[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.]
“Khadak” is the first fiction film of husband/wife team Peter Brosens and Jessica Wordworth. Brosens directed and produced the acclaimed Mongolia Trilogy: “City of the Steppes,” “State of Dogs,” and “Poets of Mongolia.” Wordsworth worked in television producing news and docs before directing “The Virgin Diaries.” While Brosens’ trilogy documented traditional Mongolians facing the modern world, Wordsworth’s film explored traditional Islam’s conflicts with a changing society. Combining talents and interests, their Sundance World Dramatic entry is the story of the forced relocation of a nomadic Mongolian family into a high-rise apartment complex. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Lion of the Future. Jessica Woodworth, who will be attending Sundance solo this year, took time to answer our questionaire.
Please introduce yourself…
Age: 35; Day job: Writing our next fiction film script, ‘Fragments of Grace’, chasing after our 3-year-old, scouting locations in Peru.
Former jobs: documentary director, telemarketer, TV stringer, waitress, photographer’s assistant, translator, HD camera tester, businesswoman in China, and many various strange things on the side and in between.
I was born in Washington, DC, and I grew up between the U.S., Belgium and Switzerland, [and] I currently live in Belgium. In my adult life I have lived in Leipzig, Hong Kong, Beijing, San Francisco, Paris and Milan.
How did you learn filmmaking?
The road to filmmaking has been circuitous. But once I had seen the works of Chris Marker, Chen Kaige, Pasolini, Peleshian, Angelopoulos, Paradjanov, Klimov, Gus Van Sant, Werner Herzog, van der Keuken and many others, I concluded it would be the grandest thing in the world to be able to express oneself in the medium of film.
I struggled to gain skills in documentary filmmaking. Then I made a documentary film in 2001 that touched on Islam and I got myself into loads of trouble. The resulting angst pushed me over the abyss and into fiction. Along the way I got a degree in literature from Princeton and in documentary filmmaking from Stanford. The debt will trail me to my grave. The only way to avoid it is to switch my identity, die or make a blockbuster.
Fiction, I have learned, requires a whole different set of skills from documentary, and a mightily cool attitude. I was a little alarmed to have such an enormous crew working with us in Mongolia (between 50 and 80 people at any given time). The decision-making must be so swift. However, directing these brave young actors in screaming steppe winds with a massive team standing heroically at your side is bliss. But sending 8000kg of 35mm equipment by air to Mongolia via dreaded Moscow airport is slightly more complicated than hitching your Sony bag on your shoulder and skipping through customs, as was the case when I made documentaries. And assuming that all the 35mm equipment performs at -35 degrees Celsius requires streaks of madness and/or faith.
How did the financing for the film come together?
Belgian, German and Dutch public funds came on board. As well as ARTE and several distributors who offered MGs. There is also a tax shelter scheme in Belgium that added a needed cushion. Nonetheless, we only really secured about 70% of our intended budget which was roughly 2.5 million euros. We threw many line items into deferral and convinced our co-producers to take the blind leap. In the end we finished shooting ten days early and finished editing four months early.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the movie?
“Khadak” posed some fabulous (and famous) challenges. It was our first fiction work ever. We are husband and wife co-directors, which can make some people jittery. Our stars had never acted before. It was the first time a film was shot entirely in deep winter in Mongolia (now we know why). Most of the film is shot outdoors. We were using winterized ARRI prototype cameras. We had seven nationalities on the team and about ten languages, and we slept in minimal comfort in mining hotels and hospitals. The government collapsed during our first week of shooting. Several of our team members fell ill. One even had to have a plane sent from Europe for a sudden evacuation. In spite of it all, we had a very harmonious team. Our efficiency was due, in part, to the mind-boggling cold. We often did only one or two takes of shots. They key to efficiency = polar temperatures.
“Khadak” was born during a research trip in Mongolia in 2002 for a potential documentary about aviation and socialism. One fine blue sky day we (my co-director/husband and I) said simultaneously “shove it all, let’s do fiction.” We just couldn’t possibly stuff our marvelous research material into a 56-minute documentary deliverable for public television. It simply didn’t seem fair to all these fine old pilots from the golden era of socialism to render them trite and palatable for an audience that will generally just struggle with the whereabouts of Mongolia. Obviously our minds were wandering off towards new terrain.
“Khadak” is, in part, inspired by the actual situation in Mongolia where foreign mining companies are leasing almost half the territory, a population of illegal miners called “ninjas” roam the bleak watersheds, where desertification is taking a terrible toll and where nomadism is being put into question.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
We were deeply inspired by music and kept certain pieces in mind throughout the shooting. Those pieces ended up ultimately in the film.
We actually worked intuitively, and sometimes couldn’t describe in words to our team why a certain image didn’t need depth or why the characters are standing like statues for minutes on end. Indeed, much of our team was baffled throughout.
We had written much decoupage in the script in order to make the script longer and more credible but we dumped the script on site and condensed scenes into single master shots, to the chagrin of our first assistant director who had planned things so meticulously.
What do you hope to get out of the festival?
At Sundance I would love to find a very fine actress to play the lead in our next film, “Fragments of Grace.”
And, of course, I hope “Khadak” finds a fiercely loyal following. It has been said it has cult potential. And the Venice jury was sufficiently moved to award it the Lion of the Future.
But “Khadak” demands a lot from the viewer. It doesn’t provide a tidy ending with all the elements “paying off.” (Formulas kill cinema.) It requires letting go of expectations and allowing oneself to be absorbed by the sound design.
Actually, I would love to confront some members of the press who dismissed “Khadak” during Toronto at the precise moment the Venice jury was awarding it for being sublime and timeless. Flippant critics who say “Khadak” is like “The Weeping Camel” without the camel or “a student film gone horribly wrong” without adding any intelligent arguments do damage to a film. The result is that someone who could be profoundly moved by “Khadak” might avoid the film upon reading such statements. I simply wish some members of the press were more responsible. They should be held accountable, too.
As for the essence, when asked by industry people what reaction we wanted to provoke from the viewer we, quite naturally, responded “silence.”
“Khadak” is intended to be like a splash of light that illuminates, briefly, some wind-less corner of your soul. Like filaments of dream to which you cannot attach words at dawn.
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