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Advice to Young Filmmakers from Denis Côté

Friday, July 7th, 2017

As Leo Barraclough reports in Variety, director Denis Côté does not suffer fools gladly.

As Barraclough writes, “Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté has won multiple awards at top festivals, including Berlin with Vic + Flo Saw a Bear and Locarno for Curling. This week he has been mentoring a group of student filmmakers at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where he advised them on how to get ahead in the independent film world. Variety was given exclusive access to the discussion.

Although he is genial, Côté doesn’t seem like a man to take hostages. He told the 10 students – gathered together by European Film Promotion as part of its Future Frames program — that they were ‘shy,’ and given the context of the discussion – how to get your films selected by film festivals — it wasn’t a compliment.

‘You need to be social. If you are this kind of weird poet director who has no friends and is always alone you might be a genius but… you need to talk to people,’ he said. ‘Cinema is a social world. It is not like playing a guitar alone in your room or painting. Cinema is the most social art.’

Young filmmakers needed to be proactive when trying to get on the festival circuit, and not leave it to others to put their films in front of festival programmers. ‘Never trust sales agents, distributors or films schools when they say they are taking care of your film. Send [the submissions] yourself.’

He cautioned against being overly pushy. ‘There is a thin line. You need to be respectful and not annoying. The moment you become annoying everybody knows.’

Côté’s go-getting attitude is also applied to generating projects. ‘I’m my own job provider. If I don’t write a new script, no one will write it for me. I’m my own locomotive bringing people with me. I’m open to collaboration but it’s never happened to me.’

He explained that he has developed the reputation for being ‘this alien weird guy making these weird films,’ which may put off writers from sending him their scripts to direct. His ‘weird’ – a.k.a. experimental — films include Bestiaire, a documentary in which a variety of zoo animals stare into the camera, and Carcasses, about a man who collects wrecked cars, and four teenagers with Down Syndrome, carrying guns, who invade his junkyard.

He advises young people to be brave and not to wait too long to go into production on their first feature. ‘Young filmmakers are just afraid to shoot sometimes,’ he said. ‘If they feel that they don’t have the right budget for their story they don’t start.’

Many of his films have been shot with very little money and just a few people. His latest feature documentary A Skin So Soft, which follows six body builders, was shot over 27 days on a budget of Euros 40,000 ($45,700). Although unconfirmed, the intention is for the film to have its world premiere at Locarno.

Côté’s love affair with cinema started in his early teenage years when his diet was purely horror movies, mainly European artistic genre filmmakers like Dario Argento, who filled his head with images of ‘witches, zombies, skulls, blood and cannibals.’

When he went to college at 18 his film teacher opened his eyes to the delights of arthouse movies by the likes of Fassbinder, Godard and Cassavetes. ‘It changed my life,’ Côté says. ‘I never watched horror cinema after that, but its DNA was still inside me, so when you watch some of my films there is a feeling of menace. There is always something that I borrowed from horror cinema because it has stuck in my head and my personality somewhere.’

After college he became a film critic on community radio, and later worked as the critic for a local publication. He then decided to make his first feature film. ‘I said, “I’m going to show the world what I can do with zero money, a video camera and four people,” he recalled. ‘I was pretentious like that.’

He decided to ‘make a movie at the end of the world’ and so chose a village at the end of a road heading out of Quebec. Drifting States (2005) featured a man driving for 16 hours – shortened to two minutes and 45 seconds in the film – until the road stopped (‘for me that was super poetic,’ he said), and then starting his life afresh.

The film won the video section award at Locarno and the prize money allowed him to quit his job and follow the film as it appeared in around 50 festivals over one and a half years. When the film won $10,000 at a festival in Korea, he used the money to make his next film, Our Private Lives (2007).

Bigger-budget films followed, like All That She Wants (2008) and Curling (2010), but Côté has repeatedly returned to low-budget filmmaking. He remains an independent film guy at heart and admits he has an aversion to folks from the mainstream movie industry. [As for Hollywood filmmaking, he notes] ‘I can’t be around these people. I hate these people so much.'”

Words of wisdom from someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Compelling New Film “Mustang” (2015)

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s (center above, with her cast) debut film Mustang is a remarkable piece of work.

As Carolina A. Miranda wrote in The Los Angeles Times – easily the best mainstream paper covering film in the United States – “It starts off as an innocent game: Five exuberant young girls, playing with boys on a beach, piling on top of one another’s shoulders to wrestle. Gossipy villagers construe the play as something sexual — and word gets back to the girls’ family. Suddenly, these spirited young women find themselves punished, trapped by their family and the strict gender mores of their remote Turkish village — a condition they do their best to escape in increasingly elaborate ways.

Mustang, the debut feature film from French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, has captivated audiences around the world with its dreamy style, its charismatic cast and its thorny subject matter, the latter of which gets at an ongoing social divide in Turkey, in which rests the issue of the place of women. The film has also catapulted its 37-year-old director into the international limelight. Mustang was part of the Official Selection at Cannes, where it won the Europa Cinemas prize, it made the shortlist for the Academy Award for foreign film, and it nabbed a Golden Globes nomination in the same category.

The story, interestingly, is all based on an incident that Ergüven experienced as a girl in Turkey. (The director was born in Turkey but has lived in France for most of her life — traveling between the two countries regularly.) She and family members played a game riding on boys’ shoulders, an action that was similarly misconstrued by local villagers. ‘The discussion was less violent than in the movie, but the point was the same,’ she says. ‘You’re called to strict rules very brutally’ . . .

In this lightly edited conversation, she discusses the hybrid cultural place her film occupies, the ways in which it secretly pays tribute to a popular Hollywood escape film and the Los Angeles-related project she may be working on next.

Your film — a Turkish-language film set in Turkey — is the official French selection for the Academy Awards. At a time in France in which right-wing politicians have made statements against immigrants, has it led to any blowback for you? How has the film community treated the selection?

It’s the second time I’m running for France with a Turkish-speaking movie, since I also ran at Cannes. The film is considered French. As soon as we came out of postproduction we were embraced by Unifrance [which promotes French films abroad] and the Ministry of Culture. There was no distinction between “Mustang” and any other movie. I’m French [but Turkish]. Most of the team was French.

It was a very modern choice and a very radical choice. There is a lot of right-wing ideas in Europe these days. But what I love the most about France is that there is curiosity of looking at the world through film. French producers are very invested in different directors from the four corners of the world. And in Paris you have an audience that watches film in its original language. What’s happening in Europe, it’s more like a muscular reaction.

But the highest ideals of France and its respect for culture is in making a choice like this and saying, ‘No. We are curious we are open. We are diverse rich and complex and this is what 2015 looks like.’

What about in Turkey? I understand that you have received criticism that the film is not Turkish enough.

The thing is that Turkey right now is extremely polarized — and I take positions very openly, which most people in Turkey don’t do anymore. So, already, 50% of people will be antagonized by what I’m saying. There are a lot of people who really love the film. There are people who really bash it and they say, ‘She’s not one us.’ I find that disturbing.

There are comments which I feel are intellectually dishonest. If you have a troll saying anything negative about the film, when you look at their profile, the first thing you generally see is that they’re from AKP [a socially conservative political party]. They’re not saying, ‘I disagree with you and the film’ or ‘I think it’s boring.’ They’re not talking about it in terms of cinema. But, for me, in cinema, there are no frontiers.

You gave your film a very Western name — a distinctly American name in fact. Why?

I wanted one word which would encapsulate the spirit of the girls — which was untameable, wild, free. There is a strength, there is the visual rhyme of their hair, when they’re running around the village, they’re like little wild horses. I looked for different names of wild horses around the world, and this one generated the most in terms of imagery. Then we made the word ours. Now when I see a little girl running freely, I think ‘mustang.'”

Read the entire interview here – my thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for this recommendation.

New Article in Senses of Cinema 76 – “Being Elizabeth Bishop”

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

I have a new article on Barbara Hammer’s new feature film Welcome to This House in Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House: A Film on Elizabeth Bishop (2015) is that rarity among documentary films – rather than the usual succession of talking heads, shot in a utilitarian fashion, as befits its subject the film is a primarily poetic project, which inhabits the world of Bishop and her poetry, entranced by the beauty of life in all its forms.

As the film’s press materials note, ‘Welcome to This House is a feature documentary film on the homes and loves of poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), about life in the shadows, and the anxiety of art making without full self-disclosure, filmed in Bishop’s ‘best loved homes’ in the US, Canada, and Brazil.’ It is also much more than that; it is an act of love and resurrection, in which Bishop emerges from the shadows as a fully rounded personage, freed from the constraints of society which so often failed to accept her for who she truly was.

In the film’s opening sequence, for example, photos of Bishop and the covers of her books give way to a view from the front porch of her home in Nova Scotia, with flowers and the image of a young Elizabeth intertwined in a tapestry of memory and abstract wonder. As the scene progresses, there are equally dreamlike images of her typewriter, and then a child’s hand writing ‘Elizabeth’ on a chalk slate, as the soundtrack hums and whirs with the sounds of an indolent, mesmeric summer. This gives way to reminiscences of how Bishop was left with her grandparents as a child, deprived of a mother and father, and how she grew up in world of her own creation as a result.

There are, of course, numerous archival materials interwoven throughout the film, but more than anything, Welcome to This House is a film about being Elizabeth Bishop, about finding one’s self as an artist, something that Barbara Hammer has being doing for her entire life, over a body of work that covers more than 80 films and four decades of continuous artistic production. In many ways, Welcome to This House is the sort of film that could only be made by a director after years of patient dedication; effortlessly mixing the past, the present, the imaginary and the real to evoke the inner life of Elizabeth Bishop, all the while demonstrating Hammer’s absolutely assured grasp of the moving image.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Welcome To This House: A Film About Elizabeth Bishop by Barbara Hammer

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

Barbara Hammer, one of my favorite filmmakers, has a new film out.

Barbara Hammer has been making brilliant and uncompromising independent films since the 1960s, and is still going strong, as evidenced by her recent retrospectives at The Museum of Modern Art, as well as other venues, but now comes the news that Hammer has released a new feature film on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, which I have yet to see, but which I look forward to with great anticipation.

Her work is seemingly everywhere: in the past few years, Hammer was honored with a month long retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City from September 11-October 13, 2010, and in February 2012 she had a month long retrospective at The Tate Modern in London, followed by retrospectives in Paris at Jeu de Paume in June 2012 and the Toronto International Film Festival in October 2013.

As the press materials for the film by Monica Nolan note, “poet Elizabeth Bishop has gained notoriety as much for her tempestuous romance with Lota de Macedo Soares as for her poetry. While that affair inspired a book and a movie (Reaching for the Moon), this new documentary broadens the focus and puts the Lota affair in context. Frameline24 Award recipient Barbara Hammer (whose previous films at Frameline are too numerous to list!) creates a layered portrait of the person behind the poet, from her childhood in Nova Scotia to her death in 1979.

Bishop described herself as ‘timorously kicking around the coastlines of the world,’ and the film is loosely organized around her stays in Nova Scotia, Key West, Brazil, and Cambridge—the homes she made for herself and the lovers she took. Never ‘out’ as a lesbian—the concept would have been foreign to the writer who graduated from Vassar in the thirties—Bishop nonetheless actively pursued women, from her first summer-camp crush to the May-December romance that was her last affair.

Hammer examines Bishop from all angles, interviewing everyone from literary luminaries like Marie-Claire Blais and Edmund White to Lota’s aged former maid. Hammer pulls the viewer into Bishop’s world, blending present day footage of each location with archival photos, and recreating moments in the writer’s life. Throughout the film we hear Bishop’s own words, read by Kathleen Chalfant, revealing yet another facet of a complicated and passionate woman.”

Barbara Hammer (right) with Florrie Burke. Photo: Joyce Culver.

This sounds like a typically brilliant film from Hammer, who has made over 80 moving image works in a career that spans 40 years, and is considered a pioneer of queer cinema. In the meantime, you should check out Barbara Hammer’s latest doings as chronicled on her website by clicking here, or on the image above – with news of her latest doings in the world of cinema, someone who is courageously moving forward in an era in which the arts are often pushed aside by the incessant pursuit of comic book films and other non-demanding escapist entertainment. Want some real nutrition for a change? Then check out Barbara Hammer’s work, and see what you’ve been missing.

Barbara Hammer – one of the most important independent filmmakers working in cinema today.

Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

Looking for a truly original, really scary horror film? Try Jennifer Kent’s debut feature, The Babadook.

As Wikipedia notes, “Kent studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Art [in Australia]—where she learned acting alongside Babadook‘s lead actor, Essie Davis—and graduated in 1991. She then worked primarily as an actor in the film industry for over two decades. Kent eventually lost her passion for acting by the end of the 20th century and sent a written proposal to Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, asking if she could assist on the film set of von Trier’s 2003 drama film, Dogville, to learn from the director. Kent’s proposal was accepted and she considers the experience her film school, citing the importance of stubbornness as the key lesson she learned.

Prior to Babadook, Kent’s first-ever feature film, she had completed a short film, titled Monster, and an episode of the television series Two Twisted. Kent explained in May 2014 that the origins of Babadook can be found in Monster, which she calls ‘baby Babadook.’ . . . Kent has stated that she sought to tell a story about facing up to the darkness with ourselves, the ‘fear of going mad’ and an exploration of parenting from a ‘real perspective’ . . .  In terms of the characters, Kent said that it was important that both characters are loving and lovable, so that “we [the audience] really feel for them” . . .

Kent drew from her experience on the set of Dogville for the assembling of her production team, as she observed that von Triers was surrounded by a well-known ‘family of people.’ Therefore, Kent sought her own ‘family of collaborators to work with for the long term.’ Unable to find all of the suitable people within the Australian film industry, Kent hired Polish director of photography Radek Ladczuk, for whom Babadook was his first-ever English-language film, and American illustrator Alexander Juhasz. In terms of film influences, Kent cited 1970s and ’80s horror—including [John Carpenter’s version of] The Thing, Halloween, Les Yeux Sans Visage, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Shining and Let The Right One In—as well as Vampyr and Nosferatu.”

Partially crowd funded on Kickstarter, and completed for roughly $1.5 million US dollars, The Babadook has received numerous awards on the festival circuit, including a screening at the Sundance Film festival, and when it opened theatrically in the United States on November 28, 2014, the critical response was equally adulatory. But since it isn’t a mainstream release, and as yet is available only on Australian DVD – an all region version, however, so I bought it immediately – you can only see it on demand, if you’re lucky enough to have it on your cable system, or in a theater if you live in New York City or another major metropolis.

This, of course, is the real tragedy here – this is an intelligent, absolutely riveting and completely original film that will keep you guessing right up to the last frame, and at the same time scare you to death, as a horror film should, but without the requisite gore and misogyny that seems to mar the horror genre of late – and it deserves the widest possible audience. There are echoes of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw here, at least for me, and traces of De Maupasssant’s The Horla, and the overall feel of the film is akin to Jack Clayton’s 1961 masterpiece The Innocents, but The Babadook is really a completely unique vision, immaculately photographed in CinemaScope and suitably subdued color.

As Anthony Lane wrote in his ecstatic review of the film in The New Yorker, “let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors. It would curb so many antiquated tropes: the use of young women, say, underdressed or not dressed at all, who are barely fleshed out as characters before that flesh is coveted, wounded, or worse. Beyond that, the law would restore horror to its rightful place as a chamber of secrets, ripe for emotional inquisition. Such thoughts are prompted by The Babadook, a fine new Australian film, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. This is about a woman in peril, yet it has no truck with the notion that she is a mere victim. At times, indeed, the peril seems to be, if not her fault, at least of her own making. Is she the sum of all fears, or the root of them?

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow, living in a small and ill-lit house with Samuel (Noah Wiseman), her only child. He is unmanageable, but, then, his origins were dire; his father was killed in a car crash, nearly seven years ago, as he drove Amelia, who was in labor with Samuel, to the hospital. Now it’s just the two of them, although they are soon joined by an unexpected third. The Babadook is towering and dark; he looms taller as you look at him, like an unhappy memory that swells in the traumatized mind. He wears a top hat, like the Artful Dodger, and his hands could be a child’s drawing of hands—a splay of simple spikes. He cleaves to what we ask of our monsters, that they be both amorphous and acute: oozily hard to pin down, but manifestly there, like a knife against the throat. His name has a nice Australian tang; Aboriginal legend tells of a frog called the Tiddalik, with an insatiable thirst.”

Watch the trailer by clicking here, or on the image above; then see the film as soon as you can – it’s that good.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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