Pina Bausch, an art film

I’m sitting in my hotel at midnight in Berlin and compelled to write a brief review of PINA, Wim Wender’s (the man who made me sigh over angels and want to be a trapeze artist) new 3D film about the dancer, Pina Bausch.

PINA is categorized as a documentary but really it’s an art film. The film doesn’t have a narrative, not really… although it does through the stories Pina and her dancers are telling with their bodies. There is no call to action, no audience engagement, no narrative thread to follow – all the things I usually fret about.

But it is gorgeous, emotive, gripping, sometimes brutal and sometimes ecstatic. I didn’t know much about Pina Bausch (before: dancer, smoker, naked a lot; after: dancer, smoker, bit of a mad genius). This film is not a biopic. It is an homage.. or perhaps a deification of her work. I don’t know anything about Pina as a person and I really don’t care. It’s her story through her dances and her dancers and it is beautiful.

But those effing 3D glasses. When you watch YOGI BEAR or some going-native James Cameron story, the story may be entertaining but doesn’t deviate far from what we expect from the traditional Hollywood script. Most 3D work is either lighter and funnier or packed with explosions and racing around. None of these scenarios hold your full attention in a death grip. The glasses aren’t a big deal in those situations. In PINA, as the dancers build in intensity and speed, I’m unconsciously shoving my fist into my chest and holding my breath… and then the big, loose plastic glasses slip on my face so suddenly, I’m staring at half the screen and half of a big chunk of black plastic.

While the film looks great in 3D and I think it’s a wonderful use of the technology, it’s also a huge problem to have a technology that is in a lot of ways still pretty half-assed if it can so jarringly take your audience out of the emotional tension of a scene.

While the film is cool in 3D, as a filmmaker, I have trouble justifying making the audience hold a Viewmaster up to their faces for 2 hours. I’m not convinced it is worth the trade-off. I would have liked the film as much (minus the “oh! That looks cool!” factor on some shots) and I wouldn’t have been yanked out of the emotive apex of scenes.

That said, the movie is pretty damn amazing.


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Equal pay happened 40 years ago, in case you didn’t know.

I’ve had a pretty great week of watching women in films in positive roles. Last night I watched MADE IN DAGENHAM, the story of Rita O’Grady, the British woman we can thank for allowing us to (theoretically) be paid the same wages as men. It’s a film that came and went (A BBC production with Sallie Hawkins – two things that don’t exactly bring Americans flocking to the theaters, a huge loss in this case.) In a lot of ways, we’ve seen this story before. A woman inadvertently gets put in a position where she has the opportunity to stand up and say something – and once she realizes she can say it, she realizes she must say it. And keep saying it.

But the performances, costumes and art direction are amazing. Rosamund Pike as the dumb arm ornament of her successful Ford exec husband despite her PhD; the brilliantly dowdy Miranda Richardson as the government minister who hilariously browbeats the two male assistants who are always doubting her authority; Bob Hoskinsas the only man who doesn’t believe women are drooling morons or lucky when their husbands aren’t drunk and smacking ’em around; and, of course, the aforementioned Sallie Hawkins who is tremendous as Rita.

And fantastic tracking shots of everyone bicycling to work at the car production plant. That was when exercise was a routine part of the day before we all got fat.


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A Finnish Christmas Tale.

I spent 90 minutes of my holidays at the Music Box theater in Chicago watching a Finnish Christmas movie called RARE EXPORTS. The Santa legend takes on nefarious undertones as grizzled Finnish men snarl, “you better watch out,” and a little Bjork-faced boy pleads with his father to whip him for being naughty.

Let me just say that it was a pretty bad movie. Narratively, it made massive leaps in logic and plot. Here’s the inciting incident for example: Our hero, Bjork-Face (fine, his name is Pietari), believes in Santa til his older jerk friend, Juuso, tells him it’s a ruse. (Why you’d believe that kid is beyond me. He’s got a mullet and is wearing a metallic feather earring.) Once Juuso lets the cat out of the bag, Pietari magically finds old books with the true legend of Santa – and they were in his house the whole time!

If I pull one thread, the whole film unravels.

The premise is that Santa was actually a bad-ass who terrorized the land. Pietari’s books show Santa skinning kids alive, boiling them in oil, that sort of stuff. So eons ago the Sami people lured him on to a frozen lake where he fell through and became a gigantic ice cube. Then they pulled the ice cubed Santa out, packed him in sawdust and built a mountain around him… until a greedy American realized what was in the mountain! Chaos ensues.

So the defrosting effort gets underway and suddenly a crazy-eyed, naked, bearded old geezer shows up at Pietari’s house. The dumb adults think he’s one of the American miners who have been excavating that mountain. Oh, and all the other village children disappear but no cause for concern if you’re Finnish. All the parents think they’re out trapping wolves and chasing girls. They’ll be back. Only Pietari realized that naked dude is Santa.

Or is it?

Turns out that’s an elf. Santa is still frozen solid in a shed, nothing but a giant set of horns protruding from the mammoth ice block. Santa must be a 60 foot killer under that fake ice. What I found funniest in this whole film is that so many decisions were based on a minuscule budget. I know because I’ve made plenty of these decisions.

Director: Can I have a techno-crane?

Me: No, we can’t afford it. You can have 2 grips and a ladder.

(Bit of a spoiler alert here.) Santa is never defrosted, they just blow him up inside the ice block. And they only had to spend money on a giant set of protruding horns. They did, however, spend a lot of their budget on some truly horrible CGI – done by a company called FAKE! Really? I wouldn’t have guessed.

The best (worst) CGI part may have been at one point it looks like about 300 naked “elves” are chasing Pietari on a helicopter that is carrying a giant net containing all of the town’s children in burlap sacks. Pietari is barely holding on to the net that is supposed to be hundreds of feet in the air, shouting Rambo-like dialog into a walkie-talkie. And all you see on the ground are a bunch of wizened old naked Scandi guys running through the snow. In my head, I was the producer calling the casting agency and the exchange went like this:

Me: I need to cast a few dozen old white guys with beards.

Agent: What are they doing?

Me: Just running. In the snow. At night. In Finland.

Agent: OK.

Me: Oh, they’ll be naked. But we’re paying scale.

Agent: I can have you some headshots by Tuesday.

And that is why I love making movies. Happy 2011.

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Shooting a Chicken is Hard Work.

Over Christmas, I gave my 9 year old niece my Flipcam and asked her to film a message to send to her aunt & uncle in Alaska.

This clip may or may not be a budding documentary filmmaker, but my favorite part is her immediate recognition that she’s set out a hard task for herself. She simultaneously tries to feed her chickens, get them to look at the camera, and steady the camera to get a good shot of said chickens. “It’s hard to do this.”

Yes, it is. The equipment might be cheaper and smaller but a story is still a story. And getting it is hard work. Even a 9 year old can see that.

At least Grandpa stands still. (The chicken-frying is just filmmaking serendipity.)

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Back to the Real World … via Awful Airplane Movies.

Ah, what a way to enter back into the real world. After a week of watching mostly great – or at least intellectually provoking – documentaries, it’s EAT PRAY LOVE on the airplane.

Is there a worse, more insulting, 1950s-era movie for women that came out this year? Not that I had the misfortune of seeing.

I read the book a couple of years ago when I was staying with a friend and found it sitting on her bookshelf. (Like that disclaimer? I didn’t buy this self-help, love-me nonsense! And yet, I read it.)

I found the book annoying, a privileged yet dissatisfied American life filled with a general whiny malaise. Although I must admit to later loving Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity and the nature of genius.

But the movie trumped all that vague irritation with the book. The formulaic and jaw-droppingly sexist script stoked it to a white-hot annoyance on the plane. And I had no leg room so I was primed to be crabby.

The screenplay went right for the A Woman Needs a Man to Be Happy and Fulfilled storyline. Yes, yes, the Julia Roberts character leaves her husband because she’s unhappy. Yes, yes, she pulls herself out of a relationship with the smug James Franco and decides to go on this journey of self-exploration. She’s always lost herself to a man since she was a teenager but now she’s going to get to know herself. The movie is practically smirking at the idea of a woman “finding herself.” To do so, you just need to eat a lot and not care. Then you can get yourself fat jeans. And doesn’t Julia Roberts look like a stuffed sausage in those size 2s. What a heifer.

But don’t fret, movie-goer! She ends up in love. And not with just any ol’ man, no, no. With Javier Bardem, a man who does smouldering so good it should be illegal.

She goes to Italy, India and Bali to Discover Something about herself. In the book, at least, she sort of does do that. But in the film? She goes to wallow in what she doesn’t have. It’s lots of longing glances at couples in Rome, lingering close ups as other women lovingly stroke other men. Film Elizabeth is always acutely aware of what she is lacking (that would be a husband and babies). And when she’s not fixated on it, old Italian or Balinese women remind her. Where is this getting in touch with herself? Maybe a little self-reflection on the nature of personal responsibility? Or a little intellectual curiosity about the world around you that might make one realize “I have it pretty good”? For chrissakes, they don’t even show a shot of her WRITING! (Except to send a break-up email to James Franco.)

Just to drive the message totally home, in case you’re too obtuse to get it, there’s an insulting dinner toast as she and her Italian friends make a real Thanksgiving dinner. “What are you thankful for?” she asks. One woman thanks her boyfriend for “security.” And Julia Roberts thanks the men at the table for “taking care of their women.” Yes, thank you. How would I take care of myself without you? I didn’t realize the Promise-Keepers wrote this movie.

By the time Film Elizabeth gets to India and Bali, her spiritual searchings revolve around romantic love. Who will love me? Why didn’t I love my husband? And a lot of other internal anguishing. Nothing about the arranged marriage of a teenage girl she befriends in India except to imagine herself at her own wedding. Nothing about the poverty she sees all around her. When, near the end, she finally – finally! – does a good deed for a Balinese woman and her child, you’d think we’re supposed to stand up and applaud this woman’s largess. All I could think was, “Took you long enough!”

Film Elizabeth has one focus and it is all on herself, reinforced by every other character in the film telling her how splendid she is. When she jokes about the shallowness of going to see a Balinese medicine man to ask him about her love life, we’re supposed to chuckle along with her at her own vapidity.

Ha. Women.

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Am I the only one who still likes watching movies?

I think I might be a dinosaur. I was one of the few people who went to IDFA to actually watch movies. I met a lot of people who came for the Forum, the pitches, the master classes, the new media info, the hobnobbing and networking – all of which is great – but many of those people weren’t even interested in watching the movies in the festival.

Last week, Brian Newman of Springboard media posted a blog asking (demanding) filmmakers stop making long format work. Let it have impact, he said, in 3 minute segments posted online and downloadable to our mobile devices. While I get what he’s saying in terms of pushing filmmakers to utilize a different method(s) of storytelling, most of the films I saw wouldn’t have had the same impact if they were told in 3 minute bites. Maybe I’d see all the segments, maybe I’d miss one here and there. But I definitely would have lost the momentum of their storytelling.

But, more to the point, I LIKE sitting in a movie theater and watching something. I like a good body of work demanding my attention for – gasp! – 100 whole minutes while I don’t check my email or text someone about a shoot. Admittedly, I don’t get to watch enough, which is why I wanted to go to IDFA in the first place. I wanted to sit still for a week and just take in the work that my colleagues are creating. I don’t want people to stop making films. And I most certainly do not want all of our storytelling abilities to get squashed down to some easily digestible chicken nugget size.

Do I want fewer crappy films out there? Yes. Do I want people to pay attention to craft, to learn something about filmmaking (and running sound, for the love of god, people) before buying a 5D at Best Buy and believing this gives them the power to make a movie? Hell yes.

But do I want people to stop trying? To not make it if it’s not perfect? That sounds absolutely boring. No.

I saw some delightful and insightful work from filmmakers at IDFA. It was exciting to go into a theater and sit there thinking “this is the first screening of this film in the world. It could suck… but it could be great.”

The rest of my year, film is commerce. For one week, I enjoyed hustling from one theater to the next, racking up 4 or 5 movies a day, learning about other oddball human beings and their perspectives on marriage, war, ideas of nation and freedom, reconstructions of history, capitalism, politics, and pigs (the porcine kind, not the political kind.) But discussions with most other festival-goers were more about who was there, who was pitching, who got picked up.

So I sat in many half-full movie theaters, ignoring the melee in the tent and at the bar. I went to watch movies because I believe many have something to say and I wanted to listen. And it was awesome.

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Longing, Breathing, Remembering.

Another film by Finnish director, Pirjo Honkasalo, 3 ROOMS OF MELANCHOLIA is nothing short of amazing. (Released in 2005, but a stunning piece of work that I’d never seen before).

The documentary opens on a graphic: ROOM 1 – Longing. Then, a fortress on the island Kronstadt northwest of St. Petersburg, holding down its tiny place in the vast and icy Baltic Sea. Young Russian boys, around 10 years old, run through a cold courtyard before the sun has yet come up at this military academy. Following drill sergeants barking commands, they use their scrawny limbs to pull themselves up on a chin-up bar, their knobbly knees jut high into the air in a syncopated frenzy.

I sat in the theater trying to figure out why these kids were there and who the hell thought it was OK to run 10 year olds as if they’re adults. A woman’s voice begins introducing us to a few of the boys, one by one. None of the stories are good ones. One boy was abandoned, found in a garbage can, and brought to the school; another’s father is a mercenary so, when his mother died, he wound up at the military academy. Every boy we meet is orphaned or from severe poverty. Many of the boys’ parents died fighting for Russia in a battle or skirmish so the boys essentially become their replacements.

Honkasalo’s close ups of their wide-eyed, sometimes sleepy, and eager to please faces are startling. The boys, particularly in target practice, waver between childhood and manhood. Some are nervous and tetchy with their guns while others are relaxed, enjoying it. She spends a good deal of worthwhile time on their faces, allowing us to study the complex emotions that flit across them. As a filmmaker, I found myself wondering, “how did she film them while they were so unaware? Where was her camera? How long was her lens?” Of course, you can always cut out people glancing at the camera but we see their faces for long stretches of time. They’re so engrossed in their training, the camera is forgotten.

At one point, the boys are watching state news. The images show an empty theater after Russians foiled a Chechen terrorist attack. Dead Chechen women, undetonated explosive strapped to their bodies, slump in the red velvet seats. I felt myself thinking, “They’re 10. They shouldn’t see this.” But this is part of their training, what they are going forth to do and who they are going forth to kill.

Near the end of Room 1, the boys who still have homes and families are allowed a home visit. I thought I understood the longing of room one: it is for childhood, for parents, for security. It broke my heart to watch these tough faces beg their parents on the phone to pick them up, to let them visit, to reassure them that the dog won’t bark at them when they come back home. This is one part of the longing but she reveals more.

One boy, Sergei, who had both parents killed in Grozny, Chechnya heads home to visit his grandmother. He suffers a lot of abuse at the academy because other boys believe he is Chechen, which is to be regarded as a wild animal in Russia. Sergei is convinced that he is Russian and his fealty lies with it. The first room ends on Sergei explaining that he already knows war and death. He’s eager to be a soldier. He longs to kill bad people. That will be his life.

ROOM 2 – Breathing. It opens in Grozny, Chechnya. The streets are deserted, save for dogs. A lot of dogs. Amidst the rubble and chaos, the dogs look at the camera with bewildered expressions. There’s no food, no water, nothing but earth, shrapnel and concrete rubble. Then we see the people. Small boys clamber over the rubble with toy guns, shooting at each other. A woman has rigged a pulley to the outside of a barely standing concrete housing complex. She and her daughter carefully pull up buckets of water.

We then meet Hadizat, a woman who gathers up the children of Chechnya and smuggles them out to relative safety in neighboring Ingushetia. She has come to fetch 3 small children from their dying mother. The scene is so horrible, it’s painful to watch. Hadizat tries to reassure the children that their mother will visit once she is better. The 3 kids, all under the age of 5, know perfectly well that they are saying goodbye to their mother forever and sob hysterically.

The content of Room 2 is almost blinding in its intensity. But there is one thing I intensely disliked about Room 2 – it’s in black and white. And it looks to me like she shot it in color but then pulled it all out in post (an effect that particularly grates on me because you can tell the film images are meant to have color). But mainly I don’t like it because it’s distracting to have it in black and white. It reminds me that it’s a film, that it is some sort of Art. It makes what is going on in Grozny less real to me.

ROOM 3 – Remembering. Hadizat gets the children out of Grozny and brings them to a small refugee camp in Ingushetia. We meet some of the other children in the house as the same voice over from Room 1 explains how they got there. One girl, now 17, was raped by Russian soldiers at the age of 12. The fetus was aborted at 7 months. Another boy, Aslan, lost his father in a bombing. His mother was driven mad by the daily raids, the planes, the bombings. She tried to throw him off of a 9th floor balcony.

Aslan is also about 10 years old. He watches the planes flying overhead and the far-off smoke plumes from Grozny with a terrifying comprehension in his eyes. Unlike the boys at the academy who are being trained to fight and to hate, Aslan is already full of on-the-ground training. He will fight and kill – or be killed – by our young boys from the military academy.

The children sit around a TV in the small house, watching the same news report about the Chechen terrorist bombing in the theater that we saw in Room 1. But these young faces stare at the dead, blindfolded, explosives-laden women with grief. These are their mothers.

Honkasalo’s film brings us full circle, an unbreakable circle of violence and death.

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El Bulli: The Best Chemistry Experiment in the World

Don’t know if you want to watch a film about molecular gastronomical cooking? Here’s a test:

Three Spaniards laboriously debate over the sweet potato. Can you extract the best flavor through baking, frying, freeze-drying, pressure cooking, sous vide vacuumizing or juicing it raw? EL BULLI: COOKING IN PROGRESS (Gereon Wetzel) spends the first several minutes following the chefs as they explore this question. Sound so dull you want to bang your head against the wall? Perhaps this is not the film for you. Sound so fascinating you dragged your jetlagged sister out of bed at 8am and made her stand in line for 45 minutes to get a ticket with you? Sit back to enjoy 108 minutes of wonder!

The documentary is strictly observational, a mixture of awe and fear of three-star, world renowned chef Ferran Adria. Ferran’s restaurant, El Bulli, (2009 Best Restaurant in the World) is open six months out of the year, May-October. Then the Mad Scientist/Chefs (all men, of course. We don’t see a woman in this kitchen til the wait staff arrives…) close up shop, pack up everything and move it back to their kitchen/lab in Barcelona where experiments are conducted all winter. Ferran doesn’t do any heavy lifting. In fact, he’s conspicuously absent for the first several experiments in the kitchen. His staff of chefs fuss, fret, brainstorm and document every single test. They photograph each experiment – good or dreadful – and then into the excel spreadsheet it goes, along with meticulous notes. It’s then printed out and stored in a binder. And in a backup binder. It isn’t until there is a tiny spoonful of something potentially magical that Ferran swoops in and offers a brief, never-challenged verdict.

It would have been nice to get to know Ferran, the creative ingenuity behind El Bulli. He feels both elusive and deified by his staff and the filmmakers. This god-like mystique does make for some very funny moments, though. His staff (and the audience) wait on tenterhooks as he gently spoons a bit of nut oil with a shaving of freeze-dried Caesar mushroom into his mouth. Will he love it? Or will he say something cutting to the chef?

“Did you taste this? It’s bad. Don’t serve me something bad.” Ouch.

There’s a hilarious scene where two chefs, Oriol and Eduardo, purchase 5 grapes (yep, 5) at the market. The vendor scolds them but they protest – “we don’t need a kilo! Just 5 until we figure out what we’re doing.” They then point out that it goes with the 3 beans they’ve already purchased. Their goal is to extract maximum flavor from a single object. Hence the sweet potato exploration.

El Bulli’s food is a Work of Art. Near the end of the film, Ferran tells his new staff that customers don’t come to eat food and walk away saying, “that was delicious.” No. They come to an avant-garde restaurant to be excited, amazed, bewildered. To put something in their mouths and say, “Killer!” And I loved that meticulousness both from the El Bulli chefs as well as from the filmmakers.

But this was essentially a film about art and the artist. I felt like I understood the magic, the science and the sleight of hand that makes the art. The filmmakers did a great job of lifting that veil. A bit disappointing, though, that not more was revealed about what makes this particular artist tick. I wanted to see Ferran Adria as a normal human being.

Maybe I wanted to see him, not daintily eating fresh pressed olive oil with dried tangerines and ice chips, so much as I wanted to see him eating a jelly doughnut.


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Estonia Centuries Ago

As I sat watching MYSTERION, Pirjo Honkasalo’s documentary about a convent in northern Estonia, the flicker of actual film stock as well as the timeless faces and garb of the nuns convinced me that it must have been shot in the 1970s. (1991, actually). Although sometimes I would get sidetracked and have the absurd fleeting thought, “no, 14th century.” Rather like Frederick Wiseman, Pirjo Honkasalo, a female Finnish documentary filmmaker honored at this year’s IDFA festival, lets events unfold before her camera. And it’s enchanting.

Many scenes at the convent let daily life happen without commentary or exposition: planting peas in the summer, shearing sheep in the summer, sawing through and loading up 2 foot slabs of ice in the howling, bitter Estonian winter. The women are all cloaked in the black habits and headgear, (more abayas than wimples)swaddled so tightly about their faces that only hairline to cheekbones to chin are visible. The soundtrack, the women singing hymns in church, knits the scenes together with an otherworldly quality. The film is complex as well as beautiful – there’s a mine nearby pumping pollution and sludge into the river near the farm where the convent grows and raises food for its existence. The Russian Orthodox priests come in, decked in gold-embroidered finery and insane pumpkin-shaped hats. It is a quiet, slow and magical piece of filmmaking.

But it is the women themselves who are the focus. Mother Georgia, the Hegumenia of the order, escaped the Siege of Leningrad at the age of 9, although she lost her parents and her 2 sisters along the way. Sister Naellia, a seamstress from the Ukraine, gives up her free will to God and becomes Mother Victoria. But it left me wondering about that sacrifice. The alternative to the life she chose appears to be that of her sister, who married a drunk who beats her. At least Naellia chose how and where to relinquish her will.

The film ends with an ocean of small bobbing lanterns floating outside the church in the waning light. One of the nuns says that “the death of a nun is a joyous thing.” Surrounded by people who care for you and help you on your way, I’m sure it must be.

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Tito’s Yugoslavia

For me, the most exciting thing about a film festival is the unknown. Amazing story or wretched trainwreck? No one knows because no one has seen most of these! If there’s a gap in the day, I will pick something to fill it. So today I could have taken a break or powered through to film #3 by 2pm. Obviously, I slammed a coffee and went to see CINEMA KOMUNISTO. Very lucky for me. It’s a thoroughly and exhaustively researched film about Josip Broz “Tito,” ruler of the former Yugoslavia from the 1940s until his death in 1980, and his passion for movies. Tito recognized the power of cinema to sculpt an identity and project an image. Of a people, a history, a nation. Tito left a cinematic history of a country that never really existed, sort of like the false image you’d get of America if you only watched John Wayne films.

Filmmaker Mila Turajlic spent 5 years researching archival films to put the doc together and it shows. Not in a dry Ken Burns sort of way either. The archival footage is so alive because she waded through an overwhelming amount of it. Filmmakers surrounding Tito shot EVERYTHING. Morning coffee. Watching films with his projectionist, Leka. Hanging with Mrs. Tito. And, better yet, Turajlic also found behind the scenes footage of the prominent directors, ADs, production designers and film stars. She then did present-day interviews with them, concretely linked it to their archival materials, and when possible shot them in the same (now crumbling and decrepit) environs. She and her editor, Aleksandra Milovanovic, then used these to do lovely leaps in time from past to present.

I also learned all of these cool bits of history: Once convinced a filmmaker was telling a story that Tito thought was important, he’d let them do anything. They once blew up a bridge in Jablanica, Bosnia – which is still lying in the river! And Pablo Picasso designed a film poster for “Battle of Neretva.”

The audience first meets Yugoslavia as Stalin gets the boot and is then introduced to Tito’s carefully crafted, successful and abundant cinema-Yugoslavia. Once he dies, it all unravels. Both the real Yugoslavia and his celluloid one.

Mila and Aleksandra finished the film four days ago and I had the immense pleasure of being in the first audience to see it. It’s an incredible piece of historical documentary filmmaking that is also an engaging and fascinating story.

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