Nov 21, 2013

Interview with Production Designer Dante Ferretti

Dante Ferretti, Francesa LoSchivo and Maria Garcia at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Behind us are lion sculptures Signore Ferretti designed for the 65th annual Venice Film Festival.
 My interview with the iconic Italian production designer Signore Dante Ferretti, and his wife, set decorator Signora LoSchiavo, will appear in print in the Winter issue of Cineaste Magazine, which will be on newsstands this week.

Signore Ferretti recently won his third Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2012), on which Signora Lo Schiavo “dressed” the sets.

Production designers are members of a movie’s principal crew, which includes the director, costume designer, cinematographer and film editor. They are responsible for all aspects of a motion picture’s design, and supervise the construction of sets and alterations to the film’s locations. The task of the set decorator is to choose and place furniture, draperies, and other objects on the set or location under the supervision of the production designer. In Hugo, for instance, Signora Lo Schiavo’s work may be seen in the delightful arrangement of books in the train station’s library, or in the choice of flowers for the flower seller’s carts, as well as in their positioning inside that built set.

Signore Ferretti speaks with the press at MoMA. Behind him are some of his paintings and sketches rendered in preparation for the building of various film sets. They can be seen in the exhibition, "Designing for the Screen."
In my Cineaste interview, Signore Ferretti and Signora Lo Schiavo discuss their preference for built sets and real objects, as well as the challenges of their creative partnership. Signore Ferretti, the subject of a current MoMA exhibition, recalls his 40-year career in film and theater, which includes some wonderful memories of his collaborations with Federico Fellini.

More information on the MoMA tribute to Signore Ferretti may be found here:

Aug 5, 2013

Two August Film Releases Criticize Islamic Practices and Traditions

Two movies to be released this month are about the plight of women and girls living in Islamic countries, a record of sorts, especially since each of them is a human rights film. Both Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda and Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone were screened at Tribeca Film Festival this year, and are being distributed by Sony Pictures. It is unusual and heartwarming when major distributors decide that women and girls are a “market.” While both movies appeal to general audiences, they also assume a feminist perspective, and criticize the exclusion of women and girls from public life in Islamic countries, namely Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

Wadjda and her mother share a quiet moment in Haifaa Al Mansour's "Wadjda." (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

I spoke with Saudi filmmaker Ms. Al Mansour, the first woman to make a movie on-location in Saudi Arabia, on two occasions this year, most recently in July for an interview that will be published in the Fall print edition of Cineaste Magazine, along with my review of the film. My earlier Tribeca Film Festival interview with Ms. Al Mansour has just been published in Film Journal International. (See link in "Feature Articles, Print/Online.") Ms. Al Mansour makes her feature debut with Wadjda, which centers on a determined 10 year-old Saudi girl. The film will open in New York City at the end of August. While the two interviews cover different topics, both contain discussions of the position of women and girls in present-day Saudi Arabia.

Atiq Rahimi directs Golshifteh Farahani, the star of "The Patience Stone." (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Under “Feature Articles,” I have posted a link to my interview with Afghani writer-director, Mr. Rahimi, the lead story in this week's Film Journal International. The Patience Stone will open on August 14th at Film Forum in New York City. It stars the wonderful Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who plays an Afghani wife and mother struggling to survive after her husband is shot and lapses into a coma. During the long hours she cares for him, she confesses her many disappointments in their married life. Those familiar with Iranian films will remember Farahani as the star of Samira Makhmalbaf’s Cannes Jury Prize Winner, Blackboards (2000), and more recently for her role in the ensemble film, Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (2009). Rahimi’s second feature (his first was Earth and Ashes), in his native Dari (a dialect of Farsi), is based on his book of the same name, and was filmed on-location in Kabul and Morocco.

Jun 20, 2013

Human Rights Watch Film Festival

I have just posted a link to my feature article (to the left of this column) in Film Journal International about HRWFF in New York City. It includes interviews with four outstanding documentary filmmakers: Harry Freeland, Nagieb Khaja, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami and Raoul Peck.

A still of Shukrullah, one of Nagieb Khaja's subjects in "My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone." (Courtesy of HRWFF)

Freeland’s film, In the Shadow of the Sun, chronicles the struggle of albino men and women in several southern African countries where they are subject to hate crimes. Albinos suffer dismemberment, and are hunted and killed as a result of the claims of witch doctors that their body parts can cure disease. Freeland’s documentary focuses on a charismatic albino activist, and a young albino man who finally escapes the “shadows” to realize his dream of completing his education. In my interview with the British filmmaker, he discusses the genesis of his documentary, and his upcoming plans for screening the movie in the Tanzanian bush, in villages where many albinos were murdered.

Nagieb Khaja, a Danish-Afghani filmmaker, spoke with me about his documentary, My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone, from the mountains of war-torn Syria where he was shooting footage for a new project. Khaja recruited residents of Helmand Province in Afghanistan, gave them cameras, and asked them to film their everyday existence. He then skillfully edited the resulting footage to produce a documentary that will alter every viewer’s preconceived notions of that country and its people. In our interview, Khaja speaks about the courage of his co-filmmakers who often risked their lives simply being seen with him.

May 10, 2013

Interview with Alice Winocour

Below is my video interview with French writer-director Alice Winocour in which she discusses Augustine, her sublime cinematic debut. The narrative film, which will open at New York City’s Film Forum on May 17th, is based on the life of the eponymous 19th century maid. As Ms. Winocour explains at the start of the interview, Augustine’s fits led her to be admitted to Salpêtrière, then an asylum in which doctors experimented with impunity on their female patients, most of whom were diagnosed with “hysteria.”

Augustine became the patient of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, often credited as the founder of the discipline of neurology. (Ms. Winocour refers to Charcot's celebrated student, Sigmund Freud, who named his first son Jean-Martin.) She soon became the star among his hysteria patients, and was hypnotized onstage to induce a fit, ostensibly for the purposes of studying the malady.

In writing her screenplay, Ms. Winocour drew upon Dr. Charcot’s notes, which included a photographic record, but it is her incisive analysis of the period, and of “hysteria” in Victorian-era France, that distinguishes the film. And, in imagining the doctor-patient relationship from Augustine’s perspective, Ms. Winocour adopts a rather unique point of view in a genre where the male voice of authority is too often felt.

My review of the film appears in the Spring issue of Cineaste, which will be on newsstands this month.

Apr 19, 2013

Interview With Sarah Polley

I have just added a link ("Feature Articles, Print/Online") to my interview with Ms. Polley, the writer-director of Stories We Tell. This is the filmmaker's debut documentary and her third feature film. Polley's first two movies as writer-director were Away From Her and Take This Waltz.

Stories We Tell opens in theaters in May. 

Apr 9, 2013

Remembering "La Magnani"

Anna Magnani and Joseph Burstyn (circa 1950). Mr. Burstyn was the distributor of Roberto Rossellini's "l'Amore," a  pair of shorts in which Ms. Magnani starred. 
(Photo Credit: "Anna Magnani," Fabbri Editori, 1998.)

The Italian Embassy in the United States has joined with several other departments of the Italian government, and a few trade organizations, to declare 2013 The Year of Italian Culture in the United States. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Italian actress Anna Magnani, one of the most unique talents ever to grace the silver screen. It would seem a perfect time to celebrate her legacy, especially since Ms. Magnani holds a very special place in the history of American cinema.

Ms. Magnani’s performance in il Miracolo (The Miracle, 1948), where she plays a woman who believes her baby represents a virgin birth, sparked demonstrations when it screened at New York’s Paris Theater in 1950. Cardinal Spellman called the Roberto Rossellini short “sacrilegious” and demanded the theater withdraw it. The Paris did just that, and distributor Joseph Burstyn sued. His case eventually went to the Supreme Court of the United States. It voted unanimously in his favor, effectively granting the cinematic medium protection under the First Amendment. Sadly, il Miracolo is not available in the United States, nor is its accompanying short, the much celebrated Una Voce Umana (The Human Voice, 1948), in which Ms. Magnani portrays a spurned lover in a spectacular solo performance. (The two shorts were released together as L'Amore.)

Ms. Magnani and director William Dieterle (circa 1949) during production on "Vulcano," just one of the actress's many Italian films not available in any format in the U.S. Francesco Patierno's excellent documentary, "The War of the Volcanoes," which premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2012, covers Ms. Magnani's career during this period, shortly after her break-up with Roberto Rossellini. (Photo courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center.) My review of Patierno's film and others at NYFF, begin on page 59 of Ambassador Magazine:

Only a fraction of Ms. Magnani’s Italian films are available to American audiences (including to those who do not need English subtitles) in any format, despite her iconic status in Italian Neo-Realist cinema. Below is the complete text of my Spring 2013 "On Film" column from Ambassador Magazine, which is a brief consideration of the remarkable woman Italians call “La Magnani” in recognition of her singularity.

“La Magnani” (Ambassador Magazine, Spring 2013)

In her final film appearance, Anna Magnani is seen first as a shadow entering the frame. She is walking toward her home, the Palazzo Altieri in Rome, the camera tracking her from behind. It is evening, and she is alone in the chiaroscuro of a darkly lit street. Federico Fellini’s narration is lauding her as a symbol of Rome, a “she-wolf and vestal virgin, aristocrat and beggar.” When the camera reaches her, Magnani enters a door. She turns and faces the camera, which is in now in close-up. She inveigles: “What am I?” Fellini ignores the provocation, and bids the actress to allow him to question her. Magnani refuses. “I don’t trust you,” she says. Then, she closes the door, wresting control of the movie and her legacy. 

Mar 30, 2013

Women Filmmakers and Filmmakers of Color

The First in a Series of On-Camera Interviews

I have recently begun two related projects to highlight the work of filmmakers whose movies I have either been unable to write about in print, or have written reviews of, but not interview/feature articles. I ask these filmmakers to agree to on-camera interviews. The first appears below, as part of this post, and is an interview with the co-directors of a new documentary, The Revolutionary Optimists.

One project brings attention to women filmmakers (“Interviews With Women Filmmakers”) or those who make thoughtful, progressive movies about women and girls, and another will focus on filmmakers of color (“Interviews With Filmmakers of Color”) or those who tell similarly thoughtful stories about people of color around the world. I am interested in both narrative and documentary films, and you will see a mix of these in both of my interview projects.

These on-camera interviews are conducted in the same way I would an interview for a print publication. Questions are not submitted in advance, and while filmmakers are offered a chance to review the footage, or a transcript of the interview, this is done for the purpose of ensuring accuracy. These videos are not advertisements. I have no financial or artistic connection to the films or filmmakers, nor do I benefit financially from the making of these videos. I have no aspirations with regard to making my own films, and that is immediately obvious from the simple videos you will see here.

On March 27th, Nicole Newnham and Maren Grainger-Monsen (Rare, 2006) spoke with me about their documentary The Revolutionary Optimists, which opens in New York on March 29th, and will open in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco in April. In the course of the interview we discuss the film’s child subjects, Shika, Salim, Priyanka and Kajal, who live in one of the 5,500 slums of Kolkata (Calcutta), the capital of West Bengal, India. The program which brought them to the attention of the filmmakers, “Prayasam,” was founded by another subject in the documentary, Amlan Ganguly, a charismatic Bengali activist.

In the video, seated left to right are: Me, Ms. Newnham and Ms. Grainger-Monsen.

My review of the documentary appears in Film Journal International:

Since this project seeks to highlight the work of these filmmakers, should anyone wish to add the resulting videos to their website, I simply ask that the title cards remain intact and that I receive recognition for my work. (I would also appreciate hearing from you.) As you can imagine, film journalists spend long hours watching the films they write about (I never interview any filmmaker without having watched their movie at least twice), and researching the topic of the film in order to ask informed questions during an interview. I hope this project will foster a greater appreciation for movies known in the industry as “small films,” a woefully inadequate sobriquet for movies that so often alter people’s view of the world.

Mar 14, 2013

New Directors/New Films

This festival is co-sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Each year, it screens shorts, feature documentaries and narrative films in New York City (at MoMA’s theaters and at the FSLC’s Walter Reade Theater) by first-time filmmakers from around the world. Some films open theatrically, but many do not because they fail to fit easily into a particular genre and so do not have wide box office appeal. The festival offers audiences the opportunity to see the first efforts of directors who may later go on to have distinguished careers—and, sometimes, actors making their screen debut.

ND/NF, which is celebrating its 42nd anniversary in 2013, runs from March 20th-31st. Of special note this year are Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” (Canada), Ali Aydin’s “Küf” (Turkey), Emil Christov’s “The Color of the Chameleon” (Bulgaria), and Leonardo di Constanza’s “l’Intervallo” (Italy).

A photo of Sarah Polley and her father, Michael Polley, from the documentary "Stories We Tell."

“Stories We Tell” is not Ms. Polley’s first film as a writer-director, although it is her first documentary. She wrote and directed two narrative films, “Away From Her” (2006), and the much-overlooked “Take This Waltz” (2011); Ms. Polley is also an accomplished actress, best-known in the U.S. for her performances in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997) and, more recently, in Isabel Coixet’s “My Life Without Me” (2003). “Stories We Tell” is autobiographical, and features interviews conducted by Ms. Polley with her immediate family and family friends. The documentary is about her mother who died when she was eleven years old, although it is also a nuanced investigation into the nature of memory, and often of abandonment.

A still from Ali Aydin's “Küf," which is about Basri, a railroad worker whose son is one of Turkey's "disappeared."

Mr. Aydin’s “Küf” (the English translation is “Mold”) is about Basri (Ercan Kesal), a railroad worker whose only child vanished eighteen years ago while he was a student at an Istanbul university. Every year since then, Basri has written letters to government agencies asking that his son’s disappearance be investigated. “Küf” was inspired by demonstrations the filmmaker witnessed in which mothers attempted to force authorities to investigate the disappearances of their children, many of whom were victims of political assassination. If Mr. Aydin’s purpose seems peripheral as the movie unfolds, it is because he has crafted a beautiful, haunting portrait of grief, but also of one man’s unstinting faith that someone in the government will eventually admit responsibility for his son’s death. The cast is excellent, especially Mr. Kesal and Muhammet Uzuner as the local police captain who befriends Basri. Viewers will remember these actors from Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (2011). Reminiscent of the films of Robert Bresson, “Küf” is about the impossibility of earthly redemption.

Mr. Christov’s “The Color of the Chameleon” is a satire, but many of the references it makes to Bulgaria’s history will be impossible for American audiences to grasp (unless the folks at can explain.) Fortunately, the movie can also be appreciated as a spoof of spy films. Ruscen Vidinliev gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Batko, a student recruited by the secret police to spy on dissidents. When he is later fired for some minor infraction, he invents his own spy game. While the script has some pitfalls, Mr. Christov’s direction is outstanding in nearly every respect. As the title implies, viewers must take pleasure in the circumstances of the moment where some brief glimmer of substantive purpose emerges from shades of concealment.

A still from "l'Intervallo" in which Salvatore and Victoria look out over their neighborhood from the relative safety of a rooftop.

Mr. di Constanza’s “l’Intervallo” (The Interval) begins with a tale about caged birds, narrated in voice-over, and then a long sequence in which we see a teenager and his father prepare their carts for a day of work. They are granita vendors in Naples. Salvatore, the son, is hired by the neighborhood Mafioso to mind a prisoner, Victoria, a teenage girl whose infraction Mr. di Constanza keeps secret until the end of the film. Over the course of the day in which the story unfolds, we get a glimpse of Salvatore and Victoria as carefree young people, but mostly what “l’Intervallo” provides is a terrifying portrait of their future in contemporary Southern Italy. Reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realist films, Mr. di Constanza’s critique is aimed at a government seemingly unable to grapple with the stranglehold of  organized crime. While “Küf” illustrates the effect of years of corruption on one family, “l’Intervallo” presages it in the lives of two people who have barely begun to live.

Photos: Courtesy of MoMA and Film Society of Lincoln Center. 

Jan 30, 2013

An Interview with Pablo Larrain

I have just added a link ("Feature Articles") to my interview with Pablo Larrain, the director of "No," nominated in the category of "Best Foreign Film." Larrain's candid remarks provide insight into his work as a politically committed filmmaker.

"No" is the third film in Larrain's trilogy about Chile's turbulent past. The first two were "Post Mortem," about the coup which unseated President Salvador Allende and ushered in the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and "Tony Manero," about a psychopath living during Pinochet's dictatorship who dreams of winning a national dance contest. 

Jan 27, 2013

Top Ten Movies of 2012

Top Ten List (Title, Director, Country of Origin):

1.    "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey
2.   "The Loneliest Planet," Julia Loktev, U.S.
3.   "No," Pablo Larrain, Chile
4.   "This is Not a Film," Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi, Iran
5.   "Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry," Alison Klayman, U.S.
6.   "Words of Witness," Mai Iskander, U.S.
7.   "Corpo Celeste," Alice Rohrwacher, Italy
8.   "Where Do We Go Now?", Nadine Labaki, Lebanon
9.   "Special Flight," Fernand Melgar, Switzerland
10. "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," Lorene Scafaria, U.S.

Check "Film Reviews" and "Feature Articles" on this blog for links to my print reviews of these films, and for my interviews with several of the directors.

In the video below, my friend Melissa Hanson and I have some fun discussing our Top Ten picks for 2012. 

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani Interview

Una Intervista con i fratelli Taviani

Below is my videotaped interview of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani which I conducted in October 2012 during the New York Film Festival premier of "Caesar Must Die" or "Cesare Deve Morire." The interview is in English and Italian. 

You can read my feature article based on the interview here, on FJI's website:

You can read my movie review of "Caesar Must Die" here: