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Jac Avila, Part Three: The Body in Pain

by Rich Moreland, August 2016

My thanks to Jac avila for sharing his views on film making and culture. I look forward to reviewing more of his work in the future.

All photos in this and the preceding posts are courtesy of Pachamama Films and Decadent Cinema. Vermeerworks is their distributor.

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Jac and Amy on the set of Justine

Jac and Amy Hesketh on the set of the upcoming film, Justine

A Set of Values

In Jac Avila’s films there is a distinct theological undercurrent. In helping us understand how it complements his work, Jac begins with a snapshot of religion and society.

“Catholicism in South America and most of Europe, particularly Italy and Spain, is more a part of culture than religion,” he explains. For many of the faithful, it’s “a set of values,” a good mixture of  belief with “plenty of mythology” tossed in, “most of it not taken seriously.”

“However, when one grows up inside Catholicism, one is taught to love that culture,” he declares, though it “tries unsuccessfully, to repress a large part of one’s humanity, like sexuality.”

Of course, Christianity is closely linked to suffering . . . a natural human state. But, then again, so is sexuality. Is there a connection?

Blood Sacrifice

“In Catholic culture, the body in pain plays a crucial role with Christ at the center,” Jac continues. It’s really “blood sacrifice as redemption.”

This idea dates back to the Early Middle Ages as the church was making the transition from its birth in the Roman Empire to its place as Europe’s centralized institution.

But we need to remember that crucifixion, the ultimate “body in pain” statement, was around long before Christianity. That Christ and some of the Saints were crucified is more coincidental to their condemnation during Roman times when dying on the cross was the established demise for society’s outcasts and outlaws.

Roman times. Mila Joya in Dead But Dreaming.

Mila Joya’s character faces death in Dead But Dreaming’s flashback to Roman times.

From there, the diabolical combination of torture and death moved out of the Roman Empire into the next historical period.

“In medieval times this (The Body in Pain) symbol took over. Executions were cruel and public, so was penance,” Jac reminds us.

Incidentally, the public fascination with death lingered into the 19th century as Jac illustrates in Dead But Dreaming when the Irish traveler is garrotted before onlookers.

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Jac then cites the distinction between the Catholic and Protestant interpretation of sexuality.

“Catholic imagery is full of The Body in Pain, a beautiful body, always, either male or female, almost nude or totally nude, with an expression of bliss in the very moment of martyrdom.”

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Elaborating on the visual impact of a crucifixion, Jac explains, “The school I attended was full of those images. Beautiful paintings expressing exactly that. Catholicism is far less repressed sexually than Evangelical, Calvinist, Lutheran Christianity.”

He follows that thought with a quick history lesson.

“The framing of the body in medieval Europe, was intrinsic to the historical moment.  Humanity was moving from an agrarian culture to the beginnings of city culture. Social interactions were changing dramatically. The image of the body as symbol became pervasive,” he says.

Jac regards the 12th century (1100s) as a pivotal time in the emergence of the body as art.

“The Church had the most power in influencing most everything,” he notes, which lasted until the Renaissance, a time “when art flourished and thought was liberated by Thomas de Aquinas (Catholic theologian and Scholastic) when he gave some long overdue importance to humans.”

For the most part, Medieval art is purely religious with Christ “an overpowering figure taking up the entire frame,” Jac suggests.

In other words, man is not celebrated. The heavenly bliss of eternity and the proper way to get there occupied Medieval artists, who, incidentally, never signed their work.

By the Renaissance, change was on the horizon. The ideals of humanism were infused into culture, at least in the Italian City-States where money patronized the arts. The result? Art and literature achieved a secular focus.

As for art’s theological representations, Jac gives us this example. We see the Virgin Mary as “a real woman breast-feeding a child,” a cultural broadening influenced by Aquinas.

And somewhere along the way, our sexual fascination with crucifixion and suffering took hold.

Feminism

So, what about the sacred feminism popular in pre-Christian cultures?  I suggest the Church patriarchy had some issues with this idea. Jac spins it less severely.

“Catholic doctrine did not do away with the Divine Fem all together. Mary was and is an object of worship almost equal to God, she’s more accessible; she is the mother. But yes, women were repressed of course, but so were men. The great fear is the true liberation of mankind. We’re all afraid of freedom. I don’t think we’d know what to do with it.”

Mila Joya and Amy Hesketh in Maleficarum's execution scene, a reminder of the Church's fear of witches.

The Church’s fear of witches and it’s repression of women in Maleficarum’s execution scene.

I agree with the repression/freedom argument. Certainly the Church did not abide heresies and especially witches and warlocks. By the 15th century the Inquisition (the subject of Jac’s film, Maleficarum) was holding court. Credit Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella for making sure everyone toed the religious line.

The Church court extracts a confession from Amy's character in Maleficarum.

Inquisition torture extracts a confession from Amy Hesketh’s character in Maleficarum.

Regardless, Jac steps up his defense of the Sacred Feminine.

“In Catholicism women have a high place because of the Virgin, The Mother of God herself. Catholicism is not as patriarchal as it may seem to be. What we may be expressing is that women, just like men, have the same or more capacity to suffer for humanity.

“In that sense, female martyrdom gets equal treatment… or better yet, takes the main role. The strongest character in Catholicism is Saint Eulalia. She’s crucified twice.”

Of interest is that the original St. Elulia, the reference in Jac’s film Martyr discussed in a previous post, was, according to legend, a teenage virgin tortured and crucified on a St. Andrew’s Cross.

Carmen Paintoux

Carmen Paintoux in Martyr.

So there we have it. Do the images from Jac’s films energize the sexual question?

The Guignol Again

Despite the Church’s efforts, the uneducated retained their superstitions and out of this, particularly in Central Europe, phantasmagoric visions and stories emerged of evil forces beyond human control.

“As you know, most of the horror stories, like vampires, come from the old tales of old Europe, which come from far back in time,” Jac points out.

Veronica Paintoux

Veronica Paintoux as the Lamia.

And as we move from Medieval into modern times, with stops for the Enlightenment and Romantic Periods, superstition and the supernatural forces that go bump in the night linger in the human psyche.

It’s not a leap to understand that our world is still fascinated by cruelty, especially sexual torture, and can’t look away.

Our repressed blood lust comes to life with vampire stories and today’s slasher films which tap into horror as it emerged out of the Victorian Age into modern Europe.

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But we don’t need the fantastic to energize our sexual interests. Human depravity played out realistically on a stage will do.

th“The Grand Guignol has its roots in that period of time where executions were performances for the masses. That’s why Guignol was also described as the Theatre of Cruelty,” Jac explains.

In fact, the Parisian stage and the fascination with crucifixion fuel the star power of Amy, Mila Joya, and the Paintoux sisters, Carmen and Veronica.

Brew the mixture of history, religion, and sex into a cauldron of savagery and sadism and what emerges is a new version of the erotic horror genre that is distinctly Jac’s and Amy’s, Olalla being the latest in a line of powerful films.

Framing the Body

“Not everything medieval was cruelty, of course,” Jac continues.

“There was a nurturing, serene, body sharing space with a conflicted body torn by desires, fantasies and that other body, the one in pain, dismembered, racked, whipped. The education of the masses by framing the body became all important.”

Mila Joya tortured in Maleficarum

Mila Joya’s character exemplifies “the body in pain” in Maleficarum . . .

Finally, the native Bolivian offers these comments on Amy’s Hesketh’s approach to her acting.

“As far as Amy’s performance in the films, like in Dead But Dreaming or Olalla I can say that those scenes are the way they are because of the stories. This goes to the Body in Pain discussion. The body as a central symbol in culture, but as it was seen in medieval culture, where much of the representations we have now originate.”

Maleficarum's roasting scene.

. . . As does Amy Hesketh in the film’s roasting scene, a particularly difficult and emotional shoot.

That is where Amy seduces the camera like no other actor.

To reassure the fainthearted, Jac leaves us this note about female performers in his films. Yes, they illustrate the Grand Guignol stage, as noted above, and all its perceived brutality, but there is more.

“Acting in these movies is, in a sense, empowering. The actress has complete control over her body, mind, and soul, to do anything she wants to do.”

That in itself is an empowering feminist statement.

Amy, Jac, and Mila.

Amy, Jac, and Mila . . . artists, innovators, and a new film intelligensia.

 

 

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Jac Avila, Part Two: That Fantastic Thing

by Rich Moreland, August 2016

In this post, we’ll find out about Jac Avila’s background and his view on the female characters he creates.

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Jac Avila as actor.

Jac Avila as actor.

Jac Avila is of international stock. His father was from Holland and his mother, Bolivia, giving him a heritage that is Dutch, Spanish, Basque, and French.

Born in Bolivia, Jac grew up in a Catholic society, a culture that takes on its own identity and values which many Americans don’t grasp. We tend to compartmentalize religion, often limiting it to merely attending church, and don’t see it as a larger social/cultural ingredient in our lives.

On the other hand, a Catholic society is overarching, emphasizing spiritual issues without negating worldly values. For example, it insists that learning take center stage in a child’s life.

“I was educated in the most exclusive Jesuit school in La Paz,” Jac points out with pride. “The education was secular with a big emphasis on science. No conflict there. As a matter of fact, Jesuit priests were very much ahead in everything. The religious aspects of our education was a mixture of ethics, morals, mysticism and the understanding that a great part of the Bible is rather symbolic and mythological.”

Sadly, his mother passed away before Jac entered his teenage years. His father moved Jac and his brothers to New York City where the future actor/director/producer studied movie making, art, and photography.

The Blue Buick

“After graduation I started working at CBS and later at a photo studio specializing in advertising. I quit my job in 1979 to become an independent filmmaker. By 1982 I was making my first film in Haiti and Cuba by way of New York and Miami,” Jac explains.

The film premiered at Cannes in 1988.

“It took me that long to make it,” he confesses, not surprising under the circumstances.

krikKrakPosterFacing expenses that can easily derail projects, Jac spent most of his time doing what indie filmmakers learn is part of the game: meeting the right people and raising money.

The film was Krik? Krak! Tales of a Nightmare which Jac co-produced and directed with Vanyoske Gee. Jac characterizes the production as “a surreal/expressionist docu-nightmare” about the brutal regime of Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier that includes the spiritual aspects of Haitian culture.

The work, though difficult, answered “a more political, radical call” for him, Jac declares, and was definitely a “challenge.”

And rewarding . . . the critics received it favorably.

“Le Cahiers Du Cinema, foremost film magazine in France described it as a great horror film in the tradition of Witchcraft Through the Ages,” Jac remembers.

From there he made a television mini-series and a handful of documentaries before shooting a “‘performance'” video, an inexpensive “project that started something unexpected that built everything” he is currently doing.

Jac explains how it happened.

When he was visiting Cuba, he developed a script about a young woman during the island’s colonial days who “has fantasies about being a martyr,” a practice common in “the traditional holy week procession.”

Carmen Paintoux had the lead role in Jac’s mini-series at the time and they discussed staging the girl’s fantasy for video. “During that process, she created Camille who is the central character in Martyr,” Jac says.

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The short film was born and the budding filmmaker’s career took on a new direction.

A remarkable journey for a little boy who saw his first movie at age four. Its violence left an impression. The Film? Walt Disney’s Bambi.

“I don’t remember anything before the movie. I remember everything after the movie, even the song that was playing on the radio when my uncle drove us back home in his blue Buick.

“From that moment on all I wanted in life was to know about that fantastic thing I experienced that day.

Magic to Art

Considering what he’s told me, I ask Jac if he designs his films to be political and religious commentaries.

“Not necessarily,” he begins. “Art is beyond those limiting systems. While religion tries and fails to interpret the unknown and the mysterious, politics often try, earnestly, to fit a square into a triangle, with fatal results.”

Having said that, Jac admits his explanation may sound  “a bit simplistic, since both religion and politics are mechanisms humanity uses to organize itself into something manageable.”

“In a way, mankind created gods to control itself,” he believes. But in time, more practical attitudes took shape and the overarching role of the gods receded in favor of elected leaders in civilizations like Classical Greece, for example.

Nevertheless, there is a magic to art, Jac insists.

“Art interprets what we see and turns everything on its head, art can also imagine a million futures and a million pasts. We don’t mock religion or politics [in our films], it’s just our artistic view of humanity.

“I honestly hope that our audience enjoys our movies for what they are and take from them what they feel like taking. I don’t really mind if they hate our movies. I love it if they love them. I hate it if they are indifferent.”

The Heroines

Fair enough. Now what can we say about women as they are presented in a Pachamama film? Are they captives of their own compulsions, unable to forge their own destinies, as might seem at first glance?

Jac gives us his view, beginning with Ollala.

“Olalla and Ofelia (Olalla’s sister) are not weak because women are not weak. This nonsense of the weaker sex is just that, nonsense. Patriarchy is a response to that strength. At one point men felt the compulsive need to control women first and other men second.”

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With a moment’s pause, he adds, “Religion and politics are attempts to control, to make everything fit a pattern that can be controlled. That’s a very primitive view of life.”

It just so happens that when it comes to Church and society, the simpler, the better.

“There’s nothing more scary than women taking over, like in Olalla when she sucks the blood out of her boyfriend. It scares even women, so they have to burn Olalla’s mother,” Jac says.

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What about the other films we’ve mentioned?

Jac has his thoughts.

“The female vampires in Dead But Dreaming survive cruel torment, the accused witches overcome their death sentences in Maleficarum.

bts dead 5 on our way

“Is Varna [in Dead But Dreaming] taking the route Moira took? Will Justine go on after her ordeal is over?”

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Jac states that women in his films are his main focus, and I might add, his source of strength.

“The principal characters in all my movies, including Krik? Krak! are, for some reason, women. They are the heroines in all my stories. Men take second place either as aggressors or victims.

“Even in the miniseries El Hombre de la Luna, where I play the central character, an attorney/painter investigating the death of a young woman, the women in the story solve the problem and rescue the attorney from certain death.”

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But Jac’s women do suffer and it seems to have a sexual theme. So how does pain work into the art he and his filming partner Amy Hesketh create?

We’ll look at that next.

 

 

 

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Jac Avila, Part One: A Working Relationship

by Rich Moreland, August 2016

Recently I’ve reviewed two erotic horror films, Dead But Dreaming and Olalla, products of the independent film companies, Pachamama Films and Decadent Cinema.

This post begins a three-part series on actor/producer/director Jac Avila whose business imprint is Pachamama Films.

Here he discusses his professional relationship with Amy Hesketh.

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Martyr

Jac Avila and I have some common theatrical interests, among them the Parisian theater of fear and terror, the Grand Guignol. Pachamama’s take on the horror genre is influenced by the Guignol stage.BarbazulJac001tiny

“We’re very much inspired by Grand Guignol,” Jac tells me. Since the 1990s, the producer/director has shot “a series of performance videos” that reflect the theater’s unique stamp on shock and violence.

As his evolution in film progressed, Jac’s work drew the attention of Amy Hesketh, who was building her own erotic on-screen resume.

MartyrPosterSmall2One of his films, Martyr or The Death of St. Eulalia (2002), became the catalyst for the their artistic collaboration. Though it was made in New York, (Jac maintains dual residences in NYC and La Paz, Bolivia), Amy saw the movie in South America in 2005.

“It made a huge impression on her and that’s when she decided to join me in this adventure,” he recalls.

At the time, Amy was more into photography than modeling, Jac explains, and had aspirations to write and direct.

Martyr stars Carmen Paintoux, a French actress, whose history with Jac dates to the 1990s. The themes of Christian sacrifice, sadomasochistic relationships, and suffering drive the film and captured Amy’s interest.

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Subsequently, Jac began a working relationship with Amy, who picked up acting again. She joined French performers, Carmen and Veronica Paintoux, to create a new and innovative indie film narrative.

Amy’s first feature as writer and director was  Sirwiñakuy, a tale involving an older man and a younger woman in a BDSM relationship. “She wanted Veronica to play the lead character,” Jac mentions.

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Later films like Barbazul, Dead But Dreaming and Olalla, saw Amy step in front of the camera. Not unusual, he adds, because Amy “puts herself in the more difficult roles” much to the delight of her fans.

In the movies I’ve seen, Amy dominates the lens. I asked Jac about her motivation to play parts which appear, at least on the surface, to be masochistic. Jac has some suggestions, but makes it clear he cannot speak for her entirely.

Catharsis

“The characters she plays appeal to her, yes, and at the same time scare her,” he begins.

Jac mentions Justine, a character in a film by the same name yet to be released. It’s based on the de Sade novel, so the sadomasochistic corruption of the innocent steps forward as one would expect.

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Due to Justine’s “religious stubbornness” Amy doesn’t have a glowing opinion of the girl as she appears in the novel, Jac remarks. In fact “Amy thought she was an idiot.” However, he adds, “as in any art, a part of us is in those characters and a part of our experience is expressed in them.”

“In some cases it becomes cathartic,he believes.

An interesting thought which I think is clear in Amy’s portrayal of Olalla and her role in Maleficarum, a film involving witch torture.

According to Jac, “Amy plays what appears to be submissive roles, although I see them more like women in peril type of characters, they do not submit, they are forced into their particular ordeal. I can even say that some do not go quietly into their ‘doom.’”

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As heroines, Justine and Olalla are united in that respect, but by different circumstances. Perfect, I might add, for Amy Hesketh’s talent.

How much more of that talent we will see on-screen may be waning because Amy is now concentrating on writing and directing. But she has an impressive resume as an actress.

“The way she prepared herself for her roles in the movies we made is impressive,” Jac remarks.

Bodies and Minds

That brings up another topic which needs clarification. Amy Hesketh and the other actors in the Pachamama troupe, Mila Joya and Veronica Paintoux, in particular, are whipped, tortured and crucified. So, are they the darlings of the BDSM crowd who might flock to see their films?

Sirwinakuy0012-300x389“I don’t think our films fit into what would be the traditional BDSM genre, except perhaps for Sirwiñakuy, which is about an S&M relationship, and Pygmalion, that has those elements too,” Jac observes.

As a director and actor himself, Jac notes that everyone in the troupe gets to “display different personalities in different filmswhich is diverse enough to move beyond the dominant/submissive formula.

“When they do get into their characters, they do go into them with intensity and completely, they become those characters for the time of the shooting. In other words, they do put their bodies and minds into them.”

Then he offers up a dose of reality.

tumblr_litvpumDNz1qhi6wuo1_500“I can also say that they do suffer, physically and mentally, during the difficult scenes. The whippings hurt, the crucifixions are very, very uncomfortable and even painful. There’s a lot of real suffering going on. I do not think that any of them enjoy that, they put up with it for the art.”

The Liberating Part

Of course, Pachamama/Decadent productions have their share of naked female flesh that some viewers may consider to be on the border of softcore porn.

Jac presents his take on that interpretation by referencing the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and its counterculture.

The films of that era represented “an explosion on the face of Catholicism,” he notes. They were a part of the “cultural movements of the time,” in which new artistic and strident voices captured the day.

“In Europe and South America the rallying cries were the movements of liberation from whatever people felt they needed liberation from. Soon, in both worlds, the sexual revolution took over.”

With that, Jac Avila is blunt.

“Nudity in our films is the liberating part. People are still traumatized by nudity, it baffles me, so we put in on their face, warts and all.”

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That is good news for all of his and Amy’s fans.

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Jac Avila can be found online at jacavila.blogspot.com.

All Jac and Amy films are distributed by Vermeerworks.

 

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