VIAJE – Filmmaker Paz Fabrega and Actress Kattia Gonzalez about the New Cinema of Costa Rica, their personal approach to filmmaking and the desire to portray relationships more realistically on the big screen
FREDERICK WISEMAN is probably one of today’s greatest living documentary filmmakers. For almost 50 years, he has created an exceptional body of work devoted primarily to exploring American institutions. His early films expose societal problems, revealing the profound inequality of American society. They are also a reflection on democracy, a questioning of the world and how we exist in it.
Over time these films have become a record of the western world: Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1970), I Miss Sonia Henie (1971), Basic Training (1971), Essene (1972), Juvenile Court (1973), Primate (1974), Welfare (1975), Meat (1976), Canal Zone (1977), Sinai Field Mission (1978), Manoeuvre (1979), Seraphita’s Diary (1980), Model (1980), The Store (1983), Racetrack (1985), Multi-Handicapped (1986), Deaf (1986), Adjustment and Work (1986), Missile (1987), Blind (1987), Near Death (1989), Central Park (1989), Aspen (1991), Zoo (1993), High School II (1994), Ballet (1995), La Comédie-Française ou L’amour joué (1996), Public Housing (1997), Belfast, Maine (1999), Domestic Violence (2001), La Derniere lettre / The Last Letter (2002), Domestic Violence 2 (2002), The Garden (2005), State Legislature (2006), La Danse (2009), Boxing Gym (2010), Crazy Horse (2011). You can find extensive information about them on the Zipporah website, Wiseman’s distribution company.
His latest film, AT BERKELEY, is a 4-hour documentary about Berkeley University, one of the most forward-thinking and creative universities in the United States. Shot in Wiseman’s signature detached, non-involved, “direct cinema” style, the film introduces us to an array of lectures, from high-tech engineering for human prostheses and taxidermy classes to impassioned debates on the inequalities of the American education system and animated management meetings.
AT BERKELEY screened at the 57th BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL where I had the honour to meet the legendary filmmaker. This interview was taken on October 14, 2013, at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, London.
Dana:What sparked your interest in this project?
Frederick: I’ve been doing a series of films about institutions and I’ve never done an university before. And I wanted to do a public university. And Berkeley is a great public university, not only in America but in the world. So I asked a commissioner and they gave me a commission.
Dana: What were your expectations before you started work on this project?
Frederick: The only expectation was that I assumed that if I hung around there long enough, I’d get enough good material out of which I could cut a movie. But I didn’t start from any point of view, I didn’t have a thesis. …The final film is in a sense a report on what I leant.
Dana: Because you went in with a totally open mind, were there any surprises?
Frederick: I think I went in with a totally open mind. And I wasn’t disappointed at all, Berkeley is a great university, I was privileged to be able to work with them. It was nice to see that the Chancellor, who is the Head of the University, and his administration cared so much about the university and worked so hard to preserve its standing integrity in the face of an enormous financial crisis.
Dana: Critics bring up “middle-class angst” when they talk about your film, is this something you tried to capture?
Frederick: Well, I think some of the sequences of the film do that, the film captures the concern about middle-class students, about finding the money to pay the tuition, all those students who are not able to get a scholarship. And the tuition is high and the living expenses are high, and many of their parents either lost their jobs or their salaries were cut back because of the economic crisis.
Dana: Do you now feel you know this institution inside out?
Frederick: I think it would be presumptuous for me to say I know it inside out, I know some of it and I had the privilege of being able to participate in all kinds of activities that are normally closed to the public. Whether I know it inside out I don’t know.
Dana: It would have taken maybe a much longer film…
Frederick: A much longer film, yes. After all there are 35,000 students, 5,000 faculty staff, 5,000 other people who work there so it’s a community of 45,000 people. And I was only there for 12 weeks, I couldn’t cover every aspect of it in 12 weeks.
Dana: How many hours did you film?
Frederick: 250 hours. And the film is a mere four hours, I only used 1/60 of the material.
Dana: How did you decide on what goes into the film and what is left out?
Frederick: What happens in the editing is thinking my way through the experience of being there for 12 weeks based on the notes that I had of that experience, which were the rushes. It’s in trying to think what the rushes mean to me that I discovered the film.
Dana: On the subject of cinéma vérité, I know you’re not a fan of this concept…
Frederick: I think it’s a pretentious French term. What I try to do is edit the films so that they will have a dramatic structure, and for me the term cinéma vérité or at least observational cinema connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another and that is not true. At least that is not true for me.
Dana: But talking about the “truth” value of a documentary, can we ever learn the truth about anything?
Frederick: Well, no, it’s always someone’s version of what is going on.
Dana: There is no absolute truth …
Frederick: And even if there were, how would you know when you found it! There’s no God that gives you 10 out of 10 for finding the absolute truth.
Dana: What is the next institution you are going to explore?
Frederick: I’m not sure what I’m going to do next but I’ll probably do something similar.
Dana: What was your favourite of all the institutions you tackled so far?
Frederick: Of all the movies I’ve done? It’s like asking me which of my children I like the best!I like them all. I always tend to like the most recent one the best because that’s the one I worked hardest on recently.
An intimate family drama, ILO ILO is the debut feature of director ANTHONY CHEN and the first Singaporean feature film to win a major award at the CANNES FILM FESTIVAL (Camera d’Or, 2013). Since the standing ovation in Cannes, this charming film won as many hearts as prizes, among which the much-coveted Sutherland Award for the most original and imaginative feature debut at the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.
Set during the beginning of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, ILO ILO tells the tale of a Filipino maid who comes to Singapore in search of a better life and her impact on the family whose 10-year old troublesome son she’s looking after.
This interview was taken on October 11, 2013 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.
Dana: This is your first feature film, please tell me about the experience of making a feature film for the first time? Did it help to make a lot of shorts before?
Anthony: Yes I did a lot of shorts before, I made 9 shorts before making this feature film. I spent three years making this film, I wrote and directed the film, I did most of the producing as well. I do feel that there is a huge learning curve, it is a huge step up from making shorts, I can say right now that I know how to make a good short film because I made so many now and I know the format very well but even though I made my first feature and yes, it was quite successful, I’m not sure if I can say I know how to make another feature film.
Dana: I find that hard to believe.
Anthony: I find that hard to believe myself! But it is that hard. I do feel that making features will not get easier, it will only get harder and tougher…
Dana: Is it because with every film you’re raising the bar a little bit?
Anthony: I think it’s because with each film, it just gives you more confidence to make the next film but you’re not remaking the path of the last film. With each film you get more ambitious, with each film you deal with a different subject matter, you work with a different cast and crew, you will have a new set of challenges[…]. It doesn’t get easier, you’re always figuring it out, you’re going into new unchartered waters all the time. I hope the second one won’t be so painful but filmmaking is always painful…
Dana: But you certainly enjoy making films, don’t you?
Anthony: I do enjoy making films but I think a lot of filmmakers get a lot of satisfaction from the pain that they go through when making a film…
Dana: Is filmmaking a masochistic activity?
Anthony: I think so, yes. Filmmakers love pain. I can’t understand why anyone would want to make films, it’s such a massive struggle, financially you usually start off very very poor, you always have to go around and ask for stuff, the process itself drains you, it drains your heart, your mind. Even when I was making shorts, I would make one and get through a lot of hardship to get it finished and I would say “Okay, this might be the last one” but a few months later I’m itching again for that pain, to go through that hell again. And of course filmmaking is an obsession, with my shorts and my features I’m usually obsessed with a certain character, a certain location, or certain theme. And this obsession just drives you into that frame of mind, obsession drives filmmakers…
Dana: Did you expect to have such a huge success with this film?
Anthony: No…I think I’m quite astounded and I’m very grateful for the whole journey I made with this film. The film was made with very pure intentions. I just wanted to make a very honest and very sincere film. That was it. I wasn’t making it to get into festivals, to win awards. It wasn’t a packaged product either, I wasn’t aiming for the box-office or anything like that. Getting into Cannes was huge for me, and the fact that the film won the Camera d’Or, that it’s doing well at the box-office in Singapore and France, all that has importance but I didn’t set out to achieve all that.
Dana: And this is when it happens, probably, when the intentions are innocent.
Anthony: I think so yes, which is why I think honesty is very important. And I hope I will preserve the same honesty and integrity going from film to film, because it’s very hard. You see a lot of big filmmakers that you admire and you sometimes wonder why they are making what they are making, why they made such great films and all of a sudden, they have all this money, all this budget, but […] a lot of their work becomes more like luster, it gets compromised.
Dana: If you were to go back and shoot the film again, would you make any changes?
Anthony: I wouldn’t. Because this films is sitting comfortably with me right now but perhaps in six months or one year I might start going: “I need to change this, or that…”. But I think the film sits quite comfortably with me now, not because of what people say but because I don’t like to judge all my previous work, I think every piece of film, be it a short or a feature, represents a stage of your growth, your maturity and you wouldn’t be able to move forward if you haven’t got that part of your history. So it’s not about “Oh I wish I could erase that film from my cinematography, or I wish I didn’t make that film”. Because that film led to the next film…
Dana: And talking about the next film, do you have something lined up already?
Anthony: I wish I knew. Like I said filmmaking is an obsession, and I’m looking for the next obsession. I hope it comes sooner rather than later. I spent three years making my first feature, hopefully it won’t be another three years, I don’t know what it will be but it will most probably be an English-language film.
Dana: For how long have you lived in the UK?
Anthony: Four or five years, I’m actually based in London. I went to the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, I did a two-year masters degree in film directing. So the fact that the film screens at the London Film Festival is personally quite special for me, London is like my second home so it’s a bit like a home-coming.
Dana: And do you think you are as astutely aware of the nuances in the society and class-system here as you are of the culture in which you grew up?
Anthony: It’s interesting, I made a graduation film at the film school, a short film called Lighthouse, and that was a real challenge for me because that was the first full-on English language, very British film that I made with a full English cast. And I think that went quite well, I now want to see if I can make a feature film here. At the same time, one of my heroes […] is Ang Lee, and what I appreciate about him is that he can go in and out of different periods, different cultures, different eras, but there is always the same respect and humility for the human condition, for his characters. And I believe that is the power of cinema, it’s one of the mediums that cuts across and transcends language, it transcends cultures. If you’re honest about looking at people, looking at humanity, language and culture become a lesser problem, because we are obviously connected in the same way, by the same humanity.
Dana: How did the screenwriting process go? As far as dialogue is concerned, did you try to keep it to a minimum?
Anthony: It was interesting because I refuse for my actors to change any single word.
Dana: That’s surprising as the film has a certain fluidity to it, was there no improvisation?
Anthony: No, a lot of people thought that the film was improvised. But no…In the editing I did cut down some of the scenes when they got too long and two or three scenes were dropped in the cutting room but apart from that I refuse to let them change a single word, a single line, I was so dogmatic about it.
Dana: And why is that?
Anthony: Because when I write there is a certain flow, a certain nuance and a certain rhythm that I felt work. And I don’t want to change that.
Dana: And I suppose the actors felt it worked as well.
Anthony: Not really! Which is why when it doesn’t work I have to do multiple takes to get it to flow.
Dana: Did you have any disagreements on the set concerning certain scenes?
Anthony: No, we didn’t have fights on the set.
Dana: Did you know the actors before you cast them?
Anthony: Apart from one of the lead actors in the film who was in one of my short films, I didn’t work with the rest of them. The lead in the film, the 10-year old boy, was cast out of a long casting process, we spent 10 months going to 20 schools, we saw thousands of children before we locked him down. Out of the 8,000 children, I shortlisted 150 of them and then I did six months of workshops, every weekend, before I locked him down…
Dana: What was the quality you were looking for in your child lead, you were obviously looking for something very specific?
Anthony: I think in most films, especially Hollywood films, most filmmakers would easily go for the prettiest kid, the cutest kid. But I wanted something that was real, that was raw. For me there was something about his face, there’s a fragility, there’s a vulnerability that I found was very interesting. There is something that isn’t quite right about him, but what is it, you don’t know. And that worked for me in this film. He was very good material for me to work with as a director.
I still remember the day I first discovered a Bernard Rose film. It was Ivans xts, I randomly picked up a DVD copy at the Birkbeck Library and not being familiar with the filmmaker I had no expectations of it. To my great surprise, five minutes into the movie I was completely hooked, totally absorbed. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, it felt so raw, so fiercely authentic, it almost made you wonder “Is this a film or is it all happening right this moment and someone is broadcasting it live as I watch”?!!
Four years later I got to meet the director BERNARD ROSE in person at the screening of his new film, TWO JACKS, which had its London premiere at RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in September 2013. Starring Danny Huston, Jack Huston, Sienna Miller and Jacqueline Bisset, Two Jacks has the same authentic, hyper-real quality that I so admired in Ivans xts. Also, both films are based on Tolstoy stories and interestingly enough, both films are set in LA. Do they work, you might ask? Yes they do, and Bernard kindly explains how…
This interview was taken on October 1, 2013 at Apollo Cinema, Piccadilly Circus, London. Julia Verdin, the producer of the film, was also present and contributed some very interesting insights.
Dana: I was very fascinated with this film, as with your previous Tolstoy adaptations, and I was trying to deconstruct what the fascination consists of…What are your thoughts on that?
Bernard: It’s a bit of a difficult one because obviously if I didn’t think it was interesting, I wouldn’t have made it. I don’t know, for me what is interesting about all these films is that they have an unusual mixture, it’s something that is very intrinsically Russian, transplanted to a very American setting. All of my Tolstoy adaptations are set in California, even Boxing Day which ends up in Colorado. The films are all set in LA, but they are all based on stories that are set in Russia. So they all have this strange cultural disconnect in a way. Russian culture is fate- and death-obsessed I would say, and American culture is absolutely the opposite, it’s in total denial of death and disbelief that there is such a thing as fate. The American credo is that you can form your own future, you can visualise your future and everything will come to you. So in a sense they are polar opposites.
Dana: This makes the film a sort of cultural paradox then.
Bernard: It is a paradox yes. Because both positions are wrong in a sense, the Russian fatalism and the American optimism are both fantasy, they are both illusions, the truth is somewhere in between. So I think there’s an interesting thing that happens when you combine those two things, it makes the story seem different than if you did it in Russia or even in a German setting. And there is this element of improvisational looseness that is part of the story. One of the things I always liked about Tolstoy is that his style is very casual. Unlike say Dostoevsky who is meticulous, literary, intricate and with a very complicated style. Tolstoy is very simple, very direct and sometimes his literary style is almost a little bit slapdash, it’s not really great writing, even in the original, or so I’m told, I don’t read Russian. So this direct, unvarnished, unfussy style produces an odd texture…
Dana: In terms of content and form, you take a classic story and you shoot it in a cinéma vérité style…
Bernard: Right, and I think this is how Tolstoy viewed himself, as a realist. In many ways Tolstoy is a precursor for Hemingway who also had a simple, direct style. But what is brilliant about Tolstoy’s narrative tricks is that although his stories always seem simple, humanistic, he would always come up with a magic trick and land on a sort of grand spiritual plane almost effortlessly because he had that kind of mind as a storyteller. He was always looking at the bigger picture.
Dana: And I think this is what you managed to convey with the film, there is a sense of doom about it.
Bernard: Yes, there is a sense of doom and yet also a sense of something grander…
Dana: Yes, and maybe uplifting, I really loved the last scene…
Bernard: Which is not in the book by the way.
Dana: Why did you add it to the film?
Bernard: Because the end of the story is a little inconclusive, Tolstoy sort of rushes through it.The story ends with the son’s attempt to seduce the daughter and he kind of fails, he gets discovered and then there’s a sort of very fast epilogue which says basically what happened to him, that he fell out with his friend and they left town. Which didn’t seem like a very satisfying conclusion. So the third act is my invention and I got the father scene from the end of War and Peace.
Dana (cheekily): In one of your interviews you said you haven’t read this novel!
Bernard: (laughing) I’ve read parts of it, I haven’t read it all the way through. So at the end of War and Peace there is this little domestic scene with Andrey’s son, Andrey of course is long dead in the book and his son is there and this ghost just appears behind him and puts his hand on his shoulder.
Dana: A very nice “touch” for the final scene in Two Jacks…
Bernard: Yes but it’s actually the end of War and Peace. Which not many people realise […], people think the end of the book is when Pierre goes off with Natasha, which is the end of the story but not the end of the book.
Dana: And in your film this scene is perfect because it tells us a lot about the father-son relationship, the fact that their personalities are so alike.
Bernard: Yes the scene works.
Dana: Technically speaking, despite its deliberately amateurish style, I paradoxically find no fault with this film, do you?
Bernard: It’s very dangerous to analyse…Because one of the things with doing a film in this manner, and with all the films in the Tolstoy series, is that they are deliberately imperfect technically, not because I try to make them that way but just because these are the circumstances of how it happened. And I think that if something is perfect, it’s dead.
Dana: Something Godard believed as well, he used to kick things around on the set to make it look less perfect.
Bernard: You have to. On this note, Isabella Rossellini told me a story, when she was married to Scorsese, at the time he was making Raging Bull. She said that he was cutting a scene in Raging Bull and he was happy with it but he was very depressed, so she asked “What’s the problem, Martin?It’s a fantastic scene”, “Yeah, he says, it’s fantastic, but it’s perfect and that means it’s dead. But I don’t want to change anything, because I really like the way it is”. And he was confused as to what to do and eventually he arbitrarily snipped a frame out of the middle of it to make something imperfect about it.
Dana: There is something about imperfection that is so deeply human, I suppose, is that what it is?
Bernard: Yes. And when somebody tells you earnestly “I’m a perfectionist” what they are really saying is that they are an idiot (laughing). It means they are impossible to deal with, they are control freaks, they are horrible, get as far away from them as you possibly can! (laughing)
Dana: But in a sense Hollywood is all about perfection.
Bernard: Yes but in a sense the idea of perfection is an absurdity because perfection already clearly exists everywhere. So the idea that a piece of art can be perfect, is something that a tweaker would say. […] People have said Stanley Kubrick was a perfectionist. I don’t think he was a perfectionist, his work is full of really interesting mistakes. I think he knew very well that things couldn’t be perfect, he just tried to hedge his bets as much as possible. But he wasn’t a perfectionist, there are other people who fall under this category. But look at their work, it’s incredibly sterile, it’s not interesting at all.
Dana: And probably by doing take after take after take Kubrick was trying to capture something, rather than achieve perfection…
Bernard: In fact he kept them going until they were bad and he would use the bad take…So it was a form of insanity rather than perfectionism!
Dana: You have a long, winding, fascinating career behind you, what is the most important lesson you have learnt along the way?
Bernard: One of the most important lessons I learnt is that you can only make the films that you can make, you can’t make the films that people would prefer you to make. Because I simply wouldn’t know how to do them and if I tried to do them it usually ends in tears very quickly. Unless you’re doing something you feel really aligned with and very confident about, you can’t do a good job. For me, I can’t do it at all. Sometimes I found myself in this situation, trying to write a screenplay for people, and I start up thinking “Great, it’s a fabulous job, it will be fun to do”…
Dana: Are you writing screenplays for other people to shoot?
Bernard: Not necessarily for other people to shoot but studio projects or other people’s projects, or stuff that I’d thought I could get into…And when I actually got into it, I just didn’t know what to do with it, that happened to me, you can’t finish it. Or if you do finish it, it’s terrible. And then they are always really unhappy.
Dana: What’s life in Hollywood like?
Bernard: Well, it’s pretty much like in my movies…some of the time (laughing). Funnily enough I just gave up my apartment in Los Angeles, I’ve always liked LA just as a place, I think it’s an interesting place because it is very isolated, on one side there’s thousands of miles of water and on the other side there’s thousands of miles of desert, it’s really in the middle of nowhere. And yet it’s a huge metropolis and people there are very insular and inward-looking, and I think that’s an interesting combination. And I have a life there, a lot of people I know, like Julia (Julia Verdin, the producer of Two Jacks) for example, so I like being there. But I think increasingly I barely interact with the businesses there, and I don’t think anybody does, because it’s almost impossible to shoot a film in California now over a certain budget because it just doesn’t make any sense. Even a tiny film like this, you kind of need your head examined to do it there. If you do it here you get tax rebates and investors can get tax rebates, the financial incentives are enormous, and they exist in other places in America but I don’t want to live in Louisiana, not because it’s a horrible place, I just don’t want to live there […]. When I first went to LA, you’d get up in the morning, or get up early or shooting, you’d be on the freeway and there’d be wagons and trailers and grit trucks and you’d see them all, and trains going down on the freeway…Now it’s all gone, they don’t shoot anything there anymore, except TV shows, and not many of them either…
Dana: And you’re not interested in TV shows?
Bernard: I might be but all the dramatic TV show are shot in Vancouver or New York or other places. They are not shot there. The only things they shoot there are talk shows and reality stuff. There’s a real danger of the infrastructure of the place falling apart because the production there has gone down so much, it’s become almost financially impossible now to make a film there, unless it’s a really tiny film. And there’s a lot more opportunity in Europe. At the moment the ideas I have are more European-based, so I think I’m going to spend more time in London and I’m going to try and do some stuff here. There’s a bigger film I’m going to make next year, and there’s some little films I’d like to do as well. I made a film in Germany last year, which was fun, in Munich and Vienna.
Dana: Which one was this?
Bernard: It was called The Devil’s Violonist. It’s about Paganini, it premieres in Munich on the 24th of October (2013) and we have a premiere in Vienna on the 28th. Two Jacks is opening in LA soon.
Dana: You have so many films opening. And you have another one in the London Film Festival.
Bernard: Yes, SX_Tape, opening on the 12th. But see that at your peril!It’s scary, it’s disturbing, it’s a horror film. I like to make horror films every now and again. You might not like it, it’s very experimental, it’s done completely from the point of view of this guy filming his girlfriend, so you never see the lead guy until the final shot, there are no objective shots at all and there’s no cutting, whatsoever. I mean there is cutting but there is no intercutting, you never cut from one shot to their reaction and then back to the action. It’s just whatever he’s shooting, and then the next bit he’s shooting, and then the next bit he’s shooting. It’s like a sausage, all these shots follow one another and sometimes they leap forward, so whenever there is a cut it’s always one minute later. And sometimes it is an hour later. It was very experimental.
Dana: A very interesting concept. Did it originate with you?
Bernard: Actually it wasn’t my screenplay but I thought the concept was really interesting. Basically I improvised the film because it’s meant to be just what comes out of somebody’s canvas, I just improvised it really, it was fun to do.
Dana: When you give an interview, is there a question you wish you were asked but was never asked, an aspect of your work that critics always missed?
Bernard: Perhaps one of the things that nobody ever really spotted is that when I’m shooting a film I don’t rehearse it, I never say to the actors “Come in the door, you stand there and you stand there and I’ll shoot it”. I just say “Let’s do it”.
Dana: You just put the actors on the spot…
Bernard: I just say “Let’s go”. And if I don’t like it we’ll do it again. And then I just shoot them and I shoot something else, I don’t say this is a wide shot, this is a close-up, this is on you and this is on him.
Dana: So they don’t know…
Bernard: Well, I don’t know either.
Dana: Does it all happen while it is being filmed, without any preparation at all, total spontaneity?
Bernard: Exactly. No one knows what it is going to happen … And then obviously when you do it again, and I do do it again, I shoot with different cameras but I very rarely, in fact never shoot the same shot twice. So it’s a little bit different. But it doesn’t look like it when you see it cut together.
Dana: It just flows.
Bernard: It flows. And I shot the Paganini film the same way. It was unexpected and I don’t think you can tell when you see the film finished.
Dana: Somebody said that to really master technique is to be able to hide the technique entirely.
With Pasolini you feel like he never shot anybody doing a scene. You feel like he was always just filming whatever they were doing. And especially all his films set in various ancient worlds, whether it was Oedipus or Arabian Nights, or his Gospel films. He did that better than anybody else, there was this sort of almost documentary quality to it, even though of course what you were looking at was a full-scale biblical or Arabian reproduction, tons of art direction, costumes, but you never got that sense, it felt very very real, he somehow tricked you into really believing it. This is why people really loved his Gospel movies, because it felt almost like a documentary, he had a different way of looking at something that was incredibly clichéd. I really like the way his films were shot, with this disrespect for the machinery, which of course was also an incredibly intelligent style because Pasolini was also a hyper-intellectual and a poet. He used to divide cinema into two kinds: poetic cinema and prose cinema. And obviously he saw himself as a poet, and he was a poet. And he had that quality I really liked.
And Cassavetes has a similar style but he comes from a very different place. All he cares about is the actor. There are no performances in Pasolini’s films, they are all just figures, and he would loop them with somebody else probably. But with Cassavetes it’s all about the actors. My favourite Cassavetes film is Opening Night, it’s a really interesting movie because it’s really about how an actor develops a role, it really shows what she goes through, she’s just not satisfied, she’s willing to push everybody’s buttons, push them right near the edge, even to the edge of madness, but in the end she’s amazing. He really captured some of them, and he was part of it, he was an actor himself and he knew all that stuff. And the performances that are in the Cassavetes pictures are so much more free and powerful than the performances that you see even in really good films of the same period with really great actors. At the moment you have a situation where everyone is grinding through the same scene from three different masters and three different directions, and you have medium shots, and long shots, and tracking shots and close-ups, but by the time you get to the close-up all you have is a bunch of exhausted actors. And that’s how film ended up what it is. To me that’s a completely waste of time, I’ll start with the close-up and maybe at the end when I’m bored I’ll shoot a wide shot. And I never understood why people do it the other way around, it’s completely idiotic.[…]
Dana: Talking about trying to capture this sense of reality, some filmmakers choose to work with non-actors, would you ever consider that?
Bernard: Well I have worked with non-actors.Danny wasn’t an actor when he did Ivan XTS, he was a director. And some other people in that film weren’t actors, they were basically playing themselves. In 2 Jacks they were mostly actors but a lot of them were playing actors. The cops are real policemen.
Dana: But for the lead performances you’d rather work with actors probably?
Bernard: It depends. On The Devil’s Violonist I cast a real violinist because it’s so difficult what he has to do, to play Paganini for real. There was no way I could do that with just an actor. Depends on the part and what skills people need. When you have someone doing a professional job, it helps if they know what they’re doing.
Dana: What’s your take on the main character in Two Jacks? I find him utterly fascinating but I don’t feel I have a very good handle on him, he’s very mysterious, elusive…
Bernard: What I liked most about the book is that the older Jack is outrageous, he behaves badly, he does terrible things all the time. But he has a moral compass, he gets the guy’s money back, he leaves Diana’s bed in the middle of the night and he goes back in the morning but she doesn’t know, and he kisses her. So he’s not exactly moral but he has a code, whatever it is. And he’s dashing, like a 19th century cavalry officer. Whereas his son, he’s trying and he doesn’t get there, he’s just demanding, he’s just difficult. So in the film I contrast the two of them.
Dana: But the son is also very young, you don’t know what he’ll grow into.
Bernard: Yes he’s very young. But at the end you realise that that’s it, he got kicked…
Dana: There’s still a smile on his face though…
Bernard: That’s it, he realises that that’s the point!
Dana: And he’ll come back.
Bernard: He will come back. They are like those guys, they would come to town, they would do stuff and they would leave, like some sort of troubadours in that era. And they were considered very dashing, they were like old movie stars, in a small town, in provincial Russia, where the book is set. For me the important thing is that the old Jack is someone with panache.
Dana: There’s also the subtle allusions to John Huston, the famous Hollywood director and Danny’s father…
Bernard: This is very interesting as Danny was saying very insistently at the Q&A that the character isn’t at all like his father. And I think honestly that’s not true…
Dana: Do tell us!
Bernard: I think his mother gave him a hard time : “That’s not John, John would never be like that”! And probably Danny went “brrrrrr”!
Dana: But the old Jack is a very likeable character in a way, he’s very charismatic. And yes he is doing all those terrible things…
Julia Verdin: But he’s got the charisma to make you forgive him!
Bernard: One of the things that are interesting about characters in the movies, and Jack Nicholson’s career was built this way, is that audiences like characters that do things that they would never dare to do, they like characters to be outrageous, to get away with things that they would possibly balk at…
Julia Verdin: And the interesting thing about charisma is that it’s something you can’t buy or manufacture, you’ve either got charisma or you haven’t, and that’s why the younger Jack is struggling. His father had a charisma that made him who he was whereas the younger Jack is desperately trying to get the same charisma but he just can’t pull it off. He hasn’t kind of grown into himself yet, in a funny way.
Bernard: That’s right, and that happens with men a lot, they can come across as shrill and brash and when they are a little older, they can grow into it. To some degree, Danny was like that, I knew Danny when he was a lot younger, and he did sort of grow into himself, quite a lot.
Dana: I think Danny Huston is perfect for the role, he’s very charming and he totally steals the show. And I think Two Jacks is a very captivating film, congratulations.
Bernard: Thank you, it’s lovey to hear that you like it. Because I think it’s an unusual movie, it doesn’t have a great issue, it doesn’t force a great melodramatic climax on anybody. In some ways it would be easy to just pass it by. And I think that it really works as the final part of all these films, it kind of reflects and is a mirror to Ivans xts but in a very different way. Ivans xts is very harsh and real and it’s about the really dark side of Hollywood, whereas Two Jacks is much more about this other side, where there is glamour and appeal. […] In Hollywood there are two lies people tell you, I won’t tell you what the second one is but the first one is “I’ve got the money!”
Dana: Can I guess, the other one is “Your script is great!”
Bernard: No, no, I can’t tell you the other one!
Dana: I heard someone say that the feedback almost anyone gets in Hollywood is “Your script is great, I love your script”.
Bernard: That’s right, but the moment someone tells you “I’ve got the money”, put on your shoes and run, that just means they are trying to steal some money from you. People who have the money tend to say “I’d like somebody else to pay for it”, that’s what they tell you, they don’t want to tell you they have the money. […] And Hollywood is full of people like that. Someone said that LA is the only place in the world where you can die of hope!
Dana: And it’s probably what makes Hollywood fascinating. I can tell you’re equally fascinated with Tolstoy and with Hollywood, hence bringing the two together.
Bernard: That’s right. Hollywood is very fascinating, and we certainly think of it like a magical dream-like place where something incredible happens. And the truth is a lot of what we think of as Hollywood never happened there, it was just happening somewhere else. The first job I ever had, in 1980, was gofer to Jim Henson on the Muppet Show, and that was happening here. But that was more “Hollywood” than anything I have experienced since, in a real sense. One week we’d have Gene Kelly on the show, next week it would be Diana Ross, it was classic Hollywood, fantastical, glorious. It was just wonderful. But it was happening in Elstree in ATV’s Studio, it wasn’t happening in Los Angeles!
Dana: One last tricky question, why do you make films?
Bernard: Well, I’ve always done it my whole life, I’ve never done anything else, I don’t know how to do anything else, I don’t know how to stop if I could!I just can’t imagine doing anything else. And I certainly don’t do it for the money, as I’m often doing it without being paid, film is a bit like having a very bad drug habit, in fact it’s worse than a drug habit, it’s more expensive than heroine, and it will ruin your life just as badly!
Dana: So you wouldn’t encourage anyone to start a career in film…
Bernard: I think you should only do it if you can’t do anything else, otherwise don’t do it!
You might want to take Bernard’s heartfelt advice or not but DO listen to this amazing track from the sumptuous drama THE DEVIL’S VIOLINIST performed by DAVID GARRETT, the record-breaking German pop and crossover violinist and recording artist.
No doubt, everyone has heard of FEMEN by now, the Ukrainian female activist movement famous for its unconventional and controversial protest tactics. But while we’re all familiar with its gutsy members and their very daring topless public appearances, fighting patriarchy and oppression in all its forms, from Putin to the Pope, we know very little about the private stories and histories of the individuals who created this organisation back in 2008 and its most ardent campaigners.
And because a good story is never straightforward or devoid of ambiguities, Australian filmmaker KITTY GREEN spent fours years trying to get to grips with this awe-inspiring movement and getting to know the people behind it. The documentary UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL is the result and fascinating account of her time with the FEMEN group.
This interview was taken on October 16, 2013 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, London, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.
Dana: You spent four years with the members of Femen, filming them and getting to know them…
Kitty: Four years yes more or less. I spent a year then I went back to Australia to find some more money then I came back. It was a long process.
Dana: So tell me a little bit about your experience living with them, you must know this movement inside out.
Kitty: They are very popular in Europe and there was a lot of media coverage of them, whatever they were doing, I knew they were getting a lot of press, CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera and everybody there every day. So I wanted to make a film that was more intimate and show the different sides to the girls, and more about why they are doing it, where they come from and the country they come from, which is very patriarchal, a really terrible place for women to live. They don’t have many rights there and they don’t have a cultural life often.So I lived with them and I really tried to get that intimate experience, and get to know them really well, and get them to trust me, and I did that by living in a two-bedroom apartment with five Femen activists on the outskirts of Kiev. A very ghetto Soviet apartment but we loved it and it was really good, they are like my sisters now, I’m really close to them. People often said “don’t get too close to them because if you want to be a documentary filmmaker you need to be objective”…
Dana: Being objective is probably an unattainable goal but I suppose you do need a bit of distance…
Kitty: Yeah but I think I managed to find a way to have a bit of distance. Because I’m coming from a Western background, I grew up in Australia, I could see the contradictions within the group, they were more clear and apparent to me than they were to them. So I was able to sit back and question them and ask “What’s going on here?
For a taster of what is going on, watch the trailer here:
Dana: Because there’s a lot going on, the movement is quite paradoxical.
Kitty: Yes, it’s a strange story. So it was nice to be part of them but also to be able to question them. And from my questioning I think they learnt a lot about themselves, it forced them to look at themselves, it gave them some introspection. It really changed them, they became a much stronger organisation as a result and I was really amazed to see that change.
Dana: How much footage have you accumulated?
Kitty: About 700 hours.
Dana: That is a lot. What was the editing process like?Did you have any help?
Kitty: No, I kind of did everything myself. Most of it was in Ukrainian and Russian and I didn’t want to translate it all, I couldn’t afford to do that. So I had to get it down before I could even start.
Dana: So you speak the language.
Kitty: Yes, I speak Ukrainian. I kind of learnt, my grandma speaks a bit of Ukrainian and I learnt more in order to make the film. In order to speak about politics, gender, inequality, you need to know more.
Dana: Out of 700 hours of footage, what went in, what did you leave out?
Kitty: They wanted me to make a propaganda film basically and I was more interested in making a film that really showed the contradictions in the movement, something a bit more controversial.
Dana: How early on did you become aware of the contradictions?
Kitty: Pretty early, if you see an image of them, that is contradictory immediately. They protest topless to get attention and that is a contradiction in itself. But the more I observed them, the more contradictory it became, and it upset me a lot, the way they were being treated by certain people, and used by men in that country.
Dana: Could you give me an example of that?
Kitty: The idea of the film is that it reveals that it was actually men that were running this organisation. I was the only one who had access to that guy [Victor Svyatski]. Because I was their videographer shooting the protests […], I saw the way the movement was being run, and the press doesn’t get to see that, they only see the glossy Femen machine whereas I got to see exactly what was going on behind the curtains. They wanted me to shoot something about Femen and explain who they were but I wasn’t prepared to shoot that. So I had to pretend that I was shooting a propaganda film. So a lot of those 700 hours is me shooting things that they wanted me to shoot, ’cause I knew ultimately that that footage was not going to end up in the film, I was only interested in the things that were contradictory and the things that were honest…
Dana: Is this a project that you initiated or they commissioned you to make this film?How did this project come about in the first place?
Kitty: I wanted to make this film, they wanted me to be their videographer, they needed someone to shoot protests and I could do it well and I fit in, I’m a blonde girl, I could travel with them easily.
Dana: Did you have to bare your breasts too?
Kitty: (laughing) No way, no. I would go with them often, like they get flown to a certain country and they would bring me along and I would get there and be the videographer. So it was kind of good because I got to go places for free. But what they needed from me was to give them access to videos to put on their website, to get the videos out there and in exchange I made a film out of it. So if I gave them videos and they gave me their time, I got to sit down with them and do proper interviews and get the footage I needed. So it was a nice exchange.
Dana: Are they happy with the film? Were they okay with you revealing all these contradictions and paradoxes?
Kitty: Happy is not the word I would use to describe it but I think they were relieved to get a story like that off their chest, they know it is the truth, and they knew it wasn’t right and they knew there were a lot of problems with their organisation. And I think they are really happy that finally someone could speak honestly about what was going on, especially someone they trusted and who knew exactly what was going on. But the fallout was kind of hard because the press really latched on to this idea of these sex-crazed men running this organisation. And he talks about sex in the film and what were his motivations but he’s politically-driven, he’s got his own agenda, so yes they got quite a lot of negative press. And since, they were happy at the screening and they were crying and we were relieved to have that story out but since the press latched on to it, it’s become a whole other thing entirely. And I want more people to see the film because I think it really explains it properly, and there are nuances to it, it’s not just this evil man…
Dana: It never is…
Dana: And now, what has changed in the Femen group?
Kitty: Everything! At the end of my film, one of the girls leaves for Paris to start her own independent Femen headquarter, and four others moved there with her. And they opened a branch in the Netherlands, they sort of escaped Ukraine in a lot of ways and they are opening branches all over Europe. He is no longer a part of it, we don’t know where he is exactly, we think he is somewhere in Switzerland, he’s hard to track down, all the press try to contact him to speak with him.
Dana: Is this as a consequence of the documentary?
Kitty: No, it’s actually a consequence of problems in Ukraine with the Secret Service. So they were hunting down Femen over the last year. He left Ukraine in order to escape, he was beaten up really badly by them actually. It was really horrific, the photos were horrible. He left Ukraine for his own reasons and the girls left Ukraine independently and they are living in other countries and they are finally free of control. Which is lovely for me to see. When I arrived, after opening the film in Paris, I was so so proud of the girls.
Dana: This sounds like a better life for them but I’m thinking Ukraine is more in need of a movement like this than either France or Netherlands is.
Kitty: That’s true and I think they will go back, it’s just a matter of finding a safe place for them to base themselves. They are not going to leave Ukraine for good, there are so many things going on there.And that’s their homeland. They will always go back to protest.
Dana: Did you have time to experience life in Ukraine outside the Femen group?What is life really like for women there?
Kitty: It was shocking for me when I first arrived, ’cause I grew up in a fairly progressive area in Melbourne and my mother worked and my friends’ mothers worked, so I never saw this kind of gap or gender inequality, I wasn’t exposed to that at all. So arriving in Ukraine where the men worked and women stayed at home and cooked their breakfast and had to look pretty, it was all very shocking to me. So I was really taken aback by that and provided me with a motivation to make the film because I was really overwhelmed by all that.
Dana: But do you think this is purely as a result of patriarchal pressure or are there economical reasons for this, like lack of jobs for women?
Kitty: I guess it’s both cultural and economical, it’s everything, it’s a very poor country so yes, there aren’t enough jobs. But they would always pick a man over a woman in a country like that because it is a very patriarchal country. So it’s a lot of different factors at play, but right now there aren’t many opportunities for young Ukrainian women who are graduating from university, a few of them in the film were formerly strippers, one of them has a college degree but she couldn’t find work. So she had to become a stripper then she became a Femen activist. Even in the film, all of the girls have different stories of why they became involved with the movement, it’s either to do with how they were brought up, it’s often due to poverty, or an abusive father, or being a stripper. They’ve all experienced patriarchal dominance and wanted to be free of it so they joined Femen.
Dana: What about your future projects, have you got anything lined up?
Kitty: I really want to keep making films about women’s rights, this is where my interest lies, but once you say “I want to make films about women’s rights” people say “oh that’s so boring” so you gotta find a way to make it attractive, make it sexy. So I’m now looking towards the Middle East, thinking of doing something there, right now it’s interesting for women there but it’s still very early days.
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