Riley Stearns (Faults) Talks Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan

A longtime fan of one of the best short filmmakers around dives into his much-anticipated debut feature.

One of the best things about making films, whether it’s with a short or a feature, is meeting other filmmakers. And occasionally you actually end up becoming pretty close friends with some of the filmmakers outside of the camp-like bubble that is the film festival circuit. Even after only a few days of hanging out with your peers before going your separate ways, there’s a camaraderie between filmmakers that’s unlike anything I’ve experienced. Sometimes you find yourself rooting for a movie that you maybe didn’t care for because you know and like the person behind it. Or, more often than not, you see a small film at a festival that you would have never heard of otherwise and you make it your mission to tell everyone who will listen that it’s the best thing ever, and in addition to that the director is a really cool person too. But in one instance, I’ve felt this same responsibility and admiration for a filmmaker whose films never played at festivals at the same time as mine and whom I’ve never actually met.

In 2011, I made my first short that I actually finished. It wasn’t great and it definitely doesn’t speak to who I am or what I want to do as a filmmaker but at the time, though, I was sure it’d get into some big festivals. (It was rightfully rejected by every single festival I submitted it to.) So in preparation, I looked to the biggest festival I knew, Sundance, to see what the shorts that won the top prizes that year did in terms of trailers, press packets, interviews, etc… One of the buzz shorts of the festival was the phenomenal The Strange Ones by Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff (both of whom are people I’ve since become friends with) and the International Jury Prize winner was Deeper Than Yesterday by Ariel Kleiman. Keep in mind, I hadn’t seen either of these shorts. I was just going off of their teasers and critical acclaim, but I became obsessed with both of them. I knew it would be a while before I could see these particular films so I began seeking out anything else I could watch by the directors. Chris and Lauren didn’t have anything else readily available online but through research I found out Ariel had made several other shorts, a few of which were online, and one, Young Love, which wasn’t online but had been at Sundance the previous year and received an Honorable Mention.

I watched all of Ariel’s stuff that was viewable on the web and was immediately taken by his darkly comedic sensibility and wittiness. I watched the teaser for Young Love and again fell in love with a short I had yet to see. I found out that Wholphin had released the film on DVD as part of its quarterly short film series so I tracked down a copy and watched it in the comfort of my living room. It’s an understatement to say that I was completely blown away by it. It’s still one of my all-time favorite short films. It’s the perfect combination of violence and love and llamas and it’s directed in a way that feels incredibly precise all while being open to spontaneity… So of course I sent a private message to Ariel via his Vimeo account where I tried to tell him, in a cool and non-overbearing way, that his short was one of the best things ever. I totally downplayed my excitement and he was super cool about it and even sent me a private link so I could watch Deeper Than Yesterday, which of course turned out to be just as good as everyone said it was. It was so good it made me sick. “He made this in film school?!” I shouted quietly to myself. I watched it several times that day in a way that felt like a sadomasochistic exercise. He made a 20-minute film that felt more realized than a two-hour feature and more focused than other acclaimed, shorter, shorts. It’s a staggering work made all the more inspiring to me by the fact that this was made by a guy who was (and still is) just one year older than me. Ariel Kleiman went from being one of my favorite short filmmakers to one of my favorite filmmakers, period. And then I found out he was making a feature.

Partisan started where most films do, as a script. After the success of Deeper Than Yesterday, the script for Partisan was invited to participate in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and later the Directors Lab. I quietly kept tabs on the project, each year checking the list of films selected to compete in the International section at Sundance but a couple years went by and still nothing… until this year’s fest. To my surprise, though, except for winning an award for cinematography, Partisan seemed to keep a low profile in and out of Park City. It’s being released by a relatively small distributor, Well Go USA, and despite a killer trailer and gorgeous poster it’s still flying under the radar. After seeing the film, I hope this changes.

Partisan follows a young boy, Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), who is the eldest child in a commune of sorts run by an enigmatic but controlling figure named Gregori (played by Vincent Cassel). It soon becomes clear that the group’s children are being used by Gregori to carry out tasks that don’t particularly fit within the constructs of the violence-free society he claims to be building. But like Ariel Kleiman’s shorts before it, Partisan has a beating heart underneath its darker exterior. It’s a film about what traits we pass on to our children and ultimately the innocence and corruptibility of youth. It says so much and manages to be really fun and cool while saying it. The cinematography of Germain McMicking is indeed spectacular but part of the credit has to go to Kleiman’s longtime collaborator Sarah Cyngler – who is the film’s co-production designer and co-costume designer, as well as its co-writer – for giving the camera such a beautifully lived-in world to photograph.

For a film like this, it doesn’t make sense to say anything more than I really, really enjoyed it, but in hopes that my words help convince you to check it out…

Whether it’s a “pop star” kids karaoke night or a swim party that takes place indoors with an inflatable kiddie pool and a Speedo-wearing Cassel, nothing about Partisan feels derivative. It’s constantly surprising and not in a way that feels forced. If there’s any criticism I have of the film, it’s that it’s such a contained world while Kleiman’s direction and ideas feel like they’re ready to burst out into a larger landscape. In the context of a first feature, though, this scale makes sense and it’s unfair of me as a viewer to want it to be any bigger. Partisan is an incredibly assured debut from a filmmaker I’ll continue to champion as if we’re best friends even though we’ve never met and probably never will once he reads this borderline stalker-level piece.

Riley Stearns is the writer-director of Faults (2014), The Art of Self-Defense (2019) and his new film Dual, starring Karen Gillan and Aaron Paul, which is available on digital, on demand and AMC+ on May 20. He lives in Los Angeles. You can visit his website here.