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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Get into the T/F state of mind with over 120 films from True/False past available to stream for free on our newly revised and expanded video page. Films now feature descriptions along with links to essays and filmmaker interviews to further inform your viewing. You can use the categories function on the left of the screen to sort by the year the film played the Fest or by shorts or features. These films are gathered from a variety of sites which legally stream docs, including Vimeo, YouTube, Hulu, SnagFilms, Crackle, P.O.V. and The National Film Board of Canada’s online archive. If you are outside the US, access will vary based on the hosting site, but you should still be able to find plenty of interesting docs to explore.
This Sunday the exciting new doc CITIZENFOUR comes to the Blue Note in our special T/F event. This film reveals the behind-the-scenes story of Edward Snowden, who contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras with startling classified information about NSA surveillance, a decision with world-altering ramifications.
Before delving into this incredible tale, you may want to catch up with or revisit a couple on important precursors from the career of this important nonfiction auteur.
CITIZENFOUR can be seen as the final entry in a trilogy of films exploring foreign policy and security culture in a post-9/11 world. The first was My Country, My Country, which examined the difficulties of electoral politics in US Occupied Iraq. The second was The Oath (T/F 2010), available streaming below from Hulu. This work focuses on a pair of men with direct ties to Bin Laden, Yemeni cab driver Abu Jandal and his brother-in-law Salim Ahmed Hamdan. The former is a dominant and paradoxical screen presence, the latter a haunting felt absence.
Snowden was inspired to contact Poitras because of her New York Times Op-Doc The Program, a short constructed around an interview 32-year NSA veteran turned whistle-blower William Binney.
The PBS doc series POV has established itself as a major outlet for compelling and timely documentaries. Recently they aired two essential T/F selections, both of which are available to watch online right now.
The first is Big Men (T/F 2014). Over the course of five years, filmmaker Rachel Boynton gained inconceivable access to the back rooms to tell the story of Ghana’s first oil well and its exploration by western oil companies. The 82 minute broadcast version of this work is available streaming until September 24.
Also available is After Tiller (T/F 2013) an empathetic look at the four doctors remaining in the US who openly perform late term abortions. Directors Lana Wilson and Martha Shane take us inside intimate counselling sessions, carefully exploring the tough decisions facing each patient. You can watch After Tiller online until October 1.
Don’t forget to explore POV’s website for extras, filmmaker interviews, more films to watch and more.
The first is “The Art of Nonfiction” by T/F filmmaker Robert Greene. In it, Greene takes us on a whirlwind tour of 100-plus years of nonfiction cinema, presenting clips from masterworks and elucidating the inherent tensions which define the form.
Disorder, Huang Weikai, 2009, T/F 2010
Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978
Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog 1992
Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012, T/F 2013
In the second video, “What was documentary? An elegy for Robert Gardner”, critic Kevin B. Lee looks at three anthropological films from career of director Robert Gardner. While tracing his evolving approach, Lee presses tough questions about “documentary” and the access to reality it promises us.
Sarah Goodman, director of When We Were Boys (T/F 2010), just released the new short film Gallant Girl A Journey to True/False. In it a woman from the past journeys through the Missourian landscape to the present day and finds herself swept up in a spectacle that she can’t quite understand. This film is part of our new “Second Take” series of short films created at the Fest by T/F alumni. Check it out below.
Viewed in a certain light, Only the Young’s attractive cast, hip subculture, and sunny California setting, could work alongside MTV’s reality soaps. But you won’t find any typecasting here, no genre boxes, no preconceived notions of youth imposed upon the subjects—or at least none that the supremely articulate characters wouldn’t cop to on their own. For Garrison, Kevin and Skye (who, at 16, has an emotional intelligence that outdistances pretty much everyone I know), fashion is fun but not defining, religion is relevant but hardly central, and class is negotiated but not exactly transcended. Co-directors Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet are both in their early 20s, just a few years removed from the experiences of their subjects, this age proximity serves to repel intergenerational objectification as well as “state of the youth” sloganeering, freeing the filmmakers to make a movie out of what and how they see. They frame on-camera parries as deadpan two-shots, playfully score slow-mo skate-stunts to classic soul (because why the hell not), and never stoop to exclamation when ellipses work just fine.
Also covering the Fest, Hammer to Nail’s Michael Tully boldly announced “after only one viewing, I’m ready to file Only The Young in the all-time coming-of-age canon”. And T/F associate programmer Chris Boeckmann, collecting his thoughts on the film, declared Only the Young “one of the most exciting documentary debuts of the past decade”.
But please, don’t take their word for it. See Only the Young below.
Joshua Izenberg’s short Slomo (T/F 2013) introduces us to a former doctor who in middle-age decided to dedicate himself to full-time rollerblading along the San Diego beach boardwalk. This eccentric and eloquent “Slomo” explains himself, raising pressing questions about what we really want in life and the meaning of freedom and happiness.
Izenberg discussed his interest in this subject in his opinion piece accompanying the film:
I’ve long been fascinated by people who make seismic changes late in life. It goes against the mainstream narrative: Grow up, pick a career, stick it out, retire. I was also curious about Slomo’s concept of “the zone,” a realm of pure subjectivity and connectedness that he achieves through his skating. The only thing Slomo loves more than being in the zone is talking about the zone, so it wasn’t hard to persuade him to take part in a documentary film.