Telluride 2014: World Economics 2, “Leviathan”

“Leviathan” was the strongest selection I saw at the Telluride Film Festival. This Russian film received the recent Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and is also an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev (“Elena”) co-wrote the screenplay which was honored at Cannes.

Striking images are combined with a gripping story of corruption engulfing a family. The Philip Glass score creates an ominous mood. Stark scenes of waves on the rocks and rotted ship hulls on the beach foreshadow the pervasive decay throughout a Russian coastal town. A future scene shows the large skeleton of a whale.

Sergey Pokhodaev in “Leviathan”

Sergey Pokhodaev in “Leviathan”

Kolia (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a mechanic is struggling to keep his home from being seized by Vadim (Roman Madyanov), a formidable local politician. Vadim wants the property for a new community center. Kolia lives with his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), his son from a previous marriage. Kolia’s army friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a Moscow lawyer arrives to help Kolia keep his property. Kolia considers Dmitri a “fixer”. Dmitri has dug up damage against Vadim that they hope will give them success in the courts.

Vadim remains a dangerous opponent. In this pessimistic view of contemporary Russia, control is dominated by an alliance of corrupt local politicians (with photos of President Putin), the courts, and church hierarchy. The local religious leader has regular meetings with Vadim. The church will get some of any new land grab. In a disturbing scene, the religious authority tells Vadim not to give him details of his plans as they are “not in Confession” where sins must be kept secret.

Aleksey Serebryakov in “Leviathan”

Aleksey Serebryakov in “Leviathan”

The influence of vodka is pervasive. In a scene of dark humor, hunters prepare to shoot framed images of historical Russian leaders.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev masterfully builds tension as Vadim’s threats increase while Kolia and Dmitriy continue to fight back. “How do you sleep at night?” is asked. The impressive actors show the emotional toll of the fight against Vadim.

After the film Zvyagintsev discussed his vision of “Leviathan” He said that “sadness and beauty” exist “side by side”. He later added that “Private histories play out” against the “majestically beautiful nature.”

An unusual aspect of “Leviathan”, particularly in showing at a film festival in Telluride, Colorado is that the incident that became the genesis of the film also occurred in Colorado, in 2004. Zvyagintsev said that he was in the US in 2008 with a short film and when he heard about Marvin John Heemeyer, the story “blew me away”

Heemeyer was a welder and automobile muffler repair shop owner in Granby, Colorado. To protest a a zoning dispute, he used a bulldozer to destroy the town hall and other buildings in Granby. Zvyagintsev considers Heemeyer a “lost hero” and transferred his story to Russian soil, changing details to fit the Russian setting.

He considers “Leviathan” as telling the “tragedy of the human predicament” with an appropriate “Russian ending.”

Andrey Zvyagintsev at Telluride

Andrey Zvyagintsev at Telluride

Zvyagintsev added that the official cut of “Leviathan” could not be viewed in North Korea, Iran, and also Russia because of the expletives in the soundtrack.

When asked about the continual presence of vodka in the film, he said that vodka is a “beverage completely transparent”. He quoted the Russian Minister of Culture as saying “People don’t drink like that in Russia.” Zvyagintsev said that vodka is an “absolute constant” in Russia, but that the French drink more.

Zvyagintsev said that the “power alliance” between religion and government in Russia has an insufficient correlation to the US. Political authorities gain support by relying on spiritual powers. Because of this union, Zvyagintsev says that the Church loses the authority to make moral judgment on the actions of the government. He added that “those ruled give up liberties” to build up their welfare, adding that they “cohabit with the devil.”

He described his film as showing the “antagonism between man and state” as well as the conflicts between “self and family.” He added that man is “consumed by his own leviathan.” A leviathan is defined as a sea monster, as well as something huge or very powerful.


Telluride 2014: Jon Stewart and “Rosewater”

Jon Stewart makes a notable directorial debut with “Rosewater”, the true story of journalist Maziar Bahari returning to Iran to cover the elections in 2009 who is arrested as a spy and imprisoned. Stewart appeared at the Telluride Film Festival with Bahari and Gael Garcia Bernal who portrays him in the film. Stewart and Bahari collaborated on the screenplay.

Jon Stewart at Telluride Film Festival with moderator Annette Insdorf, in rear director Jean-Marc Valee ("Wild"), Gael Garcia Bernal

Jon Stewart at Telluride Film Festival with moderator Annette Insdorf, in rear director Jean-Marc Valee (“Wild”), Gael Garcia Bernal

At the time of the elections, Maziar Bahari (Bernal) finds an Iran where citizens are expected to follow the commands of the Supreme Leader. Government tries to exert control over all aspects of life, emphasized by large murals of Iranian leaders covering outdoor walls in Tehran. Low satellites on the roof provide some citizens with forbidden outside knowledge.

Gael Garcia Bernal in "Rosewater"

Gael Garcia Bernal in “Rosewater”

Clever visuals show how the internet provides clandestine contact and communication. The film gives a vivid sense of the turbulence on the streets of Tehran as Bahari and fellow journalists report on police beating street protesters. With a sense of humor, Bahari appears on Jon Stewart’s televised “Daily Show” and jokes about being a spy. Bahari is arrested by police and blindfolded, with his television “confession” used as evidence.

Bahari is placed in solitary confinement where he can hear a beating of another prisoner through the walls. Stewart gives the film an impressive immersion into an Iranian prison, with long monotonous times in a solitary cell broken by sudden bursts of violence, and details like ants in food.

Bernal (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) gives another strong performance, conveying Bahari’s anguish, determination to hold on, as well as fear that he may be forgotten on the outside. Bahari has an intriguing relationship with his main interrogator, nicknamed Rosewater from his smell. Their scenes often have a dark humor. Rosewater (Kim Bodnia) is also threatened by his superiors.

This film shows the importance of publicizing human rights abuse, emphasized by a message secretly written on a prison wall.

Jon Stewart at Telluride with moderator Annette Insdorf

Jon Stewart at Telluride with moderator Annette Insdorf

After the film, Telluride provided the unique opportunity of thoughtful post-film discussions with Jon Stewart, Maziar Bahari and Gael Garcia Bernal. When asked why the film was not in the Farsi language of the Iranian characters, Stewart responded that as he speaks English, having his film in anything but English would give it a “quiet inauthenticity” Stewart added that Maziar was a “touchstone” for him while making the film on Maziar’s life. Stewart said that Gael was “helpful” to his film directorial debut.

Stewart said that the film was shot in Jordan with the “Syrian War 45 minutes away” and in a “city of loudspeakers.” With these conditions, “between action and cut”, he wanted people to feel “welcome and comfortable” and “have fun.”

Stewart also spoke about improvising as well as including “serious dark humor” in “Rosewater”. As with Kafka, he added, the worst part may not be what you see, as Maziar was in a room alone for 4 months.

Jon Stewart with Annette Insdorf

Jon Stewart with Annette Insdorf

Maziar Bahari said “Rosewater” reflects how his usual prison experiences were “more banal and common.” He added that Iran shows the “confrontation between ideology and extremism.” He feels that believing “blindly can be funny.” He also described his experiences as “Kafkaesque”, adding comparisons to Chekhov. He said that the unexpected New Jersey jokes in the film “really happened” during his prison sentence.

On a serious note, Stewart feels that anger is “often justified” and “paranoia is often born of reality.” He believes that the UN is the “only opportunity” for long-term global solutions.

Stewart was more humorous at an outdoor panel discussion. He said that topical comedy with which he’s associated is “like egg salad”, delicious when fresh, but “a couple of days later tastes like shit.”

Telluride 2013: Mohammad Rasoulof Tribute and his Iranian film without credits

Besides the high profile Tributes to Robert Redford and the Coen Brothers with T Boone Burnett, the Telluride Film Festival’s third Tribute was to Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof (“The White Meadows”). In 2010, Rasoulof was arrested with fellow filmmaker and friend Jafar Panahi for working on an unauthorized film. Rasoulof was banned from filmmaking for 20 years and sentenced to 6 years in prison, commuted to 1 year on appeal.

Rasoulof was at Telluride in August of 2013 with his latest film “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” which earlier had been smuggled out of Iran to be shown at Cannes where it received the International Critics Prize. This film was shot clandestinely in Tehran and contains no credits as protection for those involved.


“Manuscripts Don’t Burn” is inspired by actual incidents. A group of Iranian writers was invited to a conference in Albania. The driver was supposed to drive to a cliff and jump out before the bus went over the cliff, killing the writers. The plan did not go off. Kasra, an aging author, has written his memoirs which include the plot to kill the bus of writers. Kasra is hoping to join his daughter who has left Iran.

The authorities have authorized two low-level thugs with their own personal issues to “dispose” of Kasra and his old friends who know of the memoirs. Rasoulof superbly captures the continual paranoia of government suppression. A character says “We don’t decide who’s innocent.” Tension mounts as everyday items like a bag or a suppository can have a sinister purpose. Violence is treated casually. An agent grabs a bite at the home of his victim. “Manuscripts” is a gripping view of living in a country where freedom is a crime.

“Manuscripts Don’t Burn”

“Manuscripts Don’t Burn”

After the film, Rasoulof said that the incident with the bus of writers was “public knowledge, not openly spoken about, kept quiet”. He said that in his film, he wanted to draw on his own experience and “merge reality and fiction” as he loves documentaries. Rasoulof said he had to decide “how closely loyal to reality” the film should be while shedding a “different light” on events. He added that his film “could have been excitably harsher.” He added that for “quotidian life”, it is hard to decide what choice to make on film. He said that he wanted to create an “exciting” film from “all the points of view.”

Rasoulof said that his personal experiences have informed his filmmaking, and his take on the arts has completely changed. He wants to “tell stories” that elicit a political response. He added that “In dictatorship, everything is political, even the sandwich at end [of his film].” He said he does not want to change any regime, and his films are “just looking at how people live.”

Mohammad Rasoulof at Telluride

Mohammad Rasoulof at Telluride

From Iran, Rasoulof said there are “so many in exile”, adding “Some bend”, while some “took risk like Jaffir [Panahi], sequestered in his home.”

After making Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, Rasoulof said “I need to rest, this film aged me, I went grey overnight because of pressure.” At the time he was living in Hamburg, Germany which he poignantly commented “doesn’t have the same mountains” as his childhood. He added “I would like to go home to Iran” and there is a “lot of censorship in my country.”

The latest information on Rasoulof was that after Telluride in Septermer, 2013 he flew to Iran, intending to return to Hamburg later that month. Iranian authorities confiscated his passport and he remains unable to leave Iran.