Interview With Writer/Director Rolf de Heer

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Credits include Charlie’s Country; Ten Canoes; The Tracker; and Bad Boy Bubby

It is a surprise, and no less so for Rolf de Heer himself, that he has made another film with David Gulpilil. The filmmaker and the Indigenous performer have now collaborated for a third time, which naturally leads to talk of a trilogy. An ‘accidental trilogy’ at best, if it is one at all, observes de Heer whose restless creative energies have led to his reputation in the media as a bit of a maverick, an esteemed but elusive auteur with a body of work that is tricky to define.

The three films that carry Indigenous stories have each emerged from a different time and space. The Tracker (2002) came into being after de Heer read about the brutal hidden history of the Australian frontier. Ten Canoes (2006) came about when he saw the possibilities of making a film in-language in and in-country with the Ramingining community in Arnhem Land. Charlie’s Country has come about ‘because David was in gaol’.

The news that Gulpilil had been sent to prison for a drunken episode of domestic violence was distressing yet also something of a relief: ‘Towards the end of 2011 I learnt that David was in gaol. My first thought was tragedy averted. Whatever the rights or wrongs of his imprisonment, whatever the reason, I was grateful for it because it probably saved David’s life.’
The circumstances of each film is vastly different and it can be argued that there isn’t a clear connection between the films, were it not for the towering presence of David Gulpilil. Even though he did not appear as planned in Ten Canoes, the unmistakable voice of his mischievous narrator guides us through in voiceover.

It was one of those intense bright Canberra winter mornings when I met de Heer for our interview. It is at least the 30th occasion that we have talked, mostly over the phone, about his work. He had been in Canberra to introduce Charlie’s Country at a screening at Parliament House. It was very well received.

So why had he made this new film with Gulpilil? ‘The exercise was to make a film that helps him find his way but that also gives him a chance to get on with what he wants to do. And a film that would really celebrate, probably for the first time, his extraordinary talent because it’s not yet been seen to best effect, not even in The Tracker.’

Gulpilil did not to wish to accompany de Heer to the Cannes film festival for the screening of Charlie’s Country in official selection in May. Where is the actor now? Back in his traditional lands and so far away from the red carpet that it took five days for de Heer to reach him by phone to tell him he’d won Best Actor in Un Certain Regard.

Charlie’s Country is the fourth film of de Heer’s to screen in the official selection at Cannes. The Quiet Room (1996) and Dance Me to My Song (1998) were screened in competition, while Ten Canoes won the special jury prize in Un Certain Regard in 2006.

The internationally-recognised Indigenous actor has long been held in great affection with the Australian public. He first appeared in a haunting role in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout at the dawn of the revival of the local film industry, has received many accolades particularly in recent times, and was the subject of a prize winning portrait. Yet Gulpilil has long had trouble with substance abuse and alcohol, to which he had been introduced by certain hell-raiser actors from day one. De Heer has for some years been concerned for his friend, and written articles about how he perceives his predicament, caught between cultures and comfortable in neither.

Gulpilil was instrumental in persuading de Heer to at least consider making a film in his homelands, it was not possible to follow through. ‘David had left his community of Ramingining in 2004, because of a tribal dispute I was never quite allowed to know the details of. From that time on, David lived largely in the long grass in Darwin’. They saw less and less of each other. From time to time there was news of his friend: ‘None of it sounded very good’.

For Charlie’s Country, de Heer determined that Gulpilil had to be front and centre, and dominate the screen. He would anyway: ‘It was something I was sort of aware from the beginning: just put the camera on David, and it works’. The strength of Gulpilil’s presence was the starting point, ‘a long, unwavering close-up’ of the actor, taking in the dignity and grace of his bearing and close-ups of the face that conveys so much, wordlessly. Even after the prison barber has had his way with Gulpilil, shaving off his wild greying locks and beard, transforming him into a prison inmate, the well-loved face radiates presence.

When de Heer first met Gulpilil he recalls that his reaction was ‘F**k, I have to direct this bloke!’ He didn’t know quite what to say to him, and felt there was nothing he could say. But that was 14 years ago, when Gulpilil was cast to appear in The Tracker.

So, does the fact that you continue to work together mean that you get on very well? Something I have discovered over the years while researching my book on de Heer’s work is that he remains unpredictable: ‘No, we don’t get on very well,’ he returns. ‘It’s hard work being with David. I love him, he loves me, but it’s hard work being with him. It’s the cultural gulf, it’s David’s mercurial character…’ Of course there are things they share. ‘No doubt about that’.

Prior to the shoot for The Tracker, the two went bush together in Gulpilil’s homelands, and spent a few days camping out, hunting, fishing and talking. In very different circumstances, they went bush again before Charlie’s Country, visits that proved ‘powerfully restorative’ for Gulpilil.

Charlie’s Country was shot by Ian Jones, the cinematographer who worked with de Heer on both The Tracker and Ten Canoes, and the rest of the crew is largely the regular group of compatible co-creatives. Peter Djiggir, who co-directed Ten Canoes, co-produces and performs again and some members of the Ramingining community are also represented.

The cast has a teasing hint of familiarity about it, with many actors returning from past de Heer films, even in bit parts. There is an appearance by Gary Sweet the infamous ‘fanatic’ character in The Tracker, selling alcohol—over the counter, one should quickly add, Damon Gameau who was the ‘follower’ in the same film is seen side-on as a hospital nurse. Jamie Gulpilil who was the lead in Ten Canoes appears briefly as a trainee constable. Like many auteurs, de Heer has built a singular cinema that maps a country all its own.

It is a guessing game wondering with de Heer. What will he do next? Ten Canoes was preceded by a drama about marriage breakdown, followed by a black and white silent comedy, which was followed by a surprising comedic foray into feuding neighbours. Is there something down the track for de Heer and Gulpilil? ‘In the phone calls we have, once every two days or so, he still talks about other projects. He’s got a number of them.’ Time will tell, and all bets are off.

Interview With Writer/Director Nils Tavernier

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Credits include The Finishers

Just how well fathers and sons relate to each other tends to get quite a run at the movies. It’s there in the backstory of a comic superhero movie, or it’s in the foreground of a family drama as father and adult son work it out – as they finally do in Silver Linings Playbook. Other dramas with a lower profile than this audience favourite have of course featured this important relationship. Life as a House, for example, in which Kevin Kline plays a recalcitrant, ailing father opposite teen rebel Hayden Christensen, and Beginners in which Ewan McGregor has to sort out his filial feelings before he is ready to move on.

French director Nils Tavernier (son of veteran director Bertrand Tavernier) has made a new contribution to the conversation with The Finishers. It is the sweet and sentimental story of a boy with disability who wants to reverse the growing alienation between himself and the father who began to inch away when he realised his son was never going to walk.

Fabien Héraud, who was cast in the role of high-schooler Julien, suffers a form of cerebral palsy himself. On the big screen over the years, we’ve seen actors playing characters with this condition, such as Daniel Day-Lewis in his celebrated turn as a writer-artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Occasionally, directors such as Tavernier jnr and Australian director Rolf de Heer, have directed actors suffering the condition themselves.

Tavernier coached Héraud for four months to prepare for the role, his first appearance in a film. ‘He tired very fast. It is part of his pathology. So he needed to rest twice a day.’ But it wasn’t that difficult to manage if you compared it to actors who may need costume changes and their make-up fixed.

The Finishers opened the French Film Festival in Canberra last month. Unabashedly feel-good fare, it tells of a 17-year-old who convinces his father to do the Ironman triathlon with him. And not simply enter, but cross the finishing line before being timed out. The French title, De Toutes Nos Forces, which roughly translates to ‘with all our might’, conveys the effort that would be necessary for a 3.86 km swim, a180.25 km bicycle ride and a marathon 42.2 km run, without a break.

Julien’s family home is located near the French Alps, about eight hours’ drive from the Ironman championship locations. ‘I didn’t want to shoot loneliness in the kitchen,’ says Tavernier. ‘I wanted to have it in a huge, big area which also gives a sense of the distance between the characters.’

Tavernier’s filmography is largely documentary and this is his first fiction feature. In preparation for this shoot, Tavernier spent two years as an observer of children being treated for neurological problems in the Necker Hospital, Paris. He was moved by the young patients but also moved by their parents. In his film, the father Paul carries a lot of baggage, Tavernier observed in our face-to-face interview late last year. ‘He just can’t deal with it.’

The filmmaker says he was acutely aware of the impact on parents, including high levels of guilt, of a child with disability. ‘I was listening and observing families with problems like these over a long period of time. I saw a lot of fathers who just wanted to run away.’ On the other hand, there were fathers who wanted to shoulder so much of the responsibility for their children, like the mother in his film, that their over-protectiveness made their child feel acutely trapped, without any freedoms or agency. However, he says, ‘I also saw fathers who became a real hero for their child, for whom the difficult parental experience bought out the best in them.’

The protagonist Julien feels his father’s rejection keenly and watches his parents growing apart until he decides to make his move. ‘It’s not a big deal if we don’t finish,’ offers Julien. ‘Yes it is,’ counters his dad, Paul (played by the versatile Jacques Gamblin), warming to the idea. ‘I want to go to the end with you.’ Tavernier thinks that Julien understands that he needs to get back to basics in his relationship with his father, from where it may be possible to set things right. It is no surprise what happens in the end of The Finishers and there’s not a lot of depth, but for all the predictability, there is the naturalism of the lead performances, Héraud’s engaging presence and the film’s open heart.

Interview with Tahar Rahim

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Credits include The Past; Un Prophet

It is hard to forget actor Tahar Rahim in Jacques Audiard’s rivetting prison drama Un Prophet of 2010. As Malik El Djebana, an illiterate minor offender and newcomer to prison, his character is absorbed quickly into the criminal matrix of gang culture behind bars, and then rises to the top. He cuts a fellow prisoner’s throat to stay alive. When due for release back into the community, his transformation into ruthless crime lord is complete.

The quietly spoken Algerian Frenchman actor was just 27 years old with two screen credits to his name at the time he worked with Audiard. The writer-director says that transforming Rahim, ‘the gentlest boy’, into Malik was one of the best things he has done in his career. Some twelve films and five years later, Rahim has now clearly secured the career he aspired to at the age of 14 while growing up in a working class community in Belfort, a small city in north-east France.

Mad for the movies from a young age, Rahim liked to go to the cinema to escape, and who doesn’t? He also used to source it for the clues it offered about the mysteries of adult life. ‘Movies can teach you how to talk, how to talk to a woman, how to be aware, and yeah, how to be.’

Sitting across from me in an interview in Paris last November, Rahim speaks English well and we don’t need a translator. He is handsome, polite, personable and ready with his smile and it is easy to imagine him fitting in anywhere. As the late Roger Ebert observed, the actor played El Djebena as an enigma, a character whose coming of age in prison taught him you did anything to save yourself and you revealed nothing. Since Un Prophet, Rahim has managed to avoid being typecast in similar roles and to explore a certain chameleon quality that allows directors to test his versatility on screen.

In Asghar Farhadi’s new film, The Past, Rahim plays another maghrebi (North African), Samir, a man entangled in a complex web of intimacy because he is not sure of his own heart. There is the beautiful Frenchwoman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo from The Artist), a mother of two a little older than him, with whom he lives, and there is his French wife confined to hospital. His partner’s estranged husband arrives from Iran to finalise the divorce, but this complicates matters further rather than provides closure. What’s past is not yet past.

I ask how Farhadi works. ‘Rehearsal was not like where you came and played your scene, it was more familial and kind, a supportive exercise with music […] for which we did improvisation of the characters’ past, how they met, their wedding and they way they behaved […] Then when it came to the shoot, Farhadi became very precise.’

It was the first time Rahim had worked with Farhadi, and the first time the writer-director had worked in France. Is this a story that could have unfolded in any community or did it have to be an immigrant community? ‘It’s not an Iranian story, it’s a French story but it’s a Farhadian movie.’ By which Rahim means it’s universal, ‘about relations between people, it’s about love, death, children, birth…Everything is there.’

There is something Rahim particularly likes about Farhadi’s films: ‘I always like how in his movies, because he is doing something interactive with the audience, he is always interrogating the audience’s ability to judge people.’ He’ll show the audience how they can be wrong about people, how perceptions can be way wide of the mark. ‘You thought this guy was an arsehole? You gotta understand life is not like that,’ Rahim is now pretty animated. ‘In a way, he gives a lesson to people. I love that!’

In The Past, Rahim’s Samir owns a laundry. His French wife lies in a hospital bed, in a coma as a result of an attempt to commit suicide (in front of their son) over his affair.
What was his approach to this character? He shakes his head. ‘ I can’t give you three or four words to describe him… It’s not a question of English. This guy’s in construction, or deconstruction… What can I say? He’s just in the middle. Between two choices, two wives, two kids, two temporalities. He’s just trying to go the distance with all this weight on his shoulders.’

In true Farhadian fashion, Samir’s emotions are complex. ‘I think he’s still in love with her (the unconscious wife), that he fell in love with Marie by default…’ We then agree that Marie still seems to love the husband who has returned from Iran to divorce her, and he with her.

The Past is a marvel of subtle and engrossing detail like Farhadi’s gloriously complex drama, A Separation, which in 2011 became the first Iranian film to win an Oscar.

Rahim has recently played in romance opposite Lea Seydoux, had a part in Kevin Macdonald’s film about Roman Britain, The Eagle, and he is slated to work this year with Fatih Akin (Soul Kitchen, Head On), a young Turkish-German filmmaker of distinction. For this ‘boy from the countryside’, it couldn’t have gone better to plan.

Interview with director Benoît Jacquot

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Credits include Farewell, My Queen and Three Hearts

French director Benoît Jacquot makes no secret of his interest in women, in a good way. At the French Film Festival recently he was asked whether he agreed with an article in the New York Times last year that described him as a director ‘who loves women’.

He hardly paused to think. ‘Why not?’ he replied, cheekily. ‘It’s all true…My passion for actresses is indicative of my passion for women.’ The audience at the Q&A after his film Farewell, My Queen laughed along with him.

Jacquot is in Australia as a guest of the Alliance Francaise festival to present his most recent film, set when the French Revolution was gathering pace. It picks up exactly at the moment where Sofia Coppola’s film about the doomed queen finishes, and covers four days in July when the Bastille was stormed and it was announced that 286 heads had to roll before necessary reform was possible.

In my interview beforehand, I asked him about how the idea for the film began. Two things in particular appealed to him when he read the award-winning Chantal Thomas novel on which his film is based. A unique perspective and the compression of time. Coppola’s film takes place over 15 years. Farewell, My Queen takes place over four days and three nights in July 1789, moments before ‘everything was turned upside down’ and changed the course of history.

This unique perspective belongs to Sidonie Laborde, the queen’s reader, her lectrice in the last days of the ancien regime. ‘ What interested me was the point of view of someone who was very close to the events but who at the same time could not entirely comprehend them.’

Played by Lea Seydoux, the ingénue Sidonie is a radical change from the novel, in which she is around 50 years of age and reflecting on her past life. It was very important for Jacquot that Sidonie was on the verge of adulthood. An empty vessel, I ask?

He likes the expression. ‘An empty what? Vessel? That’s nice. She is an empty vessel because she is very, very young and has not yet left her childhood behind. She is very impressed by the Queen and at the same time it renders her incapable of understanding the adult nightmare that she is living through.’

Sidonie, however, never existed. Queen Marie Antoinette had readers, but there is no record of Laborde.’ She is the only fictional character in the film,’ says Jacquot. ‘She exists only in the film. We could say she comes to life as she wakes in the first scene and dies at the end.’

She is a commoner, a girl of accomplishments who also knows how to embroider and cook, but this is all we have to go on. Her character is a device through which the lives of famous others can be explored. Like James McAvoy’s naive young doctor to the notorious African dictator in The Last King of Scotland, she is a device to access and observe a private world.

In Farewell, My Queen, Marie Antoinette (played by German actress Diane Kruger) is infatuated with the Duchess of Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen, the lead in Jacquot’s A Single Girl of 1995). Is the relationship between the two women historically correct? ‘Marie Antoinette is known to have had two ‘favourites’. One of these was the Princess of Lamballe, who was executed by the revolutionaries early and her head presented to the queen. The second favourite, the Duchess de Polignac, managed to flee in disguise.’

The relationship between the women in the film is based on the expressions of mutual affection in their correspondence—and also on newspapers (or gutter press?) of the time. And anyway ‘her life was such a bore, that I hope she had some sort of distraction!’

The shoot took two months. Jacquot prefers to work quickly, and besides it was expensive booking time at one of the world’s great tourist attractions. ‘We had to adhere to the authenticity of the decor of Versailles to shoot within the palace. Once the decision has been made and the green light given, we could only film when it was closed to the public, which is to say, on Mondays and in the evenings.’

No, he doesn’t see his film as being in competition with or being offered as a comparison to the creative blend of pop culture and history that was Coppola’s in 2006.. ‘ And then, what interests Sofia (who he knows) is the fashionista queen. It’s charming, very entertaining and ‘tres snob’, but what interests me is her schizophrenia at that point. Marie Antoinette was both the princess of the music hall and the queen of tragedy. She had a foot in both camps.’

Jacquot’s point of departure for his film’s aesthetic was reportage, as though documenting developments in a momentous historical, political event. The grand palace, as it is gradually emptied of life, gradually becomes a cavernous haunted metaphor for the political nightmare taking place within it.

His approach to period drama is to be as accurate, precise and the least anachronistic possible, and ‘once this exactitude is in place…it becomes the reverie of a cineaste of the 21st century’. Once satisfied he has the details right, he has not felt overwhelmed by further demands for authenticity, and as a result his study of the queen and her dying breed is somehow allowed to breathe, despite the weight of the wigs and the elaborate fashions.

Sixty-six year old Jacquot knew he wanted to work in cinema from an early age and was once an assistant to some of the greats like Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. In his career, Jacquot has not confined himself to fiction features. He has also directed documentaries, opera and theatre. Indeed, he is slated to direct a production of La Traviata at the Bastille in the near future.

As his body of work contains a number of literary adaptations, what are his views on turning novels into film? When most of the audience won’t be familiar with the book anyway, fidelity or lack of fidelity to the original text is, he says, of more concern to the filmmakers. It presents no problem at all for this urbane and mischievous Frenchman. ‘For me personally,’ he confided, knowing it will raise a laugh, ‘I really like being unfaithful!’ There you have it.

Interview With Director Jean-Marc Vallée

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Credits include Café de Flore; Wild; and Dallas Buyers Club

Music has much to say in the work of Quebecois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée. His music choices are front and centre and sometimes even take over to advance his narratives, like the way it does in his latest film Café de Flore with the unmistakable first bars of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ at the start. Tracks from that extraordinary pop classic re-emerge throughout the mix.

Besides laying down soundtracks for his movies, Valle enjoys creating playlists—which he believes is a boy thing—and manning the turntable at parties. ‘I’m a frustrated DJ,’ he jokes through some disconcerting reverberation down the line from Montreal. ‘I make playlists for friends—and for every single woman that I’ve loved in my life’.

To add to the fluidity of the narrative in Café de Flore—itself the name of a music track— screenwriter Vallée tells two love stories than run in parallel, located on different continents and set 42 years apart. In Montreal in 2011, a woman and mother of young daughters is struggling after her husband of more than 20 years has left her for another woman, the beauteous Rose (Evelyne Brochu). In Paris meanwhile it is 1969, and a hairdresser is battling to bring up her Downs Syndrome-affected son on her own. Against the odds, Jacqueline (French singer-songwriter Vanessa Paradis) has created a formidable learning program for her son Laurent (Marin Gerrier) to disprove the prognosis for her disabled son, and she pursues it with a fierce and intense devotion. The loving relationship these two portray on screen is really utterly astonishing.

The character Antoine the DJ, played by Kevin Parent, a singer-songwriter well-know to Canadian audiences, appears to take the lead at the start, but Vallée agrees that the film can be read as though it is the product of the imagination of Antoine’s former wife Carole (Helene Florent). It can be seen as ‘more the story of Carole who tries to understand why she cannot let go. And she’s going to invent herself a past life in order to accept and move on, move forward and be at peace with herself’. From the point when she realises ‘that’s she’s finally got it’.

Although the linear shape of the narrative becomes apparent in the end, it is not before Valle has made a virtue of foregrounding his characters’ subjective memory and states of feeling. He wanted ‘to make a beautiful love story with some sort of element of the supernatural’ and ‘to put some magic in it, make it bigger than life…almost like a fable’.

Other music that has found its way onto Vallée’s eclectic soundtrack includes work by The Cure, by Cole Porter and by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and there is a particularly haunting sequence by Icelandic postpunk band Sigur Ros—’Svefn-G-Englar’, which may or may not mean ‘sleepwalkers’! Even if, as Vallée suggests, the name of the track has no meaning, not even in Icelandic, the repetitive refrain that sounds like ‘It’s YOU-OU-OU-OU’ has meaning enough. And then there is the heartbeat, the strong chords, the lunatic laugh and the astonishing vocalisations from ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ accorded a special place, as it is in Vallée’s exuberant coming-of-age hit C.R.A.Z.Y. of some eight years ago.

When did the Pink Floyd album first speak to Vallée? He first heard the track ‘Money’ as a single on, vinyl, the old 45. For a 9 or 10-year-old it was ‘cool’, with its tinkling cash and ringing register. However, he continues ‘when I was older I listened to the album and discovered they were very avant-gardiste, very skilful for the period and very daring. Special, very moody. Bizarre and cool. … and what was your question about that?’

Since C.R.A.Z.Y., Vallée has directed The Young Victoria (2009), a humanising portrait of the icon of 19th century Britain that is a touching love story, politely eroticised, between the young queen (Emily Blunt) and her consort (Rupert Friend). Nothing inappropriately trippy here. The biopic of the monarch is more conventional, but an entirely charming new take on the woman before her name became synonymous with a particularly straight-backed brand of moral rectitude.

With Café de Flore taking the hazy form of a waking dream, Vallée was clearly determined to confound audience expectations. The concept of ‘lucidity’ is given a burl, only to be used to demonstrate that it comes to nought in matters of the heart. The recurring images of people with Down’s Syndrome suggests another strand for interpretation, including the angelic youngsters in Sigur Ros’ ‘Svefn-G-Englar’ However, the immersive experience continues to elude explanation until a connection between the twin narratives is finally made with shocking impact. Near the ‘don’t blink or you’ll miss it’ finale.

Vallée leaves us with some advice. ‘This film is like a puzzle, a big puzzle. You want to play the game of trying to solve the puzzle? Sit down, watch this, take it easy, you’ll have answers. You’ll be able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together at the end. Maybe you’ll need another screening—and why not?’

Interview With Writer/Director Olivier Assayas

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Credits include Hours; Irma Vep; and [segment in] Paris, Je t’aime

Set in the rambling provincial home of a middle class French family, the latest film from Olivier Assayas could be a surprise for those who remember the director’s Irma Vep (1996), the film for which he is probably best known. Starring Maggie Cheung, the Hong Kong actress who was for a while his wife, it was a playful comedy about a middle-aged film director struggling to make a remake of a silent vampire film. The subtext was the state of the French film industry.

On the other hand, perhaps you noticed Assayas’ name among the 18 director credits for the recent Paris, je t’aime, an anthology of short films about that city’s many moods and personalities. Maggie Gyllenhaal had the lead role as a junkie.

Summer Hours is altogether different, set in a house in the country where little has changed for generations. It is a reflective piece with unobtrusive style, raising issues that many families face today when children grow into young professionals who find jobs abroad, well away from the influences they grew up with. I spoke to the writer/director Assayas about it last week, over the phone from Paris. His responses are carefully considered and his English very good, so nothing gets lost in translation.

His new film opens on a rare family event with everyone together in the one location, for once. Helene’s eldest son, economics professor Frederic (Charles Berling) and his overseas-based siblings Adrienne (a very different looking, blonde Juliette Binoche) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) have arrived for the occasion of their mother’s 75th birthday.

There is a leisurely birthday lunch in the garden and over the roast lamb the conversation turns to career. Frederic, who has remained in France, has inherited the issues that challenge his homeland, while his brother and sister have escaped them abroad. Binoche’s Adrienne, a designer based in New York, is the most combatative personality, having disagreements with her mother and younger brother in particular.

As Assayas is both writer and director of Summer Hours, I ask him about the contribution his actors made in light of his comment that the film he wrote and the film he’d made were different. Was he referring to the contributions from his actors?

‘I always have this notion that when I choose an actor he will know more than I do about the character. I’m always pushing my actors to contribute to the character, to add things and even to contradict whatever I’ve been writing.’

With a film about family, everyone will bring the unique experience of their own family experiences and much of themselves to their role. ‘In the case of Juliette Binoche, she’d had a much more conflicted relationship with her family than I had written…In the end, she was more angry, more like an aging teenager’. And in the end he understood it was her way of finding her path into the story.

The youngest sibling, Jeremie, ‘a materialist and pragmatic businessman’, lives with his wife and family in Shanghai. I asked Assayas about his own strong connection with Asia, and in particular China. ‘A long story,’ he said, that began when he was writing for publications such as the French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the 1980s. ‘It was pretty early, (and) before it became trendy to be interested in Chinese cinema’. His book on Hong Kong cinema in collaboration with Charles Tesson was published in 1984.

‘At that time I was one of the first Western (film) journalists to travel to Taiwan, and that’s where I met a group of filmmakers who were just beginning to make movies, and would become known as the new Taiwanese cinema.’ The group included Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. But not Ang Lee? No, the internationally famous director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, The Wedding Banquet), who is also from Taiwan, was already in the United States. Assayas maintained a connection with this cohort in Taiwan and helped them get recognition abroad.

Assayas has said Summer Hours is his ‘most Taiwanese film’ with its themes of our connection with nature, the passing of time and the challenge of modernity to traditional values, themes that for him inform Taiwanese cinema and Chinese art in general. ‘It has all inspired me,’ he says.

‘It is also something which has influenced French Impressionist painting, with the discovery of Asian art by artists of that time.’

The long-deceased great uncle to the adult children in Summer Hours is a fictitious artist called ‘Paul Berthier’. Was the character based on painter Claude Monet? ‘I would say that ‘Paul Berthier’ is closer to Pierre Bonnard’. Assayas has a passion for the post-Impressionist Bonnard.

Are Helene and her children and grandchildren a typical French middle class family? ‘I think they are representative of something to do with European society. Meaning societies that still have a strong connection with the past, with their traditional culture and with their roots. Many people have not so much a country house (as we see in the film) but a family house where they gather.’

Shortly after the birthday reunion, Helene suddenly dies, and her adult children must return to decide how the house and its contents, including 19th century glass vases and early art nouveau furniture, will be divided among them. Will they keep the house in the family or will they sell it? It could even be sold to a buyer overseas. Who besides Frederic’s family, the only ones still in France, would make use of it if it wasn’t sold?

Assayas’ own response to the dilemma seems split between regret for the loss of cultural roots and a willingness to embrace the new. France, he says, has been trying to escape the issues of globalisation, while obviously being absorbed by it. ‘You can’t escape the way the world is, you have to face it!’

As we become more aware of other cultures, ‘we have a broader notion of what the world is about, a broader knowledge of the present, and we feel the past is less and less important. So a nice family house, which they would have been fighting over a couple of generations ago, now it’s just a burden.’ A holiday home in Bali would be more to the point.

Interview with Yung Chang

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The Yangtze, that great waterway of China, starts in the Tibetan plateau and winds its way across over 6,000 kilometres to the sea at Shanghai. ‘No matter what part of the country you are from in China,’ says filmmaker Yung Chang, ‘you have a deep connection to it.’

‘The thing about the Yangtze is that it is the lifeline of China. It is known as Chang Jiang, the ‘long river’ and you can even just call it The River, in fact.’

As a Chinese-Canadian, Yung Chang’s connection with the Yangtze was remote but his maternal grandfather used to tell him stories about it. His grandfather had escaped from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949 during the civil war and had plenty to tell his young grandson about the country of their ancestors. Yung Chang first went to China in 1997, and then he and his grandfather took a trip along the Yangtze together in 2002.

Yung Chang later returned on his own to make a documentary about the river, using his grandfather’s stories as a reference. In post-production one of his grandfather’s songs, recorded only a few years ago, was laid on the soundtrack.

The result of Yung Chang’s personal journey into the land of his forefathers is a highly-regarded, prize winning documentary that has won best doco awards at festivals in the US and Canada and a highly-prized nomination for the Joris Ivens prize at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival. It recently screened at the Sydney Film Festival and I spoke to Yung Chang over the phone soon afterwards.

He told me that Up the Yangtze was filmed in Chongqing municipality, home to a mere 30 million people. It is actually that part of the river that lives in the collective Chinese cultural memory as the place where fierce battles were fought before the Three Kingdoms were established. Today, this part of heartland China is where the controversial Three Gorges Dam project is flooding the cities, towns and countryside where people have lived and worked for millennia.

‘Around two million people have lost their livelihood to the dam,’ says Yung Chang.

‘I think it was reported statistically that in 2004 – and the number is increasing yearly – there were 70,000 reported incidents of civil unrest. I think the Three Gorges basin really is very contentious. The major question being how do you put a monetary value on your ancestral home, on your ancestral farmland, or the land where your ancestral tombs stand? It’s a central question. It’s a difficult question and it has met with quite a bit of controversy.’

The film sets out on a ‘farewell tour’, aboard a one of the cruise ships that punt up and down through the areas where the towns, villages and farmlands along the banks of the Yangtze will be claimed by slowly rising waters. Shots of the already empty ‘ghost city’ of Fengdu are eerie and unsettling.

The film moves at a languid pace. ‘River travel is so different from riding in a car. And I especially wanted to reflect the eyes and minds of the subjects I followed, their day-to-day rhythms.’

To bring this extraordinary piece of population relocation and social engineering down to a personal level, Yung Chang chose as his subjects a young girl Shui Yu and a young man Bo Yu Chen, of very different backgrounds and dispositions, who work in hospitality jobs on board Farewell Cruises. The girl is so painfully shy that she doesn’t seem like a particularly good subject for the film, but her story is so compelling it eventually takes over.

‘Despite being a very shy and introverted personality she seemed to have something very complex within, and then beyond that there was the fact that her family was living on the banks of the river.’

I suggest that Cindy (Shui Yu’s English name) struck me as a typical teenager – grumpy, resentful of her well-meaning parents, both illiterate, and the life in a makeshift hut on the riverbank that she wanted to escape. ‘Yes, I think it’s sort of universal. What resonates with me in particular is the scene where the parents go to visit the girl on the boat, and the sort of awkwardness and embarrassment at having your parents around.’

Bo Yu Chen (English name of Jerry) is an altogether different story, boasting about how he’d received a $30 tip ‘for nothing’ and how he was only attentive to the middle-aged men and women who he expected would tip him well – the elderly and infirm left to their own devices.

How did Yung Chang get him to reveal himself like that? ‘It was very funny. In fact I did nothing. When I first met him he struck me as someone who was raised in the West. He was very brash and no matter how hard I tried to make him not interact with the camera, he loved to look into the lens, talk to us the filmmakers. He would never listen to me. Eventually we let Jerry be interactive, and it works. It defines him in the film.’

Canadian author and journalist Jan Wong has mentioned to Yung Chang that she thinks the future of China may be in the hands of boys like Jerry. ‘Part of this post-Mao (Zedong) generation of children who are growing up in the world of MTV, who perhaps will be responsible for carrying democratic reform forward in China. Partly based on their individualism, on their ‘little emperor syndrome’ as a result of the one-child policy and growing affluence. It’s quite an interesting theory.’

‘I don’t know quite what is going to happen to Jerry, but I have a feeling he will figure it out.’

In the end Yung Chang thinks his film is about perspectives. ‘About how one culture sees another culture and vice versa and that’s what interested me in making it. The culture of tourism.’

Interview With Producer Patricia Lovell

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Credits include Picnic at Hanging Rock; and Gallipoli

There are nine Australian films ranked among the all-time top 100 posted on the ABC’s My Favourite Film site. At the top of this list sits the Lord of the Rings trilogy, followed by Amelie and Blade Runner. Among the Australian films scattered throughout are Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, both films in which veteran Australian producer Patricia Lovell had a key role.

Picnic at Hanging Rock was a landmark film of the local industry revival in the 1970s but were it not for Lovell’s tenacity, her success in raising the finance and then dealing with distributors, it might never have happened. Miranda’s lingering backward glance as she disappeared forever into the folds of the rock may never have been seen.

Patricia Lovell is to give the Longford Lyell lecture at the National Film and Sound Archive on Tuesday 23 October. It will explore how she became a film producer, with Picnic at Hanging Rock, following on early in the 1980s with Gallipoli and Monkey Grip.

How would Pat Lovell describe herself these days? ‘A producer-in-waiting,’ she said in a phone interview from her home in Sydney, ‘with another project I want to get off the ground.’ She won’t, however, divulge any details.

When Australian audiences were turning out to see ocker comedies like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie in the early 1970s, it looked like Australians really had an appetite for local films, and she bought the rights to Picnic at Hanging Rock while working in television. The Joan Lindsay novel (on which Picnic is based) clicked with her instantly. ‘I bought it off a newsagent’s shelf, read it overnight, and thought it was fantastic.’

She had just seen Peter Weir’s (short movie) Homesdale and thought that there was a fit with themes in Picnic of Europeans trying to survive in the Australian bush: ‘Oh my gosh, this would probably be up his street.’ When a busy Weir eventually got back to her it was with a ‘I’ve got to do it and when do we start?’ She had her director.

But she recalls that finding the finance was no easy matter. ‘The bureaucracy informed me I wouldn’t be able to produce, I was “a television person”,’ recalls Lovell, but she managed to find funding to stitch the project together.

She and Peter Weir became location scouts. ‘I remember us driving on the way to Hanging Rock, and talking about how we might save money making the film in the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney.’ But when they drove down into the valley and saw the rock formation, and experienced a feeling of intense ‘unease’ in its ambience, they knew they couldn’t film anywhere else.

We know in retrospect that Peter Weir (The Truman Show; Master and Commander; Witness) would prove himself an extraordinary director, but what was it about him that made Lovell so sure then? “I thought his short films were so different to what anyone else was doing,’ she says, simply.

It so happens, I discover, that Gallipoli is a personal favourite of Lovell’s too. Whose idea was it? ‘It was Peter’s. We’ve always had a bit of a giggle, because I took Picnic to him and he brought Gallipoli to me.’ She was more fortunate with funding this time, as Rupert Murdoch and entrepreneur Robert Stigwood were backing.

“In the first script of David Williamson’s…there were landings on the beach and there was this and there was that.’.[Big money! I interject!] ‘Yes, and I talked to both of them and said “wouldn’t it be better if it were a more personal film?”‘

‘Working together, they (Williamson and Weir) came up with those two great characters, those two great boys – Frank and Archy, characters played by Mel Gibson and Mark Lee – as it were, overnight.’

When she took the film to the UK it got excellent reviews. ‘And the wonderful thing was the late, great Alexander Walker, film critic for the London Evening Standard, one of the toughest critics of all time…gave it a marvellous review.’

Initially he’d had breakfast with her and said ‘look, this is what’s wrong with it’. Understandably, she was expecting the worst, but a surprise arrived in the post, ‘Suddenly this review came, cut out of the newspaper, with Happy Christmas written across it in red biro. It was a brilliant review.’

Today, Pat Lovell keeps up with the latest in Australian film. She was delighted to see that among the co-producers of Lucky Miles, were two former students of hers at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Jo and Lesley Dyer. ‘I was thrilled when I saw it and thought oh, they did learn a lot!’

Once she had been helped by patronage herself in the past, through a mentor relationship with Ken G. Hall. She met him when Picnic at Hanging Rock had its grand opening night at the State Theatre in Market Street, Sydney.

Hall, who had prolific output during the 1930s including films like On Our Selection and Dad and Dave Come to Town, was Australia’s most commercially successful film director before the revival of the 1970s.

‘I was standing in a corner and this voice said “congratulations girl, I know what you did”. I looked up and here was this man, 6’3″ tall, and I thought “oh, my lord, it’s K.G., K.G. Hall”.’

He became a sort of mentor, and even though he ‘frightened the hell out of a lot of people’, Lovell just adored him. ‘K. G. gave me the courage after Picnic to continue. I think if he hadn’t done that, I may have just …given it away.’

Interview with Tom Zubrycki on Temple of Dreams

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Temple of Dreams is Tom’s documentary on Muslim youth

Attempts to close down a youth centre in Sydney’s south-west is not the kind of news that attracts headlines, but the threatened closure was quietly noted in the Sydney and national press over recent months. Efforts by a group of young Muslims to keep the centre open is, on the other hand, the subject of a new film by widely-respected documentary maker Tom Zubrycki.

This is a filmmaker with the nose of a journalist, who has had a way over the years of locating himself inside a significant story as it unfolds, be it an Afghani in love with a local during controversy over refugees in the community (Molly and Mobarak), the final year of the campaign to secure independence for East Timor (The Diplomat) or a strike in a Wollongong coalmine (Kemira: Diary of a Strike).

The building in question is an old masonic temple that stands tall in the industrial suburb of Lidcombe. A venerable old building that once heard the rituals of freemasons and now hears the sounds of weight-lifters, boxers and men working out.

A group of young Sydney Muslims obtained a lease for the old temple and converted it into a youth centre that began operating early last year. It has a boxing gym, where real champions train alongside aspirants, and a fitness gym, to encourage young men to train, look after themselves and maintain a disciplined regimen. Auburn Council has however deemed the use of the former masonic hall illegal and threatened it with closure.

Zubrycki had decided that he would make the Lebanese Muslim community the subject of his next film when he came across a community worker called Fadi Rahman in the Sunday papers. He drove to Lidcombe to find him, visited the centre, while community tensions elsewhere came to a head on a Sydney beachfront. ‘A week later the Cronulla riots broke (and) Fadi was all over the media.’ People were looking to Fadi for answers after he’d played a prominent role as a peacebroker.

In an interview with Tom Zubrycki during the Sydney Film Festival where Temple of Dreams premiered, I heard that Zubrycki hadn’t found Fadi particularly open at first, understandably perhaps. They ‘circled around each other a bit’ then. Like another outgoing media performer, Zubrycki’s former subject Jose Ramos-Horta, Fadi found it hard to be personal. The public persona sits more comfortably.

What appealed to Zubrycki about Fadi was that he was really ‘out there.’ ‘Fadi had leadership skills and a strong mandate from a broad spectrum of people.’

Zubrycki even started working out in the fitness centre himself – ‘and every now and then (I) would do a bit of filming’. Moreover he had a ‘calling card’, the film Billal made in 1996, which documented the tragic aftermath of a hit-and-run accident which had left a young Lebanese Muslim seriously injured.

When some young female volunteers whom Fadi had recruited to help him realise his plans appeared at the centre, that clinched it for the filmmaker. ‘They were really such fabulous characters. They accepted me immediately, and once that happened I was away.’

These three attractive young women in the film – Zouhour, Alyah and Amna – all in hijab, university-educated and professional, are a revelation. A trio of warm, assertive personalities who might be any group of young Australian women. Without their voluntary help, it is hard to imagine how the Muslim youth conference Fadi organised could have ever got up.

At one point in the film, tempers fray as the women argue over their tasks, while Fadi sits in silence as they trade angry accusations and counter-accusations across the room until he snaps, ‘Please, we need to work together as a team…a goddam team…Isn’t it enough that the whole world is against us…?’

Temple of Dreams is a generous and heartfelt film that yearns for goodwill between Muslims and the rest of the community, the work of a filmmaker deeply committed to the multicultural ethic.

Temple of Dreams premiered at the Sydney Film Festival and earned an extra screening due to popular demand. The session I attended included a Q&A with the filmmaker and his main cast, among whom Fadi in particular must have felt buoyed by the warmth of the audience response.

There were a few searching questions too, touching on multiculturalism and the thoughts of Muslim youth in general. I think the film invites other questions too: the gym is useful, but what about creating opportunities for trade, literacy, numeracy and IT skills-training for young Muslims? How is the strength and fitness developed at the centre expressed in society generally?

In an encouraging development, the centre which is due to close by the end of July has a reprieve. According to Zubrycki, Auburn Council has undertaken to find property it owns to offer to lease as new premises.

Interview With Writer/Director Jeff Nichols

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Young American film director Jeff Nichols is barely out of school. He graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts School of Filmmaking in 2001 and has written and directed six short films and a single feature film.

But he carries an old head on his young shoulders and has captured the attention of film writers and festival juries with his low budget revenge drama set in the American South. The prestigious film monthly Sight & Sound singled his film out from the pack at this year’s Berlinale in February. It was under-whelmed by the CIA saga The Good Shepherd and by The Good German with Blanchett and Cooney, but the magazine was impressed by the taut, clean lines of Nichols’ work and noted he was  ‘a talent to watch’.

Several months afterwards, Nichols’ Shotgun Stories won the Grand Jury Prize for New American Cinema at the Seattle International Film Festival. That was on June 17, a day before Nichols was due to present his film to audiences at the Sydney Film Festival (SFF), and you just can’t be in two places at once.

As a guest of the SFF and the Australian Film Commission’s IndiVision, Nichols had been invited to present a masterclass, one of several special sidebars for the professional Australian film industry at the festival.

Other guests of the SFF included Sisse Graum Jorgenson from Denmark, whose company Zentropa has produced the films of Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, Brothers), and Dutch director Nanouk Leopold, who had three of her films showing during the festival.

Nichols held a filmmaker dialogue on June 19 with a group of 30 or more indie filmmakers. ‘The masterclass surprised me a little. I expected to be talking to younger filmmakers who had probably not made any feature film. I was surprised to find out that I was talking to some of Australia’s leading indie filmmakers.’ And he shifted the focus to discuss in detail how he made Shotgun Stories.

It was a quick and clean operation, with little or no room for rehearsals and the film was shot in three weeks, over 12-hours days. “It was really the only way to get things done.’

Set in Little Rock, Arkansas where the writer/director grew up, Shotgun Stories is made with a spare and uncluttered technique, striking imagery and telling performances that are the mark of a director in command of his craft.

The sound and fury of this revenge drama is set among the cotton fields and dusty roads of rural Arkansas. A man who has fathered two sets of brothers by two different women dies and a feud erupts between them when the eldest son spits on his father’s coffin at the funeral.

The first three sons, Son, Boy and Kid, left behind to be brought up by a ‘hateful’ and implacable woman, are listless and barely functional and have suffered the most through their father moving on. The younger four brothers have at least been properly named and are making a go of it on the family farm.

What has been the response to the film’s title, while violence has become so everyday? ‘It’s a blessing and a curse,’ Nichols says, acknowledging that the title of his film and the violence it conjures up could turn some viewers off. The description in Variety magazine of ‘a point-blank buckshot blast of inarticulate American rage’ could too. Nichols agrees that it was risky. “But young audiences are up for it.’

Despite the ugly mood the film sets up, it plays out differently. Revenge is, after all, “an inappropriate response’ says Nichols, and this is no film of simple oppositions.

‘There are no bad guys in Shotgun Stories. The only character who perhaps constitutes a “bad guy” is Shampoo, who has a role like a Greek chorus.’  Urging people on, precipitating a confrontation.

Nichols says that literature has been a strong influence on his work. Yes, William Faulkner for one, and he is greatly inspired by contemporary southern American writers like the late Larry Brown and Harry Crews, as well as short story writer Raymond Carver, whose work was most recently adapted for the Australian film Jindabyne. He believes that short stories in particular lend themselves to film.

As for the movies that have influenced him, he says he had been greatly influenced by films like Tender Mercies directed by Australian Bruce Beresford and Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and Hud in which Paul Newman played a roguish errant son. ‘Actually, any film with Paul Newman.’  Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade was also an influence.

Nichols is now living in Texas, after his formative years in Arkansas which he describes as a ‘viciously beautiful place, where the people are harsh, blue collar workers’ with a tough take on life.

His female characters didn’t have much to say or do, did they? ‘No, but they inform what characters do,’ he says. During a Q&A after Shotgun Stories screened at the SFF a member of the audience thanked Nichols for making a rare film about the emotional life of men, and for ‘leaving so much unsaid’.

Nichols thinks that perhaps in the future he may get up the nerve to write for women, but time will tell. We may have to wait for the movie after his next, based on Goat, a memoir by Brad Land, an indictment of the fraternity system operating in American universities.