Tereza Nvotová • Director of Nightsiren
“We realised that many of our beloved traditions exist to preserve the status quo”
- The Slovak filmmaker talks about her film, which deals with conservative traditions, the patriarchy and female empowerment, and just won the Golden Leopard in the Cineasti del presente section
Slovak filmmaker Tereza Nvotová world premiered her latest fiction feature film, Nightsiren [+see also:
interview: Tereza Nvotová
film profile], in Locarno's Cineasti del Presente competition, where the film won the Golden Leopard. Nvotová transitioned from documentary filmmaking to fiction filmmaking with her civil rape drama Filthy [+see also:
interview: Tereza Nvotová
film profile]. Her sophomore feature is a bold departure from her fiction debut, embracing more surreal imagery and magical realism in a folk horror story addressing misogyny and deeply-rooted gender inequality. Filthy and Nightsiren share the central topic of female emancipation and, in the case of the latter, through a subversion of social stereotypes and customs. Cineuropa talked with the director about conservative traditions, the patriarchy and female empowerment.
Cineuropa: In Nightsiren, you are confronting two plotlines-slash-worldviews, the patriarchy represented by society, and one represented by a female protagonist on her way to emancipation. Why was this confrontation important for you?
Tereza Nvotová: Because there’s nothing you can do if women themselves don’t have a desire to live differently. I wanted to inspire them to have new ideas about themselves. I know so many women from my country who don’t even consider a different life apart from having kids, a husband and a household to care for. It took me a long time as well to ask myself what I really want. And when I did and I shared it, there was immediate backlash: “You don’t want to be a mother? You’re not a woman!”
Misogyny, xenophobia and mass hysteria are motifs in the film. How did you research them?
Well, growing up in Slovakia was pretty deep research in itself. Half of my family is from a village. I spent a lot of time in a small town society, so I’d say it’s under my skin. But that was not all. We used the village as a collective antagonist to reflect what we feel is wrong with our society. Fear of the unknown or of difference is the biggest driver for the worst crimes. It’s been like this for centuries.
Why did you decide to set the story in a rural environment and work with folklore aspects and local customs in the narrative?
We felt like if we wanted to talk about big issues, we needed to make it simple. This small-town environment offers a perfect way to depict how these ancient problems still prevail in our modern world. Barbora Námerová brought an ethnological study that researched superstitious “witch” beliefs in contemporary Slovakia. We were amazed by the fact that it’s still very much alive. We started to look at all sorts of rituals that are preserved in our society and we started to question what purpose they serve exactly. We realised that many of our beloved traditions exist to preserve the status quo - women need to be fertile, men need to be strong, women serve the men, men protect the women. And if someone doesn't conform, they become a danger to the community. Simple and scary as that.
Nightsiren uses genre aspects. Why did you opt for them?
We used genre because it was the most natural way to tell this story. If you talk about witches, magic, fear and trauma, you want to bring the audience into this world, make them feel it. If a movie doesn’t leave any emotional mark, I don’t really consider it a good movie. When I grew up, genre was considered something cheap. And many of those movies were in fact cheap-looking and corny. But today, cinema is much freer. I can use any form or genre to make the impact that I want to make. It’s only natural that film festivals see this shift and support it.
You use very modern cinematic language in the film. For example, the Midsummer night is depicted in a very untraditional way. How did this happen?
I guess we allowed ourselves to dream big with this movie. We didn’t think of any box it should fit in. We just played with the tools we gave ourselves. For example, the Midsummer night – that was a collaboration between me, the writer, the DoP, the choreographer, the makeup artist and the composer. I had some vague idea of what I wanted, but I invited these people to create it together with me and it worked and it was fun to make!
The editing is very dynamic in the film. Thibault Hague, who edited I Am Not Witch [+see also:
interview: Rungano Nyoni
film profile], and Pavel Hrdlička (Charlatan [+see also:
interview: Agnieszka Holland
film profile], By a Sharp Knife [+see also:
film profile]) co-edited Nightsiren. Can you elaborate on how you approached the editing?
I feel like I spent half of my life editing this movie. It was a long and hard process. First, we discovered that we can’t tell this story in a traditional way. Then we had to figure out the balance between drama and genre. The timing of what to say and when is crucial. With Pavel we got to a point where we needed the perspective of someone outside our culture. Thibault was the perfect choice, because he’s very open and he immediately dialled into the movie. He brought back some motives we removed out of fear they’d be over the top.
It turned out we were just scared and those scenes or storylines really worked. After Thibault, it took me another three months to realise I could play with the structure even more if I added chapters. That move freed me and I could build the narrative on an emotional through-line. The lesson I’m taking from this process is, don’t send your movie to festivals or show it to too many people if you’re not absolutely sure it’s finished.
Patti Cake$ and Industry DoP Federico Cesca is Nightsiren's DoP. Why did you decide to work with him?
Initially, I was looking for a DoP that is not from Slovakia, because I felt that I need someone that would look at our country and traditions from an outsider's perspective. I felt like it could bore people who grew up in it. Also I wanted a DoP who is great with natural light and working handheld. I saw Patti Cake$ and I loved it, but I didn’t connect the dots until I had a meeting in New York with the producer of the movie.
He told me that Fede married a Slovak woman and had moved there for the time being. I immediately watched all of his movies and contacted him. I loved working with him because he didn’t have a problem shooting scene-long shots, which made the scenes and acting feel much more natural. At the same time he had some great, visually ambitious ideas, like the neon lights or circular dolly track for the dance scene.
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