In PARADISE, Iranian filmmaker SINA ATAEIAN DENA Brings Fresh Eyes To a Story About How We Treat Each Other

Shot without permission on the hectic streets of Tehran and co-produced by Jafar Panahi‘s brother Yousef — who also enjoys a fleeting cameo, Paradise is a quiet character study chronicling everyday sexism in today’s Iran. Blending real and fictional elements to create a complex, multi-layered narrative, the film centres on Hanieh, a disaffected 25-year-old schoolteacher who lives with her married sister and commutes long hours each day to get to work at a school on the outskirts of Tehran. Sensitively played by Iranian visual artist Dorna Dibaj, the only non-actor in this cast, Hanieh seems to observe Iranian society  with fresh eyes, a freshness that is equally imparted by the on-the-fly, undercover nature of the filming.

Paradise premiered in the main competition at LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2015 where this interview with Sina Ataeian Dena was taken.

Dana Knight: What was your creative process like working on this film? Did you start from a story or was it more character-based?

Sina Ataeian Dena: There was a kidnapping scandal 10 years ago, South of Teheran, and what was interesting about it was that this guy that in the end got arrested, was always there and he never caught anyone’s attention, he was always there playing with kids, then he would kidnap, rape and murder them. Horrible story. So this was the starting point but then we came to bigger concepts: violence in general, the abstract concept of violence. Then I decided to put the kidnapping story in the background of the film. When we had the first draft of the script it was very clear that we wanted to talk about violence in a wider sense. This type of violence, kidnapping and rape, is the physical aspect of it but there are non-physical ways to release and reproduce violence.

Knight: Although Paradise focuses on aspects of violence in Iranian society, at the press conference you pointed out that the film is universal in its themes, being a story about how we treat each other.

sina Ataeian dena

Ataeian Dena: Yes, the story is based on an universal concept in the sense that anything we do may have consequences for another person and the effect of that may be something we don’t necessarily want. And you have this kind of violence everywhere, in every human being and society, it’s a characteristic of the species and our interaction as a species.

Knight: Going back to your creative process, you said this project was a collaboration of several artists. Did you collaborate at the screenwriting stage too?

Ataeian Dena: No, I wrote the script alone. It was for the first time that I did not ask for the opinion of my best friend who is also my co-writer.

Knight: Why?

Ataeian Dena: Because this was a story I wanted to tell and I did not want to change anything  about it. Also during the shooting, my producer always had some different opinions about how to deal with the situation but I really insisted on what I wanted and at the end he told me he is convinced. Also during the editing, my co-editor always wanted to take out some frames but I really wanted to show it the way it is.

Knight: Could you talk about these areas of slight disagreement?

Ataeian Dena: First of all, not all of my colleagues knew that this was a feature film. Because I did not want them to have to share the danger and the responsibility with me. They did not have permission to shoot and if you take part in a short or documentary it’s ok. But for a fiction feature , it’s a sensitive zone. So not many of them knew what exactly we were doing. Also we had different versions of the script for different actors, for different colleagues who gave us locations, who provided cars and extras for us.  At the end I apologised to all of them for not being honest but I was in a state of mind where I had to tell this story and did not want to compromise. From a certain point of view, maybe it’s not really ok, but …

Knight: You probably felt it was what you had to do as a filmmaker in order to make this film.

Ataeian Dena: Yes, I felt that I was responsible to tell the story as it is. And it’s the first time that as a filmmaker I made something that is 100% my input, I’ll go to court with it for everything!

Knight: How did the collaboration with Dorna Dibaj come about, the Iranian visual artist who plays the lead in your film.


Ataeian Dena: I met her in a dentist’s office. She was sitting there and I asked her what she does, she said she studies art, sculpture, she makes statues. Then I told her about the project, she said she was interested, she seemed really excited. Then she went to a primary school in South Teheran for a year to teach these children and experience the atmosphere and catch the spirit of the whole thing. I was very surprised that she was willing to go through that experience, this showed me she is the right person to play this role.

Knight: Was it her idea or your condition for casting her in the role?

Ataeian Dena: This was my condition actually. It is difficult to work with me because I always need time. I need time and preparation and rehearsals. And I have some close famous actress who really wanted to play this role, they are like celebrities in Iran, which meant that they could have also brought money. But in the end I chose Dorna. Although she has no experience with film.

Knight: What acting instructions did you give her? Or was she very natural in front of the cameras?

Ataeian Dena: We had an amazing coach for her, my favourite Iranian actress, a real artist. She practiced all the scenes with Dorna, we had really long rehearsals, sometimes we invited other actors or actresses. We tried to do it in real locations, in real or similar conditions. Then when everything was ready we started to shoot for a few days. Then we had to wait for a few months to prepare everything again.

Knight: Are the pupils Dorna’s real pupils at the school where she taught?

Ataeian Dena: Everyone, except for the main protagonist, is a professional actor.

Knight: But not the children, the girls?

Ataeian Dena: No, we picked them. But for all the other roles, even very small roles, like one scene, I chose professional actors. I like this combination, the main character provides a fresh performance, it’s new and different from what you might expect. It’s also more believable, more real. I like working with non-actors. […] Also the cameraman, the sound technician, they had no experience.

Knight: That is a very risky choice, no?

Ataeian Dena: For me it is more risky to work with professionals if they are my age. If they are older and have a lot of experience, then yes, it’s easy to work with them. But not is they are around my age.

Knight: Why? Because of some kind of professional rivalry?

Ataeian Dena: No, I think this exists everywhere. I worked in Europe and I felt it was the same. Normally you have an easier relationship with people who are established professionals. It’s human nature. But when it comes to actors, it is a challenge to combine professionals with non-professionals, you need to balance their performances to have something smooth.

Knight: Considering how prominent Iranian cinema is and how high the expectations, was it difficult for you to choose a project to focus on, especially for your first feature?

Ataeian Dena: No, it was more like this: I normally have 5 or 6 different projects running at the same time in parallel and you give them a push for years and years and at some point you realise one of them is possible to do. So this was the first opportunity that arose for me.

Knight: I know you went to film school in Teheran and wrote a thesis on comic books and cinema. How did that come about, are you a fan of comic books? And did you take any insights from comic books that you could apply in cinema?

Ataeian Dena: I actually come from animation. I worked as an animator and visual effects supervisor in Iranian cinema. […] This thesis you mention is a rotoscoping film from 7 years ago. In this film I wanted to try out different ideas that you can develop in comic books but which are not in films. Also storytelling techniques and visual art things. It was for the first time that I showed something to a public and won some awards. It was a nice experiment. Because it is very difficult to finance a short film in Iran, even more difficult than a feature film. With a feature film you have some kind of idea of how to screen it or make money with it but for short films the financing comes from some governmental bodies and it’s not easy.

Knight: What directors do you admire the most in Iranian cinema and also world cinema?

Ataeian Dena: In Iranian cinema I like the New Wave Iranian Filmmakers. They are unfortunately not so well known outside Iran, some are but not everyone: Amir Naderi, he is a master of cinema, his film The Runner is like the Bible for me, it’s an amazing film. He lives in New York and makes films there. Also Shahid-Saless, he lived in Germany for a while. Parviz Kimiavi. Of course, Kiarostami.  I also like the Japanese cinema tradition very much, Yasujirō Ozu.

Knight: Are you already working on your next project?

Ataeian Dena: Yes, this film is part of a trilogy. We shot half of the first episode and we’re about to shoot the second episode.  All the films in the trilogy tackle the concept of violence in different aspects and from different perspectives, with a different cinema language.


DER NACHTMAR:In the Hands of German Artist AKIZ a Sculpture Becomes a Lunged Creature that Breathes Life Into a Different Kind of Horror Film

German visual artist AKIZ premiered his feature film DER NACHTMAR  at Locarno 2015 where this interview was taken.

der nachtmar poster


Knight: I was a bit surprised to see a film like Der Nachtmar in the Locarno line-up, I must confess I’m not totally sure what to make of it!

AKIZ: This film is nasty and it hurts, it doesn’t really fit in here.

Knight: It’s definitely an unusual creation. You’re an artist and you’re probably used to having total freedom in your creative endeavours, film is a much more conventional art form but I felt that you took this freedom to cinema.

AKIZ: Thank you for saying that. We definitely had limitations, we had no money for this film but also there were no strings attached! We could do whatever we wanted, that’s why the film turned out to be the way it is.

Knight: Let’s talk first about the screenwriting process, how did the story take shape in your head, how was the creature born?

AKIZ: I was obsessed with this creature, I initially had the idea of making a sculpture, not a film. The idea gradually evolved and took many forms,  it took me almost 10 years to make it into something moving, I wanted it to have lungs so it can breathe. All this time I was taking notes, scribbling down ideas but again, not with the intention of making a film. But at some point I spread out all the notes that I had and it became like a collage, putting together a broken base of something, trying to fit all the pieces together so that’s how the story was born.

I used a technique that artists from the 1920s used, écriture automatique, writing without the intention of writing something, like painting a picture. I never thought of the audience, never asked myself what does the audience want to see? what do they expect? what would surprise them? It was a very egotistic process, I guess, I focused on what was interesting for me.

Knight: Certain scenes create conflicting emotions, did you expect people to laugh at certain scenes?

AKIZ: Interestingly, I never saw the film with an audience. Here in Locarno I was there only at the beginning and at the end, so I don’t know what scenes the audience found funny or what kind of laughter that was…

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German visual artist AKIZ

Knight: For me, the interest came form the ironic contrast between how the creature is perceived to be – scary and frightening,  and how it really is – cute and harmless, almost comical.

AKIZ: I agree, the creature is cute, it has no teeth and no blood so there’s nothing to be scared about! It’s not a monster, for sure. But even a bird can be scary in a place it doesn’t belong to, say you see a bird in a living room that wants to escape, people don’t know how to handle it. 

Knight: At the Q&A, someone asked whether the creature was real or not? I must confess I was caught up in the same dilemma while watching the film: is the character going crazy or is the creature real? There are a lot of frames in the film where the creature appears on its own, that seems to convey the idea that the creature has its own existence, independently of the characters. But you must have deliberately played with audience expectations here.

AKIZ: Not really, because I never really cared about what the audience might think, if it’s real or if it’s not real. For her it’s real. There are people out there who hear voices, sometimes there’s someone there, at other times there isn’t. Everyone has its own reality. At night you may see something which you remember the following day and you know it was there. But no one else saw it. So what is real?

Film is the art form that comes closest to the perception of the human mind. But I never asked myself what is real and what is not real in this film.

Knight: Your focus was elsewhere, the question of the real was not something that interested you.

AKIZ: No, not in this film.

Knight: So what was it that interested you? The symbolism of the story itself? The character accepting and integrating the less flattering sides of herself?

AKIZ: Yes, and that’s the meaning of the story in a nutshell. That’s the basic story. I was also interested in the non-linear narrative: you have a creature at the beginning and people don’t know what it is, then the creature hurts people and they must find ways to get rid of it. What is also interesting is that after the parents see the creature, there is a shift: all the terror and panic goes to them. The girl comes to terms with herself. I wouldn’t say this is symbolic or metaphorical of a human being who comes to terms with herself but that is the storyline. Another thing that was important for me was that none of the characters, like the parents, are really bad people. They don’t have something bad in mind, they are just helpless. They think what they are doing is right. in order to deal with the problem.  Every character deals with the problem in the way they believe is right.

Knight: They all have their own perspective.

AKIZ: Yes, and that’s where the drama is.

Knight: The last scene in the car was very puzzling to me.

AKIZ: Interestingly, that’s the first image of the film that came to my mind, the girl and the creature escaping in a car. For me, they are going to the next level. wherever that may be. She is like a warrior for me, so wherever she goes, it’s on a different level.  So was the audience laughing at this scene?

Knight: Yes, because it was such a surprising scene, no one saw it coming. Sometimes when we are really surprised by something, the reaction is to laugh. How was the transition from art making to filmmaking for you?

AKIZ: As long as there isn’t someone forcing you to do things in a certain way, there is no difference. With film, the main difference is that you have a lot of people working for you. Taking a picture and making a sculpture requires only one person. Also when you’re writing, you’re by yourself. But the film required the collaboration of so many people, as you saw from the credits, the music, the editing, the writing.

Some people don’t like it if you’re calling your film an art piece because that sounds pretentious or arrogant.. Because film is supposed to be entertainment. But art is also supposed to be entertaining. Every good art is entertaining. And I like it when people don’t label films and talk about them in terms of a horror of thriller.

Knight: Every film should be its own thing. Its own creature!

AKIZ: Its own creature, exactly! But at the same time, my film is a classical story. It’s twisted, but it has a beginning, a middle and an end!

Knight: That it has, for sure!

AKIZ: I guess, the most important thing for me is that everyone has the ability to see its own thing in the film. People like it because of personal reasons.

Knight: Do you see art like a sort of sounding board, like in therapy? You actually have some funny scenes with a psychiatrist in the film. You seem to say we need to come up with our own answers instead of being offered an answer. Or in the case of film, a message.

AKIZ: Absolutely. And for me the purpose of art is to workshop things. You have a piece of paper, put some paint on it, close it, open it, and you have a symmetrical image. That’s what artists used in the 1850s, that’s what they started with. Because you look at that form and you see what you want to see. That’s the purest art there is. Someone told me the creature signified something very specific to them and that’s the idea.

Knight: What was it like for you to collaborate with so many people?

AKIZ: I did films before so I am used to collaborating. What was nice about this project was that because we had no money, people were only motivated by their desire to do something different. So you end up with a crew where everyone really wants to do what they do.

Knight: So the production went seamlessly.

AKIZ: Yes, it was seamless. Sometimes I had to do the sound and editing by myself because I did not have a very precise idea of what I wanted, or because there was no one available. For the music for instance, the guy who did the score is a close friend of mine, I gave him an idea of what I was looking for, there was a back and forth, it was a very close collaboration.  And I worked very well with the main actress, she’s so smart, I didn’t really direct her.

Knight: A very strong performance yes, she was very believable in the role.

AKIZ: Wow, yes. And she never took acting classes. She understood very quickly what it is about. I did not storyboard anything, maybe some visual head shots. But my direction of her and of everyone else was very free. I never said to them: you sit here, you do this. I would just say: You come from this scene and now you want this and that. Then I would ask them: where would you sit, what would you do?

Knight: So you gave actors absolute freedom to create their own character in a way?

AKIZ: Absolutely, because actors know more about their character than I do. Also that’s the reason I used no lighting, only available light, to keep us free. You can put the camera anywhere you want.  Maybe the film doesn’t look like a documentary but we shot it like a documentary.

Knight: Are you already working on your next project?

AKIZ: Yes, because this film is part of a trilogy. Der Nachtmahr is about Birth. The second one deals with Love and Light. And the third one is about Death.

I made this triptych that is 2 meter tall and 6 meters wide. The left wing is Der Nachtmahr that you just saw. The right wing is the Death but all of them are about this creature, this entity that enters society and messes up everything, like a demon.

In José Luis Guerín’s spellbinding ACADEMY OF MUSES, women feminists still define themselves in relation to men but that’s because reality is full of contradictions and this is not a “cinéma à thèse”!

If  José Luis Guerín’s  L’Accademia delle Muse had been the only film I saw at LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2015, it would have been totally worth the hassle of getting there and surviving under the scorching Swiss sun!


L’Accademia delle Muse is the BEST FILM DISCOVERY I made on the festival circuit in 2015. Hopefully coming up on MUBI soon.

This interview with José Luis Guerín was taken in French during  LOCARNO Film Festival in August 2015. This is my English translation.

Dana Knight: This is a very special film, a very unusual film. It’s very difficult to describe and impossible to label, how did you come up with such an original idea?

José Luis Guerín:  Yes, I even had problems trying to write a synopsis! Because the main story belongs in a way to a stereotypical world: adultery, encounters in cars, things like that. But what is important in cinema is not what happens but how it happens. The way the film captures certain things, the way in which words are being spoken. This is a film that totally seduced me with the way it talks about things. The beauty of the dialogue, in the tradition of Lubitsch and Eustache, the mise-en-scène of the words, of the utterance. As a cineaste, you always want to show things in a different light, in a surprising light, as if we see them for the first time.

Knight: The film is shot documentary-style, especially the scenes in the classroom. This adds to the freshness of the POV.

Guerín:  Exactly. This is something that I developed from one film to another, a sort of renovation of dramatic form. I started by doing fiction films but then I felt that fiction was in a sort of cul-de-sac, fiction is generally just stereotypes that we repeat. The work with the actors is always interesting and I love working with actors but it always leads to a cul-de-sac. So in order to evolve in the way of telling a story, I would alternate between documentary and fiction film. And it always happens that in documentaries I use the wisdom from fiction films: how to work with narrative, time and space. And in fiction films I use things that I learnt from documentaries:  how to create a situation, the quality of interaction between characters in order to capture a moment of truth. Because the art of docu-fiction consists of capturing a moment of truth.

Knight: In this film,we have the impression that things are happening now  and we are there with the characters.

Guerín: This was exactly my intention, yes. Even if I was the one who organised the situation, the fictive situation, I don’t know exactly how things are going to take place. I am as surprised by what I see happening in front of me as the spectators are. That’s why in my method of filmmaking I don’t shoot for 6-8 weeks continuously, I alternate between short periods of shooting and editing. I start with analysing what I just filmed on the editing table,  then I’m thinking: wouldn’t it be interesting to develop these characters in a follow-up shoot? So it’s cinema that nurtures itself, it’s not made of predetermined ideas imposed on a story line, it’s not a closed scenario. The writing of the scenario takes place at every step of the filmmaking process.

I struggle with the idea of cinema seen as closed compartments: the creative stage that consists in writing a screenplay, then shooting, which is the execution of what we wrote, then editing what we filmed. No, I like to write a little, then go and shoot a few scenes, then I edit what I shot, then I rewrite, then I shoot more. It’s a process in which I’m the first spectator of my film, my film escapes my control, there is an interaction between me and cinema. I like this a lot because for me cinema is about revelation, about discovery. If I know in advance what is going to happen, I lose the desire to see that happening.

Knight: How did you work with the actors? What is their creative share in the film, how did they contribute to their character, their speeches?

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Guerín: We talked about this a lot. They are not professional actors, the professor and his students exist for real, this academic community is not my creation.

Knight: How did you discover them?

Guerín: I met professor Rafael Pinto through his writings and seminars on Dante. His texts on Dante were very important for a previous film I made, In the City of Sylvia. He invited me to sit in on his class one day and in all narcissism he said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if you filmed me talking to my class?”. And to be honest I did find him interesting, and also the characters who started appearing in the film. So I suggested they played a fictional version of themselves. And I loved their love for words. Sometimes in these philological contexts we utter words of love with the rhetoric of a troubadour. Other bits seem taken from a bolero. It’s impossible to write these lines and then give them to actors to recite, it’s pretty incredible what they come up with. And they say these words with such conviction.

Knight: Because this situation is natural to them, these words come naturally to them.

Guerín: Exactly. And this is what excited me, to build the narrative around the quality of the spoken words.

Knight: How do you see the professor, what is your perspective on him? We discover him gradually and what we discover is very conflicted!

Guerín: Yes, he’s a very conflicted character. And also an incorrect character!

Knight: That’s exactly what I wanted to say but didn’t quite dare finish my thought…

Guerín: Yes but I don’t like to judge my characters, I don’t like to moralise. That’s why I like Eric Rohmer a lot, he’s looking without judging. I want to give spectators the space to think for themselves.

Knight: That’s why I’m asking you this question, because I couldn’t detect any judgement on your part, I don’t have the slightest idea what your take on this character is.

Guerín: Exactly. Even if there is a sort of ironic distance, there is humour. It’s important to have humour in the film. 

Knight: Without judging though, you must have an instinctive reaction towards him. So do you like the professor or are you hesitant about him? He’s a great charmer.

Guerín: Yes, he is. And there are several sides to him, he’s a little bit like Don Quixote, a crazy idealist, and I like that. I like his power of seduction, his faith in the power of words. But to have a moral perspective on a professor who sleeps with all his students, it’s tricky!

Knight: But you’re not actually showing that, maybe he is innocent!

Guerín: No, I didn’t but we imagine that he does! There is a possibility that he sleeps with them all. And it’s disproportionate, it’s incredible that he would. But it’s a valid hypothesis. And even this idea of an academy of muses that aims to save the world through involvement with poetry, is such a crazy, incredible idea. And this reminded me of Hitchcock who said: the more incredible the subject, the more realistic its execution should be. And the subject of this film is indeed incredible, but we believe it because they are so convincing. So the professor in this film is not related to me in any way, except maybe as demiurge. Sometimes I think that he is like a cineaste who is about to create a world, a film world with his students who are his actresses.

And that is what I also felt as cineaste. The characters are autonomous, they are completely independent of me. They escape my control and I like this idea a lot, to have no control over them. To create a process that goes beyond me.

Knight: I also wanted to ask you about the jealousy scene between the professor’s wife and one of his students at the end of the film. How did that come about?

Guerín: It’s a very good scene, no? There was real pain.

Knight: Yes but there is also the troubling idea that these women define themselves in relation to him. His wife says: “I am his editor, I decide on everything that goes into his books”. And the student says: “Yes but his sonnets are dedicated to me, so I’m more important than you”. This was a bit difficult for me to watch. I’m also thinking feminists will have a field day with those statements too. How was this scene born?

Guerín: It came from the women playing those parts. It’s true there are many contradictions.  The girl who says that is also a feminist. I don’t like a cinema that preaches things (in original: “cinéma à thèse”), that propagates certain ideas. Because that simplifies reality, reality is full of contradictions, conflicts between reason and feelings. I was shocked by the pain that was born in this sequence, they went further than I expected. Even if it’s fiction, this story of adultery obviously doesn’t exist, but the scene gained such force. And maybe that’s the advantage of working with non-professionals. Professional actors know how to protect themselves, there is a technique that allows them to use their own feelings, their memory, but they put a distance between them and the role. But these poor women suffered for a week after this scene.

Knight: I have no doubt, we see the pain in their eyes, especially the young girl whose face twitches with grimaces throughout that scene.

Guerín: Yes. And this is an extreme: the scene is fictional but we managed to capture the truth. This is similar to jazz players doing a jam session, no scenario, they start with an instrument then respond to that and everything is the creation of the moment. So I tried to reproduce the conditions of a jam session, I wanted to see how things were going to unfold. It was a bit like fishing: I chose a place, a situation, and then I wait to see what happens.

Knight: Also the idea of filming them behind a window, or other transparent surface, how did that come about? There is usually a surface that mediates between them and us.

Guerín: At the the beginning I chose to do that because I felt they were a bit shy. I was filming the class which is a public space so that was natural. But how do you go from there to the interior of the house? So I found this solution which is also symbolical of the confrontation between the outer and inner life of a character. This juxtaposition of images and their reflection is a metaphor of cinema itself. And the movements of the traffic, of daily life gives birth to contrasts between the characters’ inner life and their outer existence in the same image.

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It’s also a way to define the space, this is a film I made without moving, it’s made of close-ups, therefore you become aware of the space through its reflections. The reflections of the world. And this gives birth to a special emotion I think: the violence of the outer world contrasted with the words of inner life in the same image.

Knight: This also makes the film even more enigmatic. The story is in itself enigmatic but the way you film things, the fact that we can’t see clearly what is going on, amplifies this enigma. The relationship between the professor and his wife is full of enigmatic pauses and allusions.

Guerín: Yes, which makes it very amusing. I initially thought of the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the great idealist and the pragmatic woman who doesn’t believe in love. But interestingly enough, at the end of the film, the woman who truly believes in love is revealed to be her. This was important, I wanted the characters to grow, to change. We discover the characters bit by bit, from one scene to another but also inside the same scene, it is important to have movement from one state to another, motion. Motion is emotion.

NEW DIRECTORS NEW FILMS 2014 – ALBERT SERRA and the Paranoia of Cliché

serraALBERT SERRA graduated from Barcelona University with a degree in Spanish and Comparative Literature before embarking on his cinematic career with Crespià, the film not the village. He made his international debut with Honour of the Knights, a reworking of Don Quixote which he wrote, directed and produced. The film received its premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight at the 2006 Cannes Festival and was named one of the best films of the year by Cahiers du Cinéma. It has won awards at festivals across the globe due to the originality and purity of its distillation of Cervantes’ novel: two lone figures walk in silence and commune with the landscape. Serra’s next film, Birdsong, tells the story of the journey of the Three Wise Men. It was filmed in black and white at locations in northern Europe, with the same actors, it screened and won awards at many international festivals (including Munich, Toronto, Vancouver, Mar del Plata, London, Rotterdam and Los Angeles). After completing this trilogy, Albert Serra was named one of the 15 key directors of the decade by the magazine Film Comment.

His most recent film, Story of my Death, won the Golden Leopard at the 2013 Locarno International Film Festival.

story-of-my-death posterThe following conversation is part of a Q&A with the Catalan filmmaker that took place at MoMA, New York City as part of  NEW DIRECTORS NEW FILMS 2014.

This festival has described you as a master of “cinematic antiquity” and certainly choosing Casanova and Dracula as subject matter would lend itself, in a romantic way, to that idea, but you’re a young man so why would this designation fit?

Serra: Not only that, I think what is against this idea of antiquity is nonprofessional actors. Also in my previous films, about Don Quichote, about the three wise men of the Bible. In this one it was more by chance as I don’t want to waste time explaining the plot. So I thought let’s use a plot that everyone knows in our Western culture. From this point I can really work on what I love. Time is quite important in my films, and this is quite a sophisticated work compared with the previous oneS, which were more contemplative. In this film, the contemplative side is still there but the film is much better with a little bit of narrative, even if it’s abstract.

The subject of the film is something that everybody understands: the trouble with the century of light, rationalism, sensualism, the century based on communication. Slowly this century is confronted with and has to face another world, that is darker, more violent, more romantic. For me the important thing was to deal with these two subjects and link it with pleasure.

The origin of the film was a commission. A Romanian producer asked me to make a film on Dracula, but I wasn’t interested in Dracula at the time. Not even now. For me it wasn’t an interesting subject. But later I was reading Casanova’s memoirs and I thought why not? why not make a film about that, since they share the same subject in different ways, they are both linked with pleasure, desire, why not ask where is real pleasure, where real desire is satisfied, where social pleasure ends and real pleasure starts, or where this real pleasure ends and calculation starts. Where this calculation ends and fatalism begins. These two different approaches to pleasure, this was the real goal.

So you take on corporeal desire and the desire for the body but you mask it behind these costumes, these layers and layers and layers of costume. So is it a challenge for you and for the audience to unmask these layers of desire behind the façade of your filmmaking, which is also incorporating the set design, the costume design?

Serra: It’s difficult to answer this question. But that’s not all, also you have to link it with non-professional actors because in this case the truth of the film will come from the people I work with. It was a real and realistic search. For example, there is mystery in the film. A friend of mine at the end of the film said: “It’s a film about hypocrisy”. I didn’t  understand what he was talking about at that time. But then I realised it was an interesting point of view because you never know what the characters are thinking, what are their real worries, their desires, what they are looking for. But this is also linked with the way I work, very strange, because I don’t know anything about what is happening in the film. In a sense it’s like a Warhol film, I don’t judge what they are doing while I am doing it, I simply shoot and focus on what I like. And that’s going on, going on, going on…and I really don’t know what I am doing when I am doing it.

Godard said: there are people who are shooting with the camera and other filmmakers who are shooting with the projector. But the projector doesn’t record. So you can shoot what you have in front of you, in front of the camera or you can shoot what is behind the camera, what is in your mind. I prefer what is in front so I’m very sensitive to that.

But you chose nonprofessional actors and you also chose to give them instructions rather than have professional actors who may have taken your script and run with it in their own way…

Serra: No, that’s not true, no instructions….

story of my deathSo what did they have when you engaged them and gave them a script?

Serra: No, it’s like a performance, I don’t care about my own thoughts. And I never saw the faces of the actors when I was shooting. Obviously I don’t have any monitor or any camera or any screen, I never check anything, I never look at what’s happening. But I’m not the only one, the Drive director, Nicholas Winding Refn does this too. A journalist friend of mine was on that shooting and he said: “he’s all the time with the headphones on, listening to his own music”.And Warhol, have you seen Chelsea Girls? What is he doing, he’s talking on the telephone with the actors.

That’s quite informative but at the same time language is extremely important to you. 

Serra: This is true but I think the beauty of the film is in this strange point that you never know when the performance ends and when some kind of script starts. All the people ask me: are the dialogues improvised?Because there is some mystery. And I was very proud of this question because usually when you have some historical, philosophical content, you always feel the presence of the scriptwriter behind. Here I like the fact that the actors are quite wild and you never know what is actually improvised.

But you knew with these actors that they knew the language…

Serra: You never know…you can imagine but…I am an actor also of the film, I’m always on the same level as the actors, I have the same information. This is the point: I am an actor also when I am directing. I am playing my own role, it’s part of the shooting of cinema. I don’t know if at the end of the script we can see this point but for me I decided to make cinema just to live a different life, at least at the shooting. Then, ok, life is mediocre, we cannot escape that. But at least on the shooting, you need to be able to live a different life. And with different values that will not be allowed in real life. So putting yourself as a filmmaker on the same level as the actors, on the same level of information, is important. Even if I have the general concept of the film inside my head, it’s quite general and I try to forget it.

I have to confront you a little bit, because you started this conversation with the challenge that this is not mediocrity, this is excellence, which we happen to agree, but you just insinuated that perhaps mediocrity could have inflicted the process. I see a discrepancy here. 

Serra: The idea is to have purity of perception, of time, space, actors, the beauty of small gestures, a small sentence. Just to rediscover the beauty of this quotidian thing that our daily life has completely destroyed, because we get used to it. And for this reason, professional actors are not better, it’s a performance, you can’t describe in any other way. Obviously it’s a closed concept, it’s a closed film, it’s a feature film, it’s not life.But at the same time I try to keep this real mystery and it’s the only way I found to create mystery in the film. If someone knows another way, ok, no problem. But the only way I found to create mystery with the actors was this performatic way of working. And I think it’s the future of film because otherwise it’s boring. Because it’s in the middle:something that is being recorded or it’s being filmed, and it’s a concept, but at the same time it allows you a beautiful point of view, if you are focused on what is in front of the camera and not on what is behind. And now the film is showing in a museum.

story-of-my-death-001The film is a gorgeous work of art, particularly in the last section: every shot was like a painting and the lighting was extraordinary, it was like Rembrandt. Can you talk about the cinematography and the lighting?

Serra: It’s difficult to say because I’m more focused on the actors.They are not really aware of what’s happening, there is the concept, the idea of the century of light, the 18th century, going into romanticism, the darker…

But the lighting and cinematography was the result of careful work, that was not random…

Serra: No, it wasn’t accidental but I like the fact that it looks accidental. You can never get the same kind of feeling if it’s prepared. Why? Simply because the technique in this kind of film has to follow acting, the inspiration of the actors is much more important, and they cannot wait until technique is ready. It’s always the opposite: technique has to follow the inspiration of actors, the inspiration of the filmmaker that acts like an actor. So it’s very difficult and very subtle. If you prepare it, you lose something.

But I think this is what we recognise as your inspiration because if you hadn’t thought through that, it wouldn’t have worked. So whether or not you acknowledge it, if it hadn’t worked, if we couldn’t have seen what the actors were doing, in the light that you had envisioned, it would have been a failure. But it did work so you must have thought of something in advance. 

Serra: Obviously. But the main point is that the filmmaker has the same knowledge as the actors and everybody. He’s not above everybody. Ok he has the concept, he controls the concept. He has the faith with the concept, not that he controls the concept. And yes it’s a closed concept because if not it wouldn’t be a feature film, it would be a ridiculous experimental school film. But this is not an experimental thing, it’s a feature film. So the concept has to be closed. But after that, I don’t have more information, I don’t want to have more information. Actually my way of working is that every time I try to destroy what was filmed before. When I have the concept of the film and the script, the film tries to destroy all the meanings, all the ideas that were in the concept. When I shoot the film, I try to destroy everything. Because I am scared of cliché. I’m like a paranoid who is scared of cliché. So when I’m shooting, all these ideas that were beautiful in the script, when I shoot it, if I see that something that is similar to what was in the script, I immediately think: “oh, this will be a cliché”. I became totally paranoid so I say to myself: “you have to go against that”. And in the edit it’s the same thing, I try to destroy all the meanings that were there before, because of the paranoia of cliché.  And on the post-production I am destroying what I made in the edit. For example, the film was shot in 4.3, but at the end I thought it was better in 2.35. And cinemascope is completely the opposite. But it’s ok, it’s part of the performance of the film, it’s more unpredictable. Otherwise you have a perfectly composed film. And my film is also perfect, but in a different way. Like with the actors, I shot a lot of hours, 400 hours for a 2h feature. But I’m not the only one, modern cinema has many interesting filmmakers who work in this way. Otherwise it’s boring.

You are an auteur, a torchbearer of the past generation, but you are rejecting that.

Serra: It was something that was very common in the past. And I come from the art world. Not in the sense that I studied or worked in art schools. But my main influence was art people from the beginning of the avant-garde, the attitude. Also take music for example: you can go to a live concert and say “the sound is terrible, the singer was drunk, and the people, you see them crying, it’s horrible”. But at the same time you can feel some magic, sometimes, that you cannot see in a perfect recording with a better sound, with all the time in the world, trying to do rehearsals and do it again and again and again. And we all here have experienced the same thing, that in a live concert, there is some kind of magic that you cannot achieve otherwise, despite the best sound, the best musicians, the best music studios…and then the final result is boring. And you can apply this kind of thinking to cinema. Because cinema has been academic, always. You go to art school and they say “do whatever you want, you are free, you are an artist”, you don’t need to justify yourself. But you go to film school and no, putting cows in the shooting, this will never get you good results!

Unless they explode…Another thing that seduced me about your film was the tone and the movement of the film, it seemed so controlled and so subtle at the same time. How did you manage to keep that movement in the editing room?

Serra: I edited the film myself, it took me one year and a half, so it was really really very difficult work. The edit adds something. My main goal in the edit was to create a fantasy which only really existed on the screen.  For example, in the scene where Dracula asked the girl to go to the castle, to cross the river for the first time. I shot that  scene for three hours, always making variations, I never repeat the same scene. Even if I like something a lot, I never say, “do it again”. Always some variations of the same subject, using the same words. It depends on the actors. So I have three hours of that, same dialogue, going on, coming back. Then in the edit I rewrite all the dialogues on paper. For three hours of shooting you have 24 pages of dialogue. And I start editing the film on paper. So I would choose a question from the first page and then pick an answer that is on the fifth page. And that’s because I like the poetry and lyrical aspect of that combination. Then again a question that is on page 20 and so on. And it’s really open, there are so many possibilities. And at the end when I’m really tired, I decide and I usually I keep the last version. Then maybe in the final edit I cut something. But in general I keep the whole scene.So what happened? What you see in the film, it’s the first time it exists, this dialogue was never done in reality, no one thought about that dialogue before, no screenwriter who wrote it, no actors who performed it. It means that it only exists on the screen, it’s like a fantasy. And it’s the same with 4.3 and cinemascope. OK, the film was shot in 4.3 but in the end I thought it was better in 2.35. So what you see is a new image, an image that never existed in reality. Also for the structure of the film, sometimes I edit one scene before another because I like the last frame. The physical combination of the last frame with the next frame. I don’t care about what’s happening from the narrative point of view. So in some sense, the film you see here was really born on the screen, it never existed in reality, it’s a cinematic performance. It has the values of performance in the sense that it’s really unpredictable but at the same time it has the values of cinema, the fact that in the edit, even in a strange way, somebody really controlled it and worked for having a more intense and more sensitive perception of time, space, characters. Somebody was really focusing on showing that.

What can you tell us about the music you chose for the film?

Serra: It’s the first film in which I use music, it’s part of the subject of the film that is this mix of artificial and ultranaturalistic. When you see these actors, you feel that it’s wild, no professional actors, but I like also the artificial side of the film. And music is part of it in some sense. I wanted to add a new layer. It’s obvious that it’s strange music, made specifically for the film. And that would be a beautiful contrast with the wildness of the actors, and of the edit, which has a raw quality. Even the image, although it’s beautiful, it’s always strange. It’s an imbalance, the values of the film are imbalanced.But this is what I like. I decided to make cinema just to live a different life.