The 2007 Munich Film Festival
By Leslie Weisman, DC Film Society Member
This year’s Munich Film Festival pulled out all the stops in celebration of its silver anniversary, welcoming a record 65,000 moviegoers to what would prove to be one of the most successful in the festival’s 25-year history. With tributes to charter members of the U.S. film pantheon William Friedkin and Richard Linklater, including screenings of the former’s latest foray and the latter’s entire oeuvre, and film star Kevin Kline, who received double honors for his latest film Trade; and to German directorial icons Werner Herzog and Volker Schlöndorff, whose latest films proved worthy successors to their acknowledged masterworks, Filmfest München 2007 demonstrated anew its ability to be at once “everybody’s film festival” and a haven for the most serious of cinephiles.
“Richard Linklater: Serious slacker” cracks the droll headline in the festival catalog. Not a bad way to describe the man who has made 17 films in as many years as director, writer, producer, actor, and cinematographer, among them such classics as Bad News Bears (2005), Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), Fast Food Nation and A Scanner Darkly (2006), Suburbia (1996), Tape (2001), and the one that started it all, the eponymous and now legendary Slacker (1991), which had its international premiere 16 years ago at Filmfest München. Also, come to think of it, not a mean accomplishment for a Gen-X filmmaker: Linklater was saluted here with a retrospective, something more commonly associated with filmmakers with a few more years under their belt.
Not to worry; Linklater lived up to his advance billing. At a packed late-night “cinetalk,” those podium discussions with directors and actors that are one of Filmfest’s hallmarks, Linklater recalled the making of A Scanner Darkly and its groundbreaking use of live-action photography overlaid with an advanced animation process known as “interpolated rotoscoping.” Despite its innovation and sophistication, Scanner was “very low-budget relative to, say, Toy Story,” he told the attentive crowd. Linklater enthused about the work of Philip K. Dick, whose book was the basis for the film. “I’m not a huge science fiction fan, but I make an exception for him, because the sciences are not what he’s writing about. He’s writing about people. He writes really strong characters; he has a love for people, and a real personal touch. He saw the future very darkly, and accurately.”
Did Robert Downey Jr. express or evince any discomfort in voicing his character, who is a drug addict? Not at all: “Downey is a brutally honest guy, a great guy. I think he’s enough of an artist to see the possibilities... what he could bring to the character. And he did. He’s a wonderful actor. We rewrote his part, he helped write some of his part,” said Linklater. As for Downey’s drug problem: “He makes jokes about it: ‘Yeah, I researched this part 20 years,’ he’ll say, ‘very detailed research.’”
Moving from Scanner to Slacker, Linklater called it a film “about people pursuing their passions and not being a wage slave, and I think that’s what most people want: that what you spend your time doing is what you’re most passionate about.” Speaking of his own background, Linklater said that his family was disappointed that he didn’t graduate from college; so determined was he to be a filmmaker, he educated himself while “pursuing my own passion. My whole life was cinema,” working from a very early age and forming a film club. “We just worked, lived, ate, breathed cinema... I look back on those years very fondly. It wasn’t about being paid, it was about making film. That’s really what it takes; you have to have to have a commitment... You have to be possessed.”
Linklater still encourages up-and-coming filmmakers; his film club in Texas is “a very vibrant organization” that will give out $150,000 this year to promising cineastes, he told us. “That’s the one thing all [up-and-coming] filmmakers have in common: they’re really broke,” he said, recalling the early financial assistance he received as being very helpful to him. Currently, he is working on a feature-length documentary: “It’s really a lot of work, a lot of time; it takes forever” he said, and although he enjoys it, “I enjoy fiction more, so I don’t know if I’m a natural documentarian.” The subject? “It’s about a Zen master of baseball, the most successful baseball coach in the U.S.” said Linklater, adding that he was “pretty obsessed with baseball as a youngster; I was pretty good in college— I got a scholarship... When I quit playing baseball, I put all that energy into films.” Comparing the situation in the sixties with the options available to young people today, Linklater said that when he was growing up, “being a filmmaker wasn’t something [the average kid] even thought about... it just wasn’t an option, so I always felt a little behind. I was 20 before I even knew what a director did.”
What films inspired him as a kid? “When I was seven years old, I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey... it was just amazing to me. When I was in high school, I saw Eraserhead, a David Lynch film. There were four of us — a double date kind of thing? Those three, they left,” he said, to much laughter. “If you can’t leave your date behind, you’re not a filmmaker,” he added, as the laughter grew. “That’s the test, right there.”
Do actors tend to choose roles that will enable them to play characters very unlike themselves? Linklater was skeptical, saying he is more inclined to believe that actors choose characters that allow them to express a hidden part of themselves, allowing them to do and say things they might like to do in real life, but will not or cannot. In contrast to directors such as James Cameron, Linklater said, he is interested in “really minimal, simple ideas” about things that happen to people, and that in some cases happened to him. One of these experiences became Before Sunrise: “Even while this experience was happening, I was already a filmmaker, so I was thinking: ‘I want to make a film about this.’ I mean, you do the best you can with the experience in front of you...” [laughter] “but you still see the possibilities” of how it could play out in a film. “In France, they told me my films are like Eric Rohmer films, but I think he’s more a logician/mathematician. His films are a lot more complex, a lot more intricate. But I like that simplicity.”
Simplicity is the watchword in Tape, at least when it comes to mise-en-scène. Originally a stage play by Stephen Beiber, the entire film, shot in digital video and looking like it was recorded by one of the characters’ kid brothers hiding in a closet, is a conversation in a motel room. But what a masterful use of video — and what a conversation! Was the dialogue in Tape largely improvised? Not at all. “People are always asking me that, but it was quite structured. We rehearsed a lot, everything was written down. I mean, maybe a word or two was ad libbed, but... we do it in rehearsal. I can’t afford to just turn on a camera and see what happens. Of course, the actors bring a lot to it, but they do it off camera.” While Linklater is not fond of digital, he felt that Tape lent itself to the medium because of the simple setting: “It wouldn’t be a digital film trying to be a regular movie.”
Conspiracies are conspicuous presences in some of his films, came a question from the audience. Do they hold a certain fascination for him? Linklater allowed as to how this might be true. “Even in Slacker there was mention of global warming, and we shot that in 1989. So that’s the conspiracy. Conspiracy plus a generation equals the world we’re living in. Conspiracy is for people who are tuning out the official information and looking for the unaccredited information, which is often the truth. I mean, not always, but it’s often closer to what’s really going on. Isn’t that the William Burroughs quote: ‘How do you define a schizophrenic? Someone who’s just discovered what’s really going on.’ I’m obsessed with people who are obsessed. I really enjoy people who are single-minded, driven by something that’s not officially sanctioned — people who are really existing on their own terms.”
Linklater could have been describing himself, of course, and by definition, the independent filmmakers who for two decades have been embraced by Filmfest München, which proudly calls Munich “a Mecca for the ‘Indies.’” His description could also be applied, if not in terms of aegis, then certainly that of attitude, to one of this year’s lifetime achievement, or CineMerit Awards, William Friedkin, six of whose films, including The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973/2000) and his latest, Bug (2006) were screened for Filmfest audiences.
William Friedkin (“Call me Bill!”) is a raconteur par excellence, whose hour-long discussion in the Black Box theater was so packed with pithy observations and entertaining reminiscences, it was a devil of a job (sorry, couldn’t resist) editing it down. How did it all begin for him? Friedkin said he’d done about 2,000 live TV shows in Chicago before attempting a film, the first of several award-winning documentaries. In 1966 or ‘67, the producer of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour asked him to direct the final episode. Like Linklater, he was quite young at the time and had barely graduated high school, much less attend college, but was a voracious reader. From there it was a steady progression through good times and bad (Good Times  being one of the bad, but only critically; Friedkin developed a friendship with Sonny Bono), and his storied interview with Fritz Lang  — which had an inauspicious prelude.
Obtaining Lang’s phone number from the Directors Guild, Friedkin called the great man, explained that he wanted to interview him, and was told in no uncertain terms, “Don’t bother me, leave me alone, my films are all worthless” — slam. Some times later, Friedkin met Lang, who agreed to an interview, “which I did with two really great cameramen: Bill Butler, who photographed Jaws and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Bill Fraker, who did Bullitt and many great American films.” (The interview, which was uncut and lasted several hours, lay in storage until the Torino film festival asked Friedkin a couple of years ago if they could include it in their hommage to his work. He cut it down to about 50 minutes; it premiered at the festival, and has been released commercially on the Criterion DVD of M, as well as shown on and distributed by the BBC.)
Lang would respond to questions in between bites of bratwurst, “so I had to do a lot of editing, otherwise I could’ve sold it to a bratwurst company,” he observed dryly, to laughter. Did Lang still insist his films were worthless? “Well, I understand it,” said Friedkin. “I’ll probably give the same interview if I ever make it to 88 years old.” It was his early films in Germany that Lang had been referring to, he added. Why had he felt so strongly? It wasn’t that he thought the films were inherently bad; it was that they had been re-edited by others against his wishes: “They weren’t his versions.” Then, too, there is the tendency of people to look back on their lives and early works, and re-evaluate them with the perspective of maturity, “which is another word for old age — which I’m just beginning to learn. I frankly don’t have a very high opinion of the first films I made. If I’d made them in Romania under Ceausescu, I’d’ve been executed!”
French Connection was really your breakthrough film, the one that made you an international name, and the casting is flawless, said the interviewer. Did you have Gene Hackman and Fernando Rey in mind from the start? Friedkin responded with a raft of anecdotes about making and casting the film. “We made The French Connection for what was a very low budget at the time, a million and a half dollars, so we couldn’t have a star in the film. So Richard Zanuck told me to just get a good actor” for the role of “Popeye” Doyle. Friedkin suggested Paul Newman, “but he would have asked for $500,000" which they couldn’t afford. A subsequent suggestion, Jackie Gleason, “who would’ve been perfect,” was turned down because he had just made what Zanuck considered “the greatest disaster in the history of 20th Century Fox”: Gigot, a silent film in which Gleason played a clown. “Maybe one person saw that film. Did anyone here see that film?” Your faithful (and somewhat embarrassed) correspondent, having seen the maligned movie sometime in her clearly misspent youth, slowly raised her hand. “YOU’RE the one!” Friedkin cried, pointing an accusatory finger, to laughter and applause.
They next offered the role to Peter Boyle, who had just finished playing a gangster in Crazy Joe and who declined, on the grounds that he wanted to change gears for a while and play more sympathetic characters. “So the next film he makes is Young Frankenstein!” Boyle, who passed away last year, had a huge success with “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and “every single day on the set, he would tell someone how much he regretted not having done French Connection.” Then Gene Hackman’s agent called, and “the producer and I had lunch with him, and I’ll tell you — the producer and I fell asleep at the lunch,” said Friedkin, seeming to enjoy, in a good-humored way, ribbing Hackman. “This man was the most boring guy... at one point he told us of a job he had being a doorman at the Essex Hotel in New York, after completing his Marine Corps service. And his commanding officer emerged with a beautiful woman on his arm.” Hackman tried to avert his eyes, whereupon his c.o. colorfully excoriated him for being an asshole. “And I couldn’t disagree. But he was OUR asshole!” Friedkin said triumphantly.
The first day of shooting, Hackman did 37 takes of a single shot. It was an utter disaster. “But we couldn’t get rid if him, and he couldn’t quit.” Despite this unpromising beginning, Hackman “wound up doing a great job in the film” — for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor — “and he became a really a great actor.” So, too, was the actor mistakenly hired to play the French drug lord: Friedkin had requested “that French guy from Buñuel’s Belle de Jour,” whose name he didn’t know, so they sent him Fernando Rey — a Buñuel actor, to be sure, but an elegant, sophisticated Spaniard, not the rough-hewn Corsican Friedkin was seeking. He later learned that the actor he wanted, Francisco Rabal, wasn’t available anyway, and Rey was great in the role: “Sometimes you can succeed in spite of yourself. You have to have a great amount of ambition, a great degree of luck, and the grace of God to succeed.”
Asked about his role as one of the founding members of “the New Hollywood,” Friedkin demurred, saying that he and Francis Ford Coppola “never got together and said, ‘Let’s call a meeting of the New Hollywood.’ The name came much later,” as it did with the French New Wave, observed his host, adding, “Still, you must have been aware of a greater freedom, moving away from studio bays, interior settings, much as the New Wave directors experienced.” Friedkin agreed. “We shot in the street with no sets, no lights, for budget reasons – which is how the French New Wave began. We also used the ‘short ends’ of a roll of film,” leftover pieces that were discarded after most of the roll was used.
“So yes, we were very influenced by the French New Wave. But the idea that we had all this artistic freedom is a complete myth. The studios were on us all the time: ‘Finish it! Finish it!’ Because all the great Hollywood films of the ‘30s and ‘40s were done in 20 days, 30 days.” Coppola was fired 20 times from The Godfather, Friedkin told us. “The myth of artistic freedom is just that.” But what about the freedom that the new film stock and smaller cameras gave you to shoot without studio sets? Friedkin reminded us of King Vidor’s Burlesque, made in the early 1930s and shot on the streets of New York, but agreed that smaller cameras like the Arriflex were invented around the time he and his cohort came into film and did help facilitate filmmaking. “With new tools, there is the start of a new era,” said the host, with Friedkin’s prompt assent. “Computer-generated imagery has changed everything. Everybody uses it. It’s even changed people’s physiques,” he said, to knowing laughter.
As to The Exorcist, Friedkin said the version screened at Filmfest was a “brand new digital print with 5.1 sound,” noting that the censors had forced him to cut about 40 minutes out of it. “What I shot in those subterranean leather bars or clubs — those were not extras. Except for Al Pacino, those were members of those clubs, doing what they did... And I ran that for the head of the motion picture code. At one point he took his coat off. And then he started rubbing his neck. And then: ‘No. Oh, no!’ And then the lights went on. And he was beet red. And he was sweating. His name was Hefner, Richard Hefner. Not Hugh Hefner — he was the opposite of Hugh Hefner. And Jerry Weintraub, the producer — it was at his house — said, ‘How’d ya like it, Dick?’ He said, ‘How did I LIKE it?! Jerry, this is the worst film I’ve ever seen! You can’t release this!’ And Jerry Weintraub — he’s a great showman, he did Ocean’s 11, 12, 13, 19, 47" [laughter] — “he said, ‘You can’t do this to me! What’s the rating going to be?’ And Hefner said: ‘There’s not enough Xs in the alphabet! Every X that can be found will be put on this.’
“Then began a painstaking process that took about 50 days, to make the film that you will see tonight. It’s going to be re-released by Warner Brothers in September in the U.S.,” he added, and the DVD about three months later. Some of the deleted material will be in it, but not much: “If I’d put it back in, it would’ve been re-rated X, and unable to be shown.” One thing that’s noticeably different, he said, is that the “fog” he had been forced to place over the club scene has been lifted, making some — but not all — of the sexual acts clearly visible. (There were several additional points made about The Exorcist in response to questions from the audience at the end of the session, which in the interest of space, are not included here.)
Briefly returning to an early Friedkin film, Sorcerer (1977), the host mentioned having run into Quentin Tarantino at Cannes, who said that he placed it on his top 10 list of favorite films, and that many people thought it was a great film. “But they’re all in mental institutions,” deadpanned Friedkin.
Music is very important to you, noted the host, citing Friedkin’s success as an internationally acclaimed opera director in such productions as Wozzeck and Salome, and asked how he found the music for his film scores. “The music usually finds me,” Friedkin said, adding that both the Exorcist and Sorcerer scores were done by Tangerine Dream, a group he first heard playing in a sepulchral setting: a dark, ancient church in Germany.
Was the chase scene in The French Connection planned? Surprisingly, it was completely improvised. “The producer and I took a long walk from my apartment down to the lower tip of Manhattan, known as the Battery, and plotted it out as we walked, throwing out ‘spitball ideas’ as we went: What would happen if...? How about...? And out of that came the chase. Nothing was ever written down. We only had permission to use the train; we never had permission to drive the car down the street at 90 miles an hour. People asked Stravinsky how he came to write The Rite of Spring, one of the greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music of the 20th century. And he said: “I am the vessel through which the Rite of Spring passed.’ And that’s how it was with the chase scene for The French Connection.”
The DVD will contain a great documentary, he told us, plus himself on the commentary track and numerous extras. “DVD is a great medium. This is the real cinémathèque. This medium is what has preserved film. Without it, these great old films would have been lost. The studios don’t care. They would’ve thrown it out... You can’t find a good print of The Shining. I tried to show it a couple of years ago and had to shut it off, the quality of the print was so bad.”
What’s up next? “I’ve been asked to direct an episode of CSI: Miami, which I’ve never seen.” Which filmmakers does he like? Among European filmmakers, Tom Tykwer and his Lola Rennt and Perfume, and Michael Haneke; his favorite film of all time is Citizen Kane. “I want to challenge the audience,” he said. “Most audiences want to sit back, be entertained for two hours, and then go out and have a hot dog or something. I want to offer them more than that.” Which no one would argue, he has certainly done. Unlike much of the current crop of cineastes: “There’s better work being done on American television than in American cinema.”
Sometimes, of course, he has had to offer them less. Asked about Good Times, Friedkin confessed “it was a piece of shit, total dreck. But Sonny wanted a young director, and we got along very well. It was all improvised.”
Any big plans for the future? “I don’t really have any big plans. I don’t have to prove anything anymore. If they have something, they’ll find me. And I’m not interested in blockbusters. I’m not interested in what the Hollywood studios are doing.” What he’s very interested in, he said, is subjects with weight, such as personal responsibility in wartime. “That’s why I did Rules of Engagement. I’m very interested in these young guys who are sent over there by their governments to kill, and then when they do kill, they’re brought up on charges.” He was full of praise for Tommy Lee Jones, who played Col. Hodges in Rules. “Most actors want a backstory, they want motivation: ‘Why does my character do this?’ How the hell do I know? So I make something up, and they’re very happy, they go off thinking they now ‘understand’ the character. But not Tommy. He just wants to know where the marks are. And he hits them every time. And that’s how films should be made!”
Friedkin’s passion and outspokenness extend beyond his profession. “We never should have gone into Iraq. I lived in Iraq for three months, I know the Iraqi people. I filmed the opening sequence of The Exorcist there. I met women there who were doctors, lawyers, filmmakers, journalists — free in society. And people would take their children to have picnics where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. We have ruined this country! Actually gone out and ruined a country. And I don’t know why people aren’t out in the streets. I speak out about it whenever I can. We never should have been there. We can’t solve the problems of the world! But there are people we elect who think they can. Like a messiah, they think they can come and correct all of the injustices of the world. But there are many back home.
“I am an American. I love my country. But this leadership is the worst in our history. People look at me and think, ‘He’s an American. They’re butchers.’ And there’s no way to apologize for it. It’s like — a mass demonic possession. And there’s no exorcism for it.”
Politics and the Bush administration took center stage in two films — one a documentary, the other what can only be called, and in no sense disparagingly, a fake documentary — that both pose disturbing questions about two powerful forces: the current administration, and the media that report on it. Death of a President (Gabriel Range, Great Britain 2006), which posits the October 2007 assassination of President George W. Bush in a Chicago hotel lobby, is not what its premise might seem to suggest: that is, an anti-Bush polemic. Rather, this extraordinarily well-researched production, conceived as a fictional, after-the-fact TV documentary, seamlessly blends historical footage, television news feeds, insider knowledge of investigative procedures and techniques, and actors who clearly have absorbed the rhetorical patter and speech patterns of government officials playing presidential advisers and federal employees, with disquieting verisimilitude. The viewer, regardless of his politics, finds himself drawn in with admiration for the film’s technical mastery, and a sort of morbid curiosity.
That’s not to say that politics, or implicit criticism of Administration policies, are absent from the film: in the urgency to find the assassin, states an agent, they have been told — shades of WMD? — to disregard evidence that doesn’t fit preconceived notions of who is (and by implication, has to be) behind the assassination, the most likely suspects being, of course, Al Qaeda and Syria. An immigrant is arrested, charged and convicted, and the Patriot Act is again amended to “broaden the definition of terrorism.” By the time this propulsive rush to judgment is spent, and the assassin and his heartbreaking motives are at last uncovered, lives have been ruined, and the country is on a path toward a more repressive society that, it is implied, will not leave us any safer, and will make the lives of millions more miserable and hopeless.
Screenwriter Simon Finch was a guest at Filmfest München, and offered candid commentary on his and Range’s singular achievement. The first thing many of us wanted to know: How in the world did he get past security to shoot Bush (in the cinematic sense) at this speech, which in fact was given in January 2003? No subterfuge at all: “We applied for press accreditation.” And how did you gain access to such people, places, and above all, information, much of which — Presidential itineraries, DOJ investigative means and methods, all presented in meticulous detail — must certainly be classified? It turns out that much of it is not; or at least, is available... from the National Archives. “We were economical with what we did say” to Archives officials, Finch told us, adding that “we did not want to put them in a bad position.”
Asked whether he feared legal consequences, Finch said the only one may be if Vice President Cheney (who appears in the film several times) asks to be paid: “We’d certainly look kindly at that.” (To be on the safe side, they hired “a couple of Beverly Hills attorneys” — previously hired by the producers of Borat. “So we figured we were in good company.” As to the methodology for preparing the actors, Finch said they’d first read the script, then develop their own lines. The variable success of this approach led the filmmakers to provide more structure, giving the actors parameters within which they could improvise. Individuals who formerly held the government positions the actors were playing were brought in as advisors to pick up on any false notes and offer suggestions.
What inspired them to create such a film? “Both of us are journalists by training,” said Finch, who was intrigued by a friend’s article about his (the friend’s) increasing discouragement and disillusionment as the initial unity and purposefulness of the country after 9/11 deteriorated into divisiveness. It got him to thinking about how that day had changed the country in a way that was wholly unforeseen, and deeply disturbing — almost counterintuitive. True to the film, Finch did not pull any punches in person. Asked whether he had considered the possibility that it might encourage people to attempt to shoot the President, Finch responded that if someone did, the film could hardly be held to blame: “Sadly, assassinations are an American tradition.”
(Your reporter confessed to Mr. Finch her discomfort at having the film set in the future, and on a specific date, thus making it almost tempting for a lunatic to attempt to fulfill its prophecy. Finch replied that had it been set in the past, it would have seemed more real, like a documentary. “But you even give the date,” I pursued. “So you mean George Bush will have to be careful on October 19?” — “Exactly.” — “Well...” a shrug and a mysterious smile. I suspect he enjoyed my shocked glance. These simple-minded Americans!) The film has been “banned” by the large U.S. cinema chains, we were told, so it’s not likely it will soon be seen in a cinema near you — especially, one might add, in Washington, DC.
At a cinetalk that night, Finch joined fellow directors Jérome Bonnell (J’attends quelqu’un/Waiting for Someone, France 2007), Goran Paskaljevic (Optimisti/The Optimists, Serbia/Spain/Monaco/Switzerland 2006) and Urophong Raksosad (Stories from the North, Thailand 2006) in an animated discussion about political films in general, their own films in particular, whether their films were feature films or documentaries, and whether that was even a useful distinction — a subject that would find voice several times throughout the festival.
Finch characterized DOAP (as it was listed in the program for the Toronto Film Festival, where it premiered last year, to prevent potential upset based on its somewhat inflammatory title) as a hybrid, asserting with unassailable logic that it cannot be seen as a straight documentary because it’s set in the future. Paskaljevic observed that if one were to make a film about the assassination of Slobodan Milosevic, “nobody would come.” Asked whether a political cinema is even viable today, Paskaljevic, who as a Serbian filmmaker feels it is “my duty as an intellectual to criticize what’s wrong in my society,” said that at screenings of his films there, people yell “traitor!” and threaten his life: “There were even newspaper articles that said I should either be killed or, if I was an honest man, I should kill myself. So I went to France, then Ireland, where I made How Harry Became a Tree  that was really about Milosevic, but the Irish said it was very Irish.” Indeed the internecine warfare in that land is very like that in Serbia, said Paskaljevic, whose next film is expected to explore the similarities.
As for DOAP, Finch insisted that it is not an anti-Bush film, and for that matter, not even a political film: “Any film that has something significant to say about humanity is by its nature political,” he said, and gave as an example “a great film” he had seen that day, Falafel, by Lebanese filmmaker Michel Kammoun (about which more below). “It is a very political film [because it is] about people’s lives.”
For real Bush-bashing, if anyone was looking for it, there was the documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing (USA 2006), which takes us on the road with the gutsy trio in the wake of sister Natalie’s ill-considered remark at a London concert in March 2003, as the U.S. invasion of Iraq is imminent, that she is “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” Their speedy downward spiral from being the best-selling female group in history, revered by rednecks and liberals alike for their smooth, spirited, soulful country-rock — they’d sung the National Anthem at the Super Bowl just three months before — to becoming patriots’ Public Enemy No. 1 and the target of conservative commentators, their songs pulled from stations across the country, their concerts cancelled, falling in succession like dominos — is a staggering commentary on the power of the mouth: both Natalie Maines’ and those of her detractors.
As always, Kopple cops the shots; her instinct is infallible: whether it be to show us, in low-angle or close-up (and sometimes both), the passion and thrill that music and music-making hold for these women, or to take us deep into their troubled minds as the pain of one misbegotten remark plays through their professional lives and into their personal ones. What is eminently clear and ultimately inspiring, regardless of one’s own views of either their music or their politics, is their abiding love and loyalty, so strong it becomes almost palpable in the film: despite the frankness of one that so dearly cost all three, they are the woman’s version of the Three Musketeers — one for all and all for one; together, for better or for worse, forever.
Togetherness is a far more delicate and problematic concept for the protagonists of Volker Schlöndorff’s Ulzhan (France/Germany/Kazakhstan 2007), in the director’s words “a very lyrical film, a love story almost without words... a hymn to life.” Those may not be the first thoughts that come to a viewer of this film, which takes us on an arduous trek to the massive Khan Tengri mountain at the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border with a distraught and lonely young Frenchman who seeks to follow the ancient shamans’ route to death. Accompanying him on his trek, not knowing its purpose, are three unlikely companions: a young woman schoolteacher and her horse, and a “word merchant,” who, as his father before him, sells rare words (to what we can only assume is the even rarer traveler).
The film is superbly shot, its breathtaking mountain vistas in sharp contrast to the serene spareness of deserted footpaths and the occasional skeletal remains of ancient fauna. The tale is very simply told, and at times does not seem to move at all. “A love story... a hymn to life” will surely not be the first words that come to the viewer’s mind. But they will certainly be the last — and indeed, those that will last — as memories of this film continue to haunt those who allow themselves to take the trip with its protagonist, and its director. “Ulzhan is perhaps the film that is closest to me,” says Schlöndorff, who may be best known to U.S. audiences for The Tin Drum (1979), in which, interestingly, the actor who plays the lead character in this film played the eternal infant Oskar. “I’m not afraid of revealing my feelings anymore.”
Maybe not; but they certainly are not worn on his sleeve — at least not in his films. Nor are those of his equally iconoclast, and for international audiences perhaps iconic countryman Werner Herzog, “whose voice, along with Alexander Kluge’s [see below], is immediately emblematic of German film,” observed the host as the lights came up, following a screening of clips from Herzog’s documentary-in-progress, Encounters at the End of the World, which he also narrates. “It’s as if it is carved in stone.”
A situationally, as well as geographically apt simile: the film is Herzog’s look at Antarctica, and the people who inhabit what those of us in warmer climes may reflexively write off as a frozen, largely uninhabited, and for all intents and purposes uninhabitable wasteland. Herzog’s desire to film this place and its people, he told a packed auditorium, was “based on odd questions about man and nature” that came up as he was watching underwater footage from Grizzly Man (2005) during the scoring of that film. This led him to contemplate “the whys of the scientific and creative mind that haven’t been asked yet, or have been asked by few. Who are these people who drive this heavy machinery across the frozen landscape, and what drives them to do it?”
Herzog’s odyssey leads him to a man who was himself inspired by Homer’s “Odyssey,” and his youthful yearning to replicate the classic journey. He calls his colleagues “professional dreamers” who advance the world, and Herzog takes us into theirs, and the one upon which they have intruded: One is amused, and a bit amazed, by the sea animals the man hears, telling the filmmaker they “sound like Pink Floyd”; Herzog sweeps us into the cavernous, richly hued depths so that we can both see and hear them.
Some of the film was staged for very practical reasons: Herzog found it necessary, he said, to recreate some scenes to make clear the fragility of our world, the way we continue to waste precious resources and ignore global warming. But that inevitably raises the question: How do you make sure the viewer doesn’t see the magician behind the curtain; that he doesn’t say: Here reality ends, and staging begins? A documentary is not an accounting book, said Herzog: “The bookkeeper’s truth is not the filmmaker’s.”
Herzog likes to begin his films with quotations, ostensibly from great philosophers (Pilgrimage, Thomas a Kempis; Lessons of Darkness, Blaise Pascal; Encounters at the End of the World, again Pascal) but in fact, Herzogian inventions. At Filmfest München, asked to identify the source of the opening citation, he again confessed to this little deception, adding with a smile, “but Pascal couldn’t have said it any better.”
Asked whether Encounters was meant to have political implications as a commentary on global warming, Herzog firmly denied any such subtext or allusions. “I have no goals; I’m like a storyteller.” It took nine days to cut the film; the narration was recorded simultaneously with the filming. And how does he find the inspiration for making such extreme films? “I don’t think I make extreme films,” Herzog answered, then added, to much laughter, “Films with Paris Hilton in them are extreme films.” What he is seeking, Herzog said, is the “ekstatische Wahrheit,” or ecstatic truth: “If you read [19th-century German lyric poet Friedrich] Hölderlin’s poems, you know what I’m talking about,” he added. While the interview was conducted in English, this was Munich, and heads could be seen nodding knowingly. Encounters at the End of the World is slated for showing this fall on the Discovery Channel; Herzog’s Rescue Dawn opened in DC theaters July 13.
The owner of that other “voice... immediately emblematic of German film” was honored by a sold-out tribute: “Laudatio [Encomium to] Alexander Kluge” welcomed one of Germany’s most prolific, controversial, and influential book authors and film auteurs to his native Munich, in celebration of his 75th birthday.
The event opened with a mind-blowing montage of images, from film to video, photo to portrait, Vertov to Bernstein to Mozart. The Munich Film Museum and the Goethe-Institut, the museum’s director told us, recently combined forces to produce a 15-double-DVD set of Kluge’s cinema and TV films, released during the Berlinale (and still on sale right outside!), each of which begins with one of these mini-films. Munich Mayor Christian Ude, with a strong Bavarian accent that immediately endeared him to many of us, set the stage with a confession that was greeted by appreciative chuckles: When it came to the honoree, whose bona fides include a law degree, and who is renowned for the complexity of his oeuvre, “many of his books I haven’t read, and many of his films I haven’t understood.”
Kluge takes on historical subjects so that you see them in a surprising new light, continued the mayor, combining documentary and fiction in a way that yields what could be called, take your pick, either documentary fiction, or fictional documentary. (This last point recalled, for those of us attending both events, a rather intense if collegial debate among the panelists at the previous night’s podium discussion on what distinguishes a feature film from a documentary, and whether such categorical distinctions can even be said to exist. The general conclusion was that the lines are becoming finer, the differences increasingly less distinct, so that we may be nearing a point where attempting to label a film with either term may be an exercise in futility, if not ultimately, irrelevance. This issue was to be an apparently unplanned, but nonetheless continuing topic of interest throughout this year’s Filmfest.)
A “cultural politician,” the mayor continued, Kluge has promoted film development in alignment with film technical research while remaining politically committed and outspoken. His frequent collaboration with other cineastes over the years demonstrates his respect for his fellow filmmakers, and as signatory to the Oberhausen Manifesto, he is one of the key progenitors of the “New German Film.” Indeed, his contribution to the collaborative effort “Germany in Autumn” (1977) has as much to say to us now, as it did then. And perhaps not entirely by chance; for Kluge, memory — and responsibility for what we do because of, and with, that memory — is critical. A filmmaker who respects his audiences, Ude noted, Kluge doesn’t spoon-feed them with suspense stories or simple, formulaic Hollywood-style dramas.
True to form, Kluge didn’t spoon-feed his Filmfest audience either, seizing the stage with the declaration that jurisprudence is the newest form of weaponry. He spoke passionately of the need for film to speak not only to the intellect, but to the heart, mind, and spirit, reminding his listeners that film is not a static object, but a living entity; it is “a movie, it moves” (said in English). And books: “I write books because there are some things that film cannot adequately express; when you have a Justice Department official who denies what happened at Guantanamo,” you need to take recourse to the written word.
But here at Filmfest München, film was the order of the day, and we next saw a series of early shorts, mostly black and white, by the young Kluge, followed by his comment that he loves that they can be seen one after the other — they can be “read vertically.” (When asked which he prefers: black and white or color, he said, “I always say both. It is like asking which one you love more: your mother or your father.”) He is intrigued and at the same time, mildly alarmed by YouTube: “We are more and more pulled in to it as it reaches out to us.” Yet here, “between the huge and the tiny, lives the future of film.”
By the time this extraordinary session was over, we knew that not only had we been granted a glimpse into the future of film; we had also been witnesses to some of its most vivid, honest, inventive, enduring, uncompromising representations at the hands of, and in the presence of, their august — but in energy and virtuosity, barely aged — creator.
Age of a significantly more advanced kind is not at all kind to the some of the characters in Import Export (Ulrich Seidl, Austria 2007). Yet another work that straddles the line between documentary and feature film, it also manages to cross a few other lines, making it one of the most challenging and remarkable films screened this year.
Import Export follows (to add another “line” to the mix) two seemingly unrelated story lines — linked only, perhaps, by the poverty of the protagonists, and their need for a job — that will converge geographically: each will end where the other begins. One involves an Austrian teenager whose life is made miserable by regular run-ins with the thugs to whom he owes money, compounded by an uneasy relationship with his stepfather and further exacerbated by the boy’s inability to get and hold a job. The second takes us with a young Ukrainian mother, a trained nurse who, desperate to support her baby, will take any and every job offered to her, from Webcam porn model and telephonic heavy breather to underpaid and overworked au pair. At last, the pickings growing desperately slimmer, she is hired to work in a geriatric hospital — as a cleaning woman.
The rawness and hopelessness in this film are almost tangible, leavened by the occasional humor and sweetness. At times this is both a balm and a victory for the characters and with them, the audience; at others, it is painfully off-key and for that, all the more searing. The scenes with the elderly patients, filmed in a geriatric hospital, are alternately perplexing and chilling, humorous and heartbreaking; we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. “I think it’s important to have a sense of humor in life, so that you can stand the things that happen to you,” Seidl told the press at Cannes, where it was presented in Competition. “In my film, if it’s possible to laugh, that’s what I want. And I always try to find a compromise between comedy and tragedy.”
A difficult, and even dicey path to tread, one that many filmmakers attempt to negotiate, but few successfully. The French are often among them, and this year’s “Nouveau Cinéma Français” again found them true to form. The French film series is a favorite with Munich audiences, and this was an especially excellent year, as the catalog labeled it, featuring not just the usual complement of new faces and old masters — both onscreen and off — but one of France’s most celebrated character actors, who appeared in three of the series’ ten films, one of which also marked his directorial debut.
Premonition (Le Pressentiment, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, France 2006), based on the book of the same name by French novelist Emmanuel Bove, is the tale of Charles Benestau, an upper-crust lawyer who disavows his inherited wealth to live on what his appalled relatives see (with some justification) as the seedy side, in an effort to more or less “find himself.” Put more elegantly by Darroussin: “Premonition is a film about trying to escape alienation, a search for liberation from everything that keeps you locked inside of images, either consciously or unconsciously... The hero of Premonition knows perfectly well what he is abandoning when he heads towards a poorer social class... (he) is a true adventurer.” (From the other side of the philosophical fence, Benestau’s brother, mocking him for his ostensible “nobility,” acerbically observes that if he were really so noble, he would simply give all his money to charity. Benestau has no response to this.)
But the adventurer, played by Darroussin as a very likable protagonist, gets more than he bargained for — as does, in a way, the viewer — when he takes on the case of an alcoholic immigrant who beats his wife almost to death shortly after engaging the lawyer for advice when he suspects the wife of infidelity. The film shifts into a sort of quirky, offbeat mode, as Benestau takes in the couple’s pubescent daughter and hires a buxom blonde nanny to care for her, then suddenly, and intriguingly, spins off into what appear to be alternate and equally viable story lines.
At the Q&A following one of the screenings, Darroussin lived up to the promise of the film, addressing the audience with both humor and complexity. When asked what attracted him to the book — “Why did you want to make a film of it?” — he deadpanned without hesitation: “Because it’s very short.” More seriously, he explained that having made a similar journey in his own life, from the lower classes to celebrity, he wanted to explore the differences between the two worlds in a film, adding that he has always been intrigued by the outsider. Another questioner, curious about the frequent “foot shots,” received a somewhat curious reply. “For me,” Darroussin said, “the bare feet of a person lying down symbolize death. I always give dead people bare feet [in my plays],” he added; Darroussin is also a noted stage director.
He was equally direct about the difficulties that inhere in being an actor. “It’s not easy to be someone else,” be declared. “Being someone else is its own sort of hell.” As for taking on the dual jobs of acting and directing, “I had a friend who was my double — a ‘shadow actor’ who played my role till the last minute. Then I jumped in when it was shot. As a theater actor,” he observed, “you play as if shooting a film live every night.”
At the podium discussion later that night, Darroussin explained that he had updated the story from its original 1930s setting to help the audience identify with the characters. A side benefit is that it costs less: you need fewer sets, and can use wide shots that show the Paris of today. As the novel is no longer widely read, he added, he felt more free to update it. In response to the observation of one of the moderators that the film had evoked Truffaut for him, Darroussin said he had grown up with his cinema and that of Renoir, its strong humanity, both cruel and gentle at the same time, like Truffaut’s. And as both they and Chekhov, he too likes to pay tribute to “the man in the street.”
The man in the street received more than his share of tribute at this year’s Filmfest. In Falafel (Michel Kammoun, Lebanon/France 2006), we find ourselves tagging along on what starts out as an ordinary night with Toufic, “a young man on the edge of manhood” plagued by the anomie of his age and circumstances, who starts out to buy falafel at the local shop. He soon finds himself swept up in a series of misadventures that could happen to anyone anywhere... but with a special slant unique to Beirut, “this city where anything, absolutely anything, could happen,” according to the director, who in his published précis, probably says it best.
Falafel is “a concentrate of life, a nocturnal trip in the twisted world of the city. It’s a story about friendships, treasons, passions, hatred, vengeance, absurd encounters and extravagant situations... It’s also the story of a single step that takes a man to cross the boundary, this invisible line that separates good from evil, love from hatred, tragic from hilarious.” The hapless Toufic is an Everyman who inspires both compassion and exasperation, but is never less than one of us.
In a post-screening discussion, Kammoun related that as a “no-budget film,” he had expected to have to shoot it on digital video, but was pleased to be able to shoot it on film (no doubt benefiting from being able to use the neighborhood streets, shops, and homes as sets), although it took almost three years from shoot to print. Kammoun explained that he wanted to “x-ray [Beirut] through my point of view,” that he “really wanted this film to exist” to show the between-wars Beirut he knows. A city where “it looks like peace, but it’s not a real one,” and where the younger generation wants to live a normal life but is weighed down by a “heavy heritage and unsolved problems... it’s like you’re living on a volcano that could explode any time.
“The film is sweet and sour — like our everyday life there,” he continued. “So there’s always this tension... which is very difficult [to show] in cinema. So I tried to do it in different ways,” in a progression of scenes where the character first is faced with a one-way street, then witnesses a kidnaping, and “then... it’s his turn.” Asked why he decided to make the story take place over the period of a single night, Kammoun explained that “Beirut is a city that lives at night.. The city invites you to go out at night. And the masks fall away at night. I wanted to see behind people’s masks, and the night was very helpful in allowing me to strip away the masks.”
At a podium discussion the following night, Kammoun noted that Falafel has been popular with audiences and critics at festivals worldwide, and played for four months in Lebanon. Thinking back on his childhood, when films were for him an escape from the daily diet of violence and war, Kammoun observed that “laughter is a survival mechanism” — one no less needed now, than then. Kammoun recalled making his first film in the mid-nineties, and hoping the city’s problems were on the way toward being resolved. More than a decade later, he said, they are not. We were left with the small hope that, while the cinema cannot fix them, perhaps by portraying them with strength, honesty, conviction, and compassion — and the indispensable elements all too often discarded in the heat of battle: objectivity, and composure — it can help those who live with them every day of their lives look “behind the masks” of their neighbors, and see that, at bottom, they are not all that different from themselves...
But let’s not get maudlin. There are, indeed, those who are very different from ourselves — although even here, we find that sometimes the differences are only skin — or maybe gland — deep. XXY (Lucia Puenzo, Argentina/Spain 2006), which won the Critics’ Week Grand Prize at Cannes, sensitively depicts the emotional trauma of a hermaphrodite 15-year-old girl (the film title is shorthand for the medical name of her condition) who has more reason than most teens to have an identity crisis. Her troubled existence isn’t made any easier when her parents invite a surgeon friend, from whom they seek advice and counsel, to their beach house, and his teenage son finds the girl attractive. The two, each in his own way a loner, almost inevitably become companions; but when their mutual attraction finds its natural outlet, the boy finds that... to put it delicately, there are too many plugs for that outlet. The film handles with perceptivity and intelligence a difficult subject that could easily have been exploited.
In a late-night cinetalk, director Lucia Puenzo, a novelist who published three books before turning to screenwriting, then directing, described herself as a voracious reader of Argentinian literature and a serious devotee of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez as a child. (She has not at all abandoned her first love, and is currently working on novel number four.) Asked to comment on the difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay, Puenzo observed that with a novel, one sentence can take hours to write. In contrast, screenplays go much more quickly, because “you’re working with the whole structure,” seeing it more as a unit and not focusing on the perfection of each sentence. “I was writing my third novel while I was writing this script,” she added. The actors who play the teenage boy and girl were in reality 21 and 23 years old, she told us. While she would have liked to have cast teenagers in the roles, Puenzo decided against it, out of concern that the psychological impact of enacting hermaphroditic sex would have been too strong for them.
Of course, the consequences of the more common form of teenage sex can also be stressful for young people, especially girls, and especially when it culminates in unwanted pregnancy. And the exploitation referenced above can take a far more malignant form, involving not our perception of the film, but the characters in it. 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, Romania 2007), winner of this year’s Palme d’Or in Cannes, is set in the last years of the Ceausescu dictatorship. Part of a larger project called Tales from the Golden Age, a “subjective history of communism in Romania told through its urban legends,” it is portrayed with uncompromising, almost brutal honesty, augured by the starkness of its title.
After abortion was outlawed in Romania in 1966, pregnant young women who wanted or needed one could find themselves at the mercy of the local back-alley quack, whose morals tended to be about as reliable as his medical certificate. Enter Otilia, a small-town university student who enlists the support of her friend and roommate Gabita as she begins her descent into the frigid inferno of illegal abortion. While Otilia is the ostensible subject of the story, it is Gabita who seizes it, as the intensity of wanting to help her friend and her indefatigability in achieving it come up against the ugly reality of what it ultimately will demand of them both.
At one point the camera captures the agony of her internal struggle during a make-or-break dinner at the home of her boyfriend’s family, as she gamely attempts to fake bonhomie while her friend is holed up in a cheap hotel room, bleeding, awaiting the emergence of the fetus — a process, the repugnant butcher has told them after taking every last cent and more, that could take several hours. The superb performances, gritty and naturalistic, are complemented by the grayness of the grading and the sobriety of the camera’s shooting style — one shot per scene, the director tells us in his press notes; no pans or tilts, no cranes or dollies, no tripod or steady-cam. Mungiu even abandoned what was to have been the final image, a beautiful scene of snow falling, because he wanted “to focus on capturing emotion and truth.” He succeeded, simply and shatteringly.
One film that may capture “emotion and truth” a little too well, at least for those with a low tolerance for what IFC blogger Scott Macaulay in a quote-worthy phrase calls its “sludgy miserabilism,” is Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland (USA 2006). The film is, Bronstein tells us, the result of “seven years [spent] three floors below street level in the dingy projection booth of MoMA... deprived of both sunlight and fresh circulating oxygen [and watching] an average of 600 movies a year.” Frownland, which won a narrative Special Jury Award at the SXSW Film Festival, is, in its writer/director’s words, an attempt to “squeegee laughs out of moments of supreme discomfort and abject despair”; in the words of an imdb-er: “Deeply distinctive, memorable, peculiar, but also repulsive.” Offered another: “If someone sets you on fire, you typically want to put it out: Stop! Drop! And Roll! But with this film, you want to watch the flame slowly engulf your entire body.”
Your correspondent had the opportunity to interview the creator of this singular film during her Munich visit. It will appear in a future Storyboard.
For a much more agreeable experience, in fact overwhelmingly so, there was no better place to go than the fest’s first film, which at the end was voted audience favorite.
At first glance The Band’s Visit (Bikur Hatizmoret, Eran Kolirin, Israel/USA/France 2007) seemed a somewhat surprising choice for opening-night film, which in the festival world tends to be big-name and high-profile. But the choice, as it turned out, could not have been better, as Filmfest audiences confirmed. A sweet, gentle, observant tale, it focuses on foibles, but without judgment; rather, with grace, humor, and unpretentious wisdom, and an unspoken wish for brotherhood and peace in a region that has not often been blessed with them.
The Band’s Visit follows the accidental adventures of the Alexandria [Egypt] Ceremonial Police Band, whose members get lost in the Israeli desert on their way to a celebratory event to which they have been invited. Their troubles begin when, seeking a bus to the small town that houses the Arab Cultural Center, whose opening they are to help celebrate, they instead find that the town’s name, Beit Hatikvah, is so like that of countless other towns, even airport officials are at a loss.
From this unauspicious beginning, the film follows the band’s hapless, but eternally hopeful procession behind its dour, disciplined, basset-eyed leader in the search for the elusive town. Unable to find it, the men are unwilling to go any farther without rest, food, and a plan of action. They stop at the first establishment they see: a small café run by an attractive, sharp-tongued, worldly-wise woman with a wicked sense of humor and undisguised eyes for the chief. She and her partner offer the weary travelers food, and a place to stay — whereupon a series of seemingly simple, everyday experiences unfolds that neither they nor the town’s residents (nor the film’s audiences) will soon forget.
The cinetalk for the film was so packed, not only were all the seats filled, standees were jumping up to see over each other’s heads. Director/screenwriter Eran Kolirin confessed that there is really no such town as Beit Hatikvah in Israel. [Interestingly — this was not mentioned at the cinetalk, but a Web search revealed it — there is a refugee assistance organization by that name, which, fittingly, translates as “House of Hope”.] An audience member complimented Kolirin on the score, calling it “poetic” and noting how well it evoked the characters, and spoke to their respective lands. The director was pleased, telling the audience that as backstory, each character “had a feeling that there was another life promised to him or her, and I needed the music to reflect this.”
Kolirin hopes for the film to be released in Egypt; perhaps The Band’s Visit could help do for the Egyptian and Israeli people what the band’s visit did for the strangers who found welcome in a supposedly unfriendly land: cultural relations between the two nations do not exist. Is there a message to the film? “The message is that we don’t ‘have to be connected,’” said Kolirin. “We ARE connected. This film has no higher purpose.”
How did he come upon the idea for it? Despite the rocky relationship between the two countries, Israeli children of his generation grew up with Egyptian and Indian films, he told us. “One day I had a dream, a vision, of a man opening his mouth and singing an Egyptian song,” said Kolirin softly. “I knew I had to make a film.”
Conflict and connection, and their roles as concomitants to, or victims of war, were undercurrents and often themes of many of the festival’s most compelling films, as evidenced by several of the preceding reviews. Another was Antonin’s Stories (Les Fragments d’Antonin, Gabriel Le Bomin, France 2006), a deeply moving, harrowing tale of a young man emerging from the slaughterhouse of World War I with what we, in more clinical times, call post-traumatic stress disorder, but was then known simply as shell-shock. Unable to speak, yet with voice box intact; unable to control his manic movements, yet structurally sound, he is the subject of study and speculation by physicians and psychiatrists at the hospital to which he has been taken.
Locked in his own personal hell, obsessively reliving moments of sheer terror — of impossible decisions made in split seconds at agonizing cost; of innocents sacrificed, and innocence lost — Antonin responds to no one. It his diaries, unknown to the hospital, that lead us in voice-over through his “stories,” making us slowly aware of what happened to this non-combatant trainer of carrier pigeons, to cause such trauma. Meanwhile, the pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Labrousse (a historical figure) sees in Antonin a demonstration of his theory that an individual who has suffered horrific experiences will sublimate all conscious recollection of the events, emerging instead in the form of nervous tics and other physical manifestations of his emotional distress.
First-time feature film director Gabriel Le Bomin’s experience as a documentarian serves him well; the filmic records of Antonin made by the hospital for study purposes, shot by Le Bomin in 16mm, are effectively intercut with archival footage of traumatized World War I veterans which he retrieved from a war museum, no less disturbing almost a century later. Antonin’s Stories is not based on one soldier’s story, Le Bomin told us after the screening, but rather, is a composite of several he came across in the course of his research. The subject itself, he added, is timeless, and has contemporary resonance, particularly for countries such as France, Germany, and the United States, whose servicemen and women return each day with PTSD.
If further filmic proof of this were needed, The Cats of Mirikitani (Linda Hattendorf, USA 2006), takes us to the streets of lower Manhattan, home of 85-year-old artist Jimmy Mirikitani. Interned during World War II in Tule Lake, California, under the infamous evacuation order that placed Americans of Japanese ancestry in “relocation centers,” often separated by hundreds of miles from family and loved ones, Jimmy now creates vibrant images of a daily present that make it uniquely memorable to those who admire and buy his artwork... and of a painful past he cannot forget.
The film is a labor of love by New York documentary filmmaker Linda Hattendorf, who came upon Mirikitani in her daily rounds. Intrigued by his art, and distressed by his lifestyle (even in the depths of winter he remained outside, dressed in rags and barely shielded by a makeshift shelter), she becomes curious about his backstory and determined to help him after the horrors of 9/11 destroy even the semblance of civilization he has managed to erect for himself. Living on the streets both out of necessity and as a form of protest — his passport was taken during his internment in California, when pride led him to refuse to take a “loyalty test” and then, to renounce his U.S. citizenship, as did 7 out of 10 similarly situated U.S.-born Japanese Americans, according to the film — he is unable to apply for Social Security benefits. Despite his insistence that he doesn’t want them, having lost all respect for the United States, and wants to die in Japan, Hattendorf persuades him to stay with her.
With unflagging persistence she pursues two strategies, chasing down every lead to help him resolve the issues of his past and introducing him to the local center, where they are thrilled to have an artist of his capacity — even as a young man in the relocation camps, he had received offers of employment as an art teacher — to bring art to the residents. As his depression slowly lifts, so, subtly, does his palette expand: While not completely abandoning the haunted scenes of the camps and war, it now includes more colorful ones of landscapes and animals that bring — and one suspects, reflect — if not joy, then at least a measure of contentment. And as Hattendorf’s indefatigable efforts at last bear fruit, he can now let his troubling ghosts rest. “I am now at peace,” Jimmy tells her. “Ghost people don’t sleep in Tule Lake desert... Sleep forever.”
For Filmfest fans, the byword was more like “sleep never.” From the films that began at 9:00 a.m. to the podium discussions that ended past midnight, Filmfest München’s 25th anniversary was a blowout celebration that kept filmgoers watching and listening, talking (and walking!), chatting up and chowing down almost round the clock. One of the loveliest moments came when Munich warmly welcomed an American star to its own firmament, almost as one of its own.
“I am overwhelmed! This is too much, really too much for me.” So spoke a visibly moved Kevin Kline as he accepted the Bernhard Wicki Peace Prize “The Bridge,” named for Wicki’s masterful 1959 film, to honor films and filmmakers that build bridges of understanding, for his film Trade (Marco Kreuzpaintner, USA/Germany 2007), which had its U.S. premiere at Sundance in January, and is expected to hit the East Coast (New York) in September. Kline also received the festival’s esteemed CineMerit Award for lifetime achievement. “My father once told me that I have a great-grandfather from Bavaria,” he continued. “Somewhere deep in my DNA, it feels as if I’ve come home.”
Hope to see you in Munich next year!