Santa Cruz native Sasha Friedlander directed 'Where Heaven Meets Hell.'
Only a handful of the selections in this year’s Pacific Rim Film Festival are by filmmakers with local roots, and perhaps it’s merely coincidence that they are among the best. But what’s uncanny is the synchronicity in play among three of them—Where Heaven Meets Hell (Oct. 23, 8:15 pm, Cabrillo Crocker Theater), The Power of Two (Oct. 22, 8:15 pm, Rio Theatre) and Playing With Fire (Oct. 22, 5 pm, Rio Theatre). (Note: all three of these screenings will feature Q&A sessions.)
They all take the approach, to varying extents, of visual poetry over exposition. They all feature ordinary people in extraordinary situations. And all came out of working relationships in which the filmmakers were able to establish a remarkable level of intimacy with their subjects.
In separate interviews, the people behind the films sometimes even echo each other when they speak about how they achieved these three very different and yet strangely connected, truly compelling portraits.
'Where Heaven Meets Hell': Sasha Friedlander, Director
Watching the parade of gorgeous images in Santa Cruz native Sasha Friedlander’s directorial debut, one is haunted by the feeling that something is not right.
Such remarkable displays of beauty normally stimulate a certain kind of delight in that part of our brain that craves visual excitement. But in Where Heaven Meets Hell, they have the power to disturb.
That’s because underneath their elegant surface, there is cruelty. The Kawah Ijen volcano that inspires awe as an Indonesian national park—for which tourists are charged entry based on the size of their cameras—is also home to a sulfur mine manned by workers whose health and safety is constantly in jeopardy. It is a place of poverty and struggle, as potentially deadly as it is beautiful.
Director Sasha Friedlander makes no apologies for framing the story of these miners and their families with the kind of cinematography that makes the landscape, or even a yellow cloud of sulfur, look absolutely exquisite.
“That was actually what drew me to make the film in the first place, because I found that fascinating,” she says by phone from her current home in New York. “You get there, and it’s absolutely otherworldly, it’s spectacular. And then to see the miners’ work there, that contrast, it blew me away.”
The 27-year-old Friedlander found her way to East Java by a strange and winding route. Growing up in Santa Cruz as the daughter of local artist Sara Friedlander and her musician husband Cliff, she first visited Indonesia when she was seven, and vacationed regularly there with her family. She took up Balinese dancing, and as a teenager was voted the best young dancer in Bali. After graduating from UCLA with a focus in documentary film and dance in 2007, she moved to Indonesia and pursued journalism, helping to launch the International Bali Post. She traveled to Kawah Ijen after some friends showed her pictures from a bike trip and, after learning of the mine, began developing the idea of a film about the workers there.
But it took her two years to get back, and even then she almost didn’t, thanks to the incredible difficulty of getting a permit to shoot from the Indonesian government.
“It was a nightmare,” she says. “It was me calling the embassy for eight months before they gave it to me. I received the permit two days before I flew out.”
An early Kickstarter campaign—which many supporters in Santa Cruz contributed to—helped her raise the money for the film, and for two two-month stretches she and her small crew pretty much lived with the miners.
“Everyone had us at their home at one point or another,” she says of the mining community. “They trusted me, and they let me in from day one.”
The resulting film recalls the visual poetics of Ron Fricke’s films like Baraka, mixed with hard documentary realism. But she says her biggest inspiration was Yung Chang’s 2007 documentary Up the Yangtze, especially in the relationship between filmmaker and subject.
“The intimacy that the director was able to achieve, it seemed unreal,” she says.
She was able to capture some unreal moments herself, as when an impromptu interview with the owner of the mine led to him ordering one of his subordinates to eat sulfur on camera to show it was not toxic.
“It was so bizarre, it was hard to keep a straight face,” she admits. “It was like, ‘What is happening? This is insane.’”
'The Power of Two': Marc Smolowitz, Director
“I was very drawn to the ideas of breath and breathing,” Marc Smolowitz says of the underlying rhythms in his documentary The Power of Two, which follows Anabel and Isabel Stenzel, half-Japanese identical twins living in Redwood City. Their lifelong fight with cystic fibrosis made them the faces of the battle against appalling organ donor laws in Japan, and was the basis for their memoir of the same name. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder which clogs the body organs, especially the lungs, restricting breathing in those who suffer from it. Since there is no treatment for the disease, organ transplant is the only cure.