The Idol/Hany Abu-Assad

Director Hany Abu-Assad.

Director Hany Abu-Assad with DP Ehab Assal.

Twenty-three-year-old Mohammed Assaf had a beautiful voice, and everyone told him he should compete on Arab Idol, the Middle East’s equivalent of American Idol. But Mohammed lived in the blighted refugee camp of Gaza, and auditions were held in Cairo, 250 miles away. In 2013, Mohammad snuck out of the refugee camp, made the treacherous journey, and evaded security to get into the hotel–where competitor Ramadan Abu Nahli heard his voice and handed him his treasured ticket to compete, saying that Mohammed must sing in his place. Mohammed’s run on Arab Idol galvanized the Arab world when he said, “A revolutionary is not just the one carrying the rifle. A revolution is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer. Today I represent Palestine, and today I am fighting for a cause through the art that I am performing and the message that I am sending out. The Palestinian people can speak in a million languages full of beauty, love, and peace. The Palestinian people don’t love wars and killing and destruction.” Two-time Academy Award nominee Hany Abu-Assad tells Mohammed’s incredible story in The Idol. Click here for a trailer. Availability: Opens New York City May 27.  Thanks to Denise Sinelov, Required Viewing, for arranging this interview.


DT:  Sometimes you watch a scene and you’re struck by its beauty, and it keeps going deeper and deeper until your whole body is filled with its beauty. For me, that was the scene on the beach. I saw it as the mirror image of the scene in the taxi, where he’s singing as they look out on all of the destruction in Gaza.

Tawfeek Barhom as Mohammad Assaf.

Tawfeek Barhom as Mohammad Assaf.

HAA: As a filmmaker, you’re trying to visualize the character and his journey. You can always talk about it—you can say “I’m sad, I’m complex, I’m destructive—but how do you visualize that? You do it by images, by colors, by camera movement, by editing, by combining camera movement with edits. When Mohammad is in the taxi, he’s regaining his confidence. This is what you want to tell; this is what the scene is about. You could use dialogue and say “I’m regaining my confidence,” or you can do it with visuals: You shoot him singing close up, then his love interest enjoying his voice while she’s watching outside, which contrasts so greatly with the inside. This is what you want to tell: Inside is hopeful; outside is destruction.

This is how you do visualization. At the end of the film, on the beach, is when you realize that even though you don’t want to be the voice of voiceless people but that’s what you become, your voice becomes bigger than life. And then the images should be bigger than life. You have to create images that show life from a huge, big point of view. This is how you do the scenes. This is why I think the beach scene worked for you. It’s like his voice—his power from inside—becomes bigger than life. And the beach images combined with street images mean that nobody can break his spirit anymore. This is what I wanted to say. When the spirit becomes so strong, nobody can break them. They become beauty in itself, such that you can cry from it.


DT:  In the film, the character Mohammad Assaf resisted the role of becoming the voice of the voiceless. Is that what happened in real life?

The real Mohammad Assaf

The real Mohammad Assaf.

HAA: Yes. The film is very accurate. Mohammad collapsed, he was in the hospital—it’s all true. A lot of hope was put on him, but hope has a dual effect. You can give people hope that you can help them, or you can give people hope to believe in themselves, to help themselves. The first one is a false hope: nobody can help others in the real sense. You force change when you believe in yourself, and then you can change your situation. Mohammad realized that a lot of people wanted him to help them directly, and this is why he said, “I’m just a singer.” Then he realized he should not help them directly but try to let them believe in themselves. This is why he goes to the beach and gives the people belief in themselves, rather than their waiting for others to come and help them.


DT:  How closely did you work with the real Mohammad Assaf?

HAA: I even tried to get him to play the role, but he’s not an actor. I gave him training, but he was scared, for the same reason he was scared on Arab Idol. He felt, I’m a singer, now I’m an actor too? It was too much.

DT: Did he advise on the script?

HAA: I talked to him, his family, his friends, I went to Gaza to see where he lived. When the script was finished, the family read it and gave me notes. We incorporated them into the final script, which we showed them before shooting. They’d had objections to certain scenes that for me weren’t crucial scenes, but it’s a sensitivity I understand. Sometimes there’s a scene or a story where you think, Oh, that’s cute, but they’re ashamed of it. It’s funny how people can look at things; they’re too close to what happens, but I’m looking from afar. This is why we took out all of the scenes they weren’t happy with.


DT: Did you and Mohammad discuss his musical training?

HAA:  It’s what’s in the movie. The first thing his trainer did was give him a voice. In the beginning, Mohammad was just singing famous cover songs. Then his music teacher wrote him special songs like “Shedi Helek Ya Balad.” This is the first song that was written for him. Before that it was all songs of famous artists like Amr Diab. In the wedding, he sang an Egyptian song, “Ya Bint Al Sultan.” Ragheb Alama sang that, and then Mohammad did his own interpretation. His teacher helped him enormously to develop his own material and voice—in the film, the scene in the studio with the Skype call, was also a song he did with his music teacher.


DT:  Can you talk about the logistics of shooting in Gaza and Jenin?

Playing in Gaza.

Playing in Gaza.

HAA:  The only obstacle was checkpoints. Israel forbid almost everybody to go to Gaza. It’s very difficult to go in or out of Gaza, so getting permission took us months of begging and calling the Israeli army spokesman. At the end they gave us two days of research and two days of shooting, and they agreed to take the children outside of Gaza—without their parents. So we shot in Jenin. Jenin is more free. You can go in and out without permission, but there is a checkpoint. It starts at ten o’clock in the morning and closes at seven o’clock, so we had to sleep in Jenin. Other than that there were no obstacles. The people in Jenin were enormously helpful, the people in Gaza were amazing. We had zero obstacles except the Israeli permission to go in and out of Gaza and the checkpoint that closed in Jenin. They open it when they want. Ten o’clock. Who opens a checkpoint at ten o’clock?


DT:  You’ve worked with the same crew consistently. Talk about your history with them and how the working relationship has grown.

HAA: We started together on Paradise Now and grew up with Omar. Ehab Assal, the cameraman on this film, was an assistant. Eyas Salman, the editor, was an assistant. Nael Kanj, the production designer, was an assistant. Baher Agbariya, the coproducer, was an assistant. Wajdi Ode, the location manager on this film, was an electrician on Paradise Now. It’s fun to see them coming together. When I knew I was going to do The Idol, we had a meeting, and I called together my golden team. The seven of us met in Nazareth, and we called ourselves the golden seven. It’s amazing to see them coming together with the force to do a whole feature film with no money—two million dollars, it’s nothing to make such a quality movie. It was amazing to see that.


DT:  You didn’t go to someone and say “I want to make this film.” The producers came to you.

HAA: Ali Jaafar, the main producer, bought the rights from the Arabic NBC, the network that runs Arab Idol. He called me and told me he wanted me to do the movie. They wrote a script; I read it but felt it needed a huge rewrite. I did the rewrite myself, and this is how I became involved.


DT:  This film features big stars—Tawfeek Barhom, Ali Suliman, Ashraf Barhoum—but also first-time child actors. What was the dynamic of working with such varied levels of experience?

Qais Atallah as the young Mohammad Assaf.

Qais Atallah as the young Mohammad Assaf.

HAA:  I loved it, because you invent yourself every time. You learn from it. Every actor has his own way of dealing with his craft. There is no formula, and every time you have a new experience with new actors, you enrich your knowledge about how to deal with all actors. What is it to deal with actors? To give them the confidence to do their best and dare to be emotionally naked in front of the camera. If you are honest with your feelings, you feel naked in front of the camera. Every actor is different in how he can be honest.

Working with children but also with Tawfeek Barhom and Assaf Barhoum and Ali Suliman was a joy. It’s like being a race car driver, because you have to change gears all the time; I’m with the children, so now I go back to second, now I’m with the experienced actors, and I have to go to full gear. You feel the challenge all the time because all the time you’re manually shifting gears. It’s what gives you the excitement of doing movies. As you’re changing gears, you’re becoming a good driver. If you put it on automatic, there’s no fun in driving, but manually shifting gears, you realize what a good driver you’ve become.


DT: Has the film played in Israel?

HAA:  It’s going to play in a small festival, and I just heard that Israeli television wants an interview with me. I really want the Israeli public to see it. Most of them don’t want to see Palestinians as human because that makes their oppression of us easier: It’s easier to oppress someone you think of as less a person. These kinds of movies disturb them, yet I think it’s very important to them, because this movie is about hope and they need more hope than anybody else. They put themselves in a dark tunnel and they need to get out. This movie can help them in realizing who they are, and then they can help themselves. Because don’t think the world is going to help the Israelis come out of the tunnel they’ve put themselves into. They are in self-destruction, and they need hope. Believe me, you always wish for yourself a hopeful enemy rather than a dumb enemy. Besides, most Israelis come from Arabic countries. They are Arabs, actually, and they will enjoy the music more than me and you.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

George Nierenberg/No Maps on My Taps and About Tap

In No Maps on My Taps, documentary filmmaker George Nierenberg captures the brilliance and the passion of tap dancing giants Bunny Briggs, Chuck Green, and “Sandman” Sims, along with Lionel Hampton and John Bubbles. Nierenberg’s follow-up film, About Tap, is introduced by Gregory Hines, and features performances by tap dancing greats Steve Condos, Jimmy Slyde, and Chuck Green. No Maps on My Taps and About Tap not only rejuvenated the hoofers’ careers but also revitalized tap in the U.S.,  from where it spread around the world. Both films are currently available on DVD-R from Milestone Films, who will be restoring the films and adding bonus features. New DVDs will be out next year.  Availability:  On DVD-R from Milestone Films. Thanks to Tony Waag, American Tap Dance Foundation, and Lynn Schwab for making this interview possible.Click on the links to see videos of the dancers.


George Nierenberg with Chuck Green, Bunny Briggs, and Sandman Sims on the set of No Maps on My Taps. Photo courtesy American Tap Dance Foundation.


DT:  In your film About Tap, Gregory Hines spoke about personal style. You spent a lot of time with Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde, Steve Condos, Sandman Sims, Bunny Briggs. What did you learn from them about the importance of personal style in tap?

GN: I can talk about it in terms of tap dancing if you like, but I see it in terms of a bigger sense of what it means to be your own artist. I came to understand that what they do and what they’ve brought to their art is demonstrative of any person who tries to find themselves and tries to express themselves individually as to who they are. You can see their personality in their art. You can’t separate one from the other. You can’t have Chuck Green doing Bunny Briggs. You can’t have Bunny Briggs doing Chuck Green—it doesn’t jive. What Sandman talks about in the film is very philosophical in the sense that he uses himself as an example of how he came to understand that you can’t duplicate anybody and still be your own artist. You have to find it yourself in yourself, and that’s what makes somebody unique and special. There are plenty of imitators out there, but there are only a few who are real individuals. In art. In anything. In life.

I felt that I told that story to a certain extent in No Maps on My Taps. It was a very engaging story. People understood the humanity of the art itself and gravitated to that, so it was a very popular film that really galvanized the tap community; it was sort of the genesis of the resurgence of tap. A lot happened afterwards: There were tap parades, and we did a tour around the world, where the film was the first part of the show. Then the tap dancers would come out, and they’d get a standing ovation just for walking on stage. We did over sixty shows around the world, called No Maps for My Taps and Company.

The dancers had never experienced anything like that. Normally they’d get on stage and have to work the crowd. But on our tour, the crowd was in the palm of their hands when they walked out on stage because the film made them bigger than life. When I met them, Bunny lived in a small apartment with a woman who was not very nice to him. Chuck Green—all of them—didn’t have any prominence. Tap dancing was dying, from their point of view. The film opened at the Telluride Film Festival. We brought Sandman Sims; he became a big celebrity, they did Broadway, they were in a feature with Gregory. Their careers took off. Not only that, a whole generation of tap dancers learned from them. It became so much more popular, in a bigger sense, around the world, but they became the masters. They became the ones who were really respected old men. They got what they deserved—they were valued in a way that they never could have anticipated.

AboutTapDVDFrontCover_grandeI made About Tap because I felt I hadn’t really paid tribute to the art of tap in No Maps for My Taps. I was very, very careful about who I selected for both films. I could have picked any tap dancer—it could have been Honi Coles, it could have been Buster Brown, Lon Chaney. I wanted Jimmy Slyde to be in No Maps for My Taps, but he was in Europe. For About Tap, I chose Steve Condos, Jimmy Slyde, and Chuck Green because I felt that collectively they could tell the story. I picked Chuck Green again because I felt he was such a galvanizing force for the dancers. He was institutionalized for many years, and when he came out, he brought them all together because they respected him so much, so I felt it was important to have him in the film. I wanted to capture Jimmy Slyde because I hadn’t in the earlier film, and I wanted to capture Steve Condos because his style was so unique, and they were all so distinctively different. I picked those three because I felt collectively they would show a spectrum of the dance that was so unique. I also felt they could articulate what they did above and beyond the dance itself, that their way of expressing what they did was bigger than the dance. They put it in a context where you could view it differently, so what they said enabled you to see inside of who they were and what they were doing.


DT:  Let’s go back to the issue of personality. You got to know them pretty well over the course of filming. This may be a tricky question to answer, but can you articulate what it was about their personalities that came out in their dance?

GN:  Bunny Briggs would do a little pose where he put his hands out with his fingernails out front. He said to me, “You know why I do that? Because I get my fingernails manicured, and I want people to know I take care of myself.” It’s a perfect thing. No other dancer would say that, but Bunny would. Sandman has his sand dance. (Click here to watch.) It’s this whole identity. He said Bill Robinson was the one who told him he needed that to be able to make a living. He’s able to make those moves, and he came up with the whole thing himself after trying a lot of things. He lived in California, where there’s a lot of sand, and it was a perfect mechanism for him. He created the board. He’s like a musician with their instrument; his board was his instrument. Pouring in the sand, putting in the microphone, that was his instrument. He had to make the whole thing.


DT:  Bill Robinson did a sand dance in Stormy Weather. (Click here to watch.)

GN:  He did a sand dance, but Sandman perfected it in the way that he created a board you could stick a mic in, which had a certain kind of surface. He used a precise amount of sand. Bill Robinson tapped up and down stairs. That was his thing, with Shirley Temple. It’s not like nobody had done a sand dance at all, but Sandman had the name Sandman, you know what I mean?  He’d come up on the stage with that board and dance in one little spot. Steve Condos would dance in one spot, too.


DT:  Let’s talk about Steve Condos. What was he like?

GN:  Intense. He was so committed to his dance. With all of these people, once a tap dancer always a tap dancer. My mother was a tap dance star when she was a child. The height of her career is when she tap danced for the inmates at Sing Sing.

DT:  How old was she?

GN:  Ten. She’s ninety-one years old now, and she can still tap dace. She wanted Tony [Tony Waag, cofounder of American Tap Dance Foundation, along with Brenda Bufalino and Honi Coles] to put together a group of elderly ladies who could tap dance on chairs. So once a tap dancer always a tap dancer. It’s part of your being.

As far as personality is concerned, Chuck Green is very interesting at the end of About Tap. He has his hat, and he walks off in a certain style in the way that only he could. He had this class. He was the only one who could do that. He had this incredibly unique face, which had such sweetness in it, but at the same time he had the capacity to be so angry like he was at Sandman in No Maps for My Taps.


DT:  How competitive did challenge dancing get?

GN:  Remember, Chuck went in and out of …functionality, let’s say. On the day of the performance [in No Maps on My Taps], we couldn’t find him. He had disappeared. I had a lot of money riding on that day. Lionel Hampton, his band, the crew, the place, and everything else. Chuck literally could not be found. He hadn’t shown up at the home the night before. Nobody knew where he was, and now it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and we still haven’t found him.

DT:  When was the show supposed to go on?

NoMapsDVDCover_copyGN:  Five o’clock. Finally he calls the office and they say to him, “Chuck, where are you?” He said, “I’m in a phone booth.” They said, “Look out the phone booth. Where you at?” He said, “I’m at the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk.” Anyway, they found him and brought him up, so when he got there, he was in a certain state of mind that was a bit raw. Sandman could always get under his skin easily, but Sandman also respected him so much, as he expressed so beautifully in No Maps. Sandman was trying to egg him on, it’s just that Chuck was not in a state of mind that he could really take it. You could see at the end of the performance, when Chuck is doubting himself about how well he did, and Bunny is saying, “No, you did good, Chuck.” At the end, they’re wiping off Chuck’s brow and he says, “Got no maps on my taps,” which basically means I can tap dance anywhere. There are no boundaries to my dancing. So that’s Chuck. He’s poetry.


DT:  You also directed the films Say Amen, Somebody [about gospel music] and That Rhythm, Those Blues [about the evolution of rhythm and blues]. Is there any crossover with your tap films?

GN: Yes. There’s a tie between all the films. That Rhythm, Those Blues was about the evolution of rhythm and blues to rock and roll. In No Maps on My Taps, Sandman is standing in front of the Apollo Theater, and he claims that what took tap out was rock and roll. Chuck refers to the same thing in his conversation with John Bubbles.

This is what happened: Rhythm and blues came out of the South, out of the gospel churches. That’s where the record companies would find talent—Aretha Franklin, Ruth Brown. All those people who started out all sang in church, so the record companies would go through the South, get their raw talent, and develop it. They would tour a lot through the South—the North as well—and there were black DJs who were often more famous than the talent. The whites started listening to their music and started liking it, cause they were listening to Pat Boone, but then they’d listen to black music and they could swing to it. The blacks would have these big shows where blacks would go and hear the various groups. Suddenly the whites would start sneaking up in the balcony and watching the blacks, and they’d see things they’d never seen before. Eventually they’d go to the dance floor and try to dance with the blacks, and it created a whole ruckus. The police had to come in, and they’d put up a rope; the blacks would dance on one side, and the whites would dance on the other.

Eventually what happened is the whites started copying the black music. Pat Boone would copy Fats Domino singing the same thing. At the Apollo Theater, they started having black acts and white acts together. Ultimately the white acts basically took the black music. They stole it from the blacks, starting with Elvis Presley. He took his music from black churches. “Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog” had been sung before; it wasn’t his, but it took over the theater. All of a sudden, that became the popular thing, compared to the variety shows where you had a tap dancer, a comedian, a big band. Lionel Hampton had a tap dancer, Duke Ellington had a dancer.

DT:  Like The Ed Sullivan Show.

GN: Yeah. So the tap dancers lost their work. There was no place for them to dance. They couldn’t be booked. Bunny Briggs couldn’t find work. None of them could find work. So basically it was rock and roll that took over for tap dancers. It was gospel, it was rhythm and blues, and it all ties together cause the tap dancers are connected in that evolution.


DT:  Making a film is a huge investment of time and energy. What drew you to make these films?

GN: The passion of the people. It was just infectious. And I felt I had the ability to articulate their story. I spent a lot of time with them before I started filming, so I really understood the story that I wanted to tell. I felt that if I could re-create that story for someone who didn’t know the dancers so that they had the same feelings that I had, I’d be succesful. My attempt was to engage an audience with the same emotional feelings that I had with these individuals.


DT:  Can you talk about the relationship between the dancer and the musicians?

GN:  Jimmy Slyde talks about that a lot in About Tap.  There are a lot of dancers, like Gregory Hines and Savion Glover, who like to dance without music. You notice how Sandman Sims stopped the band from playing, whereas to somebody like Chuck Green music is integral. Duke Ellington had Chuck, so that says a lot. When Chuck came out of that institution, he used to dance with knickers. You asked him why he danced with knickers, and he said so people could see his feet. He wanted people to see his feet. He had enormous feet. As for Jimmy Slyde, it’s all about dancing with the music, to the music. When Sandman Sims is doing a sand dance, he always cuts off the music. It starts when he comes out to introduce him, he cuts it off, and then it ends to get him out. With Bunny, it’s integral to his dance. Everybody has a different approach.

DT:  What about Steve Condos?

GN: Steve Condos considers himself a musical instrument. He says Louis Armstrong is his inspiration though Louis Armstrong didn’t play the drums. He is music. He hears himself, and it’s musical. So everybody was different in their relationship to music, but no matter what, music is an integral part. Whether people use music or not, it’s all musical. They’re just making music with their feet. Remember, tap didn’t come up with music. It came up on the streets in its origin. There wasn’t any musical accompaniment. When Chuck was a little kid, he would dance on the street, gluing bottle caps to his bare feet with tar in order to create the tap. There wasn’t any music that went along with it, so the notion of having actual musicians wasn’t always possible. Peg Leg Bates would dance to music. When big bands had a tap dancer, it was out of a certain respect.


DT:  You also recorded oral histories with John Bubbles and Chuck Green. Can you talk about those?

GN:  I did a twelve-hour interview with Chuck and a twelve-hour interview with John Bubbles. Chuck’s interview didn’t make any sense whatsoever for twelve hours—he would just go off and not make sense. I just didn’t get him on a good day. Bubbles talked about a lot of different things.


DT:  Do you think that part of the reverence for Chuck Green was his connection to John Bubbles?  I believe that in tap there’s a lot of respect for the lineage of the teacher.

GN: Absolutely, and still to this day. I just showed my film About Tap at the American Tap Dance Foundation, and the place was packed. The legacy is extremely important in tap. It’s unusual the extent to which it’s part of it. In No Maps on My Taps, Sandman talks really beautifully about lineage. He talks about who John Bubbles was and how Chuck learned from John Bubbles. Bunny Briggs talks about how Bill Robinson wanted him as his protégé but his mother wouldn’t let him go. Had Bunny had that as part of his resume, it could have put him in a different class. That was a very big deal being the kid act that followed John Bubbles. Bubbles was extremely famous. He was the original Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess. He was a very, very famous tap dancer. He was also the first one to be a hoofer. He used his heel as much as his toe. Bill Robinson would dance more with the toe in a lot of steps. He didn’t use his heel as much. John Bubbles came along and was a real hoofer. Chuck learned a lot from John Bubbles; in the film, you can hear in the phone conversation between the two how much respect Chuck has for him. He calls him Mr. Bubbles. Chuck becomes a child.


DT: Would you make another tap film?

GN: I do wish that somebody would take the tapes I’ve recently found and do something with them, because I think they’re invaluable. I have hundreds of photographs of these dancers, and I wish there was a place for them.

DT:  Do you have dance footage?

GN: I do, but you have to remember that it was shot on film, so the sound is a separate element. To put anything together is very complicated and expensive, because it’s not like video tied together. All that stuff is housed at the Schomburg library, and all the negatives are housed at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. When I gave it to them the intention was that they were going to put that stuff together, but they never did.

DT:  Who knows…maybe someone out there will read this interview and give you money to make another film.

GN: I’d do it in a heartbeat.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Miles Ahead/Don Cheadle and Emayatzy Corinealdi

Left to right: Script Supervisor Belle Francisco and Director/Actor Don Cheadle Photo by Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Script Supervisor Belle Francisco and Director/Actor Don Cheadle
Photo by Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Don Cheadle didn’t originate the idea of playing Miles Davis in a film; folks had been suggesting it to him for years. When Cheadle auditioned for a part in Ali, the writers told him he’d be great at playing Miles Davis. Legendary drummer Tootie Heath was helping  Cheadle set up his drums to rehearse for his role as Sammy Davis, Jr., in The Rat Pack and asked, “Hey, you ever think about doing a Miles Davis movie?” Then, in 2006, when Miles was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a reporter asked his nephew whether a Miles Davis film would be forthcoming. The nephew declared that only one actor could play his uncle:  Don Cheadle.  

Calling it fate, Cheadle contacted the family. Negotiations ensued, and Miles Ahead emerged: Cheadle’s personal interpretation of Miles’s creative life focusing on the five years in the late ’70s when the artist wasn’t creating anything at all. The film time-warps from the real-life relationship between Davis and his wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to a fictional buddy-buddy caper in which Davis and Rolling Stones reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) try to recover some stolen session tapes from Columbia Records.

With a sound track that combines Miles’s recordings with Keyon Harrold overdubbing for Cheadle’s sound (Cheadle worked so hard on learning the trumpet that he misses it when he doesn’t have it with him), Miles Ahead ends with a jam session including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spaulding, Gary Clark Jr., Antonio Sanchez, Robert Glassford, and Keyon Harrold, all of whom did it for “the love of the game,” according to Cheadle, who was working on such a low budget that he couldn’t afford to pay them.

Cheadle’s aim was to make a movie that the iconoclastic, ever-inventive jazz legend would want to star in, rather than a standard biopic. What he ended up with is a great film. Click here for the trailer and theater listings near you. Availability: Opens April 1, New York City and L.A. Thanks to Russ Posternak, Murphy PR, and Donna Daniels, Donna Daniels Public Relations, for arranging this interview.

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis Photo by Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis
Photo by Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DT: There were many, many things I liked about the film, but the thing I liked best was the energy. It seemed to me that your filmmaking techniques mirrored Miles’s iconoclastic, restless approach to music-making, so you essentially had one artform echoing another. Am I reading something into the film, or was that your intention?

DC: That’s exactly what the intent was—to create something that felt like Miles, as opposed to doing a didactic document saying, This is when he met Charlie Parker, and then he met John Coltrane, and then he left Juilliard…. There are books that cover that area well, there are documentaries, there’s a radio play, there are articles; there are a lot of places where you can check off all of his achievements or get a CliffNotes of his life if you need to do that. I wanted to do something that felt impressionistic and expansive and creative and dynamic. Frances [Frances Taylor Davis, Miles Davis’s wife] can be doing a pirouette toward Miles in the past and fall, and Dave Braden [Ewan McGregor’s character, a fictional Rolling Stone reporter] can finish her fall in the present, or Miles loses Frances in a spin and then it wakes Dave up. I wanted to feel like you’re walking around in Miles Davis’s brain.


DT:  This question is for Emayatzy. What was the most difficult moment in the script for you?

EC:  The thing that I was so intrigued about was Frances saying yes when he asked her to stop dancing. When that scene happens in the bathtub, it was just kind of being left speechless. You don’t really know what to say, what to do, how to respond, and that was the hardest part for me just because of the nature of what you’re being asked to do.

What was so interesting to me about her story was the career she was building for herself. This was a woman who was one of the original members of West Side Story and worked with Sammy Davis, Jr. in Mr. Wonderful and all of that, so she had this career that was burgeoning. In that time period, a lot of women [dropped their careers], but it’s also not as common for them to have the career that she was beginning to build, so that might have been the hardest part for me.

Left to right: Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor and Don Cheadle as Miles Davis Photo by Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor and Don Cheadle as Miles Davis
Photo by Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

I was telling Don the other day that while I was watching the movie, it was hard for me to see the part where he hangs up with me and in the next scene he’s in bed with all these other women. It shocked me watching it. My God, that’s what you’re doing? I know it’s in the script, but seeing it just gave me a different reaction. So all of that was very difficult for me.


DT: What was Wynton Marsalis’s contribution to the film?

DC:  He’s an old friend, and he gave me my trumpet. When I started to learn to play, I called him up and said, “I want to get a trumpet. Can you just point me in the right direction?” He said, “I’m going to get your trumpet.” It was like, You can’t buy trumpets around me. I’ll get you your axe, don’t worry about it. I got my new horn, my Monette—they’re one-of-a-kind trumpets—when he called the trumpet maker and said, “Hey, Don needs a horn. I know it takes you a year to make them, but he needs one now.” So they gave me the shop horn, which was their demo horn, but everybody’s played on that horn. Arturo Sandoval’s played on that horn. I almost didn’t want to touch it. This thing is amazing; it’s better than a new horn. It has high As left it in by some guys from before.


DT: The official Miles Davis website includes the line “Miles forever forged ahead, trusting and following instinct until the end.” But you were also working on instinct. Was there ever a point where you felt like Miles’s instinct was going in one direction and your instinct was going in another? If that happened, what did you, as an artist, do about it?

Left to right: Don Cheadle Ewan McGregor as Dave Braden Photo by Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Don Cheadle Ewan McGregor as Dave Braden
Photo by Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DC:  To the artists he worked with, Miles’s instructional instinct was always “Follow your instinct.” That’s why John Coltrane sometimes got to solo for twenty minutes while these other band members are going, “Why you let this dude play twenty-minute solos?” “Cause he’s trying to find something, he’s hunting for something, and I’m going to give him the space to figure it out.” Herbie [Hancock] said that one of the first times he played with Miles, they went out on stage and Miles just starts playing. Herbie is nineteen, twenty years old, and he says, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to play.” And Miles says, “Piano, motherfucker.” Miles’s attitude was, I hired you cause you can play. You’re the man. Do it. I want you to follow your instinct, cause then I can follow you. I need the thing to push back against to interact with. I don’t want to be here dictating what has to happen. When Tony Williams was leading rehearsals dictating the way charts would go, he was seventeen years old. Miles let a seventeen-year-old drummer lead the band, basically. He said, “I’ll follow you. You tell me what to play. I’m going to follow you.” Who does that? Miles’s dictum was always, You follow your own instinct.

We were at a press conference at SXSW with Erin Davis, Miles’s son. They were asking him what about the way the movie was made reminded him of his dad, and he said, “I watch the movie and I don’t feel I’m looking at Miles Davis. I know that’s Don in there as Miles Davis. I lived with my father, and I  know that’s not my father, but Miles wouldn’t want Don to be him. He’d want Don to be himself being Miles.” It’s like, “Do your version of me.”

What I wanted to really find was the place where Miles and I could—in my imagination anyway—intersect; I didn’t want to do something that was just pure mimicry. We could go to Vegas and find a cat that could probably do a Miles Davis spot on, and you’d be like, that’s walking and talking Miles Davis. I wanted to try to find out what was going on underneath there and do Miles Davis and do the things that he did and sort of be him as close as I could with my creativity, as opposed to just trying to mimic the man perfectly.


Don Cheadle as Miles Davis Photo by Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis
Photo by Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


DT:  You wrote the script to musical cues. Can you talk about that process?

DC: A lot of writers write with music in mind as they’re creating the story. We were very lucky to have the Miles Davis library to rely on. Steven [Baigelman] and I wrote with a lot of the specific music in the movie in mind and imagined scenes to the sound track.

That’s another thing—Miles’s music is very cinematic, and it lends itself very well to sound track. We were fortunate enough to be able to get a lot of the pieces we wanted into the film. The fight sequence in the past, where Miles is dragging Frances through the house looking for this imaginary lover, and the fight scene in the present where he’s going to find the tapes to try to get back his music, I wrote all of that in a blur to the Miles in Tokyo “So What,” which we use in the piece. I just regurgitated it out in one sitting, sent it to Steven, and said, “What do you think?” He said, “Yup. Put that in.” Sometimes it comes like that: you’re inspired by a piece of music and you see a sequence happen in your head.


DT:  Would you like to direct again?

DC:  Not at this budget level. I hope crowd-funding won’t be necessary. I’m glad we were able to do it, and it’s nice to have it in a movie where the main character is about “social music,” but I hope to just be able to have a budget next time that doesn’t require me to call Pras [Michel, associate producer] and Kevin Hart [contributor] and defer all my money and pay for it myself and all the other things we had to do to make it happen. I’ve been offered several things since this to direct, which is great, and I’ll probably take one on…after a long nap.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016






Dark Inclusion/Arthur Harari

Director Arthur Harari.

Director Arthur Harari.

Outcast Pier Ulmann makes a sordid living doing odd jobs and petty robberies. When he’s told that his estranged father has died, he determines to take revenge against the wealthy relatives who dispossessed him and his father out of their proper place in the family business. A perfectly styled film noir in vibrant color, with riveting performances and a haunting sound track, Dark Inclusion gets under your skin in the way that only film noir can. Availability: Rendez-Vous with French Cinema film festival, New York City, Berlin 2016, Paris Rendez-vous. Thanks to Nina Baron, pmkbnc, for arranging this interview.



DT: Lead actor Niels Schneider was almost unrecognizable as Pier Ullman. How did you come to cast him?

Niels Schneider as a Greek god.

Niels Schneider as a Greek god.

AH:  It was difficult to find the right actor for the part, because you had to believe he’s from the lower classes, doing construction work and petty robberies, then, as the film progresses, you have to believe he comes from this rich family. There aren’t many young renowned French actors who convinced me of this evolution. The casting director and I saw Niels among a lot of actors. He was quite far from the part, but something struck us. After working with him a lot, we knew it had to be him, but with the idea of changing his looks. He’s a very handsome guy, very beautiful, with a very Greek profile, and his curly blond hair could not be our character’s. He was completely willing from the start to change his looks, because he’s so handsome that directors mostly film this about him. I wanted the opposite. We tried things with the hair, and it was quite successful.


Niels Schneider as Pier Ulmann in Dark Inclusion.  Photo credit:  Films Distribution

Niels Schneider as Pier Ulmann in Dark Inclusion. Photo credit: Films Distribution


DT:  I have two questions about light, which is a crucial element in traditional black-and-white film noir. You shot in color, but you kept the focus on lighting, both in the cinematography and as a topic throughout the dialogue. I loved that. Did you say to yourself, Light is an issue, so let’s underline it? And how did you light the film?

AH:  My brother, who’s three years older than me, was the cinematographer. We always work together, and we worked very closely in preparing Diamant Noir [the French title of Dark Inclusion]. We wanted to have a very strong image personality for this film. We didn’t think of light as a concept, but obviously it is, and given the fact that the diamond is all about light, and sculpting light was in the script, step by step we understood that it was also a complete metaphor for cinema, as well as a search for truth.

The fact that we searched for something very special in the light of the film went with that, but mostly we wanted to have fun making this. I mean this in the sense that to have fun is to feel free—not to look like films we’d already seen or the way cinematographers do their light in French movies, which is not so inventive. There are beautiful things [in French cinema], but we wanted to create something different, even from what my brother and I had done before, so it was very fun to search in this experimental way. We didn’t really know what the film was going to look like until we were at the end of postproduction, like searching for really bright colors, a very dense atmosphere, and this very strong lighting. Of course light cannot exist without shadow and without very deep, dark sides, which also is a theme of the film.


DT:  The other question about light is color. Talk about your color palette.

AH:  My brother and I had an obsession: We wanted very strong red in the entire film. We watched a lot of movies, classical melodramas from the golden age, like Vincente Minnelli or Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan, things that we love very much. Splendor in the Grass was one of our most important references. There were also two films by John Cassavetes—which is not at first glance the same way of making movies—but Opening Night and Love Streams were two very, very precise examples of how we could work in reference with melodrama. In Opening Night, there’s not one shot without a red element in the frame. I was fascinated by this way of approaching colors.

Pier Ulmann dancing with his cousin's fiancee in Dark Inclusion.

Pier Ulmann dancing with his cousin’s fiancee in Dark Inclusion.

We told our set director, a very talented Belgian girl, that we wanted red, blue—very strong colors—and we also wanted reflections. If you look around nowadays, everything is matte. In French movies especially, there’s not a lot of thought about the fact that if everything is matte, nothing is going to be reflected. Reflection is very, very important because it creates depth and complexity in the image. We wanted that especially in the house of Piers’s wealthy relatives, which had shiny surfaces on the doors and walls, and colors that would reflect the light and not only be a flat matte surface.

DT:  The colors were great.

AH:  It’s like they were vibrating.


DT:  I read in Der Spiegel that the diamond trade in Antwerp, which has been in Jewish hands for about five hundred years, is now being taken over by Indians. Was that at the foundation of your screenplay, or did you have to work it in?

Inspecting a diamond in a diamond workshop.

AH:  I discovered this milieu while working on the script; before that, I didn’t know it at all. At the beginning, the film was not supposed to be set there. We wanted to make a film in the city in Switzerland where they make luxury watches. It’s a very interesting place because it’s in the snow, in the mountains, but at the beginning of the project, somebody read the first few pages and said, “There’s this incredible place in Antwerp that has never been the set for a whole film—the diamond district.” I had only images or fantasies about the place, with very Orthodox Jews, but it’s actually a much more mixed and complex place. Of course when we discovered that for the past twenty years Indians have been gaining more and more importance in Antwerp and in the world diamond market as a whole, it was very interesting for us because it was a way to completely break the cliches about this place and the theme of the diamond industry. In terms of my character—a foreigner who comes into this milieu, this family, this town—it was very exciting for me to be with the audience: We progress with Pier, the character, to be surprised as he is with all the things he couldn’t expect about this place. He’s progressively surprised about his family, the diamonds, the world, because when he goes to India it’s something he could never have imagined from where he started.


DT: Why film noir?

Raphaele Godin as the femme fatale.

Raphaele Godin as the femme fatale.

AH:  There’s  a very simple answer: My older brother and I discovered cinema through film noir. When I was nine or ten, there was a huge retrospective of Warner Brothers films in Paris, and I was completely fascinated by Humphrey Bogart and all that. It was like being in another world, and I wanted to be like those heroes. I developed a real passion for this genre; when I was ten or eleven, I had a little list in my wallet with all the titles of the films. When I would see one, I’d erase the title—OK, I’ve seen this one, now I must see that one. It was an obsession for me. I saw a lot of films. Of course later on, when I really decided to make pictures and to study cinema at university, I watched a lot of different movies, different nationalities, cinematography. I discovered French cinema, Nouvelle Vague, but film noir stayed like a first love.

Still, I never would have thought to make my first feature a film noir, because it’s not the way when you’re a young director in France. When you’ve made a few short and medium-length films that had a little bit of success in festivals in France, like I did, everything pushes you to tell your own story, your background, your teenage memories, coming-of-age stories. It’s not obvious to think about making a genre film, a film noir, so it was not my intention at the beginning. It was like a series of propositions, accidents, that brought me to do this. I’m very happy now to have done this, because I feel much more free, liberated from this torture of what am I going to say, how can I tell who I am in my first film, how can I really put myself in this movie?  It was very natural, because we had this very exciting plot, and I could put a lot of me in the film, but like wearing a mask, which is what I love about film noir and all the genres. It’s like an elegance saying, No, I’m not talking about me, you see it’s a very stylized plot, but of course I’m talking about me, my relationship with my family, or family in general, with the theme of violence: this is me.

DT:  It’s Hitchcock/Truffaut.

AH:  Yes, it is.


DT:  Four people are credited with writing the screenplay. What was that process like, and would you do it again?

AH: At the very beginning, I was working with Olivier Séror, a close friend of mine who is not a writer but a director. Someone proposed that we think about a heist movie, so Olivier and I came up with the basics of the screenplay, which is a young guy who wants to take revenge for his father from his rich Jewish family. He goes back to his relatives and progressively gets nearer to the moment he’s going to take his revenge, but the more he’s involved with the family, the more difficult it becomes for him to see it through to the end. This was the basics. Then I worked with Vincent Poymiro, the first cowriter, for a year and a half on the structure. We spent a lot of time on the complexities of the plot and all the characters. We went to Antwerp, where we met diamond dealers and went into their workshops. It was fascinating. We had a first script then, but it wasn’t perfect. It was very well constructed but a little too mechanical. It was hard for the characters to exist as full characters. So at a certain point Agnès Feuvre came in, because we needed a girl on this project, as it was very, very mannish. Vincent read all the versions we worked on. In this way we arrived at the final draft, which is the one we found the money with. It was interesting to work with all these people, because everybody was very committed to the script, very ambitious about what we could do, and each one brought something different. All three of us are really close friends now, and it was a wonderful experience writing this film.


DT:  When using music, were you conscious that this was film noir, and did that guide your choices?

AH:  Yes, of course, but again my idea was not to be in the cliche of what we could expect about this kind of score. Before I worked with the guy who made the music, Olivier Marguery, I had a first meeting with Raf Keunen, a Belgian composer who did the score for Bullhead. He’s a very talented guy, but he proposed big orchestration, a lot of violins. I felt that my film was going to be crushed by the music and in a way very clichéd. So I decided to work with Olivier, who is a pop singer and composer, a folk musician, and also has a great talent for classical composing. I had a musical theme in my head for two years while writing the script, which is the main theme—

DT:  Was it … [sings it]?

AH:  You still have it in mind?

DT:  I went home and worked it out on the piano. It’s quite haunting.

AH: Great! I had this in my head, so I whistled this theme first to my brother, who is also a musician, and he recorded himself playing it on the guitar while whistling. I gave this to Olivier, and he worked on it, keeping the theme and bringing in two other themes, which created counterpoint. He ended up with what I think is really beautiful work, with a very unusual use of instruments like violin or flute or organ, but kind of strident, a little bit kinky, bizarre, but at the same time very classical, very lyrical. I was really amazed by the work he did with very little money…when they recorded in the studio, there were only four of them, and I think it’s very wide. I’m very pleased with his work.


DT:  You’re at the beginning of what’s going to be a very big career. Where do you want it to go, and what do you want to avoid?

AH: These are very interesting questions, because of course they’re questions I ask myself every day nowadays. The fact is that when you say that my career is going to be big, it’s really not that easy for me to know, because it’s not easy for this film to convince in France. The film has not been released yet—it’s going to be released in June—and I think the press will be good. The first echoes we have are very good, but the film is different from what young directors in France do. It’s also very dark, violent, harsh, so I don’t know how it’s going to be received and how easy it’s going to be for me to make a second movie. This film cost quite a lot of money for a first feature in France. When you make a film with quite a lot of money, you have to have success, because if you want to make a second movie with the same kind of money, it’s difficult if the film has been a failure. So everything depends on what happens when the film is released and how people talk about the film.

What I want is to make ambitious and very different kind of movies, like genre. I’m very interested in film noir, but it can also be horror—I have a horror film project—but also political fiction. I’m writing a war film, but it’s about a Japanese soldier, completely out of France. There’s nothing European in this movie, so I don’t know how I’m going to find the money. I have very ambitious and crazy ideas—maybe too ambitious and crazy for the level I’m at now.

What do I want to avoid? I’d say that I want to avoid making films like everybody else is doing. There are beautiful films in France, but I have such a passion for cinema and for storytelling that for me what’s happening in France nowadays is not good enough. But not only in France. The cinema situation is quite complex today. There have never been so many films in the whole world, so many festivals, so many people writing on films, but there are a lot of fakes, a lot of false genius and deceiving propositions.  I want to make honest and strong films that are a little more than what I see.


DT: You began with short films, then moved to medium-length films, and now this, your first feature. Each time you learned something new. Can you describe what you learned with each step?

AH: I think I could, but not immediately. There’s always a lot of time between the films that I make. More and more now, because the films are more expensive and they’re feature films. At the beginning, when I started working with my brother, I was a teenager, and our work was very amateur. As we progressed, it became more and more produced, more serious, more precise. But I have a very impatient temper, so I have to learn patience—and I am learning it—because the way I want to make films and the kind of films I want to make take time. Between the last medium-length film I made and this one, I had a very long gap of seven years without shooting anything besides one short film. So I was very frustrated, very angry, and when I started working on this film, the anger disappeared…or I put it in the film—

DT: That’s what I was going to suggest.

AH: I did, I guess. But all this time brings you to thinking about what you’ve done, what was not enough, what was “OK, that’s what I wanted to make but it’s not what I want to say or do now.” It’s like you’re growing up with all these experiences, but knowing what step you’ve made comes with a lot of time and a lot of thinking. What I learned on this film was how to make a feature film. Almost everything in this film was something I’d never done before: I’d never made a film in video, as I used to shoot in film; I’d never made a genre film; I’d never made an original score; I’d never worked so hard on a script. Everything was the first time, so to really know what experience it represents is going to take some time.


DT: Is there anything you want to add? I just want to mention that I loved the film.

AH: Thank you. That means a lot. I only want to say that I’m very pleased to be showing the film in the States for the obvious reason that Hollywood and the United States is one of the origins of my passion. It’s great to be here and to hear that the film can touch somebody here. Even if it’s only one person, that’s great.



Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Standing Tall/Emmanuelle Bercot

Director Emmanuelle Bercot. Copyright: Emmanuel Pain

Director Emmanuelle Bercot. Copyright: Emmanuel Pain

In a breathtaking screen debut, Rod Paradot plays Malony, a tough kid who’s thrown in and out of corrective institutions until he finally lands in jail at the age of 16. His painful path through the French juvenile justice system is smoothed by his corrections judge, lovingly played by Catherine Deneuve, and a tough-but-tender social worker (Benoit Magimel). Availability:  Opens April 1 in New York City with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview. Thanks also to Emilie Spiegel, Cinetic Media.


DT:  Let’s begin by talking about the French juvenile justice system, which is the setting for the film. It’s far more generous than the one we have in America, but as France becomes more and more racially diversified, is there any kind of backlash against the system, as there would be in America?

EB:  The juvenile justice system we have in France is one of our great strengths. It promotes education and protection, as opposed to repression. It dates back to a law that was put into effect in 1945. Each time a right-wing government comes into power, they’re looking to cut back on what the system allows and doesn’t allow. The tendency there is to try to make it into a more repressive system, so while the system as we have it now dates back to 1945, there’s always going to be some kind of variation depending on which government is in power.


DT:  What inspired you to make Standing Tall?


Catherine Deneuve as “Judge Florence Blaque” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Lunch at a juvenile rehabilitation camp. Catherine Deneuve as “Judge Florence Blaque” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

EB:  It dates back to a childhood memory. My uncle was a counselor and educator for delinquent youth. When I was eight years old, I spent one day in one of the juvenile rehabilitation camps that was close to where we spent our summer vacation. It was then that I realized there were kids who didn’t have the advantages or the liberties that I did. It probably came into my mind then, so it’s been a maturation process over a long time.

The departure point for making this film was a discussion I had with my uncle when he talked to me about how he had formed a very close relationship with one of the delinquents. It was a relationship that lasted over ten years and also involved a woman judge who was approaching retirement. It was this triad of the adolescent, my uncle, and the judge that formed the basis of the triad in Standing Tall.


Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” (left) and Benoît Magimel as “Yann” (right) in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” (left) and Benoît Magimel as “Yann” (right) in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group


DT:  So your uncle was Benoit Magimel?

EB:  Kind of, but less handsome.


DT:  For me, your amazing performance in Mon Roi [for which Bercot won Best Actress award at Cannes] resonated with Rod Paradot’s performance in Standing Tall. I felt like there was a certain crossover in the performances, since you were working on the two films at basically the same time.

Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

EB: There’s very little connection except for the fact that I began working on Standing Tall the day after I finished Mon Roi. Maybe the connection was the fact that I had been pushed so hard and so far in Mon Roi that that in turn enabled me to push Rod further, but I think that’s the only connection.

DT: That’s a big connection. That’s exactly how it seemed.

EB:  Then yes.


DT: Because of Catherine Deneuve’s persona when she was younger, I was surprised to find that she has such an affinity for working with children, which also came out in On My Way, your previous film. Can you talk about working with her, especially in the context of working with kids.

EB:  She has a very maternal side, which she shows not just to the children but also to other adults. Maybe it’s not the first thing you think of with her, but I think that many actors never lose the part of them that is a child. They continue to play—acting is play—and maybe this is what’s connecting them.

Also, the three adults all started acting at age thirteen—Benoit Magimel, Sara Forestier, and Catherine Deneuve—and perhaps because they themselves started so young, they tended to look out for the younger actors, because they knew what they were experiencing.


Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” and Sara Forestier as “Séverine Ferrandot” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” and Sara Forestier as “Séverine Ferrandot” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group


DT:  Rod Paradot reminded me of a young James Dean, not in looks but in the physicality of his rage. How did you find him? What kind of work did you do with him?

EB:  We found him doing street casting. He was at a trade school studying carpentry. We did a lot of tests over the months, because he was very far from the character I wanted him to portray, and I was really looking for a kid who would be much closer to the character of Malony. I kept looking, but I couldn’t find anybody. It was a month before the shooting was going to start, and I realized I would have to take Rod. I wasn’t really convinced. We did a lot of work on the side. Very hard.

DT:  How was he different from what you imagined?

EB:  He had nothing in him in common with the character as it was written. He was the opposite of everything I wanted. He was very polite, very warm, very social, very well brought up, very calm. But primarily he didn’t have that violence I was looking for.

DT:  So what kind of work did you have to do with him?

EB:  It was very different from the kind of work I normally do with adolescents. Normally I just put the camera in front of them and ask them to act like themselves. With Rod, it was as if I was his acting teacher at the same time I was the director. I had to bring him to the point where he could actually put this character together, compose his character, which is something that is very rarely asked of brand-new actors.  And it was necessary to push, push, push until he gave me what I was looking for.

DT: What did the pushing consist of?

EB:  It was more a question of creating an emotional state, and I had to push him into this state of anger and rage. I was obliged to be a little cruel in order for him to produce the kind of characterization I was looking for, so that what you see when you see the film is really his rage and his anger against me.

DT:  How did Deneuve and Magimel respond to your pushing Paradot in this way?

EB:  She didn’t like it at all.

DT:  I don’t imagine she would.

EB:  I think she thought I was too harsh, too hard. While I was trying to destabilize him, she was trying to console him behind my back. Benoit Magimel was also very protective of him, probably because he had started acting at the same age. He really identified with Rod. In his case, it was more a question of identification. With Catherine, she was more like a grandmother figure—the parents are harsh while the grandparents are indulgent.


DT:  That’s funny. The film is often compared to the Dardennes’ social realist films, and I was wondering if you looked to them as a model.

EB: Oh yeah. I love their films, but it’s not exactly comparable. They inspire me because they have this realistic approach, but their way of looking is very different: they do lots of shots, I do lots of cutting, so it’s a completely different way of working.

DT:  How about Ken Loach?

EB:  Ken Loach is my favorite filmmaker.

DT:  Which film?

EB:  Sweet Sixteen.  It was very close to me—not my story but character, even the link between the child and his mother. But I love all of Ken Loach’s films.

DT:  Me too. My Name Is Joe is my favorite. Can you talk about how you researched the juvenile justice system for Standing Tall?

Catherine Deneuve as “Judge Florence Blaque” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Catherine Deneuve as “Judge Florence Blaque” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

EB:  At first I read tons and tons of books on the subject because I really wanted to become imbued with that whole universe before I actually went out into it. Once I had done the reading, I observed judges’ office, juvenile courts, and some juvenile detention centers, so I had that whole experience around me. I really had to become very, very familiar with the penal code as well, because when I was writing I wanted it to be truthful to the actuality of the penal code.


DT:  A lot of the reviews I read began with “Standing Tall was an unusual choice to kick off Cannes.” Do you agree, and how do you feel about that?

EB:  It’s true. This film is the opposite of what we’re used to seeing on the opening night at  Cannes. Opening night is a big gala night. It’s sequins and dresses. Even I myself hesitated, because this is a film on a very serious subject, and it didn’t seem to jive with all the fancy dresses and the sequins. I hesitated, but when I discussed it with Thierry Fremaux, he said this is an opportunity for a film like this to be highlighted so that more people will know about it.


DT:  After the press screening, a bunch of us were talking about the film. Some people thought it was a very hopeful ending and that Malony would take great care of his kid. Other people thought it was horrifying and that he’d beat the kid the first chance he got angry. I was wondering if you thought the ending was ambiguous.

EB:  I honestly don’t have a specific way for it to end. I didn’t want it to end on a completely pessimistic note because I think there really is hope. I have my own idea about how it ended, but I wanted to see other people’s ideas as well.

DT:  What is your idea?

EB:  I think that for a lot of people, becoming a parent is something that enables them to change their lives around, and I think that in the case of Malony, it might be just the trigger he needs.  He may end up being a good parent.

DT:  I agree.



Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Son of Saul/Geza Rohrig (actor)

Director László Nemes and Géza Röhrig Photo by Ildi Hermann, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Director László Nemes and Géza Röhrig
Photo by Ildi Hermann, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In order to execute the more than 1 million Jews, Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, German mental patients, and gays who died at Auschwitz alone, the Nazis set up a highly efficient extermination machine. At its heart were the gas chambers, where victims were poisoned with Zyklon B. Their bodies were removed from the chambers, processed, and transported to crematoria, where their remains were incinerated, ground to dust and mixed with ashes. The Nazis carried out the gassings, but the rest was done by the Sonderkommando—groups of young Jewish men forced to do the Nazis’ dirty work or be executed themselves. It is here, in the middle of the gas chamber, where Son of Saul unfolds: Sonderkommando member Saul Auslander recognizes one of the bodies in the gas chamber as his son’s. Son of Saul is rightly being hailed as revolutionary for its groundbreaking mode of presenting the Holocaust: the dead bodies are kept in the background, blurred, so that we can only hear the horror in the terrifying soundscape, or read its impact on Saul’s face, which fills nearly every frame. Less is more, and the effect is devastating. Director Talk speaks with Geza Rohrig, the remarkable man who portrays Saul Auslander, about the filmmakers’ intentions in making the movie.  More than an actor, Rohrig is a poet, a Jewish scholar, and a philosopher, all of which he brings to his role as Saul. Son of Saul is the winner of the 2016 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and nominee for a 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Availability: Opens on Friday, December 18 in New York (Lincoln Plaza and Film Forum) and Los Angeles. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.


DT:  The members of the Sonderkommando were controversial figures, both during the Holocaust and afterward. As an actor, you had to deal with the moral dilemma of being in the Sonderkommando. How did you personally address this aspect of your role?


GR:  The institution of the Sonderkommando shows nothing but to what point a human being can be brought under permanent threat of death. I think judgment has to be suspended when it comes to the Sonderkommando. These people were not voluntary accomplices of the executioners. They were unwilling, but they were lured into a deadly trap. They had no real choice whatsoever apart from committing suicide. They had no way to refuse or to resign the task.


Géza Röhrig as Saul Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Géza Röhrig as Saul
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

They were inducted right upon arrival at the ramp. The Nazis approached these people wisely right upon arrival, when they were dazed and shattered by this often weeklong or ten-day-long trip in a cattle car with no water, and promised these people a better life. They were not given any sort of advance notice about the task, any sort of job description. The Nazis just asked, Who wants to have a better life? They promised better food, less atrocious conditions. The Sonderkommando members slept on mattresses, they didn’t have to shave their hair, they were in a heated bunker, as opposed to the others. These privileges were the ones that were promised to them, and the Nazis kept their word. Except….the Sonderkommando were better fed for the simple reason that it was exhausting manual labor for them to schlepp the dead bodies. The whole system was predicated on the premise of how can the greatest number of Jews be murdered with the least number of Germans involved. That was the whole idea—to leave the dirty work to the Jews so Jews burned Jews.

The Sonderkommando members had no say in this. The will to live is independent from a person very, very quickly. It’s uncontrollable. Unless you are a saint—unless you are a saint—it’s not fair for anyone to say to you, Why don’t you commit suicide? While you’re clearly participating in the extermination machine, you are not the one who conceived or implemented the Final Solution. You were thrown into this situation. The Sonderkommando members just wanted to survive. So what I’m saying is that morally speaking, with the conception of free and civil society that we are trying to use in 2015, with iPhones in our pockets and without being in their shoes, it’s outrageous to label them this and that. These people were traumatized, these people were the victims, and the burden of guilt should not be shifted to them. It belongs to the perpetrators.


DT:  In another interview, you spoke about the loneliness of the Sonderkommando. I was very struck by that, because of all the feelings I would conjure up for them, loneliness is not one of them.


Géza Röhrig as Saul Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Géza Röhrig as Saul
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

GR:  I was answering a question about Saul Auslander, the character I play, who happens to be the protagonist of this movie. There are social people, and there are less social people. Just by the script, Saul Auslander was clearly a lonely guy, and his last name attests to that; it doesn’t just mean “foreigner” or “outsider.” I would in some way translate it poetically as “extraterrestrial.” He is Auslander, he is almost a UFO. And you can see in this movie that while the others are eating together and singing and playing guitar and being much more chatty, he happens to be a lonely man, and a lonely man gets even lonelier as a Sonderkomannado member because Auschwitz is a planet. There is no surrounding world. It gradually disappears. If you are in Auschwitz, that’s all you know about. You’re going to lose your past. You’re going to lose your future. All you’ve got is the minute you find yourself in. Saul did not really have friends; somehow everybody is pissed off with him. He’s jeopardizing the rebellion, Abraham keeps wanting to have conversations but all Sam gives him is one-line responses. Saul’s a lonely man.


DT:  In the Hollywood Reporter, your cameraman is quoted as saying, “We tried to hide as much of the information as possible.” He was, of course, referring to the horror of what was physically happening day to day in the gas chambers and the crematoria. Director Laszlo Nemes and cameraman Matyas Erdely kept all of that in the background while focusing on your face, your gestures, your physical presence instead. You worked very closely with them.  Knowing what they were doing, what kind of burden did that put on you as an actor?


Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and Géza Röhrig Photo by Ildi Hermann, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and Géza Röhrig
Photo by Ildi Hermann, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


GR: We dogmatically followed through with that explicit treatment of the horror in a principled way. Throwing it into the viewers’ faces would be counterproductive. It’s too much. We had to reduce the scope. The Holocaust, the enormity of horror, is too much. It can’t be fit into film, and it’s almost unethical to do it. What you have to do is leave it out of focus, you have to keep it blurry, and in that way, the power of suggestion speaks much more to the viewers, making them use his or her imagination, as opposed to spoon-feeding and telling too much in a voyeuristic way. We felt—and that was our general approach—that in making a movie that was trying to interrogate the very nature of the Shoah, the most you can talk about is one man’s experience. Otherwise you’re going to end up with this historical drama full of interpretations and all that. That’s not what we wanted….we thought that was a postwar perspective.

What we wanted to do is to immerse the viewer, to take the viewer as a companion of the protagonist and be in the here and there, so instead of making a film about the Holocaust from the outside, we wanted to shoot a movie from the inside, the here and now. This is one day of one man, the face of one man. To make it…less is more. By focusing [on Geza Rohrig, rather than on the physical reality of the crematoria], we were able to create a visceral experience, something where you can almost smell the stench, the odor, you are right there.

Instead of talking about an abstract Holocaust, we wanted to create an experience that’s really not an emotional experience. We didn’t want the viewer to cry. No one cries at this movie, because crying makes you feel good, especially after. When you’re done with crying, your system is clear, you feel good, probably better than before crying. It’s a good feeling; it’s cathartic. We wanted to deliver a punch to the stomach or the throat. Something that lasts, whose impact lasts longer than just a cry. We wanted to create something that comes up in your dreams. It’s something that doesn’t let you emerge unscarred and safe. Basically what we are saying is that the world cannot become a better place unless the people become better people in it, and I don’t think that’s a possible case to make. I don’t think people become better in history.


DT:  Why did the script appeal to you so much?


GR:  The honesty of it. I felt the genre is frustratingly fake and false. I think most movies on this subject matter use and abuse the drama of the Holocaust. They run stupid stories of survival and love, and all kind of rescue, and all kinds of stories in front of this background. They throw in a couple of cliches and swastikas, and then they have this entertaining, conventional, melodramatic kitsch at the end. The reason for my disappointment with the genre is that you are making a movie about a state-sponsored, full-scale genocide that attempts to erase an entire race from the face of the earth, in the heart of the European civilization, where practically nobody stands up, Church leaders included. The best humanist ethical traditions and legacies are all out the window, and it’s a free-for-all.

Two Jews out of three are murdered during the Holocaust in Europe. If that is what your subject matter is, then you better not water it down or treat it lightly. All these other movies that I saw talk about the third, the lucky third who made it through, who survived. We wanted to make a movie about the first two, the ones who died. That was the norm. Every survival was due to a systemic error. No one was meant to survive, and if you want this world to heal, if you want a new era underway, then you have to admit what happened and not sugar-coat it, not Disnify it. If you find it too dark, then don’t make a movie about the Holocaust.

But if you are interested in it, then you have to get into that taboo zone, the very center of the hell, that basically defines and shows the full extent of the crime. And that is exactly where the Sonderkommando members worked—the zone right there between the gas chambers and the crematoria. That is basically what the Holocaust is. The rest is stories. This is what it really was. Without this, you’re talking about something else. I felt this movie should have been done by others long ago, but they didn’t, probably because they themselves felt that they didn’t get the right cinematic language, they didn’t get the right angle, the right plot. It took seven years for the director to come up with this. I’m not saying it’s easy, but once I read the script, I was able to fully believe in it, and I felt we all knew that there was something special in birth here. We were very devoted and focused on bringing it alive.


Géza Röhrig as Saul Photo by Ildi Hermann, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Géza Röhrig as Saul
Photo by Ildi Hermann, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


DT:  There’s a problematic element to making art about the Holocaust, whether it’s literature, or painting, or cinema, especially when the artist did not experience it directly.


GR:  Yes.


DT:  At the same time, the story needs to be told.


GR:  Yes.


DT: So what is our responsibility to the story of the Holocaust, both in terms of not letting it die, but also in terms of respecting the fact that we’re basically telling someone else’s story.  I mean, we’re Jewish, but it’s someone else’s story. We weren’t there.


GR:  Yes, but it’s tricky, because the Holocaust is a multigenerational, or transgenerational, trauma. It’s phantom pain. I am the third generation, and I feel the pain of a limb that was amputated from my grandfather’s body. I feel the pain, and the pain is real. These kinds of traumas go beyond one generation. Just because I wasn’t there and I did not experience it directly, the enormity of the event is such that I wouldn’t be surprised if one day they would point out that in some genetic way even this trauma is transmitted. [In fact, researchers are beginning to find scientific evidence to support this idea.]

But leaving genetics aside, my grandparents and parents tried to spare me, thinking in a silly way that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Of course the psychic reality of the parents is being communicated, and children pick it up in a million nonverbal ways. You don’t have to be told what your parents or grandparents have been through. It will somehow trickle down, and you’re going to get it. When I was twelve, I confronted my grandfather and showed him photos that I found in the apartment. They were prewar photos, these brownish, silverish photos. I kind of guessed, but I wanted to hear it from him: Who were these people? I could see right away from his face that on the one hand, he was in deep trouble because he’d consciously decided not to discuss this with us, but I also felt a great liberation and relief that it was out of the closet and he could speak about it and let it go from a deep, deep realm of his personality. So he talked, and he said, “These are my parents, this is my pregnant sister, this is my eleven-year-old younger brother,” and then the whole story came out, bit by bit.

I think there are two statements that are equally true. One is that it’s impossible to do Holocaust art, and the other is that it’s necessary to do Holocaust art. What tips the balance is if you have the right calling, so to speak. If it’s really an urgency, if it’s really coming from the right place, then you have to do it, because it would be a great gift for the Nazis of this world to keep silent and not talk about it. When we did this movie, we were not just making a Holocaust movie. We never thought that the Holocaust itself is a parochial and only a Jewish issue. If you ask me, during the Holocaust Christianity failed its greatest test since its origins. This should be as important to Christians as it is for Jews. What happened is mind-boggling and paralyzing and outrageous and a scandal on so many levels. For a Jew, it’s obviously a challenge to his or her faith: We have a covenant with God, and He certainly could have intervened a bit sooner. He did not, so that’s a struggle in itself. And then for me, as a Hungarian, there was this extremely shameful episode of being an unwanted citizen who is delivered for clear purposes of being liquidated and annihilated. How will that affect my relationship with my country?

This creates a crisis in many ways, and I think that humankind unfortunately tries to sweep this under the rug. Genocide…not just ours, so to speak, but the Cambodian, the Bosnian, the Rwandan, Darfur, you name it…all the genocides, with their alarming frequency since the Second World War, how many of them do we need to understand that this should be a point of departure when we are thinking about modernity?  It’s an essential part of the legacy, and somehow people keep trying to hold firm to this illusion of progress. I understand the progress in science, I understand the progress in technology, but I simply can’t see the progress in terms of how we relate to one another.  I don’t. And that’s scary, because with that prospect going right into the twenty-first century, I’m extremely pessimistic.


DT: I was very moved by something you said at the New York Film Festival Q&A. You referred to Psalm 28, in which David pleads with God not to be deaf. You said, “It’s true that God did not listen, but did God stop talking?”  You then went on to explain that in Auschwitz, God spoke through people who were trying to do the right thing. I believe that at that point, you were articulating the very essence of what Judaism is supposed to be.


GR:  Listen, I found my faith in Auschwitz. I went there when I was nineteen years old. I knew about it, I read about it, I heard about it in my family, but I never saw the place. I tried to delay it. I knew it was not going to be a day at the beach, but finally I went there. It was 1987. And I found one survivor in Auschwitz…nobody cared…and that was my God. He was there, and I caught myself praying, as if it was some sort of shameful thing to do. Like, You’re not supposed to pray, don’t you know there is no God, you want to pray here, to who, the one who abides this cruelty?  What are you doing?  But I just caught myself praying because I felt sorry for God, and I picked God up and I started to nurse God with my prayers. I wanted God, I wanted a God, I wanted my God. I am the kind of man who needs a God, and that was my God.

I thought, If I want a God, a Jew should pray in Hebrew, so I went to Israel right after and sat in yeshiva. I got circumcised, I learned Hebrew, and I felt that I had to nurse this God. And that’s when I found my faith. It’s a very strange thing, that people simplistically try to act like it’s a given: Don’t you know there is no God?  How can there be?  There was Auschwitz, duh. Are you kidding me?  It’s such a simple thing to say, like Astronauts went into space and didn’t find God. It’s silly, OK?

Let me clarify a few things. The Holocaust was a human event in human history done by human actors. God never rounded up anything, not perfectly Aryan German mental patients or Jews or Gypsies or gays. He didn’t do that. The Final Solution is not spelled out in the Torah, God forbid. It was done by us, the human family. So don’t blame the skies and point your finger to God and say, What’s the matter with you?  Let’s first take responsibility. We did this. I understand of course that God is responsible in some way, but His responsibility in permitting it does not cancel the responsibility of the actual murderers, because they acted on their own free will.

This is something that I’ve been struggling with, but there is no doubt in my mind that in some awkward, negative way, the Holocaust has a tremendous transcendence to it. If I would understand Him, I would be God. As Jews, we are never fully going to grasp what took place here and why,  but I found God, and I couldn’t just leave Him in the camp. I had to take Him with me. That is my personal journey. Others have theirs, but this notion that the experience of the Holocaust substantially altered the loyalty or the relationship between Jews and their God is simply not true. Surveys show that by and large, people who did not believe before the Holocaust did not believe after the Holocaust, and people who believed before the Holocaust, believed after the Holocaust. There is no sea change in this regard.


Copyright © Director Talk 2015

Embrace of the Serpent/Ciro Guerra

Director Ciro Guerra.

Director Ciro Guerra.

Two white explorers, separated by time and space, come to the Colombian Amazon in search of a sacred plant. They are united by the shaman Karamakate, who reveals to them not only the secrets of the jungle but also the ravages of colonialism. Made with the help of the indigenous population, Embrace of the Serpent is a magical glimpse into what it means to be human. An Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film. Availability:  Opens in theaters February 17.  Click here for the trailer and local theater listings. Thanks to Susan Norget and Keaton Kail, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.



DT:  The film is based on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes. How did you encounter the diaries, what were they like, and why did they inspire you to make this film?


The character of Theo, based on real-life explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg. 1.Photo by Andrés Córdoba / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

The character of Theo, based on real-life explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg. Photo by Andrés Córdoba / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories


CG: Making a film in the Amazon was a lifelong dream of mine. I had done very personal films before, which were based on personal experience and family and culture and things that were very close to me, so I wanted to get away from all that and just take a journey into the unknown. The Amazon is the big unknown for us in Colombia. It’s half the country, but it’s a place we don’t know much about, and we’ve never heard stories from there. I started doing some research with an anthropologist friend of mind, and he said the journals would be very interesting. When I started reading them, I was mesmerized, because what I found there was a fascinating story that had never been told.

It wasn’t a story that was told in the diaries—the diaries are scientific journals, so they are not narrative, and they don’t have any dramaturgical structure. But the story that you could feel from behind, the story of men of knowledge from different worlds coming together and sharing knowledge at the same time that it was being destroyed and the world around them was crumbling, was fascinating. And these journals had a huge impact; they had a huge part in the countercultural revolution of the mid-’50s, and they are at the heart of what became the first ecological movement, the hippie movement, the psychodelia movement. The beat generation readers and writers were all inspired by this. The knowledge that was revealed during these encounters in the Colombian jungle really had an impact on the world, so I thought it was a fascinating story, and once I read the diaries I just couldn’t look back. I had to make a movie.


DT: What impression did you have of the explorers?


ANTONIO BOLÍVAR SALVADOR as the old Karamakate. Mr. Salvador is one of the last survivors of the Ocaina people. He is trailed by the character of Evan, based on the real-life explorer Richard Evans Schultes and played by Brionne Davis.Photo by Andres Barrientos / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Antonio Bolivar Salvador as the old Karamakate. Mr. Salvador is one of the last survivors of the Ocaina people. He is trailed by the character of Evan, based on the real-life explorer Richard Evans Schultes and played by Brionne Davis. Photo by Andres Barrientos / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

CG:  Huge admiration. These are men who would leave everything behind. They would leave their families behind, their lives behind, their societies behind, and for two or three years, or even twelve years in the case of Schultes, go into uncharted territory just to expand the knowledge of what it is like to be human. And they were the first ones to approach the indigenous cultures of the Amazon in a humanistic way. Before them, the peoples of the Amazon were seen as subhuman, abandoned, godforsaken creatures that needed to be rescued. Then these men came, and they were the first ones to say, These people have knowledge and a different way of understanding the world, and we can learn from that. It was revolutionary at the time. It still is, sadly.


DT:  As you said before, Colombians west of the Cordilleras are pretty ignorant of the Amazon and the people in it. How much of Colombians’ perceptions of the Amazon is determined by what happens in the western part of the country, like the drug wars?

CG:  For a long time, people have been afraid of the Amazon. As the armed conflict escalated, many parts of the Amazon became strongholds for illegal groups—guerillas or paramilitary—and drug trafficking, so it created this atmosphere of the Amazon being a dangerous place, an impenetrable place. The communities of the Amazon have been very heavily impacted by these armed groups; they’ve been one of their main victims, but that’s just another form of colonization—it’s capitalism in its most brutal form. When people thought of the Amazon, they didn’t think of its indigenous peoples, its history and its culture; they were just thinking about war and drugs and many negative things.


DT:  As you were reading the diaries, did you get a sense of a difference between Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes?  In the film at least, they ended up in very, very different places psychologically. How did you feel about each of them?

CG:  The characters in the film should be seen as fictional. They are inspired mostly by these men, but they are also taken from the diaries and information and journeys of other explorers. So they are fictional constructions. For me they represent the contrast between the nineteenth-century man, who was romantic and who had a craving for knowledge that was just beyond reach. Theodor Koch-Grunberg was in line with people like Alexander von Humboldt, for example, scientists who dealt with knowledge in such a way. Theodor Koch-Grunberg took notes not only on ethnography but also on botany, on speleology, on meteorology, on geography, on geology. He drew most of the maps of the place that were used for decades. And he was interested in insects. He was interested in so many things. Such a vast understanding of knowledge is just unbelievable for us today. While Richard Evans Schultes—not Richard Evans Schultes but the character of Evan, which is different—is more of a representation of the twentieth-century man, who is more materialistic and who has given up on knowledge for its own sake, the romantic notion of knowledge that was prevalent in the nineteenth century. He’s now in a world in which knowledge has a purpose and meaning, and that is usually an economic meaning and an economic purpose.

DT: But in the film, Theo was not able to shed his identity enough to experience the spirit world, whereas Evan did.

CG:  The process of learning is not an easy process. I learned from the indigenous people that in order for the process to be true, you have to die in a way—part of you has to die and you need to be reborn. So it’s not about intentions. The character of Theo has better intentions than the character of Evan, but that is the irony of the way life tends to operate. Knowledge has to be built through generations. It’s not just something that can traverse the journey of a single man.


DT:  I loved the way that you dealt with time ellipses. Can you talk about the function of time in the screenplay, and also in the way you shot the film?

CG:  Cinema is a medium of time, so it lends itself perfectly to understanding different notions of time. I was fascinated by the notion of time that the indigenous people have. They don’t conceive of it as the linear cause and effect that we understand in the Western world. Since time immemorial they have conceived it as a sort of simultaneous multiplicity. When I heard an Amazonian shaman speaking about time, I realized that it was close to what quantum physicists say about time. You understand that time is just a perception that is given by your own subjectivity, so I was interested in allowing the viewer to be submersed in a different way of understanding time and doing so in a structure that we can understand as a tale but would feel not as a Western tale but as an Amazonian tale.

I started with a script that was very Western in many ways—it was very clear, and it had all the dates and locations right. But then as I started developing with the Amazonian peoples, the film became imbued with Amazonian mythology and Amazonian storytelling, and we just wanted it to feel a bit like an Indian tale. But it should be clear that it was constructed as building a bridge between these two narrative traditions. It’s not Amazonian myth as it is, and the Amazon in the film is not the real Amazon. It’s a very magic Amazon.


DT: What’s the situation with the indigenous people today, and how did they react to reenacting such a painful period of their past?

CG:  About twenty years ago, a law was passed by the Colombian government that gave the people in the region where we shot property ownership over their land. It was a big development, and since then many, many cultures that were about to disappear have found ways to thrive again.

DT: That’s incredible!

CG: They could stop fighting the government over their land, but now illegal poachers have also become a problem…illegal drug lords, illegal mining, illegal woodcutters. But the main problem I think that they’re facing now is that young people are not interested in learning the traditional knowledge and keeping their life. They are seduced by the capitalist lifestyle, and they want to live that way, so the elders are feeling very worried about that and very abandoned by their youngest, who are seduced by this other way of life. It creates a huge identity problem, because once young people try to live in the other lifestyle, they realize they don’t belong, but they don’t feel that they belong to the traditional lifestyle either. It creates a huge conflict of identity that has led many young people to suicide, so that’s the main problem right now. But these are people who are very resourceful. They have great joy, and they live very calm, peaceful lives as long as they’re allowed to.

DT:  That’s a worldwide phenomenon, where young people want to leave or aren’t interested in the traditions. Is there any kind of movement, either by outside groups or by the indigenous population, to keep the young kids within the traditions?

Liliana Merizalde shooting Nilbio Torres, a membeE of the Cubeo people. Nilbio says,  “What Ciro is doing with this film is an homage to the memory of our elders,  in the time before: the way the white men treated the natives, the rubber exploitation. I’ve asked the elders how it was and it is as seen in the film, that’s why we decided to support it. For the elders and myself it is a memory of the ancestors and their knowledge.”  3.Photo by Andres Córdoba / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Liliana Merizalde shooting Nilbio Torres, a member of the Cubeo people. Nilbio says, “What Ciro is doing with this film is an homage to the memory of our elders, in the time before: the way the white men treated the natives, the rubber exploitation. I’ve asked the elders how it was and it is as seen in the film, that’s why we decided to support it. For the elders and myself it is a memory of the ancestors and their knowledge.” Photo by Andres Córdoba / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

CG: There are initiatives in that sense, mostly within the local communities, but it also has to do with the fact that for them, initiatives like the film become important, because they realize that this knowledge is important and that the outside world thinks it’s important. So for them initiatives like this have this impact of indicating their own culture. The problem is that these cultures have been neglected and underappreciated for so long that this is the lasting effect of it.


DT:  I was fascinated by the concept of the chullachaqui [a mythological figure of the Amazon; a hollow copy of a human being who roams the jungle, waiting for someone to deceive. Every human being in the world has a chullachaqui exactly like them in appearance but completely empty inside].  Did you discover that in the diaries, and if not, where, and can you tell me about it?

CG:  The concept of the chullachaqui wasn’t in the diaries. It’s a concept of the Machiguenga people in the Peruvian Amazon, and I stumbled across it when I was doing research on German culture at the time. What struck me was the similarity between the chullachaqui and the concept of the German doppelganger, which is almost the same, and how these two concepts from two different cultures mirrored each other. Then I realized that the chullachaqui had deeper meaning because it’s a millenia-old concept that speaks to modern mankind. I’m fascinated by this dialogue between something that comes from a contemporary reality in which people communicate through virtual avatars and this millenium-old myth that speaks to the very core of the very essence of man.


DT:  Did the jungle have the same effect on you that it did on the explorers?

CG:  I think the whole film encapsulates and captures in a very true way the feeling that we experienced being there. I think the film is true in that sense, and it’s an attempt to replicate some of the questionings that went through my mind and through my soul while traversing the Colombian Amazon.


DT: You were protected by a shaman while you were there?

CG:  We had the spiritual protection of the communities. They gave us permission to shoot in the sacred lands and they gave us guidance on how to work in the jungle in a way that was respectful. They also gave us spiritual protection.


DT:  I’d like to discuss the Amazonian concept of power, especially in relation to Viracocha [the creator god and father of all other Inca gods], because power can be seen as both a negative and a positive force. That’s obvious, but I feel like there are many subtleties that came across in the film.

CG:  This is so complex. When the indigenous people saw the very first people from Europe, some of them thought that they were looking at gods because they found similarities between them and the Viracocha mythology, which is essentially terrible gods.

DT: Terrible in the sense of bad, or terrible in the sense of awe-inspiring?

CG:  Both. The kind of god that if you don’t worship it will punish you, so it speaks to the very complex relationships of power that happened during the time. I cannot discuss this at length, but it’s a subject worthy of an entire symposium.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

A War/Tobias Lindholm

In 2003, NATO took command of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. As a founding member of NATO, Denmark sent troops to protect civilian Afghans. During their ten-year engagement in Afghanistan, the Danes lost more soldiers per capita than any other European army did. An Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film, A War explores the painful complexity of combat:  a company commander is tried as a war criminal after his decision to protect his men in battle inadvertently results in the deaths of a civilian family. •Availability: Now in theaters nationwide. Click here for the trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Susan Norget and Keaton Kail, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.


DT:  During the Afghan engagement, Denmark lost more soldiers per capita than any other European army. What effect did that have on the national consciousness regarding the war in Afghanistan?


TL:  We hadn’t fought a war since WWII. We fought for five hours, and then we gave up. That defined my generation more than anything else. We didn’t really know what we were getting into in Afghanistan, but when the dead soldiers started to come home and we started to see the footage of the civilian population down there, that totally changed the Danish approach. We became very judgmental toward the soldiers, which, in my mind, was a mistake; we needed to hold politicians and lawmakers accountable. That didn’t happen, and suddenly we understood the danger and what we had gotten ourselves into as a nation. That confused the political environment for a while; nobody wanted to have an opinion, because everybody was afraid of the result. So instead of it inviting a conversation and a debate about what was going on, everybody talked even less about it when the dead bodies started to come back. It was almost ten years by that time, and we had forgotten why we were there. We were, on a small scale, in a post-Vietnam phase, where we as a nation tried to figure out what we were doing.


DT:  In A War, you juxtapose the war in Afghanistan against the trial in Denmark. In A Hijacking, you juxtapose a hijacking by Somali pirates against the hostage negotiations, again in Denmark. In both films, you’re juxtaposing Danish interaction with a foreign agent against Denmark’s internal social logic. Is the similarity coincidental, or is this an area of personal interest for you?

TL:  It’s definitely an area of personal interest. I like the complexity of human life. Being human in the Western world, in the industrialized world, is being both a professional citizen and a private person. I’m not sure we can separate those and just look at private life without mentioning the other aspects of life. We are part of a democracy, we live under our law that is equal for all—at least in our nations—and we have professions that define our lives. All these areas rub off on each other, and I like the idea of trying to describe human life as complex as it is. Often in European cinema we have a tendency to be obsessed with psychology and forget other aspects of life, while in American films there’s a tendency to be overobsessed with profession. You have a police officer and the film is all about that. Real life is a mixture of it all, so that’s what I try to do.


DT:  Speaking of realism: I’ve never been to war, but the battle scenes felt particularly realistic. How did you achieve that?

TL:  I found it extremely hard to understand, because I hadn’t seen that much. I started to watch a lot of boot camp footage and documentaries, but it wasn’t until I saw the American documentary Restrepo that I totally understood what we needed to do. The fantastic thing about that film is that the photographer is out there, really in danger with the soldiers. This means that the camera can’t show you stuff that the soldiers can’t see, because the photographer would get shot. That’s the logic of it. In a lot of war films you’ll see the camera in cross fire between enemies; that’s already admitting to the audience that it’s not really dangerous, it’s just a film. I decided to just pretend that we were shooting a documentary and ask the cinematographer to be as aware and alert as if it had been a documentary.

It’s not that obvious, but we did a huge amount of work to make it sound real. Explosions are not that loud in real life—they always sound louder in films. In films, there’s more fire in the explosions than there are in real life. In real life it’s all dust and dirt thrown in the air. Instead of making references to other war films, we decided to make a reference to reality even though it didn’t feel as dramatic. I guess the good thing is that people feel it’s even more dramatic because it feels real.


DT:  I read that you consulted with veterans who had been in Afghanistan and that you actually cast real soldiers in the war scenes.

TL:  I knew I couldn’t pull off asking actors to become soldiers in three months of training. To make it possible for the actors to do that, I would have had to simplify the work of the soldiers. Instead, I used the actors as the dramatic engine and the carrier of emotion, and then surrounded them with professional soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and who knew this reality that we were portraying. In  that way we could make sure that we got it right and didn’t make false choices. We didn’t simplify but maintained the complexity of the situation, because we knew what was going on and how to handle stuff.

DT:  That’s brilliant.

TL:  The same thing happened in the courtroom. The judge is a real judge. She retired two weeks before we started to shoot. She took control of that courtroom, and I didn’t need to direct that much. She did it pretty much for me.

DT:  Like the real-life hostage negotiator you used in A Hijacking.

TL: Exactly. The gifts you get from these real people, the understanding they have of their own lives and their own jobs, is amazing. They share a lot, and they are proud professionals. I don’t ask them to be emotional. I don’t ask them to lie. I don’t ask them to act. I just ask them to react in a professional way, to see situations that they know. That makes them come off brilliant and authentic, if you ask me.

DT:  How was it working with the soldiers?

TL:  They do what they’re told. They show up on time. It’s not the same with actors, so in that way, it’s brilliant. Even if I only had two on a call sheet for the day, the whole platoon would show up and help us carry the lights. They came in and worked very, very hard to do the film with us. And it was a pleasure. It was a pleasure to feel how honest they were, to each other and to me about life in Afghanistan, and in that way I built up a very close friendship with them all. They’re all going to fly out to L.A. and celebrate the Oscars with us.

DT: I imagine making the film was important for them.

TL:  It turned out to be. I never ask questions when I start to work with people like this. I just wait for them to start telling. If I start to ask, it’s because I know what I’m looking for, and I don’t. So I would not ask too many questions, I would just listen, and suddenly all the stuff that you didn’t know you want to know becomes extremely interesting. It was small stuff, like the phone calls home to your wife with a broken phone line, and how do you manage to maintain an emotional connection to your family when you’re in the desert and they’re far, far away at home, scared, and afraid for your life? That whole complexity came from conversations with the soldiers. But not only the soldiers and the judge; the Afghans in this film are refugees from Helmand Province, so they all knew the reality as well and added the Afghan reality to this film. The Afghan family who we get to know really well escaped the war in Helmand on the back of a donkey. They would help me make sure that the village looked correct. I’m not amused by my own imagination. I love to get it right and understand the world around me, and these professionals and these real people help me do that.


DT: One of your inspirations, actually, is the documentarian Jorgen Leth, who is famous for his anthropological studies of people. How has he affected your filmmaking?

TL: Just watching his film I learned that you can get a lot of story told without being judgmental and without going into melodrama but just by looking at people. I think that’s fascinating. He taught me a very simple thing, which is that we are all trained throughout our lives to walk into rooms that we haven’t been in before, meet people that we haven’t met before, and still understand them, connect with them on a human level. What we often see in cinema is that we’re forgetting the audience has this talent. We’re almost asking them to leave that talent outside the theater and come in blank, like a page, and then we fill in all the blanks with all this kind of information that I’m not sure we need. I learned from Jorgen Leth that the cynical, honest, and nonjudgmental camera will be able to capture humanity and therefore, without being sentimental, will help you through situations you didn’t know of before.


DT:  You wrote the screenplay for Hunt, in addition to writing and directing A Hijacking and A War. In all three of these films, there’s a sort of hero character who becomes isolated from the group. Can you talk about that dynamic in your films?

TL:  When I was nineteen years old, I sold what I had, bought a train ticket, and traveled around Europe alone for a year. I remember being alone, and I remember being confronted with who I was. When you’re around other people, you pretend to be somebody, to fit in. Then, when you’re isolated and you’re suddenly all by yourself, you become the honest you in some way. I always found that it’s interesting to look at who we are when we’re part of the group and who we are when we’re left outside.

I don’t think there’s anything more challenging to human life than isolation. Basically that’s what I’m looking for in these dramas, to challenge our heroes as much as possible. Everybody knows that you can feel all right when you have your friends at your house and everything is great, then everybody leaves and suddenly you’re caught in that emptiness where it’s just you and all your thoughts. That can be a very scary place to be. I talked to a psychiatrist the other day about his work, and he said something really interesting: “I’ve started to keep my phone open for my clients after five o’clock in the afternoon because it’s not until the darkness arrives and people start to get isolated that the demons come.” I think there’s a very, very human truth to that, and that’s one of the things I’m looking for.

I view Scandinavians as a group of penguins. When it’s really, really cold, we get together and stand and turn our backs to the cold, looking in the same direction and trying to help each other keep warm. But if, by mistake or coincidence, you get pushed out of that circle and you’re left out in the cold, nobody sees it because everybody has their eyes turned away. And then you freeze to death. And that’s very brutal, of course, but nevertheless it’s a very precise way of talking about Scandinavians.


DT:  That’s an amazing analogy. Your philosophy in filmmaking, I think, seems to be best described as better too little than too much. How would you say that applies to this film?

TL: There are so many scenes that you would like to see about a wife being afraid of her husband dying, so many melodramatic scenes that could come in there, but they would remove the movie from reality. We never talk about what we feel. We always talk about other stuff, and through that we understand how each other feels. We don’t wait for a plot to begin. We live our lives and then stuff happens, and it’s not until years later that we even look back and say, “Wow, there was a connection between that choice and that choice.” We just do stuff, and the connection is created later. I feel that that’s a simple, simple way of understanding life; it’s a great way to try to understand storytelling as well. Often we don’t need that many setups and that many recalls and structural scenes that will make sure the audience understands what’s going on. People are very good at living, so they can watch a film for two hours—understanding a movie is not as hard as living, anyway, and that’s why I don’t need all that information in the stuff that I do.


DT:  You wrote and directed A Hijacking before doing the same with A War. On A Hijacking, did you ever find yourself as director looking at the script and saying, I’ve got to get rid of this scene or change this line of dialogue? If so, did that experience change the way you wrote the screenplay for A War?

TL:  When I write a screenplay for me as the director, I allow myself to be a little lazy and sloppy because I know I can fix it when we’re on set. When I write for Thomas Vinterberg, for example, my greatest job is to make sure the screenplay is fully proofed and that everybody who reads  it understands what the vision is. When it’s for me, I’m there to explain it anyway, so I can be a little looser about it. I always try to create situations that feel so natural that the actors really don’t need the lines I’ve written because it’s logical what they’re going to say and how they’re going to respond.

We try not to bring too many copies of the screenplay to the set. I rather want us to have a conversation about the scenes. I know what the scene is going to be about anyway, so we have people try it on, and then we have the screenplay as a secure place to go back to if it doesn’t work. So basically there’s a lot of guys who’ve never read the screenplay, and you’d be surprised how many of them actually say lines that I’ve written without ever reading them.

DT:  So you don’t distribute the script in advance?

TL: Not to everybody, and not all scenes. Some of the scenes you don’t need to know, because you don’t know what’s going to happen in real life, so if you know because you’ve read the story already, you’re not going to be surprised. And I need people’s surprise.


I never gave the actors the last five pages of the script, which means they didn’t know whether Pedersen was going to jail or not. The first take we did in the courtroom, I actually sent him to jail for six years. Everybody went mad and started to cry; they were angry with me because I did this dark tragedy, and they didn’t understand it. Then I said, Let’s do it again, and I ended up changing it for the second take, so now the judge came out and she let him go. Everybody was extremely relieved, and I do believe that the authentic relief we see in that scene comes from that.



DT:  Let me ask you about the testimony given at the trial by the different members of the platoon. Almost none of them came to the aid of their commander. Was there a sort of racial/ethnic divide in their testimony? I don’t know if I was picking up on something that wasn’t there…

TL: If you picked it up, then it was there, but it was not my intention. This can sound pretty naïve, but I just took the actors and the guys I thought were best for the part. I really didn’t think about ethnicity. It’s not part of my toolbox. I don’t want to control that. It’s part of life. I have Muslim friends, I have friends from everywhere in the world. They populate my world, and therefore they populate my films. It’s not a conscious choice of ethnicity and race, it’s all about who I found was good for the part.


DT: In the press notes, you’re quoted as saying, “I was never in a war, so I thought I’d start with something my sweet leftist mother taught me: ‘War is evil, and so people at war are evil, too.’  I wanted to challenge that inference.” Why did you want to challenge that inference, and how did that perspective influence the making of the film?

TL:  I wanted to challenge it because I believe that the world is extremely complex, and it’s extremely easy to sit on my couch at home and be judgmental when I watch the news and look at soldiers who have killed civilians and say, Well, they are evil and violent. I thought, Let me challenge that. I want to challenge stuff to become smarter and understand the world even better. I was brought up in the ’80s in Denmark, where the world was blue and red: in the cold war you were either a capitalist or a communist. That world disappeared in ’89 when the wall went down and the world changed.

I’m not a big celebrator of fixed ideas. I think that as soon as you think you know the truth, you can always find its antithesis. That’s a beautiful thing, and that’s part of evolution. And therefore I was a little provoked.

I love my mother. She’s great. And she’s a product of her time, as I am a product of my time. She brought me up believing that rich people stole their money from poor people. Maybe that’s partly true, but I realized it wasn’t the full truth. And I thought to myself, if I want to prove the complexity of war, I have to tell a story where I can get my mother to sympathize with a war criminal. If I can do that, then I’m getting close to the complexity of it all. That became a goal for me—to make sure that I could make a story where everybody could identify with a guy who ended up being a war criminal. I think the prosecutor at the trial is right when she says, “We cannot accept this” [i.e., his decision to save his comrades at the expense of the lives of Afghan civilians].

Even if we can understand it, we can’t accept it. But then again, having an emotional connection to his children and his wife, I’m not sure that I would want to send him to jail. To be able to admit that—if we can admit the complexity of our own emotions and the world around us like that, then I think that we have opened up to have a really important conversation instead of just standing in each corner and screaming, I am for or against the war.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Songs My Brothers Taught Me/Chloe Zhao

On the Pine Ridge reservation, Johnny dreams of leaving home, while his little sister Jashaun dreams of a better life for the family on the reservation. Chloe Zhao captures the spirit of the Lakota even as she captures the universal need to leave home. Availability:  Opens New York City Film Forum, March 2. Thanks to Adam Walker for arranging this interview.  


DT:  How did you come to be on the Pine Ridge reservation in the first place?

CZ:  I usually start out with the line I wish I had an amazing spiritual story for you, but I don’t. It was kind of by chance. I was researching a film in North Dakota, Devil’s Lake, where there are a lot of reservations as well. The concept of people living on a reservation, and the idea that there’s a line there and it’s a sovereign nation, and that’s where people call their home, is a really interesting concept to me. So I started researching more about reservations, and Pine Ridge is kind of the ground zero of all the struggles the reservations face. Around that time teen suicide was declared an epidemic. That was quite personal for me, so a couple of things combined together, and I just decided to take a trip there, abandon the film in North Dakota, and see if there was anything for me on Pine Ridge. I took that trip and the rest is history.


DT:  How did the film come about?

CZ:  The way I work is to gather as much information as I possibly can and try to figure out if there’s a story for me to tell. There are many intriguing and complex stories, but the one I was interested in was how these young people have such a dilemma about their identification toward their home and their very complex relationship with the land they live on; whether they want to stay or leave, what it means to cope with home. I myself have the polar opposite experience from the Lakota. I come from Communist China. I left when I was young, and I’ve been kind of drifting and not really identifying anyplace as home. That was something I wanted to explore, so the story line of a young man having to decide whether he’s going to leave or stay and what the consequences might be became the story.

I wrote the script for three years. I went through a bunch of labs, wrote thirty different drafts and did the casting, spending most of my time on the reservation, and then I couldn’t get money for that movie. I couldn’t get anybody to invest in the film with all these nonactors and me as a first-time female Asian filmmaker making a Native American film. A lot of my kids were growing up real fast, and I ended up having to let go of that script. I shot Songs My Brothers Taught Me with a treatment and a tenth of the budget.


DT:  How was shooting without a script?

CZ:  I probably wouldn’t do it again. I always joked that we were trying to capture truth because truth was the only thing we could afford. We had no money to stage anything. We couldn’t pay for production design or try to honor the plotty stuff I had in my script. The upside is that the limitation of shooting without a script forced me to accept what was in front of me. That turned out to be a great thing for the authenticity of the film. The downside is when you go into the editing room. We spent a whole year editing. We were really starting over, because it was in the editing room that we tried to figure out exactly what this film was. So there are pros and cons.

DT:  That’s frequently the way documentaries work, and there was certainly a documentary feeling about the film. Was that intentional?

CZ:  Like I said, truth is the only thing we could afford. It wasn’t intentional to say, Let’s shoot real events, let’s improvise—that came out of limitation. What was intentional? I’d gotten to know my cast really well by then, and I would try to get them to say and express whatever I wrote in a way that was authentic to them. I got the main thread of Johnny and Jashaun’s relationship and the fact that he stays in the end—that was clear in my head most of the time. Every morning I would write the script based on what we got the night before. And I would meet with my cast in the morning and say, How would you say this? Where do you think this should take place? Sometimes we would go to a location where we knew something like this could happen, whether it was a rodeo, a protest, a school, a prison. Sometimes we’d just improvise interesting things, like aspects of daily life that people outside haven’t seen before or details more plotty films ignore. I would try to include that and then get the story in there. That would be the intentional process.


DT:  This is not a criticism, but there seems to be much more focus on the negative aspect of their lives than the positive.

CZ:  I kind of disagree with that, but that’s a personal opinion, because if you had been there… The Native American audience is the easiest, because when you watch these things that they go through, it’s like their daily lives. To someone who lives in New York it’s so tragic and negative, but it’s important to me to be truthful, because why bother? Especially if I want to tell stories about a young person like Johnny or Jashaun, and their struggles. Why are these young people taking their lives? For me to sugar-coat it is not the right thing to do. Most importantly, I’m not showing the worst stuff. I have tons of footage if I want to really, really play that card, but I wouldn’t do that. I think I’m finding some kind of middle ground, because I do see the responsibility.

Hopefully one day there will be many different types of Native American characters in our media. You would never say, Do you feel your film only shows the negative aspects of New York City? You wouldn’t ask that because there are so many representations of people who live in New York, where it’s all white people, but you say that about Native Americans because we don’t see enough of them. Every time somebody makes something the stakes are so high. And that’s the bigger problem. I have plenty to say about that as well.


DT:  How was the film received on the reservation?

CZ:  That’s my favorite time to screen—not just on the reservation but any Native community. We’ve screened at many different Native reservations, three of the largest Native American festivals in the country, and we won a bunch of awards there: two best directors, best actress from the American Indian Film Institute and Red Nation Film Institute. Once in a while at a Q&A there’s somebody—it’s usually a liberal white audience—that says, “You see them drinking beer and screwing, blah, blah blah,” but Jashaun and I and a lot of people end up in tears when Native audiences come up and say, “That reminds me of my grandfather or my son, or me.” I wouldn’t try to make them into some kind of PG thing the mainstream audience can digest and feel comfortable with. That is not me spending almost five years doing this. I moved to Denver so I could be close to them. That’s not why I spent that big chunk of my life being there, that’s not what I would do.


DT:  Tell me about your use of music.

CZ: I was very fortunate because I did a Sundance Composers Lab, and the director of the music program and I really had a connection. I asked him to compose music for us, and I told him that we didn’t want the music to feel not of the place; we wanted it to feel like when you walk alone on the plains, by yourself and you see the storms are coming. We wanted the music to have that lonely sense of simple melody. We assigned a melody to Jashaun, one to their father, and one to Johnny. Since we shot without a script, we tried to repeat those to help bring out emotional consistency. We tried to use it as a tool but at the same time make sure that it felt like part of the place. We also tried to do a play on the old Westerns strings as well. We tried to make that raw sound of the strings a little gentler for Jashaun.


DT:  To what extent were you welcomed into the Native American culture?

CZ:  Culture or community?

DT:  Both.

CZ:  Culture in the sense of a traditional ceremony?

DT: Yes.

CZ:  I’ve been to all of them. Some I can’t take photos, and some I can. The Lakotas are very welcoming. There are other tribes that traditionally might be a little more conservative, but the Lakotas really embrace outsiders, and they want to share their stories and their experiences. Look, I’m Chinese. I look like I’m part of the community. I think that really helped. I have not actually participated as a sun dancer, but I’ve been to quite a few. And I’ve been to a lot of powwows. I met Jashaun at a Veteran’s Day powwow.

I found the Lakota culture not in traditional ceremonies but in daily things. When I was teaching in one the schools, instead of singing the National Anthem, they sing a Lakota national anthem. Very beautiful. I went to a funeral and loved just the way they celebrated a soul departing and how the community comes together. They sang “Amazing Grace” in Lakota. Even when I went to a Christian church—regardless of how you feel about a Wounded Knee Christian church—the pastor, who is Lakota, talked about struggles and trying to bring Lakota culture and the Bible together. I see it in everybody’s daily lives, and that’s something that’s still so strong. t doesn’t belong to the past. It belongs to the present.


DT:  Do you see this as a political film or a personal film?

CZ: I like to think it’s a personal film, but I can’t stop what other people are thinking. I studied American politics undergrad, where I focused on racial relations, so I think everything I make probably by default is somewhat socially relevant. There are so many great documentaries out there, and there’s so much information about all the issues Pine Ridge and Native Americans go through today, but for this film I wanted to make something that doesn’t talk about how different their experiences are but try to find something that we have in common. When I was screening in Cannes, people came up to me and said, “That reminds me of growing up in a small village in the south of France and having to figure out if I’m going to leave my family or not.” My Chinese parents, who barely spoke English, were crying through the movie because they understood the relationship with the mother and my leaving them. That to me is the power of fiction, because it does not allow the audience to necessarily sit there and say, Oh, this is terrible, this is suffering, I feel bad but this is their issue. If we’re successful, we at least try—I’m not saying we necessarily did it, but we at least tried—to have you not be able to not identify with someone like Johnny and Jashaun and their mother and at the same time talk about what’s specific to the Native American experience.


DT:  Is there anything you want to add?

CZ:  This is not supposed to represent all Native Americans on a reservation or all of Pine Ridge or all young people on Pine Ridge. I really hope one day we’ll get to a place where there are all different types of Native American characters in our mainstream media: romantic comedies, Breaking Bad–like dramas, sci-fi, all complex Native American characters. I really hope for that one day.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Colliding Dreams/Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky

Needless to say, Zionism means something different to everyone. It’s seen as salvation or disaster; never-ending or moribund; just or perverse. It stars in Jewish narratives, Palestinian narratives, right- and left-wing narratives, secular and religious narratives. It is thousands of years old and infinitely contemporary. In their quest for a more nuanced understanding of Zionism, directors Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky examine the history of the Zionist movement in relation to its present-day reality in the Middle East from the perspective of those who know it best: Israeli and Palestinian men and women who live in Israel and the West Bank. Combining interviews with contemporary academics, politicians, and regular folks on the street with archival footage in Europe and Palestine, Dorman and Rudavsky present a complex picture of the Zionist project from its beginnings through today. Click here for the trailer. Availability: Opens March 4, New York City and California, with national rollout to follow. Click here for local theater listings.  Thanks to Sasha Berman, Shotwell Media, for her help.


DT:  Theodor Herzl, one of the fathers of modern political Zionism, is best known for saying, “If you will it, it is no legend.” Yet you open the film with a different Herzl quote: “All the deeds of men are dreams at first and become dreams in the end.” Does this signal your feelings about the Zionist project?

JD:  We have been supporters of Israel and Jewish nationalism from the very beginning of our lives, and we continue to believe in the importance and legitimacy of Zionism.  We’re also well aware of the dilemma the state of Israel faces now. We both feel that if the right decisions are not made, its existence is in jeopardy.  Anyone would be foolish to doubt that now more than ever there’s a fragility to the Jewish state that doesn’t come just from the threat of terrorism, as great as that may be. One of the questions hanging over the entire film, and now over the entire project of Zionism, is the question of the fate of the Jewish state and the fate of the Zionist enterprise.

OR:  I think Herzl’s quote is speaking in larger historical terms; it’s a statement about the endeavors and dreams of mankind, like the famous poem “Ozymandias.” Just to differ with Joe, I don’t think the existence of the state is in jeopardy.  I think the state of Israel will survive.  The question is, what kind of state?  Is it going to be a democratic state?  Or a Jewish state?  Is it going to manage to be both? Or neither? That’s what’s in question right now.

JD:  The large question in our mind is two-state vs. one-state solution, and I think a one-state solution is not a solution that furthers the idea of a Jewish state in the end.


DT:  The film presents many competing views of Zionism, but two in particular caught my eye. Hillel Halkin believes that Zionism aimed to end the gulf between Jews and other people, while Orly Noy compares Zionism to a person escaping a burning building by falling on someone else’s head. You have one view in which Zionism normalizes relations between Jews and other groups, and the other in which Zionism essentially destroys normal relations.

JD:  A lot of people feel there’s an inherent tragedy in the Zionist project in the sense that in order to make a Jewish state, the consequences were felt by the Palestinians, and I think Orly’s acknowledging that. What we would say is that Zionism doesn’t have to mean the extinction of Palestinian existence. That’s an important message of the film and one of the things Palestinians have realized over the course of time. But Zionism is an overdetermined project, so I think those two quotes reflect that overdetermination.

OR: Falling on someone’s head, while painful, doesn’t necessarily kill him, and it also doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to live together. I don’t think we thought of those statements as contradictory.


DT:  In the film, a young man from Tel Aviv states that the process of Zionism should have ended once its goal—creating a place where Jews can live securely as a people—was achieved. On the other hand, a Jewish settler in the West Bank believes that Zionism did not come to an end when we established the state; for him, Zionism is a movement. Are these two competing views of Zionism: something that has a natural end vs. something that will never end?

JD:  What you’re pointing to is a fundamental tension right now between the settler movement and those who believe in a two-state solution. This was at the heart of the settler movement and the fight over it. We feel that the Zionist project has spiritual, emotional, and cultural elements, and that never ends. It’s part of a journey of the Jewish people.

OR: It also has social elements in terms of improving the condition of people in that state.

JD:  At the same time, what’s absolutely at odds here is the settlers’ notion of a permanent revolution—the notion that a revolution continues ad infinitum and if the revolution stops moving forward, the state dies. We don’t believe that. We fall into the two-state camp, which says that there are certain boundaries of the state that are important but that the Zionist project of giving the Jewish people self-sovereignty and autonomy ends once you have a viable state for the Jews. That is very much at odds with the notion that the Zionist project demands that the Jews take the whole land, the ancient biblical land. The fact that those two projects are very much at odds is why the future of the Jewish state, the future of Israel, is in question right now.


DT:  In the film, Moshe Halbertal says, “Zionism is almost a Promethean revolt against Jewish destiny and history.” Hillel Halkin says that Zionism is a rebellion against Jewish history in the name of Jewish history.  Can you address those remarks?

JD:  For the most part, the early Zionists were modernizers.  They were an outgrowth of the Jewish enlightenment, and they were a rebellion against a religiously dominated culture. In order to create Zionism, they reached back beyond two thousand years of diaspora history to a biblical nationalistic prehistory. So it’s a rebellion against those two thousand years of the diaspora, but it’s a rebellion in the name of Jewish values that existed prior to the diaspora as well as being  part of the diaspora. I mean, you can take the Jew out of the diaspora, but you can’t completely take the diaspora out of the Jew, even if they happen to be living in the land of Israel.

OR:  Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun talks about diaspora rabbis creating a spaceship: the religious attempt was to keep Jews within a bubble for two thousand years. The Temple was destroyed, so they re-created a tradition that could exist outside of that, which is Talmudic law. The Zionists who rejected that were looking for a purer, simpler connection to a land and to a place and to a heroic tradition that dissolved the fear that diaspora Jews have. That’s the Promothean revolt, and that’s what they’re both talking about.


DT:  Saman Khoury [General Director of the Palestinian Peace and Democracy Forum] was talking about a bitter debate within the PLO about what it meant to tell a Jew, “Go home.” Khoury’s view was that when a Palestinian tells a Jew to go home, he’s not telling him to go back to Poland. He’s telling him to get out of East Jerusalem.

OR: This is an amazing refutation of there not being a partner for peace. When the Palestinians and the PLO and the Arab League and Jordan and Egypt, who have a peace treaty with Israel, all accepted the notion of an Israel behind the Green Line, that was a revolutionary moment. Now, unfortunately, there’s perhaps a larger growing Palestinian movement epitomized by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that still doesn’t believe in the state.

JD:  In the film we show the trajectory of a growing mutual recognition that led to the Oslo Accords. That’s the hopeful trajectory, and there’s been a movement away from that since then. All the polls show that the majority of Israeli Jews continue to believe in a two-state solution whether or not they trust the peace process. It’s unclear to me how much the Palestinians believe in the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism. While that may be true on both sides, certainly on the Palestinian side there still remains a belief in some cases that Judaism is a religion and not a nationality.

The question of trust and what recognition means is still an open one. I fervently believe peace is necessary. I believe a two-state solution is possible. I believe that both sides can live up to a two-state solution, but I think there are realities on both sides that are very complex. I don’t think we are starry-eyed in any way about the complexity of the situation and how much more work needs to be done in order to create two states.

OR: I think it would be wonderful if Palestinians accepted the idea of Jewish nationalism, and I think it would be wonderful if the Chinese accepted the idea of American democracy, but the Chinese no more need to accept American democracy than Palestinians need to accept the idea of Jewish nationalism for there to be a peace treaty.  I don’t think you need to accept everything about a state in order to make peace with that state.


DT: Before the establishment of the state of Israel, Jewish immigrants would buy land from Arab landholders. As a result, Arab sharecroppers who had lived and worked on the land for many, many years were dispossessed. This privation led to a number of reprisals against the Jews. Diaspora Jews viewed these attacks as European-style anti-Semitism, plain and simple.  Were those attacks different from anti-Semitism, and if so, how?

JD:  Anita Shapira has written a wonderful book about this called Land and Power. Part of the problem with the Jewish-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the same problem a lot of international conflicts have: what people are conflicted about is not always a factual reality. It can be an imaginary situation. In this case, that was true on both sides.

After being victims of anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, the Jews arrived in Palestine, where there were attacks on them that were national in character. Palestinians were being dispossessed, so they were not necessarily attacking Jews based on the fact that they were Jews; they were attacking Jews based on the fact that they felt their national existence was being threatened. It was hard in many cases for Jews to see that. They saw the attacks as purely an attack on their Jewishness. At the same time, from a Palestinian point of view, rather than seeing the Jews as a people desperate for a home in order to protect themselves, they saw them mistakenly as a kind of imperial wedge. So what made the conflict and continues to make the conflict so intractable today is that you have this overlay on the part of both peoples where they project onto each other their own worst fantasies and fears. That prevents them from seeing the very specific factual basis of the conflict between them.

OR: It’s also important to point out that while the Jews who first came were buying land from Arabs, they were also employing Arabs to work on that land. When Jews came later, at the turn of the century, they came up with the concept of a kibbutz, where they were going to do all the labor and therefore didn’t need Arab labor anymore. A further complicating factor is the fact that clearly you’re dealing with two different religions. Events happening in Jerusalem, which were disputes over prayer space, were being riled up by Palestinian religious leaders to create tension between various Palestinian groups. So there are multiple levels going on: land dispossession was only one of the factors. We’re talking about 1929, 1936, a time when the world economy was collapsing and poverty was a huge issue around the world.


DT: I don’t mean to keep coming back to Saman Khoury, but he had a brilliant phrase: He said that when Palestinians started calling themselves Palestinians again after ’67, they were in a state of “euphoric dilemma.”

JD: One of the fascinating things about this whole history is that it’s much more complex than just a simple fight between Jews and Arabs. The Palestinians feel that they have been victims not only of Israelis but of other Arab states as well. This is a very complex, variegated picture in terms of nationalism and identity in the Middle East, and that comment by Saman Khoury only shows how complex it is. Even though ’67 represented another terrible defeat for the Palestinians, it allowed them to become Palestinians again within Israel, which they were not able to do in Jordan. The conflict is much more complex than simply Jew vs. Arab. The Middle East is a very old region of the world with a lot of byways and a lot of crevices in terms of the nature of the politics and identity. Saman’s line is a great example of just how ironic situations can get in that part of the world.


DT:  According to one of the people you interviewed in the film, Yitzhak Rabin believed a two-state solution was inherent to Zionism rather than a concession to Arabs.  Do you think that attitude is possible today?

OR: If we didn’t believe it was, then I would question the future of a Jewish state. Suspicion is much more at the basis of what’s going on in terms of prolonging the conflict. On the whole, I think that a large number of Israelis believe that the two peoples need two states. When we were interviewing Hanan Ashrawi [Palestinian legislator and activist who has served on the Palestinian Legislative Council and was the first woman elected to the Palestinian National Council], we talked about the post-Zionist notion that there should be a single binational state, neither Jewish nor Arab but both.

JD:  What times showed was that it was impossible for the two peoples to live together because of conflicts. I wholeheartedly agree with something Hanan Ashrawi said, which was that even if in the future there were to be a single state, at this point in time there needs to be two states. I’m a believer in two states. I want a Jewish state. The idea that somehow a single state will end the conflict is a utopian idea; in fact, a single state would probably be disastrous, considering the ethnic conflict among Sunnis and Shia alone within Islam. The notion that somehow Jews and Palestinians could live together in a peaceful state at this point in time is just not realistic, so I think that the two-state solution is demanded for both peoples. Ashrawi believes the Palestinians need a separate state as a means of asserting their own self-identity and sovereignty first—that is primary—and I think that’s absolutely true.

Some people say that if we could just have a single state, all the problems would end.  I think that’s when the real problems would begin. And that’s not the only reason I want a Jewish state. I want a Jewish state because I believe in the idea of Jewish nationalism, but it’s also clear from just a position of realpolitik that one state would be a potentially disastrous situation.

OR: I want to point out that in Israel today, many ultrareligious Jews don’t speak of the state of Israel, they speak of the land of Israel. To them, that is the more eternal thing. One can dismiss them, but I think that what they speak about has deeply influenced the settlers. Yoel Bin Nun said that the Jews of Tel Aviv have to understand where those settlers are coming from in talking about the land of Israel, and the settlers have to understand what the Tel Avivniks mean by a sovereign state: not just understand it but take it in and appreciate it. Understanding where your own people are coming from and what their understanding of a state is, is as essential to the survival of the state as is the Palestinian acceptance or the Israeli acceptance of a two-state solution.


DT:  What was the most painful moment for you while making the film?

JD:  Listening to the Palestinian point of view without being able to challenge it. I’ve done lots and lots of interviews over the course of my career, but one of the most painful moments for me was the first interview I did with a Palestinian, in this case Walid Mula, an Israeli Palestinian. Walid is an extremely sophisticated, college-educated man with a graduate degree, a very thoughtful man whose close friends are Jews as well as Palestinians. Sitting there and listening to his rejection of Zionism was incredibly painful.

He lives in Israel proper, and he elucidated the situation from his point of view, describing his own family history of land dispossession and political manipulation—all the reasons why he felt Zionism was inherently prejudicial against Arabs, why he could never accept Zionism, and why he felt it could never grant equality to Palestinians. This is not some fire-breather from Hamas, this is not a fanatic or radical, this is a very thoughtful man, and hearing him reject Zionism, which is so fundamental to who I am, and my own sense of Jewish identity, was very painful, because my natural inclination of course was to fight back, to challenge, to argue. Of course you can’t do that—in an interview you want to understand the other person’s point of view. That was the single greatest challenge to myself, and I learned, over the course of the project, to take in that point of view.

It was an enormous point of growth for me. This is at the heart of the issue for Jews and Palestinians. It often happens, and has from the very beginning, that acceptance of the other person’s narrative feels like self-annihilation. What both peoples have tried to achieve over time—with some success and many setbacks—is to believe, and to somehow embrace, an alternative narrative. To be able to accept a point of view that will never fully accord with your own without feeling that sense of self-annihilation is what I think is at the heart of the conflict.

OR: I referred earlier to Yoel Bin Nun’s perspective of Jews on both sides needing to hear each other’s narratives. The other obvious narrative that Jews on both sides have to hear and understand is the Palestinian, because there are multiple Palestinian narratives as well. It’s too easy to simplify, but they all need to be able to hear each other’s narrative without necessarily agreeing in any way.

The most difficult moment for me was interviewing Aryeh Eldad, a member of Parliament at the time, who said that the Zionist dream will not be fulfilled until the Third Temple is built. That to me was a painful and difficult moment to hear, because I think he was extremely serious. There was no tongue in cheek there.


DT: What do you want to accomplish with this film?

JD:  Our greatest ambition is that this becomes the centerpiece of a national conversation. We went into this believing that conversations about Israel and the Middle East often become shrill. There’s more heat than light. There’s defensiveness on the part of some Jews, and dismissal of Israel on the part of other Jews, but somehow the conversation lacks a certain kind of complexity. We were struck by the fact that the conversation in Israel over the nature and future of Zionism is in many ways much richer and deeper and broader than it is here, for obvious reasons—it’s their lives—but we feel that the best defense of Zionism is a recognition and an exploration of its history with all its flaws, as all nationalisms have flaws. Exploring that history and laying out all the various arguments is the best way to push the conversation here in America over the nature of Zionism, Israel, Jewish nationalism, and the Jewish state…to broaden that conversation for Jews of all ages, but particularly younger Jews who’ve grown up under the shadow of occupation. We grew up in the glory days of Zionism; it was a shining star. Any Jew who’s under the age of 40 has grown up under the shadow of the occupation. The film is not a polemic—it’s the opposite of a polemic—but we’d like to make a case for the possibility of believing in Zionism without having to whitewash it, without having to run away from its flaws.

OR:  What was important for us in making this film was to hear both sides and to make it possible for Jews who are strong supporters of Israel, maybe much more to the right than we might be, to hear Jewish Israelis and Palestinians across the spectrum. Many Americans, and I’m speaking mostly about American Jews, who visit Israel rarely see a complex vision of Israel’s history and its population. This film is a history, but it’s a history in deep recognition of contemporary issues. We intermix history with contemporary scenes because we wanted it clear that there’s a dialectic between that history and what’s happening today on the streets. The history and contemporary scenes play off each other quite deliberately.

I hope that this film, aside from creating a national dialogue, will be used very practically in schools and study groups. We’re putting together a study guide and website that will provide a larger frame than any film can provide. My goal is to educate the next generation, because clearly our generation doesn’t seem to have the answers, or if we think we have the answers, we don’t have the political clout to put them into effect, either in Israel or in the US. I believe Israel will be there for a long time, but what Israel will be is up for grabs, so it’s up to future generations to create a better future.

We’ve been asked by several people to make sure this film gets to Israel and to Israeli students, and we’re hoping to reach very much beyond the shores of the United States in terms of what that dialogue is. We have ambitious aspirations, but the bottom line for me, as somebody who grew up with this history, is to provide a history from a 2015 perspective that is not mythology but doesn’t ignore the mythology. The mythology is a part of what we grew up with. And there are multiple mythologies; all sides have their own mythologies.


DT: There’s one more thing I want to bring up. Because this is a film about Zionism from the perspective of people who live in Israel and the West Bank, you didn’t include the issue of Jewish identity, which is of interest mainly to diaspora Jews. At a Q&A after the film, Richard Pena told a story about being upset when his daughter drew an Israeli flag at Hebrew school. His response was, “I didn’t send her to Israeli school.  I sent her to Hebrew school.”

OR:  I think Richard Pena was really speaking in code about something else: Oftentimes people mix up Jews and Israel. That’s true on a very political platform today, and it’s why Orthodox Jews are getting shot up in a kosher butcher shop in France. Jews are seen as the same as Israelis or automatic supporters of Israel. Richard’s wary of that link, and rightfully so.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016