[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
Bruno Ulmer‘s tragic and wrenching documentary, “Welcome Europa,” looks at the darkest side of human migration. Weaving the stories of young Romanian, Moroccan, and Kurdish immigrants in Europe, Ulmer reveals how powerful hope is to those at the very bottom. Succumbing to destitution, sleeping anywhere they can, many fall into drugs and prostitution. Ulmer’s style locks the audience in by focusing on their personal story, using extreme close-ups to enhance their extreme dislocation. “Welcome Europa” screens in Sundance’s World Documentary competition.
Please introduce yourself. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Where do you live?
I was born in Fez, Morocco in 1959. I started out as a physician working in emergency rooms. I made a major career change leaving medicine to work for humanitarian sponsorship programs and in advertising.
My parents worked on a farm outside of Fez. I spent my early childhood there. We then moved to France where I grew up. Now I’m back where my family is originally from in Valencia on the east coast of Spain. I go back to Morocco often. I know that I will end up settling there in the very near future.
How did you become a filmmaker?
A conjunction of intense aesthetic and human experiences drove me to film. First, for many years, I was a visual artist. My paintings were exhibited in Paris, New York and Amsterdam. Painting is not as big in my life anymore, but it made a huge impact. Then there is the emergency room experience. I learned the real meaning of hearing.
What other creative outlets do you explore?
Now, I’m exploring photography and Super 8, anonymous, amateur films.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
I never went to film school. After medical school I majored in communications at business school. I learned about filmmaking mostly through painting and photography. I was filled with ideas and curiosity and I was writing film treatments about social issues and urban stories without really thinking that I would direct. Then, I met Helene Badinter, a producer who understood my writing and projects. She became a die-hard supporter, producing my first documentary and most of the films I made in the past 10 years. I directed my first documentaries for TV with a whole crew under network restrictions and requirements.
Then I broke away from their format taking a chance by following my own instincts. For one year with a DV cam, I shot on the streets of Marseilles a group of Moroccan teenagers illegally entering France and surviving through petty theft and drug dealing. I self-financed the project with my savings. I had no production backup until Helene Badinter jumped in. With “Casablanca-Marseilles Insh’Allah” I understood the films I wanted to make: independent, visually creative, grappling with the human condition. The film ended up being a success. It was shown on television and hit the festival circuit with success.
How did the initial idea come about?
Fiction or documentary, there are some themes I am obsessed with: migration, identity, and adolescence…
The two films I directed just before “Welcome Europa” talk about outcasts caught between worlds. “Casablanca-Marseilles Insh’Allah” is about undocumented immigrant teenagers surviving life on the streets of Marseilles. In 2004, I made “Little Maids” about domestic slavery. The film chronicles two young Moroccan women who escape from the families that purchased them as children. In these two projects, I caught the raw ups and downs of their rescue and reconstruction of their psyches.
With “Welcome Europa,” I explore the breakdown of identity, the sink-or-swim side of the migrant underworld that only exists as a TV sound byte like “men found dead in a shipping container.” Over a year, I followed eight out of the thousands of illegal immigrants roaming the streets of European cities as they move closer to the Western European El Dorado they dream about. I wanted to show that nothing around them is familiar anymore. Their only choices always seem to lead deeper into the unfamiliar. Begging, thieving, drugs, prostitution all in their face every day. Yet for these young straight men, often married, sometimes fathers, selling sex to Europeans men runs very deeply against their most basic religious and patriarchal values. This is one of the aspects I specifically wanted to explore in the film; how these men are forced to risk even the sense of their own masculinity.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences, as well as your overall goals for the project?
The shifting world of migrants, life in the streets, the struggle for survival and male prostitution are not the easiest things to film.
The first challenge is the migration from one country to another. Following the trail from a hideout to a street corner deal to a red light district with no lights. The first decision was to use a very mobile light crew. To capture cinematically this universe – its limited depth-of-field, its all-natural light, its sense of urgency – I decided to shoot in Super 16 with a small Aaton.
The second challenge was to get their voices right, to give time to their testimonies. Prostitution and survival are not easy topics for these men. To get open hearted testimony, unaltered by their precarious lives, I shot one-on-one intimate conversations in DV, in an unadorned environment where their voice holds center stage.
I am not so aware of direct influence, but I have a few landmarks, references like Pasolini‘s “Accatone” and its group dynamic; the slow destruction of the characters and the question of masculinity. There’s also Cassavetes‘ “Faces” and the use of what I call the participative camera involved in the action as well as the subject of the film.
How did you find your subjects for the film?
It was actually one of the most challenging aspects of the film. Right from the start, I wanted the film to grapple deeply and thoroughly with the migrants’ survival strategies, with prostitution. Looming over that, a political perspective in the form of questions about the European Dream and its borders. My split human and political POV helped me build “Welcome Europa” around three crisscrossing journeys from East to West from South to North interlacing stories from eight characters. Some are forced from home because of poverty, some because of political oppression. I wanted a range of situations and cultural backgrounds.
I spent several months scouting Marrakech, Tangier, Istanbul, to Athens, Milan and Madrid, with Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam at the end. I conducted about a hundred interviews meeting many young men on the road.
On my way back to France, I began writing the script with ten character types defined by intentions, personalities, a particular step in their journey. A sociologist helped structure the process.
Not surprisingly, some of the men I met disappeared. But with all that preparation, it remained possible to find the final cast.
What do you hope to get out of the festival?
Festivals are a great forum. They provide an opportunity for exchange and inspiration. In that sense, I see festivals as an indispensable extension of filmmaking. Sundance is not the average festival. It nurtures independence, convictions and the director’s vision. So I am especially happy to go there with my producer, Helene Badinter, who shares this view. It feels like the ideal forum for “Welcome Europa” to be seen and make an impact.
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.
I was home in Spain working on the script for my new project. For me it was a great moment of joy. I thought an unusual documentary like “Welcome Europa” with a risky subject and style had just been granted an amazing chance to be seen and discussed by a wide variety of people.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
Independent means time. Time to write, to scout, to shoot. When making a documentary, time doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the people we film. It belongs to the respect we owe their story.
What are your New Year’s resolutions?
Finish “Fratres,” the feature film script I’m working on and go location scouting in Algeria (a personal dream). I also would like to re-immerse myself in painting and have an exhibition before the end of the year.
Get the latest coverage of Park City ’07 in indieWIRE’s special section here at indieWIRE.com