Friday, March 29, 2013

Commentary Tracks - Sexy Beast


Sexy Beast (2000) with producer Jeremy Thomas and star Ben Kingsley

Comments on the Film

On the location and opening scene
Jeremy Thomas This is the villa that Gal lives in, and we had great difficulty finding this villa because we needed a swimming pool next to a rock face – you'll see why we needed that a little bit later – but it was very hard because people don't build swimming pools under rock faces that are about to collapse. But after a lot of searching we found this villa, and that's why we chose to shoot there. This is why we needed the rock face – ouch! In fact, it was quite dangerous because while that rock was made of fibreglass it would still do a lot of damage. We had a large net on the other side of the pool to restrain the rock, which could have bounced off and destroyed the village.

On the themes of the film
Ben Kingsley These are warnings that this group get of some nemesis, some approaching day of reckoning. The rock first, then the exploding barbecue, and later on you'll see a sequence involving guns, which is actually very funny, but which shows them to be in a sense defenceless and idyllic in this paradise they're in. I've done a lot of interviews for Sexy Beast with the press, it's a wonderful film to talk about, and I try to reduce the film to a sort of one-line myth. I came up with: "Once upon a time, there was a man who thought he was very happy, so the Gods sent to him the unhappiest man in the world." That image of the little boy with the gun  in fact every image in this sequence  there is an equal and opposite image later in the film. Even the rabbit turns into some haunting monster in Gal's dreams. The gun that the little boy has later appears in the film. This whole sequence sets up how vulnerable and innocent they are. They're like children.

On Jonathan Glazer and the script
JT Jonathan Glazer was very well-known in London for music videos and television commercials and an assistant of mine had been showing me his work for a number of years, and it was mighty impressive, it was as good as it gets in that area. One day I got a draft of a screenplay written by two playwrights, Louis Mellis and David Scinto, and it was to be directed by Jonathan Glazer. It was presented to me on a Friday and I was told that it was going to a number of producers that day. I read it over the weekend with a group of people who work with me, we all thought it was absolutely fantastic, and on Monday we put in an offer and got hold of the script. That was a very lucky weekend. It's very unusual to get a screenplay that was so unusual to read, and you could immediately see and smell a movie.

On the restaurant scene
JT The cinema is such a strange thing because this scene was shot on the first day of filming, because of some irregularity with the schedule, something to do with the weather or the availability of the restaurant. So the first day we filmed with a director on his first feature, we had to shoot this very complex four-handed scene, with high tension involved. It was very, very impressive the way he started and I have to take my hat off to Jonathan for getting such a tense scene going.

BK I had no idea that was the case. What I see here in front of me on the screen is four people who know each other intimately, know each other's rhythms, can read each other's faces. That's four people who have spent years together, and to think that was the first day. It's amazing.

JT The suntans were very lucky. They became quite intimate in getting those suntans because they had to come to Spain a week earlier to get this deep tan.

On Don's arrival
BK This is great music behind this scene. All I'm doing is walking across an airport lounge, but the audience knows it's like a scud missile going across that lounge. I arrived two weeks after everybody else because of horrible scheduling in America and it was a very anxious time for everybody. If I had been delayed one day more I believe you would have all been in serious trouble, thank God I got away. But also, you know you were talking about them getting to know each other in the sunshine and doing these scenes together, I wasn't there.

JT I think it was very good for the film the way that worked out. Life imitating art.

BK I think you might be right. When I, as the actor playing Don, appear in the film, because of the writing and these four beautiful, flawless performances, all I need to do is get off the plane. I don't need to play nemesis, rage, danger, anger, potential violence – I don't need to play any of this because these chaps have done that for me. All I need to do is get off the plane as Don.

On the vault
BK I think this is one of the greatest impressions of massive wealth I've ever seen on the screen. Massive wealth and guarded wealth.

JT Built in a shed in North London.

BK No, really? I've always thought it was the real thing. That is astonishing.

JT It was raining a lot and we had a lot of difficulty keeping all of that aluminium foil there and stopping the rain from dripping through the roof. Then of course there was somebody behind each of these boxes pushing it out with their hand.

On acting with Ray Winstone
BK This is the first scene that I had with Ray. It was very early on after I arrived and after a couple of rehearsals with Ray, he said to Jonathan and to me that the voice and mannerisms I was using were so accurate they totally reminded him of somebody he knew. He told me who he was, he told me where he lived, he told me what care he drove, he told me who he worked for. He said, "Ben, you are doing this person so accurately." Having huge respect for Ray and his great ear for that particular accent and dialogue, I was just able to relax and accept that this was Don's voice. It was a very generous thing for Ray to do on the first day of shooting.

On Don's character
JT Don's weakness, the only weakness he shows in the piece, is admitting to Gal that he "quite likes" Jackie.

BK Don is a character who openly declares his love twice. He says, "I love you, Gal" and he also says, "I love you, Jackie." It adds a whole dimension to that tortured man.

JT Maybe the only two people he ever really liked, and they didn't want to play with him. They didn't love him, they feared him.

BK He says things that all of us perhaps at one point or another might have thought, but he actually says them. He has no governor, no safety valve on, he's like an animal. When it's time for him to bark he will bark. You and I have both scene this film several times with audiences, and the laughs that this film gets are really quite surprising and gratifying.

JT It's two sort of laughs. There's a tense laugh, a shocked laugh, because a lot of people have told me how frightened they felt throughout the film. It's so close to exploding all the time. Don Logan really could kill him at any moment.


Bits and Pieces

JT It was very good with so many first-time people working on the film. The cameraman, Ivan Bird, this was his first film, it was the designer's first film, and of course it was the first film for the screenwriters and director. It has such a lot of energy and a lack of cynicism about the film that was to be made.

BK I love the way the writers will split a word and put some wonderful expletive in the middle of the word. Fan-dabbydozy-tastic. It's an extraordinary device they use. Each character almost has his own language, his own individual way of expressing his or her own self.

JT Very nice music in this scene by Roque Baños, who is a Spanish composer. Music was split into two sections. One part was done by a Spanish composer who had been working with Carlos Saura a lot, and the other part was done by British musicians and had a much more London flavour to it, a flavour of angst and strength against the lyrical side. I think it worked very well.

BK Given the context of my work prior to Sexy Beast I doubt I even crossed Jonathan's mind – maybe I did, I don't know – but I agreed to meet Jonathan after I read it and loved it. Don Logan jumped off the page at me and said "You are next." I met Jonathan, we clicked immediately, and within seconds of meeting we were discussing character, we were discussing Don and the film.

JT In this scene Ben was asked to pee about six times in a row like that. It wasn't that he had incredible bladder power, he had a sort of bulb and a syringe, and there was a lot of discussion about the colour of the pee and how it would react with the film stock. Getting the right colour was quite difficult. There are such silly little points that the prop department have to do on a movie.

Final Thoughts

BK Wonderful. I've seen that film five or six times. I am now beginning to really appreciate it on a purely technical level of composition, focus, choice of music, rhythm. It's really something.

JT It's hard to explain what happens when there is an alchemy on a film. This one was a difficult film for all of us to make, but out of that difficulty this joyous 85 or 90-minute film was given birth to. I am certainly absolutely thrilled with the movie and I hope that everybody who gets to this place in the commentary will have had a great time. We'll leave you with Dean Martin's Sway.

BK Dino. Again, the perfect choice.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

"In many ways, all of my films are like one big film" - An interview with Anand Patwardhan


For decades, the films of Anand Patwardhan have explored the numerous issues that exist at the heart of Indian society. This fiercely independent documentarian has examined religious violence, masculinity, oppression and the nuclear threat with his wide-ranging and illuminating films, and he has often come into conflict with the country's government as a result. His most recent film is Jai Bhim Comrade, a documentary that Patwardhan worked on for 14 years, having been inspired to pick up his camera following the massacre of 10 Dalit protestors and the related suicide of his friend, the poet and singer Vilas Ghogre, in 1997. This engrossing film explores the complexities of India's caste system and the discrimination of the Dalit community (described as "untouchables") with extraordinary perception and compassion. Having discovered Anand Patwardhan's remarkable body of work during the BFI's recent retrospective, I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview him when he attended the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London.

You started working on Jai Bhim Comrade after the suicide of Vilas Ghogre. Had you been considering a film on the subject of caste discrimination before that happened, or was Ghogre's death the catalyst that started it for you?

In many of my previous films there is mention of the caste system, so I was aware of the oppression of the Dalit community, and you can seen that in some of my earlier works, but I didn't know it in depth or very closely until I started making this film. It was Vilas's suicide that forced me to take a much closer look.

All of your films take many years to make...

This one took many, many years! [laughs]

Were you at all prepared for that kind of commitment?

No, that surprised me. Basically, I got into the story because of Vilas's death and started following a number of strands. The main strand I was following was the court cases of the policemen who had fired on the people, and these were interminable. Finally there was some closure in 2009 when a police officer got sentenced to life imprisonment, so I thought that would be the end of the film, and that was already 12 years. But I continued for another two years because he never went to jail and I was waiting for something else to happen, and then the young group that I started filming, Kabir Kala Manch, they had been forced underground by the police and branded as Maoists. That was so dangerous I decided I had to stop making the film and start showing it.

I guess it's the kind of situation where you could carry on filming forever because the story never ends.

Yes, the story continues so you have to arbitrarily decide, "This is where we end."

Do you edit the footage as you shoot it and construct the film as it happens?

Yes, because neither this or most of my films have been pre-researched. It's not that I decide to make a film, I just fall into it, and once I get into making a film I want to learn more and more about what the issues are. So I film a lot, following my instincts, and then I watch it because it's all on video and you can see it right away. I watch it repeatedly. That's how I boil it down to the parts that seem important, and it's through that process that I start to find the structure of the film.

So making these films is a means of educating yourself about the issues too.

I'm definitely educating myself. For instance, even though I admired Dr Ambedkar I hadn't read his works. I had read a little bit, but not much. It's only afterwards that I learned how great his scholarship was and his writing was.

As you explore these subjects, do you find that your own ideas and preconceptions are challenged by what you discover?

Absolutely. On this film, as the film goes along you see the betrayals by the Dalit leadership, you see the left movement falling on its face, how they understood caste and how they reacted to it. All of these things were hard for me to digest, but I had to digest it in order to understand what happened.

I was taken aback by how open the discrimination is against the Dalit community. There's a scene where you speak to more upper-class Indians and they talk about how bad the Dalits smell, and how they pollute any environment they're in.

You do see that in the film but normally people are much cleverer and they wouldn't say it. They would feel, they would think it, or they would say it in different ways. For instance, the person who thinks that the problem doesn't exist anymore is much more typical than the reaction of people saying they are dirty. The more typical reaction is to be in denial and to pretend that the caste system doesn't exist anymore.

One of the most important aspects of the movie is the music. It seems that music and poetry are the key ways for people of this community to express ideas and messages.

Songs, poetry and literature are all important to the people of the Dalit community. They have gone through different phases, and at one stage they mainly wrote autobiographies of who they were, what happened to them, the discrimination they faced through life. Then they moved onto other types of writing, but music is good for the people who don't write because they can sing.

You mentioned that the caste system has been referenced in your other films. How do you feel it has impacted upon those stories?

For instance, I made a film called In the Name of God, which was about the demolition of the Babri Mosque and was basically about the Hindu-Muslim conflict, but even there I kept asking people what their caste was. I saw and I wanted people to understand that people of lower caste didn't have a stake in the rise of fundamentalism. They said, "We're not even allowed in the temple, so why should we fight for it?" There is also a rational tradition in the community that I could see in those days – I'm talking about 1990, so many years before this film – and in Bombay, Our City I spoke to Dalit people living in the slums. In many ways, all of my films are like one big film, it's just that they are made at different periods in history and are pointing at different issues or looking through different prisms. The idea is that the Dalit movement is one of the strongest secular forces in our country because it is a force that will not ally with fundamentalists, it will not be anti other minorities, it is not part of their history or thinking, but what you see in Jai Bhim Comrade is an opportunistic sell-out by the leadership. In Jai Bhim Comrade that is a major theme because you see what has been done to the Muslims, you see references to the 92-93 riots, and the Shiv Sena-BJP, which is anti-Dalit, is also anti-Muslim. So that is another running theme in the film, the fight for secular values.

When you make these films about the problems facing Indian society, you are making films about problems that are deeply embedded in the culture. For instance, you're talking about a caste system that goes back for thousands of years.

Yeah, 2,000 years.

In that light, how optimistic are you about the possibility of positive change?

I think change is happening even as we critique it and point out the horrors. Change is happening, there's no denying that. Even the atrocities against the Dalits can be attributed to the fact that they are more powerful than they were and they are speaking out, and so the upper castes are reacting to that.

Another film of yours that I found to be very powerful is War and Peace, and again it's a film about a problem that doesn't seem to be going away. In fact, ten years after you made it, the issue of nuclear arms is even more prevalent.

I keep saying that I wish my films would get outdated! [laughs] It would mean that we had progressed. But yes, the films do stay relevant – 10, 20 or 30 years later – they are still talking about things as if they are happening right now.

One of the most striking scenes in War and Peace is when you visit Pakistan, and the people you meet are so welcoming and they invite you to eat with them. It reinforces the point that while there may be tensions between India and Pakistan, it has nothing to do with the people.

It has nothing to do with the people. The people on both sides have been kept apart and there is so much curiosity. You can see it even when there are cricket matches between India and Pakistan, test matches, and sometimes they are allowed to visit to watch the match, except of course that there are no now test matches in Pakistan because of the situation there. But you will often see Pakistanis cheering for India if they are playing somebody else.

They feel a kind of affinity with each other.

Ordinary people do, yes. But wherever there is an attempt to make peace there are some elements who want to upset that, so they will do a terror attack on either side of the border to make sure that peace process is derailed.

You have been making films for over 30 years now.

Actually, 40.

40 years, sorry. In that time, how has the process changed for you? Have you found it easier to make and distribute your films, or do you still face the same obstacles?

Some things have changed for me personally in the sense that I used to have a harder time fighting the censor board. This last film got through the censor board without any cuts. I mean, none of the films got cut eventually, because I fought it out in court and things like that, but on this one they didn't even ask for a cut. That is partly because we have already won so many cases against the government and it's partly because the Dalit voice is too big to deny. How can they say no to this voice?

Are there other Indian filmmakers of a younger generation who are similarly driven by their social conscience and are following the path you have set?

It's not the path I have set but I think because India is a country beset with so many issues, injustices and inequalities, there is ripe ground for anyone who wants to make films that are not escapist. In fiction and documentaries there are people who are addressing issues. Not everyone wants to get into confrontation mode with the state, but there are plenty of good films being made.

Your own style and pacing is very distinctive. Are you entirely self-taught?

I am entirely self-taught but I think the reason that they are distinctive today is just because they are so traditional. [laughs] Everybody is busy trying to break the form and be artistic. If you go to film festivals you will see this emphasis. In my view, everybody is trying to show how clever they are rather than actually following their instincts in terms of how the story should be told and understood. There is so much experimentation with form, I think the content suffers.

One thing I noticed in your films is the way you frequently let the camera settle on a person's face for a few moments after they have finished speaking. It's a simple method but those few moments often speak volumes.

Yeah, because the problem in my films is that there is very little breathing space. I have shot such a lot of material and I want to say so many things. After you've seen something very important and dramatic you need to move on to another thing and you can become distracted. Those moments when people are silent give me a bit of breathing space and seeing the expression on their faces tells you something about what they are thinking, or it gives you time to think.

Finally, have you made any plans for your next film yet? Is there another subject you want to explore, or are you simply staying with this picture for a while yet?

I'm still working with this film. I spent 14 years making it and I will spend at least a couple of years showing it. I have spent one year doing that and I will spend at least one more before I think about my next film.

I read a quote from you where you said "As a non-serious person, I would like to have made more playful films." After spending 14 years on one film, perhaps now is the time.

[laughs] I don't remember the actual quote, but I think it was that I'm a non-serious person forced by circumstance to do serious cinema. I would like my films to be happier than they are, and I do try even in these films to have light moments. With humour you can cut through many defences.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Human Rights Watch Film Festival - The Patience Stone


Atiq Rahimi's The Patience Stone has been adapted from the director's own award-winning novel, but perhaps Rahimi would have been better advised to bring his story to life on the stage. The drama is confined to a couple of interior locations, peopled by a handful of characters, and much of the dialogue is spoken in long, unbroken monologues. Given the premise of the story, the static nature of The Patience Stone is perhaps to be expected, but it does prove to be a stumbling block that the film can't entirely negotiate. A story of this nature may flows beautifully on the page, or benefit from the intimacy of a theatre, but on screen it would require an enormous amount of subtlety and skill to let such a tale. The Patience Stone occasionally falters at these hurdles, but in between those missteps there are moments of real emotional force.

The allegorical nature of The Patience Stone is evident from the lack of clear information we are given about the characters and their situation. The lead character isn't given a name, and she is credited only as The Woman. Played by Golshifteh Farahani, she is living in an unnamed village that apparently exists on the frontlines of some conflict, with her husband (Hamid Djavadan) and two young children. Her husband, however, is barely there. Having been wounded in battle, he lies immobile and uncommunicative in their home, with eyes open but for all appearances dead to the world. Her relatives have fled, and she has to tend to her husband, raise their children, and endure the frequent bombings and raids alone.

Of course, in some respects, the woman has always been alone. The Patience Stone makes it clear that she has rarely been treated with any kind of affection by her husband in the ten years that they have been together. When she married him at the age of 17, he wasn't even present at the wedding, and a flashback shows her disconsolately sitting next to a photograph of her husband and his dagger resting on a chair, while he was away fighting some war. Now, with him unable to respond, the power dynamic in their relationship has suddenly shifted, and she begins to talk to her husband in a way that she has never been able to before. Her aunt (Hassina Burgan, whose wry presence is very welcome), who works in the city as a prostitute, tells her a tale from folklore, about a small rock called a patience stone. If you tell all of your troubles to this rock, it will absorb everything you say and then shatter, delivering you of the troubles that are causing such anguish. For this woman, her husband is now a patience stone.

With a film that is essentially one long monologue, Rahimi has to work hard to prevent monotony from setting in. He uses the camera elegantly and finds effective compositions around Farahani and Djavadan, which is no mean feat, given that one of them is comatose throughout. Legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière has helped Rahimi bring his story to the screen, and perhaps he is responsible for the occasional flashback scenes, which dramatise the events Farahani is recounting and help to open up a film that sometimes feels repetitive (long monologues followed by shots of the woman walking to-and-fro across the village). Further dramatic turns are provided by the male characters who come into her home; an older soldier (Hatim Seddiki) who chastises her for living an impure life, and a younger recruit who fall in love with her. The young man has a debilitating stutter ("He should fuck with his tongue and talk with his cock," the woman's aunt suggests) but his timidity allows her to control their relationship, and draw from him a tenderness that is vanishingly rare from the men in her life.

One reason why The Patience Stone works as well as it does is the central performance from Golshifteh Farahani. The film is essentially a one-woman show, with Farahani being asked to carry every scene, but the actress responds with a riveting display that matches the exceptional work we saw from her in Asghar Farhadi's About Elly. What's most impressive about the performance is the way she gradually exposes her character's inner self, as she reveals more secrets to her husband and discovers a voice that has remained hidden for years. The Patience Stone never entirely frees itself from the confines of its premise, but this exploration of a woman's role in Afghan society is a bold and engrossing fable, and one that's blessed with a number of transcendent moments thanks to Farahani's powerfully moving work.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Bob loves chaos, he revels in that kind of stuff and he loves to be surprised by something he doesn't expect." - An interview with Michael Murphy

There were many actors with whom Robert Altman worked with on multiple occasions, but no actor collaborated with the director as often as Michael Murphy. At the very start of his career, Murphy appeared in the Combat! TV series directed by Altman before going on to become a key player in some of his greatest films – M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Nashville – and then playing the beleaguered presidential candidate in Altman's extraordinary HBO series Tanner '88. I recently had the pleasure of talking to Murphy about his long relationship with Robert Altman, and some of the other directors he has worked with during his career.


I was prompted to contact you after re-watching Tanner '88 recently to write an article marking its 25th anniversary.

Boy, the time goes fast! [laughs] 25th anniversary, huh?

The thing that really struck me about it was how modern it feels. Looking at the commentary on the political machine, the media and the spin, it could have been a show made about politics today.

Yes, very much so. He was very prescient with that whole thing. As we went out there it just evolved and that was perfect for Bob, because he was the kind of guy who just loved to let it happen. All of that press business and television was really beginning to become more and more important, and as we went along we got more into that. These days you can't even turn your TV on without getting a blast of it, I mean over here this last election was going on for three years and they're already talking about the next one! You have all those cable channels and talking heads, they all have their own ideas and most of them are wrong. One of the most interesting things I found about this last election was when Romney was beaten soundly, he was just astonished that he lost! He was so sure that he was going to win and he said it publicly, that he couldn't believe he lost.

The fun thing about Tanner is that it comes after seeing you play so many slick, untrustworthy politicians in films.

Sure, Nashville, that kind of thing.

But Tanner is a good guy. He's an idealist who just has to play a cynical game.

Yeah, he really was a good guy. It's interesting, the way it evolved. We started him out to be a good guy and an idealist, and his daughter was more cynical then he was, if you think about it, Cynthia Nixon was just out of college when she played that part. As we went along we picked up a lot of very interesting actors in Washington and New York and a lot of them played very tough writers and press people. The further along the series went the more this guy just went from pillar to post and I just sort of went with it, and Bob loves it when things change and he's surprised by what's happening. We never had a hard and fast bible we had to go by, we kept ourselves on the move, and I think this guy just got whipped until he didn't know where he was.

One of the things I love about Tanner '88, and this is true of many Altman films too, is that it often feels like it is on the very edge of chaos, and you have no idea where this thing is going to go next. What was it like to be working in the middle of that? Did you guys feel in control of the story?

Well, we were out on the road with the regular candidates, as you saw, and we never got busted by anybody. I would stand outside factories and say, "I'm Jack Tanner, I'm running for President" and they'd say "Good luck," you know, and I'd be standing there next to Bush! [laughs] He just figured I was one of the guys, I couldn't believe it. So it just took on a life of its own and of course Bob loves chaos, he revels in that kind of stuff and he loves to be surprised by something he doesn't expect. We were shooting all that stuff on video, which was before they were using video on everything, so we could have cameras everywhere. For instance, I would have my entourage and we had our cameramen there, but then we also had actors playing press guys who were shooting stuff, and sometimes the networks would shoot stuff they couldn't use so they'd send it to us. All kinds of things went on. Bob loved it, and he has said publicly, as I'm sure you've read, that he considers it his most creative work. I just wish he had been around for this last election, he would have loved it! [laughs]

I want to go back to when you first started working with him. You appeared in the TV series Combat! and I believe that was your first credit.

Yeah, it was. I had done one other little bit in this thing called Saints and Sinners with Nick Adams, and I think it was about the press or something, I can't remember exactly. I played "FBI Man No. 1" or something and I just looked around the room, but that got me into the union. When Bob put me in Combat!, that was my first real job, where I actually got to play some scenes and say some lines.

What was your first impression of him? Was his directorial style established at that stage, or was it something that developed later?

I remember going on set and asking Vic Morrow, "Do you want to rehearse this?" and he said "Oh, he's never going to shoot this stuff, don't worry about it, we'll be winging this." – What? I was just out of college, I thought you were supposed to learn your lines! [laughs] I remember we sat down for lunch out on the back lot at MGM and he said to me, "What would you say in this scene?" and I said, "What would I say?" He was just so easy and fun and relaxed, there was never any tension on his set. I remember going home and thinking, "This is too easy, it's just guys talking to each other," and there was none of the tension I learned at theatre and drama school. Of course, the more I learned that method the more difficult it became for me to work with these "normal" guys who want you to hit your marks and say your lines letter-perfect. In the movies it's all about those split-second things, it's got to be real, and that's what Bob was so good at. He was more interested in capturing human behaviour than he was in getting the lines.

I guess those qualities that made him so beloved by actors were the same ones that caused so much trouble for him with producers. You never knew what you were going to get with him and you couldn't control the outcome.

That's exactly right, you never knew what you were going to get. Tanner was a very good collaboration, because Gary Trudeau, who controls everything 100% on his comic strips, was a huge fan of Bob, and they had come to him first. He liked the idea but he didn't really want to do it, so he said, "If you can get Bob Altman to do it then I'll do it," figuring he would never do it. Bob said yes, and they were off. This thing changed daily, depending on who we would run into on the road, so Gary was faxing us lines of dialogue and scenes that we could do, and we'd do what we could with them but sometimes we'd be on a different set, or something had happened that had changed everything. Gary liked it and they had a really good collaboration, but you're exactly right, he made producers a little crazy. However, it was right on the cusp of that era when the directors had all the power, so most of those guys backed off, but he did get fired many times. He always had money problems and all this stuff and I thought "Well, he'll do a picture the way they want it and get his car back from the impound," but he never did! When he had his back against the wall he was just as much a maverick as he was when he was successful.

There's an anecdote I like from the first screening of M*A*S*H for the studio, when one of the executives apparently stood up halfway through and said, "What's he doing? This fool has got everybody talking at the same time!"

You know, the first time I witnessed that happening was actually on a movie before M*A*S*H called Countdown.

That was one he got fired from, right?

Yeah. It was very interesting, because in those days assistant directors were studio guys who were told to keep the thing running but also keep an eye on everybody, so if there was anything weird go on they had to go right to the studio and let them know what's happening on set. It was just a kind of mundane script about astronauts and Bob was interested in other stuff, for example the wives who lived on these military bases and were drinking all day, or the immaturity of these young guys racing around in their Corvettes, which of course was not the picture Jack Warner was interested in making. Of course, we were all talking all the time and overlapping each other, and we were using those little mics instead of the booms for most of the stuff. This guy apparently went back to Jack Warner and said, "They're having a lot of fun, there's a lot of laughing and carrying on, and they're all talking at the same time, it's crazy." I was sitting in a chair one day waiting to do something, I looked up, and there was Jack Warner on the set. None of the old guys at Warners had ever seen the guy, and there he was on Altman's set, poking around. He was sort of jovial about it, but when he saw the picture, not only did he think it was insane because they were all talking at the same time, he thought it was a Communist plot! [laughs]

It was a race to the moon, the Russians had gotten there but we weren't prepared and we were behind the Sputnik thing, this was the storyline. So we were able to shoot a rocket up there with a little shelter on it, and Jimmy Caan was going up there in the shelter so we could say we were on the moon, and then we'd work up a way to go up and get him, but time was of the essence. They shoot Jimmy up there and he lands on the moon and finds these two dead Russians, and they've got a Russian flag and he spreads it out, and then he puts the American flag alongside it. Then the camera pulls back – we're out in the desert – and you see the shelter off to the left and Jimmy walking in the wrong direction, so you know he's doomed. Bob's point was that the whole thing was so fruitless and crazy, you know. Well, Warner just went nuts. [laughs] They threw him off and we had to reshoot the ending so there was a happy ending, you know, Jimmy found the shelter and the music swelled, it was all very American and heroic. I think he even replaced the American Flag above the Russian flag, as I recall. It was nutty.

I read a quote from Altman on his firing from Countdown. He said, "Being fired from Countdown was great for me, because each time something like that happens, you get a battle scar and you know how to protect yourself in that situation again." That seems to be one of his defining characteristics, that he never let any setback get him down for long.

I've never seen a man pick himself up off the floor like Bob, ever. He had an iron will in that department. It was certainly part of his personality, he was just that guy, but a lot of these guys had all fought in World War II, and he had flown 50 missions in the South Pacific before he ever made a movie. That was such a huge thing in their lives, I mean, what the hell is a studio going to do to you after you've had that experience? Although he was only in his 30s when I met him he seemed like a real man, and I looked up to him that way. He was a big guy and he didn't suffer fools gladly in terms of the guys in the office, but on the other hand I never ever saw a moment of tension on one of his sets, I never saw him berate an actor, he never fired an actor, that never happened. He really had great respect for actors because he couldn't do it, he'd say to us, "How do you do all that stuff?" but he was always very encouraging and he had all his fights with the office.

When they saw M*A*S*H they said, "What the hell is going on? All that blood, people are swearing." But he had it in his contract that he could show the director's cut once, so we took it up to San Francisco where it was a Saturday night and they were showing Butch Cassidy, I think it was, so it was a young crowd and when they showed the picture people were just pounding on the floor. Vietnam was going full blast and everybody got that, and it was just the right city at the right time. So now all these guys from the office who weren't going to release the picture are congratulating each other in the lobby on what geniuses they are. That night turned it all around, and Bob's quote on the picture was "That film wasn't released, it escaped." [laughs]

It was part of that first wave of films that showed the studios were out of touch with the public and it was the filmmakers who had their fingers on the pulse.

He was certainly the vanguard of that whole movement. Easy Rider came along when all of those old guys were making Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies, and they didn't know what to do. For a while there it was a very interesting and creative time to be working, until they grabbed it back with great gusto.

Altman's McCabe & Mrs Miller is even more daring in many ways, as he pushed his ideas about visuals and sound as far as they would go. It's my favourite of all of his films. It's such a beautiful and sad picture.

Yeah, I loved it. That was another one that was troubled. What happened on that picture was that we shot it in Canada and he had a lab up there. Usually in London or LA you'd hook up all the films together and just run them through the baths together, but he had a lab up there all to himself, it was the only picture being made at the time, and it allowed him to experiment with it. They took that film and put it through a process call "flashing," which means they partially exposed it, and this is the risk-taker of all risk-takers. It came out of that with this dark, grainy, old-fashioned look and then you had the sound on top of that. But he got hammered by the critics and the picture wasn't much of a hit because it was so dark and people thought it was unintelligible, and half of that was because it was in theatres that had these little sound boxes and it didn't sound as good as it did in the studio, where we had control of it. It has caught on now and it's kind of a classic, but there's a famous thing about Warren Beatty not even being very happy with it.

But he's so great in the movie. I love that scene where you come in to town to try and negotiate a deal and he's drunk and acting like a jackass.

These two lamebrains – me and the old guy – we come to town and it's so innocuous, right? He wants to go home because he doesn't like the food and the other guy doesn't want to be there, so they leave town and send the killers in. If we had stayed and really tried to buy it, McCabe would have lived, but he was being a jackass and we weren't in the mood for it. I remember saying to Bob, "What do you think of this character?" – and this is the way he directs – he said, "Oh, he's somebody's nephew." That was all you needed to know, you know?

He nailed the character in a few words.

Yeah, and he was always like that. We worked so well together and had such a shorthand going on, it was great. We understood one another so well.

But while you grew up as an actor alongside Altman, it must have been a strange experience for more established movie stars who were used to conventional shoots to come in and adapt to Altman's methods.

Most of those guys, Warren included, are very controlling, and I understand why because they've got careers to worry about, they're nervous about that stuff. Warren was very hands-on with Bonnie & Clyde and the stories about him are legend, he wasn't a guy who just went out for a role, he took charge of everything, almost from the beginning of his career. So there was a little bit of friction there because he was too worried for Bob, and Bob knew what he was doing, but it turned out to be something for him to be proud of. I like his work in the film very much.

A few years later you worked with Altman on another one of the great films of that era with Nashville. What was it like to be part of something as vast as that film, which had so many different characters and storylines going on simultaneously?

Thinking back on it – I'm just thinking of this as I say it – first he takes M*A*S*H, and he fills it with all those guys from Second City who were good at ad-libbing instead of just having extras walking around the camp. They make up all those scenes and all this crazy stuff is going on, and you know the story about Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland trying to get Bob off the picture, because it's the same thing, they have careers to protect, they're supposed to be the stars, and they felt it was getting away. Then he goes on and he make McCabe, and it's the same thing again, he fills this town with all these interesting people and it becomes a conglomeration of talent, and then Nashville was the big one, with all those characters. I remember we all went down to his house one day to have what he called a "rehearsal" – which meant we all sat around and talked about it – and he said, "I've put all of my money in film stock so you can do whatever you want. You can take these characters as far as you can take them because you know them better than I do, but if you bore me I'll just cut to somebody else." I remember shooting a scene with Geraldine Chaplin where we just talked until the mag ran out, yak yak yak, and he used about 10 seconds of it, he had so much wonderful footage. Joan Tewkesbury wrote it, and it was a cohesive script, but there was so much stuff that just happened instantaneously. It was pretty remarkable.

I'll give you a great example. At the end where they shoot the girl at the Parthenon, we were sitting around waiting to get the band up there and I was just supposed to go and stand on the stage. I saw him walking over to me while I'm drinking a cup of coffee and he's got Alan Garfield in tow, and he says, "Now you two guys go up on stage and have a fight," and then he tells Garfield, "and let Murphy win it." You know that scene where I finally turn around on him after he's been bossing me around the whole picture? I finally turned on this guy and I watched the colour drain out of his face. I thought, "This guy's going to have a stroke," and my voice went up an octave – next time you see it you'll get a kick out of this – and you hear me say, "Ok, B-B-B-B-Buster, I've had enough out of you!" [laughs] Of course, Bob loved that because it was so nakedly vulnerable and it wound up in the movie.

It's the kind of moment you just can't make up.

No, it was purely a reaction to watching this guy and thinking he's going to fall down. It was the strangest thing. But that was a good example of what he loved to do, it was all about human behaviour.

Having worked with so many directors in your career, is there anyone whose approach to filmmaking is comparable to Altman, or was he a total one-off in that regard?

He is a one-off in that regard. I mean, there were guys I loved working with. I loved working with Woody, who's a close friend. We worked together on Marty Ritt's movie The Front, so we met as actors, and I loved making Manhattan with him, he was so much fun. Nowadays they say he is more strict, but in those days it was like going out to dinner with a friend, you look at those scenes we had and we're really spinning on his dialogue. The more I talk about it the more I think that maybe he and Bob were kind of alike, you know, Woody had a little more structure but he wanted everybody to loose, and neither of those guys would ever come up to you and tell you how to play a scene. Even when I was a kid Bob never did that, it was nothing but encouragement.

A number of years later you were cast in Magnolia. That was a film that was often compared to Altman's work and Paul Thomas Anderson himself has talked about how much of an inspiration Altman was to him.

Oh yeah, he was very up front about all of that. He always said Bob was his favourite and that he grew up on his movies, and he laughingly said, "You know, I'm just ripping him off here!" [laughs]

He was Altman's backup director on A Prairie Home Companion too.

He sure was, and I've seen the photos of the two of them sitting side-by-side looking at the video screen while a scene is being played, and the two of them are riveted. I talked to him about it and he said it was just great, he said he had a wonderful time and he learned so much, just sitting there with his favourite guy. When I did Magnolia, that was a little ode to Bob. He wrote me this letter and said he'd like me to do this part, and I knew with Henry [Gibson] also being in it that he was saying something about Bob.

And your scene is with Julianne Moore, who worked a couple of times with Altman herself.

There are great stories about them two. Do you want me to go off on these tangents?

Please go ahead.

He called her up one night when she was just starting out in her career. The phone rings – this is how Bob always did it – and he says, "This is Bob Altman and I want you to be in my next picture." She thought it was a joke, but when she realised it was Altman she said yes, of course, but he said, "I want you to read the script first because there's frontal nudity and it's non-negotiable." She read the script and called him back and said she'd do it, and then she said, "And I have a surprise for you, I'm a real redhead." Bob thinks that's such a cute story he starts talking about it in the press, and she sees these lines saying "I'm a real redhead," and she was trying to be taken seriously as an actor, so she called him up and said, "Bob, don't talk like that in these interviews. I want to be a serious actress and it's embarrassing." So he said fine, he wouldn't talk about it anymore. A few weeks later they're having dinner – Julianne and her husband, Bob and Kathryn, and a couple of other people – and Kathryn, Bob's wife, starts telling that story, but Bob cut her off and said, "Kathryn, stop. We're not supposed to talk about Julianne's pussy." [laughs] At his memorial service at the Golden Theatre in New York City she got up and told that story. When she came out with that last line, it brought the house down.

When I worked with her, it was real interesting because it was the first scene if the first day on the picture. We were doing that scene across the desk from one another and they shot my stuff first, because they had to get the rain through the window, they wanted to get that out of the way. So I'm sitting across the table and she starts that monologue, and I got so mesmerised by her I went off a couple of times. I forgot that I had to shout, "Linda!" [laughs] I was just sucked in, it was the damndest thing, you could feel the heat coming across that table, she was extraordinary. Then they turned the camera around and I thought, "Well, she can't do it any better than she has done it already," but boy she ratcheted that thing up a few notches, and I did it again! I forgot to throw my "Linda!" in there. I was so sucked into what she was doing, it was one of the best moments I've had working with another actor. You know, they say acting is listening and boy was I listening! [laughs] Since then, I've gotten quite a few parts based on that scene, but it's all her work, I'm just sitting there looking at her. Everyone seems to remember that scene.

You worked with Robert Altman so many times, but I wonder if there were any particular films of his that you would have loved to have worked on, or if you have a personal favourite of the Altman films that you didn't appear in.

God, I like so many of them for different reasons. Let me preface that by saying, the feeling you get when you're not in one of his movies is never, "Oh gosh, I didn't get a part," it's always, "I'm missing out on a hell of a good time." [laughs] That was always my big regret. I liked his Philip Marlowe thing with Elliott [Gould] an awful lot.

The Long Goodbye. That is a great film.

And talk about a picture that was off the mark. It's hard to figure, if they had put Jack Nicholson in that role would it have been as big a picture as Chinatown? I don't know. I loved the idea of a Jewish Philip Marlowe with a cat.

I guess if you did make a safer choice and cast a big star it wouldn't have been the same movie. The whole personality of the picture would change.

That's true. Casting was always so interesting with him. I never forget when we were doing McCabe, Warren was going to do it and then for some reason he wasn't going to do it, then he was, then he wasn't. I remember listening to him having a conversation one night, and he was saying, "Well, we'll make him an older guy and get George Scott, or we'll make him a Jewish merchant and get Elliott in." I mention that because it shows how eclectic his mind was, he could think of a picture going in so many different directions and it would be fine. I can see Elliott being a guy way out of his depth in the west, trying to keep a bar running, or something. It would have been a very different thing but it would have been great. That was how he operated. Trying to think of other films I loved, I would always see them and think there were so many wonderful things in all of them, whether you liked the picture or not. California Split was another great one, where he really got that LA gambling scene down, that was really good.

It's true what you say, every Robert Altman film had something special going on in it. They couldn't have been made by anyone else.

That's for sure. I was thinking back on his television days, even. If you look back on his early Combat! episodes, he didn't really have time to mess about there but if you looks back on his work he did some really wonderful stuff on that show. He was doing sort of French new wave filmmaking when he was shooting those episodes, he picked up on that and applied it to the series, so he was always out on the vanguard of that stuff. The other thing was that he was always captivated by, from the very beginning, was sound. Even when we shot with the boom – and you can't do anything with it because it's one track – he was still having everyone overlap, everyone was talking at once with one microphone. When he started using those clip-on mics and they figured out how to put everyone on their own track, that was about the time of The Long Goodbye, so he could fiddle with that all the time. He loved playing around with that.

Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to share your memories of Robert Altman with me this evening.

You know, I think back on it and I just had the time of my life. I've had a really blessed career because I was there at the right time and got to do so much with him and other guys I liked and respected. It was a wonderful time to be hanging around out there.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review - The Incredible Burt Wonderstone


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a film about magic that contains precious little magic in itself. Few things are more disappointing than a film that blows a potentially rich premise through half-baked execution, but this is just another studio comedy that's happy to settle for obvious gags and a join-the-dots narrative, possibly hoping that our affection for the movie stars on display with allow us to overlook the laziness of the whole exercise. The ruse almost works – the stars certainly do work exceedingly hard to conjure some laughs – but the sense of disappointment that hit me as I watched the story go through the motions was an all-too-familiar feeling.

The frustration with this misfire goes deeper because you can see glimmers of the film it could have been everywhere, particularly during the opening 20 minutes, in which the characters are neatly set up. Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and his sidekick Anton Marvelmen (Steve Buscemi) have been together since the two bullied outcasts bonded as children over their shared passion for magic. For the past decade, they have been putting on a regular Vegas show that has made them rich and famous, but jaded too. The film's depiction of the two conjurers performing the same old tired routine is funny and sharp, with the pair unenthusiastically following the rote steps that they can recite in their sleep before sniping at each other between acts, while Burt's attention only seems engaged by the possibility of taking a female volunteer from the audience and into his enormous bed.

The ridiculous Wonderstone, so arrogant but so oblivious to the reality of what's happening around him, is the kind of egotist that Will Ferrell has portrayed in a number of films, and Carell is good at expressing the character's unshakeable self-confidence, which is ripe for puncturing. Wonderstone's fall from grace inspires some amusing scenes – the "Hot Box" stunt that severs his partnership with Anton is predictable but funny, and his attempt to perform that double-act alone is a standout comedy scene – but all of these gags are jettisoned when the film decides it's time for Burt to learn the error of his ways. After losing his lucrative Vegas gig and being forced to go out into the world to earn a living, Burt gradually undergoes a redemptive transformation through the most hackneyed of means.

First, he takes a job as an entertainer at an old folks' home, where he happens to meet his childhood hero Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), the old-school magician whose magic set first set Burt on his path. He also has the support of a good woman, with Olivia Wilde's Jane – an aspiring magician herself – helping him get back on track (although given how inexplicably shoehorned-in the kissing scene between Burt and Jane is, I suspect her real function is to reassure viewers that Carell's pompadoured, makeup-wearing character isn't gay). Finally, there's the inevitable big showdown, in which Burt and Anton must compete for the much-coveted regular show being offered by hotelier Doug Munny (James Gandolfini).

All of this plays out exactly as you'd expect and every plot or comic beat drops into place where required, without any risk of disrupting the sleepy forward momentum of the storytelling. The actors are all given no more than one or two notes to play (this is a colossal waste of Buscemi), and nobody seems particularly interested in kicking things up a gear or freshening up this lame material – well, almost nobody. The saving grace of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is Jim Carrey, who energises the picture every time he appears by fully embracing the weirdness of his character Steve Gray – a masochistic street magician who calls himself a "Brain Rapist" – and by bringing an edge of danger to his scenes. Carrey's best performances of the '90s had a manic, unhinged quality that gave the laughs he produced an unsettling undertone, and Steve Gray is an ideal role for him. When Burt and Anton start losing their audience to Gray's extreme stunts, we can hardly be surprised, as his persona is so much more charismatic, daring and fascinating than anything the leads can cook up.

If only The Incredible Burt Wonderstone could have tapped into Carrey's performance and spread such inspiration across the rest of the picture. If only they had hired a director who could really make the gags pop, instead of Don Scardino, a director whose long career in TV is betrayed by his mundane shot selection and slack pacing. With this cast and premise, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone could have been a very funny comedy instead of a film that raises a few chuckles before dissipating from the audience's memory the second the end credits start to roll. It is a film that settles for mediocrity, and the idea of making an audience disappear – the trick Burt and Anton have always dreamed of pulling off – is one of the few aspects of the picture that really resonates.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival begins this week in London, with a number of screenings and events taking place across the capital. The programme contains a diverse collection of films that aim to investigate human rights abuses around the world and bring these situations to a wider audience. Here is my take on four of the highlights from this year's festival.

Jai Bhim Comrade


Jai Bhim Comrade begins in 1997 with the killing of 10 unarmed members of the Dalit community, who were protesting the desecration of a statue of Dr Ambedkar, an inspirational figure for these people. A few days after this massacre, the poet and singer Vilas Ghogre visited the scene of the crime and he was so shaken by the events he committed suicide. This is where Anand Patwardhan – who used Ghogre's music in one of his earlier films – started filming, and over the next 14 years he continued to amass footage, which he has now edited into an engrossing and illuminating three-hour examination of caste discrimination in India. The Dalit people are regarded by many people in India as "untouchables"; they are fit only for the most degrading manual labour and are treated with disdain as they walk the streets cleaning up after those from more respectable communities. In Jai Bhim Comrade, Patwardhan explores the complex history of the country's societal distinctions and exposes the oppression that they face every day, while also telling the story of Vilas Ghogre and keeping tabs on the criminal trial of the officers who opened fire on the Dailts.

That Patwardhan can keep tracks of these various strands of his sprawling subject without ever letting the film feel baggy or unfocused is testament to his intelligent filmmaking. He has a patient, inquisitive approach that allows him ample time to investigate every aspect of the topic in eye-opening detail. He gives voice to a wide spectrum of people during the course of the film, whether they are politicians or members of the downtrodden Dalits, or simply upper-class citizens who don't think twice about airing their bigoted views. The film's most potent tool, however, is the soundtrack, as Patwardhan incorporates numerous protest songs into the film that tell the story with clarity and heartfelt urgency. One of the most striking scenes at the end of the film focuses on a group of young protest singers called Kabir Kala Manch. In a troubling postscript, we are told that they have been forced into hiding after daring to speak out. Jai Bhim Comrade is a brilliant film about politics, injustice, racism and social inequality, but above all it's a film that listens to people who most desperately need to be heard.

The Parade (Parada)


When the LGBT community in Serbia bravely attempted to stage the country's second Gay Pride parade in 2010, the result was a day of riots, violence and hatred as right-wing hooligans and the police (both of whom outnumbered the actual marchers by around 6 to 1) fought running battles. Srdjan Dragojevic's The Parade takes place one year earlier and details the aborted attempt to stage a Pride march in 2009, with his satirical take on the story focusing on a group of homosexuals and homophobes who are unexpectedly forced to work together. Prior to the opening credits, a glossary explains the various derogatory terms that Serbs, Croats, Albanians and Bosnians have for each other, before revealing that they all share the same word – "Peder" – for homosexuals. When Dragojevic introduces us to his four principle characters, they are painted in such broad strokes they initially appear almost cartoonish. There's ultra-macho ex-gangster Limon (Nikola Kojo), his trophy wife Biserka (Hristina Popovic), gay wedding planner Mirko (Goran Jevtic) and his partner Radmilo (Milos Samolov), who drives a pink mini and has to be taught to act like a man in a scene reminiscent of La cage aux folles.

These characters are all given depth by the expert performances from the cast and by Dragojevic's smart script, which takes every opportunity to skewer the codes of Serbian machismo and the thoughtless homophobia that is rampant in the region. The first half of The Parade is terrific fun, as it cleverly draws together the disparate characters and contrives a way to make them co-exist in an amusing manner. The picture loses a bit of its spark when Limon and Radmilo are forced into a cross-country road trip to recruit additional security from Limon's ex-army pals, and the longueurs of this segment push the picture unnecessarily close to a two-hour running time. Watching these initially antagonistic characters bond is still fun, however, no matter how predictable it may be, and the picture has a stirring finale, which epitomises Dragojevic at making us laugh while never letting us forget the very real threat of violence that gay people face in homophobic societies.

Salma


Kim Longinotto has spent years travelling the world and making documentaries about societies that oppress women, and in Salma she has another remarkable story to tell. Salma is the story of a Tamil woman in her 40s who is currently respected as one of India's most prominent poets and female activists, but the true magnitude of her achievement in gaining such a position is only revealed by examining her past. It is common practice in many Islamic Indian communities to withdraw a girl from society when she has her first period, and to keep her locked inside until a husband is found for her. This is what happened to Salma, who was imprisoned by her parents for years until she finally acquiesced to marriage, and then found herself locked up by her husband's family, eventually spending over two decades effectively under house arrest. Throughout this time, Salma was writing poetry about her experiences, and when she finally smuggled these poems into the outside world, the publicity they generated ensured her overdue liberation.

As Salma revisits her past, Longinotto is an unobtrusive observer, with the director always being alert to particularly telling moments. We see her subject telling teenage girls that they have to stay in school, but her advice is contradicted by the many women who repeatedly tell them that this is simply the way things are, and that women of this faith have a role that they have to play. The way in which Salma has overcome the obstacles in her life is truly inspirational, but Longinotto plays that sense of emotional uplift against the backdrop of so many women who never find such a way out. In one haunting shot, she films a wedding, in which a teenage girl is being married to a much older man. As celebrations go on around them, Longinotto's camera moves in to the girl's face; she looks so vulnerable, so afraid, so young.

War Witch (Rebelle)


Many films have explored warfare from the perspective of a child, but perhaps it makes most sense for a film set in Africa to take that approach, considering the way children are regularly forced to take up arms on that continent. Canadian director Kim Nguyen's War Witch is the story of Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a 12 year-old girl abducted by rebel forces from her home in the Democratic Republic of Congo and forced to kill her own parents as she is turned into a soldier. Nguyen augments the horrors of what Komona witnesses and experiences with a magic realism that allows him to create some striking images, notably the white ghosts that walk the land in front of Komona after she has killed. This careful balancing of contrasting tones is a vital component in War Watch's success, and Komona's romance with fellow soldier Magicien (Serge Kanyinda) gives the central section of the film a tenderness that is all the more moving for being surrounded by such horror.

This focus on their relationship also gives dimensions to characters who might have existed as little more than symbolic figures in a lesser film. Nguyen also draws sensitive and convincing performances from his cast of non-professional actors, with Mwanza in particular being an extraordinary discovery. She brilliantly depicts the gradual hardening of Komona's soul in the face of conflict and the atrocities that are inflicted upon her, before her relationship with Magicien allows her to reconnect with her humanity. Nguyen's direction is excellent, attuned to both the emotional journey of his characters and the world they exist in, which is defined by its violence and belief in magic as an everyday part of life. Given how many shoddy and manipulative films we've seen about African troubles, It's easy to be suspicious of western filmmakers who travel to the continent seeking sensationalist fare, but Nguyen has delivered a portrait of an African child soldier that is surprising, nuanced and ultimately very moving.