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Berlinale interview: “We’ll deal with whatever happens”

Plainly stated and matter-of-fact, director Sacha Polak and star Hannah Hoekstra chatted with Exberliner about their debut film, Hemel.

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Hemel is the first feature for both its director Sacha Polak and star Hannah Hoekstra. It depicts one year in the life of Hemel, an emotionally conflicted girl in her early twenties. Beautifully shot and brilliantly acted, the film paints an engaging and provocative portrait of a young girl at a difficult turning point in her life (read my review here).

Yesterday I met the two debutantes following their premiere the night before.

How did you develop the demanding role of Hemel?

SP: Well, during the rehearsals we talked a lot. We had a lot of intimate conversations about both our lives in order to get to know each other well. Also, I was happy to do it with Hannah because it was her first feature as well. It helps building trust – maybe we were the fuck-ups of the film? [Laughs]

AH: [Laughs] Yeah, you recognize something in each other. But for me, the most important reason was that I felt comfortable with her from the start.

Did you just want to provide a personal portrait of an individual? Or were you exploring issues of empowerment?

SP: I’m not a filmmaker with an agenda. I don’t find that interesting about film. Helena [van de Meulen], who wrote the script, and I, wanted to make a character study. And of course with that, you tell something about this generation… about all sorts of things. But that was not my intention in the first place.

What is it you prefer about character studies?

SP: My father is a filmmaker as well, he makes documentaries, and he was always kind of cynical, saying that you can’t reach people with new ideas through a film, that the only people you will reach are those that watch your documentary and already agree with you. So that’s not my intention. Also, I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge to enlighten people about issues.

AH: I don’t think that’s true; I do think Sacha can enlighten people. It’s just that she doesn’t ever point the finger, she’s not saying, ‘People should think this, people should feel that.’ It’s in what she shows, in how she tells a story – you can see and learn all kinds of different things.

The film is almost exclusively a visual approach to conveying the state of mind of the characters.

SP: That’s what I discussed with my DOP and my art director. Through the different architectures and colours, I wanted to create a world with different emotional stimuli. For example, in Hemel’s house, everything was orange, which reflects how the person she is with is a warm and sweet guy – well, at first at least. The first chapter, on the other hand, I wanted for it to be harsher, so the room was empty, the colours cold.

What was your intention for splitting the film up in chapters?

SP: I wanted to only get the essence of the character. To only take moments; like you’re looking at a photo album and you get this story of a girl’s life, in this case of one year, and tell it solely through emotions. That’s why the look of the chapters had to be so different from one another.

Did you get inspiration from other films?

SP: Actually, I looked more at photos, not so much at films. The films that I did watch for Hemel were those by Maurice Pialat, Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, and also Nine Songs by Michael Winterbottom. Those were the main ones.

The actress in 9 Songs had a pretty traumatic experience after its release, receiving really vicious media abuse for it. She of course went a significant step further than you did Hannah, but didn’t you fear exposing yourself?

AH: Yeah, it was a hard choice I had to make. I mean, I’m not a girl that gives herself easily at the beginning – the way Hemel is in the film is not at all how I am, but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see how people react to this film and to this story. But I’m not scared, actually. We told a story that I feel needs to be told, and we’ll deal with whatever happens.