“When I was ten ‘E.T.’? came out… I thought Spielberg was God!”
So beloved Thai filmmaker and artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul opened up about his fascination with the cinema of the American filmmaker. He also joked about the dead son/monkey figure with the glowing red eyes featured in his Cannes Palme d’Or winner ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives’ — that while to him it’s a reference to a Thai mythical figure, most audiences think “he’s Chewbacca!”
The great thing about an event like Qumra, the yearly industry meet-up organized by the Doha Film Institute to inspire and connect filmmakers with the world of cinema business, is that one gets to discover wonderful gems. And not only the up and coming filmmakers whose projects were featured in this fourth edition, some of which are definitely heading to Cannes! I also had the leisure to rediscover Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev (‘Leviathan’ and ‘Loveless’ among others) and hear his insight during one of the six masterclasses, and actually uncover Weerasethakul, watch his dreamy work for the first time. And what a wonder that was! As Italian Maestro Gianfranco Rosi admitted to me later, I also remained enchanted by Weerasethakul’s ‘Emerald’ a dreamy look at a rundown motel, featuring flying particles and voiceovers, which I’m still working through and thinking about quite a few days later.
Weerasethakul talked a lot about his artistic vision but he also touched on the censorship system in Thailand, which is in place to protect the military, not assign ratings according to nudity and other cinematic taboos. More recently though, the filmmaker disclosed that a step has been taken in the right direction when the task was and assigned to a proper censor board run by the Ministry of Culture, not the Police department as in the past.
While film curator Richard Peña did take the audience through Weerasethakul’s work and discussed it at length with him, part of the masterclass was devoted to a photographic journey narrated by the filmmaker.
From his childhood — “I thought my father looked like Alfred Hitchcock,” he joked — to the filming of some of his later work using various techniques, the slideshow ended up on his recent collaboration with the International Film Festival Rotterdam where Weerasethakul created a “Sleep Cinema Hotel” complete with amenities and a sticky rice and mangoes breakfast. Within this surreal hotel setting, there was also a “dream-book, where guests were encouraged to write down their dreams.” I overheard IFFR Director Bero Beyer on the way out of the auditorium saying that he’d spent some time there but felt sorry that he’d fallen asleep as quickly as he did.
Sleep, meditation, dreams and visions are all themes quite prevalent in Weerasethakul’s life and work. In fact, he talked about the distant possibility of hooking up all the brains in the world to share their dreams. “We will no longer need cinema then,” he said, a medium that is after all, “evolved from dreams.”
Russian Master Andrey Zvyagintsev was more grounded, as of course his films deal with more worldly themes of greed, separation and our collective lack of comprehension for each other. The masterclass was translated from the Russian by a friend of the filmmaker, and on more than one occasion I could tell that Zvyagintsev caught the woman adding in her own views and chided her for it. Of course, she did a masterful job in offering the English version of his lengthy Russian answers, but I did feel for most of the masterclasses that a lot was lost in translation.
The Russian Master, who is multi-awarded, including a Golden Globe and has secured multiple Oscar-nominations, did have words of advice for the young filmmakers in the audience, which of course is the reason the masterclasses are held at Qumra. “Be yourself,” he said, “discover your inner voice and build on it.”
During the clip shown from his 2011 film ‘Elena’ which won the Special Jury Price in Cannes, I found myself breaking down. Although we the audience don’t yet know what is going on behind the closed doors to her husband’s bedroom, there is a tragic way about the namesake character that clearly anticipates what is to come. It was for me the second time in less than a week — the first came at the showing of a clip from Rosi’s debut film ‘Boatman’ — that I found myself in tears.
And I’ll admit that I love when cinema does that to me, overwhelms me.
In the making of ‘Leviathan’, inspired by the rampaging act of a muffler shop owner on an armored bulldozer, the 2004 “killdozer” incident in Colorado, there is another message that Zvyagintsev wanted to offer emerging filmmakers. “It would have been too banal to make another film on the conflict between a solitary man and the establishment,” he admitted, therefore building many layers to the story, with each character adding to the depth.
After hearing him talk about the pivotal scene between mother and daughter in ‘Loveless’ which he calls “the most horrifying scene in the film,” and continuing on to say, almost pointing out those who chuckled in the audience during the clip, “only those outside of our culture could find anything funny,” I wanted to ask a question.
Does he see his filmmaking as a way to explain his culture to outsiders like me, who have so far learned so much about Russia from him? Again, lost in the translation of the instant English to Russian coming out of his headphones, I began to see Zvyagintsev shift in his chair, when up until then he’d been super cool and collected. His basic answer was no, of course, I didn’t expect him to answer otherwise but the one thing that stood out was how he involved the audience into the filmmaking process, by saying that his films will affect us only as deeply as we wish them to. If we don’t want to jump into their depth, we will view them in a more superficial way and find a scene like the one cited above somewhat absurdly funny.
Cinema in fact, as Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz likes to say, belongs to those who watch it. Once a director has created his work, it’s up to us to make of it what we can. And that's perhaps the most powerful lesson to come out of Qumra for me, the influence on art by its audience and how important we are to the creative process.