Liza Béar co-founded Avalanche magazine in the ’70s, and later produced the TV show, Communications Update. Her short films include: Oued Nefifik: A Foreign Movie, Lost Oasis, and Earthglow. She has just directed her first feature film in 35mm, Force of Circumstance, a minimalist intrigue that explores one of the shadier areas of US support in the Third World.
Robert Lang Force of Circumstance announces itself immediately as political. Did you start out with a desire to make a political film?
Liza Béar Yes.
RL Are your going monosyllabic on me?
LB Turn off the machine!
RL No! Leave it alone. Let’s start with the last line of the film: “Choice is a Western concept.” Choice can also lead to change.
LB Hmmm. Good point.
RL Your film wasn’t made just to be entertaining.
LB No, but I definitely want people to enjoy it—for what it is. I’d be foolish to ignore why people go to the movies.
RL Liza, there’s a whole discourse on the media in the film.
LB Yep. I must have been pretty obsessed with it. I’ve certainly done quite a bit of it myself.
RL Do you think political change is most effectively brought about through the media? Or is armed political struggle the only way, in the end?
LB Recent events have shown that it need not be. But I’m not taking sides on that one in this film. It’s more contemplative than agit-prop. I made a script decision not to portray violence or torture graphically.
RL You’ve made a film. But what does a poor and oppressed people do to bring about change, to improve their lot?
LB Like the rest of us, they do what they can. Mostly they work, dream, and mark time. And then they organize and protest—and they’re crushed. I myself go through acute phases of activism, but I can’t sustain it 24 hours a day. The film grew out of an event that affected me very much—the Casablanca massacre of over a thousand people, many of them children, on June 20th 1981—I was there the day after with my five-month-old son. I have this incredible child, and all those other people lost theirs—forever. It was scary. A sense of precariousness, as well as suppressed anger, is maybe what gives the film its tone. However, that’s by no means all the movie is about, and I wasn’t making a one-issue film.1 First of all, I’m pretty interested in all my original characters. Other stuff happened along the way. In a feature, all those insights . . . about relationships, about the way the world works, get sifted and distilled into the script.
RL How did you find your co-screenwriter, and how closely did you work together?
LB Well, I’d written some kind of outline and decided on the characters. Craig [Gholson] is a writer friend I’ve known for many years who’d published some short stories. I think we understand each other’s sense of humor. A screenplay can be a sticky wicket. It’s well-suited to the back and forth. Craig has since done a number of plays.
RL What do you think of the power of the media? Very early in the film we get the impression that the single most important thing is for Mouallem to get in touch with the journalist, Katrina.
LB In this case, frontal US media coverage might have affected Congressional appropriations and the war might have ended sooner. Mouallem’s character was largely based on someone I knew who was the Polisario’s UN representative, a very gentle guy. He spent most of his time doing just that. What I tried to do was to translate some kind of strong political awareness into the individual dilemmas of the characters. I didn’t simply want to let people here know about the situation in Morocco, although that’s Mouallem’s objective in the story. I thought of her as a pretty single-minded, vulnerable activist. Boris Major, who grew up in Squat Theatre, made good suggestions. Actors like to have more emotional resonance than I probably gave them to work with, but I was concerned with how a political event far away can touch other characters who appear to be unrelated to it, and also to show that the US supports the oppressive regime in that country, to track all those interconnections.
RL We always seem to be backing the wrong horse.
LB I didn’t want the politics to overwhelm the dramatic concerns, but to show how it percolates down to very personal character decision-making. How what you know affects how you act—to me, in 1984, that was dramatic enough. The conflict is generated at the intersection between the public and political, and the private and moral.
RL You mean, the real moral drama is Hans’s inner struggle over whether or not to sell his house to a despot.
LB That’s Hans’s conflict. But Katrina’s conflict is more how her knowledge affects her emotional rapport with Hans—it’s more of a mind-body tug if you like, and he becomes a competing demand on her time. That’s just as important as Hans’ dalliance with his ancestors, although I like the brooding ambiguity Tom Wright brought to the role. The process of decision-making, and hence the motivation for action, is much less cause-and-effect than it’s often made out to be. People often drift into what seem to be major decisions. But I must say, it was pretty ambitious, on a first feature in the ultra-low-budget range . . .
RL It doesn’t look it, though. It looks pretty wonderful.
LB Thank you. Zoran Hochstatter, the main DP, gets most of the credit there, and all the other great crew people. Bobby Bukowski shot the shantytown scenes. It was a pretty international crew, Yugoslav, Russian, French, Pakistani, American . . . I also watched over the whole thing like a hawk at every stage of postproduction.
RL What sort of structure or genre did you have in mind when you wrote the script?
LB You know, it’s not really genre-specific. It’s going to be hard to shoehorn this film into an existing genre. It’s a four-character story . . . The structure is sort of woven together from different strands of parallel action. Craig says the story has a “loopy logic.” It proceeds in a weird way, like walking sideways. The plot links are rather fragile and elliptical for a full-fledged drama. I sort of hover over certain points, leave, and come back to them later. But you’re the expert on genre analysis, what do you think?
RL The film is not as hard to follow, or as weird in its structure, as you seem to think. I think the average person can follow it. You’ve incorporated some basic things from Hollywood. I mean, there is a story. And the film has a beginning, a sense of movement, an ending . . . lots of journeys. Aeroplanes, limousines, people walking. It has suspense.
RL Are the opening shots significant in some way I might have missed? The boys jumping for that sort of foccaccia on a stick?
LB It’s an allegorical theater piece, actually, that the Moroccan children perform. The kid with the suit and the shoes is the one that gets the bread. Children played a critical role in instigating the ’84 riots.
RL Maybe you should talk a bit about the historical set-up.
LB The story is framed by the ’81 and ’84 riots. You know, the ’81 riots and civilian massacre were given about a column inch on one of the back pages of the New York Times three or four weeks after the event. Hassan hired a really good PR firm in Washington. I also heard that he bought back all the ’84 TV footage of the riots from Spanish TV. He can afford to. Those were two peak periods in recent Moroccan history when people demonstrated their opposition—primarily to the war in the Western Sahara, which has been dragging on since 1975, and has been putting an intolerable strain on the economy. It’s kind of a Moroccan Vietnam against the Sahrawi Republic who are led by the Polisario. The riots were also a demonstration against the existence and treatment of political prisoners.
RL So the thriller element of the film derives from the business of releasing information, making these things known in the context of a police state.
LB Also its cryptic quality.
RL You could call it an infothriller.
LB Right! We were very conscious, Craig and I, not to overdo the chase scenes. The extensive locomotion reflects my own experience. I’ve lived on three continents.
RL Me too.
LB It’s a factor of modern existence. I’ve got nothing against the Aristotelian unities of time and place, but the location changes are not arbitrary. The people in the shantytown are trapped in one place; Hans isn’t. It’s a big deal for Mouallem to make that jump across the Atlantic, especially for a young woman from that culture.
RL Hans is a landowner, a man of property. The world is his.
LB Yep. He has things to do, places to go. He exercises his range of motion. It’s nothing for him to switch from his estate to his club to the Aspen Institute, or whatever. I also like the fact that the envoy and the bodyguard at one point happen to be in the same train compartment as Hans. Are they going to meet? The train tracks are very much a visual correlative of the structure—parallel action.
RL Do you have a theory of acting? How do you like to work with actors?
LB Well, now, Robert, what do you think?
RL I think you’re more interested in other things about filmmaking than you are in performance.
LB I like it low-keyed. And sardonic.
RL Okay. Tell me, then, how . . .
LB Basically, I just let them work from the script. It’s a pretty collaborative process—up to a point. On the shantytown scenes, I had to be very patient. There were a lot of misconceptions about the kinds of people who live there. The one I went to in Casablanca was beautifully kept. Some people were university-educated. Their housing crisis is long-standing. On the set we had to work pretty fast, guerrilla-style in the train scenes. We always had very limited time at each location. Indoors, we usually did more takes and there were more complicated tracking shots. The whole cast contributed a great deal. Even the non-actors, like Grace Litwin, the lady in the hatshop. Almost all the main cast are themselves filmmakers or artists, writer-performers like Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone Junior, they’re part of a vigorous downtown scene. Eric Mitchell is a film director. He started New Cinema on St. Marks Place in ’78, Tom Wright also writes and directs plays. He and Jessica had worked together, as had most of the others, either in films or plays. They had plenty of experience working this way.
RL I recognized several names.
LB I’m sure! Incidentally, there’s no way that film could have been shot in Morocco.
RL The Moroccan scenes were very convincing. I would never have guessed they’d been shot in Manhattan . . .
LB On a Lower East Side lot with materials scavenged from dumpsters. Michael McClard and Lester Cohen designed and constructed the set from photographs taken in Casablanca. I knew exactly the look I wanted. Also, I’d recorded ambient sound while I was there in ’81—even the traffic sounds are different—more mopeds, dogs howling.
RL At one point, Mouallem watches Casablanca on the TV in her hotel room . . .
LB The other scene that alludes to Casablanca is the piano bar scene. Mouallem is melancholy, the Washington info-system evades her. She’s met the pianist, Evan Lurie, before in the hotel lobby. I like to suggest things that don’t happen. Although it’s clear he may be interested in her, she’s a modern woman, to whom work comes first. Of course, with Katrina, that element of her character is developed much further, to the point where it becomes her internal conflict.
RL Shades of Rick and Ilsa, while Sam plays “As Time Goes By”?
LB Yes. That’s Evan’s own music that he plays. When they first make eye contact, he switches from the light jazz to something more dynamic that he composed himself. It’s a moment. The rest of the soundtrack was scored by Mader, it was really great working with him on that. How could I make a film that’s partly set in Casablanca, and not acknowledge . . .
RL . . . the most famous movie in the world? There are a couple of other allusions.
LB You could also say it’s an update on it. Casablanca—the movie—sums up most people’s total knowledge of the place. Maybe they don’t think the city exists anymore. That makes it even more romantic.
RL I was thinking about Mouallem seeing the Watergate complex. A nice reference to another kind of political corruption.
LB Yes, of course . . . Some of the best scenes were improvised on the spot, like Exercise with Gloria and her joggers on the country road. It was written in the camera car and at the roadside setting up.
RL Oh yes. It’s the sort of thing that people not born in this country find positively surreal. How American do you feel?
LB Not at all! I feel like a New Yorker. I came over by choice in ’68 with £50 in my pocket, the Oxford Edition of John Keats and a leather-bound Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a quadrille notebook of nature poems. All that stuff was confiscated from a locker in Grand Central where I’d left my suitcase. Now my son is in grade school . . .
RL And watching The Revenge of the Mutant Ninja Turtles on TV.
LB Exactly! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You’ve got to say all four words. The afficionados do. I’m like you—a transnational or . . .
RL The envoys who travel to the US to find an estate for the King . . . they are sort of a comedy team.
LB Yep. They spend the entire movie looking for those white columns. Since they represent movie bad guys, we didn’t want them shooting anybody in the knee, so we made them comic villains but more puffy and ridiculous. It was also the way Eric and Filip Pagowski chose to portray the characters. I don’t have such a Machiavellian view of the world. The real villain is quite often sheer bungling—crossed wires, inertia, apathy, and negligence.
RL The Family Council meeting—when they’re all on horseback in the paddock, and Herman says, “Somebody’s got to decide on this farm business”—is very nice. Herman then, in anger and frustration, cuts down a tree. Why?
LB It’s what the investors call the murder scene.
RL Is there any question I haven’t asked that I should?
LB A lot of the dialogue is very internal. Or maybe what I mean is, it operates on more than one level. The Club scene, the International Organization of Experts meeting—I’ve always been interested in “private” languages—the way members of a special interest group or subculture talk to each other—which is usually what I miss from a lot of mainstream movies. They don’t seem to care about it. Well, Heathers is an exception, linguistically. The Wannsee Conference, the German film about the “final solution,” is maybe a supreme example of talking about it without talking about it. Communication by innuendo and subterfuge.
RL They’re funny scenes. Nicely ironic.
LB The Experts are very slightly modelled on groups like the International Monetary Fund—I did some time in Washington—that influenced what happens to the bidonville in Morocco. I wanted to expose the web of interlocking interests—economic, military, and social. There’s a US corporation that supplies their government with the surveillance equipment they used to monitor the Polisano maneuvers in the Sahara desert . . .
RL Is that the Excelvision scene? The woman who is eager to sell to Morocco, although she thinks it’s in the Far East?
LB Yes. Some of the research found its way into the movie, I had far more good stuff than I could possibly use dramatically—though I also used original source material as the documents that Mouallem carries. Those aren’t fake, I made xeroxes and sent them to foreign news desks before we wrote the script, but they didn’t write back. I also sent telegrams to the palace in the days before they had faxes. I thought the US media underplayed the significance of what was going on over there. How State Department policy influences what the public gets to hear about is not well-advertised, to put it mildly. I don’t want to be too simplistic about it though. By the way, Hassan did not buy a house in Virginia, but after the script was written, he bought a house in Bernardsville, New Jersey.
LB Yes, a weird thing happened. Things which we put in the script as fiction later became fact, before the film was finished. It was a little unnerving.
RL I’ll bet.
LB Around the time of the ’84 riots, I called several major news programs in New York, and asked why the riots were not being reported. One of them gave me the line—adapted for Charles Floris in the film—that Michael Jackson’s hair catching fire during the shooting of a Pepsi commercial was more newsworthy.
RL News as entertainment.
LB You know, there’s still a Berlin wall between fact and fiction, even though the two infiltrate each other’s territory. The thing is, documented facts and fiction can both be used in a narrative context, to dramatic ends—to hide or distort the truth or to enhance it. To show the reasons why things are as they are. I’m talking about emotional truth as well. Several other recent films are on this track.
RL You’ve blended the realities of an actual situation with some of the features of a fiction film.
LB The particular way the documentary elements underpin the fiction, are unravelled as part of the story, and the way the real documents themselves turn up as visual props is maybe new. I’m sowing an information trail, doing a sort of double “slow disclosure.” The situation is probably too dangerous for me to be more interventionist than that.
—Robert Lang is the author of American Film Melodrama: Griffith, Vidor, Minnelli (Princeton, 1989). He met Liza Béar in the corridors of Dodge Hall at Columbia University.
[Liza Béar directed the film Force of Circumstance, a political drama set in the infamous city of Casablanca and Washington DC. Her body of work of short films consist of A Foreign Movie, Lost Oasis, and Earthglow.]
1. Although the opening sequence of Force of Circumstance is set in a Casablanca shantytown. The majority of the film is set in Washington DC.