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Cinema as Landscape: Amy Taubin on Robert Redford

In conjunction with the Walker Dialogue and Retrospective Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary (September 30–November 12, 2016), critic Amy Taubin shares her perspective on the actor, director, and Sundance founder’s four-decade career. Taubin shares the stage with Redford during a November 12 Walker Dialogue. Over the past 40-odd years, there has been no more iconic a presence in the […]

Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson 1972 Photo courtesy Warner Bros

Robert Redford (right) in Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

In conjunction with the Walker Dialogue and Retrospective Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary (September 30–November 12, 2016), critic Amy Taubin shares her perspective on the actor, director, and Sundance founder’s four-decade career. Taubin shares the stage with Redford during a November 12 Walker Dialogue.

Over the past 40-odd years, there has been no more iconic a presence in the landscape of American cinema than Robert Redford. He is a multi-hyphenate: actor, director, producer, and the visionary founder of the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival. The metaphor of cinema as a landscape is particularly apt in relation to Redford, an environmental activist who has fought to conserve the wilderness of the west and who, in many of his films, depicts the land itself as the source of passions and values, action and contemplation—in short, of much that comprises American identity, both personal and collective.

One of the defining images of Redford, the actor, occurs about 50 minutes into George Roy Hill’s 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the film that made Redford a star. On the run from the law, Sundance (Redford) and Butch (Paul Newman) climb to the top of rocky ridge. We see a close-up of Sundance as he surveys the terrain below, and from his point of view we see a sweeping moving-camera shot of vast stretches of plains and hills, dappled by the sun. Sundance is on the lookout for their pursuers, but his gaze is also smitten by the beauty of the landscape. No actor other than Redford could have turned, however briefly, a bittersweet comedy about two charming bank robbers into a tragedy of disenfranchisement. Sundance’s tragedy is to be exiled from the land he loves. The movie transformed the largely fictionalized story of outlaw buddies into a foundational myth of the west, not merely because Butch and Sundance were daring and outrageously handsome gunslingers, but because of the truth that Redford brings to Sundance’s impossible desire to be one with the land.

George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 1969 Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox/Photofest

Paul Newman and Robert Redford in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox/Photofest

In the early 1960s, Redford bought a few acres in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Compelled by the beauty of this site, he used his movie star wealth to gradually expand his Sundance holdings and his movie star fame to attract private and public sponsorship for the Sundance Institute and slightly later for the Sundance Film Festival. American independent filmmaking did not begin with the founding of the Sundance in 1981, but the infrastructure that Redford created enabled filmmakers to survive outside the corporate structure of Hollywood and brought films that the studios never would have made to an ever increasing audience worldwide. It is not an exaggeration to say that within 35 years, Redford’s vision for Sundance and his dedication to independent filmmaking has recast film culture in America.

In that sense, the two strands of this retrospective, “Sundance Film Festival at the Walker” and “Redford at the Walker” are inseparable. The Sundance festival films, many of them workshopped in the Sundance labs, suggest the enormous range of independent cinema, documentary and fiction. Almost all of them reflect Redford’s commitment to regional filmmaking and to the depiction of cultural, ethnic, racial, and gender diversities that continue to be either ignored or homogenized in Hollywood product.

Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men 1976 Photo courtesy Warner Bros/Photofest

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976). Photo courtesy Warner Bros./Photofest

What is most striking about the series of films in which Redford is either director or star is that so many of them are both specific to their historical moment and stunningly relevant to the way we live now. Watching Alan Pakula’s 1976, All the President’s Men, the adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about their investigation of the Watergate scandal and the fall of the Nixon administration, one can’t help thinking that corruption and spying at the highest levels of government is now taken for granted and the buying of elections has been institutionalized by the Supreme Court, while the kind of time consuming, carefully sourced investigative journalism practiced by two rookie reporters (played by Redford and Dustin Hoffman) and their editor at the Washington Post is all but dead in the age of Google algorithms. Watch All the President’s Men and weep.

Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate 1972 Photo courtesy Warner Bros/ Photofest

Robert Redford in Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972). Photo courtesy Warner Bros./Photofest

Baldly apropos of this presidential election season is Michael Ritchie’s 1972 The Candidate, which Redford developed and in which he plays a liberal California community organizer who reluctantly allows himself to be drafted into running for the Senate against a conservative incumbent. Promised that he could campaign on his own beliefs and policies, he gradually succumbs to the strategies of his campaign managers. In winning the race, he loses himself. The film concludes with him asking, “What do we do now?” It is the same line that ends the 1969 Downhill Racer, Redford’s earlier collaboration with Ritchie. There he played an ambitious skier from a poor family who sees an Olympic victory as his route to money and fame. Redford’s character is driven, self-involved but not personally corrupt; rather it is the sport itself that is corrupted by its all-consuming focus on winning.

Of the nine feature films Redford has directed, only two are represented in this series. He debuted as a director with the 1980 Ordinary People, a subtle, uncompromising depiction of an emotionally troubled upper-middle-class Midwestern family. It was a surprising choice of subject for an actor largely defined as an action hero, albeit a somewhat conflicted and introspective one. In Ordinary People, Redford focused on what had been wrongly ignored in his own performances, the inner turbulence and damaging repression beneath a graceful, assured presentation of self. The nuclear family, riddled with secrets and lies, is implicated in the hypocrisy and mendacity that is institutionalized in every area of American society.

Robert Redford’s Quiz Show 1994 Photo courtesy Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994). Photo courtesy Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

One of those institutions is television. Redford’s most brilliant film as a director is Quiz Show (1994), as cogent an exposé of the deceit that continues to afflict American society today as All the President’s Men. (So too is a film not included in this series, the 1975 espionage thriller Three Days of the Condor, directed by Sydney Pollack, which stars Redford as a low-level intelligence gatherer forced to become a whistleblower when he discovers the existence of a rogue spy network that goes all the way to the top of our national security agencies.) Quiz Show is based on the late 1950s scandal around the game show Twenty-One, which mesmerized viewers who disavowed what was blatantly in front of their eyes—that the contestants were coached in their every gesture and given the answers in advance. Neither the sponsors of Twenty-One nor NBC, the network which aired it, suffered legal consequences. Indeed, the lesson that was learned—the reason that Quiz Show hits home today—is that audiences don’t care how honestly a game is played, they just want to glom onto a winner. There is a direct line from the quiz shows of the 1950s to the “reality” shows that have saturated 21st-century television and have produced a presidential candidate whose falsehoods are accepted as truth by surreal numbers of Americans because it entertains them to do so.

Yes, Redford, the golden boy romantic hero, has turned out to be one of our most hard-hitting political filmmakers. But there are at least two movies in which Redford stars where politics and social relations recede into the background. In Pollack’s 1972 Jeremiah Johnson, Redford plays a 19th-century survivalist, who goes alone into the wildness and learns how to live off the land. The film is something of a visual tone-poem in which the forests and rock cliffs of the west deserve equal billing with Redford’s “mountain man.” The existential struggle between man and nature is even more radically drawn in V.J. Chandor’s 2013 All Is Lost, a film that calls on Redford’s polar-opposite strengths as an actor—his athleticism and his ability to draw the viewer into a character’s inner life without uttering a word. Chandor gave him the role of a lifetime and Redford threw his then-76-year-old mortal body, his actor’s intelligence and experience, and his personal convictions into a character identified in the credits merely as “Our Man.” Alone and adrift in the Indian Ocean after an errant cargo container rams his yacht, he marshals strength, will, ingenuity, and perseverance in the struggle to survive against the forces of nature (albeit polluted by global capitalism) even as his efforts are rendered null by one crisis after another. All Is Lost is a film of exceptional purity—a thrilling distillation of the action movie, of great movie acting in all its virtuosity and mystery, and of the daring of Robert Redford, going into uncharted waters to bring the vision of an inspired novice director to the screen.

J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost 2013 Photo courtesy Film Independent

Robert Redford in J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost (2013). Photo courtesy Film Independent

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor for Artforum, Film Comment, and Sight & Sound.

Urgent Cinema: Terrance Franklin and a Failure of Justice

Minnesota-based artist and filmmaker D.A. Bullock’s in-progress film Killing Mookie is a searing documentary essay on the killing of 22-year-old Terrance Franklin by a Minneapolis SWAT team in May of 2013. No charges were brought against the involved officers Michael Meath and Lucas Peterson, who was named in 13 excessive force complaints between 2000 and 2013. The officers, using language that […]

D.A. Bullock. Killing Mookie. 2016.

Terrance Franklin in D.A. Bullock’s Killing Mookie, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Minnesota-based artist and filmmaker D.A. Bullock’s in-progress film Killing Mookie is a searing documentary essay on the killing of 22-year-old Terrance Franklin by a Minneapolis SWAT team in May of 2013. No charges were brought against the involved officers Michael Meath and Lucas Peterson, who was named in 13 excessive force complaints between 2000 and 2013. The officers, using language that has become commonplace in officer-involved killings, stated that they feared for their lives. Occurring before both the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Franklin’s death received comparably little media scrutiny. In revisiting the incident, Bullock draws attention to the a history of police conduct that precedes the Black Lives Matter movement.

An excerpt from Killing Mookie screened at the Walker Art Center on Thursday September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In conjunction with the program, I connected with Bullock to discuss the film. This is the final interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan FisherKarl Jacob, Dawn MikkelsonKeri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

Killing Mookie addresses the shooting of Terrance Franklin by Minneapolis police in 2013, prior to widespread public engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement. What made you decide to investigate an officer-involved shooting from this period? Do you think Black Lives Matter has changed public awareness and media coverage of policing?

I decided to focus on Terrance Franklin’s case because I thought it would be interesting to look back on some of the police narratives that we have accepted and taken for granted. This case stood out to me because I remember when it happened, I remember the sick feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, and most importantly I remember how the city at large reacted with a collective shrug, an assumption of Terrence’s guilt: “The bad guy got killed by the police.”

I think Black Lives Matter has forever changed the awareness around policing of Black and Brown folks, for that I am eternally grateful to the mostly young people who have put themselves out there on the front line, to demand justice.

Your project draws on a tremendous media archive ranging from newscasts to footage shot on mobile devices. What made you to decide to draw on such a broad range of material?

We live in a world of media tapestry and media collage. Much of our lives are pieced together as timelines and tweets and bursts of small storytelling. I thought it was appropriate to use that approach in piecing together Terrance’s life and the events of that day. Also, we know we cannot necessarily trust the entire mainstream media narrative about this case and others, because that narrative was sourced from one single entity, the police. It is the classic case of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie termed “the danger of the single story.”

What do you feel is absent from daily news coverage of policing?

We are delivered stories of events without context, and with a certain degree of bias, whether that’s conscious or subconscious. The traditional media doesn’t analyze police policy with a critical eye. They don’t supply the depth of questioning. In Terrance Franklin’s case, they didn’t ask if Terrance had gun residue on his hands; they relied on the police narrative of DNA. They didn’t ask about why the grand jury was convened by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. They didn’t examine the police narrative and question what did not add up. Lastly, they wait for cases like this to tell the story in false equivalencies. They do not take the time and effort to tell the story of the systemic failure that creates these cases. We are currently living under a dysfunctional police and criminal justice system.

The film is shot in black and white and includes voiceover. What made you gravitate towards overt directorial intervention, instead of vérité technique, for the project?

I own my bias and my imagination. I’m very up front about it. I feel like part of my artist responsibility is to advocate and elevate and touch and inspire. I think the vérité technique is more manipulative in that it lulls us into believing that film is not a contrived fabricated presentation. It is a creation, even documentary. I’m not manipulating facts, but I am leading the viewer down a deliberate path. Every good documentary does that. I embrace that idea. I admire the work of documentary storytellers, like Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, who imagine with a distinct point of view. The black and white here is about contrast; it’s about the conceit that the story we are given is “just the facts”—very black and white. In fact the story we received was wrought with nuance and manipulation and bias. The system likes to pretend it’s blind to all that, so I wanted to present my education on this case in very black-and-white, visual terms. The media in the film taken from television reports and social media at the time of the case remains in color, and the archive is in color. I’m making the case in black and white.

Urgent Cinema: Winona LaDuke and the Enbridge Pipeline

These days, Winona LaDuke—an Anishinaabe activist and onetime Green Party vice presidential candidate from northern Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation—is a key voice backing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline project in North Dakota. The ongoing protests mirror a project closer to home: Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper pipeline, which would’ve piped oil from northern Minnesota […]

Keri Pickett. First Daughter and the Black Snake. 2016

Winona LaDuke in Keri Pickett’s First Daughter and the Black Snake, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

These days, Winona LaDuke—an Anishinaabe activist and onetime Green Party vice presidential candidate from northern Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation—is a key voice backing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline project in North Dakota. The ongoing protests mirror a project closer to home: Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper pipeline, which would’ve piped oil from northern Minnesota through tribal treaty territory to the port city of Superior, Wisconsin. A four-year battle that eventually resulted in Enbridge canceling the pipeline is the subject of award-winning photographer and filmmaker Keri Pickett‘s newest documentary, First Daughter and the Black Snakewhich looks at LaDuke’s environmental activism and advocacy in defense of Sovereign Lands. The title, as Picket explains, combines the Dakota meaning of La Duke’s first name with the destructive “black snake” of indigenous prophesy—the oil industry.

The film screens at the Walker on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Pickett to discuss the film. This is the seventh interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan FisherKarl Jacob,, Dawn Mikkelson, and Norah Shapiro.

First Daughter and the Black Snake addresses Winona LaDuke’s environmental activism and, in particular, her work to stop the Enbridge pipeline. When did you begin work on the film and what attracted you to the subject matter?

My real American history education started in 1980 when I attended the Black Hills Survival Gathering. At that gathering I volunteered to run the switchboard in the American Indian Movement tent. Years later I wanted to learn more about the indigenous people of Minnesota and a friend said, “I know just the person for you to meet.” So in 1984 I met Winona LaDuke up at the White Earth Reservation, and over the years I have tried to document the milestone moments in her life.

In 2013, when the Enbridge corporation announced that they planned to construct a pipeline which would across the Headwaters of the Mississippi River and the wild rice beds of Winona’s Anishinaabe territory, I knew I had to follow that story.

I started photographing LaDuke’s actions in the spring of 2014, and I started filming her “Love Water Not Oil” horseback ride against the current of oil that summer. But it wasn’t until I followed her to New York City to participate in the climate change summit and the People’s Climate March that I realized that I had to commit to making a film about her efforts. Native people are the leaders of the charge to protect water from contamination of fracked and tar sands oil.

I attended college at MSU (now University of Minnesota Moorhead), and I love northern Minnesota. I believe that our states water is our most valuable resource and worth fighting to protect. Inspired by Winona and her Ojibwe community, I want to share what have seen with others so they might add their voice and participate in protecting our natural resources.

Your background is in photography, and previous projects such as your photo book Faeries have provided rich, intimate engagement with subjects often marginalized (or absent) from mainstream media. How did your background in photography inform this project? 

As an artist, my work has centered on family and community, and I am interested in revealing how our lives reflect our value systems. Intimacy and honesty are important to me and through my photography books Love in the 90s, Faeries, and Saving Body and Soul I have shed light upon people who have typically been marginalized in our society—the elderly, the gay community, and the poor and homeless.

First Daughter and the Black Snake is a continuation of my artistic interest in family and community exploring how actions reveal value systems and how much one person can make a difference. Documenting Winona’s pipeline fight is therefore a natural extension from photography into the moving image reflecting my lifelong efforts to document people who are struggling against the odds.

The film includes sequences of public forums and town halls. Why did you think it was important to capture public debates? How does this footage supplement the interviews you include?

First Daughter and the Black Snake follows what happened during these past two years. In the course of documenting I have amassed over 800 hours of footage in the process. Winona and her allies have attended countless public hearings conducted by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Commerce. Winona says in the film that “democracy is not a spectator sport.” Many people complain about the system, and very few take the time to engage within the system.

I am inspired that the native communities who have lost so much at the hands of the government would choose to participate in that same system. The film has interviews but primarily I have tried to tell a compelling story of how Winona has fought the pipelines with treaties, indigenous “slow” food and her spiritual horse ride with a cinéma vérité approach.

Democracy Now recently featured an interview with LaDuke and a report on funding for the Dakota Access Pipeline, identifying 17 banks that are providing financial support for the project. In making this film, were you primarily interested in depicting activism or the larger systems and companies that support the pipeline? In national coverage of the oil industry and pipeline development what parts of the story do you think are typically under-addressed?

My documentary film focuses on the activism. Native American communities have born the brunt of much of the extreme energy extraction practices of major corporations. Enbridge Energy and Marathon Petroleum are featured in my film. These corporations have experienced the Minnesota regulatory system and pushback from many environmental groups such as Honor the Earth, Friends of the Headwaters, and MN350.

Citizen protestors have gathered and made their voice heard. The people’s efforts have been the focus of my film as I am documenting what I have seen Winona and others efforts to protect the water.

In indigenous communities the “black snake” is prophesied to bring destruction to the earth, and many believe that the oil industry is the black snake. The people I have documented and tried to make visible are the protectors rather than the perpetrators.

The end of my film reveals the Enbridge pipeline battle has changed. There is a win with the Sandpiper pipeline but the struggle remains here in Minnesota with Line 3, and now the black snake has moved to North Dakota to the Dakota Access pipeline.

Urgent Cinema: On Trauma, Forgiveness, and Restorative Justice

Former McKnight Filmmaking Fellow and award-winning filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson’s newest documentary follows four people—in the US, Cambodia, and Australia—as they negotiate forgiveness and justice in the face of extraordinary trauma. An excerpt from Risking Light screens at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works […]

Dawn Mikkelson. Risking Light. 2016.

Still from Dawn Mikkelson’s Risking Light, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Former McKnight Filmmaking Fellow and award-winning filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson’s newest documentary follows four people—in the US, Cambodia, and Australia—as they negotiate forgiveness and justice in the face of extraordinary trauma.

An excerpt from Risking Light screens at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Mikkelson to discuss the film. This is the sixth interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan FisherKarl Jacob, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

In Risking Light you speak with subjects who have been victims of tremendous abuse and trauma. What made you decide to make a film about forgiveness? As you worked on the project did you always feel ready to forgive, or were you also experiencing anger and sadness about what the film’s subjects had faced?

Honestly, I was looking for some hope in my own life. I’d become rather jaded about people and was searching for stories that could change my perspective. Then I met Mary Johnson, who shared her story of the loss of her son and ultimate forgiveness of O’shea Israel, his killer. I knew this was the story. But I also saw that their story, if told alone, only gave one perspective on forgiveness and was compelled to find more. To really explore what forgiveness was and what it wasn’t.

As someone with at least an average level of empathy, I found that swimming in these stories of pain and injustice was challenging. This is what kept me digging into their stories. I needed to understand how one gets from anger and pain to forgiveness and healing.

I think that I tend toward films that explore things that I need to work through in my own life. I had a lot of repressed anger directed toward myself and others, for a lifetime of injuries. Nothing nearly as profound as the subjects of Risking Light, but enough to have made me pretty bitter. I pretended that wasn’t the case, but the more I dug into this subject, the more my own anger and frustration would surface. Many times, this would subconsciously lead to a slowdown in production. Then I’d figure out my own challenge, and miraculously I was able to move forward with the film.

Did you meet with each of our subjects knowing that they wanted to forgive the perpetrators of crimes and violence against them, or did the journey towards forgiveness begin during filmmaking?

In each case, their journey to forgiveness was complete or nearly complete before we met. That is how I found them. One of the things I find interesting about each of their stories is that they are all still on a journey. A journey to continue healing and a journey to make a positive change in the world, as a result of their acts of profound forgiveness. It is rare to find someone who has forgiven injuries as big as these without having moments where they are haunted by the past. Pain has a way of showing up in your life in all sorts of ways. But having begun this journey, they are much more prepared to handle the surprise moments when pain revisits in a different form.

In addition, each of them is compelled to do more with their lives as a result of their forgiveness. They have turned something that was destroying them internally to something where they are now helping others in their lives, in big and small ways, heal. The ripple effect of forgiveness is clear in all of these stories. It is not just about you. It is about who you become in the world and how that new person changes the lives of others.

First person accounts play a large role in the film. Why did you believe it was important to have the subjects speak for themselves about their experiences with limited formal or narrative interventions? What role does the testimonial play in your documentary practice?

I am a big fan of having subjects tell their own story, without the use of narration, whenever possible. In this film, that went to the extent of using an EyeDirect device that effectively projects my face on the lens of the camera, so they are looking directly at the camera. Thus they are looking directly at the audience. Looking into a subject’s eyes, you see another layer of vulnerability and experience a more intimate connection with them as an audience member. Throughout my career, I have tried to tell the stories of my subjects with emotional honesty. We spend so much of our time debating issues, in effect distancing ourselves from the personal impact of our actions, political or personal. I’m a believer in the power of the personal story and sharing of lived experiences as a way to connect us as humans. To increase empathy and compassion for one another.

The film addresses restorative justice, a system that focuses on reconciliation and rehabilitation instead of punishment. What role do you believe restorative justice has to play in the criminal justice system?

Restorative justice plays a critical role in the story of Mary and O’shea, in particular. They came together through a restorative justice process. Prior to making this film, I didn’t have any exposure to this kind of process. Since then, I have really grown to see restorative justice as one of the keys to creating a more just society, through making Risking Light, as well as additional work I’ve done on restorative dialogue circles. Every story, every crime, every person is unique. So I hesitate to speak in general terms when it comes to restorative justice. But I will say that I have seen it utilized at all levels. From petty crime to murder to war crimes. So often we frame “justice” in terms of retribution or punishment, but what if “justice” was something that would allow victims to process their pain and heal? What if offenders could learn the impact of their crimes and possibly reform, thus breaking the cycle of violence? This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what restorative justice can bring to the criminal justice system.

Urgent Cinema: Women Veterans and the Lasting Impact of War

The 2016 recipient of the US Fiction Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Blood Stripe is the story of a female war veteran’s return to civilian life. The directorial debut of Remy Aubernonois, the film was cowritten by Auberjonois and Kate Nowlin, who co-star in the work. An excerpt from Blood Stripe plays at the Walker on Thursday, September […]

Remy Auberjonois. Blood Stripe. 2016.

Still from Remy Auberjonois’s Blood Stripe, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

The 2016 recipient of the US Fiction Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Blood Stripe is the story of a female war veteran’s return to civilian life. The directorial debut of Remy Aubernonois, the film was cowritten by Auberjonois and Kate Nowlin, who co-star in the work.

An excerpt from Blood Stripe plays at the Walker on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Auberjonois to discuss the film. This is the foftj interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Karl Jacob, Dawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

While other films—from The Best Years of our Lives (Wyler, 1946) to The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2009)—depict servicemen returning to civilian life, it is unusual to see comparable stories about the experiences of female veterans. What made you decide to focus on a woman’s return home? Do you think that gender influences the experiences of people returning from deployment, be it by shaping access to resources or the official support available?

We decided to make a film about a female returning from war because it’s a new character that we haven’t seen. The story of returning from war is one of the oldest stories we tell, but the American woman veteran who has seen combat is a new character type and we felt there was a space in the genre. There are a lot of documentary films being made now on the subject, and there is a lot of reportage, but we haven’t seen many of these stories told in a narrative fictional context. We felt like it was a way to introduce the issues inherent to the subject to an audience that might not consume documentaries, and provide an entrée for the audience into the experience through empathy and engagement with character and story.

As to the role of gender in the experience of homecoming, it is our understanding that a lot of women returning from deployment experience it differently from men because they are not expected to have “been in the shit” by the civilian population. So I think there is an assumption sometimes that they won’t have been affected in the same ways as their male counterparts. Of course this is a fallacy in many cases, particularly because these wars against guerrilla insurgents have no “front lines.” Gender also comes into play because many of these women are wives and mothers and have to return to these “traditional roles.” This I think presents its own set of challenges. Also, when we are speaking of women who have served, we cannot avoid the fact of military sexual trauma (MST), which admittedly plagues both men and women.

Blood Stripe depicts the protagonist Our Sergeant’s struggles with PTSD without using flashbacks or identifying a singular source of trauma. What made you decide to focus on the experiences after her return instead of during her deployment?

We wanted there to be some mystery. We wanted to challenge the audience, and trust them. We wanted the audience to project the what and the how. I felt that the audience would bring their own associations from other sources to the story. Hollywood can make big war movies, but as a scrappy independent film we were constrained by our resources, which I think opened up a whole area of exploration. We drop clues, but we found when we were writing that when we had the character speak about what “happened” to her it minimized the potential scope. She is plagued by “war” and everything that represents. Kate pointed out early on that in Greek tragedy the blood is almost always shed off-stage. There is a lot of violence depicted in todays films. There is violence implicit in our film, but not depicted. I hope that creates more tension and potentially allows for a greater emotional catharsis. Also, speaking about trauma is the beginning of healing, and so many people who struggle with this type of trauma are not healing. There are no easy answers to this epidemic; we wanted the audience to engage with the problem, without our prescribing a solution.

The film specifically addresses the difficulties in receiving support from the VA. Did you hope this film would raise awareness about the challenges faced by veterans?

We wanted to make a film about a pressing, contemporary, dare I say “urgent,” issue, without being preachy or having it feel like watching it is taking medicine. Our ambition was to make a cinematic, artful, dramatic film that is truly about something. Many things.  When we were financing the film the tragic reality of veterans dying while on waitlists at the VA was unfolding. It was certainly a somber validation of the relevancy of our subject matter. We hoped to use the tools of independent drama to enlighten and expose a reality. Our goals are to entertain, expose, and contribute to an understanding of a very current human condition. It is only one version of the veteran experience, and trauma is universal.

Urgent Cinema: Firearms in the Rural North

Filmmaker and actor Karl Jacob‘s newest film, Cold November, is the second installment in a trilogy on the culture of Northern Minnesota. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in a matriarchal household in the region, Jacob crafted an intimate portrait of the familial ritual of hunting, a subject that intersects with contemporary conversations about firearms. An […]

Karl Jacob. Cold November. 2016

Still from Karl Jacob’s Cold November, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Filmmaker and actor Karl Jacob‘s newest film, Cold November, is the second installment in a trilogy on the culture of Northern Minnesota. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in a matriarchal household in the region, Jacob crafted an intimate portrait of the familial ritual of hunting, a subject that intersects with contemporary conversations about firearms.

An excerpt from Cold November will screen at the Walker Art Center on Thursday September 15 at part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program I connected with Jacob to discuss the film. This is the fourth interview with each of the filmmakers featured in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. BullockMahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan FisherDawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

The beginning of Cold November depicts the film’s protagonist, Florence, playing in a cardboard village before being ushered to bed by her grandmother, a sequence that clearly establishes her youth and innocence. Why did you decide to begin the film with a sequence of Florence playing?

To be honest, the scene was originally just an experiment, but then became much more important as the writing process went on. I was working with a group of writers, led by my friend Jacob Krueger, on some character work, and this scene was a result of the process. It’s stayed identical to the first draft almost beat for beat, and it was the very first page I wrote of the script. As the writing went on the matchbox cars became a bigger player in the overall story arc, and an important piece of the puzzle, which was nice to discover. When the full film becomes available, you’ll be able to see how this unfolds. Twelve is admittedly a little old to be hanging on to a tiny toy city, but there’s a reason.

The sequences of Florence playing emphasize her youth and childlike qualities. Do you mind speaking more about the decision to center the story on an innocent, or even morally unimpeachable, young woman?

The focus on the age of 12 is derived from ancient human ritual. There is a near omnipresent tradition in cultures throughout the world that centers around the 11- or 12-year old transitioning away from childhood. For a long time in human history this has historically been the period when kids go through a ceremony to become adults. Examples range from the Jewish Bat Mitzvah to communal near-death beatings. Rituals that focus on death experience as the main goal are the most common, among a wide range of groups. As I personalized and compared this knowledge with my own “death ritual” of killing a deer at the age of 11, it became clear that the story had to be about a young woman: I was raised by six women, my mother taught me how to gut out a deer, and my grandmother taught me how to shoot my first gun. The fact that each of them had also gone through this ritual as kids seemed like the most interesting and salient way to approach telling the story. Also having them as a resource while I was writing the script was obviously crucial, as I have never been a 12-year-old girl. The insight and talent that the actress Bijou Abas brought to the role of Florence was also crucial. The character would not have been the same without her commitment to developing Florence completely.

Tradition and family are clearly very important to the film’s narrative. Even though it’s a fictional feature, did you draw on personal experience to craft the story?

Since early development, I’ve thought of this film as a hybrid piece. Cold November is a story that has been in my mind since I went through the process of learning how to hunt and kill a deer myself, many years ago. My family is very important to me, and they played a big role in making this film happen. We shot the film on family land during deer hunting season, and I literally couldn’t do it any other way. It would have been impossible. My parents, aunts, uncles, and grandma were actually hunting while we were simultaneously shooting. I did this by design because I wanted the film to feel lived in, and I wanted to use real animals in the movie. There is a scene of all of the women skinning a deer together, and a scene of Florence field dressing a deer, and those scenes are effectively documentary, but using actors instead of the people who actually killed the deer themselves. Everyone in my family was very supportive and they were on hand to coach, assist, and make sure the animals were dealt with in a way that preserved the meat in line with the family tradition. I also think they were very invested in the movie because I am effectively documenting this personal ritual that is admittedly unique for most modern Americans, despite it being an ancient survival ritual. A semi-tangential fun fact is that I am a vegetarian, and so is the cinematographer.

How did consideration of economics shape the world you create in the film? What kinds of financial resources did you envision Florence and her family as having at their disposal?  

It’s funny that you are asking me that right now because I have been thinking a lot about economic influence since I last watched the latest cut of the film. I think Florence’s family will likely come across as a middle-class family, which I believe makes sense for the time frame of the movie. One of the goals of the film was to accurately portray the region, and Hibbing has had a long history of being both middle class, and a place where economic downturns can happen fast when the mines shut down. I think we definitely reflect all of these points in the film. The idea of needing to live off the land being right around the corner definitely drove the building of the story world and characters. In related news, I’m in development on a new project right now that centers around one of the seemingly biggest economic coups in American history that also took place in Hibbing in the early 1900s. I think the current economic conditions of our region and disparity in the country in general has influenced both Cold November and my new project.

Though the film focuses on familial ritual and hunting, its portrayal of hunting—and, by extension, guns—clearly, intersects with contemporary political debates surrounding gun control and the Second Amendment. Did you intend the film as a political intervention or for it to take a political stance?

I never intended the film to take a political stance, but I definitely realize its political importance. I also personally value the tradition of living off the land, which my immediate family has done and continues to do to an extent. It’s what got my grandparents through the Great Depression. Guns play an important role as a tool in that lifestyle, and I think that lifestyle perhaps has not been portrayed that much, if at all, in popular media. As I discover the place that Cold November can have in gun discourse, I’m excited at the prospect of the film being seen by someone who has maybe spent their entire life in a city. One’s relationship with guns is completely different when they are not being used primarily as objects of war, which is effectively the case in most urban living. You’re not shooting squirrels with a 12-gauge in Loring Park, you know? I think I am a bit of an anomaly as a predominantly liberal, urban-living vegetarian who values the importance of gun ownership. I think the world needs to know that people like me exist and that perhaps the “gun debate” is not as simple as the NRA vs. The Liberals. There are nuances to every issue, and having compassion with someone’s story that is different than your own is important. I mean, it’s the foundation of what our country is supposed to stand on, right? For that reason I am proud to be adding this angle to the conversation.

Urgent Cinema: Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher on Bureaucracy and Statelessness

In 2014, Mahmoud Ibrahim—a Lebanon-born Palestinian and an Iraqi refugee—and documentary filmmaker Nathan Fisher began work on Travel Documents, a short cinematic retelling of Ibrahim’s journey to the United States. Completed amidst a global refugee crisis, the film links Ibrahim’s personal experience to the behemoth, bureaucratic mechanisms that determine statehood, citizenship, and mobility. The film was produced in conjunction […]

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Still from Mahmoud Ibrahim (at right) and Nathan Fisher’s Travel Documents, 2016. Image courtesy the artists

In 2014, Mahmoud Ibrahim—a Lebanon-born Palestinian and an Iraqi refugee—and documentary filmmaker Nathan Fisher began work on Travel Documents, a short cinematic retelling of Ibrahim’s journey to the United States. Completed amidst a global refugee crisis, the film links Ibrahim’s personal experience to the behemoth, bureaucratic mechanisms that determine statehood, citizenship, and mobility.

The film was produced in conjunction with Iraqi Voices, a mentorship program that supports the production of documentary shorts by Iraqi-Americans living in Minnesota. Screened at the Walker on Thursday September 15, 2016, Travel Documents is part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the screening, I connected with Ibrahim and Fisher to discuss the film. This is the third interview with each of the filmmakers featured in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Karl Jacob, Dawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

Travel Documents is the result of collaboration. How did you meet and decide to work together on the film?

Mahmoud Ibrahim: I knew of the Iraqi Voices project from an Iraqi friend who was also making a film. He introduced me to Nathan, and I started working on telling my own story. I had only been in the US for a couple of months when I started this project with Nathan.

Nathan Fisher: Since 2012, I have co-produced fourteen short documentaries with Twin Cities–based Iraqi refugees as part of an ongoing collaborative filmmaking lab called Iraqi Voices. I worked with Mahmoud from March to October of 2014 to transform his story into a short documentary. Mahmoud wrote the story he wanted to tell down on paper and we took it from there.

The film tells the story of having your passport replaced after your home was raided by police officers. Because you are a Palestinian citizen and were a resident of Baghdad, the process was complex, requiring you to grant power of attorney to your sister. Why did you decide to focus on the documentation necessary to travel to the United States? 

Fisher: Mahmoud was born in Lebanon, and his children were born in Iraq. Yet because they had a grandparent or great-grandparent who was born in what was Palestine, they are not nationals of anywhere. There are at least 10 million stateless people living in the world today, including at least 3.5 million Palestinians. For me, Travel Documents is not just about a family trying to move from Iraq to the United States, but an illustration of the bureaucratic ordeal that stateless people have to endure when they want to do things that many of us would consider routine, even banal.

On the eve of a US presidential election, the documentation necessary for international travel, immigration, asylum, to attain refugee status and to vote has featured prominently in the news and has been central in conversations regarding borders, national security, citizenship, and discrimination. Do you feel connected to other stories of advocacy on issues such as voter ID Laws? How do you hope this film will connect to other stories?

Ibrahim: I hope Americans, especially politicians and people of power, will watch this film and see the suffering and struggles of displaced Arabs, especially the Palestinians who fled between 1948 and 1967. We as Palestinians have been stateless for almost 70 years. My family became refugees in Iraq in 1967, and in 2010 were still considered refugees by the Iraqi government. I hope the film makes people listen to those who are asking for asylum and refuge.

Fisher: Concepts like national borders and voting rights are only really legible when you are dealing with citizens of somewhere—citizens who “belong” on one side of some line. Our modern understanding of civil rights is based on the fiction that every human being is attached to some extant nation, but this is not true. Statelessness is a separate category from all other immigration statuses, including refugee status. Statelessness is a very human reminder that the freedoms many of us take for granted are not even universal in theory. 

Throughout the film your story is rendered by Adnan Shati, an illustrator. What drew you to illustration as an effective way to tell this story?

Fisher: I liked the idea of hiring a sketch artist to listen intently to Mahmoud and then document the trials and petty injustices that he had to endure. Sketch art has a place in our legal system, both in investigative police work and as a dignified way to render courtroom proceedings. In this way, I wanted Mahmoud and his story to be afforded the dignity that he and it deserve. For years, Mahmoud’s very personhood had been rejected by an absurd international legal regime, the complete opposite of being listened to and taken seriously by a sketch artist and a filmmaker.

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Still from Mahmoud Ibrahim (at right) and Nathan Fisher’s Travel Documents, 2016. Image courtesy the artists

Ibrahim: After I wrote my story, the idea of illustration came up in a discussion between Nate and myself. My story has a lot of interactions with the government and military and it would have been difficult to re-enact the scenes or find suitable footage, and ineffective to just rely on my words. We decided to involve Adnan Shati and execute my story through illustration because it would easily capture the different scenes throughout my story. 

You begin the film by describing Mahmoud as stateless and end with sketch artist Adnan Shati saying, “Welcome to Minnesota.” Does the feeling and experience of statelessness persist even after being granted refugee status?

Ibrahim: I feel completely different after finding a country that finally welcomed me, gave me legal papers, and will consider me a citizen in the near future. It is a very beautiful and amazing feeling after I was stateless and displaced for so long. Especially since we asked for citizenship from several Arab countries and were always refused. My two children will soon have citizenship. In October, I will welcome my third child who will be born with citizenship in a country that is safe and secure.

Urgent Cinema: Seeking Complex Representations of Black Life

In his 2016 short film New Neighbors, artist, filmmaker, and curator E.G. Bailey explores how race shapes daily interactions, refuting the oft-repeated notion of a “postracial” America. The story of an African-American family’s relocation to a new, predominantly white neighborhood, New Neighbors offers a thoughtful consideration of racialized barriers to home, community, and safety. The film features a local […]

Sha Cage (center) in E.G. Bailey’s New Neighbors, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

In his 2016 short film New Neighbors, artist, filmmaker, and curator E.G. Bailey explores how race shapes daily interactions, refuting the oft-repeated notion of a “postracial” America. The story of an African-American family’s relocation to a new, predominantly white neighborhood, New Neighbors offers a thoughtful consideration of racialized barriers to home, community, and safety. The film features a local cast including actor, playwright, and performance artist Sha Cage, Bailey’s wife and co-founder (with Bailey) of the Minnesota Spoken Word Association.

Screened at the Walker on Thursday September 15, 2016, New Neighbors is part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the screening, I connected with Bailey to discuss the film. This is the second interview with each of the filmmakers featured in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Karl Jacob, Dawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

New Neighbors depicts a family with two teenage sons acclimating to a new neighborhood. What was the inspiration for the film, and where in Minneapolis does it take place?

Sometimes works come in a flash, fully formed, almost already completed. New Neighbors was like that. It was first written in London. We were touring Sha’s U/G/L/Y, and one morning I was scrolling through Facebook and came across an article about the woman that was pulled from her home by 19 officers because a neighbor thought she was breaking into her own home. I couldn’t stop thinking about the article all day, and I wrote the script on the taxi ride home after taking the kids around the city.

Having two young sons, I’ve been dealing with how parents are affected by the onslaught of police brutality, how they confront the fears and burden that comes with raising young Black men. Some months earlier, I directed a staged reading of Ted Shine’s Herbert III. In it, a Black couple waits for their son to return home, but the mother anxiously wants to call the police station, the hospital, fearing some harm has come to her son. I thought of this when I read the article, and I thought about what mothers do to try to protect their children. I thought about how mothers carry the weight of the deaths, and the fears that must latch in their throats with the constant flowing of blood. I thought of a mother reading this article about Fay Wells, hearing the news about Trayvon and Tamir, and what actions would she take to keep her sons safe, even if it seemed slightly absurd. That’s where New Neighbors started. We got home and I stayed up the rest of the night writing the short story. Rewrote it back in the States. Rewrote it again for a staged reading for a Black Lives Black Words showcase at the Guthrie. But it was always intended to be a film.

Did you envision the project as a grounded in the politics and demographics of a specific place, or did you intend for the film to be broadly representative?

I don’t know if the story or the film is so much about a specific locality. It’s not intended to be landlocked. It’s more about race and class than it is about place, even though I think it carries a little bit of different places I’ve lived. There’s a little bit of Crystal Lake, Illinois in there. There’s some Fargo in there, some South Bend. And obviously a good deal of Minnesota in there. If it did have a locality, it would be the Midwest that these places represent. But I was more interested in the relationships between the characters, and the classism and racism that often exists in quiet, comforted Midwestern suburbs, even when it’s not acknowledged or tries not to reveal itself. This is part of why I kept the camera close to the characters—to reveal enough to give the texture of the neighborhood but focus on the interactions between the neighbors and the tensions underlying the situation. I also tried to carry this tension into the camera style and movement.

New Neighbors addresses the violence faced by Black Americans through the depiction of restrained, and even terse, interactions between neighbors. Why did you decide to focus on the subtleties and racial dynamics of day-to-day interactions?

I think with the news cycle and social media, we’re inundated, sometimes even overwhelmed, with the issues and the headlines. But I was interested in how these issues manifest themselves in interpersonal relationships. How are these issues displayed, what is the coded language that is used? What is the toll that it takes on those involved? We work, we take stands, we protest, we fight for justice and equity, which are more so public demonstrations of our beliefs and politics but what are the day to day negotiations? How do we carry our fears and prejudices into our daily actions and conversations?

I was also interested in exploring how those with privilege engage with those seeking equity. There are those that are skeptical, even reactionary, and hold to their prejudices; there are those that stay at a distance that enjoy the benefits of Black genius but don’t want to engage with us or our struggle. And those that attempt to have a conversation, attempt to establish connection but may also be too self-satisfied with that attempt, and do nothing to really further equity and justice.

Did you seek to capture parts of life that are frequently ignored by the media?

Too often the representation of Black images is tailored by the media to perpetuate stereotypes and become supporting evidence for particular narratives about Black life. Much of my work lately tries to counter these narratives and create new representations that reveal our diversity and complexity. This is not a type of story you often see in dealing with these issues, and the action the mother takes is unique in itself. But I also wanted to make clear that the family belonged in the neighborhood not only because they have a right to, but because they are as affluent as others in the neighborhood. Still a lack of class difference does not guarantee acceptance, because regardless of their affluence they are still the other; they must fight for the acknowledgement, and acceptance, of their belonging.

Finally, I wanted to show that beneath the teenage angst of the sons, and the stress it causes the mother, this was a loving and bonded family. The father may not be accompanying them because he is working, but he is present in their lives. They also have a wider family network to call on. Though within a limited framework, I wanted to show a complex family dealing with complex issues without reverting to tired tropes that Black stories are often burden with.

Urgent Cinema: Norah Shapiro on Ilhan Omar’s Campaign

Somali-born politician Ilhan Omar made history on August 9, 2016, when she became the Minnesota DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) candidate for the Minnesota House election, defeating District 60B’s long-serving incumbent in the primary. If elected, Omar will be the United States’ first Somali-American legislator. Omar is the subject of filmmaker and former public defender Norah Shapiro’s in-production […]

Norah Shapiro. Time for Ilhan (working titles). 2016

Still from Norah Shapiro’s Time for Ilhan (working title), 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Somali-born politician Ilhan Omar made history on August 9, 2016, when she became the Minnesota DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) candidate for the Minnesota House election, defeating District 60B’s long-serving incumbent in the primary. If elected, Omar will be the United States’ first Somali-American legislator. Omar is the subject of filmmaker and former public defender Norah Shapiro’s in-production documentary Time for Ilhan. Screened at the Walker on Thursday September 15, 2016, the film is part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Shapiro to discuss the film. This is the first interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Karl Jacob, Dawn Mikkelson, and Keri Pickett.

Before becoming a documentary filmmaker you worked as a public defender. Did this experience shape your perspective about local politics?

I’m not sure how much my work as a public defender shaped my perspective about politics, although interestingly, there are many people I know from those days who have risen to great heights in local and national politics (i.e. Congressman Keith Ellison, Mayor Chris Coleman, and many others). I have been politically active/aware since as long as I can remember: I did an internship in high school with St. Paul Mayor George Latimer; I worked for the Mondale/Ferraro ticket in college, volunteered for Paul Wellstone’s magical campaign, and have been a devoted Democrat all my adult life. I actually think it was my politics that led to my becoming a public defender in the first place, which then made me even more aware of disparities, inequities, and the importance of who the decisions makers and power brokers in our society are. My politics also clearly influence the subjects I’m interested in as a filmmaker.

You began this project before Ilhan Omar won the DFL primary on August 9. What inspired you to begin work on this project? At the time did you strongly anticipate that Omar would be participating in the November 8 election?

I began this project at the end of 2015. My inspiration came in part as a result of a long simmering desire to make a film about the local Somali community, combined with the suggestion by Ilhan’s sister, a longtime friend, that I meet with her to talk about her upcoming race in District 60B. After meeting first with Ilhan, and then with a few key staffers, she decided to grant me access and to allow me to follow her campaign. Although I of course hoped she would make it to the race in November, in some ways that was immaterial, because what I was certain of, was that she was extraordinary, and that regardless of the outcome of this particular race, this was a story I wanted to follow and tell.

Could you speak more about the historic nature of this election and primary?

I think Ilhan’s win is seen as historic for several reasons. The obvious one is that she will be the first Somali-American legislator in the country, and the first Muslim woman legislator in Minnesota. It’s also historic in terms of the never-before-seen multiracial coalition of African immigrants, liberals, and university students that resulted in unseating the state’s longest-serving legislator, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, after having been in office uninterrupted since 1972. And in the current political climate around immigration, as a former refugee and new American, her rise to office in this climate is clearly also enormously significant.

Much of the film focuses on the nuts and bolts of the political process, depicting campaigning and the slow work of building support. What did you hope to reveal by focusing on the on-the-ground efforts of volunteers and campaign managers?

The clip that I am showing for Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices is a 10-minute scene cut out of what will end up being well over 300 hours of footage by the time we complete production.  We are still in the production phase, which I anticipate will go at least through January of 2017. This is to say that the film in its entirety is not even close to being assembled. In fact this is the first and only scene edited so far. That said, I chose to cut a scene out of the convention day for a variety of reasons, including the focus you mention on the nuts and bolts, as well as on-the-ground efforts, in order to show how steep the mountain is for any newcomer to challenge an incumbent. The teamwork required and the incredible passion and devotion of Ilhan’s staff and volunteers, and how herculean the effort is at this level of state politics to break in.  Also, I felt what happened at the nominating convention offered the opportunity for a full dramatic arc without having to set up a lot of back-story, and had some great moments of vérité footage as well as a really nice opportunity to see Ilhan in action.

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Still from Norah Shapiro’s Time for Ilhan (working title), 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Did you think of your relationship with Omar and her campaign as material that you wanted to include in the film? Or did you always intend to keep yourself strictly behind the camera? 

I have actually thought a lot about this. I definitely think of myself as separate and independent from the campaign. That was part of the understanding I established from our very first meetings. It’s a question that I found myself having to address at various points throughout production, largely with the other candidates—i.e. clarifying that I was not working for the campaign, that the funding for the project was 100-percent independent of the campaign. That said, I will confess that there have been moments when I wish I was part of the campaign, for example, in terms of what I could have provided in terms of fantastic footage. And I would have absolutely loved to dive in as a member of the communications team, but very intentionally did not, for the sake of the independence of the film. It’s a fine line to walk, and unlike in journalism, it is up to the individual filmmaker to conduct themselves in a way that is ethical, honorable, and truthful, maintaining enough distance and independence to ultimately tell a story that is not a commissioned, propaganda piece, but also allows for developing the relationships, intimacy, and trust that result in the kind of access necessary to be able to ultimately create a satisfying documentary story that has  depth, authenticity, and intimacy.

I definitely intended as much as possible to keep myself behind the camera, but I see that as a completely separate question from that of independence and ethics. It really is more of a stylistic, creative choice, and maintaining independence from the campaign is a separate question. Whether a director appears in the story or stays behind the camera, their footprint is always there. There is no such thing as an objective documentary, given all the choices, inclusions, exclusions, the way the content is woven together, where a story starts and ends, to name just a few of the almost infinite variables.

This year there has been tremendous focus directed towards the presidential election. What do you feel is lost when national elections dominate the news? Did you hope to raise awareness or interest in local elections with this project?

I wanted to raise awareness about an extraordinary candidate’s attempt to enter the political sphere and about the barriers that would need to be overcome in order for her to win.  Frankly, I will not be at all surprised to one day see Ilhan on the national stage, but the local level is where almost all politicians start, and I wanted to document her attempt to enter the arena. I am a huge fan of Marshall Curry’s documentary Street Fight, which follows now-Sen. Corey Booker’s attempt to become Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. I saw Ilhan’s story as offering a lot of similarly compelling storytelling opportunities, for a similarly charismatic and brilliant rising political star at the beginning of her career. I definitely was also interested in showing what is involved at the local level, not to mention the opportunity to present a positive, stereotype-busting portrait of a Muslim immigrant woman in politics, particularly in the shadow of the rhetoric in the presidential arena coming from the Republican candidate.

What specific stereotypes did you set out to discredit? Do you think the national focus on the presidential election neglects the diverse coalitions that engage in the political process every day?

There are negative stereotypes abounding in our popular culture at the moment, about immigrants and refugees, and especially about Muslims and Muslim women in particular, as being oppressed, without agency, without voices, to name a few (just look at Donald Trump’s attacks on the Kahn family). I believe that the rhetorical vilification of Muslims in the current presidential election cycle is contributing to an already hostile environment for Muslims in America, with consequences that are increasingly becoming not only discriminatory but also violent, with an unprecedented rise in hate crimes against Muslim, including Muslim women, since 9/11. Additionally, in pop culture, and certainly in American films, Somalis—including the Minnesota Somali community—have often been portrayed as violent extremists.

Independent of the question of stereotype-busting, the film’s exploration of the Ilhan campaign’s on-the-ground, local, and grassroots–level operation and strategy, and the folks who are involved and welcome, will also offer inspiration for viewers who might feel that American democracy, for example at the presidential level, is beyond their reach and inaccessible.

Carmen Herrera Right Now: Alison Klayman’s Portrait of the Artist at 100

Collected by major museums worldwide—including MoMA, the Walker, and the Whitney, which opens an exhibition of her early paintings next month—Carmen Herrera is the subject of Alison Klayman’s new documentary, The 100 Years Show. But such acclaim wasn’t quick in coming: it was nearly seven decades into her career when the Havana-born, New York–based painter, then 89 years old, sold her first […]

Carmen Herrera in Alison Klayman's The 100 Years Show. Photo courtesy the artist

Carmen Herrera in Alison Klayman’s The 100 Years Show. Photo courtesy the artist

Collected by major museums worldwide—including MoMA, the Walker, and the Whitney, which opens an exhibition of her early paintings next month—Carmen Herrera is the subject of Alison Klayman’s new documentary, The 100 Years Show. But such acclaim wasn’t quick in coming: it was nearly seven decades into her career when the Havana-born, New York–based painter, then 89 years old, sold her first painting. Klayman, best known for her acclaimed 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, says the film emerged from her interest in both Herrera’s signature minimalist style and in “how she stayed committed to her artistic practice without external validation or acclaim for so many decades.”

Filmed in the two years prior to Herrera’s 100th birthday in 2015, the film features an interview with Olga Viso, the Walker’s executive director and a friend of the artist, as well as footage of a Herrera sculpture in the center’s permanent collection. In advance of the Walker’s September 8 screening of The 100 Years ShowViso connected with Klayman to discuss the film’s aim of capturing “Carmen Herrera right now, looking back at 100 years of life and art.”

How did you first get interested in telling Carmen Herrera’s story?

I met Carmen for the first time and began filming her in the fall of 2013, when she was 98 years old. I was introduced to her through some folks at her gallery, who also work with Ai Weiwei. Even though you might not think of documentary film as having a “casting process,” it’s actually so crucial. Meeting Carmen left me convinced that it would be an enriching experience to make this documentary, and that she was compelling enough to “star” in a film.

What compelled you to make the film following the success of your previous documentary about Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei? Are there any parallels to observe between these two artists as subjects?

In my mind it made sense to go from Ai Weiwei to Carmen Herrera because I wanted to take on new and different storytelling challenges, and also to focus on a woman artist next. Carmen Herrera’s story stood in contrast to Ai Weiwei in many ways. She found her breakthrough style before Ai Weiwei was even born and was creating art in this vein for decades outside of the public eye. She was never seeking to make a political statement and in the present doesn’t leave her house. What inspired her minimalist style, and how she stayed committed to her artistic practice without external validation or acclaim for so many decades, were questions I wanted to explore because I found them personally very challenging. (I still do.)

But I think there are parallels between their stories as well. Both artists were impacted greatly by periods of artistic development while traveling abroad from their home countries. Both clearly rejected the validity of one-party Communist rule. Both were inspired by New York, yet continue to express something unique about their Chinese or Cuban identity in their work. Both also have an excellent sense of humor and like to joke around a lot.

Carmen Herrera in Alison Klayman's The 100 Years Show. Photo courtesy the artist

Carmen Herrera in Alison Klayman’s The 100 Years Show. Photo courtesy the artist

To make the Ai Weiwei documentary, you followed Weiwei for several years in advance of his controversial arrest and detainment by Chinese authorities. You similarly followed Carmen during the course of a year and a half leading up to her milestone 100th birthday. Yet in Carmen’s case, the film revolves fully around one location—the artist’s New York apartment/studio. Did the reality of the single set shape the structure of the film or your approach to the story?

It seemed achievable to give a strong sense of place for The 100 Years Show, not just in tracking Carmen’s biography through Cuba, then Paris and finally New York City, but specifically grounding it in that studio/apartment where she has lived since the late 1950s. Truthfully, I was nervous about it at first, and it was part of the reason I didn’t put pressure on the project to be a feature-length documentary. I wanted it to be as long as it felt it should be in the edit, even though distributing short documentaries I learned is much harder than feature-length ones. It was liberating to have this approach, though, and I think it served the film well. In the edit, my editor and I found it moved really nicely at a 30-minute running time without ever becoming too claustrophobic for the viewer. Carmen does not chafe or feel confined by her situation. She loves being in her home right now, day in and day out. So it is fitting that the film is rooted but never feels stuck.

Music is an important element in the film. You employ it to mark critical evolutions in Carmen’s life and artistic practice, as well as emphasize the interplay of her Cuban heritage with her American and European experiences. Would you discuss the musical choices you made and their orchestration if relevant?

I love this question, and I’m so glad the music felt notable while watching the film. From the beginning, my plan for the score was to work with two composers: Ilan Isakov, who scored Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and Edgar Gonzalez, a Cuban hip-hop artist and music producer. I thought the music for the film needed to demonstrate a mixture of Latin and classical influences—like a Cuban Woody Allen film soundtrack. I wanted the most Cuban-influenced tracks to come at exuberant moments, so the percussion could really drive those cues. By employing cumbia rhythm, tres guitar, heavy percussion, and other instrumentation choices, I think Edgar achieved a really energetic yet elegant sound. He did the recording and mixing in Havana. Ilan’s cues, recorded with musicians in Philadelphia, were influenced by Latin rhythms but also had a strong classical, sometimes jazzy feel. I kept an eye and ear out for the score’s overall cohesion and chose a few licensed tracks including the 1931 “Cuban Love Song” by Ruth Etting to round out the sound, and I think the music really serves the story.

Carmen Herrera in Alison Klayman’s The 100 Years Show. Photo courtesy the artist

It’s a funny story how I met Edgar—another example of how one project leads you to your next one. I worked with the NGO Roots of Hope to make Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry available with Spanish subtitles in Cuba via underground USB distribution. They introduced me to Edgar and his friend Yrak in Miami a few years ago, and Edgar told me how Never Sorry was popular among the artistic and musical communities in Havana. We connected and always hoped to collaborate on something together.

I think you beautifully captured the sharp edge of Carmen’s wit—as well as her deep optimism. Was this a priority?

100%. She is funny and optimistic, so it was a priority for me that the film embodies those attributes as well.

What other principles were important to you in approaching Carmen as a subject? Or in conveying her personality and spirit?

I spent so many mornings with Carmen and my camera, all in an effort to let her words and her daily routine populate the film. After a while I widened the focus by interviewing curators (including you), gallerists, and longtime friends who could help put her work in context. Like in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, I think the audience’s connection to the personal is enhanced through greater understanding of the wider historical context.

At 101, Carmen’s long life provides such rich threads of content to develop. You could have spent 30 minutes alone examining the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and its impact on Carmen’s life, or explored the exclusion of women in the art world in the 1950s and 60s, but you address these topics quickly and succinctly without belaboring these subjects. Is this purposeful? Why only make a 30-minute film?

This isn’t a film about the Cuban Revolution or women’s role in the art world. It’s a film about Carmen Herrera right now, looking back at 100 years of life and art. I wanted it to be engaging, emotional, and enlightening for audiences, bringing them along every minute.

Olga Viso visits Carmen Herrera in her New York apartment, June 4, 2015, just days after the artist's 100th birthday. Photo courtesy the author

Olga Viso visits Carmen Herrera in her New York apartment, June 4, 2015, in the day’s following the artist’s 100th birthday. Photo courtesy the author

Carmen’s late husband Jesse Loewenthal, who was a passionate champion of her work, features prominently in The 100 Years Show. Was this a difficult balance to strike in a film that asserts Carmen’s individuality and a more of a revisionist feminist viewpoint?

I thought about this often, but ultimately never saw a real contradiction in portraying Carmen as a strong artist while also depicting her love story with Jesse and acknowledging his support of her work. Artists of all ages and levels of fame struggle to build and sustain their careers, and narratives that emphasize individual genius alone don’t tell the full story. In reality, everyone has to find a way to pay for food and shelter and needs sources of emotional support and inspiration—whether their work hangs in museums or they create in obscurity.

What is next on the horizon for you? Are you continuing to focus your documentary work on artist subjects?

My plate is very full at the moment. I am in production on several documentary projects, including a feature called Empty Orchestra about the invention of karaoke in Japan. I’m also developing a few scripted projects, a film and a series. None of these are artist stories, but I know I will always return to this subject. It is a precious opportunity to examine an artist’s practice and life story and find meaning in it that informs my own work.

 

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