Aga/Milko Lazarov

Bulgarian director Milko Lazarov journeys to Siberia to shape a mythic tale of physical and emotion survival in a frozen landscape. The depth of pain and passion that pass between Nanook and Sedna, two elderly indigenous Arctic dwellers, alternately contrasts with and is reflected by the haunting whiteness beyond their yurt. Click here for trailer.  •Availability: Opens September 4, New York City, Film Forum. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.

DT: You’ve said that your typography as a filmmaker is aesthetics and intuition. What did you mean by that?

ML: Every choice of an actor in the film, every element of the set design, every point of view of the camera—they are all subjected to the aesthetic understanding of the author. In the creation of a work in art in all its dimensions, there is no other starting point than that. Only the author and his intuition can translate a story or an impression into the language of art.

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures


DT: You can see some of the same aesthetics at work in your film Alienation.

ML: Naturally, the two films have their own similarities and differences. Aga turned out to be more communicative. Aesthetically, the two films could not have many differences. What I love is carefully selected scenes and states.

DT: You’ve also said that the story of Aga could have taken place anywhere on earth.  Would you say that in that sense the film is an allegory or myth rather than a story about two people in the frozen north?

ML: Aga is a metaphor. A parable of the last family on Earth. A film about forgiveness and repentance. Indeed, the story could unfold anywhere in the world. Focusing on the Arctic wasteland makes it metaphorical. Aga delicately tries to bring up topics like the disappearance of small communities, the negative sides of the expansion of modernity. Climate changes. Aboriginal exploitation. All of this is looked at through the key of the parable.

DT:  If it’s an allegory, does that influence the way you go about making the film?

ML: Outside of fast-food-movies, cinema has always been allegorical to some extent. As a filmmaker, naturally this is my path as well. The intuitive retelling of exciting stories provokes a longing in me for concealed intimacy with the viewer; for an intense look at something simple, yet important.

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook) and Feodosia Ivanova (Sedna), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook) and Feodosia Ivanova (Sedna), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures


DT: One of the beauties of the film is the interplay between its site-specific details and universal—even existential—arc. Did you consciously go after that interplay, or did it happen more subconsciously?

ML: I am not sure if I can answer this question correctly. There were moments in the making of the film when I tried to stabilize the story and not cross the line of the understandable. There were also moments when I was driven entirely by a metaphorical retelling. Driven by my own intuition. The answer to your question probably lies in the balance between the two.


DT: I also loved the parallel between the dissolution of the family in an environment that is itself threatened by climate change.

ML: I understand. With such minimalistic surroundings, the right direction is to stay close to the big task at hand. Everything in Aga is subjected to disappearance, dissolution, decay. If you want the film arranged in order, you have to follow the big task at hand.

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures


DT: You depicted with great sensitivity the agony of the human world against the uncalculated unfolding of the natural world. That seems to be one of your themes.

ML: Undoubtedly. This is one of the dramatic directions in Aga. The main dramatic construction is also placed in this context. This is a grand conflict, both existential and civilizational. Our salvation as human beings lies in understanding this conflict.


DT:  Talk about your choice of Mahler’s Fifth.

ML: Mahler’s Fifth is the closest thing I can imagine for a beautiful end of Life; to the fearsome delight of destruction and the never-ending fusion with the incomprehensible.

DT: Were you afraid of comparisons to Visconti’s use of the same piece in Death in Venice?

ML: Death in Venice is one of my favorite movies. Visconti is a great master. The ending of Aga, and the characters’ sensation in general, is very close to the sensation you get from listening to Mahler’s Fifth adagietto.


DT: You were a foreigner making a film about indigenous people in a location where many indigenous people make their own films about themselves. How did you manage that potentially awkward situation?

ML: We encountered no difficulties whatsoever. Although the film was shot in Siberia, Russia, and part of it was shot in a diamond mine in a war zone, we encountered no particular difficulties to speak of. Everyone understood clearly that we were telling a story about the Northern people; that we were creating a unifying image of the Northern people. There is no ethnographic credibility in the film, everything in it is artistic fiction. But it has to be said that the main reason for us not having any difficulties during the production is because of Aga’s producer, Veselka Kiryakova—she is a person totally committed to meaningful cinema.


Copyright © Director Talk 2019

The Silence of Others/Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar

While precise numbers vary, close to a million people are said to have been executed under the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Another half a million fled the country. Two years after Franco died in 1975 after 40 years in power,  the Spanish parliament enacted the Amnesty Law. The law did two things: it freed any remaining anti-Franco political prisoners but also prevented prosecution of any of Franco’s officials. All that changed in 2014. Invoking universal jurisdiction, a doctrine that allows judges to try human rights abuses committed in other countries, Argentinean judge Maria Servini de Cubria issued extradition warrants for 20 former officials in the Franco regime. In The Silence of Others, codirectors Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar follow Judge Servini’s efforts to prosecute former officials in the Franco regime. The directors also document the determination of the victims-turned-plaintiffs, who suffered not only the horrors inflicted by Franco but the terrible code of silence that the Amnesty Law imposed on them, their children, and their country. •Availability: The Silence of Others opens in New York City May 8, at Film Form. Click here for the trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.


DT: Talk about the Amnesty Law and how it enforced a code of silence on the people of Spain.

AC: Franco died in power in 1975 after a forty-year dictatorship. There was a transition by transaction, which means the regime negotiated itself out of power. One of the conditions was the Amnesty Law. Basically it was a demand from the left. There were tons of political protests on the street demanding the release of political prisoners. When the Amnesty Law came out in 1977, it had two articles. One freed the remaining prisoners. The second—in one sentence—exonerated all the people who had committed political crimes during the dictatorship. That means there was no possibility for  not just prosecution but even investigation.

In Argentina there was an amnesty law, people were judged and condemned, but the sentence could not be applied. In Spain people are not even  investigated because of the Amnesty Law. To this day. Fast-forward to 2008, and Judge Baltasar Garzon initially tried to investigate. He was disbarred for an unrelated cause, but everyone believed it to be political punishment. At that point the prosecution of victims in Spain completely stopped. The door closed. That’s when victims and survivors went to Argentina.

Going back to the Amnesty Law,  it was not just a law. It was also a societal pact. It was a pact among the political parties that everything had to be left behind. That meant we children were not going to learn about it in school. It was not to be talked about in the street. Our families were not going to talk about it among themselves. For many years it was considered politically impolite to even discuss what had happened. Victims couldn’t even say what had happened to them because they were considered to be rocking the boat. So that transition, which obviously had many positive things—I’m here, I could make a film as a Spaniard and nothing happened to me—also had its shadows. It was done at the expense of hundreds of thousands of victims, and the pact of forgetting has continued to the present.

Maria Martin, whose mother was murdered during Franco's regime. Maria's daughter is a plaintiff in the case brought by Judge Servini.

Maria Martin, whose mother was murdered during Franco’s regime. Maria places flowers by the roadside to commemorate the mass grave where her mother is buried. Maria’s daughter is a plaintiff in the case brought by Judge Servini. Photo courtesy of Argot Pictures.


DT: In the film, you show a woman who had been so brutally beaten during the dictatorship that she was unable to keep her hands from shaking while she was testifying in Argentina. Yet later in the film even she says that she wanted to forget and that she too enforced this code of silence.

RB: The overall idea of forgetting everything is that we’re going to exchange justice for peace, so the only way we can move forward is not to pursue justice—just put all of this behind us. Some people say this is a film about the Spanish Civil War and its legacy. No. It’s really not. It’s a film about the legacy of this decision to forget. It’s partly about the crimes of the dictatorship, but in a way it’s about the crime of forgetting for forty years in a democracy.

Maybe the idea was to exchange justice for peace, but forty years later, was peace created if you have 114,000 bodies still in mass graves? If you have tens of thousands of families still with suspicions that their children were stolen at birth trying to find them? If you have torturers still living five hundred meters from their victims? And some of those people say, “Wasn’t it necessary?” We’re not trying to judge what happened in 1977, because the military had a lot of power—there was a lot of fear, so we don’t know politically what was possible in 1977—but five years later, ten years later, fifteen years later, how could this not have been addressed?

AC: This is the question that hovers over the film: How is it possible? How is it possible in 2019 in a Western democracy that we have these numbers, because the numbers are just chilling.  We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of children who were stolen.

Franco supporters in modern-day Spain. Photo courtesy of Argot pictures.

Franco supporters in modern-day Spain. Photo courtesy of Argot Pictures.


DT: Franco supporters still seem to have a strong voice in Spain—the Make Spain Great Again rally you show in the film was really shocking—while many of the young people you interviewed had never even heard of the Amnesty Law. What consequences does that have for contemporary Spain?

AC: A huge part of the population has no idea what happened. The younger generation doesn’t study anything in school. They know vaguely who Franco was. They know there was a civil war, but they view the two sides with a false equivalency.

RB: Saying there were two sides, like what Trump said about Charlottesville [i.e., there were some “very fine people on both sides”].

AC: It’s very hard to act on the present if you don’t understand your past, but in relation to your question, something very powerful has happened in Spain with the film.  It’s had a tremendous impact. A million people have seen it on prime time national TV, and the young people react very emotionally.

RB: It’s a revelation to them.

AC: They’re saying, “This is a different country than I thought I was living in.” It’s a very painful epiphane. People are very indignant, but the mandate to them is, Act on it now that you know. It wasn’t your fault that you didn’t know before, but now you do.  The film is serving as a tool for a conversation that’s very much needed and urgent in Spain. We just launched a school campaign to show the film for free in schools and high schools.


DT: Did you have trouble making the film?

RB: There was no official obstacle, there was no danger in making a film like this; in all of those senses Spain is a very safe, modern, secure, and sophisticated democracy. The big challenge is really the silence:  you can make a film about this, but will anyone watch it? Will anyone broadcast it? Will anyone support it? We applied to the traditional funding sources in Spain and didn’t get support. Later in the process we were very lucky that Pedro Almodovar and his production company decided to come on board as executive producers and provide some real encouragement and strategic support for the film.

The great challenge was, Will anyone in Spain ever see this, or will it be relegated to the community of victims and the left? There are films about this, there are books about this, but they don’t get to the center necessarily, so we developed a strategy. Part of our strategy was to premiere outside Spain. We had to generate a pedigree and a prestige for the film so that when we arrived [in Spain] it would be impeccable and unstoppable.

The film premiered in February 2018 in Berlin at the Berlinale. It won the Panorama audience award, and it won the peace prize. That combination means it works as a movie and it works for the human rights community. There were of course film journalists from Spain who started to report on the film, so the word started coming back. We spent nine months outside Spain building up the momentum around the film, which opened theatrically in Spain in November 2018, four days before the anniversary of Franco’s death.

RB: Of course the core audience was there, but the press from the left all the way to the right wrote about the film. A quite conservative newspaper wrote a good review, and an article in another right-wing newspaper began with the title written as a question: “Should we forget the pact of forgetting?”

So the film served as a jumping-off point for this conversation that we wanted to catalyze. We planned to make a film that was profoundly human, where we could pose the question, If you look into Maria Martin’s eyes, could you say, “You need to forget?” If you pose things in the present, person to person, it’s very, very hard to turn a blind eye.

Twenty-five thousand people went to see it in theaters. There were op-eds written about the film, then it won the Goya, which is Spain’s Academy Award. Six of the protagonists were onstage, which led to applause in front of millions of people on television. We’re very grateful that two months after that, public television in Spain aired the film in prime time, on a series that usually gets about 200,000 spectators. Two hours before the broadcast, the prime minister of Spain tweeted that everyone should watch the film, and leaders of other parties tweeted. More than a million people ended up watching the film that night. That night the film was the number two trending topic on Twitter in Spain.

AC: With 52,000 tweets. Besides our film being the trending topic, something else emerged over the night that we hadn’t expected. Our film being the number two trending topic started to go down at 7:00 a.m., but “Amnesty Law 1977” became the trending topic number 3 by 7:00 a.m. People started asking about the Amnesty Law, whereas before they knew nothing about it. With that we can truly say the film has become part of the national conversation. When else can we say that in our lives? But in a way this is why we made the film, and now it’s beautiful, and now we came here to create another conversation.


DT: Victor Hugo said, “No force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.” Did you have a sense that this was the right time for this film?

AC: When we started working on the film in 2011, we would tell people what we were doing and they would say, “Why are you doing this?” But what happened is that over the years, the Argentine lawsuit progressed and the plaintiffs broke through on national news, editorials, and newspapers. By the time the film came out, it was suddenly fashionable to talk about this issue.

Although we had been working on the film for seven years, it came out at the right time. We had the right film at the right time to create that conversation.

RB: And we had the right strategy.


DT: Talk about the footage, both material that you shot and the archival footage you found.

AC: We filmed about 450 hours of footage. I do the camera and Robert does the sound. It was very important to us to create the  kind of intimacy that comes with a two-person crew; when the characters are talking to the camera, they’re really talking to me, and as a viewer you can feel that on the screen.

About the archival footage: six months into the edit we had a beautiful cut with the characters’ exploration and their arcs, yet the people we showed it to didn’t feel anything. So we understood that what was missing was the context. If you as a viewer are not able to understand the context of our characters, what they’re fighting against, who their antagonists were, it’s really hard to feel empathy for them. We realized at that point that we needed a lot of context—or enough to understand exactly what they were going through and why they were dong what they were doing. That’s when we started incorporating all this archival footage. It ended up being a two-year search.

Chato, who was tortured by Franco's men when he was in his twenties. is another plaintiff in Judge Servini's case.

Chato, who was tortured by Franco’s men when he was in his twenties. is another plaintiff in Judge Servini’s case.


DT:  It was because of the archival footage that you get flashes of Hitler and Stalin. I must confess that prior to seeing your film, I made the connection intellectually but not emotionally, perhaps because Spain had never been on the American horizon the same way that Germany or Russia were.

AC: In addition to the pact of forgetting, there’s the presentation of Franco as a benign old gentleman so that people would accept Franco as one of the lesser evils of the cold war. Chato makes a joke that when Europe was liberated, they forgot to cross the Pyrenees. It was part of this idea that things were OK.

DT: Americans might know about the Spanish Civil War because of Ernest Hemingway, but that’s it.

RB: As an American, what I remember studying, and part of why this subject is so fascinating to me, is the fact that the Spanish Civil War is always phrased as a prologue or a prelude to WWII, so you kind of know that Hitler was involved.

AC: In Spain that’s not the framing for the discussion of the Civil War, but outside it is.

RB: You kind of think, Oh yeah, there was the Spanish Civil War, and then you see WWII as the big landmark in twentieth-century European history, and then the war was over. And you kind of forget there was this dictator who stayed in power in Spain for forty years. I think very few Americans know that.

AC: It was very important that people knew about the film in Spain, but it was also very important that the film worked internationally. We always thought we were going to have to have two versions of the film—one for Spain and one for international—but it ended up being the same version because people in Spain don’t know anything.

It’s also very important that the film is able to put a mirror to other societies as well. Anywhere the film goes there are all these parallels. We just had a screening for UC Davis students. One of the students said, “The whole conversation about the removal of street signs [i.e., changing street names that honored officials in Franco’s regime] is exactly the same conversation I just had about the removal of Confederate monuments.”


DT: Precisely: American culture has never really addressed our history of slavery. At the end of your film, Judge Maria Servini de Cubria has not yet been granted permission to extradite the murderer known as Billy the Kid.

AC: The Spanish authorities keep blocking the extradition of those indicted, and that continues to be the case. We just had elections in Spain, and the center left, social democracy party won, so now there’s a door for pushing in that area of access to justice and memory and recognition. The three pillars of transitional justice are truth, justice, and reparation, so a new moment opens where all these things are possible. Our work in Spain is going to be to screen the film in all the regional parliaments in Spain.

DT: Would international pressure on the Spanish government move the needle at all?

RB: There actually has been a lot of international pressure. The UN has written reports from multiple commissions condemning it, and a UN special rapporteur is coming to New York City on Friday to introduce the film at the Film Forum. He’ll be talking about how the Amnesty Law needs to be repealed.

So there’s been a lot of that pressure, but I think it’s absolutely essential that there continues to be that pressure. Almost 90,000 people have gone to the theaters to see the film in France,  and it’s screening in Portugal right now, so all of that pressure helps.

One of our questions was, How do you change the discourse within Spain, and especially how do you reach the center? A couple of years ago, there was a vote in the parliament to modify the Amnesty Law so that it couldn’t apply to crimes against humanity. Whose votes did not support that? The Spanish Workers’ Socialist Party (PSOE), the center left party that just won the elections and will probably lead the new government. What we’ve realized is that if the film could help move the center on this issue, you could make big changes. Obviously this is an issue that has been unwinnable for eighty years, so is this a change that can happen in two years, is this a change that will need twenty years? It’s really hard to know, but that is part of our mission with the film.


Copyright © Director Talk 2019

Life and Nothing More/Antonio Mendez Esparza

Never has a title been more apt. This remarkable fiction film, so close to documentary, depicts the life of Andrew, a troubled black teen whose father is incarcerated and whose mother desperately tries to keep her son from following in his path. Availability: Opens October 24, New York City, Film Forum, with national rollout to follow. Click here for trailer and theater listings near you.  Thanks to Sylvia Savadjian for arranging this interview.

DT: One thing that sets your film apart from others is the invisibility of your point of view as director.

AME: I’m Spanish. I’m not an American citizen. I’ve been living in the community where I filmed for nearly five years. I teach at the university here, and I was trying to observe the community and the characters living in this world. That’s one aspect of it. The other aspect is that in a way I tried to make the camera invisible, even for the actors, as much as possible. We tried to forget that it’s a movie and just tried to interpret real life. The actors were always performing, even though the movie has the appearance of being a documentary. Sometimes things happened that were fortuitous, or they just happened to happen, but nearly 90 percent of them were things we were building toward. Those are the two elements that forced me into a specific aesthetic.

Life and Nothing More_classroom_700 resize


DT: Another thing that struck me was the fact that there were really only two subjective moments in the film—when Andrew is playing with the knife in the courtyard, and when he appears in the final scene.

AME: Subjectivity was something we tried to avoid as much as possible. I think we’re always getting to know the characters even though we have so few subjective shots. My hope is that even though the shots are very objective, we’re still feeling with the characters, what they’re feeling. We are observing and feeling part of their lives. But you’re right. In my mind, Andrew is the protagonist of the story, so with him I could have a little bit more leniency, when to be tight on him, when to try to understand him. He’s also a more secretive character, but he has a huge arc that goes with this unveiling of himself.


DT: Silence as an expression of rage plays an important part in a number of your films.

AME: The way you word it is quite wonderful. Silence becomes a sort of weapon. In the silence one can feel that the knife may be coming. There’s an explosion to come in this staredown, in those moments when we fear what may come next, so yes, for me it’s very important to work with that element. It’s always difficult for an actor to find this rage. For a nonprofessional actor to find this rage that comes from the outside, sometimes it can take a very long time for them to feel that it’s justified. That was a big part of the casting. Violence in films, at least for me, is very hard to justify. It’s very hard to feel real. When you have a scene that’s violent, even if it’s a slap or something, it makes the director nervous. The actors should be too, because how are they going to find it? I think silence is where they may be able to find this sudden outburst. I think that’s the work of the actor.


DT: Let’s talk about the soundscape. The birds were particularly noticeable when you went into the wealthy neighborhoods. They’re there again at the end of the film in Andrew’s house, when it’s all clean and beautiful and she has new curtains and everything is straightened up and painted. Suddenly you hear birds at their house.

AME: We were always playing with sound. One of the challenges we had at the end was how to get inside the house. There are no characters in the frame. You see the door and Andrew comes in, the camera is very tight. You hear the car, the closing of the car, somebody walking, then you hear some keys, and then you hear some birds. It’s all built.

I was a city person. Here it’s very wild even if it’s a little suburban. There are squirrels, there are owls, raccoons, little foxes, frogs. It’s a very wild, rustic place, and I wanted to convey that feeling. All the sounds we used are all local. After we finished shooting we spent a week or ten days just recording sounds to put in the mix. Then something funny happened. We discovered that some birds are seasonal, so not every bird you can see throughout the year. If you want to be honest with the film and the season has changed, will you hear these birds or not? We didn’t go as far as that, but it becomes a very intriguing discussion in terms of do you want to be so realistic or do you allow yourself [liberties]? I am making a fiction film. In a way I am happy to cheat if I think it will help the film.

Life and Nothing More_Andrew with baby_700 resize


DT: You spent two years doing research before you started shooting. Can you talk about that?

AME: I made my first film, Aqui y Alla, six years ago. It premiered at Cannes and was well received. After that movie I found a job here at university, but it was nearly impossible to make another film, which was a little disappointing. Little by little I started trying to see if I could make a film here. The story was going to be a single woman working in Walmart—her life was the circumstance of the film. I started interviewing people, meeting people, very slowly, because I have a full-time job. I was doing it with the help of some students, very slowly reaching out to the community, trying to understand a little bit better the place where we lived. That was the process of discovery. We went to schools, saw fathers in permanent incarceration; all these things came to be part of the film, by my understanding issues in the community. Even delinquency became a part of it after extensive research in the court system and juvenile court. I would say that little by little I built this world that was a life.

Life and Nothing More_Mom_700 resize

DT: Some people believe that artists should only tell their own stories—that a man can’t write a woman’s story, that a white guy from Spain really can’t tell the story of a young black American. Do you agree?

AME: It’s a big question. I think artists always have a responsibility, and that responsibility can vary. It can be only with yourself, and that may allow you to do whatever you want. There have been some artists who don’t think they owe anything to anyone, only to themselves. Other people may think they have a responsibility with the actor or with one particular person. I think this is the big question. With my first film, I had a sense of responsibility with the Mexican community I was depicting, and in this film with the community I am depicting. For me it becomes the thing that may paralyze me, but in both cases it was no more than a moment of serious doubt. It’s not a question that only came after I finished the film; it was always present in my mind, but in the end I think it’s a question for the audience, and I think it’s a question for each artist to answer personally.


DT: By the way, I think it’s a terrific film, and I don’t agree with that position.

AME: I don’t agree with it either. Many of my students at university are facing this question. They come to me with doubts about stories that aren’t their own. Of course it’s wonderful if you tell your own story, but it’s also wonderful if you’re trying to reach out and understand something else. I believe that even if you’re telling your own story, you’re trying to discover something about yourself that you didn’t know, so there is always this discovery. That’s the most important thing that can happen while you make a film. If you’re  just making a film about things you know and there is no discovery, the work is going to suffer. It’s not going to be much. There has to be discovery in the journey, there has to be the unknown. I think this question is becoming more and more tricky, because now young people are paralyzed by it, and I’m not sure that’s so great.


Copyright © Director Talk 2018


Monsters and Men/Reinaldo Marcus Green

When police shoot an unarmed African American man in Bed-Stuy, three men of color respond in different ways. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green employs a triptych structure to detail the intimate and heart-stopping choices they’re forced to make in private and public spaces. Availability: Now playing in theaters nationwide. Click here for trailer. •Thanks to Emilie Spiegel, Cinetic Media, for arranging this interview.


DT: The film has a very unusual triptych structure, where each “panel” depicts a different character. What was your intention?

Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Zyrick in Monsters and Men. Courtesy of NEON.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Zyrick in Monsters and Men. Courtesy of NEON.

RMG: At the core of it is perspective. In 2015 I made a short film that basically dealt with Zyrick’s character [the third panel of the triptych in Monsters and Men], an American kid who has to deal with walking home. I thought about what a film would look like if I expanded my short.

I had a very difficult conversation with a cop friend of mine, somebody I grew up with, and out of that conversation was born what you saw in the film. It was interesting to follow different threads that I didn’t get a chance to explore in my short film. But that only gave me two chapters. My friend and I disagreed with each other and left the conversation, and that’s all it was—two sides, one person walking one way and the other person walking the other way. I thought the triptych was a way to break the tie, if you will. It was a way to show a way out of the cycle. Three was a way out. That’s the way I viewed it, and it was the way I started thinking about the dialogue.  When the triptych idea came in, I started thinking about my favorite film, Amores Perros, and how I could tell a story in that format, then I married my ideas to subject matter in a way that we hadn’t particularly seen before.


DT: Where does the title come from?

RMG: I had a title before I had the film, before I even wrote the script. Monsters and Men. I was thinking of the duality of the characters, that each one of us has good and bad, each one of us has monsters and men within us; we all have individual choices to either stay quiet or do something. I thought about that, and it was catchy, and there was a double entendre. It had a dual meaning, and it stuck. The title stuck, and I stayed with it.


DT: To what extent do you think art can influence the discussion about race in America?

RMG: The history of art was born out of revolution, out of poverty, out of oppression. That’s where true art is born. That dates back centuries. When it comes to film specifically, we’re always responding to the times. The films we love are relevant, they’re timely. They tap into a zeitgeist, whether it’s a comedy and it’s The Apartment, with Jack Lemmon talking about the Great Depression. We’re always tapping into social construct and current events and how we as the people engage with them. Whether we decide to tell a satire or a comedy or a drama, films are always responding in different ways.

Now more than ever we have opportunity that we didn’t have to tell stories. We have a bigger platform, a bigger voice. Because of the Ava DuVernays, because of the Barry Jenkins, because of the Spike Lees we have agency in a way we didn’t have before, and it’s wonderful that they’ve created opportunities for younger filmmakers to either follow suit or create their own. Spike Lee has been doing it for over thirty years. He’s been able to take art and cinema and say really bold, bold things, and people are going to pay good money to see it. Think about Do the Right Thing—it stands up today as well as it did when it was first made, if not more.

We’re constantly responding to the times, whether it’s musicians or painters or filmmakers. It’s our responsibility. Again, I don’t think genre matters. It’s really wonderful to see the difference in films, this year alone, that have different tones. Get Out last year. How you talk about race or politics or gender is important for art and artists and cinema to tackle. This is not a new wave, it’s just we have an opportunity and a platform we didn’t have before and we’re able to tell more stories than we ever have before.


DT: A number of your actors are musicians as well as actors. How much improv was there during the shoot?

Anthony Ramos as Manny in Monsters and Men.

Anthony Ramos as Manny in Monsters and Men.

RMG: We played around with dialogue a fair amount. We allowed the actors to breathe into what they felt was natural. As a writer, I would say there are limitations to what you put on the page. Sometimes the process is informed by location, the environment, the other actors. It can be informed by what they’re wearing, the set design. I tell my actors that if a word doesn’t fit, don’t force it—find the word that fits. It’s all about the meaning of the scene. So long as they get it, if they can put it in their words, it’s always going to be stronger than what I put down on paper.


DT: You’ve said that it’s necessary to listen to the other side. I’m thinking of the scene where Dennis, a black cop, sees two white cops harrassing Zyrick, a black teenager, but doesn’t stop them. Is it necessary to listen to the other side if the other side is wrong?

John David Washington as Dennis in Monsters and Men. Courtesy of NEON.

John David Washington as Dennis in Monsters and Men. Courtesy of NEON.

RMG: Maybe the word necessary is wrong. When we don’t engage the other side, or we don’t acknowledge that it exists, we’re oftentimes blindsided when things happen. If we allow ourselves to listen and engage, we don’t have to agree, but we know that these are real things that are happening around us and we’re not blind to the fact that they’re happening. It’s important to stay engaged around difference of opinion. If you go into a boardroom and there are ten people who look like you and think like you, you’re going to get very similar results. But when you have different genders, different races, different ethnicities, you’re going to get a difference of thought and oftentimes a better product, whether you’re selling Apple or Nike or a movie.

Sometimes it’s better to have more difficult conversations than easy ones. That’s not just my opinion—it’s the way I view the world. I grew up with a father who’s an attorney. No matter how right I felt about something, he would always give me a rebuttal. He would always show me that there are two sides to every argument. That’s the household I grew up in, and a lot of that informs my filmmaking: I may think I’m right, but am I right? And of course in order to prove that I was right, I had to put together an argument. That’s how we had to survive in our household, but oftentimes there was a rich discussion that ensured we would at least be able to navigate knowing that other people thought a certain way, and it was important for us to engage that way. That’s the way I engage the world, and I hope I can share a little bit of that.


DT: Do you think that racial violence in America can be addressed without acknowledging our history of slavery?

RMG: No. I don’t think so. Not in this country, anyway. It’s synonymous with African American in this country, and you need to acknowledge that there’s a deep-rooted history here. We have to go back to the beginning and before that; we have to go back to before slavery in this country to really acknowledge how deep the scars run. It’s been going on for a very long time. We’re just trying to find new and inventive ways to keep the light burning, if you will, pass the torch, keep the fire burning to ensure that future generations don’t fall victim to violence.


DT: My heart was bursting at the end of the film, and I believe it’s going to move a lot of other people as well. Do you want to continue making films on this subject, the way Ken Loach makes social justice films, or do you want to be more like John Boorman, making films like Deliverance and Zardoz and Hope and Glory, all so different from each other?

RMG: I have a kid’s animation film in my lights. I want to make Coco, or Lion King. Human stories that have deep cultural resonance any way you slice it. To me it’s not about the genre, it’s about the story, it’s about the humanity.

Because of who I am as an individual, there’s always going to be a social component. I’m half Puerto Rican and half African American. It’s unique in my storytelling, it’s unique in how I view the world, and that will always be at the core of any story I’m telling, in front of the camera and behind it.


Copyright © Director Talk 2018

American Chaos/James Stern

Because James Stern couldn’t explain to his kids why people were voting for Donald Trump, he grabbed his camera and tripod six months before the election and took off for parts unknown to find out why. With unnerving composure and self-restraint, he interviews Trump supporters, letting them speak for themselves without interruption. Click here for trailer. Availability: Now playing in theaters nationwide. Click here for theater listings near you. •Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.


DT: In the beginning of American Chaos, you say that you felt a deep connection to Bobby Kennedy and Obama. Can you describe that connection?

JS: The connection goes way back. I come from a political family, and I had an older brother who was clearly going into politics. I think that in my youthful fantasy I felt a kinship on the brother front. Bobby was also greatly passionate, not quite as old school as Jack, and I think that was probably true in my case as well. I was very, very drawn to his authenticity.


DT: You undertook this mission because you didn’t understand who was supporting Trump and you wanted to be able to tell your kids why this was happening. Have you now reached a better understanding of Trump supporters, and if so, how will you explain it to your kids?


Left to right: James D. Stern, John Ladd Photo by Kevin Ford, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: James D. Stern, John Ladd
Photo by Kevin Ford, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


JS: I did reach a better understanding. Not in all cases—the people I talked to were all different individuals. Many people had real issues I didn’t fully appreciate. For instance, when I was down in Arizona, standing by the wall and being told stories by John Ladd about people coming onto his property at 3:00 a.m., and I’m being forced to understand his issue, which I don’t. The same thing was true when I was talking with people who have been out of work for two years in West Virginia. It’s a very visceral feeling that’s different from the one I have just reading about it or watching it on TV. I did develop empathy for people’s situations, but I don’t have sympathy for their solutions.

When you come into proximity and talk to people, you have empathy, and I think you have to be careful about the idea that people are simply wrong in their approach. I think people are rational and reasonable for the most part. Do I think they have the right solutions in voting for Donald Trump? Of course not. Would their lives have been made better by Hillary Clinton? I hope so. I think that one of the things that happened is that they did not feel in any way, shape, or form that Hillary was going to make their lives better after eight years of Barack Obama, so why not try somebody else? That’s a bitter pill to swallow for someone like me, but at the same time you have to listen to them.


DT: How do you explain someone like Julio, who said, “How can you vote for Hillary? Immigrants make this country great.”

JS: Julio Martinez, who was from Florida, wanted to have safer borders. Armand Grossman, who is also from Florida, said, “How could someone possibly vote for Hillary?” He had a very, very strong view about the military and was obsessed with Benghazi. Julio had  a very strong view on immigration and closing the borders even though he himself was an immigrant when he was eleven. In both cases they thought Trump was a better answer than Hillary. I think it’s wrong. Do I think it’s irrational? That’s a harder question. At some level politics is about connection, about authenticity, feeling like that person represents you. I did a film called So Goes the Nation, for which I interviewed Mark McKinnon, who at that time was the head strategist for the Republican Party. It was during the Bush/Kerry election, and Mark said something quite chilling. He said that at the end of the day, you can throw out all of the issues. The only issue that matters is what club you want to belong to. Do you want to belong to your club or the other club? If you think about it in a different way, why do I buy Nike shoes? Right now I’d walk over hot coals to buy Nike shoes because of Colin Kaepernick. That doesn’t have anything to do with whether the shoe is better for me; that’s a club I want to belong to. The sad thing was that they didn’t believe Hillary was going to make it any better than Trump, so they might as well join the club where they can watch reality TV.


Left to right: Armand Grossman, James D. Stern Photo by Karen Bove, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Armand Grossman, James D. Stern
Photo by Karen Bove, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


DT: I can’t remember whether it was Tami or Dave who said, “I’m not electing him to be my Sunday school teacher.”  Can you explain why you’re laughing?

JS: I’m laughing because I think that was an extraordinary display of hypocrisy, and I think that if the shoe was on the other foot, they would have been up in arms from a moral and religious standpoint. Trump has complete moral turpitude, and they try and find a religious excuse for it. That was one of the instances I found the most troubling and the most difficult to sit through without reacting. If Barack Obama had done the sorts of things that Donald Trump has done, let alone Hillary Clinton, do you think they would have given either Hillary or Obama a free pass? Of course not. What they wanted was somebody who was going to have the kind of non-gun-control measures they were looking for, and they were looking for someone who was going to pack the Supreme Court in the way Donald Trump is packing the Supreme Court. At the end of the day, that—no pun intended—trumps any kind of supposed religious concerns that they have. I think it’s amazing that people who have been arguing for years about family values and throwing that in people’s faces then turn around and vote for this man. Of all the things I found, the thing I have the most trouble squaring is the free pass they gave Trump.


DT: There were major disconnects between what people said they believed and reality, like the woman who said Obama was going to declare martial law and the guy who said climate change is a load of crap. Maybe this goes back to the matter of what club you want to belong to, but at what point should you expect reality to enter into the equation?

JS: There were a couple of instances where I just couldn’t sit quietly by. One was when Marian said that Obama was going to declare martial law. I just snorted at her and said, “That’s absurd.”  The other was when Sue in Arizona said one in eight people was guilty of voter fraud and all of them voted for the Democrats. At that point I just said, “What are you talking about?”

When I grew up, there were three networks and maybe public television. While people argued vociferously about their viewpoints, the facts were the facts. You didn’t say there was no such thing as the Vietnam War. Right now you have a propaganda arm of one of the two major parties that supports people in whatever they say. If all you do is listen to Fox news and go on Breitbart or you listen to Rush Limbaugh, you’re going to have a very, very different view of the world than if you’re someone like myself, who reads the New York Times, or yourself, or whatever. After World War Two there were Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungle for twenty-five years believing the war was still going on.


DT: You were in West Virginia when you said, “This is a different country. What do they care about having sensible gun laws?” Was it always a different country and we’re just seeing it now, or do you think that under the Kennedys, for instance, the country was more cohesive?

JS: I think the country was more cohesive for two reasons: (a) like I just said, the media. You didn’t have the ability to have your own set of facts. That makes the country much more divided than it ever was; (b) when my father went into WWII, he trained in Alabama and Mississippi. He intellectually cross-bred with the people he was with and they cross-bred with him. While war is a terrible thing, people from different parts of the country united into a coalition.

Those two things are gone, one thankfully, one not so much so. We now have a real problem. This is the most divided the country has been since the civil war. That is not a joke. The other thing of course is campaign finance reform—which is to say none—where you have massive amounts of money pouring into candidates, buying them ad nauseam simply because of one issue or another that’s central to whoever is paying for their politicians. A famous politician in America once said that without campaign finance reform, he feared for the very essence of democracy because politicians would be bought and sold based on the issues. That politician was not Barack Obama. It was Abraham Lincoln. This is not a new problem.


DT: Let’s talk about your crazy footage from the 1950s TV show Trackdown, where a snake oil salesman tries to convince a town to build a wall to save themselves from destruction.  First of all, where did you find it, and second of all, the parallels between the snake oil salesman and Trump are so remarkable that I have to ask whether there’s any evidence that Trump ever saw it?

JS: I don’t know if he saw it. We were out to dinner somewhere, and my editor’s father said, “Have you ever seen this show Trackdown?” When I said no, he told me there was a TV show in the ’50s that had an episode with a con artist named Trump. I said that was  impossible, then I googled tv-1950s-trump and it came up! We found the piece! Trump’s father was quite famous and was quite a vicious character by all counts. I wonder if the people who wrote Trackdown weren’t aware of his father. Woody Guthrie wrote a very famous song about Trump’s father called “Daddy Trump.” I think it’s almost too much of a coincidence.


DT: I myself don’t believe in the Trump-won-because-of-disaffected Americans theory. I think it was more like the Cuban guy in your film who said, “I look at Trump and see myself in the mirror.”  I think that’s what got Trump elected.

JS: I don’t disagree. They have such a strong desire to be him, such a strong aspirational part of the attraction.

DT: So it’s not that they think he’s like them, it’s more that they want to be like him.

JS: I felt that way. The other thing that was amazing to me was that everybody I spoke to glossed over the fact that Trump was born with a silver spoon in his face. Donald Trump was a man who was born on third base and said he hit a triple. In the film, a professor from the University of Chicago speaks about that. He says that Trump convinced them that he’s some sort of self-made man and he can do for them what he did for himself. That’s quite a trick, given what was factually true about him. The other thing that was quite amazing was that Trump was sued by 3,500 blue-collar workers whom he had not paid. Many of the people I met were either in a similar situation to the people who had sued Trump or knew people who were in a similar situation, but they didn’t seem to care about that at all.

DT: Again, it’s that disconnect from reality.

JS: Exactly right, but it’s also choosing what to believe. And also it’s a culture war—saying it’s the liberal press blowing things up and Hillary’s done worse. One of the mantras was “Hillary’s done worse,” whether it was the religious couple saying that Bill Clinton had done worse or a guy in West Virginia saying that Hillary should be in jail for all the things she’s done and Trump’s never done anything wrong. It’s what you choose to read and believe in that was so striking.


Left to right: David Hatfield Photo by Kevin Ford, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: David Hatfield (of the Hatfields and McCoys)
Photo by Kevin Ford, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


DT: You open and close the film with footage of elections, going back to Teddy Roosevelt. What context does that give to American Chaos?

JS: There have been swirling passions around the elections since we have begun. I believe there will be passions again, and there will be better days ahead. What you see in all those presidents in the 1900s is that some were good, some were bad, but we’re still here. I wanted that to start the film, and I wanted that to close the film. I only go back as far as John F. Kennedy at the end of the film, because that’s personal for me. I feel that our higher angels will carry us forward again, but I was also very focused on saying that this is a bad time, and it’s going to be a bad time. If you take the irrationality of Andrew Jackson and the business scuzziness of Warren G. Harding and the viciousness of Richard Nixon and you put it all together in a cocktail, you get Donald Trump. That said, America has been around for a long time, I believe it will be around for a whole lot longer, and we’re going to get through this.


DT: Is there anything you want to add?

JS: I think that we have to listen, and listen as gracefully as we can. I think there’s absolutely zero nobility in losing. I think you do anything you can to win within legal bounds. I think the Democrats have to continue to do so. There’s an old saying that Democrats want to govern and Republicans want to win, and I think that’s unfortunately true, and we need to understand why people are upset. Hillary Clinton lost the election by 77,000 votes over three states where people much like the ones in the movie thought they weren’t being listened to. I’m not saying that if Hillary had gone to those places and done a better job of presenting herself to those people she would have won, but she might have, despite Jim Comey and Russia and everything else. I hope that people see the movie with that in mind. I’ve read some reviews of the film where people have said I seem to be soft on these people. I don’t think I’m soft. I’m giving them a platform so that we can analyze and discuss in their own words, not in my own words. People don’t need to hear from me. They should want to hear from them. That’s what’s important. I’m really proud I was able to make the movie, and I’m proud that Sony is supporting the movie, and I hope that there are better times ahead for all of us, and mostly for our country.


Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Inventing Tomorrow/Laura Nix

What’s it like to be fifteen years old and live in a world that’s so environmentally out of whack that it threatens human life? Against the backdrop of the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, filmmaker Laura Nix follows six teens from India, Indonesia, Hawaii, and Mexico who are finding solutions to the problems threatening their generation. Earth on Screen, Director Talk’s sister blog, speaks with Nix and Sahithi Pingali, a brilliant young woman from Bangalore, India, who epitomizes the dedicated pragmatism that will be necessary to restoring balance to our earth. Click here  to find out more about the film and screenings. Availability: Opens New York City, August 31, IFC Center.  Thanks to Layla Hancock-Piper, Cinetic Media, for arranging this interview.


EOS: At one time Bangalore was described as the land of ten thousand lakes. Now it’s known as the Silicon Valley of India. What environmental impact did this change have on Bangalore?

SP: There’s no river near Bangalore, so they built man-made lakes to provide for people’s water needs. The lakes were connected by channels. When it rained, the uppermost lake overflowed and filled all the others.

Bangalore used to be a retirement community, but suddenly all these IT companies moved there. The city grew really quickly, without an accompanying infrastructure. There were no sewage treatment plants, for instance. The trees and the gardens were razed to build homes and offices. The channels connecting the lakes were filled with debris to make them land again, cutting off the lakes from each other. There were a lot of people generating raw sewage, which went right into the lakes. With no channels to distribute freshwater, the lakes became cesspools.

EOS: Laura, you got some heartbreaking footage in Bangalore.

LN: Oftentimes with environmental issues you can’t see the problem, so people have a hard time taking it seriously. Bangalore was the opposite.  It was visually extraordinary. Before we went we looked at stock footage and news reports, but they couldn’t prepare me for what it was like. The thing you don’t get from the footage is the smell. When you get out of the car you’re confronted with this stench as the sewage blows over the roadway and hits the cars. We got covered in it while we were filming. There’s one shot in particular where you can see the foam hitting the camera. [The foam is created by phosphates in the untreated sewage.]


EOS: The film gave me the impression that kids in developing countries are more connected to environmental issues than kids in the U.S. are.

SP: In India the awareness is high because when you step out of your house there’s no way to avoid it. Yet some people do manage to avoid it. They drive by the lakes every day with their windows up and AC on. They don’t get the smell, they don’t see the foam. The thing is, I was one of those people for a very long time. I only started asking questions when I was fifteen. It’s one thing to know the problem is there and another to be concerned about it and then quite another to take action on that concern. It’s the difference between avoiding it and approaching it. I think that in developing countries you do get more people who are concerned simply because they’re aware, but I don’t know if the ratio of people who know and the people who act is actually any better.


EOS: Laura, you worked with kids from Hawaii and Mexico and Indonesia. What did you find there?

LN: When we were casting the film, I interviewed over a hundred kids from all over the world. We did a data dive, looking at how many environmental projects were coming from each country. In many places, 50 to 70 percent of the projects had an environmental focus. In the States it was maybe 10 to 15 percent.

It makes sense to me that students living in the developing world are coming up with solutions to environmental problems, because the problems are right in front of their faces. But in fact there are many communities in the U.S. facing ecological crises, environmental justice issues related to pollution or industrial contamination. Corporations are getting away with polluting these communities because the communities are underrepresented politically and financially, but they’re very much aware, and they’re taking action. We can look at front-line communities as a model of how we must respond.



EOS: Sahithi, your science fair project had two aspects. First you collected and tested water samples from the lakes, then you crowd-sourced the data through an app and website. What do you want to achieve with this project?

SP: At school I led a group of students to study the foaming lake right behind our school.  We interviewed the people who live there and found that they grow vegetables with that polluted lake water. Others had to close down their shops, others lost their livelihoods. How could I have been able to drive past this for so long and not see how much was happening?

When we brought the stinking water samples to school to test them in our lab, I started seeing that we were connecting to the lakes. We were seeing the water with our own eyes and handling it ourselves. Now I want this to be part of a school curriculum, where every kid goes out once a week and gets a lake sample.  It makes a big difference when you engage and do it yourself.

I started sharing the data through crowd sourcing to get everyone to see what was going on. When you do that, it’s important to make the data very visual so people don’t have to look at numbers. On my website I have color-coded maps saying whether the water is safe enough to drink or take a bath or water your vegetables. Now people can look at color-coded maps all across the world and see how their lakes are changing over time, what local actions people are taking. We’re building a community so that it’s no longer just one person going and getting a water sample.


EOS: Laura, I was under the impression that only judges and competitors are allowed to attend the judging session at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. How did you manage to get in?

LN: We talked to the Society for Science and the Public for about a year to get permission to film the judging. They’d never let cameras in the judging process before, and it took a very long time to convince them of the value of that. I felt it was really important to show because that’s when you see the students communicating their science projects in a very quick way to someone who knows about it. I think that’s the greatest value in participating in the science competition, because it forces students to become science communicators. They must explain their research in a way that’s compelling, that involves storytelling, not just data analysis.

There’s a chasm in our culture right now between the general public and science. The scientific community can get better at communicating what the work is, how it’s done, and what value it has. But I think the general public also has a sense that it’s too hard for them to understand. I was very intimidated when I started to make this film because I don’t come from a science background, but I realized that was helpful because I could stand in as a proxy for the audience: I needed to understand it in order for the audience to understand it.


EOS: Sahithi, as a scientist yourself, how important is it to communicate what you’re doing?

SP: A lot of scientists are proud of the complexity of what they’re doing. They lose sight of the fact that it’s valuable not because it’s complex but because of what it can do. And they can’t make an impact unless the people who are helping them make an impact understand what’s going on. Solutions are made in the lab by scientists, but they’re brought into the world by businessmen, people in the humanities, salespeople, storytellers. So much more goes into bringing science into the real world.

Even the science aspect can’t be done alone. There’s a reason why solutions of scale are deployed by big companies. Individuals are limited. If I go on trying to push my project using only my own time and my own abilities, it’s not going to be nearly as impactful as if I brought in another five or ten people to work on it and make it a more robust system. I think the image of the lone scientists in the lab is a bad stereotype, because it limits what you can do with the technology you have.

L - R: Jose Manuel Elizade Esparaza, Jesus Alfonso Martinez Aranda & Fernando Miguel Sanchez Villalobos - Monterrey, Mexico. They invented a photocatalytic paint that would convert carbon dioxide into water-soluble chemicals that could nourish the local plant life. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.


I don’t know where people got the idea that science should be done solo. If you look at the very nature of scientific research, you measure a paper’s success by how many other people were able to do work based on it. Science is by nature very collaborative, because nobody solves these huge complex problems alone. Nobody does it alone in the real world of science—it’s more in the depictions that it becomes a solo thing. In high school and college you do all your assignments alone. Making it more collaborative from the beginning might help, but so would depicting it the way it actually works, with a lot of people coming together.


EOS: Laura, what makes film such an incredibly powerful medium for communicating science?

LN: A lot of feature films focus on the biopic of an extraordinary person conquering an extraordinary project. They gloss over the details of the science because they’re focused on the hero’s journey. I was really interested in showing the process of science. When you do science, you fail a lot. You do some research and you stop and start and don’t always get the results that you want, but you keep going. Watching young people tackle that in a very pure way was really inspiring, because they have a vision about what they’re doing and a clarity of purpose about the why of what they’re doing. The why is something that gets left out a lot when we depict science.

The why is also where you can find the emotion in the story. An environmental film focusing on a science fair seemed potentially very dry, so for me the goal was to bring emotion to the story and show how this was very personal, this was young people fighting to save their homes. Each of the students I chose for the film was very connected to the why of that they do. The challenge for me as a filmmaker was how to make this an emotional story and also something that was really compelling to watch.

I went about that by maintaining a kind of first-person perspective so that you get a sense of what it would be like to be fifteen years old and facing this huge environmental crisis. I wanted the film to communicate the uniqueness of that perspective, because we can learn something from it. These kids automatically understand that they have to do something. They’ve taken the responsibility of committing to action. The other thing that really struck me is the fact that they don’t think about it politically. They think, ‘Here’s a problem that we have to fix.’ Our generation got stuck in this political spin cycle where we can’t move forward because we’re blocked by financial and economic and political issues, but these kids don’t think about that at all. That’s the way we should be approaching it. I wanted to put that framing out into the world as a way for us to be able to learn from them so that they can become our role models as we look forward.

EOS: What is it like to be a teenager facing this environmental crisis?


SP: Every year we put on a play in school. The scriptwriters based the play on the students’ attitudes. Last year our play was about the environment. The last line was “If not us, who? If not now, when?” I think it’s as simple as that. We can’t do nothing. We can’t wait, because it’s only going to get worse. But I think there’s also the fact that it can get better. This is something people don’t appreciate enough. Right now, at this point in time, we have the technology to not just slow down climate change or stop it but actually potentially reverse it. It would be hard, things would have to be implemented at huge scale, but we could. It’s not impossible. It’s not even a lack of abilities. It’s something we can do, it’s just that it’s not happening. I think young people who are really engaged in this realize that the potential is there. We don’t know if we’ll ever reach it, but we can’t not work towards it. It’s just something we have to do, because we can’t wait. We can’t go back and undo what’s been done, so we just have to do what we can now. It’s important to keep in mind that it can be done. It’s not beyond possibility to actually take things back.

Copyright © Earth on Screen 2018


Las Sandinistas!/Jenny Murray

Erasure of memory is confronted by clarity of cause as director Jenny Murray weaves the stories of Sandinista women leaders while their wage their revolutions–in the ’70s, ’80s, and now. Availability: New York City, Film Forum, opens November 21. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview. This interview was conducted by guest writer Zuzu Myers.


DT: I loved the footage. How did you find it?

JM: It was a multiyear process. The archives were what first excited me about the story, because they had such a strong feeling and they communicated so much about women’s lives in that history in that world. I’d really never seen anything like it, women leading battles and social reform. The light emanating from these women really drew me to the story.

At the beginning, I came across the photographs from Susan Meiselas’s  From the Revolution in the ’70s. She was kind enough to let us use a few of those photographs in the film. There were a number of other sources as well. One was a Nicaraguan filmmaker and one was a Mexican filmmaker. A lot of the revolution footage was from something called Victoria en el Puebla en Armas, victory of the people in arms.

A lot of the material of the young Dora Maria in the red rocking chair was from a film called Women in Arms by Victoria Schultz.

A lot was from young filmmakers who were there in the late ’70s and early ’80s who were just filming in the mountains and filming with the women. In Victoria Schultz’s case, they had copies of this footage, which they had been able to salvage from the war. I connected with Frank Pineda in Nicaragua, the cinematographer of Puebla en Armas, who had a copy of the film, and Victoria Schultz, the director of Women in Arms. Johnathon Buchsbaum, a professor in Queens College in New York, had some news archives with the old note de cerreros and the literacy campaign footage. Daisy Zomora had some photographs from when she was the Minister of Culture, so those were some of the first inroads that I made. A lot from the Associated Press and the old American newscasts from the time because it was such a big story for a number of years.

We went through US archives and Nicaraguan archives that we could access and did our best to assemble everything and clear the rights. A woman named Margaret Randall also took a lot of photos of women and wrote some of the first books that really inspired me. One of those is called Sandino’s Daughters. She was an American down there in the ’70s and really became close with a lot of the women. She wrote their first testimonies from the mountains or immediately after. Those in close combination just really inspired me. When I read their testimonies I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is just incredible.’


DT: The footage captures a real sense of strength in vulnerability that the woman have with each other.

JM: One of the first things that captivated me about the story was an interview with Sofía Montengro, one of the main characters.  During my research, I found an online interview in which she was speaking so lovingly about other women, with such awe about what they’d  accomplished. It was really electric.

That bond between the women and that sense of protection and building each other up really moved me. The way they preserved each other’s legacies and shared them spoke to this great connection among women, even if they met each other later in the struggle. In the years since the revolution has passed, they have become strong allies in this powerful and loving way. In a really human way. That to me was so hopeful, so powerful to see that as a woman.


DT: Given this narrative of strength and personal testimony, you made an interesting decision to structure your film around a chronological timeline. Were you planning on using that structure when you went into the archives, or did it come about in another way?

JM: We structured the film in the edit. Our main goal was to make sure that no one would be confused and no one would be bored. With any film, I think that’s one of the main goals with editing, to make sure people know where they’re at.

In early versions, when it was more historical or less chronological, we found that because people don’t know about the struggle, where these places are unless they were there, that was the way the audience could anchor in the story.

It really helped people to have that ordering, because we have so many protagonists. We made a choice to do a very unconventional thing, which was follow six different women and introduce over a dozen. We have multiple people that are against women’s progress or come in throughout, and when you have so many different people across so many different decades, we found that [chronologically] was the simplest way for people to at least emotionally access parts of the story. When we did it less chronologically, we found that people were trying to figure out just where they were. Initially I didn’t intend it to be strictly chronological, but we found throughout the edits that that was the way, if you join them in the revolution you join them as young women trying to figure out what to do.

It seemed to me that it was the best way that people could really cross time with them, could be able to really see the arc of what they really achieved, and then what they need to fight for by the end of the film.



DT: And it certainly plays in different levels in the film, beginning with Dora María Téllez’s quotes about memory of erasure and memory of event, which plays through the entire time.

JM: It was part of the less strictly chronological aspect, this idea of reflecting and timelessness throughout these moments. Obviously, this idea of erasure is a huge theme for me in the film.

DT: And a huge theme in women’s history too.

JM: Exactly. That connects it to a much larger universal theme for women, this idea of invisibility throughout history, and in so many ways having been there and having been protagonists throughout history. We hear so little of it. It’s been very interesting. To me that’s been an important and universal part of the story. It’s one of my favorite parts of the film—the strange way that memory collectively works in society and within the individual and how certain things very conveniently get erased or have to get erased for survival for whatever it is: a system of power, or for an individual to persevere in extreme circumstances.

DT: Which is all the more poignant given what’s happening in Nicaragua right now with Ortega.

JM: Yeah, I would never have imagined. We were filming protests in 2014. We knew there was unrest and pushback against certain policies in the Ortega administration, and in a major way in a big level with campesinos in the countryside when we were filming in Rivas.

What I didn’t realize of course was that when we premiered the film in March and in April we would have this massive set of protests against pension changes done by the Ortega administration. All of a sudden you have hundreds of people dead. Then the government saying it’s fake news, and it’s really police who are dead. You have this massive set of conflicting sides, conflicting information. A lot of solidarity groups in the US are calling it a coup against the Ortega administration, whereas everyone I’ve talked to on the ground in Nicaragua is saying it’s not a coup, it’s an organic set of protesters,  many of whom are being killed or tortured or harassed for just protesting in a democratic way. Then the opposition says they’re violent and it’s not an organic protest.

Since we’ve been on the road with the film, I haven’t been on the ground filming the protests for the last six months. I think it’s a very complicated story. I do know that people are really suffering, you have at this point over 20,000 exiles in Costa Rica. People are terrified. For a while people weren’t going out at night, people were very, very scared because you had masked groups that would patrol the streets, who weren’t even dressed as police. The government says they had nothing to do with these people officially.  People on the ground say of course it’s the government—people I’ve spoken to, at least.  I think it’s very complicated, and on the record it’s very hard for me to comment.  It’s unfortunate, and I hope that democracy and democratic processes and protests are able to prevail in a peaceful way for better reforms for the country.

We were supposed to show the film at a festival in Nicaragua, and then the people behind the screenings had to flee the country and stopped responding. I was told they were on a list and were being more or less tracked, so they had to run. I hope we’re able to screen it there, but I’ve been told it’s dangerous to screen now. Certain journalists have been put on planes and asked to leave the country. I hope it will screen, and we hope people will have the chance to see it. Especially the women in the countryside who participated in and have never had any of their legacies memorialized or celebrated in a very specific way.


DT: Claudia’s story in particular pulls the film’s themes together so succinctly.

JM: Claudia’s an incredible person. I felt strongly about including her granddaughter commenting, and then seeing Claudia’s response to it. For me, that was an incredibly powerful moment. There’s so much in her silence.


DT: Dora Maria Téllez made the comment that once you had experienced revolution as a woman and what women could do within the FSLN, there was no going back. At a separate moment, Daisy Zamora speaks about women outgrowing men in the relationships they were already holding. It is clear that part of participating in the revolution as a woman in FSLN meant participating in this internal, personal, very private revolution as well.  Could you speak about your own evolution as a woman while you worked on the film.


JM: I can certainly say that it is a miracle that this film exists. Even today, I am so grateful. I can’t believe we’re opening in the Film Forum in New York, because as it started we weren’t able to secure any grant funding. It was unclear at the beginning of the film if we’d have any institutional support at all. We tried, tried, and tried.

When I’d say I’m going to make this film, even my close guy friends said, “Who told you you could do that?” But women never asked me that, my girlfriends never did. But male friends did. I sort of felt compelled to do it, and found these stories really moving.

I feel like it’s an important thing to put into the world. I really believed in these stories. I don’t come from a family with any means or resources, and for me it came at a very particular time in my life. I was the only girl working in finance at a stock trading desk at my company. A lot of them were really nice guys, I have to say, really understanding. There were so many things going on in my mind at the moment. I was really looking for female role models, human but strong, freethinking women. I was looking for leadership in a new way. We have plenty of women of course who do that now, but I was looking for something I’d never seen. It’s hard to put words on something like that. When I found these stories I just felt like it was something I had always needed. I felt like if I had known these stories when I was younger,it would have really affected me in a positive way, and I felt like just putting them into the world so that other women could access them could be of great value somehow.

I felt that deeply. It was worth giving whatever portion of my life that would take, and in this case, it took almost five years. At the time I thought it’ll take a year or two, but five years later, I was so clear that I would finish it no matter what. And when you commit to something like that, you find a way to make it happen.

I had this feeling too that we would have to make the film before anyone would believe in it, before we could get real funding. We crowdfunded with a trailer that got us through the very beginning, and I used my personal savings to push through to a rough cut. Once we had the rough cut, certain doors did open. We ended up connecting with certain institutions. People really did need to see one. Very clearly, I was an unknown even on certain grant rejections; they said the director was an unknown quantity and it was an ambitious story, and it was just too much of a risk. I don’t know if that has to do with gender. But I do know that I really had to prove it before we would [get funding], and then things did open when we had a rough cut, people did see that we were going to have a real film, that it was going to be cohesive on a certain level, that it was going to be less of a risk. From the number of rejections we got, it was hard to know if anyone would even watch the movie. But I really believed that it would connect with people somehow. I had this deep faith that the stories were very important. So it was worth proving.



Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Memoir of War/Emmanuel Finkiel

The Gestapo deported Marguerite Duras’s husband to Dachau for his role in the Resistance. In 1944, Duras began a long wait for his return home. Based on her memoir of this period, both personal and historical, Memoir of War brilliantly defies cinematic convention to convey the emotional space of active expectation. With Mélanie Thierry as Duras, Benoît Magimel as Rabier, the French policeman who has the power to connect Marguerite with her husband, Benjamin Biolay as Duras’s lover, and Shulamit Adar as Madame Katz.  Availability: Opens August 17, New York City, Film Forum; August 24, L.A., Laemmle Royal, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.


DT: I understand that the film is an adaptation of La Douleur, not a biopic of Marguerite Duras, but you left out a number of important details about Duras’s life. For instance, she and her husband, Robert Antelme, had a child who died at birth. Antelme agreed to Marguerite’s having a child with Dionys, her lover; in fact, Marguerite, Antelme, and Dionys all lived together, and Antelme actually published Dionys’s book. That would have substantially changed the ending of the film.

EF: Yes.

DT: How did you go about choosing which details to include, to create not only the story but also the psychological space?

EF: I did begin working with the text by Marguerite Duras, but I always had in my mind, like seeing in the rearview mirror of a car, a biography of Duras, and sepcifically the biography written by Laura Adler. Because what the audience is looking at on the screen is a journal, I really had to do research beforehand to find out what the reality was, because film is supposed to film what’s real. When you do this research, you find out that Marguerite Duras was a big liar. She lived with Dionys Mascolo long before her husband was deported. They lived together as a couple under the same roof, and both of them were waiting for the return of Robert Antelme. In her book she treats Dionys almost like a ghost character who’s hovering over, but she never really gives him a full body, she never gives him a reality, and she emphasizes her behavior almost as the ideal wife.

So you have to make some compromises when you want to put this on the screen. On the one hand you have to respect the text, but on the other hand you have to insert little clues, little hints into the film to give the viewer the idea that maybe they were having a relationship that took place offscreen.

DT: If I had known all of that information, it would have changed the ending of the film for me. I would have gone away with a different feeling.

EF: In the story she’s giving us less than what actually took place. She wants to portray herself as this ideal wife, but in the book she suddenly throws at us this idea that she’s decided to divorce her husband and move in with Dionys. There’s this kind of brutal force and abruptness about it, and I wanted to keep some of that for the viewer. Some of the viewers as they’re watching the film are going to have that little idea in their head that maybe there was something going on between the two of them, but here I wanted, by doing it the way I did in the film, to keep some of what was in that original text.

I first read the book when I was twenty-five, and when I finished the book, I cried. I didn’t cry because of the waiting, I cried because of some important things in the book that I didn’t put in the screen version. One of the things I felt was very, very inportant was the fact that in the book she really helps her husband recover. She brings him back to health, but at the end she realizes, as she states—and this is great honesty on her part—that she doesn’t love him anymore. That was the thing that really moved me to tears, because in fact what she’s doing is she’s killing him a second time when she says this. And why return, why go through all this to come back only to be told, “That’s it. It’s over.”

It’s something that’s very strong, because at the moment when she decides that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore, she loses her status as a character, as a person, and she becomes a reflection of the complexity of everything that was going around her in the situation at the time. I think it’s important because we can all identify with something like that. We can all see that she can do what she wants, we know that she reacts with her emotions, which is something we’re capable of doing as well—we react to reality with different emotions—and our emotions can’t be ordered. We don’t know exactly how we would react in that situation, and at the end if you tell somebody you love them but then you want to deliberately lose them from your life, you don’t know how that situation is going to affect you as the viewer.


DT: The cinematography was stellar. Can you talk about your working relationship with your DP, Alexis Kavyrchine?

EF: My way of expressing myself is not necessarily by the story or by the specific image; it’s really the framing of each scene as it’s portrayed on the screen. Alexis is a very strong cinematographer. He comes from a documentary film background, so it gives that kind of resonance to the fictional story. While we were filming, I was right there behind him, right behind his ear. Nothing was planned in advance. As we worked along I would whisper something in his ear. We would frame it, and things would develop as the film progressed. We were always on the same wavelength, so it was a very direct relationship between the two of us. There are no two shots that resemble each other in the film. It’s almost as if we were Siamese twins, but three instead of two—Siamese triplets—because the third was the camera. The assistant cameraman with his camera was the third in this triad. The changing in the focus (e.g., depth of field) was also very important. It was really the third character in the film.


Dt: You lost two grandparents and an uncle in the camps.

EF: And a young uncle. My father’s brother.

DT: You’re a director, but you’re also a person. When you’re shooting a character like Rabier or the scene in the cafe with all the collaborators, do you get emotionally involved in the material?

EF: My father told me about the occupation. He said that during the occupation he crossed paths with one of the collaborators who was very famous, but not in a good way. He was someone who was called a geulcasse, which is a real rough, brutal kind of face. He was a police inspector, and he would arrest people and take their property. For him it was a business deal—he arrested them  and profited by taking their property. When I read Duras’s book and saw the character of Rabier, this story that my father told me came to mind. He’s terrible, but at the same time, much as my father said about the first guy, he didn’t talk gruffly and he wasn’t mean. He spoke very gently, and there was almost a kind of charm about him. In Duras’s description of Rabier she really talks about him as being this monster, a traitor. But nothing is simple in Duras’s work, and you can see when you read that even though she describes him as a monster and a traitor there was also almost an erotic attraction that he had for her. So I did some more research into her biography and found that a number of her friends and people who were part of her network in the Resistance had seen both of them going into a hotel together. So here the Rabier I’ve created on the screen is really a combination. I built him of these two characters—the one that I recalled my father telling me about and the character that Duras describes.


DT: I loved the dichotomy between Mrs. Katz and Duras. You have the Jewish woman and the non-Jew, and you have someone who’s desperately waiting for a loved one to come home and someone who’s ambivalent. How did you direct those scenes? I know that you’ve worked with Shulamit Adar, the actress who plays Mrs. Katz, a lot.

EF: Madame Katz is actually my contribution to this story, and it’s part of my own personal story. In this work Marguerite Duras speaks very little about the Jews. What happened to her husband is very interesting. He was arrested because of being in the Resistance. He could have taken the path that was the path of the POW. He could have gone that route and not gone the way the deported Jews went, but instead he chose a different path.

DT: He chose it?

EF: It was a terrible meeting of circumstances. He wasn’t Jewish but things just happened, so instead of being given that destiny he went the same way that any of the Jews did—he experienced Buchenwald, the death march, Dachau. It was the route that ended in death, and it was the route that specifically the Jews took. These were the people who never returned. In Marguerite Duras’s book Mrs. Katz is spelled with an s at the end—K-a-t-s instead of K-a-t-z. I restored her z to her, which is probably what it was originally, and she really is a reflection of my own personal history. There are times when the two women are almost totally in sync in terms both of their suffering and also in their waiting. But here Mrs. Katz is representative of the Jews.


DT: You were basically making a film about waiting. What were your biggest worries? Were you worried it was going to be too boring, too sentimental? What did you try to avoid?

EF: I had a lot of concerns. I didn’t want in this film to re-create history because this is probably the period of history that’s been most re-created on the screen. I didn’t want to redo the same things. I tried to begin with something that was a very intimate story and make it epic. For me Marguerite Duras is almost a double. She has two sides. One is this very mental, intellectual character who can be on the boring side. The other side of her is this very young, romantic woman who is in love with her husband. I wanted to reflect both parts of her personality, because if I had really told the story simply about waiting, people in the audience would have been waiting and they would have been waiting for something to happen on the screen.


DT: There are many, many different elements to this film. Did you ever have an aha! moment when you knew that everything came together?

EF: Like Moses.

DT: Exactly.

EF: No, there was not one moment. I think it’s really true that good ideas really don’t come through an intellectual process of reflection and constant thinking. They just impose themselves. They come. I think that when they come they don’t necessarily come all at the same moment. I don’t think that I believe in love at first sight, but at the same time it’s something that could develop over the course of several days.

The idea of the double Marguerite came to me when I was working on a very, very intense scene. It’s the scene where she learns from one of the people who had been deported that they had seen her husband, that he was still alive. In the book she recounts how she fell to the ground and had a terrible attack of tears and crying, tears from her eyes, from her nose, from every part of her body. At that moment I put down my pen and thought, ‘This doesn’t ring true. I don’t believe it.’ It’s almost as if she was doing all this to be theatrical, almost cinematic, both for herself and also for Dionys. Think of a situation where someone’s in mourning. They’re crying and they’re just beside themselves with grief, but yet deep inside they’re not really completely feeling what outwardly they’re expressing through this grief. Also to ask an actress to throw herself on the ground would have been a very difficult scene to pull off. I had to contrast that idea of seeing her on the ground with the scene where you see her by the window. And there you realize that she’s not a dupe. She’s not fooling herself. She knows she’s being theatrical.

DT: Brilliant.

EF: Thank you very much.


Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Good Manners/Juliana Rojas

The story is simple: Clara is hired to nurse Anna through her pregnancy. They become lovers. When Anna dies in childbirth, Clara keeps the child and raises it as her own.The film itself is anything but simple, though. A mixture of horror, fantasy, fairy tale, and musical, it defies expectations and offers unlimited surprises. Click here for trailer. Availability: Opens New York City, July 27, IFC Center; LA, August 17, Laemmle Royal.  Thanks to Carlos A. Gutiérrez, Cinema Tropical, for arranging this interview.


DT: The film got its start when your codirector, Marco Dutra, had a  strange dream. How did you turn that dream into a film?

JR: His dream didn’t have a narrative, but it was a very strong situation that we found very attractive. It was about two women living in an isolated place and raising a monster child. We were really attracted to it both because of these two female characters who are resisting and protecting a creature from the world and also because this creature is half child and half monster. We thought those two parts coexisting in the same individual would be an interesting conflict.

From the start we wanted to make it a werewolf story. First, we really like the werewolf  tale. We studied it and know that it’s present in many cultures all over the world. In Brazil it’s very strong, especially in the countryside. Stories about werewolves are passed on for generations there. I have uncles who are farmers who used to tell me those stories. In Brazil, the curse of the werewolf is mixed with religion. Usually the reason why you become a werewolf is connected to some transgression you’ve committed against religious morality. You can become a werewolf if you’re not baptized or if you commit infidelity or if you commit incest or if you have relations with a priest, so we thought that was really interesting, and it made us think a lot about our country.

It’s also a very strong, touching tale because it talks about a creature that is half human and half animal. We all exist with a balance between our rational side and our instincts, because we need to live—we need our rationality to evolve and to live in society—but we also need our instincts because they’re our passion and make us want to stay alive and to love and to protect.

We started to build the whole film with this idea of contrasts between two parts. The narrative itself has two parts. We created a São Paulo that is kind of stylized but shows the social differences and the racial issues that are connected to those social differences. We also see two sides of motherhood, both biological motherhood and adoptive motherhood. We tried to see the doubles in all the layers of the film.


DT: Like many fairy tales, this story uses those social issues as subtext. How did you use filmic elements—story, script, music, set design—to convey the elements of class, desire, loneliness?

JR: We really wanted to make a fairy tale in São Paulo that had a balance between a magical, supernatural side and the realistic presence of the city, as well as those geographical sociopolitical issues, so for us it was very delicate, especially in the way we portrayed the landscapes. We used a technique called matte painting. We painted over a shot that we’d already filmed to give an artificial aspect but still respecting what was strong about the real part of the city.

Thinking about two parts, we tried to build the production design, use of colors, and score to develop in a way that each part would have its identity but also would have elements of dialogue between one another. The first part, in the rich neighborhood where Anna lives, is like the castle in the fairy tale. It was cold, they have less human contact, it’s mostly just the two women in the whole first part. There’s a more restricted use of colors. There isn’t much nature, it’s more electronics and devices. The second part is like the woods in the fairy tale, or the village. In the second part we tried to have more colors and more life and more sounds and more interaction with other characters to have a sense of community. We tried to build the city in a kind of allegorical way but maintain its geographical social issues.


DT: In American horror films, the horror element is the focus of the film. In this film, it’s much more natural and organic to the rest of the action. When Dona Amelia discovers that Joel is a werewolf, she’s not alarmed—she just says, “I’m calling a priest.”

JR: Although we have realistic references, this film is a fantasy world, where the characters are more willing to accept things. It’s a fairy tale in São Paulo, so because it’s a fairy tale, there’s more flexibility about reason. When you do a very naturalistic film, you’re stuck to rationality. In this film, we are more in the between: between rationality and dream and fantasy. That’s what allows the film to travel to different genres, because not only do we have horror elements but we also have musical elements and comedy elements, so it was important to have that freedom.


DT: Is that that acceptance of the fantasy element also an aspect of Brazilian culture? Is there a touch of magical realism?

JR: We don’t have much of that in film or television, although in cinema novo they play with baroque, which is also a kind of genre and a kind of fantasy. There’s a lot of freedom in that. Our folklore is very strong, and Brazil is a very big country. We have many different regions that have their own folklore, so I think that affects us.


DT: Your answer to my previous question made me think of Jacques Demy. Was he a reference for this film?

JR: Yes. He was not the main reference, but we talked about him—not only Umbrellas of Cherbourg but another one called Donkey Skin, with Catherine Deneuve transformed into a donkey. It’s a really interesting film and also very free, because it’s like a fairy tale but also has a lot of humor. We talked a lot about that film.


DT: That’s precisely the film I was thinking of. Your film uses a lot of music; does the song in the music box have any particular significance?

JR: It’s an original song. Marco and I wrote the lyrics, and Marco wrote the music. It was also sung in the first versions of the script. It’s a lullaby from Anna’s childhood, but as the film goes on it becomes Clara’s lullaby to Joel. When we were writing, we thought to bring those elements so that it would have meaning for both Anna and Clara. For Anna, we tried to write the lyrics for a mother singing to child, but we also included nonhuman mothers, like many kinds of animals. This is a reminder from the countryside, because Anna talks about the little horse. That has strong significance for Anna, but it’s also a mother singing to a child about freedom, so that was important from the point of view of Clara singing to Joel.

One of our inspirations is the song “Baby Mine” from  Dumbo. Dumbo’s mother is locked in a cage. She tried to defend Dumbo from being mocked, and the people from the circus thought she was crazy, so they locked her up. Dumbo goes to her cage in the middle of the night to try to see her, but he can’t get in. He puts his trunk in the cage, and she touches it with her trunk and sings that song. It’s very beautiful, and all the other animals of the circus really love it. That was our inspiration.

DT: The production design and cinematography were fantastic. Can you talk about working with your DP and set designer?

JR: We worked really closely with our cinematographer,  Rui Poças [who recently shot Zama], and Fernando Zuccolotto, the set designer, because we wanted to make a fantastic universe. For us it was very important to create the rules: which colors we could use; what the references for that universe would be; how could we balance horror with fantasy and fairy tale? We talked a lot about color palette. One of our interests was the work of Mary Blair, who did a lot of illustrations and set design for Disney. We talked about how she used colors and how she used different layers to create a set. We talked a lot about other Disney works, especially Sleeping Beauty, the use of color and lighting and shadows to create horror. We talked a lot about Jacques Tourneur, especially Cat People and I Walk With a Zombie and how he used shadow in a very dramatic way, as well as  offscreen sounds and offscreen atmosphere to create tension.

We also spent a lot of time discussing Night of the Hunter. It’s a very theatrical film, and it’s very interesting. It’s also like a dark fairy tale,with two children in danger. The director [Charles Laughton!] uses shadows and different dramatic layers to create that atmosphere. Marco and Julian and Fernando and I shared a lot of references. Both Julian and Fernando are very connected with the dramaturgy—what’s happening in the scene, and what emotion we need to pass on in the scene. It was also very important to choose the way we were shooting and which lens was appropriate for each shot. It was very collaborative work with both of them.


DT: In another interview, you said you like the element of surprise. Hitchcock famously described the difference between surprise and suspense. Why do you like surprise, and how did you achieve it in this film?

JR: Maybe I like surprise because I’ve seen a lot of films, and it gives me a lot of pleasure when I see a story and don’t know where it’s going to take me. It’s very good to feel out of control, like you don’t know what’s going to happen and suddenly you think it’s going in a certain way and then it goes in another. I’m not only talking about plot; I’m also talking mood and rhythm. I also like films that make me think about them after they’re finished, like they didn’t give me exactly what I wanted. It’s good that you don’t get all you want and that the film also has space for the audience to project and understand things. It’s important to have that relationship between the movie and the spectator. I’m excited by that, so we tried to do that. When we were creating the film, we tried to make a film that we would like to watch, a film that would give us the most pleasure.


DT: So you’re not talking about the kind of surprise where someone pops out of a dark corner and scares you.

JR: No, no, it’s more about you thinking this is going to be a certain kind of film and then it’s a different kind and out of your comfort zone. Something you can’t quite classify or put a label on. I like that.


DT: You and Marco have collaborated on a number of short films, and this is the second feature you’ve done together. Why do you like collaborating, and what does it bring to the mix?

JR: Marco and I met in the first year of film school, when we were really young. I was seventeen, he was eighteen. We’ve been friends for almost twenty years now. It’s a very interesting friendship. We first got together because we both like the same kinds of films. After school we would go to the cinema or rent some horror films. We also really liked musicals. In school we also learned a lot about cinema together, both theory and in practice by making our first films and our first narratives. That’s a really strong bond, and we have a lot of synchrony because of that.

Of course we’ve changed over the years. We’ve gotten more mature, and now we have tastes of our own, different tastes, but it’s still really important to have that kind of connection to someone. We talk a lot about what we want to do and how we’re going to develop the story. We don’t divide functions—we do everything together, from the writing to postproduction. Sometimes we disagree, but when we do, we talk until we find a solution that suits both of us. That makes us go to places we would never have gone if we’d been alone, so that’s really interesting to be challenged by the other and to be taken to other places. We support each other when we want to do things that are risky and crazy, like doing the songs in the middle of the film. It’s really important to have that support and to have someone share your excitement and your doubts. We want to continue doing the partnership, but we also have to work alone. That doesn’t interfere. Sometimes we do things alone, and sometimes we do things together, and it’s really good.


DT: Is there anything you want to add?

JR: I hope people are open to the film and have fun watching it. I’m curious to see how the American public is going to react.


Copyright © Director Talk 2018

What Will People Say/Iram Haq

Nisha lives with her family in Norway, where she was born.  Her parents are Indian immigrants from Pakistan. When Nisha inevitably breaks her family’s rigid taboos, she is brutally abducted and sent to the “home country.” Reflecting writer/director Iram Haq’s personal story, What Will People Say unflinchingly lays bare the violence engendered by fear and isolation. Availability: Opens New York City, July 13, IFC Center, L.A. August 3 with national rollout to follow. Click here for the trailer. Thanks to Sara Sampson and David Ninh, Kino Lorber, for arranging this interview.

DT: Much of this film is autobiographical. Can you talk about the process of turning your own life experience into a piece of art.

IH: This was a story I wanted to tell for many years, because I experienced this when I was fourteen. It’s not one-to-one my story—it’s fictionalized. I wanted to tell this story, but I didn’t know how to tell it. I knew that I needed to be braver than I was, and I knew that I wanted to tell it in my way. I used up many years to adjust it, and it took a long while before I started to write it. That was also a journey, because one of the earliest drafts was really black-and-white. It was an angry young woman who wrote this story. I had to keep working on it because I wanted to tell it also from the father’s point of view. I wanted to understand the father.

I was not very close to my family, but while I was writing this, my father became ill. He had ten months more to live. I went to visit him in the hospital, and he said he was sorry for everything he did.

DT: Unprovoked?

IH: I didn’t say anything. He just said, “I’m sorry for everything.” It changed my script. It changed me a lot. I got the chance to be very, very close to him and also learn who he was, why he did the things he did when I was young. We started a friendship, and I asked him questions about why he did these things to me.

He was so full of fear. He was an immigrant, he was not integrated into the society, because he came from Pakistan, he had to work and send money back home, and take care of the family. He never had the chance to integrate, and that’s why he found my lifestyle very scary. I was rushing into a new world, into Western society, as a young girl. He comes from a very conservative family, so I think it was a big surprise for him—not surprise, but he was full of fear—and he handled the whole situation really badly.

I also had an ethical problem. How could I make this movie now, because we were becoming good friends. I asked him, “What do you think? I want to make this film.” And he said, “Yeah, I think it’s so important that you make this movie. I think it’s so important that you tell people how evil people can be when they are full of fear.”  That really helped me get the courage to tell it and also to change the script so we have love for both characters [Nisha, Iram’s alter ego, and the father].


DT: I had a long discussion with a film school friend about the final shot. You’ve made two very successful features now; how do you arrive at your final shot?

IH: I wrote both features by myself. I know more or less where it’s going to end, but it’s also a process on the other side, because you don’t know exactly how it’s going to end. You have an idea where this film is going to stop. For me it’s important to have a good idea what the end will be like, but not to the point where you see the shot. I was not so aware of it before getting close to the end of shooting, and the editing process changes it a little too.



DT: For me, the final shot of this film radically changes its meaning, because it becomes the father’s film; this has enormous significance in terms of the possibility of personal and cultural change.

IH: He sees himself in the reflection. We already saw her little sister, who was watching her big sister leave, and the next one is going to be her. The father sees his daughter, their eyes meet, he sets her free, and he also sees himself in the reflection; it’s he who has to work on himself, it’s not the girl, and it also gives hope for the younger sister.



DT: In some ways, growing up as the daughter of Pakistani immigrants in Norway gave you an outsider’s perspective. What did that allow you to see about both cultures that you were occupying—the Pakistani and the Norwegian?

IH: Dealing with it is always a delicate matter, because I’m telling one story, I’m not telling everybody’s story. The good thing is that I have the inside view from both cultures. For this problem, which is about social control—how we control our youth, especially girls with an immigrant background from a Pakistani family, for example—the Norwegians don’t know what’s going on in these kinds of families. In the film you see that the social workers don’t know how to handle it. They can see this is a problem, and they don’t know what to do. That’s something I can show because I know how the Norwegian social workers work. I also have the insight of the mentality and way of thinking of the Pakistanis, so I feel very lucky, kind of rich, because I have two cultures which I understand pretty well.


DT: There was that marvelous moment in the film when Nisha, the character representing you, says, “I’m here to explore my parents’ culture,” and her little cousin says, “Your culture.” To what extent did Pakistani culture become your culture after your year in Pakistan?

IH: That year really changed my life in so many ways. I grew up so quickly; it was like taking away my childhood. You have to be grown up because nobody is there for you. You have to learn this society, the language, how to read and write, to handle situations. Coming back to Norway, it was also very hard to find my place. To have two identities was very hard, because for many years I tried to not have anything to do with the Pakistani part of me. I’m Norwegian, I just have black hair; my parents are Pakistani but I have nothing to do with it. But the older I get the more aware of it I am, because sometimes it’s the Pakistani music or food I feel more connected to. I know now that I can choose from both cultures, but when I was younger I had to choose: either/or. I couldn’t have both. I was frozen out of the Pakistani community in Norway, so I had to think I was totally Norwegian, because there was no choice; I just had Norwegian to choose. But today, as a grown-up woman, I can choose both as much as I want.


DT: Why were you frozen out of the Pakistani community?

IH: When I was a teenager I left my family, as in the movie. Everybody froze me out, so I had to just accept that and choose the other option, which was Norwegian. That was very hard when I was young and really hard to find my identity. Who am I? I look different. My behavior is different. I was really looking for something.  didn’t know what it was, but today things are more balanced.


DT: Did your year in Pakistan give you insight into what it means to be an immigrant?

IH: In a way, but for me it was more like looking at my parents than looking at myself in Pakistan. I really felt sorry for my father, for example, who was really not good at being part of Norwegian society. I could really see how much of a struggle it was for them to fit in a society where there was no one like them. Of course we had the Pakistani community, but we were not really a part of the bigger society, and that made the world very small for my family. I didn’t want to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of normal Norwegian society. I was born there, I speak the language fluently, I have Norwegian friends. I didn’t want to keep myself just with them [the family], because they were afraid of the difference.


DT: From your firsthand experience, how possible do you think it is in the world today, where things are becoming more integrated in some ways but in some ways more fascist, to both assimilate and maintain your own community at the same time?

IH: I hope it’s possible to keep the culture you come from and integrate into the society you’re living in. I think there are people who can do that, but for my family it was very, very hard to be both, as I saw it. Maybe not for other people, but my family was different: They were not typical Pakistanis either because they were Indian immigrants from Pakistan, with slightly different behavior from the Pakistanis. So we were also outcasts between them. But the problems I experienced were not unusual…this is a problem we have in Scandinavia and many Western countries, where Pakistani girls and girls from other countries get kidnapped or killed by their families. This doesn’t happens in the US, but this happens in Europe.


DT: The cliff scene was one of the most shocking and brutal I’ve ever seen. What was it like for your actors?

IH: I wrote that scene on Christmas Eve. The young girl who plays Nisha [Maria Mozhdah] played in some small TV serials when she was ten, but this was her first film. She was seventeen when we shot, and we worked very, very closely. She’s lovely. The actor who plays the father [Adil Hussain] is a famous Indian actor. My work was to give them not just the idea but all my emotions around those kinds of situations. But of course it was really hard for them to make that scene. There were several scenes that were hard to do, for example when the father had to spit on Nisha’s face, and the police scene of course. It was really, really emotionally hard for him, really hard for her as well, but they were brilliant and we were all so close, so it went really well.


DT: You’ve been a writer, director, and actor. Does working on certain films change you as a person?

IH: For me it was weird. It was like opening Pandora’s box to start to look at all the emotions and what happened to me, which I hadn’t been thinking about much all those years. Even though I knew I wanted to make this movie, I didn’t want to open up and look at what happened when I was young. I tried to give the script away. I wanted someone else to write it for me because it was so hard. I ended up writing it for myself because I didn’t find the right writer. At the beginning I just wanted to throw up, and then slowly the script started to change and got a fictionalized feeling. That helped, but scenes like when she’s with the father on the cliff, when he cried, I cried behind the monitor. It was emotional for me to see and understand her emotions and my father’s emotions and what I went through. Suddenly I could see my life from outside. It gave me some new ideas; of course it’s too early to say how I’ve changed, because we released the film last year, but definitely it made some changes in my life. Telling this story is also something like a closure, because there were so many years that I didn’t talk about it. Not because I didn’t want to talk about it—I just kind of forgot that I was kidnapped. Once in a while people are surprised, because they didn’t know anything about my background. Many people thought I was adopted. It was really interesting to dig deep into my own issues, why I had those issues, and how they’re linked to what happened at that time. Those things got more clear.


DT: One thing that struck me is how weak the men are.

IH: The men are weak but the women are also socially controlling. The girls, the mother, the aunt, it’s a cultural problem too. They’re full of violence as well, so it’s not just the men. They all are part of it: it’s as if someone else is handling them like marionettes, making them do things. The brother understands Nisha in a way, but he is so into pleasing his father and mother that he doesn’t care about her.


DT: The most shocking was the cousin in Pakistan, who was asked if he wants to marry Nisha after the event with the police and he says, “I’ll do whatever you want.”

IH: You believe that these men are so macho, so strong, but it’s not necessarily like this. In my experience I have seen many Pakistani men being more weak than the women, who can be so strong.


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

IH: I really hope that people will not see it as a black-and-white story, that they’ll also see that everyone is in a jail here—the father, the brother, the mother, the little sister, and Nisha. They all are into What Will People Say. They’re in a jail, all of them. I want people to see the struggle, what’s happening, and also I want audiences not to close their eyes if they know, if they have any idea about someone else experiencing this kind of problem. Try to care.


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