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Interviews

Making a film in Bangladesh: interview with Mostafa Sarwar Farooki

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Mostofa Sarwar Farooki is a filmmaker and producer from Bangladesh. His first international breakthrough took place in 2009 with Third Person Singular Number (Bengali: থার্ড পারসন সিঙ্গুলার নাম্বার ) featuring Nusrat Imrose Tisha in her acting debut. The film premiered at Busan International Film Festival then was presented in Europe at Rotterdam International Film Festival.
Farooki’s following feature film
Television was chosen as the Closing Film of Busan International Film Festival in 2012.
“A key exemplar of Bangladeshi new wave cinema movement” according to Variety, festival darling Farooki has just received two prizes at Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema for his film
Saturday Afternoon (Shonibar Bikel), which is banned in Bangladesh.

How did you become a filmmaker? What was your journey toward filmmaking?
I really don’t recall when it all started. I was brought up in a typical middle class neighborhood named Nakhalpara in Dhaka. People from this area have a great storytelling tradition. In my childhood, I would see hundreds of amazing storytellers in local tea stalls. They would sit there for hours telling all possible and impossible stories. In those tea stalls, they would mostly create fake stories and used to tell them in most believable ways. Some of them would tell fake stories about their rich relatives, some would tell stories about their greatness and fortune. I used to think why they lie but didn’t have the answer ready. When I grew up, I realized why they lie. They lie because sometimes lies comfort our souls. I think growing up among such amazing storytellers might have just pushed the basic human instinct of storytelling in me.
I faintly remember getting a video camera in my hand when I was in high school. It belonged to some of my relatives, I guess. Bit what I clearly remember is my dress and action. That image is planted in my mind so vividly. I was wearing a white shirt with sleeves up and trying to capture the panoramic view of the road in front of my maternal uncle’s house. At one point, one of my cousin came to see what I am doing. And he started to shoot me. I remember I gave a director-like pose with two of my hands framing something. Now I remember it was a pose which I subconsciously copied from one of Satyajit Ray’s famous photograph at work. I didn’t learn filmmaking from any school or any mentor though. I jumped into the water and learnt  swimming. In other words, I consider myself to be a lifelong student of world university of mistakes. I learn from my own mistakes.

Are there a lot of filmmakers in Bangladesh including arthouse filmmakers? Are there film schools in Bangladesh? Where do most filmmakers from Bangladesh learn about cinema and filmmaking?
There is no film school in Bangladesh. People mostly learn the craft and art of it by assisting other directors. In early eighties, there was an independent short film movement in Bangladesh. It gave birth to films like The Wheel by Morshedul Islam (Chaka), which has been included in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s favorite 50 films by the way. This movement gave birth filmmaker like Tareque Masud whose 2002 film Clay Bird was in Directors’ Fortnight. Although this movement didn’t go any further but it influenced a newer generation of filmmakers who capitalized on the evolution of digital medium and mushrooming of satellite television in Bangladesh. I actually belong to that generation. We started making short films or fiction films for television channels. Although we worked for TV, our basic intention was to practice the cinematic style of our own. It resulted into a paradigm shift in audience’s taste and filmmakers’ visual style. In the meantime, some of our films went to international festivals like Toronto and Rotterdam. But ever since Busan selected Television as their closing film in 2012, Bangladeshi cinema constantly saw an uptick. Lot of younger filmmakers are now coming out with fresh ideas, dreams, and hope.
Although there is no proper ecosystem to support local talents, I believe our cinema will be able to make a mark in the coming years thanks to the undying spirit of our younger filmmakers.

How do independent Bangladeshi filmmakers finance their films? Are there producers?
Well, financing is big problem. We have a very few financiers who finance in independent films. Government has a funding system which is probably for some special kind of films or people.  The way you know the term « producer » is very different than how Bangladeshi industry knows. In Bangladesh, people who finance a film are called producers. And directors mostly work as uncredited producers in those films. So it’s a kind of mess.
To give you an idea of the average budget of my films, the production budget of Television was about 300,000 USD. And the production budget of Saturday Afternoon, which was presented in Busan film festival last year and just received two prizes at Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema, was 400,000 USD.

How many independent/arthouse films (like yours) are produced every year? How many are released in Bangladesh?
At one point, it was three to four a year. Now it’s down to one or two.
From a global point of view (including commercial films), Bangladesh used to produce about 52 films a year. Now it has come down to 20 films.

Have your movies been released in Bangladesh? If so, how did the audience react?
Yes, all my films have been released in Bangladesh and it mostly enjoyed some kind of following by young audience. However censorship has always been an issue for me. I made seven films so far. Out of seven, five films suffered at the hand of censor board. I now feel it has started making me tired. I hope it doesn’t cripple my spontaneous thought process. But it is really annoying!
In January 2019, the Bangladesh Film Censor Board banned the theatrical release of my latest film, Saturday Afternoon. That decision is actually a mystery to me! After the screening of the film at the censor board, they called me to let me know they appreciated the film. Some of them even gave interviews in the local press, praised the film and mentioned the film would be issued a certificate soon. Two days later, I started to see an online campaign by some Islamic preachers that demanded the film be banned. In 24 hours, those preaching videos were shared thousands of times. They said all false things against the film without even watching the film. Two days later, the censor board called for an unprecedented second screening of the film. After the second screening, they decided not to issue a certificate. We have appealed against the decision, which is still pending.

How would you define Bangladeshi cinema? Is there a specific cultural identity? A specific history/evolution?
Bangladeshi cinema has typically been a copycat of Indian mainstream or Kolkata art house (the Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Mrinal Sen way). There have few exceptions but that’s the general picture. When we started to make films, we defied to follow this. We decided to follow our own hearts. We picked stories from our daily lives. We discarded the traditional stylized acting. We got rid of bookish and fake dialogues. It helped us connect with a big young population but it also angered the establishment. So lot of debate started to surface regarding our use of dialogue, Bengali accent, choice of subjects. However the beautiful part is Bangladeshi cinema has started to be personal. Our films started to reflect our personalities. I think, if we can continue like this and can keep making more films, we will see some kind of collective identity of Bangladeshi cinema.

How would you define your own cinematographic style, your vision or point of view as an auteur?
Well, I want rest it upon the audience and critics. However if I have no other option but to tell something about my cinematic vision or style, I would say I am probably an explorer, an experimenter. I want to experience things in their most uninhibited forms and want my audience to experience my work of art like an explorer. I want my cast to act true and be completely unaware of the audience’s presence.
During the shooting of Saturday Afternoon, most of the cast actually started to live in the zone psychologically. So at one point, they didn’t have to act as they started to respond from their instinct. Among them, the old gentleman, who played the role of Mr. Mojammel Huq, he really got unwell because of the trauma. Once our shooting was over, he was admitted into PG hospital as his blood pressure shot was so high!

You founded Chabial movement, which is considered a Bangladeshi avant-garde cinema movement. Can you tell us more about that?
Chabial is basically my production company. The productions that we made might have influenced a paradigm shift in traditional Bangladeshi visual storytelling to a more personal kind of filmmaking with the use of humor, fantasy, absurdity and emotion. I don’t know whether people hint to this influence when they talk about Chabial. Also I have helped a good number young filmmakers learn the craft of storytelling through on job training. This infused a lot of energy and fresh blood into the industry. Maybe people mean this when they talk about Chabial.

What was the last film you saw in cinema that you really liked?
I know it may sound too mainstream after four historic Oscar wins, for which I am obviously happy, it’s PARASITE! Even if it’s probably not Bong’s best film, the great thing about this film is the sheer smoothness and easy confidence of the director. If the same script were made by another director, there would have been every risk of being too cheesy, too obvious and wishful! Bong Joon-ho’s masterful direction made it a smooth and believable film.

Interview by Françoise Duru

Interview with Thinley Choden (Dakinny Productions, Thimphu, BT)

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Thinley Choden is a producer and social entrepreneur from Bhutan. Her first film project was the Emmy Award winning documentary Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness in 2007, on which she worked as an advisor. In 2008 she successfully established READ Bhutan – a non-profit organization that is part of the READ Global network (READ for Rural Education And Development) – , which she headed until 2014, and produced a series of short documentaries directed by Dechen Roder. In 2015, Choden collaborated on Dechen Roder’s first feature film Honeygiver Among the Dogs – which premiered at Berlin Film Festival in 2017 – assisting in fundraising, publicity and taking the role of an investor and presenter of the film. She is currently co-producing Roder’s second feature film, I, the Song.

You are a film producer in Bhutan. Can you tell us how you ended up as a producer?
My journey towards film producing is actually a combination of coincidences. It just came organically, mainly because of my friend Dechen Roder –whose films I’m producing. When I first started my non-profit organization in 2008, she made promotional videos for my organization. And before that, in 2003, when I was in Hawaii, I helped a friend a mine –a documentary filmmaker and a photographer living in Hawaii–, who wanted to make a documentary on Bhutan about the development of the Gross National Happiness philosophy. So my path toward film producing was not a continuous journey. But how it came together was with Dechen Roder. With her first feature film, HONEY GIVER AMONG THE DOGS, I came in as a gap funder. I wasn’t fully on board as a producer but still helped her here and there through my involvement in the film… With her second feature, I, THE SONG, she asked me to come on board to help her as a producer. and that’s what I’m doing… although I know I don’t have the full experience of producing a film. But in Bhutan we don’t have production houses nor an actual film production culture: noone becomes a film producer by design. The director is usually the producer, the financier and everything –all roles in one. Most are learning on the job. For I, THE SONG, Dechen is the director and writer of the film but also the coproducer. As far as I’m concerned, I got into film production because Dechen asked me. I had a lot of experience in fundraising thanks to my other activities and I developed a network too. My entrepreneur background did help as I was able to jump in without having prior technical qualities of film production. The stake is more about how quickly you learn and adapt to a new environment and handle situations.

Are there specific funds in Bhutan or do you resort to private financing only ?
It’s private financing only. We don’t have government funding or film funds in Bhutan. Even for commercial films, you must either find financiers or just get a bank loan. It’s very easy to recoup your money as far as commercial mainstream movies are concerned though. Although our population is very small, there is a strong demand for local content –local mainstream films, that is.
For I, THE SONG (estimate budget: USD 390,000), we’re applying for grants –especially from organizations like the UN and other organizations that are either gender-related or women empowerment-related, or also deal with media literacy because I, THE SONG is very much about digital media exploitation… We look at different angles of how we can link the issues of the film and we apply for grants from those organizations. We also contact businesses and offer exposure to them through the film poster or the film credits since it is screened at international film festivals and in Bhutan as well. That’s how we can get sponsors and the funding in Bhutan.

How did you meet Dechen Roder ?
Dechen and I went to the same high school. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers. We went to the same boarding school in India. Then we both went to college in the US –but she went to film school whereas I studied economics and international relations. Not in the same city nor in the same state though. Then we both came back to Bhutan after college and that’s when we reconnected again.

How would you describe Dechen Roder’s cinema?
Dechen is a very noir-style filmmaker. She has a liking for thrillers and mystery. She likes to tell stories in a very complex way so that the audience needs to engage with the cinematographic universe she creates in order to fully embrace it. Her films have a philosophical aspect that mingles traditions and spirituality, which are so important in Bhutan. You can not ignore that in the modern landscape. Her films are very… female-centric too –I tend to stay away from using the word ‘feminist’ because I think there are very subjective connotations depending on who you talk to [laughs]. Her stories are always told from the perspective of the women whatever the story context.

“Honeygiver Among The Dogs” by Dechen Roder

Is it unusual in Bhutan’s culture ? Is it a patriarchal society ?
We have a matrimonial practice. Property, everything, goes through the mother to the daughter. When you marry, the husband moves into the daughter’s house. The women inherit property.
In our region, women are actually quite empowered and respected: every family would rather have daughters than sons! Women have, if not equal, more moral rights. From that sense, it’s very progressive.
But as far as cultural practice is concerned, in terms of private space vs public space consideration for instance –with respect to women in leadership, women involved in businesses, filmmaking, making decisions at a national level and son on–, you don’t see many women: it’s mainly male-dominated. My own theory is that Bhutan’s education started only in the 60s. Until then, the only way to get education was to join the clergy –that is, become a monk or a nun. Until then, people worked the land, looked after the land. The land looked after you. You didn’t really need to go beyond that. You know, Bhutan was never colonized. We lived in our own culture and time frame. We have always been sheltered from global trends whatsoever. In the 60s, when the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck,  started to encourage modern education practice, a lot of parents didn’t know what education was, there were no schools in Bhutan. The government recruited students to be sent to India to get education. Still now there are still a lot of kids going to boarding schools there. For parents who never traveled beyond a village let alone outside Bhutan, they didn’t know what education meant, and sending kids abroad was a big threat. Daughters were not expendable, they were precious. So they hid their daughters and would send their sons instead. Daughters needed to stay because they needed to look after the family property. So in the process, a lot of girls didn’t go to school. My mother didn’t actually go to school. My grand-mother hid my mother in the granary as the government people went from house to house to recruit students!
Over the years, as Bhutan was modernizing and bureaucracy became more and more educated –the minimum these days is to have a college degree–, women were unable to participate to the public space because they didn’t have the required education/qualification. Only men are seen in the public space. So over the years, the public has been so used to seeing men in leadership positions, they tend to think men do a better job. So it all started with good intentions from the parents, but now it has backfired –good intentions may lead to bad income… It has taken root in the patriarchal public narrative and expectations so that we have a matrimonial practice but very patriarchal attitudes and expectations. Also it is true that in the rural areas, you really have to choose who to keep at home, who is more helpful at home. Normally it’s the girls –they look after the family and the house… With the new generations though, women are just as active in the home space as in the public space. Now there are more and more girls and women that do far better than boys and men. There are very few but when there are, they do far better than men –and not just in Bhutan from my point of view! [laughs]

Are there a lot of women filmmakers in Bhutan?
Very few! There are about 5 female directors (short and feature films). Dechen is the second and currently only female director making international art house films. It’s a pretty male-dominated industry for the reasons mentioned before. There are a lot of women in acting but not directing. Dechen is the only one who made her name on both the national and international scene.

So I guess there are not a lot of women producers in Bhutan either?
No… [laughs] Also in Bhutan when one thinks of a producer, they just think of someone shelling out money. They’ll target someone who has the money, and that person will just give the money and not be involved in the creative process. Which is a definition in itself. But not in the way I work with Dechen.

Do you plan to produce films by other filmmakers from Bhutan or from other countries later on?
Right now, I see myself helping Dechen make more films in the future. But If I see someone come up with as much talent as Dechen, then why  not? I’m not interested in mainstream commercial films though because there are enough of them out there and they are not necessarily content-driven. It’s more market-driven –not judging that though, it’s fine. I’m just more interested in more arthouse creative processes. Also, I keep telling Dechen once we get to the point we’re both comfortable in terms of our confidence in all this, it would be very helpful to launch a producer’s workshop in Bhutan. Not many people understand what the true meaning and true work of a producer is –and actually even that of a director or a screenwriter!

Are Dechen Roder’s films considered arthouse in Bhutan ? How does the market/audience react to her movies ?
They are considered arthouse. Mainstream Bhutanese films are very Bollywood-like: songs, dance, drama, love, cries etc… [laughs] Her films are considered independent.
How does the market react ? Not so well… [laughs] We are a country of 750,000 people. Even if each person buys a ticket –which is not realistic with respect to the babies, the elderly, the people living in the rural areas–, the market is very small to begin with. Our generation appreciates her films better. But my mother’s generation: they’re not impressed by the aesthetics, the picture frame, the cinematographic style etc. They understand the story but don’t see the point, they want to be entertained… Again, I think it has to do with education, which the previous generations didn’t have access to.

How many movie theaters/screens are there in Bhutan ?
There are 5 actual theaters in entire Bhutan. As for the rest, we don’t really have real cinemas. We have screens.  We usually hire simple halls to screen movies: we just hire a hall and put a screen up. There are 20 districts. In each district, there are about 5 screens per district. So there may be about 100 screens in total –mostly single-screen ‘cinemas’ or maybe with 2 screens max. A lot of the screens are all individually and privately-owned. In a way, it’s democratized: there are no multiplexes nor franchises. And it’s a good business because films compete to find space.
For HONEYGIVER AMONG THE DOGS, it was so difficult to get screens. We only had morning times and could only book the theater for ten days. Mainstream films usually book screens for one month. The minimum is 2 weeks but if they think it can do well, they book it for one month. When we come in, whatever space we can get, we squeeze in. And in Bhutan, you have to do everything: you book the theater, you pay the owner uprfont, then marketing, publicity, everything, is done by ourselves. We sit at the ticket counter, we sell the tickets. We do everything!
Sometimes we recoup the costs, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we make a profit.
If you own a theater, you don’t have to do anything because the director has to do everything! So owning and running a theater in Bhutan is definitely a good business!

How many films are produced and released every year in Bhutan ?
On a yearly basis, I’d say 20 films are produced and released –with 95% if them being mainstream films. In addition, maybe one or two international arthouse films are released.

Are there any film critics in Bhutan ?
No, there aren’t. We get ‘reviews’ but those are rather news coverage. Facts. Not actual film reviews.

How did the international audience react to HONEYGIVER AMONG THE DOGS?
Dechen’s first feature film was released in France, Belgium, Poland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and traveled abroad to many international festivals and had special screenings too –in Berlin (where the film premiered), Singapore, Bangkok, India, Washington DC…
The international audience reacted really well to the movie although there are differences in the cultural perception of a film: Europeans certainly appreciated the film more than Americans did. I think it’s a question of culture and sensibility. Also, people who are predisposed to certain Buddhist philosophy and views embraced the film far better than people who did not necessarily have that kind of background or knowledge.

What are the fundamental values promoted by Bhutanese culture?
Our values are very much driven by Buddhist philosophy. In everything we do, there’s a lot of emphasis on impermanence, karma –if you do something bad, it will come back to you. What you do today, it will maybe not come back today but it will come back to you sooner or later. It’s also about birth and rebirth. Family is very important too. It’s a very strong unit of society.
One thing about Bhutan is there’s very little criminality too. We do have crimes –like everywhere– but it’s not rampant and random, we never have mass shootings for instance.
Maybe the fact that we never were colonized plays a role: we never suffered from the historical damages that colonized countries struggle with –both politically and culturally. In that sense, we are lucky and blessed. Also it has a lot to do with our leadership. We are still a monarchy but we have become a parliamentary democracy in 2008. Until then, the way our kings designed the rules and ruled the country was very benevolent and thoughtful. For instance, every citizen in Bhutan has land. If you don’t, the King will give you one, you are entitled a land, so that technically noone is landless. Still, of course there is poverty. We don’t have beggars or people sleeping in the streets though. It’s a different definition of poverty: it’s defined by how rural you are. You can be cut out of everything, live in the mountains, in a shack. You don’t have shoes, you don’t have electricity or running water. That is poverty in Bhutan. But even if you live in those rural areas, you’d still get help from the government, say at least once every three months. Having said that, urban poverty is a growing phenomenon too these days because the cost of living keeps increasing. So you have to live in tiny apartments, sometimes sharing with 5 or 6 people. Still, it’s not as bad as in other neighbor countries…

How do you see what goes on in other countries? Is the outside world going crazy ?
Who am I to judge? But yes, the world is going through crazy times… [laughs] More seriously speaking, I think It’s about ego and ignorance. Ego of the leaders and ignorance of the followers. Ignorance because of the lack of education (although you can still reach leadership these days while ignorant!). So it’s a failure of institutions, it’s a failure of democracy. What is the right form of governance is obviously the million dollar question!
Actually in Bhutan, people didn’t want democracy. But the King wanted to introduce democracy. He was willing to give up his powers. His reasoning was: Bhutan is changing, we are entering in a new modern era, people are getting educated, we have a lot of interactions with the world. As much as democracy is imperfect, it should be the system for the future. He thought: I can speak for myself and for my son but I can not speak for future kings. It’s very dangerous to have absolute power in one hand. Who knows what can come next?
The reason why people in Bhutan didn’t want democracy is because it creates a lot of divisions in the society, families etc. When there is democracy, you have to take sides, you have to campaign and therefore point at what’s going wrong. It arouses conflicts and breaks harmony. Now we are getting used to it, with short-termism remaining the only concern though since every commitment/pledge/promise is based upon election stakes like in every democracy. We don’t have that in monarchies… So what’s crucial are the institutions, the checks and balances.

Interview by Françoise Duru

Interview with Claude Gérard (Espace Saint Michel, Paris, FR)

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An independent arthouse movie theater with two screens since 1980, the Espace Saint Michel, in Paris, facing the famous Saint Michel fountain in the heart of the Latin Quarter, is run by the Gérard family across generations since 1912 –when Claude Gérard’s great-great uncle turned a popular restaurant into a cinema.
Claude Gérard is the current owner and director of the cinema
a fiery outspoken iconoclast who shares with us his mystical attraction for Asian cinema while standing up for an eclectic editorial line that puts emphasis on discovery and focuses on world cinema and political filmmakers.

Which was the most successful Asian film at Espace Saint Michel?
Following the 1988 arson attack that hit the cinema, we reopened in 1991 with the beautiful film DEATH OF A TEA MASTER (千利休 本覺坊遺文) by Kei Kumai a Japanese filmmaker unknown to the French public at the time. The film, however, hit 2,500 admissions in just one week! Today it would hardly reach 500 admissions. Quality films are rare and when they manage to be produced, they are lost in a flood of bad films. In an effort to trivialize and popularize cinema (with the help of digital technology), we are now overwhelmed by poor quality films… It’s a problem because people are getting disgusted with the mainstream film offer that leaves little space for smaller films they are no longer aware of.
At my father’s time, the arthouse market was not as segmented as it is today; there were only good films! In the Latin Quarter neighborhood, the Champo cinema stands out because it’s just next to La Sorbonne university and has become a cultural reference. They show 20 to 30 films per week, which is fine. But as far as I’m concerned it’s not how I want to show films because I’m interested in discovery.

What is the first Asian film you ever saw?
By the age of 7, I was very impressed by GATE OF HELL (地獄門) by Teinosuke Kinugasa (Grand Prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1954). There’s an incredible scene where the samurai spits on her beloved’s face to revive her! I reenacted the scene every summer at the beach! [Laughs]

Do you feel accountable for the way the audience of the cinema view Asia? Does that impact your programming choices?
Of course but it’s not just about Asian cinema. As I said before, quality films are what drives me. I do specifically have a liking for Asian cinema though from South Korea, Japan, Iran… I can’t really explain. I used to go to the 3 Continents Festival in Nantes, where I identified films that unfortunately wouldn’t always make it to French movie theaters because no distributors would acquire them. At the end of the day, my only responsibility is to show quality films and favour new talents from any part of the world. Not so long ago, I programmed for instance HONEYGIVER AMONG THE DOGS (Munmo Tashi Khyidron) by Bhutanese director Dechen Roder.

Why were you specifically interested in that film?
Curiosity! Nowadays, everybody travels but everybody goes to the same places. It’s not curiosity, it’s mundanity. Curiosity is straying from the beaten tracks, it’s looking into seeing what others don’t.

GATE OF HELL aside, which Asian films struck you most?
I was very impressed by ONIBABA (鬼婆) by Kaneto Shindo as well as WOMAN IN THE DUNES (砂の女) by Hiroshi Teshigahara – I just find the direction, the images, outstanding. In fact, it’s impossible to describe. It’s better to watch the films, some things can’t be explained. I don’t like film reviews. Cinema is about sensibility, aesthetics, a perception of beauty. We tend to intellectualise when we grow up. But we must go to the movies with the sensibility, the innocence, of a child.

Interview by Françoise Duru and Pauline Kraatz

Technical specifications
Espace Saint Michel
7 place Saint Michel – 75005 Paris – France – T +33 (0)1 44 07 20 49 – www.espacesaintmichel.com
Art & Essai and Europa Cinemas labels
Exhibition formats: digital, 35mm, 4K
2 screens: 120 seats (screen width 7.20 m) and 90 seats (screen width 6.50 m)
Bar Les Affiches: open from Tuesdays to Saturdays from 18:00 to midnight
Asian film with the most cinema admissions: DEATH OF A TEA MASTER by Kei Kumai (12.425 admissions)

ABOUT THE ESPACE SAINT MICHEL

Born in 1945, Claude Gérard was steeped in cinema from an early age. The movie theater was founded by his great-great uncle, Victor Gandon, in 1912. Living in the neighborhood, Claude would never miss a film screened by the family cinema -then a single-screen theater with 450 seats (including orchestra and balcony) following the transformation works carried out in 1925 by his grand-father, Gaston Gérard.

Claude’s favorite seat is the orchestra front seat: he wants to feel immersed in the film and fill his visual field with the moving images. He keeps fond memories of his first cinematographic emotions like when he first saw THE INDIAN TOMB by Fritz Lang in 1959.

Later, while pursuing his studies at HEC Graduate Business School, he prepared the entrance exam for film school IDHEC (now called Fémis) at Nanterre University where he studied under Jean-Pierre Melville (who was shooting ARMY OF SHADOWS). It was a time where he would also cross on campus the paths of likes of “Dany le Rouge” (Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s nickname).
But the May 68 events put an end to his film studies as all exams got cancelled and he eventually gave up the idea of becoming a filmmaker. He then became his father’s assistant and slowly took over the cinema in 1991, which benefited by then from a second screen since 1980 (the balcony of the single-screen cinema had been replaced with a second screen).

As of 1970, the Espace Saint Michel was fully exposed to the intense competition of the Odeon cinemas (UGC with 9 screens and Parafrance with 5 screens), the multiplexes’ ancestors. While it was easy to book the films in the past, it had become a tough challenge. Negotiations with distributors would become fierce as theater programmers all wanted the same film or all rejected the same film. That’s maybe what made the Espace Saint Michel an alternative political space… In 1974, few movie theaters were willing to book BREAD AND CHOCOLATE by Franco Brusati, deemed « too communist ». In 1988, that spirit of freedom came under the fire of an extremist catholic cell that set ablaze the movie theater because they were angered with the programming of Martin Scorsese’s LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. The cinema will only reopen in 1991, with an additional space called « the club » dedicated to Q&As and special events.
In 2016, THANKS, BOSS! by François Ruffin was side-stepped by several movie theaters for political reasons but was welcomed with open arms by the Espace Saint Michel… Impertinence and activism has certainly remained the trademark of the programming at Espace Saint Michel.

Over the course of his forty-year career, Claude Gérard reckons that the public is what changed most: the viewers used to be young and curious, they are now older and overwhelmed by blockbusters and commercial films with questionable quality. Genuine cinephiles are rare, especially in this neighborhood crowded with tourists that used to be at the crossroads of two worlds – the 6th arrondissement middle-class and the grands boulevards working class. « In the 50s, we sold up to 11,000 tickets per week. In 2019, we celebrate over champagne when we sell just 1,000 tickets… » Claude Gérard laments… and simultaneously gets passionate: « Curiosity will come back, people will end up revolting against brainwashing. »

Interview with Lav Diaz

Lav (Lavrente Indico) Diaz, born December 30, 1958 in Cotabato, Mindanao, is a Filipino filmmaker that is also a screenwriter, a producer, an editor, a cinematographer, a poet, a composer, a production designer and an actor. One of the most notable characteristics about Lav Diaz’s films is their length (some are more than 11 hours long). His films often address political and social issues and more specificially the struggles of his people throughout History and that is what earned him the visibility and admiration from the best international film festivals.
Lav Diaz made 12 films since 1998 and received numerous international awards, including Locarno Golden Leopard (‘From What is Before’ in 2014), Berlin Silver Bear (‘A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery’ in 2016), Venice Golden Lion (‘The Woman Who Left’ in 2016).
The French public only became familiar with Lav Diaz’s cinema in 2013 when ‘Norte, the End of History’ was introduced at Cannes Film Festival at Un Certain Regard. A full retrospective followed at Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2016 as well as the release of ‘Death in the Land of Encantos’ and ‘The Woman Who Left’ in French theaters. With ‘Season of the Devil’, it’s the fourth time a Lav Diaz film is released in France.

How did the idea of a ‘rock opera’ occur to you?
I was at Harvard University in September 2016 for a residency program. Part of my project with that residency was to write a script for a gangster film called ‘When the Waves are Gone’. I also started writing a book about Filipino cinema called ‘A liberated cinema’. I started writing songs as well -the songs kept coming. We had a new president back home at that time (Rodrigo Duterte was elected in May 2016). And things drastically changed as I read the news about the country: the so called drug war became really bloody in terms of human rights abuses, specifically during the first months of Duterte’s tenure. So I started addressing the issue, again going back to the struggles of my people. And this fed the themes of the songs I was writing that kept haunting me. Then around November, I e-mailed my producer Bianca Balbuena and I requested from her we put aside the gangster film because my focus now was into doing some kind of an opera, a musical about what’s happening in the country. There was a sense of emergency. I told her we needed to do this so that we could at least do our part in addressing the issues of what was happening in the country. It was a question of responsibility as an artist. Bianca agreed and we focused ourselves right away. I told Hazel Orencio to start working on the casting as well. We decided to shoot the film in Malaysia. By mid-January, we already started the production in Malaysia. We completed the shooting in Malaysia around the first week of March 2017 and edited the film for about three months in Manila.

Would you say your art is dictated by a sense of emergency? Are your films responses to ongoing events like for ‘Death in the Land of Encantos’, a nine-hour film you started shooting only a few days after typhoon Reming hit the Bicol Region in November 2006 (even though it was first meant to be mere footage with a testimonial value)?
In the case of ‘Encantos’, the immediacy of what I saw became the inspiration of the film. I lived in that region for a year. I got there 5 days after the storm and everything was devastated.
I had no plan indeed. I just went there to shoot and maybe give the footage to the news bureaus. After a few days of shooting and recording, it was so heart-breaking, horrifying, harrowing, I watched the footage and thought maybe I should build a story around and it’d be better to do it that way, it can be a good memorial, some kind of a tribute, in homage to what the place used to be. I thought of characters I could focus on in the continuing narrative of what can be done. So I invited those three characters, Roder, Angeli Bayan, Perry Dizon…
So, yes, it’s a response. Not just a response, there is an urgency, a call: it’s a responsibility to do it, to engage in what’s happening, using the medium. As a filmmaker that’s all I can think of I can do. Maybe I can make a film about it, to raise some awareness, confrontation with the coming cataclysm.
The most immediate advocacy medium for me is cinema.
It’s almost the same process for ‘Season of the Devil’, except that the idea -though inspired by ongoing events- preceded the shooting.

Why did you shoot ‘Season of the Devil’ in Malaysia?
There were two reasons. 1) It was very risky to shoot the material in the Philippines -the police are everywhere, checking everybody. Shooting in the Philippines would have required police permits and they’d be watching. And they’d have sensed: ‘Oh, the film is about our guy…’. They’d have checked in on us all the time and we wouldn’t have been free. The other reason is we have two very popular actors, Piolo Pascual and Shaina Magdayao. It’s hard to shoot in the Philippines if you have those superstars: if fans found out, we wouldn’t have been free either! In Malaysia, nobody cared because they didn’t know us. And the village we shot in looked very much like what we were looking for.

How about the rock opera form?
Music as an art form came to me before cinema. In college, I joined several bands, I wrote songs and also poems. I was more specifically into rock music: three quarts four quarts. That kind of pattern, the verse and the refrain and then you go back. Writing songs is a very fluid activity for me. That’s probably why the songs of ‘Season of the Devil’ spontaneously came to me. When I decided to do the film though, I did not want anything close to the conventional musical as we know it (the Broadway or Hollywod way, with the movements, the dancers, the big bands, the accompaniment etc.). We did without those things, we did it a cappella and used the songs as dialogs. It wasn’t important to have really good singers: as long as they could actually sing, even in a very raw manner, as long as they could follow the beats and remember the melody, then it was fine. The real stake was more about the actors’ political perspectives or leanings. Since the film is about fascism and its rebirth in the Philippines, even though it’s set in 1979, we could obviously not run the risk to work with anybody pro-Duterte or pro-Marcos. We had to be very careful about that criterion.

Your films are known for their long takes and their long shots, not to mention the recurrent use of black and white. Can you come back again to that trademark of yours for the readers who might discover your films only now? Can you also explain how different ‘Season of the Devil’ is to that effect?
I grew up watching a lot of black and white films -my father used to take me to the movies every weekend and I watched up to eight films a week. All kinds of films: Hong Kong movies, western movies, Japanese films etc. -always in black and white! Cinema is in my head, in black and white. The world is so full of colors. If you see it in black and white, it’s a whole new universe, it’s another way of seeing the world. That alone is very important, the aesthetic sense that it’s our universe but it’s another universe. For me black and white is very mysterious and it makes us see things differently.
The pursuit of truth is the genesis of my long struggle with film praxis; the struggle to embrace a mise en scene that can approximate or just appropriate the discourse on truth; even on a theoretical level, as truth is relative, elusive; as a principle, mythologizing is the enemy, or, the more colloquial word, compromise; for practitioners of cinema, application remains the key to the struggle for the truth; the application of which I found on my use of the long take and the discipline of one-frame shot; even with my actors, the long take or one frame shot they’d realized to be a more useful/truthful framework in the delineation of characters they’re portraying because their flow is bothered by cut-to-cuts or full coverage shooting, which is the convention.
I don’t really think about length when I make films. I’m a slave to the process, following the characters and the story and where they lead. I immerse the actors first; I tell them about the scene, maintain conversations with them on set but do not instruct them. I trust the actors and I just follow them with the camera where they lead. Everything is very organic. It’s my method. As a matter of fact, my films are not long, they are free. I just keep shooting and shooting once there’s an idea. When I watch the footage later, if I think there’s still more to be done, I have to shoot it. Perhaps I think this way because, with regard to the history of my people, we don’t really have a concept of time, we just have a concept of space. Time is a very Western concept for us. The space in Asia is very archipelagic: we have the islands, we have everything, and we’re governed more by nature than time. In fact, we, Malays, are governed more by space and nature than conventional time.
For ‘Season of the Devil’, I adjusted to the rhythm, to how the characters performed the verses, the songs. The cutting of the film was dictated by the rhythm, the beat. I struggled with that. I did very long takes. But at the end of the day, once the singing stops, there’s a big lull and it feels awkward not to cut. I said: the long long takes won’t really work. There’s a long silence, they’re not doing anything, they couldn’t say anything more. There was no two ways about it.

The film alludes to a number of concepts, surrealist or folkloric references…
‘Season of the Devil’ is very conceptual indeed: there are a lot of mythological perspectives in the film, it’s an allegorical thing, I used symbols, animals, semiotics… I used folklore and paganism: the owl, the snake, the traitor, and I also used some Western culture mythological figures such as Narcissus to create the character of the head of the village, the two-face Janus guy. Likewise, Teniente is a composite of those fascist military leaders that existed during the Marcos years. Having a woman actor (Hazel Orencio) portraying a male persona was part of the concept. Teniente is a brutal macho lieutenant, the head of a military unit. All those people are based on real characters.

Generally speaking, your films are very conceptual –they use strong aesthetics, metaphors, symbols to address political issues and denounce abuses. They’re also in black and white and usually pretty long –this one is almost 4 hours long and it can go up to 10 hours… Aren’t you afraid you films may be perceived as elitist, meant for an elite audience only?
There’s a key thing to understand: you can educate people without compromising your work. Or should the films be less than two hours for instance? That’s a compromise! Art is not about complying with conventions and archetypes. At the same time, I am convinced cinema can change the way we see and perceive things. It’s the most powerful medium. I do have faith in cinema. It can change the world. I believe so. That’s why it’s important to propagate it. Festivals, film programmers, distributors, universities play a key role to that effect. We also have to find alternative ways to reach people the Socrates way. Go the plaza, to the markets and talk to people. We should bring uncompromising cinema to people by engaging them: we have to reach out to people and also tell them to do sacrifices as well -forget about popcorn, coke etc. [laugh]
In the case of ‘Season of the Devil’, cinemas are very limited indeed. There should be other venues or we should be mobile, go to campuses, reach out to people. You have to find places, to create venues and the dialogue between art and people. Netflix is a venue too, why not? Just as long as the film is not compromised. Streaming is part of cinema now.

You have to find places, to create venues and the dialogue between art and people. Netflix is a venue too, why not? Just as long as the film is not compromised. Streaming is part of cinema now.

You make films about the dysfunctional politics of your country. Have you ever met any kind of pressure or resistance in doing so?
Not until now because no matter the international recognition gained by the festival awards, I’m still a curiosity more than a reality in the Philippines, i.e. an artist among intellectuals, the artists’ community, the academia… But among the masses, I’m still an obscurity, a curiosity. They maybe know the name or the face but they don’t know the work although I’ve been questioning the policies implemented by the different dictators and corrupt regimes of our country for a while. The safety comes from not being seen by the masses. Maybe one day… then will come the danger.

Masses don’t like uncertainty… Is it the reason why we witness the rise of populism in so many countries?
The problem is ignorance, that’s the reason why there are rising populist leaders everywhere. But there’s also a lack of actual engagement among the people that are aware of what’s happening -the intellectuals, the elites, the so called experts. Associating with each other only has cut them off from reality, leaving the masses by themselves. Look at the greatest institutions in the US for instance (Harvard, Stanford, Columbia) but what do they have? Trump. So we need to engage more: do not confine education to campuses. We need to reach out to the masses, break the walls and barriers while standing up for our convictions.

You once said the Philippines is the less Asian of Asian countries.
It’s a question of perception that is connected to religion. In the Philippines, 90% of the population is catholic, catholicism and christianism being Western concepts that date back from the colonial times -the Philippines was first a Spanish colony then an American colony. A lot of people perceive us as non-Asian for those reasons, because of the American influence. It’s a weird perspective but it’s real.
The fact is Filippino people are actually Malays. And we’re not less Asian than Malays just because we’re catholic. We know we are Malays but we don’t understand why we are Malays. It’s a big problem with our psyche. Again we need to engage the past, to confront the past. The thing we need to understand is we have histories before they created our history based on their impositions. Our history now is based on their histories. Whose history are we dealing with? The written history that’s imposed by the Western media and colonial heritage with their ‘national heroes’? We need to have our own version of it, based on the truth that we had before they created our truth.
Likewise, we have to correct what ‘Asia’ is about. It is true though that the notion of ‘Asia’ is just a discourse, a perception. Who is Asian? Even the Soviet block considers itself as Asian. The meaning of the word Asia is just semantic indeed.
Asia is both an issue and a non-issue. What’s most important is the discourse, how you explain the ‘label’. For instance ‘Asian film festivals’ is another venue for discourse and how to correct things about what Asia is. Asia is more a geopolitical than cultural concept.