Interviews

Stimulating Life: A Conversation with Khalik Allah of ‘Field Niggas’

Khalik Allah “Field Niggas” Preview from Khalik Allah on Vimeo.

Set entirely at night, Field Niggas (T/F 2015) takes us to the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem and introduces us to its faces. Not just avoiding but repudiating condescension, director Khalik Allah’s camera, a longtime, welcome presence in the neighborhood, spotlights his subjects in stunningly composed, dignified portraits that are hypnotically woven with street images. The non-synch audio track consists of conversations with and among those faces: dreams, regrets, arguments, affection, observations, opinions. Field Niggas is a mesmerizing viewing experience, that finds its rhythm using field hollers. The title draws from Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grass Roots” speech, in which he targets the power balance that creates a dangerous wedge between the “house slaves” and the “field slaves.” Khalik Allah’s singular, trenchant film serves as an ardent call to rise above social constructs.

Since True/False, Field Niggas has screened at Sarasota, Maryland and FIDMarseille, where it received a special mention from the Marseille Espérance Jury. This Friday, July 17 at the Metrotech Commons, Rooftop Films is hosting a free screening of Field Niggas. For more information, visit this page. We caught up with Khalik on the phone earlier this week.

T/F: I’ve heard you discuss your history with photography, but I don’t know much about your relationship with movies.

KA: I never was interested in movies. I used to think movies were boring. I was into TV. But my brothers—I’ve got a lot of brothers—they always used to steal the remote and just start watching movies. So I saw Larry Clark’s Kids. I remember studying that when I was kid. I was 9 when that came out.

When I made the decision to start dabbling in films, I went to the library, and whenever I saw the Criterion Collection, I just got that DVD. That’s how I found out about Kurosawa and so many different films. Taxi Driver, everything from Scorsese. I just started following different directors and studying them. Jim Jarmusch, obviously Spike Lee, a bunch of different people. And then when I started studying documentary more, it was Werner Herzog. And the idea that I can make any type of film because all these different directors have their own style, that inspired me.

So this simple library card afforded me an entire education. Then I got Netflix. At one point I wasn’t even working, and I was watching 50 movies a week. I was trying to train my eye. All those Bergman movies and his DP Sven Nykvist. And the Woody Allen films. Studying the DPs behind these films and their ideas, their philosophies, their personal lives, their orientation to light. How Sven Nykvist used to carry a 35mm still camera and photograph the light days before he would shoot a scene just to see what the light would look like at a given point in the day. These guys are scientists. Kurosawa and the movie Rashomon, he used mirrors to light a lot of those scenes, you know? All those people are inspirations, and mentally, I’ve got a store house, a visual library that I think about.

One of my favorite movies is Heat by Michael Mann. I remember I was having an argument one time with a person who was saying that every person in the movie is wearing makeup, and I was like, “Naw, that’s not true.” There are a lot of actors who don’t wear makeup, who keep it real. And I think of Michael Mann and his movies, especially Heat—that shit was 100 percent real. I’m more of a realist with my style of filmmaking. I’m a documentary filmmaker, but I want to go into narrative where it’s fictional but it’s done in such a real way. Everything about it is real. Nobody is wearing makeup. People are doing real things. The props are real.

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Field Niggas (dir. Khalik Allah, 2014)

You mentioned Werner Herzog’s documentaries. Did you watch others? Has your relationship with documentary changed over time?

Obviously Nanook of the North and Robert Flaherty. Stuff I studied because I was told to study those things. I looked into the origins of documentary. Filmmaking started out as documentary, you know? But then a lot of narrative films are also documentaries, like James Toback’s Black and White. The thing I like about James Toback is that he’ll improvise a lot of scenes, which gives his fictional pieces a documentary type of feeling. I studied so much it’s kind of a blur—a big, abstract idea, all these different people and what they did.

Makes you think about how much is going on now that’s not being documented. That in itself is the inspiration to make documentaries. It really comes down to how creative you want to be. I think there’s a whole nother language. I was trying to come up with another language with Field Niggas. Because I could have had that movie talking about the meth labs, drug abuse. More of a cerebral analysis, talking-head type thing, interviewing politicians in the neighborhood. But that’s been done. Another thing that keeps things interesting is creative documentary.

I haven’t seen it, but based on the trailer, I assume your first feature-length documentary, Popa Wu, a 5% Story, is more conventional?

Yes, definitely. A lot of festivals are asking me if Field Niggas is my first film, and in a way, I feel like saying ‘yes’ because it’s the first time I’ve been playing festivals. To me, the Popa Wu film—it took me four years to make, it was like college. That was my bachelor’s degree, that movie. Nothing ever happened with it, no distribution, no film festival plays. I sold it, but I sold it to a niche group of people: the Five Percenters, people who are within that demographic, that type of knowledge, the Five Percent Nation. It was tailored for them, but I actually wanted it to go beyond that and be a much bigger thing. I put four years into that project, and I put less than three months into Field Niggas. And Field Niggas went forty times further. But that film set me up. It was an education, my training.

You say three months, but it wouldn’t exist had you not spent years hanging out in this part of Harlem. I read that when you first started shooting in the neighborhood, there was some resistance. I’m wondering if you could walk me through the very first night.

Well, the first time I came, there was no negative experience. It was in the daytime. I was in and out. It wasn’t like I was lingering on the corner, taking pictures like I do now. I didn’t know that was going to be the focal point for me.

Spring 2011, I’m out there, I’m shooting. I see a crackhead with a bald head, it’s a woman, and she had a pacifier around her neck, hanging like a necklace. She asked me for a dollar, and I said “Yeah, yeah, I’ll give you a dollar. Just let me take a picture of you.” And she was giving me the middle finger in the picture, and I said, “Yeah, yeah that’s good. Keep giving me the middle finger, but put the pacifier in your mouth.” She put the pacifier in her mouth, she’s giving me the middle finger, and all I hear is this brother behind me say, “Yo, brother, we don’t want to be seen like that! We don’t want to be seen like that!” So I start addressing him. “I’m out here as a photographer. I’m documenting the positive, the negative and the neutral.” I kind of engage him. We go back and forth for a while. He was an MTA officer. He had his name tag on, so I just kept calling him by his name. “Yeah, Mike”—his name was Mike—”Yeah, Mike, I’m a documentarian, I’m filming 360 degrees.”

Whenever there’s an argument in the streets in Harlem, people just congregate around it and start instigating. I just stepped off. I just said, “Peace!” There was another person listening, an older Muslim guy. Later that night I came back. It wasn’t even dark yet. Me and that Muslim guy were talking. He said, “Yeah, I heard what you were saying, man. I think it’s positive. I think it’s positive that you are a photographer, there’s truth to be documented.” So I took that and I left that night.

Fast forward. I went to other places and kept shooting downtown Manhattan. I would just come back sporadically to shoot 125th and Lex. But when I developed that film, and I’d seen that picture of that woman, the crackhead with the pacifier and the middle finger. I was like, “Yeah man, I’ve got to shoot. There’s a lot of light on this corner for me to start working with.”

So fast forward now to November 21, 2011. At 11pm, I drove to the city, parked in the Lower East Side. I took the train all night. I took the train to 125th and Lex. At 2am, I walk into a congregation of crackheads and took a shot. And there was a shot of Frenchie—that was the first night that I meant Frenchie. And basically I overcranked the film in the camera, and now the film is broken in the camera. And I still had a pocketful of film. I wanted to go shoot all night, so I needed a darkroom to take the film out without exposing it and ruining it. I was so serious, I was about to hop on the train tracks just to use the darkness. But when I was contemplating, I saw a woman coming out of the janitor’s closet, and I just told her, “I’m a film student at NYU, I need to use the janitor’s closet for the darkness.”

NYU?

Yeah, I was lying to her (laughs) I basically went in there, took off my coat, put the camera in there and used it as a dark bag. Then I was able to reload and keep shooting. But as soon as I got home that morning, I was worried the film was ruined. So I just developed it, and I see these pictures of Frenchie, and I was like “Damn, that’s it. This is my corner.” That night just consecrated it. This is where I’m going to shoot.

Khalik Allah, Urban Rashomon from Khalik Allah on Vimeo.

Watching your films back-to-back, you see the growth. In “Urban Rashomon,” you buy Frenchie some K2 and then regret it after he acts up in a corner store. At the beginning of your next film, “Antonyms of Beauty,” you ask Frenchie about that night, and he says he was ‘acting’ for you. Can you talk about that idea of performance?

In Frenchie’s case, he considered his life a performance. Frenchie got hit by a train and survived it. I asked him about it afterwards, and he said he was just acting. Nobody was there filming. Nobody was there to photograph it. I wasn’t there. But he said, “I was just acting.” He was in the hospital, he broke his pelvis. His foot was injured ever since. With me and him, that day, he probably would turn it up a little more for the camera. Maybe, potentially. But the stories I hear— you know, Frenchie’s dead now—but the stories I was hearing about what he was doing in my absence were more interesting than a lot of the stuff when I was there taking photographs of him. He’s a deep soul. He’s a deep, deep, deep person, and I feel like we were destined to come together for this film project. There was an exchange of light and mental energy between Frenchie and I throughout this whole of process of “Urban Rashomon,” “Antonyms of Beauty,” those times.

With K2, I felt guilty afterwards. He asked me for it, and I told him I want to take a few of photographs. So my concept was, “OK, I’m taking some of his time, at least let me give something to him that he wants.” And that’s also going to make the work that much more interesting. And then I’m going to have a story that much more interesting based on all this. So I go ahead and buy him the K2, but when he started foaming from the mouth and rolling on the ground in the corner store, then I felt bad about that. And I told myself I wouldn’t do that again. But the next time I see him in person, he was smoking K2 anyway. I see him laying down on the ground smoking some K2, acting kind of normal, so I just started questioning him. “Naw, naw, naw I was acting.” Then I was seeing if he could control himself off of it. And again, we were spending time together. He was giving me a lot—answering my questions, giving his time to do this photography project and working as a subject. I was like, “Yo, here, I’m a scientist. I deal with experiments. Here, you’re a grown man.” He was fifty some odd years. And I didn’t feel guilty about it. I felt good about it. It was just making it more interesting.

Plus, I wouldn’t have been able to make Field Niggas without those two preceding films. And K2 has been a piece of all of them, from “Urban Rashomon” to “Antonyms of Beauty” to Field Niggas, K2 is present. And right now it’s still there.

So it’s still legal?

The last I’ve heard on the law—and the law is constantly changing around K2, which has so many different names—is that it’s legal to sell. It’s legal for a person to buy it at the corner store, but it’s illegal person for that person to smoke it in public on the streets. That kind of contradiction in the law is very bad because these people don’t have homes. They don’t really leave that corner, so they’re going to smoke it in public, and that’s grounds to get arrested or grounds for a citation. And you don’t show up in court, now there’s a warrant issued for their arrest. And these aren’t even criminals, and now they’re being put through the system just for smoking a substance that was legal for them to buy. It’s just real disgusting when you really look at it. I look at it as a gentrification ploy to try to move people off that point in Harlem. Because 125th and Lex is the last frontier.

You’re still shooting out there?

Yeah, it’s very interesting. A lot of people say, “Yo, Khalik, are you going to leave 125th and Lex? You going to go do another project?” But if people look at what I’ve been doing, it’s staying within the same environment but elevating it. Elevating my perception of it. So first, I was taking stills, then I made a documentary. Now I want to make a feature film. Right in the same place. That for me is a way to keep interested. I continue to photograph the area because photography is how I build my energy up. Photography is like the mulch of the movie. Definitely for Field Niggas. That’s why I tried to simulate the aesthetic of my photography in the movie.

Antonyms of Beauty from Khalik Allah on Vimeo.

Do you see yourself continuing to use your voice in such a prominent way?

I actually see it coming less and less. I think that ultimately the project will dictate that, how I feel about the project. Growing up, the path that I went through was the Five Percent Nation. I’ll probably keep a lot of knowledge in there, a lot of myself. But the way we as Five Percenters look at Islam—it came from the Nation of Islam, and then a man named Father Allah gave it to the kids in the streets. Those were the young Five Percenters. It was still considered Islam but as a culture, not as a religion. As a way of life. And ISLAM, the acronym, was “I Stimulate Life and Matter” or “I Stimulate Life Around Me.” That’s how we always broke it down. So when I’m in my movies and I’m talking, I’m just trying to stimulate different things. In Field Niggas, I’m asking people on drugs, “What do you think happens when you die?” The big questions of life, asking that to someone you wouldn’t have asked. It’s a form of stimulating them. But in Field Niggas’’ case, I tried to cut out a lot of my questions, but then there wasn’t enough context. You would just hear the person’s answer, and a lot of the heart was missing from it. You had to feel me, to know where I was coming from. It was more compassionate. So it was good there. But it wouldn’t be good everywhere (laughs).

I recently watched a rough cut of this Mexican documentary. The director is filming in a Canadian park where a community of Aboriginals lives. They’re frequently drunk on camera, and they’re expressing a lot of frustrations with the government and with society. Anyway, in the opening minutes, the director says something about his opposition to ‘empathy.’ He thinks that’s the wrong way to approach people. In this case, he points out that he grew up in Mexico, and he is in no way capable of understanding the pain his Canadian subjects are feeling. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about that, about this idea of empathy.

Empathy has two different manifestations. The way that I use it is not to join in suffering and thus lighten the burden. My form of empathy is to tell them that they’re innocent, that they can’t be hurt. That regardless, whatever the body or the ego is going through, they’re still invulnerable. So I’m not going to share in a suffering that I don’t even believe exists. I can look at them in what the world would consider suffering, in what the world would consider misery, and still see the light there and still see beauty there.

But if I was going there, “Oh, I feel so bad for you, what happened with your mom and dad when you were little? What happened? What brought you to the streets? Why are you strung out on drugs? Oh, I feel so bad.” That’s corny. That type of shit—that’s the Christian Children’s Fund. That’s a 30-second PSA on TV. That’s nothing.  What I was trying to do, and what I feel I’m continuing to do in my documentary work, is speak to the people who usually don’t get a chance to speak and give them a voice. But first I would have to be interested in their world, my own self.

But empathy, there’s two forms of it. Empathizing to join someone’s suffering. People do that all the time. “My mother died,” “Oh, my mother died too!” Or “I’m having trouble in my relationship.” “Oh, so am I!” And then they start sharing war stories about negative shit. The other form of empathy is to be like, “Oh, your mother died, but there’s no such thing as death. Your mother’s still with you. She served her purpose in your life.” Start talking about the positive shit. That’s my form of empathy.

What kind of negative responses have you received to the film?

Mostly all the responses to my film have been positive. The negative ones have been mostly positive in the sense that—you know, people want to know why you named it ‘Field Niggas.’ Some people have ideas of exploitation simply because I’m dealing with people who are poor, even though I don’t regard them as poor. As I said, with my empathy, I still see them as rich. Because money is nothing in reality, so I’m looking at reality. Fuck if the world agrees with me.

A guy, Neil Young from the Hollywood Reporter, just wrote a good feature about Field Niggas. Totally unexpected. But I read what he wrote, and I liked what he wrote. Even though some of it could have sounded like it was coming at me because he basically felt that the first half of the film was stronger than the second half. He felt I was tooting my horn in the movie, that I was becoming a little too flamboyant of a character in the movie. I asked some people questions, “What you think about me as a documentarian, or as a photographer, in the area?” Then they would say something real positive, and I kept that in the film. It could have been perceived as arrogance, but that definitely wasn’t my intention. My intention was to show that I’m actually part of this community and as a filmmaker, don’t think you can come here and just shoot. It took me three years to do this.

Even in the film, I say the only other camera besides me is the surveillance camera. Because I don’t see other photographers where I shoot. When I was shooting in the Lower East Side, there were photographers everywhere I looked. When I started shooting, that was part of the decision-making process when I chose that area of Harlem. Because there was nobody documenting it. Even Bruce Davidson, he did 110th Street, but I haven’t seen anyone do 125th and Lex.

But I read what Neil Young wrote, and I thought it was great. I thought he liked my film. He was very poetic, and he was very descriptive. And his words and the way he wrote what he wrote, it was a good piece. I put it on my Facebook. But some people even commented on my Facebook post, “This dude didn’t know what he was talking about.” But I look at it like, he liked the movie, and there were parts he didn’t like. I do that with films.

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Field Niggas (dir. Khalik Allah, 2014)

I found a quote from you, “I feel like I only started talking in my twenties. I’m 28 but I’ll be silent in my thirties, until I’m forty.” You’re now just a few months from 30. Do you feel the same way?

That’s actually been put into application now. So much has happened even since I been back from France, and I haven’t really been putting it out there. I used to have so much news, and I would blast it on Facebook. But now I’m just getting into myself more. When I was a teenager, I was more quiet. I was just working. I was trying to figure shit out, studying, reading books. Then when I was 20, I put all that into application. I started making films, started becoming a photographer. And now, I feel like I see what it is, and I can be effective at a distance. I can be more effective. Sometimes you get a lot more work done in silence. And I’m just thinking as far as publicly saying shit, there’s just so much going on, let other people talk about it. Let other people talk about it, but keep working. Give them something to talk about.

Interview by Chris Boeckmann

Posted July 16, 2015

Humanity is Endless: A Chat with Hanna Polak of ‘Something Better to Come’

Polish filmmaker Hanna Polak was unable to turn away from the homeless children she found living in and around Moscow. Her Oscar-nominated short film Children of Leningradsky (T/F 2005) explores the culture of children living in and around that city’s major railway station. But this impressive and moving work would prove to be just the beginning of her involvement with these stories. Over the course of 14 years, Polak followed Yula, a homeless girl living in Europe largest garbage dump, just outside of Moscow. In the resulting Something Better to Come (T/F 2015) we follow Yula from ages 10 to 24, as she confronts both adolescence and a daily struggle for survival while dreaming of a better life.

This bracing yet profoundly optimistic work is playing right now at Cinema Village in NYC. Last week I got the chance to speak with Polak via Skype about how this extraordinary film came to be.

-Dan Steffen

 

True/False: Hi Hanna! Could you start by talking about how this project got started and what it looked like to you at the beginning? I assume you didn’t go into this expecting to film for 14 years.

Hanna Polak: At first, I didn’t really mean to film at all. I met homeless children on the streets of Moscow, and I was completely hooked. It was something really outside of my comprehension. I had met runaways, but not children who had really no one taking responsibility for them, no orphanages, police, parents. I could really not even understand the situation, kids living on the streets in big groups on their own, some of them as young as 4. This was the first time I directly came across a situation like this and of course I was deeply moved. A small group of children introduced me to a big group of children at the railway station. Along with some friends, I brought them some food and eventually started organizing some classes. Ultimately we made the short film Children of Leningradsky to try to help the children in this situation, living in this railway station.

 

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image from Children of Leningradsky

 

We also filmed at the garbage dump, and we knew right away that these were two different films, and we had to make a decision. It was a different group of children there and they had a different group of problems. The children who lived in the garbage dump were mainly from the provinces. They were much simpler, there was much less crime, and sniffing glue and those sorts of things. So we didn’t end up filming as much at the dump while we finished the first film.

T/F: How did you first introduce the camera to the people living at the dump?

HP: In the beginning when I came I didn’t have a camera with me. It took me a few months to know I even wanted to shoot a film. I started to shoot still photographs at the garbage dump. I had to use a very small camera because of course being at the garbage dump was illegal, so what would they say about shooting?

T/F: One of the really fascinating things to me about this film is how you can see the contradiction in the children, how in some moments they behave like normal kids, while their situation has forced them to take on adult responsibilities.

HP: It is interesting because I felt many times the children are stronger than the adults. We see it of course with how Yula helps her mother, but I have seen it many times. They are small kids but in a way they are really adults. I think maybe this is why I found it so easy to have a relationship with them. With these kids you can talk as equals in many regards. This equality was something that was very quickly building a bridge.

We would organize drawing contests, and you would see those children would immediately become children again, drawing with great attention. In these moments they forget about being adults. Of course, there were other moments where they would have to show their strength. They would try to be very cynical on the outside, they don’t care, they don’t need anything.

Then there were moments of weakness where they would want you to adopt them. It was a very difficult situation for me. I would always explain to them, “you are very dear to me, I’m trying to do things as a friend. But you have to understand that I’m not from this country, I have no legal possibility of adopting you, but I will try to put you on your feet.” I knew how much they needed someone in their life who would act like a parent, and in moments like these you can really see that the kids are kids. But a moment later they would drink, they would smoke, they would organize a place to stay, they would have to protect themselves and live in the very cruel world of crime and prostitution.

 

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image from Something Better to Come

 

T/F: When you are making a film over this stretch of time, you are of course evolving as a filmmaker too. Was it hard to keep the film consistent stylistically?

HP: I think the most difficult part of this film was really the editing. Of course, I was developing as a filmmaker during those years and the shooting conditions were always different and very difficult. It’s not like to take a tripod and a camera and film whatever you want. You have to sneak in and out, sometimes run away, sometimes protect the material, sometimes even use a hidden camera.

Of course, I can see how I developed as a filmmaker very much over the project. I could see early when I was talking to people, since I was so concerned about the suffering of the people, I would ask them about that, but what I found eventually is that it was better to ask people about the beautiful moments, because we see so much suffering and bleakness already. So it was always better when people talked about the beautiful parts of life.

T/F: Yeah, it was really striking how you captured a sense of communal life, a life filled with music and animals, lived in such dire circumstances.

HP: Yeah, I liked go there for these moments, for this atmosphere, for this sharing when they would open their hearts for each other. Sometimes life is more simple at places like this, because people don’t complicate it. This feeling of sharing and building a community is their only chance to survive, but it is something that often we miss in our regular life. So yeah, I felt this contradiction, you go into the middle of this darkness and then experience this incredible friendship-love-care-humor-simplicity-acceptance. All of this was totally striking for me, and this is what I really wanted to make the film about, that humanity is endless. Even in the worst places people take care of what they look like, using make-up. They love music. The people are so talented and so amazing and so philosophical and so warm.

 

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image from Something Better to Come

 

T/F: So the hardest part was the editing?

HP: Yes, the most difficult part was really in the editing when we had to make a story. What I didn’t know was how difficult it was telling a time-lapse story. I went to a master class with people like Michael Apted and Czech filmmaker Helena Trestikova, who often works on long term projects. I also spoke with Katja Wildermuth about her experience of working on Sergey Miroshnichenko’s Russian version of the 7-Up series. All these people had the experience of working on a time-lapse story.

It’s really hard. If you make it chronological, it becomes boring, if you break chronology, then you make people really confused. We are dealing with a situation in which, in one and a half hours, more or less, you have to tell 14 years. You have bits and pieces of someone’s life. There are always some things missing that you’d like to have.

So with all this material I have in my bin, I was overwhelmed for a long time. I had worked on other films and made other stories, and I know editing is always very challenging, but this material was absolutely overwhelming. When I tried to work with an editor who didn’t speak Russian, it took me over a month to translate just the basic materials, working day and night.

I tried to construct this universe of Yula, not to make a film on her alone, but to show this place where she lived and the people around her.

T/F: So of course, we can follow the passage of time in the film through Yula’s face, but did you think it was important to provide the audience with more markers of time?

HP: Yeah, of course. Yula was changing so much, she changes the color of her hair and at times she’s almost not recognizable, so it’s a huge challenge. For the passage of time I use radio and a bit of historical events that were happening in Russia. I didn’t want to be political about it really, but I wanted to place this story in Russia and I wanted it to feel like time is passing. She is changing, but of course the world is changing around them to. Sometimes its subtle things, like a clock ticking. You see people celebrating a new year, and another time it is summer, all of this builds. In this kind of film it is very important to give these small touches of time.

T/F: Without giving too much away, we do see that there was something better to come for Yula, but her situation at the end of the film is still far from perfect. If anyone wants to help Yula now, or children currently living in her former situation, what’s the best way?

HP: The best way is the Norway based charity Active Child Care. You can send them money via PayPal and contact them if you want to donate specifically for Yula.

Posted May 25, 2015

Exploring Virtual Space: Talking ‘Transformers: the Premake’ with Kevin B. Lee

For several years now, Kevin B. Lee has been pioneering an innovative form of film criticism, recutting films into insightful and provocative video essays. Last summer he first shared Transformers: the Premake (T/F 2015) and for many made the leap from criticism to cinema. The Premake is a “desktop documentary” examining the sprawling production of the incomprehensible mega-blockbuster Transformers: Age of Extinction through amateur videos, while exploring the virtual space of a computer desktop and the way we process information. Just this week the Premake earned Kevin the Arte Creative Newcomer Award at the European Media Art Festival. If you haven’t seen it yet, take the time to watch this fascinating short right now.

 

 

A couple weeks back I got the chance to chat with Kevin about his film, its influences and our culture’s pathological relationship with mega-franchises.

-Dan Steffen

 

True/False: Hey Kevin! Can we start by talking about how you first get interested in making a film about the Transformers’ production?

Kevin B. Lee: I’ve worked as a film critic for a number of years. I specialize in a form of criticism that takes footage from films and manipulates it so that we can learn about them. I was looking for a way to break out of my normal routine of watching movies, analyzing them and putting them back together into video essays.

I wanted to get away from screens, for one thing. I was spending way too much looking at movie and computer screens and sort of questioning the meaning of my life. I wanted to experience actual physical reality and try to connect my love of cinema with physical spaces.

And so it just so happened that there was a film shoot, Transformers 4, happening in Chicago where I live around the fall of 2013. I took this as an opportunity to go, see what was going on and ask questions.
How does a movie manifest itself in a physical space, in an actual location? And how does it actually affect that location, especially when it’s a city with 3 million people and streets are being closed off and citizens have limited access to their own city?

So I went with my camera, but I didn’t get very far because they had everything blocked off. I basically had to stay in these designated observation areas that they had created. There I was with my camera, and I look around and see 50 other people with their cameras. That was very humbling, trying to make a documentary with an original view of movie production and seeing all these other people doing this same thing that I was! Then I started noticing that some of the videos were being put online. So I was like “okay, this film is sort of happening without me.”

The more I looked at this footage, the more I started to wonder. Here’s a clip from Chicago. Here’s one from Detroit. Here’s one from Texas. Here’s one from Hong Kong! It started making me think about the entire production, not just what was happening in Chicago. I’d spend weekends just doing different kinds of keyword searches on YouTube, with any variation of Transformers 4, shooting, production, location, ect. I wound up with 355 YouTube videos of the production in different parts of the world. I got to thinking, “wow, that’s a lot of video. What could I come up with if I started putting all of this footage together? Could I actually make scenes or sequences from the movie? Could I create some version of the movie and maybe put it out on YouTube before the movie even comes out? So instead of a remake–which is what people usually do, recutting footage and making their own version of movies–why don’t I have a premake, and put this movie up before the movie comes out?” That got me excited.

I would open up different video clips and put them on the screen side-by-side just to see how they could be stitched together. The more I did that, the more I started to become fascinated with the desktop itself as this kind of location–my own sort of movie set if you will–where I was putting things together. I started to think about the desktop as an environment that is worth exploring in its own way, in a creative or artistic way, to think about how the desktop works as screen, but also as a camera, because now we have the ability to record our desktops.

 

Picture 2

image from Tranformers: the Premake

 

You see all of these demo videos on YouTube with people saying “I’m going to show you how to solve all these problems on Final Cut” and you literally watch this guy’s computer screen as he’s operating software. This got me thinking. What if I did my own sort of instruction video for how to understand Transformers, a user manual for how to look at all of these YouTube videos and create a pathway for understanding all of the factors that go into a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster? So there’s a bit of a instructional video aspect to it as well.

I started thinking about this thing called “desktop documentary” and what it might look like. I started looking at the very small handful of pre-existing examples I was able to find, to take lessons from each one. I experimented with recording the screen and putting windows in different arrangements. You’re kind of taking people on a path, with one video building on the one before, so that each video builds the argument or takes you further on the journey.

T/F: Could you tell me more about the preexisting examples of desktop documentary that you found? I ask because I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before your film.

KBL: Yeah, there are three main examples that were really illuminating for me, and they are all very different from each other. The first one was made by a teacher at my school, the Art Institute of Chicago. The teacher’s name Nick Briz and he made a film called Apple Computers. It’s a half hour documentary that takes place entirely on his desktop. It’s a critical look at how Apple creates a restrictive, proprietary creative environment, how the perfect veneer of user interface that Apple presents you with actually restricts your ability to be creative. He interviews several media scholars, activists and artists who all have some sort of beef with Apple and are critical of its dominance in the current cultural landscape.

 

 

Another is a narrative film called Noah. It’s a short fiction film that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013 about a teenage boy named Noah who breaks up with his girlfriend on Facebook. It all happens in real time. What you’re seeing is literally his computer screen as he’s looking at it, opening up different windows and doing different things all while having this conversation with his girlfriend that eventually becomes a breakup. You literally see the mind of a 17 year-old kid at work. He’s multitasking through like five different things at once and you’re like “ok, no wonder he can’t maintain a relationship.” So, that was fascinating because it actually tells a story through a subjective point of view. That got me thinking on how I can present my point of view based on what you’re looking at at any given moment.

 

NOAH

image from Noah

 

The third example is Grosse Fatigue which is a work of visual art created by the French artist Camille Henrot. It won the jury prize at 2013 Venice Biennale. This one is super visionary, with windows opening and closing, this endless play of images opening on her desktop creating this visionary formation. It’s really thrilling to watch, one of the most creatively expressive videos I’ve seen. It made me think about how the internet is this endless repository of images waiting to open up before you, to create that sense of abundance.

 

 

So new media, a festival film is and an art video, three very different examples from three very different worlds, right? I tried to merge them together to make my work.

T/F: Do you think about this film as more cinematic than your other video essays, like The Spielberg Face, which I would see more as works of criticism? Is there a sharp distinction for you?

KBL: Yeah, if you want to define cinematic in terms of a direct sensory experience of time and space, because there’s very little voice-over or narration happening, it’s really just looking at a screen and experiencing what’s happening on a screen. But I’ve gotten some push back on this being more cinematic from people who are more old school in their definitions of cinema, who say cinema is about looking at scenery or landscapes and really being in a physical space. Are we really in physical space when we’re looking at a computer screen? That’s a fair criticism to make.

My response would be that we are at a point in human history where we spend an enormous amount of time looking at screens. You and I are looking at screens right now. We use them as accessories, as means to accomplish things. But now it’s really become a primary experience of reality. Think about how many hours you spend looking at your laptop or iPad or iPhone or TV. When you get to that point of saturation, it really does affect your definition of what’s real. The things on screen are manifestations of your reality. It’s now an issue of how do I explore this environment called the screen. Instead of the screen taking a picture of other things in the world, you treat the screen as an environment in itself that you can probe and explore, the same way that a camera can explore a forest or a landscape. I think this is very much a 21st century update on those basic cinematic questions that we asked 100 years ago.

T/F: It’s interesting too that idea of taking a computer screen and putting it up onto a cinema screen like we did at True/False, so you’re seeing the screen in a new context.

KBL: Absolutely. It makes you think about the computer screens we take for granted. How it affects the way we see when you create that distance from it.

T/F: One thing the film investigates and documents that interests me is the crowd-sourced marketing now built into these mega-franchises like Transformers. These movies feel like they are already partially digested by the time they actually reach the audience.

KBL: Yeah, it’s like the actual act of watching the movie is just an afterthought. All they want to do is drum up as much anticipation and involvement and emotional investment from us as possible, hoping they push everyone into buying a ticket. And then once you get that 10 or 15 bucks, the movie is an almost an afterthought. You watch, and you’re like “that kind of sucks.” This is the problem right now with the way Hollywood has affected our patterns of cultural behavior. We get excited about something, there’s all this build up, anticipation, and then always a let down. But we always come back for more. There’s always another Avengers movie coming out, another Star Wars movie coming out. What is the deal with this reflex that is happening again and again?

One reason why I made this movie in the first place is that as a critic I felt useless when it came to saying that these movies suck, because no one listens. I mean, they kind of know they suck, but because there’s so much cultural buy-in from all the marketing they feel this weird peer pressure to care about them. So the movie effectively becomes critic proof. So how do I as a critic become relevant in this sort of situation? How do I grab people’s attention and make them think or act differently in relation to these movies, instead of just getting caught up in the same anticipation-letdown-anticipation-letdown cycle?

T/F: The point in the film when the production reaches mainland China, and all of the crowd-sourced material disappears. Do you know why there aren’t any fan videos inside China? Are they not being shot or are they just all being taken down? It creates a feeling of a negative space.

KBL: Yeah, I know, the only videos you can find are from official media outlets. I don’t know if there were any amateur videos in the first place or if they weren’t being made because the locations were so off limits. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to compare what’s going on in the U.S. with what’s going on in China. For all that’s happening in the U.S., at least we’re able to upload these videos, regardless of how they get used.

T/F: So I watched Transformers: Age of Extinction right after watching the Premake. I have a lot of questions, but most of them are metaphysical and I doubt you could answer them.

KBL: But what was is like to watch it after watching the Premake? Did it take you out of the film? Because that’s what people ask me, “Can you even watch the movie as a movie?” And the answer is no. For one thing, it’s pointless because the movie is pretty much a mess. But the reason it’s a mess is because of all of these different factors: product placement, Chinese branding, ect. It’s very much a movie that’s manufactured out of all of these components coming into play.

 

 

T/F: Yeah, Transformers is sort of the ultimate hollow franchise, because it started as a way to sell a line of toys.

KBL: Yeah, this is what I discovered. During the Reagan administration, around 1985, a law was actually repealed. Up to that point you could not produce a children’s entertainment show with a marketing merchandise tie-in. It was a preventative measure to prevent marketing to children. In 1985, they passed a law making it okay. Within a year you had Transformers, you had G.I. Joe, TV cartoons with commercials promoting toys related to the TV show. That was a revelation for me. I grew up watching these cartoons and from an early age, caught up in this consumerist culture.

T/F: Watching Age of Extinction, I was trying to identify specific places from the Premake, but it was very difficult, because the movie is so batshit insane.

KBL: There are sequences where literally one shot you’re in Chicago, the next shot you’re in Hong Kong and the next shot you’re in Detroit.

T/F: The interesting thing about Detroit is that the movie is not set in Detroit at all, I think. So Detroit is completely invisible.

KBL: Yeah, that’s a fantastic point. Because you think at least part of the reason these cities bend over backwards to give these tax breaks to Hollywood is to raise the profile of the city by putting it on movie screens around the world. The thinking is it becomes a kind of advertising for the city, to see Chicago get blown up in such awesome ways by these fancy robots. But with Detroit you are absolutely right. They mortgaged their identity and basically disappeared as a sort of stand-in for Hong Kong. It’s kind of sad. It tells you a lot about Detroit’s general state of affairs.

T/F: Well, like I was saying, I’m still super confused about Age of Extinction. I still don’t understand what the Transformers are even. They don’t really seem to be robots, because they’re made out of a metal that has a genetic code, and they can transform by breaking up into a cloud of metal chunks. Why even bother being a robot if you can break down into chunks of matter and reform into whatever you want? I don’t understand.

KBL: You know, as many writers have worked on these Transformers scripts as have worked on the Bible. They all have their interpretations and ideas to add without staying consistent with what came before. (laughs) It’s amazing.

 

new-tv-spots-for-transformers-age-of-extinction-chaaaarge

image from Transformers: Age of Extinction

Posted April 30, 2015

Explore Chimeric Cinema and the Complete Neither/Nor Series

In 2013, True/False began Neither/Nor, an open-ended project to map a history of what we call “chimeric cinema”. Chimeras are films which enthusiastically embrace the paradox at the heart of all cinema, the medium’s capacity to document authentic slivers of the reality it necessarily manipulates, distorts and enhances. Film culture generally appears uncomfortable with this tension, preferring instead to assign films easy labels like “documentary” and “fiction”. Chimeras are works which emphatically defy all such attempts at categorization.

Every year, Neither/Nor explores a different region and period in cinema history in collaboration with a visiting film critic, who selects important works from this milieu to screen at the Fest. The critic also writes a special monograph with essays and interviews on the films. All three of these monographs are now available in digital versions online.

This whole undertaking is made possible by the generous support of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Below you’ll find a complete outline of Neither/Now to date, organized by year, with images from the films and links to each of the individual essays and interviews from the monographs. Take a look around and discover what cinema is capable of.

 

Neither/Nor 2013: New York City, 1967-1968Essays and Interviews by Eric Hynes

Introduction

 

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (dir. William Greaves, 1968)

Maddening Method: Essay and interview with sound recordist Jonathan Gordon

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm_Take_One_5

 

1 P.M. (dirs. D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, Jean-Luc Godard, 1972)

The Liminal States of America: Essay and interview with D.A. Pennebaker

1PM_1

 

The Fall (dir. Peter Whitehead, 1969)

The Apocalyptic Tourist: Essay and interview with Peter Whitehead

thefall

 

David Holzman’s Diary (dir. Jim McBride, 1967)

Reflections in a Cinematographic Mirror: Essay and interview with Jim McBride

DavidHolzman

 

 

Neither/Nor 2014: Iran, 1990-1998, Essay by Godfrey Cheshire

Introduction

Persian Mirrors

Iran and Cinema

 

Close-Up (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1991)

Essay

closeup

 

A Moment of Innocence (dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996)

Essay

amomentofinnocence

 

The Mirror (dir. Jafar Panahi, 1997)

Essay

the mirror

 

 

The Apple (dir. Samira Makhmalbaf, 1999)

Essay

the apple

 

 

Neither/Nor 2015: Poland, 1970s-1990s, Essays and Interviews by Ela Bittencourt

Introduction

 

Front Collision (dir. Marcel Lozinski, 1975), How to Live (1976), 89mm from Europe (1993), Anything Can Happen (1995), So It Doesn’t Hurt (1998)

So It Doesn’t Hurt: Truth, Ego, and Ethos: Essay and interview with Marcel Lozinski

howtolive

image from How to Live

89mmfromeurope

image from 89mm From Europe

 

Through and Through (dir. Grzegorz Królikiewicz, 1973), The Case of Pekosinski (1994)

The Cinema of the Rejected: Essay and interview with Grzegorz Królikiewicz

throughandthrough

image from Through and Through

thecaseof

image from The Case of Pekosinski

 

Arena of Life (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1979), Biathlon (1978),  A Few Stories about a Man (1983), Szapito (1984)

Polish Warholia: Essay and interview with Bogdan Dziworski

arenaoflife

image from Arena of Life

afewstories about

image from A Few Stories About A Man

 

Wanda Goscimska, a Weaver (dir. Wojciech Wiszniewski, 1975), Carpenter (1976)

History Returns as a Farce: Essay and interview with editor Dorota Wardeszkiewicz

wanda

image from Wanda Goscimska, a Weaver

thecarpenter

image from Carpenter

 

Rat Catcher (dir. Andrzej Czarnecki, 1986), Hear My Cry (dir. Maciej Drygas, 1989)

History as Trauma: Essay and interview with Maciej Drygas

theratcatcher

image from Rat Catcher

 

Posted April 28, 2015

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

Note: This interview first ran in November 2014 to mark Actress‘ theatrical premiere. We are sharing it again as Actress is now available to watch at home on numerous platforms including DVD from Cinema Guild (with an exclusive essay from film critic  Eric Hynes), Netflix Instant and iTunes.

 

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.

 

actress1

 

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 April 16, 2015

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.

 

those

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.

 

The_Look_of_Silence.Still.Adi.Photo_Lars_Skree

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.

 

Posted

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.

 

ATE-LUCY

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
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