Having just closed its thirty-third edition, the Settimana Internazionale della Critica (Venice International Film Critics Week also known as SIC for short) is the Venice festival sidebar that can boast the discovery of such world cinema masters as Olivier Assayas (SIC 1986), Pedro Costa (SIC 1989), Bryan Singer (SIC 1993), Peter Mullan (SIC 1998), Abdellatif Kechiche (SIC 2000), as well as Ronit and Shlomi Elkabets (SIC 2004). Each year, and year after year since the early ‘80s, the Venice International Film Critics Week has been changing cinema and in the process, also reshaping us and making us better. Because I do believe that cinema is undisputedly the fastest and most efficient way to change the world.
For the past three years renowned Italian film journalist and critic Giona A. Nazzaro has been SIC’s General Delegate, a duty he was elected to by a committee and for which the current mandate expires with this edition. Inshallah, as those of us who have spent more than a day or two in the Arab world are used to saying, he will be reelected to another mandate. I’ve grown quite fond of Nazzaro, in a truly professional way. He’s kind and very talented, but he also has an incredible instinct for discovering the unprecedented. And the past three years have been exciting ones at the SIC.
While we eagerly await the news and in the meanwhile, take the time to celebrate another successful edition of the Venice Film Festival, I wanted to catch up with a man I’ve gotten used to running into at international events, from Doha to Cannes and beyond. Nazzaro generously disclosed his fastest means for deciding whether a title works for his selection at SIC or not, but also gave a few insightful comments about a couple of the titles in this year’s lineup, including the winner of this year’s SIC Audience Choice and Best Technical Contribution Awards, the Syrian documentary ‘Still Recording’ by Saeed Al Batal and Ghiath Ayoub.
SIC has launched the careers of many of today’s masters in cinema. Do you think that from this edition of SIC just ended, you’ve glanced at some of those talents of tomorrow?
Giona A. Nazzaro: Quite frankly yes. Because during my first three year run we have already had filmmaker such as Bertrand Mandico director of ‘The Wild Boys’, Ala Eddine Slim, the Tunisian director who won the Lion of the Future in 2016 and he was the official entry for Tunisia to the Foreign Language Oscar race. This year as well we’ve had a lot of directors. Quite frankly, I think that we’re keeping up with the legacy of the Critics Week.
I read in the goals of SIC that you aim to discover new talents almost in a sport talent scout’s way, meaning you go out there and literally are everywhere looking for new filmmakers. How is that possible and how do you personally manage that?
Nazzaro: It’s the only way that you can actually look for something. Otherwise you rely always and only on what’s already been seen and discovered beforehand. The Critics Week deals with first feature films be they documentary or narrative. I think part of the game is to have your ears on the ground and hear what’s going on. What’s going on you can only have a hunch of if you are out there in the territory and you travel and you speak with be it producers or directors or people who are involved in the laboratories. Even though there are sometimes criticisms leveled at the strategy of the labs because some think that films that come from laboratories are a bit too formatted for their own good, I still think that in those context you are in a kind of wider network, especially in situations like the MENA region and Africa or Asia, allows you to have feet on the ground and see the bigger picture.
Because also within those countries you can be steered wrong by the machine of filmmaking there.
Nazzaro: Of course. I have a very idiosyncratic taste, to say the least, and this is why some people say I have a left field taste, but I know exactly what I’m looking for. Which doesn’t exist yet! But I know I’m looking for it. Eventually when I come across it, I say “this is exactly what I was looking for!”
It’s kind of a “Field of Dreams’ mentality, “if you build it they will come.” You go out there with your own vision and someone will make that film?
Nazzaro: Over the years, I’ve been making always the same joke. I’ve been saying that my dream was a feminist, African, horror film made by a female African director with zombies, in an anti-colonial fashion. Then suddenly, this year I have a cannibal horror film from Tunisia, not directed by a female director but by a male but the director is the son of Lotfi Bouchnak — a very famous Tunisian musician. They say you should be careful what you wish for but in this case it felt serendipitous because the first ever Tunisian horror was featured at the Critics Week and now the film is making waves in the world festival circuit. It played in Austin this week with the new ‘Halloween’.
What I’m trying to do is instead of pushing people back to how films should be done, I just try to tell them that they should follow their own desire to make films.
What happened with the extraordinary documentary ‘Still Recording’ is when I was first exposed to some of the rushes of the film, I was with many people who were giving all the wrong advice to the editor who was there, because the directors couldn’t attend the session. It was like “you should put a voiceover this material, otherwise it’s not clear,” or “you should cut it down,” or “you should have talking heads explaining what it going on,” and I was getting a bit upset listening to that. Because those rushes they were taken from a horrible horrible conflict that already had cost the lives of thousands and thousands of people, and these people were risking their own lives by showing us those rushes. So I stood up and said “this is bullshit,” — well I didn’t say this is bullshit but I was thinking it — “you cannot give this kind of feedback, you should be more supportive of this kind of project.” Then someone said “but if they work like this, they will end up having a ten hour film! And who is going to present a ten hour film?” And I said, “I will.” And that’s how I befriended the editor. So we stayed in contact over the three years and I was always checking back on how the film was coming along and saw different edits and different versions and lengths. We stayed in touch. And then I asked them to submit a rough cut because this was my last year and I couldn’t take for granted to be there again for the fourth year. I also wrote them a letter in order to get them financial support from institutions across the world.
Long story short, I feel that my job is not to push people into the mold of what’s already been done. I think my job is to help people have the means and the support to come out with their own vision. Because ultimately cinema can only survive if it’s personal, meaningful, original and creative.
I can tell that your personal contribution to SIC has been this increased gaze at the MENA region, at Africa and South Asia. Would you say that’s correct?
Nazzaro: I would say so but it’s simply because those regions are the most interesting in terms of what’s happening. Those regions are experiencing dramatic upheavals in terms of history and turmoil in terms of politics. This is where history is happening right now in the regions that you just mentioned, And to me it’s obvious that the filmmakers are taking the challenge that history is presenting them and the really creative filmmakers are coming up with incredibly interesting work.
The same cannot be said about filmmakers from other parts of the world. What I feel is always interesting is when the personal urge to make something, the personal desire to express something by a filmmaker or an artist clashes with history. Because the clash between the poetic desire to say something and what happens in history is what ultimately provokes new ideas and new forms. Look at what happened in cinema with Neorealism or what happened in the States during the New Deal. How Hollywood reacted to Roosevelt’s so-called “New Deal” and how filmmakers reacted to the call to arms against the Nazis during the Second World War. Or how the Japanese reacted to what was happening in Europe during ’68. It’s always interesting how the form of cinema reinvents itself in contrast with what happens in history.
Even though I am a rabid cinephile, I have really bad taste and I can watch literally everything but I think that what is interesting is when this conflict takes place.
A film like ‘A Kasha’ which was shot in Sudan when the war came to a standstill because of the raids — that was exactly the same timeframe when the film was shot. I think that’s something very interesting. The director of ‘A Kasha’ Hajooj Kuka didn’t make the film saying “oh, we are the victims of the Islamic militia and are fighting this war”. No he made a comedy. A comedy with boastful soldiers, strong women that don’t take any bull from the men. So what I’m saying is we are looking for people who will eventually help make the world a better place for everyone. I know this sounds really heady and pretentious but ultimately, I would have no problem in living in the world that Hajooj thinks of. Or the Syrian directors of ’Still Recording’.
One of the questions that sometimes I ask myself is “Would you live in the world of this director?” If I say no, that’s maybe for me not a film that’s going to work. But if I say yes, why not. Then it’s also maybe a good film. Does it make sense to you?
That’s the reason I write so yes, it makes a lot of sense to me! What has been the most exciting aspect of being the General Delegate to SIC these past three years?
Nazzaro: Frankly the most interesting aspect was that you could show that there’s another way of programming films. That this job is great, is the best job in the world, even when it is not paid. The most exciting thing is to encourage talented people to stick to their own agenda. That they don’t need to compromise. That there is somehow a kind of haven, even though it’s a very small haven of only nine films [the SIC line-up] where their vision is welcomed. Where people don’t try to put them down, try to make them conform to previous models.
This is what I felt when I saw for the first time a rough cut of ‘The Wild Boys’ I was like geez, this guy is crazy — this is perfect for us.
The idea that the place you are working in and for can be perceived as a place that’s welcoming for non common ideas and projects. Undoubtedly the most exciting thing in this work.
What has been the most challenging aspect?
Nazzaro: That’s easy, it’s to forget yourself. It is to go into the viewing of a film without any preconceived notions. When I’m viewing a film and I’m reminded of things that I saw before, then maybe the film is not working for me. I’m not saying it’s not working for everyone, but for me. I want to be taken off guard. I need to feel that film I’m watching is something completely new, at least to me.
I feel that I need to step into new territories. When I saw for the first time the first few minutes of ‘A Kasha’ some of the people I was watching it with were taken aback by the acting of the non-professional actors on screen. Some said, “but these guys cannot act,” and these are people who were part of a workshop the director was having in the same village where he was shooting the movie, part of community work. But for me, that reminded me of the strategies of certain African directors from the Seventies and I found this kind of work very interesting because nowadays films, also the films that come from Africa, they look like everything has been formatted through a very European approach. And the fact that these actors did not conform in any way to what we perceive as good acting is what got me interested in the first place. And that said, I feel those actors act extremely well!
It’s the same that happened with Anna Eriksson’s ‘M’. I mean I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that the guys would be dismissive of the film, lets say some of the guys. I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that the film is very challenging, and provocative. But I was also taken by surprise by the sheer force of conviction that Anna put in her film. It’s a one-woman show, she does everything in the film and in a moment where there is this huge debate about men being unwilling to relinquish their economic and ideological power, here comes Anna Eriksson with ‘M’ and claims back Marilyn Monroe and does it through a very original and challenging way of putting herself on screen.
I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that this film would put me in a hot spot but this is what the job is.
You don’t take a film like ‘M’ you are not doing your job.