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Spirit Awards Fri 4.2.2021

Directors Close-Up: International Feature Noms Explore Worlds Seen and Unseen

According to Google Maps, a flight from São Paulo to The Ivory Coast takes somewhere around 12 hours. The Ivory Coast to Sarajevo is another 12, Sarajevo to Budapest six. Budapest to Mumbai? About 13 hours. Of course, there are far easier ways to scratch our thirst for international exploration—especially with physical travel all but completely curtailed by a nagging global pandemic.

But! For a cinematic approximation of the itinerary outlined above, we will refer filmmakers to our incredible lineup of 2021 Film Independent Spirit Award Best International Feature nominees: Brazil’s Bacurau, India’s The Disciple, The Ivory Coast’s Night of the Kings, Hungary’s Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Quo Vadis, Aida?

Week Six of Film Independent’s ongoing 2021 Directors Close-Up series brought the directors behind these five incredible films together. Moderated by filmmaker Javier Fuentes-León, the panelists were Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho (Bacurau), Lili Horvát (Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time), Philippe Lacôte (Night of the Kings), Chaitanya Tamhane (The Disciple) and Jasmila Žbanić (Quo Vadis, Aida?).

Fuentes-León began by asking the filmmakers about the significance of their opening shots. Said Žbanić: “The opening shot is like a cell of the body.” In her Quo Vadis, Aida? it’s a slow traveling shot of the three men that her main character will spend the film—a fact-based account of the events leading up to Bosnia’s 1995 Srebrenica genocide—trying to rescue. This dreamlike image was key, she said, in establishing the film’s tone, which balances the subjective POV of her protagonist with a journalistic depiction of events outside her control.

For Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, Horvát wanted an opening image that encapsulated the murky essence of her enigmatic mystery. Originally, the second image in the film was intended to be the first, but it was an other image—improvised by her DP after the admittedly stressful shooting of a later sex scene—that wound up as the film’s opening shot: protagonist Vizy (Natasa Stork) lying prone on a bed, only a sliver of her lover visible, seen through the distorted reflection of an “imperfect” mirror.

Fuentes-León asked about the personal origins of each project for the filmmakers. For Lacôte, Night of the Kings’ primary location, The Ivory Coast’s infamous MACA prison, was particularly significant: his mother had been jailed there as a political prisoner. As a young boy, Lacôte had spent a great deal of time at the prison visiting his mother and interacting with the other inmates—characters who would inform Kings’ surreal vision of the MACA ecosystem. “MACA is a very open prison,” he said, “As a child, you can meet some prisoners, they can take your bread and eat together. It was fantastical and very strange.”\

“There are a few key gifts that India has given to the world,” said Tamhane, of the inspiration behind his stately music drama The Disciple, “Indian food, yoga and Indian classical music.” Adding, “This is a [musical] tradition that’s 5,000 years old and I’ve always heard these super-interesting stories about masters of the past.” He said that the complex, meditative nature of Indian classical music reminded him of Mumbai itself, “A dynamic, shape-shifting city, which is almost a character in the film and changes along with the main character,” he said.

In talking about their film’s simultaneous indebtedness and subversion of classic sci-fi tropes, Dornelles cites an early moment in Bacurau, when a master shot of Earth as seen from outer space gradually zeroes in on Brazil rather than North America—a more familiar sight in most mainstream sci-fi. And while the filmmakers admit that their politically charged thriller is indebted to such genre masters as David Cronenberg and John Carpenter, elements of their fantastical plot directly reference real controversies surround the erasure of provincial Brazilian villages on official government census materials, including maps.

The panel soon found itself discussing all of the little decisions that had a big impact on their films. For Tamhane, it was defining a rigid visual palette right from The Disciple’s outset. “For me, the film is about the fading of a dream. That’s what that first scene is about.” His DP urged the filmmaker to move the camera, but Tamhane was strict about the visual grammar he wanted. “That first static shot is something that motivates me to make the whole film,” he said.

For Horvát, it was deciding on her protagonist’s occupation—a detail at first seemingly unrelated to her film’s larger plot. She decided that Vizy should be a smart, professional woman—a neuroscientist. “If she was flighty, it could be predicted that something like this would happen to her,” she said. Neurosurgery, in fact, later found its way into the plot in a significant way. “Now I think she couldn’t have been anything else, the key part it plays in the film now.”

Fielding an audience question about their most challenging days on set, there were some doozies. For Žbanić, it was the scene [SPOILERS] in which Aida enters an exam room to identify the bones of her son. “It was very difficult,” she said. Žbanić said the mood in the room was no different than if the grim task they—cast and crew—were observing were happening for real.

Lacôte’s biggest challenge was in shooting a flashback sequence in a popular tourist area, shot documentary style with “maybe 300 people standing around observing,” he said. “At the end, they [cast and crew] came to see me and they said it was crazy—we’ll never shoot a scene like this again.”

Žbanić summed up the mindset of directors everywhere well when she said, late in the panel: “I sometimes feel as if I’m a slave to these images, and I have to put them out. I have to transfer them to me and into the light.”


From Page to Screen: Writing and Directing

Featuring 2021 Film Independent Best Screenplay and Best First Screenplay nominees Kitty Green (The Assistant), Noah Hutton (Lapsis), Mike Makowsky (Bad Education), Andy Siara (Palm Springs), James Sweeney (Straight Up) and Alice Wu (The Half of It), moderated by Shelby Stone (executive producer; The Chi, Bessie. Wednesday, April 7, 5:3opm PT. To watch trailers for the panelists’ films, click here. Single session tickets are also available.


The 2021 Directors Close-Up is sponsored by Premier Sponsors Directors Guild of America (DGA) and SAGindie, Supporting Sponsor Sony Cinema Line and Film Independent Spirit Awards Premier Sponsors Genesis and IFC. Bulleit Frontier Whiskey is the Official Spirit. FIJI Water is the Official Water. Getty Images is the Official Photographer.

We’re also honored to be partnering with the Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) SeeHer, the leading global movement for gender equality in media, advertising, marketing and entertainment and AMC Networks to further celebrate and act as a catalyst for accurate and meaningful representation in storytelling.

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