“An uncle of mine once told me a story about Muammar Qaddafi, who arrived in Kuwait one day surrounded by these beautiful women in military uniforms. The Kuwaitis, he said, were confused. They didn’t know if they were going to be attacked or seduced! I always remembered that story,” says Rania Ajami, who spent two years negotiating with Libyan authorities to get permission to film her recently completed documentary, Qaddafi’s Female Bodyguards: Shadows of a Leader. “I became fascinated with these women in uniform, with guns instead of veils, who challenge traditional images of Arab women, she explains. “After 30 years of an urban dictatorship and 15 years of embargo, Libya is an incredibly closed society. This documentary is the first to provide an elaborate and critical look into this world,” adds Ajami, who ultimately gained access by pitching the project as a student film.
Born in Ann Arbor, Mich., to Lebanese parents, Ajami grew up in Seattle, Lebanon and London, where she studied piano, violin and composition at the Royal College of Music. While attending Princeton, from which she graduated with an A.B. in English in 2001, she became more involved in theater, writing and directing plays that often incorporated original music, dance, film and video. Although she later worked with playwright Richard Foreman, for Ajami the decision to become a filmmaker was perhaps inevitable. “With film I am able to synthesize all of my interests,” she says.
Currently completing an MFA at NYU and traveling the fest circuit with Qaddafi’s Female Bodyguards (which is being handled by sales agent First Hand Films), Ajami is also writing her first narrative feature script, loosely based on Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Assignment (1988). She describes the project as a road movie/thriller about two women sent to investigate the disappearance of a third. “As they leave familiar territory,” she says, “they become increasingly unhinged from their sense of themselves.” — S.G.
Mexican-born Mario de la Vega was running an export business in the mountains of Durango when he decided to jettison international commerce and pursue a career in screenwriting. He moved to L.A., quickly scored representation with one of the city’s top management companies, but soon found he didn’t fit in. “I couldn’t summarize every script I wrote in one sentence,” he said.
De la Vega was also tired of “writing screenplays that never saw the screen.” So, when he got into the IFP/Los Angeles’s Project: Involve and his mentor, Bible and Gun Club director Daniel Harris, told him to write something that he could make himself, he penned a low-budget movie he could shoot on DV. The film, Robbing Peter, premiered at the IFP/Los Angeles Film Festival and garnered rave reviews, with critics comparing de la Vega’s droll, deadpan style to Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki.
The movie, which tells three stories, draws on de la Vega’s experience in Mexican and American cultures. “When I’m in Mexico, I’m Mexican, but when I’m in the U.S., nobody knows I’m Mexican. I blend in and Robbing Peter, which tells three stories — about a Mexican, an American, and Chicano brothers — reflects that.”
De la Vega is readying his next project but he has learned something from his six years in L.A.: how to summarize a script. “It’s a psychological profile of a non-violent psychopath,” he explains. — S.M.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, (818) 692-6358
In Annemarie Jacir’s short film Like Twenty Impossibles, a Palestinian film crew averts a closed checkpoint by taking a remote side road, a decision that fractures the crew along national-identity lines when their van is stopped by the Israeli police. Staged to look like a doc while being a precisely calibrated narrative, Like Twenty Impossibles is grippingly suspenseful while also satirizing the power imbalances inherent in political filmmaking. The film premiered at Cannes last year and has been nabbing awards on the fest circuit since.
Jacir was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Saudi Arabia and moved to the States when she was 16. She now divides her year between Ramallah and New York City. “The idea [for the film] came from my experiences of trying to do work here [in Ramallah],” she says. “Palestinians don’t have any freedom of movement, not even from one Palestinian town to another — there is a maze of checkpoints. Because I have an American passport, I can get through most of them. I became interested in making a film about the fragmentation of a people based on arbitrary borders and I.D. cards.” But, she adds, to ensure that her own crew was not apprehended during filming in the occupied territories, “even when I was casting and finding crew, I had to choose people with Jerusalem I.D.’s or foreign passports.”
Jacir is currently writing a comedy about a Palestinian-American woman and two friends who stage a bank robbery in Palestine. — S.M.
Fill out some forms. Send money to the state. Hire a publicist. Announce a “slate.” Rent a yacht in Cannes and throw “an event.” One year later, fade from view.
Most film companies follow some variation of this sorry trajectory. Filmmaker, however, is banking long-term on Kulture Machine, making this company the first ever to be included in our “25 New Faces” roundup. Kulture Machine is director-writer-d.p. Dennis Lee, writer-director Francisco Ordoñez, director-writer-producer Joe Turner Lin (all Columbia Film School grads) and producer Milton Liu. And while Kulture Machine may be a relatively new venture, its individual members have already pumped up its collective C.V.
Lee, who previously taught kindergarten and first grade as well as an art program to “at risk” middle-school children in Houston, wrote and directed the award-winning short Jesus Henry Christ, which garnered him a directing assignment on New Line’s Slay the Bully. Ordoñez has written pilots for Spanish television and is developing a feature, Norwegian Wood, with Kinetic Entertainment. Lin produced Lee’s Jesus Henry Christ and Lee returned the favor by writing and shooting his Seibutsu (Still: Life), a national finalist in the 2004 Student Oscars. Liu also produced the latter two films from a background as a senior manager in an economic consulting firm.
So why a company? “A dear friend of mine once said that Hollywood is a town polluted not by smog but by euphemisms,” explains Lee. “That being said, I trust my partners to tell me the truth.” “I want to walk through life with the people I love, telling stories I love,” says Lin. “It’s no fun alone, successful or otherwise.” “We’re extremely disciplined and motivated because we don’t want to let each other down,” Liu adds. “But this isn’t U.S. Robotics — we put a Playstation and wet bar in our office.”
For Lee, that office space is key: “We come in each day to talk, to write and to work.” One of the company’s functions is that of a “development factory.” “One or all of us will come up with the idea for a spec script,” Ordoñez explains. “Then we’ll all get involved in the outline and treatment phase. Once we develop a detailed scene-by-scene treatment of what the film should be, one of us will go off and actually write the screenplay.”
Kulture Machine hopes to have five films in production in its first year, with the first being Lee’s The Life and Times of H.J. Hermin, a feature-length elaboration on Jesus Henry Christ. — S.M.
Contact: David Kopple at Gersh: (310) 205-5888, Sukee Chew at Hopscotch: (310) 860-2680, http://kulturemachine.com/
|PHOTO: TODD COLE/BULL’S EYE ENTERTAINMENT.|
If it weren’t for theater, Lou Taylor Pucci, the star of Mike Mills’s debut feature Thumbsucker, might well be on his way to church. At 10, his parents gave him an ultimatum: either audition for a show or become an altar boy. “I chose to be an altar boy,” recounts Pucci. “I really didn’t really want to be in a show. But then, six months later, I gave in.” Pucci, who grew up in Keansburg, N.J., appeared in increasingly larger parts at the Sayreville Main Street Theatre Company before landing a part in The Sound of Music on Broadway. He moved from theater to film in 2001 when he was cast in Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity, playing a runaway hitchhiker. Then Mike Mills flew him to L.A. — his first flight — to star in his first film. And after Thumbsucker, audiences will be able to see him as a troubled kid turned psycho in Fred Schepisi’s Empire Falls for HBO and in Arie Posin’s kidnapping drama The Chumscrubber.
What’s after that? “I want to keep everything possible,” Pucci states. “I will never say I am actor, because I am not. I like to act.” Pucci, who made a 30-minute film several years ago, is also considering filmmaking and writing. During his 75-minute bus ride from home to Broadway for The Sound of Music, he taught himself magic. “But I don’t want to perform,” Pucci confesses. “I would rather be the guy about who people say, ‘That kid knows some magic tricks.’” Indeed he does. — Peter Bowen
Contact: Billy Lazarus at UTA:(310) 273-6700, www.loutaylorpucci.com