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BERLINALE 2021 Generation

Fred Baillif • Director of The Fam

“What I want to say is: stop closing your eyes!”

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- BERLINALE 2021: We met with the Swiss director about his new film, which explores the world of teenagers and social workers

Fred Baillif  • Director of The Fam
(© Stephane Gros)

Swiss director Fred Baillif worked for his new social drama, The Fam [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Fred Baillif
film profile
]
, with an ensemble composed of non-professional actors. In it, he depicts a milieu he knows from his time as a social worker. Winner in the Generation 14plus section of this year's Berlinale (March 1-5), the film presents an intimate and sensitive portrait of a generation of young girls, struggling with their environment and fighting to surmount their traumas. The director talked to us about his protagonists and his way of working.

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Cineuropa: In the film, you show an environment that you are familiar with from your work as a social worker. How did you adapt this material into a film?
Fred Baillif:
I stopped working as a social worker because I don't share the approach that most people have towards this job. Educators are forbidden from having close relationships with young people and the people they follow. I question the work of the social worker and the very concept of professional distance. The only thing that young people really need is affection, love. And this is exactly what they can't get.

The material for the film is provided by the girls. We worked together for two years in workshops to transform this emotional material. I have had discussions with educators and what interested me most was the way in which the topic of sexuality is dealt with in the institutions. Sexuality among minors is a huge taboo, but I wasn't this much aware of it.

How did you find your protagonists? Did you shoot in an actual home for distressed young people?
All of the girls and social workers are non-professional actors. I found an institution in which I wanted to shoot and from which all the girls came from. But only two weeks before we were supposed to start, the director of the institution changed and the new one refused to give us permission. She actually reported me, stating that I was dangerous for the girls because we wanted to talk about sexuality among the youth. Two of our main protagonists were kept back from us. Luckily, we found a new institution that was much more open-minded, and with it two new girls.

How much of their real history is shown in the film?
All the girls were told to think about their own background for the characters they played. They are not telling their real story, but one inspired by their experience. They weren't allowed to tell each other about their story, it was a secret until the start of the shooting.

Did you work with a strict script or was there space for improvisation?
Everything is improvisation. I didn't write any dialogues. There were a few punchlines I fixed. It was clear that the director had a secret and that at some point it would be revealed. But for the rest, I followed their energy. I wanted them not to play a role, but rather to be as authentic as possible, and to react to their environment and co-actors. They needed to use their own words. It was important that the girls would trust me and that we would trust each other. They told me about their lives and, as a film team, we grew together like a family.

We only realise rather late in the film that it constantly jumps from one time frame to another, which in fact gives a bit of a sense of the emotional rollercoaster that the protagonists are going through. Was it clear from the beginning that you wanted to do this?
Yes, I had it clear in the script already. But the editing process was very complicated and long. It felt like a puzzle that had to be assembled. In total, we worked on it for a year. After six months, we started again from the beginning.

You do not seem very interested in the reasons that brought these girls together, and you focus instead on how they interact and what life looks like for them after the experiences they’ve been through.
To be perfectly clear, as I said before, the girls in The Fam are not talking about their own experiences. I talked, however, with other women who do not appear in my film but who went through sexual abuse and would not have coped with telling their story in a film. I realised while talking to this group of women just how present sexual abuse is and how often it happens in families, but also how much of a taboo it is when it comes to the public. I wanted to show how many accomplices there are in these cases — the mothers, the grandmothers, the aunts. What I want to say is: stop closing your eyes! What was most important about creating the characters in The Fam was to be able to show how much potential lies in these young girls.

Could you talk about the aesthetic concept of the film? Why was it important to use a handheld camera?
I wanted the camera to depict the claustrophobic atmosphere that I resented in these institutions, by being very close to the actors. These buildings are not prisons, but they are quite similar to them. The camera needed to be able to move with the characters and to react to their improvisation. Since they all were non professional actors, they were not used to standing exactly where they were supposed to stand, and I wanted them to be as comfortable as possible.

Was it difficult to get funding for this project?
It was very difficult, since most institutions refuse to finance a script without written dialogues. Once we shot a few scenes, it became easier and we secured the post-production budget.

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