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“There is No Film Safe from Some Version of Exploitation…”: Mo Scarpelli on her DOC NYC Feature El Father Plays Himself

Mo Scarpelli’s El Father Plays Himself, which premiered at Visions du Réel, is now at DOC NYC and will next be hitting IDFA, is one complicated multilayered journey, both logistically and emotionally. It began when Scarpelli (Anbessa, Frame by Frame) decided to train her documentary lens on a narrative feature in the making — specifically her partner Jorge Thielen Armand’s La Fortaleza (which premiered at Rotterdam). La Fortaleza in turn is based on the hard-hitting, hard-drinking life of Jorge Roque Thielen, the director’s father, who stars as himself in his own story. That “el father” remains as wild and unpredictable as the Venezuelan Amazon in which both films take place only adds to the production (and ethical) complications.

Filmmaker managed to catch up with the globetrotting, Italian-American director-cinematographer the week of her meta film’s DOC NYC debut.

Filmmaker: So what was the original idea behind El Father Plays Himself? Did you always intend for it to be a standalone work of cinematic nonfiction, or were you planning more of a behind the scenes, “making of” doc tied to your partner Jorge’s film?

Scarpelli: The film’s intention evolved, but it was always supposed to stand by itself in the way Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams is “about” Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, but certainly exists apart from it. That was the initial idea when I tagged along with Jorge Thielen Armand to Venezuela for his film production, to start making a making-of in that spirit and see where it led.

When we got to Venezuela, I found myself completely bored by the minute dramas of making a fiction film (no matter how amplified they were in Venezuela, a very difficult and often dangerous place to make a movie). Something else was happening, something only perceptible with careful watching. This film, written by a son who has spent most of his life away from his father but is still in the inevitable shadow of him (as all sons are), was Jorge speaking to his father. About fear, about love, about regret, about the physical and emotional distance between them.

And Father playing his own role, facing his own unrest with himself in the act, was Father speaking truth to his son. Never had I seen language between two people coalesce in this way. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I felt it was a beautiful and incredibly dangerous thing, to open up that kind of communication. Where would this take them? Would it destroy them? I had to follow that. Everything became about following that. It’s the most “gut” film I’ve ever made. I just watched and watched and waited for these two to show each other, and me, who they were to one another. And who they could be for one another with the aid of a “fiction” film set allowing them to push everything to its limits.

Filmmaker: Since you’re an acclaimed cinematographer it’s no surprise that the visual imagery is so intoxicating. Could you talk a bit about the cameras you were shooting with, and also how you capture such incredibly composed images in kinetic (sometimes frenetic) situations?

Scarpelli: Thank you! The film was shot completely on a Sony A7SII, out of necessity at first, as it is the camera I had already had from shooting my last film, Anbessa. I originally chose this camera for its being lightweight and great in low light. (Anbessa was shot mostly during a time of political unrest in Ethiopia, so I needed something versatile and also super-steady for handheld shooting without a tripod/big rig.) By the time I went to Venezuela, this camera was like my arm. I knew it perfectly and could hold it for hours without moving. That mattered for the kind of persistent observation necessary to capture the ways Father and Jorge betrayed themselves through body language, etc. And I mean “betray” in a positive way. The most honest stuff is things we do automatically in reaction to others, or to a situation. I like to wait a long time searching for these moments in those I film.

I used a 24-70mm for most of the film. I could stay close because I had complete trust from Jorge and Father, and by proxy that meant with the film crew. I used a longer lens (70-200mm) mostly when Jorge and Father were on set, to reflect my estranged point of view. I was intently focused on Father or son’s reactions or body language no matter what else was happening, and also on allowing the crew members to move between me and them to remind us of the artifice of the fiction film set. Through these layers we can see, I think, a father and a son, and the mechanism they built to communicate — i.e., the film — which is constantly drawing out truth, but also getting in the way of them loving one another.

Filmmaker: One of the many things I found so compelling about El Father Plays Himself were the ethically questionable decisions (compromises?) Jorge makes throughout — and by extension that you also make since you’ve implicated yourself in the filmmaking process. So I’m wondering how you navigated this tricky territory. Were there offscreen discussions about whether the shoot was doing the father (not to mention the crew) more harm than good?

Scarpelli: Making El Father ripped open a lot of questions for me about why the hell we make movies. There is no film safe from some version of exploitation — that’s the nature of filming anything and putting it on a screen for others to watch. And then the interpretation of that person on the screen cannot be controlled, no matter how much the director thinks they can.

I think this is worth remembering. We’re being “tricked” all the time about notions of the directors, about fiction as a safe space because “it’s all fake anyway.” But filmmaking is inherently personal and exploits oneself (the filmmaker), a place, a people, even an audience. That is something we find scary about it, but I think also that is why we love cinema, too.

I was fascinated by the way Jorge and Father were not precious about exploitation. They did not discuss things too much. In fact, Father didn’t know the script of the movie beforehand — he learned each day what he would be doing. That allowed a lot of surprise on set, which he loved, but caused anxiety too as he found out things he did not like reenacting from his real life. Father could have always said “no” or “Nah, let’s do it this way.” But I think he preferred to try digging into parts of himself he is not proud of. I learned that by watching him, that he felt alive by doing this.

So, the notion of exploitation was always looming — but in this case, it wasn’t to be resolved right there. Instead I think both Father and Jorge decided to use it to make this movie together. They wanted to lean into what that could mean. They weren’t scared of exploitation. They were kind of using it for and against one another.

For me — well, I take the questions around representation very seriously. It would be very fucked up if I didn’t, no matter where I make films, but especially because I make films in lands and cultures which are not mine. I am constantly interrogating questions about decisions — or compromises, as you say — made to represent a person onscreen. El Father was the first film I made where the interrogation of representation onscreen was, in a way, the focus of my film itself. I was watching Jorge represent his father, and Father struggle with trusting his son to do so, and the question was always looming — when is it taken too far? What would that look like or mean? I was watching an extremely complex relationship, that has its own history of pushing things far, get the license to go even further. Because while in life people tell you to calm down, in the cinema world raw emotion is rewarded. So off they went, with me along.

Some moments during filming El Father I questioned whether Jorge cared about this enough. Sometimes I lingered on him with the camera, waiting for him to show me that he does, that he puts the wellbeing of his father before “good cinema.” That was, I realize now, an unfair interrogation. He certainly does put his father’s life and wellbeing before his films. Even Father knows that. In fact, Father trusted Jorge more than anyone, and I think that’s why he went so far with his son. It wasn’t just that Father wanted to prove he was strong enough — though he gets into that macho shit sometimes — it’s that Father and son are, despite their very opposite demeanors, very alike. They both craved the fire. They told me I could join, I could watch. I didn’t always know how to handle it, to be honest. I was quite worried about them for parts of it. But I felt a kind of obligation, a strength, to keep watching and filming, too, because we were all in this weird vortex of “Who is Father, what can he show us?” together.

Did we talk about it? No. At the time, I was waiting for someone to discuss it in front of my camera. (And Fagua, the acting coach, does so with Jorge after Father plays a particularly harrowing scene.) I was relentlessly sticking to my film, too, to my form which is observational and waiting for others, trying to suspend judgement and all of that. I realize now that I wasn’t just staying out of it, though. In fact, my camera’s presence was alone saying, “What the hell are you doing, really?” But also, I didn’t trust that a conversation around ethics would suffice, or make a difference here. This thing these two were doing, it was their battle. They would fight it out the way they needed to. I trusted the film (Jorge’s and mine, or one of them) to resolve these questions, or at least not allow us all to get away without answering them. Which leads me to this longwinded answer about your pertinent question — sorry for that! — which I hope everyone is grappling with in some way by the end of watching the film.

Filmmaker: One scene I found particularly memorable was when the father breaks the fourth wall, so to speak, and rages, “I bet Mo already has the scenes you want!” I think it’s the only time your presence is actually acknowledged by someone onscreen. Can you let us in on why it was important to include this in the film?

Scarpelli: I liked how this moment adds another layer to the ways Father is aware of being filmed. It’s a reminder that of course he is aware of me, too. And in this particular moment, he prefers my way of making films over Jorge’s way of making films. (He also mocks the way the crew wastes time on setting up lights, etc.)

Another thing is that by siding with me, he digs further into his son. He’s saying, “We know what’s going on, you don’t!” I didn’t feel in that moment that I was on a side, but the idea of that — your protagonist choosing which film he prefers to be a part of — is terrific to me. He’s not at the whims of the directors. He is an autonomous human, he of course can choose, too.

Lastly, I like that Father said this to compliment me. It’s funny in that way of “She’s better than you, son!” Honestly, I really love the levity in which these kinds of things happen with Father, Jorge, his whole family, and many Venezuelans. It’s a serious moment as we watch them fight onscreen, but at the core of it is making fun of someone. It’s something very common in the culture, to point out a problem or injustice. Father and I were quite close, and he knows Jorge and I are close and that Jorge respects me, so he kind of threw me at Jorge as a jab. Jorge’s deep sigh that follows is a bit heartbreaking, but Father thinks he deserves it.

Filmmaker: So how does the father feel about the film now that it’s making the festival rounds? Are there scenes he feels strongly about one way or the other?

Scarpelli: Father is quite proud. It was not easy for him to watch the film the first time. (He saw the final cut before anyone else. Jorge and I showed him both films in Venezuela last winter before Jorge’s, La Fortaleza, premiered at Rotterdam in January and El Father premiered at Visions du Réel in the spring.) He is very intelligent, he knows himself very well, so it was not so surprising for him to see some of his chaotic behavior onscreen.

I think it was much more difficult for him to watch, to linger, on the face of his son in those moments. For example, his son’s face when he goes on a rage which jeopardizes the film production. It’s hard to watch that. I’m proud of Father for not just making a difficult movie with his son, but then standing by the ways he is reflected in El Father. That takes a lot of courage. And what’s also interesting and beautiful is where that kind of reflection of one another, and the self, can take them. It’s clear now that both films have elevated their relationship to another level. They went through (sometimes literal) fire, and here they are on the other side thinking, “Well, what’s next?”

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