Set in Venezuela, documentary El Father Plays Himself directed by Mo Scarpelli delves into the relationship between a father and son as both embark on making a fictional film inspired by the father's life in which the father plays himself directed by his son. As the line between fiction and reality blurs, this unique circumstance allows father and son to test the bounds of their relationship as old wounds resurface and mends are made. This tender and very raw portrayal of a father and son connecting through creating cinema together is an utterly compelling insight into the dynamics of a father and son relationship as well as masculine perfomativity.
El Father Plays Himself is part of Visions du Réel International Film Festival and due to the COVID-19 outbreak, this year the festival is digital. We enlisted friend of Dispatch, documentary filmmaker Oana Tenter (The Pastor's Women) to speak to Scarpelli ahead of the film's premiere tomorrow (25 April)...
Oana Tenter: Can you talk a bit about how you found this story and about when you realised this would make an interesting doc not just an interesting fiction film?
Mo Scarpelli: Jorge is my partner and the director of (the fiction film) La Fortaleza and a character in my documentary film. I never make films about people close to me as it’s very (laughs) complicated but he was going to Venezuela to make a film and I’d been wanting to go to Venezuela since I was a kid and I’d been looking for the chance to go with him and get to know his family more and everything…So I asked “Can I come?” and he said “Sure, but you will go crazy in the jungle with nothing to do. Do you want to make our ‘making of’ of the film?” and I thought sure, maybe that would be interesting. And then I go to Venezuela and I start shooting their preparations for the film, making La Fortaleza and I get insanely bored with the making of the “making of” mostly because I’m not that interested in fictionalized elements that are so set up. On a film set there’s a lot of sitting around and waiting and not a lot of affectation or character or anything that’s pushing people to be more interesting because someone like me is just watching them and filming normal life. At the same time, I’m getting to know “El father,” Jorge’s father who plays himself in the movie, and I was finding that the father was harnessing real emotions as he was learning how to be an actor. Jorge likes to work with non-actors and with a lot of surprise and improvisation. As I got to know Father this way, I found out that he had this kind of affinity for me watching him, he felt like I was his ally in a way and that’s how I formed my relationship with my character in my last film, a 10 year old kid. It really spoke to me to be very, very present and just obsessively watch these two guys (Jorge and El Father) and what this film could mean for them and how it could hopefully bring them together but also at times, how it would become something they used against each other. This was an intuitive theme that happened as the production took off but I guess my connection to the story in the first place was being very attracted to the context of two men using this form of art (a fiction film set) that allows you to say things that are real or not real and the aversion of yourself - I wanted to see how that played out with such a unique father-son relationship.
OT: Did you know more or less what you wanted to get from the documentary from the beginning? Given that you are part of the family and know the characters well, I imagine you expected a certain kind of dynamic?
MS: Somewhat, but actually I do a lot of waiting, I think people really betray themselves - the longer you just watch them, the more they fall away and the more they trust you. Maybe it’s not even trust at first it’s just getting used to you. You shut up, you sit in a corner, you literally look at them all day long and they get used to this kind of cadence and they start to kind of betray themselves in a good way, you know. We all put on facades in order to deal with things and I think this happens a lot in a father-son relationship. In this particular one I think it was about trying to be strong: one guy trying to make a film and dig into the reasons why he is making the film - very deep and very emotionally turbulent - but he needs to be a director, he has to be composed and he has to be clear about his vision so that he can make a thing where he has 30 people in his film crew depending on him. On Father’s side, he’s a macho kind of guy, he grew up in Venezuela, he’s always tried to be the toughest guy - and he is a tough guy to be honest, he can take everything. That’s what I found between these two guys, which I couldn’t possibly script, I couldn’t possibly guess at what lengths they would go. They pushed each other very hard but they both really wanted to. Jorge pushed Father in scenes that I think are sometimes unsettling for people to watch because Father is drinking and Father has a drinking problem. But Father wanted to go there and Jorge wanted to go there and when I felt conflicted or unsettled about what was happening in front of me, I kept filming too because I was thinking this is what they want. And it’s true, they wanted to push each other to the furthest, furthest depths and that’s something I can’t really anticipate or script because I’d never done that with a member of my family and I’d never used my films in that kind of way so I was compelled by it, I was horrified by it, also it became the nexus of what my film was really about: what happens when you unearth these things and use an artistic form to do so.
OT: I think you do ask these questions as a viewer: should he be filming this? Should he not? But then you see Jorge’s internal struggle of whether to do it or not in your documentary which kind of makes it ok for the viewer in a way?
MS: At the same time, I couldn’t possibly judge him because I was complicit as well. By shooting something, even if you don’t use it in the film, the very act of filming means that you’re allowing it to happen, that you’re complicit...You could leave, you could put the camera down, you could run away, throw the camera at them (laughs). So in that way, I was complicit as well. It’s a difficult thing because sometimes there’s this feedback of the unsettling nature of watching so many scenes but I feel this bind of Father having pushed Jorge so many times throughout his life and Jorge pushing back to make his film and me pushing by filming them. Then we’re all kind of bound together in this strange cycle of…
OT: Pushing around (laughs)
MS: Yes, I guess (laughs)
OT: The pushing around feels mutual which creates a balance in the universe of the film, I would say. El Father himself is a very lively character and full of life but he also looks like he can be tough to work with. Did you ever find it challenging getting close to him in order to film him (there are many powerful close-ups of El Father in the film)? Did you ever feel like you were stepping the line and being intrusive with him / with his son Jorge?
MS: Actually no, it was very interesting because no matter how wild Father got - there’s a scene in the film where Father gets aggressive, hits a wall and things get physical, that was before some other things got even crazier - I never felt scared of him. I told him from the start...I trusted that he understood that if he ever wanted me not to film, he would say it. That meant that I had carte blanche and I could always be filming him, even when he was super upset. There’s plenty of moments - some of them did not make it into the film - where I’m crying while filming him or times when I’m filming him and I’m worried for his safety. Basically, he understood what I was doing. I never thought that he felt violated by me filming. Even in the edit, the Father is definitely the most outgoing, outwardly violent and I didn’t ever really worry about him taking it wrongly if I put it in the film because I felt this immense trust from him. There’s also a scene in the film where he is super drunk but he made it a rule of “I won’t look at Mo’s camera, no matter what happens.” Little things like that told me that he respected what I was doing and that he liked it, too. Also, I just exploited the hell out of my privilege of being the director’s wife (laughs). Everyone else on set was dancing around Jorge - “oh, he’s the boss” - but Jorge trusts me and I know the DP of the film well, Rodrigo and I tried to stay out of their way, I never wanted to get in their way of making their film. But when they weren’t rolling I could be as close to Father as I wanted to and Father wanted me around. I was in this super weirdly privileged position of being an outsider of the film crew but also totally inside in a way they can’t be because they’re all hired to be there and I am there of my own volition and thanks to my own relationship with the protagonist, the Father.
OT: I imagine it is tricky being a documentary director on a fiction set. They have a work schedule and a downtime period whereas interesting things can happen all the time for a documentarist. There is a very interesting part in the film where El Father points out how you captured essential shots while the fiction crew was busy setting up the lights, which in some ways alludes to the pros and cons of documentary / fiction filmmaking. Were you recording all the time - how were you choosing what to film and when to put the camera down?
MS: Anytime I put the camera down something would start to be compelling, with the exception of… there’s certain things that Jorge filmed for his movie that are inherently uninteresting like Father walking through the jungle, so I would just wander off and film bugs (laughs). But this process was quite exhausting because I had this insane access - I am literally sleeping with the director - and anything that happens, I am there for it. There was never really a day off leading up to his production and then on his production. Just in case, I had to always be ready. That said, there’s some things that once you have them and you’ve captured them beautifully you can at least rest assured that if you did it again it would just be redundant. One example is that I was filming a lot when we first got to the jungle on breaks I had with Father alone. We would hike, he would look at the trees and the birds. We filmed it a couple of times and then I could enjoy going to the lagoon together, swimming around and talking about things, and not filming anything. There was this really special day when I put the camera down and almost forgot it in a field because we were trying to swim to a waterfall (laughs). Those times are really important to me because it was important to get to know El Father as my father too, you know, someone in my life who I don’t get to see a lot after this film is done. Part of why Jorge wanted to make this film is to be with his father and I was experiencing that in a small way, I wanted to be with Father as much as I could because when we leave Venezuela it’s going to happen sporadically and it will be hard to get that time with especially in nature and in a place where he feels calm and happy. Those were the times when it was easier for me to put the camera down but apart from that, it was always on (laughs). Oh my god, my arms...I didn’t realise how exhausting that was until I got back and Jorge asked if I wanted to film more with El Father in Caracas and I told him “No, the film is done.” I always know when my films are done. I put my camera down. Now we’re going to have a beach day with Father and I won’t film anything, won’t think about filming and we’ll just be hanging out, drinking beers, eating fish. I think it’s good for me to have limits to the film. I loved making the film within the structure of another film being made. It had an inherent structure to it. For my last film it was a little murkier to figure out the limits, but once we drew a narrative of this kid’s experience of coming of age I could cut out the limits and when I felt I could cheat that emotional arc I was done. That’s important to me. I am not the kind of person that films for 10 years to make that kind of film. I like to compress and I think that helps speak to something that can only be done through the filmmaking process I do, I guess.
OT: As you were saying, putting the camera down and focusing on your relationship with the characters is just as important and will be reflected in the film…
MS: Yes, and I like to be their ally, sitting there watching them. And I like to leave a lot to interpretation. I don’t like having someone tell me directly to the camera how they feel. I like using my films and my characters so that the audience can project their own thoughts and feelings. Jorge actually didn’t expect it. At the beginning of the film I was frustrated with him because he was very composed, he is a very calm person - that’s just who he is - but it’s quite nice because as a character he becomes a mirror for the audience, you can reflect yourself into him, he’s watching and you’re not quite sure what he thinks. He does tell me what he thinks actually. When I turned the camera off, we had conversations about this very emotional scene he did with the Father that was very hard to film and Jorge was very emotionally distraught afterwards (where Father leaves him this message on WhatsApp) and we were sat in the room talking about it and the next day he asked me: “Why didn’t you film that?” "Cause I don’t make these kinds of films!" (laughs) I don’t want the character to tell me directly, exactly every little thing you want the character to say.. I want you to feel it instead, you know. And it’s a lot harder to transpose that, it takes a lot more time and there were many occasions when I wasn’t sure I could be successful. And maybe there are people who are unfulfilled of purely observing them and not being told more context of how people feel or where they’re coming from - but I actually like that element of the film.
OT: It’s interesting to think about masculinity in the film - both in the father and Jorge’s cases - I particularly enjoyed the expression on Jorge’s face watching his father’s fight scene. Do you feel you learnt new things about masculinity during the shooting process?
MS: I think it's like any tool, it’s a useful one for self-preservation. It’s interesting...For my whole life, I’ve been close to men, I have brothers, my best friends have been males to my adult life, I liked being a tomboy and all that kind of thing. I am very comfortable with this projected strength. At some point, it becomes really tiresome and I don’t tolerate it…It’s something that I am not unused to and I’m not necessarily cold to. I kind of see it as a useful tool for men who have been told their entire life to be like that. So it’s not as easy as saying “your problem is masculinity, machismo, and that’s all a bad thing.” A lot of it is inherent in the cultures that people live in. I realized that just because men don’t say things out loud it doesn’t mean they don’t transmit them to each other. That’s something that I knew already and saw as well with Jorge and his father. Sometimes I was frustrated that they wouldn’t just talk: just tell him you love him! (laughs) Not for my film but for each other. It turns out that there is a good reason for that. Many things they need to communicate cannot be said in words. In this film that came out as Father noticing something, or in their gestures towards each other, the silence they had in a room together in between scenes. And all these things are very profound, more profound than words sometimes. But men do betray themselves with those they love and these gestures do mean something to each other. So I was reading these gestures, this is what I was studying throughout the course of my film, and I learned a lot about these men along the way. At the same time, I learned about the things they cannot get from one another, maybe because they’re men I don’t know, maybe because they’re father-son, things they cannot get from one another but they get from me or someone who listens or watches from the outside. That kinda tells me about the limits of a father-son relationship. You can push your father to any lengths because he’s your family, you can learn so much about yourself because you can take your family to task, your family gives you so much benefit of the doubt. And at the same time, family is so vastly complicated, it has so many underpinnings, they know you almost too well for you to get away with anything and that can really eat away at you. Father has guilt about not being more in his son’s life, Jorge has guilt about leaving, both have unfinished things that they didn’t get to do together, they both have disappointments in each other because they didn’t show up for each other in the right way. All these things that get in the way of having profound familial relationships become something that can be cathartic in the film that Jorge is making but also serve as the basis for how they can push each other the way that they did. It’s a very vast and profound thing and I don’t dare say I ever really figured out what it means to be a father and son but I think I got the closest I think I can (laughs).
OT: What was El Father’s reaction to the fiction and documentary? It must have been overwhelming having two filmic depictions of oneself realized at around the same time.
MS: Yes, we showed them two days apart, we didn’t want to show them back to back cause it’s a lot of seeing yourself on screen. We booked the sound studio that I’d done my previous sound mix - kind of the most theatrical we could, so that he’d get the sense of being in a theatre. It’s interesting. Father also came to Rotterdam for Jorge’s premiere. He remembers certain scenes and goes “ah, we did so well in that” and sees it as their project because it was and they did a great job. Father does a great job and his performance is amazing. So he is proud of it. And I don’t want to say that he forgets all the things that happened when they weren’t rolling, or all the altercations that happened, the sadder memories…It’s a different experience to see yourself in that capacity. Father is very outwardly himself: he would scream, be hard on people and on himself, be very intense, sometimes intense because he drinks. Seeing himself drinking is not new to him and he has a lifetime of memories of saying things that he regrets or saying “Oh whatever, I was drunk.” The thing that hit me when we watched the documentary together for the first time was that it was painful for him not to watch himself, but to watch Jorge, and Jorge’s face and Jorge’s disappointment, and Jorge’s sadness and worry for his father. Father is very emotionally perceptive and smart and he cannot watch my film without seeing the ways he hurt his son or imagining the ways he could have hurt him. And that part was hard. So that’s why Jorge and I wanted to hold Father’s hand through the film, we have to face that he hurts people when he’s mad and upset, and mainly he hurts himself. He knows that we love him and that we’re worried about his capacity to hurt himself so that’s why it’s hard I think.
OT: How are you spending lockdown? Any tips for lockdown? Is it a good time for creativity and planning new projects in a documentarist’s life?
MS: It’s a perfect time for Jorge because he’s writing his next script so he’s doing that in the other room (laughs). For some filmmakers it can be a perfect time. For me...I need to go back and be with the characters for my next projects more and it’s set in Kenya and I can’t go back. But it’s a good time for research, and prepare for El Father’s release…It’s a massive disappointment that we can’t be at the festival (Visions du Reel), but at the same time you can really get wrapped up in your film at the festival, trying to get your film out there and I work really hard trying to get my films out there because I don’t have a lot of money behind them pushing PR and that kind of stuff. But now there’s only so much I can do about that because I have to stay put in Rome and get people to watch it. But because it’s out of my hands a little bit it means I can focus on new things, on researching for this new project. It hasn’t been too bad, it’s been a good time for reflection and drawing inspiration from watching things. We moved to Rome right before the quarantine, we have barely a mattress and a desk and we got stuff delivered from Ikea recently so we can at least have our little home. We have like 10 books and I’ve been rereading some of the books that have been really influential. Anyway, it’s been a creative time.
I can’t help but be sad that my film is going to be online because I don’t like the kind of prism that people go through when they go on the internet and they want to tell you how they feel, it’s different from being in person with people. But maybe it’s good for people to watch the film in isolation, think about it and talk about it with people they watch it with. I’m open to it being the best it can be. It can always kill you as a filmmaker to spend all this time and money on a great sound mix and then people watch it on a small screen. Anyway, online festivals make it possible for more people to watch it. The conversations around the film are what I am mostly looking forward to, I really wanted to leave room for interpretation and I wanted people to be able to ask Jorge as a character about it but I’m hoping we'll still have opportunities for that.
OT: I’m sure there will be. I’ll definitely be following closely your next conversations. Best of luck with the premiere!
Watch the trailer below and check out Visions du Réel to find out how you can watch the El Father Plays Himself as part of their online festival!