No Concessions: Four Micro-Interviews from the Tribeca Film Festival

April 26, 2013

The organizers of the 13th annual Tribeca Film Festival couldn't have foreseen the gruesome headlines of the last two weeks: marathon bombings and city lockdowns, fertilizer explosions, barges on fire, poisoned letters, and not one, but two deadly earthquakes. The parade of misery gave Tribeca an air of macabre surprise: step out of a screening and you’re met by a new and even more unbelievable disaster. But the newsflashes did something else, too: they transformed the theaters into 300-seat emergency relief pods that shot you away to the slums of Istanbul; or to tiny snow-bound towns in Maine; or even through history, to watch the dawning of the age of teenagehood. It was a nice, if momentary, escape from the messy world outside. So, without further ado, I present you four tiny interviews with four Tribeca directors behind four outstanding films from the festival.

Matt Wolf, Teenage

Based on the book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage, Teenage incorporates archival footage, diary clippings, and Super-8 recreations to weave together a loose but dreamlike documentary that recounts the birth of teenagehood. "I didn't want it to be a Ken Burns thing," Wolf told me while sitting sandwiched between Savage, who co-wrote the film and Jason Schwarzman, who is its executive producer. Rest assured, it isn’t.

Why are teenagers a uniquely American invention? By the end of World War II, American "teen-agers" had arrived as a powerful consumer class. Their records, magazines, and clothes were starting to influence a global marketplace. As the "Teen-Age Bill of Rights" confirmed in the New York Times in 1945, American youth were a distinct class, and they had the right to be treated like equals. European youth were far less triumphant—in Germany they had been sacrificed as cannon fodder [during World War II]. In England their homeland had been destroyed. The old world was over, but a new figure had emerged. In this next era, the "age of the teen," American youth culture and consumerism would spread around the world.

What was the original teen music? Jazz was the beginning of a distinctly "young" genre of music. Before hot jazz took adolescent jitterbugs by storm, there was the Original Dixieland Jass Band. They were a New Orleans, racially integrated Dixieland jazz group that made the first jazz single ever issued in 1917. It would become the first record to sell over a million copies.

What's your best teenage memory? As a teenager I published my school's underground newspaper. One spring I wrote an article telling the school that I was gay and that I experienced homophobia every day. I got a Christian student to publish a companion article, in which he explained that homosexuality was a sin. I photocopied the issue at Kinko's, dumped a stack of them in the quad, and went to the bathroom and barfed. When I came back outside, the papers were spread all over school.

Lance Edmands, Bluebird

Literally everyone and their mother has a transgression to atone for in Lance Edmand’s bleak but touching feature-length directorial debut, Bluebird. Set in a small Maine town frozen in the dead of winter, Bluebird is the tragic story of a school bus driver named Lesley (played by the stoic powerhouse Amy Morton) who accidentally leaves a child locked on her bus during a particularly cold night. As the young student struggles to survive, Lesley slowly comes to terms with her mistake, while her family and the community around her start splitting at the seams.

Why did you decide to set the film in Maine? The film was very much inspired by the landscape of Maine. I now live in Brooklyn, but I grew up there, and over the years I've found myself returning for inspiration. For this film, the setting was definitely first. There are these towns in Northern Maine built on the edge of the Great North Woods, which is a massive wilderness territory. They are these frozen-in-time mill towns that are slowly deteriorating and shrinking rapidly in population. I found the landscape there to be utterly gorgeous, peaceful and quiet. But there’s also a real sense of desperation and a kind of existential terror in the relentless cold of winter and the infinite ocean of trees.

I was inspired to make a film that captured those two conflicting emotions. I wanted to populate the story with characters who personified this place—a logger who is losing his livelihood, young people who are trapped in a place without options, and a woman who experiences a kind of existential crisis when everything she has begins to erode. The story of the boy being trapped on the bus came from an event from my childhood that has really stuck with me. When you’re living at the edge, it’s so easy for one tiny mistake to have devastating consequences.

You’ve said that you wanted to make a film about real, working people problems. What did you mean by that? I feel like I haven't seen a lot of films that deal with real people in a respectful, authentic way. A lot of times you have working-class people portrayed in films in a mocking way, or else aestheticized so that it makes it seem romantic to struggle. But it's not romantic, it’s very mundane. In Bluebird, we show loggers chopping down huge trees—but they're not lumberjacks, they're kind of worn out men who have to work outside and manage construction equipment. It's actually so repetitive and grueling that it numbs you down. When I was writing I thought a lot about films like Paris Texas, Tender Mercies, or Five Easy Pieces—sensitive movies that were about family and the American landscape at the same time. I also thought about Mike Leigh films—All Or Nothing comes to mind. The British seem to have a way with the working person's drama that I'm into.

Dan Krauss, The Kill Team

War has a tendency to blur ethics, but the atrocities committed by one U.S. Army platoon operating in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 suggest complete moral corruption. Labeled the “Kill Team,” the platoon routinely fabricated attacks in order justify random acts of murder, and even collected and kept the remains of the deceased as souvenirs. In The Kill Team, Academy Award and Emmy Award-nominated director Dan Krauss offers a particularly raw and harrowing account of the events and their aftermath, anchoring his tale on Private Adam Winfield, a whistle blowing soldier found guilty of the very crimes he condemned.

What inspired The Kill Team? My first film, The Death of Kevin Carter, was about a war photographer tormented by his decision to document, rather than intervene in, the acts of brutality he witnessed. That project got me thinking quite a lot about the intersection of individual morality and violence. I was drawn to the story of the Kill Team because it seemed to occupy that same thematic territory, particularly the case of Specialist Adam Winfield, who apparently had tried to act in the moral right, but nonetheless had reportedly been drawn into this moral abyss. I wanted to understand how that had happened.

Are the crimes depicted in The Kill Team more widespread than the public is led to believe? It's important to note that the vast majority of U.S. soldiers serve their country honorably. Generally speaking, the U.S. military has a tremendously effective command structure that ensures all its members are in lock step. However, when there is the slightest wobble in that structure or when soldiers feel an absence of command, the moral direction of these very young men and women can quickly become confused, sometimes leading to violent acts of depravity. I wouldn't say it is widespread, but it certainly happens more than we know.

There's this notion that comes up in the film that once you have a "kill," you become a "made man." Can you explain that concept? In the world of organized crime, a “made man” is someone who has carried out a killing and become fully initiated into the group. The guys in this platoon used the term in a similar way, bestowing it on soldiers who proved their willingness and ability to kill. In the culture of the infantry, killing is the ultimate test—it is a mark of distinction. However, when you're fighting an invisible enemy, the opportunities for a battlefield kill are few and far between. Combine that frustration with poor leadership and you have a potentially explosive situation.

Hisham Zaman, Before Snowfall

One of the most poignant pictures of the festival, Hisham Zaman’s astounding Before Snowfall is the story of Siyar, a young Kurdish boy whose father’s death leaves him as the head of his household. When his older sister elopes and flees the country, Siyar embarks on a manhunt to find and kill her, thereby restoring his family’s honor. But the farther he travels from home, the faster Siyar’s rigid moral code frays, ultimately putting his own life in jeopardy. The highlight of Before Snowfall is the remarkable performance by first-time actor Taher Abdullah Taher, who gingerly and expertly gives heart to an otherwise unsympathetic character.

Can you tell me about where the idea for Before Snowfall came from? Is honor killing an everyday reality in Kurdistan today? The film is an examination of a young boy’s psychological statement and a physical journey. Honor is an important value in every man’s life—not only in Kurdistan or in a Kurdish man’s life. But some people put more on honor than others. Honor is the engine of this story, not its heart. The heart lies in how a young man living in a small society is expected to act as a man. Soon he will be thrown out in the world, and be completely alone. This is not a subject related to a specific geographical area—it’s a human story you find any place in the world. Kurdish people are dealing with several social problems—as are many other societies—and they want these kinds of problems to be highlighted through cinema in order to avoid the tragic loss life that is being sacrificed each year.

Taher Abdullah Taher offered such a remarkable performance in this film. Can you talk about how you cast him? It took us more than two years to find him. We where looking in Scandinavia, and many other countries. We found a Kurdish boy in Diyarbakir, Turkey. He was ready for the part and we rehearsed with him for several days and tried on costumes. He was good, but five days before shooting I felt he was wrong for our film. I asked to change him, which created a stressful atmosphere during production. I felt he would not be the perfect one and that that would affect the artistic result. I asked for 24 hours and went out to look for him myself. A Kurdish local director in the small border city of Zakho introduced me to seven schoolboys waiting in a greenhouse. None of them was right and I felt like either going with the boy from Turkey or to keep looking. Then I saw a boy working in the greenhouse. I asked to take some pictures of him. He was really shy, but had powerful eyes. I felt he had the character of a boy from 18th century—like in a Dostoyevsky novel.

Were the Kurdish scenes shot in Iraqi Kurdistan? If so, was that community receptive to your project? Yes, We shot the Kurdish scene in Iraqi Kurdistan because it was important to have a realistic look and not fake it. I did research on many of the places in the four countries we shot in during my time as student in Norwegian film school. I was not sure how the Kurdish community in the village would respond, but I felt that they trusted me, and knew that I was talking about a subject they also wanted to discuss and highlight. The people of the village acted in the film and were even apart of the crew. We even got support from the Kurdish regional government, which provided us with all necessary shooting permissions. Kurdistan is a safe place to shoot film and there are many European companies shooting there. I know about Italian and French productions that recently shot there.

What is the status of Kurdish cinema? Were there Kurdish cinematographers you looked to for inspiration? Kurdish film is doing very well. My inspiration comes more from European cinema and some Asian Cinema. I love watching Kurdish films, but I feel Kurdish cinema is a young cinema, though it has grown very fast since the year 2000. There is a lot of new talent, personal stories with some clear visions. Kurdish cinema should challenge itself and go away from telling the same tragic stories. Kurdish cinema is knows for its realistic portrait of human life in harsh condition—almost like Italian New Realism.

No Concessions: Four Micro-Interviews from the Tribeca Film Festival