Monday, February 19, 2018

PSIFF 2018: NOSTALGIA (2018)—Q&A With Mark Pellington and Jon Hamm

Nostalgia (2018), directed and co-written by Mark Pellington (with Alex Ross Perry), and starring Jon Hamm, Ellen Burstyn, Catherine Keener, Bruce Dern and John Ortiz boasted its world premiere at the 2018 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), accompanied by Pellington and Hamm, who introduced the film to an enthused audience and fielded questions from a sobered one.

As synopsized by PSIFF in their program capsule: “Emotional performances from a stellar cast led by Jon Hamm, Ellen Burstyn and Catherine Keener come together to stirring effect in co-writer/director Mark Pellington’s bittersweet reflection on the complicated nature of family, loss and the things we leave behind. Intricately structured as a chain of individual narratives linked by characters and themes, Nostalgia’s throughline is a considerate insurance man who patiently witnesses his clients’ stories as he assesses the physical artifacts of their lives. What is the value of a piece of jewelry if it once belonged to Grandma, a baseball if it was signed by one of the greats? How is the value of an object changed by the hands that once held it? Long takes and thoughtful framing highlight the nuanced script, which explores the changing attitudes of generations through both monologue and conversation. Woven throughout is the film’s unifying principle, urging us to live—and love—in the here and now.”

Pellington emphasized that—at a time when making movies is becoming harder and harder, especially meaningful movies—Nostalgia could only have come into being as the labor of love it really truly is. His time on the PSIFF stage seemed intent on acknowledging his collaborators on the film, several in the audience who stood in turns to take their bows. Shot in 18 days for a minimum amount of money (by today’s standards), he believes the film looks like a lot more money was spent on it than their allotted budget, attributable to artistry that comes from the heart, including a dedicated, spiritual and psychological commitment from his ensemble of actors. Pellington also shouted out to Alex Ross Perry who he provided notes, ideas and sketches in hopes that Perry could help him shape them into the script for a film, which Perry accomplished. Pellington has no doubts that it was Perry’s script that drew the attention of such great actors as Jon Hamm who—once he accepted the role—provided key leadership in securing the remaining cast.

Jon Hamm.  Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Media.
Jon Hamm, dressed in a khaki-colored suit, joked that he loves Palm Springs so much that he dressed up as a sand trap. He praised Nostalgia as being an emotional and meaningful story.

After the movie when they returned to the stage, Mark Pellington joked that Jon Hamm got all the laughs in the film. “There were three of them,” Hamm quipped quickly, aiming to lighten the auditorium’s somber air. Undeniably meaningful, Nostalgia was nonetheless a rough and unrelenting film to watch. Whereas most audiences predictably attend films to be taken out of their quotidian reality, Nostalgia can make no claim to do so. Its purpose is oppositional to such distraction, mining a deeper everlasting truth that informs everyday reality. Its belief in cinema is as a mirror to better understand, unflinchingly, the human condition. Pellington was humbled and happy to have shared the world premiere with his PSIFF audience and glad, at the same time, to finally “let go” and let the film be whatever it is going to be. He remained convinced that anyone from 8-80 could find themselves somewhere in the spectrum of the movie; child, parent.

When he approached Alex Ross Perry with instructions to shape meaning from his many ideas concerning loss, grief and memorabilia, hoping the film could explore same, Nostalgia’s form took on a weird momentum. It is not a plot-driven movie. Although it is being billed as a “mosaic”, Pellington more accurately described it as a record album placed on a turntable with one song leading to the next and the next. When you’ve finished listening to the album, you can put it back in its sleeve, or not. Or you take it out again and experience it all over. This musicality, this structure, was confirmed by the abstracted segues between the film’s episodes that sounded like a scratchy record, albeit blurred through half-shut eyes. At first, I wasn’t sure what this was but now understood it as the necessary break, if anticipation, of the next song.

Ellen Burstyn.  Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Media.
Some characters enter the film’s narrative for a short period of time while others—allegiant to the film’s structure as a record album—come into being with songs later on. Certain characters, such as Jon Hamm’s Will, unfold in purpose and meaning. Will is a character who comes in with one function then opens up in many different ways.

As Helen, a widow whose house has burnt down to the ground, Ellen Burstyn delivers simple lines strangled with emotion as she ponders the moment in which we all might conceivably find ourselves: of what to save from a burning building? Given less than a minute before she is forcibly removed from the house by policemen, Helen chooses her husband’s autographed softball, not because it meant anything to her, but because it meant so much to him, and it was the meaning he had ascribed to it that announced itself as the meaning she wanted to preserve, even though afterwards it means little to her. She sells it to Will who trafficks in the marketability of such things. Helen’s story empties into Will’s when she travels to Las Vegas to meet him.

The movie as all about endings and beginnings, Pellington explained. You can’t have a beginning without an end. But this wasn’t something he had to direct his actors to understand. When filming the scene where Ellen and Jon’s characters meet for the first time, his job was to step back and just let great artists do their thing.

Due to budgetary and time restraints, Hamm added, there wasn’t much time for he and Burstyn, or any of the actors for that matter, to workshop and rehearse. When he and Pellington first shared a restaurant booth in L.A. to discuss the possibility of making the movie, they just rambled about memory, loss, grief, things they had already experienced in their relatively young lives. There was a working script that Pellington hadn’t yet run by Perry that expressed a progression of ideas about grief, about how people process grief, and how it’s different to lose a house than it is to lose a parent or a child, to lose a spouse against losing a physical thing that may have had emotional resonance for a spouse.

As Donna, Catherine Keener’s scenes towards the end of the film compound the difficulty she is having getting rid of her parents’ things with intensified loss. To film all of that in one day was hard and, for Hamm, complicated because Keener looked exactly like his half-sister. As actors, it was a trying sequence of events to get through, all the more for having already touched their lives and, eventually, being something each of us has to deal with.

Asked if making a movie like Nostalgia changed his life and if he now finds more meaning in objects than before, Hamm paused momentarily and then smiled, “No. The importance of objects is lost on me. What this film actually does to me as a person rather than as an actor playing a role is that it gives me so much more perspective on other people’s pain. The ability to look at someone and not just judge them for whatever they might be going through that moment or that day and understand that there’s a root cause for a lot of the trouble we find ourselves in is, I think, an important part of being a highly functional human being. A lot of time it’s easy to dismiss people who are going through stuff without really taking a minute and understanding that that’s coming from something. To reach out and connect on a human level and try to appreciate at least—you might not be able to help in the moment—but, just the act of connecting with another person and basically saying, ‘I understand’ is incredibly therapeutic.”

Though he and his half-sister have both lost each of their parents, Hamm detailed, life goes on. “When something tragic happens to someone you care about,” he added, “all you can do is say, ‘I’m here. Take my hand, if you want. Don’t, if you don’t. But I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.’ That’s what families do. That’s what friends do. It’s certainly what parents do. That’s a major theme of this film.”

Distributed by Bleeker Street Media, Nostalgia opens in select theaters in San Francisco on Friday, February 23.

 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

DOUBLE LOVER (L’AMANT DOUBLE, 2017)

Don't you know that I can tell 
Whenever I look at you 
That you think that I'm untrue 
'Cause I say that I love two? 
But I really really do 
'Cause you're a split personality (personality) 
And in reality (reality) 
Both of them are you baby (they both are you) 
Well, I've got two lovers and I ain't ashamed 
Two lovers, and I love them both the same.—Mary Wells, “Two Lovers”

In a perverse stroke of humor, François Ozon’s Double Lover (L'amant double, 2017) opened theatrically on Valentines Day and—not having read any reviews—I presumed it was going to be a frothy if sexy French love story. Little did I know it would be a French extremist psychosexual thriller comparable to the horror flicks with which I frequently frighten myself. But as psychosexual thrillers go, Ozon’s Double Lover makes 40 Shades of Grey look like white-on-white mother’s milk. And with an increasingly provocative “me too” climate of recriminatory perspectives, Double Lover seems even more subversive and transgressive than it admittedly already is.

From the onset the viewer is incriminated—seduced?—by Chloé’s (Marine Vacth’s) direct address while she is having her long tresses mercilessly shortened. Instantly, we know she is in a state of transformation and we are to bear witness. Her “cat ate the canary” half-smile seems to ask, “Don’t you want to bear witness? Aren’t you curious to know how I’m going to change?” Is she, for starters, a young woman fashioning herself into a young man? Arguably, the film insists on being mesmeric, manipulating the viewer through the self-hypnosis of expectation.

Chloé suffers from a continuous and mysterious stomach ailment and sets an appointment to visit analyst Paul Meyer (Jérémie Renier) who might “cure” her, succumbing to the feigned conceit that the understandings lured from psychoanalysis might constitute a cure. Philippe Rombi’s score—evoking Bernard Herrmann’s obsessive leitmotifs for Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Marnie—accompany Chloé’s ascent up a spiraling staircase that feels, at the same time, as if we are whorling into her psyche. Within her first analytic session, Chloé aligns the ache in her stomach with the feeling she gets when judged by her mother. Marnie, especially, lends precedent as it’s not long before analyst and analysand fall in love and into bed, psychoanalysis melding with the “applied techniques” of sex therapy to melt the frigidity of our pretty doe-eyed Chloé who, true to common practice, lies to seduce. Chloé’s frigidity surfaces as her main symptom and points to deeper, repressed motivations, enough so to quote William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.”

Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse has a field day texturing the film’s mise en scène with doublings, twinnings, mirrorings, replications, reflections, inversions, refractions; the deflections of shiny surfaces that steer the film’s tense narrative traction and fuel spectatorial voyeurism. Often the camera captures bodies in action duplicated in mirrors and—as much as this reveals by way of angles of intention—it likewise tantalizes for not revealing enough; for supplying a surfeit of visual surface that, though ample and naked, remains impenetrable and inscrutable.

To further this barrage of doubled images, Ozon peppers the plot of his twisted case study with two cats—in some circles, a psychological shorthand for split personalities—and introduces Danton, a tortoiseshell cat who is a rarity for being male. We learn that most tortoiseshells are female with two colors, but 1% are male with three colors (Danton=Three Muskateers?). Male tortoiseshell cats are a “genetic eccentricity” that start out as twins in utero but end up as one when the dominant twin “absorbs” the weaker. This “trisomy of the chromosome” is interpreted as parasitic or cannibalistic, and might be extended to the premise of what happens to a perception of reality when it encounters a more dominant fantasy of reality?

Of course, Ozon is not content to leave scientific fact alone. He introduces a gift in a jewel box that is, at first, a brooch in the shape of a cat, then later the pumping heart of a cat. On whose lapel this jeweled brooch ends up reveals all!

One never quite knows if the fantasies projected on the screen are indicative of Chloe’s psyche—fractured fantasies in service to her characterization—or more decidely auteurial, characterizing the filmmaker’s narrative intent. One thing is for sure: there’s never a dull moment as Ozon startles the viewer again and again—right to the final image—inducing significant, if sensorial, headscratching.

 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

DIVERGE (2016)

Following a year long festival tour including awards at Lund International, Julien Dubuque International, Tallgrass, and the Barbados Independent Film Festivals, Gravitas Ventures has acquired worldwide rights to James Morrison's feature directorial debut, the independent science fiction thriller Diverge, now available on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.

As synopsized by Gravitas Ventures: “In the aftermath of a mysterious pandemic that’s turned cities into wastelands, a man desperately searches for a way to cure his ailing wife as she battles a deadly virus. When he is captured by a cryptic stranger, he is offered the chance to save not only his wife but the world. Equal parts science fiction and morality tale, Diverge tells the story of how the choices of one can have dire consequences for all.”

If chance is our fate, then the choices we make determine our destiny. This all-too-human scenario has concerned such noted poets as Robert Frost with his choice in the “yellow wood” where “two roads diverged”, no less than it has been a prime narrative device for time travel scenarios, which Diverge deftly employs. As if to honor Frost, the typography of the capital “V” in the film’s opening titles signifies the divergent path of two directions posed to the film’s protagonist, Chris Towne (Ivan Sandimore).

Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
In its wordless introductory sequence that sets the scene, Chris discovers dead animals and people while scouting the desolate salt flats outside the quarantined zones of a dystopian near-future. Impressive horizontal compositional cinematography by Darin Quan captures the bleak terrains of a dessicated world. His ailing wife Anna (Erin Cunningham) is suffering from a viral disease, detectable by a rash along her neck, that was first observed in livestock, and then spread to humankind, causing a devastating decimation.

A stranger, cryptically named “Leader” (Jamie Jackson), appears in the middle of the night with proffered supplies as barter for the warmth of a fire and human company, plus a mysterious offer, which at first Chris soundly opposes; but, which later—persuaded by grief once Anna dies—motivates him to become a reluctant accomplice assigned to return to the past to stop the virus that “was never meant to happen.”

With a well-publicized flu outbreak this year resistant to this year’s flu shot, it is becoming more and more tenable that our own human bodies and their susceptibility to viral and bacterial agents will most likely be our undoing. This is a body horror not as amplified as in the imagined fictions of David Cronenberg, but rendered poetic and thoughtfully restrained in Morrison’s vision of an imminent, if horrific, biological disaster. 

Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
A well-mounted sci-fi thriller of prescient perplexity—nodding to the plight of the homeless as a poignantly placed sociopolitical reminder that Death honors no class—Diverge is a doppelganger doublefuck and a cautionary near-future tale in a suspenseful race against split time and the split agendas of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, the Tyrell Corporation. It’s difficult not to infer a citation to Blade Runner, not only in the corporate name but in the frequent appearance of an origami crane, representing in Diverge—as in Blade Runner—the future’s uncertainty, particularly when the past intervenes.

In its encounters with the past, each time-travel narrative lays out its own rules and internal logic. In Diverge, contact with the past creates an alternate history; i.e., an alternate outcome, which complicates the capacity for choice.

This reviewer was particularly impressed with Morrison’s apt usage of mementos as the emotional markers of time. A music box plays the “Blue Danube” theme to put a child to sleep and, likewise, puts a mother to sleep when she has lost her child. A hand-hewn doll in a lifeless hand recalls the life that hand once held, and a conch shell—itself the ocean’s concretization of the whorl of time—holds the sound and memory of the ocean on the cracked silt-bed of salt flats.

Gravitas Ventures, a Red Arrow Entertainment Group company, is a leading all rights distributor of independent feature films and documentaries. Founded in 2006, Gravitas connects independent filmmakers and producers with distribution opportunities across the globe. Working with talented directors and producers, Gravitas Ventures has distributed thousands of films into over a hundred million homes in North America and over one billion homes worldwide. Recent releases include some of my favorites: Score: A Film Music Documentary, California Typewriter, and For The Love of Spock.

 

Thursday, February 08, 2018

SHADOWS IN MIND (2018)

In 1965, Sydney Pollack directed his first feature-length film The Slender Thread featuring Sidney Poitier as a college volunteer singlehandedly manning a hotline crisis center. He receives a distress call from a suicidal woman (Anne Bancroft) who has taken an overdose of barbituates. Poitier struggles to keep her on the line until her whereabouts can be traced and an emergency crew dispatched to save her.

Although Shadows in Mind (2018) is not director Mark Schwab’s first feature—he has been writing and directing films for over 25 years—it’s hard not to cite The Slender Thread when considering Schwab’s Shadows In Mind, with the issues of Pollack’s film updated to contemporary queer concerns, some 50+ years later.

For starters, Simon (Corey Jackson)—a recently trained hotline operator at a Silicon Valley LGBT crisis center—is, notably, a Black man with the same earnest desire to make a difference for his community. Whereas Poitier’s performance had the concern of the Civil Rights movement and efforts towards racial equality as topical if unstated underpinnings, Simon struggles no less in trying to be professional and taken seriously by gay men phoning into the crisis center with self-deluded definitions of what constitutes a crisis. Moreoften than not, they’re hoping to use the hotline to complain about their jobs, whine about their boyfriends, or flirt for sex chat. After his first week on the job, Simon is already beginning to lose faith in the efficacy of his position.

Until he receives a phone call from a young gay who identifies himself as Danny (Christian Gabriel), recently transplanted from a sheltered upbringing in Nebraska to a high-paying tech job in the Silicon Valley that nonetheless doesn’t allow him to afford the best the Bay Area has to offer. Just as I began to cringe that the narrative would veer towards one more entitled and self-piteous tech bro, the subject of suicide and murder is introduced into the conversation. Not only is Danny going to kill himself but he’s going to kill three other people: his boyfriend Kyle (Pano Tsaklas) and his boyfriend’s employers Lance (August Browning) and Christian (Christopher Fung). Why he’s planning to do this is, of course, the thrust of this film’s narrative, which transforms into a slow burning thriller, effectively paced, nuanced in restrained measure, and disturbingly intent on successfully building suspense.

Just as flashbacks in The Slender Thread revealed how Bancroft’s character felt abandoned by her husband (who discovers their son is not biologically his)—in essence, Bancroft is exposed as engineering a lie—so flashbacks help Simon piece together the engineered lie that has brought Danny, Kyle, Lance and Christian to their fateful denouement. As the song goes, “Your lies will find you.” What makes this lie contemporary and its betrayal searingly relevant to the film’s intended audience is its involvement with the underground pornographic subcultures of the Darknet. Shadows in Mind is a cautionary tale for unsuspecting, if naïve, gay men who use online dating sites to seek out companionship without either recognizing or acknowledging the predatorial hazards of such liaisons.

These concerns are what motivated Schwab to shape Shadows in Mind “as a psychological LGBT/Thriller tackling the issues of suicide, sex, social media (and how relationships are created from it) and online exploitation, all wrapped up in a race-against-time thriller.” Schwab has done his research. In a survey conducted as recently as 2016, 56% of gay men revealed that they used online dating apps in public, while 78% said they credit an online app with starting a conversation with a guy they otherwise wouldn’t have. Even more surprising was the statistic that 66% of those surveyed said they used online dating apps with the intention of “seeking long-term potential” and not just a fun fling. Naturally, this led Schwab to his cautionary hypothetical: what if a vulnerable, lonely young man—and Lord knows, he doesn’t necessarily have to be young—meets someone online who has specific, ulterior motives?

Just as The Slender Thread was noted for detailing how a call could be physically traced through several electro-mechanical telephone central office switches, Shadows in Mind leaps over the hurdle of the obsolescence of the telephone wire (the proverbial “slender thread”) to reconfigure the trace through email addresses and internet protocols, let alone the prurient fascination gay men have with erotic opportunity online (the proverbial “shadows in mind”).

Directing restrained performances from his handsome cast, inducing just the right mix of fantasy and prurience without cascading into the all-too-familiar softcore trappings that characterize too much of LGBT filmmaking, Shadows in Mind delivers a stern, thought-provoking warning and adds a twist that makes the lie—whose cold heart is a dark betrayal—allegiant to Bancroft’s in The Slender Thread. Whether intended or not, Shadows in Mind is a citational masterstroke.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

PFA: REVERSE ANGLE / DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (2016)—An Evening Class Question for Bill Morrison

There are some who might argue that Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) was robbed of its due Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature of the year, and I would be inclined to agree. Rarely does one view a documentary of such arousing idiosyncracy and unexpected scope.

Kino Lorber, Dawson City’s distributor, provides the context: “This meditation on cinema’s past from Decasia director Bill Morrison pieces together the bizarre true history of a long-lost collection of 533 nitrate film prints from the early 1900s. Located just south of the Arctic Circle, Dawson City was settled in 1896 and became the center of the Canadian Gold Rush that brought 100,000 prospectors to the area. It was also the final stop for a distribution chain that sent prints and newsreels to the Yukon. The films were seldom, if ever, returned. The now-famous Dawson City Collection was uncovered in 1978 when a bulldozer working its way through a parking lot dug up a horde of film cans. Morrison draws on these permafrost-protected, rare silent films and newsreels, pairing them with archival footage, interviews, historical photographs, and an enigmatic score by Sigur Rós collaborator and composer Alex Somers. Dawson City: Frozen Time depicts the unique history of this Canadian Gold Rush town by chronicling the life cycle of a singular film collection through its exile, burial, rediscovery, and salvation.”

As further synopsized in the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) program capsule: “Much of our cinema history has been lost, and so the discovery of more than five hundred reels of silent nitrate film, buried for decades under permafrost in a former Gold Rush town, could only be greeted with ‘Eureka!’ Morrison’s film is a beautiful meditation on this rare, often damaged, footage as well as a history of the corner of the Canadian Yukon where it was found. ‘In addition to being filled with as many twists and turns as a first-rate suspense thriller, Dawson City is packed with near-metaphysical intimations, both awe-inspiring and humbling’ (Glenn Kenny, New York Times).”

Dawson City is part of PFA’s probing program “Reverse Angle”, a series of films that question the function and capabilities of cinema in our daily lives and in society by interrogating the medium itself (through narratives, documentaries and experimental film) and, thereby, “finding answers that are passionate, precise, and unexpected.” By looking at lost films, Dawson City adds to our knowledge of film history and is, thus, perfectly situated in PFA’s “Reverse Angle” program. The Archive added value to its recent screening by inviting Bill Morrison to introduce the film and interact with his audience.

As relayed by Kathy Geritz in her introduction, Bill Morrison often draws on archival film material, and has almost single-handedly introduced audiences to the beauty of decaying, damaged film in films as diverse as Decasia (2002), The Miners’ Hymns (2010), and The Great Flood (2012), as well as many shorter works. One reviewer noted: “Beautiful, terrible decay somehow meshes with an innate poignancy of old film images to create an awareness of transience.”

Morrison works in a number of ways, often with composers and musicians, including Richard Einhorn, Michael Gordon, Dave Douglas, John Adams, Philip Glass and, close to home, the Kronos Quartet. A number of his filmic presentations have been accompanied by live music, some inside cinemas, some inside music theaters, sometimes in music halls and other spaces.

Morrison has also created film installations and—unusual among filmmakers who fall within the experimental film tradition—he largely makes work as commissions. Some of his films have been called “trance films” and, in fact, his company is called Hypnotic Pictures. He’s also been called an alchemist.

Some of his works examine historical moments, such as WWI or the Mississippi River delta floods of the 1920s, while some of his films overtly explore film history, such as Dawson City: Frozen Time and his earlier The Film of Her (1997), which looked at paper prints. Of course, Decasia looked at nitrate damage and his other works have looked at archival collections or specific films. In his case, the historical examination and research is done through the making of the film, which is a wonderful way to conduct such explorations. Dawson City might be deemed the most “documentary” of his films. It works with damaged films in an unusual way to provide its history.

Low-key and wry in his introduction, Morrison expressed feeling well-embraced by the East Bay and found it unusual to be involved in a “Spring” series in January. Having not been to the PFA in several years, he commented that it “looked different” than two venues back. He promised to have “more jokes” during the Q&A.

* * * 

Photo: © Lisa Predko; Assistants: Jacqueline Ayala, Tom Michas;
Retouching: Tom Michas
Michael Guillén: My question follows on Kathy Geritz’s earlier description of Dawson City as a “trance film”, which registered specifically for me in the montages where you aligned similar actions; for example, in the sequence where the women were turning around in place, shifting from an ethnographic image of an African woman to that of a seemingly upper class white woman and onward. I found that aligned discrepancy hypnotic and it struck me as an “aha” moment or, more appropriately, a “Eureka!” moment. Can you relate any particular “aha” moments that occurred for you during the compilation of this film as you were sifting through all this discovered material? 

Bill Morrison: First of all, the tropes of silent film are often well-defined, so that a woman was often asked to spin. A lot of the narratives were advanced by listening at the door so that a sound card could say what they were hearing, or as a letter was being read. As I sifted through almost 400 titles of film, and as these moments recur over and over again, as sort of a joke to myself I was keeping a list (or “bins”) where these things occur and those became sequences; really just for fun or as a way to organize the imagery, but then—as they advanced—as a narrative device. The women listening at the door were, in my mind, the films rummaging through the library without anything left to do and left to their own devices.

There’s also the sequence of brutality or harassment of women, which made this a very timely film in the making of these Hollywood moguls and the studios that some of them found and lost. I had any number of bins: baseball—elephants caught my fancy—and that was just a way of trying to get through all this footage and finding light stuff, which found its way into the narrative.

 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

SF INDIEFEST—STUCK (2017)

If only riding the MUNI underground would be as entertaining as Michael Berry's Stuck (2017), boasting its Bay Area premiere as the opening night entry for San Francisco IndieFest’s 20th edition. Perhaps the new seating arrangements on the new line of MUNI streetcars will afford a stage for same? Stuck, adapted from a musical play by Riley Thomas, concerns six strangers who get stuck on a New York City subway together and change each others lives in unexpected ways.

“Somebody’s son” Lloyd (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito) provides the framing narrator whose homelessness immediately draws projected shadow from others on the subway train. Everyone characterizes him as crazy but Lloyd knows that each and every other person on the train is harboring some crazy self as well, but understands he will always be the bogeyman that people fear in the dark (the a capella sequence staging same is one of the film’s best numbers). Parallels are drawn early on, however, between Lloyd and Roman (Omar Chaparro), the anxious Latino who boards the train with a “bad case of rude”, already late for one of three jobs he’s taken on to support his struggling family. Both sit at the ends of the train. Both are avoided by the other passengers. Both remove and change their shoes in public. Roman’s opening number is a notable Spanish entry that underscores the plight of a loving father who has to choose between seeing his family and feeding his family. No subtitles are provided for this tune because, as Lloyd so sagely advises, sometimes you have to stop listening with your ears and listen, instead, with your heart.

Veteran Amy Madigan gives voice to Sue, the bleeding heart liberal whose well-meaning intentions—along with the recent loss of her (presumably gay) son to (presumably) AIDS—strangles her voice, such that everything she says comes off as “white woman bullshit”; nothing she says comes out right until she can sing it through with heartfelt articulation.  As a mother who has lost her son, Sue can intuit that Eve (Ashanti) is a young black woman who is feeling compelled to make a decision she may later regret.

The other story woven into this fanciful scenario involves Alicia (Arden Cho), a young Korean woman who has her reasons for not wanting to be “seen” by the nebbish artist Caleb (Gerard Canonico) who pursues her because he wants to draw her for his comic book about a handicapped superhero. I found their story the most compelling and satisfying for touching upon the bristling edge of a "me too" feminism and the plight of young men who need to make their intentions well-known.

Stuck is, in effect, a microcosmic parable of how “we’re all bozos on this bus” or, more relevantly, how we are all caught in a culture of received biases and entitled defenses. It is literally a cornucopia of social issues served on a musical platter that deftly avoids being trite by staging a fantasy that is much more complex than its simplicity belies. That’s not going to sit well with embittered urban cynics; but, for anyone who harbors a touch of hope in humanity, the film will be a song sung true.

 
STUCK - an original contemporary musical film TRAILER from 1027 Productions on Vimeo.

Friday, January 26, 2018

THE INSULT (2017)—The Evening Class Interview With Ziad Doueiri

The Insult (2017), directed by Ziad Doueiri and co-written by Doueiri and Joelle Touma, screened in the main competition section of the 74th Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor for Kamel El Basha’s performance as Yasser Abdallah Salameh, a Palestinian construction foreman who comes into conflict with Lebanese Christian Phalanges Party supporter Tony Hannah (Adel Karam) over an illegal drainpipe. This minor incident becomes blown out of proportion. They face off in court and the media circus surrounding their trial opens festering wounds and escalates a social explosion in an already divided Lebanon. As synopsized at IMDb: “The two adversaries are forced to reconsider their values and beliefs as revelations of trauma complicate their understanding of one another.”

Despite a controversial effort by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement to ban the film in Lebanon, The Insult was selected as the Lebanese entry for the Best Foreign Language Film and was eventually shortlisted, then nominated, for an Oscar at the upcoming 90th Academy Awards.

The Insult’s robust festival run (the film was an official selection at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2017 Telluride Film Festival) eventually led it to being programmed into the World Cinema sidebar of the 40th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) where I caught the film and was stunned by its powerful empathy. As noted in her program capsule for MVFF, colleague Frako Loden notes: “This intelligent, politically charged drama is a thoughtful parable of the unrepaired schisms and unhealed wounds of history that continue to rupture in everyday life.”

Born in Beirut in 1963, Ziad Doueiri left Lebanon at the age of 20 during the Lebanese Civil War to study in the U.S., later graduating from San Diego State University with a film degree. Working in Los Angeles, he cut his teeth as a filmmaker working with Quentin Tarantino as a camera assistant on the films Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), From Dusk Til Dawn (1996) and Jackie Brown (1997). In 1998, Doueiri wrote and directed his first feature film in his native Lebanon, the romantic comedy-drama West Beirut, which earned the François Chalais Award at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, the International Critic’s Award at the Toronto Film Festival, the Grand Jury Award at the Taipei Film Festival and the Audience Award in Brussels, among other honors. He followed that up with the coming-of-age drama-romance Lila Says (2004), which won Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Film at the Gijon Film Festival in Spain, as well as the Grand Jury Award at Italy’s Verona Film Festival. Doueiri’s next feature was the internationally acclaimed drama The Attack (2012), which won a Special Mention at the San Sebastian International Film Festival prior to being acquired by Cohen Media for distribution in the U.S.  His television credits include directing Sleeper Cell for the Showtime Network in 2006 and eight episodes of the French TV crime series Baron Noir (2016) for Canal+.

My thanks to Karen Larsen and Vince Johnson of Larsen Associates for arranging time for me to sit down with Doueiri to discuss his remarkable film.  Thanks also to Doueiri for granting permission to use some of his comments from a public screening in San Francisco.  Photo credits for stills from the film are due to Cohen Media.

Warning: This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!

* * * 

Photo: Andrea Chase.
Michael Guillén: I'm a person who very much believes in a psychological approach to conflict resolution and your films reveal a facility to present in narrative form interpersonal conflicts that are actually intrapsychic conflicts at play within the individual. 

Ziad Doueiri: This is true.

Guillén: In other words, you present internalized psychological conflicts that are being acted out interactively between individuals. I have to commend you on that. 

Doueiri: Thank you.

Guillén: That facility pulls the viewer into a position where they have to ask themselves: "If it were me, would I have been insulted? Would I have reacted that way?" Nowadays there are many documentarians profiling issues in the Mideast, country by country, who have chosen the documentary format as the means to focus on these conflicts. Why do you feel that the narrative form and the psychological approach accomplishes what you want to do? 

Doueiri: Because it is universal. When I was young, I witnessed civil war, which was harsh at times. Not all the time, but sometimes you're exposed to certain situations that are hurtful and unjust. Even when I was very young—12, 13, 14, 15—I would be stopped at a checkpoint. My Mom was involved in the military. She was involved with a left wing radical political group and I was exposed to certain things and I would ask, "Why is this happening? It's not fair!" It's so basic. There's no analysis to it. I was very affected by these moments. I felt a lot of anger. I felt we could solve it. And all of this when I was very young. When you're exposed to death at such a young age, it marks you for life.

I've developed an act of being able to persuade people, maybe because in my teenage years I was skinny and had a lot of acne and dressed bad. I had to find a way to survive. I was not accepted in high school. I was not good in high school. I didn't have a good look. All of these things make you develop or else you succumb to these complexes. You either succumb or develop an instinct to survive. Persuasion, the ability to sit down and convince people, became a survival tactic. I swear I'm not making an intellectual analysis. I'm being so practical with it. I can track it back now to that time even though I didn't understand it then; but, my survival tactic was to be able to convince people. Convincing means reaching into your adversary, your opponent, and trying to touch upon his resistant point.

Look, I'm being transparent with you. If you push the right button, you can disarm people. I have disarmed people. I've been in difficult situations where I've disarmed people: at checkpoints, under arrest in Israel. It's something that you don't intellectually work on; you instinctively work on it. But you can get yourself in trouble too. You have to be careful. It's not that simple, y'know? But I've always had the way—I don't want to say the talent; that would be pretentious—but I have the talent to disarm my opponent. I've done it. I've tested it. I have failed several times, but there are times where I have succeeded.

In terms of ideas, in terms of feelings, it's there in The Insult; but, in terms of the negotiator. I have to negotiate. I have to be a psychologist. You've used the word that I use all the time. When you're a director, 80% of your work is psychology, whether in writing, convincing your audience or dealing with the actors. You have to deal with the actors in a certain way. Everybody has their own method. You have to be flexible and in tune without losing what you want to say and you're going to have to convince them to do what you want.

The Insult is the result of many things. Not just this aura of the author and my telling you that to be a filmmaker you have to be a bit of a psychologist; but, then there's the influence of your upbringing. I've lived in wars. I moved to America where I studied and worked for 18 years. It's so fundamental to The Insult, because in America you learn how to extract yourself. In America, if you bump into someone you say, "I'm sorry, please accept my apology." "No problem." In the Mideast, people don't apologize. They think it's lowering yourself. They might bring you a present or they might find a way, but they don't yet have the capacity to have self-therapy.

Having grown up in America, having lived here, studied, worked for 18 years—intense formative years—allowed me to interject some of my American side into the screenplay. The court system that you see in the film is not a Lebanese court. That's not how it happens. It's very American. What me and my co-writer and ex-wife Joelle Touma wrote regarding the tribunal scenes (Joelle also co-wrote The Attack [2012] with me), is not wrong in Lebanon, it's correct—my Mom is a lawyer and was our legal consultant, three of my uncles are judges in the Supreme Court, they looked at the script and they said, "Yes, this is how it works"—but, it doesn't happen that way. What I did is not false; it's just not common. For example, a lawyer doesn't stand and walk back and forth as in the film; that's an American thing. Do you understand?

Every time people ask me, I try to explain how The Insult came to exist. It's a huge combination of my upbringing, my life in the United States, American films, courtroom drama, the quest for justice, all these things. I'm a total mix of East and West.

Guillén: Do you believe that's what makes The Insult so accessible? It's an accessible film. 

Doueiri: It should be.

Guillén: Unpack for me a bit this mix of factors, this combination, that led to the conception and execution of making The Insult, which strikes me as an empathetic—and as I said, accessible—film that is fair to all sides. In such polarized times as we live in with every country of the world seemingly dealing with these polarizations—whether it’s the Christian Right Wing at odds with Liberal Progressives—The Insult (again, empathetically) mines the complexities of your characters. Can you talk a little bit about your intentions with pursuing this empathy and how it factored into the development of your characters? 

Doueiri: When we sat down to write the film, Joelle and I didn’t have a specific message we wanted to sell. If you do that, the film will look contrived. When we sat down to write, we didn’t say, “Ah, we want to make social changes” because, believe me, if you do that the film will look superficial. The Insult came about because a few years ago I was watering my plants in Beirut, the water fell on one of the workers, and he called me a “fucking prick.” I thought, “Why is he calling me a prick?” and then I realized he had a Palestinian accent. Over the years I have developed an incredible talent for humiliating people and said the phrase we used in the film. Joelle said, “How can you say that to a Palestinian?!”

I want you to understand that, just prior to this incident, the BDS had boycotted my film The Attack, and I was still prejudiced. The BDS movement is a political movement that has taken it upon itself to boycott Israel because, they say, they want to force Israel to abide by international law. Every academic and cultural exchange is negotiated through the BDS. If Elton John wants to perform in Israel, BDS will try to convince him not to. If there’s an exchange of students, they’ll try to get in the way. They’re very powerful in England. One of their most adamant supporters is Ken Loach and Roger Waters (the guy from Pink Floyd); they’re part of this.

When we did The Attack, I didn’t hide that—despite being a Lebanese citizen—I set foot in Israel to film it. I admitted that I went to Israel and worked with a remarkable crew. The BDS said that meant I was a Zionist and that I wanted to normalize relations with Israel. I said, “Don’t mix politics with work.” They made a mountain out of a molehill and launched a nasty campaign that convinced 22 countries in the Arab world to boycott The Attack, which was never shown in the Middle East. I swear to you it took me about a year to get over that and I was so upset that entire time. The Insult is a response to their actions. I felt the BDS was not being fair and were acting like fascists. If you want to fight politicians, fight politicians. Don’t attack the Israeli and Lebanese artists who try to build bridges. They accused me of crossing borders and said I should not have crossed borders. But this is what filmmakers do as a living: they cross borders.

Last month they tried to start another campaign against The Insult in Beirut but it did not work. We tried to get it nominated for the Oscars and the BDS mounted another campaign that also did not work. Then I was arrested by a military tribunal, but was acquitted. The only play that the BDS tried and succeeded at was that they stopped the film from being shown in Ramallah. But just two days prior to that, The Insult won the Best Actor prize for Kamel El Basha at the Venice Film Festival. Kamel played the Palestinian character Yasser. That’s pretty good, no? We tried to share that prize with the Palestinians but the boycott said no. I think the BDS is not doing themselves a favor at all.

The watering incident that I had with the workers was what triggered the writing of The Insult. When I went down to the guy, I apologized. He was so hurt. He was a man in his fifties and was wearing yellow glasses—that’s why Yasser in The Insult is wearing yellow glasses—and I said, “I’m sorry. I apologize. I shouldn’t have said what I said.” But he was so hurt, he didn’t answer. So I went to his boss down the street and I said, “Look, I bought a box of chocolates. I’m sorry, I insulted one of your workers.” When he heard the story of what happened, the manager of this construction company said, “I know this guy. He has a loud mouth. And I want to fire him.” I said, “Look, man, don’t do that. I don’t want him to get fired. It was just a verbal argument. It’s no big deal.” So suddenly I was in defense of this worker and the problem resolved.

I came back home and I said, “What if such an insignificant stupid incident doesn’t stop there but keeps going and gets complicated, starts gaining bigger proportions, and becomes more emotional?” You know that in the Middle East when you talk about the Palestinian issue or the Christian issue, things get passionate? So this is how the idea for The Insult started.

The interesting part is that Joelle comes from a little village in Lebanon called Bikfaya, a tiny village 25 minutes up from Beirut. Bikfaya is the birthplace of the Christian movement—Bachir Gemayel we’re talking about—and Joelle’s mom was very good friends with Bachir Gemayel. Gemayel started the party that in the film we called the “Christian Party” in the English subtitles, but it’s not called the Christian Party in Lebanon; it’s called the Lebanese Forces. But if we called it the Lebanese Forces in the subtitles, you would have confused it with the Lebanese army, which it’s not; it’s just a political party called Lebanese Forces. However, we called it the Christian Party because all the members of that party are Christian. It’s a secular Christian party.

Anyways, Joelle grew up in Bikfaya in a right wing family who back in the ‘70s and ‘80s stood for the Lebanese Forces who fought against the Palestinian presence in Lebanon in such a vicious way. In fact, the massacres of Sabra and Shatila were executed by members of the Lebanese Forces. Joelle grew up in that world. She grew up extremely hostile to the Palestinians. I, on the other hand, grew up in a progressive, Left wing, pro-Palestinian family.

When we started writing scenes for The Insult, I proposed to Joelle: “How about you write the scene where the female lawyer is defending the Palestinian and I write the scene where her father is defending the Christian?” We crossed paths to see how it would work. This is how we did it.

Of course, when I say I came from a certain family, I have evolved. I emigrated to the United States and have been living here for 18 years. Even my view of the whole conflict has changed. To me, the Christian Party was a fascist party. The Insult is the natural progression from The Attack. The Attack was my questioning of my relationship viz a viz Israel. I went and I shot it in Israel because I wanted to see what was their perspective, their discourse, their narrative. Did they even have a narrative? I grew up thinking the Israelis didn’t have a narrative. I also grew up thinking the Christians didn’t have a perspective. So, naturally, you want to embark. I grew up knowing this; now I wanted to see the other side. It’s part of an inner voyage that you do. You’re always curious about what you don’t know. I believe also when you sit down with your adversary face to face, a lot of the walls come down. For me at least.

Guillén: Often with films addressing such polarized issues, you're either asked to choose a side or to at least preferentially understand one side over the other. The Insult is so fair, however, which is what moved me. Your characters are human above all… 

Doueiri: That's right. They could be American. They could be white and black.

Guillén: As a frank, outspoken person, I'm always getting in trouble for insulting people when I don't mean to. I related to how this incident got out of control based upon Yasser’s initial insult and Tony’s angered response. And I’m intrigued by this term that has shown up in both The Attack and The Insult of “turning the page.” Could you expand on your usage of that term? Where it comes from? 

Doueiri: The Mideast Civil War ended abruptly in 1990. The war was so bloody and the leaders from both sides met in a city and decided, “That’s it. It’s over.” They put a very quick patch on it, which was like when someone is bleeding hard and you apply a tourniquet to immediately stop the bleeding. Sometimes to end a very bloody conflict you need a very quick solution because you have to stop it right away. The problem in Lebanon was that—when the war stopped—they solved it very quickly but they didn’t have long-term discussions. When I go back to Lebanon now, when I sit down and talk to people, it doesn’t take much to scratch the surface to find that there is still a lot of resentment and misunderstanding on both sides. It happens a lot.

When the wife says, “You have to turn the page”, it’s to heal. That’s the healing process. When the film was shown in Valladolid, Spain a lot of people came out to see it. The Spanish distributor told me to expect being asked my thoughts about Catalonian politics. I had no idea!! I’d heard they had some problems but I had no idea what they were. It turns out that The Insult spoke to the Spaniards so much because—though the Civil War in Spain ended in 1975 after the death of Franco and the country came back to life—they also did not have long term discussions about what had happened and are today paying the price for it. The division that’s within Spanish society today would never have happened if they had a long-term conversation. The concept of “turning the page” is not to brush what has happened under the bed; it’s the opposite. It’s to heal what has happened.

But what you’re asking is a complex, anthropological, socio-political question; and, believe me as I said, when I sat down with Joelle to write the script for The Insult, we were not talking about those messages. Bizarrely!! It wasn’t like we said, “Okay, we’re going to convey to a Lebanese or an American or a French audience that we need to talk about reconciliation.” Believe me, we didn’t do that. I think that would have felt artificial. We believed that the story of the film was about a character who is seeking justice. He starts as a bit of a thug, muscled, rude, so how is he going to evolve? How is he going to get from Point A to Point B by the end of the movie? Tony is a guy who believes in justice and who needs to get his rights in a legitimate way. I write resumes for each of the characters and what I wrote for Tony was that—by seeking this lawsuit and the tribunal—he finds a deeper truth. Yasser, the Palestinian, is the guy who doesn’t believe in justice. Even when he’s winning, he doesn’t believe in it. And by the end of the film he comes to terms with the idea that there is an individual justice. Finally, he’s acquitted. So these are the characters’ arcs. As a screenwriter, you think about where your characters start and where they end. You don’t think about social messages, I swear. It’s too much of a burden to ask the filmmaker to have a big social message.

Guillén: I understand that “turning the page” is meant to lead to healing, but can also see just how difficult it is to do so and just how long of a conversation needs to be had. I've been watching a lot of documentaries on the Mideast along with reviewing your films and both in your previous film The Attack and in The Insult it's made very clear that the positions of your characters are based upon atrocities at specific massacres that have been witnessed: Jenin in The Attack and Damour in The Insult.

Is something comparable happening in the United States? The other day in conversation with Evgeny Afineesky, the director of Winter of Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) and Cries From Syria (2017), he suggested that the United States is in a civil war. "Do you not recognize that you are in a civil war?” he pointed out to me. “There have been 317 mass shootings in the United States this year alone. That's a civil war." If Evgeny is correct and that's the case, why can't we as American people, like the characters in your films, look back at the mass shooting in Las Vegas and actually act out or be angry enough to do anything? Somehow, instead, these mass shootings pile up and keep deflecting off. Do you have an outsider’s perspective on that?

Doueiri: It keeps deflecting off in the United States because things have not yet gotten to a bad enough state. Seriously. I lived in Beirut and have seen with my own eyes when things get really bad. You know, revolutions don't just happen on a whim. You understand? The Rodney King incident created riots in L.A. and it was important, it was serious, but it didn't get to the point of a civil war, not yet. The elements have not been there yet to create a civil war. It's a pre-Civil War maybe, or a symbolic Civil War, or an ideological Civil War, but it's not yet affecting food on your table. It's not there yet. To have a war, it takes a lot. Even in the Middle East where things can get out of hand so quickly—the keg can explode so quickly—it's still not that easy for it to happen. Americans are maybe very upset today because of the Trump administration, the radicalism, whatever; but, let's be clear: a civil war, my friend, is when there are tanks on the street and people go hide in shelters. I lived it from 1975 to 1983. I lived it every day. The U.S. is still a stable country. Let's not compare Syria, Iraq, Yemen to what's going on now in the U.S. Do you agree?

Guillén: I do agree; but, I am concerned by what appears to me as a lack of attention or, more accurately, a lack of action regarding this growing problem and I'm curious what it will take to galvanize the American public into action?


Having talked to several documentarians who have been going into war zones to report from the front and present to Americans how to be vigilant and aware, let alone educated, to even know where Syria is, to even know what the capital of Lebanon is, to care, things that you would think would be obvious but are somehow not obvious to us, y'know? How do you, like the documentarians going into war zones, negotiate fear? What I found notable and enjoyed about West Beirut (1998), which I watched the other day, was the lack of fear. Were you that kid? 

Doueiri: Yeah.

Guillén: The whole thing about wanting to get the 8mm film developed was about you wanting to get 8mm film developed? 

Doueiri: That's right.

Guillén: So you had an early love for film? 

Doueiri: Yes.

Guillén: Was that because you had hands on an 8mm camera? 

Doueiri: I didn't have my hands on an 8mm camera until I moved to the United States and bought one. But I took that desire and injected it into West Beirut. West Beirut is a fiction. It's not a documentary. In filmmaking, you talk with temporality. An event that happens in the future, you think, "What if it happens in my past?" And vice versa. You have the freedom to choose. But the idea was to give those characters in West Beirut a want. They want to do something. And by wanting to go from point A to point B, to develop the 8mm film, they discover life. That's the film. That's what it is. There was a checkpoint that goes up overnight and those characters suddenly discover they can't cross that checkpoint. They look past the checkpoint and can see the Kodak sign and that the lab is there and they want to develop the film of that beautiful hot chick that they were filming behind the door and now they want to look at it and in order to do that they have to develop the film and what is their first obstacle? They can't cross that border. By trying to go back and forth, they discover the prostitute, the brothel, and secretly they discover themselves. Their dramatic want is wanting to develop the film; their dramatic need is wanting to grow up. The dramatic want of Tony in The Insult is to win the case. His dramatic need is to heal because of that past wound. That's it.

Guillén: What I loved about the lead character Tarek in West Beirut (played by your brother Rami Doueiri) is he didn't seem to have any fear. Instead, he faced all obstacles with a smart aleck humor. Recently, you were arrested and brought before a military tribunal. Were you not afraid? Did this not frighten you? Or were you just angry? 

Doueiri: I was much more angry than afraid, but I have to admit that at one point I was scared. I was scared because I did not know where this would lead. The accusation was not drugs, money laundering, sexual harassment. The accusation when I was detained in Lebanon was the worst accusation possible.

Guillén: Sedition? 

Doueiri: No. Collaboration with Israel. That label, my friend, is like someone coming to you in America and saying, "You're a bigot. You're a racist." I could be accused of everything. If I say, "You know what? You're a Negro hater." Or if I go to a French guy and I say, "You're an anti-Semitic. You're a collaborator with the Nazis." These are big things. These are not simple things. By law in Lebanon it is considered treason to go to Israel. I had committed treason, which meant ten years in jail hard labor.

Guillén: So how were you able to negotiate out of that ten-year sentence? 

Doueiri: That's a great question. I was not allowed a lawyer when I appeared before the military judge. It was not a civil tribunal, it was a military tribunal, because it was considered a national security matter. The judge who was trying my case is the top judge dealing with two cases: collaboration with Israel and ISIS. That's his specialty. I appeared in front of this judge, his name is Saqr Saqr. He's very well-known in Lebanon, very mediatized, the toughest guy. When he looked at the accusation against me of collaboration with Israel, there was no loophole. I was 100% in violation of that law. But Saqr Saqr did not want to arrest me. He's smart. He saw that I was a filmmaker. It was not like I had collaborated with the enemy. I had gone to Israel and made a film in 2011. So he found the loophole. Statute of limitations!! Too much time had passed. That's how I was acquitted.

So was I afraid? Yes, a bit. But I knew by the end of the day that I would be let out, maybe in a month, maybe two weeks, because I had U.S. citizenship, and I knew also that on the day I was arrested the Lebanese army was waging an incredible battle against the ISIS group in Lebanon with the help of the American army. Was the Lebanese army going to arrest an American citizen while the U.S. was sending them weapons? I was sitting in the detention room thinking about that and I told myself, "Don't worry. The Lebanese government is not going to arrest a Lebanese citizen who went and shot a film in Israel and risk not getting American military supplies.” The American army was giving the Lebanese government American intelligence, drones, photographs, and they won the battle against ISIS. ISIS was completely kicked out of Lebanon. It would be an embarrassment to the Lebanese government for them to arrest a Lebanese citizen with dual American citizenship. These were the justifications I used to calm myself down while I was detained.

But I was afraid for one thing more than anything else: that they would stop The Insult, like they banned The Attack five years ago. My previous film The Attack was banned in Lebanon. I did not want to lose The Insult. I really wanted The Insult to be released in Lebanon. I didn't want them to say, "Okay, we're going to let you out of jail. You're going to be acquitted. But we won't let your film come out." I was so worried about that. So worried, really. Consequently, I was thinking, "What can we do if they stop the movie? How can we fight?" But me? I knew I was going to be released eventually.

The Lebanese government took me by huge surprise. First, they released me. Second, they released the movie. Third, they submitted it for the Oscar. That nomination for submission is an official nomination. It doesn't come from a producer. It's the State that does it. I have hope sometimes. In the midst of a dung heap of terror in the Middle East, the shit hole that's called the Middle East, there's a glimmer of light, I swear. So to answer your question, I was not afraid. But you have to be afraid too. 

Guillén: You have to be afraid that the future might not happen as the future should happen. One of the things that I loved about watching The Insult is that it gave me hope, precisely because of its psychological focus. The moment during the trial when the testimony revolved around a German crane being better than a Chinese crane and you see Tony visibly react when he realizes he and his adversary think similarly: that was a brilliant moment. For me that was like the pivotal moment on a battlefield where a battle is won. It was at that moment that I knew it was all somehow going to work out because similarities truly are more powerful than differences. 

Doueiri: That moment is when Tony begins to listen to his human side and to realize that he and Yasser share that humanity. They're both stubborn. Both are thugs. Both are macho. Both are reluctant to make the extra step to reconcile, but both are humane. Both are similar in that sense.

Guillén: There was such an interesting difference between the female responses to the original insult and the male response to the idea of apology. 

Doueiri: The choice of having four female characters in a film—Toni’s wife Shirine (Rita Hayek), Yassir’s wife Manal (Christine Choueiri), Nadine the female lawyer (Diamand Bou Abboud) and the judge (Julia Kassar)—we wanted to make sure and we believed that writing strong female characters would counterbalance the egoes of their husbands. I believe that the ailment of the Arab world today is because women are not empowered. If one woman gets to power, things might change. I really believe it.

Guillén: You mentioned that you borrowed from American tropes, such as having the attorney walking around the courtroom, which leads me to ask if you use the same crew making your films? Do you use the same cinematographer? 

Doueiri: Yes.

Guillén: Who is your cinematographer? 

Doueiri: Tommaso Fiorilli. He's a French-Italian cinematographer.

Guillén: He's someone who really knows how to use the camera to move the viewer right into the moment. There's a lot of sliding movement. 

Doueiri: We used a stedi-cam the whole time. We had to keep the film fluid.

Guillén: Can you speak to the importance of that fluidity to this courtroom drama? 

Doueiri: That's a very good question. I asked myself from the beginning, this is a heavy-dialogue shot. The court scenes are two people talking. The lawyers are talking at each other. I had nine court scenes. My biggest challenge was how to cinematically not make it just about talking heads. I learned from a previous series I did called Baron Noir that was successful in France to move the camera a lot. If you move it, you are alleviating the heaviness of dialogue. It adds something when the character is moving around. When the plaintiff is standing, when the accused is standing, and the lawyer is revolving around and the camera chases after him, it creates a dynamic in the scene. It becomes visually more interesting. It will make the dialogue more palpable. I did not want a static shot.

Guillén: I agree that the camera catches up to the character, but what interested me was how it then moved past the character to lead the action forward. The scene that made me aware of how much exposition you got rid of was the scene where Tony's wife is walking to the garage for the first time. This established the spatial relationship between their apartment and the garage, which later—when there's the accident in the garage—makes the events make sense. Nothing needed to be explained.

Doueiri: We wanted to show that Tony and his wife lived in the same neighborhood as the garage and that his neighborhood was like a shell and that his shell was broken with the arrival of this Palestinian guy. The order, the status quo, is broken at the fifth minute of the film. Everything was fine with Tony and his wife, they have a child on the way, he has a good job, he's a great mechanic, he prefers to use German over Chinese, until the knock comes on the door that says your gutter is spilling water. This is cinema structure. You establish in the first few minutes what is the life before it gets interrupted by an event and then it goes downhill from that moment. I didn't invent that technique.

Guillén: It reinforces something about which I have concerns: that something banal, something minor, can become a repressed festering splinter. This is, psychologically, exactly what we have to watch out for. 

Doueiri: We're very sensitive about words these days. People have to count a lot before they say things; but, we do say things. I'm not afraid to say what I want to say. You're the first person to tell me that the kids in West Beirut don't have fear. You have fears when a bomb falls. You have fears when there's a checkpoint and you might get arrested. But in the absolute sense of the word, I do not have fears from society at all.

Guillén: But the point of that fearlessness was, for me, to accentuate the film's subsequent beauty, because I felt West Beirut was a tender coming-of-age film that showed these young men who didn't want to let go of childhood even though, as you said, their deep need was to grow up. That final scene where the father insists that they're going to stay in Beirut and is trying to calm his wife who wants to leave by playing on his traditional instrument—which causes the boy to weep hidden behind the door—was so incredibly powerful and beautiful but couldn't have been if Tarek hadn't have been so fearless, so flippant, clinging to his child, for the duration of the film. 

Doueiri: Exactly. That's right. You have to take your character from a position from where they have to become something else. Something bigger than how they are. Like Tony in The Insult. He was a thug. But by the end he becomes a noble guy. He accepts his adversary by the exchange of a look at the end of the film.

Guillén: I want to discuss the scene where Yasser, the Palestinian, comes to Tony's garage to give Tony the opportunity to hit him, which basically is his way of balancing things out. The comments he made about how the Christians didn't suffer, can you expand on that? Was that why the village of Damour was attacked? Was it considered a privileged place? Why was that particular village targeted, is my question. 

Doueiri: Okay, we’re going to have to go a little bit into the history. The village of Damour is about 20 minutes south of Beirut; very close. Lebanon was divided at that time. You had a Christian camp and a Muslim camp. A percentage of the Muslim camp supported the Palestinians. The Christian camp were opposed to the militant and armed Palestinian group. This is what triggered the war of 1975, which started in April 1975. Damour is a Christian village surrounded by Muslim cities. It was like a thorn in their side. The Palestinian militants, the PLO, needed to travel. They were stronger than the state. They were heavily armed to the teeth. They wanted the freedom to travel anywhere they wanted within the Muslim section. The village of Damour was a Christian, mainly ring wing, group in the middle of a big Muslim ground. The Palestinians did not want that village to be there because they were causing problems, they were putting up checkpoints and stopping the free movement of Palestinians. They were a thorn in the sides of Palestinians. They needed the massacre to get rid of Damour; but, also, they went into Damour because a few weeks earlier the Christians went into a Palestinian camp and massacred many Palestinians. So the attack on Damour was an eye for an eye. There were several reasons why the Damour massacre happened.

When Yasser, towards the end of the film, comes knocking on the door of Tony’s garage and calls him to come out, and says, “You know what? You Christians think that you were the resistance and that you were defending the country, but that’s bullshit. You guys did not resist shit. You guys went on vacation in France, you went skiing in Switzerland, you eat sushi, speak French. You think you suffered. You did not suffer.” There are two things you need to understand about that scene. One, because I come from the Muslim Left camp, those words that Yasser the Palestinian used against Tony the Christian were words that I was raised with. My entire life I heard that the Christians were worthless. My Mom used to say that when the bombs fell, for the Christians they were false bombs. She said this because she didn’t know but her intent was to diminish the suffering of Christians to emphasize that we as Palestinians suffered more. People always say, “We suffer more” in order to negate the other person’s suffering. My mom fell into that victimized group who felt Palestinians suffered more than Christians.

Years later when I began to travel and went into the Christian area, I discovered that they suffered just as much as we did. The myth of Palestinian victimization that I grew up with became dismantled. I learned that, like us, Christians stood in lines to hide in shelters, they did not have bread, and the bombs that fell on their heads destroyed as much as the bombs that fell on our heads. But I didn’t know this when I was younger. I used to think, “The Christians are wealthy. The Christians speak French.” Those are the exact words I had Yasser speak. They were not fiction. They were the words I grew up with hearing all my life when I was young.

The second reason is for cinematic reasons. The Palestinian is not going to go to Tony’s garage to simply apologize to him. That would be weak. He goes to push and provoke him because he now understands Tony’s pain and uses it to get Tony to hit him. He wants to make Tony hit him so that they’re on an equal basis. “I hit you at the beginning of the film. You hit me at the end of the film. Now we can apologize and be friends.” He is, in fact, giving the Christian what the Christian secretly wanted from the very beginning. What did the Christian want? An apology! Yasser gives it to him in the end; but, he’s not going to give it to Tony at no price. He’s going to give it to him at a price.

Guillén: Yasser wants Tony to understand the power of words. 

Doueiri: That’s right. That’s the tag line on the poster, in fact. This is why we wrote The Insult. Yasser didn’t use those words just because he’s vicious. He used those words to provoke Tony in order to bring Tony to an equal basis, as if he were telling him, “You know what? You schmuck. You could have hit me from the start and solved the problem and we wouldn’t have needed to go to court. We didn’t need to bring havoc on the country.” But, had he done that in the beginning, we wouldn’t have had a movie.

Guillén: I presume using the Star of David as graffiti to mark Tony’s garage likewise speaks to this religious tension? 

Doueiri: In Lebanon—I think in the Arab world also—if you label a Lebanese or anybody in the Arab world a Zionist with the Star of David, it’s difficult to confess it. It’s the same principle as the Nazis marking the Jews. In Lebanon there is an incredible taboo about the state of Israel. It’s the worst. I could be accused of money laundering or sexual harassment and I could get away with it. But if I were to label somebody—like the BDS is doing right now—of being an Israeli sympathizer, it’s something that is so difficult to erase. It’s such a nasty label to be accused of, because it’s loaded.

In 1982, the Lebanese Christians collaborated and worked with Israel in order to get rid of the PLO at that time. That’s a historical fact. Because of this, the Christian community in Lebanon—which is prominent and powerful, it’s not weak, it’s not a minority—has been and is still stigmatized. I wanted to say, “Wait a second. Look at the other side of the coin.” It’s very complicated to explain all these things. It strikes a nerve when you see the Star of David on somebody’s wall.

Guillén: Now you’ve insisted that you went into this movie without ideological forethought, that you were not trying to stress a message to anyone, and yet I come out of your movies, The Insult no less so, with that phrase of “turning the page” ringing in my ears, as if it’s easy to turn the page when it is not easy to turn the page, particularly when you have witnessed atrocities that fester in your mind. Within the Mideast, what is then the role of film in trying to redress the almost mistaken assumption that it is easy to turn the page? 

Doueiri: Look, I’ve been asked that question many times. What is the role of art? Cinema is part of a bigger thing. I’ve always said it, I promise you, that asking a filmmaker to create social change is a lot. It’s not an easy thing to create social change. You cannot create social change just through a film or a book or a play. You need to have organization, an NGO, a Republican party administration, to create social change. Filmmakers play a very small part. That’s it. We should not have to burden filmmakers with bigger tasks. It’s too much, really. The spotlight is pointed on filmmakers because a lot of people go see movies, so the assumption is that—if a lot of people see movies in the theater—then that means a filmmaker must have a lot of influence, right? We draw a lot of people. When you get people to pay $15 to go see a movie, then that means you must have influence, right? That means we’re being overestimated. That’s what it is.

I still believe that a film’s main purpose is to be able to take your audience, your spectator who paid $10 or $15 for a ticket, and to have him dream a little bit, have him feel something, okay? That’s the best that you can hope for. If we do that, we have succeeded. Society, however, tends to have more expectations of filmmakers. Sometimes there are more expectations on filmmakers than politicians because people are disillusioned with politicians. Society wants filmmakers to help them out. That’s good that we can play a small part; but, I want you to believe me that when I sat down to write the story with Joelle, not a single time did we say, “We want to change society.”

Guillén: You can’t operate with that much of a burden? 

Doueiri: You can’t! Filmmaking is already incredibly difficult as it is.

Guillén: But as an artist, if you are true to your artistry—as I believe you are true to your artistry—you reveal truth. 

Doueiri: 100%.

Guillén: And you reveal truth that is frequently concealed. 

Doueiri: I agree.

Guillén: And that truth can have incredible power. For example, when I was talking to Evgeny Afineevsky recently, Winter of Fire, as you might know, was nominated for an Academy Award and, yes, that made Evgeny happy, he was glad about that, but what he was really happy about was when he found out that Winter of Fire was being used as a template to articulate and give direction to the popular uprising in Venezuela. In his documentary, Venezuelans saw what happened in the uprising in the Ukraine and it helped galvanize the public revolt in Venezuela. 

Doueiri: He has proof of that?

Guillén: Well, I factor in his enthusiasm as I take him for his word. But this leads me to ask you this line of questioning because, you’re absolutely right, I expect truth out of filmmakers. I don’t read newspapers anymore because I don’t trust them; I think most outlets are bought and sold and part of the machinery that manufactures consent, to quote Chomsky. I don’t watch the news on television for the same reason. But I do watch movies and I learn from them, even as I worry that my understanding of global events is belated, that I come to some kind of an understanding of a crisis that happened five years ago because a filmmaker has provided context within a filmic project by which I can finally achieve an understanding. Is this effective? I didn’t understand what was going on when it happened five years ago; but, I have to believe that even a belated awareness is important to help recognize the nefarious forces that are ongoing, that these crises are still happening, and that the real challenge a filmmaker poses is how to shorten the gap to action between a crisis and an understanding of that crisis.

Doueiri: If we want to move in that direction to see what the specific effect of The Insult has been, then first of all let’s look at the fact that—when The Insult opened on September 14 in Lebanon—it shot to number one at the box office, and still is to this day. I’ll tell you why. Simply because I told the truth. That’s it. Nobody can contest the truth. I was contested on many other things—“Why did you film in Israel? Are you collaborating with Israelis? Are you a Zionist?”—but my archenemies, the BDS movement who levied a very nasty and unfair campaign against me, could not contest the truth of the movie. They couldn’t say, “What he’s saying is wrong.” I backed myself with strong truth. 

Guillén: And this returns to my main premise: the film succeeds for being intrapsychic. 

Doueiri: For being psychological.

Guillén: Which leans into the universal, as the personal and the psychological always leans into the universal. That is, in the true definition of the word, the logic of the psyche. You’ve talked about the Catalan people of Spain relating to The Insult at a common psychological level. The Insult is important to me because it helped me understand how I cause strife, how I can say something that I know I shouldn’t say because it can cause strife, and I say it anyways. I came out of The Insult in a mode of deep inspection, where I told myself, “You have to stop saying things that cause strife. You have to monitor what you say and be careful of what you say because words matter and words can hurt.”

Doueiri: So you believe we have to be careful about what we say?

Guillén: I think we have to be articulate. I don’t think I should not say what I want to say—that’s a double negative, I know—but, I think I have to say it in a way that persuades, as you were saying earlier. I have to aim to convince, perhaps through humor. Truth is often said in jest, as the saying goes. 

Doueiri: It will pass.

Guillén: Yes. I like to use the throwaway line, where I say something just below my breath and whoever I’m at odds with will go, “What? What did you say?” But they know what I said. They heard it. But I’ve lessened the confrontation of it. They have to say it to themselves in order to repeat it. That’s a comic device that helps me express my truths. I’m not saying we should censor ourselves. Quite the opposite. But I do think we have to recognize that we live in a time where words don’t mean the same thing to different people. 

Doueiri: That’s right. You have to have some responsibility towards what you say, I agree. I’m just against censorship. I’m radical about defending freedom of expression because in Lebanon I grew up in an Arab world that was overly-censored. Naturally, I have a radical reaction to that.

Guillén: Especially with regard to self-censorship? 

Doueiri: Most of the filmmakers in Lebanon censor themselves, which to me is probably worse because you’re not letting any truth out. When you say something truthful and the government stops you, what you have said may not come out because the government has censored it, but it helps the truth come out because people know you were censored. They don’t know what the truth is you were trying to reveal, but they know it must have been something important to have upset the establishment. With self-censorship, you will never know because the truth is killed in the embryo. Most Arab artists are caught in self-censorship.

Guillén: Speak to me more about how the BDS tried to censor you. 

Doueiri: There was an article that just came out. Nick Cave wants to go perform in Israel. The BDS is mounting an incredible campaign to convince him not to go to Israel. The BDS is a very strong movement that exists in the universities, including Berkeley, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Sorbonne. They are a social group that does everything it can to boycott Israel. Their motto is to boycott Israel in order for Israel to abide by international standards. They say Israel is an occupying force and they have to do what the West did with apartheid in South Africa. The problem with them is that sometimes people get too caught up in what they do and they become fascist in their methods. 

Guillén: Or, as the diarist Anais Nin once stated it, passion becomes a narrow lens. 

Doueiri: That’s right, and instead of advocating certain things that are good, they start burning the good grass with the bad grass. That’s what they’re doing. They’re the ones who banned my movie The Attack, but at the same time they say, “We want freedom of expression for the Palestinian to break the Israeli occupation.” And then they boycott their own artists. That’s why I’m at war with them. They have stopped me twice. The BDS is who put forth the accusations through the Lebanese government. When I was arrested, I could see who filed the motion and it was the BDS, not the government. The government received the accusation and they had to investigate. The BDS are not very well known in California—in Northern California they’re pretty powerful—but, I was surprised that the audience at my recent San Francisco screening did not seem to know about the BDS.

Guillén: Yet another reason why I appreciate what you’re doing. So much information is kept from us, no less so than by self-censorship. I appreciate any filmmaker, any artist, who educates me to find the right words to express solidarity. Solidarity is the value that I think has become most weakened among the American people in recent years. It drives me crazy. 

Doueiri: Americans have changed. They didn’t use to be like that.

Guillén: I grew up in the ‘70s and, back then, solidarity meant everything

Doueiri: When did that change? Was it during the Reagan years?

Guillén: I would say so, yes. A Republican moment that has evolved into our national disgrace.