Because That’s All We Know

The communal aesthetic of Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia

Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia are the kind of creative couple—prolific (three features in four years), talented (they write, produce, direct, shoot, edit, and score their films themselves), and easy on the eyes (look right)—that encourages a cynic to assume that, below the cropped and filtered surface they present to the world, ferments some discontent, some jealousy, some inauthenticity.

But Attieh and Garcia, from what I can tell, aren’t faking anything. They don’t broadcast a false image of themselves because, frankly, they don’t broadcast any image of themselves. Their films converse with digital media, with pixel glitches, with YouTube deep tracks. But neither Attieh nor Garcia is searchable on Instagram. Their films have Facebook pages, but the filmmakers themselves seem deliberately absent from social media. They share one email address.

Their interpersonal dynamic, as opposed to a dialogical relationship with the public, seems to fuel their work. They’re quick to mention their arguments, and how conflict and brutal honesty are a natural part of their creative process. If they agreed on everything—if they were from the same place—their films wouldn’t be what they are.

RanDan-web-02

 

The first feature they made together, OK, Enough, Goodbye, is set in, and acts as a tribute to, Tripoli, Lebanon—where Attieh was born. Their second, Recommended by Enrique, explores Del Rio, Texas—where Garcia’s mother’s family still lives. Goodbye takes the viewer on a tour of Tripoli, as a voiceover interjects fragments of history about the sites the protagonist visits, intercut with interviews of non-actors who tell the camera about their passions—from textiles to BB guns.

Enrique follows two outsiders visiting a border town: a naïve young actress cast in a high school film, and a Mexican man who arrives in town to complete his last illicit job. They stay at the same motel, but their paths never explicitly cross.

H., which screened at Sundance in January, is set in Troy, New York, but can be seen as the thematic and tonal hybrid of their freshman and sophomore efforts. H.’s structure is similar to that of Enrique in that it follows two separate protagonists, both named Helen, who never meet—but who are inextricably linked by loss. And as with Goodbye, H. treats setting as character, often gazing without explicit narrative objective at a place—rather than at a person.

But whereas Goodbye and Enrique are observational, without intense dramatic action, H. literally starts with a bang: A devastating, and inexplicable, explosion erupts in the sky. And following the blast, the townspeople begin acting oddly—not as if they’ve been infected by a virus (don’t worry, they haven’t), but as if the catastrophe changed the rules of social behavior. Perhaps the presence of the unexplainable—that there can be something unexplainable in the age of iPhones—gives the townspeople permission to act upon their hidden desires. But while H. is mysterious, it is not a mystery. Rather than seeking answers, it is about reacting to the unknown, to chaos and discord—and reminds us that during crises we are all capable of inflicting the both greatest injury, and dispensing the greatest tenderness.

Attieh and Garcia spoke to me from their apartment in New York—the setting for their next film.

RanDan-web-04

BRIGHT IDEAS (BI): I just watched your three features back to back. They differ in style, subject matter, place, tone—you name it. What do see as the thread that connects your works?

DANIEL GARCIA (DG): Family.

RANIA ATTIEH (RA): That, and we always play with lonely characters. They’re dealing with some loss, with something they don’t have. The family unit, maybe. And there’s a little bit of us in all of them.

BI: And it seems like place is very important to you. It’s more than just a backdrop. How do you regard setting as an element of craft?

RA: We wrote each movie for the location. So, in that respect, each setting is as important as the story that’s unfolding.

DG: With our first two films [OK, Enough, Goodbye and Recommended by Enrique], it was very much, “Well, what do we have available?” We looked at the locations we could use, and we wrote for those specific places. Those films tell personal stories, but we definitely wanted the places to be characters in the film.

RA: For us, OK, Enough, Goodbye, could not have happened anywhere else. That film could not be set in Troy, New York. The story we wrote in Troy [for H.], we also couldn’t have set anywhere else. The films relate to the environments and cultures where they’re set, the language people speak. Recommended by Enrique was built around the culture of Del Rio; it could not have been set in Lebanon. For us, it is important to feel like you went to that place and saw something you wouldn’t see if it were shot somewhere else.

BI: Speaking of Del Rio specifically, what drew you there?

DG: My mom grew up there, and my grandparents on that side never left. So I spent a lot of time there growing up. And when we had just met, when Rania was an undergrad in San Antonio—where I’m from—we heard about another film that was shooting there. Since I was familiar with the town, we went down and worked on this film set. In fact, it was our first experience on a film set together, and it will always be with us. Over the years, we’ve gone back many times for New Years Eve and Christmas, and other holidays. Del Rio has become like an inside joke city in our lives. But it’s very important to us.

BI: In Troy, New York—where H. is set—were you more like outsiders? It sounds like story came first, and the location presented itself to you later.

RA: The backbone of the film came first. We made the whole thing in six months, from writing to a screening in Venice. It wasn’t a long process of coming up with ideas. We had the backbone of a story about two women, and at that point when we were thinking about it, it was set here in New York City—because that’s where we live. But, while we were writing, we heard of Troy and we started researching, and we thought about how we already had certain elements of myth in the film and we thought, “Okay, that could be a great backdrop.” And Troy carries such a glorious past, the name and the city. So we went there and stayed there for a while, and Troy wrote itself into the film. It would have been a different film if Troy were not the location.

BI: There are all sorts of critical analyses floating around about what’s happening in H. Have you ever heard an interpretation and then said, “Oh, that is what I meant, I just didn’t know it”?

RA: Everything in the film has a specific meaning for us, but what we created is an experience for you. If you have an experience that’s different from what we intended, good. Whatever it is, good or bad. Our experience will always be different; our intention will always be different. And I think this goes for any film that anyone creates. If you are a woman who is 60 years old, you are going to have a completely different experience watching H. than a man. Or a younger woman, or a person who has never had children, or a person who has a lot of children, or a woman who is kind of crazy, or a woman who’s not.

BI: I’d like to talk about your relationship to the characters you create. In OK, Enough, Goodbye, we are presented with a pretty unlikeable man. In your other two films, the characters feel more lovable, like you might love them more, or have an easier time loving them. I was thinking about the author George Saunders, who talks about needing to love his characters. Do you love yours? Or do you dislike them? Or pity them?

DG: We love all of them.

RA: All of them! But I can’t group them together because each film was made from a completely different perspective. We approach them differently. Goodbye was really a love/hate relationship with my city. It was Daniel and I going back to a place I grew up and putting in everything I love and he loves—which are not the same things—and what I criticize and he hates—which are also not the same things—about this place and the people that live in it. It came from that perspective—Daniel as a visitor looking at my town from the outside—and me having extremely conflicting feelings. I love [the characters] as much as I hate… not hate—but find myself being critical of that way of life.Goodbye is a critical look at the town and familial relationships that bog you down, how men of that age can get trapped, can be afraid to leave.

But the other character [in Goodbye], I love her. The mother of the man, she’s my grandma in real life. So I have a great love affair with this woman. I love old people in general but she raised me, so of course I have a huge attachment to her. But everybody in Tripoli has someone like this: an uncle or a brother still at home, living with his mother for the rest of his life.

The characters in Enrique are, in many ways, part of the real experience we’ve had there. When Daniel and I first went to Del Rio—when we were just teenagers, working on someone else’s film—we encountered the type of actress that would be hired, and would accept, a role in a low-budget movie set in Del Rio, Texas. And we were always thinking, “What is her experience coming here?” She doesn’t spend time with the director; she’s hanging out in a town that has absolutely nothing. All that was very fascinating for us—the length that actors will go to be in a film, what they’ll subject themselves to.

But we wanted to balance her story with an old cowboy, and we had in mind casting Daniel’s great uncle. We are very fascinated with old age in general, old age and loneliness. And what it feels like to lose your partner and be alone. I think we have an old person in every movie we’ve ever made. And some movies are only old people. We’re fascinated with aging and what that means for your psyche and your relationships. We’re at an age where we think about kids: Do we want kids or not, and what would that mean? So in a way, younger Helen [in H.] is an extension of my anxieties now and older Helen is an extension of my anxieties about the future. So it is all so personal. We like them as much as we are afraid of them, sometimes, and as much as we criticize them.

RanDan-web-05

BI: In Enrique, there’s the actress’s lonesome YouTube channel. In H., there’s the news station the characters follow. How do you think about your depiction of contemporary media and technology in the world of your films?

DG: That’s the world we live in now, and we’re fascinated by it. People are putting up pieces of their actual lives online for everyone to see. And sometimes you run into these documents, and you see something that is so bizarre and interesting and unique—and so well written—that it becomes cinematic.

RA: Any type of newsworthy event, no matter how large, people aren’t experiencing it in real life. They’re experiencing it second-hand, through television and the radio and their iPhones.

For Enrique, YouTube was a natural way of casting an actress. That’s how we found the star of the film—through YouTube, just like the filmmakers in Enrique do. Including that process in the movie was natural. In modern times, these things are all around us, all the time.

BI: How does working with such a small budget affect how you make your films? To a laywoman like me, they look beautiful and professional, and I really can’t tell how much they cost to produce.

RA: Every time we make a movie, we make it out of necessity. We haven’t yet made a film where we could do whatever we wanted. We’ve always started with the budget, which is very small, and we’ve thought, “What is the best film we could make with this amount of money?”

Fortunately, we fill most of the expensive production roles. Daniel shoots the films, I do the production design and costumes, we direct and edit, and Daniel makes the music. We learned how to do all of this. Out of necessity.

BI: Do you feel like you have a connected, collective mind, when you come up with ideas? Or does one of you get excited about an idea that doesn’t resonate with the other?

RA: Of course! We’re very different in what we like to watch. But that said, we have a communal aesthetic because we’ve only worked together. We don’t know what kind of films we would make alone, because we’ve never done it. So the films we do are very easy and natural for us because that’s all we know. But it’s a balance. In a way, I could make a very, very feminine film, and he could make a very masculine film. But somehow, because we’re a combo, the film has a balanced view of each side.

RanDan-web-01

BI: It sounds like for you it’s not about winning; it’s about coming up with the greatest story.

RA: I know that if I argue or am against something, it’s not that I am against Daniel, or against his idea. I’m against the idea in general because it’s not the best for the film. There’s always the first defensive reaction from each of us. But now we’ve learned to move on quickly. You get mad that someone doesn’t like your idea, but five seconds later you’re like, “Okay, you’re right. It was a bad idea.”

BI: That is probably also a great way to approach critical and audience receptions for your films. It’s not you, it’s your idea that is being viewed and critiqued. What do you hope your legacy will be with such a wide-ranging body of work?

DG: We like the fact that if you watch any of our three movies so far, and don’t know in advance who made them, you might not necessarily suspect they’re directed by the same people. But if you do know, then you start to see what the films have in common, that there are similar threads and techniques and motifs. But there’s no fixed idea or style.

RA: If you look at our body of work, you can see many different stages of our lives. Our films are our moods, our memories, what we’re interested in. We would never have made H. in our 20s. Absolutely not. We would not write those women characters, we would not be interested in that subject matter.

The best bodies of work in anything—in literature, in painting, in film—are made by artists in whose work you can see phases. Different eras in which they are working in different styles. Even if one phase is “better” than another, it doesn’t matter—because everything is honest. It doesn’t make sense to be 80 years old and making films about teenagers. I don’t think that will be a very truthful interest of mine at that age.

DG: Or maybe it will be. We don’t know, yet. But I think we get bored easily. Our interests change over time. We want to try every genre. Maybe one day we’ll make our version of a romantic comedy. But it’ll be our romantic comedy, our take on that genre, our style. We weren’t always interested in making a sci-fi film until we realized we had written a sci-fi film in H. We want to experiment with our version of each genre over time.

RA: Hopefully with more money.

BI: What ideas are you obsessed with now that will end up in your next work?

RA: We just finished a screenplay. It’s about an eclectic group of characters. I would say it’s a little bit of a dark comedy.

DG: Dark and absurdist—not comedy. In the same way that Okay, Enough, Goodbye is technically a comedy, I guess. It’s a dark, weird comedy. It’s got humor and it’s funny because of the situations, not necessarily because it’s trying to be funny.

RA: And we’re really interested, and have been in all our films so far, in things that feel unbelievable, but happen anyway. Our new film is a collection of stories from New York City, one from each of the boroughs. It’s not sci-fi, it’s very much of the here and now. But it’s absurd—just as New York City as a whole is absurd.

RanDan-web-03

BI: What are you afraid of, in and out of the film world?

RA: A lot of things! I’m afraid of planes, of riding bikes, of driving cars. I don’t do anything on wheels! And losing people. Loss is very scary to me. Daniel is not that scared. He’s a risk-taker.

DG: I don’t know what I’m afraid of in that sense of the word.

RA: Failure?

DG: Yeah, not being able to…

RA: Create?

DG: …to not reach success in what we’re doing. Having to continue to struggle and always be guessing what’s going to happen next. I want to know what we’re going to do next and get some money for it. And know that we’re going to have stuff to do for a while that makes us money. Ultimately. Yeah, I’m afraid that that doesn’t happen.

BI: One last question: What are your guilty pleasures?

RA: I’m a very big, avid fan of Agatha Christie. I’ve read every book and am now watching the BBC show. It’s on Netflix. It’s called Poirot. It’s from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Every episode there’s a murder and you solve it. And I love solving murders!

DG: Law & Order SVU is another one.

RA: Yes, I’m a big fan of Law & Order SVU. I love that show. I love crime and I love to solve it! I don’t mean I like the idea of doing the crime—but I love the detective side of it!

DG: I think we’ll make a detective story. It’s on our list. On my side, though, I love watching YouTube poker tournaments. If I have an hour and a half alone, I’ll watch poker for an hour and a half. I’ll watch sports highlights for a long time, too—even of classic games that happened 20 years ago. I waste
a lot of time on YouTube. But it’s also research. I find a lot of cool stuff on YouTube.

BI: Everything’s research!

DG: Exactly. It’s justified.

 

Photos by Keegan Grandbois
Styling by Blair Lorien
Makeup by Sara Booth