Interview: Pablo Aravena, Director NEXT: A PRIMER ON URBAN PAINTING
Five years in the making, first-time director Pablo Aravena’s NEXT: A Primer on Urban Painting, made its US premiere at the International AFI Film Festival. As part of the International Documentary Competition, this ambitious, free-wheeling film rockets the audience around the globe, talking to the pioneers and artists behind the graffiti/street art movement such as Lee Quionones, Heavyweight, Delta, Banksy, Kami and Sasu, Os Gerneos and Swoon, as they describe what it means to create graffiti.
SIM: Tell me about your background. Was film something you always thought of pursuing?
PA: I’m originally from Santiago de Chile. I grew up there until I
was twelve years old and then my parents decided to emigrate to Canada.
It was the Pinochet dictatorship at the time so it was kind of rough.
We moved to Toronto and I did high school there and then I moved to
Montreal for university. I went to Concordia University for film
school. Basically, I guess I’m a North American Chilean, a guy
with multiple identities and I speak a few languages now. I guess I
consider myself a citizen of the world.
In terms of what drew me to film, you know Chile is a country
of authors. I kind of had this dream of writing books. I like the idea
of the public intellectual, a strong point of view, talking about the
society of which you’re a part, its problems. It’s a very
Latin American model. You have [Mario] Vargas Llosa and [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez; I really
admire those guys. I read a lot of books. I was working in a movie
theatre, a part-time job when I was in high school. I started as a
candy boy and then became an usher at the Cineplex Odeon in
Toronto—that’s the theatre that does the International
Toronto Film Festival every year and I worked for four or five years so
I got to meet a lot of directors and see films outside the big
I realized, too, that it was a job—they didn’t just get
made by themselves. It was telling stories, which is what I ultimately
wanted to do. It’s where I got inspired to be a filmmaker. Also,
I always grew up with film. I have my own Cinema Paradiso story. When I
was a little kid growing up by the beach in Chile, we had this theatre
and you paid a quarter and got to watch three movies. We’d watch
a [Pier Paolo] Pasolini back to back with Porky’s back to back with some Chuck
Norris movie, so I always watched a lot of films. I guess it was
something I fell into because I had a love for it by watching tons of
SIM: What kinds of influences did you have growing up?
PA: In film school, obviously I educated myself and kind of
gravitated towards filmmakers like Scorsese or Godard, Wong Kar-Wai
later, documentarians like [Patricio] Guzman or Fernando Solanas. Basically, I
chose the courses that I liked and I wrote about the directors that I
liked and the ones who influenced my style, like Mike Leigh, guys like
that. I guess the people who put the characters and the drama first and
films that have a social edge to them—that’s always been
important to me. I grew up being concerned about social and political
issues, north/south issues, as well. Having grown up in South America
and then moving to North America, I kind of have a foot in both worlds
and I think I can communicate both those realities.
The other major influence was growing up with hip-hop culture.
It’s part of what gave me my identity as an immigrant. I really
wanted to talk about all those things—hip-hop culture, urban
culture, multi-cultural free space, this DIY way of creating your own
culture. I identified with all these people dealing with marginalized
realities and could identify with that. This is what I want to talk
about in my work.
SIM: Did you plan for your first film to be a
documentary project? Tell me about the genesis of this film—why a
doc instead of a feature?
PA: I’m actually a fiction guy. I didn’t really study
documentary in school. I watched a few here and there. I was trying to
do some narrative stuff. I wrote a script about graffiti. It became a
bit of an obsession and it was something with which I was well
versed… Growing up with hip-hop, I was more into the music, but
with the graffiti, that kind of got in my head and I met some artists
too that I became friends with and ended up hanging out with them.
Initially, I was going to make a film on them and the burgeoning
graffiti scene. This was in the late ‘90s, this whole kind of
renaissance was just starting. Then I started seeing some more and
doing research and then the light bulb for the film came to me.
Let’s show it as a world culture. I’d heard and seen stuff
in magazines from France, Japan, from Germany. I thought to myself,
“Wow, I want to see how this culture, especially on the visual
side, has been adapted from what came out of New York and how
they’ve made it their own.” That was the starting point.
From there, I made a list of cities that I wanted to catalogue
for the film because of the work. It wasn’t just the worldwide
thing, but also the evolution of the form… The work I’m
talking about specifically transcended the tagging [initials, a name,
an alias that is an artist’s "street" signature]… That’s
where the concept of “Next” came from, you know, how this
art had evolved and become more sophisticated. It’s 40 years old
now so it’s evolved, it changes, it mutates and it grows up.
That’s what I wanted to show in the film—to
legitimize and show a regular audience, not just the graffiti kids,
that it is a serious art form, it’s the art of now. This form
will be recognized in 50 years, the abstract expressionism of the turn
of the 21st century, and it really reflects the times… because
we’re living in the age of hyper-capitalism. These artists use
the art form where strategies of corporations are emulated in terms of
creating logos, branding. Except in branding themselves as artists,
they’re kind of subverting that language.
If you look at the people that are doing it, it’s really
the first generation that’s grown up with mass media so
it’s natural that they’re going to express themselves in
that way. I think it’s also a continuation of those ideas
generated from Pop Art in the '70s and '80s. It’s
really a combination of all that. I’ve become very passionate
about it in the process of making the film and I really want to push
the art form and show people. Again, it’s a way of legitimizing
this urban culture. So many times it gets denigrated. I see
similarities to the period in the ‘50s with the Beatniks and the
jazz musicians, it’s the same thing for me. I think it will be
remembered. I wanted to really capture the moment. Imagine hanging out
with the expressionists at the cafes. I’m getting them when
they’re young and really just beginning to develop their craft
and their style.
SIM: What were some of the biggest challenges? Where
did you get funding for this? Was it self-funded for a while as you
gathered your footage and just started shooting in the hopes that money
to finish it would come through? Was there a formal fund raising plan, a
PA: Basically, I just started shooting, a combination of DV cam, Super
16mm, some 35mm, it’s really like a collage. It was a film about
art so I wanted to play with textures. I’d seen Julian the Donkey
Boy and loved his [director, Harmony Korine’s] whole use of video texture
because, you know, in the last year, video has really come to the
forefront. When it first came out, people would complain or get snooty
about it, “Well, it’s not film.” My response is that
I’m not trying to make it look like film. I like the fact that
it’s got this pixel texture, let’s use it for that.
It’s a new medium, like switching from oils to acrylic, paintings
with texture—35 grain, cut with a video grain, cut with a Super-8
grain, it’s going to give it a certain feeling.
But yeah, the hardest thing was getting the money. In Canada,
we have arts funding, Telefilm, a lot of provincial institutions, but
part of it was that I had some Canadian content, but it wasn’t
all Canadian, so I had issues with that. The other thing was that they
just didn’t get it. Graffiti? Vandalism? Art for kids? I had the
luck of getting some grants from the Quebec Arts Council, that was my
seed money. For the first three shoots, I borrowed equipment, I got
tickets using air miles. The first shoot I shot, the second shoot, I
got a cameraman, the third shoot, a sound guy came on board. I always
wanted to do it at a high level, but I also just really wanted to get
the ball rolling.
Once that happened, I cut a demo out of the first three shoots
and that’s how I got the grant money. I didn’t want to
wait—this stuff was timely, coming to the forefront, really
blowing up and I didn’t want to miss the moment and I had the
access. Basically, with that seed money, I got some more grants from
other agencies, an inter-cultural agency out of Quebec that would give
me plane tickets, the crew worked for very little pay, sometimes just a
per diem or for the experience, guys I went to school with so I had
relationships there. We were all coming up, all trying to make our
names as DPs, sound men, editors, directors, so it was a nice energy.
I met Agnes B. [French clothing designer and patroness of the arts] on
my third shoot. I interviewed her for the film, as a matter of fact.
She never made it to the final cut but her company was really
interested in the concept of the film and so we stayed in touch. I sent
them the demo and they helped me with a little bit of money to go shoot
in London. Then, I got the grant money from Quebec Arts Council and
went to Brazil, and when I got yet another grant, I used that money to
go to Europe. One of the stops in Europe was Paris and that’s
when I really got it locked down with her and she jumped on board as a
co-producer. Once she came on board, I was really able to finish the
vision that I had because I really wanted to get the worldwide thing.
Brazil is a third-world country, Japan is an Asian country, and then
the major cities in Western Europe and North America—that’s
what I wanted to do, that was in my vision. I had chosen those cities
because of their trajectory in graffiti, their history and also the
artists doing work in those places. So, with her support, I was able to
finish the shoots. (Japan was a very expensive place to shoot!) And do
all the post—and do everything at a decent level. I wanted to
really make a film that was professional because I wanted to get it
into the top festivals, sell it, get it out there. I had these amazing
artists giving me their time and I wanted to represent that at a high
level, not a handi-cam, kind of dirty video. I was very happy that that
was the way it worked and the freedom Agnes B.’s support gave me.
SIM: Are you happy with the end product? Did you have any idea when you started that it would take you five years?
PA: Yeah, it took a while but I was kind of possessed. I like to
say it was my personal jihad. I was working in the industry for six
years, assistant this, assistant that, editor, AD, it was great
experience, you know? But I kind of reached that point where I said to
myself, “I better make a film now, because that’s why I got
into this line of work in the first place, or I better change career
paths.” I wanted to express something. And I knew that I had a
project that was different about an art movement that was blowing
I was very passionate and adamant about it. It was very
handmade. I just didn’t want to let it go until I completed the
vision. I didn’t realize it would take me five years, I thought
it would be two or three, but in the end I was happy that it took that
long because I was really able to think it through and let this idea
sink in and, you know, it was a process film. I learned a lot about
what it was while I was making it and talking to different people.
I think that adds something to the project because the culture
itself is still very much a street culture, it’s not so much in
the world of academe just yet. There are some books, there are some
academics talking about it, but it’s not really accessible to the
average person. I wanted to keep that flavor in the film so it was an
interesting process for me, the whole learning as I went—there
was always a certain freshness, a feeling of discovery. The film is a
travelogue, my travelogue, and the audience can hopefully experience my
enthusiasm and everything I discovered about it when I was seeing it
and shooting it for the first time.
SIM: What’s the biggest lesson you learned as a filmmaker?
PA: Producing. Out of necessity, of course. But now, I like to do
it! I enjoy it. I enjoy all the schmoozing and hustling for
money.I’m not intimidated at all by all these situations I run
into. Even at first, I’d felt like I’d been doing it for a
while. I didn’t feel out of my element at all. I like the
control, too. I like to make the calls, take care of the money-end,
being involved in the sales, all that stuff. It’s my baby, you
know? For the kinds of films I want to make, you know I look to the
guys like Jim Jarmusch or John Sayles—they always have a foot in
the producing end and that’s why they always make the movies they
want to make.
SIM: What’s next for the film—festivals, distribution deals, etc.?
PA: I’m working the distribution side. We’ve been on
the festival circuit for a year now. AFI is our seventeenth festival.
In thinking about festival strategy, I wanted to get into Sundance,
Toronto, Rotterdam. We got Rotterdam and I was very happy about
that—it was probably the best festival in which to premiere the
film. Holland has a long history with graffiti. They were probably
among one of the first countries to start collecting and taking this
art form seriously. It’s always like that with American culture.
Like with jazz music—these musicians had to go play in Europe for
appreciation and recognition. James Baldwin, all these guys went to
Europe. It’s the same thing with graffiti. And then it comes
back. “Oh, the French think it’s good, it must be worth
taking a look.” So Holland has that reputation, pretty
open-minded and the festival itself was very well-organized, very
focused on the filmmakers and for me, as a first-time director, it was
great—three or four screenings, lots of good Q&As, some of
the artists came out, we did an event there. Melbourne was great, Rio
was great, we showed in London not too long ago at Raindance, Zurich
International, Documenta Madrid was great, we won a prize there for an
Audience Award, in Canada we showed in Nouveau Cinema, in Halifax we
won the Best Documentary Award there in their youth festival. We were
awarded by a jury of young people, 18-year-olds. So that means that
we’re talking to the kids.
I think that’s one of the things we did with the
editing, as well, really taking this idea of sampling into the editing.
A lot of people want the documentary form to be this kind of real
fiction, to have a narrative arc. I was trying to throw all that out
the window. I think the kids understand things if you give them
samples, it’s the way they’re consuming culture right now.
People over a certain age need to read the book to understand it. I
really felt vindicated by that award because it really means
we’re targeting to kids who are, in turn, being inspired by these
artists. They’re going to be the next generation of consumers. It
is very much a youth culture film. Obviously, we want to talk to older
people, too. Right now, today as a matter of fact, we’re showing
in Leeds and then we’re showing in Brighton and then
London’s Children’s Film Festival, Copenhagen, Hawaii this
weekend in the Cinema Paradise Film Festival. So yeah, there’ve
been a lot of festivals.
I’m ready to get the distribution locked down but I
still want to keep doing the festival circuit. I keep getting requests
to come and show it everywhere, other places in Latin America, Buenos
Aires, maybe places like South Africa, Asia, as well. Try to get it
into Japan. That’s basically what we want to do with the film.
We’ve also been doing a lot of events to promote the film because
it’s a living, breathing, evolving culture. We want to accompany
screenings with live painting, DJs spinning. We did that in Rotterdam,
we did it in Montreal, we had a party like that in Rio. Here in L.A.,
we’ve added a new component to that. We mounted a gallery show
where a lot of the artists from the film can show their work.
They’re from six different countries and we’re able to show
some Spanish and Brazilian artists who’ve never shown in L.A.
before. Again, it’s kind of to push the art form and I really
like that approach because it’s building it from the ground up,
talking directly with the community. So I want to keep on doing things,
even once we get the distribution locked down. I want to continue doing
events like that, using the Next name to put cultural events together.
This was our test run for the gallery show and it went really well, so
we want to take it on the road, go to London, Paris, New York, the
major capitals. I have serious connections with artists all over, and
getting more and more. I have a lot of respect for them. I guess I
wouldn’t mind getting into a little sideline as a curator because
I think it’s great work and I want to show it and show this
culture in different places. Curating is not really making art but
it’s still promoting it and being involved in it. I’m
really into that. The two things that drive me right now are music and
this art. You got to go with what inspires you.
SIM: What do you have in mind for your next film project?
PA: I’ve got a couple of ideas. I want to do some music docs,
maybe something on broken beat, a new genre of music coming out of West
London and going all over now and again, it’s kind of working
with people that I know. I met some of these DJ producers in Puerto
Rico not too long ago and we want to do an exchange because they saw
the film. I really believe the art form replicates the music. I want to
try and do that in film.
There’s another project I want to develop in Brazil, a socially
relevant fiction idea that talks about kids painting on the streets. I
really want to do a narrative project. I’m trying to be pragmatic
too. I think this music doc I could probably get off the ground and get
some money to shoot it faster. The fiction thing I want to develop and
do that relatively quickly, as well—go for an indie, low-budget
shoot. I really want to put the value and the time into the script.
I’m thinking of a neo-realist approach in terms of mixing actors
and real people, really working with the community there. My mission is
to go to Sao Paulo in the next six months and get working on that. It
will probably be a co-production with France, Canada, maybe the States
and Brazil, get a little piece of the pie from each place, get a decent
first-time feature director budget with the subject matter and method
of shooting I want to do. A decent budget; it doesn’t have to be
huge. I want to keep some freedom, some liberty, too. Someone gives you
a lot of money, they start telling you what to do.
I believe the artist should profit and should own the work. I
don’t believe in the model of the starving artist. The second
thing is that, you know, I like the control. If I put a little money on
the table, that gives me something to say when it’s time to make
some hard decisions or have control over final cut. I was spoiled with
this film and I don’t want to go back. And I like doing it. I
think there is a creative side to producing. I discovered that I have a
good business and entrepreneurial mind and I enjoy that.
SIM: What kind of advice would you give a first-time filmmaker?
PA: Find something that you’re passionate about and go for
it. There are no excuses anymore—with DV cam or with HD. If
you’re a guy that’s even semi-serious, you’re going
to know somebody with a camera and you’re going to have a friend
or two or a network of people willing to come work on your film for,
like, a pair of sneakers or something, whatever you got. Not to sound
like Nike, but just do it, carpe diem, just go for it. That’s how
it starts and it snowballs from there. I never imagined that I would
learn so much but it’s only because I took that first step. Part
of the reason why I didn’t make anything before was because I
guess I was just paralyzed, intimidated—it’s so big,
it’s so much, the thought of making a film. I definitely
won’t experience that again, though, that’s for sure.
I got to get my next project going ‘cause I want to
strike while the iron’s hot. Right now, we’re getting a lot
of good attention. The name Next is really getting out
there right now—I want to work with that. So by next February or
March, I’ll be ready to go to Brazil and start to do research on
my next idea—that’s the mission. And also, of course, to
escape the winter in Montreal!