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Thursday, January 14, 2021

INTERVIEW with Caleb BURDEAU, auteur of NASUMICE

 


Nasumice (2018) follows around Italy one Bosniac refugee, Elvis, who works as a tourist photographer. He wanders through the streets and meets a strange character, Rodolpho, who invites him home. The TV news report on the siege of Sarajevo. In the wonderful landscape of rural Southern Italy, the two road buddies will share a piece of an existential journey. Nasumice is a minimalist film with sparse music and small dialogues, about the social alienation of two lonely grown men. They just travel throughout some ancestral places made of stones in a barren environement.


« Caleb was born in Seattle, USA, to an Irish-American father and a New Zealand mother. After moving to Alaska with his family when he was six weeks old, Caleb grew up traveling continuously between the northern and southern hemispheres, finally settling in Italy with his father and two brothers when he was 15. Before turning to film making in 2009, Caleb had worked as a motorcycle courier, a printer, a photographer, an olive farmer, and carpenter in both Europe and the United States. “Nasumice” is his first feature film. » 

from the website www.nasumice-adrift.com




Nasumice's auteur, Caleb Burdeau, has accepted to answer a few questions. (This interview was conducted via email on January the 14th, 2021) : 


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PREPARATION

Unspoken Cinema : Your debut feature film, Nasumice (or Adrift in English) is a very contemplative cinema (which premiered at the Sarajevo International Film Festival in 2018 in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Could you tell us about your inspirations and how you arrived at this point ? We especially would like to know about your first two short films, how do they compare in style with your debut film and how do you see your progress so far ?

Caleb Burdeau : Although I grew up in some pretty remote places, I was exposed to film culture at a very young age. My mother was one of the organizers for the local film group in Ketchikan Alaska, where films would be shown weekly in the library basement. Ketchikan, the southernmost city in Alaska, is situated on an Island, and the only way to get there at the time was by taking a two day ferry trip from Washington state or Canada. Despite this remoteness, my earliest film memories are of “The Seven Samurai”, “The Battleship Potemkin” and “Modern Times”. It just occurred to me that all of these films would have been subtitled or silent and that I could not read at the time, so maybe that is when my appreciation for Unspoken Cinema began. We never had a television when I was growing up, so these screenings obviously left a big impression.

I later took up photography, but something about still images left me feeling unfulfilled, and that I wasn't able to say whatever it was that I was trying to say.

When the digital revolution started to come into itself and the images being made began to look more like real “film” I bought a camera and started to experiment. Something clicked, and I realised that this is what I had wanted to do all along. I was then able to take my photography skills and transition them to shooting moving images, working as a Director of Photography (DoP) on other peoples short films and commercial projects. My own short films were really just studies for what would become Nasumice.

UC : Do you want to explain how this project came to be thanks to a Kickstarter funding system ? Where are the contributors for such a niche film coming from ? How do you advertise in order to garner attention and what kind of support did you receive ?

CB : I spent a year or so trying to get Nasumice funded through more traditional means, but since I didn’t have a track record as a director it was hard to get anyone to even look at the project. Once when I was on the phone with my brother talking about how things were going he just said “why don’t you just do a Kickstarter campaign and make it by whatever means you can. I will help you”. Which is how he became one of the Producers of the film.

Kickstarter is a strange animal, and like so many things on the internet the possibilities seem endless until you are confronted with actually trying to make things happen in the physical world. The reality of Kickstarter is that it just legitimises the asking of financial help from friends, relatives, and a fan base if you have one. You can’t very easily go to a cousin that you haven’t seen in years and ask if she wants to help finance a film project, but you can run a Kickstarter campaign. So most of the work went into reaching out to our own and crew members’ contacts to see if they wanted to support us. Only a very small number of contributions came from unknown sources. Having said that, who better to have as supporters than your friends and family. I don’t think that it is a sustainable career model for a filmmaker though, since you can only really ask so much of people who are doing it out of affection or a family tie.


SCRIPT

UC : You developed a revised version of your script at Béla TARR’s Film.Factory in Sarajevo, with the help of your lead actor Moamer Kasumovic. When did you enroll for this workshop ? How did you get in ? How did it unfold ? How influential was TARR or his filmography on your own film ? Do you remember any advice you collected there ?

CB : The film.factory was started as a Ph.D. programme at the Sarajevo Film Academy in the autumn of 2012 by Béla Tarr. I had heard about the open calls for applications, but since I didn’t have any formal education I was not eligible to apply. In april of 2013 my partner’s visa to the E.U. expired and we needed to spend some time outside of the Schengen area, so I suggested Sarajevo, knowing that the film.factory was there. Shortly after we arrived I contacted Béla at the film.factory who, after seeing some of my work, recommended me as a cinematographer to some of his students for their projects at the film.factory. I was initially going to shoot two projects, but in the end I only shot one short called “Eleanor” for Petr Makaj. Béla has a very unique view on what a film school should be, and I really appreciated the freedom he gave his students.

Moamer Kasumovic, a well known actor in Bosnia and throughout the Balkan region, was working at the film.factory as a producer. I asked if he would be interested in acting in a film that I was hoping to shoot. He said he was, so I went about adapting the script I had written that was based on the experiences of a very good friend and collaborator, Bob Carter, who had traveled in Italy during the 1970’s. I felt that the original script lacked a motivation that could be translated to the screen without going too much into a backstory, something that I wanted to avoid. Setting it during 1994 gave it the motivation without having to go too much into the personal.

UC : What does a script look like when the film relies so much on visuals and is devoid of much dialogue… ? Did you storyboard all the shots or did you plan them on location ?

CB : The script was about 65 pages long, but quite a bit was taken out as the filming and editing progressed. My ideas about what the film would be only really became clear once production began. We spent very little time in pre-production and didn’t storyboard anything. I think it is more important to storyboard things when the director is trying to communicate his ideas to the DoP. Since I was both DoP and director I was able to plan everything on location.

UC : In good Contemplative fashion, there is no beginning nor end in sight. We are abruptly following the footsteps of this Bosniac refugee who makes a living as a tourist photographer in Venice. Why choose to set the action in 1994 in Italy (a bygone era prior to the internet), during the siege of Sarajevo ? And why is it only a repressed memory (in a series of newsreel impressionistic montages) for the main protagonist ?

CB : During the time I spent in Sarajevo I met many people who had been refugees during the war who all had different stories to tell about what that had meant for them. One in particular was the couple that we rented our flat from, who had spent a couple of years in Italy after walking there during the middle of the siege. Faco, the husband, did not speak any English but we were able to communicate in his somewhat limited Italian that he had learned during his time there.

I felt that Elvis, the Bosnian refugee, was trying to escape from the memory of the war. But memories have a way of not wanting to go away, no matter how much we try to repress them, so they just keep coming back.

UC : Did you conceive your film as the lone journey of one man (displacement and alienation)? Or was it meant to be the chance encounter of two lonesome men who share the same fate, in different ways ?

CB : It was meant to be both. What I didn’t want was to make the classic story of two lonely people meeting and overcoming their loneliness together, through finding each other’s friendship. If things were as simple as that there would be no lonely people, and as we all know, that is not the case.

UC : Why are the women absent from this environment ? Except, of course, the minor role of Rodolfo’s mother, the two Italian women in Rodolfo’s picture and the lips of a Bosniac woman in one montage. We could say that family and society are almost out of the picture. What is the reasoning behind these choices ?

CB : In the case of Elvis, the displaced Bosnian, his being cut off from his own society and family is an obvious consequence of being a refugee. As much as he would like to find a woman or a family, those are not readily available options, so the repressed memories (the lips) are all that remain.

Rodolfo on the other hand is caught between the traditional Italian farming family, which gives you everything but expects a certain loyalty to that same tradition in return, and a more modern world that he had been exposed to outside of his rural home. This puts him in a state of being suspended between the two worlds with a foothold in neither.


PRODUCTION

UC : You’re credited as writer, director, cinematographer, producer and editor. What else did you do on the film ? Is it a burden or a freedom to control all aspects of a film from start to finish ? There are a lot of Burdeaus in the credits too, is it a family and friends kind of film ?

CB : In the end I actually did quite a bit more than is listed in the credits. The entire post production was done by me alone, including sound design/mix. I even made some of the music for the final released version, since we only had festival rights for a couple of pieces and we couldn't afford the licensing fees that the record label was asking.

I did really enjoy the freedom of complete control, but it was also a great burden at times during post production, knowing how much there was to do and that I would have to do it all.

Along with my brother and other family members there were many people who became involved in the project that I had never met before, so it was both a family and friends kind of film and a more traditional film set where we were meeting for the first time.

UC : It seems as if every scene is shot on location, à la Cinéma-Vérité… How small was the film crew ? Do you recall some creative ways you had to come up with to overcome the hardship of a small budget and weather conditions, for a film that takes place mostly outdoors ?

CB :The biggest drawback in having such a limited budget, apart from having to do all of the post production myself, was having so little time to shoot since all time spent on set costs money. We shot the whole film in 17 days, apart from a few pickup shots that I did later on my own. The crew was pretty bare-bones, and in total there were 6 or 7 of us including myself.

That meant that every day was a scramble just to get everything shot. I had chosen to make it overcast and oppressive for the time in Puglia, so on the few sunny days we shot the interior scenes. We ended up going over schedule by just one day, so all in all it worked out, although next time I want a lot more shooting time.

UC : Did you resort to actors or non-actors, and why this choice ? How do you direct everyone during the down-times (outside of a dialogue or a choreographed movement) ? Do you get the timing right on location or on the editing table ? 

CB : The two lead actors are both seasoned actors, but no one else had ever acted before. I wanted real people playing roles that were at least close to what they do every day and add a realistic element that would be impossible otherwise. One of the advantages of using non-actors is that if they are playing a role that is close to their real lives they are very easy to direct during the down-times. All that they have to do is play themselves. I tried as much as possible to get the timing right on location, since I wanted to keep the cuts down to a minimum. When you are shooting a scene you can feel when the timing is right and everything falls into place. Sometimes you just need to keep working at it until it feels right, but in the end you can usually make it happen. Other things the overall pacing need to be worked out on the editing table.


NASUMICE : THE FILM

UC : Your family background is multicultural and you’ve lived a life of a globe-trotter. How do your worldly experiences nurture your cinema in contrast with the American-centric view of Hollywood ? Could you maybe expand on the language barrier theme in the film where two men use English as a lingua franca to bridge the culture of Italy with the one of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

CB : Thankfully I think that the American-centric Hollywood view of the world is slowly shifting. It is a worldview that has always baffled me, even when I lived in the U.S., since it is so location/culture specific. In some places like Europe there is state funding available, but in Hollywood unless a film has a good chance to make back money it will never get made. I think that is why there are so many so-called “Indie” films that are just a slightly different take on the Hollywood story structure. As producing and releasing a film becomes more affordable, I think that people will want stories that speak to them in their own language and culture. If you look at the number of films produced in Nigeria for example, the numbers are astounding.

In the middle of that you also have this ever evolving migration trend, where in many cases the lingua franca is English, due in no small part to Hollywood’s world domination. One of the things that I realized about our film is that although the main language is English, basically no one is able to watch it without subtitles, since it is in English, Bosnian, Italian and the Apulian dialect.

UC : The landscape, as much urban in Venice and Roma (channeling Death in Venice or La Dolce Vita), as rural in Puglia (channeling Le Quattro Volte), is another proper protagonist as well. Sometimes the human protagonists are dwarfed on screen by their environment. Sometimes the human protagonists vanish and leave a deserted landscape. Staying away from the scenic tours for the most part, why is this landscape so important to your story ? Maybe echoing Sandro Bernardi’s studies of Antonioni’s landscapes (in the French book « Antonioni. Personnage paysage » 2006)...

CB : Béla Tarr put it very well when he said that “landscapes have as much character and meaning as a human face.” I think that in many cases when I was writing the script I was thinking first about location, and then about what would happen there. Maybe sometimes this went too far in Nasumice, but it is something that I will be working more on in my next film, combining the people and the places they inhabit in meaningful ways that give equal weight to each.

UC : With this existential protagonist roaming around aimlessly through an overwhelming landscape, we find ourselves dipped (with ultimate minimalism) in the realm of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, or Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant … maybe an Angelopoulos too. Did you think of these imposing references, and what forced upon you a greater minimalism ?

CB : Interesting that you picked out Nostalghia and Distant, since they are both films that I really like, so although I was never really thinking of specific references when making Nasumice, they probably played a part. By keeping it minimalistic I am hoping that each person is able to use their own experiences to fill in anything left unstated, and thereby come away with something that feels more personal.


RECEPTION & RELEASE

UC : How was the reception of the audience and critics at the Sarajevo IFF in 2018 ? How did they receive the Bosnian sub-theme/backdrop in the film ? You also won the Jury Prize at the Tripoli FF in 2019 (Tripoli in Lebanon, not in Libya!), what do you think appealed to this Lebanese audience ?

CB : Since we did not have a proper PR team working for us on the run up to the premiere our film went a bit unnoticed by the press, and therefore by the critics in Sarajevo. The audience reception was quite good though. Winning the prize for Best Feature in Tripoli came as a bit of a surprise, since we were by far the smallest film at the festival. It really came down to the jury, whom I was able to meet with after the awards to hear their opinions. They were all accomplished filmmakers in their own right and I was surprised and humbled by the extent of their appreciation for the film. One of them went as far as to tell me about his own attempted suicide, before saying that we would always be connected.

As far as the Lebanese audience, there is a common thread of loss that runs through countries that have recently experienced war, and I think that maybe Nasumice is able to somehow tap into that.

UC : This past year 2020 has been a black hole for cinema in general, so how was it, in particular, to have to release an art film in Covid-19 time ?

CB : The thing that is missing most during Covid times is the possibility to screen at cinemas and present your work to live audiences. The collective experience is still one of the more powerful aspects of cinema, and the fragmentented collectivity of the online world will never be able to replace the live cinema experience.


PARTING QUESTIONS

UC : What lessons did you learn from the production of your debut film ? What would you do differently, and what are you happy with no matter what ? What is your next project ? Would you consider doing another contemplative film or would you rather try a mainstream narrative ?

CB : The biggest lesson I have learned is that although it is possible to make a film with limited resources it is still very difficult to get a film into the better known festivals and eventually get it out into the world and be seen.

I am working on getting my next project off the ground now. It is a feature, a contemplative contemporary story set entirely in the Puglia region of Italy where I live. I am trying to find a producer willing to let me shoot it in a similar way to Nasumice, with a very small crew to keep costs down, but spending more time during the production. I am planning on using all non-actors this time. Puglia has become something of the center for shooting films in Italy due to the generous regional funding, so maybe finding an interested producer will be easier this time. One thing that I want to avoid is making compromises based on what is thought to be “marketable” If I am not able to find an interested producer then I will look into other possibilities, so we’ll just see what happens.

UC : As our readers, familiar with Cahiers du Cinéma, are most probably wondering, do you have any relation with Emmanuel Burdeau, ex-editor-in-chief of this famous French magazine ?

CB : No relation that I know of, although it would be interesting to look into.


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Nasumice is available at Filmdoo or Amazone Prime.


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