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Micol Roubini • Director of The Way to the Mountains

“An unreachable place which becomes a metaphor for the dark recesses of memory”

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- We chatted with Micol Roubini about her highly personal docu-noir The Way to the Mountains which screened in competition at the 4th Nuoro IsReal Festival

Micol Roubini • Director of The Way to the Mountains

In her first full-length documentary, video-artist Micol Roubini sets off to the small village of Jamna, Eastern Ukraine, in search of her grandfather’s house which was abandoned in the Second World War. But between unscalable walls and the silence of the locals, her mission turns out to be more complicated than first thought. We spoke with the director of The Way to the Mountains [+see also:
interview: Micol Roubini
film profile
]
at the 4th IsReal - Festival di cinema del reale di Nuoro, where her film is competing.

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Cineuropa: What was it that sparked off this search of yours?
Micol Roubini:
The film originated in the discovery of a few personal documents belonging to my grandfather after he had died. He came from a border village which belonged to Poland before the Second World War, and to which he never returned home. His family were exterminated during the war. Among these papers, there was a photograph of a house which dated back to 1919, so I decided to go looking for it, for personal reasons first and foremost. The incredible thing was that when I arrived in this remote region, the locals told me that my house was just 200 metres away, but that I couldn’t get to it because it was in a fenced-off area under the surveillance of privately hired, armed guards. No-one could tell us why they were there. It was strange that in such a small place, no-one knew who their neighbours were.

And so you decided to transform this investigation into a docu-noir of sorts...
At that point, I knew that there was an interesting situation to investigate. Slowly, we started to think of this film as a real “cops and robbers” story; on the one hand, wanting to gain entry into the house had become an obsession for us. But then our focus changed: it became a reflection on the (hi)story of this local population who have completely forgotten their own past. The idea was to construct the film in a somewhat fictional form, not strictly documentary-style. It’s also up to the viewer to work out what’s true and what isn’t. The idea was to play with genre a little, to add suspense, because all the other elements were already there. It’s a place that’s anything but cheerful; it’s an unreachable place, which becomes a metaphor for the dark recesses of memory.

What forgotten past are we talking about here?
One thing that is common to all these border regions is a very violent past which unfolded during the Second World War. These are areas where a third of the local inhabitants were Polish populations, a third Jewish populations and a third Ukrainian. The Jews were slaughtered, each and every one of them, and the Poles weren’t treated any better.  But no-one talks about it. The film was shown in the Ukraine about a month ago. It was important to me that the film was shown there, but I was terrified about how my views as an outsider would be received. At the end, everyone told me that these were things which they’d never spoken about. In the film, no-one tells you that these people have been killed; it’s a very difficult thing for them. After seventy years of the Soviet Union, all the local traditions of these lands, which were once deeply rooted, have now been erased. They’re suffering. 

How much time did you spend in this village?
Work began five years ago, but we started filming after two years. I wanted to get to know everybody, I didn’t want to go at it too hard; people were very relaxed about being filmed. Except for the guards... We received death threats, but legally, they couldn’t prevent us from being there, outside of the fence. A couple of times we were worried, as we had all the authorities against us. No-one believed that we were only there to make a film; they thought we wanted to take the house back. 

In the film, you carry out your research with the help of two locals: an ex-partisan and a taxi driver. How did you choose them?
Petro, the partisan, I met immediately. He’s an important person in the community, even if he’s very old now. Yura, the taxi driver, on the other hand, is someone no-one wants anything to do with; he represents the other side of this village, the darker side. He’s a bit of a hustler who does what he can to get by, as do most of the middle-aged men who live there: they do odd jobs, because there aren’t any real ones.

(Translated from Italian)

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