Film Interviews

Interview: Noura Kevorkian on ’23 Kilometres,’ her father and ‘silent dialogue’

“23 Kilometres”Courtesy of Saaren Films
What made Montreal filmmaker Noura Kevorkian think shooting a silent film with background music was best for “23 Kilometres,” a documentary that had audiences rising from their seats to applaud after the world premiere at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival? For starters, the film’s main subject, Kevorkian’s late father, could not speak during production due to late-stage Parkinson’s disease. So, to convey her father’s innermost thoughts, she decided to use the languages of drama and documentary to make a lyrical film. That meant, instead of using an actor to provide a voice-over, Kevorkian conceived a novel way to communicate on behalf of her father. She calls it “silent dialogue.” Her father’s thoughts appear as text, scrolling silently across the screen. There’s no fancy graphics or effects as Hollywood uses to portray computer processes in movies like “War Games,” “Skyfall” or “The Fifth Estate.” Instead, Kevorkian’s powerful, impressionistic documentary, shot in many ways as if it’s a drama, captures both the physical and psychological experiences of an Armenian man dying from Parkinson’s disease in his home of Lebanon.
CanScreen caught up with Kevorkian at the prestigious Czech Republic film festival to talk about the challenge of making a film about a dying father who cannot speak, but who can still cast his mind back to lost youth and glory.  

“23 Kilometres” is a drama-documentary. It’s not a docu-drama; it’s an experimental essay film about your father while he suffered from late-stage Parkinson’s disease. And yet you shot the film like a drama. Why did you choose to make essentially a silent film, with music?

Most people know about Parkinson’s as causing shivers of the body. I was more interested in his psychological state because he (Barkev Kevorkian) was a brilliant man. He built machines and robots during the Lebanese civil war. He helped so many people. I wanted that side of him to be shown.

Because your father was frail, you developed the film like a drama, planning shot by shot, to save time and physical exertion for its main subject?

For him to walk from his bedroom to the kitchen literally took two minutes. It was very hard for him to take part in the film. He was a proud man. He was accomplished. He was so strong. And it was embarrassing for him for the world to see him as an old man, a shaking man. But I told him, “Dad, I will show you beautifully. I will show you as truly my dad.” So he took part, and wanted people to know what it’s like to live with Parkinson’s.

23KM_STILL_5 Young Barkev in Garden 300 DPI (c) Saaren Films 2015

“23 Kilometres”     Courtesy of Saaren Films

He also took part because his daughter was making the film.

Of course, he wasn’t going to let another director portray his life. He wanted people to know about Parkinson’s and to hopefully help find a cure.

Tell us about the logistics of film production.  

The cinematographer moved into the family house and we would set up the lighting and wait for my father to wake up and walk, and wait for him to sleep and we waited for him to take his medication. I really wanted the audience to experience what it feels like to have Parkinson’s, how slow you walk and what it’s like to go in and out of hallucinations, thinking you’re young and beautiful and sexy and able to do everything. And then you realize suddenly you’re dying in a year.

The irony of “23 Kilometres” is, for all your father’s frailty, he was once young, handsome and energetic, and you wanted to show that side of him to the audience.  

If he built something, it would last forever. Only nuclear war would destroy it, we would tell each other. And, as kids, we always think our parents are going to live forever and are invincible. But when the realization hits that they are not, it’s really hard. Even when my dad was so sick, I had an idea that he was going to die. But my sister was so shocked on the day of his death. She could never imagine he would die. She said, “I love him and could never think he will die.” So we’re never prepared for that.

You wanted to convey your father’s thoughts, but he couldn’t speak. So you found a novel way for him to communicate.

I’m very proud of the film because the silence in the film makes it. It’s so important. That’s why I had to decide to use this new cinematic device. I called it “silent dialogue.” I wanted to express what he’s feeling. Initially, he was going to write. And he couldn’t write. So I decided to write for him, and to convey his inner thoughts. In cinema, the actor is thinking to himself and his inner thoughts are conveyed through his words heard off-screen. But how to convey that for a character who’s silent? That means it has to be text. That text I put on the screen is stuck to the image, and can never be removed from the image. So when I was explaining it to the funders and editor, they said, “What is this? It’s text.” I said, “No, it’s not text. It’s silent dialogue. This is the actor’s voice and you can’t take it out.” I had to assure funders that I could make this film silent. It’s going to stick because it works.

Instead of the audience hearing what an actor is saying, they will read text because your father was mute. So the film is, in essence, 80 minutes of silence overlaid with music.

I was told initially by one funder, why not hire an actor to say his lines. I said, “No, this film is about him being silent, about him feeling lonely and imprisoned in his body.” He wants to drive, but his hands are shaking. So he can’t. How to experience that? Everything in the film is designed to get you inside his life.

A documentary film, by nature, has no ending until the director finds one. In “23 Kilometres,” did you know the end of the film would be your father’s death?

That was the hardest part of the film, finding the ending. And the ending is obvious because I know he’s going to die. But for me, him dying was not the end. After all he had gone through – he lost 20 years of his life because of the civil war, and another 20 years was lost because of the Parkinson’s. So I wanted my dad to die the way I wanted my dad to die. I wanted to give him life (eternally). I wanted to send him off to somewhere he always wanted to go – without giving away the ending! It’s very powerful. And I still can’t watch it, even after I edited this film for six months.

That must have been difficult, editing and seeing your father in footage, and knowing he’s dead and you’re grieving?

It was very difficult. This film took five years to make because, we shot the film and, of course, my daughter is in the film. She was 1 year old. And she plays me. And we started editing, as we had a rough cut when my dad died. And I just couldn’t look at the footage. And a month later, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

But everything is okay with her? (At this point, Kevorkian falls silent, her eyes brimming with tears.)

She was in therapy for two years. She’s okay. We were delayed … Sorry. (I insist she needn’t apologize and to take her time to collect herself.) … Because he died and is in the film and she was sick, I couldn’t edit the film. I thought, looking at her, I can’t lose her. And the two years we were in chemotherapy, she was a baby. By the time she finished and was better, three years had passed. And I started (the edit) and was going through post-traumatic stress. The fact that this film finished is a miracle, because I’m quite stubborn and determined and thought I owe it to my dad and want to give him a proper death and set him free.

“The film is an homage to my dad and it’s an homage to your dad, and all of the dads. It makes us think about, when we die, what will be the last moments of our life.”

Now, after living with “23 Kilometres” deep in your head for so long, you’ve screened your film in Karlovy Vary, to audiences who are only now getting to know your father. How does that feel?

I wish the camera was close up on the audience’s face. Half the audience left after the film without hearing the Q&A, which made me sad. Even the jury left. But those that stayed – their faces – everyone needed to take a breath. It’s very powerful. I thought to myself, I’ve done it. It’s every director’s goal to make an audience feel something. And they felt it. One lady was crying. Another young woman hugged me and cried and was shaking, and said she’d looked at an old man and saw a young and handsome man. And I cried because suddenly I realized my film is over. I’ve been working on it for so long, and now my dad’s story is out.

And it’s part of your father’s legacy and our memories of him.

The film is an homage to my dad and it’s an homage to your dad, and all of the dads. It makes us think about, when we die, what will be the last moments of our life. What montage will play in our heads when we dying, and what our kids will think of us. People felt that, and I thought, that’s good.

For screening and DVD/VOD information, see the Saaren Films or Six Island Productions websites.

 

 

 

Interview: Andrew Cividino on his coming-of-age drama ‘Sleeping Giant’

“Sleeping Giant”Courtesy of Film Forge
Andrew Cividino’s “Sleeping Giant” has a strong sense of place: Lake Superior. During a boring summer vacation in rural Ontario, young Adam (Jackson Martin) starts hanging around with two local boys, Riley (Reece Moffett) and Nate (Nick Serino), while attempting evermore reckless stunts. As Adam and his new friends allow their emotions to run riot, their experiences become increasingly intense and unpredictable – and with disastrous consequences.
Andrew Cividino                   Courtesy of Film Forge

Andrew Cividino                   Courtesy of Film Forge

Canscreen talked to writer-director Andrew Cividino at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival where “Sleeping Giant” screened after earlier festival dates in Cannes and Munich.
The film’s North American premiere takes place at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

 

What is it about Ontario specifically that had you setting your story about troubled teens on Lake Superior?

The location and the struggles of the boys connect in a few ways. From a tone perspective, there’s the idea that this is a landscape that, beneath the surface of beauty, there’s a menace and danger to it. And if you don’t respect that threat, it will come bubbling up from below. So I liked the idea of that happening to my characters.

What was it precisely about young boys on summer holiday that fed your film’s subterranean premise?

We’re never closer to our primal instincts than at that age. I wanted to get a sense from that setting of just how thin that veneer of civilized behaviour is, and that beneath it is not so much immoral as amoral behaviour, a kind of chaos with not a lot of structure to it. I felt like putting these in a state of nature would allow me to play visually and symbolically with their lives.

You’re also playing with the sheer recklessness of youth, without in the natural outdoors a safety net as might be found in the big city to catch them?

Yes, there’s all the bravado and pride and adrenaline-seeking side of youth, there’s definitely the potential for negative things to happen. And I know people in the community in which we shot die every year from jumping off cliffs, and yet there’s a cliff-jumping culture that I and others grew up with. There was no cliff that I’d rather not jump off of, to avoid feeling the shame of not jumping after my friends had jumped. There’s this weird one-upmanship where your pride and the potential harm don’t seem to figure as a balanced equation. You just have no choice, and so you end up doing stupid things.

Tell us about the three young boy characters, each of whom is different and yet feed into your coming-of-age storyline.

A still from "Sleeping Giant"     Courtesy of Film Forge

A still from “Sleeping Giant” Courtesy of Film Forge

For me, these three characters I see as being on completely different trajectories, and there’s a point of intersection for them. Adam and Riley both want something from each other. Riley is drawn to the stability and the seeming normalcy of Adam’s middle-class existence. He’s got a father and mother figure in a complete family that Riley covets. And Adam has bubble-wrapped parents that are far too protective and don’t engage with or understand him. So Adam is drawn to the recklessness of the other two boys.

Nate is the third character and can come across as a jerk. But he’s the only character who shows true honesty. And even including the adults, he’s the only person in the film who knows exactly who he is and where he’s going in life and is comfortable with that. He’s already figured that out.

So his (Nate’s) cruelty is armour. He and Riley come from a difficult family situation. Riley’s response is to seek comfort, to which there’s a vulnerability. Nate deals with it in the complete opposite way, through sarcasm and cruelty.

So Adam, drawn to reckless boys like Nate and Riley, becomes evermore reckless himself to deal with his own coming-of-age insecurities.

Jackson Martin as "Adam" in "Sleeping Giant"       Courtesy of Film Forge

Jackson Martin as “Adam” in “Sleeping Giant”       Courtesy of Film Forge

He (Adam) kind of lives in a space where things happen to him a lot, and he’s a fairly passive character. So it takes a lot of hurt and sense of helplessness to jump-start a sense of agency within him. And he starts to act out and take control of his situation, but hasn’t figured out how to control that and the sense of consequences that might ripple out. That’s where the title came from – an awakening for Adam, the idea of coming to terms with the fact that he does have power.

The film climaxes with a cliff-jumping scene where Nate leaps not with fear but curious nonchalance. Why did you choose that motivation for his character?

This cliff they’re up on is virtually impossible to jump. And Nate really doesn’t think Riley will ever jump. So we end up with both boys playing chicken with each other. And Nate banks on knowing Riley and knowing he won’t jump and being able to shame him. But when they get up, Riley is too hurt and frustrated. He means it and will jump. By then Nate can’t talk him down. So he jumps with Riley because that’s how loyal he is, at the end of the day.

So Nate, despite his villainous facade, has an inner honour code?

He absolutely does. When you see him becoming more cruel during the film, Nate knows who he is, and Riley is the closest person for him. They really only have one another in their lives. And Riley is trying to spend time with this other family. Riley wants to experience a different future than the one Nate sees for both of them. So he’s losing his closest companion. That’s where a lot of the aggression comes from, towards Adam in particular.

You screened your film in Cannes as part of International Critics’ Week, in Munich and in Karlovy Vary. How have European audiences received it?

The audiences have been so far really great. It’s fun to sit with an audience for your film and experience how they shift as they respond to your material. They’ve responded well to the humour in the film. There’s a lot of story and character to talk about that’s quite serious, and I’m glad that’s what they’ve talked about. But they’ve also recognized the humour in the film.

The “Sleeping Giant” North American premiere takes place at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 15 at 9 p.m. at the Winter Garden Theatre. The second screening is on September 17 at 9 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

For more information, check out the TIFF web page and the “Sleeping Giant” website.

 

 

Interview: Ric Esther Bienstock on her ‘Rashomon’ documentary “Tales From the Organ Trade,” coffee and Cronenberg

Filmmaker Ric Esther Bienstock talks about her journey of tracking down and interviewing those involved in an organ trafficking ring for her lauded documentary “Tales From the Organ Trade” and how David Cronenberg came to narrate the film.

Producer/videographer/video editor: Nicole Powell
Journalist/videographer: Charles Hutchings
Sound recordist: Logan Scott


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Interview: Liz Marshall on ‘The Ghosts in Our Machine,’ ‘cognitive dissonance’ and the film’s impact

Filmmaker Liz Marshall discusses her award-winning, animal-rights documentary “The Ghosts in Our Machine,” “cognitive dissonance,” and the impact that the film has had on her and audiences.

“The Ghosts in Our Machine” is available on DVD and VOD.

Producer/videographer/video editor: Nicole Powell
Journalist/videographer: Charles Hutchings
Sound recordist: Logan Scott


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Interview: Albert Shin on his ‘female-driven’ film ‘In Her Place,’ multiculturalism and the power of characters

Albert Shin discusses the journey of his successful, small-budget feature “In Her Place,” the centrality of the film’s female characters, and how multiculturalism and world cinema speak to audiences.

Producer/videographer/video editor: Nicole Powell
Journalist/videographer: Charles Hutchings
Sound recordist: Logan Scott


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Interview: Joel Thomas Hynes on ‘Cast No Shadow’

“Cast No Shadow” writer-actor Joel Thomas Hynes talks about the inspiration for the film’s story, Newfoundland settings and working with his son Percy Hynes White.

Producer/Videographer/Video Editor: Nicole Powell
Journalist/Videographer: Charles Hutchings
Sound Recordist: Logan Scott


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Interview: Albert Shin discusses ‘In Her Place’

Filmmaker Albert Shin talks to CanScreen about his “quietly”-made feature film “In Her Place” and its seven Canadian Screen Awards nominations.

Journalist/Videographer: Zachary Zaza
Video Editor: Stephen George


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Interview: Producer Chris Agoston on ‘Cast No Shadow’

Producer Chris Agoston talks with CanScreen about “Cast No Shadow” and its multiple Canadian Screen Awards nominations.

Journalist/videographer: Zachary Zaza
Video editor: Stephen George


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Interview: Liz Marshall on her documentary ‘The Ghosts in Our Machine’

Filmmaker Liz Marshall talks about her “cinematic,” “character-driven” documentary film “The Ghosts in Our Machine” which asks, “Are animals property to be owned and used or are they sentient beings deserving of rights?”

Journalist/videographer: Zachary Zaza
Video editor: Stephen George


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Interview: Ric Esther Bienstock on her documentary ‘Tales From the Organ Trade’

At the 2015 Canadian Screen Awards nominee event, filmmaker Ric Esther Bienstock spoke with CanScreen about her documentary “Tales From the Organ Trade.”

Journalist/videographer: Zachary Zaza
Video editor: Stephen George


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