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VENICE 2021 Orizzonti

Peter Kerekes • Director of 107 Mothers

“Life has nothing to do with logic”

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- VENICE 2021: Making its way into Orizzonti, this movie is not your usual documentary – and not your usual fiction film either

Peter Kerekes • Director of 107 Mothers
(© La Biennale di Venezia - Foto ASAC/Jacopo Salvi)

In 107 Mothers [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Peter Kerekes
film profile
]
, screened in Orizzonti at the Venice Film Festival, life in Odessa’s female correctional facility goes by uneventfully, with its inmates getting used to daily routines and waiting. But some of them decide to act, now, becoming mothers even though after three years, their children might end up in an orphanage. We talked to the feature’s director, Peter Kerekes.

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Cineuropa: I didn’t know what was I watching: documentary or fiction. But your main protagonist is an actress, correct?
Peter Kereke
s: It’s a long story. We originally started to make a film about censors. Nowadays, everything goes through computer algorithms, so these guys are the last ones standing. We found some in Saudi Arabia, focusing on fashion magazines, and then there are those in prisons, censoring letters. We found Iryna in Odessa prison, and we wanted to show a woman, sitting in her office, reading other people’s love letters. It was supposed to be your standard, Ulrich Seidl- or Nino Kirtadze-style documentary. Then we went deeper into the stories of female prisoners, having children, and I realised that it’s impossible to follow them all the way through.

Our actress, Maryna Klimova, didn’t fit into this environment at first. Then I saw Márta Mészáros’ Don’t Cry, Pretty Girls!, and there is this Czech girl among all the Hungarians; she doesn’t understand anything and just looks around with these wonderful, curious eyes. I used the same trick. Most of the time, Maryna is just a mirror.

Once you had decided to incorporate real stories, what were you especially interested in? They do talk a lot about motherhood.
I didn’t know what I wanted to say – I am such a bad director [laughs]. They always say you shouldn’t start before knowing your goal, and I had no idea. I was intuitively interested in women giving birth in prison. They are with their babies for three years, and then they don’t see them for a very long time, or ever. I was also interested in women who killed their husbands or lovers. It’s such a cliché: “A woman who can give life but also take it away!” I hate it, but that’s what it’s about. I would spend hours drinking coffee and sharing cigarettes with them, and these discussions ended up in the film. Distilled, just like alcohol. There were a few that didn’t want to be in front of the camera, and we respected that, of course.

Some things they are asked to do here are just plain odd – like a workshop where they repeat the same word over and over again. What’s the point of all that?
Or they write letters to their dead victims. It’s an interesting form of therapy. Iryna tries to teach them how to control their emotions. It’s not in the film, but prison guards are doing the same workshop. They also have to repeat the same word, like “coffee”, and give it different meanings. You look around and see so many tragicomic things. My favourite was when they were painting the soles of their shoes with red nail polish, to make them look like Louboutins. The prisoners also had a good sense of humour; this is how they survive. I have a very precise cinematographer, and we would spend hours lighting the place. They had to wait, and one of them said: “If it takes five more minutes, I will kill you. And trust me, I know what I am talking about.”

All of these pressures that most women deal with – to find a partner, to be a mother – still manage to find their way inside the prison.
This will sound very old-fashioned, but it’s so important to continue one’s life. You can be useful in other ways, to society or to the planet, but this is our genetic essence. That’s why I wanted to have two protagonists. Iryna is the guard who has organised her life perfectly, but she is alone. And then you have these women, with three children by three different fathers and completely screwed-up lives, but at least they get this moment of love. Sometimes it’s just during the birth, sometimes it’s these three years. It hurts, but you can’t experience these big emotions without loss.

Logically, it doesn’t make sense. They talk about their hardships, so why would they want their kids to experience the same?
Life has nothing to do with logic. The circumstances can be so bad, and maybe you won’t win the lottery, but you still try. We spent so many years in that place, and the future of these kids can be sad, it’s true. They end up in orphanages, sometimes in prison, too, but who am I to judge whether their life is good or not?

I realised that all of these stories about “women behind bars”, with their collective showers, it’s something filmmakers do in order to make it “sexier”. We did our research in Ukraine, and so often it felt like a summer camp – the thing is, you can’t leave. Also – although that was too big a topic for me as a male director – the hardest thing is to be with other women. You have to share one space for years, and this is prison – you can’t choose your inmates. Hell is other people.

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