«Ambiguity is the most important language in a village.»

Mario and Lenz have known each other since they were small. Now they are both 20 and determined to escape the confines of this mountain village. Lenz, son of the local vintner, has clearly been dealt a better hand in this respect than the self-destructive dreamer Mario. However, a tragic turn of events shatters the status quo. Evi Romen’s feature film debut Why Not You features a village in the 21st-century where the old order is collapsing and yet still dominant, depicting the rollercoaster ride of a young man who is completely disoriented and yet senses there must be a place for him too, somewhere.

In the opening scene the main protagonist, Mario, enters the village community centre, which has been decorated for Christmas. He starts dancing in a way which is definitely not intended for the stage here, and neither is his outfit. These first impressions quickly make it clear that we are dealing with someone who doesn't fit in. Is this feeling of being out of place the basic theme of Why Not You?

Being out of place is exactly the sensation I wanted to introduce during these first minutes. He is somebody who doesn't fit in here, or who at least feels deep inside that he doesn't fit in and could have a far better life somewhere else. There are two aspects dominating Why Not You beneath the surface: on the one hand being out of place, and on the other being at the edge of the abyss.

How could Mario, as the central character of the film, be most succinctly described?

There's only one word for it: lost.

There are a number of complex and tangible characters in Why Not You, but I tend to feel the second protagonist of the film is in fact the setting, the village. What motivated you to set the first film you have written and directed in a village of South Tyrol that is given over to tourism?

South Tyrol isn’t the conceptual foundation of the film for me; it's more like the paint an artist uses for a picture. This kind of village community can be found all over the world, in my opinion, and it doesn't have to be Catholic at all. I regard it as a basic, archaic structure that exists in many places. The fact that it is located in my home region in Why Not You is just a matter of colouring, and also because if you know a place you can depict it and make its structures more easily accessible.

Mario has been friends with Lenz, the son of the wealthy vintner family in the village, since they were small children. The cards that life has dealt these two youngsters could hardly be more different. Is Why Not You also about the extent to which the village, as a social system, predetermines a young person's future to this day?

In structures like these you are allocated a place at birth, and it's almost impossible to change that within the structures. You can only do so by getting out. And that's Mario's main problem: in this kind of village community everybody stays in his place. The only way he could make his dream come true is by leaving. Then he could come back later and say to the community: "Look, I have created my own place." But he doesn't succeed.

Even though the lives of Lenz and Mario appear to be predetermined, an unexpected blow of fate changes everything. When destiny and providence are at play, religion and faith are not far away. In Why Not You religion becomes an interesting illustration of how complex the realities of our lives have become, making it difficult to adopt a position towards them.

I'm glad you perceive it that way, because there have been many attempts to see WHY NOT YOU as my statement about the subject of religion. It wasn't my intention in any way to comment on religious values. What I wanted to indicate is the extent to which religion influences us, and the shape that takes in modern life. How deep some (Catholic) articles of faith are still located within us, and how powerfully a yearning for orientation through religion exists in the Islamic world. On the one hand I see a tendency to seek liberation from the burden of religious structures and on the other hand surrender to religion as a form of protection.

After so many films with you as editor or writer, WHY NOT YOU is the first time you have worked as a director. The original title HOCHWALD (High Forest) sums up associations with nature, mountains and the countryside – but when the titles appear in the opening credits they are in yellow against a bright red background. Was it one of your early narrative aims to challenge assumptions?

The title HOCHWALD was there from the very beginning. It was also clear that there wouldn't be aerial shots of mountains and forests. I always wanted to use visual details purely to depict people who actually live in a village. I didn't want to move a millimetre away from everyday events, and certainly not in the direction of tourist imagery. It was a conscious decision to challenge such assumptions and to present the forest as a symbol rather than a decorative backdrop. The village of Hochwald doesn't actually exist, and of course that's also a symbol. Nature and the forest should represent symbolically a blend of menace and reassurance in the background.

Mario's white curly wig accompanies him throughout the film. It could be seen as a talisman, but naturally not only that…

Whether it really is a talisman I don't know. Because when tragedy strikes, the person wearing it dies. But certainly the wig as an object moves through the film like a talisman. One of the greatest challenges when we were making the film was to know where the wig was at any one time and how it would get from A to B. That was a huge task for Continuity and required a lot of thought from me as director.
A wig changes someone at a stroke. To me it represents the fool's hat, which is initially an object of ridicule but then provokes envy. It throws up the question: Who is the biggest fool? And it also symbolizes the idea that there is something beautiful and reassuring about showing a fool at a moment of great grief.

Mario and Lenz could have a sexual relationship. Mario and Lenz both had some kind of affair with Claudia – in the end it isn't clear which of them got her pregnant. Kathi seems to be Lenz's girlfriend. But in many respects sexuality seems fluid here and full of ambiguities. It exists in the shadows and also remains concealed in the film. Why?

Ambiguity is the most important language in a village. It's the code within which people exist in communities like that. Everybody knows something but nobody says anything. Of course people know that homosexuality exists, but it remains a taboo. Of course people know who had a fling with whom, but nobody talks about it. In WHY NOT YOU the question of sexuality is one of ambiguity, and that extends to the scenes with the Muslim men. Even there I suggest this ambiguity, though in very gentle fashion, when Mario wakes up in the morning and we see a man's naked body in the mirror on the bathroom door. There too everything is unspoken. I’d suggest that religious communities, however different they may be, share a great deal of ambiguity with regard to sexuality.

Another crucial issue for the director must have been the depiction of the attack. How did you resolve that?

That was perhaps the most difficult issue. In various phases during the development of the script I gave the attack plenty of room, deleted it completely, implied it or left it half in. The question of setting alone preoccupied me for a very long time. Should it be a disco, a gay club or a bar? I made my decision when I discovered that place with birds of paradise. That place made it clear to me that I wanted to embed this event in a world of birds of paradise. The second crucial issue was: how much do we show? It was extremely important for me not to offend religious sensitivities in any way or to make accusations. I even considered setting the film in the 1970s and making it an attack from the Red Brigade in order to avoid completely the sensitive subject of religion. But I came to the conclusion that I wanted I did want to confront the subject and I made a huge effort to present the attack as a momentary phenomenon and not as a value judgement.The first time we rehearsed, when the three extras who were playing the attackers burst in and yelled "Allahu akbar!", the whole crew froze. Only then did it become fully apparent how much fear there is in all of us. I also wanted to show in this film that as a matter of principle there is no need to be afraid of religion, of communities. Unfortunately today we are in a situation where it's very difficult for us to see that, to look behind the facade and to confront these things without fear.

How did you cope with the new experience of working with actors?

Amazingly well. That's what I was most afraid of, but it ended up being the easiest thing. I got on fine with them, and I think the actors enjoyed working with me, understood very well what I wanted, and went along with my ideas. I didn't so much rehearse concrete scenes as talk to them. I stuck to the Jean-Luc Godard principle and went fishing, climbing and walking with them. We more or less sidestepped read-throughs and rehearsals, focusing on getting to know each other and the characters.

One important element is music, and you place great emphasis on atmospheric narrative. How did you choose the music, and what role did you allocate it during the editing process?

The choice of music had a similar background to the main protagonist, by which I mean not fitting in, being different. I didn't want to use classic film music, even though it actually turned out to be a kind of score. I wanted songs that matched the characters’ emotions but didn't have anything to do with contemporary musical taste. Uno dei mods by Rickey Shayne and Inch‘Allah by Adamo are like outfits for the main protagonists. Creating atmosphere was very important to me; the music is one element of that, together with the colours and the multilingual aspect of the location. I'd call it a composition. I myself studied music, and my experience directing this film showed me that maintaining an overview of the composition and having all instruments playing together is the most crucial factor.

How would you summarize your feelings after your first feature as director?

I have to say, I got a taste for it. The reason I wanted to direct the film was simply that the idea really appealed to me. Looking back it was a very profound and intense experience; a huge amount happened, but I was always sure that I was in the right place. There was the powerful sensation that it was natural for me to be doing it, which encourages me to start writing my next story.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
September 2020

Translation : Charles Osborne