embrace of the serpent posterLast week, Embrace of the Serpent, a movie that will certainly go down as one of the best films that saw release in the United States in 2016, started playing in area art houses in South Florida. This writer caught it last year as part of “Gems,” an annual mini film festival hosted by Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. For the most part, during the weekend-long event, I could tell when I saw excellent work (The Assassin, My Golden Days) and rather problematic work (Youth, The Club). But Embrace fell into another kind of category as far as cinematic experiences go. It confounded me. I knew I saw a brilliant film, though I did not understand how it worked as well as it did. It reminded me of the first time, back in 1999, when I saw Eyes Wide Shut in theaters. I knew I saw another masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick, though I could not express exactly why it was so great. Several viewings later, having read the source material and written about it during my master’s degree, I came to understand it better and admire it deeper (I promise to publish the Lacanian analysis I wrote of the film by the end of the year).

It was a similar experience with Embrace of the Serpent. It took a second and even a third viewing before I could confidently understand what a masterpiece this film was. In speaking with at least four other film critics, over the months since I first saw the movie, I learned I was not the only with that same experience.

With it’s commercial release in 2016 last month by the marvelous indie studio Oscilloscope, it came time to reckon with this movie. I was honored that Michael Koresky of Film Comment, Criterion Collection and now Metrograph fame, allowed me to tangle with a close reading of it on Reverse Shot, the website he co-edits with Jeff Reichert. You can read my in-depth and somewhat spoilery review (but I think it will enhance a first time viewing, if you don’t want to invest in seeing it more than once) by jumping through the site’s logo below:

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As the film headed to Miami, earlier this month, I also could not pass on an opportunity to speak to the film’s director Ciro Guerra, who helped clarify some questions I had about it. Guerra explained that he wanted to respect the culture he represents on the big screen. His research was extensive, including spending months in parts of the Amazon. After reading two books written by two early 20th century European explorers of the region, the German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, he came up with the film’s dual narrative with co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal.

The film’s stories unfold by alternating between the narratives, one at the start of the 20th century and the other 40 years into the future. The film’s lead character is Karamakate, played by two native, non-actors, Nilbio Torres and the elder Antonio Bolivar, as he guides two different explorers based on the authors of the books Guerra used for research (Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis) on similar journeys in search of a near extinct plant with hallucinogenic properties called the yakruna. And don’t bother looking up yakruna. Its name was made up for the movie. “The Shaman asked to keep it fictional because those names are sacred,” said the director, speaking via phone from his home country of Colombia. “You shouldn’t learn them from a movie,” he added.

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It’s a mystical film both thematically and cinematically. The connection between landscape and setting and the similarities among the different people Karamakate encounters speaks to the ineffable tangents of time and place (he thinks of the two explorers as the same man, as the later one uses the older one’s book in furthering his knowledge). This begs for something other than a straight narrative, which Guerra fulfills throughout the movie. He harnesses this anti-linear approach to storytelling to make insightful connections between scenes that share locations at different times as well as connecting the two explorers Karamakate guides through the Amazon basin via their essential selves and not their physical bodies. There’s even a duality in the shaman’s two selves that transcends age.

Below are some highlights of our conversation that should not spoil the film but allow for some insight into it. There’s simply nothing like this movie, and the more prepared you are for it, the more thrilling it will feel. Below our abridged Q&A you will find a link to a story I wrote in the Miami New Times, last week, which goes further into the concepts that inform the film.

Independent Ethos: What did the non-actors who played Karamakate surprise you with in their performances?

Ciro Guerra: I was very concerned about that at the beginning of the process because these are real people who haven’t been acting, and they have no relationship to theater or to cinema, so I thought it was going to be difficult to ask them to act. But they may not have this contact, but they have this oral tradition that they have kept alive for centuries really. So they know how to tell a story and they really, really know how to listen, and it’s not that easy to find an actor who can listen. They were especially happy about making the film and being able to perform in their own language.

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What did either one of them bring to their roles that was special?

Nilbio, He’s more playful. He has a broader range. He could play very well if he’s angry. He could play very well if he’s sad. He could play with this very complex range of emotions because he’s really open to emotional experience. He’s a really dynamic actor. Antonio has the more serene approach. He just stands there and just with his existence, his gaze, looks at you. They were two completely different actors in a way, but what we did was we built on that. We constructed the two faces of a character, but they also trust their gut. They also helped us re-write part of the script to make them more accurate and true in many ways. It was a very creative process, a very collaborative process.

Where did you learn so much about pre-Colombian mysticism in the Amazon?

It was a long process of research. I didn’t know anything about it, but basically it was the writings of the explorers. They were my guides, at first, and then, when I arrived in the Amazon, I stayed about two and a half years, going back and forth and spending a lot of time with shamans, elders and different communities in the Amazon, learning about what makes the community different and special. It was very difficult at the beginning because in the Amazon you are constantly confronted. It’s just a different way of thinking from our own that it makes you wonder a lot of different things about who you are.

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The sequence at the end of the film is amazing. How did you create those special effects?

It’s iconography of the Barasana people. That’s the way they represent the spiritual world. When we made the film, we didn’t want to do a special effects show. It was something more primitive. It was something a child could draw.

For me, the final scenes recall 2001‘s stargate sequence. Was that an influence?

Some people have said that, and it’s surprising to me, but it also makes perfect sense because these guys, these explorers, were the ones that opened up these ideas of the spirituality to the people, and that was something that was very big in the ’60s. So it sort of comes full circle in a way.

But it wasn’t a direct influence?

No, no, no. Maybe not on a conscious level because 2001 is one of my favorite movies of all time, so maybe on an unconscious level it was.

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The musical score is incredible as well. It mixes electronics and native chanting. Can you tell me how this idea to mix the two came about?

It wasn’t just about using indigenous music, and that’s it. The film is about dialogue between two cultures, a dialogue that can be very violent at times, but it’s a story of cultures coming together, so the score is basically indigenous music in dialogue and the work of Western composers.

Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?

I couldn’t see the film in any other way. If I had to do it in color, I would prefer not to do it. It would be a completely different film.

This is the third time Colombia submitted one of your films to the Oscars. Now you are nominated. How does that make you feel?

It’s surprising. This year there were so many films by masters, and it was a surprise when we made the short list, but to be nominated is not something that you can see coming.

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You can read more of our conversation, including more on why Guerra shot in black and white, the quantum level of time and existence he learned from the Amazon tribes he encountered during the filmmaking process and how it influences his storytelling, in the Miami New Times by jumping through the link below:

NT Arts

Hans Morgenstern

Embrace of the Serpent runs 125 minutes, is in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin, Tikuna, Cubeo, Huitoto and maybe some other Amazonian dialects with English subtitles and is not rated (expect violent images and transcendence via natural hallucinogens). It is now playing in our South Florida area at the Tower Theater, Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema Wynwood. To the north, in Broward it is playing at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., where it is scheduled to continue to roll out through April, visit this link and scroll down to “screenings.” We first saw this movie as a guest of Miami International Film Festival’s Gems event, in October. All images in this post were provided by Oscilloscope, except for that of the director, which is from IMDB.com. Oscilloscope also provided a screener link for repeat viewings.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

4tHR6e4IZi2eAX-B_-Q6FEDp1eyb1mngFQpkqsUH4wAEight years after his first film outside of either Taiwan or China (the Paris-set The Flight of the Red Balloon), Hou Hsiao-hsien could not have returned with a more Chinese film: a wuxia movie. The Assassin takes place in ninth century China, during the waning years of the Tang Dynasty. The legendary Taiwanese filmmaker, known for a meticulous style, worked with four other writers to get the details of the later years of the Tang Dynasty just right. The result is a remarkably subtle piece of storytelling that is as enthralling as it is discreet.

Because Hou has such a wonderful feel for location, it makes sense to describe the setting before the plot of The Assassin. He chose to shoot the film in the forests of Mongolia, standing in for ancient China. The wind creating waves over the tops of trees has as much presence as the landscape. Hou never bothers with grand exteriors of palaces where the human drama drives the story. Any appearance of a palace is obscured by trees. Even some of the fight scenes unfold behind lush branches (here’s a clip) and between tree trunks (here’s a different clip). The power of nature is also in the conflicted story of the titular assassin, Yinniang, played bracingly and with scant lines of dialogue by Hou regular Shu Qi. As often as characters talk about the past or discuss political maneuverings, nothing really matters as much as Yinniang’s quiet, conflicted feelings for her trade as a frighteningly skilled assassin.

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Yinniang was abducted as a child by a former princess turned militant nun (Sheu Fang-yi) who trained her to become a killer for China’s central government. However, Yinniang has an Achilles heel: her heart. As the nun tells her, “Your skills are masterful, buy your mind is weakened by human sentiment.” After Yinniang fails one of her tasks by showing mercy, the nun sends her on a mission to kill the governor of her birthplace in Weibo Province. Lord Tian J’ian (Chang Chen) also happens to be Yinniang’s cousin. To complicate their connection, Yinniang was once betrothed to him.

Tensions run deep in this film, as many subplots course through this central arc. There’s instability in Tian’s house from politics to a strained marriage. A pregnant concubine (Nikki Hsieh Hsin-ying) becomes the target of Tian’s wife (Zhou Yun) via a deadly wizard. CdPsVfpL66Ef0w9m5mxIBDqvgwyDW8gE8b02QYnND3EMeanwhile, when Yinniang is not stalking Tian in the shadows or fighting off his guards, she finds refuge with a Japanese workman (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a mirror polisher in the countryside who she grows casually and sweetly attached to. Then there are the politics of the provinces, which seem to make the film leaden with story. However, The Assassin has a music and poetry that makes plot feel secondary. It’s reflective of Yinniang’s true path: to severe her ties with the past and begin anew.

The story may be complex, but it’s not hard to get beyond its complexity via Hou’s gorgeous cinema, a fluid pace of beautifully detailed mise-en-scène where the repetition of a famous Chinese poem about a blue bird and its relationship with a mirror reveals more about Yinniang than what she could ever say in dialogue. The Assassin is a cathartic thing to watch, and you will feel it deep in your soul as opposed to being told it with exposition. This is a cinema that harnesses the power of the medium by a master. Visuals, editing and sounds tell us more than words can.

Between the lavish set design, breathtaking landscapes, intricate makeup and costumes is Mark Lee’s delicate camera Shu Qi Assassinwork capturing shadow and flickering light to rapturous effect. From his shots of the expressively wild forests of Mongolia to the flowing silk walls during dramatic interior scenes, as the titular character lurks in the shadows, The Assassin never shortchanges the audience of impressive imagery.

Hou is known for holding unedited shots for long periods of time. His cinema is sometimes unfairly called “languorous.” To be honest, Hou’s scenes never outwear the receptive and open-minded viewer’s interest because of their rich staging. There are also moments of long monologues, and the information can feel impenetrable. It’s ironic that the film’s heroine hardly has dialogue, yet her actions and Shu’s performance speak volumes. For those hoping for lots of wuxia action, it should be noted that the film’s fight scenes are lightly sprinkled in between the drama, which eventually reveals a love story that transcends romance. Hou never takes killing lightly. You won’t see gore, guts and blood, yet he never short changes the thrills of combat. The Assassin, however, transcends its violence to reveal great compassion for humanity and life via movie-making that harnesses the power of the intrinsic medium.

Hans Morgenstern

The Assassin runs 107 minutes, is in Mandarin with English subtitles and is not rated (it has some violence). It opens for its premiere Miami theatrical run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Thursday, Oct. 29. It continues its run theatrically in Miami the following day at Tower Theater and up north in Broward County at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. It continues to expand across the U.S. and Canada through December. For dates in other cities, visit this link. The film had its Florida premiere this past Sunday, Oct. 25, during Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival’s weekend-long premieres event, GEMS. The GEMS festival hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review, which first appeared in the Miami New Times as a shorter capsule review.

I also had an opportunity to interview Hou Hsiao-hsien, which resulted in a two-part interview below:

Hou Hsiao-hsien on his intuitive filmmaking and The Assassin; more in Miami New Times

All images courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Anyone familiar with the films of acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien may be surprised that his new film is a martial arts movie. However, the director’s deeply thoughtful style, rich in mise-en-scène and quiet in pace, is on full display in The Assassin. Also, the wuxia pian genre, translated as “martial chivalry,” happens to be very close to Hou’s heart, as he grew up reading wuxia stories and watching film adaptations in theaters as a child.

Speaking via phone and through a translator, Hou explained how, with The Assassin, he sought to produce a wuxia film that felt grounded in reality. It’s an idea that has long informed the director’s movies, from going with the weather during filming to working with non-actors to historical accuracy. One of the first wuxia authors he scratched off his mental list was Jin Yong. “The author Jin Yong, who’s a very famous wuxia novelist in Asia, many of these stories have been adapted into films,” he says. “They are very popular, but that sort of work is more fantastical in nature.”

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Instead of looking for wuxia stories with fantasy elements, he went to a volume of short stories from the Tang Dynasty. He reveals that the plot of The Assassin is based on a short story called “Nie Yinniang,” a reference to the name of the titular assassin, who is played in his film by the marvelous Shu Qi, a regular in his recent films. He says the story takes place during the later years of the Tang Dynasty and includes references to real people of the era and stays true to its history. The 68-year-old Hou became familiar with the story of Yinniang in college, but the decision to shoot the film came to him later, while he was chairing the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, sometime in 2007. The story is about a female assassin trained by a nun who used to be a princess, who abducted Yinniang when she was 10. When Yiniang fails a mission by showing mercy, the nun tasks her to kill the cousin she was once betrothed to and still has feelings for.

Though all of this is as realistic as it might get during the decline of the Tang Dynasty, the film still offers leaps into the mystical, which was still very important to the belief system of people during this time, around the 9th century A.D. Asked about the “magical” aspects of the film, including a scene that features a bushy-browed and bearded wizard called Kong Kong’er, Hou explains that scene also comes from history in that it reflects the Taoist beliefs of the Chinese at the time.

“You can find things in ancient Taoist legend that talk about how these powerful, mighty Taoist practitioners. They could create soldiers out of mere paper, like in the movie,” he explains. “They could literally have a whole army of soldiers just by constructing paper. Those were the kind of things you would read about in Taoist legend. It’s obviously kind of exaggerated. In fact, in the original source material of Yinniang there are also parts of the story that talk about, for example, how a magician could transform into a red flag and how Jing Jing’er, which is the masked assassin in the film, how that woman formed into a white flag.”

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Though you will not see all of this magic in The Assassin, Hou says the references to Taoism allows for a layer of character development that speaks to an honest portrayal of the era. “All these things are really fantastical and exaggerated,” he admits, “so obviously I didn’t really want to go that far. I think that’d be too much, but these little things, like these magical touches, concerning paper figures, and these basic Taoist practices, this is closer to the Taoist essence and closer to what a lot of people had described in Taoist traditions. I thought this is something that would be more acceptable, so to speak, so I decided to have stuff like that in the movie.”

Plus, he liked the symbolism that arises from a scene with Kong Kong’er creating a paper figure that conjures a shadowy figure that enters a palace to do the wizard’s nefarious will. Hou says,“In the movie, in order for the paper figure to work, he was putting water [on it]. All these things, the preoccupation with water and the flow of water, these are all things that are part of the ancient Taoist tradition, so I thought it was interesting, so I wanted to utilize that.”

On another level, there is the art of the Tang Dynasty. For instance, music is key to the film. In some scenes the music feels like a part of the scenery. As a matter of fact, it sort of is. Take the film’s percussive score. Hou says drums were part of the ritual of city life in the Tang era. There were certain patterns played in imperial courts at sunrise and sunset to tell people when it was time for work and time for rest. These musical moments both serve to highlight the film’s drama but also speak to the atmosphere of the era, once again going back to Hou’s interest in historical accuracy.

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“The music that you hear in the film, everything up until the very end, they’re mostly my composer Lim Giong,” Hou says. “The music that you hear in the film is very true to the period. He did a lot of research. He went out of his way to do these things and created music true to the era, true to what the film is about.”

However, at the end of the movie, the music sounds almost electronic. It’s a moment that captures Yinniang’s transformation at film’s end with incredible poignancy, highlighted by Hou’s choice of music. “That song that you hear at the end of the film is actually not from the Tang Dynasty,” Hou reveals. “It’s a piece of music that was actually quite popular in Europe a few years ago [2006 by a group called Bagad Men Ha Tan] … that particular song is actually a collaboration between an African drumming troupe — a team of 40 some people — and a French composer, and this is a particular piece of music that they created together, fairly recently, so it’s actually a piece of music that I came across during the editing process. When I heard it, for some reason I just liked it. There was just something about it that appealed to me, and when I came across that, I decided it would be appropriate to put this at the end of the movie.”

By now, you get a feeling that Hou, this legendary filmmaker beloved by film critics and admired by many Asian filmmakers from other Taiwanese filmmakers like Edward Yang and Tsai Ming Liang to even Japanese filmmakers like Hirokazu Kore-eda, follows an instinctive feeling when making his movies. One of the most impressive features of his work also involves minimal action. I tell him that he seems to know exactly how long to hold a wide shot to create a pleasing effect on the viewer. He replies, “I make those sort of decisions during the editing process. It’s not something I previously conceive. It’s just something I decide during the editing process. In terms of why I did what I did, it’s a matter of personal aesthetics, personal instinct, personal intuition. It’s not something I analyze and would be able to explain clearly. It’s a matter of feeling. Feeling that somehow this particular pacing is just right, somehow this particular cutting just feels right, and it’s just something I feel just works for me intuitively, in terms of my own personal preference.”

You can read more of my conversation with Hou in another article based on this interview in the Miami New Times where we talk more about his basis of the story in history, his attraction to wuxia and working with the film’s lead actress … despite her fear of heights (Note: Don’t be alarmed that in the New Times article I refer to Hou on second reference by his personal name, Hsiao-hsien. That’s their style):

GEMS 2015: DIRECTOR HOU HSIAO-HSIEN ON THE ASSASSIN: “IT’S REAL PEOPLE, REAL HISTORICAL FACTS”

Hans Morgenstern

The Assassin will have its Florida premiere this Sunday, Oct. 25, during Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival’s weekend-long premieres event, GEMS, at the Tower Theater in Miami (get your ticket here). The film only recently opened in New York and Los Angeles. It will continue to expand across the U.S. and Canada through December. It opens for its premiere Miami theatrical run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Thursday, Oct. 29. It continues its run theatrically in Miami the following day at Tower Theater and up north in Broward County at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. For dates in other cities, visit this link. The GEMS festival hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this interview. All images courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Hearts of Palm - Director Photo 2Miami’s film scene is not only booming with talented filmmakers, but it is also among the more diverse platforms for filmmakers due to an abundance of audiences. In the upcoming iteration of its Knight Foundation sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema,” Miami cinephiles will be getting a chance to hear up-close and in-depth conversations with three Miami-based independent filmmakers who have each crafted an important niche in different genres. Miami filmmakers Carla Forte (Miami Filmmaker Carla Forte on shooting hundreds of dogs in action and her impromptu poem on inspiration), Jillian Mayer (Jillian Mayer on inspiration from the medium of film and upcoming projects, from a talk show about pets to Kaiju), and Monica Peña will be featured in Oct. 22’s “Speaking in Cinema” presented and produced by the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Filmmaker Magazine Editor in Chief Scott Macaulay will be moderating the conversation, where each filmmaker will show highlights of their work.

I recently had a chance to talk to Peña about her filmmaking philosophy and her sources of inspiration in storytelling. We sat outdoors at the Vagabond Hotel, a fitting place since it is old and new Miami at once, evoking some the themes in Peña’s filmmaking, or as she puts it “Miami is an endlessly interesting place.” Peña’s opera prima, Ectotherms is a personal favorite, an artistic work with a definite point of view that offers complex storytelling about place, growing up and coming of age. The critical look at life in the tropics is coupled with a documentary filmmaking style and a use of stark music that enhances on-screen action, but what makes this film so great is Peña’s authenticity and uncompromising standpoint. The film was a personal favorite at last year’s Miami International Film Festival because it said so much with seemingly very little, and the multi-layered storytelling allowed spectators plenty of room to understand the work in personal ways.

Peña’s upcoming work is titled Hearts of Palm and promises to continue in the vein of Ectotherms with a narrative style that defies traditional storytelling. “It’s hard to describe or summarize in words,” she tells me of her upcoming film. “The seed of the film was an exploration of feminine and masculine parts of myself.” Although the film is loosely about a relationship, the sources of inspiration included literature, music, works of art, the Miami landscape and the disjointed nature of the self. Indeed, the film form is lose and demands of the audience to bring their own awareness to the story, unlike traditional storytelling where the film feeds the audience a clear line of thinking. That tradition could not be further from Peña’s approach. “The story is mostly told through vignettes that convey moments,” she continues. “A lot of it is told through music. There is very little dialogue and images are very surreal.” The work will lend itself to a unique conversation about film-making. From what I have had the chance to see in Peña’s work and hear about her process, the boundaries of film seem to disappear, and something that you haven’t seen before is created – an experiential sort of imagery.

Collaboration is key to Peña’s directorial style. Her creative process for Hearts of Palm included creating a core document that included the vision for the film, which she describes as “a story about a relationship that is decomposing, that took place in this house that is decomposing with supernatural undercurrents throughout.” Hearts of Palm - Director Photo 1Once the vision was shared and agreed upon by the filmmaking team, the story itself took shape and went in different directions in an organic way with input from the rest of the team. For Hearts of Palm, Peña has again joined forces with sound producer Joel C. Hernandez, who also collaborated on Ectotherms and provided sounds that are part of the narrative. During the collaborative process, production designer Lucila Garcia de Onrubia came up with the visuals and the feel of the vision for Hearts of Palm, bringing the tropical landscape indoors in a conceptual way. She credits cinematographer Jorge Rubiera and actor/original score composer Brad Lovett as contributors, for not only understanding her documentary-style of film-making but also helping bring her vision to life.

As this snippet of a long conversation shows, filmmaker Peña is excited to talk about her approach and share her personal philosophy on surreal filmmaking. “If you set your idea in motion, a movie starts to show you what it wants to be … it’s a matter of tuning in from that point on.” Indeed, Ectotherms feels organic, a journey that takes you out to another world and within into yourself — if you let it. Peña’s artistic visualizations on film have a marker that is hard to pinpoint. She tells me she is excited about discussing her own work alongside such a diverse slate of Miami’s filmmakers. The event goes to show that Miami’s film community encompasses a myriad voices. Although the event focuses on women filmmakers, it should be noted that the relevancy of their work stands on its own. However, having a platform to showcase it remains critical. “I feel like it’s important to create a place for women to speak … carving out spaces for women is important,” says Peña of the upcoming Speaking in Cinema.

In addition to Peña’s voice, we will have the pleasure to hear from Carla Forte, who brings a unique perspective to her filmmaking with a style that consciously raises social awareness and leaves audiences to question big issues such as homelessness, identity in a foreign land and even animal rights. Her approach is also informed by her training as a dancer, resulting in a multidisciplinary approach that brings out interesting avenues in her work that cannot be neatly encapsulated. Finally, Jillian Mayer, of Borscht fame, plays with the alternative realities that we create for ourselves and others on the web. Her projects are playful and DIY at first glance but charged with awareness of the pitfalls and disinformation in the digital world. For Mayer, the construction of culture in the Internet is another form of discourse that may be changing the way identity is constructed and understood.

Ana Morgenstern

The Miami Beach Cineamtheque begins showing the films by these local filmmakers starting this Friday, Oct. 16. For a detailed schedule, follow this link. It culminates in a discussion with the filmmakers, also including directors Carla Forte (read her profile here), Jillian Mayer (read her profile here) and Filmmaker Magazine Editor in Chief Scott Macaulay. This profile series continues tomorrow with a piece on Peña.

You can also read more about these filmmakers and their retrospective in an article in the Miami New Times by jumping over to the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog through the image below:

NT Arts

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Jillian Mayer Art Basel Miami Beach 2014This month, The Miami Beach Cinematheque will hold its seventh installment of its Knight Foundation sponsored discussion series called Speaking In Cinema. Usually, the bi-monthly event features a local film critic, an out-of-town film critic and a guest filmmaker (this writer was one of the first guest critics). This time they are bringing together three Miami-based filmmakers for a very special installment of the series, and this is the first in what will be a series of interviews with the three filmmakers, who are all showing films in a retrospective series leading up to their talk. Meet Jillian Mayer.

She stumbled into film-making after graduating from Florida International University with a concentration in installation art and fiber in 2007. Her multi-media art has since gone on to garner her attention across the world, everywhere from art galleries to film festivals. Movie making has now become an indelible part of her repertoire. Asked for her inspiration in film, she chooses to go to the medium itself instead of a specific director. “Filmmaking offers me many things,” Mayer writes via email. “I love that the product is also the documentation. Artists are challenged with art making and then archiving the work, but video/film making joins those two concerns. I also like how media travels over the Internet. Also, it is a great format for me to combine so many mediums I enjoy in my art making such as performance, music, sculpture and installation.”

In 2012, she and her frequent collaborative partner, co-director Lucas Leyva were featured in Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” The editor in chief of Filmmaker Magazine, Scott Macaulay, will be in Miami to host the conversation at the Miami Beach Cinematheque with Mayer, Carla Forte (Miami Filmmaker Carla Forte on shooting hundreds of dogs in action and her impromptu poem on inspiration) and Monica Peña (Storytelling through collaboration – Director Monica Peña discusses filmmaking and upcoming Speaking in Cinema panel). “In 2012, Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva were two of the most inventive film artists around, and that hasn’t changed in 2015,” Macaulay says via email. “In fact, I’ve only seen their impact grow as more people become aware of the very original and Miami-centric work they are doing at Borscht. I’ve recently had the chance to see the beginnings of some of their newest work, and I’m every more excited about the waves they are going to create.”

The year Leyva and Mayer made Filmmaker Magazine’s list, the duo released a striking short film called “#Postmodem,” which had its world premiere at the 2012 Borscht Film Festival before going on to Sundance and the New York Film Festival. It’s a rather ingenious work that taps into existentialist concerns in the age of the Internet. In an interview I wrote for Miami New Times last year, both shared their interest in the work of the futurist philosopher Ray Kurzweil. Their concerns for memory, persona and legacy were given vivid life with their funny, brilliant and sometimes poignant short featuring an incredibly catchy musical number recalling ’80s freestyle music Mayer co-wrote with Michael John Hancock (of Viigo). You can watch the short in its entirety below. From little kids talking about their inevitable demise to a swing set in the clouds, this short will blow your mind.

As for now, Mayer is prepping for several exhibitions in 2016 that include LAX ART in Los Angeles, David Castillo Gallery here in Miami Beach, and Art Space in Raleigh North Carolina. So keep an eye on those spaces. As for recent shoots, Mayer reveals that what was once her initial pitch to Borscht, “a faux talk show for people and their pets” is coming to fruition. “Lucas Leyva and I just shot a pilot show about a fun fake animal talk show with support from an incubator we are in with Time Warner called 150,” she says.

Finally, Leyva and Mayer are also in the middle of production on their first feature film, a movie inspired by Japanese Kaiju that somehow explores the filmmakers’ Cuban-American identities. They are working with some members of the visual effects crew behind Beasts of the Southern Wild. “About four weeks ago, we shot the prologue to the film at Miami Theatre Center,” she reveals, “which starred two Japanese Bonraku theatre puppets. Next part of the production will take place in various towns of Cuba, and the final segment will take place in Miami.”

Hans Morgenstern

The Miami Beach Cineamtheque begins showing the films by these local filmmakers starting this Friday, Oct. 16. For a detailed schedule, follow this link. It culminates in a discussion with the filmmakers, also including directors Carla Forte (read her profile here) and Monica Peña (read her profile here), and Filmmaker Magazine Editor in Chief Scott Macaulay. This profile series continues tomorrow with a piece on Peña.

You can also read more about these filmmakers and their retrospective in an article in the Miami New Times by jumping over to the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog through the image below:

NT Arts

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

CARLA FORTE PHOTO by ALEXEY TARANThis month, The Miami Beach Cinematheque will hold its seventh installment of its Knight Foundation sponsored discussion series called Speaking In Cinema. Usually, the bi-monthly event features a local film critic, an out-of-town film critic and a guest filmmaker (this writer was one of the first guest critics). This time they are bringing together three Miami-based filmmakers for a very special installment of the series, and this is the first in what will be a series of interviews with the three filmmakers, who are all showing films in a retrospective series leading up to their talk. Meet Carla Forte.

Not too long ago, this writer reviewed the Hungarian film White God (White God takes the easy route to schlock over allegory– a film review). The most impressive thing about the movie was how the filmmakers wrangled 200 dogs and sent them marauding through the streets of Budapest. There was another film shown a few months earlier at the Miami International Film Festival that had a similar scene, Forte’s documentary The Holders. In it she explores the fate of many animals left at animal shelters (it’s often not pretty). Forte makes no apologies for the film’s bias toward animal rights. Writing via email, she says, “We need people in shelters who believe in not killing and who can confront the problem with compassion and respect.”

At the end of her film she presents the viewers with a solution that volunteers in Costa Rica have devised: a free range, no-kill shelter. It’s like a Shangri-La for dogs, where hundreds of abandoned dogs run free, receive health care and die natural deaths. The images of something like 700 dogs running down hills and jumping through creeks are stunning. “My friend Carla Lopez, a vegan activist, told me about this amazing place called Territorio de Zaguates,” explains Forte, “which shelters more than 700 hundreds stray dogs in Costa Rica. [Producer] Alexey Taran and I decided to travel to that place and expose this amazing reality happening in the mountains in a Latin American country.”

The place is so impressive, Forte has found a way to incorporate in her upcoming feature film, Ann. “It’s a feature film that narrates the story of Ruben, a man who has decided to abandon his tormented life by taking refuge within his own imagination,” she explains about the still in-progress movie. “His transgender wife Ann, in the face of a deteriorating relationship, attempts to understand Ruben’s idealized world.”

Forte says the film is still in its early stages. “We are launching an indigogo campaign to raise money,” she says. “We’ll be shooting the Feature Film in early 2016 in Miami and Costa Rica.”

Meanwhile, besides The Holders, the Miami Beach Cinematheque will also show an early short by Forte called “Interrupta,” which has been shown at several Latin American festivals as well as in Milan and Berlin. In it you will see her dancing in the shower. Besides being a director, she is also a quite talented modern dancer and choreographer. Dance often figures into her film work. As a choreographer, Forte puts a lot of thought in what dance means in a narrative, cinematic context. “‘Interrupta’ is about impermanence, emotional attachments, family. The characters in the art video are: my dad, my mom and my brother. We live in a world where every day people and things are influencing us and interrupting us. I am writing these lines while I am hearing my dogs barking and my neighbor cutting the grass. We have an everyday routine but suddenly something happens that we did not expect, good or bad, important or not, but it happened.”

There’s another abstract idea in the film, she adds. “I think people know some day we will die, but I think people do not realize that it can happen at any moment.”

When asked what inspires her as a filmmaker, Forte provided a rather poetic answer:

The desire to tell what I think inspires me. Is a path for expression.
Animals, people, the world inspire me. Is a path of exchange.
Silence, water, dance inspire me. Is a path of life.
Love and sadness inspire me. Is a path of feeling.
My family, my friends my dogs inspire me. Is a path of teaching.
Life inspires me. The big path.

Hans Morgenstern

The Miami Beach Cineamtheque begins showing the films by these local filmmakers starting this Friday, Oct. 16. For a detailed schedule, follow this link. It culminates in a discussion with the filmmakers, also including directors Jillian Mayer, Monica Peña, and Filmmaker Magazine Editor in Chief Scott Macaulay. This profile series continues tomorrow with a piece on Jillian Mayer (Jillian Mayer on inspiration from the medium of film and upcoming projects, from a talk show about pets to Kaiju) and then Monica Peña (read her profile here).

You can also read more about these filmmakers and their retrospective in an article in the Miami New Times by jumping over to the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog through the image below:

NT Arts

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

the_look_of_silence_posterIt takes a strong constitution to look into the abyss presented by The Look of Silence, the latest documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer, the Oscar-nominated director behind 2012’s The Act of Killing. Beautiful images of the lush Indonesian jungle and a soundtrack that mostly features crickets are juxtaposed against tales of the horrors of the Indonesian genocide of 1965/66 and its terrible effects on its survivors. In this “war,” the military sat back and let propaganda do its work, as mostly civilian death squads took charge of killing the communists, intellectuals and Chinese immigrants that allegedly threatened their society. The Act of Killing already documented all kinds of killings in Indonesia, detailed by several boastful perpetrators. Oppenheimer showed how they are treated as heroes in Indonesia today, as those in power got there because of this genocide.

Though it takes on the same subject, The Look of Silence is a very different movie. Gone are the surreal, staged reenactments by the killers. Instead there is but one reenactment, and it’s only shown on a 4:3 TV screen watched by Adi, the son of elderly survivors who lost their first son, Ramli, during the massacres. It shows two old men laughing about eviscerating their victims by the Snake River before throwing their remains in the water. They also go into stark detail of how they chopped at one victim, including a humiliating death blow. That victim was Adi’s brother.

TLOS_ADI_MOTHER

Despite the collaboration of many victims in The Act of Killing, all were simply credited as “anonymous” for their protection. Adi and his parents, however, not only appear on camera, but Adi also goes out to interview known members of the death squads, seeking some apology for the death of a brother he never knew. His job as the village’s optometrist gives him access but also acts as metaphor. Oppenheimer never makes it feel heavy-handed, as he prefers to explore the silences with rich images. It’s a film that primarily exists between the lines of action. It’s in the pacing of the shot/reverse shot during Adi’s interviews or his silence as he watches the two jabbering old men in the video. It’s also in the wide shots of the gorgeous jungle that grows fruitful because of the past and its decay. Still, no amount of finesse can overshadow the crimes against humanity committed in the past, and Oppenheimer emphasizes this by repeating certain set pieces.

For instance, both killers and survivors repeat, “The past is the past.” The past certainly provides the distance necessary to cope with the horror, but Oppenheimer doesn’t allow it to cloud the viewer’s judgement of these scenes. He presents no archival footage to validate the statement. He keeps The Look of Silence firmly in the present, but the weight of the past is felt everywhere. Actions define the victims and the perpetrators now and what kind of people are they.

TLOS_BED

So who are these people? They are Adi’s father, who, according to his mother, started losing his teeth after Ramli was killed. He’s now a shell of a person, lost to dementia, an object that sometimes lets out a groan of discomfort, as Adi’s mother bathes him, scrubbing with a familiar, routine purpose. Then there are the perpetrators who blame another time for what they did, even though those in power today are there as a result of the mass killings. The past is also no to be trusted. As in an early scene in an elementary school classroom where a teacher tells his half-bored students, including Adi’s son, about the evils of communism. He bends down to a boy and points a pen to his eye as he talks about communists who gouged the eyes out of their enemies. The only concrete presentation of the past, however, is in that video Oppenheimer shot about 10 years prior and Adi obsesses over.

These are people, but they are also walking metaphors for the effects of these crimes. They are human, breathing records of the effects of a society born of impunity. Adi is the lone optometrist trying to open everyone’s eyes. His mother is sadness personified whose longing for her murdered son is only qualified by her belief that Adi is his reincarnation. The father of Ramli, is the saddest of the lot. Adi’s mother says he began losing his teeth after the death of Ramli. Now his is blind, toothless and demented. In one harrowing scene shot by Adi, he scoots around the house on his behind patting at the walls, calling out for help, that he doesn’t recognize the building. Hope, however, lies in Adi’s two children, a daughter who still finds flatulence funny and a son who Adi must constantly re-teach history in spite of his teacher’s propaganda.

TLOS_BEANS

We meet the kids as they watch jumping beans, larvae that struggle so violently to get out of their shells that they jump. Oppenheimer does not make The Look of Silence some precious movie about seeking closure. These are people deeply scarred by a most dehumanizing kind of warfare that pitted neighbor against neighbor. They are not victims searching for a way to forget the past and move on but accept it in order to live with it and move forward. The Look of Silence is an extraordinary document of the dark nature of humankind and a testament to its ability to heal. It’s a film that must be experienced fully, with eyes open, for the sake of our own humanity, as well.

*  *  *

You can read more about this movie in my interview with the film’s director:

Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Look of Silence, talks influences, follow-up movie and “the past” — an interview

Hans Morgenstern

Screening update: The Look of Silence returns to our Miami area thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting Friday, Sept. 4 (see screening calendar here).

The Look of Silence runs 103 minutes, is in Bahasa and other Indonesian dialects with subtitles and is rated PG-13 (the most disturbing thing about it is the details of the past). It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at O Cinema Miami Shores today, Friday, Aug.14. It plays only for the weekend. If you live outside of Miami, visit this link for other screening dates and locations. Drafthouse Pictures provided a screening link for the purpose of this review and also provided all images in this article. Finally, listen to me on WLRN today as speak in praise of this movie as well as as films at 1 p.m. EST. The live stream is here. The show will also later be archived on that page.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)