Pacho Velez on Looking for Connections in “Searchers”

When Pacho Velez was looking into programming a series of films that were connected to his latest “Searchers” at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, he wanted to reach out to Wendy Clarke, who was a major inspiration after compiling an archive of over 2500 interviews asking people from all walks of life about their thoughts on love that she ultimately distilled into the film “Love Tapes.”

“I didn’t know anything about her life,” said Velez, which fits all too nicely with his delightful doc about strangers blindly looking about online dating services, virtually entering their apartments and homes to observe their reactions as they scroll through and Tinder to see what they want and don’t in a partner. “It turns out she’s running a donkey rescue farm in Arizona, so I called her and she said, ‘Look, I’ve got to take care of the donkeys. I can’t come to New York’ [but] I’ve been talking to her on the phone and we’ve been making plans and I’ve got a bunch of people who are helping out.”

Although Clarke had finished with “Love Tapes” in 2011 after putting over 30 years into it, there will be a few more recorded during the Anthology series and the dialogue created between one filmmaker to another and between time periods are among the many that one can expect from the four-day affair where screenings of “Searchers” will be accompanied by films about finding connections in unusual places, whether it is “Love Tapes,” Adam Baran’s short “Trade Center,” about the less well-known landmark status of the World Trade Center as a hot spot for gay cruising, and Caveh Zahedi’s “I Am a Sex Addict” in which the provocateur’s upcoming nuptials inspire him to look back at his personal streak of nymphomania. It may not be the most traditionally romantic way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but perhaps the best way to appreciate how fleeting such genuine connections actually are, particularly when “Searchers” itself is a celebration of how people on all different wavelengths manage to find beautiful areas of overlap.

An especially ingenious endeavor during the pandemic when feeling of isolation was at an all-time high and Velez could proceed with filming unimpeded when no one was at risk in appearing on camera, other than putting themselves out emotionally of course, “Searchers” charts relationships that unfold not only between people but with their devices, finding that impediments to personal expression can come in something as benign as a “like” button or as deep as past trauma that can be triggered by a random part of another person’s profile. Then again, people can admirably be seen trying their hardest to close that gap in order to forge a bond and for longtime fans of Velez, who has pushed the form of observational filmmaking as a co-director on such films as “Manakamana,” “The Reagan Show” and “The American Sector,” there is an added generosity of spirit in acknowledging himself on camera as one of the lonelyhearts, strengthening his own personal ties to the audience.

On the eve of the truly special series at the Anthology, Velez spoke about how he was able to make a film that lived online but was as gripping as the Internet at its best and seized on some unique opportunities opened up by the film and its themes to spark connections in the real world with the fun event ahead.

It was interesting to see this for the first time in the middle of the pandemic because I thought what a novel idea to pursue when we were all isolated, but did you actually start thinking about this before then?

A quarter of the people in the film were filmed pre-pandemic, but then the pandemic happened and we took a six-month break and during that time, I already had the stuff we had shot to look at and and reconceptualize a little bit how this film would work during the pandemic. In a lot of ways, the pandemic deepened the film because it made a lot of our longings for connection that much stronger. And as wonderful Zoom technology is and the fact that we can talk this way, it just doesn’t beat in person. And it never will.

I knew I wanted to do something about online dating in New York. First, I thought it was mostly going to be amongst older folks. At that point, I had a research assistant named Milo Borsuk, who was 21 and his grandfather was 91 and had just gotten out of a marriage of 60 years and started online dating. I [wondered], “Oh, what must that be like? The last time Milo’s grandfather went on a date was in the ‘60s and he’s thrust into the modern world.” So it started from there and as we started to film with people, I [thought] older people dealing with these issues are interesting, but the need for connection and for a relationship changes in interesting ways over time too, right? Like what a 22-year-old or an 18-year-old is looking for in life is so different than what a 70-year-old is looking for, so I realized this could all live in the same film and everyone’s using the same medium — they’re all on the Internet now, no matter how old or young you are, you’re looking for love on the internet. I was doing it too, so that was part of it too.

That was interesting to me when I think of your films as having something of a remove – not in terms of how close you get to your subjects or how absorbing the films become, but because of what they’re about, whether it’s history in “The Reagan Show” or geography in “The American Sector,” they’re more abstract concepts that you pull into human dimension. Was it actually much of a decision to include yourself?

Yeah, it was a late addition. I was always online dating and I was always interested in the world because of my own experiences with it but we were pretty far into the edit when Hannah Buck, the editor, said to me, “Pacho, I need to see you in this film. This is why we’re making this film. Your interest and your voice is what ties this together.” And we tried it and it really added something else to the film. Hopefully, it’s a development on my style. A lot of my early films are fairly structural and conceptual and you described it being at a little bit of a remove from me, but I was trained by personal documentarians — Robb Moss, who’s made a bunch of personal films, and I was a production assistant on “Bright Leaves,” the Ross McElwee film. That was where I learned about filmmaking and I think for 20 years, I sort of avoided it, rejected it, kept it at a distance. [laughs] But it’s nice to see that strand work its way back into my filmmaking.

There’s a really great connection you make with the people on camera because of the shooting style – it’s not exactly Interrotron-style direct address, but you’re able to really able to convey the experience of being online with an engaging visual style. Was that hard to come by?

A lot of it came from thinking about how to represent daily life. I’m always interested in what people are doing when they’re doing nothing and so much of that today is people staring at their phones. They have their phones open in front of them and they’re just scrolling and they’re lost in their phones, so I started to wonder about what does that look like? What’s the reverse angle on the phone? If you’re looking at your phone, what is your phone seeing? We started out there and we had something called an EyeDirect, like a cheap interrotron [that] we tried to shoot with, but then a week into shooting [we realized], “Well, we have these recordings of the screen because we need to know what’s happening on the screen, so we can actually superimpose them [where] we can put the video screen or the phone screen on top of their eye view and it looks like they’re looking at their phones, and they were really looking at their phones.”

We had to add that second layer in post, but it does this wonderful thing where we have control over that second layer so we can put anything on there and we can make little tweaks. It was important when somebody was scrolling, I didn’t want to ruin somebody’s privacy by having their profile appear, so I could go in and I could make their image just out of focus enough that you can’t quite tell who it is. If there was identifying information in the profile, I could go in and just change that, so one person we have to cover up their phone number, which I was happy to do. All that was really important just on an ethical level and for the legal side of it, but also it gave a lot of control that I had never quite thought of before.

Is it true a lot of the participants came from connections made at the New School?

Yeah, I teach here and I have a lot of students here and they’re all online native and so much savvier about a lot of that kind of stuff than I am, so I started with them and they reached out through their networks, e-mailing people, contacting people through Facebook, making posts on TikTok and making posts on Backstage a little bit, just really bringing in as many different kinds of New Yorkers as possible. It’s a film that’s a little bit of a taxonomy of the city and that was important to me too. You see young and old, people from all different boroughs, living in all different kinds of circumstances and people looking for all different kinds of things, just to get that sense of the city as this wide-ranging marketplace in a good way.

Was there anything that happened that changed your ideas of what this could be?

A lot of what I looked for was the kind of counterintuitive conclusion or somebody who says something that’s like not quite what you’d expect from them. The best example that pops immediately to mind is the 88-year-old who’s talking with her friend about dating old people, and the friend is like, “Yeah, the men don’t want to date anyone over 60. The men our age don’t want to date over 60” and she says, “I don’t want to date anyone over 60 either because the 70-year-olds look so old.” [laughs] She’s 88 and she’s trying to date a 65-year-old, and more power to her — that turned the usual cultural narrative on its head about age discrepancies and dating, so it was moments like that. The beautiful people who are lonely – that for me was counterintuitive, and the guy who works out who [has] been sexually abused through the Web sites, these moments that are personal and not the broad cultural narrative, but specific and unusual, those are the moments I feel my heart open for these people.

I was quite moved when I saw it at home via Sundance’s virtual festival in 2021, but I imagine it must be pretty exciting getting it out into the world.

It’s been a really tough time for films, especially independent films because so much of their life is on the festival circuit. Many of my early films, like “Manakamana,” I was traveling for a year promoting. I was in a dozen countries showing the film, sharing it with audiences, having conversations, like going for drinks afterwards and talking more, meeting young filmmakers all over the world. That’s just how independent film spreads. It’s so much about word of mouth. Nobody has big marketing budgets, so it’s about going to the screening and seeing the filmmaker and getting to talk about their ideas with them. And then during the pandemic, that all just fell away. A lot of festivals were making these really noble attempts to create some kind of virtual community. At Sundance, they sent us all VR goggles and we were in this spaceship, talking to each other. [laughs] Again, I appreciate the effort, but it’s not a substitute.

I had been to Sundance in 2020 because I produced a film called “Some Kind of Heaven” and you had the screening and it’s like three days of people talking to Lance [Oppenheimer, the director] and he’s getting these calls and he’s taking these meetings and people are stopping him on the streets of Park City. A year later, I have “Searchers” at Sundance and I have this Q & A over Zoom and all of that is really special, but then the Q & A is done and I’m sitting in my living room and it’s like, that’s over. There’s nothing else. And hopefully, we’re back to a place where people are going back to festivals and talking to each other.

It seems like you’ve really created that opportunity for yourself with this series at the Anthology, which has such a great lineup to accompany screenings of “Searchers.” How did this come together?

We live in this funny moment where nobody wants to put films on the big screen, so the producers, the best distribution deal they got was for this online release via Gravitas Ventures that’s happening next month. I was kind of actually excited by that because that meant that we still had the theatrical rights and I reached out to some theaters in New York that I know and love and have relationships with. Anthology really liked the film and said, “yeah, we’d love to show it and we’d love to show it around Valentine’s Day” and I’ve been going to Anthology Film Archives since I was in college and I love their programming and [it’s been] so long since we’ve been in a movie theater together, [where] it’s fun to talk and to have a conversation, and see some different films and have a little bit of debate. so I invited a bunch of people that made work that is important to me in different kinds of ways that also speaks to “Searchers” in some interesting ways. It’s the first time it’ll be showing on the big screen in Manhattan, so I think it’ll be an event and I’m excited for it.

“Searchers” will open on February 10th at the Anthology Film Archives in New York where it will be accompanied on February 10th with “Trade Center” and its filmmaker Adam Baran in person at 7:30 pm, February 11th with “Love Tapes” at 5 pm and February 12th with “I Am a Sex Addict” and its filmmaker Caveh Zahedi in person at 5 pm.

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