Independent Magazine http://independent-magazine.org Obsessed with Independent Film Since 1978 Mon, 20 Jul 2015 13:24:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Three Must-See Summer Movieshttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/07/three-must-see-summer-movies/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/07/three-must-see-summer-movies/#comments Wed, 01 Jul 2015 15:59:18 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2872 Senior critic, Kurt Brokaw, culled this year’s BAMcinemaFest line-up for three summer films to add to your must-see list. The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt. 2015. USA. 105 min.) The “tour” in this super sophisticated, high-falutin’ dissection of author David Foster Wallace’s life refers to the last five-day leg of a book tour from... Read more »

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Senior critic, Kurt Brokaw, culled this year’s BAMcinemaFest line-up for three summer films to add to your must-see list.

The End of the Tour
(James Ponsoldt. 2015. USA. 105 min.)

The “tour” in this super sophisticated, high-falutin’ dissection of author David Foster Wallace’s life refers to the last five-day leg of a book tour from Illinois to Minnesota in the winter of 1996. Wallace was celebrating the publication of his second novel, the 1,079 page Infinite Jest (hardcover weight, three pounds four ounces), a book that erudite readers and pre-Internet hipsters were already comparing to James Joyce’s Ulysses (which Wallace’s parents read to each other out loud when he was a child).

Accompanying Wallace was Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, who’d successfully pitched his editor on the magazine’s first in-depth look at a “rock star writer.” Lipsky had been entranced with Wallace’s mammoth odyssey of 21st century corporate America—a society that made adult Depends the year’s premiere product. The two leading protagonists, wading through this morass of junk-branding are Hal, a tennis pro in a Boston sports center, and Don, a cross-addicted alcoholic and recovering Demerol addict, who are locked in a search for the negative to a movie that causes death when viewed. That’s your Twitter-length summary of Infinite Jest. (The novel contains over a hundred pages of just footnotes and endnotes; you’ll be excused for reading it on a Kindle on the subway.)

Lipsky may have sensed that Wallace could grow into a kind of highbrow replacement for Kurt Cobain. Nirvana’s singer/songwriter/guitarist had sold 75 million records and was similarly being hailed as “a spokesman for a generation” before overdosing in 1994 on enough heroin to kill three addicts, and then, insuring he’d die, with a shotgun blast to his head. Part of Lipsky’s mission was to plumb the inner Wallace—a longhaired mountain of a man who piled on layers of mismatched clothes like armor and wore smudged glasses beneath signature headbands that absorbed his sweat (though some wags said the headbands were to keep his big brain from falling out).

The road trip would reveal how Wallace, unlike Cobain, would handle (at least for a while) the big time fame he seemed to resist even as he acknowledged and committed to its trappings—like agreeing to share room and board for an entire week with a national magazine reporter holding a tape recorder. Wallace had told an earlier interviewer, “I’m an exhibitionist who wants to hide, but I’m unsuccessful at hiding; therefore, somehow I succeed.” He was an uneasy captive to what he called “the greasy thrill of fame.”

The reporter had surely researched Wallace’s early life enough to know about his substance abuse history. As an undergrad at Amherst in the early 80s, Wallace had been diagnosed with depression and started what would become 20 years of dependence on the anti-depressant Nardil. In 1989, after years as a pothead and barely functioning alcoholic, and twice attempting suicide, he went into McLean Hospital, Harvard’s top psychiatric hospital. He was released after 28 days into a halfway house in nearby Brighton, where he continued writing much of Infinite Jest, basing Don (and a lot of other church-going types in the novel) on cross-addicted alcoholics like himself and their 12-step recovery meetings.

One of Wallace’s most significant relationships was with the author/poet Mary Karr, who was married. D.T. Max compares their relationship to the line in The Great Gatsby about how a bad driver is safe until he meets another bad driver (“Mary was that driver. And they were both newly sober.”) Wallace had her name tattooed on his arm, proposed marriage, and was violently jealous of her husband.

Another Wallace romance was with a political science professor at Illinois State University where he taught, which ended with his 67-page breakup letter. He became the quintessential author with the roaming eye, the millennial’s Philip Roth, freely admitting any number of one-night stands. When a fan asked him for his red bandanna, Wallace said he’d trade for the wearer’s Lucky Charms tee. His grad school writing students adored him, as he dressed like a logger and carried around chewing tobacco (he was a dipper) which he spat into a tin can. He gave one student a B for “32 instances of misplaced comma usage.” Though his hands sometimes shook, Wallace managed to stay off booze and dope, relying on Nardil to stabilize his daily life.

In 2006, after marrying the artist/poet Karen Green and moving to Claremont, California, he was teaching at Pomona when he suddenly stopped all prescription meds. His depression became acute and he tried electroconvulsive shock treatments. And then he committed suicide at his home in 2008. Was there a connection between ending his dependence on Nardil and ending his life? Writers, recovery professionals, and readers will forever be speculating on this. Wallace’s obituaries frequently referred to his goal to “communicate what it felt to be human or die trying.”

Knowing all this, you’re ready to watch and be immersed in The End of the Tour:

When the movie opens, Rolling Stones Lipsky has made his successful pitch to the magazine and flown out to Bloomington, where Wallace is living in a non-descript ranch house with his two dogs (Jeeves and Drone, named from the P.G. Wodehouse stories). Lipsky is played by Jesse Eisenberg, who’s certainly demonstrated he can be a forceful, commanding presence in The Social Network, Night Moves, and as the twin characters he plays in The Double.

Eisenberg forsakes that dominating persona here, even though he’s a published author and investigative reporter for a top magazine. He comes on as nervous, bashful, almost girlish in his dazzled adoration of his literary hero. “I want what you have,” he blurts, fumbling with his pocket recorder and making inane small talk. (Perhaps respecting his subject’s sobriety, he tells Wallace he doesn’t drink—until he does, cracking open a beer and maybe breaking his own sobriety date.)

Eisenberg looks like he’s genuinely enjoying playing second fiddle to a character who’s as smart about life as his own Mark Zuckerberg character was about technology in The Social Network. It’s Eisenberg shyly trotting out his feminine side as an actor, and it’s a risky, calculated interpretation of the role, because it tends to throw the entire movie into the six-foot-four-inch Jason Segal’s lap.

As David Foster Wallace, Segal gives a performance that’s unimaginably canny and staggering in its complexity. He quickly takes to the star-struck newsman, pouring out big chunks of his ambitions, philosophies and blocked visions in whole paragraphs. One of The End of the Tours many ironies is that its dense screenplay adaptation by the Pulitzer prize winner Don Margulies isn’t based on the reporter’s story—which Rolling Stone didn’t publish—but Lipsky’s 2010 book, Although of Course You End Up Being Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.

On the road and at Minneapolis’ gigantic Mall of America, The End of the Tour occasionally opens up its two-hander format to include Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner as his local driver and fans; Sumner appears to be a composite of Wallace’s girlfriends through the years, and when Lipsky innocently chats her up and flirts a bit, Wallace becomes intensely, ominously jealous. (This won’t track very well unless you know the Mary Karr connection.) There’s another scene in which Wallace gets on the phone for a lengthy conversation with Lipsky’s girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky) that ticks off the Stone reporter enough that he drinks, which also doesn’t figure given Lipsky’s all-worshipping character. But these are minor faults.

What counts is that as the tour progresses and the two men suss each other out, Wallace’s immense humanity—his proclivities for fast food, simple dancing, hours of being glued to a television set staring at bad movies—begins to match up with his known real-life attractions to his Illinois churches, to a steady diet of X-Files and Die Hard entertainment, to a plainspoken older couple whose wife he once flew to New York as a sounding board and grounding influence, to his fiercely loyal students wherever he taught. The movie is no more and no less than Wallace slowly releasing pieces of his dense philosophy, memories, and rudimentary life to a reporter, but it feeds us emotional rewards we’ll long remember.

“You can be shaped, or you can be broken,” Wallace wrote in Infinite Jest. There is not much in between. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard. How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.” Sometimes his loopy sentences collapsed into tiny, meticulously printed footnotes, but more often they snapped-to and formed profound truths that will ring true for generations to come.

Like the young woman in Wallace’s debut novel, The Broom of the System, who fretted she might be stuck forever as a character in a novel, Wallace was also, recognizably, a character in his own creations. He was a survivor longer than Kurt Cobain, who’d tasted, even previewed the blacked-out wrap of death, and was reporting back from the other side.

Queen of Earth
(Alex Ross Perry. 2015. USA. 90 min.)

Ingmar Bergman described his dark, intensely cinematic Persona (1966) as “beginning with the human face.” His two faces in that Swedish classic belong to Liv Ullmann, playing an actress who went mute in a performance of Electra, and Bibi Andersson, who acts Ullmann’s endlessly talkative nurse. Persona is set at a country house near the sea.

In the film, Bergman probes deep and deeper into the wounded female psyche, at one point tearing the screen image—the actual film stock—to convey the unbearable trauma and tension building between the two women. Rarely in cinema has suffering been so artfully executed. At another critical moment, the two halves of the women’s faces merge into one.

Elisabeth Moss in another noteworthy performance in Alex Ross Perry's "Queen of Earth." (Photo courtesy BAMcinemaFest.)

Elisabeth Moss in another noteworthy performance in Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth.” (Photo courtesy BAMcinemaFest.)

Queen of Earth similarly isolates two women in a summer home by a Hudson Valley lake, and it, too, begins with the human face—a screen-filling, anguished close-up of Elisabeth Moss (Catherine), a painter and assistant to her famous artist father, who’s suddenly died. On top of grieving over this loss, Catherine is angrily, almost hysterically severing ties with her lover.

It’s a long, harrowing near-monologue by Moss, and it cements her growing stature as a major American actress, instantly wiping away the seven years she labored along as Peggy, Mad Mens lone female copywriter and creative supervisor on Madison Avenue in the 60s.

Shortly after her wrenching opening scene, Catherine arrives at the woodsy retreat owned by the parents of her friend, Ginny. She’s played by Katherine Waterston, 5’11” and willowy, her eyes critically drinking in and already evaluating her shaky visitor. Moss has come to heal, but writer/director Alex Ross Perry has other ideas.

At this point the two women are anchored into the same setting as Bergman’s Persona. Moss and Waterston certainly share character traits and, from some angles, physical appearances similar to Ullmann and Andersson, half a century ago.

Perry, an acute observer of contemporary relationships, wants to focus on Catherine’s relations to three men—her deceased father, her former lover, and a male neighbor of Ginny’s at the lake—and how their cumulative impact begins to distance the two women from each other. It’s a new millennium twist on Persona, and as you watch it unfold, you’re conscious how Perry is exploring the Persona dynamic in fresh, relevant ways. His decision to film in 16mm color gives the drama a faded palette that’s muted and somber—he might as well have shot in black-and-white like Bergman.

Perry’s film is divided into daily “chapters.” He confidently cross-cuts to flashbacks of the women at the lake house a year earlier, as Ginny fumes over the attention lavished by Catherine on her then-boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley). Meanwhile, in the present, a mirror image plays out: Catherine, slowly becoming more and more unhinged as she watches Ginny flirt with her neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit).

Queen of Earths centerpiece scene—it’s a beauty, almost as mesmerizing as Andersson’s recollection in Persona of an afternoon when she gave herself on impulse to a teen boy on the beach and became pregnant—contains monologues by both women. The camera starts tight on Catherine, but gradually slides onto the face of Ginny, who’s intently watching her and listening without expression.

Ginny challenges Catherine to “trade roles and see how we feel,” which is Personas core premise, and as Catherine shuts down and falls apart, we see Perry is pointing his drama in the same direction as Ingmar Bergman once did. Like the unknowable Bibi Andersson, tall and severely brittle in Persona, Waterston is a shrewd and elliptical actress—she exudes the kind of privileged Westchester status you could smell and feel in the dark.

In Persona, Andersson slid a piece of broken glass onto a path where Ullmann would step on it. In Queen of Earthwell, that’s enough upfront comparisons for one appraisal. Suffice it to note that Perry’s new film is not quite as bitter and filled with repressed fury as Listen Up Philip, the director’s previous outing with the redoubtable Elizabeth Moss. This is a bigger, more fully mature drama, and if you’re going to be influenced by a world class artisan, Ingmar Bergman still trumps Philip Roth any night of the week.

Further reading on The Independent: Check out Dana Knight’s interview with Alex Ross Perry.

Tangerine
(Sean Baker. 2015. USA. 87 min.)

There’s a moment when Sean Baker’s aggressive and baleful dramedy of transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles transcends its tabloid environs and sputters into something approaching real art. It takes over half an hour to arrive (and you may be checking your watch more than once, wondering how you got trapped in this weird subculture), and it occurs in a car wash.

Pictured are Mya Taylor, left, who plays Alexandra, and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez, who plays Sin-Dee. Both play transgender prostitutes in "Tangerine," shot entirely on an iPhone. (Photo courtesy BAMcinemaFest.)

Pictured are Mya Taylor, left, who plays Alexandra, and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez, who plays Sin-Dee. Both play transgender prostitutes in “Tangerine,” shot entirely on an iPhone. (Photo courtesy BAMcinemaFest.)

The taxi of Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is slowly moving through the wash, its interior shielded by cascading waterfalls. Razmik, a gruff Armenian immigrant who we’ve been patiently following as he picks up and drops off sundry fares along Santa Monica Blvd., suddenly drops his head into the lap of a trans pal hooker, Alexandra (the singer/performer Mya Taylor in a flamboyant feature film debut) for some finger-lickin’ paid sex. Then Razmik heads home to his wife, child, bossy mother-in-law and their Armenian friends for a Christmas night celebration. Welcome to the 2015 American Way of Life, LA style.

Razmik’s indiscretion is the audacious plot device that director Baker has been lying in wait to spring on us. Suddenly a subplot seemingly unrelated to the director’s unvarnished portrait of mixed sex hookers and their sad, drug-fuzzed johns has given his movie a jolt. It powers an increasingly urgent, unsettled and often very funny collision of cultures and morals.

The showdown occurs at Donut Time where Razmik’s mother-in-law, his wife, and their whiny daughter confront the cheating driver, along with Aly, plus the prostitute’s trans pal Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, also debuting), plus their pimp (James Ransone), plus another of his brood—a sullen, skinny, biological female (Mickey O’Hagan). It’s a bizarre ensemble of overlapping accusations, defenses, putdowns and lies, and it builds with all the farcical assurance of Edward Norton and his loony fellow actors doing Raymond Carver in Birdman. This is razor-sharp sketch comedy of a very high order, and Baker gives you permission to enjoy every minute of it. You’ve earned it; it’s your take-home reward.

Tangerine is going to influence young filmmakers globally as a pioneering feature film shot with mobile phones, including the Apple iPhone 5S, outfitted with a prototype anamorphic adapter. This opens up the screen to near CinemaScope proportions, which gives the bleak downtown LA streets around Highland and Santa Monica (where everyone drives and no one walks) an even emptier look. The sex workers ply their trade on corners, waiting for the occasional driver who’s eying the available goods. Mostly the city looks as dead as the shuttered movie palaces in Paul Schrader’s The Canyons.

Baker’s iPhone color images are satisfactory though not as robustly rich as the Canon EOS 7D used by Lena Dunham in Tiny Furniture and the Canon 5D2 Lou Reed chose in making his documentary short, Red Shirley. This probably doesn’t matter—the good news is that you can shoot your movie on a mobile phone while riding your bike, as thousands of budding filmmakers are itching to do. No wonder The New York Times is no longer guaranteeing reviews on every feature with a distributor that comes to town.

Director Baker also resurrects actor Clu Gulager in an early scene as one of Razmik’s fares. Gulager, now 86, once-upon-a-time starred as a hired assassin alongside Lee Marvin in Don Siegel’s The Killers. Gulager’s still cranky and barely recognizable, kind of like Lawrence Tierney who ventured back onto the screen in Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Dont Dance and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Welcome back, Clu.

Further reading on The Independent: Learn why Tangerine’s cinematographer Radium  Cheung made our 10 to Watch in 2015 list by reading Anisha Jhaveri’s profile about his technique. There’s also a picture on our Facebook page (May 2, 2015) of Cheung with producer Camille Thoman; they’re working together on the upcoming You Were Never Here. 

Next up: Brokaws critics choices from the New York Film Festival, September 26 – October 12, 2015.                                            

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Festival Diary: Edinburgh International Film Festival (Part Four)http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/festival-diary-edinburgh-international-film-festival-part-four/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/festival-diary-edinburgh-international-film-festival-part-four/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2015 16:36:43 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2856 The 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) Awards were announced at the EIFF Awards Ceremony on Friday, held at the Filmhouse.   Tickets are available for free to the public but this was my first time attending. There were seven prizes awarded at the ceremony and a final Audience Award announced at the Closing Gala,... Read more »

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The 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) Awards were announced at the EIFF Awards Ceremony on Friday, held at the Filmhouse.   Tickets are available for free to the public but this was my first time attending. There were seven prizes awarded at the ceremony and a final Audience Award announced at the Closing Gala, which took place on Sunday 28th.

The ceremony itself was full of the energy that only a packed cinema can achieve. There was the added buzz of an excited audience attending a live event, waiting to see and hear from the winning filmmakers and performers. Though not as lavish as the words ‘Awards Ceremony’ might lead you to imagine, taking place on a Friday afternoon in slightly grey Edinburgh, the honesty and heartfelt gratitude of every winner made for a moving and engaging event.

Still from Scrapbook

Still from Scrapbook

The McLaren Award for New British Animation went to Ainslie Henderson, for Stems – which I highlighted in Part Three. His speech praised the support the festival gives to the “community of nerdy animators working in the UK” he belongs to, the incredible support offered by the festival being a touchstone for many speeches. Mike Hoolboom, director of Scrapbook that won the Award for Best Short Film, said “I feel touched this afternoon by a hand that has reached all the way across the Atlantic to find me in my Toronto home: who knew that hands could reach that far, and with such kindness.”

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in 45 Years

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in 45 Years

A feeling common to myself and the presenter of the awards ceremony after watching the highlights reel of the EIFF 2015 was regret for having missed so many wonderful films. 45 Years, winner of the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film was on my list but slipped through the cracks, as did Black Mountain Poets, the choice for the Student Critics Jury Award. This award is yet another example of the EIFF offering opportunities for those wishing to be involved in contemporary world cinema, in this case budding critics from higher and further education in Scotland.

My final event of the EIFF 2015 was a screening of films for the Edinburgh Schools Film Competition. Young people from Edinburgh nursery, primary, secondary and special schools submit their short films to EIFF and the Youth Jury views and selects entries to be screened during the Festival. The screening was evidence of some very talented young filmmakers in Edinburgh and the breadth of styles and genre surprised me, particularly one charming computer animated short involving an astronaut and a space squirrel.

EIFF logoI can scarcely believe that EIFF 2015 is behind us. No longer will I have the routine of looking at my carefully composed screening spreadsheet as my night ends, in order to plan the next morning’s viewing. Writing this article amidst the hubbub of excited conversation is the last time I will get to sit in Festival HQ for 2015, amongst creators and consumers of world class cinema. It has been wonderful to be involved in this celebration of what film can achieve. Next year promises to be something very special as the EIFF celebrates its 70th year. It is my hope that my experiences this year will lead you, and your films, to join me there.

You can read Part One, Part Two and Part Three of this Festival Diary from the 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival online, at The Independent Magazine.

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Festival Diary: Edinburgh International Film Festival (Part Three)http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/festival-diary-edinburgh-international-film-festival-part-three/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/festival-diary-edinburgh-international-film-festival-part-three/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 18:36:59 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2845 The Edinburgh International Film Festival cares deeply about the industry it serves and provides opportunities for discussion, workshops, one to one meetings and networking for established talent and emerging filmmakers.  The hub for all of this industry action is the Traverse Theatre, an always inspiring space in Edinburgh and a haven for new writing throughout... Read more »

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The Edinburgh International Film Festival cares deeply about the industry it serves and provides opportunities for discussion, workshops, one to one meetings and networking for established talent and emerging filmmakers.  The hub for all of this industry action is the Traverse Theatre, an always inspiring space in Edinburgh and a haven for new writing throughout the year. For the two weeks of the festival it becomes the Delegate Centre, hosting events ranging from karaoke nights to a two day focus on the latest industry thinking on film distribution, Distribution Rewired.

One particularly enlightening event that I attended was Crossing the Divide, a panel discussion around film and television. It highlighted many differences between the environments of the big and small screens but also explained the necessity of working in both to maintain a healthy career. Between them the panel had a huge range of experience; writing and directing critically acclaimed shorts, script editing long-running soap operas, adapting novels to feature films and of course working in the television industry in the UK, the US and Australia. Each member of the panel shared information through anecdotes, advice and insight. It was clear that they all wanted to help nurture those who seek to follow them into the industry.

Inspiration has been thrust upon me many other times this week. I saw the huge variety that modern British animation has to offer in 28 shorts over two 90 minute showings for the McLaren Award for New British Animation. It seems I was not the only one who felt their creative urges stirring, given what I overheard behind me at the second screening,“Just reading the titles makes me want to make stuff.” Here is a trailer for one of my particular favourites, Stems by Ainslie Henderson.

Further inspiration came from Misery Loves Comedy – comedy heroes of mine talking about comedy. Director Kevin Pollak, better known as an actor but having had a long stand up career, is trying to find out why his friends and colleagues do comedy and whether you need to be miserable to be funny. Pollak’s long career makes for an impressive roster of interviewees and though much of the subject matter has been covered before, there is fascinating insight thanks to the honesty of the answers. Pollak has also done well to keep a tight focus and a running time of 90 minutes, there could have been a six part series with a diluted message in less ruthless hands.

I must also recommend Tu Dors Nicole, a low-fi comedy from Quebec. Easy comparisons can be made to Frances Ha; it could be labelled mumblecore, it is focused on a woman finding her place in the world and it is in black and white. However, to my mind Tu Dors Nicole is a more satisfying film.

Though it has only been three days since the last article, I have experienced much more than I can cover here. This festival is a whirlwind of creativity and it’s delightful to be swept up by it.

Part One and Part Two of this Festival Diary from the Edinburgh International Film Festival is available. If you want to follow more happenings during the last days of the festival you can check out James’ Twitter – @filmboyslim. The fourth and final installment of this diary will be online soon.

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Festival Diary: Edinburgh International Film Festival (Part Two)http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/festival-diary-edinburgh-international-film-festival-part-two/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/festival-diary-edinburgh-international-film-festival-part-two/#comments Tue, 23 Jun 2015 03:09:58 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2834 Films at this festival are selected “to represent the most innovative and adventurous developments in world cinema,” and the festival seeks “stylistic boldness, strength of form, and the ambition to use the medium in a way that resists cliché,” from their participating filmmakers. I have been through my own selection process from the festival programme.... Read more »

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Films at this festival are selected “to represent the most innovative and adventurous developments in world cinema,” and the festival seeks “stylistic boldness, strength of form, and the ambition to use the medium in a way that resists cliché,” from their participating filmmakers.

I have been through my own selection process from the festival programme. Comedy and science fiction will always be of particular interest to me but I found 48 separate films or events to fill out my schedule. I knew that even with no other commitments it was an impossible task, assuming time travel or cloning were not an option.

One film that made it through my selection process was Index Zero, a dystopian science fiction film from Italy, where people are given an index based on their worth to society and treated accordingly. It was certainly well made but lacked logic and didn’t move me, except during a startlingly claustrophobic and tense early scene early. The most excitement I experienced was when a fellow attendee sat on me during the first few minutes of the film that were in complete darkness due to a projection issue.

Kristen Wiig in Welcome To Me

Kristen Wiig in Welcome To Me

The screening of Welcome to Me also had an unexpected surprise at the start – a message of introduction and gratitude from the film’s director Shira Piven. Piven spoke specifically about the bravery and talent of Eliot Laurence, whose debut feature this is, in crafting a sharp satire of self-obsession and the role of the media. The film follows a woman with borderline personality disorder, played by Kristen Wiig, who wins the lottery and starts her own daytime chat show. Piven also highlighted Wiig’s powerful central performance in her introduction. I agree completely about Wiig’s performance, but felt that roughly two thirds in, the satire had been played out as far as the filmmakers were willing to go and the plot resolved in a standard and generally upbeat way. The theme deserved a much darker conclusion and this would have made for a much more powerful film.

Love and Mercy 5

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson

Thus far then, my science fiction and comedy preferences had not inspired me. I did find inspiration in a film I took a chance on, Love & Mercy a biopic of select parts of the life of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys – played by Paul Dano in the 1960’s and John Cusack in the 1980’s. This film was released in the US on June 5 and I urge everyone to take the opportunity to see it. I was utterly captivated and engaged in this fascinating portrait. Though the film focuses completely on Wilson and both actors who portray him do a wonderful job, the stand out performance comes from Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, a potential love interest for Wilson in the 80’s. Banks can convey the weight of an unseen history and layers of emotion in the tiniest moment on screen. After seeing the film, I immediately downloaded Pet Sounds, whose recording and creation is a stand out sequence in the film. Now, four days later, the film will not leave my imagination. It currently has no UK release date.

All of my cinematic experiences last week, disappointing or not, were about discovering cinema through taking chances. And that’s what expertly-crafted festivals are all about – allowing filmmakers and film enthusiasts the opportunity to curate your own festival journey from the best new cinema around.

Part One of our Festival Diary from the Edinburgh International Film Festival is available, Part Three will be online soon.

 

 

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Filmmakers and Their Global Lens: Jem Cohenhttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/filmmakers-and-their-global-lens-jem-cohen/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/filmmakers-and-their-global-lens-jem-cohen/#comments Mon, 22 Jun 2015 14:00:08 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2814 Dana Knight spoke with Jem Cohen as his latest work, Counting, was screening as part of the Forum Section at Berlinale 2015. Counting is a personal, essayistic documentary in 15 chapters where Cohen composes images, sound and music with remarkable intensity, combining them into a hypnotic foray through the metropolises of our world: New York,... Read more »

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Dana Knight spoke with Jem Cohen as his latest work, Counting, was screening as part of the Forum Section at Berlinale 2015. Counting is a personal, essayistic documentary in 15 chapters where Cohen composes images, sound and music with remarkable intensity, combining them into a hypnotic foray through the metropolises of our world: New York, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Porto and a city intended to remain unknown. Time passes and stands still at the same time. Counting has it’s North American Premiere at BAMcinemaFEST 2015 on Saturday, June 27th – a Q&A with Cohen will follow the screening.

Dana Knight: What provided the inspiration for this film?

Jem Cohen: The chapter called Skywriting was actually the first chapter that I made and I made in homage to Chris Marker on the occasion of his death. So that was the instigating spark.

DK: When did you shoot that chapter?

Cohen: I shot it in 2011.

DK: With this film, I had the impression that you deliberately chose to focus on the less interesting aspects of life

Cohen: Well, they are not less interesting, they are on the periphery of life. Sometimes that’s where the most interesting things are.

DK: Could you give an example and explain what captivated you about that particular peripheral detail? For instance, the cup of tea on the pavement in Moscow was a really intriguing sight.

Cohen: It’s a crowded, cold day in Moscow and why is there a cup of hot tea sitting in the intersection? I will never know. But there was.

DK: But you just happened upon these, you never searched out anything? I imagine you wandering around, looking, trying to pay attention and letting the camera run every time something captures your attention for a second. And all those details acquire an importance even if for that reason alone: the fact that they caught your attention.

Jem Cohen

Jem Cohen

Cohen: Exactly. […] I mean we’re either going to be bored or not going to be bored here…

DK: In life or at this interview?

Cohen: In the world. And it’s not something we have to think about but it’s an interesting choice. I chose not to be bored. And find something interesting in almost every detail. Why not? That’s not always easy to do, it’s not always possible to do but it’s a lot better than the other option of being bored. I like the world, I think it’s funny.

DK: And you captured that in your film, the film has many funny moments. You created humor with very little, just small details, just noticing stuff. I feel the film could have equally been called Noticing.

Cohen: But isn’t your life that way?

DK: Funny?

Cohen: Funny, tragic, whatever. But the details are what we breathe. We’re not in the helicopter that’s about to explode. We’re on a subway going from here to there. I don’t think the people are used to having the movies be about our actuality. They are used to the movies being about exactly the opposite. But I don’t really know why it has to be that way.

DK: It doesnt. And your film proves the point. I also thought that you wanted the audience to join you in really looking at the things around us. We live in an age where were constantly in a rush. We dont have the time to capture whats around us. And your camera does us this favour or service. That cup of tea on the pavement, we probably wouldnt have noticed it if we passed by it.

Cohen: Not if we’re looking at our phone.

DK: I also feel theres a whole adventure behind making this film, you were travelling, going places. Could you tell me more about that, where did you start on your journey?

Cohen: I wish I could say that I was travelling and going to some interesting place because it sounded interesting to me and I loved going to shoot there. But no, I don’t have the money for that and like everybody else, it’s hard to have the time for that. I get to places when something brings me there, a gig or a job, maybe a visit that I have to do but I don’t have the luxury or the money to just go places. If I could do that, I would have gone to Nepal or to Greenland or any other thousands of places. I would love to go to Romania. But I go where chance placed me. And often I don’t have a lot of time. And I didn’t know I was making a feature film. But I love to shoot and I think it’s necessary for me to navigate the world with a camera. And I think it’s a challenge to have that be adding up to something rather than just being purely random. The film has a lot of random things in it but the film, if you stick with it, I don’t think it’s a random film.

DK: Its definitely not a random film, it has a very precise structure with the division into 15 chapters and things that echo each other throughout.

Excerpt from Counting

Excerpt from Counting

Cohen: It’s hard to talk about because there’s obviously no script and no preset agenda but at various times in the world there are things that are kind of brewing or coming to the surface or in the zeitgeist or in the atmosphere in many different places. For example, everywhere that I go, there is a degree of globalized, corporate dominance that manifests as construction sites and people losing their places. It’s a very dominant theme, everywhere that I go, someone is unable to afford their place or there’s a giant skyscraper going up next to them. Surveillance is a similar thing, it’s in the air everywhere now in a way that is extraordinary. There are countries that are used to that, countries that had totalitarian, bureaucratic governments but a lot of other countries thought that they were apart from that. Now we learn that no one is apart from that, that this is a massive, terrifying change, it changes the air. So these things are connecting, even if they are not pleasant connections. And then there are other connections that are pleasant, like animals, or light, or some sensual aspect of life. One connects with negative ions and positive ions and these are things that become the atmosphere of a particular time. This film is a portrait of this time, two years of my life and life in general.

DK: But the film basically started as a personal travel diary?

Cohen: Yeah, you could say that. But I’ve been making films for a long time, I’ve made about 70 films and yeah, I keep a personal travel diary in images and sound. But I’m also always trying to organize that into something that might be, hopefully, more than just my personal travel diary. My personal life is not of interest to the world and doesn’t need to be. But if I can start to talk about things in the air that everyone’s breathing, then maybe that’s a little bit more interesting.

DK: I assume you accumulated a lot of footage in two years.

Cohen: Yeah but I don’t shoot all the time and I’m pretty selective about it. I don’t like to drown in footage.

DK: What made you divide it into 15 chapters? The chapters are not chronological, are they?

Cohen: No, it goes back and forth. Some of the chapters are very specific and focused. To me the film is not really about travel so much because some of the chapters are concretely about specific matters. One of the chapters is about NSA surveillance. It’s not about it in the sense that it’s a documentary about it, but if you stand on a street corner with that in your mind, then that street corner becomes a very specific thing. Because it’s no longer just a street corner full of people, it’s people who are being trapped and that little section is about that. And another section is about the light on a woman’s face at 3pm in the afternoon, in autumn, in Brooklyn. And another chapter has a broader spectrum: this is what Istanbul is like this week, in this moment. But that chapter also has a specificity because you go to Taksim Square and Taksim Square is no longer just a plaza, it’s a place where something massive happened, that is now gone. And it still carries the presence of those protests, even though they can’t exist right now. But there’s a specificity there. So the chapters allow a certain focus, a concentration and then another chapter starts and it shifts. The movie is not just “scrambled eggs”, it’s a series of stops. And you have to work hard to try to organize things because complete randomness is rarely successful.

This film is not for everybody but if you have the patience for it there is structure.

Excerpt from Counting

Excerpt from Counting

DK: Is Chris Marker the greatest influence on you as a filmmaker?

Cohen: Chris Marker is important to me because of the films he made but also because he was very generous to young filmmakers all around the world. I was in correspondence with him for over 10 years and that was very important to me. He was a very interesting human, and a very interested human. But he also represented a whole realm of cinema that is still largely disregarded because for most people the movies are a completely different thing. They are star-driven fantasy machines. And Marker was just a wonderful manifestation of a real alternative. So Marker’s influence isn’t just about him or his work. He was somebody who was very much a part of this alternate history of Russian filmmakers and Chilean filmmakers and filmmakers from the UK, all functioning in a very long, exciting history. So he didn’t just stand on his own, he was like a gateway to all these other things. He made a film about Medvedkin and he also followed Tarkovski and Kurosawa. And he’s friends with Agnes Varda and he helped Patricio Guzmán. It’s just a very rich universe that is so removed from the horseshit that we all have to wade through when we walk past the red carpet here.

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The Art and Fun of Screenwriting with Alex Ross Perryhttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/the-art-and-fun-of-screenwriting-with-alex-ross-perry/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/the-art-and-fun-of-screenwriting-with-alex-ross-perry/#comments Sat, 20 Jun 2015 14:00:43 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2726 Alex Ross Perry is an American film director, actor and screenwriter.  His works include  Impolex, The Color Wheel, Listen Up, Phillip and most recently Queen of Earth that first screened at Berlinale 2015 and is having its North American premiere at BAMcinemafest June 17-28 in New York City. Dana Knight spoke with Perry in February 2015. Dana Knight: I’m going... Read more »

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Alex Ross Perry is an American film director, actor and screenwriter.  His works include  ImpolexThe Color Wheel, Listen Up, Phillip and most recently Queen of Earth that first screened at Berlinale 2015 and is having its North American premiere at BAMcinemafest June 17-28 in New York City. Dana Knight spoke with Perry in February 2015.

Dana Knight: Im going to start with the most striking feature of your films which for me is to be found in the writing. Both Listen Up, Phillip and Queen of Earth are dialogue-driven films, and dialogue is something most filmmakers shy away from, as if words are trivial or un-cinematic, they want to tell the story through visuals. But you manage to do both, your films are cinematic and also have this literary quality given by the intensity of the dialogue. You have a love for words and dialogue. How did this come about, are you coming from a theatre tradition?

Alex Ross Perry: I don’t know. I wish. I think it’s just that I love reading more than most people I know and probably more than most filmmakers. I have a few filmmaker friends whom I talk about literature with quite a bit but I don’t know how important it is to those people but it’s something that I really just enjoy. Most people would really like to go out and hang out and have fun and I would rather just sit at home reading. And I read a lot, it’s a form of storytelling that I really feel connected to. And I don’t understand it because it’s so mysterious how it comes to be. And it’s really fun for me to sit and write. Not that writing screenplays is the same as writing fiction but it’s a fun part of the process. And the fun is making films that are different but trying to find ways to bring a sort of rhythmic quality to them, be they a dialogue-driven comedy or something like Queen of Earth.

DK: But would you agree that there is generally a fear of words in cinema?

Perry: I guess so, yes, I would imagine that there could be.

DK: So were you ever advised against writing lots of dialogue?

Perry: I don’t know, who would have advised me…[?]

DK: You don’t take advice…

Perry: Yeah, it’s just that I don’t really have anybody in a position that I have to answer to because my movies are made very independently with just a group of friends and collaborators so it’s not like there’s a real system of 40 people looking at a script and giving notes on it before I will get to make the movie.  Which I think leads to things that feel different and idiosyncratic in a way that allows them to be responded to uniquely.

DK: What is your writing process like?

Perry: It’s pretty basic.

DK: Do you inhabit your characters?

Perry: I wouldn’t know how to answer that. That’s not really about the process, that’s more like a real interpretation question. Characters are very clear before I start. There is a movie that I’m going to try to make, perhaps this year, that I haven’t written a word of it yet but I first talked to the actress who is going to do it in October. I’ve been thinking about it all the time but I haven’t done anything except to think about it every day. But once I know who all of the other characters are and where it takes place, the rest of it is so clear. This movie or Listen Up Phillip can be written in three or four weeks but I’ve been thinking about it for six months by the time I actually do the first day of work. For me that’s fun, letting the whole idea to sort of exist so that when I sit down it’s never like “ I’ve got nothing today”. Because I’ve been thinking about it for six months, I’ve got a million things, I don’t know where they go yet but let’s get them on the page and I’ll figure it all out later. And in keeping with that I have a pretty short window of productivity, I can really only sit and do work from probably 11am to 4pm. I don’t know how people can do it for longer than that. After six months of thinking, it’s a good couple of hours with ample breaks and that’s it. Because if I want it longer, I might not have anything to start with tomorrow. That’s another fun thing, your stopping point is when you know exactly what the next thing is because if you finish and it’s like “That’s all I’ve got” then where do you start?

DK: You also seem to have an instinctive feel for structure, I suppose that also comes from reading a lot of literature. Youre not really following any of the rules of screenwriting. Or do you? Because if you do its very well disguised.  

Perry: No, I don’t know any of these rules. When I’m confronted with the process, “the way things are done”, I’m always amazed at how little I know about it. Even talking with the editor, where I say, “I think the first act of this movie is 7 minutes long.” And he’s like, “Yeah but traditionally that should be 25 minutes for a 90 minute movie.” And I’m like, “But what does that even mean?”

At the end of the seven minute mark in this film, you know everything that is going to happen in the rest of the movie, every element has been introduced. And he’s like, “That’s not how you define the first act!” And I don’t get that. To me, the same with Listen Up Phillip, the first act is the first 6 minutes, which is a sort of prelude. So that’s very interesting for me because I don’t really think about it.

DK: So your writing is instinctive.

Perry: It’s just whatever seems cool. It’s like “Hey, that’s going to be fun,” let’s break this movie up into days, so there’s seven chunks of the movie, all of which are sort of the same length. Why not?

DK: Another striking feature, especially with this film, you start very abruptly, youre there from the first moment. Is that something you like doing?

Alex Ross Perry

Alex Ross Perry

Perry: Yeah, why not? But I also love things that start totally nowhere. One of the most amazing beginnings in one of my favorite films is the beginning of Somewhere, which is a 4-minute shot in which occasionally a car passes through, driving in circles. And the camera never moves and the car enters and exits the frame. That’s incredible, a huge amount of time spent with nothing. Finding something like that would be kind of exciting. But to me, in these last two movies anyway, I think there’s a lot of front-loading, giving people a huge introduction to the entire personality and history and behavior of the main character in the first three minutes of the movie. And this comes from spending a couple of months thinking about an idea and then sitting down with it. I’m very excited because all I’ve been thinking about is whoever that character is. The first thing I want to do is put down who they are and that ends up being the first scene.

DK: How many rewrites do you do?

Perry: It depends. I think the draft we shot for Listen Up Phillip was the 8th draft. So there’s tinkering. But it’s not like each revision and rewriting of dialogue is enough to qualify for a new draft but I think we shot the 3rd or 4th draft of this movie (Queen of Earth) and I would say that the filming of it is the 5th draft and edit of it is the 6th draft. It’s like the Tarantino thing where he says that the script is the first draft and the movie is the final draft. That makes sense to me. I don’t really like tinkering but part of the fun of writing is getting rid of stuff. I wouldn’t even count them as drafts necessarily but the first version of this movie was basically a different movie about the same characters but with a bunch of other characters. Catherine and Virginia were part of a larger ensemble of people in this house.

DK: In a similar vein to Listen Up Phillip?

Perry: Not really, it was more like Woody Allen’s September. There’s a bunch of people in this house but the other characters just weren’t there. It was always part of my idea that there would be this other group of people there . But when I read it and showed it to people, I couldn’t say anything about the other characters that would justify why they were there.

DK: You didnt know who they were.

Perry: Yeah. And they disappeared so easily. So that doesn’t even count as the first draft. That was sort of a different thing, I don’t know how to qualify it but it’s very easy to just delete stuff.

DK: In terms of story world,  your film seemed very Sartrian to me. Sartre famously said that its enough to put three people in a room to get a hellish version of humanity. And you seem to really enjoy making the characters tear each other apart psychologically. For the audience also, there is pleasure to be had in that.

Perry: Yes I would agree with that. It’s something that I find interesting, it’s fun to watch. Generally any movie that does that will probably become a movie that I admire greatly.

DK: Another film I saw recently that does that brilliantly is Winters Sleep.

Perry: I haven’t seen it yet. Everyone said I would like it and it was talked about with Listen Up Phillip a little bit. […]

Knight: This is not something very often done in cinema, to see characters who pick on each other in such depth, tearing each other apart in front of your eyes.  

Perry: Yes and that’s fun for me. That’s the time of somebody’s life that I want to watch for an hour and a half. That’s the time that is compelling for me to be a witness to, it’s when people are at their worst. That’s when a lot of the good stuff happens. Watching a movie about people at their best, or just sort of being challenged, I really don’t know what that is. A lot of independent films put people in this sort of non-threatening little bump of upheaval and I just don’t know what I’m watching, I feel like I’m watching a commercial.

DK: How do you work with your actors and do they contribute to the dialogue?

Perry: Yes, ideally. That’s what I learnt on Listen Up Phillip, that was the first time I worked with professional actors and the first thing I learnt even in rehearsals, just with Jason for a few weeks, was that almost every instinct that these actors are going to have is worth following. Which is not to say that every instinct is going to make it into the movie and is better than any instinct I had in the script for all this time. But there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain from creating an atmosphere where they feel like they can just say, “Hey, how about this?”

It creates such a collaborative moment and if it’s great then you’ve just got something magical. There are moments in both these movies that I never could have come up with. I don’t know where they came from in the moment but they were there for the actors and now they are in the movie. And there are moments that we didn’t even edit, they disappeared from the footage. But the value of saying “yeah, let’s just see what happens”. I mean within reason, you only have so much time. But letting that be the way that everyone feels makes the appeal for actors in coming to do small movies really alluring. Because it’s not a way of working that a really talented actor gets on every project. Not that they want it on every project.

So it’s fine for them to mix up doing scripted television where the script is the script, or doing theatre. And then you come to a movie. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.  But no one says that on most jobs. So it gives them an incentive to come and collaborate on these small projects. Which I think makes small projects that are actor-driven very sustainable.

DK: How did you get to work with Elisabeth Moss?

Perry: We got her the normal way for Listen Up Phillip, through casting. I’d never met her but I was a big fan and our collaboration was really exciting and positive. And when I was writing this movie, I started thinking it would sure be fun to do this one with her. And because we’d already built that relationship where she trusted me and I knew what she was capable of. I was able to ask her for things in this movie that you couldn’t ask someone you’ve just met. And she was able to go places that she said she couldn’t do if she didn’t already have a trusting relationship with the person who would ask her to do them. So it’s the sort of thing that really just comes about from earning someone’s trust and then doing something different with it.


The New York Premiere of Queen of Earth will take place at BAMcinemaFEST 2015 on Monday, June 22nd.  Check out the Festival website for more details.

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Festival Diary: Edinburgh International Film Festival (Part One)http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/festival-diary-edinburgh-international-film-festival-part-one/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/festival-diary-edinburgh-international-film-festival-part-one/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 15:57:10 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2792 Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) established in 1947 makes Edinburgh a thriving hub for new and emerging filmmakers in the month of June; a small city overtaken by art is an inspiring and lively place to be. Edinburgh has been my home for the past 13 years and I have often dabbled in the Festival... Read more »

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Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) established in 1947 makes Edinburgh a thriving hub for new and emerging filmmakers in the month of June; a small city overtaken by art is an inspiring and lively place to be.

Edinburgh has been my home for the past 13 years and I have often dabbled in the Festival – it would be ridiculous not to when there is a world renowned celebration taking over my favourite cinemas and venues right outside my door. My experiences of the festival in the past have tended to be solo trips to see films where filmmakers or cast members were in attendance or just a chance to get ahead of the crowd and see films in their world or European premieres, 24 and 16 of those respectively this year. As fun and inspiring as these individual experiences have been, I haven’t truly delved into the festival as I will this year. I am a filmmaker, on a smaller scale perhaps, but that doesn’t mean I have nothing to contribute. In fact, the EIFF actively encourages involvement from those seeking to develop their own talents and indeed from the entire city.

First thing on Monday morning, I was able to pick up my press pass from the Registration Desk – a new experience that had me feeling nervous. What if they realised I wasn’t a “real journalist?” It seemed likely that it was all a big misunderstanding and there was a more famous James Stewart I had been mistaken for (though that is certainly true, it is my understanding that deceased actors are rarely issued press passes, no matter how talented.) My fears were allayed as I approached the desk to see real, friendly people struggling to shuffle through massive piles of Press and Industry ID cards that they clearly hadn’t had time to arrange alphabetically.

Robert Carlisle and Emma Thompson in the Legend of Barney Thompson

Robert Carlisle and Emma Thompson in The Legend of Barney Thompson

I felt similarly nervous heading into the first press and industry screening of the festival at the Filmhouse, one of Edinburgh’s best cinemas which is transformed into “Festival HQ” for the 11 day duration of the EIFF. The film was The Legend of Barney Thomson, set to be the Opening Night film and a World Premiere. Would my pass actually allow me access to such a prestigious event?

I had nothing to worry about. I was scanned in without hesitation and sat amongst others like me. No collection of jaded, judgemental and serious professionals trudging through another film they have to see as I was imagining, instead genuine excitement and laughter at an entertaining and truly Scottish film with a few brilliant performances. Jet-black comedy The Legend of Barney Thomson is Robert Carlisle’s feature directorial debut about a “downtrodden barber whose mundane life is turned upside down when he accidentally turns killer,” describes the festival guide.  As I look around the cinema I feel I have found my people and I haven’t even spoken to most of them yet.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival is proving to be a good place to experience new cinema, but in the coming diary entries I’ll be exploring what else filmmakers, like ourselves, can find here.

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San Francisco International Film Festival in a To-Go Cup?http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/sfiff-online-screening-room/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/06/sfiff-online-screening-room/#comments Thu, 04 Jun 2015 20:36:23 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2757 This year the 58th annual San Francicso International Film Festival, the longest running film festival in the United States, went the traditional route — it screened films in theatres around San Francisco, including the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas and the historic (and beautiful) Castro Theatre. It also took off into the cloud(s) with the addition of the first-ever SFFS Online Screening Room. The... Read more »

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This year the 58th annual San Francicso International Film Festival, the longest running film festival in the United States, went the traditional route — it screened films in theatres around San Francisco, including the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas and the historic (and beautiful) Castro Theatre. It also took off into the cloud(s) with the addition of the first-ever SFFS Online Screening Room.

The online screening room is a curated selection of films from SFIFF 2015, available for streaming through June 7th for festival ticket holders and San Francisco Film Society members. SFFS partnered with FORA.tv, an online distribution company based in San Francisco, for this new initiative, which includes 14 features and 11 shorts from the SFIFF58 line up, many of which were festival winners. The SFIFF was held April 23 – May 7 and screened 183 films from 47 countries, including 67 narrative features, 35 documentaries, and 79 short films.

Highlights from the online screening room (and the in-person) festival are below.

Hotel 22

This important short documentary, by filmmaker Elizabeth Lo, highlights the growing wealth gap in San Francisco as the recent tech boom displaces more and more homeless people. Every night in Silicon Valley, public bus #22, which runs 24 hours, becomes an unofficial shelter for the homeless. The film chronicles a single night on the route where homeless men, women, and families fill the bus long after the last tech worker has gone home. Many of these homeless people are on a waiting list for a shelter and have nowhere else to sleep. Instead they sleep in two-hour increments, as the bus loops between San Jose and Palo Alto. They must wake up every two hours to get off the bus, only to get back on to travel (and sleep) in the reverse direction. The metallic bus railings and seats generate a neon, blue-ish hue and give the film a sci-fi feel. But this is not a work of fiction, instead it’s the grim reality that many Bay Area homeless persons face each night.

In January 2015, the film played at Sundance Film Festival and as part of the New York Times Op-Docs. Documentarian Elizabeth Lo is an MFA candidate in the Stanford University documentary film program. Hotel 22 is eight minutes long and played in the Shorts 1 series at SFIFF. It is a Cinema by the Bay film, a selection of short and feature films about the Bay Area, to connect the region’s film culture and practice to area film audiences.

The Chicken

When Selma receives a live chicken for her 6th birthday from her father, who is away fighting during the occupation of Sarajevo in 1993, it seems like an awkward and questionable gift to bestow on his young daughter, her older sister, and their mother, as they try to make do in their tiny apartment. The chicken bobbles around from room to room, longing to break free, and Selma follows it, trying to hug it and play with it as only a little child would. When Selma discovers what her mother intends to do with the chicken in order to sustain her young daughters, Selma’s actions lead to dangerous consequences. But we discover that the father’s gift was in fact quite wise, particularly given the circumstances that his young family faces without him.

Behind the scenes of "The Chicken."

Behind the scenes of “The Chicken.”

At times, The Chicken is a tough film to watch, but young actor Iman Alibalic, who plays Selma, is a joy. Her interactions with the chicken are so loving, yet so torturous. They kept me glued to my seat in the theatre to long enough to read in the credits that no chickens (or children) were harmed in the making of this film.

The 15-minute short narrative was written and directed by Una Gunjak, who was born in Sarajevo and is now based in London. This is her first film. The Chicken also played at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015. At SFIFF, it received a Golden Gate Award for was best Narrative Short and a $2,000 cash prize.

Additional Shorts

In addition to the two recommended shorts above, shorts winners are also playing in the online screening room. Rosie Reed Hillman’s Cailleach won Best Documentary Short, and The Boxby filmmaker Michael I. Schiller, won Best Bay Area Short and is about the controversial practice of US prisons using solitary confinement for teens in prison.

Feature Award Winners

Filmmaker Michael Almereyda and actor Winona Ryder answer questions about The Experimenter: The Stanley Milgrim Story, the closing night film at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. Photo courtesy of Aneilia McDermott.

Filmmaker Michael Almereyda and actor Winona Ryder answer questions about The Experimenter: The Stanley Milgrim Story, the closing night film at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. Photo courtesy of Aneilia McDermott.

Other festival winners in the online screening room include three feature documentaries: Western, Of Men and War and T-Rex. Western, a documentary directed, edited, and shot by brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, was the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Vérité Filmmaking winner in 2015. At SFIFF, the film won the Golden Gate Award for best Documentary Feature and a $10,000 cash prize. Through observation and character study, the film describes two towns separated by the Rio Grande (Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedra Negras, Mexico) and their relationship over time. The documentary is supported by Filmmaker 360, an SFFS program to fund new narrative and documentary filmmakers.

The documentary Of Men and War, directed and produced by French filmmaker Laurent Bécue-Renard, won Special Jury recognition at the SFIFF. Filmed over five years, Of Men and War chronicles the story of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan struggling with PTSD and war trauma.

T-Rex tells the true story of 17-year-old Claressa Shields and her journey from her hometown of Flint, Michigan to the 2012 Olympics in London to compete in the new Olympic sport of women’s boxing. The documentary takes its title from Shields’ nickname, “T-Rex,” given to her for her ferocious fighting style. The film, by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari, won Special Jury recognition and an Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at SFIFF. Both Of Men and War and T-Rex are also Cinema by the Bay films.

If you missed the festival and want to see the films in the online screening room, you can become a member of the San Francisco Film Society to check them out. 

 

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Filmmakers and Their Global Lens: Sophie Deraspehttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/05/filmmakers-and-their-global-lens-sophie-deraspe/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/05/filmmakers-and-their-global-lens-sophie-deraspe/#comments Tue, 19 May 2015 16:20:27 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2722 The Amina Profile premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Sophie Deraspe and co-produced by Esperamos and the National Film Board, the film follows an international blogging hoax that shook the internet. The Independent’s Dana Knight spoke with Deraspe at Sundance in February.  The Anima Profile is currently on the festival circuit internationally, and upcoming dates for screenings can... Read more »

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The Amina Profile premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Sophie Deraspe and co-produced by Esperamos and the National Film Board, the film follows an international blogging hoax that shook the internet. The Independent’s Dana Knight spoke with Deraspe at Sundance in February.  The Anima Profile is currently on the festival circuit internationally, and upcoming dates for screenings can be found at the film’s website.

Dana Knight: Congratulations on your new documentary, Sophie. I’m saying “documentary” but it feels more like a love story or mystery thriller, it’s an astonishing mix of genres.  Could you please briefly introduce the project and tell us how and at what point you became entangled in it?

Sophia Deraspe: It is indeed a documentary about a huge fiction! I am a friend of Sandra, the Canadian woman who began an online love affair with Amina Arraf, the Syrian-American blogger based in Damascus. So I witnessed the events that followed: Amina becoming a star blogger after the Guardian conducted an interview with her; her abduction, supposedly by the secret police of the regime in Syria; the quest to free her involving activists from around the world and intelligence agencies; and in the middle of all this my friend Sandra, who was doing everything in her power to save her lover from torture, rape, even death.

DK: In the first half before the big “reveal”, the film gives the impression of recording things “sur le vif”, the story of Sandra and Amina evolves on screen as if it happens right now. What were your aesthetic considerations behind that choice?

Deraspe: Everything happened online, the erotic exchanges as well as the political activism. So even though I knew I had a larger-than-life story on my hands, it didn’t give me much to work with visually—what would I film? Certainly not people sitting in front of their computers! So my challenge was to find the best way to share the fantasy with an audience. I used fictional narrative techniques a lot and tried to walk the thin line between not giving away too much, not doing proper re-enactments, and suggesting enough so that the viewer would feel the excitement of a love story that’s unfolding while one of the protagonists is immersed in a revolution during the Arab spring.

DK: Talking of aesthetics, the cinematography is astonishing and you probably considered many film styles before deciding on this one. Could you take us through this creative process of deliberation?

Deraspe: I am a director of photography as well, and I consider the camera, its position, its focus, to be as important as what is actually being filmed. It is a choreography in which the dancers have to share chemistry. But that doesn’t mean it has to be staged. Agility, flexibility and attention to your partners are key. With that said, every film organically suggests its own visual approach. For The Amina Profile, I was inspired by orientalist paintings from the 18th century that transport our imagination to exotic countries. We feel the heat, we see women bathing or kept in promiscuity in a harem, with beautiful fabrics and wild animals. This film is the contemporary tale of a cute, courageous, brilliant lesbian in a country where women are supposedly covered and subjected to a patriarchy and a dictatorial regime that oppresses them. Many people were captivated by Amina and her circumstances and, in a way, participated in her construction. I figured that after letting the viewer dive into that contemporary orientalist fantasy, I could then reveal the brutal reality.

DK: The moment of confrontation between Sandra and the “real Amina” makes for a very emotional scene in the film. How did that unfold in real life and what was your input on how to present it on the screen?

Deraspe: That is the pure magic of documentary—when one is willing to take risks, show up and trigger some events, but let reality unfold. Sandra showed a great deal of courage by travelling the globe to face the truth. She had the guts to question herself as well, and not just play the role of a victim. For her, and therefore for the film, this encounter offered a sense of closure. We could almost call it a therapeutic journey.

DK: You traveled far and wide to make this documentary. Could you share your experience with us? Were there any highlights that enriched your understanding of the culture/theme you were covering?

Deraspe: I have to admit that sometimes I felt pretty nervous before some of the meetings we had or some of the borders we crossed. In retrospect, I think I made the exact right decision to go alone with Sandra, doing the camera work and sound myself. We were very mobile, which is quite convenient when you want to travel the world and be flexible enough to record any events that might suddenly arise or new characters that you might come across. We had wonderful cooperation and were not a threat to anybody. But now, I can’t help but direct my gaze toward Syria. Before we left the country, we didn’t know to what extent the Syrians had been impacted by the Amina affair. Having a connection with some of them now deepens my sorrow. I could never have imagined that these people would be suffocated to the extent that we see today. It is not human.

DK: What was the most challenging problem you overcame in making this film?

Deraspe: Finding the right equilibrium between the personal story and the bigger sociological/media/political aspects was a challenge. This is a complex story that addresses many important issues, such as online identity, trust in media, the need for connection, the vulnerability of a state and its people during the turmoil of a revolution. I had to make sure these serious issues were covered but in a smooth way, by keeping the narrative flowing and even the hilarious twists and turns happening.

DK: Was it difficult to find finance for this project?

Deraspe: I have the fortune of living in Quebec, Canada, a state that supports its culture and artists. Therefore we have access to grants and investments from different government organizations. I’m not saying it is easy, since a lot of projects apply for funding and the budgets are limited, but at least we know that not only the business side of movie making counts, but also the importance of a subject and the vision with which it is treated. I started financing very slowly, first with artist grants from the Quebec and Canada councils for the arts. I needed the freedom to start shooting by myself, with Sandra alone, and to tackle the riskiest parts, the things that we couldn’t totally predict. Once that was done, I had something very strong in my hands and could go to other, more important players, for financing.

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Filmatic Festival Showcases the Art and Science of Cinemahttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/05/filmatic-festival-showcases-the-art-and-science-of-cinema/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/05/filmatic-festival-showcases-the-art-and-science-of-cinema/#comments Tue, 12 May 2015 21:40:52 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2730 The Filmatic Festival  is a forum for that film geek and science nerd in all of us. It describes itself as dedicated to “the art of science and cinema” and explores the convergence of science, technology, cinema, and the artistry that can develop from it. The festival ran from April 30–May 3 at University of... Read more »

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The Filmatic Festival  is a forum for that film geek and science nerd in all of us. It describes itself as dedicated to “the art of science and cinema” and explores the convergence of science, technology, cinema, and the artistry that can develop from it. The festival ran from April 30–May 3 at University of California, San Diego, in Atkinson Hall, a building that looks like it could be from the set of the Big Bang Theory, but is actually the headquarters of the Qualcomm Institute at the campus. Qualcomm is also a sponsor of the festival, as is Stromer and Arc Light Cinemas. ArtPower at UC San Diego runs Filmatic, along with other events throughout the year, such as music, dance, film, and exhibitions. Filmatic is the first of its kind in California and only in its second year, but it packs a punch. The festival showcased a variety films, digital games, music, interactive performances, workshops, and indoor and outdoor exhibitions, over the four days.

At first glance, one can easily find similarities between Filmatic and new media initiatives in other film festivals, such as Sundance’s New Frontier or Tribeca’s TFI Interactive. All are dedicated to exploring the future of film, as the film industry, and media in general, is rapidly changing.  They all look at how the art form is transforming traditional passive audiences into active participants in immersive and alternative film experiences. But what distinguishes Filmatic is the deep connection to science and technology over story, fostered by the UCSD and Qualcomm Institute foundation.

A key challenge of these types of festivals, particularly one as science-focused as Filmatic, is to make this highbrow–and very complex–science, not only engaging, but meaningful and relevant to audiences. While work steeped in storytelling has an easier time of this, Filmatic found the humanity in several ways, including programming artists talks before and/or after performances describing the process and background, using professors, artists, and graduate students to staff exhibits and mingle around, and providing written explanations of each event and exhibit.

Filmatic Festival

Of the plethora of things to do at Filmatic, the exhibits that were highlights for me are below.

Weaving Mercury

The keynote on Thurday night, entitled Weaving Mercury kicked off the festival with a talk from Alex McDowell, most known for his production design work on Minority Report and Fight Club, but also co-founder and creative director of the University of Southern California’s 5D Institute dedicated to the art and science of “world building” and former Visiting Artist at MIT’s Media Lab, and Sergei Gepshtein, a vision scientist at the Salk Institute. McDowell discussed storytelling as it relates to world building – “storytelling contextualizes the unknown,” he told the audience. And, Gepshtein described what affect the audiences interpretation of visuals has on a film.

San Diego Studies

San Diego Studies is a lovely series of four time lapse and manipulated videos to reveal hidden patterns and rhythms in the city of San Diego. Filmmaker Cy Kuckenbaker said of his inspiration for the series, “This city can sometimes have a plastic one-note reputation so that invites you to figure out what it really is.” The loops include airplanes leaving from the San Diego airport, mid-day highway traffic re-ordered by vehicle color, a skateboarder in a skateboard bowl, and, yes, surfing on the San Diego beaches. Each frame in the loop is so visually engaging that it could be and picture unto itself.

The traffic organized by color creates a streaming effect that sneaks up on you. Each piece has a unique rhythm, whether it is the lull of the traffic or airplanes or the swish of the skateboarder. In that piece, the same boarder is seen multiple times sliding up and down and back and forth the bowl, narrowly missing the other images of himself. At the end, they leave the park one by one. Leaving one lone skate boarder to wrap it up.

Filmatic displayed each across a 4×4 screen. Each includes the environmental sound and no music. The series is supported by San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts and it was shot on a mobile phone – a Nokia Lumia 390, and meticulously edited without any CG elements.

Memory Lines

Memory Lines  is a movie lovers delight and the work of The Independent’s own Neil Kendricks. The film, one of the more story-oriented pieces in the festival, was exhibited as an outdoor projection in the evenings, of a looped short, just over four minutes long. It is a dialogue between two characters made up entirely of famous movie lines. You know those lines–from “You talking to me?” to “There’s no place like home.” How about “I’ll have what she’s having.”? And many more classics. However, the film re-contextualizes each line because now that they fit together in a new story, each line takes on a different meaning than the one that we know. “Neil wanted a different intent than the original lines. We had to re-invent them to find the new story,” said Jade Martz, one of the actors in Memory Lines told me.

The two characters, a man and a woman, meet and sit in a movie theatre whispering back and forth. “We created the relationship between the two characters. We created a new sub-text for the lines and had to find the motivation for these lines within the characters and situation,” said actor Matt Hoyt.

Haunting music, composed by Mike Mare and Will Brooks accompanies the piece. “I didn’t want to do a parody,” said Neil Kendricks, the film’s director, writer, DP, and producer. And it doesn’t play as one, but rather an experimental film that explores the social context of film. “It’s about taking ownership of the movies that you love,” said Kendricks.

There is a simplicity and playfulness about Memory Lines. There is also a slight awkwardness to the movie-line dialoged, reflecting the very real awkwardness between two people meeting for the first time. The imagery is simple – a black and white image of just two people, formatted for and projected on a rock sculpture in the Atkinson Hall courtyard. The textured rock adds a unique depth and dimension to the image. The rock sculpture that this film plays on–the belly of Tim Hawkinson’s massive Bear sculpture, a playful part of UCSD’s Stuart Collection.

Kendricks said that he plans on creating version that can play as a stand alone short, sans bear sculpture. He is also shooting a documentary about comic book artists called, Comics are Everywhere, and a three-minute video-artwork, called Wounded Sky with artist Carlos Pelayo. Wounded Sky premiered Saturday, April 25 and will screen at the Bread & Salt Art Gallery in San Diego through the end of June 2015.

Slow Art & Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors

Filmatic included a, much needed, (in my opinion) series of events, which they categorized as “slow art.” Slow art, a term described by Arden Reed, Filmatic Co-Curator and Arthur M. Dole and Fanny M. Dole Professor of English at Pomona College, in an essay on the Filmatic site, is a nice counter to the high-tech aspects of the festival, but also a chance for the viewer to think about the our culture of speed and instant gratification driven by our high-tech and Internet-focused society. What are we missing out on by not truly taking in things?

One such piece of the slow art series, is Stainless, by Adam Magyar a Hungarian artist and photographer. In his work, Mgyar, films, in black and white, an ordinary people standing at the Alexanderplaz subway station in Berlin. Then he slows down the footage so much that the people seem frozen in time, until you catch a glimpse of a small child running in the background – so gracefully and purposefully – or a woman weaving through the crowds, her faster pace drawing your attention. The result is hauntingly beautiful and surprisingly riveting.

Filmatic presented Stainless and other slow art video events, as looped video in various theatres in Attkinson Hall and participants could wonder in and at sitting either standing on chairs or comfy beanbags. The slow art series included four films, one of which was Visitors, a film by experimental documentarian, Godfrey Reggio.

Reggio, a filmmaker with over 30 years of experience in this genre, whose last film Koyaanisqatsi was released in 1983. Like Koyaanisqatsi, Visitors is without a story, dialogue, or characters and uses visually arresting imagery. He spoke about Visitors, both before it and afterwards. He prefaced the unspoken film by saying “it’s not entertainment or informational. It’s a pictorial composition, like visual poetry. If you are looking for meaning, you might as well leave,” he told the audience. He said that in fact he expected that many of us would leave in the middle.

The film is a meditation of about the trancelike effects that technology has on human beings. “Technology is now the environment of life,” Reggio said. Meticulous black and white images slowed to 70 frames per second of people and children watching TV, playing video games, or watching sports fill the screen – almost from the point of view of the TV or machine itself. We see he micro-expressions of a child reacting to something on TV – she looks sad, angry, puzzled at times, and always deeply engrossed in her own world. So transfixed that it’s almost a confrontational stare into the camera.

The film is made up of just 74 total shots in the 87-minute film and all are stretched over time. Having spent 14 years as a monk, Reggio can tell us a thing or two about mediation and slowness. It took seven years to make. Every image was highly affected in post to make it look as natural as possible.


In only its second year, the Filmatic Festival is undoubtedly still finding its stride, as it explores the technology and science behind and related to film and new media. By focusing as aspects of storytelling rather than stories for the sake of it, the festival takes a different tact than the new media arms of other film festivals. This unique lens will make Filmatic stand out in years to come. As for the slow art theme, one cannot help but realize that slow and careful observations honors both the film subjects and the work itself. Something that is much needed in the way we all consume media.

 

 

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