Produce Iowa
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Produce Iowa

Inside “The Film Lounge” with Lisa Schlesinger & Irinia Patkanian

We’re almost there . . . “The Film Lounge” will finally light up TV screens across the state at 10 p.m. this Sunday, Feb. 12, on Iowa Public Television.

We had a great turnout for the first preview party this past Sunday at FilmScene in Iowa City, and we’re all set for similar red-carpet events Thursday night at the Fleur Cinema and Café in Des Moines and on Saturday night at Palmer’s Pub in Sioux City.

We’ve also learned a lot about the contributing filmmakers in this blog over the past few weeks.

Lisa Schlesinger and Irina Patkania.

For our final post — for now — let’s turn to Lisa Schlesinger, a native New Yorker who teaches in Iowa City, and Irina Patkanian, a Russian-born filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Between the two of them, they’ve racked up quite a list of accolades.

Lisa Schlesinger

Lisa is a playwright, theater activist and professor at the Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop. She’s produced stage and radio work across the country and beyond, including commissions for Minnesota’s Guthrie Theatre and the BBC. She’s done a residency with the National Endowment for the Arts and Theatre Communications Group and has written articles for a stack of leading cultural publications, including the New York Times.

Irina teaches filmmaking at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She was a Fulbright Scholar, she won a pile of filmmaking awards and grants, and she is the president of Parentheses, a film, theater and media nonprofit. She earned a pair of master’s degrees, in linguistics and film production, from the University of Iowa.

The two women teamed up three years ago to respond to the European refugee crisis by producing an experimental theater-and-film adaptation of “Iphigenia at Aulis,” the classic Greek tragedy by Euripides. (The story, you might recall from high school, revolves around the Greek King Agamemnon, who decides to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to win the Trojan War.) They staged and filmed their adaptation on the islands of Crete and Lesvos in the summer and fall of 2015.

Lisa Schlesinger and IrGirl in Gold, Iphenginia at Lesvos, Lisa Schlesinger and Irina Patkanian. Photo: Gus Ford.ina Patkania.

But the refugee crisis kept growing. During their trip, Lisa and Irina were struck by the rising tide of refugees who were fleeing the Middle East and arriving, against all odds, on the shores of southeastern Europe — just as people have since the days of the ancient Greeks. So the artists expanded “The Iphigenia Project” to create poetic portraits of some of the refugees, to put a few faces on the growing statistics.

So now, “The Film Lounge” is proud to include a portion of their important work, called “Three Boats — Iphigenia at Lesvos.”

Lisa answered a few questions for both of them via email, which we lightly edited for clarity and length.

What kinds of films do you usually make?
Experimental, fiction/nonfiction, creative documentary. We both love songs and poems and like to incorporate their respective qualities both on stage and screen.

We’re also very interested where the “real” and the “performative” intersect, where they cross over and one becomes the other.

We respect journalism and investigative reporting, too, but with regard to the purpose of our work, we side with the poets. In 2015, for example, during our work for a part of “The Iphigenia Project” called “Children in Gold,” many journalists were on Lesvos looking for action and testimonies to document the refugee crisis. But we viewed it in silence.

When children disembarked from the boats, they were distressed, and volunteers quickly wrapped them in gold and silver thermal blankets. From a journalist perspective, the blankets were useful objects for warmth. But after filming hundreds of children, we saw that the golden foil is quite eerie at first but then seems to morph into regal finery, and we started to see these children of foreign lands as precious and wondrous gifts to us all, carrying mysteries into the future.

What themes does your work deal with?
Lately we’ve been obsessed with refugees — the dispossessed and the displaced. These are dark times, and they’ve just gotten darker. We’re particularly concerned with the plight and passages of women and children.

As a playwright and theater activist, I consider every story, deep down, to be a love story. And there’s no love without justice, a great tension in our times.

Irina has written that her film work “seeks to de-familiarize the simplest truths of life so they can once again be seen and enlighten and inspire.” For over twenty years, she has made films about “the politics of memory and official discourse, the role of guns and war in images of masculinity.”

What are you working on right now?
“The Iphigenia Project” has turned into a multi-year collaboration, and it’s taken on many forms: film, theater, poetry, songs and essays both in film and text. We’re trying to find as many ways and forms as possible to keep this urgent humanitarian crisis in view.

We’re just starting the last performance, called “Iphigenia: Story of a Refugee,” which combines film and theater with music by the Syrian composer and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh. It’s directed by Marion Schoevaert and will incorporate film, theater, dance, TED Talks, YouTube confessions, and music by the Syrian composer and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh.

What do you enjoy about being an artist and filmmaker in Iowa?
Iowa City is an embarrassment of riches. You might live on the same block with a Pulitzer-winning writer or on the next block from a phenomenal musician or filmmaker or just an “ordinary” genius. Every night of the week you can go out and see two or three amazing things, and you can walk there. On the way you might hear owls. It’s amazing how much film, art, music and culture we have.

I was in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then came home to Iowa City, and the same movies were playing at BAM and FilmScene. Then there is the International Writing Program, where 30 or so amazing writers from around the world land on Iowa City each fall and interact with the public. Writers of all genres — film included — aren’t as divided in other countries as they are here in the U.S.

But the people here make this happen — our neighbors. We can go around the corner and thank them for bringing great film, theater and author readings to town. I love Iowa.

What is one thing you would like to change about the art and film scenes in Iowa?
We can make the arts more available to people across the economic spectrum. But this isn’t something we need to change only in Iowa; this is something we need to change everywhere. Art isn’t just for the rich.

Originally published at medium.com on February 8, 2017.

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