Saturday, November 1, 2008

FRÄULEIN comes to DVD and Andrea Staka talks about her film

When FRÄULEIN -- Andrea Staka's loving look at three Croatian woman living in present-day Switzerland -- hits video stores/mailboxes this Tuesday, home viewers will have the chance to see what New Yorkers who paid the film a visit discovered when it made its theatrical debut six weeks ago. (My September 18 review appears here.) Watching the movie again, in preparation for an interview with the filmmaker, made me even more aware of what an interesting example it is of the search currently going on by moviemakers as diverse as Switzerland's Staka, Spain's Jaime Rosales, Italy's Salvatore Maira and many others for a new movie "paradigm": making movies so that, when audiences watch, we may better understand our world and how we fit into it. Beyond this, for anyone remotely interested in immigrants today -- women in particular -- Fräulein is also worth a look.

Actually reaching Andrea turned out to be a bit more difficult than TrustMovies had imagined. But it was worth the wait. The filmmaker -- a new mother -- had to cancel our initial interview (during her New York stay for the opening of Fräulein) in order to spend the necessary time with her baby. (That's Andrea above -- with baby Vanja -- in front of the Cinema Village, shortly before the opening day of her film.) Then, rather than doing an email interview as was proposed, she decided that she'd rather talk. But at our scheduled time to speak -- still no filmmaker. A couple of quick emails solved the problem: Switzerland, where she lives, had gone over to its winter time schedule last week, while here in America we're not doing this until early this coming AM. (FYI: set your clocks back!)

TrustMovies: How old is your baby?

Andrea Stanka: Ten months. He's a boy, and his name is Vanja (Ed: pronounced like Chekhov's famous "Uncle").

We were sorry not to be able to meet you while you were here in New York City, but because my own daughter recently had a baby, I can fully understand your needing to spend more time on that front.

While I was in NYC, Film Movement (Ed: the distributor of Andrea's film) was wonderful about helping me with the baby during my Q&A’s. And when we weren’t in the movie theater I wanted to show Vanja the big apple: We went to Central Park, Coney Island, and to the parks on the Lower East Side near where I used to live...

Do you have your parents to help you in Switzerland?

My father has passed away, but my mother is a big help. In New York City, a lot of people don't have their parents around, so it can be really tough for new mothers. I am lucky my mother lives in Zurich, where I live.

I know from my daughter's experience that it can be very difficult to get any work done while you are caring for an infant.

The first six months, it's hard -- really all the time. I was getting used to being a mother, breast feeding, changing diapers, taking care of this little human being 24/7. It’s exhausting and amazing at the same time.

I don't know how women do it -- working and mothering all at once.

I don’t know either. Women are strong, I guess. But I could not do any creative work for that first six or seven months. Other stuff like paying bills, working on my partner's screenplay, evaluating screenplays for the Swiss Ministry of Culture, I just had to do -- and did! But it takes all the energy you have to do what you need to for your child. But it is such a miracle, so beautiful, crazy… It’s existential.

Existential? How do you understand the meaning of that word -- in terms of childbirth? 

Well… It is kind of… On one side, it's very down to the roots, shaking up your existence, your thoughts of everyday life. Giving birth changes your existence. Who you are changes, as well. You go through this very amazing experience of giving birth and then you have this little baby at your side. For me it was very great, very emotional.

I don't know that men can understand this.

No, you can't. It's beautiful -- though painful -- and the most extreme experience. But not in the cruel sense.

Like I've always heard: men go to war and women go through childbirth. Of course Israeli women get to do both! But I don't think those two things can really be compared.

No, they can't. Except that they are both pretty unique. 

And maybe comparable in that life and death are, in a way, close to each other.

Have you lived most of your life in Switzerland?

Yes. I was born here, but my family is from Croatian – Dubrovnik and Bosnia-- Sarajevo. Two beautiful towns.

But you lived in New York City for a time, as well?

I was 24 when I moved to NYC, after I finished film school in Switzerland. For me it was kind of a dream to live in a place so multicultural, and where everybody can find their home. In most other countries -- Switzerland, France -- you’re only home is if you've born there or have lived there for a very long time. In NYC it seems everyone can find a home in a short time. Oh, and love was another reason. My ex-boyfriend and I decided to move here together.

You know what I forgot to ask – I often do because it’s too close to the kind of gossip crap that we all get plenty of that from our normal media -- but are you in a relationship now? Do you want to mention anything about that? Like Vanja’s dad, or whatever.

My partner -- he's Vanja's dad -- Thomas Imbach -- is an amazing, innovative, maverick Swiss director. In 2007 we funded our own production company, Okofilm Productions GmbH, with the aim of producing independent and artistically ambitious films for theatrical distribution. The films will originate in Switzerland, but will be received and distributed internationally. We are targeting circulation in renowned A-list festivals and international Arthouse distribution. Actually, Thomas' films are presently touring the U.S as part of a showcase/tribute to Swiss films. The films will screen in NYC in the spring 2009.

Above, Fräulein's three women: Ruza, top (played by Mirjana Karanovic); Mila, middle left (played by Ljubica Jovic); and Ana, middle right and at bottom (played by Marija Skaricic).

Let's get into your movie: Because your three main characters are immigrants to Switzerland, can we talk a little about the situation of immigrants there. Do they have better treatment from the Swiss natives than from those in Germany or Italy?

That's such a complex question. It depends on where they live -- the city or a small town -- and if they are middle-class and educated, or working class and so not so educated. The situation has changed a lot over the past years. In the 60s/70s we had a lot of Italians, Turks and Spanish. In the early 70s we had the Yugoslavs coming, many of whom were from an academic background. And today, you have Albanians and Africans, and many of these are -- or almost are -- political refugees. So how they are treated depends on all these factors. In a small country, of course, you have the fear of the "other," and this makes a difference.

America is a big country, and we still have the "fear of the other."

True. But I can only say that, in my film, I tried to look at it from a personal perspective, from my experience. There are three women and three different types of immigration that depend on things such as age and economics and the time we live in.

One of the things I particularly liked about Fräulein was your reticence in showing us much about the women’s pasts. We get enough info to have clues but we remain in the present, watching them cope with current problems. Is this something you planned – to stay in the present? Most moviemakers, I think, would give us more back story. But I am glad you chose not to. The way you handle things is quite believable but also allows us to wonder and mull things over. And it leaves things a little bit “open.” Could you talk about your choices here — on this subject and maybe on others, as well?

That was my initial idea: How do I transport the emotional world of these women to the audience? The idea was to say, well, that's who they are. But they became who they are because of their lives. But if you show all that background, then the movie becomes about that background and not about the immediate present. And also, I did not want to make it seems like all this is absolutely the reason -- because in life there are many reasons why we become who we are. I believe that if audiences gets a sense of a character's feelings and reactions to things and to people, then this will help them understand the character. But if I say, well, this or this is what happened, I will just be giving an explanation. Instead, I wanted to give the audience time to get to know the women through their daily actions.

I think that this makes the experience richer for your audience.

Yes, if you can let go of things -- the past -- and just experience. If you always keeping going back to the past, you may have more information but less of the essential experience. I guess that it is an artistic choice to say I don't want to give answers. My film is more about moods, feelings, ambivalence in life. I want to give atmospheric hints rather than concrete answers.

I found your movie very feminist but not in any screaming, beat-your-head-in kind of manner. It was wonderful to be immersed in these stories about women and to come out with a better understanding of their lives. I think "feminist" means different things to different people, but that is one definition of it, for me.

I can agree with that thought. I often say that it is always men who are talked about in films. But for me, to concentrate on the lives of women is not a choice, it just comes naturally. There are not that many films where women are the main characters, so Fräulein is a chance for you to get immersed in a female world, to dive into their emotional lives. I come from a generation where boys and girls were treated equally, so it seemed normal to make a movie where I choose what interests me. For my older friends, it was harder for them to have kids and make films. You had to fight more for your rights. I don’t have to justify myself why I make films about women. It seems just natural.

(Spoiler ahead: See the movie and then come back to the next two questions/answers) At the film’s end, my feeling was that the youngest of the three women, Ana, was returning to her home country, and would, I hope, seek help from the doctors there.

You can read the ending two different ways. I have had the most interesting and loud discussions about this because there are always two groups: the optimists and pessimists. The optimists are totally certain of what you say you hoped for Ana; the pessimists are completely sure that, although she was like an angel who helped Ruza grow more expressive and in touch with herself, that Ana is still incapable of helping herself and is doomed to destroy herself.

Already the pessimists have admitted an optimistic thing: that Ana really did help Ruza!

This is true. But the important thing is about Ana's destiny, and I am giving her this kind of dark destiny, by having her be one of those people who were kids when the war started. Without choosing, they had their childhood taken from them by the war, and Ana's illness is a kind of symbolic wound, telling us that the experience of war is still there, inside her. Fräulein is really a film about three women who are at a point in their life where they can and might change things. Each one is fighting something in herself. Ruza opens up a bit; Ana has to face the illness, at least briefly; and Mila must deal with her future and her family. But it is all open-ended. Like life. We never know what is tomorrow. We only know yesterday. And we are living in today. I think movies today need to find a new way to reach audiences, and that is what I am trying to do.

Funny. I spoke recently with the Spanish writer/director Jaime Rosales, who made the movie -- La Soledad -- that won Spain's Best Picture award, as well as the new and very different and strange Bullet in the Head. And he told me that, as much as he loves old movies like Johnny Guitar, he feels we now need a new paradigm: Movies that shows us how to deal with the world as it exists today.

Yes. A new paradigm. Yes: you do want the audience for a few hours to enjoy themselves. But you also want to get them stimulated: thinking, feeling differently. How do you do this stimulation by story, structure, rhythm? If movies always perfectly come to an end, then I do not think this works anymore as stimulation. For audiences today, they may want or need to come out of a film and think for a few minutes. Maybe they will be irritated or say, "Oh, I wanted more!" But maybe we don't want to always be those perfect things on the screen anymore. Especially today. Not now, when even the whole financial system is crashing.

Speaking of: How is Switzerland doing today, economically?

I am not so much into these kind of things, but the stock exchange is down, with investments maybe half of what they were a few months ago. But the Swiss Franc is still strong, and the Euro is much weaker now. Of course, we human beings only just know things from what they say on the news.

I don't know about your news over there, but over here, many of us have learned that what we cannot always trust what we hear on the "news." Not after the last eight years.

Yes, perhaps. The news is not so good. But I think we can trust it perhaps a little more in Switzerland than you can over there. Except WNYC and Channel 13 are great, of course. So, I don’t quite agree with you...

That's allowed. So what's next on your agenda?

I've been developing my new film, writing and thinking a lot. It's very intense. My subject is vaguely a family story set in a small and very beautiful town on the Croatian coast. It's going to be "a female Mafia film," my partner calls it. (She laughs.) It's also a film about the friendship of two girls. Sort of a thriller meets coming-of-age meets complex female family structures.

And when might we be able to see the finished film?

Ideally, the film would be ready for release by 2010. But realistically? 2011.


Erin said...

I've been so curious about this film, great get James!

James van Maanen, said...

Do see this one, Erin (and then let me know your thoughts...)