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Josh Appignanesi • Director

Song of Songs


- A new voice who sets limits to transgress them

Josh Appignanesi • Director

Josh Appignanesi who studied anthropology at Cambridge university and made six short fiction films, has already become a serious name to watch with his first feature film Song of Songs [+see also:
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starring Natalie Press and newcomer Joel Chalfen. The depiction of a sister/brother relationship set in London’s Orthodox Jewish community had its premiere in Edinburgh last August where it won a special commendation for the Michael Powel Award and it was in competition for a Tiger Award at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: When did your passion for film really start. What particular films or filmmakers influenced your decision to become a filmmaker yourself?
Josh Appignanesi: In the ‘good’ old days, when British TV showed European films, there was a Bunuel season where they showed every film once a week. I was about 9. I think I saw most of them and had a lot of nightmares. I blame my father. Maybe that was the beginning. Or maybe it was Tom and Jerry. And then once as a teenager, I came home drunk, switched on the TV in front of my bed, and I turned on in the middle of this strange film which I found incredibly slow and dull, yet I couldn’t stop watching it. I was mesmerised. I forgot about it and years later realised it was The Sacrifice by Tarkovsky.

What is the genesis of Song of Songs? Did you develop the project from scratch or was it brought to you?
I developed it from scratch. The ideas were always at once technical as well as formal as well as emotional and intellectual. I knew I wanted to make a film independently and cheaply. That sets the parameters of the canvas you have and then you have great freedom within that. At the same time I knew that there was a story in exploring the psychology of submission and domination, and there were formal ideas that matched that austerity of means and of theme - ideas like "what’s it like to see only the back of the head and not the face, what does that do to the audience to be denied access to someone’s personality the way we are so often denied it in life?" Those things built up and then Jay Basu came on and started writing the project seriously with me. I also met a philosopher, Devorah Baum who influenced me particularly by bringing religion into focus... I knew that I wanted to create this austere, intense chamber piece, psychological sadism and masochism, male and female, but there needed to be a backdrop, historical and symbolic to set that against. I wanted the film to ask questions about the revelatory function of transgression, such as "is transgression pathological, or is it necessary to free yourself from laws to create your own law?"

What were the biggest difficulties you faced during pre-production and shooting, and why did you choose to use a mini DV camera?
To be honest, raising the money privately, independently, and then doing a very very quick shoot with a very small crew was very difficult. But that also means you can get very intimate performances with a certain spontaneity. The whole team process is much more real. You’re not alienated from the set, you know everyone and can ask big things of them.

How did you choose Natalie Press and Joel Chalfen for the lead roles?
I had seen Natalie Press in the Oscar winning short film Wasp and I thought she could be great for the role because she has real presence on screen as well a real hunger for becoming ‘other’. The strange thing was at that stage no-one had seen My Summer Of Love [+see also:
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. It was shot but it wasn’t out yet. So we met at the right time! Another strange thing is that she turned out to be Jewish with a fairly traditional upbringing. That was unplanned but very helpful.
Joel Chalfen I already knew quite well. In some ways the part was conceived around him because the script is quite ‘obvious’ for his character. It’s quite an overbearingly dominant role he plays, but Joel has this vulnerability, this slightly effeminate narcissism. So it’s playing against the screenplay in some ways.

In general, what kind of stories do you want to show on film?
I guess at heart I’m more of a ‘European’ filmmaker than a ‘British’ one. I just want to make films that force us to look in a slightly new way at something that we haven’t quite seen before, but which come to seem strangely familiar.

What is your view on the current state of British and European cinema?
Britain can be hard work especially if you feel more allied spiritually to Europe than America, as I do. But it’s also full of interesting people and places. There’s also this slight feeling that Europe is this dying old culture with everything genuinely interesting happening elsewhere. To me that’s just a reminder that it’s a global industry able to tell global stories and Europe can, should, and does reach out of itself in interesting ways. Like many filmmakers I sort of look back on a golden age, but that’s what looking back is for: you look back for inspiration, for a heaven you can’t quite reach. I think there are some very interesting films being made, French in particular, not least because French cinema is subsidised properly as a cultural form.

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