By Paul Risker.
Partisan (2015) is the directorial feature debut of Australian filmmaker Ariel Kleiman, who already has a humorous take on the filmmaking process. Ask him about how the experience of making a film changes you and he will list a series of statements of no more than a few words. Each are filled with the humorous sense of the unimportance of his achievement of successfully taking the transitionary step from short to feature filmmaker. “I’m just more jaded…. I’ve hardened…. I’ve lost my sense of humour…. I’m a lot angrier…. I’ve lost my naïveté and I’m ready for battle…. Don’t mess with me [laughs].”
In conversation with Film International, Kleiman also presented thoughtful and intellectual shades of his fully rounded personality to discuss the making of Partisan and his impressions of the film that spiraled outward to touch upon the nature and purpose of cinema, the relationship between film as storytelling and the artists place in the world, and how the film now belongs to the audience.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
No, for me it was much more of a slow build. I’d always loved watching movies and one way or another I was always drawn to storytelling. It started in school, I guess writing short stories, then moved onto me getting my hands on cameras and just filming people on the street. Then I started making skits and doing plays and before I knew it I was making short films, then in film school, and then making a feature. But for one reason or another my brain is wired for visual storytelling. I am horrible at prose and so the way I see stories is just through the visuals and the audio.
Do your experiences as a filmmaker influence the way in which you watch films as a spectator?
I think it just acts as a greater litmus test for whether the film is good or not because being so aware of the craft and the falsity [laughs] of making a movie, if you do get sucked in then it is often a very special movie that can do that. But unfortunately I do feel that it taints the experience a little bit.
You say you see stories through the visuals and sound. What was the genesis of Partisan and is the way an idea takes shape visual in nature?
I think every film I have made has been sparked by either an image or a photo, and in this case it was reading an article about child assassins in Columbia. It was that image of a child gunning down a man that seemed so absurd, surreal and obviously so horrible and shocking. Coincidentally a week after I read that article I read a quote by Buñuel, one of my biggest filmmaking heroes, who said: he could not picture a more surreal image than one man shooting another man. And this crystallised in my mind that kind of gut reaction I’d had to the article. So what we set out to do was to make a film about the absurdity of it.
Is it a case that on a deeper level we cannot make sense of such an image, and in making Partisan do you perceive cinema as having the capacity to exist on a deeper level that allows us through art and storytelling to attempt to reach an understanding?
One of the things I love the most about cinema is how it can teach us about ourselves and art in general. I think that’s why for time and eternity human beings crave storytelling. It’s not only escapism, but it is also this incredible mirror onto what it means to be human. So yeah, that’s a big part of it and for me I always saw Partisan as being a tragedy, this tragic story and in many ways a cautionary tale.
Cinema has the capacity to reach a broader audience than literature ever can and this is not to dismiss literature. But just the sheer range as an entertainment medium, cinema can be an access point to other cultures that we may never experience first hand.
A hundred percent, and some of my most exciting movie experiences were being thrown into a world with characters that were totally foreign, exotic and extreme compared to my day to day life. But for one reason or another you connect and relate to the human drama, and that’s very special.
With a film potentially taking up two years of your life, by staying too close to what’s familiar or within the boundaries of your immediate world, could the experience turn into a claustrophobic one?
Yeah, and every film I have made the people who know me are shocked that I made it. They’ll be like: “Where did you… You are such a chilled out guy and you are making these dark and horrible stories.” But you just go with what fascinates you and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a hundred percent about yourself.
Partisan is your first feature film and your co-writer was the costume designer on your shorts. Therein this could be described as a film of firsts for you both, yet with the familiarity of having one another to lean on.
Sarah’s my girlfriend and she co-designed, produced and often co-wrote the shorts, and we worked together in exactly the same way on the feature. But this time she co-designed with a more experienced costume and production designer to bring it to life. In many ways it was an incredibly, not foreign, but a very new experience for us. But then it was an incredibly familiar one too because writing it and with Sarah being the designer it felt very natural as a progression from our shorts.
On the subject of your shorts how significant was the experience of short filmmaking as a means to prepare you for feature filmmaking?
It was huge for me and what I love about shorts is that they are a very pure representation of a filmmaker. Those short films I made gave producers, financiers and actors a very clear idea of what I would do as a feature, and they wanted to get on board with the project for that reason. It was only when Vincent saw my shorts – and he told me this – that he understood what the film would be. He didn’t get it initially when he read the screenplay, but I guess my short films portrayed a certain tone and feeling that helped people imagine what Partisan would feel like.
Is there in an intimate portrait of the filmmaker to be found in their short films that is ultimately lost within the scale of a feature film?
Totally, because you don’t have the infrastructure around you to create things, and on the other hand they are just so pure. You can do whatever you want and there are no limitations creatively on a short film or there weren’t for me. So they are the purest representation of me as a storyteller.
A film, whether a short or feature, is a journey that starts with the writing of the script, which then sees a collaboration with the actors before you finally reach the editing room. And then during the editing process you are collaborating not only with people, but also with the music that helps to shape the film. Can you talk about your impression of the sheer scale of collaboration that unfolds on a feature film?
Filmmaking is the ultimate team sport. I guess the best way I could describe it for me anyway is that making a short film I felt you could hold it in your hand, whereas a feature film is like a runaway train. You just need a fantastic team to keep that train on the tracks, to guide it and to keep it on its correct path. But some of my favourite moments in the film are those that different collaborators brought to the film. It might be the way a certain scene is lit or a moment of score that perfectly summarises a feeling that we wanted to evoke. It is quite amazing the amount of people that come on and off the project as it goes through its life of creation.
And owing to the collaborative nature of film do you consider the auteur theory to be one undermined by the collaborative process, or is it one that retains its validity?
That’s why I personally find the credit ‘A film by’ to be really off. It doesn’t make sense to me because a film is by so many people. So many people bring themselves to it and contribute to the final project – well that’s my experience anyway. And to say a film is by one person is just a little bizarre. But an auteur to me is a writer, director and editor, and that’s the way I thought about it because otherwise it is a very vague term [Laughs]. But it seems like it is used a lot more for marketing purposes than to actually have any meaning. Is Michael Haneke an auteur? He doesn’t edit, but…. [Laughs].
To talk about Vincent Cassel for a moment, how do you reflect on collaborating with him?
Well, it was kind of like when I’d close my eyes at night and picture the character, his face came to mind. And I mean that as a compliment because he’s obviously a pretty dark character. So it was just a matter of getting him to read the script. You can’t convince these guys to do something unless they love the script, and that’s the only thing we had going for us. We are a small movie from Australia with not a lot of money, but luckily Vincent connected with the character, the script and with my shorts, and so in many ways he made the film happen.
Collaborating with him was incredibly simple for me because early on he said: “Listen. I am going to come on set and you just tell me what you want to do and I’ll do it.” [Laughs] And it set the tone for the way it happened. It was just incredibly easy and I remember I was at a Q&A a couple of years ago in Melbourne for The Master (2012), and someone in the audience asked P.T. Anderson: “What was it like working with Philip Seymour Hoffman?” And he said it was like getting the keys to a Ferrari or a really good car. It was the perfect way to describe working with Vincent. It was just like driving the most expensive and beautiful car I have ever driven.
Cinema and the coming of age story are no strangers to one another. Having written and directed Partisan, itself a coming of age story, what do you attribute to be the enduring interest of cinema and storytellers with this subject?
Well, I think our childhood shapes the humans that we become, and I know a lot of short films and features kind of focus on that time in our lives, which I guess is because it is more recent. But it’s the thing that everyone looks back on, and our childhood is an incredibly potent point in our lives.
How do you perceive the way in which cinema has influenced our view of childhood? When I look back at my own childhood I feel that it gets mixed together with the impression of childhood that is invoked through films and the romanticism of storytelling. Perhaps there is a point at which our memory and impression of childhood crossover, in which film creates this junction.
Does that change when you become an adult? Maybe, but I think that juncture between your experiences and different films; between art and music that is soaked into your brain throughout the years and which alters your reality, I’m not sure if that changes. But I guess as a kid we are a lot more impressionable and so it makes a greater impact. But I’m not sure and my whole childhood is a blur…. It really is. I am very bad at remembering when things happened or what happened when. It really is just a blur of moments.
And thematically Partisan taps into the cyclic journey of life and death, specifically of one generation being deposed by the next. Was this a strong motivation when writing the script?
Yeah, early on I think we saw the film as being very cyclical. It starts with the image of the baby Alexander and closes with an image of his baby brother. Thematically it really focuses in on the way we pass our traits and beliefs down to the next generation, and the tragedy of when kids are not allowed to see the world through their own eyes.
This theme is given greater potency by the spatial setting, specifically a secluded community within a wider world that actively pursues that separation. In addition you play upon the additional powerful theme of the pull between the desire to belong and the desire to preserve our individualism.
In many ways this film is like a Petri dish of flawed characters, and I saw it as a way of distilling those themes down to their most potent expression. But I think in general when people have kids it is an instinctual and natural process to protect them – to raise them to avoid the hardships that you experienced in your own life. It is kind of like now it is my time to create my perfect family, and the film is a very extreme version of that. But the tragedy of the film is that I don’t think these characters comprehend the affect that they are having on these kids.
I feel that sometimes there are two possible reactions – the rational and then the way you are expected to react. It seems that the curse of being human is that we go the latter, against our instincts.
Totally, and it’s maybe only in hindsight that regret comes into it.
This cyclic nature that the film is fundamentally focused on, do you think future generations will still continue to repeat the mistakes of the past as an escape of this cyclic pattern proves to be an impossibility?
To me that is the story of Partisan. The tragedy of the story is that even though Alexander is breaking free and there is something very uplifting about that, he’s breaking free through everything that has been taught to him by his parents.
And with the film going out into the world to discover its audience leads me to contemplate Carol Morley’s point: “You take it 90% of the way and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves, their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” Do you perceive the audience as being the ones who complete the film and do you perceive there to be a transfer of ownership?
A hundred percent. This film is not mine anymore and I don’t see it as mine; it’s the audience’s. So what I think about the movie means shit to be honest because it’s all about the audience and them experiencing it. The film is designed in a way that if you are up for it, then it’s hopefully an interactive experience where you are filling in a lot of the gaps. The film raises more questions than it answers, and so it really encourages an audience to bring themselves to it, and that’s the cinema I love the most.
Partisan was released theatrically in the UK on Friday the 8th January and DVD Monday 11th January courtesy of Metrodome.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.