Jennifer Merin interviews Ali Selim re “Sweet Land”

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ALI SELIM’S SWEET FEATURE< "Sweet Land"< Written and Directed by Ali Selim< After years of successfully directing commercials, Minneapolis-based Ali Selim delved into "Sweet Land," and delivered his first feature.< Inspired by a Will Weaver short story, "Sweet Land" is a gentle, heart-warming, almost fairytale-like love saga.

Inge (Elizabeth Reaser), a young German immigrant, arrives in Minnesota in 1920, expecting to marry Olaf (Tim Guinee), a local homesteader. He’s Norwegian, living in a community of Norwegians– who’re prejudiced against Germans. But, despite the odds and language barriers, Inge and Olaf fall deeply in love and, despite all deterrents, their relationship endures.< Their love story’s a bit like Selim’s relationship with the project.< "When I read the piece, I fell in love with it and imagined it as a film. I thought it’d be easy to do-- just get a house and a field and we’d shoot it in a month. That was sixteen years ago," says Selim. "If I’d chosen a different project, I’d probably have become a filmmaker a lot sooner-- but "Sweet Land" isn’t your typical commercial love story. Producers didn’t quite get it-- they said it has no plot. It took patience and persistence to get it made."< "Finally, after I’d finished a string of antacid commercials, I needed a change and just went for it, pushed to raise the money. Fortunately, Gil Bellows and Dan Futterman, whom I’d directed in A-1 Steak Sauce spots, had become my friends and supported the project from the start. Alan Cumming signed on almost a decade ago, then Ned Beatty. Without their generosity, the film couldn’t have been made."< MERIN: Had you always wanted to make a feature?< SELIM: Yes. Storytelling interests me much more than the attributes of lowfat potato chips.< MERIN: What wedded you to "Sweet Land"?< SELIM: The issues it presents concerning prejudice and religion. My father emigrated from Egypt in the 50s, and faced similar language barriers and prejudice about skin color, food, customs. He married a German-American woman. I was raised by an Orthodox Muslim and pamphlet-toting atheist who sent me to Catholic school. Issues of religion have always concerned me. My personal history connected me to "Sweet Land."< MERIN: The film’s thematic issues-- intolerance, economic hardship and urbanization of farmlands-- are rife with conflict, yet you treat these big dramatic themes in a very gentle, almost passive way. Why not add sturm und drang to attract producers?< SELIM: I’m interested in things that happen on a human scale, and sometimes find commercial dramas to be beyond that. "Sweet Land" is a story about love rather than a story about conflict. It’s a tale of how two people hurdle past prejudices and language differences to connect. The conflicts between them aren‘t as big a story as their finding each other. It would take away from the love story if I made Minister Sorrensen (John Heard) or Ned Beatty‘s character evil.< Actually, I’d written more overtly dramatic scenes, but felt the film didn’t need them. It’s not plot driven-- you don’t need plot points to make people understand what’s happening next.< MERIN: Did your script change much during production? SELIM: Yes. It changed as soon as I held open auditions in NY and read scenes with actors. I went back to my hotel room that night and cut half the dialog. When I heard actors saying the words, and I saw what they could do-- not just with lines, but with the silence that hangs between lines, I thought: boy, I don’t need that much dialog. When we rehearsed with the cast, I cut more. While we were shooting, even more.< As storytellers, writers have to use words-- but once actors get hold of dialog and internalize it, they’re able to express it in ways other than words. I discovered you don’t need that much dialog-- that was a valuable lesson for me.< MERIN: Where’d you study filmmaking?< SELIM: I had a really good liberal arts education-- studied English literature, philosophy and theology in college. And art history. After graduation, I took some film appreciation courses-- I loved it, really connected with film. At that time, film production in Minnesota was thriving, and I got into it and got good opportunities because there was so much work available. I got to direct things-- that wouldn’t happen today. So, I actually learned the filmmaking techniques on the sly-- picked them up on the job.< MERIN: "Sweet Land" looks like a series of beautiful paintings. What inspired your exquisite visual style?< SELIM: To me, many films look alike, and I didn’t want to mimic them. So I referenced images that’d impressed me in college-- paintings by Wyeth and Hopper, and palette-wise, Mark Rothko. While writing the script, I referenced paintings. When I hooked up with my cameraman, I told him to study paintings, not films. He understood, adding his own references. We looked at paintings instead of storyboarding, then set shots.< MERIN: With such clear vision of what you wanted, how’d you get actors to fit into your framework?< SELIM: Shot composition’s easy. My emphasis is on creating a good environment for the actors, so they reach an understanding and feel a scene’s energy-- which moves not only along the lines of dialog, but constantly among actors. I want to incorporate actors’ suggestions because they’ve become their character, and know their character better than I do. Take, for example, the scene where Minister Sorrensen reads Keats to help Inge learn English. To the bystander, it seems the scene’s energy flows between John Heard and Elizabeth Reaser, and that’s how I covered it. But Tim Guinee asked me to turn the camera on him because, he said, "I’ve an idea Olaf’s never heard poetry before and something happens to him when he hears it." So, we turned the camera on Tim, and we got one of my favorite moments in the film-- nothing I designed, nothing I even thought of. It came out of open communication with actors, where they’re free to explore and we-- me and crew-- are ready for them.<

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).