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
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
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.