The International Film Festival in Rotterdam has always been a place for new ways of approaching cinema to emerge and a haven for films that seem to transcend labels between film forms and genres, and sometimes between different art forms as well. This year, though with slight changes in programming, it stayed true to its calling — and one of the gems, world-premiering in the Bright Future section, is "Mother" by the Slovenian director Vlado Škafar, who is not a newcomer to the South Holland festival: His "Letters to a Child" premiered there in 2009, while his "Dad," the second part of the (very loose) trilogy, premiered in Venice Critics' Week of 2010.
"Mother" is a fiercely visual film that seems determined to tell its story almost exclusively through images: Those of nature, of old towns and of a mother and her daughter. The amazing thing about the film is how much of the psychological nuances of their relationship it reveals to its audience without actually telling them anything, but by utilizing visual motifs of people, buildings and especially nature (with gorgeous cinematography by Marko Brdar) instead — though the symbolism of the film never really feels artificial or calculated.
Škafar doesn't really mind the labels of documentary or fiction: The story of the mother and the daughter, driving to a secluded country house to help the daughter overcome her self-destructive behavior, is combined effortlessly with shots of an Italian real-life commune for overcoming addiction. Interviews with the young people staying there, talking about their problems and their relationships with their parents, shed an additional light onto the two principal characters and their struggles with themselves and each other. Transcending the roles of mothers and daughters to be human beings first, the characters of "Mother" find love for each other through finding independence and freedom from each other, and last week in Rotterdam, Indiewire sat down with the director to talk about freedom in filmmaking, too.
I'm not interested in plots, I don't find them important for filmmaking. Film language can function all by itself; I think the real place to look for a story in film is the image. For me, the starting point is the human face — you can instantly feel a story behind it. For example, how did it came to wear the expression that it does right now? How will it change? I'm more interested in stories that happen inside people than outside them — and I want these stories to be contained on the inside, I don't want to explain them, to make them audible or apparent.
In the beginning, the only thing I had was the title of the film. After a while, the opening image of the film started to take shape — the mother and the daughter driving in the car, the daughter not sitting in the front seat because she would really want to. The feeling grew into a film. After a while, I realized it was not a film anymore; it was transcending its medium into painting and poetry, which are very close to me, too. Now, all of my previous films — not just "Dad" and "Letters to a Child," but all of the rest, too, are like tiny streams, all flowing together into "Mother." It feels good, though I hadn't planned it that way.
For me, art is just dialogue, but in its purest form. It is always a conversation, and it is most efficient when it's not plain. Telling something straight up can never have the same effect as reading a poem. I think this film is a lesson in making an indirect conversation. Not only between the characters, but with the viewers, too. As a spectator, you're always projecting. Many of the great directors — from Kieslowski to Kiarostami — have said that the only film that truly exists is the one in the spectator's mind.
Cinema has no truth of its own. It can't have it. It only exists in the mind of the person watching it. Even if as a director, I don't see my film again, in a way, it doesn't exist for me anymore. I have to see it in order to have a conversation with it, to make it real. Films live in us in our own ways, and it's the only way that's real — but it doesn't mean we can't talk about them with each other.
When you make this kind of a film, you feel sorry for your producer. You know they will have trouble selling it; it doesn't fit into certain categories. Perhaps they won't even understand it fully or love it the way they do the other films they produce. But I was lucky enough to be surrounded with people that were willing to put their love and understanding into the project I believed in, and finally making it happen.
Even though a film is always well thought-out from the beginning, no member of my crew ever sees the script. Marko [Brdar, the DoP], is a philosophy graduate and has only later in life decided to study photography. He and I discussed the film in detail beforehand, not trying to rationalize what we were doing, but to get closer to what was inside us. Apart from him, I I never talked to anyone about the plot of the film. The cast and the crew only vaguely knew what it was about. I try to set up an environment as I envision it, try to get the people in the right mood and just believe that at a certain point, it will all fall into place in an interesting way.
I usually don't work with professional actors. Nataša [Tič Ralijan, the actress playing the mother] is a professional actress, but I never treated her that way in my film. I took the time to explain that before taking on the role in this film, she has to take off her actress costume. Shooting my previous film, "A Girl and a Tree," this was a serious problem for one of the cast — and it appeared it was not going to work out at all. In her long career as a film actress, she had never worked that way — without reading a script beforehand, without precise instructions.
I would be horribly bored by instructing people on what to do. It would only result in something I am already familiar with. There are some great films that have been made by the director insisting on giving precise instructions, like Douglas Sirk's or Yasujirō Ozu's, but it's just not my way.
On a previous film, I worked with people without any background in art. I tried to see if anyone, someone you run into the street, could become an artist, a poet. Instead of inquiring about their stories and intimate details, I wanted to see if I can get them to a point where they start to lyricize, create themselves in a way they've never had the chance to.
When I was introduced to people in the commune, we got on immediately. However, when we set up the camera, and when they had to sign the release forms, some of them pulled out. Still, we started shooting, just the environment of the commune at first, to get them used to the film crew hanging around. When they saw us interviewing other people, they changed their minds and volunteered to be interviewed as well. So in the end, everyone in there participated. I think they saw it as an opportunity to have their own moment, to be listened to without demands or expectations.
The distinction between documentary and fiction has been muddy since the dawn of cinema, since the films of Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers. The effect of certain Méliès' science fiction films on the viewer is much more documentary than with the Lumières sprinkling their sprinkler, etc., with the exception of "Arrival of a Train at a Station." Perhaps it seemed documentary at the time; compared to theater, it must have seemed more like real life, though there was nothing real about it. But I'm not sure that trying to keep the two separated at any cost is doing the cinema any favors now. Directors of films like mine are worse off for being unable to apply their films to documentary festivals; the festivals in turn are unhappy for not being able to show them just because they don't conform to the labels. However, some festivals have long ago decided not to trouble themselves with these things, and Rotterdam is one of them.
I've always felt closer to the literary forms of drama, epic and lyric. Expecting "Mother" to be either fiction or a documentary is sure to disappoint, but if you say it's a lyrical film, that is closer to the truth. I was always attracted to films that opt for a third way, don't play by the rules, and don't worry about labels, just being free instead. I always liked seeing them because I felt free as well.