Taboos, tourism and Cannes Film Fest
THE Austrian director Ulrich Seidl makes a habit of blurring boundaries: his work encompasses fiction (Dog Days) and nonfiction (Animal Love), and he typically works with nonprofessional actors using documentary-like settings and improvisatory techniques. But there is little middle ground when it comes to the reception of his films. Seidl tends to be condemned as a misanthrope who goes to unseemly lengths to prove the depths of human misery or hailed as a maestro of discomfort whose taste for confrontation masks a seriousness of purpose and a measure of compassion.
Last at the festival here with Import/Export (2007), a bleak tale of lost souls making their way through the economic backwaters of the new Europe, Seidl returns to the Cannes competition this year with Paradise: Love, another story of exploitation across borders. The protagonist, Teresa (the stage veteran Margarethe Tiesel), is a fleshy, middle-aged Viennese woman on vacation at a resort in Kenya, where young, lithe local m e n known a s beach boys stake out the water’s edge, selling trinkets — and themselves — to Western pleasure seekers.
The movie, which gives an entirely new, queasy meaning to the Swahili phrase “hakuna matata,” is the first of Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, each one subtitled for a Christian virtue. The next two installments, Hope (about Teresa’s sister, a flagellant on a religious pilgrimage), and Faith (about Teresa’s daughter, an overweight teenager at a diet camp), have been completed and will make their debuts at film festivals this fall.
Speaking in German through a translator, Seidl discussed Love and the Paradise project in an interview at a reception following his film’s premiere recently.
Q. You started out making one film — how did you end up with a trilogy? A. The original plan was to make a film with three episodes, each about a different woman, two middle-aged sisters and the 13-year-old daughter of one of them — you see them together at the beginning.
They each go on holiday, each looking for love, fulfilment, but in different ways. In the script the three stories aren’t interwoven, and we shot each one separately. I try whenever possible to shoot chronologically, which gives me the freedom to change the storyline, invent other characters.
During editing, I attempted to interweave those three stories into a single film, but the result was a six-hour film that didn’t satisfy me; individual scenes that were intense and emotiona l l y strong were weakened. That’s when I decided to make separate films.
Why did you choose to set the film in Kenya, and could you tell us a bit about the research process and shooting conditions there? I chose Kenya because it shares with Europe a past that unites them: Africa is also a divided continent with enormous internal tensions.
Two years before shooting, I started going to Kenya to cast the beach boys, research their life. I never considered actors; I wanted people who really came from this milieu. As you see in the film, it wasn’t hard to meet them. What was difficult was finding people who would be as authentic as possible on camera. During shooting, several beach boys we were working with were arrested, and they actually have beach boy associations, who were against us because they suspected that we wouldn’t present a flattering picture of them. We had to work to get them on our side.
Your cast is made up of professionals and nonprofessionals. Did you direct them differently? I don’t distinguish between actors and nonactors.
Each scene is improvised because I don’t want them to have a pre-existing idea of what we should attain. During the very long preparation, I get to know the actors, and it creates a climate of mutual trust. You instill in them an idea of the kind of film that you’re seeking.
I always speak to them individually, telling each one what I’m looking for. The other actors in the scene never know what’s coming.
What can we expect from the next two parts, and what is the significance of the overall title and the subtitles? The second film, Faith, is much more difficult: it’s claustrophobic, a chamber piece.
The first one has an element of humour but the second one is more severe. The third film, Hope, is again lighter; it deals with young girls in puberty and treats them with a great deal of tenderness.
All three women are in search of their personal paradise. The word also has a Biblical sense, of course, as the original state of constant happiness, and interestingly, it’s also a term that is overused, misused, flaunted in the tourist industry. Love is the starting point, the basis of this first film. If this woman didn’t go in search of love, no exploitation would take place.