Category Archives: Interviews


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 January 2008

Distributor Artificial Eye

Director: Cristian Mungiu

Original title: 4 luni, 3 saptamini si 2 zile

Cast: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, Alexandru Potocean

Romania 2007

113 minutes

Winner of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Festival, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and Two Days is a powerful, psychological thriller about the agonies of obtaining an abortion under the brutal, repressive communist regime in Romania. While the cast is uniformly talented, Anamaria Marinca is utterly compelling in the role of Otilia, the young woman who takes on the burden of arranging the undignified, distressing back-street abortion for her friend Gabita. Below, Marinca tells Electric Sheep why it was so important for her to make this film.

Sarah Cronin: Your first major role was in Sex Traffic. Do you find yourself attracted to these gritty, brutal parts?

Anamaria Marinca: They came to me, but I’m very interested in being useful as an artist. They’re both stories about my country, my history, my roots, and I need to tell these stories. I think they are useful today, and if just one person takes something out of them then that’s enough.

SC: One of the really appealing things about 4 Months is that it doesn’t make any moral judgements – the film is really a blank canvas.

AM: That was our intention. It was quite difficult for me because it’s hard not to have a personal opinion. Your personal truth is limited by life. We tried to go beyond the boundaries, to see more. Maybe because it’s twenty years later we now have the wisdom and clarity to tell the story. If we’d told it in the years after the revolution in 1989, it wouldn’t have been so objective.

SC: Cristian has said that the film is really not about abortion, or even communism. What do you think the heart of the story is? Is it about oppression and lack of freedom?

AM: It’s about pursuing truth, freedom, values – it’s about friendship, it’s about sacrifice. I don’t want to use big words, but you have to be driven by values in order to make a work of art. You have to transcend this literal reality that we’re living in. You don’t look at the film, you look through it and see other things beyond the film – at least you should.

SC: The film really revolves around your character, Otilia, even though Gabita is the one who has the abortion. Why do you think Cristian decided to focus on her?

AM: That was one of the things that attracted me to the story. His perspective is different. Visually, everything happens to the main character, and here we have this story that is parallel to what we would consider to be the main story, the abortion. Otilia is the one who understands what’s happening. I was very interested in taking part in telling the story in this way. I think that is why, for me, this is an optimistic story. At the end of the day, the film is about twenty-four hours in someone’s life, and she’s changed by the suffering she experiences. Sometimes you can’t always understand things, but suffering is not always bad, in my opinion. Otilia grows, becomes mature. And in that context, in that time and space, unfortunately, that’s how she had to learn things about life – it was very harsh.

SC: In the film, the so-called doctor, Mr Bebe, demands sex from both girls as payment for the abortion. Rather than show what is essentially rape, Cristian focuses on your character after the act, washing herself in the bathroom. It was quite an interesting way of showing the trauma. Was it quite difficult to prepare yourself for that scene where you’re really conveying the character’s ordeal through very small gestures?

AM: Yes, because it’s much more painful for a spectator to see that then to see the sexual act itself. We all know what’s going on in the bedroom. You don’t need to show it – this is the beauty of the art. The language of cinema is abstract. If the film offers you all of the answers, then there is not much point in making it. I don’t believe in films that project a reality for you, and tell you what you should think. Life is a mystery, and I believe in mystery. The world is so much bigger than the camera, the frame, we just show a fragment of it, but in your head you can see everything. It surrounds you. The story is a mirage, a paradox.

SC: The long takes in the film work fantastically well at capturing the psychological drama. Did you find that you had to be more personally involved in the story, because you really had to be into the character for such relatively long stretches of time?

AM: I am always personally involved, no matter how long the take is. Coming from theatre, I immensely enjoyed doing this. I had wonderful partners – it’s like playing a game, you’re always on the edge. At the theatre you have one month, six weeks, eight weeks to rehearse and here you have a few hours in the morning. It’s like a hunt, because you have to remember everything. It’s in the moment. Everything is limited, time is limited, your film is limited, and you know that, and this works on your adrenaline. Though I need to say that Cristian is one of the most relaxed artists I have ever worked with. He gives you the impression that you have all of the time in the world, and that is very important.

SC: Romanian filmmakers have received a lot of attention in the last year or so, with films such as 12:08 East of Bucharest, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, on which Oleg Mutu, the DOP on 4 Months, also worked. Yourself, Cristian and Oleg are all quite young. Is this a new resurgence in Romanian cinema?

AM: There is something going on over there. It’s a whole new generation. It’s a generation who I think – we hope – hasn’t been corrupted. We’re searching for the truth. We’re not interested in a moral message. We just need to find our own way of telling stories, and we have nothing to lose. There was so much pain in our past and there is so much need to understand what happened.

SC: I think Romania really suffered one of the worst dictatorships.

AM: It was terrible, and we can see that in our parents and grandparents. The scars they left – the invisible scars which you can see every day. I wish that one day I can forgive the regime for doing this to my family, and to a whole generation of Romanians. Taking their dignity away from them, their right to be free spirits, and giving them instead the fear that is present for life, that accompanies them wherever they go, whatever they do. That is very difficult for me to cope with.

SC: It must have been quite a surprise to find yourself in a film that has done so well, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

AM: Yes. For me, it also means that there is hope. When Cristian accepted the Palme d’Or, he said that if we did this with no help whatsoever, then anyone who has an idea and something to tell can make a movie, and it can be recognised and it can be seen. You can tell the story – we’ve been to 10-15 countries so far, and we will probably cover about 60 just promoting and presenting the movie.

SC: I think in some ways it’s quite a universal story – it’s something that other countries have gone through – for example other Catholic countries.

AM: There are still countries where this goes on. There is Poland, and there is Mexico. We’ve been there, and it’s been difficult and inspiring. You feel like you’re wanted. You become the voice of the people that have no voice. And when you have the feeling that you are doing something so important, you have to go on doing this. That’s the most rewarding thing. The film works because it echoes in our collective subconscious.

SC: Romania is still on the fringes of Europe. Do you worry that there is still this prejudice against Eastern Europeans, that films like David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises perpetuate these clichés about crime, gangsters, etc?

AM: Like you said, they are clichés. If someone wants to steal or rape or kill they will do it no matter what the colour of their skin or their nationality. The problem is that we do it on a bigger scale – of course the wars that we’re engaged in are far more dangerous for society. We need to focus on the bigger issues.

SC: Would you be interested in making a film about the war in Iraq?

AM: Definitely. For me, talking about it, or making movies, or doing theatre, or painting, or composing new music – any way of expressing yourself through art is another step towards understanding, and we need to understand, because we’ll destroy each other if we continue in this way.

Interview by Sarah Cronin

Interview with George Clark: ‘The Secret Masterpieces of Cinema’

Les Jeux des anges


Special Preview Weekend: Tate Modern, London, 18-21 January 2008

‘Dreams’ UK Theatrical Release: 25 January 2008

Further details here

The re-appropriation of avant-garde ideas and techniques by the mainstream is an old story but the increasing number of artists choosing to work in film and video and the expansion of what is called ‘artists’ film’ have convinced the Independent Cinema Office that it is time to re-assess the influence of these ground-breaking works on the wider visual culture. To do this they asked six young curators to put together programmes of artists’ films around the themes of ‘Dreams’, ‘Modernity’, ‘Expression’, ‘Protest’, ‘Play’ and ‘Pop’. These include well-known works such as Un Chien andalou and Invocation of My Demon Brother alongside rarely screened films such as Walerian Borowczyk‘s Les Jeux des anges or Santiago Alvarez’ 79 Springs of Ho Chi Min. ‘ICO Essentials: The Secret Masterpieces of Cinema’ will be shown at a special preview weekend at Tate Modern in London from 18-21 January before opening across the UK from Friday 25 January. We talked to George Clark, one of the curators, about the selection of films and the objectives of the project.

Virginie Sélavy: The idea behind the programme of films that you’re curating is to show the influence of artistic, avant-garde films on mainstream popular culture. How do you feel that this selection of films will achieve that?

George Clark: Artists’ films have historically been put at the bottom of the pile, so it’s trying to look at it the other way, actually artists were the first people to do things that were then picked up by everyone else. With this programme we’re consciously trying to open up the debate about where artists’ film is situated and talk about artists’ film as an umbrella for avant-garde, experimental, all those different things, and take a step back from all those little niche groups and look at the bigger picture. It’s trying to re-assert the position of artists’ film and its influence on the mainstream. One of the big areas is the use of music: Kenneth Anger was the first filmmaker to use found soundtracks for his films, now that’s completely natural; and similarly the idea of music videos, you get someone like Peter Whitehead, who really pioneered that form. My programme, the ‘Dreams’ programme, which is looking at the fantastic in the last century, has all kinds of influences on figures like David Lynch, Terry Gilliam or the Quay Brothers. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the mainstream but it starts the ball rolling, which is then picked up by someone like David Lynch, which is then picked up by someone else and ends up in a car advert or on a television show.

It’s interesting that you mentioned using ‘artists’ film’ as an umbrella term because the terminology has always been problematic, you have ‘avant-garde’ in the 1920s, ‘experimental’ in the 1940s and ‘underground’ in the 1960s. Now it seems that the accepted term is ‘artists’ film’. Do you think this is a better term for this?

I don’t know, I think it’s sort of clumsy, especially the Arts Council’s favourite, which is ‘artists’ moving image’, which I think is…

It’s a bit long…

(laughs) Yeah… But I think ‘artists’ film’ defines artists’ practice and in some ways experimental film or those other terms are loaded with an agenda in terms of aesthetic criteria, and I don’t think that really relates to artists’ work with film and video now. I don’t think it can be defined in those strict rules that you had in the 60s, anti-narrative, anti-representational, etc. Now you see artists’ films which could be anything from Matthew Barney’s epic, almost musicals re-imagined with Vaseline to really pared-down, minimal sort of films like Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. You get this whole spectrum as well as people continuing to work in traditional hand-made films, DIY films. So I think it’s better because it bridges these different periods and it represents what’s happening now, the proliferation of people working in different areas, not just in the cinema, but a broader cultural range, from artists’ film to feature films, to installations and interventions in the political environment. So in one way it describes what happens now but it also tries to find links rather than create oppositions.

How did the idea for the project come about? Why do something like this now?

It was partly based on the expansion of interest and activity around artists’ film and video, loads of things are happening, especially in the art world, there’s been a huge explosion of artists working in film and video. In some ways we felt that there was a missing link that connected what’s happening now with what was happening historically. A lot of things that were happening in the art world referred back to what was happening in the experimental film movement. We felt that there was a bit of a missing link in the fact that artists are increasingly showing works in museums and galleries and cinemas are becoming more and more restricted in the stuff that they’re showing and there’s no connection made between the two. And people know about the contemporary work but there’s a gap in awareness of the historical work.

There’s a bit of a paradox there because the films that you’re showing were made as acts of resistance or subversion specifically in opposition to mainstream culture but their stylistic innovations have been appropriated by mainstream culture and used to promote exactly what these filmmakers were opposed to in the first place. How do you feel about that?

I think culture is about this mixture and dialogue, and in some ways this appropriation and theft and misunderstanding. It’s part of how culture works and it’s one of the things that’s interesting about it. There’s definitely an argument that you should always try to remember the original context but when things are made they’re out there to be understood as well as misunderstood. And one way of approaching it is how work finds it way within culture. With a lot of these films, people have seen the films that refer back to them, so people might not have seen Maya Deren but they’ve seen Lost Highway by David Lynch that refers to that. They may not have seen Un chien andalou but they’ve seen an episode of the Simpsons that refers back to that. So that’s the other thing we’re interested in bringing back, the original referent.

Did you think of actually screening the films and the works that they’ve influenced, in comics, ads, design, along with the original films?

Yeah, it’s an interesting idea. It sort of turns the project into an essay. We felt that the work was already recognisable to other mediums today. So we were more interested to bring back those works in a way that would be accessible to a broad range of audiences and venues so those connections could be made.

Do you think that if you had screened, say, music videos, you would have attracted a younger audience that might not come otherwise?

I think it’s a balance. People quite often do that, find the hook to get people in, and you show something populist and mix it with something else maybe not so well-known. Putting the programmes together opens up the possibility for other people to make those connections and to contextualise the project by showing the films in the way they want to. But our interest was to look at where artists’ films are positioned and often when things are paired together it can happen that the real event is the feature rather than the short that goes with it. And we were interested in turning that upside down, so the real event is the artist’s film, and rather than bringing people to see music videos it’s about how actually artists’ films were happening before music videos.

Do you believe that people will make the connections?

I think making that connection is one way of approaching the project. And partly what we’re interested in is try and generate a bit of mystery around the programme, it’s part of the title, ‘The Secret Masterpieces’, it’s like the most influential films you’ve ever seen. It’s playing on that proposal; if you think you know cinema, you might know one type of cinema but this is something else.

Things can also work the other way, for instance filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger and George Kuchar have taken imagery from pop culture and re-appropriated it in their films. You are showing films by these filmmakers but they’re not grouped together so there doesn’t seem to be a specific focus on this. Why not?

We didn’t want to create battle lines between artists and pop culture, and that’s the good thing about this term ‘artists’ film’ because avant-garde film is against everything else whereas artists’ films have been intimately involved with pop culture and have had this total overlap and leakage with artists going into making feature films and feature filmmakers going into experimental work. So rather than examine that one strand, it’s part of that appropriation that happens, it’s part of a broader range, so you get things like this William Klein film that’s the first Pop Art film, it’s an homage to Broadway, street signs, Coca Cola, Pepsi, and it’s totally in love with these logos, or like George Kuchar, the head-over-heels melodrama but not in the way you’d ever see. We see that as part of what should be on offer. It’s artists’ film but it’s for and it’s against popular culture and it’s about how it intersects with it and it’s about trying to show that sort of spectrum.

The films are grouped into six different themed selections, ‘Dreams’, ‘Modernity’, ‘Expression’, ‘Protest’, ‘Play’ and ‘Pop’. Why those themes?

It’s again trying to take a step back and create a really broad theme. Each of them is curated by a different curator and the brief that they had to respond to was to deal with the idea of essential works, classics works, what could you understand as classic now and try and marry that with the theme. It was quite a challenge because people are used to doing something that is thematic and there was a lot of debate, people wanted to follow up a specific theme and actually you need to look at the broader picture. It’s tempting to look at music videos and artists’ film and get into that one area but it’s important that it’s that breadth that’s maintained. The themes emerged out of thinking of the last century and the different movements within visual culture and art history. I didn’t want to deal with this historically, I didn’t want to do realist films from the 1950s, or post-modernist videos from 1983 but instead try to connect disparate periods. With the ‘Dreams’ programme the rough brief was to look at surrealist films and psychedelia. The ‘Play’ programme was to look at Dada and post-modernism. So rather than deal with any of these on its own, it was about trying to find the connections between the two. The ‘Modernity’ programme is a kind of Bauhaus, early modernist works into appropriated culture, consumerism and the way people relate to modern society. So each of the programmes bridges two different periods and tries and brings those together and looks at different ways of approaching the last century that aren’t historical.

One of the programmes seems particularly wide: ‘Expression’ – you could have everything in there!

Partly that was thinking about Abstract Expressionism to punk or something like that but one thing that was important was that it was that open and that the curators could figure out their own response to it and what ‘expression’ really means. The title is really obvious but [curator Ian White’s] interpretation isn’t so obvious, it looks at personal films and what that means, and the starting point of that, thinking through intimate, diaristic films like Sadie Benning’s, the videos she made in her bedroom, moving back to more abstract reflections on what expression means. And in some way expression is defined by its inverse so it’s also the idea of inhibition, expression that is stopped or channelled. The first film in this programme is called Invitation au voyage, by Germaine Dulac. It’s a silent film and it all takes place in this exotic nightclub and it’s incredible, it has this strange, seductive atmosphere. Everyone has their collars buttoned up and it’s a kind of stiff silent film atmosphere but it’s really potent and evocative because of the fact that no one is expressing themselves.

Will the curators be there to introduce the screenings? Because from what you say it sounds like their interpretation of the themes is quite important.

Yes, all the curators will be there apart from Tanya Leighton who curated the programme on ‘Pop’, she’s going to be in Colombia, but everyone else is going to be there. Rather than do a history of artists’ film from one perspective I wanted each programme to have quite an individual take on what would the history of artists’ film be and what are the classical works because that’s a hugely contentious thing so it’s important that there is plurality. Each programme proposes slightly different things, it’s not really unified, some works that people chose other people hate, it’s part of the project. We really wanted to involve that room for reflection. There is a necessity in some ways to get people in to see stuff, to say these are the best works, but it’s also quite an unfashionable thing to do and a lot of people don’t like that. So it’s trying to find a balance between making that claim, that these are the greatest hits or something, and to have that reflection on what that means to assemble all this and what it means to interpret the histories that have been written which have their own emphasis on certain areas, and the way history is not objective, it’s subjective.

The ‘Protest’ programme curated by the Otolith Group in particular sounds very interesting. Why did you ask them to curate a programme?

We were really interested in getting people who were young curators, or people who have a very strong involvement with contemporary artists’ film now, so not necessarily people who’ve been programming strictly experimental films. We approached them because of their own work, we wanted to bring in the artists’ perspective and people working in a multi-disciplinary way, and also to tap into their involvement in essay film. They are artists and writers as well, and they’re a very articulate, reflective, conscious group. They did this big project around the Black Audio Collective recently, it’s an amazing project that is touring around; it’s still due to come to London. Partly because of their own work they are aware of the history of different movements, the intersection of feature films and artists’ film. It’s exciting the way they’re trying to rethink these sorts of positions now. They came up with some really great stuff.

You curated ‘Dreams’, in which you included films such as Un chien andalou and Meshes of the Afternoon, which are fairly well-known and are screened regularly. Why did you choose to include these films rather than give space to more obscure films?

Partly it’s trying to create a dialogue between different sorts of works. And also Meshes of the Afternoon does get screened a lot but you kind of take it for granted how many people have seen that. It’s probably read about or cited more than it’s seen. And part of the project is pitching into the Sunday classics that cinemas have, where they might show The Seventh Seal or A Bout de souffle, and to try and think how you could package together artists’ films to work in that way, like a repertory programme, things that should be on and should be accessible all the time. So it was really important to have certain works that really stood out and that the venues would feel comfortable with. It’s a way that you could smuggle things in that aren’t so well-known. All of the programmes balance one or two well-known works with less well-known things.

In your programme you also have Les Jeux des anges, Our Lady of the Sphere and Asparagus. They offer very different takes on the theme of ‘Dreams’. Why did you choose those films in particular, because again, with a topic like this, there’s a lot of choice…

I was interested in representing a broad spectrum of works and inserting things that came from different definitions of what an artist’s film would be, works that people might not necessarily see as artists’ films, like Borowczyk who went on to make feature films, and was discredited as an eroticist. He made some fantastic features in the 60s and a series of animations prior to that but he isn’t really classed as an artist filmmaker, despite the fact that he has all the credentials, he was a painter, but because he worked in the film industry he’s kind of left out. So we’re really interested in bringing in someone like that. Same as Švankmajer who kind of sits on the edge, and having those in parallel with Larry Jordan, who’s very much in the canon of experimental film, a contemporary of Stan Brakhage, very much involved in the Canyon Cinema Group, in the American independent film scene. He’s made feature films but people see him as an artist. And Les Jeux des anges is a film that has had an interesting relationship to experimental film. It famously won the Knokke Festival of Experimental Film in Brussels in 1958 where it beat Brakhage and Agnès Varda and it circulated a lot in student film circuits. But it’s been in this terrible, discoloured, beat-up print so it’s been a good opportunity to re-invest and bring back a film that’s been out of circulation for ages. There’s never been a 35mm print in the UK and that will stay here after the project. So we’re also looking a bit strategically at how we can make those works available, balance things that are accessible but also use the fact that we have a bit more weight and a bit more funding with this sort of project to bring in other things that might not have been in there.

And what about Asparagus?

That’s a great film. It’s similarly left out because there’s a lean to animation, and maybe that programme represents that area more than the others. Asparagus is on the border between the indie and animation circuits, and it’s one that makes a really interesting connection back to Meshes of the Afternoon. It’s that elliptical narrative, Moebius-strip style, a circular narration that goes in and out. It’s such a trippy film, it has these fantastic colours and it really acknowledges that; it ends with a scene in a cinema where the woman opens her purse and releases all these fantastic patterns. It’s like an Oskar Fischinger film, an early abstract film. I really like the idea that it’s spectacle but in a way that you never see anymore. People talk about spectacle in cinema but it’s rarely as enchanting or as magical as when artists deal with it. Asparagus really stands out, it’s not embarrassed to deal with colour and exuberance.

What kind of audience are you hoping to attract with this programme? Do you think that this will work towards expanding the audience for this kind of cinema?

We tried to pitch the programme so it can touch different bases and it fills the gap that is not really catered for, which is people who are interested in the cinema and in the visual arts who might not have access to this sort of work around the UK. You can’t get through to an audience until you get through to a venue so part of the project is to try and make an argument about why a venue should show this stuff. The project tries to open up their idea of cinema, to get them to think that actually artists’ film is part of what they do. So we’ve been quite conscious in choosing the films because cinemas are very quick to dismiss experimental films because they don’t really see it as cinema. But as soon as you have someone like Buñuel, Jean Vigo, they’re like, wait a second, that’s a feature filmmaker I know. So it’s trying to make the argument that they can show artists’ films, that it’s not something that they should be worried about, that it appeals to a broad range of audiences, rather than try to go after the experimental hardcore pound. Artists’ film is not just about the ultra-cinephiles who’ve seen every film but haven’t seen these one or two; artists’ film is if you’re interested in cinema, in visual arts, music, fashion and design, it has all of that, it relates to all those areas, and it’s much more open and broader than cinemas necessarily give it the benefit for.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy


Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom

Baader’s Angels: Women’s Roles in German Terrorism Films

6-10 December 2007

ICA, London


Born from the radical student movement of the late sixties, the Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof group, as it was known in the press, threatened the stability of the West German state for a decade. Their violent attacks against a right-wing establishment that they saw as a direct continuation of Nazi Germany deeply polarised the nation and put into question the very foundations of German democracy. It’s been thirty years since the group’s leaders, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, died in prison, and the ICA is marking the event by presenting a season of films that focuses on the role women have played in the revolutionary movement. We talked to Pamela Jahn, curator of the season, to find out more.

Virginie Sélavy: The thirtieth anniversary of the death of the Baader-Meinhof gang leaders is a strange anniversary to mark. In your view what does it represent?

Pamela Jahn: First of all, when I was thinking of putting the season together I struggled with marking the death of the leaders as an anniversary, so I decided to call it not an anniversary but rather a season to remember the German Autumn. I think that the debate over the deaths in Stammheim over the last few years is about German democracy, and the way that the police dealt with them is still something that interests a lot of people in Germany, especially because many former RAF members are now being released from prison. There’s a lot going on in Germany and I thought that might well be of interest to people elsewhere too.

VS: Yes, definitely, I think there’s an interest in this all over Europe. Why did you decide to concentrate specifically on the role of women in these filmic representations of German terrorism?

PJ: Two reasons mainly. The first one was that I personally found it really interesting that when you look at, for example, old wanted posters you see that almost half of the people that the police were looking for were actually women. I think that women played a very important role in the RAF. While I was looking for films a lot of filmmakers pointed out the struggle that women had experienced personally and politically at that time.

VS: It is striking to see the number of women who were part of the RAF, not just the leaders Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, but many other young women. How do you explain that? Why did so many young women join such a hardcore revolutionary movement at the time?

PJ: I think one of the reasons was that it all started in the late sixties, and even though I wouldn’t call it a feminist movement, I think a lot of women were given the opportunity to actually act within the group. They also found a base to fight against what was going on in West Germany and everything that they didn’t agree with. And I think they were given as much space as men, and maybe that was something rather typical in West Germany, more so than in other countries at that time.

VS: There definitely seems to be a link between the involvement in the RAF and the feminist struggle in the story of people like Inge Viett, that we see in Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom. In her case, there seems to be a clear connection between personal and political struggle.

PJ: I think Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom is the best example of the way the women explain why they did what they did and I think that what Inge Viett says applies to most of the women who were active within the RAF. This is why it’s a very important film within the season, as much as The Legends of Rita, in the way that it shows how a lot of women terrorists had to take on another identity. I find it incredibly interesting how Schlí¶ndorff deals with the fact that there’s a woman actually on the other side [the East German side] who’s trying to change her life, to escape from her previous identity and to find a new identity in a new country. All these films focus a lot on the political situation in the separated and then unified Germany.

VS: You’ve mentioned Volker Schlí¶ndorff and it’s interesting that in such a short season that features only five films, there are two films by him, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and The Legends of Rita. Why did you include those two films in the selection?

PJ: Because I think Schlí¶ndorff was not only important at the time – he also plays an important role in Germany in Autumn, which was made in 1977-1978 as a reaction to the events of the time – but it’s also very interesting to see his development within his own filmography. He comes from The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and then [25 years later] he picks up the topic again to do The Legends of Rita. I think he’s one of the crucial directors when it comes to terrorist films made in Germany and especially within New German Cinema.

VS: What’s also interesting in the comparison between the two films is that in Katharina Blum you have a character who’s come into contact with a terrorist but is not actually one herself. In The Legends of Rita, Rita is actually a terrorist and she’s been involved in violent action. Do you think that Schlí¶ndorff could have made a film like this in 1975 or do you think that at the time it would have been unacceptable to portray such a violent female terrorist?

PJ: I’m pretty sure he could have. What I think he was more interested in back in 1975 when he made The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was the way the media dealt with the German Autumn and the death of Baader and Ensslin in Stammheim. I think that at the time he wanted to point out the particular problem of the media’s attitude in West Germany rather than show the personal destiny of someone who was an active member of the group. I think what was more important to him was to show how you can become a victim of the media even if you are not directly active yourself. But at the same time it shows the character’s own sense of democracy and resistance.

VS: In The Legends of Rita, Rita is a kind of composite of various female members of the RAF. There are elements in her character that come from the real life of female members of the RAF. How does Schlí¶ndorff portray these women terrorists through the character of Rita? What does he show about them through that character?

JD: I think he shows her struggle to carry on living. Whether you want to or not you have to take on a new identity and live under cover to survive. And that’s not really related to Meinhof or Ensslin who actually decided to end their lives in prison instead of doing everything they could to survive. Rita Vogt was never like a real character, she was never a real terrorist. Interestingly enough, it’s a story Schlí¶ndorff wrote with [Wolfgang] Kohlhaase, who is an East German screenwriter, which makes it even more interesting in the connection between East and West Germany. I think that it is really about the second movement of the RAF and what happened after the German Autumn and how these active men and women who had played an important part in the movement had to struggle to go on and had to keep their will to fight for whatever they thought was the political future of Germany.

VS: In Rita’s story there are echoes of the life of Inge Viett, a member of the RAF who took refuge in East Germany to escape prosecution in the West and whose life is documented in Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom. By including these two films in the season did you think that it would be interesting to have this kind of echo between this fictional story and the real story of someone like Inge Viett?

JP: They are connected to each other, of course, and even though The Legends of Rita was made up it certainly relates to real-life stories.

VS: I think this mirroring of fiction and reality among the different films in the season is quite interesting.

PJ: Definitely. And it’s really cleverly done, for example The Legends of Rita never mentions any RAF events, it’s never said, it’s never shown, there aren’t many references directly given in the film. But you don’t have to know much about the RAF when you’re watching the film.

VS: Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom is the only straightforward documentary in the season. Why did you pick this one in particular, rather than for instance, a film like Ulrike Marie Meinhof, the 1994 documentary about the RAF leader?

PJ: I found it interesting to see not just a portrait of one of the most famous leaders of the RAF but to show the personal struggle of all these women who were fighting within the RAF and for its aims. I thought that the comparison between the destinies of the two women [Inge Viett and Urugayan anarchist Maria Barhoum] was done in a very sensitive and very interesting way. When I first saw the film I was really impressed not only by those two lives but also by the emotional impact it has on everyone, even someone from a later generation.

VS: It is a very interesting film, also because there is no commentary to help you figure things out. It’s just these two women reminiscing and meeting in Cuba, and although it obviously has a lot of meaning for them, that’s never overly emphasized.

PJ: I have to say that one of my major problems in putting this season together was that a lot of the films that I would have liked to have shown are just not subtitled. I really wanted to have Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom and at the same time screen Marianne and Juliane, which is related to Ensslin’s life, and it would have been incredibly interesting to show them as a double bill, but unfortunately there is no longer any subtitled print available.

VS:Yes, it seems like an obvious film to show in this season.

PJ:I know, I was hoping until the last minute that we would be able to get hold of it but unfortunately we couldn’t.

VS:There were two other films that I was going to ask you about, two films that were actually made by or connected to the two main female leaders of the group. Ulrike Meinhof made a film called Bambule in 1970, a TV drama set in a girls’ boarding school. It wasn’t broadcast until 1997, and it’s obviously a very rarely screened film, so this would have been a great opportunity to show it. Did you consider including it?

PJ:I would have loved to show it but as it was only produced for TV there is no subtitled version of it and we can’t show anything that is not subtitled, even though I think that there is actually a large German community in London that would have been interested in seeing it.

VS:I think other people would have come as well. Even if you don’t understand, it would be such an amazing thing to see!

PJ:Of course, but even with the few films that we’re showing I was already struggling. It’s a shame because there are a lot of very interesting documentaries that were made for TV in Germany, which don’t necessarily concentrate on women but which would have been very interesting to show to an audience that is not directly involved in the whole political situation. I’m glad that I can at least screen Germany in Autumn. I used it as a kind of historical background even though it also deals with women’s struggles in a lot of ways. It is interesting to see Fassbinder in a very emotional conversation with his mother who’s completely passive because of the generation she’s from – basically the WWII generation – but it also shows a few women who were not terrorists but who were trying to deal with German history at that time. So even that film is somehow related to what I wanted to show with this season. There have been a lot of seasons about this subject, in other European countries and also at the ICA in 2002. Personally I found it most interesting to show the women characters depicted in the New German Cinema films.

VS:The other film I was going to ask you about is the one that Gudrun Ensslin starred in in 1967, Das Abonnement. I suppose that must be even more difficult to get hold of than the other films?

PJ:Yeah, I would have loved to see that film but I couldn’t get hold of it. It would have been incredibly interesting to see her acting. But it was made before she became a leader of the RAF.

VS:It sounds like a very intriguing film: it’s been described as pornographic and experimental at the same time.

PJ:Yes, it would have been interesting. In Germany now they’re currently shooting the film version of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, the book that was written by Stefan Aust. It would have been great to show that as well but I would have had to wait until next year.

VS:Three of the five films you’re showing were made in 2000, while the other two were made in the 70s. Was it a deliberate choice on your part to mix films from the time with more recent films?

PJ:I really wanted to show the development not only in terms of time going by and how people from different generations are now living with what happened in the late 60s and 70s, but also to show the development of the New German Cinema. I think 2000 was a crucial date. After the wall came down a lot of filmmakers started to think about how to deal with that subject again. It’s all related to the new unified Germany in some way or another. So I wanted to make people aware of that development, in the political situation and the personal situation of the terrorists, because it was only in the early 90s that they said they would stop their activities.

VS:The State I Am In is a bit different from the other films you’re showing because it focuses on the daughter of former terrorists. Why did you choose to include that one in the season?

PJ:Because even though she’s only fifteen, in a way she’s a woman. What also interested me was that even though she’s from a completely different generation, she has to deal with whatever her parents did, she’s thrown into a life that she didn’t choose. It made me think of the lives of women like Anne Frank, who basically don’t have a choice in the first place. She’s a strong character, you can see where she comes from, her family roots are showing in the way she struggles to deal with her situation; even though she’s looking for a normal teenage life, she is very political in her own right.

VS:There’s another German film that deals with the younger generation’s attitude towards 70s politics, called The Edukators in English. It’s interesting that there is a focus in these two recent films on how the younger generation responds to this period, and on their way of being political, because it’s different from the previous generation.

PJ:Yes, it is. I think it’s also got to do with the fact that the whole RAF movement and the Baader-Meinhof Complex is becoming more and more a sort of cultural phenomenon, as it happens with a lot of political events and especially personalities, if you look at Che Guevara for instance. I think that there is this strong political stance among the German youth, probably because of our history. It’s a great topic for filmmakers to pick up and to show how they think we can deal with that and how to go on in life if you have a history like that.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy


Anders Morgenthaler

Title: Princess

Format: DVD

Release date: 7 January 2008

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Anders Morgenthaler

Screenplay: Mette Heeno, Anders Morgenthaler

Cast Thure Lindhardt, Stine Fischer Christensen

Denmark 2006

78 mins

Thought-provoking, decidedly un-PC and formally inventive, Anders Morgenthaler’s first feature Princess mixes animation with some live action to tell the story of a young woman, Christina, who becomes a porn star under the name ‘Princess’. When she dies, her intense, guilt-racked priest brother August takes in her five-year-old daughter Mia and sets out to destroy all material starring his sister, which leads to a violent confrontation with unscrupulous porn barons. Below, the Danish director discusses some of the most controversial aspects of the film and explains why he used animation to comment on sex and violence.

Virginie Sélavy: What was the starting point of the film? Did you begin with the idea of criticising the porn industry or with the idea of a revenge story?

Anders Morgenthaler: I started to do it because I wanted to comment on the roughness of the porn industry. I really love the work of the Japanese photographer Araki, I’m very fond of the way he mixes sexuality and art. He made a book called Tokyo Lucky Hole where he cruised the prostitution district in Tokyo in the 80s and took pictures of the girls in a very refined way. They became something other than sexual objects. That made me see them in a different way. Suddenly I saw these girls, I saw their faces, and then I had this idea, what if that was my sister, or my mother or my daughter? I think that was the turning point, because when you start thinking like that, you don’t get disgusted by sex, you get disgusted by what these people have experienced in their lives that made them decide to do porn. And that was the start of Princess. If you start thinking not from a larger social point of view but on a more intimate level, what would it be like if this happened to someone around you, then you find the anger and the rage very fast. And from there on it became a revenge story.

VS: Is that what you were trying to imagine? That Princess was your sister?

AM: No, no. Actually I had a big problem with the Danish press. People abroad seem to understand the movie a lot better, that it’s a kind of fairy tale, it’s not realism, it’s based on reality but it’s a poetic, gruesome fairy tale. In Denmark it was taken exactly like, oh that’s you, that’s exactly like it is. And the movie can’t be treated that way, it would be way too violent.

VS: So the Danish press thought that you were saying, go out and kill all the porn producers?

AM: Exactly. They said, OK, this guy believes that. And I can’t believe they missed the point, because the whole point of the movie is, don’t do it, don’t react like August does.

VS: It seems quite clear that you’re not advocating violence because we see that August’s actions lead to some very nasty, tragic things.

AM: I think most men tend to react like August does, with anger and rage and violence. We want to tear the fucking world apart, and find the person who’s responsible. The film is done from a very male perspective. What the movie is saying on a higher level is that if a woman had taken Mia in, and I tried to put that in at the start of the movie with the old hooker character, she’s obviously not a role model, but she would probably have taken better care of Mia.

VS: Why is August a priest?

AM: I needed to create a job function for August within which he could react. Therefore I had to set up a character who lived by a set of rules. In the first draft he was a soldier coming home from the Army. But then it would be too obvious that he would go berserk and kill the whole world. So I had a talk with one of the writers and she said, what if he was a priest. I had thought about that but I thought it might be too obvious. But making movies is an organic process so thinking about it, it became very clear to me that if you want a person to go completely berserk then you have to take someone with religious beliefs. Because they have a set of rules that they live by, they have moral standards. So just having him in a priest outfit sets the rules for the way he’s going to react.

VS: You’re making a film that is very critical of porn but at the same time there is some extremely brutal violence in the film. Do you think that there is a risk that some people might like the film because they enjoy those violent scenes?

AM: I think that’s a pretty big risk! (laughs) Men like harsh reactions to emotional things. I like him reacting like that. I wish I didn’t but I like it. I like the fact that Mia takes out this crow bar and removes this man’s genitals, which is a very harsh and violent scene.

VS: It’s a very shocking scene, because she’s five years old.

AM: But the point of the scene is that she’s completely ruined from that point on. She was a ruined girl before but the moment they do that, you experience five seconds of happiness in the act of revenge but eventually it ruins you. If you start living up revenge, you start breaking all of civilisation’s rules. And from then on you’re an animal.

VS: Do you feel that the violence is more acceptable to audiences because it’s animation?

AM: It makes it bearable to watch. You can sit in the cinema for the whole film. If I’d made it in the same way but entirely in live action then many people would probably have left, because it would be too much. And I could never justify putting a little girl through a film like this. I just couldn’t do it.

VS: So animation is a way of…

AM: It’s a way of keeping a distance. I think the good thing about animation is that you can use it to create a poetic feeling. And I think that succeeded very well in Princess. That would have been much harder to do in a live action film with a budget like this. It’s also a budget thing. If I’d had a big budget I could have done this movie. But who would give me 100 million dollars to do a film like this? (laughs) And it’s also funny that animation is for kids in people’s minds, except in Asia, and suddenly you’re watching something that you wouldn’t want your kids to see until they’re eighteen.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Read the review of Princess.



Format: Cinema

Release date: 2-13, 15 November 2007

Venue: ICA, London

Distributor: Human Film

Director: Mohamed Al Daradji

Iraq/UK/Netherlands 2005

110 mins

Ahlaam opens on images of American bombs raining down on Baghdad in 2003, interspersed with the frightened faces of the inmates in a mental institution of the capital. Cut back to 1998, when soldier Ali travels back to the Syrian border where he is doing his national service with his friend Hasan. Elsewhere the bright-eyed, cheerful Ahlaam is preparing for her wedding to Ahmed and dreaming about the life they will have together. But soon both Ali’s and Ahlaam’s lives change dramatically. An American bombing kills Hasan and leaves Ali traumatised. Carrying Hasan’s body across the border he is picked up by the Iraqi forces, accused of being a deserter and brutally punished. Meanwhile Ahlaam’s wedding is violently interrupted by the Baathist police who arrest Ahmed and take him away to an unknown fate, which drives Ahlaam insane with grief. Both Ahlaam and Ali end up in a mental institution in Baghdad under the care of the very humane Dr Mehdi. But when the Americans start bombing the city, the hospital is destroyed and the inmates escape. Ahlaam, still wearing her wedding dress, wanders amid the rubble of an eerily empty, ruined Baghdad, where the silence is broken only by the sound of random sniper shots. Ali, displaying some awareness of what is happening, scours the dangerous streets of the city to help Dr Mehdi round up the escaped inmates.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji had been living in exile in Europe to avoid persecution from the Baathist regime when the war broke out. In 2003 he went back to his country wanting to make a film about the plight of ordinary Iraqi people. He shot Ahlaam in Baghdad in extremely difficult conditions – not only did he have to work around curfews and electricity cuts but members of his crew were arrested both by insurgents and by the Americans, neither side believing that they were simply making a film.

Virginie Sélavy: Ahlaam is structured as a flashback, opening in a psychiatric hospital at the time of the 2003 bombing, before it goes back in time to show how the characters that are in the hospital ended up there. Why did you decide to structure the story in this way?

Mohamed Al Daradji: To be honest with you, the story chose me, I didn’t choose the story. I wrote the story in a mental institution, so I know these characters well, I spent two or three weeks with them. While I was writing there I was thinking, shall I tell the story from A to Z, or shall I twist it in an artistic way? I like to not give too much information to the audience, I like the audience to be involved in the film. I think there is a certain artistic sensibility in any human being so I try to let this feeling come out of the film and involve the audience.

VS: One of the main characters is called Ahlaam, which name means ‘dream’ and is also the title of the film. She seems to be central to what you’re showing about Iraq in general in the film.

AD: The character of Ahlaam is the one that brought me to the story. In 2003 I was watching the news about the war in Iraq while I was studying for a Master at Leeds University and I saw a reportage about a mental institution in Baghdad and how they were affected by the war. And then I saw Ahlaam – she was talking in a nonsensical way and it really shocked me. I couldn’t sleep that night. I dreamt about Ahlaam, on the street in Baghdad as you saw in the film.

VS: So Ahlaam was a real character?

AD: She was a real character, but I couldn’t meet her when I went to the mental institution in Baghdad two months after I saw the reportage. But I met another character, Ali. She wasn’t called Ahlaam. Ahlaam in Arabic means ‘dreams’. It’s not just about Ahlaam’s dreams but it’s also the dreams of the other characters, Ali’s dreams, Doctor Mehdi’s dreams, the dreams of any Iraqi who’s lived under Saddam’s regime and under the invasion. So for me it was about giving two meanings to the title: it’s the girl, and it’s also the meaning of the word.

VS: It’s a very poignant title because their dreams end up in nightmare.

AD: Sometimes you say something but you mean something different. With the name Ahlaam I was trying to say, yes, dreams, but what kind of dreams, does it end as a nightmare or does it end as a dream. And that’s why at the end of the film I leave it to the audience to decide where Ahlaam ends. It’s up to each individual member of the audience to decide. If they’re positive people, Ahlaam will be OK, and her family will get her back and there’ll be a happy end. Or if they’re negative people, they will think that Ahlaam will be killed, and this is what happens in Iraq. So I left it open for the audience. For me it’s a dream but it’s also a nightmare. It’s a nightmare mixed with dreams of how normal people would like to live but they can’t control life and this is why it ends up like we see in the film.

VS: What’s really striking is that the dreams of those people are destroyed by both the brutality of the Americans and of the Baathist regime – you don’t take sides at all. It’s more about the consequences that their actions have on these people. It shows an incredible restraint because you must have felt some kind of anger towards both sides, so how did you manage to have that restraint?

AD: I had a debate with myself – where am I standing in the middle of this chaos, which side am I on – and the answer came to me one day: I thought, you’re a filmmaker, you need to just tell the story, to show your point of view. My point of view is the human being, the human element in this story. I didn’t want to guide the audience, and tell them they should be on this side or that side. I just show you the story, I show you both sides. I want you to feel this character, to feel like she’s very close to you, like she’s like your friend or your family. I try not to take sides but to observe the situation, and to put you through the situation, take you out from wherever you are and take you to Baghdad so you can feel what these people feel. It’s very important to me that the audience feel the suffering of these people. Of course I have a lot of anger. If I shout now, I will shake the whole of London. But I try and express my anger through the way I tell the story.

VS: VS: You’d left Iraq before the war and you decided to go back to shoot the film in Baghdad. That must have been incredibly difficult.

AD: After I graduated from Leeds, I felt like going back to Iraq and trying to do something for my country, for my family, for my friends. A lot of Iraqis went back in 2003, a lot of artistic people, filmmakers, who went back to try and rebuild the country. But unfortunately, it was really difficult. There was no finance, either from the Middle-East or from the UK. To finance the film I got money from banks in Europe and Holland and small grants from Holland. The crew and cast worked for nothing. They made the film on a voluntary basis, for the country. And we faced all the difficulties of Iraq: there was only three hours of electricity a day; the process of shooting the film took 55 days, sometimes we shot just three hours because of the problems and the area where we worked. An American helicopter almost shot at us when we were building the set for the Army camp scene in the desert but thankfully they didn’t and we got permission to film. The Iraqi police arrested us because they thought we were doing a propaganda film for the insurgents and the insurgents shot at us a couple of times because they thought we were making a propaganda film for the Americans. So we were in the middle of this chaos. One week before we finished the film three members of my crew and I were kidnapped and they shot my sound recorder in the leg. They took all the equipment and I lost about 25 minutes of the sound material for the film. We were left on the streets in Baghdad. We went to the hospital and told the police about what had happened to us but they didn’t believe us. They didn’t believe that we were making a normal film, they thought that we were working for the insurgents, for Al-Qaeda. So we got arrested by the American Army and we spent five days in the green zone area where we were subjected to psychological torture by the Americans. They didn’t believe we were filmmakers. I have double nationality so the Dutch embassy got involved and got me out of prison. So it was a nightmare. But I felt this nightmare was worth it. Of course you could do it here in the UK, but there when you see the children in Iraq you feel you need to do something for these people. You can’t change things but at least you can tell their story.

VS: You basically experienced the same things that your characters go through in the film.

AD: Yes, of course. My new film is called Made in Iraq and is about the story of how we came together to make this film and what happened to us and basically what happened in Iraq between 2003 and 2007 and why it’s like this now.

VS: The actor who plays Ali, Bashir Al-Majid, was actually a freelance reporter and had been a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein. This must have brought another level of authenticity to the film.

AD: I tried to work with non-professional actors to tell the story. In 2003, when I went back to Iraq, he interviewed me for one of the newspapers in Baghdad and I told him I was going to make a film. When I went back to Iraq to shoot the film I was looking for the character of Ali. I called him and I learned about his story: he suffered under Saddam’s regime, he was a prisoner in Abu-Ghraib for five years, and he also lost his friend in the war. So we talked about all this experience and I think it came through a fantastic performance. In the workshop I made him go back to the time he spent in prison and work it out through his character. It was a very good experience.

VS: I’ve read that you had trouble finding an actress to play Ahlaam. Why was that?

AD: There isn’t much of a film industry in Iraq at the moment. We haven’t made a film since 1991. And before that the film industry was used by the government for propaganda. So between 1991 and 2003 there was no film made in Iraq. So it was difficult to find actors and to find actors who would go with you in the war zone, when there is a curfew, and you can’t go anywhere after 7pm. And then there’s the rape scene, which is difficult from a cultural point of view: people don’t show sexual scenes or sexual violence. I went to universities, schools, family, friends, relatives, to try and convince them, and none of them wanted to do it. My producer said jokingly that we should make the female character male. But I thought my film needed to be represented by a woman; women are very important in Iraqi society. So we started filming the hospital scenes with Ali the first week, and Ahlaam wasn’t there. Sometimes I was thinking about how I could change the script and make the film about Ali and Doctor Mehdi, but I thought I needed a female character. A week later they found Ahlaam for me. Aseel Adel accepted the role but on three conditions. One was to rewrite the rape scene, and I agreed – I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to show the rape but it was an important scene; she made it shorter. The second condition was that the rapist had to be her husband in real life so the rapist in the film is played by her husband! And she had a one-year-old baby called Mustafa, and she insisted that Mustafa needed to go everywhere with us because she didn’t want to leave him at home. So we all ended up babysitting for Mustafa! (laughs) We’d have to have breaks when Mustafa needed feeding or needed to sleep or when he was crying. It was very different.

VS: And you’re filming in the real Baghdad that has been destroyed so that makes the film incredibly powerful.

AD: All you see that is destroyed is actually a set, we used some destroyed buildings but I had a really good team of designers who did a great job recreating the scenes. But filming in the real environment was important. With all the films about Iraq that you see now, Arabic and Iraqi audiences can tell that they weren’t shot in Iraq. Western audiences can’t get a feeling of the Middle-East, of what it feels like in Baghdad, but in my film, because it’s shot in Baghdad it gives you the real environment, it’s the real Tigris river, the real buildings. It’s very close to what you see on the news.

VS: The really striking thing about your film is that there’s a documentary aspect about the life of ordinary Iraqis but it goes beyond that in the sense that there’s a real attention to the artistic quality of the film. How did you manage to keep focused on the artistic side of things when shooting the film was so difficult?

AD: I tried to surround myself with a good team of people, people who believed in what we were doing. I had 20 to 25 crew members, and I treated all of them as very important to the film – there was no difference between the first assistant director and the sound recorder or the production manager. All were responsible. There was the sense that you needed to do it for your country. When we had problems they tried not to disturb me or to tell me about it but instead tried to sort it out themselves. At the same time – maybe you’ll laugh – there’s an important relationship between me and the Tigris river, and it gave me the inspiration to focus on the film. When you write a film that is so personal you can see it in your head, and then you have to translate it to the camera and to other people. For me it was like the Tigris river, I went there every day to write, smoke a cigarette and have tea and relax, thinking about the next day and how to create what I wanted. I also believe that God was behind this film. The way the film was made was unbelievable. Now when I see the film I don’t believe I made it. Some scenes in the film wouldn’t have happened without God. There’s a scene at the beginning where Ali and the soldiers push the truck as the sun is rising. I’d written it differently in the script. We couldn’t find an old Saddam Army truck because they were all destroyed so we built one but it wasn’t working very well. We were waiting for this golden moment when the sun rises and it lasts just for a minute. So all my crew and cast were waiting but when I called ‘Action!’ they couldn’t hear me because they were too far away and it was dark. I called ‘Action! Action! Action!’ but nobody replied; nothing happened. So I went to them and they said that the truck was broken and they couldn’t fix it. So I shouted and cried, God help me. And then I thought, let them push the truck, it’ll be more powerful, we don’t need to shoot the scene as I wrote it, just do it. We had one minute so I gave the instructions, it was difficult but they pushed the truck, and we had a very good scene.



Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 December 2007

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Rigoberto Castañeda

Mexico 2006

103 mins

A big hit in Mexico, Rigoberto Castañeda’s horror thriller KM31 centres on a young woman whose twin sister is in a coma following a road accident. Bathed in blue light, the film has more than a whiff of J-horror about it, and Catalina’s search for the truth inevitably leads to a spooky ghost child.

KM31 received its UK premiere at FrightFest in August on the same day as the Zombie Walk. When I arrived at the Odeon for the interview hordes of dazed zombies were still hanging around Leicester Square, blinking in the sun as though it hurt or crumpled on benches: the perfect setting for an interview with a director who is a horror fan through and through.

Virginie Sélavy: You’ve said before that KM31 was influenced by films such as The Shining, The Exorcist, The Others and The Ring. Out of all these it seems to me that The Ring is the most relevant comparison, and you seem to have been influenced a lot by Japanese horror in general.

Rigoberto Castañeda: Many people have said that but I started writing the script for KM31 about seven years before pre-production started, so way before The Ring came out. It’s based on a well-known Mexican legend. Five or six years after I wrote the script The Ring came out. I went to see it and I was crushed because I thought it was so similar! I was about to quit! The producers suggested some changes but I said, you know what, fuck it, this has happened a hundred times in the history of cinema. The thing is, now more than ever because of the Internet, everybody sees the same things so it’s natural to have the same ideas. So I decided not to do anything.

VS: You don’t mention any Mexican films or directors in your influences. Why is that? Were you not influenced by Mexican horror in any way, by directors like Taboada and Moctezuma?

RC: In a way I was. When I was little I would go to my best friend’s house and watch horror movies at the weekend. I was pretty young when I saw The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, and also the Taboada movies and Alucarda by Moctezuma, which shocked me. I was really traumatised by those films. When I started film school I tried to find them but when I saw them again, I was like, that’s not as scary as I remember! So they influenced me because of the memory of watching them as a kid but they didn’t influence me in a cinematic way. As a filmmaker I’m influenced by directors who are not horror directors, like Hitchcock or Kubrick or Kurosawa, all the classic directors.

VS: In recent years Guillermo del Toro has had a big impact on the horror genre. Has he influenced you in any way?

RC: He’s God! I love him. In film school everybody knew him. I wanted to do horror so the teachers said there’s one person in Guadalajara who also likes horror film, he’s a make-up artist, you should hire him. I wanted to work with him but by the time I was ready to make my first short film he was already working on his first feature

VS: Do you think del Toro’s success has made it easier to make horror films in Mexico?

RC: His first picture in Mexico was Cronos. It was successful but it wasn’t really a horror film, it was more of a fantasy tale with horror elements. There was a vampire in it but the film was more a romantic story about the transformation of the vampire. When Cronos came out, everybody was like, that’s it, we’re going to have horror cinema, but nothing came out of it. So no, it’s weird but it didn’t help. KM31 is actually the first feature since Cronos that really is a horror film. When I decided I wanted to make a horror film, I thought that it would be a big success because there hadn’t been a horror film in Mexico since the 70s and Mexicans love horror. It was like a big wide open space. Now there are several horror films being made.

VS: I’ve seen that several of Taboada’s films are being remade.

RC: Yes, two of them. That’s fantastic! I hope they’re good! Right now there are several things that are helping. One of them was KM31, it was a big success so it helped the genre a lot. And then, many different Mexican directors have been very successful internationally and that’s helped to show that in Mexico we can make good films. The Oscar nominations were on when we were making the film, and there were sixteen nominations for Mexicans, so that helped a lot. Mexican people go a lot more to the movies, it’s definitely growing. The Mexican film industry in general is healthy.

VS: Is there anything that makes your film specifically Mexican?

RC: It’s mostly the legend of La Llorona. If you’re Mexican you will have heard it at some point in your life from your mother or your grandmother or your aunt or somebody. Every young kid in Mexico knows that if you behave badly La Llorona will come for you – it’s very scary for a young kid! We never mention the character in the film but it’s not necessary. When KM31 was showing in Mexico I went to the cinema to see people’s reactions. When the main ghost appears at the end of the movie everybody got so scared and started shouting, ‘La Llorona! La Llorona!’ – it was a very emotional moment for everyone. That makes it a very Mexican film. But at the same time I think it’s a universal story: La Llorona is like a banshee; it shares things with the Bible, and with Jewish tales. I think everybody in the world can identify with this story.

VS: Why did you decide to take that legend as your point of departure?

RC: Actually, the point of departure was something else. I was listening to Mexico’s most famous radio programme, a horror show called ‘The Hairy Hand’. People call the programme and tell a horror story that’s happened to them. Everybody loves to listen to this show and to tell their horror story. It’s amazing. It’s so big that they’re now broadcasting in the US. The day I started writing the script I was listening to the show and a truck driver called and told a story about seeing a woman in the middle of the road who was clearly a ghost. He told it in such an incredibly dramatic way, I’ve still got goose-bumps just remembering it. It was fantastic, I was almost crying with fear. So I ran back to my desk and I wrote the first ten minutes of the movie – I never changed those pages. And then I thought this could be a fantasy story, the story of the crying woman. So while I was writing those ten pages, I was already thinking of the story of La Llorona.

VS: Where were the scenes on the road and in the forest filmed? How did you find those locations?

RC: I wanted to write the script in a special place. I went to the forest that is around Mexico City. There are people who live there, just like in the film, people who have houses almost in the middle of the woods. When I was little, my parents used to take me to the forest. There is an old Catholic convent there, with catacombs, so it was REALLY SCARY for a kid. I used to love to go there when I was little.

VS: On your own?

RC: Yes, on my own. (laughs) So I decided to go there and write. I went to the convent, I looked at the woods, and I wrote on my computer, sat on a rock, and I got this feeling of the woods. The highway is the actual highway. The river up there in the woods goes down to the city and as the city grew the river became the sewer system. So it’s based on something that is real and on the tales that people told me when we were doing the research. KM31 was invented by me, it’s not real. But what’s quite funny is that now in Mexico there are people who go to KM31 and record videos, searching for the ghost! (laughs) It’s turned into a real story in Mexico!

VS: The scene in the sewers is very atmospheric. Were they a set or do they actually exist?

RC: We were very lucky. In Mexico City, they close the sewer systems to do work on it for six months every seven years. We were lucky to be ready to film during those six months so we were able to go down into the sewer system and shoot there. Right now, it’s full of shit, literally. But it’s an amazing place. The final part in the sewer system, that was constructed on a stage.

VS: You’ve said before that you had the intention of writing a ‘commercial thriller’. How did you go about doing that?

RC: I’m a movie buff, I love going to the cinema. I enjoy art-house films but I’ve always gone to the movies for entertainment. That’s my education in film, watching movies at my friend’s house. So I try to make films that I would have enjoyed as a kid.

VS: Do you see yourself solely as a horror director? Would you like to direct other types of movies or are you happy to keep exploring the horror genre?

RC: I think I will make horror films all my life. I’m interested in other genres but what I love is horror, thriller and fantasy, and I’d like to work in those three genres all my life. Fantasy is the most difficult of them because it’s the most expensive, so the way to get to fantasy is by starting with horror and thriller. It’s a way to get to fantasy but it doesn’t mean that they’re inferior genres. I see myself at 92, directing a horror film, (squeaky voice) ‘blood! more blood!’ I will never do romantic comedies. Never! (laughs)


Allan Moyle

Title: Weirdsville

Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 November 2007

Venues: Key Cities

Distributor Contender Films

Director: Allan Moyle

Cast: Matt Frewer, Joey Beck, Wes Bentley

US/Canada 2007

90 minutes

An enigmatic Canadian director who has been making movies for nearly three decades, Allan Moyle has earned himself a reputation for films that combine great soundtracks with young casts and topical subject matter. Following Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records in the 90s, Moyle’s output became associated with TV movies and obscure titles relegated to the bottom shelves of video shops. His new film Weirdsville is a confident return to form that deftly mixes such outrageous conceits as inept Satanists, a vertically challenged historical re-enactment society who travel around in a limousine, and a lifestyle guru with a 12-inch icicle sticking out of his head. Perhaps incredulous that such a film might prove popular with an audience, the director started the interview by asking Alex Fitch to defend his movie…

Allan Moyle: What kind of a freak are you that you would respond to a movie like that?

Alex Fitch: Well, the stoner comedy genre seems overcrowded but at the same time it feels like you’ve brought a fresh voice to it…

AM: I haven’t. The writer did.

AF: You and the writer then, because there were some very visually memorable scenes in it, which you can’t entirely attribute to the script.

AM: A lot of them are in the script. I’m arguing for the script to go onto the DVD, so if it does develop into some kind of cult movie – I think that’s its destiny, I can’t see it having a wide release – people will want to compare the script with the movie and that’ll be fascinating because it’s mostly the script…

AF: That’s atypical for movie-writing because most directors want the screenplay to be so barren of description that they can put their own stamp on it.

AM: Well, I love a script that’s half-way directed, because I am not that aggressive a director and I need all the help I can get! Anyway, if you know my movies, they’re not very visual – they have some charm, they have good casting usually and some heart, but visually they’re not that exciting, thus far. Here’s a movie – for example – where there’s a scene where Scott Speedman skates towards the car. He’s actually skating – ’cause we didn’t have snow – on asphalt, on roller skates, but it’s night and you can’t quite see he’s wearing skates. We couldn’t afford to do the process we did in the opening titles where we cut out his skates and put in bare feet. So it could have been a nightmare, but luckily the audience suspend their disbelief and I think it’s a deeply mythic scene, as scripted. Now, did the writer have that perfect song? No. I contributed to finding the song. I never studied film theory, so I don’t know the terminology, ‘the gaze’, all that stuff. I’m all about casting actors who are so perfect for the role that all I have to do is turn the camera on.

AF: But you’ve been making films for the best part of thirty years. So you must feel that you’ve picked up some visual techniques along the way.

AM: It’s not the first thing that comes to mind! I’m interested in psychic phenomena, I’m interested in things that are happening invisibly beneath the surface. I’m deeply into the person who’s alone and an outsider and reaching out to be more than himself or herself. I’m into all those things. I feel that we got the poetic side of the thing down, as a team – the writer, the director of photography and the producer gave us enough time to execute it. I’m not being disingenuous… The movie feels so right for Edinburgh and Raindance because the so-called ‘indie’ festivals are no longer indie. Sundance and Toronto have been hijacked by the studios, the sponsors and the cult of the star. So it’s kind of depressing and even a movie with semi-stars like ours isn’t strong enough to compete in Sundance anymore. I’m not bullshitting you – it’s a huge relief to have the movie understood somewhere. Pump Up the Volume was more understood in France than it was in America. It played for months in France – they sent me over three times. The French title of the movie was: Y a-t-il une vie aprí¨s le lycée?, which means ‘Is there life after high school?’, which is so much smarter than ‘Pump up the volume, pump up the volume!’. In fact, I didn’t want that title. The title I wanted was ‘Talk Hard’, which was at least slightly poetic, but (producer) Bob Shaye had heard the song ‘Pump Up the Volume’, which was a hit, but it was a hit six months earlier! I said: ‘Bob, we can’t have a song advertising our movie that’s from six months ago, ’cause we won’t be cool!’ – and he’s fifty! I don’t know… All I’m saying is that the French got it. The Americans didn’t get it.

AF: Music seems very important in creating the mood and the feel of your movies. In contrast to what you said about Bob Shaye wanting to include a song that was six months out of date, with Weirdsville were you trying to find songs that had not yet become popular and had the chance to become the next big thing – at least among the indie crowd?

AM: It costs $2,500 to purchase a song and I know from experience that I like to score with songs. We ended up with no money to buy songs. Luckily, Canada – especially Toronto and Montreal – is in some kind of music renaissance, so the soundtrack sounds like a real soundtrack, doesn’t it? But in fact we didn’t pay for any of those songs.

AF: Because the bands were happy to have publicity from the film?

AM: Exactly, they get publishing. They’re what I call dollar cues. In fact more like a thousand dollars, ’cause it costs that for the legal fees. We paid only a thousand bucks per cue. Maybe I should make that a secret! I’m certainly not proud of it, because I would like to be able to buy – for example – music from an obscure Montreal band we helped to discover called Arcade Fire, but we can’t afford to because they went from being ten grand to twenty five grand. Maybe we could have offered them five grand, but suddenly they took off, and it’s a shame because we had a temp score with Arcade Fire and a bunch of other songs. I’m not complaining – I’m just saying it’s serendipitous that this movie seemed to have some luck attached to it. It could have been a disaster – the whole dwarves and Satanists thing could have been horrible.

AF: It works really well…

AM: But can you see how horrible it could have been?

Weirdsville is released on 16 November.


Opera Jawa

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 September 2007

Distributor Yume Pictures

Director: Garin Nugroho

Based on:‘The Abduction of Sinta’ (from the Ramayana)

Cast: Artika Sari Devi, Eko Supriyanto, Martinus Miroto

Java 2006

120 minutes

Javan director Garin Nugroho is a slight man dressed in pale jeans, a black T-shirt and beige anorak. As he introduces his latest work, Opera Jawa, to the Barbican audience, it is impossible to predict how much colour, music and movement is about to appear on screen. Opera Jawa is a retelling of a story from the ancient Hindu text – the Ramayana. It sings the story of a love triangle in modern Java which leads to domestic turmoil, mass political unrest, and death. Nugroho, who is known for his socially-conscious, indigenous films, tells the audience that in the making of the film 60 songs were composed, 70 dance routines were choreographed and seven art installations were created.

Opera Jawa was commissioned last year by the New Crowned Hope festival – funded by the city of Vienna to commemorate Mozart’s 250th birthday – and fittingly, the film takes the form of a requiem. Perhaps predictably, Peter Sellars – the man who staged a series of Mozart’s works re-imagined for New York settings – was chosen to curate the New Crowned Hope project. At the Barbican screening Sellars introduces Opera Jawa as ‘the first film of the 21st century’. As he discusses the making of the film with its director, it becomes clear that these two men from different backgrounds share the same vision – combining old works with challenging new art forms.

Lisa Williams: Opera Jawa is a requiem for all those who have died in natural and man-made disasters in Indonesia. Can you tell me a bit more about this?

Garin Nugroho: The film is about disaster and violence. The three main characters are symbolic in the same way as classical Javan puppets are. Siti means ‘land’. She represents what has happened to the people as a result of natural disaster, conflict and the fight for holy land. She goes through three months of conflict when people fight for her body for these different reasons. She says in the film, ‘I’m not a holy land, I’m a human being’. The character Ludiro represents people who have power in the economy and military and who abuse this power. Setio represents the people who are disempowered and so become violent. That is the way of the world.

LW: Was it important to you to make an intrinsically Javan film?

GN: It was important – in the film there are many popular elements of Javan culture such as the market places, the clothes, the Javan puppets. The movement and the dance are very Javan. But I think the most important thing was the gamelan music. This is the first film accompanied by an entirely gamelan soundtrack. The soundtrack of the film reflects how the medley of art, music and dance can work together to create something incredibly valuable like it does in Java. We live in an oral tradition, and if you come to Java you can see how song, dance and art all live together.

LW: The film is like a showcase of local talent – the artists, musicians, singers and dancers. You made an effort to get the artistic community involved but you also mentioned this move backfired – with artists producing a glut of work for you to include. Where did you draw the line?

GN: Art is about being given room for productivity and the person who gives this room becomes like a hero. I gave artists room to be creative but I had the final say. It is like people are giving me small glasses of sake. Each time I drink one I become a hero to the person who gave it to me. But it’s up to me to control myself. Everyone wants to give me more and more sake, but I must control myself or else I become drunk.

LW: You said the film was conceived five years ago – how does the final product match up to the original vision?

GN: It’s better than how I thought it would be because so many artists gave me their ideas and creativity. So many people collaborated with me and each one brought their own ideas and their own spirit. They trusted me to deliver something, and it was wonderful to be given that space and it was the perfect time to make the film.

LW: To what extent did the Indonesian reformation (following the 1998 revolution which saw the end to 30 years of authoritarian rule) affect your work?

GN: We are still living the post-1998 moment. This is our euphoric moment, the moment for expression and for politics. For example, for the first time many different Indonesian cultures can come together – the Sundanese, the Javanese, the Papuans. Now these different communities can hold festivals and make films. After the 1998 revolution more than 1000 short films were made in a year. It was like a sudden euphoria. People could use film as a way to express what they had been feeling for years. I’ve been using films firstly to express our personalities, and secondly to express what I felt about what had happened in Indonesia. I make films because I want to start a dialogue about something.

LW: What would you be doing if you weren’t making films?

GN: If I hadn’t become a filmmaker I would be a politician. I was the chosen candidate in a number of elections in the past. I’ve also worked for non-governmental organisations because I’m interested in politics. But filmmaking is political itself. Film both affects and reflects the way we are thinking and reacting.

LW: What was it like working with Peter Sellars?

GN: Sellars knows about Java. When I read his autobiography I saw we had similar feelings about things. We have similar aims and I think this is important because we don’t need to discuss everything and break it down into logical details. When I went to him with the idea, he didn’t hesitate, he just said, ‘do it!’

LW: When he has recreated operas and stage plays, Sellars has been criticised before for straying too much from the original story. Opera Jawa was very loosely based on ‘The Abduction of Sinta’ from Hindu text the Ramayana – was this deliberate?

GN: Artistic interpretation has always been important. Reinterpretation is the beginning; it is what I call the support of creativity. I think what Peter did with Mozart was fantastic because he reinterpreted it. Through Opera Jawa people will learn about the Ramayana. Through reinterpretations people hear about the originals.

LW: What is your last word on Opera Jawa?

GN: The important thing about the film is that some of it is chaotic. If there is chaos, people will develop their own system, their own way of understanding what is going on around them. We tell the story of living in a chaotic place where the future is unpredictable. In Asia there is so much unpredictability, but that is the beauty of it.


I for India

Format: Cinema

Release date: 3 August 2007

Distributor: ICA Films

Director: Sandhya Suri

UK 2005

70 mins

In the 1950s, economical filmmakers such as Ed Wood and Terry Morse could fashion entire narratives out of found footage to fill drive-in double bills. As film stock and cameras became cheaper, the amateur filmmaker could shoot home-movies and commit transitory life experiences to celluloid and later, home video. As we find ourselves comfortably in the second century of cinema, there are now stacks of footage coming from both traditions for low-budget documentarians to forage within and find more homespun narratives to fill the silver screen.

Following 2003’s acclaimed Tarnation, in which American filmmaker Jonathan Caouette turned the home-movies of his formative years into an introspective psychological examination of his life, a British director has now collated and edited her family’s history into an engaging tale of a bifurcated family separated by land and culture. Alex Fitch caught up with I for India director Sandhya Suri at the ICA in London and asked her about her project to turn decades of transcontinental communication between her émigré father and his family in India into her first documentary feature.

Alex Fitch: When did you decide to take your family’s footage and turn it into a feature?

Sandhya Suri: When I got hold of the audiotapes. There had been Super 8 films I used to watch as well that I knew of, but it was the discovery of the tapes, which really showed there was this exchange of audio letters and films on both sides – forty years of recordings from my father in England and his relatives back in India. So when I realised I had such a long span of material, I absolutely had to make the film.

AF: Presumably the Super 8 films were silent before that and adding the sound made it more real in a way?

SS: Sometimes they’d send us Super 8 reels and the audio reels separately and sometimes as a family we would put our own soundtracks on them, which is why there is some very dodgy 70s music all over the place! We’d either add commentary or send sound separately.

AF: I did wonder: when there’s footage of travelling on a train or going to the beach, is that foley sound that you recorded separately for this movie or was it recorded at the time?

SS: Some of it was recorded at the time. One thing that my father did a lot was soundtracks, he really loved putting on the music that he thought was atmospheric, so for example when he shot snow he took the music from Doctor Zhivago and thought it would really add to the drama when he sent the tape to India!

AF: Was it growing up in that environment that encouraged you to become a filmmaker or was it something you came to on your own?

SS: Well, my sisters have both got very sensible jobs, so maybe I was influenced! I think that the thing that my father taught me most was the importance of documenting, as opposed to cinema, it was the fact that he constantly documented and chronicled everything. That’s why my entry into film was via documentary as opposed to fiction.

AF: What was your filmmaking education?

SS: I studied documentary at the National Film and Television School. I was lucky enough to get this first feature financed directly out of film school – that process was quite quick, making it took a bit longer!

AF: When you look at the kind of Indian films that are available to the general public in this country, it’s fairly earnest titles like Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Earth and Water. In contrast there’s the whole Bollywood tradition. Do you think that perhaps as your film is linking both British and Indian cultures, it’s creating a dialogue between those cultures on behalf of the film’s audience as well?

SS: I hope so. There’s space for Indian documentaries on British cinema screens – I really wish people would come and see more, as there are some really great documentaries out there and there are a lot of interesting things happening in Indian cinema. There’s been a tendency to take a look at Bollywood culture and focus on the kitsch and the funny, but there’s a lot more behind all of that of course.

AF: There are political elements to your film: you add footage of the National Front and some fairly antiquated footage from the BBC welcoming visitors to the country. How much did you feel you had to add that kind of narrative, which is absent from the home movies?

SS: It was a really difficult process doing the editing because at one stage my editor and myself felt we were really disrupting the flow of the Super 8 by bringing in this archive footage. But at the same time, it was really clear to me that the film had to have a bigger feel about it rather than just my family’s story. There were things in my family archive that were implied but were missing so they needed to be reinforced by the archive footage. I felt it was really important to give that overall picture. The film has a lot of different textures and a lot of different colours and media – Super 8, digi-beta and old archive – so I think it added to that as well.

AF: It’s interesting as well that the first footage your father shot of Britain is in black and white and then the first colour footage you see is of India, which is almost what people expect when they see films from that period!

SS: Exactly! He was going through an experimental phase with black and white when he arrived but he always sent them colour film to record on. I think he always wanted to see India in colour – he would have been terribly disappointed to get black and white India footage back when he was feeling homesick.

AF: And he’s still making films now – you open with him taking footage of Egypt to his local camcorder club. I’m surprised that at that point he’s asking for advice on how to have it edited, after a lifetime’s worth of making films!

SS: Well, like every good filmmaker, he’s always learning! Especially with the release of the film and now that I’ve been to film school and taken up filming more, he’s filming less and less. It’s getting more difficult – he’s getting a lot older, he’s in his mid-seventies now – but when he goes on holidays or to major events he still makes films.

AF: Your film shows how back in the 70s the locals were particularly aggressive to the Indians who’d moved to this country. There’s also an undercurrent of that when you show your mother recently attending a meeting where there’s some haughty guy talking about his experiences in India – it seems just as patronising as some of the stuff from the 50s. Did you want to introduce the theme that that’s still prevalent today in certain circles of society?

SS: No, not at all. That scene’s filmed quite neutrally; it’s more of a surreal situation that my mother is part of this club with a lot of elderly white ladies. She was genuinely interested in seeing this man talk about India, because there are not that many opportunities. There’s Indian television, but she still welcomes those opportunities with any link to India and actually, although his words could be construed as a little condescending, they were also very true in many respects. He did end on a very important note about how hospitable the Indians had been when he’d travelled there and how he wondered if Indians arriving in England – in his town, in his village – would get the same reception. He sent out very mixed messages and I just want people to watch and come to their own conclusions about that.

AF: There seems to be a renaissance in documentaries made from found footage – recently there was the American film Tarnation – because the last couple of generations have been obsessively recording themselves, now on video and then on Super 8. Do you think there are thousands of stories out there waiting to be told in the mountains of footage?

SS: I pity the poor young people of this generation who are going to have to go and deal with eight thousand hours of birthdays and weddings and all that stuff because what was easy for me was that each reel of Super 8 footage is three minutes of film. You have to decide and be very conscious of what you’re filming and why you’re filming it. I think with home videos now there’s a tendency to film for hours and tapes are cheap. It’s not the footage that makes the story, it’s the story that counts.

AF: I suppose also that the period of time that’s elapsed is important. There’s a film about London made in the 60s (The London Nobody Knows), narrated by James Mason, and St Etienne recently made a thematic follow-up (Finisterre) but that film doesn’t have the same resonance because you can just go out on the streets and see what London looks like now. So, maybe it’s like the fascination audiences have now with silent footage of Edwardians – 50 years from now people might want to see all this camcorder material to see how people lived back then.

SS: Exactly. Even now I’m very conscious of that. Even though I’m very bad at it because it’s my job as well, I’m very keen to record little fragments of my life that I can add to this whole mountain of footage that we have that I’ve been able to make into a film.

AF: Self-consciously, you seem to edit yourself out of the film. For example, when you’re talking on the webcam with your sister, your face is obscured by your camera. Did you just want to have the camera itself portray you as the narrator?

SS: For me, it was very important that there not be too many narrators in the film. The strength in the film is the immediacy of listening to the audio archive, particularly my father speaking and the ability of that archive to help you connect with him, because they are very intimate recordings. So, adding me as another layer in between, guiding you through the film in a more explicit manner, that wouldn’t be very helpful. I felt that would have diminished the emotional strength of the film, which is why I kept a back seat, but I am referred to and you know that the daughter is making the film. I hope there is an intimacy in the shooting and the storytelling. People generally seem to realise that there is a daughter that made this film and you can feel the love and tenderness in it without my being present.

AF: What project are you working on next?

SS: It’s a little bit early to say but I’ve got a couple of documentaries in development – these are long-term things that take a long time to get funded and to get going…

You can listen to the Resonance FM podcast of the interview here.


Running Stumbled

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 July 2007

Distributor: Missing in Action + Self Pictures

Director: John Maringouin

USA 2006

85 mins

When American director John Maringouin was just a baby, his father, the small-time Cubist painter Johnny Roe, tried to kill both him and his mother. After twenty-nine years during which Maringouin’s only contact with his estranged father was occasional phone calls, he was told that Johnny was dying (it turned out it was a lie) and that he should go to New Orleans to see him. At the time, Maringouin was shooting his first feature, a fictional film loosely based on his life entitled Self, in which he stars as a homeless man trying to confront his sadistic father. The film was nearing completion but Maringouin was dissatisfied with the ending. So he agreed to go to New Orleans, not so much to see his father as to film him, in order to get a final scene for his movie. He spent ten days at his father’s house, recording the disastrous drug-addled existence that the latter was leading with his long-suffering partner Marie. With this material, Maringouin not only finished Self, a film he’s never shown to anyone, but also shaped the footage into Running Stumbled, a nightmarish documentary of sorts released at the ICA on July 27.

Virginie Sélavy caught up with Maringouin during his visit to London. An engaging, articulate and very funny thirty-four-year-old with a boyish crew-cut, the director told her about the paradoxes of truth and reality, reminisced about his childhood hero Evil Knievel and explained why Running Stumbled is really a stunt.

John Maringouin: I read your review. I found it interesting.

Virginie Sélavy: If you want to respond to what I wrote in the review, that would be great.

JM: I’d have to reread it. I liked it because it was challenging. You were challenging my intentions. I thought that was good. It means you thought about it.

VS: I did. I thought about it a lot because it didn’t present itself in the way those types of films usually present themselves.

JM: What do you mean?

VS: I thought there were two things that made your film different from other documentaries on dysfunctional families. One was that even though it’s about your family, about yourself and your relationship to your father, you don’t appear much in the film. So that was interesting in comparison to something like Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette’s film, which I suppose everybody mentions in relation to your film….

JM: That movie is very much about him whereas this movie is very much about a place. It’s about the environment first. Secondly it’s about a relationship. And thirdly it’s about my relationship to the space and to the people in the space.

VS: Yes, but I think that at the same time it has to be about yourself in some ways.

JM: It absolutely is. But what I wanted to do with the film was not subject anyone to whatever low-brow interpretation I could come up with, because you can only imagine how limiting and how boring it would be to have to tread through my sad, or horrific, or unbelievable life story. I can’t think of anything more self-serving and manipulative. And maybe it’s a lot harder to not make a movie like that because your hands are tied. You can’t do certain things that easily support your narrative goals, like put some voice-over to explain why this is interesting or who this person is, so you have some context. But when you allow the audience to become the filmmaker, to see what you’re seeing and how you’re affected by events and how you are affecting events, that’s a much more real, resonant experience. It leaves you a lot of questions but that’s the whole point of the reality. As the person, as the filmmaker, I was left with questions. Was this the right thing to do? Was this the wrong thing to do? Do these people deserve to live or to die? (laughs) You are left with an endless list of paradoxes. If you talk about truth you have to talk about paradox. If you’re doing anything else, you’re not talking about the truth.

VS: I thought there were two very fascinating things going on in the film, which were one, this relationship between your father and Marie, two, how you position yourself in this relationship. And it seems to me that it is at the same time about revealing things and about concealing things. You’re staging something very personal but you’re not placing yourself within that very personal family history.

JM: Yeah, there were a lot of personal things that were going on with regards to me in front of the camera. They say that the most interesting thing about acting is when people are trying to protect themselves from the material and from their own realities. To me what’s more interesting is, people in front of the camera trying to protect themselves not only from their reality, and the truth of who they are, but trying to hide it from who they know is the son behind the camera. And then you have the other side of that, which is the son, protecting himself from what he’s seeing. So you have this great, unique organism. If I hadn’t been aware of how revealing that organism was going to be, I wouldn’t have done the movie. I didn’t want to make a movie about, ‘oh I’m going to get to know my father, who I’m really afraid of, and we’re going to talk about psychology’. How boring is that! What was there was this amazing relationship that was very volatile and also very symbiotic. They would make references to the past, to things that happened thirty years ago, as if those things were right there in the room. They would do it right in front of you. They’d yell so loud you could hear them on the street. And you have to subvert your instinct to run when they start saying things that you feel you’re going to have nightmares about for the next three years and you do have nightmares about for the next three years. So you are left with: What is the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do? Am I creating art or am I destroying myself? And I think the audience feels all those things.

VS: As you’re watching the film you get the very strong sense that you are protecting yourself with the camera. Would you have gone to see your father without a camera?

JM: No. (long pause… laughs)

VS: Do you want to elaborate on that?

JM: No, absolutely not.

VS: Why not?

JM: Because I didn’t want to have a relationship with him. I didn’t want to know him. It was devastating to even acknowledge that I was from this place. This is one of the scariest places in town, not just for me, but for the town. This is a really crappy, white trash, suburban town, and these were the most fucked-up people there. When you’re trying to take yourself even the slightest bit seriously as an artist, you don’t even want to acknowledge it, much less bring yourself down to that level and allow yourself to let everything in. It’s like wearing a trench coat; you open the trench coat and let in all those demons; and then you close the trench coat and you walk away. There’s some yoga practice where instead of blowing out the evil, you inhale the evil. (laughs) You suck in all the bad energy and you hold it as long as you can, you let it absorb into you and then you let it go. It’s sort of a reverse way of thinking about it. And it’s interesting because there are all those dark energy portals – best example is reality TV (laughs) and Jerry Springer. The format of those shows is to take really wretched examples of humanity and blow them up, sensationalise them into a sound bite, so that you can project off of that thing, so you can discard that piece of human waste that you are (laughs)… that we all are (laughs)… So that’s what you’re supposed to do. But there’s a gigantic problem with it, because it’s fascistic. It’s pushing everyone into a false sense of themselves, where I am not a white trash motherfucker, I am not a junkie, I’m not a whore, I’m not all these things. But these are the same people that all the writers in history were writing about. The people in my movie are the people that Tennessee Williams was talking about fifty years ago.

VS: You got a call from your father saying that he was dying. That was the starting point of the film, right?

JM: There are so many layers to the truth. When people ask me how I ended up making the film, there’s not one reason, there’s probably about nine or ten things that suddenly coalesced and conspired to put me at that door. One of the pieces of that puzzle was a phone call that went something like, ‘your father is gonna die and you’d better go see them. They’re in really bad shape’. But of course it was coming from an unreliable source. In fact the person who was calling me was sort of like a stalker of me. (laughs) So it was a frightening phone call, because it was like, ‘how do you know this information? What are you doing calling me?’

VS: So it wasn’t someone that you actually knew?

JM: It wasn’t a friend, let’s put it that way. It was somebody who was basically a stalker. When a stalker calls you and says, ‘you need to reconnect with your father’, and then you do, there’s something almost perverse about that, and then you wonder, was that a sound choice? Did I have no ability to do anything else? I don’t know… The other side of the story is that I had been making a film about it for years. I had been making a film about a guy who has this life-threatening confrontation with his family, which he hasn’t seen in twenty years. It was a fictional film and it just started to become more and more real. I shot the ending of the film three times with actors and it never worked out. I’m sorry, wait, it wasn’t actually actors, it was Jerry Lee Lewis’ family… (laughs) the rock musician from the fifties…

VS: How did that happen?

JM: It’s a really long story…

VS: Right, so back to your film – that was Self, right, the film you were making?

JM: Yes.

VS: So that was obviously quite autobiographical and concerned with self-examination, wasn’t it?

JM: No, that’s the thing, it was intended to be ironic because it was titled Self but it wasn’t about myself.

VS: But you were in it, right?

JM: I was in it and it was very much based on what I perceived could be a mythology that I would act out. You create a myth and then you act it out to see what would happen. (laughs) It was like, OK, what if I were to be homeless? What if I created this character that was so haunted by the past that he had no choice but to go and confront something that he would so not want to confront that he would have these visceral reactions to it, he would be puking all the time just even having these thoughts. I didn’t have that in my own life but it was like exploding all this stuff that was buried.

VS: Was it like a kind of worst-case scenario of your own life?

JM: Yeah, exactly! It was a much more extreme example of what I could have been like. And it was a way of making fun of that. In my efforts to make it real and powerful and immediate it got more and more dangerous because I’d say, ‘oh you know what would really be crazy, is if I used… no, never mind, I’m not gonna do that’. And then months would go by, ‘oh well, that scene didn’t really work, you know what would really be something, is if I just walked in there… no, no, no, that’s my real father, forget that shit, that’s insane, it’s too much. I won’t do it, that’ll be a white elephant in my life.’ So it was a gradual process and all of a sudden there it was.

VS: Have you finished that film?

JM: The first scene of Running Stumbled is the last scene of Self. I finished it in a few hours of being there. It took me a few weeks to edit and then it was done. And I immediately put it away. It was like the train had left the station and another one arrived. I’ve never shown anyone that movie.

VS: Why not?

JM: I never watched it. I finished it and I put it away.

VS: And you don’t intend to release it?

JM: I don’t intend to release it.

VS: Why not?

JM: It’s a lot of reasons. I don’t know. Maybe it ended up being too personal.

VS: But it’s a fiction though, and you’ve shown everybody your real family. That’s quite a paradox, isn’t it?

JM: It is a bizarre paradox.

VS: Would you say that filming your father was more about making an interesting film than it was about your relationship to him or is it a bit of both?

JM: I wouldn’t say it’s more. I would say it’s definitely both. They’re informed by each other.

VS: The other thing that is very different from Tarnation or other documentaries about dysfunctional families is that you don’t fill in the audience with the back story. We only find out about what comes up in the conversations between the characters. It gives the film a very immediate, intense feeling but at the same time you only get teasing little bits of this amazing story and you just want to know more.

JM: I wasn’t interested in doing that at all because to me that’s boring. And to try and contextualise them would have been stupid because what they were doing was already so interesting, not only in the way that they were relating to themselves, but also relating to me as a director. The movie is a documentary but it’s also a form of improvised theatre. It’s taking a real situation, something that they’ve been acting out in private all the time for twenty years, and now someone is filming it, someone who they trust, because he’s their son. (laughs) It is an improvisational film, and improvisational acting, but it’s also real; it’s based on their actual relationship. I read a review that said, ‘Maringouin showed up and let his camera roll and was the luckiest filmmaker ever’. It’s so funny because it seems that this is what critics think, that I showed up and this just happened. It’s so far from the case. And at the same time it’s not a construction. There was one review that said, ‘Maringouin must have staged all this stuff’. Well, sort of, and then, sort of not.

VS: So your presence made things happen?

JM: My presence made certain things happen. I created certain scenes, or I suggested certain scenes that they played out. But they were always based on things that had already happened or that I remembered happening or had heard had happened. And then there were things that just happened while I was there. So it was all of those things. I think that’s what you do when you make movies. You influence things to happen. Even the driest documentaries are like that. What I don’t like is when people feel compelled to insinuate their opinions in their documentaries. They almost arrive in the middle of the documentary as critics. This format of, ‘I’m going to tell you how to think and how to feel’ is such an unsatisfying experience to me.

VS: I think that’s probably the most unsettling thing about your film, the fact that you don’t know what to think at all. They’re fascinating people to watch but the kind of lives they lead is… appalling. (laughs)

JM: When you watch a Cassavetes movie, you don’t know what to think either, but you’re settled by the fact that it was just actors playing the roles of real people. What’s unsettling is that this is real people, and were they acting or was this real. I think that’s the next thing in film, that’s where this whole thing is going… At least, that’s where I’m going! (laughs)

VS: The way you describe Johnny and Marie in your director’s statement is very striking. You say it was a ‘real-time performance’ that you were filming, which you compare to jumping the Grand Canyon. That’s a very interesting way of seeing things because even though there is an obvious element of performance there, they also don’t seem to be in control of what they show to the camera. Do you really see them solely as performers in the film?

JM: No, I mean they’re performers playing themselves in the context of their lives, which is like reality TV, except that their story is taken seriously as a piece, whereas reality TV services this surface level. It looks for story points. There’s nothing about nuances and ghosts in the past and other realities or other dimensions (laughs). That’s what reality TV lacks, the ability to transcend reality (laughs)… but while staying in reality at the same time. That’s what they’re doing. That’s why I call them performers. And I think they were influenced by my intention to do that.

VS: Why do you think they agreed to do this?

JM: Because they understood what my intention was. When you’re a down-and-dirty character like they are and your son shows up… I could have shown up with a film crew and been like, ‘you know, you guys, there’s cat shit all over the floor back there and I’m gonna have to call the social services and I really want to help you guys because I see myself as right and proper and you as not’. Of course they wouldn’t have revealed anything. But I showed up on the same level as them. I showed up in a white suit on Easter Sunday as the crazy son. (laughs) So of course they’re going to go, ‘wow, look who it is, it’s a character like us. Now you understand us so we’re gonna play this game together.’

VS: In what way was their performance in the film a stunt?

JM: Because it was dangerous. They were in danger of losing themselves, losing their soul. It’s like when Marlon Brando talks about how he’d never do Last Tango in Paris again because he’d never make himself look that vulnerable again. They made themselves completely naked but in a much more dangerous way than acting because actors can always go back to, ‘oh, you don’t really know me. Even though I gave you so much of myself you don’t really know what I do at the end of the day’. This was their house and their relationship and they were being completely naked. It’s pretty dangerous. It is a stunt.

VS: And you described your own filming of them as a stunt too.

JM: Absolutely.

VS: Because for you it was dangerous?

JM: Very dangerous, incredibly dangerous. It was, is this going to be the end of me, is my identity going to be so compromised and so tarnished by this that I won’t be able to ever come out of this, is my soul going to get stuck in this dark vortex forever. It’s like in horror movies. When you get killed it’s scary. But what’s really scary is when the killer is immortal and he’s going to eat your soul after he’s killed you. And that’s kind of what this is.

VS: Your next film is about a Slovenian swimmer, Martin Strel, who’s swum the world’s largest rivers. You filmed him as he was swimming the Amazon, is that right?

JM: I just filmed him when he’d swum the Amazon. I didn’t film him when he swam the other rivers. I just filmed a man swimming down the Amazon.

VS: That’s a stunt too, right?

JM: It is.

VS: So there seems to be a running theme there.

JM: Yeah, stunts are fun. Stunts are interesting. (laughs) Why does someone do a stunt? What’s in it for them? When I was a kid I used to love Evil Knievel. In fact, he was my hero. He was a professional daredevil. He would risk his life and survive and come out the other side. He was like Elvis and David Blaine together. He’d wear these red, white and blue suits with a cape. The stunts would get ever more spectacular. He jumped the Grand Canyon on a rocket and almost died. He almost died every time and then he would stand up and he’d go, ‘Thank you. I almost died and I’ll never do this again’. The point is, there is this great myth about the stuntman. There is a great writer, a friend of Cassavetes’ whose name I can’t remember, who wrote an essay fifteen years ago about where film was going. He said art in the twenty-first century was going to be about a dark energy stuntman. There would be a gigantic wall of information and to get noticed the artist would have to perform insane stunts that explode this dark energy. And I think that’s where it’s at. So the swimmer guy is very much a comedy, not really a documentary. It is a documentary but it operates on some kind of fantastical level.

VS: So is that going to be released?

JM: Yeah, the funny thing is that it’s actually financed by the Discovery Channel. It’s going to be the craziest thing that the Discovery Channel has ever done. (laughs) It’s a job, it’s me making money. But I’m also doing a follow-up to Running Stumbled.

VS: Along the same kind of personal lines?

JM: Yeah, it’s going to be personal. It’s going to do the same thing that Running Stumbled does, half of it real and half of it not real.

VS: At the end of Running Stumbled you’ve included some very striking scenes of a hurricane that’s destroyed part of the town. Did you edit that after Katrina?

JM: Yeah, it was after. I’m not very happy with that ending.

VS: Why not?

JM: Because it’s neat and tidy and it’s also a little bit too narrative. It’s too convenient. It leaves the audience off the hook in a way, because it says, ‘oh the hurricane came and made it all better’… (laughs) ‘Oh, the sun is shining now, and look everybody, Johnny is off drugs, he’s painting again, everything is resolved, now I don’t have to care, OK, goodbye!’ And I hate that. There’s something about it that’s unsatisfying to me. The reason that it’s there, is that I couldn’t film anymore; I felt that it was done. I might get rid of that ending. I don’t want to let Johnny off the hook, I want to nail down his coffin! (laughs) I don’t want him out there in the world, succeeding and painting again after thirty years! But the fact is that he did go through this amazing transformation so I felt I had to include it.

VS: I find the conclusion disturbing.

JM: It is disturbing.

VS: It’s like, OK, he’s better, so I guess that side of things is positive but…

JM: …look what he did to get there, look at the lives he destroyed to get there.

VS: Exactly. We don’t know what happened to Marie. The last images we see of her is when she is taken out of the house on a stretcher because she’s had an overdose and we don’t know what happens next. It’s a very sinister ending in a way, because he seems quite happy but it comes at a cost to everybody else around him. So I think you can be satisfied with your ending, it’s really quite dark. (laughs)

JM: It’s not that I wanted to be dark. It’s just that it’s unsettling to me in a way. I don’t like the aesthetic of it because it looks different from the rest of the movie. But it had to be. I wanted the film to stay in this phantasmagoric place. I didn’t want it to be like reality and that’s what it becomes at the end; it finds its way out into the world and I don’t like that very much.