Lonely Wolf International
Film Festival 2022
In a world that has lost all colour, a single leaf faithfully holds on. There are no people, only a drone of sound amidst wandering thoughts without plot or narrative. A wind, a drop of water, the soft crackle of a phonograph - all are shadows of an immense silence composed of nothing more than unspoken words. This silence is foreign to music. Nevertheless, it is on this silence that music gently leans.
Hi Ivan, it’s great to get to speak with you, how have you been keeping after everything that’s been happening?
Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts. I have been alright, although there is no way to tiptoe around this apparent state of continuous depression in our world due to the recent pandemic, wars, and conflicts. In the most recent days, those vigorous words of W.H. Auden come back to me almost daily, “that we must love one other or die.” They give me solace.
How have you managed to stay positive and busy?
I think in our time especially, to stay positive one needs to constantly renew faith in humanity. My contact with music and art gives me optimism. We can always find beauty if we choose to see it, small daily miracles do exist. On the other hand, I am hesitant with our modern conception of staying busy. I have always been fascinated with those artists that create and then stop for a while, or those that step back at their peak and pursue an entirely different direction. For me, periods of intense reflection and stillness are crucial to any kind of genuine artistic process, and I cannot participate in any kind of senseless production for the sake of production. That being said, I am eager to embark on new projects after the final release of this film!
You have had a great festival run so far with The Last Leaf picking up an award at the TISFF last year, did you imagine your short would get this type or response?
Last September, after countless delays and challenges in the project, I could not bring myself to sign off on the final cut let alone imagine it at a festival. I was quite sure my team was ready to eat me alive! I kept asking for more time and the tiniest changes, the film had consumed me entirely and all I could see were the “mistakes”. Nevertheless, we arrived at a final version, and the Tokyo International Short Film Festival was one of our first submissions. To win an award within the first month of completion was absolutely thrilling. Even now in 2022, as we prepare for the final release, I do not have any expectations of a certain response. I do hope that one day it will find a wider audience that will be moved by the emotions we tried to express, whenever that may be.
The Last Leaf was nominated for Best Lockdown Film and Best Poetic Film at Lonely Wolf, what has it meant to you to be a part of this amazing line up for film?
It has been an honour to be acknowledged alongside the other nominees and their outstanding work.
How important are festivals like Lonely Wolf in championing and supporting indie filmmakers?
Festivals like Lonely Wolf offer a much-needed platform where filmmakers can build community and awareness for their efforts outside of the predisposed lanes of mass culture. Especially now, when the mainstream mentality has entered a new iteration with even less tolerance toward perspectives that deviate from established vogues or narratives. I do hope that channels like this can gradually restore and maintain a more authentic connection between artist and audience, and this is invaluable support both for an indie creator and the future of cinema.
Can you tell me how The Last Leaf came about, what inspired your film?
The point of departure for the piece was an idea about the relationship of music and silence. Their seemingly opposite polarities, and yet, their complete interdependence. In the early days of the pandemic, there was also this heightened contrast of “stillness” in life with a sheer bombardment of digital noise and information. It seemed timely to dig deeper and resolve how this could be expressed.
However, there was another significant ingredient – the context of Detroit and the Detroit Sessions, an organization with a mission of solving accessibility for classical music, a vision of exploring different forms of presentation that could engage wider audiences for classical music. Alongside my team, I have been building this nonprofit from the ground up for the past five years. This film is very much inseparable from this effort, as half of the piece was constructed on archive footage from our previous live productions. From this viewpoint, it is a kind of fiction-documentary hybrid. Thus, The Last Leaf inevitably returns to the central question we were constantly thinking about – how can we establish a constructive dialogue with history, to truly penetrate history rather than dissect it, and spur curiosity in people toward exploring and learning from the thousands of years of musical and artistic development that have preceded our time.
When live performances came to a halt, I am very grateful that our patrons embraced the idea of pursuing the route of an experimental film rather than a conventional visual mission statement or livestream, as I am deeply convinced that moving image offers a tremendous opportunity for expressing classical music. However, music in cinema works much differently than it does in the concert hall, and our current dynamics of portraying classical music are only scratching the surface of what could be possible. Attempting to operate visually with a piece by Bach or Brahms is not the same as creating a music video for a pop song on the radio.
This entire arena could benefit from a great deal of research, however, bridges must be built first. Generally speaking, classical musicians are reluctant to depart from conventions and have little interest in the nuts and bolts of how film is constructed. On the other side, few filmmakers are equipped with the necessary toolsets that allow them to understand a piece of music beyond the surface layer, to hear complex rhythms, perceive changes in musical form, understand advanced harmonic systems and how any one or combination of these elements could be taken as inspiration for a cinematic architecture or even a single edit point. It is my hope that The Last Leaf will be seen as a step in this direction, as this was the inspiration behind the approach.
As for the rest of the inspirations - the music featured, these fragments of Beethoven and Brahms, and especially the Bach keyboard prelude in e-flat minor, one of the rarest keys of that era. The Bach functions as a kind of refrain, but also mirrors the entire form of the film as a whole. The poetry of Tonino Guerra. And the paintings of course, those works of the old masters that hang silently on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts. I am still in disbelief that we were able to capture them. I cannot emphasize enough the details of Bruegel’s Wedding Dance, or as I think of it, the dance on the edge of the abyss, the anchor of our film at the very end. I guess it is better to leave the other influences for the viewer to discover and imagine. Perhaps the only thing left to say is that silence is much more than just an absence of sound.
When making a film in lockdown what were some of the challenges you faced and what equipment did you use?
The challenges of editing remotely and navigating our filming locations under the imposed restrictions were certainly among the most difficult. The project was also an enormous test of logistics and a real international effort, with contributors in Berlin, Los Angeles, Rome, among others. There was the significant problem of reconciling footage from many different sources, due to a great portion of the film being based on archive footage that was already produced without our input. All that was within our control was made on an Arri Alexa XT M, and two lights, an Aputure 300c and a Mole Richardson Baby Junior, 2k. Filming took place over just two days – one outdoor shoot throughout Detroit, and one day at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Is there anything you would have done differently on this film?
No, I think I have found my peace with the result. A friend recently told me that I really needed to transcend from viewing the film as a creator to simply becoming the viewer in the audience. There is much truth in this, as difficult as it may be after living through the entire process.
Now that you can be reflective since making the film, what would you say have been the most important lessons you’ve taken from this experience?
Trust your vision. If you can visualize and feel the project in great detail, the film will take shape no matter the odds. However, especially in moments of filming, be ready to improvise and abandon any kind of preconceived notions or ideas. Despite my worries for certain risks and mishaps that happened during filming, discovering the footage in the editing room proved to be one of the most exciting moments, as many of these accidents transcended to become images that exceeded the original intent.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I have always loved film, and it was through cinema that I had some of my first encounters with art and music. One of my most vivid childhood memories is watching Bruno Monsaingeon’s Richter, L’Insoumis, and remembering the effect it had on my desire to study music and desire to immerse myself in all that had to do with culture. At the end of the day, I am a concert pianist by training, I do consider myself a musician first. But completing The Last Leaf made me realize I may be becoming a filmmaker by chance. These past years I have spent so much time in the world of visual art, and my encounters with filmmakers and artists have been among some of the most inspiring moments of my professional career. In retrospect, The Last Leaf feels like a necessary step toward a real directorial debut. This experience has kindled a strong desire to attempt another film project, whenever that may be, where I will hopefully be free from any pre-existing artistic constraints.
"Without the personal, intimate exchange and safekeeping between generations of rituals and memories, our humanity becomes less grounded and simply drifts."
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer anyone thinking about making a short film?
I would offer an idea to remain conscious of not becoming possessed by “story”. The more and more I think about cinema, I begin to realize we have pursued a very small portion of the wider horizon this artform offers. In many ways, it is a direct result of our current trends, we are obsessed with stories and have a very story-centric culture. It seems wherever you look, people ask “what is your story”, and this often prompts a rapid descent toward clichés. Because as important as it is to tell stories, I think it is equally important for cinema to disconnect from a kind of “filmed theatre”. This is where I see a strong parallel with classical music, as so much of our repertoire is without words and carries no explicit storyline or narrative. This is why classical music carries such great capacity for expressivity, but also immense demands for the imagination of the audience. The same for cinema – moving image already has tremendous expressive capabilities, and some of these become limited if we reduce cinema to a simpler vehicle for narrative. It takes courage to push audiences to imagine and truly see for themselves, it is difficult, and of course, most people will not be immediately receptive to the idea. However, in my mind, any film that pursues this route is a worthy endeavour. And short films are particularly great candidates for this, as they are by default predisposed to nontraditional approaches to cinematic structure and ideas.
What themes/subjects are you hoping to explore with future films?
I have a few recurring themes that I guess I will be exploring all of my life. One is this idea of “roots” - understanding our roots, discovering our personal, singular history and all that connects us beyond our current time. Perhaps it is a question of identity. I believe one of our recurring underlying problems is that we have become too disconnected from our roots as human beings. Without the personal, intimate exchange and safekeeping between generations of rituals and memories, our humanity becomes less grounded and simply drifts. This is perhaps why art today is in a general state of confusion. We do not maintain a healthy degree of clarity toward what we collectively ascribe to the realm of the beautiful, and what is vulgar and redundant.
Another important theme for me is language, and this is subtly present in The Last Leaf. I am fascinated with the differences and evolutions in words and their meanings over time, and have significant reservations about any one phenomenon being described as a “universal” language. One can study and be surrounded by all the masterpieces in the world and still have, as they say, “not a dime behind the soul”, all while others are able to find a way to express the sublime effortlessly just through intuition. The most beautiful combination of words and images in the world does not carry any guarantees of anything – we as humans are the deciding factor and how we make these decisions and draw meaning is important to consider.
One final theme is the question of forgiveness, and in several ways it connects to language, but is also an idea of justice and the impossible gift as Derrida writes about it in his late works. Many years ago, my first recording project touched this topic as it concerned the personal tragedies of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, and ever since then it has been with me, transforming, and taking varied shapes. This is also a component to my personal conception of beauty, as I continue to consider the role of imperfection and freedom in any ultimate artistic result.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from The Last Leaf?
At the heart of this film is an aphorism of Tonino Guerra, that “in autumn the sound of a falling leaf is deafening, as with it falls an entire year." When we were filming this sequence, a kind of inflection point between two contrasting episodes, the image here was destined to be just a leaf trembling in the wind and eventually falling. No matter how hard we tried, the leaf would not break away and fall on camera. We managed to fabricate an alternative, however, in the editing room, decided to keep the take where it would not break away as it was so much more powerful.
The reason I say all of this - it is my one great hope that this film will now break away from me and have a life of its own, with every viewer feeling something different and deeply personal inside of them. I hope they can lose themselves in this melancholy passage of time, these fragments of thoughts, music, paintings, nature, and feel as if they are standing at the threshold of our humanity, feel wonder at the anonymity of beauty that has persevered through centuries. And better yet, feel that we too, are inseparable from this and can participate if we so wish.