If it's rare to see sisters at the center of a smart, mature, and artful movie, it's even more surprising to see them so keenly in tune.


Director: Andrew Bujalski
Cast: Tilly Hatcher, Maggie Hatcher, Alex Karpovsky, Katy O'Connor, David Zellner, Ann Dodge, Nathan Zellner, Janet Pierson
Rated: NR
Studio: Cinema Guild
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-08-07 (Limited release)

"I'm totally happy with things and if you're not, why don’t you just say so?" It's a sunny morning in Austin, Texas, and Scott (David Zellner) is just out of bed. He's been thinking that Lauren (Maggie Hatcher), who's still in bed, is his girlfriend, so he's surprised to hear her say otherwise. "I'm only halfway in it. It doesn't really seem fair," she offers, as if looking to spare his feelings. Scott gets bold, as if calling her bluff: "If it's not working for you, why don’t you just break it up?" She nods, maybe, says, "Okay," and turns away from him and the camera before she says, "We should. We should try and break it up."

Scott's not prepared for this not-quite-a-pronouncement. Like most of the decisions made in Beeswax, Lauren's seems almost accidental, as if it's just occurred to her, as if she's only responding to the chance he's given her. Scott sputters some more, trying to regain control, of the language at least: "Try!? Talk about half-assed. If you wanna do it, let's do it." And with that the film cuts to Lauren, scampering across the street, looking very freed at last.

In this early scene, Beeswax lays out a mode that's partly familiar, partly fresh. Like Andrew Bujalski's previous films, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), it observes young people who sort of know each other as they come to know each other better. Their conversations tend to be indirect, their ideas about themselves imprecise -- they sense they should be making life choices, but they're not at all sure that's what they're doing. Sometimes their options come up suddenly, as when Scott suggests Lauren "break it up" and so she does, or when she applies for a teaching job, gets turned down, then learns she has it after all, if she agrees to "get on a plane to Nairobi next week."

Other times, options percolate, undefined and imminent. Lauren's sister Jeannie (played by Maggie's real life twin, Tilly Hatcher) first appears in her seeming element, a vintagey clothing shop called the Storyville Boutique. If Lauren lives contentedly in uncertainty, skipping from one surprise to another, Jeannie is both more determined and more serene, She makes her way from one display to another, adjusting dress folds and arranging beads, her rolling wheelchair a sign of her sense of ease. When Corinne (Katy O'Connor) appears at the door, Jeannie doesn't see her as a sign of the trouble to come, but there she is, blandly gushy ("I just love small businesses and I love working in them!") and newly hired by Jeannie's partner Amanda (Ann Dodge). Equipped to deal with this minor bump, Jeannie sets Corinne to a task while she takes a phone call from Amanda: "It's fine," she reassures her partner, "But it would have been nice if you'd let me know last night."

As it turns out, Amanda's up to something, and Jeannie knows it, though neither says it out loud. In the next scene, Jeannie's home pouring over the contract Amanda's father wrote up for them a couple of years before, wondering what she signed and how she trusted someone so blindly. To help with the deciphering, she calls an ex, Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), currently studying for his bar exam. His first interpretation of the situation is straight-up legal ("It's not a crime to take advantage of ignorant people"), but as they slip back into bed, he's also ready to pursue the nuances. On her morning after, Jeannie isn't quite so ready to bail as her sister was; when Merrill worries that she wants "go back to radio silence," she smiles, "Maybe we could find some middle ground between radio silence and hot sex." Merrill presses for definitions of "hot sex" but she sighs and tries to move on: "I was going for a different word."

Most everyone in Beeswax is going for a different word, a more accurate, subtler way to think through complications. The parsing of the contract is a useful metaphor for this process of seeking and distilling, a process that seems both endless and hopeful. When Merrill just happens to run into Amanda, he takes the opportunity to learn more, approaching her as she's getting into her car. He's been talking to Jeannie, he begins, the camera cutting to manda to watch her reaction: "One of the things that's really weighing on her especially is the possibility that you might potentially be considering perhaps possibly, uh, suing her in relation to all this sort of stuff?" Amanda squints, "I don't think I really feel comfortable talking with you about that, actually, but clearly, I don’t want to do that and she doesn't want to do that." A minute later, Merrill's on his cell to Jeannie with the answer: "I sorta kinda definitely think that she's gonna sue you."

At once a description of the plot that's unfolding and a cleverish riff on the commercial labeling of "mumblecore," Merrill's verbal gymnastics here are also a lovely bit of poetry. His concerns are clear, as are his feelings for Jeannie, for all his seeming in-articulation. If language can only approximate, that's fine too, for too much definition means limits, ends, and rules. Like other movies in the so-called genre, Beeswax implies more than it delineates, Matthias Grunsky's handheld camera detailing what's unsaid or said imprecisely.

Nowhere are these possibilities better realized in Beeswax than in the sisters' relationship. For at last this is the film's center. If each has her own trajectory, both see themselves in the other. A sequence that shows Jeannie taking photos of Lauren -- they're off in a field, Lauren's green dress set off by green trees while she swings and climbs and tips upside down on a rusty gate to nowhere. They laugh, Jeannie directs and loses a shot ("You're hard to catch, dude!"), then finds another. As the scene ends, Lauren's carrying Jeannie and the chair, traipsing across the uneven ground, their faces close, smiles wide, intimate and expressive. If it's rare to see sisters at the center of a smart, mature, and artful movie, it's even more surprising to see them so keenly in tune.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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