This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mouawad Works in Many Languages

On stage or off, there's nothing that Lebanese-born Québécois playwright Wajdi Mouawad likes to do more than drop bombs. By all accounts, he's a dangerous, angry artist to be kept on theatrical watch lists across North America and Europe, dramaturgically profiled and critically cross-examined. Here is some of the corroborating evidence.

"I was 27 years old and for the first time in my life I discovered the meaning of theatre with my own friends, my words, my own thinking," he says, frequently stopping to find the exact word in English, his third language after Arabic and French. "I discovered that with your words, friends and thoughts you can create a story that tells your pain, bares your soul. I had the feeling that the story gave me life in the same way my mother gave me life. With this play, I learnt to understand, to think, to make theatre: to discover who I am and what I want to say."

His work is yet to be translated into Arabic or produced in his native Lebanon -- a place that permeates every word he writes. (His family fled Beirut when he was 16 to avoid an escalating civil war that lasted nearly 20 years.) "For me, Lebanon represents the beginning, childhood. It represents my family, a little garden behind the house in the mountain. It's the sun and strangely happy time. The war didn't touch my body, my mother, father, sister or brother. I was very young. I didn't choose to leave Lebanon. My parents chose to do that and go to France and then leave to go to Quebec.

"Sometimes I try to figure out what kind of man I would have been if we stayed in Lebanon. I ask myself if my parents didn't leave Lebanon, would I be making theatre? It's strange. It's like a ghost country in my heart . . . but it's the ghost that gave me life, my first years and my first language."

Neither the civil war in Lebanon nor any other Middle Eastern conflict is explicitly addressed in his work. The man himself may have a reputation for being a provocateur, but his plays are not as overtly political or as documentary in purpose as the recent spate of lifted-from-the-headlines plays in England.

"In my last play [Scorched], I tried to be more political," he says with the tone of someone who has pulled his play right out of the fire. "I tried to say the real names: Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians, Lebanese but every time I make that, the poetry and the theatre stray far away from me. I stop and they come back. Maybe one day I will write political plays. For now, every time I speak about a Middle East tragedy, I can't name it."

The Globe and Mail – Nov 11, 2005
Kamal Al-Solaylee 

INCENDIES (Scorched)
In the introduction to Scorched, Wajdi Mouawad describes the play as an exploration of  “the questions of origins”.  The story centres on twins – a brother Simon and sister Janine – who are summoned to the office of a notary to hear the last will and testament of their mother, Nawal. They are both handed a sealed letter written by their mother; one is to be delivered to their brother and one to their father.  Both thought their father was dead and never knew of a brother, and so the mystery begins.  The letters send them on a journey into their mother’s past – to a Middle Eastern country engulfed in a civil war where she was a political activist and later became a prisoner of war.  The play also follows the life of Nawal – from her youth and her liberation through education to her final years spent in silence.  Through poetic language and startling imagery, the play connects the origins of these three members of a family in startling and unforgettable ways.

Wajdi Mouawad chose to set the action of Scorched in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. This allows for the audience to consider that the conflicts and relationships in the play may be possible in any country that has ever suffered the violence of war.  This choice is what makes the play more universal and accessible to a wider audience. 

Scorched is transcendent theatre, with moments that cause the pulse to quicken and the heart to skip a beat.  Writing on an operatic scale, Wajdi Mouawad has an intuitive understanding of tragedy.  Scorched immediately brings to life a world in which ghosts from the past coexist with the living, where characters speak in arias, their phrases resonating from the depths of great emotion.  An epic tale for our 21st century of conflict and displacement, Scorched is a play that allows us a glimpse into the well of human suffering, then hands the torch of redemption to characters with the strength to lead themselves, and us, out of the darkness.  

“Now that we are together, everything feels better.” – Nawal, the mother in Scorched

In Scorched, Wajdi Mouawad has constructed a mystery.  A woman, locked in a self-imposed silence for five years, save for this one phrase she repeated throughout her life, has left a letter for her twin children, a boy and a girl.  Find your father, the letter instructs, and your brother.  Eventually, both siblings journey to the country of their mother’s birth, retracing their early childhood and their mother’s past.  As they move closer to finding their father and subsequently their brother, we begin to understand the genesis of their mother’s grief and appreciate the source of her immeasurable strength, her sacrifices and the love she bore for her children.  Throughout all of this, Nawal’s repeated phrase is an echo of hope.

 The chronology of the play is not straightforward – time and place jump from scene to scene, and often overlap.  Characters from the past and present walk by each other and even talk to each other.  For example, in the scene where Nawal’s grandmother Nazira is buried in the past, a cell phone rings.  The villagers run away, revealing the present scene of Alphonse, Simon, and Janine standing by Nawal’s grave.

The dialogue in the play is also not naturalistic.  The characters’ speech is often poetic, and characters speak in monologue-like paragraphs instead of quick realistic dialogue. 

There are many aspects of Scorched that are large and epic.  Janine and Simon must go on a journey in an unfamiliar country to discover their mother’s story.  Nawal and Sawda go on a cross country journey to try and find Nawal’s son.  Scorched is also reminiscent of Greek tragedy (the story is similar to Oedipus Rex by Sophocles), and certain scenes suggest rites and rituals (the burial practices), and myth and legend (Abdessamad tells Janine that Nawal and Wahab’s love story is a legend).  

The actors in Scorched portray inanimate objects such as trees, a window and a door.  One actor plays many characters, and three different actors play the character of Nawal at different ages.  When Janine calls Simon, she doesn’t actually have a phone in her hand, but it is still evident, with the help of the sound design, that she is on the phone.  These examples indicate that Scorched is an expressionistic play.

Expressionism: a style of playwriting and stage presentation stressing the emotional content of a play, the subjective reactions of the characters, symbolic or abstract representations of reality, and non-naturalistic techniques of scenic design.

Scorched (Incendies) enjoyed tremendous success while on tour throughout France at Hexagone, Scène Nationale de Meylan, Théâtre 71 Malakoff and Théâtre National de Toulouse, to name a few, and in Québec when it played at Théâtre de Quat’Sous and Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, in Montréal.

Scorched was first presented in a staged reading at The Old Vic Theatre in London, as part of  “4play Canada”, a showcase event co-presented by the National Arts Centre (Ottawa) and the Canadian High Commission (London, UK).


Canadians reflect a dynamic and evolving cultural, ethnic and linguistic makeup that is found nowhere else on earth.  As recognized by the Department of Canadian Heritage (Multiculturalism): “Approximately 200,000 immigrants a year from all parts of the globe continue to choose Canada, drawn by its quality of life and its reputation as an open, peaceful and caring society that welcomes newcomers and values diversity.”  Canada’s approach to diversity is based on the understanding that “respect for cultural distinctiveness is intrinsic to an individual’s sense of self worth and identity, and a society that accommodates everyone equally is a society that encourages achievement, participation, attachment to country and a sense of belonging.” 

The diversity of cultures in Canada is reflected in a rich tapestry of traditions, and these are especially important to new immigrants.  The 2003 Ethnic Diversity Survey conducted by Statistics Canada, for example, found that 57 per cent of first generation Canadians had a strong sense of belonging to their ethnic or cultural group, and about 63 per cent (or 6.5 million people) said that maintaining ethnic customs and traditions was important. 

One of the greatest areas for new audience development is in culturally diverse communities since the Canadian population is growing more from immigration than from natural increase.  In May 2001, 5.4 million people (or 18 per cent of the population) were born outside the country, and of the 1.8 million immigrants who arrived during the 1990s, 73 per cent chose to live in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal – cities that are also home to the largest concentration of Canadian artists and arts organizations. 

The voices of New Canadians are vital in the arts.  Immigrant playwrights share with all Canadians their heritage, their immigrant experience and their views on their new land.  The website lists over 140 writers of Asian (Middle East to Japan) descent.  Many more from Africa, South America and Europe may be found in a web search. Three of these are mentioned below.

Source: Study Guide for Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad (National Arts Centre)

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Diaspora In Conversation with…

International Diaspora Film Festival 2012
Through Female Eyes

 1 to 6 November 2012, Toronto
Innis Town Hall & Carlton Cinemas
 In Conversation with…
Filmmakers, actors, producers, and film scholars will be in attendance for intimate discussions with the audience.


Atom Egoyan and Arsinée Khanjian will share their CALENDAR with the audience. An on-stage interview and Q/A after the film screening.
Monday, 5 November 2012, 7:00 PM, Innis Town Hall, Free Event


Cyrus Sundar Singh will be present after the screening of his film MASHALA for discussion.
Sunday, 4 November 2012, 8:00 PM, Carlton Cinema, Free Event


Elie Wajeman, the winner of Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight 2012 prize for ALIYAH will attend the screening for a dialogue with the audience.
Sunday, 4 November 2012, 6:00 PM, Innis Town Hall


Elisa Paloschi, the director of EMBRACING VOICES will present her film about the luminary jazz musician Jane Bunnett.
Sunday, 4 November 2012, 6:00 PM, Carlton Cinema


Sergei Kapterev, is a Senior Researcher at the Research Institute of Cinema Art in Moscow. He will discuss the Soviet-Armenian epic film KHAZ-PUSH (1928).
Tuesday, 6 November 2012, 7:00 PM, Innis Town Hall, Free Event


Vincent Ebrahim, the lead actor in MATERIAL, and well-known for his TV hit The Kumars at No. 42 will entertain the audience with his views of the film.
Sunday, 4 November 2012, 8:00 PM, Innis Town Hall

York University Student Showcase, young talented filmmakers from York U will present their works in a special screening of their shorts.
Sunday, 4 November 2012, 2:00 PM, Carlton Cinema, Free Event

General: $10 online, $12 at door
Seniors and Students: $8 at door only (please provide ID)
Festival Pass: $80 online, $100 at door

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Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Free Documentary Making Workshop at BRAFFTV 2012

Europa ‘51: Inspiring Hope
“God never comes out of the shadows to lend a hand and clarify the situation for us. Which means that God is hidden in this film [Europa ‘51] in the same way that God is hidden in life—forever immanent, provoking anxiety and inspiring hope” 
Martin Scorsese

Umberto Eco on Casablanca

The Clichés are Having a Ball
By Umberto Eco
When people in their fifties sit down before their television sets for a rerun of Casablanca, it is an ordinary matter of nostalgia. However, when the film is shown in American universities, the boys and girls greet each scene and canonical line of dialogue ("Round up the usual suspects," "Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?" -- or even every time that Bogey says "kid") with ovations usually reserved for football games. And I have seen the youthful audience in an Italian art cinema react in the same way. What then is the fascination of Casablanca?
The question is a legitimate one, for aesthetically speaking (or by any strict critical standards) Casablanca is a very mediocre film. It is a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects. And we know the reason for this: The film was made up as the shooting went along, and it was not until the last moment that the director and script writer knew whether Ilse would leave with Victor or with Rick. So all those moments of inspired direction that wring bursts of applause for their unexpected boldness actually represent decisions taken out of desperation. What then accounts for the success of this chain of accidents, a film that even today, seen for a second, third, or fourth time, draws forth the applause reserved for the operatic aria we love to hear repeated, or the enthusiasm we accord to an exciting discovery? There is a cast of formidable hams. But that is not enough.
Here are the romantic lovers -- he bitter, she tender -- but both have been seen to better advantage. And Casablanca is not Stagecoach, another film periodically revived. Stagecoach is a masterpiece in every respect. Every element is in its proper place, the characters are consistent from one moment to the next, and the plot (this too is important) comes from Maupassant--at least the first part of it. And so? So one is tempted to read Casablanca the way T. S. Eliot reread Hamlet. He attributed its fascination not to its being a successful work (actually he considered it one of Shakespeare's less fortunate plays) but to something quite the opposite: Hamlet was the result of an unsuccessful fusion of several earlier Hamlets, one in which the theme was revenge (with madness as only a stratagem), and another whose theme was the crisis brought on by the mother's sin, with the consequent discrepancy between Hamlet's nervous excitation and the vagueness and implausibility of Gertrude's crime. So critics and public alike find Hamlet beautiful because it is interesting, and believe it to be interesting because it is beautiful.
On a smaller scale, the same thing happened to Casablanca. Forced to improvise a plot, the authors mixed in a little of everything, and everything they chose came from a repertoire of the tried and true. When the choice of the tried and true is limited, the result is a trite or mass-produced film, or simply kitsch. But when the tried and true repertoire is used wholesale, the result is an architecture like Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. There is a sense of dizziness, a stroke of brilliance.
But now let us forget how the film was made and see what it has to show us. It opens in a place already magical in itself -- Morocco, the Exotic -- and begins with a hint of Arab music that fades into "La Marseillaise." Then as we enter Rick's Place we hear Gershwin. Africa France, America. At once a tangle of Eternal Archetypes comes into play. These are situations that have presided over stories throughout the ages. But usually to make a good story a single archetypal situation is enough. More than enough. Unhappy Love, for example, or Flight. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that: It uses them all. The city is the setting for a Passage, the passage to the Promised Land (or a Northwest Passage if you like). But to make the passage one must submit to a test, the Wait ("they wait and wait and wait," says the off-screen voice at the beginning). The passage from the waiting room to the Promised Land requires a Magic Key, the visa. It is around the winning of this Key that passions are unleashed. Money (which appears at various points, usually in the form of the Fatal Game, roulette) would seem to be the means for obtaining the Key. But eventually we discover that the Key can be obtained only through a Gift -- the gift of the visa, but also the gift Rick makes of his Desire by sacrificing himself For this is also the story of a round of Desires, only two of which are satisfied: that of Victor Laszlo, the purest of heroes, and that of the Bulgarian couple. All those whose passions are impure fail.
Thus, we have another archetype: the Triumph of Purity. The impure do not reach the Promised Land; we lose sight of them before that. But they do achieve purity through sacrifice -- and this means Redemption. Rick is redeemed and so is the French police captain. We come to realize that underneath it all there are two Promised Lands: One is America (though for many it is a false goal), and the other is the Resistance -- the Holy War. That is where Victor has come from, and that is where Rick and the captain are going, to join de Gaulle. And if the recurring symbol of the airplane seems every so often to emphasize the flight to America, the Cross of Lorraine, which appears only once, anticipates the other symbolic gesture of the captain, when at the end he throws away the bottle of Vichy water as the plane is leaving. On the other hand the myth of sacrifice runs through the whole film: Ilse's sacrifice in Paris when she abandons the man she loves to return to the wounded hero, the Bulgarian bride's sacrifice when she is ready to yield herself to help her husband, Victor's sacrifice when he is prepared to let Ilse go with Rick so long as she is saved.
Into this orgy of sacrificial archetypes (accompanied by the Faithful Servant theme in the relationship of Bogey and the black man Dooley Wilson) is inserted the theme of Unhappy Love: unhappy for Rick, who loves Ilse and cannot have her; unhappy for Ilse, who loves Rick and cannot leave with him; unhappy for Victor, who understands that he has not really kept Ilse. The interplay of unhappy loves produces various twists and turns: In the beginning Rick is unhappy because he does not understand why Ilse leaves him; then Victor is unhappy because he does not understand why Ilse is attracted to Rick; finally Ilse is unhappy because she does not understand why Rick makes her leave with her husband. These three unhappy (or Impossible) loves take the form of a Triangle. But in the archetypal love-triangle there is a Betrayed Husband and a Victorious Lover. Here instead both men are betrayed and suffer a loss, but, in this defeat (and over and above it) an additional element plays a part, so subtly that one is hardly aware of it. It is that, quite subliminally, a hint of male or Socratic love is established. Rick admires Victor, Victor is ambiguously attracted to Rick, and it almost seems at a certain point as if each of the two were playing out the duel of sacrifice in order to please the other. In any case, as in Rousseau's Confessions, the woman places herself as Intermediary between the two men. She herself is not a bearer of positive values; only the men are.
Against the background of these intertwined ambiguities, the characters are stock figures, either all good or all bad. Victor plays a double role, as an agent of ambiguity in the love story, and an agent of clarity in the political intrigue -- he is Beauty against the Nazi Beast. This theme of Civilization against Barbarism becomes entangled with the others, and to the melancholy of an Odyssean Return is added the warlike daring of an Iliad on open ground.
Surrounding this dance of eternal myths, we see the historical myths, or rather the myths of the movies, duly served up again. Bogart himself embodies at least three: the Ambiguous Adventurer, compounded of cynicism and generosity; the Lovelorn Ascetic; and at the same time the Redeemed Drunkard (he has to be made a drunkard so that all of a sudden he can be redeemed, while he was already an ascetic, disappointed in love). Ingrid Bergman is the Enigmatic Woman, or Femme Fatale. Then such myths as: They're Playing Our Song; the Last Day in Paris; America, Africa, Lisbon as a Free Port; and the Border Station or Last Outpost on the Edge of the Desert. There is the Foreign Legion (each character has a different nationality and a different story to tell), and finally there is the Grand Hotel (people coming and going). Rick's Place is a magic circle where everything can (and does) happen: love, death, pursuit, espionage, games of chance, seductions, music, patriotism. (The theatrical origin of the plot, and its poverty of means, led to an admirable condensation of events in a single setting.) This place is Hong Kong, Macao, I'Enfer duJeu, an anticipation of Lisbon, and even Showboat.
But precisely because all the archetypes are here, precisely because Casablanca cites countless other films, and each actor repeats a part played on other occasions, the resonance of intertextuality plays upon the spectator. Casablanca brings with it, like a trail of perfume, other situations that the viewer brings to bear on it quite readily, taking them without realizing it from films that only appeared later, such as To Have and Have Not, where Bogart actually plays a Hemingway hero, while here in Casablanca he already attracts Hemingwayesque connotations by the simple fact that Rick, so we are told, fought in Spain (and, like Malraux, helped the Chinese Revolution). Peter Lorre drags in reminiscences of Fritz Lang; Conrad Veidt envelops his German officer in a faint aroma of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari -- he is not a ruthless, technological Nazi, but a nocturnal and diabolical Caesar.
Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology. Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making. For in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it. And so we can accept it when characters change mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the next, when conspirators cough to interrupt the conversation if a spy is approaching, when whores weep at the sound of "La Marseillaise." When all the archtypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime. Something has spoken in place of the director. If nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.

From: Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, eds. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994) pp. 260-264.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

That Damned Meat: Brazilian Rural Mythologies

Quim tells us a story of "how it used to be." He lived in the sticks with his dog and prize goat. This brutish life in the boondocks wasn't enough for him and he decides to go out into the world in search of two dreams: to find a good young wife to take care of him and to eat beef. It's the second wish that is his true obsession. In his wanderings, Quim arrives at the house of Totó, whose daughter Carula is having an argument with her statue of St. Anthony: the saint isn't working hard enough to find her a good husband. Soon Quim discovers that the girl's father supposedly has an ox that he's been saving for his daughter's wedding. Might this be the moment for Quim to satisfy his two greatest desires? This "caipira" comedy, mostly light-hearted, which plays on Brazilian stereotypes of country life, was enormously popular at home and abroad and garnered all the major prizes at the annual Gramado Festival of Brazilian and Latin-American Film. In his first feature film, director André Klotzel uses a group of the country's best actors and a folktale approach to tell a story where everyday reality is, at best, merely a backdrop.

Featuring folktale characters like the "curupira," whose feet are on backwards, or a she-devil trickster whom Quim meets at the crossroads at midnight, the movie--with its brilliant colors and fantastic story-telling style--celebrates the imagination and traditions of rural Brazil and continues a long tradition of authentically Brazilian "hill-billy" literature, drama, and film. But the film goes beyond the re-telling of well-known legends to take on a serious social commentary: towards the end of the film, our hero--still looking for that elusive steak--finds his way by train to São Paulo. Thanks to a riot, he joins looters in a supermarket and is able to steal a roast of beef. The final scenes of the film, shot in a more documentary style, show Quim and Carula having a barbecue at their home in the poor industrial suburbs of São Paulo. In retrospect, we understand both the teller and the tale.

That Damned Meat (A Marvada Carne, BRA, 1986) dir. Andre Klotzel
BRAFFTV and Toronto Public Library
Palmerston Library (506 Palmerston Ave, Toronto) 
September 20, 6 p.m.
Free Atendance

Chris Marker; filmmaker

It was a funny-shaped object. A small tin box with irregularly rounded ends, a rectangular aperture in the middle and on the opposite side a small lens, the size of a nickel. You had to gently insert a piece of film—real film, with sprockets and all—in the upper part, then a tiny rubber wheel blocked it, and by turning the corresponding knob the film unrolled, frame by frame. To tell the truth, each frame represented a different shot, so the whole thing looked more like a slide show than a home cinema, yet the shots were beautifully printed stills out of celebrated pictures: Chaplin's, Ben Hur, Abel Gance's Napoleon. ... If you were rich, you could lock that small unit in a sort of magic lantern and project it on your wall (or screen, if you were very rich). I had to satisfy myself with the minimal version: pressing my eye against the lens, and watching. That forgotten contraption was called Patheorama. You could read it in golden letters on black, with the legendary Pathe rooster singing against a rising sun.

The egotistic pleasure of watching by myself images pertaining to the unfathomable realm of Movieland very soon had a dialectical byproduct: when I couldn't even imagine having anything in common with the process of filmmaking (whose basic principles were naturally far beyond my comprehension), there something of the film itself was within my reach, pieces of celluloid that were not that different from the photographic negatives when they came back from the lab. Something I could touch and feel, something of the real world. And why (insinuated my own dialectical Jiminy Cricket) couldn't I in turn make something of the same kind? All I needed was translucent material and the right measurements. (The sprockets were there to look good, the rubber wheel just ignored them.) So, with scissors, tracing paper, and glue, I managed to get a proper copy of the Patheorama model tape. Then, screen by screen, I began to draw a few poses of my cat (who else?) with captions inbetween. And all of a sudden, my cat belonged to the same universe as the characters in Ben Hur or Napoleon. I had gone through the looking glass.

Of all my school buddies, Jonathan was the most prestigious; he was mechanically minded and quite inventive, he made up maquettes of theaters with rolling curtains and flashing lights, and a miniature big band emerging from the abyss while a cranked gramophone was playing "Hail the Conquering Hero." So it was natural that he was the first to whom I wished to show my masterwork. I was rather pleased with the result, and I unrolled the adventures of the cat Riri which I presented as "my movie." Jonathan managed to get me sobered up: "Movies are supposed to move, stupid," he said. "Nobody can do a movie with still images."

Thirty years passed. Then I made La Jetée.

Chris Marker
First published at Film Quaterly, 52:1, Autumn, 1998, p. 66.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Emotional engagement in Thiago Luciano's Turkish Coffee

Why should we care what happens to fictional characters? After all, since they are fictional, their fates shouldn't matter to us in the way that the fates of real people do. But, of course, we do get involved in the destinies of these imaginary being. The question is why. Because so many films that attract our interest are fictional, this question is an important one for philosophers of film to answer. One answer, common in the film theory tradition, is that the reason that we care about what happens to some fictional characters is because we identify with them. Although or, perhaps, because these characters are highly idealized—they are more beautiful, brave, resourceful, etc. than any actual human being could be—viewers identify with them, thereby also taking themselves to be correlates of these ideal beings. But once we see the characters as versions of ourselves, their fates matter to us, for we see ourselves as wrapped up in their stories. Thomas Wartenberg

In a town dominated by war, what rules is the terror and fear. Life and death confronts on every corner. The film is set in no specific place or country. The feeling of fear is faced by both sides, the doer and the one who's succumbed by these events--a foreigner soldier and a local woman. Acts of violence, created by fear, can strike any moment. Based on the play Holy Land by Mohamed Kacimi. 

Some students comments:

This film explores the interaction between a male soldier and a civilian female in a place where war is occurring. The film presents a distressed and traumatized soldier--his soft side is shown to us by his contemplation of a photograph of his family. We know that he misses them and we are able to see his pain through close-ups of his face and more particularly his eyes. The woman--living on her own because she has lost her husband during the conflict--is portrayed to us as fearless at first, but later we see that her act of strength is nothing but a facade, which both characters are forced to deal with.

In the small and dilapidated space of the woman's apartment the two characters size each other up having been conditioned to suspect the worst of the "enemy." As it is possible for the audience to identify with both of the characters, it is not easy to take a side. The man, after all, is only a man who misses his family, while the woman is in a vulnerable position. In areas of conflict where Western occupying forces presumably attempt to counter terrorist activities, through encroaching on another's territory (as the soldier does in the woman's apartment) only serves to flame the fire of resentment.
Camera work plays a great work in engaging the audience's emotions through close-up shots of the soldier's face--showing his breathing and the fear in his eyes--which makes the audience identifies with him and fearing for him. Camera's positioning and unexpected point of views--from the above--also gives the audience the feeling of fear since they think that someone else is watching the characters movements. Thus, what is interesting about this movie is that the audience fears for both characters. Sometimes the point of view of the woman--when she fears and disgusts soldier's attempt of rape her--makes the audience to identify with the woman, and in this way emotionally engage the audience into the film. Sometimes this movie provokes fear either by identifying with the character or simulating a fearful situation creating bodily responses from the audience such as sorrow. I felt sorry for the soldier as he was seeing resemblances of his wife in the woman. He was affectionate at times but since his affection was not received by the woman as he expected then he becomes angry. At this point the audience, such as myself, get confused and caught between feelings of sorrow for the soldier and fear for the woman. However, during the whole film the audience worries for the soldier because of the suspicion that the close-up emphasizes the package that the woman was carrying at the beginning of the film and also the close-ups of the coffee being made by her. The contrast lighting in the film also engages audience's feelings. In the scene of the attempt rape, the woman's face is half bright and half dark: is she the evil person or the victim? At the end of the movie, she throws the "suspicious" package on the floor and a close-up of the soldier's face fades in white and disappears: was it a bomb? The audience has to decide.

We as the viewers--at the beginning of the film--start to really feel fear for the woman's safety. We wonder if the soldier is going to beat her to death or maybe even rape her. In this point we sense some emotional disturbance for the soldier--he went through a hard life and has seen a lot of bad things and by showing her his music and touching her we feel that maybe he just wants to be loved. He wants the love the woman has for her dead husband. There is a lot of mixed emotions we don't know weather to fear for the woman of feel sorry for the soldier. Camera movements are very quick at times but also lingers on scenes to show us how the character is feeling. In the woman's close-ups, we can see the sweat on her face cuased by her feeling extreme of fear for her life. We also see how the camera loves the soldier showing us his expressions during his vulnerable moments--when he is listening a song in his phone, he really seemed to enjoy it. 

This continued struggle between of trust and fear between the two is what I would think is the main conflict amongst also the factors that the two of them have two different beliefs and perspectives of the war.
The setting and some elements of the mise-en-scene evoke fear in the audience, such as the ruins of a town, a very scary and uncertain environment... as well as the gun carried by the soldier, pointed at the woman, which could go off at any time without warning and kill her. Anyone can relate to the fear exhibited by both characters, as everyone has some experiences in which they were scared when faced with a frightening situation.

 Turkish Coffee (Café Turco, Brazil, 17 min., 2011) Thiago Luciano
Watch the trailer 


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Michel Chion on Tarkovsky

So sound temporalized the image: not only by the effect of added value but also quite simply by normalizing and stabilizing film projection speed. A silent film by Tarkovsky, who called his cinema "the art of sculpting in time," would not be conceivable. His long takes are animated with rhythmic quiverings, convulsions, and fleeting apparitions that, in combination with vast controlled visual rhythms and movements, form a kind of hypersensitive temporal structure. The sound cinema can therefore be called "chronographic": written in time as well as in movement.
Michel Chion's Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Zizek on Tarkovsky

What makes Tarkovsky interesting is the very form of his films. Tarkovsky uses as this material element of pre-narrative density, time itself. All of a sudden we are made to feel this inertia, drabness of time. Time is not just a neutral, light medium within which things happen. We feel the density of time itself. Things that we see are more markers of time. He treats even humans in this way. If we look at the unique face of Stalker himself, it's a face of somebody exposed to too much radiation and, as it were, rotting, falling apart alive. It is this disintegration of the very material texture of reality which provides the spiritual depth. Tarkovskian subjects, when they pray, they don't look up, they look down. They even sometimes, as in Stalker, put their head directly onto the earth. Here, I think, Tarkovsky affects us at a level which is much deeper, much more crucial for our experience than all the standard, spiritual motives of elevating ourselves above material reality and so on. There is nothing specific about the zone. It's purely a place where a certain limit is set. You set a limit, you put a certain zone off-limit, and although things remain exactly the way they were, it's perceived as another place. Precisely as the place onto which you can project your beliefs, your fears, things from your inner space. In other words, the zone is ultimately the very whiteness of the cinematic screen.

Slavoj Zizek's The Pevert's Guide to Cinema (2006)

Paul Schrader interviews Aleksandr Sokurov years ago a German publisher asked me to write a forward updating Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu- Bresson-Drerer, a book published in 1972. I couldn't think of any filmmaker to add to the context of that book. Andrei Tarkovsky came to mind, of course, but I didn't feel he was working in the style I had tried to describe. Since then. I've seen the work of Abbas Kiarostami and, more to the point, Aleksandr Sokurov: the transcendent cinema is alive in that troubled part of the world. Sokurov's films define a new form of spiritual cinema. Sokurov mixes elements of Transcendental Style - austerity of means, disparity between environment and activity, decisive moment, stasis - with other traditions: visual aestheticism, meditation, and Russian mysticism. Mother and Son, Sokurov's latest feature, was shown at the Berlin, Cannes, Telluride, and New York film festivals. It explores, with very little dialogue, the final day of a dying mother and a devoted son: 73 heart-aching, luminescent minutes of pure cinema. Sokurov is a master. This interview took place Sep-tember 3, 1997, in my office in Times Square - sirens and street musicians bla-ring in the background. We had first met in Telluride, where I, too, was screening a film. In attendance were Mr. Sokurov's friend Sergei Khramt-sov, who translated for him, and Alexei Fyodorov, his cinematographer. Sokurov was en route from Telluride, where he had been honored; he was waiting to catch a plane to St. Petersburg, where he lives. Still photog-raphers from The New York Times and the Village Voice were waiting outside the office. In editing this interview, I realized that there were several areas I should have pursued with Sokurov. He says that he manipulates the image as it is being filmed, but feels it would be wrong to manipulate it afterwards, via computer. This I don't quite get. Perhaps it was lost in translation. Perhaps he will read this interview and clarify the issue with a letter. I also neglected to ask about his use of sound and music: phy-sical effects - wind, rustling, footsteps - interspersed with classical passages of Romantic music. It was a treat to interview Sokurov. It brought me back to my first enthusiasms about cinema. It's a disadvantage of gro-wing older: disciples start to outnumber masters. In person Sokurov is serious, articulate, and gracious. He speaks with the intensity of a person who knows there are things worth saying.

P.S.: Tell us about your background, education, and how you became a filmmaker.
Sokurov: It's not an easy question to answer. I would like to start by saying that, besides literature, which is one of my passions, I also liked radio theater very much. When I was growing up, I remember great radio theater performances, with great actors. I would close my eyes and then build my imaginary world within the theater piece. I never imagined that I would become a director myself. In my family, nobody was involved in art. I was born in a little village in Siberia that doesn't exist anymore; they built a hydroelectric power station, and my little village was buried under water. If I want to visit the place of my birth, I could take a boat, get there by the water, and look into the bottom of the sea.

P.S.: That's a wonderful image.
Sokurov: Oh well, I think for me it seems to be very complete. And I always felt that that passage to moviemaking is very long, and I never thought that I would be able to get through. Generally speaking, my idea of how to become an artist is, first of all you have to get a fundamental education. That's why it was logical for me to graduate with a degree in history.

P.S.: Where was it, in Moscow?
Sokurov: No, in Gorky, on the Volga River, the town my mother is from. After college, I started doing some work for the local television station. All the skills I have at the moment, I learned from my first job in television and from my first teacher, Yuri Bespolov. My path into film and visual art was quite long. I entered the Moscow Film Academy (VGIK) directing department, after which everything happened in the usual order of events.

P.S.: How did your filmmaking evolve?
Sokurov: I was born and raised, as well as getting my self-identity, under a totalitarian regime. For the people of my psychological character type and background, this meant that I started with very serious, fundamental observations. And don't forget that I was constantly reading Russian classics, which had a huge impact on me. I'd never heard of the Beatles or any other non-Russian contemporary musicians. I was influenced by Wagner and Scarlotti. That's just the way it happened. I concentrated on more serious things.

P.S.: I know that before the breakup of the Soviet Union you had some censorship issues. Do you think you would have had more difficulty with the government if you made more narrative movies - movies that could be interpreted politically?
Sokurov: I'm very impressed with this question - no one ever asked me such a question before. It's important because even when you didn't get a full explanation from the authorities, you could read between the lines. The problems the government film institutions had with me - they had no political grounds. Because I had no questions about the Soviet system. I had, let's say, less or no interest. So I wouldn't even bother myself with criticizing it. I was always driven by visual aesthetics, aesthetics which connected to the spirituality of man, and set certain morals. The fact that I was involved in the visual side of art made the government suspicious. The nature of my films was different from others. They didn't actually know what to punish me for - and that confusion caused them huge irritation. Of course it made things more difficult for me, but also much easier. When I look back I realize it was such a paradox. On one hand, the films that I made were forbidden to be showed publicly; on the other, my new ideas were always approved. I would say that this is a paradox of a totalitarian regime. Because totalitarians are interested in creative processes.

P.S.: Which artists, not necessarily filmmakers, helped you define yourself ?
Sokurov: I've learned a lot from the real world surrounding me. Sometimes these people had nothing to do with art at all. They were simply kind, generous, honest and beautiful human beings. And very well educated as well. But my milestone was of course Chekhov.

P.S.: I came from a religious background. Our church did not believe in the image. They were anti-iconography. If you had anything to say, you used words. The most important thing I learned in my 20s was that images are also ideas. It took a while for me to understand that. You mentioned literature and radio theater - how did you come to the realization of the intellectual language of ideas?
Sokurov: My background was in no way similar. Most of the things that I do come through intuition. I never met anyone who helped me to develop my spirituality and my soul. Let's put it this way: I never had a priest to whom I would go for confession.

P.S.: Your name has often been connected with Tarkovsky. Did he come relatively late into your life, or was he an early influence?
Sokurov: It's very circumstantial. We are quite different as people, as [Tarkovsky] always said himself. The first time I saw his work was when I was finishing my education at the Film Academy. His aesthetics weren't a discovery for me. It was rather a confirmation of my own vision. Frankly speaking, this is a hard question for me to answer. I would say that we had a very close friendship rather than collegial creative collaboration. I don't know why he liked what I was doing.

P.S.: I always felt a little guilty because I thought I should like Tarkovsky more than I did. My head was telling me I should like it, but my heart wasn't going along. When I saw your films, my first reaction was, this is what I wanted from Tarkovsky.
Sokurov: That's wonderful. That's a wonderful thing to say. It just proves to me one more time that each of us is just one step in the staircase. And what all of us are doing, you and me and Tarkovsky, is an existing reality, despite our differences.

P.S.: Let's switch the subject a little bit, and talk about the technical and financial aspects. It seems that, because of your success in the festival world, you're able to get European financing now. Do you feel fairly secure in your ability to get films made?
Sokurov: I'm still very concerned about finances. My rule is that I work with the same people all the time: cinematographer, sound, editor, art director, and so on. I believe that only if you work together for, let's say, fifteen, twenty years, then you get the feel of a team and can do a great job. We are able to achieve things because we're working on such a low budget. It's hard for me to imagine myself making a picture with a budget of $150,000.

P.S.: But even low budgets cost money - someone has to pay it. When I was a film critic I supported myself by delivering chicken, and writing for a small paper. I was corresponding with Bresson because I was working on a book about him. And he wrote me a letter asking, because I worked in Los Angeles, if maybe I could help him raise money for L'Argent. For me, Bresson was a master, and I was delivering chicken - and he was asking me for money! I realized then how difficult it was. But now, your last film Mother and Son - that was your last film, right?
Sokurov: No, I also finished two documentaries.P.S.:Now, that was financed primarily out of Germany?
Sokurov: It was fifty-fifty: half Russian, half German money.

P.S.: Is the positive reaction at the New York and Berlin film festivals going to change the nature of the films you make? How fast you make films?
Sokurov: No, not at all.

P.S.: How many days was Mother and Son shot in?
Sokurov: I think that altogether the actual shooting was about twenty days.

P.S.: Because of the consistency of those dark, rich, clouds, did you have to wait for the right weather for a long time?
Sokurov: In this case, I could say just one thing: God was probably assisting us at that time. And we always put our interiors around spots where nature looked most attractive and interesting. We weren't shooting in a studio. Our set was a very complicated construction built into a dune near the forest that had the ability to open up and turn around. This allowed the cinematographer to catch the sun and light and manipulate and create as much as he wanted.

P.S.: As in silent movies, the house turns with the sun. One of the problems in working in commercial cinema is the schedule. If the weather isn't right, you have to shoot anyway.
Sokurov: We have the same type of schedule.

P.S.: So if the weather wasn't exactly right, would you shoos anyway, or would you try to shoot indoors?
Sokurov: Yes, of course, we would shoot indoors.

P.S.: In Telluride, a friend of mine who is a cinematographer saw Mother and Son and went to your cinematographer and said, "I figured out how you did it," but your cinematographer wouldn't confirm his hypothesis. So I'll ask you: how did you achieve those unique distortion effects?
Sokurov: [Laughs] I'll tell you. It was much easier than you think. There is just one principle, and I think that this is a very important one. I have stopped pretending that the image onscreen is dimensional. My first goal is that images have to be flat, as well as horizontal. Secondly, it has to be a comprehensive reading of artistic and aesthetic traditions - I'm not shooting a concrete picture of nature, I'm creating it. In [Mother and Son] I'm using a couple of simple mirrors, large panes of glass, as well as brush and paint, and then I look into the lens -

P.S.: You put the glass in front of the lens?
Sokurov: Yes, in front, and on the side, and behind, placing them on different support structures. It's very hard, very particular, and a long process. I destroy real nature and create my own.

P.S.: And then you're spraying on these pieces of glass and mirrors?
Sokurov: There is no spraying. I work with very thin, delicate painting brushes. Like those used in traditional Chinese paintings.

P.S.: My cinematographer thought it was a Spray -
Sokurov: No way. If it was sprayed, then it would look very harsh.

P.S.: When you hold the shot as long as you do, the eye has time to move around Whereas in conventionally paced cinema, the images come too fast for you to explore them. One of the great pleasures of Mother and Son is that you become invested as you move around.
Sokurov: It's not an advantage of the pictures themselves as much as the viewers' ability to imagine, and their spiritual development as well. It means a lot to me that you in particular were so much taken by those pictures, because I know films that were made with your participation, and I understand that it is completely different nature of creation and sometimes quite opposite from mine, but still it's very important for me that you feel that way about my art. Professionally and personally as well.

P.S.: I, like most filmmakers, am committed to the tradition of psychological realism; my film shown at Telluride (Affliction) is an exploration of character. But I've always loved films that worked against psychological identification and tried to take the viewer to another place. I've never felt I'd have the patience or the talent to make one. You talk about aestheticism, but there's also very rich common themes - relationship between parent and a child, death and human love. Do you think thematically or visually in advance of the film? Where does it begin for you?
Sokurov: Not from either of them. I go from the feelings, and I think that what always interests me is just those feelings that only a spiritual person could experience: the feelings of farewells and separations. I think that the drama of death is the drama of separation.

P.S.: In Japanese art there is a concept of mono no aware, sweet sadness, the pleasure of endings, of autumn and seeing a dying leaf
Sokurov: But for Russia, sweet sadness and pleasant farewells are not possible. On the contrary, in the Russian sense of elegy, it's a very deep. vertical feeling, not a delighting one. It gets you deeply, sharply, painfully. It's massive.

P.S.: You mentioned you've made documentaries since Mother and Son. For you, what's the difference between a fiction film and a documentary?
Sokurov: I don't treat it differently. The only difference I see between fiction and documentary is that the artist uses different tools to create a picture, or let's say, to build a house. In fiction, the director uses much larger-scaled blocks of the actual building, large-sized stones. In documentaries, the house is usually a more fragile, transparent, grasslike structure.

P.S.: I don't quite understand.
Sokurov: I'm not trying to make documentaries as a realistic type of art. I'm not interested in real truth. I don't think I could possible understand reality that well.

P.S.: So if you make a documentary and if you want things to look different than they do, do you instruct the subjects or change things?
Sokurov: I don't give instructions. It's simply important for me in both fiction and documentary that people never regret that they're participating in it. That's why I never film people I don't understand or don't love.

P.S.: I once had a teacher who said that anything inside a frame is art. When this cup is put inside of a frame, it's not a cup, it's art.
Sokurov: I disagree with that. Art is the hard work of your soul. And a cup is still a cup. The history of an artist's soul is a very sad history. It is very hard, sometimes unpleasant work. It is hard work for us all.

P.S.: What's the subject matter of the next film?
Sokurov: It will be a continuation of a five-hour film, part of which has been shot already. It's about the current war. About people who lived and fought on the land, and now they've gone to dive on the water.

P.S.: Chechnya?
Sokurov: No. It takes place on the border of Tadjikistan and Afghanistan, and now there's a fight between Russian and German marines, on the border of Germany and Russia.

P.S.: Do you see a situation like that, where you have politics and violence, as different from. the intense family feeling of loss?
Sokurov: Of course those topics cross each other. Even so, the actual war has no meaning at all. The only meaning that exists is the state of people's feelings in such circumstances. How they live in the state of war, how they celebrate their holidays, how they cope with their loneliness and solitude. It's all about life. In all my pictures, I'm just trying to create a different type of real life, not what actually exists. This is true even in my documentaries.

P.S.: One of the things that often comes up when people talk about your films is the tradition of great paintings. Are there any painters in particular that have a strong effect on you?
Sokurov: Generally speaking, when somebody is asked such a question, I think first of all it's about a labyrinth which a person travels in all the time. I would say it's Russian painters of the 19th century. It's Romantics of the 19th century from Germany, and of course Rembrandt. I like the American Andrew Wyeth. I like old painters because they're incredibly skillful. I think that apprenticeship is a very important component of becoming a real artist. That's why I think in the cinema there are not so many masters.

P.S.: The roles of painting and film are now starting to merge via computer. There are painters now working with photographed images on the computer. Would that appeal to you, or are you like me: too old to start again?
Sokurov: No. I don't want to let technology overcome me, or penetrate inside, although when we would go through the second cycle of editing, we do it with the help of a computer. If a painting was born as a painting with certain tools being used, I think it should always remain the same. And computer art: is a completely different type of visual art. We're not talking about pure art anymore, we're talking about something else.

P.S.: Whatever manipulation of the image you do occurs at the time that you shoot it, not later in postproduction.
Sokurov: Of course. It's always during the filming. As a director I always have a clear vision of my creation. I usually change the literary basis as well as the script a lot during production, sometimes even the meaning of certain dialogue could change completely. And the meaning of the piece changes with it. I'm trying to create and recreate and recreate again and again. It's important to be constantly on the move. The actual movie could look quite still, but the energy that was put into the filmmaking should be extremely dynamic.

P.S.: In Breaking the Waves Lars von Trier created tableau shots of nature that were computer-manipulated so that the movement of light and shadow was created
Sokurov: I feel sorry for him then.

P.S.: What is your personal reaction to your films being shown in the West?
Sokurov: At the very beginning, I had a tremendous feeling of appreciation towards everybody: audiences, festival directors, any staff person. Then I started experiencing some regret, because sometimes in the West I see very strange reactions. For instance, somebody's laughing. Of course I understand that Westerners are very different and very lonely at the same time. Much lonelier than in Russia. I would even say more spiritually unhealthy, with obviously very different morals than in Russia. That's why I feel even more grateful to anyone who comes and sees my movies because they witness such a different world and they try to understand it and accept it. Even SO, I understand that in the West I am dealing with a life that I would never comprehend.

P.S.: One last question, just. out of curiosity. Where do you live? Are you a city person or a country person?
Sokurov: I think I'm neither a city person nor a country person. By my mentality, I'm not a city person at all. But by my needs of comfort and convenience I'm a city person of course.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Notes for a Theory of the Road Movie by Walter Salles

Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in Walter Salles' On the Road (2012)
What is the origin of road movies? A year ago, I interviewed Wim Wenders on this topic for a documentary about “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac and the legacy of the Beat generation.

For me, the first documentary filmmakers, like Robert Flaherty, the creator of the landmark 1922 film “Nanook of the North,” were the founding fathers of this narrative form. Jorge Luis Borges once said that what interested him in literature was naming what had not yet been named. The early documentary pioneers did exactly that. A movie like “Nanook” or “Song of Ceylon,” Basil Wright’s 1934 classic about life in what is now Sri Lanka, depicted a human and physical geography that had not been captured before in moving images.

Flaherty, Wright and their peers had their own predecessors: painters and photographers who, before the birth of cinema, traveled to foreign latitudes and recorded what was to that point unknown to outsiders. In terms of storytelling, “The Odyssey” seemed to me the basis of it all, the source from which all road films, including Wenders’s own Paris, Texas (photo below), seemed to arise.


Wenders argued otherwise. For him, the origin lay even further back in history — in our nomadic roots, in mankind’s primal need to leave an account of its passage on earth. If you accept this vision, the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira are the true first accounts of life in movement. The first road narratives, of sorts.

In cinema, the earliest road movies were about the discovery of a new land or about the expansion of frontiers, as with westerns in North America. Films like “The Searchers,” John Ford’s masterpiece set in the aftermath of the Civil War, were about a national identity in construction. Especially in later decades, road movies also tried to accomplish a different task: to show national identities in transformation. Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 movie, “Detour,” an early film noir about a New York pianist who travels a dark road to Hollywood, was an account of a country plagued by individualism and greed. The film that defined road movies for today’s audiences, Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider,” was about the end of innocence and the implosion of the American dream during the Vietnam years.

Such films suggest that the most interesting road movies are those in which the identity crisis of the protagonist mirrors the identity crisis of the culture itself.

On Structure and Character

In terms of their narrative architecture, road movies cannot be circumscribed by the traditional three-act structure of so many mainstream films. Road movies, for instance, are rarely guided by external conflicts; the conflicts that consume their characters are basically internal ones.


Characters like David Locke in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Passenger” or Phillip Winter in Wenders’s “Alice in the Cities” suffer from a need to redefine themselves. Both are uncomfortable in their shoes. Locke, a journalist, opts to rebaptize himself by trading identities with a dead gunrunner. Winter, also a journalist, searches for a new frame of reference in a foreign country, where he stumbles into playing a father role for a young girl. Both understand that if something is gained along the way, much will also be lost.

Because road movies need to trace the internal transformation of their characters, the films are not about what can be seen or verbalized but about what can be felt — about the invisible that complements the visible. In this sense, road movies contrast starkly with today’s mainstream films, in which new actions are created every three minutes to grab the attention of the viewer. In road movies, a moment of silence is generally more important than the most dramatic action.

After directing three road movies myself (“Foreign Land,” in collaboration with my friend Daniela Thomas, “Central Station” and “The Motorcycle Diaries”), I believe that a defining aspect of this narrative form is its unpredictability. You simply cannot (and should not) anticipate what you will find on the road — even if you scouted a dozen times the territory you will cross. You have to work in synchronicity with the elements. If it snows, incorporate snow. If it rains, incorporate rain.


Likewise, a road movie should be transformed by the encounters that occur on the margins of the road. Improvisation becomes necessary and natural. In shooting “The Motorcycle Diaries,” about Ernesto Guevara’s transformation into Che as he witnesses social and political inequities on a journey through South America, my crew and I constantly tried to incorporate what reality was offering us, mixing our actors with the locals we met in the small communities we came across.

In doing different road movies, I also came to realize that a good screenplay grants you more freedom to improvise than a weak one. It’s like jazz: the better the melody, the easier it is to wander away from it, because it will also be easier to return to it later.

On the Line Between Fiction and Documentary

There is no such thing as two road movies that look alike. In terms of film grammar, the road movie is limited only by one obligation: to accompany the transformations undergone by its main characters as they confront a new reality. The road movie is not the domain of large cranes or steady-cams. On the contrary, the camera needs to remain in unison with characters who are in continual motion — a motion that shouldn’t be controlled. The road movie tends, therefore, to be driven by a sense of immediacy that is not dissimilar from that of a documentary film.

This correlation between two worlds — fiction and documentary — raises a theoretical point that brings me back to Robert Flaherty. Although Flaherty’s films are usually thought of as documentaries, he sometimes staged key elements of the plots so that the films were in some respects closer to fiction. He’s not framing an actual family of fishermen in “Man of Aran,” his 1934 movie about premodern life on the Aran Islands; he created a family for the film, a hypothetical family that he thought could better represent the reality of the Aran fishermen. (He was, by the way, severely criticized for this sort of alteration.)

In search of the epic, Flaherty did violate the boundaries of the what came to be seen as the traditional documentary. If that happened, it’s because he was not only recording Nanook the Inuit. He was also filming Nanook the Story.

More recently, Abbas Kiarostami’s 2002 film, “Ten,” about a woman driving a car in Tehran, blurred the line between fiction and documentary even more. Over the course of the movie, the woman has 10 conversations with passengers. The driver is an actress — or maybe not. The boy who is confronting her may be her real son, but it’s hard to tell. The prostitute the woman gives a ride to may be a real prostitute — or not.

There is no more objective truth, only the truth of observation. There is no longer the outside (the world) and the inside (its imaginary representation) but only the film, which is the synthesis of the world and the imagination of the filmmaker.

Back to road movies. The more the line between fact and fiction is obscured, the more interesting the result is for me. “Iracema,” a Brazilian road movie shot in the ’70s by the directors Jorge Bodanzky and Orlando Senna, is a perfect example of this. An actor playing a truck driver is thrown into a hard new reality: the Trans-Amazon Highway that was being built at the time by the Brazil’s military regime to “colonize” a region originally occupied by forests. A few nonactors play roles in the film; others play themselves. It is virtually impossible to know who is merely representing a reality and who is truly living it. Because of that ambiguity, “Iracema” is one of the most extraordinary cinematic experiences I have been fortunate enough to have.

As Godard once said: All great fiction films drift toward documentaries, as all great documentaries drift toward fiction. If you go deeply in the direction of one extreme, you will sooner or later find the other. The road movie may well be the film genre that lends itself most naturally to this blurring of boundaries.

The Horizon (or, What Comes Next)

I recently interviewed the American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, also for the documentary about Kerouac and “On the Road.” We were driving on the outskirts of San Francisco. At one point, he looked outside the window and said: “You know, in the ’50s, there was still a country to be mapped. We didn’t know what we would find at the end of the road. Today, everything has changed. With TV, there’s no more ‘away.’ ”

The recent work that may best address this state of affairs is Jia Zhangke’s 2004 fiction film, The World. In a global theme park located outside a large Chinese city, visitors can spend the morning visiting simulacra of the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian pyramids or Big Ben. In the afternoon, the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the twin towers. The theme-park workers evolve in this strange reality where time and space have collapsed — and they don’t survive it.

In a world in which there’s no more “away” and in which distance has disappeared, do road movies still have a reason to exist?

Sometimes, when I’m in an especially melancholic mood, I think that the answer is no. But every time I turn the TV on and see a reality show, I change my mind. Reality shows offer the audience the illusion that they can live through certain experiences, but only vicariously. What is sold is the impression that all has been lived and that nothing is left to be experienced anew.

Road movies directly challenge this culture of conformity. They are about experiencing, above all. They are about the journey. They are about what can be learned from the other, from those who are different. In a world that increasingly challenges these ideals, the importance of road movies as a form of resistance can’t be dismissed.

Last but not least: the era of the globalized economy has created a different form of movement, dictated by a new kind of migration: an economic one. In different parts of the world, people now increasingly travel because they need to and not because they want to. A road movie like Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (photo), about Afghan refugees making their way to Britain, captures this urgent social-political reality better than many other film genres. It’s more proof that road movies are as necessary as ever to tell us who we are, where we come from and where we’re heading.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Beautiful Confusion in Fellini's 8 1/2
8 1/2 was a liberating film for cinema as a whole. In the first sequence, the camera itself is a major character in the film, as is the fact that it was recorded without sound--and the audio segments were actually spliced in later. It is spiced with tones of anxiety and unreality in the shots, from the bus loaded of arms without faces, to the ugliness of nearly every character in the cars.

Much of the film is centered on Guido's dreams, and his complex reality of truth, lies, and fantasy. Guido--incredible portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s alter-ego--is clearly a mirror of Fellini himself, and thus 8 1/2 is a film about making a film, and a film about itself. Guido is essentially this director who has run out of ideas of material. This process of self-questioning is begun by projecting his childhood memories into his current state.

Of course this dual-reality Guido begins living in the dream world of reality and fantasy, as well as the past, the future, and the present all at once. He sees his ordinary, everyday life through his artistic lens. He is incapable to leave this world he has created for himself. He not only had merged his past and present states, but also his professional and personal lives. In Guido's reality, home and work were one in the same. He was literally producing a film about himself (which Fellini was doing as well).

8 1/2 is full of Catholicism imagery and symbolism. From the train station resembling a cathedral to the motif of cleaning something that isn't there, 8 1/2 critiques not only Guido/Fellini's life, but also the current state of Italian-Catholic life. In 8 1/2, all that occurs is possible, but improbable. The elevator resembling a confessional booth, and Guido feeling this oppressing force upon him in the elevator (which in reality would've been claustrophobia) and thus trying to escape is rather comical. Something Fellini always reminded his cast, "8 1/2 is a comedy"--but was it? Or, did he just want his characters to act in a comedic style so express how he was feeling as though he was on the outside of someone else's inside joke?

When he arrives at the hotel, there is a flood of various languages and dialects being spoken, the confusion of Guido's soul is represented in this sequence, as he cannot understand what is going on. This is another allusion to the theme of Guido as a man-child who, while an adult, is mentally very young and naive, and thus not understanding what is being said around him. 

In the sequence with the priests on the beach, trying to catch young Guido who is running away after meeting La Saraghina, Fellini references silent film by speeding up the sequence and providing no dialogue, just rapid music. Guido is finally caught and taken back to his school to be punished for meeting a prostitute and running from the priests--there is a moment where we see that the priest who is disciplining Guido is identical to the dead priests--perhaps this is another critique of the Catholic church being outdated and backward. It is ironic, with Fellini's love of women, to have him cast women to play the priests in the punishment sequence-- this is to show how misguided Catholicism has caused problems in the fact that it both generates fear and guilt--and releases its members from fear, all at once. Guido, after receiving his punishments, finally bows in front of a statue of The Virgin Mary who when the camera cuts to her face, is identical to Catarina Barato (a symbol of the cinema during Guido's childhood). This is representational of the Cinema as Guido's (and Fellini's) Church.

Later in the film, there is a sequence in which Guido goes to a steam bath type spa. The images used in this case display a sort of dissent into hell, which resembles the images Dante used to describe his Inferno. In this pseudo-Hell that is the steam bath, Guido finds the Cardinal and goes to speak with him about his project. It is incredibly interesting that Fellini would place religious leaders in this very carnal and hell-ish atmosphere. Perhaps he was trying to point out how contradictory and imprecise the Catholic Church is/was.

Guido really seems to struggle with the issue of his art and his life becoming one. He can, essentially, be an incredible artist without the ability to love, or accept mediocrity as an artist and be happy, and find that love he is looking for. Guido has come to ignore the fact that there are more important things than work. This reminds him of La Saraghina who was a prostitute who lived on the beach near his hometown. She was basically the thing that corrupted him and gave him this skewed vision of what love/sex/life was/is.


Guido's mistress, Carla, is comparable to La Saraghina. Carla harbors many of the characteristics attributed to La Saraghina and is the temptress in Guido's adult life. When Guido was a little boy, and he and the boys from his school went to visit La Saraghina she took their money, smoothed her dress, exposed herself to them, and then performed a dance. The La Saraghina's movements every time is seen as mirror reflections of Carla's movements. The only real difference between the characters is that Carla is not fat and ugly and disgruntled, like La Saraghina; which is probably just Guido's taste in women's appearance evolving as he ages.

Luisa is Guido's wife. Through the film she becomes more and more of a stranger to him, and an abstract ideal of what marriage should be. Their marriage is obviously questionable because they don't really love each other as a passion couple--they have more of a friendship-type love which is always floating somewhere in the background. Luisa symbolizes home life and the restoration of the world to it's rightful order. Guido struggles with this because he has a dual life, which was a prominent factor in Italy at the time; it was not accepted but it was not discussed either, and it still existed even with the oppressing forces of the Patriarchy.

Fellini believed that there were four kinds of relationships men and women could have: love, sex, friendship, and marriage, all of which were exclusive of each other. This sentiment is relatively prevalent in the film and truly explains Guido and Luisa's tortured yet tender relationship with each other. Which would be another place to ask, "Is this film an autobiography?"

The title of the film is 8 1/2, which has led several film critics to ask, "8 1/2 what?". There are 8 1/2 questions left unanswered. Guido's father leaves Guido's questions without answers. The Cardinal leaves Guido with out answers. Guido leaves Carla, Luisa, his producers, his assistants, and Madeleine Lebeau--the actress of his film--, all without answers to their questions. Luisa leaves Guido's questions unanswered as well. Some of these questions are claimed to have no answers, because they were answered with lies. There are several Pinocchio references in 8 1/2, such as Guido scratching or tapping his nose. These lies, half truths, and lack of answers further claim that Guido's life, his fantasies, and his film have all merged into a sequence of dreams, which he cannot escape--he has no existence outside of it.

Of course, Guido's complete involvement in the process of his film leads him to a level of vulnerability--and Fellini as well. Fellini provides a pre-release critique of 8 1/2 to dispel commentary. The critic in the film claims that it is too illogical. Guido defends his work by explaining a mirror construction aspect and how the audience would in essence be watching a film about itself. Of course this leads to a struggle between Guido and The Cardinal who tells Guido that there is no safety outside the church. Guido then derives that the Cardinal is not ready for this film. How foreseeing of Fellini to see how the Catholic Church would react to 8 1/2.

By the end of the film, Guido has been abandoned by his wife, his producer, his friends, and even his mistress. He plans to commit suicide, and does. Guido's confusion of reality and fantasy are no longer beautiful and he (and Fellini) felt that it would be better to throw away everything than to be imperfect. But then a magician appears and offers an alternative to Guido--start again! In this moment the full cast appears dressed in all white. Suicide is not death in this case, it leads to a new beginning and a complete understanding. Fellini discovered (and thus has Guido discovered) that absolute perfection is found within imperfection and resolution with those imperfections. Guido realizes that he is who he is, and that he is comfortable with that. There is a very circus-y feel to the end of the film between the dancing, the magician, and the full cast appearing out of nowhere which is symbolic of the realization that “everything is ok.” It is especially moving how Guido actually leads the procession, which seems to be in celebration of his life and the people in it, instead of joining in line with everyone else.
8 1/2 is a return to the earth. The Catholic Church leads (and still does) people to this state of escape, and hence individual's problems are never addressed. Problems do not disappear and the world is not perfect, but Guido's character accepts that and moves on. The real point of the movie is that life is constantly moving and every changing. If a solution is not available or apparent, there can be a kind of solace found in the possibility of eventual existence and/or creation of one. After the circus and dancing, the screen fades to black. This is not an ominous black, but a possibility that a film will one day light up the screen again. It serves as the end of this piece, and the beginning of another.
Source: R.E.D. Italian Cinema Tutorial

Watch below a short documentary made during the shooting of Eight and a Half by Italy’s public channel Rai3, entitled “8 Minutes on the Set of Fellini’s 8 1/2“:

Here are some highlights, for those of you who don’t speak Italian:

Claudia Cardinale (“Claudia” in the film)
Claudia: “I’m something strange in the film. I’m half vision, half reality”
Journalist: “You’re the ‘friend’ of the director?”
Claudia: “Yes”
Journalist: “And the enemy of the director’s wife?”
Claudia: “No” (laughs nervously)
And then the journalist asks her if the film mirrors real life, and she nervously laughs and denies it.
Anouk Aimee (Lisa Anselmi, the director’s wife, in the film)
J: “What’s the best compliment that Fellini ever gave you?”
AA: “He cast me in this film.”
Sandra Milo (“Carla” in the film, the director’s mistress)
SM says she was a bit upset that for the film Fellini made her completely shave her eyebrows for the role of Carla. She says her face feels “flat” with the new look. Fellini had also asked the makeup department to give her dark moles.
Barbara Steel (Gloria Morin, the young girlfriend of Guido’s friend Mezzabotta)
Upon meeting Fellini, she says, she immediately felt something familiar, as if she had always known him.
Federico Fellini
“This is a peculiar film, even I, I haven’t really understood it. The film has come to an end almost suddenly. It wasn’t difficult to make, not at all. It simply happened, almost unbeknown to me. And today it’s over.” Fellini then adds that he doesn’t want to talk about the “intentions” of the film – he finds it dangerous and insincere. He recalls the recent experience of promoting La Dolce Vita: he says he spoke too much about it before the film came out and people went to watch it with an already pre-established idea of what it would be like. Fellini asks the journalist if he thinks the mystery surrounding 8 1/2 is a publicity stunt. “Do you think it’s a publicity stunt? If you want I’ll tell you just that. Are you happy now?”

Dialogue translation: