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Focus from London on Eric Serrat (with Birdsong)

Birdsong (El cant dels ocells)

Waiting for Godot meets The Passion According to St. Matthew in Catalan maverick Albert Serra’s imaginative treatment of the Biblical tale of the three wise men travelling to see the newborn baby Jesus.

Albert Serra

Birdsong is based on an extremely famous Biblical story. What was it about the story of the Magi that made you want to recreate it?

I think it’s special… I wanted to shoot another film with the historical ambience, the countryside, not inside, with a subject not close to our world or our problems these days… I love it because always young filmmakers used to shoot films about contemporary subjects, urban problems or social problems, and I wanted to shoot something different and a Biblical film is not very common for young filmmakers. I think it’s interesting to try to make a more contemporary treatment of a Biblical plot or story.

It’s such a familiar story, but watching the film I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen; it feels spare and loose at the same time…

It’s part of my style… I like this kind of freedom inside the film, and with non-professional actors it’s more common.

And you’ve worked together before?

Yeah, I’ve made another film with two of them, Honour of the Knights, that was screened here two years ago. But they never shoot any other film or theatre, nothing. One works in building, another one is retired but was a tennis teacher and the other one works for the town hall, cleaning the streets!

You get a sense of their relationship on screen. Is it easy improvising to such an extent?

I am used to it… It’s not easy, but for me it’s easier because I know them. I’ve never filmed anybody else, I never study cinema or the direction of actors, so everything I learn I learn for myself and from working with them… I never worked with professional actors so I cannot see if it’s easier or more difficult. I don’t know, this is my way and I learn from working this way…

Do you have an idea about how the film will look, what direction it will take, before you arrive on set?

No, not really… We work a lot at the level of the image – image quality, image texture – just to have the quality that we will have, the type of image we will have. This helps you know that the film at an aesthetic level will work good on the screen. But, from the point of view of what kind of film it will be, I know what will work better, what will not work… but there is also the problem that there is no time. This is a low budget film and you have to do it very quickly… I always have intuition, but not the specifics of the film. The rushes were forty hours, and it’s interesting to see it, because I do not use the monitor… I never see, at the end of the day, the images, the rushes.

It’s an adventure then, making these films, and seeing what’s in the bag?

Yeah, a question of faith… but all the old films were done this way. It’s just 1979, 1980 or 1981 that they discovered the video and can see the images they are shooting at the same time. All the great masters had to develop their film and they never saw their images… John Ford for example, when he did a Western, he never saw any rushes, not at the end of the day. I think this can be important in the shooting… it’s a question of faith. When I discovered the film at the end, editing when the shooting was finished, I found the film very quickly. There were things to adjust, but the film was easy to find.

Why did you choose to film in black and white?

This is because I was a little bit scared of making different films in the same film… The black and white gets you more close, gives unity or homogeneity… So it’s just one film in itself, it’s more powerful, even if there are different atmospheres in the landscapes, the dialogue…

And there was another practical point of view. In colour for the costumes, you have to have a lot of money… If it’s modern, it’s like carnival. You can make the test: if you go to the carnival and take pictures in colour and in black and white, black and white all the costumes are real! In colour you see if it’s not ancient texture, and we were really scared of that. And we prepare the film very quickly, I do not do rehearsals with the actors and a lot of anarchy is okay for the film but for the costumes we were scared!

There are parts of the film that are funny, the scenes with Mary and Joseph sitting around…

Yeah! Perhaps it’s one of the first films that there are some shots really of their quotidian life… Staying there for half an hour! It’s funny because Joseph speaks Hebrew and Mary speaks Catalan and they do not understand each other… So it’s even more free!

Was that by chance, having an actor who can speak Hebrew?

No, I didn’t know… He is Jewish, and after a day he says, ‘I can speak Hebrew’, so he speaks Hebrew, helping with the Biblical atmosphere.

How important are film festivals like LFF?

For the films, they are important just to give you the opportunity to show the film to people who are interested, in some places it will not be distributed. Some places, like here, we have contacts, we are trying to sell it. The theatrical release of this kind of film is decreasing every day, more and more. Now the market, they say, is the whole world with the internet, dvds… So you cannot expect great incomes from your own country. For example, my other film was more successful in France than in Spain. It’s a pity because with this kind of distribution we lose something I really love: the popular roots of cinema. Even the most sophisticated kinds of films were always done for everybody, you know. No rewinding the film, a collective screening, on a big screen and with other people. It’s about not just seeing the film, but living the film…

Also if there is the director there, it is always more interesting for people. It makes a difference between a film festival and a theatrical release… Imagine that in every screening, there is Spielberg, Coppola, or David Lynch, or me, you know. You see how they dress, even without questions!

Do you find audience reactions changing from country to country?

Of course, perhaps not just the reaction, but you know what is typical of every country. There are countries where people are more supportive, countries where people are more quiet. But perhaps it’s not the problem of the film itself, but of the character of the country… And in some places, they have not yet arrived at realism, so how can they understand surrealism! So, the absurd is something very sophisticated… In some places absurd is not funny, it’s simply stupid…

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