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Arman T Riahi • Director of Fox in a Hole

“My film is an homage to how impactful teachers can be, but also how human and how broken they are”


- The opening film of Austria’s Diagonale goes full-on Dangerous Minds, but this time in prison

Arman T Riahi  • Director of Fox in a Hole

Finally able to celebrate a proper premiere, despite an earlier screening at the Warsaw Film Festival in October, Fox in a Hole [+see also:
film review
interview: Arman T Riahi
film profile
sees a teacher getting ready to take up the reins at a prison school. But while his juvenile-delinquent students are a handful, Hannes (Aleksandar Petrović) comes with his own baggage as well. The film was awarded for Fiction Feature Film Editing and was granted the Thomas Pluch Screenwriting Prize - Special Jury Prize at the recent Diagonale (see the news). We talked to the movie’s director, Arman T Riahi.

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Cineuropa: There are so many stories about people coming into the lives of troubled kids and trying to change them. Thinking about something like Dead Poets Society, there is this collective dream that we all have, about a teacher who could influence us like that.
Arman T Riahi: My parents are both teachers. We are a family of political refugees from Iran, and we came to Austria at the beginning of the 1980s. My parents were speaking out against the regime; my father was even in prison. Teachers had a huge impact on my life, and some still come to my screenings. It was a teacher at school who encouraged me to work with a camera. First, he talked to my brother, who is now producing my movies, and then he took me under his wing as well. My film is definitely an homage to how impactful they can be, but also how human they are and how broken they are. Everyone grew up with Dead Poets Society, sure, but I didn’t want to have this “superhuman” teacher this time. I needed something that would connect teachers and students, and it turned out to be trauma and pain. But also hope – for example, for a better future.

These kids are certainly different as well – they have already been through a lot. How much did you want to focus on them?
It all started with a real teacher. I went to the biggest prison in Austria about 12 years ago – I was doing research for my documentary. It was about children who grew up in Vienna but who didn’t really feel Austrian. They would get into trouble and end up in prison, and I wanted to know why. The warden told me about the school – I didn’t even know that prison schools existed! That’s how we met, and I was so impressed by him. I witnessed his final few years working there and wondered: “What happens when somebody else follows in the footsteps of a teacher like that? Someone so unconventional, who is always doing new things?” He would use art or [the therapeutic technique] paradox intervention just to get their attention. But what if the person who comes next isn’t so free-spirited, and has his or her own baggage? And what if they clash?

Still, later on, I realised that you can’t make a film like that without some interesting children. I didn’t want to repeat the most obvious clichés, but I stumbled upon the story of a boy, trapped inside a girl’s body. Every case in this film is inspired by reality, but this one was particularly interesting. He was trapped inside the prison and his own body.

The thing is, Hannes isn’t really likeable – he doesn’t even smile. The students are suspicious of him, but so is the audience, I guess?
I liked the challenge of starting out with a character you don’t like and making him likeable by the end – or at least more understandable. I really tried to make a movie that I would like to see myself and pique the audience’s interest enough so they would stick with the story. I never saw it as being dedicated to just one person, though. Prison is such a melting pot of different people and destinies. At one point, when writing the script but also while editing, I felt like I was working on a multiple-character plot. There are wardens, kids and this older teacher he is supposed to replace, not to mention that the prison is also a character in itself.

These kids talk a lot about identity or nationality, and figuring out their respective places. Are they encouraged to do so, also in real life?
They really discuss these issues there, but generally, I had the feeling that they wanted to relax andcalm down, which was also the strategy of the teacher. He would often try to find a humorous way to deal with serious situations. When I went there for the first time, I just fell under the spell. I felt safe, sitting there with him in that classroom. He talked about art and culture, he would bring in writers to work with the students, and predictably, great things came out of it. What I took away from that time was that this place was so different from any “normal” school outside. Our school system is just fucked up. The main difference was that the children in prison liked going to prison school – outside, they don’t want to do it at all. But I believe it really could be like this. All we need to do is to focus on children more, on how they are as individuals.

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