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IFFR 2023 Tiger Competition

Guido van der Werve • Director of The Breath of Life

“Cinema is a solution to what I want to do, and that is to touch people”


- We spoke to the Dutch director about his intimate self-portrait, in which he processes a dramatic life experience

Guido van der Werve • Director of The Breath of Life

Dutch director Guido van der Werve presented his autobiographical documentary The Breath of Life [+see also:
interview: Guido van der Werve
film profile
as a world premiere in the Tiger Competition at International Film Festival Rotterdam. We talked to him about his biking accident that changed his life, enabled him to process traumas from the past and, at the same time, allowed him to embrace the future. The director also told us how he searched for a more universal approach to the topic, which the audience would be able to relate to.

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Cineuropa: Could you explain the Dutch title of the film, Nummer achttien (lit. “Number 18”)?
Guido van der Werve:
It has a very simple meaning: this is the 18th film that I have made. I started numbering my works when I made my graduation film. I have always been interested in mathematics. The title is therefore not that important; it's usually the subtitles that matter more.

Why did you want to make this film? Did it help you process your experience?
I always keep my work very close to myself – usually, my films are a mirror of myself. After the accident, when I regained consciousness, I was wondering about what I could do next. People who knew me, also from my professional circle, kept asking questions about what happened. So I had this drive to make a movie about it, rather than being forced to tell the same story again and again. During my rehabilitation, I also realised the scale of what had happened. The doctors told me that I should be very happy that I had survived, since 99% of people would have died in such an accident. My cameraman then started to come to the rehab centre, at the end of 2016, and we began documenting everything. While I was thinking about my life in this situation, many moments from my childhood came back to me. Then, I realised that I had been over-compensating a lot during my life because of something that I would call an inferiority complex. I processed my childhood traumas in the film.

You use different kinds of images: documentary ones, re-enacted scenes and archive material. What were the most important aspects of your concept?
When my father passed away ten years ago, he left a big archive of footage. He made a lot of videos. While watching them, I realised that there were a lot of parallels between his life and mine. He was a painter but never had his work exhibited, so he worked as a drawing teacher instead. He might have felt like an outcast as well. Including this archive allowed me to make these parallels visible. The eyes of my father are the 8 mm videos, whereas mine are the new techniques. With the new images of myself and the new scenes, I could moreover draw a parallel between my first life, the one before the accident, and my second life, which began after the accident.

Wasn't it difficult to dig so deeply into your private emotions, and then choose how much of it to show in the film?
As an artist, I am naturally egocentric. And having gone through this rehab, during which everything and everyone was focused on me, doesn't help. On top of that, I cast myself and my family. But from the moment we got a production grant from the Netherlands, it was very important to think carefully about the audience perspective – what would be necessary for the audience to relate to the film? Working with a producer on that was very helpful. I had a lot of darlings I had to kill. For me, it was difficult to put the right weight on some of the details, but my producer kept asking why I wanted to show particular things. We had a lot of discussions.

Was it difficult to convince your family to participate in the project?
They are used to me and to my, sometimes crazy, ideas. I had a lot of “credit”, after having survived the accident. What was important was that my mother read the script, because the person who plays her doesn’t only say nice things. But my mother is a realist and finally gave me all the freedom I needed.

What would you say is the reason you make films?
From early on, music was the art form that touched me the most directly. Even though my father was into visual art, it didn't have the same impact on me. But then I tried cinema and found that it could actually be the right art form for me. Cinema is a solution to what I want to do, and that is to touch people.

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