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When you watch Ariel Kleiman’s directorial debut, “Partisan,” its confident grip of tension and assertive psychological storytelling announces the emergence of a major cinematic talent. Inspired by an article Kleiman and his girlfriend/co-writer Sarah Cyngler read in The New York Times about child assassins in Colombia, “Partisan” sheds the sociopolitical factors of the subject in favor of a compelling coming-of-age tale about growing up under grave circumstances.
Newcomer Alex Balaganskiy stars as Leo, an 11-year-old boy living in an urban cult under the paternal eye of Gregori (Vincent Cassel). Under the guidance of this charismatic leader, Leo has learned how to raise livestock, grow vegetables and work as a member of the community. He’s also learned how to kill, as Gregori uses his “children” to carry out contract killings in the surrounding city. With the arrival of a newborn baby in the community, however, Leo begins to question his lifestyle and Gregori’s rules.
Whereas some filmmakers would’ve taken Leo on a journey of defying his leader, Kleiman’s mature and restrained approach to the material creates a slow-burning thriller of small decisions. He’s less interested in Leo acting out than he is in the character’s gradual understanding of his predicament, and Kleiman successfully turns Leo’s awareness into a psychological drama with subversive intensity.
Hopping on the phone with Indiewire from his native Australia, Kleiman spoke about the film’s distinct approach to adolescence and how he went from high school athlete to feature filmmaker. “Partisan” is now playing in select theaters.
My main passion in life early on was basketball, but I’d be so tired on the weekends that all I could be bothered with was watching movies. I’d gone through a stage in high school where I had seen everything in my local video store, so it was never something I thought I would make a profession out of. I just had this love for cinema. I was always drawn to people and storytelling, and from a very early age I was taking my friends’ video cameras and filming stupid interviews with people on the street and pulling pranks. That was my first kind of foray in filmmaking. And in a way I hope I’m still doing it in that way — there’s something so pure about those early days.
The big director that got under my skin was Hitchcock. It was the first time I was aware there was a guy behind the screen who was fucking with me in this kind of amazing way. He was the master manipulator in a way. I became obsessed with him. But I grew up in the ’90s, and there was amazing cinema coming out of America that I fell in love with. If you asked me at age 15 what my favorite movie was it would be “Pulp Fiction,” and it kind of sprouted to Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson. Those guys were making bold movies at the time and pushing the medium in a kind of mainstream system.
The idea for “Partisan” came from reading about child assassins in Colombia. It was an article we found from The New York Times that profiled the lives of these young boys and girls who have had guns put in their hands and been coerced into shooting people for money. It was a very intimate portrait of these kids lives. It was how little connection emotionally they had with what they were doing that sparked my attention. It was a disturbing and very potent portrait of how precious and how impressionable the soul of a child is. It was that feeling that we felt we wanted to make a movie about. From very early on we knew we wanted to strip the socioeconomic and political factors that had to do with Colombia and wrap this story more in myth. The idea was to set this movie in a nowhere land and tell it in an impressionistic way.
For us the setting starts with the characters. We knew we wanted to tell the story from Leo’s perspective, and he’s an 11-year-old boy who’s been told that this outside world is the most vile and corrupt and ugly place you could imagine. We wanted it to feel that way. Everything you feel and experience as a kid is 10 times bigger than what it actually is. I remember going back to my high school as an adult and it was so much smaller than how it felt when I was a kid. It was that feeling we wanted to evoke with the whole film — that it felt epic and grand and incredibly imposing, because we’re kind of experiencing through Leo’s eyes.
We started writing with no actor in mind, but over time these characteristics start building up in the character and you kind of think of who could play it in a dream scenario. Vincent’s name was at the top of the list. He felt very right. I’d seen him be incredibly magnetic. No matter what role he plays, he’s magnetic and very watchable. He has one of those faces that feel like a landscape — you just want to hang on them in a closeup and feel him preforming in a closeup. He had the rare quality where I could equally picture him commanding a group of 10 or 12 women as I could see him holding court amongst 15 children, and both those groups equally idolizing him.
Vincent Cassel has playfulness to him, but also this masculinity. He had a vulnerability that I hadn’t seen so much in his performances but that I thought would be a key component of the character of Gregori. He has to feel vulnerable and flawed. Early on, we didn’t see this character as a villain. We just saw him as this fucked up dad. So much of Gregori’s motivations are paternal. He’s just incredibly damaged and flawed. I think that’s what Vincent connected to in the screenplay and he brought out on screen in an incredibly loving and complex way.
The biggest challenge of the film was for the community to feel authentic. These characters had been living together for 11 years in the most intimate environment imaginable. It was important to the whole production team from the start that once we cast these characters we had time, like a rehearsal period, where we allowed everyone in the cast not to really rehearse the scenes but to hang out and get to know each other. In the end, we got around 2-3 weeks where we were able to have the whole cast together nonstop and it allowed for the first day of filming to feel a lot more natural and familiar. Everyone developed these bonds that can’t be created artificially — they can only be created by getting to know each other as people, not as co-workers or actors. That 2-3 week hanging out period added a lot to the movie.
The character of Leo has experienced more and has been harbored with more weight and intensity and responsibility than any kid his age. To cast that character was very hard. We saw hundreds and hundreds of boys for the role, and we find Jeremy through a French school in Sydney. He grew up all over the world. I saw his tape in London and the second I saw it I was flawed by it. He carried himself with this great strength and maturity and was very still, which is rare for his age. Boys that age are bouncing against the walls usually and just all over the place. He carried himself with stillness and was sensitive. Visually, I could see him going mano-a-mano with Cassel.
The reason we made this film at this point in our lives is because we’re at this midpoint. We weren’t children or kids, but we weren’t yet adults. I didn’t feel like i was an adult yet, so I felt I could see the perspective of both the child and the adult from a very clear point. Childhood wasn’t that long ago that I couldn’t not relate to it, and adulthood isn’t that far away where I can’t not understand it and relate to it, too.
I went from student short films — which were made in this renegade, DIY way — to making “Partistan,” where there is this machine and infrastructure around you that I wasn’t used to. It was hard for me because at every moment of filming a movie I’m looking for the unexpected, magical, chaotic moments that feel pure and authentic, and so much of the film set and the film infrastructure is artificial. There’s so many things to do in making a film that is artificial — the lights, the sets, etc. Everything has to be on beat and on schedule. In a way, short films — even though I didn’t have any resources — they were closer to obtaining an authenticity. When I had more infrascture I could easily create what was in my mind, but it was a much bigger challenge to use that machine to create something authentic. It’s a much more rigid machine.