September 16, 2008
■ SFN INTERVIEW / "Tierra y Pa" Director, Carlos Armella
Marjan Riahi-SFN: Carlos Armella's Tierra y Pan has recently won the 65th Venice Film Festival's Corto Cortissimo Lion for the best short film.
He is born in Mexico and trained in Filmmaking Train Center in Mexico and then he went to London Film School.
One of the most important points in his career experience is cooperating with Alexandro Gonzales Inarito in Babel.
Armella right now is active in publicity films and he will soon direct his first feature.
He will tell us about his experiences and view points on documentaries and short films and also the situation of cinema in Mexico.
You have studies screenwriting in Mexico and filmmaking in London. How much the academic trainings are useful in filmmaking?
I believe there are two ways of learning how to make films: watching films and making films. In my experience, I am very passionate about films; I like to watch as many films as possible, new and old, and from all over the world. And film school helps you to make films, or at least film exercises, they give you a camera and a few lessons on the best way to work in a film, but to be honest, I think anyone with enough passion and talent can make good films, you just have to keep practicing and practicing and practicing.
You have had the experience of cooperating with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. How this cooperation started and what was your experienced?
It started when in 2005 my friend Pedro Gonzalez Rubio and I made a feature-length documentary called Toro Negro. It won several awards in film festivals all over the world, and when it landed in Alejandro's hands, he loved it and invited Pedro and I to do a documentary about his new film Babel. It was an amazing experience, traveling to Morocco, Japan and the Mexico-U.S. border for many months, but it was also very long and exhausting project which took almost 2 years of my life. However, Alejandro and I have remained good friends and he has been a sort teacher and mentor to me, always available and providing good advice for my work.
Have you inspired by the style of Gonzalez Inarritu in your filmmaking?
What has inspired me about Alejandro's work is the way he struggles and searches for perfection in his films, from the script to the acting to the editing. He is a perfectionist who always trying to provoke deep and intense emotions through his characters, and always trying to express his own feelings through his work.
You directed A Dead End Story as your graduation film. Was that your first experience in filmmaking?
No, I had made other short films before, mostly as a scriptwriter and director, but all of them in film school. Before A Dead End Story, I co-wrote a short film in Mexico titled A La Memoria De Las Sirenas (To the Remembrance of the Mermaids) which was directed by Hector Maeshiro and it was also selected for Venice Film Festival in 2002, and later for other festivals.
You were in Venice Festival in 2003 with Poem. What was your experience of participating in this festival?
It was a very nice experience. It was my first film as a director that was selected for a major film festival. It was part of a section which no longer exists, called New Territories, which had a sort of avant-garde profile. Poem was a very personal, independent and low-budget short film, so after being selected at Venice, I confirmed that I should keep on working on films that expressed my very personal views and style.
POEM was screened before a film by Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World), and ever since I have become a big fan of his films.
You have also experience in documentary making. Toro Negro won the awards of San Sebastian and Havana Festivals. Were you attracted by bullfighting or the Fernando Pacheco personalities to make this film?
I got involved in Toro Negro after my friend Pedro Gonzalez Rubio invited me to co-direct with him. It started as a portrait of the customs of small Mayan communities in southeast Mexico, concentrating in and around the bullfighting events. But soon, Fernando Pacheco's personality started drawing all of our attention and the film became a portrait of a young, amicable and self-destructing bullfighter.
I do not like bullfighting as a sport, I am against animal torture. Our approach to bullfighting was not with admiration, it was merely the circumstances in which our characters existed. Also it reflected the violence and sacrifice that defined our main character, Fernando.
How much research is important for you in making documentaries?
Documentary film is a kind of research in itself. Following characters and situations: interviewing, watching and listening to them are an investigation, and therefore the documentary becomes a learning experience for both the maker and the audience. As a maker, you research a lot as you go along, and in the editing room you decide how much of your obtained research you want to share with your audience.
In my experience, my documentaries have been mostly about showing extraordinary things out of ordinary people, but some documentaries have more of a social and/or political comment, or they intend to denounce facts and situations, in which cases, I'm sure a lot of research is required.
You have had experience in editing as well. Are learning and knowing cinema skills such as editing or any other kind would affect on directing?
Definitely, as a director you have to know all the trades of the business: acting, production, cinematography, art direction, etc. Editing has been a very useful tool for me, because it has helped me envision a scene from the editor's point of view even while writing it. It can help you establish the dialogue, the rhythm of the acting, the logistics of the action, the camera angles and many other things.
In Tierra y Pan I decided to edit the film on camera, leaving no creative-space for the editor (me) to work. That was a big challenge on myself, because if the film didn't work out the way I intended in the shooting, not even in the editing room would I be able to save it.
Tierra y Pan is about solitude and Venice Festival jury admired the film so much. How would you describe this film?
It's a quiet and distant look at a tragedy, which reflects the poverty and misery of the third world, where every living being has to fight for a bone in order to survive.
To me, watching the tragedy in Tierra y Pan was like driving past by a terrible accident. As you take some distance, you become able to understand better how it happened, but soon it is out of your sight, and the characters are just a tiny speck of dust in a vast desert. And the world just keeps on turning.
What is your concept of Short Films? Do you believe that short films are a practice for making features or it is determined as an independent medium?
Short films are usually the way to practice before jumping into a feature film, but that's only because it costs a lot less. However, I believe that short films have a language and a narrative of their own.
Argentinean writer, Julio Cortazar used to compare literature with boxing by saying that a novel was like a twelve-round fight, where after a very long and strenuous fight, you had to win by unanimous decision, while on the other hand, a short story had to be a quick and straight-forward fight that you had to win by a knock-out on the first round... I believe the same applies to feature and short films: you only have a few minutes to impact your audience. Unfortunately, short films are not an independent medium, economically-speaking.
What is the position of short films in Mexico? Are they screened for the audiences in other times than festivals?
There are some very talented short-filmmakers in Mexico, usually trying to stand-out from the rest while they're still in film school. But there is not a good market for short films in Mexico, and very rarely are they screened outside film festivals.
What governmental and non-governmental organizations in Mexico support documentaries and short films?
The governmental institution in Mexico in charge of support for cinema (in every form), is called IMCINE. However, they have a very limited budget and cannot support many projects. In my case, I've never had much support from them, and usually you have to earn some recognition in other countries (usually in Europe) before you are supported at home.
Usually, international release of the films is one of the most important problems of the filmmakers. Is there any active distributor in short films and documentaries in Mexico?
There is very little distribution for short films in Mexico. In recent years, documentaries have become more popular and new distribution channels have been opening.
Film festivals like Morelia Film Fest and Docs DF have taken a specific interest in documentaries, awarding the best ones and organizing special screenings all over the country. Also a production company called Canana, leaded by Mexican actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna have created a distribution channel for documentaries, by making a sort of traveling-festival, programming documentaries all over Mexico and abroad.
Which one is more attractive for you due to your personal experiences: making documentaries or short films?
I believe both are equally attractive. I think documentaries are more a way of self-discovery, while fiction (short or feature-length) are more a way of self-expression.
How much you know about Iran cinema and Iranian filmmakers?
I know the work of some of Iran's most famous filmmakers. I really admire: Close-Up and Where Is the Friend's House? by Abbas Kiarostami; Kandahar by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Blackboard and The Apple by Samira Makhmalbaf; Turtles Can Fly and Half Moon by Bahman Ghobadi; Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise by Majid Majidi.
Also I've seen films of the "so called" New Iranian Cinema that started in the 90s, from other directors which I can't remember, but that I quite like because they tell very simple, yet powerful stories. I'm sure that the style of such Iranian films has influenced young Mexican filmmakers like Carlos Reygadas or Carlos Bolado, among others. (Also I like some of the documentaries of Barbet Schroeder, even though I know he hasn't made his films in Iran.)
I guess your recent success in Venice Festival has provided the opportunity to make your first feature. What is your future plan?
I have two fully-developed feature film scripts and I'm concentrating on doing one of them in the near future. One of my scripts was recently supported by a Spanish institution, so I'll spend two months doing an all-paid development workshop in Spain, in October and November, and hopefully I can start pre-production by the end of this year or early 2009.