Thirst: Interview with Park Chan-wook


Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 25 January 2010

Distributor: Palisades Tartan

Director: Park Chan-wook

Writers: Jeong Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook

Original title: Bakjwi

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-vin, Shin Ha-kyun

South Korea 2009

133 minutes

Best known for his disturbing revenge drama Oldboy (2003), Park Chan-wook‘s latest film Thirst, now released on DVD, is a subversive and original take on the vampire genre. Sophie Moran sat down with the director during the Korean Film Festival in November 09 to talk about priests, vampires, desire and revenge.

Sophie Moran: In classic horror films, priests and vampires are enemies by nature. What gave you the idea to turn one into the other?

Park Chan-wook: It goes back to my childhood memories. In the Catholic Church, a priest drinks red wine as a symbol for the blood of Christ, and in a way this always reminded me of vampirism. I actually wonder why nobody had thought of this before [laughs].

SM: Thirst is not only a twisted vampire love story, but also a thriller, a horror film and a black comedy with a touch of film noir. How difficult was it for you to write the script?

PCW: I’d been planning Thirst for about 10 years, but I didn’t work on it consistently. For a long time I had only two scenes written. One is the scene in the beginning when the priest is being transfused with vampire blood, thereby becoming a vampire himself. The other was the scene in which the woman he falls in love with becomes a vampire too. That was it until I came across Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. I loved the style of the book, the fact that it’s not romantic or sentimental, which was similar to the approach I had in mind for this film. So, the book inspired me to start working properly on the script and to eventually make the film.

SM: Thirst offers a unique take on the vampire genre, and I wonder if there is a vampire myth in Korea that has influenced you?

PCW: I’m not an expert on Korean folklore, but as far as I’m aware, there is no vampire myth in Korea. The Korean title of the film is ‘bat’, which symbolises vampires in the Western world, and it’s the stories about characters like Count Dracula that constitute some sort of modern vampire myth in Korean culture today. I wanted to tell the story of a character who doesn’t belong to one world but who is torn between these two different worlds, and about the dilemmas that creates. Sang-hyun, the main character, is not just a vampire but also a priest, who wants to do something good but gets caught up in a twist of fate. He loses his ability to control his desires, but he is still trying to hold on to his identity as a priest, as well as grappling with his new identity as a vampire. And I wanted to create a story that deals with this dilemma of identity.

SM: On top of his own personal dilemma, Sang-hyun falls in love with Tae-ju, the wife of an old friend. In fact, barring the horror elements that come into play, the film feels primarily like a love story.

PCW: Yes, from the very beginning it was always going to be a love story. I never conceived the film as a horror movie, and therefore I put in the most effort trying to develop the story between the two main characters. I spent a lot of time ‘shaping’ Tae-ju’s character and trying to find the right actress who would fit in perfectly with the two male leads, and who would have the right chemistry with Sang-hyun. Of course, I can’t deny the fact that there are scenes and elements in the film that you would associate more directly with the horror genre. But these sequences are built into the story to serve as a hurdle or an obstacle to the romantic relationship between Tae-ju and Sang-hyun. So the horror elements exist to function in that way. But in the end, the last shot shows two burnt feet in that old pair of shoes from an earlier scene, which is probably the most romantic scene in the film. The film comes back to the pair of shoes as a symbol of their love finally coming together, and their two bodies becoming one.

SM: Your previous film, I’m a Cyborg, also dealt with love, but in a very gentle way. In Thirst, the love scenes seem rather harsh and cold.

PCW: I decided to remove all the romance and clichés that classic love stories are based on because in Thirst I wanted to explore the real side of love. I mean the fact that love can give one not only the strength to survive, but that one can also achieve something through love, and that, to some extent, love is always selfish.

SM: Although the film has a more realistic approach to the notion of love, it seems that there has been a shift from your revenge trilogy to more fantastical stories.

PCW: I have to agree that in the course of my films the fantastical or surreal elements have become more prominent. Since Thirst is by nature a vampire film, it cannot but have such fantasy elements in it. But at the same time, for a vampire film this is probably the most realistic vampire film that you can find. And this duality is what I like most about this film. In Thirst, fantasies and realism are fundamentally in conflict with one another.

SM: You said earlier that Tae-ju’s character was very important to you from the beginning in regard to her relation with the male leads. Did you also think about how Tae-ju’s dubious character, and her own emotional journey, would be perceived by Korean female audiences while you were developing the story?

PCW: Her character may be seen as some sort of comment on contemporary society to female audiences in Korea, but I didn’t intend anything like this while I was writing the script. The idea of imprisonment within a family or a household is already found in Thérèse Raquin. It’s a story about a person who is trapped within these boundaries and who feels very much suffocated by the way the household is ruled by the mother and the husband. I wanted to explore that idea further on an existential level. But if you look at the terrible actions that Tae-ju takes as a vampire, for example, you have to consider the whole personality of this character who is as innocent as a child in a way. Children can be very cruel, for instance, when they play with small animals or insects. They tear them apart and rip off their wings and so forth. But they don’t realise that what they are doing is cruel. They don’t understand what they are doing but still, to us their actions are violent. It’s in that sort of context that you have to see her actions as a vampire. At the same time, this might come across to the audience as emancipation or liberation for the female character, but it was never intended as such.

SM: What relates Sang-hyun to the main characters in your revenge trilogy?

PCW: All these characters are haunted souls in a way. In Thirst, the desire for blood and the desire for sex are connected, but ultimately it’s a matter of life and death, and the drive for survival. And revenge is just a different desire in this context. We all dream of vengeance sometimes, and it is something that stimulates our fantasies, something we need for our own personal well-being. At the same time, in real life revenge is not honourable. But if we don’t give vent to our feelings, our desire for it increases proportionally towards those who offended us. It’s that kind of inner conflict that interests me. These characters attempt to take responsibility for the decisions they make. Things may not always turn out well for them, but because they are at least trying to account for the consequences of their actions, they are able to achieve some sort of integrity after all.

SM: Do you consider yourself a moral filmmaker?

PCW: I don’t see myself as a moral filmmaker, and I don’t like categorising myself. I am just very interested in characters who try to take responsibility for the results of their actions. I think this is what I’m trying to deal with in my films.

Interview by Sophie Moran

Read film reviews of Thirst and I’m a Cyborg, short discussions of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance and our earlier interview with Park Chan-wook for I’m a Cyborg.

Tateshots: Childish rules

Billy Childish

Photo: Billy Childish
©Tate Media


Release date: 21 January 2010

Watch on TateShots Website or download from iTunes.

TateShots is an ongoing podcast series produced by Tate Modern, and the latest six films in the series investigate the links between music and visual art through interviews with musicians who are also artists. Even though they’ve been well-researched and curated, watching five-minute podcast films on a cinema screen is disconcerting. Because the podcasts are meant to be watched in short online bursts, teased out over a few weeks, the artists are asked many of the same questions. This probably helps give the segments cohesion when watched in chunks over time, but it grates when all are watched in one sitting. The Flip Cam wobbles of some interviews sit uneasily with archive footage, concert images, and extracts from other interviews shot from many angles, with tricksier shots. (The series is funded by big media corporation Bloomberg so it’s hard to tell if the low-budget feel of some of the filming came from financial limitations or was a deliberate choice to replicate a YouTube DIY aesthetic.)

The artists interviewed – Lydia Lunch, David Byrne, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Billy Childish, Jeffrey Lewis, and Mark E Smith – are all safe choices. Most of these artists came of age during punk and post-punk (with the exception of Lewis, whose work owes such a stylistic debt to Daniel Johnston that he might as well have done). All are established as having been cool. But what about some interviews with musician-artists whose work in one or both fields is a bit naff, or awkward, or embarrassing? It might have been more interesting to hear someone like Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes, say, talking about his collection of sexy Polaroids.

What we get is a lot of talk about art school experimentation and subversion in the 1970s, which is fine – but it’s nothing new or unexpected, and not terribly illuminating. Shock has an increasingly short half-life. For Lydia Lunch to explain how she loves Goya’s devils or Duchamp’s Etant Donnés (an installation that lets viewers look through peepholes in a barn door to see a faceless naked woman) will surprise no one. Though she gives an intelligent and impassioned explanation of her choices, her segment makes those works, and the dark, violent sexuality of her songs, all seem oddly quaint.

Mark E Smith, on the other hand, sinks into self-parody in his segment. He talks about painters who work while listening to his music, and about hitting Damien Hirst in the face at a long-ago Fall gig. Mostly he’s just swinging a bottle of beer around, picking his nose and gurning like the old drunk priest in Father Ted. His segment will probably go viral because it’s so obnoxious – and good for the Tate if it can trawl some hits in with this for bait.

Billy Childish’s film is the standout of the bunch. Childish dresses in his onstage clothes and in an exaggerated painter’s smock and neck scarf so that the ‘artist’ and ‘musician’ can interview each other, and both characters play with the questions, pulling faces while joking about the Beatles, punk and Edvard Munch. He’s funny and charming, and his interview shows what the format can do. If the series continues, the curators would do well to try more such experiments.

Emily Bick

This TateShots series of films can be watched on the TateShots Website or downloaded from iTunes from 21 January 2010.

Extreme Private Eros: Interview with Kazuo Hara

Extreme Private Eros

Sheffield DocFest

4-8 November 2009


Extreme Private Eros showed on 6 November 2009

Sheffield DocFest website

Although the Japanese director Kazuo Hara has insisted that he is anything but a political filmmaker, his 1974 documentary Extreme Private Eros (Gokushiteki erosu: Renka 1974) remains a fascinating snapshot of Japanese society at a time of transition. An account of the life of Hara’s ex-lover, Miyuki Takeda – a feminist who relocated to Okinawa and entered into a lesbian relationship with a bar hostess before becoming pregnant following a fling with an African-American soldier – Hara’s film directly addresses such issues as sexual liberation and racial discrimination. Extreme Private Eros was potentially inflammatory when first shown in Hara’s homeland and strict censorship laws regarding on-screen genitalia forced the director to recoup his production budget over an extended period by charging admission for private screenings. He would not complete another film until 1987: The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On won awards at major festivals such as Berlin and Rotterdam, and earned the admiration of Errol Morris, the American director of The Thin Blue Line. Hara is now firmly ensconced in academia, teaching documentary filmmaking at the University of Osaka, but he recently attended the Sheffield DocFest to introduce a screening of Extreme Private Eros. John Berra met with him to discuss his landmark work and the fascinating female personality at its centre.

John Berra: You witnessed the explosion of the Japanese New Wave in the 1960s; were you influenced or inspired by the films of Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Ôshima?

Kazuo Hara: At that time in Japan, after the war, lots of young people tried to achieve power by rebelling against the government. I grew up in that era and I went to see those films to support that ideology and contribute to changing the government. Nagisa Ôshima and Shohei Imamura had made documentary films before me, but all their films showed how normal Japanese people did not have power, that they were struggling and controlled by the government. I thought that there must be a way to change that view, the idea that normal people are weak; I didn’t want to show the weakness, I wanted to show the strength of the people.

JB: Miyuki exhibits a powerful personality but also a very vulnerable side. She is contradictory in that she does not need anybody but also needs to be with someone in order to feel special. Did you see her as being particularly representative of a certain generation of Japanese women?

KH: She was very representative of Japanese women at that time, especially those who were involved in student activities. But she had more charisma than other women, she was stranger, you could not say she was ‘normal’, although she does represent a time of change for Japanese women.

JB: There is a disturbing moment after the birth of Miyuki’s child when she gives the news to her mother over the telephone, and her mother asks how ‘dark’ the baby is, and if she is going to ‘keep it’. Was her relationship with the African-American solider a political act?

KH: Miyuki was always interested in the power of lower-class people, which is why she went to Okinawa and lived in the prostitution area. There were army camps there, and black soldiers would come into that area, but she did not intend to have a black boyfriend at that point. One day, she became ill, and one soldier was really kind to her, so she spent the night with him. Their relationship only lasted three weeks, and she did not think she would have a baby with him, she just wanted an experience. Miyuki was very nervous when she spoke to her mother after giving birth. Her family were not very supportive but Miyuki was very much against racial discrimination in Japan and wanted to fight that aspect of society.

JB: When was the film first shown in Japan and did you experience any censorship problems?

KH: It was first shown in 1974. It was a big film in Japan that year because it was a shocking, self-portrait film, so a lot of people came to see it. At that time, the Japanese censorship law was that if you filmed someone’s private area, you would be arrested if you tried to show that film in the theatre. But because I had made the film myself, I could hire a venue and show it privately, which was not illegal. That’s how I was able to get past the censors. Some of the money for the film came from university research departments and friends, but we did get into debt making it. We were able to gradually pay back the money we had spent making the film by charging admission for these private showings, but it took three to five years to pay back the debt.

JB: When the child is born, there are a few minutes when it seems that he could be stillborn. How were you able to continue filming during what must have been a very distressing experience?

KH: The way the birth is presented in the film makes it seem very quick, but it actually took 12 hours. My mind became very cold, I was just a director, I was thinking about the film and nothing else.

JB: Before Miyuki leaves Okinawa, she makes a pamphlet and hands it out. What kind of statement was she trying to make with this material?

KH: In the film, it seems that she does not like Okinawa, but actually she loves Okinawa; like me, she is from the mainland and Okinawa is very different, with a lot of discrimination. When mainland people go to Okinawa, we can’t get into that society, even if we try, and it’s the same for people from Okinawa who go to the mainland, even more so in that era. Even though Miyuki loved Okinawa, she could not be in perfect harmony there, so the pamphlet was her love song to Okinawa, she wanted to leave something.

JB: What has happened to Miyuki and her son in the past 30 years?

KH: For about five years after I finished filming, Miyuki stayed in a commune, living with other women and their children; but Japan was still very conservative and mixed race kids, especially half-black, half-Japanese kids, were not accepted. The boy wasn’t happy at all so they decided to put him up for adoption and now he is very happy in America.

JB: Extreme Private Eros captures a very particular period of your life. How did you respond to the film when watching it at today’s screening?

KH: I did not watch the film today. I can’t watch it anymore; it’s too embarrassing, I was too young.

Interview by John Berra

Exam: Interview with Stuart Hazeldine


Format: Cinema

Release date: 8 January 2010

Venue: key cities

Distributor: Hazeldine Films/Miracle

Director: Stuart Hazeldine

Writers: Simon Garrity, Stuart Hazeldine

Cast: Luke Mabby, Adar Beck, Nathalie Cox, John Lloyd Fillingham, Jimi Mistry

UK 2009

85 mins

Known until now for his work as a Hollywood scriptwriter, Stuart Hazeldine is making his directorial debut with Exam, a tight, suspenseful low-budget thriller. In what seems like the near-future, eight short-listed applicants looking to secure a job in a big pharmaceutical company are locked in a high-tech room to take their final test of the interview process. An intimidating invigilator reads out a set of instructions that they must follow or be disqualified. They have 80 minutes in which to find one answer to one question. But when they turn over the papers, they are blank: they have to find the question first. Unfolding in quasi-real time, the film observes the group dynamics and the different reactions of the characters in a pressured environment. Virginie Sélavy interviewed writer/director Stuart Hazeldine on the occasion of Exam‘s screening at the Raindance Film Festival in October 09.

Virginie Sélavy: You’ve been working as a scriptwriter until now, is that right?

Stuart Hazeldine: I’ve been selling scripts since 1995. I started very young as an action writer, then I became mainly known as a sci-fi guy. I’ve just been working on Milton’s Paradise Lost with Scott Derrickson, so now I’m moving into different areas like religious fantasy/sci-fi (laughs). It’s the old predictable story: some things turn out like you imagine, other things turn out differently, and you just want the opportunity to put your vision on film and have the whole of your ideas out there instead of people cherry-picking them.

VS: Is that why you decided to direct your first film?

SH: I’d been planning to direct since I was 19. I never liked the idea of a writer going on to direct out of frustration. But directing takes a lot longer to get into, so writing was my route into making films. I felt that the story is the foundation of every movie, so I wanted to get very good at building foundations before directing. I don’t regret doing that, but you can very easily get sucked into just scriptwriting when you’re being paid well. Thankfully, I have good relationships with a couple of genre directors. I’ve worked with Alex Proyas four times now. I’ve just done an adaptation of a BBC sci-fi trilogy from the 60s called The Tripods with him. It’s something that both Alex and I grew up with and were fans of. I like having repeat business with directors who I think have got talent. You may not make a great movie every time, but you are more likely to, and I’ve been able to learn from them. It took longer than I expected to direct something of my own. But I financed the film myself, so I was saving up money and looking for an idea that could be done very cheaply.

VS: Was it your choice to self-finance or was it because it is difficult to find funding?

SH: I always planned to self-finance it. Everybody always tells you that you should never put your own money into a film, so I quite liked the idea of ignoring that rule. I thought, well, if you shouldn’t put money into your film, who should? I think the idea is that studios make money by spread-betting on 10 or 20 films. But if you can control the risk, and if you are in a rare position where you can actually make the film you want, then I think it’s not a bad thing to do. I figured the idea for Exam had a commercial hook: you have young, ambitious, good-looking ABC1 personalities stuck in a room to take an Apprentice-style test in a near-future environment where there are huge stakes. The one thing they’re not prepared for is nothing – they’re not prepared for no guidance, no question. It’s a commercial hook but it’s also philosophically interesting. You think they’ll be good at team work, at taking the initiative, at writing an essay on why they should be hired, but what happens when very structured, driven people are given no guidance and suddenly they have to think in a very lateral way? What would that do to their different psyches? And on a macro level, life itself is a blank piece of paper, so what do you project onto that blank piece of paper?

VS: How did you create the different characters? Were you influenced by reality TV?

SH: I have to confess I don’t watch reality TV. I think if I did, I’d watch The Apprentice because I could watch it without feeling too dirty afterwards. I think that show and Dragon’s Den are interesting because they’re about business and the contestants have some talent. In Exam, I started with the most obvious character confrontation, which is the one between the characters of White and Black. White is essentially a social Darwinist, this sort of wide boy trader who simply believes in the survival of the fittest and sees the test in that way; Black is someone who believes that everyone should work together as a team, and he draws that from his religious principles. That was like the midnight position and the six on the clock, and then I started trying to fill in the other characters. It started out as a short film script, which originally had six out of the eight characters in it. It had Brunette, who was competing for leadership of the team with White. Deaf became a bigger character in the final feature draft. He started out as someone who was a little bit more of a mad philosopher, someone who seemed to have been pushed over the edge, but maybe had some extra insight. In the feature draft, I added Brown and Dark, the gambler and the psychologist. Dark thinks that the answer is all about human behaviour and relationships and can read the other characters in the room, whereas Brown is the poker player who won’t show you his cards until he’s ready to strike. So in a way, he’s as much of a social Darwinist as White is, but White isn’t self-aware whereas Brown is. I like the fact that Brown likes the chaos. When White says, ‘they’re playing with us’, Brown says, ‘great, isn’t it?’ He’s still determined to win but he’s not scared of what’s going on.

VS: Exam is a modern take on the locked room mystery. Is that something you wanted to explore?

SH: I wanted it to have a bit of the locked room, a bit of the morality play, a bit of Jean-Paul Sartre, a little bit of everything (laughs). I was trying to mix it all up but I wasn’t trying to go after too many influences too consciously, otherwise it becomes an homage and nothing else. I like works that have a lot of levels, like in Shakespeare: there’s something in it for the smarter people who care to look for it, and there’s also the grave digger’s scene in Hamlet with lots of humour for the masses. That’s what I tried to do – I don’t know if I’ve succeeded! (laughs)

VS: There have been a few films that have been trying to reinvent that locked room set-up, like Cube or Fermat’s Room

SH: Yes, and The Killing Room this year as well. I think it’s an interesting genre. I missed Fermat’s Room, but from what I could tell, it seemed more coldly intelligent than Exam because it is about mathematicians. I wanted to have a universal scenario that people would relate to so I thought a job interview would work. Somebody who saw the film early on called it ‘the Wachowski Brothers meet Harold Pinter’, which I thought was great and wanted to steal for the poster! (laughs). I like examining human nature and what happens when different philosophies of life, or extremes of altruism and selfishness, come up against one another. So for me, the one-room-ness of it was largely just about being able to finance it. I like the idea of creating a microcosm of the world, which is what the exam room is. It’s about why we are here.

VS: There is no indication of the time in which the film is set, but the harsh-looking, high-tech room makes it feel like it is set in the near-future. It seems like a world very close to ours, but not quite ours, which gives the film a certain strangeness. Was that the sort of effect you wanted to achieve?

SH: I like the idea of leaving it up to people, to make the film accessible. Science fiction often has a problem. People who love science fiction really love it, but people who don’t will avoid even if it’s got something to say to them. So I didn’t want Exam to be too exclusive. There was an earlier version of the script that was more sci-fi and some of the concepts that were being discussed were about nanotechnology and other things that I’m interested in, but I realised that some people wouldn’t be, so I stripped them out. It was the same with the names. I tried not to focus people on real names. It wasn’t so much an homage to Reservoir Dogs, although some people might think it is. It allows people to focus more on the characters’ views of the test than on them as unique individuals. I wanted them to represent world views.

VS: They come across as types.

SH: Yes, they’re types, absolutely, and I’m completely unapologetic about that fact. I wanted them to be very international and multi-ethnic to allow the different people in the audience to say, I’m that person.. But after watching the film for 30-40 minutes, they might say, OK, I might be blond and Caucasian but Brown represents my world view, so I’m actually him. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I liked the idea of people identifying with one character and then slowly focusing in on the idea that it’s actually about general philosophies.

VS: The other interesting thing is the time device. Ticking time is always an effective tool to build up tension but you also make the events unfold almost in real time. What was your aim?

SH: I like limitations and the walls of the room are one limitation, one dimension, and time is another. Again, it’s a metaphor: we have a limited time to decide what we think life is about. It’s also my Hollywood training, I like things to be on a clock. When I’m sent novels to adapt I’m always compressing. Film has that effect. There are a lot of things in the film that I did for multiple reasons. The clock was one of the most stressful things in the film, trying to physically work out how we were going to shoot with the clock and stick to that. When we did our first cut of the film, the actual real-time cut from when the clock starts to when the clock ends was exactly 80 minutes. My editor and I were really surprised. The problem was, we wanted to cut stuff, so actually it ends up closer to 74 minutes. There are little jumps in there.

VS: In a way, it seems to be a Hitchcockian sort of film in the sense that the plot appears to be a pretext to build tension and suspense for the pleasure of the audience.

SH: The plot is like the wrapping for the ideas, and the ideas are a mixture of philosophical, religious and psychological observations. It’s about human behaviour and life, that’s the core of what I’m interested in. Stylistically, I keep hearing Kubrick from many people who have seen the film, and I’ll fess up to doing a few conscious references there. I used to tell people that the white sheet of paper and the black screen were our version of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The long tracking shot towards the screen at the beginning of the movie is all quite precise and controlled. The film starts off with these very controlled tracking moves and a lot of composition and cuts, until the middle of the film, when we brought in the hand-held camera. That’s the point where the characters have turned on one another and they’re trying to uncover some truth from each other. I’m definitely quite a stylistic person, but I just don’t want to be only a stylistic person.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Read Alex Fitch’s review of Exam in the winter 09 issue of Electric Sheep, which looks at what makes a cinematic outlaw: read about the misdeeds of low-life gangsters, gentlemen thieves, deadly females, modern terrorists, cop killers and vigilantes, bikers and banned filmmakers. Also in this issue: interview with John Hillcoat about his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the art of Polish posters according to Andrzej Klimowski, Andrew Cartmel discusses The Prisoner and noir comic strips!

I’m Dangerous with Love: Interview with Michel Negroponte

I'm Dangerous with Love

Sheffield DocFest

4-8 November 2009


Sheffield DocFest website

Michel Negroponte’s website

The documentary filmmaker Michel Negroponte was already familiar with the world of drug addiction before he embarked on I’m Dangerous with Love; his 2005 documentary Methadonia focused on the patients who frequented a methadone clinic on the Lower East Side of New York City, recovering heroin addicts living in chemical limbo as they swapped Schedule 1 substances for prescription medication. His latest project examines an alternative approach to breaking the cycle of addiction, one that is not officially endorsed or prescribed by registered health care practitioners. Ibogaine is a hallucinogen that comes from the root of a West African plant and has been used by shamans for centuries, but in the United States it is classed as a controlled substance and is therefore illegal. At the centre of Negroponte’s film is Dimitri Mugianis; a reformed addict who underwent an ibogaine treatment at an Amsterdam clinic following 20 years of substance abuse, Dimitri is now an ‘ibogaine provider’, trading chemically-induced highs for adrenaline-fuelled escapades as he works with an underground network to help other addicts kick the habit. Negroponte followed Dimitri over an extended period, becoming so involved with his subject that he tried ibogaine himself in order to fully communicate the experience and, after a treatment at a snowed-in Canadian home went wrong, travelled to Gabon with Dimitri to learn more about the hallucinogenic properties of the plant root. Laced with decidedly dark humour, I’m Dangerous with Love is both a compelling character study and an exciting excursion into an underground subculture. John Berra met with Michel Negroponte at the 2009 Sheffield DocFest, where I’m Dangerous with Love received its world premiere.

John Berra: In your opening voice-over for I’m Dangerous with Love, you state that you did not intend to undertake another drugs-related project. How did you become immersed in the ibogaine underground?

Michel Negroponte: My film Methadonia was shown at the New York Film Festival in September 2005 and then aired on HBO a month later. HBO is a fascinating channel for documentary filmmakers because it has a huge number of viewers; people who don’t normally watch documentaries will watch a non-fiction film on HBO simply because it’s there. The number of people who saw Methadonia stunned me and we received many emails, phone calls and letters. One email was from Nick, a young man from outside Chicago who had a heroin habit. He was about to try this experimental cure using an African hallucinogen, and he wanted me to film him going through the treatment. My first reaction to Nick’s email was to say that I had spent three or four years in the world of addiction, that I was still recovering emotionally and psychologically, and that I really wasn’t interested in doing a film about ibogaine, even though it sounded fascinating. But Nick wouldn’t let go. I started to do some research and quickly met many of the main characters in the ibogaine underground movement of New York City. Everyone I spoke to said, ‘You have to meet Dimitri’. When I finally did, there was something about his persona, his presence, and his intensity that made me think he could be the subject of a film. When you make these kinds of ‘present tense’ documentaries, it’s a tremendous act of faith because I knew very little about ibogaine, very little about Dimitri, and absolutely nothing about what might happen in the next several years if I committed to making a film. My underground adventure lasted four years.

JB: I’m Dangerous with Love has a tremendous narrative drive for a documentary; were you concerned when editing the film that it was too exciting and not sufficiently fact-heavy?

MN: First of all, I’m not a journalist, I’m a filmmaker. I’m much more interested in the idea of photographing what’s happening in front of the camera than merely documenting it. Everything from the framing of a shot to the editing of a scene is important to me. I want the finished film to look intentional and precise. I want it to capture the essence of being there. Like most of my other films, I’m Dangerous with Love is character-driven. It’s portraiture. I may not include interviews with medical experts about ibogaine in the film, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think the information is important. While being too fact-heavy can weigh down the storytelling, I try to carefully weave information into my voice-over. It’s a stylistic choice. One of things I have found as I have made more and more films is that I shoot very little. I’m much more interested in the idea of photographing scenes. I never turn the camera on until I’ve composed a shot through the viewfinder, and I think a great deal about the photographic elements.

JB: I particularly liked your detached, darkly humorous voice-over, which recalls the writing of Philip K Dick and Douglas Coupland. Was it important for you to find the humour in this painful world of drug addiction?

MN: The subject matter of the film is so intense and dark that some lighter or comedic moments seemed necessary. In the first 10 minutes of the film there’s a tough scene of Nick vomiting in a hotel room from heroin withdrawal, and I could imagine a number of people getting up and leaving the theatre or switching the channel. So I hope the occasional humour of my voice-over helps people stay with the story.

JB: In the first half of the film, Dimitri seems to be living for the thrill of being an ibogaine provider. Were you concerned that he had substituted one addiction for another?

MN: At one point, Dimitri looks at the camera and says something like, ‘I’m addicted to chaos. Things in my life are going very smoothly. I’m not using anymore, but I need to get my hands dirty’. He’s not nine-to-five and he likes risk. I was intrigued by his bravado, but I think the film captures a change in his personality. After the terrifying event in Canada, when a young man almost dies during a treatment, Dimitri is forced to reassess what he’s doing. By the time he’s been introduced to African shamans and we’ve returned from Africa, he’s a different person.

JB: I was very impressed by Dimitri’s belief system; the bad experience in Canada did not stop him from wanting to be a part of the ibogaine network, but he realised that he needed to learn more about the process and adopt a new approach towards his work.

MN: He’s obviously an incredibly resilient guy; he’s been close to death himself on a number of occasions because of drug use. It would have surprised me if Dimitri had decided after Canada that he never wanted to do another ibogaine treatment. The trip to Gabon reinforced his belief in himself and his mission. It changed his life and took the film in a direction I couldn’t have anticipated.

JB: What was your motivation to take ibogaine yourself?

MN: Before I took ibogaine, I had seen several treatments, and yet I didn’t understand how a hallucinogen could help a drug user detox. Also, most people who take ibogaine find it difficult to describe the psychedelic journey. I wanted to see what it was like, so I asked Dimitri to give me a dose. The trip is like a dream. If you don’t have a pad and pen at your bedside and scribble notes, you may not remember anything the next morning. You have to make a real effort to put the visual and aural experience into words. I guess you could say I became a believer after I took it, and that changed the course of the film.

JB: What are the characteristics of the ibogaine underground and what distinguishes it from more conventional methods of health care?

MN: One of the things I find so intriguing is that former drug users like Dimitri created the ibogaine movement. In the film, you see several addicts go through ibogaine treatments and they return later to help Dimitri take other addicts through treatments. Drug users understand detox and they know how to be empathetic. I’m not sure you can say the same thing about conventional health providers.

JB: What is the significance of the title, I’m Dangerous with Love?

MN: It’s a line from one of Dimitri’s poems. Interestingly enough, he wrote the poem in 2002 just after undergoing the ibogaine treatment in Holland that made him stop using. He inscribed the poem in the ‘guest book’ of the woman who took him through the treatment. The poem ends with the lines, ‘I’m dangerous with love, I’m dangerous with love’. After the crisis in Canada, I thought it was an appropriate title for the film because Dimitri can be dangerous with his love. The title also has a double meaning; my subjects are people who live on the fringes, and I’ve often tested ethical and moral boundaries by filming them. Sometimes I think my passion for making documentaries makes me dangerous as well.

Interview by John Berra

Short Cuts: LSFF 2010 – Rich Pickings Presents: Lolita Complex

Little Red Hoodie

7th London Short Film Festival

8-17 January 2010

Rich Pickings Presents: Lolita Complex

Date: 10 January 2010

Venue: Shortwave Cinema, London

LSFF website

‘A mini, weird conference of ideas’, as festival programmer Carla MacKinnon describes it, each Rich Pickings event takes a single theme and explores the issues involved through a combination of short film screenings, discussion, live music and art performances. The aim is to get people engaged with a particular topic and draw in crowds who might not usually attend film festivals. As MacKinnon explains: ‘A lot of the festivals that I work with are designed to showcase good new short film work and provide a path for filmmakers to get into the industry… which is good and really necessary, but I suppose there was this whimsical side of me that wanted to do something slightly more exploratory.’

The first-ever event, focused on translation and adaptation, took place earlier this year at the Shortwave Cinema in Bermondsey, London. With literary readings and even a game of Chinese Whispers to illustrate how narratives break down, the central focus was a back-to-back double-bill screening of GW Pabst’s 1931 French- and German-language versions of The Threepenny Opera, which aimed to highlight the differences in these translations.

Another literary classic, Nabokov’s Lolita, is the starting point for the second Rich Pickings event, due to take place at the London Short Film Festival on January 10, 2010. Tackling a tricky subject area, the programme will take a look at teenage and adolescent sexuality in all its forms – ‘imposed, real and perceived’. MacKinnon admits that it’s not an easy theme to curate: ‘What really appealed to me about it is that it scared me because it’s not something I’m comfortable with, and it’s not something where I know what I think about it.’ MacKinnon has decided to kick off proceedings with the rarely seen adolescent films of video artist Sadie Benning: ‘I wanted to start out with the voice of a teenager, but a teenager who kind of knew what she was doing.’ As the daughter of filmmaker James Benning, Sadie was a culturally astute adolescent, and her low-fi, Pixelvision films create a certain voyeuristic discomfort, as she explores her sexuality in intimate detail.

Many of the other films being screened present teenage sexuality from an adult perspective: Girl like Me (Rowland Jobson, 2009) follows a middle-aged man as he mistakenly ends up on a date with a young teenage girl; and Little Red Hoodie (Joern Utkilen, 2008), a disturbing take on the familiar fairy tale sees an adolescent girl crossing the Scottish highlands in a provocative red T-shirt as she delivers a television to her grandmother’s house. In addition, a child psychologist will talk about Nabokov’s Lolita, bringing a voice from outside the film industry and an important ‘dose of reality’ – a refreshing characteristic of Rich Pickings.

During our conversation, MacKinnon tosses around all sorts of intriguing options for the programme, from Japanese animé to Kenneth Anger’s fetishisation of youth and a late-night screening of Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970): ‘It’s like anything with programming, you go down a lot of different, interesting routes and beautiful by-roads before you hit the highway.’ She reveals she has hundreds of themes she wants to work on in the future, ranging from the serious (visions of the end of the world) to the fun and silly (‘monkeys versus robots’). With MacKinnon’s energetic programming, there should be many rich pickings for audiences at LSFF.

Eleanor McKeown

Fucked Up’s Jukebox

Fucked Up

Photo by David Waldman

If you’re going to name your band Fucked Up, you can’t mess around. You’ve got to really bring it or else what’s the point? Luckily, Canadian punks Fucked Up do really live up to their name. Their live shows are a sight to behold, with theatrical stage antics spilling out to the audience, often accompanied by blood and nudity. Despite this, the band won the prestigious Canadian Polaris Prize, showing that you can have a naughty word in your band name and still be taken seriously. A collection of their many hard-to-find 7” and 12” tracks are being brought together on a double CD and LP to be released on 25 January on Matador Records. More information on the Matador website and Fucked Up’s blog. Frontman Damian Abraham, aka ‘Pink Eyes’, gives us his 10 favourite films. LUCY HURST

1- The Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Hands down my favourite film of all time. Directed brilliantly by Brian De Palma who is someone I have always felt is underrated as a director. It is a tale that is one part Faust and one part Phantom of the Opera but set against a glam rock backdrop. The music was written by one of the film’s stars, Paul Williams, and it is one of the great, unheralded soundtracks of all time. I first saw this film as a child late one night on TV and for years thought I must have imagined it. It wasn’t until about 12 years ago that I found out it was indeed a real film.

2- Style Wars (1983)
I love documentaries but for the most part I find they don’t stand up to repeated viewing. That said, I have watched this one at least 30 times. It is basically an overview of graffiti in New York in the early 80s but it is so much more than that. A perfect time capsule of a youth culture in its infancy that in no way belittles its subjects but at the same time really never canonises them either. What is left is an honest portrait of the people that made this culture, which ended up sweeping the world. A graffiti writer named Cap (who is featured rather prominently) is the greatest cinematic villain of all time. For the longest time this film was nearly impossible to find. I can remember having to go to the Toronto Reference library to watch a 16mm print version because it was the only way to see it. Nowadays you can order it on the internet and just watch it in the comfort of your own home… oh the modern world.

3- 24 Hour Party People (2002)
There is a great quote about the difficultly of making a film about an artist and I guess that the same must apply to musicians as well. The ‘rock and roll film’ is a very finicky beast. Normally they wind up terrible (Almost Famous), occasionally they wind up all right (Sid And Nancy) but on rare occasions they wind up amazing. This is one such occasion. In this post-modern take on the origins of post-punk, Michael Winterbottom employs direct address, archival footage and ‘found footage’ to make a film worthy of the story it is telling.

4- Casino (1995)
For most people, the obvious Scorsese gangster film is Goodfellas. While I love Goodfellas, I think his masterpiece is Casino. More measured and at the same time far more fully realised than any of his other films.

5- Garbage Pail Kids (1987)
When this movie came out, my brother and I made my parents drive way to the outskirts of Toronto to the only place that was playing it. At that young age I couldn’t understand why a movie that I was dying to see was only playing in such a remote place. All these years later, armed with the wisdom of the mitigating 25 years or so, I can understand a little bit more why this might not be for everyone. It is a spin of the popular trading card series (yes, you read that right). It centres around a boy of about 15 who is inexplicably bullied by a guy well into his 30s. The teen stumbles across magic garbage that contains a bunch of gross kids (the Garbage Pail Kids) who come to his aid. The bully’s girlfriend, who is in her late 20s, falls in love with the teen (yes, you read that right), and it just keeps getting weirder. It has everything you could want from a film: musical numbers, puppets, genocide, general insanity, etc.

6- Across 110th Street (1972)
This is constantly lumped as a blaxplotation film, which I think does it a disservice. Sure, it has many of the hallmarks of the genre: made in the 70s, an incredible soul soundtrack, a focus on inner city urban life and of course black central characters, but to pigeonhole it like that ignores the fact that this is a film that offers a far greater social commentary than something like Shaft. It serves as a critique of the racism of the police, the treatment of veterans, the death of the inner city and the general failure of the American Dream. It was directed by the amazing Berry Shear, who was predominantly a television director, and almost all of his films could be on this list.

7- Rambo IV (2008)
This is perhaps the purest action film ever made. The plot is secondary to the action. The only character development given to the bad guys is making the leader a paedophile. Trying to analyse this film any further would be a disservice to the beauty of its simplicity. I had no interest in seeing this when it came out and I am kicking myself that I missed my chance to see it in the cinema.

8- Deathwish II (1982)
It is such a rare occurrence that a sequel is better than the original. Aliens? Godfather II? Those are debatable, but the superiority of Deathwish II is not. Deathwish II is pure pathos. In the first film, Charles Bronson’s character becomes a vigilante, but in this one he becomes a god of vengeance. The later sequels have ventured further and further into the realm of impossibility, but this one manages to walk the thin line between plausible and implausible.

9- Shogun Assassin (1980)
Most people’s exposure to this film comes from the use of samples from its dialogue on the Gza’s classic ‘Liquid Sword’ album but the film is a masterpiece in its own right. It was made by re-editing two of the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub films into a single movie with English dubbed over the top. This is the only film that I think is improved by dubbing, thanks in large part to the amazing voice talents of the actor who plays the main character’s son. He serves as the film’s narrator and captures the bleakness of the story perfectly. I love revenge films and this is one of the best.

10- Various
The final spot I will use to give some honourable mentions as I can’t decide which film to put in the spot: Wild in the Streets (1968), Star Wars (1977), The Warriors (1979), Seven Samurai (1954), Touch of Evil (1958), Django (1966), Oldboy (2003), Blue Spring (2001), Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), Comic Book Confidential (1988), Crumb (1994), Vinyl (1965), The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), Gummo (1997).

Review of the Year 2009

Let the Right One In

The Electric Sheep team look back at the heroes and villains of 2009.


Love Exposure
A four-hour long hymn to the redemptive power of love, Love Exposure creates a magnificently alien universe that careers from cartoony farce to serious drama. For all its oddness, the film has an epic, biblical quality, and there is a truth in the characters and their relationships that keeps us gripped despite the marathon length. ELEANOR MCKEOWN

Let the Right One In
This sweet and bloody subtle horror tale charts the relationship between lonely 12-year-old Oskar and vampire girl Eli. There is an ever-present sense of danger whenever Eli and Oskar are together and it is this threat underlying their love that makes the film so touching and melancholy, so real and unsentimental. Let the Right One In perfectly captures the nature of love as a delicate and dangerous balancing act, lovers poised for a fleeting, magical moment between need and defiance, trust and menace, sweetness and violence. TINA PARK

The White Ribbon
Violence is yet again the main subject of Haneke’s excellent The White Ribbon, which deservedly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. The White Ribbon is very much a German film, and it is impossible to ignore that the overly quiet and polite children depicted here are the ‘Nazi generation’. But, more than that, it is, in Haneke’s words, ‘a film about the roots of evil’. It is a didactic play of sorts, but one in which the names of the culprits are as irrelevant as any direct answers or lessons. The finely crafted screenplay, the stunning black and white photography, the aural landscape, the use of omission and silence make this nightmarish fable one of Haneke’s most accomplished films to date. PAMELA JAHN

White Lightnin’
Merging real-life events and unbridled fiction, writers (and co-producers) Shane Smith and Eddy Moretti have crafted a bold, nightmarish tale of Southern darkness and director Dominic Murphy takes the subject matter to cinematic extremes, using a hand-held camera, bizarre angles and repeated blackouts to convey Appalachian mountain dancer Jesco White’s disturbed state of mind. Intensely imagined and vividly directed, White Lightnin’ is a raw, rabid, howling hillbilly hell trip that doesn’t let up. PAMELA JAHN

If, as is usually the case, high school/college movies are intended as portraits of America in microcosm, then this is the most bilious, vicious picture of that nation I’ve encountered in years. The dark nature of the story is emphasised by visually inventive, oddly framed photography throughout, imitating both the lopsided compositions of amateur cameramen and the disaffected gaze of a sociopath, building a woozy, unhealthy atmosphere, a world viewed through the wrong head. Creepy and smart. MARK STAFFORD

Johnny Mad Dog
Set in an unnamed African country, Johnny Mad Dog opens with a shockingly brutal, surreally violent scene in which a pack of frenzied, coked up, brainwashed children attack a village. The film plunges us into their perception of the senseless chaos and madness of war, avoiding any simplifying, worthy platitudes about the situation. They are both terrible victims of the war and terrifying murderers, childish and vulnerable on the one hand and capable of the most chilling acts of violence on the other. A cross between Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now, this is an extraordinarily powerful film. VIRGINIE SÉLAVY

Duncan Jones’s independent debut feature is a fascinating and visually stunning sci-fi film that explores the alienation and bitter loneliness of space, as well as the very essence of the human condition. Filmed in little more than a month, and refreshingly making use of models rather than relying solely on CGI, the picture beautifully captures Jones’s unique vision, both aesthetically and philosophically. Moon is an instant classic of the genre, as well as one of the most impressive and original films to emerge from the UK in years. SARAH CRONIN

Big River Man
This unconventional documentary charts eccentric Slovenian swimmer Martin Strel’s extraordinary attempt to swim the Amazon. An unlikely champion, the rotund, hard-drinking, 53-year-old Martin combines a day job as a flamenco guitar teacher with a line in swimming the world’s most polluted rivers. The megalomaniac nature of the project, the strangeness of his relationship to his entourage and the spectacular Amazonian scenery make for one of the most enjoyable films of the year, a soulful journey into dark places, lunacy and the extremes of human behaviour that is at turns desperately farcical and profoundly affecting. VIRGINIE SÉLAVY


Watching Antichrist, one gets no sense of the artist grappling with his materials, trying to strike a balance between order and chaos. Instead, von Trier seems a confused and desperate director, whose latest film has completely evaded his control. Having made good work in the past, he may well make good work again in the future, and should he do so, Antichrist may come to be seen as an intriguing low in the director’s oeuvre. Considered on its own, however, Antichrist is utter nonsense, an irredeemable mess, and one of the worst films I have ever had the displeasure to see. DAVID WARWICK


Synecdoche New York
We are asked to sympathise with an outrageously self-absorbed, self-pitying blob of a man who cannot get over the momentous tragedy of his own mortality. Caden’s fixation with death stops him from living life, making him the most bloodless, gutless, humourless, lifeless cinematic character I’ve come across in a long time, and there is no sense of distance or self-deprecation to help us through this bloated, indigestible whine-fest. Structural convolutions fail to fill the film’s empty heart or disguise its stunningly narrow perspective on the world – Kaufman is absolutely incapable to see beyond the confines of a peculiarly North American, white, male, middle-class, middle-aged perspective. Depressing beyond words. VIRGINIE SÉLAVY