being honest about manipulation and giving the audience space to reflect upon the medium and themselves. But this balance is always difficult, because you can lose your audience.

The use of darkness and suggesting tracking shots was also a key concept for Those Who Feel the Fire Burning. Some tracking shots out of Children of Men by Alfonso Cuaron were an inspiration.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives was a huge inspiration, especially for sound design, as was the indie game Limbo. We wanted to create hell on earth, or some sort of state in between heaven and hell, limbo or the purgatory. To do that we wanted to lift the images out of the realism and create a feeling of a huge void in sound design.

Posted March 11, 2015

We are Our Past: An Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer of ‘The Look of Silence’ and ‘The Act of Killing’

In 2003, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer first began investigating the unacknowledged and under-reported mass killing of over 500,000 purported “communists” by Indonesia’s military junta and its proxies in 1965-66. He quickly learned about Ramli, one victim of the genocide whose horrific death was widely discussed, if still not part of the official history. After his attempts to film with Ramli’s family and other survivors were met with threats of violence, Oppenheimer instead began to film the perpetrators of the killing, still very much in power and eager to brag about their crimes. The result was The Act of Killing, a surrealist masterpiece where the killers themselves stage cinematic recreations of their crimes and fantasies.

But another story still needed to be told. In the critical window following The Act of Killing’s production but before its release, Oppenheimer again began working with Ramli’s family, particularly his younger brother, the optometrist Adi Rukun. The resulting film, The Look of Silence, is a haunting poem on decades of silence enforced by terror and the breaking of that silence through unprecedented confrontations.

The Look of Silence is our 2015 True Life Fund film, our annual fundraiser for the subject of a documentary. Money raised will go to helping Adi with the relocation of his family and his important ongoing work with the film inside Indonesia. T/F will also be screening the director’s cut of The Act of Killing this year.

A few weeks back I got the chance to speak with Joshua Oppenheimer about both films and their impact while he was attending the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival where The Look of Silence was awarded the Peace Prize.

-Dan Steffen

 

 

True/False: It’s been a little tricky for me to describe the situation in Indonesia when you began. You’re uncovering a secret, but as one of the perpetrators in The Act of Killing says, the killing in 1965-66 is an “open secret”. The “open” part seems important. How do you approach this “open secret” idea?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I would simply say that it’s a reality that everybody knows at some level but is too afraid to talk about. And that kind of known but unspoken quality, that secret but not secret quality, is precisely what makes it frightening and has been used by the regime for decades to keep people afraid.

When I started working on the genocide in 2003 on the plantation where Ramli was killed, the survivors quickly introduced me to Ramli’s family, including his parents Rohani and Rukun, the old couple in the film. I was introduced to them so quickly because Ramli’s name was synonymous with the whole genocide across the region. That was because his murder had witnesses. People saw him escaping from the truck, he ran home, his family saw the death squad coming for him. There was the sense for everyone miles around that to speak about Ramli was to insist that these events really happened.

Imagine that a whole community is traumatized by something but has to pretend that the source of the trauma never occurred. In such a situation to speak about Ramli was an act of resistance. It’s almost like pinching yourself to remind yourself that you’re awake. I think that gives a pretty good sense of this open secret quality.

I think what these two films have done is hold a mirror up to Indonesia after which it is no longer possible to maintain the lie of the government propaganda. It’s like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes saying “look, the king is naked.” Well, everyone knew the king was naked, but couldn’t talk about it before. The whole game changes once people can talk about it. The propaganda no longer functions.

One other thought I had about this. After the army threatened Ramli’s family and the other survivors with whom I was working back in 2003 not to participate in the film any more, they all said “Josh, before you quit and go home, try to film the perpetrators.” When I first heard that I took it as a sign of desperation. But I came to understand that the boasting of the perpetrators, which both films interrogate, was something systemic and used as an instrument of fear.

As I came to hear more and more of it, and film dozens and dozens of perpetrators boasting like this, I had the feeling that I’d returned to Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power. I realized you could imagine the government of the Third Reich encouraging the aging SS officers to return home to their villages and boast. Not because the crimes should exactly be public — everyone would be terrorized into not talking about what really happened, so it would never really be on the public record — but because it becomes a veiled threat, the perpetrators become agents of terror, or terrorizing proxies of the state. So there’s a whole economy of terror around storytelling, a whole way that stories are used to keep people afraid. And it’s in that economy of terror that the film intervenes.

The Act of Killing does so by removing the fundamental motive the perpetrators have for boasting, to sugarcoat these grotesque details of mass killing that haunt them everyday. The perpetrators have a need to sugarcoat the details in the sweet rhetoric of heroic victory which leads them to boast about things a human being would normally never boast about. And as they come to see that what they’ve done is wrong and not something that you can boast about, it exposes the lie for what it is and it undermines the whole motive for boasting. And if you go to Indonesia now the perpetrators do not boast.

 

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image from The Act of Killing

 

T/F: You’ve insisted you wanted to make films primarily about the present and not the past. Was that always clear?

JO: They are films about the past’s presence in the present. It was William Faulkner who said “the past is not dead, it’s not even past.” The past is our present. We know ourselves, we have a common language, we can speak to each other because we have a past. The present is this infinitely fleeting, mere horizon over which images and impressions appear, but the moment they appear they’re already in the past. We are our past, I think that’s the message of both films. It’s a kind of secular definition of karma.

There’s a scene in The Look of Silence that was really the inspiration for both films. Two men take me down to the river, taking turns playing victim and perpetrator. They pose for photographs in a spot where they helped kill 10,500 people. Shooting that I did something that I hadn’t done before, bring perpetrators together from neighboring villages. I wondered if they would boast in front of each other in the same way they would boast when they were alone with me. I suppose I suspected they would, but it was also a brutal confirmation to hear them trying to outdo each other in their boastfulness and enthusiasm for recounting the worst details of what they’ve done. It was this terrifying realization that the boasting is systemic.

That’s when I had this feeling that clearly these are not psychopaths. This is impunity. This is what impunity looks like. If you listen to right-wing American talk radio, you’ll hear boasting about torture. It’s a pretty acceptable thing across much of our political spectrum in the United States to actually boast about torture. Macho jockeying for who would be more willing to waterboard somebody has become an acceptable part of American discourse.

I recognized that two films need to be made about this impunity, both about the present. One about what happened when perpetrators win and are justifying what they’ve done. What lies do they tell themselves so they can live with themselves? What fantasies do they identify with? And what are the effects of these lies on themselves and on a whole society? I knew that would be a film about fantasy and storytelling and escapism and guilt.

But I also knew there was an equally contemporary film to be made about what silence and terror and unresolved trauma do to community and family, what is laid waste by trauma and fear as it’s allowed to fester for decades and decades.

 

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image from The Look of Silence

 

T/F: The way The Look of Silence is structured around the two different layers of investigation, with Adi watching the older footage of you interrogating perpetrators and then confronting them himself, is very dramatically effective. Did you always imagine the film looking like that?

JO: No, I think we found that already in the shooting in that we knew Adi watching the footage would motivate the confrontations. I mean, he wants to meet people because of what he’s seeing. Midway through the shooting of The Act of Killing, I showed Adi everything I had time to show him and he watched with the same emotions you see in the film. I could see that it was transforming him, that he was now as an optometrist starting to deliberately approach older people so he could ask them what they remember about 1965-66. That was a response to him viewing my work. When we started shooting the film he said “Joshua, I need to meet the perpetrators.” It was his idea.

Adi’s confrontations are necessarily a response, not so much to the crimes that the perpetrators committed, because if they were languishing in prison or contrite there would be no need, but to the performance of impunity, to the boasting, which I see more as performance than as sober testimony. The confrontations are a response to performance which had served to terrify everyone in Adi’s community for so long.

T/F: I’m struck by the moment in all of the confrontations when Adi revealed that his brother was one of the people killed. You can really feel a shift whenever that happens and they start to squirm under his gaze. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on why this has such an impact.

JO: I think first of all we have to understand that when he says it’s his brother that’s killed, that he is revealing that he’s a survivor, right? And before that they don’t know who he is. He’s asking tough moral questions, but when he mentions that his brother was killed it reveals that he’s a survivor.

When Adi first told me that he wanted to do this, I said “absolutely not, it’s too dangerous.” It’s never happened in Indonesia. Millions of survivors all over the country and tens of thousands of perpetrators. Never has a survivor confronted a perpetrator to my knowledge. It’s completely unprecedented what he’s doing. I think it’s unimaginable for all of the perpetrators too. I think one of the reasons we were able to do this safely is because they simply can not believe that these conversations are taking place. They can’t believe it’s happening. How did this happen? What elaborate trap have I fallen into that allows this conversation to take place?

Because they know about the production of The Act of Killing, but haven’t seen it yet, they don’t know what to do. They would probably like to ask their thugs, who the more powerful of the perpetrators have standing by, to attack us. But they don’t want to offend their superiors with whom they think I might be close to from The Act of Killing. So they’re dumbfounded and a little bit paralyzed.

I had a feeling that if we could succeed in doing this, we would be doing something unprecedented in the history of nonfiction cinema. I don’t think there’s ever been a documentary where survivors confront perpetrators while the perpetrators still have an active monopoly on power. Because it’s too dangerous. Because why would you do that?

So even though I understood Adi would likely fail in his mission to get an apology from these men, I felt that by documenting something as unprecedented as the beginnings of a dialogue, however it turns out, we would be truly breaking silence on a national scale, and he’d be succeeding through the film where he fails in the scene.

 

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Adi in The Look of Silence

 

It was always up to Adi whether to reveal that Ramli was his brother. It was always his choice, we knew he might, but he didn’t have to, and he would do it if he felt like it and if he felt safe doing it.

Also, in that moment Adi’s theory is that he’s a gentle and empathic man and that the moment he would confront them with who he is they would think “my gosh, this man is a human being, coming to me like a human being, perhaps his brother was a human being, perhaps all of this was wrong.” And like Anwar [Anwar Congo, the main character of The Act of Killing] when he watches himself play the victim, they would start to glimpse the cracks in the facade that all of this is justified and heroic. And we would see that in fear and doubt in their faces. I think that’s true too. I think that’s occurring right there.

T/F: That they actually believed the official propaganda that the communists were all wife-swapping, godless . . .

JO: I don’t know, I think we have to be very careful with the language we use there. They have clung to that lie knowing that it’s a lie. Cognitive dissonance is an essential element to all of this. Back to your first question, that it’s an open secret, you know, but you don’t know. Rohani finds out that her brother was a prison guard. I don’t know how she couldn’t have known that. But she didn’t want to know. It was too painful for her to contemplate.

Did the daughter of the perpetrator who apologizes to Adi really deeply believe her father was a hero? Or did she always know that at some level she was lying to herself and the details of the killing that come out in the conversation between Adi and her father simply prevent that lie from functioning anymore?

Both films document how people cling to lies. And I think that’s how much political discourse works, especially in the United States, where much of what our politicians say and much of the rhetoric that arouses the passion of the public we all know to be bullshit. Yet we still enjoy or allow ourselves to be inspired by it, for better or for worse. Usually for worse.

T/F: One aspect of The Look of Silence I wanted to ask about is the way you show Adi’s father Rukun, photographing his body and his physical frailty. Those images really work for me intuitively, but intellectually I’m still having trouble understanding exactly how they fit. Could you explain how you see those images functioning in the film?

JO: Well, first of all, cinema should always work on an intuitive level. It’s not a medium for words and it’s not a medium for theories, it’s supposed to work on an intuitive level.

But I think it’s that strand in the film that makes it a movie about memory. And it’s the fact that it’s a movie memory that makes it universal and not merely a political film about a particular country with a particular form of impunity around a particular history. It’s that strand in the film that makes it a poem about what happens, about what is destroyed, not by the genocide itself, but by 50 years of trauma and fear that becomes embedded in the body, almost like the constraints on a bonsai tree shape the tree over many many years.

You know, the whole strand with Adi’s father is really leading up to one critical scene which Adi shot. It’s the only scene in the film he shot and I think it is probably the most divisive scene in the whole movie for audiences. It’s the scene at the end where Adi’s father is crawling, lost. That scene was shot quite awhile before the rest of the film, apart from the old footage that Adi’s watching.

Towards the end of shooting The Act of Killing I gave Adi a camera for him to use as a kind of notebook to look for images. When I returned to Indonesia after editing The Act of Killing to make The Look of Silence Adi said, “you know Joshua, there’s one tape that I never showed you. And I want to give it to you, because I think it’s the most meaningful thing that I’ve filmed, and I didn’t give it to you because I wanted to keep it.” And trembling he took out his camera and took out the one tape that he hadn’t given to me. He put it in and showed me that scene and as soon as it started to play he started to cry. He said, “I shot this at the end of Ramadan, when the whole family comes together. And it was the first day that my dad couldn’t remember who anyone was. It was terrible, and we were all trying to comfort him and he was really scared, but because he was panicking he couldn’t calm down enough to remember any of us, so we just made it worse. He thought we were all trying to harm him. So we didn’t know what to do. And I thought at some point the most loving thing I could do was to film him. And I started to film him”– he’s crying as he’s telling me this — “and I was filming him crawling around the house lost, the house he’s lived since he was a child. That he was born in. And I felt then that I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear. I feel like my father’s stuck in a prison of fear, but because he’s forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life and caused the fear, it’s like he’s locked in a room and can’t even find the door, let alone the key or the lock. He’ll never be able to work through that fear. It’s too late for healing.” That was when he proposed to me, “I need to meet the perpetrators. Because if I meet the perpetrators, confronted by my own humanity, they will acknowledge that what they did was wrong, and finally we can all, us and the perpetrators, get out of this prison of fear and live together as human beings.”

If you think about it, that’s such a symptom of desperation, to think that the only way out of fear is to go and risk your safety to confront the men who killed your brother, to say “please recognize that this is wrong, so we can live together.” I knew that that story would not make it into the film, that we didn’t have the material to tell the story I just told you. But I felt that if I constructed the film as a kind of poem, a very careful visual poem about memory and fear and what it does to a human body, what it does to the wrinkles in Rohani’s brow, what it does to the body as you see the water pour down Rukun’s 103-year-old torso, if I was very focused and precise, we could build up an intuitive, poetic core of the film, that would allow viewers to feel the meaning of that scene, even without that story.

 

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Adi’s father Rukun in The Look of Silence

 

And I know some viewers will never feel it. Some will say this is wrong, you should help, this is exploitative and so on. But I think most viewers feel a degree of love behind the film and closeness with that family they can trust that there’s probably a story around the actual conditions for making that scene. Most people will know in their heart the story I’ve told you without knowing the story. Just as when you read a poem you might not know the events that inspired it, but you get the feelings from it.

T/F: Thank you, wow. Well, to finish up, is there anything you wanted to say about what’s going on with Adi and his family today and their relocation?

JO: The most important thing is that the film has now screened 1,500 times in Indonesia and Adi has been going to as many important screenings as he can go to. He’s been welcomed at every single one as a kind of hero who has inspired the breaking of silence in a way that hadn’t been imaginable before. The Act of Killing opened this space for a new kind of discussion around the film and created a fertile ground for Adi to bring his film, because it really is also his film.

Yes, it’s an operation for us to monitor and secure his safety and his family’s safety on an ongoing basis in Indonesia. That’s why we don’t complicate matters by bringing me to Indonesia, where I’m likely to face arrest or murder or whatever. And we don’t complicate matters by revealing the identity of all 50 of my anonymous crew members who also could face reprisals. And there’s a backup plan for the family to evacuate temporarily if needed.

But at the moment Adi is doing very important work in Indonesia. He’s really making a difference. And the kids are out from under the shadow of the perpetrators. The kids are in much better schools than the one in The Look of Silence, which you can see is pretty terrible. And Adi, when he’s not traveling with the film, is still an optometrist, going door to door and testing people’s eyes and building a new business.

Of course, it also means that there was a backlash. And the military and the police started with alarming consistency to organize paramilitary thugs to threaten to attack screenings, and use that as an excuse to demand that screenings would be cancelled. That was widely criticized in the news, “Why are the police organizing thugs?” Nevertheless, it was only 26 screenings that were cancelled this way out of something like 1,500. And no one was injured at any of those. The military also managed to get the film banned by the national film censorship board for commercial cinema screening, but the National Human Rights Commission, who is the official sponsor of the release in Indonesia, is still encouraging public screenings of the film, insisting that the ban is unlawful. So there’s a battle inside of the new Indonesian government, and we don’t know yet which way it will go. But I’m optimistic that now, 50 years on from the genocide, with the truth finally being out and undeniable and easily discussed by everyone in the society, the days of censorship, official history and brainwashing in school are really numbered.

 

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To Mourn Your Own Self: A Conversation with Laurent Becue-Renard About ‘Of Men and War’

In his first film War-Wearied filmmaker Laurent Becue-Renard discovered a role for the camera in therapy, observing group sessions with survivors of war in Bosnia suffering from post-traumatic stress. In his new film Of Men and War (T/F 2015) Laurent and his team developed a similar approach, filming with traumatized American soldiers over months and years, both during and after their stay at The Pathway Home halfway house.

 

 

I recently got the chance to speak with Laurent on the phone ahead of his film’s screening at True/False 2015. He’ll be in-person at the Fest to discuss the film further, as will David Wells, one of the men from the film who just happened to be from Columbia, MO.

-Dan Steffen

 

True/False: Can we start by talking about access? How you became involved with this particular program?

Laurent Becue-Renard: Prior to filming I made extensive research, meeting a lot of veterans, their families and sometimes their therapists. During the course of my first trip ten years ago I met Fred Gusman, who at the time was working for The National Center for PTSD. When he started this new program, The Pathway Home, I had known him for three years already. He had seen my previous film shot in Bosnia, also in therapy.

I asked him first for access to the facility when his first patients came in. He granted me access without a camera. I was allowed to be here the first two months like a fly-on-the-wall. That’s what I did; the two months became three, four, five months. After five months I asked him if I could use a small camera, just to see how the camera could take part in the therapy. I did that for several weeks, after which I was granted permission to film with professional equipment, first for three months, then for six, then for nine. All this is to say that when I started filming and when the guys who are in the film arrived I had already been there for several months. They never knew the Pathway Home without the camera.

That being said, it was not compulsory whatsoever for them to be filmed in therapy. At any time they could say that they wanted us to turn off the camera and leave the room, which never happened. In my first film it was the same, I was never asked to leave the room or stop filming.

With most of them I talked about my grandfathers who fought in World War One, and I showed them the picture that’s on the end credits of the film. The two guys who were my grandfathers came back from the war at the same age that they did and built up their families. They never spoke, not to their wives or kids or grandkids. I grew up with the silence over what was experienced in the war. That was something the men could understand very quickly. Those with kids could see very much how the kids were affected by the traumas of the father.

T/F: Could you explain the camera’s place in therapy?

LBR: The camera took a role in a therapeutic process on a daily basis, both in the first film in Bosnia and in this film. It’s mostly two aspects. The first one is acknowledgement. For the patient’s perspective there is in the room a guy coming from very, very far away — not only geographically but also culturally, socially — who seems to have plenty of time. His time is extensive. And he will be there in the room until they are done talking, from the very beginning to the very end. A guy with no agenda or even questions. There are no interviews whatsoever. The only questions the filmmaker is interested in are the questions they are asking themselves. All this put together is an acknowledgement and a validation that something really has happened to them, something that has made them who they have become.

Of course, this is what a therapist is doing on a daily basis. When you go to see a therapist, the very fact that he is allocating 45 minutes of his time and is only there to listen to what you have to tell him is an acknowledgement and validation of what has happened to you and the way you feel about it. The presence of the camera is kind of amplifying that.

The second point would be the mediation, in the fact that each and every one of them lives the trauma in a huge loneliness. And it is very difficult to share with their kids, their wife, their parents, in any circle. The film is a promise that some kind of ties with the outside world will be rebuilt through the story, first of all with the family, then the community, then the community of mankind. I think that’s very helpful in the therapeutic process.

 

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image from Of Men and War

 

T/F: Is there any sort of explicit promise?

LBR: No, anything I’m saying right now is purely assumed, but it’s based on extensive experience, first with the Bosnian war and then with these guys. Something that we did for Of Men and War that we didn’t for the first film is see them with their families after therapy. We first shot nine months of therapy, then over the next four years we went back and forth to see several of the men with their families. Sometimes we would come three months after the last day in therapy, sometimes nine months, sometimes eighteen months. What was fascinating is that at the moment we would come and turn on the camera they would pick it up where they had left it in the therapy room months before, as if they very fact that the camera is back and that we were all together, even in the absence of the therapist, meant the setting of the therapy was back and they could continue with what they were on when they finished their stay at The Pathway Home.

And then also a kind of a therapy triangle appeared, the guy, the family member — be it the kid, the wife or the parent — and us. Each of them would use the camera to tell the other things that they wouldn’t tell in their daily life. It was unconscious in the way they were using the camera again in a therapeutic role. That was very, very interesting.

And again, I spent fourteen months on a daily basis in this facility and I shot for nine months. This is very long, you know. And any of them could ask us to leave the room at anytime. So every day, every hour even, it was a re-acknowledgment of their agreement.

T/F: Are you literally not saying anything to them? “Good morning? How’s it going?”

LBR: In the corridors or in the daily room or in the kitchen, of course we are talking, definitely. I’ve done sports with them, I’ve gone on a bike ride to get an espresso at the French bakery downtown. We have daily activities.

T/F: But none of them involve the camera?

LBR: They don’t involve the camera and they never mention what we have taped in the therapy room. There’s a lot of bonding. There were some other volunteers in the half-way home. Some were doing drama work, stage work. Some were doing photography. And I was kind of just another one, you know, belonging and not belonging to the place.

T/F: When I was watching the film, even though it is a very naturalistic film, I felt a certain abruptness in the pacing, and the way scenes ended. Was that something that a feeling you were trying to achieve?

LBR: As a filmmaker I’m trying to address the unconscious of the viewer. I don’t want to address their consciousness, I want them to work while they’re watching the film, without knowing that they are doing so. So when we were editing each of the sessions, we were really focusing on what is at stake in the session for the guy and for the group. Where does he come from at the beginning of the session and where does he go? Of course that means that you don’t have to respect the chronology of the session, neither inside the particular session nor among the sessions. You’re really focused on the meaning and where there’s meaning in the session.

Fred’s sessions, on average, were lasting around two hours, approximately the length of the film. The sessions in the film are on average is forty five seconds to three or four minutes in duration. Our aim while editing was that the viewer would never feel like something was missing in the session. But still they could work on it on their own and still get the feeling that they got it. That’s perhaps what you mean by abruptness.

Abrupt also comes from the fact that that’s how they interact in the sessions with Fred and the others. A session is rather chaotic, you know? Fred’s sessions with trauma related to war, or any session for anyone.

I also sometimes wanted sessions that were very far apart in time in the real chronology to bump into one another. Some of the meaning comes out of the segments bumping heads together. The work of editing is to have the sessions kind of speaking to each other and then also including scenes of the future and family life shot over the next four years.

 

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image from Of Men and War

 

T/F: A take-away from the film for me was the variety in the things that these men experienced in war and I think a variety of what they needed from therapy. That the specifics of their stories of trauma in each case were really important, know what I mean?

LBR: Right. As I said, I spent months working at the Pathway Home and I have known more than one hundred guys and filmed in therapy. And of course before filming doing my research I had met hundreds of veterans. So, I had in my mind a broad spectrum of what was war trauma for a young warrior, all the kinds of experiences they could go through and how they would react to those experiences. They won’t say everything, but everything would be said in the room at some time.

A lot of time your trauma will be expressed by your peers sitting next to you and speaking before or after. That’s one of the dynamics of group therapy. For a young man in this culture it’s very difficult to say how they’ve been deeply, deeply wounded in their soul. It’s not part of your culture. They say these things because they are all saying things together. They accept looking at their weakness because the others are also looking at their own weakness.

When they themselves or other veterans watch this they always say you have my story, it’s there in the film. It’s amazing, no matter the culture, the distance, the different types of war, it’s the same story.

T/F: One of the other things I wanted to ask you about are scenes in the film showing how our culture formally recognizes veterans, for example in a parade or at a ceremony of a football game. They aren’t presented ironically, but seeing those scenes alongside the therapy gives them a new context.

LBR: Yeah, I’ve seen how much veterans are around us. But as much as we acknowledge them in the public sphere, it’s not sure that we do really get it. Of course, veterans are touched when people come towards them at the airport and say “thank you for your service”. And of course it is honest for people who do that. But most veterans I’ve met, they say “yes, they come and say that, but they expect us to go back on track the next day. And we will never recover our lives from prior.’The rear’, those who haven’t been to war, don’t really get it.”

I guess they would rather have their PTSD acknowledged. Yes, life is going to be tough, they don’t react to things how they used to. Sometimes it goes from zero to ten just like this. It’s like missing a limb, but you don’t see it. It’s inside; the wound is within. They know that they can’t go back to the person they were before. They’d like that acknowledged. It’s very difficult to mourn your own self. It’s frightening, it’s painful and it’s an ongoing process that will last all their lives.

So I guess the scene of daily life are more talking about the misunderstanding, the profound misunderstanding between those who went to war and those who didn’t.

T/F: Is there anything else you want to include?

LBR: I want to say I have a great respect and admiration for these young men. I think it’s very, very courageous for each and everyone of them to go into therapy. By going into therapy, they kind of chose life. It’s choosing life when death is all around in their psyche. It’s courageous. It’s courageous to keep being alive, to have a family, to be a part of a community. I think it takes as much courage as being on the front line. I admire their dignity also.

I want to say too that my quest was to go after the words and the sentences my grandfathers could have told me, or could have told my grandmothers or my parents. I think that thanks to these guys I have a kind of access to the trauma that built up in my family and in all of our families in the western world that have this experience of war.

 

 

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Unto Others: A Conversation with Jesse Moss of ‘The Overnighters’

Note: This interview originally ran back in October during the theatrical premiere of The Overnighters (T/F 2014) NYC. We are sharing it again as The Overnighters is returning Columbia today at Ragtag Cinema for a short pre-T/F 2015 run.

“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17)

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

As the Great Recession hit the United States, large oil fields were uncovered in North Dakota. Desperate, unemployed people from all over the world flooded the sparsely populated state. According to the Census Bureau, Williston, North Dakota jumped from 14,717 residents in 2010 to 20,850 in 2013. Many Williston natives resent these outsiders, who frequently live in crowded RV parks. Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke is not one of these angry residents. In the spirit of Jesus, Reinke opens up his Williston church to hundreds of men unable to find temporary housing. The community responds to Reinke’s charity with a suspicion that borders on hostility. In 2012, filmmaker Jesse Moss (Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (T/F 2004)) moved into Reinke’s church and singlehandedly captured this riveting narrative. The result, The Overnighters (T/F 2014), is an empathetic yet scrupulous look at how challenging it is to be a person of principle.

The Overnighters is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York City. In the coming months, it will travel to other cities across the United States via Drafthouse Films. A day before its theatrical opening, I interviewed Moss via Skype.

-Chris Boeckmann

 

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Note: This interview is in two parts. The first is spoiler free, while the second contains explicit and implicit spoilers for The Overnighters. There will be a warning before the spoilers begin.

True/False: Throughout The Overnighters, we watch characters discover how challenging it is to follow rules. We see Christians wrestle with the commandments and teachings of the Bible. We hear journalists explain their code of ethics. I’m wondering if you follow any rules when you’re making a film.

Jesse Moss: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I really have just a couple. One basic rule is if somebody asks me to turn the camera off, I turn it off. I might sometimes argue or discuss that decision with them. But I wouldn’t film somebody against their will. There’s a second, really more foundational principle I’ve operated on as a documentary filmmaker. On my feature documentary work, it’s been important to make a movie I believe my subject would stand behind. And hopefully they would stand on stage with me and talk to people about it.

It’s a little hard to define what that rule means, but it’s about really honoring the relationship and the trust. And also respecting and understanding that the film might go to difficult, painful places, but, ultimately and hopefully, I hope that the person who trusts me enough to open their life to my film will make that journey with me when the film is complete. That’s what I hoped in this film. What I had to navigate with Jay was a situation in which I had to be truthful and honest with myself and to the story as an artist. I had to show some very difficult and painful moments that would be hard for my subjects to see. But I thought they had an important place in this film. Navigating to that point of mutual agreement about their inclusion took a lot of time. It was a long conversation over many months with Jay and with his family.

T/F: This second rule obviously applies to your protagonist, Jay. Does it apply to all characters in your film?

JM: Well, no. It would be hard to apply that rule to everybody, but I don’t ask the same from everybody. I don’t have the same relationship. This is a film largely about one man. One man’s struggle, one man’s journey. That’s the foundational relationship in the film. That’s where the real profound crux of this movie is. It’s not to say other people are not party to this relationship in important ways and their considerations aren’t also important to me.

The other challenging ethical scenario in this film had to with some very close relationships with other characters. Like Michael, for instance, who was in a moment of crisis, crying and trying to figure out whether he’ll go back to Georgia or stay in Williston. He asked me what I thought he should do, and I found that to be a very difficult predicament to be in. On one hand, we were very close. We are close. We shared this experience together. He didn’t have any friends in Williston. This is somebody I loaned $40 to. We had meals together. We talked. It was not just a relationship that ended when the camera was turned off. Michael asked me, and I thought, “Jeez, this is a hard one. This is one of the most momentous decisions in this man’s life. We’re close, and now he wants my advice.”

Which is to say that documentary filmmaking — it’s not an abstract, clinical exercise. The camera is present, but it’s about human relationships. These friendships get formed. These are friendships, and it’s not wrong to talk about it. And yet I serve the master of my art. And I serve the film. And I serve the truth. These are things I have to consider. And sometimes those interests align with the interests of your subjects. But there are moments when those interests seem to diverge.

 

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T/F: This is a film driven by observational material, but there are moments where Jay contextualizes scenes in voiceover. Can you talk about the decision to use that voiceover? And where did that audio come from?

JM: I really wanted to make an observational — observational is kind of a strange term, isn’t it? Because it’s much more subjective than observational. You’re really not just observing. You’re constantly interacting with your subjects. I guess the term I use — I’ve sort of moved away from cinéma vérité, but I have yet to land on a term that feels right. I don’t know from your academic/festival/clinical perspective what term is appropriate. But we can say observational.
This project, The Overnighters, it was really an intent to go back to the kind of blissful ignorance of Speedo, to make a movie with a kind of freedom and with an ambition to make cinéma vérité. To capture moments as they happen — dramatic moments, large and small — with Jay and these men that I met. So I was always questioning my decision to do contextualizing interviews. But I found them useful for a number of reasons.

For one, they were kind of a therapeutic experience for Jay and myself and our relationship and a chance to debrief and decompress from the intensity of these moments. We would go into his office. The conversations had a pastoral, confessional quality. This is the office where Jay took confession from men. Some of those moments I filmed and witnessed. And then we would go into his office, and we would talk. And sometimes I would film, and sometimes I wouldn’t. In a way, that’s how I became Jay’s pastor. I became his confessor. And that relationship he had with me and with the camera accounts for the nature of the great trust in this film. So Jay and I would talk.

In the edit, at one point I had this version of the film that was cluttered with exposition and interior monologue from these interviews woven throughout. And it was totally getting in the way of whatever the story was, which I couldn’t really see. I kind of weeded it all out. I cleared brush away, as George W. Bush would say. I actually made a version where I stripped it all away. It was pure verite. And then I had to look at it, and it didn’t work. I found that we were really keeping the audience at a distance with that version, so we had to work back. Jay was the best person to contextualize Williston, what was happening with the church and the program.

Those were some of the most laborious, difficult challenges in the edit. how to contextualize the world and how to bring to life Jay’s internal struggle. I think if you pulled it out and dissected it, there’s really not a hell of a lot of interview used in the film. But what is there, I can tell you, as you’d imagine, was very, very carefully, precisely considered and the result of painful trial and error. I struggle with that as a filmmaker because I was still holding onto some purer notion. Because I look at the world around me. Does the film need it? What do I want? What does the audience need? And it’s so important to get the audience situated in this world. I didn’t want to rely on interviews with characters from outside.

I knew what the strength of this story was, and I wanted to play to it. Which is that Jay is this incredible protagonist living out this drama in front of us. And I don’t need an interview with the mayor to tell me what’s happening in Williston. I want to get that understanding organically through scenes, through fragments. Through what is said and not said, what is seen and not said. I brought in my editor Jeff Gilbert. I love that Jeff has a foot in fiction, in screenwriting. How would a dramatist, how would a screenwriter think about the information in this scene and the dramatic conceit? We would just apply a sort of dramatic rigor to the unfolding of the story. I don’t mean to imply manipulation. I think we were really true to the chronology of events. With regards to the storytelling, we thought very carefully about how information was conveyed about the arc of stories and the emotional journeys of the characters and the audience in this film.

T/F: How often did you feel that Jay was performing for your camera?

JM: Jay is always performing. And I think it’s the responsibility of the director to recognize the levels of performance, whether we’re talking about fiction or documentary. Sometimes it’s harder to recognize them in the moment, and they become clearer in the edit. And you sift through them. Many people, not just Jay, who are comfortable, natural screen performers are always conscious of the camera and like the camera. Often the best documentary subjects are in their heart performers, whether or not the camera is present. And I think the camera often does gravitate to those people naturally.

Jay is a pastor. He’s used to holding the public’s attention. He performs. And he likes attention, and he has charisma. He employs his skills successfully. It’s the same skill set he directs towards his congregation. He’s a very smart, charismatic, confident, kind of in-the-moment, emotionally accessible person. And I recognize those qualities. The camera recognizes those qualities. I’m drawn to them. I’m drawn to his complexities, his layers, his layers of performance. Jay cried crocodile tears many times through this film, and I thought, “I don’t believe you.” But there were moments where I truly believed him. And I truly felt his pain. And I thought I have to take these moments judiciously in this film because I want to be sure that the audience is with him when I want them to be with him. It’s interesting when you’re aware of the fact that a subject has levels of layers, and you might want to drive the audience’s attention to those things.

 

Spoiler warning: The rest of this interview contains spoilers for the film. We strongly recommend stopping here until you’ve seen The Overnighters.

 

T/F: After the Williston Herald publishes the sex offender list, we witness a fascinating discussion between Jay and the editor about that decision. There’s a really interesting parallel between the editor’s words and the decision you ultimately make in the final ten minutes.

JM: I was always struck by the role the paper played in this story. The fact that Williston is still a community where a print paper matters is really anachronistic but really fascinating to me and a great opportunity to really show something. The paper was Jay’s antagonist. But the problem was that the paper was really an embodiment of a few different things. It’s what the headlines said, it’s what the reporter says who chases him down the street, and it’s what the editor says. So it’s kind of fragmented into these component parts. While I always knew it was important as an antagonist facing Jay and inflaming the fears of the community, it took until very late in the edit to really draw it out in a sharp way that was meaningful.

In fact, that scene with the editor, which is actually so important, was not in the film until really late in the edit. And I don’t know why not because I always thought it was a really interesting conversation. I mean, the editor has a point, and he lays it out. He feels like it’s his responsibility to publish all these names. In the name of protecting these children, he’s willing to sacrifice one maybe good man. That’s basically what he says, and that’s a reasonable position I think most people would share.

I think the paper mirrors my own position to some degree, which is one of scrutiny. That reporter who chases him down the street strikes me on one hand as extremely aggressive. On the other hand, that’s what reporters do. He’s chasing the story. He’s probably being a good reporter. Maybe not the way that I would do it. It’s funny, people would sometimes watch the fundraising trailer and think that was me, and I’d say, “No, it’s the reporter for the Williston Herald!” But it’s a bit like me. I’m chasing Jay around asking difficult questions, too. So who am I to harshly judge the Williston Herald? The ethical questions they face mirror my own.

You know, I’m really excited that the Williston Herald may work with us to have a public screening in Williston, and we’ll have a public forum. Tim League at Drafthouse is really excited about this. And we’re going to invite the community to come. And I think it’ll be fantastic. There might be fireworks, and I welcome it. I just think it’ll be such an interesting conversation because I think the fact is that there’s not one right answer. That’s what Jay and what this film is dealing with.

T/F: So did you spend a lot of time with the paper?

JM: I actually went out for pizza with the reporter. He was rotated into Williston and was rotated out pretty quickly. The Williston Herald is owned by a bigger chain of papers, so some reporters just come for a little while. But we actually went out for pizza, and in a way, I could relate to him. He was an outsider journalist like me. I wasn’t his adversary. And actually David Rupkalvis, the editor, was really gracious and let me film the printing presses. So I didn’t consider myself an adversary of the paper, but I think Jay was an adversary of the paper, so that’s how they’re presented. There was a perverse irony that the paper that was out to get Jay was also delivered by his children to his neighbors’ doorsteps.

 

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T/F: I’m wondering if you can discuss the decision to end the film where you end it. I’ve heard many documentary filmmakers say they knew in the moment that they were shooting the final image. Did that happen to you?

JM: The shot of Jay that ends the film, that wasn’t literally the last shot that I shot, but when I shot it, I knew it would be the last shot of the film. Look, it’s a little bit on-the-nose, but Jay is at a crossroads in life. And I did face this choice of following Jay through this new turbulent phase of his life or leaving him at the crossroads. But because that’s the place he meets these men, it felt fitting that he be left in their shoes. And that we the audience be faced with the choice that Jay faces when he sees them for the first time. How do I accept this man and his failings and his humanness? How do I judge him? Do I judge him? And I think that it accounts for the questions that people have leaving the film, that they wrestle with, that I could in a way never resolve fully about Jay’s actions. His goodness and his badness. So that shot, I knew it.

There was a moment once when Jay was telling me on the phone that an overnighter had put him up and that he was sleeping on the floor in a hotel room. I thought, “My God, that’s a reversal of fortune.” You wouldn’t write it because you’d be laughed out of the room. I thought that would be a fantastic ending. But I was done. I knew I had that ending, that shot of Jay alone. Which was an accident. It wasn’t like I said, “Jay, let’s go out to the old Lutheran Church on the side of the road outside of Williston, and you can wander off into the distance.” We were actually driving back. Jay was getting a haircut. Like every good moment in this movie, it’s just serendipitous luck. I was up on the roof of the car shooting this Lutheran church, and in the background was this drilling rig. It was kind of an interesting composition, which unfortunately I couldn’t have gotten without a crane. But then I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Jay had wandered off. And I just panned the camera over, and I was like, “Please don’t move.” And the shot just holds, and he’s just standing there. And the road stretches out to infinity, and I thought, “that’s it. That’s where this movie ends.”

T/F: You don’t think there’s any chance Jay knew he was helping you out in that moment?

JM: I don’t think so. But Jay was also acutely aware of the camera often. There was an interesting thing that happened relatively far into production where we’re shooting with Jay. It’s single camera coverage, there’s no crew, right? I’m shooting shot reverse shot, dirty shot, dirty overs, medium shots — I’m getting all the camera coverage I think I need to cut the scene of this 45-minute conversation between Jay and Alan. I thought it would be two minutes in the movie. What would happen is that I’d be on Alan, and he’d be in this conversation, in dialogue, and Jay would wait for the camera to swing back to him before continuing to speak. He’d wait for the camera to be on him to commence his dialogue. It’s rare to find that in a documentary subject. And it was a little uncomfortable to recognize it in a way. But I also think, “yeah, why not be considerate?” Maybe because I spent so much damn time filming. Of course he understood that. And Jay would tell me things were happening in his life. Many times, documentary subjects don’t think about you, they don’t think about telling you. But Jay was so good at flight traffic control, he had so many moving parts in his life, so he just folded me into that program. And he would tell me things were happening. He’d text me. It was great. I was spoiled.

T/F: I’m not sure how comfortable you are discussing this, but I’m wondering if we can dive into the film’s final reveal.

JM: What was clear to me from the beginning about Jay was that the program and his actions were in large part an expression of his faith, of Christian charity, to love thy neighbor. This is what it meant for him to be a good Christian. But they were also coming from a deep and personal place in his heart, and that was a kind of mystery to me. Jay hinted at it in some ways when he talked about himself. He alluded to his past, that he wasn’t perfect. I considered if this mystery of motivation might never be revealed to me, if it was only that he wanted me to know that he felt a true identification with men who had burdens and stigma, who didn’t feel like they belonged in the community. So I think what that revelation signifies for me is an unlocking of that mystery of motivation, and it explains to some degree that superhuman compassion that he shows. He identifies with them on a very profound level. And his place in the community as an outsider comes from a real place.

T/F: Can you talk about the decisions you made when Jay revealed this information in the dining area?

JM: Jay didn’t intend to make a confession to his wife in a public place. I was there as I was for so many intimate moments at that time in his life. No one asked me to turn the camera off. I think they were very focused on their conversation. Of course it was very painful to be present for it. I know from experience that the moments I feel compelled to question my own presence as a filmmaker are the most powerful moments. They’re in for that reason. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that this belonged in the film. I had to think carefully about what its place in the film was, if that was ok. I believe they belong in the film. Jay had to think carefully about it as well.

It was an interesting position to be in that scene and, first of all, to find yourself present in this moment in this story you’re telling. And then you have to think clinically as a filmmaker and camera operator. “OK. I could get coverage I think. Or do I stay in a medium two-shot the whole time? How close do I get? Or how far away do I get? What are the aesthetic considerations here? The ethical considerations?” This is a film that was shot close. This conversation I chose to shoot close.

What people first respond to is how intimate the scene is, how close the camera is. And in fact, whether they acknowledge it consciously or not, there’s a series of shots, angles, close-ups, reaction shots. It’s the kind of coverage you might more commonly find in a fiction film where you have the luxury of time and actors. People sometimes don’t believe that’s a real scene, like I somehow reenacted it or staged it. I shot that scene no different than any other scene I shot in the film. But I think it’s fair to say, when confronted with such a scene, what is the right position to take? When is the right time to turn the camera off? To turn it away? When is the right time to keep the camera rolling? You know what, I can only answer that question for myself.

 

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Posted February 28, 2015

Back to School with Amanda Rose Wilder of ‘Approaching the Elephant’

Note: This interview first ran in April 2014, when Approaching the Elephant screened at the Sarasota film festival. We are sharing it again in honor of the film’s theatrical premiere at the Independent Film Project in Brooklyn, NYC where it is playing through February 26.

 

Amanda Rose Wilder’s debut feature Approaching the Elephant spies into the first year of a “free school”, a radical institution where all the rules are decided democratically and the teachers and students have equal say. An intimate observation reminiscent of the early direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles, the film captures an elemental power struggle between students Lucy and Jio, and their school director Alex Khost in striking black and white.

Approaching the Elephant was unveiled at True/False 2014, screened last weekend at the Wisconsin Film Festival and plays for the second time today at the Sarasota Film Festival. I got the chance to chat with Amanda about her film and its inspiration a couple weeks ago.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: How did you first hear about the idea of a free school?

Amanda Rose Wilder: My father is an elementary school teacher. When I was ten we took a trip to visit Summerhill, the most well-known free school.

T/F: Where’s that at?

ARW: Suffolk, England. It was founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill.

We visited for a couple days. It was a memorable and in some ways shocking experience. In elementary school I was the girl that followed the rules – but liked kids who stirred things up. Summerhill was full of uninhibited energy. The kids were all ‘characters’…self-confident, bold, frank.

I remember I sat in on a writing class that began with a free write, something I’ve done since but hadn’t at that point. I remember sitting there thinking, “what do they want me to free write?” while everyone else was furiously scribbling whatever they wished. I vividly remember a boy shouting during a democratic meeting, ‘fuck off and die!’ and went home quoting that phrase.

T/F: So how did you decide on a free school as a setting for a film? Was it an idea that formed that early on?

ARW: Well, it came about after I graduated from Marlboro College. Marlboro is a progressive college; the last two years you spend working on a thesis of your own design. My thesis was titled “The Poetic Documentary and the Documentary Poem” and I had gotten really into documentarians the Maysles and Wiseman and poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams and how poetry intersects with documentary. After I graduated, my film professor, Jay Craven, asked if I wanted to make a documentary with him on progressive education. So, we scraped together a little money and I went to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference. I conducted about 15 interviews with anyone I could grab. One of those people, who I just met on the street, was Alex Khost. He told me he was months away from opening a free school in New Jersey, 20 minutes from where I was living. He was open, charming, comfortable in front of the camera. After the interview I asked if I could show up on their first day.

From the first day at Teddy McArdle Free School I could tell it would be an incredible thing to document and would fit nicely with the kind of direct cinema filmmaking I’d grown to love. There was a story unfolding before the camera, and a fascinating group of people, most of whom were children.

I shot for two school years. The film comprises the first year, from the first day to the last day. I amassed about 240 hours total.

T/F: So, what’s true/false about your film?

ARW: Oh man, good question . . .

Well, here’s why I decided this was a story I wanted to tell: I quickly realized that the free school model allows for kids to be themselves in a way most schools do not. Their personalities are really able to come out. And as a filmmaker I have an interest in capturing people honestly, as their full-blown selves, warts and all, you might say, but lovingly.

I think you see this in similar ways in documentaries that are about kids outside of school, films like Streetwise, Children Underground. Kids’ lives, as much as adults’, are messy and complicated. I thought, wow, this model is allowing for me to capture the lives of children, something very true and rarely shown.

So I began the film because I had an interest in free schools and then realized I could capture this incredible social dynamic, these complex personalities. The model became a means to an end, a context for a story I wanted to tell.

 

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Lucy in Approaching the Elephant

 

T/F: Yeah, it really reminded me of how intense childhood was, how important every conflict was in the moment.

ARW: Yes, and more and more kids are being stripped of their ability to take risks and figure out conflicts, which leads to them not knowing how to. I came across a great article recently called “The Overprotected Kid”. In The Atlantic. There’s a line that describes well what I think is happening in child-rearing, “the erosion of child culture.”

As much as I am inspired by Wiseman and the Maysles, I’m inspired by Cassavetes. Love Streams and A Woman Under the Influence as by Gimme Shelter and High School. Cassavetes is my model for showing people honestly. Perhaps there’s a link between the erosion of child culture and the erosion of independent cinema. Films are less wild, less messy, less alive and energetic. More documentarians should take cues from Cassavetes and less from advertising and grant qualifiers.

T/F: It’s interesting how much Cassavetes influences documentary. His work always seems to come up . . .

ARW: I feel like Cassavetes and the Maysles are soul sisters, two sides of a coin. Another of my influences on this movie was the Dardenne brothers. Have you seen Les Fils (The Son)? So much woodworking in that film. And a central man/boy relationship.

So, getting back to your question, what I hope is true about the movie is the depiction of childhood, in this full, vital, energetic, Cassavetes inspired way.

What’s false? I tried to be as true to what I saw as possible. But, of course, what I hope everyone knows, I was only there on certain days, I only captured when I hit record, and we edited.

But I feel the story is the story of the year. I think we accomplished realizing that.

T/F: What effect did you think the camera had on what was going on?

ARW: Not much. Because I was there from the first day, I was taken as a part of the community. I find if you relax and don’t get in the way, people relax. Being a one-person band helps (I did camera and sound). I tried not to be a dominating personality over the kids, and I think they accepted me among them because of that.

Lucy especially was very comfortable from the get-go in part I think because her mother is an avid photographer, so Lucy was accustomed to a camera in her face. Lucy would say to new students, “That’s Amanda, don’t look at her camera, she just wants us to act natural.”

T/F: Haha.

ARW: They picked it up quickly. Kids in general are less self-conscious than adults.

T/F: It was really fascinating to see Alex, an adult, get pulled into all of the conflict between the kids because of the nature of the school?

ARW: Well, it was his school as much as theirs. One of my favorite scenes is the meeting where Lucy and Alex are debating whether Alex should be allowed to make safety decisions by himself or if they should be voted on democratically. More specifically, whether Alex telling Lucy to not jump off a high storage bin was harassment. I love it because they both take the meeting so seriously. Lucy holds her ground against Alex and Alex treats her with complete respect while at the same time stating his points. They’re complete equals. And after the meeting, they go about their ways and are cordial.

How conflict is resolved between Lucy and Alex and between Jio and Alex is, of course, very different. And between Lucy and Jio. The trio was so fascinating. I felt so lucky to have not just one but three incredible people, and the dynamics between them, to focus on.

T/F: When I talked with Robert (Approaching the Elephant editor Robert Greene) he said that the decision to use black and white made the story feel more timeless. Could you talk about that decision?

ARW: While I was editing, before Robert came on as a collaborator, I’d now and then throw the material in black and white. The editing always seemed to just come together more naturally that way. I think it has something to do with going with the elemental, pure nature of the story. It looks so beautiful in black and white, like it could be from any time.

T/F: Yeah, the conflict really feels elemental.

ARW: Yeah, it highlights for me how it’s about social dynamics, personality, people’s faces . . . I think that’s all I have to say about it. It was a pretty intuitive choice.

 

ATE-JIO (1)

Jio in Approaching the Elephant

Posted February 20, 2015

Playing the Role of Yourself: A Conversation with Brandy Burre about ‘Actress’

Note: We first ran this interview back in November on the occasion of Actress’s New York Theatrical premiere. We’re sharing it again as Actress is now returning to Columbia at Ragtag Cinema for three days only, January 19-21. Director Robert Greene, the new filmmaker-in-chief at MU’s Murray Center for Documentary Journalism, will be in attendance for Q and As at all three screenings. Don’t miss it.

Brandy Burre scored a career breakthrough when she landed the part of political fixer Theresa D’Agostino on the monumental HBO series The Wire. Prior to filming her character’s second season, she became pregnant with her first child. Eventually she decided to retire from acting to raise two children with her partner, the restaurateur Tim Reinke. Years later, feeling the need for a creative outlet, Brandy decided to return to acting. Documentarian Robert Greene, her next-door neighbor in Beacon, NY, began following this unpredictable process with his camera. Their unique collaboration eventually yielded Actress (T/F 2014), an innovative and unsettling blend of vérité intimacy and soaring melodrama.

 

 

Actress is now playing theaters nationwide via Cinema Guild. Last week I got the chance to talk with Brandy via Skype about playing herself on and off camera.

-Dan Steffen

 

T/F: Could we start by going back to where the film started? How did you guys begin this project?

BB: Robert approached me about the project months before we actually started filming – maybe even a year. He was very delicate in the way he would bring it up, almost giving me a little bait, to see if I was interested. I think originally Robert had the idea of watching three actresses in different stages of their lives. He has a friend who is younger and in independent films right now. He was thinking, I could follow her experience, you, who has children and is now getting back into it, and an older actress at the end of her career. That was the original thought. Once we started filming, he realized he could have an entire movie with me as a single character.

I never had any idea of what the film would be. Robert did. He as a filmmaker had to have ideas of narrative that he thought would make the movie. I was in a way just being his muse. It was my goal just to be as truthful as possible on screen. That was for me the exercise as an artist. I thought I should just take advantage of having someone who wants to put a camera in front of me, and get used to it, and see how it makes me feel and how hard it is. That alone was so daring and risky that it was enough. I didn’t have time to put on anything else.

T/F: Robert has written about nonfiction performance. In his “art of nonfiction” video essay for Sight and Sound he called it “the layering of the real and the imagined selves.” I think you can see Actress in part as an attempt to make this dynamic explicit. Did he introduce any of this up front?

BB: No, I don’t think so. I really didn’t know any of Robert’s writings. Whenever he’d come over it was about the collaboration of the moment, him coming over and filming. He would talk about ideas, but it didn’t really affect what I was doing. In fact, I didn’t really want to know, because it didn’t help me with my objective of being truthful.

But I agree with those things outside of the filming. As an actor I’m so aware of the roles that we play in life. I’m amazed at how well people play roles in their daily lives. As an actor I think I’m hyper-aware of the body/mind connect, and I think, ‘Wow, they really wear that suit and play that role of business man — or mom — really well.’ I’ve always been fascinated by stripping that down because it’s never been easy for me, to play the role of ‘myself.’ I guess that’s the hardest thing to do.

T/F: The film uses highly composed and stylized segments interludes. What was the process like for making those?

BB: Yeah, the red dress that you see in the trailer and the stills was shot in one day when Sean Price Williams, a friend of Robert’s came to shoot as a birthday present to Robert. I had never met him before, and it was the first time we had another person involved. Partly, it was because we were doing a shower scene. At some point I said you need to film me in the shower. It may sound peculiar that I was suggesting it. But at the same time, that’s what being a mother is. The only precious time I have is that time. Also, the roles I’ve played in theater and television are mostly sexy roles, and my body is part of why I get hired. And for me just to be myself, I wanted to take that back and say, “film me being me.” And because we were doing that I think Robert wanted an extra person there, to make it professional.

The slow-motion camera helped make it feel stylized. We didn’t talk at all, “let’s make this stagey.” Robert didn’t come up with the red dress. I only have a handful of dresses in my closet, so that’s just what happened when he asked me to put on something nice. I think I said “this one’s kind of caricature-y.”

And my house is just like that. I never staged the house. Everything is how it is right now. Robert would direct the shot by suggesting, “take that glass” or “let’s work at the sink.” But, no big concepts. Just capturing footage.

I had brought up that quote from The Wire about me breaking things, so he said let’s take that and see if it leads anywhere. We didn’t know.

Another important scene, when I go around the kitchen, was done in one shot. The only direction was “just to walk around the kitchen and see where it takes you.” It was never set up. So I went in, something was cooking on the stove. Then I went into the backroom, and Wall-E was playing on the TV because my kids were watching it. Then my daughter comes down the stairs and hands me the hanger. No, none of this was staged. I think having slow-motion camera and time to play allowed us to capture the images that grounded the film. After that day, I think a lot of what Robert had in mind for the film changed.

 

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T/F: How far along in the process was that day?

BB: We were filming so sporadically at the beginning, honestly I never thought this would be a film. I’d say five months in maybe?

Robert had his day jobs and was trying to pay the bills. I was a stay-at-home mom also trying to figure out things, so we just did it when we could, and we didn’t know what we were looking for, so it really took a long time. Correction. Robert knew what he was looking for, but I wasn’t auditioning, so it just took a while to get going.

T/F: There’s one moment pretty late in the film that really fascinates me. It’s during one of the two intense, intimate speeches you are delivering to the camera. You are interrupted by a noise from off screen. Do you remember what I’m talking about?

BB: I do, I do, the pellet stove?

T/F: Yeah, could you tell me about that moment?

BB: Ok, so this is what’s fascinating to me about Robert’s film. I say that this is Robert’s film, and people say, “Oh no, you have to take credit for it.” And of course I take credit for it because it’s my life through Robert’s lens. But, in that moment , specifically, he’s exploiting documentary filmmaking.

The moment that you’re speaking of, I was in the middle of a very intimate confession when my heating stove breaks the scene. I say “ugh, damn pellet stove,” and I was very emotional because I was trying to be composed. I was holding because Robert used to “yell at me” if I would break “character” or be like “oh, I’m sorry, should we do that again?” because I was so aware of being filmed. He’d say “just keep going.” So in that moment, the trained actor in me was pausing because I didn’t want to lose the momentum and ruin that scene for Robert. So I was just waiting for the pellet stove to go, and then I was going to try to keep telling my story, thinking that that very moment would absolutely be cut out of the film. So I was simply holding as a good documentary subject. But he kept it in the movie!

What he loves about that moment is that I actually become the first layer of myself, because as I’m holding, I drop the composed mask and get really emotional. The shooting of this scene was the first time I had said, “Robert, you need to come over here, I have something to tell you.” He came over, and I said, “Can you turn on the camera?” And I started talking. He was crying during the scene, I saw his eyes. Again, never knowing if we were going to use any of the footage because it was very hard for him to shoot as I’m telling him very personally about what just happened in my relationship.

But keeping it in is that layering of layer of layer. Documentary films usually don’t do that.

T/F: That story, do you think it would be a lot different if the camera wasn’t there? If you were just telling it to Robert as a friend? To me, that moment when you get knocked out of the story, it hadn’t felt particularly performed leading up to that, but when it happened I was like, “Whoa, wait, was she performing?”

BB: Yeah, but I think if someone asked you “tell me your story?” and put a microphone in front of you, it would be completely different than if a buddy was sitting with a beer and said, “tell me your story.” I think that’s human nature. I think I was choosing my words better because I needed to be clearer, where if I was telling my friend I could interrupt myself and backtrack more. And then that thing messed it up, and I felt like a failure. So in that sense was it performed? I guess.

It’s like when you’re introduced to someone new, how you put on that, “Oh, hi!” I mean, I was so vulnerable, but in my mind, I just wanted to tell the truth by trying to carefully reconstruct what I was confessing. But then when the noise from the stove came I had a moment to actually breathe and suddenly the pain of the situation came rushing in.

T/F: You mentioned earlier that people are telling you to own the film. Do you see it as part of your body of work as an actress?

BB: I’m so proud of it and feel it just blows the doors off everything I have done thus far. I do feel like it is part of my work as an actress, but more as an artist. I think I became an actor because I’m good at it, but I also love music and creative thinking.

Now, when I’m reading scripts, I think, “this is so much work.” (laughs) I have to audition, and how long will the shoot be? All that money and talk about budgets and locations and rights to things. I think, “Let’s just turn on the camera and live.” (laughs) And apparently that’s really daring.

Apparently it’s really daring to be truthful. People say, “You’re so brave!” And I say, “Oh really?” It’s a testament to our ideas about society and civility; I think it’s repressive. I don’t think it’s that brave, I just used it as an exercise of being truthful and sitting in it. Sitting in my own being.

So many people are in relationships. And relationships are hard, and 65% of marriages end in divorce. But where is all that talk? No one talks about it. I couldn’t believe no one talks about being a mother and trying to have a job. How does that work? Our society doesn’t make it convenient.

So yeah, if I do The Wire and now Actress, and this is my body of work, I can only imagine what’s next.

T/F: Could you talk about your decision to travel with the film and attend True/False and other festivals?

BB: I felt it was the only way to not feel that I was completely exploited. I never asked many questions about the logistics of things. I never signed a release form until the film was done. And that was because when Robert first approached me, he was very concerned it could have ended any friendship we could have had because of the intimacy.

T/F: So he suggested that you wait until the end to sign a release?

BB: Yeah, It was like “I’ll just keep filming, and you can always pull the plug.” I don’t know if it was sly … (laughs) It’s Robert’s way, maybe a little guile. “You always have the say to pull the plug,” which emboldened me to be braver and put it all out there. Even if I signed something at the beginning, he was never going to put it out there if I said “I hate you and I hate your film. How dare you exploit me?”

So, traveling with the film . . . I think that came out of seeing it. When I saw the film in Robert’s editing room, twenty feet from my window, I was able to disassociate myself from all of the shooting and the emotions and see how beautiful it was. And I knew my heart was in it.

So, I want to meet everybody. This is my calling card. Why would I sit back? I’ve met so many people. And the festivals have all said yes, where they don’t always bring the subject, it’s not a given. So I am grateful for the experience.

I’m not afraid of the judgement. I kind of like it. I certainly like being provocative if it’s to get people talking.

 

actress3

Posted January 10, 2015

If You See Space, Occupy It: Talking ‘Cairo Drive’ with Sherief Elkatsha

Documenting something as nebulous as a revolution is a difficult challenge for a filmmaker. In Cairo Drive (T/F 2014) Sherief Elkatsha takes an unusual and startlingly effective approach. Riding shotgun and talking traffic with motorists on Cairo’s congested streets, he captures a fascinating mosaic of the frustrations and ambitions of a city on the edge. The film spans the critical period of 2009-2011, providing a window into the fall of Mobarak and the beginning of Egypt’s uncertain future.

 

 

Cairo Drive makes its New York premiere tomorrow as part of DOC NYC. A few months back I got to speak with director Sherief Elkatsha about his insightful and frequently hilarious film.

-Dan Steffen

 

T/F: Could you start by telling me about how the project began?

SE: Sure. I started making this film in 2009. I was in between Cairo and New York, and every time I came back to Cairo things were getting a little tenser. A good litmus test for where the city was at was the driving. I thought I was going to witness a boiling point of sorts. I had no idea of course that in 2011 what did happen would happen. But I just thought that the easiest way to address all sorts of different issues was through the driving, because that’s sort of everyone’s story. Knowing that I wanted to get into deeper issues, it was very non-threatening and non-political to say “let’s just talk about the traffic.”

In 2011 I was already deep into editing two years of footage, and I thought I was done filming. And then of course the news happened and the goal was to be on the first plane to Cairo to continue filming.

T/F: It’s really cool how traffic let’s you talk about fundamental issues of social cooperation and tension, but in a very concrete, down-to-Earth, unpretentious way.

SE: It was really difficult to film in Cairo. People are generally a little bit paranoid. And they always assume that what you’re filming is to make them look bad outside of Egypt. But when I came to them with the subject of driving, because they felt it was something they all had an opinion about, that they were all experts.

What I liked most is that it sort of crossed through all class structure. In Egypt a lot of people are very poor and there are a few affluent people, but in traffic everyone is sort of the same. Whether you’re riding a donkey cart or in a Mercedes sedan, we’re all stuck at the same traffic light. You can’t really live in a bubble in Cairo.

 

cairodrive2

 

T/F: I love the section early on where the guy sort of introduces the traffic horns as a proto-language.

SE: If I knew then what I know now … people seem to love that bit, and of course it’s hilarious. He went on and on, I should have put more of it into the film.

The language of horns is certainly something that exists. I was unaware to what extent and how specific you could be with your horn. That it wasn’t just “piss off” but instead actively criticizing how someone is driving, just with your horn. And the same is true for lights, but I couldn’t get into that in an hour-and-a-half film. There is all sorts of language with flicking high beams and low beams and what this means and that means.

T/F: So I’ve been asking people this question which is kind of broad, and leaving it open to interpretation. What’s true/false about your film?

SE: Well, certainly my film walks the line between being vérité and non vérité. Let’s be honest, anytime you have a camera around there’s going to be an element of falseness to it. People react to being filmed, and this is sort of a natural thing. And then of course we edit the hell out of movies, so that’s an element of falseness.

And I’d like to think what’s true/false about it is also that most of the films at True/False have a level of integrity that isn’t mainstream. I’d like to think that my film fits into that.

T/F: The magic with this sort of movie is how all of the parts fit together to build a whole. When did you know you had enough to make a film? I mean, you said you thought you had enough before the revolution in 2011?

SE: Let me take it back. I never thought I had enough; I still don’t think I have enough. The nature of the film is such that I felt like I was making a wildlife documentary. You’re always missing something and there’s always something that could be filmed better. That’s the problem with a documentary. You think, you have an idea, and you go out and shoot it, but then you think, I could reshoot that.

So I put a constraint on myself and said it was going to be two years of shooting, or it was going to be one more year. Each year sort of got longer.

When I started the editing process I told people I wanted a film as populated as the city, and everyone told me “you shouldn’t do that. This is not the way to make a movie.” And I just didn’t want to focus on any one story. And so I would say, editing was really important in my film. In order to keep the story moving and to keep us maybe not caring too much about any one character and instead caring about this sort of carnival ride that they’re all on. That was the goal.

I could still keep filming. There’s stuff that’s happening now with respect to the traffic, it’s endless. But once we had our second election I said “Okay, we’re done. I have over 200 hours of footage. I’ll have to pick and choose from that.”

T/F: That’s interesting. The story is about the place, and the bits of story we get from the people have to serve that. So there’s this danger of someone stealing the show?

SE: Yeah, it’s true. Also, any character I did show I wanted to stand for something bigger. So even though certain characters were great — and having done a few festivals I see which characters stick with people — it’s not just about that individual story. I wanted it to be bigger stories that deal with bigger issues, whether it’s women’s rights, or men getting married in Cairo, which is a huge issue for us.

As we come into the revolution, I wanted a few more voices that exemplified the kind of person that went out into the street to become an activist.

 

cairodrive

 

T/F: Do you have an example in mind for some person that really stands for something?

SE: For example, some people have asked “why did you have the ambulance drivers?” There’s this whole scene in between calls where all these ambulance drivers are sort of sitting around shooting the shit, which was again very vérité. I was just sitting there with my camera, probably cleaning it, and they started talking about how this one kid wanted to get married. This to me is huge because I know 50% of the population is under the age of 35 and a huge issue is getting married, being able to afford marriage. Because you have to have an apartment, because you have to have a dowry, etc. So suddenly this scene is unfolding where this issue of so many of the youth in Cairo is coming up, and it just so happens because it’s ambulance drivers shooting the shit. He wanted to get married and the woman turned him down because he was a driver and she wanted him to have a better job. He has an apartment and a job, but he can’t get married.

A year later we find out he does get married. This is after the revolution has happened. And I’m sort of shocked, “You got married and had twins in just over a year?” And he said “Yeah, look what happened to the country. It happened overnight.” It was sort of a small moment but it was indicative of life going on despite the historic events.

T/F: Was it difficult in editing to reconcile the structure of the film with the flow of political developments in Egypt?

SE: Yeah, anything is always a challenge because you lose perspective very quickly as to what is interesting. At the end I had a 72 minute cut, and I crowd funded to hire an editor I had worked with before named Pierre Haberer. He came for Paris and lived in my apartment here. In those final 6 weeks he gave me the objectivity I was lacking to keep the story moving. Also, giving the right details and not the wrong details that are going to confuse an audience.

Also, a lot of the material is very funny, but at the same time the subject that I am dealing with is not all shits and giggles. Anyone who has spent time in Cairo certainly knows people that have lost their lives on the road. So I wanted to give it the gravity that I thought it deserves. Some people just thought I should make the whole thing a comedy, but at some point it stops being funny and just becomes “What the fuck?” There is a turning point, and I think it worked out well putting it just before the revolution happens.

I do have a character in 2010 basically predicting the revolution. You know, “something bad is going to happen, could be in the next 3 to 5 years.” And I sort of push him “What are you talking about?” And he says “If Mobarak passes away tomorrow, this country’s going to go into a lot of trouble until someone strong tries to fix it.”

T/F: Yeah, that was very striking.

SE: Yeah, and again we didn’t want to put dates and we didn’t want everything to be explained, we just wanted it to be this is what it is.

T/F: Do you have any personal experiences driving in Cairo that informed the movie?

SE: Well, I learned to drive in Cairo and it’s kind of the only place where I really do drive. When I come here in the US I have a hard time with street signs and reading and exits. But in Cairo I feel really at home, where it’s kind of like the character in my film says “If you see space, occupy it.” It’s more interactive in a way.

I think there’s something about Cairo where you never assume anything, you never assume a green light. So you are always on edge expecting that someone will jump out from a car in front of your car. I think that makes us better drivers in the actual urban setting, where you are ready for anything. Anything could happen, and it usually does.

 

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Posted November 14, 2014

Out of the Woods: A Chat with Jessica Oreck of ‘The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga’

Jessica Oreck’s sublime, incisive cinema observes the tangled relationship between man and the rest of nature. Her latest work, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (T/F 2014), transports us to contemporary Eastern Europe, where, among other ideas, we reflect on our perceptions of the forest. Oreck nimbly weaves breathtaking, Super 16mm images of everyday life with hand-drawn animation depicting the famous Slavic fable of Baba Yaga, a forest-dwelling witch. Vanquishing is an extraordinary, alluring essay film from a distinct and gifted filmmaker. This is Oreck’s third nonfiction feature, following Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (a 2009 film that considers Japan’s fascination with beetles) and Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys (a 2013 film that observes Finnish reindeer herders). Both are available on DVD.

Vanquishing screens at MoMA through Tuesday, 10/21. Showtimes and tickets are available here. In the coming months, the film will continue to travel across the world. Visit its website for dates. I interviewed Oreck via Skype before its theatrical premiere.

-Chris Boeckmann

T/F: You’ve documented nature in many different types of films, from more essayistic works like Vanquishing and Beetle Queen to purer observational films like Aatsinki to more straightforward short profiles of creatures. I’m wondering if you think there are any sorts of mistakes nature documentaries tend to make, any traps they can fall into.

Oreck: David Attenborough is a hero. I don’t think nature films get much better than that. But I do know that I’m not really interested in making nature films like that. I’ve said this before, you know, that it’s almost this very top-down view of nature. And I’m really so — this sounds so corny, but I believe very fully in animism. And that humans are by far not even close to the most advanced creatures on the planet. And we don’t deserve all the credit that we give ourselves. So that sometimes pisses me off.

I also get really angry about the sensationalist filmmaking that surrounds nature. Especially the sort of stuff that I love the most, like reptiles and herps and arthropods. Those animals — to filmmakers, they’re just like the scourge of the Earth. I could get really worked up about this, about how we make out these animals as if they are out to get us. As if they’re some viciously inclined creatures attacking humans out of pure spite. And arthropods? Everyone has this huge fear of bugs, spiders and scorpions, but most of them are totally harmless to humans. I mean, most insects and most arthropods have no direct bearing on human life whatsoever. But the ones that we focus on? It’s sensationalist media. It’s the same way that news picks up on these weird anomalies and treats them as if they’re the norm.

T/F: Vanquishing explores our strange, sometimes backwards relationship with nature. I’m going to go ahead and work under the assumption that its narrator’s ideas are identical to your own. Have you always had this perspective? Do you know where it comes from?

Oreck: That’s a tough question to answer. I do feel like I’ve had that perspective for a really long time. Since I was really little, I thought most animals were smarter than we would ever be, and that trees had spirits, and that everything else was alive and just living in a totally different time scale that we couldn’t understand. That we were just bumbling about and wrecking shit. But I don’t think I could pinpoint where that came from. It’s weird, I grew up in a Judeo-Christian home, that certainly wasn’t what my parents were teaching me. But it’s a long-held belief.

 

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Image from The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

 

T/F: Before you shot this movie, I assume you had some sort of idea of its shape and its ideas. Did visiting Eastern Europe drastically change your original plan?

Oreck: When I started the project, it was very specifically about the cultural phenomenon of mushroom hunting in Eastern Europe. It was supposed to be a little more like Beetle Queen in that it was looking at this one little kernel of the culture. But right before I left, I had dinner with [the writer] Andrei Codrescu, who put me in touch with a bunch of his contemporaries in Romania. So the first few weeks we were in Romania, we ended up meeting with these poets. Wandering through the woods with them, mushroom collecting, cooking, eating, drinking — just discussing life and all sorts of facets of living in Eastern Europe. And I was inspired by these discussions. Specifically the way they talked about mushrooms as this sort of return to man’s more primordial state, this gesture of primordial man. On top of the fact that, for them, the reign of Ceau?escu was about going into the forest to express your opinions and be free. So it was these original conversations that shaped the rest of the film.

T/F: Was that your only trip to the region?

Oreck: So that was 2009. We shot in Romania and Hungary in 2009 for two months. And then I came back to New York and did lots and lots of research and started writing. Then we went back to Poland, Russia and Ukraine in 2010. By that time, the focus of the film had really shifted.

T/F: Vanquishing was shot on super-16mm film by cinematographer Sean Price Williams. How challenging was it to process the film?

Oreck: There was definitely a long period of waiting. The film was spread out all over the world. We had film developed overnight in Ukraine that we had to pick up at 4am right before our flight. We had to traffic film out of Russia into Finland because the Russians wouldn’t let us not x-ray it on the way back. We had to hire a driver to take it across the Finnish border. And then the film we had developed in Poland was lost in the mail. When it arrived at the lab in New York, it was like it had been drowned in the Great Flood. But somehow the film was intact and completely unharmed. I have no idea how because the boxes look like they survived a tsunami. It was all very stressful.

T/F: What was it like watching the film for first time? Was it a surprising experience?

Oreck: Watching Sean’s footage is always sort of the same for me. I trust him pretty implicitly with the camera, so a lot of times, I just let him do his thing. And obviously we don’t use tripods very often, so it’s not like I’m looking through the eyepiece and being like, “Yeah, this looks like a good shot.” Most of the time he’s just shooting, and I’m just recording sound and sort of pulling him in one direction or another. But I can’t see what he sees most of the time. And it never looks the way I imagine because his brain works in a different way. It’s always fun to see that footage the first time.

 

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Image from The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

 

T/F: I’m wondering if you can talk about the ending shot in the film. Did you always want to end with a shot of kids?

Oreck: This is such a shitty thing to say, but I don’t really like kids. [Laughs] So I tend to avoid them in my editing. And Sean loves shooting kids, so there’s lots of beautiful footage of children, but I almost always avoided it. I remember when we shot that very last shot with the four kids. Sean and I were alone. Everyone else had moved on. And we were laughing so hard at how hard the kids were laughing at us. And it was just such a sweet moment. I remember that moment very clearly. But I don’t think I ever planned for it to be the end because I didn’t think I wanted any kids in the movie.

But for me, that’s the only way it could have ended. Because that is full of hope, it represents this possibility for the future, that we don’t poison our children with the same ideas we were poisoned with, you know? Because I think that belief that everything has a spirit and that humans aren’t the best creatures on Earth is something that’s sort of innate in children. And it’s only after we’ve taught them to think opposite that they lose that. And maybe I’m just incredibly immature at heart and that’s why I still believe it. But to me those kids still have the innocence of being connected to the world.

T/F: And you always knew you needed that feeling at the end?

Oreck: I don’t know if that was always the plan. This is the other thing about my work. My process is so intuitive that a lot of times I don’t remember working. So a lot of time I won’t remember writing or editing. It will just happen. And I tend to write when I’m slightly tipsy or edit in bed when I’m just waking up or about to fall asleep because I feel like it’s easier for me to turn off that self-critic a little bit. Things just flow easier and they work better because I’m not fighting against myself all the time. So that makes it especially hard to pinpoint when specific ideas formed.

T/F: I feel like there’s rhythm and intelligence to the cuts in this movie, but I can’t explain it using logic. How do you get to this place? Is it a painstaking process? Do you need to step away from the film at times? Or does this all happen quickly?

Oreck: I feel like there are two ways that I edit. One is that I’m miserable, and I fight myself. I fight every edit. I overanalyze, and I get nowhere. I’ll just work all day, and then the next day I’ll come back, and everything will just look like shit. And I will just delete it and start all over again. But then there are moments when everything is really easy, and those are the moments that I don’t remember. I know that I tend to listen to music on repeat, so I’ll listen to one song on loop for six hours straight. And I’ll just keep editing to that. That’s really scary, and thank goodness nobody is around when I’m editing. [Laughs] Because they’d be like, “Oh my God. Turn it off. What are you doing?”

T/F: Wait, the music from your film?

Oreck: No, no. I generally edit with Final Cut silenced. I don’t listen to sync sound or any of the music while I’m editing. I’ll listen to something else and edit. And then, once I feel like the edit has its own rhythm, I’ll add things like sync sound and other sounds and the music. Sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes I’ll start with a piece of music. Like Beetle Queen for instance, the opening scene — with that, I started with a piece of music. But that rarely happens.

T/F: So you’ve been watching and processing your films just as images during the editing process?

Oreck: Yes, generally I do. What’s so nice about shooting on film is that I can do that, and I don’t have to take sound away. It makes it really easy because it’s totally separate. It’s funny. I record my own sound. I find that I’m almost never interested in the sound that a camera would want to capture. So Sean will be shooting something, and I’ll be somewhere else, completely doing my own thing with sound. I think it makes it richer. Maybe I’m just mistaken. There are only like three scenes of sync sound in that entire movie.

T/F: That’s obviously not the case with Aatsinki.

Oreck: Right, Aatsinki is probably 80 percent sync sound.

T/F: And with that film you’re also not listening to sound in the editing room?

Oreck: Yeah, pretty much. With Vanquishing, I listened to a lot of [composer] Paul Grimstad’s pop music. He has this one 50-minute track that I listened to straight on repeat. And Aatsinki, I listened to a lot of Cluster on repeat. That is super repetitive, I can’t imagine that I didn’t go a little bit insane making that movie. A lot of XTC too.

T/F: Do you think that the choice of editing room music influences the film?

Oreck: Yeah, I think so. I just started editing this short narrative film, and I almost exclusively listen to one Beach Boys track the entire time.

T/F: So that’s how the film is going to feel?

Oreck: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it has anything to do with it. If you listen to the piece of music, you certainly won’t see that reflected in the piece. But I do think that having a piece of music on repeat — it’s more about giving me my own rhythm. Because I think it’s just enough engagement. My mind can’t ever be working on just one thing. It’s why I can’t learn unless I’m doodling. I can’t listen to somebody unless I’m doing something with my hands. I feel like listening to one song on repeat, it’s not invasive enough to distract me. But it’s just enough to turn one eye so that I’m not just arguing. So that I’m not just having this incessant banter going on in my head.

T/F: There’s this shot that’s really sticking with me. It’s midway through the movie. This young guy on a boat peers through binoculars. What is he looking at?

Oreck: He’s looking at us. I assume they were looking at us, that’s what we assumed when were were shooting it. We were just set up on the street there, and they were docked on the river. We turned the camera on them, and they turned the binoculars on us. That to me is such a great moment in the film. I just talked about this in my last Q&A. Someone asked — something about “documenting the other” and “otherness.”

It’s interesting because I find if I don’t do the intro and people don’t know I’m an American woman, I never get that question. I only ever get that question if I intro the film. It was the same with Aatsinki and Beetle Queen. If people knew I was an American woman, they would ask the question, and if I didn’t, they always assumed I was an old Japanese man or an old Finnish man or an old Russian man. It’s so weird I have to be male and old to have any sort of validity.

To me, that moment — yeah, we’re watching humans. But humans are watching everything, each other all the time. It becomes this hall of mirrors. Everyone is looking at everyone else. It doesn’t feel any more like looking at others than the way that we look at nature, for instance. Something outside of ourselves. I don’t know, I love that moment. It’s a potent moment.

T/F: Regarding audience response, I’ve been a little baffled by some friends’, as well as others’, responses. Some people seem sort of reluctant to discuss the movie because they don’t feel like they have a complete grasp of what you’ve created. I’m wondering if you could talk about this sort of desire to completely understand everything.

Oreck: I think it’s hilarious that humans are so intent on understanding everything. It all comes from this idea — from my deep belief that humans are bumbling along in the world. And almost all other beings on this planet have a better idea what is going on than we do. On a very basic level, I feel like humans are clueless. But obviously there are millions of people who would disagree with me, who think that humans are advanced and that we have all sorts of understandings. But I think we’re clueless on so many levels.

But with both this film and Beetle Queen, I put them in a foreign language because I want that atmosphere to be complete. I don’t want some American voice coming in and explaining something that has nothing to do with that American voice. It has to be in the language of the place. But I don’t want to have to tell people what to pay attention to. I want the film to be more like other art forms. In that …. you watch a Hollywood movie and you feel exactly what they want you to feel. Everything points you in one direction. It’s just really flat. But if you look at an incredible painting or if you walk over to an amazing piece of architecture or if you listen to an incredible piece of music, you’re having a different experience every time. And you get to pick out the pieces that mean something to you. When I listen to these songs on repeat, I will get stuck on a three-note loop. I will listen to the entire song just to hear those three notes that happen at the very end. You can sort of dive into little pieces, and that don’t think happen with film very often. But they happen with other art forms a lot. And so that’s more interesting to me. I like the idea that somebody could watch this film six, seven, eight times and always have a different experience and always notice something they didn’t notice before.

I just never want to tell my audience what to feel. I have ideas, and I want them thinking about ideas, but I don’t want to tell them which ideas are important and which ones are right and which ones are wrong. I don’t know, I’m just not interested in telling people about that. I just want to get them thinking. The films I like the most are the films that leave me asking questions. And the films that I can watch 5, 10, 15 times and still be blown away by their depth.

T/F: Are there a lot of those that you’ve seen?

Oreck: No, there aren’t. Specifically two come to mind. Tokyo Olympiad is a film that I could watch forever. And the Claire Denis film, Beau Travail. Those movies to me are just perfection. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Beau Travail. Even talking about it, I’m tearing up. That movie, to me — I don’t know how you ever make a film that can do as much as that film does.

T/F: Did you first see that in a theater?

Oreck: Yeah, I think that was the first movie that Sean and I saw together in the theater. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen it. If it plays in a theater, I’ll still go see it.

 

Imagie from Beau Travail

Image from Beau Travail

 

T/F: You went from production of Vanquishing — a complicated film made with a crew — to production of Aatsinki — a simpler, observational movie recorded on your own. Was Aatsinki made in response to Vanquishing?

Oreck: They were definitely in response to one another. I got frustrated collaborating with Vanquishing. There were so many different people involved in that project. I couldn’t control the way they were affecting the way I was seeing the film. So Aatsinki was the perfect solution to that because that movie is such a pure distillation of my head in a way that none of my other films are. I think Beetle Queen and Vanquishing both represent ideas that are very true to the way I feel, but Aatsinki is the way that I see the world. Everything about that movie is me. Obviously Vanquishing and Beetle Queen are not that way because they’re Sean’s photography. And Sean shoots in a way that I would never shoot. And I appreciate that. That’s why I work with him. I think he’s incredibly talented. I think it makes the films more interesting, in terms of forcing me to work around the way that he shoots. But I’m also very proud of Aatsinki because it’s so true of the way I thought of the film from the moment I conceived of it.

 

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Image from Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys

 

T/F: Those are all my questions for the moment, thanks! Unless you’ve since pinpointed the moment where you started looking at nature with your current perspective?

Oreck: I remember very specifically being 8 years old and being in my mom’s bed with my sister. She was reading to us, and she said the word reincarnation. I asked her what that meant, and she explained it to me. And it was a weird sort of locking into place — because I had always believed that and never had a word for it. That happened again with Beetle Queen and with animism. That other people could possibly believe that things weren’t as — oh jeez. [Oreck pulls out binoculars]

T/F: You OK?

Oreck: Yeah I just noticed that this beautiful honey locust outside my window is really sick. I haven’t been here in months, but it’s doing really badly. It’s just in my view. It looks really bad. How did that happen? Who did that? Jesus Christ. Oh, poor guy. [Laughs] Sorry. It’s really upsetting to me.

T/F: So you look at the plant life out your window a lot?

Oreck: Oh yeah, oh yeah. If I didn’t have a view of trees, I think I would have left New York much longer ago. But I have two families of bluejays that live here. I have a bumblebee that returns every year to lay her eggs. You know, it’s a honey locust, so in the wintertime you get crowds of starlings and lots of pigeons, of course. Not so many pigeons on this block, actually, but there are pigeons across the street that I like to watch. They’re hilarious. I get to watch the leaves turn and fall. I get to watch the buds come out in the spring. That’s such a big deal for me. I’d like to have the view of a field or a forest or the ocean instead of a playground and trees. But I’ll take the trees.

Posted November 1, 2014

Moments of Transcendence with Tracy Droz Tragos of ‘Rich Hill’

Rich Hill (T/F 2014) takes an intimate approach to the subject of poverty in a small Missouri town just 70 miles south of Kansas City. In lieu of analysts and “experts”, we meet Andrew, Harley and Appachey, three boys whose families are struggling just to get by. With startling directness, the trio invite us into their lives and share their hopes for the future.

This film, declared “essential viewing” by Scott Tobias of The Dissolve, was directed by Tracy Droz Tragos and her cousin and former Columbia resident Andrew Droz Palermo. It is now available to rent on numerous streaming platforms including Amazon. I got the chance to talk with Tracy on the phone about Rich Hill and about creating and capturing authentic moments. In the course of our conversation some things arose which I would consider spoilers, so you may want to see the film before reading this interview.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Could you start by telling me about your relationship with the place?

TDT: Rich Hill is my family home town. It is where my father grew up. He was killed in Vietnam when I was a baby. So my relationship with his parents was very important to me, they were like surrogate parents. My mom was a working mom, so whenever school was out, I would go back to Rich Hill, winter break, spring break, summer. It was like a second home to me.

As an adult I hadn’t gone back quite as much since my grandparents died. But I really wanted to reconnect to this place that had been so important and formative to me. I also knew that there were a lot of people there who were struggling.

T/F: Do you think it is harder to make a film about rural poverty or for people to think about rural poverty?

TDT: Yeah, that was certainly part of why I wanted to make the film. I didn’t feel like there was enough films made about folks from rural communities.

It’s very distinct. There is isolation and there are fewer resources. If you are living in a rural community, and you don’t have a job or can’t find a job, it means you have to go somewhere else. But if you don’t have a car or you don’t have money for gas you’re kind of stuck where you are. And you are isolated.

T/F: Yeah, that’s definitely a theme in the film, the feeling of isolation.

TDT: Yeah, and I think there are different kinds of isolation. I think for Andrew who had to move so often, it’s not being tied to community and not being seen. The isolation being invisible and just sort of falling through the cracks.

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image from Rich Hill

 

T/F: Could you tell me about the three boys and the process of selecting them. Did you film with other boys?

TDT: Yeah, absolutely, we filmed other families. I was just talking about that because I’m now embarking on the front end of other projects and it’s a very similar kind of place, which can be a bit scary and unknown. It’s about casting a wide net and talking to people. You don’t always know who the voice of your film will be.

We found our main families in different ways. We first met Appachey in gym class. We had a very brief conversation with him that was so moving and soulful. He was hungry and his clothes were ripped and his face was kind of chapped. And he was so smart and talked in such an intelligent way, we were drawn to him and just wanted to get to know him more. Our next trip we met his family and it evolved from there.

We met Andrew at the park. He was practicing his fighting skills with some other kids. He was acting the tough guy at first which wasn’t particularly interesting, but when we went home with him the tough guy thing fell away. He was so loving with his family and they were so loving in return. They were also so welcoming of us, there really was a sense of “You care about us? You’re interested in hearing our story? Absolutely!” He had just moved back to Rich Hill.

We met Harley through his grandmother. We were in his home, where he lives with eight members of his extended family. The couch where we often see him waking up, that’s where he sleeps, that’s his spot. We were talking with his grandmother and ended up waking him up. He told us then about his mother being in prison. There’s a line or two from that very first time we met him that’s in the film.

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Harley and his grandmother in Rich Hill

 

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

TDT: (Laughs) Well, what’s true is that these are real people, real lives, real families, real stories.

I don’t know if I would say anything is false. I would say it is subjective, it’s very much a film we intended to make. There’s definitely the hand of the filmmaker even though it’s observation. The families and the kids in the film feel like we told there truth, which I think is the most important thing. When they first saw it they said that it was real, so on that score I feel like we did justice.

But there is the hand of the filmmaker. What is false? Is it false to put music in? Is it false to edit out stuff or compress time? The techniques of filmmaking are inherently constructed and there is some lens through which everything is seen, so in some way you could say it is false. But I’d reject that word.

T/F: The boys interact so much with the camera and explain their lives directly to us, or to you or Andrew. Was that always your approach?

TDT: We knew we didn’t want to be purists in terms of, it’s going to be verite or it’s going to be observation only or it’s going to be X, Y or Z. I think it has to be authentic and about how the kids see themselves. We couldn’t pretend we weren’t there and we couldn’t be poker faced. We also didn’t want to have a ton of talking heads and sit down interviews. It’s more about coming in and out of conversation with them when it felt warranted, when they were doing things that were natural and of their character. They were collaborators in a way.

We were very clear that we didn’t want statistics or to have outside experts that weren’t a part of their lives commenting on them.

T/F: Was there ever a danger of what they were giving you becoming too performative or too constructed?

TDT: Sure, I mean, there’s always that danger. We weren’t a huge crew, so there wasn’t a feeling of total obtrusiveness. I suppose we were helped because they saw me as a bit of a mother figure. Any sort of tough guy thing or puffing up their chests or even any sort of Jackass tendencies was not something I was interested in, and I think they knew that. They knew that this didn’t need to be the face that they prepared for the rest of the world, and the guard could be let down a little bit.

T/F: Could you tell me a little about your collaboration with Andrew in that respect. He did all of the cinematography, is that right?

TDT: Yeah, that’s his background and his talent. I come from a documentary background and I did the talking and being with people. It was part of my job in a way to make sure the camera disappeared, so that when there was interaction they could focus on me.

It was very much a collaboration. After we shot we would edit together. We would cut scenes together and talk about the approach we were taking and how we would move forward. That would happen after every shoot.

T/F: Is there any particular moment in the film that was the most surprising to you, either when you were filming it, or when you went back and watched the footage?

TDT: Hmm, well, the Halloween walk where Harley reveals that he was raped. It was something that we’d known before, but it often kind of flows to the surface for him. It was something that he didn’t often talk about, but he really wanted to get off his chest.

When we were revisiting the footage, Andrew was actually working on that scene and at first wanted to cut out all the stuff about the chocolate and the rest of the lead up. And I was like no, you have to keep that in, even though it felt so long. That was how he was and that was how it gradually rose to the surface.

T/F: Oh yeah, that scene really stands out to me thinking back on the film. It’s interesting that he’s wearing a costume at the time as well, like maybe he feels protected behind it.

TDT: Yeah, it’s interesting he has a mask on. Our editor (Jim Hession) talked about the significance which I didn’t feel like we knew in the moment, that he had this mask on and then once he shared, the next scene is his grandma taking off this mask.

Moments rise to the surface. I think also the arm wrestling between Andrew and his dad at the very end. By being where it is that scene has layers to it that maybe it didn’t have in the moment, by the context of where it is in the film. I think ultimately it was true to what was happening in their relationship and kind of fulfillment.

T/F: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was finishing the film. Specifically, the way you used music and how you thought about the tone you were trying to set.

TDT: We thought a lot about the music. We brought Nathan (composer Nathan Halpern) on, he was an amazing composer and we were so honored to work with him. We did something interesting, not all films get to do, and I would love to do as often as I could. We brought our sound designer and our composer and our editor out for a spotting session before we completely locked picture. We went through every moment of the film and talked where the score would take the lead and where the recorded sound should take precedence.

There’s so much that goes into scoring a film. Going back to that Halloween walk, we brought music in, but we didn’t want to bring it in too soon to anticipate his reveal. It’s a balance. We also used foley (reproduction of everyday sounds) in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated, mostly with hand-gestures, to bring an audience more into the head-space of the kids.

The underlying intention to the score for the whole film was to allow for moments of transcendence, a hymnal quality. And we wanted use music to put our audience in a place where they could notice the small details and reflect.

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Andrew in Rich Hill

 

Posted September 23, 2014

Going to the Dark Side with Animator Jodie Mack of ‘Dusty Stacks of Mom’

We’re perpetually in search of interesting new approaches to the documentary form. That’s why we we were thrilled that both critics and audiences responded enthusiastically to the most unique experience at True/False 2014, Dusty Stacks of Mom. In it, experimental filmmaker Jodie Mack utilizes stop-motion animation to explore her mom’s old poster shop and the familiar images that people choose to hang on their walls. This odd and hilarious journey is structured around a reimagining of Pink Floyd’s iconic album Dark Side of the Moon with new lyrics sung by Mack herself.

Dusty Stacks returns to Columbia this Wednesday, July 2, as the centerpiece of Light Your Light Shine, a program of Mack’s animation structured like an experimental film rock concert, complete with opening acts and a blowout 3D finale. Let Your Light Shine is the final installment in Ragtag Cinema’s 2014 Homebrewed Series, their fourth annual survey of American microbudget filmmaking.

For a quick preview of Mack’s work, check out her irresistible take on a classic pop song, Unsubscribe #4: The Saddest Song in the World.

I got the chance to talk with Jodie a couple months back about her mom’s poster factory and constructing a film around a classic album. We chatted via Skype while she worked on a collage in Paris.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Hey Jodie! I wanted to start by asking about your relationship to your mom’s poster shop and all of the stuff there.

JM: I actually worked there in high school doing data entry and rolling posters. Another one of my chores was taking inventory, counting all of the individual posters once a year. So I did actually feel pretty familiar with the material. And its been interesting returning there as an adult, having this material in mind, where the images they used to sell end up and how popular some of them still are.

T/F: Do you consider the movie a documentary?

JM: I think it’s definitely a type of documentary. Documentary was definitely a genre I was hoping to speak to when making it. I’m generally a more abstract, experimental filmmaker, but in all cases it’s the material that guides the way I want something to go.

I thought about lots of documentary strategies for conveying information and how animation functions as part of that in documentary. There’s certainly a lot of animation in documentaries these days, but there is also graphics and charts, titles or what not, things like that. The big question when starting out was how to convey information . . .

I like musicals and I’ve made a musical before, so it seems like in some ways, yeah, it’s just the voiceover narration being delivered in song. Totally normal, totally conventional (laughs). Do you think it’s a documentary?

T/F: Yeah, definitely. One of the things I was really thinking about it while watching is how ubiquitous these images become and how they take on new meanings as they spread out into the world. I thought that was something that you documented.

JM: Yeah, I hope so, it’s tricky because I’ve sort of taken on the lowest forms of imagery. I think that some people might find it hard to engage with. I don’t know how it comes of, if I’m celebrating it, or critiquing it or just paying attention, just noticing.

T/F: So when you chose Dark Side of the Moon you locked yourself into making a film around the actual album, and keeping the time signatures of all of the songs?

JM: Yeah, that’s right. There is some mild divergence, like “Money” is a little bit shorter.

But yeah, as an experimental filmmaker, I like to make films with rules. It just seemed like an interesting way to guide the content and mood (going back to the question how to convey information).

A lot of things wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t decided to take on the album. There would be no mom’s head on a prism, the crazy vocal solo or the moment where she’s a rock star.

It’s such a weird album because it’s so many people’s point of entry into counterculture. Older folks know every note.

image from Dusty Stacks of Mom

image from Dusty Stacks of Mom

T/F: What was the hardest part about shaping the film around the album?

JM: Yeah, well, there was definitely a discrepancy between the pacing of the album and how you want things in cinema. In music, and especially Pink Floyd, your impulse is to jam and linger. Sometimes in film you want to cut to the chase.

It would have been a lot harder if I didn’t have all of these musicians doing different instrumentation tracks. It was still tough. Dark Side of the Moon is a very complex album and being able to shape it with other people was important because I wanted it to feel different than the album.

T/F: Why did you decide to work with different musicians for each song? Why not work with the same musicians through the whole project?

JM: Well, a couple of reasons. In general I knew from other projects that that sort of commitment is a lot for one entity to handle. But also I thought that it would be interesting to make it an exquisite corpse, especially it being DSotM, something that’s been covered so many times. I thought it would be interesting to force this upon it and see where it went.

I tried to stay honest to what people did. And then there were some surprises. Someone had to drop out and so I did the kazoo solo.

T/F: (laughs) Yeah, I liked the kazoo solo.

JM: Yeah, animation is always really time consuming, and I sort of forget how complicated it is to do sound.

T/F: Could you describe the process of the animation some for an animation noob?

JM: Yeah, sure. All of it is 16mm stop-motion, so it’s on a film camera with reel to reel. So I take a picture and move and then take a picture and then move it, 24 frames per second.

It’s all stop-motion animation, no digital effects or anything like that.

T/F: Finally, what was the total time making this film? How long did this project take?

JM: Three years. Not of continuous work. It’s really kind of hard to say, from the first session to when I premiered it, it was three years. I shot for few days and then I didn’t even touch it again until the summer of 2012 and then I finished it in the spring of 2013. So it could be three years, it could be nine months. I felt it percolating a lot. Hard to say.

Posted July 1, 2014
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