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By Phil Hall | April 30, 2009

One of the greatest non-fiction films ever made is “A Grin Without a Cat” from the legendary French director Chris Marker. Made in 1977 and updated in 2001, the film offers an extraordinary record of the rise and fall of the global New Left movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was an extraordinary time in world history, and the film captures the tumult and violence of the era. Pinballing from the conflict in Vietnam and the anti-war protests in the U.S. to the labor riots in France, the capture and death of Che Guevara, the 1968 unrest in Czechoslovakia and the rise and fall of Chile’s Salvador Allende, “A Grin Without a Cat” is the equivalent of writing history with a blowtorch.

The film is finally achieving its DVD premiere in the United States via Icarus Films, and I am honored to disclose that my 2002 Film Threat review of the film’s U.S. theatrical release is included in the DVD package. Marker, arguably the most elusive of major filmmakers, is not making himself available to the media. However, Jonathan Miller, president of Icarus Films – a DVD distributor specializing in non-fiction films, including several of Marker’s titles – spoke with Film Threat from his Brooklyn, N.Y., office about the significance of “A Grin Without a Cat” and its remarkable creator.

What, in your opinion, makes Chris Marker one of the most important figures in global cinema?

For me, it is the combination of an eye and a sensibility, self-consciousness, and an often uncompromising – but not unamusing or dry, just the opposite! – intellectual rigor.

A Grin Without a Cat” is one of the most remarkable non-fiction films ever made. At the risk of being flippant, why did it take so long to get a U.S. DVD release?

We released the film on 35mm and VHS video in 2002. The production of the DVD was complicated mostly for two reasons: rights clearances for all the sequences in the film (footage from archives and other films) had to be negotiated with many sources and it was very expensive, and making the new translations and subtitles (i.e., five language versions on one DVD).

For those who never saw Chris Marker’s films, what are the “essentials” in order to fully appreciate his canon and style?

Obviously, “La Jetee” and “Sans Soleil” are the films by which he is best known. Also, though “Le Joli Mai,” which is not really available at this point, though it is in some museums and archives.

As a DVD distributor, what are the challenges of bringing Chris Marker’s films – and other non-fiction films from the global cinema, for that matter – to the U.S. marketplace? And how has the ongoing recession impacted your distributor strategies?

Second question first: not sure that it has. I suppose it has heightened the need to do what we hope we do anyway: get more out of less, be more efficient and strategic, etc.

First question: the challenges are myriad, but it is also a question of expectations. How big a place in the marketplace? Marker’s films are probably less challenging from a market perspective than most others we distribute, because he is at least fairly well known (in some circles!). On the other hand of course, some of them are not quite as easy to grab a hold of what they are about. Why would someone should watch, say, “Case of the Grinning Cat” (in which Marker reflects on French and international politics, art and culture at the start of the new millennium) or a two-hour film on a Russian film director no one has ever heard of here? (“The Last Bolshevik,” Marker’s tribute to Russian film director Alexander Medvedkin.)

Are you planning to present any additional Chris Marker titles in the near future?

I hope so. We have one more in the pipeline for later this year: “One day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich.”

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