I’m a broken record about my story. I have to say it over and over so that I can accept it. When I was 16, my father died. That’s the sentence I write to explain myself. You can’t understand me if you don’t know this part. Nothing about me makes sense unless I tell you that, when I was just a teenager, something deeply catastrophic happened to me. Ever since the moment of his death, I’ve struggled to live, to speak, to write, to survive. Only a few things have carried me from that moment to this one: my mother, books, music, art, and cinema. Those are what I clung to in the dark aftermath of his death and they are what I hold on to still.
I exposed a lot just now. You thought you’d read a little story about the Oscars and here I am laying my heartache bare. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. This is how I am. I can’t beat around the bush. I can’t pretend or hold back. I overshare, and the internet rewards that kind of thing. Maybe we all overshare, hoping someone sees what we are sharing. Maybe we’re trying to share the burden of the pain and find others shouldering the same thing. What does any of this have to do with film? It has everything to do with it.
After my father died, I went to cinema like others go to religion. My church was a dark movie theater, often empty except for me and my mom. In my rural North Carolina town, there weren’t too many theaters. This was around 2006. But there was a one dollar theater (it’s now closed) that miraculously would play some art housecinema. It also played its fair share of schlock, but I watched that, too. In my grief, I didn’t care what was on the screen as long as it was a story, another world that sucked me out of the horror I was living. I went to that theater because I wanted to escape an empty, haunted house, a home that no longer existed because my father was dead. I didn’t want to feel it or think about it or live it. I wanted to be in that theater, away from my new, unbearable reality.
What does this have to do with the Oscars? The Oscars have commodified films. The show advertises itself as a celebration of movies, but it’s just a spectacle that has nothing to do with the emotional, transcendent beauty of cinema that I found in that theater all those years ago when I thought I might die of grief and maybe I am slowly dying of it, but the films saved me then and they save me now. For me, the Oscars has no relationship to what I feel when I watch a film. What I see in that ceremony with the beautiful dresses (I do love them) and the fancy food and the golden statues has no connection to the essence of cinema, this glorious art form of light that transports us into other lives.
The moment I know a film is a work of art is when I feel my burden lighten, when I feel in the presence of something that represents the loneliness inside me, when I feel the director is sharing something from his or her own soul that touches my soul, when I feel just for that interval of the film that I am not alone in this senseless, chaotic, and terrifying world. The films that have made me feel all of that often never got nominated for an Oscar. It doesn’t matter. The lack of an Oscar nomination or win doesn’t make those films any less valid or meaningful. I still love those films and will always love them because of what they’ve given me.
I understand why the Oscars matter to many people. I absolutely believe that representation matters, that we need diversity in film, that all kinds of stories should appear on the screen. I know that an Oscar nomination or win can transform someone’s life, give them access to new opportunities, jump-start a career. When people talk about the lack of diversity in nominations and wins, that’s important, and I’d never belittle the fight against the sexism and racism in the film industry. I think all of that goes without saying, but I wanted to make it clear. Outrage is justified when so few women have ever been nominated (let alone won) in the directing category. Outrage is justified when people of color are consistently overlooked.
I’m talking about the need on the part of many to see the Oscars validate their film taste. Because they loved a certain film, of course it should be nominated! They believe their favorites are worthy of recognition. What I’m asking is why do we need this outward validation? Why do we need this institution to acknowledge the films we like? I’ve let it go. I’ve given it up because I do not believe the Oscars represent the vast majority of cinephiles who live and breathe film and dedicate the vast majority of their lives to it. I’m watching films for spiritual sustenance. Cinema is that serious to me. It goes back to that dark theater over a decade ago. That’s what I trace this obsession, this cinemania, back to. But it’s not just obsession, it’s love. Overwhelming love. Maybe it’s unhealthy. It probably is, but as I’ve gone through more loss and more pain and more fear, I’ve turned even more to films.
I could care less if any of the movies I love are ever nominated. Would it be nice for them to be more widely known and for the filmmakers and producers to get recognition for their work? Absolutely. But, for me, the film is enough. The experience of the film. The feeling of the film. The moment of connection. The lessening of loneliness that it provides. The beauty. All of it is enough. It’s what I live for. Somehow, in all the Oscar predictions and bets and watch parties and think pieces, the true meaning of cinema gets lost and forgotten. What it’s really about is your emotional experience of that film, what you see in the images, how the film becomes part of you, how you think about it for days or even years, how scenes come back to you at random moments. That’s what matters to me. Not the red carpet. Not the media coverage. Not the name that’s read aloud after the envelope is opened. Just me and the film and the way we become one.
I wanted to say: film believes it can preserve what you are doing at this moment. But you, from where you are, wherever it may be, whether you have gone away still bonded to the sand, or the wind, or the sea, or the wall, or the bird, or the dog, you will realize that film cannot do that.
— Marguerite Duras, The Atlantic Man (translated by Alberto Manguel)
One of the most powerful things about the medium of film is its capacity to seemingly preserve the dead. Now that we have home videos, photographs are not enough. To see our lost loved ones walking and smiling, or to hear their voice, is an overwhelming experience. Film appears to capture the sensual reality of a person in a way that photographs cannot. The camera seems to contain the soul of a person, something closer to who they were when they were alive. Home movies feel like resurrection, like you can reach out and touch someone who is forever lost.
I no longer have any videos of my father. During an unexpected move in 2015, we grabbed the photographs but overlooked the VHS tapes. When he died in 2006, it was another world–one where smartphones were not yet ubiquitous and people still took photographs on disposable cameras. My family was working class, and we didn’t have a digital camera or camcorder when I was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s. All I had were some VHS tapes with a few birthday parties on them. I watched the tapes shortly after his death. Even though I no longer have the tapes, I have the memory of what was on them. I have my own inner film constructed from the fragments that I remember.
It was a birthday party. I was maybe 2 or 3. We were at my grandma’s house. She’s dead, too. The images flash in my mind as I write. Me sitting in my mother’s lap, laying my head on her chest, putting her necklace in my mouth. My grandma in the kitchen holding me. My dad trying to assemble one of the presents I received. He’s around 30. I’ll soon turn 30. He doesn’t know he’ll be dead in a little over a decade. None of us know what’s coming. The movie captures us in that one moment that both is and isn’t lost. The movie caught it and, even though the tape has disappeared, I remember the movie.
I wish I had that film of him. I wish we’d grabbed those tapes. I wish he was still here. I can’t forget the experience of watching those home movies. Putting them in the VCR (I don’t even own one now), sitting on the living room floor, seeing the scenes flash on the large television (no flat screens back then). It felt like he was with me again, like it had all been reversed, he was back, he came home. But he never came home, and he never will. The movie was an illusion, a beautiful illusion.
The truth is, film is a lie. The dead are not alive, even though they move and smile on the screen in front of us. A memory of a movie is a second movie that only I will ever see. I can only describe it in words now. I have language as a substitution for the lost film. But words can’t bring him back. Film can’t bring him back either, but the film at least let me pretend for a little while, it gave me a reminder of the physical reality of him. He was once right beside me. Now, his absence consumes every room. The film gave me his presence again.
If I could go back, I’d do what so many women filmmakers have done–I’d document the living before they die, record their skin and hair and voices so that I never forget them. The camera would defy death; it would tell death that you can take the body, but I have a copy, I still have this person with me that you stole. I could show the footage to other people. I could have physical proof of the dead’s existence. They were here. I loved them. They loved me. We knew each other. We were together.
I think of Naomi Kawase’s 1994 film Katatsumori. In it, she records her aunt who adopted her and who she also referred to as “Grandma”. In one scene, her aunt is outside and Kawase is standing at a window watching her, she reaches out her hand almost as a way of touching her from afar. It feels like a gesture of preemptive grief for the time when the aunt will be gone (she died a few years ago) and will be untouchable. The hand forever frozen in the act of reaching out for the person who is no longer there. She records her aunt’s face. I think about how sometimes we stare at a person intently, trying to memorize everything about them. In Katatsumori, the camera seems to function like Kawase’s own eyes, taking the aunt in, recording her face and body, committing her to memory for Kawase.
I’m reminded of a scene in Kieslowski’s 1979 film, Camera Buff. The film is about Filip, a Polish factory worker who buys a camera for the purpose of filming his newborn daughter. But what begins as a personal endeavor steadily becomes something more when Filip’s employer asks him to film the company’s 25th anniversary jubilee and submit the film to a festival where it wins third prize. Soon, Filip is obsessed with his camera and instead of focusing its lens on his daughter or his wife, he places it on the gray, desolate world around him, producing insightful documentaries for the television news. In the early days of Filip’s amateur film making, he captures a poignant moment for his friend Piotrek. He briefly films Piotrek driving up to the apartment building where he lives, exiting his vehicle, and smiling up at his mother who leans out of a window. This moment will become even more important when Piotrek’s mother dies. After her funeral, in his time of intense grief, Piotrek asks to watch the film.
He sits in a darkened room with Filip and other friends and looks at the screen as that moment in time comes back to life. He watches himself drive up to the apartment building and smile at his mother. She appears at the window, her face materializing out of the darkness; she is a beautiful blur, resurrected for only seconds.
Piotrek asks to keep the film. Then, he reflects on the meaning of the moving image. He most likely has many photographs of his mother, but this is the only film he will ever have of her.
I think of Agnès Varda, who, in The Beaches of Agnès, shares profoundly intimate footage of her late husband, Jacques Demy. When she knew he was dying, she took her camera and recorded close-ups of his hair, face, and skin. The camera is almost more than an eye; it becomes a hand, caressing Demy, touching his flesh the way a lover would. Varda continually circles around to Demy in her work. She made several films about his life. His memory was precious to her, and she repeatedly engages with him through the medium of film almost as a way to keep him alive and present in her life. In The Beaches of Agnès, she explains why she had to film Demy before he died
In her film, The Gleaners and I, Varda turns the camera on herself, filming her ageing body. She records close-ups of her hands, her graying hair, and reflects on the horror of growing old. In The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later, Varda says that it was only afterwards that someone brought to her attention the parallels between filming Demy and filming herself. She was not conscious of it at the time. Now that Varda is gone, this footage is all the more precious.
It seems obvious, but, as filmmakers, these women needed to film. Film is how they understand the world and how they make sense of their lives. It’s understandable that their reaction to the eventual loss of a loved one is to record their “very matter,” as Varda says. These films are not just about the dead who are recorded but also about the one doing the recording, the women holding the cameras and their relationship to the subjects–the love they feel for their mothers and spouses. It’s that thread between the filmmaker and the person on screen that makes the documentaries so poignant, so haunting.
I think of Chantal Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, which is an intimate look at Akerman’s mother, Nelly, who eventually passed away. In the film, the mother is already slipping away, and the camera seems to be a way for Akerman to hold on to her for as long as she can. Her mission is to dissolve distance. She even films herself video chatting with Nelly. It’s as though this is a rehearsal for the way that Akerman will interact with Nelly after she’s gone–only through video. In the scene, Nelly exists on a screen. She can’t be touched or held, and that’s ultimately all Akerman will have once her mother dies–a recording, a remnant, a face on a screen. But, in that moment of their chat, Nelly is alive and that’s what the camera captures. For that time, distance does not exist. Mother and daughter are still together.
Ultimately, death is the greatest distance, the distance that cannot be dissolved or bridged.
Finally, I think of Margaret Tait’s A Portrait of Ga, a short 1952 film of the director’s mother. It’s a poetic documentary that shows Ga engaging in everyday tasks, like reading a book, tending her garden, and eating a sticky candy. Tait provides voice-over narration, but it’s not a particularly personal or emotional film. Rather, it’s a playful and light-hearted look at Tait’s mother. Unlike some of the other films I’ve mentioned, there’s a joyousness about it. It’s not grieving Ga, it’s celebrating her life and spirit.
All of these films live together in my mind, along with the home movie of my father. They are films that try to arrest the corporeal essence of their subjects, mostly for posterity, as something to watch when the subject is gone, but are the films enough? Can they ever be enough?
I don’t want a film. I want him.
Movies are what we settle for in the aftermath of loss. Film is neither substitute nor replacement, it is artifact, something we salvage from the ruins. It is not the dead, it is not the person we ache for, but it is a connection to them, a moment of almost holding what is lost forever, and maybe that’s all we can hope for, even though the dead’s presence on film only seems to magnify their absence in real life. The artifacts and the ruins we are left with rarely comfort or soothe me, they are only reminders of what is missing.
For the first time, I’ve appeared as a guest on another podcast! Every season, on The Complete Podcast, Matt and Travis explore the filmography of one director. Right now, they’re focusing on the work of my favorite director, Krzysztof Kieślowski. It was a pleasure to speak to them about Kieślowski’s 1985 film, No End, which is about Urszula Zyro, a woman mourning the recent death of her husband, Antek. The film is set in Poland in the early 1980s, during the time when martial law was declared in the country and many people were imprisoned. Before his death, Antek was representing a young man who was put in prison for organizing a strike. Urszula does her best to assist the young man and his wife while she also struggles with her intense grief. Matt, Travis, and I go into all aspects of the film, discussing its powerful exploration of grief and the complexities of the political narrative. I hope you enjoy it!
There is a scene in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s No End that will always haunt me. The film is about a widow whose husband continues to haunt her after death. One day, the widow–Urszula–is at a bar. She sees an British man across the room. He has hands like her husband. The British man mistakes her for a prostitute, but she plays along and goes to a hotel room with him. After they have sex, she asks if he understands Polish. He says he doesn’t. As they lie in bed together, she starts to pour her heart out in Polish. He doesn’t understand a word she says, but that’s the point. She doesn’t want him to understand. She just wants to speak. It’s the first time in the film that she communicates her grief, says it out loud.
There is such a rawness to the scene, an emotional nakedness that mirrors her physical nudity. Her silence says as much as her words. Her face expresses so much.
Maybe sometimes we need to speak even if it’s to a stranger. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we are understood. Some of us–myself included–need to put experiences into language. We need to articulate, like Urszula, what it means for someone to be here one moment and then for them not to be here, how that sudden disappearance is profoundly disorienting and destabilizing. Absence, the void, the missing–these are things that, by their very nature, defy language.
I was thinking just recently about how I struggle with language, how I grapple with the unspeakable, how tired I am of words. I’ve filled notebooks with thousands of words and still I haven’t really written anything. What do I want to say? Do I have anything to say?
I write from need. I write from pain. I write from my body and my grief and my despair and my mad aching.
Marchini Camia: So there was a therapeutic aspect to making this film?
Friedrich: No, because this isn’t art therapy. Art therapy is something very particular: People have troubles and they go to an art therapist. They aren’t artists; they’re people with problems who use a paint brush. I’m a person with problems who also is an artist. I don’t disrespect art therapy, but it’s not at all the same thing. If I start thinking about working on a film because the subject has deep emotional resonance for me, I know it’s going to be really hard and that I’m going to have to go to places in my mind that I don’t want to. But it’s also going to be hard because I’ll have to get good footage, good sound, I’ll have to write good texts, and then I’ll have to edit so that it all makes sense and works well. There is a huge, huge, huge amount of craft and thought and planning and consciousness in the process that completely takes over from the emotional stuff.
Also I think the goal of art therapy is that you understand how you’re feeling and you get better. That never happens when you’re making a film!
Friedrich is talking about that age-old question of what makes art art. She makes a distinction between art as a form of therapy and art as a craft and a kind of intellectual process. She seems to suggest that people who create purely from a need for therapeutic release or who engage in a more automatic process are not legitimate artists.
I don’t think I agree. I think my idea of art is more expansive than that. Perhaps because my writing process is much more connected with the therapeutic, automatic, instinctual, and cathartic.
Grief blew me apart. Profound loss and mental illness have forever changed me and also changed how I write and why I write. There is a deep silence in me. There is so much that lives inside of me that I cannot articulate. I wonder if I will ever find a language for it, if a language is even possible. If I can’t find that language, have I failed as a writer? Am I a legitimate writer at all? Am I just, in Friedrich’s words, a person with problems who uses a pen? Could what I write ever have meaning beyond myself and my own personal issues? Is art that which transcends the artist and takes on a life inside other people?
Back to Urszula, naked and speaking her grief. Her act of speaking is so interesting to me because she does it on her own terms and in her own language, not in the British man’s. She’s not concerned with being understood. There is something in the act of saying the words. It doesn’t matter if the audience comprehends them.
When you write, you must be prepared to be misunderstood or ignored. You may create a language that few understand, but it is your own.
I also disagree with Friedrich that art therapy eases the pain and makes the practitioner feel better. I don’t write to cure my pain but to bear it.
I find it touching that Urszula is attracted to the British man because his hands remind her of her dead husband’s hands. We perpetually seek out the dead in the living, we watch as they are resurrected in everything, from songs to other people’s body parts. There is no easy way to bear grief when the dead can never be laid to rest, when they haunt us to no end.
Alain Resnais’s 1959 short film, Le chant du Styrène, was commissioned by Society Pechiney and filmed in various French factories that made plastic products. We live in the age of consumerism. We can go into any store and walk down aisles filled with goods, many of which are made of plastic. It’s fair to say that Le chant du Styrène was the original “How It’s Made.” The film follows the process of how plastic products are created from molds inside massive machines. It also goes even further back, giving us a look at how the polystyrene itself is produced.
Resnais has a sharp eye, and he consistently discovers the striking, abstract art within the industrial setting of the factory. He captures how these plastic products have a strange and disturbing beauty when many of them are assembled together, how they almost look natural rather than man-made. Even the industrial landscape where the polystyrene is extracted holds an unusual allure; as the pipes snake across the sky, they resemble a superhighway.
As I watched Le chant du Styrène, I was reminded of Bert Haanstra’s Oscar-winning 1958 short film, Glas. Created a year before Resnais’s film, Glas is set in the Netherlands and juxtaposes two ways of making glass: by hand and by machine. Haanstra is interested in both the industrial and the human, specifically in how the rise of mechanization impacts people, their livelihoods, and the production of certain kinds of vocational arts, like glass-blowing.
The first part of Glas focuses on the glass-blowers. The soundtrack features lively jazz music as we watch the men grab molten orange glass on the end of their poles and then blow to create the shapes that will become vases and champagne glasses. Their cheeks puff out, their hands twist the pole quickly. It’s mesmerizing to watch the birth of the glass sculpture. You get an idea of the intense labor that goes into making these glass objects, not to mention what an art form it truly is to be able to create these structures.
In contrast, the second half of the film shows glass as it is made by a machine. It’s very repetitive and the machine does mostly everything. A few men are present in case a bottle breaks or the equipment malfunctions. Instead of jazz music, a more industrial soundtrack plays.
Like Le chant du Styrène, Glas documents a rapidly changing world. Glass-blowers are replaced by machines. Then, glass itself is replaced by plastics. Many items once made of glass–like milk bottles and cups–are now made out of plastic. Both documentaries force us to think about industrialization, mechanization, and consumerism. They make us look at the relationship between humanity and machines.
As I watched the films I also thought about the people working in the factories and how hard those environments can be, how they are physically demanding and require one to perform repetitive work that is mind-numbing and exhausting. Neither documentary is overly concerned with the conditions under which workers labor, but it’s an important thing to think about. What is the toll to human beings in order for us to have all these products on the shelves of our stores? What’s the toll on the environment, on our health, on our way of life?
I used to think that art was eternal, that being an artist made you immortal. But I’ve come to realize that who and what gets remembered is often haphazard. Books are forgotten. Film reels are destroyed. So little survives.
James Young directed a 1926 silent film called The Bells, starring Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff. In 2003, Bill Morrison reconstructed a surviving nitrate print of the movie into a new short film, adding a soundtrack by Bill Frisell. The print is damaged, creating a fascinating distortion of the images. Faces blur. Splotches dominate many of the scenes, though there is still a story that you can follow. Morrison calls his film a “revision” of Young’s original.
In Morrison’s film, Lionel Barrymore plays a character who, on Christmas, kills a Jewish man for his money. Boris Karloff is a mesmerist who tries to get Barrymore to confess his grisly crime. Morrison destabilizes the narrative by editing Young’s original scenes together in a way that suggests that much of what we are seeing is a dream. By the end of the film, we don’t know what is real and what is not.
The early silent films have a unique beauty about them. It’s still shocking to see a person from 100 years ago so alive. Death seems impossible. Here are Barrymore and Karloff moving right before us. We can almost touch them. They can’t be dead. Film has preserved them, made them immortal.
But, as we watch the film and see the reels degrade, the men seem to be in the process of dissolving. The damage to the nitrate creates distortions in the film, almost giving it a watery quality. The actors merge together into a mass of liquid light. At times, they disappear entirely. Film preserves nothing. Film saves nothing. Barrymore and Karloff are still dead. All that remains are the cinematic shadows left behind after their bodies have vanished.
The imperfections of the nitrate are what make the film beautiful. What has partially destroyed the film has also made it captivating.
I watch the film on my laptop, pausing when I want. I control the experience completely, and I think about how that almost creates a third film. I take screenshots by pausing certain scenes. Every time I pause the film, I capture a different frozen frame, each unique and unrepeatable. The screenshots I take will most likely differ from the screenshots taken by another person. We create our own set of images that we use to navigate the film and our memory of it.
The film itself seems to mimic memory–the blurring, the distortion, the incompleteness, the gaps, the gradual degradation, the loss of whole scenes.
The opening scenes are of a crowd gathered at a fair to see Karloff as the mesmerist. All their heads blur into one sepia smear.
Some of the scenes are perfectly intact with few blemishes. Time is indiscriminate, leaving certain parts untouched.
Has someone already said that cinema is an art of ghosts? Watching early silent films, I think it is.
The murder scene is shown in flashback. Barrymore gets drunk with the Jewish man and sees a belt he’s wearing that is filled with gold. We know this won’t end well.
As the Jewish man is leaving, Barrymore seems so concerned about him, buttoning up his fur coat like a mother bundling up her child. Of course, it’s all a charade. He’s probably planning the murder in his mind the whole time.
The crime itself is committed outside during a snow storm. The scenes are tinted blue. At times, the screen is engulfed by snow. Barrymore attacks the man. Then, we see blood drops falling on the snow. Such a simple but poetic image.
Barrymore drags the body to an incinerator. A shot of smoke and flames that resembles the earlier shots of the actors’ faces blurring. This is what the body is reduced to–blood on the snow, smoke in the air, a smear on celluloid.
The camera lingers on those flames, on the horror of them. It makes me think of all the early films lost to fire, how film is as fragile as flesh.
A stunning cut from Barrymore covering his hands in the snow storm after the murder to him covering his hands as the mesmerist’s spell wears off.
The blue of the murder scene is the blue of memory.
Barrymore visits a fortune teller, and the damage to the film intensifies. More distortion, more blemishes, the actors disappear.
It becomes a fire film. The reels seem to be combusting, erupting into flames. It’s not a film, it’s a conflagration.
Another scene where Barrymore is haunted by the man he murdered. His ghost appears and then melts away. The distortion takes over again, resembling the flames to which the dead man’s body was fed.
I’m reminded of Yves Klein’s Fire Paintings, how he put fire directly onto the canvas, usually as a woman laid on it.
An art of burning bodies.
Light is Calling (2004)
A year later, in 2004, Morrison re-purposed another scene from The Bells to create a short film called Light is Calling. The nitrate print is even more degraded, but bits and pieces emerge from the distortions.
The pleasure and challenge of the film is catching the brief, recognizable parts that surface–a horse and buggy, a woman, a man.
I think of my own memories and how a face or an image will suddenly and momentarily rise out of the darkness. Gone before I can hold it.
The viewer constructs the narrative with what they find. We are creating the film for ourselves.
It’s an unwatchable film that I can’t stop watching.
The actors are ghostly, ethereal. It’s like they’re in another dimension.
The film feels like a dream. I feel like I am dreaming it, or that it can only be a dream.
It was filmed with actors, but it looks more like an animated movie.
The swirling images remind me of the beautiful paintings that production designer Tyrus Wong created for Bambi. In his paintings, the animals are almost completely consumed by their blurry, dream-like environments.
When I glimpse an actor, I feel like I’m seeing a photograph rather than a film. They seem frozen, immovable, fossilized, suspended in amber. It’s a miracle that their faces have survived at all, that they haven’t completely disappeared from the film.
My experience of watching the film reminds me of how we always want to make order out of chaos. I want to find the human beings that live inside this disintegrating, unwatchable film. I search for them in the storm of splotches and scars.
In one scene, the man and woman are together. He has her arm. Is he forcing her to go with him? Is he kidnapping her? It’s impossible to tell.
They are both lost and not lost. Time has almost destroyed the film but not entirely. Their ghosts, their shadows, survive.
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 a working class feminist. So, at times, I do address issues of race, class, sexuality, and women’s experiences.
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
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.