My beast, my age, who will try to look you in the eye, and weld the vertebrae of century to century, with blood? Creating blood pours out of mortal things: only the parasitic shudder, when the new world sings.
As long as it still has life, the creature lifts its bone, and, along the secret line of the spine, waves foam. Once more life’s crown, like a lamb, is sacrificed, cartilage under the knife-- the age of the new-born.
To free life from jail, and begin a new absolute, the mass of knotted days must be linked by means of a flute. With human anguish the age rocks the wave’s mass, and the golden measure’s hissed by a viper in the grass.
And new buds will swell, intact, the green shoots engage, but your spine is cracked my beautiful, pitiful, age. And grimacing dumbly, you writhe, look back, feebly, with cruel jaws, a creature, once supple and lithe, at the tracks left by your paws.
The NEW:VISION Award is CPH:DOX’s competition for experimental, innovative, reflective documentaries and the festival presented twenty-six diverse, genre-bending pieces this year. In managing to watch them all, I experienced profound discoveries about expressing a deeply personal aesthetic in film. In a post-festival correspondence with programmer, Mads Mikkelsen, he told me, “Part of the project here is to not think in opposite terms of ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction,’ but to think in the very basic term ‘filmmaking,’ with a reference to the real. That said, there is a strong, current interest from the art world in what could be called the documentary project: reflecting on the world we live in from perspectives that acknowledge the formal potential of filmmaking. This is, of course, especially visible in the New Vision program.”
What was common amongst the films in this category was an original interpretation of that ineffable matter within us that keeps us connected to the world of dreams. Many of these film works act as amorphous metaphors for the secret sources of our spiritual and intellectual power, creating new myths in relation to our physical selves and the ways in which we interact subliminally with the physical world around us. And while all of this might be hot stuff to creative programmers and adventurous cinephiles, I wondered what kind of feedback the festival gets from local audiences. Mikkelsen again: “Well, the fun thing is that I talked to people that are not cinephiles, who had a genuine experience of change from encountering these works in a cinema. I think that is vital to the cinema-going experience: to change.” Part of his mandate from festival director, Tine Fischer, someone who is highly informed about currents in the art / gallery world, is “the very basic act of bringing these works to the screens of Copenhagen and to the public here. I do not think that the cinema space can be elitist, but perhaps that is too optimistic."
Perspective (from the Latin perspicere, to see through) is generally defined as an approximate representation, as seen by the eye, on a flat surface of an image. In their works, the makers in this category “saw through” the more impenetrable layers of our beings, transforming their material into rich storylines that animate some aspect of daily life. It is extremely encouraging that an event calling itself a documentary festival supports this kind of work. Documentary has a propensity to be a genre that can become stale all too easily with its own self-referential and myopic way of telling true stories. Many of these pieces were a slap in the face to all of that, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. (Still above from John Price's Home Movie.)
As the makers of these film and video works traverse deeply personal and quixotic territory, they often instigate an unfamiliar shift in a viewer’s perspective. Whether that intention is inadvertent or not is hard to say since so much of what these pieces offer is distinctly intuitive. But there is no doubt that when watching these films, installation pieces and other UFOs, there is a focused attention to detail and nuance, where one’s experience of a “cinematic encounter” can be redefined. But only if one meets the work at least halfway. For there is work involved to be sure, and according to filmmaker, Ben Russell, that is quite intentional.
Russell, last year’s New Vision Award winner, is an American artist that executes visionary work in contemporary experimental documentary. One afternoon during the festival, he and Canadian filmmaker, John Price, hosted a masterclass moderated by Mikkelsen. Both of these artists work on the forefront of this exploratory borderland. This year, Russell’s first feature, Let Each One Go Where He May, was part of the New Vision category, along with the seventh in his Trypps series, Trypps #7 (Badlands). John Price's latest film, Home Movie, had its European premiere at the festival and is described as “a psychedelic science fiction film with a distant relative in Tarkovsky.” Whatever you want to call it, it's gorgeous, tactile work. As well, these filmmakers make work intentionally both for the cinema as well as for installation. (Still above from Russell's Trypps #7 (Badlands)).
Referencing the historical avant-garde film tradition, along with a modern interpretation of “ethnographic” filmmaking, Russell mentioned the reinvention of cinematic space offered up by Gene Youngblood in his seminal book from 1970, Expanded Cinema. Youngblood talks about the passive versus active filmgoer encountering a cinema where there is no immediately evident structure. There is a lot of space for an audience member to exist, becoming a self-reflexive experience where one participates in that experience, actively creating meaning for that experience as one watches. Russell: “I think to ask cinema to be a representative medium is asking it to do something much less than it can do, which is to produce some other experience entirely. That’s the ambition with [my work], to create something else than what we see.”
The New Vision Award this year went to German philosopher/author/filmmaker, Hito Steyerl, for her sharply subversive and entertaining biography of an object, In Free Fall. Steyerl credits her contribution as the film’s “recycler,” instead of its director. The jury was impressed by the film’s innovative approach “that moves between critical, documentary and personal,” a trademark of Steyerl’s distinctive work and, indeed, a trademark of all the films in this category. (Still from film, pictured above.)
Israeli artist Roee Rosen’s Out(still from film, pictured below) was given a special mention by the jury, and I want to give it a special mention of my own. This staggering half-hour piece, according to the jury, “dares to employ the radical methods in the form of bodily rituals to expose the prejudices that exist within us all.” The reflections of one of the two female protagonists are especially poignant. She is the one asked to perform an exorcism in a psychosexual passion play of ritualized dominance and subordination, unglamorously staged in a sparsely furnished living room. The demon she must exorcise from her sub is Avigdor Lieberman, one of Israel’s most extreme right wing politicians, a man with virulent nationalist and racist ideologies. Quite eloquently, she speaks about him in relation to something that is inherent in the nation of Israel, as a whole. I, in turn, as the active viewer, extrapolated what she had to say into a more universal message, and it moved me deeply.
After researching Lieberman in preparation for her role as exorcist, she states, “You cannot approach an exorcism with negative feelings only; you have to be able to identify with the demon, to find empathy towards him.” As a queer feminist activist born in Israel in 1978, she and Lieberman (born 1958 in Moldova) obviously come from very different places in just about every way. Yet, she finds some things that will tie her emotionally to him. “I must say that I prefer Lieberman over most of Israel’s political system in one sense: that he tells the truth. His truth may be terrible, but at the end of the day, it is his truth. . . . My main problem as an exorcist is that Lieberman is a very evasive demon. He goes out of one body and enters another. He resides, in fact, at the heart of our collective body. Lieberman is not the demon, but only one of its incarnations. The real demon belongs to us all.”
Look for my article on Harmony Korine's guest curation at CPH:DOX in the next issue of Senses of Cinema, coming next month.
Filmmaker, artist and curator, Marie Losier, was born in France in 1972, and has been living and working in New York City for the past seventeen years. She creates singular portraits of vanguard filmmakers, musicians, composers and artists, although many of them are far from obscure. Losier has given her distinctive filmic treatment to the likes of Mike and George Kuchar, Guy Maddin, Richard Foreman, Tony Conrad and Genesis P-Orridge, the subject of her latest piece called The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. She also has intimate friendships with all of these talents. Here’s what filmmaker Charles Burnett wrote to her in 2006 about her work, “I sit with a smile on my face. I wish there were more people like the characters in your films, in the world. It takes you on a ride that weaves the real and surreal.” And Maddin has dubbed her “Edith Sitwell’s inner Tinkerbell.”
Her films have shown widely in museums, galleries, biennials and festivals all over the world, including P.S.1 in New York City, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Biennial, Rotterdam International Film Festival, La Fondation Cartier, The Tate Modern, The Wexner Art Center, Luxe Gallery, White Column Gallery, the Ismailia International Film Festival in Egypt, Anthology Film Archives (where she also curates experimental film and video shows), Ocularis, British Film Institute, the Musée d’Art Contemporain, among many others. She was recently the subject of a full retrospective at the Buenos Aires Festival of International Cinema.
Since 2000, Losier has also worked full-time as the film curator at The French Institute Alliance Française in New York City, where she presents a weekly film series and has hosted the likes of Raoul Coutard, Claire Denis, Chantal Akerman, Jane Birkin, Jeanne Moreau, Jackie Raynal, and Anouk Aimée. As well, she has performed in films by George and Mike Kuchar, and Jackie Raynal, and in plays by Juliana Francis and Tony Torn.
Her work with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, born Neil Andrew Megson in Manchester, England in 1950, has been a seven-years-long collaboration, and has resulted in her first feature film, which will début as part of the Forum at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is a glorious pastiche that features the story of the incredible love between Genesis and Lady Jaye. Tragically, in the midst of creating this project, Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge unexpectedly passed away at the age of 42 on October 9, 2007.
Most famous for the bands, Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, the 63-year-old Genesis currently resides in the house in Brooklyn, New York where he lived together with Jaye. There, Genesis reads, paints and writes. He also tours extensively, giving lectures, talks and performances throughout the world. As part of the Forum Expanded section, Genesis and Tony Conrad will perform an improvised violin concert together on February 19th at Berlin’s Hebbel-am-ufer Theatre.
During a trip to New York at the very beginning of this year, I met with Marie at the charming East Village coffee and pastry palace, DeRobertis Caffe. In walked a tiny figure, bundled up in a long coat and chapeau against the winter chill—an utterly charming and warmly-smiling gamine—to talk to me about her latest project, her unique and intimate relationship with Genesis, and the long and hard road she traveled to complete this film:
Still in Motion (SIM): I think it’s always pretty easy to tell when the subject or subjects of a film have encountered the maker that’s meant to record their story. I’ve seen wonderful examples of that several times in the last few years. You have a distinctive way in which you do portraiture in film. Some of the first footage I saw of this piece was where you and Genesis were playing a game of hide-and-seek amongst the shelves of a gigantic home archive. It was so playful and so lovely. And, of course, it’s an amazing and deeply moving love story.
Marie Losier (ML): Very moving. Gen is amazing.
SIM: When and how did you first meet one another?
ML: Seven years ago, I went to see a concert of Alan Vega with Suicide at the Knitting Factory [in New York City]. I was really excited because I loved his work but, unfortunately, it was a terrible concert—really bad. However, the third part of the concert was Genesis, of whom I didn’t know anything. It was Three Majesty, her third band. So it was Bryan Dall, Genesis and Lady Jaye on bass, and she was reciting poems and it was so amazing, her energy and her presence were astounding. I had no idea who they were.
The next day I went to an opening—which I never do—right in Soho. I walked into this gallery and it was a show about music and painting. It was packed with so many people. I was crushed against a wall because I’m so small and I stepped on someone’s foot. I turned around to apologize and it was Gen. She looked at me and all I saw were huge gold teeth in a big smile. I told her that I had seen her concert the evening before, told her how beautiful I thought it was, how moved I was. She looked at me for a couple of seconds, gave me her card and asked me to call her. When I called, she asked me to come over.
When I got there, I was introduced to the basement where she greets people when she doesn’t know them. I was sitting on this gigantic plastic chair shaped like an open palm. She was staring at me and then called Lady Jaye. Jaye walked down the stairs, looked at me and asked me if I’d like a coffee. She asked me what I did, what kinds of films I made, so I talked a little bit about my work.
Something passed between the two of them and Jaye looked at me and said, “She’s the one. She’s the one who’s going to film our life. We’ve been waiting for you.” Ten days later, they took me on tour with Psychic TV. I didn’t know their music at all, but it had been a dream of mine to go on tour with a band. It was really intense. I jumped in. That’s how we met.
SIM: It sounds like you had no choice in the matter.
ML: It was like it was waiting for me, yes. I always wanted to be in a rock band and this was it. And then, through the years, I learned about Gen and Lady Jaye. I lived with them for a time. It was then I saw the love story. Also, filming the concerts and being on tour made me really sure I didn’t want to do a film about a rock band. It’s very repetitive and a bit cliché. I wanted something more. Discovering their archives made me realize how much was there.
SIM: The film belongs to Genesis, in essence, since he, she? I notice you refer to Gen as “she.”
SIM: She’s front and center in this film. It appeared to me that Jaye, at times, was a bit reticent about being filmed. She could ham it up for the camera like in home movie fashion, but she seemed to almost shy away a bit once in a while.
ML: She was more of a private person. But also she had a very strong personality. They would do everything together. There was a complete energy balance with everything they did, all day long. The pandrogyny project was as much Jaye as it was Gen. They were muses to, and for, one another. So I saw something really balanced. Jaye was much less comfortable being filmed. I first did spend more time with Gen because she was so open. And then, suddenly, in 2007 Jaye died.
I thought that would be the end of the film, really, because it was so tragic, but I kept filming up until last year, 2010. I did really think that would be the end, though. Her death was a complete shock and Gen was completely devastated. It was the end of the band; it was the end of everything. Gen stayed at home crying for about a year. I spent a lot of time there and she said to me that she didn’t want me to stop. She wanted me to keep making the film in memory of Jaye. I had to adjust to both taking care of her and supporting her and also to keep the film going. It was just really painful and hard, so heavy. I film alone so it’s not like I have a crew to make it a bit less intimate, so it tends to be very emotional. You have to be careful—sometimes, you get taken into things you don’t want to and it’s very painful and, at times, very forceful. Sometimes you see things you really don’t want to see and there’s no protection.
SIM: One senses that vulnerability. There is one scene where she’s sitting listening to a song and starts to weep and the camera gets put down immediately as you go to her. There would be a lot of filmmakers that would have just sat there and kept shooting.
ML: I’m really close to Gen; she’s a very dear friend. We’ve been through so much and she knows me inside out. She also knows how hard I’ve worked on this and that I’ve done it entirely by myself, including negotiating music rights, archival rights, credits, and other things where I really have no idea what I’m doing. It’s endless—building a website, on and on. Steve Holmgren, who came on as a producer after the film was made, is helping, but I’ve had to do everything else by myself. Not to mention the fact that no funding for which we applied came through. It’s been a hard film to pull out since I also work fulltime so it’s been one roll [of film] at a time. I think the film is just too experimental for many funders, and I think Gen scares some people.
SIM: Ironically, their story has been an inspiration for other films. I think of Jake Yuzna’s Open, which won a Teddy at Berlin last year, for instance. Also, the times that they lived through and the incredible people that Gen calls friends and colleagues is pretty damned impressive. You’ve captured an important piece of literary, art and music culture in the 20th century.
ML: Yes, William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, the list goes on and on.
SIM: It’s possible you would have been supported more extensively if you had been making this film in Europe.
ML: Well, it was also one of those instances where I just started filming. There wasn’t a choice in the matter and I have never really worked with a producer before so I didn’t have one on this film either. To then look for money three or four years into the project was difficult. Thankfully, I had a few grants that supported me during that time. But the film was basically self-funded. I also didn’t want to bend at all in my creative vision for this piece. When I did the IFP market, I met with a lot of people who really wanted to help but the film needed to be a bit more “commercial” for them to be able to do that, more of a traditional bio-pic, I guess. So that made it clear that I just had to keep making my film my way. I have so much material that is not going to be in the final film. I’ve done many, many interviews that I’m not using and I have interviews of people who are no longer here, like Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle, who died a month ago, people like Gibby Haynes [of the Butthole Surfers], Peaches [Mermaid Café, The Shit]. I decided in order for me to really make it my piece, it would have to be Gen’s voice and Jaye’s voice.
SIM: There are also these wonderful, whimsical interludes that you use where you dress Gen up in costumes and do little “passion plays” and such. You externalize the flights of imagination she’s used throughout her career to express herself. For anyone who knows your work, “playtime” sessions with your subjects are de rigueur.
ML: I also live this way. I do a lot of that playtime type of thing in my daily life with my friends. It was great to push Gen to do it without a lot of thought; she just trusted me and dressed up and did what I asked. She’s always portrayed as a rock icon, very posed, the whole concert/fan thing. But I know the Gen who can be so whimsical and so out-there in another way. I wanted to turn her into this other character. She lives her life as a sort of fiction, anyway. Gen fears nothing. Yet she’s the most sensitive and emotional person, and quite shy, actually. She loves being alone, reading books. Everything else she releases on stage.
SIM: Berlinale is, of course, one of the most important film festivals in the world. Are you excited, intimidated, nervous? You’ve exhibited films there before, but this time, Genesis is also going to perform a live show with Tony Conrad at the fest, which should be amazing.
ML: Gen is nervous. I introduced her to him for a scene in my film about Tony. She saw the film [Tony Conrad DreaMinimalist, 2008] and just fell in love with him and asked me about him. She didn’t know his music or anything. And I knew Gen’s favorite instrument is the violin. So I set up a scene where both of them are playing the violin. I organized something more formally, since people really wanted to see this unique collaboration. We made it into a two-day concert at ISSUE Project Room and also did an album. They became really good friends and now are touring together. I should be an agent [laughing]. So in Berlin, they’ll do their concert, which will be totally improvised. (Still of Tony Conrad and Genesis in "Slap the Gondola," 2009, photo by Bernard Yenelouis.)
The curators in the Forum Expanded section are really amazing about pushing the edge, creating events for the festival. Vaginal Davis and Bruce LaBruce are always creating something really unique and special there, all these amazing artists that live in, or come through, Berlin regularly.
SIM: What’s so delightful for me, always, is the fabulous sense of humor that accompanies all this madness. It’s great fun. Gen, too, is a very funny person, almost like an old vaudeville performer. The sections without synch sound are so evocative of the silent movie era
ML: Well, the use of no synch sound in the film was a bit scary. I worked for years without that. I was afraid it would put a viewer too much outside the film. But I think I found ways to bring a viewer in. Gen’s always worked with cut-ups. So, in a way, certain parts of the film act as kinds of cut-ups. It works with the subject.
SIM: Have you edited the whole film on your own, as well? It’s beautifully edited.
ML: Yes, essentially, but the editing started with the support and help of friend, Charlotte Mangin. She went through all the footage with me and helped shape and build the story. I also had invaluable help after eight months when everything was assembled, including sound. My friend, Marc Vives, came in and helped me to move things around when I couldn’t see anymore. The story needed some shaping and I wanted it to have more of a feature narrative storyline. I’m not a narrative person. And I couldn’t move the pieces anymore. I’ve always edited my own films; it’s an essential part of the process for me. It wouldn’t have my touch otherwise. I had about 20 hours of 16mm film and about 60 hours of interviews on HD. I also have non-HD video; there’s a lot. I could make many movies [laughing].
SIM: I would think that someone, at some point, would be very interested in the archive you’ve gathered.
ML: Yes, I always keep an extensive archive. Gen’s used some of the material for music videos or projections for her concerts. You see some of that footage being projected during some of the shows—a movie within a movie.
SIM: The way in which Genesis has recreated herself over and over again speaks to that way in which your footage will probably be manifested in several different ways. That’s the joy of making art and, to me, that’s apparent in all the film work you do. Your pieces remind me in a way of handmade quilts, excuse the quaint analogy. I guess what I’m saying is that no one else can weave together these elements like you can considering your emotional proximity to your subjects.
ML: I’ve also learned so much from living next to Gen for so long. As an artist, it opened many doors in ways of thinking about things and ways of being. I see someone who is fearless, who doesn’t have a lot of money but lives in this uncompromising way and keeps going, really experimenting. To me, that’s the key of life—that freedom. It’s really hard to do it.
SIM: How does she survive?
ML: She sells some of her paintings. Now it will be a bit difficult since Throbbing Gristle doesn’t exist anymore. That was paying a good amount touring with that band. Psychic TV also doesn’t exist. There will be some shows here and there, but not enough to make a living. She also lectures, sells artwork. (Lady Jaye, second from left, and Genesis, center, in a Psychic TV publicity still.)
SIM: Can you talk about your impressions of the pandrogyny experiment, this living art piece that Genesis and Lady Jaye created together? It’s been called performance art. It’s been called a lot of different things.
ML: Well, I will say that, for me, that was not the subject of the film and not something I was interested in focusing on. Their “credo” about all that and why they did it was not really the interesting thing for me, so much as the love it expressed. What I saw in all that, almost exclusively, was the love story. To do a story on two people who engaged in plastic surgery to transform themselves to look like one another as a piece of performance art wouldn’t be up my alley, frankly. But I’ve known her for years and have an archive of rock music and so that pandrogyny was part of the cut-ups, being male and female simultaneously. It’s part of the “performance” but it’s also so much about being Gen and Jaye and their love. It became something else for me. People might be disappointed because this is not a “fan” film about Throbbing Gristle or Psychic TV. It’s a disturbing love story.
It was a bit difficult for me since I was moved by both Gen and Jaye, as people. But I was compelled to tell this story of this unique transformation. These are real people. As strange as it is, when you think about what they go through, it’s just a human story. For Gen, it’s not about becoming a woman or being transgender.
SIM: But the “he” has become a “she.”
ML: She likes being “she” right now.
SIM: A way to stay close to Jaye.
ML: Jaye is always there. She’s unbelievably present. Gen still uses the pronoun “we,” not “I.” It’s both of them, all the time. I’ve only known Gen as a “she,” so it’s pretty straightforward for me. It’s much harder for people who’ve known Gen as a man to say “she,” the daughters, for instance. They call her Dad.
SIM: To me, the most important thing this portrait of a life says is that all of us are separate but equal to everyone else and we can do whatever we want with our lives. Genesis is inspiring in that way of never asking permission from anyone about how she feels she needs to realize and validate her existence. I really hope audiences will tap into that more than anything else in your film. That and the amazing music she creates.
ML: Yes, the music is something that has attached me most strongly to the film. Seeing her perform makes me remember that, how much I love the music she makes, her voice, that singing / talking voice that carries everything. Gen’s voice, for me, is just beyond. I want this film to be a musical ballad; this is why that word is in the title. It’s also, of course, a love ballad.
SIM: There must have been moments over the past several years when it all became too much for you considering this devotion you’ve had to Gen and Jaye and their story.
ML: [She laughs, shaking her head.] There were moments when it was really hard and I wasn’t really that strong yet. Gen was hard on me, as was the band, at the beginning. They were testing me. I had to go through a lot. And there were some really heavy times, emotionally. I was fragile and sometimes it ate me up. There were times I wanted to stop. I was also making other projects and keeping up with my everyday life. It’s hard to only be with one person for so long. Gen also saw how stubborn I am and has discovered other things I do, all the friends I have, the life I have. But she also knew I would never give up on her and the story and the project.
But now that the project is finished, I am looking forward to just going to a movie together with her, eating ice cream together, and not be filming everything! But I relate to people mostly through my work, working and collaborating on something. And our relationship is based on this creativity so I’m sure we’ll keep doing things together. And we have several months ahead touring together with the film, of course.
SIM: Gen’s life, post-Jaye—what does that look like? I know from what you say, Jaye’s presence is always there, but do you think she will want to spend the rest of her life alone?
ML: She explains it this way: Jaye was the ultimate love of her life. She told me that in order to be with someone else—which she would love because it’s hard to be alone all the time—that person would have to love Jaye, as well, and accept that Jaye will always be there.
SIM: That would take a pretty expansive individual. It sounds highly romantic, but difficult.
ML: That person will be very hard to find. Most of the time I see Gen, she’s alone and she seems to be okay with it because Jaye’s there. And she’s also surrounded by a few, genuine, really good people who care for her deeply and have been a part of her life for a very long time.
SIM: You chose a very open ending for this film which is, obviously, appropriate for a life far from finished. What were some of the harder editing choices you had to make for the cut audiences will see at festivals?
ML: There were some really, really beautiful scenes with Peaches dancing that were really great. There were some fantastic and funny scenes with Gibby Haynes. Those kinds of things were hard for me to let go. There were some with Sleazy. But it became too cliché to have those scenes in the film. They really belong to any kind of “extra” material. Ultimately, they distracted from the main story. There were also some beautifully shot, very whimsical scenes with Gen with great costumes and things that were hard to let go.
SIM: What’s the distribution plan post-festival run?
ML: The only thing I know for sure right now is that the film will be distributed by Arsenal in Germany. Stephanie [Schulte-Strathaus, co-director of Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art, member of the selection committee of the Berlinale Forum, and founding director of Forum Expanded] was the first person to show my work at a major festival and has had a huge influence on my ability to exhibit my films. I owe her a lot; she’sbeen an incredible mentor.
But other than that, I don’t really know. Steve has some ideas. It’s so nice to have someone working with me with so much passion and excitement, someone who’s working so hard without getting paid. It’s such a gift to have such a dedicated producer; I’m not used to that. Also, I must mention, too, that Martin Marquet, a dear friend, is working on the producing and publicity aspect. And Elyanna Blaser-Gould, my assistant, has my eternal gratitude. Without her constant support, I could not have done any of it.
SIM: I’m looking forward to meeting you and Genesis in Berlin. People there will love the film; I know it.
ML: We’re both so nervous and anxious, but also incredibly excited. Yes, see you there!
(All photos courtesy marielosier.net, with the exception of Psychic TV still, courtesy Dan Mandell, www.danielmandell.com.)
If you're wondering why I haven't blogged in over a month, it's because I've been depressed and woefully uninspired. Not that I haven't encountered inspiring things (and people) on a regular basis, but there is a logjam between my head, my heart and my brain that somehow is preventing me from writing, at least not easily or very coherently without a lot of pain and anguish involved.
And I'm a bit crabby that no one asked me for my Top 10 anything. Actually, I don't really care. Yes, I do.
I think this blog from now on, or maybe just for right now (did I mention indecision is an issue, too?) might consist of interviews (I'm still a good talker when it comes to that and the filmmakers I wrassle with are, as well); highlights of overlooked festivals that are displaying some bespoke, thoughtful and engaging programming in overlooked places; and, if you're lucky, more poetry or song lyrics or odes to my cute, but overlooked, belly button. Let's just hope I don't pull a Jack Torrance my first winter in Berlin.
To tide you over and appease my blogging network from dropping me, here's a poem I wrote that is an ode to this dreary, dark season: (ahem)
I want to slow these days--
a sun oblique, pale
brittle dawn to dusk.
I want to linger on the southern slopes
foraging like a brown bear
after roots, berries, and honey stumps
of autumn's last red camp.
Something in me slows against my will--
heart, fire, and hunger.
The past fills up and holds the
most proportion of brightness.
And there is nothing to do for it
but shuffle into my cave
worrying round and around the shadows
until I slump down in a long winter's sleep.
If only it were that bear simple,
to lie down in darkness,
to wake in a new season of light,
and know exactly what is necessary.
And in more exciting news: Posted here soon will be a wonderful chat I just conducted with Los Angeles-based filmmaker, Jeff Malmberg, creator and director of Marwencol, a small documentary that is, thankfully, not being overlooked, and has taken the critics and viewing audiences by storm with its inspirational story of one man's mission to rebuild his life. This film, I would imagine, will appear on many top 10 lists this year. It certainly would have been on mine if I'd been asked to supply one. So stay tuned for the soothing sounds of Jeff Malmberg.
And to wrap up this strange post, in more great doc news, you can now own two of the most fabulous nonfiction films to come out of the US of A in a while courtesy of Carnivalesque Films: Darius Marder's grossly overlooked Loot, and Bradley Beesley's slightly less overlooked (it's all relative), Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo. Seems like team Carnivalesque is busy building a very impressive roster of films--kudos.
Oh wait, here's another poem you might like called The Art and Science of Guilt:
Upturned faces of ponds, lakes
wear thick-skinned masks now,
and the rifle crack of splitting trees
is heard; approaching another century's
end, nearer life forms burst
in sudden monstrous spasms
of growth, and distant mountain
ridges vanish in smoke,
reappear in sulfuric haze;
it is summer's end, not
the world's. Surely as snakes shed
their skins whole, the seasons
will turn sweet or bitter,
sap and blood will sleep and rise,
and we will drift from shadow to sun
again, crying out like hawks on the hunt.
Together in tribal darkness we forgive
the actors and ourselves: nothing
except the movies works. Uncountable
layers of space flattened on a screen
deliver up inner-outer union:
exotic home, familiar dangers pure
and depraved, unjudging, unjudgeable.
From the first scene to last tracking shot,
we dream of going from movie to movie,
It turns out I'm still inspired by the movies, after all. Happy holidaze.
The Dokufest jury for the international competition awarded the Best International Feature Documentary to Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello's La bocca del lupo (The Mouth of the Wolf) "for its haunting, lyrical and gorgeous depiction of one city and one remarkable love story." We are not the first jury to give this beautiful film top honors since its début in 2009. At this year's Berlinale, it won the Caligari Award, as well as Best Documentary at the Teddy Awards. It also took the Film Critics Prize for Best Film at the 2009 Torino Film Festival, the first time in the northern Italian festival's 27-year history that the prize was given to an Italian film. It's an exquisite, distinctive work, its director creating a layered story with unrestrained romanticism, a love letter to the port city of Genova in the Liguria region, founded by "abandoned castaways" washed onto its shores by the sea to create a unique culture of its own. Marcello, in turn, has made a unique film that is hard to define by one genre alone. Shot in luscious 35mm, it is an epic poem, an elegy, an archaeological excavation, a city symphony, and a true love story for the ages, told in a disorienting, mysterious dreamscape, using sound and vision, spoken word and music, brand-new footage residing beside ancient, fragile pieces of celluloid.
While in the midst of researching this utterly-transformed place for the San Marcellino Foundation, the Jesuits of Genova (an organization that offers aid to indigents and the marginalized, including ex-cons), the director met his extraordinary protagonists by chance. He met Vincenzo (Enzo) Motta (pictured right) outside a bakery, a ruggedly handsome man who promptly engaged the filmmaker in conversation, showing him the bullet hole marks in his leg from a shootout he'd had with the cops decades ago. Enzo's wife of 20 years, Mary Monaco, was a bit more reticent to participate, but the two ultimately agreed to share their incredible love story for Marcello's camera.
Enzo is front and center throughout most of the story--visually and aurally, his coiled presence and vibrating machismo and sexuality, the engine that moves us through time and space. We only hear Mary's voice (and see a couple of photos of her when she was young) through most of the film. We finally see her when she is sitting by Enzo's side for one of the most captivating interviews ever captured on film. Marcello purposely fools us into thinking we are seeing the woman who is speaking time and time again. We realize at the very end of the film, that she is one of the very first images we see, hiding in plain sight, a silhouette in repose. When we do see her, she is still mostly hidden in shadow, tentative and shy, but her eloquence and emotionalism, the beautiful language she uses to describe their first encounter, her impressions of him, how they saved one another, the synchronicity of their bond, will melt the most stoic heart. Enzo sits beside her mugging for the camera and flexing his muscles, then turning to her to sing her a love song, a born ham if ever there was one. He does make one hell of a movie star. Unfortunately, he's spent most of his life behind bars due to a talent for finding trouble from a very early age, never quite succeeding in getting out from under his own violent temper and hubristic "rule of law."
The story, like all good fairy tales, has a happy ending, the two lovers living their dream in a small, shabby farmhouse with their dogs, Enzo munching herbs from the ground like a goat as the camera gazes from a high hill overlooking the now-ugly, industrial city built upon the rubble of the old one, that world forever submerged. "Small, great stories, that's what it was."
There were many films we saw at Dokufest that pushed form, that found new and innovative ways of spinning a true yarn. Our deliberation was that much more difficult due to the stellar programming, not just in the competitions, but in the festival, as a whole. Yet a film like La bocca rose above a field of outstanding work because of its unabashed ode to all that we love about cinema, how it can transport and enrich us, capture our imaginations, allow us to be swept away by sheer beauty. Kudos to its creator, and a particular salute of respect to editor and archival researcher, Sara Fgaier, and composers Marco Messina, Massimiliano Sacchi and Nino Bruno (ERA). Bravissimi, tutti.
Coda: Sadly, Mary
passed away very recently and so this film, in essence, must become a tribute
to this remarkable woman, transformed throughout her life in many ways
most of us will never experience, or understand. (Pictured, Mary, Marcello and Enzo celebrating in Torino last year.)
On tap Thursday, my picks for a don't-miss viewing opportunity. Well, lots:
The inaugural DocPoint Encounters program will take place in the morning and afternoon at the Atheneum. (I'll be there for the morning session of pitches.) Starting at 2:00 p.m., there is a free screening of Marcel Lozinski's classic Poste Restante at the Kiasma and there's a chance to take another look at what's coming out of the Finnish film schools with a screening of five fiction and nonfiction pieces at the Maxim 2. At 5:00 p.m., the Lozinski retrospective continues (with the director present) with five of his short works, and Darius Marder premieres Loot at the Bristol. I'll be conducting the Q&A with this whip-smart American filmmaker on the rise (still from film pictured). The tribute to Kiti Luostarinen continues at the Maxim 1 (her speech last night was charming, even though it was mostly in Finnish, and she recited a long poem she had written about the joys and vagaries of being a documentary filmmaker to a very appreciative audience at the opening ceremonies upon accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award). Erik Gandini's award-winning (and infuriating) Videocracy plays at the Maxim 2. Moana and Twenty-Four Dollar Island by Robert Flaherty plays at the Orion.
From 6:00 - 7:00 p.m. at Painobaari, Finnish filmmaker, Iris Olsson, will host American filmmakers, Samantha Buck and Kimberly Reed, at the nightly Meet the Filmmaker chats.
At 7:00 at the Bristol, Samantha Buck débuts her film, 21 Below (still from film, pictured), a particular favorite of DocPoint artistic director, Erkko Lyytinen's, with a Q&A to follow with Buck and co-creator and producer, Jenny Maguire, moderated by New York-based producer, Danielle DiGiacomo, currently community manager of the IFP. At 9:00 p.m., Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons plays at the Bristol followed by a Q&A with moi. This film is about to launch its national run all across the US at the end of February with Reed slated to appear on Oprah very soon--stay tuned! (We will have just come from a filmmaker dinner and sauna excursion on the island of Uunisaari, so forgive us if we're too relaxed.)
Friday the 29th: At 2:00 p.m., visit The Story Tent (free entry and they'll be there all afternoon) at the Kiasma and come contribute your story to the hundreds of voices already collected in this traveling installation. The Bristol will play Jukka Kärkkäinen's Matkalla Vanhuuteen, Tomorrow Was Yesterday (love this film!) and Arthur Franck and Oscar Fotstén's twelve-minute, Ruuhka. Kärkkäinen's brilliant The Living Room of the Nation opened the DocPoint fest last year and has had a very successful international festival run. At 5:30 p.m., Virpi Suutari premieres her latest, Auf Wiedersehen Finnland at the BioRex while Nicolas Philibert's Animals and More Animals plays at the Maxim 1 (with the director present). At 7:00, Philibert's Every Little Thing plays the Maxim 2 and Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran plays at the Orion. At the Maxim 1, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher will be present for their first screening in Finland of October Country (still from film pictured). I'll be chatting with the filmmakers post-screening. They are set to open at the IFC Center in New York the 12th of February. If you miss this, another screening will take place Sunday afternoon at the same theater.
Up next, my thoughts on the exuberant and emotional opening night screening at the BioRex yesterday of Miesten Vuoro (Steam of Life), a film dedicated "to the men of Finland."
For its ’09 – ’10 release slate, new distribution company, Carnivalesque Films, announces the availability of ten great modern classics, representing some of the most outstanding and distinctive independent narrative and nonfiction films made in the recent past. The collection brings together stories united by a "raw, startling sensibility of disruption and celebration, where excess and transgression percolate in everyday life." This small independent start-up created by filmmakers, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, curates stories "united by the raw and startling sensibilities of
transgression, spectacle, and variations of truth and falseness. Named
for Carnival, a celebration where societal norms are turned on their
heads and excess and transgression rule the day, Carnivalesque Films
seeks to disrupt a viewer’s most cherished beliefs in unexpected ways. . . . In real life,
people behave irrationally, succumbing to madness or self-destruction
in pursuit of dreams and desires. Carnivalesque Films acknowledges
these dreams and desires by exploring them as literature from the
characters’ points of view."
These seven titles are currently available on DVD:
* Mardi Gras: Made in China directed by David Redmon. Winner of twenty-one national and international awards, this multi-layered documentary follows the path of Mardi Gras beads from the streets of New Orleans during Carnival—where revelers party and exchange beads for nudity—to the disciplined factories in Fuzhou, China where teenaged girls live and sew beads together all day and night. Blending curiosity with comedy, director Redmon explores how the toxic products directly affect the people who both make and consume them. The Los Angeles Times says Mardi Gras: Made in China “cleverly juxtaposes the apex of American bacchanalian excess with the sweatshop-like conditions that facilitate the fun.” Stuart Klawans of The Nation says, “This is one of the best films I know about real (as opposed to op-ed) globalization. Please welcome it.” You can read my review from this blog by clicking here.
* Orphans by Ry Russo-Young. Winner of a Special Jury Award at the SXSW Film Festival, Russo-Young’s eloquent feature début tells the story of two estranged sisters who reunite five years after the death of their parents at the isolated farmhouse where they spent childhood summers and holidays. As the two revisit their past and catch up on their present, tensions flare, threatening to end what’s left of a family already ravaged by death, jealousy, and secrets. Andrew O’Heir of Salon.com says that, “Orphans is a striking first film that simultaneously summons the spirit of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Brian De Palma’s Sisters. Scott Macaulay, editor of FILMMAKER Magazine as a member of the SXSW jury praised it for its “personally crafted visual aesthetic.”
* The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose by Sam Douglas and Paul Lovelace. From their origins in New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene and their involvement in the Easy Rider soundtrack, to the lost years of constant drugging, endless touring and a final shot at redemption, Douglas and Lovelace’s film recounts the unique forty-year history of these true American originals. With startling intimacy, the film also documents the band’s arduous, amusing, and sometimes heartbreaking struggle to capitalize on their recent resurgence in popularity, culminating in an unpredictable 40th anniversary concert in Portland, Oregon. The New York Times calls it “rollicking and poignant,” and filmmaker, Bruce Sinofsky, co-director of such nonfiction classics as Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, says, “Bound to Lose is a hidden treasure! A surprisingly moving and funny look at a dysfunctional musical family. You can’t take your eyes off it.”
* Manhattan, Kansas by Tara Wray. For her filmmaking début, Tara Wray travels to rural Kansas in an attempt to reconnect with her mother, Evie, for the first time since Evie’s psychotic breakdown five years earlier. She finds a parent still chasing her demons, both real and imagined, struggling to make a career for herself as an abstract artist and searching for the “Geodetic Center of the United States,” the finding of which will bring about world peace. When Tara decides to aid her mother’s search, it sets into motion a surprising chain of events. The Film Society of Lincoln Center says of this SXSW Audience Award winner: “Emotionally blunt and affecting, . . . acknowledging that love abides, even when forgiveness is not always easy or possible.” Marrit Ingman of the Austin Chronicle says that Wray’s film is “everything a personal documentary should be.”
* Invisible Girlfriend by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin. Charles goes in search of his love, Joan of Arc, the invisible girlfriend of the title of this story of a 400-mile journey on a big red bicycle from rural Monroe, Louisiana to the Big Easy. Along the way, he encounters a farmer, a witch, a tin man, and an ex-soldier who honors the dead. This hybrid piece, which Michael Tully of Hammer to Nail calls a film “that transcends the realms of fiction and non-fiction to reach a new state of truth,” won the Ron Tibbett Award for Excellence in Film at the Magnolia Film Festival and garnered rave reviews from the likes of Joe Leydon of Variety—“a textbook example of what can result when savvy documentarians fortuitously connect (or, in this case, reconnect) with an interesting subject at precisely the right moment;” and Ty Burr of The Boston Globe—“A surprising and profoundly compassionate road trip about an America struggling to get back on its feet, . . . filmmakers Sabin and Redmon work at the intersection of Flannery O’Connor Avenue and Werner Herzog Boulevard.”
* Kamp Katrina by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin. Kamp Katrina is a multiple award-winning cinéma vérité jewel. Shot shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated wide swaths of the American South, Redmon and Sabin document a small group of people who have taken refuge in a garden transformed into a tent city by an extraordinary New Orleans couple, Ms. Pearl and her husband, David. Winner of a SXSW Emerging Voices award, a Special Jury Prize from the Independent Film Festival in Boston, Best Documentary at the Magnolia Film Festival, a Special Jury Award at the Nashville Film Festival, a special screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, top of Booklist’s Best of Editors’ Choice and a selection of the Southern Film Circuit, Kamp Katrina, in the words of New York Magazine, “captures (beautifully and unflinchingly) a harrowing breakdown of social order. The result is a slight little film with a remarkable generosity of spirit.” Matt Zoller Seitz of the New York Times: “The movie is a portrait of New Orleans after the flood, a debris-strewn ghost town where human kindness is overflowing.”
* Intimidad by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin. “Romance is where Intimidad soars, turning it into a documentary fairytale of truly humbling proportions,” says Michael Tully of Hammer to Nail. Intimidad is an original Mexican love story about family relationships and the meaning of home. Cecy and Camilo, both 21 years old, have recently moved to the border in Reynosa, Mexico from Santa Maria, Puebla with a dream of saving money to build a home on the land that they’ve purchased. One year later, they return to their hometown to reunite with their two-year-old daughter, Loida (pictured). Shot by Redmon and Sabin and Cecy and Camilo, the film documents their lives over the course of five years mixing digital vérité with Super 8 and 16mm film. The piece played as part of “The Contenders” series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, won Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Latino Film Festival, Best Documentary at the Sidewalk Film Festival, Best International Film at the Connecticut Film Festival, the Human Rights Award at the River Run Film Festival and the Ron Tibbet Award for Excellence in Film at the Magnolia Film Festival.
Soon to be released this summer and fall will be Redmon and Sabin’s Darlings, Alex Karpovsky’s Woodpecker and Tom Quinn’s The New Year Parade, as well as other yet-to-be-announced films. You can watch trailers and purchase DVDs for both home and educational/institutional use on the Carnivalesque site and titles can also be purchased on Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, BestBuy.com, Borders.com, Netflix.com and Blockbuster.com.
Artist and filmmaker, Barbara Hammer, has made close to eighty (yes, that's 8-0) film and video pieces since 1972. She says that her work is about "revealing, showing, expressing, uncovering that which has not been seen before." Working mostly within a non-linear, metaphorical, vertically-structured methodology, she has created an extraordinary body of work, groundbreaking in its bold imperative to break taboos with her subject matter and in the ways in which a viewer interacts, physically and emotionally, with the images she projects on the screen. In the 1970s, Hammer came out at a time when it was "a political act to work and speak as a lesbian artist in the dominant art world, and to speak as an avant-garde artist to a lesbian and gay audience."
Each decade since then has marked a new direction in her work since she never ceases to explore and delve deeply into the innermost reserves of her being to talk about sexuality, womanhood, illness, aging and mortality. Her pieces are unflinching and raw in their immediacy, yet always carefully structured, aesthetically rich and rigorous in their use of the tools of modern media. To sustain this creative impulse over a lifetime is truly remarkable. What is also truly remarkable is that after just recently surviving ovarian cancer, this month Hammer celebrates her 70th birthday. This year will be one of celebration with several international retrospectives in the works and the forthcoming publication of her book, simply called HAMMER.
A couple of days before her birthday, I visited her in her studio in New York's West Village to talk about this dynamic compulsion to constantly be in a state of creativity and what keeps her inspired:
Still in Motion (SIM): You’re going to be celebrating a significant birthday in a couple of days. And the last few years have been an exceedingly intense time, as well, filled with lots of profound transitions. As an artist, a creator, how does this period of your life differ from any other time in your career? You share a lot about what you’ve been through recently in your new film, A Horse Is Not a Metaphor; what compelled you to document your illness and survival?
Barbara Hammer (BH): After four decades of work, I developed ovarian cancer. Upon its discovery, I went through surgery and eighteen rounds of intensive chemotherapy, very aggressive treatment. I’ve been in remission for two and a half years. I never thought I was going to make a film of my experience, never ever. When people would ask me about it, I would say no. I went deep inside myself during that time and hung out very quietly and waited for a recovery. Then, as I got better, I did feel like I wanted to give people hope because ovarian cancer is pretty severe. I was also able to get women who own ranches to lend me their horses to ride—I love to ride. You know, the C-word helps you get things sometimes [laughs]. You get on the airplane first, that kind of thing.
But now, I’ve been in remission for two and a half years, the film has been out for about a year and life has come back to normal. At first I was just so happy to be alive; I still am. I just noticed every little thing, like irises pushing through the soil in early spring; those things meant a great deal to me because it helped me to push through, too. Now I find myself wrapping up because once you get a life-threatening illness. . .
SIM: “Wrapping up” in what sense?
BH: I’m finishing a book; I’m handing it in on Friday. I just got all the stills together to burn a DVD today, and tomorrow I’ll go through some details in the manuscript and I’ve been working on the captions for the stills for a couple of weeks. So, I’m really eager to turn this year’s work, nine months of work, over to the editor [Amy Scholder at The Feminist Press at CUNY] and take a breather, ride a horse, get outside.
Also, after I got cancer, I worked with my assistant to get my film archive in order. I found that I was missing elements of one film, Bent Time . I wrote a grant proposal and New York Women in Film is paying a lab to restore it. I just got an email before you came in the door that the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] is buying it, along with A Horse Is Not a Metaphor and Lover Other . They’ll also be giving me a retrospective next year.
SIM: You’re having a series of retrospectives next year.
BH: Right now, it’ll be the MoMA, which will be in conjunction with the kickoff of the book, and then it’ll go to the Tate Modern in London and then the Reina Sofia in Madrid. There’s also a possibility that the Irish Film Institute will do something, as well; I’ve heard they’re interested.
SIM: So you’ll have a very well-deserved year of celebration.
BH: Yes, a year of travel and celebration. So, I’m getting my archives in order and I also have a large paper archive [pointing to many boxes lined up against a wall of her studio] to get organized by decade, or by film. Now, I need to sell them to a university; there’s one that’s very interested in 1970s work. My archive goes back to the 60s. I kept everything all the way through. I didn’t know that it was valuable but there’s interest. Universities, oddly, don’t purchase film collections, so far. The artist gifts them to the institution. The archive will be compiled and moved out when it feels like the right moment.
Every time there’s a completion, there are new beginnings. I don’t know what mine will be. The trouble is, I always have a new film. I have a film I’m working on now with a young woman called Generations: Two Bolex Dykes. We’re waiting on a grant for that. We just did a shoot last Wednesday, so we finished all our shooting. She hand develops and cross processes the work so it looks very do-it-yourself. We still have some sound to collect and then we both will be editing over the summer. The idea is based on Shirley Clarke’s Bridges Go Round, a film she made in 1958 about the bridges of New York City, a beautiful film. There’s a jazz track and also a classical track. When you watch the film, the images are repeated but the sound is different; you feel like you’ve seen two different films or two different versions. You can’t remember that you ever saw a certain shot before, and yet you have.
We’re going further with that by taking all of our visual elements and all our sound elements. She'll get the packet and I'll get the packet. It’s a mentoring kind of a project but we’re going to reverse stereotypes since she’ll edit in film and I’ll edit digitally; we’ll have the exact same material and then her work and mine will be joined, displaying two different versions.
SIM: How does she perceive herself as a working artist versus your own perception of yourself as a working artist? Are there generational differences that you can discern, different approaches or sensibilities?
BH: I think in the case of Gina Carducci, I wanted to inspire her to make work because she hasn’t made a film for five years. Here was a talented person not using her talent. Like many women and men who come out of college and are used to the structure of that environment—due dates, assignments, etc.—once you’re out in the working world, you can lose your way. She works at a film lab so she’s working with film all day long. It’s hard to generate enthusiasm for her own work. But she’s so enthused now. She lives, drinks and breathes this film. I have to say, “Down, girl!.” I wanted to jumpstart her. The letting go will be in the editing process where we each do our own work. If we continued to work together through the editing process, there would be a concern that at the end, she would not make a film again. I don’t really think so in this case. At some point, the person who’s mentoring wants the one being mentored to recognize her own development and then there’s a letting go. This is the reason for this kind of editing structure. She’ll gain so much authority. The other leg up for her will be making the film with me. She’ll get it shown at the Museum of Modern Art and it’s only her second film. Her first film is great; she showed it at the Venice Film Festival [Stone Welcome Mat, 2003].
The bottom line is that I can’t generalize about a generation; I can only talk about this one person that I chose to work with to pass on my skills. She’s a technician so she’s very measured in her approach to film and I’m not a technician; in fact, one might say I’m the opposite of that. I work very spontaneously. We both mentored one another in those differences. That’s the great thing about collaborating. You get to be more than yourself.
SIM: What kind of characteristics does it take to be a working artist over the course of a lifetime?
BH: Belief in yourself: that you’re worth it, that you’ve got something to say and that it’s important to say it.
SIM: Does that belief ebb and flow? Is it fairly consistent? Do you have a choice in the matter?
BH: For me, it wasn’t so much a choice as much as it was a compulsion. I was driven to make work. I felt like I had a lot to say, especially after I came out. In my film history classes there was absolutely no women's cinema, let alone lesbian cinema. I spent a whole semester watching films at least three hours a week in this class and then we finally saw the films of Maya Deren [born, Eleanora Derenkosky]. Then I knew, for sure, I was a filmmaker. There was a whole blank screen to be filled.
I guess after a while I thought, if I kept making work, it wouldn’t be ignored. Stan Brakhage was my model; he made a hundred films. Like him, I have a discipline and a commitment. I don’t think you can make discoveries in your work unless you’re at it every day—discoveries in writing or interviewing techniques, whatever you’re doing. I have chosen to make this my life’s work. It never came up, an option to do something else.
SIM: Tell me more about how someone like Deren inspired and informed your own work.
BH: She was not only the director of her own films, she was in the films. Her presence in her films exhibited a kind of creative imagination I'd never seen before. You knew that an image of a person clad in black with a mirror had come from her own aesthetic decision or dream or vision. It gave me, and many others, the strength to believe in my own vision and put it out there, not do a traditional narrative or a traditional documentary, but to work in film as poetry. That’s what she writes about.
Also, there’s Man With a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov (1929). That inspired me because of the spontaneity, because the camera was a protagonist. Somehow the camera’s always been my friend. In fact, in one of my films, Synch Touch from 1981, I take it to bed with me. People film me with my camera in bed. Even when I took women out of the cinema and I was the woman behind the camera, you feel the camera as it’s swimming underwater in Pond and Waterfall ; you feel the presence of the gathering of that light by this machine. When I use the optical printer, I try not to hide the fact that I’m using a printer; I show the frameline; you hear the click of the printer in Optic Nerves .
SIM: Sensuality and an immediacy are markers of all your work. You’re very fluid in terms of form, as well, allowing the material to dictate the way in which you tell a certain story. A lot of your work strives for a three-dimensionality, a physical heft and weight to it, which is accomplished in many of your pieces. You also pay a lot of attention to sound and music, which create really rich counterpoints to your visuals.
BH: I did some experiments by leaving the sound completely off. In the instance of Multiple Orgasm , you see eight orgasms on the screen [four vaginal, four facial]. I left it silent because I wanted people to hear their neighbors in the theater breathing. But everybody held his or her breath [laughs]. So that didn’t work. Another film in which I experimented with this silence was Pond and Waterfall, which I just mentioned, an underwater film. I wanted people to be aware of how much water they have coursing through their veins and their blood. So I brought stethoscopes and had members of the audience wear them and listen to their own blood flow. That was their soundtrack. I also chucked that because everybody was spending so much time looking for some area on their body to listen to, they missed the film. So those films both remain silent experiences for the viewer, as much silence as there can be, anyway.
I like to work with composers. Meredith Monk is someone I work with a lot. Neil Rolnick is another one, as is Helen Thorington. There’s also Pamela Z. I’ve been lucky to have been involved with a number of composers who bring their talent to the film. I specialize in visual imagery; they specialize in aural imagery.
I’ve also collaborated with other filmmakers from time to time but only for three or four films. But sound collaboration is something I’ll always be interested in. For me, filmmaking is a very singular process, a very internal process.
SIM: How has your relationship with audience changed over the course of your career? Have there been certain times when your work seemed to resonate more forcefully than at other times due to what was happening in the modern culture?
BH: In the late 60s and through most of the 70s, I didn’t know there were places to show films like museums or cinemathèques. I showed my films at women’s centers, dyke coffee houses, bars, community buildings, anyplace where there could be a projector installed and a wall to project images upon. One day, Terry Cannon called me from the Los Angeles Filmforum and invited me out of my community in San Francisco to come down to L.A. I went down and was given a check at the end of the screening, imagine. I showed my lesbian films to a mixed audience, most of whom I don’t think were gay. People enjoyed them. I got paid for it. There was a program, an announcement in the Los Angeles Times. I saw a whole world open up.
Audiences have changed. They’re more sophisticated now. There’s still a small group who really like experimental films. But people also like to peg you. Audiences get stuck in their ways just as much as any of us can. I made a dozen documentaries during the 90s, essay documentaries for the most part; some are more traditional, as in cases when I was working in a country other than the US, or in a language other than English. When I returned to experimental film with A Horse Is Not a Metaphor, I think most people who knew my name thought I had made a straightforward film on what it’s like to have cancer. They wouldn’t know the depth of imagery I’ve used, the layering I use for the emotional development of the piece through verticality. Maya Deren talks about this poetic way of working, how a poem carries emotion versus how a story does; the images follow one another in a narrative. This poetic way of working is when images build upon one another. Mine builds in Horse through superimposition. So this is a way that I can let audiences know there’s been a change in the way I’m approaching current work. It behooves all of us to mix it up a bit and be more open to different ways in which an artist might work.
SIM: Thankfully, there are curators and programmers out there that will help to push that agenda a bit, although they’re few and far between. The stakes are pretty high for artists now and being creative in the work is not enough anymore, somehow. The creativity has to extend to how you supplant that work into the larger community. One might say that audiences now are too sophisticated, quick to have certain expectations, spoiled for choice.
BH: I never chose to make big budget films, which perhaps might be an expectation after a certain point in one’s career. I never chose to make films that would be shown commercially. I don’t think about meeting anyone else’s expectations. It would be fine if I did but it’s just not my predilection to do so. We are definitely more sophisticated—we have the Internet, YouTube where you can see, literally, anything, anytime; we can download programs whenever we want. But still, experimental cinema doesn’t have its place in the world that it should have. It should be just as strong as documentary film.
SIM: Why do you think it isn’t?
BH: Because young people aren’t exposed to it. How many eighth graders see the work of Maya Deren? I’ve taken my films, not the sexual films, but the underwater films, for instance, and shown them to kids that age. They all got it, of course. I think that’s the reason why we shut down and just learn that there’s "Howdy Doody"—well, that’s dating me, but—you know, "Sesame Street" and whatever else is on now.
SIM: Well, kids are always being talked at; they’re still not listened to in any kind of conscientious way by adults. They aren’t really allowed to take in things without some kind of mitigating filter. What you also have in your work, to a large degree, is a lot of joy and humor which is very childlike, no matter the subject matter or how it’s treated. That resonates deeply with anyone of any age. You can’t fake that kind of thing. It’s very effective in breaking silences, breaking societal rigidity or its denial to acknowledge a whole population of people.
BH: I think that by playing you can definitely change people’s minds. But it’s not like that was a conscious decision on my part to use humor for that affect or to think of play as a political strategy. It is, but I wasn’t conscious of it. I just think it’s more fun; I mean if you can find a way to enjoy, especially if you’re not getting paid for what you’re doing as many of us artists are not, well, we have to find our own pleasure. Pleasure can be in the making of work or the discovery of a creative impulse; concomitantly, you get to share that pleasure with others. Maybe they will enjoy more, too. Minds are changed through laughter, maybe more so than strict political treatises. That’s not always the case. There’s some humor in Nitrate Kisses  but it’s also a very serious film.
SIM: What’s happening in experimental work now that excites you?
BH: I’ve been seeing a lot of this throw-away kind of art, in terms of visual art. I go to galleries a lot and I see this way of being hugely creative in putting things together out of refuse, found objects or cut up pieces of velvet thrown on the floor. There’s a feeling that anything can be art right now. It’s a period where a certain kind of art like “abstract expressionism” or “geometric art” or “feminist art” is not dominating the field. In other words, everybody is out there working. There’s a rebellion against the wealth of the 80s and 90s before the recession. So that if you make something out of ice cream sticks and Kleenex, it’s a good way to show a creative piece made by a creative mind out of the simplest materials. I think it’s an attempt to shake up the curators and collectors and the big auction houses that have raised the prices so high. Those things become a truer sign of the times. And, in turn, they are curated, gathered, purchased. It’s all cyclical.
SIM: It’s so hard to stem the tide of the consumer culture in which we live. Set in motion several decades ago, it really shows no signs of faltering, although the economic times now dictate a more conservative and responsible approach to how we spend our money. But it is relentless, nonetheless. It still seems that if one’s work is not commodified in some way, somehow you’ve missed the boat. There’s an intense fear of obscurity.
BH: It’s hard when there are just so many celebrities that are allowed an extraordinary amount of attention. But I tend to ignore most or all of that kind of thing; I don’t know who the movie stars are. I’m sort of a cultural nerd. I don’t really pay much attention. But that’s not the case in terms of “rich” culture, just the “junk” culture that’s around. Sometimes the celebrity is well-deserved but the big deal about famous people doesn’t affect me much. I want to talk about somebody who’s really pushing art and is having a show opening. Carrie Moyer is a painter I respect very much. Sadie Benning has a show up right now at the Whitney, which I’ve heard is very good. There’s Derek Jarman.
[She gets up and grabs a bunch of DVDs stacked on a desk.] What do I have here? I showed my work at the London Film Archive. They’re not allowed to pay you money for your work, but they asked me what I wanted from their collection and they gave me these. Chris Welsby does beautiful landscape work in his experimental films. Here’s [Abbas] Kiarostami from Iran; François Ozon, a very sensual filmmaker and I love the French language; Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating, one of my favorite films ever; Still Life by Jia Zhang-ke which is a brilliant film; Looking for Langston by Isaac Julien, another great filmmaker from England. Oh, this is one of my favorites, Woman in the Dunes by [Hioshi] Teshigahara—it’s an incredibly sensuous film, skin against the sand, the black and white cinematography, the sand constantly coming down, always falling; there can be just one image in a film that inspires you and then you love that film. Oh, this is great, too; have you seen Pasolini’s Salò? That really shocked me when I saw it. I love it. I love taking taboos and breaking them and he was a master. He had people eating in the toilet and shitting at the table publicly. It just makes us think how we’ve proscribed ourselves culturally in a very strict way. None of us are free.
Taboos are there to be broken—why were they formed and who formed them and how many centuries old are they? Where are we now? Why can’t we talk about menstruation? We are now, but for a long time we weren’t. Menopause, cancer, all of the things that are the “fear” words, you know? Old ladies making love? They’re not sexual anymore. There’s nothing that’s sacred as far as I’m concerned, that shouldn’t be looked at, shouldn’t be explored.
SIM: For your forthcoming book, what themes emerged for you as you were writing it and structuring it? You have this opportunity to write your own “tome” if you will, instead of having somebody else do it.
BH: It has been a great opportunity. Essentially, the book is by decade. It’s the easiest way, really, because each decade, I took a different direction in my work. In the 70s it was a time of coming out, both physically and with my films. I wanted to put lesbians on the screen for the 20th century and into the 21st, so there were a whole group of films that did break taboos from that period. In the 80s, I wanted to be known as an artist because I was only known as a lesbian filmmaker. That wasn’t the way I defined myself; I defined myself as an artist. So I took women out of my cinema and kept working on films that exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art until I got my own show. There was also the thrill of working with an optical printer. I tried to become a painter before I became a filmmaker but I decided I could use every frame as if it were a painting. With the optical printer, I was able to paint the film as I did in Optic Nerves , a film about my grandmother in a nursing home. John Hanhardt saw it. I was teaching in Chicago and I sent him a print. He called me up, told me it was brilliant and that he wanted to put me in the [Whitney] Biennial. That put me on the map as a film artist.
From there, we moved into identity politics in the 90s and I felt I had already been there way before then. I was doing that in the 70s. But I returned to it with more of a “cultural studies” theoretical bent and brought theory into my practice, developing an intellectually rich cinema, as well as this hallmark of sensuality that I’d done in the 70s. Now, in the 2000s, I’m looking at mortality; I’m looking at death and that shouldn’t be something that we’re afraid of talking about.
SIM: That’s the taboo of all taboos, seemingly, beyond anything else.
BH: I’m reading David Rieff’s book on Susan Sontag and her fear of death. [Rieff is Sontag’s son; the book is called Swimming in a Sea of Death.] It’s quite extraordinary because she was such an intellectual and faced so many things and had such a difficult time coming to terms with her own demise. That’s been in my films since ’89 or ’90 where I danced with a skeleton looking it right in the face [Vital Signs, 1991]. But that’s quite different than having an illness and seeing your own bones deteriorate because the chemotherapy is destroying them. We know death through life, our vitality and the appreciation of it, being conscious of that vitality. All that is coming together in the work that I’ve made and am making now.
The book has newly-written intros to each of those periods, followed by reprints of articles I’ve written. There will also be the first thirty pages of a novel I wrote in 1970. So it’s a diverse collection touching on many things, sexuality, film form and structure, the politics of abstraction. It’s more of a compilation, not so much a memoir that I sat down to write except for these introductions for each section. It was an interesting process; I liked it. It’s tedious right now because I’m checking facts and dates, getting permissions from photographers, trying to track them down. I’m also working with an amazing editor. Amy comes over and looks at photos with me. They’re too close to me. We’re doing fifty photos for the book. So we’ll look at the 70s, for instance, and she’ll pick out the ones she thinks we should use. Later, I’ll look those choices over and realize her choices were exactly right. It’s too hard for me to see. I really respect her eye. My partner [Florrie Burke] helps me with the writing sometimes since she’s so good with the English language and grammar and Amy does the fine corrections. So that’s where we are. When I get the galleys back, we’ll do the whole process again. It’s a lot of work. I always wanted to have a book; I always wanted to be in the library.
SIM: I look forward to seeing and reading the finished product of all your hard work. Thank you so much.
I know this blog is only two years old, but once in a while, I like to go through my scrap book and reminisce. Just to see where I was a year ago, I looked over my interview with Iranian filmmaker and festival director, Massoud Bakhshi whom I met at Hot Docs in '08, and really enjoyed reading it again. So I thought you might too (want to read it, that is) if you're not watching crap TV or flat-ironing your hair (be careful!). It actually did my heart a bit of good since I just watched a really awful film and felt a bit depressed. I hate bad films, especially bad films that cost a lot of money---gggrrrr.
Click here to read our conversation. Merci, bonne nuit.
This just in: the 2009 Pulitzer Prizewinners and Nominated Finalists are listed here. Congratulations to these talented journalists, writers and poets. And on a personal note: yay, Holland Cotter and W.S. Merwin!
If there's one thing I've learned in the years I've been interviewing artists, it's that you've just got to jump into the fray whether you're prepped or not when a wonderful opportunity presents itself. I would wager to guess, after talking with her, that filmmaker Heddy Honigmann would feel the same. One always has one's agenda in the old back pocket, of course, but there's something extraordinary in those serendipitous moments when life tells you you're participating in something special, perhaps the one and only chance you'll get.
Honigmann's career is filled with those moments and she shared some of them with me when I sat with her on a rainy evening in Thessaloniki, Greece, just a few days ago. She had just arrived from her home in Holland and was quite tired with very little time between her arrival and the first screening of her new film, El Olvido (Oblivion). An extremely gifted storyteller, Honigmann is also an extraordinary listener, no secret to the many subjects that have sat in front of her camera over the course of her twenty-plus year career to share their tragic and triumphant stories. (Photo of Honigmann from the 2006 International Film Festival of San Sebastian, courtesy Getty Images.)
El Olvido was filmed in the city of her birth Lima, Peru, the second film she's done there. She left Peru after university to study filmmaking in Rome at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografie and started shooting documentaries in 1979. I'm sure the prizes and the awards and the adulation she's received over the years are very dear and meaningful to her, but it is the work itself that brings a light to her eyes and a warm lilt to her voice when she relates how she met this subject or that one, and how together they create a cinema of "profound emotional honesty," in the words of Sean Farnel, director of programming for the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto.
I hope this will be merely the first of many conversations we have together. Here is our talk about behind-the-bar stories of terrorism and corruption while shaking up a batch of Pisco Sours:
Still in Motion (SIM): This is a film about your hometown, Lima, Peru.
Heddy Honigmann (HH): Yes, it’s a film about my home, about the city.
SIM: Did it create a different experience for you because of that?
HH: No. Many people might think it’s like that. The only thing might be that I know parts of this particular city and I know a bit more about the way I have to talk to people there, which for a documentary maker—no, for a filmmaker who makes documentaries—is something that you should be able to do anyway, no matter where you are. You must know how to move in New York or Beirut or in India and in Lima. You have to get to know a place pretty quickly. But, in this case, it was a little bit easier to know it because I was born there. But I did go to areas where I’ve never been before, so in a way, it was the same experience as going to a place where I’ve never been. There was exploration.
And the city has changed so much. But I have seen that already; I have been there researching so the surprises weren’t there so much, which is better because the film is not at all about me and my discoveries. But without this initial exploration, you risk just filming the exotic things about a place or things that don’t match with the general idea you might have about the film if it’s the first time you discover it. It would be different if I had wanted to make a film about a city I didn’t know. Then, the amazing surprises and the unbelievable things you see would take a different amount of time; there would be a different sense of time in order to make certain types of discoveries. I went back to the same places; there is a reason why I got to know certain places and I got to know the people much better by going back to those places again and again. That’s another kind of discovery. For me, it was not super special because it was Lima for this reason.
SIM: But was there a deeper resonance for you as you were talking to these people? Your subjects are so integrated into the place itself; they are the place. They embody the history and the memories there. You have an incredible knack for calling out deep emotional memory, a sense of memory that is quite visceral memory, in your subjects.
HH: That’s in all my films.
SIM: Yes, it certainly is.
HH: I remember when I started this project. I had a one page description, which I gave to some television programmers. They were afraid that there would be a lot of [historical] information in it that people wouldn’t understand. I was so angry with these people. I said, sorry, you have produced three or four of my films already; did you ever hear or see anything that was a pure historical or political piece of information? They never answered, of course, because I don’t play the intellectual who knows how things are.
SIM: You clarified the colloquial expression as if you didn’t know.
HH: Yes, exactly. Or something like, “The Shining Path,” in talking about the guerillas, “has caused a general strike.” I asked, “What do you mean?” “I mean, nobody can come out of the house.” The whole city was empty, a void. So, obviously, I know what happened. That was an incredible moment of integrating the people of the city with that kind of historical information by creating a very emotional scene with a subject by the conversations I have with him. It’s because I’m not interested in this “historical” information, in and of itself.
SIM: These people are just living their lives in what are extraordinarily difficult situations and I think that by portraying them in this way, you show the incredible resilience in the face of that. No matter what craziness is going on or how absurd the situation might be (which creates a lot of funny/sad moments), these people are under the thumb of some pretty insane “leaders.” But there is this sanguine quality, nonetheless, because they still have to live under those circumstances and make the best of it. This is what you capture so beautifully, I think.
I want to talk about this bartender in El Olvido, Mr. Kanashiro. He’s our journeyman through this terrain and he’s so smart. His stories are just absolutely brilliant and teach us so much about the country. He's our history teacher.
HH: He’s great.
SIM: How did you meet him?
HH: My core researcher, Sonia Goldenberg, found him and told me about him. He was giving lessons [in a school for service and hospitality workers]. I talked to him in a café, just him and me, and little by little, he opened and talked about things he’s seen and done. I’d already watched him teach these lessons and knew he was a good talker. I also knew that one of the boys we met on the street [David Gutiérrez] was taking lessons from him. So, there was that connection and there was the Pisco Sour everywhere [the “official” cocktail of Peru] in both the high-class and the low-class restaurants, everyone drinks it, all the presidents drink Pisco Sours—that’s what you do in Lima in a good bar; you probably don’t ask for a whiskey on the rocks. Well, maybe an American would [laughs]. And, in my head very quickly, when I was talking with him in the café, he became the character who would come back over and over, behind the bar serving the Pisco. I wasn’t sure if he would dare to talk quite so openly like he did for me in the film. So I asked him very directly, “Mr. Kanashiro, so you agree to film with us?” “Yes, of course. I will make the Pisco.” “Yes, but there are a lot of stories you can tell.” “Mmmm, I don’t know.” But I knew he would do it the day we filmed. He is such an enthusiastic man; I could feel that he really wanted to give me a good story. His teaching sense, his humor, his wit, his sense of irony—all of this comes through.
The first scene, which is a kind of conversation off-screen as he’s preparing the Pisco, I knew would be a great start to the film because I would have Pisco and, also, in a very open and easy way, I would have the history of Peru, the history of South America.
SIM: He’s a member of the service class, as well, that hears and sees everything but remains discreet.
HH: It created a way of editing the piece in a very beautiful way. [El Olvido was edited by Danniel Danniel and Jessica de Koning.] We did it in two takes and I was able to mix them. In one shot, you don’t see his face as he talks. In the other, he is showing us the mixture of ingredients that go into the drink. And he is saying it all even though you may just see him cutting a lemon or something. I continued to shoot as he was making the Pisco. After this off-screen conversation we had, he was so hot to tell these other stories in his particular way. And, in this way, he becomes such a strong element; you are happy to see him and you appreciate his openness and his wisdom because he’s telling you all these bad things that happened in the country, the gravity of the situations there. But his stories are funny and entertaining. That’s what great comedians do.
SIM: But this is also where the character of the country comes through so sharply, as well, a country that’s been through so much and still goes on. Everyone you speak with is like that—deep reserves of emotion but always displayed with great depths of humor--laughter and tears mixed together. Like the Pisco, there is sweetness in the sugar and bitterness in the lemon and then, of course, the wallop of the alcohol.
HH: It’s something you need to have to survive in such a country. And the Peruvians really have it. The Indians in the mountains are much more reserved, but they have it, too.
SIM: This thought leads me to want to talk about another extraordinary subject in the film. There are quite a few heartbreaking moments throughout; but, for me, what cracked mine in two was this 14-year-old boy named Henry. I wanted to ask you about this title of “Oblivion,” because to me, titles are very important, what you decide to call something is key. And so I thought about this word a lot when watching the film. There are many ways of interpreting it; it’s a complex idea, really. When I saw and listened to Henry explaining that he really is just a shell of a human being, at just fourteen years old—well, he was the physical manifestation of oblivion when it’s defined as the condition or quality of being completely forgotten. It’s a lost life.
In your years of making films, have you ever stumbled upon someone like that, someone that young?
HH: No. But I can tell you that I was looking for someone like that. The title existed before I met Henry. It’s not only related to him but I was looking for him, somebody who has no memory, whose life is so sad that it amounted to a zero, nothing. Can you imagine zero?
SIM: It is hard to imagine, but I believed him.
HH: I would have dinner with my crew—just the sound man [Piotr Van Dijk], cameraman [Adri Schover], assistant director [Ester Gould] and me. Most evenings we went to eat by ourselves to unwind. They laughed when I asked the question, “So guys, are we finding the steps that go down to reach Hell?” My intuition was telling me that I would find Henry, that if there was a Kanashiro in that country, a country with centuries of exploitation and misery, then Henry should be there, also. In fact, there are a lot of Henrys.
So why was I asking that question? Because in order to find Henry, to make his presence possible in the film, I myself would have to create the steps to get to him, to that particular hell. Without those preliminary steps, his presence would be too shocking, like inserting a corpse into these [vibrant] surroundings.
We always parked the car in a certain square when we shot in the center [of the city]. One day, there was another person taking care of the cars rather than the regular guy. This was Henry. He greeted us and told us that the regular guy who took care of the cars had to go do something for several hours and had asked him to take care of the cars. When we asked him to take care of the car, he told us that, of course, he would. After we took our shots, he was there still. I don’t know why, but I asked him his name and asked him if he wanted to eat something. He just nodded his head, no expression on his face.
So he came with Ester and me while the guys were tending to the equipment. He walked like an old man. He made a big impression on me, the way he was walking. He went to sit at the table with a lot of reservation. He was looking around and you could see that he was checking to see if he was doing okay, as if he could be punished, telling me that his life hasn’t been easy. Maybe he had been punished by doing the wrong things. He wanted milk. Because he couldn’t decide what to order, the waiter told him that maybe he would like toast with cheese. And then we saw a little smile, the only time I saw that—a smile brought on by toast and cheese. I’ll never forget the way he took the milk. He didn’t drink it, but consumed it with a spoon, one spoonful after the other. It was impressive.
SIM: He was really savoring it.
HH: Yes, exactly. It was heartbreaking. Then I decided to film with him and I asked him if he was always in that square and he told me he was. He showed me his hands. "I clean shoes; that’s why my hands are black and brown." Taking care of the cars was an exception. He told me he was always in the square. I asked him if we came to see him if he would be willing to film with us. He didn’t ask anything about what we were filming but just told me, “Yes.”
So there was an appointment with Henry and the day we came, he still asked nothing. We shot with the tele-lens as he went from client to client and then I asked him to sit in the square and have a conversation with me with him still not knowing what we were doing or why. And that was it. It was very short. I think that he was very sad after the conversation.
SIM: Do you think it was because that was the first time he’d ever really articulated his lack of memory? That it was a discovery for him to realize that? I’m sure he’d never been asked those questions before or thought about those things.
HH: After he stopped talking, he looked directly into the camera for a long time, as if to say, “Why did you force me to say this? Because I’ve never said it.” I was very sad. We were all totally down after that. We had reached a kind of bottom by discovering this young boy with no hope.
SIM: There’s a point in the scene when the camera moves away from him and seems to focus on something else for a moment before coming back to his face. Was that done on purpose? It’s strange.
HH: Yes, that happens only for about ten seconds. I don’t like it very much. The cameraman himself doesn’t really understand why that happened. There is nothing in focus when he does that. He doesn’t understand Spanish, maybe only a few words. Was the sadness of the boy so powerful he couldn’t take it any more? He really couldn’t tell me why he did that. He knows that he shouldn’t have moved the camera away from the boy; there was no reason to do that. It was like he abandoned him. So, we don’t know. I didn’t ask him to do this and he doesn’t understand why he did it.
SIM: You decided not to cut there, though, to excise that little portion.
HH: No, no.
SIM: Well, it’s actually very evocative, in a way, because the scene is really almost unbearable and so it does feel like an intuitive “looking away” from something that’s extremely hard to handle. It works quite well, actually. Your personal gaze as a director is extremely respectful. But it’s also relentless. You will look and look and look, and so we look, as well, even in those moments when we want to turn away.
I also love that people recite poetry for you. They just happen to have a book, or maybe you give them something to read, and they read it out loud for the camera. And they really get into it—it’s dramatic and deeply moving. People reading poetry out loud in public is somehow “unseemly” for a lot of viewers. I’ve had people tell me that watching that is very uncomfortable for them, which is curious, since it’s something I really love—it makes me well up like nobody’s business. You're so unafraid to be unabashedly romantic.
SIM: You celebrate the part of all of us that reacts to certain pieces of music or a certain passage of literature, or what have you, in a very visceral way; we might be embarrassed or shy about those reactions, again because it’s touching such a deep, personal place. The scene of the couple sitting on their bed and listening to the song from his home village in the mountains while the camera watches them listening is so wonderful. Again, it evokes the power of memory that no words can express.
HH: It’s true: I’m not afraid of romanticism; I’m not afraid of pain. I’m shameless, almost, when I film. But I don’t do it as a voyeur. I’m also there with them. Many times, I’m broken. I’ve learned to control this because I remember my mother used to cry a lot and listening to her cry so much makes me comfortable with tears. I can cry a lot too when watching films when there is really anything happening, a death, a divorce, whatever. Or something romantic—when two people finally kiss. So, yes, I’m like that. When I’m filming, my tears can fall, but I don’t want the audience to see or know about it as if it’s some manipulative thing on my part. That’s the last thing I want.
The strange thing is that my subjects don’t seem to notice. I’ve been sitting with someone as close as you and I are sitting from one another, just one meter away, with the camera beside me. For instance, I remember filming the soldier who was in Srebrenica [Crazy, 1999], saying at a certain moment that he had memories of the people who were being taken away by the Serbs asking for help. They weren't saying anything, but just by their faces, they were asking for help and he couldn’t do anything. And he’s like Henry—there is no outward expression of any emotion but the memories are very strong; he’s full of memories haunting him. It must have been so terrible that any outward expression has disappeared, as if it’s almost erased. I think of Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream (pictured). This man’s face is one second after this scream. Everything is gone after such a scream. That was his face and that was Henry’s face. I thought about this afterwards when we were editing. But I was crying in front of this man and he just continued talking. I don’t think he noticed. In fact, nobody noticed. Also, nobody understood that it was roll number nine with him. I had reserved ten rolls [of film] for this guy because I knew that he could never be rushed. He would have to go through every little thing until he reached that point.
SIM: This is a constant search, I think, for you too, to get that moment. Your subjects must also be sensing something in you that is searching for these moments. People want to reveal; we want to reveal ourselves. We don’t want to conceal, really, although we think we do or we try, but we really want to be found out, especially when someone is there and she’s really wanting to know; she’s saying “tell me,” and it doesn’t matter how the story is delivered, whether you cry, whether you don’t. The expression serves the memory in whatever way it comes out, especially after a long period of repression. It’s the “still waters run deep” idea, I guess. That’s what resonates the most for a viewer, as it does for you.
HH: I had another title in mind at the beginning, very early on when I was only thinking about waiters and bartenders. They have heard so many stories. But nobody’s ever asked them anything. It was like it was the "word of the mute." La palabra del mudo. Nobody interviews someone like Henry.
Maybe in a film about women in Lima who work very hard this would happen, but no one would really go with Lucía to her house. [Lucía lives with her mother on a very high and isolated hill above the city in a ramshackle house, working in the city six days a week, twelve to fourteen hours per day.] Nobody would really be interested in Kanashiro and his story about clandestinely putting the vodka in the orange juice to make an important Peruvian politician or general fall to his knees in public because he’s so drunk.
SIM: Yes, his own personal coup d’état was deeply satisfying to hear--an exquisite and very funny story of quiet, anonymous revenge.
HH: Yes, at this moment, it was all I could do not to laugh out loud. I was delighted. I was practically dancing. You are right about what you said, we want to tell. Many times, we are people who are in love and we’ve been left by our partner. Or we are in some kind of terrible pain. We want to tell and tell and tell, ten times, twenty times, the same story, as if telling the story will bring the person back. We have this need to tell stories. But we don’t always have a listener.
Many of these people I meet in all my films, nobody is ever interested in them. And then, suddenly, there is this little lady standing in front of them who is very curious. I’m always asked, “What is the secret of how you get these stories?” Of course, there is no secret. I’m interested in what and whom I am filming. I’m not filming concepts; I’m not filming ideas. I’m filming people. I hate films about ideas.
(Honigmann talking to old men in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, 2006, for her film Forever. Honigmann's US distributor, Icarus Films, will be releasing a special edition DVD of this film on April 21 to coincide with the New York theatrical release of Oblivion--see below.)
SIM: Those people you film are us. That’s what we’re interested in, after all—our own stories, which is what we hear in your films. I have nothing in common with Mr. Kanashiro, this bartender in Lima. But his humor and his strength and his resilience impress me. I like to think I would have those qualities, too, if I were in his place. I would be strong and silent with a smile always on my face as I served Pisco Sours to unscrupulous politicians and corrupt military men. He’s mastered his performance, the one he acts out every day, as he instructs his students to do. And he’s also performing for you and for me and for whoever will watch this film he’s agreed to be in. But he’s showing us also the secrets to that performance because you’re creating an environment and an opportunity to make that a safe thing for him to do. It’s a unique and very enticing collaboration.
HH: This is something natural in me, I think. I made a little documentary in 1978, or something like that, in film school in Rome. The first three days of shooting were really terrible, really bad. When the camera showed up, I got totally frustrated. And I was directing heavily—“If I ask you this, you will tell me that.” And so on. Like directing fiction. I didn’t know what was happening—I was “there” one moment with all these people with these incredible stories and now everything was getting ruined with the presence of the camera. I will never forget that.
And with that thought, her mobile rings loudly, her producer, Carmen Cobos, on the other end of the line telling her she must come quickly to go to her first screening of El Olvido at Thessaloniki. I look forward to continuing this conversation with her--some other place, some other time.
El Olvido (Oblivion) will open at New York's Film Forum on April 15 for one week only. Tickets will be available online beginning Wednesday, April 8.
And there's even a discount, so there's no excuse to not find this in your "stocking."
Alive Mind is currently offering Sacred Love-Making. "Discover the Ancient Asian [?] Secrets of Sexual and Spiritual Satisfaction Available on DVD." Now I know all you want to know is where to buy it. Click here and use the coupon code SACLOVE15 (yea, baby!) during checkout.
Happy holidays and please do try this at home. Merry, merry.
As I've mentioned here before, I'm doing a series of interviews for the newly launched Re:Frame Collection of several of the 2008 Tribeca Film Institute Fellows. Hugo Perez received an Emerging Artist nod, and my interview with him is now posted here. Perez (pictured with actress, Patricia Clarkson, narrator of his gorgeous Neither Memory Nor Magic) has produced an impressive body of work over the course of the past five years, both fiction and nonfiction, and the project he submitted to Tribeca is a feature script he wrote called Immaculate Conception--I've read it; it's wonderful. This project will be his narrative feature directorial debut.
There'll be a bit of a lull in interviews over there for most of the summer since I'm about to skedaddle out of town to the Flaherty. Hot on the heels of that, I have a month's worth of adventures out of the country--first in Dubai, UAE, and then I'll be hanging in London for a bit, ending my sojourn at Britdoc. I know. Don't cry for me, Argentina.
And I want to give a big shout-out to my blogger friend and mentor, Agnes Varnum, aka Aggie V (Mr. Schnack's moniker for this little spitfire that's taking Austin by storm). She's celebrating the two year anniversary of her excellent blog, Doc It Out. Right on, sister; a big happy anniversary to you!
I swore I wouldn't stay at the Hilton again because it's so bloody far from all the action, but filmmaker and friend, Lucia Small, graciously allowed me to crash with her which was awfully generous, and after a couple of days those shuttles turn into moving filmmaker lounges and I always make new friends on it, so it wasn't too bad. The first day I rode in with filmmaker Yung Chang, director of the breathtaking Up the Yangzte, who had also just arrived. I met this talented sweetheart of a guy in Amsterdam at the IDFA last fall and spent many a night partying on his houseboat there so it was great to see him again. He could only stay a brief time before heading off to Doc Aviv in Israel--he's on the equivalent of the rock star world tour for his film which will have its New York theatrical debut at the IFC Center on the 25th of this month. His film was awarded two honorable mentions at the fest this year, one for The Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award and one for the Spectrum Award.
Upon arriving at the Civic Center, I headed to the press desk to get checked in and met the always graceful-under-pressure press director, Samantha Coles, with whom I'd been corresponding for a while. I brought her the copies of the Cinema Eye Honors program guide she requested, got my tickets and hit the theaters.
Jesse Epstein has been making a series of shorts about body image and the third is called 34x25x36 (a still from the film pictured above; apparently an inch got added to the waist since the trailer upload on Facebook), an eight-minute field trip to the City of Industry in Los Angeles where we visit the Patina V mannequin factory where the "perfect" female body is created --over and over and over again. Epstein takes different approaches in this multi-part exploration. This verite-style piece, shot on different formats, consists of the fanciful philosophies of a mannequin designer, who pontificates on the comparison of these mass-produced "goddesses" and the worship of other holy figures. (I won't talk about the accompanying feature that screened directly after 34x25x36 because it was horrendous; the subject matter warranted a really interesting and evocative treatment. This was neither. I can't say anything nice, so I won't say anything at all--thanks, Mom.)
The rest of the evening was given over to opening night festivities in Fletcher Hall, the grand theater attached to the Civic Center. After welcoming remarks from Elizabeth Edwards and Ariel Dorfman's lovely tribute speech to Nancy Buirski (see last post), Peter Askin's Trumbo screened. I really liked this film. I found it very moving and well-crafted with beautiful readings from Christopher Trumbo's play about his father, Dalton (pictured left in a photo taken by his wife, Mitzi). Writers and poets are my heroes. But a filmic treatment of a literary figure can be problematic, for obvious reasons. One has to get mighty creative to lift brilliant prose or verse off the page and onto a movie screen and avoid any kind of cliched biopic. Like the play, the film is an homage to this electrifying personality. Fantastic archival footage, clips from the films he wrote (both credited and non), Super 8 home movies and staged monologues from some of today's most brilliant thespians like Donald Sutherland, Liam Neeson (it was weird to hear him without his entrancing Irish lilt), Joan Allen, David Strathairn and the crackling Nathan Lane, who delivers a tour de force performance with his reading of a letter Dalton wrote to his son on the subject of masturbation--all combine wonderfully well in breathing life into Trumbo's searing prose. It was hugely entertaining and inspiring.
The next morning, despite a severe lack of sleep (which would continue to elude me over the course of the whole fest--thus no writing during), I got myself to a 10:30 screening of Hugo Perez' Neither Memory Nor Magic. Why it screened in the cavernous Civic Center, I have no idea, but it was a bit disheartening for the filmmakers to see that the vast space was only taken up by a few stalwart audience members. I met the talented Perez at True/False last month and was really looking forward to seeing this film--again, I'm the audience. The film portrays, in memoriam, the life of Hungarian poet (and Holocaust victim), Miklos Radnoti, whose achingly beautiful verse transcends the tragedy of his short life. This is a gorgeous film, wonderfully edited by Francisco Bello (his Academy Award-nominated short, Salim Baba, was also playing at the fest) and artfully and lovingly crafted with deep reservoirs of both deep grief and soaring inspiration--words and images collide to create a collage of an artist's quiet life mixed with one of the most horrific events in recent history. And because this film is told in such a hauntingly quiet way, the devastation is all the more heartrending. The last shot of Radnoti's widow sitting silently in the apartment she and the love of her life shared before he was carted off to a labor camp in Serbia, staring at his portrait as we listen to some of his final words left me both bereft and, strangely, joyful. It is a story of transcendence and legacy and, most of all, love. There would only be one other film I saw this weekend that would move me so deeply--more on that in a bit.
I honestly can't remember what the hell I spent the early afternoon doing, but I made it back into the theater in the late afternoon for Trouble the Water, grand jury prize winner for documentary at Sundance and a much-anticipated film to see. I was not disappointed in the film. It was a good film and it had moments in it, like all the Katrina films I've seen thus far, that left me feeling sucker-punched anew at the callous and disgusting way the citizens of that city were treated. There was one scene, in particular, where they play a recording of a 911 call made by an elderly woman all alone in her house. She's calling for someone to come to her rescue. The call is played over footage, shot by Kimberly Rivers Roberts, of the rapidly rising water. When told, politely but bluntly, that there would be no help coming for her anytime soon, the woman says to the operator, "That means I'm going to die." And the woman on the other end of the line confirms that fact by simply saying, "Yes." I thought I was going to throw up. I wrote about my problems with this film a bit in my last post when I linked to AJ's compare-and-contrast post on this film and Axe in the Attic, but suffice to say, there are ethical issues that present themselves here in the making of this documentary that will garner further discussion down the road.
I caught the last part of the Center Frame screening of The Black List, directed by renowned portrait photographer, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. I did enjoy it, but it got rather boring pretty quickly since it was a series of static interviews, one after the other, conducted by critic Elvis Mitchell with twenty prominent African-American citizens. Highlights, for me, were the interviews with comedian Chris Rock, statesman Vernon Jordan, writer Zane and the Reverend Al Sharpton. It was a very appreciative and enthusiastic audience, cheering, clapping and whooping when they heard something they liked.
I got sidelined on my way to that night's party by a triumvirate of female directors. Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths), Lisa Jackson (The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo; Lisa, eerily, also appears in Ed Pincus' Diaries, which was also playing at the festival) and Irena Salina (FLOW: For Love of Water) were all on the same delayed flight and had just landed for the first time in Durham. Margaret yelled out, "Are you Pamela?" (weird) and being that I was, indeed, her, I said, "yes." They were totally disoriented and hungry and tired so I accompanied them over to the filmmaker check-in and then took them to Piedmont, a local restaurant with mighty fine food; they also host the annual filmmaker/press breakfast. Of course, it was packed, but we saw friends getting quietly drunk at the bar, so visited and ate a little something before heading over to the party. By Friday night, most everyone was in town so it was fun saying "hey" to old and new friends and eating some of Giorgio's good chow while listening to the guys from the Squirrel Nut Zippers. A fine evening complete with pissing-down rain and thunder storms. Having gotten kicked out at exactly one past midnight into that nasty stuff, we retired to a local bar to drink some more until we were kicked out of there, too. When I arrived back at the Hilton, another filmmaker gathering was in full swing in the lobby, but I intrepidly headed towards my bed since it was closing in on 4:00 a.m.
I just returned from my second Full Frame Documentary Festival, once again inspired and awed by the fine work nonfiction filmmakers are creating worldwide. It was a great program this year, as it always is, but it wasn't without its scheduling glitches, its annoyingly pokey shuttle loop and a few horrendously uncomfortable and unwieldy venues that have just got to go, people, seriously.
But there was local hospitality guru Giorgio's food (and plenty of it--you don't go hungry in Durham), fantastic and interesting films of which I will share my thoughts and feelings in the coming days, wonderful company, and lots of swell parties and after-hours drinking. In other words, the usual mayhem when fiercely creative minds converge on a small town with nary a McDonald's in sight. Had plenty of interesting debates and conversations, saw lots of friends and made some new ones and, generally, had a ball. Some of these debates were about the jurying that goes on at domestic festivals and about how, disturbingly, insular that system is becoming. It really is step-outside-the-box time in this regard if this community will want to continue to be taken seriously in the larger context of the international nonfiction scene. We're moving down not so smart paths and it's starting to show in the work that's being produced in the name of getting docs to play theatrically as viable box office entities.
The title of this short post is from something that Ariel Dorfman said in his tribute speech to departing festival head, Nancy Buirski, who was there throughout to give this festival she's lovingly grown for the past decade of her life her own send-off with a curated program and quiet support. This was opening night right before they screened Trumbo, another defiant gardener. I expect this festival to change greatly in the next five years or so; time will tell what kinds of changes those will be. Should be exciting. Or not.
So back to the defiant gardens speech: Dorfman was expressing the idea that these "gardens" grow from filmmakers giving audiences a voice and a forum for deep thought and provocation, and audiences, in turn, giving filmmakers the same, creating a dialogue rich in support, encouragement, critique and, sometimes, a hue and cry, together creating potential for growing a community into something both nutritionally sound and beautiful. Of course, Dorfman was a hell of a lot more articulate than I am here at midnight on Sunday, hung over and sweating in my overheated room writing a bit after emerging from four straight days of film-gazing inside darkened theaters. Truth be told, I'm a bit dizzy with all the mulching going on in my head and heart. More in the next couple of days about Full Frame.
In the meantime, please read AJ Schnack's current great piece on two Katrina films that played the fest, one in competition, one not: Ed Pincus' and Lucia Small's Axe in the Attic (of which I've written favorably a few times since I saw its debut at the New York Film Festival in the fall and, full disclosure, have become close friends with one of its directors) and Tia Lessin's and Carl Deal's and Kimberly Rivers Roberts' Trouble the Water, a film that troubled me a bit for exactly the same reasons it does AJ (and Yance Ford, with whom I had a passionate conversation about this film). If you click on the link of the film's name, maybe you can figure out what's missing on their, oddly blank, imdb page (forget a credit, how about a name). I don't know; I smell a law suit if things aren't addressed properly now in the credit department. The film's winning a lot of big festival prizes (it won three at the awards ceremony that took place this afternoon including the Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award) and might have a chance of making some money at the box office--after all, the mighty Moore is attached. The made-for-TV touch of the two protagonists having their baby while at the Sundance festival this year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has already made this an epic story in more ways than one.
Today is composer, writer, philosopher and visual artist, John Cage's birthday--he would have been 95. I attended a birthday tribute held for him at St. Mark's Church Parish Hall in the Bowery.
For the 15th year, his friends, colleagues and fans got together to honor all things Cage. Produced in association with the Danspace Project, the evening celebrates a true renaissance man for the modern age. Cage continues to be muse and inspiration to many artists, both young and old. The house (which unfortunately was permeated by the smell of stale piss) was packed with old friends and young fans there to pay homage to a modern master. Yoko Ono sent a beautiful arrangement of yellow posies and a sweet birthday note.
From the program notes: "His most enduring, indeed notorious, composition, influenced by Robert Rauschenberg's all-black and all-white paintings, is the radically tacet 4' 33." Encouraging the ultimate freedom in musical expression, the three movements of 4' 33" are indicated by the pianist's closing and reopening of the piano key cover, during which no sounds are intentionally produced. It was first performed by the gifted pianist and Cage's long-time associate, David Tudor, in Woodstock, New York on August 29, 1952. Also that year at Black Mountain College, he presented a theatrical event considered by many to have been the first Happening." --Laura Kuhn
Enamored of this city for many reasons--just one of which is the fact that an intrepid Chinese man will get on his bicycle in a raging snowstorm and deliver hot pancakes with maple syrup to your door at 3:00 a.m. (this really does happen, my boyfriend and I used to place an order all the time because it delighted us so much and was such a soothing thing in the dead of winter and yes, we tipped damned well), this is one of those evenings that will get me out the door at the end of the day just to see who shows up and what happens in a room when so many creative, wacky people get together.
There were many beautiful readings of Cage's work, passages read from Finnegan's Wake, and readings and playlets on mushrooms, music, Marcel Duchamp, Merce Cunningham (Cage's romantic partner) and Marshall McCluhan. While someone recited a litany of the Cage oeuvre with his back to the audience, accompanied by Cage's music, another young man stuffed pounds of feathers into his mouth, visibly gagging on them before asphyxiating himself with a garbage bag over his head, while another man floated around the room in his underwear wearing angel wings, a beaded mask and waving a toy duck suspended on a string above audience members' heads. If you think I'm making this shit up, think again. Lovely violin duets were played with accompanying interpretive dancer. Original mesostics were read along with recited Cage favorites to celebrate a life and legacy that means so much to so many "fringe" New York musicians, writers and performance artists. Weird, touching, funny and moving, dancers, poets, actors and artists honored him in 4 minutes, 33 seconds each. Why this time limit? See above.
A personage like Cage is rare. And a celebratory evening dedicated to someone of his unique talents and vision could only happen in this rare and unique city. A place which I'm falling in love with more and more each day I spend here.
More Cage celebrations are on tap this month--on September 11, Nurit Tilles will perform excerpts from Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes" in a free concert at the Lincoln Center Library for Performing Arts (which has a Merce Cunningham exhibit), and upstate on September 28, Cage's "Lecture on the Weather" will be performed at Bard College.
From the September 3 & 10 issue of The New Yorker:
Just an uncommon lull in the traffic so you hear some guy in an apron, sleeves rolled up, with his brusque sweep brusque sweep of the sidewalk, and the slap shut of a too thin rental van, and I told him no a gust has snatched from a conversation and brought to you, loud. It would be so different if any of these were missing is the feeling you always have on the first day of autumn, no, the first day you think of autumn, when somehow
the sun singling out high windows, a waiter settling a billow of white cloth with glasses and silver, and the sparrows shattering to nowhere are the Summer waving that here is where it turns and will no longer be walking with you,
traveller, who now leave all of this behind, carrying only what it has made of you. Already the crowds seem darker and more hurried and the slang grows stranger and stranger, and you do not understand what you love, yet here, rounding a corner in mild sunset, is the world again, wide-eyed as a child holding up a toy even you can fix. How light your step down the narrowing avenue to the cross streets, October, small November, barely legible December.