Interview with Maite Alberti and Giedrė Žickytė, directors of the EFA-nominated short film I am not from here, by Dimitra Kouzi
I am not from here is the result of an experiment: the two directors where matched by the CPH:DOX festival to co-direct a film in the course of one year. The two directors were especially interested in capturing the feeling of alienation inherent to immigration – and also, perhaps, to living in a nursing home: the feeling of not truly being at home. They decided to make their film in Chile, a country that saw an influx of immigration in the 20th century, and searched there for immigrants afflicted with Alzheimer’s. The short film is the portrait of Josebe, a woman from the Basque country living in a nursing home in Chile. I am not from here, is not only multi-awarded it is now nominated for the EFA 2016.
Watch the trailer vimeo.com/146804030
What was your experience of CPH:DOX Lab?
Maite: I did not have so many expectations when I came to the CPH:DOX Lab, but it was a great experience. Αs it was not a traditional project – that you have been working on for a long time, with co-producers and involving international funds – I felt more free to experiment, a freedom I did not have in my other projects, and I worked on an idea that I was developing for a long time.
We had never met with Giedre before, so it was like a blind date, where we had to work and find common ground. We were both interested in working with memory from an alternative viewpoint: what you remember when all is forgotten.
Giedrė: Quite an experiment on the part of the Danish doc festival to match two different words – the post-Eastern-European socialist camp and post-Pinochet Chile. Both countries with a post-totalitarian trauma, as well as with vibrant cultural spheres. Filming in Chile was a completely different experience from my previous ones, because I do not speak the language. Therefore, I started to follow my intuition more strongly – body language, and other direct and indirect senses.
What drew you to this story?
Giedrė: The fragility of passing time constantly concerns me. I come back to this theme in all my films, and it’s so sensitive that I can be moved to tears when I look at an old photograph, or listen to memories. Losing memory is something I fear for myself, so I tried to cope with this fear by searching for moments of light and hope in the story. My grandmother briefly suffered from dementia before she passed away. I was a child then and I have intermittent reminiscences, though some distinct moments haunt me, such as how weird I felt when we went to visit her and she didn’t recognise me. But my strongest memory is how she felt unhappy and not herself when she had to leave her home. My father’s sister took care of my grandmother and after the stroke she needed to go to a sanatorium to recover. We visited her there; it was a sunny day, a garden with lot of trees and a house full of elderly people. I don’t remember what we did but I remember the ravishing feeling of absolute loneliness and emptiness there. I was afraid to be there. It was the first time in my life I experienced fear of getting old. Making this film, I missed my grandmother – I imagined her in Josebe’s place.
Maite: In 2010, I wrote and directed a theatre play about Alzheimer disease and I made a lot of research for that; I learnt a lot about that. I think Josebe is like one of my play characters, only better, because reality is always better than fiction. In fiction you cannot put too much crazy situations because they are unbelievable; in a documentary, this kind of situations are a gift from reality. All the stories that we can make up already exist – we just have to find them. For me, films are like a factory of experiences for the spectator.
After I wrote my play, I really wanted to find some of these characters in reality, and that was my goal with this story: to find a character with Alzheimer’s that really remembered her early stage of life in another place, but not to remember the present. So, at a certain moment you can feel she is completely in her right mind because she can remember everything; yet, little by little you realise that she is lost in the present. So, that is the question: What is reality? Sometimes reality is in your own mind – you can live in your memories, which keep you alive.
How did you manage to achieve a cinematic feeling while filming everyday scenes in a natural environment?
Giedrė: I strongly believe that it is very important, not only what story the film is telling but how it is telling it. Before filming there, we researched the spaces in the house and the residents’ daily rituals there. Our task was to find a good position for the camera in each space, to frame a shot and wait for situations to happen, which we could guess about from our research. The film’s cinematographer, Pablo Valdes, who is a gifted and intuitive DOP, could instantly feel from our gazes if we wanted to move the frame or change the position. We needed our camera to be stationary, observational, so as not to destroy nor intrude into the fragile beauty and magic of the reality unfolding in front of our eyes.
Maite: I usually work in this style in documentaries. The documentary genre has sought to pursue great historical events as the narrative axis; however, politics and idiosyncratic social portraits can also be displayed based on the microcosm. Small situations from daily life that become exceptional can be more moving than explicit politics. In observational documentaries the question is, how to make extraordinary reality happen in front of the camera? I like to talk about “scheduling chance”. I am convinced that reality is cyclical, and those things that I observed during the research that were unique, happen again. For this to happen we need to be constant, patient and wait. For me, documentaries are an exercise in patience – waiting for things to happen in reality, without hurrying or pushing them, trusting that if one chooses the places and situations well, these will provide you with what you need. Each story and each character have their own way of being told and their own language. That is what we search for; the question is, what style does my character need to convey their subject and viewpoint.
What was your biggest challenge (technically and/or emotionally)?Giedrė: Before, I used to spend a lot of time with my protagonists and establish a relationship before I started shooting. Here, we had a totally different situation: Our protagonist, Josebe, did not recognise us. Every single day, we were like new persons to her. Secondly, I had to shoot a film in another language about a woman who feels she lives in another country. I was also the only one from abroad in that particular space, as was Josebe. I felt how the perception of the situations we were filming was under a totally new light due to not speaking the language.
Maite: I usually carry out extensive research, and I have a close relationship with my characters so as to prepare them for the shooting of the observational documentaries. I spend a long time with them before turning on the camera. In this case, I could not have that relationship, and it was weird for me. Every day was the first day – that was my challenge, in both research and while shooting; every day I had to explain to her who I was and what I was doing. At a certain point, we decided to put on nursery uniforms so that we could be part of her environment.
Let us into your editing room. What decisions did you have to make while editing the film?
Giedrė: The raw material was already very strong, and our greatest challenge was how not to destroy this fragile magic of life by the editing. Everything had to be very simple and accurate. Most decisions were made during editing; regarding the form, that was the moment where we discussed the most, rather than during filming.
Maite: The big decision in the editing room was to make a short film, rather than a feature documentary. Because there is a lot of time that nothing happened in that space, so for me it was not powerful enough material to do a feature-length. I think, with this kind of small stories, you must be prepared to decide during editing what kind of film it is. And it is better to make a good short film than a bad feature-length documentary. The other challenge was how to construct the character, show her not only as someone who does not remember, but also as a character that remembers her past. Because that was the interest thing about her: to not realise in the very beginning that she has Alzheimer’s, because when I met her, I did not realise it during my first approach. So I wanted to replicate that same experience with the audience.
Did you have a lot of contact with the characters (behind the scenes)? If so, what was your experience of that?
Giedrė: It was a very different and challenging experience for both of us, as we couldn’t establish a close relationship with our main character as what we were used to in our previous films. Every day, we had to introduce ourselves to our protagonist, Josebe, and she didn’t remember that we had met and filmed the day before. We had to be very attentive to her mood changes, and pay attention that our presence did not disturb her. We couldn’t control her – where to go, where to sit, even what clothes to wear. For instance, one day she decided to put on a very different jacket, which was contrasting with the ones we had filmed her in before, but she refused to change. However, we could control where to place the camera, as Josebe and other elderlies had the same daily routine, the same rituals and we could prepare for that.
What do you think are the most serious problems that elderly people face nowadays?
Giedrė: There is a widespread perception that we live in the era of an elderly world. With a low birth-rate, aging population is a common phenomenon in many countries. Also in Lithuania, my native country. One would think that with the aging population, there would be more elderly people everywhere – public spaces, restaurants, streets. However, that is not the case. I feel that is due to the remains of post-soviet heritage, as in European countries I see elderly people being truly part of the society. On the other hand, in Western Europe I note another tendency: there are less strong family bonds, and the phenomenon of elderly people’s houses is much more common than in Eastern Europe.
Maite: I think there are completely different ways to live in our old age now. For example, in my previous film, Tea Time, it was completely the opposite of I’m not from here, even if the protagonists are in the same age. In Tea Time, they were enjoying their lives, in spite of the fact that they were old, too. Today, we can speak about the third and fourth age; we live longer and have more options when we are old. But if you are ill, I think the big problem is that now society is used to the retirement homes. A few years back, at least in Latin America, families lived together with the old people, now everybody decides to send the older people to retirement homes. I think it is not a good solution for all cases.
What is Josebe (the main character) like now?
Maite: Six months after the original shooting, I went by myself to film some new takes, and it was impossible – Josebe was a new person