An interview with
director Julie Bertuccelli
Julie Bertuccelli rehearsing
Since Otar Left with Esther Gorintin
Your background is in documentary
filmmaking. Is the manner in which you seize on a gesture or
a look to communicate characters' feelings and their common outlook
something which you get from your experience with documentaries?
Maybe. What I love about documentaries
is that the people one films invent their own scenes without
one's having to ask them to do so. One chooses one's characters,
determines the shooting-conditions, the right manner and the
right sense of distance, then one simply watches and follows
them, presents them as best one can and trusts in one's own eyes.
I suppose I wanted to go on working with this freedom, only applying
to a dramatic situation. Having said which, in my documentary
work, I never intrude on people's private lives. I merely film
people-often at work-and if the job is well done, then a sense
of intimacy appears in their faces, in their attitudes and their
way of speaking and in the silences between words. My interest
in fiction sprang out of a need to go push my limits and find
a different way of filming characters.
The main difference between
drama and documentary is that in drama there are actors
True, but at the start my intentions
were not so very different. I shot my actors with the same curiosity
that I shoot people in my documentaries, except that I was less
afraid that I might be manipulating them, that I might be transgressing
the taboo on intimacy. Indeed, with Since Otar Left, when I sensed
that an actor was acting as such, all the emotion was gone. I
enjoyed shooting written dialogue, but I have to say I was very
suspicious. I was afraid it would sound fake.
How did this, your first
feature, come about?
Since Otar Left is based on
a true story that I was told. It was true but it seemed so unlikely
that it made me want to appropriate it. And in any case, it was
a story that could not be told as a documentary-it was much too
intimate. That's why I had to embark on a new kind of storytelling.
And of course we changed everything, reinventing the story, the
end, the characters
How was the project developed?
I told executive producerYaël
Fogiel about my idea and we found some money for the script to
be written. Bernard Renucci, a screenwriter I have often worked
with in my documentaries, wrote the first three or four drafts
in close collaboration with the producer and with myself. Then
when we obtained the French government's grant aid, I rewrote
the script alone, then with Roger Bohbot to bring the story closer
to me, adapting and restructuring it.
Why the Republic of Georgia?
I spent six months in Georgia
working on a film by Otar Iosseliani and I fell in love with
the place, as I had earlier fallen in love with Iosseliani's
films. It's a very attractive country, a crossroad between Europe
and Asia, with Caucasian and Russian and European and Middle
Eastern influences. You sense all that when you go to Tbilisi,
it is a magnificent town, despite its dilapidated condition.
Things are less harsh there than in Russia. People are warmer.
I felt very at home. Perhaps because I come from the Mediterranean.
Georgian history is fairly chaotic,
they've had all sorts of problems, but they tend to preserve
the best of what they've got. I fell in love with Georgia as
a place but I did not particularly decide that I would make a
film there. Then when this story came up, I knew it would have
to be made there. Primarily because the plot would give us a
pretext to show this fascinating place. And also because I wanted
to say something about France -not France seen from the inside,
France seen from elsewhere. I wanted to deal in foreign imaginations,
to show the discrepancies that occur. I wanted to make a film
a long way from home and use the distance to say something about
myself, in other people's eyes.
Why is it that Ada's family
is so in love with France?
Georgia is a land which has
a long tradition of links with France, though they are not well
known. Many French people have travelled there and many indeed
have settled there. There has been a constant process of exchange.
Georgians are fascinated by French culture. Many people within
the Russian sphere of influence are. All the same, I don't feel
that this is a film about Francophilia. I am not interested in
talking about France so much as in talking about how one comes
to fall in love with a foreign land one knows only from one's
imagination, with all the potential for disillusionment that
Still, the heart of the film
is in its portrayal of three generations of women
Yes, the idea was to show a
triple relationship between three women caught in a changing
world, sometimes changing for the better, sometimes for the worse.
I wanted Eka, Marina and Ada to be equally important, I did not
want one part to eclipse the others. You could say that they
are all three aspects of one and the same character, the same
woman at three different stages in life. And then of course this
family is a manless family. Men are rejected, put aside. In Georgia,
when men are unable to provide, women take on that responsibility.
Otar is not the only man to have gone away. Ada's father is also
mentioned as having died in Afghanistan. Perhaps he was Russian;
one does not know. As I come from a fairly matriarchal world,
I was able to project a great deal of myself into this and introduce
a mother-daughter theme. The strength of the mother-daughter
relationship is what has made me, in a good sense and in perhaps
in a destructive sense too.
The story opens with a silent
scene about a cake. Not a word is said and yet one immediately
understands the connections between these women
The opening scene was not in
the screenplay, it was totally improvised. There was just a need
to see the three of them together in silence, one Sunday. They
go out for a bit, they are bored, they have nothing to do and
nothing to say to each other. It was our last day of shooting
in Georgia. I hardly had to direct the scene, the actors knew
their parts well.
How did you cast the film?
There is a major theatrical
tradition in Georgia. My first notion was to find three Georgian
women. In the end the only Georgian actor was Nino Khomassouridze
who plays Marina. Nino is an impressive woman-she is very sensuous,
very beautiful. And the incredible thing is that I eventually
discovered that she herself had lived through something similar
to what is in the film, something tragic.
The casting director, Stephane
Batut, searched both France and Georgia to find the right Ada.
It was not long before we were out looking for non-professional
actors. We saw dozens of Georgian girls who spoke French, but
we did not find that perfect person we wanted. We spread our
net wider and went to Russia, as Russian is widely spoken in
Georgia, and I was soon introduced to Dinara Droukarova who lives
in Paris now. People may remember her from Kanevsky's Freeze,
Die, Come to Life which is one of my favorite films. And because
it is one of my favorite films I was very moved to meet Dinara.
She is Russian but of Mongolian extraction. Originally in the
screenplay, Ada found her womanhood a problem. She was really
a 25-year-old teenager, harsh and overweight and uncomfortable
with herself. Dinara is so attractive that I had to adapt the
story to fit her slim body. In the end, her discontent is communicated
by the fact that she looks different, she looks stubborn and
What about Eka, the grandmother?
I loved Esther Gorintin in Voyages,
Emmanuel Finkiel's magnificent film. But I was worried that people
would make a connection if I cast her. And also, I would have
preferred to have found a Georgian Francophile to play the part,
who would not have appeared in any other film. In the end, however,
after searching high and low and meeting some incredible people,
Esther obviously seemed right. She is a remarkable actress. She
is also 90 years old. It was not easy for her to go to Georgia
for two months and shoot a film. But she was amazing. Her concentration
was remarkable, she was professional, she was tireless. She loved
the place and enjoyed the food so much she put on twelve pounds.
Did you rehearse?
We did a few readings, but not
too many. There were language problems: French, Russian, Georgian.
Esther spoke Russian and French but Dinara needed to learn Georgian
and Marina was not too keen on speaking Russian, because to her
it's the language of oppression. The main advantage of rehearsing
was to establish who would speak what language and at what time.
And for me it was useful to be able to observe my actresses.
I did not want to have to psychologize things, nor give overprecise
directions. I needed to watch them, to find details in their
behaviour that suited the characters and vice-versa. Some people
have a particular way of tidying a desk or cleaning a room before
they sit down to work. My need was to see real people and places,
to smell locations, details, the whole concrete business of pre-production.
Is your film a film about
Yes and no. Of course, there
is lying at every level and those lies generate more lying. As
a concept, lying is fascinating. It's a great place to set a
film because it is a twin force, both destructive and creative.
But in this story, lying is really a catalyst that shows family
precedent, that reveals how each of the women lives a lie and
especially how each of them changes their lives to fit this lie.
I am a great liar myself-at least, I enjoy the wealth of possibilities,
the ambivalence involved in playing games with reality-so I was
not about to cast moral aspersions on lying: I wanted to show
it as a fact. Lying is not a question of principle; it springs
from an excess of heart and is not something I wanted to treat
judgementally. It is no more than a slightly neurotic, slightly
mad way of inventing a life for oneself, of making one's life
more bearable and also perhaps a way of manipulating people and
allowing oneself to be manipulated by them. In Since Otar Left,
everyone has something to gain from the central lie.
Your interest in reality
did not prevent you writing a dramatic story.
That was one of the problems
in writing and also in editing. As time passed and as the women's
lie was accepted, there was a danger that we might fall into
a conventional story with surprises and suspense. We didn't want
to have 40 billion double-entendre scenes which would have turned
the whole thing into a comedy. We want the story to get off on
the wrong foot as it were, never to be where one would expect
it to be, to hobble along but always get by. And in the cutting
room, with Emmanuelle Castro, the editor, we muddled things up
Nevertheless, one is gripped
by this story about lying and the consequences of lying, one
does want to know how it is all going to end.
We knew we had to stick as close
to these women as possible and to the main strand, which was
"What are they going to do with this lie now that it has
landed in their lives?" The mother, for instance, carries
the whole thing like a burden-a duty really-then gradually it
brings her a kind of calm. There is a new tenderness between
her and her mother, their relationship is more relaxed. And with
Ada, our main concern was to see how she might blossom and become
herself because of this lie, how she might enjoy it and start
to live vicariously, how she might learn to be selfish. Ada really
makes the lie credible, she is the one who writes and can transform
things. And in the end when she leaves, it is not because of
anything which she herself has done. That is one of the things
which touches me most, seeing how people create life under constraint,
more often than not out of nothing much more than a few bits
of broken this-and-that.
Is this true of the grandmother?
Yes. And in the end the grandmother
is the most energetic of all three characters precisely because
she has the power to make life. Her attitude is that at any moment,
everything can be called into question, you can change direction,
you don't need a fixed plan. The beautiful thing is how each
one of the characters' lives is transfigured. I hate locking
people up in fixed frames. I've made films about gravediggers,
about a man leaving prison, about a government law school, about
a department store, about corporate bosses in a merger. And in
every case I've encountered people who prove prejudice wrong.
In your film, you do show
that the mother's generation is a lost generation.
Marina's generation is probably
the generation to have coped with the end of the Soviet Union
least well. Marina has been hit hard by change. She is a product
of the past, yet she belongs fully to the present with its violence.
She is cut in two by this gap in history. She is condemned to
know that her daughter must dream of leaving, she is condemned
to finding herself abandoned.
The photograph of Marina
with a gun to her head tells us a lot about her past, her quiet
It's a genuine photograph of
Nino Khomassouridze. I went to the actors' homes to find photographs
of themselves and I was fascinated to find this. Nino is someone
very complex and the picture is symbolic. It says that this woman
has always been apart and it also says this woman is so strong
that she can deal with that, just as Marina was trained as an
engineer and finds herself selling junk in a flea market. Marina
cannot breakdown. That's strong characters' weak point.
And Eka, who is sometimes
like a little girl, she is complex too.
Eka comes from an educated family,
but when it suits her she says she loves Stalin. She remains
very keen on her appearance and as soon as she's alone, she grabs
an opportunity for a cigarette. Characters don't alter as they
grow older, they only accumulate more material, becoming more
interesting as they acquire overlapping contradictions. I met
many people like that in Georgia, people who loved reading in
French and French literature, and though they didn't exactly
miss Stalin, they did say things were better before. Those are
contradictions I find interesting. I didn't want simplistic characters.
What gives life to the film
is its shifting between two themes: the need to transmit, and
the need to repeat
Transmission is indeed one of
the themes in the screenplay. Obviously, when one is dealing
with a family, the idea of things being handed down from one
generation to the next occurs, as does the idea that errors and
defects are passed on, sometimes along with a need to make one's
own way in life. The idea that we are all constrained by the
example of others is a very cinematographic idea. When one is
filming, the unconscious speaks. Mysterious and intangible things,
secrets even, come to the surface and seem evident once they
I believe that the relationship
between grandmother and granddaughter is a way of getting round
a difficult relationship with one's parents, a way of finding
another path to avoid getting locked up in an endless war between
mother and daughter. People both want and don't want their children
to leave home. The end-credit song says, in Georgian, "Butterfly
fly away, Butterfly do not fly away"
What role does Otar's example
play in all this?
It's such a remote example that
it is difficult for any of them to pursue it. They don't really.
I suppose that in the end the grandmother follows his example
most faithfully because she has the least to lose and because
despite appearances she is extremely generous. Perhaps she has
known what has happened or guessed it for a long time, and she
only wants to encourage her granddaughter to leave for the far-off
place she dreams of. Maybe she wants to help her granddaughter
accomplish what she herself has never been able to do.
There is a strong physical
quality to the relationship between these women. They embrace,
they rub each other's feet, they wash each other's hair...
This is the way I see family
relationships, and in terms of form, it translates into a taste
for filming people's physique which is expressive but not explanatory.
A foot being rubbed tells one a great deal about the character
involved, about that person's relationship to other people. The
women in my film give each other love and tenderness, though
not enough perhaps and perhaps not of the right kind. Because
it is also true that Marina is still asking her mother to love
her. She cannot really grow up and be a proper mother herself.
So Ada plays the mother's role. That's one of the things she
These three women share an
apartment, but once again it is not the lack of breathing space
which you show us, but the life going on irrepressibly.
In the original screenplay,
the story was set in a project-type apartment, in a modern neighborhood
that was already falling to pieces. Such places exist-they're
impressive because so they're so totally anarchic. There are
doors out on to a balcony with no balcony there, such as one
sees in the apartment of Tenguiz, Marina's boyfriend. But if
we'd set the film in such a place, then it would have turned
into social realism and I didn't want all that social comment
to outweigh the rest. And my heart led me to an old-fashioned
apartment, despite the fact that I was a little afraid of making
things seem too beautiful. The apartment we used as a location
is a lovely one, but it is not really a wealthy person's apartment.
It's only "wealthy" because the people who live there
invest it with so much.
There's also the whole courtyard
life and the little garden where the grandmother goes out to
Courtyards in Georgia are amazing.
There's a real sense of community in the way people use the courtyards,
with the kitchens set out on the balconies, above. Families remain
close-knit; grandparents, parents and children all living together.
Today, you find 25 year-olds still living with their grandmothers.
To us it seems magical, living with one's grandmother like that,
and it makes for living arrangements which we no longer have
in our countries. But of course it creates neuroses too. Georgians
have no choice and living with one's family increases the burden
of social disapproval. This is what stifles Ada and encourages
her to want to leave. She needs to discover a new and different
world. In Georgia, whole generations have been locked in with
their families, so there is a real appetite for life, an appetite
for novelty. People emigrate for lack of work but for other reasons
as well: for love, to fulfil a dream, to meet new people, out
of curiosity, to get away from family neuroses. There are a whole
host of reasons and I wanted to get away from social realist
caricature in which themes of emigration often induce.
The second scene in the film
is a long scene in the post office. Was that a way of introducing
letters as an important element in the film early on?
I am very attached to this scene.
It's the first scene I thought of and the first scene I shot.
The images are documentary images and I am very fond of them.
They represent my way of showing letters, as well as also the
absolute dilapidation of an unusual country, which remains cheerful,
where people go on living and having fun despite all the problems.
As a documentary filmmaker, I always like showing people making
the most of what they've got to make a life for themselves.
The cinematography helps
generate a sense that life always wins out.
There is something fascinating
about having to deal with blackness, with night, with candlelight.
The locations were very beautiful and Christophe Pollock, the
DP, came out to Georgia early to make the most of them. We wanted
the locations to come to life almost physically. We absorbed
as much of the atmosphere of the country as we could, the gentleness
and the complication of it. I am very attached to the locations
that are shown. I found places I liked, but they were not to
be seen as picturesque, as a catalogue of beauty spots. I wanted
the story to have universal resonance, a story that happened
to be located in Georgia but which might just as easily have
taken place elsewhere.
And the wishing tree? Does
that exist in real life?
Yes, it does. It did not appear
in the early drafts of the screenplay and we came across it with
the screenwriter on our very first reconnaissance. There are
trees all over the place, often near churches. It's an old pagan
custom which I find moving. It makes reality breathe. Even if
you don't believe in what is behind wishing trees, the gesture
itself-tying a ribbon to the branch of a tree-is a tradition.
It is very moving. There is a lot to those ribbons. They tell
us something universal, they tell us that people's desires and
sorrows and hopes are common to all mankind.