Sudabeh Mortezai about shooting MACONDO

...even if it isn’t exactly their own story.»  Sudabeh Mortezai talks about shooting her first feature film, Macondo, contender of the 64th Berlinale competition for Golden Bear.

Macondo is the name of the town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, but in Vienna it has other associations. What are they?
Sudabeh Mortezai: In Zinnergasse, in the Vienna district of Simmering, there is a home for refugees which was called Macondo by many of the inhabitants, especially the older ones who came to Austria in the 1970s from Latin America. The building itself is an old army barracks from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it has served as accommodation for people granted asylum in this country since the 1950s. Starting with Hungary in 1956, and then Czechoslovakia, Chile… people from various waves of refugees over the last 60 years have settled there. There are still some very old people from Hungary, Vietnam or Chile who simply stayed there. Over the last few years accommodation has only been on short-term tenancies, which means there has been greater fluctuation. At the moment most of the residents come from Chechnya, Somalia or Afghanistan. That's why there's a Chechen family at the center of my story.

Are there territories and hierarchies in microcosms like that?
Sudabeh Mortezai: You shouldn't imagine it as a tough place governed by the law of the ghetto. People coexist. A great deal depends on how long somebody has been living there: the longer you've been there, the more chance there is of neighborly, communal life developing. People who have just been accorded asylum status first have to cope with the trauma of being refugees, and they tend to be withdrawn, staying in their own communities. But the children mix with one another. It's not exactly a romantic, multi-cultural utopia: life is pretty hard, because the children have to handle the refugee experiences their parents have been through. The parents are so trapped in a battle for survival that the children have to grow up at a very early age. That's a very important point, and it interested me for this film.

Ramasan is the main character, and his facial expressions are really impressive: he manages to convey an incredible range of expressions. At what point during the casting process did it become apparent to you that he was the boy who should play that part?
Sudabeh: Right away, really. My way of working is very intuitive, and Eva Roth - who arranged the casting – had the right feel for this project from the very beginning. I wasn‘t looking for actors: I was looking for "normal" people. There were some other boys in the shortlist, and Ramasan was very small, very fragile, incredibly cheeky and at the same time very sensitive. We tried out some scenes to test certain emotions. I got him to translate a conversation in the headmaster's office at school when his "mother" had been called in because he'd done something naughty. He conveyed the ambiguity of feelings in that situation so authentically and so well that I was impressed with him from the very start. Then we tried it with other mothers and other boys, but he was best at getting across the ambivalence that is required from this role in many respects, between being a child and an adult, head of the family, son and brother.

How did the story develop when you were attempting firstly to capture the protagonists’ way of speaking and thinking, and then to apply that?
Sudabeh Mortezai: I stuck to the dramatic arc within the screenplay, and then to the arc within each of the scenes. Everything else was free and improvised. A lot of things were based on material I had observed or heard, but I didn't want the people to repeat it word for word. None of the actors had ever seen a script or had to learn a text before. We filmed in a chronological sequence, working our way into the story day by day. At the beginning of each day's shooting I would take the actors to one side, often one by one, if I wanted a spontaneous reaction to something surprising. Then I‘d sketch what was going on in the scene, but I would give them a lot of freedom. Some scenes are completely improvised, and there are others where I wanted to hear a certain sentence or achieve a certain result.

How did you define the context of the story?
Sudabeh Mortezai: I wanted the situation of a boy who had lost his father in the war in Chechnya and was now living in Vienna with his younger brothers and sisters, and his mother was bringing them all up by herself. He's an 11-year-old boy who has to become grown up much too soon, who has to become the head of the family because of the patriarchal Chechen culture. A lot of refugee children have to be there for their parents. Often the reversal of roles is connected with the fact that they can learn German more quickly and become the mediators between Austrian society and their families. A reversal of roles like this is a very widespread phenomenon, and I experienced it myself when I came to Austria at the age of 12, even though my parents spoke perfect German. The second important character in the story is the stranger who turns up: he knew the boy's father, and during the boy’s process of growing up the stranger triggers a process of coming to terms with the father figure. It's all about roots but also about the question of what it means to be a man. What does manliness represent at that age, in the boy's own culture and in the new culture?

A lot of things in MACONDO are merely suggested: what might work out between Isa and the boy's mother, how the relationship between Isa and Ramasan will develop. This seems to reveal your documentary view of life, where things don't always go the way a neat plot might take them. It's a very observational form of narrative.
Sudabeh Mortezai: It definitely has something to do with it. The film has a clear dramatic structure, but I didn't want to force a plot down people’s throats. In Western terms the story that begins to develop between Isa and the mother is extremely subtle, while it was quite obvious to our Chechen translator when she read the story that something was going to happen. I deliberately left it open how things would continue. I see Macondo as a story, but also as part of life. We never know how things are going to work out. Imposing closure on a story is an attractive fabrication. I think what happens between Isa and Ramasan is very hopeful. At a certain point the boy does everything he can to reject the man who could be a far better father figure than his own father, and he destroys a lot. But I think there are positive prospects, and an audience can put together the pieces themselves to decide what will happen in concrete terms.
How would you describe a day’s filming on the set of MACONDO?
Sudabeh Mortezai: We had shorter shooting days than usual because of the children. To make up for that, we had a very long shooting period of nine weeks. Longer shooting days would have been out of the question, because the work was very intense. We were very focused on the work, but with the children and the large number of non-professional actors it could get chaotic, because they weren't familiar with the procedures. Every day the first step was to discuss the scenes with the people, when I would outline the framework, and it was here that the chronological way of working proved to be a huge advantage, because the people could base their improvisations on what had happened so far. We didn't rehearse. We started filming straight away. Often the first take was the best, although some things did have to be modified. If we did repeat something, I never insisted on sticking slavishly to the first version.

On the one hand the camera adopts a documentary perspective, but on the other hand it comes very close to the faces. How did you and the cameraman Klemens Hufnagl find a method to combine the two?
Sudabeh Mortezai: We had a lot of discussions about this, and Klemens put a great deal of thought into the camera concept. There was one thing we agreed on from the very start, which was that we should always be at eye level to Ramasan, to give him a kind of hero status by making sure we’d rather look up to him instead of looking down at him. We wanted to adopt his perspective, to be very close to him. I wanted to work with as few changes of shot as possible, using planned sequences  and the minimum of rehearsals so we could start filming straight away and see how it worked. And during the process of making this film we refined the method more and more. For scenes which are, in the dramatic sense, real feature film scenes we used more changes of shots, and those scenes contrast with others filmed in very documentary style. I think we found a good balance between being emotionally very close to Ramasan and at the same time being aware of the place and open in a documentary sense to things that happen.

After two documentary films, what aroused your interest in feature films?
Sudabeh Mortezai: While I was filming In the Bazaar of the Sexes it was necessary to arrange a lot of the encounters. Since we were dealing with a theme that is taboo, it wasn't possible to work in an observational manner: I had to bring people into certain situations and see what happens, although in the process I didn't dictate what should happen. I found that a very appealing way of working, and I thought: why shouldn't I give myself more freedom in that way? As far as working with people is concerned, I took a great deal from documentary work. I tried to adopt the best features of both worlds.

While you were making MACONDO did you find a way of working that you would like to develop further?
Sudabeh: I wanted to take risks, and I constantly urged my team to adopt a positive attitude to taking risks. Of course it's unusual to tell such a clear story and at the same time leave so many things open. Some things didn't work out at all, so we left them out, but at the same time in other places we got unexpected gifts. Some things worked out with far less work than we'd expected. Having the complete immediacy from documentary films available in order to shape stories is an aspect of this work that very much appeals to me. MACONDO was also an experiment for me about developing a method for fictional material, and I would very much like to continue working like that; there are so many things I love from documentary work that I can retain, like the spontaneity and the authenticity of the characters, the fact that nothing is being acted. My characters do live in front of the camera, even if it isn’t exactly their own story.

You yourself embody this process of personal development within two cultures. Where would you position yourself? What has happened over the last 30 years, when you compare your arrival in Austria with the arrival of the children in MACONDO?
Sudabeh Mortezai: Every fate is extremely individual. My parents were very educated: my family could speak German when we arrived here. For children from different social backgrounds, without that knowledge of the language, it's completely different. But there is one thing that runs through all immigrant stories as a fundamental emotion: you have the feeling you’re not accepted, and you constantly tend to apologize for your immigrant status. Your ambition is to be a good immigrant, and you only feel good enough when you have really proven that. I come from a very liberal, secular family, but I also had the feeling I wasn't accepted as a foreigner. Equality of opportunity is a huge subject. I had opportunities to develop myself. I didn't have to disown the culture I came from in order to be accepted here. It certainly changed me a lot. Today I regard myself as both an Austrian woman and an Iranian woman. It's not a contradiction for me. And it doesn't have to be. When you get to the stage that you no longer think in terms of either/or, then the question has been resolved.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
July 2013/February 2014