A Brazilian family sending their eldest son off to Germany. An American architect building a copy of La Sagrada Familia in Shanghai. A refugee from Guinea-Bissau stranded in a small town in Iceland. If you look at the international competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, you'll notice that there's hardly a single film where the world of the story is isolated to one country.
Talented filmmakers shooting in China, Iceland, Brazil, and Japan sat down with No Film School to give us some insight into their relationship with global filmmaking, where even the smallest, most localized story is not without influences from halfway across the world.
Dead Pigs (Director: Cathy Yan)
The Sundance Award-Winning enemble cast are featured in this still from Dead Pigs by Cathy Yan, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Frederico Cesca.
Cathy Yan’s directorial debut is an inventive, sweeping, almost farcical story set within a rapidly modernizing China. While Yan was born in China, she was raised in the United States, and before embarking on this film, was a WSJ who often reported on stories coming out of the region. The way Yan explains it, Dead Pigs was a very global film in more ways than one. “We were trying to do something that I think that hasn't been done much before, which was create a co-production without it actually officially being a co-production,” explained Yan. “Our investors were all Chinese. But given my sensibilities and where I'm from, I went to the film school at NYU, I really wanted to bring a lot of that western element that I was familiar with. Everyone that I was looking for in collaborators ended up being multi-lingual and bi-cultural or somehow worldly. My lead two producers are Chinese but both of them have spent time outside of China and have perfect English.” The worldly pull continued across departments. “My costume designer is from LA but moved to China. My DP is Argentinean-Chilean and went to NYU. In a weird way, even though it was technically a Chinese film, it was much more global than being a product of any one country.”
Yan found that it was crucial to be aware of and open to cultural differences apparent with roles on set. “Even the role of the first assistant director is different in China,” explained Yan. “So basically, we made sure that everyone on set had experience with Western crews or commercials, as commercials in China tend to be a little more westernized.”
"In a weird way, even though it was technically a Chinese film, it was much more global than being a product of any one country."
Yan was quick to point out that the success of her ambitious film would not have been possible without first adapting to Chinese-specific ways of film production. “You still have to adapt. Right? You're shooting in China and there are a lot of things that locals can do better. You need that local knowledge. That’s the only way were were able to pull of without that big of a budget something this ambitious.”
And Breathe Normally (Directed by Ísold Uggadóttir)
Babetida Sadjo and Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson appear in And Breathe Normally by Ísold Uggadóttir, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ita Zbroniec-Zaj.
And Breathe Normally is a naturalistic portrait of the intersection of two women: a single mother from a small Icelandic town struggling to make ends meet, and a refugee from Guinea Bissau hoping to pass through the town and obtain a better life in North America. Uggadóttir’s naturalism, which won her a Sundance Directing award, was dependent on being as realistic as possible: shooting in the real town, the real airport, and casting Icelandic actors. These all created their own challenges.
One specific challenge was how the locals perceived the subject matter—an increasingly hot button topic throughout Europe—during location scouting. “When certain locations found out that I was making a film that involved refugees, all of a sudden I felt how important the film was,” said Uggadóttir. “When they realized that I would possibly make a refugee film in their housing, I felt a prejudice. That was just in some cases. felt a bit more excitement from most people, but it was in those rare cases where I had to fight for it and people would say, ‘No. We know.’ Some people were like, ‘We don't want to get involved.’ Or there was some fear, and there was prejudice.”
“When they realized that I would possibly make a refugee film in their housing, I felt a prejudice."
Challenging this prejudice was part of the reason Uggadóttir had a desire to make the film, and so it’s fitting that the filming would confront the issue in a direct way. When she started writing the film in 2012, she was concerned that the issues of refugees in the film wouldn’t be timely anymore by the time the film was finished. “I was always worried like, how long can this take?” said Uggadóttir. “Clearly, it's a concern that has only grown with time. In the west we're always like, ‘Okay well let me just put you in a box and keep you there and not let you work and not let you go or continue with your life.’ You're in some sort of limbo. So I do feel like my film puts a human into the statistics. You read the statistics, but this is an actual person. You're also telling a global story, but simplifying it so it feels closer to you and more relatable in some way.“
Loveling (Directed by Gustavo Pizzi)
Waiting to cross the street is the family at the center of Loveling by Gustavo Pizzi, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Bianca Aun.
Loveling focuses on a shoe-string Brazilian family whose eldest teenage son is invited to play handball halfway across the world in Germany. Set to expressive visuals and nuanced acting, the mother, played by Karine Teles who co-wrote the script with director Gustavo Pizzi, must prepare herself to say goodbye.
Fitting considering the film's subject matter, the filmmakers brought in international partners to help get the film off the ground. As Pizzi recounted in our post on sophomore directors at Sundance, he knew that he couldn’t just call in favors to get this film made. "We needed more resources. We needed more support, partners, and foreign partners, for us. The International Labs. Cinemart. It was a long way. You have to be persistent."
“It's our soul, our experience, our history in our face. There's nothing else to work with."
While partners were found across the world, the cast was primarily Brazilian. Long-time collaborators (at one point, husband-and-wife), Pizzi and Teles understand the importance of the actor, and that's why the Brazilian actors were cast against the typecast Brazilian audiences are familiar with.
“As an actor, I really love actors and Gustavo does too. I really like to cast the opposite of what someone else would do for example if the character is a very rude and bad person I'm going to cast the sweetest person I know.” Pizzi and Teles mined the growing Brazilian acting industry for those who could play the opposite of who they are or normally play. “It's our soul, our experience, our history in our face,” described Teles about the casting. “There's nothing else to work with, so if you're playing someone who is very different from you, but it's you playing that, the combining of the two things makes the character bigger and fuller and more interesting. There's always a mystery to it. Like Jotavio, he has nothing to do with his character Claus. Jotavio also works in TV. He's an upper-class guy who likes eating restaurants and very fancy, very cool. He dresses very well. He's almost a yuppie. Claus is the opposite. Or the guy who plays the team coach, Matius Solen he is an asshole in the film and he's the sweetest guy in He's a huge star in Brazil. He's really famous there and because he's such a popular actor and he's the sweetest guy ever, we asked him, ‘come play an asshole for us!’
Kusama - Infinity (Directed by Heather Lenz)
Yayoi Kusama appears in Kusama - Infinity by Heather Lenz, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Tokyo Lee Productions Inc.
Kusama – Infinity follows the life of now-explosive artist Yayoi Kusama, from her early childhood upbringing and experiences in WWII that directly shaped her iconic polka dotted visions, to her struggles breaking in to the sexist art world of NYC in the 1960s.
To prepare herself for filming Kusama in Japan, first-time director Heather Lenz took lessons on Japanese culture and business. “There are certain things that are different there’” said Lenz. “So I worked with a tutor before I left and learned some Japanese culture like, how to take my shoes off and face them and how low to bow when I met Kusama and just conversational Japanese and things like that.”
"I worked with a tutor before I left and learned some Japanese culture like, how to take my shoes off and face them and how low to bow when I met Kusama..."
Lenz began the loose scriptwork for the film in 2001, but she didn't visit Japan and and meet Kusamait until 2007. “That’s not normal or average!” she expounded. However, when she did first interview Kusama, she was extremely prepared to overcome and language or cultural boundary. “I had a translator, and for the first interview, we came up with what we thought was super clever,” explained Lenz. “We had one camera for when we were recording [Kusama] and then we had this really long cable going to someone in another room with another camera. That person was watching the feed and listening. I had something in my ear so I was getting real time translation of what she was saying.”
The result of her labor meant that Lenz could transcend language barriers and create a meaningful connection with Kusama. “I remember at the end of the first interview, the driver was about to take her away and I told her, ‘This is the happiest day of my life,’ and she said, ‘Me too.’”
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.