Errol Morris and the Expansion of the American Documentary

Errol Morris and the Expansion of the American Documentary


Morris’ innovations have been absorbed so thoroughly into the
documentary mainstream that it’s easy to forget how controversial they
once were. Criterion has just released his first three films—1978’s Gates of Heaven, 1981’s Vernon, Florida, and 1988’s The Thin Blue Line—on Blu-Ray and DVD, with a spare set of bonus features, mostly
consisting of present-day interviews with Morris. Although Roger Ebert
championed Gates of Heaven, calling it one of his all-time
favorite films and claiming to have seen it more than 30 times, other
spectators accused Morris of condescending to his subjects, the
operators of pet cemeteries. The Thin Blue Line was damned for
incorporating fictional reenactments into its detailing of the framing
of Randall Dale Adams, an innocent man sentenced to death row in ‘70s
Dallas. Despite its critics, it turned out to be highly influential. The
true crime dramas on the ID channel couldn’t exist without it; on a
more elevated plane, neither could Andrew Jarecki’s HBO mini-series The Jinx, and it’s no surprise that The Act of Killing director
Joshua Oppenheimer pops up to give an interview on Criterion’s disc.
Together, these three films expanded our notion of what documentaries
could do. 
Gates of Heaven looks surprisingly staid and calm now, compared to the projectile vomiting and unhinged rants of Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital and Welfare.
At least half of the film consists of carefully posed interviews. Rather
than pretending to capture reality on the fly, Morris set his subjects
in deliberately arranged settings. They’re usually at the center of the
frame. The light source is sometimes visible. A telling prop or two—a 
particularly ornate lamp, a framed photo of a dog, an abstract painting—can be seen in the background. Without calling attention to
themselves, Morris’ images are attractively lit and framed. 
Gates of Heaven
is divided into two halves. The first 40 minutes chronicle Floyd
McClure’s rough attempts to get a pet cemetery going, while the final
part depicts a working—and, seemingly, flourishing—cemetery called
Bubbling Water. The opening half portrays a world that doesn’t feel like
the ‘70s. The women, in particular, seem to be stuck in a ‘50s Douglas
Sirk wonderland, making no attempt to live up to the fashions of the
time. That changes later on. One cemetery owner speculates that the Pill
made pets more popular by allowing women to enter the workforce instead
of cranking out babies but leaving their need for nurturing and
companionship intact But the real difference in the film’s two sections
is that between storytelling and character study. At first, Morris seems
fascinated by the ins and outs of a failed pet cemetery. In the second
half of Gates of Heaven, he becomes more interested in the people
attracted to such a business, including an amateur rock guitarist who
plays him home-recorded tapes of his music and a former insurance
salesman who got fed up with that racket but still talks like he’s in
the sentimentality of Morris’ subjects threatens to become
overwhelming. I don’t think the director sneers at them, but he keeps a
polite distance. Yet 37 years after the film was made, their lack of
media savvy seems refreshing. These days, many of the middle-aged and
elderly women who appear before Morris’ camera would probably consult
fashion magazines, before appearing in a documentary. The subjects of Gates of Heaven care more about their late pets than looking cool; Morris isn’t mocking them by revealing this . 
Vernon, Florida
takes Morris to Les Blank country (although without Blank’s
multiculturalism – all but one of its subjects is a white man.) It
originated as a documentary about a town nicknamed “Nub City,” famous in
the insurance industry for the number of self-mutilations leading to
fraudulent claims there. However, Morris’ attempts to make a film about
that practice got him beaten up, and he decided to abandon that idea and
concentrate on the more peaceful folks of Vernon, Florida.
Unfortunately, this film feels even more distant than Gates of Heaven.
The twin hobbies of Vernon residents seem to be hunting and
Christianity – not surprisingly for a small town in the South – but one
senses that Morris appreciates them at a remove. At one point, a man
asks him if he’s ever fired a gun and then instantly senses that he
hasn’t. Stylistically, Vernon, Florida relies  more on montage than Gates of Heaven,
although it also uses long takes of its subjects talking. This time
around, they’re almost always filmed outdoors, in situations that seem
less controlled than those of Gates of Heaven. Still, Morris’ appreciation of small-town eccentricity paved the way for narrative films like Blue Velvet and Raising Arizona. 
In the seven years between Vernon, Florida and The Thin Blue Line, Morris worked as a private detective. That job experience paid off. However, he also took a large stylistic leap with The Thin Blue Line.
As Charles Musser’s liner notes point out, Randall Dale Adams, unjustly
convicted of murder, is color-coded white; the real killer, David
Harris, is bathed in orange light and interviewed in front of orange
bricks, matching the tone of his jail-issued clothes. 
film is famous for introducing reenactments to the documentary. It’s
notable how sparingly Morris uses them. For the most part, the only
reenactment is the murder scene, constantly repeated as the story is
retold by another participant or witness. The scene itself is shot in a
fragmented style. Morris’ direction is hyper-real. Throughout, the film
never spoon-feeds the spectator. No interview subject is ever identified
on-screen by name; while it’s easy to figure out who Adams and Harris
are, the minor figures in the case are cited only in the closing
credits. The true crime dramas that it influenced do their best to
imitate narrative fiction, offering relatively seamless dramatizations.
The film still uses interviews to make most of its points. Morris also
returns to a handful of motifs: someone stubbing out a cigarette in a
full ashtray, a close-up of a clock on a wall. 

According to John Pierson’s book Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, no less a director than Spike Lee cited The Thin Blue Line
as the only concrete example of a film that caused social change. Here,
Morris proves himself to be a careful, patient storyteller. He was
never a lawyer, but he thinks like one. He lays out the facts of Adams’
case and allows Harris to figuratively hang himself. He also presents
Adams as a likable character—Adams comes off as a film noir hero, in
fact. If Morris flirts with elements of fiction here, he does so with
great care. The Thin Blue Line spoke truth to power loudly enough
to get a man released from jail. It’s too bad that Morris’ subsequent
encounters with Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld are far meeker
engagements. Taking on the criminal justice system, Morris proved more
than up to the task; faced with the questionable judgments of
politicians, Morris let them drone on without challenging them too

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

Made To Be Free: An Interview with Damián Szifron, Director of ‘Wild Tales’

Made To Be Free: An Interview with Damián Szifron, Director of ‘Wild Tales’


Argentine director Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales
comprises six shorts, most dealing with the theme of revenge. They’re
not simple vigilante fantasies, but stories of people who’ve been pushed
too far by bureaucracy, road rage, or the lack of money. Both in content
and structure, the film resembles Jia Zhang Ke’s A Touch of Sin,
which Szifron swears he’s never seen. (That said, his sensibility is
far slicker.) The director has a background in TV, which shows: the
episodes of Wild Tales also resemble a memorable anthology
program. If it’s far from the Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso and
Matias Piñeiro films that are more commonly shown in North American
film festivals, Wild Tales offers a kind of mainstream
filmmaking that’s still intelligent and politically minded. No wonder
Pedro Almodovar hopped onboard as a producer.
Steven Erickson:
You’ve gone back and forth between TV and film. Do you think each
medium has its own advantages? Which one do you prefer? 
Damián Szifron:
Now TV is a very well-recognized place to work, but before, people thought
of it as something lower. The same thing happened with filmmaking. When
it started, intellectuals thought of it as a circus spectacle, lower
than the theater. Of course, you have different advantages. You can
spend time with characters in television. What I truly love about Mad Men
is that it’s full of scenes they would leave out of a film: long
silences. So you can get closer to literature in television than
filmmaking. It’s a more natural place to develop long situations. But as
a moviegoer, the possibility of being in a theater with a big screen in
silence with no interruptions is something I love. I’d say I prefer
film, but I see a lot of advantages in TV. 
Erickson: Is Argentine society as corrupt as you depict in Wild Tales
I would say it is. You have a lot of corruption there, but you have a
lot of corruption here. I would say the system that rules the world is
corrupt. In Argentina, you have some situations you probably don’t have
here. The episode of the rich father that tries to defend his son from
going to jail describes our society more than yours, but the rest of the
film could happen anyplace. 
There was a case of a teenage boy who killed several people while
driving drunk, and he was acquitted because his lawyer argued that he
was so rich he didn’t understand the consequences of his behavior. 
See, you have a different kind of corruption. I like that story!
Terrible. They should make a film about that. Good lawyer!
Erickson: In the press kit for Wild Tales, you’ve talked about how capitalism numbs people and the film as a response to that. Do you see it as a political film? 
I think it is. It’s not that I intended it that way. These characters
are not conscious of how the system works. They just live inside it
and feel the pressure and depression that it causes. Probably, we all
know that it’s not designed for our benefit but for the benefit of a
very concentrated group of powerful people. I think every time you pay a
tax and see that it’s used to save a bank or buy weapons, you
understand and see it clearly, but you just go on working and buying.
You lose a lot of time doing things you’re not interested in. Very
few people truly like their work. A lot of people waste their lives. I
think that causes a lot of suffering and depression. Some characters
explode. You read that in the newspapers. This is a film about them. 
Erickson: Do you think you’ll return to the notion of a feature made of shorts? 
I might do another one. I truly like the format of this film. It made
me a freer writer in a way, because sometimes you envy the way musicians
or painters can wake up one day and work on a different piece of art or
music. As a screenwriter, you have to live with the same characters and
universe for 6 months to a year. I was able to jump from character to
character very quickly. I enjoyed that freedom. I could do another one,
but it’s not the next thing I’m going to do. 
Erickson: Are any of your stories based on actual news events? 
No, but I know where the beginning of each episode comes from. Mostly,
it comes from my real life. For example, I remember this character who
was a loan shark that used to bother my family. So I invented the
character of the politician that goes to the bar, thinking of him, but
the rest, of course, is fiction. I was driving my car and got into a
discussion with another driver, and the guy insulted me. He went away
very fast. That was real, but then I imagined what would happen if the
asshole had a flat tire and this huge, muscular guy came across him. I
stopped in the middle of the desert just to write that story. The tow
truck took my car several times in places where it wasn’t clear you
couldn’t park. I went to discuss the fee, and I had to stand in line,
and then when it ended, I had to stand in another line. The bureaucracy
is perfectly designed so that you get tired and just pay. They could do
it faster and better and create a space where you can talk, but they
prefer that you shut up and pay. That’s the abuse of power. That
connects all the stories: the reaction towards the abuse of power. The
fictional part is the blow-up. I’ve been at weddings where everyone knew
something that the bride or groom didn’t know. I’m sure we could all
feel blame for characters who hurt us during our lives. I know where the
idea comes from. 
Erickson: Wild Tales began as a series of short stories. Are they adapted directly to film? 
I knew they were for the screen, because I think in terms of music,
acting and images. I like the elements of filmmaking. That’s the natural
space for me, rather than literature. But I didn’t know they were going
to become a film that soon. I thought I was writing something for the
future. But I felt the power of the whole thing when I finished it. When
I gave it to other people to read, their reactions were so enthusiastic
I thought, “I should do this first.” 
Erickson: Do you think the kind of loss of control you depict is becoming more common, or is it still a fictional element? 
Szifron: It’s a fictional element. I think you experience this film as if you were watching an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Amazing Stories.
There’s something fantastic about it, even if it doesn’t have
supernatural elements, but you experience it in that way. As fiction,
it’s all over the place. You can find these characters in real life in
Argentina, but also here. 
Erickson: It interests me that your film has ties to certain Asian films, not just A Touch of Sin but some of Park Chan-wook’s films. I think you’re dealing with something very universal about the world as it is now. 
As a filmmaker, you capture some things that are in the air and belong
to your generation and time. You turn these things into something that
connects with audiences. If you succeed, you’re talking about some very
real issues. But the themes behind the stories are eternal as well:
betrayal between men and women, the competition between two men, a man
against the system. I can imagine these stories in any country, in any
language. The desire to react against injustice is something we
experience very often because we are made to be free. We are animals in
the same way that a dog or bear is an animal. If you put a dog in a
cage and bother him with a stick and don’t feed him well, he will bite
when you open the cage because he’s defending his own territory. We’re
being bothered in that way too, as a species. You can expect reactions. 
Erickson: Do you feel at home in the Argentine film scene? Wild Tales feels a lot more mainstream than the Argentine films that typically play festivals. 
It was the biggest film ever in Argentine history. The amount of people
that saw it in Argentina was huge. I like the word “mainstream.” I want
to connect with a large number of people. Of course, I don’t like Transformers, but if I think back to the movies I adore the most, they were all, in their way, very popular, like The Godfather, 2001, Vertigo, Jaws, The Exorcist, The Apartment,
you name it. In their times, those were huge films. I think
filmmaking’s a popular art. If you think of a theater, there’s a lot of
seats that have to be filled. Of course, I do like a lot of smaller,
arthouse films, but I don’t have an issue with the concept of the
Erickson: Are you also influenced by earlier Argentine directors like Leopoldo Torre Nilsson? 
Wow, you know about him. I like him, but the ones that truly made an
impact on me were Leonardo Favio and a guy who died young, Fabian
Bielinsky. They were both filmmakers who combined industry with art. 
Erickson: I’ve seen one Favio film, Juan Moreira. 
Szifron: Why did you see that film? I’m curious. 
The director Matias Piñeiro programmed a series of his favorite
Argentine films in New York last year. He chose that one. 
Szifron: I know him. Yes, I heard about that. 
Erickson: My favorite film out of the series was made by an Argentine director in Paris, Hugo Santiago: The Sidewalks of Saturn

Szifron: You should see his first film. That was very good, but you should see Invasion. He made a third film, The Night of the Centaurs,  and in fact he has a new film coming this year.

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

On Paul Thomas Anderson’s INHERENT VICE: Between the Pavement and the Beach Lies the Shadow

On Paul Thomas Anderson’s INHERENT VICE: Between the Pavement and the Beach Lies the Shadow


Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), the hero of Inherent Vice,
is a hippie but not a radical. He just wants to get stoned, laid and
left alone. However, his job as a private eye, as well as his
involvement with some women he’s dated, involves him in 1970s politics. I expected Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, adapted
by the director from Thomas Pynchon’s most accessible novel, to be a
stoner goof, and I wondered if it would have any more present-day relevance
than Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke, even if it comes from a
far more literate sensibility. On the other hand, even stoner goofs play
to a political climate in which four U.S. states have legalized
marijuana.  There’s more than a little melancholy beneath Doc’s
euphoria, brought out by Phoenix’s performance. The cultural idealism
around drugs was running low by the time Inherent Vice is set,
and it’s largely dead now. Those who advocate legalizing marijuana argue that
it’s a healthier alternative to alcohol, with fewer social costs, not
that a cultural revolution would come about if beer drinkers switched to
vaporizing kush. 
Like most of Pynchon’s work, Inherent Vice is soaked in conspiracy theories. This isn’t new for him: The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow
pioneered countercultural paranoia when the counterculture was still
fresh. Pynchon’s fascination seemed skeptical yet open-minded. In the
late ‘60s and early ‘70s, conspiracy theories were mostly the property
of leftists. Now, some individuals argue that Barack Obama isn’t really a U.S.
citizen, venting thinly concealed racism. I’m sure Pynchon would hate to
think he helped pave the way for birthers and truthers. For example, the website,
which mostly analyzes music videos for their supposed hidden messages,
seems to simultaneously come from a far-left and far-right position: it
vociferously attacks the CIA, yet almost all the singers and rappers it
denounces as Illuminati pawns are black and/or female. Thom Andersen
was right to point out the conservative potential of conspiracy theories
in Los Angeles Plays Itself, yet conspiracies do happen, as in
COINTELPRO, the FBI’s secret plot to undermine radical American politics
in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Inherent Vice refers to it by name, and alludes to other programs as well. 
Josh Brolin, who plays straight-laced, flat-topped cop “Bigfoot”
Bjornsen, has more chemistry with Phoenix than any of the women in the
cast. This may be due to the nature of his character: picture Jack Webb
gone to seed, clearly envious of hippies’ freedom even as he verbally
bashes them. (In one of the film’s more bizarre scenes, he finally tries
pot.) In
a weirdly homoerotic touch, he’s often seen with a chocolate banana in
his mouth. The film is extremely well-cast. Even small roles are played
by actors like Michael Kenneth Williams and Martin Donovan. Yet it has a
tendency to relegate women to the level of sex objects. In handing the voice-over to
indie folk singer Joanna Newsom, Anderson seems aware of this problem,
but she sounds like an archetypal “hippie chick”—one imagines Joni
Mitchell fulfilling a similar role in an early ‘70s Robert Altman film. 
few times Anderson uses master shots, he gets some beautiful, painterly
vistas of the Southern California landscape. But he seems to shy away
from them in favor of a tighter style, favoring close-ups, putting the
focus on performance. The acting holds up, but the writing doesn’t
translate from novel to screen, even though much of it is taken directly
from Pynchon. Pynchon’s deliberate use of dated slang dampens the script’s wit—in fact, much of the film’s humor feels more theoretical than real. A
key passage about the co-opting of the counterculture is thrown away as
voice-over during a party scene at a rock band’s house. Even though Inherent Vice
is Pynchon’s simplest novel, the problems of Anderson’s screenplay
suggest the dangers of adapting such a complicated writer. The film
plays like a stoner’s version of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, with a coherent narrative getting lost in clouds of pot smoke. To some extent, that’s the point—Inherent Vice’s characters have only one foot in reality. But it doesn’t make for articulate filmmaking. 

the film’s press kit, Anderson asks, “Do we still have that sense of a
lost American promise that can be reclaimed?” For all its attempts at
humor and its characters’ hedonism, Inherent Vice is pretty
bummed-out: critic Howard Hampton described it as mapping “the
Manson-Nixon line.” However, I think New German Cinema and the ‘70s
films of Jean Eustache and Jacques Rivette did a better job of exploring
the hopes and failures of the counterculture. Part of the problem may
be that Anderson was born in 1970 and is depicting the dreams of his
parents’ generation. Films like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating
offered reports from the front. From the perspective of 2014, it’s easy
to say that the hippies lost or, at best, some of their values won in a
roundabout way decades later, as the sexual revolution led to same-sex
marriage. To return to the Situationist slogan “(Under the pavement, the
beach!”) used as the epigraph to Pynchon’s novel, the distance between
the pavement and the beach seems further and further away.  Making a
movie that simulates the experience of watching film noir on pot
brownies seems somewhat beside the point, even if it has its pleasures.

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

Walking Toward the Flame: An Interview with Robert Greene About ACTRESS

Walking Toward the Flame: An Interview with Robert Greene About ACTRESS


Documentarian Robert Greene’s evolution has been astonishing. His second and third features, Kati with an i and Fake It So Real,
are immersive portraits of his half-sister during the period leading up
to her high school graduation and a team of amateur wrestlers,
respectively. They’re accomplished films, but they don’t prepare one for
the skill shown in his latest film, Actress. Depicting Brandy Burre, an actress who appeared on The Wire
but gave her craft up to became a homemaker, it comes as close to
Douglas Sirk as it does to Frederick Wiseman. Using devices like slow motion and
saturated color, Greene follows Brandy over a troubled year in her life,
as her relationship with her partner Tim crumbles and she tries to get
back into acting. His next film will integrate fictional devices even
further, as it tells the story of an actress (Kate Lyn Sheil) playing a
news anchor who committed suicide on air in the ‘70s.
Greene recently ran a (successful!) crowdsourcing campaign to raise money for the music rights
so that Actress could be released on November 7th
(Note: I don’t think Actress
is the kind of narrative film for which spoiler warnings need apply,
but readers should be forewarned that this interview discusses its final
Press Play: At what point did it become apparent that Actress was as much a melodrama as a documentary? 
Robert Greene:
That’s an interesting question. Brandy is my neighbor. We’ve known
each other for years. We have kids the same age, so that our friendship was
based more on children than on being grown-up friends. When you’re
friends with other parents, it’s often through what your children are
taking you to, like parties. From the beginning, my interest in Brandy
as a subject grew before the story became so dramatic. She’s a theatrical
human being. The basic premise was, “What happens if you make an
observational documentary about an actor?” What is the effect that has?
Maybe she’ll be overacting. That has aspects of melodrama from the
beginning. That could’ve found its way in different forms. One of my
original ideas was just to show her performing acts of wife-ness, and
motherhood, and showing instability and fragility in these performances.
Then that could’ve taken us anywhere. Before we knew where the movie was
going, we thought about staging things and revealing they were staged.
The actual events in her life gave us the grounding I needed. All the slow motion stuff was shot in camera as slow motion. There’s a
technical difference between doing that and adding slow motion effects later.
The scene where Tim walks in behind her as she’s putting makeup on was
done when I had the camera around, and I just liked the framing, so I
put it on in slow motion, but it’s as observational as anything else.
The miracle of the film, I guess, is that the things that were happening
matched my instincts from the beginning. 
Press Play: Were there any aspects of her life that she hesitated to let you film? 
Yes. As she says in the movie, she has a real love/hate relationship
with the camera, as most actors do. I think she was hesitant about the
whole thing and also wanted to embrace it. I think Brandy’s the type of
person who, if she feels hesitant, will walk towards the flame.
That’s her natural instinct. A lot of actors go, “If I’m scared, do it.”
The whole concept of stage fright is fascinating. Actors get stage
fright,  but they wouldn’t be on the stage in the first place if they
just succumbed to it. There’s this love/hate relationship with the
spotlight. You sense that tension, hopefully, throughout the film. It’s a
totally natural response. My instinct was to protect some things. I
knew that a portrait of Brandy was never going to be a sweet,
no-blemishes depiction, because that’s not the type of human being she
is. She’s tough and prickly. I knew there was always going to be an edge
to it. At the same time, I never put in fights that she and Tim had,
and she appreciated it. It’s all true, but like all documentaries, it’s
my version of the truth.  
That scene with the bruise over her eye creates some expectations
in the spectator. When I first saw it, I thought that Tim had hit her,
and I didn’t completely believe her story that it was an accident. Is
that kind of question something you want viewers to ask? 
The reason that scene is in there the way it is—I would prefer not to
spoil it if possible—is to elicit that reaction. When I first saw Tim
after it happened, he said “I didn’t do it” jokingly. The whole movie
is about her stepping out of line in some ways. It’s about her testing
the boundaries of what’s OK. The response that a fair number of people
have is that she deserves to be swatted down. I don’t think most people
think she deserves physical violence. But the fact that it happened and
that we could play with that expectation and the viewer could think
about where they stand with Brandy’s decisions was fascinating.
Hopefully, by this point, the viewer is thinking about the layers of
reality around everything. Is she acting? Is she being authentic? Is
this real? All these things that are happening in every scene pay off.
You don’t know what you’re looking at. It’s totally true that she did
fall out of a car. But the fact that you don’t believe her is an
interesting way that women are often viewed. The whole film is about a
woman with a radically specific take on her life, by a filmmaker with a
radically specific take on her life. It puts you in a position where you
have to think through some things and judge, as we often do. When
people go through breakups, we judge people, and the film pushes that
last scene to some extreme point. I’d like viewers to cycle through all
their thoughts. Who hit her? Is she lying? Is this a role she got when
she walked through the ABC building? Is this some stupid metaphor the
director came up with to describe her plight? In thinking through those,
hopefully you’re thinking about your own take on the image of a bruised
face. Beyond that, this is something documentaries are often afraid to
do. Forget observation! Go for expression! The image of a bruised face
should mean something, even if it’s a complex thing and seems like a
stunt at first. Also, it’s the last thing we filmed. It’s literally the
end of the story. 
Press Play: How do you think your interest in performance developed? It’s nascent in Kati With an i, blossoms in Fake It So Real and Actress and is developing even further in your next film. 
I was probably 14 when I heard this cliché that there are 17 words for
snow in the Inuit language and became completely obsessed with language
and the way words function in culture. Similarly, the idea of social
performance, that we’re always performing identities, is something I got
fairly obsessed with. I think it’s probably because I am a person who
went to 15 different elementary and middle schools. I moved all the
time, often having to run out in the middle of the night because my mom
couldn’t pay the bills. There were schools where I’d be the poor loser
kid. There were schools where I’d suddenly be the smart kid or the cool
kid, although that was very seldom. By the fourth grade, it was clear
that I was taking this role on. It troubled me, because I’m not the
person who was cool five days ago. I find it fascinating. I don’t think
it’s a dead end. In Actress, the goal of talking about
performance is to show that these are traps. The role of wife, mother,
or filmmaker is only part of the truth. We’re supposed to “do the right
thing” all the time, but it’s often filling what Joshua Oppenheimer, in
an interview I did with him recently, called “unacknowledged social
scripts.” So that’s fascinating to me. The documentary camera—specifically, an observational camera—held by someone who’s attentive
to behavior can detect these layers and reveal what makes up society. In
Kati With an i, you have a girl who says she’s getting married
and going to college, but she’s just repeating back what society tells
her to say. What does that mean and why? In Fake It So Real, these guys are creating escape fantasies for themselves and creating art out of it. Actress
is a step forward from that. It’s about how you get out of that role.
Because Brandy has a master’s degree in acting, I knew she could bring
something more to it. Who knows how many more times I can explore this? I
just think there’s something in the non-fiction form that allows
you to see things clearly, if you’re patient.
Press Play: Kati With an i and Fake It So Real both depict your relatives, although I don’t think the films mention that. Did that make the filming easier? 
Greene: It does. I think I appear very briefly in Kati With an i,
and you see me hugging Kati very briefly with a camera. You can put two
and two together and figure out who I am, especially because I say in
the credits that I appear. I didn’t feel the need to say that Chris
Solar is my cousin in Fake It So Real. But it does make it
easier. It’s simply that these are films I could get made. I’ve never
raised any money upfront to pay for a movie. That’s changing now with my
next film. I was supported by a company I used to work for, 4th Row
Films, who could give me equipment and help pay for travel expenses if
necessary and buy tapes for my DIVX camera. There’s no big sum of money
upfront. At the same time, I’m not interested in my personal take on the
stories. I had Sean Williams shoot Kati With an i because he was
looking at my half-sister in a way that I never would have. It was much
more interesting. That movie wouldn’t exist if I had shot it. Chris Solar
was the “in” for this world in Fake It So Real, but it’s an ensemble piece. For Actress,
I’m looking out my window now at Brandy’s house. It’s obvious that’s
the only way this could have been made. It’s very pretentious to call
out John Cassavetes as an influence, but we made a grown-up movie about
grown-up themes in each other’s homes with a similar “go for broke,
let’s see what happens” aesthetic. The next film stars a friend of mine.
I was hesitant to make Actress because I didn’t want to keep
making films about people who are close to me. But in the end, the movie
took hold, as they tend to do. I don’t care about the idea of objective
distance from your subject. Hopefully there’s something explored here. 
Press Play: Is it frustrating to have a distributor for Actress and an opening date locked in, but still have to raise money for the music rights? 
Greene: It’s frustrating in some sense, but I’m lucky to be able to do it. Basically, the Cinema
Guild is great, but they don’t pay money. They help you get your film
out there, and hopefully if all things click in some beautiful and
magical way, Actress could be one of a hundred documentaries that
succeeds. I hope that could happen, but I don’t expect it. I’ve seen
the movie connect with people that aren’t just cinephiles. I’m hoping it
continues and we’re working hard to make it happen. 4th Row Films paid
for The Rachels and Colleen and several other songs in the film, and
the posters, with no money raised upfront. It eventually got to a point
where it wasn’t sustainable. They’ve supported every one of my films,
and I felt like I couldn’t ask them to do it anymore. They believed in
these songs. We’d been working for months to get the quotes on those
songs down. The original price was much, much higher. We had several
choices. Do we cut these songs? We got the prices down to a manageable
level where I didn’t feel like it was an obscene or absurd amount of
money. The choice really was to cut the songs or raise the money this
way. At the same time, it’s an effort to preserve the vision I had for
the money. For a movie that was made for no money, you would never
assume you would use that music. I feel lucky to be able to fight for my
vision. Cutting those songs would physically hurt me. I usually think
“Don’t fall in love with a song in a rough cut, because you’re gonna
have to cut it.” This isn’t that case. This is a case of expressing
something through music. One of them is the love song that Brandy and
her boyfriend have. It’s their song. It would kill me to cut that song
or use some cheap alternative. So it’s frustrating, but thank God I have
people around who think it’s worthy. 
Press Play: In Kati With an i, you used a song by the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Were there any similar issues? 
No, they loved it. It’s a different ballgame. They’re a big deal in
certain circles, but they’re not Harry Belafonte. They don’t have legacy
costs built in. Colin Blunstone and Belafonte are owned by Sony. I used
a Guided By Voices song in Fake It So Real. Those were manageable costs: in the hundreds, not thousands and thousands. As crucial as that song is to Kati With an i,
I probably would’ve had to cut that scene if I couldn’t afford it.
Here, it’s a case of believing strongly that the film deserves that
moment. I’ve always cringed at crowdfunding, but this film’s done and
ready to go. The only thing we had to do is a fun, behind-the-scenes
clip of the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus watching that clip on the DVD of Kati With an i. I flew down to Florida to shoot it. That was a slightly bigger cost than the cost of the song, but it was worth it. 
Press Play: Do you think Actress will be the performance for which Brandy will most likely be remembered? 
Greene: She’s in what I consider to be the greatest television show of all time, The Wire, and she’s pretty great in it. I think she’s extraordinary in Actress.
How many movies are going to be able to shed a light on all that she
is, like this movie? It would be presumptuous to think that’s the
answer. The sky’s the limit for her. She wants to act in good stuff, but
she has to pay the bills. She has to work the same balance we all do,
between art and commerce. When people see her in this movie, she’s going
to be able to choose some very interesting things. On the one hand, how
could another role be as fully Brandy as that role? On another, who
knows what’s going to happen? I would like to be one of her memorable
roles. I think that’s a better way to put it. 
Press Play: Do you consider it a feminist film? 
Greene: Feminism is basically “Do women deserve equal treatment?” Yes, obviously. 
Well, it goes beyond that. You explore several examples of
sexism, like the scene where Brandy talks about the lack of a
diaper-changing board in Tim’s restaurant and that the only roles
available for her are the “wife or girlfriend.” It gets into the
specifics of how women in their thirties are treated, both in Hollywood
and in the larger world. 
Absolutely. From the start, it was clear that we could make a film
about a woman in her thirties. When I heard the story about her being
passed over for parts because she’s in her thirties, that was the first
time I felt like I had a movie, because I’ve constantly heard those
kinds of stories but couldn’t remember seeing them in a movie. I
consider it a feminist film, in some ways radically so. Tim is
deliberately marginalized. He’s an aloof person—that’s just how he
conducts himself. This is a magnified version of himself. It’s radically
her perspective, about a woman in her situation. At the same time,
hopefully the film doesn’t stop at feminism or a political perspective
on womanhood. I want the viewer to think about exploitation but also
about Brandy exploiting herself, the camera exploiting her and all these
levels of intricacy. Hopefully the experience is complex enough that it
goes into spaces that are sometimes troubling and upsetting and moving.
It’s sometimes hard to talk about politics and art. Obviously, I have my
core beliefs, but I think art is best when it’s troublesome and pushes
against stuff. Did I want to make a film that confirms that it’s hard to
be a woman when you’re repressed creatively? Yes, I wanted to reveal
that. Hopefully it doesn’t stop at that statement. 
Press Play: That also ties into the ending. 
The ending is a provocation, but it’s tied into non-fiction filmmaking.
That’s what happened. My job was to say “Shit! In some ways, this has
to be in the movie. “ Along the way, a lot of filmmakers get rid of
things that are messy or don’t fit in some ways. To me, I want to work
with serendipity and things we happened upon. That’s our job, that’s
what the form demands. It absolutely does speak to a feminist 
perspective. You could take the image of her face with a bruise out of
context and use it as a feminist provocation, but hopefully there’s also
more going on. 
Press Play: Your next film sounds like your most complex narrative yet. Do you think you’re moving closer to fiction? 
Greene: I’m gonna do what a lot of documentary filmmakers do and move into fiction, royally screw up. That’s my goal. 
Press Play: I said “move closer to fiction,” not make a fiction film. 
It’s a joke that Alex [Ross Perry] always says:  ”You’re going to be a
laughingstock in no time. Why don’t you make a comedy about an actress?”
I think with Actress it’s not fiction I was interested in, but
filmmaking, aesthetic choices that touched on the reality of the
situation. With the next film I find myself continuing to step back and
say, “I make non-fiction partly because I’m not that good of a writer. My
talent, if I have any, is in balancing, capturing and directing
reality, rather than creating scenarios.” That’s how I would describe
fiction. I’m much more interested in finding a chaos in reality which
you can swim in. Only because that’s what I’m good at and feel
comfortable doing. When I think about the new film, I think I can do
whatever I want with fiction, but the more documentary it is, the better
it will be because that’s what I’m good at. I’m good at observing
people’s behavior and putting these unspoken things into movie contexts
in ways that other people can sometimes miss. Not to compare myself to
the Maysles brothers, but they were great at taking sensational things
out of reality. If they tried to write those things, they would be
failures. At the same time, I love working with Alex and editing things [such as Ross Perry’s film Listen Up Philip] and working in the
fiction realm. I can’t imagine that I’m not going to challenge myself to
try it at some point. But I think the potential for formal
boundary-pushing is higher in documentaries.   
Press Play: How did your column in Sight and Sound come about? 
Greene: I wrote a few things for Hammer to Nail,
and then they reached out. I write from a filmmaker’s perspective about
documentary, which means that I’m talking about camera, editing and
performance. These are things that don’t find their way into mainstream
writing about these films. I started saying things that found some
small audience. Then, Nick Bradshaw at Sight and Sound was
expanding their online presence. It’s amazing to have that monthly
deadline, even if I’ve tip-toed it. It allows me to flex a muscle, and that’s
very satisfying.    

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

NYFF Documentaries: Political Cinema Horizons from RED ARMY to CITIZENFOUR

NYFF Documentaries: Political Cinema Horizons from RED ARMY to CITIZENFOUR


the first time in 52 years, the New York Film Festival has expanded to
include a 15-film documentary sidebar. This includes the expected
portraits of artists (Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction, Albert Maysles’ Iris, Les Blank & Gina Leibrecht’s How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy),
but it also encompasses films in which Americans gaze at other cultures
and even attempt to critique them (Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, J. P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry, Gabe Polsky’s Red Army.) There’s another strain of documentary here, which might be called the national self-portrait. Arthur Jafa’s Dreams Are Colder Than Death attempts to take the pulse of black America. Ossama Mohammed & Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait
shows the ravages of civil war in Syria. All these films suggest
different ways of making political cinema. Do any of them offer real
innovations or ways forward? 
It’s not exactly news that sports can be a realm where nationalism plays itself out in a more benign fashion than war, but Red Army
examines the last decade of the Cold War through the lens of hockey.
Relying heavily on a varied array on archival footage, as well as
present-day interviews, he centers on Soviet hockey great Slava Fetisov,
who came to prominence in the early ‘80s. Despite a few odd stylistic
tics, such as printing interview subjects’ names first in Cyrillic and
then in English, Polsky resists the urge to wallow in communist kitsch,
like the “North Korea is so cool” tone of several recent documentaries
about the hermit kingdom. He’s more concerned with illuminating the
differences between  the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Fetisov learned to play
hockey well, but his training came at the cost of a private life.
(Granted, this may be the universal price of fame and success.) When he
and his Russian peers were finally allowed to play in the NHL, Red Army
doesn’t present this as an unmitigated triumph. While acknowledging the
human cost of communism, it also depicts their culture
shock, being attacked by North American players and the media, and
having difficulty adjusting to a more individualistic playing style. I’m
not sure what Fetisov’s exact present-day politics are, but he accepted
a post from Putin as Minister of Sport. Now that American-Russian
tensions are flaring up again, this reminder of the last Cold War feels
more  contemporary—and painful—than it might have five years ago:
Russia is once again becoming the Other, a convenient source of villains
for action movies and TV shows.  
If Red Army offers a relatively mellow look at the damage wrought by the Cold War, the much-awaited The Look of Silence
serves up a full, unblinking look at the horrors committed in the name
of anti-communism. If it goes down somewhat easier than its abrasive and
deeply disturbing companion piece The Act of Killing, in which
Oppenheimer had  murderers reenact their crimes on film, that’s because
it adds some warmth and humanity to the mix—protagonist Adi, an
optician, is shown interacting with his family. However, Adi’s elder
bother was murdered in the 1965 massacre of a million Indonesian
“communists,” and Adi lives in a village alongside his killers, who were
never punished and in fact remain free today. The film’s methods are
deceptively simple: Oppenheimer shows Adi outtakes from The Act of Killing,
which gradually evolve into discussions of his brother’s death, on a
video monitor while he watches silently, and then  and goes about his
daily life, which includes making glasses for the surviving killers from
1965 and interviewing them about the bad old days. Adi seems to be the
only Indonesian who wants to remember this period in the country’s
history—or, at least, recall it accurately. In some respects, The Look of Silence feels like a response to the critics of The Act of Killing. Violence is never shown, just described, although its full awfulness may exceed what happens in The Act of Killing:
several killers describe drinking human blood. People who find
Oppenheimer’s films pornographic and exploitative may simply be
uncomfortable with an NC-17 reality. But unlike The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence depicts an inspiring level of resistance to historical oblivion. 
South Korean director Jung Yoon-suk’s Non-Fiction Diary revolves
around a group of serial killers called the Jijon Clan, but it takes in
a wide swath of ‘90s Korean history and politics. The Jijon Clan were a
gang of six youths who committed a series of horrific murders in 1993
and 1994; their crimes were so surreally awful that when one of their
victims described them  to the police, they thought she was high on
drugs. However, Non-Fiction Diary contrasts the Clan’s murders,
condemned by the whole of Korean society and quickly punished, with the
collapses of a bridge and a department store shortly afterwards due to
irresponsisble building methods, which actually killed far more people.
Relying on period news clips (especially a lengthy talk show debate
about the crisis in Korean morality) and interviews with cops,
professors and a nun, Jung also lends a stylish touch to the grim
proceedings. Non-Fiction Diary begins with still photos, and it
then goes into a split-screen montage of some of the images that will
follow. The Jijon Clan both hated and envied the wealthy; the first part
of their three-line manifesto read “the rich shall be loathed,” yet
they wanted to become millionaires. Non-Fiction Diary sees their
crimes as an extreme manifestation of the amorality implicit in
neo-liberal capitalism. At times, it comes dangerously close to making
excuses for them because they weren’t rich, unlike the head of the
Sampoong Department Store, whose fall killed more than 500 people. They
got capital punishment, he got a slap on the wrist, despite bearing
ultimate responsibility for his store’s collapse, as the film points
out. However, Jung ultimately offers a range of perspectives on issues
like the death penalty, told with a distanced touch, although he
sometimes seems to be chafing at the constraints of his film’s form. 
The Iron Ministry opens with extreme close-ups of trains as disorienting and immersive as anything in Leviathan, the film that put Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab on the festival map. (Although Sniadecki is a graduate of the Lab, The Iron Ministry isn’t an official product of it.) Shot over three years on trains across China, The Iron Ministry
is an experience in flux. Its constant  change mirrors that of the
economic and social change sweeping the  nation it depicts. Sniadecki
initially opts for a purely sensual experience; 20 minutes pass before
the first subtitle appears. It’s not edited to look seamless—Sniadecki
clearly cut together numerous train rides and makes no attempt to
smooth over the vehicles’ different looks. Taking a train in China seems
a lot like riding on Amtrak 20 years ago, when they routinely
over-booked trains and cigarette smoking was still allowed. Yet for
every moment of filth Sniadecki shows, there’s an image of beauty or
grace to counter it. He also delves into Chinese politics, interviewing
passengers on  subjects like the role of Islam in Chinese life,
pollution and possible progress towards democracy. His presence is
subtly but definitely felt. Sniadecki has crafted a film that can stand
proudly along the best recent Chinese-made documentaries. 
director Laura Poitras was the first journalist to become Edward
Snowden’s regular correspondent. (Technically, her film is part of the
NYFF’s main slate, not its documentary sidebar.) As an opening card
reveals, she was also put on a U.S. government watch list after making
her first film and is subject to constant harassment at American
airports. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled by her respectful treatment of
Snowden here. While the film starts off as a wide-ranging depiction of
issues around privacy and surveillance, it settles into a Hong Kong
hotel room with Snowden and Glenn Greenwald (then a columnist for The Guardian)
for its central hour, which depicts the meeting that led to the public
revelations about the NSA’s out-of-control spying. At first, the film
seemed strangely impersonal. Poitras uses the first person in on-screen
text and reproduces E-mail and chat sessions with Snowden. Yet she never
appears in the image  herself for more than an instant. I initially
thought that a film which dealt more directly with her personal
struggles with the U.S. government would bring home the dangers of the
NSA’s activities more forcefully. But ultimately, the film she did make,
which often resembles an elegantly shot spy thriller, does deliver the
justified paranoia of Snowden and Greenwald’s message effectively. It
also does a lot to humanize a man who’s too often been demonized as a
traitor; the Snowden depicted in CITIZENFOUR is a likable,
friendly guy who tried to do the right thing, acted on the fly and  got
caught up in a world drama  that overtook him. Poitras is on his side,
certainly, but her depiction is believable. 
The relationship of form and content in political cinema has been debated since the late ‘60s, when Cahiers du Cinéma
declared all films more conventional than Jean-Luc Godard and
Jean-Marie Straub’s work reactionary. I don’t want to jump on that
bandwagon here, particularly when a film like Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War,
although stylistically bland, has managed to accomplish real political
goals in  changing the way the military prosecutes sexual assault.
Nevertheless, there’s something disheartening about the way Non-Fiction Diary
conveys an explicitly anti-capitalist message mostly through the usual
assemblage of interviews and archival footage, which threatens to
collapse into formula. 
However, documentaries like The Look of Silence and The Iron Ministry seem to point the way forward. Oppenheimer’s touch in The Look of Silence
is a subtle one; his voice is sometimes heard, and interview subjects
occasionally refer to him, often in an unflattering light. Adi is
definitely not just a stand-in for Oppenheimer, and he’s a strong enough
presence to remind one that The Look of Silence really is a collaboration with Indonesian filmmakers, including a co-director who can only be billed as “Anonymous.” The Iron Ministry
is less politically inflammatory than Oppenheimer’s films, but it
synthesizes several documentary traditions in an inventive manner. If
Americans continue to make films about other cultures – or our own, for
that matter – it seems best to  leave traces of our own subjectivity in
the frame, as The Look of Silence and The Iron Ministry do, and honestly acknowledge our own perspective’s role in shaping the films we make.

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

“Training, practice, letting go”: An interview with Paul Eenhorn of LAND HO!

“Training, practice, letting go”: An interview with Paul Eenhorn of LAND HO!


Seattle-based actor Paul Eenhoorn has appeared in low-budget indie
films for years, but he came to national attention last year for his
performance in Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner. As the
title character. Eenhoorn played a non-believer who works for a
faith-based charity that helps prisoners adjust to freedom upon release
from jail. The film has a low-key vibe reminiscent of ‘70s greats like
Monte Hellman and Jerry Schatzberg, more than contemporary indie films,
and Eenhoorn’s performance makes an impact without any showiness. He
makes an equally strong impression in Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s Land Ho!, a road movie about two sixtysomething friends who take a vacation in Iceland. Much lighter in tone than This Is Martin Bonner,
it contrasts the acting styles of Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson, a
real-life doctor who’s essentially playing his extroverted self.
Eenhoorn has had an unusual career trajectory, coming to prominence
only in his 60s after starting out as a musician in Perth, Australia. He discussed that path with me frankly. 
Steven Erickson: How did you meet Chad Hartigan and get cast in This Is Martin Bonner
Paul Eenhoorn:
I saw an ad on Actor’s Access. It’s a small casting site that runs
shoots going on in L.A. Vancouver and New York. I read a one-line
breakdown and flew down to L.A. to audition for him. I thought “This
sounds perfect.” It was my age group. I read for Chad, and then I went
down a second time and read with Richmond Arquette. It was serendipity,
being prepared. It was a nice confluence of events. It’s been a good two
SE: That was sort of your breakthrough in the U.S., I guess. 
At my age! Usually, breakout actors are 18. Actually, one of the
comments from Sundance was, “This guy is a very good actor and he’s in
his 60s.”
SE: How do you feel about that? 
I had all the talent when I was in my 20s. I didn’t have that many
opportunities, but I probably wasn’t the person I am now. I probably
would’ve ended up dying of a cocaine overdose or choking myself to death
in a hotel room. Everything comes in the right order in life, I think.
If you keep repeating the mistakes you’ve made…what’s the definition
of insanity? Doing the same things over and over again and expecting a
different result. I’ve always felt I had the talent. I’ve done a lot in
my life. I’ve written, been in bands, done live TV for a network in
Perth. I’m well-trained when it comes to being on a set, which gives you
SE: Did you start performing as a rock musician? 
I did some stage when I was a kid, around 16 or so. I was living in
Melbourne and had a band. I was quite young. We weren’t very good. Then I
found a band in Perth. We played around for three years. We’re in the
“History of Rock’N’Roll,” a book about Perth music. It’s a thick
publication because Perth was a lot like Seattle. It kept producing
great musicians, but I missed the boat on that. It was fun. I still miss
music and singing. One day, I’m going to sing with a big band. My band
played covers and some originals. 
SE: Whose decision was it to use their music in This Is Martin Bonner
Chad. I had just got an MP3 off my old bassist. We just reconnected
after 30 years. He had an acetate, not even vinyl, track of a song we
recorded. Chad said, “Send it to me!” Sure enough, he put it in. It’s the
one scene I can’t watch. I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s 40 years
since it was recorded, and it fucks with my brain. 
SE: Do you still like the music you made then? 
Hell yeah! I know all the words still. I’ve been writing music since I
was a teenager. I play keyboards. I’m not much of a player, but I can
write. That will come along. I’d like to do a musical. 
SE: To write one? 
I’ve got 200 songs that I’ve written, although not all recorded, going
back to the ‘70s. I’ve kept them all. A lot of stuff. 
SE: Do you think living in Seattle gives you an advantage over living in New York or L.A.? 
New York is too big. L.A. is just not me. I need water around me.
Washington State is soft and green. L.A. is hard and brown. You know
what I mean? 
SE: I’ve actually never been there. 
When you fly out of L.A., it’s desert. When you fly into Seattle, it’s
water and forest. It’s a totally different environment. L.A., to me,
feels a lot like Reno. Whenever I talk to people in L.A., they’re all
looking for a dream and have given up on it because life takes you in
other directions. It’s not a good game trying to fit into this society,
especially if you’re a fruitcake. You’ve got to find your own space. If
you’re lucky, you can. 
SE: At what point did you emigrate to the U.S.? 
15 years ago. I met my wife in Sydney, before she was my wife. She was
flying for United. We had a relationship for about three years. Then I
came here and got my green card. That wasn’t as hard as people make out.
I had to get married within a certain time. 
SE: How did your short Room 13 come about? 
PE: I was shooting a pilot for The Divine Marigolds,
which was shot in Seattle. It never aired, like most pilots. I thought
“What if a soldier got caught up in a sting with an undercover cop? He
thinks he’s seeing a hooker, but they’re actually arresting johns
soliciting prostitution.” There’s 22 minutes. There’s actually another
few minutes I would like back in the film. I had some input from Will
Chase, who’s a line producer in Seattle. It’s not easy. I learned
everything from filmmaking, as a director/writer/part-producer. I can be
proud of it as a first film. I learned what not to do. 
SE: What was that? 
Don’t let your producer on the set. Apart from that, don’t have a
gambling habit while you’re trying to raise money. Those sorts of
SE: Was the gambling habit yours or your producer’s? 
It was mine. I was really hooked. It was like a drug. That was about
four years ago. I went and saw a counselor and sorted that mess out.
I’ve been to some dark places. 
SE: Both Martin Bonner and Land Ho! are buddy movies of a sort. Are you attracted to that kind of narrative? 
PE: Yes, in different ways. Love, Actually, Notting Hill, Field of Dreams, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Marigold Hotel is
probably the closest. It’s about real people. They don’t blow things up
or have car chases. They actually sit  down and talk. The narrative is
there, and if it’s good enough, people don’t need all the extraneous
crap that the tentpoles include. I actually watched Wolverine the other night and I did enjoy it. But I don’t seek out action films. I seek out non-action  films. 
SE: I thought it was interesting that in Land Ho!, the characters have fairly mainstream taste in film. They would probably never go see a film like Land Ho!
PE: They might. I would see Philomena before I’d see the sixth version of Transformers, if that was my chance. Let’s see who wants to see Land Ho! I’ll be on-line checking. 
SE: You made the unusual step of prospecting for investors for new films starring yourself on Facebook. How did that work out? 
I got what I wanted in a week. I have not found a script. I was
disappointed in one script I received. I’ve got one person who’s writing
a script now. So I haven’t tapped that yet. When it’s time, I’ll set up
LLCs. It was not difficult at all. With Indieogogo, it took me a month
and a half to raise eight grand. Having a little bit of success helps
you raise money, but at the same time, I want something that’s got bona
fides and possible commercial success. I’m not an artist. You make
Kentucky Fried Chicken. You don’t go out and make something you don’t
want to, but you have to have a handle on the fact that you’re doing
this with other people’s money. 
SE: Well, This Is Martin Bonner was relatively marginal. I’ve seen Chad Hartigan’s tweet where he said he only made $1,500 from filmmaking. 
PE: Bonner got
distribution, so the executive producer got his money. It was a
critical success. The Cassavetes award at the Indie Spirits came with
some cash. I think he’s got a little bit more in his pocket since then.
I’ve seen the tweet you’re talking about, and I think it was posted
before then. 
SE: Did you have as much chemistry with Earl Lynn Nelson off-screen as your character did with him in Land Ho!
No. Because I needed alone time. I needed time to recuperate and get
back in my head. When I’m shooting, I’m not there to party. I’m there to
work. Part of that working is getting somewhere where it’s quiet and
where your distractions are just normal, everyday ones. Earl Lynn is
just that way all the time. I have a tendency to withdraw from everyone,
so I have time to recoup. We got to know each other better after the
film wrapped. 
I was curious about that, because other people have told me he’s pretty
much playing himself and his real-life personality is very similar to
what you see on-screen. 
It is.  The good thing with him is that if you put a camera on him, he
doesn’t change. A lot of people change when you do. I’m always reminded
of a scene in For the Love of the Game where Kevin Costner’s
pitching a perfect baseball game. There’s a scene where he shuts
everything out except the batter and the catcher. I tell people “When
you can shut everything out and the twenty people standing in the room
are no longer there, you will experience magic.” If you’re really there
as an actor, you know when you’ve got the scene down. You don’t need to
wait to hear “cut.” You have to forget that it’s cold and windy or that
you’re standing in Seattle for eight hours in the rain to get a scene.
Iceland is beautiful and rugged, but it’s better in the summer, and we
were there in the fall. 
SE: How has your minimalist approach to acting developed? 
Training, practice, letting go. You’ve seen selfies on Facebook. Your boobs are
in the profile, you’ve got a big smile. What
you’re trying to do as an actor is the opposite of that. Acting for film is not caring
that the camera’s there. You strip it down and go for truth and the
heart. You find that connection with the other people you’re working
with. Personally, I’m always where I need to be when I shoot film, so I
trust that. If I’m hyperactive and I’m in a great mood, then I trust
that, since the film obviously requires it. Colin [his character in Land Ho!] is rather subdued. You can’t have two Earl Lynns on one set, so you need a positive and negative interaction.

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

Waleed Zuaiter Discusses Producing and Starring In OMAR

Waleed Zuaiter Discusses Producing and Starring In OMAR


the past decade, actor Waleed Zuaiter has made a strong impression in
theater, film and TV roles such as an Iraqi translator screwed over by
the American military in George Packer’s play Betrayed (filmed and broadcast by PBS) and Saddam Hussein’s friend in the HBO/BBC mini-series House of Saddam.
Born in California to Palestinian parents, he grew up in Kuwait and
traveled around the U.S., the Middle East, and Europe as a youth. He has recently appeared on American movie screens in Palestinian director Hany
Abu-Assad’s Omar, in which he plays the crucial role of Israeli
Agent Rami. Rami, who seems to work for the Israeli equivalent of our
FBI, convinces the title character to snitch on his radical Palestinian
friends in order to get out of jail. In other hands, the part could have
become that of a caricatured tough guy, but Zuaiter brings out Rami’s complexity
and nuances. In addition to acting in Omar, Zuaiter also
produced the film. In fact, he played the  main role in bringing the
film into existence, setting up a production company along with his two
brothers to fund it.  Zuaiter is also appearing in the NBC series Revolution. He spoke to me recently by phone from his California home. 

Steven Erickson: How did you get involved with Omar
Waleed Zuaiter: Hany Abu-Assad is a friend. We were introduced by a mutual friend in L.A. shortly after he made Paradise Now.
We hit it off and always wanted to work together. Then, about three
years ago, he sent me the script and said he was interested in having me
play the role of Rami. It was one of the fastest scripts I’ve ever read. I read a lot
of scripts, but I’m not a quick reader by any means. This one I just
ripped through. It was 72 pages, one of the shortest feature-length
scripts I’ve ever read, but it felt very full and fleshed-out. I called
him up and said “I love the role,  but even more than the role, I love
the script. Where are you with financing?” He had some feelers out to
European financing, but nothing too firm. I said, “I’d love to help you
produce this film and raise money.” That’s how I came onboard as a
SE: Given your Palestinian background, did you have any second thoughts about playing an Israeli? 
I did. Very briefly. I just felt a sense of responsibility. I feel that
with every role I play, but especially with what the world would
consider the enemy of Palestinians. I’ve been in this business for a
while and have seen non-Arabs play Arab roles. Sometimes I’ve been
extremely impressed and sometimes I’ve thought, “I wish they’d done a
little more research or been a little more authentic.” My opinion has
changed over the years. Ultimately it comes down to the essence of the character. Hany
saw the essence of Rami in me. If this guy was living under different
circumstances, he probably wouldn’t have this job. That’s what I saw
when I read the script. Then it was up to me to make it authentic,
believable, grounded, and personal. I’ve always felt that apprehension at
the beginning was because, as a Palestinian playing an Israeli, I wanted
even Israelis to feel like the performance was real. I also feel that
one of the first steps to peace is stepping into your enemy’s shoes and
walking in their life, seeing things from their perspective. Looking at
it from the other side was very important to me. 
I was surprised by the scene in which you speak in Hebrew. Did you have
any knowledge of the language before taking the role? 
Absolutely none. I knew a couple words, like “shalom” and “l’chaim.” My
grandmother, who’s from Haifa, spoke Hebrew fluently. I remember
hearing her speaking it as a kid and I had no idea what she was saying.
That was one of the things I was very nervous about, heading to the
shoot. But I had the luxury as a producer of being involved in every
single detail of production for two to three years. I was physically
there for four months, and everyone spoke Hebrew. We also had a really
great dialect coach named Yoni Lucas. He works on all the big Israeli
films and even works with politicians. I went to his home two or three
times for several hours each time. We broke down every syllable. every
sound. That’s just the way I approach it when I’m learning new
languages. I needed to know what the stresses are for each word, how the
character would say it. I tested it on everybody: people who hadn’t
read the script, people who had, Israelis, Palestinians,
Russian-speaking Israelis. Everyone has a different opinion on how
something is said because of the immigrant community in Israel. Hany
didn’t necessarily want people to know where Rami is from. We wanted to keep it ambiguous, but one of the things we
did do, just as backstory, was deciding that Rami’s wife is Ashkenazi,
and there’s a little tension between them because he’s trying to be
Ashkenazi but he’s not. There’s a bit of elitism in Israel. The
equivalent here would be a husband who’s more urban and trying to be a
SE: There was an interesting documentary called Forget Baghdad about Iraqi Jews living in Israel, and the discrimination they face. 
WZ: I had heard a lot about that from actors on House of Saddam.
The star of the mini-series, who played Saddam Hussein, is
Iraqi-Jewish. I played his best friend on it, and we became friends in
real life. There
were 4 or 5 other Iraqi-Jewish cast members. They were the ones who told
me that there’s some discrimination against them. The actor who played
Saddam refused to serve in the Israeli army because he refused to be an
occupier, but he’s very proud of being Israeli and being Jewish. I think
it’s because of those very qualities that he didn’t want to serve on
occupied land. I hope I’m not outing him here, but one of the ways you
can get out of the army is if you can prove you have some medical
handicap, so he convinced them he was crazy. I really respected that. 
SE: The film was made almost entirely with private Palestinian money,
right? Would it have been easier to go to Canal + or other European TV
From the beginning, I had the dream of doing a privately financed,
entirely Palestinian film. I even sent out emails to investors calling
it “a purely Palestinian film.” There were some bites, but ultimately it
was very hard. So I reached out to everybody. Hany had some interest
from Germany and France and a company in the Middle East. So we said,
“Let’s try to get at least half the financing from Palestine.” My
brothers were my anchor investors. They have a very good reputation in
the Palestinian business community. I knew with them onboard, it
would help raise money in Palestinian and Arab circles. What wound up
happening is this MIddle East company that was in for a quarter of the
budget dropped out in preproduction. We didn’t have a good meeting of
the minds. I had to replace $500,000 in preproduction and delay shooting
for a month and a half. There was a very good chance the movie wasn’t
going to happen. My brothers insisted
that we get the movie bonded, which means that all the money has to be
in at the same time, otherwise you can’t start spending. People had
been working since June or July, and we were supposed to start shooting
in August. I think it was October 21st
when we first started shooting. It was a very stressful time. I
remember being on the rooftop of Hany’s place. The production offices
were in the basement, and his mom lived on the floor above us. I was on the
rooftop, with very bad cell phone reception trying to make calls
everywhere with sirens and mosques around us. I went back to one
investor who doubled their investment and another investor who initially
refused us but came back and said yes and brought two more people
onboard. Hany and I also loaned out the bulk of our salaries. That’s how
we were able to raise the money. It just happened that 95%  of the
financing ended up being Palestinian. 5% came from Dubai, for
post-production funds. I went to everybody, especially when we were
fighting the calendar, and it just so happened that we wound up with
what I had originally imagined. 
SE: This may be a naive question, but does the whole West Bank look as scarred as it does in Omar
WZ: What do you mean by “scarred”? 
SE: Well, it often looks like a construction site. There’s a real irony to
the way all these billboards with positive messages are next to the
separation wall, which looks ugly and is often covered in graffiti. Did
Hany search out ugly locations or just depict them? 
Some of the locations are actually much more beautiful than a lot of
the places in the film. It’s a combination of both. There are some
beautiful places in the West Bank, like Nablus. That’s where my father’s
from. Everything with the separation wall was actually filmed in East
Jerusalem. The graffiti you see on the wall is real. The billboard was a very artistic choice for Hany. He didn’t
want to use title cards or spoon-fed people  about the passage of time. I
was actually surprised when I went to Ramallah with my father, and it
seemed like a very progressive, very commercially active place. We
wanted to show that too. Because we were doing this almost entirely
Palestinian funded and made film, we wanted to show a vibrant
Palestinian culture. But there’s the irony of companies like Paltel
giving messages of hope and family and “living a normal life” juxtaposed with the actual circumstance of Omar, which is anything but that. We did it in green-screen. We shot those scenes in the
first week, with a blue screen, and then added the billboards. The last
one is this nice bright blue, which is a contrast with what Omar’s
wearing. It felt very new. 
SE: Do you plan to produce any more films, either in the U.S. or Middle East? 
WZ: That was probably the hardest, most stressful thing I’ve had to do in my
life. Because I made so many mistakes along the way, I learned a lot. I
ultimately came to the conclusion that I would like to produce
again. I just have to be extremely selective with what I produce. I’m
interested in the Middle East, but ultimately I’m just interested in
very good stories. 
SE: Looking over your resume, your ethnicity seems central to the
bulk of the film and TV roles you’ve played. Do you struggle with that,
feeling typecast, or have you made your peace with it? 
I do feel fortunate because you have to make peace with it in
order to move beyond it. I have made peace it but a lot of people in the
industry have told me, “You can play anything, and you should be playing
anything. You’re very versatile.” When you have casting directors
telling you that, it gives you confidence. I kind of compare myself to
Tony Shalhoub, who’s a friend. I wanted him to direct a play I was
interested in here in L.A. We met up, and I said, “I’d like to try to
utilize you as a mentor of sorts, because I love how your career has
gone.” He’s less Arab than me, because he doesn’t speak the language and
he’s originally from Kansas or Kentucky. But both of his parents are
Lebanese. And I’d love to have a career like his, where he’s played
MIddle Eastern, Italian and Jewish characters. I was a little nervous
accepting the role of a terrorist on Homeland. What attracted me
to the role was that he was an unapologetically powerful presence. I
liked that. I hadn’t played a character like that before, where they’re
so powerful and not a victim. In another context, he could be Bernie
Madoff. It just so happens that he’s from Syria and he’s a terrorist
torturing Nicholas Brody. Acting and good storytelling is about power
shifts and struggles. One of the first acting classes I took said that
the three most popular themes are violence, sex or love, and power. As I
saw it, this guy had all three qualities in him. Rami’s role is similar
to that. I’ve come to peace with it, but it comes down to who I’m
working with and whether I’m going to be challenged. Also, when I did Homeland,
I was broke. That’s also the practical reason of why actors take
certain roles. Who knows? That may change in five years, but it’s how I
feel now. 
SE: Do you think American TV and movies are heading towards a greater
comfort level with Arabs, rather than just using you as the go-to guys
for “Terrorist #1”? 
That’s a good question. I don’t know where TV’s heading in terms of
what types of roles are available for Middle Eastern people. My wife
noticed a couple of years ago that all these new shows had a token
Indian person. She wondered if it would be the same for Arabs. If
anything, it would show how Arabs are assimilating. It’s hard to tell
where that’s going. The Tv world is really exciting now. I’m an
optimist. You kind of have to be if you’re an actor to survive. I’m
looking for interesting, complex roles. They don’t have to be good guys.
Look at Shakespeare. He wrote some of the greatest villains. Giancarlo
Esposito on Breaking Bad is such a great, versatile actor played such a good bad guy. I see Rami like that. I watched four seasons of Breaking Bad
in the span of two weeks when I was in Nazareth when we were filming.
Hany didn’t have TV, just a monitor and an amazing collection of films. I
went through a lot of the films I wanted to see. I was looking for more
material. David Gerson, the producer we hired, had his iPad with him,
with Netflix on it. I had watched maybe the first season of Breaking Bad
with my wife before I left. I said “We’re hooked on the show. Let’s
wait and pick up where we left off.” Of course, I couldn’t keep my
promise. I was almost missing my wake-up calls because I was up till 2 AM watching it and I had to get up at 6 AM. Unintentionally, it was part of my preparation for my role because I learned so much about acting from that show. 
SE: Has Omar played Israel yet, and if so, what kind of reaction did it get? 
WZ: We had a premiere, January 7th
of this year, in Tel Aviv. It was very well-received. Hany was just
over last night, and he was talking about how all the Israeli papers had
mostly good things to say about it. The box office doesn’t reflect
that. I heard this from an Israeli paper that interviewed me: films
about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict don’t do well there. Although Bethlehem,
which is somewhat similar, did well. There’s been some mixed reactions
here and there,but we found some mixed reactions from Palestinian
papers. Most Palestinians loved the movie and felt that it told their
story, but some felt that it perpetuated the image of Palestinians as
violent. I can see where that perspective is coming from, but I think
that’s a surface reading.   

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

Africa and France: The Work of Jean Rouch

Africa and France: The Work of Jean Rouch

The French director Jean Rouch invented so many new cinematic forms that his films gave rise to new words: “ciné-trance,” “ethno-fiction.” Yet his prolific oeuvre has fallen in and out of favor; in the past few decades, it’s been hard to see most of his films in the United States. Criterion’s release (today) of his 1961 documentary Chronicle of a Summer  (co-directed by Edgar Morin) and Icarus Films’ traveling theatrical retrospective of a package of his best films may help change that. I can think of two reasons for Rouch’s descent into obscurity. 

First, many of his films combine elements of documentary and fiction. He was trained as an ethnographer and started off equal parts academic and filmmaker, making short, relatively artless documentaries depicting circumcisions and other rituals of African life. However, he quickly developed an interest in cinematic form and became a sophisticated director. By the mid 1950s, his work gained interest outside the scientific world and started winning prizes at film festivals.  While Robert Flaherty, generally acknowledged as the father of the documentary, incorporated elements of fiction in his work, this became taboo in the ‘60s, just as Rouch was making “ethno-fictions.” At this point, Rouch looks prescient—after Errol Morris’ reenactments in The Thin Blue Line and Werner Herzog’s obviously staged interviews in Grizzly Man, Rouch’s combination of documentary and narrative in his “ethno-fictions” no longer seems so problematic. In the context of films like Clio Barnard's The Arbor and the Taviani brothers' Caesar Must Die, which freely mix elements of documentary and fiction, Rouch actually looks downright prophetic.

nullSecond, Rouch was a white Frenchman who made films mostly about Africans. Worse still, he started out during France’s colonial period. For this, he was criticized by no less a venerable personage than Senegalese writer/director Ousmane Sembene (the first prominent filmmaker to emerge from sub-Saharan Africa), who praised his 1958 film Moi, Un Noir but went on to accuse him of filming Africans like insects. However, as Rouch’s work progressed, he did his best to engage in true collaborations with his African subjects. His narrative films were shot without scripts, with the actors improvising a voice-over in the editing room. He made several films with African filmmakers as co-directors. Rouch couldn’t transcend his perspective as a Frenchman, but he tried to engage with Africa and Africans on their own terms: he never used the continent as a backdrop for the stories of white people, as so many filmmakers have. In fact, his film Petit a Petit reverses this trend, making Paris the setting for an African man’s quest for knowledge and his eventual disenchantment with European values. 

nullThe Mad Masters is one of Rouch’s best-known films; unfortunately, it’s also one of his most widely misunderstood works. On the surface, one can easily see why. It depicts a ritual of the Hauka faith, in which penitents participate in a trance ritual culminating in the sacrifice of a dog (who's then eaten) and are then forgiven for their sins. It’s full of images of “possessed” Africans foaming at the mouth and burning themselves with torches. But there’s something more subversive going on here than a simple documentary about African religion. The Hauka faith does not seem to exist apart from the context of colonial Africa, at least as it’s portrayed by Rouch. The possessed are not claimed by their ancestors or gods; they’re taken over by the spirits of colonial figures like generals and engineers. Participating in the ceremony requires some to don  a parody of European dress. One can see someone misreading it as a document of African “primitiveness,” but it really shows how cleverly the Hauka have created a new faith out of their oppressive surroundings. The film’s final few minutes suggest that it’s paid off for them in improved mental health. 

nullMoi, Un Noir may be remembered for influencing Jean-Luc Godard, who declared that he wanted to name Breathless Moi, Un Blanc as an homage to Rouch. More seriously, its use of jump cuts predates Godard’s use of the device. It makes the best case for Rouch’s “ethno-fictions.” Shot among a group of immigrants in the Ivory Coast,  it was made without sound. This led to a brilliant idea: Rouch’s subjects could take on new personae, adopting the voices of Hollywood stars like Eddie Constantine and Edward G. Robinson. This isn’t, though, just another way of saying “the Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” as a character in Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road would later put it; it actually grants Rouch’s subjects the right to larger-than-life fantasies. Without the voice-over, the film’s depiction  of  lower-class life in the Ivory Coast would probably be grim and hopeless; the narration lends it just the right touch of playfulness and wit. “Constantine” and “Robinson” may be poor, even sometimes justifiably bitter, but they still have a sense of humor. 

Chronicle of a Summer starts with Rouch, Morin and future filmmaker Marceline Loridan chatting. Loridan says that she gives surveys for a living. This is quickly incorporated into Chronicle of a Summer, as she stands on the street asking people “Are you happy?” The responses are fairly banal, but it’s a starting point for a wide-ranging inquiry into the state of France in 1960. Rouch and Morin’s subjects obviously include some of their acquaintances, such as disillusioned radicals. Halfway through, their interviews turn topical. At the time the film was made, Algeria had been fighting France for its independence for six years. The film’s subjects have a heated debate about what France should do about the war. The Holocaust is also evoked – an African student is queried about the numbers tattooed on Holocaust survivor Loridan’s arm and has no idea what they are. The film makes fleeting use of a handheld camera, which had only recently become available. This device would soon become a trademark of French cinema. Here, as with his use of jump cuts, Rouch was a technical innovator. 

nullChronicle of a Summer uses the phrase “cinéma vérité” in its opening sentence, although here it describes the directors' stated goal of “film truth,” not a label for a genre of documentaries. After the concept of “cinéma vérité” was popularized in the ‘60s, its naiveté was critiqued at length.  Chronicle of a Summer is far from innocent. It incorporates scenes that feel fictional, even if they’re not, such as a long walk by Loridan down a nearly deserted street as she delivers a monologue about her past. Rouch and Morin begin and end the film by focusing on themselves – in no other Rouch film I’ve seen is the director such a prominent presence—but they end Chronicle of a Summer by showing the film to its subjects, getting their mixed reactions and then talking about those responses. One can imagine the film turning into an endless hall of mirrors, with a coda depicting the first public screenings. 

As good as it is, Chronicle of a Summer may not be the most representative film in the Rouch canon. It marks one of the few times he turned his ethnographic gaze on a group of largely white French men and women; while that lends a fascinatingly reflexive dimension to it, it also thrusts Chronicle outside the concerns of many of Rouch’s best films. Nevertheless, one hopes its video release is the first of many for Rouch’s work in North America. I’ve only sampled a small portion of his huge filmography, but there are undoubtedly many gems waiting to be discovered.  

Steven Erickson is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites across America, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

REVIEW: The Trials of (Not) Making a Movie in THIS IS NOT A FILM

REVIEW: The Trials of (Not) Making a Movie in THIS IS NOT A FILM

In the past two years, the Iranian government has moved from merely banning films (most of which were allowed to be released internationally) to arresting actors and filmmakers. Jafar Panahi is the highest-profile director to suffer such treatment. In 2010, his request to travel to the Berlin Film Festival was denied. He was arrested in March of that year, purportedly because he was making a film inspired by the protests following Iran’s 2009 election. In May, he was released on bail. In December, he was sentenced to six years in jail. Furthermore, he was banned from directing films, writing screenplays, giving interviews (even to Iranian media) and leaving the country for 20 years. While he appealed the sentence, he lost it in October 2011. Although he’s currently out of jail, he could be sent back at any moment.

Panahi’s latest film, This Is Not A Film, requires such background information. It was made while he was under house arrest. While this is obvious, it’s never explicitly mentioned. Co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb was arrested himself when he tried to attend last fall’s Toronto Film Festival. Panahi’s first feature-length documentary, it’s a work of reduced means, to say the least. Several scenes were shot by Panahi with an iPhone. It wears its poverty as a badge of honor.

Despite the American and Israeli government’s sabre-rattling towards Iran’s nuclear program, Western interest in Iranian cinema has never been higher. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation has grossed more than two million dollars in the U.S., more than any other Iranian film has ever achieved, and just won an Oscar. The Film Society of Lincoln Center has recently announced a Farhadi retrospective for April. I hope some of this interest rubs off on Panahi and Mirtahmasb’s film, but it’s closer to Jonas Mekas’ diary films than the more familiar Chekhovian sensibility of A Separation.

Who would have thought that a little girl running away from a camera crew would lead Iranian director Jafar Panahi on a path culminating in his arrest and 20-year ban from filmmaking? That moment happened in his second film, The Mirror, which received a cursory American release in 1997. At the time, no one perceived it as a political statement, perhaps because it fit so snugly in the then-current Iranian vogue for neo-realist films about cute children. In retrospect, one can see that it was the start of Panahi’s string of films about rebellious girls and young women. His next film, The Circle, would make his overtly feminist politics a lot clearer.

Until now, Offside, made in 2006, has struck me as Panahi’s most interesting and successful film. It points out the contradictions in Iran’s repressive regime: the ways in which its policies can produce the opposite results for which they’re aiming. As critic Michael Sicinski has suggested, banning women from many areas of Iranian life, including male-only soccer matches, has led to a generation of masculine girls, even if they’re not transgender or lesbian. The climax of Offside suggests that one can reconcile Iranian nationalism and feminism, leading Cahiers du Cinéma editor Jean-Michel Frodon to conclude that Panahi was pandering to the Iranian government. Alas, even if Frodon’s cynical thesis were true, it didn’t work, as Offside, like The Circle and Crimson Gold, was banned in Iran.

nullThe central conceit of This Is Not A Film is that it presents a day in Panahi’s life, although I doubt the entire film was actually shot in one day. On a moment-to-moment basis, it feels casually made, but its structure is carefully planned. It depicts him eating breakfast and talking on the phone with his lawyer and fellow filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. (She seems to be suffering a period of idleness herself, although it’s unclear if the law has anything to do with it.) When Mirtahmasb shows up, Panahi talks about his unproduced screenplays and reads from one, treating his living room floor as a set. It deals with a teenage girl prevented from attending college and eventually locked in her room by a religious family. Any similarities to Panahi’s current situation are entirely coincidental, of course. Outside, the city of Tehran prepares for Iranian New Year. Fireworks begin going off, and a neighbor asks Panahi to take care of her dog. Eventually, Panahi ventures into the elevator, in the company of the building’s janitor, and the film ends with him apparently on the verge of heading outside.

Melancholy as it is, This Is Not A Film is no pity party. It evokes ennui and anxiety without ever being boring itself. Within a compact 75-minute running time, it suggests what it’s like to suffer house arrest. Panahi browses the Internet, but complains that most websites are blocked by the government’s filters and the few that aren’t are painfully bland or propagandistic. He initially seems enthusiastic about reading out his unproduced screenplays for Mirtahmasb’s camera, but he eventually grows disillusioned, finding it an unsatisfying substitute for making them. (Ironically, of course, he is indeed making a film while reading them out loud for the camera.) This film’s very title mocks his 20-year ban from filmmaking, even as it points to the technical limitations with which Panahi and Mirtahmasb had to work.

Understandably, This Is Not A Film has a very raw look. When Mirtahmasb leaves Panahi’s apartment, no tripod is available; at one point, Panahi tries balancing the camera on a pack of cigarettes. In technical terms, the title is correct. This Is Not A Film brandishes video’s differences from 35mm as a political gesture, even a badge of resistance. (Panahi shoots clips from The MIrror and Crimson Gold off a TV monitor, and the former looks particularly crude.) One suspects that Panahi would have shot the whole film on an iPhone if he had to.

In the unlikely event that Panahi’s travel ban is lifted, The Playlist has reported that he had been offered a deal with Sony and producer Scott Rudin to adapt Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns. So far, Panahi’s work seems so intimately tied to Iran, even if it’s highly critical of the country’s government, that it’s hard to imagine him working outside it. The government’s treatment of him suggests that even if he stays out of jail, he’s unlikely to be able to make a large-scale film there again. This Is Not A Film resembles a film made by the hero of Kafka’s The Trial.

Steve Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City NewsFandor's blog, the Nashville SceneFilm CommentThe Atlantic website and other publications. He has made four short films, the most recent being 2009's "Squawk".

DVD REVIEW: JEAN-PIERRE GORIN: a new DVD box set spotlights the director’s best documentaries

DVD REVIEW: JEAN-PIERRE GORIN: a new DVD box set spotlights the director’s best documentaries

nullAt first glance, the title of Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin looks like a joke. If Jean-Pierre Gorin, a Frenchman who moved to San Diego to teach at UCSD in the ‘70s, is known in the U.S. at all, it’s because he collaborated with Jean-Luc Godard as a member of the Dziga Vertov Group. However, except for Tout Va Bien and Letter to Jane, most of the Dziga Vertov Group’s work is now difficult to see. Eclipse’s 3-DVD set of Gorin’s California-made documentaries, completed between 1980 and 1992, rescues them from oblivion. They’ve rarely been screened theatrically in the U.S. in the twenty years since the most recent one, My Crasy Life, was made, apart from a 2010 retrospective at New York’s Migrating Forms festival.

All that said, “popular culture” doesn’t necessarily have to mean corporate-produced media. In Gorin’s case, it usually means an amused but respectful look at American subcultures, whether they be model train enthusiasts or Samoan gangbangers. While Burden of Dreams director Les Blank, an accomplished documentarian in his own right, was the cameraman on the Paris native's first film, Poto and Cabengo, the Jonathan Demme of Handle with Care and Melvin and Howard is the filmmaker Gorin most recalls. Gorin and Demme share a fondness for the byways of lower-middle-class Americana and the ways the American Dream can be a pitfall, as well as an honest outsider’s distance from their characters or subjects.

Poto and Cabengo is, not surprisingly, his most Godardian film. Starting with the story of two six-year-old twins who have apparently invented their own language, it fills the screen with text and, as Kent Jones’ astute liner notes testify, creates a symphony of voices and languages. Grace and Virginia Kennedy (“Poto” and “Cabengo” are their nicknames for each other), raised in isolation due to the belief that they might be mentally challenged, came up with their own variation on English, completely unintelligible to most observers. Their father is a real estate salesman whose dreams of becoming a millionaire were widely out of synch with the family’s reality. Their mother and grandmother are German.Gorin isn’t interested in the issue of whether the twins really invented a new language so much as exploring what kind of upbringing could have produced such an odd set of little girls.

Poto and Cabengo is formally striking, with much use of black leader and repeated bits of onscreen text, like a question mark floating across the screen and the phrase “What are they saying?” The film eventually answers this, but it’s far more concerned with the economic fate of the Kennedy family. Its final ten minutes are devastating, as their dreams of holding onto a middle-class lifestyle slip away. Gorin’s closing voice-over compresses an emotional and narrative charge which most films would spend a reel developing into thirty seconds

Routine Pleasures is the most complex and perplexing of the films included in this set. Its inspiration isn’t immediately apparent; as quoted in Jones’ liner notes, Gorin says “ It seemed interesting in the eighties to investigate the conservative imagination.” However, the director didn’t do so by any conventional means. Instead, he takes a model train club, whose members meet every Tuesday, and film critic/painter Manny Farber as his subjects. Farber refused to appear on camera, so Gorin concentrated on two of his paintings instead.

This is the most obviously autobiographical of the three films in this set, as Gorin explores what it means to be – or, more personally, to become – an American in the ‘80s. He chooses to do so by means of filming some pretty idiosyncratic men. His main inspiration for Routine Pleasures was ‘30s American cinema, particularly the films of William Wellman and Howard Hawks. Audaciously, one section of it is titled Only Angels Have Wings (Part 2). He often films the train club in black and white, to add to the retro ambiance.

The only politics Gorin explicitly evokes are his own; he quotes Farber calling him an “ex-Marxist.” The kind of conservatism preoccupying him is more emotional than ideological, lying in nostalgia and a fondness for childhood pleasures, evoked (not without some critique and anxiety) in Farber’s painting “Birthplace, Douglas, Ariz.” Even more than Gorin’s other work, the film seems designed to live up to Farber’s definition of “termite art”: a small-scale take on subject matter that practically begs you to call it trivial, yet contains a hidden wealth of substance and resonance. Like many of the best films, it’s impossible to summarize what it’s about in a sentence or two.

My Crasy Life, made at the height of the craze for “hood” films, bears more obvious signs of fictionalization than Gorin’s other two films: stilted line deliveries from young men who seem slightly drunk or stoned, not to mention a robbery whose perpetrator would be a fool to commit it for real on camera. There’s also a talking computer, built into a police car, that delivers ironic commentary on the action, as well as a bibliography on Samoa. The film focuses on Samoan gangstas in Long Beach, California.

nullOn one level, it’s ridiculous to interpret this film as being as autobiographical as Routine Pleasures. In its world, white people are few and far between: barely glimpsed cops or crime victims. Rather than making his presence directly felt through his voice, as in his previous two films, Gorin has his subjects interview each other. However, on a deeper level, the film examines the pain of statelessness and the costs of emigration. It uses shots of beautiful Samoan landscapes as punctuation, even as one gang member shouts “Fuck Margaret Mead!” Brought to Hawaii or Samoa, his subjects are torn between wanting to hang out with their friends in L.A. and craving a deeper connection to their island roots, like learning to speak Samoan fluently.

Thanks to TV shows like Gangland and the proliferation of gangsta rap over the past 20 years – several hip-hop songs are performed here by the group West Side Strong – this is the most familiar-seeming of Gorin’s films. Yet its similarities to films like Menace II Society only make its personal touches – the HAL-like computer, the sobering montages of bloody crime scene photos, the deliberately jarring mixture of fiction and documentary – all the more unusual and powerful. It makes one wish that Gorin had been able to sustain a more prolific body of work as a filmmaker.

Due to space limitations, Jones’ liner notes had to restrict themselves to the three Gorin films included in this set. For a supplement addressing Gorin’s work with Godard and the two music-themed videos made after My Crasy Life, I recommend Erik Ulman’s article for Senses of Cinema.

Steve Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, Fandor's blog, the Nashville Scene, Film Comment, The Atlantic website and other publications. He has made four short films, the most recent being 2009's "Squawk".