Songs My Brothers Taught Me/Chloe Zhao

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


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

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


DT:  How did the film come about?

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

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


DT:  How was shooting without a script?

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

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

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


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

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

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


DT:  How was the film received on the reservation?

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


DT:  Tell me about your use of music.

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


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

CZ:  Culture or community?

DT:  Both.

CZ:  Culture in the sense of a traditional ceremony?

DT: Yes.

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

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


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

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


DT:  Is there anything you want to add?

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


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Sworn Virgin/Laura Bispuri

High in the mountains of Albania, tribal law, or kanun, prescribes rigid, almost brutal, gender roles. Considered little more than a beast, a woman is worth half a man. She exists solely to bear children and care for the home, in constant and abused obedience to the males of her clan.  But the kanun also provides a way for women to enjoy the rights, freedoms, and obligations of a man, on one condition:  They become sworn virgins, living as men in return for remaining a virgin forever. 

Italian director Laura Bispuri has crafted a poignant vision of a modern-day sworn virgin who begins to question her vow of virginity. When she moves to Italy, where she’s exposed to alternative ways of living a woman’s life, Mark/Hana (brilliantly portrayed by Alba Rohrwacher) discovers the fine lines between self and tradition, roles and reality.  Winner of the Nora Ephron Prize, Tribeca Film Festival 2015. •Availability:  To be distributed theatrically by Strand Releasing. Thanks to Virginia Cademartori, Sally Fischer PR, for arranging this interview.  Thanks to Michael Moore for translating.


DT:  Can you talk about your personal reaction to the practice of the sworn virgin? It was once considered a practical solution for a family whose men had been killed in blood feuds. In other words, the practice of the sworn virgin grew out of a real historical necessity.


LB:  I’m not very fond of generalizations, so to prepare for this film I started to study this phenomenon through books and photography, but also through direct encounters with sworn virgins. I made an effort to meet as many as I could. Each one has his own story, his own personality, and his own different reason for becoming a sworn virgin. At the same time, they all share certain elements in common—in particular the fact that they made the choice to become a sworn virgin at a very young age, in general between the age of 12 and 13, when they were not really fully aware of the choice that they were making, and this within a society that places a premium on the concept of honor.

In terms of my personal response, I’d have to say I have very mixed feelings. I was very fascinated by them, I found them very mysterious, and I was very struck by how loyal they were to this choice they had made. I think that anyone who makes such an extreme choice in life merits interest and deserves our attention, but what I wanted to do was tell the story of one sworn virgin who put into question this whole tradition. And my relationship to the sworn virgins, if I can summarize it, was one of curiosity, great respect, and fascination.


DT:  You used the sworn virgin—a very culture-specific practice that’s now dying out—to talk about universal conditions. Why use something so specific to talk about something so general?


LB:  Rather than seeing these elements as contradictory, I see them as two immense forces, and this is what struck me the most when I read the book [Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones]. I was drawn to the fact that I could take as a starting point this very small, specific reality in order to engage in larger reflections of life. When a director chooses a story to tell, it’s an immense responsibility, and I felt this story contained two immense forces. First, it’s about a world that is relatively unknown. Not many people know about this world. It’s a great thing when you can use film to expose people to a world they don’t know. Second, it allowed me to engage in these more universal considerations. As I’ve traveled with this film to different parts of the world, most recently in Hong Kong, it’s been wonderful to see the way the audience has received this, almost as a kind of testimony to its universality. In the East they loved the film, and they gave it a prize. In Berlin, it did very well, and now it’s here, which attests to my having achieved something I set out to do. One of our main objectives in making a film is to achieve that kind of universality. I think it’s a great thing.


DT:  You shot everything in long takes, then marked the difference between past and present by making internal cuts in the Albanian material. Why work that way, and what are the advantages and difficulties posed by this process?


LB: The choice of shooting the entire film in long takes came to me instinctively. That filmic language felt closer to me. It made the scenes as real as possible. When I work, I want my work with the actors to be as real as possible, I want my mise-en-scene to be as real as possible, and I want the camera to stay in one position. I felt this was a choice that was close to me personally but also to the reflection that I wanted to give my research into this reality.

But what began as an instinctive choice became something more when we got into the editing process, where we had this back-and-forth between the present and the past. With that kind of structure there was a risk of doing something that was too fragmented. By having just long takes I was able to avoid the pitfall of having a film that was too fragmentary and instead had something in which everything is fluid. Water is such an essential element in this film, and it’s a very fluid journey that Mark/Hana is taking. The body itself is very fluid; it’s seeking this kind of harmony in the midst of this back-and-forth movement, and I think therefore that by using these long takes I found the right language in terms of something that’s both close to me and close to this reflection that I was engaged in. And then, as you mentioned, in the editing room I felt the need to better differentiate the present and the past, and I did this by doing these small cuts on the long shots in Albania.

One of the ideas behind these long takes is that I didn’t want the audience to feel the camera was doing a lot of beautiful framing shots. If I compare it to a film like Birdman, where you have these long takes, there you sort of get this desire to see the way the shot is being constructed. I work in a very opposite direction. I didn’t want you to feel that desire to deconstruct the way the shot was set up. I wanted a very fluid take on reality, so I already came to shooting with a very clear idea that I didn’t want you to be overly conscious of the movements of the camera or of the mise-en-scene. I wanted to have those long takes but also to dirty them up a little bit in order to be more natural.


DT:  In that way of shooting, camera placement is very important. What principles did you use to guide camera placement?


LB:  It’s part of the whole idea of the long take. I wanted to stay right on top of the character of Mark/Hana, to stay as close to him as possible. This was an instinctive perception at some level. I think there is only one proper placement of the camera. In doing a long take and choosing a single position for the camera, there’s a risk that you might lose a certain detail. Then you have to make a decision; if it’s a detail you really care about, you have to figure out some way of bringing it back in, or you have to decide it might just be something that you have to give up. These are things that happen with a certain rigor, through certain very firm decisions but also through a kind of instinctive process.


DT:  Can you talk about your use of music?


LB:  I don’t like music being used as a form of commentary. I wanted the film to be realistic, I wanted it to be natural, and to be dirty. I wanted it to be rough and always behind the character. I think there are moments in the film, though, where we needed a greater breath. Those moments, which are the soul of the film in a sense, are often tied to the use of music. I wanted to give a specific value to the music. As I said, I didn’t want it to be used as some kind of commentary, but I did use it in moments to lift up and open up the film. There’s a close relationship between these bigger emotional openings of the film and its kind of emotional dryness, and this use of music that is achieved in a very rigorous, specific way.


DT:  Mark/Hana encounters synchronized swimming in Italy.  You use it as a brilliant counterpoint to the sworn virgin’s emotional state. When did you decide to use synchronized swimming?


LB:  The synchronized swimming is something that is only in the screenplay; it’s not in the book. I talked about it with my screenwriter, because it epitomized a certain concept of beauty. In reflecting on women’s need to be perfect, I discovered the perfect representation in synchronized swimming, where these young girls are all the same, they have to have their makeup on, they have to smile when they come out of the water. It shows this constraint women have today of having to be beautiful and having to be perfect. At the same time, it shows the hard work women have to do in following their path, because in synchronized swimming, they’re doing all this work but you don’t see it because it’s underneath the water. I thought that encapsulated perfectly the themes of the film. There’s Mark/Hana, a character who’s having questions about his body, in a place where he is forced to see undressed bodies before him every day, so I thought that visually and thematically the synchronized swimming was a very strong element.


Copyright © Director Talk 2015