Cutting through roaring laughter, Spanish director Albert Serra said: “Why are you laughing?! I am serious!” The reaction of the audience was the natural byproduct of Serra’s staple candidness, which he brought to the International Film Festival Rotterdam during an in-depth talk about his career and methodology delivered earlier this week.
Serra is in Rotterdam with “Pacifiction,” playing as part of the Harbour strand at IFFR, a selection dedicated to offering a “safe haven to the full range of contemporary cinema that the festival champions.” Speaking on the use of satire in his latest work, the director said: “Humor can be risky because it can transform into vulgarity quite easily, so you never know when you’re safe. Because, if it’s subversive, who cares about vulgarity? I don’t care, personally, but it has to be a little bit transgressive.”
The filmmaker cited Ruben Östlund’s Oscar-nominated “Triangle of Sadness” as a recent example of vulgarity done right. “The part when they are throwing up, I like it very much. That moment is vulgar but is also quite transgressive.”
“You have to be on the edge of being politically correct, otherwise it’s not fun,” he continued. “The reality of society is so boring. The bubble of people around me is much more interesting and they are very tolerant, but even some of the people I know are less tolerant. So I am a bit scared because if something can affect people who are very smart and open-minded, can you imagine what happens in normal society? I take pleasure in always walking on the edge, in a very subtle way, and this is to pervert the game.”
When prodded on whether or not he believed political correctness was “putting a brake on fiction,” Serra said: “Unfortunately I think so. The kingdom of freedom was fiction because you don’t have to live it, but you have to make people believe in it for a moment. If you don’t make people believe, then it doesn’t work. What the politically correct don’t like is that, for a moment, you live a different life than yours. Cinema is especially powerful because it is images and sound and it happens in real time, and they don’t tolerate that you can really imagine a different life where you are a bad person. This is the catharsis in Greek tragedy. If you eliminate it from fiction, it doesn’t mean it will disappear in reality, it’s the opposite, worse things are happening now because you are denying reality. “
Commenting on how fiction can interfere with life, Serra offered an example of a curious instance on the set of his 2013 film “Story of My Death,” where six people broke up their romantic relationships after the film wrapped. “They suddenly believed the life they were leading was not worth it. And this all happened within three weeks.”
This is, as the director put it, “scientific reason” to keep his shooting period to a maximum of four weeks. “The ideal length of a shoot is 24 days, four weeks. If it is longer, maybe people will start having doubts about the intensity of the film, because inevitably life erodes these strong sensations and you get used to it. The fourth week is also when the actors start becoming friendlier with one another, and then they can take control of the film. And then you’re the weak one because you cannot tell them what to do anymore.”
Serra added: “Actors are the visible face of the film and it’s very difficult to be fascinating in front of a camera. I admire them, I admire the effort. Communication with actors and a collaborative way of working can help the final result, I am not saying the opposite. But, still, you have to seduce them. As Machiavelli said, what do you prefer: To be loved or feared as a leader? He said it’s much better to be feared.”
When asked what he thought of being labelled as “radical,” Serra was categorical: “The most radical thing I do is not care about success. Not only me but all the people working with me. We don’t really care about what people think about what we do, or how a film will be received. We are all so focused on the formal logic of what we are doing and the necessary intelligence we need to be at the top and really serve this formal goal to try doing something original.”
The director finished his talk by offering firm advice about how to be respectful of fellow filmmakers when inviting their thoughts on his output: “There are two or three people who I care about what they think, but I try to show them my films before the end of the edit in order to have the possibility of changing it. If you really care about someone and you appreciate what they have to tell you, it’s better to call them before the end of the edit.”
- ‘Pacifiction’ Director Albert Serra on Political Correctness, ‘Boring’ Fiction: ‘The Most Radical Thing I Do Is Not Care About Success’
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