Interviews with filmmakers

Much Ado About Nothing:Interview with Chilean Filmmaker Alejandro Fernández Almendras

One of the most challenging films that premiered in the World Cinema Competition at Sundance this year was Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ Much Ado About Nothing, (Spanish title: Aquí no ha pasado nada), the second in a trilogy on justice (or the lack of) in present-day Chile.

Much Ado About Nothing is also screening as part of the PANORAMA section at the upcoming BERLINALE 2016.

The following interview with Alejandro Fernández Almendras was taken in January 2016 during SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL. 

Dana Knight: Much Ado About Nothing is a film that is not very dissimilar, in its theme and general focus, to your previous film, To Kill A Man, that was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance two years ago. You obviously feel very strongly about the theme of justice in Chile.

Alejandro Fernández Almendras: That’s true. In the way that To Kill A Man dealt with justice for the working class, this one deals with the theme of justice for the rich. I wanted to make this film because what happened in the real case that inspired the movie was a clear case of abuse of the law and the justice system, of the privilege that money gives certain people. Much Ado About Nothing is the second part of a trilogy about justice. The third part will deal with justice for the big corporations. So if this deals with personal justice, the third film will move into the social sphere, the focus won’t be on the individual but on the corporations and the community.

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Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Fernandez Almendras

Knight: And do you think, anticipating slightly, that the conclusion to all these films will be that there is no justice because “there is no truth”. This is a striking line from Much Ado About Nothing…

Almendras: Exactly. The third film is not inspired by true events but is pretty much what I imagine, what I know is happening in the corporate world. The question I ask myself if: when you think you are fighting for something, what are you really fighting for?And how we are led to believe in things like the environment, the rights of indigenous communities, and how behind that speech and well intentions are more powerful interests at play. The whole picture this paints is not different from what any person would conclude after reading the news and living in the world. We are living in a society, in a system that is really unfair, that creates a good life for a few who achieve those levels where they know they are going to be safe in terms of social security, in terms of justice, in terms of access to education. The system is wrong and many people around the world think that. That is what want to tell in a way that is cinematic, that makes you feel frustration at what you see on screen. It is very important for me to put the viewer in that uncomfortable position and realising that things are not right.

Knight: Social injustice is widespread in the world, it’s not specific to Chile but would you say it is much worse in Chile than anywhere else?

Almendras: In Chile you have a great disparity in social status, income, that leads to differences in how people are treated. Because you have the worst case of inequality in terms of how much money the rich people make compared to poor people. In Chile we have a big debate about market loss, the fact that you can defraud a public company, send it to bankruptcy, steal millions and millions of dollars from the public funds and the punishment for that is like a slap on the wrist, probably a very small fine, nothing of serious importance. These losses were made during the time of Pinochet or made by the same people who were ruling the country at that time and who are now involved in big economic corporations. Every week we have a new case, the three major pharmacy chains control 90% of the market and they set the prices for 10 years, for the drugs that people need every month. And they make hundred of millions of dollars and no one ended up in jail. So yes, I think inequality in Chile is much worse than in other countries.

Knight: Going back to the film, while the events are based on a real life case, I assume the characters are fictionalised. How did you go about constructing Vicente and the other characters?

much ado still 1

Almendras: I have these very strong opinions about what things are and the direction they should go into. But despite that I know that I’m making films and I’m not running for a political office. So the important thing is to create scenarios that are involving enough for you to feel and understand the other side, the side you know is going to be wrong from the very beginning.  I did the same with  To Kill A Man, that guy was killing for revenge. You know he is doing a wrong thing but I wanted to understand why he was doing that. In the case of Much Ado About Nothing, I did the same thing, I created this character of Vicente as someone who has been put in a situation where he is forced by circumstances to admit something that is detrimental to him but beneficial for the bad people. So I started with that point of view and then I said I’m going to construct a character that is like a young kid today. A kid that transcends class. And you see that a lot in an upper class kid, but also in a middle class kid or even lower class: the way they relate to each other, the way they construct their relationships, the way they go about friendship and love and companionship and family. I think it’s the same everywhere you look: higher class or lower class, it’s the same. Everything has to be immediate, everything has to be clear and simple. Which is a very egotistic, selfish way of living, the instant gratification and how something is going to be useful and good for me. And not caring for anyone else. And morally these types of characters are very vulnerable to manipulation. Because if they don’t care about anyone, friends, family, etc, they will care even less for the rest of the population or for the society.

Knight: I know that in writing this script you collaborated with a lawyer, how did that go?

Almendras: I did, yes. Jerónimo (Rodríguez) is a friend, we’ve known each other for 15 years, we worked together on almost all my films, he helped me edit one and write another. And I helped him in his own endeavours of making films. He is a lawyer, he never practiced law but he knows a lot about the legal system and the thinking of a lawyer. Then we consulted with a lot of people, public defenders, prosecutors, to create a plausible, realistic, accurate story. At today’s screening there a few lawyers who came to see the film and they commented on how they face that kind of thing almost daily. One of them was a criminal prosecutor and he was saying he was hoping for the kid to not surrender, to tell the truth and what happened. But she also saw it was inevitable for the surrender to happen. […] It took us a long time to find a plausible case and decide how we’re going to cast all the parts, the script is very accurate in legal terms.…

Knight: Did the main actors contribute ideas to the creation of their characters too?Agustín Silva is a young rising star in Chilean cinema, how did you know he was the right one for the role?

Agustin Silva  film poster

Chilean actor Agustin Silva – center

Almendras: I met Agustín a month before the shooting, we had a few drinks and I knew right away. I had the experience of being a middle class kid going to a very high class school with a scholarship. So I was relating to those kinds of people in my teenage years, I know that world but I never felt part of it, I’ve always been kind of observing that. So I have the ear for the right accent, the right way to relate. It is very common in Chile to ask people what is your last name, what high school you went to, because that places you in a certain context. So when I met Agustin, I think the first question we asked each other is what high school we went to! So I immediately thought he was the kind of person I was looking for. And I pushed him to be a little more like that, not to reflect too much about the character but to let the character exist.

Knight: How about the other kids in the cast?

Almendras: The same thing, basically. Most of them are coming from rich families, they live in that world.

Knight: So they are non-actors?

Almendras: No, actually they are all professional actors, fresh out of school, most of them.

Knight: Were they troubled at all by the way you’re representing their world?

Almendras: No, because in a way it is a fair portrait. At the end of the day, because of what they do and the role they play, you’re probably judging them but the movie is not judging them. But at the beginning they are just having fun, and I think we have all been in that situation. We’ve all been partying late and drinking, dancing, doing drugs or whatever. So the movie celebrates their youth until something happens. Which changes the narrative of the film into something more serious and objective.

Knight: You’re saying the movie celebrates their youth but the opening sequence is a bit disturbing: the kids are watching a video of someone who had an accident and they are kind of laughing it off, as if it’s something amusing.

Almendras: Yes, I agree, they are watching the screen and saying things like, “What do you care, nothing really happened to him”. But they are like that, they watch videos on Youtube and the whole film is full of online interaction and watching things on the internet.

Knight: There’s a lot of social media inserted into this film.

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Almendras: Exactly.  At the beginning they are watching a viral video and at the end of the film we see a lot of tweets coming up on the screen. And many of those tweets came from the real case that inspired the movie, it’s the same things that people wrote on social media about the case, like “let’s kill this guy”, “let’s raise enough money to kill him”, “let’s dump him somewhere”. Because Twitter and all social media are very violent. Very small worlds but very violent. Also after they are having sex they are watching a porn video, another viral video. And there’s a lot of texting. So there’s a lot of this new different layer of communication that I wanted to put in the film, to add a new layer to the narrative. Usually when texting occurs in a film, they are using it instead of a phone call. People today use a text message as a substitute for a phone call, it’s really funny. I’m wondering why we prefer to text instead of talk. It’s probably because texting creates all this parallel universe so instead of this person being 5 min with you, they are all day with you. So you got the feeling that you’re building relationships with people who seem to be there but they are not. Which is different from phoning someone. So I wanted to have this in the film to create this new narrative layer, to comment on things you see in the film, to talk about people you see in the film.

Knight: I was struck by your decision to insert the content of these text messages directly on the screen. You’re basically writing on the screen.

Almendras: Yes, I decided to go that way because it’s a new form of communication that is still not well integrated into films. It’s so different than actual, physical communication. I remember in the late 90s and early 2000 when the cell phones were starting to appear, it took movies at least 10 years to stop showing pay phones.

Knight: That’s because pay phones are so much more cinematic!

Almendras: Maybe! So most characters from movies of that period would still go to a pay phone and call someone. But narratively you would think: why didn’t that character call that person from a cell phone? And I think some filmmakers deliberately set the action of the film 10 years into the past only to avoid dealing with a cell phone! It was so new to be able to communicate with someone from anywhere. For us now it’s the same with texting. But the way I used texting in the film is different, I wanted these texts to tell part of the story and talk about something you have not seen on  the screen. I don’t know how many of my friends said to me, “this guy or this girl broke up with me over whatsapp!” or “he sent me a text saying that it’s over”. It’s so dry to send a text message to say something that is emotionally important for the other person. This type of communication is so different from what it used to be! And this is what I wanted to emphasise in the film.

Knight: I actually enjoyed seeing all these messages silently displayed on the screen, it was as if you were able to read the characters’ minds.

Almendras:  Exactly. But this changes a lot of things from a practical filmmaking point of view. Instead of having someone say “I miss you, I love you” in a scene, you have that message displayed on the screen. And I’m always curious what people are talking about in all those texts! There was this case once in the Parliament in Chile, this congressman was texting during a hearing in the Congress, he was having three separate sex conversations with three different guys. So you see this Congressman working away in the Congress, but what is going on in reality is something entirely different! So this is a medium I would like to explore more because it speaks volumes about the character, the way the character relates to other people and to the world.

Knight: Talking about the internet and social media, there is also a documentary by Werner Herzog on this topic in Sundance 2016. In an interview I recently did in Havana with NYC filmmaker Sam Pressman who knows him well, Herzog was quoted as saying: “This table is a revolutionary object because we can sit around it and have a conversation but Twitter is not!”. A very contentious, controversial statement,  just as we like them!

Almendras: (laughing) Well, I agree! Also Twitter is such a sterile form of communication, such a bad tool of communication. We created language but on Twitter we’re limited to using 140 characters. This will always end up with people fighting or misunderstanding each other. Because 140 characters is no way you can make yourself understood. And what is also disturbing is that we are using a means of communication created by people who were unable to communicate in the real world. We are using systems created by, many of them, sociopaths. Zuckerberg created a tool to judge women’s hotness in a dorm in a university, which is probably the worst environment. And we’re using the same tool to communicate with friends?Obviously we are doing something wrong!So I’m very critical of that, I don’t think it’s healthy to relate to people in this way, that’s why I used it a lot in the film.

Knight: The title of the film in Spanish translates into “Nothing happened here” but the English title is Much Ado About Nothing. Why was it important to find an equivalent expression for the English title instead of a literal translation?

much ado still 2

Almendras: Yes, the Chilean title means “Nothing really happened here” and we use it when you have a big mess and then you kind of fix it a little bit and then you say that nothing actually happened. And we have a similar expression to Much Ado About Nothing in Spanish, the literal meaning is: “all this noise cracking nuts but there is nothing inside”. In other words, all this fuss around something that is nothing in the end. Which is what happened in Chile with the legal case the film is based on: there was a lot of “noise”, a lot of tweeting, a lot of press and at the end all the kids were freed, except this person that no one cares about. So that’s why we decided to go with that title.

Knight: Basically you have a free but powerless press in Chile!

Almendras: Exactly, the press represents the same powers and what happens is this weird thing where they condemn things publicly but there is no real accountability for what they are doing.  A lot of noise and nothing really happens as a result of that.

CONTEMPORARY CUBAN CINEMA:THE PROJECT OF THE CENTURY BY CARLOS MACHADO QUINTELA

The Project of the Century, the second feature film of the Cuban filmmaker CARLOS MACHADO QUINTELA, is a rich, playful, sophisticated postmodern work, a subtle critique of Cuban society viewed though the prism of three generations of men. After a warm reception at Rotterdam Film Festival 2015 where it picked up the Hivos Tiger Award, Quintela’s feature film spent a year on the international festival circuit before it arrived home at Havana Film Festival in December 2015 where it received the Megano Award from the National Federation of Cine-Clubs Cuba.

The following interview with CARLOS MACHADO QUINTELA was taken during Havana Film Festival in December 2015

 Dana Knight:The Project of the Century is a work of great irony, an irony that is sustained by the fragmented narrative and the multiple narrators you deploy. You introduce the story by typing on the screen: “This story takes place in the Electro-Nuclear City in 1980”. Then you immediately jump to 2012. Then you go back and forth between these time frames many times. At some point, the grandfather takes over the telling of the story by introducing other characters: “Mira, Natalia”, Mira, X”. In the courtship scene with Marta, it’s almost as if Benjamin the fish is telling the story, you place the camera behind the fish bowl and we get the fish’s POV! This is a rich, sophisticated, playful postmodern work, a subtle critique of Cuban society viewed though the prism of three generations of men: Otto, the 80-year old grandfather, Rafael the father and his son. You treat your characters with much tenderness but the general outlook is very ironic, can you comment on that?

Carlos+Machado+Quintela+Swimming+Pool+Photo+ylCJeu0IBM0lCarlos Quintela: The irony starts in the title – The Project of the Century – it’s supposed to be a great film because it has this great name. So pretentious, like the project itself! I call it a “radioactive film”, by which I mean an altered state of things, if something is radioactive, it is different, it is an altered state.

At this moment the waiter comes over with a lemonade for Carlos and mineral water for me.

Knight: Is that blue lemonade?

Quintela: Yes, radioactive lemonade!

Knight: So fitting!

Quintela: That’s the meaning of radioactive that I like: something altered, something changed. For example, the engineer, Rafael, the father, he worked in the Nuclear City, he went to study in the Soviet Union and then he returned when everything collapsed. So he has to design his life again: he is an engineer but now he can only find work as a farmer, if he’s lucky. So he is in a way radioactive, he is doing something he is not prepared for. Also the Nuclear City is “radioactive”, although the nuclear plant did not explode like Chernobyl, it is socially radioactive, everything changed, it is a place that is abandoned.

Knight: What was the initial creative seed for this film and how did it evolve from there? Was it the Nuclear City itself that served as inspiration for the film, you wanted to build a story around it?

Quintela: I studied screenwriting at the film school in San Antonio and I have a friend who studied there too. He started writing a script, a story about three male characters who live alone and he developed the first draft but the story doesn’t have a landscape, just three characters in an apartment, the story can work in any place in theory. At the same time, I had a little car and was driving around Cuba and one day I saw the dome of the Nuclear City from a distance. It looks like Taj Mahal! It’s a strange view, an alien view, even in in Cuba!

nuclear city

Knight: So you did not know about the existence of this place until you discovered it by accident…

Quintela: Exactly, there are a lot of people who don’t know about that place, they want to erase it from people’s memory.

Knight: Because its failure is a big national shame?

Quintela: Exactly, it’s a big shame, the big project of the Revolution, of the 80s, when people thought that Cuba would jump to a very advanced technological level. […] And generally speaking, there are a lot of projects that fail in Cuba. The underground in Havana for instance.

Knight: There is an underground in Havana?

Quintela: Yes there is, they built all the tunnels and then they stopped. But the whole structure is laid out. They even prepared the drivers of the trains. That’s another story!

Knight: Maybe the subject of your next film!

Quintela: I don’t know, but it’s a really good story!

Knight: Going back to the Nuclear City, where in Cuba is it located exactly?

Quintela: The Nuclear City is 300 km away from Havana.

nuclear city 2

Knight: Who lives there now?

Quintela: A lot of people still live there. They worked at the plant and they were given state apartments in the city, “usufructo” as we call them. […] When everything collapsed, a lot of people left the City, some left Cuba, a lot of people committed suicide in that place, those who were lucky found a job doing something else. Some people stayed in Russia when everything started to shake. I showed the film in Moscow actually and met some Cubans who stayed there after the collapse of the Soviet Block.

Knight:So you developed a fascination with the Nuclear City, you probably did a lot of research about it…

Quintela: Exactly. This was six years ago. Also while studying at the film school, we had a workshop near the Nuclear City, in Playa Caballos, next to the bay. We stayed there for a week and worked with a theatre group from the Nuclear City. They are the workers who play in the film. And also the fat lady. Well, not the fat lady

Knight: Marta!

Quintela (laughing): Yes, Marta.

Knight: The courtship scene with her is hilarious, with the grandfather asking her how much she weighs out of the blue! I’m curious now, how much does she weigh exactly?

Quintela: Probably 180.

Knight: Then the grandfather was right!

Quintela: Yes he was! And almost all the people who appear in the film, I met them during that week.  It was an opportunity to visit the place every day, to talk to the people who live there.

Knight: So there is a community there, if they even have a theatre group…

Quintela: Yes, exactly. They created that theatre group because there were a lot of people who committed suicide and doing theatre provided a little bit of relief. It’s almost like any other city in Cuba.

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Knight: How do they live there now, what do they do?

Quintela: There are some people who raise animals in their yards, some people work in the hotel across the bay. Some people work in the cigar factory. Probably the rest work in Cienfuegos, they need to cross the bay every day then take a bus.

Knight: You’re actually showing this commute in the film.

Quintela: Yes, the scene on the ferry.

Knight: So you met these people from the Nuclear City and they told you stories about what is like to live there…

Quintela: Yes, they told me the story of the place, what happened there. Because even if I’m Cuban, I’m like a tourist when it comes to this place, I’m an outsider. That’s why I did not want to work in a realistic register, I don’t know that place, for me it’s surreal. […] So I used the spirit of that place and added in other elements and I made like a milkshake, but I can’t pretend I know what it is like to live there.

Knight: I like the metaphor of a milkshake for your film. It’s a blend of so many things!

Quintela: Exactly, I stole a little bit from everyone!!

Knight: But all the elements go very well together, the film is cohesive despite its fragmented, disrupted nature.

Quintela: I guess so. And it’s a hand-made film. Low-budget. I made it with the machete, cutting everything that I needed to cut. Of course, I’d love to have a machine gun but I don’t have it and I don’t want to wait for the machine gun. But if I continue making films, I’d love to work in comfort some day. If I am to sum up your idea about irony, a lot of irony comes from this way of working. Everything is extremely “naked”, you see everything, you see all the sewing in the film, it’s like a project.

Knight: And there’s also the ironic contrast between the past and the present, the past with its high ideals and the present with its crumbled dreams and low expectations.

obra_grandfather

Quintela: Definitely. And there’s another irony expressed through colour: the past is in colour but that doesn’t mean it’s great!

Knight: The past is in colour yes but it’s a sort of faded colour, a vintage look. Actually the brightest colour you have in the film is the boxing sequence from the 2012 London Olympics.

Quintela: Exactly. The modern time, the time of the film. But it’s different if you see it from the Nuclear City. And it’s in colour because the Cuban boxer wins a gold medal!

Knight: The brightest, shiniest thing!

Quintela: Exactly. But a gold medal that sadly doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t bring any “colour”. And the rest of the film is not completely black and white, it’s like taking a brush, putting it in the can of paint and spraying it onto the canvas, there are some colours there.

Knight: Formally, it is a very challenging film. Immediately after introducing the story, you cut to a small square frame where you show an aerial shot of the Electro-Nuclear City. And you repeat this stylistic device throughout the film. This obviously begs the question: why? I came up with my own interpretation of it.

Quintela: Please, I want to hear it!

Knight: For me, the small square frame represents the ideological discourse of the day, the way any ideological discourse shows you only a narrow portion of the picture, not the entire picture. In other words, the small square frame is the literal, visual translation of the way ideology “frames” reality.

Quintela: That’s a really great interpretation, thanks, I love it, it’s my treasure from this interview because I did not think about that. And it’s probably because I live inside the small square. Of course I can look at it and examine it, I understand the square but it’s in my veins in a way. It’s in my blood, I live in the square so I can only see things from that perspective.

Knight: You use the small square frame for the Cuban cosmonaut who says that his space travel is all due to the Cuban Revolution and to socialism. By the way, is the cosmonaut real or is that mock footage?

Quintela: He’s real, he really went to space, he’s like a star in Cuba, a hero, the only Cuban who went to space! He became famous, imagine, a Cuban in space! That’s why the film starts with him, it’s a huge step, it’s an utopia made possible.

Knight: And it’s all thanks to the Cuban Revolution!

Quintela: Exactly. And he’s not only Cuban, he’s a Black Cuban! Because there were two Cubans they were preparing to go to space, a white Cuban and a Black Cuban. So in the end they chose the Black Cuban because politically it’s more important.

Knight:  It’s a stronger political statement.

Quintela: Yes, a Black Cuban is more “Cuban” in a way. And his mission was really strange, I did not want to talk about that in the film because people would probably laugh: his mission was to prove that in space the sugar could survive! Seriously, you can research this on Youtube. Now he’s in charge with foreign travel, if a military soldier wants to travel, he is the one giving you permission.

Knight: It’s so ironic how things turned out! But going back to the mockumentary idea, you do have mock footage in your film, the interviews with the nuclear plant workers for example.

Quintela (laughing): No, everything is real!It’s true, there’s no mockumentary in the film. People do get that impression but no, everything is real. The footage is edited but it is real!

Knight:But it sounds so perfectly like the official ideological discourse written by someone and given to them to read out and perform!

Quintela: Yes and no in a way. It’s not written by anyone, that’s how they spoke in that day!

Knight: And the women in the Dia de la Muher sequence from 1986? I immediately noticed the 70’s style haircuts and earrings. Those are real women from the period too?

Quintela: Yes. But remember 80s in Cuba is like ’69, ’71 in the States, we are a bit behind!

Knight: How about the last woman in that sequence?She is filmed from behind and her behind introduces us again to the Nuclear City where you resume the film. That is your addition, right?

Quintela: No, that’s also real footage! The cinematographer shot that for Women’s Day! I really love that footage, that’s why I used it.

Knight: This is the big surprise of this interview! I was almost sure that is mock footage, that you mix real footage with fake footage! How did you get your hands on this material?

Quintela: It was tricky! I needed to find someone with access to it, I had to pay for it.

Knight: But it belongs to the national archive, right?

Quintela: No, it’s from someone who has his own place. Probably they have to destroy it. And there is more.

Knight: Footage they never used probably. The rushes.

Quintela: Exactly, they shot it but never showed it on television. The media is a really closed circle in Cuba, that was footage for a meeting probably, to talk about something.

Knight: That’s just amazing. But going back to the stylistic device of the small square frame within the frame, what was your reason for using it?

Quintela: The reason I used the small square is because I could not resize the archive, I couldn’t put it at the same resolution as the rest of the film. Because it would have broken the consistency.

Knight: So basically you chose the small frame because it looked better!

Quintela: Not really. When I work with several materials, at some point I want to use another layer, then I need to find the correct size. I started in black and white, at the beginning the whole film was in black and white. But I changed. Why?

Knight: What’s the answer to that?

Quintela: I changed because I did not want manipulate the archive too much, someone gave it to me and I wanted to use it like that. If the film is The Project of the Century, and I wanted to capture the irony of that, I can’t be afraid of using rough materials.  If I use rough materials I need to use them like that, I can’t polish them and make them more fancy. After that I needed to find the right size, so I tried different sizes and in the end I chose that size. But I never thought of its ideological meaning, I only wanted a difference between the two timeframes, the two narratives. I never asked myself about the empty black space, that it could mean something else, I only thought about what is inside.

Knight: I don’t think I’ve ever seen this device in any other film, have you?

Quintela: I don’t remember, no. I watch a lot of films where everything changes at some point but not the size, no.

Knight: Another ironic element that is totally unintentional I bet is the fact that your three main characters living in the Nuclear City form what is called a “nuclear family”!

Quintela: Yes! The three generations living under one roof!

Obra grandson

Knight: Normally you have the women as well but in your film the women are absent, they all left. It’s still a nuclear family nevertheless. And fertile ground for intergenerational conflict!

Quintela: Yes, that is very common in Cuba!

Knight: So it’s not a coincidence that one of the first scenes in the film is a fight: the young son beats up his father off screen. In other words, the young generation is angry towards the older generation, the Cuba of the nuclear dream!

Quintela: Yes they fight and it’s a symbolical fight. […] But when I write I don’t think of the meaning, I think of the characters and what they go through. But of course their actions mean something. And that fight is meaningful, of course, but for me the son is beating up his father, not what his father represents. But in a way of course, it’s impossible to separate the two. Because what he represents is inside him. That’s why the first line of dialogue of this family is “Sorry, I apologise”. That was a conscious line. The film starts with the “fumigatores” but in the original script the story starts with a fight. And it ends with a fight, it’s like a never-ending story, that’s something that happens in Cuba every day, a lot of families have conflicts like this. I’ve lived with my grandma all my life and although she’s not like the character of the grandfather in the film, we still have a lot of discussions that I would gladly avoid, for example she keeps telling me I’m weak! But it’s impossible to not have these discussions. And in the film the fight scene is really bad, that’s why it’s mostly black.

obra fight.jpg

Knight: However, things become quite funny in the next scene when the grandfather picks up a fight with the grandson and it’s actually the father who comes to his rescue now.

Quintela: Yes, the family dynamics change almost immediately. The grandfather is like many people I met at the Nuclear City, it’s the generation who grew up with the Revolution. Cuba is extremely divided. If you want to know about contemporary Cuban history, you need to know a lot of aspects: Cubans from Cuba, Cubans from Miami. You need to put together a lot of pieces.

Knight: A lot of disparate fragments? The reason why the film is so fragmented I guess…

Quintela: Exactly, a lot of disparate fragments and mix them together. The family in my film is the kind of family who never says directly: I love you, I care about you. If the grandfather wants to say that, he would say it to his grandson and the grandson would say it to the father, everything works like that. Because they are in a battle all the time and it’s impossible for them to escape from that. […] It’s also impossible to understand Cuba in one frame, because one frame is not enough for such a complex country. And neither is a whole film. I think in general families in Cuba are not like the family in my film. The family in my film is like that because it is the result of an utopia. Everything collapses around them and that penetrates the family. And they are becoming that kind of family as a result.

Knight: What is interesting is that the men stayed put, they stayed with the utopia, whereas the women left, the women are absent in this film. The men only allude to the women and there are some insinuations there…Someone says something about the grandmother for instance but the grandfather doesn’t want to talk about her. Also the son doesn’t want to talk about his novia either, the red-haired skinny wife with soft hands whom the grandfather declares “unfit for marriage”! So women are either absent and/or no good in this film!

Quintela: Yes, exactly.  When the film starts with the fumigatores, there is that discussion about the Cold War and how the Russians and Americans were competing in the space race to prove who has the biggest dick. And that’s a problem that men have, they want to prove that all the time! And Cuba is so small but wants to pretend that it’s so big, so good, we are so special. No, we are not so anything, we are just like the other Latin-American countries. And I think compared to men, Cuban women are stronger and they know how to find a way to do things.

Knight: Less conceded with ideals, more concerned with the practical aspects of life.

Quintela: Exactly. And failure for a man is deeper. You can see that in the archive footage, this is “the project of the century” and there are a lot of men working on this project. Women are behind.

Knight: There is no talk of women, no interviews with women in that footage.

Quintela: Actually a lot of women worked on that project too. And there were interviews with women too but I took out that footage.

Knight: To make a point?

Quintela: Yes.

Knight: The soprano’s song was another startling sequence. I interpreted the lyrics “I love you and I hate you but I can’t live without you” as your ode to Cuba, the “you” in the song is Cuba.

Quintela: That’s exactly what it is! And that’s the flavour of the film. Because I feel like that. And I think everyone in Cuba has that kind of love/hate relationship with our country. As a citizen, there are a lot of things that I hate, if I made you a list it would be so long that I prefer not to talk about that at all! But as a filmmaker and screenwriter, I love everything that I hate about Cuba!

Knight: Because that hate and anger feeds your creativity.

Quintela: Of course!

Knight: Going back to the film, I want to talk about the scene with the neighbour who shows up at the door and says: “I want to speak with the owner of this establishment”. Who happens to be the grandfather! I was very surprised by that line, he said “owner”. So what is the situation of private property in Cuba now?

Quintela: Yes he said owner but the problem is that in Cuba, probably like in Iran, there are a lot of layers when you talk. For example, in general, if you’re looking for a job, probably you will take a job not because of the salary, but because of what they call “the search”. The “search” is what you can steal from that place! If I work in a restaurant, probably I don’t need to buy food, because I have access to food. And this person who works in that place survives because of that.

Knight: I understand.

Quintela: They don’t say “steal”, they say “search”. But it is theft, they are stealing from that place.

Knight: But everyone knows and it’s accepted. Or not?

Quintela: There are some people who accept that and there are people who don’t. And that’s connected with the economy and the State and the government: if you don’t pay me, I rob you. It’s like Robin Hood but on a personal level, everyone is a Robin Hood! So when the neighbour says “owner”, he actually means “usufructo”. That means that the State gave you that property to use but it’s not yours. So the State gave them that apartment because they worked in the Nuclear Power Station. Also, the State gives these properties to men but not to women, what do you think of that?There are some women who own private property now but not in those times! And if they get divorced, the woman doesn’t get anything!!

Knight: That’s very unfair because communist societies in general seemed to embrace gender equality!

Quintela: Yes, but only in theory. I think Cuban women are very strong but Cuban society is extremely machista. […]

Knight: Interestingly, you’re subverting this machismo entirely in the courtship scene with Marta. She is the man in that scene, she arrives on a motor bike…

Quintela: She sits like a man…

Knight: Yes and you entirely reverse the scenario: it’s usually the man going to the woman’s house and bringing cake/sweets, no? So you subverted gender expectations in the film deliberately.

Quintela: Yes, she is the only woman in the film and she needs to be powerful. And also she is a relief for Rafael although she doesn’t solve anything. Love is something temporary, like an injection, a drug, but that’s it, after that pain continues. And also she realises during the dinner that he is not so strong and that’s why in bed she wants him to pretend he is Russian. It’s really sad.

Knight: But very funny at the same time!And he takes that really well, I had a lot of admiration for him in that moment!

Quintela: Yes, he wants to pretend to be strong at least!

Knight: The film is full of humour in places you don’t really expect. But going back to the scene with the neighbour, there’s a lot of irony here in terms of outcome, we expect one thing but something else happens. What inspired that scene?

Quintela: The mood of the Nuclear City. When I spoke with Daisy, one of the people who lives there, she said something I really liked and could connect to even if I’m from Havana. She said that the Nuclear City is “a bit alive and a bit dead at the same time”. And I like that idea. Every character in fact has an issue or dilemma they cannot solve, because it doesn’t depend on them: the young son has a broken love relationship that he cannot fix because it doesn’t depend on him, his father, he’s probably the one who suffers more because he belongs to the disappointed generation, I call it “The Generation of Fear”.  The Cubans who stayed in Cuba in general are really kind and resigned and they are unable to say “This is shit”. If they want to criticise something, they don’t criticise openly. They suffer more and they apologise a lot, like the father in the film. It’s really sad. And his problem is that he cannot bring back the Nuclear Power Plant, he cannot do anything. And the problem of the grandfather is that he hates everything, he fights with everyone, probably he’s the honest person in the film, he talks directly with each of them, but his problem is that he cannot die. He wants to die but he cannot die, he returns. […] So his apparent death is more related to the feeling of the Nuclear City.

Knight: How difficult was it to make a film like this in Cuba now?

Quintela: The making of the film was complicated, it is a low budget film and in Cuba you plan for something and then everything changes, every day you have a big surprise! But you need to work with something that doesn’t change. And the film is imperfect but on the other hand it’s not Batman! Also the story and memory of that place [the Nuclear City] is full of mistakes, which means it’s not coherent. So instead of fighting all the mistakes that happened during the making of the film, I started using these mistakes in the film. For example, the grandfather’s calendar from 1986 when Chernobyl happened, the one displaying the image of a pretty Japanese woman: you might have noticed she has a smeared eye in that photo. This was an accident, the guy who was in charge with bringing us that poster smashed it! So things like these. But sometimes it is too much! And the look of the film is the look of a project, the film is a documentary in a way, if it were a film  it would have started with a fight and ended with a fight, but it’s a project, it’s not “done”, it’s imperfect.

Knight: Also the ending is very ironic, you refer to the film as a “cinematic activity”: “This cinematic activity ends here”. At 100 minutes on the dot!

Quintela:That’s very communist, that’s the way communists speak. In Miami it’s the same, it’s very funny. Obviously Miami is very different, the ideology is different but the way Cubans use the Spanish language, the grammar and everything, is very communist-like. And yes, the film is 100 minutes and editors say 90min is the ideal length. If I had more time I would have polished it more. I actually have another version, perfectly done, not like Batman but more Hollywood-like! But I don’t like it, it looks too well-done, it’s the standard size though, 90 minutes. I would love a balance between those versions but I don’t have the time for it.

Knight: What did you take out in the other version?

Quintela:I polished the scenes a little bit more. But the film looks less Cuban. So I prefer this version, it’s more faithful to the story of the Nuclear City, and also to Cuba. And I realised that I don’t need to hide the machete, I don’t need to hide the sewing, I don’t need to hide anything, it’s my world, it’s like that. When you close a door here, it doesn’t sound like New York, it’s a different sound here. Everything in the film is hand-made. The sound designer on the film is not Cuban so I had to explain all these things to him.

Knight: What are you going to do with this other version, is this the one you’re going to show in the US?

Quintela: No, we’ll probably erase it!

Knight: There’s a striking statement that the grandfather makes in the film while talking to his grandson. He says, referring to his son: “All that shit they filled his mind with”. He’s directly referring to communist ideology here.

Quintela: Claro. And he’s also talking about money: you were not supposed to think about money in those times but now everything changed and everyone wants money. To give you an example: I bumped into a teacher from high school six months ago and he told me about some work he did for someone. But he was unable to say what was the price of what he did. He does not know how to say: “You need to pay me this”. Because the mentality is: why should I pay for something if I can get it for free? And the problem with Cuba is: in theory this could work but not in practice. I also supported the Revolution at the beginning, the first 5-6 years. When I talk with my grandma about those times, I realise from the way she speaks that she fell in love with those ideas. And I would love to fall in love with that lie too, at least she had something to believe in! It’s complicated!

Knight: What year were you born in?

Quintela: In 1984.

Knight: Right at the time of the Nuclear Project!

Quintela: Yes, I’m a nuclear child, I used to play football with Chernobyl kids. After Chernobyl a lot of Russian families settled near Santa Maria in Tarara. It was healthy for them to be near the sea but most of the Chernobyl kids died. Now there’s a Chinese city there now, they learn Spanish there.

BERLINALE 2014

berlinale 2014

French Actress SANDRINE KIBERLAIN Talks LIFE OF RILEY, the Last Film of ALAIN RESNAIS

SOPHIE HYDE  Discusses  52 TUESDAYS, One of the Most Critically Acclaimed Films of 2014

Filmmakers DAN GELLER and DAYNA GOLDFINE About THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR: SATAN CAME TO EDEN

Filmmaker GINA KIM About FINAL RECIPE and Working with Michelle Yeoh  – CULINARY CINEMA @BERLINALE 2014

Actress MICHELLE YEOH About Her Role in FINAL RECIPE  – CULINARY CINEMA @BERLINALE 2014

GUILLAUME NICLOUX and MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ Discuss the Making and/of The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq – My Favourite Independent Film of 2014

Hippolyte Girardot et Caroline Sibhol – Aimer Boire et Chanter (Life of Riley) #Berlinale2014

In PARADISE, Iranian filmmaker SINA ATAEIAN DENA Brings Fresh Eyes To a Story About How We Treat Each Other

Shot without permission on the hectic streets of Tehran and co-produced by Jafar Panahi‘s brother Yousef — who also enjoys a fleeting cameo, Paradise is a quiet character study chronicling everyday sexism in today’s Iran. Blending real and fictional elements to create a complex, multi-layered narrative, the film centres on Hanieh, a disaffected 25-year-old schoolteacher who lives with her married sister and commutes long hours each day to get to work at a school on the outskirts of Tehran. Sensitively played by Iranian visual artist Dorna Dibaj, the only non-actor in this cast, Hanieh seems to observe Iranian society  with fresh eyes, a freshness that is equally imparted by the on-the-fly, undercover nature of the filming.

Paradise premiered in the main competition at LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2015 where this interview with Sina Ataeian Dena was taken.

Dana Knight: What was your creative process like working on this film? Did you start from a story or was it more character-based?

Sina Ataeian Dena: There was a kidnapping scandal 10 years ago, South of Teheran, and what was interesting about it was that this guy that in the end got arrested, was always there and he never caught anyone’s attention, he was always there playing with kids, then he would kidnap, rape and murder them. Horrible story. So this was the starting point but then we came to bigger concepts: violence in general, the abstract concept of violence. Then I decided to put the kidnapping story in the background of the film. When we had the first draft of the script it was very clear that we wanted to talk about violence in a wider sense. This type of violence, kidnapping and rape, is the physical aspect of it but there are non-physical ways to release and reproduce violence.

Knight: Although Paradise focuses on aspects of violence in Iranian society, at the press conference you pointed out that the film is universal in its themes, being a story about how we treat each other.

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Ataeian Dena: Yes, the story is based on an universal concept in the sense that anything we do may have consequences for another person and the effect of that may be something we don’t necessarily want. And you have this kind of violence everywhere, in every human being and society, it’s a characteristic of the species and our interaction as a species.

Knight: Going back to your creative process, you said this project was a collaboration of several artists. Did you collaborate at the screenwriting stage too?

Ataeian Dena: No, I wrote the script alone. It was for the first time that I did not ask for the opinion of my best friend who is also my co-writer.

Knight: Why?

Ataeian Dena: Because this was a story I wanted to tell and I did not want to change anything  about it. Also during the shooting, my producer always had some different opinions about how to deal with the situation but I really insisted on what I wanted and at the end he told me he is convinced. Also during the editing, my co-editor always wanted to take out some frames but I really wanted to show it the way it is.

Knight: Could you talk about these areas of slight disagreement?

Ataeian Dena: First of all, not all of my colleagues knew that this was a feature film. Because I did not want them to have to share the danger and the responsibility with me. They did not have permission to shoot and if you take part in a short or documentary it’s ok. But for a fiction feature , it’s a sensitive zone. So not many of them knew what exactly we were doing. Also we had different versions of the script for different actors, for different colleagues who gave us locations, who provided cars and extras for us.  At the end I apologised to all of them for not being honest but I was in a state of mind where I had to tell this story and did not want to compromise. From a certain point of view, maybe it’s not really ok, but …

Knight: You probably felt it was what you had to do as a filmmaker in order to make this film.

Ataeian Dena: Yes, I felt that I was responsible to tell the story as it is. And it’s the first time that as a filmmaker I made something that is 100% my input, I’ll go to court with it for everything!

Knight: How did the collaboration with Dorna Dibaj come about, the Iranian visual artist who plays the lead in your film.

Dorna+Dibaj+Day+3+68th+Locarno+Film+Festival+ArmIcGlAFI9l

Ataeian Dena: I met her in a dentist’s office. She was sitting there and I asked her what she does, she said she studies art, sculpture, she makes statues. Then I told her about the project, she said she was interested, she seemed really excited. Then she went to a primary school in South Teheran for a year to teach these children and experience the atmosphere and catch the spirit of the whole thing. I was very surprised that she was willing to go through that experience, this showed me she is the right person to play this role.

Knight: Was it her idea or your condition for casting her in the role?

Ataeian Dena: This was my condition actually. It is difficult to work with me because I always need time. I need time and preparation and rehearsals. And I have some close famous actress who really wanted to play this role, they are like celebrities in Iran, which meant that they could have also brought money. But in the end I chose Dorna. Although she has no experience with film.

Knight: What acting instructions did you give her? Or was she very natural in front of the cameras?

Ataeian Dena: We had an amazing coach for her, my favourite Iranian actress, a real artist. She practiced all the scenes with Dorna, we had really long rehearsals, sometimes we invited other actors or actresses. We tried to do it in real locations, in real or similar conditions. Then when everything was ready we started to shoot for a few days. Then we had to wait for a few months to prepare everything again.

Knight: Are the pupils Dorna’s real pupils at the school where she taught?

Ataeian Dena: Everyone, except for the main protagonist, is a professional actor.

Knight: But not the children, the girls?

Ataeian Dena: No, we picked them. But for all the other roles, even very small roles, like one scene, I chose professional actors. I like this combination, the main character provides a fresh performance, it’s new and different from what you might expect. It’s also more believable, more real. I like working with non-actors. […] Also the cameraman, the sound technician, they had no experience.

Knight: That is a very risky choice, no?

Ataeian Dena: For me it is more risky to work with professionals if they are my age. If they are older and have a lot of experience, then yes, it’s easy to work with them. But not is they are around my age.

Knight: Why? Because of some kind of professional rivalry?

Ataeian Dena: No, I think this exists everywhere. I worked in Europe and I felt it was the same. Normally you have an easier relationship with people who are established professionals. It’s human nature. But when it comes to actors, it is a challenge to combine professionals with non-professionals, you need to balance their performances to have something smooth.

Knight: Considering how prominent Iranian cinema is and how high the expectations, was it difficult for you to choose a project to focus on, especially for your first feature?

Ataeian Dena: No, it was more like this: I normally have 5 or 6 different projects running at the same time in parallel and you give them a push for years and years and at some point you realise one of them is possible to do. So this was the first opportunity that arose for me.

Knight: I know you went to film school in Teheran and wrote a thesis on comic books and cinema. How did that come about, are you a fan of comic books? And did you take any insights from comic books that you could apply in cinema?

Ataeian Dena: I actually come from animation. I worked as an animator and visual effects supervisor in Iranian cinema. […] This thesis you mention is a rotoscoping film from 7 years ago. In this film I wanted to try out different ideas that you can develop in comic books but which are not in films. Also storytelling techniques and visual art things. It was for the first time that I showed something to a public and won some awards. It was a nice experiment. Because it is very difficult to finance a short film in Iran, even more difficult than a feature film. With a feature film you have some kind of idea of how to screen it or make money with it but for short films the financing comes from some governmental bodies and it’s not easy.

Knight: What directors do you admire the most in Iranian cinema and also world cinema?

Ataeian Dena: In Iranian cinema I like the New Wave Iranian Filmmakers. They are unfortunately not so well known outside Iran, some are but not everyone: Amir Naderi, he is a master of cinema, his film The Runner is like the Bible for me, it’s an amazing film. He lives in New York and makes films there. Also Shahid-Saless, he lived in Germany for a while. Parviz Kimiavi. Of course, Kiarostami.  I also like the Japanese cinema tradition very much, Yasujirō Ozu.

Knight: Are you already working on your next project?

Ataeian Dena: Yes, this film is part of a trilogy. We shot half of the first episode and we’re about to shoot the second episode.  All the films in the trilogy tackle the concept of violence in different aspects and from different perspectives, with a different cinema language.