High in the mountains of Albania, tribal law, or kanun, prescribes rigid, almost brutal, gender roles. Considered little more than a beast, a woman is worth half a man. She exists solely to bear children and care for the home, in constant and abused obedience to the males of her clan. But the kanun also provides a way for women to enjoy the rights, freedoms, and obligations of a man, on one condition: They become sworn virgins, living as men in return for remaining a virgin forever.
Italian director Laura Bispuri has crafted a poignant vision of a modern-day sworn virgin who begins to question her vow of virginity. When she moves to Italy, where she’s exposed to alternative ways of living a woman’s life, Mark/Hana (brilliantly portrayed by Alba Rohrwacher) discovers the fine lines between self and tradition, roles and reality. Winner of the Nora Ephron Prize, Tribeca Film Festival 2015. •Availability: To be distributed theatrically by Strand Releasing. •Thanks to Virginia Cademartori, Sally Fischer PR, for arranging this interview. Thanks to Michael Moore for translating.•
DT: Can you talk about your personal reaction to the practice of the sworn virgin? It was once considered a practical solution for a family whose men had been killed in blood feuds. In other words, the practice of the sworn virgin grew out of a real historical necessity.
LB: I’m not very fond of generalizations, so to prepare for this film I started to study this phenomenon through books and photography, but also through direct encounters with sworn virgins. I made an effort to meet as many as I could. Each one has his own story, his own personality, and his own different reason for becoming a sworn virgin. At the same time, they all share certain elements in common—in particular the fact that they made the choice to become a sworn virgin at a very young age, in general between the age of 12 and 13, when they were not really fully aware of the choice that they were making, and this within a society that places a premium on the concept of honor.
In terms of my personal response, I’d have to say I have very mixed feelings. I was very fascinated by them, I found them very mysterious, and I was very struck by how loyal they were to this choice they had made. I think that anyone who makes such an extreme choice in life merits interest and deserves our attention, but what I wanted to do was tell the story of one sworn virgin who put into question this whole tradition. And my relationship to the sworn virgins, if I can summarize it, was one of curiosity, great respect, and fascination.
DT: You used the sworn virgin—a very culture-specific practice that’s now dying out—to talk about universal conditions. Why use something so specific to talk about something so general?
LB: Rather than seeing these elements as contradictory, I see them as two immense forces, and this is what struck me the most when I read the book [Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones]. I was drawn to the fact that I could take as a starting point this very small, specific reality in order to engage in larger reflections of life. When a director chooses a story to tell, it’s an immense responsibility, and I felt this story contained two immense forces. First, it’s about a world that is relatively unknown. Not many people know about this world. It’s a great thing when you can use film to expose people to a world they don’t know. Second, it allowed me to engage in these more universal considerations. As I’ve traveled with this film to different parts of the world, most recently in Hong Kong, it’s been wonderful to see the way the audience has received this, almost as a kind of testimony to its universality. In the East they loved the film, and they gave it a prize. In Berlin, it did very well, and now it’s here, which attests to my having achieved something I set out to do. One of our main objectives in making a film is to achieve that kind of universality. I think it’s a great thing.
DT: You shot everything in long takes, then marked the difference between past and present by making internal cuts in the Albanian material. Why work that way, and what are the advantages and difficulties posed by this process?
LB: The choice of shooting the entire film in long takes came to me instinctively. That filmic language felt closer to me. It made the scenes as real as possible. When I work, I want my work with the actors to be as real as possible, I want my mise-en-scene to be as real as possible, and I want the camera to stay in one position. I felt this was a choice that was close to me personally but also to the reflection that I wanted to give my research into this reality.
But what began as an instinctive choice became something more when we got into the editing process, where we had this back-and-forth between the present and the past. With that kind of structure there was a risk of doing something that was too fragmented. By having just long takes I was able to avoid the pitfall of having a film that was too fragmentary and instead had something in which everything is fluid. Water is such an essential element in this film, and it’s a very fluid journey that Mark/Hana is taking. The body itself is very fluid; it’s seeking this kind of harmony in the midst of this back-and-forth movement, and I think therefore that by using these long takes I found the right language in terms of something that’s both close to me and close to this reflection that I was engaged in. And then, as you mentioned, in the editing room I felt the need to better differentiate the present and the past, and I did this by doing these small cuts on the long shots in Albania.
One of the ideas behind these long takes is that I didn’t want the audience to feel the camera was doing a lot of beautiful framing shots. If I compare it to a film like Birdman, where you have these long takes, there you sort of get this desire to see the way the shot is being constructed. I work in a very opposite direction. I didn’t want you to feel that desire to deconstruct the way the shot was set up. I wanted a very fluid take on reality, so I already came to shooting with a very clear idea that I didn’t want you to be overly conscious of the movements of the camera or of the mise-en-scene. I wanted to have those long takes but also to dirty them up a little bit in order to be more natural.
DT: In that way of shooting, camera placement is very important. What principles did you use to guide camera placement?
LB: It’s part of the whole idea of the long take. I wanted to stay right on top of the character of Mark/Hana, to stay as close to him as possible. This was an instinctive perception at some level. I think there is only one proper placement of the camera. In doing a long take and choosing a single position for the camera, there’s a risk that you might lose a certain detail. Then you have to make a decision; if it’s a detail you really care about, you have to figure out some way of bringing it back in, or you have to decide it might just be something that you have to give up. These are things that happen with a certain rigor, through certain very firm decisions but also through a kind of instinctive process.
DT: Can you talk about your use of music?
LB: I don’t like music being used as a form of commentary. I wanted the film to be realistic, I wanted it to be natural, and to be dirty. I wanted it to be rough and always behind the character. I think there are moments in the film, though, where we needed a greater breath. Those moments, which are the soul of the film in a sense, are often tied to the use of music. I wanted to give a specific value to the music. As I said, I didn’t want it to be used as some kind of commentary, but I did use it in moments to lift up and open up the film. There’s a close relationship between these bigger emotional openings of the film and its kind of emotional dryness, and this use of music that is achieved in a very rigorous, specific way.
DT: Mark/Hana encounters synchronized swimming in Italy. You use it as a brilliant counterpoint to the sworn virgin’s emotional state. When did you decide to use synchronized swimming?
LB: The synchronized swimming is something that is only in the screenplay; it’s not in the book. I talked about it with my screenwriter, because it epitomized a certain concept of beauty. In reflecting on women’s need to be perfect, I discovered the perfect representation in synchronized swimming, where these young girls are all the same, they have to have their makeup on, they have to smile when they come out of the water. It shows this constraint women have today of having to be beautiful and having to be perfect. At the same time, it shows the hard work women have to do in following their path, because in synchronized swimming, they’re doing all this work but you don’t see it because it’s underneath the water. I thought that encapsulated perfectly the themes of the film. There’s Mark/Hana, a character who’s having questions about his body, in a place where he is forced to see undressed bodies before him every day, so I thought that visually and thematically the synchronized swimming was a very strong element.
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