Independent Magazine http://independent-magazine.org Obsessed with Independent Film Since 1978 Fri, 20 Feb 2015 03:40:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Sundance 2015 – New Frontier Kicks Reality Up a Notchhttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-new-frontier/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-new-frontier/#comments Tue, 10 Feb 2015 16:16:58 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2131 Park City, UTAH — Given the slow march of the film industry away from the in-person movie theatre experience, New Frontier rapidly becomes more important every year. New Frontier offers a reason to pause the movie you’re watching on Netflix, get out of your house, and come to the theatre — or, in this case, Sundance’s... Read more »

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Park City, UTAH — Given the slow march of the film industry away from the in-person movie theatre experience, New Frontier rapidly becomes more important every year. New Frontier offers a reason to pause the movie you’re watching on Netflix, get out of your house, and come to the theatre — or, in this case, Sundance’s showroom for virtual reality and other art installations.

New Frontier, established in 2007, is Sundance’s vision of the future of film. It exhibits the best of the convergence of film, art, media, live performance, music, and technology and takes the form of art installations, panel discussions, and films. This year New Frontier offered a plethora of virtual reality, gaming, choose your own adventure, and other types of interactive storytelling experiences with over 13 exhibits that spanned two floors of its location on Main Street in Park City. New Frontier was free and open to the public.

“The technology is constantly changing,” said filmmaker and Sundance staff member Daniel Foerste as he showed me the exhibits, most of which were the “Developers Kit” (DK) versions. This means that in spite of being the very latest work by the artist (and/or software developer), by the time it’s out on the floor, Foerste explained, the technology is “already out-dated.”

After covering New Frontier and other similar festival forays for years, noticeable at Sundance was the purposeful use of technology among the exhibits. From using virtual reality to be a child in a Syrian refugee camp to using an interactive movie to see how the same script can play out in very different ways, technology put the audience in the driver’s seat and personalized the diverse stories.

In Perspective: Chapter 1: The Party, the audience, or user, experiences a narrative story from the point of view of each character by wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles. A party fills with kegs, red cups, and college-age people acting like idiots.

In Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party, users can see both female and male perspectives of a college party. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

In Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party, users can see both female and male perspectives of a college party. This image is from the male’s POV. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

Users play the roles of an intoxicated young woman and man, hearing the same dialogue in the same situations, but from the other’s point of view. Perspective addresses the subject of date rape, a complex issue that has been receiving a lot of media traction, and one that poses a challenge for the writers in developing a meaningful and realistic script. The piece is a partnership of Rose Troche, writer/director/producer of films such as Go Fish and The Safety of Objects, and Morris May, a visual artist and founder of Specular Theory, a virtual reality production studio.

Putting on the VR goggles makes the work more than just a “he said, she said” — you see and feel what happens to your vision and balance when you have had too much to drink. I began by wearing the VR goggles of the young man. When I watched the scenario again with the VR goggles of the young woman, it took me a few minutes to realize who I had been before – a skinny, insecure kid. The VR demonstrated not only the damage that can be done in a situation like this, but also brought sober gravity to the term beer goggles.

Sundance festival-goers immerse themselves in new-media artist Oscar Raby's virtual-reality piece Assent. Photo by Neil Kendricks.

Sundance festival-goers immerse themselves in new-media artist Oscar Raby’s virtual-reality piece Assent. Photo by Neil Kendricks.

Assent, a beautifully composed and personal VR from Chilean artist Oscar Raby, immersed us into Raby’s father’s experience with the Chilean Army death squad (“Caravan of Death” campaign) following the coup of 1973. Raby constructed the narration to put users in the point of view of his father. Rather than calling up explicit war images in the VR goggles, Raby used art, sound, and the Chilean landscape to convey his story.

The sensitive work of VR “gets under your skin,” said Shari Frilot, co-director and senior programmer for New Frontier, over the din of New Frontier attendees. “As an exhibitor, we worked with the artists to develop a platform, [or] an exhibit space around the VR, so that there is a social environment for their work to reduce the [user’s] anxiety, and space to decompress afterwards. The platform provides cues related to what you will experience in the VR.” For Assent the exhibit space was the bedroom of a teenage boy, complete with dirty laundry lying around and punk rock posters. The space made it easy to imagine a teenage boy coming to grips with his father’s difficult past. The space around Perspective conveyed that of a college dorm or apartment: a bed, a tattered sofa, and an empty keg surround you as you don the goggles.

Project Syria is a VR piece by journalist Nonny de la Peña, who partnered with technologist Palmer Luckey on Hunger in Los Angeles at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Project Syria was commissioned by the World Economic Forum to focus on the experience of children in a refugee camp as they flee their homeland. Rather than sitting on a bed, a sofa, or a desk chair, as in the space of Assent or Perspective, here one enters a nondescript camp to experience the VR. I felt a sense of vulnerability when I put on the VR goggles, particularly while walking. When the reality of the Sundance exhibit space disappeared I could surrender to the virtual environment.

Birdly, by Max Rheiner, took the concept of trust further as it both visually and physically immersed the user. Birdly users lie in a flight simulator contraption. Their arms become wings and he or she plays the role of a bird flying over San Francisco. The contraption tilts and lifts you as a fan blows air at you. One fellow user described it as a “carnival ride for one person.” The VR-contraption combo generated the feeling of the height, speed, and sound of flying, as you sail by the buildings and billboards in San Francisco.

A Sundance festival-goer spreads her virtual wings with Birdly Max Rheiner's artfully customized flight simulator that creates the illusion that one is soaring over the cityscape of San Francisco.

A Sundance festival-goer spreads her virtual wings with Birdly — Max Rheiner’s artfully customized flight simulator that creates the illusion that one is soaring over the cityscape of San Francisco. Photo by Neil Kendricks.

New Frontier showed us that even non-VR works can muster reality. In Possibilia, an interactive narrative short film about a couple breaking up, users select different options, via thumbnail images at the bottom of an iPad screen, to create different ways that the break-up plays out, all with the same script. Possibilia stars Zoe Jarman (The Mindy Project) and the Alex Karpovsky (Girls) and was directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, known for their visual effects-driven work. If it seems like Karpovsky is everywhere on the indie scene, in Possibilia, he literally is. Multiple versions of the characters spin out as the user makes different choices and we see countless Alex Karpovsky’s and Zoe Jarmon’s in the same image. As the story unfolds, each one seamlessly steps back into its place, coming together into one character again in a beautiful and elegant motion. Possibilia premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

“There are so many possibilities to explore character and narrative in this format,” said  Rebecca Webb, New Frontier attendee and Film Curator of Filmatic Festival, a festival dedicated to exploring the future of film and the evolving ways in which we consume and create media. “With so much competing media, audiences expectations are high. Good storytelling is still critical, but audiences no longer want to be passive consumers.”

“I hope people get involved with immersive storytelling – and observe themselves reacting to it,” Frilot said. “This is not technology taking over, but [how with] artistic vision [and] technology, the storyteller is an expansion of humanity.” It was clear from the large crowds, yet again this year, that New Frontier had something important to add to that ever-changing exploration.

 

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Sundance 2015 – Underdogs On Paradehttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-feature-length/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-feature-length/#comments Mon, 09 Feb 2015 19:56:51 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2076 Park City, UTAH — Every year, the Sundance Film Festival commissions a series of new promotional videos to play before the main features to celebrate the festival’s volunteers and other unsung heroes of the popular, annual 10-day showcase to independent film that takes over Park City in late January. In this year’s amusing promo spot, an... Read more »

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Park City, UTAH — Every year, the Sundance Film Festival commissions a series of new promotional videos to play before the main features to celebrate the festival’s volunteers and other unsung heroes of the popular, annual 10-day showcase to independent film that takes over Park City in late January. In this year’s amusing promo spot, an excerpt of the theme song to 1983’s Flashdance boomed on the soundtrack with singer Irene Cara belting out the lyric, “Take your passion… and make it happen.”

Those seven words celebrating the spirit of independence, creativity, and the rebel spirit of following the beat of your own quirky, left-of-center drummer could have been the mantra of a number of feature-length films about underdogs, mavericks, and outsiders that hit screens with a sonic boom at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Throwing down a giddy stream of colorful expletives, director Bryan Buckley’s outrageous comedy The Bronze marks the arrival of a sleeper hit waiting to bolt out of the gate with a champion’s ability to win hearts and minds. Written by husband-and-wife screenwriters Winston and Melissa Rauch, this ruthless and dirty-mouthed, yet sweet-natured comedy might be this year’s Little Miss Sunshine and Napoleon Dynamite combined. This statement is no exaggeration. This small, funny movie is that good and ultimately its dark, in-your-face-humor acts as a Trojan horse to disguise a genuinely warm and affectionate love letter to small-town Americana that never feels forced or overly sentimental.

What ultimately holds this small gem together is the winning combination of the screenwriters’ darkly funny wit and storytelling chops and Melissa Rauch’s brave and punch-drunk, comedic performance. Rauch plays the irascible Hope Ann Greggory, a washed-up former Olympic gymnastic champion who is mired in an endless rut after suffering an injury that cut her career painfully short. Years after her moment in the spotlight has faded, Hope’s heartbreak has spilled over into a slow burning, barely concealed rage and misanthropy. And this bitterness will take down family, neighbors, and anyone who is foolish enough to get in her way to relive her glory days.

The film’s hilarious dialogue and situations are never mindlessly stupid or mean-spirited just to go for the easy laugh. Rather the screenwriters’ pitch-black humor is grounded in character-based storytelling making The Bronze a winner in my book.

The power of humor to illuminate and ultimately heal the deepest wounds also beats at the broken heart and unflagging spirit of perseverance in Sundance alum, director Bobcat Goldthwait’s first documentary Call Me Lucky, chronicling the life and times of comic-turned-social activist Barry Crimmins who a friend in the film describes as a combination of Noam Chomsky and Bluto from the old-school Popeye cartoons.

The aforementioned description turns out to be true. Throughout the film, Crimmins’ family and friends – including Goldthwait – share heartfelt and funny anecdotes about their close encounters with the flinty, socially conscious comedian who carved out a distinct niche for himself and his fellow comedians while working on the tightrope of standup comedy.

Comedian Barry Crimmins in the documentary  Call Me Lucky. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

Comedian Barry Crimmins in the documentary Call Me Lucky. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

The straight-forward, no-nonsense camerawork of Goldthwait’s cinematic portrait of this uncompromising humorist bears witness to what made Crimmins such a revolutionary and memorable comedic voice of reason in the wilderness of Boston’s then-burgeoning comedy scene during the 1980s.

What the viewers aren’t prepared for, however, is how the tone of Call Me Lucky shifts seamlessly into darker, more problematic territory as the doc’s engaging subject transforms from a cranky firecracker of biting wit into a crusader and advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse. Keeping the doc focused and on target, Goldthwait’s maturing directing skills deliver a quietly powerful sequence where Crimmins revisits the site of his greatest horrors. The scene takes your breath away with its less-is-more strategy resonating with viewers long after the film finishes.

During the post-screening Q&A, Goldthwait said, “I thought I was making a movie about my friend, but it’s much bigger than that.” And he is correct in the assessment of his first dive into the trenches of documentary filmmaking (he is a seasoned TV director). To avoid revealing any spoilers, the details of this film’s abrupt about-face are best discovered when audiences find this strangely poignant and thought-provoking, non-fiction character study, both on and off the film festival circuit.

Likewise, Mark Twain’s statement that “truth is stranger than fiction” also proves to be the case in directors Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s bizarre and quirky documentary Finders Keepers. This often-funny slice of Southern-fried Gothic chronicles the misadventures of amputee John Wood. He’s caught in a legal battle with bargain hunter and unrepentant camera chaser, Shannon Whisnant, over the ownership of his mummified, severed foot – the unknown bonus prize concealed in a used grill sold at a North Carolina auction.

Yes, you read that last sentence right. A severed foot is the lynchpin of this jaw-dropping doc that manages to dig deeper into the inner lives of Wood and Whisnant and their respective circles of family and friends, spinning a series of wild yarns around the confusion over who is the rightful owner of the severed limb in question. Like Call Me Lucky, the offbeat charm of Carberry and Tweel’s film is best discovered without too much advance knowledge.

Ironically, the most anticipated documentary of this year’s festival, Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck was also the most enigmatic nonfiction film. Despite its striking use of visually dynamic animation sequences, Morgen’s film doesn’t reveal anything new about Cobain’s deeply troubled life and meteoric rise as the frontman of the legendary grunge rock band Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain in the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

Kurt Cobain in the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

At one point, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic says on camera that Cobain “never had idle hands. He always had to express himself.” Morgen and his animators Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing appear to follow the late singer-songwriter’s example with their daring approach to visualizing the personal angst and moments of astute social observations expressed in the rough, handwritten scrawl found in Cobain’s diaries. In many ways, the animation coupled with the beautifully ugly lyrics and sledgehammer beats of Nirvana’s groundbreaking music are what ultimately make Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck worth watching for the worldwide legions of the band’s fans that will undoubtedly flock to see this 132-minute documentary bound for HBO.

Where the noisy, visual ambush of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck pummels the viewer into submission, Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s seven-years-in-the-making documentary Sembene! quietly sweeps you away with the subtlety and grace in its heartfelt portrait of the late filmmaker Ousmane Sembene who is known as the father of African cinema. Like many of the documentaries that screened at Sundance, the filmmakers strategically blend small bursts of animation and stills with talking heads and cinema verite-style footage of Gabjigo visiting Sembene’s home to flesh out the story of their elusive subject.

This lovely documentary portrait of the filmmaker-as-artist illustrates why Sembene’s highly charged, political cinema remains as vital today as it was when the self-taught writer-turned-film director first stormed onto the international film stage with such classics as his breakthrough film, 1966’s Black Girl and his last work, 2004’s Moolaade.

Ousame Sembene from the documentary Sembene! which played at Sundance 2015. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

Ousame Sembene from the documentary Sembene! which played at Sundance 2015. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

Gadjigo and Silverman’s film is the perfect introduction for the uninitiated by providing a real taste of the African-centered themes and nuanced visual textures captured in Sembene’s films. The documentary also makes it clear that the cinematic repertoire of Sembene, who passed away at the age of 84 in 2007, was at the forefront of an artistic mission to rescue African identity and culture.

At an early-morning screening, Gadjigo gave a short, impromptu crash course in African culture while introducing the 88-minute documentary to the audience. His elegant words articulated the central role of storytelling in his homeland of Senegal, and how films can play a vital role in the process of recovering African stories from oblivion – the ultimate fallout of colonialism.

Maye [a word from Wolog, a native language of Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania] means a gift,” said Gadjigo who was a personal friend of Sembene and teaches African literature and French at Mount Holyoke College. “To tell a story is to share it with humanity. … [The film] is a labor of love and we poured our hearts into it. And it is a gift to you.”

For this particular veteran festivalgoer and filmmaker, one would be hard pressed to find a more resonate, beautiful and thought-provoking maye at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival than Sembene!

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Sundance 2015 – Robert Redford + George Lucas = Inspirationhttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-robert-redford-george-lucas/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-robert-redford-george-lucas/#comments Mon, 09 Feb 2015 14:46:01 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2085 Park City, UTAH — One of the hottest tickets at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival wasn’t on any of the multiple screens peppered throughout the historic, mining town-turned-Mecca for independent filmmakers and committed cinephiles alike. Instead, a capacity audience of festival-goers filled the 285-seat Egyptian Theatre for January 29th’s Power of Story: Visions of Independence... Read more »

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Park City, UTAH — One of the hottest tickets at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival wasn’t on any of the multiple screens peppered throughout the historic, mining town-turned-Mecca for independent filmmakers and committed cinephiles alike. Instead, a capacity audience of festival-goers filled the 285-seat Egyptian Theatre for January 29th’s Power of Story: Visions of Independence panel to hear two titans of contemporary cinema, George Lucas and Robert Redford, share a verbal memory album of candid thoughts, colorful anecdotes, and informed opinions about the state of film and their respective roles in shaping the destiny of the still evolving medium.

As these cinematic giants shared the spotlight, film critic Leonard Maltin moderated the roughly 90-minute conversation for an attentive audience eager to learn about these multi-disciplinary artists whose enormous success in the mainstream hasn’t diminished their desire to stay fiercely independent. “It [being independent] forces you to be resourceful and creative,” said Redford.

At first glance, the unlikely pairing of Lucas and Redford might appear like the mismatched union of opposites. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, these iconic filmmakers have more in common than their shared status as household names. For instance, both artists spoke of their mutual love for drawing as a conduit for creative expression and how their passion for the art-making process eventually segued into the realm of independent film.

“When I was a kid, I drew for companionship,” Redford said. “My parents couldn’t afford a baby sitter. So if they had to go somewhere to play cards with somebody, they’d take me along. And because I started drawing at four or five, because that obviously was something that I was comfortable with and interested in, they’d give me paper and pencil and they’d let me go off and draw. In my head, I assumed I wanted to be an artist.”

The turning point in his life stretches back to one day when he was secretly drawing under his desk as a student in grammar school in Los Angeles. The moment of truth arrived while Redford was absorbed in drawing a sketch depicting a posse of cowboys and Indians going over a cliff beneath a sky filled with B-51 bombers. Then, something happened that changed his life forever.

“You have these moments, one or two or, maybe, three [moments] where something happens that changes the direction of where you are going,” Redford said. “It happened to me in the third grade. I was not interested in what the teacher was saying. I wasn’t interested in what the class was about. To me, it was someone standing and talking, and so I wasn’t interested. So what I did was draw under the table. I would draw things that interested me and that kept me going. But the problem was I wasn’t paying attention and the teacher caught me. And she decided that she was going to humiliate me.”

According to Redford, the teacher asked him to come to the head of class and bring whatever was more important than the day’s lesson. He described taking his humble sketch and being asked to explain the images to the class.

To his surprise, his teacher did something amazing. Rather than chastise the budding artist, the teacher made a deal with him that once a week for 15 minutes she would put some newsprint on an easel and he could draw a story for the class. In exchange, he had to pay attention. His detailed description of this pivotal moment that launched him on his path suggests that the vivid memory remains fresh for the 78-year-old actor-filmmaker. A storyteller was born.

“Had she had gone the other way considering the shape that I was in at that time in my life,” Redford said, “I don’t know what would have happened.”

Redford’s early passion for drawing wasn’t exactly embraced by his family. The Oscar-winning director of 1980’s Ordinary People recalled his grandfather once telling him, ‘You can’t eat art.’ However, Redford stuck to his guns and continued to draw.

From that humble origin, Redford’s love for drawing blossomed into an all-consuming desire for creative expression by any means necessary. This driving need eventually led to him to taking acting classes where he discovered the pleasures of performance.

Likewise, Lucas also found himself drawn to visual art as a youth. The 70-year-old filmmaker never thought of pursuing filmmaking as a career until much later as an undergraduate student studying at University of Southern California during the 1960s.

“I liked art, I liked drawing,” said Lucas who sold his empire of Lucasfilm for a record $4.5 billion to Disney last year, continuing, “I liked photography. It was just by happenchance that I ended up with a good friend of mine who was going to USC’s business school, talking me [into going] to USC. He said, ‘They’ve got a photography school, so why don’t you go there. You like photography.’ I wanted to go to Art Center [of Pasadena], but my father refused to let me go. He said, ‘If you want to, pay for it yourself.’ But at that point Art Center was one of the most expensive universities in the country.”

“So I said okay and I got there and said, ‘This isn’t photography. It’s cinematography. And it’s not really cinematography; it’s movies. It’s cinema! I can’t imagine that they have a course at a university where you learn how to make movies.’ And it was there that I fell in love with movies. It wasn’t until I was 20 years old. Before that I was just a dumb kid who liked cars.”

As a visual artist and filmmaker sitting in the audience, listening to these giants of the art form share details from the overlapping trajectories of their respective careers was an inspiring revelation fueled by a sense of recognition. One could relate to what they were saying.

Although Lucas will always be best known for creating the hugely popular and wildly successful Star Wars saga and equally iconic Indiana Jones films, the Modesto-born filmmaker’s first love remains grounded in experimental films. As a young filmmaker, Lucas devoured the avant garde works by the late Bruce Conner, among others.

“I started out doing artsy films,” Lucas said, “then I went and did American Graffiti. And I really had no interest in science fiction at all. There’s this whole thing about how I spent my whole life drawing little space soldiers. I never did that. I spent my whole life drawing cars and I was completely obsessed with cars. And even when I was in film school, I was obsessed with experimental films, mostly the kind that I saw in San Francisco with Bruce Conner… and those kinds of guys. So I wasn’t into dramatic filmmaking at all.”

After the studios and moviegoers alike failed to comprehend the cold, dystopian concepts of Lucas’ feature-length film debut, 1971’s THX-1138, his friend, writer-director Francis Ford Coppola dared the self-described experimental filmmaker to ditch cinematic abstractions and write a comedy that audiences could connect with.

Lucas took Coppola’s sage-like advice and wrote and directed 1973’s American Graffiti, which proved to be a box-office success. Four years later, the filmmaker’s love of experimental cinema got permanently sidetracked when his 1977 blockbuster classic, Star Wars changed film history forever.

During the candid, three-way conversation, Lucas explained the mutual distrust of the studio system that he shared with Coppola, leading them to establish their home base in the Bay Area, far away from Hollywood’s Powers That Be.

“You can make movies anywhere in the world,” Lucas said. “You don’t have to go to Hollywood. …I grew up in the era of don’t trust anyone over 30 and I still feel that way.”

By asserting their independence, both Lucas and Redford managed to take the reins of their own careers, which led to major achievements. Lucas also acknowledged that a large part of his astronomical success was built on merchandising and the sequel rights to Star Wars. “All of the money is in action figures,” said Lucas who was paid $125,000 to write and direct Star Wars.

Without notes or a visible agenda, Maltin kept his own, always steering the three-way conversation back to the importance of story. Redford echoed this sentiment when he said, “story comes first.” Elaborating on this point, Redford, the founder and director of the Sundance Institute, said he looks for three things before he commits to a project: What’s the story? Who are the characters? What is the emotion? If he can’t answer these questions, there isn’t a movie in the material.

As a self-described contrarian, Lucas said, all art comes down to engaging an audience whether one is creating a movie or losing one’s self in the solitary act of drawing and painting. Lucas explained, “Don’t get hung up on art. You’re an entertainer.”

When asked about the major lesson that he could share with the audience, Redford offered a clear and succinct answer that perfectly summed up the crisscrossing themes of the evening’s often riveting talk.

“Pay attention,” Redford said, “And listen.”

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Sundance 2015 – Shorts That Pack a Punchhttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-shorts/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-shorts/#comments Fri, 06 Feb 2015 14:46:26 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2034 Park City, UTAH — “With short films, you have to show your entire world in a split second,” said producer Rasmus Kastberg after the screening of his animated short Tupilaq. After seeing several shorts, below are the films that resonated with me. This year’s program consisted of 60 films, selected from 8,061 submissions, screened in six separate... Read more »

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Park City, UTAH — “With short films, you have to show your entire world in a split second,” said producer Rasmus Kastberg after the screening of his animated short Tupilaq. After seeing several shorts, below are the films that resonated with me.

This year’s program consisted of 60 films, selected from 8,061 submissions, screened in six separate series throughout the festival, including a series of animated films. The Sundance Institute supports short format filmmaking and new talent year-round, with daylong workshops and a traveling program of short films. YouTube presented the program, which included the following films, among many others.

Tupaliq

It’s a sad world that Danish writer/animator Jakob Maqe shows us in six beautifully and meticulously designed minutes. The personal story depicts the life of a native man from Greenland living in Denmark – all without dialogue. The expressive drawings and music reveal his dreams, his past, and his vices. And questions what it means to integrate in to a society. Tupaliq played in the Animation Spotlight.

Stop

The world in Stop, a short from writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green, is one of both promise and mistrust. Xavier is a high school senior in Brooklyn and in seconds we learn that he plays baseball, is going to the prom, and is applying to colleges. We see the mistrust in his world of stop and frisk as he is stopped, likely racially motivated, on his way home.

In Stop, a young man's future is put to the test when he is stopped by the police on his way home. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

In Stop, a young man’s future is put to the test when he is stopped by the police on his way home. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

Green reveals the tension between Xavier’s uncomfortable humiliation and warped politeness to and from the police officers. The experience sticks with Xavier and this film sticks with us. The film packs a lot in nine minutes with its timely topic and subtle hand.

Green developed Stop for his thesis project at NYU. “Screening my film at Sundance is like being Charlie when he finds the golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory,” he said. The Independent profiled his brother, filmmaker Rashaad Green in 10 to Watch in 2011. The two are partners in their production company, Green Brothers Films, which produced the film. Conde Nast picked up the film, in addition to two other shorts from the festival, as part of a new VOD initiative, called The Scene.

Actresses

Actress Taylor Hess with Writer/Director Jeremy Hersh, from the short Actresses, on Main Street in Park City.

Actress Taylor Hess with Writer/Director Jeremy Hersh, from the short Actresses, on Main Street in Park City.

Frame one of Actresses is a close-up of 23-year-old Sara’s smiling profile as she watches a play; we are immediately brought into her world of theatre. Sara aspires to be actress, but her insecurities blind her, hinder her new life and career in NYC, and threaten her relationships. In 12 minutes writer/director Jeremy Hersh creates and crashes Sara’s new relationship with another actress. Hersh has screened his shorts at festivals around the US, including SXSW, The New Orleans Film Festival, Outfest, and BFI Flare. To learn more about this short, go to: http://actressestheshort.com.

Pop-up Porno

The rise of Vine, Twitter, and Snapchat proves that shorter can pack a punch – but only when done well. And Pop-up Porno – three hilarious mini-shorts interspersed within Short Program 5 – did just that. Writer/director Stephen Dunn, from Canada, goes old-school by using an artfully designed and intricately crafted pop-up books. Only these are adult-only. Each book is manipulated for the camera while a narrator tells a confessional story.

In Pop-up Porno: f4m, a breast cancer survival tries to reclaim her sexuality. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

In Pop-up Porno: f4m, a breast cancer survival tries to reclaim her sexuality. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

We are brought into a zany world of online dating and hook-ups. In each story, all three minutes long, the main character narrates his or her questionable choices – leading us to wonder what the rules of online dating really are.

In the first, a lonely business traveler to NYC participates in a heated online chat that leads to his worst nightmare. The second, the most poignant in the series, uses humor as a path to a more serious discussion, as a woman comes to terms with how her breast cancer affects her love life. The third uses gross-out humor to question the decision to bring a date home for the first time. All three evoked loud laughs and responses from the audience. The combination of a tightly knit story and complex movable drawings – which undoubtedly took many months to develop – is top notch. Pop-up Porno proves there’s always time for a quickie.

 

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Sundance 2015 – Nasty Baby is Fun But Perplexinghttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-nasty-baby/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-nasty-baby/#comments Thu, 05 Feb 2015 19:53:25 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2015 Park City, UTAH – Nasty Baby. If the title sounds like a strange dichotomy, it should. It’s also representative of the film as a whole. Nasty Baby stars Sebastian Silva, Kristen Wiig, and Tunde Abebimpe. It was featured in the NEXT program, a festival category established in 2010 to showcase innovative forward-thinking storytelling. Silva is the writer/director and Nasty Baby is his... Read more »

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Park City, UTAH – Nasty Baby. If the title sounds like a strange dichotomy, it should. It’s also representative of the film as a whole. Nasty Baby stars Sebastian Silva, Kristen Wiig, and Tunde Abebimpe. It was featured in the NEXT program, a festival category established in 2010 to showcase innovative forward-thinking storytelling. Silva is the writer/director and Nasty Baby is his fifth Sundance premiere.

Part one of this film’s dichotomy is the baby. Babies are Brooklyn artist Freddy’s (Silva) latest project–in more ways than one. Freddy and his boyfriend, Mo (Abebimpe) are planning to have one, in vitro, with Freddy’s best friend Polly (Wiig). They lead modern, bohemian, lives in Brooklyn where family is what you make of it and the world is your oyster. They support each other and their neighbors as if they were extended family, including their older neighbor, Richard (Mark Margolis).

Babies are also a key feature of Freddy’s upcoming art installation (also entitled “Nasty Baby”), performance art, if it can be called that, where Freddy imitates a baby. He recruits his family of three to contribute and Photoshops his face on the body of a baby.

Freddy’s literal infantilizing–as well as Polly’s and Mo’s (in full beard)–left the audience roaring. Their display emphasized the immature actions of this trio. Silva masterfully imbues Freddy with self-absorption as he bounces from one idea to the next and escalates situations, rather than taking responsibility for his actions and decisions. Wiig is hilarious as best friend and neighbor, in a role that seems natural for her to play. The first part of this dichotomy is like a fantasy you don’t want to end.

Then the direction and mood of the film abruptly change to something darker and more sinister, related to the trio’s interaction with a mentally ill man, called The Bishop, who lives down the street. Freddy’s nature of careening through life takes on a dangerous form. His actions implicate every one he loves and they become willing participants. The same rooms where we had seen so much love and laughter are now filled with horror, as the same song plays in the background.

“This is almost another movie,” the woman next to me whispered. This second part puts the nasty in Nasty Baby, leaving the audience that I was with perplexed. There was no Q&A after the screening to gain the clarity, or empathy, that a filmmaker’s comments can often provide.

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Sundance 2015 – And the Winners Arehttp://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-winners/ http://independent-magazine.org/2015/02/sundance-2015-winners/#comments Tue, 03 Feb 2015 20:05:41 +0000 http://independent-magazine.org/?p=2011 Park City, UTAH — The Sundance Film Festival announced its 2015 feature film awards winners on Saturday, February 1st, in a gala affair hosted by comedian Tig Notaro. The atmosphere was festive. Film teams attended and cheered for their films if they were called. Filmmakers seemed relaxed, in contrast to their more nervous composure at the festival screenings. (Earlier in the week, Notaro was featured... Read more »

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Park City, UTAH — The Sundance Film Festival announced its 2015 feature film awards winners on Saturday, February 1st, in a gala affair hosted by comedian Tig Notaro. The atmosphere was festive. Film teams attended and cheered for their films if they were called. Filmmakers seemed relaxed, in contrast to their more nervous composure at the festival screenings. (Earlier in the week, Notaro was featured in a documentary, aptly named Tig, about her life as a stand-up comedian, coping with a breast cancer diagnosis, and the unexpected death of her mother.)

This year’s festival, which ran  from January 22nd to February 1st, presented 123 features and 60 shorts selected from 12,166 submissions. So if getting in was hard, then clearly winning was even more difficult.

The US Grand Jury prize for Documentary went to The Wolfpack, directed by Crystal Moselle, about a family of six brothers, locked away from the outside world in a Manhattan housing project, whose detailed re-creation of movies gave them an outlet. The brothers attended many of the screenings. “I stalked theses boys to make this movie happen,” confessed Moselle in her acceptance speech. Here she is in festival mode:

The US Grand Jury prize for Dramatic was awarded to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. The film takes place during the senior year of a boy, Greg, whose plans to coast through to graduation get derailed when his mother forces him to befriend a classmate with leukemia, Rachel. In the Q&A after one of the screenings the director described how he set up his shots to chronicle the friendship of Greg and Rachel in order to reflect an anti-romance. The film also won an Audience Award.

The festival included a number of new awards this year in which jurors recognized an increased number of special jury prizes that highlighted excellence in the craft of filmmaking. New awards included The US Documentary Special Jury Award for Social Impact was presented to director Marc Silver for his documentary 3½ Minutes about the shooting death of unarmed, 17-year-old Jordan Davis, on November 23, 2012 (Black Friday), at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. The film explores the trial, racial biases, and the complications that Stand Your Ground laws present to juries in cases such as the one in Jacksonville. Upon accepting the award at the ceremony, the team called the film “a movement.” Jordan Davis’ parents were present at most of the screenings of the film.

Western took home the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking. The film, by directing brothers Bill Ross and Turner Ross, depicts life in Eagle Pass, Texas, a town at the US-Mexico border, along the Rio Grande. The directors capture the challenges residents face as the town addresses issues of immigration, international trade, and violence. It’s an intimate portrait of families and neighbors, and a way of life.

Award winner "Advantageous." Still courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Award winner “Advantageous,” directed by Jennifer Phang. Still courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision was awarded to Advantageous. Jennifer Phang directed and co-wrote the film with Jacqueline Kim, who also plays the film’s lead role. This sci-fi, nihilistic tale is set in the future where lead character Gwen sacrifices all to protect her daughter, Jules. The film highlights the future of motherhood, female aging, women in the workplace, and ultimately calls into question concerns about individual identity subsumed to technology and big brother. In her acceptance speech, Phang thanked her own mother for the sacrifices that she made. This is Phang’s second film to play at the festival. She is currently a Filmmaker360 FilmHouse flex-use resident. Both Advantageous and Western are supported by the San Francisco Film Society.

The short film awards were announced earlier in the week.

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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 DEADLINE EXTENDED to February 18, 2015! 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... Read more »

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DEADLINE EXTENDED to February 18, 2015!

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 will be accepted until February 18, 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 18, 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.

Nominating Jury

Chico Colvard, filmmaker and UMass Boston Film Series curator

Chico Colvard is a filmmaker, lecturer, and the Founding Film Series Curator at the University of Massachusetts Boston. In 2012, he received the Distinguished Faculty Award for Academic Leadership and Outstanding Service to the Students at UMass Boston. His award-winning documentary, Family Affair, premiered at Sundance and has broadcast on the Oprah Winfrey Network: OWN and other cable channels around the world. He is a former Sundance Creative Producing Fellow, Flaherty Fellow, Firelight Media Producing Fellow, and Filmmaker-in-Residence at WGBH. He has received funding from the Ford Foundation, LEF Moving Image Fund, Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media, and Vital Projects Fund. He is a former DocYard moderator, a frequent guest speaker at colleges and universities, film festival panelist, and former juror at Full Frame, Silverdocs, Woods Hole and IFFBoston. His new film, Black Memorabilia, examines the subculture around the collectibles and antiques that serve as reminders of America’s troubled racial past and present.

Kelly Leow, deputy editor for MovieMaker Magazine

Kelly Leow is the Deputy Editor of MovieMaker Magazine, the 22-year-old independent film publication based in Santa Monica, California. Born and raised in Singapore, she graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in English, and has remained in Los Angeles ever since. In her time at MovieMaker, Kelly has done jury duty (festival, that is) in New Orleans, journeyed to Malaysia to attend screenings of censored cinema, and eaten porridge in Park City with Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Gold. She aims to make independent filmmaking more rewarding (though not easier—where’s the fun in that) one article at a time.

Elizabeth Mims, senior film programmer for Austin Film Festival

Elizabeth Mims grew up in Austin, Texas and graduated with a BFA from CalArts. Her 2012 film Only The Young was theatrically released by Oscilloscope and won numerous awards including the Silverdoc’s Sterling Silver Award for best US documentary, American Film Institute Audience Award, and was nominated for a Spirit Award. She has worked with Austin Film Festival previously as the Director of the Young Filmmakers Program.

Kamal Sinclair, senior manager for New Frontier Story Lab, Sundance Institute

Kamal Sinclair is a transmedia producer, theatrical director, community arts leader and multi-disciplinary artist. She serves as the Senior Manager of the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Storylab, which supports artists working at the convergence of film, art, media and technology; and, as artist and producer on the Question Bridge: Black Males collaborative transmedia art project. In 2012, she worked at 42 Entertainment on projects such as Legends of Alcatraz and Random Acts of Fusion. Her professional career began as a cast member of the Off-Broadway hit STOMP and founding artistic director of Universal Arts. As a consultant she worked on projects for the Woodruff Arts Center, Fractured Atlas, Hank Willis Thomas Studios, the National Black Arts Festival and other arts entities that led to major funding for arts and arts education initiatives, the production of major audience engagement events, strategic planning for art programs and business training platforms for artists and arts managers. She graduated with her BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and her MBA from Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business.

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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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