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19th ÉCU Film Festival, Paris

"When we first started, I had no idea where this film was going - I thought it was just a short."

Festival Screening:


April 14, 2024  

Story of a French painter whose life and art parallels much of contemporary France. From the revolutions in North Africa to the quiet countryside of Provence, he’s seen it all. Now, despite being alone, diabetic, in his nineties and nearly completely blind, he creates more work than ever before.

Hi Ben, thank you for taking the time to talk with The New Current. Are you looking forward to screening Roger at ÉCU this year?

Hello and thanks for having me! The team and I are thrilled to have been selected to participate in ÉCU this year - so much so that I’m flying to Paris to personally represent the film.

Roger won the Focus on Art award at the 2023 Orlando Film Festival, and your previous short film Chocolate Cake also won multiple awards. What has it meant to you to get this type of recognition for your films?

First of all, thank you for acknowledging our past and present merits. To receive recognition in any form means a lot to us. To me, it translates into having created something that resonated with other people, and that’s ultimately what this is all about.

Having studied in Paris the ÉCU Film Festival must hold a special place for you, are there any nerves ahead of the screening?

When I was a student living in Paris, I spent a ton of time at the many movie theaters around town. To now have my own film being exhibited fifteen years later in the very same city is, to quote Shakespeare, “such stuff as dreams are made on.” Regarding the state of my nerves, though, I don’t think I have much to be worried about. ÉCU’s staff has been nothing short of kind and considerate. The fact is: we’re already in the esteemed festival, everything else is the proverbial cherry on top.

How important are festivals like ÉCU in continuing to champion and supporting independent films and filmmakers?

Having our voices heard and our work seen becomes infinitely harder without festivals like ÉCU. It’s tough enough as is trying to make a career of an art form that I’ve heard described as one elaborate problem-solving experience after another. With festivals such as this one, we’re provided an avenue with which we might find both audiences to connect with and networking opportunities to indulge in. There’s no greater resource for independent filmmakers than a festival that pushes them into the spotlight.

Can you tell me a little bit about how Roger came about?

The subject of the film is actually my grandfather. You see, not long after graduating from college, I found myself with a half-decent job and immediately began saving money for a half- decent camera. After a few months I bought myself a Canon 60D and set out to make something, anything. Soon after, as luck would have it, my eighty-something-year old grandfather announced he’d been chosen to exhibit his artwork at the local gallery in Seillans, the village where he lives. Encouraged by someone very close to me, I decided to take some time off from work so that I could begin recording Roger at his exhibition. It was during this time that I realized there was another voice growing louder in my head - it was the memory of Isaac, my paternal grandfather, who passed away when I was less than a year old. Throughout my life I’ve been told of how special and sincere he was. I’ve always felt like I’d been robbed of someone who I’m sure would’ve had a huge influence on both me and my identity. Therefore, in some ways, I suppose that I would consider this film to be an answer to that very bitter taste of a missed opportunity.

What was it about Roger’s work that really spoke to you, if there is any one piece that you’re especially fond of?

The piece that’s stood out to me time and again over the years is one called “The Last Refuge.” It’s a rectangularly shaped painting, taller than it is wide, and it depicts a cavernous scene, for lack of better phrasing.

It’s a perfect example of my grandfather’s work, as well as a beautiful blend of abstract and figurative styles; the top of the painting looks like dark blue and green stalactites stretching down towards the bottom portion of the canvas, where we find a reclined Pierrot on the floor of an Earthy coloured cave gazing directly out to the viewer. It strikes me as a very personal painting - and not only because it hung on my wall for years. There’s something deeply intimate about it that makes me feel as though I’m peeking behind the curtains of not just my grandfather’s mind, but an artist’s mind; as though I was peering into his most guarded vision of creativity - one marked by solitude and innocence. It was haunting to me then as it still is now. What makes it all the more meaningful is that it’s my own grandfather who painted it, which I suspect is a fairly singular sensation.

133 The last refuge.jpg

Did you have a set plan/idea of what you wanted your film to be or because it’s a documentary did you give yourself and Roger the opportunity to explore where the story might go?

Frankly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started shooting this film back in 2012. At first, I was asking him simple questions that lacked depth. “What’s hard to draw? What’s your favourite  colour?” As a 22 year old, I knew little about painting. I think it was obvious in my approach. As time passed, though, I began to ask myself more serious questions about my own craft and my own life. They were questions coloured by a very pure, very basic existential query: why? It was when I started to ask myself this three-letter question that I began to realise where the film could go, and everything took off from there.

What was the biggest challenge you faced making Roger and looking back is there anything you would have done differently on this film?

I’d say the biggest challenge we had to confront was in the telling of the story itself. Specifically, what route would we take in weaving together the three narrative threads that ultimately drove the film: the personal story, the artist’s journey, and the overarching historical context. Since neither me nor my editor, Ben Remetz, had ever made a feature length film, it’s safe to say the learning curve was steep. It took us years to figure this stuff out. Looking back on what we accomplished, I can’t say enough about him and the rest of the team. If there was any one thing I would have changed, though, it’s that I might have tried interviewing my grandmother, Yvette. When we first started, I had no idea where this film was going - I thought it was just a short. Yet as time passed and we amassed more footage, I realized there was so much more to my grandfather’s story that I never knew about. Sadly, my grandmother passed away in 2013 before I could interview her. Frankly, it’s my only real regret with this film. If I’d have had the awareness and the foresight to approach her while she was still alive, I think the film would have benefited enormously from her presence. Not that the film lacks dimension, but it just would have countered our dependency, as filmmakers, on Roger telling his own story in his own words. When your subject’s in their 80s, it’s hard to track down old family or friends for interviews...

How much did your previous experiences working on Chocolate Cake prepare you for making this feature documentary?

No two films could have been more different. Maybe I was chasing nostalgia in both, but if there’s one thing I can definitely attribute to Chocolate Cake, it was the sense of comfortability on set. It gave me practice dealing with uncontrollable environments and difficult situations.

Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?

I won’t be so arrogant as to claim I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but I will say that I always carried a creative impulse. I can recall how, once as a child, I made a straw hat for a school fundraiser. Everyone’s parents were buying their own kid’s hat, as sad as that sounds. It was a perfect fall afternoon, and we - my parents and I - decided to take in the beautiful colors of the red-orange tinted leaves. When we returned to the fair, we went to the stall where the hats were being sold. To our shock, the hat I had made was bought by someone else. At first I was sad, but then the feeling of accomplishment dawned on me. “If someone - a stranger - saw something they liked in my silly little hat, then maybe there’s more to this creative thing than I thought...” For the sake of brevity, I’ll jump ahead a few years to a conversation I had with my college counselor, Sara Connolly, who asked me a very serious question: what do you want to do with your life? By that point, I’d been taking mostly philosophy, theater and language courses, but I knew deep down what she was really saying. It was time to figure out what my plan was. My mind kept running back to when I was 13 years old, when my father took me to see the Mike Nichols movie The Graduate. It had had a profound effect on me, especially considering the lead’s name was Benjamin, like me. I thought of the times I performed on stage, and the incredible feeling of delivering a moving soliloquy to a quiet, attentive audience (you know, the kind where you can hear a pin drop?) I thought about how I wanted to go into diplomacy when I was younger - I had always loved bringing people together and connecting with them. Then I thought about that hat, and how meaningful it was to me all these years later. “What do I have to lose?” I asked myself. “What comforts would I sacrifice to make myself truly happy?” Everything. All of them.

What was it about Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris that sparked this filmmaker inside you?

It was when I realised that I’d been sitting there watching them work for three straight hours that I knew I could sit there for another thirty. My interest was so genuine to see a master of his craft at work. I remember looking at the set, the lights, the actors, the costumes, the mood with everyone knowing exactly what their jobs were. The whole thing felt like I was observing a great Halloween party that no one knew about except for me, the crew, and the nervous Production Assistants keeping curious crowds at bay. Most importantly, I remember looking at the man sitting by the director’s monitor and thinking to myself “I hope that’s me one day.”

When you stumbled across the filming of Midnight in Paris did you know that experience would have such a lasting impact on you?

As soon as I passed by the set, I looked for a perch to watch from. I was bewitched, you could say, for I would have gladly missed a class or a date just to watch them work. It was so exciting that it felt as though time passed unnoticed. I’ve heard it said that when you feel that way about something, or someone, it’s probably because you love them.

What was it like watching the film for the first time in the cinema having been on set when they shot it?

I have a very clear memory of the night I saw it in theatres, because by the end of the film I was in tears. Not that I’m particularly sensitive to sentimental endings; it was the strolling alone at night of Owen Wilson’s character that moved me. Just as he stumbled upon magical moments, I too had a similar habit, only in my case, it was the set of a movie - this movie.


What does your work say about you and the way you see the world?

It’s a very good, but very difficult question to answer. At one point, while working on the film, I took up painting as a hobby. It was in an attempt to better understand my subject - I guess you could call it “Method Directing.” Often, while painting, a quote from Gerhard Richter came to mind: “To talk about painting is not only difficult but perhaps pointless, too. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate.” I found that if you replaced the word “painting” with “art” or “film” or “dance” or “sculpture” or “photography” or “music,” the quote would hold the same relevance. My only hope is that my film speaks for itself as much as any other work of art would. If you feel something, anything, then we’ve succeeded - as filmmakers. I think his art is brilliant, but I’m biased. Yet it’s that inherent bias that propelled me to make this film more interesting. For you see, I kept telling myself from the get-go that I didn’t just want to make some sentimental schlock glorifying my grandfather’s life’s work. I wanted to make something objective; something even a stranger would find interesting.

How essential has the experience working behind the camera on films like C’mon C’mon, do you recommend other filmmakers, as they’re trying to make their own way in the industry, try their hand at as many departments as they can on a film set?

It’s my belief that working in as many departments as possible on different sets is imperative for any aspiring filmmaker. How else are you going to specify what you want from your crew? When we made my first short film, Chocolate Cake, I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully I had some great people around me who helped cover up my occasional mistakes. Even greater, I had the chance to work for them, so I knew what their worlds were like. I’ve been a Camera Assistant, Wardrobe Assistant, Background Actor, Editor, Narrator, Director... each on different sets, each with different learning opportunities. With that sort of experience under your belt, it’s hard not to feel confident when walking onto a film set. It’s something I think every filmmaker should go through. Why does the camera operator look like they want to kill me? Oh sheez, I forgot to get a stinger to power the dionic battery charging station.


Why is the shop supervisor looking at me like that? Oh, because I’m not already on my way to midtown to pick up our lead actor’s suspenders and now it’s rush hour. Why is my editor looking at me like I’m insane? Because they actually didn’t tweak the thing I pointed out, yet I was convinced I saw the change. Know as much as you can before you set foot on set. It’ll lead to more work - just don’t feel you need to wear all those hats for the same film!

Looking back at your career what would you say you’re most proud of?


That I haven’t given up on it, as hard as it is.


And finally, what is the message you would like your audiences to take from Roger?

I can safely say that the greatest compliment we’ve yet received regarding this film is that we inspired someone to begin recording their own family’s story. I think inspiring someone is one of the greatest things we can hope to achieve with what limited time we have. If, following a viewing of our film, even one person looks at a family photo album or picks up a book about their own culture, then we will have done something truly great.

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