«Embrace darkness»

Silence is a tactic often employed within families. As was the case with Michaela, who was an adult when she instigated a radical break with the village where she grew up. Only the death of her father brings her and her eight-year-old daughter back to the old house from buried times. Achmed Abdel-Salam's exciting directorial debut SMOTHER explores dilapidated rooms and overgrowth gone rampant, prompting memories to flare up which unravel a painful secret.
SMOTHER is the story of a trauma, how it is repressed and unconsciously perpetuated. Did you conceive of this idea from the beginning in association with the horror film genre?
The first idea was to address the theme of alcohol addiction in a rather classic way, in the form of a social drama. I knew it was going to feature a mother-daughter relationship. And that it would at times be very grim. It was only when I looked at the situation from the child's perspective that I realized how sinister that could be. The idea of Mama disappearing into the back room and then returning as a changed person, as someone else, provided the impetus to use the horror genre for this story.
What experiences did you accumulate during the course of the writing process?
I have my very own, rather unusual method. I carry an idea around with me for a very long time, using several notebooks which I gradually fill with moods. Scenes, passages of dialogue, drawings and reflections on cinematic interpretation. At some point my fantasy container is full, and I have to empty it. Then, instead of a treatment, I write a script in one go, to give me a sense of how the characters speak, how something might work, how a rhythm is created. So I always get to the first versions quite quickly. With SMOTHER it was there in four days. Of course, that was still very rudimentary, but it formed a basis which enabled me to obtain development funding from the Austrian Film Institute. That was a big motivation boost. But it’s not exactly the healthiest method.
After the death of her father Michaela, your main character, has to confront both the physical and the invisible legacy from her childhood. What is it that fascinates you about the subject of conscious and unconscious transmission between generations?
In many cases you feel nothing more than unease, or the sensation of a burden on your shoulders. Things you’d often be unable to describe, to say what they're all about. Only rarely does the opportunity arise to resolve this. It’s like that especially with the generation of my parents and their parents, where so much about the war was hushed up. Austria is a country where silence has always been maintained, to a great extent, about serious issues. Even as a child, I always felt some things were being shrouded in silence. I also think it was no coincidence that the idea for this film coincided with a period when I’d just become a father myself and was confronted with the question of how much of me would be passed on to my son, which filled me with a certain fear – bringing us back to horror.
The audience experiences the memory coming back to Michaela, one detail at a time. What challenge did the visual representation of forgetting and remembering pose for you?
My collaboration with cameraman Alexander Dirninger was characterized by a very intensive exchange right from the start. The idea was that uncanny would always be present somehow, so the goal of our visual concept was to create the necessary atmosphere. We quickly found a way that felt right to us by going back in time in very subjective memory images. We chose very specific sections of scenes for this purpose which depict a different time level and a feeling of anxiety, but without revealing too much. We wanted our protagonist’s past to creep continuously into the film as well, and not only be depicted in those retrospectives. The set design by Winnie Küchl also contributed a lot to making Michaela's past tangible and omnipresent.
There are several scenes in SMOTHER that manage with very little light. What considerations about the use of light did you and your crew consider?
Darkness in the film, how to deal with it and how to play with it, was an important creative issue long before we started shooting. We wanted to make a horror film where the horror creeps up quietly. Where a lot happens in the audience’s mind. And of course, this approach was also applied to lighting design. It was important to us to tell very atmospheric stories, and to be daring visually. To embrace darkness. We applied lighting very consciously and always had in mind the creative possibilities available to us in post-production.
Two locations that play a decisive role in the film are the house and the field of sunflowers. Can you describe these two places and their function in the narrative? How did you find them?
Finding the house was very difficult. I think we spent at least two years looking for that location. We wanted it to be remote and surrounded by as much open countryside as possible. Inside it had to look like many of us remember “grandma’s” apartment or house. That particular look, and the unforgettable smell you associate with it. We wanted it to be a genuine dilapidated house you could feel and smell.
With the sunflower field, I wanted to convey a feeling of it being an endless sea. A few years ago, I walked past a field of sunflowers in bloom; most of the flowers were already hanging their dried heads. It looked like hair hanging in front of sunken, sad faces. I’ve never been able to let go of that image.
How did Cornelia Ivancan become the main actress of SMOTHER?
I wanted to find a leading actress who hadn’t been over-exposed on television or in the cinema. Cornelia Ivancan has been living and working in Berlin for several years. She sent us an e-casting, and after just a few minutes it was clear to me that she was the right person. She quickly understood the role and had the required courage to be ugly. I don’t mean by that any external ugliness, but rather an inner conflict and coarseness towards the child. I was looking for performers who dared to open the door to their inner beings, just a crack. If that succeeds – even a little – so much that’s real and beautiful comes out.
Hanna has a difficult role to play for her age. How did you prepare her for that?
The search for a suitable Hanna was very time-consuming. That was also connected with the demands that producer Lena Weiss and I placed on ourselves. We agreed that we would keep searching until we found a child who was really up to the role, someone we could be certain wouldn't be harmed by the shooting. So we had to be very sensitive during the casting process, to sense whether the children were really there because they wanted to be, or whether it was mainly at the urging of their parents. One day Lola Herbst appeared in front of us, and she inspired me from the first moment. Despite her youth, she possessed the necessary mental maturity and was easily able to abstract the moments and emotions to be portrayed. We also had to create the right framework conditions for the shooting. For us, this meant communicating openly and honestly with the parents and everyone involved, addressing difficult passages in the script – and on top of that, Lola and Cornelia had to establish a connection to each other. A few weeks before filming began, Jakob Fischer joined the team as a children's coach, because it was very important to us that Lola felt comfortable at all times.
SMOTHER was also a pilot project in Austria as far as green producing is concerned. How did you experience raising awareness during the preparation and shooting phases?
Initially, we were worried that we might be restricted in our creative possibilities, though this proved to be unfounded. Would it mean, for example, that our electricity consumption would be limited? In principle, in addition to very simple things, there were three key points: In the catering, there were two fixed meatless days a week; we had two electric buses available to transport cast and crew; and another important contribution was made in set construction. Precisely because it was a worn-out house, we bought furniture at flea markets and from various house clearances. That way we were able to keep our CO2 emissions as low as possible and focus on sustainability. For me as a director, there were no artistic limitations at any time. It felt good and right, and I'm also really proud that our film led the way as a pilot project.
Where did the experience of SMOTHER take you in terms of your need to tell stories?
I will remain true to the themes that move me and that I want to explore. I am still a great fan of genre cinema, and I follow with interest how the horror genre in particular has developed in the last ten years. I also believe a lot of exciting things will happen in Austria, because a new wave of filmmakers is taking up the genre but at the same time moving away from conventions to make something new out of it. I would like to be part of that wave.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
March 2023

Translation: Charles Osborne