I recently stumbled across this highly amusing 1920 review of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by the Chicago Tribune‘s pseudonymously named film critic “Mae Tinee” (who also owned the distinction of being the first Chicago journalist to interview Charlie Chaplin when he shot His New Job here for Essanay Studios in 1915). Aside from the faint whiff of xenophobia in the line about “their own backyard,” and in spite of the fact that this is a negative review (she doesn’t like Caligari precisely because it was effective in giving her “the willies”), this is a fun read that I think accurately captures the spirit of the film. Tinee calls it “a weird, mad, fantastic thing whose settings remind you of nothing so much as the disordered groupings of varicolored particles seen through the eye of a kaliedoscope,” before concluding that “Caligari is a Poe Charlie Chaplin!” Good God, have newspaper movie reviews gotten worse over the last hundred years?
Monthly Archives: October 2012
Part two of my CIFF report card:
Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Grade: B / 7.4
This begins like a documentary as a group of characters, including a musician whose Spanish-guitar score provides the film with much of its hypnotic power, hang out on a hotel balcony overlooking the Mekong River and talk about nothing much in particular. But, this being an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie, it isn’t long before characters who may or may not be ghosts are eating the entrails of other characters who may or may not be dreaming. This impressive divertissement is slow, quiet and serene, much like the river eternally flowing in the background through most of the film’s slight 61-minute running time. Mekong Hotel may be a minor work by a major director but, after three great movies in a row (Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, “Joe” deserves a little throat-clearing exercise like this while plotting his next move.
F*ckload of Scotch Tape (Grant, USA)
Grade: B / 7.0, Capsule review here.
The Final Member (Bekhor/Math, Canada/Iceland)
Grade: B / 7.1
This charming oddball documentary concerns Sigurdur “Siggi” Hjartarson, curator of the “Icelandic Phallological Museum,” the world’s only museum devoted to the male reproductive organ. Siggi apparently has penis samples of every mammal in the world in his collection, with the exception of the elusive human specimen, and the film details his attempts to find a suitable donor. What seems at first like it might be gimmicky or in bad taste becomes genuinely moving, funny and even suspenseful instead as the filmmakers craft a race-against-time structure by cross-cutting between two potential donors, both of whom want the dubious honor of being “the first”: 95-year old Pall Arason, a legendary Icelandic explorer who has willed his penis to the museum, and Tom Mitchell, a millionaire American cowboy who wants to have his penis surgically removed so he can donate it to the museum while still alive. Proof yet again that truth is stranger than fiction.
Consuming Spirits (Sullivan, USA)
Grade: B / 7.1, Capsule review here.
Rhino Season (Bahman Ghobadi, Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey)
Grade: B- / 6.8, Capsule review here.
John Dies at the End (Coscarelli, USA)
Grade: B- / 6.6
In this horror/comedy/instant cult classic, a new drug known as “Soy Sauce” hits the street with the promise of making users geniuses as well as masters of time and space. It also inadvertently causes them to return from other dimensions as non-human creatures bent on destroying the earth. Naturally, it’s up to two college dropout/stoner buddies to save the day in what amounts to a low-budget, indie version of Ghostbusters on LSD. It may have the least spoiler-free title ever but there are still plenty of surprises (and laughs) in this nutso vision by director Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho Tep) who adapted a cult novel by the pseudonymous David Wong. Paul Giamatti deserves major props for agreeing to play a journalist in a framing story, and for taking his role with deadly seriousness. I found this tonally uneven (a perpetual problem with genre mash-ups) but it will go over well with the midnight movie crowd for whom it was made. You already know if that includes you.
Room 237 (Ascher, USA)
Grade: D+ / 4.5
Five people with too much time on their hands give vent to their theories about what Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining “really” means in this occasionally clever, mostly tedious documentary that puts the concept of “fair use” to the test. The interviewees are never seen but frequently heard explicating their crackpot theories in voice-over (e.g., the film is Kubrick’s apology for helping NASA fake the moon landing, an allegory for the holocaust, an allegory for the genocide of Native Americans, etc.) while the filmmakers mostly show images from other movies, including large chunks of The Shining. This premiered in Sundance to great acclaim at the beginning of 2012 and by the time it showed up at CIFF it was already sporting the IFC Films logo at the beginning. The hoopla is somewhat understandable given that the film has a guaranteed built-in fan base but Room 237 strikes me as something that would be moderately amusing at best as a DVD supplement. Sadly, genuinely great (and highly poetic) “fair use” docs like Los Angeles Plays Itself and The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni will be seen by only a tiny fraction of the people who see this snarky, unnecessary tribute to the tinfoil hat brigade.
1. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls)
2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch)
3. In the Mood for Love (Wong)
4. Halloween (Carpenter)
5. Directed by John Ford (Bogdanovich)
6. Rome, Open City (Rossellini)
7. Wild at Heart (Lynch)
8. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang)
9. Nowhere to Hide (Lee)
10. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
As I noted in my pre-festival coverage, the 48th CIFF offered a virtual embarrassment of riches; I saw 15 movies, a personal record, and still wasn’t able to take in everything I really wanted to see (Raul Ruiz’s Night Across the Street and the Tavianis’ Caesar Must Die both regrettably got away). More importantly, not only did CIFF offer up a lot of good films, the very best of them seemed to matter in a way that said “Cinema is alive and well,” and audiences responded in kind: there was an electric vibe running through the sold out screenings of Holy Motors and Like Someone in Love that resulted in bursts of spontaneous applause and instantly heated arguments at the end of each respective movie. Below are my grades for the films that finished, for me, at the “head of the class.” The rest of my grades will be posted next week.
Holy Motors (Carax, France)
Grade: A+ / 10
Leos Carax’ first feature film after a 13 year absence is a funny, strange, joyous, heartbreaking, beautiful and difficult to describe experience — a tour de force of filmmaking in which chameleonic actor Denis Lavant plays a shape-shifting character (or should that be 11 different characters?) in a series of loosely connected vignettes. This structure affords viewers a journey through myriad film genres (experimental animation, film noir, melodrama, musical romance, etc.) as a means for the director to offer a wide-ranging commentary on both film history and the mutability of identity in the internet age. Obviously not for all tastes, this was for me a mind-bending, soul-thrilling experience that I can only compare to seeing Mulholland Drive for the first time over a decade ago: I laughed, I cried, I wanted to dance in the aisles during the accordion-jam entr’acte. Holy Motors is a movie lover’s paradise and there is simply nothing else like it. To see it on the big screen is to be struck repeatedly by lightning bolts of ecstasy. “Trois, douze, merde!” Long review coming soon.
Something in the Air (Assayas, France)
Grade: A / 9.6
“New ideas require new language,” uttered by a wannabe revolutionary filmmaker, is one of the more stimulating lines of dialogue in Olivier Assayas’ latest (and arguably greatest) movie. It’s also a concept that the formidable critic-turned-director has continually wrestled with throughout his career; intriguingly, the harder Assayas has tried to construct a “new language” to comment on the changing world in the past, the worse off his films have been (as in the ridiculous “cyber-thriller” Demonlover or the aimless artiness of Clean). On the other hand, working within well-established and even conventional aesthetic traditions has tended to produce his very best work (as in Cold Water, Summer Hours and Carlos). Something in the Air is a direct sequel to Cold Water that picks up where the earlier film left off but, being made 18 years later, features a new actor inhabiting the lead role of Gilles (the young protagonist based on Assayas). The end result is a film that borrows from Cold Water‘s playbook (a richly detailed portrait of the French youth culture of the early Seventies characterized by handheld camerawork and impressively naturalistic dialogue and performances) while expanding its scope to engage in complex questions about the relationship between art and politics, and featuring a larger ensemble cast whose globe-trotting, criss-crossing lives make the film take on the feel of a genuine epic.
Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)
Grade: A / 9.3
The late Chilean director Raul Ruiz’s delightfully playful book Poetics of Cinema argues against the necessity of “central conflict theory” that has long dominated commercial filmmaking in the western world. If Abbas Kiarostami, one of the world’s greatest living directors, ever wrote a comparable book on film theory, one suspects he might similarly challenge the notion of the “three-act structure.” The Japanese-set Like Someone in Love may well be the Iranian master’s most provocative work; his extremely unconventional handling of narrative sees him lop his story off at the exact moment where it climaxes, a bold move that I can’t ever recall having seen in another movie. (I imagine the Chicago critic who foolishly called the ending of Kiarostami’s far more accessible Certified Copy “abrupt and unsatisfying” will have an aneurysm if he sees this film.) And yet, this provocation is the movie’s raison d’etre: Kiarostami gives us believable characters and compelling drama, so why, he seems to be asking, do we need “falling action” and “resolution”? The story, such as it is, concerns an elderly, retired professor who hires a young prostitute for the evening. It turns out that she’s a Sociology student (the very subject he used to teach) and he finds himself becoming unwittingly drawn into the lives of her and her pathologically jealous boyfriend over the next 24 hours. These characters are quirky, nuanced, and, as played by a superb trio of Japanese actors, fascinating to spend time with; the fact that each is keeping secrets from the others turns the whole thing into an absurdist shell-game of a narrative, one that revisits Certified Copy‘s role-playing motif but to far darker ends. This can even be seen as a reaction against the earlier film’s surprise success; Kiarostami has said he chose to set Like Someone in Love in Japan so that he wouldn’t be accused of “catering to western tastes.” It may be an exercise in not paying off the audience but that doesn’t mean that it’s not also a great movie. This is major Kiarostami.
Meeting Leila (Yaraghi, Iran)
Grade: A- / 8.2, Capsule review here.
Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium)
Grade: A- / 8.2
Writer/director Joachim Lafosse’s disturbing, slow-burn drama tracks the machinations of a paternalistic Belgian doctor whose controlling influence on the lives of his adoptive Moroccan son and daughter-in-law lead to devastating consequences. The heavyweight cast includes Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup (the co-leads from A Prophet) and Emilie Dequenne (the little girl from Rosetta all grown up), and all three give incredible performances here; each character’s actions are rendered with utter psychological believability as the sharp original screenplay shows with grim relentlessness — but also great lucidity — the inevitable disintegration of an alternative family. As a result, family politics have rarely been rendered so oppressively onscreen. But Lafosse’s widescreen mise-en-scene impresses as much as his script and handling of actors: during the final gut-wrenching scenes, he wisely uses off-screen space to imply that which is too terrible to show.
The Last Sentence (Troell, Sweden/Norway)
Grade: B+/ 7.8, Capsule review here.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Thompson, USA)
Grade: B+ / 7.7
In an era when cable television is flooded with trashy shows about serial killers, this unexpectedly excellent documentary/narrative hybrid takes the least exploitative approach to its subject imaginable. It features extensive interviews with three people whose lives were profoundly affected by the title character: the homicide detective who got the killer’s confession (and who turns out to be a colorful character and delightful storyteller in his own right), the medical examiner responsible for cataloguing the body parts found in Dahmer’s apartment, and the woman who lived in the apartment next door (in complete ignorance of the unimaginable horror that was happening mere feet away). These interviews are provocatively intercut with fictional re-enactments, not of Dahmer’s crimes but of him performing mundane activities – buying goldfish, drinking beer, receiving an eye exam, etc. Some of these sequences, which illustrate the “banality of evil” concept, seem sinister only because of what we know about the subject based on the interviews (i.e., Dahmer purchasing an industrial-sized waste disposal barrel). Young director Chris Thompson shows an impressive compassion for his subjects and an incredible feel for his blue-collar Milwaukee locations. I greatly look forward to seeing his future work.
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Rania Stephan, Lebanon/Egypt)
Grade: B+ / 7.7, Capsule review here.
1. Our Children (Lafosse)
2. The River (Renoir)
3. John Dies at the End (Coscarelli)
4. Pursued (Walsh)
5. Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul)
6. Silent Hill (Gans)
7. The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Thompson)
8. Room 237 (Ascher)
9. Ravenous (Bird)
10. Double Indemnity (Wilder)
Last week I had the great privilege of interviewing the Swedish director Jan Troell when he came to the Chicago International Film Festival for the U.S. premiere of his new movie The Last Sentence. This screening was hot on the heels of the world premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival where Troell deservedly won the Best Director prize. Unfortunately, Troell, a contemporary of Ingmar Bergman and one of the greatest living filmmakers, remains too little known outside of Scandinavia. In the U.S. he is probably best known for his early 1970s masterpieces The Emigrants and The New Land, a long out-of-print two-part epic starring Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman, and Everlasting Moments, his terrific 2008 film, which is available in a superb Blu-ray edition via the Criterion Collection. The Last Sentence is a worthy addition to Troell’s body of work; it tells the powerful true story of Trogny Segerstedt — brilliantly played by the Danish actor Jesper Christenson — a Swedish journalist who crusaded against Hitler from 1933 (long before it was fashionable) until the end of WWII.
Jan Troell is more vigorous and youthful-looking in person than his 81 years might lead one to believe; although he told me he thought Everlasting Moments might be his last film, he has also recently spoken of beginning a new film — an autobiographical drama based on his family’s relationships with their hired help over the years — that one hopes will come to fruition. During the course of our nearly 30-minute face-to-face chat, Troell was soft-spoken, forthright and very friendly. The last thing he said to me during the interview is a compliment I will always cherish. Accompanying Troell to CIFF was his whip-smart daughter Yohanna, who is in the process of finishing a documentary about the making of The Last Sentence. Yohanna occasionally made valuable contributions to our conversation and, less frequently, helped her father translate a stray word or two of Swedish into English. One also hopes that she will continue in her father’s formidable filmmaking footsteps.
MGS: Your best-known films are period pieces. Is there something you find especially compelling about making films set in the past?
JT: I know that I’m a very nostalgic kind of person. I think it’s a great pleasure – this sort of feeling of living in another period that for some reason fascinates me. That I guess is one reason. But the most practical reason is I started out with an epic film by a Swedish author, Here is Your Life, and that led to another big epic film, The Emigrants, which I was asked to do. So in a way I ended up in this niche, so I got other offers of that kind. But there are a couple of feature films that are contemporary too and I also all the time work parallel with documentary short films.
MGS: So you’re saying producers think of you as someone who does period films?
JT: That’s one part of it, yeah.
YT: I guess it also has to do with the fact that you make a lot of films about real people who have lived and you’re fascinated by their stories and usually they’re dead by now. (laughs)
JT: I think it’s fascinating to try to get inside people who really existed once, to get to know them. I also feel very comfortable having something I believe in myself. I believe in the story. It’s not the result of some other person’s imagination. That’s part of it. And so there are several different reasons for it.
MGS: What initially attracted you to Trogny Segerstedt as a subject for a movie?
JT: That it came at a very crucial moment in my life. I was offered to do it. I had just finished the film before (Everlasting Moments) and it might very well have been my last film because it’s not easy to get a film through. It takes years. And so I welcomed the invitation and the invitation came from the author of a biography (on Segerstedt) who’s name is Kenne Fant, who was also the head of the Swedish film industry who produced so many of Ingmar Bergman’s films. And he was also the head of that company when I made the first feature film Here is Your Life and The Emigrants and The New Land and so on. So we knew each other rather well.
MGS: You said in the documentary Troell’s Magic Mirror that in 1940 the Swedish people were very afraid Germany might invade Sweden. And you said you think that affected your personality as a child. Did you use any of your own memories of that time in the making of The Last Sentence?
JT: Just the feeling of it – the people, the way they looked and so on. I’m sure this film gives a very good feeling of the period. But the real memories of the war started with the war. I remember very, very well seeing the headlines in the street when I was walking to go swimming. It was a very hot day. And the letters on the papers were as big as this (holds fingers six inches apart). It just said “WAR.”
MGS: There was a moment early on in the film that surprised me where a character says that the Swedish Jews are more cultivated than the German Jews. But it made sense because I thought this must be how people in Europe outside of Germany rationalized the persecution of the Jews in Germany. Was that a widespread feeling in Sweden at the time?
JT: Yeah. I think also that many of the Jews in Berlin, they came from Poland and were poor people. This line in the film is taken word-by-word from what this man who says it in the film had written in a letter to Segerstedt as early as 1932. So I had it from the page. He (also) says “If the Jews are annihilated, it would not be good for business.” (chuckles in disbelief)
MGS: Wow, that’s scary. Something else that surprised me was seeing how forceful Segerstedt’s language was in denouncing Hitler as early as 1933. Today it’s common to hear people say that no one knew what a threat Hitler posed until it was too late and yet 1933 was early in Hitler’s career. Segerstedt clearly knew very early on . . .
JT: From the very first day. He wrote this article maybe five days after Hitler came to power. But he had written some article already in the Twenties warning for Hitler.
MGS: I’d like to ask you about the visual style of the film. It looks very different from Everlasting Moments, which had a lot of film grain and very warm colors. The Last Sentence was shot in digital black and white and the images are very clean and crisp. Is it important for you to try and do something different in terms of style each time out or does the style grow out of the subject matter?
JT: I think the style grows out of the subject, definitely. First, I wanted to shoot on 35 but we couldn’t afford that. We didn’t have enough money. So I had to decide on Super 16 as we had on (Everlasting Moments). We made tests on 16 and on 35 and I was more or less persuaded to try a new camera – Alexa. I said it’s almost like a real film camera. I didn’t intend to use that (initially) and then I saw the tests. There was no question about it. The Alexa was even better than the 35. It’s so sensitive to light that you can shoot in almost no light at all. And also it’s made to, if you shoot digitally, you can add the 35mm feeling, that it’s not 100% crisp. You get the grain. You can put any kind of grain on it.
MGS: In camera or in post-production?
JT: Afterwards. And we talked about that. We thought we would make tests but I decided not to because I liked this very exact feeling for this film. And that was my very vague thoughts from the beginning; I didn’t want any handheld camera, I didn’t want a lot of movements – in a way like he (Segerstedt) was.
MGS: Right, so it reflects his personality. There’s a great quote from Liv Ullmann where she said she never knew what you were shooting during The Emigrants because you were always holding the camera in your hands and panning around with it. In The Last Sentence, the style is more static and, like you say, exact. Is there any camera movement in the film? I can’t remember.
YT: Yeah, there is. But you don’t notice it.
JT: Oh, yes. Of course, I pan and so on but not many traveling camera shots.
YT: I made the behind-the-scenes film and I interviewed the actors and they’re all saying the same thing. Even in this film, for instance, Pernilla August, who plays Maja (Segerstedt’s mistress) and Jesper, of course, they’re talking about how it always keeps them on their toes because, even though they’ve made up exactly how they’re going to do it, they never know . . . My father might stop on the way, and then he comes to them, and so it’s still like shooting a documentary.
MGS: So they still don’t know exactly what he’s going to do?
JT: That’s one reason for me operating the camera myself. Because I don’t have to decide 100% in advance how or if to move the camera. I always get a focus puller who knows the way I work so he’s prepared to change the focus. It depends on what’s happening in front of the camera; suddenly I feel I should go here or there.
MGS: You go with how you feel in the moment?
JT: Not completely but very much, yeah.
MGS: One movie I thought of while watching The Last Sentence was Gertrud by Carl Dreyer. Was that an influence on you at all?
JT: Oh yes, I’ve seen it but, well, you never know where you get the influences from. I hadn’t thought of that.
MGS: There was something about the quality of the black and white and the dialogue scenes of well-dressed people speaking to each other in rooms and the rigorousness and precision of it all that made me think of that.
YT: Good Night and Good Luck was one of the films we saw.
JT: Oh yes. I love that film. That is in beautiful black and white. I had a DVD with extra material, where you see people interviewed, you see the location, that’s in color and it’s not at all as good. I didn’t decide 100% to end up in black and white (for The Last Sentence) but I thought from the beginning, “I hope I would end up in black and white.” And for the first time in my working life, the producer did not oppose it. So that made me a little bit worried. (laughs) Now it’s all up to me, it’s a big decision. Anyway, before, there were a couple of films I wanted black and white but it was impossible because of money and because of television. They demand color. Or did.
MGS: What do you think has changed that now black and white is more acceptable?
JT: I think the first thing, maybe, it has become a trend. It’s been a trend in commercials, advertising, on T.V. It’s supposed to be very artistic. So people see that and sometimes think it’s a plus. That is one thing. Of course, there was the Austrian director (Michael Haneke) who made this film The White Ribbon. It’s so beautiful. That was filmed in color too. And he didn’t know for sure that it would end up in black and white. But he managed to get it through all the way. As the Coen brothers did for The Man Who Wasn’t There. That was released as a DVD in both versions. Have you seen it?
MGS: I’ve not seen the color version but I’ve heard the color is very desaturated.
JT: Yeah, I prefer the black and white. But this doesn’t mean I always prefer black and white, of course. But for this (The Last Sentence), I’m sure it’s the right choice because, for me anyway, this period in life is black and white: my parents, the images, all the photographs of me as a child, all the documentaries from the war, all those things. At that time every film was in black and white.
MGS: All of the recent films you just named are period films too, so I think we all think of the past in black and white.
JT: That’s right.
MGS: What about the use of the documentary inserts? Why did you decide to include them?
JT: Well, that I knew from the beginning I would use. I was thinking a lot of how to use it because it’s so overdone. You’ve seen those scenes from the war. You see it almost every day on T.V. Many of them are so well known. I tried to find some that I didn’t think had been shown too much. I decided to not make it as technically perfect as possible. So I filmed with a film camera – we projected the films and I used the camera to shoot since I could move inside the image and I also had zooms, which I didn’t have in those days.
MGS: There’s one shot in particular of Hitler petting a dog that’s very brief . . .
JT: Yeah, yeah, I panned in that.
MGS: Did you include that because of Segerstedt’s relationships to his own dogs?
JT: Of course.
MGS: I thought it was interesting that the most poignant relationship in the whole film was between him and his dogs.
JT: Yeah. I’m sure it was like that in his life too. It has been witnessed.
MGS: I have one final question for you. There are two ideas in this movie that I think are related that are very powerful: one is the importance of having a free press, the other is in the line of dialogue about how silence is acquiescence. Do you think these ideas are particularly relevant in the world today?
JT: Definitely, yes. Also in Sweden (specifically), because there’s no censorship but there is, I think, some self-censorship. There are things that are so touchy to write about.
YT: I think, especially now with the internet, you can get so harassed, which is a big threat. If Segerstedt had been on the internet, I think he would’ve been in much bigger trouble than he was. (laughs) So there’s definitely a parallel.
MGS: Well, hopefully, there are still some people around like Segerstedt today. Thank you so much for your time. Your answers were great.
JT: Your questions were great. They weren’t the usual questions.
Music Box Films has acquired U.S. distribution rights for The Last Sentence. Hopefully, it will return to Chicago soon.
1. JSA: Joint Security Area (Park)
2. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
3. Troell’s Magic Mirror (Danielsson)
4. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami)
5. Everlasting Moments (Troell)
6. Deep Cover (Duke)
7. Holy Motors (Carax)
8. Something in the Air (Assayas)
9. The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones)
10. The New Land (Troell)
Adel Yaraghi is an Iranian writer/director whose uncommonly assured debut feature, Meeting Leila, received its North American premiere last night at the Chicago International Film Festival. The title character of this sweet and touching comedy is a perfume tester (A Separation‘s Leila Hatami) who demands that her fiance (Yaraghi), a chain-smoking advertisement writer, give up cigarettes before their upcoming wedding. I had the pleasure of recently speaking to Yaraghi about the film, his mentor Abbas Kiarostami (with whom he co-wrote the film’s original screenplay and whom he still refers to reverentially as “Mr. Kiarostami”) and what it was like working with the great Leila Hatami. Meeting Leila will screen tonight (with Yaraghi in attendance) and again on Saturday. I urge every Chicagoan reading this to check it out. It is one of the highlights of this year’s festival.
MGS: You went to film school in the U.S. and worked in the American film industry for a while. Was it ever your intention to make movies in America or did you always plan on taking your training back to Iran so you could make movies back home?
AY: No, I did not actually think I was going to go back to Iran. I studied here and I started working here for a while for Roger Corman. I decided to be an editor because I was not thinking that I can make films here because it is so difficult. So things worked out that I got this job editing. I was an assistant editor for a few shows and then also a feature film; it was called Almost Salinas. And then I went back to Iran just to visit and one thing led to another and I stayed two, three, four months. And things worked out so that I stayed to clear some things up financially over there. And after a couple of years I decided, “Okay, now I can go back (to the States).” I was on my way back. I was in Dubai, I think. A friend of mine called and he said that Mr. Kiarostami is having a workshop close to where I used to live. I had no idea that I could meet him ever because it was so big for me. I really loved his films. So I came back to Iran just to go to the workshop. I didn’t believe that it’s going to be him teaching. I thought I was going to go there and there’s an assistant and things like that. But he was there and he received me very well and he asked me a couple questions and he said, “We only have two or three meetings left. If you want to come, you’re welcome.” So I started and it worked so that they made short films about a certain subject – 2, 3, 4, 5-minute films every week. People would come in every week. They would meet for seven hours and they would bring DVDs of the films that they had made with very little budget – like, pocket money. That was the only requirement of the class.
MGS: So it was like film school?
YA: Yeah, yeah. Much better for me because I had my BA and MFA here for six years (in the U.S.) but I learned more during those times (in Kiarostami’s workshop) because it’s hands on. You make films. So I made some films and he liked some. The first two I made he liked. So I was supposed to go to the next workshop. The next workshop, he didn’t like my first film, which I thought is going to be great because I had worked on it very much. He started talking about the film, why it is not good, and I did not understand a word he was saying. I didn’t know where he was coming from so I decided to quit. I thought, “It’s not my thing. I’ll go do something else. Cinema is not for me.” Because I believed in him, really, and what he was saying. But then I decided to go back. I thought, “Okay, every week I will make a film. I will take it to class. He has to talk about it. And I will steal that time from him.” Otherwise, he has no time for me. And then out of these films I will find out, during these three months or six months, am I going to be able to continue or not? Is this my thing or not? And then, little by little, he started to like – and then love – my films. And then one thing led to another and then he gave me an idea to make a feature film. And he thought I’m a great actor (laughs) because I played in a couple of the short films that I made. And then he said, “I have an idea that I wanted to make but I couldn’t find the right person for it. And you’re the right person. I’ll give you the idea on one condition – if you play it.” And I said, “Fine. All right.” So I wrote the script based on his story. And then I gave it to him and things started to go.
MGS: One thing that really impressed me about your film was the compositions. The framing is very precise, which is something you don’t see in a lot of first films. I loved the first shot of the film, where your character, Nader, is in the background and his cell phone and his cigarettes are in the foreground.
YA: That’s one take.
MGS: One take?
YA: Only one take. I just got it because I thought maybe we’ll use it, maybe not. We didn’t repeat it at all.
MGS: Oh, you didn’t even know that was going to be the first shot?
YA: No, I knew it was going to be the first shot but I didn’t know if it’s going to be in the film. I thought, “Okay, let’s get this shot. I’d like to start with this but let’s see. We’ll just take it and we’ll see.”
MGS: I thought that shot was really funny because the phone rings and you think he’s going to reach for the phone but he grabs his cigarettes instead. It tells you so much about his character without any dialogue.
YA: Exactly. I’m glad you like it.
MGS: There were a lot of scenes like that, where the humor comes out of either the composition or the editing – or the lack of editing – because you don’t seem to like a lot of cutting. My favorite scene in the film is the one where Nader is buying the ashtray: he’s talking on his cell phone and he’s getting really angry and he starts pacing and it seems like he’s going to break something. That whole thing was one long take and I think that made it funnier somehow. How did you decide how to shoot that?
YA: Yeah, it was intentional. How did I decide to shoot that? There is only a couple (examples) of handheld camerawork in the film. And I wanted that to be handheld.
MGS: It feels like a documentary.
YA: Yes. That’s my intention in that scene. I want it to feel real. I thought it would add to the tension for it to be handheld. Plus, if I started cutting it would reduce its reality and the feel of being real.
MGS: I want to ask you about Leila Hatami. She’s a phenomenal actress and she’s worked with a lot of great directors. Was it intimidating for you to either direct her or act opposite her?
YA: To be honest with you, one of my biggest problems making this film was that I could not imagine who would be the lady playing the part. But somehow the first person that came to my mind was Leila Hatami. But here I am making my first film – first actor, first director, first everything – and here she is. She wasn’t as big at the time because she got to be very famous with the last film, A Separation. I didn’t know. That movie hadn’t come out. She had acted in it but I had no idea. So I had her in mind but I thought, you know, it’s almost impossible. So I started to look for other people but I always had her in the back of my mind. I was afraid to say to anybody that I want Leila for the film because I knew I had to pay a lot of money. I knew I had to do a lot of things and she might come and she might not. There was little chance for her to come. Mr. Kiarostami asked me a question. He says, “You have to tell me what your strategy is so I can show you the tactic. Do you want a first rate actress, do you want second or third?” I said, “I’ll think about it and I’ll tell you tomorrow.” So I thought to myself, “This is a good opportunity for me. Finally I’m making a film. The script is co-written by Mr. Kiarostami. So I should go all the way. I don’t want a half-assed thing.” So I came back and I said, “I want a first rate actress.” He said, “Who do you mean?” I said, “Leila or someone else.” He said, “Whoah, you have a lot of confidence. Do you have some way of getting to her?” I said, “Well, I have a couple of friends that know her.” So anyway I called her through a friend of mine and she was very difficult at first. Not difficult but she was maybe not interested, maybe afraid because she had played this role in such an important film (A Separation) and she didn’t want to right after that do a film that nobody knows about. But then, after a couple times I talked to her, she agreed to read the script. So she read the script and then she agreed to meet ’cause she said she likes it. Then we met and she says, “I like my husband.” Meaning me in the film. Then she says, “Now I want to see your short films.” So I sent her all the films. From then on she was very easy to work with. No, I wasn’t afraid at all.
MGS: I think it’s interesting that she said she liked her husband; another great scene is the one where Leila and Nader leave the movie theater and she gives him the cigarette. They’re sitting on opposite park benches, facing each other, and she says to him, “This is your last cigarette.” But when she says it, she has this little smile on her face . . .
YA: Right, right, right. She knows it might not be . . .
MGS: I thought that was such an interesting choice because I think a lot of actresses would have played that line a little bit angrier. When you’re rehearsing a scene like that are you specific about telling your actors what you want or do you allow them to find their own emotional response?
YA: That scene, again, it was one take: one of her, one of me.
MGS: Did you rehearse it?
YA: Not so much. I told her what I wanted out of the scene and she’s professional. She did a great job. Yeah, that’s the line. “This is your last cigarette.” In Farsi she says it so nice. So powerful.
MGS: And so that smile was her, that’s what she brings?
YA: Yeah, exactly. I’m glad you noticed. Another little sentence that she says in the red car . . . What does she say that I like so much? “What do I do with you?” She’s very sweet at some points and it really punctures through your feelings.
MGS: Absolutely. It makes the whole film very sweet.
YA: Yeah, she was very good. She made it very easy to work. I also was very nice to her because I explained the film to her. I explained even how we were going to shoot a scene. She was surprised because she says people don’t do that. They don’t tell you what they want to do. I told her, “This is how the camera is set up and this is how it’s going to be.” I even asked her if she was okay with that. And she liked it a lot from the beginning, from the get-go.
MGS: The ending of the film is delightfully ambiguous. Are you optimistic that Nader is done smoking for good? (laughs)
YA: No, no. I think that ending is kind of smart because you could take any side and say, a hundred percent, he promised and he’s such a dedicated person. He was very serious in the car: “When I make a promise, I make a promise.” But then again somehow you could make the same argument against him because every time he promises about this matter . . .
MGS: So each audience member kind of writes their own ending?
YA: Exactly. Depending on the character that they get from the film.
MGS: I felt like he was probably going to smoke again but I also felt that their relationship was good. I felt like that was going to work even if he continued to smoke.
YA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MGS: It seems like a lot of prominent Iranian directors are working outside of Iran now either by choice or by necessity. Do you feel optimistic about the future of the Iranian film industry?
YA: We have Kiarostami, which is a great mentor. I think he has made a great influence, aside from the other parts of the world, in our cinema. If nothing else on acting, natural acting. He’s very helpful with people that are serious about work and about what they want to do. Then there is the person who did my sound, the supervising sound editor, Mr. Delpak, who’s done Mr. Kiarostami’s film (Like Someone in Love) too. He’s a great mentor. So having these people still there, yeah, I hope that good films still come out of Iran. Iranian literature is very strong but somehow it hasn’t gotten out because of translations or other problems. Our literature, our poetry is very rich. So, there is that background and that backing for the films. And there’s now these modern filmmakers that have made ways easier for us to make films. Their films have been seen and accepted and regarded as good films. And now it helps new filmmakers to follow their path and be accepted and well received all over the world. So, yes, I’m hopeful. I see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.
MGS: Best of luck to you.
YA: You too. Thank you so much.
You can purchase tickets to Meeting Leila here.
Part two of my preview of the 48th Chicago International Film Festival is, for reasons entirely coincidental, focused exclusively on movies made by filmmakers from the Middle East. I was fortunate to recently catch previews of three very strong entries in the CIFF lineup: the feature debut of a promising Iranian director and Kiarostami protege (Adel Yaraghi’s Meeting Leila), the Turkish-set film of an acclaimed Iranian/Kurdish director-in-exile (Bahman Ghobadi’s Rhino Season), and a highly poetic, “fair use” VHS mash-up/tribute to a legendary Egyptian actress made by a Lebanese director (Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni). All are good examples of CIFF’s admirable commitment to promoting the work of Middle Eastern filmmakers. Even more examples can be found in the festival’s “Spotlight Middle East” sidebar.
Again, any of my students who attend any CIFF screenings (and staple their ticket stubs to a one to two page screening report) will receive extra credit. Refer to the extra credit page of your course website for more information.
For the complete line-up, as well as ticket info, showtimes and directions to festival venues, visit: www.chicagofilmfestival.com
Meeting Leila (Adel Yaraghi, Iran)
This supremely confident feature debut by Adel Yaraghi, based on a script he co-wrote with his mentor Abbas Kiarostami, features an irresistible comic premise: Nader (Yaraghi) is an “ideas man” for an advertising agency who considers smoking cigarettes integral to his creative process. His sensitive fiance, Leila (the great Leila Hatami, best known to American audiences for her performance as Simin in A Separation), works as a perfume tester and has demanded that he quit smoking before their wedding day. The problems that ensue are emblematic of the universal obstacles and compromises that all couples in serious relationships must face. What finally makes this film so satisfying though, in addition to the winning performances of the leads, is Yaraghi’s uncommon command of form; humor slyly arises from compositions and editing – Yaraghi cuts from a shot of Nader reading a poem directly into the camera to the most priceless “reaction shot” I’ve seen in years (which I won’t give away here), as well as deftly worked out gags involving careful considerations of space (two men in a hospital sharing a cigarette underneath the locked door between them) and time (an impressive long take that nearly literalizes the phrase “bull in a china shop”). I also greatly appreciated what Yaraghi does with primary colors, the weather, and Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’s rendition of “In a Sentimental Mood.” This is a director to watch.
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Rania Stephan, Lebanon/Egypt)
I saw a DVD screener of this terrific experimental documentary by chance only after the cancellation of a press screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love and in many ways it was the most pleasant surprise of all the CIFF films I previewed. In spite of the fact that I was completely unfamiliar with the subject, one of Egypt’s most famous and beloved movie actresses, I was held in thrall for all 70 minutes of this extended highlight reel. Director Rania Stephan shows that Soad Hosni was a great actress, a rare beauty and a symbol for the newly liberated Egpytian woman following the 1952 revolution in a tribute that unfolds entirely as a series of VHS-sourced clips from Hosni’s films (with no voice-over narration, interviews or explanatory intertitles added). Beginning with a fast-paced montage of Hosni running accompanied by the audio of male co-stars reciting her characters’ names and continuing through many more thematically linked episodes (marriage, crying, physical abuse), the clips have been mix-mastered, Godard-like, into an almost astonishingly coherent metaphor for Hosni’s life (and a comment on the nature of female representation in the cinema besides). Even the poor VHS quality, with its splotchy colors, “tracking problems” and overall degraded image, serves as a poignant reminder of the ephemeral nature of film.
Rhino Season (Bahman Ghobadi, Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey)
Bahman Ghobadi (Turtles Can Fly) tackles Iran’s repressive theocratic regime in telling the story of Sahel, a humanist poet unjustly incarcerated for “treason” after the Islamic revolution. The story begins in 2010, when Sahel is released after serving a 27 year sentence, then flashes back to show how he was denounced by his wife’s chauffeur in a stunning act of jealousy and betrayal. Once free, Sahel attempts to reconnect with his wife (Monica Bellucci, convincing as a Persian woman) who now lives in Turkey with her two grown children and has been led to believe her husband died years earlier. This is full of poetry, both literally recited on the soundtrack and in the stunning widescreen images of Turkish land and seascapes, which, at their best recall last year’s majestic Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (whose director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, receives special thanks here). Ghobadi’s reach may sometimes exceed his grasp and some of his aesthetic ideas, unlike those of Ceylan, verge on the pretentious. But there’s no denying his sincerity or ambition: this is an occasionally disturbing, occasionally beautiful and always bracing reminder of how intolerable and anachronistic the persecution of artists can still be in the twenty-first century. That this is being presented by Martin Scorsese, and the presence of Bellucci in the cast, virtually guarantees it will return to Chicago at some point.