Daily Postings
film : interview

Masha Tupitsyn

by Charity Coleman

Radical intimacy, technological estrangement, and hyphen as psychic portal.

I once knew a projectionist who carried a notebook with him to every single screening he attended. In that notebook, he would document the film’s format, running time, the quality of the print (including sloppy splices—he refused to watch digital projection), and he always sat in the same area of the theatre. He filled his notebooks with thousands of films. It was a lesson in devotion, a gesture of love: even if he hated the film, he still archived its anatomy. The passivity of “moviegoing” is turned on its head by such active listening, active viewing. Similarly, Masha Tupitsyn’s Love Sounds is a visual-aural dissection that draws the viewer into a more discerning, engaged perceptual experience.

As a meticulous and unflinching archive, its numbers are impressive. The final part of Tupitsyn’s immaterial trilogy, Love Sounds is 24 hours long and comprised of more than 1,500 love-related audio clips from films spanning 85 years (1930s– present). The only images are of a black screen with white titles denoting subject matter. The other two parts of the trilogy are LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (Zero Books, 2011) and Love Dog (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013).

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film : interview

John Pirozzi

by Steve Macfarlane

Recovering the history of Cambodia’s sound.

“We were like a blank piece of paper. When they tell you to sing, you just sing.” So says chanteuse/genocide survivor Chhom Charvin of life under the Khmer Rouge in John Pirozzi's Don't Think I've Forgotten, a spellbinding survey of Cambodia’s lost era of psychedelia-infused lounge rock and roll. Pirozzi’s film is enamored of a music that never got a chance to take off internationally, but it’s also sober and methodical in its analysis of the circumstances that led to its demise—collecting firsthand accounts from dozens of survivors and artists with dashes of colorful concert footage, album covers, and Technicolor studio performances.

What initially seems standard-issue about the film soon betrays a high watermark of investigative journalism, with individual relationships between artists mapped across a sequence of agonizingly tense years as a Nixon Administration-backed coup (led by prime minister Lon Nol) deposes Cambodia’s heretofore god-king Sihanouk. A former French colony still young in its era of independence, the staunchly neutral Cambodia would soon open itself up for American intervention, and it's here—following the coup, and Nixon's illegal bombings just over the Vietnamese-Cambodian border—that the Khmer Rouge found an opportunity to topple Lon Nol’s government.

Among the 1.7 million people killed by the regime, iconic musicians like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea didn’t merely vanish into the death camps; their albums, films, and personal effects were destroyed in an attempt to rub out the country’s postcolonial heritage. The scene was crushed, their friends and colleagues sentenced to labor in agrarian camps, disguising themselves as farmers and laborers. More than a few of those veterans live to tell the tale in this film, while the music—already plenty ethereal in its own right—takes on a tragic, retroactive poetry. These are the songs of a generation allocated exactly one brief moment on the world stage, rendered both haunting and quotidian in Pirozzi's film—which is equal parts heartbreaking elegy and long-overdue restoration. Plus, the tunes are catchy as hell.

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film : interview

Frédéric Tcheng

by Paul Dallas

Haute couture, vérité documentary, and the ghost of Christian Dior.

The histories of fashion, art, and film often intersect in unexpected ways. I was reminded of this recently while watching Les enfants terribles, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1952 film adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s classic novel about devious siblings immersed in a private world of games, role-playing, and self-destruction. It’s a strange, dark parable of creativity and alienation wrapped in Melville’s stylish production. And notably, the film’s opulent costumes were created by Christian Dior, the preeminent romantic post-war designer.

Admittedly, his name might have slipped by unnoticed in the credits had I not also recently seen Frédéric Tcheng’s new documentary Dior and I. Tcheng’s film, which details the creation of Raf Simons’s first couture collection for the House in 2012, is as much an absorbing ticking-clock vérité as it is a moody meditation on time and transference. Throughout, Tcheng artfully deploys archival footage of Dior, often slowed down and paired with an intimate voice-over narration taken from the designer’s 1952 memoir. The effect is haunting and emotional—which is appropriate, given that Dior and I is essentially a ghost story.

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film : interview

Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman

by Pamela Cohn

A new documentary celebrates the great filmmaker Ousmane Sembène.

“It is good to be at Cannes, but I wish Africa would create something of its own. We should not be eternal guests. It is up to us to create our own values, to recognize them and to carry them throughout the world. We are not alone in the world, but we are our own sun. I do not define myself relative to Europe. In the darkest of darkness if the other does not see me, I do see myself. And surely do I shine!” – Ousmane Sembène

As a seventeen-year-old in Senegal, Samba Gadjigo didn’t really know what it was to be African. He only knew that he wanted to be as French as possible, to emulate everything French that was around him so accurately that he would, eventually, be able to bury everything about himself that was African.

Then he discovered a book called God’s Bits of Wood by a fellow Senegalese writer called Ousmane Sembène. Sembène would go on to become one of the most important film directors to come out of the African continent. And with the help of the young and star-struck Gadjigo—who was then a professor in the French department at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts where he still teaches today—Sembène’s legacy continues to live on.

Sembène was born in 1923 in Casamance in southern Senegal and worked as a laborer since the age of fourteen. In 1944, he was drafted into the French army, an experience that deepened his understanding of colonization. It served as the basis for his feature films, Emitai and Camp de Thiaroye. After World War II, Sembène moved to Marseilles where he worked on the docks, taught himself to read and write, and dove into studying the writings and teachings of Karl Marx, Pablo Neruda, Jack London, Birago Diop, Richard Wright, and Ernest Hemingway. He became a writer as well, in French but also in his native dialect of Wolof. But the majority of the people he wanted to reach through his writing were illiterate in any language, so he turned to cinema and proceeded to tell magnificent stories over the course of the next fifty years of his life. First-time filmmakers Jason Silverman and Samba Gadjigo have spent the last seven years ensconced in a very delicate, and ultimately, finely balanced co-directing partnership to make the documentary film, SEMBÈNE!

Sembène completed his last film, Moolaadé, in 2004, working against every adversity, just like all his other films. Moolaadé is about female genital mutilation practices, and it made a star of its lead actress, Fatoumata Coulibaly, a woman who was herself circumcised as a little girl. Sembène made the film when he was eighty-two years old, almost entirely blind, and very frail. He died in 2007, just a few years later. The film was shot on 35mm in the middle of tropical Africa, and Samba Gadjigo was there to document it all.

Premiering as an official selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film is told through Gadjigo’s experiences and memories of his hero, mentor, and “uncle.” Gadjigo became colleague, biographer, and the fiery-tempered director’s most trusted confidant. The film offers an epic story of the master told through the very particular and intimate lens of his protégé.

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film : interview

Nick Broomfield

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

“When you make these films you need to work very closely with people from the community. You’re only as good as your relationship with them.”

Over the course of twenty-five years, Lonnie Franklin may have murdered upward of one hundred women. Named as a suspect in the “Grim Sleeper” murders of South Central Los Angeles, he wasn't arrested until 2010. Further, this arrest happened almost by accident, and only when a computer's DNA match linked him to a possible twenty victims. Police put no effort into the case because the women being killed were poor, black, and mostly prostitutes. Had this happened in Beverly Hills, it would have probably made national news.

An official selection of the 2014 Telluride, Toronto, and New York film festivals, Nick Broomfield’s documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper explores the impoverished neighborhood where these murders took place. Broomfield—director of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2013)—is accompanied by his son and director of photography—Barney Broomfield—as he befriends men and women living in this community and attempts to reveal how these killings went unsolved for so long. Along the way, Broomfield exposes the prejudice and injustice that led police to flat-out ignore the cases (the LAPD refused to comment for the film). Police were even alleged to have used a slang term, NHI (no human involved), when a victim was a prostitute, drug addict, or gang member.

As Broomfield charges through the neglected LA neighborhood, he interviews those who knew Lonnie Franklin personally, including both his close friends and victims. In the tight-knit community, many are loathe to believe the well-liked Lonnie could have perpetrated such violence without their knowledge. But, as evidence mounts against him, everyone is forced to reconsider his involvement in dark deeds. The film reaches an emotional climax when Broomfield confronts Lonnie's son Chris, then speaks with individual women who were actually assaulted by Lonnie, but escaped.

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film : interview

Elisabeth Subrin

by Gary M. Kramer

“All evidence is wrong. It’s distressed—just like memory.”

The Art of the Real series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in collaboration with the Video Data Bank, is presenting a program of shorts by filmmaker/artist Elisabeth Subrin on April 11, 2015. A panel featuring Subrin, Thomas Beard of Light Industry, and writer/musician Johanna Fateman will follow screenings of Lost Tribes and Promised Lands (2010), Sweet Ruin (2008), and Shulie (1997).

Subrin’s work is all about appropriation, reenactment, and recreation; in these three works, the director takes extant elements—images, a script, and a film—and transforms them, layering of texture and meaning while raising provocative questions about gender, identity, memory, and representation.

Lost Tribes and Promised Lands features a series of side-by-side comparisons of houses and stores displaying American flags in her Williamsburg neighborhood in 2001, just after 9/11, and then those same locations in 2008 to show how things have changed over time.

Sweet Ruin also involves side-by-side juxtaposition. Actress Gaby Hoffmann plays two roles, “T.” and “The Girl,” from the script of an unmade Antonioni film entitled Technically Sweet. Subrin films the characters—originally intended to be played by Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider—both in the jungle and in a domestic setting, addressing issues of gender and femininity.

Shulie is a recreation of a student documentary film about feminist activist and artist Shulamith Firestone, the author of The Dialetic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution.

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film : interview

Tsai Ming-liang

by Gary M. Kramer

Creation, bathrooms, and Buddhism.

Tsai Ming-liang is one of the masters of contemporary world cinema. His films are distinguished by long takes, minimal dialogue, and the presence of actor Lee Kang-sheng—the director’s muse—in a key role. The filmmaker, who was born in Malaysia but works mostly in Taiwan (and occasionally France), emphasizes voyeurism, alienation, and isolation. He returns again and again to a handful of resonant metaphors and motifs; the dripping and pooling of rain and water is nearly a constant presence in his work, and it frequently represents love or despair, sometimes both at once. Like these images of flowing water, the characters in Tsai’s films throb with repressed sexual desire. They are seen cruising public toilets, or in his 1997 feature The River, a gay bathhouse, and both masturbation and isolated sexual encounters feature heavily in his work.

Though erotically charged and austere, Tsai’s films can also be very funny. In his second feature Vive L’Amour (1994) a woman’s effort to kill an insect in an apartment provides an amusing bit of silent comedy, and in his most audacious film, The Wayward Cloud (2005), Lee is dressed up (or more accurately, mostly undressed) as a dancing penis for one vivid musical number.

What is most palpable about the director’s work though is his ability to communicate tremendous emotion through meditative, static shots—either fixed on a character’s face, or on a landscape or room. Following a screening of Goodbye, Dragon Inn at the Toronto Film Festival, a viewer asked Tsai about the lengthy shot of an empty theater in the film. “Did you feel nothing?” he responded, receiving a round of applause. Not everyone will experience his singular cinematic magic, but those spellbound by his work are converts for life.

In addition to the recurring images of water, melons, and bathrooms, there is the near constant presence of the actor Lee Kang-sheng. Lee’s characters are almost always named Hsiao-kang, a name that seems to be a merging of the filmmaker's and actor’s in the fictional world of the cinema. Unlike Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel, it's not clear that Hsiao-kang is the same person across multiple films, though he does overlap in the features What Time Is It There? and in The Wayward Cloud, which are linked by the short film, The Skywalk Is Gone (2002). What is most consistent about Lee’s work in these films, apart from his character’s name, is the astonishing variety of his performances. In dual roles as a homeless man and a paralyzed man in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), Lee is remarkably expressive and inexpressive, respectively. In Stray Dogs (2013) his unnamed character stoically stands outside in downpour, conveying the incredible efforts of will required of him to protect his children.

Tsai’s first film Rebels of the Neon God, from 1992, will receive a belated theatrical release in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Quad Cinema on April 10, 2015. The opportunity to see Rebels, an auspicious feature debut and one of Tsai’s most conventional films, on the big screen is well worth the wait. On the same day, the Museum of the Moving Image begins its comprehensive Tsai Ming-liang retrospective, another remarkable opportunity to survey the incredible breadth of the this unique artist.

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film : interview

Olivier Assayas

by Alex Zafiris

Time, sharing pain, and theater versus cinema.

The Clouds of Sils Maria is French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ fifteenth full-length feature. It stars the unlikely pairing of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart—an immediate clue that the external realities of the film matter just as much as their fictional counterparts. Binoche is Maria Enders, a famous actress in her late forties, who is going through a divorce, and selling her apartment. Stewart is Valentine, a twenty-something, smart, and jaded personal assistant. Their co-dependency is revealed within the first five minutes. On their way to Switzerland by train to honor Wilhelm Melchior, the lauded playwright, and Maria’s mentor, Valentine learns that he has died. When she breaks the news, Maria looks at her with shock and fear, eyes searching for support.

Melchior’s death throws many things into perspective, not least the public’s perception of celebrity, time, and nostalgia. Maria is asked by an up-and-coming director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), to perform in a revival of Melchior’s Maloja Snake––the play that made her famous at age eighteen––but in the role of the older woman. She accepts hesitantly, and begins to rehearse her lines with Valentine, whose understanding of the text has a hard reality that Maria finds frustrating and upsetting. Their friendship begins to mirror the tension and sexual ambiguity of the characters, and they start to fall out of sync. Before they meet the Hollywood starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is to play the younger woman, Maria Googles her. Valentine doesn’t need to: she’s aware of the petulant public appearances, unstable relationships, and silly Tinseltown movies, but interprets Jo-Ann’s persona as complex and subversive. Maria is amusingly unconvinced, but her patronizing rejection of Valentine’s reverence masks pride, and an awareness that she is disconnected from the contemporary world.

Assayas’ own presence as writer-director filters through the fictional Melchior. He co-wrote 1985’s Rendez-Vous with filmmaker André Téchiné, which launched Binoche’s career. (The story followed a young woman pursuing her dream to become an actress in Paris.) They worked together again in his 2008 film Summer Hours, when she reportedly encouraged him to write a script based on their shared history. His response was to make a film based on the passing of time, self-perception, and acceptance. He chose Switzerland, he says, because there is “a unique sense of a landscape that is inhabited by ghosts. You feel the presence of the artists and writers who have spent time there at the end of the 19th century—Nietzsche, Anne Marie Schwarzenbach, Segantini, Rilke. It is so untouched, it is very preserved. You sense the presence of the past.”

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film : interview

Kornél Mundruczó

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Wild dogs, revolution, and humanism.

Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and played at this year’s New Directors/New Films festival, is a Hungarian fairy tale about a rag-tag gang of dogs who rise up and start a revolution. In the film, thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) lives in a society that taxes owners of mixed breed dogs. Because of the extra hassle, she is forced by her father to abandon Hagen, her loyal mutt. Hagen, initially desperate to find Lili again, fights his way through the brutal city streets, in a journey of metamorphosis and self-discovery.

Hagen, and the hearty mutts with which he teams up, are hunted by dogcatchers. These canines represent the downtrodden, and any group who faces racial or class oppression. Both Lili and Hagen are wide-eyed innocents, while the authority figures surrounding them are one-dimensional and sadistic. Hagen’s story demonstrates how easily a gentle soul can be corrupted by repeated abuse, turning it violent and angry in protest.

Two dogs were chosen to play Hagen, and many more were trained, and used in the film’s epic pack scenes, during which hundreds of canines rip through the city, terrorizing pedestrians and reaping their revenge on their tormentors. Nothing comparable to these dog army scenes has ever been seen before on film. The production used only mixed breeds from Hungarian shelters, and no animals were harmed in the making of the movie. In fact, the production’s talented team of dog trainers obeyed guidelines required by animal welfare organizations. White God is certified by Hungary’s White Cross Animal Protection Society.

I spoke with Mundruczó about how he got Oscar-worthy performances from his mongrel cast, what he learned working with the animals, and the poignant political symbolism at the heart of his film.

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film : interview

Oscar Ruiz Navia

by Gary M. Kramer

Graffiti, politics, and tracking shots.

Oscar Ruiz Navia is a cinephile who never attended a proper film school. Part of a new generation of Colombian filmmakers, he developed his interest in film on his own, and in 2006 founded Contravía (“Another Way,” in English), a production company to develop art house films in his country, where there is not a huge film industry. His first feature, Crab Trap (2010), won several awards, including the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin Film Festival that year.

The director, who spends his time teaching and in movie clubs in Colombia, took four years to make Los Hongos, which will play at the New Directors/New Films series at MoMA/Lincoln Center on March 28 and 29.

The film is a scrappy comedy-drama about graffiti taggers in Santiago de Cali, Colombia. Ruiz Navia affectionately portrays the lives of its two leads, Ras (Jovan Alexis Marquinez), who lives with his religious mother, and Calvin (Calvin Buenaventura), who cares for his ailing grandmother. Mostly plotless, Los Hongos unfolds like a series of encounters for its characters and the audience. The film depicts the teens biking and skateboarding through the city, meeting up with a tagging crew to create a mural on a popular bridge, and becoming activists rebelling against authority and social injustice.

Inspired by Arab Spring videos, and the collective power of street art, Ras and Calvin soon realize the ramifications of their art and their actions as they have a series of run-ins with the police.

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film : interview

Charlie Victor Romeo

by Gary M. Kramer

Transcripts, technical language, and airline disasters.

Robert Berger and Patrick Daniels are the writers (with Irving Gregory) and directors (with Karlyn Michelson) of the film and play, Charlie Victor Romeo. The show originated in 1999 at the Collective:Unconscious theater space in the Lower East Side. It has since been performed around the world and, in 2013, released as a film. It is currently available on most streaming platforms.

Charlie Victor Romeo—the title is the NATO code for cockpit voice recording—features six episodes of real-life airline disasters as experienced from the point of view of the crew in the cockpit. It is a remarkable, white-knuckle experience. Six actors, including Daniels, play various roles of pilots, copilots, and navigators, and these same cast members appear in multiple vignettes. The film version was shot as a live theater production over three days in August 2012, and it was filmed in stereoscopic 3-D to heighten events taking place on stage/screen.

Charlie Victor Romeo is remarkable not just because of its content, but because the cast is able to recite long, complicated dialogue—much of it technical, featuring terms unfamiliar to most audiences. But the actors’ vocal inflections, expressions, and body language urgently convey the horror they are facing. That the film (like the play) frames each episode with slides indicating the number of passengers, crew members, and survivors is quietly devastating.

The conceit of the project—and what makes it so chilling—is that the world outside the cockpit exists, but is never seen. Viewers must imagine the passengers and flight attendants behind the door, or envision the mountains, runway, or water where the plane will hopefully (but not always) land safely.

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film : interview

Lisandro Alonso

by Nicholas Elliott

Where the horse opera meets a fairy tale.

Nothing looks or feels quite like Jauja, Argentine writer-director Lisandro Alonso’s sixth feature, and a departure both from his previous work and most contemporary filmmaking. Shot in glorious color-saturated 35mm film and framed in the classic academy ratio, Jauja takes a basic Western scenario—a man rides off into the desert looking for his kidnapped daughter—and follows it to a point that defies elucidation, where what felt archaic proves to be timeless and the horse opera becomes a fairy tale. By taking the role of Captain Dinesen, the 19th century Danish military engineer searching for his daughter Ingeborg in the Argentine wilderness, Viggo Mortensen has enabled one of the weirdest star vehicles in recent memory.

Alonso came to international attention in 2001 with the release of his first film La Libertad, which heralded a current of observational cinema featuring non-professionals, often living in humble circumstances and remote areas, going about their business in narratively minimal but formally rigorous films. While the viewer was always rewarded for sticking with Alonso’s leisurely shots, deliberate pace, and lack of dialogue, his imitators have been the curse of 21st century festival-goers, as will happen when an artist’s startling new contribution is mistaken for a universally applicable recipe. All the more reason to rejoice that Jauja finds the director persevering in the quest for an idiosyncratic, inimitable cinema.

I spoke to Lisandro Alonso by Skype on March 13, a week before Jauja opened in New York.

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film : interview

Nicholas Elliott

by David Louis Zuckerman

Austerity, allegory, and the interpretability of film.

I count Nicholas Elliott as a friend and a colleague, but sometimes his insight and incisiveness frightens me. He’s a fierce Apollonian and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in an unfocused state, or without control of his faculties. Working simultaneously as a critic, translator, and writer/director, he represents a sui generis breed of film aesthete. Icarus, which is premiering at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films Festival on March 22, stars Jim Fletcher, Rosie Goldensohn, Alex Delinois, and Greg Zuccolo. It’s a rare gem of a film, which I had the pleasure to help edit. I was excited to sit down with Nicholas in an isolated corner of Avery Fisher Hall and record this conversation.

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film : interview

Olivia Wyatt

by Will Oldham

Sea-gypsies, Vodou, and ethnographic documentary.

Olivia Wyatt and I met not too long ago when we were cast as husband and wife in a film directed by Rick Alverson. The working title of the film was Rabbit, and as of this writing the film has not been finished. Olivia and I bonded and remained in touch. I will try to illustrate Olivia's charisma with this anecdote: Once when Olivia was visiting Louisville, Kentucky, I told her to go to our grand old historic cemetery as a way to pass the time. She walked the few miles there, then befriended the guard at the gate. He lent her his car to tour the cemetery. Then he said he'd come to her screening that night.

Olivia’s experiential, experimental feature documentaries, distributed by Sublime Frequencies, include Staring at the Sun, about Ethiopian music, and The Pierced Heart & The Machete, an incredible document of Haitian Vodou ceremonies. She had told me of her plans for this new project about the Moken… and then Hurricane Sandy happened. Olivia lost a significant portion of her equipment to Sandy. She was going to indefinitely postpone the trip that would yield Sailing a Sinking Sea. I helped facilitate getting her gear replaced, thus getting the project back on track.

Below is a conversation we had recently, in which I got to pick her brain about the new film, which is an abstract exploration of a community of people who live in the waters along the Thai-Burmese border, about her collaboration with Bitchin’ Bajas’ Cooper Crain on the film’s music, and about her plans for projects to come.

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film : interview

Armel Hostiou

by Gary M. Kramer

Love, obsession, and comedy in the big city.

Armel Hostiou is an experimental film and video artist who grew up in Brittany and moved to Paris when he was twenty to study cinema at La Fémis. As he began directing short films, he described the experience as a “laboratory to improve, discover, and find new ways to tell stories.” His first feature film, Day (Rive, or "bank," in French), was a project about Paris as seen through the eyes of three characters—a man, a woman, and a child. The film was shot in 2010, had its premiere at Cannes in 2011, and was released in France in 2012, playing New York at BAM later that same year.

Hostiou’s second feature, Stubborn, had its North American premiere at the Rendezvous with French Cinema program March 10 at the Walter Reade Theater. The film will have encore presentations on March 11 at 7 PM at the IFC Center, and again that same night at 8:30 PM at BAMcinématek, as well as on March 12 at 2:00 PM back at Walter Reade. Hostiou, along with actor Murray Bartlett (Looking) co-writer Lea Cohen and several producers will be in attendance at each screening.

The film tells the hilarious—or is it horrifying?—story of Vincent (Vincent Macaigne) who follows his ex, Barbara (Kate Moran), to New York City to win her back. While she wants him to go back home to Paris, Vincent hopes to work things out between them. He willfully disregards the fact that she is currently dating another man (Murray Bartlett). He tries repeatedly, and quite unsuccessfully, to reintegrate himself in Barbara’s life.

Stubborn tracks Vincent’s efforts which are alternately amusing—as when he insists on having Kate’s boyfriend make him fresh squeezed orange juice—to downright irritating, as when he attempts a marriage proposal to Kate with her boyfriend by her side at the time. But this comedy, while possibly cringe-inducing at times, is often very affecting, particularly for anyone who has won the battle but lost the war when it comes to love.

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film : interview

Lawrence Michael Levine

by Gary M. Kramer

The fine art of the romantic-comedy-thriller-mystery.

Lawrence Michael Levine’s funny and charming Wild Canaries is a slapstick, screwball, romantic-comedy mystery set in contemporary Brooklyn. Levine plays Noah, a neurotic thirty-something guy whose live-in girlfriend Barri (Sophia Takal, Levine’s wife, who also produced) suspects their neighbor Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) of murdering his own mother Sylvia (Marylouise Burke). Barri opts to investigate the crime along with her best friend and roommate Jean (Alia Shawkat), much to Noah’s chagrin. As the amateur sleuths break into apartments and chase suspects, various suspenseful and romantic complications ensue.

Levine, whose previous feature was Gabi on the Roof in July, may be familiar to indie film fans from his appearances in such work as Jeff Lipsky’s Molly’s Theory of Relativity, or Joe Swanberg’s All the Lights in the Sky. He also co-starred in Takal’s feature, Green. But he distinguishes himself behind the camera with Wild Canaries, building tension and laughs in equal measure. The mystery here is as engaging as the banter between the characters. Levine displays his flair for both physical comedy and verbal sparring, as well as a talent for quirky visuals.

Levine spoke, via Skype, about pulling off this nimble comedic mystery.

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film : interview

Céline Sciamma

by Steve Macfarlane

"When we think about choreography, we think about dancing, or sports. I try to apply the same logic when I'm filming sports and when I'm just filming somebody in a room."

There’s a moment roughly halfway into Céline Sciamma’s new film Bande des filles (retitled, for reasons explained below, as Girlhood in its U.S. release) that's both majestic and bemusing. The main character, a French teenager named Marieme (Karidja Touré) attends a knock-down, drag-out ring fight, wherein her shit-talking friend Lady (Assa Sylla) gets utterly trounced by a member of a rival bande. Days turn into weeks and, with the help of Marieme (who goes by “Vic”—short for Victory) and others, the hot-tempered Lady eventually nurses her wounds of both body and ego. But in concluding this chapter of Marieme’s story, Sciamma makes the curious decision to loop back around to the ring fight—only this time, Lady’s ass-whooping is shown through the blotchy digital eye of a teenage onlooker’s cellphone. Para One’s music swells with a curiously breathless anticipation, and the entire frame pulsates with an energy that’s unmistakably adolescent: the thrill of spilt blood, the unwillingness to look away, the anxious potential for payback on the horizon.

In this vein, Girlhood’s most important scenes are never quite what they appear to be, including the celebrated, neon-lit sequence wherein Vic and her friends lip-synch the entirety of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a cheap motel room, a scene that reviews would have you believe comprises at least half of the film’s runtime. Sciamma’s process is one of constant, uneasy dramatic reorientation, zeroing in on the synaptic connection between experience and memory, which announces itself explicitly in raw, spontaneous outbursts of emotion. What is Vic really thinking? Who is the “real” Marieme? As in her previous coming-of-age investigations Tomboy and Water Lillies, Sciamma refuses to provide easy answers to these kinds of questions, making Girlhood both universal (see: title) as well as slyly political. The film confounds superficial expectations of its hood culture milieu throughout its heroine’s transition from a meek, braided girl hiding within the banlieues to an itinerant criminal and then something else entirely. Yet despite its sociopolitical particulars, the key to Sciamma’s radiant film is always Touré, whose wide-eyed performance carries Girlhood’s considerable mystery and its undeniable compassion in fixed stride.

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Johanna Hamilton

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Surveillance, J. Edgar Hoover, and effective activism.

Forty years before WikiLeaks or Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal, there was Media, Pennsylvania, the subject of a new documentary 1971 directed by Johanna Hamilton. The FBI was untouchable until that year, when a group of ordinary citizens dubbing themselves the Citizens’ Commission broke into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania, stole their files, and shared them with the American public. These files revealed the FBI’s domestic spying programs, and specifically exposed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal surveillance program which involved the intimidation of law-abiding Americans. COINTELPRO was overseen by lifelong Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover. The unmasking of this program led to the country’s first Congressional investigation of US intelligence agencies. The brave Americans who stole these documents, a ragtag bunch of activists, parents, and professors, were never caught. Forty-three years later, they have revealed themselves for the first time and shared their story.

Hamilton collaborated with Betty Medsger, author of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, which first disclosed these 1971 events. The text unveiled the identities of those involved who had been previously anonymous. Given the recent disclosures of NSA spying, this thrilling tale could not be more relevant. It goes to show how little things have changed since 1971—in fact, we’re probably watched now more than ever. I spoke with the film’s director, Johanna Hamilton, about whether there is any lingering legal danger for the activists, broader issues of security leaks and activism today, and how ordinary people can make an impact on their government.

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film : interview

Jesse Moss

by Pamela Cohn

Compassion, religion, and secrets in a North Dakota boom town.

For his most recent feature film The Overnighters, director Jesse Moss sought out a man named Jay Reinke—a pastor for twenty years of a small Lutheran church in Williston, North Dakota—after reading one of Reinke’s clergy columns in the local Williston newspaper. The small town experienced a deluge of humanity that began when people from all over the US came by the tens of thousands looking for work after hydraulic fracking in the region unlocked a vast oil field in a nearby shale in 2006. But Williston and its environs could not begin to handle this massive influx. To make things worse, many of the new arrivals were emotionally and psychologically damaged by unending years of grinding poverty, unemployment, sickness and addiction—and had nowhere else to turn.

Pastor Reinke decided to open his church to men who had come on their own, some leaving families back home when they left to search for work. Many could not find a place to sleep when they arrived, so, without anyone’s explicit permission, Reinke started using the interior of the building as a dorm. He also allowed men to sleep in their cars in the parking lot of the church, beginning a program called Overnighters. He became a friend, counselor and helpmate to thousands of them.

Moss, thinking Jay might develop into a key character in a film that was to center around the story of the oil boom in North Dakota and its various environmental and human-scale fallouts, ended up making a heartrending, dramatic and, at times, uncomfortably intimate portrait of one man in spiritual crisis. By the film’s end, this crisis reveals what at first appears to be a completely shocking secret about Reinke's past. But the sensitivity of the filmmaker, along with the meticulous dramaturgical and emotional build-up of the story, turns a potentially morally questionable revelation into a moment that beautifully illustrates a ferociously guarded dissociation of the self cracking wide open under unsustainable duress.

The last time I met with Jesse was back in 2008 in New York when I interviewed him and co-director, Tony Gerber, for their remarkable film Full Battle Rattle, a documentary that also shook me up but for very different reasons. Needless to say, Moss is a fearless director, who does not shy away from encountering his own inner demons as he’s documenting those of his subjects.

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film : interview

James N. Kienitz Wilkins

by Michael Guarneri

Documentary, reenactment, and comedic failures of democracy.

I met New York-based filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins in 2012, when we both presented films at CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. As often happens at festivals, we became friends during a party, and we have been corresponding ever since, given my scholarly interest in his feature film Public Hearing (2012).

Public Hearing is an experimental documentary that uses a publicly available transcript downloaded from the website of a small US town as its screenplay: filmed entirely in close-up and on black-and-white 16mm film, professional actors and non-actors reenact a real-life debate over the replacement of an existing Wal-Mart with a Super Wal-Mart.

As Public Hearing is about to be made public via free streaming, I was excited to ask James to make a public statement about a project that puts into question not only the ontology of documentary filmmaking but some of the fundamental atomic units of US democracy as well. Concurrent with the release of Public Hearing, the artist-made, online television network ACRE TV will broadcast the film's 106-hour making-of, a mammoth project consisting of fourteen VHS tapes called Public Hearing in Progress.

ACRE TV will be streaming Public Hearing in Progress for free, February 1 – March 21, 2015, every Saturday and Sunday, 12 PM to 8 PM CST. The broadcast is part of the collective program “Direct Object/Direct Action.” Automatic Moving Co. will be streaming Public Hearing for free on these same dates, with machine-translated subtitles in several languages.

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film : interview

Desiree Akhavan

by Steve Macfarlane

Exiled to adulthood.

Desiree Akhavan's superb Appropriate Behavior stars the writer-director as Shirin, a bisexual twenty-something equally as dissatisfied with the bourgeois pressures of her Iranian parents as she is with the spray-paint-meets-vomit milieu of Hipster Brooklyn. Even if all Shirin thinks she needs is a little understanding, she's also looking for a major life change. Whether she realizes it or not, she ends up finding both in a long-term relationship with lesbian activist Maxine (Halley Feiffer). As described, Akhavan’s film may sound like indie boilerplate; it’s also world-wise and bitterly hilarious, as memories of the genesis and slow death of Shirine and Maxine’s romance are refracted—Memento or Annie Hall style—against Shirin's ongoing spinout as a newly single woman. It’s no stretch to interpret Akhavan’s film as a reflection on the limited use of identity politics in navigating a one-size-fits-all quarter-life crisis: penniless and emotionally ruined, Shirin finds no solace in any of her disparate cultural blocs, remaining closeted to her parents while her queerness is written off by Maxine as a “phase.”

And yet the question of whether or not Maxine is right is kept, to Behavior’s credit, wide open. Shirin’s self-destruction/indulgence (including a riotously ill-advised rebound with a cloneoid, mush-brained Bushwick artist) dares the audience to maintain sympathy, as the character’s faux pas gracefully segue from legitimately funny to legitimately sad. The poster for Appropriate Behavior shows Shirin, after being invited to a putatively open-minded couple’s apartment to mess around, realizing there’s no room left for her in yet another preconceived narrative. It’s the harsh, turbid reality outside these tidy categorizations where Akhavan’s antiheroine—and indeed, any New Yorker—will have to square themselves, exiled into adulthood one letdown at a time. Hot on the heels of last year's Obivous Child and Listen Up Philip, one could hardly be blamed for wondering if it’s safe, finally, to watch New York indie comedies again.

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film : essay

On the Cinema Tropical Awards

by Gary M. Kramer

Shining a light on Latin American cinema.

Cinema Tropical, founded in 2001, promotes, programs, and distributes many of the Latin American films that get a release in the U.S. Some of these films get only festival play, while others secure a theatrical run in New York and/or Los Angeles—sometimes through Cinema Tropical—and on occasion in other cities as well. However, too few Latin American films seem to get any American exposure at all.

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film : interview

Deborah Stratman

by Pamela Cohn

Sound, image, espionage, and methods of control.

Deborah Stratman displays great mastery at subtly interpreting the subconscious frequencies and amplitudes that give shape to our common experiences, illuminating the viewer through her distinctive representations of power, control, and belief systems. Working within a multiplicity of media from film, video, and audio work, to drawing, architecture, and sculptural projects, she has received Fulbright, Guggenheim and Creative Capital fellowships over the course of her career. For the last decade, she has taught in a multi-disciplinary arts program at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

One of five artists to receive the 2014 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts—an unrestricted prize of $75,000 given annually “to risk-taking mid-career artists … at a moment in their lives when they are poised to propel their art in new and unpredictable directions”—Stratman makes work that engages her perpetually inquisitive mind, a mind that asks a lot of complicated questions, ones to which she really never expects to receive answers. And if she does receive answers with too much facility, it’s likely she’ll decide it’s not worth pursuing after all.

The editing of her film and video work is distinctive, and—perhaps, oddly—reminds me quite a bit of the work of Armenian director, Artavazd Pelešjan, also a brilliant essayist and theorist, who creates highly poetic views of life on celluloid. Pelešjan is also known for developing a style of cinematographic perspective known as “distance montage,” and this is something that Stratman does with high proficiency, as well, particularly with sound, combining perceptions of depth with various visual entities on screen to sometimes uncanny, but always mysteriously moving, affect.

I met with Stratman most recently last October in the Czech Republic at the eighteenth edition of the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival where she was to give a master class and also serve on one of the juries, a particularly intense task at this festival where jurors are expected to view seven to eight films a day in order to deliberate on as many as forty films in one competition. We managed to carve out a bit of time between her screenings for a quick bite of lunch at a deafeningly noisy café in the foyer of one of the cinemas. Stratman’s latest film, called Hacked Circuit, was also in competition in the Fascinations Section at Jihlava. It is dedicated to both Walter Murch and Edward Snowden and won the prize out of thirty-three other films in its category.

Hacked Circuit, a title that beautifully plays upon many ideas presented in the film, is a fifteen-minute piece shot in one take, with superbly realized camerawork by Norbert Shieh. Before we see the context within which the initial sounds we hear are embedded, footage of a mysterious location is accompanied by audio fragments from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film, The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman, specifically the scene where he frantically searches and tears apart a room in order to uncover the “bug” he is convinced has been planted there to record his telephone calls. Stratman uses a Foley studio in the back streets of Los Angeles as her set, exploring violations of privacy by political powers while simultaneously illustrating the power inherent in the various illusions and conflations of our perceptions of sight and sound.

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film : interview

Gabriel Mascaro

by Giovanni Marchini Camia

Cemeteries and mansions by the sea.

After the documentaries High-Rise (2009) and Housemaids (2012), which explored the domestic realities of Brazil’s privileged urban class, Gabriel Mascaro turned his camera to the periphery with August Winds. Set in a remote coastal village in northern Brazil, the film expands the director’s artistic exploration of social divisions in his country. Working within a fictional framework for the first time, Mascaro uses the central story of a young couple—a local boy working on coconut fields and a girl from the city caring for her ailing grandmother and dreaming of becoming a tattoo artist—to initiate a meditation on life and death, with the coast’s rising sea level and its inherent destruction acting as a powerful metaphorical backdrop.

Although Mascaro includes himself in the role of a wind researcher whose arrival catalyzes the protagonists’ existential confusion, the film is uninterested in building a strong narrative. Rather, it is a careful observation of mood made up of a collection of snippets from life in the village, largely held in static shots that embed the characters in the setting’s sumptuous nature. Short, fragmented conversations are interspersed with gorgeous, effortlessly evocative images: the girl tanning supine on a fishing boat out at sea in front of a perfectly limpid horizon; the couple entwined in a post-coital embrace on top of a trailer full of green, freshly-picked coconuts; a cemetery on the beach, its graves eroded by the constant lapping of the waves. The result is beautiful, languid, and thoroughly melancholic.

August Winds was one of the finds at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, earning Mascaro a Special Mention at the awards ceremony. I spoke with the thirty-one-year-old director during the festival and he revealed how reality had dictated the direction of the film’s fiction before discussing his interests and principles as a filmmaker navigating the threshold between reality and fiction.

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film : interview

Bruno Dumont

by Nicholas Elliott

"Chiaroscuro levels of thought."

When French-German public television channel Arte announced in 2013 that it had commissioned Bruno Dumont to write and direct Li’l Quinquin, a comedic mini-series featuring children and a police investigation, many had to double-check their calendars to make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. Known to film lovers for his use of non-professional actors in enigmatic stories juxtaposing the material and the spiritual, Dumont did not seem like the go-to guy for televised entertainment. Yet upon delivery, Li’l Quinquin is beyond what anyone except Dumont could have imagined: a riotously funny, occasionally slapstick comedy that remains utterly faithful to the vision that appeared wholly realized in Dumont’s first feature The Life of Jesus (1997) and has stayed the course through the six features that followed.

With Li’l Quinquin, Dumont returns to the grey skies and muddy earth of his native north of France to follow local Police Captain van der Weyden and his assistant Carpentier as they investigate an accumulation of grotesque murders before the eyes of local kid Li’l Quinquin, his girlfriend Eve, and his gang of friends. As played by non-professional actor Bernard Pruvost, Captain van der Weyden is one of the great comedic characters of recent years, with unpredictably rolling eyes, herky-jerky facial expressions, wild metaphors, and a walk to put Monty Python to shame. Yet in a way that is unique to Dumont’s cinema, van der Weyden also seems touched with a greater knowledge that brings him back again and again to the farm Li’l Quinquin inhabits with his parents and disabled uncle Dany.

A declared atheist, Dumont has always explored issues of good and evil, filming violence and sex acts, newspaper sociology and miracles with the same ambiguous gaze. The comedy in Li’l Quinquin makes you giddy with pleasure, but leads you into that thought-provoking, dangerous zone where you have to check if you are laughing with the characters or at them—or perhaps if they are laughing at you. Li’l Quinquin is sui generis. It feels like nothing if not a Bruno Dumont movie, though anyone who enjoyed the knotting of laughter and the macabre in Twin Peaks will want to see it.

I spoke to Dumont in New York, a few days before his film had its US premiere at the 52nd New York Film Festival and several weeks after the first of the four episodes of Li’l Quinquin attracted 1.5 million viewers on its initial French broadcast, a record for the channel’s original programming. Li’l Quinquin opens theatrically in New York in January 2015.

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