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Interviews

A Different "Elvis & Madona" Hits the Fest Circuit

Among the films seen during the 8th Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil in June -- and earlier at the Tribeca Film Fest -- was Elvis & Madona, an off-beat, low-budget, sort-of-romantic comedy that's timely in a special way. Like the recent GayPride celebrations and the-soon-to-be-released The Kids Are All Right, it envisions an alternative family set up, Brazilian style. Enhanced by a serious social message, with a lathering of soap (think telenovela rather than Almodovar), Elvis & Madona is more than a broad domestic rom-com.

Though promoted as a comedy with its share of quirks, the film, starring Igor Cotrim and Simone Spoladore, stirred controversial reactions from some members of the gay and lesbian crowd and garnered a few critical razzes as well.
Director Marcelo Laffitte and Star Igor Cotrim [photo: B. Balfour]
Written and directed by straight director Marcelo Laffitte, the film lightheartedly posits an enduring romance between a transvestite-maybe-transsexual hairdresser and his young bi-sexual lover who gets knocked up -- and shacks up -- while struggling with his entertainment career. Success would mean an end to their financial troubles and the start of a functional family.

Set in the vibrant Copacabana district of Rio de Janiero, Elvis and Madona's unlikely love help them chase dreams, face down the obstacles that arise along the way and fulfill Madona's plans for a spectacular drag show that redeems everyone.

At audience Q&As, the film prompted a mix of contention and praise for its unique sexual stance. Though Laffitte was bothered that so many descriptions of the movie presented Madona as a drag performer, he pointed out that Brazilians would consider Madona a transvestite, not a drag queen -- though it wasn't clear if the director would distinguish between transvestite and trannie.

Through the haze of a terrible interpreter and some prickly journalists, Laffitte tried to set the record during a small roundtable held in May.

Q: So what prompted you to make this as your first feature film?

ML: This film had been [brewing] in me for a long time. I came out of doing documentaries; I even used to be the president of the Association of Documentary Filmmakers, but I also did four shorts before Elvis & Madona. Though my name is so strongly associated with being a documentary filmmaker, for seven years I have been doing fiction films. I did the four fiction shorts because I thought it was important before I did this feature film because all the learning I acquired.

Q: But why this theme?

ML: I wrote the script for Elvis & Madona a long time ago, in 2001, when I did my first short film. That’s when it came to me. I had been to a show with a transvestite and there was this story about a transvestite that had left his hometown as a man and years later comes back and he's a [drag queen]. His father had remarried and he falls in love with the daughter of his father's new wife and he’s madly in love. That's how I [got the idea] for Elvis & Madona back then.

At first, my idea was to get a real transvestite/transsexual to do this, but then it was like where is the right one? I was searching and it was in the air but 10 days before the date when I had to have someone cast as Madona I was introduced to Igor [Cotrim] by a common friend, and there you go.

Q: The chemistry between Elvis and Madona is the whole fabric of the film. Was the audition Madona and Elvisprocess complicated?

ML: It was of no use to find the ideal Elvis or ideal Madona if there was no chemistry between them. At the end of the day, it had to be Elvis and Madona. They go together.

Q: So this has been a long process?

ML: It's taken 10 years to make this movie. This is a movie of a lot of struggle and making dreams come true. And in a way, the film also talks about this: people trying to find and realize their dream.

Q: So whom is this movie made for? Is it for heterosexuals to enjoy lifestyles of people they may not understand?

ML: It's [trying to] reach for this social inclusion. And yes, there is this tendency in society to look at this issue and bring about the need for the social inclusion.

Q: Though many people feel they're born a homosexual or a lesbian, it does not mean that they're incapable of having sex with the opposite sex, and yet your comedy is about how that can happen. But in the eyes of some viewers, it could be seen as though you're saying, "Oh, they just have to find the right opposite sex person to balance them out."

ML: My gay and lesbian friends in Brazil love the movie because they feel that it shows it as normal. The way it’s treated, the way it’s shown, it’s like everything is normal. Not only in Brazil, in Melbourne too, where the film has been seen, the gay and lesbian communities, and friends, they all liked it because they like how the normality, how the issue is approached. But in Sao Paulo, one lesbian came to say, "You are homophobic! Because at the end of the day what you’re saying is that a man can only be happy with a woman."

Q: You were confronted by someone who is offended by the film, she's making a serious critique. Without sloughing it off, how do you as an artist and filmmaker -- trying to do something serious in this movie -- reflect upon that kind of criticism?

ML: Maybe this person didn't really get the idea of the film. Or maybe even she didn’t even get the idea of herself. If 99 percent of the people got it or enjoyed it and 1 percent was offended and hurt by it, there's something being said right there.

The one thing that is the mission of this film, and my mission as an artist who created it, is that it's bringing about the debate, the issue to be approached. My mission as an artist is not to create the truth, a truth that he doesn’t even have himself, but just being able to bring the issues up to the discussion table and have people face it.

Obviously Madona's tale is like a fable, that maybe in real life you’re not going to find a story like this, but maybe there will be a story like it. So it's like a reference.

From Torino to Brooklyn comes BIFF Director Marco Ursino

The Brooklyn International Film Festival (June 4 to 13, 2010) was established in 1998 as the first international competitive film festival in New York City. Ever since, its goal has been to connect filmmakers with distribution companies and to give first- or second-time filmmakers exposure to the public and the media. No films are accepted that already have a U.S. distributor.

As Executive Director Marco Ursino explained, year one was a three-day affair that only attracted 150 submissions. Recalling his path to BIFF, the Torino, Italy native talked about his early dreams of being a filmmaker, which were felled by industry nepotism; none of his family was involved.

In 1988 he came to New York on a supposed vacation, not speaking a word of English, and found himself living in the then-Williamsburg of cheap rents, warehouse artists and filmmakers. The film he ended up making “went nowhere,” he said, but he conceived of the Festival to promote it and the work of other Brooklyn filmmakers. The rest, as they say, is history.

Ursino spoke about about independent film, Brooklyn and the Festival, then and now.

Q: I must of course ask—why Stunt
as the theme of this year's festival?

MU:  We live in the times of political, social and economic stunts. Filmmaking is a stunt. The festival itself is a stunt: a rehearsed, organized move with a percentage of risk. More and more we are moving towards films that are controlled by sponsors, by the people with the money. But independent film is one of the best checks on that trend. The works are...a collaboration between the filmmaker and community and friends, a labor of love.
 

Q: Which films were you particularly proud to include?

MU: Gabi on the Roof in July, The Prospects, Ten Stories Tall. Why? Because they are local films that can compete with our international lineup; they have a very specific and unique flavor.
  


Q: Iraqi filmmaker Jafar Panahi was supposed to be a Cannes jurist, but was detained prior to the festival for his film work and political views. Do you specifically seek films from filmmakers whose countries censure their art?

MU: Touching upon the most controversial issues of the year has always been our trademark and drive. We like very much to bring forward political topics, to give those filmmakers a voice in the festival.

Q: Obviously the economy has impacted many businesses, especially the arts, but what are the particular challenges for film festivals in 2010? How do you attract crowds?

MU: I don't know if I would start a film festival in 2010, but for a 13-year fest like ours, it has been a great year so far at all levels. Great movies, strong sponsors, competent staff, a truly reliable team of volunteers and more general interest than ever before.
 


Q: Although there has been a lot of gloom and doom about where the industry is going, box office sales are consistently higher than revenue from pay-per-view and DVD movies. Can anything replace sitting in the dark with strangers in the cavernous darkness, the big screen experience?

MU: I still believe in the magic of a dark room shared with friends or strangers. And I like the big screen (if the projection is at its best) together with a real sound system to enhance the experience.
 
Q: There is a paucity of celebrities at the festival. Is this deliberate or just a lack of involvement from locals such as Gabriel Byrne, Paul Giamatti, or Steve Buscemi?

MU: No, we welcome anyone and everyone to come to the Festival, but we don’t want it to be a Tribeca. We want the unknowns, the filmmakers, to speak and hold the discussions. Funny you mention though -- David Byrne was first celebrity who attended our Festival, in 1998.

Q: How do you compare the Festival and Williamsburg in their early days with the crazy boom that has gone on in Brooklyn over the past few years?

MU:  What we envisioned years ago was to draw attention to Brooklyn as a center for the arts, and through filmmaking, to create a clear stamp of what living in Brooklyn is. It has a real identity, a freshness. There was a moment when it came for cheap and was full of painters, sculptors, film people.

Q: Does that mean you’ll have to start looking in other non-hipster neighborhoods for the next wave of filmmakers?

MU: Yes, maybe we did too good of a job promoting the arts in Brooklyn. (Williamsburg's) Kent Avenue looks like Miami Beach now. But you can’t stop progress. And with the economy, some people have actually been crossing back over the river for cheaper rents, so who knows? Maybe we’ll be looking for the next wave in Bushwick.

Q: Speaking of Kent Avenue, why was indieScreen added as a Festival venue?

MU: indieScreen will eventually become the permanent home of BIFF; it was built with that intention. The Festival was originally held in Williamsburg and was the Williamsburg/Brooklyn Film Festival. We want to appeal to two distinct populations: the younger art crowd that hangs in the area and the more mixed crowd in Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens.

But as I said, BIFF was born in Williamsburg, and we had our first three years of the Festival here. I say here because our offices were and still are in Williamsburg. We love the crowd.


Exclusive Interview: Antonio Banderas, Classic Spanish Cinema and His Future

While the stylish and ever-charming Spanish actor Antonio Banderas may be running off to promote to his latest Hollywood excursion, Shrek Forever After -- again voicing the hilarious re-invention of Puss in Boots: "I have to do my duty," he says -- his latest passion has been curating a free film series "Realism in Spanish Cinema 1951 - 1963" at Manhattan's Spanish culture center, The Cervantes Institute (211 East 49th Street).

Banderas, who serves on the Cervantes advisory board, conceived the idea for the program, and was on hand for its first two nights -- at the screenings of José Antonio Nieves Conde's Furrows/Surcos and Luis García Berlanga's Welcome Mr. Marshall!/Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! Spanning an especially tough chapter in the post-WWII fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the 10-movie set, running from May 10th - 19th, 2010, is comprised of classic works selected for their artistic and historical merit.

Evita, The Mask of Zorro, Desperado and other hits catapulted Banderas to Hollywood royalty. Though his celebrity has overshadowed his eclectic interests, they are at this 49-year-old actor's core -- something amply demonstrated when he was nominated for Broadway's 2003 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical thanks to his star turn in Nine The Musical.

Yet his early collaboration with director Pedro Almadóvar, including on the Oscar-nominated Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, established him as a symbol of Spain's post-Franco counter-cultural movement, the Movida.

Again, the handsome actor's voice animates the digitally generated Puss in Boots, one of the lead characters in the Shrek series. Shrek Forever After, the supposed finale, adds a further layer of kid/adult irony to it's humorous telling of

As Banderas explains in this exclusive interview, his versatility is re-confirmed in curating this series.

Q: This is a fascinating opportunity for you to look back at the history of Spanish cinema and explore it in various ways.

AB: Absolutely. But the interesting thing for me is not only in a personal way -- because I knew these movies -- it's the possibility of showing these movies. When I came to America for the first time, it was a surprise for me that very little was known about the Spanish Neo-Realist period of movies.

People knew about Italy and about France, but very little about Spain. So when Eduardo Lago got this crazy of idea of [adding me to] the Cervantes Institute, I thought, hmm, I have to [lend] some value to this title that they gave me.

It shouldn't just be my name on the programs and just my picture to bring people here; it was not enough. So I had this idea that he actually picked enthusiastically. We got in contact with [Carmelo Romero], the president of the Festival of Spanish Cinema in Malaga -- which is actually my hometown -- and a person that I met when I came to New York for the first time in 1984 presenting our movies at the time.

So it was a great opportunity and a framework because it's not just to bring movies in exhibition in big movie theaters, but it's in a very specific environment, the environment of the Cervantes Institute in New York, with the idea that actually this cycle can go all around the world.

There are 73 Cervantes Institutes all around the world; in [places like] Shanghai, Tokyo,  and in different places in the United States like San Francisco and Miami. With these movies people are going to recognize links that they can see now in filmmakers that are making movies in Spain, like Pedro Almodovar and Julio Medem.

The beginning of that was there in these earlier filmmakers. They're actually like the missing links that will make sense for [cineastes or directors] if they've been following Spanish movies to see this. At the same time, they can recognize different times in the history of my country.
 
Q: When they did this year's Spanish Cinema Now series at Lincoln Center, I realized people don't know much about that lost period when Franco was the dictator. It's little known outside of Spain that there was all this cinema being made at that time.
 
AB: Absolutely.
 
Q: Filmmakers were trying to react or respond even while they were being repressed; they had to work around it. This series makes a link between the cultural experience and the conflict, and offers us a chance to understand it. Would you agree?
 
AB: It's a picture, almost like an x-ray, not only of Spanish art in general, but of a political period in the history of Spain. The need, the cruelty, of what it was behind the Franco regime and the imposition of religion and other cultural stuff; that has to be known.

At the same time, the way that actually filmmakers at the time got to go around censorship in order to just go with an idea, they do it sometimes through comedy, black comedy; they have to hide. I saw a movie this morning which I've seen a couple of times before, but today I wanted to just refresh, and I saw Death of a Biker / Muerte de un ciclista. It's unbelievable because there is a moment in which you lose eight minutes of the movie, and you can see the jump in the movie. It was totally eliminated.
 
Q: Was that the censors?
 
AB: Oh absolutely. These guys came with scissors and mercilessly cut eight minutes out of the movie. So I think it's important for the people, if they really are interested in the Spanish cinema to see these, because it's almost like a ladder in which they took steps out.

It's very difficult to recognize what is happening now if you don't go back a little bit and have the sight of these guys that were making movies with a lot of imagination, against the dictatorship, without them knowing that they were criticizing them.
 
Q: What did you learn about yourself as a Spanish person who has lived in the United States -- and not as an exile -- but for creative reasons? You don't always get an opportunity to look at it on an intimate basis.

 
AB: It's very difficult because for me I get to almost an emotional place. It's of recognition of my own country that sometimes makes me cry. When I see Welcome Mister Marshall /Bienvenido Mr. Marshall!, I see this little village waiting for the Americans to come and fix the whole entire situation with the Marshall Plan. And they prepare during the entire movie for that to happen. Then the cars cross in front of them and they never stop. It makes me cry because this is a story of my country.

I can see my father and my mother reflected there. I can see something that has to do with your genes -- and at the same time a certain gratitude that we were able to overcome without a bloody revolution after Franco died, that there was a pass of power that made sense in an evolution, not a revolution.

So it makes me reflect about my own persona, about my own community. For me it's unbelievably interesting just to see how the Americans are going to react to that, because at the same time in Welcome Mister Marshall, you see people giving opinions, sometimes outstanding opinions, of the Americans that are [supposedly] going to come.

They talk about the Americans, how the Americans were seen in the 1950s and 1960s, and I just can't wait to see the faces of people [in this day and age] when we play Welcome Mister Marshall!

This movie speaks for itself, it is one of my favorites in the Spanish cinematography but I believe that it is very interesting to be showed in the USA.

For me, it was particularly important to show this movie because I have lived both realities, the Spanish one and the American one. They get mixed here in a very interesting way. The USA was like Santa Claus in this movie, the past of poverty that is portrayed in this movie as if it was a fairy tale.

There are two points of view that I would like that you pay attention to in this movie: the view of the priest and the view of the hidalgo [the old aristocrat]. The hidalgo says that Spain was a country that used to be big and the conqueror of the world. Some of the visions of the priest are even racist, but you don't have to forget that Luis Garcia Berlanga was criticizing these kind of ideas through these characters.
 
I believe this is the 15th time I've watched this movie, but I never get tired because it's really very funny and I even cry a bit. These movies are going to travel around the world via Instituto Cervantes.

Q: When you see the first film, Furrows/Surcos, back to back with this one, you get a two-sided look at Spain of that time, during the Franco regime -- the dark side and the comic one.

AB: The two movies showed the mood of the time, how the people survived and chronicled the society without judgement. The country was destroyed after the revolution, and though Hitler tried to pressure Franco into joining the war, all the country wanted to do was survive without money and over a million dead.

I admire this group of filmmakers because they were brave enough to face the Franco regime, but they had to do it using only their imagination. You needed to be very smart to avoid censorship, and they did it using irony and dark humor, but also by creating scenes that were very strong. They knew they would get censored, so other scenes were subtle but probably even stronger in a way so they would pass the censors. To me these filmmakers were masters in their field not only because they were very brave but because they were facing the regime in a very subtle way.

Q: After Franco died and the society undid the Fascist state, they made a peaceful transition to a democracy.


AB: Yes they made an amazing bloodless transition, without recriminations or revenge. We made an amazing recovery and our [recent] filmmaking reflected that as well.

Q: But now there is a crisis again, an economic one as Spain and other countries in Europe formed the Union and tried to stand apart from the U.S.

AB: It is a very difficult situation now. Until a year ago, a plumber thought he could afford a Mercedes, and then suddenly everything is crumbling. The situation in Greece is very dramatic. Spain or Europe doesn't think anymore they need the Americans. They are doing it by themselves but they are also connected in the world at large....

People like myself, Javier [Bardem] and Penelope [Cruz] and Pedro or Rafael Nadal, Severiano Ballesteros... We are all people that in a way are helping to shake out this feeling of inferiority that Spain has had for many years. Our success represents a shaking out from the past of our country.

Q: This is a crucial opportunity to reexamine yourself and your next step. Where are you going now? How will this affect you? Are you going to be directing? Your last few movies are more lighthearted. How will that change you?
 
AB: I'm going to work with Pedro Almadóvar again in August. We are going to do a movie, finally, after 21 years without working with each other. It's tough movie; he's going back actually to his roots as a balls kicker, and I love that opportunity.

And then I have an agreement with another company in Madrid. We're increasing the possibility of doing movies with more quality and quantity too. We have a plan to start producing more often than we were doing with a little company in Southern Spain.

We're just experimenting; it's almost like a laboratory just to see how we're going to do it. So now is a time to jump and take a leap ahead, and so I'm going to be doing that. And after that I may come here to Broadway and just get on the stage.
 
Q: Do you have an idea what kind of thing? Would it be a serious play or would it be a musical?
 
AB: It would be Zorba. We were doing a workshop here in town like four months ago, just reading in front of an audience trying to refresh the play because we don't want to just clean the dust off it and put it on the stage.

Q: Isn't it uncanny timing, given the situation in Greece?

The situation in Greece is very, very critical, I didn't think about that, but it would make more sense that we put in the mouth of Zorba, that street philosopher, things that are happening in actual time.
 
Q: Have you seen some of the Spanish horror films, some of the genre stuff?

AB: No... I saw [Rec] ....

Q: Of the Spanish cinema you've been seeing now, or cinema in Spanish language, what's been exciting you, who's been exciting you?
 
AB: I saw a movie the other day of director Julio Medem called Room in Rome /Habitación en Rome, which is a very sexual, interesting reflection of our life -- the relationship between two girls with a lot of style.

I liked [Alejandro Amenábar's] Agora very much; I thought it was a beautiful approach to a big dimension movie from the perspective of a market like Spain. We are not so used to this type of production. And I liked the last Almodovar movie, Broken Embraces / Los Abrazos Rotos.

Bobby Sheehan's "Docufantasy" Has a Twist

When I first moved to New York City as a freshly minted associate editor at Circus Magazine, I quickly immersed myself in the downtown scene where conceptual art events, outlandish fashion statements and cutting-edge rock performances flourished in its clubs, galleries and loft spaces.

Joey   AriasAs the scene developed at the end of '70s and flowed into the early '80s, places like the Mudd Club, Club 57, The Pyramid and Danceteria provided the environment for punk rock to merge with electro-New Wave, for sexual identities to alter and for new kinds of art to get invented.

For a moment there, just hanging out was something of a statement -- of rebellion against the encroaching conformity and cultural backsliding suggested by the Reagan era -- and a celebration of an artistic world where money and marketing weren't all that mattered.

Read more: Bobby Sheehan's "Docufantasy"...

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