Category Archives: EFA awards

21 ✕ Questions on 21 ✕ New York

21 ✕ Questions to the Polish director Piotr Stasik on his EFA-nominated feature-length documentary film 21 ✕ New York

  1. What is your favourite interview question?
    I don’t have such a question.
  1. Why New York? What does it mean to you? Why 21?
    I chose New York because it’s like a laboratory of the future, of how our life will look like in the future. I thought it’s a city where you can feel free and where you can make your dreams come true. This is one of the myths of this city that attracts people who are outsiders, who look for something more. In New York, these people seek home and others that are similar to them. A whole world comes to this place – to live, work, express themselves creatively. It is the capital of the world.
    The number 21 occurs in the film a few times. We’ve got 21 characters – people I met in the NYC Subway. The age of the main protagonist is 21 – as is the century we live in.
    I chose 21 characters because it’s a number of people that offers a chance to show a cross-section of a society. I’m a sociologist by education. In the beginning, this film was more of a scientific research, participatory observation.

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  1. You refer to yourself as “a harmless vampire documentalist”. How did you choose your interview subjects? 
    Vampire – because we documentary filmmakers suck in other people’s emotions and stories like blood. We thrive on them and create our films with them. Harmless – because when we do it right, we act ethically, we do not harm our protagonists – on the contrary. Often, their participation in the film is for them a moment of joint creation, and watching themselves on the screen can be an opportunity for self-analysis, to find something about themselves, even therapy.
    My research included collecting different stories. These were not interviews; rather, more like conversations where the topic came out naturally. I told them my story, and then asked them about the most important things and events in their lives. The most common topics were relationships, loneliness and being lost, confused. They came up in almost all conversations. Of course, I somehow asked for it too by intuitively choosing such protagonists and by taking the conversations in certain directions. However, to what extent I interfered and to what extent it was a reflection of a real situation – this I wouldn’t know. Loneliness is the disease not only of big cities but also of our times. Comfort and prosperity, combined with the abundance of stimuli and possibilities, create a situation where we either meticulously direct and stage our life, making it predictable and, eventually, boring, or, on the other hand, we spread ourselves thin, we can’t focus on anything, we cannot work for a longer period of time on ourselves, on relations with other people. One of my female protagonists told me that there’s no use working on the relationship with her boyfriend when new, more attractive men are already lining up just behind the corner, or in an app. In the more extreme situations, people check their tinder in bed, when having sex. Maybe it’s just how our brain functions. When we achieve something, we get used to it and we want something else. Sebastian, a newcomer in New York like myself, observes what’s going on and talks about what is at the end of this spiral. He is my alter ego.

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  1. How does it feel to be inside the heads of your characters?
    I wanted the viewers to feel as if they could, or that they did, enter my characters’ minds for a while. Hence, the form. It’s like becoming a God for a moment – to know the thoughts of people passed by in the subway.
  1. Did you have a clear idea of what the film would look like before filming?
    It was like an experiment, like anthropological research with a camera. I go underground like an anthropologist, like Bronislaw Malinowski on Trobriand Islands but, instead of in a notebook, I make my notes in the camera. Sometimes, I felt as if I were making a new version of “The Sexual Lives of Savages”. I didn’t know how the film would end but I knew its structure and form from the beginning. I had a script, with probable dialogues even.
  1. Which photographers inspire you?
    I look at photographs of many authors – mostly Cartier-Bresson or Michael Ackerman. I’m addicted to browsing through photography albums in bookstores. It was with photography that I started my adventure with image and film when, as a 15-year-old boy, I photographed kitschy compositions with metal junk.
  1. What did your instinct help you to do while you were shooting? My instinct helps me to choose potential protagonists for my film from thousands of people I pass by. Instinct combined with experience helps me to decide where to put the camera, when to press the record button, what to ask, how to shake reality in order for something interesting to happen right in front of the lens. My master, Marcel Łoziński, says that reality is like an aquarium – the fish swim lazily and only at scarce moments does something happen. So as to make that ‘something’ happen exactly when we want it, we need to interfere somehow. That’s what documentary directing is about. With small gestures, energy, or just using body language, we can stimulate the characters to open themselves, to take actions.
  1. Tell me of “magical” moments.
    When one of my characters introduced himself with the words, “I am you”. I got shivers down my spine. Also, I often feel very moved during editing, and I can only hope that my viewers would feel moved as well. That is why it is so important for me to achieve a certain level of focus. One of such methods is the rite of passage that allows you to transcend your own self. In the case of this film it was total exhaustion. This allowed me to immerse in the city, melt into it and become one with it. Recording the footage felt like swimming, or like a long, day-and-night dance with the inhabitants of New York.
  1. The camera work in combination with the sound/music creates a certain feeling in the viewer; it keeps them captivated while witnessing from up close life through the subjects. Tell us about your method of cinematography.
    I wanted the viewer to be like in a state of trance, to contemplate the world, to travel into the thoughts and lives of other people. We switch from one character to the other as if we were changing channels on TV. On the surface, nothing connects the protagonists apart from the place. I recorded the film with an unscrewed lens. By doing that, I stained the immaculate clarity of the digital image. It became more emotional, more subjective. The camera set I put together is very small and relatively quick and easy to use. Thanks to this, it does not feel intrusive during conversations, during my ‘dancing’. I don’t have to be only a filmmaker, I become the participant of events without harming the quality of the recording.

21xny_pat10. Why do you do documentaries?
It is to me a way of looking for the answer how to live and what to live for. A way of living in a more curious and more emotional way. The camera gives me a chance to visit places and ask questions I normally wouldn’t, out of lack of courage.

  1. Do you “flirt” with fiction?
    Of course. One of my characters is almost completely invented. I won’t tell which one. The world changes; our sensitivity changes with it. The film language has to change too. We look for new tricks but the truth is we’ve been telling the same tales for thousands of years. We need to surprise our audience with new things that make them forget about reality but at the same time allow them to feel it’s about them.
  1. Do you have an obsession?
    My obsession is the constant fight for time. Not wasting it on useless, petty issues like checking news on the Internet. Our lives are more and more dependent on some kind of a logarithm. After all, Facebook’s aim is not to nurture our friendships, or love, at all. These social media guys sit there and think how to make us buy their tricks.
    Big money and most talented people work now on how to suck in the biggest amount of people for the longest period of time and make us addicted to “using”. We – and our kids, too – are helpless and bound to be defeated.
  1. What do you have against conventions?
    Conventions enable us to make decisions faster, but at the same time they work as internal shackles. Imprinted within us, they don’t allow us to see our real needs, to live in the truth and in agreement with ourselves.
  1. What do all your films have in common?
    My films are a constant journey and contemplation of the world. It’s a geographic journey as well as an inward journey into human existence – into the mind and, hopefully, into the soul.
  1. What do you mean when you say “we live in a bubble”?
    Did I say that? Maybe I meant the Internet. We move part of our consciousness into the Internet, into a virtual world, believing it’s real. We don’t have to remember many things, because we can check them instantly, we don’t have time to meet with our real friends but at the same time we maintain superficial relations with 200 or even 1000 friends on Facebook.
  1. Did having a family change your attitude towards your art? Life?
    I don’t understand the question.

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  1. Why do you say that we have no clue about what is going on around us?
    The Internet changes our everyday behaviour; it influences our relations; it seduces us, making us addicted. We don’t know what its influence on our lives will be in the long run – on our emotions, selection of partners – ultimately, on our souls.
  1. How can someone be happy?
    Happiness is an overrated and abused term. Everybody wants to be happy on a daily basis. This is impossible. This compulsive aim to be happy directs the attention towards us; it’s the basis for everything else.
    However, as imperfect creatures, we are bound to suffer, to feel discontent; we are destined to build imperfect institutions and countries; our body switches off the older we become. Only if we accept this, can we reach an agreement with ourselves and achieve balance – maybe this is the state we should call happiness?
  1. What makes you happy?
    In general, giving to others. I experience that especially when I teach. This is all about giving your energy to other people, who then disappear from your sight and then suddenly sometime someday you hear that you’ve changed someone’s life.
  1. Tell us about the project you work on now in Poland?
    An opera about Poland. It’s a combination of a documentary film and contemporary opera. The libretto consists mainly of small ads from local newspapers and Internet blogs. It’s an attempt to describe the spiritual state of Poles, the release of some behaviours and habits that are related to choices we make in our private and public lives. I thought I was making a film about Poland, but at foreign screenings people say that it’s also a story about their own emotions towards their countries – something between being pissed off and being sentimental.
  1. Where will you put the EFA award?
    I don’t believe I’ll get it.

 

CPH:DOX matchmake leads to an EFA-nominated short

Interview with Maite Alberti and Giedrė Žickytė, directors of the EFA-nominated short film I am not from here, by Dimitra Kouzi

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Maite Alberti, Director

I am not from here is the result of an experiment: the two directors where matched by the CPH:DOX festival to co-direct a film in the course of one year. The two directors were especially interested in capturing the feeling of alienation inherent to immigration – and also, perhaps, to living in a nursing home: the feeling of not truly being at home. They decided to make their film in Chile, a country that saw an influx of immigration in the 20th century, and searched there for immigrants afflicted with Alzheimer’s. The short film is the portrait of Josebe, a woman from the Basque country living in a nursing home in Chile.  I am not from here, is not only multi-awarded it is now nominated for the EFA 2016.

Watch the trailer  vimeo.com/146804030

infh-gif-1What was your experience of CPH:DOX Lab?
Maite:
I did not have so many expectations when I came to the CPH:DOX Lab, but it was a great experience. Αs it was not a traditional project – that you have been working on for a long time, with co-producers and involving international funds – I felt more free to experiment, a freedom I did not have in my other projects, and I worked on an idea that I was developing for a long time.
We had never met with Giedre before, so it was like a blind date, where we had to work and find common ground. We were both interested in working with memory from an alternative viewpoint: what you remember when all is forgotten.
Giedrė: Quite an experiment on the part of the Danish doc festival to match two different words – the post-Eastern-European socialist camp and post-Pinochet Chile. Both countries with a post-totalitarian trauma, as well as with vibrant cultural spheres. Filming in Chile was a completely different experience from my previous ones, because I do not speak the language. Therefore, I started to follow my intuition more strongly – body language, and other direct and indirect senses.

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Giedrė Žickytė, Director

What drew you to this story?
Giedrė:
The fragility of passing time constantly concerns me. I come back to this theme in all my films, and it’s so sensitive that I can be moved to tears when I look at an old photograph, or listen to memories. Losing memory is something I fear for myself, so I tried to cope with this fear by searching for moments of light and hope in the story. My grandmother briefly suffered from dementia before she passed away. I was a child then and I have intermittent reminiscences, though some distinct moments haunt me, such as how weird I felt when we went to visit her and she didn’t recognise me.  But my strongest memory is how she felt unhappy and not herself when she had to leave her home. My father’s sister took care of my grandmother and after the stroke she needed to go to a sanatorium to recover. We visited her there; it was a sunny day, a garden with lot of trees and a house full of elderly people. I don’t remember what we did but I remember the ravishing feeling of absolute loneliness and emptiness there. I was afraid to be there. It was the first time in my life I experienced fear of getting old. Making this film, I missed my grandmother – I imagined her in Josebe’s place.

Maite: In 2010, I wrote and directed a theatre play about Alzheimer disease and I made a lot of research for that; I learnt a lot about that. I think Josebe is like one of my play characters, only better, because reality is always better than fiction. In fiction you cannot put too much crazy situations because they are unbelievable; in a documentary, this kind of situations are a gift from reality. All the stories that we can make up already exist – we just have to find them. For me, films are like a factory of experiences for the spectator.
After I wrote my play, I really wanted to find some of these characters in reality, and that was my goal with this story: to find a character with Alzheimer’s that really remembered her early stage of life in another place, but not to remember the present. So, at a certain moment you can feel she is completely in her right mind because she can remember everything; yet, little by little you realise that she is lost in the present. So, that is the question: What is reality? Sometimes reality is in your own mind – you can live in your memories, which keep you alive.

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How did you manage to achieve a cinematic feeling while filming everyday scenes in a natural environment?
Giedrė
: I strongly believe that it is very important, not only what story the film is telling but how it is telling it. Before filming there, we researched the spaces in the house and the residents’ daily rituals there. Our task was to find a good position for the camera in each space, to frame a shot and wait for situations to happen, which we could guess about from our research. The film’s cinematographer, Pablo Valdes, who is a gifted and intuitive DOP, could instantly feel from our gazes if we wanted to move the frame or change the position. We needed our camera to be stationary, observational, so as not to destroy nor intrude into the fragile beauty and magic of the reality unfolding in front of our eyes.

Maite: I usually work in this style in documentaries. The documentary genre has sought to pursue great historical events as the narrative axis; however, politics and idiosyncratic social portraits can also be displayed based on the microcosm. Small situations from daily life that become exceptional can be more moving than explicit politics. In observational documentaries the question is, how to make extraordinary reality happen in front of the camera? I like to talk about “scheduling chance”. I am convinced that reality is cyclical, and those things that I observed during the research that were unique, happen again. For this to happen we need to be constant, patient and wait. For me, documentaries are an exercise in patience – waiting for things to happen in reality, without hurrying or pushing them, trusting that if one chooses the places and situations well, these will provide you with what you need. Each story and each character have their own way of being told and their own language. That is what we search for; the question is, what style does my character need to convey their subject and viewpoint.

What was your biggest challenge (technically and/or emotionally)?Giedrė: Before, I used to spend a lot of time with my protagonists and establish a relationship before I started shooting. Here, we had a totally different situation: Our protagonist, Josebe, did not recognise us. Every single day, we were like new persons to her. Secondly, I had to shoot a film in another language about a woman who feels she lives in another country. I was also the only one from abroad in that particular space, as was Josebe. I felt how the perception of the situations we were filming was under a totally new light due to not speaking the language.

Maite: I usually carry out extensive research, and I have a close relationship with my characters so as to prepare them for the shooting of the observational documentaries. I spend a long time with them before turning on the camera. In this case, I could not have that relationship, and it was weird for me. Every day was the first day – that was my challenge, in both research and while shooting; every day I had to explain to her who I was and what I was doing. At a certain point, we decided to put on nursery uniforms so that we could be part of her environment.

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Let us into your editing room. What decisions did you have to make while editing the film?
Giedrė:
The raw material was already very strong, and our greatest challenge was how not to destroy this fragile magic of life by the editing.  Everything had to be very simple and accurate. Most decisions were made during editing; regarding the form, that was the moment where we discussed the most, rather than during filming.

Maite: The big decision in the editing room was to make a short film, rather than a feature documentary. Because there is a lot of time that nothing happened in that space, so for me it was not powerful enough material to do a feature-length. I think, with this kind of small stories, you must be prepared to decide during editing what kind of film it is. And it is better to make a good short film than a bad feature-length documentary. The other challenge was how to construct the character, show her not only as someone who does not remember, but also as a character that remembers her past. Because that was the interest thing about her: to not realise in the very beginning that she has Alzheimer’s, because when I met her, I did not realise it during my first approach. So I wanted to replicate that same experience with the audience.

Did you have a lot of contact with the characters (behind the scenes)? If so, what was your experience of that?
Giedrė:
It was a very different and challenging experience for both of us, as we couldn’t establish a close relationship with our main character as what we were used to in our previous films.  Every day, we had to introduce ourselves to our protagonist, Josebe, and she didn’t remember that we had met and filmed the day before. We had to be very attentive to her mood changes, and pay attention that our presence did not disturb her. We couldn’t control her – where to go, where to sit, even what clothes to wear. For instance, one day she decided to put on a very different jacket, which was contrasting with the ones we had filmed her in before, but she refused to change. However, we could control where to place the camera, as Josebe and other elderlies had the same daily routine, the same rituals and we could prepare for that.

What do you think are the most serious problems that elderly people face nowadays?
Giedrė:
There is a widespread perception that we live in the era of an elderly world. With a low birth-rate, aging population is a common phenomenon in many countries. Also in Lithuania, my native country. One would think that with the aging population, there would be more elderly people everywhere – public spaces, restaurants, streets. However, that is not the case. I feel that is due to the remains of post-soviet heritage, as in European countries I see elderly people being truly part of the society. On the other hand, in Western Europe I note another tendency: there are less strong family bonds, and the phenomenon of elderly people’s houses is much more common than in Eastern Europe.

Maite: I think there are completely different ways to live in our old age now. For example, in my previous film, Tea Time, it was completely the opposite of I’m not from here, even if the protagonists are in the same age. In Tea Time, they were enjoying their lives, in spite of the fact that they were old, too. Today, we can speak about the third and fourth age; we live longer and have more options when we are old. But if you are ill, I think the big problem is that now society is used to the retirement homes. A few years back, at least in Latin America, families lived together with the old people, now everybody decides to send the older people to retirement homes. I think it is not a good solution for all cases.

still-7What is Josebe (the main character) like now?
Maite:
Six months after the original shooting, I went by myself to film some new takes, and it was impossible – Josebe was a new person