THE SCREEN TOUCHES BACK: MUTUAL VULNERABILITY

Alyona Koroleva’s The Screen Touches Back programme selects films that “tell their stories in the language of tactile sensations, allowing to feel and empathize before understanding.” The author ceases to be a distant observer and accepts the rules of the story requiring a certain vulnerability from him. Often this vulnerability requires physical participation.

“Films about touch or body memory tell their stories in the language of tactile sensations, allowing to feel and empathize before understanding. Resorting to the physicality of the film’s medium, whether it is the vulnerability of film or video, multilayer collages or scratched-on captions, can be an attempt to show the inside of the screen, to touch the very substance of the image,” says Alyona Koroleva.

For instance, the Turkish director Gürcan Keltek, the author of the film Meteors, structures the story around the events of 2015, when a meteor shower and bombs fell almost simultaneously on Kurdish settlements. According to Alyona Koroleva, “through poetic collages of comets burning in the sky, flashes of shells and fireworks, Keltek rhymes cosmic, personal and political.”

Another film of the programme is Thy Kingdom Come by Eugene Richards. Read about it below.

 

A confession in spite of everything: eugene richards’ and javier bardem’s experience with documentary

In 2010, Terrence Malick started working on an idea which later turned into the film To The Wonder. He decided that the film will have a priest experiencing a crisis of faith; this is the part he gave Javier Bardem. Malick decided that the actor needs to get into character, and invited the prominent photographer Eugene Richards. He instructed him to film the residents of a town in Oklahoma, with whom Bardem, being in character, would converse. Richards himself calls Thy Kingdom Come “my interpretation of the time that I worked for Terrence Malick.” Filming took three weeks.

 

It would be wrong to assume that Thy Kingdom Come is an actor’s exercise in getting into character. Bardem was in a vulnerable position, outside the usual set and aesthetic coordinates. Residents were warned that it is an actor in front of them, and nonetheless felt a desire to speak their mind. But the presence of the operator could also bother them; Eugene Richards filmed these meetings himself using a bulky digital RED camera. He used natural light and tried to reduce his impact; however, his presence was visible. Moreover, Richards, who was used to photo cameras, did not immediately find a way to shoot. As he himself put it, the initial footages came out “clumsy.” Thus, the person in front of the camera seemed to speak in spite of everything: the camera, the actor dressed as a parish priest and the realization that their confession could become part of a major film.

Some of these shots will indeed end up as part of the film (notably, the majority of footage was made on a 35 mm film camera), but most of the material will remain with Richards, who will regain his rights a few years later and edit the film Thy Kingdom Come. In it you can see the conversations Bardem had with a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, a terminally ill person and prisoners. We are sharing fragments of an interview with Eugene Richards published in the Aperture magazine.

 

How Eugene Richards got involved in a Terrence Malick’s project

It was in 2010, so it’s tough to remember exactly, but the first call was from Nick Gonda, Terrence Malick’s producer. He asked me if I wanted to be involved on a film with Malick. Terry and I had met briefly in the 1990s and I loved his film Badlands (1973), so I was very honoured to be asked to be a part of this. At the time of Nick’s and my first conversation, the film was untitled and the script not something to be discussed—except that one of the characters, to be played by Javier Bardem, would be a priest experiencing a crisis of faith, and a lot of it would be set in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where Malick in part grew up.

As part of this film, their idea was to incorporate real people, local townspeople, in scenes interacting with the parish priest, Javier, in order to give the film a broader sense of reality or atmosphere. These were meant to be short scenes shot on video that might later be edited into the final work.

 

How Terrence Malick saw a parish priest

Terry Malick very much liked Mary Ellen Mark’s Mother Teresa photos… He, in fact, lent me one of her books. He thought a priest should act in the hands-on manner of a Mother Teresa—at least the one pictured in the photographs. But I had to tell him about what I had actually seen, for example, when I photographed in the emergency room in The Knife and Gun Club (1989). The priest would have to come in and talk with the person while they were critically ill and talk to the families, to find out what their wishes were. That’s what I said to Terry; it isn’t so much a physical thing as it is a listening process. I told him that I saw the priest’s first role as listener—as did Father Lee, as did Javier, in time.

Father Lee was helping Javier to understand the role, what to do with his hands, and other gestures… He also spoke to Javier about the prayer book he’d be carrying, the nature of confession, and the last rites, and what might be appropriate passages from the prayer book for such occasions.

 

On working with the locals

Everybody knew there was a film going on in town—they’d heard about it, they’d seen the trucks and all that. Some of them had seen Javier in No Country for Old Men, but most of them had not. Still, everyone knew he was an actor. When we went into people’s houses, we introduced ourselves, and most everyone said they wanted to do it. I said to each person, just be yourself. It’s a fictional film. We’ll just be here for a little while, and there are no instructions about what to do or say. That’s all up to you.

We assumed that people might be self-conscious, that they might stare at the camera, that they might perform, but remarkably, that didn’t happen. Part of this, of course, is due to Javier’s gentle, calming demeanour. Part of it is that we generally kept quiet, proved not to be judgemental, treated people with the respect they deserved.

 

On challenges with filming

The camera I was using was a very high-quality digital video camera called a RED. And generally we filmed with either an 18 or a 21 mm lens. We would be shooting with an aspect ratio that was quite wide and narrow, something like CinemaScope wideness. The surprise was that the camera was quite sizeable, or heavy, for me, since I don’t shoot professional video. And I have almost never used a tripod, so I really didn’t know how to work with the RED on a tripod. I hand-held the camera the whole time.

Julio Quintana, my assistant, insisted that we take a belt and strap the camera to me so I wouldn’t drop it. The wide format, when I looked through it, actually felt quite natural. I thought it was very beautiful, but it’s disconcerting at first because in order to get close to somebody, you have to be literally, quite literally on top of him. Most filmmakers would be far back and then use a zoom lens.

Schedule of The Screen Touches Back programme will be published  at this webpage. Thy Kingdom Come will be screened at Velikan Park Cinema on September 15 at 7.45 p.m.


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