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Berlin Women Directors: Meet Sudabeh Mortezai

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
February 12, 2014 3:00 PM
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Still from "Macondo"
Still from "Macondo"

German-born Sudabeh Mortezai grew up in Tehran and Vienna. Her film debut was the documentary Children of the Prophet, a look at Iranian mourning rituals for Imam Hossein, the Prophet Mohammad's grandson. For her first narrative feature, Macondo, Mortezai took her camera to a refugee community on the outskirts of Vienna. 

Macondo will compete for the Golden Bear at this year's Berlinale.  

Please give us your description of your film. 

Macondo tells the story of 11-year-old Ramasan from Chechnya. He has lost his father and lives with his mother and two younger sisters in a refugee settlement in the industrial outskirts of Vienna. At a very young age, he has to deal with a lot of responsibility, questions of honor and identity, and the overpowering image of his dead war-hero father. The main cast consists of lay actors, who have never acted in a film before but had similar life experiences to the characters they play.

What made you write this story?

It all started with the place. I discovered Macondo by accident. I had heard that there was a settlement on the outskirts of Vienna that had been housing refugees since the 1950s, with 2000 people from over 20 nations co-existing in cheap social housing. I started to do research and talk to people who live there. I soon knew that I wanted to develop something from within by working with the people there and using their stories to create a strong narrative rooted in an authentic world. I was especially interested in a child's perspective on growing up between two cultures and struggling with the refugee condition and questions of identity.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Probably the casting, because I wanted to work with normal people who would, to a certain extent, not act but live out emotions in improvisations. So they needed to be perfect for the role and feel comfortable in front of the camera without having any prior acting experience. Finding the right balance between improvisation and following a clear dramaturgy was crucial.

What advice do you have for other female directors?

Dare to be yourself, trust your artistic instinct, and don't try to follow rules. Allow yourself a sense of entitlement. Be persistent. 

What's the biggest misconception about you, as a female director, and your work? 

Probably that, because I am a woman, my films should deal with female issues or have female lead characters. Macondo is the story of a boy. In this film I was interested in images of masculinity. Maybe the lead in my next film will be a woman or a girl. But I don't think I have to deal with so-called female themes because I am a woman.  

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films? 

I'm not a distributor so I'm not sure how to respond to that. As a filmmaker I want my films to be seen by as many people as possible. So whatever helps with that is a positive development.

Name your favorite film directed by a woman and why.

Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold. I love the main character, Mia, and how intimately the film focuses on her story and her emotions.

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