Zama/Lucrecia Martel

In Antonio Di Benedetto’s brilliant existential novel, the semi-aristocratic Don Diego de Zama is stationed in Asunción, now Paraguay’s capital but then a backwater of the Spanish Empire, as a functionary for the Spanish Crown. He dreams and plots for a better posting, where his family can join him. His fruitless efforts last more than a decade; in desperation, with the hopes of making his mark as a warrior and thereby earning the promotion he could not get as a functionary, he finally joins a posse in search of the bandit Vicuna Porto.  The novel is strange, mysterious, and illuminating. Lucrecia Martel’s film not only captures the essence of Di Benedetto’s masterwork; it goes one step further and crystallizes the novel’s capacity to confound and reveal at the very same time. Unlike other adaptations, this film cannot be separated from the book, not because it is dependent on the written words but because it reflects them back from a new angle. Both book and film must not be missed. Click here for trailer and screenings near you.   •Availability: Opens New York City April 13, Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center; Chicago, Gene Siskel Film Center.  Thanks to Courtney Ott, Cinetic Media, for arranging this interview. Thanks to Carlos Gutierrez for translating. A Strand Releasing film.

 

DT: I normally view books and films as totally independent entities, but I had a different experience with Zama. The book and the film are totally separate, but you and Di Benedetto seemed to me like a daughter and father working together on the family farm, side by side. Perhaps the daughter will plant a different crop, but she and her father are still tilling the same land. That being said, how did you translate the book into the film? More specifically, what was the conceptual process of imagining the film?

LM: The truth is, I probably would have said something different before making this film. When we talk about film and literature, we think about two completely separate entities. We see literature as impressionable characters and cinema as sound and images, but I learned through this process that there’s something very similar between the reader of literature and the screenwriter. When you read a novel, you’re submitted into a rhythm and an intensity that’s very similar to when you’re writing a screenplay. For me the distance is not that great, because basically what’s needed is a reader who gets affected by the text. It’s basically the same process.

 

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)

 

DT: One of the outstanding features of the book was its “enigmatic temporality”—a phrase from Esther Allen, who translated Zama into English. How did you deal with the challenge of portraying ambiguous time in a medium that’s constantly in the present?

LM: That’s another myth about period films, because ultimately what is the time of the film? The book was written in 1957 and tells the story of the end of the 18th century, and it’s shot in the first decade of the 2000s. So what is the time of the film? I think it’s ultimately a mistake to think of the time of the film as one that’s set in the storyline. I experienced this as well.  I think the period piece is inevitably a film about the present. And there’s another idea, that the storyline gets confused with the film; the film is minimized to its plot and the time of the plot of the storyline.

 

DT: For Zama the character, time is interwoven with identity and place. Is that typical of Zama’s class?

LM: What the film narrates is an intimate drama of any bourgeoisie in Latin America, particularly today, particularly in Argentina. The drama of Zama is the drama of any petit bourgeois in Latin America. The impossibility of being in a place, being in internal transit.

DT: And what about identity?

LM: In terms of identity what interested me most about the novel is what one is forced to be by being someone. What we consider positive in terms of identity I see as something negative, actually. Being someone is actually a restriction of freedom. I thought the Internet would allow for that, for identity to thrive, but I think it was the opposite, it was a failure.

 

DT: The third challenge I saw with making the book into a film was dealing with Zama’s alternating hallucinations and sense of reality. As a filmmaker, what elements of the medium did you use to distinguish between his illusions and reality?

LM: For me that’s why the work with sound requires so much care, so much attention. The sound is what allows for the audience to be submerged in this state and not trust the images; it allows for the audience to see beyond the images. This sound immersion becomes very particular in allowing the viewer to see beyond the images by not confirming what you’re seeing with the images but taking a step forward.  It demands a very specific type of work. In cinema, Foley basically re-creates the sounds of what’s seen, but sadly most of what is done in sound design is done as Foley; sound designers make the sound of what’s being seen just to underline the images but not to create something different.

DT: Do you think that aspect of sound functions because sound works more unconsciously? People think about the images they see, but they have an unconscious or subconscious perception of the sound?

LM: I think there can only be unconscious perception of sound if sound does not reference what you see on screen. It’s a tough balancing act because you have to give audiences enough clues not to make it look like delirium but also enough things for them to not reference what’s onscreen. Sound is more savage, it’s less domesticated. Usually sound just makes a re-formation of the images. I think romantic comedies are the lowest genre because very few times they question reality, if ever.

 

DT: Di Benedetto wrote two screenplays. Did you watch the films or read the screenplays?

LM: No, unfortunately, no.

 

DT: In many ways, the film, like the book, is about nothingness. Nevertheless, it was completely gripping. How do you dissect nothingness to make something thrilling?

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)

LM: I think the great malady of our time is believing entirely in plot, in storyline. Make believe that the storyline is everything, that the plot is everything. For me, identifying the plot with the film is exactly like not understanding the difference between a house and a home. One is the skeleton, the structure, but what gives content is something different, something completely else. So knowing that difference, that the film is not the plot itself, is key. People think it’s very difficult to make this kind of film, but it’s actually not more difficult or easier, it’s just a different system of beliefs, a different notion of time, a different notion of  cause and effect. With a timeline where there’s the future, the past, and the beginning, you have a construction that is so elementary it doesn’t allow us to talk about emotions.

DT: When I said nothing, I meant it in an existential sense.

LM: I understand the perception of nothingness, but I see the film as full of emotional moments. I don’t see the nothingness, I don’t think it actually exists. We’re just used to being taken by the hand everywhere—by the nose in this case. It’s like an amusement park, but in this particular case we arrived at the amusement park and the lights are out, so where are we heading?

 

DT: That’s a great image. You changed certain details in the book. For instance, at the end of the film, Zama is rescued by the Indian, not the blond boy. How did you decide which details to change, which to keep, which to throw away?

LM: The first things I took out were the dreams and the symbolic elements—for example, the blond kid. I used different kids, not one blond kid. Something I decided to keep was his attention to his desire, which he can’t complete, can’t accomplish. Another important thing I  kept was identity, particularly with Vicuna Porto; that he embodies evilness. For any government it’s easier that someone embodies evilness because that avoids critical thinking, it’s an easy way out.  In this country it’s very obvious, Trump is always creating enemies, Iranians and Koreans, creating this enemy as a way to avoid people.

 

Still from ZAMA (2017)

Still from ZAMA (2017)

DT: I thought the film was a tremendous translation of the book, but you even went one step further. You crystallized the essence of the book with Vicuna Porto. He’s this weird character—he’s like Puck, sometimes really evil, sometimes kind of funny—but there’s this moment where he’s completely honest and says to Zama, “You know where the cocos are, right?” It was as if all of the pretense and false identity and everything else fall away even though they are actually embodied in that moment, which wasn’t in the book. Was that intentional on your part?

LM: For me it was very important, toward the end, that it’s just an absurd preoccupation, someone who fervently believes in something that ultimately is absurd. I think that existential experience actually happens to all of us, that we’re always blind about something absurd, and moments like illness or the death of someone close makes us question why we have worked so hard to achieve so little, so it’s incredible that we can keep our lives going like this. Because it’s everyday life it’s hard to grasp those moments of questioning. Vicuna Porto makes precisely that point at the end:  he’s worrying about the coconuts. When I read the novel, I had this euphoria that I understood something about existence that I don’t know how to explain, but it was a moment of great happiness, with no reason or explanation. So years later, this is what I brought: this sense of euphoria.

 

DT: When Matheus Nachtergaele, who played Vicuna Porto, asked that question about the coconuts, did you as a filmmaker have a feeling of “Oh my God, I got it”?

LM: It’s very difficult to have that certainty when you’re in the middle of shooting, because those moments can be misleading. However, when Matheus was acting I knew we were going in the right direction. He’s a great actor. He looks a little bit like Jack Nicholson. Thank you for reading this wonderful book.

 

DT: It’s one of my favorites. Thank you for making this wonderful film.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Foxtrot/Samuel Maoz (director) and Lior Ashkenazi (actor)

When Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dafna (Sarah Adler) are told that their son has been killed in the line of duty, they separately descend into their own personal horror rather than face the trauma together. Director Samuel Maoz employs the never-ending circularity of the foxtrot as a metaphor, melding tragicomic surrealism, highly choreographed cinematography, and a remarkable performance from Lior Ashkenazi to convey the truth that our private lives are inseparable from our communal history.  To view the trailer, click here •Availability: Opens in New York and L.A. March 2.  Thank to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview. 

Itay Exlroad as Dancer Solider Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Itay Exlroad as Dancer Solider
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

DT: Samuel, your previous film Lebanon was shot entirely inside a tank. Needless to say, it was highly claustrophobic.  In Foxtrot, much of the film is shot in the desert, yet you managed to create that same feeling of claustrophobia, even though it takes place in the middle of these vast open spaces. How did you do that?

SM: We’re looking at one point at the end of the day. Usually in films you go from place to place, with many locations. The fact that with this film you’re stuck in the same point creates that feeling, I think.

LA: It’s the same as if you were in the middle of the sea. There’s nothing in the scenery…it’s all the same. You see sand. It’s open wide but without any details.

SM: It’s like being isolated.

LA: It’s like being on the sun or the moon. This is the claustrophobia. It’s not the same as claustrophobia in a small room, but wherever you look, you see the same, so in a way, there’s nowhere to run.

SM: There’s no way out.

LA: There’s no escape.

 

DT: The film reminded me of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming:” “Things fall apart/the center does not hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” At the end of Foxtrot, I felt like we had arrived at the end of things, like there’s nowhere to go, there’s no possibility of moving forward from here.

LA: That’s the focus of what the film is talking about: that’s the foxtrot [dance]. You need someone from the outside to take you by the hand and take you out of this circle that repeats itself.

SM: For me the conclusion of the film is that fate cannot be changed, not because it’s divine but because of the nature of the Israeli traumatic man/woman who shaped the nature of the collective, now stuck in trauma.

DT: That’s what was so depressing.

SM: The truth is that the little step that can save us from the loop of the foxtrot must be done by the leadership. Only not this leadership—they do the opposite. They press on the buttons of the trauma and they do it with slogans that have nothing to do with reality except maybe the emotional memory of the ancient trauma, the old trauma whose instinctual nature is stronger than any instinctual power, is stronger than any reality and logic. They used to say to us, “We are in existential danger.” This is the mother of slogans. When I hear politicians in Israel say “We are a technological superpower, we have the strongest army and a nuclear weapon because we are in existential danger” it’s more or less like saying, I’m young and strong and healthy because I’m sick.

Our culture minister, for example, attacked the film without seeing it, before it was released. In her attack she actually confirmed the film’s message, because she pressed on people’s buttons with slogans that bring them to their feet. “Foxtrot is destroying the country,” she said, as if the film was a nuclear weapon that will erase us from the map. In her attack, she once again lifted a mirror to the radical split in Israeli society.

DT: What specifically did she object to?

SM:In the beginning she said she’s against the film because there’s a scene where the army breaks into a Palestinian home and slaughters the family. A journalist who saw the film at an academy screening told her, “We saw the film and there is no such scene.”  The next day, she said, “It’s because of the scene where they bury the car.” When she was told that the scene is about something wider, that it’s allegorical, she said, “The fact that the director ends the film with this scene says that this was his message.” Then they told her, “We saw the film and it doesn’t end with this scene.” Anyway, the struggle is not only for the film itself, it became a struggle for freedom of speech and expression.

Left to right: Gefen Barkai as Squad Commander. Shaul Amir as Soldier with Headphones. Dekel Adin as Soldier Rolling Cans and Yonatan Shiray as Jonathan Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Gefen Barkai as Squad Commander. Shaul Amir as Soldier with Headphones. Dekel Adin as Soldier Rolling Cans and Yonatan Shiray as Jonathan
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DT: Actually, that brings me to my next question. Like people, countries suffer psychological wounds from their own history. These wounds become the country’s DNA.

SM: Exactly.

DT: In the United States, our psychological wound is slavery. We’ve never gotten over it, and that’s why we can’t heal the racial divide. I’m wondering if in Israel it’s the Holocaust, and whether that’s a wound that will ever go away.

SM: Exactly.

LA: Yes. It’s the Holocaust. The leadership usually uses the Holocaust to present us as the victims. I don’t believe I’m a victim, neither does my generation. Maybe our grandparents did.

SM: The common image of the post-traumatic man is a cliche. People expect him to have nightmares, he’s alone, uncommunicative. For Michael [the protagonist of the film, played by Lior Askhenazi], like many of his generation, it’s a case of repression and denial. He would do anything to prove that he is alive and that he would benefit from it somehow: he would be the successful businessman, raise a family, arm himself with buying an expensive apartment and luxury, but in a desperate attempt to hide his weakness, his secret. From outside everything seems to be fine, but from inside his soul is bleeding, and when he has nowhere to go in his experience, he kicks the dog. In Israeli society there are many versions of Michael, because his generation—my generation, the second generation of the Holocaust survivors—couldn’t complain about anything. Our teachers, our parents were naturally not very stable, because they’d experienced perhaps the worst trauma in human history. They used to wave the numbers on their arms and shout at us from the morning to the evening that they survived the Holocaust and who are we to complain. When I got a 7 in math at school, my mother said, “For a 7 in math I survived the Holocaust?” When we came back from the war with two hands, two legs, ten fingers, without any burning marks but expressing that we felt hurt inside, it was unacceptable. They used to tell us, “Get over it, be a man, we survived the Holocaust.” So we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, so we have become an additional generation of traumatic victims. This is the endless traumatic circle that I’m talking about. I think we need another three, four, five, I don’t know how many generations…

 

DT: It should have been forty years in the desert, but we’re already past that. Lior,  this is quite a change from your role in Norman. I’ve seen you in many films, but in this one, you just…seemed like yourself in a way I’ve never seen. I don’t know if it was the particular role—

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

LA: It’s a mixture of things. I’m not acting, actually. It’s not about acting. In Israel you’re surrounded by people who’ve lost dear ones in terror attacks, in the war, so you know them. They have their daily life, everything is OK, but there’s something that’s not quite right. You can’t point to it, you can’t say, Ah, this is it. It’s not about a sad face or depression. We were trying to find out how I could bring it out without doing a sad face, so I thought it could be done physically.  I didn’t sleep the two days preceding the shoot.

SM: He was exhausted.

LA: Just to exhaust myself. Now that I tell you that, you can see it, because it’s almost like slow motion. The eyes are falling down, when I’m leaning on the furniture, I needed to lean because I was falling down from exhaustion.

SM: Lior didn’t want to tell me because he thought I wouldn’t like it.

LA: I was afraid to tell Samuel.

SM: I told him I liked it because I really believe that when you need to deal with something emotional or mental, the best way to do it is through something physical.

When I was preparing to shoot Lebanon, I thought, How can I explain to an actor what it’s like to be inside a tank and suddenly someone attacks you? I could use my best description and they would say, Yeah, yeah yeah, but they wouldn’t understand anything. So I took each one of them and put them inside a container. It’s 122 degrees, it’s dark, you can’t sit, but after you survive the first five minutes you get over it because the body recognizes emergency conditions and starts to save energy. You start to breathe slowly and you start to feel like you are floating. You’re saving energy, and it’s OK. After half an hour, I had someone beat on the outside of the container with an iron pipe. When the actor came out of the container after 90 minutes, I could see in his eyes that I didn’t need to explain anything, because he understood.

I even had an actor who couldn’t shoot a gun. How could I explain that to him?  I took him and a prop gun to a friend’s apartment in the center of Tel Aviv. I took the actor to the window, gave him the toy gun, and said, “Put him in the cross hairs and press the trigger.” It’s a toy, a prop, everybody knows it, but the feeling that someone is in your cross hairs… He couldn’t do it, and suddenly [he understood].

 

DT: The film is based in part on a real-life incident with your daughter. Can you tell us about that, because I think it puts the film in context.

SM: My daughter never woke up early enough to get to school on time, so in order for her not to be late, she would ask me to call a taxi. This habit started to cost us quite a bit of money, and it also seemed to me to be bad education, so one morning I got mad and told her, “You will get the bus like everyone else does. If you’re late, you’re late.”  There was a big argument, and I was mad, and I told her quite firmly, “You are taking the bus. Now go.” Her bus was line 5, a quite famous line in Tel Aviv. Twenty minutes after she left, I heard on the radio that a terrorist blew himself up on line 5 and that dozens of people had been killed. I tried to call her, of course, but the cellular service had collapsed because of the unexpected load—this was at the beginning of cell phones in Israel.

She returned home an hour later. She told us that when she got to the station, she saw the bus, started to run, waved at the driver, but the bus left the station and she took the next bus. That was the worst hour in my life. It was worse than the entire Lebanon war. I asked myself, What can I learn from this experience? and very quickly I understood that I couldn’t learn anything.

LA: He could just make a movie.

SM: I didn’t want to investigate or explore but to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond our control. To explore this limbo where we make decisions. We also tried to do a kind of Greek tragedy in which the hero creates his own punishment and fights against anyone who tries to save him. He’s obviously unaware of the outcome that his actions will bring about. This is the difference between a casual coincidence and a spooky coincidence that looks like a plan of fate, because chaos is certain, the punishment corresponds with the sin almost in its exact form, and there is something round and complete in such a dramatic form.

 

DT: It’s a little like film noir, where character is destiny. Let’s talk about the overhead shots and that gorgeous 360 degree pan. Samuel, what do those shots mean to you as a director, and Lior, as an actor, are you aware of the camera’s position?

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael and Yehuda Almagor as Avigdor, Michael’s brother.
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

SM: I couldn’t make those shots if Lior wasn’t aware. I need a partner. I will give an example. For the first overhead shot when he’s going to open the door, the long closeup when they trick him and leave, I chose the floor. I do not do realistic cinema. My cinema is more experiential. I try to penetrate, reflect the thoughts of my characters. First I told my DOP, “That floor will make us dizzy.” Next, cinematographers usually do their movement with the movement of the actor. So I told my DOP, “Let’s go against his movements because the audience will lose their orientation.”

But to do this, you must have an actor who’s aware of the camera, because he needs to do five or six steps very, very slowly, to take his time. I know actors who I could continue to shoot to this day and they still wouldn’t be able to do this shot. I know that Lior can squeeze his soul, he can really feel, but deep inside there is a computer program working in the background that makes him aware of the camera.

LA: It’s also a choreography. I  didn’t just speak with Samuel; I was also [communicating] with the DOP. I needed to be aware of what the camera was doing  because the timing was split second, a hairsbreadth…I’m standing up, I know the camera now has to finish the turn and then I can start walking, but not like people normally walk, I’m walking there very, very slowly because of the camera…

SM: He takes time to lean on the table…

LA: It was like a dance.

SM: I believe in low tech when you create those shots. In Lebanon, where we were on a studio set, I needed to simulate the movement of the tank. They sent the script to Cinecitta in Italy because they have a platform they used to lend to American films for helicopter scenes. They told me, “Listen, we love the script, for you it’s $250,000.” So my production designer went to a junkyard and bought a wagon for $300, because it was simply a matter of balance—two people here, two people there, and two wheels in the middle. Here, in Foxtrot, it’s the DOP that controlled the movement, along with the two grips, one with the crane and one with the dolly. It’s the combination of three people who need to synchronize between themselves and the actor. The actor must depend on them, they can’t rely on him.

DT: Lior, are you watching them while the camera is rolling?

LA: No. We are just doing it.

SM: We shot a first take, and then I showed it to Lior. He’s the kind of actor—

LA: I need to see what just happened, and then I can be much better, because I know, OK this is the shot, I understand it now, I know the timing, so let’s do it.

DT: Is that the way you work all the time?

LA: Usually.

SM: Not all directors will show the take to the actors because the actors will say, “This angle is not good…”

 

LA: The light, the angle.

SM: But I believe this is the best way to learn. If you’re an actor, you need to get used to yourself from all different angles.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

The Insult/Ziad Doueiri

When a Palestinian refugee insults a Lebanese Christian in Beirut, the Palestinian’s refusal to apologize sparks a national crisis. With director Ziad Doueiri’s ubiquitous honesty and intelligence, this Academy Award hopeful examines the excesses of hate, the Middle East’s addiction to words, and paths to reconciliation. Availability: Opens New York City, January 12, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

DT: Ziad, in your last film, The Attack, Israelis and Palestinians are each other’s enemies.  When I interviewed you for that film, you said, “I went to Israel and met these Israeli actors and they’re fantastic. The whole image of the ultimate enemy became demystified. I’m facing the enemy and I’m liking him.” Is it the same with the characters in The Insult?

ZD: It’s the same. The Insult is my reexamination of the Christian  narrative, which I grew up hating all my life. I guess I spent all my life hating people and then saying, Let me think about it. We grew up thinking that the Christian political thinking was associated with a betrayal of the country. We thought that the Christians in Lebanon—and I’m talking about the Christians not in terms of religion but in terms of political parties: Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese forces, the Christian parties—were betraying Lebanon. Those people were associating themselves with the enemies of Lebanon, etc., etc., so their narrative for me as a child did not exist.

As time passes, you sit down and say, Let’s see, did they really not suffer as much? We always believed that the Muslims and the left wing are the people who suffered and the Christians did not suffer, they did not go through dilemmas. And then you start understanding their point of view, and you slowly demystify this thing. This film is about demystifying things, actually. I made a film because I had to go through my own thinking.

 

DT: Making a film is a huge project. It takes a lot of money and time and effort. People make them for different reasons. Guillermo Del Toro made Shape of Water for one reason, Quentin Tarantino made Pulp Fiction for another reason. Considering your background and the family you grew up in—very intellectual, very political, very left wing—I feel like your reason for making films is catharsis.

ZD: It’s telling the truth. I want to tell the truth. It’s so important that I don’t give the impression that I’m an idealist and want a larger-than-life figure. I hate those things. I want to tell you something: after The Insult came out in Lebanon and all these festivals, Venice, Valladolid, Telluride, a lot of journalists started asking me questions. At the beginning I did not know how to answer that fundamental question, Why are you making this movie? What inspired this movie? It’s not that I didn’t know the answer, I just had to figure it out, because it was so subconscious. And I started thinking in very practical terms in order to answer the journalists and give them the answers they were looking for, which consequently made me think about what voice was behind the writing of the film. It’s not insignificant. It’s significant, it’s just so buried in me.

It’s about being fair. Let me elaborate—what I’m telling you is very real. It’s not at all intellectual, and it’s not at all analytical. It’s very real. When I grew up in 1975, the war started, and all I can remember—I was twelve years old—is a lot of things that were happening in my daily life that were not fair. For example—it’s so banal—we got stopped at checkpoints day in, day out.

DT: That’s not banal.

ZD: No, but at that time it looked like just another event. Then Lebanon was invaded by armies. That’s a big theory, but Ziad growing up saw those invasions, because I had to run with my family into the shelters. I played with a rock band as a teenager. One day the left-wing militia came inside the basement and took all of my instruments, my bass guitar and everything. My dad came down and we tried to argue with them, but they were stronger than us because they had weapons. I looked at my dad and said, as I’d said all throughout my years, “This is unfair.” When you’re young, you don’t react intellectually—you say, “Why are they taking my instruments?” In 1977 I wanted to go visit my cousins who lived in Holland. We went to the Dutch embassy, and they did not give us a visa because there were restrictions on Lebanese citizens back then. I thought it was unfair. I thought it was unfair that I could not go on vacation. So many of these events happened day in, day out, not just one every six months. It was all the time, so you grow up and you say, “It’s not fair.”

The word fairness is something I hold onto. I’m still in the process of analyzing why I did The Insult, of understanding the woodpecker behind my brain. It’s fairness. I fucked up a lot in my life, I have a lot of immoral stuff in my life, but fairness is something I hold onto. I am so fair. The idea of The Insult is about a man to whom injustice was done, and he believes that he has to get it back. That’s what Toni Hanna’s character is. I don’t want to give an intellectual feeling to my explanation, because I’m really trying to answer from my gut. Being arrested, and being stopped, and being insulted and all these things have been buried since my childhood.

DT: That’s why I say it’s cathartic.

ZD: Yes. Yes.

 

DT: The film is very multilayered, but the particular juxtaposition between the private apology and the public insult was especially meaningful.

ZD: We did that on purpose, after having thought a lot about it. When Toni tells Yasser, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out,” there was a very big reason we made it on a Sunday. In the preceding scene, the boss tells the Palestinian [Yasser], “I want you to apologize.” The Palestinian is trying to avoid it, and he says, “He’s closed on Sunday,” to which the boss replies, “He’s open seven days a week.” It was not accidental that we picked Sunday, because we wanted the insult to be in private. On Sunday nobody goes to work—it’s only Toni and the mechanic. When he insulted him—it’s true, he insulted him during the day, but there were no workers, no Syrians around, no construction workers—we wanted to make it just in a private way in order to balance it in the end, when the Palestinian comes at night and the apology has to be private. It was not actually public. That’s what we wanted. We thought about all these things.

 

DT: Early in the film, I had a rather banal, but total, revelation. Because I wasn’t attuned to all of the social and cultural nuances, I only had a general understanding of the nature of Yasser’s insult. And I’m watching Toni and  wondering, Why is Toni so full of hate? All he has to do to rid himself of this situation is get rid of his hate. Then I remembered how I—a Jew—felt watching The Attack, and I realized there’s a complete difference when you’re looking at hate—

ZD: —from the outside. That’s right.

DT: It’s not going to get solved until we get rid of the hate.

ZD: It’s not going to be solved until you meet your enemy face-to-face. I’m saying this on a very personal level: When you don’t know your enemy, your hiding in fear becomes multiplied. If you think he’s scary and you don’t see him, you think he’s ten times more scary. When you meet him, it becomes demystified. I’m telling you, I sat down with Israelis just as much as I sat down with Christians from the right-wing party, and during the first interaction, something that holds you breaks down. And suddenly you start reaching behind him, and you start finding more similarity than difference.

But that doesn’t apply to everyone. I am like this. There are people who live through their hate no matter what you do. You put them in therapy for ten years and they can’t get over it. I’m the kind who has a tendency to be curious about the other side. In The Attack, I’ve been curious about understanding the Israeli perspective, and in The Insult and West Beirut I’ve been curious about understanding the Christian perspective. I’m curious, that’s it. It’s not more than that. For me there are no taboos that are not to be broken. I’m willing to go wherever…it’s the idea of fairness.

 

DT: You wrote the script with Joelle Touma, who’s Christian.

ZD: My ex-wife. She’s not a believer. We’re both very secular, but she grew up in a family that had sympathy for right-wing politics. They had their reasons, of course, but right wing, left wing doesn’t mean anything today. It’s all over the place.

 

DT: In a way the story is absurd, with a simple insult escalating into this national crisis. But you shot it in a hyperreal manner, so real that I wondered whether the film was based on an actual incident. Is it absurd? Is it real? Or is it both?

ZD: It’s not absurd. It happens. The whole screenwriting process started because of a very similar incident that actually happened to me. I was living in Beirut a few years ago, and I was watering my plants, when the water fell on one of the workers. We had an exchange; we insulted each other. He said, “You motherfucker,” and I said, “No, you’re the motherfucker.” We started yelling at each other, and I noticed that he had a Palestinian accent, and I just said that phrase: “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” This is how it started. So it is not unreal. This is how it happened.

The question to ask is, In Lebanon, in the Arab world, could a simple insult develop into a national crisis? It can. It did happen. Several times. In writing the script, I took it to where it could have happened, but it didn’t happen with me because the Palestinian didn’t make a big deal of it. He was hurt and that was it. But in Lebanon words weigh heavy. They’re loaded. I could insult your mom, your dad, I could say, Screw your mom, and it wouldn’t matter. But there are certain subjects, like religion, that are loaded. If I say, I’m going to screw your religion, this is likely to create a huge problem. This is how it is in the Middle East. It’s very, very sensitive. People give too much attention to words. They don’t take it in a slight manner. It’s very, very heavy.

 

DT:  I’ve never been to Lebanon, but my impression is that it’s a very cosmopolitan, very secular country. Perhaps it’s not that way anymore.

ZD: It’s very secular and it’s very cosmopolitan and it’s very religious and it’s very chauvinistic, and it’s very provincial. It has everything. This is what is so interesting about Lebanon. It’s why I keep going back there in writing my stories, because it’s a melting pot of not just all cultures but all religions, all classes, all political affiliations. It has everything within a very confined space. Lebanon is the country of paradox. Such paradox. And it’s so dynamic. This is what I like about it, while sometimes I hate it.

The Insult created a lot of problems. The Attack created a lot of problems—that’s why it was banned. I want to say, Guys, get over yourselves, we’re just making movies. But the Arab population has not reconciled with itself yet, and as long as you don’t reconcile, you’re going to jump on that caravan, jump against that camp. I’m being very pragmatic. I’m not being analytical here; this is how it is. When Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, there was a price on his head that lasted twenty years. The queen of England literally put him under protection for twenty years. People take these things very, very seriously, so when we wrote The Insult, we did not walk a tightrope. We did not censor ourselves. We said things very bluntly, the way it is. But we knew it was going to touch on certain sensibilities. We knew it, even though that was not the purpose. Our purpose in writing this film, Joelle and I, was not to provoke, or accuse, or demonize. Not at all—otherwise you will screw up your film. We just wanted to tell a story about a man who has something very deeply buried in him and how he seeks to resolve it at the end. This is the Middle East; what can you do?

 

DT: At this point, your films are shown not just in the Middle East—they’re shown all over the world. While you’re writing or filming, do you make concessions to Western audiences?

ZD: Not at all. I can assure you we did not make any concessions. Look, I lived in the States for eighteen years. I worked in America [e.g., as Quentin Tarantino’s camera assistant on Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction,  From Dusk Til Dawn, Jackie Brown]. I worked with the people. I didn’t come here as a tourist. The best way to learn about a culture is to work with its people. For eighteen years I learned Americanisms, the way of working on a film set, this society. It’s not insignificant.

Therefore when you learn the language and you learn the mentality and you learn what’s behind the psychology—there’s my rapport with you, and there’s my rapport with our subconscious—it’s going to affect the way you write. There are certain phrases I use when I write. I wrote this film in English, through the final draft, and then I translated it to Arabic.

So to answer your question, Did I make any concessions? Not at all. I managed—not because I’m smart, but because I lived in America as long as I lived in Lebanon—to find the phrases, how to build dialogue, and how to build story in a way that both cultures could understand, without confusing one or the other. Where I sometimes missed the point is some of the humorous phrases. There are certain phrases that made the Americans laugh when the Lebanese didn’t. For example, when the president says, “If I want to choose between stability and integrity, I’ll choose stability.” This is an American way of being humorous. In Lebanon, they didn’t get it. They don’t think that way. It’s not part of our colloquial language to say “If I want to choose between stability and integrity, I’ll choose stability.” This is an American idiom. An American way of thinking. Another example: When Tony takes the disc and says, “BOC, it’s missing the S” [i.e., to indicate that the disc brake in question was a Chinese knock-off rather than a German original].  The Americans smiled at this, but the Lebanese didn’t get it. When Tony says, “If I have to choose between secondhand German or brand-new Chinese, I choose secondhand German,” this is an American form of humor that the Lebanese didn’t understand. The Americans laughed even though it’s in Arabic.

This is the way your brain gets wired; sometime you blend what works for two cultures and sometimes you miss the point, especially with comedy or humorous lines. It’s very funny that the Lebanese didn’t get it. But to tell you the truth, in all modesty I felt myself well placed to be able to tell a completely Lebanese story and still have Americans relate to it. By the way, my film gets the most understood and appreciated in America and Lebanon and much less in France, because where is the French part of this psychology? Had I lived half my life in France, I would be doing a hybrid product, but my hybrid product as it is, is Lebanese American. The French financed the film, but Americans get it.

 

DT: Let me ask you one more question. You’re working on a project about the Camp David accords.

ZD: I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too early. I have to take a little break for just a couple of weeks.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

FT: And the people were really poor.

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

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

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

DT: I never thought of it that way.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

DT: How was the film received in Hungary?

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

GS: They were afraid of it.

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

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

DT: It had everything against it!

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

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

GS: It’s all over the media.

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

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

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

 

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

GS: Ghosts.

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

SPOILER ALERT

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

GS: People wonder who they are…

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

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

 

END SPOILER ALERT

 

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

GS: They loved the screenplay.

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

 

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

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

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

DT: Why was a Gypsy playing Kol Nidre?

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

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

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

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

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

Caroline Champetier (Cinematographer)/Career Retrospective

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

 

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

Gang of Four © Cohen Media Group

Gang of Four © Cohen Media Group

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

DT: Is shooting faces different from shooting objects?

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

 

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

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

DT: Before you shoot?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

DT: What did you use?

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

 

DT: Let’s go back to Holy Motors.

Holy Motors. ©-Indomina-GroupPhotofest.

Holy Motors. ©-Indomina-GroupPhotofest.

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

DT: You used a Red!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

DT: Is that an artifact of working digitally?

CC: Yes, yes.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

CC: Absolutely.

 

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

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

Of Gods and Men ©Sony-Pictures-Classics

Of Gods and Men ©Sony-Pictures-Classics

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

West of the Jordan River/Amos Gitai

Amos Gitai continues his nuanced exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by traveling to the occupied territories, where he interviews Palestinian families, Jewish settlers, politicians, and members of Israeli human-rights organizations. His goal is to show that the conflict is complex, rather than monolithic; that both sides are responsible for creating the conflict as well as resolving the peace; and that sitting by while Israel destroys itself is tantamount to silently watching neighbors beat each other to death. Availability: Opens New York City, January 27, Quad Cinema. A Kino Lorber release. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: A woman from the Meretz Party mentioned that politicians are obliterating the word occupation from public discourse in Israel. Do you think the politicians are successful in their campaign? And if they are, what does that mean for Israel?

AG: Unfortunately, I think Netanyahu is very successful. If he continues, he will destroy the fabric of the society.

DT: The same thing is happening here in America with climate change—the Trump administration is wiping mention of it off government websites, publications, etc. In fact, there are a lot of parallels between the US and Israel right now.

AG: Of course these two regimes are best friends, based on security and ignorance. I would say that Netanyahu is a bit more crafted and sophisticated than the guy you have, but the situation with Israel is much more fragile. It’s a small country in a hostile environment, so if it continues on the road Netanyahu is proposing by applying manipulation and force, it may overplay itself. I’m more concerned about what will happen to Israel than the US.

The government in Israel has been pretty consistent in attacking the arts and culture and education and judicial system. They’ve been more successful than Trump, if you want to go on with the comparison, because now you cannot teach a text of Mahmoud Darwish in schools anymore; the minister of education forbids anyone to teach Darwish. You are not obliged to like Darwish, but you have to know what Palestinians think. The minister of culture wants to close the only Arab theater in Haifa, my hometown. The minister of justice wants to change the parameters of the judicial system. At the moment Arabic and Hebrew have equal status. They want to make Arabic inferior to Hebrew, and I think that will have a major negative impact on Israeli society: an increase of religious orthodoxy.

 

DT: West of the Jordan River is subtitled Field Diary Revisited, referring to your previous film Field Diary, but for me this film felt very different from Field Diary and House. Do you agree? If so, what is the difference on the ground between then and now, and what is the difference in you?

AG: I think that when I did House and Field Diary, the degree to which Israelis were conscious that there was a Palestinian problem—or vice versa—was very low. Each side hoped that if they turned their head, the other one would disappear. I think that now both are aware the other will not disappear. They may be happy or unhappy about it, but that’s the case, so I think that’s a big difference, which may be considered to be positive. The negative aspect of it is that the capacity to act politically has diminished radically, especially after the killing of Rabin. At the moment we’re talking, you can’t see a political breakthrough in sight in this situation. These are the two main changes.

DT: And what about in you?

AG: I think I have a similar point of view to what I used to have. In a way I’m surprised when I watch the earlier films that when I see myself, with less white hair but speaking about the project I wanted to do some twenty-four, twenty-five years ago, it’s not very far from what I decided to do right now, which is to juxtapose little vignettes or episodes from the ground with interviews with political figures. I proposed it twenty-five years ago, and I think it’s up to date.

I think I feel the same. Also, in comparison, I consider that documentary is a bit like digging in an archaeological site. You have to be delicate. If you use bulldozers, you will destroy the site, so you have to go carefully.

 

DT: For this film you interviewed a number of human rights groups, which each had different ways of solving the problem. The one I found most interesting were the Palestinian women taking video cameras into the streets. Can you talk about them, and then your own feelings about the effectiveness of each of the groups.

AG: This film is not just a piece by a filmmaker. It’s a civil act, like what we’ve been talking about. I think that these human rights organizations—Btselem, which is the one you’re referring to, or Breaking the Silence, or the rabbis who help the Bedouins build a school, or the Israeli and Palestinian women who have lost children—they are very important to looking for a way out of this conflict. It’s the first time that Btselem allowed somebody to film the briefing of young Palestinian women on how to use video cameras. They trusted us, and we went to see them in the center of Palestinian Hebron. What I found very important, and that’s why I think these groups are really important to support, is that it also changes the status of women inside Palestinian society. It means that the women are not designated in an autocratic society just to produce children and make food for their husbands but they have an active role with the camera. So the inner dynamic of Palestinian society is changing, thanks to this group.

At the beginning, the women told me that their immediate family—sons, husbands, brothers—were very hostile to the fact that they would work with an Israeli NGO. Now that the men see what the women are doing, they support them. Some of these women told me that they come from families of 17,000 people. So it’s big, it’s a tribe. For me, every act that enhances the idea that the situation is complex is peaceful. Every step that tries to oversimplify it into a binary proposition is for war. Now these women understand that Israel is not a monolithic society; that you have some nasty guys with machine guns but you also have guys who want to help you document abuses of human rights, so they have a more complex and complete vision. I think that’s very important, because all these groups will help us build the next step beyond this very dark moment right now, the next step meaning some recognition, some searching for another modus vivendi. This is very important long-term activity.

 

DT: You made the argument to a group of Palestinians that there are two kinds of people in the Middle East: people who want peace and people who don’t want peace. The people who want peace include both Palestinians and Israelis, and the people who don’t want peace also include Palestinians and Israelis. Do you think that your message got across?

AG: I don’t know. I put this question to the family of a boy who was killed recently in Hebron. I also told them something that they weren’t completely happy to hear—that in my judgment, when Rabin gave back the Palestinian cities to the Palestinians and told the army to withdraw, it was the worst campaign of suicide attacks by Palestinian ultranationalists and fundamentalists inside the civil centers of Israel. This in turn helped destabilize the Rabin government, so in this way, the coalition of people who don’t want peace was active. The Palestinian ultranationalists and the Israeli extreme right both contributed to the killing of Rabin, which was finally done by an Israeli Jew.

 

DT: I want to go to the environmental movement for a minute. Leaders of the movement today say that it failed because it was looking to politicians for a top-down solution rather than building grassroots resistance from the ground up. I was wondering if the same might be said for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

AG: Yesterday I came to one of the screenings with Todd Gitlin, a friend of mine. He was one of the heads of SDS, the anti–Vietnam War movement with Tom Hayden.  Todd’s a professor of sociology, and he wrote a very interesting book at the time of the antiwar movement, called The Whole World Is Watching. It showed that by concentrating on iconic leaders, the media broke the movement. I think this is the nature of the beast today; the media needs to pick up some characters, and so the grassroots organization is weakened.

DT: But that also applies politically: when you look for political solutions from the top, whether it’s in America or Israel, you’re almost defeating the purpose, especially when you have an administration like Netanyahu or Trump.

AG: Yes.

 

DT: The settler who wants to leave in peace with the Palestinians…how unusual is she?

AG: She is a minority, but there are some. We’re trying to organize a petition to defend the Bedouin school that you saw in the film, which some settlers want destroyed. Surprisingly, last week, a small group of settlers signed our petition to defend the school.

That’s why I’m a collector of contradictions. I think you now have to solicit everybody who will try to create another reality. That’s why, parenthetically, I don’t like the films of Michael Moore. They’re too manipulative and binary. I don’t want to be force-fed, so when I watch one of his movies, I even start to doubt ideas that normally I support, just because of the cinematic procedure. I like to see contradictions. When I interviewed Netanyahu’s vice minister, I let her make her argument, I respected the fact that she gave me an interview, and anyway I trusted the fact that she would kill herself with her own argument, so why should I be violent?

 

DT: I read a number of reviews of this film, and I’m getting the feeling that Americans don’t necessarily understand it. Are you getting the same impression?

AG: We’ll see how many people go to the Quad to see it.

DT: Does it matter if Americans understand it?

AG: Yes. I think it’s important for Americans to understand it, because I would like them—Americans, as well as the Jewish community in America—to also be active in defending these human rights organizations. Not just watching movies but being implicated. It’s like domestic violence. When your neighbors are beating each other to death, you have to take a position. If people love Israel—and I’m not objecting to their doing so—they have to help Israel save it from itself.

 

DT: There are times when people have to agree to disagree in order to reach a solution. Do you think that’s possible in this context?

AG: It’s a very polarized situation, and I think that this Israeli government is doing a lot of harm to the most fragile sectors of Israeli society with its racist discourse. I think basically they can destroy Israeli society itself, and obviously the Palestinians as well, with that kind of arrogance of power, which is enhanced by this American administration that is basically signing off on everything the Israelis want.

I think they should be careful.  Israel is a fragile country of immigrants, and the tactics of inciting one group against another just to be reelected is not promising in terms of keeping this project going. The minister of culture cannot say that the asylum seekers from Africa are a cancer in the body of the society. If somebody would say that about Jews, there would be havoc. So especially coming with the Jewish experience in the recent century, you have some ethical obligations. That’s why I think it’s very important to engage with supporting Btselem and Breaking the Silence—all these organizations that are really doing important groundwork to create understanding. The fact that they are so attacked by this government, who wants to cut their funding or forbid them from doing any activity: I think it’s suicidal.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

AG: I would like to add another movie if people will let me. Even if they don’t.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Human Flow/Ai Weiwei

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Divine Order/Petra Volpe

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

DT: Still?

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

DT: They were doing this work in Switzerland?

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

DT: Did the Protestant and Catholic churches work together?

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

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

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

PV: Unfortunately I’m ruining the nice image.

 

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

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

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

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

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

DT: We don’t have it here either.

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

 

DT: Did you have trouble making the film?

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

 

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

PV: That was a long time ago.

DT: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Wrestling Jerusalem/Aaron Davidman (writer/actor)

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

DT: Who beyond the Jewish American audience?

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

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

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

 

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

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

DT: On either side?

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT: So people can contact you through the website?

AD: Yes.

DT: How is international distribution?

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Company Town/Natalie Kottke-Masocco

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

DT: Do you have a Facebook page?

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

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

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

 

D: Is there anything you want to add?

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

 

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

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

Copyright © Director Talk 2017