Interview: Shalimar Preuss, director of Strange Says the Angel

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Strange Says the Angel is a magical film focusing on themes such as mortality, nature and tradition. It presents the life and relationships of a family in rural France, as their world which shifts from reality into an endless dream. We spoke to director Shalimar Preuss about her thought-provoking project.

Naturalistic and realistic elements are evident throughout the film. However, there is also a strong send of poetic storytelling. How did you achieve this? 

I started imagining and writing this project after meeting the family in the film. None of them are professional actors. I wrote tailor-made roles for each member of this family, mixing what they had shared in interviews, their family habits, and their way of life with my own preoccupations: environmental concerns on one end (which contrasted powerfully with the bucolic looks of the location) and, on the other end, the exploration of what is handed down from generation to generation concerning womanhood and identity.

You have mentioned that you got the title of the film from Jaques Prevert’s poem Être Ange. Do you often find yourself being inspired by writings? If not, what would you say is your main source of inspiration? 

This might sound paradoxical (as I am now developing a project inspired by a book by Jean Giono), but I wouldn’t say that writings are my main source of inspiration. I think each of my film projects have more to do with the desire of grasping the essence of human life. Describing a way of being and defining oneself is what fascinates me.

How was it working with non-professional actors and especially with Nina, the young protagonist? 

To my surprise, Nina – despite her young age – turned out to be a little master of the art of acting, living each moment and saying each line as if it was the first time. It seems to me that her face is so expressive that it’s really the audience watching her on screen that does most of the work of “building her character”! Working with her had little to do with how I brought the other non-professionals into my project. In the beginning I set up a number of “documentary” scenes of their ordinary life and then I tried to bring in – as gently as possible – elements of “fiction” in an attempt to respect their way of being. I also did not work with a technical crew which made the filming process very intimate.

The film has a magic-realism-documentary look even though it’s fiction. Was that an aesthetic choice or was it also dominant in the way you decided to handle your script? 

This was apparent from the script stage, during which the intertwining of a dream/internal world and reality sprung from a desire to render the force of the child’s inner conflicts with her subjective interpretation of the facts revealed (or hidden) by the adults in her family. This is something I had planned for my previous film, My Blue-Eyed Girl, and regretted not achieving. This short gave me the opportunity to test these different “levels” of reality in filmmaking, or rather these different ways of grasping reality: here, it is the emotional intelligence – or perhaps simply imagination – that leads the way of telling the story.

On what level was the filming of this story an improvisation – a matter of capturing the moments of this family? 

The improvisation in this project concerned mainly the question of how to fit the fiction into the daily humdrum. The drama here is a “passive” one, as it has to do with what is NOT said, and NOT done about everyone’s mortality: the most blatant being the grandmother’s, and the most scandalous being the child’s death poisoned by tap water (a true fact from summer 2013).

This is your first film after your last feature My Blue-Eyed Girl. Would you say that your style and approach towards short filmmaking has now changed? If so, how?

In short filmmaking I feel a renewed sense of creative liberty and exploration, which is hard to keep when making a feature because of the financial pressure and limitations. However, I do hope that I find a way to do so in all my film projects… 

Strange Says the Angel screens in International Competition 5: Treading Water.

Interview by Errika Zacharopoulou