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Sunday
Sep212014

A GOOD YEAR: THE NADIR CASELLI INTERVIEW

Nadir Caselli will remember 2014 very fondly. Already a beloved TV actress, the 26 year-old Tuscan native has chosen her big screen roles with wisdom and purpose. She debuted in a crucial support part in Matteo Rovere’s Bad Girls (2008), followed by Gabrielle Muccino’s critical and commercial hit, Kiss Me Again (2010). Over the last 12 months, she has featured in two domestic blockbusters – Federico Mocia’s millennials rom-com, University: More Than Friends; and, Sydney Sibilia’s raucous drug-culture romp, I Can Quit Whenever I Want. Accompanying both films as part of the 2014 Lavazza Italian Film Festival, the slightly jetlagged but flawlessly charming actress sat with SCREEN-SPACE to discuss, in fluent English that she needlessly apologises for over and over, her career to date…

Nadir Caselli’s upbringing in the township of Cascina was worlds away from Rome, long the production hub of the Italian film industry. With no connection to the sector (her mother is an office worker; her father, owner/operator of a self-defence academy), she recalls embracing the ‘dream factory’ quality of cinema, like most kids.  “When I was a child, I was inspired by colour and images,” she recalls. “Cartoons in general and the great films from Disney of course, are some of my earliest memories. I remember the magic, the sense of wonder, when something makes you go ‘wow!’ That is what I remember most about films as a child and that is what I look for every time I go to the movies, even now that I am 26.”

Intelligence and ambition led her to the nation’s capital, where she graduated from the esteemed Università degli Studi Roma Tre. Her years of studying were supported by a modelling career that saw her become one of Europe’s leading teen models. She still occasionally accepts photographic assignments, but Caselli admits that those heady days were, in hindsight, a means to an end. “I was not really happy in the role of model,” she confides. “It is a very hard job, don’t get me wrong, but it is not very artistic and ultimately was not very satisfying.”

What did satisfy were the small acting parts that she sought out. As ‘Alice’ in fellow debutant Matteo Rovere’s Bad Girls (pictured, above; Caselli, far left), she experienced first-hand the frenzied nature of the business when the sexually frank, female-centric narrative caused a censorship stir.  Steady TV work followed, until Gabrielle Muccino, one of Italian cinema’s most highly-regarded filmmakers (The Last Kiss, 2001; Remember Me My Love, 2003; The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006; Seven Pounds, 2008), cast Caselli in her most high-profile hit, 2010’s Kiss Me Again.

The work afforded the actress many hours on set, watching and learning from such respected stars as Filippo Nigro and Stefano Accorsi (pictured, left; with Caselli in Kiss Me Again). That said, Caselli’s preferred method is to draw from emotionally impactful moments rather than the acting style of any particular role model. “I don’t have specific actors who inspire me. I see moments of magic on the screen and I try to grab them,” she says. “I memorise them and think ‘that is what I want to achieve someday’ or ‘I want to be able to use that’.”

Despite her tender years, Caselli has amassed many hours of television and accumulated seven features to her credit. It put her in the unique position of being the most seasoned performer amongst the six principal cast members of University: More Than Friends. “I’d never thought of that but, yes, I suppose I was,” she admits, allowing her a big, broad grin at the very notion. “Only myself and Primo Reggiani were experienced on the set so I guess I was a mentor to the other actors, at least to some degree.”

Under the guiding hand of veteran director Federico Moccia, a master of the broad romantic-comedy having helmed Sorry If I Love You (2008) and Amore 14 (2009), the core group quickly established the chemistry so crucial to such sweet natured melodrama. In describing the cast dynamic, Caselli’s English trips her up for the only time during the interview, when she enthusiastically recalled, “We had long rehearsal periods that would end with all of us sleeping together. I mean, in the hallway, y’know…not…you know what I mean!”

Her small but pivotal role in Sydney Sibilia’s I Can Quit Whenever I Want was a favour for the first-time director; she had starred in his 2010 short, Oggi gira cosi (see the full film here), and was happy to step into any part the director asked of her. The film is a ‘Breaking Bad’-esque black comedy about a group of retrenched academics who turn to narcotics production as a late-in-life career change. She had no reservations about working with untested talent, she says. “I had worked with a first-time director on Bad Girls. Each bring a fresh new vision to material.” Her faith in Sibilia has paid off, with the film a box office smash taking close to US$5.5million.

When the discussion turns to the line-up on offer at the Italian Film Festival, it is noted that many of the films are very contemporary stories, embracing a positive perspective on Italian society and culture. Nadir Caselli agrees, clearly proud of the passion for life that is synonymous with her homeland. “Italian cinema is very optimistic at the moment,” she states, any indication that the side effects of international travel may be taxing her now entirely gone. “Italian people like to look beyond the hardships of the moment, and there have been some very hard realities in Italy over the last few years. Our cinema reflects the healthier, happier aspects of life. It can be very critical of our society, but it is most often done as a celebration of some sort, from a hopeful outlook that celebrates what we can do and who we can be.”

For all session and ticket information visit the official website of the 2014 Lavazza Italian Film Festival.

Friday
Sep192014

WAR STORY: THE CATHERINE KEENER INTERVIEW

One of the great unanswered questions in recent Hollywood history has been, “Why doesn’t Catherine Keener do more lead roles?” Beloved for support turns that enhance everything and everyone around her (notably, Living in Oblivion, 1995; Being John Malkovich, 1999; The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Capote, both 2005; and, Synedoche New York, 2008), the 55 year-old actress takes on that rare central role in director Mark Jackson’s War Story, an intimate, painful account of a warzone photojournalist, Lee, left struggling with PTSD after witnessing the murder of her colleague while on assignment. Genuinely enthused about any chance to reconnect with Australia (“I was there for five months working on Where The Wild Things Are and it was a dream being there,”) the two-time Oscar nominee spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about one of the most psychologically challenging roles of her career…

Mark Jackson has been open about writing the script with you in mind for Lee. Were you immediately won over when you read it? What made the darkness of Lee and her plight so attractive to you?

Oh man, I didn’t quite realise how dark it was before I jumped into it (laughs). Sometimes I don’t realise quite what I’m getting into. I like the story and then we get into it and I start thinking, ‘Oh shit, I’ve got to be that beat-up person.’ Some characters creep up on you and that’s what happened with Lee. Sometimes you don’t want to go all in for a while, but you ultimately cross that line and admit to yourself ‘Ok, I have to do it.’

Mark has said that he cast the actress with H’wood’s warmest smile and most beautiful voice then made sure she did neither for 90 minutes. Did your exploration of Lee feel like a particularly new direction for you?

He said that (laughs)? Well, Lee comes from the same body and spirit as all the characters I’ve played, but they all feel different. Even if they appear to other people as the same, they are living a different story, a different life (pictured, right; Keener as Lee).

The war zone photojournalist makes for a fascinating film character but few films have tackled the PTSD effect. How deeply did you research both the frontline dynamic faced by photojournalists and the PTSD impact?

I was fortunate enough to hang out with journalists, one very generous and respected one in particular. I became a bit of a groupie at the LA Times in their photojournalism department, especially with the war photographers. From doing that, I just became more and more aware of the impact of PTSD on correspondents who cover violence. We are only just starting to crack open what that does to these people, that they are not just objective observers in the middle of it all. These are human beings who are doing something particularly noble who are not immune to the horrors they are witnessing. And that’s what they are doing – they are ‘bearing witness’ – and that takes its toll. Where does all that they witness go? One moment is documented and then released and then the next one comes, and then the next one. It is just a barrage of images that haunt us, the viewer, but then we can turn away. But for the photojournalist, it is never ending, just one after another, until it becomes impossible to process. At some point, they pay for that.

The key emotional element in the film is the deeply personal relationship between Lee and Hafsia. Tell me about working towards that intimacy with Hafsia Herzi (pictured, below).

I love her so much. It was very easy to establish intimacy with her because she is a very soulful, very beautiful actress. She was immediately committed and we found that we bonded from the very first day. We grew very fond of each and shared a real sense of caring for the story.

The setting and the plotting opens the door to commentary on foreign involvement issues, but the film foregoes any grand political statement in favour of a more personal, humanistic approach. Was politicising the narrative ever discussed in the context of Lee’s journey?

No, it was never Mark’s intention. I tried to ferret out certain realities, because that’s what we do as actors. We try to find these reality-based touchstones, but this was not that (film). I mean, it was sort of based upon the region of Italy that houses Libyan refugees and that was shown somewhat, so I made up a lot of stuff based on that. I made up a backstory for myself, just to help me figure out how Lee got to be where she is when the story starts. But our focus was on what happens after that.

The final moments suggest that it is Hafsia’s story that ultimately moves forward. Lee seems mired in her grief; even the camera leaves her behind. Is there hope for Lee? Is War Story a film that suggests there is no happy ending for some people?

I can see that, but I do think that Lee accomplished what she set out to do. She finished her journey, finished an aspect of her life that was connected to that war. Even if much of the life of a journalist is never ending, she was able to bring some small aspect of her pain to a point of closure. In my mind, Lee had been following the story of the refugees and I had projected so much onto her…I think she fulfilled a sort of mission, in the end. I think that’s why a lot of warzone journalists do what they do. It represents a kind of call-out, like being on some mission. My God, why the fuck else would they do it?

War Story is currently in limited release in US theatres and premieres on DVD in Australia on October 22 from Accent Film Entertainment.

Thursday
Aug282014

DAY OF THE ANIMALS: THE MICHAEL DAHLSTROM INTERVIEW

Despite offering up one of the most confronting film experiences of the MIFF 2014 program, director Michael Dahlstrom is a happy man. His documentary, The Animal Condition examines our complex relationship with the animals we exploit and had just played to packed audiences for its World Premiere when he chatted with SCREEN-SPACE about the unique narrative structure he employs and finding the balance between harrowing expose and hopeful advocacy filmmaking…

“We sold out both sessions, which was surprising and great,” says Dahlstrom (pictured, below), a NIDA graduate, on the final day of an extensive media schedule that has accompanied the premiere of his debut feature. Audience reaction was exactly what he had hoped for, a passionate chorus of opinions from those involved in both the trade and protection of livestock. Says the director, “It became a spirited Q-&-A debate afterwards, lead by an intensive farmer and a free range farmer and a vegan activist, as well as plenty of the vocal public.”

Shot over four years, The Animal Condition underwent extensive shifts in focus and tone before it became the expansive, insightful advocacy work it is today. What begins as an adventure about four angry, wide-eyed inner-city types (at one point, rescued baby chickens dance on a piano keyboard) soon becomes a multi-tiered examination of industrialized farming and the emotional issues inherent to animal exploitation.

“In the beginning, we were definitely making a very deliberate activist film,” says Dahlstorm, who appears on-screen alongside producers Ande Cunningham, Sarah-Jane McAllan (pictured, below) and Augusta Miller. “Initially, we weren’t going to film ourselves. But as we started arguing about different points, we realised it might be interesting to capture the decision-making process we were going through. You can clearly see the filmmaking style change and us change as individuals as the narrative develops.”

The four friends engage the services of a radical animal activist who helps them gain illegal access to a battery hen factory; the sad footage turns shocking when, during the course of shooting, the live export controversy erupted and smuggled film of barbaric slaughter practices surfaced (see footage here; viewer discretion advised).  “That footage was informing the wider population at the same time as it was informing us and our filming,” says Dahlstrom, who remained mindful that the horrible minutiae of slaughterhouse reality is not always the most effective tool an activist can employ. “If you show really extreme footage, then people will have a knee-jerk reaction and they will switch off or react with the own extreme views.”

“What we wanted to capture was the realities of intensive farming facilities, but also the transition of animal welfare issue from fringe activism to something that all of Australia was talking about,” he says, confirming that The Animal Condition was designed to preach beyond the converted. “The audience that we had in mind was certainly the Australian public. We wanted to create a time capsule of what happened in 2009 up until the end of live exports.”

Ultimately, Dahlstrom’s film impacts due to a very even-handed approach, ensuring all parties involved in modern farming practices have time to air their points-of-view. Corporate heads, political leaders and intensive farmers are given as strong a voice as the pro-animal liberationists and traditional farmers. The film captures a turning point for a country that has proudly boasted of the wealth it has attained by ‘riding on the sheep’s back’, i.e. exploiting the rich, natural world for economic gain.

“I think for us to grow as a country we have to be self-reflective,” says the director. “If having an international eye on us makes us conscious of what we are doing and the example we set as a population, and this film helps to shine that kind of spotlight on us, then that can only help us as a nation.”

Michael Dahlstrom will be in attendance when The Animal Condition screens at the Sydney Underground Film Festival un Sunday, September 7. Full details can be found at the event website here.

Thursday
Aug212014

LITTLE BIG MAN: THE ANDREW LEAVOLD INTERVIEW

It all began with For Y’ur Height Only, a no-budget Filipino Bond rip-off starring an 83cm tall Primordial dwarf named Weng Weng. Cult movie aficionado and guerilla filmmaker Andrew Leavold recalls happening across an “8th generation VHS tape of the film in the early Nineties”, a fateful event from which an obsession grew, leading Leavold deep into the Pinoy film sector to unearth the truth behind the legend that was Weng Weng. Seven years in the making, his documentary The Search for Weng Weng chronicles the journey, from the bewildered faces of those who have no idea who Weng Weng was to the palaces of Imelda Marcos to the dark truths about the diminutive actor’s brief stardom. Ahead of his films’ screening at the Sydney Underground Film Festival, Leavold chatted with SCREEN-SPACE about the extraordinary project… 

How many forms did the film take over the long course of the production’s history?

When I started shooting in 2006, I had absolutely no idea how the narrative would take shape. 
I was stumbling around in the dark trying to piece something together. Initially I kept running into brick walls 
and suspected that the "search" part would end up just that: a collision into a wall of silence, indifference or forgotten memories.
 It was only on the second trip to Manila in February 2007 that Weng Weng's story began to take form.
 His personal details, childhood, his rise to fame and subsequent betrayal by his producer/manager/adoptive parent figures. I knew that I was sitting on a dynamite story 
but didn't have the detail, or the narrative frame, to piece it all together. That took another six years, right up to the end of editing, to nail properly. So you could say it's taken many shapes over the years, not least its morphing into Machete Maidens Unleashed for three years! I thanked (Machete Maidens… director) Mark Hartley for that at our MIFF screening. Machete Maidens freed up the film, (allowing us) to focus on the personal journey.

What is your take on the role played by Peter and Cora Caballes, the husband/wife team who controlled Weng Weng’s career? At best, they emerge as estranged parental figures; at worst, a film industry version of the freak show operator.

I desperately wanted Cora on camera, giving her side of the saga 
to give the documentary an even-handed focus. She issued me a challenge over the phone: come to California and talk to me face to face. So after two phone calls to arrange an interview, Daniel (Palisa, co-producer and co-writer) and I flew to the US 
and rang her answering machine every day with no response. To this date, I have received no replies to hundreds of emails.
Instead, we have the testimonies of several of her closest team members - the two directors for the Caballes' Liliw Productions, who both call them "Godmother" and "Godfather", who say some pretty damning things about their lack of care and financial culpability. Also, you hear Weng Weng's brother telling the family's side of things
 so personally, I think that speaks for itself.

When the home-video market exploded and action reined, every country had their enigmatic action hero. Was Weng Weng's success just a case of 'right place/right time' or did he somehow transcend the one-dimensional action hero figure he played?

In the Philippines and overseas, he was more of a novelty act that a bona fide action hero. His contemporaries and co-stars like Tony Ferrer, Lito Lapid, Ramon Zamora and Dante Varona would all enjoy 20+ year careers, (but) not Weng Weng. The peak of his fame would last less than a year, after years of playing sidekicks. The very fact that his novelty transcended the Philippine borders is very much a case of right time/right place, as it has everything to do with Imelda's film festival in January '82 
selling his film to the world (pictured, below: press clipping from Manila media). That fuelled an intense fascination with Weng Weng in the Philippines but again, for a few months at the most. 
Primordial dwarves have a very limited lifespan, usually no more than thirty years. You can also apply that analogy to Weng Weng's career
- short, intense, then POOF!
-
 within a very finite time frame, he's back in his old neighbourhood, forgotten and ailing fast.

Your film begins small (the room full of locals bemused at this big Aussie and his obsession) and ends on a very small but achingly intimate moment, yet tells a vast story about celebrity and the Pinoy industry in between. Was it at all hard to remain focused on the personal journey at the heart of the story?

Some have criticized us for including too much "big picture" stuff. I disagree, as context is very important in understanding Weng Weng's place in Filipino culture. And for not concentrating on Weng Weng himself, which is absurd. We do give as detailed a portrait as is humanly possible, given the fact that the subject has already passed, archives have next to no material about him, and those closest to him have fading memories. I think those facts alone qualifies our film as a remarkable piece of research. A few audience members wanted more of me 
and the "search"
 so really, you can't win (laughs).

I'm glad you raised that because the current trend for documentarians to put themselves in their films frustrates me, yet you find a beautiful balance between your story and obsessive search and the focus of that obsession. Is it a tough balancing act?

To be honest, I wanted less of me in the film 
but structuring the film as a detective story rather than simple bio was an important narrative device. 
I deliberately avoided placing myself in front of the camera as much as possible, preferring to have my voice behind the camera as a guide rather than indulging in ‘Michael Moore’ moments like placing my hand on the grave or placing a polaroid of Weng Weng on Cora's doorstep.
 So yeah, it is a serious balancing act. 
From what audiences tell us, the majority think we got it right.

You must be heartened by the international acceptance and festival profile the film and your journey is enjoying?

2014 has been the payoff 
for what feels like seven years in the wilderness, staring at the sun and yelling to an empty desert about a two foot nine James Bond! To travel with the film, to share it with an audience and receive instant feedback, 
it's a dream. 
I'm sure Weng Weng, wherever he is right now, is clapping his hands together with pure glee. We took him back to Cannes 
after 32 years
 and last week took him home to Baclaran. We screened the film to his relatives, neighbours and classmates outside the house in which he was born and died.
We fed the neighbourbood kids pizza and soft drink, then sat down with the adults with three bottles of brandy and got drunk with them! 
Seriously, you can't get more profound a moment than that. When the people who knew him best all say "good job,” it makes the assholes that doubt your sincerity pale into insignificance.

Finally, does this mean your obsession has run its course? The very moving narration you provide over those final frames and the local’s acceptance you just describe suggest a closure of sorts.

Not at all. The book comes next. I keep running into more players in the saga 
and besides, I don't have Cora on the record.
 I mean, I talked to one of his neighbours about the Santo Nino thing, and he claims he was healed by Weng Weng! 
There are still so many holes to fill in the story
 and then there's the bigger picture stuff to tell in more detail, so I think my fate has been sealed. The Philippines is truly my second home
 and it's all thanks to that two foot nine avatar of mine.

The Search for Weng Weng will screen at the Sydney Underground Film Festival on Sunday, September 7. Full details can be found at the event's website.

Sunday
Aug172014

SEA OF LOVE: THE GIRL SAVING OUR OCEAN'S ALPHA PREDATOR

Much is made of the notion that it must be the current generation of young people who will start to rebuild the planet, righting the wrongs of those before them. No one embodies the spirit of global change more than Madison Stewart, currently travelling the world with her documentary Shark Girl, a moving account of her life amongst the ocean’s alpha predators and a blistering indictment of the brutal exploitation they suffer. Her actions and words are generating a groundswell of global support; just don’t call her and activist…

“I hate being called an activist,” the 20 year-old Queenslander says with a laugh from New York City, where she has slotted in a few minutes to chat with SCREEN-SPACE as part of a hectic US media schedule. “People hear that term and think that what we do is part of some ultra-radical green agenda, when the truth is I am just a normal Australian person who loves our oceans. I can’t just sit down and let injustice occur.”

Shark Girl traces Stewart’s deep bond with the ocean, from her childhood living on the family boat on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to her acceptance of the role as global ambassador for shark conservation. “I spent more time growing up in the ocean with sharks than I ever did with people, so to me they are just such a normal, everyday part of my life,” she recalls. The film features footage shot by her father of a pre-teen Madison swimming with schools of reef sharks and her first dive amongst Tiger sharks. “I couldn’t imagine growing up without them.”

Offering an international perspective with footage from Mexico, Palau and The Bahamas, the film balances Stewart’s personal journey with insights into the worldwide slaughter and trading of sharks. At times, the footage is harrowing and the truths behind fishing industry claims remarkably affecting. “The laws pertaining to our oceans are allowing destruction and failing to protect the protected species,” she says, hoping that education will inspire action. “Reaction from the public is now required, the kind of reaction that I have been having for so long that it has become a normal part of my life. As long as the injustices keep occurring, we have to fight back.”

Although the filming duties on Shark Girl went to co-directors Gisela Kaufman and Carsten Olt (pictured, right), Stewart is an accomplished underwater photographer with several documentary shorts to her credit. The latest is Obstruction is Justice, compiled from footage while on location in Western Australia to cover the introduction of the controversial shark culling policy. Says Stewart, “What is happening in Western Australia is an unfair, misguided gross injustice. The culling will never stop shark attacks and any shark expert will tell you that. To see these amazing animals, these beautiful Tiger Sharks, being so randomly killed is such a tragic thing.”

The footage captures fisheries officers breaching ocean-going rules and threatening the lives of Stewart and her crew. The stakes were clearly high for both parties. “It took a rather harsh turn,” she acknowledges. “My decision to film sharks in WA turned into this much bigger thing, a movement (that) was threatened with court action. They tried to take our footage from us, just because we wanted to film what the government was doing to the shark population.” But the fierceness of the fight against the state government’s policy only succeeded in highlighting her presence and the callousness of the cull. “Taking a stance like that is becoming a necessity for the everyday person and there were a lot of everyday people who became involved for the first time while we were in WA,” she says, proudly.

Madison Stewart understands that the inherent fear/thrill response human beings have towards sharks will be hard to alter. “Sharks are one of those few animals that we have not established control over. I can understand how that can be scary for people,” she admits. It is an easily exploited avenue for a modern media seeking a fresh sensationalistic angle. “(They) still love a good shark attack story and still exploit the images created by Jaws. That kind of media is just not realistic.”

What the young documentary maker does hope to achieve with her films and growing profile is a more balanced social acceptance of the ocean’s greatest predators. “I don’t need people to love sharks or not be scared of them,” she says, “I just need to people to respect them.”

Shark Girl is available on DVD at The ABC Shop in Australia and is currently screening on the Smithsonian Channel in the US.