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BERLINALE 2020 Generation

Zoé Wittock • Director of Jumbo

"The difficult thing was maintaining the right balance between reality and fantasy"


- Young Belgian director Zoé Wittock talks about her first feature film Jumbo, a fairy tale-teen movie crossover, screened in the Berlinale’s Generation line-up

Zoé Wittock • Director of Jumbo

We met with the young Belgian director Zoé Wittock, whose first full-length title Jumbo [+see also:
film review
interview: Zoé Wittock
film profile
, discovered at Sundance, was presented in the Generation 14plus section of the Berlin Film Festival. She sat with us to discuss this rather unique and genre-bridging love story, revolving around a shy and lonely, young woman and a brightly lit fairground ride located in an amusement park nestled deep in the woods; a surprising crossover between a modern-day fairy tale and a traditional teen movie.

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Cineuropa: How did this project come about?
Zoé Wittock:
I’d just finished my film direction course when I came across a surprising news item: the story of a woman in love with the Eiffel Tower, who ended up marrying it. Obviously, it made me smile, but it also fascinated me. I got in touch with the woman in question, Erika Eiffel, and started to talk with her. I felt a bit silly because, with all the clichés I had in my mind, I’d expected to be dealing with someone a bit different, on the margins of society. But actually, I found myself faced with someone very sensible, normal even, in so far as anyone can be described as normal. That fascinated me even more. She was the one who set the tone of the film. She would say to me: "It’s just a love story!" And that was the basis for the screenplay, which I wrote keeping her example in mind. I found the Eiffel Tower too static for a fiction film, so I chose a fairground ride instead, a machine which naturally gives rise to certain sensations within us. Whether we’re objectophiles or not.

The film begins with the words "Based on a true story" - what was the purpose of this?
I tried to avoid any psychologization. I wanted viewers to be drawn into the film by way of emotion. Specifying that the film is based on a true story is also a way of helping the audience enter into the world of the film without experiencing too many doubts.

Paradoxically, there’s ongoing tension between the truth of the story and the initiatory tale being told…
Absolutely. I often say that it’s a modern fairy tale, a coming-of-age tale, or even a straightforward love story! I wanted the film to have an aura of magical realism about it, and even occasional surrealism; for it to be firmly anchored in the reality of these objectophile individuals and their entourage, but also to place the viewer in the subjective shoes of an objectophile by amplifying the latter’s feelings on screen, which is where the fantastical side of it comes from. The difficult thing was to maintain the right balance between reality and fantasy. And so as to do this, I flirted a little with the absurd so as to allow the audience to laugh, because, ultimately, it is a difficult subject. Laughter also allows us to face up to our own limits, to what we can or can’t accept.

Opposite Jeanne, the other protagonist in this love story is Jumbo. Was the real issue bringing Jumbo to life on screen?
It took us a very long time to “cast” this machine. It had to be imposing, agile, but also a reasonable size vis-à-vis the actress. When we finally found our precious pearl, we customised it: we changed all of its bulbs, we added a bright heart and we re-programmed it so that we could control it like a puppet. I knew from the outset that Jumbo had to exist as a character with its very own point of view. I didn’t want to get into the realm of anthropomorphism or give it a voice; in my mind, that would have been facile. Instead, I was looking for some sort of augmented reality. What is this machine really capable of doing, and how can we take these attributes a little bit further? We tried to create a dialogue between Jeanne and the machine. I didn’t want to go all the way down the fantasy route, but I didn’t want to pursue a too literal reality either or move towards the documentary genre.

Discovering our bodies and our sensuality is also a way of taking back control over our lives, it’s a real coming-of-age moment.
I think that when we experience our first love, we gain a degree of independence from our families. Jeanne’s love for this machine holds up a mirror which allows her to accept herself, move forwards and grow. She finds some sort of family balance thanks to this love story.

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(Translated from French)

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