Palm Springs: Directors Talk Ajami, Samson & Delilah, I Killed My Mother, The Misfortunates

by Anne Thompson
January 11, 2010 2:14 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood
While some Academy foreign language committee members have complained of the plethora of downbeat World War II/holocaust/war movies in this year's selection (as though member countries think this is what Academy voters tend to go for), the films cherry-picked from the Palm Springs Fest's program of 41 (out of 67) Oscar submissions for this year's annual filmmakers' panel were four contemporary Cannes entries. Ably moderated by Variety's Peter Debruge, the panel focused (in photo, from left) on Australia's Samson & Delilah (Warwick Thornton), Israel's Ophir-winner Ajami (Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani), Belgium's The Misfortunates (Felix Van Groeningen) and Canada's French-language I Killed My Mother (Xavier Dolan).

All were clearly inspired, personal, driven works that cut through the competition to get funded, produced, and on-screen in their respective countries and were able to travel as well. Three of the filmmakers come from minority sectors, either Palestinian (Copti), indigenous Australian (Thornton) or gay (Canada's Dolan). Two of the films eschew conventionally scripted dialogue for structured and manipulated improvisation with non-pro actors (Thornton, Copti & Shani).

Around the world, from the U.K.'s Mike Leigh and Ken Loach to Babel to mock-docs like Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity or District 9, the quest for authenticity drives filmmakers to push beyond conventional scripts into structured improvised storytelling. Cinematographer-turned-director Thornton reminded that even with virtually no dialogue, he needed to write a script that detailed the emotions and expressions that needed to be transmitted by the actors in every scene. He believes strongly in staying focused on the characters so that audiences experience what they are going through along with them. No "massaging" or getting ahead of the characters here.

Copti and Shani advertised for non-actors to participate in improv training workshops, promising a role in their totally fictional movie. Then as they gave people things to do, they cast them in the roles they thought they could handle, without ever showing them the plotted, multi-stranded script. The process of making this complex movie took seven years; the actual shooting, 23 days, in Jaffa, a hotbed of Israeli/Palestinian tension. The editing of 80 hours of footage took 14 months.

Why were the folks willing to put in ten months of training? "It was fun," said Copti. The moving thing for the filmmakers was getting Israelis to identify with a downtrodden Palestinian worker, and having Palestinians able to see the world from the POV of an Israeli policeman (played by an ex-Israeli policeman). The movie was a hit in Israel; the question is how it will play stateside, where the different accents can get confusing. Kino is releasing.

Dolan was a young Quebecois actor growing out of child roles who was no longer getting called. He dropped out of college and rented many movies to teach himself how to direct, and after a series of lousy scripts returned to a piece of autobiography that did raise supportive responses. He wrote, directed and played himself.

For his part, Van Groeningen is riding a wave of popularity for Belgian filmmaking. On his third film he adapts a tough memoir about a young boy growing up in a crazy but loving family with an alcoholic dad, leavened with humor. He rehearsed and improvised with his actors to bring more drama and fun to the somber material.

See Debruge's examination of six decades of foreign Oscar winners.

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More: Awards, festivals, Oscars

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