Teenager Venkatesh Chavan receives fatherly advice from Nana Patekar in “The Pool,” opening Sept. 3 at Film Forum.
The view from a mango tree
American filmmaker Chris Smith dips into Indian waters
Directed by Chris Smith
Through Sept. 16
209 West Houston Street
(212) 727-8100; filmforum.org
By RANIA RICHARDSON
Director Chris Smith has the Sundance Film Festival to thank. Every one of his films made a debut there, including “The Pool,” which garnered a special jury award last year.
Set in Goa, on India’s western coast, “The Pool” tells the story of an 18-year-old who works as a housekeeping “room boy” at a hotel, but yearns for a better life.
He spends his extra time selling plastic bags on the street with his best friend, and sitting in a mango tree that offers a view of a rich family’s swimming pool. After befriending the owner of the pool –who has observed his treetop spying – he is hired to help tend the luxuriant garden on the property. While the owner takes the boy under his wing, the owner’s daughter rejects his subtle advances.
Smith’s camera captures the location’s sumptuous palette, full of colorful flowers, saris, and three-wheeled motorized rickshaws. Artfully composed, his shots are reminiscent of jewel-like Indian miniature paintings.
In the fable-like story, the characters have no names other than those of the performers who play them. First timer Venkatesh Chavan plays against award-winning actor Nana Patekar, as a boy and father figure who bond in a mutual attraction for the peaceful world of the garden.
They work side-by-side trimming palm fronds, pruning shrubs, and raking leaves into a bonfire. For Chavan, the work is a welcome change from scrubbing hotel toilets and lugging laundry. For Patekar, the labor is a distraction from a previous family tragedy. The pool that no one swims in becomes a metaphor for the elusive meaning of success, in this quietly breathtaking tale.
Smith is best known for the documentaries “American Movie” (1999), which follows an amateur filmmaker as he struggles to produce a horror film, and “The Yes Men” (2003), which recounts the political stunts of a pair of anti-corporate activists. With “The Pool,” the Milwaukee-based filmmaker has moved into new territory, creating a poetic story that is elegantly shot and told in the Hindi language.
In the modest offices above Film Forum, amongst cans of archival 35mm prints and posters of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou,” I caught up with the lanky 38-year-old director to discuss his latest work.
RANIA RICHARDSON: What was your inspiration for “The Pool”?
CHRIS SMITH: I read the story that the film is based on, from Randy Russell’s unpublished book “Nine Lies” and connected to it on an emotional level. I also had the experience of going to Panjim, Goa with some friends who were making a movie and we stayed in the hotel that became the location for the film. We took the short story and adapted it into a script – moving it from Iowa to India – and then factored in our experiences, observations, and the people we met to influence the creative process.
The film is luscious and full of color; was that your experience in Goa?
We didn’t have time to soak it in. It was exhausting. We were working with a very small crew and trying to make a film that didn’t feel that way. We stayed in this one small town where the film was made, and we knew it inside and out – every alley, every road, every little corner. We would wake up and go out to shoot, come back at night and grab dinner with everyone, go to the edit room, and then do some writing. After four or five hours of sleep, we’d wake up and do it all over.
Your cinematography in “The Pool” is distinctive, with documentary-style observational shots. Do you enjoy being your own director of photography?
It’s born out of circumstance. It would be hard to imagine having a cinematographer shooting in India for five months. It would have been financially prohibitive for us. If I were to do something more controlled, I would like to collaborate with someone else.
Julian Schnabel directed “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in French, a language he didn’t know. You’ve directed this film in Hindi. How did that work?
I wrote it in English, then had it translated. The kids had never acted before, and they also couldn’t read, so you couldn’t give them the scenes the night before. You’d have to get them on set and have them memorize two-minute long chunks of dialogue, rehearse, and shoot it. They were incredibly smart kids and very adaptable. They spoke several languages, but not English.
Your characters are often nonconformists. Do you identify with them?
There’s an element of me in everything I do. I have a sort of romantic dreamer quality and a sense of individuality.
Like filmmaker Michael Moore, you’re originally from Michigan.
I grew up 45 minutes away from Moore. I was definitely influenced by him. I saw “Roger & Me” when I was 18 and thought, “Wow, this guy just went out and did it! He got a 16mm camera and a small crew and made a film and it’s now in a multiplex in my hometown!” Then in 1997 I worked as a cameraman on “The Big One.”
Do you think there is such a thing as a Midwestern sensibility?
I don’t think it’s necessarily Midwestern, but everyone who’s geographically independent has their own particular skew or take on the world.
What is your definition of success?
It’s changing all the time. At one point, it was about accomplishing a certain amount in filmmaking; now it’s trying to find out what’s most important in life and finding some sort of balance. I like doing a lot of different things. I had taken time out and was in a band called The Horn Band for a couple of years, and we went out on tour. I’ve gotten back to working on some Internet projects, and my friend and I started a design company in London. It’s about trying to find what’s most interesting, the same way I consider film projects.
One final question: Did you succumb to the shimmering aquamarine pool and take a dip?
No, I never went in the pool.
A Q&A with Chris Smith will follow the 8:00 p.m. screenings on Thursday, Sept. 4 and Friday, Sept. 5.