Those who attended indieWIRE and SnagFilms’ birthday on July 15 were lucky enough to view an advance screening of Kitao Sakurai’s first feature “Aardvark.” The film will have its official world premiere at the 63rd Locarno Film Festival that’s currently underway, as part of the Filmmakers of the Present Competition.
In a role inspired by his own life, Larry Lewis plays a blind and solitary man recovering from alcoholism and working towards stability. Determined to take control over himself, Larry leads an orderly and disciplined life. When he joins a Jiu Jitsu academy, he finds a close friend in his young hard-partying instructor, Darren. As Larry’s body and spirit begin to change and grow through his practice of this martial art, so does his friendship with Darren. But, as disturbing aspects of Darren’s life are starting to unravel, Larry soon finds himself facing the consequences of violence, descending into an underworld, deeper and deeper into shadows and darkness. [Synopsis courtesy of The Locarno Film Festival]
Filmmakers of the Present Competition
Director/Writer: Kitao Sakurai
Starring: Larry Lewis Jr, Darren Branch, Jessica Cole
Cinematography: Aaron Kovalchik
Editor: Luke Lynch
Music: Fall On Your Sword
U.S., 80 minutes
Director Kitao Sakurai on his child acting career and how he landed into filmmaking…
Sure. I started in film as a child actor, which I still consider myself to be. I was born in Japan where my mother was a Baroque lute player. Because of her I was always exposed to the idea of being on stage. When I was three, my mother and I moved to Cleveland where I got a small part in a local play. Through that experience I suddenly understood the tremendous power of performance. Stage acting became my calling and I got heavily involved in the underground Cleveland theater scene. I then started getting some screen roles too, like in Kevin Smith’s “Dogma.” Being on a film set as a kid is magical. Understanding the mechanics of the filmmaking process is like peering behind the Wizard’s curtain. To me, filmmakers had the power of stage actors: they were able to craft the energy and pacing of an experience. When I was eighteen I dropped out of college and moved to New York where I worked for opera director Douglas Fitch, who became a mentor of mine.
I’m not entirely sure how I fell into cinematography, but I did. I started shooting lots of music videos back a few years ago when they were all on film. I completely fell in love with shooting. I realized that my approach to the image was more as a performer than as a photographer.
Eventually I got connected to Ry Russo-Young and shot “You Wont Miss Me,” which was a profound experience. Ry’s tenacity and strength of vision was inspiring and I got so much out of her film. Utilizing Ry’s “let’s just DO IT!” approach was critical for making “Aardvark.”
Sakurai on how “Aardvark” came about…
“Aardvark” is framed around the real-life relationship between Larry Lewis, a congenitally blind man recovering from alcoholism and Darren Branch, his Jiu-jitsu instructor. In the film, Larry and Darren play themselves and essentially reenact their lives together. At a certain point the film departs into a realm of complete fiction. However, in the film there is no clear division between these two worlds.
My primary focus as a filmmaker is on the human body and the idea of sensuality. How our physical vessels determine the relationship we have to reality more than we wish to acknowledge. That’s why a story about a blind man that engages in a very physical activity who then loses control over his surroundings appealed to me.
I have known Larry and Darren for some time but the seed of the film originated in Buenos Aires. I was there with my producing partner Andrew Barchilon. We were seeing a lot of incredible new films at BAFICI, such as “El Cant Dels Ocells” (Birdsong) by Albert Serra. Films that made me think about the push and pull of cinema’s engagement with physical reality.
During that trip the idea for “Aardvark” just came out of me and we immediately committed to doing it. With the help of our wonderful Argentine producing partner Gaston Solnicki, we were shooting just three months later. Our approach was about moving quickly, preserving the freshness of this strange and ephemeral idea. I felt that if I were to understand the motives behind my choices intellectually as opposed to on a purely instinctual or corporeal level, the ideas would somehow lose their power.
We were blessed with Ana Cambre, our production designer and Aaron Kovalchik, our cinematographer for their total commitment to a process that others might become fed up with. I must also acknowledge the invaluable support of our producing partner in Cleveland, Kasumi as well as Jessica Elizabeth Cole, who is debuting in “Aardvark” in a starring role.
Sakurai on what premiering his film at Locarno means to him…
I’m so happy that we are premiering our film at Locarno, it’s such an honor and an exciting year for the festival. Oliver Pere, who had been running Cannes Director’s Fortnight is the new director of Locarno this year and he’s bringing a very fresh approach. Historically Locarno had been the premiere international showcase for emerging filmmakers (everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Jim Jarmusch) and Olivier is really going back to those “Discovery Festival” roots by selecting brand new talent from all over the world. “Aardvark” is one of three North American fiction films in competition and I think it’s interesting that all our movies share a focus on genre (Bruce LaBruce’s “L.A. Zombie” and Aaron Katz’s “Cold Weather.”)
On what inspired him while completing “Aardvark”…
There are a lot of movies I connect to, such as Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up,” or Paul Schrader’s “American Gigolo,” but during the filmmaking process we didn’t reference any films at all. We looked at the work of photographers like Philip-Lorca DiCoria and Stephen Shore, playwright Sarah Kane, painter David Hockney, etc. After shooting it and working with our editor Luke Lynch and composer Fall On Your Sword, we did reference a lot of very classic storytelling conventions but in a very deliberate way.
And on what’s in store for the future…
Andrew Barchilon and I run a production company together, Naked Faces, which produced “Aardvark.” Together we are developing other movies as well as co-producing projects in Argentina with Gaston Solnicki’s company, Filmy Wiktora. Gaston is finishing his second feature doc “Mateo OO” that he’ll be presenting at the Hubert Bals fund this year. Andrew is working on an indie apocalypse movie, and I’m currently developing a project about a man’s growing obsession with the American diver Greg Louganis.