Film

Adoration: In the Eye of the Beholder

Atom Egoyan talks to PopMatters about his newest film, Adoration, an intelligent coming-of-age tale that won’t be making it to the local multiplex anytime soon, but makes for a refreshing, welcome addition to the impending sea of American-made summertime garbage.


Adoration

Director: Atom Egoyan
Cast: Rachel Blanchard, Scott Speedman, Devon Bostick, Arsinée Khanjian
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Classics
First date: 2009
US Release Date: 2009-05-08 (Limited release)
Website

In writer-director Atom Egoyan’s newest film, Adoration, a young man named Simon (the expressive Devin Bostick) comes of age. A time-honored filmic concept, to be sure, only in Egoyan’s world, “coming of age” isn’t exactly a romp for this teen. In fact, Simon’s journey includes challenges that would break mere mortals of any age: terrorism, exploration through dramatic performance, shattering cultural stereotypes and taboos, and the use of complicated technology -- in particular, grappling with the internet and its sometimes daunting immediacy. “Coming of age” isn’t all girls and parties for Simon, which is a refreshing change from the typical fare featuring teen actors.

We meet Simon via a gorgeous, slow-crawling tracking shot, and he is sitting in a Toronto park with his laptop – his primary means of expressing his voice (the score, by Mychael Danna aids in creating a multi-cultural, ominous feeling here and throughout). In French class, his teacher Sabine (Egoyan regular Arsinee Khanjian) recounts for her students the tale of a terrorist who uses his pregnant wife as an unwitting bomb carrier. “People use each other as detonating devices”, said Egoyan, taking time out to talk to reporters in New York during the Tribeca film festival.

An orphan, Simon takes the story to heart, and she encourages him to use his anger and his confusion by channeling it all into a dramatic exercise, in which he assumes the role of the explosives mule’s unborn child and presents his “findings” in a class presentation. “He is trying to re-imagine them [his parents], the viewer must re-filter it. It’s about people dealing with absences. He imagines having a father who is a demon, he wants to go as far as possible into what that might mean.”

What follows this academic exercise is a veritable storm of misunderstanding, as Simon debates his position with his circle of classmates and friends online, and the “play” makes it onto the internet, where it takes on a life of its own. The director called the structure of the film “wildly unconventional. The viewer has to be very engaged, trusting.” We learn through these exercises with Simon that his own parents were killed many years ago, adding another layer to the aura of mystery. Reality is an elusive entity in Adoration. Egoyan never settles for any clear-cut answers, and the ambiguity allows his characters to take on a life of inner mystery, as each is in possession of some form of secret. “The truth is often how people negotiate how things happened,” notes Egoyan. “People take very strong emotional positions.”

Tom (Scott Speedman) has raised Simon as his own ever since his sister (Rachel Blanchard) was killed under mysterious circumstances alongside her Arabic husband. Egoyan does a masterful job of creating tension and drama, as well as providing a nurturing environment for each of these intimate mysteries to unfold deeply and thoroughly, in a way that, in the end, comes together with perfect symmetry. Though each character we meet has an aura of mystery, they are far from vague, though they are almost all not what they seem. “It resonates as a poem would, with layers upon layers” said an ebullient Speedman of the way the film unfolds. “You find something new in it each time. It reverberates.”

Mirroring the story’s emotional and imagined mysteries is the actual look of the film, with innovative usage of light and shadow to convey mood, belying the film’s smallish $6 million budget. “It would be the same movie no matter the budget, said the director. “At $30 million, you’d have to make a different film; you wouldn’t be able to use these structures.” Egoyan said he was going for a “heightened reality” in the golden-hued flashback scenes where we are introduced to Simon’s parents. “I wanted it to seem of another world,” he said, adding that the look was achieved specifically through the use of master shots with long lenses and specific types of lights to produce “a sense of contrast, it was carefully composed. I didn’t want it to seem surreal, but as though it was existing on another plane of reality.”

Thematically, manages Egoyan to touch on many contemporary subjects and politically-volatile issues without ever coming across as heavy-handed. Terrorism, particularly Arab-Israeli violence is firmly implanted into the story, but never overtakes it. Instead, the viewer is presented with multiple, divergent perspectives on each issue. Mortality, racism, intolerance of religion or culture, the impact of grief on young people and obsession are but a sampling of topics that are dissected in this layered tale, in addition to the outstanding look at the proliferation of technology and its direct effect on the way we communicate in modern society.

There are many perspectives happening in the film, both at center stage and on the fringes, as Simon takes his quest for testing the open-mindedness of those around him to a larger audience: the web, where you can both have a voice and be completely anonymous if you so choose. Possessed of striking, exaggerated features, the reedy Bostick, seen in the Canadian epic Passchendale last year, comes across as refreshingly unaffected. “There will be a point when you need to release, and [Simon] has held back this secret for so long, so he can get responses from people” said the neophyte, who brings a nice blend of sincerity and quiet fury to his tricky role. “You need some sort of peace at the end.”

Adoration’s Greek chorus is anything but quiet. Simon’s dramatic explorations are broadcast first to his friends, a group of tech-savvy high schoolers who are communications experts: they are never burdened by the technology, the multiple frames or the over-stimulation of it all. It then begins reaching an extreme cast of characters (a Holocaust survivor and a neo-Nazi are among his followers on the web), while his instructor Sabine suggests they team up to test his uncle’s levels of tolerance outside of school, crossing a teacher-student line in a major way. “They have a strange relationship,” cracked Bostick, of both his on- an off-screen relationship with co-star Khanjian. “It’s a strange relationship that goes beyond student-teacher. So, the weirdness felt natural.”

The film is perceptive in outlining the odd boundaries that must be firmly implanted into an affiliation such as this, but also dares to ask a tougher, more controversial question: what exactly are the limitations of teachers' powers nowadays? Are they there to simply take care of your children while you are at work, as though they are just state-paid babysitters? Or is it truly their job to inspire, challenge and provoke? Who decides where to draw the line? The hard truth, in reality, is that if a teacher makes one misstep, and, in Sabine’s case, if they broach a politically-complex issue with young people or incite them to think outside the box, they are going to be punished. Sabine’s affections, though, are decidedly more bizarre once Simon and Tom begin to realize just what her bond is to their family’s history. Speedman credited Khanjian for having “a real feel for Atom’s work, so she brings this.”

“Connection” is a major running motif in Egoyan’s work, from The Sweet Hereafter to Exotica, and here he ponders not only the tangible connection between human beings, but also a kind of “connection” to one another through machinery and technology. Being “connected” through the internet, is, in the long run, both dangerously accessible and potentially isolating, and once the message is sent out to the sea of anonymous internet freaks, it cannot be so easily taken back. In sharp contrast to the modern technology running rampant, Egoyan also throws in the element of “Kieslowskian” blind chance, of coincidence, as another essential, more metaphysical motif in his hard-wired world.

As the film slowly builds, these seemingly random little cases, in fact, are all shown to be furiously, intricately tied together. Adoration is the kind of intelligent coming-of-age tale that won’t be making it to the local multiplex anytime soon, but makes for a refreshing, welcome addition to the impending sea of American-made summertime garbage where young men are not required to think or show vulnerability, where they just get wasted and chase girls. Thankfully, we have Simon’s (and Egoyan’s) introspective, challenging viewpoints to get us through ‘til autumn.

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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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