AGORA
: Dragged from her chariot by a mob of fanatical vigilante Christian monks, the revered astronomer was stripped naked, skinned to her bones with sharp oyster shells, stoned and burned alive as possibly the first executed witch in history. A kind of purge that was apparently big business back then.


CRITICAL WOMEN HEADLINES

5/8/08

Beyond The Frame: Dialogues With World Filmmakers

Beyond The Frame: Dialogues With World Filmmakers
By Liza Bear

At 20 years of age Samira Makhmalbaf made “Blackboards” (2002), a film about the itinerant Kurdish schoolteachers of her native Iran who wander through mountains in search of students, unwieldy blackboards strapped to their backs.

It was her second feature. When “The Apple” (2000) was exhibited at Cannes the Tehran native was, at 18, the youngest filmmaker to show a feature film there.

Veteran Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira made his first feature in 1931 but had to wait until age 93 for “I’m Going Home” (2003) to become his first U.S. theatrical release.

These two filmmakers barely begin to suggest the range in ages, origins, styles, and circumstances of the interviewees in Liza Bear’s new book. The term ‘filmmaker’ in the title mostly means directors but also includes the occasional writer, actor, and producer. Superlative cliché’s like ‘cornucopia’ and ‘embarrassment of riches’ are difficult to resist in this instance, and not just because there are over sixty interviews of filmmakers from more than 20 countries on all six continents.

What’s most striking is how much these dialogues betray both the ear and the eye of a filmmaker, which -not surprisingly- Liza Bear is. Some are suggestive of little films in themselves, or rather of the sorts of screenplays that documentary makers write after their film is done.

The first interview, with Russian director Gleb Panfilov, begins:

“New York, September 30, 1987. 11 am sharp.

Location: The 27th floor of the St. Moritz Hotel, overlooking the dense green rectangle and the brackish waters of Central Park. On the horizon, a yellow-grey bank of polluted air caps the foliage.”

The talks are in chronological order and Bear conducted the earliest of them hot from the set of her own feature “Force of Circumstance”. Many of these pieces are as much genuine dialogues (like the title says) between filmmakers as interviews. The filmmakers relate to her as a colleague.

“Liza, tell me about your film” says director Atom Egoyan. “Did you like it?” asked Judy Davis about Peter Duncan’s “Children Of The Revolution” (1997) in which she starred. And it is precisely because of her passion for filmmaking as opposed to the gossip sought by ordinary journalists that Bear manages to elicit very personal shoptalk.

There’s this striking recollection from French actor/director Brigitte Rouan: “When I was younger I would regularly fall in love, not with my acting partner, but with the cameraman. It’s a very sensual relationship because they have their eyes on you eight hours a day”. It was one filmmaker to another when director Chris Menges advised, “Make sure that all the locations are within ten minutes of the hotel”. Jim Jarmusch goes into detail about the financial structuring that allows him full artistic control, commenting that “it’s shocking to realize how many people don’t have final cuts over their films –sometimes not even Scorsese”.

Collections of interviews with cinema directors are relatively rare, much less such interviews with the stamp of a Liza Bear on them. After all, her artist interviews in Avalanche (which she co-founded with Willoughby Sharp) were key to making that legendary publication the single most influential art magazine of the 70s. Now she’s done something similar for the cinema world, but for a wide variety of publications so that it’s especially important that these conversations have been gathered together. Some of the longer, and indeed earliest, pieces first appeared in Betsy Sussler’s ever-vital Bomb magazine where Bear is a contributing editor. Newsday, the New York Daily News and other mass circulation dailies are where quite a few of these intense little chats initially saw the light of day.

In these talks she enables these interviewees to lay aside their public personas, get past the media-induced burnout, and on to a shared level of pleasurable enthusiasm. In these talks they’re not promoting product. They’re discussing problems, revealing obscure sources of inspiration, musing on the nature of creativity. The last interview, with Yacef Saadi, the “Battle Of Algiers” producer and ex-revolutionary on whose memoirs the film was based, ends with this unusual exchange:

LB: “Is it harder to make a film or to win a revolution?”

YS: “It’s harder to make a good film. You can kill someone, but to educate him, that’s something else. And during the war we destroyed. There was an enemy and we killed him. Creating something is very difficult”.

Many of the films discussed in Beyond The Frame have a political dimension to them. Whether implied or overt, the political isn’t exactly difficult to find within the history of film. Filmmakers, like fiction writers, tend by nature to grapple with larger societal issues and injustices through their characters, grand themes expressed through particular and often rather ordinary lives. Sometimes, as with scriptwriter Shawn Slovo (A World Apart, 1988), the grand theme is dramatically thrust upon one as when her mother, an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa was killed: “It was my mother’s assassination on the 17th of August in 1982. She was assassinated by a parcel bomb.” Some of these filmmakers, like Romanian director Lucian Pintilie’ (An Unforgettable Summer, 1994) have had problems with ‘the authorities’ even when they weren’t trying to be controversial: “These bureaucrats live in a completely false world. They think that any fragment of text refers to them”.

Beyond The Frame offers many pleasures for aspiring filmmakers and aficionados alike. For one thing it’s a crash survey course on many of the more interesting filmmakers of the past twenty years and could profitably be utilized as such by academia, by film clubs, or by ordinary citizens at home who want to know about wonderful, often neglected, movies to watch from China, Argentina, Senegal, or the good old U.S. of A.

I think I’ll let the 22-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf have the last word here since she does a pretty good job in her own way, referring to those big blackboards, explaining what being a filmmaker is all about: “Knowledge can be a heavy burden to carry. In this film there’s a thin line between the imagination of art and the reality of life. To me, when reality and imagination make love, that’s the moment that art or metaphors are born. The reality in this film is smuggling, poverty, wandering, being a refugee. But my choice as an artist is to show them visually and beautifully. Art is imagination.”

Atanasio di Felice’s essay “Renaissance Performance” is included in the EP Dutton anthology The Art of Performance. He is a cinematographer for, and appears in, the upcoming HBO documentary (about artist Chuck Connelly) “The Art of Failure” scheduled for broadcast on July 7th. He is currently writing a novel inspired by three years spent traveling in the Andes.

312 pages. Praeger Publishers

Review by Atanasio Difelice

More information is online at: http://lizabearmakingbook.blogspot.com and
http://squaringoff.blip.tv.

Liza Bear has written film articles for Indiewire. She is a member of the Women Film Critics Circle.

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