by Susannah Schouweiler   July 13, 2006

Ali Selim, writer and director of the acclaimed film fest favorite "Sweet Land," MPR's Euan Kerr, and web video creators Cristina Cordova and Juan Antonio del Rosario ("Chasing Windmills") talk about the future of motion pictures, wherever they may be.
Sweet Land poster
Sweet Land poster
Ali Selim, Writer/Director of Sweet Land
Ali Selim, Writer/Director of Sweet Land
Ali Selim, Writer and Director of SWEET LAND
Chasing Windmills
Chasing Windmills
CHASING WINDMILLS logo
Cristina Cordova, creator of CHASING WINDMILLS in character
Cristina Cordova, creator of CHASING WINDMILLS in character
Cristina Cordova, CHASING WINDMILLS' creator in character

Originally published on mnartists.org and in access+ENGAGE in July 2006.

WE HAVE BEEN STUNNED BY THE EXPLOSION of talent and innovation that's emerged in Minnesota in recent years, whether you're talking about web video or traditional big-screen filmmaking. But at the same time, the local audiences for film seem to be evolving—some would even say dwindling. We took our questions about the present and future of homegrown film to some news-making filmmakers and one of our favorite arts broadcasters: Ali Selim, writer and director of the buzz-worthy Sweet Land, a favorite at film festivals (here and across the country); Cristina Cordova and Juan Antonio del Rosario, creators of the Web video phenomenon Chasing Windmills; and Euan Kerr, a Minnesota Public Radio news editor and one of our favorite reporters on the movie beat. The conversation ranged far and wide—from the question of a “Minnesotan” film scene, to how the medium shapes the story, to the looming concerns over the future of cinema as we know it.

Q: Have you run into anything else like Chasing Windmills online?

Antonio: There are some sitcoms, but nothing like what we’re doing, really (a daily, serialized fictional narrative).

Ali (to Antonio and Cristina): How do you make it all happen? How do you pay for it? How do you live?

Cristina: Well, we’re not really making any money off of this right now. But, theoretically, something like this could earn money through advertising. Actually, what we’re leaning toward is product placement, because we already have products in there. Chasing Windmills, because it’s all about this couple’s daily life, is full of products.

Antonio: Everybody’s improvising. We’re still figuring out what to do with this new medium. I see the New York Times multimedia section changing formats regularly. Everyone’s trying to figure out “How do I hold the baby?” I think it’ll take a little while for things to settle.

Euan: Do you think it really will settle?

Antonio: I think a platform will develop eventually. The medium will mature and people will try various things (and fail) until the Web develops its own conventions, its own aesthetic.

Euan: We’ve been going through this discussion at the radio station for going on ten years. And we’ve got a much simpler format to deal with than you guys. First, it was “we’re all going to satellite.” And then, “No, no, nope. It’s definitely going to be… well, maybe not, the Internet.” [laughing]

Q: Ali, have you been making use of the Web?

Ali: Sweet Land’s website is ultimately for the film festivals—they need images, press materials. It’s for 75 people really. If other people come to the site, curious—that’s great, here’s a JPEG, download it for whatever you want. What I’m really concerned with, though, are getting butts in seats at the theater. When I dreamed of getting in this business (watching Mary Poppins and Flipper), I was dreaming of getting a bunch of people in a room—all there to see my movie. That’s what I’m working for.

Q: Will the movie-going become a boutique experience only for true cinephiles, with the Web and TV being the preferred method of watching films?

Ali: Not at all… I think the same people who love their iPods will be saying, “You have to see what’s showing down the block. It’s great…”

Antonio: I agree. I don’t think people will want to lose that space. I don’t want to lose that space. Cristina and I were speaking at a conference in San Francisco. We ended up talking about Lawrence of Arabia and screen size. Your iPod’s great, but you can’t watch Lawrence of Arabia on your iPod. Here’s the perfect visual story: you have that great scene where Omar Sharif is arriving in the desert. On your iPod, when he arrives you still can’t see him. Between the epic shot and the expanse of the desert… on a screen that size, it’s just silly. You’re looking at empty space.

Ali: And TV has adapted to the screen size, too. Television shows are mostly dialogue, and they’re mostly close-ups. They figured out that wide shots just don’t work on TV, and they adapted to the medium 50 years ago. Now we’ve got these new media formats, and we’ll adapt to these

Cristina: These different formats offer different experiences—they do different things.

Ali: I actually have all of Sweet Land on my cell phone screen. Let me get it. [Pulling out the phone and bringing up the film on its screen.] There you go. All you need is a headset. It goes on for two hours like that.

Euan:[big laugh] Have you watched it on there yet?

Ali: No, I haven’t. But I gave it to someone at a film festival and he disappeared with my phone, came back two hours later, and said he loved it. So, I guess he didn’t mind the screen size.

Q: But don’t you think he had a different experience, watching it on the phone, than you’d intended?

Ali: A totally different experience. But I think watching it on a screener at home is a totally different experience. We’ve played the movie to sold-out houses (God bless) across the country, and there’s such an energy in the room when you watch the movie that way. People play off each other in a theater; they know it’s okay to laugh from the others’ responses. It’s a very different experience.

Cristina: We have to exploit something completely different than that for Chasing Windmills. For one thing, we have to deal with what people think of when they think of a “vlog,” which is really me with my camera, showing you, “Hey, this is me eating breakfast.” That’s what’s out there. We have to work with that. And why are viewers interested in watching someone eat breakfast? Because it’s real people. The reason people go to these vlogs and read all this personal stuff is that they’re reaching out, sometimes in weird and desperate ways for sure, but reaching out all the same for an experience of real people.

We’re giving you that. You can sit there, by yourself, and look through a peephole into my apartment. It’s fictitious, but we’re creating that illusion for you. On that small screen of your computer, you want something intimate. You want to be alone. It’s not a joint experience, it’s a private one. It’s almost dirty. You’re looking in on someone’s raw life—on the toilet, having sex, having arguments, personal conversations. What we show people is really kind of ugly. It’s pretty dark stuff. [laughing]

If I were making something for the big screen, I would never make that. You need to think about the medium you’re using. You can’t just take content intended for TV or movies and throw it on the Web. It’s demeaning to the content. We had a showing a while back, where a few of episodes of Chasing Windmills were shown on the big screen. I wanted to run and hide under a table. It was horrible… it was just awful. The images were never meant to occupy such a large space. Chasing Windmills is Web video—we’re not intending to create a big-screen film.

Antonio: You can shoot a film with your hand-held camera and not follow any rules of the medium. And you can project it onto a wall. You can even call it a “film.” But you’re not going to be using the aesthetics that work in that medium. And that does affect the story. On the Web, each of our episodes needs to be self-contained. They need to exist by themselves—with a beginning, middle, and end. There has to be some sort of closure to each one. It’s a series, and each part needs to move the story forward, but the Web requires instant gratification. There’s got to be some sort of gag, something that holds it together.

Euan: I’m really intrigued by the question of where the audience is going. I’m concerned about cultural literacy. You can fit lots of references into your work, but if the audience doesn’t get it… when it’s for naught… If nobody’s reading Moby Dick anymore, and if they haven’t seen Gregory Peck, is it just going to be lost? [pause] I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean with my son this week, and was infuriated by it. First of all, it seemed to just lift things from other movies—for two and a half hours—and there was a gimmick where the guy’s face moved around like an octopus, but there was no story.

Ali: It’s nice that it could infuriate you. I slept. [laughing]

Euan: I keep hearing that people love it, but there’s no story there. And when you make it to the end, you find out it’s not even really the end. "By the way, come back next Memorial Day for the rest of the story.” The fact that people aren’t furious about that worries me.

Q: Ali, now that Sweet Land has been received so well, and you’re thinking of making more movies, does Euan’s concern about audience expectations worry you, too? Do you worry that the audience for thoughtful films is dwindling?

Ali: [pause] From where I sit, my job is really to focus on the story I want to tell and how to tell it well. Then I have to trust the story—and that it will resonate with people, find its audience. If I start worrying too much about making what people will like … I’d probably just end up making… Pirates of the Caribbean. [Everyone laughs] People ultimately want a good story, well told. But, I think Alex and Malcolm [Ali's son and Euan's son respectively] might think Pirates of the Caribbean is a good story—the standards for that, the expectations of what that is, are based around something different [more visual excitement.]

Q: Do you think the answer will lie in niche filmmaking?

Antonio: That’s happening already. There are all kinds of different cinematic experiences to be had, depending on what you’re looking for. And, really, fragmentation of the market is the best thing that can happen to writers. Fewer multi-million dollar payouts, but more writers will be able to live comfortable, middle-class lives making a living at it. The best thing about the Web is that you can harness an audience internationally who, collectively, could ultimately mean a significant market for your work. All of a sudden, lots of filmmakers who couldn’t make it in the current system, actually have a shot at doing something profitable. You’re talking about a whole new medium, where filmmaking becomes like painting.

Euan: The downside of this though, is that with a lot of people making movies, a lot of them are going to be just terrible. It’s tough for the consumer to wade through them. I wonder if it really would be easier to break in and get noticed. You can make movies, but will anyone watch them?

Cristina: I think there’s a tight, pretty incestuous group of people on the Web who really check out what people are coming out with. When they saw Chasing Windmills, they loved it and wrote about it on their pages, and linked to it. I think our audience found us that way, by turning to those people as a way of wading through the traffic. It got around in ripples like that—and since there’s really nothing else like it, people have been all the more enthusiastic about what we’re doing. I’m not sure about all the reasons why, but Chasing Windmills got attention.

Q: When it all shakes out, do you think people will still go out and see movies in a theater?

Antonio: I don’t like going to the movies. I end up uncomfortable. I’ll undoubtedly have to pee in the fourth act, so I’m always missing a chunk of the important part of the film. I find it an increasingly unpleasant experience. And, God forbid, I get someone laughing in the wrong place, or talking. Then I’m just miserable. Most of the time, I’m more comfortable watching movies at home, and with bigger and bigger TV sets and better sound and all these things that can simulate the theatrical experience… I’m not a teenager and I don’t need to get away from my parents. I’d just rather watch from home—going to the theater loses out to that most of the time.

Cristina: There’s something else going on, too. When I go to the movies and after sitting through that discomfort, I’m mostly disappointed. I end up just frustrated. Most of the movies that I see that I really like, I end up renting, either because I didn’t make it to the theater in time or didn’t know to look for it. I’m sure if I’d made it to the theater to see Munich or Syriana I would have gone home pleased. Unfortunately, the last movies I made it to the theater to see were big Hollywood pictures. And afterwards, I just ask myself, “Why do I still do this? I have problems with my lower back, and it’s painful.” [aughing] Maybe if I just picked the right movies to see in the theater… But how do you know?

Ali: Cristina makes a good point. If the last ten films people saw in the theater changed their lives—if the movies really mattered to them—they’ll keep going to the movies. If they make the effort to go out to a theater and they’re consistently disappointed, they’ll stop coming. I think there are lots of things to do besides go to the movies—it really comes down to the story. Filmmakers need to do their jobs well, focus on telling their stories the best they can. If they do that, I believe the audience will be there. But it has to be worth it.

Q: What do you make of the troubles the Oak Street Cinema’s been having? Beyond sentimentality, is there a real film community ready to actively support cinema in town?

Euan: I wonder if there really is a Minnesotan film scene. I think there may have seemed to be some kind of cohesive scene in the past, because people would get together to make a movie (even if it was Jingle All the Way or some monstrosity like that) and they’d meet and talk about what they were doing. Then they’d make enough money to go off for three months and make something worthwhile. Now, I don’t know if there really is a film community here…

Antonio: I think it’s great that people arguing for it and trying to save it, but at the end of the day, they’re not really showing up to watch movies there. Nostalgia comes cheap.

Cristina: I think it goes beyond just nostalgia. It’s about wanting to preserve something—even if you’re not really using it—because it is important. I followed the whole situation online and in print, but I didn’t show up to watch films or go to the meetings. Antonio, I don’t think we’ve been to the Oak Street once to see a movie since last August. And film is important to us. But even though we’ve not really done our part to support it, it’s valuable to me to know that it exists.

Antonio: It’s unfortunate, but there it is. I love that there has been someplace where I can go and see Birth of a Nation on the big screen. It’s a hell of a luxury, and I want it. But are there enough people who are going to show up for enough pictures there to pay for keeping it around?

Cristina: When we first moved here, we went straight to IFP Minnesota. We paid our dues, joined up, and offered to volunteer our time… But it’s amounted to nothing really. On the other hand, when our work was shown at the Bryant Lake Bowl and as word has spread about it online, all kinds of people came out of the woodwork. There has been an incredibly supportive community of people to emerge, even offering the use of equipment. But it’s not organized through anything like IFP. The support we’ve gotten has developed out of relationships from people who’ve seen the series and spread the word. I do think there are people looking to create a community—they’ve just not organized themselves.

Antonio: I do really appreciate the fact that here, instead of talking about creating something, I get the feeling that all kinds of people are just quietly doing it. A ton of really talented people in Minnesota are devoting themselves seriously to telling stories. There is far more respect and encouragement for the independent voice here—an encouragement to find your own voice and your own rhythm and to do that. And that’s unique about the creative environment here. Nobody’s looking at you, you don’t need to posture or talk about it—just shut up and find a quiet corner to work. Do something.

Special Features Section: Media Recommendations from Euan, Ali, Cristina, and Juan Antonio

Euan: I was handed a copy of A Sunday in Hell, I’d never heard of it. It’s about a bike race, a foreign film from the ’70s. Beautiful, French agricultural trails—it’s an amazing story. It’s not even really about bike racing—it’s much more than that. I loved it.

Ali: It’s one of my favorite movies. It’s scored with a mournful cello throughout… amazing. Just a wonderful film.

Euan: Also, Road to Guantanamo. It’s just come out, and I think people should see it just so they can talk about it. The movie centers around interviews with three British guys who did some really stupid things and ended up in Afghanistan on a lark. They were arrested, almost got themselves killed, and finally were shipped to Guantanamo. Michael Winterbottom, the director, intersperses those interviews with recreations and actual footage shot from what was going on in Kandahar. The film’s manipulative and really, really effective. [laughing] I finally saw Jules et Jim which is out on DVD. That’s also an incredible piece of film, and the extras on the DVD are really good.

Antonio: I keep rereading The Art of War.

Cristina: He’s trying to internalize it. [laughing]

Antonio: It’s true, I am. But I’m finding that as I read it, it calms me down. So there’s that. And here’s a film that’s affected me lately—but it’s not good. I watched Spielberg’s Munich recently, and I became enraged. Spielberg is really a master of his craft now, and it’s cool to see his mature work. But I came out of the film feeling almost like I had watched something as bad as a Nazi propaganda film. It’s very effective, but under the surface the message is horrible. In Munichthe Jewish people get the luxury of a guilty conscience, and the Palestinians don’t. So, what am I walking away from here? The Jew is human dealing with real internal conflict, and the Palestinian is an animal without a conscience.

I don’t think I would have had such a violent reaction, but I watched Spielberg’s introduction to the DVD (which in itself is a pretty pompous thing to include) and that killed it for me. He said something I think all of us as filmmakers can agree with, “The only tool you have as a filmmaker is empathy.” He said that he was really just trying to empathize with what it’s like to do something and have to live with the consequences, to understand. So, I’m with him at the beginning, my hopes are up. And then I saw the film. What happened? What a hoax!

I’m pontificating in my head, I’m chain smoking, and I can’t stop thinking about it. But there were all these things I really liked about the film too, so it’s not that simple. It’s been a long time since a movie has really gotten under my skin this way, so that’s something. As a viewer, I felt cheated. Some day, I’ll tell you about my reaction to Saving Private Ryan[laughing]

Cristina: L’Avventura. It’s the most beautiful use of silence that I’ve ever seen anywhere. There’s a vlog called 90 Seconds of Dave. He did a narrative series, 15 episodes, and I think it’s absolutely beautiful, it’s art. I love the way he mixes media—video, images, text. It’s just beautifully done.

Ali: I really liked Man Push Cart. And I liked The Syrian Bridethey took this horrible Middle Eastern crisis and made something really human out of it. I appreciated that.