The darkness and the dancer

Abel Ferrara on Willem Dafoe, Siberia and his latest projects

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Abel Ferrara on Willem Dafoe in Siberia: “That’s so Willem! He’s the darkness and I’m the dancer.”
Abel Ferrara on Willem Dafoe in Siberia: “That’s so Willem! He’s the darkness and I’m the dancer.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Abel Ferrara has kept himself active over the past 16 months, after presenting the world premiere (at the 2020 Berlinale) of Siberia, co-written with Christ Zois (Welcome to New York, Chelsea on the Rocks, New Rose Hotel, The Blackout), shot by Stefano Falivene (Pasolini), scored by Joe Delia (Sportin' Life, Tommaso, The Projectionist, Piazza Vittorio) and starring Willem Dafoe with Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara, Dounia Sichov, Simon McBurney, Laurent Arnatsiaq, Phil Neilson, Valentina Rozumenko, Fabio Pagano, and Ulrike Willenbacher.

Clint (Willem Dafoe) with his Inuit friend (Laurent Arnatsiaq)
Clint (Willem Dafoe) with his Inuit friend (Laurent Arnatsiaq)

Abel has Zeros And Ones, starring Ethan Hawke, Valerio Mastandrea, and Cristina Chiriac waiting to go and his must-watch Sportin' Life, sponsored by Saint Laurent, and shot by Sean Price Williams, which intimately documents the Berlin festivities, including musical performances, with Abel singing and playing guitar in clubs. The initial tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, hitting New York City, Rome, and the entire world is juxtaposed throughout with these final moments of celebration at the film festival.

Coming up this week on Tuesday is the start of Abel Ferrara’s Cinema Village, with a free screening of The Projectionist, followed by a Q&A with the director. Abel also told me that his longtime composer Joe Delia will be performing both “inside and outside the theatre.” “We’re going to play at a park. You know, we’re going to make it like a street festival,” he promised.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “Ten truths must you find during the day; otherwise you will seek truth during the night, and your soul will stay hungry. Ten times must you laugh during the day, and be cheerful; otherwise your stomach, the father of affliction and gloom, will disturb you in the night.” Ferrara puts these words into the mouth of a man in a tent in the desert, when we reach the belly of Siberia.

Clint (Willem Dafoe) toasts his Russian travellers (Valentina Rozumenko, Cristina Chiriac)
Clint (Willem Dafoe) toasts his Russian travellers (Valentina Rozumenko, Cristina Chiriac)

Willem Dafoe is Clint, a lonesome man who provides warm drinks and shelter to the rare travellers who find their way up north to the snow and ice. Five beautiful and alert huskies (played by two sets of dogs, five for the snow, five for the sand), eager to pull the sled through the absinthe-green nights, will go on a journey with Clint that leads him not only to a cave where he encounters his dead father, but also to a number of visitations of the past, his personal one, and that of the world. Women’s embraces blend one into the other, childhood toys beckon to be played with once more, and the moon in all its phases smiles down with benevolent and neutral indifference.

Like a fairy-tale villain Clint falls from the darkness of a cliff, confers with a Magician (McBurney) about the inferiority of the black arts, and listens to what a fish in a pan has to say. “You stuck yourself at the end of the universe and you can’t see your selfishness, arrogance, and above all, ignorance,” Clint is being told. Where do you go then to claim your soul? These are some of the questions Ferrara packs on the sled as it speeds through the snow. “You made room for bad things to happen,” Clint accuses his ex-wife (Dounia Sichov). So does this film, as a way to reclaim the light.

Abel Ferrara: “We went to the Alps in Alto Adige, which is the Italian Alps”
Abel Ferrara: “We went to the Alps in Alto Adige, which is the Italian Alps”

From New York, Abel Ferrara continued on Zoom with our in-depth conversation going to Siberia, Willem Dafoe, Christ Zois, his latest projects, and so much more.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Okay, Siberia! Last time we spoke was for Pasolini.

Abel Ferrara: Aha! Okay.

AKT: At the New York Film Festival with Willem there.

AF: That’s playing too [at Cinema Village].

AKT: I noticed that there’s some overlap, beautiful overlap between Pasolini and Siberia. From the pink sky of the desert - the sky really is one of the beautiful links between the two.

AF: Right.

AKT: The dancing, the celebration, plus the fact that in Pasolini it was one day [his last] and here it might as well be one day.

Clint (Willem Dafoe) with his childhood toy
Clint (Willem Dafoe) with his childhood toy

AF: Yeah, right, like it’s almost a moment in his mind. Yeah, you know, the sky you got in Rome, the sky is beautiful. I mean, the light in Rome is just beautiful. It’s one of the big advantages living there and filming there. It’s almost like we had to go all over the world to match that. We went to the Alps in Alto Adige, which is the Italian Alps, then Mexico - we went all over.

AKT: Seeing the film now, post-Pandemic, or near the end, or maybe in the middle, we don’t know - but you finished it before COVID.

AF: Yeah, it was all done. It was in Berlin, right the week when everybody went into lockdown. Like the last hurrah.

AKT: Where did you spend the lockdown? In Rome?

AF: Yeah, in Rome. I spent it editing a documentary we did on going to Berlin, and it was a documentary on the lockdown, called Sportin’ Life. It’s on the Indiewire site, if you want to see it. Check it out.

Clint (Willem Dafoe)
Clint (Willem Dafoe)

AKT: You also finished a film [Zeros and Ones] with Ethan Hawke and Valerio Mastandrea?

AF: Yeah, for sure. There’s a beautiful scene with Valerio and Ethan in this film.

AKT: I talked with Valerio about his film that he directed [Ride].

AF: The one he shot in Ostia or is that a different one?

AKT: The one that is a comedy about a death and mourning.

AF: Oh, I haven’t seen it yet.

AKT: It’s very bizarre, but very interesting.

AF: I’ve got to see it.

AKT: Back to Siberia. I didn’t recognize her, but I noticed [in the end credits] that you had Ulrike Willenbacher playing the mother. I hadn’t heard her name in forever, but I remember seeing her in the theatre. She’s a stage actress.

Clint (Willem Dafoe) with his ex-wife (Dounia Sichov)
Clint (Willem Dafoe) with his ex-wife (Dounia Sichov)

AF: Right.

AKT: I don’t know if she was in Faust, I remember her, I think, in Heinrich von Kleist’s The Broken Jug. How did you get to cast her?

AF: We were shooting in Munich and we were looking. People we worked with knew her, knew how great she was and they thought she would get along well with me and Willem.

AKT: Which scenes did you film in Munich?

AF: Those scenes with the wife, some of the cellar. Things that were a little distorted and abstract. Where we wanted to take the location that we had, the actual location that was in the mountains, or whatever, and we wanted to distort the shape of things. And then we wanted to recreate Willem’s house exactly as a child. The kitchen scene, you know.

AKT: Oh, is that a childhood photograph?

AF: Yeah, that’s an actual photograph. That’s him in there. With his sisters and brothers at their table. But we also recreated his cellar and his kitchen. It’s as close as possible, but you can do that on stage.

Abel Ferrara on Zeros And Ones: “There’s a beautiful scene with Valerio and Ethan in this film.”
Abel Ferrara on Zeros And Ones: “There’s a beautiful scene with Valerio and Ethan in this film.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: And the toys, Rodeo Joe and baseball books is what little Willem loved? In a way we never grow out of what we played as a child, do we?

AF: Yeah, I don’t think so.

AKT: I found it very telling that he shoots someone off the plastic horse. Anyway. One of my favorite scenes is the Maypole.

AF: Right. Why is that? Why?

AKT: First of all it ties in with the Nietzsche quote. It is laughing and dancing and it’s everything that is positive about nostalgia. How you can use nostalgia in a productive way. That’s really why I loved it.

AF: Thank you.

AKT: Does it make sense to you?

AF: It makes a shitload of sense. It makes total sense.

AKT: And there’s so much darkness in the film!

Valerio Mastandrea was in Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini and will be seen in Zeros And Ones
Valerio Mastandrea was in Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini and will be seen in Zeros And Ones Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AF: That’s so Willem! He’s the darkness and I’m the dancer.

AKT: He’s the darkness and you’re the dancer?

AF: Yeah. So the darkness?

AKT: Yes, the camp, the tower, these scenes are shocking moments that are not revisited, that are like a wound in the middle of the film. That’s how it felt. Leave it at that? The wound?

AF: You explained it better than I can. I mean, it’s beautiful. I don’t think I could have come up with that one. I think you hit on it. It’s collective memory. It’s genocide. From how you read it, hopefully you didn’t experience it, but we all experience it because it happened. And it is happening. It’s all part of our day-to-day life to have that knowledge.

AKT: Yeah, William Faulkner, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”

AF: That’s a good one. Let me write that down. [Abel leaves the frame to write it down]. Okay, that’s good.

AKT: You got it?

AF: I wrote it. Man, you’re rockin’, go ahead. Keep going!

Clint (Willem Dafoe) confronts his inner wilderness
Clint (Willem Dafoe) confronts his inner wilderness

AKT: Your co-writer Christ Zois …

AF: Christ Zois, he’s a psychiatrist.

AKT: Is this his real name?

AF: In Greece it’s not quite as remarkable as it is in English. I mean everybody’s named Chris one way or another there.

AKT: Sure, lots of Christians everywhere. But with the combination of names, I wasn’t even sure if you were using it as a pseudonym.

AF: That would be even better, but no, that’s his real name.

AKT: He combined Willem’s family life with your dance, or how did the three of you work on this?

AF: He’s worked with me on my New Rose Hotel. Even when he doesn’t get credit on these scripts, he’s been an advisor. He’s part of the process, coming from his point of view as essentially a writer of textbooks and he’s written a novel. And his practice. He’s a therapist and a doctor. Now he’s a screenwriter. It’s hard to explain how it goes around.

Siberia poster - opens at Cinema Village on June 30
Siberia poster - opens at Cinema Village on June 30

AKT: You mentioned Jung earlier. There is one moment that is extremely Freudian in its dream logic. Telling the father “You’re dead.” This is like “Father, can’t you see I’m burning?” That case history is what it reminded me of. People being alive in dreams. That there is no end. This is something we spoke about with Pasolini many years ago. This idea that there is no ending. That the end doesn’t really exist. And yet a lot of your work seems to be circling around this idea of the end, no?

AF: Which way? What do you mean, circling around the end?

AKT: A kind of obsession of things ending and thematizing it. The ideas of is there an end, you’re dead, you’re not really dead, there is continuation.

AF: You know I’m a Buddhist. As a Buddhist, whatever the idea of the soul, consciousness, once something is alive, by definition it cannot not be alive. The Buddhist says, there is no beginning, there is no non-beginning. So the spirit that is any individual, I mean, his body might go - the idea of reincarnation. It’s just that your spirit has existed, you don’t even question a beginning and you don’t question the end. That spirit is there. And if it takes its form in this body or another body, that’s what it is.

AKT: That would connect to the question in Siberia: Where do you find your soul? Inside or outside? And then the answer we get is that it’s outside, which comes with a wonderful verb, that I never would have put there. You would have expected maybe you have to find it, but, no the answer is, it’s outside and you must “claim” it. That’s wonderful. You have to claim your soul! That’s like you’re on the prairie and go West, young man.

AF: It echoes in Tommaso, the same thing. In recovery, when you’re using, when you’re drinking and drugging, your soul is hanging from a tree somewhere. You got to find it. You got to connect to it, you got to be one with it.

AKT: And claim it.

Cinema Village reopens on June 29 with a free screening of The Projectionist
Cinema Village reopens on June 29 with a free screening of The Projectionist

AF: And claim it and be whole with it.

AKT: And say this is me, this is mine. Thank you so much!

AF: Thank you, man, you were unbelievable!

AKT: Who are the special guests coming?

AF: I don’t know yet, but we’re going to come up with somebody. I’d love to see you there. Ciao.

Coming up - Abel Ferrara on positive practice, the role of Willem Dafoe’s family in Siberia, the huskies, the Magician Simon McBurney, fear tales, and the collected memory of the world.

Read what Abel Ferrara had to say on Abel Ferrara’s Cinema Village.

Abel Ferrara’s Cinema Village kicks off on June 29 and runs through Thursday, July 8.

Share this with others on...

Walking the line James Ashcroft on character ambiguities and Coming Home In The Dark

Bowled over Lyle Kash on creating new narratives and making Death And Bowling

A short dive into Ca' Foscari's competition We look at the short film festival's winners and some of our favourites

'We Lived with Volteo for five years' Monika Kotecka and Karolina Poryzała on their girl power documentary feature The Herd

A Lebanese story Eliane Raheb on showing the filmmaking process and making Miguel’s War

From saving goals to shooting film Icelandic goalie Hannes Þór Halldórsson on his movie debut Cop Secret

More news and features

We're bringing you news, reviews and interviews from Newfest in New York

We're looking forward to Sci-Fi London, Abertoir and the London Korean Film Festival.

We've recently covered the London Film Festival, Manchester's Grimmfest, the New York Film Festival, the Scottish Queer International Film Festival, the San Sebastian Film Festival, the Glasgow Youth Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival and Deauville and Frightfest.

Read our full for more.

Visit our festivals section.


More competitions coming soon.