Critics are calling ‘Gavagai,’ a film made by two VCU professors, ‘extraordinary’ and one of the best films of the year

Andreas Lust, one of the stars of "Gavagai," in a scene from the film. (Photo courtesy ...
Andreas Lust, one of the stars of "Gavagai," in a scene from the film. (Photo courtesy of "Gavagai" production)

When Rob Tregenza and Kirk Kjeldsen, filmmakers and Virginia Commonwealth University cinema professors, submitted their feature “Gavagai” to the top international film festivals, they were disappointed to be turned down. Tregenza’s first two films, “Talking to Strangers” and “The Arc,” had premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and his third, “Inside/Out,” had first appeared at the Cannes Film Festival. However, the film industry had changed in the years since the 1997 release of “Inside/Out,” and the largest festivals had become less likely to select independent films and more likely to latch onto more high-profile movies with boldfaced names attached. “Gavagai,” which was shot in Norway, starred three accomplished performers with acclaimed roles to their credit and each of Tregenza’s three previous films had been praised by critics, but the film lacked box-office cachet.

“Gavagai” eventually was selected to premiere at the Maine International Film Festival, but Tregenza and Kjeldsen worried about finding a distributor and getting their film — one they were proud of — in front of audiences. Then Richard Brody, an influential film critic for The New Yorker, learned through Twitter that Tregenza had a new film completed. Brody had written admirably of Tregenza’s previous works, and he asked to see “Gavagai.” Tregenza and Kjeldsen hoped for a short, positive write-up that might give the film a boost.

An editor sent Kjeldsen a link when the review was posted. As soon as he read it, Kjeldsen, who lives in Germany and teaches online much of the year, knew Tregenza needed to hear it. They connected over Skype and Kjeldsen read it aloud to Tregenza. Together, they savored every word.

In an in-depth, effusive essay, Brody wrote that “Gavagai” was “an astonishment, realized with a technique and a touch that are unique in the current cinema.” He called it “an extraordinary and memorable film. Its strong and clear emotional refinement arises from a rare force of imagination, a rare power of observation, a rare cinematic sense to fuse them, and a rare skill to realize them together.”

After the hard work Kjeldsen and Tregenza had poured into the film, and the initial rejection from the film festivals, the review arrived at just the right time.

“It really was a great feeling,” Kjeldsen said. “Even if we didn’t get any other reviews after that, we would have known that we’d made something that meant something to someone. We made the kind of movie that we wanted to make. That’s very satisfying, but it really means a lot for others to respond to it the way Brody did.”

The review would mark a new beginning for the film, providing a transition for the filmmakers from the hard work of making and selling a movie to the reward of reaching an audience and drawing praise for their work.

Rob Tregenza and Kirk Kjeldsen survey a location for the film. (Photo courtesy of "Gavagai" production)
Rob Tregenza and Kirk Kjeldsen survey a location for the film. (Photo courtesy of "Gavagai" production)

A collegial collaboration

Kjeldsen and Tregenza, Ph.D., had discussed collaborating on a film since Kjeldsen joined Tregenza, the founding chair of the Cinema Program in the VCU School of the Arts, as a colleague in 2010. The pair eventually wrote a screenplay for a period film set in China, where Kjeldsen was living at the time. However, they later learned that mounting the production in China would prove to be too complex and costly. Then, four years ago, Kjeldsen began to read the work of Tarjei Vesaas, a beloved Norwegian writer. Kjeldsen was writing his second novel, which was based in Norway during World War II, and needed a title for it. He found inspiration in Vesaas — the novel’s eventual title, “Land of Hidden Fires,” comes from a phrase in one of the writer’s works — and Kjeldsen also realized that Vesaas wrote in a way that reminded him of Tregenza’s filmmaking. Both have a way of finding beauty and profound meaning in everyday moments and places, he said, blending a rootedness in the concrete with a haunting secular spirituality.

Over a series of lunches and coffees, Kjeldsen, who teaches in Richmond during the Cinema Program’s summer intensive session, and Tregenza batted about ideas for adapting Vesaas’ work, first raising and dismissing the prospects of adapting one of his novels and then of making a documentary. Instead, they opted for the unusual plan of adapting his poems — or rather of creating a story that revolves around his poems and the images, places and emotions they conjure.

The story they created was of a grieving man who travels to Norway to finish his late wife’s work translating Vesaas’ poems into Mandarin — a language the man doesn’t know. Kjeldsen said they found inspiration in the character and his emotional journey.

“He wasn’t just trying to translate poetry,” Kjeldsen said. “He was trying to spend more time with his wife in some way. The story became about delaying letting go of her and grappling with what her loss meant.”

Once Kjeldsen and Tregenza shaped their script, they sought the actors to inhabit its characters. Based on their wealth of knowledge of world cinema, including programming the VCU Cinematheque series, the two identified their top picks for the film’s three key roles. Their prospective stars were natives of Austria, Norway and Finland. Anne Chapman, a casting manager and an adjunct professor in the Cinema Program, helped reach out to the actors — Andreas Lust (“The Robber,” “Revanche”), Anni-Kristiina Juuso (“The Cuckoo”) and Mikkel Gaup (“Pathfinder,” “Breaking the Waves”). Each performer said yes.

Then, with the ingenuity they hope to impart in their students, Tregenza and Kjeldsen tapped a crack crew of film veterans with well-known titles on their resumes, scouted the Norwegian countryside for locations, and managed the granular logistics of producing a film far from home. The crew included three alumni of the VCU Cinema Program.

The three-week shoot was aided by Norway’s long summer days, alluring but melancholy scenery, and hospitable locals. At one farm where they shot, a woman brought the cast and crew waffles and homemade jam every day. At another, they were told to pick as many cherries as they liked before they left. One morning during breakfast at a restaurant, Kjeldsen learned that a member of the kitchen staff was a film student working a summer job. The student soon joined the crew as a production assistant.

“There was a lot of beautiful synchronicity on the shoot,” Kjeldsen said.

Theatrical trailer for the feature film "Gavagai."

High praise

The excitement of the shoot was followed by first the grinding work of post-production and then the disappointment of the initial cold response of the festival circuit. Brody’s sparkling review changed all that.

Attention from the piece in The New Yorker attracted the interest of a film distributor. In August, the film appeared in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Soon, more reviews followed. As Brody, who has called “Gavagai” one of the best films of 2018, had before them, critics noted the originality of the film and its distinctiveness from its peers, often in language dense with lavish praise.

“A story of implacable grief, unlikely companionship and stunning landscapes, ‘Gavagai’ is as beautifully singular a movie as I’ve seen all year,” wrote Justin Chang, film critic for the Los Angeles Times.

In a review for the Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden wrote that “Gavagai” was “meditative and dreamlike yet gem-sharp,” while Alan Scherstuhl in The Village Voice said, “‘Gavagai’ offers moments of sublimity unlike anything you’ll see in most contemporary movies.”

The film opens with a minutes-long shot of the film’s central protagonist, played by Lust, after he has stepped off a train. In their reviews, critics invariably pointed to the scene with admiration. In his four-star review, Chuck Bowen of Slant wrote that the scene was compelling, unique and indicative of the sharp, surprising power found throughout the film.

“This sequence becomes an expression of grief, translating a difficult, highly personal emotion into a sonata of quotidian gestures that cumulatively feel as if they’ve never been quite captured by a filmmaker in this fashion,” Bowen wrote. “This is the magic of ‘Gavagai’ … Remarkably, nearly ever sequence in ‘Gavagai’ is this special.”

He wasn’t just trying to translate poetry. He was trying to spend more time with his wife in some way. The story became about delaying letting go of her and grappling with what her loss meant.

A mastery of the long take

“Gavagai” contains a mere 21 shots in its 90-minute running time. Brody, like other critics, lauded Tregenza’s mastery with the camera and his “meticulously composed and choreographed long takes.” Linden wrote, “At key junctures, [Tregenza] uses gliding camera moves that are as revelatory as they are weightless.”

Bowen wrote that Gavagai’s “rhapsodic long takes” prove to be “revelatory for the way they fuse theme, subject, and setting into a harmonic whole.” Tregenza’s camerawork stands in contrast to the long takes often found in other contemporary films, which can “connote little other than their own technical virtuosity,” Bowen wrote.

“The bravura of [Tregenza’s] intricate cinematography never feels precious or false,” Brody wrote. “The actors move with a firm tread and an earthbound grace, and they don’t so much pass through the landscape as they are inhabited by it.”

The use of long takes often is associated with realism. However, in an interview with the critic J.M. Tyree, Tregenza said his use of the technique has other purposes.

“For me, the long take is not realism; it actually plays with time in an interesting way,” said Tregenza, who serves as his own cinematographer, editor and camera operator. “After a while, it goes beyond understanding and beyond the moment.”

Part of the magical, subtle impact of Tregenza’s camerawork stems from the production’s use of 35mm film, which Chang said is used “to gorgeous effect.” In the VCU Cinema Program, students shoot with 35mm film — a rarity as more schools and film productions opt for the relative ease and cost-effectiveness of shooting in digital.

Of his preference for the format, Tregenza told Tyree, “it’s both aesthetic and political. I don’t understand why multinational corporations, for their own profits, can deny visual artists the 35mm motion picture image, which has been to my mind the defining image of cinema.”

Click to view slideshow. "Gavagai" cast and crew enjoy a break in filming. (Photo courtesy of "Gavagai" production)

More screens, more projects

Now that “Gavagai” has found its footing, Kjeldsen and Tregenza are hopeful that audiences in locales beyond the cinematic hotbeds of New York and Los Angeles will get a chance to see their film, including in Virginia. The film had recent screenings in New Mexico, Maine, Florida, Washington and Colorado, with upcoming dates in Ohio, Louisiana and Michigan on the calendar. The film’s lush cinematography and intricate sound design make it particularly well-suited to viewing in a theater setting.

The experience of working together was a rewarding one for the Kjeldsen and Tregenza, and they hope to develop more projects together. Kjeldsen said he and Tregenza work with talented, dedicated students in the Cinema Program. Most of those students work on local professional productions during their time in school, such as on recent productions “Homeland,” “Turn” and “Wonder Woman 1984,” before advancing to careers in the film business. “Gavagai” not only made Tregenza and Kjeldsen better filmmakers — it made them better teachers, Kjeldsen said.

“It’s one thing to tell students what to do and it’s another thing to go out and show them what to do,” Kjeldsen said. “We hope this is a way of helping to encourage them to go out and make stuff that they love. We want them to make stuff that they really believe in.”