Independent Magazine http://independent-magazine.org Obsessed with Independent Film Since 1978 Wed, 21 Jan 2015 01:25:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 10 to Watch 2015 Call for Nominationshttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/10-to-watch-2015/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/10-to-watch-2015/#comments Wed, 21 Jan 2015 01:21:27 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2002 For seven years running, The Independent has selected its 10 to Watch in order to highlight filmmakers, producers, programmers, and others who will open our minds to the independent cinema of the coming year. As ever, we ask for your help in finding and nominating the right people for this spotlight. We always choose filmmakers from the open process. We... Read more »

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For seven years running, The Independent has selected its 10 to Watch in order to highlight filmmakers, producers, programmers, and others who will open our minds to the independent cinema of the coming year.

As ever, we ask for your help in finding and nominating the right people for this spotlight. We always choose filmmakers from the open process. We also take at least one person from suggestions provided by each of our nominating jury members, TBA below.

Nominations are open from January 21 – February 9, 2015. Nominate colleagues, friends, or even yourself. Our selection process prioritizes those who worked on an independent film to be released in 2015. We choose filmmakers who are creating work that you love, imbued with passion, courage, and shifts either the form or the world in some significant way.

What We’re Looking for in 10 to Watch Nominees

We review and consider every nomination that we receive. Here is a guide to the kinds of filmmakers we hope to identify as 10 to Watch for 2015:

  • Someone set to make a notable impact on independent film in 2015, usually with a project that will premiere in the calendar year.
  • Someone working towards becoming more established or a seasoned filmmaker who is venturing into new territory.
  • Someone whose creative endeavors would greatly benefit from a vote of confidence from her or his peers.
  • Someone who has received past recognition such as a grant or inclusion in a national film festival.
  • A diverse group in all regards–gender, nationality, age, ethnicity, creative strengths, etc…
  • Nominees can work in animation, documentary, experimental, drama, genre, comedy, shorts, web series, etc…
  • Nominees can be directors, writers, camera people, producers, programmers, something we have not yet imagined…
  • Nominees should reflect a wide array of alternatives (and disruptions) in distribution and types of film.
  • Although it’s not a film competition, we would like to see work samples, if not a whole film, if appropriate.
  • We are particularly interested in filmmakers who are embracing interactive, multi and transmedia.
  • While we love all cinema, for the purposes of our publication, we are interested in filmmakers working primarily in English language cinema.

How to Submit a Nomination

DEADLINE: FEBRUARY 9, 2015. Please send the nominee name, complete contact info (email, phone, website(s), etc), bio, and reason for nomination to maddy AT independent-magazine DOT org. Thanks one and all!

For past coverage, read 10 to Watch in 201410 to Watch in 2013, 10 to Watch in 2012, 10 to Watch in 2011, 10 to Watch in 2010 and 10 to Watch in 2009.

 

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Filmmakers and their Global Lens: The Circlehttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/global-lens-circle/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/global-lens-circle/#comments Wed, 07 Jan 2015 15:27:19 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=1970 This interview took place in New York City in November 2014 with director, Stefan Haupt and the film’s “real life” protagonists Robi Rapp and Ernst Ostertag.  Dana Knight: Before seeing the film, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the film poster. It is slightly reminiscent of the poster for A New Kind of Love,... Read more »

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This interview took place in New York City in November 2014 with director, Stefan Haupt and the film’s “real life” protagonists Robi Rapp and Ernst Ostertag. 

Dana Knight: Before seeing the film, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the film poster. It is slightly reminiscent of the poster for A New Kind of Love, the film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. This famous photograph also served as the poster for the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Is this a coincidence or a way of presenting The Circle as first and foremost a love story and secondly as a human rights story?

Stefan Haupt: It is a coincidence, we did not know about that, otherwise we wouldn’t have dared to choose it. But your point is valid, for us it was important to make a film for all kinds of people and emphasise the love story. And of course the human rights aspect of the story. It was a great thing to have the real characters, Robi and Ernst still alive, to have them in the film and to also have this mixture of fictionalised scenes played by actors. And we were able at any point interfere with the real personalities telling their stories, giving it authenticity. It really happened like this.

DK: I know your debut as a filmmaker was in documentary, then you kept alternating between documentary and fiction. For this film, you chose to blend the two together, a very daring choice. Can you talk about what motivated that choice?

Haupt: In this case it was the two producers that came to me and asked me if I would like to write and direct a film, The Circle. And at that point, it was clear to us that it would be a fiction film. And we wanted to do a co-production Switzerland-Germany. We found the money we needed in Switzerland but nothing at all in Germany, which made it very difficult. So at that point we couldn’t make the film the way we wanted to. We had to rethink if we wanted to abandon the project or what our options were. Then someone came up with the idea of mixing documentary and fiction. I have to say I’ve seen that done quite often and it’s only in a very few cases that I really loved the result. It’s a difficult aesthetic choice and it’s really challenging to make something cohesive […]. But we decided to go ahead with it.  So we kept the fictionalised script that we had and we were thinking how we can replace certain scenes with the protagonists telling the story through Robi and Ernst. Before shooting the fiction parts, we edited the documentary parts. Then we went through the whole thing scene by scene, always thinking, reflecting what we can do to make it really glue together

ALI_1247DK: The formal complexity of blending documentary and fiction matches the complexity of the subject, adding layer after layer, with the interviews serving as a commentary on the story. It is interesting that it was a financial impediment that led to this concept.

Haupt: Yes I’m very happy now that it turned out like this. Sometimes you’re also lucky when you do things. For instance, Robi gave this performance in the theatre at the same time as we were developing the script for the fiction film. And I told the producers: “Let’s film this”. You never know, this might be good material. They said “We don’t have the money”. I said “Please, let’s do it”. I never thought that this could end up being the beginning and the end of the film. And once we had written the whole script, I went to the producers and said: “ I would like to do a long long interview with Robi and Ernst, to go  through the whole script and each scene and ask them: is this really true?, what kind of memories do you have when you read this scene?”. Also having the bonus material for a dvd in mind. So we did that interview before we knew that we were going to make a docu-fiction. Then we made a transcript of it and when I started to put documentary and fiction parts together, I had the first text for the documentary film, which was very helpful.

DK:  Was the writing of the script a collaborative endeavour?Since this is Robi and Ernsts personal story, I imagine they were involved in the writing process?

Robi Rapp: We got to read the treatments, quite many of them.

Ernst Ostertag: And we’d make comments, this is very good, this is not good. We would talk afterwards and change the script.

Haupt: I think it is important to say that the producers had meetings with Robi and Ernst very often, taking notes. Also my older brother is gay and through him I became more familiar with the whole story. So we wrote a first draft and handed it over to Robi and Ernst and asked them to give their comments on the story. But it was clear that it wasn’t them who could say “This can be in”, “This has to be out”. We were interested in their opinion but we agreed that not all the details had to be true, really true. The details had to give the impression that they could have been true.

DK:  Not necessarily truebut truthful.

Haupt: Yes, truthful. They didn’t have to be historically true.

Ostertag: Generally speaking, there were very few things that we asked the screenwriters to alter. There were only very few instances where we insisted that “This has to be historically true”.

DK: Could you give an example of that?

Ostertag: In one of the scripts it was mentioned that the office of Der Kreis, where they also produced the magazine, was in the same building as the meetings and the festive acts. This was not the case and I thought it’s better to separate them.

DK: How long did the whole project last, from start to finish?

Haupt: It’s exactly seven years now that the two producers asked me to get involved. And at that point they’d been working on it for almost a year already. So it took us almost eight years but that happens quite often, simply because financing such a film is not easy. In this case it was a good thing for the project to mature.

DK: Where was the film shot? Did you shoot in the actual place where The Circle was located back in the 1950s?

Haupt: No, it’s not far away but it’s a different location. We shot in an old house in Zurich which has nothing to do with The Circle. We shot the festivities and the ball at the Neuemark Theatre. And we also shot in a restaurant that has nice rooms so the atmosphere was very adequate and authentic but it was not the real place.

DK: What happened to the real place, when was it closed?

Ostertag: The Circle was closed in 1967. But the place still went on, it was used as a theatre after that and it’s still being used as a theatre. And the restaurant where they made the film has a stage, which was essential. And this stage looked very similar to what we remember the stage in Der Kreis to look like.

DK: How did the casting process go? The actors playing Robi and Ernst have almost a physical resemblance to Robi and Ernsts  younger selves, would you agree? Although I doubt this was your main criteria for choosing them.

Haupt: We were looking for two young men who could develop a good chemistry between each other. Because I had the feeling that between Robi and Ernst there’s a really special chemistry. And we wanted to find something similar. We first found the actor who plays Ernst and at the beginning we had a German actor for Robi. This is when we were thinking it was going to be a co-production. So when we couldn’t have the co-production, we had to start again doing castings with other actors. We had to be sure that they would work well as a couple. It was clear to us that we shouldn’t pay attention to the physical aspect, so it is by chance that they resemble Robi and Ernst. Also we didn’t pay attention whether they were gay or not. We really went for the quality of the actors and we’re happy that it worked out like this. Once we found Sven, it was totally clear to us that he was the one to play Robi.

ALI_1974Rapp: Yes, I think they were very well-chosen. They came to us, we talked, he asked me several things. And then we studied his part together, that helps a lot. […] For actors it is quite difficult to play real people who are still alive. The end result is very good, I’m very happy with that.

DK: I was also wondering how it felt to have your story told for cinema? To revisit those difficult years?

Ostertag: It was a fantastic feeling. When we saw the film, it was like our life story coming back from memory and becoming a presence, not in front of us but inside of us. We saw the film on the screen and we could feel it was our own story, it was congruent, it was the same […]. There  were moments when we were crying, moments when we were laughing, moments when we were scared.

DK: This film was called the most endearing love story on the Swiss screenand some film critics referred to it as a romance.  What are your thoughts on that?

Ostertag: I’m not sure we should use the word “romance”! I don’t know what the connotations of romance are here in America but I wouldn’t use this expression for our life. It wasn’t really a romance between us. We just got to know each other gradually. After we first met, there was no chance to try to see him again. But I was deeply touched by this young man and I was dreaming of him. And then we met again by chance. But it was never love at first sight. In a way yes but in a way no. What both of us, unbeknownst to each other, were seeking, was a deep connection to another person, a sort of partnership, based on love of course, but on deep love and not just being in love or falling in love. And I just knew that Robi was the person I wanted to get old with.

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Filmmakers and their Global Lens: Johanna St Michaelshttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/filmmakers-global-lens-johanna-st-michaels/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/filmmakers-global-lens-johanna-st-michaels/#comments Tue, 06 Jan 2015 21:23:42 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=1959 Join The Independent’s special contributor, Dana Knight as she speaks with Johanna St Michaels about Penthouse North at DOC NYC 2014. Dana Knight: Could you please introduce the film and tell us what it’s about. Johanna St Michaels: The film is about Agneta Eckemyr, she is a former actress/model, pretty well-known in the 60s and 70s, after... Read more »

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Join The Independent’s special contributor, Dana Knight as she speaks with Johanna St Michaels about Penthouse North at DOC NYC 2014.

Dana Knight: Could you please introduce the film and tell us what it’s about.

Johanna St Michaels: The film is about Agneta Eckemyr, she is a former actress/model, pretty well-known in the 60s and 70s, after that she became a designer. For 42 years, she lived in a fantastic apartment between 73th and 74th Street on Central Park West. The film is about her struggle to keep her apartment and growing older as a great beauty.

DK: What sparked your interest in her story?

St Michaels: First, it was the backside of beauty. My previous film ‘About Dina’, was about an agent in Hollywood who stole her model’s money to do beauty operations. I wanted to show the backside of the beauty industry and what happens as you grow older in that environment. But with Agneta, I slowly realised that her story was more about trying to keep her apartment and struggling with ageing.

DK: It seems that her identity is very much tied up with this apartment.

St Michaels: Very much so.

DK: But first, how did you meet Agneta?

St Michaels: When I was in my twenties I used to model for her. She was a well known designer and I used to model her dresses at the Swedish Embassy. Later we became friends. I’ve known her for about 25 years.

DK: Did she welcome the idea of this film immediately or did it take some convincing?

St Michaels: Actually she asked me to make a film about her. She had seen my previous films and said to me: “My life should be a film”. And I asked: “ Well, what do you want to tell?. And she showed me a script that she had written when she was 30 about her own jet set life. She got money from the Swedish Film Institute. It’s a very pink script, if I could say so, and very romantic. We tried to use it in the documentary as a backside story but it didn’t really work out. And then we changed course and the film really became about her life situation.

DK: So initially you planned this as a docu-drama?It is interesting how things evolved…

St Michaels: Yes. Her driving force in life was to keep her apartment and as a filmmaker there was no other story I could tell. Because trying to keep the apartment was almost taking up her whole time. Sadly enough it’s a very common NYC story!

DK: How would you describe Agneta, she’s a very intriguing character. Her glamorous past, the  aura of celebrity…

St Michaels: She’s a fantastic character. She was actually called the “Ambassador of Sweden in NYC”. She had a ‘revolving door policy’, and everybody came to visit her. And she’s fun, she’s upbeat. She’s a survivor of life basically. And she was extremely beautiful, she was on the cover of Playboy, Cosmopolitan. She had a film in Cannes Film Festival called Christophers House in 1970:s. And she was playing against Thommy Berggren who is one of the biggest stars in Sweden. So she was big in Sweden at the time.

DK: Something that struck me in the opening scene when she’s getting a massage is her open attitude, she doesn’t seem uneasy about showing her body as it is now. This is quite extraordinary for a former beauty, is she someone without vanity?

St Michaels: I would say she is both. She left the modeling days behind her, but she was still always waiting for Prince Charming to come to save her, always. She comes from a generation of women who were more dependent on men because they didn’t have proper education. Agneta says she never did a boob job or plastic surgery because she didn’t have the money. She’s very funny, she also said that being poor was the best diet. Today I think she is proud of her life. And she became a great designer, her dresses are timeless.

DK: But she also comes across as very resilient. The other Swedish beauty that comes to mind is Greta Garbo and she was known for her resilience and the fact that she could take on the fame and not be too affected by that.

St Michaels: Yes, and I think Agneta is very down to earth. She likes to have fun. And she likes to be beautiful and she loves when people tell her that she is beautiful. But she’s a complex person, and she has many other sides that she has developed.

DK: On this note, how did your image of her change during the making of the film?If it changed at all.

St Michaels: Her health was deteriorating during the four years it took to finish the film but at the time we didn’t know what illness she was struggling against.

The film is a bit like Sunset Boulevard, Agneta kept all of her old photos in the apartment. I sometimes felt she was living in her past life, instead of cherishing what she had now. I felt that as a woman, you have to have something else, apart from your beauty, you need to develop some skill. You need to have a plan for your retirement if you go into modelling, dancing, acting. You also need to let go of things from the past, don’t hold on to commercial objects. Just give it up, have a life, start a new life, you don’t have to be stuck in the past.

DK: When did you start making this film and how did the process unfold?

Johanna St Michaels photo Donna Ranieri copy (1)

Johanna St Michaels, photograph by Donna Ranieri

St Michaels: We started in 2010. Back then she went to Sweden and pretended to look for expensive summer houses in a TV show. But in 2011 her money situation got acute, she didn’t even have electricity. Together we decided to change course and focus on the apartment, and I followed her through 2013 when she finally left.

DK: In what ways would you say this project differs from your other projects?

St Michaels: I have always had an interest in telling stories about women and looking at the flip side of the fashion industry, because I feel we have such screwed-up ideas about beauty and the female body. But Penthouse North was a long process, I’ve never shot over 3 years before. So it differs in that way. And also filming someone who has been a celebrity was a new experience because there are so many people who want to protect the person from being exploited, which is very understandable. But it makes your job as a documentarian harder.

DK: On the technical side, what made you want to use voice-over narration?Is it a personal preference or did you feel that the narrative and portrait of Agneta benefited from this commentary?

St Michaels: I was for a long time trying to do the film without voice over. But it was difficult to film Agneta without her talking to me behind the camera. I became automatically a character in the film. Also the voice over helped with establishing her back story in a more effective way.

DK: How many hours did you shoot and how did the editing go?

St Michaels: It was very difficult, we shot about 400 hours, which turned out to be a lot. First we thought we could do the editing in 3 months but we edited for almost 5 months. And it was hard, we had several test audiences coming in and we kept asking them: “Are we humiliating her or are we ok? Are we showing too much?”

DK: Did she have a say on the editing by the way?

St Michaels: She was quite ill near the end of editing. But she saw the film and she liked it. And I showed it to her closest friends, and her son got a link to the film.

DK: Where are you on the festival circuit, I know the film premiered at Hot Docs in Toronto…

St Michaels: We went to Leipzig DOX, Iceland Film Festival (RIFF), in Hot Springs and now we are going to a Women’s Film Festival. I want to push it in that direction, the Swedish Film Institute is also helping with that. It has been shown on Swedish television of course, and will also be shown in Finland.

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Filmmakers and their Global Lens: Ric Burnshttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/filmmakers-global-lens-ric-burns/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/filmmakers-global-lens-ric-burns/#comments Tue, 06 Jan 2015 14:00:38 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=1955 For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor, Dana Knight spoke with veteran documentarian, Ric Burns about Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the Man behind the National Enquirer at DOC NYC 2014. Dana Knight: This is a very interesting and entertaining documentary, just like the real-life person it is portraying, Generoso Pope, the... Read more »

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For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor, Dana Knight spoke with veteran documentarian, Ric Burns about Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the Man behind the National Enquirer at DOC NYC 2014.

Dana Knight: This is a very interesting and entertaining documentary, just like the real-life person it is portraying, Generoso Pope, the founder of the National Enquirer.

Ric Burns: That’s music to my ears! He’s incredible, yes. And I’m working with a couple of people, the narrator of the film, Oliver Platt, to try and turn it into a huge dramatic mini-series. Because the story of this guy and his dad is just amazing. His father came from nothing, he came here with $10 in his pocket in 1906 and ended up being the wealthiest Italian-American in the country and in the world! 10 45th Park Avenue is the most prestigious address in NYC, he moved into it when it opened in 1929, a 22-room duplex. That’s the father, who was a bit of a Fascist, a friend of Mussolini and a friend of presidents…Since Frank Sinatra, Americans had this love affair with the Italian-American culture. Up until that point in the 40s Italians were hated. After that everybody loved Italians and it became the era of the Godfather and this love of everything Italian, the food, the idea of the Mafia. And this story is like 80-100 years of the real thing, this semi-Neapolitan family from the Campania in Southern Italy who came over and they do fantastically good and then the family hates each other and the brother hates the youngest son and he screws up and starts this incredible magazine, this terrible tabloid. I don’t think Fleet Street had anything quite as low as the New York Evening Inquirer. And it just came out of some weird, idiosyncratic set of talents and obsessions and bribe.

David Pecker who is head of the parent company that currently owns the National Enquirer says in the film: “The tabloid cashed in $ 2 billion a week in its days of glory”. That’s insane!

DK: And this is also the quintessential American story, from rags to riches.

Burns:  That’s right, absolutely, from rags to riches. And both the father’s and the son’s story are totally unknown. Coming to America, Ellis Island, sleeping under a park bench the first night he is here and then he is ruling the world! And then he drops dead of a heart attack in the 1950s.

DK: As youd expect, after such a life.

Burns:  As you’d expect, yes. And he achieves what a friend of mine calls “instant oblivion”. Nobody remembers Generoso Pope. But there was a time when he was a household word, particularly in NYC. Franklin Roosevelt doesn’t write letters to “My dear friend Gene” for nothing. You couldn’t be elected president of the US in 1935 or 1940 without the Italian vote and Generoso Pope, the father, had the Italian vote in his pocket.

DK: Thats amazing. And I had no idea the character of the Godfatherwas fashioned on him!

Burns:  I love that. Also on Frank Costello who was a good friend of the father and the godfather to the son who started the National Enquirer. People sort of say that the character of the Godfather was fashioned on a number of different people: Frank Costello and Generoso Pope Senior. And they say the father wasn’t in the Mafia…But listen, you don’t get to be the largest supplier of construction materials in the country without being associated with the Mafia! And somebody says: “He wasn’t in the Mafia, the Mafia came to him for favours!” So the Mafia was just one more big string that Generoso Pope Senior pulled. And Don Corleone was indubitably Frank Costello who was “Capo di tutti capi ”, he was the most powerful Mafia figure. And the most interesting. Gene Pope’s godfather helped him out enormously.

DK: You made several historical documentaries. From a technical standpoint, what is the main challenge of a historical documentary? How difficult was it to structure the material into a coherent whole?

Burns:  It was very challenging. And I’ve made documentaries for nearly 20 years and I made a lot of movies! But the humbling thing is that it doesn’t get any easier. Maybe you get better as you get on but that doesn’t mean it gets easier. And the challenge of this was really a challenge of tone. I made historical biographies about Ansel Adams the photographer, Andy Warhol, Eugene O’Neil, 18-20h films about the history of NYC. So your aim is explaining to people in the course of your story what it all means, you’re interpreting. And the hardest thing of this was, and it took me a log time to realise, there’s no interpretation. This is just the story.

DK: You just told the facts.

Burns:  Exactly, just tell the facts and get out of the way. And every time I succumbed to the temptation of getting in the way, it kind of deflated the story. So it was about the tone. And you might not think it’s great to have a $2 billion a week tabloid industry but you can figure that out yourself, I don’t need to interpret your conclusions for you. Just tell the story, this incredible father-son story that’s on one hand about stone and building and on the other hand about newspapers and tabloids and celebrity. From 1906 when the father arrives in NY to 1988 when the son dies, it’s like One Hundred Years of Solitude in America.

And what I also love is that people refer to the National Enquirer which is synonymous with downmarket journalism, and maybe they make it up and they are paid for it and it’s sleazy, stuff like that. But these were the highest- paid journalists in the world, running the paper and doing the editing and doing the writing! They raided Fleet Street, one person says in the film: “Gene, why do you always hire English journalists?” He says: “American journalists want to save civilisation,  English journalists want to make money”. And it’s absolutely true! So it’s either Gene Pope himself who was this wacky, eccentric genius, or any of the people he hired to do the editing, writing, they were incredibly smart people.

DK: And the incredible thing is that he knew the American mind, what the public wanted to read and hear about in a newspaper.

Burns:  Absolutely. He knew the American mind. This guy, silver spoon, private school, 22-room duplex, the opposite from his father’s upbringing. But for some reason and in a weird way he had his finger intuitively on the pulse of the average Middle American, the house wife who goes shopping for the weekly groceries at the grocery shop.

DK: And being in tune with your time, this is ironically what an artist is!

Burns: Right! I made a 4-hour film about Andy Warhol a few years ago and he is born exactly the same year as Gene Pope Junior. And in a funny way they are twins, these people grew up and they just understood, they got it. And they had no compunctions about commerce, had no high ideals, they were just out there. And maybe Andy left a greater mark on culture but who’s made a bigger mark on the entire society?

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Filmmakers and their Global Lens: Norah Shapirohttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/filmmakers-global-lens-noah-shapiro/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/filmmakers-global-lens-noah-shapiro/#comments Sun, 04 Jan 2015 16:15:36 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=1899 For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor, Dana Knight sat down with Norah Shapiro at DOC NYC 2014 to discuss the world premiere of her latest work, Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile. Dana Knight: Congratulations for your documentary. Could you please introduce the film and tell us how this project came about? Norah... Read more »

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Shapiro-Headshot

Norah Shapiro

For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor, Dana Knight sat down with Norah Shapiro at DOC NYC 2014 to discuss the world premiere of her latest work, Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile.

Dana Knight: Congratulations for your documentary. Could you please introduce the film and tell us how this project came about?

Norah Shapiro: I first heard of the existence of a Tibetan Beauty Pageant eight years ago when I was working on a previous film and someone who was involved peripherally came up to me and said: “I’ve been watching you doing what you’re doing and it occurred to me to ask you about something that I’m writing as a play but I’m wondering if this could make a documentary subject”. And she told me what it was about and immediately I was fascinated. And after doing a little bit of digging and research I continued to be compelled initially by the paradox, between my idea of things Tibetan and my idea of a beauty pageant.

DK: Exactly, the film contains so many contradictions and paradoxes. In the Western world we have this conception of beauty pageants as being about the objectification of women whereas in Tibet it seems to be the only platform for women to make their voices heard. Or thats at least what the pageants impresario claims!

Shapiro: I would agree with him that it’s the only international platform, it’s the only platform that appears to get the spotlight. So I think he’s onto something, as ironic as that is.

DK: How did making this film change your perspective on beauty pageants or Tibet, in case you had any misconceptions about these?

Shapiro: That’s a good question. I will confess that when I began the film I only had negative attitudes and conceptions about beauty pageants. While it is true that I still hold some of those prejudices, I have come to understand the complexity that is involved with the use of the pageant construct in many different cultures other than the Western Miss America context. And in those outsider contexts, it is not so easy to dismiss. It’s complicated, you can still make critiques about objectification and the male gaze and that kind of critique. Which I certainly shared in this one in the bathing suit competition but my eyes were opened up to a much greater complexity. And also the brilliant way that it has been adapted, not only in this context but in many others. And there are anthropologists who have written really fascinating, amazing, scholarly articles about this. There’s something about the way in which a beauty pageant can shine a spotlight on the values and the identity and all of the other dynamics that are going into a culture in a way that nothing else does. And also let’s be real: the idea that we don’t care about beauty, that beauty doesn’t matter, I’m sorry but it’s just not true.

DK: It is quite a hypocritical idea.

Shapiro: It is. Beauty matters to me. And I found Tibetan culture so much richer and so much more beautiful than I knew about it being, at the time, just with my stereotypical understanding of Tibet. So this is another thing that changed as well.

DK: About the interesting, colourful characterthat is the impresario, what did you think of him and how did you work together?

Shapiro:  He’s very colourful, he’s very enigmatic. I think he’d make a really remarkable subject and character for a documentary because of his complexity. On the one hand, really incredible brilliance and strategic thinking and sophistication,quite frankly, about the media and human psychology and international diplomacy. And on the other hand, he’d just do or say things that are so outrageous and it’s hard to know what’s operating with him. I consider myself amazingly fortunate that I was allowed the access that I was allowed over the course of making this film. I think some of that came from sheer stubbornness on my part and sticking to it over a really long period of time…

DK: How long did it take you to make this documentary?

Shapiro:  From my very beginning of covering this till the very end of the shooting – 8 years. Things changed radically 4 years into the film, once I met the young woman who became the protagonist. So a huge amount of the footage ended up on the cutting-room floor but it all informed the kind of film I made and where I am now.

DK: How did you meet Tenzin Khecheo, your film subject and one of the Miss Tibet contestants?

Shapiro:  I met her through a really remarkable young man from Minneapolis, he is an activist and just an extraordinary human being. He is very involved not only in the local Tibetan community but in the international exile community. Once I met him and he learned that I was making the film, he said: “You have to meet this young woman, she’s from Minneapolis”. And she was so gracious and extraordinary in her openness and allowing me the access that I had.

DK: Especially as she comes across a bit vulnerable, which makes her very endearing to audiences. But talking about graciousand graceand the results of the pageant, were you surprised at who won as much as the girls who competed in it were?

Shapiro:  I was shocked. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if people caught this because it happened so quickly, but the first name of the young woman who ended up winning is the same, Tenzin. And when I heard the name being announced, I thought for sure, it was Tenzin Khecheo. And everyone else did. So it was a shock that she didn’t win. Although the girl who won is a really lovely, beautiful young woman herself, so no detraction from her in any way. But I was surprised. And then the whole aftermath, that came out of left field! I have been following this pageant for years and that was news to me.

DK: The aftermath is certainly surprising. For me, being so bitter about the results of a competition like this doesnt seem in keeping with the Tibetan values and attitude to life.

Shapiro:  Right. And in all honesty I asked that question of all of the girls, including Tenzin Khecheo. “Is this not just sour grapes?”. But I do truly believe that it had to do with this sense of fairness and morality. I don’t believe that Tenzin Khecheo’s disappointment was about not winning. I do completely take her at face value. And I was there. Yes, she was disappointed but there was no bitterness, at least not with her. It was this feeling that something wasn’t fair, they thought they were being judged by the judges and then they heard that there was a different system that wasn’t working in the way they thought. Remember that meeting at the beginning with the impresario when he talks about Tibetan morality and Tibetan ethics, it all comes back to that. But it’s also about how Tibetans behave and how Tibetans behave to each other, as well as in the larger world. So yes, you spotted another contradiction!

Miss Tibet protagonistDK: But maybe at the end of the day its just human nature, the desire to win, its not linked with any culture in particular. Although we do associate competitiveness more with American culture, if anything.

Shapiro: I think so. I also think in this case it is so loaded for these women, this being the one opportunity to do something if you win. It’s not simply for myself, if I have the crown and what I can do in my career. It truly is taken very deeply this idea, if I am Miss Tibet then I can contribute. And I know for Tenzin Khecheo that was the case. And her not winning was heartbreaking.

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New York Jewish Film Festival, January 14th – 29th – Critic’s Choicehttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/new-york-jewish-film-festival-january-16th-29th-critics-choice/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/01/new-york-jewish-film-festival-january-16th-29th-critics-choice/#comments Sun, 04 Jan 2015 01:24:08 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=1940 Felix and Meira (Maxine Giroux. 2014. Canada. 105 min) Last year’s Closing Night selection at NYJFF was Ida, this writer’s #1 foreign film of the entire year.  In that Polish masterpiece, an orphaned novitiate in a 1960s convent visits her retired aunt and discovers she’s not a Catholic girl but a Jewish girl.   Her identity... Read more »

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Felix and Meira
(Maxine Giroux. 2014. Canada. 105 min)

Last year’s Closing Night selection at NYJFF was Ida, this writer’s #1 foreign film of the entire year.  In that Polish masterpiece, an orphaned novitiate in a 1960s convent visits her retired aunt and discovers she’s not a Catholic girl but a Jewish girl.   Her identity crisis deepens when she meets and experiences the first stirrings of love with a young man who plays saxophone in a primitive jazz quintet that works over John Coltrane’s Naima. Ida lets us decide whether the 18-year-old will return to her convent and take her vows, or continue her secular (and sexualized) life as a free woman.

This year’s NYJFF Closing Night selection, Maxime Giroux’s closely observed and assured Felix and Meira, is a different moral dilemma.   It’s set in the present-day insular Hasidic community of Montreal’s Mile End, focusing on a young ultra-Orthodox wife and mother, Meira.  She’s played by the piquant and wistful lead actress of Fill the Void (2012), Hadas Yaron, and her neutral, wan expression from that fine drama brightens only when she’s attending to her first daughter or sketching figures in a notepad.

The family’s strictly kept home is comfortable in a no-frills, antiseptic way; Meira and her husband Shulem (an excellent Luzer Twersky)  sleep in separate beds, secular music is not permitted though there’s a phonograph in the living room, and women are forbidden to meet the eyes of adult males.  What her husband demands most is Orthodox observance; he’s aghast when she shares her concerns with another young Hasidic woman, and annoyed when she snaps and sets a mousetrap in a kitchen cabinet.  Meira mostly stays quiet because she’s thinking about the “six or ten or fourteen children” she’s expected to bear in her lifetime.  Her short hair is covered by a wig but we observe her  birth control pills hidden in the bathroom.  She fakes a faint in despair on their living room floor.

The secular Jewish Frenchman who enters her life is Felix (Martin Dubreuil, wiry and polite), who’s living on $35,000 from the estate of his late and estranged father.  Felix lives in a modest walk-up and is struck by Meira’s doodles in a deli where she takes her daughter on cold winter mornings. He gives her his drawing of a cat for her daughter.  It takes a long time before Meira even starts a conversation with Felix, but when she does it’s a request to hear some music.  Felix shows her his modest flat and we’re curious to see what record he’ll put on his turntable.

Just as Ida jolted its potential young nun (and us) by thrusting her into a jazz bistro flavored by Coltrane, Giroux’s drama literally cuts away to a film clip—the gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe on electric guitar, belting out Didn’t It Rain on a train station platform in Manchester, England, in 1964.  What a song: a teardown blues engineered to start anyone’s toes tapping. And so it does here.  Call it an icebreaker that boots up these two disparate souls into an escalating spiral of — could it possibly be passion?   Shulem suspects something’s up and orders Meira out of Montreal and down to Brooklyn for a visit with cousins.  But Felix follows, eventually holding hands with Meira on the Staten Island Ferry; they dance tentatively and shyly share his hotel room where she tries on jeans for the first time.

Later, the husband spies the two of them walking together and knocks Felix to the ground,  raging more to shame him than hurt him.  Shulem warns Meira that if she deserts him, she exits the Orthodox community forever.  But he also implores Felix to care for the mother of their child if she leaves the marriage.   Still later, Meira spies a foreign postcard in a Montreal shop and makes an impulse decision.

In lesser hands, Felix and Meira could have been the implausible drama this partial summary suggests.  It’s not a movie likely to be welcomed (let alone seen) by Hasidic or other traditionally observant Jews, though it’s important to remember it was curated into this prime festival position by both The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

 

How you respond to Ms. Yaron’s role and performance may be influenced by your response to her role in Fill the Void.  In that first feature by Rama Burshtein, who’s Israeli and Orthodox, Yaron played a single, ultra-Orthodox woman, Shira, who was mourning the death of her older sister whom left her husband to raise an infant son. Quiet and painfully shy, her one visible talent seemed to be playing the family accordion.   Slowly, inexorably, Shira was engineered by her family and senses of duty and familial tradition into marrying the brother-in-law she barely knew and certainly didn’t love.  Shira in Fill the Void and Meira in Felix and Meira are mirror-opposites; they’re the same actress continuing a love story that’s looking for a way out.   We don’t know that Shira would have sought that, but Meira certainly does, and she finds it.

And so Felix and Meira becomes a boundary shifter, maybe even a glass ceiling breaker.  It captures dozens of tiny but crucial details of Jewish and Hasidic family life that dramatically sculpt a convincing scenario for doubt.   Its one shrill moment has Shulem observing a mouse caught and squirming in a trap that Meira has set, commenting “the world is a cruel place, my friend.”

But Giroux’s movie suggests religion may be the crueler place because it can constrict the heart and the soul in ways not every adult can abide or tolerate.  The vibrant and healthy Hasidic communities of New York and worldwide will take great exception to the director’s  judgement.  Even with that noted reservation, this drama earns a permanent place of distinction in NYJFF’s almost quarter century of exploring the many facets of Jewish identity and history.

Felix and Meira is also a more satisfying drama than two harder and more publicized dramas being showcased in this fest — The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a stinging documentary on that revered writer that even the filmmakers call “a sad, sexy elegy to an artistic giant” because of Singer’s sexaholic hungers; and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, which examines a wife’s excruciating demands for an Orthodox divorce extending over five consecutive years of endless meetings in a tiny trial room.

Felix and Meira shows Thursday, Jan. 29 at 3:30pm and 9:00pm at the Walter Reade theater.

Longing  
(Nadav Mishali. 2014. Israel. 20 min)

As we increasingly see, shorts are the perfect launch pad for feature films.

Shawn Christensen’s Oscar-winning Curfew (Best Short, 2010) of a drug addict’s taming by his perky young niece has become his current theatrical feature debut,  Before I Disappear.  One of  2014’s huge theatrical and critical hits, Whiplash, had its not-so-humble beginnings in Damien Chazelle’s 18-minute test run of the music school drummer (Miles Teller) and his lunatic orchestra leader (J.K. Simmons).  Hey, gang, it can happen.

Nadav Mishall’s Longing is the perfect companion piece to Felix and Meria, or, for that matter, Gett or even Fill the Void, for it sets up yet another untoward obstacle to happiness in the Jewish home.  Specifically, the Jewish bedroom. Michal (the ravishingly attractive Meytal Gal) would dearly love to become pregnant by her husband Tov (Tomer Lev), a rising spiritual supervisor in a yeshiva.  We see her, eyes wide open, in the underwater mikveh in which she prepares for intercourse.  Which doesn’t happen.

The first clue to why it’s not happening is the wrapped condom Michal finds in Tov’s pants pocket.  But her mother advises prayer and “turning a blind eye.”  In a challah with other women expressing their dearest wishes, Michal gets plenty of support for her longing for a child.   Older female friends bring her spices to aid male sexual potency.  In her dreams she imagines her husband stroking her.   Tov is attentive and praises her cooking, even gifts her with jewelry.  But he turns his back to her in bed.

Michal observes Tov in religious services, with his arm casually draped over—another man’s shoulder.  Uh, oh!   In their kitchen, her husband and a male Yashiva student study with their heads together—but the camera shows us more intimate actions going on under the table.  What was a mystery is suddenly a dilemma, which is not going to be solved in 20 minutes.  At the end, Michal is back underwater in her monthly mikveh; this time she looks ready to drown.

Nidav Mishali’s graduate school project is adroitly and painstakingly titled,  written, cast, acted, shot and edited, under the auspices of the Sapir College School of Audio and Video Arts, Israel’s largest public college. It’s a polished, professional beginning ready to transition to a feature film, and director Mishali should be giving that his undivided attention.

Longing is part of Free Shorts, a 44 minutes program being shown Saturday, Jan. 17 and 24 at 8:00pm, in the Elinor Bunin Monroe Amphitheater in Lincoln Center.

Above and Beyond
(Roberta Grossman. 2014. USA. 87 min)

Most people understand the expression “above and beyond” in its military context, as a criterion for a medal for individual service “above and behind the call of duty.”  Film buffs remember MGM’s 1952 aviation drama, Above and Beyond, with Robert Taylor (playing opposite Eleanor Parker) acting the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

But few recall that in its first hours following its Declaration of Statehood in 1948, Israel could have been crushed by Egypt and other Arab armies from Syria, Trans-Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon who attacked the fledgling nation by land and air.   Their troops and tanks were poised 20 miles from Tel Aviv, which had already been bombed by air;  the city and perhaps Israel itself might have perished without the invaluable help of Machal (“volunteers from abroad”).

 All told there were nearly 5,000 volunteers from 56 countries, including 150 pilots, mostly Jewish, who’d flown fighter planes for the U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy during World War II.  Talk about above-and-beyond—these men, many scattered across a post-war America,  answered an emergency call from their homeland without a moment’s hesitation.

At one time Steven Spielberg (whose father had fought with the 490th ‘Burma Brothers Squadron’ in the Pacific) considered making a documentary of the hastily recruited and trained Machal pilots, but instead elected to direct other war dramas.  So the opportunity to produce the Machal project passed to Spielberg’s youngest sister, Nancy, 58, who’s seized an all-too-fleeting moment to assemble a stirring portrait of this band-of-brothers called Machalniks.  A half dozen in their 80s and 90s are the main subjects of Above and Beyond.

They and their fallen comrades flew the surplus aircraft and transport planes (mainly rickety Avia S-199s,  Spitfires and Messerschmitts) that bombed the Arab advance and led Israel to victory in the 1948-49 War of Independence. This Israeli Air Squadron, known as “The 101,” was the nucleus and glue that grew the first-generation Israeli Air Force.

Above and Beyond was filmed for a reported $1.3 million, which is surely more than the vast majority of documentaries showing in NYJFF or the recent DOC NYC fest where it had its New York premiere.  Most docs in these fests will be lucky to see a million dollar gross in their filmmakers’ lifetimes.

But Above and Beyond is “enhanced”  by dazzling aerial dogfights and other combat scenes created by (and donated pro-bono) by Industrial Light and Magic. These use state-of-the-art CGI techniques, matched to a knockout, heraldic music score composed by Hans Zimmer studios and composer Lorne Balfe.  Ms. Spielberg’s site, Playmount Productions, indicates a feature film version is being planned.   So Above and Beyond, briskly directed by Roberta Grossman (Hava Nagila and Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh), had its New York premiere already looking and feeling like a big-studio release.

The original wrangler of the pilots as well as many of the aircraft smuggled into Israel was Al Schwimmer (1917-2011), an American-born flight engineer who worked for TWA and the U.S. Air Transport Command during WWII. Schwimmer was aware he was breaking the U.S. Neutrality Act but viewed his actions as valid civil disobedience, eventually becoming a close friend and adviser to President Shimon Peres, who appears as Above and Beyond’s narrator.

Schwimmer and his on-camera pilots readily display what  Spielberg proudly tweets as “moxie galore.” Army Air Force pilot George Lichter (1921-2014) was the Brooklyn-born founder of the Force. He was the most adept at flying the Avia S-199s, built in Czechoslovakia  with German engines and air frames.  Harold Livingston, another Army Air Force pilot, flew needed supplies and weapons from Czechoslovakia to Israel; “the idea that Jews were going to fight I found exciting—it’s about time,” says Livingston, who went on to write the screenplay for Star Trek.

Lou Lenart, now 95 and a veteran movie producer who worked on Thunderball, admits “we didn’t know if we could use these planes…we didn’t even know if they would start.”  He’s also interested in a possible dramatic movie version of his Machal service, adding that rather than being played by Brad Pitt, “I hope they’ll pick someone more Jewish looking.”

Leon Frankel, a former U.S.Navy bomber pilot,  recalls having been trained in secret, sitting in the cockpit of his worn aircraft, wearing a German uniform, helmet and parachute, and wondering “what’s a nice Jewish boy from St. Paul doing here?” At the end of the conflict,  after flying 25 successful missions, he speaks of watching Jewish  refugees from death camps coming into Tel Aviv, “getting down and kissing the ground,”and realizing without question why he joined the team.  In the 1948-49 war zones,  123 Machal members gave their lives.

The recollections are simple and heartfelt.  Former defense minster David Ben-Gurion has called the Machal “the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel.”  And as Spielberg told an audience recently gathered in Frankel’s home town to watch Above and Beyond at the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival, “Steven doesn’t get all the credit in this family.”

Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg have crafted a honey of a history, a real keeper.

Above and Beyond shows Thursday, Jan. 22 at 6:00 pm in Lincoln Center.

Some Vacation
(Anne S. Lewis. 2014. USA. 6 min)

Real life Jewish humor is often funnier than dramatized Jewish humor.  Real life Jewish humor that’s a mix of animation, drawings, vintage film footage and stills, aided by a droll narrator and a bouncy music score, can be something better than funny: it can grow into infectious art.

Anne Lewis wrote, directed and narrates this diary of her long, long ago summers as a child, going on her father’s trips as a traveling salesman through a “rural, pastoral, really hot and muggy”  Midwest. This was their summer vacation—some vacation, right?  Anne, her brother and Mom waited in the car while Dad made sales calls to convents, where he sold nun’s habits to nuns.  Her father was tall, trim, silver-haired and very handsome in his Barry Goldwater glasses.  He was also—if you haven’t guessed the punch line—Jewish.

It didn’t matter.  All those habits that hung on the Lewis basement clotheslines in their “not-from-the-New-Testament household” were snapped up by Mother Superiors who were swept away by Dad’s smooth looks and salesmanship, even though his prices were higher than his competitors.  Anne’s reward for waiting around hours with Mom and her pesky brother in their steamy Chevy?  “A splash in the Holiday Inn pool and maybe a Dairy Queen.”

Lewis’ mashup technique combining a blitz of visual styles is ever-engaging.  Some Vacation is some short.

Some Vacation is part of Free Shorts, being shown Saturday Jan. 17  and 24 at 8:00pm in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Amphitheater.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker   
(William Gazecki. 2014. USA. 96 min)

She appeared in nowhere near the dozens of movies that Bob Hope cranked out. As a vaudevillian and Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl, a self-proclaimed and self-mocking “prexy of the sexy,” she was no match for Fanny Brice’s chipper hoofer. She never became a lush songbird like Peggy Lee and Chris Connor, or a polished cabaret stylist like Mabel Mercer and Blossom Dearie, or even a big-mouth, stadium-voice belter like Ethel Merman and Martha Raye.  As a radio personality she couldn’t rival Jack Benny, Fred Allen or George Burns. On television she didn’t hold a candle to baggy-pants side-splitters like Milton Berle and Red Skelton.

Yet from 1906 when she began singing for tips in a family restaurant in Hartford, Sophie Tucker (who started life as Sophie Kalish in 1887, born to Orthodox Jews from Ukraine) made a more indelible impression on American and European audiences over 60 years  than perhaps any other female entertainer. If you bounced the name “Sophie” off 100 Americans in 1962, 95 would answer “Tucker.”  She was William Morris’ first client before he opened a talent agency. Her appeal through the pre-war, wartime and post-war eras mushroomed through two totally different personas welded into one cosmic wardrobe (fur stoles, tiaras, sequined gowns, hot pink hair styles) that built marquee-level pizazz into her sashaying. You can see where Liberace picked up his costuming cues.

Club patrons flocked to experience the brash slinger of “Some of These Days” that pushed the early boundaries of pop music innocence (it was first recorded in 1911) enough to get her arrested for obscenity, as well as the heartfelt crooner of “My Yiddishe Momme” and “M-O-T-H-E-R (A Word That Means The World To Me”)  that made audiences weep with rapture.  She had a bit of the same shock-and-awe techniques of the Grand Guignol that took audiences from mock horror to sentimental delight in a single sitting. She was a Bad Girl/Good Girl mix of heroic proportions—Paul McCartney described her in 1963 as “our favorite American group”— and there simply was not another distaff singer like her.

William Gazecki’s lavish and admiring The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is a novelty doc of sorts, much as its subject was a novelty act of sorts—a woman who rarely sang or said anything that couldn’t play in Macy’s window and was a tireless champion through her own foundation of the most salient Jewish social causes (homes for the aged, Israeli high schools, Hartford’s Emmanuel synagogue, for openers).  Yet she held onto the promise of naughtiness whenever she’d segue into a giddy tune like “I May Be Getting Older Every Day (But Younger Every Night).” Actually, she might have needed to move over to Ohrbachs’  windows for that one, or for zingers like “I’m The 3-D Mama with The Big Wide Screen.”

Echoing actor Lee J. Cobb who looked old even in his youth, Tucker aged early and wafted a ripe maturity that carried a whiff of once-around-the-block-too-many-times. After shedding three husbands, she took on a string of female companions (including journalist Amy Leslie and Lady Edwina Mountbatten) who she neither flaunted nor concealed—and got away with that, too, in an era when allegedly lesbian or bisexual actresses (like Marjorie Main, Barbara Stanwyck and Lizabeth Scott ) either covered up same-sex preferences or saw their careers evaporate.  There was an edge of “no fear” defiance in her act that Americans took to heart during WWII and that anchored her later career.

Sophie saved everything, and this voluble doc tumbles it all out of over 400 Tucker scrapbooks housed at The New York Public Library and Brandeis University. Susan and Lloyd Ecker, an enterprising and engaging writer/producer team (and authors of the first of three fictional memoirs on Tucker’s life), intercuts hundreds of candid shots, vintage club programs, notes and ephemera with film scenes (Gay Love, Broadway Melody of 1938), club dates and interviews with Carol Channing, Tony Bennett, Barbara Walters, Bette Midler and especially the singer/historian Michael Feinstein. The latter pinpoints Tucker’s place as one of the earliest pioneers in pop singing.

What emerges between the Eckers’ busy narrative and the mountain of photos is that part of  Sophie Tucker’s phenomenal popularity turned on her not giving away too much of her talent in any one medium, as mass media evolved from vaudeville and theater into movies, records, radio and television.  Her most comfortable venue was an expensive nightclub like the Latin Quarter or Copa City—controlled environments a million miles from her unhappy stage beginnings as a “coon shouter” doing near-hokum blues in blackface.

She didn’t make Orson Welles’ mistake of entertaining America with free radio broadcasts casting himself as the dramatic lead, which muted Citizen Kane showings for years and shortened Welles’ career. Because Tucker assembled only two shows a year from 1951 on, with pianist Ted Shapiro continuing as her lifelong  accompanist, radio and television were secondary media—though she performed gratis for armed services personnel.  Wisely, she learned to hold back her mysteries, playing tirelessly to white-shoe audiences and then signing copies of her autobiography at the merchandise table, keeping any $50 bills for charity. 

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is a first-rate show biz lesson on staying in the game and winning extra innings.  “You’re looking at a model for which parts are hard to get,” she teased in a clear alto  until 1966, “and there’s plenty of mileage in the old jalopy yet.”  Her ultimate positioning line was “The Last of The Red Hot Mamas.”  Print that legend.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shows Tuesday, Jan. 20 at 1:00pm and Sunday, Jan. 25 at 6:00 pm at the Walter Reade.

Let’s Go! 

(Michael Verhoeven. 2014. Germany. 90 min)

letgo3Nearly a quarter century of NYJFFs have helped launch a formidable collection of Holocaust-related dramas and documentaries. Michael Verhoeven’s films aren’t the most widely viewed, but in Germany they’re among the most closely watched. Now 76 and based in Munich, he was born in Berlin and observed his father, Paul, directing the Bavarian State Theater. Michael married actress Santa Berger (who starred opposite Kirk Douglas in Cast A Giant Shadow) in 1966, tried a brief career in medicine,  then began immersing himself as writer/producer/director most vividly in one subject: how Jews have adjusted to, survived or perished living in a troubled, formerly partitioned and often hostile Germany.

“It isn’t pretty to sit at the cutting table and see these terrible images over and over again,” Verhoeven has said; he could have been talking about his documentary, The Unknown Soldier (2007), dissecting Wehrmacht participation on the Eastern Front, involving officers as well as foot soldiers in mass atrocities. Or Human Error (2009), an investigation into what happened to Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis. Or My Mother’s Courage (1996), a fictionalized take of the deportation of playwright George Tabori’s mother from Budapest to Auschwitz, and how she escaped back to contemporary Berlin. Or The White Rose (1982), which memorializes a Munich-based underground cell of students executed by the Nazis for their resistance activities. Or The Nasty Girl (1990), based on a true story of a Bavarian pre-teen who writes an alienating essay, “My Home Town During the Third Reich,” which boomerangs into a second, more accusatory essay naming a priest who betrayed a Jewish merchant during WWII.

The latter film was shown at the 2010 NYJFF and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film (though it’s significant the German Oscar winner remembered most affectionately, Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa, follows a Jewish family who flee Germany in 1938 to settle into a satisfying life on a farm in Kenya.) Verhoeven’s contributions to this cinema of “Never Again” have taken far rockier, far riskier roads less traveled.

Let’s Go! unreels as Verhoeven’s surprise gift for moviegoers drawn to Holocaust drama. It’s a triumphant summing-up by the director of his subject—an easily accessible, finely crafted drama of reconciliation between a mother who stayed and a daughter who left. It ought to be Germany’s official Oscar entry for 2015, because it pushes all the right buttons of hope, affirmation and love, against all odds. Call it the unexpectedly positive statement that can reward Verhoeven for a lifetime of pushing back.
let go2

His new film is based on an autobiographical novel by Laura Waco, whose Polish parents decided to remain in Germany when Laura was born in 1947, outwardly ignoring their Jewish identities and hers for years. Verhoeven’s had the book for two decades, but clearly wasn’t ready to make it until now. In his adaptation, Laura (acted as an adult by Alice Dwyer, briskly brittle) is born to concentration camp survivors in 1947, as “Yankee Go Home” signs dot the landscape. We then jump to 1968 as Laura returns to Munich for the funeral of her father Walter (Milton Welsh) and an embittered reunion with her mother Tante (Karin Hanczewski), who is also grieving over a younger daughter who lies comatose with a fractured skull from a car accident. The film then cross-cuts the lives of the two girls growing up with Laura’s sad and morose homecoming.

As a premise, this sounds gloomy beyond words. It’s not. Just when we’re celebrating Boyhood’s new form of storydoing with its real-time aging of four principals, Verhoeven reminds us of the time-tested satisfactions of traditional storytelling, using carefully matched but different actors, subtitles cuing passing years, everything but fluttering calendar pages. It’s classic moviemaking, keeping the focus on the 20 years of incidents and conflicted attitudes that pile up like clockwork, testing and hardening Laura, her sister and their parents.

The family opens a successful inn that serves pork roast, while the girls are enrolled in a school without Jews, prompting the expected teasing and insults. On the one hand,  Walter is shown patiently helping camp victims obtain disability pensions, while he’s constantly ordering his daughters to get on with their lives; “Let’s go!” is his signature admonition, hurrying the girls through their childhoods.

When a young man dives into a river and saves Laura from drowning, her father gives cash to the good Samaritan but can’t bear to say “thank you” to a German. Yet this complex and tormented man instructs Laura on ‘the German way’ of turning a lid of shoe polish, even as he snarls at her budding summer romance as a teen with a handsome German boy. We sigh; life is a series of unending obstacles for this family, and it’s little wonder the adult Laura bails out for America.

let goAll this sets up an unusual turn of events when an older aunt, also a camp survivor, arrives in Munich from Tel Aviv to visit her sister sitting shiva. The richly dramatic scenes that follow—tragically sad yet magically life-affirming—forge a new connection between the women, along with an epilogue that Verhoeven knows can be staggering in its emotional power. He stages them with the assurance of a filmmaker who’s taken a long, unblinking view of unimaginable events. Let’s Go! is finally a film about letting go and moving on, the rare kind of four-handkerchief victory over death that wins  Academy Awards.

Let’s Go! shows Saturday, Jan. 24 at 9:30 pm and Tuesday, Jan. 27 at 1:00 pm at the Walter Reade.

This concludes critic’s choices.

 

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Filmmakers and their Global Lens: Tony Shaffhttp://independent-magazine.org/2014/12/filmmakers-global-lens-tony-shaff/ http://independent-magazine.org/2014/12/filmmakers-global-lens-tony-shaff/#comments Mon, 01 Dec 2014 16:56:44 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=1910 For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight spoke with Tony Shaff about his film Hotline at DOC NYC last month. Dana Knight: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us what the film is about? Tony Shaff: I’m a Brooklyn filmmaker and my film Hotline is a feature... Read more »

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For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight spoke with Tony Shaff about his film Hotline at DOC NYC last month.

Dana Knight: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us what the film is about?

Tony Shaff: I’m a Brooklyn filmmaker and my film Hotline is a feature documentary about telephone hotlines. It’s about people who call and work on these anonymous and sometimes confidential hotlines. And it’s a look at how we’re communicating and the lost art of voice-to-voice communication in an age where we are a little bit digitally disconnected.

DK: What sparked your interest in this subject?

Shaff: I worked as a telephone psychic briefly. It was a really quick job, just to get my car up back and running. But it was a really intense job. I worked there for about six weeks. I got my car fixed and was able to move on from there. A few years later I moved to New York and I volunteered for a suicide-prevention hotline. And what I found was that the calls to these hotlines were so similar. It was a lot of the same people just looking for someone to talk to, some way to connect with another person. Or just feeling really isolated. And [they] didn’t have anyone else in their lives that they could talk to. So they were reaching out to a stranger and I just happened to be that stranger. So when I was working for these hotlines I wasn’t thinking that I was going to make a film, it wasn’t as if I was embedding myself to take these  stories and make them into something. But it did spark something in me and then over the next few years I started doing preproduction on the film and it’s been a really amazing journey, meeting these people and finding out the universal stories. And also the unique stories that happen when you’re working on a telephone hotline.

DK: What is your background, are you trained in psychology also? I imagine that in order to work for a suicide-prevention hotline you must have some professional training.

Shaff: I went to film school, I was a filmmaker. I have been making films since I was eight years old. But to be a telephone psychic there really weren’t many requirements! And I knew how to read Tarot cards. So I read Tarot cards. I never claimed to be psychic though. And I realized I didn’t really have to be psychic, people didn’t always want to know whether I was or not. I got a few questions like ‘Where are my keys?’ and I couldn’t tell them where their keys were. But people wanted to tell me about the very challenging emotional things that were happening in their lives. They were facing domestic abuse–all sorts of things. I don’t think psychics are trained to be like psychologists, it’s the latter who should be dealing with this. But as a hotline operator, I think it’s really just about being there and listening to what they have to say. And for the person to know that they are being heard, and not being judged, and not feeling like they are going to be revealed, their secrets can be kept between us. And sometimes that is more important maybe than the eight years of school to be a psychologist!

DK: Exactly, its the human connection, the human experience that they are all looking for. It is also a very emotional film. How did you capture those emotions?Im thinking now of Jeff, the lonely guy.

Tony Shaff (Photo by Lauren Belfer) copy

Tony Shaff, filmmaker

Shaff: When we met Jeff, he was almost at a breaking point. He’d been taking all of these calls and when we spoke to him, he didn’t know if he could do it anymore and we caught him at a very vulnerable moment where he just wanted to give so much and he couldn’t anymore. I think we hit a lot of these people at that moment. Whatever it might be, ‘I’m trying to decide if I’m going to be in a relationship with someone I met on a phone line’ or ‘Is the work that I’m doing hurting me too much? Am I going to have some vicarious trauma that I won’t be able to deal with later on?’ I think that the idea of the emotions and the emotional ride that the film takes you on… I was really trying to help the audience feel what it might be like to talk to someone on the phone and to hang up that call and pick up another call. And when you’re working on a hotline, every call is different, you never know what the next emotional moment that you’ll have is. And sometimes it can be really funny, sometimes you can laugh with someone. And the next moment you’re on the verge of tears. So I think it really is just human experience. We are emotional people and I think we may be moving away from it but we don’t have to, we can talk to one another and we can allow each other to feel.

DK: Could you talk about the other characters in the film? There are some memorable people in it.

Shaff: There are several main characters. But I don’t really like to call them “characters” or “subjects.” They are people who share their stories and one of the people in the film is Youree Dell Harris, who is Miss Cleo, a famous telephone psychic. She was very famous for her infomercials; “Call me now” was her big catchphrase. And we also interviewed Tonya Jone Miller who is a phone sex-operator in Portland.

DK: Or as she calls herself: an aural courtesan!

Shaff: Yes, she is an “aural courtesan!” But she also chose to use her real name and her real pictures, which is pretty unique in the phone sex-operator industry. Another of the people that we featured quite a bit is a man named Jaime who is a mobile crisis hotline worker. And he worked on a hotline for quite some time and he is the man the hotline calls to go out and meet with people face to face. He’s been doing it for seventeen years. You can tell he has the experience because he’s reached a point where he is very philosophical about his line of work.

DK: And how did you meet them?

Ms. Cleo (Photo by Tony Shaff) copy

Miss Cleo. (Photo by Tony Shaff.)

Shaff: I don’t like to use the word “casting” but it’s a little bit like that. Casting the net out and trying to find people who represented each of the hotlines, the different “genres” of hotlines. Once into that world, finding people who had unique, interesting stories to tell. And stories that were really relevant right now, anything from calling a hotline and getting referrals to speaking with them personally. It was a really interesting process.

DK: Over what period have you been involved in this?

Shaff: It’s been over four years. It is a large survey film, we had a lot of different characters, a lot of different people we dealt with, a lot of different destinations to journey to. Sometimes we’d spend six hours with someone and other times we’d spend three days with them. Before the cameras started rolling, there was a lot of time just talking to them. I would talk to them on the phone at first, because I think that’s one of the best ways to get to know people for a film like this.

DK: How much footage did you accumulate and how difficult was the editing?

A flyer Jeff Ragsdale posted in NYC (Photo by Tony Shaff) copy

A flyer Jeff Ragsdale posted in NYC. (Photo by Tony Shaff.)

Shaff: The editing process was difficult, we definitely had a lot of amazing stories that ended up on the cutting room floor. I would say we had over 200 hours. Breaking it down to 82 minutes was difficult, we definitely had a lot of tough decisions to make. But ultimately we were very happy with the film and I think that through the various stories that were told, we do get a good sense of what hotlines are in 2014.

DK: You live in NYC, do you have the same perception of the city being a lonely place?

Shaff: Jeff, the lonely guy, speaks about that in the film, that it’s very difficult to meet people in NYC and big cities in general.That’s the thing, you can be surrounded by so many people and feel so completely alone. Even looking at Facebook and Twitter, you can have all of your friends you know, you can have 200 friends on Facebook, but there might not be that one person that you can reach out to and tell them how you’re actually feeling. No matter how many people you’re surrounded by, if you don’t have a way to talk to them, it can be very lonely and isolating.

DK: When is the film being released to the wider public?

Shaff: We are being released on iTunes and VOD. We had a really great festival run. At our very first festival, HotDocs in Toronto, there was something called Distribution Rendezvous where we had an opportunity to meet a lot of different distributors. One distributor that we really enjoyed has decided to take us on and they are releasing the film in North America for non-theatrical and VOD. So it’s very exciting. There’s another company that is taking care of our international sales. So it’s a bit of this business stuff that I’m having to become a little bit educated about, even though I am the director I also have a producer hat. But we’ve been very fortunate because there are so many independent films out there and in order to get recognised and get out into the world, it’s very exciting. Even being programmed at great festivals like DOC NYC is great. They are a new festival and they are relatively young but they are now the largest in the US and my film is in such great company here, screening alongside some of the great films of the year.

DK: Are you still going to film festivals after the US release?

Shaff: We haven’t done any European festivals or any Asian festivals so there is opportunity to take the film internationally but right now in North America we are done with festivals. We are on VOD and iTunes and hopefully other platforms in the near future.

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Filmmakers and their Global Lens: The Yes Menhttp://independent-magazine.org/2014/11/filmmakers-global-lens-yes-men/ http://independent-magazine.org/2014/11/filmmakers-global-lens-yes-men/#comments Sat, 29 Nov 2014 16:55:58 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=1885 For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight speaks with the comedy troupe, The Yes Men about filmmaking. Knight initially spoke with Mike Bonnano, Andy Bichlbaum and Laura Nix in Toronto in September. Dana Knight (DK): When did the Yes Men become the Yes Men and why the Yes... Read more »

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For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight speaks with the comedy troupe, The Yes Men about filmmaking. Knight initially spoke with Mike Bonnano, Andy Bichlbaum and Laura Nix in Toronto in September.

Dana Knight (DK): When did the Yes Men become the Yes Men and why the Yes Men and not the No Men since you’re saying “no” to and revolting against most things?

Mike Bonnano: When we first started doing this, we imagined that we were just going to agree with people. We would infiltrate these business meetings and then we’d be saying “yes” until it amplified what they were saying and it became funny. It also means a “brown nose” or a person who would do anything to get ahead, though it seemed that we were living in a world where everybody was doing that, not looking at the long-term, just going for the short-term gains, so it’s just a way to sum up what we were doing when we’ve got started.

DK: When did you first become involved in political activism?

Andy Bichlbaum: For me it was 1996. Actually it was before that. In the 90s I was living in San Francisco and the Aids crisis was in full swing. I participated in Act-Up to some degree but mainly I was inspired by them, I really wanted to do something like that. They are such heroes, there was so much civil disobedience, they really ended up pressuring the government to come up with a treatment to fund research despite all the forces against that. At a certain point I had the opportunity to do something on my own and I did.

Laura Nix: For me it was late 80s early 90s. It was also Act-Up, being part of a group of people who were challenging the medical establishment, challenging the government and doing a kind of activism that was at that time really unusual and out of the box, it was really infectious and the people in the movement were really inspiring.

DK: Laura, were you with the Yes Men from the beginning? When did you join them?

Nix: I went to college with Mike and to graduate school, and I was around when they first started doing stunts. I pitched in on a few stunts that they were doing at the time. But I didn’t really consider myself a Yes Man, I was just helping out.

DK: But with time you became part of the group, you become a “Yes Woman”…

Nix: A “Yes Woman” or a “No Woman”, as the case may be. And this time around it was a different kind of collaboration because I did get involved as one of the directors of the film. And it was very important to have another person involved to direct the personal story, to have an outside perspective. Because I’ve known them for so long, and I know the story and what they’ve gone through in their collaboration. And I know what their personal lives are like, so I was able to include that as part of what it’s like to be an activist and how to stay together for 20 years.

DK: Judging by the reaction to your film, people seem amazed that you don’t get arrested. However, a stunt or a prank is not really fraud, so in this sense it’s not illegal. Can you shed some light on the confusion people make between the two?

Bichlbaum: Well, most of the laws that are about impersonation in America and in European countries are about trying to steal something. If you’re trying to get something from somebody else,  impersonating somebody is one way to do it. And that’s fraud. But what we’re doing is political speech: impersonating people in order to get a message out there. And that is protected free speech, at least in the US, it is protected by the First Amendment. And there’s laws about parody and satire, these are ways through which people have expressed themselves throughout history. So this is part of that. And if we weren’t believable in the first instance, if we weren’t giving a believable impersonation, then it wouldn’t work, the satire wouldn’t work. So we need to be able to do that, that’s why we’re really lucky to have the Electronic Frontier Foundation that stepped up and represented us pro bono, because you see in this movie that we get sued by the US Chamber of Commerce for impersonating them. And they say that it’s fraud. But the EFF said “We’ll defend you because it’s not fraud and it’s important to us that people express their rights and can fight and use political speech in ways that they want to”.

DK: So intention is key in an ambiguous case like this, and your intention was not to defraud anyone.

Bonnano: There’s the intention and there’s also what actually happens, which is that no one loses any money. And the Chamber of Commerce tried to argue that they had, but it’s an absurd argument they made.

DK: They do lose a bit of their dignity I think!

Bichlbaum: They did lose some dignity yes! But they shouldn’t have any dignity in the first place.

Bonnano: But we hope they lose money, our goal is to assure that they do lose money. Right now we’re in a situation where the oil companies and the Chamber of Commerce, which is basically a spokesperson for the oil companies, have to keep doing what they’re doing, which is extract the oil that they already own underground. But science tells us that if they do that we’re doomed. So they’re going to lose money, they’re going to lose a lot of money. We hope we’ll be a part of making them lose that money. But is that fraud? I think it’s just sanity. And they’re not going to do that voluntarily, so we hope that we’re part of a movement that is going to force them to do it against their will, because that’s the only way it’s going to happen. To give up the right to extract oil and coal …

DK: How do you organise these stunts? I imagine you have lots of ideas and you sit down and talk through many possibilities, how does it all come together?

Nix: From the outside it’s very interesting to watch how they prepare and I’m sorry we didn’t get to include more of that to see the brainstorming process because it’s a process where a lot of ideas are brought up. It’s kind of like “anything goes”, let’s throw it in and see if it sticks. And they cycle through many ideas. Some of them are great and some of them are really terrible and you hope that the final ones are some of the good ones.

DK: I want to hear a terrible idea!

Nix: Oh, I have a list of those! I think that posing as oil men in the Niger Delta was a terrible one.

The Yes Men: We were going to do that?

Nix: Yeah.And I also think that dressing up in Rambo outfits to go to Uganda, I’m glad also that one didn’t happen.

(The Yes Men are laughing)

Nix:I think that the giant inflatable ball that shot out poop at the audience as it was being floated around, I think it’s good that one was left behind.

DK: You mean artificial or real poop?

Nix: Real, yes.

The Yes Men: And I was so attached to that one […]. I wanted to make a big poop soup, that would make the person want to go to the bathroom very badly and poo all over the corporate office.

Nix: What about the one where we cooked a child?When we worked with a celebrity chef and we cooked a child on stage.

The Yes Men: We weren’t really going to cook a child on stage, we would have done it through magic! […] Ultimately, even the worst ideas can be very good. If they are done right.

DK: The film is truly memorable, I was at the public screening and I watched the reaction of the audience, people felt inspired and were also entertained. And I think it’s important to inject humour into a subject which could otherwise be very dry. I think you’ll attract a great deal of volunteers for your next project.

Bichlbaum: That’s good, because that’s what it’s about, inspiring people to act for themselves. So we hope that people want to, we hope everybody will do everything they can in the lead-up to the Climate Conference in December 2015. So that’s the focus of the next year and a half. For everybody to pile on and do everything they can and make a difference.

The Yes Men Are Revolting was shown at TIFF 2014.

 

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Filmmakers and their Global Lens: Alex Holdridge & Linnea Saasenhttp://independent-magazine.org/2014/11/filmmakers-global-lens-alex-holdridge-linnea-saasen/ http://independent-magazine.org/2014/11/filmmakers-global-lens-alex-holdridge-linnea-saasen/#comments Fri, 28 Nov 2014 16:36:25 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=1880 For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight speaks with co-creators about collaboration, acting and more. Knight initially spoke with Alex Holdridge and Linnea Saasen in Toronto in September. Dana Knight (DK): Could you please introduce the film and tell us what inspired it and how the whole process... Read more »

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For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight speaks with co-creators about collaboration, acting and more. Knight initially spoke with Alex Holdridge and Linnea Saasen in Toronto in September.

Dana Knight (DK): Could you please introduce the film and tell us what inspired it and how the whole process unfolded.

Alex Holdridge: Meet Me in Montenegro is a love story, it is semi-autobiographical, I co-wrote it and co-directed it with Linnea Saasen. The film follows an American filmmaker as he travels to Berlin where he ends up meeting this woman, a Norwegian dancer, and he has an incredible experience with her. They spend this incredible night together, they have a really strong connection and they decide spontaneously to jump on a train to the Balkans. And it turns into several weeks together and it’s incredibly romantic but it ends quickly and bitterly. She leaves him and only leaves a note saying “Goodbye, let’s end on a high note”. The movie really picks up three years later when the filmmaker is back in Los Angeles and his career is at a major crossroads and he has an opportunity to salvage his career and his film by flying to Berlin and going to a meeting with an actor. And in doing so he runs into Linnea, the Norwegian dancer again. So over a handful of days in Berlin the two reconnect and once again their lives are pulling them apart, she’s heading off to art school and he’s supposed to go back and make his film. And it’s about them connecting over these days in Berlin and resurrecting romance and ideas of travel again.

DK: This is an indie feature but I recognised certain plot-points and reversals of situation that create the same emotional roller-coaster that a Hollywood romance would offer. Was this a conscious choice on your part, have you deliberately structured it according to certain criteria that Hollywood script would be bound to follow?

Linnea Saasen: We shot this over three years and we had a script with a three-act structure. At the very beginning the script had a looser structure but as we worked on it and analysed it and talked about it, it became more compact. It’s also a comment on love and movie-making and it’s also love for movie-making.

Holdridge: I think your observation is an interesting perspective, we haven’t talked about that at all with anyone. The reality is that I was making a film in Hollywood and it fell apart and at that moment in time there really was this idea that romance doesn’t work in movies anymore. A few romantic films fail and […] no one wants to make a romantic film anymore.

DK: Or at least not traditionally romantic, nowadays a romance film would tend to put forward its own ironic view of romance.

Holdridge: Exactly. But this ended up being a very genuine story based on things that happened to us and having the texture of life to it. […] Personally I love romantic films when they seem true. So there is a bit of play with understanding how movies are structured, how romance is structured.

DK: Did you have any films in mind when you wrote and directed this one?In terms of influences…

Saasen: Personally I’m very inspired by a film by Roy Andersson called A Swedish Love Story. It feels very honest and true. Our story doesn’t really look or feel like that maybe. But we strived to find something that’s genuine and try to recreate that. Ingmar Bergman is also a great inspiration. Also the Before Sunset trilogy, it’s about an American falling in love with an European.

Holdridge: For me it was nothing, this one was so loose, such a collaboration. And it was so sprawling, we were shooting so many different stories, there was so much beyond our personal lives and photos and history that it felt like we don’t know what we’re making. But I hope it turns out well.

DK: How did you collaborate at the writing stage? Keeping in mind that this is based on your personal life, were there any disagreements over what goes in and what stays out?

Saasen: It was very natural and organic. When we started writing, it was a very special moment, we were on this trip together and we didn’t really know each other. And at this time both our lives, career-wise, had fallen apart and we were kind of stuck together. And we decided to create this thing, on the train we took from Berlin to the Balkans.

DK: I wasn’t aware that the idea for the film came so early! Basically you thought of making a film based on your encounter immediately after you met.

Holdridge: Yes, we got a little apartment in Sarajevo and we just talked up a hundred different stories. We thought the film would be made up of many stories and ours would just be one of them, that’s how we began. There was this general thing called Berlin Love Stories and it would be told from many different perspectives. By the time we got back to Berlin and started shaping it, it got narrowed down to us and one other couple because we realised it would be huge to include ten stories.

DK: Your initial plan was very ambitious but even having to weave two stories together can raise many problems. What were your thoughts about introducing a second couple in the film, was that an attempt to comment on modern relationships in general or to mirror the tribulations of the main couple?

Holdridge: Each of these couples are looking at love and relationships and ambitions and how they want to live their lives from different angles. Each of them are having obstacles and failures in their personal lives and careers. And they are figuring out what they want to do and having to make that decision. In our case it’s two people coming together for the first time and you have to sacrifice where you’re coming from, what your sense of home is, what your career aims are, your identity that’s wrapped up in that. From the flip side, people that are together for a long time, oftentimes things can start to strain and you have to decide whether to walk away or not and it’s very terrifying. Maybe it’s the right thing to do, maybe not, but in both versions you have to accept a new future and have the energy to rebuild yourself, create a new identity and so on. Looking at love, ambition and failure and how you pick yourself up from that, that was what we were looking at thematically.

DK: On this note, the story of the second couple is very surprising. There is one scene where you think they are so emotionally connected and immediately the following scene contradicts that.

Holdridge: My take is that’s how our life is, how you make decisions sometimes. You’re inching up to making a big decision about your life and you’re consciously not sure what’s motivating you, you want to step away or embracemeet a relationship. And then you do but all of a sudden you see something that freaks you out and you run away from it. So it’s a process that she’s going through emotionally. She’s subconsciously having to make a decision about which direction she’s going to go in life. And on the surface she might have these rushes of emotion about how she feels about what’s happening but then the other parts come into her mind and she has to make a decision. This is based on things that have happened. And people’s own love stories, our friends’ experiences and the whiplash of emotions and decision-making are part of the story. This is what we were trying to capture.

DK: On the style you chose for the film, how did you collaborate on that, how did you make all the stylistic decisions that go into it?

Saasen: It was quite easy because we’d normally go through all the shots and what we tried to capture and then we’d have a discussion about how we want to shoot it. It was very easy to collaborate because we have the same ideas.

Holdridge: Yes and there was so much to do that it took two people working full-time. We didn’t have a huge crew with tons of people. Our best friend, Robert Murphy, he is the director of photography, he said he could come and live with us and shoot in all these locations and live out of a backpack like we did. So Ineke Hagedorn, our friend and producer, would go and find a location and we’d go and shoot there. And she’d find out about this club that is also an art exhibition and we’d go and speak with them and they’d say yes. So it’s a combination of all these efforts coming together, it’s a conversation I think. We didn’t want it to be this one-sided objectification. There’s so many men in movies, all this ego and machismo. So this is a take on love that’s told from two people.

DK: I know the film was very low-budget but did you actually have any budget at all when you started or it was just you living your lives and making this film with friends who came aboard to help you?

Holdridge: It was a little bit of both. It started off with us putting in a little bit. And we knew we could shoot Jenny and Rupert and we didn’t know how much it was going to cost. And it just kept rolling and rolling, year after year. Then people put in a little bit more…

Saasen: All our friends and family pitched in…

Holdridge: We gave it every penny we had until we were borrowing and our accounts were drained. So it was a very low-budget film but it was a budget that grew over the course of three years.

DK: How come you didn’t try Kickstarter to raise money?

Holdridge: We were thinking of it right before we premiered but all of the sudden we’re in Toronto and we don’t have the time to do it properly. But we might do it afterwards depending on what else we need to do.

DK: Had you had a bigger budget, what would you have spent it on?And how much do you think the film would cost if you were to do it without such pressure on your personal lives?

Holdridge: It would have cost a fortune. […]To do it properly, where you’re counting in flying, renting apartments, having proper post-production and crew, doing all the things that we just did ourselves, it would have cost several million dollars for sure.

DK: Acting-wise, neither of you is a professional actor so how difficult was it to act in a film for the first time?

Saasen: It wasn’t easy. Leaving aside that it’s very easy to have chemistry with Alex…But we’re not professional actors and also acting and directing at the same time makes it difficult to know what is right, you need to think of the frame and you still have to be in the moment of acting. And then you see the scene afterwords and realise that it didn’t really play out as you expected. But the good thing was that we were always there and available, we could reshoot and make it exactly how we wanted.

Holdridge: Yeah, we did cover our mistakes, we made it acceptable. And when you cast someone like Rupert and Jenny it’s magic, you’re just rolling and they look great and they say it beautifully. For us it’s hard and you get to really appreciate actors who can be so present in the moment.

DK: Going back to aesthetics, in the production notes you mention that  you didn’t want a hand-held “shoe-gazing aesthetic”, what did you mean by that?

Holdridge: That’s funny because I asked for that to be taken out […]. From the production standpoint, independent films made by contemporary, young filmmakers in general, aim at having a certain aesthetic: I’m just going to go like this, we’re going to shoot hand-held, we’re going to shoot in my apartment, everyone is going to dress like shit, the walls are going to be painted, I’m not going to think about set design…

DK: So this is a filmmaking cliche, you think?

Holdridge: I’m thinking that it’s not living up to the standards of all the filmmakers that came before us, for many generations, from all over the world. You watch an old film, from wherever it may be, the same things they are working on are the same things we’re stressing about. And you’re trying to improve your films: the performance, the story, and from a technical standpoint, the angles, the lens, what’s in the background, the set design. And you so appreciate the language that people are taking their time to capture. From an independent standpoint, we have these tiny cameras, we have access now to all these great lenses, even if we have no money and we’re shooting in very difficult circumstances, on the cliffs of Montenegro, in a sex club in Berlin, at an underground club, in the middle of the Christmas market filled with people. Even though these are difficult places, let’s set the bar where we’re trying to have a respectable language of cinema. So we’re going to put the camera on a tripod, we’re going to move the camera when it’s motivated, we’re going to come from that world of aesthetics. Whether we achieved it or not is another thing…

DK: What’s next for you both?

Saasen: We are developing a TV show that is set in Berlin in 1945 directly after the war. It’s a really fascinating moment in time and the city is divided into four sectors, it’s the beginning of the Cold War and the beginning of the CIA and the KGB so there’s a lot of tension.

Holdridge: It’s called Hour Zero, it’s also a moment in time when after all those years of war, the Russians lost so many people and so did the allies but now they are stuck together trying to be friends. But there’s also a renaissance of culture and sex, the gay scene comes alive, people who had been forbidden to dance for years now can go out and dance, jazz musicians are there and all this mixed with complete brutality and death and mistrust. You couldn’t pitch a more brutal concept!

DK: Sounds like a complete change of tone and genre for you!

Holdridge: Yes, we’ve become quite obsessed with that time period so we’ll see how it progresses but we think it could be quite interesting.

Meet Me in Montenegro premiered at TIFF 2014.

Filmmaker Update: Alex and Linnea have recently struck a theatrical deal with Orchard in the U.S and the film will come out sometime in 2015 in theaters.

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Filmmakers and their Global Lens: Matthu Placekhttp://independent-magazine.org/2014/11/filmmakers-global-lens-matthu-placek/ http://independent-magazine.org/2014/11/filmmakers-global-lens-matthu-placek/#comments Wed, 26 Nov 2014 15:46:53 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=1874 For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight speaks with the artist Matthu Placek about “Moving Portraits”. Knight initially spoke with Placek at the Toronto International Film Festival 2014. Dana Knight (DK): Will you please give us a background to your work and introduce the very special short film that... Read more »

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For this edition of Filmmakers and their Global Lens,  The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight speaks with the artist Matthu Placek about “Moving Portraits”. Knight initially spoke with Placek at the Toronto International Film Festival 2014.

Dana Knight (DK): Will you please give us a background to your work and introduce the very special short film that you presented at TIFF 2014.

Matthu Placek: I’m a photographer by origins and I’ve been making films for about five years. This short film is the first in an ongoing body of work of moving portraits. I’m actually making them as artworks in addition to other artworks that have been shown in site-specific installations where they are placed into pieces of architecture that relate to the architecture used in the film.

The title of the film is 130919 A Portrait of Marina Abramovic. The number is the date that it was made and it is also an archive number. I’m really an archivist, in a lot of ways, as a portraitist and in my need to memorize relationships and events and time and catalog them. Everything in my archive is placed in that sequence: year, month, day. Since I was a kid. And if you dive into my artwork, those numbers exist in everything. This is not my film debut but it’s my first moving portrait that I’ve finished, it’s one take and in 3D.

DK: Why one take?

Placek: As someone who’s not trained as a filmmaker, when I approached film I wanted to do it in the same manner in which I do photography, which is very planned and well thought-out images. Then it’s about putting all the pieces together and making it with all the right people who can make that happen. When I approached film, I wanted to do something similar, but not only to learn at the same pace and keep the same thought process, but also to have respect for a medium that I’m not trained in. So I said “I’m going to do this in one take, in a studio, in black and white”. That being said, it’s not simple. […] It was really challenging and I didn’t think I would be able to keep people’s attention but I actually did. And I thought “This is really kind of great”. And for someone who’s really immersed in performance, my social circle and my own personal interests and growing up with dancing, that’s always been a part of it, the performative aspect. I realized I’m getting these really intimate performances from people since there’s no interruption.

DK:  Was there a need for many takes?

Placek: We did seven takes but that’s the first take. It’s usually the first take and it’s always seven takes, everyone I’ve ever done. And before films I made music videos, also with people that I’m close to. But one take is really complicated and I don’t do it just to drive everyone crazy and put everyone through hell […]. I’m incredibly demanding and if I showed you the previous realizations I made for the film, it’s exactly the same thing.

DK:  The film looks incredibly sophisticated and it works amazingly well with the music. What challenges have you encountered in the making of it?

Placek: I was really blessed to have the budget to work with all the right people who do what they do very well. But they weren’t used to doing a one-take film so I encountered a lot of challenges. First it would be “OK, no problem”. Then “No, I can’t do it like that, the camera will pass into the light and there will be a shadow”. So we have to rethink where the camera goes, we can’t move the camera so we have to remove the light but I can’t have the light to the right because it’s not going to look good. So there’s going to be a shadow on each side of the face, you’re going to have to fill it in. One thing after another. So everybody had to think really hard. And I would compromise on occasion but usually no, unless someone has a very good reason. I’d listen to everybody but in the end if my concept is done, it’s done. So we had to work really hard to make it happen.

DK:  This is a film about an artist, made by an artist. Two artistic subjectivities colliding. Was this project collaborative in any way or it is entirely your concept?

placek

Matthu Placek on the red carpet

Placek: In my opinion all portraits are a collaboration no matter what. But the way I make portraits is very selfish, because I’m making these with people that I have a relationship with. I have known Marina and worked with her since 2006. The reason I wanted to make a portrait of her is because she has shown me who she is, and I believe her and I respect that. She’s one of the most sincere people I have ever met. […] We’ve been working together on this but I had the concept. It was initially in a different location and when she told me about the institute that she was building in Hudson, New York, I thought we needed to do it there. This was 3 years ago. So in that way it’s like me learning more about her, and her giving me that valuable time to know these things in order to say: this completes the story, this is your legacy, this is your future, because I’m trying to make a portrait of someone’s past, present and future. So yes it is absolutely a collaboration. But in the end this is my artwork and my interpretation of her in this dramatic way.

DK:  The space is very important in your artworks. I assume the location you chose for your film is Marina Abramovic’s studio?

Placek:  Yes. The architecture in my still images has always been as important as the subjects in them. The space tells the story as much as they do. So with Marina who is 68, at this stage in her life, she’s looking to what she’s going to leave behind, I can assume. I’m 34 now, I can’t imagine what 35 is like until I get there. So to think about what 68 is, I have no idea but I’m drawn to those people because they’ve figured it out.

Marina bought this raw space in a town that’s close to where she lives in order to build a site for long durational performance research and a residency program for performance artists in a space that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. This is also a place where her prolific 50 year career and everything she’s done to prepare for performances can live and be taught and explored. This is her future, her legacy, this piece of architecture.

Even the lighting and the color temperature of the light is there to tell the story. Her body, which is literally her body of work, is cold and white in the center of this space. And the space is warm and rich, like an amniotic fluid,  So there’s this transition, transfer of energy and attention from performance into the institute.

DK:  I think you managed to capture that brilliantly, there’s a unique atmosphere to the film. Why did you choose to shoot it in 3D and is it the first time you use 3D technology?

Placek: First time, yes. 3D because it is literally a portrait of her body of work and I want the audience or viewer to be present with that body and for the body to be tangible and touchable. As someone who tries to resist technology as much as I can, I love it. And I also hate it because it brings us further apart. But it can also bring us closer together.

In these site-specific public installations, in the way that I show these to the public, the 3D is as essential as the person. I’m trying to give people a new experience of portraiture, a new way of being introduced to someone.

DK:  The musical score is very striking, this is obviously an original score that you commissioned specifically for the film.

Placek: Yes. I wanted to use a piece of music from this brilliant composer William Basinski called The Desintegration Loops. The film’s soundtrack is a piece of music that had […] a historical piece of Balkan music over William Basinski’s score. And that music was used for Robert Wilson’s opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, which I came to Toronto last year to see in order to hear the music, because that was what I initially was going to use. But Marina said “No, that’s for my funeral”. And she said “Why don’t you use this, where I’m singing or speaking”. So I came to see the opera which is fantastic but I didn’t like the piece of music she suggested. It was great but it wasn’t appropriate, it had a negative connotation. My film is about life and death, growth and transformation, and that being a positive thing. And this song had like an ending to it. So I didn’t want that. And I was afraid she might say no because she really wanted that piece of music. And I also didn’t want it to be a trailer for the opera.

So I didn’t use that but in Toronto I met Svetlana Spajić who is the singer and writer of the lyrics and the music. She’s this amazing Serbian woman who is quite close with Marina, a very strong woman who’s a historian of Balkan folk music. So I wrote her this long letter saying “You won’t remember me but I met you in Toronto and I’d be so honored if you worked with me on this to make an original score. I’m hoping there is a Balkan piece of music that you can think of, that speaks of death and rebirth in a positive way”. And she wrote back immediately and we skyped and she agreed to do it. She was so intuitive.

So I asked a good friend Thomas Bartlett, who’s a producer and brilliant musician, if he would produce the music with Svetlana. He agreed so Svetlana came over from Belgrade and they worked in the studio one afternoon with this brilliant violinist, and they made this piece of music. I really wanted a meditative drone for a chant. And they did it and I was really proud of it.

When it’s put in site-specific installation, there’s a similar piece of music that is ten minutes long. That is for the introduction in the space  where people can explore the architecture before they see the film with that music.

DK:  What was Marina’s reaction when she saw the film?

Placek: She loves it. The only person I need to please is the subject. She didn’t see it until I presented it at Art Basel Miami Beach in Florida. And that speaks a lot of her as someone who is supportive of young artists whom she trusts. And I feel that she trusted me but not until she actually saw the film.

So I first presented the film as a site-specific installation at Art Basel Miami Beach and it was in this big strained-glass building, the old Bacardi headquarter, a beautiful piece of Brazilian architecture. And during the art fair, the film screened to groups of 15 people, every 15 minutes, from 9pm till 3am. And it’s quite a way from the beach so you really had to make a decisive decision, “I’m going to do this at night during party-time”. So it was an alternative and I wanted people to slow down and explore this piece of architecture that is being transitioned into artists studios and it’s never before been shown to the public in that way. So people would walk up three flights of stairs with the sound installation I told you about, that builds and mounts and becomes bigger. And I lit the building from the exterior so the inside was very cathedral-like without having religious connotations to it. And after 10 minutes of exploring the space they sat down to see the film.

So Marina came for that opening  and then we had a salon discussion at the YoungArts Foundation about the project. Just before the discussion Marina asked “Can I see it now?” and I said “Yes but I just want to see this with you alone”. So we went in and watched it alone. And afterwards she turned to me, she took her glasses off and she was crying and she said “Baby, you did it right, this is what’s going on right now, you’ve sealed it in, this is where I’m at and I approve”.

DK:  You collaborated with a lot of other artists in the past, could you mention a few of them?

Placek: I love to work with performance artists. Vanessa Beecroft was one of the first. And the eternal problem with that is: how can you sell performance art? To make a living they have to sell something that looks expensive and that is representative of the performance. So photography is probably the most direct way, they often come to me (or vice-versa, I came to Marina) and say “I need you to make an expensive-looking picture of this”. And then we make a picture. And it’s great fun because I’m also compensated well for it because they own the image, the copyright is no longer mine. So it’s a great way to make a living without doing advertising which I enjoy as well.

So I worked with Vanessa Beecroft, Terence Koh. Then lots and lot of portraits that aren’t commissioned work, Brice Marden,  Kiki Smith, Yoko Ono, Richard Prince and Marc Jacobs. A lot of younger ones, Kristen Baker, Jonah Bokaer. I really focus on contemporary artists, those are the people I really love taking portraits of.

130919 A Portrait of Marina Abramovic was shown at TIFF 2014.

 

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