There are films destined to become classics, here to stay, to be watched again and again and reveal ever new facets – films to inspire. Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and jotted in my notebook: ‘collective memory through archives.’ I felt I must remember it, that and: ‘documentation of memories,’ a phrase Firouzeh Khosrovani used over the phone earlier, she in Tehran, I in Athens.
An effective title ushers you right into the film: Radiograph of a Family. Factually as well as symbolically, the story of the director’s family and the history of her country unfold before your eyes, and you want to see and hear it all, touch it even; smell the scent of rosewater; yet at certain moments it feels like having sand in my mouth.
The film’s opening phrase – the phrase that inspired her to make this film – immediately grasps the viewer’s attention: ‘My mother married my father’s photograph.’ Weird though it sounds, it’s true.
There are architectural elements in this film; not only because it is set in an empty house – their home in Teheran – but also because it is richly stratified, with materials that highlight textures, interactions, and trajectories in space. ‘The film builds a puzzle with precious family archives that blend with powerful images of collective moments of great significance.’*
It all began, the director Firouzeh Khosrovani notes, with the photo archive and her memories, out of which she started to weave the story she was most familiar with, as well as to fill the gaps:
‘Looking at our family albums as a child made me develop imaginary stories about my parents’ relationship. The pictures in our family albums became the primary archives in the film. Other formal and informal archival footage provided opportunities to expand the story of our family photos. At times, the archive more accurately conveyed what I had originally imagined or remembered about a story. So, sometimes the images created the story, and sometimes we looked for images to advance our story. I also used out-of-focus Super 8, their elusive texture resembling the hazy texture of our deep-rooted memories.’
One can only admire the way this film speaks about the history of Iran, posing questions, avoiding bitterness and dogma, casting a critical yet lucid glance into a fascinating world, telling a riveting story before our eyes.
The revolution occurs at the exact middle of the film. ‘I had appealing ideas but no real plot. I knew that a well-constructed plot often moves along a cause-and-effect chain. The film structure is created through my lived experience and vivid childhood memories.’
Unless you know precisely what you want to say right from the start, you run the risk of becoming lost in the different strands of the material. I witnessed the making of this film like someone weaving a carpet, an arabesque of yarn and dye.
‘I had too many interwoven themes. It was easy to get lost in the multiple threads of ideas and forget to think of a compact narrative structure. The fusion of my own fantasies and reality made me excited to share it with others through this film. I sought to lay out in a structured order a chain of connected ideas; tore up photos; produced X-rays of distorted backbones – scans of our home – a narrative space divided into two poles and telling the story of how Islamic laws penetrated our life and our memories of it. Many other peripheral ideas gradually came to my mind.’
‘I did everything I planned to do. Step by step. Working with a great art director, Morteza Ahmadvand, who contributed significantly to its development during the long production journey.’
An act of re-examination and reconciliation, this is a therapeutic film to watch over and over again to discover new aspects of world history and its impact on the stories of three individuals, of a family. Firouzeh doesn’t like the word ‘identity. I respectfully didn’t ask her why; I guess the term may seem to her one-sided, not enough to qualify as self-determination – an identity is never one identity.
This applies to the film, too. In addition to the archives, it is the sound, music, voices, whispers that evoke an environment. Firouzeh Khosrovani explains ‘We considered many different options for speech. Because of the tendency towards realism, it was not possible for the narrator (me) to tell the story before I was born. I tried to find a distinctive conversational tone. Sometimes with whispers. Sometimes loudly.’
I loved the conversational tone of the film. The dialogues truly bring the couple’s conversations to life.
The music also serves a narrative function in Radiograph of a Family, evoking, for instance, her father’s presence even in a scene with her mother alone. The soundtrack consists of ‘recreation of sounds heard at home. Classical pieces recorded in my childhood memories have been selected and replayed by the composer. Also, a creative re-playing of the melodies of Revolutionary and war anthems that exist in the collective memory of Iranians took their place in the film.’
It took Firouzeh Khosrovani almost five years to finish her film. And it is really beautiful the way she treated her parents, how she values their places in her life and within society; how she respects her mother's political and life choices, despite all the differences that she might have with her.
‘[My mother] was touched profoundly [when she watched the film]. She entirely acknowledged the imaginary dialogues with my father before I was born. She appreciated the conversational tone of the film, the narrative arc, the visual aspect, music – everything. She congratulated me and hugged me.’
This sounds like closure, but it’s not – we all have our own paths to travel.
‘I experienced the greatest invincibility, patience, and failure in the years of making this film. But it was not without pleasure. This film made me. And it continues to do so.’
BY DIMITRA KOUZI
I pass by Distomo almost once a month, on my way to Galaxidi (Delphi Municipality), a seaside village where my great-grandfather was born. Since today the destination is more important than the journey, I had never been to Distomo, although it is only a 2km digression from the main road. Known as one of the "martyred towns,"(1) the village, ravaged in the late phase of the Second World War, should have prompted my interest, since I am a German-school and -university graduate, and often work with German people. On 10 June 1944, German troops savagely massacred 223 civilians – mostly older men, women, children and infants – as reprisals for partisan attacks that cost the Waffen-SS unit 20 dead and 36 wounded(2) during the first week after their deployment in the area(3).
I first visited Distomo to conduct an interview for the ARTE-produced documentary Greeks and Germans – A Difficult relationship.(4)
The interview concerned an exchange involving two school clubs – one at the German School of Athens, run by the teacher Regina Wiesinger, and one at the Distomo Lyceum, run by the teacher Vasso Karanassou. Pupils of both schools learn extensively about this incident at the first grade of Lyceum (age 15). And this is where the interesting part begins: In both schools, they are introduced to it from the “Greek” point of view. The exchange is meant to encourage the children from both nations to meet and learn about the past of their countries. Could this contribute to reconciliation? What does reconciliation mean? Who must reconcile today, how and why? Germany is today central to Europe economically and politically; yet, when one brings up the name of the country in Greece, reactions are often biased or stereotypical (5). Media handling of the financial crisis did nothing to improve this relationship. (6)
THEY HAVE MORE IN COMMON THAN NOT
These pupils are expected to work on a common project over the course of six months, including three meetings of the two groups: one weekend in Athens, one at Distomo and a trip to Berlin. This year, the children will work on topics related to adolescence, inspired by the documentary film All This Panic by Janet Gage (79ʹ, USA, 2016) (7).
I can infer from discussions with them that the massacre looms heavily over the Distomo children, as justice is yet to be served; there has been no taking of responsibility, no acknowledgement. No families are spared: They all count victims among their members. As years go by, they worry: “Witnesses will die, and the story will fade.” The annual commemoration events help both forgetting and remembering. “I talk with my grandmother about it more during that time of the year, not in our daily life,” a second grade of Lyceum pupil said during my visit to the small school (40 pupils only).
They were born at Distomo, and this determines everything for them: “It’s not just a matter of war; this was a terrible crime, a massacre [...] Which is why we feel it our duty to communicate it.” Panagiotis, third grade of Lyceum pupil points out.
On the other hand, German-School pupils express their concern: “Is it right for us to visit [Distomo]? How could I meet [these people]? How could I face them?" Children with a double nationality (one parent Greek and one German) wonder: “Who am I? As Greek, I feel mournful; as German I feel guilty.” At the German School, I met with five pupils of the third grade of Lyceum who have already participated in the project; they are well-informed, concerned, at times intense and at times relaxed. Was there value in that interaction? “Yes, it helped us discover the country and experience history first-hand; it makes a world of difference,” according to Isabella: “Stereotypes are dispelled by personal contact. Up until yesterday they were only numbers; today they are people we’ve met.” After 70 years of historical analysis, do the Germans acknowledge any responsibility, and if so, how? It’s one of the questions posed in skepticism.
On 28 October 2018, I went back to Distomo. Catie Manolopoulou, a writer from Distomo who lost members of her family in the massacre, was invited to talk to the Lyceum pupils. “Post-war years were even harder... Nothing can replace a lost loved one. Yet, the issue of war reparations is not my focus; other people strive towards that goal. However, I expect good intentions on the part of the Germans – for instance, they might offer to establish a university at Distomo. For youth from all over the world to attend.”
This opens a channel of communication based on personal contact and interaction. The dialogue is ongoing. A German-School pupil Leandros, continues, “Distomo pupils who participated in the project and went on the trip realized that it's normal people that live in Germany, too. A certain reserve towards all things German is still evident; yet, these children are better informed than other Greeks are. There is hope to get over the horrors of war and let go of the past. Yet, the road ahead is still long."
(1) The Greek interior ministry compiled a list of "martyred towns" after the end of the war. To be included, a town or village had to either be entirely destroyed as a result of arson or shelling, have lost 10% of its population in mass executions, or fulfil a combination of these criteria. Seventy-two towns from this list suffered reprisals by the German army, most of them witnessing mass executions. “Massacre memories: German car sales and the EZ Crisis in Greece,” Vasiliki Fouka (Stanford University), Joachim Voth (Zurich University), https://voxeu.org/article/massacre-memories-german-car-sales-and-ez-crisis-greece. Retrieved on 23 October 2013.
(2) Χανδρινός, Ιάσονας, "Η σφαγή στο Δίστομο και στο Καλάμι (1944)" [Chandrinos, Iason, The Massacre at Distomo and Kalami (1944)], 2012, Encyclopedia of the Hellenic World: Boeotia (in Greek), Foundation of the Hellenic World.
(3) "Σφαγή, φωτιά, βιασμός, ληστεία. Όλη η τετραλογία της κτηνωδίας, προς δόξαν της φυλής των Αρείων" [Massacre, Fire, Rape, Robbery – The tetralogy of savagery, for the glory of the Arian race], newspaper Ελευθερία, 10-6-1945.
(4) I am co-author of the film, with Ingo Helm; the film traces the history and human relations of the two nations from King Otto’s reign until now; to be released 2/2019.
(5) Unfortunately, stereotypes about Greece abound in Germany, too.
(6) "Die Berichterstattung deutscher Medien in der griechischen Schuldenkrise", Studie, Prof. Dr Kim Otto & Andreas Köhler, M.A., Professur für Wirtschaftsjournalismus, Universität Würzburg
(7) Premiered and nominated for best feature-length documentary at Tribeca Film Festival, New York; nominated for a Grierson Award, London Film Festival. The two school clubs will watch the film at its Greek premiere at KinderDocs Festival in February 2019.
Dimitra Kouzi: The idea is to open the discussion about audience development, impact producing, and outreach using journalistic skills to create audiences, to reach audiences, to talk to audiences. What do broadcasters do in that direction?
I thought that talking with somebody with your great experience as a commissioning editor and as a journalist, working at the same time in a channel like SVT would be fantastic in order to share some insights on how broadcasters have the power and mechanism to support documentaries to reach a bigger audience. Or do they?
Axel Arnö: So that's quite a new thing; there is a new profession going: impact producers. And I was at Good Pitch in Copenhagen, where it's all about how to create impact.
Dimitra Kouzi: What would your spontaneous reaction be, if I asked you how you understand the phrase ‘audience development’? What is the audience for you? Who is the audience?
Axel Arnö: I think all filmmakers must have some idea of whom they are speaking to. Sometimes filmmakers are so immersed in their own story that they are not really talking to the receiver. Their focus is to be true to their artistic beliefs. I totally respect that, but we must also be aware of the fact that there is somebody at the other end. It's very important to visualise that someone is receiving, which is something I very often say to filmmakers. You need to understand that even if you think that this film communicates really well, if an audience sits there in the dark and doesn't understand what's happening in the film, if you lose that audience because you are making decisions so as to make the film more visually appealing to you, then I think you are on the wrong path. I think you always have to think about who is going to receive your film, and what you want to say with that.
We often have discussions about impact as well, of course – how to present the film in the best way. Impact for us publishers is probably the best we can do to release it at the right time to give the film as much attention as possible. In terms of long-term impact, we can help with exposure, but we don't do impact campaigns. I think our role as commissioning editors is to work together with the filmmaker to make the film as powerful as possible, as understandable as possible, as true to fact as possible in order for it to become a tool for change – which is what many filmmakers want. We are in this business to change the world, so we want to have change, we want to make a difference. I'm really sad when a film I've been working on has low ratings, or nothing happens – nothing in the papers, no reviews – it just feels like a waste of time. We now think even more, together with the filmmakers, how to prolong a film’s life.
Dimitra Kouzi: How do you do that as a channel?
Axel Arnö: Here in the documentary department, we call ourselves ‘web-first’. Ratings are not as important. We need to be out there on the platform where the audiences are. The problem for us is that we have an audience that is quite big in broadcast, but on the web, it's significant smaller. Because we have multinational competitors. SVT has a market share of around 35% in broadcast, and we have been very stable; we are still the biggest broadcaster. And on the internet, we have around 12% market share, and we are number 4 after YouTube, Facebook, and Netflix. With Facebook, it's because they have this autoplay, when you scroll through the Facebook stream, they count the streams even if they are quiet, which is not really fair.
Dimitra Kouzi: Are you competing with YouTube, Facebook, and Netflix?
Axel Arnö: YouTube has a completely different audience. But it's an audience that we want, too. It's really difficult to compete with YouTube. And Netflix, of course, they have a lot of money now. So, we will probably struggle to keep at the top. As a public service broadcaster, we need to be everywhere – your mother, my mother, us, our kids, which is a challenge. Those are very different audiences, and one particular film might have more of one kind of audience than another.
Dimitra Kouzi: In current affairs, you probably have more men and older men, don’t you?
Axel Arnö: That is probably true. All traditional current affairs will be viewed by an older audience. They are used to talking heads and a voice of God that tells you how it is. Which is not the way young audiences understand the world. But I have to defend solid journalism with real facts. So, I think it is a good thing that we do what we do. And I strongly protest against anyone who says that objective journalism is dead. We strive to be correct, fair and impartial. It is really our mission to be true – otherwise we will be dead very soon.
A creative documentary can of course be more subjective. Then, you have to be transparent about how subjective you are and what you are doing. You cannot lie.
Dimitra Kouzi: I agree that objective journalism is certainly not dead, and strong and good journalism continues to be a public broadcaster’s strong card. You often see this tendency to train people who are reporters, cameramen, sound recordists on the spot, like kamikazes who cover the news where it is happening, in order to cut expenses. This is an interesting situation happening everywhere: to use citizens to replace journalists or reporters. How do you as a public broadcaster use these other media which are available? I mean the radio and all the others in order to report, share, and promote the content you create?
Axel Arnö: We are special cases. In Sweden, public TV broadcasting and radio broadcasting separated in the 1970s. I think the reason was that they didn't want television to ‘eat’ everything, because we have so many expenses and we are so much bigger than the radio. But there is now a fear to break this freedom about our presence online. National-newspaper editors think they should go back to broadcast television. But then we are answering that this is just stupid and wish that we were all online. Nobody will tell newspapers to go back and be printed on paper only. So, we all are going to be in the same arena. But I think, thank God we have public television, because we still have money to do real investigative journalism, and soon enough we will be the only ones to have the power to do that.
Dimitra Kouzi: How much is the budget you have?
Axel Arnö: I have a pretty flexible budget so that I can buy, pre-buy, and co-produce films. And sometimes I make a full commission, depending on the subject. Often, I find new projects through the EBU Documentary group, or through my own network. I also try to push my colleagues when I see that we should do more about a specific issue, like you probably heard about Why Slavery? That came from a couple of broadcasters, and it's now going to be six programs about modern slavery. So far, more than 30 partners have committed to broadcasting during the same week.
Dimitra Kouzi: When is the premiere?
Axel Arnö: Right now, the launch is expected in October 2018. I think in terms of impact this is really something we as public-service broadcasters can deliver. By pooling our resources and broadcasting simultaneously, we hope to create a big world-wide discussion about modern slavery.
I can use my network to initiate new projects or to talk about what we should do as public-service broadcasters. We can make a huge difference!
For example, we did a film called India's Daughter, and that film was phenomenal, because it was broadcast in one week, I think in 20 countries, and it exploded all over the world – mainly because India decided to ban it, and that made headlines everywhere. It was a very good film, and luckily we could make a coordinated effort so everybody aired at the same time, and it was a huge success.
We also collaborate to find the best new films, whether already in the market or upcoming. And, of course I go to all these financing forums, I go everywhere. But that's because I want to find the best material.
Dimitra Kouzi: You also act as a producer. What is the target you want to reach? You said that you have to be everywhere – that's a big task.
Axel Arnö: Yes, it is. But the headline of your talk will be ‘creating audiences,’ or do you mean ‘finding audiences’? I think you have to be true to your own personal beliefs. I'm not going out there chasing young audiences; I think young people will come when we do a big thing. I see in festivals, as well, there is a much younger audience, and they like these investigative films. In a documentary film, an investigation can be presented in so many ways. You can do a personal film like in Gasland, or an investigative piece like Inside Job. Icarus is also a very investigative film, but very personal. It can be both: investigative and personal.
Dimitra Kouzi: There’s a gap. On the one hand, television is trying to reach young audiences. On the other, these people do not watch TV. They also don’t go to the cinema. Some of them go fanatically to festivals, and then after the festivals the films are ‘lost’ again.
Axel Arnö: In terms of views, I think it's much more. All the films here that go on cinema have very low ticket sales. But again: exposure. Sometimes we agree to a holdback, because it's better for the momentum, so you can go touring with the film, you can get headlines in all the local newspapers. But sometimes I don't want to wait for a theatrical window, or an Oscar run. If you really want to have impact, I think it might be good with a short festival run; then, it should go to television, because people will want to see the film.
Dimitra Kouzi: There’s a recipe: do a film festival run and then go to television.
Axel Arnö: I want the message to lead the audience, and we still have the mass audience. My first slot, which is 52 minutes, I'm trying to experiment a little both in terms of subjects and in terms of storytelling. It's gaining recognition and viewership, and this is after 35 years. But it's not only the old people – there is a generation that is finding out these things. I think we can do a lot more when it comes to finding the audience. We have to work a lot in the future to have contact with the audience.
Dimitra Kouzi: But how? How would you go about it if you had freedom to do it now?
Axel Arnö: I have freedom; I don't have time. I would probably go somewhere in rural Sweden. It's a big country, with many areas where we never really go and talk to people about their needs and what they want. I think we should do that. I don't know exactly how to do it, you know, how to have a dialog with the audience. Sometimes I'm not the best one; filmmakers might have a better recipe for finding their audiences. Because if you know who you are speaking to, if you know where you are coming from, it’s always good. But we also have different objectives sometimes, filmmakers and television. We are public; we need to reach the whole population and make sure that we can offer something for each and every one, and we should be everywhere in the nation.
Dimitra Kouzi: But what about rural Sweden? What is going on there?
Axel Arnö: I think, because there is a notion that we have the same development as in most European countries and the United States, that there is a growing disbelief about mainstream media, and that's bad for democracy. We should go out there and listen. And American media doesn't listen, and the way the media in Germany or the Netherlands do it is maybe too little. We have to be aware of what's going on.
Dimitra Kouzi: Offering programmes after listening to what the people say.
Axel Arnö: Perhaps yes, but we are the public broadcaster. We can't have groups of people that don't find the public broadcast interesting or that don’t take part in what we do. We need to be there for them as well, and there I think we’ve failed and we should be better. We have to try hard to find them.
Many people are not aware of what we are doing. When I tell some people what we offer, they find it fantastic. They just didn’t know. We need to be in people's agendas somehow.
Dimitra Kouzi: What is your personal listening and viewing habits? I know that you are a broadcast fan of these crime series. Or is it over?
Axel Arnö: You mean True Crime? I'm a bit tired of it. How much true crime can we have?
Dimitra Kouzi: I would like to hear you as audience, what are your personal viewing and listening habits?
Axel Arnö: Oh, I watch so much! But I mainly watch rough cuts, so I'm pretty damaged. Yet, I like to watch well-made series. O.J. Simpson: Made in America is very good; I like The Promise. That is a crime story, about a murder case in the U.S. I watch other series and documentaries, as well. In my spare time, I can watch Homeland or an arts and culture doc. I'm very curious, so if it's a good drama I will watch it. But I'm a journalism junkie, so if there is an investigative story with a personal touch, that will be my favourite. I saw a couple of great films at Sundance, such as Icarus; unfortunately, Netflix picked up many of them. It’s really hard for us to compete on American films. Of course, if a cool film premieres at Sundance with all rights available, Netflix will take it. I think they spent 20 million dollars on documentaries this year. Crazy.
Dimitra Kouzi: Is that good for the documentary industry?
Axel Arnö: Well, it's more money into the business. We as public broadcasters have to adapt by making more and better things ourselves. So, I had a discussion yesterday that we need to commit a bit earlier, work closer with the filmmakers that we like, and secure our territories. It's going to be a rights war for VOD rights. Because everybody wants sort of the same thing now.
Dimitra Kouzi: I wanted to ask you about VOD programmes.
Axel Arnö: Yes, we have to be as attractive as anyone. We have so much on our VOD platform. And it's free.
Dimitra Kouzi: I was talking to Simon Kilmurry about his job at POV, and he was telling me, of course they have a different structure there, that every time they launch a film they sit down together with the marketing and the communication departments and make a strategy for that. People don't know – that's the problem. Because we are the public broadcaster, we think that people know about it, but people don't.
Axel Arnö: I can give you one example of where we made a difference and how we treat the audience. We had a film called Cries from Syria, which is an HBO film by Evgeny Afineevsky. He was Oscar-nominated with his previous one, Winter on Fire. So, he made this film. It's about the victims in Syria. It's long, it's extremely graphic, and it's devastating to watch. You are filled with rage, sorrow, and despair. It’s an important film but very hard to watch. So, we made a special introduction where one of our news anchors interviewed Evgeny; then, there was the film, where we warned right before the most graphic images, and after the film, after almost two hours, we went to a studio discussion on Syria. This is how we can create an atmosphere around a film. Because the audience has many needs. And just because we did these things, I think the film landed very well. Had we not done anything, we might have had the audience against us. It got a lot of love, and it's spreading now. But it was a long discussion.
Dimitra Kouzi: I think that this is what all the event-based screenings in cinemas also do. That's why they are successful, they engage the audience to react. And these theme evenings are really something special, and should be on television, too.
Axel Arnö: How to create an audience is also marketing. If you have done a journalistic job, you need to use all your tools to make as many people as possible to watch it. We have our own trailers, of course, we have our audience, we have also sometimes used social media to promote what we do; we make small excerpts of the film, hoping they go viral. We have a newsletter with around 60,000 subscribers, in which every Sunday morning they get links to all the upcoming films and can watch them.
Dimitra Kouzi: On the VOD platform?
Axel Arnö: Yes. We try to engage with the audience as much as we can, and we can always be better. It's about the audience finding us, and us finding the audience. We also have focus groups. We have all the tools of a public broadcaster.
Dimitra Kouzi: You have focus groups and working groups? So, you talk with representatives from the audience?
Axel Arnö: My department does it all the time. And we have other tools, for example an audience group that have agreed to be interviewed by us, and that can be segmented according to education, age, everything. So, you can have a slice of that group and post questions to them, engage with them, and find out whether something works, if they understand it, if there something that would interest them. We use it more and more.
Dimitra Kouzi: Is this new?
Axel Arnö: That's new. We have done it in different ways before, such as focus groups, more irregularly; but now the tools are getting better.
Dimitra Kouzi: This is great. Do you know if other EBU members use that?
Axel Arnö: I would definitely think so.
Dimitra Kouzi: But you are very innovative, so I don't know if other countries from Eastern and Southern Europe do it.
Axel Arnö: I don't know. I get the impression that the broadcast world is getting a bit divided. Some of us are still going mostly for ratings. Ratings are still very important but will become less and less important. When we exchange statistics from the web, it seems that it's a big difference. So, it’s a beginning: We don't really know much about the web audience; we should know more about them.
Dimitra Kouzi: Can you elaborate a bit on exchanging internet clicks?
Axel Arnö: It's just the way we see the shift from broadcast to the web. People stop watching linear television, that group is getting bigger by the week, they cut out television from their habits. And then everything will be by choice – you will not just adapt to the programme because you are watching TV. You have to actively choose. So, what do you choose? And then, in that universe, we don't only have all the channels available in Sweden, but we also have all the VOD giants. So, it's completely different. And we don't know as much as we know about our television audience, because the television measuring system is very easy to work with, and then we know pretty much everything about these families. On the internet, how can you get the same depth of information for people sitting in front of a computer? We don't. Not yet. But I am told that new measuring tools are coming soon.
Dimitra Kouzi: I think this trend is something all EBU members together should explore. It's huge and it's there. You hear it all the time: ‘I don't watch television.’
Axel Arnö: Indeed. You can talk to the media director. Or the TV director. They will, now, because they do services, they develop tools, and they can speak more about how divided Europe is in terms of how people are watching TV.
Dimitra Kouzi: Do you think that these changes will also apply to documentary viewers?
Axel Arnö: Documentaries are at the forefront. Most people who watch documentaries will watch them online. Most people my age and downwards watch films on computers, on phones, or on the iPad, not on television.
Dimitra Kouzi: Then it makes sense that there are television broadcasters that screen documentaries at midnight, because nobody would watch them anyway.
Do you have any statistics for that from VOD, when do people watch documentaries?
Axel Arnö: No, I don't. But we should find out.
Dimitra Kouzi: Because the slots are very specific, and when you see the numbers, when people see documentaries, this could bring about change.
Last but not least, could you tell me what documentary slots or whatever the documentaries at SVT are? You have the current affairs, you have feature length etc. Just briefly tell me what is being broadcast as documentaries.
Axel Arnö: We have many slots. Weekly, we have a lot of prime-time slots. But let's go through the week: First of all, we publish every Sunday for the coming week. Then, on that Sunday night is the first slot, a 60-minute slot at 10 o'clock. And that is about 35-40 programmes per year, comprising the best journalistic documentaries that I can find. It's topical: films about war in Syria, about U.S. elections, French elections. My ideal is that by watching these programmes you will understand what's happening in the world. Whereas the news is only fragments, this will be the whole picture. And then, I have a feature-length slot, like a year-round film festival, where I try to find the most talked about, the best new awarded films made in the world. I try to be part of them. And that's also about 35mm films. Then we have the domestic documentaries, films about Sweden. And that's a weekly 60-minute prime-time slot, Thursdays at 8 o'clock.
Dimitra Kouzi: When is the feature documentary film festival?
Axel Arnö: It's at 22.00 on Tuesdays. They are pretty strong on the web. People find them. I try to find documentaries that are oriented to the festival crowd. But in a really cinematic festival, like Nyon, a film will probably have a slow, poetic narrative, because that's what you do in cinema films. On TV or the web, the landscape is the opposite, you need to have a really strong narrative. In the cinema, films should have a good ending. In the TV or web landscape, you won’t survive without a strong start. Unless a film has had a prior life on cinema and people have a previous knowledge about it. But if you haven't seen or heard about a film, I think the start is everything. That's a message to filmmakers. Everything is about the audience. You have to hook them, and then tell them your story.
Dimitra Kouzi: At pitching, nobody asks how a film begins; everybody wants to know the end.
Axel Arnö: That's just to create an image in your head about what this person is trying to achieve. I think audiences nowadays are so spoiled with really strong storytelling that it also creates new demands for super-strong, skilful storytelling docs. There are now experiments, hiring feature script writers for writing the script for a doc, even if it is in production. Because you will have an A plot, a B plot, a C plot, and you need to know what to do with it. There is also an increased demand for series, but they are a bit harder for a broadcaster to place in their schedules. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can't. But on the web, everything is possible of course.
Dimitra Kouzi: But this is another trend, series.
Axel Arnö: Yes, it's a different thing: Some films work well as series. The Promise is a good example, because that film was made as a two-hour special, two times 90′, three times 60′, and six times 25′. That’s a good case study; it’s interesting to explore the different demands from different broadcasters.
I think that BBC broadcast the feature version, the one-time version. And then, simultaneously they put out the six-times 25′. And they had a million views the first week on the series.
Dimitra Kouzi: It’s interesting, but it makes sense, because the audience is different.
Axel Arnö: Yes, but if you want to talk about how to create an audience, you also have to be aware of that: different formats will probably suit different audiences. So, of course, you should do your director's cut, which is important for you. But then, it would also be good if you are open to cutting it in different lengths, because there might be different audiences out there for the film. Sometimes it's impossible because of budget constraints.
Dimitra Kouzi: Let’s go back to the slots.
Axel Arnö: Domestic is on Thursdays. Then we have cultural slots – that’s not my department – both domestic and international, every Friday at 8 o'clock. But, of course, super prime time on Friday is very difficult because there are very popular shows all around. But they are doing a good job. My acquisition colleagues are buying loads more topics – nature, history, wildlife. They have also started to buy Channel-4-type docs, which is more sensational. And, of course, they get an audience. So, there are many hours of docs. My responsibility is the current affairs and the feature-length slots. I do different things, as well, Swedish films, special projects.
Dimitra Kouzi: Budgets are not increasing to cater for the need to create impact campaigns around the films by the producers.
Axel Arnö: I'm not paying more because they need to make impact.
Dimitra Kouzi: Exactly, it's in the budget, and it has to be covered by the budget.
Axel Arnö: Yes, but that makes sense; we have to be independent, so, we can't fund the impact production. That's why they have things like Good Pitch. These are problems we can't cope with. They raise funds. For example, Borneo Case is now starting its tour, and I'm in discussions about when SVT should broadcast it. They've got some money from impact, from other sources. Could be interesting to talk to them about their impact campaign.
Axel Arnö became a Commissioning Editor at SVT in 1998. Previously a newspaper reporter. Since his move to national television, Axel has been reporter, editor and editorial executive. He became the Editor of SVT’s flagship current affairs magazine Striptease and later created the investigative documentary strand Dokument inifrån. Since 2004, he works at SVT’s documentary department, dealing mainly with international co-productions (current affairs, creative, social documentaries). He was an original partner in the Why Democracy? series. Axel is chairman of the Eurovision Documentary Group.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Dimitris Saltabassis
Communion is your feature-length debut – what was the driving force that kept you going? Most probably the fact that this story is related to my own experience and inspired by my own childhood. The main protagonist is a fourteen-year-old child with adult responsibilities – just as I had been. In Ola’s family, roles are turned upside down: She is the one who cares for her parents and for her disabled brother. Her own needs are pushed to the background. Such ‘grown-up children’ aren’t rare, and not just in Poland, but they rarely become the subject of conversation. One can’t expect that a film will change the world, but if it provokes discussion, that’s something. I decided to talk about things that are important to me, and when I realised that the film was also important to its protagonists, I felt a kick of energy to push it and never ease up.
Could you describe Ola, Nikodem, and Marek in your own words? They are like characters from a fairy tale. The father is like a widower from the Brothers Grimm world: kind-hearted but completely helpless. The evil stepmother is replaced by the mother – a big girl who escaped from her children (‘Because I’m sad,’ she explains). And the son and daughter who have to cope with that. Ola decides to be an adult to fill the role others fail to deliver: She cleans the apartment, rebukes her brother, and tries to foster him and her father. She wants to organise Nikodem’s communion at all costs – so it would be ‘normal’. And she only breaks sometimes. Nikodem sees himself as a chimpanzee, or a horse. He hides inside a poetic world of his own – and from its depth, he makes the most acute comments.
Why did you choose to tell the story through Ola’s perspective? Because she feels closest to me. I could understand her feelings perfectly because I know them from my own life, just as I have experienced some of the situations presented in the film. However, it’s more about emotional images than specific events.
How did you earn your protagonists’ trust? The hardest thing was to win Ola’s trust. In her eyes, I represented the adult world from which she had suffered many wrongs. From the very beginning, the most important thing for me was to make sure that Ola and Nikodem felt safe with me. It was essential that they knew my intentions. Of course, I am aware of the fact that they didn’t really understand what they were taking part in. I had ethical dilemmas because of that: I was filming children, one of them autistic – I had a head start on all levels. I knew they were unable to defend themselves from me, to mark a borderline. Because of that I had to accept full responsibility for all that could have happened while we were making the film and after that.
A woman director, a women’s crew, a women’s point of view, a girl protagonist. Does this make for a different perspective? ‘A woman’s point of view?’ I don’t know what that is. Moreover, it wasn’t until after the premiere that I realised that almost only women made Communion. I’ve had to explain that in interviews and at meetings with viewers. But there was no conspiracy, no manifesto. The editor, Agnieszka Glińska, and the cinematographer, Gosia Szyłak, are both amazing artists and personalities, and that is why I invited them to work together on this project. Gender was of no importance at all. It turns out that men in film are something natural, while women are still perceived as an aberration. I can’t fully agree that Ola is the main protagonist in this film. Ola and Nikodem are both the leading characters; they are equally important. I wouldn’t decide to make a film about any one of them. They function together – one leads to the other, and one cannot exist without the other.
You once said, ‘It is easy in Poland to judge and blame a woman.’ Why?Motherhood is perceived as a mission in Poland, not as a woman’s free choice. The society expects much more from mothers than it does from fathers. But in Catholic Poland, 8 out of 10 men leave their families when a disabled child is born. Almost half a million fathers avoid paying child support for their own children, and it is socially accepted. It’s been years since anyone tried to tackle this issue in a systemic manner. But there is no social acceptance for women leaving their homes and children. They are judged very rigidly – with no regard to the circumstances that led them to their decisions. Ola, our protagonist, told me that she feels stigmatised, not just because she comes from a broken home, but also because her mother ‘abandoned’ her.
In another interview you said, ‘I was listening to their needs – not to what I wanted’. Whatdecisions did you make while directing the film?What I meant was that I didn’t try to forcibly arrange certain situations, if I felt that this was contrary to what Ola and Nikodem actually wanted. It wasn’t only about ethical issues and not crossing borders: Without listening to their needs, there would be no truth on the screen. That is why the preparation period was so important. I spent a lot of time with them – without the camera. I watched their reactions in a number of situations. That enabled me to predict their reaction to certain events when I was writing the script.
What was your ‘scripted’ intention, and what happened ‘magically’ during shooting? The film was – to a significant extent – based on a script. At first, I had trouble telling the story. There was no starting point, no foothold. I didn’t know where to begin, or where to end. When I came up with Nikodem’s communion, everything seemed easier. It wasn’t even because the protagonist was about to go through a process; the communion turned out to be a good metaphor of Ola’s growing up to be an adult – it served as a pretext to tell about her situation. In Poland, the first communion sacrament is a very important ceremony. It is an occasion for the entire family to meet and integrate. I knew that Ola, who lived in the hope of bringing her mother back home, would use this event as an opportunity for a family reunion. I wrote many scenes related to the ceremony using my own memories from my communion. Of course, I hoped that Nikodem would begin an interesting dialogue with the realm of religion – and he did. I wanted to show that he was very thoughtful when it came to spirituality – much more than I was, more than most children are. The scene with the priest leading Nikodem through an examination of conscience in church was my idea. But Nikodem’s brilliant lines about virtues and sins, as well as his performance at the altar, obviously happened, as you said, ‘magically’ during shooting.
How does the story unfold through the use of portraits? Camera motion wasn’t necessarily following the action. Camera movement was mainly used to provide an emotional interpretation and describe relationships between the characters and their complicated dynamics. But by insisting on getting as close as possible, we ended up being able to create a narrative through intimate portraiture. There is no need for, or reliance on, exposition, verbal cues, or any kind of reverse shot to what or whom Ola is reacting at any given moment. You can see this, for example, in the scene when the social worker comes to visit. The camera rests only on her face. In that face, we know everything. In this, we can see the system failing this family, time and time again. The girl is forced to lie in order to keep them from doing any more damage. At such a tender age, she has learned how to protect herself and her family.
How did you manage to track emotions without betraying the characters’ trust? I did my best to be cautious, not to cross certain lines, not to invade potentially painful situations with the camera. We decided on fixed lenses, 35mm and 28mm, to help us achieve both a specific approach to the characters and to acquire as much intimacy as possible. Closing the distance was difficult, but very important, as it meant overcoming barriers. Honestly, at the beginning of the shooting, we both felt very ill at ease, like intruders. It was difficult for us on many levels – as it was for the family, too. On the one hand, this makes it seem as if the camera is ‘invisible,’ but we were the ones evoking these emotions sometimes just by our presence and by how close the camera was to them. The emotions we see are sometimes a precise reaction to this, not necessarily to what’s going on. So, while there may be anger at the situation they are finding themselves in, there was also aggression because of the camera’s close proximity. The tension apparent in the film was with us throughout the whole process. At the same time, a true emotional bond developed between us – the crew – and the protagonists. At a point, we may have become a family, and everything is allowed in a family. No one held down.
I know you edited for quite a long time (how long?). How did you go about editing the film? I was lucky to work with Agnieszka Glinska, a prolific master editor working in fiction. I learned so much from her. We were working together for seven months and after that, Agnieszka had to start another project, so I edited on my own for another four months. It took this long to find the smoothest way of telling the story. But just to be clear, I did shoot with a script, so this is not a film constructed in the editing room – but it was still a lot of work to find the rhythm and the way the scenes needed to flow together.
What is not in the film? The process of Ola and Nikodem growing up as a topic made it necessary to limit all other threads of their story. The documentary genre carries an ethical dilemma that troubles me: As you decide to make a film about one person, everyone else remain just a sketch. Other people are not shown in the way they might deserve. I mean Marek and Magda, the protagonists’ parents. They are very interesting characters who deserve a complete portrait.
What element is it that makes your film universal? I made a film about the strength of unconditional family love. But I also wanted to talk about growing up and the association of growing up with disappointments, sometimes painful ones – especially when dealing with our parents. We see Ola growing up – from a girl who believes that, despite all obstacles, her family can be united, to a teenager who accepts the fact that it will never happen. Accepting one’s limitations is a necessary prerequisite for maturity.
What changed in your life after completing this film? Making something so close to your heart obviously has cathartic power. I felt that I wasn’t looking for the goal on the outside, but inside me. It was an urge to work through something of my own, something very difficult. Communion cleansed me. I went through a long process alongside the protagonists.
Why should EFA members vote for your film? I don’t know if they should. But one thing is for certain: I would like them to watch Communion.
How do you deal with the film’s success? Viewers’ very lively and authentic reactions bring me the most joy. I participated in many meetings after screenings. They are sometimes so full of emotion. I receive moving emails from all around the world. This motivates me to work on another film.
What is your favourite interview question?
I don’t have such a question.
Why New York? What does it mean to you? Why 21?
I chose New York because it’s like a laboratory of the future, of how our life will look like in the future. I thought it’s a city where you can feel free and where you can make your dreams come true. This is one of the myths of this city that attracts people who are outsiders, who look for something more. In New York, these people seek home and others that are similar to them. A whole world comes to this place – to live, work, express themselves creatively. It is the capital of the world.
The number 21 occurs in the film a few times. We’ve got 21 characters – people I met in the NYC Subway. The age of the main protagonist is 21 – as is the century we live in.
I chose 21 characters because it’s a number of people that offers a chance to show a cross-section of a society. I’m a sociologist by education. In the beginning, this film was more of a scientific research, participatory observation.
You refer to yourself as "a harmless vampire documentalist". How did you choose your interview subjects? Vampire – because we documentary filmmakers suck in other people’s emotions and stories like blood. We thrive on them and create our films with them. Harmless – because when we do it right, we act ethically, we do not harm our protagonists – on the contrary. Often, their participation in the film is for them a moment of joint creation, and watching themselves on the screen can be an opportunity for self-analysis, to find something about themselves, even therapy.
My research included collecting different stories. These were not interviews; rather, more like conversations where the topic came out naturally. I told them my story, and then asked them about the most important things and events in their lives. The most common topics were relationships, loneliness and being lost, confused. They came up in almost all conversations. Of course, I somehow asked for it too by intuitively choosing such protagonists and by taking the conversations in certain directions. However, to what extent I interfered and to what extent it was a reflection of a real situation – this I wouldn’t know. Loneliness is the disease not only of big cities but also of our times. Comfort and prosperity, combined with the abundance of stimuli and possibilities, create a situation where we either meticulously direct and stage our life, making it predictable and, eventually, boring, or, on the other hand, we spread ourselves thin, we can’t focus on anything, we cannot work for a longer period of time on ourselves, on relations with other people. One of my female protagonists told me that there’s no use working on the relationship with her boyfriend when new, more attractive men are already lining up just behind the corner, or in an app. In the more extreme situations, people check their tinder in bed, when having sex. Maybe it’s just how our brain functions. When we achieve something, we get used to it and we want something else. Sebastian, a newcomer in New York like myself, observes what’s going on and talks about what is at the end of this spiral. He is my alter ego.
How does it feel to be inside the heads of your characters?
I wanted the viewers to feel as if they could, or that they did, enter my characters’ minds for a while. Hence, the form. It’s like becoming a God for a moment – to know the thoughts of people passed by in the subway.
Did you have a clear idea of what the film would look like before filming? It was like an experiment, like anthropological research with a camera. I go underground like an anthropologist, like Bronislaw Malinowski on Trobriand Islands but, instead of in a notebook, I make my notes in the camera. Sometimes, I felt as if I were making a new version of “The Sexual Lives of Savages”. I didn’t know how the film would end but I knew its structure and form from the beginning. I had a script, with probable dialogues even.
Which photographers inspire you?
I look at photographs of many authors – mostly Cartier-Bresson or Michael Ackerman. I’m addicted to browsing through photography albums in bookstores. It was with photography that I started my adventure with image and film when, as a 15-year-old boy, I photographed kitschy compositions with metal junk.
What did your instinct help you to do while you were shooting? My instinct helps me to choose potential protagonists for my film from thousands of people I pass by. Instinct combined with experience helps me to decide where to put the camera, when to press the record button, what to ask, how to shake reality in order for something interesting to happen right in front of the lens. My master, Marcel Łoziński, says that reality is like an aquarium – the fish swim lazily and only at scarce moments does something happen. So as to make that ‘something’ happen exactly when we want it, we need to interfere somehow. That’s what documentary directing is about. With small gestures, energy, or just using body language, we can stimulate the characters to open themselves, to take actions.
Tell me of “magical” moments. When one of my characters introduced himself with the words, “I am you”. I got shivers down my spine. Also, I often feel very moved during editing, and I can only hope that my viewers would feel moved as well. That is why it is so important for me to achieve a certain level of focus. One of such methods is the rite of passage that allows you to transcend your own self. In the case of this film it was total exhaustion. This allowed me to immerse in the city, melt into it and become one with it. Recording the footage felt like swimming, or like a long, day-and-night dance with the inhabitants of New York.
The camera work in combination with the sound/music creates a certain feeling in the viewer; it keeps them captivated while witnessing from up close life through the subjects. Tell us about your method of cinematography. I wanted the viewer to be like in a state of trance, to contemplate the world, to travel into the thoughts and lives of other people. We switch from one character to the other as if we were changing channels on TV. On the surface, nothing connects the protagonists apart from the place. I recorded the film with an unscrewed lens. By doing that, I stained the immaculate clarity of the digital image. It became more emotional, more subjective. The camera set I put together is very small and relatively quick and easy to use. Thanks to this, it does not feel intrusive during conversations, during my ‘dancing’. I don’t have to be only a filmmaker, I become the participant of events without harming the quality of the recording.
10. Why do you do documentaries? It is to me a way of looking for the answer how to live and what to live for. A way of living in a more curious and more emotional way. The camera gives me a chance to visit places and ask questions I normally wouldn’t, out of lack of courage.
Do you “flirt” with fiction?
Of course. One of my characters is almost completely invented. I won’t tell which one. The world changes; our sensitivity changes with it. The film language has to change too. We look for new tricks but the truth is we’ve been telling the same tales for thousands of years. We need to surprise our audience with new things that make them forget about reality but at the same time allow them to feel it’s about them.
Do you have an obsession?
My obsession is the constant fight for time. Not wasting it on useless, petty issues like checking news on the Internet. Our lives are more and more dependent on some kind of a logarithm. After all, Facebook’s aim is not to nurture our friendships, or love, at all. These social media guys sit there and think how to make us buy their tricks.
Big money and most talented people work now on how to suck in the biggest amount of people for the longest period of time and make us addicted to “using”. We – and our kids, too – are helpless and bound to be defeated.
What do you have against conventions?
Conventions enable us to make decisions faster, but at the same time they work as internal shackles. Imprinted within us, they don’t allow us to see our real needs, to live in the truth and in agreement with ourselves.
What do all your films have in common?
My films are a constant journey and contemplation of the world. It’s a geographic journey as well as an inward journey into human existence – into the mind and, hopefully, into the soul.
What do you mean when you say “we live in a bubble”?
Did I say that? Maybe I meant the Internet. We move part of our consciousness into the Internet, into a virtual world, believing it’s real. We don’t have to remember many things, because we can check them instantly, we don’t have time to meet with our real friends but at the same time we maintain superficial relations with 200 or even 1000 friends on Facebook.
Did having a family change your attitude towards your art? Life?
I don’t understand the question.
Why do you say that we have no clue about what is going on around us? The Internet changes our everyday behaviour; it influences our relations; it seduces us, making us addicted. We don’t know what its influence on our lives will be in the long run – on our emotions, selection of partners – ultimately, on our souls.
How can someone be happy?
Happiness is an overrated and abused term. Everybody wants to be happy on a daily basis. This is impossible. This compulsive aim to be happy directs the attention towards us; it’s the basis for everything else.
However, as imperfect creatures, we are bound to suffer, to feel discontent; we are destined to build imperfect institutions and countries; our body switches off the older we become. Only if we accept this, can we reach an agreement with ourselves and achieve balance – maybe this is the state we should call happiness?
What makes you happy?
In general, giving to others. I experience that especially when I teach. This is all about giving your energy to other people, who then disappear from your sight and then suddenly sometime someday you hear that you’ve changed someone’s life.
Tell us about the project you work on now in Poland? An opera about Poland. It’s a combination of a documentary film and contemporary opera. The libretto consists mainly of small ads from local newspapers and Internet blogs. It’s an attempt to describe the spiritual state of Poles, the release of some behaviours and habits that are related to choices we make in our private and public lives. I thought I was making a film about Poland, but at foreign screenings people say that it’s also a story about their own emotions towards their countries – something between being pissed off and being sentimental.
Where will you put the EFA award?
I don’t believe I’ll get it.
La Chana is the portrait of the self-taught Gypsy dancer, Antonia Santiago Amado, an amazing flamenco dancer and with it the personal story of a now elderly woman. Excellent editing with archival dance scenes and highlights of her career (here with Peter Sellers in The Bobo). Full of humour and passion, a great scene where she talks about Dali, how he attended her performances bringing along his “cat”, his leopard, which was upset by her tap-dancing and roared!
Lucija Stotevic the director and producer of the film originally comes from Croatia, but moved to Austria when she was 6. While studying architecture in Edinburgh, she discovered she loved film more, so she moved to the Czech Republic to study film for one very intensive year. After that, she moved to Barcelona, Spain, and started to work for production companies and independently doing video journalism for newspapers like The Guardian. La Chana was the reason why she set up her own production company. She produced and directed this feature-length documentary against all the financial obstacles for a newcomer. The film has participated in a series of workshops, such as EsoDoc and Rough Cut Boutique. Four years later, La Chana was premiering at Idfa Panorama and was also nominated for the best female-directed film. While this interview was taking place in her co-working space in Barcelona, her seven-month-old daughter was one floor above, playing in the baby facility provided by this co-working space.
Is it common in Spain to have a baby facility if you are a working woman? No, it’s a completely new thing; we are pioneers and trying it out. I was like, “This is perfect” because, she is depending on me, but I need to work. My poor baby is seven months old and has been to five countries in seven months.
So, you were pregnant while doing the film? During the editing process, my belly was just growing. So, I was thinking, if she doesn't have a sense of rhythm, I will be surprised. She is getting so much flamenco, she’d better have a good sense of rhythm.
Do you think your background in architecture influences this way of reacting and thinking? This structure you have, is it coming from there? There are overlaps between film and architecture. For example, in the working process, in both film and architecture, you work on different aspects and still always have an overall picture the whole time, too. It’s also a echnical and creative mix, and I think there are a lot of crossovers, which is actually why I got into film. I did my final project on editing theory in film and architecture and was looking at how these two things can influence each other in the creative process, in the way you think about montage and architecture and construction, and the way you think about montage and constructing through sequences in storytelling. There is similarity. During that period, I became much more interested in film than architecture, so my boyfriend at the time told me, ‘You seem so much more into the film aspect, why don't you just go to film school?’ and I thought that actually was not such a bad idea.
How did you meet La Chana?
I met her through my teacher, Beatriz del Pozo. La Chana is her ‘maestro’. Beatriz always talks about La Chana, about her rhythms, about her beats, about how she had fallen into the shadows and she shouldn't have because she is an amazing, wonderful artist and does things nobody else had done. She put some videos on for me when I was at her house, of La Chana dancing and I was just dumbstruck. I think the one that really struck me was the one where La Chana was dancing in The Bobo [the Peter Sellers film], where she is nineteen years old and looks like she is forty – the passion and the pain and the suffering – she was like a sorceress!
Beatriz suggested that we meet so we went to her home, and she prepared an amazing paella for us. She was very open with me from the beginning in terms of what happened to her, she just told me everything. There was so much story here, and this character was amazing. She could carry a film as an individual character – nothing else was necessary. I proposed we start working together, and the first thing she told me was, ‘OK, come to the party on Saturday. I am having my whole family here, but only you can come, you can’t bring any men with you, no camera guys, and if my family ask you, tell them that you are a student of mine.’ She was very careful, and what worried her the most was her own environment, and how they were going to react if they knew she was doing this film. But then, little by little, she became much more open about this.
It does come across in the film that she has this worry about how others will think of things and that she was always between these two things, what do others think and what is my own soul telling me. Exactly, very much so. It has always been a struggle for her, this combination of ‘this is me, this is what I want, what I am feeling and this is what I am supposed to be doing.
How did you deal with all these layers of her character, all these directions the film could take?
There were many directions the film could have taken, as there were many elements to deal with: her art, the social circumstances, the abuse. But I think going into general topics would have been a mistake. So, it was very important that we just stick to the core, and let her lead it, and just look more how these different things influenced her, rather than what they are. And La Chana’s core is her dance, her art. That’s why there is a narrative told through the transformation of the way you perceive her dance in the film. When you watch the early part of the film and you discover who she was, you see her dancing and you think, ‘Wow, amazing dancer,’ but it’s only when you find out those different obstacles that she had, that her dances take on other meanings, other layers. You understand all that emotional charge then. That was very important to me, that we go to where her core is – her music, her rhythm, her dance – and to do that we should understand her pain and her suffering and her environment, and her tragedy, and stay close to that.
I could see the passion of La Chana but I could also feel your passion in doing this film. I am sure you had difficulties in many ways to make it. How did you balance these two roles – director and producer?
I think the way the documentary world is today, if I look at it from the producers’ perspective, most people would have just put this film into the drawer looking at it in terms of financing and what was possible to raise, unfortunately. That was one of my worries initially, because we started this film exactly when the crisis hit, so we had the problem that the arts were the first thing to get cut – production companies were closing left, right and centre. Everybody was telling me, ‘We love the film, we love the idea but we don't know if we are going to survive one more year, and it will be very difficult to get funding for your film.’ We had a lot of interest also at the international level, but this was complicated, because of the fact that it is character-driven, a human-interest story, but of a character who is not so well-known outside of Spain – I mean she is not so well known inside of Spain either, except to the older generation. Only Spanish is spoken, and it was very hard to find co-producers who could do anything. In the end, I established a production company in order to be able to produce it, and then we eventually started getting interest from a direct audience. We ended up raising a huge part, more than 50% of our budget, from individuals. Otherwise, it would have been impossible. It was funded by women mostly. Women wanted to watch this film.
In a film like La Chana it is important that you are a woman. Do you think that the fact that you were a woman filmmaker made her trust you and open up to tell her story? Was it important that you were a woman?
I think so. She grew up in such a macho society that I think there are certain things that she would certainly not share with a man. It made it easier for her to relate to me and open up to me. Initially, one of the things I was worried about is that I am a foreigner and I think that played as an advantage for me because, especially in the beginning, she didn't feel threatened by me. She thought ‘the girl with the funny accent’, you know (laughing). That, in some way, helped her to relax.
You are not only stubborn, but very smart, too. I wanted to ask you a bit more about flamenco?
I am interested from an intellectual point of view but you can’t be shy and perform in flamenco. I absolutely adore it and I loved learning it, but I wouldn't describe myself as a flamenco dancer. In order to be really good, you need to be really raw and really let everything come out; show everything that you are. In flamenco for it to work you have to let all that fall, and I am too private of a person to do that.
In the film, you talk about the aging process, the loss of acceptance, but also the reinvention. You manage to do this very smoothly. I wanted to hear more about that coming from you, what are your thoughts about aging and reinvention? What La Chana shows us in a very nice way is that you have to accept the passing of time and that you can do something with it; you don’t have to just sit there and do nothing anymore. She demonstrates it so beautifully, that you can’t let your passions die even if you are physically getting older. You have to find a way to change them into a format that you can still enjoy.
Through the film, you helped her do this also, to go back.
We kind of inspired her to go back on stage, which she loves; she loves the attention, she loves the audience, but she also loves being filmed. She is living with memories but quite isolated. Now, I think we won’t be able to stop her anymore (laughing) – she wants to go everywhere and is going to be the great diva again, and she will do anything.
What was her reaction when she saw the film?
She always said she prayed for us (the film team), but when I showed her the film in January she told me she stopped praying for me. Over a nine-month period.
She hated it; she had a really hard time with it, which was normal. I mean, I was expecting her to react, but she reacted very strongly. It might sound sadistic and horrible, but i thought, ‘OK, this is a good sign’. Because if she loved it from the beginning, it means we didn’t really go under the surface. It had to affect her; it wouldn't be normal if it didn’t affect her because it’s her life. There is a psychological process she never went through. It was extremely difficult, and she was very angry at me, but by the time we showed her a final version, after many months had passed, she had had time to process it and now stands behind it.
Interview by Zaradasht Ahmed, director Nowhere to Hide IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary, to Dimitra Kouzi.
How did you get involved with this story?
Zaradasht Ahmed: The idea started in Afghanistan, back in 2008. The mainstream media was not telling the whole truth about the American and Coalition invasion of Afghanistan and its fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban, so together with Dr. Husum (a human rights activist and war surgeon), we worked to recruit local medics and journalists to document first-hand information from areas where most of the media did not have access. We initially wanted to make a film on this “new war”. We called the project “the new war machine”. We focused on exploring the type of war: what it is; is it different; is it between countries (a frontal war); or is it transborder warfare without fronts. Two years later, in 2010, we moved the concept to Iraq. I was sure that this “new war” would emerge in cities there. That was our main intention. We started with that idea, but gradually we ended up with a character-based, very intense film about Nori. In this case, it was the situation that drove me to change the direction of the film, and not the other way round.
How did you meet Nori? Nori was one of the twelve medics we trained in Iraq. He singled himself out by being very interested in documenting and filming in the areas called “no-go zones”; places organisations, doctors and journalists do not have access to. He did not know much about filming to start with, but he was interested, and he had the will. That is how it started. Nori comes from one of these “no-go zones” – a town called Jalawla, in Diayala Province in central Iraq.
Your origin is Kurdish and you live in Norway. How did you get there? We eventually moved our “base” to Sulaymaniyah in Northern Iraq, where I originally come from. Diyala Province is three and a half hours from where I lived, and it is my mother’s home town. The medical organisation led by Dr. Husum and the local Kurdish doctor, Dr. Modhafar, was based in Sulaymaniyah, so it was natural that we ended up there. In addition, Sulaymaniyah is a safe base to work from.
You don't live in Sulaymaniyah anymore. How many years have you been living in Norway?
I have lived in Norway for 22 years.
Do you feel privileged because of that, or do you feel in as if you are still in exile? What is your relation to your home country?
After getting Norwegian citizenship I can move freely, and that makes me feel privileged. I have been living in exile since the early 1990s, soon to be 26 years now, so it is difficult to compare my situation to Nori’s. Nori has been forced to leave his home and has been placed in an IDP camp (a camp for Internally Displaced People), and it is important not to mix the terms “Internally Displaced People” with “people in exile”. I chose to leave because of the political situation in my country; Nori was forced. Therefore, my interest in following Nori’s story is not due to our similarities, to be honest. My other film, Fata Morgana, was about exile and the desire to seek a better life elsewhere.
You worked on this film for five long years. I like long-term documentaries. I like to spend years on my films, on my subjects, on my characters because I believe that film is storytelling. It is also about some unique moments that we call the moments of truth. These moments won’t happen unless you spend a lot of time with your characters, you have to get behind many layers to reach the heart of what the feeling is; and the truth is often found under all these layers.
How much is your original footage in the film, and how much is Nori’s footage? When it comes to the footage, the entire shooting of the film has been a complicated process spanning over five years. We started with collecting material from several sources. Following the dramaturgy of the film, you could break it up simply like this: The first act is shot mainly by me, but when Nori starts to be trapped in Jalawla, he is on his own, and the first-hand accounts from the fall of the town, the collapse of the hospital through the fleeing all the way to the IDP camp was shot by Nori. Towards the end of the film, the scenes of returning to the hospital and the entire final act are mainly shot by me again.
How much material did you have? 300–400 hours.
How did you manage to make this storyline emerge out of all this material?
It is really difficult to answer that question. It is the result of team work. By being open to the changes, allowing me to go further, to focus more on Nori and his personal point of view. We went from a story with questions such as: “Is it possible to live in a war without fronts, without a visible army of only faceless solders?” to a personal story of one man and his family trying to survive a highly brutal warfare, told in a dramatic film. That was a major change for us. One of the toughest challenges making the film was not the material itself, but the need to pursue that material further, because once you start following a character you have to put all your effort into him, and you need to build the scenes that will enable you to create that storyline. In the middle of this process, Nori’s town became a living hell; suddenly ISIS came and the hospital was being bombed, he was targeted and had to flee with his family. At this point we could not leave him there, we had to keep following. I found myself sitting for days and nights in Iraq because I had no access into the area, as it was controlled by ISIS. So I was calling, directing, helping, cheering him up and constantly talking to him, because he felt really down during that phase.
To read the complete interview in PDF format click HERE
What was your motivation to make this film? I was immediately interested in Ljuba. I noticed that although she had a hard life she never complained. She did not struggle to change that and at the same time she seemed very happy and satisfied with her life. I was fascinated in her attitude towards life. She can do so many things, she is so talented. She can weave, saw, embroider; She sings, dances, bakes, cooks; she is as wise as in the Thousand and One Nights. It was clear to me while observing her that her power did not lie in ‘equality’ as we know it in the West, but in the fact that she was the complementary element in a relationship. So, I became interested in her relationship, and I started the film with her.
Then I decided to observe these people in the village, to get answers. Are they right? How do they go about things? How are they shaped by the traditional social conditions in their environment? How do they live and love? How do the interpret ‘happiness’?
What are the general characteristics of a Russian woman? A Russian woman loves to show herself, to be feminine, to be adored by men, to be a woman is very important. Dressed luxuriously, in trim. A woman always has a fascinating secret. The ‘classical’ role. A Russian woman can’t deal easily with the ‘feminine’ side of man. I love to be a Russian in Germany. As a Russian woman I will always be excused. ‘She is foreign, a Russian, and on top of that an artist.’
And men? Russian men are protectors. They will do anything to please their women. In Russia, a man takes full responsibility for the happiness of a woman. He will offer you everything. Will even replace your worn shoelaces. He will travel 800 km a day to buy fresh fruit and vegetables for you. On the other hand, they are not so courteous, and generally do not speak so much.
What misconceptions are there between East and West – Russians and Europeans? How can we have an opinion without knowing each other 100%?
In your opinion, why are there so many people nowadays who are alone, unwilling to make a commitment? It is because of too much freedom and too many choices. At 30, we are still ‘children’, unable to be responsible for ourselves. We cannot take the responsibility for somebody else, for a relationship. We are eager to stay in our comfort zone in every way. And we grow unused to dealing with the difficulties in a real-life relationship. You can’t expect your partner to be there just to make you happy.
What about feminism? Why are you about to answer immediately, ‘No, I am not a feminist!’ Because I am not! I was born in today’s Russia. There, there are specified roles, starting when you are at Kindergarten. I love to be a woman. I love to cook for my man, to wash his socks and sometimes even to iron. I love it when I feel the man’s power in a relationship, and when a man takes it upon himself to make me happy, while that makes him self-confident. This to me is a healthy relationship. In no way am I dependent on a man, or stripped off of my rights as a woman. On the contrary, I evolve as a woman, and my happiness is also transmitted to him. Yet, I can be happy by myself; I can fend for myself. Is there anything more beautiful? God has made us so different for a reason. I’m sure he had something in mind, and I do not underestimate that in any way.
Do you believe in love? Of course I do! Without love there is no life!
What about marriage? It is a magical ritual. But you do not have to believe in that. What we need today is spiritual power. Tradition provides roots for a harmonious coexistence.
What is the biggest cliché about women directors? Once, I heard this comment when I went to a shooting wearing a tight cigarette skirt. A German woman told me, ‘Olga, you can’t go on a set dressed like this. You are a filmmaker now!’ That is perhaps a cliché.
Would you have any special advice to give to female directors?Actually, no. I know one thing. Women have great power in them. If they activate this power, they can make a fantastic experience. I wish that many women have this experience. The world will immediately change – everybody stands to benefit, especially women directors.
Name your favourite woman-directed film and why you love it. For a few years now, I have been observing the highly talented Ekaterina Eremenko. I am a friend of hers, and that is why I speak about her. She has intensity and power that can seldom be found in a man. At work, she is like a tank, and at the same time she is a lady, a mother. That’s a beautiful combination for a modern woman, who always stays feminine.
What does a woman need to be happy and fulfilled? After 20 years of living in Berlin, the film director Olga goes back to her roots in a small Siberian village, where she is confronted with traditional views of relationships, life and love.
Dimitra Kouzi: Olga, where are you from? Olga Delane: People consider me a Russian in Germany and a German in Russia. My great great grandmother’s name was Wilhelmine; she moved from Germany to Russia 200 years ago. The fact is that I am a German-Russian who moved back to Germany 20 years ago. I grew up under the Soviet culture, so I am a ‘Soviet’, too, even though the USSR is no longer. I was lucky to move to Germany with my parents when I was only 16 years old. Ultimately, I can feel at home everywhere. This is a great privilege.
What is your film about? On the one hand, it is an opportunity for viewers to discover a place such as Siberia, which for most people is a remote, extreme and exotic place. How do people live in Siberia? You can experience that in the film. Viewers can feel very close to the people who live there. Get to know them. On the other hand, this is a film about relationships – human relationships between men and women, family relationships. This is the basic storyline for the film. I live in a country (Germany) in which there are many opportunities in all aspects of life. As a free person, I am tempted to try them all, to experience, to evolve. On the other hand, the pace of life prevents us from experiencing all that we want, and to evolve as human beings, to taste this life and learn from our choices. In this incredible and inexhaustible freedom, there is less and less room for family, relationships, children. We are a generation that cannot develop relationships.
How did you find the village? A few years ago, in 2009, my father took me to the village and introduced me to relatives and friends. It is a Cossack village; once there lived 700 families, now there are only 50, mainly working on land and animal-farming. It’s a small scale. Here, people can dream that they will win one million, but they cannot ‘conceive’ a sum of one billion. When I first visited, word got around that I was an American journalist. If you carry a camera, you are a journalist for them.
Would you ‘survive’ in that village? I haven’t tried. I know I need to be in constant motion: do projects, have plans; I have to do something all the time. I guess I would be very anxious, sooner or later, or even aggressive. I have the feeling that people there do not develop. Everything stays the same. Undoubtedly, when you arrive at a place like that, a village where time has stopped, devoid of big-city ‘temptations’, there is no pressure to have a ‘career; there is no advertising, no internet – there is no telephone line sometimes. You are then forced to deal with the inhabitants of this place, and with your own, Western lifestyle.
What about the women? The basis of a woman’s life in the village is caring, working and children. She is safe. We in our world are far away from that. We have much higher expectations, but in the meantime we lost track in dealing with this freedom.
What was your biggest challenge (technically and/or emotionally)?My first shock was when one of my leading characters refused to be in the film. A German woman who got married to a Siberian hunter. I had to travel two days by train and two days by boat to reach her. I lived in her village (population 57) for two weeks because there was no boat for me to leave. On the other hand, this enabled me to work very well. One month after filming, she decided she did not wish to participate in the film and prohibited me from using the material.
What was even harder was when, one night before leaving for Siberia, something happened to our cameraman and he had to cancel his trip. We only had 10 hours to find a replacement. It could not be someone from Germany, as we would have to get them a visa, and we could not afford new extra-expensive tickets to Siberia. A thriller. In the end, we found a solution. We found a young talented and motivated cameraman in Siberia who, in addition, had his own equipment. There were emotional difficulties, too. When one of my leading characters died.
Did this experience change you? Yes, for me my protagonists are a symbol of endurance and strength. Despite their hard life they manage not to complain, but go through life as it comes. When I have problems, I immediately think of them and calm down. And what was for me only a suspicion before filming, that we need to keep our egos outside of a relationship, was confirmed. Yet, this is a huge process of working with ourselves.
Take us into your editing room. What decisions did you have to make while editing the film? First of all, to decide to start editing! I have not been to film school. And I had only one prior experience. But for that previous film there were no financiers who had requirements. We just did what we liked. For Siberian Love, everybody had expectations already about where the story should go. And we had tons of material after four years of shooting. We had filmed using three different cameras in different qualities, and we had six families as protagonists. My editor, Phillip Gromov, with his passion, helped me a lot to manage all this enormous work. It is not important what you prefer, but how you will make a good film.
How did you collaborate? What was it like working together? Maite: Through research we knew that, in the first stages of Alzheimer, early childhood is remembered. Based on theory, we imagined what would happen to an immigrant with Alzheimer. We hired a journalist who went to all nursing houses in Santiago and sent us a description of some 50 characters. Josebe was one of those. Her memory worked as we imagined, but it was an intense character, with a unique personality, which we would never have written, not even for fiction. She was our guide, which made this co-directing exercise flow with her.
Giedrė: Before coming to Chile I already knew, not only what Josebe looked like but also her likes and dislikes, where she lives, her daily routine, how she reacts, and this extensive research helped me and Maite to predict certain moments and when was a good time to turn the camera on and wait for a miracle to happen. In the beginning, we considered re-creating the character’s past in fiction. When we started filming, we realised that reality gives us more and is far stronger than fiction!
What is the message that you want to get across with this documentary? Maite: We want to explore how the past determines us, even when we are unable to remember what happened yesterday. Alzheimer’s erases the present, but often our lives’ milestones remain alive in our minds. This is an exploration of how the past coexists with the present, creating a new reality from daily observations, a different, lucid portrait of mental illness, with humour and joy.
How did dealing with the issue of ageing, memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease and vulnerability affect you? Maite: I think it posed a constant question for me, what I am going to remember if I lost my memory, where I am going to live in my mind. In fact, I have already lived the first part of my life, so I will probably not remember anything from here to my old age. That is weird, how we are determined by our childhood and adolescence: for example, during research it was amazing for me to see how people with Alzheimer who got married twice, think that the person that is taking care of them is their first wife/husband. Working with these issues gave rise to questions in my mind that I did not have before; it is not a concern for me – it is more a reflection on what I am going to remember.
Did this experience change you? Giedrė: If you don't change while making your film, then there is no purpose in doing it – it shapes your life completely. Making this film, I asked myself, what is the most important thing in life? Another interesting thing is that it was for me a new environment, a new country and language, and what helped me to identify I think was Maite, and this was a very nice experience.
How do you get your film(s) funded? (Is it a studio film, a crowdsourced film, something in between?) Share some insights into how you got the film made. Maite: The first stage of the film (research, development and shooting) was financed by CPH:DOX. All editing and post-production was financed by the Chilean national film fund and the Lithuanian Film Centre.
What is the biggest cliché about women directors? Maite: That women directors speak about women’s topics.
Would you have any special advice to give to female directors?Maite: When a man asks, who do you leave your family with when you are working (shooting, or traveling for work), ask him the same question. Nobody asks men this questions. Why can’t we have a normal life and work in the cinema business at the same time?
How do you get your film(s) funded? (Is it a studio film, a crowdsourced film, something in between?) Share some insights into how you got the film made. Maite: The first stage of the film (research, development and shooting) was financed by CPH:DOX. All editing and post-production was financed by the Chilean national film fund and the Lithuanian Film Centre.
Which is your favourite woman-directed film and why? Maite: The Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, because she was my inspiration when I was a student. For me, she is the only director that works with fiction and it really seems as if it were reality. I usually feel the fake in fiction, but with her I totally believe in her world.
Giedrė: Sophia Coppola’sLost in Translation. Because of its intelligence, subtlety and director’s trust in the audience. She is a brave director, and, what is most important, she explains by mood, gaze, atmosphere, touches, rather than words. From the avalanche of the current film industry, this movie is distinguished by its non-banal and ambiguous story until the very end, as we never hear what Bob whispers to Charlotte in the end. Indeed, it declines to polish all the details. This film I could watch again and again from whichever part of it. Sometimes, I deliberately start watching it from the middle. But, every time, watching it I feel catharsis, and this word I use very rarely, to be honest.
On the featured image: From left to right Producer Pato R. Gajardo, together with one of the two directors, the Chilean Maite Alberti, the editor Juan Eduardo Murillo and the Director of Photography Pablo Valdés.