Friday, February 05, 2016

BAMPFA: CINEMA MON AMOUR—The Seventh Seal (1957)

In her introductory remarks for the opening night program of Pacific Film Archive's inaugural season at the new Barbro Osher Theatre, Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby expressed her excitement and pleasure in sharing the new facility with the public. "I look forward to all of the memories that we're beginning in this cinema starting tonight," she beamed.

Oxtoby explained that she and fellow curator Kathy Geritz wanted the first season in the new venue—which extends through April—to be reflective of all the strengths of what the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) has been doing over the years from day one at the original venue. "Our programming," she relayed, "is informed by the extraordinary connections that we have to the UC Berkeley campus community, be it faculty members or the many students that we've worked with over the years. It brings a great richness to our work. Our work here in the film department is also very much informed by all of our deep connections to the international community of film archives. Many of the programs that we bring and put on screen come in from archives overseas and we're very fortunate to be able to showcase such a broad representation of the history of cinema and contemporary film."

Oxtoby and Geritz wanted a year-long film series that would celebrate cinephilia and created the series "Cinema Mon Amour (For the Love of Film)", which in its first week kicks off with Barbro Osher's selection of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), but which also honors the past directors of PFA—Sheldon Renan, Tom Luddy, Lynda Myles, and Edith Kramer—by inviting each to host a program. "In this way," Oxtoby offered, "we'll actually be able to understand more about our history as an institution."

Looking ahead, "Cinema Mon Amour", which is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, will soon be bringing in Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, thereby setting a template for the series that will celebrate local celebrities and international filmmakers who will select works and talk about why these films are important to them.

With regard to Barbro Osher's selection of The Seventh Seal, Oxtoby offered that we would be seeing a freshly-struck print out of Stockholm with new subtitles out of Los Angeles and that this brand-new print—generously underwritten by Jenny and Mark Lundner—would remain in the archive for future screenings for decades to come. The popularity of The Seventh Seal has necessitated two added screenings, the first of which has already sold out.

Barbro Osher, Honorary Consul General of Sweden, approached the podium next and playfully posed to her audience, "How many of you have wished to have your own movie theater? And I'm not talking a small home entertainment center but a real movie theater on the site of a world-famous university? This is a dream come true."

Calling out to Edith Kramer in the audience, Osher shared the honor with her, saying that Kramer helped Osher's career gain sure footing at this "august university" and, of course, PFA. She recalled how they would sneak out for cigarettes inbetween films. They can't do that anymore and she misses those cigarette breaks and her conversations with Kramer that taught her so much about film and film archives. Kramer's burning interest and dedication brought Osher into PFA in a totally new and much deeper way.

"So why did I pick Ingmar Bergman?" Osher elucidated. "Well, you understand that this was a must. He is the biggest filmmaker in Sweden. I have other love stories with Jan Troell, Roy Andersson and others; but, Ingmar Bergman is absolutely the master, and The Seventh Seal is the mark of his mastership. It cost next-to-nothing to make. The nature presented is from the southern tip of Sweden and is very dramatic and well-suited for the silvery filmmaking that you will see. It's also a story of life and death and everything inbetween, including family love."

Linda Haverty Rugg approached the podium next. A professor in the Department of Scandanavian at UC Berkeley, Rugg has written extensively on Ingmar Bergman and offered insight on The Seventh Seal. "I've thought about this film a lot," she began, "I've even written about it. I taught it many times at Berkeley and usually I have three hours to cover the film, but tonight I have about 10-12 minutes. So I'd better get cracking.

"When Bergman turned his attention to what was going to become The Seventh Seal, he was actually best known internationally for comedy. He had won a prize for a romantic comedy at Cannes in 1956 for Smiles Of A Summer Night. In Sweden, by contrast, one of Stockholm's most prominent cultural critics had blasted Smiles Of A Summer Night, saying that he was 'ashamed' to have seen it. As was often the case for Bergman's career, it was foreign acclaim that spurred him on to daring experimentation. Appreciative audiences in art theaters—very much like this one—in France, the United States and around the world helped him find the support that he needed to make films like The Silence (1963), Persona (1966) and the one we're going to see tonight—The Seventh Seal.

"The first time Bergman submitted a manuscript for The Seventh Seal—which he originally entitled The Knight and Death—the producers at Svensk Filmindustri turned it down. But then when he won at Cannes, Bergman tells this story, quoted from his autobiography Images: My Life In Film:

" 'I flew down to meet the head of Svensk Filmindustri, Carl Anders Dymling. We sat in a hotel room in Cannes, completely overcome and confused, selling copies of Smiles Of A Summer Night at bargain basement prices to all kinds of horse traders. I set the refused manuscript for The Seventh Seal down in front of him and said, "It's now or never, Carl Anders!" So he said, "Well, I have to read it first." And I said, "You must have already read it since you turned it down." "Maybe I didn't read it that carefully."

"When Dymling gave the green light for production, he offered—as Barbro mentioned—an extremely limited budget and allowed 36 days for the shooting. The filming began on July 2, 1956. Most of the film was actually made in studios outside of Stockholm, but—as Barbro mentioned—some of the outdoor scenes, especially the amazing opening scene, were shot on the southwestern coast of Sweden at a place called Hovs hallar. There were little over 20 people involved as the core cast and crew. Many of them were already Bergman regulars from his work in theater and earlier films.

"One of the innovative things about The Seventh Seal that often goes unremarked is that this is the point where Bergman begins to deploy his core of actors in a fascinating way. He's already started to cast the same group of people in his films. You'll recognize Gunnar Björnstrand, who plays Jöns the squire in this film and Anders Ek, who plays an unforgettable monk for a few minutes. They had all appeared in other Bergman films at this point. But what happens in The Seventh Seal is the crystallization of roles so that, for example, the Knight who's played by Max von Sydow—who has not appeared in a Bergman film before this, though he was one of Bergman's stage actors—takes on a particular function: he's the striving, disappointed idealist. Gunnar Björnstrand, the squire, he stands as von Sydow's opposite: the pragmatic, worldly skeptic. This pairing of the two actors and their functions is repeated in The Magician (1958) where von Sydow is the magician who wants to make real magic and Björnstrand is the skeptical scientist. It happens again in Winter Light (1963) where von Sydow is the despairing congregant who wants to believe and Björnstrand is his pastor, who doesn't believe and who cynically observes that one might as well kill himself—life is meaningless—which von Sydow then does.

"If you're a Bergman fan, or you become one, you will see this repetition that Bibi Andersson appears again and again as the optimistic, naïve young woman who—over many films—eventually becomes bitterly disappointed and disillusioned. By the time we get to Scenes From A Marriage (1973), she's a very angry form of an ideal optimistic person. Ingrid Thulin is a masculinized woman who grows evermore frighteningly masculine. Allan Edwall—who you may not know, he plays the father in Fanny and Alexander (1982)—is the mournful philosopher. Those are just a few of the things that repeat. The actors perform—in a sense—as chess pieces on Bergman's board. Their moves change in relationship to the other figures and according to the grand strategy of the game of the narrative; but, their basic characters and powers remain the same.

"Speaking of chess, Bergman's vision for The Seventh Seal began with an image of a knight playing chess with Death. Bergman's father—as many of you may know—was a pastor and, as a child, Bergman sat through many church services; his father in the pulpit above the congregation. He says about his experiences at church: 'Like all churchgoers in all times, I became distracted by the altar paintings, altar pieces, crucifixes, stained glass windows and murals. There was Jesus, bloody and tortured. Mary leaning against John. "Behold your mother. Behold your son." Mary Magdalena, the sinner. The knight playing chess with Death. Death cutting down the Tree of Life with his saw that terrified poor sinners sitting at the top.'

"Bergman visits this Tree of Life image, as you'll see, and he has his characters enter a church and confront the mural of the Dance of Death. He shows us the Crucifix where the bloodied and tortured Jesus hangs. But most memorable is the re-creation of the chess game with Death, which forms the central action of the film and is one of the most parodied and quoted motifs in film history. You may know it from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). In subsequent films characters play badminton with Death, they play Battleship, they play Twister with Death; but, Bergman is already aware himself of the absurdity of this game with Death and he's also aware of the absurdity of human beings struggling to cheat Death. He even makes a little fun of himself when he introduces the two antagonists Life and Death, as you will see.

"Bringing Death to life was a bold move. The Seventh Seal is a film set in a historical moment and the way Bergman relays this on an extremely limited budget is to focus on the imagery and the ideas of the time. You may notice that some of the costumes have zippers in back. There was only a limited attempt to be faithful to some idea of material authenticity. By bringing the church paintings to life, and the chess game, and the Tree of Life, and Jof's vision of the Virgin Mary, and the stunning re-creation of the Dance of Death at film's close, he emphasizes how the people in the film understand death, life and God through the vehicle of artistic representation. Their fears and hopes are materialized in paintings and sculpture and the stories and songs of their culture. The film's audience is invited to enter this world through our own art form: cinema. Bergman created a film that performs as a medieval theological debate poem; an important genre during the period he represents. 'The Owl and the Nightingale' is one example from English literature. The 'Parlement of Foules' by Chaucer is another.

Here in The Seventh Seal the debate unfolds between the knight and his squire about the existence of God and the possibility of salvation. You can decide yourself if and how this debate is resolved. But why a medieval film in a modern age, especially if you're putting zippers on the costumes? Historical films are usually created with the issues of the author's time in mind. In 1956, when Bergman filmed The Seventh Seal, the war in Europe had recently ended. Millions of people had died or been displaced far from home. The Cold War had erupted and fears of nuclear apocalypse determined global policies and haunted the war's survivors. The story of a disappointed knight returned from an unsuccessful crusade only to find the countryside at home ravaged by plague: this was not a distant narrative after all. Today, with the dread of global warming and religious wars, the debate about life's meaning continues.

The first time I saw this film, it was shown by a campus film society on a bed sheet hung on a wall in a cafeteria. We sat on uncomfortable folding chairs and listened to the rattle of the rickety 16mm projector. We struggled to read the white subtitles against white backgrounds. The focus was muddy and the print was worn with scratches. And still it was one of the most powerful films I had seen. Tonight you will see with beautiful clarity Gunnar Fischer's photography; the amazing light that makes the night luminous and breaks through in shafts through the dark forest. I hope you will also find it a powerful film, so relevant and absorbing today.

 

Thursday, February 04, 2016

BAMPFA: MEDIA WALKTHROUGH—Introductory Remarks by Lawrence Rinder and Charles Renfro

Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro and EHDD.
On Thursday, January 28, 2016, I attended a media walkthrough of the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) at its new location at 2155 Center Street, between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue, in downtown Berkeley. Participants gathered in the museum's new multipurpose performance space for introductory remarks from BAMPFA Director Lawrence ("Larry") Rinder and architect Charles Renfro. After acknowledging the generous and strategic sponsors who made possible the opening week celebration of the new facility, Rinder expressed that—crucial to their celebration—was surpassing the $105,000,000 capital campaign goal that supported construction of the new building. The opening night gala itself raised over $1,000,000 to support BAMPFA's engagement programs for youth.

"The selection criteria for this particular project," Rinder detailed, "commenced in 2009. We were looking for a firm that had prior experience designing an art museum. We felt that was important—that they had gotten the kinks out—and were ready to do a second or third museum. We also wanted a firm that had prior experience designing a theater. As I'm sure you're aware, we are perhaps unique in the museum community for being half art and half film. That's the case for both our collection, which is half art half film; our curatorial staff, which is equally comprised of film and art curators; and, historically, our audience has been half people coming for the gallery programs and half for the films. So it was very important for us that the new building reflect that unique duality and we wanted, therefore, a firm that had prior experience with that kind of design and construction.

"We knew from the beginning that we wanted to take the existing UC Press Building, the 1939 printing plant, and repurpose it. Another criteria was a firm that had prior experience repurposing historical buildings. Diller Scofidio + Renfro certainly had that in spades with their incredible work at the The High Line and the Lincoln Center. At the time we were in the selection process, they were wrapping up their fantastic work on the Lincoln Center redesign, which proved their core passion for connecting cultural institutions with their surrounding civic environment. We wanted some of that magic to happen for us. We also wanted a firm that had designed an iconic freestanding building. Of course, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston was the model. We visited it, explored it, and felt that the attention to both civic engagement and the clear, serene design of the galleries was, again, something we felt was appropriate for our programs.

"Unsurprisingly, especially in that particular year, it was important to have a firm that had a proven history of budget restraint. We talked assiduously to their previous clients and established that, indeed, they had come in at or near budget. Finally, we wanted a firm that displayed ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity. I don't think that there's a more ingenious, resourceful and creative firm out there today.

"For this particular building, we asked them to deliver us a building that was accessible and welcoming. The site itself almost guarantees accessibility, but it could have turned out unwelcoming. It did not. This is an incredibly transparent and engaging building, which—as you can see—opens to the street on every side. There's a lot of glass to see in and the programs project onto the street. You can see the art walking by on Center Street. You can see film from Addison and Oxford. This was important for us. We wanted to project our particular identity as a museum of art and film, both on the inside and the outside. Again, as you walk around the perimeter, if you look in you can see the art and see the LED screen on Addison Street. Even the theater itself expresses a sculptural shape. Once you get inside, this dual identity of art and film is expressed in multiple ways. Wonderfully, the film program has been spread throughout the building with multiple theaters and multiple sites for projection that punctuate the gallery.

"We wanted respectful and versatile spaces for art and film. We wanted, on one hand, to have a building that was lively, exciting and imaginative; but, we also firmly believed that it is the artists and filmmakers who should have the last word on what their works look like when presented. It was important that a certain kind of neutrality be present in the presentation phases. We wanted many areas for community engagement. It goes without saying that a museum these days that asks people to come in and look alone is not as exciting as it could be, so we created a number of opportunities, everything from what you're sitting on now in this space for collective relaxation and gathering—also seating for a performance space—to our art lab, which is a drop-in hallway as artmaking space, to our reading room. We've created multiple locations throughout the building where people can gather together and engage with art and ideas in fun and productive ways.

"I want to mention also that what you're sitting on, this fantastic seating sculpture that we call 'Frameform' was designed by Paul Discoe and his team. Paul is a treasure for the Bay Area; a Japanese joinery designer and architect. The majority of the materials for the seating are from the Canary Island pine trees that were growing on the site of the new Barbro Osher Theater. We had to cut them down; but, we were able to repurpose that wood. Paul and his team did an amazing job. The craftsmanship is at a remarkable level.

"We also wanted a flow throughout the building that fostered a wandering experience, and not a precisely linear flow to the building, because we really wanted the building to evoke a sense of surprise that we all cherish in art itself.

"Another wonderful feature of the building—and we're all experiencing that, I think it's safe to say, visually, physically and gastronomically is Café Babette, which is providing our treats. I encourage you to go upstairs to see the café in its notch. It's the same café that we had in the other building. They've been with us for years, we really love them, and we're delighted that Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker have come to the new building with us.

" 'Architecture of Life' is the opening exhibition. It's a show that's meant to celebrate the occasion of new architecture by exploring the ideas, practices and metaphors of architecture as a lens through which to understand the various nuances of life experience. It's a show that brings together art, architecture and scientific illustration from the past 2000 years all over the world. The show is composed of works from our collection—about roughly 15% are from our collection—plus works of art from the Hearst Museum of Anthropology on campus, as well as from private individuals and museums around the world. It's an enormous show. It takes up all the galleries in the museum. There are over 250 works in all different media. I've tried to create didactic labels for nearly every work so there are explanations and evocative words attached to the pieces themselves so you'll know what you're looking at. We're grateful to all the lenders and to the artists.

"I want to introduce one of the artists who's here today, Qiu Zhijie, who is responsible for 'The World Garden', which is both part of the exhibition 'Architecture of Life' and also the inaugural piece in an ongoing series of projects called 'Art Wall', where every six months we'll have a new artist come in and create a new work on this wall. Qiu Zhijie came from China and made this piece on a scaffold in five days. We're all amazed by this. It's an imaginary map of the world as a Chinese literati garden."

Rinder wrapped up his introductory remarks by introducing Charles Renfro of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro and EHDD.
"Our ambitions," Renfro began, "both for our firm and for this institution dovetailed closely with Larry and his organization's. We could finish each other's sentences and finish each other's drawings, etc.

"From the start the project challenged many aspects of conventional thinking about museum making, starting with the BAMPFA organization itself, which is a museum whose collections and exhibitions span centuries, medias and scales. These programs appeal to the university community and the general public. They welcome visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Basically, this museum is a 21st Century museum. It's the epitome of a new kind of museum, which are the antithesis of efficiency. They're places to get lost, in space and in thought. They must be flexible and work at every scale, every sound level, every microphone level. You'll see, as you walk through today, the variety of spaces that we've created. You'll notice a variety of natural and artificial lighting levels that we've achieved. They have to be equally adept at accommodating film, video and installation, as well as painting, photography and sculpture. These 21st Century museums must be small, medium, large, black, white, grey, quiet and loud in equal measure. In addition, this museum must be academic, educational, protected, welcoming, entertaining, social; it has to do everything for everyone. It's not a one-size-fits-all design solution but a multi-faceted approach to making a piece of architecture. But, that piece of architecture still needs to inspire, to be bold, and to have something new to offer, and to be of civic pride to the neighborhood and a new icon to the museum.

"This new home is positioned at the nexus of city, campus, commercial and cultural districts. Its new position basically parallels BAMPFA's mission as an active participant in civic life, advancing the highest standards of academic discourse while sharing its knowledge with a broad cross-section of society. As the opening exhibition, 'Architecture of Life' tries to connect the dots between media, ideas and people, which is one of the things we were interested in doing with this building: connecting the dots.

"The new position takes as a starting point the historic infrastructure of the Berkeley printing press, where the United Nations Charter was printed in 1945. As a machine age shed with open floors, long expanse steel structure, high ceilings and natural lighting, the press building was the perfect space for art: flexible, accommodating and full of character and life. We're thrilled to have it anchor the new museum. However, it wasn't large or varied enough to accommodate the entire program needed by BAMPFA. The building needed dark and intimate spaces to show its small scale and historic collection. It needed a state-of-the-art theater. It needed to provide space for events and informal gatherings, such as this one right now.

"We were also very keen to draw up some of the character of the old building, the informality of the atrium space, into the new building. We addressed the issue of the existing building by first preserving the press building with all its attributes, including its high ceilings. We excavated under the press building to double the floor area of the museum and to accommodate smaller, lower and more carefully controlled exhibition spaces. Lastly, we added a few elements to accommodate the film theater and support program. The space we're sitting in and the adjacent space is all 'found' space, which was an interesting process by which we secured the existing structure around and undercut the earth from underneath the building. That speaks to how much we treasured the building that we're sitting in right now.

"The design keeps and magnifies the building's street wall. Newly-expanded windows along Center Street and strategically-designed glazing around the rest of the museum offer visual and physical access to the galleries and public spaces within. These collections and events are shared with passers-by and museum-goers alike. It's a building that merges itself with the life of the city and—in contrast to its predecessor—the new building encourages the penetrations of strangers.

"The new theater and café stretches from Addison Street to Center Street. Its outstretched arm containing PFA form the new canopy to the new entrance. It slices through the press building roof creating voyeuristic vertical views that unite medias, styles and people into a three-dimensional matrix. Its sculptural form is a direct reflection of the spaces housed within. The dramatic undercut mirrored the slope of the theater seating. It's projection screen is at an enlarged end and its immersive light-sensitive environment forbids windows, although the high-resolution LED display laminated to the rear indoor screen provides a 'window' into the film program for the general public. We were trying to think of how to share all of the work that happens in this building with the public outside. That LED display was how we imagined the film program could bring its work to the public.

"As different as they seem, the old building and the new building are merged into one. The new building provides lateral support for the existing building, subtly referencing its qualities—streamlined, industrial—a shimmering update to the material humbleness of the press building. Our design seeks to make a both/and solution: iconic and humble, exuberant and accessible, known and unknown. It seeks to embody all the requirements of a 21st Century museum."

BAMPFA—An Evening Class Question For Lawrence Rinder

Photo: Peg Skorpinski.
Lawrence ("Larry") Rinder became Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) in 2008 after serving as the Dean of the College at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Rinder has also served as the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Prior to the Whitney, Rinder was founding director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, in San Francisco.

After his opening remarks at the media walkthrough of the new BAMPFA facility, we chatted a bit and I took the opportunity to ask:

Michael Guillén: Can you speak a bit about the contradistinction between film programming and film curation? And what might PFA's curatorial signature be?

Larry Rinder: It's so deeply a part of our culture that film and art are integrated. Until you brought this up, it hadn't occurred to me that there would be a separate mindset for film curating and art curating. At this institution, our film curators and our art curators approach the works in their respective media with similar dispositions of seeking out the best possible works and then presenting them in the best possible way. In the case of film, that means that the same people who are attending to content—what is in the film—are also alert to the quality of the print, the quality of the room that the works are experienced in, and that's something distinctive about our institution and something that should be essential to every curator's way of thinking; but, it isn't necessarily. That's one of PFA's signatures.

Friday, January 22, 2016

SYNCHRONICITY (2015)—ROLL-OUT

Jacob Gentry's Synchronicity (2015) had its world premiere at last summer's Fantasia International Film Festival where my review for The Evening Class stated: "With its stylish evocation of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), homage becomes—for genre fans, at least—a form of time travel. However, Synchronicity is less a replicant than its own atmospheric application of noir aesthetics to a sci-fi narrative about time looping through parallel universes. Although we've seen this premise before with such films as Timecrimes (2007), Looper (2012) and Time Lapse (2014)—and the requisite effort to bring compromised timelines back into alignment—Synchronicity admirably maximizes the bang for its buck and delivers an elegantly-mounted puzzler with swank art direction by Jenn Moye that looks like it was created with a considerably heftier budget, bolstered by Ben Lovett's melancholic score that recalls Vangelis without losing its own significant character."

My conversation with Gentry and his lead actor Chad McKnight followed shortly thereafter. Synchronicity is now poised to rollout on multiple platforms. Theatrically, it opens today at the Sundance Sunset Cinema in West Hollywood, California; the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia; the Lake Worth Playhouse in Lake Worth, Florida; the Jean Cocteau Theatre in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and the Gateway Film Center 8 in Columbus, Ohio. This compelling mindbender is also available on demand at numerous streaming sites, including Amazon, iTunes, VUDU and YouTube, among others.

 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

BERLIN & BEYOND (2016)—B&B IN B&W

More by chance, I presume, than design, several entries in the 20th edition of San Francisco's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival (January 14-20, 2016) were shot in B&W and projected large on the Castro Theater's historic screen. Brendan Uffelmann's impressive cinematography, in fact, along with Paul Wollin's physically commanding breakout performance, recommended the U.S. premiere of Martin Hawie's Toro (2015).

German Film Quarterly's nutshell synopsis: "Toro, whose real name is Piotr, came to Germany 10 years ago, where he works as an escort, hoping to save money to return to Poland with his best friend Victor. But Victor has sold his dreams for drugs. When three small-time criminals are out to get him, Toro's and Victor's hostile environment loses its balance and their longstanding friendship is put to the test."

"Friendship" as the working euphemism in this instance does little to guise the film's reveal that Toro is gay. Within the first few scenes of the film Wollin drops his pants to flash his glutes. If your gaydar doesn't kick into high gear, then you need a check-up. What troubles this script is a lack of back story that would make Toro's devotion to his drug-addled boyfriend Victor (Miguel Dagger) believable. Without knowing who Victor might have meant to him in earlier years, and what the nature of their relationship is really about, Toro comes off as stupidly throwing pearls before swine. Other characters are introduced incidentally as well, making for uneven storytelling. This film aspires to a certain height but is held back by a queer grip that settles for softcore porn before character development. Skin takes over the script. What did I really learn about Toro from his prolonged practice "moves" on his mattress?

You tell me.

With equally assured purpose, the North American Premiere of Burhan Qurbani's We Are Young. We Are Strong (Wir Sind Jung. Wir Sind Stark, 2014) deploys Yoshi Heimrath's B&W cinematography in its first half, then self-consciously shifts to color midway through the film with no apparent reason other than, perhaps, fire looks better in color? Or to demarcate the moment when Germany's 1992 Rostock riots threatened a community of immigrant Vietnamese? That stylism might draw unnecessary attention to itself, but credit is due Qurbani for creating a sense of the rising anger of disaffected German youth shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jonas Nay's performance as Stefan reveals an unsettled mind easily persuaded towards xenophobic neo-Nazism.

The recipient of B&B's Spotlight Award, Tom Schilling, attended the festival to introduce the revival screening of Germany's festival and box office hit Jan Ole Gerster's A Coffee in Berlin (Oh Boy, 2012), handsomely shot in B&W by Philipp Kirsamer. Schilling garnered considerable acclaim—including a German Film Award for Best Actor—for his feckless performance as Niko Fischer. At Variety, Peter Debruge wrote: "Gerster's decision to film in black-and-white lends a melancholy romance to Niko's various encounters, infusing even a scene where he's seen flushing leftover meatballs down the toilet with a measure of introspection."

Also screening at B&B, though not in B&W, was Schilling's follow-up performance in Baran bo Odar's own follow-up four years after The Silence (2010)—his thoughtful yet disturbing study of the relationship between two child molesters. Odar returned with an altogether different vehicle Who Am I: No System Is Safe (Who Am I: Kein System ist sicher, 2014), a slick surface glamorization of cyberhackers revved up with hypermasculine highjinks. Schilling plays Benjamin, a young German computer whiz who applies his skills to help a subversive hacker group be noticed on the world's stage.

Perhaps most intriguing about Who Am I is its staged enactment of online interactions in darknet. Avatars suspensefully encounter each other in the personified space of a crowded subway train. It's an attractive visual calesthenic that underscores Who Am I's kinetic style. Hoodies and Anonymous masks become the new black.

For Mara Eibl-Eibesfeldt's The Spiderwebhouse (Im Spinnenwebhaus, 2015), boasting its U.S. premiere at B&B, the B&W camerawork of Jürgen Jürges provided a framing intimacy to this children-in-peril narrative. While Mother battles her demons up at the Sunvalley Psychiatric Clinic, her children are left unsupervised and—as everyone knows—childhood cannot wait for the parent to grow up. The eldest boy Jonas (Ben Litwinschuh) becomes what Mark Cousins terms "the child-parent" raising his younger siblings and standing in for a mother who's gone missing and a father who has abandoned them.

B&B's closing night film—the U.S. debut of the restored version of Walther Ruttmann's Berlin, Symphony Of A Great City (Berlin, Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt, 1927)—featured an array of B&W cinematographers—Robert Baberske, Reimar Kuntze, László Schäffer, and Karl Freund—visually weaving a vibrant urban tapestry, accompanied by the rock rhythms of ALP (Aggressive Loop Productions and/or Analog Love Providers), a trio of musicians who unfortunately defused their energized performance in a deflated, and unnecessary, Q&A.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

BOOK EXCERPT—GIRLS WILL BE BOYS: Crossed-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934

Cover image is Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid
Laura Horak is an assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada; cross-appointed to the Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s and Gender. Horak investigates gender and sexuality in film history, with an emphasis on silent cinema and transgender, lesbian, and gay cinema cultures in the United States and Sweden. She teaches courses on film theory and historiography, passing and masquerade in cinema, sexuality in American cinema, women directors, queer Hollywood, and the body and visual technology.

Her anthology, Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space (Indiana University Press, 2014), co-edited with Jennifer Bean and Anupama Kapse, won the Society of Cinema and Media Studies’ Award for Best Edited Collection of 2014.

Her new book, Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934, will be published by Rutgers University Press in February 2016. As noted by Publishers Weekly: "Horak (co-editor, Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space) has produced a meticulously researched, astutely argued, and highly readable text on cross-dressing and lesbianism in early American cinema. The book first examines female cross-dressing in American films between 1908 and 1921. Horak describes how women playing male roles, often young boy characters such as Peter Pan and Little Lord Fauntleroy, were initially labeled 'innocent' and 'pure.' She argues that the trend of young women cross-dressing as cowboys in 'Frontier Films' and as boys in chase films portrayed an active frontier girlhood as a 'revitalizing' but necessarily transitory phase in women’s lives. On the other hand, in stories set during the Gold Rush, cross-dressed women 'legitimized men's same-sex desire in these sex-imbalanced places.' The book's second part explores depictions of lesbianism in mainstream American culture and cinema between 1921 and 1934, as well as female stars such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich who wore masculine clothing. Horak concludes with the more censorious climate of the 1930s, clearly illustrating how a once-accepted practice came to signify taboo sexuality. Her use of archival materials is impeccable and her filmic and historical analyses clearly display a nuanced understanding of her topic."

More of a teaser than an excerpt (I was only allowed 450 words), I am nonetheless indebted to Rutgers University Press for permission to publish the following paragraphs from Horak's introduction to her upcoming publication. The entirety of the introduction to her volume can be accessed through a Google Books search, whereas her original research—satisfying her UC Berkeley dissertation—can likewise be secured online. While at Berkeley, she programmed an eponymous film series at the Pacific Film Archive. She has likewise published various articles pertaining to her ongoing research at various venues, including "Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 52.4" for the Society for Cinema & Media Studies (focusing on "The Female Boy on the Frontier: The Strange Case of Billy and His Pal (1911)"; "Edna 'Billy' Foster, the Biograph Boy" in Not So Silent: Women in Cinema Before Sound (eds. Sofia Bull and Astrid Söderbergh Widding); "Landscape, Vitality, and Desire: Cross-Dressed Frontier Girls in Transitional-Era American Cinema", for Cinema Journal (Volume 52, Number 4, Summer 2013); and " 'Would you like to sin with Elinor Glyn?' Film as a Vehicle of Sensual Education" for Camera Obscura (Volume 25, Number 2 74: 75-117, 2010). She also contributed to R.A. McBride and Julie Lindow's Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Palaces. Jan-Christopher Horak profiled Horak for his "Feminist Study of Early Cinema."

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In the first part of this book I will show that the American moving picture industry used cross-dressed women in the 1910s to help the medium become respectable and appeal to audiences of all classes. Cross-dressed actresses embodied turn-of-the-century American ideals of both boyhood and girlhood. The second part of the book traces the emergence of lesbian representability in American popular culture between the 1890s and 1930s. Only in the late 1920s, in the wake of the multi-year censorship battles over the play The Captive, did codes for recognizing lesbians begin to circulate among the general public—codes that included, but were not limited to, male clothing. This development tarnished cross-dressed women's wholesomeness and inspired the first efforts to regulate cinema's cross-dressed women. It also established the transgressive meanings with which we are familiar today. This book ends where other accounts of cross-dressed women and lesbians in American cinema begin—with Dietrich, Garbo, and Hepburn.

Previous scholars have read representations of cross-dressed women as mirrors of their own concerns and identities. That is, feminist scholars have read cross-dressed women as feminists; lesbian scholars have read them as lesbians; and queer and postmodern scholars have read them as queer and postmodern. Transgender scholars have considered cross-dressed individuals as examples of historical gender variance, though they usually stop short of claiming them as trans. Indeed, the open meanings of cross-dressed women are a key part of their appeal . But scholars' interpretive zeal has obscured the ways that representations of cross-dressed women were understood at the time they were made and circulated. Reading cross-dressed women as embodiments of contemporary concerns flattens and sometimes misrepresents the cultural work that they were doing in their own times. While my interest in historical representations of cross-dressed women is inspired by my present-day experiences of gender and sexuality, in this project I have tried to stay open to what they meant in their own contexts. One of the surprising things I've discovered was that cross-dressed women were not inherently subversive were sometimes mobilized in support of nationalist, white supremacist ideologies. Rather than making abstract identitarian claims for these figures, this book explores the multiple, contradictory meanings attached to them, how these interpretations developed, and why they changed. [Footnotes omitted] ("Introduction", p. 2)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

PSIFF 2016—TALKING PICTURES: OSCARS® BUZZ

Courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter
A signature sidebar of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), "Talking Pictures" presents screenings of some of the year's most acclaimed films, followed by intimate, in-depth conversations with the directors and the stars, moderated by America's foremost film journalists and experts. At last year's edition, PSIFF introduced a special forum into the sidebar focusing on leading contenders in the Oscar® race for Best Foreign Language Film. For their 2016 edition they followed suit, inviting Scott Feinberg, Awards analyst for The Hollywood Reporter, to moderate a panel of the directors of this year's leading candidates for the Foreign Language Oscar® race in an illuminating discussion encompassing their films, what drives them thematically and creatively, and the concurrent blessing and curse that comes with being the subject of "Oscar® buzz."

Courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter
While there is no doubt that the attention that comes with being selected by your country as its official standard bearer in the Foreign Oscar® sweepstakes is a boon to career aspirations, the flip side of that coin may be the expectations that such status raises among critics, members of the film industry and filmgoers lining up to see your film. The early evening discussion was held at the Palm Canyon Theater in Palm Springs. In attendance were the nine filmmakers shortlisted for the Foreign Language nomination; but, this transcript focuses on the five who have advanced as the official nominations in the Oscar® race.

Feinberg welcomed his audience and gave thanks to PSIFF Artistic Director Helen du Toit and her programming team for making the panel possible. He equally thanked the panelists for making films that were such a pleasure to watch this year. He promised that by the time we were through with the panel discussion, we would want to seek these films out, an opportunity unique to PSIFF: nowhere else would all nine films on the Oscar® shortlist be available for viewing.

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Scott Feinberg: On behalf of Colombia's Embrace of the Serpent—a film about the last surviving member of an Amazonian tribe and the people who come to see him in 1909 and 1940—please welcome, Ciro Guerra. On behalf of France's Mustang—a film about five orphaned sisters who come of age in their grandmother's deeply-conservative household in Turkey—please welcome, Deniz Gamze Ergüven. On behalf of Hungary's Son of Saul—a film about a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp who comes across a body that may be his son and risks his own life to give the boy a proper burial—please welcome László Nemes. On behalf of Jordan's Theeb—a film about a Bedouin child forced to grow up very quickly when people he has accompanied on a trip through the desert are ambushed—please welcome Naji Abu Nowar. And last, but not least, on behalf of Denmark's A War—a film about a Danish military commander who makes a fateful decision when his company of troops in Afghanistan are ambushed—please welcome, Tobias Lindholm. Thank you all for being here.

To begin with, I want to talk about what inspired each of you to tell the stories that you've told in these films and what it was like getting it off the ground because I know—from having read up on you guys—that in many, if not all, cases it was a challenge, as I think it probably always is; but, in some very interesting ways in this case.

Ciro, you've lived—as I understand it—in Colombia your whole life but like a lot of Colombians had not really experienced the Amazon. For many years it wasn't a safe place to go; but, that's changed a little bit, I guess, in recent years. Was that what made you decide to go explore it in film?

Ciro Guerra: Yes, the Amazon is half of our country. I had done two previous films, which were very personal and which dealt with issues of family, culture and personal feelings. I wanted to get away from all that and to take a journey into the unknown and to invite the viewer into the unknown.

Feinberg: Deniz, you were born in Turkey. Was the story that you tell in Mustang at all similar to your experience? What made you decide to go back to Turkey in your film to tell this story?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: My life takes me back and forth between France and Turkey, and it's exactly that zooming in and out of Turkey that made me want to tackle the issues in Mustang of something specific in the experience of being a girl, a woman, in Turkey, which is a permanent sexualization of every movement, every action, and every parcel of skin of girls, which starts—as with the characters in the film—at a very early age. Just like the characters in the film, I sat on the shoulders of boys when I was 12 or 13, which I was told was totally disgusting and questionable. It's a precise filter that articulates the place of women in society, so I wanted to discuss this question.

Feinberg: László, this is also your feature directorial debut and I understand that the idea came to you while you were working as an assistant to another very interesting filmmaker: Béla Tarr. What motivated you to revisit the experience of someone in a concentration camp?

László Nemes: I read these texts by the members of the Sonderkommando workers of the crematorium in Auschwitz. These are not very well-known texts. They exposed me to a reality unknown to me: the reality of the extermination. As a reader, you were projected into the middle of it and I wanted to find a cinematic way to express the vision from the inside: how to convey something that has never been conveyed. What has been forgotten in the so-called holocaust film genre is the individual, the person, and I wanted to concentrate on the individual.

Feinberg: Naji, can you talk about the present-day applicability of the story that you tell about, basically, an outsider, a Westerner, coming into a community in that part of the world and throwing things, essentially, into disarray? Was there a larger point that you were going for? A metaphor for the present day?

Naji Abu Nowar: The Arab Spring hadn't happened yet, but I think it was in the zeitgeist of the time, certainly not just on a great level, but in terms of the fact that I have been trying to make films for ten years. We'd struggle and always get rejected. There came a point when we were developing Theeb where we said, "We no longer need permission from someone. We're just going to do it." That was liberating. Me and my colleagues haven't looked back since that moment once we realized that we should just do it. But I'm not going to say that I predicted the Arab Spring, because I didn't, but I think it was in the air.

Feinberg: Tobias, as I understand it you've not been a soldier yourself, but—obviously, with many people in your country as with many people in this country—you felt the impact of the last 15 years of war. In Denmark, that's been very much the case with incidents including the one that you documented. What is it that made you decide to make this particular real event the focus of your film?

Tobias Lindholm: It's the first war that Denmark has fought since the Second World War. In the Second World War we fought for five hours against the Germans and then gave up. So it's a new thing. This war has defined my generation more than anything else. We became that war-faring generation. There's a new Denmark growing that I'm a little scared of. I thought it was appropriate to tell a story about it. It's not one real event that the film is based on; it's several cases. I've taken bits and pieces from the reality and the logic of those cases and tried to put it in a story seen from a soldier's perspective of how complex the job that we ask these guys to do actually is. What happened in Denmark is that the politicians that made the decision to go into these wars, afterwards started to prosecute the soldiers 1) because they needed to try the rules of engagement under the Danish law system—that makes sense—but also 2) to try to legitimize their own actions and decisions by pushing them away and blaming the young soldiers for what happened down there instead of looking at themselves.

Feinberg: I want to ask each of you about some of the casting challenges and interesting decisions that you made. One point I want to make is that in a number of these films there are terrific child actor performances. Let's talk about those.

Ciro, I want to ask you about the very memorable sequence in your film in the Amazon at a mission where children are being indoctrinated into Christianity. A number of kids—who, I believe, are from that part of the area—are being abused at this mission. Where did you find these guys and how—even just in terms of language—were you able to direct them?

Ciro Guerra: During the process of research I found out that with the indigenous people of the region the coming of Christianity was a big scar. Christianity arrived in a brutal way. Basically, children would be taken away from their families. Some of them would be sole survivors of families that were wiped out during the rubber exploitation. They were confined to these missions where they were forbidden to speak their own language. They were forbidden to think in any way like indigenous people of the Amazon should. Jesuit priests would be really hard on them. It's a part of the story that hasn't been told. It's become a taboo subject. After seeing the film, many indigenous people have approached me and said, "Thank you for showing this because it has been something that happened over 30 years ago and no one ever speaks about it. No one knows about it." For me it was very shocking.

In order to have children participate in these kinds of sequences, you don't need to put them into this state. You do the opposite. Basically, you work with them as if it's a game. You say, "This is a game and someone is beating you and you're really in pain." Kids have so much imagination and they're willing to try everything. When you take a game to a serious level, they go all the way. I ran tests with the children. They did some scenes that were really harrowing and they would cry, I would say, "Cut!", and they would immediately start joking around and say, "Let's do it again!" It's a game for them but it's also a game for us. I like to keep the drama on the screen and, afterwards, it was a lot of fun for us.

Feinberg: Deniz, there are five young women in your film, ranging—at least at the time—from 13 to 20. An amazing thing I learned after watching your film was that four of them had never acted before! How did you assemble this group who are so good together and so good as actresses that you would never imagine they had never acted before?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: We looked at a long list to choose these girls. I had asked these young actors to do specific things to let me know if I could direct them. I never said, "This girl is a good actor. This girl is not a good actor." I wanted great listening and great imagination. They had to be one body. They had to look like a pile of puppies and be playful.

Feinberg: Naji, your whole movie centers on one child actor, Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, and he's terrific. You needed him to be truly Bedouin to play that part. My understanding is that it was a happy accident that you found Jacir in the first place, as you were just beginning the process?

Naji Abu Nowar: We worked for a year developing the script with the Bedouins and did eight months of acting workshops. It was just luck that we found Jacir. We didn't have any money so we did a trailer to try to convince investors to fund us and I asked our Bedouin producer to find us a 9 to 12-year-old boy. He sent his son. He was the first person I'd lived with so I was actually upset because I knew Jacir and knew that he was very shy. He'd always be in the corner. He'd never talk. I thought, "Oh my god, I'm in serious trouble now."

It was that magical thing: we put him on camera, had him moving and doing things, and he just lit up the screen. We never looked at anyone else. Although we had spent a lot of time developing the other actors, with Jacir it was really more about just keeping him comfortable and helping him get over the social taboos. In Bedouin culture, a young boy should be seen and not heard and he certainly shouldn't be kicking people and such things, as seen in the film. That was the big challenge: getting him to overcome the social taboos of things he shouldn't be doing as a Bedouin boy.

Feinberg: Tobias, in your film we see two textures—more than that—but two main settings: at conflict in Afghanistan, and then back home. Back home you have several kids as well in your film. Do these processes sound familiar to you?

Tobias Lindholm: The best way to make the kids work was pretty much to just let them be kids, so we didn't write any lines for them. I would invite them into the home for the family and fill it with what they liked—toys, film stuff—and they would just run around. Tuva Novotny, the actress who played the mother, would help me control the situation, because basically that's what parenting is with children of that age: trying to control the situation. I needed them to do as much chaos as possible so they just went around, didn't follow a script at all, and she would try once in a while to get them into the narration. Basically, I just needed them to put life in there.

There's one incident in the film where the youngest kid cries in the hospital. He eats some pills and she has to take him to the hospital. He cries for real. The thing is he always cried every morning for 30 seconds when his father left. So that day I asked the father to stay until the final moment when we were ready to shoot. I had 30 seconds of him crying. We got those real tears and the great thing was that he made up his own line; he says, "Where is my Papa?" As you know watching the film, he's in Afghanistan, so it all makes sense. But that was him calling for his real dad.

Feinberg: Moving on to casting decisions that are not necessarily about children, László, I wanted to ask you about Géza Röhrig who is someone, I believe, you had known for a while? Correct me if I'm wrong, but he's a Hassidic Jew, a poet, and had been a punk rock musician at one time?

László Nemes: He's not Hassidic.

Feinberg: But he's an interesting, colorful guy. How did you two guys meet and what made you think that this person—who had never acted in a feature film before—could carry your whole movie?

László Nemes: In a way Géza embodies the scars of the 20th century. He carries the suffering of the 20th century, and Eastern Europe. The destruction of the European Jewish civilization is in him. He has been thinking about this his entire life. His entire life has been in preparation for this film, which might seem like a crazy idea but is true to a certain extent.

He had a strange life in the '90s. He was supposed to be a film director, enrolled in the program, and then quit before making his first film, was in acting, then a punk musician, and then left for New York. What I really wanted was someone who was ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. My main character was / is an ordinary man, not a hero; we're not talking about a hero who turns insane, if you will. That's the process that's inside him already. I knew it was risky to pick someone who hasn't been in front of the camera in 20 years and who had forgotten about filmmaking in a way, especially for this kind of film because the whole film is based on him. If he was bad, the whole film would be bad. There's no way to come out from this. But, actually, I think that gave us the energy and the willingness to work together.

Feinberg: Ciro, why was it important to shoot Embrace of the Serpent in black and white?

Ciro Guerra: There were so many reasons. I could speak for two hours about why it was important to shoot the film in black and white. It was such a huge decision. The first inspiration for the film were the images taken by the explorers. Those images were unbelievable when I saw them. They were daguerreotype photographic plates. When you saw them, you saw an Amazon that was completely different than the Amazon that you think about. It was completely devoid of exuberance and exoticism. It was a different world and time; but, looking at it through those images, I started thinking this film should be in black and white. When I went to the Amazon I realized that it would not be possible for any kind of film, any kind of video, any kind of representation to give you a real idea of what the green of the Amazon is. Amazonian people have 50 words for what we call green. I thought, maybe by taking it away it would be possible to trigger the imagination. It's not the real Amazon you see in the film—it's an imagined Amazon—but, what we imagine would certainly be more real than what I could portray. Also, when I talked to the Amazonian people, I realized that with black and white images there was no difference between nature being green and us being something else. Every human, every bird, every drop of water is made up the same in black and white so it was perfectly coherent. I decided the film had to be in black and white and we had to overcome the expectations of a lot of people, but we stuck to it, and—if I had been forced to film in color—I would have preferred not to do it.

Feinberg: László, why do you leave it uncertain whether or not the boy is, in fact, Saul's son?

László Nemes: I believe films should leave room for the imagination of the viewer. There's been a tendency in cinema to get rid of the viewer, to kill the imagination, to show everything, to tell everything. I grew up with films that made me feel the magic of cinema because I was involved with them. They left room for my mind. I wanted to have a story and a visual experience that takes place in the mind of the viewer more than on the screen. It had to be a narrow approach to allow an opening in the mind. For me, cinema is this approach. I wanted the film to become a journey for the audience. It had to be a journey because—especially in this context of the concentration camp—you have no access to all information; you have no access to the entire story. As an individual, you only have access to your own experience, which is limited. As we follow the story with the main character, there are questions asked to the audience; the main question being: when there's no more hope, no more God, and no more religion, is there still room for an inner voice that would allow the individual to remain human? I'm not forcing the audience to answer in one way or the other. I want this to be a personal journey with a personal answer.

Feinberg: Naji, what was it like to shoot this film in the desert—as you guys actually did—and, in fact, in the same desert as where Lawrence of Arabia was shot 50+ odd years earlier? How did those logistics work?

Naji Abu Nowar: It's tough. We shot in two deserts. The first desert is actually the border between Israel and Jordan, called Wadi Rum and that's a military zone, so we had to get permission from the Jordanian military to shoot there. The scary thing about it is that no civilians go there so it's full of all the creepy crawlies you can imagine. The sound man found a snake in his bag. It meant that all our equipment was light. There was no cell phone reception. There were flash floods, sand storms, and all that kind of stuff. It got pretty dangerous at times; but, the one thing we had was the Bedouins. I'd known from living there that you always have to listen to the Bedouins. I nearly got myself killed once by getting lost. I thought I was like them and went off on my own. They tracked me, found me and saved me. We always listened to them. So when they said that there was going to be a flash flood in five minutes, we packed up the set and evacuated.

Feinberg: One thing I want to ask all of you to talk about is the process—which can be a marathon—of getting your film out to be seen by a lot of people around the world in the festival circuit, which we're on right now, and all of that. If you could just share for you where it began and what it has been like? In a number of cases I think it was a film festival that catapulted your movies into the "must watch" list for a lot of people. Film festivals have the ability to bring out the best of what's out there. To begin with, we had three of these films unveil at Cannes: Mustang, Son of Saul and Embrace of the Serpent. Deniz, what was that like to have your film unveil at Cannes, which in itself is a sort of circus, right?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: In the beginning when you're starting to work on a film it's like you're on top of a mountain. You're pushing this huge rock on your own for a long time and it doesn't move an inch, not even a vibration. There's a few points, at the eve of a shoot, when you literally can't do anything. Then it just takes off. Once the film is out of post-production, it's as if you're taking your kid to kindergarten for the first time. You see the film have its own life. We screened in Cannes and then the film started having its own life, literally. It's thrown into orbit. But you still stay, holding onto your kid.

Feinberg: Out of Venice we had A War and Theeb. Tobias, what was it like to start your journey on the Lido?

Tobias Lindholm: It was a great experience. I did a film called A Hijacking that premiered there as well so I was pleased to come back. My wife's Italian so it was great to get her back to her mother there. It's a strange feeling because it's part of the job, but it's not a part of the job that I enjoy too much. I like to work. I love to sit and write. I tend to believe that's where the big battles are won. Then, at a point, you start to hope that it can become a film. Then, when you start to make that film, you hope that it can become a good film. And then you hope for an audience. And then you hope for a festival where you can actually meet an international audience.

When we started doing A War, for me it was important to be honest to the real soldiers who were acting in the film. It felt strange to forget that because that felt so important when we started the film and now suddenly it was important how reviewers or how a festival accepts your film or not. I always feel a little conflicted in that. It's great, it's wonderful, but at the same time it's far away from the working space that I enjoy so much being in. So in many ways it's leisure time because you can drink rosé and meet people; but, at the same time, it's scary and I've probably never been as distant from my films as I feel at festivals.

Feinberg: I do want to expand this point for a second, Ciro, to find out if and how the folks in the Amazon have been able to see your film?

Ciro Guerra: Yes, the first ones to see it were, of course, the actors. Nilbio Torres, who played the young Karamakate, had never even seen a film before. After the film, I asked him, "What was it for you?" He said it was scary. We brought him to Bogotá to do the final sound work and we showed him an unfinished version of the film and he said, "I was in Bogotá, it was a city, very strange to me, but then the lights went out and, suddenly, I was in the jungle again. Everything felt real." When he saw the jaguar in the film, he had never seen a jaguar up close. He had actually hunted them but to see a jaguar up close was an experience for him. As for the hallucinatory sequence, he said he almost fainted because he was so scared.

But they loved it. They said, "This is what we were doing. This is unbelievable." After the film premiered in Venice, we managed to screen the film for the people in the Amazon. We screened it three times in different places. It was a big deal for the people there. Some of them walked for three days to see the film because they came from so far away. We managed to turn a maloca, an Amazonian longhouse, into a cinema for one night. It was magical.

For them it was a big deal to see their language on screen. There are some words of the Ocaina language in the film. The Ocaina language will disappear in this generation. It is spoken by only 16 people, so it was a big deal for them. To see foreign actors speaking their language was powerful. When they saw the mountains at the end of the film, which are a very big part of their mythology, it was like a football game: everyone was screaming and clapping. That was one of the most emotional screenings I've ever attended.

Feinberg: Naji, back in Jordan has there been any way for the Bedouins to see their story be told?

Naji Abu Nowar: Yeah. The main actors, Jacir and Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen, we got them passports. It was the first time they were on a plane and they attended the premiere in Venice. Very similar to what Ciro was saying, they went to a 1,500-seat cinema and it was the first time they had been in a cinema and the first time they had seen a film. It was an amazing experience for them, including a standing ovation from the crowd. It was incredible. I had never seen these guys show real emotion, but they were crying. For the Jordanian premiere, we went to Wadi Rum in the village where we lived, pulled all the surrounding tribes, and screened the film under the stars. They loved it. We did have one problem. The niece of Hussein couldn't grasp the concept of cinema and she thought he had really died. She was absolutely inconsolable and we had to take him out of the premiere and bring him around as proof of life that he still existed.

Feinberg: Deniz, would you feel comfortable showing Mustang to people in Turkey? It doesn't show Turkish people in the best light, but it's probably an accurate portrait of what's happened, right?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Right now Turkey feels as if we've been sailing through rapids and we don't know exactly what's going to happen at the next turn. It was already like that by the time we were making the film. At many moments I had the impression we were doing the title of Woody Allen's first movie Take the Money and Run. But it wasn't just about the money. We would shoot, take what we had, then run. Shoot some more, take what we had, then run. You have to navigate and know what's around you.

Feinberg: Has Mustang screened in Turkey?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: It has screened in Turkey and was released in Turkey. The film is quite warmly embraced wherever it goes, though in Turkey the reactions were extremely polarized. It was either loved or hated, exuberantly expressed by both extremes, and nothing in the middle. The social attitude in Turkey is always extreme, and—to this day when I see the film myself—I think, "Oh, this is shocking." The film is deeply in sacred territory and is breaking down quite a few doors so the amount of reaction we are receiving is normal.

Feinberg: The last thing I would like to do up here is to talk about this period since you all got the news that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Foreign Language Committee deemed that out of dozens of films from around the world, you guys are the last standing. That's got to be an exciting thing for all of you and I wanted to pose a couple of questions to a few of you because I think it will help contextualize how historically significant it is for all of you but especially so in certain countries.

To begin with, Naji, Jordan has only submitted one film ever before, Captain Abu Raed in 2008, which did not advance. How does it feel to have advanced to the shortlist? How does it feel to take a film further than any other film that has come out of your country?

Naji Abu Nowar: It feels incredible. I live in Jordan so when the news came out my phone literally exploded. We don't really have an industry, just some passionate people walking through it together, and everyone on the crew jumped together and we had a party. Everyone's been going crazy on social media and Twitter. It's just been nuts! One of the really nice things that's happened with me is that people have come up to me off the street and said, "We don't have a lot to celebrate. Things are pretty bad at the moment, but we're rooting for you. This is a positive thing to come out of our country." That's been touching. It's been a hell of a ride.

Feinberg: Ciro, Colombia has submitted 23 films prior to this one, including two others of yours. This is the country's first to be shortlisted with the potential to be nominated. You're going where no other Colombian has gone before!

Ciro Guerra: This is a very special moment for us. This is the year where, finally, after 50 years of conflict, we're about to sign a peace agreement. It's a special moment full of hope. We didn't have cinema in Colombia 10 years ago. We only made about two films a year. And now we're at this moment where we're about to start looking back at the darkest period of our history. Cinema is hope, and a way of telling our stories: who are we in this context? There are a lot of young people who believe in cinema. Cinema has not been something which we've been allowed to be proud of in the past so this means a lot for the Colombian people. I hope to see the movies mean more than the awards, but it's a moment when—a lot of people who don't believe in Colombian cinema—are starting to believe. There's a reason to be optimistic.

Feinberg: Again, it's interesting because part of the thing about the Oscars® is that it gives us a look into each of your countries' cinematic histories. László, in the years since the fall of Communism it's been hit-or-miss for Hungarian cinema but you've restored a lot of excitement with your film. What's been the response back home to the acclaim Son of Saul has received?

László Nemes: Let me first give you some perspective on the film because I think it's interesting. This was my first film and nobody wanted to finance it. We tried throughout Europe with the French Film Fund, the Israel Film Fund, the Germans, the Austrians, nobody. When we finally made it, we submitted it to the Berlin Film Festival and they didn't want to take it in competition! Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz and Berlin didn't want to take this film into competition! It's not about any rights that I might have, but people see Son of Saul more as a subject than a film, you know?

Cannes took a huge risk to take this into competition, which they rarely do with a first feature. I feel this film came back from the dead, so now that we're in this campaign for the Oscars®, it feels magical and unreal at the same time. I know that Hungary has had a long tradition of filmmaking and Hollywood is partly founded by Hungarian Jews, so in a way we have it in our blood. At the same time, there's so much resistance. If you go to the street in Hungary, they'll ask, "Who is this Jew boy who wants to make a film? He's representing our country?!" There's so much resistance, and hate. It's been a conflicted story and I think it always will be; but, being part of the journey is incredible and I'm like a little boy in the candy store, impressed by it. It's great to meet these filmmakers from around the world so I'm thankful for that.

[A videocast of this "Talking Pictures" forum is available here.]