art

Why This Year’s Golden Bear is Bad Cinema but Good Art

Oh, the highly coveted cutie…

coveted cutie

I’d like to start by making clear that, after the initial bafflement at the Berlinale Awards Ceremony last Saturday passed, I’m actually very glad this year’s Golden Bear went to Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not.

However, this has nothing to do with the film itself, but with the strong public reaction it stirred, especially in its home country, Romania.

There is a huge misunderstanding around this film, which could explain why the press generally disliked it and why many high-profile critics wrote extremely bad reviews about it.

Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not is not really cinema, it’s an art installation, in an unfortunate case where the programmers mistook the medium/format for the final product.

And if you judge an art installation by cinematic criteria, of course it falls short. First, it comes across as highly pretentious and cerebral.

One of the first things I found striking about the film (apart from its insidious visual style that draws so much attention to itself), is the fact that, although the “characters” speak incessantly about their emotions in a tentative exploration of human intimacy, no emotion is actually being transmitted to the viewer.

And for very good reasons:  cinema normally uses a dramatic framework to explore human feelings and emotions, it doesn’t make characters just talk about them.

Well, this is experimental cinema, one might argue. But according to the filmmaker, it’s not. Adina Pintilie strongly rejects this label. And who are we to contradict her, who else knows better what she made than the filmmaker herself?

Another line of reasoning could be that this is a highly conceptual, hybrid construction, more of a documentary mixing reality and fiction, with some of the people you see on the screen playing themselves and talking about their real emotions directly to each other or to the camera. But if it’s real, why does it sound so contrived? Being real and sounding real are two very different things. Good cinema makes believe, in other words, it makes things that are not real, sound and appear real. This film does the opposite – a total paradox. And this is through no fault of the actors and all those participating in it. If you read the transcript of the film, it would probably sound very intelligent. I for one blame it on the film’s style. 

Another of my contentions has to do with the unnecessary adornment of the film with all sorts of film gimmicks that give the impression of something very sophisticated (think Godard in Le Mépris) but in reality don’t serve any clear purpose: such as placing a camera in the frame, to kind of highlight the filmmaker’s intrusion into the artwork. Through this device, the filmmaker is addressing Laura: “You’re probably wondering why I’m in your bedroom”…). But the use of this technique here is ill-inspired, it only distracts and puzzles the viewer or makes him/her ask unnecessary questions (such as one blurted out loud at the press screening: “Yeah, why are you in her bedroom?”).

On the subject of questions being raised by the film, another issue is that the film verbally asks them: “How do they f*cking manage?” (Meaning: how do people manage with their conflictual emotional baggage?). This is, we were informed at the press conference, the core question the film intends to raise. Again, good cinema doesn’t need to verbalise these questions, the viewer is supposed to ask those questions himself/herself. Or are we patronisingly being told what we should ask, think or feel here? When you see a film about the Holocaust, whether documentary, fiction or hybrid, no one is musing on screen: “Oh dear, how do these people actually manage?!”

On the plus side, I’d like to argue that, as paradoxical as it might sound, Touch Me Not is good art. Why? Because of the huge reaction it stirred in the filmmaker’s own country, following news of its being awarded the Golden Bear.  Some TV personalities had very heated words to say about the film, while apparently even the Coalition for the Protection of Family is getting mobilised against it! Scary stuff.

But the film is being attacked in Romania for the wrong reasons. To quote a TV personality who posted on his social media: “A woman trying to cure her frigidity by watching a guy masturbate in front of her. That’s the film. I know, it’s me who doesn’t get wanking as art. All Golden Bears leave cinemas empty, they are cheap films with whores and swearings sold to stupid people as art. Berlinale can take its Golden Bear and shove it up its @ss…”. And on and on, he’s not the only one.

While there is no substance to this statement, while I completely disagree that all Golden Bears are bad films (one only needs to think of, more recently, Fuocoammare or the surreal Of Body and Soul), this kind of reaction points to a debate to be had about what the Golden Bear films should and shouldn’t be, what types of characters should populate them ( i.e. on the virginal side, rather than “whorey” side). How can you even begin to explain to a guy like this the depth of fascination that characters of prostitutes always held over the cinematic imagination? 

But leaving all arguments aside, aesthetic or otherwise, good art should stir sh*t up. What is its purpose, otherwise,  if not to stir things up and make the invisible (thoughts, feelings, ideas, mentality) visible?

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is cinematic perfection, but so what? If no one reacts to it, if it leaves people pleased but ready to move on, possibly energised but quasi-indifferent…Isle of Dogs is great cinema but does it function as art, in this sense?  And for that alone, for the strong emotional reaction the film triggered, Adina Pintilie’s film/art installation deserved the Golden Bear.

Regarding the film’s reception in Romania where it hasn’t even opened yet, the pertinent question to ask is: what, really, is the public’s problem with this film? It’s not that it contains sex scenes or nudity, we all know that sex sells.

My conclusion is that Touch Me Not was indeed misunderstood. But I seriously doubt that the reason critics disliked it has anything to do with the subject matter, with them being made uncomfortable by what they see on the screen (as the filmmaker herself hinted at) or with them being conservative or prude (some journalist’s misguided assumption). 

It’s simply to do with the fact that their expectations haven’t been met: this film is an art installation masquerading as cinema, it belongs in a different kind of art space, a gallery or maybe a museum. And I’m pretty sure the art world will appreciate it. 

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In José Luis Guerín’s spellbinding ACADEMY OF MUSES, women feminists still define themselves in relation to men but that’s because reality is full of contradictions and this is not a “cinéma à thèse”!

If  José Luis Guerín’s  L’Accademia delle Muse had been the only film I saw at LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2015, it would have been totally worth the hassle of getting there and surviving under the scorching Swiss sun!

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L’Accademia delle Muse is the BEST FILM DISCOVERY I made on the festival circuit in 2015. Hopefully coming up on MUBI soon.

This interview with José Luis Guerín was taken in French during  LOCARNO Film Festival in August 2015. This is my English translation.

Dana Knight: This is a very special film, a very unusual film. It’s very difficult to describe and impossible to label, how did you come up with such an original idea?

José Luis Guerín:  Yes, I even had problems trying to write a synopsis! Because the main story belongs in a way to a stereotypical world: adultery, encounters in cars, things like that. But what is important in cinema is not what happens but how it happens. The way the film captures certain things, the way in which words are being spoken. This is a film that totally seduced me with the way it talks about things. The beauty of the dialogue, in the tradition of Lubitsch and Eustache, the mise-en-scène of the words, of the utterance. As a cineaste, you always want to show things in a different light, in a surprising light, as if we see them for the first time.

Knight: The film is shot documentary-style, especially the scenes in the classroom. This adds to the freshness of the POV.

Guerín:  Exactly. This is something that I developed from one film to another, a sort of renovation of dramatic form. I started by doing fiction films but then I felt that fiction was in a sort of cul-de-sac, fiction is generally just stereotypes that we repeat. The work with the actors is always interesting and I love working with actors but it always leads to a cul-de-sac. So in order to evolve in the way of telling a story, I would alternate between documentary and fiction film. And it always happens that in documentaries I use the wisdom from fiction films: how to work with narrative, time and space. And in fiction films I use things that I learnt from documentaries:  how to create a situation, the quality of interaction between characters in order to capture a moment of truth. Because the art of docu-fiction consists of capturing a moment of truth.

Knight: In this film,we have the impression that things are happening now  and we are there with the characters.

Guerín: This was exactly my intention, yes. Even if I was the one who organised the situation, the fictive situation, I don’t know exactly how things are going to take place. I am as surprised by what I see happening in front of me as the spectators are. That’s why in my method of filmmaking I don’t shoot for 6-8 weeks continuously, I alternate between short periods of shooting and editing. I start with analysing what I just filmed on the editing table,  then I’m thinking: wouldn’t it be interesting to develop these characters in a follow-up shoot? So it’s cinema that nurtures itself, it’s not made of predetermined ideas imposed on a story line, it’s not a closed scenario. The writing of the scenario takes place at every step of the filmmaking process.

I struggle with the idea of cinema seen as closed compartments: the creative stage that consists in writing a screenplay, then shooting, which is the execution of what we wrote, then editing what we filmed. No, I like to write a little, then go and shoot a few scenes, then I edit what I shot, then I rewrite, then I shoot more. It’s a process in which I’m the first spectator of my film, my film escapes my control, there is an interaction between me and cinema. I like this a lot because for me cinema is about revelation, about discovery. If I know in advance what is going to happen, I lose the desire to see that happening.

Knight: How did you work with the actors? What is their creative share in the film, how did they contribute to their character, their speeches?

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Guerín: We talked about this a lot. They are not professional actors, the professor and his students exist for real, this academic community is not my creation.

Knight: How did you discover them?

Guerín: I met professor Rafael Pinto through his writings and seminars on Dante. His texts on Dante were very important for a previous film I made, In the City of Sylvia. He invited me to sit in on his class one day and in all narcissism he said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if you filmed me talking to my class?”. And to be honest I did find him interesting, and also the characters who started appearing in the film. So I suggested they played a fictional version of themselves. And I loved their love for words. Sometimes in these philological contexts we utter words of love with the rhetoric of a troubadour. Other bits seem taken from a bolero. It’s impossible to write these lines and then give them to actors to recite, it’s pretty incredible what they come up with. And they say these words with such conviction.

Knight: Because this situation is natural to them, these words come naturally to them.

Guerín: Exactly. And this is what excited me, to build the narrative around the quality of the spoken words.

Knight: How do you see the professor, what is your perspective on him? We discover him gradually and what we discover is very conflicted!

Guerín: Yes, he’s a very conflicted character. And also an incorrect character!

Knight: That’s exactly what I wanted to say but didn’t quite dare finish my thought…

Guerín: Yes but I don’t like to judge my characters, I don’t like to moralise. That’s why I like Eric Rohmer a lot, he’s looking without judging. I want to give spectators the space to think for themselves.

Knight: That’s why I’m asking you this question, because I couldn’t detect any judgement on your part, I don’t have the slightest idea what your take on this character is.

Guerín: Exactly. Even if there is a sort of ironic distance, there is humour. It’s important to have humour in the film. 

Knight: Without judging though, you must have an instinctive reaction towards him. So do you like the professor or are you hesitant about him? He’s a great charmer.

Guerín: Yes, he is. And there are several sides to him, he’s a little bit like Don Quixote, a crazy idealist, and I like that. I like his power of seduction, his faith in the power of words. But to have a moral perspective on a professor who sleeps with all his students, it’s tricky!

Knight: But you’re not actually showing that, maybe he is innocent!

Guerín: No, I didn’t but we imagine that he does! There is a possibility that he sleeps with them all. And it’s disproportionate, it’s incredible that he would. But it’s a valid hypothesis. And even this idea of an academy of muses that aims to save the world through involvement with poetry, is such a crazy, incredible idea. And this reminded me of Hitchcock who said: the more incredible the subject, the more realistic its execution should be. And the subject of this film is indeed incredible, but we believe it because they are so convincing. So the professor in this film is not related to me in any way, except maybe as demiurge. Sometimes I think that he is like a cineaste who is about to create a world, a film world with his students who are his actresses.

And that is what I also felt as cineaste. The characters are autonomous, they are completely independent of me. They escape my control and I like this idea a lot, to have no control over them. To create a process that goes beyond me.

Knight: I also wanted to ask you about the jealousy scene between the professor’s wife and one of his students at the end of the film. How did that come about?

Guerín: It’s a very good scene, no? There was real pain.

Knight: Yes but there is also the troubling idea that these women define themselves in relation to him. His wife says: “I am his editor, I decide on everything that goes into his books”. And the student says: “Yes but his sonnets are dedicated to me, so I’m more important than you”. This was a bit difficult for me to watch. I’m also thinking feminists will have a field day with those statements too. How was this scene born?

Guerín: It came from the women playing those parts. It’s true there are many contradictions.  The girl who says that is also a feminist. I don’t like a cinema that preaches things (in original: “cinéma à thèse”), that propagates certain ideas. Because that simplifies reality, reality is full of contradictions, conflicts between reason and feelings. I was shocked by the pain that was born in this sequence, they went further than I expected. Even if it’s fiction, this story of adultery obviously doesn’t exist, but the scene gained such force. And maybe that’s the advantage of working with non-professionals. Professional actors know how to protect themselves, there is a technique that allows them to use their own feelings, their memory, but they put a distance between them and the role. But these poor women suffered for a week after this scene.

Knight: I have no doubt, we see the pain in their eyes, especially the young girl whose face twitches with grimaces throughout that scene.

Guerín: Yes. And this is an extreme: the scene is fictional but we managed to capture the truth. This is similar to jazz players doing a jam session, no scenario, they start with an instrument then respond to that and everything is the creation of the moment. So I tried to reproduce the conditions of a jam session, I wanted to see how things were going to unfold. It was a bit like fishing: I chose a place, a situation, and then I wait to see what happens.

Knight: Also the idea of filming them behind a window, or other transparent surface, how did that come about? There is usually a surface that mediates between them and us.

Guerín: At the the beginning I chose to do that because I felt they were a bit shy. I was filming the class which is a public space so that was natural. But how do you go from there to the interior of the house? So I found this solution which is also symbolical of the confrontation between the outer and inner life of a character. This juxtaposition of images and their reflection is a metaphor of cinema itself. And the movements of the traffic, of daily life gives birth to contrasts between the characters’ inner life and their outer existence in the same image.

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It’s also a way to define the space, this is a film I made without moving, it’s made of close-ups, therefore you become aware of the space through its reflections. The reflections of the world. And this gives birth to a special emotion I think: the violence of the outer world contrasted with the words of inner life in the same image.

Knight: This also makes the film even more enigmatic. The story is in itself enigmatic but the way you film things, the fact that we can’t see clearly what is going on, amplifies this enigma. The relationship between the professor and his wife is full of enigmatic pauses and allusions.

Guerín: Yes, which makes it very amusing. I initially thought of the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the great idealist and the pragmatic woman who doesn’t believe in love. But interestingly enough, at the end of the film, the woman who truly believes in love is revealed to be her. This was important, I wanted the characters to grow, to change. We discover the characters bit by bit, from one scene to another but also inside the same scene, it is important to have movement from one state to another, motion. Motion is emotion.

A Portrait of the Actress as a 40-year Old Woman: JANE BIRKIN by AGNÈS VARDA. Screening in LA November 13

Agnès Varda has been making films for over 60 years and contrary to what this playfully suggestive photo of her might indicate, Varda did not stand on the shoulders of the (film) giants that came before her. Her first feature, La Pointe Courte, came out in 1954, way ahead of the French Nouvelle Vague films, surprising everyone with its fresh vision and innovative style.

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Since then, Varda continued to surprise with every film she made, amounting to an impressive filmography that earned her an Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival this year.

Varda’s films are small, intimate productions, marked by a unique style that we unfailingly came to associate with her. She usually finds her inspiration in real life, her creativity being sparked by things and people around her.  

For instance, JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. was born out of a confession that Jane Birkin, the famed singer (“Je t’aime … Moi non plus”), actress (BLOW UP), fashion icon (the Hermes Birkin bag) and longtime muse to Serge Gainsbourg, made to Agnès one day in 1987 when they went for a walk with their children in the park: “I am afraid to become forty very soon.”, said Jane.

Agnès was surprised, “Well you’re wrong! Forty years old for a woman is beautiful. It’s at the peak of her beauty, the peak of her intelligence and her capacity. I really believe that women of forty are wonderful.”

jane b kung fu posterAbandoning the traditional biopic format, Varda puts her rich imagination to work, casting Jane in an array of ever more fascinating, surreal roles. The result? JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. – a luxurious portrait that shows Jane Birkin in all her puzzling, paradoxical complexity. A surreal and captivating essay on art, fame, love, life and children.

Jane Birkin also plays the lead in a charming, bittersweet drama, KUNG-FU MASTER!, a companion piece to the former film, in which she delivers one of her finest performances as a lonely 40-year old woman who finds herself falling in love with a teenage boy.

My interview with Agnès Varda felt as spontaneous and as surprising as her films. Although I had diligently prepared a set of questions I was eager for her to answer, I got so involved in the spontaneous feel of the conversation that I let it take its natural course rather than impose a pre-determined structure on it. Breaching the sensitive subject of film distribution was one of these surprising turns the conversation took. I found myself voicing some serious doubts about the way the industry works, the fact that the gate-keepers of the industry, those who ultimately decide what films will be seen by the larger public, are so uncourageous and so conventional in their choices, and they end up condemning the audience to see only what they think the audience wants to see: mostly uncourageous, conventional material. But is it possible that the gate-keepers are wrong? Could this be the reason why so many big productions fail to impress and fail at the box office nowadays? Is it possible that the audience is bored? that the audience is actually more adventurous and ready to explore something different, something more original, surprising, enchanting, something a bit more challenging? 

And when it comes to original, surprising, enchanting and challenging material, there’s no better filmmaker than Agnès Varda to deliver on that!

After a one-week run at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City last month,  JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. and  KUNG-FU MASTER! are being released in their newly restored 2K version at LAEMMLE ROYAL in LA on November 13.

The following interview with Agnès Varda was taken over the phone on October 14 in French. This is my English translation.

Dana Knight: In Jane B par Agnes V., you created a fascinating array of roles for Jane Birkin to play. The film struck me as a very luxurious portrait of the actress  Do you like me using the term luxurious in relation to the film?

Agnes Varda: Yes, I love that you used the word luxurious, it’s a rare word in French and it’s very appropriate here. Because Jane is a woman of many contradictions. She wants to be a poor woman, à la Dickens, but she also wants to play a goddess. She wants to be loved, she wants to play a little girl and then a grown-up woman. She wants to play every role and feel everything. What I like the most about Jane is that she wants us to look at her, to love her, but she also wants to be anonymous, not to be known. It’s very touching, do you agree?

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Knight: I do!There are many surprising scenes in the film. I really wasn’t expecting the Laurel and Hardy scene in which Jane is impersonating Laurel. And I guess it was you playing Hardy?

Varda: No, it wasn’t me! Maybe we look alike but it wasn’t me in the scene. Jane plays Laurel but Hardy is played by this extraordinary Italian actress, Laura Betti. It’s a nice idea that it’s me playing the couple with Jane but no, it’s an actress who played in Pasolini films. It’s also her in the bakery scene where she laughs at Jane who is painting a white painting. That was a scandal in contemporary art at the time.

Knight: And it is also her in the scene about unemployed people?What inspired that scene by the way?

Varda: Yes, that’s her also. In all my films, even in comedies, I’m trying to bring in contemporary subjects. At the time, there was a problem with unemployed people, and also the scandal about white paintings. I’m obviously having fun and keeping a light tone because it’s a comedy, but there are truthful bits, there’s a certain sensibility.

Knight: Going back to the surprising scene with Laurel and Hardy, which became Morel and Lardy in your film, Jane says that she was not comfortable in that role. Since it was you that created that role for her, did you expect her to have this reaction, did that surprise you?

janebparagnesv_mirroirs deformantsVarda: Well, she’s paradoxical, sometimes she likes to show off, sometimes she likes to stay hidden. That’s why she’s so happy to be filmed in deforming mirrors. She says: “What counts is the painter behind the painting, the filmmaker behind the camera”. In other words, it’s a matter of trust, she had trust me in.

Knight: You’re using many art works in this film, you’re placing Jane within the realm evoked by them. What made you choose those specific art works?

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Varda: We were in the studio of a painter, he let us have his studio to shoot in. So it was another opportunity to talk about painting, to talk about Salvador Dali. Every scene of Jane B is an opportunity for her to do a different role that she would never do in cinema. Especially Jeanne d’Arc. But what was also interesting is that we also invented a lot of characters. And actually the idea for Kung-Fu Master! came to us while we were shooting Jane B. Jane wanted, all of a sudden, to do this other story, where she is in love with a teenager. But if we had told the story in its length, it would have broken the rhythm of Jane B. So we decided to make a separate film, Kung-Fu Master! When the film was originally released in the US in 1988 or 1989 it was called Le Petit Amour and a lot of critics saw it, Jonathan Rosenbaum among others, they are old now.

Knight: How was Kung-Fu Master! received in the U.S. in 1989?

Varda: Very well, but it’s a shocking film. The critics were a bit shocked, it’s a delicate subject.

Knight: Yes, it’s a very daring film, even for contemporary audiences, I would say.

Varda:  With this film, I was trying to understand teenagers. There is a scene at the beginning with Jane in front of a window and you can even see me for a few seconds. I always ask myself the same question about teenagers and their interior world. They are fragile. But I can’t imagine this story happening now because with the internet, and porn films and the wide availability of pornographic materials, teenagers today are not in the same situation as teenagers were 35 years ago. It was the first time we were talking about AIDS in France. So until then we were telling teenagers, “love is beautiful, make love” and in 1987 we suddenly started telling them “be careful, love is dangerous”. This made a big difference in the lives of teenagers.

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Knight: Yes but also I’m not sure the teenager in this film is so fragile. I’m thinking of the last scene now, he comes across a bit cynical in the last scene.

Varda: He is cruel, yes. Both these traits exist in him. He’s fragile because of things he does not understand very well, and he’s cruel because he feels suffocated by love. The film is cruel towards Jane’s character because, although a grown-up woman, she is a teenager at heart. That’s why the story is sad, she is rejected by society as if she were a bad person. But she is not a bad person obviously. It’s an interesting film and now that we are talking about it, and maybe other people will see it and talk about it, I’m also a bit sad because of distribution issues, my two films come out at Lincoln Plaza for one week and that’s it. People can see one film one night and the other film the following night. That is very cruel because people don’t decide very fast what film to see. Also for the press, you only have a few days to tell people what films to see, that’s a little cruel too, don’t you think?

Knight: Yes it is, we need to be very alert to what films are being released every week and time our reviews and interviews to correspond with that. Since we’re on the subject of distribution: you say that your films have a small audience because they are small art house films. But this is also a matter of marketing in which the gate-keepers of the industry are very much involved.

Varda: I am lucky to be very well known by cinephiles, very well known and loved by students in every country, I have a little reputation, a lot of people love my films but I don’t know if they are commercial. That’s why I always say, I don’t have a career, I just made films. I am marginal and I am happy to be marginal because I’m very well known in these marginal circles of cinephiles.

Knight: Yes but what I’m saying is that it’s a pity that the larger public doesn’t have access to your films. And access is decided by the gate-keepers of the industry. If they were more daring and willing to take risks, they might have the nice surprise to realise that the larger public would also enjoy your films. Your films are not inaccessible, esoteric, they are very sincere, intimate films.

Varda: Yes, but it’s a matter of distributors, exhibitors and ultimately it’s a matter of money. They all want to make money and that’s why they decide not to screen a film too many times, they want new films all the time. I can’t discuss the system, it is how it is. But I am lucky to have my films shown in public institutions. In April this year, The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York organised a retrospective of my films as part of their Art of the Real programme. Now, the University of Chicago, where I am right now, at the Logan Center, they showed all my films during 15 days. It’s part of a beautiful exhibition that includes all my photographic work, videos and installations as well. It’s something that gives me a lot of pleasure, the exhibition is spread over 3 big rooms in a big gallery at Logan Center and it gives the opportunity to people of Chicago to see my work. And there are a lot of people at the screenings, the films are playing several times not just twice and that’s it.

Knight: Talking about the entirety of your work, one of your recurring themes is female psychology, the feminine subjectivity. You conveyed this so well in cinema and also at a time when portraits of women were not very complex. What was the inspiration for that?

Varda: Maybe I understand women better than men do. But I also did portraits of men, of children. Maybe you saw One Hundred and One Nights, The Creatures. In these I spoke a lot about men, also in Beaches of Agnes. I don’t have the impression that I focused exclusively on women. But it’s true that probably the most well-known portraits that I created are those of women: Cleo, Mona in Vagabond, Jane B. These are very precise portraits of women, and also very warm portraits. Even Mona who is so angry, I like her a lot, she interests me a lot. 

Knight: Are you excited to show the restored versions of Jane B and Kung-Fu Master! in U.S. this fall?

Varda: Yes but I would have liked these films to be shown during 2 months, to give the possibility to the people of New York to see it. But the reality of distribution is: both films are playing for one week. And I can’t change the world of distribution. I can change my relationship with the public. For instance, everyone talks to me about The Gleaners and I, all kinds of people. Yesterday at the market there was a cheese merchant who recognised me in the street and told me how much he liked The Gleaners. This means that when people see my films, they understand very well, it’s not a difficult cinema but as you said the problem is access, it’s distribution. But I can’t force cinemas to show my films for longer or show them everywhere. I have to accept that. And I’m glad that so many people write to me, love my films, buy the DVDs. Criterion put out a collection of my Californian films. But I can’t compete with the films they are showing in cinemas now, I’m old enough to be wise, I just go on and make other films.

Knight: By the way, what are you working on right now?

Varda: Right now I’m working on a documentary about the artist J.R. He is a very famous artist and we’re working together on a documentary in France. It will probably be ready next spring. We meet and work for one week every month, because we both travel a lot. And I’m taking my time, I’m not pressured by distributors if you see what I mean, people like my films but no one pays me to do it faster! I will also have an exhibition of my visual art at Centre Pompidou in Paris soon. But now I’m enjoying my time in Chicago.

Knight: You’re not coming to New York this time?

Varda: No, I only passed through New York on my way to Chicago but very fast. I must return in France as I have a lot of work there. But when you come to Paris you should call me. It won’t be this number, but if you open the page Ciné-Tamaris, you’ll find me there, it’s my production company and I have a few people working on my films. 

Knight: I know where Ciné-Tamaris is, I found it by coincidence 3 years ago when I was in Paris. The outside display was so fanciful, I thought it’s a vintage shop so I went in. And one of your assistants welcomed me and told me that you live across the street and I should go and visit you. I was so surprised! But I did not want to disturb you.

Varda: Actually, there are a lot of people who come into my editing room because it’s at street level. They come in, they say “Hello”, I tell them, “Please sit down”. And they are total strangers, Australian, Portuguese, it’s very amusing!

THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER – MORE PARANOID, MORE FASCINATING THAN A BOND THRILLER!

russian woodpecker poster

The real life protagonist of The Russian Woodpecker, Chad Gracia’s  astonishing documentary feature, the winner of World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2015, is the most fascinating ideas man you can imagine.

His name is Fedor Alexandrovich and he is an Ukrainian artist with a traumatic past: his ancestors were murdered by the Soviets, sent to gulags or forced to renounce their family, and he was only four years old in 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown happened, an event that forced him to leave his home due to the toxic effects of irradiation. Now 33, he is a “radioactive man” with strontium in his bones and a singular obsession with the earth-changing catastrophe – why did it actually happen?

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Fedor Alexandrovich

Chad met Fedor on the set of a play he was putting on in Kiev where Fedor worked as a set designer. Fedor kept whispering to Chad about the “Russian woodpecker,” a giant, mysterious antenna nicknamed such for the strange, constant clicking radio frequencies that it emitted during the Cold War and which had been terrorising the radio frequencies in Europe and America during that time, so much so that many Americans believed it to be a Soviet mind-control device.

For Fedor, this strange device that the Soviets built only 2 miles from the Chernobyl nuclear station, represented a very deep and dark mystery: what was its real use and was there more to the Chernobyl story than the Soviet government let on? Is it possible that there might have been a criminal mind behind the Chernobyl catastrophe that the world doesn’t know about? As incredible as this may sound, is it possible that Chernobyl was blown up on purpose??

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The “Russian Woodpecker”

These were questions without answers and just another “conspiracy theory” until the day Fedor decided to confront the Russian Woodpecker that is now rotting away in an off-limits military facility in the middle of the radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

In one of the most astonishing visual sequences of the film, Fedor is sailing naked across a radioactive sea on a raft of mirrors which he himself constructed following a dream he had about the mysterious device.

Steeped in a climate of paranoia, with the Russian Secret Police threatening Fedor into closing his investigation and all sorts of dangers lurking at every step of the way, Chad Gracia’s documentary is more fascinating than a Bond thriller!

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Fedor Alexandrovich, director Chad Gracia and cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov

Dana Knight: The Russian Woodpecker is a most compelling story. I loved the way the pieces of the puzzle were put together by Fedor’s inquisitive mind and the way you conducted the investigation that followed. What wasn’t perfectly clear to me is this: did Fedor form his theory about the Chernobyl disaster not really being an accident before you started shooting or is this incredible discovery a result of the film?

Chad Gracia: No, our main interest was in the antenna, our plan was to debunk the conspiracy theory that the antenna was a mind control device. He just had some sort of artistic fascination with this object, he described it to me many times but he spoke of it in terms of some sort of aesthetic urgency that he had about witnessing it, feeling it, approaching it. Fedor is very sensitive, he sort of follows his instincts, he has his own creative antenna. But I don’t think he had any rational idea for why he has to go there, he was just drawn to it.

Knight: In a sense, it would have been even more astonishing if Fedor put all the pieces of the puzzle together before you embarked on the investigation.

Gracia: Yes but as you see in the film, it only came about because people were very nervous when asked about the antenna. That made him suspicious. And Fedor says that he could never believe such a thing was possible, but that was actually the direction that his research took him. We came about it in a way naively, we really did not expect to find what we found. It was supposed to be a very short film about this antenna.

Fedor+Torch

Knight: I know, but even if he had the idea to begin with, he would have probably only gradually disclosed his thoughts to you, because to hit you with all these crazy ideas from the start, it would have been too much for you to take on, I guess.

Gracia: Well, you would have to ask Fedor, he certainly is a very mysterious guy! But in my opinion it started more as just an investigation: there’s this strange object, this enormous antenna that no one knows much about, it’s standing next to Chernobyl, it’s dying to be filmed, it’s dying to be explored, it’s ready to be questioned. That’s what we did, without any assumptions at all when we started.

Knight: How did you get access to those Russian former high officials? That must have been difficult.

Gracia: Well, when we first reached out to them we didn’t say anything about me, an American, being involved, I would just show up. And after many months of getting nowhere, we realised that my showing up made them not really want to speak with us. That was a step in the wrong direction. So at that point we got a special apartment with a kind of a cubby where I could hide, so they never knew there was an American director involved. I used to Skype to send questions to the team and clarifications during the interview. The question as to why they agreed to meet, I think originally when our Ukrainian contact called them, she said, “Look, they want to talk about your life”. These guys used to be at the top of the Soviet pyramid, they were heroes of their day and now they are all forgotten, living on tiny pensions, in crumbling apartments and no one cares about them. So they have someone coming to talk about their youth and about their technological achievements which were quite significant. This antenna, we don’t have time to get into it in the film, but it spurred a lot of research into super computers in Russia. Being able to assess the signal was incredibly difficult. So they were very proud of what they achieved and they wanted to talk about it but not with an American.

Knight: I found that very funny, the way they became immediately suspicious when the word “American” was pronounced. They are basically still caught in the past.

Gracia: I was surprised too, I thought the Cold War was ancient history, I really did not expect these guys to still be living in that world. But Fedor was the one who kept telling me, “No, Chad, you don’t understand, the Cold War is still alive, the Soviet ghosts are still haunting Ukraine, they are everywhere”. I thought he was crazy. He was also the first one to say that the Soviet Union is coming back, there’s going to be war. And he said this to everyone who was listening but everyone thought he was crazy. This was months before the annexation of Crimea, or the events in Eastern Ukraine. Again Fedor is kind of an antenna, he’s like all great artists, he’s very sensitive to things before the rest of us.

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Knight: The timing of your documentary was perfect in a way: the progression of the documentary found resonance in the Revolution that was happening around you.  And this climate of paranoia, with the Russian Secret Police that started interfering with your project, and your own paranoia about the other team members filming a parallel film!

Chad: I know, it’s strange. It’s obviously unrelated that the Revolution broke out. And when I walked into the Chernobyl exclusion zone and when I got into the force-field of this antenna, my life became very surreal. And you’re right, the climate of paranoia engulfed us, as it eventually engulfed the whole city and the whole country. But that’s just a quirk of history and a sad fate for Ukraine, but it made our story so much more dramatic and timely than we expected it to be.

Knight: The moment the Secret Police interfered with your project was a key turning point in the film, you almost lost the project as Fedor wanted out. How did you get over that obstacle?

Gracia: Well, Fedor left and we had no film and I went back, I left the country trying to figure out how to salvage my project. And it was only when the Revolution kicked off that Fedor felt he had a patriotic duty to come back. This was three months later. But he had certain requirements. He said that he wanted to give the Secret Police final cut, final approval of the film, he told them that he would try to convince me of that. So we kind of agreed on that but within a week the Pro-Russian government fell and then luckily we never had to do that. Also we had to put the disclaimer, by way of a contract, Fedor was pressured to put this disclaimer in front of the film, that the film is not intended to disrupt relations between Ukraine and Russia.  I guess Fedor also felt that having his theory out in the world would make him safer than if he was the only one who had the theory. So he felt that, paradoxically, by publicising the theory he was safer. 

Knight: That’s actually the next question I wanted to ask: is Fedor safe now in Ukraine, is it safe for him to be there?

Gracia: In today’s situation, nobody knows who is safe and who is not safe in Ukraine. But when people ask Fedor if he feels he’s personally at risk, he answers: “Look, it’s not just me, it’s all of us. No one is safe as long as there’s such a madman at the helm of a nuclear armed country, who wants to bring back the Great Empire”. That’s what Fedor says. I think he’s safe, we hope he’s safe. We’ve been invited to Moscow to screen the film at a documentary film festival there. Fedor is terrified but I think I’ll go.

Knight: You’re not terrified?

Gracia: Look, I’m an American. As you probably know, an Ukrainian film director was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison following a mock trial. So Fedor is not entirely crazy to be nervous. But my hope is that the government there has much bigger worries than some documentary about some cover-up that happened 30 years ago.

Knight: Fedor is an amazing, fascinating character. Going back to how this project started, I understand that you two met on the set of a play that you were working on in Kiev.

Gracia: Exactly. And I immediately knew he was a special character, like out of a Dostoyevsky novel.

Fedor writing on mirror

Knight: What is also amazing is that you don’t come from a film background, you did theatre, this is your very first venture into filmmaking.

Gracia: Yes. But the film is quite theatrical in some ways, you can definitely feel the influence. But my experience in theatre was also as a dramaturge, dealing with story-structure, so that helped me a lot. But it’s true, all of us were first time filmmakers. Our cinematographer ARTEM RYZHYKOV  worked on something else before but this was his first major picture. He’s a genius.

Knight: He must be, the cinematography is incredible. The whole film is incredible.

Gracia: Yes, it was a magical, miraculous experience. The whole project, from concept, to how we got it financed, to our opening in New York on Friday and seeing people really enjoy it. People find it fascinating and they love it. That’s the best part about it.

Knight: You also mentioned you had a lot of footage. How did things go in the editing room, what did you decide to leave out and why? The film is very well put together, it is seamless.

Gracia: The editing was extremely complicated. We had five separate films that were apparently unrelated: Fedor’s dream, which was a long journey across Ukraine, we had the Chernobyl disaster, we had the technology of the radar, we had the conspiracy theory and we had the Revolution that was happening in Ukraine. And I was nearly at the end of my wits trying to figure out how to bring these stories together. And the moment when it all became clear for me is when I realised it’s really only one story: it’s the story of Fedor’s soul. The story of Fedor’s psychological journey. From the 4-year old irradiated child to the man who eventually stands up to the Soviet Union. At that point I decided to cut everything else, except for that which supported his journey. And it turned out that all of these things, the history of Ukraine, going back to what happened to his grandfather during the Revolution, even the antenna, all had elements that supported and even clarified and coloured Fedor’s journey. And I wanted the film to be very brisk, I wanted it to be short and feel like a thriller. I didn’t want it to be a 3-hour meditation. I wanted it to be an action thriller/detective story.

Knight: The fact that the film is short makes it even more impactful and it leaves you with a desire to see more. Maybe a sequel would be in order!

Gracia: Maybe, I’ll talk to Fedor about it. My thoughts were that I’d rather have people wanting more than being bored.

Knight: Where is the film on the festival circuit?

Gracia: We showed the film in Bucharest recently, I was there, it was lovely. And we’re going to Copenhagen next, the film is screening at CPH:DOX.

Knight: And do you have another film project you’re working on next?

Gracia: I have but it’s kind of top secret. In a couple of years I’ll hopefully have another film to chat to you about.

THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER is opening in theaters in Los Angeles on October 30.

Patricio Guzmán’s beautiful doc The Pearl Button at IFC Center & other NYC cinemas today

the pearl button

Seasoned filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, whose groundbreaking 1975 The Battle of Chile was a key event in the history of the documentary form, follows his astonishing recent work Nostalgia for the Light (2011) with a similar exploration of familiar themes such as memory and the historical past. The Pearl Button was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Script at 2015 Berlin Film Festival and is opening in NYC at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City this weekend.

Knight: The Pearl Button is a very beautiful and moving film. I was very impressed with the way you used the metaphor of water, that is usually associated with life, to symbolise death and tragedy. And you used this metaphor to link two apparently unconnected stories: the story of the indigenous people who lived in the waterways of Western Patagonia and Pinochet’s dictatorship practice of dumping political prisoners in the sea.

Guzman: First of all we have to consider that Chile has 2,670 miles of coastline, that is a lot of water. Particularly in the South, there are a lot of channels entering the continent. Those channels were once inhabited by six different indigenous groups. And they were all executed by white men at the beginning of the 20th century.

There’s also the story of Jemmy Button, an indigenous inhabitant who was taken to England to be “civilised”. He agreed to go in exchange for a single mother-of-pearl button, hence his English name. When he was brought back to his community in Patagonia, he couldn’t readapt, he remained very much isolated, he died alone. These were discoveries that I made on a trip to Patagonia and served as the basis for the film.

I spent 10 days navigating through the channels with a small vessel, and when I arrived back in Santiago de Chile, I came across another story: a pearl button was found stuck to a rail brought to the surface by ocean divers. And I immediately made the connection between Jemmy Button and this other button. And with that, I pretty much had the whole film. And yes, it is my claim in the film that the ocean contains the history of all humanity. 

Knight: There is a reflection in the film about “the memory of water”, about how water remembers things, events, people. I was wondering if you were referring to the latest medical research from Japan where doctors discovered that water has indeed memory and the ability to form a molecular imprint of everything that comes into contact with it?

Guzman: Actually there are studies about the memory of water that are much older than that. Even in the 19th century in the diaries of FitzRoy, he mentions the possibility of water having memory. There’s another very interesting book by a researcher called Theodor Schwenk, it’s called Sensitive Chaos, published in 1962. This book also talks about water having memory.

Knight: I suppose those were theories whereas now there’s actually scientific proof that water has memory. And not many people know that.

Guzman: That’s true. The very first scientist who started to talk about that was a French scientist in the 1950s. And no one believed him!

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Patricio Guzmán during the making of The Pearl Button

Knight: Has the metaphor of ‘sea as cemetery’ been explored by other Chilean artists before or is this the first time it’s been put together in this way?

Guzman: The first time in cinema yes. As to the other Chilean artists I’m not completely sure.

Knight: Could you talk about the potential of beauty and beautiful imagery to convey horror and horrific events in such a powerful way? From this point of view, your film is like a cinematic oxymoron. There’s a disconnect between form and content in your film that mirrors the disconnect that must take place in the human brain when witnessing such horrors.

Guzman: The landscape where I shot the film is very beautiful, especially the channels in the South. There are waterfalls of ice and the sea has a very deep blue colour. There are also volcanos. That’s where the five main indigenous tribes lived and were very happy. And they all died within 2 years after the white men arrived. They wanted the land all to themselves so that they could bring cattle. They hired gunmen to exterminate the indigenous people. Those who remained alive were taken to the missions where they got contaminated with microbes brought from Europe. Today there are only six indigenous people alive.

Knight: What aspect of filmmaking have you found the most challenging in the making of this film?

Guzman: The most challenging part was navigating through those channels, there are very few boats that venture that way. Days and weeks can pass by without encountering any other human beings. And storms happen out of the blue. In those cases, you have to take shelter in a narrow channel and wait for it to pass.

There was another challenge near the coast of Santiago where Pinochet’s political prisoners were dumped. In this case the challenge was not geographic but the fact that there are still very few people willing to talk about it. All in all, it was a difficult film to make.

Knight: This was actually my next question: I read in your interview with Frederick Wiseman that the Chilean television is still a bit reluctant, even now, to show your documentaries on TV, is it true of this film also?

Guzman: We don’t know yet if the Chilean television will be interested in this film because the film is opening next week in cinemas in Chile. So we’ll see what happens.