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“As a Director I Want to Show My Own Failure, My Own Intrusion in the Films I Make”: Milo Rau on His Venice Premiering The New Gospel

Yvan Sagnet as Jesus in The New Gospel (Photo: ©2020, DAS NEUE EVANGELIUM/ Fruitmarket & Langfilm / Armin Smailovic)

Making its world premiere at this year’s — IRL! — Venice Film Festival, The New Gospel is the latest work of “utopian documentarism” from Swiss director/writer/critic/lecturer Milo Rau. (Though one might add “biblical provocateur.” As the newly installed artistic director of NTGent, Rau once took out classified ads in a Belgian newspaper seeking modern-day crusaders for a staging based on the city’s Jesus-themed Ghent Altarpiece. One read, “Did you fight for IS, or another religion?”)

With The New Gospel, the multimedia artist tackles Italy’s ongoing migrant crisis through a most unusual form — by creating a contemporary Jesus film in Matera, the setting of both Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and before that Pasolini’s canonical The Gospel According to St. Matthew. And while Rau does cast in his film Pasolini’s Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui) and Gibson’s Mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern) — playing, respectively, John the Baptist and, again, Mother Mary — his focus is not on the past but on the very harrowing present, as the film’s mostly African nonprofessional actors are in a real-life tenuous battle for basic human rights. Leading this charge is the charismatic, Cameroon-born Yvan Sagnet, a longtime political activist, labor organizer (his achievements include bringing the mafia to heel during an agricultural workers strike) and now The New Gospel’s Black Jesus in the land of the very white Vatican.

Soon after the film’s September 6th debut, Filmmaker decided to reach out to Rau to learn all about the ups and downs of mixing hopeful historical fable with hard-knock facts.

Filmmaker: I read in the press notes that you were asked to create something in Matera to celebrate the city being designated “European Capital of Culture 2019” and immediately proposed “a new Jesus film.” So can you talk a bit about the genesis of the project? Did it evolve in ways you hadn’t originally anticipated?

Rau: Absolutely it evolved, and this has been the case with all my projects. If you would read the exposition at the beginning and compare it to the end product, you would see a big difference.

Every project is an evolution. I knew I wanted to do a Jesus film, as I am a big fan of the films that were made in Matera. In my version I work together with some of the actors of Pasolini and Gibson — like Maia Morgenstern, Gibson’s Mother Mary, and of course Enrique Irazoqui, Pasolini’s Jesus.

But when I went to Matera at the end of 2017 for the first time and found out that these refugee camps were there, I immediately understood I had to link this political and social reality to the content of the New Testament. That I really have to adapt the Bible to the context of today. Jesus’ story is a historical story. He was a leader of the landless. And the shocking thing is that the situation described in the Bible, and the situation today, are very similar.

And then I did what I always do. I call it “utopian documentarism.” I created a situation — in this case making a Jesus film with professionals and activists around Matera — and in parallel we started a big campaign for the rights and the dignity of the people. So we create a situation together, and then we document it. It’s like being the author and the documentarist of a film at the same time. And you can see this in the whole New Gospel — mixing documentary, fiction, making-of, and evolving more and more into a real Bible film.

Filmmaker: Both Enrique Irazoqui, who played Jesus in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and Maia Morgenstern, who took on the role of Saint Mary in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, are featured in your film. But other than those touchstones, The New Gospel, despite its striking cinematography and sound design, doesn’t aesthetically really resemble either of those movies. So how did you develop the look and feel of your film?

Rau: You could say it is a bit of a dialectic between the two ends of the spectrum that Mel Gibson and Pasolini represent. What I like a lot about Pasolini’s film is that it’s an ensemble film. Of course Jesus is the central figure, but it’s a description of a whole society of the poor, of the outcasts and the way they try to fight the Roman Empire. Pasolini worked together with nonprofessionals, and he made these closeups of the people’s faces I like to look at so much. I was very inspired by this neorealistic style, taking the time, not using too many cuts. You could say a kind of naive fairytale-style that Pasolini liked so much. Very naturalistic and metaphysical at the same time.

But unfortunately, Pasolini’s film is also a bit sentimental. It for example avoids violence completely. And then you have Mel Gibson’s Passion, which is all about obsessiveness and sadomasochistic violence, but without any political or metaphorical level — just violence Hollywood-style. But there is violence in our society, there is violence against refugees. And when you have a Black Jesus, his body becomes a materialization of racist and capitalist violence. And that’s why I also had to show this in people’s behavior — for example, in the scene with the soldier torturing a chair in an audition — but also in the torture scenes themselves. I needed that violence to be in it.

We made the film before the enormous rise in attention for the BLM movement, and the rise in media coverage focusing on police violence against minorities, but it turned out it became a metaphor for this, too. It’s as if we made the film about this topic. But we made a film about the capitalist system, the exploitation on the fields in the South of Europe. And you understand that racism is not something that is human and independent from all systems. That that’s not true. It lies in the inner being of capitalism, playing one person against another. And the poor will lose, and unfortunately even be killed.

And so I find myself between the transcendental neorealistic style of Pasolini and the naturalism of Mel Gibson. But there is of course also a lot of Milo Rau in it. I love to create chaotic situations for my participants. I love to create campaigns. I love a political translation of our classics. I did it before with Antigone (Antigone in the Amazon) and Orestes (Orestes in Mosul), and now with the Bible. There is a reason why the New Testament has been read by people for 2,000 years — Why we are so obsessed with this man tortured to death? There is something we didn’t overcome all this time. It’s like we’re living still in Roman times. So my starting point became, why is this book still accurate?

Filmmaker: You include a scene in which a white labor leader gets upset at your directing a journalist to interview Yvan Sagnet, the Black activist and organizer who plays Jesus. So as a multimedia artist with a history of mixing fiction with fraught reality, how do you ensure your camera doesn’t interfere, and possibly upend, a delicate situation on the ground? How exactly do you go about this balancing act?

Rau: I think it’s impossible to be a fly on the wall. It’s a nonexistent dream, because of course you always interfere. And I have always been an interventionist. Why hide what you can’t avoid? For me the central problem of all so-called documentarism is that it doesn’t reflect the role of the author of the film, doesn’t show the making-of, the border in between fiction and reality.

Actually, The New Gospel is an interventionist manifesto, too. But I also show the failures and problems that come with that method. Our campaign was the first one to unite Italian and African farmers, and this is very complicated. How do you represent everyone? Who gets time with the media, for example? Gianni Fabris is an old trade unionist who is much more used to the old, let’s say Fidel Castro, style. When we would gather at the table he would talk for two hours, and by that time everyone had fallen asleep or had left. He’s a very important figure and became a good colleague, but you can’t run a campaign for the rights of immigrants like this. So there was a lot of friction, but I would much more call it creative friction. Because in the end Fabris joins the fight again and he is still fighting side-by-side with Yvan. But there is of course also inherently a statement about myself. As a director I want to show my own failure, my own intrusion in the films I make. For me a film, an artpiece, is not the end product but the entire process, before and after the premiere.

Filmmaker: As a European guy bringing to light the plight of non-white refugees, how do you avoid continuing the colonialist gaze? Did you work with local film crew in addition to the many nonprofessional actors?

Rau: Yes, every step we took we had to do it together. You can’t, like a colonialist, just visit a refugee camp that is led by Italian and Nigerian mafia. You would be thrown out within five seconds. So for months we all worked together on creating mutual trust and common engagement. Which is also why we created the campaign. To create solidarity where you have “divide et impera,” the hard law of capitalism – everybody against everybody. It’s super-difficult, there is a lot of paranoia and distrust. We worked for months to build trust, to develop the script together.

Writing the manifesto, bringing all the Apostles to one political line, this took us many, many days and was perhaps the most beautiful part of the thing. However, we did what we could to reinforce the “Dignity” campaign and to empower the people. But of course it is their fight and not my fight. As Yvan Sagnet said at the Venice premiere, “The film is finished, but we will fight until the end of our lives.”

And we still are together. The campaign continues. We created so-called “Houses of Dignity,” the fair-trade tomato soup of Sagnet is in the supermarket, and so on. Because in a globalized society there is no outside — we are all one world, only divided by birth. The Congo and Switzerland for example are not separate entities when Swiss enterprises are located in the Congo. This is something I touched on in my previous film, The Congo Tribunal. And so you have a choice. You can just make your profit there and not talk about it. Or you can go there and give a counterbalance of solidarity to the exploited.

Filmmaker: Though Venice is your world premiere, I’m guessing you’ve already screened the film for the residents of Matera. Which made me wonder what the response has been like so far. Have you experienced blowback from any anti-immigrant forces?

Rau: Not at this moment. We had a lot of blowback during the shooting. I remember this quote from La Verita, the right-wing newspaper in Italy. It said that the scene we did with Jesus walking on water was a beautiful scene, but “if Africans could really walk on water, we would have a big problem here in Europe.” That kind of cynicism. We also had a lot of problems with the mafia or indirectly with the mafia, and we weren’t able to shoot at many locations.

In addition, we faced some challenges with the city of Matera. They were a bit afraid that the project was completely out of their hands, and that the “European Capital of Culture” would turn into the “Capital of Activist Fighting,” which did happen a bit. But in the end they loved it. Which does not surprise me. The mayor of Matera himself helps Jesus to carry his cross in our film. Now, of course, the point is that he also does this in reality.

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