Joyce A. Nashawati’s pre-apocalyptic film Blind Sun sets xenophobia and alienation against the sunny backdrop of Athens, Greece. Dearest Sister is Mattie Do’s story of Laotian lottery ghosts and communication with the dead.
They’re two very different films but are bonded by the directors’ shared love of the horror genre, their global outlook and the streaming source Shudder, which will feature both films exclusively in Canada.
“I always adored genre films and watched them closely,” says Nashawati on the line from Tokyo where she is researching her second film. “Films that are not totally subjected to realism; that play with what cinema can do with the imaginary. Also, because they come from darkness, I think they play with the conscience of the spectator. They give and take things, which is kind of playful.”
Mattie Do, the first female Laotian director to make a full-length feature, was born in Los Angeles, but now lives in a country that didn’t even have movie theatres when she moved there in 2010.
She admits “our film growth is rocky,” but adds, “people outside may see it as challenging to work in a developing country with no infrastructure but at the same time no one here tells me what stories I have to make. When I walk into the Department of Cinema, they know who I am because we have so few filmmakers in the country but it is easy for us to sit down and have a very adult discussion. Whereas if I was facing down some board of directors I might not be able to have the creative control I do here.”
A global perspective comes naturally to Nashawati who grew up between Beirut, Accra, Kuwait and Athens.
“My past was very global without being a choice,” she says. “Blind Sun was made by someone who is Lebanese, with a French producer, you’re watching it in Canada and we’re now talking while I’m in Japan. This is the way things are today. It is exciting. It is interesting that it is (happening) when politics is going the opposite way and closing things.”
The pair have very different styles — Do’s film is a slow burner, Nashawati’s a nightmarish thriller — but both agree modern technology has made it possible for them to turn their wild visions into movies.
Nashawati thinks it has never been easier to make films, even if you’re “someone who is outside the circle of filmmaking or someone who isn’t from a bourgeois background.”
“If you adore filmmaking today,” she says, “this a great time to know you can actually make a film and it can be shown.”
Do says foreign directors are given a big leg up by streaming services like Shudder who are able to take chances on offbeat films.
“With Shudder I feel people can explore more different tastes and sub-genres of genres. If I described Dearest Sister, a Laos film about a lottery ghost and a girl who is going blind, would you pick up a ticket for that movie? Maybe not. But if you could sit in the comfort of your own home, pick up your remote or your computer and say, ‘Look at all these movies. That’s random, there’s a Laos movie. What’s Laos like?’ You can just click on it. It feels like a safe investment.”
Dearest Sister is streaming now. Blind Sun will be available Feb. 9.
Jason Zinoman says one of the pleasures of getting scared at the movies is “that it focuses the mind.” The author of Shock Value, a book about horror films, uses the example of a baby being born.
“Try to imagine the shock of one world running into another,” he writes. “Nothing is familiar and the slightest detail registers as shockingly new. Think of the futility of trying to process what is going on. No wonder they scream.
“Overwhelming terror,” Zinoman continues, “may be the closest we ever get to the feeling of being born.”
Whether it’s as deep seeded as that or not, there is no denying terror is a primal feeling. It’s part of our DNA but, counter intuitively, it isn’t horrible when experienced at the movies.
Sam Zimmerman, the co-curator of the new horror streaming service Shudder, says watching scary movies is, “a beautiful way of confronting our anxieties and fears and laughing at those anxieties and fears. It’s a way of touching the void without actually stepping foot in it.”
Zimmerman, along with long time Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes, have populated Shudder with a comprehensive collection of horror films from around the globe, everything from classic horror like The Hills Have Eyes and newer shockers such as Sadako vs. Kayako.
“We are a curated streaming service and we’re trying to find the perfect medium between the streaming service and the best aspects of what we got out of video store days.”
In short, Zimmerman says, there are four main criteria when programming the service: Is it really cool? Do we think our members will love it? Is it contextually or historically interesting? Or is it just awesome?
“We want you to really trust us,” he says.
“Whether the movies are under the radar or mainstream, we want you to feel like we’re looking out for what’s going on the service as opposed to just filling the service with an old thing just because it is horror.”
Available in the U.S. since last year, Shudder makes its Canadian debut on Oct. 20, just in time for Halloween.
“I think horror fans are optimists,” Zimmerman says. “I think we find the good in things even when the movie doesn’t come together as a whole, we’re really excited to point out what stuck with us within it. Horror can be made up of such striking imagery. Even when we watch movies as kids and perhaps now re-watch them and think, ‘It wasn’t that great a movie to begin with,’ we still remember those images that grabbed us. You can’t deny the power of that. I think we are inherently excited about what’s good about a movie.
“I also think horror fans are really film fans. Horror, at least for me, was a real gateway into experimental cinema and really surreal, strange work because of the nightmare logic of them.
“But I think it’s an avenue into all other sorts of arts and media.”
At the end of the day horror fans will check out Shudder not for a lesson in horror history but for the variety of chills and thrills. But why do people like to be terrified while watching movies? Alfred Hitchcock summed up the appeal of the scary movie in one brief sentence: “People like to be scared when they feel safe.”