I’ve always been inspired by Truffaut’s work with Jean-Pierre Leaud in his Antoine Doinel series of films. The chance to get to see a character and actual person grow up inside the world of cinema is so compelling to me. Where does reality begin and fiction end? This has always been where my interests lie in film. Whether it be Bruno S. in Herzog’s Stroszek or Hossain Sabzian in Kiarostami’s Close Up, these blurred lines is what attracts me to the art form. With my latest work of films, I’ve been inspired by this technique to play with the fine line between the reality and the fictional aspects of the characters I’ve developed into my stories.
My new film, Pearblossom Hwy, is where I tried to experiment with this idea the most. The main characters, Cory (played by Cory Zacharia) and Anna (Atsuko Okatsuka) tell parts of their real life story throughout the film. I was able to take actual events that have or were occurring in the actors’ lives to blend into the film. This is something I tried to work into my previous film, Littlerock (2010), but I always felt I didn’t go far enough with it (especially with the actor Cory who was also playing the same character in my previous film).
In the months before developing the script for Pearblossom Hwy, Cory’s life had taken a few turns. The most important development in his life at that time was the fact that Cory received grim news about his dying father whom he had never met. One day he took me aside and asked, “Mike, why don’t you think my dad ever wanted anything to do with me? Do you think I should go see him?” This conversation led Cory on a very cinematic real life search to meet his father.
Seeing the raw emotions that came out of Cory made me realize that there was more to his story that needed to be told (other than the loose portrayal of his real personality in Littlerock). This is why I’ve constructed a narrative that gives room to incorporate Cory’s real life struggles as well as uses the fiction to tackle issues I find important: racism, immigration, coming of age, broken homes, the lost American dream, etc. (all of which are topics that have been in all my work thus far).
A lot of Atsuko’s actual story is in this film as well. She’s been living as an illegal for the last ten years and just a few months ago took her US citizenship test and made it official. She was brought out to America “for a short vacation” by her mother and grandmother at the age of ten, when they had no intentions of returning to Japan. Without having said her farewells to her friends or father in Japan, she soon found herself living in a two-bedroom apartment with five other family members and was forced to assimilate to the Western culture. Her stories of growing up in these conditions are both heartbreaking and inspiring and something I never even considered happening in the Asian community.
I’ve tried very hard with this movie to find the realism that exists between the fictional and the non-fictional aspects of the characters’ lives. I had Cory every day (for months) wake up and do a three minute video diary into a flip camera on what was going on in his life at the moment: his hopes, his fears, his dreams, etc. These tender, unscripted moments I feel are at the heart of what my work is about: the abandoned youth in the small towns of America, the fallacy of the American Dream, and most importantly, the truth that lies somewhere in that porous threshold between fact and fiction.
They may own everything but they can’t own beauty.
I had written a screenplay, a historical narrative with actors and costumes, about the Los Angeles Red Squad of the Red Hynes era. Red Squad was the popular name for the anti-radical divisions of Police Departments found all over the country. I had done a ton of research, but in fact it was mostly a black comedy even if everything was also true. Something Keystone Kops about it even.
But the film would require money But then it occurred to me that I did have resources. I had already done a ton of research and writing, and that the locations were all, more or less, within a few subway stops.
I had a camera I loved, and an anamorphic lens that I’d been itching to use for years. I had a shotgun microphone I bought for a project ten years ago that sounds beautiful. I had nearly a decade’s worth of audio from demonstrations in Los Angeles and actually even around the world, mostly made with that microphone. I also had an amazing partner who helped me in any way she could and over and over again.
And so I just made the movie.
I have a problem with self-imposed rules, convinced above all else that limitations fuel innovation so of course I came up with a list.
Don’t spend any money. Use things you already have.
Likewise, locations must represent themselves. Enough with smoke and mirrors. The world itself is more than adequate.
Use one lens: 100mm, anamorphic.
Avoid visual clichés of Los Angeles if humanly possible. Just because the city is one of the most photographed doesn’t mean most of it has been photographed. Much less photographed well.
Balance contemplation with rupture. History is always punctuated equilibrium.
Compress and elongate time. Constantly strive to connect past with present and present with past.
Use sound in imaginative ways to add past and future dimensions.
Poetic repetition, in the literal sense.
Text is embedded in the landscape.
Therefore, text strictly as image.
Therefore, text from archives, not character generators.
It’s still a black comedy. Funny as hell.
But most of all…
Never once concede beauty. Beauty is an unequivocal demand.
In making this work, I had to concede a great deal. Because of resources, I had to change my film from a narrative to documentary, from actors to documentary street scenes, from crew to one man band, from being paid to labor of love.
And so one thing I simply wouldn’t budge on is beauty. I had a right to beauty. No one could take it away. I refused to make an ugly film about their ugly history. No way. Even if I didn’t have any money to make my film. Because beauty simply cannot be monopolized, thank goodness.
Many of the rules facilitate this goal. I’ve learned to play to my available strengths. The camera creates a lovely image. The lens makes something almost unworldly. Light and crispness fall away like memories at the edge of the frame. And the microphone creates absolutely stunning sound, intimate and alive, even when affixed to cheap recorders.
But still, the film was about ugliness. Violence and illegality and brutality and abuse. Isn’t that, as they say, aestheticizing violence? Isn’t this somehow disrespectful? Callous even?
To the contrary. I quickly realized, without actors or costumes but instead just the actual locations in the here and now that in fact I was filming the aftermath of violence. Or perhaps its premonition.
And in this space, beauty plays a rather different role.
The presence of beauty, the cultivation of beauty, in the aftermath of violence or abuse, is an act of almost militant defiance. It is a denial of the omnipotence of power. Expressions of beauty anywhere remind us that expressions of beauty are possible everywhere. Even in Governments, and Social Systems. Even when confronting war.
Another way to say it would be that beauty in the face of abuse is a constant affirmation of hope. And honestly, is there anything more radical than hope?
It’s in this context that beauty surely can be a revolutionary force.
And perhaps even more useful now than ever, when crisis is chased by crisis, horror by horror, and everyone is constantly telling you there’s nothing that can be done about it.
Of course there is. And beauty reminds me of that.
And I wanted to give it everything when I was making it. I wanted it to excite and challenge and make people laugh. I wanted I HATE MYSELF :) to be the most of everything, not the least.
I whine, cry and have sex a lot in this documentary. Not necessarily at the same time. I never thought I would include such personal material, but as I worked on the film I didn’t want limits on my thinking.
Everyone puts up a façade. I wanted to show the messy underneath. Everyone puts up barriers to hide behind. I wanted to destroy mine. Who the fuck cares? is an answer to embarrassment.
No one thought it was a good idea to spend three years on a documentary about my boyfriend. It sounds anti-feminist to some. I chose a highly critical naked man as my co-editor. The film does not “pass the Bechdel test.”
I stand with other women, but I am not beholden to others’ definition of feminism and claim it as my own. My manifesto is throwing out ideas about how you’re supposed to act. To be seen and not hold back. To laugh/forgive the worst/human parts. To open possibilities. My manifesto is doing my job as a filmmaker, and throwing out any inhibitions in the way.
Spending three years making a documentary about my boyfriend sounds like a bad idea to me too. I’m glad I did it.
- Joanna Arnow
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan means a great deal to me. My father grew up in Saint Ignace, and my family has lived there for five generations. I’ve always been fascinated by the region’s frozen landscape and the lifestyle it fosters.
I spent two years in Michigan filming NORTHERN LIGHT. My filmmaking partner, Lisa Kjerulff, and I began photographing three families who were about to compete in the Sault Ste. Marie I-500, an annual snowmobile race in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
This race was unlike anything we’d ever seen–a rich and dramatic community gathering and an undeniably cinematic spectacle. Snowmobiles hurtled at breakneck speeds around a mile-long oval track of pure ice for 500 miles. A crowd of thousands stood on giant hills of snow, transfixed throughout the morning and into the freezing night. We quickly discovered that beyond the loud, explosive action of this race was a community marked by genuine devotion and hard work–breakfasts before dawn, prayers before dinner, and naps after the night shift.
We continued to film after the race, capturing intimate portraits of these families as they were making it through the day. As we kept filming, the effects of the financial crisis took hold of the country, and the lives of Walt, Marie, Emily & Isaac and their families began to change profoundly.
We became captivated by their dramatic and unexpected stories. We decided to craft an observational film that tracks the intertwining lives of these three families- -no interviews, no explanations, just the drama of life unfolding in the present tense.
We stayed in each family’s home and cooked dinners together. We shared many warm holidays. Emily, Isaac, Walt, Becky, Nick and Marie and their families invited us into their lives with a level of trust and honesty that still amazes me. They allowed us to create an emotional film that immerses the viewer in the changing lives of working class Americans.
Throughout the production of this film, I was humbled by the stubborn work-ethic of the families I came to know. Walt woke before dawn to drive his eighteen- wheeler to Alabama, Texas, and Pennsylvania. In the span of a single day, Marie worked the early shift at Walmart, picked up extra hours as a cleaning lady, cooked dinner for her children, and studied for her exams late into the night.
The families of rural Michigan are the inheritors of pioneers and homesteaders; ruggedly independent and determined, living with hope in an unforgiving environment and retaining a spirit of self-reliance I can know only by example. I’m amazed by the footage we’ve captured–its quality not created by any technique, but found, in the genuine and generous nature of three compelling American families. I’m proud to have shared this experience with them.
One certainly could not complain about a lack of interesting American films in German cinemas. However, an important part of American cinema is only very poorly represented. These are films that challenge narrative and aesthetic conventions but which don’t fit into the mainstream of American independent cinema. In the flood of films that open each week, even productions with multi-million dollar budgets have a hard time competing. What happens in the case of films that are smaller or which just don’t fit well into the weekly rhythm of film openings? In such an environment the question of what film to screen is now more significant than ever. The programming bears a responsibility to the audience and to the filmmakers.
UNKNOWN PLEASURES is now taking place for the sixth time. Historical events are not only a favorite subject in Hollywood cinema currently, but also in independent cinema. While UP never had the goal of being organized on the basis of any thematic criteria, this year several films are in the program which deal with history in very different ways. Examples include this year’s opening film, THE IMMIGRANT by James Gray, an epic and visually powerful story of immigration, or Matt Wolf’s TEENAGE, which is about the invention and early history of the teenager, or Werner Herzog’s simple and powerful handling of four murder cases in DEATH ROW 2. One could regard these and other films as pauses for recollection or as challenges to common views. Above all, however, they indicate a very conscious treatment of, and reflection on, history.
This is particularly true of the two special programs. “The Past is Present” includes a selection of avant-garde films, including works by Michael Almereyda and Nathaniel Dorsky, who in very different ways bring the past into the film present. This approach of bringing the past to the present also applies to the second program, dedicated to the films of Travis Wilkerson. His work has been to this day invisible in Germany. Wilkerson, who studied under Thom Andersen, excels at politically engaged cinema, which neither loses sight of form nor can it be reduced to simple didactics. His films illustrate how a different cinema could look.
Über einen Mangel an interessanten amerikanischen Filmen in unseren Kinos kann man sich beileibe nicht beklagen. Ein wichtiger Teil des US-Kinos ist in Deutschland jedoch nur sehr lückenhaft präsent. Filme etwa, die sich bemühen, narrative wie ästhetische Konventionen zu hinterfragen und die sich nicht ohne weiteres in das Schema des (Independent-)Mainstreams integrieren lassen. In einer Flut an Produktionen, die jede Woche in den Kinos starten, bekunden zudem selbst Produktionen ihre Mühe, die mit Werbebudgets in Millionenhöhe ausgestattet sind. Was geschieht in diesem Fall mit kleineren Filmen, mit Arbeiten, die sich nicht so einfach in den allwöchentlichen Kinostart-Rhythmus integrieren lassen? In einem solchen Umfeld ist die Frage, was man zeigt, heute vielleicht von größerer Bedeutung als je zuvor. Man trägt eine Verantwortung gegenüber Publikum, aber auch den Filmemachern.
Nun findet also UNKNOWN PLEASURES bereits zum sechsten mal statt. Historische Stoffe dienen nicht nur dem Hollywood-Kino aktuell als beliebte Grundlage, sondern auch dem unabhängigen Filmschaffen. Auch wenn UP nie eine strikt nach thematischen Kriterien organisierte Veranstaltung sein möchte, so prägen dieses Jahr eine ganze Reihe von Filmen das Programm, die sich auf unterschiedlichste Art und Weise mit der Geschichte auseinandersetzen. Sei dies der diesjährige Eröffnungsfilm THE IMMIGRANT von James Gray, ein episches und bildgewaltiges Einwanderungsdrama, Matt Wolfs TEENAGE über die Frühgeschichte und Erfindung der Teenager oder Werner Herzogs schlichte wie durchschlagende Aufarbeitung von vier Mordfällen in der Mini-Serie DEATH ROW 2. Man könnte diese und andere Filme als Momente des Innehaltens, als Bildstörer bezeichnen. Vor allem jedoch zeugen sie von einem sehr bewussten Umgang und reflektieren die Geschichte.
Dies trifft besonders auf die beiden Spezialprogramm zu. „The Past Is Present“ zeigt eine Auswahl von Avantgarde-Filmen, darunter neue Arbeiten von Michael Almereyda und Nathaniel Dorsky, die auf unterschiedlichste Art Vergangenes in die filmische Gegenwart überführen. Dieser Prozess der Vergegenwärtigung trifft auch auf das zweite Programm zu, das den Filmen von Travis Wilkerson gewidmet ist. Sein Schaffen ist in Deutschland bis heute nahezu unsichtbar geblieben. Wilkerson, der unter Thom Andersen studiert hat, gelingt ein engagiert politisches Kino, dass nie die Form aus den Augen verliert oder in simple Didaktik verfällt. Seine Filme zeigen auf, wie ein anderes Kino aussehen könnte.