Haifa International Film Festival 2011: An Interview with Julia Loktev

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Using the few words they know, accompanied by lots of gestures, smiles and meaningful looks, to have a conversation in a foreign language; showering in cold water; eating strange food; playing a spontaneous game of catch with a stranger, long days of being in the present moment, getting to know the land through feet, eyes, ears and skin – young lovers Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) set out on a backpacking trip through the Causcasus Mountains of Georgia with their local guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) in Julia Loktev’s film The Loneliest Planet. Loktev visited Israel for the first time for the screening of her film at the Haifa International Film Festival, and talked about the film with Midnight East in the garden of the Haifa cinematheque.

Julia Loktev at the Haifa International Film Festival 2011/Photo: Ayelet Dekel

Loktev, who was born in Leningrad and moved with her family to the US at the age of nine, recalled that “a convergence of many different things” led her to make the film. While travelling with a boyfriend through Georgia, they remembered reading a short story by Tim Bissell that tells of a married couple’s relationship-altering experience while on vacation, and Loktev thought it would be interesting to convert the story to a film. Although this short one-week hike was her first visit to Georgia, her parents had travelled in the region and she felt a connection to the place she says was considered the “vacation jewel of the Soviet Union.” Loktev says she was “Attracted to the drastic turning point that shakes the couple to their core and tests their relationship,” but wanted to shift the story from its focus on an older married couple to two people who were not yet married, “young, in love, open, traveling, curious, trying to meeting people, completely enamored, and then this thing happens that shakes them. What do you do afterwards?”

Searching for actors who would convey that sense of intense young love, Loktev knew she “didn’t want a clichéd image of Americans – two blondes from Wisconsin,” but rather a cast that reflected what she calls “my kind of America.” “People who were born somewhere else and speak with an accent, or without an accent,” she smiles, acknowledging her American accent that gives no clue to her Russian origins. She found Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg while “searching for the guy.” Loktev says she “cast a wide net.” Told that Israeli men are masculine yet sensitive, she began looking at Israeli films to find her leading man, and came away with “tiny, delicate, redhead Hani.”

Loktev is amused that people who have seen the film and don’t know Hani assume that she is a very sporty, outdoorsy person. Actually, said Loktev, “she’s a city girl, frilly” and the muscular, adventurous hiker Nica in the film – “that’s acting…[Hani is] fantastic, amazing, versatile.” Loktev said that Bidzina Gujabidze, who plays the guide in the film, “is the top mountaineer in Georgia, he has climbed Everest twice. He’s a hard core, bad ass, mountaineer.” Gujabidze had to be talked into rescheduling a climb in the Himalayas in order to shoot the film. As for the trek depicted in the film, Loktev said that he would consider that a “walk in a manicured park. They call that ‘walking on the green stuff.”

Throughout most of the film Alex, Nica and their guide are hiking through a vast, remote landscape. The intimacy of the three is set against the backdrop of nature, reflected in the visual aspect of the film with its shifts in perspective. In one memorable shot, actress Hani Furstenberg’s blazing red hair fills the entire screen, curls flying; in another one sees her pale slender fingers deep in the soft wool of a sheep, Alex’s strong brown hand enters the frame, their fingers almost touching. At times in the film one sees only a wide shot of the land itself – stark rocks and green grass, with only the faint tremor of barely perceptible movement to hint at the presence of the hikers. Loktev said they called those shots “larva shots”: “the enormous scale and tiny figures remind you that this intimate story is taking place in an enormous landscape.” Other than a short scene in a local bar before the pair sets out on their trek, these scenes are the only times when music appears in the film. Loktev said that this “musical interlude is not quite an intermission, not quite chapter headings…more like spaces. Like if you walk in the Metropolitan Museum there are pocket gardens you can go into and sit and reflect…space to think, aware of the landscape.”

There is a very natural feel to the film, recreating the experience of hiking, with its beautiful scenes and the kind of companionable silence between people who are walking together on a trail, with the occasional observation, joke or game. Yet Loktev says that there is very little improvisation in the film. She worked with a very precise script, with every word and action carefully detailed, even to movement of a hand. The film was shot over a period of six weeks, shooting six days a week; much of that time was spent waiting for the right light. “There was a nice misty light when we were scouting locations,” Loktev said, “then when we were shooting we were slammed with a heat wave and harsh light. We’d set out at 4:30 am and hike in the dark to locations. It was challenging. We were a small crew in the mountains, really at the mercy of the sun. I was so attuned to every change in the light. We said that there was a crew on the ground and a crew in the sky. “It wasn’t quite Days of Heaven,” she smiled, “but we often spent all day rehearsing for one hour of shooting.”

Loktev said that “some people have been judgmental of the travelers” in the film, viewing travel to remote places as a privilege available only to the affluent. Yet the director’s own experiences of travel have been very different. Loktev recalled moving to America as a child, arriving in Colorado, “an amazing crazy country with a lunar landscape” where she said, “There were no immigrants, no Jews, and very few brunettes. My mom joined AAA and got all these maps and we would get in the car with a tent, drive cross country, stopping at every national park. We came [from Russia] with nothing. We didn’t go out, we didn’t eat in restaurants, but I travelled all across American while growing up.”

The visual, sensory aspect of the film recreates the feel of hiking, and the experiences of the growing number of people of all ages and walks of life that choose to travel extensively to unfamiliar places, some making travel a way of life. The narrative of the couple’s relationship reflects to a great extent the confusion of women and men living in an age when gender roles are no longer clearly defined. Loktev described Nica’s character as a “very competitive, ‘I can do it’ tomboy. Gael is comfortable in his masculinity. She makes a point of her independence, she’s not a little flower, she doesn’t need taking care of.” Loktev’s observations in the film are grounded in her own experiences. She said, “I’m a very outdoorsy girl. My mom is 73 and she still hikes and downhill skies.” Yet in the context of certain situations, such as the one that occurs in a critical scene in the film, Loktev said, “people respond not how they expected to respond. They are surprised by their own actions.” She recalled hiking with a boyfriend in the California Redwoods: “I asked him why don’t you offer me your hand? He looked at me as if I came from outer space and said ‘wouldn’t you find that patronizing?’ Well, I said I’d like that.”  Yet when her boyfriend then assiduously offered help on the trail, she soon found she couldn’t stand it. “People are confused over what a woman might expect from a man. Do you need help over trees or not? There is no clear answer, they’re confused.”

The answers to these questions differ across cultures, and Loktev said, “I’m curious how people will respond here [in Israel]. What is it to be a woman, to be a man now?” The Loneliest Planet describes the intimate details of a relationship against the backdrop of the planet, human emotions measured against the scale of nature. Loktev said she sees the film as “a real reflection. It’s so much about time. A good person can screw up in one second. There’s nowhere to hide. The second half of the film takes place on the same day as the rupture. They have more than a day’s walk to the town – what do you do now? Does someone reach to take your hand or not? The littlest things can make you feel unloved.”

The Loneliest Planet (USA/Germany 2011, 113 min. English, Hebrew subtitles)
Director: Julia Loktev; Screenplay: Julia Loktev, based on a short story by Tim Bissell; Camera: Inti Briones; Editors: Michael Taylor, Julia Loktev; Music: Richard Skelton; Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, Bidzina Gujabidze; Producers: Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Helge Albers, Marie Therese Guirguis; Festivals: Locarno, Haifa International Film Festival.

Julia Loktev’s films include the feature films The Loneliest Planet (2011) and Day Night Day Night (2006), and the documentary Moment of Impact (1998) .