Interview: Jonathan Nossiter, Mondovino

When you consider the passion, seriousness, and self-importance with which many indulge their passion for wine, the controversy surrounding Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Mondovino is perhaps not surprising. The film is a survey of the international wine industry that suggests that as the industry is being globalised, wine culture is being homogenised. It points to the disproportionate influence wielded by certain figures (notably American wine critic Robert Parker) who serve as literal tastemakers, leading to the development of a global wine style at the expense of localised wine cultures.

Even without drawing out wider cultural analogies, this was an incendiary accusation, and the film sparked controversy when it opened in the US earlier this year. “In the LA Times the actual film review by the film critic was very positive,” reflects Nossiter. “But there were two major articles before that, five times the length, by a media critic and a wine critic, basically saying that I’m the reincarnation of the devil.”

In the film itself, Nossiter is a subdued and apparently non-satanic presence. When on-screen he is unobtrusive and low key: quietly prodding but not confrontational in his approach to his interview subjects. In person, however, the passion and intelligence that shape the film into such a strong piece of polemic is abundantly clear.

His father was a journalist, and Nossiter grew up in the United States, France, England, Italy, Greece and India. He draws on this globe-trotting background for Mondovino, travelling across three continents and generally conversing with his subjects in their native tongue. (During our interview he stops several minutes to chat in fluent French with the waiter). Mondovino was intended as a quick project, but grew into a four-year endeavour. Nossiter’s commitment to the subject shows as he talks about the film, leaning forward intensely and occasionally banging the table for emphasis as he makes points.

His passion reaches a peak as he discusses the way in which regional wine culture is pillaged by the tailoring of wines to fit an emerging global palette that is driven by American taste. Those driving the changes see this as a democratic process, driven by consumers, but Nossiter disputes this. “Are the big corporations democratising wine by making something which is technically potable available to more people? Well, if they’re destroying the diversity of wine, the individuality of wine, then I don’t think that is democracy. I think that is actually a form of fascism.”

What is interesting about Mondovino’s argument is the way that its setting in the wine world challenges some habitual ideas about the relationship between such left-leaning, anti-globalisation politics and the traditional establishment. In Mondovino, it is the traditional elites – wealthy landowners in France, and the plummy-accented Christie’s wine director Michael Broadbent – who emerge as the defenders of local difference and the last line of defence against big commerce.

“I don’t think that the conflict is between tradition and modernity,” says Nossiter. “I don’t think that the innovators are those people who reject tradition and the reactionaries are those people who respect tradition. I think it’s one of the ironies of the culture that we live in that in a sense… the most radical position, the most progressive position, and the most democratic position, is to insert yourself in a relationship to tradition where you’re respecting tradition.”

Nossiter cites the De Montille family, a family of winemakers from Burgundy, as an example of what he means. The De Montilles are, in Nossiter’s words, “Burgundian aristocrats,” and the film shows the loving but tense relationship between Hubert De Montille, in his seventies, and his winemaking children. The family are one of the most sympathetically portrayed in the film, and embody much of what Nossiter is talking about when he talks of respecting tradition.

“They were damned interesting to me, because they are not reactionaries… Their defence of tradition is not to defend tradition because they have it. It is not to defend tradition in order to say ‘only what used to be done, and what we’ve done, is good and everything else is bad.’ I think you see it most in the daughter, Alix De Montille, who to me is a kind of heroine.”

“Her notion of relationship to tradition is: ‘My name’s Alix, I’m a young woman, I love my father, but he also can be an asshole. I don’t want to make a wine like him, I don’t want to imitate him. If I want to do something which is me, which is who I am, I need to pay attention to what he did, and understand what he did. And what I do is going to grow out of that.’ The notion of having an ethical relationship to the past – that I think is the only way to be radical and progressive and democratic.”

The antithesis of this in Mondovino is Robert Parker, the famous American wine critic, and his friend Michel Rolland, a wine consultant who is whisked by his chauffeur from winery to winery, giving technical advice to winemakers. Both men are outgoing and friendly in the film, but Parker seems blithely unaware of the undertones of cultural imperialism when he talks of bringing “an American, a democratic point of view” to the world of wine. The film tracks the way in which Parker’s influence has meant his taste has become disproportionately influential.

Nossiter, who has worked as semellior preparing wine lists of restaurants, has grave misgivings about this kind of democratisation, which he says is based partly on a narcissistic privileging of individual opinion. “That sort of general narcissism – which you see in wine, you see in cinema, you see in politics, you see in every aspect of society – it dovetails, I think, in a very disturbing way with the culture of marketing. It is in corporations’ self-interest to present this notion that you are the consumer; you have the choice. But in fact they’re determining everything.”

“I think that these two qualities dovetail and create a false democracy. They actually are levelling out culture in every respect, and making people more conformist, not more individual. So [as to] the notion of what is elite and what is democratic; of what is radical, and what is reactionary… I think that things have become turned on their head.”

The level of passion Nossiter feels about these subjects opens him up to accusations of unfairness and bias. He doesn’t hold back when replying to such criticism. His critics in America, he says, accused the film of being one sided and anti-American. Which is, he says, “an outrageous charge, a McCarthyite charge – and to me an expression of how diseased the society is right now.”

It is certainly true that the Americans in Mondovino tend to come off more foolishly than those from other countries. When I suggest this was because his American subjects were less astute in realising how others in the world would perceive them than the French interviewees, Nossiter agrees in part. “When a French person speaks to me… or an Australian, or a German, or a Brazilian, they sense that, you know, they’re small in the world… I think that the violence of the reaction against the film in the US was precisely that it was disturbing for them to see an American filmmaker who took American voices and placed them in a global context. Simply by placing those people in a global context the enormity of their arrogance came out in a way which Americans are not willing to accept right now. It is a culture absolutely incapable of accepting that the rest of the world does not see them the way they see themselves.”

To some extent, this also arises from the way Nossiter uses place to signpost character: the French winemakers, interviewed in vineyards steeped in history, appear intrinsically more sympathetic than the Californian Mondavi family, filmed in their sleek corporate grounds. “Cinema does one thing,” agrees Nossiter. “It puts human beings in a context. It can’t do what a novel does, which is go inside the head of a character. It can’t do what a painting does, which is to draw the physical texture of a place… The one thing it does is situate a human being in a context.”

Some of those contexts were unflattering to Nossiter’s subjects, but Nossiter insists that he did not manipulate the choice of locations. “I asked them to reveal their world to me… They showed me what they wanted. Michel Rolland now would like to kill me… [But] I said: ‘Michel, this was your choice to have me shoot you. You spent the whole day in your Mercedes… It was your choice to show yourself that way.’”

Part of the immediacy with which Mondovino places its subjects in these places derives from the handheld cinematography. Nossiter shot with digital video, and the often shaky camerawork has an aptly drunken quality to it. This – along with the film’s length – has been the main aesthetic criticism levelled at the film. Yet Nossiter valued the interaction with his subjects that the format allowed. “It’s the first time that I’ve been able to make a film with this kind of instant exchange between person, context, and my camera,” he says.

While he stresses that this is not an intrinsic quality of the format – he doesn’t believe people with no filmmaking background will be able to simply pick up the camera and achieve good results – he does feel digital video allowed him new freedoms. “There are plenty of people who are going to criticise Mondovino, so I’m not saying this from a position of believing that I’ve found the key, but I do think that… I’ve found a way for me, for my sense of aesthetics, to work with a very small camera,” he says.

Nossiter’s background in both documentary and fictional filmmaking (his previous fictional film was Signs and Wonders, in 2000) means he is well qualified to talk about the application of digital video in the wider film scene. Despite nagging technical problems – such as Mondovino’s disconcerting extreme close-ups, which were used simply to re-establish focus – he feels that working with the small digital video camera allowed him to “create a tension that is distinct to this kind of DV and that kind of context. I actually want to explore it in a fiction film now and see if I can control it more and master it better, in relation to actors, but still keep some of that vitality and surprise alive.”

Yet he stresses that digital video is just another tool for filmmakers to choose from. “There’s something beautiful… no, almost something sacred, about the effort that it takes to light one shot in 35mm, and to move that camera. You can be incredibly flippant [with digital]: it’s like a series of one night stands… It can be deeply liberating, but it can also be a false liberation.”

Furthermore, despite the easy access to filmmaking that digital video allows, Nossiter is pessimistic about the state of film culture, believing that the forces of marketing, as well as the oligopolistic control of production and distribution are making films more conformist. “The state of cinema is as grave as the state of wine,” he says. “The survival of diversity in cinema is as in peril as the survival of diversity in wine.”

It is a confronting thought, and it is reassuring that at least a few rabble-rousers like Nossiter can still sneak through to shake both worlds up.

Originally published at InFilm Australia.


For my review of Mondovino, click here.

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