She now calls London home, but Carmen Gray has always liked life with a suitcase. In 1999, the New Zealand-born writer traded farm life for the glare of cities like Prague, Moscow, and Buenos Aires. Drawn to the cultural latitude and dark charms of such boroughs, she’s since evolved into some kind of literary aficionado for eastern european cinema.
Carmen spends many weeks of the year investigating film fests throughout Europe and writing for publications like Sight & Sound, Dazed and Confused, AnOther Magazine, and The Guardian. Her story is an encouraging one of the self-made–– of how putting curiosity to the pen can get you everywhere. I had a chance to chat with the sweet femme herself earlier this month about career, passion and perspective. Please enjoy!
(Photo: Vera Chytilova’s Daisies.)
What is your draw to film? Have you always been enchanted?
I’ve always been enchanted with books, film came later. I grew up on an isolated farm in the south of New Zealand, where there wasn’t a lot of stimuli and a very provincial mindset. I immersed myself in books and magazines. They offered vicarious experiences and ideas which simply weren’t accessible to me at that time otherwise. I really only started getting into cinema at university. Film studies had only just been introduced and a young lecturer from LA arrived as if from outer space for a year to teach film philosophy and history. I remember he played a clip from Madonna’s Justify My Love music video on the first day of class and everyone thought; “Who the hell is this guy?” The first film I saw that really flipped my mind as a teenager was Godard’s Masculin: Feminin, on that course. I’m not much into French cinema generally these days, so it’s strange to remember that’s partly where it started.
How did you begin your career in writing about film?
I started out by doing reviews for Sight & Sound magazine when I moved to London, after emailing them cold and doing a trial review. Other work followed. I wouldn’t say it was a conscious plan, the passion simply grew through proximity and exposure to cinema. I’d trained in straight news journalism before that but didn’t like the fact it felt so parasitic, trying to wheedle soundbites out of people. With arts writing it’s more symbiotic and ideally focused on something both parties are interested in getting word out about.
You’ve been on some film juries. In many cases, the percentage of women on festival panels is considerably lower than men. What’s your experience here and what are your thoughts on women in the bizz?
Juries are usually fine. It’s in criticism (and other areas of the industry, of course) that there’s a huge problem. Especially in the UK, where there’s this entrenched traditionalism acting as gatekeeper. Lip-service is paid to it more now but in reality the industry is still very sexist. Often not consciously - more in the assumptions that are made. You have to fight harder as a woman to be taken seriously, and develop a thick skin for what can be at times a pretty patronising and unsupportive environment. The good news is it’s changing - and must change. And it’s just competitive for everyone - men and women, especially in a recession. But if you’re writing for other people’s approval or with an eye fixed on monetary gain you’re not writing for the right reasons anyway - if you keep focused on why you are doing it, then any politics falls away as relatively insignificant.
You’ve said you have a love for Central and Eastern European cinema. What is it about European film that you find special? What makes it different from cinema elsewhere?
I just love the whole region generally, and its nations’ mentalities and atmospheres feed into their cinema. I’ve been fascinated with Russia ever since I was a teenager… it’s hard to pinpoint why. I lived in Moscow for a while and it was one of the best times of my life… it’s just so dynamic and mental. The architecture alone blows my mind. Too harsh and aggressive to stay there long though - a completely overwhelming place. Poetic mysticism and black wit are two traditional tendencies in Russian cinema and literature that definitely attract me. Russian’s also the most beautiful language in the world, in my opinion.
Is there a place you feel is underrated in its contributions to film?
I wouldn’t single out a single city - anything that’s not mainstream these days is underrated… at least in terms of gaining audiences. Unfortunately it’s getting harder and harder to distribute films. And the UK, where I’m living, has an allergy to foreign cinema.
What do you do to stay inspired and fresh as a writer?
Read. As widely as possible. Talk to new people. Travel. Being avidly curious will prevent your work (and life!) becoming stale. A little routine’s essential for sanity, but a lot is a slow death in my book.
Suggestions for those aspiring to place themselves as a writer in the industry?
Just watch films, and write! I’d say having your own blog is a huge thing - the main thing is to have published work to show people you are pitching to for work, and the fact a blog allows you to self-publish (and shows you have the motivation and direction to do it yourself) will stand you in good stead. Don’t lose faith if at first you don’t get much response - once you are working for one mag, others will naturally follow. But there’s no getting away from the fact paid criticism is a dying or at least transforming occupation - work online, and find means to eat around that. I guess my main advice would be that there are no shortcuts, but hard slog and practice as well as a passion for what you are doing can’t fail to reward you. Follow your interest and what inspires you, not cash.
Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky. I’m an atheist and it’s the closest you can get to a spiritual experience. I never get tired of watching it. I saw it for the first time a decade ago when I was living in Prague and I used to go to this musty old screening room on a Sunday to rent DVDs and lie on a beanbag. I didn’t know what I was about to see. The archival footage of Soviet troops wading through endless mud is beyond belief, spliced into this mystical dreamscape where it rains indoors and his mothers levitates… I can’t really talk about it in any way to do it justice.
Tarkovsky! Of course. Um, so many.. Bunuel’s absurdist wit I love. I’m also big on Bela Tarr. Marta Meszaros and Vera Chytilova I admire loads for having had the balls to create amazing work in a stridently male era. I’m probably more inspired by writers – Gertrude Stein’s my favourite novelist, a true genius. And Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt have both made huge impressions on me for being innovative, daring and uncompromising thinkers.
Cristi Puiu (Romanian new wave director) is always an absolute pleasure to talk to. Brilliantly smart with an uncompromising vision, engaging, and cheeky as hell. Ditto Estonian director Veiko Ounpuu – another of my favourite people working in the industry. He has a bit of a reputation for being a bit of a scoundrel but actually he just doesn’t put up with bullshit or people trying to cynically using him for commercial gain, which is bound to rub some people up the wrong way - a real purist, I have a lot of respect for him. Bruce La Bruce is really interesting. And photographer Nan Goldin was an honour. Ha, that’s a lot right! Interviewing directors is rarely not inspiring… with actors it’s much more hit and miss.
Favourite film festivals?
The Tallinn Black Nights film fest in Estonia would have to be my absolute fave. A solid film programme and it’s such a great city.. a mental, beautiful mix of architecture - hulking Soviet architecture and old-school spires. It’s winter then and it’s light for only a few hours a day - I’m hugely a nighttime person and love extreme winter weather so for me it’s just perfect, jump in the sauna after battling through the snow and it’s bliss! The people are great, the parties are fun… what more do you need? Heaven.
Music and books: what’s up?
I’ve just started Roberto Bolano’s 2666 for the third time and have the momentum going to actually get to the end this time I think! Also reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy on a friend’s recommendation. I don’t collect or download music, so my exposure to it tends to be quite haphazard – whatever someone else puts on around me! i’ve always been attracted to the attitude of punk, and also anything innovative (electronic) or quite dark… my taste’s pretty eclectic though and i’m definitely not averse to the odd cheesy clanger.