September 2006

Last updated on September 17, 2006. Please check back later for additions.


This Film Is Not Yet Rated: An Interview With Kirby Dick JUST ADDED 9-17
Audience Q&A With Kirby Dick JUST ADDED 9-17
Kicking His Way to Stardom: Tony Jaa
Hollywoodland: Q&A With Director Allen Coulter
Drinking Games: An Interview with Beerfest's Erik Stolhanske and Steve Lemme
Seen in Edinburgh: Driving Lessons
The Munich International Film Festival
Young Film Critics Invited to Berlin
We Need to Hear From You
Calendar of Events

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This Film Is Not Yet Rated: An Interview with Director Kirby Dick

By Jacqueline Arrowsmith

This interview with Kirby Dick took place on September 12, 2006 at the Madison Hotel, where he was staying while he was in town to promote This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

As I was introduced to Mr. Dick, I said that while I found This Film Is Not Yet Rated interesting, it did not have the power of Twist of Faith, Mr. Kirby’s film about a Toledo firefighter coming to terms with his sexual abuse many years earlier by a Catholic priest, who became a public school teacher.

Jacqueline Arrowsmith: So you find that you find you have no constituents?
Kirby Dick: Yes, no constituency. Exactly, every film that I make seems to disappoint the fans of my previous film.

JA: I was not going to open with that, but somehow it just came out.
KD: No, it’s good…. No, I love Twist of Faith though because I think it’s narratively perfect in a way. Not perfect-perfect. But it’s really finely crafted. It’s better than most screenplays in terms of structure. This is what I was trying to do. There were a lot of issues, dealing with past and present that were very complex in that film--particularly in the second act that I had to continually rework. When I saw it play, particularly at Sundance, every single beat was hitting. I haven’t had that kind of control since Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. But This Film Is Not Yet Rated doesn’t have the same control, partly because it was made under much more intense conditions and also faster. This is a whole different film with a different level of control. It’s a more aggressive film. In that way its message works much better than I had expected. I knew the film would work. It really seems to hit the markers and rouse audiences in a way that I didn’t expect.

JA: Why did you use the word aggressive?
KD: Well, it is aggressive. We’re dealing with the MPAA. They fucked with us through the ratings system, through all their lobbying activities in Washington for many years. They sell themselves as representatives of this golden business who are only here to entertain us. When in fact they are an industry like any other industry. I think the American public has sort of been sucked in. The broader theme of this film is really to kind of take people’s heads and say look: this is an industry. I want you to look at this the same way you look at the nuclear energy industry or the oil industry and see what kind of things they are getting involved with that are detrimental to society in the pursuit of the bottom line.

JA: You want people to look at it critically? Well, I do think it will serve that purpose.
KD: Not only the rating system. But the studio film industry. Not the film business because then people start attacking artists.

JA: And you don’t want that to happen?
KD: It’s so stupid. Artists are so powerless. They’re just whipping boys. It’s like attacking kids as adolescents as being the problem with society. They didn’t create the problems with society; they grew up with the problems of society. It’s the adults that are the problem. It’s this aspect of the media--the corporate media.

JA: How many days did it take to shoot the film?
KD: We shot it over a period of almost a year, actually, off and on. We’d go off and on. We were exclusively shooting in L.A. We got footage from other places, but we shot only in L.A.

JA: When I was doing research on you I found on the Sundance web site that you’d been reading a book by J.M. Coetzee on censorship. The one I found was called Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship.
KD: It’s a good book!
JA: Is that what inspired you to make this movie?
KD: No, but I’m glad you brought that up. I was interested in trying to interview him for the movie. But I know he’s very hard to make contact with and my way into him didn’t work out. I had a contact. But he [J.M. Coetzee]’s in Australia. I would have interviewed him if he’d been in the U.S. We were making this movie under such, such restrictions. We wanted to deliver the film without the MPAA knowing. We had this kind-of Sundance deadline coming up. It was just very intense. No, that wasn’t what inspired me. It was cumulative disgust with the rating system and the major film studio business as a whole and just wanting to attack it, expose it. Whatever.

JA: The movie shows you interviewing several private investigators. But I wondered why you chose Becky and Cheryl and Lindsay?
KD: Why did I chose Becky? Well the stock answer that I’d give is--and part of this is true--that she was so enthusiastic that I thought she would stick with it for the long haul. All the others wanted the job. Thank g-d for reality programming--it has made documentary film makers’ lives so much easier. But I just had a feeling, with Becky, that she would give much more to getting it and she did. Between the first and second interview, she had gone out and cased the MPAA. None of the other ones had done that. I didn’t know she was a lesbian at the time. But that was totally cool. Well, maybe I kind of subconsciously knew. You see the moment when I realize it, on camera when I say “Oh, you two live together. How cool.” I never asked them if they were lesbians. They were talking about each other in this very affectionate way. I just asked “Do you live together?” I had been in the house. I didn’t go checking out the bedrooms out. As a good documentary filmmaker that’s the kind of thing I should do. Usually other people do that for me. A lot of it is about establishing relationships. Keeping focused on the person.

JA: With your subjects?
KD: Yes, with my subjects, not only charming them. You know that as an interviewer. Are the two of you going to enjoy working together enough that you’re going to be able to live with all the pain that goes with a long documentary collaboration. That’s really what you’re kind of checking out. That’s the most important thing. You’re going to be asking them to be do things that they never ever in the world thought they were going to do. Like in Twist of Faith, Tony was very clear--over and over--“I don’t want my family in this.” We would do everything we can to get it in. And why? Because this is a film about the impact of sex abuse--not only on the subject, but on his relationship with his wife, his family, his extended family. This is what the horror of this is. It’s not just one survivor. We knew we had to get it in. We got it in. Then when we showed it, he and Wendy and his mother, they all said, “I’m glad you put it in.” This is something you just have to push as a filmmaker. Again, with Tony and Wendy it was a very good, very emotional first meeting. Different situation. That’s kind of what I’m doing. Other people can pay attention to other things. My producer is really good with subjects.

JA: Did you go to art school?
KD: Yes, I went to CalArts. Even though I have close relationships with artists, I have a certain tension with the art world; I have a certain tension with the documentary world. I was trained by very accomplished Los Angeles documentary filmmakers. For my first film, Private Practices, about sex surrogates, I hired all of them. It was lucky on my part also. Because they knew they were going to be shooting sex I could pay them almost nothing. And they were really good. So they actually trained me. These are the things you have to be thinking about. I would take them out for drinks and ask them ‘what about this, what about that?’

This Film Is Not Yet Rated opened in DC on September 15.

Audience Q&A With Kirby Dick

After a screening for DC Film Society Members at Landmark Theater's E Street Theater on September 12, Kirby Dick answered questions from the audience. DCFS Director Michael Kyrioglou moderated.

Michael Kyrioglou: What prompted you to do this?
Kirby Dick: I am an independent filmmaker living in LA, watching the absurdities of the ratings board. Independent film has changed; studios now have their own divisions. Who is outside that realm? What is difference between a studio independent film and an independent film. You can't have longevity and make money and stay independent. The independent movement is losing steam. You see the same stories over and over. That's reason for documentaries.

Q: Are you trying to bring changes to the industry?
A: I'm just a filmmaker. The system is overdue for change. I'm not first person to say this. I wanted to make a film that would kick them in the balls a little. I wanted to make it entertaining and provoke outrage, shake things up. There was an editorial in The New York Times last Friday criticizing film rating. You can sign a petition to be presented to MPAA. Call Joan Graves at 818-995-6600. Offer suggestions. She responds to phone calls from public and will censor film unless public complains.

Q: Some members of appeals boards are industry members and exhibitors. Do they recuse themselves? A: They say they do. But it raises questions. They can vote against competitors film, against independent film. There are no written standards.

Q: Were you looking for political censorship?
A: I was looking for any censorship. One filmmaker I interviewed suggested there was a bias on African American sex. But I could not verify that and didn't want to make the accusation.

Q: Were you looking to chat with studio people?
A: We sent letters to various studios but got no answers.

Q: Any attempt to use legal challenges?
A: You would have to be an aggrieved party. If you were independent you probably wouldn't have the money. But in Hollywood it would be career suicide to take on the MPAA. There are discussions but it is risky behavior.

Q: If you get someone on film you have to get permission?
A: They are doing this in the public interest. It astounds me that the MPAA insists people are kept secret. In a democracy it should be tracked.

Q: How about a counter rating system to reduce the authority of the MPAA?
A: The problem with that is that the studios are the primary sources of marketing. Financially it would be difficult. Other rating systems are available to people on the internet such as Screenit. Parents can decide for themselves. Ideally it would be great to have alternative rating system--an alternative appeals board with three members. It's a thought.

Q: What reaction has the film gotten? Has anyone said "You'll never work in this town again?"
A: No. They aren't going to sue me. When I talked to Kevin Smith he was surprised Clerks II didn't get NC-17. Possibly they didn't want to bring attention to it. They don't want to give me any additional publicity.

Q: Did you think of talking to parents?
A: I'm a parent. I grew up in a small town and was never carded. We saw everything we wanted. But now there is more pressure on exhibitors; still adolescents find a way to see what they want. MPAA used to have only letters--now they use letters and numbers. The NC-17 rating used to be X; originally it was X but not copyrighted. When X became NC-17 studios didn't do anything to separate it from pornography. But NC-17 works for the studios. The studio can release it in R and then put some sex in and release it on DVD, thereby selling it twice to the same audience. The studios' main interest is economic. They'll say to the filmmaker, "Don't make NC-17--it will hurt your career." The studio just wants to increase their bottom line.

Kicking His Way to Stardom: Tony Jaa

By Paul Jaskunas, DC Film Society Member

What’s enticing about Tony Jaa’s character in The Protector is not his acrobatic martial arts skills, but that his spinning kicks and death-defying stunts are done for the sake of so humble a cause as his family’s pet elephants.

Jaa is Thailand’s fresh martial arts flick sensation, and on screen he plays a simple villager who wields his fists (and elbows and knees and head and feet) to protect the vulnerable and precious symbols of Thai culture against the sinister forces of modernity.

In the successful and relentless Ong Bak, Jaa was always deadly and unstoppable against Bangkok’s most barbaric thugs. His mission--to save a Buddhist statue swiped from his village’s temple and hidden somewhere in the corrupt slums of the capital--is echoed in The Protector, Jaa’s high-powered bid to kick his way into superstardom.

In the new film, opening nationwide September 8, we have a bigger budget and commensurately badder asses to kick, in bolder and brasher ways. The Asian gang that abducts the hero’s family elephants takes them to the grand metropolis of Sydney, where there are skyscrapers to leap from, a Thai sex slave to rescue, and a government conspiracy to undo.

The advance clips show Jaa defeating a shirtless brute in a burning temple, rooting out bad guys in a brothel, battling a leather-clad Asian beauty, and dancing his way past hapless foes in a warehouse. For martial arts aficionados there is no doubt plenty to savor here, and even kung fu virgins will likely be dazzled by Jaa’s high-flying athleticism. He is a master of the lesser known art of Muay Thai and does all his own stunts and moves.

Speaking through an interpreter, Jaa explained that Muay Thai has much in common with other Asian martial arts, though is distinguished by its elbow and knee jabs, ancient weaponry, and culture of respect. In Thailand, Muay Thai boxing is a spectator sport, famous for the anything-goes bloodiness of the matches. That Jaa has no interest in competing comes as no surprise. He has a gentle, boyish demeanor, a soft voice and an innocent smile. With a pillow on his lap and arms folded, he spoke of his upbringing in rural Thailand, where his family prizes elephants (his are named Flower and Leaf), and of his plan to one day open an elephant sanctuary.

There’s nothing quiet or provincial about the man’s ambition. Since early adolescence he has been training for cinematic stardom, chasing the glory of his idol Jackie Chan, according to press notes. He is clearly proud of the Muay Thai display he puts on in The Protector, especially of a tightly-choreographed, 4-minute scene done in one take. The scene, which he describes as historic in the context of the genre, has Jaa’s character storming up stairs and hurling adversaries through walls and balustrades.

One senses that what excites Jaa about his work is not the violence or machismo, but the artfulness of the acrobatics and their grounding in Thai culture. And although this is rather beside the point, The Protector, like its predecessor, will explore how people raised in a Thai village adjust to modern city life, with all its opulent vice and greed.

The film shares its name with a 1985 Jackie Chan movie. Jaa, in acknowledging his cinematic roots, seems eager to leave his own mark on the martial arts genre. He says he has had to turn down offers from Hollywood while working on a sequel to Ong Bak, but he’s still on the lookout for roles--and fans--on this side of the Pacific.

Hollywoodland: Audience Q&A With Director Allen Coulter

By Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Member

A preview of Hollywoodland on August 16 at Landmark's E Street Theater was followed by Q&A with the film's director, Allen Coulter. DC Film Society Director Michael Kyrioglou moderated; a few remarks were added during additional discussion with audience members after the formal Q&A.

Michael Kyrioglou: This is Allen Coulter’s first feature film outside of TV work. He has produced and directed episodes of The Sopranos, and directed many other TV episodes of the historical mini-series Rome, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Millennium, and the X-Files. Hollywoodland is one of the best films I have seen this year. Can you tell us about the road taken to screen this film?
Allen Coulter: It began in 2001 with the script from writer, Paul Bernbaum. USA Films bought it originally and then it got delayed and went to Focus Films, then to Miramax Films, and finally back to Focus Films again with Miramax. That’s a typical film trajectory.

MK: What was the self-interest of writer to this story? AC: Several: the lure of the speeding bullet, Hollywood, kryptonite, plus he did a lot of research on George Reeves and the series Superman. He even bought the Superman costume at one point.

MK: You were interested in the script?
AC: Yes. It was a strikingly well-written script.; interesting in a way that was not really a biopic, nor something legitimately found on A&E.

MK: Were you looking for a feature to direct?
AC: Yes, I don’t want to be known only as a director on television. So as the TV jobs got better, Sex and the City, Rome, and the Sopranos, the movie offers began to come. Movies may not be a better deal, but on a movie you have more creative power than on TV where the creator of the show has that power.

MK: Many movie screenwriters and playwrights now end up working on TV; Six Feet Under is an example.
AC: Yes that’s ok.

Question: How much of the film is true and how fiction?
AC: All the Louis Simon part is fictitious, but was inspired by some real persons. The George Reeves story was researched by Paul and is true as much as could possibly be told. There is disagreement on where he met Toni even in the books, but we tried to be true to the story as we knew it.

MK: I liked the weaving of the entire film with the possible 3 scenarios.
AC: Yes, the last story seems to be the one most accepted.

Question: I thought I saw Molly Parker credited also as a cinematographer.
AC: Yes, Adrian and Molly did the home movies. The director of photography was Jonathan Freeman.

Question: I liked the soundtrack and the tunes; who wrote it? AC: Marcelo Servos wrote the score and it fits the film to a tee.

Question: Was there any consideration to filming in black and white rather than color?
AC: No, this was the 1959 period. So it lended itself more to Kodachrome. We thought about giving it a more golden tone or light, like Chinatown, but no, we wanted it to look more like Louis Simo’s modern world at the time using Kodachrome, Brownie cameras, and his somewhat static, jagged, photographs.

Question: How was the casting done--especially how did you get Ben Affleck, Adrien Brody, and Bob Hoskins to do these roles?
MK: These were really casting break out roles for Ben Affleck and Diane Lane.
AC: Adrien was the first to be cast and had a relationship with Focus Films already and knew James Schamus, who talked to Adrien in New Zealand. Soon after this, Ben and Diane signed on. I had seen Ben in Shakespeare in Love and farther back, and thought this would be a different and interesting role for him. Ben agreed to put on 20 pounds of weight and to change eye color. Also Diane many times plays the role of a victim of men and here she is not. Bob Hoskins looked like the real Eddie Mannix. Robin Tunney was the only actress in the casting trials that could really be tough like Leonore Lemmon, who was known to have been thrown out of New York clubs for hitting other women. She really hit Ben in the rehearsal, when other actresses did not.

MK: Ben seems so relaxed when he is playing George singing and playing the guitar.
AC: Yes, it’s the one moment for George to be natural and not cut off from everyone.

MK: In Toronto, did you film it like a play in sections?
AC: We had a brief rehearsal and then got down to it on the set.

MK: How long was the film’s shooting?
AC: We had 40 days…6 weeks shooting in Toronto and 2 weeks in LA. It was a challenge to make Toronto look like 1950’s LA.

MK: When did you shoot the film?
AC: We finished over a year ago, over the July 4th period and then added the scoring in Prague.

Question: Was there real controversy about Reeves’ death in the news then?
AC: Yes, there were many controversies….2 autopsies were done. The mother did hire a detective and re-open the case. Eddie was called “The Fixer” at MGM and was rumored to hush up the hi-jinks of several stars, but no real accusations were ever made.

Question: When George Reeves considered professional wrestling, was this really the low point of his career and life?
AC: Yes, I saw the real film made by George to prove he could wrestle and could direct a film.

Question: What do you think really happened?
AC: I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may influence the audience. I read only as much as anyone else on the streets. My opinion may alter others’ opinions, but I agree with Simo’s arrangement of the story.

MK: Did the cast talk about what they felt really happened?
AC: Yes, but we didn’t really think it mattered to the film, and we didn’t know what decisions George had reached.

Question: Can you tell us more on how you got into the film business?
AC: I didn’t go to film school. I studied theater in New York, not LA.

Question: What were some of the best projects you have worked on?
AC: Ones you probably haven’t heard of: with HBO The Story of Mary Margaret: a Bulimic and a TV project called Monsters.

Question: What was the time period of the film?
AC: Reeves shot the Superman series from 1952-1957 when it was cancelled, and he died in June, 1959 at age 45 of a gunshot wound.

Question: What was the significance of the cards in the movie?
AC: They were at the real house, but we didn’t know why. Clue: if you enlarge the screen you will find out.

Question: The film was visually very rich and lush and showed unusual angles and period lighting, and a unique use of imagery. How much of this did you plan, and how much was just the camera work, serendipity, or editing?
AC: I plan everything before I begin a picture. I planned it in the hotel and I shoot it first in my head. I start with a plan and shoot it; there may be some changes since I am the editor. I rarely had anything that the DP Jonathan Freeman and I changed because it had already been planned. It is shot as if the audience is the voyeur watching George. You are in many ways, Simo’s camera. I put in scenes where Simo turns to the audience and looks at you.

Question: Were there problems obtaining rights to the Superman footage?
AC: Yes, we were allowed to use only so many seconds of the real series, so you will note that some of the scenes were really reshot by us--like the opening sequence.

Question: I loved the movie and Diane Lane was perfect. Somehow you don’t think of her as a victim of age.
AC: I asked the actors who they thought their characters wanted to be. Diane said she thought Toni wanted to be like Eddie. She would not be a simpering, cowering type of woman.

Question: Did you have a budget of 250 million dollars like other films?
AC: No, it was a tight budget of under 20 million dollars.

MK: What are your next projects?
AC: I don’t know. I am very picky and sometimes suffer for that.

Question: What directors influenced your work?
AC: The usual ones, especially Polanski, Hitchcock, Truffaut, and Fellini.

Question: Did you speak to any one from the original Superman series or others from the time about the mystery?
AC: Yes. Jack Larson, the original series Jimmy Olsen, who is also briefly in our film and I talked several times about George’s death. He thought Mannix was involved in it for a long time, but now feels the third scenario is probably the more realistic one.

Hollywoodland opens in DC on September 8th.

Drinking Games: an Interview with Beerfest's Erik Stolhanske and Steve Lemme

By Jim Shippey, DC Film Society Member

It seems appropriate to launch into an interview with some of the cast for the film Beerfest by skipping out of work early and quaffing down a Hefeweizen before the evening rush has even crossed most commuters’ minds this Monday. Of course, nothing went smooth (or on time) on this day, something that reflects the shotgun shoot from the hip style of the Broken Lizard crew. Beerfest is their fourth feature, the third to be released, with the widest distribution to date.

Erik Stolhanske and Steve Lemme are seated at a big round table in a rather dimly lit area of the Brickskeller in Dupont. I was joined by a cadre of online writers, including a young woman from Yahoo who seemed more groupie than writer. Nonetheless, I was invited to start the questioning:

Jim Shippey: Welcome to DC, guys. Now, let’s be honest here: aside from Augie Busch, there’s not too much seriousness about beer. Making a comedy about beer? Isn’t that comic pandering?
Steve Lemme: I love it when we get the hardest question first! (Laugh) Don’t you want to know where we came up with our characters? (more laughs) Kevin [Heffernan] threw out the title, sort of as a response to the drubbing that Club Dread took from the critics. We liked the idea of critics hearing about Broken Lizard’s Beerfest! We developed the original idea from that. The first draft had these two brothers traveling to Oktoberfest and getting tossed out from there. Incensed, they return to the States determined to bring Oktoberfest to its knees by creating a competing festival here. Their hook, though, was going to be to allow underage drinking, and to do it on an Indian reservation. (Laughs) Strangely, Warner Bros. did not go for that.
Erik Stolhanske: So we changed it to what it is now: a tale of a couple of lovable losers who go to Germany and find an underground beer drinking competition. The get embarrassed, then spend the next year training to compete the next year. It’s really a sports movie.
SL: Yeah, it’s like the Kumite, like Rocky, with some frog-love in there.
ES: We have a character based on a real life friend of Steve’s.
SL: And you know what? I’m going to wipe that smile off of your face. This guy was a friend from high school, super smart, he went to Yale. He went into cloning. His job was to masturbate frogs to collect frog semen. (Laughs) I thought he was yanking my chain about this, but he told me no, that they had to set the mood with pheromones in the air and sounds of the rainforest. OK, that was a lie, but on the DVD I go up to New York to interview him, and to show you that it is a real job.

Question: I heard that the film was shot entirely in Albuquerque. How was that?
SL: You probably don’t know that they call Albuquerque Muniquerque locally there? Ok, that’s not true, not true. Albuquerque was great. They are trying to attract filmmakers there with tax breaks, a lot of refunds. They are also funding some films, staking them. I thought our Albuquerque crew was the best we ever had. The sets were awesome. The Beerfest arena! You realize that with a budget like we had on this film, the sets make the movie for the most part. Like on Club Dread, some the sets looked low-rent. When we saw the Beefest arena for the first time we were amazed. All of those flags, the poles! Filming in Albuquerque was fantastic. But it wasn’t great for Eric. For the first twenty minutes of the film, he is soaking wet with beer. Every night it was close to zero degrees there and he was soaking.
ES: A lot of that got cut out from the film. Originally, Paul [Soter] and I find this huge keg that we end up tapping, drinking and dancing in it. The Beer Baron comes in and finds us. With Oktoberfest, you aren’t supposed to drink the beer until the Beer Baron performs the ceremony to tap it. So we ruin Oktoberfest and we get chased through the streets, and it’s February and we are soaking wet. Every time we had a new take, like after lunch, we had to be sprayed down again with water. Then we had re-shoots just to get it all cut out!

Q: How did the story develop?
SL: We were on a promotional trip down in Australia, promoting Super Troopers for Fox. We were appearing at a mall opening, then a beer garden opening. [In a fake Australian accent] ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, from America, the Super Troopers!’
ES: We didn’t get any response, so we issued a challenge to out drink anyone in the audience. We had five big rugby players step up and we almost beat them. Then it turned to arm wrestling, then general mayhem. Fox had to sneak us out the side door and we ran away.
SL: We had been thinking about another project, The Greek Road, based on a sketch we performed in New York. It’s an epic story with gods and monsters, but we just couldn’t get the budget down to where Warner Bros. would have liked. We had been thinking about Beerfest and then thought it would be easier to make, to market to college kids around the world.
ES: You know, pandering! [Laughs]
SL: Adam Sandler contacted us. He had seen Super Troopers and said that if you wanted to do R-rated comedies, you may want my help. After the first week that Club Dread was released and performed rather lackluster, he called us again and told us we really needed his help now. So he invited us in. He had us pitch him some ideas, including Beerfest. We presented it to Sony, developing it at Happy Madison Productions, but then Warner Bros, actually ended up giving us an offer.
ES: It was the same day we had an unfortunate meeting at Sony. It was the same week they had released Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, which was tanking. We were psyched to be at Sony, but we understood how they became wary.

Question: Any struggles with Warner about making this an R rated comedy?
SL: Actually no. Alan Horn, head of production at Warner, told us his head was looking the other way, and had us beef up the R-rated content after test screenings went well. They gave us some time to shoot some bawdier material. They asked for, you know, more nudity.

Question: So Jay’s [Chandrasekhar] ass was the extra nudity?
SL: (Laughs) Yeah, like an evil genie, be careful what you wish for!

Question: So what is the writing process like for five people working together, and how do you resolve creative differences?
ES: Well, we throw out ideas and try to riff it out like we have been doing. That can go on for days. As scenes develop, we put that down, and then we construct an outline that connects the scenes. We then split off and write twenty pages each and come back together. We select a ‘bitch’ who assembles the pieces into a single script.
SL: That’s the fun part of the process. We do that at someone’s home. As we get closer to shooting, the discussions become more serious, and sometimes it becomes ‘I’m right, you are wrong!’ while the rest of the guys sit back and eat popcorn. It was easier this time, as we improvised a lot of the dialog.
ES: I don’t think dialog comes out first, it’s character. The characters can change even when we start shooting, so often it’s not until the end of the process, when the character is nailed down, that we can approach dialog.
SL: We have a first reading and sometimes we just can’t imagine the words coming out of characters’ mouths. Things don’t always work just then.

Question: You guys have been working together for some time. How difficult is it to get seasoned actors to appear in your films?
SL: It’s not that hard. Like Brian Cox in Super Troopers. He was a Jerry Lewis fan, and wanted to do some physical comedy. He had fun on that shoot, but Jürgen [Prochnow] was ready to go home at the end.

Question: What was it like to work with Cloris Leechman?
ES: She loves comedy, and is bawdy as hell.
SL: We had her in mind to play Great Gam Gam.

JS: So you wrote the role with her in mind, yet your process suggests you write with yourselves in mind. Is there ever a time you write a role and then realize you need someone else to play it?
SL: There was a time when we thought about playing the Germans as well, dyeing our hair well and wearing blue contacts--that would have funny on Jay--but that was probably the closest.

Question: How as Mo’Nique cast?
SL: She came into the casting session, and on her way out she said to Jay, “I’ll see you in Albuquerque!” When she left Jay came back and said “we should cast Mo’Nique!”
ES: Yeah, looks like she charmed him or spooked him. He has a love scene with her, so who knows? We liked her a lot!

Question: How much drinking took place on the film?
ES: Depends on the time of the day! At 6:00am, it was O’Douls; later in the day, whatever beer was around. We had sponsorship from some European beer makers; no US beer company wanted to be a part.

Question: Do you have a favorite drinking story?
SL: We were playing Quarters recently to practice for the film, and Kevin accidentally swallowed the quarter. We were on Quarter Watch. We went to Home Depot and bought stud finder to try and trace the quarter. We never found the quarter, but we expected to see George Washington’s face recoiled in horror after taking that fantastic voyage.

Question: How would you measure success with this film?
SL: It is allows us to move and to make the films we want to make, with more money.
ES: If it allows us to make The Greek Road next.
SL: Really, even if it’s independent, as long as we are able to make another film next. We made a film Puddle Cruiser which didn’t sell, then we did Super Troopers and that was on 1,800 screens. You don’t realize it, but it's still a hustle until you make $100 million for the studio. It would be nice to get to a level of security where we don’t have to do that. Some of us have families who depend on us. So please, go out and see Beerfest!

Seen in Edinburgh: Driving Lessons--Press Conference Comments

By James McCaskill, DC Film Society Member

Driving Lessons (Jeremy Brock, UK, 2006) had its World Premiere at TriBeCa and its European Premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival. It is scheduled for previews and release in September.

The first words Julie Walters utters, "Fuck you, you little fucker" introduces the delightfully eccentric Dame Evie Walton in Jeremy Brock's directorial debut. You know this lady is going to be a handful. Brock is the well praised screenwriter of Mrs. Brown, Charlotte Gray and The Last King of Scotland, the 2006 London Film Festival's Opening Night film. He is also the screenwriter of a new version of Brideshead Revisited, currently in development.

It is going to take a high energy person like Dame Evie to wrest poor downtrodden Ben (played by Harry Potter's pal Rupert Grint) from a controlling mother. A quirk in casting was that Walters next played Grint's mother in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Walters said of Driving Lessons, "It's a great rites of passage story. There is a lot of mutual healing that goes on between this young man and this eccentric older actress. Evie was just heaven to play." Walters is best know for her roles in Educating Rita, Calendar Girls and as Billy Elliot's ballet teacher.

At the press conference, Grint confessed that despite 60 driving lessons he still does not have his license. "I'm trying to get another test," he said. "It's really quite embarrassing actually." When he was driving Dame Evie all the roads had to be closed off.

It looks like another monotonous summer holiday for downtrodden Ben. His only activity, other than taking driving lessons from his mother, is playing a tree in a church play which his overbearing mother (Laura Linney) is directing while flirting with her vicar husband's assistant. Dame Evie's career is coming to an end. "I was obliged to take television work. Daytime television. Something about shipping magnets." She was even been turned down for a part in the traditional Christmas pantomime, Aladdin.

At the press conference, Julie Walters said of Evie, "She's very entertaining, eccentric, someone whose lived on her own for many years and so has become less conscious of herself. Obviously, she's got a bit of a drink problem for various reasons, and she's gotten to an age where she speaks her mind, really, and says exactly what comes into it, like older people sometimes do."

To broaden Ben's narrow world, she has him act Coriolanus with her in her Garden. "You don't understand the jealousy bit until you strangle someone," she tells Ben. Over his mother's objection she takes Ben camping, something Dame Evie has never done. This adventure is closely followed by her poetry reading in Edinburgh. "I can't go to Edinburgh. It's way up there," Ben tells her. "I have not done any public appearances in many years. I am to read from an anthology of love poems. Kitsch." Evie is terrified of reading in public and needs Ben's moral support.

The film's three day shoot in Edinburgh has some wonderful shots of Scotland's capital. Edinburgh is justly proud of being UNESCO's first City of Literature--literary readings are common. Some reviewers of this film place Evie's readings in the Edinburgh Book Festival. They are not. All their activities are under tents on Charlotte Square, called the most perfect Georgian square. That just completed Book Festival had over 600 authors, including Nobel Prize winners Harold Pinter and Seamus Heaney.

Bryony (Michelle Dunca) has been assigned to assist Evie. Instead, she take Ben to a salsa club (actually filmed in London as Edinburgh does not have one) and later to her room. Ben wakes up late and misses Evie's reading. The script is loosely based on Brock's adolescence. His father was a vicar and he worked for Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Evie's eccentric lifestyle challenges Ben's beliefs. He has to confront the future and who he wants to be. Should he conform or break free and live his own life?

The 2006 Munich International Film Festival

By Leslie Weisman, DC Film Society Member

This year's
Filmfest München (Munich Filmfest) was, as always, the sublimest of summer sites for close encounters with legendary filmmakers and the best in international cinema. (This Andreas Ströhl frankly and disarmingly told us at the opening press conference, Munich is not an "A" festival like Berlin or Cannes. Practically speaking, what does that mean? "We focus not on stars, but on good films." In other words, a cinephile's paradise!

This year, in addition to its customary screening of 200+ films from more than forty countries, many of them world premieres, and "podium discussions" with dozens of notable directors, Filmfest München focused its telephoto lens on three of today's filmic giants. One of these has extended his legacy so that it now encompasses a family of five, whose exile from their homeland has not kept them from making incisive, award-winning films about it--or from hoping one day to return to it.

But perhaps, we should take our singular cineastes in geographical order...

Kudos to a hometown fella: Barry Levinson
Filmfest München's prestigious CineMerit Award, bestowed each year upon "an outstanding personality in the international film community for extraordinary contributions to motion pictures as an art form" (previous recipients include Geraldine Chaplin, Milos Forman and Jacqueline Bisset) this year honored our own Barry Levinson, auteur of such classic films as Diner, Rain Man, Wag the Dog and Good Morning, Vietnam. In a relaxed but illuminating conversation with Filmfest programmer Robert Fischer, Levinson held forth about the extent to which his films are personal ("Obviously they express a lot of the feelings I have, but I've always tried to make myself as anonymous as possible, so that you're not aware of how it got done, you're not aware of the shots") and the secret behind his productiveness ("I write extremely quickly; it feels like I'm doing dictation").

How does he develop his story lines and characters? "If I can launch the characters with certain ideas, they will take over the piece, to take me where it needs to go. The story begins to tell itself, the characters will surprise me, take me to places I don't expect. If I tried to do an outline, I'd still be working on Diner!" Which of his characters are closest to him? "They're all a part of me; I'm actually like some of the women in my films, like the one who works in a television station, because I worked in a television station. But--Sixty-Six [his 2003 novel, written as the basis for a possible film in the Diner series] is probably the closest I'll ever come to me." While Diner, Avalon, Tin Man and Liberty Heights may closely reflect his Weltanschauung, "it's not intentional--I try to be as invisible as possible."

Mention of the book enabled an easy segue into Levinson's career as a scriptwriter, where he cut his teeth under Mel Brooks' tutelage before becoming a director. "It was the best apprenticeship you could have. I worked with him for three years on two movies, Silent Movie [where the only spoken word is uttered by mime Marcel Marceau, who says "Non!"] and High Anxiety. We would meet every morning for breakfast, work on the script, shoot some scenes... Even though we have different approaches, I learned so much from him."

What made him decide to become a director? "I never had an ambition of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. My number-one ambition as a boy was not to work in my father's store." Levinson regaled the audience with the tale of how he got into filmmaking "by accident." It seems that a friend of his named George was taking acting classes, and needed a ride. Levinson agreed to give him a lift, and when George got out of the car, he insisted that Levinson accompany him so he wouldn't be sitting outside by himself. Not having any interest in acting, but finding no way to agreeably decline, Levinson went in--and was immediately issued an ultimatum by the instructor: If you want to stay here, you'll have to participate.

It didn't take long before Levinson was hooked. And his buddy? George Jung soon dropped out, and their paths diverged. Years later, watching the film Blow, Levinson learned what became of his friend. Seems that in the intervening years, while Barry Levinson was honing his writing and directing skills, George Jung was honing other skills, and had achieved a fame of his own: as the biggest cocaine dealer in North America. (He wound up in prison.)

But back to Barry. First, of course, came Diner, which was not the immediate hit one might expect. Daily Variety called it "dark and depressing," said Levinson, which puzzled him. But then Pauline Kael gave it a great review, and it took off. "If you're not working within a specific genre," he added, "sometimes critics don't know what to do [with a film], how to handle it." The diner in Diner, we learned, was transported from New Jersey to Baltimore, then returned to NJ, then back to Baltimore, which at last bought it and settled it there--and turned it into a voc-ed school.

The style of Diner, where a lot of the dialogue seems to be improvised, was picked up again later in television, noted Fischer, on shows like Homicide. Levinson agreed: "It's like life, where a lot of times you don't say exactly what you mean, where you hesitate, and that's what I wanted to get into the characters. The inarticulate nature of what we say may have great significance, but it gets hidden in the messiness of it all, as opposed to saying specifically what we want, which we don't generally do." Where did this come from? "As an 11-year old, I was struck by the exchange in Paddy Chayevsky's Marty which I saw on TV, where two guys are talking: 'Whaddya wanna do, Marty?' 'I don' know, whadda you wanna do?'--so natural, so normal, so everyday. So I determined to write dialogue like that. And Diner is all that kind of dialogue." "And then you picked that up for Homicide. It changed the language of TV." "Well, it's dialogue-driven, which kind of drives the producers crazy, because they want to have an action- driven promo to advertise it. I wanted to explore how working in a job like that day in and day out affects people, changes people."

For Rain Man, Levinson decided to strip it down to the bare essentials: two brothers in a car, and the character development that takes place as they travel together. Rain Man helped bring autism out into the open, he told us, helped people to recognize, identify and treat it, and not be ashamed of it. Dustin Hoffman asked Levinson how he wanted him to do the pitching motion that was one of the physical aspects of Raymond's autism. Levinson told him to think of pitching a ball, to get into the rhythm of it. But that was only the physical part, not the conceptual part, and Hoffman needed more. So Levinson came up with the idea of the old Abbott and Costello routine, and told Hoffman to "think of it as a mantra" that he would repeat along with the arm motion. It clicked. Levinson later spoke with psychologists, who said an autistic person might indeed repeat a phrase like this as a sort of mantra.

What does the future hold for Barry Levinson? His latest film, Man of the Year, about a Jon Stewart-like talk-show host who runs for the presidency, is opening in October, and features Robin Williams, Laura Linney, and Christopher Walken. And watch for a triple-DVD set of Bugsy. (Ignore any hype about a "Brilliant" film with Scarlett Johansson; the blurb was premature. The film fell through.) What does he see for the future of cinema? "It's so much easier to make and distribute films now. I think we're at the beginning of a big revolutionary change; you're no longer bound by the old conventions." And Barry Levinson will be right at the plate.

Mike Figgis: Man with a four-track mind
One of the most gratifying surprises of this year's Filmfest München was the revelation of an entire body of remarkable film and television work that many of us had never seen, or were even aware of. Renowned British filmmaker Mike Figgis, perhaps best known in the U.S. for Leaving Las Vegas, the groundbreaking Timecode, and memorable directing gigs with "The Sopranos," was honored with a retrospective. The first ever to encompass his entire oeuvre, it spanned 32 films and TV programs, among them some 10 "Hollywood Conversations" featuring intimate interviews with Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Salma Hayek, and others. As his pièce de résistance, Figgis wowed a full house with a "live mix" of Timecode.

In a podium discussion immediately preceding the live mix, Figgis told the eager audience who besieged the podium with cameras, pens and programs, and were finally persuaded to take their seats--that he has done 15-20 of these "live mixes," in which he plays with the pacing, dialogue, and score of the four split-screen stories. Noting that Figgis had added a fifth soundtrack for this screening, the Filmfest programmer observed that the mixing of Timecode (as indeed the film itself) can be seen on so many levels--cinematic, musical, philosophical, artistic--that it concerns "not only cinema as we know it, but the future of cinema as we know it."

"What's incredible for me is that it's a new film every time," Figgis told the audience. The film, released in 2000, is "not finished; it never will be finished. There's nothing like doing it in a live theater, because things can go wrong," he added. "[But] the more I do it, the more I feel competent to take a chance and try something new... I can't think of another experience in my career of making films that's anything like this." Confessing that he gets upset when people say "It's a nice gimmick" or "It's a nice card trick," Figgis avowed that it's a "very serious genre," not a "gimmick" or "card trick," and that he is "always looking for a new way to use cinema... [while] I love cinema, I'm also completely bored with it."

Asked about the scene in which the young filmmaker comes in to passionately pitch her film, which is structured like Timecode, and is ridiculed--"it's almost like you're ridiculing yourself"--Figgis confessed that critics can be a bear. They can be "insightful once in a while," but "they also can be completely mindlessly cruel and destructive." And on occasion pretentious, to the point where "I've had conversations about my work that I don't understand" and "I've felt stupid talking about my own work." And then there are those find "more in my films than I put into them." So he inserted two characters who would play out that "Andy Warhol sort of situation," where "if I say it's art, it's art," and anticipate the type of dialogue that might ensue in some quarters when the film came out.

Figgis said he thought it was "kind of an interesting dialogue to have within the film," because "we've turned the audience into a bunch of zombies in the dark; we are no longer proactive, we are reactive... it's where we go to kind of zone out, but we don't participate. We did it in kind of a comic way, but I agree with everything she says." Recalling Hitchcock's famous long takes in Rope and Under Capricorn, which the advent of sound ostensibly favored, Figgis was asked whether Timecode heralded their resurgence. The operative factor is the kind of film you're doing, he answered, although long takes should not be overused: "Film is not theater." And while the inspiration for Timecode derived, in fact, from his interest in the new video equipment, it may be that the "cinematic cart is pulling the horse: cinema equipment is leading cinema innovation."

An accomplished musician, Figgis conceives his films like a string quartet, where each player goes off into a room to practice, then all come together to make it work as a whole. The analogy is not superficial: Figgis actually used music paper to write the script for Timecode, with each line representing a minute of screen time, then went about teaching the cast of 30 to "read music as film," giving each person his own dialogue and counting on the four separate tracks to come together when the filming started. Each time he made a change, the actors would make the corresponding change on the music paper.

What's great about these live mixes, Figgis said, is that it puts you back in touch with the audience; it's like theater (an instructive counterpoint to his earlier assertion that film, in its usual state, is not theater), where the audience really doesn't know what will come next, and he can feed off their anticipation and their presence.

(At the live mix later that evening, we learned some interesting "insider stuff" about the film. Figgis told us that in the original film, he was at the bottom right-hand camera. In production, he began shooting one film a day, but when the studio complained, increased it to two a day. When it came to the earthquake, he told the actors to do their own "earthquake acting," their own "vision," as it were, compelling him to employ what he called "earthquake choreography" for the scene. The live mix itself included rewinds of selected shots and scenes, featured certain actors more than others, and included additional, and different, music. It was not, he emphasized, what you'll find on the DVD.)

Asked to say a few words about scoring his films, Figgis affirmed that music is key: "I could play Mahler and have a dog piss against the wall and you'd find it incredibly profound and moving." On the other hand, using great music can be a problem, not only bringing with it its own associations, but heightening the emotional impact of whatever scene it accompanies, which can be problematic for the director: nothing can follow it.

Proceeding to the "Hollywood Conversations," Figgis said that in conceiving them, he decided to pare it down to bare-bones, with just a single camera on the person being interviewed. Was part of his motivation to get back at Hollywood for treating him shabbily? Figgis firmly denied any bad feelings, declaring that he never wanted to take revenge on Hollywood, and was in fact "entirely complicit": anyone who gets into the game, he said, knows that the same people who fawn over you one day will ignore you the next, and be your best buddy the day after; it's the business. When it comes to Hollywood executives, Figgis said, their power gives them the ability to say the most outrageous, insulting things to people: "If they said some of those things to you in a pub in London, you'd say 'Please step outside,' but it's all because of the money. How low will you go for the money?" Mel Gibson expressed similar sentiments to Mike in his 1999 "Hollywood Conversations" interview (see below).

And what does the future hold for Mike Figgis? If you were eagerly anticipating Guilty Pleasure, announced in late 2004 as "a thriller about a young couple who engage in a ménage à trois as a last sexual fling before their wedding," yours (pleasure, that is, guilty or otherwise) will have to be put on hold. The studio had problems with the script, and asked Mike to fix it. He set assiduously to work--not sure where the problem was, but willing to rework the script to give them what they wanted--rewrote the first two acts, and sent it off. Their reply? The first two acts were fine; it was the third act that needed work. Guilty Pleasure: not coming to a theater near you, at least for a while (and Figgis left the impression that it may never see the light of day).

But a whole slew of Figgis films and TV shows did come to Filmfest München. I was able to see a choice few of them, including one of the "Hollywood Conversations," a series of half-hour interviews with actors and directors that Figgis produced and conducted for British TV. (They were later published in an anthology, "Projections 10: Hollywood Film-Makers on Film-Making," Faber & Faber, February 2000.) By luck or skill, the one I managed to see was the interview with no-holds-barred Mel Gibson. It did not disappoint.

In a wide-ranging, stunningly candid conversation, Gibson heartily admits that he was "a great liar" as a boy growing up in Australia. He and Figgis then commiserate over the audition process--"You feel humiliated, watching [actors] prostitute themselves," says Gibson--and share their mutual, deep-seated fear of Christopher Walken who, they say, loves grim, horrific things and torture (we can only hope it stops at fictional representations of them) even more than Gibson does.

When it comes to the opposite sex, Gibson readily admits that they are "way above us"; men are the "storytellers." On the opposite side of the moral equation are producers, de facto arbiters of the "social contract" that rules Hollywood. Recalling some of their experiences in Hollywood, Gibson and Figgis agree on the common term that people in the business use when they get ripped off, or make a costly mistake: "school fees."

But you can't get mad, says Gibson equably; it's a given that you're going to get abused by people you're going to have to work with again. So you can't take it personally. "You have to choose what level of integrity you're coming in at. You need that kind of cockroach resilience to survive here."

Human Rights in Film
Survival of a more urgent kind was the subject of four films co-presented with Human Rights Watch. Land of the Blind (Robert Edwards, Great Britain/USA, 2006), an allegorical drama about the battle of freedom and idealism against political repression and corruption, is set in an unidentified future time and place (although 1984 is not far off), and features Ralph Fiennes as a soldier whose curiosity about the political prisoner (Donald Sutherland) he is assigned to guard by the country's Duce-like dictator leads him in a downward spiral that careens out of control.

Beginning as a Pythonesque slapstick-satire, it proceeds to commentary, both sharp-edged ("If voting could ever really change anything, it would be illegal") and subtle (after viciously killing his subordinate, who failed, the leader advises his dumbstruck colleague to read The 7 Secrets of Highly Effective People, adding: "It helped me tremendously"), but never really settles on one genre. There is an implicit indictment of the media--when Sutherland blinks TORTURE with his eyes, it is duly translated on TV by blithely blabbermouthed reporters; and in a send-up of a former president, the leader and his wife oozingly call each other "Mommy" and "Daddy." Returning to the literary, when Sutherland, now the leader, gathers his underlings around him, he exhorts them to dip their hands in the slain leader's blood--Julius Caesar, anyone? He then proceeds to become as power-hungry and corrupt as the leader he and Fiennes joined forces to overthrow--even more so, instituting a mullah-like theocracy with absolute power over not only his subjects' actions, but their thoughts. Cautionary tale, or fairy tale? Maybe a bit of both.

The next film thrust us into a stark reality whose cautionary value is well known, and whose horrors one could only wish were but fairy tales. KZ (Rex Bloomstein, Great Britain, 2005), is a potent study in dichotomies that makes its points deliberately, yet powerfully. Beginning with the bus that brings a score of chatty tourists to one of Austria's most infamous landmarks, the erstwhile concentration camp (Konzentrationslager, or "KZ") Mauthausen, it ends with the ineffable solitude of the camp's director, whose job has become his mission--at an increasingly untenable mental and emotional cost.

Entering the camp, visitors are greeted by a sober yet friendly baritone voice warning them that they will see but a watered-down version of what happened there, because to see what really happened would drive them mad. "And we want you to return with a sound mind, to further the cause of justice, peace, and truth." It seems to have the desired effect on at least some, who later give their impressions. A Nigerian man, asked what he learned there, goes to the heart of it, saying that the greatest horrors start with small indignities, and that if we learn to recognize them early on, we can stop them from growing out of control. (Those whose first taste of French literature was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince" will be time-capsuled back to its lesson of the baobab trees, small, yet insidiously voracious, which must be extirpated at the root to prevent them from overtaking entire forests.)

The director of the site admits that he is obsessively committed to its mission, reading, watching, and buying everything he can get his hands on relating to the Holocaust, on which he has become something of an authority. His tour for the camera crew includes a shot of the road signs for the camp which, he notes with disbelieving irony, are contingent to, and the same color as, the sign for the nearby inn and beer hall, where troubadours rousingly sing Mauthausen's praises as they greet the tourists. Interviews with residents produce a range of reactions, with most perhaps predictably defensive about their hometown or choice of residence. Interestingly, age is not an augur of reactions; both those born after the war and those who lived there at the time are equally blasé about the elephant in their room. Only one woman somewhat nervously acknowledges the inherent embarrassment, or at least discomfiting awareness, that informs her choice to live there.

The most telling sequence may be the interview with three SS widows who reminisce nostalgically, and with undisguised pride in their husbands' importance--fueled in no small measure, one suspects, by self-importance--about the "good old days." Reluctantly compelled by the interviewer's simple but insistent questions to recall what else was happening under their very noses, and at their own husbands' hands or under their supervision, two of the three begin to remember--"mounds" of living bodies piled up in the street like garbage, "babies and children... they were still moving,... the soldiers started shooting into them... then they stopped... the bodies were left to rot in the sun for days," says one, her friend and neighbor of some 60 years looking at her in disbelief. (Of course, her most indelible memory of those times was her wedding, a lavish affair held in the camp itself, with inmates--Theresienstadt-like presentable--providing the "entertainment.") The local priest, asked if he ever gets the question: "Where was God?" says no, he hasn't. But he has asked himself the question--and hasn't found an answer.

Introducing the film and its director, Rex Bloomstein, the Filmfest programmer noted that films such as this exemplified fest director Andreas Ströhl's conviction that the supposed "smallness" of documentaries was more a question of form and budget, than one of importance or resonance. (Affirming this judgment, director Barry Levinson later called the film Journey to Justice, which also deals with the Holocaust, "a documentary with the emotional power of a feature film." More on this film below.) Asked what inspired him to make KZ, Bloomstein told the audience that it was the appalling incongruity of the road signs and the beer hall, both within shouting distance of the camp, that resonated with him, and convinced him to make the film. At the same time, he acknowledged, the estimated 4,000 existing documentaries on the Holocaust beg the question of why there should be yet another: "What else is there to say?" The film itself answers this question powerfully. But further proof was to come.

At a Q&A following the screening, several in the audience identified themselves as children or grandchildren of survivors, or of fathers who worked in a concentration camp or served in the German army during the war. In an odd convergence, their wildly disparate experiences then, yielded similar reactions now: Whether survivors, perpetrators or unseeing observers, none want to discuss the subject to this day, even with their families. This microcosm alone offered, if one is needed, a telling answer to those questions.

The experience of survivors was recounted both filmically and personally as a sold-out theater followed Howard Triest's on-site narration of the story of his return to the land he fled as a teenager after years of terror at the hands of the Nazis in Journey to Justice (Steve Palackdharry, USA, 2005). His story was of more than historical interest here in the Munich Film Museum, for Munich was the home of his family for generations, so assimilated they felt "more German than Jewish; the fact that the [Nazis] later defined the Jewish religion as a race didn't alter that." Yet it was from here that they were torn, to die horrific deaths, with Howard and his younger sister Margot--after months of running and riding, hiding and being hidden, pursued, and occasionally helped--the only ones to escape. (Margot also helped 10 other children escape.)

The film uses never-before-seen documents, photos, and archival footage, much of it taken from Howard Triest's own files, to recount his harrowing journey from Munich to America, where, just a few years later, he joined the Army and served as an interpreter at the Nuremberg trials. He recalled the equanimity with which Nazi officials described, "like bureaucrats," the inhuman torture and degradation inflicted on the camps' inmates, taking pride in having "exceeded their quotas." (Nuremberg, he reminded the audience, was chosen as the site of the trials because of the infamous Nuremberg Laws, which the Nazis drew up to put a "legal" stamp on their actions.) Recalling how he somehow managed to maintain his composure before Rudolf Hoess, the commandant at Auschwitz, where his parents were murdered, Triest acknowledged that he believed the sentence Hoess and others received--hanging--was "too easy for them."

Effectively mixing past and present--at times Triest becomes a photograph, observing the interviews or silently commenting on a still--Palackdharry's cinematic achievement is ably abetted by the photographic skill of Howard's son Glenn, who in a post-screening discussion admitted that he cannot completely relax in Germany, unlike his father, who now can. But his father has more than earned that ease, which was felt by all during the shoot, thanks in large part to the director; Margot told the audience that his open, honest, and relaxed manner enabled her to feel free to say things she had not even told her children, who were astonished and moved when they saw the film.

But children are the next generation, and Howard and Margot's meeting with the young couple who now live in their former Munich home is illuminating and heartwarming, as they exhibit a friendliness, openness and curiosity, and a willingness to question "accepted truths," that contrasts sharply with what the Triests experienced seventy years before. Their hopeful optimism remained with us, as did the film's indelible images, as we exited the theater.

In a "close encounters" panel discussion, directors Robert Edwards (Land of the Blind) and Rex Bloomstein (KZ) joined Sam Zarifi, Human Rights Watch, Asia; Robert Fischer, Filmfest München; and Marianne Heuwagen, Human Rights Watch, Berlin, to discuss Human Rights in Film.

Edwards, noting that he had been asked why he made a pessimistic film that doesn't "show how you can make things better," said he felt "you have to portray things as they are," and in that regard, his film was "a call to arms." On the other hand, he added, it could also be seen as an optimistic film, because the main character did what was right; just because he suffers does not mean he should not have acted as he did. While optimism may be necessary for people who work in organizations such as Human Rights Watch, in order to be able to do the work they do, he added, for others, optimism may not be warranted in a world where governments are still establishing "ministries of virtue" that violate people's rights.

Asked why he selected these particular films, Fischer replied that Land of the Blind and KZ were selected for their differences as well as for their similarities. While the first is a big-budget Hollywood film with big-name stars, and the second a film shot in digital video with a small budget and non-actors who speak, unscripted, directly to the camera, both films leave it to the viewer's own judgment, unlike films that implicitly impose one.

Noting, as he did before the screening audience, that there have been over 4,000 documentaries on the Holocaust, Bloomstein observed that the motto "Never again" has become a joke, because it keeps happening again. Asked if the information obtained in the edifying interviews of the camp's tour guides was planned or serendipitous, Bloomstein replied that he shot over 150 hours of recorded interviews, so he had a good amount of material to choose from.

Film is a vital tool, the panel generally agreed, because "the people who control the images control the message." Fischer remarked that while there had not been a political cinema in France for decades, suddenly, no doubt reflecting the social and political situation, there is one again. Indeed, the line-up of French films this year included two that dealt explicitly with political issues of the sixties: I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed (Serge Le Péron, France, 2005) and October 17, 1961 (Alain Tasma, France, 2005), the latter described by Keith Uhlich of Slant magazine as "a gripping... video docudrama of the infamous night when the racial tensions between the Parisian police and the Algerian underclass... came to a head." In a memorable line from that film, a young woman tells her friend: "You can pretend not to see, but once you do see, you have to act. You have no choice." That line spoke eloquently to the Human Rights films, and to others at the fest as well.

Films on Human Rights
Set in the tinderbox of Tangiers between the massive destruction of World War II and the riots of October 17, 1961, For Bread Alone (Rachid Benhadj, Italy/France/Morocco, 2005), based on the best-selling autobiography by Mohamed Choukri, is at once timely and timeless, with echoes that reverberate disturbingly into the present and potentially into the future. Beginning as a story of incredible deprivation and abuse, it ends as an inspiring paean to persistence, pluck and resourcefulness and the transformative power of education, while never allowing the horrors of the past to fade entirely from our consciousness.

The film's effectiveness lies, for one, in its ability to meld the historical--we watch as the conspicuously wealthy French occupiers eat, drink, and party without even a backward glance at their suffering neighbors, whose urchin children beg pedestrians for food--with the personal. We see the the boy watch his mother savagely beaten by his drunken, unemployed father who, in an act of rage, smothers the younger brother for crying, uncontrollably, for food. It is also rich in imagery: In one unforgettable scene, we see the adolescent Choukri watch with hungry eyes as the daughter of his protector bathes. Stealing her panties as they hang out to dry, he nails them to a wall, tacks two huge oranges above them, and slowly, sensually, gnaws the luscious fruit. (The book, published in 1952, was banned for some thirty years in many Middle Eastern countries for its sexual explicitness.)

For all its depictions of abuse and pain--the prison guards come off as not only gratuitously cruel but irredeemably corrupt, taking as much pleasure in tormenting the inmates as in robbing them--the film concludes on an emotional high note that is neither contrived nor improbable. Its ringing testament to not just the value, but the urgency, of education should make even blasé or discouraged high-schoolers rethink any reflexive dismissal of them. (If the film, which also screened at Cannes and Montreal this year, doesn't make it to our area, the book is available at the Library of Congress, the Arlington Public Library, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.)

All in the (immediate) family: The Makhmalbafs
As Barry Levinson's films often revolve around families, Mike Figgis has wrestled with the powers that be, and human rights remains a vital topic for films from every corner of the globe, there is a single family whose lives and films join many of these elements. This year, Filmfest München presented virtually the entire oeuvre of this distinguished family of filmmakers, in the biggest retrospective of their films ever held: the Makhmalbafs.

In addition to screening their films--from the first, father Mohsen's Nassouh's Repentance (1982), to the most recent: his Scream of the Ants (2006), which premiered there; from the youngest child, Hana, probably the youngest cineaste to have a film presented at Venice, to the middle son Maysam, whose premiere film was warmly received at the fest; to the eldest, the estimable Samira, whose At Five in the Afternoon (2003) won two awards at Cannes, to wife and step-mother Marzieh Meshkini, whose Stray Dogs (below) and The Day I Became a Woman are worthy additions to the canon--the fest also offered a thought-provoking "close encounters" panel discussion with the entire family, conducted by Klaus Eder, Filmfest München programmer. (To facilitate reading, Samira, Maysam, and Hana Makhmalbaf are henceforth identified by first name only.)

When one sees an Iranian movie, posited Eder, there is something in the language of the image that immediately identifies it as an Iranian film. An outsider who is relatively unfamiliar with Iranian cinema may see the similarities, responded Makhmalbaf, but seen "from inside," there are many differences. If there are similarities, he added, they may lie in the fact that in Iranian cinema, the cinematic image is a translation of the literary image. There is a very strong storytelling tradition in Iran. Cinema, he taught his children, like any art, is divided into two parts: what you want to say, and how you say it.

How did he come up with the idea of a family of filmmakers? The family always came with him whenever he shot a film, and saw behind the scenes. Samira decided at 14 that she didn't want to go to school, she wanted to make films, and he agreed; the others followed. But it was not at all a year-round vacation. Sometimes there were 16-hour days in the car, traveling from one place to the next, meeting and learning about people of different cultures in different situations, hauling out camera equipment, setting up scenes; it was work and education combined.

Samira noted that she was always a good student in school, but that education was always framed in terms of its value in getting a husband. "I wanted to do more with my life." Another thing that bothered her was that the teachers always gave her answers instead of allowing or encouraging her to find them herself. (Indeed, in Vera Tschechowa’s Salam Cinema--The Makhmalbafs and Their Films (Germany, 2005), father Mohsen says, "You go to school to learn how to be like other people. Education should [instead] teach you how to find out who you are and what you can do.")

Their father wouldn't let them watch TV, she recalled, but one day she saw a program at a friend's home about two girls in Afghanistan whose father had imprisoned them in a small room in the house behind iron bars, ostensibly to protect them from the world. She was moved, seeing "how love could be hurtful, even if well-intentioned"; the story became her first film, The Apple (1997). Made at 17, in just eleven days--talk about quick studies!--it was screened in Official Selection at Cannes, and won the London Film Festival's Sutherland Trophy for best first feature. Maysam recalled how as children, he and Samira would make home movies and hide when their father came home, out of fear that they were no good. But his critiques were invaluable.

You clearly love your home country, said Eder; why don't you make films there anymore? Makhmalbaf's answer was a simple one: because the Iranian government won't let him. (In fact, as we learned in the aforementioned Salam Cinema--The Makhmalbafs and Their Films, his last two films were made without the required permit for a screenplay.) But he loves his country, and wouldn't live anywhere else. Afghanistan, where the Makhmalbafs have shot several films, has a similar language and culture, and even many of the same problems, but more freedoms, he added, and so is more conducive to filmmaking. Furiously productive, he has 15 scripts he'd love to shoot. Even Samira's internationally acclaimed At Five in the Afternoon (2003) was screened in Iran in a small, out-of-the way theater for a very short period, so hardly anyone saw it. Indeed, every year they shoot three or four films, but the government will not let them be shown there.

The family currently lives in Tajikistan, and their desire to move to France is stalled by that country's delay in processing the paperwork: until Iran renews their passports, France won't give them permanent visas. Samira, whose At Five in the Afternoon won both the Jury Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes, called out from the podium: "We don't want your prizes! Give us a visa!"

Asked whether he was afraid that the magic of his films may be linked to Iran, and that he'll lose it if he leaves, Makhmalbaf reminded us that Tarkovsky left Russia for Italy, and made even better films! [According to, Tarkovsky's last film, Offret (1986), won an almost unprecedented four prizes at Cannes.] Pressure can make you weak or strong, noted Samira, like a spring: You press on it and it goes down; when it comes up again, it's stronger than ever, because of the pressure it's been under. Her father, imprisoned and tortured under the Shah of Iran ("the only thing the revolution changed was the name of the king," he says in Salam Cinema), is living proof of his daughter's philosophy.

As is, it could be said, the filmic output of this remarkable family, which despite intense pressure is still producing creative cinema that is shot in other countries and embraced by cinephiles and audiences around the world, and yet remains essentially, profoundly Iranian.

A look at some of those films:

Serendipitously, a September 3 article in The Washington Post’s Travel section reports on the country’s love affair with Hollywood. Salaam Cinema (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran 1994), not to be confused with son Maysam's similarly titled film, is an eye-opener for those unfamiliar with Iran beyond the usual media reports. The premise, Makhmalbaf tells readers of the ad he places in a Tehran newspaper, is a film to salute cinema on its 100th birthday. He invites all and sundry to audition for parts in this noble exercise, and sure enough, he is besieged with aspiring film stars--the men in jeans, the women duly dressed in full chador (and white tennis shoes)--convinced they're the next Paul Newman or Marilyn Monroe, and doing scenes, by heart, from the films that made them famous.

But Mohsen is a demanding and unpredictable taskmaster, alternately bullying them, sometimes to the point of tears, to repeat lines again and again; asking them embarrassing personal, and unanswerable philosophical, questions; manipulating their emotions and morals by pitting them against each other, then excoriating them for their selfishness or ruthlessness; imperiously throwing them out, then quickly changing his mind and allowing them back in--only to throw them out again. But the tough ones last, sometimes incisively turning his own words back on him (the women are especially good at this), and even learning from his example: Told that they are good enough to take his place and audition their colleagues, two of the women swiftly put the hapless ladies through the same torment, as though they were born to it.

An object lesson for Iranians, perhaps, but also for Westerners, who have a few demagogues in their own past. And an edifying, humanizing look at a people we sometimes see in dehumanizing shorthand. But then, the Makhmalbafs' films invariably offer this. Marzieh Meshkini's Stray Dogs (2004) follows a boy and his little sister through war-torn Afghanistan, where it was filmed. Told from the children's perspective, it would probably garner a PG-13 rating here (aside from some choice swear words used by the little ones, who have seen too much in their young lives), but would also be appreciated by anyone who wants more than the "nightly news" version of Afghanistan, and who cherishes good storytelling.

The film opens with a group of children on their way to school, who see a cute little terrier and, as kids will, pursue him. The pup falls into a hole, and the children, at the urging of one boy begin shouting at the dog, whose breed is apparently unfamiliar to them, and throwing lit torches into the hole: "He's a foreign dog!" yells one, "he won't understand us!" "He's an American dog!" yells another, "they killed the Taliban!" Two of the children, a boy and his sister, feeling compassion and concern for the little fellow, sneak in from behind, and extricate him from the hole. But what to do with him? Take him someplace safe, of course--to prison! Where he'll be cared for, or perhaps adopted, by one of the guards or inmates. And which prison? Well that's a no-brainer: the one their mother is in! Seems she's been sent to a horrific, primitive, barren dungeon of iron and stone that houses women who have somehow displeased their husbands or the authorities. (We get the impression that situations and prisons such as these are not anomalies in Afghanistan.)

Upon their reunion, the mother tells the girl, who is about five and perhaps seen as the more likely to sway the father's hard-heartedness, to go to the father to seek her release. We learn that her unpardonable offense was that, not having heard from her husband in several years and told that he was dead, she remarried. With two children to support, forbidden to work by cultural and religious (and possibly even state) law, she was in essence compelled to wed in order to feed her children. However, logic holds no sway with the father, who had her imprisoned upon learning of her marriage, and now is equally unimpressed by the children's pleas.

In desperation, they decide that their only hope is to somehow find a way to join their mother in that hellhole of a prison, and are advised by a street-wise urchin to see The Bicycle Thief, which is playing at the local cinema, for tips on how to get arrested as thieves. In a wink-wink at the adults in the audience, the ticket seller warns the kids that they're probably wasting their money; The Bicycle Thief is boring, it's an art film, nothing happens in it, nobody comes to see it. However, if they're determined, he'll sell them a ticket: "The dog gets in free."

The fierce loyalty of the two children to each other and their mother; their determination to stay together and find their place in a world of poverty, bleakness and desperation; the gentleness and love expressed by the little girl toward the dog--Stray Dogs may be too transparent a title, but on a very basic level, it works--and the occasional sly humor, make this a very human film.

In contrast, the most magical of all Makhmalbaf films must surely be father Mohsen's Once Upon a Time, Cinema (1991), which has been succinctly and cogently summarized in "Salaam Cinema: The Films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf" (Pacific Cinémathèque, Vancouver, British Columbia):

"...Once Upon a Time, Cinema (Nasseredin Shah, Actor-e Cinema) Makhmalbaf's "love letter to the Iranian cinema" (Deborah Young, Variety) is a free-for-all fantasia in the mode of Buster Keaton's Sherlock Junior or Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which "characters jump in and out of cameras, projector and screens, time goes backward and forward in melancholy leaps and actors appear in multiple roles" (Young, Variety). At the dawn of the 20th century, a Chaplin- like character known as the Cinematographer introduces the magic of movies to the Iranian court. The pompous Shah, who has 84 wives and 200 children, is dead-set against the pernicious influence of movies, but at the sight of his first film he falls madly in love with its damsel-in-distress heroine, and resolves to give up his kingdom and become an actor. Makhmalbaf has described the work as a "1001 Arabian Nights" of Iranian film history, and he pays fond tribute to his nation's cinema by seamlessly and inventively weaving myriad clips from classic Iranian movies into the screwball narrative. The film won major awards at the Karlovy Vary, Istanbul and Taormina festivals. Once Upon a Time, Cinema almost defies description as the complexity and imagination Makhmalbaf brings to it produce a dazzling visual roller coaster on which to sweep the viewer along. . . [a memorable] cinematic fairy tale" (Sheila Whitaker, London Film Festival)."
And a memorable cinema family. There will undoubtedly be more heard from all of them in the future.

Another notable cineaste who took his place on the podium was Terry Gilliam, whose Tideland was screened. (An interview with Gilliam in which he discusses the film, appeared in the Aug. 10 Washington Post.) Since Tideland will have its U.S. premiere in New York in October, the revealing interview with Gilliam, along with a film preview, will appear in the October Storyboard.

Other noteworthy films
The opening-night film was the somber but moving Winter Journey (Hans Seinbichler, Germany, 2006), which teams two of Germany's most distinguished actors, Josef Bierbichler and Hanna Schygulla, as a successful, seventyish businessman plagued by depression and financial woes, and his steadfast, if increasingly puzzled wife, whose worsening eyesight causes him to grab onto an ostensible fiscal life raft that will ultimately sink him. The film is dedicated "To our fathers," and may refer to those who, in various ways, found themselves without an emotional or moral compass in the aftermath of Germany's defeat in World War II.

A character at once sympathetic and exasperating, Franz, out of desperation to pay his debts and finance his wife's surgery, gets taken in by the oldest scam in the world, the one that used to be common to online inboxes: A mysterious request from across the ocean (in this case, Kenya) to allow his bank account to be used as a conduit for millions of dollars (euros), leaving him with a nice chunk of change in exchange for this (of course!) utterly risk-free service. He loses everything, and hires a young woman as translator (Sibel Kekilli, from Head-On) to accompany him to Kenya to get his money back.

Poor Franz finds what we expect him to find: the photography is masterly, highlighting the searing contrasts between the magnificent landscape of the natural habitat, and the merciless devastation of the empty construction site--the address he was given--surrounded by dilapidated buildings and grinding poverty. He seeks aid at the German embassy, where he is told in no uncertain terms to go home: these people play rough, and his life could be in danger.

One of the most compelling moments in the film is the heartbreaking resignation with which Franz sits at the piano in a restaurant/bar and sings the haunting "Der Leiermann" (The Hurdy- Gurdy Man) from Schubert's song cycle "Winterreise," which encapsulates his depression. The young translator and the embassy official weep; the woman beside me started crying too, and soon, pockets of quiet sniffles were heard through the theater.

In Griffin Dunne's Fierce People (USA/Canada, 2005), a deceptively benign "tales of the rich and brainless" metamorphoses into a contemporary coming-of-age story, implicitly juxtaposing the savagery of the culturally fierce--the teenaged Finn's estranged father is an anthropologist studying the jungle-dwelling Ishkanani--against the savagery of the fiercely cultured. Or at least the wealthy: the family, (ostensible) friends, and hangers-on of Finn's junkie mom Liz's wealthy "sugar daddy," the improbably named Ogden C. Osborne, who invites the two of them to his estate to help get their lives back on track. With Diane Lane as Liz and Donald Sutherland as Osborne, and impressive turns by Anton Yelchin as Finn and those playing the young cave dwellers who will inherit their parents' powerful if morally dubious mantles, Fierce People would have been worth a visit for its cast alone. And if at times it feels a bit like Henry Aldrich meets Lord of the Flies, and its messages are similarly mixed, that may be by design: what better way to bring home to us, who occupy neither of those worlds, the inherent and unexpected richnesses and contradictions of not only their lives, but ours...

In a podium discussion, director Dunne, whose acting career has spanned more than 50 roles in films such as Johnny Dangerously (1984) and Quiz Show (1994), and whose directing efforts include Addicted to Love (1997), explained how the film came to be made. The author of the book, Dirk Wittenborn, had asked Dunne and a few other people to read his manuscript and give him ideas on how to end the book; he was at a loss. Recognizing its filmic potential, Dunne quickly optioned it, attracted by both its coming-of- age and "poisonous orchid" aspects.

How did he obtain his stellar cast? He began with Diane Lane, whom he knew he wanted, then Donald Sutherland approached him to play the role of Osborne, having read the script; the hardest part was finding the young man to play Finn. Dunne expressed great satisfaction with young Yelchin, perhaps best known known for his Byrd Huffstodt in the TV series "Huff," and Kristen Stewart (Finn's girlfriend Maya), who played Jodie Foster's daughter in Panic Room (2002).

By coincidence or design, there is much in The Treatment (Oren Rudavsky, USA, 2006) that recalls Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep (reviewed in the April Storyboard, and currently screening at E Street Cinema). As in that film, there is an arresting, abstract tableau of colors, shapes, and motion, here as background for the screen credits, while the plotline encompasses both the classic Hollywood guy-gal pushme-pullyu and the lead character's use of unconventional therapy to solve personal problems.

The Treatment is the story of a young New York schoolteacher for whom nothing seems to be going right--his girlfriend has called it quits (and called him a few things in the bargain), his relationship with his father seems to be hanging by a thread, his professional and financial life are falling apart at the seams--and who seeks to solve his problems through psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, the shrink he picks is, as Village Voice succinctly puts it, "a maniacal Freudian... therapist from hell." Be that as it may, it is he who arguably gets the best line. Berated by his whining client for having failed to solve his problems, the doc looks him squarely in the eye and tells him: "My love is not a shield; it is a sword." If he got only that out of the sessions, IMO, it was worth every miserable minute!

Another Filmfest focus was Quebec; six films were shown. One of these, not seen since its premiere at the Toronto film festival ("We really had to fight to get this picture"), was Philippe Falardeau's Congorama (Canada/Belgium/France, 2006), which comprises two complex tales, intricately told. Michel, a Belgian inventor, finds out from his elderly father that he's adopted. Determined to find his birth parents, he travels to Quebec, where, the father has told him, he was born in a barn. There he (literally) runs into Louis, an electrical engineer driving a prototype car, whose father, we later learn, was a brilliant inventor cheated out of recognition for his groundbreaking research: a wrong which Louis is determined to right.

The film is elaborately constructed, with abrupt narrative and temporal shifts between present and past, and from Michel's story to Louis's. Despite its serious themes, it does not lack for wit, which the actors skillfully pull off with seeming ease. (There's also a humorous bit with an emu who, apparently much like deer here, gets in the way of the car. "No emu," the end credits assert, "was injured during the making of this film," followed by a shot of a very alert bird.)

At a Q&A with the director, Falardeau (who also wrote the screenplay), reproached by a perplexed audience member for leaving the ending ambiguous, said he decided not to tie up all the loose ends, because, after all, "that's like life."

Nor, one suspects, would the subject of Oscar-winning director Frieda Lee Mock's Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner (USA 2006). Kushner, whose multiple distinctions include the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and two Tony awards, and whose Caroline, or Change played to rave reviews at Studio Theater this summer, deeply impressed Mock with his improbably inspiring, 60-second, impromptu commencement address at her daughter's 1999 Wesleyan graduation. Perhaps spurred by the rousing reception it received, Kushner delivered one to Vassar's 2002 graduating class, which was taped and included in the film. Classic Kushner, it used humor and pith to tell them, in a word, to act.

And act is what Kushner does, when he's not writing (and, come to think of it, when he is). The film follows him over a three-year period from the fall of 2001 through November 2004, and includes personal and professional observations from friends, family and associates--and of course, from Kushner himself. We hear that he learned playwriting at the knee of a Brechtian at NYU, that Angels in America was originally seven hours long, and that he writes in longhand--but very quickly. We learn how he got his elderly father to accept his homosexuality, and we hear snippets of impassioned speeches and radio commentaries on gay rights.

In one of the most edifying and moving parts of the film, we meet a woman who as a child appeared in the notorious Theresienstadt propaganda film--produced by the Nazis in 1944 to deceive the Allied nations into believing that concentration camps were more or less like day camps--and who was one of the few survivors of the camp. In Mock's film we see a scene from it, with rows of grim-faced children in costume singing a happy little ditty from the play Brundibar, written in the Prague ghetto in 1938 and performed more than 50 times by the children of Theresienstadt. The score was saved; the play has been performed around the world, and in present-day Munich in memory of the children. Kushner and his friend, renowned children's author Maurice Sendak, collaborated on a storybook (Brundibar, Michael Di Capua Books, November 2003) that tells this tale which, in a devastating irony, "succeeds both as a simple children's story and as a compelling statement against tyranny" (from's entry on the book; Steven Engelfried, Beaverton City Library, OR).

Despite the anguish and conflict that inform his plays, Kushner in principle will not portray his characters or their conditions as hopeless; it is, for him, an "ethical obligation to include hope."

Hope was in short supply for the victims of serial killers Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, whose bloody trail is brought vividly to life in Todd Robinson's Lonely Hearts (2006), Filmfest München's closing night film. In a podium discussion just before the screening, Robinson told of his personal connection to the story, and offered insights into his working methodology and philosophy, as well as some behind-the-scenes scoops. The film's all-star cast began with James Gandolfini, who really wanted to do the film, Robinson told us; his name helped pave the way for other big-name stars (including John Travolta, Salma Hayek, and Laura Dern) to come aboard.

The fact that Robinson has the same last name as that of the detective played by Travolta is not coincidental; his grandfather was in fact Elmer C. Robinson, the policeman whose participation in the case is the film's nexus. Growing up with this knowledge, he thought his grandfather's role in the case would make an interesting film, Robinson said. His own entry into the business was precipitated by dyslexia, which made the computer and word-processing tools such as SpelChek "linchpins" that facilitated writing; and he found that he loved to write.

His grandfather didn't talk about the case, except within the family. Living with death and horror had an inevitable effect on his grandfather's family life, said Robinson, who called it "a common concern" that affects him, and indeed all people with intense jobs they cannot help, to an extent, bringing home with them.

When it comes to directing, Robinson's philosophy is that you "wait for the mistakes to happen," because "the best things are unplanned." Asked by an audience member if he had a philosophy about depicting graphic violence, Robinson acknowledged that there is a scene in the film that's "incredibly graphic," but contended that it needed to be shown because "it was important to know these characters, and what they were capable of." And while there is no reason to be gratuitous, "I'm very comfortable with people being uncomfortable."

Asked about the cinematography, Robinson said Peter Levy, the cinematographer, shot Lonely Hearts in Super 35 Panavision, and modeled it after the films of William Wellman. Textures and colors were very important, and desaturation was used to visually situate the film in the postwar era.

Reflecting on his stars, Robinson said that with John Travolta, "You feel [his] star presence." He had certain ways of working, said Robinson, which had to be accommodated. Gandolfini is a TV veteran, and is used to working quickly, which was a distinct advantage in shooting the film.

As for Salma Hayek, Robinson conceded that she is not the physical embodiment of the real Martha Beck, who was huge and stocky. But the heavier actors he approached were reluctant to play such a hateful, vicious person, who for years had been a victim of serial incest at the hands of her brother. Apologizing for not being Salma Hayek, who couldn't make it to Munich, or to Tribeca, where Lonely Hearts premiered in April, Robinson explained that she's "a very busy woman." The Filmfest programmer wholeheartedly concurred, noting that Hayek was in four or five films at this year's Filmfest.

One of these was the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne Ask the Dust, which had a limited release in March of this year. Based on the masterly, and largely autobiographical, 1939 novel by John Fante, Ask the Dust recalls the noirs of the forties and fifties with tight framing and jagged light-and-shadow patterns, and the melodramas of the twenties and thirties with narrative constructs of romantic conflict, and dolly shots that swiftly distill the tragedy of doomed love. Its tale of the unlikely, undying, and impassioned pairing of aspiring writer Arturo Bandini and Mexican waitress Camilla Lopez both personifies and humanizes the ethnic tensions of thirties Los Angeles, whose palpable heat limned in moody desert hues make the city almost a character in itself.

If ever a city were a character in itself, it would be, n'est-ce pas? Paris. But Paris is, hélas! a minor one in Bertrand Blier's Combien tu m'aimes? (How much do you love me?, France/Italy, 2005), whose amusingly apropos title can, and should, be read both ways. A film soufflé, it tells of French everyman François, who wins the lottery big time and decides to ask a gorgeous Italian call girl (Monica Bellucci) to live with him for 100,000 euros a month. One of the unalloyed delights of the film is the way its score explodes with excerpts from the most beloved and passionate Italian operas at the most unlikely, but perfectly placed, times. In one, a sumptuously sung aria from "Madame Butterfly" accompanies Bellucci's luxurious emergence from her cocoon--actually, what looks like a full-length fox fur (hopefully a faux fur!). Resplendently dressed in a low-cut, curve-hugging, white satin gown, revealed in all her curvaceous, raven-haired, sex-goddess beauty, la bella Bellucci is bathed by an incandescent, almost heavenly light.

In stark contrast, Yves Angelo's Grey Souls (France, 2005) is a mournful, thoughtful, elegantly paced film for which the horrors of war are both backdrop and agent of the inhumanity that blackens the spirits and actions of a small French town in the midst of World War I. The characters are indelible: An angelic child, curiously named Belle de jour, whose body is found in the film's first minutes, and the slimy prosecuting attorney whose "methods" force an innocent man to "confess" to the murder... A young male teacher who completely loses it in front of his class (mental and emotional battle scars, or reaction to the insanity that surrounds him?), and the young female teacher who replaces him, and whose gentle ways and positive outlook are fatally challenged by news she had hoped against hope never to hear... The learned and gruffly authoritative mayor who offers her a cottage on the grounds of his home, and whose compassion is masked by a secret despair which, when revealed, holds the key to many heretofore unanswered questions...

With the close of summer just around the corner, it may be fitting to close this report with a film that will register with anyone who has ever taken a package tour with a bunch of strange (the operative word here) people--a film that may not get to DC cinemas (although it screened at Tribeca last spring, garnering a Best Actress award for Eva Holubovà and a "Special Mention" for the entire cast), but that DC viewers would definitely "get" if it ever did.

Holiday Makers (Jiri Vejdelek, Czech Republic, 2006) takes us along for the bumpy ride on a tour bus with a group of Czech vacationers who seem slated for what another reviewer has aptly called a "holiday in hell," each packing his own hopes, expectations, histories, and hang-ups. The film begins with a spellbinding underwater sequence which both introduces us to the Adriatic paradise for which our travelers are bound, and subtly suggests that the essential in the human dramas we are about to encounter lies beneath the surface.

From the beginning, the martinet of a bus driver, distributing brown plastic cup holders and white plastic cups as if to a group of schoolchildren--one apiece, and woe betide anyone who loses or breaks one!--demonstrates the endurance of the communist legacy for those who no doubt mourn its loss, while the passengers humorously ignore his threats. The characters are so realistically delineated and the situations in which they find (or put) themselves ring so true, the viewer not only comes along for the ride, but by the time it ends, almost feels like part of the family. There's the beautiful woman, who simply wants to strike up a friendship with the handsome singer who can't see the honesty in her overtures, and just thinks she wants to bed him; the 12-year-old boy, relentlessly ridiculed and called gay by his teenage nemesis, and, not having felt sexual stirrings of any kind yet, agonizes throughout the film, until a wise older woman who knows what it is to be called "different" teaches him, in one of the time-honored ways, that he's not--the portraits are by turns humorous, instructive, and compassionate, gently though pointedly shattering stereotypes, both theirs and (if we hold them) ours.

What is most striking, perhaps, is that for all its incisiveness the film is never judgmental, but is instead a wry and affectionate, if cautionary look at a random, disparate group of people; by extension, at us, our friends and neighbors. In a way, that is also the key to Filmfest München's success, and to the affection and loyalty it inspires. It opens the world of film and its makers and through them, the world, to people of different cultures and countries, who not only watch them together, as at other major film fests, but who can sit six feet from those who made the magic possible--even run into them on the "Isar Mile" connecting all the cinemas--and interact with them, one on one. "Today, I find myself missing so many of the people from Filmfest!" wrote director Steve Palackdharry (Journey to Justice) shortly after the festival. "Though I believe I am now home, I feel that I have left another one." A pretty common feeling among Filmfest aficionados. Hope to see you there next year!

Visit the website which has lots of pictures.

Call for Applications

Young Film Critics Invited to Berlin

Young film critics and film journalists are invited to apply for The Talent Press to report on the films at the 57th Berlin International Film Festival (February 08-18, 2007) and on the events of the Berlinale Talent Campus (February 10-15, 2007). The Talent Press is a project of the Berlinale Talent Campus, Goethe-Institute, and FIPRESCI (the International Federation of Film Critics).

To be eligible you must be fluent in English (writing and speaking), be under 30 years of age, have published articles in newspapers, film magazines, websites or at universities, and be interested in reporting on films within the framework of the Berlin International Film Festival and events held during the Berlinale Talent Campus 2007. You will work equally in all fields of journalism: write interviews, reviews, reports, articles and features on the Festival and attend daily editorial meetings with mentors. Successful applicants will receive a share of the travel expenses, free accommodation in youth hostels in Berlin from February 8-16, 2007 and the opportunity to meet and be with 350 talented young filmmakers from all over the world and experiencethe day-to-day buzz of a prestigious "A" festival. You will be guided by Peter Cowrie, Oliver Baumgarten and other renowned film critics.

You can
apply online. Include your curriculum vitae and up to three original copies of articles that you have published in the last two years. The deadline is November 1, 2006.

We Need to Hear From YOU

We are always looking for film-related material for the Storyboard. Our enthusiastic and well-traveled members have written about their trips to the Cannes Film Festival, London Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival, Edinburgh Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, the Munich Film Festival, and the Locarno Film Festival. We also heard about what it's like being an extra in the movies. Have you gone to an interesting film festival? Have a favorite place to see movies that we aren't covering in the Calendar of Events? Seen a movie that blew you away? Read a film-related book? Gone to a film seminar? Interviewed a director? Taken notes at a Q&A? Read an article about something that didn't make our local news media? Send your contributions to Storyboard and share your stories with the membership. And we sincerely thank all our contributors for this issue of Storyboard.

Calendar of Events


American Film Institute Silver Theater
The AFI concludes its "Heroic Grace" Chinese marial arts films in September as well as its retrospectives of David Lynch and Michael Haneke. The fourth annual DC Labor Fest takes place September 14-19 and the seventeenth annual Latin American Film Festival begins September 20. A retrospective of Pedro Almodovar's films begins September 15. Special events include The French Connection (1971) with Director William Friedkin and writer George Pelecanos appearing in person on September 10 at 3:00pm and the award-winning documentary The Widow Colony (Harpreet Kaur) on September 9 at 1:00pm with a panel discussion following the screening.

Freer Gallery of Art
A series of four films by Korean director Lee Man-hee (1931-1975) begin on September 15 at 7:00pm with A Road to Return (1967). On September 17 at 2:00pm is Water Mill (1966). On September 27 at 7:00pm is The Devil's Stairway (1964) and on September 24 at 2:00pm is Road to Sampo (1972). The Freer hosts three films in The 2006 DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival: on September 29 is I for India (Sandhya Suri, 2005), with two more in October.

National Gallery of Art
Films by French director Benoit Jacquot will be shown at both the Gallery and the AFI. The Gallery series focuses on Jacquot's literary adaptations: on September 3 at 4:00pm is The Musician Killer (1974), based on a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; on September 9 at 3:00pm is The False Servant (1999) based on Pierre de Marivaux's comedy of manners, shown with Elvire Jouvet 40 (1986). On September 17 at 5:00pm is Marianne (1997) based on another Pierre de Marivaux novel; on September 23 at 2:30pm is The Wings of the Dove (1981), based on Henry James' 1902 novel; and on September 24 at 4:30pm is Tosca (2001) based on Puccini's opera.

Notes on Marie Menken (Martina Kudlacek, 2006) on September 1 at 12:30pm and September 3 at 2:00pm is a portrait of the experimental filmmaker who inspired Andy Warhol. The Sentimental Bloke (Raymond Longford and Littie Lyell, 1919) is a premiere of an Australian restoration with orchestral accompaniment on September 10 at 5:00pm. Au Bonheur des Dames (Julien Duvivier, 1929) on September 30 at 3:00pm has live orchestral accompaniment by Octuor de France.

National Museum of African Art
All About Darfur (Tahgreed Elsanhouri, 2005) investigates the eyewitness accounts of massacre, rape and destruction in farming communities of Darfus.

National Museum of the American Indian
On September 29 at 7:00pm and September 30 at 1:30pm is Spiral of Fire (Carol Cornsilk, 2005) followed by discussion with the writer, LeAnne Howe.

National Portrait Gallery
A three film series of Gordon Park films begins on September 21 at 6:30pm with Shaft (1971), followed by discussion with Ed Guerrero, New York Univesity film professor and author of Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. On September 22 at 7:00pm is Lead Belly (1976) about bluesman Huddie William Ledbetter and on September 23 at 2:00pm is The Learning Tree (1969), the first major studio feature film directed by an African American filmmaker. A discussion with actor and filmmaker S. Pearl Sharp will follow.

National Museum of Women in the Arts
As part of the "Sister in Cinema" series, Coquie Hughes' If I Wuz Yo Gyrl (2003), a work-in-progress about domestic abuse. The filmmaker will attend the screening and discuss her work.

Films on the Hill
Films on the Hill presents a series of films all based on well-known plays and/or novels. On September 13 at 7:00pm is Twinkletoes (Charles Brabin, 1926, silent with theater organ music track) starring Colleen Moore as an aspiring dancer in London's Limehouse slum and based on the novel by Thomas Burke. On September 16 at 7:00pm is Arsene Lupin (Jack Conway, 1931) notable as the first feature film starring both Barrymore brothers--John and Lionel--and based on the play by Maurice LeBlanc. On September 20 at 7:00pm is The Other Side (Heinz Paul, 1931), starring Conrad Veidt, a German version (with English subtitles) of R.C. Sherriff's powerful and eloquent anti-war play Journey's End.

Washington Jewish Community Center
On September 18 at 7:30pm is a documentary Fired! (Chris Bradley and Kyle Le Brache, 2006), interviews with people who have been fired from their jobs. Producer Annabelle Gurwitch will discuss the film after the screening. On September 25 at 7:30pm is an encore presentation of Go for Zucker! (Dani Levy, 2004), a groundbreaking German comedy about a Jewish family.

Pickford Theater
A series of comedies "Bob Hope and the American Comedy Tradition" continues in September with The Facts of Life (Melvin Frank, 1960) on September 1 at 7:00pm, The Comedy of Terrors (Jacques Tourneur, 1963) on September 15 at 7:00pm, The Iron Petticoat (Ralph Thomas, 1956) on September 19 at 7:00pm, and That Certain Feeling (Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, 1956) on September 26 at 7:00pm. Check the website for more films in this series.

Goethe Institute
"Satire in Film" is the topic of a series of films beginning with a documentary The Tramp and the Dictator (Kevin Brownlow, 2002) on September 11 at 6:00pm, followed by Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) at 7:15pm. On September 18 at 6:30pm is Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) and on September 25 at 6:30pm is The Kaiser's Lackey (Wolfgang Staudte, 1951). More in October. A children's film Emil and the Detectives (Franziska Buch, 2000) is on September 16 at 2:00pm.

French Embassy
On September 6 at 7:00pm is a comedy featuring Carole Bouqet Housewarming (Brigitte Roüan, 2005), followed by a wine reception.

The Avalon
On September 10 at 7:30pm is 9/12: From Chaos to Community, about a group of New York City volunteers in the World Trade Center recovery effort and their relationships with the rescue and recovery workers. On September 20 at 8:00pm is Not Here to Be Loved (Stéphane Brizé, 2005), part of the French Cinémathèque series. On September 21 at 7:30pm is the 9th annual "Manhattan Short Film Festival", a program of 12 short films from around the world. As part of the "indieWIRE Undiscovered Gems" series is Room on September 27 at 8:00pm. Director Laura Poitras will make three special appearances to discuss her documentary My Country My Country on September 1 at 8:00pm, September 2 at 5:30pm and, with local film historian Max Alvarez moderating the discussion, on September 2 at 8:00pm.

The 17th Annual Latin American Film Festival
Beginning September 20 and running until October 8, more than 30 films from Latin America, Spain and Portugal will be shown in the 17th annual Latin American International Film Festival. Films include The Aura (2005) from Argentina by the writer/director of the hit film Nine Queens Fabián Bielinsky, on September 23 and 28; In Evil Hour (2005), an adaptation of a Gabriel García Márquez work by Brazilian master Ruy Guerra on September 20 and 21; Rosario Tijeras (Emilio Maillé, 2005), a box office hit in Colombia on September 29 and 30; Love in the Time of Hysteria (1991) from Mexico's Alfonso Cuarón on September 22 and 23; and lots more. See the website.

DC Labor Filmfest
From September 14-19 is an array of new and classic films about work and workers, from the American office place to global factories. Films include Office Space, A Day Without a Mexican, Workingman's Death and Man Push Cart. All films are at the AFI's Silver Theater.

DC Shorts Film Festival
The third annual showcase of 94 independent short films from around the world takes place from September 14-17. Many films will be represented by a filmmaker connected to its production and most are screened at Landmark's E Street Theater with two programs at the Embassy of Canada. Check out the website for the full schedule.

The Amnesty International Film Festival
The second annual Amnesty International Film Festival, co-sponsored by National Geographic features eight documentary and feature films on some of the most important issues facing the global community. Films include All About Darfur, Black Gold, Catch a Fire, Golden Venture, Mario's Story, Salvador, The Ground Truth, and The World According to Sesame Street. Films are screened at the National Geographic Society's auditorium; refer to the website for the exact schedule.

Asian Pacific American Film Festival
The 7th Annual DC APA Film Festival runs from September 28 to October 7, hosting the best of Asian American cinema including feature films, documentaries, and shorts. Locations vary, check the website.

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August, 2006
July, 2006
June, 2006
May, 2006
April, 2006
March, 2006
February, 2006
January, 2006
December, 2005
November, 2005
October, 2005
September, 2005

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