feminism

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.

Bare-breasted Feminism & Tough Girl Activism – Filmmaker KITTY GREEN Explains Why UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL

Ukraine is not a Brothel poster

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.

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Filmmaker Kitty Green

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.

Kitty-Green Femen VeniseDana: 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.

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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.

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Alexandra Shevchenko, one of the founders of FEMEN

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.

Inna Shevchenko, one of FEMEN’s most well-known campaigners

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…

Kitty: Exactly…

Femen pro gay campaignDana:  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.

femen in Paris

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.

Find out more/Donate/Become a member of  FEMEN here.