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Jessica Woodworth • Director of The Barefoot Emperor

“Laughter is power”


- We talked to Jessica Woodworth, one of the directors of this year’s Warsaw opening film, The Barefoot Emperor, about Europe turning sour and learning how to laugh about it

Jessica Woodworth  • Director of The Barefoot Emperor
(© Jean-Luce Huré)

Chosen as this year’s opening film of the 35th Warsaw Film Festival, The Barefoot Emperor [+see also:
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interview: Jessica Woodworth
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sees directorial duo Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens cheekily continue the story they explored in their 2016 title King of the Belgians [+see also:
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interview: Jessica Woodworth, Peter Br…
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. Here, they significantly raise the stakes, as their hapless royal (Peter Van Den Begin) is now supposed to lead Europe, or rather, Nova Europa.

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Cineuropa: It was surprising to hear about a follow-up to King of the Belgians. Sequels are a staple of Hollywood, not arthouse cinema. Was it something you always had your eye on?
Jessica Woodworth:
The idea of making an arthouse sequel is ridiculous, actually. These films are supposed to be singular. But due to a series of circumstances, we ended up in Croatia on Tito’s island [Veliki Brijun], and it was just so peculiar. There are all of these animals running around and crumbling old buildings. Everything feels out of balance and out of place. Even then, we felt that Europe was changing fast and that King of the Belgians was unfinished business. In that film [with Nicolas III discovering his country fell apart while he was away on a state visit], we had to respect the codes of it being a mockumentary made by British filmmaker Duncan Lloyd. This time, we left him in Sarajevo and built a different story. We didn’t want a road-trip movie – we wanted a trippy film, but without the road [laughs]. They are stuck on that island. Tito managed to appease many kinds of people there. It was another age of diplomacy, and maybe we could benefit by going back a step.

And put all the politicians on an island they can’t leave until they reach some kind of agreement?
Like our film crew! It was a very effective way of getting everyone to focus. We wanted to explore this feeling of Europe turning sour, but it’s a bit closer to reality than we could ever have imagined. The intention was to poke fun at this very blasé way in which our leaders use the word “freedom”. The anthem of Nova Europa mentions "cherish our liberty" and is intentionally incredibly bad. But when you read the lyrics of other European anthems, they are so outdated and are often about fierce nationalism. I am Belgian-American, and I see how fast a country can change. The “Nova Europa” concept, the notion of expelling the “undesirable” individuals, and even daring to address them as garbage, is not so far-fetched. If we are lacking unity, we will be more and more fragile. Making political satire is a way of combatting closed-mindedness.

You don’t really elaborate on Nova Europa too much. It’s like some shadowy organisation in a Bond movie.
There are many things we don’t know about the mechanics of power, and we all accept that. Geraldine Chaplin, who plays Dr Ilse von Stroheim, is the so-called “architect”, but she is not a public figure. The first time we met, we spent the whole day talking – about everything but the film. And with Udo Kier [running an exclusive sanatorium], this role was written for him. He is willing to walk a fine line and is not afraid of playing the “bad German”. There is a sparkle in his eyes, making you go: “He’s messing with us!” That was exactly the right tone for the film: constantly on the edge. The world is so crazy right now that all of that could actually happen. Which is a bit scary.

This idea of collaborating together as a directorial duo is still very unusual – unless we are talking about brothers, which makes one wonder what happens to all the sisters.
It’s always the brothers! With Peter, we don’t make films in order to make money or become famous. We just love the process so much. Cinema is so important that it would be irresponsible to let your ego get in the way. Also, having a similar sense of humour helps a lot. We separate some tasks, but then we also shoot in very compact situations. It’s like one big, messy camp. People think it’s harder for couples, as you can’t separate work from your personal life. But filmmakers don’t have a personal life! One more reason why we work well together is that we share the same taste in music. And music is a better way of communicating than words. It’s all supposed to be playful, you know? People keep saying there are too many films and arthouse is dead, but time and time again, the audience shows that’s not true. They are there, hungry for something unusual. We just need to keep on trying.

Do you think that now, Nicolas will become Master of the Universe? It seems like a natural progression.
I think he will become a pope. Or a god! But if we are being practical, we should probably bring him back to Belgium. There are tons of ideas swimming around, but just because there are two, it doesn’t mean there is going to be a third. With every film we have made, the decision came in one, clear moment – like when we went to Tito’s island. Now, we have to see how Europe will be evolving, because a film needs to emerge from a sense of necessity. All of these walls are coming up, there is a migrant crisis, and the best way to look at it is through comedy, of course. Laughter allows you to think differently – laughter is power. When people dare to laugh, that’s when they are at their strongest.

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