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Camera Lucida: Edgardo Cozarinsky on Letter to a Father

Letter to a Father

“I have often wondered what makes us keep things that we know are bound to disappear,” states the narrator of the film Letter to a Father (2013). The voice belongs to Letter’s filmmaker, Edgardo Cozarinsky, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1939 and has spent much of his life in Paris. The things he has kept over time include items pertaining to his father, Mirón Cozarinsky, a naval officer he barely knew who passed away when he was 20 years old.

In the Argentinian director’s most recent feature-length film, he visits his father’s hometown of Clara (located in the central Entre Ríos province) for the first time. He explores an area settled in the late 19th century by Ukrainian Jews including his grandparents, interviews living relatives, and visits sites weighted by the past in the role of a detective gathering information about his kin. “The detective always ends by finding something out about himself,” he comments towards journey’s close.

Cozarinsky appears in his essay film mainly through the sound of his voiceover. His body stays unseen, save for a face caught only in glimpses and hands sometimes shown holding objects, as though in consideration of their meanings. The film holds up a mirror in a subdued, disquieting way, as its protagonist finds himself reflected in traces of his father. An ornate knife the military man brought his son from a trip to Japan gleams, with the handle’s lettering still left untranslated years later; pages of fragile handwritten letters are sifted through delicately; quivering black-and-white photographs of a man posed in varied locations emerge that might be lost were it not for the live fingers grasping them.

Among other things, Mirón Cozarinsky was a voluntary exile who — like his son — set out from home and traveled abroad with occasional, estranged returns. Edgardo Cozarinsky left Argentina’s military dictatorship climate in 1974 by moving to France, where he believed that he could better develop as an artist. He has since written several books of essays and prose fiction and directed both documentary and fiction films. Many of his works encircle notions of exile. Throughout them, the gathering of fragments left by people no longer present is pursued as a central course of action.

The film One Man’s War (1982), for example, offers voiceover commentary from the World War II journals of Paris-stationed German author and military officer Ernst Jünger (spoken by Niels Arestrup) over public wartime newsreel images of cheerful Parisians. Complex ironies form as the two sets of materials are shown to each hold their own truths, with Cozarinsky’s role as their organizer suggested subtly throughout. In Sunset BoulevardS (1992), Cozarinsky himself wanders through then-present-day Buenos Aires seeking traces of movie theaters that he frequented as a child, and researches the lives of French film actors who lived in Argentina as refugees during his youth. Citizen Langlois (1995) employs a combination of archival footage and firsthand interviews to profile the deceased cofounder of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois, a Jewish refugee from Turkey whose alternately warm and distant personality is suggested (among other ways) through images from Citizen Kane.

These works call attention to themselves as films in order to bring attention to real lives behind them. Letter to a Father is the last installment of an intimate trilogy, by turns essayistic and poetic, of what Cozarinsky calls “chamber” films, all set in Argentina and exploring his origins. During their course, he measures what is gone of his past and what remains of it, with memories growing more significant upon each revisiting and souvenirs gaining value as totems. “In every film I’m going to insert some shots from previous films,” he comments in Letter, speaking of a ritualistic act of self-preservation.

Letter to a Father will screen this Thursday at 7 P.M. in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center within the ongoing series “Art of the Real.”

Filmmaker: How did you craft Letter to a Father?

Cozarinsky: My life and my film work have always formed a kind of zigzag. I never thought in terms of a career, whether in films or as a writer. I realized with time that this zigzag was actually very close to a straight line.

In 2005 I decided to stop making films after a work of mine called Night Watch (2005) was badly received in Argentina despite doing well in Europe. I didn’t direct anything after that until 2010, when I began a series of three “chamber” films — Notes for an Imaginary Biography (2010), Nocturnos (2011), and Letter to a Father — with the support of my producer and friend Constanza Sanz Palacios. I wouldn’t have been able to realize these three films if I hadn’t previously done films that were completely different from them. Even the things that I do not like about my work, the films that I would never show in a retrospective, somehow taught me things and were experiences that I profited from. I learned from my mistakes.

I think that these most recent films are very spare and stripped down, which are qualities that I found over time. Letter to a Father in particular is a film made out of digressions. I am digressing all the time in it, between Entre Rios, Japan, Buenos Aires, and Nazi-occupied Austria, and also between different moments in history. I didn’t want to go directly from one point to another; I also knew that I would not include unnecessary things. I sacrificed much during the editing process that I would have liked to keep.

The only aspect of the film’s structure of which I was initially certain was that the Japanese knife would appear three times. First it would come at the beginning, as an exotic object brought home by my father from one of his travels; then in the middle, with my saying that I took it to Paris without knowing why and not daring to translate the inscription for fear that it would read something banal like “Touristic souvenir,” when my father had always said that it was the traditional blade for seppuku; and at the end when, on the occasion of doing this film, I gather the courage to seek a translation and gain reassurance that those words were not what I had feared — they confirmed my father’s version.

This was the only pre-planned material in Letter to a Father — the rest I had to discover. In general, when I have tried to make straight narrative films, either I have failed outright or the result has been simply uninteresting. When I have placed music and characters into a kind of non-narrative space within the middle of a film, though, it has worked.

I have always been most adept in cinema with what people call the essay film genre (which I am not sure is a genre). For a long time I was quite taken with the films of Chris Marker, and with his facility to work with the human voice as a film’s backbone. I tried to do this in Letter to a Father. It’s a film where I think that the images respond to the words, and even sometimes contradict them.

I don’t believe that this is so much the case in my prose writing. My essays and chronicles are very, very verbal. I do not delve too much into psychological analysis — it doesn’t interest me. I instead try to look to look closely at human behavior as a detective and see what else is behind it.

Filmmaker: Why is the detective figure important to you?

Cozarinsky: Because I think it’s at the basis of all fiction. I’m interested in stories in which somebody tries to find out what is hidden behind appearances. I developed an idea in an essay I wrote many years ago that gossip is the root of all novels, with people telling people what other people are doing. There is gossip in Henry James, gossip in Proust, and even the erudition in Borges works as a kind of gossip by carrying bits of information from one part of the encyclopedia to another book.

I think that Raymond Chandler is a kind of abstract model for me, despite my work looking very different from his. We all live today in the middle of a reality that is completely manipulated — not just by politicians, but also by the mass media. I am neither a militant nor an activist, but within my own sphere, I find it interesting to play the part of a detective putting things together, meeting people and assembling different reports. I could be investigating a murder, or familial relationships.

Filmmaker: There are two key people in this film — you and your father. How did you create these characters?

Cozarinsky: I did not create them. They created themselves. I am present. You see my face once in full, when I am going to the train station in a shot reproduced from Notes from an Imaginary Biography, at which point you hear me say, “In every film I’m going to insert some shots from previous films.” Otherwise, physically, I am nearly invisible — you hear my voice and see my hands. But you always know that I am there.

If I am present, then my father is absent. I wondered at first how I could film absence and settled on filming all the things that I tried to prevent from vanishing. My father was not the photographs of him that appear in the film, nor was he any of the other items that we see, but with all these bits and pieces together we can create a void big enough to hold him.

Within the film I say, “I have often wondered what makes us keep things that we know are bound to disappear.” I don’t have an answer. I think that it comes from a personal wish to remain. Holding onto objects, perhaps, is a way for us to prolong our state in the world.

I remember that when my mother died, I didn’t want to keep most of her things. She lived much longer than my father did — he passed away when he was 59, and she survived until she was 98. I told her building’s concierge (who became her best friend during her final years) to empty the apartment and give the furniture to her children. My mother was going to stay in my memory, so I didn’t need to hold onto her tea set. I asked only that the concierge store all of her letters, photographs, and documents in boxes for me. This was how I found many items that had belonged to her family, and how I found the box containing all the letters to her from my father.

People have asked me why my mother doesn’t appear more in the film. She’s present throughout the sum total of three photographs — one of her alone, one of her with my father, and one of her with my father and me when I was a small child. This is because it’s not a film about my mother. My relationships with her and with my father were different. I never had a relationship with both of them as my parents. I think I saw them as individuals only, never once as an entity.

I was struck, though, when looking through this box, by the idea of a letter. A handwritten letter is something so physical. At the time when my mother and father were writing to each other, people had sheets of paper, bottles of ink, and pens. You dipped and wrote, and your handwriting, the ink, and the paper each possessed their own material existences. Then you folded up the letter, put it in an envelope, and sent it to a person who in turn opened the envelope and held an unfolded sheet of paper in his or her hands. I think that a kind of contact, physical and spiritual, would occur between two people there. 

I very much believe in the existence of things beyond the grave. Perhaps this is due to my age. These days I work only with young people because people from my generation bore me. When I was younger, though, I was always attracted to older folk. I felt that they had more things to tell and experiences to share. They held some kind of fictional character in my eyes.

Filmmaker: Throughout your films, you cast yourself as a figure in exile. Why?

Cozarinsky: This is one of those things better seen from outside. I do not analyze myself. I may be the only middle-class Jew in Buenos Aires who has never been to analysis.

I can tell an anecdote, though. We were shooting one day and our car was on a dirt road. A van arrived and its driver, a man who was probably close to sixty years old or so, wanted to pass. We moved our car onto a grass field, the man passed us, and then he stopped his van, got out, and asked, “What are you doing here?”

As I was the only crewmember with some relationship to the place, I answered, “I’m doing a little film about where my father was born.”

“What is your family name?”

“Cozarinsky.”

 “Oh, the Cozarinskys from Clara?”

 “Yes.”

 “I never met them, because they were all gone when I was born, but I heard a lot about them.”

He started telling me stories and gossip about my family. They were all third-hand somehow, and I realized how much people in these villages get to tell stories about their neighbors. 

At the end he said, “And they also had a son who was a bit loony and entered the Navy.”

I said, “Yes, maybe. That was my father.”

“Oh.”

“No, no, don’t worry. He was no more crazy than my grandfather, who crossed the ocean at a time when there was not only no Internet, but also no illustrated newspapers where he could see pictures of the country he was going to work in. No more crazy than I, who have been living between two continents and writing and making films.”

The man said, “Yes, yeah. I understand now. You know, craziness runs in your family.”

When this happened, I realized that maybe I belonged to some kind of lineage of behavior of expatriation and wandering. Of course I have lived much longer than my father did; still, I think there’s something there.

Filmmaker: Do you believe that Letter to a Father relates to any films you haven’t yet mentioned?

Cozarinsky: It is somehow closely related to Sunset BoulevardS. (The big “S” appears so as not to confuse my film with Billy Wilder’s.) In that one I go around to places where there had been cinemas when I was a child in Buenos Aires and which are now things like supermarkets and parking lots, all while remembering two French actors from different periods who died in Argentina. One was Falconetti, the star of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and one was Robert Le Vigan, a character actor from the 1930s and 1940s who collaborated with the Occupation 

Falconetti arrived here during World War II, Le Vigan afterwards. I started going to film societies at the age of 13 and never knew that these people I saw onscreen were living perhaps very close to me. This is a question of having your eyes fixed on the ideal image of what cinema gives you and becoming uninterested in daily life.

In Sunset BoulevardS I comment, “Today the only films which make me dream are those I want to make.” The line was true in 1991. I don’t think it’s true now. Still, when I was making Letter to a Father I thought that I would like to do as Manoel de Oliveira did and keep working on films until age 106. Now I would like to shoot in Cambodia. I would like to present a certain actress I like very much.

I want to get rid of things that belonged to my family history. If I keep older things, it is because they are related to periods in my life. For instance, in the case of my father, there was the knife. It was just a thing I had found, but its being from Japan somehow mattered to me. I thought to myself, “OK, I will translate this inscription.” And then my hesitation to translate it lasted for many years.

Information about the Art of the Real screening of Letter to a Father can be found at http://www.filmlinc.com/films/on-sale/letter-to-a-father. 

Aaron Cutler keeps a film criticism website, The Moviegoer, at http://aaroncutler.tumblr.com.

 

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