g The Film Panel Notetaker: February 2009

Sunday, February 15, 2009

One-on-One Q&A: Hugo Perez - Director/Producer, "Neither Memory Nor Magic"

One-on-One Q&A with Hugo Perez
Director/Producer, Neither Memory Nor Magic

Hugo Perez

I recently sat down with filmmaker Hugo Perez to discuss his documentary feature film debut, Neither Memory Nor Magic, in preparation for its New York premiere during the 2009 MoMA Documentary Fortnight on Feb. 22. Neither Memory Nor Magic beautifully and hauntingly tells the story of Hungary’s most celebrated poet, Miklos Radnoti, whose notebook of poems was discovered in his coat pocket when the mass grave he’d been shot and killed in during the Holocaust was later unearthed. The film presents interviews with those close to Radnoti interspersed with incredible super 8mm footage vocalized by readings of verses from Radnoti’s poems, and narration by ACADEMY AWARD® Nominated actress Patricia Clarkson. Make sure to mark Neither Memory Nor Magic down on your calendar, as not only will Perez be answering your questions during the post-screening Q&A, but special guests will also make an appearance to read a selection of Radnoti’s poems. Already confirmed are Hungarian photographer Sylvia Plachy and poet Howard Altman. (Look below this One-on-One Q&A for two deleted scenes that didn't make it into the final cut of the film.)

TFPN: How did you first hear about this story and what compelled you to make a documentary about it?

Perez: Poetry is one of these traditional art forms that are fast disappearing in this fast food, reality TV era that we live in. I had met Greg Carr who ran the Carr Foundation. At that time they were supporting documentaries. He felt poetry was given short shrift and wanted to see if there could be a documentary that somehow conveyed the power of poetry to be something more than words on a page. I had read the work of Radnoti in an anthology. I pitched Carr on the idea of doing something on poetry of witness, which is a whole genre of poets who have lived through wars, genocides, political purges and have documented their times through poetry. Initially, the film was going to be about poetry of witness and Radnoti was one of five poets I was going to interweave their stories. It soon became apparent that what I was proposing was something really complex and ambitious. We weren’t sure it was going to work, so we decided to take one figure that exemplified this idea of poetry of witness and tell his story. When I think about the film now and when I think about Radnoti, I think about this man who tried to apply his craft under the darkest possible circumstances and continued to believe in the value of what he was doing, especially when he was on a forced march and people were being killed all around him. He must have known at this point that there was a good chance he wasn’t going to make it. To continue to write poetry under those circumstances when you don’t even know if anybody’s going to read these poems, I think it shows a great belief in the importance of creating art.

TFPN: Do you have a background in poetry and/or Hungarian history?

Perez: I had never been to Hungary. I don’t speak Hungarian. When I started to go to Hungary and interview people and do research, everybody thought it was the funniest thing that a Cuban American from New York would be coming to Budapest to make a film about Miklos Radnoti. One of my great goals for the film was to let the world know and encourage people to find out more about Radnoti and to read his work. In Hungary, everybody reads his work. School children memorize his poems. In the United States, outside of academic fields, he’s totally unknown. His work (the translations that I used) is currently out of print in this country. I was hoping at some point, a publisher might become interested in republishing his work in this country.

TFPN: How did you find the people interviewed in the film?

Perez: I was very fortunate because one of the people in the film, Zsuzsanna Ozsvath, whose translations of Radnoti’s poetry I used in the film, wrote Radnoti’s only biography in English, In the Footsteps of Orpheus. I saw that she was teaching at U.T. Dallas. She runs the Holocaust Studies department there. I emailed her. She was the first person I interviewed. Coincidentally, she has a daughter who lives up in Albany and she came a few days to visit her daughter, so I drove up to Albany and spent a day with her. She was incredibly helpful. It was through Oszvoth that I made my first round of contacts and my first trip to Budapest. She gave me a list of people to start with. Every time I interviewed somebody, people would say, ‘you should talk to so and so.’ For instance, Radnoti’s niece I only found out about a year and a half after my first visit to Budapest. I feel like I was really lucky. I was introduced to Ferenc Gyozo who was one of the other Radnoti scholars who speaks in the film. Through him, I found out about Ferenc Andai who had been at the labor camp with Radnoti. We made a trip down to Serbia together to visit the site of the labor camp. It’s kind of like solving a mystery. You start off with one person and they lead you to five other people and so on. At the end, I think I wound up doing 60 interviews and we only wound up using six or seven people in the finished film. One of the things I was up against was the fact that a lot of the people I was interviewing were over 70, so I was wasn’t sure which were going to be the key interviews. I didn’t want to risk missing something. Instead of doing pre-interviews, every interview I taped. Of the people in the film, thankfully everybody is still alive, but of the people that I interviewed, at least six of them passed away. Outside of the film, I now have this archive of interviews, which I hope to donate to a Hungarian institution at some point.

TFPN: The film took part in the 2006 IFP Market (Now Independent Film Week). What was the process like and how did it help you get the film to where it is today?

Perez: I recommend the IFP Market to anybody who’s got a work-in-progress documentary. I didn’t get any funding from presenting the film there, but I did start some relationships with people that have helped get the film seen. It definitely put the film on the radar. It was a really positive experience. There are certain places where the independent documentary community comes together throughout the year, and the IFP Market is definitely one of the watering holes where you can go for four days and wind up seeing a lot of people.

TFPN: Tim Sternberg and Francisco Bello, the director and producer/cinematographer respectively of the ACADEMY AWARD® Nominated short Salim Baba, also participated in the making of your film. How did that collaboration come about?

Perez: Francisco and I have known each other for about five years now. He’s cut two of my narrative shorts and both of my documentaries including Summer Sun, Winter Moon, an ITVS-funded film. Some of the initial cutting that they did on Salim Baba they did in my edit room. He’d be cutting for me during the day, and at night he’d be working on Salim Baba. Tim Sternberg I got to meet through Francisco and he’s also been a wonderful collaborator.

TFPN: When did Patricia Clarkson come on board as narrator? What drew her to the film? Had you always anticipated having narration?

Perez: I have never been a big fan of narration and I resisted it for a long time, but then at a certain point, we did a rough-cut screening in Boston. After that screening, Francisco and I looked at each other and said, ‘we’re going to have to go with narration.’ Once I made that decision, then it was ‘how can I tastefully and eloquently work narration into the film?’ There is so much of his life where I could spend five minutes of screen time piecing together interviews to explain something that could be expressed with 10 seconds of narration. A friend of mine from college saw the film and she said, ‘Patricia Clarkson is a friend of mine, I can get the film to her, would you be interested in having her narrate the film?’ I thought, ‘Wow! She’s wonderful.’ She’s got a very beautiful voice that adds a really nice quality to the film. I should note that before sending the film to her for her consideration I knew that she had a love of poetry and that she might be interested in participating in the film because of that interest.

TFPN: Do you plan to do any educational outreach with the film?

Perez: I would like to do an educational outreach campaign that targets more creative writing and poetry than the Holocaust, although certainly the Holocaust is an important topic. The thing that makes the film unique is the way in which it examines the craft of poetry in relation to social issues and social injustice, and the ability of writing to describe something like the Holocaust, which is otherwise hard to talk about and encompass. I definitely want to do an educational outreach, but all of that is contingent upon finding the right partners who are willing to fund the initiative.

TFPN: What are you working on now?

Perez: While I’ve been working on my documentaries, on a parallel track, I’ve been working on my narrative fiction work, which is very different than the documentaries. They’re dark comedies in the vein of Pedro Almodóvar. What I’m working on right now is developing my first feature narrative called Immaculate Conception. It’s a modern-day re-imaging of the Virgin Mary story in Miami. I was supported by the Tribeca Film Institute Emerging Artist Award last year for that project. I’m also writing a science fiction short, which I hope to shoot this summer. And, I’m executive producing a documentary by David Felix Sutcliffe, Why AdM>ama, which was at the IFP Market this last year.

Below: Two Deleted Scenes from Neither Memory Nor Magic.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Indie Film Blogger Road Trip at Anthology this Tuesday

If you're in New York on Tuesday, I hope you'll head on over to Anthology Film Archives for the World Premiere of Sujewa Ekanayake's documentary Indie Film Blogger Road Trip, a film that I had the pleasure of being interviewed for last summer.

Opening 9 minutes of Indie Film Blogger Road Trip.

Here's all the details below, and for more info, visit the film's official blog here.

Indie Film Blogger Road Trip
World Premiere
Tuesday February 17, 2009
8 PM
Anthology Film Archives
32 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10003
$9 ($6 for Anthology members)

Director & several bloggers featured in the film will attend the screening. There will be a brief Q & A session/discussion following the screening.

About Indie Film Blogger Road Trip:

In the feature length documentary Indie Film Blogger Road Trip independent filmmaker & blogger Sujewa Ekanayake (Date Number One, DIY Filmmaker Sujewa blog) travels to several U.S. East Coast cities in the Summer of 2008 and discusses the thriving world of indie film journalism on the web, related Internet writings & other matters relevant to the indie film community with over a dozen bloggers who write about indie film and or media professionals who rely on indie film blogs to accomplish their daily work. Subjects discussed in the film include: professional development and breakthroughs as film journalists, the intersection of race and indie filmmaking, the role blogs play in keeping indie film fans & writers who do not live in major cities connected to the scene, several takes on the amount of participation by women in both the indie filmmaking world & indie film blogging world, debates regarding the value of blogs when compared to traditional/print media reviews and articles, the effect of digital production on minority filmmaking, several view points on whether the indie film blog world is an actual community in a traditional sense, motivations for blogging about indie films, benefits of blogging about indie films, difficulties involved in being an independent blogger or journalist, questions and many answers regarding whether blogs are ultimately a positive thing or a negative thing for the indie film world, promotional & distribution strategies adopted by makers of independent horror movies, the role blogs play in supporting work done by media production organizations, screening events, film festivals, and museums, what the near future may hold for both indie filmmakers and indie film bloggers.

Indie Film Blogger Road Trip features: Anthony Kaufman (indieWIRE, Village Voice, Anthony Kaufman's blog), Brandon Harris (Cinema Echo Chamber, Hammer to Nail, Spout, Filmmaker Magazine), Stu VanAirsdale (The Reeler, Defamer), Melissa Silverstein (Women and Hollywood), Erica Ginsberg (Docs In Progress, Docs Interactive), Chuck Tryon (The Chutry Experiment, Newcritics, Fayetteville State University), Gabe Wardell (Atlanta Film Festival, Gabe's Declaration of Principles, ATL 365 blog), Paula Martinez (Atlanta Film Festival, Paula's After Thoughts), Tambay Obenson (The Obenson Report, Beautiful Things), Noralil Ryan Fores (ShortEnd Magazine), Armando Valle (Horror 101, Armando Valle blog), KJ Mohr (National Museum of Women in the Arts, My World Bank Lunches), and Brian Geldin (The Film Panel Notetaker). Film was produced, directed, videotaped, edited by Sujewa Ekanayake, and features music by Kevin MacLeod. Indie Film Blogger Road Trip is a warm, multi-faceted, reflective introduction to - and a celebration of - a young, influential 21st century creative community.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction - "The Axe in the Attic" - Feb. 10, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction
The Axe in the Attic
Q&A with directors Lucia Small and Ed Pincus
IFC Center
New York, NY
February 10, 2009

(A sold-out crowd enjoys the Q&A with Lucia Small & Ed Pincus moderated by Thom Powers. Photo by A.M. Peters.)

Last winter, I conducted a One-on-One Q&A with filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small before their documentary, The Axe in the Attic, screened at the Museum of the Moving Image. Flash forward to Tuesday night when The Axe in the Attic was given the royal treatment by Thom Powers at Stranger Than Fiction during a sold out screening, where by the way, the first 100 patrons received The Katrina Experience box-set DVDs from Indiepix, which is also distributing The Axe in the Attic. The Axe in the Attic follows Ed and Lucia on their journey through several states down to New Orleans as they meet up with and interview those who were displaced and affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Thom started the discussion by asking Ed and Lucia what their experience was like going back to New Orleans recently to show the film there. Ed said it’s hard to describe visually, but there seemed to be a general bareness, despite there being some new housing projects that have been built. “There was a whole culture and life destroyed there and that’s coming back in very small ways,” he said. Lucia added that the Lower 9th Ward has been cleaned up, but it’s all empty lots with grass. Some neighborhoods have been revitalized, while others have been completely neglected. What was most compelling for her was that the stories on the screen continue to live on. “Some people have gotten better and they’ve been able to heal, but a lot of people are still telling these stories and reliving them over and over again,” she said adding that “one of the biggest problems they’re experiencing now is long-term mental health care.”

In my One-on-One Q&A, I asked Ed and Lucia if they felt they were taking a risk turning the cameras on themselves to become a part of the story. Lucia said while it was both a challenge and a risk to make a film on such a grandiose topic that’s politically layered and insert them into it; it did feel more honest for them because they wanted to tackle the notion of who is behind the camera. A similar question was asked on Tuesday by Thom, to which Lucia responded that the reason they teamed up in the first place was because both of their previous work has been pretty raw and they both looking to seek a truth in their documentaries.

Did they emerge from their experience with an attitude about social policy and what they believe should happen with responsibility of various governmental agencies, one audience member asked. Ed replied that that’s not part of the film, he basically thinks that “the Bush Administration wanted to viscerate what the Federal government could do well, everything from Social Security to FEMA.” They didn’t make the film for social policy, but more for the fact that “citizens believe that they have a right to a safety net.” Lucia said they had been talking about making a film about poverty in America, “and when Katrina hit, it was a lens in which to address this issue,” Lucia said. “We did want to tell the story of the diaspora of Katrina, but it was more the long-term story of the history of our nation and the neglect for planning for these kinds of disasters.”

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Moderating Next DocuClub Screening, "Our House"

A few weeks back, I attended a work-in-progress documentary screening of Augusta Palmer's The Hand of Fatima at DocuClub that Pamela Cohn moderated. I was very honored when DocuClub's Felix Endara asked me to moderate the upcoming DocuClub on Feb. 25 at The Tank (354 West 45th Street) in New York.

The film will be Our House by David Teague and Greg King, which "documents a new and unusual community housed in an abandoned warehouse in Brooklyn that provides an alternative to the impersonal shelter system to the homeless and those struggling with addiction."

You can read more about the screening and the film here.

If you're in New York that night, I encourage you to come to see the film and stay after for the discussion, which is intended to give constructive feedback to the filmmakers as they work to finish their film.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

2009 SXSW Film Conference Panels

Here's a look at the panels that are planned for the 2009 SXSW Film Conference.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction - "Must Read After My Death" - Feb. 3, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction
Must Read After My Death
Q&A with director Morgan Dews
IFC Center
New York, NY
February 3, 2008

(Morgan Dews and David Nugent. Photo by Brian Geldin.)

Last night’s Stranger Than Fiction was Morgan Dews’ Must Read After My Death, “a documentary about documentation” or in other words, Dews took his late Grandmother Allis’s home movies and audio tapes from the 1960s and constructed them into one cohesive story arc dealing with Allis’s unconventional relationship with her husband Charley and the psychological effects it had on their four children. The entire film is told through these documentations without any narration or talking heads. Must Read After My Death, which debuted last fall at the Hamptons International Film Festival, will be distributed by Gigantic Releasing and opens Feb. 20 at Quad Cinema in New York. David Nugent, head programmer of HIFF, moderated last night’s discussion. Below are some of the highlights. (I have not included any of the audience Q&A because most of those questions pertain to specific things that go on in the film, and I don't want to give too much away. You just have to see it for yourself.)

Nugent: How did you come across the tapes and what was it like the first time for you to listen to them?

Dews: I actually found out about the tapes really late. I always knew about the films, but my uncle’s ex-wife told me about the tapes…It was kind of shocking actually. I was very close to my grandmother…I was born about the end of the story. She in fact never really talked with me about Charley. She would talk with me about lots of other things…It was really crazy to hear this life that she had that I had no idea about.

Nugent: In looking at the film again I realized, with the exception of one shot, there really isn’t sync sound footage in the film. What sort of guiding principle do you have in your editing choices?

Dews: I think a lot of the things I’m happiest with about the film happened through necessity. I really had no sync film, except for…the black and white television interview with Charley…The majority of the footage of the original material is from about 10 years earlier…I basically worked out this idea where I would use the images in a very poetic, sort of metaphorical way…One of the things that interested me about the material was that in the visual, you’re presenting a classical view of the ‘50s where everything’s kind of shiny and new and everybody’s very happy, but on the tapes, it’s a very subterranean view of what’s going on, sort of whispered secrets…I really thought the juxtaposition was very beautiful because I feel like a lot of the pressure of the ‘50s and the later explosion from the ‘60s that were put onto people was this idea that everything had to be perfect on the outside and I think that caused a lot of anguish. The guiding principle I used was can I use a person that’s talking? If I can’t use a person that’s talking, is there some image that I have that says something to what they’re saying or contradicts it in some way?...It really became like trying to make one puzzle out of a box of maybe 20 different images.

Nugent: How much do you think the time period compares now from 40 years ago in respect to the social morays, the state of psychiatry and communication challenges?

Dews: I was really shocked in just the way the whole situation seems extremely conditioned by the times and the belief system of the times. The whole thing with their sort of love of psychiatry comes true in the visual footage of their love of trains and airplanes and tape recorders. All of this stuff somehow is part of the same thing…It made me wonder how much of what I do or how my life is conditioned by my time, emails and cell phones, things like that that they didn’t have. I always kept thinking that my grandmother had one of the first driver’s licenses in the state when she was young and they didn’t have telephones when she was born. Her father was a great fan of telegrams…I think they were a transitional couple maybe. That they were sort of stepping from the 19th Century into the 21st in some way because of the decisions they made and the beliefs they had, but…for some reason or another they couldn’t see through to get divorced…I struggled with this idea that they were so advanced and so modern in some senses and just not in others.

Nugent: How do you think this film would have been different if it wasn’t your family?

Dews: I can’t really answer that, but I try to think of it as if it was somebody else’s family, but they were just characters in a way. I don’t know in what sense that I succeeded, but a lot of people at first found this material and decided to make a film kind of pushed me in a direction where I can do a personal documentary about my discovery of these secrets of my family. I just felt that it would be such a disservice of the material. The material was so powerful and these voices kind of whispering at you from beyond the grave would be so much more compelling than whatever experience I could have of the material.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Visiting the Visual Arts Theater

The School of Visual Arts will officially open its brand new screening facility this spring in the heart of New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. A culmination of a nearly 40-year vision by its director Gene Stavis, the Visual Arts Theater will be a world-class cultural center and laboratory for the visual arts providing a state-of-the-art cinema experience. This afternoon, fellow notetakers A.M. Peters, Liz Nord and I took a little field trip over to the theater where we were very honored and privileged to be escorted by Stavis on a sneak peek tour of the theater, which is currently under renovations. Login to Facebook and check out the pictures from our visit here.

The Visual Arts Theater, formerly Chelsea West Cinemas and several other incarnations before that, is being redesigned and refurbished by the celebrated Milton Glaser and other architects and artists. Unlike any other New York theater, it will feature an exterior 40-foot wall that will be transformed four times a year into a showcase for cultural events, works of art and social causes. Its sheltering marquee will be topped with Glaser’s kinetic sculpture that comes to life every hour on the hour.

The theater will have a stylish and elegant new lobby, perfect for receptions, that leads to two large auditoriums (a 495-seater and a 280-seater) both equipped with high-tech equipment with crystal clear projection in all formats including 70mm, 35mm, 16mm and D-Cinema, all in Dolby surround sound as projected by the world’s best projectionist, James Bond (not 007), who also designed the projection at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. The D-Cinema equipment in both theaters can handle multiple formats of HD content, including 3D digital, live video feeds and multiple inputs from PC or Mac computers, and the entire facility is equipped with WiFi Internet access.

Both theaters have newly-installed lecture stages, perfect for film panel discussions (and a bastion for film panel notetaking), presentations, and Q&As. Modest performances can also be staged using professional theatrical lighting and dimming and full multimedia capabilities.

The three basic uses of the facility will be for:

  • Students, faculty and alumni of SVA
  • A professional presentation facility for original programming
  • A facility available for rental to outside groups

There will be no commercial runs at the theater, but it will be available for premieres, private parties and other events. Its rental package is unique in that it includes everything from the theater’s management, projectionists, technicians, security and maintenance, altogether in one package, where other theaters charge extra for these services.

The Visual Arts Theater already plans to house a number of some of New York’s favorite film festivals including the Gen Art Film Festival and NewFest.

While the theater is still under renovation, some programs, lectures and classes will take place there including a live satellite feed from the TED conference in California this Thursday at 7pm.

Stavis said he expects to have an official opening ceremony on the first sunny day this spring. In this day and age when it’s hard enough to even keep a theater open, Stavis is very fortunate and happy to see his vision come to fruition. New York has something really spectacular to look forward to this spring and beyond.

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