Thursday, March 29, 2007

Director Julia Loktev on New York, Terror, and "Day Night Day Night"

I spoke with Director Julia Loktev about her new film "Day Night Day Night."

A 19-year old girl of unknown origin and ethnicity makes contact with her handlers in a drab motel room: she is being prepared to become a suicide bomber. The location will be Times Square. Director Julia Loktev ("Moment of Impact," ND/NF 1998) strips her narrative of motivations, and instead concentrating on mood and gesture. The simple eloquence of novice actress Luisa Williams’ performance recalls the work of Robert Bresson. Loktev’s first dramatic feature is both audacious and quietly spectacular.

-Interview by Jon Robbins

Would you talk about how you constructed the film, what you wanted it to look like?
From the very beginning I wanted a film in two parts with different aesthetic approaches, both visually and in the sound. It’s divided into two parts: planning and action. The first part is like a plan for a building. It’s very monochromatic, blue and white, grey and white, and the sound is mono. And the once she goes out into Times Square it goes into stereo. You can’t compose in the middle of Times Square, it’s catch as catch can. I wanted to get the sense of a girl who’s Times Square for the first time, how she sees it and hears it. So the image is saturated and overwhelmed.

You watch the news a lot, is that right?

I read the news a lot. I obsessively check various news feeds online. I always notice the strange details in the middle of stories. I’m always forwarding my friends stories about weird details. The film was initially based on one girl’s story that took place in Russia, but it has taken on other stories as well. Some of most incongruous details in the film come from real newspaper stories.

For example?
At one point they give the girl clothes to blend in for her mission, something that I’ve read about in many accounts of female suicide bombers. They try to transform her into a New York girl, but they’re guys shopping for women’s clothing, so I tried to imagine what they’d bring. I read a story about a female Palestinian suicide bomber who backed out when the organizers asked her to wear a shirt that exposed her belly. She reasoned that they could not be so pious after all. Or another who backed out after she realized she was doing it for the wrong reasons, because of a boyfriend. She started to worry that if she went through with it, Allah would know. These details worked their way into the film.

Or for instance, in the film, they ask her to repeat instructions back three times, and it seems very theatrical. But I’d actually read that in an Al-Qaeda handbook. But also there was stuff like “pay your post office fees on time, make sure you watch the parking signs,” and it had other info too, like how to poison someone with bean soup.

The girl is strange...
She’s constantly thanking people, very meek, but also very determined in her meekness, which is very interesting to me. I didn’t want to depict her as an innocent victim: her meekness comes from belief. So she throws herself at this cause.

The way I was seeing the girl framed was in a submissive way. It easily could have gone on to the porny side of things, but despite the ambiguous aesthetics, you managed to efface any erotic sense in the film. Were you conscious of this?
It’s funny because we thought about this, and were careful to avoid it. You have all the props of S&M: you have blindfolds, you have handcuffs, you have masks. But what I really wanted to show going on here is a power dynamic. Rarely do those who plan suicide bombings carry them out.

And here it’s a gendered power…
The dynamic exists even when it's all men, but I think it is heightened with female suicide bombers. For us, masks really highlighted that. And we were careful even when they pat her down for them to have as little physical contact with her as possible.

It’s an awkward working relationship, isn’t it?
In a way it’s like the relationship between an actor and a director. And we talked about this, Luisa Williams and I, about how an actor comes to submit to a director. In a sense, the act the girl sets out to do is about a performance. It’s not about the act itself but about its reverberations in the media.

You were able to maintain a prolific level of tension in the film.
The funny thing is that as I was making the film, I had no idea people would be calling it a thriller. We never thought that way in the editing room. I always saw "Day Night Day Night" as very concerned with the girl’s thought process, as an almost existential film. So it was very surprising for me to hear that people would think of it as a thriller.

And you’ve spoken of Day Night Day Night as a sort of love letter to New York
The last forty minutes of the film are all about her interaction with the city. I’ve always found New York to be special in that there is this fragile thread of social interaction that connects us. And in this sense, Day Night Day Night is my love letter to the city of New York.

-Interview by Jon Robbins

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