Julian Schnabel

It is simply impossible to write a report about the films at Mostra, the yearly Venice film festival. Nearly 200 films in one week? I had to choose a way out, and picked death as a topic. Not death as in Visconti’s old film, but as a recurring ingredient of some of the films. I had expected more from the fiction-faction film Miral in the competition. Star director Julian Schnabel – known for his docudrama Basquiat (1996) – made a film from the Palestinian Middle-East about a true story from Jerusalem.

The idealist Hind Husseini founded the girl’s orphanage and school Dar Al-Tifel in 1948. Later it’s the Second Intifada, and Miral, one of the schoolgirls enlists as a freedom fighter and bombs a cinema theatre full of Israeli soldiers. Death is commonplace here. The central story is about Miral and her close relationship with her widowed father. But why must Miral and her father speak together in second-rate English? At the 200-people packed press conference I ask director Schnabel why he went the way of old Second World War movies with Germans speaking broken English? His producer answers, irritated, and asks me if, by any chance, I remembered that Mozart and Gandhi spoke English in the respective films made about them? They wanted a broad audience.Commercialism. The Golden Lion-winning film by Sophia Coppola also disappointed. The empty life of Johnny (Stephen Dorff) in the famous Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles – in bed with new women, drugs, driving around in his Ferrari, and then saved by his daughter – is too streamlined a film.The third variation on “boredom” from Coppola. Asked at her press conference: “Why do you often use swimming pools in your movies – is it used as catharsis?” Coppola had never thought about that.

American Vincent Gallo’s 75-minute essayfilm Promises Written in Water in the main competition centres around a dying woman. She wants to kill herself before the suffering becomes too much. The documentary language of this fiction film splits the audience into two: At the official screening they clapped for five minutes – but at the press screening they started laughing and booing from the start, where Gallo is credited as director and editor, and for the script, music, production and acting. They were noisy throughout the screening, laughter returned, a mob dominated the audience.

Gallo’s slow and quiet black-and-white movie saved the festival for me. This eccentric man, known for his roles in several movies, brought to mind works by Warhol and Cassavetes. For the first ten minutes Gallo wanders around nervously in his hotel room – quite different to Coppola’s expressionless Johnny. Black against white background. Heavy use of closeups; the camera closes in on Gallo’s eyeballs. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi contributes to a strong visual film.

The relationship between the man (Gallo) and woman (Delfine Bafort) is a morbid one. He is an ex Mafioso “hit man”, and she a girl who until recently had lived on sex and drugs.Mirrors. Cigarettes. Cafés. In the funeral parlour where Gallo’s character works, he attends to the corpse of a woman, taking photographs of her naked, hairless body. Bafort is also filmed naked, in detail. Time stands still. Time also runs parallel, as the two stories intermingle.

There is also a long impressive take where Gallo four times in a row repeats the same lines about his previous girlfriend who left. Method acting? The audience laughed, I didn’t. Promises has no linear narrative – it’s an essay-film.

For me, the morbid topic of the film clearly evokes Carl Dreyer’s black-and-white film The Word of Wrath (Ordet, 1955), but in that film the woman (Inger) wakes up from her deathbed – just as is seen readapted in Reygadas’ Still Light (2009). The visuality of Promises should be an example to follow for outstanding documentaries. Promises was based on 100 hours of material, as Gallo explores in an interview with Lodown Magazine.1 He says that photographic beauty was the first criterion to cut down to 10 hours, the next cut (to five) was based on aesthetic considerations, and the final cut, down to 2.5 hours, was based on sound content.

Three months later he went back to look for some content – to reduce it to a 75-minute feature film. Gallo’s film also reminds me of what Robert Bresson wrote in Notes on Cinematography (1975): That the making of films should be based “on white, on silence and on stillness”. Bresson also wrote that images should come first, then the content; you should use “models” not actors; and that film should be something you make for yourself and not for the film industry. As Gallo says in the interview, he doesn’t care about the audience. He achieved a fan base from his success with Buffalo 66 (where Nina Ricci’s step-dance calls to mind Bafort’s lively dance in front of Gallo in Promises). But in The Brown Bunny (2004) the real oral sex scene, with a tearful Chloë Sevigny on her knees in front of Gallo, made him unpopular at Cannes: he had to finance Promises himself.

Gallo won the Best Actor award in Venice for his portrayal of the main character in another film, Essential Killing – without uttering a single sentence! Essential Killing also won the Jury Prize. Gallo plays a bearded Muslim captured by American soldiers in Afghanistan, then tortured and flown by the CIA to an unknown snow-covered country. This man-on-the-run film is intensely existential, starting in the deserts of Afghanistan, ending in the wintercold Norwegian woods. Gallo’s character escapes from the military, and the hunt is on. Barefoot in the merciless reality of winter, he too has to kill to survive. He keeps death at bay by eating ants, tree bark, and raw fish. As one of the producers told me, Gallo, with the utmost professionalism, really ate it all.

What about the political reality? Polish director Skolimowski tells me in an interview that it is an enigma whether or not the main character was a terrorist. Maybe he just defended himself against drug-using American soldiers. Skolimowski – who was dug out of the Warsaw ruins as a child – tells me he never returns to political filmmaking: After making Hands Up in 1967 – a critique of his home country Poland and Stalinism – he had to immigrate to the US. But Skolimowski had in the last three days been called by the media to comment on the CIA’s recent admission that they had illegally used Poland as a base for the transportation and interrogation of Muslims.

Death, namely suicide, is at the forefront of the documentary Ward 54. It follows American soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder on their return to the US from Iraq. They can’t live with their war experiences. As the statistics tells us, twenty American veterans take their own lives every day. This doesn’t count attempted suicides. In the US this accounts for one-fifth of the 30 000 suicides committed every year. Last year there were more soldiers who died by suicide at home, than back in the war in Iraq.

The horrific consequences of war: Two parents talk about how they found their son hanging in the garage. Another soldier couldn’t bear all the images he took as a war photographer – victims of torture and other dead Muslims or fellow soldiers. Used to taking drugs to endure the pressures of war, that’s also what welcomes them at home – they turn to the liquor store. Undoubtedly, films like this one and such documentaries as Armadillo and Restrepo build up a resistance to cynical politicians who still see war and killing as “political” means to achieve ends. The documentary Zelal by Khoury and Hasnaoui stays inside an Egyptian psychiatric institution. There “death” is more in the form of a mental one, so let me keep on the death track with a Mexican contribution, Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario – Room 164: In an 80-minute interview we met the real hit man (El Sicaro) – worlds apart from Gallo’s character. He speaks about twenty years of experience as a Mafioso in Ciudad Juárez, the most violent city in the world.

This anonymous man, speaking from under a black hood, tells us that he has killed several hundred people. He has lived a life of luxury, living on yachts, multiple women and unlimited quantities of drugs. He is also an ex police officer, but has always worked for the mafia. Along with every fourth police academy recruit, he was on the drug cartel’s payroll. For a while he also was chief of the State Police in Chihuahua. We listen to this man explaining in detail how they kidnapped, tortured, and massacred enemy gangs – on some occasions up to a hundred people. He also tells about how they gang-raped the women they picked up – especially the ones who resisted being the mafia boss’ sexual partner.

In El Sicaro the man beneath the black hood sits in a green and yellow motel room – quite different to the above-mentioned hotel room of Coppola’s protagonist. Should we believe that the drug cartels in Juárez have connections all the way up to Mexico’s president and his many governors? He informs us that the Mexican police are heavily involved, as they escort drug shipments, and clear out “police-free” areas when a kidnapping is due to take place. The hostages are usually brought to “safe houses” and tortured to obtain more ransom money from their families. Normally only one out of ten survives.

I will not go into detail about what the blackhooded former assassin says about how they lowered live bodies down into boiling water until body parts fell off – or how burning gasoline-soaked towels were used to tear off three layers of human skin. For these victims death must have been a release. The hit man tells us that he quit using drugs to be able to concentrate more, and how his twenty years of loyalty were suddenly forgotten. He was frozen out of the inner circles – he had to escape, but was captured, tortured, and escaped again. On the run he found a religious community offering salvation and love. The mafia is now offering 250 000 dollars to whoever can capture this man – dead or alive.

The Venice festival also celebrated the violent films of John Woo – who got the Golden Lion for his life achievements. His melancholic masterpiece, The Killer (1989) screened in Venice, also features a narrative about a hit man. Different from both Gallo’s character and the El Sicaro, who quit killing, refusing to do another “last assignment”, this hit man is embarking on a final, but catastrophic, mission. Violence and death in fiction films is also the topic of the new action film Reign of Assassins for which Woo is co-director.

Death is all around in the films at the Venice festival: the young beauty, the old, the tortured and the murdered. Death as consequence of broken promises to the mafia, the brutality of war, the fragility of the body. Later, I was to be abruptly reminded of the title of Gallo’s film, “Promises Written in Water”: a week after Venice, while in Rome, I entered the Protestant Cemetery on the outskirts of the city. Suddenly, turning a corner, I came upon a gravestone with the inscription “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. A gravestone without a name. It belongs to the poet John Keats who, on his deathbed, asked for this inscription, after coming to the bitter realisation that he had been surrounded by enemies for a long time. The 25-year old English poet died of tuberculosis in Rome – constantly misunderstood and attacked by his readers. Today he is loved and admired.

1 See Wikipedia on Vincent Gallo.