Emir Baigazin's fable The River just screened at the Warsaw Film Festival, after winning the Warsaw Industry Days' Pitching Award the year before. Baigazin wrote, produced, shot, directed and edited what is now the third part of his Asian trilogy project. Currently traveling to Japan to feature at the Tokyo Film Festival, the Kazakh director has found warm receptions at Venice, Toronto and Berlin with his films, and has been nominated for Achievement in Directing at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. The River portrays the life of five brothers living in a remote rural area. One day, their idle existence is upended by the arrival of the modern world and its temptations.
You films often portray family relations, and The River features a remarkable dynamics in the relations between the brothers. Is this something that comes from your personal experience?
It pleases me to think you have come to the idea that it might be something personal. But in fact, it is not – the films I make have nothing to do with my personal life. I don't even have any brothers, only a sister! The ideas come from outer sources, and I work thoroughly on their development. But in the future I might be interested in creating some really personal films based on my family and relations with parents.
There are other motifs that roam from film to film in your trilogy – I’m thinking of the striking contrast between the city and the countryside. It looks very precise, and what I find especially interesting is not only the clash that you show, but also the gradual blending of these realities. How did you come to this topic?
This all comes from the fact that I grew up in the province, where this contrast is already built into your life. There are cities with big malls, Burger Kings… maybe if I lived in one of them I wouldn't feel this way. But I was born in an aul, went to school in a small town – this is not even a real town, in fact – so I first met people from the city at my characters' age. This is not about some particular experience, but rather about two parallel universes that existed at some basic level in my life.
The point where these universes meet seems interesting – the city cousin appears from nowhere and threatens the stability of the system, but it all seems to move toward a balance later. Could you tell a bit more about this plot line?
The thing is that this character doesn't just simply come to destroy the brothers' world. He acts as a trial, a test, something that comes up to try out the relations of the brothers, because their heaven can't exist forever. Deeper ideas on this character are up to the viewer, but it is important to understand that without his appearance Aslan would not be able to get to catharsis, and no miracle could happen at the end of the story.
What I like about this character is that I imagine him more as a “what” than a “who”. He is the wind. We got very lucky with the wind scenes, and with the windows. I think it helps understanding him as this wind entity that sneaks into the house and starts lifting stuff up from tables – this is not just for beautiful imagery. The wind doesn’t just bring chaos, but fresh air, too. Note the fact that this character doesn't have a single close-up, and his presence gets more tense at the moment when he is absent – when he either drowned or just vanished.
In this encounter I have also noted the clash of collectiveness and individuality, and also of communism and capitalism. Were these dichotomies part of the thought process while making the film?
Sure, this was definitely present in the film. The first information that comes into the brothers' world from the TV once the guest fixes it is about North Korea. It is indeed a conflict between the communist and the capitalist worlds. But one more important line is that the world that exists around the family is also imposed through violence. The film's first part has two acts, and in the second one, when the Father expects the oldest brother to take after him, Aslan looks for a new way which won't be the way of force and power. It was very important to me, when I was working on the script, that this could become the way of love. So he takes his brothers to the river and life starts to change. They start to work better, even though they aren't forced to. But after Aslan discovers this way of love, his own trial begins. Another Prometheus comes to them. This clash between the river and the tablet is crucial for me, as this is Aslan's last test, a temptation of feeling the urge to destroy the opponent.
If we go further with this frame of the East and the West, where do you feel you are being positioned as an author and director?
It is not easy for me to speak about this. Kazakhstan is like a patchwork blanket, it has great cultural and social diversity. I am a bit out of this frame, but I love to discover the ideas that come from your background as a result of your inner development. I am interested in any ideas I can find. It is vital to study myself, but in terms of my work, what is definitely important is to make the film as a whole non-eclectic piece, having its own world and language. It should combine everything in a smooth and natural manner, especially in terms of dramatic composition.
I'd like to ask about the sound landscape of the film. During the Q&A session you mentioned that you had a great experience working with composer Justyna Banaszczyk, who is known in Poland as part of this new local electronic scene. Could you tell me more about this experience?
I didn't know that she was a star of the electronic scene in Poland! But our work experience was great. Sometimes you have a thousand meetings with the composer and you don't really get anywhere. It was a miracle working with Justyna, as she managed to create something inspiring from the first attempt. My sound director and I were impressed. We might have requested some slight changes, but that was it. It can be exhausting working with composers – this is why my other films have no music. And here the music could have been really minimalistic and primitive, but Justyna managed to add just the right volume. I am very grateful for her work. It spared me a lot of work, as the music was added after the film was finished. I hope we have the opportunity to work together in the future.
Another notable episode is the sandstorm sequence, where the sound is quite impressive. How did you come up with this part?
This was the initiative of my mix engineer Filip Krzemien - he is also from Poland. This is not what I usually do in my films, adding really intensive sound that makes you feel the Dolby capacities. But I am very enthusiastic about the fact that we could use it in such an accurate way right in the middle of the film to highlight this fear the brothers experience after a tragic event. It is a very special moment, and it only happens once. I am happy with the effect we created.
Because of the involvement of the Polish Film Institute, I also did the color grading here in Warsaw, and this was a great collaboration for me as a director of photography with Marcelina Gorka. Our collective work helped each other to get to a new level. This doesn't happen very often, but I appreciate the fact that we could work together and create something great for the film. Our priority was to keep its delicacy, harmony and wholeness. We followed this idea, and I am very glad we did.
I'd like to ask you about you work as a cinematographer. You have mentioned before that your work was visually influenced by Ozu, but also by stained glass compositions, is that right?
The idea about the stained glass, and all the rigorism, comes from the core of the film's story. So for me, it is not possible to invent the form of the film just as it is. It should be tied to the film's main concept, and in The River this concept was the miracle that happens in the end. Think of stained glass windows – they are simple, straightforward and light – this is what I wanted my film to be like. I didn't want to end the trilogy with something heavy. I try to move forward, even if some of my films' fans don't like it. I didn't want to do the same I did in Harmony Lessons, even if that was my most successful film, because you can become trapped by repeating yourself. It was crucial for me to set the characters free, and in this film Aslan doesn't kill – this is a very important liberating moment. On the other hand, it turned out to be more complicated to work on a lighter-toned film.
Stained glass windows in churches became an important reference in terms of style, because of their rigorism and simplicity. I didn't pick my inspiration from films, but I got some energy from Franz Marc's paintings during the editing. I don't think it is a good idea to watch anything while working on your own project, because you create your film in its very own universe. But paintings can be inspiring, as they discipline you in a way. I'll quote Cézanne here, “At each touch I risk my life”. Directors should risk their life with every new frame and cut: you have to make sure there is nothing excessive in your frame, and each image belongs to its place.
How do you feel you have developed while working on this trilogy? What are your current inspirations for future projects?
I am happy with the spiritual evolution this trilogy shows. The author refines together with the work. There are a lot of plans for the future, but I am moving under my own inertia, using it as an instrument, and driving my inspiration from different impulses. I catch a wave and follow it. Developing the visual style is interesting for me, although I don’t consider it my main concern. I like to work with time and tempo - without them, The River couldn't have its catharsis. You can't get the spiritual experience without feeling the weight of time in the film. So I always think a lot about the visual imagery, but the transcendental dimension is still more interesting for me to explore.
May 2015: a multigenerational Cuban family is in the living room right in front of the TV, quarreling in an indistinct yet heated argument. An elderly woman interrupts at the highest point and points to the TV screen, where the news about the introduction of a new US – Cuba ferry line is being announced. This is a symbol of a new direction in the political course of the state, and at this very moment the film is setting its own direction as well, following in detail the absurd existence of the Cuban capital. From this second on, the city begins to live in the hectic anticipation of the ferry arrival, a historical moment of allowing “the capitalism” in, formerly depicted as the ultimate evil by the official state ideology during the entire lifespan of most of the film's characters.
The title speaks for itself – a collection of sketch stories connected through time and space portrays the nuances of Havana in BEFORE THE FERRY ARRIVES. There are three directors in charge of the camera, each contributing in a unique way, as the Spanish filmmaker Juan Caunedo Domínguez worked on the film concept together with his Cuban colleagues – animator Vladimir García Herrera and visual arts specialist Raúl Escobar Delgado. In their interviews, the team mentions they envisioned a film of many voices and many faces, never shying away from eclecticism but rather trying to embrace it at its fullest.
The film is under no illusion that life could ever run smoothly for Habaneros. The tour into their daily routine starts with a walk in the long concrete corridor of an imposing monument construction, scenting of communist heritage. Obstacles come up right away: the elevator doesn't work, the taxi car won't start, the driver tricks out more money than he should, but one should always stay calm. And in any case, are there really other ways to earn money in this city rather than getting involved with some monkey business? It is a reality that everyone seems to quickly get used to – swindle foreigners, sell drugs or come up with an original idea, like that bunch of young entrepreneurs. Theirs is the perfect business plan for the developing Cuban society: fooling a neighbourhood into paying for garbage disposition. “But they do like the garbage!”, skeptically remarks one of the aspiring stakeholders. “Some years ago you couldn't imagine any iPhones here, but here they are, and everyone is getting used to them.” Such answers sound reasonable and perfectly illustrate the film's attempts to paint the most popular attitude towards a bumpy period of transition, when iPhones appear before proper neighbourhood conveniences.
The time is ripe for a change, and in fact it has been for a while: Raul Castro took over the formal rule of the country in 2008, and since then Cuba's domestic policy has started the process of adapting the country to contemporary international reality at the sunset of Fidel's era. This did not result in freedom of speech for the Cubans, but at least it gave the people an opportunity to legally connect to the Internet and to start their own businesses. BEFORE THE FERRY ARRIVES keeps the record of this new emerging Cuba, where contemporaneity grows on soil that has been preserved in aspic for many decades. And yet the country doesn't have too much power yet. Moreover, being too far away in the future is of no help – an American tourist travelling a good hundred years back in time will not have any special privilege once he steps out to the city.
There aren't many opportunities in Cuban public space to talk about changes in a critical way. The film is rooted in the country's popular culture, which is constantly evoked through the over-presence of reggaeton music or by exploiting stereotypical anecdotal characters. It does not dig deep into the problems of society in any discernible way, despite the many hints – poverty, corruption, colonial heritage. The lack of instruments for discussion leads to quite an honest expression: a straightforward attempt to fix the absurd looks so unrealistic that it goes away from reality and into a superhero-cartoon sequence, ending up excluded from the “normal”.
BEFORE THE FERRY ARRIVES is packed with witty puns, the objects of its mocking all easily recognizable as familiar by audiences from post-communist countries. The many subplots framed by comical details create a somewhat chaotic experience, which contributes to another important feeling lingering around the film – the anxiety about an undefined future. Still, it is clear that even though the chaos might not be avoidable, humor remains the handiest tool in dealing with what the country is yet to discover.
To the outsider's view, Manila appears as a city full of disturbing contrasts. It is the midpoint of a densely populated agglomeration, homing state banking and commerce headquarters, tourist lures, international businesses and new media corporations including, ironically, centers for Facebook content moderation. All this is heavily seasoned with the remains of the colonial rule of Spanish, American and Japanese origin, the terrifying political course of infamous president Rodrigo Duterte, an incredibly high volume of child pornography, and the biggest population of homeless people in the world. Taking into account the local censorship rules, there is no surprise that Filipino cinema becomes more and more politicized. SCHOOL SERVICE (international premiere and competition contender at Warsaw Film Festival's 34th edition) by director Luisito Lagdameo Ignacio and the scriptwriter Rona Lean Sales does not go into radical activism territory, though it still has the confidence to expose the troubled reality of Manila's suburbs.
The film covers the 24-hour span after the 8-year-old Maya gets kidnapped on her way home from school and is brought to the outskirts of Manila to become a beggar. She is immersed in a completely new world and so are the viewers, even if the director refrains from using any explicit and shocking imagery. What becomes the film's key feature is the perspective of a child who is progressively losing its innocence.
The central character, a schoolgirl seemingly coming from a safe environment, enters the dusty city streets with an attitude as rebelling as it is ultimately useless. Escaping has got nothing to do with how hard you try: it is just impossible. Maya's attempts to run away leave room for optimistic expectations, playing with the conventions of children films, but as the story goes deeper, anxiety starts to take over. It would be easy to blame the kidnappers, but the film shines a light into a complex universe where oppressors are themselves oppressed, and enslaved to complicated social predicaments. With no right decisions available to make, violence becomes the only way out, and young beggars are quick to understand that they have to follow these rules to fit in.
There is an episode in which an outrageous dream built around the desire for things to be normal evolves into an animated sequence, echoing the opening titles and their idealized, crayon-drawn version of a family; an image impossible to chase, and impossible to escape. Meanwhile, the film's focus gradually shifts from Maya's individuality to the kids as a group, and eventually dusky Manila steps out as a threatening character of its own. The film employs a realistic visual style, and even though it is combined with children-focused storytelling, it is quite a sincere attempt to provide a take on poverty, prostitution and social stigmas.
SCHOOL SERVICE is a work that is inseparable from the context that inspired its creation. While it does not look as an immediate call for action, it is clearly intended to resonate with the audience and to engage the audience in public discussion. The film is produced with a clear aim at domestic release but it will also provide an emotional insight into the social issues for international audiences.