Christopher Jason Bell’s feature directorial debut, “The Winds That Scatter,” is an independent film in the purest sense. It lacks the stars and derivative formulas that have caused so many modern Sundance selections to be indistinguishable from the typical Hollywood product. As a former critic for Indiewire’s excellent blog, The Playlist, Bell draws on his wide-ranging knowledge of cinema while crafting his own visual language, and the results are thoroughly immersive. Ahmad Chahrour stars as a Syrian immigrant struggling to realize the American dream amidst economic woes and professional set-backs.
Bell spoke with Indie Outlook about making the film in Arabic, his love of Kelly Reichardt and the topical relevance of his protagonist’s plight.
What would you consider your first love—filmmaking or film criticism—and is it a challenge balancing the two?
Filmmaking, without a doubt! I only wrote film criticism for a couple of years after college. After graduating, I felt very removed from the film community. I couldn’t afford to make another film because I didn’t have a job, and the money I got from occasional part time work went straight to student loan payments, so I thought film criticism would not only be a productive thing to do, but it’d also insert me into the scene. I quit “the game” a couple of years ago, but I still pop up here and there. At this point I prefer to spend my time developing a project because I want to keep getting better as a writer/director. I do think that film criticism is extremely, extremely important—and that doesn’t mean that I think the scene is healthy, because it isn’t—but I never thought I was particularly good at it and at a certain point, I noticed that my writing ability sort of stagnated. I still have opinions and thoughts about cinema, as we all do, but now I’m trying to pump independent work that I think more people should see and programming here and there so that they can see it.
“The Winds That Scatter” has more urgent and provocative things to say about the American economy than “The Big Short” did (which seemed to me more like a celebrity-saturated educational video). What inspired you to explore this topic from the perspective of an immigrant?
Thank you! That’s so nice to hear! I haven’t seen “The Big Short” yet, so I can’t really comment on that, but it’s pretty interesting to be compared to something like that, regardless. From the very earliest incarnation, “Winds” was always going to be a tale of an immigrant. I was originally inspired to write a film starring this middle-aged Russian man that worked in my local gas station. There’s a lot of reasons that, I think, the view of the American economy (and America in general) is best analyzed via someone who hasn’t been indoctrinated since birth, so to speak. A better film would be by a filmmaker who wasn’t American himself, probably (something like Werner Herzog’s “Stroszek” comes to mind, which I think is a masterpiece). Because America at least says it is a land where all can come and make a name for themselves, it makes the most sense to center it on an immigrant… at least for me. Plus, I found it odd that microbudget independent film—which can’t afford to have name actors attached to them—was sort of creating their own A-list actors and such, which is admittedly necessary, healthy, and interesting in a way. But at the same time, by constantly doing that, we’re in danger of losing something. Plus, the actors were generally all white, all in their 20s, etc. It was getting too homogenized and I wanted to fight against that.
The tension you conjure in various scenes reminded me of “Wendy and Lucy,” which you’ve cited as your favorite film of 2008. The fixed angles, long takes and lingering close-ups immerse us in Ahmad’s desperation. How has Kelly Reichardt’s work served as an inspiration for you?
That movie really struck me when I saw it and it still does…much like the rest of her work. I think she’s fantastic. I discovered her in college when I first encountered slow-cinema, neo-neo-realism, minimalism, etc. Maybe some people don’t think she would fit into some or any of those categories, but whatever. I didn’t know people were doing this in America, so watching “Old Joy” when it came out was definitely eye-opening. Reichardt is subtle and confident, getting the most out of something very simple. Stripping a script down to its bare core and getting something so resonant is really not easy to do—you’re teetering on the edge of losing its essence or just being completely empty—but I think she’s successful at it, and it’s something that I’m trying to do with my work as well.
What was the casting process like in terms of finding your leading man, Ahmad Chahrour?
It was a difficult process, and a long one, but absolutely worth it. I had to find someone authentic, and then I had to make sure they wanted to act and collaborate on a film that had very little money. So it was rough, definitely. Luckily I met Nasri Zacharia—he plays the guitar in the house/hang-out scene earlier in the film—through a shot-in-the-dark Craigslist ad I posted. He’s a filmmaker too and had a couple people in mind for me. One was Mohammad Dagman, who ended up acting in a supporting role and as a producer, and a ton of other things. Mohammad introduced me to everyone else in that hang-out scene and also brought me to Ahmad, whom he knew from attending the Syrian demonstrations that would happen in New York. Both Ahmad and Mohammad have an incredibly strong presence. They’re emotive in the most reserved ways. I’m very lucky that all of these people decided to collaborate with me, no doubt! But I will say, that process took quite a while—probably a year or so. There were others, but they didn’t have that almost inexplicable aura or trance that someone like Ahmad or Mohammad does.
Was the Arabic dialogue a challenge to work with, in terms of adapting the script?
Honestly, the only difficulty about having the film in Arabic came after we had finished shooting. During the shoot, it was pretty comfortable and, in a way, probably made us all closer and deepened the collaborative element of the filmmaking. We’d take the script and go over it together, and I’d tell Ahmad or Mohammad to follow it as a guide…to just say something that was more natural to them so long as it followed the gist of what was written. So there’s this deep, deep trust because I don’t really know what they’re saying until way later when it’s translated. But because you’re taking away the question “did he/she say their line right,” it led me to focus on the physicality of the actors, among other things. It was a really interesting way to work. Removed from the situation, it feels kind of scary, and I guess I was a little intimidated right before we began shooting, but I mostly saw it as a challenge and a new way to work. Once we actually started doing it, though, it wasn’t as nerve-wracking or crazy as I assumed it might be. I think we were just all in sync. Like the popular musical group.
The challenge, like I said, came in post. Having it all translated took a long time and cost money. 90 percent of the film is in Arabic! So it was tedious work inserting it all into the editing timeline, etc. And the fact that it’s an American film that’s mostly in a foreign language hasn’t done the film many favors in terms of programming, viewership, etc. This means everything from programmers not knowing where to slot it—it’s definitely an American film, but it’s not in English really, so where does it fall in terms of international/foreign programs—to people not wanting to watch it because, for them, subtitles equals work. I get all of those problems but they definitely do frustrate me.
A film like this serves as a rebuke to the dehumanizing rhetoric of certain presidential candidates simply in how it crafts an empathetic portrait devoid of preachiness. How, in any way, did the Syrian refugee crisis have an impact on your film?
I’m not sure. It’s still very recent. I’m tempted to say “very little”—occasionally a festival or a critic will perk up and be like, “Hey, this is relevant, I think it’s important that people see this.” But it doesn’t happen as often as you might think, as far as hearing all of this s—t on television and then realizing that this little film is out there and tackling these ideas in some form or other. Down to the very, very basics, it’s about a brown man in America. It’s about a middle-eastern man, also Muslim, in post-9/11 America. So no matter what’s going on, it’s always, unfortunately, going to be a topical thing.
I think the “We Don’t Want Syrian Refugees In Our Country” crisis was the last straw for me. I was extremely upset over the rhetoric…and to be clear, I’m not the victim here, I’m not saying that. But it very much pissed me off that all this terrible drivel was being said, was being supported, and here I had this film that tried to counter all of that negativity and it really seemed like a lot of the tastemakers couldn’t be bothered to care.
How did you go about staging the public protest rallies, and were they, in fact, staged?
They weren’t staged… and funny enough, it’s the very first thing we shot. Ahmad and his friends would do these demonstrations often, sometimes weekly. The night before our first shoot, Ahmad called me, upset, saying that the demonstration was something that he needed to do and that he wasn’t available to shoot the following day…but he invited us to come to the rally and, if we wanted, to shoot the proceedings. This was something I wanted to capture, though, and the idea was already built into the script. Around the time I was preparing everything, I came across Nagisa Ôshima’s “Sing a Song of Sex.” In the movie, Ôshima incorporated protests and celebrations over a controversial holiday that the Japanese government had reinstated. Later on, I saw “Medium Cool” and Haskell Wexler did a similar thing in his film. I love this mix of fiction and documentary filmmaking—it’s visceral, first off, but it’s also potent. It’s shocking how rich narrative/doc material is. Since we shot guerilla-style, we had to adapt to our surroundings, so in a way, it was probably good to start off the project this way.
What led you to include the brutal extended take of a mouse being killed by a snake? It certainly reflects the Darwinian nature of modern capitalism.
It means a lot of things. It’s not exactly a subtle metaphor! And the fact in itself that it is a metaphor isn’t subtle, either. But whatever. It shakes most people. Growing up, I lived with my grandparents and my uncle was with us for a good deal of my childhood. He had a pet snake. And I remember sometimes we would gather around and watch it eat. Again, it’s a visceral thing. It’s strange, and I didn’t really think about it until I was an adult.
I thought it said something interesting about Mohammad, that he had a pet snake…but also, when politicians would talk about the Middle East, there was always talk about a snake. Maybe not so much now, maybe more in the 80s/90s. This country was a snake, this party was a snake, etc. This symbol kept cropping up in different conversations. That cemented its inclusion in the film.
The score is very effective in its subtlety. What was the process like of finding the right tone and placement for the music?
It’s hard because I haven’t used a score in my films before and, looking forward, the things that are in post-production probably won’t have a score either. And “Winds” wasn’t going to have one, but I was open to it if only because it would be a learning experience to work with a composer and try to figure out where and where not to put a score. Movie scores can be very dangerous—and, I guess you can say my “taste” came into maturation when I was watching Michael Haneke and the Dardenne brothers in college. So I had some trepidation about using music at all, but then it’s like…‘Tarkovsky uses music. Quite a bit sometimes.’ So yes, duh, I had to tell myself: don’t be afraid, open yourself up a bit.
So I spoke with the composer about what we should do—nothing too grand, something soft, piano and strings. No guitar or anything, very little electronic stuff—there’s some ambient transitional music here and there in the film, but not a lot. And then it was just making sure that the environmental/atmospherical noises—stuff that Ahmad was hearing, which is important as you want to remain with him at all times—weren’t going to be buried or destroyed. It was more problem solving.
I noticed the inclusion of Patrick Wang’s name in the “special thanks” (Wang’s “In the Family” is one of my favorite films of recent years). What is his relation to you and the project?
Patrick is a great friend! And yes, I love his work. That’s how we met. I caught wind of “In The Family,” asked him for a copy, and “the rest is history.” He’s great. Our mutual friend mentioned that we have a brotherly relationship, which I think is true. Whether he knows it or not, I look up to him very much and I consider him a mentor. He’s a very intelligent, sensitive artist… and he cares! It’s hard to find fellow filmmakers that stick around or that put up with you—you get the feeling that many are nervous that you’ll ask them for a favor, unfortunately—but we’ve been friends for a couple of years now. He’s in my eternal Top 5.
Are you planning to direct more features in the future?
Yes, I have to, I have nothing else to do. Right now I’m wrapping up on my second feature, “Incorrectional.” It’s about a father and son and it’s a doc/narrative hybrid. I’d like to shoot another feature this year as well. I think I will.
“The Winds That Scatter” screens at New York’s Kinoscope on Friday, February 5th, and at the San Francisco Indiefest on Saturday, February 13th, and Tuesday, February 16th. You can follow the film on Facebook.