Director via Director: BAMcinemaFest Filmmakers In Conversation with One Another

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The seventh annual BAMcinemaFest brings some of the best indie cinema to Brooklyn, but much of it was already here.

In bringing together highlights from across the world of American independent film, BAMcinemaFest, BAM’s annual showcase, is always exciting for its unrivalled diversity of subject matter, formal approach, and point of view. But it is also a community festival, with a rich core of works by local directors. This year’s festival, which runs from June 17–28, includes Brooklyn Magazine favorites Alex Ross Perry and Nathan Silver (hothouse psychodramas Queen of Earth and Stinking Heaven, respectively) and heavy hitters like Sebastián Silva (Fort Greene-shot Nasty Baby, with Kristin Wiig) and experimental filmmaker Jem Cohen (Counting). In celebration of BAMcinemaFest’s bringing together different strands of NYC moviemaking, we invited three pairs of filmmakers from the 2015 program to interview each other about their films.

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LUKE MEYER
AND CHAD GRACIA

Luke Meyer is a partner in Williamsburg-based production company SeeThink Films. His Breaking a Monster follows Unlocking the Truth, a metal band comprised of three African-American middle-schoolers from Flatbush and Bed-Stuy, as they negotiate a seven-figure deal with Sony.

In The Russian Woodpecker, Chad Gracia follows Ukranian artist Fedor Alexandrovich as he investigates the secret significance of the Duga, a Soviet installation near Chernobyl. Gracia splits his time between Hell’s Kitchen and Kiev.


LUKE MEYER: In your Russian Woodpecker, you put together a story that unfolds much like a dream, with every new point being both unexpected and inevitable. You play with the surreality of history. A question I thought of as I watched your film was, What was the starting point? The first thing that let you know you had something worth making a film about?
CHAD GRACIA: It’s only now, putting myself in the viewer’s shoes, that I’m realizing it isn’t obvious how an American non-filmmaker would find himself following Fedor on his mad quest. The answer, however, is straightforward: I was in Kiev producing a play and Fedor was our set designer. During pre-production, he pulled me aside several times and insisted that I look into a secret Cold War-era antenna he had uncovered. Seeing his passion—coupled with the strangeness of the object itself—led me to the idea of doing a very short film debunking all the American ideas about the antenna—that it was a Soviet mind-control device, etc. From there, each step Fedor took brought us down a darker and more complex path.

By the way, I like your point about the “surreality of history”—I wonder if you could elaborate a bit? I just finished watching your film, and among many other things, I also was thinking of the “surreality of history” when watching it. The parents, the boys themselves, the producers, the commentators on YouTube—they are each constructing their own narrative of what “unlocking the truth” means. And so are the filmmakers. But what’s interesting is that the answer is still unknown, because they are in the midst of their story.

I think what I mean about the surreality of history is that history demands explanations. Fedor even says something to the effect that every tragedy has a reason. In dreams too, we find ways of drawing logic from chaotic and unpredictable pieces. I’m not sure life always has satisfying answers or explanations—and film, especially non-fiction films, can be so effective at highlighting this. Your film does a wonderful job with it—paralleling Fedor’s search for more truth about the antenna and the increasingly chaotic conditions in Ukraine. There’s another great line from Fedor, about film not being literal and speaking emotion through image. This statement makes a lot of sense when I think about my film too.

Before I made this film, I made a short on the band, when it was just a few twelve-year-olds practicing in their basement and performing in midtown Manhattan. Buzz had been growing, but they hadn’t broken out in any real way. When I started making the feature documentary, a lot had changed already. There were many adults involved and they all had their own ideas of what the band was, what it was going to be in the future, and even who the boys were as people. Seeing this was one of the reasons I wanted to make this film. And of course, I’m no exception. The film is a reflection of what I saw happening. But part of my decision to use a direct cinema approach for much of the film was to give the kids the space to define their narrative through their own experiences.

Their future and the answers to so many questions remaining unknown was exactly what kept everything so exhilarating. I wanted to end the film in that emotional space too, where the story is so clearly far from over.
Fedor is clearly a powerful narrator of his own life, so much so that he basically ignores other interpretations of history and runs with his theory despite what scientists or historians tell him. And sometimes it pays off, because the military men ARE lying to him. But at other times, it’s not clear whether it’s a virtue.

In the case of Malcolm from Unlocking the Truth, we clearly are rooting for him and we want him to be the narrator of his own fate, of his own story. Not only because he is a sympathetic protagonist and a talented young man, but also because he is the only person in the movie who presents a fully honest narrative of what is happening to him.

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STEVEN WINTER AND
JENNY RASKIN & JON NEALON

In Jason and Shirley, Stephen Winter—a Prospect Heights-based producer and playwright—reimagines the making of Shirley Clarke’s vérité landmark Portrait of Jason.

In Here Come the Videofreex, documentarians Jenny Raskin and Jon Nealon, of South Slope, tell the story of the Videofreex, a radical filmmaking collective of the 1960s and 70s.


JENNY RASKIN AND JON NEALON: We’d love to know how Portrait of Jason impacted you as an artist.
STEPHEN WINTER: In 1993, during my first year at NYU, I did a catalogue search of “hustler” and “gay” to see titles similar to My Own Private Idaho. Imagine my surprise: Portrait of Jason was dark, stark, intense, lonely, brilliantly made yet incredibly depressing—despite Jason’s remarkable candor, fierce black queen bravery, and bubbly personality, he ends the film drowning in tears that may be fake or genuine, with off-screen voices pummeling his self-esteem into ruin.

I couldn’t decide if I loved the film or hated it, but I definitely respected the genius of its form and was galvanized by how it was the only—and I mean the only, single, solitary—film in the cinema canon with a black, gay man as its lead. As years went on it was easier to absorb more of what made Jason intrinsically heroic despite his pitiful aspects, but I always kept him and the film at arm’s length. Then, when the idea came to do a “behind the scenes” fictionalization of Portrait of Jason, my very first bit of research yielded the fact that Portrait of Jason was edited down from a marathon twelve-hour shoot. That blew my mind—twelve hours!? That much footage of one man talking isn’t a cutting room floor issue—it’s a lifetime. That’s where the other Jason must exist. The Jason who speaks about the Civil Rights Movement, which in 1966 would have been foremost in his mind, but never comes up in Portrait of Jason. The Jason who questions Shirley’s process and tries to turn it around. The defiant, brilliant Jason who helps craft Portrait of Jason as much as Shirley does, who is not only its subject, but its co-creator.

The Videofreex were fellow travelers of Shirley Clarke’s in the world of early video. Similarly, their work was focused on process rather than product, which was something that really fascinated us. Your film delves deeply into Shirley’s process…
About 15 minutes into watching Here Come the Videofreex, I had an absolute howl because Shirley would totally have been up in their mix and them in hers. She was a total pioneer of video with a deep understanding of how this technology would impact art and society in the future. She said something like, “If everyone had a camera and could exchange images at will, then society would change dramatically.” The Videofreex knew that as well, and I could just imagine Shirley coming to their Saturday night screening parties in Soho as a queen bee. I could also imagine Jason showing up, hoping he might get recognized and interviewed and perhaps mack on one of those pretty hippie boys that made up the core collective!

But the thing that struck me most with Here Come the Videofreex was when they had been Upstate in Lanesville and started lashing out at each other on camera and ragging on each other’s creative ideas. As if they needed to figure out their next step. Your film captured that delicate moment in an artist’s life beautifully, and made me wonder how video might have changed things for Shirley.

The Videofreex were inspired by the new medium of portable video, and the concept of immediate feedback, which was never possible with film. At their community television station in Lanesville, their subjects (the townspeople) became their collaborators as well as their viewers, so there was a full circle, to which Shirley and Jason make interesting counterpoints. Could you talk about Jason as a character who is giving a performance?
The wild genius of PoJ is the way it mesmerizes you into feeling like this two-hour film is pretty much the “truth” and thus, that this is all that Jason is. Now, this is very tricky because PoJ shows Jason as a deeply undone person. And indeed he was! But: we, speaking as black gay men, also know there are reasons why people like us become people like that, and that the “persona” one might demonstrate in public, especially around white people, is not the same thing as what beats inside. Jason’s the only black person in this room for hours and hours—performing, yet baring himself, looking for “truth” yet also trying to assert himself within what Shirley’s expectations for him are. Shirley’s expectations are valid. Jason IS all those things that she sees. But what she doesn’t see—what only Jason would have known—are not in her film.

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ELIZABETH GIAMATTI
AND PATRICK WANG

A Woman Like Me is a collaboration between co-directors and longtime friends Elizabeth Giamatti and the late Alex Sichel. The film follows Sichel through her treatment for breast cancer, as she also directs a fiction film-within-the-documentary, about a female independent filmmaker working through an identical diagnosis. Giamatti lives in Brooklyn Heights, and Sichel lived in Fort Greene, blocks from BAM.

The Grief of Others, Patrick Wang’s follow-up to his debut In the Family, is an adaptation of Leah Hager Cohen’s novel about a family in the wake of a tragedy. Wang lives in Murray Hill.


PATRICK WANG: You and Alex are both directors on the film. Could you talk about how that evolved?
ELIZABETH GIAMATTI: When we started, we didn’t divide our roles very specifically. We were just trying to understand what movie we were making. When we were ready to shoot the fictional part, Alex said to me, “I think I need to be the director.” It was a great moment for her to say that. After we shot the fiction, we spent six months watching our footage. And then Alex got really sick really fast, and we had to have one of those very hard end-of-life conversations. She asked me what I thought about finishing the movie. We both wanted that, and at the same time I knew it would be impossible for me to sit there and think, “OK, now what would Alex do?” I told her I thought we needed to be co-directors so I could make the thousand and one decisions one has to make in order to edit a movie. And she agreed.

These tools of post you have, they weren’t applied tentatively, which I was really happy to see. One path this can go is you try to show respect, and you end up reticent. Instead there was a real respect for the spirit of the endeavor, and so there were these bold decisions.
Thank you. As you know, you have to be really free to throw out your original ideas—or at least some of them—in order to make the movie you’re actually making once you’re cutting it. There were things we had planned that we had to abandon. Voiceover, for example. We did end up making some from footage we had, but we didn’t write it after the fact as initially intended—and maybe that was a blessing in disguise. It turns out that Alex had magically provided every single word we needed to construct the movie.

I think the voiceover would have interfered with what I thought was a beautiful untidiness about the movie.
That untidiness was something we had to—wanted to—embrace. When we were starting to shoot, it was like, “Ok, the fiction’s going to be on a RED, and this will be shot on this, and this other stuff will be shot on that.” The first interviews were on a Sony, because our DP had that Sony. And then we got Alex a consumer camcorder. At first I thought, well, can we make that camcorder look like the Sony, or are we going to degrade the Sony to look like the camcorder. At a certain point, though, it was like, shoot first and ask questions later, and you can’t always plan perfectly which camera you’ll have in hand.

It gives you a new tool: this dynamic between the different textures.
I have to say, it was really freeing. I don’t know if I could ever replicate it, because part of the reason it works, I think, is because it’s a movie about filmmaking, so the varieties of footage are part of the story.

And it’s a lifetime dedicated to filmmaking. There’s something appropriate about having all these different textures to try to capture a lifetime.
In the movie, there’s a Super 8 shot of Alex as a twenty-something that she shot because she was already a filmmaker, wandering around Europe with her camera. The use of that footage in this movie always makes me feel like there was a certain inevitability to her life in terms of filmmaking.

You mentioning that train shot reminds me of several shots in the movie. They’re quiet video self-portraits of Alex. And she’s usually in some mode of transport: the car, the subway, the train.
That became really important for me as the structure of the movie revealed itself, because I think that in many ways this is a road movie. Alex and had I talked about the idea of a road movie, but not related to this particular footage. One of our models was The Wizard of Oz. You know, that’s a road movie too. When Alex was diagnosed, it was like the tornado that happens in Dorothy’s world. And, like Dorothy, Alex sometimes felt completely dislocated from family and everything familiar. She ended up in this crazy land called Cancer, and she had to get home. We didn’t see home as the cure so much as what she is searching for: acceptance. Which of course she had all along, just like the ruby slippers.

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