Real Men Make Fictions: Actor Martinez and Bodkin Ras

in 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Kevin B. Lee

Godard once said that all one needs to make a movie is a girl and a gun, but for two notable films that explore their own making, the main ingredient is a maladjusted male. Bodkin Ras and Actor Martinez, both world premieres in the Bright Future section at this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival, reflect on their own processes of storytelling with an awkward male character serving as the catalyst. Still there are key differences, aside from their locales (the Scottish town of Forres and the mountain city of Denver in the Western U.S.). Whereas Bodkin Ras uses a fictional character in a real community to reveal its social and personal undercurrents, Actor Martinez casts a real person in a fictional version of his life if only to confront him with the uglier aspects of his existence.

The titular character of Bodkin Ras is an Iranian Dutchman mysteriously transplanted to Northeastern Scotland seeking a new life and acceptance among the mostly Anglo community. Bodkin’s presence brings to the town not only an element of the foreign, but the fictional: he is played by actor Sohrab Bayat. This sole professional in the cast is ironically the least expressive character in a town full of colorful locals. This may reflect the disposition of director Kaweh Modiri, himself a Dutch artist of Iranian descent, who seems refreshingly more invested in a nuanced and empathetic exploration of the migrant experience from the non-migrant perspective.

Bodkin functions mostly as a mild-mannered cipher upon which members of the community project their attitudes, not so much towards outsiders as to their own sense of home. Bayat and cinematographer Daan Nieuwenhuis capture their lives with scripted reality scenarios, where a melancholy and restlessness pervade the otherwise cozy working class community. Bodkin emerges as an unlikely mascot for various characters’ yearning for a world beyond the one with which they are all too familiar. It’s only when the story capitulates to an anxiety for storytelling convention, with a melodramatic plot twist leading to an unnecessarily tragic finale, that this vividly real small town portrait rings false.

The title of Actor Martinez establishes the profession of main character Arthur Martinez, but it’s as laced with half-truths as the film itself. As presented in the film, Arthur makes as much of a living fixing computers while his acting career languishes in lackluster gigs, like playing the victim in a medical emergency training. He hires indie directors Mike Ott and Nathan Silver to direct a film version of his life that will break his career open. But Arthur proves as limited a subject as he is modest a talent, his life defined by unremarkable motions through mundane routines. The directors intervene in the movie – and Arthur’s life – by casting a girlfriend for him. After a hilarious series of auditions, Arthur settles on stalwart indie actress Lindsay Burdge, driven by such criteria as her marketability for the movie. But when the directors challenge Arthur to create Burdge’s role as “the girlfriend he’s looking for,” it initiates a crisis of uncertainty in Arthur’s vision for and ownership of his life.

Behind the camera, Ott and Silver utilize clinically controlled long takes that often zoom in and out like laboratory microscopes, studying their subject as he slowly unravels under the pressures of production. Onscreen, Ott and Silver play themselves like courteous but impersonal business consultants, as if acting out their own apprehensions of what their bootstrap indie careers would be like if subsumed into work-for-hire gigs. In that sense this seeming tug-of-war between Martinez and his underlings-turned-overlords resolves into a two way mirror reflecting the ongoing struggle of the independent artist: how the pursuit of success on one’s own terms ends up rattling those very terms to the core.

Kevin B. Lee