Magnus Gertten • Director of Only the Devil Lives Without Hope
“In the region where the film is set, the hope lies with the women”
by Marta Bałaga
- We talked to Magnus Gertten, the director of Only the Devil Lives Without Hope, a film that could have been penned by John le Carré himself
In Only the Devil Lives Without Hope [+see also:
interview: Magnus Gertten
film profile], named after a common saying in Uzbekistan, Swedish director Magnus Gertten reveals the incredible story of Dilya Erkinzoda, who becomes a human rights activist after her brother ends up in Jaslyk prison, dubbed the “Place of No Return”. But even after he is forced to sign a confession, she keeps fighting for his freedom – also while suffering a devastating personal betrayal. We talked to the director of the Hot Docs-screened picture to find out more.
Cineuropa: When presenting the work-in-progress version two years ago, you couldn’t reveal too much about the story. Was that mostly for safety reasons?
Magnus Gertten: I met Dilya in 2016, when Uzbekistan was still under the old regime. It wasn’t unusual for them to send out assassins. She was living in Sweden under a protected identity, and only after Islam Karimov’s death did things start to change, at least on the surface – both for us and for her. I kept asking if she was ready, and at first she was scared. But that’s what happens with documentaries – time changes so much.
Dilya wanted to go public, as it was a way to save her brother. She started challenging the regime when she was just 20 years old. In a way, it’s in her DNA. When she got a message from the prison that her brother didn’t want her to continue, she never accepted it. I admire her a great deal.
There is almost a fairy-tale-like aspect to her determination – she is like Gerda, trying to find Kai in the Snow Queen’s palace. Did you ever wonder what made her go on?
There are many reasons, one obvious one being her parents. They were questioned by the police: her mother had a heart attack and her father was beaten. His son’s friend was tortured in front of his eyes. I guess she felt: “If I don’t do something, nothing will happen.” Personally, I think she needs to build a new identity now – one unrelated to taking care of other people. In 2008, I made another film in that region, Long Distance Love, and the feeling I got there was that the hope lies with the women. Men just fuck up or drink too much. Dilya is very much in that position.
Being the one who always needs to clean up the mess can be exhausting, and that’s without taking into account the film’s sudden revelation. If it were a work of fiction, viewers would deem it “unrealistic”.
I had wanted to make a film in Uzbekistan for a decade. In the meantime, I had three big films in three years: A Thousand Pieces [+see also:
film profile], Every Face Has a Name [+see also:
film profile] and Becoming Zlatan. That means that at the beginning of 2016, I was exhausted. Then my brother got ill; he was hospitalised and died that spring. And I just needed to do something.
I found out about Dilya, who was in Sweden and went public with Amnesty International. She didn’t want to reveal her address, so we met at the railway station and talked about her brother. I thought I would never “sell” this idea to any financier. Then she said: “There is one more thing,” and mentioned her husband. It was crazy. Afterwards, my only question was: “Do you still have your wedding video?” Once I could visualise the man, I could start making the film.
You don’t sensationalise it, though. There is something very John le Carré-ish about the grittiness of it all.
We had to go to Uzbekistan at some point, all the way into the desert, and I was able to see that “Prison of No Return” with my own eyes. But we couldn’t go in. So there was a lack of certain material, and then you can delve into reconstruction or staging things. It’s an American tradition, and some do it well. I was afraid it would just distance people. I agree that there is a bit of le Carré – I have heard it mentioned before. It’s the grey, everyday life of a person whose relative is a political prisoner, and all that it entails.
When you started, did you set some kind of deadline for yourself, deciding how long you would follow this story? You didn’t know the outcome.
There was no plan, but as a filmmaker, you need to challenge yourself. If something feels impossible, it’s usually a good sign! This time, I wanted to do something different: a hardcore arthouse documentary. I was prepared for it to take time. But it’s scary because we were filming for one year and nothing happened! Things picked up much later – we were in the editing when they closed down the prison.
Dilya’s attitude was to talk about everything. The first time we spoke, I asked her all of the complicated questions. If you start with superficial things, you establish the rules of communication for the rest of the process. Many years ago, I made a film about a hip-hop band [Gå loss], and one of its members committed suicide. Then I met his girlfriend and asked about it right away. It’s all about trust, so the scariest moment is when you show them the film. “This is it: this is what we have been doing all these years.” Dilya was crying the whole time, and so was her mother. And then she said: “I am happy.”
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