Abel Ferrara at Febiofest

The cult New York director has relocated to Italy and embraced Buddhism

Filmmaker Abel Ferrara was at Febiofest to receive a Kristián Award for Contribution to the World Cinema, but it wasn't his first time in Prague. He came when he was in his early 20s and had made a few short films, but was not yet known as a director. The festival continues until March 31.

“Last time I was in Prague was 1974. I came here with my girlfriend. It was a crazy trip. I was a long-haired hippy student. Obviously I had no idea. The idea of going behind the Iron Curtain sounded romantic. But I got to see the real deal in a way,” he said.

“But looking back it was very romantic because I did meet a lot of young artists and like-minded people only they needed to meet in secret to listen to rock 'n' roll, see. I learned a lot of lessons on freedoms that I took for granted. … I didn't have gratitude for what I was able to do. The struggle for creative freedom, which is not a gift, is not easy and has been ongoing for me,” he said.

“I remember coming across the border. They stopped the train. They didn't want to let me into the country. These soldiers were sitting in front of me. They took my passport and they wanted me to shave my mustache so I would match my passport. They were giving me some funky exchange rate,” he said at a press conference.

“I was a spoiled American who never left his home town. I was very young. And when I got to Prague they were offering me like 50 bucks for my dungarees. I had jeans on, real American jeans. You would think I was wearing Dior clothes. They were literally trying to buy my pants off me. People were going, 'wow, Wranglers, Lee jeans.' I met very good people but they were under the thumb, under the lash. You guys know better than me what it was like,” he said.

He has been based in Europe since 2001 because he finds better creative freedom here, and during the past decade he has been a Buddhist. He has alsoo been sober and off of drugs for five years.

“The freedom of the director is not a given, and freedom of expression is not handed to you because you are a director,” he said “I live in Rome. I have worked in Europe basically since the World Trade Center event. After that New York changed drastically,” he said, adding that the reason was quite complicated. “The aftermath of 9/11 was some of the most beautiful times in New York in terms of New Yorkers coming together,” he said. But there were some other trends starting. “But then [there was] this Trump-izing of America, America for the rich, America for the international financial gangsters. And New York was basically given away to that element,” he said, referring to the financial and political situation on the 2000s.

Ferrara knew Donald Trump back when he was making films in New York. “I know the guy. I know him from the '90s. He wears it on his sleeve. He is not like one persona and yet another. He's tweeting who he is, man. There is no hidden agenda with this guy. That is about the only good thing you can say about it,” he said.

“Back in King of New York in [1990], no one was allowed to shoot in the Plaza [Hotel]. But we were able to shoot for one hour if Christopher Walken posed for a picture with Ivana [Trump]. So it is star power versus the establishment,” he said. The Plaza Hotel was owned by Trump from 1988 to the mid-1990s.

“Movie stars are a nation in themselves. They have powers that go beyond the territory. Like Gerard and Putin, or Gerard and Castro. Gérard Depardieu was very close to Fidel also. It is the power of cinema,” Ferrara said.

He has struggled to have films made the way he wants them to be, and often he works with a low to moderate budget. He sometimes describes himself as a “street filmmaker.”

Despite the limitations in his early work such as his grindhouse hit Ms 45, he does not want to revisit the same themes with a bigger budget. “They are fine the way they are. I think we had a big enough budget for these things. Whenever I approach a movie there is a fine line in my mind of how much money can you really do it for. You know, at what point is the financing going to compromise the idea. I wouldn't make a film if I thought it would be compromised. I don't really look at those films as low budget films because as long as there is enough money to actualize the idea it's fine,” he said.

Not compromising his films is key to Ferrara. “Artistic freedom in the US is zero. For me it has been a battle. That is the reason I am living in Rome, living in Europe, for the respect of the director as the author of the film. Thank God there is a revolution of people shooting films with their cameras and being on Youtube. Respect for the director as the author of the film is not in the DNA of the American system,” he said.

“The idea of creative freedom, personal freedom… every human being is singular. There are not two snowflakes that are the same. And that is the way all of us are and all of us have a spirit. … Each one of us has a unique individuality that is eternal,” he said.

One of his most recent films films is Pasolini, starring Willem Dafoe. It is about the final days of Italian director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. “We made the film because we were great students of his. And by making the film it made us get closer to our teacher. We never met him. So the process of the film and process of living in Rome allowed us to get even closer to the teacher,” he said, adding that some of Pasolini's real clothes were used in the film. “Why I make movies is what I learn personally from the experience. So meeting the people that worked with him, his family, being in places that he had been in makes him closer to me,” he said.

As for his turn to Buddhism, he says it is not just a part-time thing. “There is no separation from your life and your work. I became interested in the philosophy 10 or 12 years ago. It makes a lot of sense to me. It is a philosophy of action, a philosophy of compassion. I became sober, I stopped doing drugs five years ago. You can't really be a Buddhist if you are drinking and drugging. You can't do a bunch of drugs and think you are meditating. That's not how that works. So for five years I have been focused on the reading and the meditation. There is no separation. It is part of my life. Filmmaking is part of my life. It is one thing,” he said.

Ferrara mentioned two upcoming films he is working on. One is about Padre Pio, a monk who lived in Italy and who claimed to have stigmata. Some people believe in him, while others thought he was a fraudster. Nevertheless, Padre Pio was able to finance a modern hospital for a poor area in Italy from donations. He became a saint in 2002.

Ferrara also mentioned Siberia, which will star Willem Defoe. It will explore myths and dreams, and have a setting in nature, which is unusual for Ferrara. The director also showed a rough cut of his film Live in France, a documentary about the musicians who have worked with him on his films and some concerts they performed as part of a film retrospective.

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