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Articles by

<Elise Nakhnikian>

12/03/14 4:00am
Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

 

Concerning Violence
Directed by Göran Hugo Olsson
Opens December 5 at IFC Center

Less a documentary than an illustrated essay, Concerning Violence begins with a mini-lecture by a Columbia University professor on the significance of Frantz Fanon’s classic critique of colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth, which the film sets out to elucidate.

Filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson, the Swedish director of The Black Power Mixtape, enlists Lauryn Hill to read chunks of the book in her strong, confident voice while the words unscroll onscreen in fat white type, so we don’t miss a syllable of Fanon’s coolly furious, pellucid prose. Hill’s intermittent voiceover is paired with 16mm footage shot by radical Swedish filmmakers in Africa of white colonialists and black anti-imperialist leaders and guerilla fighters during the Cold War era.

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10/08/14 4:00am

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga
Directed by Jessica Orek

Frequent subtitled voiceovers and title sequences crowd The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga with theories, by the likes of Bruno Bettelheim, that sometimes feel underdeveloped. But director Jessia Oreck’s main premises—that we seek to overcome fear of the unknown and the darkness within us by imposing order on the chaos of nature, and that our most primal fears are encoded into the traditions and stories we pass down—are evocatively embodied by a mix of impressionistic 16mm footage of Eastern European life in modern urban and rural settings and archival footage from the likes of the town deserted after the Chernobyl disaster, all intercut with the gory Russian fairy tale of the title. The fable is illustrated with sepia and black drawings over which the camera swooshes and pans, magnifying the dread embodied by the forest-dwelling witch.

October 15-21 at MoMA

08/13/14 4:00am

Are You Here
Directed by Matthew Weiner

When TV weatherman Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson) asks for his job back after quitting in disgust following years of bad behavior, he’s startled to be welcomed back—and given a promotion. “Jeez, what do you have to do to get fired around here?” he asks.

You might ask the same thing of Matthew Weiner, the writer/director/producer of this rambling, tedious film, which keeps going and going but never gets anywhere. Stumbling from unfunny “comedy,” like an icky, overlong sequence in which Steve kills a chicken, to drama that’s generally either unconvincing or overplayed, Are You Here can’t settle on a tone. There’s not much of a plot, as it tags along behind a sitcom-ready pair of odd-couple best friends, Wilson’s Steve and Zach Galifianakis’s Ben, a bipolar bear of a man who looks like a hermit and acts like a hyperactive four-year-old. The pacing is clumsy and the characterizations shallow, sometimes to the point of stereotype: Amish people are treated like a white version of the Magical Negro, totems of pious forbearance who listen gravely to the nutty main characters and offer them sage advice.

It’s more than disappointing; it’s baffling. I mean, we’re talking Matthew Weiner, the famously hands-on creator/producer/writer of Mad Men. Yet just about everything that show does so brilliantly, including complicated and deeply sympathetic female characters, realistic yet evocative storylines, and smart and subtle dialogue, is turned on its head here.

The women in this movie are so thinly sketched it’s impossible to care what happens to them. Ben’s sister Terri (Amy Poehler) starts out an angry control freak and then becomes irrelevant, just as she’s starting to show more dimensions. A pleasant-seeming neighbor (Jenna Fischer) who turns up in the last few minutes to meet cute with Ben, seems more like notes for a character than the thing itself.

The men are a puzzle, often doing things that seem out of character or simply inexplicable. Ben is bipolar, so it makes sense that he should act erratic before he starts taking his meds, but it shouldn’t be so hard to get a handle on Steve, who seems at times like a callow, sweet-talking jerk and at times like a true friend and a good man. Of course, one person can contain many contradictions and mysteries—just look at Don Draper. But Steve Dallas doesn’t feel like a nuanced, complex, conflicted human being. He feels like an underdeveloped concept.

Opens August 22

07/16/14 4:00am

A Master Builder
Directed by Jonathan Demme

“I would like to tell you a very strange story—I mean, if you’d be willing to listen to it,” title character Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn) says in A Master Builder, a production headed by Shawn (who wrote the screenplay from his own translation of Henrik Ibsen’s play) and his longtime collaborator Andre Gregory (who adapted it for the stage and plays another of the main roles), with the help of Jonathan Demme, who the two recruited to direct. Halvard’s line, which could easily have come from either of the two old friends’ other films, is spoken early enough to feed our hopes that A Master Builder will follow in the nimble footsteps of My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street, deftly exploring human nature and the nature of language—both the stories we tell and the things we leave unspoken. Unfortunately, this film is as flatfooted as the others are agile.

A dying man (though he is temporarily revived by a surprise visit from a young woman he first met ten years earlier), Halvard is trying to exorcise his guilt for a lifetime of maintaining his top-dog status at the expense of everyone close to him. Demme is almost always better at making documentaries than fiction films, and this one is no exception. While director Louis Malle made a conversation between two men in a restaurant visually interesting in My Dinner with Andre, using unobtrusive but effective framing devices like a shot of Gregory’s reflection in a mirror behind Shawn as Shawn talked and working in their waiter’s disapproving face so often that he became a kind of silent Greek chorus, the camerawork here starts out with sometimes dizzyingly shaky handheld footage and then settles into a tedious pattern of shot-reverse shot as the small but constantly shifting parade of characters talk, mostly in pairs. The actors—particularly the three leads (Shawn, Julie Hagerty and Lisa Joyce as Hilda Wangel, the young woman) emote in an emphatic, exaggerated style, as if the script were written in big block letters. Heavy-handed symbolism, like the towers Halvard loves to build and the three empty bedrooms he and his wife maintain for the children they never had, make things feel all the more clunkily expository.

The best parts of the film are the ones that retain some mystery. The character of Hilda remains ambiguous. After reviving Halvard miraculously just after he has gone into what looks like cardiac arrest, she seesaws between trembling or cackling near-hysteria and the self-confidence of a wise old soul. Is she a hallucination, cooked up by Halvard’s dying brain as a kind of photogenic life review guide? Or is she a real, probably unbalanced young woman, there to make sure Halvard gets his karmic desserts for having casually seduced and abandoned her when she was 12? She may be as ripe and juicy as a new-fallen pear, but she’s intriguingly disturbing, part puppet master, part naïve young innocent/victim, and part Angel of Death.

Opens July 23 at Film Forum

07/02/14 4:00am

Land Ho!
Directed by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens

The industrial-strength whine of an unseen engine dominates the opening moments of Land Ho! What could it be? A plane about to take off for some exotic place? A chainsaw preparing to rip through something—or someone? Nope, it’s a vacuum cleaner, wielded by Mitch (played by Earl Lynn Nelson, co-director Martha Stephens’s second cousin). Mitch, we soon learn, is a recently retired surgeon who’s cleaning up a bit before his favorite ex-brother-in-law, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), comes over for dinner.

That aural punch line is a nice introduction to this deadpan but lively film, which presents everyday situations and encounters with just enough of a twist to focus our attention on them. And you’ve got to savor the small stuff, as Land Ho! gently reminds us, because those seemingly inconsequential moments make up the warp and the weft of our lives.

Colin and Mitch at first appear to be a classic odd couple, a refined, artistic introvert mourning the end of his marriage and a blustery, crude extrovert with a lust for life and a gift for coining colorful phrases. (“This is so delicious you’re not going to believe it,” Mitch tells Colin of the food they’re about to eat. “It’s like angels pissing on your tongue.”) But the two are not so easily pigeonholed, and neither is their relationship. As they meander through Iceland on a road trip planned and paid for by Mitch, who insists that Colin join him, we learn that the apparently tactless Mitch is a good listener, that quiet Colin can be silly and spontaneous, and that their easy rapport is rooted in a deep mutual affection and respect.

Mitch and Colin often stop to take in natural wonders like the Gullfoss double waterfall, the camera lingering on the sights while the two old friends talk about their disappointing children, jobs and love lives, or goof around like kids made giddy by the sheer, unfamiliar beauty in front of them. Their trip is also punctuated by encounters with other people, some cringe-inducing (Mitch asks a honeymooning couple how many times they have “gone to the mat”), some profound and some droll.

Rarely overtly dramatic and often sweetly absurd, Land Ho! has real emotional heft, reminding us that you’re never too old to lose your way—or to find it again.

Opens July 11

05/28/14 12:24pm

Elena, a movie directed by Petra Costa

An homage to the beloved older sister cowriter-director Petra Costa lost when she was 7-years-old, Elena is a detailed anatomy of grief—and a poetic tribute to life, love, and the transformative power of art. Costa combines family video, photos and testimonials from her sister with new footage of herself and New York, the city where she retraces the contours of Elena’s life and explores its effect on her own. Her entrancing, beautiful footage frequently features blurred images, soft colors, slow pans, and slow motion. The images of water set the stage for her concluding metaphor for the healing power of time: “Little by little, the pain turns to water, becomes memory.”

Opens Friday, May 30, at the IFC Center

05/21/14 4:00am

We Are the Best!
Directed by Lukas Moodysson

A humanist with a rare sensitivity to the inner lives of children, Lukas Moodysson is one of the best directors of young people, and he’s especially good with girls and young women. As in Lilya 4-Ever and Together, he gazes at the young people in his latest eye-to-eye even when they’re all but invisible to those around them, capturing the awkwardness and innocent sincerity of youth without condescension or sentimentality. He also knows that loving people and finding humor in human frailty aren’t mutually exclusive. Even as we empathize with the protagonists here, we’re also laughing at them—and the laughter is energizing because there’s nothing mean-spirited about it. It’s just another way of acknowledging the humanity we share with three teenage girls in 1982 Stockholm.

With none of the attributes that usually get girls noticed, 13-year-old Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) is constantly overlooked. Her fierce, fast-talking, more conventionally beautiful best friend, Klara (Mira Grosin), attracts plenty of attention, yet she too is an outcast with her Mohawk and militant anti-authoritarianism. Boys their age ignore them, their parents are so self-involved they’re useless, and the aging would-be hipsters who manage the youth center where they hang out favor the older boys whose heavy metal band frequently rehearses there. But rather than being defeated by such pervasive indifference, Bobo and Klara enjoy the freedom it offers, declaring themselves punks and thumbing their noses at authority and privilege. To fight back against the takeover of their center by the boys, they declare themselves a band so they can book the rehearsal room and create a din of their own. The girls’ impulsivity is funny—neither Bobo nor Klara knows how to play an instrument—but you also admire their protofeminist spirit.

When they draw in a third member, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a gifted musician, their sound gets some shape, but the band remains most importantly a refuge from a world all too ready to marginalize or pigeonhole young women. As the three girls practice and hang out, they draw strength from each other, becoming more solidly who they are even as they remain very different from one another. Moodysson adapted the script from an autobiographical graphic novel by his wife, Coco, and it retains the feel of vividly remembered real experience. The exhilarating uncertainty of a date that isn’t quite a date, the messiness of getting drunk for the first time, the delicate dynamics between the girls: this is early teenage life, not as it’s usually shown in the movies but as it’s actually lived.

Opens May 30 at the Angelika and Lincoln Center

04/18/14 1:46pm

manos sucias movie josef kubota wladyka

Manos Sucias is the story of two young men from Buenaventura, an impoverished town on Columbia’s Pacific coast, who pair up to take a fishing boat on a perilous drug run for a ruthless drug lord. We talked to director Josef Kubota Wladyka about the film and the true stories it was based on. It screens at Tribeca tonight and again on Monday.

Every time someone in your movie talks about moving to Bogota, someone else reminds them that there are no black people there. Do Afro-Colombians tend to be pretty invisible in most parts of Colombia? And if so, is that part of what made you want to tell this story?
Yes, definitely. I believe Afro-Latinos in South America in general haven’t been well represented in film, especially in Colombia. If you travel to Buenaventura, it doesn’t take long to see that it’s a place that’s been sort of forgotten by the government. It’s the richest port city in Colombia—it has the most imports and exports—but the people who live there don’t participate in that economy. It’s under siege by a lot of things, especially narco-trafficking.

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You held a five-week storytelling workshop during pre-production to teach basic filmmaking techniques to people in Buenaventura. Did that workshop inform the movie in any way, or was it more to teach some skills to the people who lived there?
That was a big part of it: we wanted to do an exchange because a lot of these communities were giving us permission to shoot there. We wanted to give something back. We also got a lot of our crew from the workshops, and actors as well for some of the small parts.

Were the main actors professionals or locals?
The two main actors come from the same theater school in Buenaventura. Cristian, the younger one, is still studying there. They are part of a group that travels around Colombia doing Afro-Colombian renditions of plays. They’ve never been in a film before, but they’re extremely talented, so the process was mostly just preparing them to be in front of the camera. For me, it was a wonderful process working with the actors. They were so raw and fearless. They had the craft of acting but they also come from the barrios, and we all had such an honest dialogue about what goes on there. They were open to sharing very personal stuff about their lives.

Alan Blanco and I wrote the script together, but I wanted the actors to bring things from their own personal lives to add to the story, and there’s a lot of those elements included in the film. For example, we changed all the dialogue to be colloquial to how they speak, a very specific type of Spanish in Buenaventura. There’s a scene where Jacobo, the older brother, is talking about his dead son. The story, the actor, Jarlin Martinez, is telling about a kid that got killed on the soccer field is actually a real story that happened in his barrio. He was one of the kids on the field, and his friend got killed.

How did you develop the script? Did you talk to a lot of people in Buenaventura?
I had gone on three intensive research trips on the Pacific Coast. I had lots of stuff in my journal, all kinds of crazy stuff that people told me. The plot is based on a real guy’s story. Of course it’s fictionalized for the film, but a lot of things are based on one guy’s journey. He was in a boat that was going toward Panama, and the cell phone, the GPS, the way they stop at one place and someone calls them and says, “Go here,” and then they say, “Go hide the drugs here and wait.” That all came from a real guy’s story.

Is that also how you got details like the way people traveled on the train tracks, making their own transportation with a motorcycle with a homemade sidecar? That really gives you a sense of how, as you say, the government has abandoned these people. There aren’t even roads. So here are people doing these creative work-arounds.
Yes, they’re very innovative.

How did Spike Lee become your executive producer?
I studied at the NYU graduate film program. Spike is a professor of directing in the third year, and he’s also the artistic director of the program, so we developed a relationship when I was in his class. He’s an extremely generous person. He has weekly meetings with all his students and he’ll read their scripts and give them feedback and give them guidance.

The beginnings of this idea were starting to manifest when I was there. I showed him versions of the script and he always thought it was a captivating story. He also gave me a small grant to support work on a thesis film, so I used that to continue researching and for traveling to Colombia. Once we finally shot it, we showed him a rough cut of the film. He liked it very much and agreed to come on board as an executive producer to help us get more eyes on the film.

Do you think your actors will do other films?
We had our premiere in Colombia at the Cartagena Film Festival. The Colombian audience had a really strong reaction to the film, especially since Buenaventura was in all the news in Colombia at the time. There was a lot of protesting going on there because it was the most violent it’s been in a few years, so people were holding huge protests to try to get the government to come help stop the violence that’s been going on.

There were some filmmakers at the screening, and Jarlin Martinez got cast in another film. He’s shooting right now, which makes me so, so, so happy. He’s working with the director of Choco, which is another film that was shot on the Pacific coast. Cristian James Advincula, who played Delio, is here in my living room. He’s about eight hours into America right now. He’s going to be here at the festival, which I’m really happy about. It’s going to be a great experience for him. We just had a wonderful day exploring New York. I took him to Times Square, took him all around.

Has he seen much of Brooklyn?
He just got here this morning, so we haven’t gotten into too much of Brooklyn yet.

Which neighborhood do you live in?
I’m right on the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, right near Kingsland. I’m on the Grand stop. Coincidentally, Alan, my cowriter, happens to live about three blocks down the street, so that made it easy to work together.

Is that how you met, or is it just a nice coincidence?
We met in the film program; we were classmates. But it is kind of how we started to work together, because we’d be going home together and I’d be like, “Hey, can you come look at this cut from this short film I’m working on?” Then we started cutting stuff together, and it just blossomed from there.

How did you wind up in Brooklyn?
I’m originally from Falls Church, Virginia. When I was accepted into the graduate film program I moved up here. I’ve lived in this area for almost eight years now, always around the Lorimer and Grand stop. I love the neighborhood. I’m very lucky: I have three of my closest friends living within the area, a few blocks from each other, so it’s great. We can just go out and grab a beer at a bar or we got to each other’s houses and watch basketball. It’s changing very, very fast—everything’s getting really expensive—but I’ve always enjoyed living in this area.

How did you communicate with your actors and crew, if they don’t speak English? Do you speak fluent Spanish?
I don’t. I studied it in high school, and I can understand and speak it enough to get by. But I had one of my very best friends—he’s from Colombia but he lives here in NY—with me as my translator. He was like an extension of my body during the shoot: we were connected at the hip.

The crew that were the department heads were film people from different parts of Colombia, and we all spoke the language of film, basically, so actually it wasn’t that difficult. It was a beautiful experience, actually, for everyone involved with the production. One of my best friends, who lives in Bushwick, was the first assistant camera—he was the focus puller. He and my translator had the best time of their lives. They had a blast. For me, not so much.

Too busy solving problems?
Yeah. Just stressed out, 24-7. But it would have been a fun film to be a crew member on, I think.

03/26/14 4:00am

The Unknown Known
Directed by Errol Morris

At end of this doc, the director asks his subject, Donald Rumsfeld, why he agreed to be interviewed. But it’s easy to imagine why Rummy bit down on the bait he devours with such evident pleasure, making what he clearly sees as an irrefutable case in his own defense. The more interesting question is: what did Errol Morris hope to achieve by giving him the platform? Call it the fog of Rumsfeld. Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense who helped get us into Vietnam and the last political figure to sit in front of Morris’s Interrotron, used his lifelong faith in research and analysis to grapple with the debacle he helped create, blaming “the fog of war” for having blurred his vision. In contrast, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense has never been much interested in anything but the workings of his own deeply shallow mind.

During all his decades in political office—a stint in Congress and cabinet positions under Presidents Nixon and Ford before his tenure under Bush, during which he was instrumental in the build-up to the Iraq War and its first few years of execution—Rumsfeld obsessively documented his thoughts and actions in memos he called “snowflakes,” writing and rewriting as if he could manipulate reality just by devising the right language. And so he did, for a while, creating an obfuscating blizzard of words dense enough to blind most of the nation. Rumsfeld, who prides himself on being “measured” and “rational,” faces the camera like a spider weaving its web, walking us through his political resume with an emphasis on the Bush years, justifying everything he did to get us into Iraq and nearly everything that happened as a result. A lot of the threads he spins are tautologies (“Everything seems amazing in retrospect. Pearl Harbor seems amazing in retrospect. It’s a failure of imagination”) or self-canceling contradictions (“All generalizations are false, including this one”), but his signature statement is an empty phrase dressed up to sound significant. “I know with certainty that over time, the contributions that you have made will be recorded by history,” he says to President Bush at his farewell press conference.

Morris occasionally makes like Jon Stewart, showing an old news clip or reading from a report that flatly contradicts something Rumsfeld just said, but mostly he sits back, another sly old spider perched on a rival web, while Rumsfeld wraps himself up in a tightly self-contained cocoon. Danny Elfman’s dramatic score and cinematographer Robert Chappell’s elegant visuals, which often find geometric patterns in natural settings, form a subtle counternarrative to Rumsfeld’s words, supplying a sense of dread utterly lacking in his placid whitewash. It’s hard to bear Rumsfeld’s triumphal complacency and impossible not to wish sometimes Morris would challenge him more, or at least more overtly. But in the end, I suspect, the director got what he wanted: a portrait of the banality of evil, 21st-century-style.

Opens April 2

03/12/14 4:00am


The director of Our Brand is Crisis talks about her latest film, Big Men (which opens March 14), a documentary about an oil company that makes a potential $2.2 billion discovery off the coast of Ghana.

Big Men and Our Brand is Crisis are both cautionary tales about global capitalism centered on Americans trying to control major aspects of life in another country: the presidency of Bolivia in Crisis, and Ghana’s newly discovered oil reserves in Big Men. Is that a theme you plan to keep exploring?

When I first got involved in documentary filmmaking fresh out of college, I had a little more confidence in my own capacity to change the world. I was really interested in the idea of getting Americans to think about how they are related to the rest of the world. As I have gotten older, my interests changed, I’ve changed, but I’ve remained consistently fascinated by the intersection of different ways of seeing. At the time that I finished Our Brand, oil prices were going though the roof. The price of oil was on everybody’s list. I didn’t have kids yet, and I was at the point in my life when I thought I could take on something kind of epic. The original idea was, I’m going to make a film about the oil business from inside the oil business.

At the same time, around the end of 2005, this militant movement popped up in Nigeria. These militants started kidnapping oil workers and blowing up pipelines and I thought to myself, there’s a movie there. How about I fly to Nigeria, I get access to an American oil company, and I film their experience inside this context? That would be really interesting, because there’s the collision of competing interests and a dramatic background.

I’m very interested, as a filmmaker, in working on subjects that I think are reflective of something fundamental about the way we’re living now. One of the things I just adore about Marcel Ophuls, who made The Sorrow and the Pity, is that you watch a film that he’s made 30 years later and it’s this amazing time capsule about the way people thought back then. My thrust isn’t so much as an advocacy filmmaker; I’m really more interested in portraits of the way people think and the way people live. Often I’m drawn to these very big international subjects, because I see them as being fundamental and very important.

You gain amazing access in your films. In Big Men, you were right there when the head of the oil company got a government official to assure him that any new rules they created for foreign companies wouldn’t apply to him. How do you get into those intimate spaces, and how do you get people to talk so freely around you?

There are a couple things. I’m very persistent. I ask a lot, and I don’t really give up. I mean, I give up when I know something’s impossible, but I don’t think many things are impossible. And there’s also the fact that, when I ask somebody if I can film with them, I’m very clear that the footage will be mine—that it’s my movie, that they’re not going to be involved with the cutting of it—but I’m also very clear about the fact that my intention is to be respectful. I’m not trying to make films that make someone look like a jerk. I’m not interested in gaining someone’s trust and then tearing it to shreds. I’m interested in intimate portraits that I think are honest.

My guess is that people sense that I’m sincere, because I am, and that I respect people’s limits. And that I’m interested very much in their perspective on things. A lot of people feel like they’re misunderstood or they’re not seen, and they want to share something about their achievements or their life. So the idea that a filmmaker is coming in and is actually going to listen? That’s sort of precious. The most difficult thing about access in my experience… well, there’s two things. There’s getting it in the first place, and the second thing is maintaining it when everything goes to hell in a hand basket. They’re two separate challenges. Ultimately, if you stick around long enough, things will go awry. They always do.

Do you think being a woman might help?

Of course! One of the oil guys at one point in the filming process joked about letting me do it because he liked having me put my hand up his shirt when I was putting on the microphone. And, you know, he was joking, but there’s some truth to that. Having a nice, interested woman around is more appealing to them than having a nice, interested man around. It definitely makes a difference.

And maybe it’s easier for you to seem nonthreatening and sympathetic to somebody who’s feeling defensive—

Oh, sure. I have to say, though, just as an aside: I think men get asked very rarely, “Do you think it made a difference that you were a man?” Of course, as a woman, you’re going into a man’s world. In some ways, that makes your life easier and in some ways it makes your life harder. For example, the militants in the movie. They don’t traditionally allow women into their camps because of religious reasons. When I first tried to get access to the militants, I was traveling through the [Niger] Delta with another journalist. I remember him saying to me: “What are you going to do if you can’t get access because you’re a woman?” I thought to myself, “Well, that’s not going to happen!” But he was right: on the page, it looked unlikely that I would be allowed to go sleep inside of a militant camp for an extended period of time. I wasn’t asking to just come in and take photographs. I was asking to come in and stick around for a while. But I grew up with a single mom who was a corporate lawyer, sort of post women’s lib, during women’s lib, something like that—in the 70s. I just was never raised to think of myself as less than or not capable because I was a woman. I don’t look at that as an impediment ever.

No. But I was actually suggesting that it might be an advantage for the kinds of films you’re making. People are often more comfortable talking to women about their feelings, I think.

That’s another thing that connects these two movies. Both of them are about people who aren’t exactly easily wearing their hearts on their sleeves. They’re about going into intimate spaces with people who you normally don’t see in an intimate way. And certainly the fact that I’m a woman helps with that. Big time.