Clandestine Childhood/Benjamin Avila

Benjamin Avila’s parents belonged to the Montoneros, guerilla fighters defending Peron’s agenda against the military junta in Argentina.  Far from decrying his violent childhood, Avila remembers it as a precious time, when people believed in their ability to change society.  His film Clandestine Childhood, based in part on his own life story, is a tribute to that period in Argentinean history.  In Avila’s script, twelve-year-old Juan has to hide his identity from his schoolmates in order to protect his family’s activities from discovery.  Under the assumed name of Ernesto, he settles into a happy routine at school and falls in love with a schoolmate.  Only when that love is threatened by his parents’ need to move away does he rebel. •Availability: VOD, Netflix. •Thanks to Andrea Betanzos, Cinema Tropical, for arranging this interview•



DT:  You and your parents returned to Argentina in 1979, after a long exile in Cuba.  In the film, your grandmother has a fight with your parents, saying they don’t know the Argentina that they’ve come back to.  Do you think that your grandmother was right, that they didn’t understand the situation in Argentina in 1979?


BA:  I think my parents thought they were going to find something different.


DT:  Different in what way?


BA:   They thought that their movement, the guerilla movement, still had good representation among the people. When they arrived in Argentina, they saw that it didn’t.  The support was different from what they expected. The fight in the movie is a historical discussion between parents and children:  Children always fight when their parents say, “Don’t do that,”  but during that period that discussion was common between mothers and sons.  Mothers are always afraid, but at that moment they were more afraid because they never understood what their sons were doing.  They were simple women, who then became the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.  I wanted to show that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were very simple and became these brave women later on.


DT:  In your director’s statement, you said, “Revisiting history from the point of view of my younger self allowed me to shed a new light on this period.”  In what way?


BA:  The cinema in Argentina has shown this period many times.  I think it showed it in a very sensitive way, but it always showed the dark parts—fear, death, persecution, torture.  Those were not the only things that I remember, so for me it was more important to show the other part—the life of that period. History states that if you fight for something, you’re going to die, because that is how the story is written.  Don’t believe so much, because you’re going to be killed.  So I wanted to show that these people never fought to die.  They never fight to die. They fight to live.  They fight because they believe so much.  And their lives were very powerful.  They had a lot of life.  They didn’t have death.


DT:  There was a lot of love and laughter and camaraderie.


BA: I remember my childhood very well, and it was an amazing period of my life.  It was not a dark period.  The consequence of that was terrible, but not when I was living it. For me that period of time was incredible.  The exile, and when we returned, was incredible because we were together.  We were very strong together.


DT:  You grew up surrounded by violence.  Did it scare you?  Did it make you angry?


BA:  Yes.  We talk about The Sons, and there is a group called H.I.J.O.S. [The Sons].   We don’t represent our entire generation in Argentina—we are many but we are not all—but I think my generation knows fear very well.  We have it very deep inside because we lived near to death.  We knew how dangerous a thing could be or not.  So yes:  We know what violence is.  We know what fear is because we lived it, it’s part of our lives.  But I separate the period I spent with my parents from what happened later.  It’s my normal life.  It’s not a special life. It’s the only life I have, so it’s my life.


DT:  But you saw that it was different from the lives of the kids around you.


BA:  Yes, absolutely.  I was seven, not twelve, like Juan in the film.  I had distance from kids my age; when I was playing with another little boy I knew that I had to be like an actor acting like a child because I understood more than he did.  All The Sons had that distance because we understood more of our reality than the other kids did.  But we never said, “Oh, poor child” for them, and we never said, “Oh, poor me, I have to live this kind of life” for ourselves.  For me it was incredible.  But what happened later when we were captured and kidnapped, well…I was very afraid at that time.  It was four days, but it was very hard.  And then they kidnapped my little brother, but luckily for my family we found my brother again five years later.  But still—there is now. In the film I changed my brother into a sister because I wanted people to ask, What happened with the sister?  and the answer would be, We don’t know where she is.  We’re still looking for her.  The grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo are still working to find her.  I didn’t use my personal history so that when people ask, What happened with the sister? I can say, We’re still looking for her.


DT:  What was the most painful thing about having to hide who you were when the other kids were just sort of finding themselves?


BA:  It was not a problem for me. At all.  What was very difficult for me was to live in a society with injustice.  During the ’80s and‘’90s, the story that we suffered—my mother’s disappearance, looking for my brother for so long, the sadness of everything, of my grandmothers and my uncles and aunts—was a personal consequence.  I always thought, That’s my personal consequence, but the most important thing is the project.  OK, I suffered, but the worst thing for me and for all The Sons in the ’80s and ’90s was that nothing changed in society.  It got worse.  It was terrible for us to live in a society where our personal suffering meant nothing because it was futile to fight. Luckily, in the last ten years, the government has changed and is making judgments of the military.  We are very happy with all of that and the kind of politics and government that is now in Argentina.  We agree with them.


DT:  The amnesty has been lifted….


BA:  Not only the amnesty.   We agree with the economics, politics, and sociopolitics, and we feel now that it wasn’t futile. Everybody has seen that period of time and that period of the fight, and the young people believe again in politics.  They are very strong—the left and the right.  Teenagers,  20-year-olds, 25-year-olds are so involved now in politics. They all believe that they can change their own reality.  In my generation they thought that politics was futile, that you were wasting your time doing that.  That was the ’90s in the whole world, but in Latin America everything is changed now, and in North America too.  We are living in a very good period.  Very good.


DT:  Unless I’m mistaken, one of the Montoneros shouts, “Viva Peron!”


BA:  They were Peronists.


DT:  But why were they still supporting Peron at that point?


BA:  We don’t know. That’s a discussion we always have.  I believe the same as you:  I never know why, because Peron betrayed them.  My parents always said there were two periods of Peronist government and that we believed in the Peron of the first government, not the second one.  Peronism is very difficult to explain.  Two days ago I did an interview for radio, and she told me, “If you were in Cuba, you’re Communists.” And I said, “No, we are Peronists.”  She just kept repeating, “But if you were in Cuba…”  She wanted to simplify something that was more complex and more interesting.  Then a newspaper journalist wrote, “They were anarchist militants.”  Sorry, you don’t know what anarchists are?  You’re a journalist, you at least have to know the difference between anarchism or another political movement.  Come on!  I know maybe here in the United States it’s more difficult to understand that there are communists, Peronists, capitalists…. Here it’s easier to understand communism and capitalism because there was a cold war between these two points, but Peron always said, “We are not communists.  We are not capitalists.  We are the third option.”  That’s what he always said:  “We are the third option. We are a new movement.”  And it was.


DT:  So let’s talk about the movie.  What guided you when you were writing the script?  What story did you want to tell?


BA:  I always knew that I never wanted to be the main character of the movie, so I changed a lot of things.  It’s based on my own childhood and my brother’s childhood, but it’s not my real childhood.  If I did an autobiographical story the subject would be different, so I changed things, I added things.  I took scenes from other stories, personal stories.  Some things happened to me literally…like the birthday.


DT:  The birthday was great.


BA:  My parents decided to make a birthday party to open the house to the neighbors so that the neighbors wouldn’t suspect anything.  The fight because of the flag in the school….that happened too, but it was not a fight with a boy, it happened because I didn’t want to raise the flag and I knew that I couldn’t say why, so suddenly I became crazy and began to shout.  My mother had to come to school to get me.  Then we had two characters who never existed:  Maria. The love story never existed; I would like to have in my own personal history that story—


DT:  Well, you were a little young if you were only seven.


BA:  In Cuba I had my love story when I was six, but we invented Maria because I needed to give Ernesto the same weight as Juan.  Because of the violence in Juan’s world, the outside world had to have the same weight just to push Juan to the side. Uncle Beto never existed either, but he was very similar to my father and how my own brother behaves with my sons today.  So I took this beautiful character.


DT:  Such a great character.


BA:  Everybody loves Beto.


DT:  What were your primary considerations in casting?  Did you look for actors who were like your parents?


BA:  The closest personal character is the mother.  At the beginning I began to look for an actress similar to my real mother.  She was blonde, and very beautiful.  Everybody talked about her beauty, her personality, so at the beginning I began to look for someone who was physically similar.  I never found anyone, so I began to look for the other characters.  Uncle Beto [Ernesto Alterio] was the first actor I got. I saw him in a miniseries made in Argentina, and I really liked it.  He lives in Spain, where he’s very famous, but in the Argentine miniseries his character was completely different from the other work that he did in Spain.  Suddenly I saw a complex actor. He happened to be in Argentina shooting a film, so I had another director make contact with him.  We went out to dinner, I gave him the script, he loved it, and said, “I want to do that.”  Natalia Oreiro [the actress who plays the mother] is  very, very famous in Argentina.  She says something and all the newspapers report it.  She was doing TV shows, soap operas, things like that.  Suddenly she stopped doing soap operas, stopped doing TV, and began to only do cinema.  Four years ago she made France with Adrian Caetano, and suddenly I saw her doing something more interesting.  So I thought, maybe she wants to take this character as an opportunity to change her own career.  She read the script and she was completely crazy about the character.  We met, and it was very interesting chemistry between us.  She’s an incredibly hard worker.  I got Cesar Troncoso to play the father like this:  Luis Puenzo, the producer of the movie, worked with him on another film and said, “Look at this Uruguyan actor.”  When I said I didn’t know him, Puenzo said, “Did you see The Pope’s Toilet?   It’s him.”  I said, “That’s impossible.” Cesar changes his physicality very much, so each movie is different.  An incredible actor.  We contacted him, he accepted, it was very nice.  The grandmother [Cristina Banegas] is a great actress in Argentina.  She was the only actor who, while I was writing, I thought, My best option is her.  She just won an International Emmy for Best Actress.  She’s an incredible actress, and she accepted the role of grandmother.  Everybody loves the script.  It opened a lot of doors because the people who read it believed in the movie.


DT:  While you were writing the script, did you have any conflicts with yourself over what to reveal and what not to reveal?   Did you ever think, Oh, no, I can’t say that?


BA:  No. The opposite: I decided to do the fight with the grandmother.  When I wrote the script with a Brazilian friend, Marcello Muller, that scene was six pages.  It was long.  When we rehearsed with the actors, I knew that scene was the heart of the movie, but I was not good with it.  It didn’t work, so I asked all the actors to improvise it again.  I said to the women, the only thing that I want, I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but in the end, you have to hug each other.  So I shot the improvisation that we did with them.  We did two improvisations with all the actors, with the kid too, with Teo [Gutierrez Romero].  The first one was twenty minutes of improvisation—


DT:  You were shooting?


BA:  Yes.  I shoot many things.  I wanted the actors to get used to seeing me behind the camera and being near them.  So we did the first one, finished completely exhausted. We talked about it, we took a breath, and then I said, “Let’s do it again.”


DT:  Right away?


BA:  We had already done a lot of research about that period with the actors because I needed them to believe what they were doing in that moment.  At the beginning the first talk was, Why, why are you doing that?  Why with the kids?  Why, why why?  So we had to pass away this why.  I had to say, “I have to ask you why and you have to answer me.”  So we worked a lot doing that, and they were completely strong with the characters.  And the improv was great.  They said the most politically incorrect things, because what the mother and the grandmother said to each other nobody had ever said in a movie in Argentina.


DT:  Like cruel?


BA:  Like when the grandmother said, “But you want to be a guerrilla.”  The mother’s answer was incredible:   “What’s the problem?  Why not?  We want to change the world.”  Then the grandmother said, “But you’re going to be killed.” In Argentina, everybody gasped. That’s the interesting thing, because everybody had that discussion in their personal life, but it was the first time that anyone showed this kind of discussion, which was a very closed thing, a very intimate thing. I showed this particular scene to Estela Carlotto, the president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.  It was very important for me to show them because the grandmother in the film is a grandmother of the Plaza de Mayo; she represents them. I was a little bit afraid of Estela’s reaction.  When she finished seeing the scene, she thought a while and said, “You’re right.  It was like that.  We never understood what they were doing.  We were only afraid.  I had this discussion with my daughter.”  I said, OK, we are in a good way.  I think the movie is very sincere. It’s not just about keeping this political view.  No, no.  It’s complex. It’s not a black-and-white movie.  It’s a gray movie.  It’s put in the middle. It’s more human, because nobody is black and white.  Everybody is more complex than that.  Everybody who wanted to write the big story of the country needed black-and-white because it’s more easy to tell a story like that.  That was bad for us in Argentina because that period suddenly became a fight between two parts only.  It was not that. It was interesting.  It had more reality.  It was more human.  It was not one against the other fighting for an idea.  No, no.  It was something much more human.  So maybe the surprise of the movie was that we showed a human point of view.  We didn’t show a political point of view.  It’s a political movie, obviously.  I have my own political opinion, but the movie opens this idea that the audience has to decide how to build this story.  We never said how.  It’s a movie of asking, it’s not the answers.  What happened with the audience in Argentina is very interesting: the mouth to mouth was incredible, and the different political points of view suddenly had to ask themselves again the same question that they had answered many times.  I wanted to show that it was this day-by-day thing, that to believe in an idea was not a thing that meant you were in a political movement, it was, I walk this way because I believe in that.  In that period the young people who believed strongly changed their lives because of their belief.  It was like a religion.  It was an incredible period that we completely lost.  What really killed that generation was the idea that they could change the world.  In the ‘80s and ‘90s this new democratic life began in the world, where you saw the letter of democracy and then you saw reality, and you said, Democracy is not that.  I think we completely lost the possibility to believe we could change.  If you look back at that period maybe you would say they were naïve, but they were not naïve. They believed. Everybody of that generation who believed was changing the world.  And now, after so much death, so much change, we know we can’t change the world, but we know that we can change a little part of something with the law.  If we enact this law, we are going to change this small reality.  We are not going to change the world.  We know that now.  Maybe it’s a sad thing that the real beliefs are finished.


DT:  The only time that Juan disobeys his parents is when he thinks he’s going to have to leave Maria, but his solution—taking enough money so they can run away—is so adult that he just ends up scaring her.


BA:  Yes. I love that reaction, because everybody is waiting for her to say, “Oh, yes”—you know, the typical cinematographic moment. Juan knows so much: he knows that he can’t say the truth because it’s very dangerous to say the truth.   Not only for him—for her, too.  He’s never going to tell Maria the truth, but if they go to Brazil, he’s going to tell her the truth.  Juan is saying this because he believes it. He’s going to do it.  That was the most difficult thing to build: what Juan wants to do is real, not something idealistic.


DT:  No, he’s going to do it.


BA:  When we wrote the scene it was dangerous for us because we didn’t know if the audience was going to believe this.  We thought they might say, “Oh come on, they are not going to go,” but in the movie it was good.  I discussed it a lot with Marcello, my cowriter:  when Juan decides to go he’s not running away from his parents.  He’s doing what he learned all his life:  to do what he believes.  So, you live your life this way? I do the same.  But with my life.


DT:  Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker, and do you want to keep making political films?


BA:  Absolutely.  I always will do political things.  I love Ken Loach’s cinema, but I love what he did in Great Britian, not outside of Great Britain.  Outside I think he was more naive.  But what he did inside Great Britain—Hidden Agenda, RiffRaff, Raining Stones—I think these movies are incredible because they give a portrait of society from a political and social point of view that helps people rethink a lot about themselves.  It’s very easy for the cinema to give this kind of point of view, and I also love Kieslowski’s cinema. Kieslowski has this political point of view, but poetical too, so I identify myself with them.  So, yeah.  I’m always going to do political cinema.




Copyright © Director Talk 2013

The Gatekeepers/Dror Moreh

In The Gatekeepers, Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh speaks with former directors of Israel’s secret service, the Shin Bet, about Israel’s war on terror, Rabin’s murder, targeted assassinations, and the Jewish Underground. The furor surrounding the film derives from the fact that these men, who have devoted their lives to Israel’s security and who know more about the Israeli/Palestinian facts on the ground than anyone else on earth, all believe that Israel should end the occupation in favor of a two-state solution.  The Gatekeepers is a 2013 Oscar contender for Best Documentary Feature. •Availability:  Opens Feb. 1 in New York and LA; click here for theatrical release nationwide. Thanks to Nora Lee  Mandel for help with research. Thanks to Matt Mazur and Grace Verrill, Donna Daniels PR, for arranging this interview.


DT:  Many people, including Ami Ayalon [director of Shin Bet 1996-2000], have said that the occupation poses a threat to democracy. In what way exactly?

DM:  If the Palestinians had said, OK, we like you, Israelis, we like the Jews, we want to be part of your country, that would have been different.  But they don’t say that; they want their own country. A lot of Israelis would say—and a lot of Jews here would probably say—that the Palestinians all want the destruction of the state of Israel. But I’m not afraid of what they want. Israel is a very strong force; you know, we don’t shiver so easily from Palestinians who want to annihilate us.  But what Ami Ayalon says, and what I believe strongly, is that it doesn’t matter.  The fact that you are an occupier of people who don’t want to be occupied by you changes you from the inside.  Changes your profile, changes the way you behave, changes the way you think about the other side, the indoctrination that you have towards that other side that wants to kill you, and slowly and surely you are moving towards being kind of… I’m afraid to say those words….

DT:  Avraham Shalom [director of Shin Bet 1980-1986]  said it in the film.

DM: A lot of philosophers, like Yeshayahu Leibowitz, said those things many years before Dror Moreh came and said this with The Gatekeepers. [In 1968 Leibowitz wrote, “A state ruling over a hostile population of one million people will necessarily become a Shin Bet state, with all that this implies for education, freedom of speech and thought and democracy. The corruption found in any colonial regime will affix itself to the State of Israel.”] When I quoted this in the movie to Yuval Diskin [director of Shin Bet 2005-2011], he said of this, “Every word etched in stone.” This is my greatest concern.  When I see my son going to the army now, and when I see my daughter going into the army in six months, I don’t want to think about it.  I hope that he will not serve in a unit  going into Palestinian homes, arresting people, deciding at roadblocks which Palestinians will move forward or not.  It changes us from within; this is the greatest worry that I have.  You cannot be an occupier.  There is no enlightened occupation.  There is nothing like that.  It has to affect you and it does affect you. In one way Israel is amazing, that after forty-five years of this kind of occupation with a hostile population it didn’t become more…

DT:  “Cruel” is what Avraham Shalom said.

DM:  Harsh. Exactly.  So I think you can combine all of that into what you asked me.


DT:  In 1967, a million Palestinians suddenly came under Israeli rule. In the film, Avraham Shalom said the Israelis responded with no strategy.

DM:  No strategy, just tactics.

DT:  Do you think that Israel just didn’t know how to handle the situation…that it found itself in completely new territory, so to speak?

DM:  If you ask me to analyze what happened in 1967, the intelligent way is to go to the leaders at those times, not seeing it in hindsight now.  I think that after many years of Israel being threatened by major forces—the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Jordanians—everybody knew that if Israel lost a war, it would be the last war that she would fight, because basically it would have meant the annihilation of all the Jews in the state of Israel.  All of a sudden, in 1967, something miraculously happened:  Israel triumphed, unbelievably, against those armies.  Against Egypt we conquered all the Sinai. Against the Syrians we conquered the Golan Heights, against the Jordanians we conquered the West Bank and Gaza—there was no Palestinian state, by the way, it was from the Jordanians. Suddenly the leaders of Israel felt, OK.  We have a strong army.  Nobody can threaten us anymore. I think this was intoxicating in  a way, because from a small country that was always threatened—you know, David against the Goliath that was all around him—they said, OK, if the Palestinians and the Arabs want to create peace…and these are the phrases that Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol used…let them come.  They can come whenever they want.  We’re not in any rush to solve the problem.  I think that most Israelis felt the same in that era. You know, we were a country under siege, under attack all the time from both terrorists and the countries surrounding us, and all of a sudden, OK, we won.  It’s your problem now. You have to play now.  We don’t have to play.  And this was what happened then.  This was why in 1967 the leadership, especially towards the Palestinians, didn’t think strategically.  And the problem is that the more time passes, the more complicated it is to solve it.  What was much easier to achieve forty years ago was less easy to achieve thirty, twenty, ten, and now.  As time passes it gets much harder, with much more human suffering, to reach the solution.  You know, everybody knows what the solution will look like.  Only the extreme right doesn’t accept that.  It involves a lot of human suffering…especially from the Israelis, by the way.  All those settlers were sent by a state—by a criminal, in my point of view, policy of the state—which yielded to those messianic feelings among the settlers.  Yielded.  Not wanting.  Yielded to their messianic “It’s either or.”  Either they will be evacuated and it will be a human catastrophe, or they will prevail and it will be a human catastrophe for all of Israel.


DT:  Why do you say it will be a catastrophe if they’re evacuated?

DM:  It will be a catastrophe for them. I saw what happened in the disengagement plan when Ariel Sharon uprooted those settlements.  Look, the governments of Israel sent those people to settle there in a way, sometimes by looking with a blind eye. They didn’t want to look at that.  And those people felt ideologically, and they feel up until today, that they continue the Zionist movement, which was basically a settlement movement.  Those settlers feel that they’re walking in the footsteps of those who settled in the 1930s, 1940s.

DT:  That’ interesting.  That’s really, really interesting.

DM:  Zionism is a settling movement.  Herzl was not right: “A country with no people for a people with no country” is not the case.  There were people, in Lod, and Ramlah, and Haifa, and Sfad, and Jaffah, where I live.  There were Palestinians.  I live in an Arabic house, which was a Palestinian house, let’s say seventy, sixty-five years ago.  I’m not ashamed of that, but those settlers in the West Bank and Gaza: I think they’re wrong.  The fact that Israel didn’t force them not to settle—or forced the law that says they’re not alllowed to settle in those territories—created this big mess, but at the end of the day there are 500,000 people there now.

DT:  Right.

DM:   This is why I say it’s a catastrophe.  Imagine 500,000 people. It’s not what will happen, but let’s say 150,000, which is the smallest number.  100,000 people:   You have to uproot them from their houses, from places they feel are homeland, whatever bullshit they’re fed with—the land of the prophet, the land of our ancestors, where our fathers walked, which we cannot give back, all this kind of horrible, stupid, unbelievable religious bullshit—and they have to go back.  They have to leave that.


DT:  In the film, Avraham Shalom said, “Luckily for us, terrorism increased, because now we had work.  We stopped dealing with the Palestinian state.” To what extent do you think that terrorism has prevented the Palestinians from getting a state of their own?

DM:   You’re asking me to speculate here.  Basically Avraham Shalom meant that in the beginning there was no real resistance in the Occupied Territories after ’67.  There was no Palestinian movement.  Nobody knew how to eat this new thing.  But the fact that Israel didn’t move very swiftly to say, OK, this is the Occupied Territories, we are going to try to create a Palestinian state—this is what Shalom says, “I thought that it’s a good idea to create a Palestinian state”—they didn’t move then, and then the terrorists started.  Because nothing moved on the ground, terrorists started, and then we started to work against terrorism.  The terrorism got more complicated and we got more complicated, and all of a sudden we find ourselves working 24/7 forgetting about those ideas of a Palestinian state we had in the beginning.   Basically we lost track of what needed to be done because we were chasing after our tail all the time, like a cat who sees his tail and tries to bite it.

DT:  Right, but it was a two-way street.  I mean, it takes two to tango.  If there had been no terrorism—

DM:  If there had been no terrorism, Israel would not move an inch.  Never.  The first time the Israelis acknowledged that there is a Palestinian people was in 1987, the first intifada.  Suddenly the Israelis woke up and said, “Wow, there are people there in the West Bank.  There are not only the servants that come to clean the restaurants and build our houses.  There are people there who don’t want to be ruled by us.”  For me it happened, definitely.  1987.  All of a sudden, Wow.  There are Palestinians there, not those Palestinians who are working in the factories for us or who are doing all the dirty jobs that we don’t want to do.  If there was no terror—and it’s hard to say that—Israel would not move an inch.  An inch.  I will give you an example, also from The Gatekeepers.  2000.  Ehud Barak unilaterally withdraws from Lebanon.  He withdraws from Lebanon, Hezbollah comes to the international border.  Hezbollah fighters are on the border, tearing the flag of Israel and saying, “We pushed you out.  By force.  You were afriad, this is how we pushed you out.”  In the meantime, the Palestinians are saying to Barak—or to the Israelis—“We gave you security in the last two years.  We did everything we could in order to fight the Hamas terrorists.  We put them in jail, in the prospect of getting a Palestinian state.  What did you do?  How much did you move?  Nothing.  You didn’t move towards us.  Nothing.  Hezbollah killed your soldiers, fired rockets on your northern cities, and what did you do?  You moved to the international border.”  What is the message that every Palestinian understands from that?  What kind of a clear message does Israel send to anybody after that?  You want to move forward?  Let’s move forward two months ago, three months ago.  For three, four years the Palestinian Authority has provided security for the state of Israel completely.  Two days ago it was published that this year no Israelis were killed by terrorist attacks from the West Bank.

DT:  I saw the article in Haaretz.

DM:  First year.  Why?  Because the Palestinian Authority security forces and the Israeli security forces allowed that state of security to happen.  What did Netanyahu do in the last four years?  Zip.  Nothing he did.  Nothing.  What did he do with Hamas?  He released one thousand terrorists in order to get Gilad Shalit, and he negotiated. Although he likes to portray himself as the strong guy, the strong leader who doesn’t bow to terror, who negotiated with Hamas about the cease fire in Gaza just three, four weeks ago?  Who was the one?  Was it Barack Obama?  Was it the left or the right wings in Israel?  No, Bibi Netanyahu, the big fighter against terror, negotiated with Hamas and yielded to Hamas.  The consequence of the last conflict in Gaza was that the terrorist leader of Hamas was allowed to come to Gaza and to row in the parade, where he says this is the only way that we will force Israel to submit—only by force.  Who allowed that?  Who allowed that?  The prime minister of Israel.

DT:  Well, that answers my question.

DM:  The biggest fighter against terror.  And what is he doing in the meantime with the people who are saying to him, We are willing to accept the state of Israel, we are willing to fight terror, we will fight terror, we don’t believe in terror, what is he doing to Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad?  Humiliating them.  Making them not relevant.  And showing to the whole world, and definitely to the Palestinian population, that only Hamas, by using force, is making Israel bow, is forcing Israel to do whatever he wants them to do.


DT:  For me, one of the most heartbreaking moments came when Ami Ayalon, speaking about Rabin’s assassination, said, “I suddenly saw a different Israel.  What do we have in common?”  For me, that was heartbreaking, especially as an American Jew.  We trotted up with our little quarters to put in the Keren Kayemet box, and all the propaganda that we get here…

DM: The biggest threat to Israel’s security is those far-right-wing extremists.  This is the biggest threat to Israel’s security.  Who is the most renowned American president?  I’m asking you now.

DT:  Lincoln.

DM:  Why?

DT:  Because he brought the people together.

DM:  And what did he do in order to do that?

DT:  Compromise?

DM:  Civil war. He made civil war because he felt that at one point in its history, a country cannot yield to something that is so brutally and honestly immoral.  There are some things to which you cannot yield.  After he assassinated Rabin, Yigal Amir said something at the end of his trial.  The judge tells him, “Before I’m going to sentence you, I allow you to speak.”  And what Yigal Amir said stayed with me; he said, “Nobody addressed the fact that there is a contradiction in terms between the democratic Israeli state and Jewish law.  Unless it will be addressed, it will continue.”

DT:  What’s the contradiction?

DM:   Jewish law comes before the democracy, before the law of the land.  Basically, the rabbis are above the law of the state, and this is the main problem:  When there is a group of people inside Israeli society who do not accept the concept of democracy but when it comes to decision making they say the law of the Torah, the law of the Bible, these are the ones that prevail.  You saw that in the movie, when this rabbi says, “No leader can oppose the Torah.  No one can do that.”  When it reaches that point, Israel will have to decide where it goes. Even if it will mean a civil war.

DT:  You don’t think that the last election—

DM:  Come on.

DT:  All right.

DM: Not really.  For example, I will give you Naftali Bennett, one of the stars of the last election.  In an interview on public television, he was asked, “What will you recommend your soldiers do if the prime minister of Israel orders you to evacuate a settlement?”  He’s from the Mafdal, not the Haredi, and his instinct was to say, “I will refuse that order.”  Because it’s in contradiction to the Torah. It comes to that fundamental question, that wall which is the law of the Torah. You know, you can hear about the same law from ten different rabbis, and each one gives you a completely different answer to the same question.  At the end of the day those extreme rabbis, Rabbi Lior from Hebron, and Rabbi Ginsburg, there are a lot of those crazy guys worming around—

DT:  But even Lapid said he wouldn’t serve in a bloc with the Arab parties.

DM:  That’s his problem, but that doesn’t matter.  We’re talking now about when it reaches a democracy that has to face the question, Who stands?  The laws of the Torah, which is how the rabbis interpret, or the laws of the land?  A lot of the people from the extreme right wing will go to the laws of the Torah.  And that’s a problem.  That’s a civil problem.


DT:  I saw an article a few days ago in Haaretz in which Avner Gvaryahu wrote, “Unarmed resistance to the occupation poses a challenge to the security concept to which we have become accustomed.”  If that’s true, what challenges do the nonviolent movement in Bilin or the Palestinians who are setting up their own tents on top of hills…

DM:   In E1.

DT:  What challenges do they pose to the IDF?

DM:   I don’t know.  I’m not so expert on the IDF or what challenge they pose to them.


DT:  The headline for a New York Times article about your film was “Most Israelis Are Not Listening.”

DM:  This is coming from a not so qualified or even well-informed—you can quote me on that—columnist.  [Jode Rudoren].  The review was by A. O. Scott.

DT:  So what’s the reception in Israel?

DM: The reception in Israel is amazing.  It’s overwhelming.  The film started in two cinemas in the beginning.  After one week it moved to seven cinemas.  It’s now in fifteen cinemas.  Three weeks.  A lot of Israelis have seen it up until now, I think it’s thirty-seven, thirty-eight thousand, which is an amazing amount in Israel in terms of cinemagoers.  It’s completely sold out.  It’s in the biggest multiplex in Israel, some of them owned by friends of Netanyahu. For a documentary it’s really an amazing success.


DT:  At the New York Film Festival press screening, you ended the Q&A by saying that you hoped Obama will be elected so that he’ll put pressure on the next Israeli prime minister. At the same time, Haaretz just reported that Riad Malki says that the Palestinians will go to the Hague if Israelis don’t stop the E1 plan.  How important is international pressure at this point?

DM:  Crucial.  Essential.  Unless Obama will put enormous pressure—on both sides, by the way, not only the Israelis—but mainly on the Israelis and the Palestinians, nothing will happen.  They’re two entities that have now reached the pubic period.  They’re two entities that are basically like small children who are fighting and  nobody understands what they’re fighting about.  As far as the leaders of Israel, Netanyahu is dealing with all the wrong reasons not to do anything. I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t believe that Netanyahu has it in him; he’s not a leader.  He’s a good salesman…for furniture…I’m talking really honestly.  This is what I feel.  He’s the worst prime minister. He and [Ehud] Barak can compete for who’s the worst prime minister in the history of Israel. I don’t know who will win.  Probably Netanyahu although Barak in his year and a half created so much damage that it’s taking many years to mend the damage he did. The kind of leadership that needs to move towards peace you don’t see even in the far horizon of Israeli politics.  So though the gatekeepers are always trying to comfort me and tell me, “You are much too bleak, the leadership will arise,” I don’t see that kind of leadership on the horizon of Israeli politics now.  And unless an enormous power will be forced on both sides to move ahead… America knows how to do that—Barack Obama, if he wants, knows how to do that—and I think that there are hints by appointing the defense minister…

DT:  Chuck Hagel…

DM:  And by appointing the foreign minister…

DT:  John Kerry…

DM:  He indicates very clearly where he wants to go. I hope that he really means that.  There’s also concern about the conservative Jews here in America, who have a lot of power, I think.  in my point of view, those Jews are making a mistake in what they do. I’m not the only one saying that.  Believe me, six heads of the Israeli secret service are saying the same thing:  By the way that they act, the way that they accept the wrong policy of the Israeli government, they are damaging the state of Israel.  Not helping—damaging the sate of Israel. And unless they understand that, and unless they will help President Obama take this Titanic that is heading head-on towards the iceberg and help him change the wheel….  Basically this is what they are doing:  They are helping the captain of theTitanic move head-on towards the iceberg.  I don’t want to blame, but this is what I feel AIPAC is doing.


DT:  Is there anything you want to add?

DM:  I hope those people will come to The Gatekeepers keeping an open mind and heart and watch those six heads of Israeli secret service, the Shin Bet, whom you cannot call unpatriotic.  They are the ones who sacrificed the most for the security of Israel.  Most of their grown-up life since the day that they served in the army was in the service of the security of Israel.  This is what they dedicated their lives to…six of them.  All the heads of Shin Bet who are alive, coming and telling….  Listen to them.  This is what I ask.  Just listen to them. Don’t do anything.  Just come with open minds to The Gatekeepers and listen to those people.  What you decide after that is up to you.  But listen to them. Don’t be racially prejudiced or mesmerized by the propaganda machine that’s working against that.  Go to the movie and judge for yourself.  You are old enough and capable enough intellectually to do that by yourself.  This is what I’m hoping will happen.




Copyright © Director Talk 2013

The Mill and the Cross/Lech Majewski

With The Mill and the Cross, Polish media artist Lech Majewski has directed one of the most stunning—and original—movies in the history of cinema. Five years before completing the film, which is based on an art critic’s analysis of a painting by Bruegel, Majewski was honored with a major retrospective at MoMA, entitled Lech Majewski:  Conjuring the Moving Image. •Availability: On DVD from Kino Lorber, Netflix• 



DT:  You started your life as a painter and a poet. You also write novels, compose music, and direct plays.  What does film offer you that the other arts don’t?


LM:  It allows you to create visions in motion; you’re entering this visionary world where things actually can move about and around, and you can be immersed in it and physically suck somebody into that visual space.

Mill and Cross_Charlotte Rampling copy

DT:  You said that’s what the Old Masters do…they set a place for you to inhabit.


LM:  Yes, but I am inhabiting their space in a kinetic way:  I travel through their spaces.  When I spend time watching paintings, it’s always a journey into that world, so in a way it’s very filmic.  Your eyes travel inside, and then you use a little bit of imagination.  There are things that are hidden from you, and you have to make up a story.


DT:  You seem to create meaning from juxtaposition rather than narrative—juxtaposition of interior and exterior, foreground and background, animals and humans.


LM:  The aesthetic of art is contrast.  One thing always enhances the other by sheer juxtaposition. As far as stories are concerned, I’d rather not go for linear stories that are motoric and predictable. I’d rather go for the deeper kind of many-layered stories, or meanings of stories. I’d rather ponder on a small situation and dig deep into it.  I’ll take a situation that is how do you say…a chamberlike piece…like a singular painting….and dig deeper into it.  Ask, What is behind it?  The hero of my previous movie was a boy in a hospital after a nervous breakdown. He’s basically sitting but his brain is going on, his imagination is going on, and he recalls images from the past and mythologizes them, projecting things onto people that visit him, like his father. His mind is incredibly active, and that’s what I prefer. The more you run about like in those cops and robber stories and all those superheroes, it’s killing the brain and contemplation and thinking.  It’s just sheer movement that is escape from being.  Escape from contemplating.  Escape from thinking.  They’re doing, doing, and doing to death.  And at the same time I wonder, How come people pay a lot just to escape themselves?  People don’t like spending time with themselves.  They don’t want to face themselves.  So they pay for whatever….for drugs, for action cinema, for TV…they do anything…read idiotic articles or something just not to think, not to be with themselves.  That’s the effort of today.  The topic of escape.  And at the same time people are willing to suspend their belief in anything—you take any run-of-the-mill film and actors jump from the tenth floor and land on the roof of a train and nothing happens to them…the knees and the ankles don’t hurt…it’s only the beginning, because then they have to jump through the window inside the train and rescue twenty-seven people and then kiss the most beautiful girl and then jump onto another car and hang onto a window-washer and then they have to lie under the car and hit the street and somehow they roll to the side and then they get up and they’re fine.  That’s what people buy.  How come?

People even vote for Schwarzenegger believing he’s going to rescue the State of California.  They believe the Terminator will end California’s debt—he’ll just shoot it.  People need this superhuman.  We need all those Schwarzeneggers and the belief we place in them because they compensate for our helplessness.  They can set things straight.  But when I’m watching a play or a movie I feel this is not my life, because my life doesn’t go into plot points and resolutions and reasons and what have you.  Things happen and they trot along, and it’s one ball hits the other and the other, and sometimes it’s cause and effect, sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes it’s kind of a no reason effect, a kind of paradoxical connection.


DT:  You don’t think that if you look deep inside there’s always a cause and effect?


LM:  That’s wishful thinking because we’re afraid that there is no cause and effect.  Yes, many things can be explained that way.  Like many things can be explained with Newtonian physics.  But then you look into other dimensions and you have to forgo Newton.  You have a different set of rules.  So what I am saying is that watching these perfect stories gets me alienated from my own experience of life.  I believe there’s a different story, like a Tarkovsky movie, which doesn’t have a plot point, it’s kind of a sustained contemplation, which is sheer poetry for me.  You know, when you read a good poem it doesn’t touch just your logic, you have a deeper sense of being.


DT:  That reminds me of Sebald, the German writer.


LM:  I think the most important thing in our experience of life is this sort of immanent mystery of it.  And we try to look at the world as if it doesn’t have that mystery.  We like clean-cut solutions and explanations.  And that really is the business of storytelling.  I think that this mystery is good.  One shouldn’t shy away from it. Whenever you scratch deeper at anything—science knows this quite well—you suddenly are facing the darkness.  This cloud that if oblique or opaque you cannot go through it; you don’t know how to go through.  Yet I don’t think it’s a fatal effect.  I think it’s something exciting, really.  Because we are surrounded and submerged in this thing.  If only just to get closer to that essence:  that’s my films.  People tell me that they sometimes have some kind of hypnotic effect on them.


DT:  But you also say that films need a mechanism of interest that can pull in the audience.  Something that’s natural in the psychology of human beings, like curiosity in a crime story, or a sense of justice in Westerns, or the desire to spy.


LM:  In The Mill and the Cross I had this mechanism of people peeking over the shoulder of an artist who’s creating a painting. Because there’s always a little crowd over the shoulder of a painter, watching how things come together.  This is the essential position that I wanted to have the audience in for The Mill and the Cross.  I thought we should really peek over the shoulder of Bruegel and listen to him musing about what he means by doing this or that or why he’s being such an extreme realist and creating a completely surreal landscape, or why he suddenly has in the Low Countries a protruding rock that shoots straight into the air and it’s crowned with this windmill, which wouldn’t make the slightest sense in the realistic world of Bruegel because you know the miller would die of hunger because there’s no way to transfer anything up or down this thing.


Rutger Hauer in The Mill and the Cross.

Rutger Hauer in The Mill and the Cross.

DT:  You talk a lot about Bruegel’s perspective—that he’s combining seven different perspectives in the one painting.  You created the same effect with the blue screens and the stitching and all the technical stuff that you did.  (For an explanation of the technical aspects of making the film, click here.) Do you think that contributes to the sense of mystery and ineffability of things?


LM:  Yes, of course.  That’s particularly what he’s doing with our eyes.  But it’s a trickery that brings us closer to our own kind of vision, because our vision is not the camera’s vision.  Our eyes are first of all stereoscopic and not a single eye unless you are a Cyclops or you have one eye taken out.  Or you’re Moshe Dayan.  Other than that you have two pyramids inside, two cones coming out of your head; that’s your vision.  And what happens is that the eye is very much alive, it blinks, it moves, it sweeps the space, it checks out the focal points deeper and closer to you, and it sort of builds up in your brain a safety space.  Basically, our eyes work as a sentinel, a guardian of what we see.  Only when something really unusual or dramatic happens is our memory is activated to the extent that we remember. And we tend to remember things like that for a long time.  But other than that it’s like the snake sliding, using its protruding tongue to check out the space around him, or the snail with its horns, just checking the space. That’s what our eyes are doing.  We don’t see the space in that static, singular one-eyed vision of the lens.  It’s dead matter, the lens.  Whereas our eye is very active, and it combines perspective as it looks and watches space.  So what I found is that Bruegel in essence was doing the same.  He was summarizing vision, which enabled him to put 500 characters in a display that was like a teatrum, so you could feel the different groups and all the different happenings and have it all in focus.  Also the Northern painters, the painters from Flanders, tend to build a space around a singular axis, so they were like bending the space around a singular axis.


DT:  Like the cobweb?


LM:  Yes, but also like a three-dimensional cobweb.  If you take the axis of a rock, you will see that there is a circular movement around a rock in Bruegel’s painting.  And what I love about this rock is that it’s from Holy Scriptures.  There are some texts saying that when Moses took the Jews and they wandered in the desert there was this petra, this neumatic petra going with them. Neumatic petra means ‘airy rock,’ a rock that is hollow but at the same time when Moses strikes the rock water comes from it.  It’s a beautiful, poetic image of a rock that can travel over the desert.  It’s straight from a surreal painting.  And in this Bruegel painting you have a rock, and suddenly I noticed there are  two windows in this rock. I instantly saw the shafts of light coming through those windows and I imagined the hollowness of that rock, so it’s an abode, a kind of a dome, I don’t know, a temple.  And I found a connection with this neumatic petra.


DT:  When you went to Paris to meet with Michael Gibson (the art critic who wrote the book upon which Majewski based The Mill and the Cross), did you already have the idea of a feature film in your head?


LM:  Yes, pretty much so, and I saw this central scene when the mill freezes, when everything freezes.  Except I was sure that I would do it in a traditional way.  That I would find a landscape and I position people in that landscape and that’s how I would do it.  But I did a test and it showed that this was completely wrong because it didn’t look at all like Bruegel’s world or Bruegel’s space.  So it was back to the drawing board.  I got a very good preproduction from the Kunst? Museum and I painted over all the characters so I could see the landscape on its own, and that’s when we discovered the seven different perspectives, with junctions between those perspectives obliterated smartly by these groups of people.


DT:  Oh my God.  That’s fascinating.


LM:  Yeah.  So you know, dealing with Bruegel and standing in his shadow the last four years I was discovering step by step the greatness of this man and the way he was capable of producing this universe that encompasses not only religious themes but his historic time and the prosecution and persecution of his people.  He even put himself and his collector inside that painting…you have everything.  It’s really a compendium, which is what amazes me in the artists of yesteryears.  They managed to build up a complete compendium of their own times.  And that’s what is missing from today’s art.  We only get bits and smithereens and irony.  And ridicule.  And stuff like that.  And it’s all plastic Andy Warhol washout.


DT:  Is that what you’re trying to do in your films?


Michael York in The Mill and the Cross.

Michael York in The Mill and the Cross.

LM:  Well, it’s sort of difficult to do it today, but yes, I would like to try to attempt that.  But you know, it’s not an easy thing.  I was thinking about today’s times, why is it so difficult to capture the essence of it?


DT:  And?


LM:  I don’t know.  The jury is still out.


DT:  Do you think that maybe it’s because we know too much?



LM:  I think we are ashamed of ourselves.  We are ashamed of these times.  We are helpless.  We cannot cover the entirety of it.  We are stranded.   People find their own small niches, and if they get recognizable…somebody paints squares or paints women with splashes and whatever and gets recognized for that…he sticks to that and keeps it going because it sells.  You have to find your niche and quickly become the slave of it because the market accepts you as such.  The last artist that was trying to look for solutions, different solutions, almost all his life was Picasso.  And he took an axe and chopped up the forms of the yesteryears.


DT:  You talk about Bruegel being a great philosopher in the sense that he always hides the main subject.  For instance, in The Fall of Icarus he doesn’t depict the fall—you just see his foot sticking out.  I get the feeling that you’re trying to do the same thing…that you’re hiding the main subject.


LM:  Yes, very much so, yes.  These are times when it’s Twitter, poster, you have to hit everybody over the head with a baseball bat of a message.  I shy away from that because you cannot force-feed people.  You cannot beat them up with a message, so to say.  I myself like to discover things.  I like the effort that it requires to get to know something.  I respect that effort and I think it’s a natural payment for growing up, for moving up in a certain spiritual level.  So I like to search, I like to go on my own and dig in.  Therefore I am not putting my message up front and I’m not trying to be as clear as I can.  It’s very hard to talk about it in a short conversation, but there is a beauty in the hidden.  We suspect horror from the hidden, but I suspect that it’s more beauty than horror.


DT:  I once heard you say, “The impossible is always exciting.”


LM:  Absolutely.  That’s actually what Gibson said when I suggested that we use his book as a basis for the screenplay of a feature film. And he said that’s crazy, that’s impossible, and then a few minutes later he said, “But the impossible is a matter for gentlemen.”


DT:  Let’s talk about The Mill and the Cross.  Describe finding the landscape.


LM:  I shot the majority in Poland.  In Silesia, there is this region called Jura, where white rocks protrude from the ground.  Calcium rocks.  This landscape was very much like Bruegel’s landscape.  Bruegel’s landscape was a surreal landscape, but we have this surreal landscape here in Poland.  Some of the other things I shot in the Czech Republic and in Austria. In New Zealand I mainly shot the cloud formation that hangs above the southern island. The Maori call it “The Island of the Long Cloud” because it has this enormous kind of like a dough, which is kneaded all the time from the winds on both sides of the island.  It looks like this transparent marble above your head, so you pull out your chair and just sit down and watch this endless spectacle hanging over your head.  It’s unbelievably beautiful, and it has rivulets and meandering sort of injections of clouds into the clouds.  We managed to catch some of it, and then I mixed it: eight-tenths New Zealand clouds and two-tenths Bruegel clouds mixed together, traveling across the screen.  In order to have the Bruegel static clouds move, I had to extend the painting of those clouds, so I spent some time painting the extension of the clouds so we could hook up the New Zealand with the Bruegel clouds and they could travel together.


DT:  Can you talk more about the process of creating the visuals?


LM:  If I can suggest something, the American Cinematographer, June issue, is a very good in-depth article that covers the nitty-gritty of it. It’s on my website, Basically it was like spacing the space into different layers and then connecting and layering those layers in such a way that they will produce a composition that looks akin to or inspired by a Bruegel canvas.  In order to achieve that we had to shoot separate depths of field separately and then cut out certain things and join together and mix the real landscape with the Bruegel landscape and the real clouds with the Bruegel clouds.  Various objects that were used in the movie, like the rocks, the windmill, and the spiderweb, had to be created entirely in the three-dimensional postproduction effects house so we could go around that rock and beyond this rock and look behind it.  It was like tremendous ….how shall I put it…monastery work.  I felt like an abbot in a monastery with these young guys, computer graphics monks, sitting and doing the illuminations in the early texts.  A full house. It felt like we were in the middle ages using twenty-first-century technology.  And it required tremendous dedication from these people, because you know how a computer can eat your time. And if you need to really dissect every image, every shot, into these various levels and layers, it can take forever. I mean, these people are giving up their girlfriends and living like these celibate monks, just going home to sleep.  Some of them slept in front of their computers or on the floor. It was unbelievable.  I never expected young people to have this kind of dedication, but then, entering Bruegel’s world was enriching them and showing them the greatness of this man, who was doing it on his own, a single man creating this masterpiece. That was like a wonderful experience, and they were paying their respect to Bruegel, I guess.


DT:  And to you.


LM:  And they got hooked up on that world.  Because usually they do commercials and stuff and zinging and zooming and zapping things and suddenly it wasn’t zooming and zapping and zinging, it was just deeper and deeper into a staticity which is not staticity; it has a lot of movement in it. It’s this painter’s glance…a normal person looks at apples on the table and a carafe of wine and he says OK, the apples need to be eaten, the wine has to be drunk, and that’s it.  But when you get a painter, he starts to look at things and the connections between the colors and shapes and how they correspond with each other and how they augment their shapes instead of going with it or against it or how the waves of light are hitting it.  It becomes a beauty in itself, as documented by endless still lifes that hang in museums.  But that looking deeper into something that is supposedly static—it’s even called still life.  In other languages it’s naturmort, dead nature.  But it’s not dead, it’s so much alive, but you need a painter’s glance to look at it.


DT:  Well, you’re a painter.


LM:  I did start as a painter.  Right now I’m what I would call a video artist and photographer …well, a media artist, because I do sculptures and paintings and what have you, I have exhibitions.  I created various video art pieces that were presented at the Louvre in February and March, and right now (November 2011) they are part of the Bienale in Venice.


DT:  You like to show people waking up. You really concentrate on that moment of transition between sleep and wakefulness.


LM:  It’s the border.  It’s the passport control.  It’s the gateway between two worlds.  I like that.


DT:  How was raising money for The Mill and the Cross?


LM:  We did it for a relatively very low amount of money because a number of postproduction houses stepped in knowing this would be a showcase for their work.  But when my Swedish coproducer hired an English production manager to measure the two and a half years in postproduction and the shooting and the one year of preproduction, the English guy said that if we were doing it in England it would cost twenty-three million pounds.  That was the figure, but obviously we did it for much less than that.  But again, those postproduction houses did it for the sake of being showcased.


DT:  Well, they certainly are.


LM:  They know I’m a visual artist.  I can angle a lot out of them because they know the film will be appearing in some important museum or what have you.  So therefore I have an easier life with that.


DT:  You composed the music for the film also.  Can you talk about that process?


LM:  For me, the soundtrack of the movie is the concrete music of all the real effects that we recorded, plus the engine of the mill and stuff like that.  I love those sounds because I think they’re very dramatic.  Even the storm, when it thunders—this is for me the music, the concrete music of everyday.  But the music as such was basically two themes.  One is the peasant theme, which I composed when I was doing Midsummer Night’s Dream in Germany.  I dressed Puck and all these peasant characters in Bruegel costumes.  One of them had a tuba, and he played the tune that everybody dances in the end.  So I used my theater piece and transported it over a ten-year period into The Mill and the Cross because again Bruegel was the subject.  And I devised a dance in Midsummer Night’s Dream, so I repeated it in The Mill and the Cross, looking at how people danced in the old paintings. And there is this art theme that I composed just for this movie. I worked with Justin, this instrumentatlist friend of mine, who plays these things I compose.


DT:  It’s beautiful.  In the credits, I noticed that you had a language expert?


LM:  I did.  The most amazing thing is that I discovered that close to where we were shooting, there was a village populated by very old people who are descendants of the Flemish, from the times of Bruegel.


DT:  Unbelievable.


LM:  Yeah.  At that time Poland had a king who was very open to other religions.  A lot of Jews from Spain found a haven in Poland, and so did the prosecuted Protestants from Flanders. The village’s name is Wilamowice, from Wila Magigetz—the prince of the Low Countries. What is amazing about these people is that they speak a fossilized Flemish language, so they actually sound like the contemporaries of Bruegel.  Experts of fossilized languages are coming to this village and recording these people.  I learned about them from an article, and I said to myself, What a coincidence!  I’m just eighty kilometers from that place.  So we descended there with all these sound people and we recorded their singing and their talks and this is what you hear in the background.  And the funny thing is that when I was showing this movie at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the director of the Museum in Amsterdam was absolutely in a state of shock that he could hear this forgotten language.


DT:  Are you happy with the film?


LM:  Let me put it this way.  We managed to shovel this movie along with technology that was growing at the same time.  We used a camera when it was just introduced into the business, letting us do many things. We were being helped by a number of plug-ins and very technological new things that were just popping up as we went along. It was a happy coincidence that the technology was having this bent forward at the same time that we were trying to crack this hidden construction, this hidden code of Bruegel.  So yes, when I attempted initially to visualize the movie I didn’t envision that it would be that rich. But you know, you never know with a film.  Then, once you’ve done it, it’s done.


DT:  So you started the production process with an entirely different image of what you were going to do.


LM:  Yes.


DT:  So there was a lot of improvisation as you went along.


LM:  It’s always like that.  You have to keep your eyes open and your ears pricked because things happen at the same time and you have to see what works, what doesn’t work.  But at the same time I had a vision that I wanted to be in the universe of Bruegel.  Our work was about nearing that vision.  It wasn’t groping about.  There was one goal.  We wanted to do the movie in the aesthetics of Bruegel.


DT:  So it was more problem solving.


LM:  And that was a lot of improvisation and a lot of happy coincidences that we managed to find.


DT:  Did the kids you were working with come up with a lot of the solutions, or did you? How did that work?  Did you say, “I need this” and they would say, “Oh, we have the tools to do that”?


LM:  It worked the other way around.  I would say, “This isn’t good,” and they would come up with different solutions until I felt we were getting closer.


DT:  So you identified the problem and they solved it.


LM:  I was dissatisfied with other solutions, and they were providing me with better and better solutions.  Then they learned my language and I learned their language and we were able to communicate much faster, but at first I rejected a number of solutions which I felt were not right.


DT:  About the screenplay: You had this idea of this one central scene when everything stopped, but how did you develop it from there?


LM:  I had a pretty clear graphic design of the screenplay. A Polish poet once said a good poem is a poem you can draw.  I believe this also goes for a screenplay.  With a good screenplay you can draw its structure.  For me the central axis of the film, like the rock in the painting, was when time stops and you have everybody on the canvas.  And it’s what Mircea Eliade calls vertical time.  The holy time.  The chyron.  The special time, when everything suspends.  And that was for me the central axis.  I knew that on the left side we’re going to have the obvious: day starts with the dawn, and it develops until it leads us to this central situation.  On the right side you have the descent, the fall, so to say, of the day, so if the central axis is stretching, then it starts on the left and ends on the right.  Then you will have also two victims.  On the left we will have a man whom I call wheelified—on the wheel—and on the right hand we will have a man crucified.  Two geometric signs, so to say.  And on the left we have an anonymous victim and on the right we have a synonymous victim.  So that was the structure in my head, and then we developed a dozen or so characters and decided to follow them on and off just to have them.  There is this drama of the wife of the man who is wheelified, and the mother of the man who is crucified.  Obviously the crucified is reminiscent of the passion. There are elements that are recognizable from the passion figure, yet the costume states clearly that this is not Jesus Christ, this is one of the Flemish characters who for some reason was sentenced to this incredible torture.


DT:  You made the very interesting decision of giving voice to only three characters—Bruegel, his patron, and the mother of the person who was crucified, whether it was Jesus or this Flemish person.  What went into that decision?


LM:  In the whole movie there is no specific relation that this is Jesus.  This is for me a Flemish person.  But the manner in which the torture is inflicted on him is obviously like the passion.  And it was the irony, the tragic irony of these people who were torturing people in the name of the man who was tortured.


DT:  But why did you decided not to use dialogue?


LM: The first idea I had for the film is that no character will move throughout the film.  I wanted to have this film with all these people suspended in mid-movement.  So they’re physical…you see the sweat coming down their forehead, you see the tears, you see that they are breathing, but nobody really moves, this kind of a suspended time.  And in the initial idea I was imagining that I would travel with the camera, moving among the characters and eavesdropping on their inner thoughts.  Kind of overhearing their thoughts.


DT:  But then you moved on from there.


LM:  Yeah.  Gibson wrote all these monologues, but ultimately I rejected most of them.  Also  the actors really started to work on the text, like Rutger Hauer, who got almost twelve pages of monologue. He sort of munched on it and chewed it up and spit it out and threw it up and ultimately it boiled down to three pages that he actually made his own.  I trusted the way he minimalized that; in the process we both were just cutting and cutting and minimalizing the amount of information.  So that was the process we had in shooting, and I also cut out some of these things in the editing.  I was trying to keep as few words as possible.


DT:  Did you work the same way with Michael York and Charlotte Rampling?


LM:  Pretty much, yes.  The speeches were longer but then they were cut down, and written words were replaced by others.…you know, it’s a normal process, you work on the text.   It has to flow.


DT:  Out of the five hundred figures in the painting, how did you choose the twelve?


LM:  We wanted to make a cross-section of society, to have representatives of all the major groups of people who appear in the painting.  So there has to be a close-up of the soldiers, there has to be the victims and their families, there has to be the older couple.  There are certain spheres in Bruegel that sort of pop out of the rest.  There’s plenty of children in the painting, always playing.


DT:  And the figure of the miller.


LM:  Yeah, the mover and shaker.  Primo mover.


DT:  The one who provides sustenance.


LM:  Absolutely.  He turns the wheels…the cogwheels of the universe.



Copyright © Director Talk 2012

Postmortem/Pablo Larrain

Chilean director Pablo Larraín follows up Tony Manero with the incredibly black comedy Postmortem, once again casting Alfredo Castro as an obsessive everyman in the days of Pinochet’s coup.  Mr. Larraín has just completed No, the third film in the trilogy, for a 2013 release.Availability:  Postmortem has its US theatrical premiere April 11 at New York City’s Film Forum.  Tony Manero is available on Netflix.•


DT:  In the credits for Postmortem you list the actors who played the corpses.  Did you actually use live bodies for the autopsies?

PL:  All the autopsies were performed with living actors, of course. Real dead bodies?  I’m sorry, no; I’m not that crazy.  The actors were playing a role, and we thought it could be interesting to have them in the credits, too.

DT:  That’s an interesting choice.  Was it artistic or financial?

PL:  It’s just a possible one.  I mean, what would you do instead?  Use some sort of body made out of silicone or whatever?

DT:  Yeah, latex, or a real cadaver.

PL:  We used real live bodies with some sort of makeup work and then some TGI, but it’s not a matter of money.  If I would have to do it again, I would do it the same way, I think—it’s what you do when you’re working with dead bodies.  The creation of the human body is very tough.


DT:  You focus on Allende’s autopsy in great detail.  Did the uncertainty about how he died have a great effect on the country?

PL:  Yes and no.  This movie originally came to me when I was reading his official autopsy report on the internet.  And the way that it was reaching me and the information that was in the autopsy looked more like a historical metaphor for a country than a medical legal file.  It’s been public since the 90s.


DT:  When you began writing the script for Tony Manero, you didn’t start out intending to make a film about the Pinochet era—that grew out of Raúl’s obsession with Saturday Night Fever, which was set soon after the coup.  Do you consider Tony Manero a political film?

PL:  Yes, very much.

DT:  Even though you didn’t start out to make a political film.

PL:  Christopher Columbus went to India and he discovered America, no?  That’s how art is also.  You start in one direction and then you go where you have to go; you don’t know much about where you’re going.  I realized I was making a very political movie, and then I made Postmortem, and I just finished the last movie of the trilogy.  It’s called No, and it will be released next year. I wasn’t actually sure what I was doing, and then I realized that it was so political, so I kept on the same path until today.


DT:  Are you going to be using Alfredo Castro in No?

PL:  Yeah, the protagonist is played Gael Garcia, and the antagonist is played by Alfredo.


DT:  Both Postmortem and Tony Manero depict characters whose personal obsessions inure them to the violence in the streets.  Is that how Chileans normally react?

PL:  I don’t think so.  I’m not doing some sort of movie that would tell a story that could be played in schools so people would know what happened in Chile.  I’m not into a moral and spiritual historian’s way of doing things.  I’m not trying to learn or to pitch anything.  I’m just trying to go there in order to understand what happened in those days because that’s where the actual Chile began.  Those days are a little piece to understand what’s going on today in our country.  And the characters aren’t exactly regular people—they’re just symbols who represent the situation, who represent the society.


DT:  You shot with Russian lenses?  With Tarkovsky’s lenses?

PL:  Postmortem was shot with Russian lenses.  There are stores all over the world today with something that’s called Lomography.  They’re cameras that use a vintage system with film, that you need a lab to look at.  The label is called Lomo, and they’re originally from Russia.  They created these lenses from the late ’30s to the early ’90s, and most of the Russian movies were made with those lenses, also Tarkovsky’s, and others.  We checked all over the world, found a set in Los Angeles, and brought them from there.  We used those lenses because they are so amazing, and they’re so strange.  They’re old and they don’t work very well, but the way they look is so beautiful.

DT:  Yeah, very beautiful.  Are they plastic or glass?

PL:  Glass.  Amazingly heavy, strong, very well constructed glass, but they aren’t perfect.  People today, with this HD revolution, they’re looking for perfection, for high definition, high resolution, high quality blah blah blah blah high colors, whatever, and we are looking completely on the other side.  We’re looking for texture, for life, for death, for bodies, for colors, for lighting, and those lenses really helped do that.


DT:  So you’re going to continue to shoot in film?

PL:  I shot No, the movie I just made, on video, but on analog video, with a cheap 1983 camera.  It really depends on the movie.


DT:  When you shot in film did you edit digitally, or did you edit on film?

PL:  Digitally.


DT:  Like many other directors, you use the same actors for different films. What do you get out of using the same people?

PL:   A lot of things.  It’s collaboration in one way, and then there are characters that you want to work with.  Alfredo is a guy who has an enormous mystery, someone who, while he’s in front of the camera, no matter what he’s doing or no matter how he’s dressed or the way he looks, will always keep this sort of strange mystery thing.  You never know what he’s really thinking, and that is so beautiful for me, and I’m glad to work with him.  It’s a fantastic experience for me to work with someone who also understands what I’m looking for.  He helps, he has great ideas, he’s always taking care of what I’m looking for, and he pushes me to go there.  So it’s very interesting.


DT:  How did you meet?


PL:   He was my teacher.  He’s a very well-known actor and theater director, and he’s very respected down here.  He owns and runs a drama school, and I was a student there in theater direction.  So I met him there, and he jumped from being my teacher to being the actor in my movies. He’s also a core writer on Tony Manero, with writing credits.  So our working together is a progression over some years.

DT:  How was the transition for him from theater to film?

PL:  He was very scared.  He thought it was going to be an awful experience because it’s so technical and so different, but when he grabbed it he really started to enjoy it.  A lot of things weren’t with specific direction; I would tell him something very ambiguous about what to do, and he would just go and act.  That’s why we shot so much—we shot hours and hours and he would move and do a lot of things, and we never cut.  I would give him instructions during the shot, so he got involved very easily, I think.


DT:  Did you storyboard?

PL:  No, I never do that.  I don’t understand storyboards.  When you shoot action scenes, you need them because the crew will need them.  But you can put everything into a drawing, but into a lens you can’t.  So I don’t use storyboards.


DT:  Do you rehearse beforehand?

PL:  We just read a lot.  We get together and read and read, and we talk.  But no rehearsal—there are no actors playing characters or anything like that.


DT:  How long was the shoot?

PL:  Postmortem was six to seven weeks, something like that.  It’s very slow.  When we get the budget, I’d rather have less expensive things in order to have more time.  I wish I had a lifetime to make a movie.  I would make one movie my entire life; I would keep shooting it forever, if that’ possible.


DT:  One critic called the FIPRESCI [International Federation of Film Critics] award the most important in Latin America.  Do you agree?


PL:  In every festival there’s a FIPRESCI award, and they’re important  in the entire world.  Everywhere but in the United States, I would say.

DT:  No one knows them in the United States.

PL:  But if you check out Cannes, or Venice, or Berlin, or Locarno, or London, or Buenos Aires, Brazil, whatever, in every film festival you have a FIPRESCI award.


DT:  How important are film festivals to your career?

PL:  Film festivals are important when you have the right film and the right festival.  If they don’t fit, it doesn’t make sense for the movie or the festival.  But when you have the right fit it makes a lot of sense because it helps you push the film internationally, it helps you sell it, it helps make people aware of it, and it also gives you the chance to talk to other moviemeakers, talk to the audience who saw your movie.  I don’t think they’re the most important, but they’re interesting.


DT:  In 2006, the Chilean government began infusing the film industry with money.  How does that affect you in terms of production?

PL:  It helps—not in every film, but in some of them, because it’s something you can use as a starting point.  It’s not easy to get.  First you send your project anonymously, and the first commission reads it. Then if you’re over a percentage, let’s say ninety percent or whatever, you get into the second commission. So it’s very long, and it’s not easy, and if you’re lucky you can get the highest award possible, which is something near $300,000, which could be one-fifth of your budget.  It helps you to start with, but it’s not something that would be enough to make an entire movie.


DT:  Are there certain countries that are more receptive to your films when you’re looking for international financing?

PL:  So far we’ve been finding help and support and also commercial interest from France.  This last movie that I made also found money and a production system from the United States—Participant Media were involved in No.   So it depends on the project.  Every project has its own path.


DT:  Of course.  Can you talk a little bit about No?

PL:  It’s the last movie of this trilogy, and it’s different.  Even though I believe that Tony Manero and Postmortem are quite dark comedies, this is more a comedy than anything else, I would say.  But that’s pretty much all I can say.


DT:  It disturbs me when you and other people call Tony Manero a comedy.

PL:  I wouldn’t say that it’s a comedy just like that.  I would say that it has black comedy elements, which is not the same.  It has theatrical elements, it has dramatic elements, it has melodramatic elements, and it also has comedic elements.  The hard thing is that in the United States, they need to establish a genre for each movie so people will know what they’re looking for or what they’re about to see. In both cases—in Postmortem and in Tony Manero— I wouldn’t say it’s a horror or a comedy or a whatever.  I would say that it has elements from different genres, because I’m not doing something that specific.  I’m just trying to tell the story and have fun with it, and it turns out just the way it is.


DT:  Do you find that American audiences are less sophisticated than others?

PL:  No, I would say that in the United States you can find pretty much everything.  You can find from very sophisticated audiences up to people who really enjoy silly movies.  You know how it is.  That’s why the United States is so fascinating,, because you find everything—the worst and the best in the same country.  And movies are no exception.  When you see the gross of movies, sometimes you just cannot believe why some of them are on that level and why so many people went to see that movie, but then you see that other movies did get a lot of attention and they’re very good.  You can find pretty much everything in the United States.

DT:  How about in Chile?

PL:  I think we have a very interesting critical mass.  People here like to see good movies, but just like everywhere else, our box offices are in control of American movies. Harry Potter got the highest box office in the entire year.  It’s like everywhere in the entire world.  There’s a very massive interest in this sort of super-studio-sequel sort of whatever movies they are, and there is some interest in another kind of movie.  It’s pretty much everything, but you know there’s nothing like Paris.  It’s not like France.  Those guys, it’s just crazy.  In Paris, they release twenty-five movies a week, so they release a hundred new movies every month.  That’s pretty exceptional.  If you pull France out, then you find London, New York, and then the rest of the world.  I know a lot of people who say they want to fight against this situation, blah blah blah, they want to do this here, there, and the single thing I say to myself is, Why don’t you make a good movie?  That’s the whole issue, I guess.

DT:   Well, France has the droit moral, the filmmaker’s right to the final cut, so the whole national attitude toward cinema is different from, as you said, the rest of the world.

PL:  But they’re also interested in international cinema.  When my movies get released there, I go there, and it’s just so huge, the press interest, the amount of interviews, the questions, the way they think, the way they enjoy moviemaking, it’s just so amazing.  It’s unique in the world.


©Director Talk 2012


Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.




Dolphin Boy/Yonatan Nir

Winning awards from Jerusalem to Berlin, Dolphin Boy documents the extraordinary relationship between a boy beaten into a catatonic state and the animals and people who bring him back to life.  Director Talk interviews codirector Yonatan Nir about dolphin therapy, Cinema for Peace, and resolution in the Middle East. •Availability:  NYC theatrical premiere April 27, Quad Cinema.  Click here for the trailer. •Written and directed by Yonatan Nir and Dani Menken.  Produced by Dani Menkin, Yonatan Nir, and Judith Manassen Ramon


DT:  You were an underwater photographer before you were injured during the second Lebanon war. When you returned to Dolphin Reef, the dolphins communicated with you in a way they never had before.  Can you describe that experience?

YN:  I couldn’t find the energy to go back to work.  One morning I entered the water without a camera, and six dolphins just came to me and swam with me for forty-five minutes.  They made me smile for the first time, and they made me cry in the diving mask, and I felt that there is hope.  Life goes on.  It was a very, very powerful experience for me that made me want to tell the story about the inexplicable connection between man and dolphins and how this connection can help people in trouble. I’ve been underwater with whales and dolphins and manta rays, and I have three thousand five hundred hours underwater, but there were only a few moments when I had this really strong feeling, when this huge animal comes directly to you.  It looks into your camera and it looks into your heart and it looks into your soul, and it always left me—even before my injury—amazed.  It’s a very, very strong, emotional feeling.


DT:  Dolphin Reef sounds like a different kind of facility from other dolphin therapy facilities around the world.

YN:  It’s been operating for a bit more than twenty years, and as far as I know, it’s the only place in the world that operates in this way.  First of all, it’s not in an aquarium.  The dolphins live in the open sea. For many years they could swim out and swim in; everything was open.  In the last couple of years they closed the nets because of the authorities, but I can tell you the dolphins are finding their way out. The other important element is that the dolphins never get fed for doing tricks or performing.  If they jump or if they come to a dolphin trainer it’s not because of the fish they’re going to get, it’s because they want to make this connection with the trainer who knows them, who is their friend. The trainers are with them sometimes three, four hours a day in the water, so the dolphins know them and want their attention.  That’s why they play.  So the guys who work there feed them five times a day, but the feeding doesn’t have anything to do with the dolphins’ performance.  The dolphins get some fish—not a lot, but just enough to keep them in balance, because there aren’t enough fish for eight dolphins in the bay where they live.  It has nothing to do with their performance—if you’re a good boy you’re going to get a fish and if you’re a bad boy you’re not.  It doesn’t work like that.

DT:  It’s for feeding, not positive reinforcement.

YN:  No positive reinforcement.  There’s no connection between feeding and the other things that happen in the Dolphin Reef.  Another important thing is the fact that they’re in a huge area and they’re never forced to come to people. If they chose to come to Morad, it’s because they wanted to be close to the trainer who was with him in the water or because they liked Morad and wanted to be in contact with him.  For example, except for that one time when they just came to me, I never had a connection with dolphins like Morad did.  He really had a special, special connection.

DT:  Do you think that that was because of his injury or just because of who he is?

YN:  A mix of both.  Morad has this love in him.  He has a huge heart, and he’s very open, and he’s loving.  When he trusts you, he just hugs you.  He’s so positive and so lovely.  He has a great touch.  Today he’s studying hydrotherapy and physiotherapy, and he’s really good with his hands.  And he really wanted the connection with the dolphins, because at the beginning he had no other connections. They could feel he wanted it, so I think that’s another reason they came.  And we know—we know for sure, and I know from my own experience—that dolphins are attracted, for some reason, to people in trouble, people who are traumatized.  I can’t explain it, but I heard it not only from myself, I heard it from many people who felt that when they were down, a dolphin approached them.  I don’t have any proof of that, but it’s my experience, it’s Morad’s experience, and it’s many other people’s experience.


DT:  Tell me about Morad’s father.  He was incredible.

YN:   In real life he’s even more incredible, because he really had to deal with a huge conflict.  First of all, he comes from a society where if something happened to your kid, you go and take revenge.  And he stopped this revenge.  He said, revenge will not help me and will not help my kid.  I will go to jail and he will be in a mental institution, and it will not help me, and it will not help him.  So we will have to take it easy now, we will only have to take care of the kid.  But of course he was still angry inside.  When he moved to Eilat with Morad, he gave up everything he had.  He sold his horses and his farm, he sold the most important things in order to be able to spend as much time with his son as it takes.  And always with this positiveness and always with this hope.  And this hope also attracted other people, like myself, like the dolphin trainers.  The Dolphin Reef never charged him, or charged him a really small amount, because they said, Listen, there’s a guy here who needs help.  He will do everything for his son.  He’s willing to pay a million bucks if he needs to.  He will wash dishes here for five years to support his son.  We can’t stand aside; it’s not an ordinary case, it’s something special.  And of course Dr. Ilan Kutz, one of the biggest post-trauma experts in Israel, probably in the world, never took a dime from Morad or from his father.  He said, I cannot; I see how much this father wants to help his son.   It’s humanity more than anything else, just to be a human being, to see somebody needing help and to help him.  And we on the film crew had to deal with a lot of issues.  Today we sit here and the film is great, and the story of Morad is completed, but it was not like that all the time.  It was ups and downs, and we had times when Morad didn’t want to be filmed, when he was depressed, when we didn’t see any hope.  Then we always took the phone and gave a phone call to Assad, the father, and asked him, What should we do?  He’s such a smart guy, and he’s so connected to nature and to his son, and to basic instincts, and he was directing us.  Always, when I didn’t know what to do, I would give a call to Assad, and say, Hey, man, we have a problem with Morad.  He doesn’t want to be filmed, and he would tell me, OK, so go to Eilat without the camera and spend some time with him without the camera.  Go dive with him.  So we would come, but with a small camera, and I would go and dive with him, and after the dive we would talk in the water, and then he would open up to us.  And Assad—it always seemed to me that he had a plan, that he wanted his son back in the village.  He’s an Arab man, he wants his son back in the village to prove that the family is strong, all these honor issues, and then the son comes back to life in Eilat and wants to live with a Jewish girl.  OK, now the father is facing a double conflict.  He wants his son back in the village, but his son isn’t ready to go back to the village, but not only that, he wants to stay there with a Jewish girl and basically give up on his former identity.  And then the father has to deal with it.  And as filmmakers we knew that we had here really strong, powerful material.  We tried to ask Assad what he felt about the girl, and I never heard him saying one single bad word about her.  He was so positive, and he never pushed Morad.  And even in the last scene in the film, you can see how he sits there next to him in front of the sunrise and tells him, You have to know your family is there; whenever you’re ready, you come.  And only then Morad goes.  It was also important for us as filmmakers to make a film that will be good not only as a film but also good for the treatment of Morad, that will be good not only dramatically but also therapeutically.  So when he goes back to the village, it’s not because his father pushed him, it’s because he decides to go there.  So I consider myself very, very lucky to come across such a story.


DT:  I read that there are differences between the roles that male and female dolphins play in the social structure of the community.  Did that come into play in Morad’s therapy?

YN:  I don’t think so, but I have a nice anecdote.  We have a scene in the film—it’s like the first or second day of Morad at Dolphin Reef—where the dolphins come and push Morad up to the surface.  And this is really interesting, because we know that dolphins, not like us, they have to choose when they want to breathe.  Not like us, where I can just (gulps).  I cannot hold my breath and commit suicide.  But a dolphin can.  So in the wild, when a dolphin feels bad physically or mentally—and it usually goes together—he can, if he decides, just commit suicide by drowning.  The other dolphins know this characteristic, and they know this ability, so if they see a dolphin that doesn’t feel well, they’ll always put another dolphin next to him so once every couple of minutes he can push him to the surface and take a breath of air.  We had a situation in the Dolphin Reef where we had a dolphin who was so sick that he couldn’t stay on the surface, and his brother swam next to him and kept him three days above the surface.  So when we saw it happening with Morad, it symbolized exactly what I felt when I was injured and needed help.  They sensed it and they came to me. I don’t know how to explain it.


DT:  You shot for four years. At the beginning you couldn’t have known it was going to take that long.  As filmmakers, how did you work that out?

YN:  First of all, I’m very, very lucky to work with two amazing partners.  Dani Menkin and I produced,  directed, and wrote the film together, and the other partner is our producer, Judith Manassen-Ramon. When one of us was a bit down, the other one would push him up, and it worked really, really well.  We were very lucky to tell the story of such characters, like Dr. Ilan Kutz, like the guys from the Dolphin Reef—Omer and Sophie and Yaron—and like Morad himself and his father, of course.  Also, we didn’t shoot it from the very first moment.  When Morad arrived, other guys from Dolphin Reef shot some of the footage, so it’s not only mine.  And of course Dr. Kutz shot Morad in the hospital in the beginning.  But I think when you work on such a project –I’ve done four documentaries until today—each one of them has a challenge.  The challenge in this documentary is that it took a long time.  With another documentary it can be budget, or it can be materials, or footage, or it can be a character who is not cooperating.  Every film has its own issues, so I think that the only thing is to be an optimist and to have good partners and to believe that the story you are telling is important for the world to hear.  I know it sounds maybe a bit…but we knew we were doing something right here, that this story must be told. That gives you a little power to go through the hardships.


DT:  Your film Beyond the Boundaries is somewhat similar to Dolphin Boy in the sense that you show someone using  a particularly interesting therapy to overcome a disablement.

YN:  I did two films similar to Dolphin Boy.  One is Beyond the Boundaries, which will be shown in the LA Jewish Film Festival in two weeks, and the other is Cutting the Pain.  All of them deal with people who experienced something tough in their lives.  In the film, and through the film, they’re going through a process of acceptance, understanding maybe, and maybe also a kind of rehabilitation.  In Beyond the Boundaries it’s more physical—these four amazing guys, all disabled, going to Aspen, Colorado, to learn how to ski.  One of them is a full amputee, he has no legs; another is post-traumatic; the third  experiences really bad pain in his body all the time due to injuries in the second Lebanon War; and the fourth one cannot move his body below his chest.   It was great to be with these kinds of guys and to experience them learning how to ski and getting empowered by their ability to do something that other people cannot.  Through that they tell the story of their injuries and the way they find hope and reason to live.  I guess it’s easy for me to relate to these kinds of stories because I experienced something similar—not as strong, not as tough—but I experienced some things, so I can relate to it and make them trust me.  I will not use their story just to make a film.  Cutting the Pain is also a very strong story about a guy that decides to go through leg amputation in order to release himself from a pain syndrome that he has in his leg.  After his leg has been amputated, only then the true story reveals something that happened in the military services that he feels guilty for.  And so it’s a very strong film that also took me three years to complete.  So I was dealing with these kinds of stories for two or three years after my injury, and now I am starting to do other stuff as well.


DT: Was there something about the second Lebanon War that was particularly traumatic?

YN:   It’s not about this specific war or this specific place.  I think that generally in Israel, unfortunately, we’re experts on trauma.  That’s why Dr. Ilan Kutz was able to come up with this incredible idea to send Morad to the Dolphin Reef instead of putting him in a mental institution.  When you live in Israel, you are surrounded by this all the time.  Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day, and the week after is Independence Day.  They go together.  In Dolphin Reef we told a story about trauma and about rehabilitation with a situation that is not about military service and is actually about an Arab kid.  I showed this film dozens of times here in Israel in front of Arabs and Jews and religious people, from the occupied territories and from Tel Aviv and from the north and from the south.  I even showed it in jails, to people who were convicted of rape and violence and stuff like that, but there’s something here in the story that’s universal.  It’s not about him being Arab or Jew or this war or that war.  On the one hand, it’s about the fact that the human violence that is all around us has a terrible effect on the human soul.  On the other hand, if you give it enough patience, if you bring enough hope and faith and love, you can fix almost everything.  And I think this is the message.  When I showed this film in Toronto somebody told me that we made a film about coexistence without saying a word about politics.  And I couldn’t agree more.  We’re just human beings. I get letters from Israeli Jews who write, After watching your film, it was the first time I felt that peace is an option.   I always translate these letters and send them to Assad and Morad, because when you look at their story, it’s a human story.  For me it was an incredible opportunity to meet the other side, to meet the Arab Israelis, to see that in this Muslim culture there are people who love life more than they love revenge.  Many of them are sick of all this revenge that’s going on.  That’s the message—it’s something more universal, it’s not related to this war, or that war, it’s something universal.  Morad could have been a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who was sexually attacked.  He could have been a girl that had a car accident, or a Sudani refugee who crossed the border into Israel.


DT:  Tell me about Cinema for Peace.

YN:  They invited us to Berlin for their annual awards ceremony because we were nominated for what they call the Green Oscar.  It’s the best film about green issues.  We didn’t win, but it was a great opportunity for me to wear a suit and a tie for the first time in my life.  It was an interesting experience to arrive next to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and walk on the red carpet to find out that nobody takes pictures of you.  But that was the experience.  It was a very big honor for us to be there.


DT:  What are you working on now?

YN:  We just completed an historical documentary about a man named Wilfred Israel.  He owned a huge supermarket in Berlin in the twenties and thirties, and he saved the lives of at least twenty thousand people.  His story is unknown.

DT:  He was Jewish?

YN:  Yes.  His airplane was shot down on his way back from Portugal to England in 1943.  He went to Portugal to try to save more kids; he saved mainly children.  He was the initiator of the Kindertransport operation, the operation that saved ten thousand kids without their parents between Kristallnacht and the beginning of the war.  And his role in the Kindertransport and in other things was unknown except for an incredible biography that was written in the eighties.  But a biography is something that not many people read, especially if it’s a historical biography, and this guy had problems with PR.  Some guys I know from the kibbutz where I grew up, their father was a very good friend of Wilfred Israel.  They decided that they wanted to make history known, and they started to raise funds to make a short documentary about it.  Do you remember what I told you before about always having an issue in a film?  The issue here was that there were no pictures.  There were only five pictures of this man.  And from these five pictures I had to make a thirty-minute documentary.

DT:  What was it called?

YN:  It was called Wilfred Israel, the Savior from Berlin.  It will show in London next month.  While researching this film I found out many other incredible things this man did in his life, and I decided to make a long version of this film in order to bring it to European TV, not only in Israel.  Now we’re collecting funds, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to do it.  It’s very rare that you find such a story that is untouched.  He was half British, born in England, so it allowed him to stay in Germany until 1943.  All the top Nazis had accounts in his supermarket. It was huge—two thousand people worked there.  The Nazis’ accounts were never paid, but it gave him a lot of power.  And he initiated the Kinderstransport and saved seven hundred Jewish employees.  Later he moved to Britain to make sure they would accept refugees from Germany, so thanks to his work another eight thousand people were rescued.  Then he went to Portugal, risking his life in order to take out refugees from Portugal.  So I’m very fascinated about this project, and I hope we’ll be able to raise enough funding to support it.


DT:  I hope so.  Is there anything that you want to add?

YN:   Post-trauma is a multicultural and international issue.  I read somewhere that post-trauma behaves in a human soul just the same way it behaves in a society.  Our society in Israel, and many societies today in the world, are post-traumatic, which means very agitated, with a lot of fear, with a hard time sleeping at night.  Look at how people drive in Israel.  It’s terrible.  In my opinion it all comes from the same place, a place where you live in a culture where you don’t know what will happen tomorrow and death is all around you and aggressiveness is all around you and violence is all around you.  Here, in this film, the message is to show that even though Morad’s condition was so bad, if you have people to help him get through it, then you can cross everything.  The human beings in this film behave a bit like dolphins in the way that they don’t judge a person according to the language that they speak or according to his belief or the place that he came from.  They accept him as a human being.  Because when you jump into the water and a dolphin senses you, he will see heart, and internal organs, and skeleton, he will never be able to say whether you’re black or white, or poor or rich, or if you’re Arab or Jew, or which wars your ancestors fought against each other.  He will see a human being, so we saw him as a human being.  Morad is now studying in the north, close to my mom’s house.  She told me to tell him to come stay with her so he doesn’t have to drive one week every morning to get to his exams. And when I go back I sit with his father and with my family.  We became best friends.  So it’s possible.  Without politics, it’s possible.


Copyright  (c) Director Talk 2012

Andrew Sarris/A Tribute

As they say in quantum mechanics, an observer affects the observed reality, so it’s no overstatement to say that Andrew Sarris changed the course of American cinema.  By applying auterism to Hollywood, he revolutionized our self-image and, thereby, the films we see.

Writing was Sarris’s mainstay.  He expressed himself in countless articles for the Village Voice and the New York Observer, as well as in his groundbreaking works The American Cinema – Directors and Directions 1929-1968 and “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” He wasn’t known as a teacher—except to the people he taught. I had the extraordinary good fortune to study the films of Max Ophuls with Professor Sarris, and I say without hesitation that those hours spent in his classroom at Columbia were the happiest of my academic life.  Though he thought theory, he talked ideas.  When I left his class, I no longer felt I was shirking my responsibilities by spending hours in a darkened theater;  I felt I was addressing them.

I certainly wasn’t alone.  In tribute to the impact Andy had on his students and colleagues, Director Talk has collected a number of anecdotes and memories from people who knew him at Columbia University.  These stories might matter to no one but us, but oh, how they mattered to us.

 Thank you, Andrew Sarris. Earrings of Madame de has long been supplanted by Jacques Demy’s Lola as my favorite film, but I know that you would approve of my path for getting there, if not the choice.

 Judy Gelman Myers, Editor, Director Talk

Andrew Sarris, opening night of the 25th Anniversary Columbia University Film Festival, Alice Tully Hall, NYC, May 4, 2012. ©Patrick McMullan, Photo – Leandro Justen/


John Belton, professor of English and film at Rutgers University, author of Widescreen Cinema:

I started reading his column in high school (class of ’63).  In college I sent him a fan letter (no reply).  In grad school, I got him to contribute to a course packet on Hitchcock (not a bad group; other contributors were Bill Paul, Tim Hunter, Fred Camper, myself, and others).  Then I got to write for him at The Village Voice (early ’70s).  Finally, I got to share an office with him for eight years at Columbia.  To paraphrase a line from Howard Hawks’ Man’s Favorite Sport?, for me it was like playing on the same team with Mickey Mantle.  I last saw him two years ago at an NYFF screening of the restored Lola Montes. So he certainly was there–shaping for me–the trajectory of my involvement in film.

None of the obits spend more than a sentence on his time at Columbia (which is volumes for me).  I suppose that was appropriate.  It was something of an afterthought for Andy (but even his afterthoughts were often brilliant).  His legacy is his work as a journalist, and the obit writers seem to share a recognition of him as one of their own.

Lift up your vermouth cassis and give him a toast, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”


Ajit Duara, film critic, OPEN magazine and visiting professor, Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication:

Though translated into English later, Andre Bazin’s collection of writings Qu’est-ce que le cinema (What is Cinema) was published from 1958 to 1962.  Beautifully written, the impact of the essays on the art and craft of film writing was huge. For any cineaste, reading Bazin on film is an epiphany.  He proves that you can be a film theorist without being a pedant, you can deconstruct film without taking anything away from its essential  magic, you can be personal,  even moral, without being judgmental.

Andrew Sarris published his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” and it is not difficult to imagine that he saw how Bazin had positioned himself as an interpreter of cinema to French society, how he had woven an abstraction like “auteurism” into French culture;  and then, perhaps, he thought of how he could do the same with  a completely different system of cinema, and with a very skeptical, perhaps “anti-intellectual” reading public in America.

The vastness and the complexity of the studio system in America cinema would make identifying auteurist characteristics in a director’s work, even over a period of years and films, almost impossible. Sarris knew this, but he watched movies obsessively  (in three Sarris courses I attended at Columbia in the early 1980s he would mention watching certain films fifty times each, and this was before VHS or DVD). He had the memory of an elephant, and he used forensics to piece together details in mise-en-scene, for example, that might be apparent in several films of a director, and that could indicate the director’s particular style of self-expression.

His monumental work, The American cinema – Directors and Directions 1929-1968, is a magnifying glass, a telescope, and a zoom lens.  What he set himself out to do was to demonstrate that American cinema was the most important cultural documentation of US history in the period that the directors were working. This book takes individual styles and puts them into contexts that are historical, sociological, literary, and, of course, aesthetic.

Bazin had positioned himself very similarly in France with all the arguments that he used to bring “high seriousness” to film writing and by emphasizing how the essential dialogue between director and audience—the auteur theory—makes for good cinema and, by extension, good film criticism.


Keith Gardner, sound engineer, NBC:

More impressive than teaching/speaking with a mouthful of…was it… egg salad was the fact that whenever we (mostly Armond White) abducted the class (Columbia’s MFA  program in film in the early 80’s, where I went to study with Sarris) and showed whatever film we wanted to see despite the class syllabus, Professor Sarris would rush in after the film had been shown and start lecturing (he never watched the films with us), to be inevitably stopped and told that we hadn’t seen the film that he was talking about. He would then ask what we had seen…and, ON A DIME, start lecturing on whatever we HAD seen. No Preparation. No Nothing.  Pure Sarris.

He blew our minds with his favorite films (The Golden Coach, Ugetsu, Madame de) and his favorite directors (John Ford, Max Ophuls, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock). His passion was contagious. His knowledge was/is legendary.  I have finally come around to (or is it grown old into) some of his opinions and am thankful that I did have a chance to tell him, in later years, that I had reached his appreciation level on John Ford.  I am equally thankful that I didn’t tell him which of his opinions I still disagreed with. But, didn’t he instill that in us as well?


Robert Lang, professor of cinema at University of Hartford:

I have happy memories of Andrew Sarris—he was funny, good natured, and endearingly honest about his methods as a writer about film; and I’ve known for a long time that, although it may not look like it to others, he was, and remains, a profoundly important influence on my own formation as a film person. First I was his student; then I became his T.A.; later, during my two years as a young assistant professor at Columbia, I briefly shared an office with him in the surprisingly dingy Dodge Hall. We also lived on the same street in Manhattan for the thirty years that I was in New York—and so during my Columbia years we’d sometimes find ourselves on the same bus (the M4, I think). In the mornings, he would usually be reading the newspaper —Page Six of the New York Post. Once in a while, he’d call me on the phone at home: “Bob [nobody ever called me Bob], what movie are we seeing in class today?” I’d tell him. And he would say: “Uh, why don’t you go ahead and start the movie without me—I’m going to be a little late today.” (It must be said, though: he was never actually late for his lecture.) I always marveled at his apparent ability to talk about absolutely any film: he could keep up a continuous patter of penetrating insights and entertaining digressions (that only seemed to be digressions, but were not) and biographical information and historical context: in this mode, at this game, he was unbeatable. It took me a while to realize that there was much I could learn from him as a performer. The depth and breadth of his learning, and his sense of historical context, seemed effortless. He seemed to be a kind of Scheherazade, a raconteur, or teller of fascinating tales, but he was a critic and historian. He made it look easy; but now that I’m a teacher myself, I know it’s not. In personal conversation, he tended to look somewhere above your head, and speak in the same style he wrote in —because, as he was not ashamed to admit, he was hard of hearing, and was on surer ground when talking, rather then when listening. I liked his sense of humor, and his helpless, whinnying laugh. He was freely autobiographical, in a public-figure sort of way. His columns in The Village Voice—which for years were the best thing in the paper—and in The New York Observer, were like conversations, too. I’m glad I’ve got my copies of The American Cinema and You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: The American Talking Film–History and Memory, 1927-1949. I’ll be dipping into them and rereading them to the end of my days.


Jennine Lanouette, story consultant and screenwriting instructor:

My recollected impressions of Andrew Sarris range from the avuncular professor with stains on his jacket and billowing shirttails to the captivating storyteller who seemed to have a personal anecdote for every film he lectured on. I remember him as a treasured asset in the Columbia Film Division (“There goes Andrew Sarris!”), like a roving statue of himself. Yet, despite such a lion-sized reputation, he was always amiable and approachable, like some kind of high-brow Teddy Bear.

It was in his American Film History class that I first saw I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, an eye-opening lesson for me in what film can do.  I was so struck that I chose it as the subject for my term paper. Then a strange thing happened. Something about the influence of his class enabled years of fear and dread of term paper writing to fall away, leaving me with a previously unknown ease and assurance as I articulated my thoughts. But, for some stressed-out-student reason, I was late with it, nonetheless.

Professor Sarris, as we respectfully addressed him, took a no-big-deal attitude towards my lateness and instructed me to bring it to his house instead. Ringing the doorbell, I expected to be simply handing it to him. But, when he opened the door, I was invited in and offered a seat in the living room. He took the paper from its manila envelope and proceeded to read it in front of me, perched on the edge of the couch, hunched over the coffee table, slowly turning the pages. I sat stiffly, looking around thinking, This is the living room of Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell. Then, having nothing to read myself, I just watched him . . . reading my paper.

Finally, he turned over the last page, looked up at me with a bemused smile, and made some rather affirming comments. I gathered that he liked it. He even mumbled a couple of things that seemed to indicate he’d learned something. My focus was on the film’s screenplay, not an area he generally prioritized. Although he only gave me a B+ (I had neglected to discuss camera angles and mise en scene), I left his apartment with a very satisfied feeling of having finally figured out how to do this paper-writing thing on my own terms, while also having caught and held the interest of Andrew Sarris.

I trace the roots of my current writings in screenplay analysis back to that day in Professor Sarris’s living room. There was something about his openness and acceptance that allowed me to find my voice. My sense is he was open to any voice that was intelligently conceived. That’s the kind of information sponge he was.

Sadly, I have lost that paper. But a few years ago, I was asked to write an article for Release Print magazine about a film that illuminated a social justice issue. I drew upon my recollections of the I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang analysis I did for Professor Sarris. That article is now reposted on my blog:


Dennis Myers, novelist and screenwriter, Coyote:

Andy occasionally roamed the dingy spaces of Dodge Hall, his shirt struggling free from the waist, his gaze fixed to some invisible distant horizon.  He never quite knew where he was headed or why he had to be there.  He never appeared completely comfortable in the light.  And so, if you’d mistake him for some crazed Greek cook who had been ripped away from the Cosmos Diner kitchen and deposited without explanation in Columbia’s ivy tower…well, you’d be justified but mistaken.

So follow Andy into Room 511, the main screening room, where he would sit uncomfortably on a desktop and ask what film we had just seen.  Without seconds’ hesitation, he would launch into a passionate account of this film, that film, any film, citing its importance to the director, to the cinema, to Andy’s own life…and to your own life.  To see that Sarris was to glimpse the workings of man whose love of movies transformed America’s understanding of film into an appreciation of cinema.  To see this was to see how the seeds of his thought and writings would help provide the perspective and confidence for one of America’s greatest decades of filmmaking, the 70s.


Candida Paltiel, producer, Mining Stories Productions. She studied with Andrew Sarris from 1981 to 1983 and received her MFA in film in 1984.

He was one of the central reasons why I chose to study film at Columbia University. Once I was introduced to the cinema of Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Max Ophuls, Francois Truffaut after a dry spell as an undergraduate in the social sciences, I wanted to study with their champion. I didn’t know what to expect in Dodge Hall in the fall off 1981, but what I encountered was a somewhat tall man, invariably in an old black suit, white shirt and tie, gray thinning hair a little slicked back, who spoke with a wry grin, in a somewhat high-pitched voice and a New York twang—if there is such a thing. He stood out in a department where the uniform of choice amongst the American male professors was chinos or jeans and open-collared plaid or Oxford shirts, who lectured or taught their courses with a mixture of earnestness and self-importance. You could call them by their first name, but you wouldn’t dare with Andrew Sarris.

Professor Sarris didn’t lecture. He talked…and talked. The courses might have been History of American Cinema, Auteur Theory, a seminar in film criticism. It was puzzling at first. One had to discern what he was focusing on. Eventually it all began to make sense. From other professors one had a cut-and-dried analysis: a lecture with a beginning, middle, and end. If you studied semiology, the films were dissected to a vanishing point, so that one no longer observed or experienced a work of art but an assemblage of parts in light and shadow, their meaning hollowed out. With Professor Sarris pleasure in the darkened theater was legitimized again. It wasn’t guilty pleasure— one could fall in love with the idols on the screen, experience joy, horror, heartache, and revel in the artistry of the cinematic form. I was permitted to lose myself in the artist’s work, and that is all he talked and talked about—Danielle Darrieux in the Earrings of Madame de, Le Ronde, Rear Window…and that is why I studied and love cinema.

A gentle man and a gentleman, he at times displayed his fighting spirit by flaring up and stabbing the air with his pen,  “I kill. I kill with my pen!” A line that serves me well. Yet once, before we departed his classes, he admonished us with a paternal and professorial tone, the rare time he showed a personal interest in our future: “You will need to learn to stroke those who can help you move ahead.” I don’t remember the context, but it could have been said with a twinkle in his eye just after showing us All About Eve.

He could not be replaced or usurped. It was a privilege to have been his student.


Phil Rosen, professor of modern culture and media, Brown University:

In 1981-82, I was a fresh-faced assistant professor teaching graduate courses in the Film Division at Columbia. As I quickly discovered, the program leadership was heavily invested in a screenwriting-oriented MFA, and the scholarly side was not as well supported.  (My salary was on soft money, and I moved to a more secure position the following year.)  I guess poverty occasionally makes for luck.  I shared an office with the rest of the scholarly faculty, which meant the young John Belton, whose work I already admired, and Andrew Sarris.

I had been reading Andrew for well over a decade, which made me no different than all the other aspiring film scholars and cinéphiles of my generation.  And as with so many others, a well-thumbed paperback of The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 was my handbook and viewing guide to Hollywood cinema, even or especially when I disagreed with it. This landmark text has often and correctly been glossed as a development of the French politique des auteurs, and, of course, it was replete with the Sarris signature aesthetic judgments and verbal style, interlarded with wonderful insights about particular scenes and specific films, along with provocative, thought-provoking (if often unsupported) generalizations.  Subsequently, much ink was spilled over the metaphysics of authorship, not to mention the assessments associated with the subjective tone of this canon-defining book.  But for me there was something more.  I considered myself aligned with the new film theory that had emerged in the 1970s as well as a new film historiography which was just beginning to make itself felt; and these new approaches often began by attacking impressionistic, subjective film criticism in the name of a rigorous search for system and structure.  Despite the fact that he was sometimes a target, it seemed to me that there were kindred impulses implied in Andy’s work.

First, there was the breadth and depth of his knowledge of Hollywood cinema throughout its history.  This knowledge was on the order of the encyclopedic.  And second, there was something not always evident to all readers.  He actually understood the utility and even unavoidability of the systematic overview.  Of course, his gestures towards systematicity were quite different than those of, say, structuralist semiotics or Marxist dialectics.  To begin with, they were openly associated with levels of aesthetic worth.  Indeed, Andy flagged this with entertaining self-parody in the labels of his value categories (e.g., “Expressive Esoterica”).  Yet even these categories constituted a classification table that cut across all of film history, as surely as any structuralist analysis of narrative.  As  idiosyncratic as it might superficially seem, The American Cinema signaled an attitude in favor of a comprehensive scholarly framework which would investigate cinema in depth, and at the moment it appeared, it was a strangely productive gesture indeed.

This suggests one of the important differences between Sarris and his mythical sparring partner, Pauline Kael.  Kael gloried in a flamboyant anti-intellectualism.  Despite all the whimsicality of his classificatory labels and his seemingly instant value judgments, Andy was never anti-intellectual.  He always believed film worthy of the most intensive kind of study and scholarship. It is no accident that he became a professor of cinema at a major university, and Kael never did.  Thus, as film studies was beginning its explosive spread through the university, Andy treated with respect even comparatively cold-blooded or ideological approaches for dissecting films—approaches he himself doubted and would never have undertaken.  It is easy enough to identify him as a cinéphile, a lover of cinema, but this led him to an underlying and deep seriousness about it.  I think he therefore respected the emerging new university-based scholarship on cinema as another kind of serious engagement with cinema, even when its practitioners came to conclusions quite different than his own.

This is my sense of him, partly because when I showed up at Columbia as a bright young new-theory whippersnapper, Andy treated me in the most friendly manner, with complete courtesy and also genuine intellectual curiosity and engagement.  This is so even though, at that time, many associated with the new theory were attacking the very concept of the auteur.  (It is true that I was not one of them.  There always seemed to me to be some contradictoriness and, occasionally, bad faith in this, because of the embarrassing fact that many writers mounting these important critiques still identified films with directors’ names.)  I never saw the slightest indication of defensiveness, resentment or hostility on Andy’s part.  On the contrary, he sometimes engaged me in discussion of the new debates and cinema theory.  At least once he invited me to his apartment for lunch, where we discussed both these and personal matters.  I don’t think he was just being a nice guy to a young colleague with whom he was sharing an office (although he was nice).  I think all he needed to see was my full-blooded engagement with cinema and with ideas about cinema, and as far as he was concerned, I was worth supporting.  For corroboration, I turn to a leader in the new theory, Peter Wollen.  Just a few years ago, I heard him pay public tribute to the importance of Andy in his own development, reminiscing about how Sarris had guided the youthful Wollen through the cinematic-journalistic world of Paris at some point in the 1960s.

When I met Andy, he was at the apex of his powers and influence, and the most precious venue for him was his Village Voice column.  The Village Voice was the megaphone by which his own voice reached out to the world.  We all read the essays he published there, which engaged with current cinema week after week.  I was astonished at the seamless unity of his speaking and writing.  I remember telling friends,  “Have a conversation about a film with Andy, and you get a column.”  It wasn’t just the passion for cinema and its importance, but the style.  All the characteristics of his column were there when he spoke to you—the same sentence forms, the vocabulary, the mode of argument, the encyclopedic cross-references to both film history and current cinema, and even the alliterations. As soon as the discussion turned to a film, or an auteur, or cinema as such, it all came at you instantly and spontaneously.  He was a completely consistent auteurist.  There was no gap between his expressive style and his personality.


Rosanne Daryl Thomas, author, The Angel Carver; Awaiting Grace or Beeing: Life, Motherhood and 180,000 Honeybees:

One of my most abiding memories, other than his rambling erudition and my enduring gratitude to him for introducing me to the Auteur theory and French film in general, is a rather peculiar one:  He was perennially identifying “the homosexual subtext” in what seemed to be every film I watched in his class.  It seemed to me at the time that he would have found a “homosexual subtext” in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Hmmm….upon reflection, maybe he was right more often than I thought.  Even now, it makes me smile to think of how I waited to hear him come up with his reliable and often puzzling diagnosis.


Peter Wentworth, president, Allagash Films:

In his film history class he once spoke of the origins for his love of movies and he told the following anecdotes. This is memory, not a direct quote, and I’m sure others have cited it.

He said, “During the depression I remember my father returning from a day where he was out looking for work.  During dinner he began talking about the plot to  __________ Movie, and as he kept talking, he became more and more animated and excited.  But when he finished—and it was an outburst of some sort that he seemingly couldn’t control—it became evident that he hadn’t spent the day looking for a job; rather he had gone to the movies.”


John Wohlbruck, screenwriter, End of the Line (and projectionist in Andrew Sarris’s world cinema class):

I recall being two hundred feet away from Andy as I listened to his voice over a tinny speaker, trying to discern when to begin the film; Ihor and I were the projectionist for his world cinema class for one semester…perhaps it was the entire year. While I enjoyed, at a distance, his lectures, nothing filmic is percolating to the surface.

The only thing that I can recall with any detail is an aside he made about fashion. He said something like, “People always talk about how, if you wait long enough, clothes that you had twenty years ago would come back in style. Well, I’ve got news for you: they don’t. I’ve got a closet full of suits and ties that are twenty and thirty years old, and if I would try to get away with wearing them today, I’d be spotted by some sharp-eyed assessor who’d see that my lapels were just a smidge too wide for today’s fashion, or the ties, while narrow, weren’t quite narrow enough. So basically I’m holding on to a closet full of clothes that are trapped in time…which must make the fashion industry very pleased with itself.”

Or that’s how I recall it.

For one of the lions of cinema, I’ve got a memory of his closet.

Wish it could be more.


For more tributes from students or colleagues who knew Andrew Sarris at Columbia, check out

Armond White,

Ira Deutchman, chair of the Columbia University film program, as well as Professors Annette Insdorf and James Schamus, and Adcjunt Professor Henry Bean,

Ben Kenigsberg,


For other tributes, check out

David Bordwell,

Film Comment,

Kent Jones,

Richard Corliss,






Blancanieves/Pablo Berger


Spain’s official entry for Best Foreign Language film at the 2013 Academy Awards, Pablo Berger‘s Blancanieves recasts Snow White as a flamenco-dancing bullfighter in 1920s Spain.  Spun in glorious black-and-white with a brilliant flamenco sound track, this “silent” film resonates with operatic moments and high passion.  Availability:  In theaters January 18.  Thanks to Denise Sinelov and Steven Raphael, Required Viewing


DT:  As a modern Spaniard who went to film school at NYU, why did you focus on this period in Spanish history?


PB:  I lived abroad for a long time and my wife is not Spanish, but Spain and its iconography have always been my obsession.  Also, I approach cinema like time traveling.  I’ve done films about the ’70s (Torremolinos 73) and the ’50s, and the ’20s always fascinated me, with its world of bullfighting and flamenco.  At the same time, the origin of the film was a photograph from Cristina García Rodero’s book España Oculta about a troupe of bullfighting dwarves. The photo clicked in my head, and I put Snow White in the middle, dressed as a bullfighter.  That was in the early ’90s.  Then I had to write the script, and that’s when this fascinating world of early twentieth-century Spain got into the picture.


DT:  Many filmmakers are shooting today in black-and-white:   Miguel Gomes, Bela Tarr, Michel Hazanavicius.  Why did you choose black-and-white?


PB:  It was required by the approach that I took.  If I was going to time-travel to the ’20s, I had to do it in black-and-white, and if it was an homage to silent cinema, I had to do it silent and black-and-white.  But I would also add that all directors dream of making one black-and-white film.  I don’t want to put my name next to the big ones, but we all know Woody Allen or Scorsese or Tim Burton. We all have dreams, and I think for a filmmaker one of these dreams is to make a black-and-white because at the end black-and-white is pure cinema.  It’s more abstract.  It’s more magical.  It’s more poetic.  And I think we dream in black and white, and for me, cinema is to dream awake.  So black-and-white is the color of dreams.


DT:  Using a musical sound track rather than dialogue also has the same effect in a way.  It eliminates whatever is illusory or extraneous.


PB:  I agree completely.  Before I’m a film director, I’m a film buff.  I love cinema, and one of my favorite periods is ’20s silent cinema.  I’ve had many out-of-body ecstatic cinematographic experiences watching the great masterpieces of the ’20s, with a live orchestra, like—


DT:  El Señor Don Juan Tenorio?


PB:  Yes.  I wanted to convey that to a wider audience.  For decades silent cinema has been only for film students, scholars, and film buffs, and thanks to The Artist or Blancanieves we are opening it up for a younger audience that has never seen a silent or a black-and-white film. With silent cinema, sometimes it takes a little time to get into the journey, but because it requires more attention, the audience has to participate more, has to use more of their imagination.  They have  to be more active, so the end of the journey is much more satisfactory. If they’re going to feel emotion, they’re going to feel more emotion than in a normal film.  The experience is closer to watching a ballet or opera than watching a traditional film.


DT:  The way you linked flamenco and bullfighting was brilliant.  Pairing a bulerias (a flamenco style, or palo) with the great bullfighting stadium in Sevilla was perfect:  It was Lorca, it was Hemingway, it was great.


PB:  I’m glad you feel that way. I’m Basque—I haven’t lived flamenco and bullfighting as part of my education.  You name Hemingway’s fascination for Spanish culture and bullfighting and flamenco, and that’s how I feel.  I feel like somebody from the outside portraying the world of Spain, because I’m from a part of Spain that doesn’t deal with this culture. At the same time I do it with so much respect. I think the iconography of flamenco and bullfighting is a metaphor for all kinds of emotion.


DT: Maybe I’m reading too much into the film, but I saw Carmencita as an allegory for Gypsies.  She was made into an icon that people both ridiculed and adored.


PB:  When films get shown, they belong to the audience and to all kinds of interpretations.  Definitely Gypsies were such a big part of flamenco culture and bullfighting.  Definitely it was not a conscious association, but now when I watch the film I will also see the connection you’re mentioning. I believe that film should be interpreted by the audience, and directors just have to respect and even enjoy the interpretations of it.


DT:  There was that fabulous sequence when you’re panning across the audience at the dwarves’ bullfight.  It reminded me a lot of the scene in Sullivan’s Travels where he’s panning across this sea of laughing faces.  I didn’t know if that was an intentional homage.


PB:  As I said before, I’m a film buff, a film lover.  I saw the world through the window of cinema, from the screen. I didn’t travel all over the world when I was eighteen, I didn’t go to the safari, to war, so definitely the film is full of conscious and unconscious homages to cinema. Sullivan’s Travels is a fantastic film and I love it, but that was not a conscious homage.


DT:  How did Spain choose Blancanieves as an official entry?


PB:  We have an academy with more than a thousand members.  First they choose from all the films that have been released in Spain that year, probably between 130 and 140.  Then they choose a short list of three and then there is one.


DT:  With so much cruelty and class distinction depicted in the film, it doesn’t make the Spanish look so great.


PB:  Stories are to be told, not judged in that sense.  Academy members are audience themselves, the same way that before you’re a journalist you’re an audience and a film buff.  Academy members just loved the story; they went for the emotions, they got involved, they empathized, and they went for the journey.  And they felt it would be the best film to represent their industry.  They don’t think about representing the country.  Maybe if it had been the government, they would have chosen a different film.  Our film shows how great cinematographers, great art directors, great editors work.  Being a period film it’s a complex film, so independently of the story it’s both a showcase of how you can make great films with more constrained budgets and how you can do a production in Spain.


DT:  Can you talk about the sound track?


PB:  The composer is Alfonso Vilallonga, and for me it was important that the sound track be unique.  I didn’t want to work with a film composer who makes five or six sound tracks every year so all of them sound the same and they’re interchangeable.  Alfonso Vilallonga is a rare bird in the sense that he only makes one sound track every two or three years for projects that he loves.  He has his own career as a singer, and I wanted him to approach the film like it could have been his last sound track.  He really took chances, and he made something personal, unique, very eclectic and full of colors.  We wanted to make a sound track that had valleys and hills, big philharmonic moments and chamberlike, small pieces, and mix it with flamenco and with club. We wanted something that at the end felt like coffee with milk, with the music and the images perfectly combined.  We worked for months composing the different pieces, and then we spent a couple of months recording and doing the music editing, so it was a very long, very hard process, but it was a great collaboration with very satisfactory end results.  I’m very, very happy that Alfonso’s music is the voice of my characters.


DT:  That’s the way original silent film sound tracks were assembled—from different bits and pieces of various scores.


PB:  Definitely. In the old times there were very few sound tracks made specifically for the film.  There were orchestras in the different movie theaters and they would choose different pieces.  Oh, it’s a sad piece, it’s an action scene, it’s melodramatic….but there were very few, only Eisenstein sometimes, and Murnau, some Abel Gance, so for us it was important that the music and the images be perfectly combined to really get the most out of this combination.


DT:  Villalonga didn’t compose the flamenco.


PB:  No.  The flamenco is Chicuelo.  I wrote the lyrics of the songs.


DT:  Wow.


PB:  It was my baptism in writing lyrics for music.  I wrote the script, so it felt natural to write the lyrics as well.  The flamenco music was done by Chicuelo, and it was sung by Silvia Pérez Cruz, a great new singer.


DT:  Did you study flamenco letras (verses)?


PB:  I read some, I did some research, and then I let myself go and just went for it.




Copyright © Director Talk 2012

5 Broken Cameras/Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat

Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers and political activists Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat codirected 5 Broken Cameras, using Burnat’s footage and Davidi’s script to relate the resistance movement in the West Bank village of Bil’in.  The title refers to Burnat’s five cameras that were destroyed while he was shooting. •Availability:   A Kino Lorber release; images courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.


DT:  When you and Emad met, neither of you intended to make a film about the resistance in Bil’in.  How did you commit to making 5 Broken Cameras?


GD:   Emad has been shooting since 2005.  Throughout the years his footage was used by other filmmakers, and he sold some to news agencies, but he didn’t think about making a movie. On my side, I spent five years in Bil’in, going to demonstrations, meeting people, making another film. After a few years I heard that Emad finally wanted to make a film, but there were already so many about the movement that I thought there was no chance to make another one, especially in the same village. In the film industry, once there is a film about a subject, certainly once there are two, it’s a dead subject. Besides, it would be very complicated to do it together because of the political consequences and the cultural differences between us. But then one day Emad convinced me to watch his footage. It contained the most striking image of an old man blocking a jeep. I asked Emad, “Who is this guy?”  And he told me, “That’s my father, and he’s blocking the jeep from taking my brother.” I realized that if Emad would make the film about himself as a cameraman—if we could create his voice, if we could find the jewels in the footage that would support a more personal film that found the connection between the village and his personal life—then we could do it.  But Emad had been doing journalistic work for many years, and he didn’t think the personal elements were of interest to anyone.  In addition, it would not be seen nicely by people from the village that he takes this big, historical movement to tell his personal stories. He was afraid of that, and he was right.  We had to concern ourselves with not making it just a personal story without any general context of the movement.  It was very delicate, but I convinced him that these personal and intimate moments were necessary to retell a story about this movement.


DT:  As codirectors from different backgrounds, what conflicts did you experience while working on the film?


GD:  There weren’t really conflicts, just debates between us about how to create the film, because every decision you make when you do this kind of project—and when you do it together as a Palestinian and Israeli—is going to be judged ten times more.  For both of us.  Emad is going to be criticized for working with me, then deciding to accept Israeli money, but he was sure that was important for accessing Israeli audiences.  For me as a filmmaker, in order to tell the story the way I thought we should, I had to write the voices.  So I’m writing Emad’s voice, which is a very delicate thing to do.  I don’t want to replace his voice.  It’s my writing, but I have to be connected to his point of view, so I’m reconstructing his point of view.  It’s very delicate.


DT:  How did you do that?


GD:  We had conversations about the film, about his life, about the way he looked at things. From the conversation I understood the way he thought. Some of the text I heard from other people in the village.  I had a friend who told me, “As a kid you cannot dream in Palestine.  It’s dangerous because your dream is going to break and you’re going to be devastated.”  Emad is a bit more optimistic than my friend, but I used this in the text.  That was a conflict between me and myself, not with Emad.  Emad was completely assuring me, he looked at the text, and if he thought something wasn’t corresponding to his ideas, he changed it or he told me how to change it.  Between us it was actually very good, but it was kind of a self-questioning all the time.


DT:  Did you work in Arabic or Hebrew, or both?


GD:  The original text was written in English, and Emad and I conversed in Hebrew.  But regarding the question, which was a very important question about the debates between us, the most important and ongoing debate was how intimate the film should be.   For example, I knew he was arrested, and I asked him to find solutions to describe that moment, because we didn’t have footage of it.  Actually he was hiding his footage because he wasn’t sure about being presented that closely with this fragility that he has, a bit weak and depressed and not in his best moment. It’s OK to be shown as a hero, as the great cameraman fighting the occupation, but when you see a moment like his arrest the complete image of a resisting Palestinian is broken.  It was a big process for him to accept it, and after we put it in he was still challenging how long it should be, what moments to use.  But the framework of the film was built in a good partnership between an Israeli activist and a Palestinian activist, and the fact that I was part of this movement before allowed for a lot of freedom and trust between us.


DT:  When you’re talking about your friend who says children can’t dream, I think about Soraya’s comment “If they tell us not to demonstrate on Friday, then we’ll demonstrate on Saturday,”  which is a very different viewpoint; in the one, there’s no hope, in the other, we’re going to keep resisting and resisting.


GD:  The people who told this story about the kids having to be tough are people who were already broken, who were already in jail and know the price. They say they have to be tough not because they have to be great heroes but because you cannot know when the occupation will catch you.  Of course there are people who have less experience, less tragedies in their lives, so they still preserve this mediatized idea of the resistant Palestinian.  Every culture that is fighting for its liberation has these models of fighters, so of course these models exist in Palestine as well, but I think because so many people paid such a big price this model is tired, it’s exhausted.


DT:  Five years of nonviolent resistance in Bil’in achieved a small victory—


GD:  A small practical victory.  There are big victories that are maybe not seen on the surface.


DT:  Do you think that nonviolent resistance is a viable path to achieving peace in the Middle East?


GD:   It’s a big question, but I think when we speak of nonviolent movement we put the emphasis on nonviolent and forget about the movement.  The thing about movement is that it’s ongoing.  It’s developing and it has to develop.  In Palestine the nonviolent movement is still very small. Nonviolent ideas are taken by some people as an ethical decision and by most of the people as a strategical decision,  meaning we take this path as a new strategy replacing violent or diplomatic strategies.  This is a way for the people to be engaged with the resistance.  The path of negotiation and diplomacy was tiring the Palestinian people, and there are big parts of the Palestinian people who are not willing to take the violent way.  Not everyone wants to spend his life with guns, and most of the people don’t want to suffer the consequence for that, but at the same time they couldn’t put all their beliefs and trust in negotiation and diplomacy, which proved after twenty years to be false.  So it’s a very organic development that gives people involvement and a sense of control over their lives, which is beautiful, I think.  And it brings a lot of spiritual force back to the people even though it’s a small movement.  It’s very important, whatever the future is going to be.  Even if the future is not going to be better, with these ideas people have a way of handling depression and suffering, so that’s a bigger achievement than removing the wall in a few hills here and there.  But I think also people are looking at this movement and saying, well, it’s not completely nonviolent.  Of course this is not India, we’re in Palestine and Israel, and we’re not Buddhists yet, so I think there is a path of spiritual and emotional development to follow for both Israelis and Palestinians, because Israeli activists are also part of this.  It’s not a finished movement, meaning it’s not a peaceful movement and that’s it.  There’s a lot of anger, and when people are dying around you people take stones and throw them.  You can’t say that throwing stones is completely nonviolent.  It isn’t, I accept this criticism; of course it’s not guns, but it’s not the peaceful Gandhi kind of way.  But it’s going there.  It’s a challenge this movement has to cross and develop, and I think that once the radical minorities have new ideas and new information, there’s going to be a window of opportunity.  The wheel always turns, and there’s going to be another moment like we had in the ’90s, a moment when people are willing to change whole ideas.  This small movement and small quantities of people have to be prepared with their knowledge and with accessibility to their society so they can influence and guide and navigate and lead in this situation.  It’s going to be challenging, because there’s going to be confrontation with the violent movement, with the aggression with the right wing in Israel, which is so strong and so destructive and so powerful.  Also in Palestine, but I speak about my society, which I know well.  We have to have these instruments for that moment.


DT:  You were in Bil’in making your film Interrupted Stream about the politics of water.  How do the politics of water coincide with the politics of the wall?


GD:  They go side by side. Israel’s idea of creating the wall is protecting the settlers and Israeli society, but we don’t speak so much about the location of these big blocks of settlements.  They’re close to the Israeli border, which in the west is west of the West Bank and on the east, in the valley of Jordan.  These are the most fertile lands of the occupied territories, the valleys that all the waters from the mountain aquifer of Palestine, are flowing to.  By the settlers’ confiscating, you don’t confiscate just a percentage of land, you confiscate the best lands, the most fertile lands, the land with the most quantity of water, which is a very important necessity in the Middle East.  It’s not just a necessity for the Israeli economy; it also prevents any development of Palestinian economics.  So it’s gaining twice—it’s keeping the Palestinians poor and without ability to develop, and it’s gaining resources.  The wall is part of it, because it is planned confiscation.  You know, the length of the Green Line is something like 300 kilometers, and the length of the separation fence route is 700.  Why is that?  Because it enters the occupied territories and West Bank to confiscate land for all these settlements that are located close to or on the fertile lands and water resources.  These are politics that go together.


DT:  What was most heartbreaking for me was Gibreel’s transformation from a baby into a political being by the age of five.  Two of his first words were “wall” and “cartridge.”  It’s a never-ending cycle.


GD:  I think there is development, even if we say in the film that it’s an endless cycle. The endless cycle is a main element of the film:  it’s five broken cameras,  four brothers of Emad who are arrested, and a lot of repetition.  The main criticism that we got of the film is that it’s repetitive in many moments, but that’s part of what we tried to manifest. The film is not structured according to dramatic laws of filmmaking.  If we had done a fiction film, we would have been told scriptwise that we had too many dramatic points.  There are too many dramatic incidents.  Better to just take one or two and focus on them and not have ten.  But we have several, we have guys that are being killed, we see kids are being killed in the film.  There is a scene where a good Israeli friend of mine, Limor, is shot in the head, but we don’t even mention his name.  He’s a lawyer, he’s working for years, he’s part of the whole movement, he even handled Emad’s arrest. He’s now epileptic.  Just this dramatic moment of five seconds in our film is a film in itself.  Or like the daughter of the guy who was shot in the leg and was arrested and sent to jail.  That’s a full film there.  We had so many dramatic points that one neutralizes the other, and we had to punctuate them in order to process so many. They were important in creating the atmosphere:  not exhausting the audience but at the same time trying to have this notion of exhaustion that Emad has, that Palestinians have, that the activists, Israeli and international, have also.  So it’s an endless cycle, but there was development when this movement started with Israeli activists—a mediatized movement, meaning every Palestinian in the West Bank knows that there are Israelis going in the middle of the West Bank and getting shot.  So I think it means a lot, and it can develop further for new types of cooperation.  This film challenges Palestinian society.  Some people don’t want to show it because they don’t accept cooperation with Israelis, as I said, not to mention the fact that there is Israeli money in it, which is also a big achievement for the film.  Going back to Gibreel, he experienced a lot of violence, he has a lot of anger in him, like many other kids, but I think he has also a strong connection with Israelis because he knows this movement, he knows his father is doing a film with an Israeli, so I think that while he’s going to have a lot of anger he’s also going to have other instruments.   I don’t want to generalize from him to the whole Palestinian population because the movement is still small, it’s happening in Bil’in and several more villages, and it’s still not a national movement and there are not thousands of Israelis going to the West Bank, there are only a few hundred, but there is a development.  It’s not just a cycle.  Of course from outside you hear the Israeli-Palestinian thing is endless because it stays forever, it’s always a conflict.  But the conflict changes, and the people are changed in it.  So the good question is not, When is it going to end?  The good question is, How is it going to develop and what are we going to learn from it?  And in that sense I’m a bit Buddhist because I do think that this conflict is going to stay for a while because we still didn’t learn what we need to learn from it as people, as societies.


DT:  The police were invading people’s homes and arresting children in the middle of the night.  Why were they doing that?


GD:   The official argument is that every kid that threw a stone should be in jail.  It’s in order to put pressure on the people to stop throwing stones, but the soldiers know that’s adding fuel to the fight.  It’s also trying to push the villagers to use more violence in order for the soldiers to use more violence—that’s the way I see it.  They see it as the kids broke the law, they have to be arrested.  But it’s ridiculous because they don’t arrest kids who actually threw stones, they arrest people randomly.  I heard and saw crazy stories; sometimes a kid was arrested even though the soldiers knew it wasn’t him who threw stones.  It was his brother, so they took him and told him, “Well, you’re going to stay in jail instead of your brother.” Or they take the kids and do a full interrogation, frightening them and trying to push the kids to say which kids in the village threw stones.  So the kid is frightened, it’s a 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kid, and he chooses other kids from the village, three or four, and he says, “Well, they threw stones.”  This is good enough for the court to put these kids in prison, so they take the kids in order to frame other kids. It’s a full system, but the logic is to put pressure on the population:  that’s the basic logic.  The second logic is to put pressure so the population will resist with violence, which is much more convenient for the army in order to react to violence. It’s a bit more difficult to react to a nonviolent movement.


DT:  What do you hope to achieve with the film?


GD:   Maybe too many things for a film.  I’m still of the old school that thinks film can change the world. I don’t accept people who say films can’t. So why do films?  Just for fun?  I can’t deal with this.  I would do fantasy series like Game of Thrones, which I adore, but if I do a political film I have to be committed to the subject.  It comes with it, so I don’t have the right to say films cannot change the world. Who, what, and how much I cannot measure, but our challenge was to access audiences that find it hard to look at this footage.  And these are Israelis, not necessarily the right wing, just mainstream Israelis, the young generation of kids before their army service that have to watch what they’re going to serve before they’re into the system of indoctrination.  My hope is that I can show the film in high schools in Israel.


DT:  Has it had any kind of reception yet in Israel?


GD:  It hasn’t screened yet.  The Israeli premiere is going to be at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July, then it’s going to have a semi-theatrical release.  We had a big buildup from January, when it was released in Sundance, and where it got the directing prize, so now we’re waiting for Jerusalem in July.  But it’s going to be well received by the festival and this kind of cultural community, I’m sure.  The challenge is the main population who doesn’t read the newspaper, who doesn’t know what Sundance is, if they see the film won prizes it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good film, it means that it’s an anti-Semitic film.  It means that people abroad like to give prizes for films that are against Israel. Israelis always look at themselves as the ultimate victims, so we had to build the film in a way that will remove as many of the defenses Israelis have when watching films like this or when hearing about the subject.  We didn’t want to use any kind of intonation of accusal in the film, so the voiceover is very soft and lyrical, poetic and accessible for people.  This is a big change from many films, because people are used to being accused, they’re used to having a subtext of anger from the filmmaker in the direction of the scenes.  Even though the film is very brutal and the incidents speak by themselves, Emad’s voice is very soft, in the way he reads it and in his intonation.  Secondly, we didn’t want to enter into this competition of victim: who’s a better victim, who’s the ultimate victim?  Are Palestinians the victims, or are Israelis the victims?  Everyone is trying to prove that he’s the actual victim.  Palestinians have a better case because of the reality, but Israelis play on history and on the cultural differences of West versus Middle East, and terrorism, and many other ideas.  Everybody’s in this discussion, which is  a false discussion that is freezing any change because we only speak about who’s a better victim.  So I at least made a choice not to speak about who’s the ultimate victim.  The only time we speak about being a victim is at the end of the film, when Emad says, “Even a victim has an obligation.  He has one obligation, and the obligation is to heal.”  That’s a message that I wrote also for Israelis, because they see themselves as victims of the world.  Of the history of the world.  And they are victims of the history of the world, they don’t just see themselves, they are victims.  But they have an obligation to heal from that, because when they don’t heal they cause damage to other people and to themselves, so it’s a kind of message from the current victim to those who were victims, I think.  This is the way I see it, so I hope that people who will make a decision to watch the film will go through something. Of course just making people go and watch that kind of film is tough because it’s always categorized.  You have a big system of propaganda and education to confront.


DT:  What’s your next project?


GD:  I want to do a film about the soldiers and the army.  I didn’t do my military service, I was out after three months of enrollment in the army.  In the scene where we see all the soldiers standing and Adeeb is shouting at them, you feel for the soldiers, you feel their situation. I want to capture something about that.


DT:  Feature or documentary?


GD:   Documentary.  I’m not sure if it’s going to be released on an international level, but for the international audience I really would like to make something about the army.


DT:  I can’t wait to see it.


GD:  I can’t wait to do it.


Copyright © Director Talk 2012




Sounds of Cinema/Ben Burtt

Ben Burtt’s  name might not be instantly recognizable around the world, but his work is:  He’s the genius who composed the hum of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, the rasp of E.T.’s voice, and the crack of Indiana Jones’s whip.



DT:  Ironically, because you gather sounds from the real world rather than manufacturing them in a studio, you’re considered the father of modern sound design.


BB:  When sound movies came in, sound effects were generated in the studio because equipment was clumsy and you needed a big truck to go out and record something.  But as the portable tape recorder developed in the late 1950s, suddenly there was technology available for a person like myself to wander around and just carry a battery-powered recorder.  You were released into the whole world to record things.  It had been done before, but it usually required a truck and several people to do it.  I didn’t invent that process.  But to go back a little bit…when Star Wars started and I was first hired to collect sounds, I was just given a Nagra tape recorder and a portable microphone, and they said, “Just collect things.”  So I spent a year just wandering around recording everything that interested me and anything that I thought would work for the movie. I didn’t invent that process. George Lucas wanted to have the sounds in Star Wars built out of real things, out of organic, acoustic sounds that existed all around us.  He didn’t want an electronic science fiction world.  He didn’t want it synthesized in some way.  He wanted real motors, real vehicles, real squeaky, rusty doors, whatever he could get.  And so I went out and started gathering all those kinds of sounds.


DT:  But on your own, you recorded your grandfather’s short-wave radio when you were sixteen.


BB:  When I was around six years old, I was really sick and was in bed for a couple of weeks. I had nothing to do, so my father brought home a tape recorder for me to play with.  It was a great, big, heavy box and almost took two people to carry it.  He put it next to my bed, showed me how to record with it, and I had fun first recording myself, making noises, playing it back…that was unusual technology at the time…nobody in my neighborhood had a tape recorder.  And I got very interested in recording things,  and I discovered that if I put the microphone up and recorded a TV show or a movie off the air, I could play it back and enjoy the movie later.  This is way before videotape or videocassettes or DVDs.  So I got very interested in just listening to my favorite movies and shows, just the sounds, and I would lay in bed with headphones on listening to the movies, and I just got very interested in the role that sound played in movies.  I found that well-done sound tracks in films would sort of regenerate the imagery for me and I could see the movie play back in my head, and it was perhaps at that time I kind of either had a knack for it or I learned the relationship between sounds and images and how they are interrelated in movies.


DT:  You say a well-designed sound track will do that.  In what way does a badly designed sound track not do that?


BB:  Being a young boy, of course I loved action, you know, Westerns, and things with explosions in it, and violence, all the things that interest boys at that age.  So what I meant was that when there was something well done—a great fight scene, with punching sounds, or gunshots, or airplanes—it was exciting to hear.  One of my favorite films was The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn.


DT:  Yeah, it’s great.


BB:  And it had the great sound of the arrows in that movie. I went outside with my own bow and arrow, and it didn’t sound anything like the one in Robin Hood.  And so I got really interested:  Well, what was that sound?  My bow and arrow didn’t have this beautiful, almost musical sound as the arrow flew through the air.  And so I began to realize that the sounds in movies were enhanced in some way, there was something different about them.  So I think that films that had sound effects in them that caught my attention inspired me. You know, Jason and the Argonauts was a film I loved as a kid, and there were wonderful sounds for the monsters, or for the squeaking metal of a giant metallic monster, Talos…


DT:  That’s a great scene.


BB:  Yes.  And it brought it to life.  Here were these visual illusions like Jason and the Argonauts, and I realized that the sound was so effective in creating—in completing—the illusion.  You know, gave it weight, gave it scale, gave it personality, there was an expressiveness in the sounds, and that’s what I meant by good sound.  To collapse it down to one phrase, when sound effects were expressive and they brought something to mind for me, that’s what I liked.  I was interested also in music and how film music enhanced movies.  And the film Fantasia, which my mother took me to see when I was little….I just couldn’t get over that.  I couldn’t get over how music and visuals were interrelated.  Especially the sequence where there’s just abstract impressions to the Beethoven toccata and fugue.  That’s something that’s never left me, the idea that there’s some relationship between music and imagery that when put together they were greater than the sum of its parts. There’s something magical about that, and you can apply the same thing to sound effects.  Sound effects and sound design are a form of composing.


DT:  Well, that’s my next question, actually.  Do you think of your sounds as musical compositions?


BB:  The goal when you are orchestrating sounds is very much like creating music, except you’re just not using notes and a scale and the conventions of music, but you’re trying to achieve the same thing.  You’re using sound to express a feeling.  And you are arranging those sounds in a time line, and there can be a rhythm and an orchestration of sounds just like the instruments in an orchestra.  That’s kind of a high-falutin’ way of putting it.


DT:  No, it’s not.


BB:   But you really are trying to achieve the same thing.  You want to arrange these noises such that ultimately they tell a story or they create a feeling, and that applies even if you’re doing a motorcycle chase or something crazy.  You can try to create the sounds, make them seem realistic, and complete the illusion, but you can try to design the sounds such that it’s more than reality, so that the right impression is there of what you want, whether it’s speed or power or danger.  The sounds can be chosen to enhance those dramatic goals.


DT:  That’s a sort of linear approach, but you were talking about the way you created the lightsaber sound.  First you recorded the hum of a projector, but then you needed something scintillating, so you added the buzz of the TV, and then you needed something that seemed like motion, so you did this with the mic…


BB:  Swung it around.


DT:  That one sound itself— not through time but at a given point in time—is like a bar of music:  you had a melody, and then you added counterpoint, and then you added the harmony…


BB:  Most of those things you don’t reason out ahead of time, but in retrospect it’s exactly the way you describe it.  I knew after reading the script for Star Wars and seeing  the concept paintings of what the scenes would look like, with these lightsabers in it: you’re tuned up to try to discover those sounds around you.  You’re listening for it.  I found that historically if any sound catches my attention, it’s worth recording and stockpiling.  I may not know what I’ll use it for or have a film that I can use it in at that time, but if it catches my attention, it’s something worth saving.  Last summer I stopped at a convenience store to get gas for my car.  I went into the store to get a soda or something, and I opened the refrigerator cabinet where the drinks were and I could hear this great hum of the refrigerator motor—there was something wrong with it, it was a kind of wavering tone, and I said, “It’s great, it’s interesting.”  So I went back to my car, got my little recorder, came back in the store and pretended to shop, opened the refrigerator door, put the recorder in and closed the door, then pretended to shop some more while my recorder was on its own assignment.  And I got something which I can use in the next Star Trek movie or something.


DT:  That’s fabulous.


BB:  The lightsaber was developed that same way.  I could sort of hear something in my head, and I was on the lookout for it.  I could hear this humming sound that was more musical than many sounds because it had a tone, so I was on the alert.  I remembered the projector, that story is well documented ( And I realized again, when I was going through my childhood records, these yellow, thick 78s… I found this record called Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.  It was early 1950s, and it was just a little episode about Rocky Jones encountering a meteor storm.  And it has a sound in it so much like the lightsaber, and I know I loved that record, and I think ultimately I was fishing back in my mind to that hum that was in that little radio drama when they turn on a force field to repel the meteors, and you here this VVVVVRRRM. I realized later what the sound was—it was a degausser.  In the old recording studios it was a device that bulk erased tapes, and when you turn it on it has this great hum very much like the lightsaber.  I think maybe that’s where the seed came from that was planted in my mind.


DT:  It’s all so subconscious.


BB:  I think it was, cause when I went back and heard it, I said, omigosh, I suddenly recalled something I hadn’t ever thought of before.  Maybe that’s where it came from, you know, those little influences in your past.


DT:  What music do you listen to?

BB:  More often than not I listen to classical music.


DT:  Like what?


BB:  Bach, Beethoven, you can’t go wrong.  I have a huge collection.


DT:  Arvo Pärt?


BB:  Tchaikovsky.  A lot of the classic things, I’ve grown up loving those things ever since Fantasia, I suppose.  When I start a movie I often discover a thread of sound in classical music that I can work with. I’ll just hear some kind of orchestration, some kind of relationship between the cellos, and the flutes or something, and it just triggers an inspiration for me.  I have to say that music is always at the back of my process.  There’s something there; it’s the magic of music; who can explain why music creates immediate feelings?  We can’t answer that question in this interview.  I think it’s a wonderful mystery, it’s great being a mystery.


DT:  Like you were talking about before—bad sounds and good sounds.  Bad music doesn’t inspire a feeling.


BB:  I don’t know why for me it’s always classical music—I mean, I listen to other types of music.  Like most people, I listen to the oldies that were important when I was seventeen.  And of course, Switched-On Bach, you know the album that came out in the ‘60s?


DT:  The Swingle Singers?


BB:  No, Switched-On Bach was the first time a synthesizer was used to re-create Bach.  It was done by Wendy Carlos, and it was around 1966, somewhere in there?  And because the electronic music in that record was a different kind of voice, it was a hugely popular album, and he—he became she later, you can look up that story elsewhere—was a big influence.  I have to say that hearing Bach in electronic form opened a new door.  Of course there were other influences in my life from the movies I watched.


DT:  Such as?


BB:   I loved so many of the Warner Bros. Errol Flynn action adventure movies, so I fell in love with the Warners’ stock library of everything from horses to thunderclaps.  In particular, I was inspired by the sounds in the Warner Bros. cartoons…you know, Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes.  I often think that a lot of what I’ve done in the Star Wars or Indiana Jones movies is really just a big version of the Warner Bros. cartoons.  They have something in common, which is an exaggeration of sound.  Subtlety is not usually part of it.  It can be, but it’s generally a process of coming up with increased color, sonic color—how big can something be?  how exciting can something be?—that lies at the basis of a lot of those films.


DT:  For Wings, music comprised essentially the entire sound track. What was the relationship between what you did on the reconstruction of the sound track and the music itself?


BB: First of all, I love the movie,  it had always been one of my favorites.


DT:  Your first directorial attempt was an airplane movie…


BB:  I loved these old WWI airplane movies like Dawn Patrol, and I’d seen some of the sound ones.  And by coincidence, before I’d ever seen Wings, I made a Super 8 film with my friends called Yankee Squadron in 1968, and it won the National Student Film Festival.  It was just a war movie with airplanes shooting each other down and all this kind of stuff.  In fact, two of the judges in the contest were Richard Schickel and Pauline Kael.  And Ernest Tidyman, the documentarian.  And they invited me to come to New York.  And I came here, and I spent an afternoon with Pauline Kael and, later, Richard Schickel, and they all encouraged me to go on and be a filmmaker.  And that was very interesting.  At that time I was in school finishing up my work in physics; I wanted to be an astronaut, and study science …I never considered movies or movie sound in particular as any kind of career.  But they kept saying something like, “Well, you should make movies.”  So I thought about that a lot, and I went home, and after I finished my college degree I tried to get into film school, which I eventually did.  And so on.  Where were we?


DT:  Wings.


BB:  A few years ago the Niles Silent Film Museum in Niles, California, was going to run the movie, and they were going to have a piano player play the live score.


DT:   It’s such a lush score.


BB:  We had two screenings.  One was with Frederick Hodges, who has a faithful reconstruction of the original score for piano.  The other screening was with John Marsalis, who has a synthesizer score of his own making.  Since Wings had sound effects accompanying it from the very beginning, I was called and asked, “Would you want to do live sound effects along with these musicians?”  And I thought, I’ve never done that before, but it sounds like it would be fun.  So I took a keyboard down there, and instead of putting notes on the keyboard I put sounds—airplanes, guns, explosions, you know , prerecorded sounds from my vast collection—and I tried to synchronize myself with the film. I’d read that Wings had sounds during the battles, so I wasn’t putting in footsteps or doors closing or anything like that, just battle and aviation sounds.  I didn’t have enough hands to do it, so I actually brought my daughter along, who was twelve.  She plays piano, and I gave her a keyboard with a bunch of sounds on it, and my only prep for her, because we didn’t have time, was “Emma, any time you see an airplane spinning, going down in flames, just run these keys here”—there were sounds of whirling airplane, and she did a great job!  So Emma and I, sweating like crazy, because it’s a two-and-a-half-hour movie—


DT: It’s a long silent film—


BB:  —we did this live.  Half the time we were out of synch, but the impression was right, and being a live performance, the audience loved it. And I got very inspired by it. Paramount decided to restore the movie officially and had heard about what I did, so they said, “Why don’t you come in and re-create your sound effects?”  We knew that Wings had an original score by John Zamecnik, which had never really been attached to the movie in any of its surviving forms. Only the sheet music existed for the piano parts. The sequence was this:  Frederick Hodges, who is a superb professional silent-film accompanist, had reconstructed a piano score from bits and pieces.  Starting with that reconstruction, a woman named Jeannie Pool, who was a musicologist and music archivist at Paramount, began the laborious process of finding out what the names of all the cues were, clearing them legally, because they had to go back in time…the score that Zamecnik did was partly original cues he composed, some of them were cues that he had done for previous movies, and some of them were other composers’ cues, because at that time [1927] in film music, it wasn’t generally thought that a compser would make an original score for the whole movie.  He would pick a little bit of Mendelssohn, he would take some Liszt, he would maybe make something of his own, he’d borrow a love theme that the studio owned from another movie, and you’d build up a cue sheet of all this material. So the idea was to get the most faithful score together.  Jeannie Pool did the legwork to get it up and running, then they hired Dominik Hauser, a composer in L.A., to actually orchestrate it so that you could expand the score from piano to a full orchestra. That’s a major job, the reorchestration.



DT:  Two and a half hours?  Yeah.


BB:  So Dominik pieced together and created all the music that needed to be recorded.  He created a lot of it on his MIDI synthesizer to do it as realistically as possible.  Then they overdubbed about thirty orchestra players, string players, with it in a studio in L.A.  So they actually rerecorded the score, all 140 minutes.  That score was sent to me, and I took it and mixed it with my sound effects, so I did the sort of final mix of the movie.  I’d done a lot of research about what sounds were in Wings, and we were trying to be faithful to the experience as it was then.


DT:  You mean the experience of sitting in the theater then?


BB:  Yeah.  I didn’t want to just go through and add sounds because I could.  I wanted to make the experience similar to what audiences experienced in 1927, 28.  There’s no surviving print or track to tell us  what the audiences actually heard.  When the film opened in New York in 1927, it had a full orchestra score by John Zamecnik, and the percussionists in the orchestra were doing booms on drums and hitting things for explosions, kind of enhancing the battle sounds, but Paramount really wanted to have synchronized sound with the film because that was the year The Jazz Singer came out, and there was a lot of pressure and desire on the part of the studio to get a track into this movie.  So the next thing they did was to have screenings of the film with the orchestra and a few men running sound effects machines that sounded like the roar of planes and the rat-tat-tat of  guns—props that would generate sound.  And then in some venues they began using four turntables and prerecorded records; they’d put on airplane sounds and play it at the right point, synchronizing, like DJing the movie.  In fact many of those original sounds for that version were recorded by David Sarnoff. He was sent out to some army facilities in New Jersey to record airplanes and munitions, and those sounds were used to augment Wings.  Eventually they recorded a synchronized sound track  that’s actually on the edge of the film so they could send it out to theaters.  So by late 1928, when Wings gets into general release, it has a synchronized sound track of music and sound effects.  There was never any dialogue.  Some experiments were done at Paramount, apparently; they did shoot a few dialogue scenes to see if it would work, but it was rejected somehow.  And that hasn’t survived, but there’s a little record that hints at that.  So Wings had all these different forms, but it always had sound effects in some form connected with it, so I felt justified in doing what I did.  I used recordings I’d made of guns and airplanes and munitions.  I tried to fish back into very old libraries of sound, things that I didn’t record but that were recorded in the early 1930s so that it had a vintage quality to it.  It would match the black-and-white slightly grainy texture of the movie that has survived.  Two of us really worked on the sound track—me and Dustin Cawood.  Dustin and I split the movie in half and edited all the sounds and the airplanes together, then I combined it with the music and ended up with the final mix.  So what we tried to do is reconstruct the experience, and we’re very proud of what we did.  It was fun.


DT:  The sound track is terrific.


BB:  I’m sure there were still be venues that run it with a piano score, some with an organ cause people saw it that way, and those are all justifiable.  All those things happened.  But the thing that’s really different is that it is the original music, as much as you could link up to and get rights to, and that’s something that hasn’t been played for audiences since the film first came out, an orchestral score like this. You get the rich original experience intended by the studio and the filmmakers.


DT:  You create voices.  When you were working on Wings, did you have any impulse to create voices?


BB:   Well, of course, we’re always fooling around with sound.  For a joke I put in some eWok ones, and Dustin and I listened to those.  You know, we do things behind the scenes.  But I didn’t keep it.  We did a few.  I actually did have a lot of soldiers yelling during the fighting and the crowds of German soldiers retreating in a mass.  That was in the mix for a while, but when we finally got it all done, we thought, You know, we haven’t put any voices anywhere in the movie, and maybe it’s not right, so we stripped that out.  It did work, and it was good, but we were always worried that we would push it a little too far and then audiences would kind of be aware of it or it would step out of the style.  We added more sound effects than they ever probably had in the original; back then you just couldn’t have layered the things in that we did. We did it in stereo, and we did it with surround speakers so airplanes could be around you.  It’s obviously a modern-day enhancement of what the experience would have been.


DT:  Your work requires a creative imagination.  When you work on WALL-E, for instance, does your head work differently from when you work on Munich?


BB:  Definitely.  Munich and WALL-E are very different.  I’m proud of Munich because it’s the only quiet movie I’ve ever worked on.  I never get those; I envy other filmmakers who work on something suspenseful and quiet.  I’m always doing a black hole blowing up or an atomic bomb or a jump to hyperspace.  With each film you search for inspiration.  If  I’m brought on early in the movie I can read the script and see artwork, conceptual art, and that is probably where I start.  I look at it.  I see imagery.


DT:  Conceptual art from the film.


BB:  Yeah.  When I started on WALL-E,  there was no animation of WALL-E, but there were drawings and storyboards, and the director, Andrew  Stanton, could kind of act it all out.  He’d mime the movie, and I could listen to him and talk to him.  So I try to grab onto something that grows out of whoever’s in charge.  You sit down with Spielberg and you watch the whole movie without any sound and he tells you how he feels about things, and you get an idea of where to start.  You kind of live the setting of each movie cause you try to come up with something original, and the earlier on you can get started, the better.  You know—talk to the filmmakers in charge, get them to describe to you what they think they want to hear.  The best films result when we can experiment, put in temporary sounds, experimental things, temporary music in order to see what direction it should go.  The more you can do that, the better the result will be.  Sometimes people think sound is just an engineering process—just record something and stick it in.  But you have to make a lot of creative choices as to what you’re going to hear.  You can feature one thing and leave something else out, and that can be very meaningful.  In Munich, it all mattered about that little squeak of a footstep on a stairway, or a little door being opened, or something tiny.  Some of the most effective moments in Munich, occurred when I tried to create silence prior to a major event, to try to find a way to get down to nothing.


DT:  You’re talking about the black hole before…


BB:  Right.  Having 21 frames of nothing. Like the sonic charges in Star Wars.  Those can be great moments of contrast; if you want something big you need to go small first.  That’s why I think so many movies today are a mess, because they stay loud and they’re just dense, unbroken.  And after a few minutes of that nobody’s really feeling anything anymore.  That’s a big mistake. You’ve got to have dynamics.  That’s another whole interview.


DT:  What’s the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard?


BB:  (laughs) Whew…like in real life?  Well…something that always comes to mind is a distant ringing of a church bell.  I don’t know why, but any time I’m in a town in Europe or the United states, and things are quiet, and you hear a carillon or the individual chiming of a distant bell, I don’t know why, but that’s so enchanting to me.  I would say that it’s something that always resets me, in a way.  It’s like a coming back to base, square one, I can always start fresh from that point.  There’s probably other things; no one’s ever asked me that question before.  The slight wisp of air in a mountain forest, that sense of space, but it’s very quiet.  Once again that’s an amazing, tranquilizing sort of experience.


DT:  That’s my favorite sound.


BB:  I’m sure there’s a connection there to something in my childhood.  You know, camping or something, but those are very meaningful things.


DT:  OK, two more questions.  You did all this stuff to create the rumbling sound of the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. How much of what you do is calculated reasoning, and how much is just trial and error or problem solving?


BB:  Most of it is trial and error, I would say.  Usually I have a list in my head of all the things I need to create.  Just the names of them:  big boulder; exploding airplane; opening of the ark…whatever it might be.  Then I’ll start going through my collection of sounds, or I’ll go out and set up a situation in which I can create something and see what happens.  Many times I’ll start out on a given day or session trying to record something specific—I’m going to record the giant boulder today—but after ten minutes of trying I find something else.  Yup…looks like today we’re going to do the truck crash instead.  And I’ll walk away with something I didn’t expect but it was on the list.  You set yourself up mentally with what you’re looking for and you look at it scientifically.  What would something like this really sound like?  And I sort of justify it somehow.  But I’m open for spontaneous events, and often that’s where the best results are.  You improvise, and then you recognize something…oh, this is going to work this way, and you follow that inspiration.  On a big feature film there’ll be hundreds of sounds I want to create, and I’ll break it down, saying, “I’ve got to create twenty-two sounds a day in order to stay up with it,” so I start working and whittling away at that list.  And skipping over things I can’t get right away and coming back later.  There’s that sort of mechanical obvious task problem solving.  You go into your own library a lot, too.  Especially nowadays that you’re not given the time to go out and record something new for every event in the film.  First you go to your library and say, “What have I done before like this?”  You hang onto that stuff and then you try to work on the new things.  I recorded something this morning.  There was an elevator in the hotel that was pretty good.  The motor’s right above the top of the elevator; you start up and choo-hoo (imitates an elevator).  Got that one.


DT:  What do you use to record?


BB:  I just carry this little Zoom H2 recorder, a little digital recorder that records onto a drive.  It’s great for on-the-spot jobs, and I keep it around cause you can put it somewhere and come back and get it.  There’s all kinds of stuff.  There was somebody over at the radio station we went to this morning. They were talking about boxing in the green room, and they had an old boxing bell, like when they rang BING in the old movies.  I managed to convince them to let me record it.  So that’s just fortuitous kind of stuff.  If I ever do a boxing movie I’ll have that…or I’ll do something else with it.  You have to be on the alert.

© Director Talk 2012

Thanks to Jenny Jediny, Film Forum, for arranging the interview.





Extraterrestrial/Nacho Vigalondo

Modern Spanish romance gets deft scrutiny in this hilarious story of four modern Madrilenos stuck under an alien invasion. 

DT:  You’ve said that you made Extraterrestrial in the tradition of “uncomfortable comedies.”  What do you mean by that?

NV:  If you focus on recent comedy in television, you find a new age of comedies like The Office, the Ricky Gervais thing, later the American version, and other series in the UK. These new comedies deal with situations that are horrible and angry and deal with uncomfortable feelings, but due to the craft of these unique comedians, you find them funny, so you can laugh. I think that’s something that’s happened recently.  You can obviously find this kind of humor in the past, but it’s something that comes with this age.  In fact, one of the most prestigious journalists in Spain talks about post-humor.  It’s a new age of humor in which you are laughing at things that don’t need to be funny, but you’re laughing anyway.


DT:   Your films remind me a little bit of Billy Wilder, where there’s a juncture between comedy and despair.

NV:  Totally.  In Billy Wilder films and in Howard Hawks films—all the screwball comedy tradition—the characters have this ability to communicate themselves.  They are all quick, they are all smart, and they are all ingenious.  I wanted to apply the same screwball structure to a reality in which the characters have problems communicating with each other.  So instead of this quick, fast dialogue, we get this horrible silence, these horrible, angry reactions.  I wanted to get those traditions in comedy, the old and the new, and put them together.  So this is like a screwball comedy with UFOs.

DT:   Think of The Producers, or Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator—

NV:  It didn’t come to Spain yet, but Sacha Baron Cohen is another big reference in this kind of humor.


DT:  Do you think that you can go too far?

NV:  I think that your duty not only as a comedian but also as a writer is trying to go far without being gratuitous about the limits.  That’s the challenge for me.  Going far without jumping off the cliff, without falling down.  Because it’s so easy to jump over the cliff.


DT:  That sort of happened to you with the whole Twitter thing.

NV:   Totally.  There were a lot of factors that played their part in that situation.  I felt so angry at some people who found a political benefit in taking my Twitters and changing the context of my jokes.  So that situation is really complicated, but again, I think it’s better to make a mistake than to be safe all the time, because making a mistake means you’re testing yourself, you’re pushing yourself to the edge.


DT:  You’ve described your style as “classic.”  What do you mean by that?

NV:  I love to play with the shape of my films.  I like my films to be difficult to describe. I’m a fan of so many classic auteurs, and I think that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. At this moment of my career I’m not doing a big leap from the references I work with.  I’m not being postmodern.  I’m not being innovative enough. I’m not doing avant-garde at this moment.  I think that my movies are easy to see.  Maybe my movies are difficult to describe, but on the other hand they are easy to see because I’m being classic.  I respect the tradition of filmmaking.


DT:  On whose shoulders do you stand?

NV:  Two of my favorite directors ever are Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang.  This is something I wasn’t aware of when I was doing the films, but later when I see my films—even my short films—I realize that there’s a constant feeling of guilt.  I didn’t know this in advance, but later I found out that I’m talking about guilt all the time.  Guilt is the main thing in Hitchcock and Fritz Lang movies, so I have to assume I’m not that far from these big classic auteurs.    But I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with guilt.


DT:  Your other love is comic books.  What’s the intersection between film and comic books for you?

NV:  I spend more money every month on comic books than on movies.  I don’t know why I make movies instead of writing comic books—maybe because in Spain there’s no market for the kind of comics I’d love to make.


DT:  There’s not much of a market for film, either.  There’s not a market for anything in Spain right now.

NV:  Maybe it’s my time to move into a new territory and start writing comic books.  You know, because of the language, it’s easier for me to make an English-language film than writing an English-language comic book, because my ultimate duty in movies is filmmaking, is shooting, and my ultimate duty in comic books will be writing.  And at this moment I love the language of images, and I’m OK if I stick to that language. Later, when my English becomes more agile and more wise and more precise, maybe I can write something to be drawn, like a comic book or a graphic novel.

DT:  That’s interesting, given the fact that you love images, because in some of your short films, like Code 7 and Domingo, you have these long shots that are just one image, with all of the action essentially going on in the dialogue.

NV:  I love the fact that you can change the nature of the image through language, through the dialogue.  I love the fact that the same image has a specific vibe, but you manipulate the image through the dialogue and suddenly the nature of what you’re seeing changes totally.  I love to play with this…what’s the meaning of the UFO in the background of my movie?  I hope people think about the UFO in totally different terms at the end of the film than they do at the beginning.  I love the idea of using that specific sci-fi icon, the UFO hovering, the alien  mothership, and through dialogue, and situations with characters, and narrative that UFO is not a menace anymore, it’s a big giant metaphor of something.  I love to work with audiences at this level.  It’s something I really enjoy.


DT:  During an interview at a comic book convention you said there are superheroes in the US but not in Europe.

NV:  One of my next projects is called Supercrooks, which is a movie I wrote with Mark Millar, based on one of his properties.  My involvement with this script is really deep; in fact, I appear in the comic book as a co-plotter.  In that comic book we were toying with the idea that superheroes and supervillains are so common in US culture.  In Europe we’re really fans of superheroes, but somehow we assume that the superhero isn’t a Spanish guy.  We all assume that it’s an American thing.  So we wanted to toy with that idea, and we tried to picture a universe in which all the superheroes and all the supervillains are banished in Europe because of the laws and they fight each other in America.  It’s funny because that idea somehow makes a lot of sense because it’s a reference to what happens in the superhero comic book market.


DT:  What do you think there is in the European mentality and American mentality that makes that so?  I mean, why are Robocop and Superman and Batman American?

NV:  Because of tradition.  In the old tradition of British comic books you find all these characters from the ‘70s that were the villains, and you can find the same thing in the French literature from the nineteenth century.  The villains could be the main character.  And that is something you can also find in Italy.  In Italy you have comic book characters like Diabolique, which has a villain.  I don’t know why this happens, but I’m really attracted to the idea that somehow in Europe we can deal with villains on a level that doesn’t happen in the US, but I don’t know why.


DT:  I’ve heard many Spanish people speak about their relationships as “complicated,” even in Extraterrestrial…

NV:  You see them do that on Facebook.

DT:  All the time!

NV:  All the time!  “I’m married, I’m alone, I have a girlfriend,…it’s complicated.”

DT:  And as a director you have a running theme of a desperate man in love with an unavailable woman, like in Cháchara, Marisa, Extraterrestrial…..

NV:  You know how you can translate “It’s complicated” on Facebook?  I think the way to translate this is “OK, I have a relationship, but you can flirt with me.”  That’s the meaning of “It’s complicated.”  I’m sorry, but I think that’s the reason.

DT:  Do you think that’s something particularly Spanish?

NV:  I think it’s totally universal.  Because it’s something that points to vanity:  I have a relationship, but I’ll let you be attracted to me.  It’s pure vanity:  I might have a relationship, but don’t worry if you feel attracted to me.


DT:  You were born in Cantabria. There was a lot of violence when you were growing up as a kid, with PETA.

NV:  Not exactly in Cantabria, but there was a lot of violence just next to Cantabria in the Basque country.  My father is from there, so half of my family is in the Basque country.  I can’t say I was surrounded by this political tension, but I know what the situation was at the time because every summer I went to the Basque country and I could feel the tension in the streets.

DT:  Did that affect your filmmaking?

NV:  If the situation affected me, I’m not aware of it.  I’m not interested in violence, but on the other hand, when you see a violent social conflict from a distance, you are able to see that the problem is not one of good against bad people.  Each people has a different perspective on a situation, so each people has a reason to behave that way.  So I wouldn’t be able to take part in this conflict because you can tell from a distance that there’s no black against white.  That’s something you can see in Spain in many ways.  I think that every time someone tries to give you a simplistic explanation of a violent conflict, they are lying to you.  All these situations are complex.

DT:  But don’t you think that’s what comic books do?

NV:   Yeah, but the comic books I really appreciate are those in which even the whitest character has a dark side, and even the darkest… Maybe that’s the reason I haven’t written a villain in all my films at this point.  For example, in Extraterrestrial even the worst character has a chance to explain his feelings, to explain his behavior, and all the bad characters have the chance to be loved by the audiences the same way all the good characters have a chance to be hated by the audience.


DT:  Who’s the worst character in Extraterrestrial?

NV:  Oh, the vicious neighbor.  I love this character because he’s playing the most vile character of all, but the way he walks out of the movie, the way he disappears, the way he says good-bye changes the nature of the character somehow, and that is something I really like.  One of my favorite lines in the movie is the last line from the neighbor, when he says, “There’s no comparison” at the end. That’s one of my favorite moments.  I’ve never been involved in one side of a political struggle.  I’ve always taken some distance and tried to see the overview.  Because I don’t think there are heroes and villains anymore.  Everything is much more complicated.


DT: Cantabria is essentially an autonomous region.  Do you think of yourself as Cantabrian or Spanish?

NV:  I make fun of nationalism. I love people from Cantabria and I love people from Madrid, and I have my people, and I love them.  I love the places where I was born because they’re familiar to me, but that’s all.  I don’t feel respect in geographical terms.  This is difficult to explain even in Spanish.  Nationalism asks you to love a region in order to realize the other people are the others.  I love my country, but I don’t feel other people are the others.  There are people I love who live far from me, but they are not the others.  They are not different from me in any way, so I don’t feel my blood is better than any other blood in the world.  Sometimes I hate that kind of strong, violent nationalism that comes from Spain.  But I also don’t like the nationalism in little regions, like in the Basque country.  They want to feel Basque, but they don’t want to feel Spanish, but they want to feel European.  They make this strange leap.  It’s new ways of manipulating people.


DT:  Tell me why you love Robocop so much.

NV: I love Robocop because there’s a constant commentary on real things.  At the beginning, you listen to policemen talking about privatization of security on the streets; private companies want to take control of the police forces, and they want to clean the city in order to make the living more profitable.  So it’s about gentrification.  So in ten minutes in Robocop you get a lot of commentaries on the real world. That’s something I really appreciate in a movie that is supposed to be about a robot killing bad people.  I love that in a movie that is far from reality; I love the fact that it is so deep in reality.


DT:  Is there a difference between superhero films based on comic books and superhero films that aren’t based on comic books?

NV:  The problems come when a property has a lot of owners and moves a lot of money.  And when decisions come from a big committee instead of one artist.  For example, I think that Robocop is a really brave film, a really dark film, and it’s really challenging for the audience, even at this time. If Robocop came from a big property with a lot ofmoney involved, it would be softer, less risky, because when there are too many people at the table, decisions are much more panicky about failure.  So I prefer when there’s only one or two people behind the superhero rather than one million people.  That’s the reason I really love working on a film that is represented by people like Mark Millar.  You can make a movie out of his comic books and you will have to deal with him, not with a big company and a lot of people in the room.

DT:  Great.  Looking forward to Supercrooks.



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