life’s work

This is the cover story of the November-December issue of Film CommentA new adaptation of Little Women isn’t so much an event as a beloved ritual: Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel has been adapted many times since its publication—five for the American screen alone, and plenty more for theater, television, and radio, reacquainting each new generation with the winsome story of the four March sisters living in genteel poverty in 19th-century Massachusetts. Yet the latest cinematic incarnation, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, arrives like a thing entirely of its own, and of its own time. It’s an adaptation so rich, so attentive to its source, and yet so thrillingly personal, that the combination of maker and material feels like an alignment of stars. And an ascension of one, too—Little Women is only Gerwig’s second solo directorial effort, after 2017’s Lady Bird, and it propels her into a league of her own. Gerwig doesn’t quite reinvent the novel but rather discerns, with X-ray-like intuition, the kernel that has made Little Women so formative for generations of ambitious women: it’s the story of a woman who wants to write, and write she does. And Gerwig also understands that this woman isn’t just Jo March—the tempestuous tomboy-protagonist of the novel—but also its author, Louisa May Alcott.

Alcott’s Little Women was originally published in two parts. The first traces a year in the lives of the Marches—teenage sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and mother Marmee—as they try to get by while their father serves in the Civil War; in the second part, set three years later, the sisters navigate work and love and marriage, and contend with the declining health of Beth. Gerwig rearranges the novel, crosscutting between its two halves and reorganizing them around Jo’s writerly pursuits, finding natural points of narrative (and sometimes strikingly visual) connection. Instead of starting with the text’s first line—“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents!”—the film opens with Jo (Saoirse Ronan) standing in the doorway of a literary press, silhouetted against its light in a rare moment of stillness. Then she enters the office, submits one of her stories to the editor on behalf of a friend, and upon its grudging acceptance, gets paid.Jo’s initial moment of hesitant ambition, and its turn to ecstatic pride when her story is accepted, ripple through Gerwig’s film— which becomes, through its braiding of timelines, a portrait of the ways in which the dreams of girls grate against the pressures faced by young women. Amy, the painter, must contend with the difficulty of sustaining herself in a profession whose terms are dictated by men; aspiring actress Meg with the allure (and expectation) of a family life; and Beth, the gifted pianist, with the cruel and crude vagaries of mortality. Jo’s passions undergo their own maturing and tempering, but her story culminates, crucially, not just in marriage or death—as Jo’s editor tells her all women’s tales must end—but also something else: a published work of her own.

One could draw a straight line from Gerwig’s dancer-heroine running (and skipping, and twirling) through the streets of New York to Bowie’s “Modern Love” in Frances Ha (2012), to Jo running euphorically through the same city, in another time, in the opening scenes of Little Women. This latest film seamlessly continues the preoccupations of Gerwig’s previous work, which includes directing Lady Bird and co-writing Frances Ha and Mistress America (2015): the terrible intimacies of sisters; the complexities of mothers and daughters; and the existential lives of women in states of becoming, their realities hopelessly exceeded by their own desires. These protagonists are all caught up in an ineffable sense of want—to be someone else, to be somewhere else—that slowly, through and with the other women in their lives, sharpens into a bittersweet understanding of who they are and where they belong. Here, the modest settings and contemporary, urban characters of the earlier films are reimagined within the grander, weightier frameworks of history and literature. The becoming of the characters in Little Women is also the becoming of an era, a canon, and a kind of womanhood.

Gerwig brings these ideas, big and small, into fluid conversation as her film approaches one odd contrivance of Alcott’s novel: the marriage of Jo—who for most of the film aspires to be a spinster all her life, as Alcott in fact was—to the middle-aged German professor Friedrich Bhaer. It’s the plot point that seems most ill-suited to adaptation in 2019, but Gerwig turns it into one of the film’s most original and modern sections. She addresses the sellout artifice of Jo’s marriage head-on through a negotiation scene between Jo and her editor on matters of pay, copyright, and gendered expectations in popular literature. It’s a moment that nimbly layers the text of the novel, details of Alcott’s life and career, and meta-reflections on Gerwig’s own place as the latest director to adapt a much-mined book, into an extraordinary palimpsest of our evolving notions of authenticity and ownership.

Gerwig grounds the intellectual and historical scope of her film in a sincere regard for her characters as real people and the settings as real places, not artifacts or archetypes of a different time. Her actors embody that same sincerity in gentle, loose performances, nestling into roles that seem cut to shape for them but also demand a certain self-awareness. Ronan amplifies the vulnerable recklessness of her character in Lady Bird, brimming with purpose and anger and tenderness; Emma Watson fits the part of the prim, elegant Meg, vain yet wise and kind; and Timothée Chalamet, far softer and more sheepish than the Lauries of previous versions, is deftly convincing as a charming companion but unserious match for Jo. (Louis Garrel is also especially welcome as a younger, more affable version of the stuffy Professor Bhaer.) It’s Florence Pugh as Amy, however, who emerges as the true standout: she persuasively transforms the book’s slightly shallow second-fiddle character into the most clear-eyed among the sisters, her coming-of-age fostered by the compassionate insight of Laura Dern’s Marmee and the stern but necessary cynicism of Meryl Streep’s Aunt March.

That these actors are all stars, rising or already part of the firmament, means that they each feel as singular as they’re meant to be, as individuals finding their distinct paths through history. And yet the film’s energy derives from their warm and crackling interplay with one another—a feat as much of directing as it is of acting. Gerwig and her collaborators, DP Yorick Le Saux, composer Alexandre Desplat, and editor Nick Houy, animate Little Women with a precise sense of rhythm: its characters run and dance and skate and chatter through scenes that speed and slow and tumble into each other. Few adaptations of Little Women—and indeed, few period dramas—have felt as alive, immediate, and fleet-footed as this film, a work overrun by feeling and yet structured by ideas.

In early October, I met up with Gerwig in New York to chat about Little Women, in a conversation as lively and full of revelations and references as her film.

Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh and Emma Watson in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

I read Little Women as a child, and I was not familiar with the context of the book at all at that age, but the one thing I did understand was: this is what it means to be a girl and want to write. A lot of significant women writers—Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, Ursula Le Guin—have said similar things about the book. Patti Smith, Elena Ferrante, J.K. Rowling.

Stephanie Meyer.

I mean, it’s incredibly strange and beautiful that all these different women [feel that way]. Have you read the Neapolitan quartet, by Elena Ferrante? Little Women traces through that, too. I almost dropped the book while reading it. I was like, “Of course this is her book.” And it’s certainly not because Jo marries Professor Bhaer. That’s not why we love her and that’s not why women who wanted to be writers have flocked to her.

Not in the hopes of meeting an older German professor who gives them scathing feedback.

Who doesn’t like what they’re doing. And makes Jo use the word “thou.”

Did you also have the experience of reading it young? Was it a book that signaled to you who you were in the world?

I did not read it [at first]. It was read to me by my mother. So I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who the Marches were. I always knew who Jo was and who her sisters were. It was one of the books I had in my bookshelf and I was a re-reader, so I read it lots and lots of times. Before I wrote the script, probably the last time I read it all the way through was my mid-teenage years—14, 15. When I read it in my thirties, it was a vastly different experience. But when I read it as a child, it’s hard to say… I don’t know if I was like Jo and that’s why I loved her, or if I made myself like Jo because that’s who I loved. Did I want to be a writer and then find this character? Or did that character make me want to write?

That’s fascinating, because I think that’s a recurring theme in a lot of your work—people trying to live up to certain intellectual or literary or cultural ideals, and not knowing where that desire comes from or whether it’s genuine. There’s this line in Mistress America that I love, where Tracy says, “I know what it is to want things.”

I haven’t watched that movie in a while, but I remember that line now that you’re saying it.

I don’t know who wrote it. Whether you wrote it or Noah.

It sounds like one of mine. [Laughs]

That line has always stayed with me because it captures what that film, Frances Ha, Lady Bird, and now Little Women are all about—they’re films about yearning, but not quite knowing what the object of your yearning is.

This sort of inchoate desire, or desire that doesn’t have an object, is interesting to me, because I think it’s so much a dimension of what it is to be an ambitious woman. Because, for every other moment in human history, [that ambition] had nowhere to go, at all. And we’re just now getting the chance to put it somewhere other than marriage. But even marriage, as a goal, as the sort of Jane Austen marriage plot, is [fairly modern]… I mean, really, the idea that women weren’t property is new.

So while making Little Women, the one thing I kept thinking about was the ending. This thing that all these luminous women [who were inspired by Little Women] don’t love is that she ends up with Professor Bhaer. I wanted to construct a movie where, when Jo gets that book at the end and holds it, you are getting the satisfaction of something that you didn’t know you needed to see. But as soon as she gets it, you think, “I needed it and I didn’t know it.” To me, that is the desire incarnate, the desire fulfilled. I think that it’s funny that all these women love the book because obviously there’s this divergence: Louisa May Alcott didn’t get married and didn’t have children, and Jo does and she stops writing at the end of the book, because she felt like what she was writing was bad.

What is the phrasing in the book? She “corks up her inkstand.”

But as [Louisa May Alcott] keeps writing books, like Jo’s Boys and Little Men, Jo becomes more like Louisa. Girls are let into Jo’s school [which she opens with Professor Bhaer], and she starts writing again, and she writes a book like Little Women. So I kind of collapsed the ending that way. This difference between what Jo does and what Louisa actually did is this chasm, and I think on some level all these women who read Little Women did know that she’d actually done that, they knew about the doubling, that she’s Jo and Jo is her but there were [still] these differences.

Emma Watson in Little Women. Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

I went down a Louisa May Alcott rabbit hole, and her life… now that’s a movie. And you’ve made that movie. Alcott wrote to a friend that she only came up with this ending because she got letters from all these women who wanted Jo to get married. And her phrasing was something like, “I made a funny match for her out of perversity.”Yeah, out of spite! Out of perversity!

So maybe all these women who grew up reading the book sort of knew it was a contrived ending.

Yeah! In the movie, I always knew that I wanted the ending to lead you there and then say, why is it that you need this? Or why do you want this? Someone said at some point, “When Professor Bhaer shows up [at Jo’s house], it’s like deus ex machina”—and it is deus ex machina, that is what it is, he just shows up. In the book, he just appears! He doesn’t need to appear. And also, there are so many things in the book that I didn’t have time to explore. There’s someone at Jo’s boarding house, a woman that she’s friends with, who’s not married, and who’s her best friend and takes her to concerts and stuff, and you think, wait, is that secretly you, Louisa? Who’s this woman?

Alcott has said things that sound like she might have been what we think of today as queer.

Right. I didn’t want to assign anything that felt too modern to her but… there’s lots of stuff. I mean, the thing she said, “I have half a mind to think I’m a man born into a woman’s body.”

And “I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls.” You don’t know exactly what she meant by “in love.”

Right. I mean, the passion she felt for her sisters was not sexual, but she felt a possessiveness and anger that they couldn’t stay in their female utopia for their entire lives.

And that’s exactly like Frances Ha.

Yes, it is. For me, I don’t have to go far—I love my group of female friends, I write movies about not wanting to disrupt that, whether it’s sisterhood or mothers or friends. But in any case, I just knew I could not do the ending just as the book [did]—especially because Louisa didn’t really want to end it that way, and she really did think Jo’s true fate should’ve been as “a literary spinster with books for children.” And so I thought, I can’t in good faith do this ending, number one because it’s not in me, number two because she didn’t like it, and if we can’t give her an ending she would like, 150 years later, then what have we done? We’ve made no progress.

The distance between life and fiction is moving to me in general. With the Marches, they’re the genteel poor, while the Alcotts were wretchedly poor. They moved something like 30 times in Boston when she was a teenager because they kept getting kicked out of places because they didn’t have enough money. Louisa and her sisters and her mother did grueling work, and none of that’s in the book, because that isn’t what was going to sell. So it was all of the good things [of their life] wrapped up in something she wishes she had, and I find that difference very moving.

How did this movie come about?

I knew that there was a desire with Amy Pascal and Sony because it’s been 25 years [since the 1994 version], and a lot of young women don’t know what this book is. This was before I directed Lady Bird, but I had written the script for it, and I heard from my agent that people were meeting about Little Women. And I said, oh you have to get me a meeting. I have to write and direct that film. And he said, no studio is going to hire you to direct a film when you haven’t directed a film. And I was like “That’s semantics! I’m on my way!” So I went in and I had this very clear idea. To me, it was so clear that the book was about women, art, and money. The emotional core about sisterhood and family was true, but there was this other very nuts-and-bolts side of it, which was equally emotional. The first line of the book is “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents. It’s so dreadful being poor. It’s not fair that some girls have lots of pretty things and other girls have none at all.” And I was like, “This book’s about money.” And Louisa’s life, as it turns out, as I did my research, was also about that. A lot of the lines I give Louisa—or Jo/Louisa—are from [Alcott’s] letters, from her diaries, from her writing. When Jo says in the film, “I can’t afford to starve on praise,” that’s from her. She was making economic decisions constantly.

The unromanticness of her writing, the mercenary way in which she approached it as a job, feels so romantic today. She sold her stories to make a living.

Yeah, like, what sells? And Little Women did sell out in its first printing in two weeks, and she did keep the copyright because she knew to, and she also got 6.6 percent of the profits, because her publisher didn’t think that people would buy it. I also thought each of the girls’ pursuits aren’t “adorable”—they’re big and serious. All the chapters of Amy in Europe realizing she’s not a great artist, they’re amazing. As I dove in, I realized that the moment when May, who’s the Alcott sister Amy is based on, was in Europe, was exactly when we saw the very beginnings of modernism in art. Cézanne is painting, Manet is painting, and to go to Rome and see the Old Masters and think, no, I’m not going be that, and then to go to Paris and see people who are starting to use paint as the subject itself, and realize you’re not doing that either… that’s a crisis of faith, if that’s what you thought you were meant to do.

So I had all these ideas. And the thing that I read that articulates that idea—“women, art, and money”—the best is Virginia Woolf ’s A Room of One’s Own. Which everyone remembers as [high-pitched voice] “To write you need a room of one’s own.” You think of a garret and a little cozy fire and you’re wrapped in your shawl and you’re alone and you’re writing. But what she actually says is you need a room of one’s own and money. Because she was asked to speak on why there are no great women writers, and she said the question isn’t why are there no great women writers, the question is: why have women always been poor? Because women have always been poor, not for 200 years merely, but since the beginning of time. And she said, “Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom, and intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry.” How could you possibly? If you don’t have money, you can’t write poetry.

I felt like that idea is being expressed both through Louisa May Alcott and through Jo, and I wanted to make a movie about that. And the other thing, when I started writing, I started looking at the two parts of the book as two separate books. The girlhood part, the first half, was Christmas to Christmas, 1861 to 1862—that was the first publishing. And then the second book, Alcott joked, should’ve been called The Wedding Marches, because she had to marry them all. Suddenly there were all these things I felt were mirrored in each other, the biggest one being Beth and her illness. To me it’s the fairy tale versus what life is. In the first book, she gets sick, then she gets better, and in the second book, she gets sick and then she dies. And it was that doubling that made me think, well, what if I could layer these two things on top of each other, because in my experience of a lot of fiction about women, there’s this sense that all the adventures happen when you’re a girl or a teenager, and as soon as you become an adult, it’s all over, and it’s not that interesting. And I cannot have that be the story we’re telling young women. I felt like I wanted to give the March women back what they had as girls. That felt to me like part of the task of this film, because I can’t tell you how many women are like, “I only read the first part.” If the thing we’re telling girls is that once you become an adult, it’s all over, that’s not good enough, because then there’s nothing left to desire, there’s nothing to look towards. If there’s no bravery and ambition and scope once you’re an adult, if it all existed as a girl and then you put away your childish things, it just feels not right. So I wanted to ground it in adulthood.

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Little Women. Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

It’s also interesting hearing you talk about how you encountered this film: it was already being made, and you made it personal to yourself. It sounds almost like how Louisa May Alcott was told to write this book and then it became a book about her life.Right, she was assigned [it]. She said, well, there’s a market for young people. But when she initially wrote it, she did say, “I don’t think this is very good,” and her publisher also said, “I don’t think this is very good,” and it was his nieces who read it, and they said “Oh, this is great.” Also Little Women was published when Louisa was 36, and I’m 36…

God, this is cosmic!

I know. I had my chart read against Louisa’s…

And?

I mean, we’re not going to get married, we’d make a terrible marriage match. Apparently we had a lot of similarities, but hers was more lonely. Because she was ahead of her time. I always think she kind of pulled us into the 20th century, in many ways.

You’ve made this book feel very contemporary by digging into the real history of its publication in the 1800s. The conversation Jo has with her publisher at the end of your film, negotiating royalties and copyright, sounds like things we’re talking about in 2019, about women and authorship and ownership.

Since we shot that scene, there has been all this stuff about how Taylor Swift doesn’t own the masters to her recordings, and now she’s re-recording because she wants to own them, and I was thinking, who owns the art? Who’s profiting off of it? I felt the edge of that question and I found so much in Louisa’s story, and I wanted to see that. But the same thing happened to me with the language: people say to me, oh, it sounds so modern.

I thought it sounded looser than the book.

Most of it is from the book, though, almost word for word. I wrote extra stuff, but a lot of the lines that strike people, like Amy saying “I want to be great, or nothing”—that’s from the book. Marmee saying “I’m angry nearly every day of my life”—that’s from the book. Even all the things they say on Christmas morning, which are such famous lines that you could recite them all, like “We can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly”—I just had an idea of them being said so quickly, just thrown off like sisters’ talk.

It’s in the delivery.

A lot of it’s in the speed, which was very choreographed. I didn’t just have them do it quickly or talk over each other. When I wrote the script, I employed this technique that a lot of playwrights use: you have a line and then you insert a slash where the next person is meant to start talking.

Like verse.

Yeah. You have this slash and then the line keeps going, but the next person has already started their line. So I organized the script that way, and it was a lot of rehearsal. We would actually start it slow and then speed it up to choreograph when the lines would come in. We’d do the lines slowly and then you’d point at someone and their line would start, and then you would point at someone else and their line would start. It was this handoff. And we choreographed the scenes slowly, too, of moving through the rooms. The way I shotlisted it was I wanted everything to be swirling all the time. I didn’t want Steadicam, but I did want just a dance floor so that the camera could be on a dolly the whole time. And it was this slow building of the speed, so that by the time we got to it, they could do the Christmas morning in 20 minutes, just running, and it was amazing.

How do you intuit the right pace? In both Lady Bird and Little Women, rhythm seems so paramount to the filmmaking. Everything’s always flowing.

I don’t know. But I will tell you with Lady Bird and with this, the first note I always get from someone is “slow it the fuck down.” I don’t know where the rhythm part comes from, but if it doesn’t sound right to me, the whole structure falls apart. I think some of that is from theater, because in film, you can establish rhythm from editing, but in theater, you can only establish rhythm through language, so I think I still have that sense of wanting it to sound correct. I know it when I hear it, and when it’s wrong, it’s like someone I don’t know is touching my belly button.

Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in Little Women. Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

One line I have been thinking about every day since I saw the film is when Jo says to Marmee, “I’m so sick of people saying that love is all that women are fit for. I’m so sick of it, but I’m so lonely.” It encapsulates so much about trying to be a woman who’s ahead of your time, and trying to embody these feminist ideals, but also struggling to be a human in your time.Yes, that’s hard.

That’s not from the book, right?

Well, the speech Jo gives is from another book Alcott wrote. I believe it’s Rose in Bloom: “Women have minds, as well as just heart; ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for.” But then I added “But I’m so lonely.”

Was that from her chart?

[Laughs] No, I’d written a draft of this screenplay before I made Lady Bird. But once I made Lady Bird, finished it, edited it, and brought it out into the world, actually the day after the Oscars, I put all my research for Little Women in the car and I drove to this cabin in the woods. It’s almost like, for me, to be a writer-director, you have to know the whole thing in such a deep way. It has to be so real to you that it can’t not exist. Because you have to get everyone dreaming the same dream you’re dreaming. You need to believe in the reality of it, and for some reason, it’s something I do alone. So I was going through my research and I’d written that down out of the book, and I just… I was alone, and I heard Saoirse saying it in my mind, and then I heard her say “But I’m so alone.” I heard her weeping the whole time while she was saying it. And then I remember the moment on set when she said it, and I think I was crying because she just captures the whole feeling.

That line is also emblematic of how you make the film feel very immediate and present, but you also commit to its time and place with sincerity. I think period films sometimes struggle to achieve that balance. Were there certain films or texts that helped you figure out your approach?

I had my list of films. What I was very nervous about was that I didn’t want to make a period piece that felt nailed to the floor. That always happens, you can almost feel how expensive the lighting kit was. And you feel like you can’t move or breathe. I wanted it to feel light on its feet without being messy. I wanted it to feel like it was doing a very quick dance. And part of the reason I wanted to work with my cinematographer, Yorick [Le Saux], was because of this incredible movement [he achieves] behind the camera. You feel something restless behind his camera.

He seems to have a sense of the internal rhythm of each shot.

I Am Love [which Le Saux shot] is extraordinarily gorgeous, so I knew that he wasn’t scared of beauty, that he allowed himself to photograph things that are beautiful. But you’d be surprised—some filmmakers, some cinematographers, don’t want it to be too beautiful. I love his ability to embrace beauty in that way. Also, he has something that feels like he can both execute something and improvise at the same time. Like Carlos, the Assayas movie, it just never stops moving. If he made Carlos and I Am Love, well, my film is something in the middle of that. I just felt like the way to make it the most fresh was to keep it classical. The way to make it feel alive is to truly believe in the time. That’s why I didn’t want anything heavy about it.

I looked through a lot of paintings, photographs, a lot of research, to find what felt completely modern, because any time people live, it’s the most modern people who have ever existed! I can show you these wonderful photographs—I don’t know if you know this British photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron? She photographed women in the 1860s, and you will not believe these photographs, they just look like people you know. This is in the barrels of the research I was going through… [Scrolls through her phone and shows me a portrait of a young girl]

This is like an Instagram photo!

I know! And she looks so angry! Look at this face, she’s so annoyed.

Julia Jackson by Julia Cameron

And her hair all tangled and greasy.She’s totally arrogant, and when I saw this, I was like, “That’s a girl! That’s a girl I know.” There are tons of other photographs. [Keeps scrolling] This one is a bit Coachella, but look at all these girls in their flower crowns, it’s so wonderful. You feel like you know them. And look at these little girls! Look at their little messy hair! So I thought, okay, they were people, so we’re allowed to make them people. And then I thought about a lot about films that did period pieces that somehow didn’t seem already dead. Truffaut does it very well in Two English Girls. It never seems like you’re in a place you don’t know. Jules and Jim, too.

And in those films, it’s really about capturing a sense of movement and dynamism. The fact that these people ran, and—

The running… Louisa May Alcott ran, and I kept coming across this in research, and I thought, “They must mean something different. They must not mean running.” And apparently they did mean running. She has journal entries where she says things like, “All I was able to do today was go for my run and write,” and I thought, what in the world? But apparently, she would tuck up her skirts and go running in the woods.

Which is an image we rarely see in the more traditional period films.

Yeah, exactly. Other films I looked at: Fanny and Alexander, because it’s a ghost story, and because it’s so great. The entire graduation sequence in Heaven’s Gate, where they all waltz in that giant courtyard, they just seem like teenagers. I made everyone watch all this stuff. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the way people talk sounds like the way people talk, it doesn’t sound so precise. The Story of Adele H., also Truffaut. Esther Kahn, the Desplechin movie about theater. The Dead, the John Huston movie, because it’s about recapturing something that’s gone. Weirdly, Meet Me in St. Louis, because I love Minnelli and it’s this idea of, what’s the idyllic version of childhood like? And the beginning of Gigi, before he sings “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” the French promenade—that’s what we based the opening scene with Laurie and Jo on, strangely. Gigi. Lots of French films and musicals.

The way it’s edited, the film really feels like it’s set to music and movement.

When I talked to Alexandre [Desplat]—I had a lot of French collaborators, Yorick, Alexandre—I said to him that in some ways, what we see in this movie is a musical without songs. And he did such a marvelous score, so beautiful, and when it ends, when Jo has that wonderful look on her face [when she sees her book in a shop window], and we cut to black, there’s these last two notes. I had explained a feeling to him, which was: I wanted to give it back to the audience as if to say, “And now, you.” What are you making, what book are you writing, what song are you going to sing? And then he came up with this little end, which I thought, wow, that’s exactly what I meant. It’s amazing how much of filmmaking is on faith. I didn’t know what the music was going to be, and he had me show the film to him silent.

I can’t even imagine the movie silent, because of how much it feels set to the music.

Well, he watched it silent and I felt like… a horrible pain. But then he heard it! That’s what extraordinary about composers, they can hear.

Did you re-edit anything in response to the music?

Very little, because he wrote to the cuts that I felt were right. Working with a composer is like having a garment made for you—it looks great, you’ll never look better than when you buy something made for you. I remember when I talked to him initially, before I’d even shot anything. He’d read the script and he said, “The important thing to remember in cinema is, time only ever moves forward.” So even as you go back, you’re only ever going forward. And I thought about that a lot as we were shooting, that it is always advancing.

I wanted to ask about one more thing. Alcott grew up around Emerson and Thoreau and all these Transcendentalists, and she saw a kind of a compromised idealism around herself, these utopian communities that failed her father and her family. There’s a line in Frances Ha about Thoreau and Walden Pond—

Oh yes, there is! He lived five minutes from his mom’s house.

And he would go there to get supplies!

You know, you’re the first person who’s ever mentioned that and I was wondering if anyone would, because I don’t know if you’ve been to Concord, or been to Walden Pond, but it’s right there. He really makes it sound in the book like he’s far away. But his friends are a 20-minute walk away from him. I walked from my house in Concord to Walden Pond every weekend. It’s not that big a deal. I mean, I love Transcendentalism, I love Ralph Waldo Emerson, his work is incredibly dense but also fascinating and brilliant, and Thoreau, even though he’s a complainer, is brilliant also. But I am interested in the ways in which those things don’t really work for women. Or families. Every time I read Thoreau talking about how he’s going to build his hut and grow his peas and live off the land, I’m like, what is your wife going to do? Oh no, you didn’t have one, and you don’t have children, and this idealism about living at one with nature actually leaves aside the care of the family.

Which is what happened with Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father.

Right, he brought them to live at Fruitlands, the vegan commune, where we actually shot. It’s where the little yellow house that Meg and John live in is. And we shot in Bronson’s schoolhouse, that he taught in. But this sort of “man alone with nature” thing doesn’t make sense in terms of a family, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. And the astonishing lack of understanding of what it takes to take care of a family is notable to me.

When you premiered Lady Bird at NYFF [in 2017], I asked you a question about the line in the film about love and attention, and you said you got it from Simone de Beauvoir. That made so much sense. It made me look at the film in a different way.

I think what I enjoy about being a fiction filmmaker and not having to write academic texts is I get to play with these different ideas from different angles. I don’t have to settle on an answer. That’s what I did love about going to school, and what I’ve missed sometimes, certainly when I was acting. There’s an itch I have to satisfy, that I can satisfy by writing and directing. This particular project was so satisfying to me in all the research and all the figuring out of how to make it, finding these puzzle pieces that fit—even the little things that no one will notice. When I was figuring out how I was going to weave this story this way, I suddenly noticed that when Meg goes to Vanity Fair, they call her Daisy, and later, she calls her daughter that, because it’s the last time she felt free. Doesn’t that just kill you? I felt that kind of satisfaction of things that jump out at you, that I would feel sometimes when I wrote papers. But luckily, unlike with papers, [with movies] I don’t have to fully answer everything. I can just enjoy the view of a neat thought.

brazil in a black mirror: how “bacurau” turns the western on its head

First published in BFI on October 4, 2019. 

Kleber Mendonça Filho’s genre-bending third feature Bacurau, co-directed with his longtime production designer Juliano Dornelles, draws from a wide range of inspirations: the history of the Brazilian Sertão, the Vietnam war, 70s Hollywood movies.

But the film’s Black Mirror-esque premise of western tourists hunting Brazilian villagers for sport – and of the villagers fighting back in grand, gory style – emerged from an unlikely setting: a film festival.

In 2009, Filho and Dornelles presented their sci-fi mockumentary short, Cold Tropics, at a festival, where they ended up watching several ethno-documentaries.

“Some of them were all right, some were well-meaning. But we just couldn’t take the way they looked at ‘simple’ people – the other – from far away places,” Filho told me during a conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “That’s how Bacurau began. We thought we would write a film about great people from far away places.”

This emphasis on the act of looking – on how movies shape the perception and social position of the marginalised – sets Bacurau apart from the two features Filho has made in the intervening years. Both grapple with the lopsided socio-economic relations of contemporary Brazil: 2012’s Neighboring Sounds is a gradually twisting drama about the wealthy residents of a seaside apartment complex and their servants; in 2015’s Aquarius, a middle-aged woman (played by Brazilian legend Sonia Braga, who appears in a wonderfully eccentric cameo in Bacurau) stands up against corporate developers who want to tear down her historic home. Departing from the social realism of these films, the self-reflexive, pastiche-heavy Bacurau takes on the tropes of classic Hollywood westerns and thrillers – and turns them upside down.

“I think it’s basically the same film over and over again,” Filho said of his three features. “They are all under siege. But this one of course, is very clearly a siege film – it’s almost like cowboys and Indians, except the cowboys are the Indians, and the Indians are the cowboys.”

These subversions are rooted in actual history. The fictional village of Bacurau, set in the hinterlands of Brazil’s arid north-east, is based on a quilombo: a settlement (and site of resistance) formed by escaped African slaves in the 1600s. But the film updates the traditional quilombo to a more eclectic community of outcasts. Bacurau is made up of white, indigenous, and black people; gay and trans folks; doctors, prostitutes, teachers, pansexual gangsters, and even a bard.

“We’re dealing with archetypes, because we’re doing a genre film about a village that resists,” said Dornelles. “We talked about Asterix, the comic book series a lot – that’s where the bard comes from. But of course, we needed to be very honest with the representation of that kind of place, so we also used a lot of people from nearby villages. They understood the story that we were wanting to tell. It was like they knew that type of situation.”

“We found amazing people who had never been to a movie theatre,” added Filho. “One of the guys who ended up in the film makes a living digging wells and finding water. He uses a stick shaped like a Y, and he also has an iPhone. That weird mix was fascinating for us.”

Part of the pleasure of Bacurau is to see the villagers use that mix of tradition and tactical sophistication to outwit the westerners. In the first half of the film, which unfolds like a sci-fi thriller, the tourists send a UFO-shaped drone to recon the village, shoot up Bacurau’s water-tank with machine guns, and wipe out the power in the area with a snazzy device. But their military-grade gadgetry is no match for the grit and resourcefulness of the Bacurauans, who draw from their long history of rebellion and resilience for their bloody response – literally using the weapons hung on the walls of the village museum.

“That comes from, for example, what happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1980, or the United States in Vietnam,” said Filho. “There are many moments in the script when we felt the film was a war film, not a western. It really has the psychology of a war film.”

A line in the film makes this connection explicit. When two of the western tourists come across a row of bloodied clothes hung out to dry at the outskirts of Bacurau, they exclaim, “Fucking savages!” – a direct reference to Apocalypse Now (1979).

“That’s from Robert Duvall’s Captain Kilgore, when he decides he wants to surf,” Filho said. “But there’s a problem, there’s a village on this wonderful beach. So what does he do? He takes 20 helicopters and bombs the shit out of the village. Then there’s a reaction, a ground-to-air missile from the Viet Cong, and it hits a helicopter. And Kilgore says, ‘Fucking savages.’ And he’s the one attacking the village!”

Bacurau invokes several other Hollywood movies, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The village school is named after ‘João Carpinteira’, aka John Carpenter, whose original composition, ‘Night’, is used in a key scene, while the film’s pulp aesthetic – CinemaScope photography, split diopter shots, vintage dissolves and wipes – recalls thrillers and exploitation films from the 70s and 80s.

“We are cinephiles, and we love American films” said Dornelles. But Bacurau’s references to American cinema go beyond mere homage – they’re deployed towards a sharp, parodic critique of American culture and policy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the casting of Udo Kier as the proto-Nazi leader of the western mercenaries, who proudly proclaims his immigrant roots in America.

According to Filho and Dornelles, Kier’s character was inspired by Die Hard (1988). “Look at Alan Rickman’s character. ‘Hans Gruber.’ Come on! Hans Gruber?!,” Filho laughed. “He’s a very interesting character, you can’t take your eyes off him. But Hans Gruber? He doesn’t even speak German, and he’s [supposed to be] German. So [I thought], yeah, we can do the same in this film.”

Another character in Bacurau, almost caricaturish, is a gun-crazy American who talks about wanting to shoot up a mall after being divorced by his wife. “We thought that it would be fair to have these American characters,” said Filho. “Especially when you look at the history of American cinema, the way it has represented other cultures is very problematic.”

But Dornelles added that he doesn’t see the film as anti-American. “I think it’s anti-gun culture, more than anything else. They are not only Americans – there are Russians, a British guy. The main issue is that they’re white men from the northern hemisphere.”

The film’s underlying narrative of corrupt officials selling their people out to western capitalists hits even harder in Brazil, where the mere existence of the film feels like a political statement. The country’s right-wing government, led by president Jair Bolsonaro, dissolved its Ministry of Culture in January and recently froze all funding for ANCINE, the national film-TV agency. The state has also personally targeted the politically outspoken Filho, demanding that he return the state funds used in the production of Neighboring Sounds seven years ago.

Nevertheless, Bacurau has enjoyed great success at the box office – especially in Brazil’s north-east, where the film is set. “I think the whole atmosphere is really feeding into the dystopian nature of the film, and people are recognising it. The film establishes a very strong dialogue with reality,” Filho said.

One of the key moments in the film has proved eerily prescient. During a geography lesson, the local schoolteacher realises that Bacurau has suddenly disappeared from the online map. “We have a digital life and we have our physical life. Bacurau, of course, continues to exist physically, and when [the teacher] pulls down the paper map [in the classroom], they’re still there. But to the outside world, they have become extinct. I find it a very scary and cynical idea, which happens all the time in the world today.”

Strangely enough, months after Filho and Dornelles had shot that scene, it became a reality in Brazil.

“In March, we were going to France for post-production, and a friend sends us a link to a newspaper, where [it says] the government decided to erase this grid within a protected Brazilian indigenous area. That was the beginning of the crisis that we are seeing now with the burning of the Amazon.”

“It happens almost every week that some moments in the film, some scene, becomes a mirror image of what is happening in current affairs. We have the museum in the film, and we have our National Museum that, one year ago, burned down. We have many such examples.”

But Filho cautioned against reading Bacurau “like a news piece” on Brazil. “It’s not,” he said. “It’s cinema.”

interview: rabah ameur-zaïmeche

First published in Film Comment on September 18, 2019. 

Terminal Sud is a political ghost story: a slice of urgent French minimalism haunted by the specters of Algeria’s past. Following 2015’s Story of Judas, which retold the final days of Jesus of Nazareth from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, Algerian-French filmmaker Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche returns with another bold experiment with history. Opening with the frisking of a busload of travelers at a military checkpoint, Terminal Sud appears to be set against the backdrop of the Algerian civil war, but the film’s modern, French setting and ambiguous dialogue make the context pointedly unspecific. Instead, the atmosphere Ameur-Zaïmeche evokes of repression, surveillance, and torture lend the film a depressing universality: “Everywhere in the world today, we see Brownshirts and hear boots marching on the ground,” the filmmaker said in our interview.

Ameur-Zaïmeche draws us into this neither-here, nor-there world through the eyes of a doctor (Ramzy Bedia) who insists, even amid death threats and murders, on an unflinching, humanist commitment to his job: he treats the wounded, no matter who they are or which side they represent. But as the need for self-preservation starts to collide with the doctor’s allegiance to his profession, the film posits a larger ethical question: is it morally defensible—or even possible—to be neutral in times of violent sectarianism?

Terminal Sud follows the contours of a thriller, with the stakes getting progressively higher, but Ameur-Zaïmeche and DP Irina Lubtchansky  (daughter of the great French cinematographer William Lubtchansky) conjure the film as a kind of quiet, unnerving poetry. The action is rendered in a series of exquisitely composed, fragment-like scenes, dappled with shadow and light and grounded in a thick bed of street sounds (which the director told me are drawn from various cities of the world, enhancing the film’s palimpsestic sense of time and place). Scenes of brutality and terror intertwine with moments of languorous mundanity, painting an affecting portrait of people trying to grind on with their lives even in the most unlivable times.

Film Comment spoke with Ameur-Zaïmeche at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend, where the film screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section after premiering at the Locarno film festival in August.

The most striking thing about Terminal Sud is its abstraction: it’s unclear when and where exactly the film is supposed to be taking place. But there are also specific references to Algerian history and you indicate in the credits that the film was shot in the South of France. It’s an interesting combination of abstraction and specificity.

We shot in France. It’s a French film, completely produced by French organizations like CNC and Arté and with regional funds from Pacard, Languedoc-Roussillon. We were designated by those agencies, who support French cinema, to make this film in France with public monies. I mention this because every film has a time and place connected to it, especially when public funds are involved. But Michel Foucault’s ideas of heterotopia and heterochronie are also inherent in the production of this film—it really captures the power of cinema to respond to the cruelty of our times, one that doesn’t just concern the country I’m from or France, but the world in its entirety. Everywhere in the world today, we see brown shirts and hear boots marching on the ground. This is a world of reactionaries. What should the film industry do at this time? Should we just entertain and divert? Or should we master the art [of cinema] and its power? That’s the question I pose in making this film.

More specifically, why did you want to make an Algerian story set in France? 

I was born in Algeria, but I was two when I left. I grew up in France. I was a student at the time of the events [referenced in the film.] The electorate in Algeria was disenfranchised and I felt powerless to respond to this act of the government. The worst was the confiscation of voting rights, which came like a prairie fire sweeping through many countries in the world [whose effects] we still see today. Even this year, we’ve seen that Moroccan dissidents have been imprisoned for dozens of years and subjected to torture. People in Morocco feel powerless because even though everyone knows about it, no one can do anything about it. Nothing is new on this front. It’s the same in Pakistan, in India, with Kashmir.

It’s interesting that you mention Kashmir—your film actually reminded me of an Indian movie named Haider, which is an adaptation of Hamlet set in Kashmir. In the film, Hamlet’s father is a Kashmiri surgeon, and militants barge into his home one night and force him to operate on their wounded leader, which leads to the Indian army kidnapping and torturing him.

Wow, there’s not much imagination to my film! [Laughs]

It made me think about how doctors are such excellent characters through whom to explore a civil conflict. Their jobs require a kind of unbiased, disciplined humanism, which can be morally complex during times of war.

Doctors are the first to confront physical and mental suffering. They must do so despite physical and emotional hardships, and despite people being broken by their experiences. The doctor has to keep going forward and support the notion of civilization. The hospital [in the film] is a place for asylum, for refuge. It is a safe space, which is at the same time completely run-down and falling apart. It’s a house of cards, essentially. In the end, I pose the question to spectators and citizens, to what extent are we just going to sit here and not do anything about it? At what point should we jump in and start reacting to these situations and trajectories we see play out in the film? The doctor finds himself plunged in a climate of absolute terror every day, but when his own life is in danger, maybe that’s the thing that will move him to action.

What do you mean by “move him to action”?

When he takes the gun out of the glove compartment and shoots [the soldiers], that comes at a point where he’s been tortured and the friends who save him bring him to a place where he communes with horses and sees nature around him. When he decides to take the gun out of the glove compartment, he makes a choice. Is he going to sit down and be tortured again, after being menaced by oppressive forces, or is he going to fight back? What would you do in his place, at that moment?

Are you trying to say that the neutrality of a doctor is impossible in this kind of society? Or is it morally indefensible?

I believe our neutrality is becoming more and more amoral and immoral. How much longer are we going to live with smoke and mirrors around these situations and not face them head-on? Everything around us is to be doubted for its veracity. The film is very dark and obscure in that way, but it is punctuated by rays of light where you can see that there is hope for the world.

And what are those moments?

The flamingos at the end, the horses who surround the doctor in a waltz that heals him from his torpor, those points of connecting with nature.

The film is tough to watch, but also incredibly beautiful to look at in terms of how it’s shot and framed, with delicate use of light and shadow. What was your aesthetic approach to the film? How did you reconcile it with the film’s themes?

We always put the violence off-screen. We never see blood splashing over.

I agree, I don’t mean that it aestheticizes violence, I just mean that every single frame and shot is beautifully composed. I’m wondering how that aesthetic of beauty fits into the politics of the film.

The aesthetic fits the politics because it uses all the suggestive powers of cinema. That’s why I believe in film as a major art form, because we can harness the power in beautiful images to still communicate things that are heavily political. The aesthetic component of the film follows; it’s secondary. We’re not looking to make beautiful or subtle images. That’s how they come to us in the capturing and telling of the story. We simply adapt ourselves to the constraints of the resources in making the film. What we were really working at was capturing small mosaics of images, fragments of reality, that could then be built into the story we had at hand. We used the “brute force” of documentary fragments to transform the film into a fictional, impressionist painting. My process is to work on that line between documentary and fiction, inspired by Éric Rohmer’s shooting process. To work with the real and fit it into the narrative—not to rebuild the narrative towards reforming the real. We are not looking to make a beautiful film, but making the best film that we can in completely aleatory circumstances.

What do you mean when you say you employed a documentary mode? Was that in terms of the actors, the situations, or the locations?

We were in a real, closed-down hospital in the most disaffected neighborhood of Nimes, but with actors. We were building situations inside real locations that we imagined would be true to the situation. We had to improvise the set dressing or production design from one day to the next. It wasn’t complete improvisation, but it was elaborated in minutiae, as each detail was added to make [the settings] look more authentic. The hospital was actually shot in several different locations. For the cemetery, we just dug several graves in a garden the night before shooting. So, each day just gave us enough time to set up the next day.

It’s like anything can be anywhere in your film: a cemetery can be in a garden, and Algeria can be in France.

[Laughs] We were blessed with the warm, golden Mediterranean sun. But it’s still a French-language film, so it could be Algeria from the past, or France in the future. Or another country of any sort.

How did you work with your cinematographer, Irina Lubtchansky, to develop the look of the film?

It’s very simple. We didn’t come to the film with any kind of planning or expertise. We, the director and the cinematographer, are running after the film, finding what suits it best. We imagine ourselves as explorers in the Amazon, looking to see where the next step is. We’re like wildlife documentarians. We discover places, landscapes, faces, and bit by bit, we get close to their hearts.

Another striking aspect of the film is the ambient sound. You often enhance it so that the dialogue is enveloped by the sounds of the city, the trash being collected, of people going about their day. How did you develop the sound design for the film?

Our friend Nikolas Javelle, the sound designer, had already recorded street noises in Cairo and other oriental and Middle Eastern towns. He used congested town backgrounds, which all came from his pre-recorded library of sounds. We were in Marseilles with one sound sample; Beirut, Rabat, and Cairo were all covered as well. So even when nothing is happening, we have the background noises of helicopters and klaxons from these different cities. In Marseilles, for example, there’s a lot of honking of horns.

Why did you choose to fill the film with that kind of amplified ambient sound? What was the effect you intended?

To add to the confusion of time and place, so that the spectator should feel disoriented and anxious about all these sounds of congestion and chaos. We also used Swedish lullabies in the film in two places to open up the universality of the film. We could’ve stayed within the norms of North African folklore or Provencal cultural traditions, but we want to think outside the French-Algerian axis. So in the musical terrain, we opened the door to another dimension of contextualizing the film, and also reinforced the notion of being unstable in our place and time and culture.

There’s one particular scene that I found especially moving. The protagonist and his friend Mo are sitting on the sidewalk as the trash is being cleared off the street, and while they’re talking about what’s happening to the world around them, they burst into peals of laughter over a silly joke. It’s a brief, tender moment of normalcy.

We shot that scene in the poorest, most populous neighborhood of Nimes, just at the end of a market day. It was the first time we had seen that space and the giant street-cleaner that sucks up the trash, all the leftovers of a super-abundant society and all the abandoned vegetables, and the vacuum cleaners would [emit] billows of smoke as they passed through the dust. So, in this hyperrealistc moment, we installed two completely invented characters on the bench, just talking about completely unrelated things. We filmed them really tight, the shot is close on them, and the moment breaks into a real release from their captivity in the space as they tell a joke and laugh. It’s after a threat was made to the doctor, so it’s a liberation for him to laugh. And the joke they made at the end, about the six-kilo telephone, was completely improvised.

I guess it helps that your lead actor is a comedian!

Yes, he’s very well-known as a comedian in France. And of course, his role in this film as a doctor is completely the opposite of his public persona.

As the film goes on, you feel more and more suffocated—and then that last shot, of the glittering ocean, comes as a reprieve, as the doctor finally gets on a boat to escape. Did you always want the film to end on that note of optimism?

We didn’t know if he would escape. It was only while we were making the film that I decided that he would. In the first draft, we ended the film with him in the middle of the desert, alone and abandoned after an accident. Then we discovered the countryside, the Camargue, and we said there’s no other way to end the film but on the open sea. It was a gift of God that the light landed like that on the wide open spaces of the sea, that are sparkling with hope.

Is that why you knew wanted it to end it there, with a gesture of hope?

It’s because we had no choice. The adventure of making the film proposed to us this optimistic scenario. That ending imposed itself on us. A film is like a wild animal. You can’t tame or domesticate it, but must learn to live with it on its own terms.

The image of the sea is especially resonant with today’s refugee and migrant crises.

Of course. We’re in a country here, in Canada, that’s full of immigrants, that’s made up of immigrants. Humanity today is like so many skylarks, circling around.

But that makes me wonder about the hopefulness of the end. The protagonist is on the boat and he’s smiling in relief, but I’m thinking: what happens next? In today’s world, the ocean has its own bureaucracy. People who set out into the sea to find freedom are denied it more often than not.

We can never know what will happen next; death can happen at any moment, but we must accept this aspect of unknowability in our daily life. Even if we are predestined to a certain life, we can make something other of it. We can go somewhere else, take another course. That’s what the doctor decided to do.

You mentioned Rohmer as inspiration for the film. Were there any other films or filmmakers that have inspired you?

I’m at heart an anthropologist, as a filmmaker, and my first influence was Jean Rouch. When I was a kid, I watched Ciné-club in France, which had a well-curated selection of films from all cultures. But they also showed F.W. Murnau, John Ford, and Jean Renoir.

interview: nanfu wang and jialing zhang

First published in Film Comment on Aug 12, 2019.

Nanfu Wang was born in China in 1985 and grew up through the last few decades of its “one child era”—i.e., the period from the late 1970s to 2015 during which the state enforced a one-child-per-family policy through law, force, and ubiquitous propaganda. Thanks to the latter, Wang—who was the firstborn in one of the lucky rural families permitted to have a second child—never fully realized the destructive extent of the policy on her family, community, and her own self.

Wang left China for college in the States, and it was only when she had her first child that she began to reflect on her experiences of the one child regime. “Becoming a mother felt like giving birth to my memories,” she says in the opening scenes of her doc One Child Nation, co-directed with fellow NYU alum Jialing Zhang. In the film, Wang expands that simple, personal motivation into a wide-ranging inquiry into the psychological workings—and vestiges—of the decades-long policy.

Wang initially approached Zhang to collaborate because she wasn’t sure if she would be able to return to China after the government censure she faced while shooting her previous film, Hooligan Sparrow (2013), which follows the eponymous Chinese activist’s protests against an elementary school principal accused of sexually abusing his students. Wang was ultimately able to return, and she begins the doc in her hometown. As she interviews her family and friends, secrets and guilt-laden confessions start spilling out—including, horrifically, stories of girl children given away or left to die so the parents could try again for a boy.

Following these leads, Wang interviews a wide variety of people who either effected or were affected by the policy. A former enforcer admits she killed many infants back in the day and now works as a fertility doctor to try and make up for her sins, while another, an award-winning family planner, proudly claims she has no remorse and would do it all over again. Some of the most moving, difficult threads in the documentary follow the secondary victims of the one-child policy: a family that rescued abandoned children and sold them to state-run orphanages, only to later be imprisoned for human trafficking, as well as adoptive American parents who were never told that their children were taken from their biological parents by force. Wang is remarkably clear-eyed as she weaves together these stories, neither condoning the people who enabled the policy on the ground nor losing sight of the bigger picture—of the ways in which an authoritarian regime erodes all sense of individual agency and responsibility.

Wang and Zhang tread a wide scope and take on a beast of a subject, but One Child Nation is refreshingly (and forcefully) modest and human-scaled. Simple, direct, and never sensationalistic in their approach, the co-directors maintain their focus on the theft of autonomy—especially that of women, over their bodies and lives—that has left a whole generation feeling helpless. Their film is an attempt to intervene in the fatalistic narrative of propaganda, an effort that feels especially urgent as China replaces all its ads, posters, and songs promoting the one-child policy with the new two-child policy, intended to correct the drastic reduction in workforce caused by the former. The details change, but the intent remains the same: to clamp down on women’s right to choose and a nation’s right to remember.

In advance of the release of One Child Nation in theaters on August 9, Wang and Zhang talked to Film Comment about the challenges of evading government scrutiny while filming in China, contending with gendered violence, and weaponizing individual and collective memories against propaganda.

When I first read about your film at Sundance I was expecting something more polemical, or an expose. I was surprised to see that it’s really a psychic profile—a profile of the people who grew up under the one child policy and of how deeply the policy has affected the psyche of a community.

Nanfu Wang: I’m glad that you said it that way because we really hoped to get the complexity out and focus on not just what happened but why it happened. From very early on we both didn’t want to make a TV documentary—like a history or an expose—with lots of exposition or talking heads. The few encounters we had with the people who enforced the policy showed us that these are all nice people. We felt so much empathy towards them and it became our goal to not let the audience judge them, to not depict of them in any way that would make people look at them and say, “Those people are evil or backwards or uneducated, that’s why they did those things.” Instead, we wanted to show these are nice people, and like a lot of atrocities around the world this was carried out by individuals. Most of the time, the individuals were not evil inherently but they participated because of the social circumstances and because the authorities distorted their sense of morality. That became something that we really wanted to explore. We asked ourselves a lot: why did they do that? If we were them, would we do the same thing? And turns out, the answer is usually that we might have done the same thing if we were them, if we had never left China and we were under this sort of indoctrination for our whole life.

You mostly speak to everyday people, ordinary people in the documentary. Even though you interview many people who were involved in the family planning system, you didn’t talk to any bureaucrats or authorities. Was that entirely due to lack of access or was it also a creative decision?

NW: Well, we do have officials from the village level and the award-winning family planner. We could only interview enforcers; in terms of the policymakers, we are talking about the central government level, who are too high up. There was no way we could ever get access to them and also no way we could even finish the film, because that is just not how the government in China works. You can’t just send a letter or email or phone call to request an interview with a government official. There’s no channel to get access to the top leaders who initiated the policy. So we chose [to focus on] the local government level, to film people who actually were carrying out the policy, not drafting the policy.

You [Nanfu] faced some issues with government scrutiny and surveillance when you were making your previous film, Hooligan Sparrow. Was there a fallout from that experience that bled into this one and informed how you had to go about making this documentary?

NW: The first thing directly impacted by Hooligan Sparrow was that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go back to China. We didn’t know for a long time, and even the first time we went back was nerve-wracking; we didn’t know what was going to happen. The second lesson that I learned was not to stay in public hotels, not to take trains or any public transportation because that’s how the government would check an activist or anybody that they wanted to target. By checking their ID registration for those places.

Jialing Zhang: That was one of our many challenges during production, how to finish the film without getting unwanted attention from the government. So we kept each trip very short and efficient and we prepared very carefully. Every time we traveled to China we made all kinds of emergency plans.

Like what?

JZ: For example, we both have a GPS tracking app on our phones and I monitored her location every time and I paid attention to how many hours she spends in each specific location. If she stays too long, then I will be very alert. We had decided, if she is missing for a few hours, a few days, what kind of plan we should take accordingly. For all these trips we would prepare every hour very carefully. Then luckily we finished the film and we were able to bring the footage back to the U.S. It was a little bit nerve-wracking, but we made our way out.

Since the film has come out and garnered attention have you faced any sort of pushback?

NW: So far we haven’t had any direct confrontation from the government. The only thing that we could see is that news about the film would sometimes be censored. In China they have a website, Douban, which is like the equivalent of IMDB where they have pages for films. Somebody had made a page for us when we premiered at Sundance, and within days that page was taken down. So the title is still there, but when you click, it says this page doesn’t exist.

I noticed that almost all of your interviews take place in Mandarin, but the narration and the framework are in English. That made me wonder—whom do you perceive as the audience for the documentary, and whom is it addressed towards?

NW: I think for both of us, who are Chinese and who lived in China for almost our entire lives, Chinese audiences are always the most important, because we want them to know what happened in the country, which even we didn’t know before. And we believe awareness is the first step for any change. If we want China to improve, the only way is for them to be aware first.

But we are super aware of how small the chance is to have any official showing in China. So we want the film to be seen outside of China, by as many people as possible, and we believe the more exposure it has outside of China, the more likely it is that Chinese people are going to become aware of this film, are going to have their friends who study and work in the U.S., in Europe, tell them about the film. That’s why English is used for the voiceover narration, because that’s the way that we can reach out to as many people as possible outside of China first.

There was one other thing about language that I didn’t realize until recently. So for Hooligan Sparrow I did an English voiceover, and a year later I wanted  to make the film available to China, so I started trying to record a Chinese voiceover. I started recording it, basically translating from English, but I realized it was really difficult for me to say it in Chinese. I never thought of language in that way, but One Child Nation made me think about how language is a way to control you, tell you how to think, and what to think. In Chinese, the words “human rights” or “universal values” or “democracy,” all these very neutral, to some extent positive words, are associated with negative meanings. “Human rights” in Chinese has the connotation of radical people, rebels, even criminals. Like the word is associated with “illegal.” So when I tried to do the voiceover in Chinese, I realized I felt uncomfortable saying some words because they don’t have the same meaning as they have in English. I felt I became politically aware and awake when I learned English, when I use English to work.

The strand of gender violence that you brought out in the film, that’s something that I also grew up around in India. But what I found interesting in the doc is that a lot of people you interviewed seemed to be displacing their sexism onto the one child policy. So there’s this idea that girl children were abandoned or given away because of the one child policy, whereas the root of that problem is that people don’t want the girl child. How did you navigate those two things while you were talking to people?

NW: The two things are interwoven, and of course, the patriarchal society definitely compounded the one child policy. If the one child policy wasn’t there, the girls would still be discriminated against, which they still are today. I think what the one child policy contributed is that [without it] the family wouldn’t go to that extreme to abandon the daughter. They probably would not have distributed their resources equally as they would to their sons, but they definitely would have kept the daughter, whereas under the one child policy it was just so common that parents would leave their daughters to die or give their daughter away, which is against the human biological instinct of protecting your own children.

There is another narrative: a lot of people believe that the one child policy actually improved women’s status, because in a lot of urban areas, those who only had one daughter focused their entire resources on her, and a lot of girls today of our generation would say, yeah, if I had a younger brother I wouldn’t have been able to go to school. But that shouldn’t be the reason to appreciate the one child policy; instead, people should actually look at other ways they can improve women’ status, which still is far from equal in China, in education and work and almost any aspect of life.

I’m curious about this idea that people’s biological instinct to protect their babies would have made sure that they at least kept the girl child if the one child policy didn’t exist. But growing up in India, where there is no restriction on how many children you can have—although people are encouraged to have just two children—people still abort or abandon female infants, just out of poverty, or not wanting to feed or bear the burden of a girl. That’s why I was wondering—these are two really tricky issues that also exist independently, and it’s interesting to hear your interviewees talk about them in a way that seemed like they were trying to sidestep the real problem.    

JZ: I mean traditionally, in Chinese society, they have a strong preference for boys because in agriculture, boys are essential for the family to survive. But what happened with the one child policy is that if you can only have one child, then a lot of families just abandon the girls and keep trying until they have a boy. For the past three or four decades, being able to feed your daughter is not an issue in China because the economy has improved generally.  And I think the reason most families abandoned their daughter is because of the one child policy. It’s not poverty anymore.

One of your interviewees, the artist Peng Wang, said the worst thing that could happen to a nation is losing its memory. Your film sort of responds to that assertion because you’re sifting through your own memories. You’re trying to resist propaganda by retrieving personal memory. 

NW: Memory is the central part of the individual identity… and I think that’s true with a nation, too. What a nation is is how the nation remembers its past, and with the authoritarian government in China, so far recent history has been written in the authorities’ narrative; how they came into power, and what has happened since they came into power, have been revised in a way that fits into the official narrative. So a lot of the people in the younger generations, people even in our generation, some of them would never have heard of the Tiananmen Square protest, the protest that’s known throughout the entire world. And let alone the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, all those memories have been erased or lost to a certain extent, because the people who lived through it have either died or are in prison or in exile.  The one child policy is still recent and it just ended in 2015. But we are already seeing how the government is trying to erase everything by replacing the propaganda. The kind of propaganda we discovered in our film probably could not exist in the next five years. We are really concerned that in ten years, how people remember the one child policy will be exactly what the government says about the one child policy.

JZ: The people in our film, they don’t really have a voice in China, and in Chinese media, they don’t exist. In China, there are certain things we are told to remember: that the propaganda version of the one child policy is correct, the government officials did a great contribution to the country, and that people who have only one child are patriotic. But by doing this film we want to offer our autonomy to the people to keep the collective memories of our generation. As filmmakers, if we don’t keep the memories, they will die in history, they will disappear.

What you’ve just described is how propaganda obscures the past. But another thread that came up in your film is how propaganda changes how you perceive the future and the trajectory of your life. A lot of people that you interviewed said, “This was my fate.” But policy is not fate, people make policy. That’s something that you really have to contend with when you work against propaganda, right? People start to think of it as a universal reality or spiritual belief.

JZ: Yeah, there’s a feeling of powerlessness in our parents’ generation because a lot of major decisions about their lives were made by the government, including how many children they can have. It’s very sad because in China there’s little awareness of individual rights, and of reproductive rights as basic human rights. To some extent it’s still that way, but we hope that our film can make a little difference to help people realize that those areas are just something the government should not be involved with. It’s a basic human right to have reproductive choice.

feeling seen: we need to talk about “us”

First published in Film Comment on April 10, 2019 as part of their new column, Feeling Seen. Here’s their introductory blurb:

Feeling Seen is a new weekly column focusing on personal reflections on films and featuring a different author every week. For this edition, critics K. Austin Collins and Devika Girish talk through Jordan Peele’s Us and issues of horror, race, class, and more, in a wide-ranging dialogue that starts off with a reflection on criticism itself. (Note: the conversation has been edited and condensed.)”

Devika Girish: So one of your strongest reactions to Us was not to overthink it—a plea to enjoy the film, take it at its face value and try not to read too much into its symbols and allegories. I disagreed with that response a little bit, only because I really enjoy overthinking films, and I enjoy speculating about world-building and Easter eggs. I’ve been going down all those Twitter threads delineating the various motifs in the film. But you brought a larger question to my mind about the desire to read a lot into films, both those with a protagonist of color and those made by a filmmaker of color. I’m wondering if there is a heightened desire to read more into such films and whether that’s an unfair burden for a filmmaker like Jordan Peele.

KAC: Well, it’s interesting that you ask about this in terms of filmmakers of color because part of the premise of not overthinking it is my reaction to the conversation around Donald Glover’s “This Is America” video, which is not a music video that I love, but it’s not even about how I feel about it. On the one hand I thought it was cool to see people take the images he was invoking in that music video and unpack them and give the Norton Critical Edition of that music video. But to me, it didn’t matter how many references there were, the basic point of the video was still overly simple. The complicated thing about the video was the labyrinth of references, the curation—it wasn’t the intellectual idea behind it. You could give me any number of cross-eyed, skewed, rare, obtuse references to blackface, but ultimately you’re making an old argument about our taking pleasure in that kind of violence, etc., etc. You’re not enlivening the argument by displaying your ability to come up with a new system of references.

DG: Right.

KAC: I feel a little differently about Us in that Jordan Peele is going for a more unique idea. The movie is at its smartest when it plays with our expectation of how race does or doesn’t factor in that discourse of have or have-nots. The reason that my instinct was “don’t overthink it” was that as soon as I walked out of the theater, I was surrounded, because Us is the kind of movie that has a press screening at a multiplex in New York with a mix of critics and moviegoers. It’s a really good way to see that movie, because you’re seeing it with a crowd. But as soon as it ends, the first thing everyone is doing is asking “How does this relate to that?” and “What are the references at the beginning of the movie with that VHS tape?” But for me, when I sat down and thought about it, raising more questions was more unsatisfying. I was reading the movie in a wrong way by trying to treat it as a puzzle. Even though it does give that impression, I don’t think that that’s the most satisfying, most successful way that the movie works. I think it works much better, fundamentally, as just a horror movie. It’s a good horror experience. And it’s good that it has ideas, and it should have ideas, but the use of symbols and obscurities to bolster those ideas—that’s when I lose interest. Because I think you can communicate those ideas effectively in other ways. So that’s what I mean by “don’t overthink it.” I don’t know, I don’t like it when my feed becomes like Reddit. [Laughs]

DG: Yeah.

KAC: I don’t like it when the conversation becomes “let’s unpack everything.” Because if you’re raising these questions about class and have-nots, why is so much of the conversation about unpacking those symbols and not about the political idea there? The conversation that we were having wasn’t about class. [Laughs] We were picking up on details like the Howard University sweatshirt. But there’s a whole conversation to be had there about the black middle class. Even if the movie is encouraging you to, don’t reduce it to a puzzle,  because if all it is, is a puzzle, then I don’t think it’s very good or interesting art. That’s how I feel about Westworld: okay, I see where you’re going with this already, I could already tell he was a robot or whatever. Us gives you other things, it’s a smarter, better piece of art. I don’t want to deter people from going down that rabbit hole. I do think that Jordan maybe overdoes the amount of puzzliness, to the point that it distracts from the conversation we’ve been having about what’s at stake in the movie.

DG: It’s interesting that you mention the Childish Gambino “This is America” video. The difference to me is that that video seems very obviously to be aiming to produce that sort of narrative about race and America. With Us, I think you’re right that there are references that have to do with class, the black middle-class, and upward mobility within the context of race. But I also wonder if people are reading some things into it just because the family at the center of this film is black. Maybe in another context, something like a Howard T-shirt would just be a marker giving these characters a full identity, that don’t mean more than “Hey, this character actually has a life,” shorthand for this character’s life and arc. There’s this pressure put on this film, on this filmmaker, on these characters, to be far more than what they are, which is just well-rounded people.

KAC: There are a couple of things here. First of all, Get Out is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of phenomenon, for a movie, and particularly a movie right now that’s not a superhero film to take hold of the public imagination, of language, and the way that we talk about race. “The sunken place” is like a category of racial analysis now. [Laughs] As soon as Kanye fucked up, it’s, “Oh—sunken place.” It’s in the category of things like Uncle Tom, it means something now in terms of your relationship to your race. And it has been a while since a movie gave something like that and contributed to the culture in that way. And obviously it was his first movie and it was a hit, with a crazy amount of success that no movie is going to live up to. So necessarily when we’re talking about Us, we’re also talking about a movie made in the shadow of a movie that changed the culture.

DG: Us is tethered to Get Out, you’re right.

KAC: Yeah, precisely. There’s also the possibility that he is trying to make something that participates in the conversation in the way that Get Out did, and we are all overreading because we’re looking for the same way it can be in the conversation as Get Out was. I agree with you about something like the Howard shirt for example—there’s a difference, too, between a symbol that’s useful, and just a detail that resonates. The Howard sweatshirt is specifically resonant in the context of the father, of Winston’s character, having class envy for his wife’s friends. But the thing that’s so interesting to me about Us is that that archetype—the middle-class family for whom the grass is always greener with their slightly rich friends—is not racially specific. What’s interesting is that we don’t usually have stories about the black middle-class right now going wild in this way. The black middle-class is a Cosby-era sitcom thing, and a couple of Spike Lee movies, but it’s not the basis for movies that become mega-hits in the United States. Even though on TV, in shows like Blackish, you see the black middle-class family. But in this movie, what makes it interesting is: is their class envy also racial envy? I don’t think so. I really do think that they just happen to be a black family, they just happen to have white friends. And what’s important about them having any sort of money at all is that it creates a more dramatic contrast with the Tethered.

But the other thing that we’re overlooking is that everyone dies! The Tethered aren’t just going after middle-class people, they’re not just going after rich people, they’re going after everybody. Everybody above ground is better off than the people who are below ground. So does it matter that they are a middle-class family? Is it necessarily that kind of critique, when the movie also suggests that if they had less money, they would still be getting killed? It’s interesting because Jordan Peele is really playing with our expectation of how we navigate black or middle-class or the combination of the identities in the movie. He sets us up to expect that the movie is going to be about certain things that then, in this case, the movie both is and isn’t about. This isn’t really a movie about black middle-class specifically, or solely. The black family and the white family aren’t really different from everyone else who’s getting killed in that regard. But Peele sets you up to think that it’s going to be that kind of conversation. He’s leaning a bit into, “Yeah, I know I’m the guy that made Get Out, the movie about race, and I know I just made a movie about a black family and it’s a horror movie, and it has these elements of race and class.” The Howard sweatshirt is significant, and they’re a middle-class family with those class anxieties, but it’s not a movie about the situation, the condition, of the black-middle class. I think that his ability to play with that is interesting. Yes, we are prone to want a movie to be about certain things, or want it to have a certain argument about race and class because of who made it. We didn’t ask the same kind of questions about class in Hereditary. And she was an artist.

DG: And you don’t need these things as a marker of anything bigger in that setting. The mise-en-scène in Hereditary is just the mise-en-scène—that’s just where these people live.

KAC: Right, it’s a haunted house, so of course it’s big. Big and spooky.

DG: Yeah, and I think that what people are grappling with in interpreting Us is accepting this family as vehicle of a story that has universal implications. Race immediately feels specific, and to reconcile that with universality in this film is difficult for viewers. But it is also significant that the family are the survivors. I don’t know how many people are still alive at the end of the movie, how far this plague has spread, but as far as we can see, this is the family that’s made it. Maybe there is a simpler narrative explanation for that—I mean, Adelaide clearly knows better than others how to fight these people because, as we find out towards the end, she was one of them. But I guess it is also significant in the context of the horror movie trope of killing off black characters first. Is there something more to be read in their surviving this attack by an underclass that emerges to replace the… “above class”? I don’t know what the word would be here.

KAC: Yeah, I struggled to find the word. I just call them “above-ground.” I wish they had some sort of name—you know, in the Harry Potter universe, there’s the Muggles. Just give me a word for everything. [Laughs] It’s a really intriguing aspect because the survival of the family wasn’t on my mind at all before I saw the movie. It’s funny, I was sitting in the theater and as soon as the movie started, before even the scary part of that whole opening at the beach, I thought, “I feel like Lupita and Winston and the children are not going to die in this movie.” I just had a feeling that this wasn’t going to be how it played out.

DG: I wasn’t so sure about Winston, I’ll tell you that.

Austin Collins: If it’s anyone, it was going to be him.

DG: Yeah.

KAC: It’s complicated, right? Our idea of Lupita—I just knew that Peele wasn’t going to kill off the black matriarch. And I didn’t see him killing off either of the black kids. Even though I didn’t see him saying anything anywhere like “I don’t want to film that kind of violence towards black people.” But it just instinctively felt like something that he would not do. Black death on screen changes everything, particularly in the sense of a horror movie. I think it would be harder for him to walk the ideological mystery of this movie, in terms of the extent to which it’s about race. You couldn’t have a question there if he killed them off. That’s what’s smart about having the doubles. It doesn’t feel like a movie where we’re supposed to be talking about images of black death. It just is not that movie. And it’s so interesting that he’s able to do that in a horror movie—while showing black people dying. He’s showing the daughter in the tree, you know she’s going to die, he shows Lupita killing herself, and there’s a real sense of danger. But I think that the genius of this doubling is that he begins to play with the image of black death on screen while still preserving the nucleus of the black family. That to me is more interesting than any symbol per se—it shows that he’s found a way through the problem of representation there: how can you show black death on screen without the movie becoming about black death? I really don’t think that there are many movies that have found a solution to that problem.

DG: Yeah. Also, he’s taking a classic horror premise—the return of the repressed, the schizophrenic mind, that kind of thing—where we don’t usually see black people being the protagonist or the subject.

KAC: Right.

DG: And the doubling and splitting give these characters depth that makes them much more than just objects or elements of the plot. So there is something to be said about not overvaluing the presence of these characters. But at the same time, in the history of horror cinema and in the history of race on screen, I think there are some significant layers introduced by the fact that this narrative set-up is built around a black family.

KAC: Yes, for sure.

DG: In your review you talked about transcending genre, which you attributed to both Get Out and this film. I don’t think it’s new for horror films—or genre films, in general—to have strong social messages, it’s been part of the genre’s DNA for a long time. But what’s very interesting to me about both of Jordan Peele’s films is how they literalize certain things. It’s what you were saying earlier about Get Out and the sunken place. It took on something very current in our vocabulary of social justice, and in our general discourse, which is the idea of cultural appropriation, and I was struck by how it literalized that. Horror and fantasy allows you to do that. Us does the same thing. To me, for instance, one of the film’s most affecting themes was the idea of impostor’s guilt, especially in relation to class. And I’m wondering what work is done when we are responding to the ideas presented on screen in very visceral, bodily ways, whether laughing or screaming. I watched most of the film through my fingers. There’s something about the absolute terror this film wreaked on my body. I was clenched the whole time, and when I came home my neck muscles were hurting because of all the times I quickly turned my head away. My heart rate was up. That kind of embodied feeling combined with this very literal schema of social relations was very powerful for me. Ultimately what I kept returning to is the twist at the end, which I saw coming, but it still left an emotional impact on me. I kept thinking and shuddering at the idea of someone so young being able to comprehend that this person who is just like them has a better life. And then having the drive, the ruthless initiative, to switch places and condemn that person to the reality they came from, and then living with that their whole life. So at the end, I just relived every scene of the movie that had Lupita in it, thinking of her character now as someone who has carried this the whole time and is clearly not a monster. She is someone we grow to really sympathize with. And that was very unsettling for me.

Maybe it’s something personal I brought to it, too. Especially because I’m not American and I came here a few years ago as a student, it resonated with the diasporic aspect of my identity, and this guilt that I think often accompanies the idea of making it here and leaving people behind. And also the knowledge that I haven’t earned my place here—the knowledge of all the things beyond my merit or control that resulted into whatever social place I occupy today. What do you think is the effect or power of imbibing these ideas through body genres? I’ll say “body genres” because I think that there are comedic aspects to the film as well. Was there a particular theme that touched you very strongly?

KAC: First of all, I think that what you’re describing about the end of the film is precisely what I mean by “don’t overthink it”—your reaction was my reaction. You do that work in the moment when you find out that they switch places, and you rethink the entire movie, etc. But I remember talking to someone right after, and he was like, “Now I gotta re-watch it and check all the scenes and see if that holds up.” And I was like, “Yeah… I don’t know if I care if the math checks out.” [Laughs] To me it is about precisely the reaction that you have: that we should be thinking about our sympathy for the choice Adelaide made, about how these desires for the good life manifest themselves in this little girl who sees her double and just instinctively knows there’s a better life out there. And then, as you described, she is living with it, and this is the return of the repressed. The nightmare that she is describing to her husband, which we initially think is the PTSD of a little girl who walks into the funhouse and sees something scary, we have to rethink that as the fear of a person who you took something from and who keeps coming back for it. Knowing where they came from and why they want to take it back is a much more interesting thing to think about than making sure everything else adds up.

And I’m with you on this visceral reaction, and having that be more important than many other things. I think that one of the things that’s becoming part of Jordan Peele’s signature as a filmmaker is that he is really smart about black faces and the range of emotions and things that can verge on caricature that he has played with in both of his films. Whether it’s the way that Lupita performs, the things that she does with her face, or the ways that our experience of the sunken place is so rooted in that expression—Daniel Kaluuya hypnotized and the tears coming down his eyes, or the face that Betty Gabriel makes. For me, the most resonant thing about the film was the panic that Lupita communicates to us that we only retrospectively realize is panic that the other girl is coming back. It isn’t as simple as “I’m just worried that that girl is coming back to switch places,” it is much more loaded. You gain a sense of what’s below ground and of a real lower class, of a complete lack of privilege and complete lack of education, and this invisible connection that you have with this person above ground with a greater life. There’s the fear of being returned there, and the fear of the anger that she must have incited in someone by switching places with her.

Thinking about that has really been one of the biggest takeaways—not how attached you are to your privilege, but how we are all just running away from having nothing. The status of the people below ground is the universal nightmare, no one wants to live there. Nobody wants the life they have. And that is the fear that motivates the switch, and that is the fear that she is worrying about, because she knows that she kind of deserves it. That way of thinking about privilege—knowing that you kind of had that coming to you, and the people from below will come for you—is really interesting and resonates right now, in terms of our conversations about class and socialism. I’m not calling it a socialist movie. It’s the sort of thing that’s in the air, a fear of being upturned by a revolutionary force. And this is why class and race and things like that are so important to the horror genre. We play on our instinctive fears, and nobody wants to be Tethered. Nobody wants that! [Laughs] I think that’s the thing that, viscerally, I just really understand. My favorite detail in the entire movie is actually Elisabeth Moss’s tether, when she is looking in the mirror and she’s cutting her face, and it’s not Elisabeth Moss getting work done. This idea is really genius. This idea that the tether is just acting out these gestures of…

DG: Aspiration.

KAC: And it only makes sense in a world which requires some kind of capital—you’re eating, you’re buying things, you’re winning things, you’re going on rollercoasters, you’re getting plastic surgery done, you’re doing all these things. This would only make sense in a world of capital. For her to be absently imitating that gesture, without really having the referent in that moment, that just summed up so much for me.

DG: There’s something so chilling about those gestures, those markers of class and aspiration, when they are stripped of everything else.

KAC: Yes, there really is.

DG: And the futility: those things make no sense in and of themselves, and so those empty, futile gestures are what is aspired for. I was watching this Indian TV show on Amazon that just came out recently, called Made in Heaven, and it’s about a girl from a working-class family who marries into a very rich family, and about all the things she has had to do in order to make it there. One of the episodes shows flashbacks of her going to a grooming academy, where they teach you how to speak, how to walk, how to eat with a fork and a knife, and basically behave like a person who grew up with wealth.

KAC: Right.

DG: How to order, what not to say, how to taste wine. And I kept thinking of Us as well, how Adelaide learns speech, for instance, and how she acquires all these ways of being above-ground, and the kind of extreme loss that necessitates. The ability to self-annihilate that it requires. And of course, as the Elisabeth Moss double demonstrates, these characters have such a rudimentary understanding of these codes that instead of properly imbibing them, they can only mimic them.

KAC: Totally. To your point, Red, in her whole speech at the end, says that when she’s below ground and becomes Tethered, it’s  during the dance performance that they all realize that there’s something different about her. They realize that only because she’s been above ground and actually taken dance classes. She’s not good at it below ground because of the psychic Tethered relationship, she’s good at it because she had access. The self-annihilation you’re talking about is so interesting because she has to do that with her language, but she clearly doesn’t do that with her body or with her mind. And that’s why she becomes the leader of this underground thing, which is so much more interesting to think about.

I think that the movie runs into problems because it reveals information sometimes by dumping it in a way that makes you have other questions that just aren’t answerable by the movie. I had a debate with someone about how the below-ground people all get their scissors and red suits. I think if the movie had done more to not explain things, I think we would have been more likely to just accept, “They all get scissors,” because, who cares? Once Adelaide lays out her whole plan and tells us everything, then I start asking those questions: “Where did she get her sandals from?” [Laughs] “What are these prison uniforms, what is with this world?” I think that you have to feel the movie—the visceral reaction you were talking about—and I think that is so much more important than intellectually understanding the movie. It’s a horror movie and the way it communicates so much of what it is about, is through the visceral, through fear.

DG: And through desire too. I think what’s more important than understanding how she orchestrated everything is just understanding her desire to do this.

KAC: Right. It’s about the desire, and it’s about accepting the premise of there being these two worlds, and I felt that the movie ran into trouble because it had calibrated how to get us to ask enough questions, but not to not ask the questions that weren’t important. The more that it’s driven home to me that “You guys are below the ground and you have nothing,” the more I’m like, “So what’s with the bunnies? Who’s cleaning up the bunny shit?” That’s a question one of my friends asked, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it since. Why isn’t Lupita worried about stepping into bunny shit? I don’t know, good question!

DG: Oh my god.

KAC: Yeah, don’t think about it.

DG: And who’s ironing the red jumpsuits? I don’t know why that really got my attention: how they were perfectly ironed and folded by these people who have stunted movements and live a very crude life.

KAC: There is a moment in the montage at the end, when Red is explaining how all of these things happened, when you see them suiting up and getting their scissors. And I was talking to someone who was like, “So did she go around and get everyone’s sizes first?” It’s true—don’t go down these avenues of practicality, even though I think the movie doesn’t know how to not encourage that. You can’t figure it out. It’s about desire, it’s about understanding these class instincts, and just wanting a life. For the Tethered to want to be above ground is such a basic desire that we should all be able to understand it.

DG: You mentioned earlier how timely the movie and its images and themes feel right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hands Across America campaign. Red saw it when she was really young, and so that is her arrested idea of what politics or political action is, because that’s what was most legible to her as a child: what was on TV. And there’s an irony to that being the Tethered people’s plan, because they’re literally killing everyone in the world—and then they’re staging this movement that is entirely based on visibility.

KAC: Right.

DG: Right? That was a kind of boondoggle because Hands Across America was meant purely as a statement. But what does a statement even mean when the people you’re sticking it to, you’ve already killed them? Something about that does feel very resonant today, not just to today’s politics but to social media and how activism plays out in these terrains of media and visibility.

KAC: I really agree with you. I don’t know if I would call the movie satirical, but I do think that it is a satirical thing for that to be the image of political action that she has, because as you point out, it was ineffectual, right? It didn’t do anything. And what’s particularly hilarious is that it’s also very ’80s—this huge political symbol that we’re all going to be involved in, and it’s probably going to involve celebrities. All of us holding hands across the country, I don’t think we would do that today. This has to be the Live Aid, We Are the World kind of era of political action. But for it to be ineffectual is so interesting, because by killing everyone, the Tethered have already done more than that image of holding hands. I really wondered about that, because I think that Hands Across America is not just part of ’80s nostalgia. I think he could be saying something about the current moment, that it’s already a different kind of conversation than one in which we are talking about ineffectual political activism. Ineffectual political activism was the real Hands Across America, the thing that she saw the photo of. In terms of political action, you can’t get more drastic than killing off the upper class.

DG: Right! Literally replacing the upper class.

KAC: It’s the most radical thing you can do.

DG: And media campaigns are thought of as a means to achieve that, in whatever tenuous way, and here, that’s reversed. This replacement killing campaign becomes a step towards the culmination of the campaign, which is a statement. I’m not quite sure what that exactly signifies for me.

KAC: I mean, it is crowdsourcing of a form: let’s all get together to do this thing, as a united, collective act. I think it’s the kind of instinct that we are currently repeating, so what’s so ’80s about it is that it manifests in that specific way. It was just a bad era for taste. [Laughs]

DG: It’s just corny.

KAC: Yeah. I will say that there is something about that last shot where we saw all of them in a row in orange, going off into the hills. By that time we have such a clear association with those orange jumpsuits and who’s wearing them and what they are, and that is a more powerful image than Hands Across America. They’re united after killing everyone, and this uniform does feel more violent, more powerful, more totalizing, somehow, the way that they accomplish it here. The mission was to kill everyone off and line up that way, a streak of orange going off into the hill and signifying a number of people that they killed, signifying the havoc that they’ve wreaked. It’s a more pointed symbol than Hands Across America, which is really not about anything.

DG: I also wonder if, going back to what we were saying about the Tethered aspiring to a world of capital, this sort of activism is an activism of capital, this liberal upper-class activism of image-making. I was thinking that in some ways the Tethered don’t understand the significance of what they’ve already done. Because, lead by Red, they believe that that’s how people above ground protest, that this is the sort of elevated, upper-class way of taking political action. And they don’t entirely recognize that it’s futile, in the same way that digging a knife through a cheekbone is not plastic surgery. I might be overthinking it here…

KAC: It’s funny to me that it can go either way. It could be acting out this political gesture, but it could also be a firm counterpoint to something like Hands Across America saying, “When you guys were doing this in the name of the underclass, it didn’t do anything. When the underclass does it on their own terms, for themselves, it’s different.” I almost wish that instead of just that info coming at the end, that throughout, somehow, Red’s character was more nakedly socialist, and not just nakedly political, so that we could ascribe the intention to the end by saying that in order for Hands Across America to be significant, this is what has to happen. There has to be an overturning of class. It would have been a different kind of movie, an angry movie, and it would have made people angrier if it really was pro-Red. [Laughs] Her name is Red, right, and she has these radical socialist gestures that I don’t think the movie quite endorses. It would be interesting to think about what would it be like if it did.

DG: There’s not that much pathos to what Red says in the end, despite the chilling implications of being from the above-world and then being locked into the underground and so having an awareness of difference. The movie does make her a bit of a monster, and we sympathize much more with Adelaide. Maybe that depends on what we bring to it as viewers. But I thought there was a lack of pathos in what she was saying, partly because of how much exposition she had to deliver towards the end. I got a bit distracted from the psychological weight of the horror that she carried.

KAC: Me too. I think that the way that she is written has a very clear parallel to Killmonger and T’Challa in Black Panther, in that it becomes about haves and have-nots. About the sort of life that you were able to have but I couldn’t have, and now I’m taking all the power that I’ve gained and all the things that I’ve learned, to defeat you, to take it back. But in Black Panther, when Killmonger dies, although he is a monster, it is much more poignant. There is a real sadness in it, and when we think that Red has died, it’s an inversion really, we are not sympathetic. But when we realize that Red is Adelaide, we are? Which is really weird, right?

DG: I think that we’re also scared. For me, I was so scared throughout the movie that the relief when Red died overrode any possible idea of sympathizing with her, because I was just terrified by her all throughout. There is a way in which Jordan Peele is flexing his mastery of these horror tropes and ideas, and sometimes that overwhelms these other themes that are a little less developed in the film.

KAC: Yeah, I think that the ambition of it is really interesting. I don’t think that he’s perfected it in this movie. Get Out perfectly manifests itself in its form, details the world very well, and has a concept that really works. The action of the movie speaks to its context, and it’s really both fun and moving in an active way. And I don’t think that the action of Us and the things that happen, the symbols that accrue throughout the course of the movie, work as neatly. But I really admire that he’s gone a bit harder—it’s a much more difficult concept, and there’s so much more going on in this movie.

DG: And the scale is much bigger in every way.

KAC: It’s a lot to deal with, to communicate with the audience while being entertaining and having Get Out as your first movie hanging over people’s heads. It’s really a lot.

DG: Yeah, and we wouldn’t necessarily be speaking of these films in the same breath if they were not both made by him. They’re such different films. This film, despite all of its references, feels so very original to me. I am excited to see what he makes next, and I’m definitely tuning into The Twilight Zone.

KAC: I’m curious about what he does, no matter what it is.

delight and delusion: berlin critics’ week

At this year’s Berlin Critics’ Week — a stimulating and wonderfully curated event that I recommend you make time for if you’re ever attending the Berlinale — I was invited as a guest speaker for the post-screening debate on Kostas Samaras’ MAGIC SKIN.

Here’s a video of the debate, if you want to see me in action:

 

And, if you don’t have time to watch the whole video, here’s a great report on the screening and the ensuing debate by my friend and fellow critic Hugo Emmerzael:

Blog #6/19 – Broken Wonder Machine

berlinale dispatch: phantoms of cinema past

First published on February 13, 2019 as part of the 2019 Berlinale Talent Press workshop.

“There’s no space for liberty,” says filmmaker Suhaib Gasmelbari about the state of contemporary Sudanese cinema, as we chat over a cup of coffee on the fifth day of the Berlinale. “There’s a just a phantom of liberty. I want to make films in a country where the minister knows I hate him, but he still can’t stop me.”

It is an unfortunate reality that is illustrated over and over again in Gasmelbari’s debut feature, TALKING ABOUT TREES, which screens in Panorama Dokumente. A poignant tribute to the resilience of cinephilia, the documentary chronicles the efforts of a group of retired Sudanese filmmakers – Ibrahim Shaddad, Manar Al-Hilo, Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim, and Eltayeb Mahdi – to revive a defunct cinema. In 1989, these filmmakers formed the Sudanese Film Group (SFG), an independent collective that was squashed months after its founding when a military coup established an Islamist dictatorship in Sudan. Now, three decades later, Shaddad, Al-Hilo, Ibrahim, and Mahdi continue their fight for Sudanese film culture through informal – and often mobile – public screenings. Ironically, things are not that much easier now: As the filmmakers acquire approvals and file documents, it becomes clear that the language of violent repression has been substituted by the language of censorious red tape.

Despite its historical framework (driven home forcefully in a scene where the filmmakers list all the political upheavals they have lived through, including decolonisation, three democracies, and three dictatorships), TALKING ABOUT TREES is a remarkably joyful film that revels in the movie-fuelled optimism of its protagonists. Gasmelbari was inspired to make the film after he visited one of the group’s mobile screenings. The event was beset by disasters, from car breakdowns to unsuitable weather conditions, but the stubborn dedication of Shaddad and co. impressed Gasmelbari. “I thought, I want to make a film not just about cinema, but also about this capacity to regenerate hope out of nothing.”

In many ways, TALKING ABOUT TREES is a follow-up to Gasmelbari’s doc short SUDAN’S FORGOTTEN FILMS (2018), which centred on the two men striving to preserve the country’s national film archive. Prior to the making of TALKING, Gasmelbari played a crucial role in acquiring the films of the SFG from the various basements and university archives in which they lay gathering dust. He (along with producer Marie Balducci) also helped secure a restoration deal with the Arsenal Institute of Film and Video Art. Clips from the restored films are interwoven into TALKING, providing a gorgeous illustration for its protagonists’ reference-rich banter about film craft.

By a happy coincidence, several of these films, including Shaddad’s THE HUNTING PARTY (1964) and Mahdi’s THE STATION (1989) are also playing in the Berlinale’s FORUM EXPANDED section. Gasmelbari appreciates the cross-generational poetics of unveiling TALKING ABOUT TREES to the world along with the lineage from which it arises. Honouring the work of the SFG filmmakers allows him to redress the erasure they have suffered over the years – not just from the authorities, but also from his own generation of filmmakers. “They want to appear as if they’ve come from nowhere,” he says, “so they kill their parents.”

sundance dispatch: midnight family & the infiltrators

First published in Film Comment on February 11, 2019.

There’s a scene in Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family that has all the trappings of a high-octane action-movie chase sequence. The Ochoas—patriarch Fer, and sons Juan and Josue—race against another vehicle through the neon-lit streets of Mexico City. The teenaged Juan is at the wheel, cutting haphazardly through traffic; Fer yells out directions, shouting at passersby to get them out of the way; and the nine-year-old Josue sits in the back, whooping and cheering, “We’re gonna win!” It all seems like an adrenaline-thumping adventure—until you remember that you’re watching a documentary, that the Ochoas are driving an ambulance, and that they’re trying to beat another ambulance to the scene of a terrible accident.

It’s this peculiar world that Lorentzen attempts to capture in his rich, attentive second feature—the world of “free market healthcare at its most complicated,” as he puts it in a Skype interview before the premiere of Midnight Family at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. His subjects, the Ochoas, operate one of the many private ambulances that attempt to alleviate (and profit from) Mexico City’s distressingly skewed ratio of 45 public ambulances for 9 million people. It’s a precarious business steeped in corruption—the Ochoas are untrained and uncertified, and they bribe the police to get ambulance calls directed to them—and it’s made even murkier by the fact the Ochoas’ own survival depends on finding patients desperate enough to need them and wealthy enough (and willing) to pay them.

Most of Midnight Family is confined within the Ochoas’ ambulance, with Lorentzen, a one-man-crew, documenting their nightly grind in all its lulls and thrills. Lorentzen’s camerawork—which won a Special Jury Award at Sundance—is strikingly classical, in spite of the cramped space and the frenetic pace of things. Each frame in Midnight Family is beautifully lit, which the director attributes to Mexico City’s vibrant urban lightscape; it’s also a patiently composed film, with Lorentzen often isolating the main characters in lush wide shots, using a single prime lens mounted in front of the ambulance. “I always wanted the viewer to experience the ambulance as something they were riding,” he says, “and keeping the lens consistent puts you in a place and keeps you there.”

That sense of static, bounded perspective makes Midnight Family both “a sensorial and an ethical rollercoaster,” as Lorentzen describes it. His camera takes us into the inner life of the Ochoas, drawing us into their hopes, worries, and often endearing banter; it also offers a remarkably unfiltered glimpse into the escalating compromises they make to stay afloat in this business. First they’re cutting corners by avoiding some of the more expensive equipment; soon, they’re redirecting patients to farther-away hospitals that pay them a commission, which backfires troublingly towards the end of the film. Lorentzen says he struggled with his role as a documentarian while filming these scenes. “It’s the eternal dilemma of filming problematic things,” he says. “What could I have done, if anything, and was the story that I captured as a result of perhaps not doing anything worth it?”

Ultimately, he was convinced, he says, that “the Ochoas were good people trying to survive in a broken system.” That’s certainly the impression one gets from Midnight Family. The most affecting scenes in the film are of the Ochoas interacting with patients. They’re genuinely caring and tender, whether while resuscitating the unconscious baby of a broke junkie or comforting a victim of domestic abuse. By capturing the little negotiations that undercut their kindness—their attempts to figure out, for instance, if the abused woman comes from a “fancy” family—Lorentzen gets us uncomfortably close to the moral, emotional, and social consequences of a fast-corporatizing world.

The specter of privatization also lingers in the background of The Infiltrators, an inventive docudrama set in and around an ICE detention center in Florida. Adding insult to the plight of the detainees at the Broward Transitional Center, many of whom are refugees and asylum-seekers, is the fact that they’re held in a for-profit institution run by George Zoley’s GEO Group. Each additional day of their cruel and often indefinite detention generates more revenue for the company.

In The Infiltrators—which won the NEXT Innovator Award at Sundance last weekend—directing-couple Alex Rivera (Sleep Dealer) and Cristina Ibarra (Las Marthas) tell the astonishing story of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), a group of teenage undocumented activists who infiltrated the Broward Center in 2012 to prevent deportations and release detainees. Rivera and Ibarra started filming with the NIYA soon after one of its leading members, Marco Saavedra, let himself get caught and locked up at Broward with the aim of freeing an Argentinian detainee named Claudio Rojas. In the days that followed, the directors closely documented the activists on the outside as they coordinated with Saavedra—and later, with Viridiana Martinez, who infiltrated the women’s section—to smuggle documents in and out of the center and pressure local Congressmen to stop specific deportations. Their lack of access to the main site of action—i.e., the detention center—forced Rivera and Ibarra to get creative with the format of the film.

“There was no way to tell the story with the footage we had,” says Rivera, as we chat in Park City a few days after The Infiltrators’ warmly-received premiere. Instead, he and Ibarra devised a uniquely hybrid structure for the film, supplementing their documentary footage with stylish re-enactments of the goings-on within the detention center. The film zips back-and-forth between these two, distinct modes: the documented portions are gritty and handheld, while the dramatized scenes are shot with all the thrilling stylistics of a heist film, from clever one-liners to slickly-edited, Oceans Eleven-esque sequences of Saavedra and the other detainees hoodwinking the guards. The split adds an almost fantastical, game-like edge to the film. The detention center and the outside world feel like separate universes traversed by a phone call, like in The Matrix.

“The fiction gives us pleasure and playfulness,” says Rivera, “ but the doc keeps it grounded in what we all know is an urgent humanitarian crisis. So it lets you have the cake and eat it, too.”

The documentary footage consists mostly of people talking on the phone in restaurants and living rooms, but it’s enlivened by the eloquence and grit of the young activists. One of the high points of the film is when Viridiana prepares to get caught at the entrance to Broward and rehearses her lines with Mohammed “Mo” Abdollahi, the charismatic leader the NIYA. In between giggles, Viridiana attempts different variations of “broken” English, while Mo advises her to look more “pitiful.” They’re both keenly aware of the stereotypes that are foisted upon them and know exactly how to weaponize them to their own advantage.

For Rivera and Ibarra, the chance to tell the story of these activists was also a chance to challenge mainstream media representations of immigrants. “In the right-wing, you see these constant, repetitive images of immigrants as invaders and criminals,” says Ibarra, “and then in liberal circles, you just see representations of suffering, of the bodies in the desert. But coming from immigrant families, we know that’s not the full picture—immigrants are also incredibly savvy, sophisticated, and intelligent political actors.” It’s a bit surreal to see The Infiltrators in 2019, when the conversation around immigration has taken center stage, and to remind oneself that the events depicted took place in 2012, during the Obama administration. It’s both an antidote to cultural amnesia—a reminder that oppressive immigration policies have extended beyond presidencies—and a call to action. Rivera and Ibarra end the film on a somber, open-ended note, emphasizing that Claudio Rojas, who was ultimately released with the help of the NIYA, is still caught up in hearings and trials. “I mean, it’s impossible to have any kind of closure,” says Ibarra. “so we intended to suspend the audience in the present and say that the battle they saw in the film ended, but the war continues.” Their riling, rousing film is an active contribution to that effort, a reminder that resistance can be as powerful as repression, even when you have everything to lose.

sundance dispatch: clemency

First published in Film Comment on February 4, 2019.

In keeping with Sundance 2019’s spotlight on complex and conflicting women-protagonists, Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency centers on a prison warden, who, at the start of the film, is overseeing her 12th state execution. It’s a scene of calm, clinical horror: the ill-fated prisoner is strapped onto an operating table in a small, fluorescent-lit room, with a pastor standing by at his feet; his family watches from the other side of a window, their sobs muffled by the glass. In the midst of it all, the warden, Bernadine (Alfre Woodard), keeps the proceedings moving with stoic instructions and nods. As the medics prepare the lethal injection, she leans in towards the prisoner and asks, “Can I get you anything?”

At the Eccles Theater in Park City, where the film screened last Tuesday as part of the Sundance Festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition, this moment elicited a mix of laughs and gasps. Bernadine’s pretense of normalcy—of etiquette, even—in such ghastly circumstances seemed absurdly cruel, on the one hand, and admirably professional, on the other.  It’s the blurry line between the two that Chukwu explores with her extraordinarily sensitive second feature, which chronicles Bernadine’s coming-undone as she confronts the execution of yet another prisoner.

Speaking at a cafe after the screening of her film, Chukwu says that she was inspired to tell this story after Troy Davis, a man from Georgia, was executed in 2011 despite significant doubts about his guilt and decades of appeals and protests against his sentence. “The morning after he was executed, so many of us were feeling a complexity of emotions,” says Chukwu. “And I thought, what must it be like for the people in the room? What are the psychological consequences of taking human life as part of your job?”

Chukwu, a film professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, began her research in 2014 by volunteering on the clemency case of Tyra Patterson, a woman who was freed last year after 22 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. Soon after, Chukwu created “Pens to Pictures,” a program through which she teaches female inmates how to make short films. “I thought, there are so many stories in this prison that will never leave these walls,” she says. “And my ability to help people tell their stories should not be confined to the privileged walls of the college classroom.”

Chukwu sought feedback on her script from both her students and the correction officers at the prison, which helped “deepen the humanity and compassion” of the story, she says. The extensive time she spent volunteering at the prison—8 to 10 hours on some days—also familiarized her intimately with the nuances of incarceration; she was especially struck, she says, by the “boringness and routine” that pervades it. In Clemency, with the aid of cinematographer Eric Branco, Chukwu effectively drives home the oppressive mundanity of the prison space: the shots are static and quiet and the colors dull and muted, painting a canvas of existential drabness against which the film’s ethical dilemmas play out. “We were also very intentional about the rigidness and meticulousness of the framing as an extension of Bernadine’s emotional detachment,” says Chukwu, citing Paweł Pawlikowski Ida (2013) as one of the inspirations for Clemency.

As the person in charge of maintaining the routine of the prison, Bernadine occupies a paradoxically powerless position within the circus of capital punishment: she oversees every step of the process, issuing orders, approvals, and denials, but she has no authority in deciding who dies or why. The brutal irony of “her job,” as she describes it over and over again in the film, is made apparent in one of Clemency’s most moving scenes. Days before the execution of a young man named Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), Bernadine visits his cell and describes to him the exact procedure of his death, down to “at that point, the medical personnel will confirm that the execution is complete.” As Bernadine struggles to maintain her composure and Woods comes to terms with the cognitive shock of the information, both Woodard and Hodge offer up stunningly internalized performances, the resounding din of their turmoil almost audible in the quiet scene. “It’s a moment of active containment on the part of both characters,” says Chukwu, “and I wanted to hold on to that—I did not want to let the audience off the hook.”

Modeled after Troy Davis, Anthony Woods’ case is depicted as fraught with doubt and high-profile controversy; the chants of protesters outside the prison can be heard throughout the film, adding to Bernadine’s growing chagrin. But, even as Clemency invests in humanizing Woods’ character, Chukwu is careful to leave his guilt inconclusive. “I don’t want the audience’s ability to see and feel his humanity be contingent upon his innocence or guilt,” she says. “We shouldn’t define people by their worst possible acts, and I think that’s a big part of the humanity this film is rooted in.”

Ultimately, it’s Bernadine’s humanity that’s at stake in Clemency. She’s a woman who has taught herself not to feel, withdrawing wearily into an “empty shell,” as her husband (played by a wonderfully gentle Wendell Pierce) describes her. The call for Woods’ pardoning is also a call for her own pardoning. Alfre Woodard is miraculous in the role, for which, according to Chukwu, she spoke to several wardens and death row prisoners in Ohio. In the film’s final scene—a long, single take that culminates the methodical slow burn of the narrative—Woodard distills the complex moral questions of Clemency into the simple thing that capital punishment (and incarceration in general) robs of its facilitators: the human right to feel something.

sundance dispatch: america

First published in Film Comment on January 31, 2019.

In 2014, the Museum of Modern Art restored and unveiled to the public a never-before-seen silent film by Bert Williams, titled Lime Kiln Club Field Day. Made in 1913, the unfinished film had languished in obscurity for 100 years, as had the remarkable circumstances of its production. Lime Kiln Club Field Day featured an all-black cast and an interracial production crew led by a Caribbean director—a historic effort in the early years of the Jim Crow era.

Fascinated by the very existence of this film and the “beautiful depictions of joy and leisure” it captured, filmmaker Garrett Bradley (who won the Sundance Short Film Jury Award in 2017 for her doc short Alone) decided to try and trace the history of Black cinema from Lime Kiln Club Field Day to the present. “Black cinema, first of all, is American cinema—at least in America,” says Bradley as we chat in a crowded lounge in Park City. “It’s a continuous, parallel, simultaneous reality.”

But she also had to contend with the fact that, according to a survey conducted by the Library of Congress, 70 percent of the silent feature films made in America between 1912 and 1929 are missing. “That was the heyday of Black cinema,” says Bradley, speculating that a large part of that 70 percent might have been films made by and for African-American artists.

With her new short America—one of the standout entries in the New Frontier program at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—Bradley attempts to fill those historical gaps using a wholly fascinating mix of archival and documentary strategies. Over the span of 30 gorgeous, black-and-white minutes, she intersperses footage from the Lime Kiln Club Field Day with twelve short films that illustrate a person or event in African-American history that has also become invisible—starting from 1915, when The Birth of a Nation premiered, to 1926, when Bessie Coleman fell from a plane. The images are set to a rich, immersive soundtrack composed by Trevor Mathison, one of the founding members of the Black Audio Film Collective.

“This project is saying, well, what happens if we fill that gap and look at the Bert Williams piece as a starting point, with an indication of how progressive the hundreds of materials that are missing could have been? And if that was the case, it may possibly affect our perception of Black cinema, American cinema,” says Bradley.

To choose stills from Lime Kiln Club Field Day to include in her short, Bradley went through each frame of Bert Williams’ film to find moments that would not be visible to the eye at 17 frames per second. America opens with a series of such images, carefully arranged to build to a specific effect. Bradley first shows us a portrait of Williams, then follows it up with two on-set stills where his face is turned away from the camera. When we see his face again, in the fourth still, he is wearing blackface—while also directing a white crew-member. It’s a dissonant image that drives home the complexity of power relations preserved in these stills, but it’s followed by a picture of pure cheer: Williams and a Black actress riding a merry-go-round, laughing and eating ice-cream.

“What does it means to be able to think about the past and actually have a library of images that are not traumatic? What does it mean to make contemporary iconography that is replacing the trauma of the past?” These are the questions that Bradley says she grappled with while working with the archival material.

Her own shorts—filmed on 35mm and then transferred to video—consist of images both beautiful and provocative: the first one, which marks the release of The Birth of a Nation, explores the simultaneously peaceful and ominous connotations of a white sheet; the next, marking the start of the 40-hour workday in 1916, features young Black Boy Scouts wearing Black Panther hats, framed against an American flag. A later sequence, illustrating the establishment of the Negro National League in 1920, has young baseball players swinging their bats in slow motion, like dancers, against an inky-black backdrop; it’s as if they’re suspended, or maybe embalmed, in time.

Interestingly, each of these moments is recreated by residents of New Orleans, where the film was shot, making America a simultaneous portrait of both the past and the present. In fact, sequences featuring a blacksmith, a horse riding team, and a pastor all feature the real residents of New Orleans going about their daily jobs, capturing certain generational legacies that remain unchanged over time. “This is an illustration of practices that are maybe less visible or less honored. So all of this is a type of documentation as well,” says Bradley.

Much of this attendant historical and production context, however, cannot necessarily be gleaned from the film itself; for viewers without access to press notes or a Q&A, the experience of America might be limited to its images. Bradley says she’s unperturbed by that possibility. “For most of us, our relationship to history is based on an opinion that’s based on an image,” she says.

She named the film strategically, so as to challenge the ways in which American history—and American film history, specifically—is visualized in the cultural imagination. “It gives you an opportunity to penetrate the trauma,” she says, “to replace the images that pop up when you search ‘America’ with new ones.” The film ends on one such hopeful image, taken from Lime Kiln Club Field Day: In the middle of a crowd of jovial performers, a Black actor talks cheerfully with a white actor, his hand affectionately grasping the latter’s arm.