London Film Festival 2013

Gold For the Bold: Director ANTHONY CHEN on Honest Filmmaking and Winning the First Camera d’Or for Singapore

ilo-ilo poster 2

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…

Anthony's camera d'or

Director ANTHONY CHEN – definitely not resting on his laurels despite what the photo might suggest

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.

Ilo_Ilo_shower scene

Famous Filipino actress Angeli Bayani playing the character of the maid in ILO ILO

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…

boy in ILO ILO

Koh Jia Ler, the 10-year old star of ILO ILO

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.

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.

Kitty+Green

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.

femen inside femen

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.

femen member

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.

GLORIA Is Glorious in SEBASTIAN LELIO’s New Film

Gloria_posterWhat are the options for a 58-year old divorcée whose job is not engaging enough to take over her entire life and whose children have long fled home and have a life of their own? To spend her evenings in front of the TV, looking after the neighbour’s cat or indulge in nostalgia and tearful memories about the good old days gone by? Maybe for some this is an option but nor for Gloria, the extraordinary heroine of Chilean director Sebastian Lelio‘s third feature film.

Winner of the Berlinale Silver Bear for Best Actress and  the Chilian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, GLORIA is a most engrossing character study of a mature single woman whose unbridled optimism and zest for life are simply contagious. Drink in hand and dressed in her most glamorous attire, Gloria is constantly teasing life with her heart wide open to anything that this might bring: adventure, romance, new friends, new lessons…Avoiding the all too easy, conventional clichés that surround representations of older people, Gloria is surprising, warm, genuine and very uplifting. No matter your age,  at the end of the film you wish you were more like Gloria.

In an interview taken on October 18 at the Filmmaker Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013, we pick the director’s brain about the film and the amazing performance that makes Gloria such a delight to watch.

Dana: How did you come up with  such an amazing character?Gloria is so brave, so strong, so inspiring, I so admire this woman and also Paulina Garcia’s breathtaking performance.

Sebastian: Thank you. Yes the film is all about this character and in a way in order to create the character I created an entire film around it. I created a mechanism for Gloria to be alive, which is cinema, it’s the complexity, it’s a narrative strategy, it’s also camera style, the uses of a narrative of “iceberg tips”, elliptic storytelling, the lack of written dialogues, there were no written dialogues in the script, so everything comes from the actors. I guess the answer for that is […] I had the intuition that it was a strong film in this lady’s world, in this character that in a way didn’t deserve a film, because she should have been like a secondary character in a normal film…but I thought no, I see a film there and we will make a great protagonist out of this forgotten character.

Dana: How did this protagonist come alive?If there were no written dialogues, I assume you worked a lot with the actors.

Sebastian: Yes but in order not to write dialogue, you need to write a lot, even more, because then when you are on set you can afford the luxury of getting lost, but to get lost you need to have the map in order to get lost within a certain battlefield or territory. And concerning the actors, I have an “invasion strategy”. I invade them, I become their friend, win their hearts and then I torture them. (laughter)

Dana: And they make your film…

Actors Sergio Hernandez, Paulina Garcia and director Sebastian Lelio at the 63rd Berlinale International Film Festival

Sebastian: Exactly, by their own will…It’s a very empirical strategy but for good reasons. I love actors and I do believe that when you see a film in a way you’re seeing the artistic battle, in this case of Paulina Garcia, you see how she’s giving her fight, the fight of her life, she’s like Rocky at the end of Rocky, round fifteen, she thinks she’s going to die but she wins. So I’m much more interested in the person than in the character, I’m much more moved by the human being, the actress, the characters are like an accident.

Dana: Was the role of Gloria a projection of a side of the actress herself? I read in an interview that they are very different, the actress from the character she plays.

Sebastian: The only way to answer that is yes and no at the same time. Paulina indeed said that she would have liked to be a little lighter, like Gloria is. Gloria is the kind of character who knows how to surf life but I think Paulina is wonderful, she’s so fun to be with, she’s funny and smart, but still…The character has a lot of things from her because since we didn’t use written dialogues, she was forced to use herself. So it’s the grey area between character and actress, or human being I would say.

Dana: Is it true that you were inspired by Cassavetes’ Gloria for this character?

Sebastian: Cassavetes is one of the directors of my life and when it comes to a cinema that is able to capture the mystery, madness and complexity of being human, Cassavetes is like the Pope, he is the master, so I would like to capture that complexity also. It’s impossible not to think of Opening Night or A Woman Under the Influence, or even Gloria. Gena Rowlands was very present in our conversations, because of this energy, this woman who in a way is bigger than life, always with a drink, and high heels, and you know, “bring it on”, I love that…

Dana: It seems that Gloria wants to have a good time despite everything, she wants to enjoy life.

Sebastian: Yes, she’s laughing and enjoying herself, she’s not opaque or withdrawn. I’m so tired of these opaque, “interesting” characters that are hiding what they are thinking and you never know how they think about anything, aren’t they empty maybe? Which is OK, I just wanted to go in the other direction, this is her, transparent, in your face.

Dana: And at the same time the film is very nuanced, very subtle. Another interesting thing is that at the end Gloria finds herself on her own again, which is basically the scene at the beginning. 

Sebastian: Yeah.

Dana: She goes back to square one after experiencing all these emotional ups and downs…Was that the idea of the film, to show a woman experiencing life even if it doesn’t lead her anywhere basically, the film doesn’t have the ending that you’d expect.

Sebastian: Exactly, and this is a very interesting insight because vision is a theme in the film, the glasses, whether she sees or not, how she sees other people and how people see her, she puts the glasses on, she takes them off, she goes to the oculist, being a little maybe blind towards the others, towards life, towards herself, or literally blind, whatever…Dancing without glasses at the end is such a strong gesture. For me it is very interesting what you’re saying because it’s the same social context but I would say that at the end she sees that same context with new eyes, somehow everything has changed because the vision has changed. We can say it’s the same, but in a way it’s not. It is transformed, because her vision has transformed, because vision transforms, which is the core idea for the film, when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.

GloriaDana: What did she see at the end that she didn’t see at the beginning?

Sebastian: Well I think at the beginning she’s looking for the sources of meaning outside her jurisdiction, in men, in family, in therapies and it seems that, but the film doesn’t observe that, it seems that at the end she understands that those sources of meaning might be inside her, so maybe she’s not looking outside, she is dancing blindly but is she blind? So it’s very delicate.

Dana: That’s a very interesting reading of the film.And you’re entitled to your own reading of the film!

Sebastian: (laughing) No, but it’s just a reading, I mean I see myself as a spectator also.

Dana: What were the challenges in making this film?

Sebastian: I would say the main challenge was taking all these low-level materials, like not very sophisticated songs, a lady who’s supposedly a not very interesting character, a boring life, feelings, emotions, and all these dangerous things for an actress, and through combination and alchemy, elevate them and turn them hopefully into cinema. That was the thing, because it is much easier to work with serious issues than to be serious about cinema.

Dana: Is your method of working on this film different from your previous films?

Sebastian: No, my films always had humour and I think they have that complexity but before I made a film that was very sad, because it had to do with the earthquake and tsunami that we had in Chile, and it was impossible not to be serious. We shot only six weeks after the earthquake on real locations where people had died, and we were shooting a fiction based on real events in the real places. But it was very heavy. So very naturally I felt the need to counterbalance, to reconnect with life.

Dana: One last tricky question: why do you make films?

Sebastian: Because for me it’s the best vehicle to cross life, the perfect excuse, it’s a great place from where to think the world. And cinema is a great way to contaminate the world also with what you feel. It’s a wonderful toy.

GLORIA, this wonderful toy from director Sebastian Lelio, is playing in London cinemas now, book your tickets here: Curzon Soho, ICA, Barbican Centre and Ritzy Cinema.

How To Love Creative People – Interview with ZACH HEINZERLING, the Director of CUTIE AND THE BOXER

A while ago, Ideas Tap published a very amusing article on “How to date creative people” and the advice was: give them space, don’t compete, get creative with your dating ideas, don’t plan too far into the future, lower your expectations even further, etc.

All very sound advice… And then? What happens after the dating stage?Any hope for a “happily ever after” dénouement?

cutie_and_the_boxer_biggieCUTIE AND THE BOXER, winner of the documentary directing prize at this year’s SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, offers one of the most surprising answers to this dilemma.

Imagine this “stranger than fiction” scenario: You are a super cute Japanese 19-year old girl, an aspiring artist, and you move to New York to start your art education. A few months later you meet Ushio, a very charismatic artist-provocateur,  21 years your senior. He asks you on a dinner date, sparks fly, then you go back to his place to see his art among other things. Then the following morning he asks to borrow money to pay his rent. And because you’re nice and he seems trustworthy, you part with the tiny allowance that your parents gave you to get by in New York lest poor Ushio get evicted. Six months later you become pregnant with his child, which forces you to give up your art education as the money doesn’t stretch to cover both… And you become Ushio’s full-time wife, cook, assistant…Thus began one of the most enduring romantic and artistic entanglements we ever heard of: 40 years later Ushio and Noriko are still making art, love and especially war…

Zachary_Heinzerling_Headshot

Zach Heinzerling

In an interview taken on October 18 at the Filmmaker Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013, the film’s director ZACH HEINZERLING tells us more about his most endearing subjects…

Dana: How and when did you first discover Noriko and Ushio, the “Cutie” and the “Boxer” of the title?

Zach: I like taking pictures and I was in Dumbo one day, this is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn that a lot of artists used to live in, art studios are still there but it’s become very posh and expensive. They have an open studio day when you can walk in and meet artists. A good friend of mine speaks Japanese, we went together and he introduced me to them. I was an art student, I’d just moved to New York and I was interested in getting to know them, they are very welcoming, they want to share their art, their art is about their lives and you get personal very quickly, which I think for a documentary subject is really interesting because you don’t have to work very hard to understand what they want to say, it’s out there and they are projecting it and drawing on it. First I made a short film about them, kind of a day in the life. Then, I just kept going over there, sometimes with a camera, sometimes not.

Dana: Did they welcome the idea of you making a documentary about them immediately or did it take some effort to convince them?

Zach: Yes they welcomed the idea immediately. Ushio is obsessed with being filmed, he’s a performance artist, his art results in paintings but it’s the performance really that is the art itself, so the idea of being watched is important for him. Noriko was more shy but with my interest in her art she really opened up for me and that became the basis for the film, it’s more her story as opposed to his.

Noriko and Ushio Shinohara

Dana: Their relationship sounds very interesting, there’s a bit of dominance/submissiveness going on…

Zach: Yes there is, they’ve been married for over 40 years, she met him when she was 19 and within six months she was pregnant and basically taking care of him. He’s sort of the classical drunk, egotistical artist, the “only thing important in life” kind of guy, and I think she was wooed by that and fell in love with him for his purity but then had to sort of clean up after him.  And I think there’s an element of, you know, in Japanese culture, sticking with your spouse through thick and thin, and she suffered through most of their relationship…The film is about them now in the present and how that past affected them today. And the resentment she holds against him, but also the power that she’s trying to extract back. She is the dominant personality now, she very much wears the pants in the relationship, she’s very strong, fierce, competitive. It’s always very interesting to have two headstrong artists, when you combine them something beautiful is created, and complex, and I think that’s really what the film is about, it’s about what’s created from the two of them as opposed to either one of them individually. The tension is drama and that’s what the film is.

Dana: How did they receive the film?

Zach:He didn’t like the film. When you see the film you’ll understand why, he only really cares about his art and the film starts out to be more about him and then transitions to be more about her. And he expected the film to be more about him, for his art to be more featured. And the film is not only about art really, it’s about this relationship, and love in a way, and he doesn’t enjoy love stories. But he wasn’t critical of it, this is something I worked on for five years and we’re very close, we’re like family, so his reaction wasn’t like “You have to change it”, it was more like “I didn’t expect this”. But he’s since come to really appreciate and compliment the film and he’s supportive of the film because it’s essentially promoting his artwork which he likes. She’s always loved the film, she takes ownership of it and uses it in a way as more of a weapon in their battle…

cutie at work

Noriko at work on her Cutie paintings

Dana: What made you choose to focus more on her, is it because you found her the more interesting character, or is it because she is kind of the “underdog” and you wanted to side with her?

Zach: Yeah she’s definitely the more complicated character, she’s layered, there’s a complexity to her.  And she’s got a fascinating story, she moved to New York when she was 19, and she was kind of taken under the wing of this crazy personality and she lived in this bubble that he’s created ever since. And she’s now 60 and looking back on her life. The film’s title, Cutie, comes from this comic that she’s created, the Cutie character is basically her alter-ego, she’s created herself as this 19 year old girl with pigtails, and part of it is tied to this longing for a youth and an innocence that was taken from her at a young age and she’s trying to recreate it through her artwork and deal with a lot of her problems through her artwork. So it was fascinating, she wears her pair of pigtails today as a 60 year old woman, she has this kind of ageless beauty to her and a real strange way of dealing with things. So yes I think that her character has legs and it was also something that over the course of the film would shift and I could observe that shift…

Dana: It sounds almost like a feminist film, a woman who really comes into her own…

Zach: Yes, in her art now she creates drawings of herself dressed as a dominatrix and whipping her husband who’s in chains, she’s revenging against her husband …and she’s this cute Japanese woman so it’s crazy…(laughter)

Ushio_Zach_Noriko_at studio

Zach with Ushio and Noriko in their art studio in New York

Dana: How long have you spent with them to make this documentary and what were the challenges?

Zach: I met them five years ago so it’s technically a five year process but the film really takes place over the last two years. Early on, it was a film more about art and more of a slightly traditional style of documentary where I was using other people to kind of contextualise them and their art, historians, and their friends and curators. And then it shifted to being only them, observational in style, where they were sort of interviewing each other. But there’s no interviews in the film, it’s just reality observed, reality sculpted obviously, the editing process creating a story out of these two years where she starts to gain the respect of others and the relationship shifts from her being the assistant to her being a real artist in her own right. And the challenge was that I’m not fluent in Japanese and the film is almost entirely in Japanese. So a lot of time when I was shooting I had no idea what they were saying but I could generally understand the idea and I would just film scenes in their entirety and then get all of the footage subtitled and recover scenes from that…It’s an inefficient process but I was interested in things other than exactly what they were saying, the rhythm of the scene, or what it looked like, or what it sounded like…And I shot the film too, trying to get that kind of intimacy that’s needed for the kind of scenes that I wanted…And it took that long, it was only after three years that I started to get scenes that were natural…and to observe them in more vulnerable situations. So obviously that’s an immense amount of time, I was working on other projects throughout but the film is really as much about my relationship with them as it is about their relationship…

Dana: Are you in the film?

Zach: No, I’m not in the film.

Dana: Because you mentioned the word “observational” and I was wondering whether you put yourself in the frame in the style of cinema vérité or whether your film is purely observational in the style of direct cinema?What was your approach?

Zach: I wouldn’t describe it as purely observational.Traditional cinema vérité is this whole idea that you don’t direct at all, it’s just the camera as is. […] But the genre shifted and these sort of hybrid films were created. I mean everything that happens in the movie, happened, but the order that you place it, the way that you shoot things, we use music in the film, we use animation, her comics are animated, there’s a level of me deciding which stories to tell. And even cinema vérité is subjective, nothing is observed reality, it’s always sculpted reality so I constructed it slightly more than say 60’s vérité films, but that was always the intention, you turn something into a cinematic experience to make people understand your version of the story, this is my version of their relationship. They understood that and that’s why they weren’t critical of it because they knew it was my version as opposed to the real version or…

Dana: What they wanted to project…

Zach: Yes…when you film artists, a lot of the time that’s a benefit because there’s a sort of understanding that “ok, this is my art”, even though it’s about them, they are more exhibitionists…(laughter)

Dana: This is your debut feature film and you made shorts before. I was wondering what you have lined up for the future, will you continue to make films?

Zach: I think so. I went to arts school, I studied philosophy, I didn’t go to film school but I do think I’ll probably continue making films, I’m currently writing a script for a fiction film, so my ambition is to create and construct a story. I would do another documentary, this documentary was special because the subject lent itself to an interesting and creative style of documentary, you can’t find that in every subject…

Dana: What would be the main themes you would like to explore?

Zach: I think I’m most apt to continue exploring this sort of morally complex relationship stories, smaller personal stories are what I’m most interested to catch on film…Why I like cinema is that you can approach this idea of something or someone without having to define it, you can make an audience sympathetic to a character then turn around and make them disgusted by that character. It shows how complex people can be and you can shatter people’s preconceived notions of why someone does what they do, I think that’s the most interesting thing about film, it’s very difficult to find another medium that doesn’t rely on specificity. Ambiguity is something that is sometimes scary and hard to sell but if you can make a film that is ambiguous but also engrossing, I think the audience feels perhaps changed in some way or their perspective is shifted. So it’s those kinds of films, with characters that you might not always like. I mean in this film Ushio the husband is kind of demonised at the beginning and then by the end maybe you feel differently.At the beginning, one of the lines in the film is that he is a genius and his wife is average so it’s her job to support him.

Ushio boxing

Ushio performance art

Dana: Oh no!He really said that?And you left that in?

Zach: Yeah.So you might hate him. But then there are other things that you might like about him.

Dana: Did he know he was being filmed?Didn’t he say it as a joke?

Zack: Oh yeah, he knew…Well, she wasn’t there but no, it wasn’t a joke. He laughed and the camera was on… As you’ll see in the film, there’s no place he won’t go, his life is to be as exposed as possible but the irony is that you never actually feel like you get to his core, it’s always a performance with him, he’s always kind of acting in a way, so I think that line is probably a version of acting and finding out what he really thinks. And he definitely cares more about his art than hers and he definitely thinks he’s a more important artist than she will ever be, and based on what he’s done, he was part of a 60s post-war Japanese group that’s very important in the art history of Japan, so his paintings are all over the world. But now he’s actually not selling at all, he’s not known for his work of the last 30 years, so in some ways he’s sort of this washed-up artist who’s not really relevant anymore. She is the more sort of fresh, with something to say, you know. Whether he actually respects her or not is still a question, and whether she actually respects him or not is a question…

Dana: Why are they together?

Zach: I don’t know (laughing), that’s the subject of the movie…

If we managed to pique your interest and you want to find out the secret to Ushio and Noriko’s enduring love, don’t miss out on the film’s cinema release, Cutie and the Boxer is screening at ICA and other cinemas in the UK starting today.

To book your ticket at the ICA click here.