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Luxembourg, Where the Brotherhood Goes: Interview with Nadia Masri

Nadia Masri was born in 1984 in Luxembourg and directed her first short in 2004. After studying history at the Sorbonne, she took courses at the technical audiovisual school EICAR in Paris, while also working as a video and continuity assistant on feature films. In 2013 she attended the Master Class of the US screenwriter Robert McKee. LONG LOST has screened at a number of festivals including Luxembourg City FF in 2016.

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Why did you become a film director? And how did you become one?

Since I can remember, movies have always had a very strong impact on me. The feeling was that the language of movies was also my own natural language, meaning that it’s the one that my soul understood. I realised that movies were the one medium that would allow me to truly express myself.

When I was a kid, I actually first wanted to become an actress. It’s only around the age of 14 that my perception shifted, and that I acknowledged that I wanted to be a director. I was suddenly drawn to all of the means of expression that a movie allowed, - camera movements, story, art direction - , and not just the acting side of it.

As a teenager I started doing one week film workshops that were organised by youth centers. Then, at 20, I made my first short film with a mini DV camera that I bought myself for Christmas. Later, after finishing a Masters degree in history (in order to have the so-called security net that my parents encouraged me to have) I studied film directing in a school called EICAR in Paris, all the while doing traineeships on professional film sets in Luxembourg during the summer holidays. I gained experience in various departments, such as making-of, 3rd assistant director, video assist, and assistant to the script supervisor.

Since finishing school, about 10 years ago, I live in Luxembourg where I earn a living as a script supervisor, while writing and working as a director on the side.

When you started to be interested in movies, what movies did you watch? And what movies could you watch in Luxembourg at that time?

Like many people from my generation growing up in the Western world, my first introduction to cinema was through Disney movies. I remember going to see « The Beauty and the Beast » and « The Lion King » in the movie theatre with my class. Both left a significant imprint on me. Another truly memorable movie experience I had as a kid was seeing « Jurassic Park » when I was 8 or 9 years old, sitting in the front row of a fully packed theatre.

I started a VHS collection at a young age, which included « Jurassic Park », naturally, but also movies like « Free Willy » or « Mary Poppins ». As a teenager I then discovered « Pretty Woman », « Indochine », « Dead Poets Society » and all the Kevin Costner classics in my book: « Robin Hood : Prince of Thieves », « JFK », « Bodyguard » and « Dances with Wolves », all of which I watched and re-watched a countless number of times.

Looking back on it now, I realise just to what extent American movies dominated my cinematic landscape growing up. But besides the American influence, I also remember watching a lot of popular French movies on TV, like the ones with Louis de Funès. As we grow up multilingual in Luxembourg, we also have French and German TV.

Around the age of 15, 16 I started discovering what one would call Auteur Cinema, with movies from the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Tom Tykwer, Gus Van Sant, Jane Campion, Peter Weir, Ang Lee, to name just a few. Luxembourg is lucky enough to have an exceptional Cinémathèque, and I had the good fortune to discover many gems there.

You worked as a script supervisor on, for example, Jessica Hausner’s « Amour Fou » or Markus Schleinzer’s « Angelo ». How did those experiences as a script supervisor influence your directing style?

That’s a very good question. Jessica Hausner and Markus Schleinzer are both Austrian directors. They are actually also good friends to each other and they have in common that they both worked with Michael Haneke. Hausner did so as a script supervisor on « Funny Games », and Schleinzer was Haneke’s casting director for most of his movies, and most notably for « The White Ribbon ». I personnally see a red threat going through all of these filmmakers’s work, but I cannot say if the reason for it is that they are all Austrian, or if it’s Haneke’s imprint, or both.

With the risk of maybe over-simplifying, I would argue that their movies, rather than telling reassuring tales about humanity, often depict the darker and more absurd facets of the human experience, and don’t shy away from leaving the audience with a sentiment of unease. The Austrian cinema that I know reflects the world back to us with a bleak honesty, but as a consequence it often doesn’t leave a lot of room for hope.

I believe that my movies are more hopeful. This must have something to do with the American influence I alluded to earlier, but it is also in direct affiliation with how I choose to view life. I wouldn’t be able to cope with reality if I didn’t urge myself to always remain hopeful and see the glass half full. Although my film « Long Lost » might not seem very hopeful at first sight, I believe that the main character, Pol, experiences a small breakthrough at the end. He might have understood something important about himself, be it just the reason as to why he behaves the way that he does.

The one aspect in which Jessica Hausner and Markus Schleinzer have influenced my work is in the example they set with their artistic requirement level and precision, as well as their confidence in their own vision and their openness to collaborate with the creative people they surround themselves with. As a director I aim to have those qualities myself.

« Aus den Aen » is based on the short story « Long Lost » by Richard Lange. How did you come across this story? And what is the most attractive element of this story or Lange’s work in general?

I had read Lange’s short story compilation titled « Dead Boys » years prior to making the movie, upon coming across a review about it in a French newspaper. The article described a world populated by characters, all living in L.A., who once had big dreams, but come to face reality were left feeling isolated, desillusionned, and more often than not, deeply frustrated. At their core though, their sensitivity remained palpable, and no matter the tools they turned to to cope with their overbearing emotions, be they drugs or sarcasm, they still tried to connect with the world and the people around them. To me they were stories about resilience and letting go of a cemented idea or image that we sometimes have of ourselves and will blindly hold on to.

There is a raw and rare honesty in Lange’s work, coupled with wit and intelligence. It discloses a darkness that many of us carry within us, but never judges it. Lange’s work doesn’t offer solutions or answers, but merely holds up a mirror, and in doing so, makes us feel less alone. The empathy that he so clearly feels for his characters rubs off on the reader, and therefore the read makes for a healing experience.

« Long Lost » is an American story. And you adapted it to a Luxembourgish setting. Was that difficult because of the difference between America and Luxembourg?

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Again, that is a good question. The adaptation to a Luxembourgish setting was probably easier than even I expected it to be. The author Richard Lange, whom I had gotten in touch with during the process of making the movie, and who ended up seeing the final film, told me in an e-mail: « It's amazing to me how a story set in such a specific place (Los Angeles) transplanted so well to Luxembourg. I guess it has to do with the strength of the characters and their relationship.” I completely agree with him.

One of the most impressive things is the presence of the two brothers. Their relationship and emotions are so intense and dense that I’m speechless. How did you find the actors Luc Schiltz and Tommy Schlesser?

Right upon reading the short story « Long Lost » in around 2008 I got the idea to adapt it to film, but for practical reasons, that didn’t come to fruition at the time, and at some point I had almost completely forgotten about it.

In 2012 I was working as a script supervisor on a Luxembourgish sitcom called « Comeback » in which the actor Tommy Schlesser (who plays the younger brother) was one of the leads. I remember sitting in the bus one evening after a day’s work and thinking to myself that I would love to one day collaborate with him, just because his comittment and professionalism on set that day had impressed me. That thought then instantly resurrected the tale of the two brothers in my mind, and I had a strong intuition that Tommy would be a great and exciting choice for Jérôme (ndlr : the name of his character in the film). So, it’s the wish to work with Tommy that basically sparked the adaptation process.

As for Luc Schiltz, who plays the older brother, I remember thinking early on in the writing process that I had to know for myself which Luxemburgish actor could play the role. I learned about myself that I am the kind of screenwriter/director who likes to write with the actors already in mind. I remembered Luc from a previous film on which I worked as a script supervisor, and I thought that he could be perfect as Pol.

I feel very lucky that both actors agreed to do the film and invested in it the way that they did.

I’m so amazed by the last sequence. Pol sees his brother Jérôme being dragged away by the police, then your camera captures Pol’s face. There is a complex emotion on his face that is beyond words. How did you elicit this emotion from actor Luc Schiltz on set?

First of all, thank you for the compliment. This shot is not only the last shot in the movie, it’s also the very last shot we filmed. It must have been around 4:30/5 a.m., and we had been filming all through the night, because we were only allowed to shoot in the supermarket during closing hours.

Of course it is hard to tell you today how exactly the work executed by the actor Luc Schiltz or myself was achieved on set, and to some extent there will and should always be a part of mystery in any great performance, but what I remember distinctly is that the take used in the movie was indeed the last take that we did. We were in a real rush at that point because time was running out, and I remember rushing up to the actor and chronologically enumerating all the different thoughts that would run through Pol’s head in that very moment. In my list there were not only sad thoughts, but also happy ones alluding to a time in his childhood. Then we did that one last take and the result is in the movie.

What is your favorite film about brothers?

That would be « Warrior » by Gavin O’Connor. And if I could choose one more, I would say « Legends of the Fall » by Edward Zwick.

What is the current situation of Luxembourgish cinema? There is rarely a chance to see a film from that country. So I can’t say something about Luxembourgish cinema from outside. But from inside, how do you see the situation?

In the last 25 years, there has been a true willingness on a political level to invest in and to promote Luxembourgish cinema. The movie industry has grown tremendously in that period of time, with a lot of money being invested in co-productions between Luxembourg and other European countries. Those films are usually partly shot here, partly abroad, and the crew members are generally up to 50% from Luxembourg.

This has enabled the emergence of an important number of qualified Luxembourgish film technicians, and in turn helped develop a national cinema, with an increasing number of Luxembourgish feature films being made every year.

When movie lovers in Japan want to know Luxemburgish cinema history, what Luxembourgish films should they see? And why?

If you talk about Luxembourgish cinema, you have to mention Andy Bausch, who is one of its pioneer directors. He made his first movies in mid-eighties, in a time when the country didn’t yet have a real film industry. His feature « Troublemaker » (1988) is a must-see, and probably one of the only Luxembourgish films who have succeeded in reaching a cult status. It introduced one of our most ingenious and well-known actors, Thierry Van Werweke, to the big screen, and his talent, along with the raw and refreshing vitality of the movie contributed to its success.

Another movie starring Thierry Van Werveke which was met with a noteworthy success is Pol Cruchten’s « Hochzäitsnuecht » (Wedding Night – The End of the Song, 1992). The same director also made « Perl oder Pica » (Little Secrets, 2006), a movie that takes place in the industrialised south of the country in the 1960’s, and depicts a coming-of-age story in a time of Cold War.

Another pioneer filmmaker from Luxembourg is Geneviève Mersch, whose critically acclaimed short documentary « Le Pont Rouge » (The Red Bridge, 1992) deals with the sensitive subject of suicide.

In the last 10 years there has been a strong emergence of a new generation of directors among which Christophe Wagner, Felix Koch and Govinda Van Maele, who make movies in Luxembourgish and thereby contribute in enriching a thus far rather sparse cultural heritage. To mention just two of the movies made in recent years, Govinda Van Maele’s « Gutland » (2017) is a mystery thriller that explores the social inner workings of a small rural community and Felix Koch’s « Superjhemp retörns » (Superchamp Returns, 2018) is a comedy based on a superhero comic book, that is also the highest-grossing Luxembourgish film to date.

Do you have a plan to make new short or debut feature? If so, please tell about it to Japanese reader.

In early January this year I directed a short film titled « De Pigeon » (A Pigeon Tale) which should come out in the beginning of next year. It’s a dark comedy, wrapped in a fairytale scenery, about a young woman who is brought to take care of a wounded pigeon and in doing so, embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

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