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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: Edgar Barens

Edgar Barens
By Edgar Barens and Joshua Handler 

Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So, I asked some of the most distinctive voices in independent and world cinema to submit responses to a few questions about why/if they think indies/non-English-language films/classics are important to view, and how those films have been influential on their careers.

The response below is from Edgar Barens, director of Oscar-nominated documentary short "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall".  Edgar's work is centered around issues with the American criminal justice system.  He previously directed "Angola Prison Hospice: Opening the Door" and the highly acclaimed A SENTENCE OF THEIR OWN.

Do you feel that it is important for people to view independent and world cinema and why?
Living in the Chicago area, I was blessed to have had access to the local PBS station WTTW Channel 11 when I was growing up. Throughout my youth, WTTW had, what I thought at the time, a pretty amazing film program which I ate up every opportunity I had. Many a sunny day I would forgo the fields of corn and crayfish-filled creeks to catch a glimpse of a forlorn and impoverished old man and his dog in Rome (UMBERTO D., De Sica, 1952), a group of street hoodlums trying to survive in Mexico City (LOS OLVIDADOS, Luis Bunuel, 1950), or a band of farmers toiling in the dust bowl eking out an existence (OUR DAILY BREAD, King Vidor, 1934).
Thinking back, the three films mentioned above were probably the first films that formed me most as an filmmaker. Probably because they were the first ones I remember seeing as a young boy and the fact that I most likely watched them over and over again - as WTTW was prone to repeat the broadcasts of their films throughout the week.
UMBERTO D., the 1952 neo-realist film by director Vittorio De Sica was perhaps my first love in cinema. While the gradual descent of a retired elderly man and his dog within the harried metropolis of Rome may not seem healthy for a 12 year old to appreciate, the film was fascinating to me on many levels. Never before had I witnessed a life depicted on film with such true sadness and futility. Watching Umberto slowly losing touch with the changing times as well as with his past friendships and experiences was depressing for me to witness and yet enthralling at the same time. Thinking back, this neo-realist classic probably played more like a documentary for me - all the way to its unresolved ending; a revelation that not all stories need to be book-ended with a happy ending - or even an ending at all!
Do you believe that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and film-goers to view films of the past and why?
I think that, if for no other reason, people need to see the films of the past because they are perfect examples that not ALL stories have to be told in the same manner. I think with today's blockbusters and even with indie films to a great degree, the general audience has become accustomed for a storyline to hit certain points at particular times. And while this format is used to keep the action moving forward and the audience on the edge of the seat and entertained, I feel it has eventually diluted the story-telling potential of film. There are gems that seep into world cinema from time to time, breaking the rote outline followed by Hollywood and it's imitators. So the more alternative ways we can witness a story being told the better. That's why I feel even experimental films can teach the documentary as well as the fiction filmmaker news ways to tell a story.
I asked Edgar which "gems" he was referring to above and he responded with the following:
I must say that one of the first that was so refreshing and reassured me (back in the day) that there was still hope to make mainstream/experimental [films and] stretch the boundaries of filmmaking - it must be when I saw David Lynch's BLUE VELVET while I was in college, and also when I saw Nicolas Roeg's BAD TIMING: A SENSUAL OBSESSION.
Both of these films (at the time) and I think still can be seen as great examples of narrative films with an amazing experimental twist to them that I saw as being absolutely refreshing.
I should also mention a foreign film that I was obsessed with when I was in college and that would be the one (L'IMMORTELLE). I LOVED IT AND VOWED TO MAKE NARRATIVES LIKE IT WHEN I BECAME A FULL-FLEDGED FILMMAKER!
What's one American indie and one film not in English that you would recommend that film-lovers or young/aspiring filmmakers see?
THE TREE OF LIFE - Terence Malick, 2011
A BRIEF VACATION - Vittorio De Sica, 1975
The next response will be from Alex Ross Perry, writer/director of THE COLOR WHEEL and the upcoming LISTEN UP PHILIP.

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