Do we respect these Truffle Hunters? Or are we laughing at them?

I am not what they call "a foodie." If I was, I might have known what an Alba truffle was before seeing a movie about where they grow, how they're found, and who finds them.

I'd venture to guess, though, that this confession will also reveal something about my economic status. As The Truffle Hunters reveals, Alba truffles are rare wonders that are sold at high prices and, if they're big enough, auctioned off for a fortune, simply so they can be shaved delicately over plates of gourmet cuisine. I'm a teacher who isn't paid enough to live in the city he teaches in, so... no wonder I've never heard of the Alba truffle before!

A different kind of scavenger hunt: a truffle hunter and his dogs in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]
Consider me newly educated thanks to this intriguing documentary from filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. I was fascinated by this curious species called truffle hunters — almost as much as I was fascinated by the humans who let them off their leashes. I'm kidding, of course: The title refers to the curious, competitive men who have made it their mission in life to know where the best truffles grow, get to them first, and get them into the pipeline so they'll end up in the bellies of the rich. Dweck and Kershaw, aided mightily by drone-mounted cameras, give us God's-eye perspectives dense, damp forests in Northern Italy's Piedmont region, a wilderness that is breathtaking when dusted with snow. These aerial views look at first like Jackson Pollock paintings, but then we zoom in and notice movement: dogs, and then a man, foraging among the roots of the trees.

While I still don't know what truffles taste like, I now know what it's like to dig for them, how heavily this industry depends on the sophisticated snouts of certain dogs, and how deadly this discipline can be for those same dogs. And the movie is exhilarating whenever we're given, via GoPro cameras, the point of view of the bounding, barking dogs as they scanning currents of air for Alba truffle signals.

GoPro on Doggo! [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]
But Dweck and Kershaw are most interested in providing intimate portraiture of four idiosyncratic truffle hunters. And that, for me, is where the film falls short.

In her Washington Post review, Ann Hornaday compares The Truffle Hunters to 2019's Honeyland, a documentary that I found enthralling for how it invited us into the lives of one extraordinary beekeeper and the elderly mother she devotedly served. Jordan Raup at The Film Stage makes the same comparison, and he raves about the hunters as having "so much personality, joy, and life in them."

While I can see some basic similarities between the two films, I think there are substantial differences in matters that really count — and that's why The Truffle Hunters isn't likely to end up on my annual top ten list like Honeyland did. Sure, this movie reveals a similarly remote and unfamiliar world, one that sometimes seems timeless and enchanted. But Honeyland found a compelling narrative, and we became invested in the survival and success of its remarkable beekeeper and her ancient, suffering mother. By contrast, these hunters, while entertaining at first in their eccentricity, ultimately remain stubbornly and annoyingly opaque. Their pasts are uninvestigated. Their lives beyond the hunt are enigmatic. And the single-mindedness of their obsession — well, I found it more exasperating than amusing.

A perfect marriage? A truffle hunter murmurs sweet nothings to the secret of his success. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

One spends most of his down time ignoring his wife's relentless — and well-founded — complaints and concerns. One talks to and feeds treats to his dog obsessively. One thrashes at a drum set in the great outdoors — for therapy, it seems. One has given up truffle hunting in disillusionment over the corruption of the industry and the violations of personal and professional boundaries, and now he spends his time furiously typing rants about his gripes with culture in general — including, of all things, the lost art of... undressing women? The film comes a little too close to making caricatures of each one, as if they might find fuller lives in a Christopher Guest mockumentary (which, I admit, I would watch). I don't want to go so far as to say the filmmakers are being patronizing (but that's exactly the term used by Simon Abrams at RogerEbert.com). Perhaps they went hunting for treasure in this promising context and this was the best they could come up with. But I can't help but imagine what we might have learned about them, or how we might have loved them, had someone with the curiosity of Agnes Varda been behind the camera.

A truffle hunter bathes — and blow dries! — his dog. Do not try this at home! [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

What's more, I was surprised at the lack of subtext as the film unfolded. This subject matter is glowing with poetic promise. All of the pieces for a meaningful portrait of a corrupt industry are here: The wealthy who spend fortunes to taste rare fungi dug up by dogs from the earth. The judges who have devoted their lives to a particular delicacy and have noses — literally — for the good stuff. The go-betweens, agents who find the talented hunters and apply just enough pressure to get the best of them without burning them out. The hunters themselves who take pride in what they do well, but who really depend on their talented dogs for finding their best discoveries. And the dogs, born with good noses, eager to make their masters happy, and asking so very little in return. It all volunteers to be read as representative of any artistic adventure being spoiled by the cruelty of competitive commerce. It could have been a documentary equivalent of my favorite television series of the last decade: Detectorists. Who could ask for a better metaphor, the vocabulary of truffle-hunting as a way expressing humankind's common search for the sublime?

Like a villain of commerce in a Terry Gilliam dystopia, the Master of Truffles sniffs at the fruits of the hunters' harvest. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

And, to their credit, the filmmakers seem to be somewhat curious about the great divide between the wealthy dealers of prize truffles, men in suits who live in apparent luxury, and the troubles of the men who are pressured into digging up more and more to the point that they become trespassers. (Worse, their determination turns others into dog-poisoners.) There's something of a commentary on exploitation here; it's just not particularly detailed or enlightening. And I can't escape a vague discomfort, as if there might be a touch of exploitation in the filmmaking as well.

Anyway, The Truffle Hunters offers a pleasant 84 minutes in the woods with some good dogs. And now I know what a dog sees when, wet with rain and mud, it shakes itself off.


Watching Together Together with Woody Allen on my mind

Earlier this week, I savored two hours in a surprisingly crowded movie theater. So far in 2021, the theaters I've visited have been almost empty, but now it looks like vaccinated moviegoers are returning to theaters! And they weren't there for a big noisy blockbuster — they had come for an indie comedy: Nikole Beckwith's new film Together Together.

The film follows 26-year-old Anna — played so winningly by a jittery Patti Harrison that I'm hoping to see more of her — on a journey of surrogate motherhood for a 40-something divorcee. His name is Matt and, played by Ed Helms in an endearingly squishy turn, he's a bit of a control freak... perhaps a hint as to why he's alone. What begins as an awkward contract develops into an unexpectedly intimate relationship, and (thank goodness!) not the sort you might expect. As Matt hovers and frets and obsesses about the baby within this attractive stranger's womb, and as Anna struggles to draw healthy boundaries for their relationship, we see a friendship bloom quite unlike anything we've seen in a movie before.

It's as tough to describe Matt's relationship with Anna as it is to pick a color for his child's nursery.

Matt is a character with an alarming lack of boundaries for at least half of the movie, and Helms makes that lack of social grace uncomfortable in a way that will remind many of us of his character on The Office. (Matt is, at times, just a bit too sit-commy in his obliviousness.) But Helms finds enough depth in Matt's longing to be a father to make his weaknesses ultimately endearing. I just wish I understood the character more. He avoids answering a lot of questions about his past, and he remains something of an enigma to me.

Anna makes a little more sense to me, and the nuances of Harrison's performance makes her the more fascinating subject, especially when more is demanded of her in the final act. Unfortunately, a few of the supporting characters around her lean, again, into sit-commy territory — particularly the mopey barista named Jules (Julio Torres) who seems to exist on another planet. It wouldn't have hurt to hear more from Tig Notaro as the platonic couple's counselor; she finds the right balance of funny but understated.

Co-baristas Anna and Jules (Julio Torres) deal with a customer who has crossed a line.

But despite the film's stumbles, here's something I'll remember about it: About 30 minutes into the film (if I recall correctly), I was startled by a conversation between Matt and Anna about, of all things, Woody Allen's perverse obsession with much younger women.

The timing was uncanny. I had only just wrapped up a classroom conversation with my film students about Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors — in which the most intimate relationship between a male and a female occurs between Allen's own 50-something character and a pre-teen girl. The classroom audience seemed predictably conflicted. They found Allen's Oscar-winning comedy engaging, challenging, and upsetting. They were particularly troubled as they learned about Allen himself, the apparently predatory tendencies that are evident in his own storytelling, and the evidence of his abusive tendencies currently spotlighted in the HBO series Allen vs. Farrow. But the students ended up divided on whether or not we should go on spending time with his films. Some argued that we should not honor him with our attention, much less any dollars required to access his work. Others seemed to think that the work has a lasting value, and that the rewards of considering it and discussing it outweigh any negligible "honor" or dollars that might end up in Allen's pocket.

Platonic place-setting: Father-to-be Matt and surrogate mother Anna set some boundaries.

So you can imagine my surprise, watching Together Together, to hear Anna's swift and merciless judgment of Allen's filmography as unacceptably perverse. At RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz counts this among the film's biggest mistakes, calling it "a pointless detour into subtext-as-text" and "the worst thing in the movie by a wide margin because it's inorganic and discursive—a withering critical monologue that should've been saved for the PR tour." I agree that the scene is a bit on-the-nose. But when it arrived, I experienced a sudden rush of relief. Why relief? If Together Together was going to confront head-on the dangers of such substantial age gaps in romantic relationships, that meant I could relax about where Beckwith was taking Matt and Anna. They weren't going to end up together together in that way. (If that had happened, it would have felt like a misguided kind of crowd-pleasing aimed at viewers with the poorest judgment.)

Fortunately, Beckwith has much more interesting possibilities in mind, and that's the saving grace of this film. The conversations between these two are edgy and discomforting enough to keep things interesting, and if you stick with them you will come away with an expanded map of the kinds of stories that are possible at the movies. It's amusing to watch critics wrestling with how to describe what Matt and Anna are experiencing. Seitz says, "[I]t feels wrong to call them 'a couple.' They're more than friends, less than lovers. Well, not 'less than,' because that phrase implies that a romantic relationship is greater than friendship. Then again, is this even a friendship?" I like the way Vox's Alissa Wilkinson puts it: This film "challenges how we imagine supportive relationships, the boundaries of friendships, and the many shapes love can take."

How many shapes has love taken in my friendships over half a century? All but a few of my relationships have been platonic, and nearly 25 years into my marriage, many of my closest friendships today are with women — friendships that feel like what I might have known if I'd grown up with sisters. Why are relationships like these such a rarity onscreen? I suspect it's because of storytellers' tendencies — and, let's face it, studio's tendencies — to want to catch and hold the audience's attention, and there are few lures more enticing than sex. But imagine how we might cultivate a healthier culture if meaningful, non-amorous relationships were depicted more frequently, and the rewards of such realities more recognizable? (Perhaps some would be freed from ideas as fear-based — and as harmful — as Mike Pence's beloved "Billy Graham rule"?)

The kind of deep breathing required of Matt and Anna is quite different than that of their pregnant-couple community.

While I'm not urging you to see Together Together on a big screen — it isn't particularly cinematic, and would play just fine on a small screen — the chemistry between Harrison and Helms warms into a meaningful — even inspiring — relationship, and that's enough to make it worth your time.

I love it when screenwriters cultivate characters and relationships so unique that I can't think of relevant comparisons from other films. Tom McCarthy did that with the friendship between the three leads in The Station Agent. Mackenzie Crook did that in his TV series Detectorists. Beckwith's characters may not come to life for me as fully as McCarthy or Crook's characters do, but her story held my attention to the end because I really had no idea how it was going to end up. Perhaps the best compliment I can give the film is that the cut to the end credits seemed abrupt, and I was immediately disappointed, wishing to go a little farther with both Ed and Anna, just to learn a little more about how things would play out from there. I suspect the sudden conclusion will end up being a productive disappointment; I'll keep thinking about what might be next for Matt and Anna for a long time to come.


The Courier: forgettable cinema about an unforgettable hero

Our screens are so over-saturated with superheroes these days that we're in danger of forgetting what real heroes look like. Superpowers are exciting — but they're also shortcuts. They show us what we might dream of becoming. But let me put it this way: I lost interest in Captain America as soon as Steve Rogers got Stay-Puffed on steroids... that is to say, before he became Captain America. Anyway, the point: It takes so much more courage to put your life at risk for the Greater Good when you have the same limitations as everybody else.

Such people do exist, though. I'll make a pitch for one a little later, one who has been punished for bravery. But first, I want to draw your attention to a movie. I've just seen a feature film that, much to my surprise, doesn't exaggerate or embellish what's required for the role of hero, nor does it exaggerate the likely costs of courage. Even more impressive, the astonishing story it tells is true.

It's been several years since our last big-screen lesson on the Cuban Missile Crisis, so here comes The Courier to squeeze another suspenseful drama out of what was perhaps the most terrifying moment in American history, and easily one of the most dangerous for the planet. The film follows salesman Greville Wynne — his name is so perfect that it's hard to believe it wasn't invented by John Le Carré — as he is recruited by MI6 and the CIA to become the titular errand boy, dodging the KGB and smuggling intelligence from Moscow to London in the days before the Internet offered easier options.

Played by Benedict Cumberbatch with a dumbfounded "I'm a salesman, not a spy!" case of nerves, Wynne is utterly forgettable. And  that's why he's the Chosen One. The hopes of America and the West against Russian aggression rest on somebody moving back and forth across borders without being noticed. This is a case of what's-good-for-espionage being what's-difficult-for-entertainment. And it's to Cumberbatch's credit that he sticks to this rule and avoids big Oscar-clip moments almost entirely. (Things take a brutal turn in the third act that requires the kind of extreme emotion that contest campaigns are built on.)

By contrast, the man he's sent to meet is made of stronger stuff: Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) has decided to gamble everything — his future, his family, his life — on his conscience, which tells him that he had better act fast and save the world from a nuclear holocaust.

This is where The Courier most resembles another Oscar-baiting spy movie: Spielberg's was engaging, driven by two memorable performances — although the reliable headliner Tom Hanks surrendered the movie to an outstanding turn from Mark Rylance. Similarly here, while Cumberbatch's role is more demanding and more dramatic, it's Ninidze who makes the strongest impression, the burden of his life-and-death gamble increasing until he looks like he might crumble. The movie is better when he's onscreen.

Bridge of Spies was the more satisfying film — and with Spielberg in charge, of course it was. The Courier is directed by Dominic Cooke, whose only big-screen feature before this was On Chesil Beach (reviews persuaded me to skip it); it's rather obvious that he's more of a TV guy, as this movie ends up feeling like two episodes of the kind of BBC series I might have watched during a week of dinners in the '90s. He doesn't have many interesting ideas here; he just puts his camera up close to actors who deserve better and says “Action!” ... which is ironic, since all he has them do is talk, drink, and smoke. I spent the whole movie dreaming of another Gary-Oldman-as-Smiley movie.

But I stayed in my seat because the supporting cast kicks up just enough sparks to make me care about more than just the story's historicity; they treat it like a movie, and that saves it from its lack of visual imagination. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's Rachel Brosnahan snaps some life into it as CIA agent Emily Donovan, even if her job amounts to little more than sticking up for Wynne when it becomes clear that the CIA might not take his safety as seriously as he does. By contrast, the best that can be said about Angus Wright, as MI6’s Dickie Franks, is that he looks the part and delivers his lines. Jessie Buckley nobly shoulders the burden of playing Wynne's wife, who initially suspects him of infidelity when his stories don't add up, but somehow the film is a lesser thing for making us watch one of the best big-screen actresses alive today shoved into such a familiar, uninteresting role. I can't even remember the character's name. [Checks notes: Shirley.]

I'll avoid spoilers regarding the film's final act, but if you know the true story, you know where we're headed. And you'd be right in thinking that it's very difficult to make such a turn dramatically interesting — not because it lacks drama, but because we've seen it so many times before. (Even Terrence Malick had trouble finding distinctive moments in such dark and troubling circumstances as those that eventually afflict poor Wynne.) Yes, sure, the trailers and the positive reviews are right on one thing: The Courier delivers "a fascinating tale of deceit." But it's the true story that's really remarkable. In better hands, this might have become a memorably suspenseful film as well.

And this is, for me, a clear case of G.K. Chesterton's observation that "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." The Courier isn't a bad movie. I wish it would have been better. Right now, we need stories about heroes who risk everything to save democracies from foreign threats. We need reminders that the planet is in peril when unstable and hot-headed leaders have nuclear weapons within their reach.

But then, such matters have been weighing heavily on my mind lately. I remember living in a country that took Russian threats seriously. Now I live in a country where we don’t celebrate the heroes who risk their lives to preserve our democracy from Russian attacks. We need look no further than the case of Reality Winner to see that Americans are, today, doing the Russians' work for them: We're jailing patriotic, conscience-driven heroes who risked everything to bring us the truth about attacks in progress.

So, by all means, go see The Courier. Cheer for a brave man and for the country that honors his sacrifice. Then, pray for Reality Winner and help me keep her name from being forgotten.


Go MacBook or Go Home: Why I finally watched (and enjoyed) Christopher Nolan's Tenet

If Christopher Nolan knew what I was doing, it would probably break his IMAX-loving heart. This is not what he intended.

I am watching his new movie not in a movie theater, but in my living room. On a laptop. With headphones on, because there are leafblowers outside, a dishwasher running in the kitchen, and a cat who, finding me distracted, demands my attention.

To borrow a line from the despairing King Theoden:

Nolan clearly wanted to rock the world with a "Go Big or Go Home" event — he made that plain with that ten-minute-long trailer, which showed off the massive scale of its ambitions by turning terrorists (or are they?) loose in a packed symphony hall. This wildly complicated action scene, with its trippy special effects and earth-shaking sound design made it clear: He was leaning hard into his obsessions. Pummeled by Nolan's signature sonic punctuation, I anticipated that this would be exactly what Empire's Alex Godfrey would eventually label it: Nolan's "blammiest film yet."

But then the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the film's release, theaters closed (many permanently), and moviegoers who value their lives begrudgingly shifted their routines to home-theater viewing. When the film finally did open in limited release, it did not persuade many to break their pandemic restrictions, self-imposed or governmental. To make matters worse, word-of-mouth reviews were mixed: The plot was too complicated, even by Nolan standards, and characters were poorly developed (Datebook's Mick LaSalle described the hero as "blank") and hard to care about. Those who insisted on its greatness were, for the most part, already Nolan super-fans.

Me, I steered clear of the whole conversation. My eagerness for Nolan's filmmaking fizzled a long time ago. Things began with a backwards-narrative bang: I loved Memento for the ingenuity of its inverse narrative, but I cared because it was told in extreme close-up, making me care about a man struggling with short-term memory loss. (Also, it was funny.) Memento was a big idea told on a small scale, such that I wasn't just trying to solve a puzzle — I felt the protagonist's desperation.

What's the difference between a Michael Bay explosion and a Christopher Nolan explosion? Nolan's pyrotechnics are serious.

But as Nolan's films have become progressively larger, louder, more interested in spectacle over storytelling, and more intent on overloading our senses than on inspiring us to care about characters, I've gone from enthusiasm to annoyance. The psychological clashes between characters in Insomnia, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight captivated me in a carefully calibrated context of human drama and big-screen fireworks. But the epic ambitions of The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Dunkirk, and even, to some extent, the heavy-hearted Interstellar failed to inspire me to come back for closer consideration.

So here I am, insulting his efforts to set movie screens ten stories tall ablaze by watching Tenet on a small screen. To be frank, this is probably the only way I was going to get around to seeing it before it becomes, eventually, a curiosity beloved only by Nolan's most devoted, geeks who love the puzzle-box convolutions of tangled-up time-travel stories.

In a speedboat scene that can only be described as "Michael Mann-ish," John David Washington plays Protagonist: an all-purpose action hero devoid of history and personality.

But maybe it's for the best that I'm experiencing the film this way. Tenet requires so much of the viewer's attention and intellect that if I'd seen it in a theater, beaten half to death by subwoofers and straining to understand the dialogue (that's a complaint I heard from many moviegoers), I probably would have bailed anyway, determining to wait until I could have more control over my circumstances.

And you know what? Watching it like this — on a small screen with easy-to-read captions and a clearer sound mix — I actually enjoyed it. I didn't understand it — no, it doesn't make a bit of sense, and characters in the movie take turns either trying to explaining it to us or telling us not to bother trying to understand. But the pleasure of watching Nolan play with some of his nifty and (at least for this moviegoer) original takes on time travel was worth the two hours, even as the hyper-explosive action reminded me of some of the silly summertime blockbusters of early moviegoing years — particularly Die Hard 2, with its jumbo-jet fireballs.

Kenneth Branagh is Sator, a snarling, spitting Russian villain who crawled out of a box of James Bond's take-out leftovers.

But even more than that, I'm remembering how so many of science fiction and fantasy stories became my favorites because I experienced in similar circumstances: I was sitting in a comfortable chair at home with a book open in my lap. Okay, technically it's a MacBook that's open in my lap here, but this experience reminds me of the joys of reading a challenging science fiction novel, one built on thrilling ideas. Something about the scale of this experience seemed just right: Tenet is best approached as an entertaining brain-teaser, not something profound that insists we kneel before it.

I mean, while the aesthetics scream to be taken seriously, the characters and the crises suggest that Nolan himself wasn't really interested in them.

Heroes Neil and Protagonist hold their breath during a gassy action sequence.

As I track this story of Sator, a megalomaniacal billionaire (played by Kenneth Branagh, chewing on a cartoonish Russian accent), who begins messing with both the future and the past in ways that threaten to annihilate human history, and as I follow the desperate efforts of a singularly uninspiring action hero literally called Protagonist (John David Washington), I am not inspired to care much about who lives or dies. (LaSalle again: "Washington, by contrast, doesn’t seem to be playing anything other than an attempt to be cool.")

If anyone in the movie has a chance of making us feel something, it's Kat, Sator's battered wife and the mother of his child. Played by the always-elegant Elizabeth Debicki, Kat is dressed to look like a chilly mannequin whom Sator might have once stretched half-to-death on a medieval torture rack. As she uses her incredibly long arms and legs to try and free herself and her son from the violence of their world-threatening abuser, she may be wearing a name tag saying "HELLO, I AM STOCK NOLAN FEMALE IN CRISIS." To her credit, Nolan lets her show some fight, particularly in a boat scene that recalls Polanksi's Knife in the Water. And I suppose it's a step forward in Nolan's storytelling that he gives so much screen time to a female character, but he has a lot to learn about female characterization.

Elizabeth Debicki is Kat, the necessary wife-and-mother in distress.

I wish I could feel here the stakes that I feel watching Shane Carruth's brain-benders Primer and Upstream Color. The former has the satisfying advantage of being focused on a friendship we care about, and its disintegration is genuinely distressing. Tenet ultimately fails because its concept is so much bigger than its characters. Nolan's signature obsession is, unfortunately, the same as so many of his villains — the desire to rig a game in such a way that audiences are forced to scramble in making sense of what they're seeing. There's a little too much of The Prestige's mad magicians (or even Tesla!) in him, a little too much of the Joker's mayhem. It's easy to imagine him guffawing like Bane from his Batman series as he braids his plot lines into a pretzel. (Let's give credit where credit is due: This screenplay must have been a beast to construct, and these action scenes, lensed by Hoyte Van Hoytema and edited by Jennifer Lame, were probably among the most complicated ever choreographed.) He wants us intrigued, challenged, and ultimately dazzled to the point of awe...

... and it's all in service of... what? The inevitable conclusions about love or human decency usually end up feeling more obligatory than affecting. Nolan's addiction to guns and explosions outshouts any inclination he has toward meaning. In his films I am so often taken back through time — back through my own moviegoing time, that is — to that moment in The Matrix when Neo decided that the solution was "guns, lots of guns," and my enthusiasm for the movie instantly collapsed. Exhausted and disoriented by Nolan's curlicue-rollercoasters Nolan, we end up fooled into thinking we've been stirred when, in fact, we've mostly been shaken. (Maybe that's why I'm not among the many campaigning for Nolan to direct a Bond film. I'll take the character, the humor, and the stakes in Casino Royale over this stuff any day.)

Among Protagonist's many hardships, he must try to look like one of the 1% in order to gain world-saving intelligence.

Still, while neither the characters nor the crisis interest me, the <i>concepts</i> eventually do: I'm intrigued by the ideas driving the movie's mind games. The nature of this movie's "What if?" experiments remind me of some of Primer's paradoxes and the grander philosophical ambitions of The Matrix trilogy. Special effects artists, perhaps inspired by the backwards-running destruction in Doctor Strange, play with some fantastic derivations of those ideas.

Once the dust settles and the echoes fade, I cannot shake the fact that there are deep matters of conscience at the heart of this story, matters that a greater artist might have teased out more compellingly. Some of them gleam in this exchange:

Protagonist: "He can communicate with the future?"

Arms dealer Priya: "We all do that, don’t we? Emails, credit cards, texts — anything that goes into the record speaks directly to the future. The question is… can the future speak back?"

Now that's an intriguing idea — the sort of inspiration that can light up a science fiction novel.

Protagonist tries get his gun with something like The Force — he means to "catch" it. Trust me, I can't explain it to you.

And this gets me thinking about science fiction itself as a genre. At its best, it's prophetic: It's the the Book of Revelation, a wild vision we can't fully understand but through which the future is speaking back to us, shouting about the wages of our sins-in-progress, but also reminding us that it's not too late. Like a lot of science fiction, Tenet places too much faith in humankind's ability to save itself through strength and technology, and shows little-to-no curiosity about any grander powers at work — except insofar as Love keeps insistently and irrationally working on the Protagonist's heart and motivating his decisions. In Protagonist's all-too-fleeting glimmers of conscience, I catch glimpses of the Divine at work in and through human beings, evidence that maybe God — the uncredited ghost in this well-oiled and exquisitely complicated machine — is present, whether the characters or the artists know it or not.

Having said that, I find one conundrum more challenging than anything else in the film. It's a question consistent with all of my frustrations with this film — a question of scale and proportion. Just as many are asking why Nolan would make a complicated movie so loud that audiences cannot hear clearly the characters' explanations for what is happening, I submit the following question:

Why would anybody ask 6' 3" Elizabeth Debicki to wear high heels?


Zhao, Varda, Sayles, and Malick: Why Nomadland is my favorite film of 2020

Several years ago, I wandered down to the reading room of Laity Lodge, a Texas conference center. I knew it to be the quietest, most restful place at the Lodge, and I needed a break after a few days of constant conversations with other writers. The reading room has an extraordinary view of the glacier-blue Frio River, and it was mid-morning, when sunlight paints a high canyon wall on the opposite side of the river. Vultures lazily patrol the skies, but even they seem calmed by the context. I was eager to be alone for a while, and, of course, to read. I mean, what else would one do in a reading room?

Reader, I did not read in the reading room.

Rather, I sat spellbound, gazing out the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows at what a mesmerizing dance. Birds were streaming up from the riverbank and right at the window, coursing in waves. There were too many moving too fast for me to count them, but they moved in such uncanny choreography that I could not look away. They did not strike the window — they aimed instead for the shadowed underside of the deck that sheltered the path outside. Each bird alighted upside down beneath the deck and madly dabbed bits of mud and clay from the river below. These were cliff swallows, and the small clumps of mud were nests in the making.

Here's a short video of a few magical moments:

As I watched and wondered how they could sustain such complicated flight patterns without trouble, a moment came that made me gasp. A hawk dove down over the river, perhaps thinking of snatching one of the swallows out of the air. And in a split second the entire flock moved as one, becoming a river of self-defense, turning and chasing the hawk until it was driven, bewildered, from the scene. And then, before I could blink, they were back, scattering in wild trajectories, picking up on their construction site right where they had left off.

I remember how it felt, how I could hardly believe that I was there to witness it. It felt like gratitude. I could have stayed there for hours. I thought of the line from the twenty-third Psalm: "My cup overflows."


Perhaps that scene sounds strangely familiar to you.

It should... if you've seen Chloe Zhao’s 2020 feature Nomadland.

Based on Jessica Gruber's 2017 work of non-fiction called Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao's film offers us a fictional narrative about a grieving widow named Fern (Frances McDormand) who puts her belongings in storage and begins living out of her van while moving from job to job around the country. Along the way, she gets to know a community of workers who, like her, struggle to make ends meet by pursuing jobs at parks, plants, and Amazon fulfillment centers. And eventually she becomes a part of an intentional community of nomads like her, a community of encouragement, support, and — perhaps most importantly — respect for the members' idiosyncratic boundaries and burdens.

Star-gazing nomads learn how to catch stars in their hands.  [Image from the trailer for Nomadland.]
As we follow Fern from place to place, we observe her navigating complicated relationships with other nomads, most of whom are played by non-professional actors who actually live the life that we're witnessing and work the jobs that we're discovering. (The only other recognizable movie star is David Strathairn — excellent, as always — as a friendly and flirtatious loner who tests Fern's resolve on matters of privacy and solitude.)

But we also spend a great deal of time alone with Fern as she takes in the beauty and the hardship of those awe-inspiring and often cruel landscapes. Even as we are occasionally enchanted by the sight of undeveloped country in panoramic splendor, sights that a city boy like me rarely sees, we also begin to sense how precarious her situation is, how much she needs community, and how much the community needs her.

One of the nomads who helps Fern out of a jam — an older woman named Swankie (playing herself) — becomes an important mentor on matters of survival. And it isn't long before Fern learns that survival isn't a road that will take Swankie much farther. As they face difficult truths in an intimate conversation, Swankie insists to Fern that she has lived a full life. She measures this fulness by things she has seen: “Moose in the wild. A moose family on a river in Idaho. And big white pelicans landing just six feet over my kayak on a lake in Colorado."

And then she talks about cliff swallows. Hundreds and hundreds of them.

Fern (Frances McDormand) learns not to ever say a final good-bye to people she'll meet "down the road."

I’m looking at Swankie's face which is illuminated as she describes the wonders that she has seen. But I’m seeing the Frio River cliff swallows in the Texas hill country. And I feel as though I’ve recognized this stranger as a sister.

Nomadland is one of those films in which we travel roads we would never otherwise travel, meet extraordinary people we would never otherwise meet, and find ourselves blessed in intimate and revelatory moments when they share something of themselves. It feels like a feast of unforgettable encounters. And in that, it becomes an experience so rare that I find myself thinking back with gratitude on a few other filmmakers, artists who were, I suspect, influential in the inspiration of this film.


On the map of cinema, I never expected to find an intersection joining the corners of Agnes Varda, Terrence Malick, and John Sayles. That's where I met The Rider, my first encounter with Chloe Zhao. I was moved and impressed. But now I've seen Nomadland, which is, by my lights, an even grander achievement. And I realize that I am present to witness the raising of what might become a great house in one of my favorite neighborhoods.

Forget about Nomadland's Oscar buzz and spotlight interviews — they're unnecessary. That's show business trying to interrupt an authentic moment and celebrate something real so that it can make itself look meaningful. But Zhao's movies don't need Oscars; they're already the real thing, the rare wonder, the revelation that cinema can give us. Time will prove their quality, and any Oscars will end up a footnote. The best I can hope for from the Academy's attention is that some unsuspecting moviegoers might be introduced to the potential of the art form, wake up, become curious, and start exploring beyond the bounds of multiplex consumerism and find out what a wide, wild world cinema really is.

Fern's closest friend is her home on wheels: "Vanguard."

The movies are a business. And show business is interested in learning what you already like so it can know what to sell you, take more of your money, and get more advertisements in front of you. Show business comes from studies and surveys and formulas. Show business isn't interested in challenging you, inspiring you, or cultivating empathy. It likes its categories and its algorithms. The movies are a grid, a network of boxes: a grid that helps business calculate and expand.

Cinema, by contrast, is a world of creative freedom. It comes from imaginations driven by and drunk on beauty and truth, people who will put second mortgages on their homes and spend their life savings in order to bring their visions to life. Their work is playful, curious, exploratory. It refuses categories ad looks at formulas as opportunities for surprise and change. Cinema's a globe, and an ever-changing one, with porous borders so rivers of influence flow freely across cultures and languages. It welcomes inspiration and it enables inspiration, so those who attend to it best be ready: They might come to know the lives and ways of neighbors they never knew they had. They might learn new languages. They might escape becoming mere consumers led by the system; they might become more fully human.

Okay — I get it: I'm describing a false binary. Sure, the Movies and Cinema overlap in all kinds of ways. After all, Moviegoers sometimes develop an appetite for art. And Cinephiles are an audience that, like any audience category on the grid of The Movies, can be marketed to. Many of the greatest filmmakers are also savvy businesspeople with their eyes on the box office, and many up-and-coming independent imaginations are aiming for their shot at a Marvel movie. So I'm not doing anyone any good if I paint these worlds as oppositional and exclusive.

But the more I grow weary of franchise-focused, formulaic movies, and the more I become allergic to nostalgia merchants, the more I find myself grateful for those artists, those loners, those imaginations out on the edges of things. For Wim Wenders and Claire Denis, for Lee Isaac Chung and Jim Jarmusch, for Sean Baker and Sofia Coppola.

The spirit of Agnes Varda is alive and well in Nomadland's encounters with drifters, philosophers, and survivors.

Right now, I'm thankful for Chloe Zhao. In two remarkable films, she has gone off the grid, exploring aspects of America that most filmmakers either avoid or never discover at all. She is interested in the overlooked, the neglected, the unwanted. She is interested in the poor and the pain that they carry. And so, in a spirit that I cannot help but describe as "Christ-like," she loves those neighbors with her camera, with her storytelling, and with her editing. Zhao strikes me as an artist who finds her films by listening rather than forcing other people and other places into her preconceived notions.

And in doing so, she carries the torch of Agnes Varda, revealing the dignity and glory of those living beyond the borders of pop-culture's superficial, glamour-obsessed favor. She carries the torch of John Sayles, devoted to the art of compassionate storytelling. She carries the torch of Terrence Malick, well aware that the place in which a story unfolds is every bit as important as the characters — and, in fact, that place is a character, one with much to say, one we ignore at our peril.

Fern and her friend Linda May cover a lot of ground in their journeys from job to job.

With Nomadland, she's prepared a place place that brings those influences together while she breaks new ground all her own. Infusing a real-world nomadic American community with just enough fiction to sculpt a convincing narrative arc, and following Frances McDormand in the discovery of her most exquisite performance, Zhao keeps us moving from place to place on the edges of American society, and in doing so it establishes a new point on the map for our moviegoing souls — a place to grieve together, to look and listen, and to love. It's a lonely place, and a costly one. But it offers views and encounters that we will never forget.

Here, Zhao builds on the strengths of The Rider and reveals that she is growing fast as a filmmaker. She already has a singular voice and vision as truthful and as beautiful as any in American filmmaking today. But the thing is... she's not an American filmmaker. Sometimes, it takes a visitor to show us who we are. (Zhao is Chinese.) If someone can hold up such a clear and revealing mirror and speak the truth with love, well... that is a rare and priceless gift. I am grateful.

David Strathairn, star of John Sayles's Limbo, is a man living on the edge again here.

Nomadland is full of expressions of love — I don't know what else to call it — for the people Zhao discovers in her journeys and for the filmmakers whose distinctive visions have inspired and shaped her own. The two I thought about most were Malick and Varda. I caught what I think to be deliberate callbacks to The Tree of Life, Vagabond, and even The Gleaners and I. But the casting of Straithairn as a burdened wanderer may be a nod to Sayles's Limbo, another attentive and compassionate look at people compelled to live on the literal edge.

But I don't want to give the impression that Nomadland is pastiche. Zhao's way of making movies is unique, and her passion for honoring those who live on the road, in the in-between places, and out on the edges of things strikes me as a filmmaking form of Gospel.

This movie had me thinking about people I've met along the way who I can't stop thinking about, people who you aren't likely to meet because they tend to keep to themselves — not because they're running from something, not because they're introverts, not because of... anything simple. It had me thinking about Jesus and how he sought out and loved those who didn't fit anybody else's idea of "success" and honored them by serving them.

Whether it's in a rush of birds or a congregation of nomads, the Kingdom of God is at hand for those with eyes to see — and right now I don't know that I trust any filmmaker to capture it more than I trust Zhao right now. No movie in 2020 moved me more than Nomadland.


Lee Isaac Chung Week, Day Five: a review of Abigail Harm

In The Fisher King, we watch as a painfully lonely woman named Lydia, played by Amanda Plummer, finds the courage to hope that the man pledging his love to her is speaking the truth. She's been hurt before. But she is brave. Trembling, she touches his face, and she says in an awestruck whisper, "You're real!"

In Abigail Harm, it happens again. An unlikely stranger walks into the life of a painfully lonely woman, and the possibility of love blooms. Wavering between disbelief and ecstasy, she touches his face and whispers, "You're real."

But this is a very, very different film than The Fisher King.

And Abigail is older, more mercurial, and more deeply troubled than Lydia. Having grown up in the shadow of a charismatic and eloquent father, she has developed a deep sense of invisibility. Nobody sees her, and so she had withdrawn from the world into a corrosive isolation, working as a reader to the blind who literally cannot see her.

So how does she end up whispering intimately to a stranger? It all happens so fast. Having offered help to a mysterious stranger (played Will Patton) who shows up in her home, Abigail finds her kindness returned with an offer she can't refuse. This half-mad transient from somewhere "up there" tells her about the strange things he has experienced in his fleeting experience as a human being — love being the greatest of them all. "Have you ever been in love?" he asks her. "I can arrange it for you." And then he gives her instructions for what to do when she finds this man: steal and hide his cloak. If she does, he is bound to her forever.

Okay, what is this?

It is, in fact, a Korean folk tale called "The Woodcutter and the Nymph" served up in a contemporary context.

And it gets weirder. For a while, as Abigail's father is dying in isolation, we watch Abigail dash around a beautifully dilapidated structure (one that reminds me of that gorgeously decaying cathedral in Andrei Rublev), searching for her promised companion. She's giddy — giddy in the tension of doubt and hope. Doubt, hope... and denial.

Amanda Plummer is again playing a woman who dreams of love but is almost too scared to risk it.

And then, boom! A man — we might suspect him, played by Tetsuo Kuramochi, to be a Korean immigrant if the situation weren't so mystical — appears naked in a tub. Abigail snatches his cloak and... the game is afoot.

 

What unfolds is a strangely unnerving love affair, as Abigail lures the stranger to her home, slowly teases him into a lovesick delirium, and serves as his tour guide through a magical re-imagining of New York that she describes as "harsh" and evil.

But it's not the world outside that seems threatening. It's the nature of the relationship. The affecting, enchanting score by Bryan Senti veers between dreamy bliss, as if this were a melancholy teen romance, and a slight dissonance that never lets us get too comfortable.

What would you do if you were offered love for the simple price of stealing someone's cloak?

It's a rare thing to see an actress in her 50s given a chance to play in a passionate love story. And Plummer commits fully to this enigmatic character in long-take close-ups that track her through jagged labyrinths of raw emotions.

And speaking of labyrinths, the "faun" from the folk tale — or "The Companion" as he's credited here — is as emotionally unreadable as Abigail is expressive. He might become a charismatic prospect for her if he didn't seem so bewildered in this world and so uncertain about the woman wooing him. He's like the opposite of the angel who becomes human in Wings of Desire — he isn't sure he's down with love, or even down with having a roommate. So, their kisses, when they finally come, are awkward and unconvincing. And their indoor intimacy is more tragic than inspiring in how it exposes the fathomless depths of Abigail's longing and loneliness.

Abigail Harm director Lee Isaac Chung worked from a script he co-wrote with Samuel Gray Anderson based on a Korean folktale.

There's a strange "conversation" in which Abigail reveals the burden that her father has been in her life. In his popularity and confidence, he became someone she sought to distinguish and distance herself from. It's a strange monologue, and here in the days immediately following news of Christopher Plummer's passing, I couldn't help but wonder if this scene, filmed ten years ago, might not have tapped into something deep and true in this particular actress.

But that's a tangent. I'm in danger of spoiling where this film is going. Suffice it to say that Abigail Harm does not lead us where we might have guessed. It has zero interest in crowd-pleasing, and It's committed to a strangeness I feel when reading foreign folktales — it's more a cautionary tale than an inspirational story of what happens when we wish upon a star.

This is the only Lee Isaac Chung film I've found difficult to watch. Its abstractions, its abrasive protagonist, its long and demanding silences — all of these make me altogether uncertain of how to interpret what I'm seeing, and the strangeness of Plummer's performance keeps me guessing as to what I'm supposed to think of her. But this is more about my discomfort with the unfamiliar than it is about any skill or artistry on the filmmakers' part.  I find myself admiring the courage of these storytellers — Chung co-wrote this with his longtime creative partner Samuel Gray Anderson, and I hope they work together again.

The conclusion of this film confronts the audience with a challenge to their understanding of love. "What," it seems to ask, "did you think was going to happen here? What did you think the lesson of Abigail's life might be?" Maybe we should have taken her name seriously from the start, as obvious as that may seem.


Lee Isaac Chung Week, Day Four: two epic conversations with the director of Minari

I've been looking forward to this moment since 2018.

And it's kind of cool that it's happening now, when so many more moviegoers are discovering Lee Isaac Chung's filmmaking with Minari. When we recorded this, Minari was a dream and a script-in-progress.

Many thanks to Roy Salmond, who not only produced the podcast, but who helped me track it down when it was lost during a podcast transition.

Two summers ago, I sat down with Chung for an episode of the Image Podcast produced by Roy Salmond.

That recording got lost when a new host was hired for the podcast, but I kept digging, trying to find it and share it. And here it is, at last, recovered and restored! Many thanks to Image for sharing it with the word this week while Minari is in theaters and streaming for the first time.

Listen to my new conversation with Lee Isaac Chung here, at Image.


This conversation was recorded at the 2018 Glen Workshop where Lee Isaac Chung taught a screenwriting seminar.

We talked about his filmography — Munyurangabo, Lucky Life, Abigail Harm, and I Have Seen My Last Born. 

And — here's something I'll never forget — Isaac invited me and several other Glen Workshop participants to stage a reading of the script for Minari. 

I played the part of 6-year-old David, who represents in many ways the child that Isaac himself once was, exploring with his grandmother on that Arkansas farm. Writer Morgan Meis played David's father. Poet Devon Miller-Duggan played David's grandmother. Rose Hlaing Faissal was his mother; Valerie Chung was his sister! What a family!

Lee Isaac Chung introduces an early reading of the Minari screenplay for a live audience at the Glen Workshop in August 2018.

This winding discussion covers much of Chung’s filmography up to that point. Chung’s latest film, Minari, is getting rave reviews by critics and fans alike, and the Glen Workshop is thanked in the credits. We’re grateful to have played a small part in encouraging Chung’s creative vision.

Valerie and Lee Isaac Chung with me just after the Minari reading at the Glen Workshop in August 2018.

 


THE PREQUEL: A 2009 CONVERSATION

That 2018 podcast recording wasn't my first long conversation with Lee Isaac Chung. In fact, he has visited both my own Glen Workshop film seminar and my Seattle Pacific University classroom via Skype to talk with workshoppers and students.

But our first conversation was an epic correspondence in June of 2009 upon the event of the home video release of Munyurangabo by Film Movement. It was originally published at Filmwell, and now lives in the archives of The Other Journal: Part One, Part Two.

Here — re-published at Looking Closer for the first time in its entirety — is that 2009 conversation.


A CINEMA OF LISTENING AND LOOKING:
A CONVERSATION WITH LEE ISAAC CHUNG

By Jeffrey Overstreet

June 8, 2009


American moviegoers didn’t let the title Ratatouille stop them. But can they pronounce Munyurangabo?

So try this: moo – new – ra – NGA – bo.

When I asked director Lee Isaac Chung how I should pronounce the title, he told me that he asked his friends in Rwanda. “I am told that there are no accents for the syllables,” he says, “but I have heard consistently that the syllable I emphasize should be stressed—nga.”

Chung heard and experienced a lot of interesting things as he made this, the first feature film in the Kinyarwandan language. It’s a movie about the memories, trials, and daily experiences of those Rwandans striving to go on with life in the aftermath of 1994’s genocidal violence.

It will be a shame if audiences read the premise of Munyurangabo and assume it’s just another Western show of hand-wringing lament over foreign troubles. Chung went to Rwanda to teach Rwandans how to make movies, and he decided that the best way to teach them was to work with them on a new project. As a result, this is a film about Rwanda infused with Rwandese experience.

It follows two teen boys—Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) and Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa)—in a long walk across the country. Sangwa and ‘Ngabo travel from the Kigali marketplace (from which they’ve stolen a machete) across the country to the small farming community where Sangwa’s family have continued working the soil since he ran away three years earlier. Sangwa’s homecoming is a tense and emotional affair, but it is also complicated by the fact that his traveling companion is one of the Tutsi, and Sangwa’s father still bears a deep hatred for the Tutsi.

Likewise, ‘Ngabo carries hatred too. Seeing Sangwa’s family together—at work, at play, in intimate conversation—he is painfully reminded of all that has been taken from him. And he keeps his machete within reach, a weapon he plans to use when he finds the man responsible for the murder of his family.

It’s a remarkable story, made even more so by the story of its making, and the experience of its director. Chung, whose family emigrated from Korea, have a farm in rural Arkansas where he grew up—not at all the typical Korean immigrant experience. Studying biology at Yale, Chung discovered an interest in the art of filmmaking his senior year, and abandoned his plans for medical school. He studied film at the University of Utah, and became a film instructor himself.

Later, given the opportunity to travel with his wife to Rwanda, in cooperation with the Christian missionary organization Youth With a Mission (YWAM), he inquired to see if anyone in Rwanda wanted instruction in filmmaking, and the surprising enthusiasm of the response convinced him to go. With his friend Samuel Anderson, he sketched the outline for a story, and before long, he was in Rwanda developing that story with Rwandan testimonies, working with Rwandan film students as his crew.

Munyurangabo opened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, and garnered high honors at other festivals through that year, including the Grand Jury Prize at the AFI Fest.

It was with great admiration for the quality of Chung’s work, but also for the obvious compassion in his heart, that I sought an opportunity to discuss his project with him.

These are excerpts from our conversation.

PLEASE NOTE:

Our conversation does include discussion of the narrative, including the ending.
If you wish to avoid spoilers, you may wish to bookmark this interview and read it after you’ve seen the film.


Jeffrey Overstreet:

Congratulations on the distribution of Munyurangabo! Now, instead of just reading about the film, people everywhere can see it!

Lee Isaac Chung:

It has been great to finally get to answer people when they ask when they can see the film.

Overstreet:

Have you shown the finished film to many Rwandans? How do they respond to it?

Chung:

I have shown it to small audiences. I’ve had trouble organizing a large screening for the public in the country. Recently, the national television station broadcast the film, but I haven’t gotten any feedback from it. There is only one station in Rwanda, so that should be good for the ratings at least.

Overall, the responses from Rwandese who have seen the film have been more fulfilling to us than the great response we’ve gotten internationally.

Of course, like any audience, there are people who find the film boring or too long, or lacking in gunfights. But I’ve been very encouraged by the overall response. I haven’t encountered anyone in Rwanda who has felt that this is not a Rwandese film, so I am very proud of that.

Overstreet:

Did you learn to speak much of the Kinyarwandan language?

Chung:

I learned a little. It’s a difficult language, and any time I answer in Kinyarwanda, I receive two minutes of, “He’s speaking Kinyarwanda! That’s so good!” So I haven’t gotten very far in practicing conversation.

Some of the pronunciation mirrors Korean, so I think speaking Korean helps. But speaking some of the words and getting your mind into the pronunciation and rhythm—I think this helps one to get inside the Rwandese mind and heart a bit. I wish I could speak more, but it’s hard to find any text to help learn it. It’s a beautiful language.

Overstreet:

Did you decide to go to Africa, and then start imagining a story? Or did you decide to tell this story, and then find a way to go to Africa to make it?

Chung:

To be honest I think the entire idea came almost all at once. My wife Valerie had been wanting to go back to Rwanda, and she wanted to take me for the first time. I knew that when she goes to Rwanda much of her work is in teaching. That’s changed for her, because she’s actually an art therapist now. She goes and works with people traumatized by the genocide and tries to help them along, with art.

At that time, thinking about what I wanted to do if I went to Rwanda, I thought that the experience I have in teaching is generally in filmmaking. So I asked the Youth with a Mission base if there was any sort of need in Rwanda for teaching video production. They contacted me rather quickly [saying] that they actually had a group of students who were very hungry to learn how to make movies. From that point I knew that I would have these students. I knew that I would go with my wife.

The idea to actually make a film followed pretty quickly after that too, just because I didn’t think there was any better way to teach cinema than to actually make a film. And making a film we needed to be very serious about it. Not just treat it as some sort of exercise, but actually try to form something together, as a group, and hope that it could be a very solid film. So I think that idea came about six months before we left for Rwanda in 2006.

Overstreet:

How did you meet your wife Valerie? And how did you get to know your writing partner, Samuel Anderson?

Chung:

Valerie and I knew each other in college. Sam and I did too; we had one year of overlap in school, and we just kind of knew each other. And then once Sam moved to New York, somebody got in touch with both of us and said that we should get together and chat because we’re both doing film.

I had been openly suspicious about meeting with Sam, because I thought that maybe his tastes would be very different from mine. You always have these feelings that maybe somebody doesn’t know anything about films even if that’s not true or that’s not fair. We got together and realized that we both had the desire to make similar types of films.

We watched Mizoguchi’s* Life of Oharu together, around that time. Maybe just a few months after we had first started meeting, I entertained the idea with him of maybe going to Rwanda and making this film with me and getting involved in the writing process. Munyurangabo is kind of the film that brought us together and so we still work very closely.

Overstreet:

How much of your story did you envision before you started work in Rwanda? And how much was plotted out as you worked with the people there?

Chung:

Sam and I began a series of long email exchanges and weekly meetings in which we discussed our thoughts on the film project. Slowly, we organized an outline of a story of a genocide survivor who embarks on a journey of revenge.

The original idea was that this character would travel to the countryside with a companion, and a family drama would play out. The character would then travel to the killer’s home and decide not to commit revenge. The elements that contribute to this decision changed very little from writing to editing, but the outline for the family drama was very minimal.

We knew the character should encounter the earth—by earth, I mean dirt and mud—but we knew little else.

I arrived in Rwanda a month ahead of Sam, and I continued interviewing and researching this story while writing long emails back to Sam twice a week. This is how we wrote out the rest of the middle portion of the film, including the details that the two characters are from different ethnic groups, and ethnic tensions rise while they are at Sangwa’s home. I didn’t know the reality of this kind of situation until I got to Rwanda and had long conversations with individuals who underwent similar scenarios.

By week seven of my stay, we began shooting with what we had, a ten-page outline of numbered scenes. From there, the entire cast and crew shaped the dialog and other details within each scene as we shot them. The process was very organic, and came out of many intimate conversations—a wonderful way to make a film, a [process of] constant discovery and interaction with others.

Overstreet:

This story deals with such painful issues. Was it challenging to tell this story in Rwanda? Were the actors or the locals uncomfortable with the subject matter?

Chung:

Part of the reason we were able to film so quickly is that the Rwandese who were involved were very enthusiastic about tackling this subject. Even now, my students desire to speak about the genocide and its aftermath in their films.

There is a Rwandan saying that “a man’s tears flow on the inside,” which can mean one should keep his or her emotions hidden. This is true in terms of everyday conversations, but art, dance, song, poetry, or film [can] prove to be a powerful medium of mourning for the Rwandese—which is no different from how art is necessary anywhere in the world.

The only cultural tension arose from my bad New York City habits of wanting to move faster or prioritize work over relationships. Life in Rwanda helps to break these bad habits.

Overstreet:

Your film does not explore the religious beliefs of Rwandans. But there is a scene in which a character appears from beyond the grave. Did this idea bother the locals? Or is this a natural part of their storytelling?

Chung:

This is an element that Sam and I developed outside of Rwanda—the use of magical realism within the flow of the narrative. I don’t know if this is a natural part of their storytelling, but it didn’t seem to be out of the ordinary for the Rwandese who helped make the film or those who have seen it.

I visited a person’s home where a neighbor died, and they believed it was because another family member had arrived with evil spirits. I tried to incorporate this into the film when Gwiza gets sick; the father blames Ngabo for this and other bad developments.

Overstreet:

The characters tell such unusual stories in this film—especially Gwiza. Were these stories that you wrote for the script? Or were they given to you by the locals?

Chung:

Almost all of the stories come from improvisation. Oral storytelling is a very important part of the culture, and I was used to giving speeches wherever I would go. It’s part of what people do when they get together—they tell stories, they share words, their thoughts.

Sam and I envisioned in the outline that Ngabo would encounter moments of oral storytelling. Later, by accident, we discovered the talents of Edouard Bamporiki—and his poetry seemed to be the perfect finale to all of these stories.

It’s tragic and ironic that the oral tradition was part of the genocide, with radio broadcasts by Hutu extremists inciting many of the killings. We wanted to memorialize the root of the oral tradition—how it builds community, family, and, through powerful poems such as Edouard’s, the entire nation.

Overstreet:

Gwiza’s jokes and stories are amusing, but I can’t say that I always understood them. What is different about Rwandan storytelling compared to Western storytelling? Were Gwiza’s stories about the animals some kind of social commentary?

Chung:

Gwiza is played by Muronda, a student in the class I was teaching. Many of the students said that Muronda is the funniest man they know, and his stories and slapstick humor made everyone laugh throughout the shoot.

For his scenes, I asked him to tell his own stories, and the cast and crew ruined a few takes because they would laugh loudly at his jokes. But when they were translated back to me, I had the same response. I had no idea what was funny. I’ll be honest with you, I get the jokes now and I’ve come to appreciate them. I was walking in my neighborhood and saw a woman walking her little dog with clothing on, and the absurdity of what she was doing to this poor animal made me laugh and remember Muronda’s jokes.

We’re far removed from the Rwandan perception of animals. Animals serve a certain function and role there. That’s not to say they are mere objects in Rwanda—they’re not—but they certainly aren’t bound and humiliated to serve as a kind of toy that mirrors human identity. In Rwanda, an animal is an animal; anything else would be absurd. A dog is a dog, a chicken is a chicken. So when Gwiza says he saw a chicken wearing tight pants, that’s very funny; a goat gives birth to a dog—this is funny too. Dogs that wear boots and sweaters are just as funny.

I hope I’m not driving away a certain demographic of readers now. I grew up on a farm, so please extend me some grace.

Overstreet:

Your cast was made up of Rwandans who had not acted in films before. Both Eric Ndorunkundiye and Jeff Rutagengwa are fantastic. I was impressed at how they seemed like natural actors, so convincing that they seemed oblivious to the camera. Was this challenging for them?

Chung:

During casting, it became a running joke that everyone in Rwanda is a good actor because it’s partially true. I don’t know if it is a cultural phenomenon, but I was surprised daily during the casting sessions.

For instance, I was scouting for locations and found the perfect house for the central part of the film—the segment at Sangwa’s house. Edouard Bamporiki, the poet of the film, served as our production manager, and he encouraged me to audition the owners of the house to be in the film. I was skeptical because the owners had been farmers their entire lives, and I assumed, ignorantly, that they would feel nervous with a camera and crew watching them. Their audition was incredible, as though they both came alive and had been practicing to act on camera for a long time. They play Sangwa’s parents in the film, very significant roles.

This seemed to be the case for many of the actors we cast. There were a few people during casting sessions who were not very good, but most were very natural.

Overstreet:

Were Jeff and Eric friends before this project? They work very well together.

Chung:

Part of the reason I wanted to cast them was because they were already best friends before the shoot, and many people in Rwanda told me that the two looked and acted like brothers. I thought this would be an important dimension to the film, since it demonstrates how arbitrary the label of Hutu and Tutsi can be.

Overstreet:

In reading other interpretations of your film, some see it as a message of hope. I tend to see it as an expression of questions more than messages. ‘Ngabo’s final decision certainly gives me hope, but the last shot of the movie suggests that reconciliation may be very difficult. What do you hope to convey with that last shot? Do you see your film as “a message of hope,” or a question—or both?

Chung:

I’m very happy to hear this perspective, since Sam or I didn’t think we were writing a film that projects a message of reconciliation. We wanted to present an image of reconciliation, but we didn’t feel we knew the answers to how reconciliation should take place.

More than that, we wanted to highlight the desire for reconciliation and offer a scenario for it that could even be regarded as a fantasy. Perhaps faith is a lot like this, requiring the act of imagination.

The final image is certainly not meant to be realistic, and it was important for the characters to have their backs turned to each other. The reality of the situation in Rwanda and other parts of the world is that progress and reconciliation are rare. Edouard highlights this in his poem-reconciliation is more than an absence of violence. True justice will occur only when all tragedies (poverty, war, disease) come to cease. Edouard doesn’t say that liberation can come if we do x, y, and z. As you say, he asks a question, “How can liberation come?”

Part of me understands the impossibility of this reconciliation on earth, but the other part believes and hopes that it will [happen]. In the meantime, the work is important. I think that’s what the creation of art can embody—the act of memorializing, mourning, preparing-the act of waiting, which I think isn’t very far from the act of questioning.

Overstreet:

What did you learn about filmmaking through this experience that will be useful to you in future projects?

Chung:

I often feel like I have forgotten much of what I learned through the experience. I recently shot another film, and it felt like a first film all over again. Maybe it’s good to remain on edge with every film, but Munyurangabo was very stressful and exhausting, and Lucky Life—the new film—was moreso.

One aspect that stays with me is that the subject matter needs to be central to the film, and that each film should serve the subject.

I tried to make Munyurangabo a cinema of listening rather than self-expression. I think this was what helped us make a successful film. I didn’t want to tie the Rwandese actors and crew to my vision, but continued to ask how the actors should act, how the dialog should be. It felt like a documentary approach at times.

Overstreet:

Why did you choose to use film instead of video? What, for you, are the advantages to film? (The result, by the way, is gorgeous.)

Chung:

Several reasons went into this decision.

The first is that I knew I would not be using any lighting, and Rwanda has a very bright sun. Film has a greater latitude than video, meaning that film can capture a scene that has very bright light and dark light in the same image. Video would either blow out the bright spots to look like pure white or all the areas in shadows would carry no detail.

Second, the electricity in rural areas is sparse, and cameras built in the 60s and 70s are made with very few electronic parts. I only needed to charge my belt battery two or three times during the shoot.

The third reason is that film carries with it a better rendition of color and a type of poetic look that comes from the film grain and the way it looks in projection. I thought a 1970s look would be interesting for the film—to film it in 16mm, the way news reports were made before the advent of video. I thought this would create a more timeless look, since the film, in some ways, is meant to play like a Rwandese fable.

Film is much more expensive, of course. But it helped keep us honest in treating this project very seriously and professionally.

Overstreet:

I’ve read that you’re wrapping up your next film, Lucky Life.

Chung:

On June 15th I go in and finish the final cut and edit the film. From there we’re sending the print to Paris. They have a lot of people who plan to watch the film. In Paris, we have a sales agent who’s basically representing the film.

Overstreet:

Does Lucky Life feel like a progression from Munyurangabo? Are there things you began in Rwanda that you’re continuing in this project? Or was this like starting over?

Chung:

It feels like a little bit of both.

A few things from Munyurangabo inspired me [in making Lucky Life.] One was treating the film like poetry in a way, or elevating poetry to being the driving force behind the film. I think I tried to that do more in Lucky Life. And the actual dramatic structure of the film—it’s very much based off the poem by Gerald Stern called “Lucky Life.”

But in other ways people who have seen the film say that it’s very, very different. I think that that’s true. People seem to be surprised that the same filmmaker is involved at times. So, yeah—I don’t know what to make of that. I think it might come as a surprise to people who were fans of Munyurangabo and might be expecting something similar.

Overstreet:

Munyurangabo is already inspiring reviewers to compare it to films by Terrence Malick, the Dardennes, and even Spike Lee. What filmmakers—and what films—inspire you in your own filmmaking? Is your filmmaking influenced by painters or other forms of art?

Chung:

The influences change with every film, and I’m a bit of a film nerd. Malick and the Dardennes were a big influence, but I’m not too familiar with Spike Lee. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao Hsien, and Bresson were also filmmakers whose work I revisited before going to Rwanda.

Chaplin films are my favorites of all-time, and I love watching Chaplin with my students in Rwanda; we imitate him sometimes when we are bored.

With Lucky Life, I was inspired mostly by poetry—Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke, Gerald Stern, and Li-Young Lee. Sam Anderson pointed me to the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson.

I’m sorry if this is becoming one long, pretentious list. As a science major in college, I never encountered these great works; discovering them now has given me much life.

For the next projects I’m developing, I’m falling in love with old genre films, and I’m interested in departing from cinema as poetry and moving on to a cinema of play and energy for the audience.

Overstreet:

That’s interesting. Most filmmakers progress from genre films to art films. After Lucky Life, you’re interested in going the other way. Why?

Chung:

I guess there are a number of reasons for that. I think the primary one is that recently I was just thinking about cinema, and thinking about some of the filmmakers that I’ve enjoyed watching.

These days I’m very much excited about a lot of the filmmakers who were working in Hollywood back in the 50’s and 60’s or even the 40’s and 50’s. I felt that [these filmmakers] were always needing to work in this tension between what they desire and what the audience desires. That’s kind of the difference between a cinema of poetry, as I put it, and genre cinema.

The cinema of poetry, or as some people call it “art house cinema,” [or] independent cinema… it tends to be focused on the filmmaker and the expression of the director. Whereas Hollywood films these days are very much focused on what the audience wants. I’d like to think that both of those don’t have to be so separate and so much at odds with each other, and that somehow within that tension you can find a good film.

I think they did it quite well in the 40’s and 50’s. But these days, it’s far too much geared towards one side. I guess that’s what started cropping up as I was doing the festival run with Munyurangabo, and now preparing the run with Lucky Life.

I’d like to go more to the audience with the film. Hopefully that doesn’t sound as if I’m compromising. I feel as if though that could be a very positive thing.

Overstreet:

If you were going to introduce Munyurangabo to an audience that isn’t necessarily accustomed to art films, how would you introduce it to them? How do you approach introducing contemplative cinema like Bresson’s or Dreyer’s?

Chung:

[I’d tell people that] Munyurangabo … is very minimal, and to not expect anything very much in the way of spectacle. The storytelling style is very understated

What I like to say to people when I am introducing either Bresson or Dreyer is that … you shouldn’t be trying to figure it out as you’re watching it. Much in the same way that a child does when they’re listening to a story, or learning something new, or encountering something new—just take it for what it is. Try not to be guessing the whole time, ‘What does this film mean? What is the message?’

Sometimes you get this sort of magical experience of what’s called ‘the transcendent cinema’, and sometimes you don’t find it. Yeah, that’s what I’d like to think these films do. A lot of them show fairly mundane things, and somehow all of these very random images build up to this very dramatic payoff for whoever is watching—one that makes you feel as though you are transcending all those situations. Some sort of revelation is reached within them.

That type of cinema really excites me. I feel that when a director is able to accomplish something like that, it’s almost the most supreme form of cinema.

A lot of Ozu’s films are like that for me.

Overstreet:

Did you discover this love of transcendent cinema in film school?

Chung:

It definitely happened during film school.

I had a professor who I was very really close to. His name is Kevin Hanson at the University of Utah. And one day he talked about the different forms of cinema that are out there. Then he started talking about this Paul Schrader’s book about transcendence in film. Kevin was a big fan of Ozu and Bresson, and he was always trying to get the directing students or students of production to look at these styles and to consider them as a way of making films.

So I started watching a lot of those films and found that, yeah, they were very moving for me. And that’s basically when it happened—during my two years at film school.

Overstreet:

What do you like to focus on when you teach?

Chung:

I think the thing I might like most is teaching students who are just starting to learn filmmaking. I’ve taught intro courses and I feel like I enjoying teaching those the most. I’ve also done a lot of TA work [on] film history for instance, and auteur theory. I enjoy that side of cinema as well to look at past works and past directors.

But yeah, I do like teaching beginners. I think there’s something great about the beginning steps of anyone who is starting to make a film and just realizing the possibilities and limitations of it.

Maybe it’s influenced a bit by the professor I had when I was at Yale. The last year, I took a course with Michael Roemer. He had us go out and get images of movement, or images that highlight one subject or another. He didn’t care so much about the technical aspect of filmmaking. It was always about the mis en scene, or what could you see in the frame, [or] the way in which we edit these images together. I felt that that class gave me a good [lesson] in realizing that’s the core and meat of filmmaking.

So when I’m teaching, that’s what I try to emphasize.

I noticed that a lot of film instruction tends to end up straying towards the very technical side of filmmaking. That ends up being more of a distraction, I feel, than actually helping to learn cinema.

Overstreet:

I’m curious about your experience working with Youth With a Mission in Rwanda. Were any of the YWAM workers involved in making the movie?

Chung:

YWAM workers allowed me to spend time with their various ministries—HIV/AIDS relief, street kids mentorship, orphans and widows assistance—which helped me to do research for the film.

Also, I partnered with one of the full-time staff members named Serieux Kanamugire, who leads a youth ministry (which includes ages 12-30). He gathered the students who wanted to learn video production, around fifteen total, and they became my students and the crew for the film.

I continue to work with Serieux when I return to Kigali and recently started a video production business with these students.

Overstreet:

The word “mission,” as it is related to Christianity, is a pretty loaded term. I suspect that some may imagine YWAM’s work in Rwanda as an aggressive program of evangelism and conversion. What is your impression of their work in that area?

Chung:

Well, this could be debated for many hours.

Evangelism and conversion are efforts within any organization—secular or religious—when Western organizations attempt to bring change in Africa. A conversion of values and beliefs is a natural part of the effort to solve vast problems within the continent. Sometimes these values are about environmental conservation and the protection of wildlife. Sometimes the values are about water usage and disease prevention.

This answer could fall into the polarizing area of whether or not the evangelical church or organizations such as YWAM have a subversive agenda. But I want to avoid all of those debates and just note that the vast majority of Rwandese are Christians, with one of the highest percentages in the world. As a result, YWAM’s Christian evangelism and “spreading the gospel” resembles the good efforts of other secular groups: prevention of HIV/AIDs, curbing drugs use among street kids, offering alternatives to prostitution, and helping find solutions to extreme poverty. “Gospel work” as an act of sacrifice, service, and love—I don’t think anyone would argue that this isn’t what Jesus Christ would embody. The divisive debates can distract from all of this.

To put it another way, George W. Bush is a big hero in East Africa because his African relief policies have been among the most generous and effective measures of any leader in the world. Barack Obama is also a big hero for what he embodies and his roots to East Africa. Rwanda is a place where the debates about political correctness and ideologies are irrelevant in light of the need at hand; the only question becomes, “Is this helping?” I am a big supporter of YWAM Rwanda because of this.

Overstreet:

So many films made by Christians are “preachy” and blatantly “evangelistic,” but your film avoids any hint of that. Did you ever have any pressure from your friends and contacts to emphasize religious issues in the film?

Chung:

YWAM Rwanda never gave that pressure, nor did any Christian friends or family members here in the US.

I am also a Christian and have been active in a number of churches since becoming a filmmaker. Often there is an implicit misunderstanding that I must be a filmmaker who is trying to spread a message or evangelize with my films. I have a lot of opinions on the way Christians should approach the arts, but I think it’s a very subjective idea, so I don’t intend to criticize.

My favorite music, literature, films, and paintings are usually not Christian. And the Christian artists who I find to be brilliant aren’t usually embraced as Christian writers or filmmakers by other Christians—Flannery O’Connor, for example, or Carlos Theodore Dreyer.

If my faith is integral to me, I believe it will show up in my work, but I’m very partial about what a work of art should be. I don’t get anything out of films or music with a hidden agenda; audiences are smarter than that. Nor do I enjoy art that is intended for Christians alone.

Overstreet:

Is there anything about your own experience, growing up in on a farm in Arkansas with parents from Korea, that might incline you to approach a story like Munyurangabo differently than other American filmmakers? Or perhaps, to be interested in a different story?

Chung:

I’m not sure other American filmmakers would have enjoyed filming the farming scene in Munyurangabo as much as I did. A lot of my memories of farm work involve me working with my dad and hoping that the way I work gains his approval. Perhaps that scene is autobiographical in a way. To be honest, I only just came up with this connection now.

I don’t know how the Korean aspect plays into it at all, and I don’t want to psychologize too much.

I have felt like a foreigner in many places. For instance, when I first got to Yale and was surrounded by one of the wealthiest and intellectual student bodies in the US. I don’t know how any of this links together, but I also felt very foreign in Arkansas because we were the only minority family in my town for the longest time. When I’ve traveled in developing world countries in Asia, I’ve enjoyed the act of trying to be at home, as I have in Arkansas or at Yale. In Rwanda too, where I felt very much at home by the end of my stay.

I also like traveling in places where farming is still a large part of the lifestyle even though I wanted to move far away from the farm when I was young. For a while, I thought this meant I would become a missionary doctor in a developing world clinic, but I turned to filmmaking instead, mostly because I don’t like science. I still feel the need to escape to non-modern places or nature here and there.

Anyhow, I think all of this helped me to know that farming and simple daily moments—breakfast, fetching water, telling stories—are worth filming, and not the bloodshed and violence that we assume makes Africa interesting.

Overstreet:

Is there anything in particular you’d like to see happen as Munyurangabo reaches more people?

Chung:

Going through this entire process has let me see that cinema from Africa is always going through this threat of almost disappearing. There have been a lot of films from Hollywood that are made in Africa, but that’s no true replacement. There is a lot of great cinema coming out of Africa. And it would be great if those films were given much more attention than they are now. If Munyurangabo can point people towards cinema in Africa, I’d be very happy.

I know people mention [African filmmaker] Ousmane Sembene often when they talk about Munyurangabo. To be honest I only discovered Sembene a few months after we got back from Rwanda. I felt as though I saw in his films the types of works that I wished my students in Rwanda could make someday.

Overstreet:

Where should I start in watching Sembene’s work?

Chung:

One of his later films is quite good. Moolaadé.

Overstreet:

I’m thrilled that Film Movement has made the film available to a wider audience. I’ve been very impressed with their collection and vision. What has it been like working with them?

Chung:

I have become a great fan of Film Movement, which is easy to say because they decided to distribute the film. But their love of cinema and desire to bring overlooked films to a greater audience is very courageous.

We were told a few times by other major distributors that Munyurangabo could not be sold in the US because it has three difficult aspects: subtitles, non-famous Africans, and “arthouse” storytelling. The independent film world can be progressive in raw content, but not so much in what is sold. Many distributors confuse “controversy” with “progress,” so charting new territory is often a matter of innovative sex and violence. The market itself tends not to be very progressive. There are many films such as Ballast or Treeless Mountain that deserve a wider audience.

Anyhow, this is supposed to be about Film Movement. Part of my contract with them is that I have to say they are 100% perfect and the best distribution company in the world. I’m just kidding of course. But I have been very happy with them.

Munyurangabo is a hard sell—I can tell that they are running with the film the way I have, as a labor of love, and I would like to think that all cinema could be approached in the same way.


For more on Munyuragabo, and the experience of Lee Isaac Chung, read Darren Hughes’ excellent essay and interview “The Storm of Progress,” originally published in Sojourners Magazine, June 2008 (Vol. 37, No. 5, pp. ).


Lee Isaac Chung Week, Day Three: reviews of his first two films

I first heard about director Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of Minari, as his first feature film Munyurangabo was playing in film festivals in 2009.

The movie had been discovered by my friend Darren Hughes, and Darren was raving about it in writing. Hughes is a brilliant film critic whose inspiring work has led me to many of my favorite films. His outstanding interview with Chung appeared in Sojourners, but that is now, alas, only available to subscribers. But I'm happy to say it's also archived here — on Hughes' website Long Pauses — and available to all.

I was so impressed with Munyurangabo when I finally saw it that I reviewed it more than once, screened it at The Glen Workshop, surprised the Glen Workshoppers with a Skype visit from the filmmaker himself, and now I've made it a standard part of the "Film & Faith" class I teach at Seattle Pacific University.

https://youtu.be/zUt4Ohe9OWY

You can read my original review of Munyurangabo for Response, the magazine published by Seattle Pacific University, here. It was a review meant for readers who might be adventurous enough to try watching something more challenging than the typical Friday-night movie, and it includes excerpts from my own first interview with Chung.

I also wrote about the film for Image, a more contemplative, image-focused essay. That original publication has receded into the Internet Archive, so I re-published it here at Looking Closer. That, too, has excerpts from the interview.

That first interview was epic, and I'll re-publish that for you tomorrow, on Day Four of Lee Isaac Chung week... along with a brand-new surprise.


Then, in 2013, came the film Lucky Lifewhich even fewer people have seen. Hopefully the success of Minari will change that.

Lucky Life is a startling follow-up to Munyurangabo — startling in its confidence, its quality of lived experience, and in how it bears little to no resemblance to Munyurangabo. It's a delicate meditation on memory, friendship, marriage, faith, and death that feels inspired by Terrence Malick and yet it was released before The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, the two Malick films it most resembles. I think it's one of the great undiscovered masterworks of poetic American cinema.

I reviewed Lucky Life for Image's blog Good Letters.

And you can rent Lucky Life for only $1.99 on Vimeo. I hope you will. Even better — just buy it for a few dollars more.

Lucky Life (2009) from Sgraffito Entertainment Inc. on Vimeo.


Two more films by Lee Isaac Chung — Abigail Harm, starring Amanda Plummer, and I Have Seen My Last Born, a documentary that brought the filmmaker and his collaborator Sam Anderson back to Rwanda — are also available on Vimeo. Somehow, I've never published a review of either one. That's about to change. Stay tuned.

 


Lee Issac Chung Week, Day Two: Retrospectives

This week in The Los Angeles Times, you can read an article by Lee Isaac Chung, the director of the semi-autobiographical film MInari, about how the vision for the film came to him. Normally, something like this would appear as an interview, but here Chung has taken the time to compose an intimate testimony of a strange and "mystical" experience.

Lee Isaac Chung has written an article for The Los Angeles Times.

This isn't the first time he has offered an essay of his own about his experiences.

Soon after Chung's extraordinary debut Munyurangabo, which he made in collaboration with his longtime filmmaking partner Sam Anderson, he offered an essay about his journey into filmmaking to me and my co-editor at a short-lived journal for film enthusiasts called Filmwell. It gives us several glimpses of Chung's curiosity and his conscience. We encounter his grandmother, the woman who inspired the character of Soonja in Minari. We learn a bit about film history. And we learn about a world of filmmaking that most of us have never read about before.

(You can find the archives of Filmwell at The Other Journal, and you can see the original publication here.)

Lee Isaac Chung, 2009

Retrospectives
an essay by Isaac Chung

1.

My grandmother didn’t finish elementary school and lived a daily resignation to poverty and struggle for most of her life. Her illiteracy caused both shame and sympathy for my father, notably because he is a gifted writer. Yet, he remembers the way others revered her in the village because she told stories. They were recollections, simple stories sprung from a memory that gathered passing moments others had disregarded, occurrences with meanings she alone discerned.

My father told me this when I was ten — it is a small footnote in our family history but one that I revisit often. How can storytelling bring a humble woman the respect of an entire village? Then, I remember that even scripture is an epic narrative.

2.

In the 1880s, a great argument arose between the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison about their new invention, the motion picture camera. To this day, no one is sure who invented it first.

Edison’s Kinetoscope featured vaudeville performers and fighting animals while the Lumière’s captured everyday life; both foreshadowed a division between the US and France that remains today — cinema as spectacle and cinema as art.

One could argue that cinema has become the most powerful form of storytelling in the world. Anti-Western sentiment, especially the type directed against Hollywood, does not deny this contention; it disagrees with the stories.

3.

In the 1990s, Kenneth Nnebue, a businessman in Nigeria, imported blank videotapes from Asia to sell in the local marketplace. Finding that he had ordered too many, he decided to make a small movie to include on the tapes as an extra incentive to buy. 750,000 sold copies of the film and thousands of imitations later, “Nollywood” is now the third largest film industry in the world behind the US and India. It remains the second largest provider of jobs in Nigeria, after subsistence farming.

They are crudely and quickly shot with over two thousand new titles a year to keep up with local demand for African films. Western audiences might cringe at the exaggerated acting and stories of HIV and witchcraft, but each of the noisy videos proclaims, “we wish to speak too.”

4.

The art of memory collects disparate details from the past and reshapes them into a harmonic whole. It is a dying art in much of the world where society has less of a demand for remembrance and a greater emphasis on daily production and consumption. So great is the divide between everyday existence and active reflection that modern storytelling — the cinema — is no longer interested in life. There is a common saying, “I go to the movies because I wish to escape.” Meanwhile, the culture of escape spreads from the West to the rest of the world like industrial haze.

It reaches Rwanda, where, after the tragic Rwandan genocide of 1994, several personal accounts recall that genocidaires liked to mimic Rambo films when slaughtering others, a chilling detail for moviegoers.

In a great irony, Western penitence has invaded Rwanda several times to recreate the genocide for film crews that resemble, at first glance, a military occupation. Its height is reached in Hotel Rwanda, in which American actors fake African accents in a story that many Rwandans dismiss as overly exaggerated to sell tickets. Its target audience is the West, and as the spectacle — with its prestige, Oscars, and box office data — passes from our minds to obscurity, Rwanda is left with few resources to share its own recollection of the tragedy, to engage in the art of memory.

(My work in Rwanda is:
– A quiet endeavor — to train and equip a group of fifteen Rwandan filmmakers who want to share their stories and transform their nation and perhaps the world.
– An act of resistance — against a pervasive and spreading fog that allows only the powerful to have a voice.
– A remembrance.)

 


Do the Wrong Thing: a portrait of betrayal in Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Who was Fred Hampton? How and why was he murdered at the age of 21?

My overdue education in Black American History continues in reading, listening, and moviegoing.

A new subject for me is the history of the Black Panther movement. And Fred Hampton is a name I haven't known until now. As is so often the case, it's at the movies that I am learning about significant and astonishing events that happened during my childhood. Events I never heard growing up among white American evangelicals — either because they weren't aware of them, were made uncomfortable by them, or just didn't care. Great injustices, carried out with the blessing of law enforcement and the government right here in my country — the land that congratulates itself on offering "liberty and justice for all." You might think that the private Christian schools in which I was raised would have bothered to teach me about the abolition of slavery, the righteousness of the civil rights movement, and the long road still ahead of us in "loving our neighbors" through the ongoing consequences of racism and inequality. Such subjects should be at the center of contemporary Christian conversations. They provide a perfect context in which we can answer Christ's call to stand with and suffer alongside the vulnerable and the persecuted.

But I am getting my introduction to the martyrdom of Fred Hampton from director Shaka King and his co-writer Will Berson. And they bring to vivid life the rise and "fall" of this charismatic young leader of the Black Panthers with raw early-Scorsese energy and a fantastic cast.

I said "rise and fall," but, by my lights, the violent conclusion to Fred Hampton's story doesn't look so much like his fall as it does another kind of rise — the hero-making stuff of martyrdom. A leader who is murdered by a conspiracy of cowards doesn't fall — he becomes more of a symbol for generations to come, and becomes beloved in a way that will be remembered long after those who hated him are forgotten.

Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) forms a "rainbow coalition."

And this movie certainly helps me understand why Hampton's name might be revered today. King and Berson track the young man's strategic progress in connecting factions of Chicago's fractious tribalism — the Crowns, an African American uprising; the Puerto Rican radicals called Young Lords; and disillusioned white Southerners known as Young Patriots — and building "a rainbow coalition" to stand up against the flagrant tyranny of local law enforcement and government rooted in white supremacy.

I wish the movie had the courage to dig deeper into the "revolutionary" tactics of Hampton's Panthers. It seems pretty clear to me that by following Malcolm X's movement — one armed to the teeth and easily triggered — Hampton's way was bound to perpetuate and heighten a cycle of violence rather than promoting real change. But the movie has other things on its mind that are well worth our attention.

Judas and the Black Messiah is about Hampton, yes — but it may be an even closer examination of the reprehensible tactics used by white supremacists under the protection of their badges and government letterhead. And, as the title makes plain, it raises up Hampton as a savior. But the film is even more interested in the "Judas": Bill O'Neal, a car thief who, in 1968, was bought by the F.B.I. to infiltrate the Illinois Black Panthers and lay the foundations for a violent overthrow of the organization.

Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) is a poet who partners with a prophet.

As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya delivers in his most demanding role yet — he's charismatic and energizing; if this plays in theaters, it might have audiences shouting right along with his call-and-response campaigns. And his relationship with Panther poet Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) brings out some quieter, softer notes to his character. (Deborah is more than likely to bring to mind Breonna Taylor for contemporary audiences, as she finds herself caught in a violent crossfire where police are shooting first and never asking questions.)

And yet I can't say I am convinced by Hampton's character as written — he seems more Icon than Human. (And he never, ever looks like he's the 21-year-old that Hampton really was. He never looks younger than 30.) A bit more of the nuance we saw in David Oyelowo's turn as Martin Luther King in Selma might have been helpful here — and that has more to do with the screenplay than with Kaluuya.

Lakeith Stanfield gives us a more persuasive, three-dimensional human being as O'Neal, a weak-willed opportunist who, as he plots Hampton's ruin, finds his conscience tweaked if not transformed by what he witnesses in that furnace of righteous anger. Stanfield's iconic turn in Jordan Peele's 2017 breakthrough Get Out makes this performance even harder to watch; we so want O'Neal to break the spell that has been cast over him, to seize Kaluuya's Hampton by the shoulders and whisper, "Get out!" We so want to see him rescued from himself and the pressures persuading him to do the wrong thing.

As the "Judas" of the title, Daniel Kaluuya is electrifying as Bill O'Neal.

Jesse Plemons is here as Roy Mitchell, the conflicted F.B.I. agent who discovers O'Neal and sees the potential to make a "rat" of him. I say "conflicted" — you can see the dismay in Mitchell's eyes, as if he senses that he is losing his soul but has no capacity to save himself. But it doesn't take long for the last glimmers of conscience in his character to be stamped out by the peer pressure of his superior, Agent Carlyle (Robert Longstreet). The killing blow comes from F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover (a chillingly effective Martin Sheen under heavy makeup) who poses a question to Mitchell that could only come from the Devil himself: "What are you going to do when your little girl brings a [insert a racial slur here] home?"

So the heart of the film is about the compromises that lead to moral collapse for two crucial characters: the Black American who will turn against his own oppressed community to better himself, and the White American who realizes that he will lose whatever privilege and power he has enjoyed if he listens to his heart.

I love film critic Sam Van Hallgreen's Letterboxd take on this film: "More proof that the Amadeus school of biopics is the best school of biopics." The POV here, while inconsistent, does indeed make this more interesting than a standard biopic. (And now I'm distracted by the idea of seeing him play Salieri in a Lin-Manuel Miranda remix of the Mozart play.)

But anyway, back to business: I think the "Salieri Template" works well here in giving us exciting access to the whole map of this historic battle and its tragic consequences. O'Neal's zigzagging reveals him to be rather a tragic figure as well — he's so alone, so desperate, and so terrified, that his slow enslavement to the F.B.I. is painful to behold.

All too familiar: "Law Enforcement" leaps at an excuse to wage war on those who inspire the oppressed.

I come away an admirer of the film as a thought-provoking contribution to the growing cinematic study of American racism, but I'm not exactly enthralled by it. My mixed feelings about this movie can best be summed up by its borrowing of a Taxi Driver flourish during its climactic violence. In reminding me of a classic film during a key sequence like that, it does not raise up its material — it dilutes the drama and distracts me. At times, throughout the film, its familiarity made me a little too comfortable in ways that Spike Lee would never have allowed me to be. Shaka King will make more movies and bigger movies. But does he have the vision to go beyond firing up the crowd and make a movie that is, itself, "a revolutionary"? Maybe that's asking too much, but this never seems quite subversive enough or reckless enough to spark the response Hampton would have hoped for.

Still, I do admire it. Compelling, occasionally impressive in its cinematographic finesse, occasionally obvious in its allusions, often too familiar in its form, eventually painful in its truth-telling, Judas and the Black Messiah is, ultimately, a necessary testimony. All we need to do is turn on the news to see another government official willfully conspiring with racists and fascists — and if you don't see one, wait five minutes. I often wonder how many of them are aggressively promoting hatred because they like being part of a club of bullies who really think they're going to "win," and how many of them are playing along out of fear, under some kind of threat of blackmail or retaliation. Stories like this one remind us of the truth: To wage a war of hatred under the guise of goodness will hollow out a man's heart, and to die for the love of the people is to rise, and rise, and rise again.

This movie won't inspire a revolution. But I suspect it will inspire, in some, the kind of curiosity that can lead to investigation and deeper understanding. It is doing that for me, helping me learn lessons that I really should have learned decades ago. My rude awakening, my humbling re-education, continues.