Trenton International Film Festival curator Jed Rapfogel talks to us about his selection of the seven documentary and fiction features screening in this year’s festival. Jed is a programmer at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, and curated the 2014 and 2015 International Film Festival.
What do you find to be the biggest difference in world cinema versus American cinema, and some of the similarities?
I don’t think there are necessarily hard-and-fast differences – there are more and more young American filmmakers who come from a world-cinema-loving background and whose films reflect those interests; and of course there are plenty of filmmakers all over the world who were formed in large part by Hollywood or American independent movies. But in a general sense, I do think that foreign films are more likely to reject the tired clichés and conventions of narrative Hollywood filmmaking (conventions that infect the vast majority of so-called ‘indie’ films as well).
In part it simply comes down to the funding that’s available in many other countries – in the U.S. it’s extremely difficult to find the funding to make a film that’s likely to be considered unmarketable. In some parts of the world, at least, such films are valued more highly than here, and there are sources of funding available to filmmakers. As a result, filmmakers don’t necessarily have the same crippling anxiety about losing audiences’ attention.
They’re able to make films that take their time, that focus on texture, atmosphere, and landscape, rather than rushing from incident to incident. And most importantly, there are more films that depict human behavior as ambiguous, contradictory, and messy, rather than compulsively manufacturing the same few types in the Hollywood manner. In my experience, watching the best foreign films often reveals how clichéd and reductive so much of American movie storytelling is.
Out of the films that you chose, which film had the biggest impact on you and why?
It’s hard to identify a single film, but if I have to come up with just one I’d say Songs from the North, partly because I tend to gravitate to films that experiment with form and that don’t fit comfortably into a familiar category, and partly because of its deeply thoughtful approach to a subject that’s usually presented through a highly ideological filter: North Korea.
Songs from the North is a documentary of sorts, but not at all a conventional one. It’s essentially a travelogue, but one that’s organized more according to themes, ideas, and impressions than by a chronological itinerary. And it incorporates found footage – excerpts from North Korean movies and television – to such an extent that it becomes almost a collage film. It’s true (and I’m happy to say it) that there are only a couple films in this year’s selection that tell their stories in a more or less conventional way, but Songs from the North is probably the most unusual.
That said, I’m also particularly fond of Two Shots Fired, which has a very unique tone (comic but melancholy) and whose story develops in very unexpected ways; and of Felix and Meira, which is not an experimental film in any way, but is an extremely sensitive, moving, and perceptive one.
Could you describe some innovative techniques used in the films that you chose.
Well, I mentioned the innovative techniques that set Songs from the North apart. And I alluded to Two Shots Fired’s narrative surprises: that film is both very funny and quite serious, and it boldly shifts its focus two thirds of the way into its running time.
I haven’t mentioned the film that features the most explicitly innovative method: In the Crosswind, which recounts Stalin’s forced exile of thousands of Estonians to Siberia and other parts of Russia during WWII. In the Crosswind tells this historical tale by means of elaborate but entirely frozen tableaux, with the ‘actors’ (often numbering in the dozens) remaining totally still as the camera wends and weaves among them. Each shot of that film is a tour de force of design and camera choreography, and very much unlike any other historical film I know.
I for Iran is also a very innovative film, a documentary about the filmmaker, Sanaz Azari, learning written Farsi (the language of her parents, which she speaks but can’t write). Ostensibly it documents one of the lessons given by another Iranian emigrant, but Azari cleverly uses this lesson, and in particular the Islamic Revolution-era textbook they’re using, to explore the modern history of Iran, and the ways in which education reflects social norms and national aims.
The Argentine film Two Shots Fired is described as a dark comedy, in which a young man shoots himself twice on purpose. How does a violent act like this play out as comedy, and is this type of humor typical of Latin American cinema?
Two Shots Fired is most definitely a black comedy, though in the end it’s more about melancholy and disconnection than about violence or suicide. The protagonist’s puzzling decision to shoot himself is not necessarily a suicide attempt – it’s presented as a basically inexplicable action. Some may very well fail to see any humor in it, but for those who respond to the director Martin Rejtman’s sensibility, the humor comes from his extremely deadpan manner (which is a feature of all his films), and from the suggestion that the protagonist’s motivation is boredom rather than despair.
The greatness of the film is that it’s much more than a comedy – it’s very much about the disconnection and alienation that pervade Argentine culture, and in that sense there’s a very serious dimension to it. But at the same time it’s funny because of the deadpan style, and because of how extreme and exaggerated the protagonist’s action is. And I would say that the humor in Two Shots Fired is more particular to Rejtman than typical of Latin American cinema in general.
Last year, several of the films shown at the International Festival went on to great success, like We Are the Best and, of course, Ida which went on to win the Academy Award. What do you see in the future for this year’s films?
I’m no psychic, and won’t go so far as to confidently predict Oscar nominations for any of the films included in the festival. But Felix and Meira, Charlie’s Country, Gueros, and Two Shots Fired are all slated for theatrical release in 2015, and I expect them all to attract critical acclaim at the very least. And I could certainly see Felix and Meira or Gueros, for instance, becoming art-house hits.
I’m afraid I have a feeling Songs from the North and I for Iran are too uncategorizable to enjoy the success they deserve, but hopefully I’m wrong – and in any case, all the more reason to see them during the festival! And while Two Shots Fired likely has too oddball a tone to have any mainstream success, Rejtman is the best known filmmaker of the bunch (he helped pioneer a new wave of Argentine cinema in the 1990s), and so the film will unquestionably have a life, at least among Rejtman fans, Argentine cinema scholars, and film buffs in general.