Other Worlds

Interview with Giulia D'agnolo Vallan

by Ellise Fuchs


The Torino Film Festival has always had an experimental focus. Since its first incarnation, 22 years ago—then called Cinema Giovone (Young Cinema)—it has expanded and changed shape, always prodding its audience to consider new perspectives and challenging images. Now in her second year as Festival co-director, Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan lives and works in New York City, but returns annually to her hometown for the event. Over the past six years, Vallan has written as many books and curated retrospectives of U.S. filmmakers such as John Milius, William Friedkin, and John Landis.

Vallan has enriched the Festival over time with her keen vision and attention to unusual or innovative trends in filmmaking, including those reflecting an America she has come to know intimately. Eight years ago, the special section “Americana” became a permanent fixture in the program, featuring a mix of tv and films, long and short, fiction and non. “Americana” has since become one of the most awaited and viewed sections at the Festival.

The Festival, which features 300 films, began Friday, 12 November and runs through Saturday, 20 November.

PopMatters: What are your responsibilities as co-director of the Torino Film Festival?

Giulia D’agnolo Vallan: The main responsibility is the programming, designing the scope and the premise of the Festival. There is also the job of choosing your staff and working the financial structure of the Festival. However, the main objective as the artistic director is to choose the program and to reflect, within the Festival, your own ideals.

PM: During the year, how much time do you spend working on the Festival?

GDV: The Festival is essentially a fulltime job, because it is a true process. I have spent the last two months working here at the office in Italy. However, this job kind of integrates with other things I do during the year, mainly writing about film. But basically you think and you see things. You travel to a Festival and you get ideas. You prepare retrospectives. So it builds itself up as a fulltime job because you keep thinking. The selection process per se doesn’t become aggressive until around Cannes and then in September, it becomes really intense. You take mental notes along the way and you design things as you go. The way I function is to build on information, even unconsciously.

For example, last year in the program we had a focus on Malaysian cinema. During the selection process, we realized we didn’t know anything about Malaysian independent films and there were several of them coming through because of one of our correspondents. This year we have a focus on China. This is a result of finding out that China, which has not only exploded in terms of intellect, culture and as an industrial power, also has an underground cinema which reflects these changes. So, to me it’s a very organic process, and to that extent, I would say it is a very fulltime job for me.

PM: I’m interested in your work on the section known as “Americana.” Did you originally propose this idea to the Torino Film Festival or did they ask you to put together this section?

GDV: I think it was around 1995. I noticed that there were several documentaries in the states that were getting all this attention after their release. I’m thinking of Hoop Dreams and Crumb. There was Here’s Lookin’ at You and Ed Wood, and a couple of things from the West Coast as well. I called another Festival that I was working for in Rimini (Italy) and I explained that documentaries were becoming full-fledged movies, taking off from tv. I told them they were getting enormous attention in theaters in America. These are real films. Hoop Dreams is an epic. And Crumb is truly a comedy. Rimini was not really interested. Then I asked the people I know in Torino… And they said, “Let’s do it.” So I showed six or seven documentaries and it was an incredible success. The people came to see the films like crazy. They were delighted. It was a surprise for everyone, me included, because some of these films were so culturally “American” and they don’t necessarily translate.

Two years afterwards, I was asked to do something else. “Americana” started as a mix [of U.S. movies]. It’s important to see the way films reflect, even unconsciously, what’s happening in a place. For me, writing about films has been writing about the States. It’s a way to talk about where I am, indirectly.

PM: How do you go about choosing the movies for your “Americana” section? Do you select from tv and cable as well as theatrical releases?

GDV: It was never just one section, never only American Independent cinema or just non-fiction. It was more about integrating all of these forms, short and long. I have enormous passion for major Hollywood films, but I also like those who work with nothing, whose camera cost $15 and purchased at the supermarket. I choose from between those two extremes. To me, they all represent American cinema.

It was clear to me from the beginning that what would arrive in Italy was a much smaller portion of what was out there… It was more fun to put things together that would talk to each other from completely different realities and see if the audience would respond. I have to say that Torino’s audience is extremely receptive, not just to my section, but in general. They have been “trained” by the Festival. I have tried over the years to juxtapose, to put things together that don’t seem to belong. Instead, they have subliminal relationships or they’re just simply fun to be seen together. The audience has helped by being very open to everything.

PM: Independent films seem to be very “in” these days. But the word remains largely undefined. How do you find independent films have changed over the years? And does this shift have to do with money, politics or some other factors?

GDV: It used to be easier, because independent filmmakers were working outside of “the system,” not financed by Hollywood. But I also thought that mainstream American cinema was how filmmakers could work within a system and become auteurs. [You work] in an exchange, in a dialectic, with the system… American independents include Roger Corman as well as Stan Brakhage.

Now, the definition of “independent” is more complicated because, through Sundance and other festivals, cable television and the shift in distribution, off-Hollywood directors are more visible. You have more distribution venues, more markets opened up for films that were not necessarily originated within the main studios. Independent today is really about a filmmaker’s vision, how strong they are. Alexander Payne [whose Sideways is featured in this year’s Festival] has always worked with a studio and he has always made films that studios were never known to make. Wes Anderson has worked with Disney, first for Sony. As a filmmaker, he’s young, and that’s very striking. Nobody made those films before, so it’s the majors that have also changed. It’s partly because they thought some of these guys were “marketable.” I very seldom use “independent” in my writing today. It’s an overused and imprecise word.

PM: I recently read an interview with Payne where he defines independent film as “a film which tries to do something different, that feels like it comes from one person, that has some sense of authorial voice and doesn’t seem to be pandering exclusively to commercial exigencies at the time.” How do you feel about this?

GDV: I agree with everything Alex has to say, except I think filmmakers want to make money. They want their films to be successful and they want to reach a lot of people. There’s the example of Walt Disney, who was a great independent filmmaker. With all the Disney cartoons, we have a projection of this man’s vision, not just his film vision, but his vision of the world. Disney had a utopian society in mind and he projected this. That is an auteur.

This year, we are bringing John Landis to the Festival. He has made an enormous amount of money with films like The Blues Brothers. I think that, especially filmmakers who consistently work within the industry are not ashamed to say that they really want to make money. Still, it’s obvious you don’t only want to make money, that you try to do something else as well.

PM: What do you think of following statement? A critic wrote of Richard Avedon, the fashion/portrait photographer who passed away recently, that “There was a certain dourness in his subjects so that they became emblems of stylishness. Modern America has a way with that sort of paradox: we turn our curses into blessings.” I was wondering how you might apply this observation to some of the films you feature at the Festival.

GDV: There is no mystery that I like filmmakers and films that expose things, in overt ways and subliminal, indirect ways. That’s why I love genre films, and especially horror films. They are the most subversive, the ones you really cannot hide from and yet they don’t really talk directly about their subjects. I think many filmmakers work to upset. You mentioned photography. Formally, a film’s visuals can upset your idea of the world… I think American filmmakers have a history of being rebels, not because they are outspoken, but because their films expose things nobody wants to talk about. Last year, I did a retrospective about Billy Friedkin. When you work on a retrospective like that, you spend a year thinking about a filmmaker or talking to him. And you start, especially with someone like Friedkin, who is so well-known and so written about, with a sort of cliché. Everyone thinks Billy Friedkin is the filmmaker of American “evil.” So you write and write and write, and at the end, you totally know him, and you decide he is the filmmaker who cannot stand untold things. He is a restless guy, not just about dark things. His films are about what people don’t dare to say. That’s his curse [and his genius].

PM: How you were originally drawn to horror?

GDV: First of all, it is personal taste. I don’t like things that are too obviously expressed—feelings, politics, notions. I always liked things that are sort of hidden. It’s also my way of communicating. Going to the movies is truly the suspension of belief. A movie is about going to other worlds. A movie creates a universe, a parallel of this world with its own laws and that you can jump into. When I was growing up, I read fantasy and dark literature. I always liked snakes. We would go to the zoo and we would look at snakes, much to my mother’s dismay. It’s all part of my personal background, the books I’ve read, who I am.

PM: How do you feel about the shift documentaries are taking now in terms of format? With the onslaught, say of docudramas, re-enactments and reality tv, how is this affecting documentary filmmaking?

GDV: I did an interview with Robert Redford this summer. As you know, Sundance has been instrumental in showing a lot of documentaries over the years. Obviously, it has helped to broaden awareness and distribution of documentaries. But I think Sundance documentaries are extremely subject-oriented. Redford said that people want to see “reality.” He pointed out that the reality tv shows reflect this desire to see “true” things. I have a little bit of a different vision of documentaries. All of American cinema is to some degree, documentary. I think narrowing it down to be something exclusively about reality diminishes documentary as a notion and diminishes cinema as a medium. For instance, I think Spielberg’s The Terminal is underestimated. It is a film that truly reflects the political passion of a filmmaker who claims never to deal with politics. It’s a movie about how you cannot close the borders, about what has become of the American dream. It’s a movie about things that are hidden, in this very Capra-looking premise, with a Capraesque actor [Tom Hanks].

The Manchurian Candidate, by Jonathan Demme, was obviously put in production long before the war in Iraq and before the Bush presidency took initiatives that were terrifying. And it was rewritten while he shot because of what is happening. Fahrenheit 9/11, explicitly a documentary, is a movie in which you have a feeling of the change mid course. Michael Moore started making a movie about the association between the Bin Laden family and George Bush. Then this whole thing with Iraq escalated, so the movie changed. You have a sense of urgency, as the cumbersome process of making a Hollywood film also allows for change, to pick up whatever is in the air. And so, it seems these films have become documentaries in their own way.

PM: What do you have to say about someone like Errol Morris who has gone so far as to come up with his own contraption, the Interrotron, for interviewing people for his documentaries? What does this say about manipulation?

GDV: I love Errol Morris’s work. We have shown several of his films in Torino. I’d like to compare Errol Morris and Michael Moore. I have never liked Michael Moore’s work particularly, but I am delighted that Fahrenheit 9/11 was seen by a lot of people because it was making a point that needed to be made. But often when he interviews, he cuts people short at the moment they are making fools of themselves. And I think that’s bad filmmaking. You see Michael Moore is a controlling guy. He’s not a documentary maker as much as he’s a pamphlet filmmaker. He is very funny and he has great comic timing. He is terribly unfair and he has politics that I share. So it is a complicated issue. But I never thought of him as a documentarist because he is such a manipulator. I think one of his best works was his tv show, TV Nation. It is very much his format.

With Errol Morris, though, it’s a flow of things. The length of the interviews allows things to expand and allows things to take their own life. I love that Morris’ subjects sit down and talk and become ugly, crazy. You lapse into this world. And his visuals are so great. I think the Interrotron is really a means of creating a way of looking at the people, so you are almost “looking at their souls.”

PM: You have written a book about John Landis this year. You have put together a retrospective of his work for the Festival, where he’ll be present. I’m curious to know what he signifies for you, as an “eye on America.”

GDV: To a certain extent, he is a logical choice. I’ve featured a series of filmmakers from the ‘70s and ‘80s at the Festival, whose work has kind of changed the way that the industry perceives directors. It was a challenge for me because I had never done anything so focused on comedy. With John, it was a challenge because he is a film encyclopedia in the true sense. He is totally omnivorous. He knows everyone and has seen everything. It’s a real problem, because you can get lost.

After working on this project, I found that John was an incredibly underestimated filmmaker. I think his work as a director is very consistent and has been overshadowed by the fact that at least two of his films, The Blues Brothers and Animal House, have become something that goes beyond cinema, into pop phenomena. Italy has always recognized Landis, France a little bit, more than some other places. But in England and America, he just doesn’t exist. John doesn’t have a book on him except for one written here in Italy.

His work is always about creating worlds which have this incredible coherence. They are worlds of fantasy but they are also extremely political worlds which always take from the present. In some of John’s best films there’s always this shift of multiple realities. There is this total leap of faith into fantasy and at the same time, it is so specifically about our times. If you think about some of his ‘80s comedies—Trading Places, Coming to America, Spies Like Us—they are Reagan era comedies and brazen as can be. Coming to America foresaw an enormous shift within American black society. John said he did it because he realized it was the first time there was a kind of Cinderella story which was with a huge black cast. Yet it wasn’t about being black. It was never about black identity as opposed to white identity. It was a story that could have been done in white as well. Trading Places is Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper. Spies Like Us is the most overt, featuring Reagan’s photographs. It was about the Star Wars program.

John’s latest film, Slasher, which we will be showing at the Festival, is a documentary. It is shot, edited, and scored as a Landis comedy. He goes for three days to a super [car] sale. It started with a montage of U.S. presidents lying: George Bush, Sr. saying, “Read my lips, no more taxes,” Bill Clinton, Nixon, Reagan, and on up to George W. Bush. John found that he could not buy enough tv footage to make a film specifically about that, so he changed its course. And he found this car salesman, a slasher, and he started thinking about his selling cars in this huge theatrical sale as a metaphor for how Bush was selling us a war. But then it becomes about this guy, a study of capitalism and salesmanship. This guy really makes up, changes and cuts the prices in this lot during these three days. Apparently, Memphis is one of the most economically depressed cities in the United States. And who are the people who get conned? Poor and black people. It’s just this terrible picture of horrible injustice during these three days. It’s hilariously fun and it’s incredibly real.

PM: The Festival this year also has a focus on China. What new filmmakers do you see from Asia?

GDV: In competition, there are two Japanese films, one Korean, one Malaysian, one Chinese, and one from Hong Kong. We have several Hong Kong action films, two from Johnnie To: one is Breaking News, a gangster media film, very strange. The other one is his new film, Yesterday Once More, a comedy. Then we have two Jackie Chan films: he has returned to Hong Kong after having worked in Hollywood. One is a police story again, a sequel to one of his most famous series, a great film that starts with this sort of older, disillusioned cop. He gets depressed and alcoholic, then has to fight back, his dark side all exposed. Jackie Chan is still an amazing acrobat. His second film is a Japanese sort of sorcery film, with his son Jaycee as well. We also have a tiny Filipino film, shot from a completely subjective point of view. It’s a digital film, extremely dark. The title is Stigmatic and it’s about a killer who is losing his sight, truly disturbing.

What’s fascinating now are the Japanese horror films. They’re minimalistic, considering the way you work with fear. Horror usually oscillates between being afraid of what you don’t see and being afraid of what you see. These filmmakers use ghosts, the most ethereal of monsters. We are showing The Grudge, Takashi Shimitzu’s remake of his own Ju-On. And we’re showing a short film by Kiyoshi Kurasawa, about 20 minutes. One of the Japanese films in the competition is a sci-fi pop opera, shot with digital backgrounds. It’s interesting the way the Far East uses digital special effects. It is very different from Hollywood, who goes for verisimilitude, making the thing “real.” In Japan, even Hong Kong, they take it to a totally pictorial level, and backgrounds become paintings. I think you will notice Asia a lot this year.

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