Caroline Champetier (Cinematographer)/Career Retrospective

Cinematography takes on new meaning when viewed through the lens of Caroline Champetier. Under her masterful eye, colors become characters, and human flesh acquires a heavenly corporeality. Her credits include Gang of Four (Jacques Rivette),  La Sentinelle (Arnaud Desplechin), Toute Une Nuit (Chantal Akerman), Holy Motors (Léos Carax), Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta),  Grandeur et Decadence d’un Petit Commerce de Cinema (Jean-Luc Godard). Her cinematography is brilliant because the way she sees is different from the way we see. Champetier’s work was recently honored by the CinéSalon series Caroline Champetier: Shaping the Light, at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York’s premiere French cultural center. Thanks to Natascha Bodemann for arranging this interview.


DT: Many of your films seem to have a color theme, like reds or greens or browns. Do you work those out with the director beforehand, or is that the job of the set designer?

Gang of Four © Cohen Media Group

Gang of Four © Cohen Media Group

CC: To find good ones for the movie, I choose. It can change. But the most important for me is definitely to have a good reflection for skin. The skin of the actress or actor is very important, so I go to that.

DT: Is shooting faces different from shooting objects?

CC: Definitely it’s very different, because skin is alive. Objects are not always alive. Light gives light to an object, but skin, a face, even without light, is alive. What you have to do is understand the light of the face, of the skin, and go with. The work is to understand, to go with, not just flash something but to see it. The question of the cinematographer is not just to see. It’s to understand, and it’s to go with.


DT: When you shoot the same location over and over again for scenes that have similar action, do you reconfigure the lighting every time?

CC: Yes. It’s different depending on the light of the day. If the set is indoors, I can organize something that’s OK for all day, because you know the sun is not going in. When it’s not this situation, I have to protect from the sun or go with the sun. It’s a question of what we have already spoken about, and definitely what is important for me is to spend time on the different sets of a movie.

DT: Before you shoot?

CC: Before I shoot. It can be days, it can be weeks. For The Innocents I worked weeks before the shooting. I spent a good time in the convent to see how the light was going on and to understand my possibilities for lighting.


DT: There are two shots in particular I’d like to discuss. In Gang of Four, you shoot inside the metro at a train going in the opposite direction, but you also have reflections on the window of the train you’re in.

CC: I like reflections. I think it’s very interesting to see reflections when you are in a car, when you are in a train. This is to give a different level of reality. And in this train you are outside the night, the town, of what is happening, what is in the train, with the light and the people going on. A different level of reality.


DT: The other shot was in Holy Motors. It’s very subtle. It’s the shot of a little girl in a red-and-white sweater. You start with a closeup on the girl and you pull out through the widow.

CC: Yes. It’s Leos Carax’s daughter. She was behind this window. It’s a zoom. There is a bit of reflection of the sky in the window, and this little girl is real and not real. Like an apparition.


DT: Let’s talk about how you make exterior shots. In Band of Four, there’s a really high-contrast shot, where two people are wearing dark jackets as they stand on a balcony overlooking the city. The sky seems really washed out, but you get this incredible detail in the city below.

CC: That was a time I made more contrast photography. There is a lot of detail because there was very good film stock at that time.

DT: What did you use?

CC: Kodak. I think it’s 5247. It was very, very good stock. I was really in love with Kodak color. It was a very stable stock for chromatic questions like that.


DT: Let’s go back to Holy Motors.

Holy Motors. ©-Indomina-GroupPhotofest.

Holy Motors. ©-Indomina-GroupPhotofest.

CC: Holy Motors was shot on digital. It’s the first time the American camera Red went to France.

DT: You used a Red!

CC: It was really smart shooting with the Red in France. I introduced this new captor. It was a very interesting thing to shoot with this captor. This camera was like a little box. I could be very, very little in the limo with this little box and my lenses, and it could also be a big, big camera when I wanted to put it on a train or on a dolly. It was like a construction beam. To wield your tool.

DT: The smokestacks and the golden statues on the bridge really popped against the gray sky. Now I understand why.

CC: Yes. For me it’s not perfect. I understand you, because it’s Paris, so it’s a poetic view of Paris, but for me it was not exactly what I wanted it to be. There is just a bit too much contrast.

DT: Did you shoot the entire film with the Red?

CC: Absolutely. But each time it was a different Red, because this little box, when I adjust the lenses with it, it can be like a Panasonic 100—a very, very, little one, and then when I put on a zoom… I can make my own tool. I think Red was very clever to introduce this camera because now all the masters wanted to have a little camera like that.


DT: Your whites are always spectacular. It’s almost as if they’re tinged with blue.

CC: Yes, white is really important. To have a real white, when we were shooting on stock, the time you spent with the colorist was important. But now you have infinite possibilities. The FRW is more large than what you see in reality, so you have to work before the movie to make the curve where you want it to be and to have the exact color you want. This is the great, great work now. You can see that in The Innocents, and you will be able to see that in Les Gardiennes, because I made a great deal of work on the color, and you see the color in comparison with the white.

DT: Is that an artifact of working digitally?

CC: Yes, yes.


DT: But when you were shooting film stock, how did you handle white?

CC: It was the way to light it. It’s the way to see it in comparison to the other colors. The time I spend with the lab to grade it. The grading time for me is very important time, when you grade the movie, while you are adjusting the color after the editing. I am very, very sharp on that. I am very demanding. You see I have a little eye deformation. I see four colors.  Everybody sees chrome, and I see quadrichrome.


DT: It seems like there are certain things that you love to shoot, like smoke, and cigarettes, and glowing lights. Do you ask the director to put those things in the film, and if so, what do you like about them?

CC: Yes, it’s important to have things like that, because it gives reality to the light. It gives speech to the light. Many American movies are very good with smoke, with fog. I think fog is a beautiful way to see light.

DT: It also works with reflection, since you only see the light because it’s reflected off the water droplets in the fog.

CC: Absolutely.


DT: What shoot did you enjoy the most? You’ve done so many, but which was your favorite?

CC: I think Holy Motors. It was incredible to shoot, because we prepared a lot. There was four months’ preparation, and when we started the shooting, we were really ready to achieve the movie. Of Gods and Men was a beautiful movie to shoot because of all these men, because of Morocco, because of the Atlas Mountains and this landscape. I also remember The Innocents, we were so close with all these women in the convent. It’s difficult to choose, because now I remember also shooting with Godard. It was such a deep time, such a learning time for me. It’s definitely difficult to choose.

Of Gods and Men ©Sony-Pictures-Classics

Of Gods and Men ©Sony-Pictures-Classics


DT: Speaking about Of Gods and Men, I get a lump in my throat whenever I think of the scene where they’re singing. Do you ever get emotional when you’re shooting?

CC: Yes. Definitely. Yes. Sometimes I even cry. Of course. I am the first audience. So if you’re moved, I am moved too. Yes of course.

DT: That’s a great image—you with the camera crying. That’s beautiful.  When did you know you wanted to be a cinematographer?

CC: It’s a strange story. I was a young woman, and when I understood there was no woman in this business, I wanted to do it. It was like a provocation.

DT: Did you have an interest in still photography before that?

CC: Yes. My father was an architect, and I was really trained to look, to see. My pleasure was with the eye. Definitely. I didn’t sing…for me, looking at is a real philosophy. A real position in life. And to be careful of what I see.


DT: God bless you for choosing that profession, because you are really extraordinary. Thank you.


Copyright © Director Talk 2017


1945/Ferenc Torok (director) and Gabor Szanto (screenwriter)

When two Orthodox Jews return to a small village in Hungary at the end of World War II, the local Christians are thrown into an ever-deepening personal and social quagmire. Director Ferenc Torok and screenwriter Gabor Szanto speak with Director Talk about the history behind this strangely beautiful film. •Availability: Opens November 1, New York City, Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, with national rollout to follow. Click here for trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Aimee Morris and Sophie Gluck, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

DT: What struck me most about the film was the absolute otherness of the Jews.

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) argues with his son Árpád (Bence Tasnádi) on his wedding day. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) argues with his son Árpád (Bence Tasnádi) on his wedding day. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

GS: In the original short story, they were Orthodox Jews whose clothes and behavior are different from the villagers’, so it was natural that we also represent their characters in the movie this way. This otherness comes from their religion, their tradition, their very strong morality. They came to this village for a religious purpose, for a moral purpose, and it’s an absolutely different kind of behavior from the villagers’ behavior, whose morality is deteriorated and who have very material desires, very, very money-centered desires. That is the opposition between the two main parts of the story.


DT: Ferenc, how did you go about capturing that as a director?

FT: The point of view of the survivors, the two Orthodox Jews, is basic in Gabor’s short story. After that, we built up the village society, starting with the young generation, the son of the clerk. Toward the end of our work—it was close to ten years we spent developing this script—we focused on the guilty parts of the society, the collaborators, the clerk, the policeman, the priests. That was our way of discovering this story: layers.

As for directing, the visuals were really important in this story. That’s why we use black- and-white as straight dramatic compositions. Also the expressivity is dramatic. It’s not really a dialogue movie; there’s a lot of silence and a lot of atmospheric voices, music, horses. This is really important. This is a non-dialogue movie, so the atmosphere is much more important.


DT: You captured the cult of silence really perfectly. How did that affect Hungarian society in particular?

GS: There was a long silence around responsibility for the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jews, because forty years of Communist regime didn’t help the process of focusing and making it clear what the responsibility was and how big the responsibility was. So the whole Hungarian society woke up after the political change in 1990 like from a dream, and they didn’t remember. The society didn’t want to remember, and it was lengthy work to put it into the center of the public debate. A very long process.

I absolutely remember that in the first one and a half decades of freedom, after 1990, it was very difficult for me to publish stories, not just on post-Holocaust issues but on contemporary Jewish issues, because the reviews, the cultural life didn’t care too much. People felt it belonged to a former age, the issue of religion is not so important, the issue of Jewish identity, the issues of post-Holocaust questions, we are over it now. I really felt walls around the topic—I really felt walls around me, because I constantly wrote these kinds of stories. A big part of my writings came from this source and used this material, not just post-Holocaust Jewish topics but Jewish lives, Jewish dilemmas under the Communist period, the questions of revival and the possibility of identity revival—or the failure of identity revival—after the political change. I focused on these topics, and  I felt the walls for a very long time.

In the last five to ten years, society has started to be more open to these topics, not only in the nature of protest but as a countereffect to Holocaust deniers and people who denied Hungary’s responsibility. Talking about these topics came as a counter-reaction, so the whole media became open and the whole intellectual life became open to these topics that were very important for me.

FT: And also in our generation it became an important topic. We are close to fifty now, the second or third generation after the war. We’ve become serious grown-up people, and we need to answer to our kids, so it’s also our own way to know the facts and react to them.

There was another problem. Along with the liberal democracy that emerged in the 1990s after the big Communist silence and taboo came the extreme right—sometimes fascists—speaking in everyday politics. Not only politics; in the pubs and in the street too. During the Communist time it was pushed down, and when it came out in the beginning of the ’90s, everybody started to get afraid: What’s going on?  Can we keep silent while they make these anti-Semitic topics again? So it was a counter-reaction, because not only good things came out with freedom.


DT: I’d like to talk about the artistic importance of the single gesture, like tipping one’s hat as a sign of respect.

FT: Yes, in Christian culture, but it’s a little bit opposite in Jewish culture. It’s really funny how gestures with the hat are really different in these two really close religious cultures. But these small details are just for really good critical viewers.

DT: That’s sort of what I’m asking. When you’re writing or directing, do you consciously say, What small detail can I  put in?

GS: Absolutely. There was a moment in this film, for example—the situation at the railway station when the young Russian stops the young Jew and wants to take his cap. While Ferenc was shooting, he called me and said, “We need a scene at the railway station.” There were parallel story lines, and we needed a scene there. In an hour I sent him the scene. It was wonderful, because in this moment we got the platonistic idea that this scene existed somewhere and we had to find it because it was so important: how the Russians behave in front of the young Jew. There is aggression and there is playing in it, and the older officer who feels it too much.

FT: There is peacetime now, so don’t get aggressive with these guys. The basic gestures are normal, but the first gesture is aggressive.


DT: In April, the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation hosted an event in Budapest to prepare educators to teach your film.

GS: We have a connection with the educators of the Shoah Foundation, and they created educational material for the film. It’s already translated into English, so it will be available in the US too.

It’s a very unique time of history and a very unique perspective on post-Holocaust issues, this question of homecoming, the meeting between the survivors and the local people in Hungary. Not just in Hungary; it’s a very European story. We won a prize in the Netherlands, where the audience said, “This is our story!” There were survivors in the Netherlands who went back to Amsterdam and found local people living in their houses. So it’s a very European story.

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) worries about his town’s unwelcome visitors, while Mr. and Mrs. Kustár (József Szarvas, Ági Szirtes) linger in the background. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) worries about his town’s unwelcome visitors, while Mr. and Mrs. Kustár (József Szarvas, Ági Szirtes) linger in the background. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

FT: And in France, and of course East Europe too. In the last few months, the reactions in the Western European countries are really new for us. There was a different development after the wars, with a capitalist liberal Holland or Belgium or France, while we in Hungary are this Soviet dictatorship. But we had the same taboo, and together we recognized each other, we being the small, secret collaborating countries who always said, “It was the Germans. It was the Nazis.”  It was a comfortable issue for a long time.

GS: Outsourcing the responsibility. It was not, as people said, the Germans but the local societies and especially the local political powers in East Europe who collaborated with the Nazis because they had their own agenda. What they wanted to have from the Germans, from the Nazis—they gave their loyalty for it.


DT: Hungary passed a law in 1939 making it legal to confiscate Jewish lands. That was one way that fascist regimes worked: they co-opted local populations. They had to give them something, so they gave them other people’s property.

FT: They corrupted them. And the Communists continued it later on.

Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) arrive via train to a small village in Hungary full of secrets. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) arrive via train to a small village in Hungary full of secrets. Photo credit: Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

GS:  There were several smaller anti-Jewish laws between 1920 and 1938, but from ’38 there were three very strong anti-Jewish laws against the community and private persons that step by step pushed the Jews from Hungarian society. In 1944, after the deportation, even during the process of deportation, the country offered a great part of Jewish property to local villagers, who got it at auction. They got the property at discounted prices. It was a very cruel tool to make the people collaborators, because the human being is weak. The human being can be corrupted.

FT: And the people were really poor.

GS: There was real poverty all over Central Europe, so it was a very easy way to corrupt the people. There is evil in human nature. There was anti-Semitism—and still is anti-Semitism all over the world in different levels—but it couldn’t happen without this kind of government gesture, this very tricky way of pulling the people into sins.

FT: It was evil business because the political power needed the factories. The commercial companies and the banks of course got involved. It was absolutely a different level, but they were in the same part of the story.

GS: Three or four years later, the Communist powers also did the same. They confiscated the factories, the fields, the big shops from the owners, from the bourgeoisie. They nationalized or gave some part of this property to other parts of society. They gave it to the poor people or they made kolkhoz from it.

DT: I never thought of it that way.

GS: This is a crucial point in Central Europe four years later—change in ownership of the property. Behind every political change there is this factor of taking the property and giving it to somebody else.

FT: That’s also a reason behind the taboos and the secrets. After ’48, after three years of the Holocaust and the war, the state backed everything, and society had no kind of property, no houses, no factories. It was a common Soviet example.

GS: If  you had a shop with more than five employees, it was nationalized. Everything belonged to the state. They killed private property.

FT: And in 1990 they started the new capitalism and redistribution of everything.


DT: Getting back to the film, how much is based on your short story, Gabor, and how much of it is autobiographical?

GS: It’s not autobiographical. It has historical records behind it, interviews, historical facts. It’s a fictional story, but I was involved in these stories because my parents were survivors of the Holocaust. They were kids when they were deported to Austrian camps by the Germans with the Hungarians’ help.

My grandmothers and parents survived. My grandfather died at the eastern front as a member of a forced labor battalion. Men of a certain age who had Jewish origins were sent there to work for the army because they didn’t get guns. They were secondary citizens. They had to go there, and they disappeared. I heard these kinds of stories from the family, and I was very much involved in them.


DT: How was the film received in Hungary?

FT: Good. We were afraid before the premiere. We’d worked on the film for twelve years, and the postproduction and distribution in Hungary were not easy. Nobody liked this movie.

GS: They were afraid of it.

FT: Everybody was afraid of it. We stayed with the project because we believed it’s a good movie and an important movie. We believed in the audience but of course we were afraid of the audience because maybe they’d say it’s against Hungary, or it’s not true, or it’s a Jewish movie…

GS: …and it’s black-and-white and it’s historical.

DT: It had everything against it!

GS: And in spite of all odds, there were 40,000 people who went to watch it, which in the case of an art-house movie in Hungary is a success.

FT: It was really important when international film festivals selected the movie, because after we had success abroad we started to release it in Hungary. It’s really surprising the reaction in Hungary is so positive. It’s not only from the Jewish community.

GS: It’s all over the media.

FT: The conservatives respect this work—not only the film, the whole gesture. Hungarians need it. It’s not a complete democracy, but I believe something is moving. We’ve grown up to the level of getting a mirror and thinking about the facts. We’re working on it.

GS: Ninety percent of the reviews were absolutely enthusiastic. They realized that the movie is partly symbolic but it touched the problem in a very realistic way. It has a very strong moral but it’s not judgmental. It’s very realistic. It shows the colorful reaction of the soul, the human being, it doesn’t want to homogenize, it’s not a stick with which you beat somebody’s hand. It tries to understand what happened; how could that have happened?

FT:  Also important are the different relations and points of view about the old guilt. The characters aren’t just black-and-white, guilty or innocent, Hungarian is bad, Jewish  is good. No. We worked on different attitudes and different ages, different ways of thinking. We are not homogeneous. Hungarian society has differences—women, young people…


DT: I was also struck by how anonymous the Jews were. They were just sort of…

GS: Ghosts.

DT: Exactly. The audience has no idea who they are. They are catalysts. They aren’t really characters.


FT: I think this secret is the best idea of the script and the short story. If these two Jews were from the village and knew the villagers and wanted something from them, it would be a drama, verbal, maybe with fighting. But this way the gossip starts…

GS: People wonder who they are…

FT: It’s like a bad dream or a frustration, where everybody stays alone with this scene.

GS: Because the secret—and everybody has secrets—of who they are catalyzed the process. People have to come out with their secrets, they have inner conflicts because their secrets come up.




DT: How did your actors respond to the material the first time you showed it to them?

GS: They loved the screenplay.

FT: Peter Rudolf, who plays the protagonist, had a really, really good attitude. When he read the script, he understood everything. It’s not really a complicated story, but we need to understand it. Of course it wasn’t easy, because Peter needed to gain fifteen kilograms and become bald. He’s a comedian and a well-known Hungarian actor, but he believed it was important. It’s also a really good turn because it’s a different role for him. It’s not a positive character. But for an actor a negative character is sometimes much more interesting.


DT: Can you talk about the music?  When the Jews approach the cemetery, there was a melody that sounded very much like Kol Nidre [very solemn prayer recited on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement].

GS: It is, it is, by Jancsi Toll, a Gypsy musician from 1924.

FT: It’s an archival recording of Kol Nidre by a Gypsy violinist.

DT: Why was a Gypsy playing Kol Nidre?

GS: In Central Europe there were several klezmer bands that played with Gypsy musicians. The Gypsy musicians knew the tunes of the Jewish melodies, and Gypsy and Jewish musicians played together at wedding ceremonies or other occasions.

FT: The violin is a Gypsy character in Hungarian or East European music. They are so good and so sensitive.

DT: But why Kol Nidre? It’s not a wedding song at all.

GS: It’s a big question. Kol Nidre has a concrete meaning. For me, who knows what Kol Nidre is, it was a bit strange, but it was so strong, it was so powerful, and in a way it represents the Hungarian guilt and the Hungarian confession of guilt by way of a Jewish melody. It’s an artistic mixture.



Copyright © Director Talk 2017


Divine Order/Petra Volpe

Where did women not have the right to vote until 1971? Where did they still need their husbands’ permission to work in 1988?  Where do political parties still advocate no punishment for rape in marriage? The Middle East? Africa? Central Asia? No: It’s Switzerland, where the church says that women who vote violate the divine order. In Divine Order, Petra Volpe tells this historically bizarre story with a good deal of insight and a great deal of charm. Switzerland’s submission for the Academy Awards Best Foreign-Language Film. •Availability: Opens October 27 in New York City, Film Forum. Click here for trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Jessica Uzzan, Hook Publicity, for arranging this interview.


DT: When Americans think of Switzerland, we think of mountains. We rarely think of the people or the social history. Is Switzerland such an enigma to other countries as well?

PV: Switzerland was very good at pushing a very particular image. After 1945 there was a very conscious process of the Swiss creating a very positive image of the country. There are a lot of positive things like the Red Cross and the chocolate, but there was a big scandal in the 1990s when the banks were sued because they had hidden all this Jewish money—that was the first time Switzerland got a little black mark. But I think in general Switzerland was very successful at consciously building a very positive image. Every country tries to do that, but Switzerland was really very successful.

DT: It almost feels like a world apart from Europe.

PV: It is, actually. Switzerland is not in the EU. It always kept to itself. It has always had a very special position within Europe: It wasn’t harmed by the wars, not the First World War or the Second. In the Second World War all of Europe was in ashes, burned to the ground, and Switzerland was like a little oasis.

I believe that contributed to the conservatism in the country. There’s very much a notion in Switzerland that we must be doing something right. Our little system must be OK as it is, let’s not change anything. A woman’s right to a vote would change things in our society and we don’t want that. We want to maintain the old traditional Switzerland because it’s good for everybody. So there was also a very nationalistic idea why Swiss women shouldn’t vote. It was considered anti-Swiss to be for the right to vote.


DT: Can you talk about the real suffragette movement the film was based on.

PV: As I found out in my research—I didn’t learn any of this in school, because it doesn’t exist in schoolbooks in Switzerland—

DT: Still?

Divine Order_March_650 resize

A scene from THE DIVINE ORDER. A film by Petra Volpe. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber

PV: I think there are certain chapters in the schoolbooks now, but when I went to school there was absolutely nothing. Of course I knew that women didn’t get the right to vote until 1971, but we didn’t read or learn anything about the hundred-year history of women fighting for the right to vote, about this very, very rich women’s movement. These women in Switzerland were internationally connected, they were networking, they were going to international congresses, they were doing political work, but it was like a parallel society of women doing very important social and political work but not being allowed to vote.

DT: They were doing this work in Switzerland?


PV: And also internationally, supporting other women. They petitioned, they put forward a lot of motions, for a hundred years they constantly said we need the right to vote, you can’t deny it to us. In 1959, the first time men went to the ballots with this— Switzerland is a direct democracy, so the men voted on it—it was struck down. It’s the only direct democracy where it happened like this. Sixty percent of the men were against women’s right to vote. 1959 was already so late. Here [in the US] they had it in 1920. In Germany, all of the surrounding countries, women had the right to vote already for twenty years, but in 1959 in Switzerland the men struck it down. It was a huge humiliation for the women in Switzerland and also for all the organizations that worked so hard to bring it to the ballot. It took another twelve years until they voted on it again.

But it wasn’t a case of the women sitting back and waiting submissively until they were given the right to vote. They were fighting for it, but they were ignored by politics. It wasn’t just the population that was against it. The politicians and the churches didn’t support the idea either. In 1971 they were about to sign a human rights treaty in Europe [Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms], but they wanted to sign it with a special chapter saying “but in our country the women can’t vote.” That gave the last push to the women’s movement, which said, There’s no way you’re signing this without us having the vote. Internationally it was so embarrassing for the Swiss that they just couldn’t keep it up anymore. So they supported the women’s right to vote because they were embarrassed internationally—not because they thought it’s so unfair towards our women.


DT: Divine Order is very dark in some ways, but it’s also very humorous.  How much did you veer from the reality of the real-life right-to-vote movement?

Trogen, Appenzell, Schweiz, 23. Maerz 2016 - Die goettliche Ordnung, Standbild Film Szene 73.

A scene from THE DIVINE ORDER. A film by Petra Volpe. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber

PV: What I tried to do was really capture the atmosphere of 1971. I wanted to make a very sensual story. I didn’t want to make a school lesson. I wanted to really look at the times and what it meant for women to live in these times; to make it almost a physical experience, how they were treated like objects, how they were treated like little children who couldn’t make their own decisions, who couldn’t go to work if they didn’t have their husbands’ permission. So it wasn’t really about depicting this whole movement but depicting this moment in time, showing how women were treated, and how realizing that the private is political, which is a very, very universal topic that can bring this person, this Nora, a very simple wife and mother who was a little bit like my mother, into motion. I felt that it was also very timeless. She’s definitely a woman of her times, but the process she goes through is also very timeless. We see it in the media today, happening now with all these women coming forward to talk about how they’ve been sexually harassed and abused. this whole thing was brought into motion by one woman speaking up. She made the first step, somebody wrote about it, and now all these women come out in solidarity. I think there is power in that.


DT: Switzelrand has four language groups. The one depicted in Divine Order is Swiss German. It was an extremely oppressive culture, not only to the women but also to the men—the grandfather in the film absolutely destroyed his sons. Can you talk about that specific culture.

PV: It’s very Swiss. The grandfather is modeled a little bit on my Swiss grandmother. The French part of Switzerland is a little bit more progressive, and they’re always very angry with the German-speaking part because they’re politically more conservative. They vote more conservatively, and the French don’t like that. The Italian part of Switzerland is also more conservative. The French part is really the most progressive and the most leftist.

The village in the film is like a metaphor for Switzerland. It’s a deeply conservative society, and it was not good for men and women. There was a lot of social control and a lot of ideas about what is a true man and what is a true woman. All these ideas were supported by the church, who said, This is the divine order. This is what a man is, this is what a woman is, and if we start to disrupt this order there will be apocalypse. That was really still an argument in 1971—they said it’s against divine order that women go into politics. God didn’t intend for women to be political. So the women in 1971 weren’t just up against the men; they were up against the divine.

DT: That’s a tall order! Are you speaking about the Lutheran Church?

PV: Switzerland is very Protestant and Catholic; it’s a mixture. The most conservative areas of Switzerland are Catholic, so the Catholics believed that if women vote, it will disrupt the peace in the family, the couple will fight, politics is dirty, women shouldn’t do dirty work. All of the arguments used by the antagonist in the movie—who is a woman—are all original quotes from their propaganda. I didn’t invent them. They would actually say that emancipation is bad for women. It’s a great gift that you can work for your family only. It’s against the divine order. I took that title from original material.

DT: Did the Protestant and Catholic churches work together?

PV: When it came to the women’s right to vote, they were pretty much on the same page. They wanted to maintain a traditional family, and for that they needed the women at home. They also had this image that if women go to vote, they don’t do the housework anymore, they don’t cook. It was very exaggerated, really propaganda. They also had these shows on television where professors would explain why women shouldn’t do politics. They created a science around it, how women are more for the inside and for the family, their brains weren’t wired for politics. They had a science proving that…even in 1971.

A scene from THE DIVINE ORDER. A film by Petra Volpe. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber

A scene from THE DIVINE ORDER. A film by Petra Volpe. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber

I really love one of their posters. You see a cradle and a baby falling out of the cradle. The window is open and a black cat sits in the window, and it reads, “Mother went to the ballots.” One of my favorite arguments is, “Look what happened in Germany when the women were allowed to vote. They voted for Hitler.” That was one of the arguments why women shouldn’t vote in Switzerland—they could vote for a potential new Hitler!

DT: Where are the mountains? Where’s the edelweiss?

PV: Unfortunately I’m ruining the nice image.


DT: That’s OK. How much has the country changed since women got the vote?

PV: Of course it’s changed, like it’s  changed here. I grew up with more liberties and freedom than my mother and grandmothers, and laws have changed. Marital law changed in 1988 so that a woman didn’t have to ask her husband for permission to work or open her own bank account. It took another many more years for marital law to be changed. Only thirteen years ago they voted on whether rape in marriage is punishable. There was still one party that was against the punishment.

DT: This is the image we have of Saudi Arabia.

PV: Exactly, and it’s not so long ago. We were always pointing a finger at them and saying, Look how primitive they are. I have a very good quote. One of our politicians was speaking to the Chinese minister, talking about human rights, and he said, “When did you women get the right to vote in Switzerland?” i thought that was a really good answer. We always think it’s so far away, and what they’re doing is so cruel and horrible. No question; women’s rights is a huge issue there, but we have enough shit in front of our own doors.

We can see the whole thing happening right in front of our eyes right now with the Harvey Weinstein scandal. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. So you ask if Switzerland has changed. Yes, it did change, the law changed, women are studying, a lot of young women feel they’re free to do what they want, but if you talk to them after they’ve become mothers, you can still say that a woman’s life after she gets married and has children goes back to the 1950s. That’s a bit exaggerated, but it’s true. Switzerland is still very conservative. It doesn’t encourage mothers to work—I I think Switzerland rates very, very low when it comes to support for mothers who want to work. Underneath all these changes there’s still the very traditional idea that a mother stays home with the kids and the husband brings home the money. We don’t have pay equality.

DT: We don’t have it here either.

PV: Yeah, it’s like here. We don’t have enough women in politics, we don’t have enough women in high positions in all kinds of industries and work environments. There’s a deeply rooted gender bias, and it’s as rampant as it is here [in the US] and everywhere else.


DT: Did you have trouble making the film?

PV: Actually, no. Because everybody was a little bit ashamed, they were like, Oh my God this is such a horrible part of our history we should support this film because maybe we can redeem ourselves. I had quite a hard time to get money for my previous film, about human trafficking in Switzerland. Then I wrote Heidi, which was very, very successful, so I already had a little bit of a track record. For this movie we got all the federal funds we needed. We got a lot of support, because these cultural organizations really saw the necessity for the movie and its timeliness also, so that’s a good thing.


DT: Can you talk abut the Swiss film industry? The only thing most Americans know about it is Alain Tanner.

PV: That was a long time ago.

DT: Exactly.

PV: The Swiss film industry is not really an industry. It’s extremely small. We have federal funding and state funding, so all our films are funded. There’s hardly any private money in our films, which is a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is you can get screenplay funds and treatment funds, so if you have a good producer and you write stuff that people want to see, you get paid for writing. I haven’t written a single word in the last fifteen years without getting paid. That doesn’t happen for writers here, because you first write, then you might get paid or not.

Of course it doesn’t work like this for everybody. The funding system also has a dark side, because it’s sometimes very random. When they didn’t give me the money for my human trafficking film, we couldn’t have done the film if my producer hadn’t stepped in. Then you don’t know: Is it a political decision? It’s always dependent on who the people  are on these juries. You may be unlucky, or they’re people who have a beef with your producer or are biased against you for some reason. It’s such a small scene, where  everybody knows everybody, and on these juries are all the people from this business. They’re not objective, and that’s a huge problem with the funding system in Switzerland.

DT: What about international coproductions? Can you look for money outside Switzerland?

PV: You can, but it’s not so easy. You can look for money in Germany, but of course the Germans also have a funding system, and usually they want to give the money to their people. There are also coproduction possibilities with France, but that doesn’t apply to every movie. This movie, for example, is such a Swiss topic that we knew we weren’t likely to get money. We thought we’d be able to  sell it internationally once it was made and it will be easier once it’s clear that it appeals to an international audience, but on the paper, people woulf say, “Why should we fund this movie? It’s completely Swiss, it’s about Swiss history.” So for this movie we really had to find the money within the country. That’s why we had a really small budget for a historical film, and it was only possible because I had the most amazing crew: a lot of women. Director of photography: woman. Composer: woman. Set designer: woman. Costume designer: woman. A lot of other positions: women.


DT: Good for you!  How’s the film dong in Switzerland?

PV: It’s a huge box office success. We can say it’s the Wonder Woman of Switzerland.


Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Human Flow/Ai Weiwei

In Human Flow, Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei documents the worldwide refugee crisis, combining the power of his nuanced aesthetics with his firsthand experience of exile. There are currently seventy countries that wall themselves off from their neighbors, he tells us, denying refuge to millions fleeing war, genocide, famine, and the effects of climate change. In his quest to bring us to our senses, he visits refugees at walls and camps in Turkey, Greece, Palestine, and the United States, reminding us that this is an international problem whose solution requires the full measure of our intelligence and empathy. •Availability: Opens in New York and L.A. October 13. Click here for theater listings, tickets, and trailer. Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.


DT: Let’s begin with the title. In English, it’s “Human Flow.” When you think of flow, you think of something natural, like water or air. But the human flow in the refugee crisis is completely man-made. It’s completely unnatural. Does the Chinese title also have that same juxtaposition?

Hungarian border guards from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

Hungarian border guards, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

AW: The Chinese title is even worse. “Human flow” in Chinese means ‘man-made abortion.’ China is never going to play this film; besides North Korea, China is the only location that never bought distribution rights. Even areas where we filmed refugees—they all bought it. Turkey, Israel, the Middle East, they all bought local rights to distribute it in theaters. But that’s another story.

Back to human flow:  if we’re not talking about war, if we’re not talking about hatred or differences or religion or all those arguments, then it is a human flow. Even the flow in water is caused by some unknown reasons. Since early civilization, records show people coming out of Africa, then maybe a thousand years before Jesus Christ, the Jews left Egypt.  You can call them all refugees. You can look at those facts as human flow, because we’re always trying to find a new place that is more suitable or where we can survive or have a more prosperous life.

DT: That’s the point you make at the end of the film.

AW: Yes, because we have to look at it more in that way to understand that this is human nature. It’s human dignity and rights to have the choice [to move] or to help those people.


DT: It’s a very powerful film. For me, one of the sources of its power is a juxtaposition between microfocus and macrofocus. Was that intentional?

AW: Yes. I had a strong intention to have the maximal understanding of the words of human beings and also refugees’ vocabulary of the flow itself. But I also wanted almost a poetic portrait of a human being. It could be children, oddly, or women, or the tiger that people loved so much that they had to rescue it [from one of the refugee camps]. The film has humor but also both very historical grand thinking and the texture of a real touch, a cup of tea, a blanket, all those kinds of necessities.

A drone shot from the film HUMAN FLOW, by Ai Weiwei. Kutupalong Camp, Ukhia, Bangladesh.

Drone shot, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei. Kutupalong Camp, Ukhia, Bangladesh.

It is created also in the image. We have drone [shots] from an abstract indifferent look to gradually seeing human activity, which is really on the surface, it’s not deeper or above. It’s right on the surface. Then you have some kind of understanding of those problems that really are created by human beings, which make some of us so miserable and pitiful that they couldn’t survive another day, or even if they could survive another day, they don’t have a future. Those people are sacrificed. Wasted. On the other hand you have to listen to their stories. Once they start to talk they have to stop, because it’s hard for them to even repeat. And they all have the same stories. It’s about human cruelty and violence, abuse and neglect.


DT: In the film you say seventy countries now have walls to separate them from their neighbors. There have been a number of films about the refugee problem that focus specifically on Europe, but you look at it all around the world, recognizing it as a universal problem. This puts the responsibility for solving it on everybody, everywhere. As you said in your film Disturbing the Peace, “In clarifying the facts for Tan Zuoren, we are clarifying them for everyone.”

AW: I always see humanity as one. If someone’s rights are violated, we are all deeply hurt. Even if we don’t know it, it still hurts us. If we know it, we have to act on it. In any kind of religion, to save one life or to help one life is the highest ritual. Nothing can be higher than that. So we all know those things and then we all…

A Rohingya refugee woman in Kutupalong Camp, Ukhia, Bangladesh, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

A Rohingya refugee, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei. Kutupalong Camp, Ukhia, Bangladesh.

But modern life is often cut off from responsibility. We all feel, What can we do? This is so big. I made this film to say, Yes, you can do something. This is a film made by an artist. You can make one piece, or you can tell your children that that these kids in refugee camps will never go to school because such a thing is happening. We always have to share this compassion with other people, otherwise how can we call ourselves human beings?

Each generation has to define those values. You can never take freedom for granted. It’s not possible; it will rot. It rots immediately. This kind of effort I’m making is just one person’s effort. Every situation is there, and I can only grab very little, a tiny fragment compared to what kind of darkness humans are being treated to in history. It’s a way we understand ourselves. I think it’s necessary to understand our own position.


DT: You don’t swim. Did that create a visceral connection for you when you filmed the refugees arriving in boats?

AW: My primary visceral connection was my childhood experience when my father was exiled. Every refugee in the world has twenty years, on average, of living in exile. I had my ten years growing up in a very remote area after we were pushed out from our home. I was born the year we were sent into exile. Ever since then I never had a home. Ten years is not a short time. So that gave me a backdrop for how I can feel naturally as part of this unjust condition. I can sense those people. I can feel their fear, their sorrow, and I can also enjoy the moment they feel happy.

Refugees in Kenya, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

Refugees in Kenya, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

Many of them feel happy. You see big families, thirty people, and you can see there are still family ties there. People sharing, the older people are respected. If you offer something to the children, they  often ask their parents, “Should I take it?” They have dignity. They’re not beggars. They come only because if they didn’t come, they would die, so they only made one choice—to stay away from death. Europe or other nations try to find an excuse to push them away or store them in Turkey or somewhere else; they even pay money as long as the refugees don’t come to European land. It’s very selfish and very shameful.


DT: You refer to climate change in the Africa sequence in Human Flow. You’re currently doing a series of talks in New York City: are you finding that people are not aware that climate change plays such a big role in the refugee crisis?

AW: It’s obvious that climate change is not only about playing a big role in the refugee crisis. Before the Syrian war, there were seven years of drought that made the area very unstable. It could be that things happening in Houston could happen every year. New York now has the longest summer; it’s October but it’s still so warm. Humans have such a short time on earth, but we’re experiencing such dramatic change. That means something. That means the end has come. It’s not an exaggeration. Many, many scientists have said that with this kind of change, we can easily predict the future. I really believe in scientific research because it all comes out of clear analysis, but I can also sense that our condition, our ecosystem, our environment, is in a very fragile condition. Think about the fact that thousands or millions of planets don’t have life. Why? Either they don’t have this kind of miraculous condition or they’re too close to the sun or too far away. They’re too hot or too cold.

We are very fragile. As humans we cannot take such change, but we are not really appreciating the whole beautiful miracle, human development, culture. Instead we are very blind or very greedy or short-sighted. We still have so many nuclear bombs. One day if we don’t stop them, they’re going to be used. It’s a very dangerous world we’re living in, but it seems we sleep very well. Yes, there are lots of nuclear bombs around us, but we sleep well.

Idomeni refugee camp, Greece, from the film HUMAN FLOW by AI Weiwei.

Idomeni refugee camp, Greece, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

DT: Exactly so. Can we talk a bit about your use of objects and rituals in your films. In Human Flow, the final shot, which starts on the backpack and then drones out, was very reminiscent of the piece you did with the backpacks honoring the girl who died in the Chinese earthquake. There are also objects, like a doll, and rituals, like a haircut, in Human Flow that you echo in your music video Dumbass.

AW: Yes, my son cut my hair in Dumbass. I don’t even make those connections, but now that you say it, I’m shocked to realize, Yes, I did that. Very often people have to remind me, because I never really make those connections. They’re under my mind but not intentionally connected.


DT: You think very big. Human Flow is big, the Unilever Series sunflower seeds exhibition at the Tate is big, your installations are big, the backpack piece was big. Can you talk about your notion of scale?

AW: As human beings we are lucky enough to have imagination. Our hearts can be so big, we can imagine beyond the physical boundary. Humans are so beautiful in that. That’s why we have poetry, we have music, we have art, because we really think big. We can look at ourselves from another planet. Only human beings have this kind of self examination to reflect ourselves in a much, much larger condition. I think this is a quality when we talk about humanity. We always have to ignore the differences but find humanity as one. That’s something we all need to protect, just like immigrants. It’s our spiritual environment to protect the dignity of human beings, and only by doing that will we have some moment of peace, of understanding, and to have the real true relations with nature. We appreciate this moment that God or whoever gave to us as human beings. This is really such a privilege to be a human being, but very often we’re not conscious about it. We’re always distracted by some difficulty or some kind of responsibility. There are so many reasons in life to make you look in a mirror. Just look at yourself. You would love it, you would say, Oh my God, everything is in this body. We are all so amazing. It seems everything is prepared for us, but we may also finish this off fast.


DT: Let’s talk about the Internet, which you use a lot. You Instagram a lot, you Tweet a lot. On your website you frequently refer to netizens. But don’t you find the Internet a double-edged sword, especially when you speak of being distracted?

AW: It’s true. You can Tweet, but Tweets are not real writing. Profound writing takes time, being careful with words, to put all the energy in something, one paragraph, one chapter is so profound and beautiful. So yes, we are very much benefited by sharing information and knowledge and free association and expressing ourselves free and fast, but at the same time we’ve lost a moment of solitude to be alone, to think something over, and to give more time to something which always can be very profound, so it is a double-edged sword, as you say.


DT: You’re doing a number of installations around New York to support Human Flow. What’s the relationship between the installations and the film?

AW: I did many installations and artworks while shooting this film. Maybe I had ten museum shows, and all had a refugee topic. Some are two dimensional, some are three-dimensional installations, some are films, or photographs, or wallpaper or objects. By every means necessary I want this to bring attention to what I’m doing and also to what I see happening in the world.

Always I want to establish a true relationship between me and the world. It’s not really for anybody else. It’s a really selfish way as an artist to reestablish the true relations between the so-called yourself and the world outside of you. Film is also an extension of that, but they’re all [i.e., the installations and artworks] a little different, because they all adjust for a different audience. Film could be the most popular audience because films look so real and the language is easy to understand and it generates emotion and knowledge.

At the same time, I’m doing a large project called “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” It’s a Robert Frost poem. It talks about who you want to fence out and what you’re really fencing. It’s an interesting topic. We talk about water, territory, fences, and in such a beautiful, beautiful capital of immigrants, New York City. The whole energy and color and imagination of this city is because it’s so mixed. It’s never one type. You never feel you’re a foreigner here, you’re just one of the varieties. I spent ten years here and I love the city. If I can contribute something to this city, I would be very proud.

It has to do with my understanding of what this city is about, so dealing with immigration and this refugee condition is what I think is the right work. We make about three hundred hundred pieces through all five boroughs, at every level, from subway station to bus station to some landmark locations such as Washington Square or Central Park, or right in front of the Plaza hotel two blocks away from Trump Tower. All those locations deal with the city’s element and the people who are using the city who experience these works. It will start October 11.


DT: You lived here in the ’80s. Do you find that the city changed a lot?

AW: The city started to change a lot in the early ’90s when Giuliani became mayor. There was a lot of gentrification, but it was also a time for globalization, so it wasn’t just him. Time changed in the ’90s.

DT Do you address that in the installations? Gentrification causes its own sort of migration.

AW: It’s very hard to address it, but we have a lot of poetry, statistics, and writing on the posters in the bus stations. It’s true, but it’s nature. Somewhere becomes gentrified, somewhere else becomes abandoned.


DT: I know that you say the film establishes your relationship with the problem, but I see it as a call to action. What action would you like people to take?

AW: Once you make something like this, you have one hope. I want people to see it. They don’t have to like it, they can criticize it, but at least they should see it. There’s something to see and to learn from it.


Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Wrestling Jerusalem/Aaron Davidman (writer/actor)

Wrestling Jerusalem is an anomaly on many levels. It’s a film made from a play. It’s a one-man show that incorporates seventeen different characters. The seventeen characters represent disparate, often colliding, views of Israel and Palestine: Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian, American, male, female. It’s a piece that accepts fragmentation and disunity even as it coheres into a single powerful idea. In fact, actor/writer Aaron Davidman infuses his remarkable solo performance with so much intelligence and skill that Wrestling Jerusalem is for everyone. •Availability: The film; September 12-18 New York City, Symphony Space. The play; Philadelphia Theatre Company, Oct. 18-Nov. 5. Click here for the website. Click here for the Facebook page. Thanks to Diane Blackman, BR Public Relations, for arranging this interview.


DT: You portray seventeen characters in the film. One of them is a 25-year-old American Jew who is so overwhelmed on his first visit to Israel that he kisses the tarmac when he steps off the plane. Is that character you?

In the desert. Photo by Cheryl McDonald.

In the desert. Photo by Cheryl McDonald.

AD: The Aaron character is based of course on me and my experiences there. The narrative he  tells in the film could be called a memoir, I suppose, about the first time I came to Israel and fell in love with it. I had an awakening of Jewish identity, which was seminal for me as a person, as an artist, as an American Jew.  For anyone who’s been to Israel, there’s that first time you go. Maybe for some people it’s the only time they go, but it’s quite memorable.

DT: How does that experience influence your personal perspective on the material you’re presenting?

AD: It’s why I made the film. The whole film is my response, because that’s what it takes to try to articulate all the layers of complexity that I feel and the different dimensions that I hold and the different layers of understanding that I have about what Israel is, who I am in relationship to it, and our culture. It’s the whole thing.


DT: Who did you make the film for, and is it reaching your intended audience?

AD: I wrote the play initially to try to push the conversation in the American Jewish community. We made the film to reach the widest audience possible nationally and internationally. Dylan Kussman, who directed the film and whose idea it was to turn the play into a film, felt the play was powerful and important and wanted as many people in the world to see it as they could. Between my initial impulse of who would hear this material and the actual release of the film, all kinds of people have seen it. We’ve reached our target audience, that target has grown, and there are concentric circles of communities around the piece that have embraced it or been moved by it or have experienced it.

DT: Who beyond the Jewish American audience?

AD: Other faith-based communities—Christian and Muslim. Communities that identify more in terms of politics or activism. There’s a student cohort, there are interfaith cohorts. We just screened the film for the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee in New York City.

And I’ve been working with Google, who saw the play a while ago and are using the film, followed by a Q&A with me, for executive trainings on complexity; they gather Google executives from all over the world, twenty or thirty of them at a time, and do a three-day training about leadership as it relates to complexity, complexity as it relates to leadership. Then they screen the film, which they see as an embodiment of multiple perspectives in a way that really helps model what they’re trying to teach and coach these executives towards in terms of their leadership.

I also presented the play at a conference for the integral theory community, and they really tapped into the piece. Both this and Google are interesting to me because they’re latching onto the more universal themes of the piece that have to do with multiple perspectives and complexity and the interconnectedness of all these different threads. I’m no integral theory expert, so it would be hard for me to explain it in a sentence, but what I have found really interesting is that I set out to write a piece that would go deep into the Israel-Palestine story, and what’s emerged is a piece that through its specifics has really reached a universal message that people are embracing and are interested in. That’s taught me a lot, because I didn’t set out to do that.


DT: Can you talk about the research you did before writing the play. Whom did you talk to? Where did you go? Did you speak with anyone whose perspectives were  so anathema to you that you simply couldn’t include them?

AD: The piece is really one journey that condenses my ten years of traveling to Israel and Palestine and meeting different people and interviewing different people. There’s a lot of writerly license in the journey, of course. The characters in the film are based on people that I met, or they’re composites of people I met. A few are invented based on people I met or knew or read about. I met a range of different people, but I never met any self-described “terrorists.” I never met violent extremists who were trying to convince me that killing everybody would be a really good idea. I never had any of those conversations.

DT: On either side?

AD: That’s right. The truth is that people have asked me, Where are these voices? The answer is that I specifically didn’t  put them in because they would have dominated the piece. If I had eighteen characters and one of them was a terrorist and I humanized the terrorist, all we would be talking about would be the terrorist—we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. Militants get so much play in the airwaves already that I don’t need to feed that line anymore.

My whole goal is to try to get the conversation back to the majority, not the minority, the majority of human beings who grapple and wrestle and who are interested in each other’s dignity, to a certain extent. That’s what I was more interested in. Did I meet people who really pushed my buttons, who really challenged me? Yeah, and I put it in this film, in the argument that I get in with a character I call Daniel, who’s an American medical student who’s an apologist for Hamas. That’s where the Aaron characters draws his line. He gets tripped up and is not a supercompassionate listening person anymore. He gets his buttons pushed, which I think is very human. It was important to put that in the piece.


DT: What was the most emotionally difficult segment for you?

AD: Imagine the show. It’s ninety minutes of me on stage. What’s the most emotionally challenging? It’s emotionally challenging just to stay on the horse. To keep the focus and stay on it and be alive and present in every moment. Ideologically, my job as an actor is to be honest and in each of those characters for each of those moments, so if I’m doing my job right, I’m not judging them. One character is not more something than the other. I’m just present in them, and I’ve got to make them truthful and honest and believe them myself. What I was surprised to find was less about what was emotionally challenging for me than how I could see parts of myself in these characters in ways that I never really would have wanted to admit. That I could go there. I think that really says something about who we are as human beings and what our capacities are when we’re under threat or when we’re in extreme situations. That is fascinating and very humbling, and pushes me further to not judge others. In my better moments.


In the US. Photo by Tom Kubik.

In the US. Photo by Tom Kubik.

DT: Do you think that your identity as an American Jew gave you the freedom to make this film that an Israeli or a Palestinian wouldn’t have had?

AD: Great question. Of course it’s really hard to know, but I will say that being an outsider does give me some layer of objectivity that an Israeli or a Palestinian just wouldn’t have. It also gives me less in-depth knowledge. I’m more naive, for sure. But maybe that naivete and that distance have allowed me to see the forest for the trees, whereas it’s possible that some Israeli and Palestinians just can’t because they’re in it. I’m not sure that “freedom” would be the word I would use, but I feel like I’ve had a level of objectivity that’s possibly more than a counterpart there might have, though it’s hard to generalize.


DT: Much of the material surrounding the film talks about “understanding the other.” Given the current political climate both here in the US and in Israel, do you think that understanding the other is a sufficient tool for social change?

AD: I’m not sure about sufficient, but I would say that it’s essential. It’s sufficient, but that’s not the end. It’s a part of the process. The “other” has now shown up as all kinds of different things. Understanding the neo-Nazi perspective is a different kind of conversation from understanding a disenfranchised or politically oppressed body of people under occupation, for example. There’s dimensionality and layers now to what we mean by the “other,” and there’s an important and interesting conversation about what that means. In this day and age, people say, “If I could just understand the neo-Nazis, then maybe we would have peace.”  Well, no. Of course not. When people are filled with hate and vitriol, there are other tactics that need to be employed. But would it hurt to try to really understand where they’re coming from? No.

I heard a really interesting radio interview with an African-American man.  He’s begun a whole process to convert KKK members to get them to leave the KKK. He goes to neo-Nazi KKK rallies, and they say, “What are you doing here?” He says, “I really understand. I know where you’re coming from, and here’s where it is.” He’s done his research, he knows what their deal is, and they’re completely taken aback. He says, “So they respect me. They don’t like me—I’m black, they don’t really want me—but they respect me and so they have to deal with me.” He’s going right into the lion’s den and encountering these guys and he’s turned people by engaging with them and letting them see his humanity and then challenging them intellectually on what their bullshit is all about. I don’t know much about this guy, but I heard one interview and it blew my mind.

I think that’s a little bit about the question you’re speaking to. There is this question of to what degree are we willing to try to know the other. Knowing the other doesn’t necessarily mean “wherever they’re coming from is all good.” No. Of course not. We’ve got to push back where it’s warranted and actually invest in really knowing where they’re coming from. Just being filled with contempt and thinking they’re a one-dimensional figure that’s easy to write off doesn’t get us anywhere.

DT: You’ve been asked many times how the play has changed you, but my question is somewhat different. After performing the play so many times and leading so many Q&As, how have your goals for the film changed?

In the theater. Photo credit: Barak Shrama.

In the theater. Photo credit: Barak Shrama.

AD: There are goals that are more tactical and real-world, like distribution and things like that, which bear weight on more conceptual goals or goals of intention. We intended to make a movie that would really stir this conversation and get into all kinds of different communities. The fact is that we made a movie that’s a solo performance with one person that’s obviously not a commercial movie. Nobody’s going to make money on this movie, so distribution is a grassroots project.

While we wanted to show the film far and wide all over the world, the pragmatic reality is that it takes a lot of effort and fund-raising and organizing and lobbying to get people to understand what we’re doing and what we’ve actually got. Once people have seen the movie in person in a room on a big screen with a group of people, they’re in, and they’re absorbing the material. If they haven’t seen it yet, I’m not famous, they don’t know me. It’s sort of a head scratcher for them. Why would we show a movie with one guy? What is this thing? From a distributional point of view, the gap between the person who’s seen it and had this amazing experience—or so they tell us—and the person who hasn’t had contact with it yet but who might screen it in their community is wider than we want it to be. And so it’s just a slow process of getting more people to see the movie and bring it into their communities. It’s a real grassroots project, where people who’ve seen it spread the word about it. And it’s growing. We just have to be patient.

Our website is full of press and anecdotes and things and ways to get in touch with us. When people think of film distribution, they think of big movie theaters. We’re screening at some theaters, but we’re also trying to do community screenings: people can arrange for screenings in their communities or on their campuses. Those are picking up steam, and it’s very meaningful.

DT: So people can contact you through the website?

AD: Yes.

DT: How is international distribution?

AD: We have a deal with a Swiss distributor. We’re having the film translated into French, German, and Italian…there will be subtitles of course…and also having it translated into Hebrew and Arabic. We’ll see if we can get some screenings in the Middle East. We’re looking at a screening in Paris sometime in the winter. So step by step. It’s a process.


Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Company Town/Natalie Kottke-Masocco

The Koch Brothers are poisoning the tiny town of Crossett, Arkansas. On the outskirts of this largely African-American hamlet, Penn Road lies just across the runoff ditch from the Georgia-Pacific paper and chemical plant. Eleven of the fifteen families who live on Penn Road have lost someone to cancer. Tests conducted on Crossett’s air, land, and water reveal harmful chemicals such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and formaldehyde, linked to the plant. For the past four years, the residents of Crossett have been fighting back against Koch Industries, Georgia-Pacific’s owner. Despite testimony from regional scientists and experts on federal environmental law, Crossett’s efforts to force the EPA and state agencies to enforce state regulations regarding emissions and dumping of toxic waste have been largely unsuccessful. Filmmakers Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian have recorded the town’s battle in Company Town, a documentary that is also a tool for social justice. To take action on a petition submitted by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic in support of the citizens of Crossett, click here. •Availability: Opens September 8, New York City, Cinema Village. Thanks to Kelly Hargraves, First Run Features, for arranging this interview.

DT: Can you give us an overall picture of what’s happening in Crossett, Arkansas.

NKM: Crossett, Arkansas, is a tiny rural Southern town that’s ruled by this company called Georgia-Pacific. Georgia-Pacific is a paper mill and chemical plant owned by the Koch Brothers. This company has extreme power, and it’s the true lifeblood of the town. The mission of our story is, What do you do when the only employer in town is also poisoning you? The people in this town work for the mill, their grandfathers worked for the mill, it’s generational. It’s part of the fabric of their everyday life. It’s their bread and butter. It’s their paycheck. People either work there or have a child there, and they’ve given their entire lives to the company.

Only there’s egregious pollution in this small town by Georgia-Pacific. There’s door-to-door cancer. On one street alone, eleven out of fifteen homes experienced a death from cancer. Their water is polluted, their air is polluted—they’re wracked by the pollution at Georgia-Pacific. We set out to tell the story of what that situation looks like, as well as the blatant disregard by the local government and the Environmental Protection Agency, the lack of oversight, and the total dismissiveness of the EPA. It’s a story that’s very complex.


DT: The Reverend David Bouie, the local pastor, is organizing the town to fight back. Had they already started to organize when you entered the picture?

NKM: When I first came in, the town was not organized. It all started in 2011, when I was working on a documentary called Koch Brothers Exposed directed by Robert Greenwald. I was looking at the Koch Brothers’ environmental catastrophes across the country, and I produced a small segment on Crossett and literally just stumbled upon this town. I called Pastor Bouie, who is our main subject in the film, and he said, “I won’t speak with you unless you come here in person.” Two days later I flew there and we knocked on doors together and I met with him, I met his neighbors, I met the community, and it blossomed from there.

I spent six years covering the story, four years investigating the cancer cases and documenting the investigation into the EPA, as well as the people taking action in this town. When I saw something of the pollution they face and spoke with neighbors and spent so much time with Pastor Bouie, I knew there was a bigger story there that really deserved to be told.

We were documenting the investigation of Georgia-Pacific and the EPA as it was unfolding over four or five years, so we were embedded with the EPA and embedded with the citizens, and we got a whistleblower to come forward, Dickie Guice, who’s incredibly brave and spoke out in the New Yorker last fall about the egregious pollution dumping behind people’s homes. It’s really quite unbelievable, to the point where government officials are on the land of a worker who has invoices showing that Georgia-Pacific dumped waste on his private land even though it’s not designated landfill by the EPA.  The federal EPA officials are on his land holding the contamination in their hands and saying, “I don’t know what to do with this.” This blatant disregard for citizens’ lives is egregious, and it highlights what we’re seeing today in the Trump administration, with Scott Pruitt heading the EPA.


DT: The EPA under Pruitt is taking a direction none of us want, but I was shocked by the EPA’s behavior in your film, which took place before Trump came in.

NKM: Exactly. It’s now clearly  obvious to the public that Scott Pruitt is literally tied to the Koch Brothers. The New York Times revealed only days after he was appointed that he had direct ties to the Koch Brothers to benefit his pocket and the Koch Brothers’ plants. As a former attorney general, Scott Pruitt sued the EPA fourteen times. He is a blatant anti-environmentalist, and this is the man who is now protecting public health, which is totally outrageous.

Our film highlights what was happening on a local level across the nation before Pruitt. You have these local administrators who are supposed to protect the people—in this case, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality—and you see that the citizens have to do everything in their power to bang on their door and they’re still not listening. The fact that the EPA is looking the other way is not new. As you see in the film, they’re laughing and smirking. At the meeting where the citizens are giving testimony after testimony, the EPA and the Department of Health and the Department of Water just blatantly one after the next disregard the findings of independent scientists, which include benzene in the water along with sixty other chemicals, and an outrageous amount of hydrogen sulfide in the air. Georgia-Pacific has had numerous violations this year alone of hydrogen sulfide, which causes severe headaches, nausea, stomach pain.

You see these meetings where the local and federal officials are disregarding blatant evidence presented by the community and by independent scientists, but you also see an example of the resistance movement happening today: people on a grassroots level like we’re seeing in town halls across the country right now are fighting back because the government isn’t protecting them. This has been a longtime problem, before Scott Pruitt, but it’s exacerbated now with Pruitt and the Trump administration.


DT: While documenting the investigation of the EPA and the local government agencies, did you find that they were in the Koch Brothers’ pockets, the same way the Times discovered the emails between the Koch Brothers and Pruitt?

NKM: Yes. It’s in the film, and this is incredibly important to note. In the film, the deputy of EPA Region 6, Sam Coleman, says to Pastor Bouie in a private phone conversation that is revealed in the film, “Mr. Bouie, you were correct. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA are in bed with Georgia-Pacific and the Koch Brothers.” He said that. They’re doing everything they can to get away from this, and they’re on the run. We have them in violation. Sam Coleman from the EPA admits that Georgia-Pacific is in violation, and he admits that they’re in bed with the local state agencies and looking the other way. It’s so blatant.


DT: What recourse do the citizens of Crossett have now?

NKM: This is total environmental injustice along with total economic injustice, and it’s happening all across the country. Crossett represents small towns like Hinkley, California, Love Canal, and Flint, Michigan. These communities are being bullied by big business, and they’re taking the power in their hands and speaking out. You see the citizens of Crossett organizing in the film; Pastor Bouie has created the Crossett Concerned Citizens for Environmental Justice. The town is galvanized, they are organized, and we are using this film as a tool for social action.

This isn’t just a film: it’s an official action campaign. Tulane Environmental Law Clinic has filed a civil rights petition against the EPA for discrimination based on the fact that Crossett is predominantly an African-American community that is disproportionately polluted by Georgia-Pacific. There is a complaint at the civil rights desk at the federal EPA in Washington, D.C., right now, and they have accepted the investigation. What a citizen can do at this moment is actually call the desk to put pressure on the EPA.

DT: Whom should people call, and what’s the number?

NKM: You can take action by calling Tanya Lawrence. She’s acting director of the EPA office of civil rights. The number is 202-564-2916.

DT: Is this ongoing, or is there a time limit on when Ms. Lawrence will accept phone calls?

NKM: It’s ongoing. I’m checking in on it weekly, but at the moment it’s ongoing. It will be voice mail as well, so I hope people don’t get deterred by that. They’re getting all of the calls and they’re getting all of the voice mails, and the more people who leave messages and the more calls they get, the more powerful the pressure will be on them to go to Crossett and investigate it. We were in the middle of the investigation as we shot the film, and we’re rolling out the film right now with the theatrical release. We’ll update the website if there are going to be any changes to the actual action, but right now the most powerful tool and the most powerful way a person can step up for Crossett is by making these phone calls and putting pressure on the EPA.


DT: How are you using the film as a tool for promoting social change? Where are you screening it? How do people access it? Do you have a presence on social media?

NKM: We’re having our theatrical premiere in New York, September 8, for one week at Cinema Village Theater in Greenwich Village. We also have incredibly exciting news that the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, is speaking opening night at 8:00 p.m. It will be incredible to have him there, and we are really honored.

DT: Do you have a Facebook page?

NKM: You can reach us on Facebook at Company Town Film. The people in Crossett are incredibly brave for stepping forward, and we want the people who watch this film to feel inspired to act and to help clean up Crossett, as this represents communities across the country that are polluted by big business.

DT: Is the film going to be available online? How can people who don’t live in New York see it?

NKM: We’re doing a theatrical release first in New York, then in L.A., then in D.C., and it will eventually be available online. That will be announced. People can go to our website  and subscribe. We send out a monthly or bimonthly newsletter, and we’ll have updates on where the film is showing across the country and when it will be available online. We encourage people to visit the website because our action is also up there, so people can sign up for the newsletter, how to watch the film, and also how to take action to clean up Crossett.


D: Is there anything you want to add?

NKM: This story is incredibly powerful, and these people are incredibly brave. We really want the film to be a tool to put pressure on the EPA for stricter regulations in Crossett. I urge people to take action and get involved and engage with us on social media so we can make a big impact to clean up the town.


DT: Has anyone started a national movement to connect the Love Canal, Flint, Michigan, and Crossett, Arkansas dots? Is anyone aggregating them in a lawsuit or some kind of national movement?

NKM: We highlight in the film that we look at Crossett as part of a movement and an example of towns across the country polluted by big business. As far as an aggregated movement online…that’s a great idea! In the film and on our website and in all of our materials we’re very mindful of including those other examples as cases of what’s happening across the country and connecting them back to Crossett because they’re eerily similar. Flint, Michigan, exploded back in 2015, and it was just like in Crossett—the EPA on the ground and local state officials turning the other way.

Copyright © Director Talk 2017








West End/Joe Basile

A low-budget, high-stakes gangster film shot on the central Jersey shore, West End satisfies every genre craving you might have—location, characters, clever plot twist—while subtle, contemporary camera movements make it far more than simple genre. Availability: Opens digitally November 19.

DT: You have a great voiceover on the end credits. Let’s start with that. Why do people admire gangsters?

JB: The everyday person is stuck in the doldrums of life.  There’s a perceived freedom in a gangster’s life.  They live outside of the law and play by their own rules.  They manipulate the system.  That’s the admiration.  Gangsters live life on their own terms—until the term is twenty to life in the joint.


DT: What do you like about gangster movies?

JB: Good gangster movies explore the good and the bad of life in a world filled with conflict and complex characters. The themes are universal; love, honor, family, right and wrong.  Why not explore those themes in a world that’s not so neatly wrapped? There’s a built-in tension inherent in a story about criminals. Crime heightens the stakes. It’s visceral. Someone’s life is always on the line. Wrong choice, you could be dead.


DT: How much, and in what ways, did you consciously model your film after the ’70s movies you like so much?

JB: In the ’70s, movies took their time and engaged the audience.  They were character driven.  Relationships were built.  The story was told visually.  Actions spoke, sometimes, louder than words.  Information wasn’t crammed into the dialogue. It came in an organic way that was true to the story.  Most importantly, the actors lived it.  Their performances weren’t only about emotion, they were physical.  It got messy, and the audience was right there in the thick of it.

With West End I wanted to make a movie that engaged the audience, had relatable characters with real relationships, and told the story in a smart way.  I wanted to create dynamic scenes that were visually interesting.  I wanted my actors to live in the scene, not just stand and talk.  Life isn’t always neat and orderly.  I wanted them to find the emotion through its behavior, to express their emotion physically.  I didn’t want it to be comfortable, especially for Vic.

Lastly, in the ’70s the camera was more like a hole in the wall, a way in to see the lives of the characters in the movie. I wanted that voyeuristic feel with West End.


DT: Talk about how you place the camera and use camera movements to augment the feeling in the film.

JB: The decision on where to place the camera always came down to story.  If it didn’t serve the story, we didn’t do it.

The Jersey Shore itself is a character in the movie, so I wanted to show it.  I shot big.  Wide master shots allowed me to show the Jersey Shore’s landscape. The picturesque shots of Seaside Heights’ boardwalk, the Manasquan Inlet, and almost all the locations give West End its authenticity.  Seaside Heights made it easy for us to shoot.  For a minimal event fee we were permitted to shoot anywhere we wanted.  The mayor said that as long as we shot on private property, we “could kill anyone we wanted.”

In most of the wide masters, I framed my actors a touch off center.  This makes the audience look for the scene, it keeps them engaged.

Like I said, I wanted to give my actors the space to find the behavior of the scene.  I wanted them to get down and dirty.  I’m an Italian American from New Jersey; sometimes just sitting at the dinner table is combative. If Vic just walked through town, West End would be very boring.  I gave my actors the space to play.  Wide twos, loose ones, allowing the actors to play the physicality of life.

For me, camera movements should be subtle.  If a dolly move could bring me into the scene, let me play a scene out, give me a moving master, I did it.  I would use a slow push in or out to help punctuate a scene.  Hand-held shots let me get gritty.  They allowed me to play a scene out, let the actors explore the scene within the boundaries of their performance.

For example, the scene after the “Welcome Home” party when Vic, Buddy, and Lauren go to a beach parking lot and reminisce about old times. We shot that handheld and for the most part with natural light.  We rehearsed, got the general parameters of the scene, and then my actors were allowed to play.  We started wide.  Wide twos, sometimes three, and as the tension in the scene rose, we got in tighter.


DT: What kind of work did you do with your actors?

JB: One of the pitfalls of making a limited-budget film is that there’s no time for any real rehearsal.  Because the script had been with me for fifteen years and many, many rewrites—many rewrites—I knew the characters and story intimately.  On the day, we’d discuss the scene, rehearse, block, tweak, shoot and tweak.

I’m fortunate to have many talented friends.  I know Joe Nieves (Buddy), Pete Onorati (Uncle John), Wayne Duvall (Fat Patty) and the majority of the cast personally. Since I had a personal relationship with them I had an open dialogue about character and story.  My casting director brought me Neal Bledsoe (Vic), Melissa Archer (Lauren), Eric Roberts (Victor) and Paul Calderon (Mackey).  All pros.

Everyone in the cast came to play.  I was very fortunate that way.  My cast made that part of the job easy.


DT: What are the advantages and disadvantages of shooting on a low budget?

JB: Time and money are both the biggest disadvantage and advantage.  If you don’t have that much of either, you have to play smart.  Because of the budget, we had an aggressive shooting schedule. We shot ninety-one pages and twenty-four locations in eighteen days.

Luckily, I had a year of preproduction.  During this time, I trimmed eleven pages from the script.  The script got smarter, the story got sharper, the characters and relationships got more defined.  I also lost locations and characters, which made the shooting schedule more manageable.  The community support was unbelievable.  I met a lot of people who offered a lot of help.  All the locations were free.  The catering was donated.  All the show cars were donated and most of the props. Crew and cast vans were donated, and so were the hotel rooms for the cast.

All that was a huge help, but I had to be creatively fluid.  As physical locations were offered, locations in the script would change to suit the acquired location.  For example, when we got Club Merge, “Teen Night” was on the outside billboard.  I wrote it into the script.

I had a very capable crew.  My actors were top notch—both cast and crew were committed.  In the end, we got the job done because of that.  You always look back and say, “I would’ve liked to…”  I believe that’s the case, whether you’re building a building, painting a picture, or shooting a movie.  You’re always going to see something that could have been better.  The trick is making it the best film with what you have.  With a limited budget, you can’t be locked into your vision.  That’s the game, exploiting your limitations to reach the end goal.  In this case a feature film.


DT: How are you going about self-promoting the film?

JB: This is really where a limited budget restricts you.  As hard as the making of West End was, it was within my control.  The problems were solvable.  To get your movie seen is out of your control.

I’m looking to start small and build an audience. West End is Jersey. If you’re from the Tri-State area, you really get it. That’s the audience I’m looking to hit, no pun intended.  I feel a grassroots type of promotion is best, word of mouth and community.  In the end, I have to believe that good work will find its way.

Like the old shampoo commercial says, “You tell two friends, and they tell two friends and so on and so on.”


DT: Anything you want to add?

JB: After people watched the film, they’d come up to me and, thankfully, say something nice.  Then they’d say, “You know, it could be a television show.”  That’s always been in the back of my mind.  I have Vic’s journey outlined for the first three seasons.  Who knows?


Copyright © Director Talk 2017

James Ivory / Career retrospective

Director James Ivory.

Director James Ivory.

For over fifty years, James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala made films together under the Merchant Ivory brand, including such classics as Room with a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, and Shakespeare Wallah.  In celebration of the Cohen Media Group’s rerelease of Heat and Dust, Director Talk interviews James Ivory on his life in cinema and longtime collaboration. Availability: Heat and Dust and Autobiography of a Princess (US premiere) open September 1, Quad Cinema, New York City, and Laemmle Royal, L.A. To learn more about Merchant Ivory, click here. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.


DT: You and Ismail and Ruth made films together for fifty years. Can you talk about your collaborative process? How strictly were the roles defined as producer, director, writer?

JI:  They were strictly defined: Ruth wrote, I directed, and Ismail did everything a producer needs to do—raise the money, make sure the film is released properly and publicized and all that. Our roles were quite defined, though I sometimes collaborated with Ruth on the screenplay. She certainly never ventured into the areas of producing or directing.

DT: Did you edit together?

Heat and Dust.

Greta Scaachi in Heat and Dust.

JI: In a way. What we used to do was sort of unheard of. After we had a fairly organized rough cut and we’d screened it for ourselves and for her, she would come into the editing room and help us pull it together better. She considered that as part of her writing job. She wasn’t actually editing, but she saw things that she had seen in her imagination that hadn’t gone well during the shoot. Actors we’d had high hopes for weren’t as good as we thought they would be, or the reverse was true also: Some actors we weren’t going to feature were absolutely wonderful and we thought we had to make room for them, they were so good. Or I made mistakes. Generally we would pull it all together, and she would be in the editing room for about a week doing that.

The editors, far from being dismayed by this, were really pleased that she was there. This was a way of working that’s absolutely unheard of in Hollywood. Probably in Europe, which is more auteur-driven, writers probably did make other appearances, but that’s the way we worked, and that’s what we liked to do. And sometimes—this was something Ismail would get into very much—when Ruth would come in and we’d work on the rough cut with her, it would encourage him that maybe we needed something else here and there; perhaps we should have a scene of such-and-such. In fact, we did this with practically every film. We would have a secret shoot…we never, ever told the financiers about this. And we never told them that’s how we always worked—Ismail put money aside and we’d get the actors and go off and do some more. There would be some places in the film that needed things, and we’d just do it.

And that’s how we worked. It was very collaborative, the three of us, but we did have quite distinct roles.

DT: How much did you discuss a project together before you started shooting?

JI: Quite a lot. Again, it depended on whether or not I was collaborating with Ruth on the screenplay. We talked about it a lot. We would talk wherever we happened to be—at a meal, in a taxicab, wherever, just as the thoughts came to us. It was never any sort of formal sit-down-discussion sort of thing. This just gradually came about. Of course Ismail weighed in a lot, because as a producer he had certain concerns about what we were thinking. There was a lot of talk. But then that’s true of any collaborative work of art. I mean, there’s lots and lots of talk about it.


DT: You’ve said that a director is wide and shallow, while an actor is narrow and deep. You’ve also talked about how you “watch the actor.” Can you talk about how both of those things apply to how you work with an actor?

JI: When I say that an actor is narrow but deep, I mean an actor is primarily concerned with bringing out his or her role. Creating a role through some process of their own, based on their own experiences, and things they’ve observed in life and their own thoughts, they manage to put together a character, and I think it goes very, very deep into their consciousness and subconscious. They are creating a person out of their own experience that really only exists in fiction, and it’s not like what a director does. The director has to have an interest in a million different things, but he can’t go deep into any of them, because he has so many different things to contend with—the photography, the weather, whether or not a set is OK or not OK, or maybe an actor who was going to play a role doesn’t play it and someone else comes, all the rest. A director is spread thin. This has to be; you couldn’t be as engaged in all of those things as an actor is engaged in creating his or her role, and that’s why I say a director is sort of shallow. I mean, a director can have certain strengths in various areas. Some directors are marvelously strong when it comes to producing the image and the photographic side of things, or they can be marvelously strong in editing, or whatever. We all have our strengths and we all have our weaknesses, and I’m speaking now as a director. It’s like that, really. Directors have a lot to think about, but an actor really only has his or her role to think about.

DT: So would you describe yourself as basically hands off when you work with an actor?

JI: At first, yes. I believe in allowing an actor to show me what it is he or she has created. They have to do that before anything else. They have to show me what it is they want to do. If they seem to be going astray in any area, I would get in there and steer them in the direction I wanted them to go. But on the whole, they’re artists, after all, and you have to respect what they’ve created. You want to see it and know what it is before you comment for better or for worse. That’s the way I work, and that’s the way I think you should work.

And it doesn’t just apply to acting. It applies to other areas in film. It applies to music, it applies certainly to set design and costumes and so on. They have to show you what it is they made and you have to respect that. They are artists also. Wait to see what that is, and hopefully you’ll like it; usually I did like it. But sometimes of course I didn’t, and in some cases I’d rather cautiously say, “I think maybe a little bit more of this and less of that” sort of thing.

DT: Would that take place while you were shooting, or did you rehearse in advance?

JI: It could certainly take place during shooting. Not so much where sets and costumes are concerned, those things are already there—even in photography, really, but certainly in the interpretation, in the acting. If you don’t like something, you have to speak up, but you have to wait to see how they wanted to do it. I believe you owe the actor that. It happens all the time, from the beginning to the end of shooting, you’re always in that situation. You’re never not facing that.

As far as rehearsals are concerned, we principally rehearsed every scene on the day we were going to shoot it. We didn’t go in for big rehearsals because very often we couldn’t get all the actors together. That’s the problem with movies—the actors are off doing another film or maybe they’re in a play, or whatever. They’re not all there at the same time, and you can’t really have a decent rehearsal unless everybody is there. The only film we really had the luck to have everybody present was Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. We had absolutely everybody there, including the two kids, so we could have two weeks of proper rehearsals like most people like to have, most directors are very happy to have, and the actors certainly want to have.


DT: Speaking of performances, you get particularly extraordinary performances from male actors, like Christopher Reeve in Bostonians and Julian Sands in Room with a View.

THE BOSTONIANS, Madeleine Potter, Christopher Reeve, 1984, ©Almi Pictures

THE BOSTONIANS, Madeleine Potter, Christopher Reeve, 1984, ©Almi Pictures

JI: They are very different actors. Christopher Reeve was a highly trained actor and also worked on the stage, and he believed in doing a lot of homework. Julian Sands had only just begun to act. It was pretty much off the cuff with him, but he was just right for the part and memorable. It depends on the actor. Some of them are very, very experienced and know how to do all kinds of research. Christopher Reeve got together with some ex-politician from Mississippi in order to get that accent. He worked on it for weeks and weeks.

DT: He was wonderful.

JI: He was, and very much underrated, I thought. People were so used to seeing him as Superman that they couldn’t accept him in a sort of Rhett Butler role, which is what he was playing, basically. They couldn’t accept that. The same thing happened with Paul Newman as Mr. Bridge. Everybody loved their version of Paul Newman—all of his movies were so popular—and the idea that he was this stern, rather unrelenting and somewhat puritanical father figure was hard for people to take.


DT: One thing that I love that you do—it’s so subtle but it’s so great—you have the camera focused on the main action, but you have other people moving on and off the screen, in front of the action, behind the action, on the side of the action. It’s almost as if you want the audience to never forget that there’s life going on outside the frame. I didn’t know if that was intentional or not.

JI: It’s hard to achieve that, let me tell you. If you look at my earlier films, you don’t always get that idea, but it really comes about if you have very, very experienced and very good first assistant directors. The assistant directors have to concentrate on all of the side action that’s happening, and some of them are very, very good and subtle and some are not at all. But I can’t think about that very much or worry about it. If I see something—say on the first take I see people doing something off on the side that I don’t like, or I think they could be better used in some other part of the shot—I say something. Sometimes I go right out on the floor and move people around myself. That has happened, but on the whole if you have very, very good assistant directors who are good at that kind of thing, it’s a relief. For me, anyway.


DT: You’ve said that your early influences were Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir. What did you like about their films, and how did they influence your own directing?

JI: That’s a very big question. I liked Ray’s films so much because I discovered Ray at the time I discovered India, and he was the foremost, really the only, Indian director at that time that a Westerner could really enjoy and get something from. I loved his films, and then I came to know him, and I see his influence still, even after he’s been gone twenty years now. I see his influence in my work in little, little ways that most people probably wouldn’t see.

I was lucky that with our very first film, I had his entire crew. We made The Householder, our first feature, in India. Ray wasn’t making a film at that time, and I wanted to borrow his cameraman, Subrata Mitra, who was a great, great cameraman. We didn’t have a cameraman, and Ray said, “Yes, of course, take him.” Subrata wanted to do it, but then Ray said, “Nobody else is working for me right now,” so I got them all—his assistant director, soundman, cameraman, cameraman’s assistant. They all came to work for me, and it’s not surprising that there’s a look to the film, and one or two of the other Indian films, that reminds one somewhat of Ray. Not so much the content—the content was very different—just the way the scenes are put together and photographed and so on.

As for Renoir, well, Renoir is a very great European director whom I’ve always admired, as Ray did.


DT: Me too!  You fell in love with India, but you also fell in love with Venice, where you made your first film. Room with a View is one of the most romantic films I’ve ever seen. Do you think that your feeling for Italy affected that film in particular, and do you think that happens generally—that your feeling for the location somehow affects the way the film turns out?

JI: I think so, sure, otherwise why are you there? Why are you in that particular location? You like being there, and you want to have it as a backdrop to your story. Where Italy was concerned, Venice was the first Italian city I ever went to and spent any time in, and I was just bowled over by it. From there I went to Rome, and I had equally strong feelings about Rome. But strangely, for some reason, and this went on for several years, I never visited Florence. I don’t know why, maybe it just seemed like such a huge correctional thing to see and do that I just felt I would wait and put it off to some other day. So when I came to do the film in Florence, yes, I already had very, very strong feelings about Italy, but when I came to do Room with a View, Florence was all new to me, and I was seeing it with a fresh eye. I think that was useful, that I was discovering Florence myself when we made that film. I didn’t know it, and I had to learn the city in the same way that I learned Venice and Rome, and I think it certainly shows in the film itself.




DT: Are you participating in the Cohen Media Group’s restorations of Heat and Dust, Autobiography of a Princess, Howards End, Maurice, and Shakespeare Wallah?

JI: Oh yes. I have been, and I expect to go on doing that. My actual technical participation isn’t so great. The most I can do is sort of sit there with the cameraman and regrade the picture for color and darkness or lightness and so on and contrast. We do that together. That’s about as much as I can do, because I can’t get involved in the sound. On the whole I’m limited to being there with the cinematographer, and we make sure that the color is right and the contrast is right, it’s not too light or dark; that sort of thing. Beyond that, I get very much involved in the packaging of the films, and when they’re released, I do a lot of press. I get involved to the extent that they allow me to be involved in the advertising campaigns. They usually don’t want directors to get involved in that because perhaps we’ll suggest some uncommercial things.

DT: Do you choose which films are going to be restored?

JI: In some cases, yes. I suggested that if they were going to do Heat and Dust, they needed to restore Autobiography at the same time because both films are very related in subject matter. They’re also going to go in a DVD package, probably on two discs. But I think that everybody agreed that they would start out with Howards End. Next they moved to Maurice, and then they wanted to go back to one of our earliest films, considered a classic, which is Shakespeare Wallah. I go along with what they want to do, but I do make suggestions sometimes about the order of things. So far so good.


DT: And what’s going on with Richard II?

JI: I don’t know. I mean, I lack a very good producer, I lack a powerful producer. My regular producer, Ismail Merchant. I don’t have that. Had I had such a person, I think the film would have been made years ago. The pity is we didn’t make it while Ismail was still alive, which we might have done. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s out there, and people are still sort of supposedly thinking about it, but I wonder, really, what will happen.


DT: I really hope it’s made. Are you continuing to donate your films to the George Eastman House?

JI: They have pretty much everything. They don’t have the studio films. They have prints and that kind of thing, but the studios almost always keep their negatives to themselves on the whole. I donated the films that Merchant Ivory actually owned, which was more than thirty, but as I say, the studios hold onto the films that they made, like Remains of the Day. They keep their things in their vaults, where I’m sure they’re properly cared for; the right temperature and all that. But we do have prints of all of our films, and we had a lot of secondary material that accumulated over the years, whether those are studio films or not, and whenever there was anything interesting, I put it at George Eastman.


DT: How involved did you get in casting your films?

JI: Very. I’m the one that says yes or no. It’s interesting, though, because sometimes Ismail would jump in there and surprise me and cast somebody himself if he was getting fed up with my not being sure about this person or that person. He did that several times, but who was to complain, because he came up with people like James Mason or Maggie Smith or Helena Bonham Carter. Who’s to complain?

DT: Wasn’t Emma Thompson in that category also?

JI: I found Emma.

DT: How did you find them? From other movies? Onstage?

JI: Not in Emma’s case. Emma was suggested to me by Simon Callow. He suggested that I find out more about her. When they were casting Howards End I might have seen one film that she’d made, it might even have been something for television. She came to me and she obviously wanted to do it. She’d read the script, but she didn’t have the script with her when she came to read for me, so she read straight out of the novel, and that was it. Some of the other actresses who had come that day were quite big names, but she got the part on the spot.


DT: Speaking of that, you said that when you’re doing an adaptation, your actors sometimes carry the novel around with them on the set.

JI: We discouraged that. We actually pulled the novel out of their hands. The last thing you want is to be in the middle of a scene and the actor says, “You’ve left some dialogue out. I just love this dialogue and I want to say it.” That’s the last thing you want on the set. I don’t mind if they read other novels on the set. That’s fine. I feel very lucky, because that’s how I discovered Remains of the Day. An actor was reading Remains of the Day while we were making Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. One day he came up to me and said, “I’m reading this book that I think is sort of boring, but I think you may like it.” He gave it to me to read, and I couldn’t put it down. It wasn’t the next film but the film after.


Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Cuba People to People: Roses, Cars & Wings/John Buchanan and Gail August

Filmmaker John Buchanan and linguistics professor Gail August traveled to Havana, Cuba, under the People-to-People program to study the country’s remarkably high literacy rate. As was their custom when traveling, they brought along August’s belly dance costumes as a way to connect with the locals. In this short film, director and dancer reveal what can happen when people of good faith and good minds come together to learn from each other and share ideologies.


DT: What was your purpose in making this film?

JB: Gail and I had done a number of films that could be considered home movies, so we really didn’t go down with a purpose. We went with our normal assortment of belly dance outfits and wanted to see what would happen when we got there. As we were shooting, we saw a richness in the culture and Gail’s interaction with the kids and thought there was something that could be made out of this footage, though it wasn’t until we came back home and started putting the pieces together that we saw there was a story here. Of all our travel movies, this one really stood out because of the special nature of what Cuba was all about and the program we were there for.

DT: How did you choose the People-to-People program?

JB: We’d always had an interest in visiting Cuba, and after Trump’s election in November, we said, “Maybe this is something we should do.”  Obama had set up the People-to-People program for Americans to travel to Cuba without going through a tour agency; it was much cheaper and less restrictive than tours. We were concerned that Trump would reduce the program somehow, so the night Fidel passed away we booked our tickets.


DT: What was the belly dancing all about?

GA: We always take along belly dance costumes whenever we travel. We’ve used it for photography because it’s really pretty, but we’ve also used it for what I call the Pied Piper stimulus. I put on the costume, we go out, and people start following us, especially the children. Children love the colors, they love the costumes, they want to know about the dance. Dance is a universal language. I speak a tiny bit of Spanish, but you don’t have to speak the language to engage in dance. It was a way for us to offer something but also bring them in with us so that we could share together. Cuba is a very musical place. They live music and they live dance. Everybody wants to hear music, everybody wants to dance. Belly dance is the dance that I know, and all the little extra pieces like the wings tend to attract attention, which children in particular find so dramatic and interesting.


DT: How do politics in Cuba affect people’s everyday lives?

JB: The revolution is on every street corner. You see signs of it in the museums you walk by, you see it when you’re dealing with the double currencies down there.

DT: What are double currencies?

JB: There is the official CUP currency, which is the peso-backed currency that the locals are able to use. For Americans there’s a dollar-to-dollar exchange with the US, so there are two currencies going on at the same time.

GA: It’s the third prong of the revolution. Free education, free health care, and nobody is supposed to starve. There is a food subsidy; everybody gets food coupons every month. They don’t get enough, but they do get some. By changing the currency, people are able to buy what they need. It’s not 100 percent true, they’re still struggling, but tourists pay a higher price for everything. There are hardly any grocery stores—it’s kind of scary—but when you do find one, you’ll see two lists of prices, one for Cubans and one for outsiders.

JB: There’s the classic Cuba that people consider—the cigars, the rum, the classic cars—so that was a dichotomy that was really striking. The classic cars you see throughout the film were all supposedly owned by gangsters. But the interesting thing is that those cars might be 5 or 10 percent of the cars down there. As our money was dwindling, we got into lower- and lower-grade taxis, many of which were a pot hole away from being a bucket of bolts. You really see it in the doorknobs. As you get into one of these older cars, the door will creak and you slam it closed, but there’s no doorknob on the inside. They can’t get the parts. The blockade has really hurt people’s ability to get extra parts for their cars, so there were times when the taxi driver would say, “Hold on.” He’d stop the car, get around, open up the door for us, then close it back up for us. So one of the effects of the revolution, combined with the continuing  embargo, is the fact that they just can’t get the parts for the cars. In many other ways it’s hurting the average Cuban.

GA: Also the double economy. I believe that in the last ten years there are very strict restrictions on jobs and how much you can make in those jobs. They’re totally controlled. People cannot live on them. All these tourist connections bring in extra money, but they’re outside the legal system. We were told about a woman who works as a doctor all day, then drives a taxi all night and makes more than she made as a doctor. So the Cuban revolution is still trying to control the economy, but you have this second economy pushing out. Cubans that I used to speak with, especially my students in New York, used to say, “We’re poor, but we’re all poor.” You don’t see that anymore. They’re poor, but the people who have found a way to work around the economy through the tourist industry are much less poor. That part of the revolution seems like it might be fracturing a little bit, and I don’t know what will happen next.

Fidel was an incredibly well-educated person. He knew right away to keep the story of the revolution everyplace. On every block you see a story of the revolution, and people have enormous pride. Even if they don’t like Fidel anymore, even if they don’t like the revolution, they have pride. This was a small country that got rid of the American bondage, the American mafia, they got rid of the dictator, and they made their own country. There’s enormous pride there. Every street corner has something from the revolution, and I think it was very purposely orchestrated by the leadership. People suffered in the revolution—they suffer anyhow—but I think there’s a real purpose to keeping this mythology right in the front. It’s overwhelming when you’re there and see it all the time.


DT: I was especially moved by your footage of artifacts from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

JB: An amazing part of our experience was going to the Hotel Nacional, which is where a lot of the Cuban Missile Crisis was centered. Back when the original frictions were starting, the Cubans created a very significant set of trenches, or pits, in the landscape of this famous hotel. Our guide, who was in the film, was eighteen at the time. She was trained to go into this underground network, where they had portholes up through the ground. These spotters would move little metal plates around; her job was to spot any nuclear missiles coming in, and then alert the rest of the network that something was incoming. Now she’s in her seventies, but she was one of the ones who was very much a staunch supporter of what was happening.

GA: She still is.

JB: The Cuban revolution is part of her heart. You see right in your face what the missile crisis could have been. What could she have done if nuclear missiles had been coming in? We certainly related it to today and all the problems that are one button away in many different countries. To put a face to the nuclear missile crisis right there in front of you was very impactful.

GA: And the paranoia of the country, although that’s a bad word, because it’s realistic paranoia. They’ve been preparing forever for an American invasion for good reason—they had one. But I’ve been reading that during the recent floods, everybody went into these tunnels and trenches from the Cuban Missile Crisis and supposedly everybody was OK. They survived.

JB: The other part that was really interesting is the perception of the US by folks down there. You see it in one of the clips in our film, in a poster where the characters of the US presidents start initially with the dictator Batista and then go through Reagan and Bush, and the position that the US took of having a stricter policy in continuation of the sanctions.

You see it in the museums, where kids view a boat called the Grandma. They have a very famous story, like George Washington crossing the Delaware. Fidel was banished from Cuba and went to Mexico, where he ended up with a band of guys who armed themselves lightly and got into a pleasure craft built for twenty people, called the Grandma. They got seventy people onto the boat. The Grandma made its way from Mexico and landed on a far part of Cuba, where they disbanded. Batista and his men knew they were coming and killed half of them, but the rest of them went into the countryside and spoke to the locals and developed the revolution. So the seat of the revolution is from grandma. How much of that story is true we don’t know, but it was certainly front and center when the Cuban story was being told.

After Fidel took charge of the country they were able to get the Grandma in a museum, which Cuban kids all visit. In addition to the Grandma there’s anti-US stuff all around about the CIA planting boll weevils to kill off the crops. Again, how much of it is fiction? We don’t know, but there were ways to show that the US at that point was trying to take over and get back into Cuba.

GA: I kept saying, “Did we do that?” There was a lot of nasty stuff. Pouring sugar on the crops, destroying this and that.


DT: In June 2017, Trump announced new restrictions on traveling to Cuba, though they haven’t yet been implemented. What effect do you think that will have on Cuba and the US?

JB: I think he’s trying to tip the scales more toward the tourist industry so that the tours, which are very expensive and controlled, may continue. As far as the People-to-People program, maybe it will be a little stricter, maybe it will be eliminated entirely. One day while we were walking through Havana, we just happened to meet a whole group of people from our salsa community in New York—everybody was going down there on the People-to-People program because it was much cheaper and you could intersperse into the countryside. I know people still want to go down, but if it’s limited to much more expensive, more restricted tours, they won’t go.

With the People-to-People program, there are twelve reasons you can go. We went under education, and we had prearranged to meet with people down there. Literacy was a very heavy part of our focus. We met up with people at the University of Havana, the international school of Havana. Without that kind of program in place it would have been much more difficult to go as we did.

DT: What surprised you most about Cuba?

JB: The daily struggle that Cubans who are not connected to the tourist industry have every day just to get protein.

GA: We had dinner with the father of one my students in New York, and he said he almost never ate fish. He’d never had shrimp in his life. We asked about people we’d seen fishing on the Malecon, and he said it’s illegal—if they’re caught, they can get arrested. There’s almost no public transportation. We had taxis, but it’s not an easy way to get around.

They survived before with different countries subsidizing them, but I don’t think they have anyone now. They had Russia, they had Venezuela, they had us and the Spanish before that, so they have to really build their economy. They don’t have a lot of resources, but they do have this very well-educated population. It has a potential future.

There’s also this leftover from the American mafia. At the museum at the Hotel Nacional, they take you around to these fancy bedrooms and say, “This is where Meyer Lansky stayed,” and they show you pictures. Or they’ll say, “This is the big diner where they brought all the mafia together” and sell pictures to the tourists. The guys who drive these classic car taxis say, “This car was driven by Lucky Luciano.” There’s an enormous investment in restoring these cars, but I don’t know where they get the money. The Cubans I know who have come to the States had to leave because their undercover economic activity that was getting them by started to become too obvious and they had to get out.


DT: What do you ultimately want to say with the film?

JB: The film has struck a chord because of its hopeful tone. I know it sounds like John Lennon “Imagine,” but there should be a way, like the People-to-People program,where people can just get to know each other better and not get swallowed up in politics. The only thing we know about them is the Communist angle, while all Cuban folks hear about is the CIA angle. Perhaps people can actually have an exchange of ideas and cultures through dance, education, or health care. Maybe the film will help people see that we’ve been in conflict for six decades and maybe it’s time to just understand each other. We’re not going to be able to change the ideologies on either side, but at least we can understand where they’re coming from. Our main message is to offer friendship in spite of prior hostilities, similar to the rose offered in Cuban visionary Jose Marti’s poem. That’s the hopeful tone of our film.


Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Extraordinary Ordinary People/Alan Govenar

For over thirty-five years, filmmaker, author, and radio show host Alan Govenar has been documenting the National Heritage Fellowship, an extraordinary program that honors the artists who keep folk traditions alive in the US. From Native American musicians to African basket makers, from circus performers to Korean dancers, these men and women honor their cultures through practice, performance, teaching, and community work. Extraordinary Ordinary People is a journey through their lives, their art, and their enormous contributions to the vitality of this great land. Availability: Opens September 15, New York City, Cinema Village. A First Run Features release. Thanks to Kelly Hargraves, First Run Features, for arranging this interview.

DT: Talk about the National Heritage Fellowship. What’s it for? Who started it?

AG: When Bess Lomax Hawes became the director of the Folk and Traditional Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, she saw the need to recognize folk and traditional artists nationally. She wanted to recognize folk and traditional artists, but not simply give lifetime achievement awards. Of course the awards do celebrate careers and many years of work that different individuals have undertaken and the way in which they passed on these traditions from one generation to the next, but Bess thought it was necessary to recognize traditions as well as individuals. She didn’t want to just give one award to a fiddler. She wanted to show the diversity of fiddling as it existed in the US. So there would be many folk fiddlers and many blues musicians, many conjunto musicians, different people who made traditional crafts forms like basket making and bobbin lace making. It was difficult for her to get the endowment to start this program, and when it started in 1982, there was lots of discussion within the field of folk and traditional arts: Was this a good thing, or would it have negative effects on these traditions? Would valorizing people help or hurt? I think as it’s played out over the last thirty-five years it’s been quite an extraordinary program.

DT: Why would it hurt?

AG: Singling out an individual who’s part of a group that’s been unrecognized sometimes creates tensions within the group. Initially the award was $5,000. Over the years it went to $10,000, and now its $25,000.


DT: Let’s talk about the values inherent in the award, beginning with the concept of America as a melting pot.

AG: What I realized in doing this was that for me, the metaphor for America was kind of a crazy quilt of the cultures of the world. Within that quilt there were these traditions that were structured but also improvised. Some were radical, some were conservative. It was this uncanny juxtaposition of everything I thought I knew but found I didn’t understand.


DT: How about the value of tradition?

AG: Traditions define who we are. At the core of culture is tradition. Traditions help us clarify our sense of right and wrong, and imbue the world with meaning. In this way traditions shape the people who carry them on and the communities in which we live, work, and play. These National Heritage Fellows are exemplars, they’re ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They’re leaders, they’re teachers, they’re community workers, they’re people who are committed to not only preserving cultural traditions but also perpetuating them and embarking on new innovations to make them more vital and relevant to the world in which they live.

People have a mistaken image of folk art and folklore as being static and dead, when it’s very much alive. That’s not to say that some traditions haven’t passed on or vanished because they’re no longer relevant, but every tradition in this movie is still very vital. And it’s because people are not only carrying on what they learned, they’re adding something new. They’re always becoming new. They’re adding new verses to songs, they’re creating new stitches, they’re designing new quilt patterns, they’re innovating, creating. They’re artists.


DT: Some of the artists adhered to strictly traditional forms, like the Korean dancer, while others like the African basket maker introduced modern elements into the tradition, while still others began their own traditions, like Sidiki Conde and the gentleman who claimed to have started Zydeco. Introducing innovations into a tradition always begs the question of what are the tradition’s forms and what dangers does that present to the traditional forms?

AG: I think the parameters of what’s acceptable is determined by the individual and relationship to his or her family or community. The level of interaction determines that. From my point of view, people see a need and they’re creators, they’re artists in the bigger sense. A person who was a big influence on my thinking was Marcia Tucker, who founded the New Museum in New York. Some of the early shows that Marcia did in the ’80s exhibited people who might be called folk artists side by side with people who would be called contemporary artists. Marcia saw these distinctions between folk and fine art as being artificial. It’s a hierarchy, a social hierarchy, because the education process is different. Fine artists go to art schools, and folk artists learn from their grandparents. But in the end they’re both creators. They’re both driven by the artistic impulse. That’s the bigger point here.

In the movie, Bill Monroe says, “I wanted to invent my own music,” and that’s bluegrass. To think that this individual did that! He took mountain music, hillbilly music that he’d heard on records and live performance, and made it into something completely new. Earl Scruggs introduced the idea of playing the banjo in a different kind of way. Like Sheila Adams says, “This is where bluegrass banjo was born.”

I think each and every performer brings something new. Even the Korean dancer, who’s in New York City, is not only influential to the perpetuation of Korean dance but she’s also featured in programs at the Joyce Theater. She’s a contemporary dancer, and within that world she is bringing something new. Her gestural identification with the tradition brings it to a new level.


DT: What is the function of art in preserving identity?

AG: I think that the soul of our identity is our language and our use of language, and that’s where these traditions become the most fragile, because without the language—particularly of immigrant cultures—the traditions will wither. The languages are part of the cultural wetlands. D.L. Menard [Cajun] makes the comment in the movie, “We were a poor people and they didn’t want us to speak French in the schools because we didn’t speak correct French.” Ironically, linguists are tremendously fascinated by people like D.L. Menard or Canray Fontenot [Creole]. My wife and I brought Canray to Paris. Our friend Michel Fabre, who was a professor at the Sorbonne, had devoted himself to writing about African Americans in France. He was a biographer for Richard Wright, among others, and translated works of the Harlem renaissance into French. He wanted Canray to come to his graduate seminar because he wanted people to hear the French that he spoke. Michel would listen to Canray and say, “I don’t know how he does this, but he’s speaking medieval French. He’s singing songs from the medieval era.” So it’s language at the core of identity, I think, and tradition is a way in which language gives life to tradition.

We live in a world where immigrant cultures are constantly being pressed to assimilate. What’s amazing to me about the people in the movie, and part of what kept me documenting them for so many years, is that they understand this. They understand this delicate balance between carrying on traditions and assimilating. It’s like when Charles Carrillo says, “We’re not famous. We just do this because it matters.” That’s what it’s all about. It’s striking that very delicate balance between the pressures of assimilation with cultural preservation and at the same time trying to maintain a good life. To do well. To have a good family, to be prosperous and to flourish. To make a living. Not everyone can do that. There are people in the movie who struggle to make a living, and we can’t overly romanticize this process, because individuals like Sidiki Conde are struggling. There’s Alex Moore, who died in poverty.


DT: The film included an amazing array of people, ideas, and formats, yet you achieved a remarkable unity of feeling. Did you have a clear idea that you wanted to communicate? What was your organizing principle?

AG: The organizing principle revealed itself to me. I’ve been documenting the Heritage Fellows for so many years, and I had been on the committees that selected them. On our website,, which was developed before the film but goes with it, there are over five hundred little movies, and you’ll see little bits and pieces of things that we edited. So over the years I’ve worked with a number of different editors. On this film, editor Jason Johnson-Spinos and I worked really closely together. We wrote the script together. He jokes with me that he was born the year I started Documentary Arts, but he’s very sensitive to what I’m thinking, and he’s very sensitive to how to piece all of this together. I wanted to have a narrative and at the same time to bring into it as many different people as I could without it just seeming like mishmash, so there were certain threads that I developed.

When I met Sheila Kay Adams, she became a principal for me, because she’s a storyteller in addition to being a wonderful banjo player and flat-foot dancer and ballad singer. She’s also a writer, who’s written a couple of novels that have been successful. She had a voice that for me was totally unexpected—to hear an Appalachian woman telling you this story! For me there are not enough women in media, and there are not enough women narrators and voices on the radio, even public radio. I wanted there to be someone who would catch you a little bit by surprise but who would tell it like a story. I wrote the script, but Sheila joked with me that she had to Sheila-fy it. And that was great. I wanted that. So the threads became the stories, and I wanted to have more in-depth stories balanced with more sweeping overview. I wanted the viewing of the movie to be both an emotional kind of visceral experience but at the same time an intellectual journey. A lot of my work is focused on the tension and balance between art and ideas.


DT: You spoke earlier about documenting these people for so many years. What is your history with this project?

AG: My work on this began in the ’70s, with my BA, which had an emphasis on folklore studies. I had grown up in the inner city of Boston in a world that was Jewish and Black. There was tension between cultures, and I was very much interested in cultural understanding as a vehicle to make a better world. I didn’t know quite how or didn’t really understand this process, and that got me interested in folklore.

I did a paper for a class on a hunchback dwarf tattoo artist in a wheelchair, who later became the subject of my first book, Stoney Knows How, and my first film, Stoney Knows How, which was shot by Les Blank and premiered in New York in 1981 at Film Forum. During that period there was the idea that there needed to be public folklore, meaning that folklorists needed to work in communities but it had to be validated within the government. A man by the name of Archie Green worked and pushed and lobbied, and in 1976 there was a passage of the Folk Life Preservation Act, which created the American Folklore Center at the Library of Congress.

In the ’30s, Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax, had done work with the Library of Congress, but there was not a formal program within that entity. That led to the creation of this Folk and Traditional Arts program at the NEA. In the ’70s I started organizing little folk festivals and documenting people. In Columbus, there was this old woodcarver, Elijah Pierce, who had a barbershop and did these amazing wood carvings. I was part of a group of people who nominated him for one of the first National Heritage Fellowships, which he received in 1982.

As the years went on, I moved to Texas to get a doctorate at the University of Texas Dallas in 1980, and that’s where Bess Lomax Hawes and the Lomax family lived. There hadn’t been much activity related to folklore studies since the ’30s, and the Lomax family had kind of moved away, but Bess was very interested in seeing more work being done. As I started doing research in Texas, I realized the immensity of what was there that wasn’t being documented, so in the ’80s I organized folk festivals and did radio shows on Texas traditional music for the regional NPR. That grew into a bigger interest in radio, and in the late ’80s I did a 52-part radio series called Masters of Traditional Music, which was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It enabled me to travel around the country documenting National Heritage Fellows. That was the beginning of my journey and it continued over the years. I’ve  probably interviewed 350 or more National Heritage Fellows.


DT: How do people get nominated for the fellowship?

AG: Anyone in the US can nominate anyone for a Heritage Fellowship, professional or not. The panel meets every year, and they’re very diligent at what they do. They’re constantly looking at balance; they want a balance between men and women, they want a balance in terms of cultural diversity. With that as a kind of guiding principle, they’re open to anyone who is extraordinary at what they do and is a master of a traditional artform.

[To learn more about the National Heritage Fellowship program or to make a nomination, click here.]


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