Filmmaker Mirjam Unger and screenwriter Sandra Bohle arrived in Singapore for the screening of their film Fly Away Home, which is the opening film of the European Union Film Festival. Ram caught up with them for a chat after watching Mirjam’s documentary Vienna’s Lost Daughters.
Mirjam Unger was born in 1970 in Klosterneuburg, Austria. Since 1989, she has worked as a journalist and presenter for TV and Radio at ORF, the biggest Austrian broadcast company. She studied Movie Directing at the Film University in Vienna from 1993 to 2000. Since then, she has made four full-length, award-winning feature films and award-winning reports for television. She lives and works as a presenter, photographer, screenwriter and film director in Vienna, Austria.
Sandra Bohle was born in Vienna in 1967. She co-founded Spielmannfilm in 2006 and was one of the producers of the movie Revanche, which received an Oscar nomination in 2009. She has been teaching at the Vienna Film Academy since 2000 and currently works as a senior lecturer. Bohle also works as a writer and dramaturge, she is a board member of Screenwriters Forum Vienna and a founding member of FC Gloria.
Here is a transcript of a freewheeling conversation, in which the two women, colleagues and friends, speak thoughtfully, and at great leisure.
Ram: When did your interest in filmmaking begin? When did you first want to make a film or write a screenplay?
Mirjam: It started when I was very little. I saw old Hollywood movies on television like films starring Marilyn Monroe, Billy Wilder’s films and old Alfred Hitchcock films. I saw them as a child and I didn’t know what I’m seeing. I just knew this is the world that attracts me. There was a big fascination with films from the beginning. I didn’t really know that there is an education to become a film director. I finished school, spent one year in Brazil, then I started work at a radio station ORF and television. At the age of 23, I had a strong feeling that I was missing something but I didn’t know what. I had a little crisis. I heard about the Austrian Film Academy and the possibility to study film direction. Suddenly I remembered my childhood dream and knew this was going to be my profession and my direction.
Sandra: I had a similar journey, not with movies but with writing. As a little child I always wanted to become a writer. I wanted to write books like Pippi Långstrumpf by the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. It was my favourite book. The protagonist of this book is a naughty girl and I love this book. I always wanted to be a writer. When I got older I forgot about it a bit. You cannot study that. Later there came an interest in movies too. I was about 23 or 24 when I found out that I could study screenwriting. I thought this a wonderful way to become a writer. But I’m currently only in the movie business. Maybe when I’m older I’ll write novels too.
Ram: Mirjam, Sandra mentioned your interest in music and you’re a photographer. Are there any art forms that serve as an inspiration to both of you for your filmmaking and screenwriting?
Mirjam: (to Sandra) Your gardening? She loves flowers and gardening.
Sandra: I like Buddhist philosophy. It’s not a direct influence on my work but it influences the way I see life.
Mirjam: For me it’s music! Listening to music, going to concerts, dancing!
Sandra: I love theatre and you too!
Mirjam: All the arts! I love them all! They are all big influences. It could be a painting, it could be a graffiti on the wall, it could be a very interesting person.
Sandra: For me, the biggest influences are people. I love to explore people, how they work, how they think, how it feels like in their life. I like to choose another life and feel it from inside.
Mirjam: I like travelling too.
Ram: I’m curious to know how the two of you met. You mentioned that you studied together in film school. Did you work on any projects together previously?
Mirjam: We collaborated for the first time on the documentary Oh Yeah, She Performs!. I was looking for a co-writer to work on Fly Away Home. I asked Sandra if she wants to do that and she said why not.
Sandra: In film school we didn’t collaborate together because we were in different classes. We only knew each other then.
Ram: What qualities were you looking for in a co-writer? How did you decide Sandra was the right person?
Mirjam: Interesting question. I’m a very intuitive person. I make decisions with my heart, my gut and also with my head. Sandra has a lot of good qualities (Sandra laughs). If you know me better you’ll realise she has a lot of qualities which I don’t. For example, I’m never on time but she is. I get lazy and I don’t want to go anymore and Sandra says, “Let’s go! Come on!” The reverse happens too. When Sandra says, “We shouldn’t continue…” I say, “Of course we continue!”
Sandra: I think we work very well together because we both have qualities which the other one is missing in writing. (Mirjam nods) Mirjam is a very visual person and I have the better overview of the storyline.
Ram: Could you tell us about how you work together?
Sandra: We sit together from the beginning to the end.
Mirjam: Both of us live on the border of Vienna but not the same border! So we always have to go across the whole city to visit each other. Sometimes we write at Sandra’s home and office and sometimes we write at mine. Our places are one hour travel apart.
Sandra: (nodding) It’s a lot for Vienna!
Mirjam: So you can reflect on what you want to do before going or reflect on what you did afterwards.
Sandra: Both of us have families and that’s why both of us have to be intense during the time we get to work. Both of us have other things to do too, like I teach at the university. So when we work, we really work. When I work alone, I think a lot and let it go. Time passes and I think I’ll do it tomorrow. But with Mirjam we’re always very focused. So it helps to work together.
Ram: Some people say writing is a personal process. What’s your take on this? Do you think co-writing has any advantages or disadvantages as compared to writing alone?
Mirjam: Yes. Filmmaking is something you share with other people. When you share the writing process, you never forget that there are other people for whom you’re making the film. You can’t afford to go in an ego-centric workflow. I think that’s the big advantage of co-writing. My co-writer is my first spectator for anything I write and I’m her first audience too.
Sandra: One big advantage is that you don’t have writer’s blocks when you’re together. When I have doubts, Mirjam doesn’t have doubts, and vice versa. I can’t just work with anybody. You have to choose your co-writer very carefully. I’m a person who works better with dialogue. Dialogue needs two persons.
Mirjam: I think writing gets lonely sometimes and if you’re together, you don’t get lonely. I always think of Billy Wilder, the famous Austrian director who was in Hollywood. He worked together with Raymond Chandler, who wrote great novels. I read his autobiography and it was so funny when he described the two of them in the office writing a script together. When Billy said something, Raymond said no we’ll do it like that. One of them said we do this joke and the other had another joke. When I read about this ping pong I thought that’s how work can be fun!
Sandra: It’s ping pong with us too!
Mirjam: That’s my idea of working.
Ram: Since you mentioned Billy Wilder, is there any other Austrian filmmaker who’s an inspiration for you?
Mirjam: I think all the Austrian filmmakers inspire me because I’m surrounded by them. I know their works and I know them in person. We talk to each other about movies. So they’re all an inspiration – the good movies as well as the bad ones.
Sandra: We’re a small community and that’s why we’re close, like a family, with all the advantages and disadvantages.
Ram: Mirjam, you’re a photographer too, and Sandra mentioned you’re a very visual person. In what way do you think being a photographer has influenced your screenwriting or filmmaking?
Mirjam: When I’m on set, I always have a big wish to take the camera and film it on my own. But I don’t do that because I know I’m the director and I can’t do everything. But the camera and me, we’re very good friends, it makes me happy. I forget that I’m hungry, I forget that I’m tired when I look through a camera. Maybe when we’re in the writing process, this part of me is active, even though the camera is just in my imagination.
Sandra: (to Mirjam) Also your ears are very active. Mirjam loves music and she was working in radio stations. So she always hears the music, the sound of the movie from the beginning.
Mirjam: That’s true.
Ram: Sandra, you co-wrote Fly Away Home with Mirjam. Were you present when the film was shot?
Sandra: No, I only visited several times.
Ram: So once the script was finalized…
Mirjam: Then Sandra has to let it go. (laughs) That’s not easy maybe. But she visited us on set. I saw her from far away. That gives me security just to see her because I trust her.
Sandra: It was very nice to get the rushes of the day online. I almost didn’t make any comments. But I looked everyday because I was very curious!
Mirjam: When she saw a real problem or something that she really really liked she told me. So I knew if something was especially good, I got her feedback. If something was really terrible she told me softly so I could take it. (Both laugh)
Sandra: We discussed this before shooting because it was our first feature film together. It was a good decision to do it this way.
Ram: What do you think is very unique about films made by Austrian filmmakers? Is there any specific thing that you like or don’t like about films being made in Austria?
Mirjam: What I do like is there’s a special sense of humour. There are fabulous documentaries, Austrians are very good at that. What I don’t like is that sometimes they’re too sad, depressing and grey. I miss hope, love for life and colours.
Sandra: There aren’t many Austrian female filmmakers, but I really appreciate the few who are working in the industry. I think they are strong and make good movies.
Ram: Mirjam, you mentioned there are some very good Austrian documentary filmmakers. At the screening yesterday, you mentioned a documentary filmmaker as an inspiration for the specific style you adopted for Vienna’s Lost Daughters. Who was it?
Mirjam: That’s a Frenchman Claude Lanzmann. He’s a very famous European filmmaker. He did this very famous Shoah series for television and cinema.
Ram: How about Austrian documentary filmmakers?
Mirjam: There are lots of really good people. I don’t want to mention names because I might forget one. But I’ll mention Ulrich Seidl as one of the most important filmmakers. He influenced all of us in the last 25 years.
Ram: Sandra, what do you think is the most important quality for a screenwriter to have?
Sandra: Empathy I think. It’s very important… I mean there are many important qualities you should have. Empathy and being able to go inside another person and have their perspective is important to create strong characters. You should be open-minded and empathise with everything.
Ram: And Mirjam, what would you say is the most important quality for a filmmaker to have?
Mirjam: I would say passion and bringing people together (pauses a moment) …and you have to be a sportive person. You’re a boxer or you’re a runner, you fall, you stand up, you continue boxing or running.
Ram: How does where you live influence the films you make or write? To what extent is Vienna an influence in your work?
Mirjam: A big influence! Vienna’s Lost Daughters was very important to me and I gained a new relationship to Vienna. Fly Away Home, being shown in the European Union Film Festival, also has to do with Vienna, its history, our ancestors. It’s where I come from geographically. Earlier, I made a film about female musicians who live in Vienna (Oh Yeah, She Performs). My movies have a lot to do with the world I’m living in, where I grew up and where I decided my path. It’s the feeling that we can now open up a bit, maybe tell more European stories, more of our stories as European women.
Sandra: We’re women and we’re mostly telling stories about women. Because we know the best!
Ram: Mirjam, what’s your advice to someone who wants to make a documentary on a similar theme as Vienna’s Lost Daughters?
Mirjam: Listen. Take your time and listen.
Ram: You mentioned in your interview with The Gap that Austrian films are associated with a lot of humour abroad. Based on your experience, are there any stereotypes that people have about Austrian films? Do you make an effort to break them through your work?
Mirjam: I never know how people from outside see you because I live in Austria. I miss the perspective from outside, but I guess Sound of Music is still very popular. The Austrian cliches of people in the the Alps drinking wine, listening to Mozart (Sandra chuckles), classical music, to have a romance in Vienna… I think we break all these cliches in our films. That’s not the life we live!
Ram: Speaking of public perception of Austrian cinema, how has the reception to Vienna’s Lost Daughters been so far? You mentioned there was a standing ovation when it was screened in Vienna in the presence of the eight women. What other feedback or response has your documentary received? Do you see differences in the way people in different countries reacted?
Mirjam: I had very strong reactions all over the world. People were very touched and were reminded of their own family stories sometimes. They felt the film allowed them to open up, and bring to the surface some of their buried stories. Yes, we had a standing ovation when the eight women came to Vienna. They had a warm welcome after a life abroad, kind of like a happy homecoming. We had the film’s premiere at Diagonale, one of the most important Austrian film festivals. We won the Audience award in 2007. I could see that the film went directly into the heart of the audience. It made me very happy.
Ram: Do you remember the first time that these eight women saw the documentary? How did they react to the way they were projected on screen?
Mirjam: The very first time they saw the documentary, I wasn’t there because the producer took the film to New York, to show it to the women. I was afraid, and I didn’t go. I said to her, “That’s your job!” She said it was sometimes amazing and beautiful and sometimes really hard. Because when you have eight women, you can’t portray all of them in a way they’d be satisfied with. Some women have only a short appearance and some have a stronger and longer appearance. It’s the same as real life. With some persons you connect well but with others you don’t. In Vienna, they were all happy with it. Or maybe they reacted in a professional way because the press was there. We were a team and we didn’t criticise each other. (laughs)
Ram: Sandra have you watched Vienna’s Lost Daughters? What did you think of it?
Sandra: I really loved it because it’s so touching. It has a lot of humour. This is the kind of humour you might not have understood because of the different languages of the eight women, which was very interesting. They could speak the slang of Vienna very well, with the typical tone. I loved it very much. I watched it in 2007 at the Diagonale, and I saw it again yesterday. I remembered many moments, it touched me again in many ways. I think the film will connect with people from all over the world even if they aren’t from Austria or don’t know its history. But the women feel very close to us and that’s the great quality of this movie.
Ram: You mentioned Viennese German. How do you explain it to an outsider like me? Is it a German slang?
Sandra: No it’s the kind of words they use, the funny words you don’t hear in normal German. We use words in another way which gives a different meaning. This is typical Viennese. There’s also a French influence on the language. We use French words in Vienna and pronounce it our own way.
Ram: So it’s not too different from German that a German could still understand what you’re saying?
Sandra: They understand but not everything! Sometimes they need subtitles!
Mirjam: They love Viennese because we’re funny.
Sandra: The way we use the words – it’s funny for Germans. They are proper with the language. But in Vienna we tweak it sometimes and you have two meanings for one sentence. Maybe the Germans don’t understand this kind of humour sometimes. They’re more straight, which I think is the quality of Germans. They say what they mean. In Vienna we’re not so sure! (laughs)
Ram: Mirjam, when was the last time you saw Vienna’s Lost Daughters?
Mirjam: It’s interesting… For a long time, I didn’t see the movie. Last year, we had a little relaunch. Suddenly there were possibilities to show it again in cinemas. I think it’s because of the political situation, there’s a new interest in this movie.
Ram: How did you feel when you watched the film again after a long time?
Mirjam: It was very moving to see it again. Many of the ladies in the movie aren’t alive anymore. It was like meeting old friends.
Ram: What was your takeaway while writing and making this documentary?
Mirjam: I learnt a lot about co-writing because there were two women writers who came to me and asked me if I wanted to direct the film and co-write with them. They are Sonja Amann and Lisa Juen. I had my first experience of co-writing a movie. That went so well and it was such a joyful experience that later on it felt very natural to go to Sandra and ask if she wanted to write together. I don’t know if this is normal but I had two good experiences with them – with Sonja and Lisa and now with Sandra. There’s always solidarity, this feeling that if we women sit together, we’ll do something great, good, with a lot of passion and a lot of love. That makes us happy. We work fair.
Ram: What’s the scripting that you do for a documentary before you shoot it?
Mirjam: I have to write the whole documentary down because I have to convince the jury to give me money. There is a thick booklet in which I wrote down who the ladies are, transcripted interviews, the concept, how we will shoot, what are my themes, how it will look. I have to present moods – pictures similar to the ones I want to do. I have to mention other filmmakers who did similar work. I will have to really think this through because the jury will read it and say if they want to give me the money. We have Austrian film funds for the state and the city.
Ram: Do you film the transcripted interviews that are done beforehand?
Mirjam: Yes we film them. Some of the material is in the movie. I also gave a DVD to the jury – about five minutes in length, to give an impression.
Ram: For Vienna’s Lost Daughters did you already have in mind that the climax was going to be in Vienna? That is, having the women go back to see the place they left as children?
Mirjam: No that happened during the shoot. The shoot went on for more than one year. We thought we had finished once the New York schedule was done. Suddenly one of the women came to Vienna. If they come to Vienna we have to shoot that! One came, then another came, then yet another one came, then we organised for the rest to come, through the Jewish Welcome Service. That was a bit of a surprise! (chuckles)
Ram: What were some of the unique difficulties you faced while shooting Vienna’s Lost Daughters?
Mirjam: The unique aspect about this film was that I started my journey in Vienna, I went on a plane, I reached New York, I took a cab and I was in Vienna again. I had the same food, I found the same language, the same humour, the same smells. They reminded me of my aunts, my grandmothers and my family. It was like, “Am I in New York? I feel at home. I feel like I know all of you since I was a child.” I had to deal with this in the beginning. I felt so welcome and at ease. I didn’t know my real grandmother because… it’s a complicated story… Because of the Second World War… She lived in Israel but she had a big trauma, she lost her entire family in the concentration camp in Auschwitz. So she died very young and I never had the chance to know her. So all these ladies, they were for me my potential grandmothers with a positive ending. That was healing for myself, and I guess for a lot of people in the audience – to have here eight vivid, passionate, strong women who said, “If I have a life, I will live my life and I will have family.” I can’t go on…
Ram: I understand. It was really good that you focused on the present and not just on the past. You showed us these old women playing tennis, doing yoga, going about their daily lives just like anybody else. Was there any specific reason for you to take this approach?
Mirjam: When my co-writers (Sonja and Lisa) and me sat down together, our purpose was to show how strong these women are. It gave us a perspective on how to get older in a positive way. I didn’t know that when I am eighty, I can be in good shape, feel good, feel happy, feel strong. Meeting these women was a revelation for me. I didn’t know that it was possible to be this way at that age, and to deal with history in that way. The camerawoman, the producer and the co-writers, all of us carry these women in our hearts. It was as our Excellency (Karin Fichtinger-Grohe, Austrian Ambassador in Singapore) said, “an eye-opener” for us to meet these women!
Ram: Since this is a documentary, I’m sure you must have shot a lot of footage. How much of it finally made it to the film?
Mirjam: We had 100 hours.
Ram: 100 hours of footage?!
Mirjam: And the film is 100 minutes (laughs).
Ram: How about the documentary Oh Yeah, She Performs?
Mirjam: It’s similar! (laughs) I shot whole concerts for that film. I had to take one song. It was easier because I could choose the songs I wanted. It wasn’t that difficult with Vienna’s Lost Daughters, because I did a lot of interviews to know all the stories. But I knew I didn’t want a story about the interviews. I wanted to move with them and I wanted relationships.
Ram: How was your collaboration with the film’s editor for Vienna’s Lost Daughters?
Mirjam: The camerawoman and the editor were also the producers of the film. There was a point when Nina Kusturica, who was the editor, said to me, “When I’m an editor I don’t think as a producer. I’m an editor. I will never say stop. As an editor, I always want to go one step further.” One day, after many weeks of editing – it was really hard work – I felt like I was digging a tunnel with my bare hands. The camerawoman took up the role of producer and said, “Mirjam I will cook tomorrow. We will eat together.” I said, “Oh nice! I forgot to eat, so it’s nice if you can cook.” When I came, she had a great meal for us and she said, “Mirjam we have to come to an end. We have to make decisions. We need at the end of the week a 110 minutes and we will have the screening for the jury.” I needed this deadline. Sometimes a deadline is very helpful. I could make quick decisions then and finish the movie. But until then, it was very hard.
Ram: There is a sentiment that gets bandied about – that there are simply too many movies about the Holocaust, especially as award bait. What is your opinion on this? (One example – this NPR talk, from around the time The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was released.)
Mirjam: Let me tell you a story. When I was approached to make a movie about the Holocaust (Vienna’s Lost Daughters), I told them, “Please no! There’s enough said. Everything’s said! This heritage is really heavy. I want to do other movies!” Then I read the treatment and I was so touched. I said, “Alright! Let’s do it!” It was a good decision because how many women have really talked about it? Not as many.
Sandra: From an Austrian point of view, I have the same opinion. It’s hard to show the Holocaust. But Mirjam’s film Vienna’s Lost Daughters was a new way of looking at it, because nobody had talked about these children who were given away. This is another story and it was set in the present, not looking to the past. I prefer this kind of perspective.
Mirjam: I knew there was an Oscar award for a Kindertransport documentary some years before we did this. We almost stopped this project because we felt maybe someone had already made this movie. We had to decide what was unique about us. Why are we doing our movie? Why is our movie important and interesting? Then we focused on the lives of these women, on the female point of view.
Ram: The two of you are working on the script for your next film. Are there any details about it that you’d like to reveal?
Mirjam: Female perspectives, strong female characters in every age, not only young women…
Sandra: About daughters and mothers…
Mirjam: The perspectives we know, because we are women. Women’s feelings, needs, relationships.
Ram: Film is a universal language. Do you think there are any specific problems or emotions that are unique to Austrian women, that haven’t been spoken about in cinema yet?
Mirjam: Hmmm, interesting. Austrian cinema misses strong, positive female characters. In other European countries, you already have more of them…
Sandra: Do you think so?
Mirjam: Am I wrong?
Sandra: I think worldwide, female characters are missing in cinema. It’s a worldwide thing now, and a worldwide theme also I guess. Most movies have male protagonists. Movies with female protagonists are very few, especially older women and middle-aged women just aren’t present in the movies. I don’t think the situation is better in European cinema as compared to Austrian cinema. I know the studies and the numbers are similar. Not all stories are told. The heroine’s journey is not talked very often. It’s always the hero’s journey.
Mirjam: But there is a change going on.
Sandra: A change is going on, yes. But that’s not the reason why we’re doing this film. The reason is we’re women and we know it better.
Ram: That’s true. Your latest film Fly Away Home is an adaptation of a novel. What about that novel inspired you?
Mirjam: It’s a perspective of this young girl looking at Second World War, at a time when the war ended and peace began. This child’s perspective is very special. Christine Nostlinger, the author, has had an influence on all of the people of our generation. We also thought that children today don’t like to read that much anymore, so we do a movie to help them get to know her better.
Sandra: It’s her story, her children’s story. This is part of her own story. There haven’t been many Austrian movies that focus on the time after war in Vienna (1945). I think this is one of the first.
Mirjam: It could also be the family of my mother. When I read it, I had a feeling that this little girl was a little bit older than my mother. My mother was born in 1940 and the author was born in 1936. But I had a feeling that this is the Vienna in which she grew up and those are the bombs she heard. This author has the special talent to write it down and tell her story. Reading it, I felt “Ah! That’s how it was!” I could understand the older generation better, my mother better, and where I come from. Why is she how she is? Why am I how I am? What do I give to my children and what will they give to theirs? This is a very big question that all of my movies touch upon. Where do we come from? Where do we go?
We would like to thank Mirjam Unger and Sandra Bohle for their time and enthusiasm, and Ambassador Karin Fichtinger-Grohe from the Austrian Embassy in Singapore, who made this interview possible.
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