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INTERVIEW: Ariel Kleiman – Director of new Australian film Partisan

Words By: Tom Munday

Image Credit: Sundance.org

Talented, intelligent, and funny – ultra-promising Australian director Ariel Kleiman is an undeniable triple threat. The 29-year-old Melbourne filmmaker, with an acclaimed crime-drama currently making the rounds, is driven by a down-to-Earth attitude and insatiable love of cinema. His short films, Young Love and Deeper than Yesterday, were vital stepping-stones to his greatest endeavour so far. Partisan, his first feature is he and his partner Sarah Cyngler’s latest visceral, enthralling creation. Reaching critical acclaim at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, this applause-garnering project continues Australian cinema’s run of home-run hitters. Hitting his strides similarly to John Hillcoat and Andrew Dominik, Kleiman’s latest has a strong chance of landing on many Top 10 lists.

Starring big-name Vincent Cassel and Sydney youngster Jeremy Chabriel, Partisan chronicles a small, pleasant community in Georgia. The group’s leader Gregori (Vincent Cassel) rules with a kind smile and iron fist. He teaches the children everything from gardening to karaoke to, shockingly, assassin work. Gregori’s son Alexander (Chabriel), however, begins to think twice about his questionable ideology. Inspired by an article on child assassins in Columbia, Kleiman threw himself into its intriguing subject matter. Filmed in Victoria and Georgia, the production became a whirlwind experience in itself. Kleiman chatted with Tom Munday about every detail including Cassel’s persona, the leap from short to feature filmmaking, and his stance on the bigger issues.

 You did short films Young Love and Deeper Than Yesterday, What was the transition like from short film production to feature filmmaking? Did that level of responsibility effect your control as director?

 It was a big change because they were student short films and it was a totally different way of making a movie. I was the financier essentially [laughs] so I could do whatever I wanted in a very renegade manner. So moving onto a feature film in a professional environment was different. I had a lot to learn, it was a learning process and I was kind of learning on the job.

You developed the idea with your girlfriend and writing partner Sarah Cyngler, what drew you to such dark, confronting subject matter for your first feature?

 I think we are generally, for some reason, drawn towards the darker side of humanity. I guess, there are situations that bring out this animalistic quality in humans. It has been the theme of our movies to date and it was certainly what drew us to this. We read this article about child assassins in Columbia and we thought that the idea of these kids committing these horrible acts, without connection to what they were doing, was just the ultimate tragic story. I don’t know, I just felt like it was a story that had universal appeal and human drama at the core of it would be really ripe for a cinematic, mythic tragedy.

You shot Partisan in Australia and Georgia, how did these settings impact upon your directorial vision throughout the production process?

Well, early on, when we conceived the story, we knew we wanted to set the film in a nowhere land. It was going to be a fully Australian movie, we did not want to set it anywhere specific. To do that, we [Sarah and I] totally, by chance, travelled to Georgia for a vacation in 2010. It was right at the beginning when we started writing Partisan and we fell in love with that landscape there. I just blew us away and just had that amazing combination of these mythic mountains and mixture of architecture. It just felt like the kind of nowhere land we wanted to set the movie in. So, from the very beginning, we knew we wanted to not set the film in Georgia but use the landscapes there as the backdrop for our nowhere land.

Vincent Cassel is one of the biggest actors today, having worked with filmmakers including Steven Soderberg, Darren Aronosky, David Cronenberg, and Danny Boyle, what was the dynamic like between Cassel, yourself, and everyone involved?

It was pretty daunting because he has worked with some of my favourite directors, so it was a pretty high standard to live up to. To be honest, it just gave me great confidence that if an actor, of his caliber, saw something worthwhile in this movie then the movie had merit and was worth making. Vincent and I, luckily, got on really well. We both don’t take ourselves too seriously and we enjoy having a laugh so we bonded over that. He, I don’t know if I got lucky, really threw himself into the role and into the film. He really backed me and my process in a huge way.

The true star of Partisan is Jeremy Chabriel, How did you find him? How did he develop that balance between innocence and menace?

The search for that character was, by far, the most daunting process for making this movie, because he’s in every scene pretty much and has to go against Cassel who is one of the most magnetic actors of his generation. We searched far and wide, all across Australia. We searched Western Australia, South Australia, Sydney, Melbourne etc. In the end, very late in the process after we had seen hundreds of kids, we found Jeremy in a French school in Sydney. He came in for an audition. I actually saw him for the first time on tape because in was in Melbourne, and they were using these cruddy cameras to shoot these kids but his eyes just lit up the screen even on this little camera. I just was absolutely mesmerised by him. Jeremy naturally just has this strength and maturity in the way he carries himself. He’s got like this steeliness and he’s an incredibly natural performer. I was very obvious early on he was going to be Alexander. How he brought out the menacing side of him was…he read the whole script and totally understood it. The best way I could describe it was that he just started to act. The character is not really like him at all but he would go into character mode and just became Alexander.

Partisan is a true physical, emotional, and phenomenological experience, how important is tapping into the brain, heart, and senses?

Yeah, it is huge for me. A lot of the time, when I am picturing a scene, I’m even picturing what it would smell like, you know what I mean? I am picturing what the air feels like, if it is like a cool breeze or a hot wind. I think that is what I love about cinema is that it plays with all of our senses and has the ability to and that’s what is so special about seeing it in a cinema.

The film touches on the atrocities currently inflicting major countries (Child soldiers, Islamic State, male violence etc.), how important is socio-political commentary to your work?

Well, the film is conceived as a fable so I hope it is understood on many different levels. The inspiration, to begin with, is inspired by human drama so by that I mean just the core story about the human condition. I hope that that story can be understood in an intimate setting and also on a survival level. The politics and the broader issues are not the main spark but certainly come into play.

The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, does the film festival aura influence your attitude towards film production, promotion etc.?

Well, the amazing thing about Sundance is that the audiences there are super excited to see new cinema and it is such a pure screening because no one there has seen, really, any footage from the film, they don’t know much about it, they are very fresh viewing experience for the audience. Obviously, the more the film reaches around the world the more people will read about it, know about it, see trailers and clips and stuff like that and maybe come into it with expectations. But, the amazing thing about Sundance is that it is just a pure, fresh screening and you get people’s really honest reactions to it. So, when everyone did respond so positively to it, it was so encouraging.

Partisan is released May 28th at Luna, Leederville. For more information, check out the website