Boundaries/Shana Feste

 Through iconic, larger-than-life characters—types rather than real people—the great comedies from the ’40s offered poignant insights into the human condition. Shana Feste’s Boundaries delivers the same kind of insights with the same kind of icons, but what makes the film remarkable is that these icons come straight out of  real life: writer/director Shana Feste’s real life. Christopher Plummer is more magnificent than ever as Shana’s dope-dealing, freewheeling, deadbeat dad; Vera Farmiga is sometimes heartbreaking and always beautiful as Shana Feste herself; and Kristen Schaal is wacky and wonderful as Shana’s sister. With Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd, and Lewis MacDougall. The difference between Boundaries and other contemporary comedies is subtle, but its effect is real and bountiful. •Availability: Opens New York and LA, June 22. Click here for trailer and theater listings. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.


DT: In comedies from the ’40s, like You Can’t Take It With You, Sullivan’s Travels, Shop Around the Corner, the characters are more like icons than people from real life, but at the same time, these films say an enormous amount about the human condition. I was wondering if those comedies served as a model for your film.

SF: The truth is those characters were all real characters. They weren’t larger than life to me. That was my father [played by Christopher Plummer]. I really wrote him. That is his dialogue. That is how he speaks, that is how he acts. My sister [played by Kristen Schaal]—if you go to her house, you will see a framed picture of a momma dog with her pup crossing a stream. Jed [played by Halldor Bjarnason] is a real-life character. I probably exaggerated myself [played by Vera Farmiga] the most, because when you write yourself you’re usually the most boring character on the screen. I’m a total recluse and I’m happy never talking to anybody; I don’t really make the best protagonist, so I take the most liberties with myself. But about what you said at the end: I hope my film says something larger about forgiveness and seeing your parent for who they really are and what that journey is, ultimately not with a happy hopeful ending but an ending of honesty, where I can say, OK, I don’t know where this is going to go. I see you now for who you are, I’ve accepted that, and who knows where we go from here.


DT: The sequence of faces at the end was an interesting choice.

SF: It started because we were thinking about how to open the movie. I thought I’d love to do some animal portraits and show these funky-looking animals that are all flawed—that are missing something that would make them cuter, whether it’s an ear, fur, an eye—and shoot a really beautiful portrait of them and try to capture their essence, and that’s how I’ll start the film. Once I shot those portraits, Sara Mishara, who’s our DP, and I fell in love with them, and we said, what if we shot portraits of the other characters in the movie and bookended it? Originally we were going to bookend it with all of Henry’s new friends at school, so we shot portraits of all of these misfit kids who were really beautiful. But then we started shooting portraits of our main characters. Sometimes I would take six or seven minutes with a camera on them and just wait until I got that one moment when I thought, That’s you. Sometimes I would talk and ask questions, otherwise I’d just shoot and they would do whatever they were doing and I would wait until I got that moment.


DT: We always prioritize everything we do—that’s just life. Does working with such great actors affect your priorities on set? In other words, do you shoot differently when you’re working with actors of that caliber?

SF: When you’re working with actors of this caliber, your direction has to be totally articulate. If you’re being sloppy, and you haven’t really thought out the scene and you just say, “OK, I guess I want it to be funny, so what would be funny, let’s do this scene as if you’re punishing her,” Christopher Plummer will punish her. He will get that exactly right. So if you haven’t totally thought about your direction, you’re not going to get what you want, because he can play anything and the slightest adjustment is a huge difference in his performance. So maybe you thought about punishing her but he’s really punishing her and it’s really intense and it’s not funny at all. So maybe I’ll say, “Let’s try and make her feel guilty.” Then he makes her feel guilty and that’s not funny enough, maybe it’s hitting too close to home. Every direction has to be completely thought out with actors like Chris and Vera.


DT: The scene with Christopher Plummer and Peter Fonda was hysterical. Was it improvised at all?

SF: When we first shot that scene it was about ten minutes. They were goofing off, they were ad libbing, they were laughing, having fun. I thought, This movie is only an hour and a half, I cannot be in this room for ten minutes, as amazing as it was to watch these two icons in this scene together. So we kept making adjustments to pick up the pace and take out some of the improvisation, leave some of it in. I would have been happy with a ten-minute scene, because just watching them work was all kind of magic to me.

DT: Sure.

SF: They had a real chemistry, they had a real bond. They were friends before we made this picture, so they had this natural ease. When Peter Fonda answered the door and embraced Christopher Plummer, I thought, My God, Peter Fonda’s either an amazing actor or they really genuinely like each other. It was a little bit of both.


DT: Talk a little more about working with the actors, because the acting was huge.

SF: That’s what excites me as a director, because I’m a writer. I write roles that I think actors are going to want to play and that can attract the best actors. When I get on set, sometimes it’s difficult for me to even see anything besides the actors, because that is why I do what I do. I love working with actors, so when I have Chris [Plummer] and Vera [Farmiga] and Lewis [MacDougall] and Peter [Fonda] I could spend hours directing them and not thinking about anything else—where the camera is, what they’re wearing.

I think that one of my biggest challenges as a director is to force myself to see the big picture and get out of my utopia of my actors’ world. But with this film it was fun again; it was really fun to see how much the scene could change with different direction and with different blocking. I could have spent days shooting one scene with them, because every time we did it with the slightest adjustment it would mean something completely different. I was constantly being surprised by their choices, so creating a space for actors to play like that, especially when every one of them… It was like going to camp—guess who’s coming on Thursday, Bobby Carnavale! And Monday we’re going to meet Christopher Lloyd! It was such a gift for a director who loves working with actors, because literally every three days I got someone new that totally changed the energy of the set.


DT: I wonder if the vitality of the acting would have changed had you been more concerned about camera angles and setup.

SF: It’s my least favorite part of the job anyways, so that’s why I always work with a DP I know I can trust and rely on. I say to my DPs upfront, “I’m going to get lost in the performances sometimes. That’s where I’m going to be, so I really need you to be my eyes.” We have a lot of discussions and prep about photography and ways we want to shoot, because once I get on set, they have to tear me away from the actors.


DT: That’s not a bad thing. As a writer/director, how does the director in you respond when the writing gets off course, when people start improvising and taking it in a direction you don’t want it to go?

SF: Sometimes it’s amazing. When Kristen Schaal starts to improv, I’m thinking, Keep going, because you make me sound like a comedy writer. She would take my material and make it a hundred times funnier. What was interesting was watching her and Christopher Plummer work together because Christopher Plummer is trained in the theater, so he sticks to the page, he sticks to the dialogue. He has every single line memorized, and he doesn’t do a lot of improvisation. Kristen Schaal is all improvisation, so having those two characters come together was very much like the real characters in real life, it was kind of hit and miss, but when they came together… There was a scene where they’re looking at that painting and Kristen Schall says—this was an improv line—“Guess how much I paid for this painting. You’ll never guess.” That wasn’t a line, that was improv, so Christopher Plummer wasn’t going to respond. She didn’t have the right line, so he just sat there. They all just sat there, and no one answered, which made her improv another line, which was “That’s right. It was free.” It was this perfect moment where these two different styles came up against each other and created something funny.


DT:  It’s hard to believe this was a fairly low-budget film. How did you make it look so good?

SF:   We shot in Vancouver. Everywhere you go there’s a film production shooting, so you’re thinking, Where am I going to find a location that’s not been overshot and seen in a million Canadian Hallmark movies? That’s where our production designer came in. He scoured Vancouver for locations we’d never seen before, like Stanley’s house, which was architecturally really interesting, with cool lines. Just finding these amazing locations made the budget seem much bigger.

And shooting anamorphically. We shot with older lenses from the ’60s that gave it more of an appearance of film, because I wanted to shoot on film but obviously we couldn’t afford to do that. And then fighting for things that gave us a lot of production value: a lot of animals constantly, a lot of driving scenes, a lot of broken-down Rolls Royces, and a huge ensemble cast. It was a labor of love for a lot of people.


DT: Can you talk about the dangers of working with autobiographical material?

SF: There are some days I wish I’d gone a little deeper in this film, and I think that’s always a challenge. How deep can I go? How honest can I go? And am I really being honest? I wrote the first draft of the script and really thought it was OK. I wanted to make a movie about some anger I’m feeling toward my father, and I wrote the first draft of the script, and there was no anger. None of it. I was in such denial of my own anger that I couldn’t even put it on the page when I was trying to put it on the page. I think the danger is taking something that’s totally authentic and true to you and it ends up not being authentic because you’re scared of where the material might go. You’re scared of who’s going to watch it. I was scared of what my father would think when he watched the film, what my brothers would think, what my sister thought of the movie, how I would possibly be perceived. All of that fear is really hard. It gets in the way of writing honestly.

DT: That’s interesting, because that’s not how the film comes across.

SF: I hope not, but I can’t even watch it. I’ve never watched a film I’ve made. I always watch mistakes. It’s like watching yourself naked on the screen. I’ve had three children, so I can’t watch that, I can never watch that again. I just see all the things I should have done differently whenever I watch a movie afterwards.


DT: How cathartic can art ultimately be?

SF: I think that’s why I’m a screenwriter, because anyone with a childhood trauma can rewrite their own happy endings. My first film was about grief [The Greatest]. My father lost a child before I was born. It would have been my brother Mark. He talked about it one time on one road trip with me. He told me, “You would have had a brother.” He told me how he died; I’m 42, and he never mentioned it again, never spoke about it. So my first film was about the death of a son, it was all about grief. Every single member of the family was talking about it. They had open discussions about it. It was a way for me to explore what it was like to grow up with a grieving parent. So for me writing is incredibly cathartic because I get to work out so many of the things I’m going through at the moment. With Boundaries it was working with what it was like to be a misfit growing up and what it was like to feel like you didn’t belong, and how hard it is to come to terms with your own anger as a woman, because I have such a resistance to anger in my own life. It’s really hard for me to get in touch with, and this film was a real exercise—a cathartic exercise— in how to embrace my own anger, just like I embrace all my other emotions.


DT: Ultimately your character was successful, the same way you’re successful. So is the anger getting lost, is the anger being sublimated? Where is the anger? That’s what struck me about the film: there was so little anger in a situation that should have been enraging.

SF: Sometimes I think maybe there should have been more. Maybe i should have… Maybe it wasn’t enough…  I wanted to make a movie where we could laugh about childhood trauma. Sometimes I feel like I should have erred more on the anger side, but ultimately the truth is, my dad did change, and as much as I never thought he would, ultimately he did change. He moved in with my family when he was sick, and he spent the last three years of his life with us, and I saw him parent my son in the way he probably should have parented me. He said to me—and I’ll never forget it—he said, “Bean, you didn’t get the father you deserved.”  Once he said that, that’s an anger melter. I just said OK. I think it’s the gaslighting, the thinking, not knowing if you deserve love or if you didn’t deserve love, or why they were gone, but when he actually took onus and said, “No it was me, you didn’t get the father you deserved,” it allowed me to completely forgive him.


DT: What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

SF: The real reason I wrote it is that I was in the Lacy Street animal shelter, where I rescue animals, and I had just found a home for a pit bull, which are incredibly hard to place. I was coming back into the shelter, and I saw people turning in their family dogs, I saw abused animals, and I felt so overwhelmed. What I’m doing—and I think I’m doing a tremendous amount, because it’s taking up almost 75 percent of my life, rescuing animals two or three times a month—I’m doing this huge thing in my own life, it’s making a huge impact on me, and then I go to the shelters and I feel like it’s totally fruitless. It’s this ongoing problem. I thought, Is there a way I could incorporate this into my film and shine a bigger light on animal rescue? I really wanted this film at its heart to be about animals that really are incapable of hurting you, and to shine a light on something that’s so important in my own life, which is rescue. So what do I want people to take away from it? I would love people to be inspired to adopt a pet after watching this film. Nothing would make me happier. The highlight of my day is when I rescue a dog for someone and two years later they send me a picture of the dog having a good time. So nothing would make me happier than if I got a call and someone said, “I saw Boundaries and I went to the shelter and got this amazing ten-year-old cat.”


Copyright © Director Talk 2018


Summer 1993/Carla Simon

When Frida’s mom dies, the six-year-old has to leave her home in Barcelona to live with family in the Catalan countryside. This vivid tale of childhood grief, confusion, and, ultimately, joy is based on filmmaker Carla Simon’s own childhood memories.  The film is in the Catalan language and was released in Spain during the year that Catalonia declared its independence from Spain and Catalan president  Carles Puigdemont was forced to flee the country to avoid arrest. Such is the beauty of Summer 1993, however, that Spain chose it as its official entry to the Academy Awards.  Click here for trailer. Availability: New York City, May 25, at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, with national rollout to follow. Click here for screening schedule. Thanks to Susan Norget and Marija Silk, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

DT: You do a remarkable job of simultaneously capturing Frida’s character from the inside and the outside, showing the narrator’s point of view and the character’s point of view at the same time. Can you talk about that aspect of the film, especially in terms of the camera work?

Laia Arigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

Laia Arigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

CS: That was a discussion we had during the whole process, even from the script. At the beginning I had some scenes that Frida was not in, then we realized that if we wanted to see from her point of view, she had to be in all the scenes. I talked a lot about this with my DOP all through the shoot. Basically I told him that I think the film is about the girl and I really want to portray her point of view—that’s what I know best—but at the same time, what I discovered while writing the script was that the characters who surround her are very interesting and have feelings that I also wanted to portray. So each time we shot we would focus on the girl but also feel that if we wanted to go to another character, we would just go and show something about them. In the editing it was the same. We always had in mind that this is a story about Frida. All the closeups we took of her are in the film, but sometimes we had to give space to show how the other characters feel.

DT: There’s one shot in particular where you start on Frida and pan over to the statue she’s looking at. It was sort of an old-fashioned way of tracking her point of view.

CS: In terms of camera we decided to not be too intrusive and not think about very complicated choreographies with the girls. We wanted the camera adapted to them instead of them adapting to the camera, so to do that was to just almost put the camera in a corner and work from there. We realized that pans were very important, so in order to show that it was Frida’s point of view we eneded up doing a lot of this, just going from her to what she’s watching. We also had this idea of shooting with a long shot in the sense of being in the moment with this family, to just be with Frida but then show what she’s watching.


DT: Can you talk about working with child actors, specifically these two? Both of them were terrific.

Paula Robles as Anna and Laia Artigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

Paula Robles as Anna and Laia Artigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

CS: I love working with kids because it’s a game for them, so you enter this world and approach the filmmaking as a game. The first thing was to find the right girls. We looked for girls who would be like the characters in terms of personality, so we asked them a lot of personal questions to see how they were in life. This was interesting, because you can ask an adult to create the character, but for a kid that’s difficult. In the end, Laia [Artigas] has a lot of Frida, and Paula [Robles] has a lot of Anna. The combination between them was also important. We tried different pairs. The relationship that Paula and Laia created in a natural way was very similar to the one we’d scripted, so we were very happy with this. It was very useful.

Then we spent a lot of time together. Over two months we met often with the girls and the adults, and we improvised moments that happened before the summer of 1993 to create a shared memory between the girls and the characters so they’d lived something together. Sometimes I acted the mom. For example, the scene where Frida is imitating the mom;  I had done that before, smoking and saying, “I cannot play with you because I am too tired.” When we got to shooting the scene, I said to Laia, “Remember when I said, ‘I’m too tired’? Now you have to imitate me.” We did all that up until the moment that Frida finds out that her mom died and she’s going to live with her uncle.

Frida imitating her mom.

Frida imitating her mom.

We also spent a couple of weeks on location rehearsing specific scenes. We didn’t really talk about the script because the important thing was to create an intimacy between the actors and also to go through all the scenes for them to know what we’re going to do and for me to know how to get what I needed from them. The shoot was fast—six weeks, maximum eight hours per day. What I did was talk a lot with the girls during the takes; I would guide them, telling them what to do, then we took out my voice in postproduction. If I wanted them to say something very specific, I would just say it and they would repeat it, while there were some scenes where they have a bit more freedom and could just play it their way.


DT: There’s a lot of political stuff going on in your neighborhood. [N.B.: This interview was conducted in May 2018, seven months after the Catalan parliament declared independence from Spain on October 27, 2017. Spain’s senate imposed direct rule over the previously autonomous region, and Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s leader, fled Spain on charges of rebellion. Five months later, he was arrested in Germany. As of May 2018, Germany is seeking to extradite Puigdemont on lesser charges.] Did that affect distribution of your film?

CS: I think so. It’s been a crazy year because of all that was happening. We had the film in theaters, and it lasted forever—we released in June and it stayed in theaters until February, although not a lot of theaters. At some point we released the film just with subtitles, but when it was chosen to represent Spain for the Oscars, we dubbed it, so there were more theaters that played it. It’s not a political film; it’s very local, so people didn’t read it as a political film at all. It was beautiful that it was chosen specifically this year to represent Spain.

DT: It’s mind-blowing.

CS: It was like, Art is something else, it’s above all these problems, and the language to tell the story doesn’t matter if the story touches people. I was asked all the time, What’s your position? [on Catalan independence], and I thought, I don’t have to tell my position. I’m a filmmaker, and these are two different things. It’s been a crazy year. It’s still a crazy year.


DT: In the film there’s an underlying sense of danger and threat, but it’s balanced with the beauty of the surroundings and the beauty of the family. How did you go about building that balance? What did you focus on?

CS: Frida goes from living in the city to living in the middle of nature. This is beautiful and poetic and amazing, but it’s also a threat. She feels it like that. Sometimes it’s disgusting even, and she needs to get used to that, but it’s not so easy. This is something I remember very much—suddenly seeing all these animals and feeling a bit scared, so I wanted this to be present somehow. Frida has lots of fears; she can’t understand the situation she’s in, she doesn’t know how to manage her emotions, how to express her real feelings. And in the end, children are always surrounded by danger. Anything can happen to a child, but it usually doesn’t happen. I wanted to have this feeling that these girls are free to be the way they want but they are endangered somehow. To me this danger was interesting to have and to feel. Also, it holds the audience and keeps them engaged in the film.


DT: You studied film in California, London, and Barcelona. Did you find the approaches to cinema different in each city, or was it basically the same thing wherever you went?

CS:  It was different. When I decided I wanted to make films, I couldn’t afford film school, so I went to Barcelona to study for a degree in audiovisual communication. This was a very general degree: we did radio, TV, journalism, and a bit of cinema. I watched a lot of films, I learned a lot about films, but I didn’t really do anything. For me it was really life-changing when I spent the year in California. Suddenly I  realized it was possible, because you [Americans] have this energy that if you want to make films, you have to make films. That’s what I took from my experience in the United States. I came back and said, If I want to make films, I make films. That was very cool.

I felt I really needed to make more films and keep studying, so  I asked for a scholarship to go to London and study at the London Film School. For me it was a beautiful experience, because first of all it’s very multicultural. You have people from all over the world, and it really makes you ask, Who are you? What makes you special? What are your stories? I learned to give value to my family, to my place, I had a teacher who always said, You should start talking about what you know, and that’s why it was so important to me to make this film.

In London they are very critical. We used to have our shorts screened while we sat in front of everyone and a panel of experts gave us feedback. We couldn’t say anything, which was a bit difficult to take, but I really, really learned a lot.  I finished in 2014, which is when I started writing the script for Summer 1993.


DT: You’ve worked on TV shows, short films, and documentaries. How did those formats prepare you for this film?

Bruna Cusi as Marga and David Verdaguer as Esteve in Summer 1993, Carla Simon's autobiographical memoir.

Bruna Cusi as Marga and David Verdaguer as Esteve in Summer 1993, Carla Simon’s autobiographical memoir.

CS: In California we made a couple of short films that were very experimental, so when I  went to the TV show it was very interesting, because I focused more on the narrative, how to tell a story for the audience. I did a documentary at the London Film School about young people born with HIV. They didn’t want to show themselves, so we recorded voice interviews, then had actors miming their voices. It was strange, but it was a way to put bodies to the interviews. I learned that documentary is really, really creative and free. The approach to people was very useful for me, because in the end it’s the way I’m working now with film. I need to talk a lot to real people because I like this attachment to reality and to portray something that exists. This approach to people was very useful in terms of talking to my family for Summer 1993  and also for the project I’m writing now. I think it gave me tools in that sense.


DT: You created a group called Young for Film.

CS: That was in London. It was a very nice experience. I’ve been working with kids since I was a teenager. I missed that when I was in London, so a group of us from the London Film School created Young for Film to teach film to kids. The group dissolved when I came back to Spain, but now I’m teaching film to young people through a project called Cinema en Curs. It takes filmmakers  together with teachers from public primary and high schools, and we make short films and teach films, so I’m still doing that in another form.


DT: Is there anything you want to add—anything you want to say to your audience that you can’t say through the film?

CS: It sounds like a very dramatic plot, but the film is not dramatic. It’s life, I would say. For me it’s important that people come out with a feeling of valuing their own family relationships. You see a story where there is a group of people that have to construct a family, but we all have a family, we have a dad and mom, sisters, whatever, and we take it for granted. This is a story that shows you shouldn’t take it for granted and you have to give value to that.


Copyright © Director Talk 2018

In the Last Days of the City/Tamer El Said

As the Arab world is poised on the brink of revolution, four friends from four cities—Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, and Berlin—meet to help Khalid make a film about his beloved hometown. Through images that capture the essence of Cairo with exquisite sensitivity, Tamer El Said portrays a generation consumed by passion, self-doubt, despair, and a deep recognition of what they stand to both gain and lose. Click here for the trailer. Availability: New York City, April 27, at the Museum of Modern Art, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Sylvia Savadjian for arranging this interview.


LastDaysofCity4_friends in car-640x480DT:  The way you captured the city of Cairo was fantastic, but beyond that, the images were incredibly beautiful in their own right. In the film, your characters talk about the act of shooting Cairo. What was your guiding principle in deciding what images to capture?


TES: I always find that when there is something in reality that is superstrong and intense and full of emotions and we try to capture it and put it on a big screen, we lose something. I wondered a lot about the process of capturing the image, because when we try to interfere too much, it changes the soul or the spirit of what we are trying to capture. Cairo is a very big city. It’s full of contradictions. It has its own rhythm—if you try to impose something on it, the city will reject it and won’t allow you to.

When I started to film Cairo, I was trying to take the lead, but soon enough I realized that this was not possible. I can’t make a city follow me, so the approach I took was to surrender to the city and allow it to take the upper hand and carry on. I was just there to see what the city gave me and try to build on it. It’s a very fine line, a very minor difference between following the city or making the city follow you, but it’s also a lesson about how you deal with your ego. Would you like to impose yourself on the city, or do you want the city to give you part of itself? If you want the city to give you its soul, you need to be patient and accept the rhythm that the city creates.

Basically the idea was to use the city as a backdrop without interfering at all, allowing the actors to be part of this scene and creating a room for improvisation and interaction that happens between the city and the actors, and to allow ourselves to have this freedom to dance with the city. I didn’t have an image in my head that I wanted to create. It’s about what the city proposed, and I built on it.


LastDaysofCity6_Khaled and old woman-640x480

DT: The demolition sequence in Alexandria was particularly moving. What did you want to achieve there?

TES: We live in this region where the meaning of loss is very special or very different in a way. When I was young, there was a very old bridge in Cairo that all of a sudden they decided to completely demolish. One day I was walking by this bridge and an old woman who was there asked me, “Do they really want to demolish this bridge?” When I said yes, she said, “But then what would I show to my grandsons when they grow up? On this bridge I met my husband, their grandfather.”

It’s not about the steel; they don’t allow her to keep this memory. It’s like hijacking the memory of this woman, and in a way it’s hijacking the collective memory of ourselves. And then the city itself is losing what gives it a certain character. For me this goes with everything. The film is about someone who is trying to be connected to his hometown, to his city. He starts to capture something, and the more he goes through his past, the more he realizes how he is a stranger in his hometown.

At one point he feels like even physically the city is demolishing. This is part of the overall feeling that we had back in those years, in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, when we were thinking something big was coming but didn’t know what it was exactly. You have very mixed feelings toward it because you feel we cannot carry on like this but you also don’t know what’s coming, and because you don’t know what’s coming, you’re also very scared of this thing happening. Because from one side it might become a new beginning, but from the other side it might take with it everything you love, and maybe it will bring something even worse. This is exactly what the film is about: what does it mean to feel that the world around you is changing and you don’t have a chance, you have nothing to do with it, and you only have a camera? How do you interact with this?


DT: You talk about the uncertainty of the future and its effect on the present, but you also feel the vast weight of history and its effect on the present. You essentially have the present being pulled from both sides.

TES: For sure. For me what makes Khaled a cinematic character is the fact that he has a very heavy past that he cannot carry on his shoulders anymore. He lives in a very suffocating present and cannot see a future. Every time he tries to find an exit for himself, it’s blocked, wherever he goes. This is also something related to my generation growing up in this part of the world. It took me a long time to understand that life is not like this. Why do we always have to pay this very high price of losing people we love, of always feeling threatened in our hometowns and feeling so connected and disconnected at the same time. This is something that comes from a very long history, which, on the individual level and on the collective level, is making our present very suffocating.


DT: In that sense is Khaled a metaphor for what’s happening in the Arab world today?

TES: Of course there’s a level of self-reflection, and when I’m saying self-reflection, the theme also includes all these questions about my role toward everything that is happening around me. What is my role as a filmmaker, and what is my role as a citizen? Also what is my role as someone who is part of the people who are making art in the bigger scene?

Khaled’s arc in the film is about him understanding that he himself is part of his problems. It’s also questioning his positions in many situations, his passive reactions toward many things around him. His incapacity to interfere with everything happening around him, like when he filmed the man beating the woman on the rooftop. It’s not only about domestic violence; there’s also a class issue here. He is able to film them because he’s living in his house and they live on the roof and he can see them from this high angle. There’s another question: Is he allowed to film them? And was it more important to film them or to interfere and stop this domestic violence from happening?

This happens in different places in the film, like when he sees the demonstrators but doesn’t attend the demonstration. All these things are also questioning our responsibility toward what’s happening around us. This is definitely a part of how I was thinking of the film.


DT: I loved the part about Abdel Halim Hafez, the famous Egyptian singer. What was that all about?

TES: It happened to me when I was a kid. My father was working on this radio program and one day he took me with him to the station. That day we met Abdel Halim Hafez in the elevator. It marked my life, of course, because he was a very famous star.

LastDaysofCity2_flower and lens in window-640x480At the time, there were no video cameras yet, so people either used super 8 cameras or made tape recordings to preserve their memories. While making the film, I found a tape from my childhood my father and I made the day we met Abdel Hafim Hafez, where my father was asking me, “What did we do today and who did we meet and where did we go?” I decided to use this tape, but redoing it with my actors, just to have his name in the film.


DT: The film took ten years to make. Why so long?

TES: There are many reasons. First of all, you have to confront the difficulty of making such a film in this region. There’s no infrastructure, and there’s no production model that allows such a film to be done. In a way the film had to build its own infrastructure and create a new production model that would allow us to do the film the way we wanted. When you ask, “Why so long?” I would say that over these ten years I was a filmmaker for only a few days. Most of this ten years was consumed, and taken, and spent with building up [a context that would] allow these few days to happen. Without building this infrastructure, without setting up the conditions that allowed us to make the film the way we wanted, it would have been impossible to make the film. This was a huge, huge, huge  battle that was bigger than the film. We did the film without having a reference to follow, creating a production model of the film while we were making the film itself, in every aspect of the production.

Second, the film was never clear on paper, and I’m sure you can understand why. Every time I tried to pitch the film to people, people were afraid of giving me money. I’m a first-time filmmaker and I produced the film myself, which is the most dangerous equation. Everybody was very skeptical about it. At one place, they said, “The only way we would finance this film is if this was your fourth film. How can we guarantee that you can deliver such a film that is not even clear on paper?” I didn’t have any proof that I could deliver, so raising the money to make this film was very difficult. We had to raise the money while we were making the film itself, so we had to film, stop, look for money, find some, film again, stop, look for money and find some. The same went for postproduction. So this mix between being a filmmaker and producer at the same time in a pretty independent film…

On another level, we didn’t want to make any compromises on our standards. We needed to make good sound, good image, good postproduction that allowed this image and sound to meld; on this level compromise was not really possible. In this film, which is about a big city like Cairo, the film has to stand as big as the city. That was another challenge that took a lot of time. I also wanted to work with people who could add something to the film, and that too was very difficult to find. My crew came from more than ten countries, without having any budget for them. When you look at the credits it seems like we had a big, big production, but actually the budget of the film was very, very, very small compared to similar films. So if you don’t have the money, then time is the price, because you have to do everything yourself or with very few people.

And then there was another thing. In the middle of this ten years there was a big revolution in my country, which changed the whole equation again. For example, I couldn’t work at all. I wanted to be part of this moment, not as a filmmaker but as a citizen. I thought, This doesn’t happen  every day that my home country is changing. I was so lucky to witness this in my life, and I wanted to be part of it. I’m a first-time filmmaker, I’m a first-time producer, and I made all the mistakes that you can imagine for a first-time filmmaker/producer, but that was also the only choice I had, because no one agreed to produce the film because no one believed I could deliver it.


DT: In the 1940s and 50s, Egyptian movies were the height of Arab cinema. What happened? Or to put it in other words, what is the state of Egyptian cinema today?

TES: To answer this question needs a thesis, but I will try to explain. What happened is basically that Egyptian cinema is a big industry, and because it’s a big industry it doesn’t accept any voice out of the mainstream, so this marginalized independent cinema doesn’t exist anymore. There is no infrastructure for it. Over the years, the state preferred to control everything, so there is no room for independent filmmaking to exist. The laws, the structure of the industry, and these big companies create a monopoly controlling the whole scene. Someone like me and a few others who are trying to make a cinema outside of this mainstream are not welcome. On any level.

At the same time, thanks to the new technology, this medium of filmmaking has become more democratized and allows many people to make their dreams come true and make new films. This is what happened with me and many others—we benefit from the new technology, which makes equipment cheap. This is not an easy option, because a lot of control comes from state censorship, which doesn’t allow us to feel things the way we do. This is a broader picture of how the situation is today. On the other side, I’m very optimistic about the future of Egyptian cinema because I can see a new generation of many filmmakers who have a very different approach to the reality of today. These filmmakers are increasing every day, and they find a way to support each other and make new films. They are making their films outside of the mainstream, and they don’t want to wait. They want to capture this reality in a different way and present it to the world, so I’m actually very optimistic.


Copyright © Director Talk 2018

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.


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

GS: People wonder who they are…

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

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




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

GS: They loved the screenplay.

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


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

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

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

DT: Why was a Gypsy playing Kol Nidre?

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

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

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

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



Copyright © Director Talk 2017


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