In this episode, I interview director Leon Lee on his latest documentary, “Letter from Masanjia.” In 2012, a story in The Oregonion went viral. A woman named Julie Keith had opened a box of Halloween decorations from KMart and discovered an SOS letter written by Sun Yi, a man imprisoned and tortured in a Chinese labor camp for engaging in the spiritual practice of Falun Gong. Keith publicized the letter, and the international attention eventually led to the abolishment of these labor camps and freed many people in the process. I talk to Lee about Sun Yi’s story, how the documentary was made, and the larger issues it raises about the source of cheap goods, the persecution of minorities, and the power of small actions. Go to http://www.letterfrommasanjia.com for more information on the film and the steps you can take to make a difference.
I’m lying in bed, listening to the rain outside and watching the blades of my ceiling fan go round and round. White blades against a white ceiling–a monochrome that swallows me. It’s late at night. The house is silent. I can’t read or concentrate. I put classical piano music on. I want to cry. I think of looking at pictures of my father. His death, when I was a teenager, is the terrible seed of the present. I don’t take out the pictures. I keep lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and the fan and listening to the piano music.
Hovering over everything is this old and festering grief. My shame at how it persists. My longing to escape it. If only the past were manageable and not so messy; if only it didn’t spill into the present. Grief is ordinary, banal. It’s there in the room, radiating and throbbing. I think about all the lost moments, the ones that were so quiet the mind decided not to remember them–all the words, the touches, the drives in the car. I want them all back.
I think about Lina Rodríguez‘s 2016 film This Time Tomorrow and how it shows a family–a teenage girl, her mother, and her father–in all its ordinary splendor and then cuts that family down to just the girl and one parent. That’s exactly what happened to my life. The loss comes in the middle of the film, like a line that bifurcates their lives into Before and After.
The teenage girl is Adelaida. We see her lying in bed with her mother and father. We see them folding laundry, arguing, eating ice cream, celebrating the mother’s birthday. Them just being together is central; it’s the point. The fact that they do nothing important is also the point. Our lives are made up of a whole lot of nothing important that becomes our everything–cooking dinner, commuting, watching television. These are the rhythms that we live by. Through these mundane tasks and experiences, we come to know ourselves, and doing them with family and friends is how we form bonds.
Death fractures the ordinary. No more folding laundry together. No more fights. No more footsteps in the hallway or the whiff of his cologne when he enters the room, no more lip print on your skin after she kisses your cheek. No more together, now only apart. The ordinary becomes harder, marred by the phantom of the dead, the memory of what once was and can no longer be. Wholeness is now impossible.
Adelaida acts out in the second half of the film, loses herself. In the Before, she was carefree and happy. In the After, she’s sullen and spends little time with her remaining parent, who is always gone anyways. They are each isolated in their own pain. Everything is still the same–their home, the places they went together, the rooms–but now they must live as two instead of three. And how can they do it? Who are they now? Life goes on, always. Only we are altered, awakened to absence. God, the aching.
Adelaida lies in bed, stares into space. Her dead parent appears at the door, a comforting mirage. And I’m in my bed, depressed, looking at the ceiling and the fan, wondering how to move, how to live. No ghost materializes. He isn’t coming back. I want us to watch television and go out to eat and tell each other good night, I love you. I want it all back–all the nothing that is everything, all that was once my life, all the glorious Before when I didn’t know there would be an After.
It’s a podcast created by me, Caitlin. I am a writer, and I have a deep passion not just for cinema but also for literature and art in all its forms. I am a very dreamy, sensitive, and lonely soul who grew up (and still lives) in the rural South. I am a self-taught cinephile with no academic background in cinema. However, I do have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature, and Women’s and Gender Studies.
Her Head in Films is an unconventional film podcast that centers my emotional, personal, and subjective experience of cinema. The title comes from an email I sent a friend during a time of intense film-watching. I wrote, “My head isn’t in the clouds. My head is in films.” It seemed like the perfect way to convey how I am always thinking about cinema and how embedded it is in my life. On the podcast, I often tell stories about my life, and it’s always important to me to connect a film to my own feelings. The subjects that I explore on the podcast include grief, loss, trauma, poverty, mental illness, loneliness, atheism, ugliness, disability, misogyny, injustice, and alienation. I also like to include literature and poetry into my discussions of cinema when I can. I am working class and identify as a feminist. So, at times, I do address issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender.
Not every single episode revolves around my life, and I do try to provide details about the making of the film or other information when I come across it. I do intense research and try to track down filmmaker interviews, director’s commentary, and other things and then include them in my discussion. It just depends on the film itself. Some films are more emotional for me than others. I try to find a balance between my personal reaction and the larger issues that the film might address. I seek a marriage of the emotional and the intellectual.
This is not a totally feel-good podcast. It can be heavy at times, but I share my personal experiences with the hope that it makes someone else feel less alone and maybe comforts them. I repeatedly address the death of my father because it’s something that haunts me. He died in 2006, when I was 16 years old. I turned to cinema to help me cope with my grief, and I continue to seek comfort and solace in films.
I launched Her Head in Films in December 2016 with few resources and little idea of what it would become. I used my Chromebook microphone and knew nothing about podcasting. I just wanted to talk about the films I loved. Since launching, the podcast has grown and become more than I ever imagined. Over time, I enhanced the quality by adding an actual microphone and original artwork (by the great Dhiyanah Hassan) and music! It’s still a small, niche podcast, but I have a fan base and more people have listened than I ever thought would! I’m grateful for this outlet.
More About My Life
Because the podcast is centered around my life, I think I should go into more detail about my own biography. In each episode, I am, in many ways, narrating my own story. I am not trying to educate you about cinema. I’m not providing every detail of historical context to help you understand everything about the film. What I am trying to do is communicate my personal experience of the film, what it made me feel, what memories it conjured for me, why certain scenes resonate, why the film haunts me or moves me, why I loved it and think it matters. I only go by my own subjective judgment and can in no way guarantee that you will love a particular film that I talk about. I don’t think of myself as a critic but a guide, leading you to films that might also move and affect you.
My life has not been easy to say the least. My father died in 2006 when I was 16 years old. A year later, my maternal grandmother died. In 2009, my maternal uncle died. Within three years, I attended the funerals of three people who were part of my life. My father’s death alone was the most devastating thing I’ve ever experienced. It shattered me, and I have never recovered from it. Since I was a child, I’ve struggled with intense anxiety and depression. His death exacerbated those issues to the point where I was suicidal and agoraphobic for many years.
I still struggle with anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, and suicidal thoughts. My father’s death also plunged my mother and me into poverty for a long time. At times in my life, I have been without much food and nearly homeless. After I graduated high school, I went to work at a factory to help support my mother. It was a grueling experience that altered my health forever. So, I also have health issues on top of my emotional traumas. All these experiences have made me a very sensitive and empathetic person who cares about the plight of other people. I am fiercely anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and I would align my political beliefs with Democratic Socialism.
In 2015, I lost my house that I’d lived in my entire life–26 years, up to that point–and went through several moves to multiple states, completely destabilizing me. Losing my house was also very devastating because I lost most of my belongings in the process, including hundreds of books I’d accumulated and things that were owned by my father. At this time, my life is more stable, but years of hardship, fear, uncertainty, and trauma have taken a profound toll on my mind and body. I have somehow survived. At times, I’m not sure how, but I know that books and films and art and writing and my mother’s love have been essential.
When I talk about films, I do so from a place of deep appreciation for the power they have to keep us going, to keep us connected to life, to give us access to other worlds and stories. Cinema makes life worth living. I’m in a kind of love affair with films because I believe they’ve helped to keep me alive. After my father died, my mom and I went to a local movie theater often. It was cheap and would show films months after they were released. In that darkened theater, I was able to escape my pain and reconnect with life. It was my salvation.
My Taste in Film
The first time I realized that film was an art form was when I took a film appreciation class in high school. This was in 2004. We watched all kinds of classics, including Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Great Dictator. Up to that point, I had watched films on Turner Classic Movies, and I enjoyed movies very much, but this class showed me what cinema was and that it was an art, not just a form of entertainment. My eyes were opened, and I fell in love with film and started to collect DVDs when I could (this was before the internet really) and watch more classics on TCM. I distinctly remember seeing Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc on TCM one night and this was a big revelation for me. It was the first time I felt a sense of transcendence while watching a film. I’d never been so moved as I was by Renée Falconetti’s face. I was never the same. But because I did not have regular internet access, I was limited by how much I could explore cinema. I would watch TCM and even record films on blank VHS tapes. I also bought used DVDs at Blockbuster when they had sales. Being in a rural area, I didn’t have an art house theater and my local library did not have an extensive collection of great films.
In 2011, my life really changed again when I got more interested in European art house cinema. I saw Chris Marker’s La Jetée , and I was entranced by it. I started to watch many of the art house masters, like Kieslowski, Varda, Antonioni, Resnais, Godard, Truffaut, Kiarostami, Bergman, Tarkovsky, and more. Before this time, I had mostly seen classic American cinema on television and my access to the internet had been limited to trips to my local library. Now, I was in college and I had regular internet access and could more fully explore art house cinema on various streaming sites, like Netflix and Hulu, which both had more robust offerings of art house at the time. Since then, I’ve expanded beyond just Europe and become interested in more non-western cinema by directors like Ozu and Satyajit Ray.
My cinematic interests are diverse and idiosyncratic. I love contemporary world cinema. I also love both modern and classic French cinema. I’m drawn to documentaries about social justice issues, history, genocide, the Holocaust, fascinating people, and women writers and artists. It’s important to me to spotlight under-appreciated, even obscure, films and women directors. I also love the Criterion Collection and classic art house cinema. I am all over the place! The podcast is not exclusively about art house cinema, though that is my primary focus. I’ve covered films from my childhood, made-for-tv movies, television series, and historical dramas. What matters to me is the EFFECT a film has on me personally, not whether it is considered a classic or important film. It’s about what it means to me.
My favorite directors include: Krzysztof Kieślowski, Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray, Yasujiro Ozu, Andrea Arnold, Agnès Varda, Jane Campion, Larisa Shepitko, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean Vigo, Marcel Carné, Jean Renoir, Alice Guy-Blaché, Lee Chang-dong, Terrence Malick, Michael Haneke, Jonas Mekas, Ken Loach, and many more.
My favorite films are: The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Double Life of Veronique, The Tree of Life, Wanda, The Apu Trilogy, The Three Colors Trilogy, Dekalog, Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, Late Spring, The Piano, The Mirror, L’avventura, Birth, L’atalante, The Ascent, Come and See, many of Ingmar Bergman’s films, Port of Shadows, Children of Paradise, and on and on I could go.
Where To Start
This is a kind of greatest hits of my episodes, the ones that I think are my best and that are a good introduction to me as a person and my cinematic interests. Please keep in mind that I did not start out with a lot of money and resources for the podcast. In the first year, the audio is not great, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence. It’s only as I kept doing episodes and got positive feedback from people that I started to believe more in myself and find my voice. It took time! The very early episodes from 2016 and 2017 are a bit rougher. I was not able to add music until Episode 64. I started a Patreon and that has given me the ability to improve the quality of the podcast tremendously.
Also, I go into all aspects of a film when I select it for an episode. There are always spoilers. I suggest watching the films before you listen to one of my episodes or else the plot twists will be revealed to you. It’s important that I go deeply into the films that I love. Episodes can often be very long, almost two hours sometimes. That’s just how I am. I talk and sometimes I can’t shut up! I just have to be true to who I am and discuss a film the way that feels right for me.
My Most Popular Episode
Episode 64: Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher
This is my most downloaded episode and has been very popular with listeners. I talked about this film because I was astonished by Isabelle Huppert’s performance. I suspect the widespread love for her might be why the episode is so popular! Huppert plays a masochistic piano teacher who becomes involved with one of her students. She gives what I consider to be one of the greatest performances of all time.
My Most Personal Episode
Episode 66: Jonathan Glazer’s Birth
I first saw Birth when I was a teenager, and it immediately obsessed me. It’s the kind of film that is in my blood cells at this point. In this episode, I talk about the death of my father and why I identify with the main character of the film–Anna–who loses her husband and is destroyed by grief.
My Favorite Episode
Episode 33: Barbara Loden’s Wanda
I put so much time, research, and heart into my episode on Wanda. It’s a film that I’ve championed for years now, well before many people even knew about it. I see myself in Wanda as she struggles to cope with life and to make her way through the world.
The Episode I’m Most Proud of
Episode 83: Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours
For a long time, the podcast was about me. Then, in 2018, I branched out and started to add guests. My discussion with Carolyn Petit about Museum Hours was truly revelatory, and so much of what we talked about has stayed with me. We explored art, history, human connection, and so much more. I’m so proud of our conversation.
The Episode That Explains My Passion For Cinema
Episode 52: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc
I trace my cinephilia back to the moment I saw Renée Falconetti’s face in The Passion of Joan of Arc. She’s haunted me ever since. Watching this film was the first time I realized that cinema was an art form that had the power to move me. It was my awakening, and I’ve never been the same. In this episode, I talk about my love for the film, and I also give some background on the life of Joan of Arc.
Episodes Specifically About My Life and My Struggles
Episode 31: Vadim Perelman’s House of Sand and Fog
Sometimes, I talk about films because they give me a way to explore my own experiences and to give voice to my trauma. House of Sand and Fog provided a space for me to discuss the loss of my home and the way that it destabilized me. I also touched on why I think the film is so important, especially in the way it looked at the animosity and violence toward immigrants, a subject that resonates now more than ever.
Episode 24: Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake
So many people today live with financial precarity. My experience with poverty, having to use government assistance, and struggling with the shame of all that is not unique. I, Daniel Blake was a way for me to talk about being working class, but it also let me give voice to some of what happened to my father when he became disabled and had to endure the dehumanizing welfare bureaucracy in the years before his death.
Episode 61: Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth
After my father died, I sought comfort in a cheap local theater that got new releases many months after they came out. The theater even had the occasional foreign film. I have vivid memories of seeing Pan’s Labyrinth around that time, and this episode is about those memories and how cinema helped me cope with grief.
Episodes About Films That Will Forever Haunt Me
Episode 55: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura
I didn’t immediately like Antonioni’s groundbreaking L’avventura. It took time for it to sink in, but, over the years, its mystery has utterly consumed me. I loved recording this episode because I was finally able to articulate why it made such an impression on me. Monica Vitti’s face looms large in my life, just like Falconetti’s.
Episode 84: François Ozon’s Under the Sand
Like Birth, Ozon’s Under the Sand looks at a woman grappling with the loss of her husband. Charlotte Rampling is at her best and this film made me fall in love with her and realize what a gifted actress she is. There is an intangible, ineffable quality about this film. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to talk about it on the podcast.
Episode 48: Larisa Shepitko’s Wings and The Ascent
I’ve said for years that Larisa Shepitko is one of the greatest directors and yet so few people know her name. The Ascent is widely regarded as her masterpiece, but Wings is also exquisite. Both films deal with the Second World War, though focus on different aspects of it. It was an honor to explore Shepikto’s life and art for this episode and hopefully get my listeners interested in her work.
The end of each year inevitably brings a deluge of top 10 lists. Of course, many of them include the same films. For 2018, we expect that Cold War, Burning, Roma, and Shoplifters will be on most lists. I wanted to do something a bit different and create a top 10 that highlighted films that probably won’t end up on all those best-of lists, but not because they aren’t great or they don’t matter. Instead, they’re films that flew under-the-radar or made a bigger impact in other countries or, for whatever reason, didn’t find an audience to champion them. So, I’m championing them.
These are films that moved me in some way because they focused on a singer I love or examined a problem or went deeper into a topic that interests me. Not all the films are technically from 2018, there are also a few from 2017 and even 2016. I am often behind on new releases and some films released a year or so ago haven’t been available until now. So, I’m just including all of them together. I hope the list can expose you to a few films you might not know about and inspire you to seek them out!
Mathieu Amalric and Jeanne Balibar have worked on many films together. I even covered one of those films–Le stade de Wimbledon–for the podcast. Over the years, Amalric has proven to be both a brilliant actor and talented auteur. I love his films because they’re often very idiosyncratic and different. In his latest film, Amalric plays Yves Zand, a director obsessed with the French singer, Barbara (born Monique Andrée Serf) who captivated audiences with her poetic and confessional songs. Balibar plays Brigitte, an actress playing Barbara in a biopic. While Brigitte can fluidly go in and out of character– one moment inhabiting Barbara, the next just being herself–Zand struggles to separate reality and fiction because of his intense connection to Barbara’s music. Amalric incorporates actual footage of Barbara into the film, leaving the audience unsure, at times, if we are seeing Balibar or Barbara–the two women almost merge, and the resemblance between them is startling. Ultimately, the film raises questions about the nature of biopics, the mystery of acting, and the deep devotion we feel for certain singers and artists.
Few films have haunted me this year more than God Knows Where I Am. I first saw it on PBS where there was also a discussion with the filmmakers, Jedd and Todd Wider. The documentary is about Linda Bishop, a woman who starved to death in an unattended house in New Hampshire after she was released from a mental health facility without her family being notified. Bishop struggled with bipolar disorder with psychosis and often refused treatment. She was really hiding in the house and no one knew she was there. She kept diaries and purposely starved herself, only eating apples and surviving off snow until she died. Excerpts of Bishop’s diaries are read in voice-over in the film and there are interviews with her loved ones. More than anything, this documentary exposes the major cracks and dysfunction in the mental health system in the United States.
In the opening scene of Xavier Legrand’s Custody, Miriam and Antoine Besson are meeting with a judge to discuss who will have custody of their young son, Julien. Miriam claims that Antoine is violent toward Julien and their older daughter, Josephine, but Antoine denies it and, along with his lawyer, paints Miriam as a liar. The audience is immediately unsure of who to believe, and the film maintains that tension until the very end in a final scene that is one of the most shocking and intense I’ve ever witnessed. It’s best not to say too much more, and I recommend avoiding reviews until you’ve seen the film for yourself.
Charlotte Rampling continues to construct a body of work that is filled with quietly powerful performances. Hannah is another triumph in her career. She received the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for playing Hannah, a woman whose husband is put in prison for sex crimes, leaving her alone, adrift, and isolated from both her family and the outside world because of how she remains by his side. Hannah is directed by Andrea Pallaoro, and he created the role specifically for Rampling, allowing her to bring all of her formidable powers to a film that is slow, subtle, and concerned with a woman’s agonizing diminishment. Hannah rarely speaks and hardly interacts with people. She is deeply coiled within herself, but Rampling conveys the interiority of Hannah through small gestures and quiet moments, like when Hannah sees a beached whale or sits alone on a subway. The silence and slowness of the film suggest great depths and brought to mind a film called Everything Else, which also focuses on a woman gradually receding from the world.
When Donald Hall died in 2018, the world lost a truly important poet. For decades, Hall wrote poetry that bore witness to life and loss in all its complexity. His wife, fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, died in 1995, and he wrote many books about her death. He never got over losing her and, it seemed, turned to poetry and language as a way to mourn, celebrate, and survive. Quiet Hours is a short film directed by Paul Szynol that captures Hall in the last years of his life. It shows him at his home in New Hampshire. He talks about Jane. He talks about writing. We even see the women who help him in his daily chores. In his late 80s, he has a gravity and presence that remind me of Walt Whitman. Maybe it’s the beard. I’m grateful for this film and grateful for the contributions of Hall and Kenyon, two poets who have deeply affected my life.
Amanda is a simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking film. Visually, it is dreamy and sun-soaked. Thematically, it is devastating. Vincente Lacoste plays David, a young man whose sister is killed in a terrorist attack in Paris. David must face this terrible loss and also take care of his sister’s young daughter, Amanda, who is grief-stricken and lost without her mother. David and Amanda were already close, but their bond deepens as they turn to each other for love and support. Every day on the news, we hear about horrific acts of violence, but we rarely get a sense of how these events impact the lives of the survivors, how the loss of a loved one changes them forever. Amanda goes beyond the headlines. It even questions the ability of the news to convey the real life of the victims when, in one scene, David tries to talk to a journalist about his sister and abruptly ends the interview because he can’t find the words. How can he explain who she was? How can he make people understand? Amanda shows that perhaps fiction is, at times, a better medium for telling these stories and for conveying the rich and complex life of a person and how their death can affect the loved ones they leave behind.
On the news, we hear about the plight of refugees around the world, but, often, they remain nameless faces on a television or cellphone screen. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Season in France takes us directly into the lives of a father and his children as they seek asylum in France after leaving their home in Africa. Eriq Ebouaney gives a powerful performance as Abbas Mahadjir, a man trying to navigate the complicated bureaucracy of immigration law and provide for his family but, at every turn, he faces daunting obstacles and systemic barriers. He falls in love with Carole Blaszak, played by the always-wondrous Sandrine Bonnaire. Blaszak had her own immigration issues because of her Polish background. So, she symapthizes with Mahadjir and tries to help him, but all his appeals for asylum are rejected. Who will take him and his family in? Where will they go? How will they survive? Through one story, Haroun makes us think about the larger experience of migrants and refugees, how precarious their lives are, how traumatic it is to leave their homes and to be unwanted in every country they enter, the inhumanity and dehumanization they face just for trying to survive. I think this period will go down as one of the most shameful times in human history when millions of people fled war, violence, and environmental collapse and so many countries closed their borders and showed no decency. Often, the countries closing their borders are the ones that helped create the very conditions that refugees are trying to escape. A Season in Hell is vital and important and forces us to stare that shame directly in the face.
The single most important film I watched this year was Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema. Some films are catalysts leading us in new and unexpected directions that change our lives forever. For me, this is that film. Tavernier takes us on a personal and in-depth journey through the French films that he loves. He talks about directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker, Marcel Carné, and many more. Because of this documentary, I decided that I want to go even deeper into French cinema, that I want to watch as many classic French films as I possibly can, and learn all I can about the history of French cinema. I went on to watch other French films, including Melville’s Army of Shadows, Carné’s Port of Shadows and Children of Paradise, and Duvivier’s Un Carnet de Bal, and I’m not stopping there. I look forward to watching many more, and I have Tavernier to thank!
Discovering the poetry of Sylvia Plath when I was around 16 years old was one of the single most important events of my life. I was immediately electrified by her art, and my love for her has only grown over the years. I’ve devoured her poetry, her journals, The Bell Jar, her short stories, and biographies about her. However, I’ve always been baffled by the lack of documentaries about her life and work. There was one made shortly after her death that features interviews with people who knew her and even her mother, but, other than that, few films have come to fruition. This makes me all the more grateful for the BBC documentary Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar, directed by Teresa Griffiths, which takes a look at her life, specifically the period of her internship at Mademoiselle in the 1950s. The events would inspire her to write The Bell Jar. The documentary includes interviews with the other women who were also interns with Plath, childhood friends, and Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. Scholars also provide important historical context, discussing the struggle many women faced in the 1950s, how limited their lives were, how Plath resisted that and struggled to create the life she wanted at a time when women had few options. I found myself in tears by the end of the film because Plath felt so real to me. It also brought home to me what a ferocious woman she was. We talk too often about Plath’s suicide. It looms so large. What gets lost is Plath’s life. What gets lost is how vivacious and funny and beautiful and ambitious she was, how she endured horrendous depression and even worse treatment by mental health professionals but despite it all she wrote poems and a novel that stand the test of time and continue to astonish, inspire, and influence countless writers to this day. Her life was extraordinary. She was extraordinary, and this documentary reminds us of that.
I love film scores. I listen to film music on a regular basis. One album that has stayed with me for years is Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for The Revenant. It’s a stunning work of art that Sakamoto actually composed while he had cancer. The documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda takes us into the life of a talented and fascinating composer who seems deeply connected to the world around him. In the film, we go all over the world with Sakamoto, from the wasteland of Fukushima to the icy landscape of the Arctic. We hear stories of Sakamoto’s life, including the day he was in New York City on 9/11 and why he loves Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. Sakamoto takes inspiration from a variety of sources-from history, cinema, the sound of rain, nature, human and environmental disasters, and his own personal struggles. I was in awe of this documentary. It inspired me to seek out more of Sakamoto’s work and to pay more attention to the world around me.
Letter from Masanjia – a Chinese prisoner at a labor camp smuggles an SOS letter into a box of Halloween decorations, and the letter is found by a woman in Oregon, triggering a haunting series of events
Drift – a meditative and contemplative film that incorporates the beauty and rhythms of the ocean
Before Summer Ends – After several years of living in France, a young man must return to Iran, but takes one last trip with his friends
In this episode, I explore François Ozon’s mysterious and emotionally devastating 2000 film “Under the Sand,” starring Charlotte Rampling as Marie Drillon, a woman whose husband, Jean, unexpectedly disappears during a vacation on the beach. The film is about Marie’s struggle to come to terms with the loss of Jean. I talk about the complex career of Rampling, why her performance is so powerful, and why I personally connect to this film because of its look at loss and death.
In this episode, Carolyn Petit joins me for a conversation about Jem Cohen’s 2012 film “Museum Hours.” Carolyn is managing editor at Feminist Frequency and is the co-host of the podcasts Feminist Frequency Radio and Cinemaball. “Museum Hours” is about Johann, a security guard at a Vienna art museum and how he meets Anne, a woman visiting the city to see her cousin who is in a coma. Over the course of Anne’s stay, she and Johann become friends as he shows her around and offers emotional support in her time of need. In our discussion, Carolyn and I explore the power of art, the mystery of human connection, and much more.
In this episode, I talk about Robert Wise’s 1963 cult classic, “The Haunting.” It’s based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” and stars Julie Harris as Eleanor Lance, a young woman who joins three people at a haunted house to investigate paranormal phenomena. Eleanor has spent over a decade caring for her invalid mother who has recently died. I explore how this film represents psychological disintegration and a woman searching for belonging as well as how the film uses sound and cinematography to create a frightening, claustrophobic atmosphere. At the beginning of the episode, I also talk about the recent news that Filmstruck is shutting down.
In this episode, I delve into Alejandro Amenábar’s haunting 2001 film, “The Others.” This episode contains FULL SPOILERS. If you have not seen the film and you choose to listen to this episode, it will be ruined for you.
In this episode, I welcome my first guest, Jesse Ataide, and we talk about our love for John Cromwell’s 1945 film, “The Enchanted Cottage.” It tells the story of Laura Pennington, a woman who struggles with her unattractiveness, and Oliver Bradford, a disfigured and disabled WWII veteran who fall in love in an old cottage that seems to have the magical power to transform the way they see each other. In our discussion, Jesse and I touch on themes of ugliness, queerness, disability, and much more.
For me, everything begins with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s my favorite film. It’s the film that made me fall in love with cinema. It’s not often that you can point to a specific work of art and say that it made you who you are, but that’s the case for me. Central to the film is what I (and many other cinephiles) consider the greatest acting performance of all time by Renée Jeanne Falconetti. Her face stripped of make-up, her hair cut off, Falconetti is raw and anguished. Dreyer’s film does not show the triumphant Joan of Arc, the girl-warrior galloping into battle. He shows her captured, interrogated, weeping. He shows not the mythic Joan but the human Joan, and, for me, that is Falconetti’s greatest gift–her ability to make Joan alive to us, to convey her suffering but also her mystical transcendence.
In February of 2018, I did an episode on the podcast about The Passion of Joan of Arc. I wanted to revisit it. I wanted to try to communicate what the film meant to me. A little while after the episode aired, a listener contacted me and told me about Mirko Stopar’s Nitrate Flames, a documentary on Falconetti’s life. When I watched the film, I was blown away by its mesmerizing re-enactments, meticulous attention to historical detail, and the wealth of information it provided about Falconetti, how she grew up in poverty in Paris and eventually died an early death in Argentina. She lived a fascinating, unconventional, and tragic life. Just as Dreyer showed the human side of Joan, so too does Stopar show the humanity of Falconetti while dissolving none of the mystery that still surrounds her. Stopar was kind enough to speak with me by email. In our conversation, we discuss Falconetti’s life, the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc, the way Nitrate Flames mixes documentary and fiction, and much more.
Her Head in Films: Thanks so much for talking with me, Mirko. Looking online, I don’t see a lot of information about you. Before we delve into Nitrate Flames, can you tell me more about yourself, your background, and how you got started in film?
Mirko Stopar: I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and from a young age I got interested in film. My father was a cinephile, and I was exposed to classic cinema since my childhood, watching films with him on television or at the cinematheque in Buenos Aires. There was an 8mm camera at home that was used for making home movies that often had a narrative and experimental touch. I decided pretty early that I wanted a career in film and did my first short movie at the age of 17. I went to film school for three years and, since my early twenties, I’ve worked steadily in TV and advertising, making the odd short film on the side. I started to pursue a film career more seriously once I moved to Oslo, Norway, both as a writer and a director, alternating between fiction and documentary works. In the last few years, I’ve become more interested in exploring a more hybrid kind of form that can combine fiction and documentary, especially an archive-based one.
Her Head in Films: What inspired you to make Nitrate Flames?
Mirko Stopar: I first saw The Passion of Joan of Arc when I was 15 or 16 and, although I didn’t like the film so much, I was completely mesmerized by Falconetti’s face and performance, which I found powerful and unforgettable. A few years after, I learned that she had lived in my home town of Buenos Aires and that she had died there, which felt very odd. And when I moved to Oslo I found out about Dreyer’s print appearing there, in a mental hospital of all places. I felt that there was a story there, very connected to my geography to begin with, but also a cinephile story full of connecting elements as well, tying the fires of the stake of Joan of Arc with the fires Dreyer’s film went through, also with madness as a recurring issue, and interesting links between Falconetti’s and Dreyer’s careers as well.
Anyway, I sensed that those strange connections to my geography were an indication that perhaps that story had to be told by me. The fact that there was almost no information available about Falconetti’s life and very little knowledge about the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc was also a good motivation to investigate and make the film.
HHIF: It’s so interesting to me that you didn’t like The Passion of Joan of Arc when you first saw it. For me, I have such intense memories of seeing it for the first time, and it literally changed my life and awakened me to the transcendent power of cinema. The film really made me a cinephile.
Iwish I’d known about your documentary before I recorded my own episode about The Passion of Joan of Arc. As I was researching Falconetti, I struggled to find information about her. At the time, I wondered, How can this woman who gave one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema still remain so mysterious to us? Why aren’t there more books and more information about her? That’s why I love your film so much. It filled in a lot of gaps for me and was so enlightening.
I’m wondering how you went about researching Falconetti’s life and what sources you used to find out more about her. I know that you included an interview with her daughter, Hélène . I’m curious if she specifically spoke to you for the film or if that was a previously taped interview that she did with someone else.
MS: First I investigated in Buenos Aires and found a couple of people that knew Falconetti firsthand and still had memories of her. They were children during the 1940s who took French classes with her. Then, I continued in Oslo, where I met the people who were directly connected to the finding of the original print of the film in the early 1980s. But the greatest part of the research took place in Denmark and, of course, in France. In Denmark, I met very helpful people in the Film Institute that allowed me to research Dreyer’s personal papers, including his shooting script of The Passion of Joan of Arc, with his written notes on it. That was really precious. In Denmark, I also found many written accounts about the shooting of Dreyer’s film written by technicians, Dreyer scholars and journalists. Luckily, if you speak Norwegian, you can read and understand Danish, and that helped a lot.
In France, I got a little scholarship to develop the screenplay at La Fémis film school of Paris, which allowed me to spend some time there and research a lot. One of the first things I got was the book written by Hélène Falconetti in the 1980s. It’s a very strange book. It reveals some things about Falconetti, especially of her early theatre career, but not as much as you would expect. Hélène had a very complicated relationship with her mother, who had her as a single mother and left her to be raised by her grandmother. When Hélène turned 17, she got her share of the fortune left by her father and emancipated herself and barely saw her mother again. Eventually, she became a lawyer and had a son who also became an actor, Gérard Falconetti, who acted in a couple of Rohmer films and in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. He was diagnosed with AIDS and committed suicide at the age of 35. So, his death was the real reason behind Hélène’s book, rather than her mother’s life. Yet it’s quite shocking to see the analogies between Falconetti and her grandson’s life. Be that as it may, after reading the book I decided I would leave all the stories concerning Falconetti’s children out of the film (she had a second child sixteen years after Hélène and also as a single mother). It was simply too much.
But, while in Paris, I found out that Hélène was still alive. She was 95 at the time. My producer contacted her by phone and arranged a rendezvous for me. She didn’t show up. We tried a second time, and the same thing happened. Then, I called her myself, and she told me she did go to the appointment, but I didn’t show. I tried to ask her stuff about Falconetti on the phone, but she only wanted to speak about Gerard. I knew it was no use to keep trying, so I gave up on her. But luckily two things happened then. I managed to get the audio interview with Hélène made by a Danish director in the 1990s for a documentary he did about Dreyer. And a close friend of Hélène, named Yves, found a box for me with Falconetti’s private stuff, which included letters, photographs, theater programs and her passport. It was very touching to see the passport because it was an object she had with her when fleeing Europe during WWII, through Brazil and finally to Argentina, where she arrived penniless in 1943. The passport included information about where she embarked, where she landed, how much money she had with her, which vaccination and so on. I guess I’m lucky that because of this film I had in my hands Dreyer’s shooting script and Falconetti’s passport. I can’t see any better way you could be more intimate with those two characters.
Anyway, the research for the project took almost four years, and it wasn’t very organized. Suddenly, I found a bit of information connecting Falconetti with a person, and went on to do a new investigation on that person, to see if I could find new leads. That happened with Nobel prize winner Gabriela Mistral, who I learned was a friend of Falconetti during her stay in Rio. So I went through her letters and telegrams kept in Chile’s National Library and found interesting information about the Brazil chapter. Also with Vinicius de Moraes, who mentioned in his memories that he met Falconetti and Orson Welles together in Rio. So, every new bit of information was incorporated into my notes and slowly the form, structure and style of the film began to take shape. I had plenty of information, but it needed to be channeled in an interesting cinematic way, and that was perhaps the biggest challenge.
HHIF: It’s stunning to read about the intense journey you went on to create this film, all the sources you found, all the paths you went down even if they led to dead ends. It sounds like you were deeply dedicated to this project. Falconetti’s life was short, but it spanned across continents, from France to Argentina, and, similarly, your film traverses that physical distance as well but, for me, you also close the emotional distance between the viewer and Falconetti. You always make Falconetti a real person to us. You situate her within her time period and convey what a fascinating and unconventional woman she was. For instance, how she had two children on her own and didn’t believe in marriage, and also her interest in avant-garde theater and even her more method-style acting. She was ahead of her time in many ways.
I also had the sense as I watched the film that she was a woman who struggled, who drifted. She didn’t have a strong relationship with her children obviously. She didn’t seem to have a lot of lifelong friends. For a woman who looms so large in the imaginations of cinephiles–who is so famous–her life was surprisingly tragic. Were there any really surprising things you learned about her? Is there an aspect of her life or her personality that stays with you? I’m also interested in how making the film personally affected you.
MS: Oh, I learned plenty of surprising things about her for sure. Many ugly and tragic ones too, which I deliberately kept out of the film. I needed to find the real woman behind the myth, but I also wanted to keep her mysterious because she is mysterious, and it’s good to keep her that way. I always said that Nitrate Flames, rather than an anthology of Falconetti’s life, is a “haunthology”, that it’s more a ghost story than biopic. So, finding that balance was crucial. Showing her bright side alongside the dark. And I needed to take some distance as well. I didn’t want the film to be a love letter. I saw many portraits of film divas done that way, just hate them.
I can’t say I know Falconetti more than I knew her when I started. The film opens with a quote by her own daughter who says “I didn’t know my mother.” Her own daughter says that. And I definitely can’t say that I like Falconetti more after making the film than before. She was a complex woman, and that had to come forth. One important aspect is that I never idealised her. I went through the whole process with an open mind and didn’t shy away from showing dark aspects of her life. The important thing was to build a believable character one could relate to. Fortunately, she was such a “modern” woman for her times that it didn’t take a lot of work to achieve that. There was no gap, her life didn’t feel “dated” in the least.
I guess the aspect of her personality that stays the most with me is her eagerness to keep going in spite the self-boycotting and self-destructiveness, the energy and drive she had to cross Europe during a dangerous time and move to the far side of the world with no money or project. She never gave up, even if whenever she had a chance to start out again she spoiled the chance almost deliberately. I’m very attracted to these kinds of characters. I think chess player Bobby Fisher was also a bit like that.
Making the film affected me a lot, because it was a fascinating process but also a painful and hard one that took almost 6 years of my life. I found a way to work the life of historical characters in a hybrid manner between documentary and fiction that I’ll definitely keep pursuing further in other projects. Nitrate Flames wasn’t an easy film to make. When I started, I imagined that, due to its subject, I could finance the film in France and Denmark, but at the end it was made with money from Norway and Argentina, and the film was several times on the verge of falling apart due to lack of funds. But you could not expect to make a film about Falconetti and The Passion of Joan of Arc without suffering, right?
HHIF: It’s moving to hear about how dedicated you were to making the film. I’m also impressed with your ability to not glorify Falconetti or turn her into a saint. She was very complicated. I think her complexity is important to show because we all have those layers and those contradictions. Something that I wanted to touch on was the fact that Falconetti herself didn’t seem to care for The Passion of Joan of Arc, that perhaps she felt like she lived in the shadow of it. I’m haunted by the scene in the documentary where Hélène talks about going to see The Passion of Joan of Arc with Falconetti. Hélène is sitting there watching Falconetti watch herself on the screen, and there’s no reaction. She seemed estranged from the film, most likely because of the difficult conditions under which it was made, as you show in your film. Can you talk more about the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Falconetti’s relationship to the film over the course of her life?
MS: The Passion of Joan of Arc was an unusual film in many respects, narratively, technically, and also in the way Dreyer handled the performance of his main actress. Falconetti was a very adventurous woman who had very limited previous film experience. She was basically a theatre actress, and although she tried herself as a tragedienne for La Comedie Francaise, her speciality was light comedies. That those two, Dreyer and Falconetti, came together was a very unusual thing.
Dreyer was very interested in the landscape of the human face and saw something in Falconetti, “some scars of a suffering past”, as he put it, that he thought he could channel into her performance of Joan. So, he prepared a very unique atmosphere on that set for Falconetti to inhabit the character and immerse herself in the performance. It took time. She wasn’t taking it very seriously at the start. As a theatre actress, she was used to a completely different way of working, and Dreyer’s direction didn’t resemble any directing method she was used to. Together, they tried different ways of approaching the performance, which included watching the rushes over and over after the working day was over and repeat and repeat again the following day to find the right emotion for each of the close-ups. As the days went on, Falconetti got more and more isolated from the rest of the cast, and slowly she started to be Joan. How she achieved that is not easy to answer, what role Dreyer played in it, or whether Falconetti informed the suffering of Joan with her own (she had a difficult childhood, living in poverty with an abusive father). Be that as it may, something clicked and the result is that one-of-a-kind performance, completely hypnotic even for our modern standards.
Why the film is so unique is due to a combination of factors: Dreyer and Falconetti at the top of their creative powers, the effervescence of Paris in 1927, a technical crew and cast that included superlative talents like Artaud, Maté, Valentine Hugo, etc, and everybody’s awareness that silent cinema was a dying form and that they were sort of making the last silent film. Apparently, Falconetti didn’t like the film that much when she saw it completed because, in her opinion, everything in it was Dreyer’s and not hers (Funnily, Lubitsch disliked the film for exactly the opposite reasons, that there was too much Falconetti in it). That’s perhaps why she didn’t make more films, because she was used to theatre acting and, in the theatre, it was she who was in command.
It’s true that she had suffered during the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was a long shoot that took 9 months, and the process was very exhausting, but it wasn’t because of this that she didn’t make another film. She just took that job as yet another adventure. She loved to take risks and try new things and provoke and puzzle fans and critics. Once she was done with it, she moved on to another thing. What she didn’t imagine was the effect the performance would have on her public figure, that she would forever be associated with that role. She hated that. She spent the rest of her life escaping Joan of Arc and strangely, Joan of Arc kept coming and coming back to her life. The daughter says in the film that she also had to live her life as “the daughter of Joan of Arc” and she hated that, too. There’s that magic moment in which both mother and daughter go to the cinema to watch Dreyer’s film in the early 1930s and, while Falconetti sits emotionless watching herself on the screen, her daughter watches her mother watching herself.
So, I guess the film ended up becoming a turning point in Falconetti’s life, and the same applies to Dreyer’s, because his career was never the same after making that film. Distances apart, The Passion of Joan of Arc was like Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. Welles spent the rest of his life escaping Kane but still everything he did was Kane. I was really surprised to learn that Falconetti and Welles did meet in real life, and in Rio de Janeiro during a film screening, for lack of a more convenient setting, and that they were introduced to each other as “Joan of Arc, meet Citizen Kane”. It was too good to be true, but for some reason, it made perfect sense.
HHIF: I wanted to touch briefly on something you talked about throughout the interview, and that is the hybridity of fiction and documentary. It fascinated me while watching the film and was most apparent during the re-enactments. At times, I couldn’t tell what was archive and what was re-enactment. You do a great job of re-creating certain scenes, and I thought the period detail was meticulous. I’m wondering if you’d like to talk more about that hybridity in the film and how it was achieved? You also mentioned pursuing that type of hybridity in future projects. So, lastly, I’d love to know if you are working on anything right now or what your next project might be!
MS: If I’d had the means, I would have made this story as a fiction because the material was so rich. The challenge was to make a documentary that the audience could feel like a fiction. For me, it was crucial to avoid the TV documentary clichés, like the use of talking heads. For that same reason, I considered not using voice over, but decided to do it at the end, shaping it into a film noir narration because there was a noir component in the material connected to the idea of an unsolved mystery. So, I felt like why not try a nasal voice that for the cinephile could remit to Double Indemnity or such films. To reinforce the “noir” concept, we used many film excerpts of Argentinean noir films from the 1940s to illustrate some of the situations.
That the film was conceived as a fiction shows also in the screenplay approach. The film was written word by word, image by image, on paper beforehand, which is not the way you usually work with documentaries. In documentaries you gather hours and hours of material and find the film at the editing table. In fiction, a screenplay page equals a minute of film. We had a 63-page screenplay and the film is 63 minutes long. So, that part of the process was very precise. Same with the score. Our wonderful composer made 35 different themes and motives for the film, which is kind of crazy. There’s music all the time. That’s not typical of a documentary. Another decision was to use voices all through the film, voices that you don’t necessary identify, but, if you immerse yourself in the illusion the film proposes, you let yourself be carried by them all the way through. You just stop questioning who’s talking, if the woman we’re seeing on screen is Falconetti or not, if the image is real archive or a re-enactment.
Right from the start the film tells the audience that there is no material left and that we’ll be dealing with pieces of an unfinished puzzle. So, the film creates the illusion that there is material, and probably only 10% of what you see on screen is real. The information is real, but most of the material we use to put that information on the screen isn’t. The lack of material forced me to invent the storytelling devices, the witnesses, the tapes, journals, articles, newsreels, and also a good part of the archive, to create my own archive. In that respect, the material suited this need because this is a story about representation, about a character that “acted natural on the stage and theatrical in real life”, as the daughter says. I never saw the re-enactments as re-enactments but part of the concept of the film. I hate re-enactments in documentaries in fact. The re-enactments were done in two different aesthetics, the “nitrate” aesthetic, and the “Dreyer” aesthetic. And for both we used sets, costumes, extras–again, the fiction approach. It’s good if you couldn’t tell what was archive or re-enactment because that was the idea.
Since Nitrate Flames, I’ve been developing two or three other projects that follow the same hybrid approach, but, for each of them, I find a different concept and a different storytelling. For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a film also about a historical character: the guy that killed the most whales in history. It’s like a Norwegian Captain Ahab, a very challenging project, with a completely different sensibility than Nitrate Flames but also with a lot of things in common in the way we use archive and film excerpts and voices and convey the illusion of seeing the character on screen when, in fact, there’s almost no material left of him. This way of making films is hard and takes many years and the films are seldom seen outside film festivals, but the good part is that you’re very free to play with the form and it is very fun making them.