Bosnian-Polish director Denijal Hasanovic discusses the themes and process of making his debut feature Catalina, an intimate story of three people from different countries, cultural backgrounds and with different war experiences who all live with trauma.
Can you tell us where the initial idea for Catalina originated?
I spent a lot of years of my life as a refugee and then as an immigrant. When you are living this kind of life you meet this kind of people, and hear about these kinds of destinies. That was the first seed of the story. Later, I got this image in my head of a person coming out of an airport early in the morning all alone, and with that I began to figure out how to tell it. In translating this story to film I avoided any kind of political issues, mostly because I thought there are better kinds of media - such as newspapers and TV - to convey that kind of story. I was more interested in the inner drama of characters, and intimate moments of friendship, love and solitude in the lives of these three people. Of course you can also find some other ideas in the film like looking for roots, being an outcast, and being displaced.
Because of your personal experience of war trauma and emigration, was it hard to build the three main characters?
Yes, in the beginning it was hard, because it is part of who you are. This is why I at first couldn’t figure out who this person was in the image at the airport and what was going on; the story was part of me. I think that is actually the most difficult moment in writing a story, when you have to find some separation between yourself and the topic, story, and characters.
Catalina’s diary is very melancholic and poetic, almost sounding like an emigrant sevdah. How did you achieve that?
I added the diary to the story quite late. While developing the main character, I figured out that she needs to have this inner drive to express herself through writing and I started writing it for a script. But months before we started shooting, I asked the main actress to write her own diary, when she was still in Colombia. I asked her to be honest and write anything that happened to her, and that is what she did. She was writing almost every day, so when we started shooting I asked her to translate it to me and then I picked up some moments from it that were very suited to the character.
The actors are very diverse. Can you comment on the casting process?
It was very difficult, not only in terms of making final decisions, but also in terms of organisation, pre-production and so on. I decided that I first have to find the main character Catalina. I believe in something Kieslowski said about doing casting: “You simply have to find a person, and than your job as director is done.” That is the only way to create emotional truth: to find this person that already has this character deep within themself. In Andrea [Otalvaro] I found what I was looking for. She is someone who on the one hand has this childlike purity within herself and on the other hand has this adult experience of survival, which is a very rare combination.
How did you manage to do this co-production between Poland, Bosnia and Croatia, which have quite different cinematographies?
After finding my second producer in Poland it became really easy. When we started to look for partners in Bosnia we wanted to find somebody both professional and who is as a person warm; who understood these personal drama stories. If you have people who understand each other it is easy. The most important thing was to make them feel as one. The main difference between these cinematographies is the size. Poland has a good market, so you can comfortably live by doing films. In Croatia and Bosnia you can’t make so much money. This is the reason they also have a different kind of focus. Poland is trying to make movies for a general audience and in Croatia and Bosnia films are a bit more arthouse, aimed at festivals. But regardless of whether it is a commercial or arthouse project, dedication, passion and love for movies are what drives them. If they weren’t like this they would probably do something much less stressful, and much less life-consuming.
Polish director Robert Gliński has spent 35 years making films about socio-political themes in Poland and Germany (Nazi occupation, the collapse of communism, and working-class problems under capitalism), many of which were period pieces or coming-of-age dramas. In 2014, Gliński succeeded to merge his two approaches in adapting Stones for the Rampart, Aleksander Kamiński’s well-known novel about a group of scouts during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. With his latest film, Be Prepared, the director once again tells a coming of age story, this time focusing on the rise of nationalism.
Gliński’s twelfth feature tells us a story about a group of present-day Polish boy scouts spending their summer camping in a local forest, learning the basic skills of surviving in nature, responsibility, friendship and also about important figures in Polish history. Every year, the camp also welcomes new recruits from less wealthy families outside of Poland: for the latest edition, they end up getting a group of young Nazi hooligans from Ukraine. The peaceful camp suddenly becomes torture for its more virtuous residents, when Polish scout Tomek (Maciej Musialowski) dies under suspicious circumstances. As one of only three people who know of Tomek’s death, senior scout Jacek (Mateusz Wieclawek) must investigate the murder on his own.
Gliński has made a teenage horror-cum-mystery movie with a deeper message, but his good intent has gone wrong in every possible way. Be Prepared combines hand-held footage in black-and-white, as if shot by the scouts themselves, with a more conventional storytelling perspective. The found footage scenes try to get us closer to the characters, bringing horror vibes into the movie. In their imitation of such footage (irrational, shaky camera), these scenes are more irritating than useful in any way.
But the in-film amateur footage is not the only thing that is black and white. Be Prepared is filled with characters that are either good or bad, which in the end doesn't really matter because they are all built on a bunch of stereotypes. Focusing on senior scout Jacek who desperately wants to be authority in the camp, other characters are ignored. Piotr (Michal Wlodarczyk), leader of the hooligans in the camp, appears to be malevolent just for the sake of it, so we never actually get any deeper psychological insight as to what is happening within him. The camp leader is there only to tell scouts (and us, the viewers) the camp rules and there is also a young on-site nurse, Ewa (Magdalena Wieczorek), who serves more as a sexual object than a fully developed character. Other scouts and other hooligans (and some illegal fishermen who are also around) pop up from time to time just to remind us why Jacek, Ewa and Piotr are in the forest.
Maybe the biggest disappointment in the film is the revelation of who killed Tomek (and others, at later points), mostly because the murderer doesn't really get much screen time. The killer is a secondary character that has no real motivation for his deeds, but that doesn't make any difference for Gliński because the whole film is just a stage to say a few thoughts about the rise of right wing politics in the world. Be Prepared takes 90 minutes to express, through dialogue in its final moments, a thought that our biggest enemies don't come from the outside, but rather from within.