Bálint Kenyeres’ short film, ‘Before Dawn’ was in the 2005 competition in Cannes, and went on to win the European Film Award. His follow-up, the 2009 ‘The History of Aviation’ premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight at the festival, and also won accolades all over the world. His first feature, called ‘Hier’, will debut in the ‘Cineasti del Presente’ competition of the Locarno Film Festival. We talked to the director about the challenging process of bringing the script to life, a film noir bereft of any actual mysteries, and the brilliance of Vlad Ivanov.
In an old interview you said you would like to complete your first feature before your hair turns grey – you didn’t quite manage to accomplish this goal.
True enough, making this movie was a lengthy process, and back when I started I wasn’t quite able to assess the level of outside interest in a film like this, or the requisites for such a story. We’ve also experienced an unlucky streak right from the beginning; sometimes it touched on the absurd, and it made me wonder what else could go south. It’s my personal responsibility that we have never given up, but it always felt like going into production was just around the corner, there wasn’t a specific point, when it became obvious that we should just quit.
During preproduction, you described the movie as a film noir in broad daylight. Please tell me more about the visual concept of Hier.
The North African setting was a given. I chose it because it’s only half an hour away from Europe, but it’s like an alien landscape to a European, who can get lost there in a way it wouldn’t be possible to do in Europe. This environment lends itself to visual clichés and romanticization, but I was confident that I didn’t want this, that there would be no camels, or orange-coloured sand dunes in the sunset in this movie.
Regarding only the story and its resolution, it’s a banal story carrying all the sadness of its banality, and the visuals of the movie had to reflect this. It’s awfully simple, really: there’s nothing in the shadows, nothing lurks in the dark, everything’s out there in the blazing sun. The source of the mystery is not some external entity, but the protagonist himself. The solution shouldn’t be sought in the long shadows and dark corners, instead it is revealed by the way the story unfolds for us through an unreliable narrator. The film is also a journey back to the era 15 to 20 years prior to when the film’s set, so we tried to evoke the visual atmosphere of movies from the 90s without creating a retro feel. This is one of the reasons why I found it very important to shoot on film, which meant Super 16 in our case, because that’s what we could afford.
Did you have any previous connection to North Africa?
None, whatsoever. I travelled to Morocco for the first time after I’d completed the first draft of the script, and the reality I witnessed there was uncannily close to what I had written. I went back many times, and in the later drafts I included locations, moments, experiences that my colleagues and I encountered there.
The lead actor has changed several times throughout the years.
Vlad Ivanov had always been part of the cast in another role, and he’d always been in the back of my mind as a possible option for the lead role, but in the script Ganz was a Western European character, and Vlad has a very distinct Eastern European presence. In the end, we went with Vlad and chose to mould the character to his personality instead. But if Vlad takes on a role, it adjusts itself to him anyway. I think he is one of the greatest European movie actors, and he is also a charming person.
Did you enjoy working with him?
That’s an understatement. He also carried this project on his shoulders, like very few would have been able to. He has an amazing heart and soul, yet he’s as precise and focused as a Swiss watch. And he has a director’s mind, he instinctively directs the situations from the inside. We only had 32 shooting days, we worked with a lot of non-professional actors, and he was brilliant at extinguishing potential fires. On several occasions, by the time I went from the monitor to the camera and was about to give instructions to Vlad’s partner, he had already taken care of the situation.
The past of the character is only hinted at, and the whole film plays with how many things are left ambiguous. How did you decide on how closely to guide the audience?
This fine-tuning is the key to whether the film works or not, and the way we handle it also determines the possible audience for the film. We wrote many versions of the script, and they differed mostly in this respect, but there has never been a version telling the story in a mainstream, audience-friendly way. We knew that this film was only for a discerning audience. The goal was to provide information at a rate that would keep the suspense alive.
Weren’t you worried that the audience wouldn’t be able to emotionally connect to this character?
The point of this auteurial experiment was precisely not to base the story on the usual emotional identification with the protagonist. I didn’t want this to happen. The casting and the direction also goes against this form of identification: the protagonist is basically an unlikeable guy. The driving force is more to do with the mysteries and the questions that keep arising, which make the viewer realize that even though there is no emotional identification in the traditional sense, the thoughts and feelings that arise in the viewer are very similar to the ones the protagonist has. This was a rather presumptuous experiment on my part, but if I am proud of anything, it is the fact that it seems to have worked, based on the feedback received. On the surface, the film seems to be about someone going through midlife crisis, but in fact, it is the examination of a fundamental human issue. However banal and simple this guy’s story might be, his experiences and his misfortune are special and unique – just like everyone else’s. Whether these experiences can be shared with others, and whether we can really connect and identify with another person, is a different matter altogether. This is one of the main themes of the movie, and we chose our narrative strategy to serve this.