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Berlinale filmmaker Karim Aïnouz: My characters don’t cry

INTERVIEW! Ahead of his Berlinale Panorama premiere for "Nardjes A." on Feb 23, we met the acclaimed Brazilian in his Neukölln studio to talk championing strong, resilient women, joy as a form of resistance and the film that broke his heart.

Image for Berlinale filmmaker Karim Aïnouz: My characters don't cry

Photo by Michael O’Ryan. Karim Aïnouz

Karim Aïnouz is one of the most accomplished, exciting filmmak­ers currently living in Berlin, and we’re not the only ones who think so. The Jury of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard awarded him their top prize last year for the bril­liant feminist melodrama The Invisible Life of Eurydice Gusmão, which was also Brazil’s entry to this year’s Oscars. Since his Madame Satã breakthrough 17 years ago, Aïnouz has been a regular at Cannes, Venice but also Berlin, where he created a buzz with his 2018 Central Airport THF, a documentary he dedicated to the city he’s called home for over 10 years now. This month, Aïnouz is back in the Berlinale selection with Nardjes A., a film about the youth protest in Alge­ria as portrayed through a young woman, which will screen in the Panorama section. We caught Aïnouz at the cutting table of his Neukölln studio, ahead of his film’s Berlinale premiere.

Mr. Aïnouz, you’re a very cosmopoli­tan man: you grew up in Brazil as the son of an Algerian engineer, have lived in New York and Paris, speak many languages – but not German, and own three passports – but not Germany’s. So why Berlin?

It was a bit of an accident. I was always very much interested in and enchanted by Berlin since my first visit in 1985. I came here a couple more times in the 1990s and always dreamed to go back. There was a writer I liked very much who had written a book here – Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna. He wrote these amazing chroni­cles of Berlin that always remained with me. So, in 2003 I applied for a DAAD residency to work on my film Suely in the Sky and, to my surprise, I got in! I arrived in May 2004 and spent a fantastic year. This city really inspired me so much! I rediscovered a new sense of freedom. Now, this is my home. I can see myself living here in 10 or 20 years still. I just would like to have, you know, an apartment with a view to the canal and stuff, but that’s my bourgeois dream!

Home is Neukölln, a very hip but also very multi-ethnic neighbourhood…

Yes, and I love it! There are the hipsters, but it’s still very mixed. There are these new arrivals and 2015 asylum seekers as well as the old immigrants that I hear on Sonnenallee. It’s a place of young people, and older people, but it’s not become this perfect destination for new families to raise a child. I think it makes a really big difference. I’m not a child-phobic person [laughs], but in my building there are no children – and I find it very refreshing! The German families say they don’t want their kids to speak Turkish slang, and they move to Prenzlauer Berg – thank God! If you want a homogneous, white society, you don’t belong in Neukölln!

So you’ve learned German with some Turkish slang?

Yes, and I love it. It’s the only way I understand German! [laughs]

When you made Central Airport THF about Tempelhof, was it a way of pay­ing homage to your new home city?

As an architect interested in urbanism, I was always fascinated with Tempelhof. You know, another thing that I find very beau­tiful about Berlin? It’s a city that hasn’t become corporate like most big cities. Berlin is somehow resisting it. I think that’s why I made Flughafen to begin with, because it was like, ‘Wow, in any other city in Europe, that area would have become a very expensive real estate development’. And in Berlin, the community fought for it to become a public place. I wanted to document that.

But then it became a film about Ger­many’s refugees who lived in the former airport, a very personal film about the experience of being an immigrant. Is that something you could relate to?

One of my protagonists, Ibrahim, was in a way this kid that I had been at 17, when I lived in Paris and I was suffocating – being pigeon-holed and discriminated against as an ‘Arab’, which was very confusing because I’m actually Berber, my father is of Kabyle origin. Of course, I didn’t go through war or the traumatic experience of refugee camps. But I think that the frustration and the anger I had in me when I was in France was similar to Ibrahim’s. I feel like the films that have worked better, that more people can relate to, are films where I pour out my heart. I actually don’t think I’ve made a single film where I wasn’t completely in love with my characters, like truly in love.

The Invisible Life of Eurydice Gusmão is a very female-centric film adapted from a bestseller written by a woman about times before you were born, the 1950s. But you related to it, because of the par­allels to your mother’s life, right? Is it true that you read Marta Batalha’s man­uscript a few weeks after she died?

It was literally a week after my mother passed away. When I read it, I was struck by the similarities between the life of Guida and my mum’s, raising me on her own, surrounded by other women. And like Eurydice, my aunt had stopped her professional life to become a wife and a mother. So it was my way to pay homage to that generation of women I knew so well and I’d grown up with.

This film is very much a homage to resilient women in a patriarchal society. Your Gusmão sisters are women who don’t give up, and no matter what befalls them, do not cry. I hear that one of the references you gave your actress for Gui­da was the Anna Magnanni of Mamma Roma is that true?

You’re absolutely right, I had forgotten about this. I love this sort of strong, Italian character from the 1950s, so big, so there and so exploding with life! For Eurydice it was more the Gena Rowlands of Woman Under Influence. I was not interested in characters involved in any kind of self-pity. It was again coming from personal experi­ence, I was raised in a household of women. There was hardship, there was complaining, and there was laughter – but there was never any crying. I think that the idea of joy is a way of resisting. So it was very important that my main characters wouldn’t be crying.

When Ang Lee landed Brokeback Mountain, I was like: this is fucked up, why is another straight man doing a film about gay people? But it was a beautiful film.

Romantic love is pretty much absent from your film. Guida and Eurydice find support, love and joy in their relation­ship to other women. You don’t seem to have much faith in hetero love!

I find that romantic love between men and women is hard to believe within the context of patriar­chy. When I was about 20, I interviewed my mum and other women of her generation. One of them said she got married because she wanted her own house. The other be­cause she was tired of struggling to get a job. My grandmother was very happy when her husband left her and super relieved when he died [laughs]. I think it’s very hard to believe in love when there is no equality.

That’s pretty plain to see in the way you depicted nuptial sex – which you turned into an absurdist marital rape scene. Why choose to be so graphic?

After two weeks of shooting, I realised it was high time we shifted perspective. It’s always about the beautiful way men look at the female body on their first night, and it’s called their honeymoon. But for most women of that generation it was very violent – a ‘hellmoon’. So I called my producer and said, “I need to do some penis casting”. That’s what Eurydice sees when confronted to the male body of her husband, and it looks like a threat, not an object of desire. So many people asked me why I was so graphic. I just wasn’t interested in making a ‘cute’ film.

While you were working on the film, #MeToo broke and gender inequality became even more relevant. It gave a different resonance to your film, right?

There was a synchronicity, which is a total coincidence. When I began this film in 2015, it was a way to say: look at how it was for women back then. But then, in 2016, #MeToo started, and suddenly it felt like my film was not only looking at the past, but also some­how about the present. I think I would have made the film either way, but I’m not sure if it would have been the same. I also started to ask myself questions as I made this film that I did not ask myself 15 years ago.

Entitlement questions, as a man making a film about women?

Yeah! And it became more important to involve many women on the film. Ten years ago, I’d just get ‘the best DOP’. Now I said let’s see who the best DOP is and it’s important that it’s also a woman. These debates about privilege and identity politics are productive, but also tricky. For example, can a rich gay man make a movie about a migrant queer person fleeing war? It’s complicated, but I wouldn’t want to categorically say no. I remember that I, as a queer person, was given the manuscript of Brokeback Mountain. This was many years ago and I don’t know why I didn’t do it. When Ang Lee landed it, I was like: this is fucked up, why is another straight man doing a film about gay people? But it ended up being such a beautiful film. I think that for me it was a big lesson. A true storyteller is able to put themselves under the skin of their characters, no matter their gender or ethnic attributes. I think we can and should make films about people who aren’t us, otherwise we’ll just be talking about ourselves.

What Brokeback Mountain and Invisible Life have in common is a very universal feeling for what it means to have wasted one’s life, to not have fulfilled one’s potential. Is that important for you?

Oh my God! For me, the scene of the shirt in Brokeback Mountain when they go to his lov­ers house and his dad and the t-shirt is gone: it’s over. He’s dead. That hit me so hard, it’s one of the most heart-breaking scenes I’ve ever seen. It was the biggest inspiration for the ending of Invisible Life. There’s nothing worse than a wasted life, a life that was just not lived and I think that idea for me stems directly from Brokeback Mountain.

Would a film like Invisible Life get fund­ing in today’s Brazil? Could you com­ment on the situation of the film indus­try under Bolsonaro’s new policies?

No, Invisible Life could not be funded the way it was – that is, with public money. It’s the end of an era in terms of public funding for cinema. It’s the end of an era for Brazil’s culture. But the real problem goes beyond this government and Bolsonaro, who by the way has been around for the last 30 years. The problem is that a big part of the Brazilian elite has made a pact with the devil, the fascists.

That sounds very reminiscent of the 1930s in Germany.

Oh yes. That’s exactly what I’m trying to say. People say, oh but this guy was elected democratically. No he was not elected democratically. If there was a democracy in this country, and if the legal system worked, as it would within a democra­cy, this man should have been arrested many years ago. The things he’s said qualify as hate crimes. It is very important to shift the dis­course and start pointing the finger at those who are supporting him, who are not the poor people. It’s the Brazilian financial elite.