Sally Potter

Festival News Reviews: Sally Potter in Aesthetica

British director Sally Potter, a major guest at last year’s Aesthetica Film Festival, makes a rare foray into short film with Look at Me, a surprising work starring Javier Bardem and Chris Rock. So the story goes, it was originally part of The Roads Not Taken, her 2020 feature which starred Bardem as a man suffering from dementia. It was designed as one of the alternative realities Bardem’s character slips into during the course of the story. When it didn’t quite work, Potter re-tooled it into this standalone short.

Bardem plays Leo, a leather-clad, long-haired drummer, who we first glimpse crashing his instrument with absolute fury, the camera trained on his eyes. Watching him is Rock, who plays Adam. They’re preparing for a charity gala concert for the “unjustly incarcerated”. Tensions are running high. A tap dancer, dressed in an orange prisoner-style jumpsuit, is close by on the stage, behind bars. “A Mexican in a cage,” says Leo, disparagingly. “That’s kind of the fucking point,” Rock quips back.

As “creative issues” come to the fore, it looks like it’s just another story about showbiz egos. But we gradually come to realise that Leo and Adam are a couple, and Leo is troubled. He’s been to rehab for a drugs problem, but Potter never glamourises this. Bardem’s character is near-suicidal, his actions far more than a cry for help. At one point, he teeters on the rooftop of a high building overlooking the New York skyline; embodying the symbol of a “man on the edge”.

Naturally, a lot of the attention for this short will be on Rock, making one of his first on-screen appearances since the incident at the 2022 Oscars. Look at Me deals with male aggression, but in a way that resonates rather than titillates. Certainly, it suggests that Rock should look for more dramatic roles, if Hollywood will allow it. For Potter, this sweaty, moody tale is yet another triumphant exploration of the human psyche; that she manages it in such a short time frame is all the more remarkable.

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Sally Potter interviewed in ScreenDaily

Pioneering UK independent director Sally Potter is back in Venice with her new short, Look At Me, which is screening out of competition. It’s one of many trips the filmmaker has made to the Lido over the years with films ranging from Orlando and The Tango Lesson to The Man Who Cried.

The new project – produced through Adventure Pictures, the company Potter runs with Christopher Sheppard – combines the considerable star wattage of Javier Bardem and US comedian Chris Rock. Made while working on her 2020 feature The Roads Not Taken, which starred Bardem, it is a searing drama about a strong-willed director (Rock) and a wildly energetic and opinionated drummer (Bardem) rehearsing for a gala show.

The drummer is providing the backbeat for a performance by a tap dancer (Savion Glover), and the two men grow increasingly exasperated with each other. The film features Bardem and Rock in peak form, with sparks flying between the two as the connection between them is revealed.

Speaking just ahead of Venice, Potter explained how, after Covid, she revisited the material “from scratch,” putting it together as a standalone film.

Did you originally intend to include the material in The Roads Not Taken?

I hoped it was going to fit in but in fact it didn’t belong in the story [of The Roads Not Taken]. That film was already a very complex interweaving of storylines and this was a story apart. Even while we were shooting, I was thinking, “Oh gosh oh gosh.” Then when I was in the cutting room, I thought, “Okay, I am going to have to take the terribly hard decision to cut it – but I hope I can make it have a separate life in due course.”

Can you say something about the dynamic between Chris Rock and Bardem?

This persona for Javier was much closer to what comes easily and readily to him and which he can give incredible energy and presence to. Chris was a whole discovery situation, really, because he is not known as a serious actor. But I think he discovered something very moving and good. Even in the cutting room, I quickly put it together as a little thing but I couldn’t put the time and resources into making it what it needed to be.

Is there anything of you in the director played by Chris Rock?

I don’t think so. But what I do know and understand well is the lives of performers and the fears that all performers have about failure and humiliation. Politically, I became interested in the whole theme of male humiliation and where to go with it, what happens when that gets bottled up.

How did Chris Rock react when he wasn’t in The Roads Not Taken and it seemed as if his contribution might not be used?

He is such a seasoned professional and understands the ups and downs. Everyone knows the cliché that you have to be prepared to kill your darlings – a terrible phrase. He was very understanding about it. I am sure he was very disappointed but I said to all three of them, “Give me time. This story has not gone away for good. I’ve put it to the side but I will go back to it.”

How are you going to release the film?

Of course, it is wonderful to be accepted for Venice and have a premiere on a big screen but the fact is that we live in an age of completely changing ways of absorbing the moving image. People are looking at short form [material] all the time on their phones or laptops. In a way, they self-edit. They choose which bit to look at. There’s a lot of critique of that in terms of [diminishing] attention span but what people are forgetting is the upside of what is happening. People are becoming haiku writers; they’re becoming fast absorbers of information.

I am going to push for this to find all kinds of life on all kinds of devices. After deliberately absenting myself from social media, I am now going to start again. For me, the shortness is not a disadvantage. It feels ecologically correct with people’s time.

Are there rights issues given that it was made originally as part of The Roads Not Taken which was released by Universal?

There have been rights issues and those are in the process of being negotiated. It is always peculiar as a filmmaker when someone else says they own your work. Really? In what sense. In the end, it is down to me to make the things that people then negotiate about. But I think we’re there pretty much. People are happy about this film appearing out with the other one.

You’ve had some very high-profile actors in your films. Why do you think the likes of Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Johnny Depp, and now Rock and Bardem have wanted to work with you?

It must be the way that I look at them, with absolute admiration and respect. I love working with actors. Of course, that’s great for them. They know they have my total attention, that I am always looking for the genius in them, to pull that out, and that I understand it from their side as I have also experienced life on that side of the camera. What they tell me is that some directors are afraid of actors and don’t really know how to behave with them. Every good actor wants to expand their range, have a new experience and give their best so I think they can sense there might be the conditions for doing that. That’s much more interesting to them than the cash, because I can’t usually afford very much [of that].

Do you feel shorts are under-appreciated as a form?

I am really a fan of the short story form. As a form in literature, it is not a short novel. It is a form in its own right. With film, the same thing applies. It is not just a compressed feature film. It has different structural demands.

What is your new feature Alma going to be about?

One tries not to put out too many storyline clues but it is about the tendency within English culture to have a nostalgic relationship with [the country’s] own history, much of which is fiction and which ignores its own shadow side. I wanted to explore some of that but through the dynamic of family relationships. It is all fully written.

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EXCLUSIVE: Deadline can reveal the first trailer for Sally Potter’s short film Look at Me, co-starring Chris Rock and Javier Bardem and touching on the issue of male anger, ahead of its Out Of Competition premiere in Venice.

Rock and Bardem play a gala organizer and drummer, respectively. Tensions between the two men are running high ahead of a performance at the gala by the latter, who violently vents his pent-up stress.

Shot three years ago, the work has taken on fresh resonance after Rock received an infamous slap from Will Smith while hosting the 2022 Oscar ceremony in March. Rock confirmed on Monday that he turned down an offer from AMPAS to host the 2023 ceremony.

The 16-minute work, also featuring American tap dancer Savion Glover, originally was conceived as a short story to be embedded within Potter’s 2020 feature The Roads Not Taken, starring Bardem as a writer in the early stages of dementia.

Produced by Christopher Sheppard at Adventure Pictures, it was shot over five days in New York and London in 2019.

“When I got into the cutting room, I saw how dynamic these titans of the entertainment world are together, their volatile, fiery on-screen relationship offset by the rhythms of the brilliant tap-dancer Savion Glover,” explained Potter.

“The destiny of the story was clear: it had nothing to do with the other project. It had to become a short film, a fast-moving portrait of conflict and love. The result is Look at Me.”

The short film’s screening in Venice coincides with the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Potter’s Oscar-nominated breakout second feature Orlando in competition at the festival in 1992.

The U.K.’s Bankside Films has boarded international sales on the short film ahead of its Venice debut.

“The combination of Sally Potter, Chris Rock and Javier Bardem is truly arresting in this mesmerizing short film which audiences are going to be thrilled to discover,” said Bankside co-founder and director Stephen Kelliher.

In other news, Bleecker Street will release the film in the U.S. shortly after its Venice premiere, with screenings at the Metrograph in New York alongside Potter’s Orlando as well as a qualifying run at a Laemmle Theatre in Los Angeles.

Look at Me also will be made available on Bleecker Street’s app early in 2023, joining a collection of shorts by filmmaking partners including Joe Penna (Arctic), Riley Stearns (The Art of Self-Defense), Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky), and Alex Huston-Fischer (Save Yourselves!).

“I am thankful to Bleecker Street for taking short films seriously and am thrilled that they will be bringing Look at Me to audiences in cinemas and online at a time when its themes feel so urgent,” said Potter.

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LOOK AT ME: Sally Potter interviewed in The Guardian

When Will Smith strode on stage earlier this year at the Oscars and slapped Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, the British director Sally Potter was putting the finishing touches to her new short, Look at Me. The film features a scene in which Rock, as an events organiser named Adam, is thrown to the floor by Leo (Javier Bardem), a drummer scheduled to perform that night at a gala fundraiser. The two men are lovers, which only heightens the tension as Leo raises his fist above Adam.

Potter was instantly aware of the parallels between Look at Me, which she shot in 2019, and the fracas at the Oscars. “I had this feeling of: ‘OK. That’s interesting,’” says the 72-year-old film-maker, as she pours water for us in her office in a quiet east London courtyard. “I could see there was a thematic overlap here with the film about how men cope with their anger – issues of respect, humiliation and communication. There was a certain appropriateness to it.”

The slap was headline news for weeks. “It shows the power of gesture in this time of TikTok,” she says. “These short moments become emblematic and they get repeated in ways that, prior to social media, would not have been the case. But I think it’s the wrong vortex. It doesn’t help understand male violence, or the etiquette of response, or the ethics of turning the other cheek. It doesn’t help anything. It was a sad gesture. And, I would say, a dignified response from Chris.”

That is more than can be said for the response of the those attending on the night. “People didn’t know what the fuck to do or say, or how to respond,” Potter says. “The Oscars does not lend itself to clear thinking.” She was there in 1994, when her wickedly imaginative Virginia Woolf adaptation, Orlando, with Tilda Swinton hopping between centuries and genders, was up for a couple of prizes. “It was one of the most tense, unhappy situations I’ve ever experienced. It’s not an atmosphere of success. It’s one of fear of failure. In that context, irrational behaviour seems normal.”

Aside from a few throwaway remarks, Rock has not addressed the incident. “I completely understand that,” says Potter. “Who would want to be identified by something that was done to them rather than something they’d done?” She knows, though, that the contretemps will increase interest in Look at Me. “People have this curiosity, but I hope the film will be a counterweight to that. One can’t control where things are going. One can only accept it and say: ‘If you’re interested in Chris Rock, then have a look at another aspect of him. Look at what this man can do!’”

She is right: the title of the short could double as a clarion call from Rock, who has never seemed so delicate or heartfelt. Bardem is like a raggedy caged lion; he is even shown drumming in a cage, while the tap dancer Savion Glover, dressed at one point in Guantánamo orange, kicks up a storm in a neighbouring pen. “You gradually become aware it’s something to do with the incarceration of people of colour,” says Potter. “It’s a metaphor for other areas of freedom and constraint.” Unlike Bardem, Rock is poised and graceful, often manipulating the situation with his eyes alone. Vanilla highlights lend him a dandyish edge. Power is distilled into his modest frame and scornful glances. He is in charge.

The actor and director inhabit such different worlds that I imagine Potter must know Rock from I Think I Love My Wife, his remake of Éric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon. Not at all. “I’ve always been a fan of his standup,” she says merrily. Who else makes her laugh? “I like Dave Chappelle.” Even his virulently transphobic recent material? Her jaw drops, and she buries her face in her hands. “Oh God. OK. I may be out of date with his routines. I’ve never seen that one, so I’ll take your word for it.” I mention one of Chappelle’s gags about transgender people from his Netflix special The Closer, and she lets out a groan. “That’s disgusting. I made Orlando, after all. These issues are very dear to my heart, and I’ve been answering questions about them for 30 years.”

For Rock, who is currently touring with Chappelle, she has only praise. “I love how he bursts on to the stage. That grin! It’s very life-affirming. Like many comedians, he’s a quiet, serious, intelligent individual. We discussed the whole question of male vulnerability and fear. He and Javier are both aware of fragility, and what happens when a man feels humiliated.”

Bardem tells me later by email that he found Rock to be “a very caring and generous partner to play with, a pure joy. He was absolutely fully in the mood of his character, which is not a light one. At the same time, in the moments we were waiting to shoot, he was being the incomparable and natural comedian that he is.”

Look at Me began life as part of Potter’s film The Roads Not Taken, starring Bardem as a writer with early onset dementia, his past and present bleeding into one another. The intention was to incorporate different realities and sexualities for its protagonist (very Orlando) as well as separate eras. “The story was included in the original movie as a glimpse of what Leo could have been if he had made other choices in his life,” says Bardem.

It was while screening an early version of The Roads Not Taken to friends, however, that Potter realised the entire section had to go. “It should never have been there,” she says. “As a writer-director, the working cycle is so slow, and takes so long, that an impatience sets in, and you sometimes try to jam all your ideas into one film. I’ve excised chunks of material before, but I’ve never had one film lurking inside another like a Russian doll.” While Bardem remained the star of The Roads Not Taken, Rock and Glover were excised. “Chris and Savion were very understanding, but I was heartbroken. I cried.”

That’s film-making for you: everything is in flux until the curtains part. I remind her that she cast Robert De Niro as an opera singer in her wartime drama The Man Who Cried, starring Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, only for John Turturro to end up playing the part. “How on earth did you hear that?” she asks. “Yes, all right. I did work with him for a bit. We sat in the [Hollywood hotel] Chateau Marmont and went through the script, then met again in New York. We discussed opera singers, as I recall. And hair.” When the filming dates changed, De Niro was no longer available. “I’d forgotten all about that,” she says wistfully.

Right from her 1983 debut The Gold Diggers, which starred Julie Christie, Potter has always attracted the highest calibre of actor. Riz Ahmed, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Jude Law and David Oyelowo were in the murder mystery Rage; Cillian Murphy and Kristin Scott Thomas were among the guests trading barbs in her acerbic comedy The Party; and she has twice directed Elle Fanning, in Ginger & Rosa and The Roads Not Taken.

Noext up is Alma, which, she says, “deals with the idea of how the English relate to their history, this nostalgia for a nonexistent past. It’s bleakly funny.” There is also a TikTok-related project in the works. She is certainly no streaming refusenik. “You can disappear into the small screen if what you’re watching is magnetic enough. You can go through a very small portal and still have a very big experience.” She could even be describing Look at Me: a tiny film that stings like a slap in the face.

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Pamela Hutchinson reviews THE ROADS NOT TAKEN.

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Evening Standard review of THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

Charlotte O'Sullivan reviews THE ROADS NOT TAKEN.

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Bleecker Street set for digital release of THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

From Screen Daily:

Responding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Bleecker Street has partnered with US independent theatres to orchestrate a virtual release for Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken.


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Sally Potter on BBC Talking Movies: How real life influenced The Roads Not Taken

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THE ROADS NOT TAKEN Berlinale Press Conference Highlights

Watch highlights from the Berlinale Press Conference for THE ROADS NOT TAKEN, featuring Sally Potter, Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Christopher Sheppard.

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ORLANDO inspires 2020 Met Gala

The Metropolitan Museum in New York is taking ORLANDO as the inspiration for its 2020 Exhibition and Gala, with its theme "About Time: Fashion and Duration”.

Quoted in Vogue, Andrew Bolton, director of the Met's Costume Institute says:

There’s a wonderful scene in which Tilda Swinton enters the maze in an 18th-century woman’s robe à la Francaise, and as she runs through it, her clothes change to mid-19th-century dress, and she re-emerges in 1850s England. That’s where the original idea came from.”

The Met is using a clip from the film to headline their invitation to the Gala.

Sally Potter found her own inspiration for the maze scene (which does not appear in Virginia Woolf's book) at Hatfield House which was used as a location for the film. Here's a clip from the pre-production video diary (a 30 minute documentary that appears as an extra on the Orlando DVD) showing how her own experiments with time translated into the finished scene.

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THE PARTY in European Film Awards Selection

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THE PARTY receives global release

THE PARTY release dates by territory

Germany - Weltkino - 27 July

Switzerland - Filmcoopi - 27 July

France - Eurozoom - 13 September

Denmark - Camera Film - 12 October

United Kingdom / Ireland - Picturehouse - 13 October

Israel - LEV Cinema - 9 November

Norway - Mislabel - December

Belgium - Cineart - 13 December

Holland - Cineart - 14 December

Turkey - Filmarti - 15 December

Russia - Russian World Vision - 21 December

Greece - Feelgood - 28 December

Sweden - Mislabel - 5 January

Poland - Aurora - 5 January 

Italy -Academy 2 - 8 February

Spain - Avalon - February

United States - Roadside Attractions - 16 February

Australia - Madman - 12 April 

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From NY Times: In ‘The Party,’ a Portrait of a U.K. Divided by ‘Brexit’

From The NY Times:

LONDON — The party in “The Party” doesn’t go too well.

In the film, the latest to be written and directed by Sally Potter, Kristin Scott Thomas stars as a British lawmaker who has invited a few friends to her London home to celebrate a promotion to a senior position in the opposition. But before she can pour the Champagne, her husband, played by Timothy Spall, makes a less happy announcement. Secrets are revealed, relationships are shattered, drugs are snorted, pistols are drawn, canapés are burned — and the party’s over.

The good news for Ms. Potter, 68, is that “The Party” is her most widely acclaimed film since her lavish adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” solidified her reputation in 1992. The bad news for the people of Britain is that she has called her nightmarish farce “quite consciously a snapshot of the state of the nation.”

Just before the release here in Britain this week, Ms. Potter said that the disastrous soiree was “a microcosm of a whole nation in a great political crisis, a crisis about who we are, a crisis about nationalism.”

Although she finished the screenplay before Britain voted last year to leave the European Union, and the film’s machine-gun dialogue never touches on “Brexit,” Ms. Potter had her “ear to the ground, listening to the grumblings and groanings” while she was writing, she said.

The arguments that explode between guests played by Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz and Cillian Murphy represent the squabbles being played out across the country...

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From The FT: Film director Sally Potter: ‘In desperate times, we need laughter’

Available to read on The Financial Times.

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From The Guardian: Sally Potter: ‘There’s nothing like hearing a whole place vibrate with laughter’

From The Guardian:

The resolutely independent British film-maker is back with the most broadly entertaining film of her long career – a star-studded black comedy about a disastrous dinner party that reflects the dark state of the nation...

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Roadside Attractions Takes THE PARTY in North America

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THE PARTY Berlinale Press Conference Success

Watch the Press Conference on Vimeo.

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From The Guardian: Berlin film festival 2017 roundup: an SOS for a world without walls

From The Guardian:

The jury – headed by director Paul Verhoeven and including Maggie Gyllenhaal and artist Olafur Eliasson – may or may not choose the most political films in contention, but they will have noticed how many films seemed to use the metaphor of a social event to make a point about the state of the world. The strategy worked beautifully in The Party, by British writer-director Sally Potter. Simple and concise, this chamber comedy, shot in black-and-white, is set at the London house of a woman (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has just been named shadow health secretary. As her husband (Timothy Spall) mooches around ashen-faced, friends – played by, among others, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy and a supremely acidic Patricia Clarkson – arrive, and the revelations start pouring out. It’s brittle, intelligent stuff, like Pinter crossed with Feydeau farce, and one of the most enjoyable things here.

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From Variety: Berlinale: Watch the First Clip From Sally Potter’s ‘The Party’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Variety has been given exclusive access to the first clip from Sally Potter’s “The Party,” starring Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall and Kristin Scott Thomas. The film, which she describes as “a comedy, albeit wrapped around some tragic elements,” world premieres in competition at the Berlin Film Festival.

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Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Kristin Scott Thomas to Star in Sally Potter’s ‘The Party’

From Variety:

Patricia ClarksonBruno Ganz, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Timothy Spall and Cherry Jones are to star in Sally Potter’s film “The Party,” which has just started its 14-day shoot in London.

Set in a house in contemporary London, the film is “a comedy wrapped around a tragedy,” according to Potter’s production company Adventure Pictures. “It starts as a celebration and ends with blood on the floor.”

The film is produced by Christopher Sheppard for Adventure Pictures and Kurban Kassam (“20,000 Days on Earth,” “Ginger & Rosa”), and is financed by Robert Halmi Jr. and Jim Reeve’s Great Point Media. ICM Partners is representing North American rights on the film, and the agency also represents Potter.

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Sally Potter preparing two new films, The Party & Molly

UK director Sally Potter has announced two new feature projects Molly and The Party born out of a joint development deal with BBC Films and the British Film Institute (BFI).

“I now have two complete scripts ready to go. One is The Party and the second is Molly, for which I am heading off to do some casting in New York,” Potter told ScreenDaily from the airport.

“I don’t know which is going to go first. They’re both being cast at a high level so it will depend on which one finalises its cast and financing first,” she said. “Either is ready to go into pre-production. They’ve been taken through multiple drafts. So realistically we’re looking at early 2016.”

Potter has kept Molly completely under wraps until now.

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In Development

The Party

All the action in the film takes place in one house in London in the present and unfolds in real-time, the duration of the film itself (about 90 minutes). Janet has just been promoted to Shadow Minister for Health and has invited some close friends to celebrate with her and her husband, Bill. But then, one by one, some revelations emerge which shatter each individual’s assumptions about love and loyalty and their most cherished political beliefs. For these individuals - who thought they were coming together for a small celebratory party and end up confronting murderous feelings and possibly murder itself - nothing will be the same again.

Oh Moscow

OH MOSCOW is a multi-disciplinary cross-media project by Sally Potter. It is centred around an entirely archive-based musical film, based on an hour-long song cycle about the Cold War. The song cycle was conceived in the late 80s by British composer Lindsay Cooper, with lyrics by Sally Potter. It was originally performed across Europe - including both East and West Berlin (before the wall came down) - and in Russia and North America.

The moving image content will take the Oh Moscow score as the soundtrack and propelling narrative thread for an exploration by Sally Potter of the political and emotional dynamics of the Cold War, telling a story that is once highly personal and increasingly relevant. An immersive digital experience will allow users to explore the themes in the film: they will be able to connect with the historical roots of current socio-political events, explore the musical work in depth and understand how a piece like this is created. A concert tour will bring live performance of the music together with HD projection of the film, as well as exploring cost-effective means of delivering an augmented reality experience to the audience.

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