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A Conversation with Julia Loktev, Director of "Moment of Impact"

A Conversation with Julia Loktev, Director of "Moment of Impact"

INTERVIEW: "Moment of Impact," Loktev Hits New York Screen

by Anthony Kaufman

[EDITOR’S NOTE 05/10/99: The following is an update to our original interview with filmmaker Julia Loktev which appears below]

After winning the documentary directing award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, Julia Loktev appeared poised for further success — and perhaps even a distribution deal. Though U.S. Cable rights went to Cinemax shortly after the Park City acclaim for “Moment of Impact” — her personal documentary about her incapacitated father — that day of theatrical exhibition never came — that is, until this week, when New York’s Anthology Film Archives opens the film for a two week run (May 13 – 23).

After Sundance, Loktev’s film kept heaping on the festivals and the accolades: a grand prize at the Cinema du Reel in Paris, a Grand prize at Munich’s documentary fest, a winner of best doc at Karlovy Vary — and traveling from as near as New York, Montreal and Chicago and as far as New Zealand, Locarno, Israel and Pusan. “I’m kind of surprised how long it keeps going,” comments Loktev. And with each setting, more television sales: German and French ARTE, Bavarian TV, Finnish and Greek television. It’s all rather satisfying, considering that last year, TV stations told Loktev she needed to come up with an hour-long version before they’d consider buying it. While these television sales may have been somewhat mollifying, New York theatrical distribution, however small, has been a quandary for the filmmaker.

At New Directors/New Films 1998, the film survived a horribly insulting Janet Maslin review — this after she got an offer from Film Forum — New York’s premier arthouse — to screen either with them or the festival, but not both. Loktev explains that the choice is usually mutually exclusive. “Initially, Karen Cooper [Film Forum programmer] put us in a position where we had to choose between New Directors or Film Forum. That seems to be a policy. It is very rare that she will make an exception and show a film that screened at New Directors,” Loktev observes.

The film’s eventual landing at Anthology is a welcome conclusion to her search for domestic theatrical release. “I always thought that Anthology would be an appropriate venue for it. I thought it would only be 1 or 2 nights, but they decided to do a run,” she says. Will Loktev now set out on the grassroots distribution crusade? Not quite. “I want to make another movie. I want to do other things. I don’t want to devote the next two years of my life distributing this film,” she admits. “Already, I feel like it’s been seen way beyond what I had hoped. I am not pounding the pavement with that print all over the country. I’m sorry, but I’m a filmmaker, not a distributor.”

Loktev is now at work on a multi-screen video installation and hopes that “Moment of Impact” will screen at museums and cinematheques around the country — but she won’t be the one campaigning for it.

A Conversation with Julia Loktev, Director of "Moment of Impact"

by Anthony Kaufman

No one really talked to Julia Loktev or her producer, Melanie Judd, at this
year’s Sundance Film Festival — that is, until she won the Documentary
Competition’s Directing award. Her solitary, still film about a car accident
which rendered her father an incognizant being was not the feel-good romantic
comedy that Park City audiences rush to. But the Sundance jury thought otherwise
and gave the film and its director the recognition it deserved.

Shot on a Hi-8 camera and solely edited by the first-time feature director, the
documentary focuses on the sometimes grim, sometimes humorous daily life of the
director’s mother taking care of her incapacitated father. While much of the
documentary remains tragic and emotional, Loktev’s vision eventually settles
into a sort of subtle, unsentimental account of her family’s quotidian life —
with a father who both does and doesn’t exist.

indieWIRE: So you won the award. . .

Julia Loktev: Yay!

iW: Does it mean anything?

Loktev: It means that somebody starts to pay attention to us. It was so strange
the whole time. We felt like we were in a different festival. People would say,
“What film?” I don’t think anybody covered it at all, before. We didn’t have a
publicist. We hadn’t really shown it to people because we didn’t want to show it
to any distributors until it was done. And so, we were working just me, and
Melanie would come over and see it, my boyfriend would see it, another friend
would see it, and that was about it. So when we came, nobody had any idea what
this thing was. It ended up being very anti-climactic for the most part, so it
was very nice to get the award afterwards. There was the constant sense of —
you’re supposed to be doing something, but you’re really not sure what you’re
supposed to be doing except for mooching free food.

iW: So the award, then, provided some sort of climax?

Loktev: We felt vindicated. Honestly. In a year where most documentaries were
either produced by major television funding or had star directors or focused on
stars, you know, John Waters, Woody Allen, Lou Reed. “What’s your film about?”
“Oh my Dad was hit by a car and got stuck between life and death.” That’s not a
particularly interesting thing to talk about, because it’s more about
understanding the psychology of what happens in an environment like that. I
think a lot of those films were really good; certainly more attractive, more
sexy. . .

iW: After the award, did people who weren’t paying attention to you suddenly
start to?

Loktev: Not that much that wasn’t really in the works before. A few things. But
I think I have a very realistic vision of where it should end up.

iW: Where do you think it should end up?

Loktev: It’d be great to show it in a theatrical context. Beyond that, I don’t
think that’s where the film is aimed.

iW: You told me once that there is no way this could be a one hour film for

Loktev: There’s two possible outlets for television. I don’t know if the
directing award plays into it, but now there is more possibility of showing a
longer version — maybe not the full version, but a special one and a half hour
version. The hour and a half version, to me, is possible — I can start to think
about it. I have to decide that in the next few days. 53 minutes is very difficult
when you start with a 117 minute film. I’m not coming from a documentary context.
I didn’t set out saying I’m going to make a documentary. I said, “I’m going to
make a film.” And basically, the form is so much a part of it and the way of
telling the story is very much a part of it. It’s not just a way of getting this
story across, and I’ve had certain people say to me, “You’ve got a story to
tell, you can get it across in 15 minutes or in 2 hours.” It’s hard for me to
think of it that way, because it’s very difficult for me to separate the form
and the content. And there’s a simplification in documentaries that that’s what
you do — that the form is separable from content in a traditional documentary.

To me, that’s a very difficult conversation to have, because if I thought the
film would be best at one hour, I would have made a one hour film. Time is a
huge part of this film. It’s about being stuck in space; it’s about being stuck
in time, and in a way, it’s a film that always has to be a little bit too long.
My father has been around after the crash for almost 9 years and nothing changes,
and he could be around for another 30 years — it’s about the day in, day out. The
thing that I always come back to is that the film is not dramatic in its resolution,
but in its inability to be resolved. So in that way, time is such an inherent part of
it, so when people say, “Cut the one hour version,” I have such a hard
time with that. You’re getting wider distribution, but for what? Not for the
film. But for something else. The story is so much bound up with the way of
treating it and telling it.

iW: Tell me about the structure and the kind of repetitive things you have going

Loktev: That was the one thing I started out with. When I starting shooting the
film, I didn’t really know what it was going to be. I didn’t know if it was
going to be a two hour film or a one hour film, for that matter. What I knew was
that it was really important for me to keep it grounded in the kind of basic
reality of my parents’ life — my mother taking care of my father, this endless,
implacable fact of his there-ness. So I knew from the very beginning that I
would have this repetition of morning scenes of my mom getting my father out of
bed, in a sense thinking a little bit of something like “Jeanne Dielman” [by
Chantel Ackerman] where everything is exactly repeated, but I didn’t want to do
that. I wanted to do something that wasn’t quite so mechanical, so I shot the
morning scenes from the same angles, but then there’s slight variation. . . but
as long as I had those mornings, everything else I could go away from. I could
get into more abstract things, I could get into other kinds of details, I could
circle around things, but I always had to come back to the implacable fact of her
getting him up the next morning.

iW: I’ve asked other documentary filmmakers — did you get emotionally involved
with your subjects — how hard was it to keep your distance. Your case is unique. . .

Loktev: It was about not keeping distance. Although at
times, the camera keeps its distance. That was one thing I tried to do was to
shift subjective positions, in the sense that I didn’t want it to be my personal
journey coming home, because that’s not the most interesting thing about the
story. The most interesting thing is the daily things that have to happen, of
my mom taking care of my dad, and that happens most of the time in my absence.
So some of the stuff in the film is very much a kind of appearance of an
objective camera, but it’s always not. It’s always with my presence there.
Sometimes I’m silent. I’m hiding there, but then I re-enter it at moments. . .
My mom was great. She was really amazing. I think she probably thought it would
never get seen.

iW: Did you call her Saturday night when you got the award?

Loktev: I did. And like a good Jewish mother, she said, “But who won the Grand
Jury Prize?” That was the first thing she said.

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