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Exploring their world

Highlights of the HFPA foreign-language film symposium featuring Pedro Almodovar, the Dardenne brothers, Asghar Farhadi and Angelina Jolie.

A fascinating group of directors - veterans Pedro Almodovar and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, new star auteur Asghar Farhadi and first-time film-maker Angelina Jolie - gathered at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre for a symposium on January 15 to mark their nominations for the best foreign-language film Golden Globe.

The panel, presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the American Cinematheque, was moderated by Screen’s Mike Goodridgeand generated lively opinions about film-making today and the role of film in the world in front of a packed house (the director of nominated film The Flowers Of War, Zhang Yimou, was unable to attend due to illness).

The following night, Farhadi won the Golden Globe and this week was nominated for an Oscar.

Pedro Almodovar (Spain, The Skin I Live In)

“I wanted to go to film school in the 1970s but I couldn’t because Franco had closed it in the late ¹60s, so my only education was to make lots of super-8 minimovies. In those films I would decide everything from the type of glasses and bottles on a table to the colours of the background. I also wrote the dialogue. That was the way I made a movie. I’m involved in every little detail and of course that’s tiring because I’m getting old. I’m obsessed with everything that appears in front of the camera and I decide everything, which is a nightmare for the rest of the crew, but that was the way I started and that’s how I work now. I think I have a big list of frustrations - I am a frustrated painter, a frustrated musician, a frustrated writer, a frustrated actor, a frustrated costume designer. If you combine all that, it’s good for a director because you need all these disciplines in one person to make a movie.

“I remember when I started watching movies in Spain, it was a very dark post-war period and many of the films we watched were American or Italian and that was the best way to escape from the darkness we were living. I remember many of the movies from that period - the ’50s and ’60s - were representations of reality and that is the reality I wanted to belong to. I don’t have anything against naturalism but it’s not the style I want to use to represent feelings.”

Asghar Farhadi (Iran, A Separation)

“I don’t exactly know why A Separation has resonated throughout the world, but I can venture a guess. The film is, in a way, a detective story but the detective is the audience which is why it might be attractive to them. I don¹t think local films are necessarily antagonistic to universal films. They can be both - if you tell a local story precisely and accurately, it can become universal.

“There is an image of Iran outside Iran which is not correct. The problem is that we look at the people of a country through the prism of politics. If you put aside the politics and see the real picture, you will see how similar these people are to you. That has been the response from audiences throughout the world to this film. It has been said many times but I will repeat it again because I like it so much - similarities between people and cultures in the world are far greater than their differences. But it is to the benefit of politicians to highlight the differences.

“It is difficult to discuss the political situation in Iran. I don’t want to bring up the issues we have in film-making just so you think, ‘Wow, they make such good movies under such difficult circumstances.’ No-one forced me to become a film-maker under those circumstances. I chose to do so even though I knew the difficulties. When you see my movie, imagine we made it under the best possible conditions. Just watch the movie.”

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium, The Kid With A Bike)

J-PD “The question of naturalism is a very difficult one and I am going to quote André Malraux who said that art was a correction of reality. Naturalism is a strange thing and I don’t think it really exists in art, because art is always a representation. We always start with things which have already existed like The Kid With A Bike, which originated with the true story of a boy in the Tokyo suburbs, and then we tried to tell something a little different to that story.”

LD “We decided to let the boy live at the end after he falls out of the tree. We hesitated a lot. We also thought he should die. But it’s hard for us to kill the main characters. This boy had been through so much - he was abandoned by his parents, and on top of that we were going to make him die? We wanted to say at the end of the film that love is stronger than death sometimes - only sometimes, and only for a short time.”

Angelina Jolie (US, In The Land Of Blood And Honey)

“When you say that love conquers death, I look over at my cast who are here in this room. I think about the fact that they were all born in Yugoslavia and shared the same history books and the same families, and the war divided them along ethnic and religious lines and tried to push them into focusing on their differences. But this cast focused on their similarities and unity, and bravely came together to tell this story of their history.

“I never wanted to be a film-maker and never thought I could be. I still cannot believe I’m on this stage with these men, but when I started to learn about the world, and about Bosnia in particular, I was so frustrated and angry about how little I knew that I felt compelled to share what I did learn through a story. I hope people will fall in love with the region and the actors and not just have compassion and pity for what they went through.”

Are you interested in making films outside your own country?

Luc Dardenne “Sometimes my brother wants to but I’m not so keen. We shoot in the same town where we spent our youth and some people think that’s why we shoot there. But there is another reason - when we were there as children and adolescents, it was a rich industrial region with a working-class culture that had developed a great deal of solidarity. In the 1970s, there was a crash and an economic crisis and industry fell apart and we started to see people in the streets like you see in our films. It’s a region that an awful lot of people have left and we try to repopulate it a bit with our characters.”

Almodovar “It’s very attractive to me to be out of the life I know, but in the end I always go back to my language and my country and Madrid. Sometimes I feel bored and I flirt with other possibilities. I have a subject now that is based in New York but the thing with me is that I do my films by myself and I don’t think the production system in LA would fit me.”

Can language be a barrier?

Farhadi “If you don’t know the language, some of the things become easier. If you don’t talk too much, you can show the real gist of the story. I have friends who are a couple who did not understand each other’s language initially when they got married and that was the best part of their marriage.”

Almodovar “Of course you can make a silent movie. I was tempted to make The Skin I Live In in black and white and silent because I felt the story and general expression is suited to the language of silent movies. But I am very talkative and in Spain people talk a lot, so I almost cannot imagine a movie without words.”

On becoming a director

Jolie “It was a strange thing that happened, because I loved this subject matter and decided to follow it through. I love telling stories and I love being an actor but I think that being an actor, you are inside the bubble of the film. When you’re part of the crew, you are part of a bigger family and you’re putting a spotlight on something else that you think is extraordinary. I much preferred it to acting.”

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