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ZURICH 2021

Dennis Stormer, Marisa Meier • Director and producer of Youth Topia

“Initially, we said: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have an algorithm tell us what to do with our life?’”

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- We talked to the director and producer behind this year’s Zurich Audience Award winner, in which kids just refuse to grow up

Dennis Stormer, Marisa Meier  • Director and producer of Youth Topia

Director Dennis Stormer and producer Marisa Meier, who wrote the script together, welcome everyone to Youth Topia [+see also:
film review
interview: Dennis Stormer, Marisa Meier
film profile
]
– the place where your maturity is decided based on an algorithm. Some, including Wanja, are intent on cheating the system, staying young and irresponsible for as long as they can, until adulthood literally comes knocking. The film won the Audience Award at the Zurich Film Festival (see the news).

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Cineuropa: Even though Dennis is credited as the director, you said you worked on the film together. In what way?
Marisa Meier:
I was never interested in directing. It was clear we would write together and make all the creative decisions, but when it came to working with the actors on set and developing the acting strategy, that was all Dennis.

Dennis Stormer: We split the chores during production, with Marisa focusing on the organisational part. After we were done, we came together again, uniting for that last stage and having to deal with a tremendous amount of footage. There were so many storylines that didn’t make it into the final version.

You certainly created a whole universe. It’s not exactly realistic, yet not far enough away from reality for the viewer to completely relax.
MM:
When we were in the financing process, many thought of dystopias and Black Mirror. This is how stories about algorithms are usually told. We wanted to create something more positive, while retaining this critical eye. Initially, we would say: “Wouldn’t it be cool to have an algorithm tell us what to do with our life?” It was important to stay close because it’s not like these things don’t already exist.

DS: Just think about Facebook Messenger. We don’t talk about them reading what we are saying, because it’s inconvenient, but sometimes, it makes you go: “Am I living in a science fiction film?!”

One character says that the weirdest thing about the algorithm is that everyone joined right away.
MM:
This phrase was invented by the actor; it was never written. We left them a lot of room for improvisation; they got smartphones and could play around with them on set.

DS: This line, it really sums up the whole movie. We created this universe, wrote down all the parameters and gave them to the actors, at the same time leaving them so much freedom. They were imagining what could happen in this world, and everyone took part in shaping it.

There is this anarchistic vibe to the film. The way you shot it brings to mind Indian celebrations or these supposedly “wild” events like the Burning Man.
DS:
I admire the cinematography of Harmony Korine, but it’s not like we set out to make another Spring Breakers. We thought about these big, commercialised youth events, this whole festival culture. That and the 1990s, because it’s also a film about youth nostalgia. It’s about how we regret not having been more “youthful” when we first had the chance.

Sometimes, when we talk about people who refuse to grow up, “the lost boys” and girls, there is some element of criticism to it. But you seem to show good sides to both choices?
MM:
It was important not to tell a black-and-white story and be more complex about it. I wanted to question the concept of age in our society. To show how absurd it is that suddenly you are this “adult”, expected to behave in a certain way.

DS: The festival called our film a satire, and I don’t agree, but I am not sure what to call it either. We have jokes, but it’s a tragic story – utopia, dystopia, I don’t really know. Take the scene with a calf. Why do people have dogs in their homes? It’s super weird – sorry to all the dog lovers. Why wouldn’t you have a calf instead? Everyone knew we had space to fool around.

Was it hard to find your Wanja? She had to convince as a wild child but also as a corporate chick.
DS:
When we got the funding, we knew we had to work with people from Zurich. I knew Lia von Blarer, and she was helping us, even though it was unclear whether we would cast her or not. She would join us during casting because she knew the story, and we were impressed with her once we saw the footage. She just got the whole concept and was able to switch so quickly.

MM: She brought so much creativity to the role. She really used this huge playground and loved it. I am from Zurich, and it’s a very grown-up place, but Swiss people have this punk side to them, too. It’s an interesting place for our world premiere. My primary-school teacher came, saying that she also has this young person hiding inside. It was really touching.

DS: I think that some people are questioning their everyday behaviour now. Maybe you had some teenage dreams you never fulfilled? After the screening, they go: “Maybe I should go dancing again.” It’s great to see that cinema can do that.

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