The IDFAcademy Talk "Directing the personal", which took place at ITA on Saturday morning, gathered three women filmmakers with films in the IDFA program: Niki Padidar with the IDFA Opening Film All You See, which screens in Luminous; Lea Glob with Apolonia, Apolonia which is in International Competition; and Biserka Šuran with Scenes with My Father, which is showing in Envision Competition.
Before an audience of 100 emerging filmmakers, the directors spoke about the ways they created the worlds of their films, the objects and locations they used, and their different approaches to screenplay and the resulting effects on the process of filming and editing.
The talk was moderated by film critic Dana Linssen, who opened the discussion by saying that she usually shows a trailer or a particular segment from the film, but in this case, all three films had very strong opening scenes. She started with All You See.
In the scene, a young girl is standing in front of a white background, looking at the camera. After a little while, she starts shifting her weight, visibly uncomfortable.
"The girl you saw plays my part in the film," Padidar explained. "The film is about the way we look at each other and what happens to you if you're not seen, but you're stared at instead. What is happening right here is the actual casting that I kept and used in the film. This is exactly what the film is about: she was standing there, for a while we were quiet, and you can see what happens to someone when they are being looked at: she gets uncomfortable and starts moving around. I thought, that's really the core of the film."
Asked by Linssen how she decided to form the story, Padidar elaborated: "These four women are considered 'new' in the Netherlands, even if one of them has been here for almost 30 years. They get these questions all the time—where are you from? Are you used to snow yet? You feel something is off, but the rest of the world doesn't see it. So, I wanted to visualize this parallel universe that they have to deal with."
Padidar built a set with sparse, grey cubicles in which these women live in order to depict this parallel world.
Linssen noticed a similarity with Apolonia, Apolonia, for which Glob built a cardboard model of a theater.
"I love this model because it's funny and playful. You have a cardboard box and when you add the sound, it's like playing with cinematic language. And it works! Even though you know it's artificial, you accept it, and it still creates emotion, and I think that's really beautiful," Glob said. "It helps you enter the storytelling, and to me, the personal point of view is very important. I was hoping to get this feeling of sitting in a bar, intimately, and saying to a friend, 'I have to tell you this'."
Linssen noted that this might be a reason Glob decided to jump forward in time, as opposed to telling the story chronologically.
"You have to realize, this film was made over a period of ten years, and it's about a woman growing older. The time aspect is also important because she is a painter. It's also about generations—Apolonia and her mother, and her mother’s mother. Immigration is another topic, so it's like a bundle of delicate strings that need to come together," she replied.
Šuran, on the other hand, used a performative element by putting the conversation with her father on a stage, "a little play where you are pretending to be somewhere else, and you somehow play both your father and your mother," as Linssen put it.
"That's true," replied Šuran, "I am one of those people who think there's not much difference between fiction and documentary, and I take a lot of inspiration from fiction films. The opening is copied from Tarkovsky's Nostalgia. I looked a lot at that film.
"This space was really meant to be like a time machine. You can't go back to Yugoslavia; it doesn't exist anymore. So, creating this space was a way to travel back in time and to travel to my memories, to share my point of view with the audience and my father and tell his memories of growing up in a country that doesn't exist."
In addition to creating this space, Šuran uses some key objects in her film: a suitcase and a tin box.
"They were really important to start the film," she recalled. "There's a tin box with letters [in the living room at our home in Amsterdam]. My mom, who is from Amsterdam, and dad met at a beach, and they wrote to each other for eight years. This box was always in our living room, but I never thought about the other side—I found this suitcase full of letters in my grandparents' house in Croatia. I thought it's a beautiful fact that part of the letters is here in the Netherlands and the other part is still there—and, in a way, my father is partly still in Croatia."
Padidar, for her part, has built a miniature of her grandparents' house where she spent some of her happiest days before she moved with her family to the Netherlands when she was seven, and she especially enjoyed sleeping on the roof with her grandmother. There is also a significant scene in the film involving mirrors.
"Sometimes recreating something conveys the feeling you want to convey more than the real thing," she said. "I wanted to show this world I was living in back then, and in my grandparents' house, there was this cabinet full of mirrors. I would sit in it for hours. I set it as an element in the film, when I want to hide from this world I go back to my grandpa's cupboard."
For her film, Šuran wrote a full screenplay: "I wrote a whole script, and of course it didn't happen that way, but I wrote each scene—train, car, hotel room, restaurant. It got mixed up, but it was all there. I even wrote the dialogues, just for me, to get a grip on what I was trying to do."
Padidar, conversely, didn't have a screenplay with dialogues, but she had quite a clear idea what she wanted to do and how it would affect the audience. The way she treated the miniature of the grandparents’ house shifts throughout the film.
"The miniature is not only there to show my grandpa's house, but also the different realities I am experiencing. Every time you see it, it changes a bit, and that's because the reality [itself] changes. Who I was changed, how I look changed. So I try to give you a different experience every time with the same objects and places that you've seen before in the film," she elaborated.
Asked by Linssen about these parallel realities, Padidar explained them as related to the topic of her film.
"I am not constantly thinking about these things, but often, I am just sitting there and all of a sudden someone asks me where I am from. So, you get torn from your reality into this parallel universe where someone sees you as a foreigner," she said.
When Linssen asked her how she would like these conversations to go, Padidar replied:
"It would be nice if it was a conversation. When they ask Khadija if she is circumcised, it's not a conversation. It's OK to ask questions as long as you are genuinely interested, but this is just putting you in a box and trying to reaffirm your own prejudice.
"We all tend to think it's someone else doing it. You should think of your role, but the problem lies in denying it. In the Netherlands we tend to say, it happens in bad countries. Acknowledging it might happen with you too will help."
Padidar also shared how she found the protagonists and worked with them.
"I wanted to talk to my characters on screen; otherwise it becomes like a re-enactment, and I hate that. But the producer of my previous film advised me to write something down. Suddenly I had 17 pages, so that was the basis for the film," she recalled.
When she was looking for the protagonists, Padidar spent a lot of time in classes for newcomers, observing the children, and this is how she found the Ukrainian girl, Hana. As for Khadija, the Somalian woman who has been living in the Netherlands for 27 years, she discovered her through a tip from a Facebook friend.
"I asked on Facebook if anyone knows someone who is new and funny. And interestingly, many of the tips were actually for women who were born here. They just looked foreign. Everything that the film is about happened behind the scenes as well."
Throughout the talk, the three filmmakers actively interacted, asking each other questions. But a particularly strong statement came from Šuran.
"Because I have such a Balkan name, many people ask me where I am from, and within one minute you are telling a complete stranger that you fled from war. It's a very difficult thing to answer, but Niki, when you say you loved sleeping with your grandmother on the roof—that's where you're from."