- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

“Disgrace” is only director Steve Jacobs and writer Anna Maria Monticelli’s second film. Yet for this sophomore project, they had the enviable job of adapting a masterpiece by Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee.

How did this independent husband-and-wife team, without a big studio to back them, score such a highly coveted project?

“When you’re a little bit naive, magical things happen,” Miss Monticelli says with a laugh, speaking by telephone.

Mr. Jacobs, in a separate interview, admits, “I didn’t think we would have any chance of securing the rights, but Anna was determined and contacted Mr. Coetzee’s agent.”

The task wasn’t just to get an option on the novel — Mr. Coetzee, whose novels have rarely been filmed, insisted on script approval, a rare condition among authors. “I think Coetzee is more interested in keeping his books intact than making money from people bastardizing his work,” Miss Monticelli says. “I take my hat off to him.”

Miss Monticelli had to attempt what others had tried and failed — writing a script without knowing if it would be approved. “It was a work of love, really. I think he’s one of the greatest writers of our generation,” she says. “I felt an enormous privilege that I was even allowed to try.”

Mr. Coetzee approved it — despite the fact that she changed the book’s gloomy ending.

“He did say, ‘I prefer my ending,’ and that’s when I had to work hard and try to convince him that in a film, from my perspective, it has to be filmatic, and I wanted the film to end with hope after everything that happened,” she says. “If it had ended like the book, everyone would have gone home and had a whole bottle of whiskey or something.”

Both husband and wife were actors who stepped behind the camera. Mr. Jacobs always planned to do so; Miss Monticelli hadn’t, though as an actress, she was an inveterate tinkerer with scripts.

“From the very first film I made, Roger Donaldson’s ‘Smash Palace,’ I always rewrote everything I did. Even when I worked with John McTiernan on his first film,” she says of the director, by whom she has a daughter. “Everyone always said, ‘Why don’t you write your own thing? We’re sick of you trying to change our things.’”

Mr. Jacobs was more single-minded. “I sort of drifted into acting because I was OK at it and [it] paid the bills,” he says. “But behind the day job, if you like, I was constantly writing scripts and doing short films trying to get a feature up. However, I realized no one was interested in my different ideas, so they never gave me a go as a director. That is why Anna and I formed our own company, so we could hire ourselves and do films like ‘Disgrace.’”

Miss Monticelli says she became a producer, in addition to a writer, because she sent her first film to 48 producers and all of them rejected it. She and Mr. Jacobs made it themselves, and “La spagnola” went on to become Australia’s official entry for the 2001 foreign-language Oscar.

“No one had faith in us, and they were wrong,” Mr. Jacobs says. “There is a conservative, consensus philosophy that dominates the film industry. It is based on the fear of losing money. This promotes conformity and weeds out different voices in an attempt to guess what will work. Unfortunately, despite all these experts, there are still spectacular failures and will continue to be so.” He adds, “But we have confidence in our work, so it wasn’t frightening to go off and do it. We knew it was a project within our skills to execute.”

His wife is even more blunt in talking about the movie machine. “I was talking to people who were stupid,” she says. “They were not as smart as me. They were making these films that were not good at all. I thought, ‘I can do this and at least have control and integrity.’ And I do.”

When the Mouse went south

You could say “Walt & El Grupo” is a documentary about the making of two films. It tells the story behind the Walt Disney animated features “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros,” after all.

But you also could say — and this gets at the real point of the film — “Walt & El Grupo” is an exploration of an interesting and little-known part of American history and a look at how culture and politics might subtly and not-so-subtly influence each other.

Theodore Thomas’ fascinating film, opening locally Friday at the Landmark E Street cinema, details the trip Walt Disney, his wife and 18 of his artists took to Latin America in 1941. The State Department paid for the trip as part of its Good Neighbor policy, in the hopes a resulting film would draw the Americas closer together — and drive South America further from Nazi Germany.

Disney was reluctant to go, but as one historian notes in the film, the trip “saved him, saved his sanity.” His studio, built on the wild success of “Snow White,” was seeing its profits from Europe disappear in the war, and a strike at home devastated him. In countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile, he got a hero’s welcome. An Argentine recalls watching a boy greet Disney on his arrival in Buenos Aires: “All of us who were enamored with Disney envied that young boy.”

This well-made film is excellent at giving the engaging details of the nearly three-month trip. We hear from the family members and letters of the participants, and we see the work they did there — gorgeous drawings and watercolors of the plants, people, places and animals they encountered. Videos taken at the time show, for example, Disney all dressed up in gaucho gear.

“They were all people who enjoyed life, and they helped other people to enjoy life,” one astute commentator says of the Disney crew, who became known as “El Grupo” — the group. That thought is evident in a charming clip from “Saludos Amigos” in which Donald Duck delights in doing the samba with a woman who looks an awful lot like Carmen Miranda.

The trip resulted in more than just those two films, of course; it had a lasting effect on those who went. Mary Blair, an artist there with her husband, Lee, was particularly struck by what she saw. “Well, it made her Mary Blair,” historian John Canemaker says of the journey. Before, her art was similar to that of her husband’s; after, its colors were more vibrant, alive.

The film is weaker in discussing the wider meaning of the trip and its intended effects. We hear that Argentines of the time were split, with some sympathetic to the Nazis, some not. The conflicting politics aren’t well-explained, and neither do we hear much about what effect this Good Neighbor trip had on them.

Yet Mr. Thomas brings history to life here — you might say, almost literally. He somehow makes photographs from the time look three-dimensional, a rather cool effect Disney himself might have admired.

• Kelly Jane Torrance can be reached at ktorrance@washingtontimes.com.

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