Zuzana Piussi • Director of Unbalanced
“Rather than thematise mental illness and diagnoses, I see a question about the value of a shared world and what holds it together”
- The acclaimed veteran Slovak documentarian, who is preparing her feature-length fiction debut, discusses the story of the film and the means of bringing it to life
Slovak documentarist Zuzana Piussi is currently working on her feature-length fiction debut, entitled Unbalanced (read the news). The story sees a divorced mother taking care of her daughter and encountering an unexpected source of frustration after they move to a new apartment — a mentally ill person living in the flat above them. The project was presented at the industry sidebar of Febiofest Bratislava Industry Days 2021 (read our report). Cineuropa talked to the director about her upcoming fiction feature debut.
Cineuropa: Your previous films were mostly socio-political, whereas Unbalanced appears to be framed as a psycho-social film. You are also mentioning a socio-philosophical reflection in the director's note. Can you elaborate on that?
The main protagonist in this situation is a woman — a mother in her fifties after a divorce. She is basically an idealist, but she has also abandoned a number of ideals and accumulated both bitterness, distance, and experience over the years. At the same time, she hopes that she will finally be able to relax, that her life will change and stabilise. But life always surprises us with unexpected challenges that arise from unexpected places, and this could represent an opportunity for growth, or destruction, or both. Naďa is surprised to find out that her inner world, which she felt she had under control, begins to be reflected in her outer world in forms that force her to change her own image, often in a way she cannot control. Besides, there is a strong socio-political plane here, and I hope that the film is clearly moving towards a tragicomedy.
There is a prevailing trend of female filmmakers shooting stories from a female perspective which was demonstrated by this year's edition of Sundance.
The film is certainly situated in the female world, but the main character is in such a state of irony and self-irony that she has lost confidence in worldly improvements. On one hand, she emancipated herself from men in a way that has allowed her to free herself from intimate relationships, apart from friendships. On the other hand, her intimacy overcomes her in ways that she might not even find in the texts that she translates for a living. I believe that we are moving towards an original conception of the female perspective, which lies outside of any trends. We will see whether people will appreciate it or condemn it.
Will Unbalanced be related somehow to your previous documentary works?
All the characters are real, in a way, and we shoot in authentic locations. We even cast some non-professional actors right on the spot where we started filming, the moment of surprise relieved them of their fear and they became an organic part of the film. Filming takes place with a small, flexible crew, we shoot short and repeated takes, mainly when the situation develops into a pathetic or predictable figure. We are carrying out the principal photography in several stages so that both the changes of seasons and the shifts in the characters' lives can inform the shooting.
We are also freeing ourselves from the organisation of shooting. We have found that thanks to a small crew, standard bureaucratisation and planning are literally counterproductive. Simple instructions and a clear bullet-point script reasonably scheduled for each day are enough. I strive for the maximum chronology in filming, which sometimes prolongs the process, but in this way everyone, starting with the actors and ending with the people on the set, is much more naturally connected to their own story, which will hopefully come out even more true — similar to a documentary.
You mentioned that acting will spur from improvisation.
There were almost ten versions of the screenplay before it was completed, so the film has a fairly exact framework. The actors come on the set with a learned text, I ask them to forget the text and we talk about what is important to them in that scene, what is important to me, and we often reach an agreement on the same topics, but in completely different formulations.
The topic of mental health presents another motif in your film.
It appears here not so much in a psychiatric context, but rather as a reference to forgotten traumatic events whose gravitational pull gradually engulfs the consciousness of characters who, in a way, move from a world shared with others into a world inhabited by themselves alone. In a sense, they are becoming radical individuals.
Rather than thematise mental illness and diagnoses, I see a question about the value of a shared world, what holds it together — whether it's the ability to empathise with another person or the functioning institutions that exist to help maintain this shared world.
In recent decades, our territory has found itself in such an extreme situation, in an effort to reject the collective and cling to the individual, that the threat to the shared world is a much more sensitive issue here than in Western Europe, which should fascinate us mainly because, in many areas, they were able to find a vital balance between the individual and the collective.
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