The Venice Connection

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
An interview with Venice International Film Festival consultant Paolo Bertolin.

The articulate, simpatico Venetian discusses Peter Jackson, Venice, and Japanese versus Korean cinema with Alexander Bisley. The well-dressed 37-year-old became increasingly passionate and animated during the Wellington interview, especially when discussing the Samoan/New Zealand film The Orator, awarded Special Mention at the Venice International Film Festival 2011. Photography by Daniel Rose.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: I appreciated your BFI Sight and Sound poll introduction. “Rather than trying to choose the most important or best films in the history of cinema as a whole—a demanding challenge I don’t feel at ease facing—I preferred to concentrate on the films that molded, influenced and reshaped my perception of and passion for cinema since the time I started developing a specific interest for Asian films, in the second half of the 1980s.” I’m not knowledgeable about Asian Cinema as you are, but I am a fan. On the great Shohei Imamura, you wrote about Black Rain: “A deeply humanistic and rigorous remembrance of the harrowing fate of those who survived the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, Black Rain stands as one of the greatest condemnations of the horrors of war.” Did you ever meet Imamura?

PAOLO BERTOLIN: No, which is a great regret. I started going to Cannes in 2003, his last time there was 2001 with Warm Water Under a Red Bridge. He was part of the September 2011 project—the closing segment— that was shown in Venice, but Imamura didn’t travel to that festival.

AB: The soldier is traumatised by the horror of war; he believes he is a snake.

PB: It’s my favourite out of those films in the September 11—

AB: Easily.

PB: I do remember that many people were puzzled by the film, “what the hell does it have to do with the September 11?” Come on, it’s trying to tell you that it’s not only about September 11. That it’s about war in general. That it’s about the history of humanity.

AB: It’s a Japanese sensibility.

PB: It’s a very abstract one, which is totally right. Some others try to be abstract but in the wrong way, like Inarritu’s segment, [which] was horrible. I think Imamura managed to be the most universal and the most humane in his segment. I’m sorry that I never had the chance to meet Imamura, but it’s also somehow a good thing, because for those great filmmakers you have this worship attitude, it’s good that they stay gods and you don’t see the human presence.

AB: That’s right. Pico Iyer wrote a book about Graham Greene recently. He said he preferred that he never met Graham Greene because he’d already given him so much through his books, and sure there would be some good things about meeting him, but there would also be a down-side.

PB: Exactly.

AB: There are probably some exceptions. Tell me about a director you’ve especially enjoyed meeting?

PB: I’ve met many directors, because of my work with Venice, also because of other festival jobs like running introductions and Q&As. As you said about Graham Greene, there are always good sides and bad sides, because you realise that directors are human beings too, and not some kind of totem that you have to worship because of what comes from them.

One especially inspiring meeting is Lav Diaz, who’s famous for his very long films. The very first time I met Lav, I had a very great admiration for his work, and also for his commitment towards the practice of filmmaking and also politics; politics of his country, politics of the art of cinema, politics of global issues. I have a profound admiration for him as an artist, as someone who creates film, especially in terms of being someone who sacrificed his life for that. He went a very long way to make the films he wants, and to maintain integrity in his work and his approach to politics and life and cinema.

AB: My colleague Brannvan Gnanalingam, loves Lav Diaz. Brannavan saw Norte, the new Diaz film, at Cannes and rated it. In the great Susan Sontag’s book Illness as Metaphor, she writes about how people sometimes mean-spiritedly argue that people deserve diseases they suffer from. In Black Rain, Imamura was challenging this idea. What do you think of that interpretation?

PB: It’s an interpretation. I can agree to a certain extent. This is a general remark I can make about film criticism: sometimes I am skeptical, and I’m very skeptical when that becomes a dogma. There are some film theorists, critics who talk about having a ‘vision’ about cinema. I totally disagree with that because I’m a very stark supporter of the idea that cinema is about being poly-taste. If you really want to love cinema you have to love different things, different identities, different approaches to cinema, especially as someone who works as a film programmer in film festivals, you have to be a poly-taste. You have to love more than one god; you have to love more than one religion. So even this remark, which might be quite apt here, I agree with that up to a certain point.

AB: These lists, they’re hard to do, aren’t they? How do you reduce the glory of Asian cinema—or any cinema—down to ten films? For example, my colleague Tim Wong, he chose A City of Sadness over A Brighter Summer Day for his BFI list. Sometimes, one’s humour affects things. On different days I see it slightly differently.

PB: Or a different time in your life. We all experience growing up and loving certain films and then going back to those films a few years later, and realising they meant a lot to us because we saw them at that specific time in our lives.

AB: Did you grow up in the Veneto?

PB: Yeah I’m from the Veneto region. My hometown is one-hour away from Venice.

AB: How much time do you spend on the road?

PB: Most of my time. I’m one of those nomadic people who travel from festival to festival.

AB: You’ve had an affinity for being a nomad for a while?

PB: I’ve been working for Venice for six years now. I’ve been in the festivals as a travelling correspondent, and working as film critic and journalist for ten years.

AB: That’s exciting territory you cover: Korea, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, Australia, the Islands, and Turkey. Going back to Korea, what do you think of the director Park Chan-wook?

PB: I like very much some of his films, but I’m not fond of everything because I think as many directors from Korea in recent years, whenever they gain the status of auteurs, they gain also too much freedom, and probably that went to their heads. The problem is also that in Korea there aren’t many strong producers to tell these auteurs “cut”. I surely liked Stoker. I think Stoker is his best film since Oldboy.

AB: Oldboy is great; it was so dazzlingly cinematic, inventive, and energetic watching it for the first time.

PB: I don’t think anything done afterwards was really satisfying. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance was the worst film in the trilogy for me. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK was okay. I didn’t hate it as many people did. Thirst was really too self-indulgent.

AB: I’m looking forward to interviewing Park in Auckland in August at the Big Screen Symposium. I saw video of the affable-looking director being interviewed by the head of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and he said: “In Asia, the director is King. In America the director is Prime Minister.”

PB: Which is not necessarily always a good thing. Once again, I’m reluctant to accept entirely this kind of statement because Asia, what is Asia? What country are you talking about?

AB: South Korea is very different to North Korea.

PB: Well definitely the director is not the king in North Korea [laughs]. It’s an interesting statement to a certain extent.

AB: It’s interesting in relation to him.

PB: Yeah, for Park Chan-wook, absolutely. But also for other established Korean filmmakers, and that also reflects in the fact that Korean films, especially the commercial Korean films where there is also an established director, to be too long. It’s a problem.

AB: Kim Ki-duk is a director who polarises critics. I like him, want to see Pietà, which won the Golden Lion in 2012.

PB: In his case he’s totally outside the industry there. He was—and still is—a total outsider. His freedom on his projects is special to him. Often he produces his own films, and they’re always done on low budgets, so he’s a king in his own small kingdom.

AB: Nicely phrased. It seemed like a strong programme you had in Venice last year, with films like Me Too? Another director I really like, from what I’ve seen of his work, is May’s dearly departed Alexei Balabanov. What did you think of Me Too?

PB: I thought it was great, really special and I hope you will have the chance to see it. It’s a fabulous testament to his crazy, crazy work. I have to say that throughout the years I had mixed feelings about Balabanov, because he also made War, a terrible war propaganda film, the equivalent of a Rambo movie in Russia.[1]

AB: Disappointingly, our festival isn’t screening Me Too at this stage. I’m hoping it might be a late inclusion.

PB: You should write to them recommending they include it, and also tell them that I recommend they include it. It’s really crazy, I also think that it’s another film to polarize opinions. Maybe Balabanov was aware of the fact that he was very ill, and he was going to perish at some point, he made a film that was really about that, about dying. He is in the film at the very end, and he plays himself. It’s a very entertaining, yet powerful film. The plot is [about] this character trying to reach this safe place to transit to the hereafter. It’s very wacky, but thought provoking.

AB: Cargo 200, about Afghanistan, was impressive. Masha Gessen told me recently: “Cargo 200 is brilliant, incredibly dark. It’s based on a Faulkner story, which I think a lot go people don’t realise. So I think he’s really brilliantly transferred that to Russian soil—the Russian psyche. But my favourite moment in the film, is when there’s already a decaying body in the compartment, and the mother of the police officer is letting someone in and there’s all these flies inside (because there’s this decaying body) and she says, “we have flies.” Sometimes when there’s just a single line in a book, or moment in a film, that is so precise—it’s such a precise snapshot of the way pathology is normalised.”

PB: It was in Venice, too. He’s made quite a few very interesting films. It’s just War that I was really wondering, “What the hell is this? Why do you have to make such a film?”

AB: What makes Venice a unique, special film festival?

PB: I think the answers should come from the people who actually come to the festival and spot differences compared to Cannes or Berlin.

If you asked me this question two years ago, I would have probably very bluntly answered that what made us different from Berlin and Cannes, was that we didn’t have a market. Whereas in Cannes and Berlin, you can close the deals right away because everyone is there, in Venice you couldn’t do that. That meant that those who worked within the programming team had a much wider space for films that were not necessarily marketable, and were not necessarily the kind of film that sales companies represent or distributors jump on.

Lav Diaz has been to Venice three times during the first four years I worked for the festival. He just missed one, and that one he was in the jury; Venice was a festival that was less dependent from the politics and logics of market. Now that we have started a light market last year, I’m wondering if I’ll be seeing this year how much that affects the programming.

AB: Brannavan wrote last year: “The Venice International Film Festival was supposedly stripped back this year, but as a neophyte accustomed to the homespun charms of the of the New Zealand International Film Festival, it was hard not to be wowed by the glamour of one of cinema’s most prestigious film festivals… and of course in Venice one of the most beguiling and beautiful cities on the planet.” He was dazzled by the grand, seductive setting.

PB: If you’re going there for the first time and taking some time off to visit the city as well, you’re going to fall for it. I’m much more jaded [laughs]. I’ve grown up in the region, I’m less prone to be seduced. Although I have to say every time I take the steamboat and travel through the Canal Grande, the main canal in the city that leads you to the train station, to St Mark’s Square, I am reminded in a very powerful way of the beauty of the city.[2]

AB: I went to Venice for one night in 2001 and was seduced by that magical boat up and down the Grande Canal. It’s public transport so I paid a good flat rate and spent most of the evening on it.

PB: I think it’s the best way to experience the city because the best views are the ones from the water.

AB: How is Austerity affecting Venice?

PB: I think strangely enough with the change of the director, there were several start ups: the market, the Biennale College, which launched as a workshop on low-budget filmmaking and it provides budget to make three small budget (€150,000) films. So strangely enough last year we actually spent more money, I would say. That went against the general trend of cutting budgets. In Europe the source of funding for festivals mostly comes from public institutions. At several levels: the ministries, the regions, the provinces, the cities, in a time when everyone is cutting budgets, culture is one of the main targets to lower expenses. But I would say there has been a quite resolute attempt to find more money in the private sector. With a name like Venice’s, you can attract sponsors internationally. So we did that more last year and it worked out very well.

AB: Do you have a creative instinct or philosophy, a process for what you’re looking for when you program films?

PB: Well, first of all, I have to clarify that I don’t program films in Venice in the sense that the only [ultimate] programmer is the festival director, because the festival director is the only person who has the [ultimate] power to invite the film. With Venice there are several levels of selection, and many people have the power to reject. So negative power to block a certain film from getting into Venice, but then ultimately the only person who chooses which ones make it in, is the director.

AB: You can influence Alberto Barbera’s decisions though?

PB: Yes, you can. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the films get in. Sometimes you feel frustrated because you think, “Why did this other film get in, and the one I recommended didn’t?” Maybe for your own tastes, you find certain choices quite objectionable, or you don’t subscribe to the same kind of static judgment. It can be frustrating, but it can be very exciting and makes you very happy because you manage to bring into a big festival a film that you like, a younger filmmaker whose work you admire (the established ones don’t necessarily need this kind of push).

You mentioned Korea earlier. There hadn’t been a single Korean film in the main competition in Cannes until 2000. Thailand had never been featured in the main competition in Venice until 2006 when Apichatpong Weerasethakul was invited with Syndromes and a Century. A country like the Philippines had been missing in Venice competition for 25 years before Brillante Mendoza’s Lola was featured in competition in 2009.

AB: And then there’s The Orator!

PB: Before 2011, when both Australia and New Zealand were featured with feature films in competition in Orizzonte, respectively Hail and The Orator, both countries were absent from feature films at Venice for almost a decade. Now we are reestablishing a connection. Of course, New Zealand is a smaller industry, so it’s not always easy to get a feature film for New Zealand in a festival like ours, but short films have always been very strong with Venice. I’m quite hopeful maybe new talents coming up from the [Pacific] region will make it to Venice.

I’m especially proud that two years ago Australia and New Zealand were present in Venice with feature films. Going back to the original question, I think it’s especially important in what I personally do, not having a strategy or an operational scheme that I follow. But trying to rely on my own perception and taste and believing in the talent and vision that transpires from the films that I’m watching. Oftentimes you make mistakes; we are all human beings. It’s even easier to make mistakes when you’re talking about young filmmakers, maybe the first feature film you think, “Oh wow, this is great new talent,” and then you get disappointed from what he/she does next. It’s a fascinating process. I like the explorational aspect of the job because it’s so easy to make a festival choosing the big names, you just watch their films and okay yes of course we have to have this. It’s much more difficult and challenging to look for something that still hasn’t been entirely recognised, and to convince the people back home that it has to be recognised. I can assure you that that part is extremely difficult and at times frustrating. When it works, when a film like The Orator gets into Venice, it’s obviously a huge reward that stays with you.

AB: Congratulations on championing The Orator. It’s a genuinely great film, (probably) the best from New Zealand in the last decade.

PB: Venice has been a very friendly festival to great New Zealand films. Before The Orator, there had been at least a couple of great masterpieces in our main competition that actually could have been Golden Lions. Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Actually, Peter Jackson has been three times to Venice, which is the international festival (among the big three) that first recognised him. He was there with Forgotten Silver, Heavenly Creatures, and The Frighteners. We have literally the parable: starting from this kind of indie style, very periodic, mockumentary that shows his love for cinema, and his love for his land; then we go on with this masterpiece which Heavenly Creatures was, which was a very disruptive and disturbing film, which polarized opinion but that showed his incredible visual talent, and also directing talent in the sense of creating performances and launching a career like Kate Winslet’s. I think Heavenly Creatures was such a fabulous film. I remember back then it was really controversial. And then The Frighteners, which I know many people don’t like; it was his transition to Hollywood. This all happened in the span of a few years, in the mid ’90s, and Venice somehow charted that transition in Peter Jackson’s career.

AB: I agree with you on Heavenly Creatures, Forgotten Silver. The Frighteners I was a bit disappointed with.

PB: I enjoyed the film back then. Maybe I was biased. I was coming in with the positive bias that it’s a new film from the director of Heavenly Creatures; it has Michael J. Fox in it, and some kind of fantasy—I bought it.

AB: Braindead is dementedly brilliant, sharply complementary to Heavenly Creatures, critical of ’50s New Zealand. I’d like to hear more about what made The Orator wonderful for you?

PB: Yes, it is a wonderful film. I don’t know what to say because I really loved the film. It’s great. It’s one of those films where from the very first few minutes you’re totally captured—it’s not only a matter of the film plunging you into a different world (and of course, you are fascinated by that). What I truly admired from the very beginning was the art of storytelling through images, through rhythm. What I found fascinating from the very beginning was the pacing. It’s a film that is extremely well edited and told throughout time and montage. It creates a time and a space through that. I haven’t been to Samoa [yet, at the time of interview], but my feeling is that the director was able to really connect with the ways, the time, and the life in the place that he was depicting.

So when I say the film is a plunge into a certain specific place and time, it’s that it manages to convey the atmosphere of the place—not just by showing you pictures so you feel immersed in it visually. Because of The Orator’s pace and sound design, it is extremely powerful. In terms of storytelling, I like the fact that this is a very simple story. We are talking about some very specific traditions, within the culture of the Samoan people, but at the same time it’s a tremendously universal story about dignity, respect, and love.

Ultimately The Orator is a film about gaining your confidence through the love of those who are beside you, and then to fight to show the love that you have for someone. I think despite the fact that it’s a slow film, it mirrors the lifestyle of this culture; it’s one that really captures audiences and moves them. I don’t know anybody who didn’t like the film eventually. The final confrontation, the final lines that the main character says about burying the one you love in your heart, it’s one of the most poetically beautiful, lyrical, and touching lines I’ve heard in recent cinema worldwide. I only wish that even more people had seen that film. It’s not only about showing the life in Samoa, bringing a new country to the map of world cinema; it’s really about humanity as well. It speaks to anybody, beyond borders of geography and culture. Going back to the contentious issue of exoticism, I think the film manages not to play that.

AB: I agree.

PB: The power of The Orator in that respect—let’s call it ‘ethnographic quality’—is that from the very beginning it takes for granted that we are there, that we are in Samoa, that we are amongst Samoan people, and there’s no need of explanation for the cultural practices that we see in the film. If the film was truly ‘exotic’, meaning that it would play for ‘exoticising itself’ and exoticising its characters, there would have been some degree of exploitation of this element in a sense that, “Oh look at this, look at this very different way of doing this or that, look at this ritual…” There’s never that kind of highlighting of cultural difference. Instead, they are presented all the time as normal. The scene when three or four big guys from the rugby team come to apologise to the little man—I think this is a very good example of how the director approached the issue of what is typically Samoan, and it’s totally understandable for local people, but needs to be decoded by foreigners.

“[The Orator] really captures audiences and moves them… The final confrontation, the final lines that the main character says about burying the one you love in your heart, it’s one of the most poetically beautiful, lyrical, and touching lines I’ve heard in recent cinema worldwide.”

AB: I spoke to a number of Samoan acquaintances of mine, they have little interest in arthouse cinema/film festivals. They all went to The Orator and loved it; thought it had their really specific Samoan sense of humour; didn’t highlight or exoticise it, or explain it, just showed it.

PB: That’s great.

AB: I’d recommend you visit Samoa.

PB: I’m actually going Friday! I’m staying four days. I’ve wanted to go since The Orator.

AB: Films like The Orator, films like Diaz’s, show that Jean-Luc Godard is wrong when he says, “the cinema is dead.” Venice last year had the new Manoel de Oliveira, too.

PB: I’m a big fan of Oliveira. He’s one of my favourite directors. He’s one of those directors who never stop surprising you. I don’t know how long we will still have him with us but he’s already given so much to cinema. I just wish that he had had more general recognition. At the same time, I have to be objective: his films are not for everyone. They are extremely talky, extremely literary. To most people they feel too theatrical. I wouldn’t agree on that.

AB: It must be exciting for you working for Venice, that the festival has that long association with him.

PB: Of course. Since 1990, Oliveira has been making one film a year, if not more. Because he’s such a hardcore arthouse director, his films have to be in festivals. That’s a part of the mission of festivals like Cannes and Venice, to create the event around a filmmaker like Oliveira, and give his films the right audience. Some Oliveira films are more obscure, more intellectually charged, than visually or narratively enveloping.

AB: What do you think about the Biennale as a whole?

PB: This year I left Italy for my travelling right at the time when there was the vernissage, so I haven’t been to see the art this year. What I can say is that very general assessment that the Biennale itself is the biggest cultural foundation in my home country and it’s the institution that oversees all the cultural events in Venice, including not only the festival but the art exhibition, the theatre festival, the architecture exhibition, the dance festival, so it’s a very important Italian institution.

AB: That’s something the Venice International Film festival has over other festivals—

PB: You think [that], because unfortunately there is not that much communication between the different sections of the Biennale.

AB: I’ve worked in the arts and cultural sector, I understand.

PB: Also because the festival and the other art exhibition are run in different ways. The director of the festival itself is appointed with a mandate of four years, whereas the artistic director of the Biennale of Arts is appointed on a one-off basis, they are so busy preparing the Biennale which is a huge endeavor. It would be nice if there was more of a osmotic process of direct flux both ways from visual arts and cinema, filmmakers that are commissioned to do visual installations in museums, galleries; visual artists entering the realm of cinema—

AB: Shame’s Steve McQueen, for instance.

PB: Venice has been featuring many of these artists long before Steve McQueen: Julian Schnabel; and, also a former winner of the Biennale of Arts, Shirin Neshat.

AB: I love Tokyo’s art galleries, like the Mori Art Museum. Which Japanese film festivals do you attend?

PB: Usually I go to the Tokyo International Film Festival, which is the main event in Japan. It’s quite unique in the fact that in the past six or seven years, it’s been featuring a green carpet, an environmentalist campaign where the festival is trying to use green energy. Mr. Yoda, the director of the festival (until this year), used to wear these very attention-grabbing green tuxedoes and green neckties. It’s undeniable that Busan has overshadowed Tokyo International Film Festival, because Busan is definitely the most important festival in Asia, and it’s happening just a few days before Tokyo. But still it’s a good festival. Last year especially there was a strong line-up.

AB: The Other Son, starring the terrific Emmanuelle Devos, won Best Film. I’m considering going this year for the first time because I still adore Japan and Japanese cinema.

PB: With all my interest and love for Korea, I will never deny that Japan has a far superior filmmaking culture, historically. Japan is one of the very biggest and most relevant filmmaking industries in the world. Historically, Japan is a treasure chest for people who are interested in cinema, because of the insular nature. For the longest time [Japan was] a country with a national industry that could sustain itself internally, so they developed their own ways. Sometimes with a creative freedom and a total wackiness that you don’t find anywhere else. There are few countries that can compare with Japan, in terms of the reaches that their cinematic heritage has.

Today, probably, it is not as strong as it was in the past, but it’s undeniable that Italy or France are not on par with their huge cinematic history. Still, whenever it comes to creativity, and breaking taboos, or venturing into territories that no body has previously chartered, the Japanese are quite one step ahead of others, and definitely one step ahead of Koreans. It’s undeniable that Japanese cinema is one of the great cinematic cultures in the world. Actually, I think even that guy Godard, at some point in a very dismissive statement, listed the countries of cinema: U.S., Russia, Italy, France, and Japan. Period.

AB: Hasn’t Berlusconi been a bad influence on the Italian film industry?

PB: I can put it like this. He’s been a bad influence; not himself directly, but through his outlets, because he owns television, production, distribution. The main problem in the creative process in Italian cinema for the past twenty years or so has been the dependency on television to raise the budget of films… Can you list me an Italian film in the recent year where you see a frontal nude man or a woman, either gender? We don’t have that! Think about some classic Italian films like Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, they could never be made today; they feature so much frontal nudity, that nobody would want to finance them here at this moment. This is because of television.

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© Daniel Rose 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at danielrose.co.nz.

Paolo Bertolin is the official Turkey, South-East Asia, and Pacific correspondent for the Venice International Film Festival. Brannavan Gnanalingam covered the festival for The Lumière Reader in 2012. Thanks to Alice May Connolly for transcription assistance on this article.


[1] At the time when Russia was experiencing a surge of Chechnyan terrorism, he made War, this terrible piece of propaganda, which was totally ridiculous and offensive toward the Chechen people. And ridiculous because the way he depicted the hero was almost a caricature, like Rambo. I don’t know how much that was intended—the character was pushed to degrees. For example there was this scene where he was carrying a Chechen prisoner who also was a betrayer because he would be a collaborator, but then he would turn his back on the hero who was carrying him to the top of this mountain, and of course the Chechen guy was very ugly and had a lot of clothes. The Russian guy who was climbing to the top of the mountain in the snow was bare-chested—we were up to that level, and now thinking about it, maybe it was meant to be that ridiculous. Anyway, the last film he made is really great.

[2] Because Venice’s main avenues are the canals, it’s a city on water. The streets inside between the small eyelets are very narrow. They are little alleys, so the waterways are the real streets in the city. The Canal Grande is the main avenue of the city so all the aristocrats mansions there. Palazzi, the main facade is actually the one on the canal, and you would actually enter from the canal—the main door is on the water. Canal Grande, which is the main avenue, was the showcase for all the rich aristocratic families to show off their riches. All the most beautiful views of all the different buildings of Venice are on the canal.