The Cinema I love – New Wave Realism

Back in 2010-2012, I wasn’t a filmmaker. I barely understood Film, or Cinema as I’ve come to lovingly know it as.

But I had an affection for Film, having grown up with Spielberg, Lucas and the occasional foreign film from Germany or Iran, being Downfall and Children of Heaven, and the Epics of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, The Godfather and The Lord of the Rings.

This came to the fore when I was studying for a degree that didn’t speak to me but I had the earned resources for. I set about to write because storytelling came to me naturally and I believed that novel-writing would be the mode for my storytelling.

But it was lifeless to me.

I could not bring myself to the rigour and complete imagination needed to fully word a story in a book. Instead, I tried to make Film in prose. But it was only a shadow of Cinema.

It lacked the power of the Frame and the Sound and Fury of the Actors. I grew up loving the spectacle of the Wide Shot and the dramatic passion of the Thespian’s eyes locking onto MacDuff in a final fight to the death.

And I missed the Operatic nature of it all, the carefully constructed but sometimes altogether free and loose Ballet of the Camera following the Actor, revealed in the beauty of Light that was sculpted with the same care of Chiaroscuro that Caravaggio illuminated the world with.

And the scientist in me, obsessed with the technological marvels of our modern times, missed the weight and the optical magic of the Camera in my hands. Being the family photographer, it did not sit right that I couldn’t show the world in my head. Instead, it had to be a calculated and impassioned series of words, expressions and paragraphs that would illicit the imagination of the reader. That is noble. That is beautiful. That has changed the world time and time again.

But so has the painting. So has the photograph.

And in 2010-2012, it became immediately obvious that my love of showing the image and playing the sound when I saw Biutiful, Shame, The Tree of Life, and Children of Men.

The first three were in the sonorous, dark and visually-overwhelming cathedral that is the Cinema. The latter film was in the repeated and obsessive viewings on any medium I could find.

The vision of Children of Men was so staggering, so fluid and audacious, that it shone no matter the size of screen and number of speakers. But all three of the other films had the same level of Auteur-driven vision!

I had no idea what an Auteur was but I could feel it. This delicate, intimate and sometimes quietly epic Opera and Ballet had somehow been transfigured through Light and Sound into a series of moving Frames, all through the alchemy of the Lens. And my delight was immeasurable when I realised that it started from the Director crafting the blueprint that is the screenplay. That was something I could do right away.

Something that I strangely had much practice in, successfully capturing the blueprint for Cinema on the page but in the completely wrong medium. Somehow doing that in a screenplay would give me the foundation for making the same Cinema I saw in the works by Cuarón, Iñárritu, McQueen and Malick.

That was what I was trying to achieve when I finally found my way to making The Turning Son, my first film. Though it took me five years of self-delusion, I finally found by chance a way to direct the film I had in my head I knew that was I had to reach for – an intimate Operatic Ballet that was full of sound and movement in one frame, and still and quiet to observe the slow heartbreak of an Actor doing the witchcraft needed to show a Character realising their complete and journey-crushing failure.

And it became immediately apparent to me that when I strayed from this mission, this Director’s Vision, and allowed things that are not Cinema into the film, that I felt repulsion. I realised that would have to be my life’s mission, to make the kind of Cinema that I’m obsessed with and moved by.

This is the kind of Cinema that allows me to delicately move into the space of the Actor to capture the alchemy of Performance or to simply pan and tilt as I follow the Actor occupy and play in the space that my team and I have lit and set for them. My responsibility is to be in service to the Frame, being the first audience member.

And I’ve spent a good amount of time studying and practising this Style, this obsession with the Actor, the Light, the Camera and the Sound all working in harmony to tell the Story.

And that’s why for this Film and all of my films, I must obey this need.

The Format – the Urgent and Apparent Influences in my Filmmaking

As a Director-Screenwriter, I recognise the need for having a defined form of Production that allows for my storytelling form to be expressed. With this in mind, it’s apparent that the Nuevo Cine Mexicano, or the New Mexican Cinema wave, speaks to me most dearly.

This is a Cinema that acknowledged the lack of exquisite film financing and the socio-economic challenges of their society. This is a Cinema that also expresses an urgent need to tell real stories about real people, whether through extraordinary events happening to ordinary people or ordinary events lived by extraordinary people.

This is the Cinema of the mother struggling to feed her child and must resort to theft from her boss.

This is the cinema of two sex-obsessed boys travelling with a beautiful older woman in a rickety car, coming to terms with the loss of innocence that follows a journey into a beautiful but tragedy-filled country.

This is the cinema of intersecting lives framed by poverty, wealth, crime and the magic realism of death surrounding it all.

This is a Cinema led by Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, Emmanuel Lubezki and Rodrigo Prieto, all of whom are making films with just a Camera, Actors, a room, a street or a landscape, all under tight budgets and quick timeframes.

They all cut their teeth on making Film with the scraps afforded to them by working for their own money to finance their films, or sneaking in revolutionary films under the guise of making pedestrian pictures funded by government grants.

This is a Cinema that feels honest because it strives to be honest. And this is a Cinema that is mystical, embracing the Magic Realism of life in Mexico. Simple things and events that shouldn’t have grand meaning somehow do when they come together.

The death of the Patriarch should just be that. But then the poverty that follows becomes the foundation for the Matriarch to achieve incredible success because she is forced to, only to find her grandson growing up to be the exact echo of the man she married, inspired by his grandmother’s example.

That mysticism is something in that Central and South American storytelling that is immediately identifiable to anyone having grown up in South Africa.

This is the Cinema that inspires me. One where a Camera tilts, pans or pushes in with as much meaning and symbolism as the Camera placed on the shoulder, allowing for that effortless following of the Actor in their own private piece of the world.

This is the Cinema that needs a space, a carefully placed meaning, and an urgent social drive for the story to come to life, whether a crew of 5 or 20 or 50, but under a budget and a timeframe that will make that Cinema as accessible to the township dweller as the Parisian cinemagoer, and is of the high quality demanded by World Cinema.

The Social Commentary of my Films

Nuevo Cine Mexicano has deep central Themes that are also integral to my storytelling – Identity, Family, Social Division.

I am obsessed with this triad, this chord of three harmonic tones. Each feeds into the other, each is informed by the other, and each is disrupted and destroyed by the discordance of the other.

Broken Self, Broken Family, Broken Society. Individually, these become the cause and the result of each other. But each of these could be stories in of itself. And these themes don’t necessarily have to be negatives either.

Perhaps a good parent with a strong identity may be able to take on a broken society to do better for their family.

Or a privileged youth grows up sharply when encountering the true ills of their society, instilling a need to do something against the odds.

Or is disillusioned entirely by it.

These universal themes have been successfully localised by Mexican filmmakers, providing their people and the world at large with stories that feel urgent and resonant no matter the genre, thanks to their films speaking with strong social commentary and place Character at the forefront of the story that unfolds on screen.

This speaks to the South African context, where our lives are defined by similar haves or have-nots. Our families are of a wide spectrum, where some have many generations living under one roof and others with only children heading the household. But for the most part, they are families – the critical element that defines the South African identity.

But we are also the most unequal society with a defined and historical responsibility to do better for the most vulnerable. We are also the only society with the generational burden to be a Rainbow Nation, not held back by race, class or orientation.

These ideals and responsibilities, their graces and their shortcomings make for rich Films, whether in telling stories about characters that tragically fail to meet them, or characters who overcome immense odds because of them.

The Format meeting the Commentary

The shooting style of Nuevo Cine Mexicano, thanks to its low-budget roots, became its defining feature for many of the Filmmakers it produced – well-blocked, dynamic, and performance-driven Long Takes.

This style aims to capture the scene in a single and purposeful Master take, whether static and wide, slowly shifting side to side to capture the entire panorama, or dynamic and constantly roving, hunting for the actor and the action, using planned motion to cover what the critical and emotional beats.

The Master is not the safety take in this method – it IS the film.

And do all of that with one single reel of film of 8-9 minutes. It forces all of the editing to take place in the shot, being a movement to and from the action instead of a cut-to. This allows for a choreographed ballet of Cinema to unfold for the audience.

This is seen to great effect by the likes of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, where the movement of the camera is a storytelling device in full effect.

This style, borne out of necessity thanks to the high expense of shooting on Film Reels, has been carried through to the Digital age of their filmmaking, ensuring that what’s shown on screen is the take is that hits the Right Emotions during filming, instead of the forced mishmash of over-edited scenes.

This is also economical as a well-planned and naturally-cinematic Long Take ensures that a scene can be wrapped quickly.

Indie Filmmaking has always been driven by this need to be economical, as Indie has always been at the forefront of New Wave Filmmaking.

The early works of Director-Screenwriters Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu were driven by the lack of resources for their films. This meant shooting as economically as possible was the major challenge.

The Long Take was naturally the style they gravitated to, moulding this shooting style into their own, bolstering it with their obsessive need to make high-quality films that spoke of their Mexico, with even their screenplays playing out with this filming style in mind.

With their almost supernatural drive to make films, they ensured that this legacy of New Wave filmmaking was carried through.

This is a filming style, whether on sticks or handheld, that allows for the actor to portray a character that pauses, thinks and then react to a scene-changing event, with so much of the performance coming across as natural thanks to the camera work feeling so effortless.

But behind this natural and effortless look is a well-versed and well-practiced filmmaker who has honed the experience of making films with limited resources into a sought-after practice of filmmaking. This is a filmmaker determined to shoot the right film needed to speak to society.

So, what might be seen as a cinematography gimmick by a North American filmmaker is rendered as a necessity and urgent for Film coming from the developing world, as it is a style that’s not focused on filming clean and obsessively laid-out sets of wealth, but aims to capture the grit, the grime and the beauty of the real world.

This is the style I obsess over, one that I have readily embraced to tell the stories I need to tell – Films about Identity, Family and Social Division.