In 2015, it was our privilege to say thank you to Adi Rukun of The Look of Silence with our True Life Fund. Adi courageously confronted his brother’s still powerful killers and broke nearly 50 years of silence surrounding Indonesia’s mass killings of 1965-66. Thanks to the unfathomable generosity of our community, and our partners The Bertha Foundation and The Crossing, we were able to raise $35,000 for Adi, who will be using the money to open a brick-and-mortar optometry business in his new community.
Yesterday, we received the following message from Adi to everyone who donated:
I am deeply grateful to all who contributed to the True Life Fund. I cannot express how meaningful this award is for me and my family. My children will now have a secure future, because with this money we will be able to open an optometry shop in Indonesia. Although I will no longer have to walk door to door to test people’s eyes and sell glasses, I will still listen to whatever stories people will tell me while I test their eyes. I believe change begins when people share their stories. Thank you True/False Film Fest and the people of Columbia, Missouri. You will be dear to me and my family for the rest of our lives.
The Look of Silence director Joshua Oppenheimer shared this message:
It may be hard for Americans to imagine how transformative the True Life Fund will be for Adi’s family. For decades, all relatives of genocide victims were officially designated as ‘unclean’ by the government, and thus subject to official economic apartheid. They were denied access to higher education, decent jobs, and the right to run for public office. This left the vast majority of survivors desperately poor. The generosity of all who gave to the True Life Fund will transform future prospects for Adi and his family. It will allow Adi to open a brick-and-mortar optometry shop, and ensure his children can attend university and have a firm foundation for their future. We are grateful beyond words.
Joshua Oppenheimer and Adi Rukun (via Skype) following the Missouri Theatre screening of The Look of Silence
We are thrilled to announce that have met our goal and raised $35,000 for Adi Rukun of The Look of Silence with the 2015 True Life Fund. Adi will be using this money to open a brick-and-mortar optometry business in his new community. This is incredible news. Thank you to everyone who donated and made this possible!
Update - Joshua Oppenheimer on the impact of this year’s True Life Fund:
“It may be hard for Americans to imagine how transformative the True Life Award will be for Adi’s family. For decades, all relatives of genocide victims were officially designated as ‘unclean’ by the government, and thus subject to official economic apartheid. They were denied access to higher education, decent jobs, and the right to run for public office. This left the vast majority of survivors desperately poor. The generosity of all who gave to the True Life Fund will transform future prospects for Adi and his family. It will allow Adi to open a brick-and-mortar optometry shop, and ensure his children can attend university and have a firm foundation for their future. We are grateful beyond words.”
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 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.
Today is the final day of the 2015 True Life Fund. We are still $758 away from are goal of sending Adi Rukun $35,000 to say thank you for creating and sharing the incredible story captured in The Look of Silence. Adi will be using the money to open a brick-and-mortar optometry business in his new community, a major city where the men the film offended have little to no authority.
Please consider joining us in thanking this man for his courageous confrontation of his brother’s killers and donate here.
On this final say of the True Life Fund we wanted to talk about education, which is the future of this story and this film. In Indonesia, important work is now beginning to use the film to encourage historians and educators to revise the history curriculum surrounding the genocidal anti-communist purges of 1965-66. This is an ongoing project still in its infancy, one in which Adi will be playing an important role.
In the U.S., The Look of Silence has yet to be released theatrically and fully celebrated as a work of art, something which will happen later this year. Yet ultimately, we feel confident that this film will play an important role in education in America too. The killing in Indonesia in 1965-66 is a forgotten and ignored period of history, and the role our government played in the horrors there has never been fully acknowledged. Moreover, as a profound examination of our capacity as a species for this sort of violence and the ways in which we live with ourselves in its aftermath, The Look of Silence will have much to teach us about ourselves for years to come.
We are proud to have played an early role in this future history. During his trip to Columbia, director Joshua Oppenheimer visited all four area high schools, Douglas, Rock Bridge, Battle and Hickman. He shared scenes from the film, explained how he created/captured this story and took questions one on one. These high schools also helped raise thousands of dollars for the TLF and Adi.
In a different educational context, Joshua visited The Crossing, the local church with whom for many years now we’ve developed an unusual partnership to support the True Life Fund. In the video below you can see Joshua in conversation with The Crossing pastor Dave Cover about the film and its far-reaching implications.
Today we wanted to take a brief look at the impact the film is having in Indonesia. Whereas The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s first film investigating the mass killing of 1965-66, was initially released in secret, The Look of Silence made its Indonesian premiere on November 10, 2014 in Indonesia’s largest theater, an event sponsored National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council, both government agencies. Adi appeared unannounced following the screening and received a 10-minute standing ovation.
The film expanded across Indonesia on December 10, 2014, International Human Rights Day. In the months since, the film has played in hundreds of public screenings for tens of thousands of Indonesians. The police and army responded by organizing thugs to threaten screenings, and then used these threats as a pretext for cancellation. While these tactics have succeeded in preventing a small fraction of the screenings from taking place, they have drawn widespread condemnation in the Indonesian press. Editorials, like this one from the Jakarta Globe, have bluntly demanded a national conversation on the killings. Just last month, a group of students at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University barricaded themselves into their school when an angry mob tried and failed to prevent a screening of the film.
All of this has taken place early in the tenure of Joko Widodo, commonly referred to as “Jokowi,” Indonesia’s first president who doesn’t come directly from the oligarchy. Jokowi has in some situations spoken publicly on the need to acknowledge the human rights violations committed by the military. Nevertheless, his supporters include army generals still with close ties to killers and their cronies. Moreover, Jokowi selected for his running mate Jusuf Kalla, the vice president who gives a chilling speech at the paramilitary rally in The Act of Killing on the need for “gangsters” in Indonesian politics.
Indonesia is clearly at an important crossroads. While the future remains uncertain, there are plenty of reasons for cautious optimism and it is clear that the silence surrounding the killings has now been broken for good. This is all thanks to the Adi Rukun’s remarkable acts of bravery in risking his life confronting the men who killed his brother. Please join us in saying thank you.
This is the final week for the 2015 True Life Fund. We like to see the Fund as an expression of gratitude, a way once a year to say thank you to someone who was brave enough to share a story with us that we needed to hear. This year we are saying thank you to Adi Rukun of The Look of Silence, whose unprecedented acts of bravery have helped break decades of silence surrounding Indonesia’s mass killings of 1965-66.
Adi appears via Skype behind filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer following the Missouri Theatre screening of The Look of Silence at T/F 2015
Following the production of The Look of Silence, Adi and his family left their home in North Sumatra for their safety. This is where the men who Adi confronted and pose him the most serious risk are powerful enough to enjoy legal impunity. His new home will be in a city with a high international profile where paramilitaries and other extra-legal groups rarely commit acts of violence. As the foundation of his family’s new life, Adi plans to open a brick-and-mortar optometry shop here where he can continue his practice.
We are thrilled to announce that we have currently raised $31,000 to help Adi in this endeavor. We want to raise an additional $4,000 during this final week of the fund and to send Adi an even $35,000. Please consider donating here, and help us meet this goal.
We know we can do it. We’ve seen and heard the impact Adi and his story has had throughout the extended True/False community, both here in Columbia and throughout the world of documentary film. Now it’s time to say thank you.
This week is the last for the 2015 True Life Fund. This year’s Fund benefits Adi Rukun of The Look of Silence, who shattered decades of silence surrounding Indonesia’s mass killings of 1965-66 through an unprecedented series of confrontations of the still powerful killers.Because we feel so strongly about this incredible story and man, we are sharing one final series of reminders about contributing to the Fund. Please consider donating. Every little bit means something.
In our in-depth interview filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer told us the devastating story of one scene in The Look of Silence filmed by Adi himself, the day Adi first showed the footage to Joshua and the prison of fear created by decades of fear. We wanted to share that story again today:
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.
This week will be the last we’ll be accepting donations for the 2015 True Life Fund, our annual fundraiser benefiting a subject of a documentary film. This year the fund is supporting Adi Rukun of The Look of Silence. Over the next few days, we’ll be asking one final time for you to consider making a contribution, which you can do on our website here.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s new film is momentous in several inseparable dimensions. Politically, it is proving decisive in overturning the secrets and lies that continue to surround Indonesia’s genocidal anti-communist purges of 1965-66, atrocities supported by the United States as Cold War statecraft. Aesthetically, it constitutes a deeply poetic and haunting representation of the effect of decades’ of routine trauma and implicit terror. Yet both of these triumphs rest on a personal foundation, the story of one man who has lived his entire life in the shadow of a murdered brother and finally decides to risk everything to free his family from this prison of fear.
Adi Rukun’s screen presence doesn’t conform to typical reassuring notions of the heroic. Calm, powerfully empathetic and deeply wounded, he gradually but decisively confronts the perpetrators responsible for the crimes against his family and so many others. These killers have remained both powerful and grotesquely triumphant for nearly 50 years, making these confrontations unprecedented in Indonesian history. Adi’s demand for the truth provides a compelling example of humanity’s capacity for resilience in the face of unfathomable horror.
Adi Rukun in The Look of Silence
The men who killed Adi’s brother lived all around him, as part of his community. As a result, the release of The Look of Silence has forced Adi to relocate his family. In establishing a new life for himself, his parents and his children, Adi is now finalizing plans to open a brick-and-mortar optometry business in his new community. True/False could not be prouder to help support this man and say thank you for his willingness to share his story with the world. If you haven’t already, please consider joining us in donating to the True Life Fund and supporting this cause. Every little bit means something.
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.
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.
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.