Canadian director Kim Nguyen on the making of recent Best Foreign Language Film nominee, War Witch, currently screening as part of Alliance Française French Film Festival.
“It’s the idea of that resilience, and of that strength, that I saw when I was in the Congo,” Kim Nguyen described his extraordinary film War Witch (Rebelle) on Friday. Just home off a delayed flight from the Oscars, the Vietnamese Montrealian writer-director was in convivial, eloquent form. The good-humoured Canadian told me about his Best Foreign Language Film nomination, and discussed Michael Haneke, Gael Garcia Bernal, Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: My favourite war film, Apocalypse Now Redux, obviously has Congolese and Vietnamese angles?
KIM NGUYEN: [Laughs] Well, that’s an honour, I absolutely love Apocalypse Now and there’s absolutely that theme of going up the river and fighting and having the external ordeals of the present moment, slowly become like a reflection of your own inner torment. And that’s the same in Fitzcarraldo. There are some emblematic themes in films and stories, there is that going up the river and seeking meaning in your life that I just felt drawn to and that I hope that part of that is in this film.
AB: There’s that line early on, where raped child soldier Komona says to her unborn baby, “I don’t know if God will give me the strength to love you.” Your lead actress Rachel Mwanza—Berlinale 2012 Best Actress winner—seems to have an extraordinary resilience about her?
KN: Yeah, that’s one of the first lines I wrote in the script. When I did my research, I read there were these kind of autobiographies written by ex-child soldiers and it was part of their reinsertion programme to write their own stories when they were soldiers, and they would write these very simple but powerful stories, and that’s when I read this kid who would say, “We weren’t allowed to cry, so we had to learn how to make the tears leak from within.” And I did read this thing where I learned one of these girls was praying to God that she would be able to love her child once he comes out because he wasn’t created from her loved one, but from her commander.
AB: When the audience walk out of War Witch, what do you hope they’re thinking?
KN: I guess it’s the idea of that resilience, and of that strength, that I saw when I was in the Congo. Also, that the one thing that we can learn from Sub-Saharan Africa and mostly Congo, is that brotherhood still exists. Even though you’re not related by blood, there is that sense of collectivity that still exists, and that we’ve kind of lost; well, at least we lost here in Montreal, I’ve never lived in New Zealand. But people are very by themselves, and it’s much harder to get real help, I find, in our own little worlds, our own houses. We’re much more isolated than in Africa.
AB: You had an armoured convoy with AK47s take you to film at Mobutu’s Forbidden City. You had that former French military guy looking after production logistics filming in Kinshasa and the Congo. He was pretty necessary in a genuinely dangerous place like that?
KN: [Laughs] You gotta have a French guy on your crew when you’re in the Congo!
AB: You’ve cited Fish Tank as an influence. Any other particular film or filmmaker that you felt the influence of making War Witch?
KN: Yes, specifically for this film and the way it was crafted, there’s Fish Tank and also A Prophet, which I just thought was so good. I don’t know if he [Jacques Audiard] is going to make a better film than that, actually. You know, sometimes you feel that a director’s just nailed it and they’re not gonna make a better movie. I wondered if Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind will be Michel Gondry’s best movie ever, and Wong Kar Wai with In the Mood for Love as well. I saw Gondry’s new trailer, it looks really really good, so maybe he will prove me wrong.
AB: I agree, A Prophet was terrific.
KN: Sorry, I digressed, but yeah, A Prophet was a big inspiration. With the aesthetic of War Witch, Fish Tank and A Prophet were big influences. I had tended to overly storyboard things in my past films and over-plan everything. I realised that these two directors were gutsier and just went there, didn’t have a preconceived storyboard, and were capturing the moment, and I felt I kinda lost that edge very early on… And that was the one thing that brought me to filmmaking—taking pictures, writing stories, and doing both of those individually. I would feel very free, and I do still feel very free when I write. But then with all the pressures of industry, I think I kind of lost that idea of going out fishing and capturing stuff in the moment, and instead, just tried to do a shopping list of shots. For me, with War Witch, it’s kind of a breakthrough film that brings me back to my initial impulse of why I wanted to make films.
AB: I thought it was visually very strong, also. In these days of the 3D excess of The Hobbit, I liked the more organic design. How you had the concept of the ghosts in War Witch, I found that really effective. And I liked the fact that you weren’t gratuitous, a lot of the violence was implied, and I thought it was more affecting for that.
KN: Thank you. You know, it was one of the things that made me the most worried about before filming. Of course, in the beginning it was finding an actress, and then when we found the actress, it was to make sure she could make it through those 40 days. But the representation of the ghost really made me scared—was it going to be cheesy? Was going to be pretentious? That got me really nervous, so we did extensive tests with a couple of 5D cameras, and tried different stuff. At a certain point, I even wondered if they should be translucent, but I quickly realised that was going toward the cheesy Star Trek side, or the pretentious side, so we decided to just acknowledge that this is a very naïve vision and use naïve techniques, that at the same time have the link to tradition. We used dried mud on the bodies to represent the ghosts.
AB: I like having that seventies Angolese music in War Witch.
KN: Yeah, I’m glad you liked it. There’s already an album with that music on it, that’s where I found it. It’s called something like Anthology of Angolese Music from the Seventies, it’s a two CD package. Every single song is from that collection. You have to buy it, it’s amazing.
AB: The Senegalese film maker Mambety made a lovely film called The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun dedicated to the courage of street children. In your film, there’s an indelible performance from a female street kid, and it’s beautiful and poignant.
KN: Sounds cool, I’ll make sure I watch it.
AB: Mambety once said: “Cinema was born in Africa because the image itself was born in Africa… Oral tradition is a tradition of images. Imagination creates the image and the image creates cinema.”
KN: Very interesting and very cool… I’ve been reading scripts for the last year, I received hundreds of them, and there’s only one script that I thought was interesting. It’s still the weakest link, it’s very true that imagination is the most important in film… I find that screenwriting does take a long time and I find that it takes much longer writing than to master directing. And the scripts I’m getting, they rarely have all of the elements of a really, really good script.
AB: “Write about what you feel,” you said recently. You were writing the script for War Witch for about 10 years weren’t you?
KN: Yeah [laughs]. At the time I started I was about 28, so I was still trying to master the craft of writing. There are a lot of scripts that I have been developing for many years, and I feel that there are some very technical elements to writing that I kind of discovered as I went along. I just wish that somebody told me that before, but [laughs]. So that’s part of the reason the script took so long to write. Then I traveled to Africa, learned about the life there, and discovered these small idiosyncrasies that filled the gaps and made the story more effervescent—I hope.
AB: You’ve just got back home to Montreal from Los Angeles. I read that you shook hands with De Niro; that it was a highlight of being out at the Oscars. So you liked Silver Linings Playbook?
KN: Yeah, I did see Silver Linings Playbook, and you know what? Sometimes when we do films and when you’re on the festival [circuit], sometimes people become judgemental about romantic comedies. I thought that Silver Linings Playbook was really well done. The craftsmanship behind the film, I find it’s really hard to do, to have such fluidity and the constant rhythm and pacing. I thought it was really well directed. What did you think of it?
AB: I really liked it. I mean, I’ve been disappointed with some of De Niro’s more recent work, but I thought it was great. Along with War Witch, it’s one of my favourite films of the year thus far.
KN: Thank you so much, I’m touched to hear that.
AB: You were a fan of Michael Haneke’s Amour too, weren’t you?
KN: Yeah, it was a really good film, it was very powerful and it was a privilege to be part of that [Best Foreign Film nominees] crew. I really like No, and it was really cool to hang with Gael Garcia [Bernal], who was there at the Oscars. Gael is honestly one of the most authentic actors I’ve ever met. He’s so true and dedicated to his craft, and he’s a really really good actor. I was just proud to be in that bunch, in the company of all of those films. I haven’t seen Kon-Tiki yet, but I saw all of the others. Haneke deserves this Oscar. He was already nominated before with The White Ribbon. I actually think that The White Ribbon is a better film than Amour, but then I think who’s not going to give an award to Haneke with his legacy? I think it’s time that he gets that recognition.
AB: Have you seen Claire Denis’s White Material?
KN: Her film that takes place in Cameroon? I thought there was some really interesting things in that. I thought that there was some other things that weren’t as powerful, but I thought that there were some really strong elements. Isabelle Huppert is such an amazing actress.
AB: What do you think of Beasts of the Southern Wild?
KN: I thought Beasts of the Southern Wild was the movie! The Oscars, the ones that have won in the last 10 years, are never the films that I admired the most. They’re good films; Argo’s a good film, but I think that Beasts of the Southern Wild was the best film. I thought that Zero Dark Thirty was much more powerful than Argo. The Artist, I didn’t feel that it deserved best actor and best film last year. I don’t feel it’s something that’s going to be remembered in 10 years, do you?
KN: Yeah, overrated, really. And Ryan Gosling didn’t get a nomination for best actor. But just to say, [although] we put a lot of effort in, we shouldn’t put more effort in trying to get another Oscar nomination. It’ll happen if it does and it’s a real honour, but so many things come into play to get there. In the case of a foreign language film, making it into a Category A festival—such as Berlin, Cannes, or Venice—then being selected by your own country as the one, then making it to the 71, then making it to the nine, then making it to the five, you don’t have [any] control over this.
AB: So what’s next for you?
KN: A film is called Origin of the World. It’s an homage to the painting, and it’s the story of three ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances. One is called Amanda. She’s in the United States and she wants to have a complete body makeover, with plastic surgery, to gain back the love of this guy that she lost. In the Middle East, there’s Aigesha, who is not a virgin, but is about to be married, so she has to find something to make it appear that she’s a virgin. And then you’ve got Sharma, who’s in India, and who’s pregnant, but complications arise and she has to find a couple of thousand dollars to have a medical procedure for her child once he’s out of her womb. But getting [the money] is really tough, so that brings her husband into extraordinary circumstances.
AB: Any comment you’d make on Gerard Depardieu? There’s a hilarious article in the New Yorker on all that.
KN: [Laughs] I didn’t read it. I just don’t know what to say about that. All I can say is that it wouldn’t be a good movie because people would say that’s not credible at all. It’s too over the top.
AB: The conclusion of the article is that he’s been cast to portray Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the DSK biopic.
KN: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s true, that’s perfect. He is going to be good at that.