“Ik zou waarschijnlijk schreeuwen, schoppen en schelden.”

Iedere avond is er weer een prachtige film te zien op het grote scherm en die films ontstaan natuurlijk niet vanuit het niets. De Daily Pluk duikt achter de schermen en vraagt de regisseurs naar hun inspiratie, het creative proces en de productie. Met vandaag de Griekse Athanasios Karanikolas over At Home.

At Home is een lust voor het oog. Maar de weidse uitzichten op de glinsterende zee vanuit een moderne villa ergens in Griekenland zijn het decor van een hedendaags onrecht. Een tragedie bij daglicht. Nadia, een Georgische huishoudster leeft een hecht en luxe leven met de rijke Griekse familie waarvoor ze werkt. Maar na twaalf jaar trouwe dienst wordt ze plots ontslagen. Want: de crisis. Vanuit Berlijn vertelt regisseur Athanasios Karanikolas via Skype dat zijn film begon bij een discussie met een vriend over dit dilemma: wat als iemand voor jou werkt en je moet er verantwoordelijkheid voor nemen, maar je kan dat niet of je wil dat niet? At Home ontstond bij dit praktische maar vooral ook morele probleem.

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“Tijdens het schrijven is het perspectief veranderd, omdat ik wilde dat het verhaal over een eigengereide vrouw zou gaan die te maken krijgt met een dergelijk onrecht. Dus wat mij betreft gaat de film niet over ‘hoe mensen in Griekenland omgaan met immigranten’, en ook niet over het echtpaar uiteindelijk. Het gaat over Nadia en de manier waarop zij omgaat met het onrecht. Over vergeving, kracht.”

“Ik vind het sowieso fijn om ruimte over te laten voor nadenken over wat je ziet.”

At Home is volgens Karanikolas een esthetische versie van het probleem dat veel zullen herkennen als een soort parabel van de economische crisis. Maar hij probeert hier niet per se het moderne Griekenland uit te beelden. “De sobere en moderne uitstraling van de villa is een metafoor. De villa moest op een soort fort lijken, een plek ter bescherming van een gezin. Maar vooral ook een plek die een verbinding met het landschap heeft. Het interieur is speciaal gemaakt voor de film. Maar de locatie hebben we zo gevonden. Ik vond het heel geschikt omdat het rijke echtpaar waar Nadia voor werkt mensen zijn die graag boven het vuil en het lawaai van de stad staan. Omdat ik geen sociaal drama wilde maken waarvan mensen konden denken ‘dus dit is een moderne Griekse familie, en dat is hoe ze de mensen daar behandelen’, heb ik dus geprobeerd een strenge visuele beeldtaal te vinden zodat je hopelijk wat afstand ervaart door het esthetische. Zo wilde ik ruimte scheppen om te kunnen denken dat het misschien allemaal een verzinsel is, een esthetische metafoor. Ik vind het sowieso fijn om ruimte over te laten voor nadenken over wat je ziet.”

Ook de kleding van de acteurs hoort daarbij. “Mensen hebben mij gevraagd ‘waarom dragen de personages heel de tijd dezelfde kleren?’ Nadia staat op, gaat aan het werk en naar bed altijd in dezelfde jurk. Ik denk dat dat dus helpt om niet te gehecht te blijven aan een vergelijking met de werkelijkheid. Het is een beetje zoals het huis. Bewust ontworpen, kunstmatig. Maar het leven in het huis is waarheidsgetrouw, de relaties zijn echt. Dat frustreert sommige kijkers ook, die kunstmatigheid. Daar heb ik ook wel kritiek op gehad.”

“Ze willen  graag dat ze vecht, de politie belt of gewoon simpelweg er iets aan doet, zoals een personage als Erin Brockovich dat zou doen.”

Karanikolas daagt je dus uit om je eigen interpretaties te maken van deze metafoor. De camera helpt daar ook een handje bij door alles vrij statisch te registreren. Nadia spreekt daarbij niet heel veel woorden en is zelfs wat passief. Althans, zo lijkt het? “Ik krijg vaak de vraag ‘waarom doet ze niets?’. Ik denk namelijk dat ze niet niets doet. Ze doet eigenlijk juist heel veel en bovendien het moeilijkste ding om te doen: accepteren, vergeven en verder gaan. Dat frustreert veel mensen, omdat ze graag willen dat ze vecht, de politie belt of gewoon simpelweg er iets aan doet, zoals een personage als Erin Brockovich dat zou doen. Zulke plots zien we vaker in films. Maar om eerlijk te zijn, geloof ik niet dat dit altijd het geval is. Ik denk dat we vergeten dat veel mensen besluiten om de band met de familie niet te breken en te accepteren wat er is gebeurd. Ik wil niet zeggen dat Nadia hen vergeeft maar ze ziet nu wie ze zijn, ze ziet het duidelijk nu na zoveel jaren. En ze laat het daarbij. Ze weet dat ze er niets aan kan doen om hen te veranderen. Nadia is niet dom, ze zijn namelijk verschrikkelijk tegen haar geweest. Ze ziet en hoort dat heus. Ik vind haar acceptatie een teken van kracht. Waarschijnlijk zou ik schreeuwen, schoppen en schelden als het mij overkwam. Dat is wat mensen doen. Ze komt uit een andere wereld, ze is een heldin.”

Hoewel At Home een film van weinig woorden is, is iedere scene spannend. De acteurs creëren met hun lichaamstaal sterke emoties die duidelijk overkomen. “Ik heb de acteurs geregisseerd middels een techniek van Meisner. Deze is ontwikkeld voor toneel door Sanford Meisner in de jaren ’40 van de vorige eeuw. Dat houdt min of meer in dat we veel repeteren, maar niet tot op de letter van het script. Ik laat ze vooral de relaties oefenen. Zo oefenen we vooral de emotionele kant van de rollen en dus niet de maniertjes. Zo krijg je eerlijker, meer waarheidsgetrouw acteerwerk. Acteurs komen namelijk te vaak naar de set met hun ambities in hun hoofd. Dat zit soms in de weg. Door op deze manier te werken weten ze op de set dan precies wat de ruimte is waarbinnen ze kunnen spelen. Dan kunnen ze ieder shot wat vrijheid nemen. Ze weten de parameters van wat ik wil, en ze weten wat ze willen van elkaar. Dus de rest kan dan worden geïmproviseerd. Het is een mix van controle en controle verliezen. Ik zou zeggen vooral het loslaten van de controle.” NH

Geschreven voor Pluk de Nacht, 11 augustus 2014.

Making the Most of Misery / a review of Gainsbourg, A Heroic Life

“Are there croissants?”, Brigitte Bardot asks. “No, but I have three songs”, Serge Gainsbourg answers. For Gainsbourg, sigarettes, women and music were the basic necessities of life. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is both a loving depiction of the fantasy of France’s most controversial singer-songwriter, and an elegant summary of the muses and demons that helped him create numerous songs that conquered our hearts, and loins.

The women in Gainsbourg are well cast and convincingly portrayed by actresses Deborah Grall (Elisabeth Levizky), Sarah Forestier (France Gall) Laetitia Casta (Brigitte Bardot), Lucy Gordon (Jane Birkin) and Anna Mouglalis (who will be giving a Master Class today, see opposite page) as Juliette Gréco, the singer who helped Gainsbourg on his way.

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While the film may hold little surprises for fans of Gainsbourg, the music is very well interpreted and the hero is respectfully portrayed in all his colors. Although the film is over two hours long, director Joann Sfar breezes through Gainsbourg’s life story. She begins at the beginning, when the young, talented and cheeky seducer Lucien Ginsburg was already different from his peers. A Russian Jew raised in Nazi-occupied Paris, little Lucien makes the most of the misery: he quits secondary school, attends painting classes and is taught to play the piano by his father. Sfar illustrates Lucien’s imagination and playfulness by letting the iconic antisemitic imagery of the time step out of the posters and come to life as life-size puppets, who accompany him throughout the film. By playing with these symbols Sfar elegantly translates the development of Gainsbourg’s scarred identity, forever insecure about his big nose and ears.

On the other hand, the moment illustrates the transformation of a man who struggles to embrace his artistry: painting of music? Take the striking scene where Gainsbourg meets one of Django Reinhard’s band members, for instance, who tells Gainsbourg to forget about the chords and technical fuzz of making music. “Just look at your guitar, and tell a story. It’s that simple.” NH

Written for the festival daily of the Golden Apricot Film Festival,  2014 Yerevan (Armenia) / daily #7 – 19th of july 2014

Interview with Otar Ioselliani

He may be eighty years old, but his next film is already in the works. Renowned Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, who has live and worked in France since the 1980’s, is a special guest at the Golden Apricot Film Festival in honor of his 80th birthday last February, and he’s looking as sharp as his films.

The Retrospective offers three films he made in Georgia in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Falling Leaves, Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird and Pastoral, as well as his most recent film Chantrapas (2010), a French/Georgian co-production. A clear but whimsical rebellious streak runs through his work, which shows the love/hate-relationship that comes with the dilemma of freedom and humanity.

Chantrapas shows how young filmmaker Nicolas is brutally censored in Soviet Georgia. But while his film is strictly denied any screening, he has no trouble getting a visa to travel to France to make a new film. Sadly, the West does not give him the freedom he is looking for: his producers are too greedy to let Nicolas work on his own and interfere with his editing, just as Soviet censorship had done before. Time is money. Iosseliani’s films have a striking lighthearted irony reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s comedy’s, while his economical use of dialogue and music belies his education in music and mathematics, before he became a filmmaker.

 N: What does the word Chantrapas mean?
O: It has become a common term in Russian, which is a mutation of the French phrase “Chantera ou chantera pas?”, meaning “Will he sing or not?”. It originates with an Italian professor who taught the children of the Russian elite in St. Petersburg, but spoke very bad French. At that time, a century ago, the St. Petersburg elite spoke French. The professor decided to teach the kids to sing, and with his peculiar pronunciation with a strong Italian accent, the phrase was misunderstood. That’s how it became a Russian expression, which is used to denote persons who are ‘good-for-nothings’, disinterested, vagabonds, poets. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Tjechov, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff; they all were chantrapas-es.

Nicolas seems to be a chantrapas too, but in a more positive way. Is the character based on you?
No, it is not necessarily me, but you can make of it what you want. He stands for all my beloved colleagues who tried to do their work but were prohibited, either by ideological censorship, or they had to leave the country because of public censorship even. Directors like René Clair, Fritz Lang, Tarkovsky, Parajanov… The list can go on and on.

The censorship in Chantrapas happens on both sides, East and West. Was this your experience as well?
Yes. The Soviet censors actually love Nicolas’s film, but they are obligated to censor it. They are under so much pressure, they have not other choice. But in America many directors aren’t really the auteurs of their film either. By the way, there is a certain contempt for the term cinema d’auteur. Yet there seems to be only this auteur cinema. Is the rest a macaroni factory?

Anyway, in America often someone else edits your film. My friend Wim Wenders went to America to make a film. After having shot his material, the producer wanted to send him away. He wasn’t allowed to touch his own material. Once, a filmmaker friend of mine was even paid a million dollars so that he would leave, so he couldn’t stand in the way of the editing process. I make sure I edit my own films.

Has France been good to you?
Well, I think all the films that I have made in France, Chantrapas included, have not been successful. But I guess that’s normal. (shrugs) Yes, the film has been recognized by various festivals, but the audience of today, in France but also Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, Belgium… They are young people who grew up on Hollywood cinema. Producers receive interesting projects from all over the world, but then they think about whether this 20-something-year-old boy will go see it or not. That’s ridiculous. They decide beforehand that the film will not be worth it. In a way, this is public censorship at its worst.

Chantrapas was still shot on celluloid, but edited digitally, which is turning into the norm. What was your experience with working digitally?
Well, it’s almost the same thing as working with celluloid. But there is a danger you’ll make too many versions, you shouldn’t do that. You should still edit like you’re at the editing table with a pair of scissors. Then, you had to think hard before every cut. The same should go for filming digitally: it’s tempting to make a lot of shots, but you should refrain yourself. Just take two, like always.

 Have you kept up with filmmaking in Georgia?
Of course. There is a new wave of young film directors at the moment. They address contemporary issues, such as how youths who are starting a life for themselves realize that life in Georgia is not that great. Still, they remain brave. I am very optimistic about it, they make good work although Georgia isn’t in the best financial situation. Luckily, production in Georgia isn’t that expensive. I find that women especially are making interesting films.

Unfortunately, another problem is that the films of my younger colleagues in Georgia have little chance to be seen, because there are only a few film theaters even in big cities like Tbilisi. On about 2 million inhabitants, there are only three screens.

What can you tell us about your next film?
I don’t want to talk about it yet. You don’t scream before you’ve taken the leap! NH

Written for the festival daily of the Golden Apricot Film Festival,  2014 Yerevan (Armenia) / daily #6– 18th of july 2014

Anti-Romance / a review of Blind Dates

“I don’t like this online thing”, says Sandro. “Do you have other options?”, responds his friend Iva. In modern-day Georgia, 40-something-year-old men struggle to find love like everywhere else.

Sandro and Iva are waiting for two ladies from Gori who they found through an online dating site. Pokerfaced actor Andro Sakhvarelidze, who portrays the wimpy but gentle Sandro, so effectively sets up an absurdist tone in this opening scene of Blind Dates that you’ll never see its ending coming. But it’s director Levan Koguashvili’s mischievous storytelling and understated humor that pull us into this surprising journey, which develops into a heartwarming drama about the differences between looking for and finding love.

Iva, a former soccer player-turned-coach, pushes his friend to find a girlfriend. Sandro also gets lambasted by his parents: girls from the provinces have no manners, and girls who play soccer are too muscular. But the complaints don’t seem to affect Sandro. So what does move him? When Iva and Sandro walk into Iva’s favorite soccer mom Manana on a weekend trip, they enjoy some drinks on a rainy seaside terrace under a large piece of plastic. Koguashvili revels in emphasizing how anti-romance, in unexpected places, can actually create romance. Ironically, Sandro’s parents are at that very moment awaiting his return in the company of several young and eligible women.

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But when Sandro en Manana start to spend more time together, he’ll find a problem he certainly wasn’t looking for: Manana’s husband Tengo will be released from jail earlier than expected and wants to come home. Sandro’s kindness, and love for Manana, goes beyond his own desires, and he drives Manana to the prison to pick op Tengo. Things only get worse from there.

The sheer genius of Blind Dates is that Koguashvili shows you how comedy is not always in the acting, but instead can hinge on the ways fate plays and interferes with our expectations. As we all know, good men usually don’t get the girl. In Blind Dates, Sandro wins a few girls too many, but still doesn’t end up a winner. NH

Written for the festival daily of the Golden Apricot Film Festival,  2014 Yerevan (Armenia) / daily #6– 19th of july 2014

A Cruel Setup, or Not? / a review of Two Days, One Night

With Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit), directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne pose a radical question about crisis and solidarity. Once again, the Belgian brothers use a bleak socio-economic situation to reflect on Western society.

Returning from a temporary break from her job, Sandra hears on a Friday that she has been voted out of her job. The factory she works in is struggling and offered its employees a choice: either they could keep their end-of-year-bonusses, or Sandra could keep her job. A cruel set-up, or is it? The Dardennes answer this question in two ways, by showing both the moral and the practical struggle in hard times.

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Shot in the brothers’ signature style, with roving handheld camera’s shooting uncompromising long takes filmed with natural light, the Dardennes look us straight in the eyes and reach for our conscience. Luckily for Sandra, her friend Juliette and some other loyal co-workers manage to convince the manager to organize a second vote on Monday. Encouraged by her husband, Sandra undertakes a laborious mission to visit all her colleagues over the weekend to try to convince them to change their votes. Like a modern-day Sisyphus, fragile Sandra, played au naturel by French actress Marion Cotillard, encounters all possible emotions and reasons her colleagues could have. During two days and one night she gets yelled at because she’s “stealing” bonuses and asked for forgiveness through instant confessions of guilt. But she’s also confronted with the struggles her co-workers have, some financial and some of a more abusive nature.

The Dardennes are known for their naturalistic approach to drama, told from the personal perspective of the working class in conflict with society’s dominant norms and standards. Two Days, One Night masterfully shows how Sandra’s instinct for survival clashed with her moral compass at every step of her endeavor. At some point she reaches for Xanax to bear the fear and insecurity she’s feeling.

Although the Dardennes force you to see things from Sandra’s perspective, duped by a manager who wants to cut costs, it’s not the only way this injustice can be interpreted. During a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, where Two Days, One Night premiered earlier this year, the Dardennes described solidarity as an attitude or behavior that is not self-evident: “To be solidary you have to sacrifice. It is not a natural thing to do.” In other words, it is something we have learned to do, and now have perhaps forgotten. As the Dardennes said, “Solidarity is not a moral act in and of itself, but can also be a practical decision.” In other words, the capitalist mindset is not just that of the manager; Sandra’s co-workers are as much a part of this crisis.

To find a suitable ending for the film, the brothers said they continuously asked each other to put oneself in the other man’s shoes. Which, it seems, is easier said than done. The ending of the film offers an emotional twist that sets Sandra’s efforts during the weekend in a bleak new light. NH

Written for the festival daily of the Golden Apricot Film Festival,  2014 Yerevan (Armenia) / daily #6– 19th of july 2014

Interview with Amos Gitai

Originally trained as an architect, Israel’s most controversial filmmaker Amos Gitai started his career making documentaries. Inspired and driven by the disruptive Arab-Israeli conflict, Gitai’s films question and comment on existing attitudes in the Middle East. Themes like exile, religion and homeland have been at the heart of his work from the 1970’s to this day.

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His rise to fame started when he transposed his documentarist sense for raw reality to feature films. His work is known for its lengthy shots and use of classical or Israeli folk music. Often he confronts the audience by putting you right in the middle of the situation at the beginning of the film. His work has been celebrated outside of Isreal by film festivals all over the world like Berlin and Cannes. His latest film Ana Arabia, an ambitious portrait in a single take of a settlement in Jaffa where Arabs and Jews live together peacefully, was selected for the official competition of the Venice Film Festival last year.

N: There have been many retrospectives of your work the last few years. How do you feel about looking back on your carreer?
A: I think that’s fine. In my own work I make journeys back and forth, too: I often make references to my previous films. In that way, I’m still an architect, in the sense that I’m not a story-oriented director. The cinema connects story, theme and form. So a good film has to do all of this and really say something, because we have too many words which are empty of meaning. We should use film as a way to reflect, but at the same time we cannot neglect the form.

Although you say you’re not a story-oriented director, throughout your work your characters share a lot of memories and tell stories.
My mother was a great thinker and my father was an architect, so I am between narrative and form. Also, cinema is about memory. It conserves it. I think we digest memory too quickly. So cinema is a good way to reflect on things once more.

Female characters often determine the movement in your films and are at the center of your stories. What brings you to this choice?
I think the Middle East is too male-oriented. Maybe this is even one of the reasons for the many conflicts in the region – like little roosters pecking at each other. I think we need to inject female energy, and hope that they will not convert themselves into men. We should use some of the wisdom of women; perhaps only then can we pacify this region. The people involved in the conflicts have the perception that ‘this guy’ is completely angelic, and ‘the other’ totally devilish. The truth of course is that actually, each side is both. So I think peace will only be achieved by recognizing the other. If people aim for perfection through Allah or God or whatever, it enforces repression, for instance of the Palestinian memory of their territory or the abuse of women by Arab husbands. I want to escape the notion of perfection. Life is full of contradictions, full of disagreement. Peace is about accepting the other even if you’re not in agreement.

This viewpoint is very clear in Ana Arabia. Is it meant to be symbolic that the main character, the young journalist Yael, seems to only listen passively to the habitants of this settlement in Jaffa?
In the 1960s and 1970s some documentary filmmakers thought that if they would go and film some underprivileged community they needed to become members of that community. For me that is fake. I really wanted Yael to be a stranger; that’s why she’s dressed like a modern young woman and not melting into the environment. In the beginning she’s even a little disinterested. Along the way she gets more involved in the stories the habitants tell her. I think actress Yuval Scharf plays this very graciously. It’s one of the most difficult things: having two actors in the frame where one has to act more passively. She doesn’t steal the show, but I think Yuval gives a very tender performance.

Part of the thematic unity in Ana Arabia is also expressed in its form, as it is filmed in a single shot. What was that like?
Very interesting. It was something I decided from the beginning. There are sequence shots in many of my films, but this time I wanted to try and make an entire film in a single shot. We did nine takes, five of which were no good at all, I had to stop them in the middle. At the premier, someone said to me that they didn’t notice it was one shot, which I considered a big compliment, because it means that the formal elements and the technology didn’t take over. I also think it shows conversations between people in another way. As a citizen of Israel, I think the relation between Jews and Arabs should not be interrupted. So when I translate this to my own language of film, to the syntax of cinema, I also don’t want to interrupt. Therefore I don’t cut. It had to be one shot. Filming digitally has opened op this option, and a lot of other ones.

What are your ideas about that, the future of filming digitally?
The problem of film schools is that they recycle too much stuff which oppresses the younger generation, who are not rebellious enough. They should give the older generation a kick in the ass. That’s good! That’s the way culture is made. People can really try to make another kind of cinema. The problem is also that they are sometimes ambitious in too limited a manner: looking for ‘success’, aiming for the red carpet. But that’s not what filmmaking is about.

 What filmmakers do you think are ‘kicking ass’?
Some dead ones, like Fassbinder! (laughs) I am inspired by directors, by bodies of work, not necessarily by a single film. It’s about opening perspectives to different interpretations. So the person is more interesting. I actually don’t consider myself a professional.

You wouldn’t call yourself a filmmaker?
Yes, I do. But I didn’t study ‘filmmaking’. I think it’s more valuable to study something to develop your own ideas and then transpose them to the medium you want to work with. NH

Written for the festival daily of the Golden Apricot Film Festival,  2014 Yerevan (Armenia) / daily #4– 17th of july 2014

But is it art?

The Cinema for Social Change program offers a global snapshot of citizen activism. Many of the urgent stories shown in these films could only be laid bare thanks to the high availablity of digital camera’s. Last Monday, Richard Peña gave a workshop on this subject to a room full of engaged students and festival guests.

The spacious lecture hall of the TUMO Center, also the home of the Ukrainian Poetic Cinema program during the festival, was filled with the next generation of mediamakers, ready to soak up this spirited talk entitled eFilm aesthetics after the digital revolutionf. Peña, a professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, started with a historical analysis of how film had to battle the status quo to become eartf, before the political question ‘who decides what is art?’ came to the fore in the 1970s.

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In Peña’s view, ”Everything is film, there is no distinction. From Andy Warhol to Steven Spielberg, it’s all cinema. There are only correct and incorrect criteria to judge them by. Donft blame Parajanov for not portraying a realistic image of Armenia, it was not his aim!”

The development of film aesthetic, Peña said, depends on the discussions we have about it. In that vein, he invited his young audience to discuss who actually decides on these criteria today. “Nowadays the means of film production and distribution have become digital and affordable”, Peña asserted. “Everyone in this room can make a feature film. That’s great!” However, the freedom digitization has brought does not mean that every movie will be ‘good’. “In 1985 there were about 50 independent films produced per year in the US, and only five of them were good. In 1995 there were about 500, but still only 10 were good.” This is the downside of the digital revolution, Peña explained. “Another symptom of easily being able to make a film, is that documentary makers are becoming sloppy. They don’t really ‘shoot’ their stories anymore, since the digital camera allows them to record endlessly.”

On the upside, the internet gives room for independent communities finding their own meaning and aesthetic, which means that exciting new interpretations of what cinema could be are opening up. Cameras fit in your pocket and the internet is transgressing borders ever more radically. Peña referred to how the modern-day film technology emancipated Palestinian filmmakers from dominant interpretations set by others. It offered them the freedom to redefine their identity independently – through film.

Peña acknowledged that these kinds of movements have always been part of cinema history. But the broad access to online media means that these niche movements are more visible than ever. Peña will address this in-depth during his Master Class on 17 July, which will deal with independent African cinema of the 1930s and 1940s. “It’s an interesting example of people who, even though they are oppressed in many ways, were simply making their own cinema. Creating their own vision in a time when images of African Americans were really racist.” NH

Written for the festival daily of the Golden Apricot Film Festival,  2014 Yerevan (Armenia) / daily #3– 16th of july 2014

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Tragedy in broad daylight

“Horrible things happen during daytime, in beautiful places. But still we don’t see them.” Director Athanasios Karanikolas used these gloomy words to describe his actually rather tender At Home at the premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.

Georgian immigrant Nadja is a patient and committed housekeeper for an upper class Greek couple and their daughter, although this is not immediately apparant: in the opening scene, Karanikolas shows her eating withb the family, even comforting the daughter as if she were a next-door-aunt, and the family’s luxuries and wealth are bestowed upon her too.

By letting the actors use their bodies in stead of many words, Karanikolas manages to create subtle images that maintain movement throughout the film through fluid editing, concise acting and clear-cut scenes. Nothing feels too long or too short. Through static framing of the family’s bright, sunlit villa, with its austere, modern, blue-and-grey interior, the film gradually implies another reading of Nadja’s relation to her surrogate family. When she collapses as the result of an undefined ailment, she is pampered with high quality medical care. But the balance between love and comfort is about to shift. Due to the economic crisis the family decides they can’t afford a sick housekeeper. Although they love her very much, as the lady of the house desperately emphasizes, they have to let her go. Accepting her fate calmly and showing minimal emotion, Nadja continues her chores for the last time that day. Gazing at the rippling sea through the broad living room window, she upholds herself as if nothing has changed. It turns out to be the first of many tragedies in Nadja’s life.

Karanikolas gives us a radical heroine, teaching us a valuable lesson in dignity. At Home is as much about the personal injustice Nadja has to endure, as the forgiveness and love that are necessary to overcome a crisis. Karanikolas allegorically refers to the crisis Greece is going through, and shows what it takes to overcome, rebuild and stand tall in tough times. NH

At Home by Athansios Karanikolas, Greece/Germany, 2014

Written for the festival daily of the Golden Apricot Film Festival,  2014 Yerevan (Armenia) / daily #3– 16th of july 2014

Man becomes dog, dog becomes human

Some 250 dogs were found in animal shelters to act in White God, a genre-bending film about precocious 13-year-old Lili (newcomer Zsofia Psotta) who is heartbroken when her father gets rid of her dog Hagen. When the city of Budapest puts in place a senseless measure to tax impure breeds more than purebreds, he is unable to bear the costs for the mongrel Hagen, and leaves it by the side of the highway.

The film was warmly welcomed in the Un Certain Regard programme at the Cannes Film Festival this year with its surprising mix of realism developing to a dystopian dog-revenge slasher. With this approach director Kornél Mundriczó takes a drastic turn in his work towards genre experiments. Mundruczó sais he wants to address the past and future of Hungary through “vengeance films and the allegorical qualities of animal stories, where typically a narrow stratum rules over a greater mass. This is becoming increasingly true for Europe as well. If we don’t pay attention, one day the masses will rise up.”

Director Kornél Mundruczó with Luke (Hagen in White God) on the red carpet in Cannes

Director Kornél Mundruczó with Luke (Hagen in White God) on the red carpet in Cannes

Through spirited storytelling and cross-cut editing, the actions of Lili and Hagen function as mirrors on these rancorous present-day social relations. Both are battling to find friendship and respect. Lili is fighting her father’s heartless decision by being disobedient and searching for Hagen. Hagen, in turn, soon realizes that not every man is a dog’s best friend. After being picked up by a dog trainer who builds him up to win illegal dog fights, hatred and anger towards humanity takes shape in Hagen.

You could reproach White God for a cliché plot, juggling with grand themes like revolution and justice. But at its core, Mundruczó tells a simpler truth, which upholds throughout the film despite its stylistic twist: man becomes dog because of elitist behavior and vice versa. “To tell this story I chose animals as the subject instead of minorities. Because I wanted to focus freely on this sensitive subject, with as little taboos as possible.” NH

White God
Kornél Mundruczó, Hungaria, 2014

Written for the festival daily of the Golden Apricot Film Festival,  2014 Yerevan (Armenia) / daily #1 – 13th of july 2014

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