Yet again, there's much to learn from the Golden Globe nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Screen International's Mike Goodridge moderated the Cinematheque panel: Angelina Jolie ("In The Land of Blood and Honey," USA), Pedro Almodovar ("The Skin I Live In," Spain), Asghar Farhadi ("A Separation," Iran) and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne ("The Kid With a Bike," France/Belgium). Not present was China's nominee Zhang Yimou ("The Flowers of War").
Thankfully the HFPA nominated a woman director again this year; eventual Globe-winner Susanne Bier ("In A Better World") more than held her own at last year's male-dominated panel. And Jolie lit up the panel Saturday with her native eloquence (the others needed translators). Much as Jolie has the power to draw an audience, that was not the reason for her nomination, the HFPA assured the audience during their intro to the film at the Aero Theater last week. Clearly the film doesn't need that caveat — it speaks for itself. This panel's audience was equally admiring.
"In The Land of Blood and Honey," Angelina Jolie:
Throughout the filming, Jolie's Yugoslavian cast "focused on their similarity, their unity," she said, while coming together to tell a sensitive and difficult part of their history. "The wounds are still very fresh," but "we want the world not to forget about it." Her actors "guided me through this; they taught me everyday." The film has been shown in their region, spurring a necessary dialogue. She hopes audiences not only fall in love with the actors and feel pity for people who lived through this period in Bosnian history, but also to "see how extraordinary the region is." For her, it isn't a film or a piece of art, "it's where my heart is, this is my family." As for the bumps along the way to getting the film made, Jolie and her cast trusted that because they were armed with the right intentions, they had to trust people would see that upon viewing the film. So far, the response (including that of the war's rape victims) has reassured them.
Wasn't "Blood and Honey"'s love story bizarre?
No, Jolie said: "It was very common at the time," and it wasn't this idea of Romeo and Juliet on two different sides. "They were born the same — they are the same. They fell in love in a time when it was normal to have mixed marriages. It was the war that turned them into enemies. To me it's a very sad love story because it's a love story about what should have been: They should have been alive today, they should have a family..[the love story] is symbolic of what happened to the country."
Why did Jolie choose this particular piece of history, given her considerable experience with struggling nations throughout the world?
"I made this film about this region at this time because the themes are universal — sexually violence against women and the lack of intervention." She remembered being seventeen and hearing hardly anything about the conflict while it was happening. She was ashamed by how little she knew, and an obligation to get back into a dialogue about it. "There's still many displaced people, still work to be done." She added that "as an artist I was extremely inspired [by the people in the region]. They understand art, and what it is to be an artist and how it helps us survive — in a way very few people do. It's a different breed of artist that comes with such a resilience and passion and openness: survivors."
How did she develop the austere style of the film?
"The style for this was dictated by the war. It's austere in that — some people said the light was so beautiful — [that's because] in some scenes there was no electricity — it just looked like a Vermeer or Rembrandt because there was light coming in through the window!" She adds that her set designers "tried to not make it more than it was."
Future directorial plans?
"It's harder to be a director than an actor," she said. "The responsibility as a director –you want to do everything, and it takes your life; for that you have to have a reason." She finds it hard to imagine doing another film that would mean as much as this one did. But yes, she'll continue to direct, but only if Almodovar refuses to give her a job.
"The Skin I live In," Pedro Almodovar:
Is it a horror movie?
"What happens in the movie, it's awful," responded Almodovar. "It was a way to talk about something interesting — identity."
Almodovar enjoyed working with old collaborator Antonio Banderas again, and recalled working with him on "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" "He was the most brilliant natural talent that I had ever met, wild and crazy, full of desire." He likes having the same actors in all his films, "it's a good feeling — of having a family."
Almodovar said he's "obsessed with everything that's in front of the camera," and that while he has nothing against Naturalism, it's not the style he wants. When he began as a filmmaker, shooting on Super 8mm, he and his cohorts were "creating the reality we wanted to be a part of"; it was a darker time for Spain. They were interested in "representing feelings, styles, actions, adventures, plots — that was so important for me and the Spanish people at that moment."
Like all his films, this one is also about "mothers and people who desire people." He shed some light on the film's ending, saying that "sometimes through desire you can recognize someone," but we'll stop there.
Will Almodovar ever work outside of Spain?
Maybe once, but he warns: "I don't think the production style of this town — LA – really fits me," he says. "And I'm too old to learn."
"A Separation," Asghar Farhadi:
Why does the film resonate so much with everyone who sees it, all over the world?
"I don't know exactly why but I can venture a guess: This is in a way a detective story, but the detective is actually the audience. We've seen many detective movies where the language is not realistic, in a way we're seeing a combo of a detective movie and a drama – a hybrid of the two." He added: "I don't think that local films can't also be universal; they can be both. If you tell a local story very precisely and accurate, it can become quite universal."
Doesn't the film open audiences up to the world of Iran?
"There's an image of Iran that's not correct. I don't mean to say there are no issues or problems–there are. But the type of problems you often imagine are not the ones there. Western audiences might go into this movie with a preconceived notion. For them, it might be strange than Iranians have such layered, complicated issues. But I think people all over the world are quite similar. People all over the world have quite complicated issues. The problem is we look through the people of the county through the prism of politics. If you see the people you see how similar we are." The response to his film all over the world has been that "we are very similar." He's said it many times, but it's worth saying again: "Similarities between people and their cultures, throughout the world, are far greater than their differences, but its better for the interest of politics to highlight the differences."
Farhadi's goal was not to make a film to help foreign audiences better understand Iran:
"No movie can claim to have a complete view of a country. How could I possibly say that my movie is an image of 70 million people – this would be belittling people." He and his fellow Iranian filmmakers don't like to have all their issues brought up or to receive sympathy: "When you see my movie, assume that i made it under the best possible circumstances. That doesn't mean that I condone the difficult situations in Iran, but I don't want to be a beggar on the street who exposes his wounds just to get sympathy for it. Nobody forced me to become a filmmaker under those circumstances, I chose to do so, knowing those circumstances, we Iranian filmmakers don't like to be treated like 'wow, they created…' Just watch our movies."
As for the purported difficulties of bringing films to foreign audiences with language barriers:
"Sometimes it's a good thing to not understand the language, you get down to the real stuff." Farhadi worked in theater for years before becoming a filmmaker. His process is still very theatrical. "We do the type of exercises that if anyone were to see us they'd think we were bizarre." He had "A Separation"'s actors do method-like preparation before production began. "For months ahead of time you work with actors, it's not like sitting around a table reading a script together."
Of the joys of filmmaking:
"Every time I show up on set I feel that my childhood hasn't left me. This is the greatest gift a person can have — to have their childhood with them."
"The Kid with a Bike," Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
"Realism is a correction of reality":
Naturalism is the Dardenne brothers' style: with a documentary and theater background, their goal may be to create an organic environment, but they don't think naturalism really exists in art. "We start from things that actually have existed," they said, noting their inspiration for "The Kid with a Bike" came from a news story about a boy in Tokyo. "From that story we tried to find a fable that tells something a little bit different from the original story." The boy from Tokyo's story involved him leaving the orphanage and committing murder. "We started to think, how could we have this boy not commit murder and escape that destiny?"
The solution for them was to bring a woman into that story who would intervene in this journey and prevent him from a similar fate. They felt that for the character Samantha, "it was important not to attribute a psychological motivation for her, because it would distance the audience from why she was doing [helping him], and they needed to go on the journey with her," adding that unfortunately, people immediately start looking for a reason when people do something good; "as human beings, if she had left him there, we would have understand that. It's like if someone falls off their bike on the side of the road – some people stop, some people don't."
One of the most extraordinary things for a director is to see someone on camera for the first time, said Luc Dardenne. They often do, using mostly unknown or non-actors. With Cecile de France, the process was slightly different, and involved figuring out how to make her fall into their universe. The brothers spoke of needing actors to surrender and give in to the process. They spend forty days rehearsing and forty-fifty days shooting. "We spend so much time together that it gets to the point where no one is protecting their self-image anymore, and that's when the character comes to life..We're able to forget ourselves. Then the characters can be born." Regardless of working with professional or non-professional actors, they say they have to "break their image" of themselves.
The final message of the film:
"What we wanted to do with the end of our film is say love is stronger than death–sometimes–and for a short time."
The Golden Globe foreign-language winner will be announced at Sunday's ceremony.