The best new fiction film I saw at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January exemplifies what makes the festival special: A dedication to films of soul-warm fragility whose fineness is so rare that such movies are unfairly assumed to be unfit for wider exposure. The Slovenian film Mother, by director Vlado Škafar, premiered there and deserves to travel far afield: its tenderness, flushed with inquisitive compassion, should be recognizable anywhere. It is called “mother,” after all. We see her, we understand: Nataša Tic Ralijan’s athletic, middle-aged woman has closely shaved graying hair and holds herself with that certain kind of independence that suggests a desire to be alone. Yet she is not alone. She is bringing her daughter home and the two are silent, the relationship strained. The home is in the countryside, and the daughter is locked in her room. But this is not the younger one's story, it is the mother’s: we see her prepare breakfast, garden, do yoga, and pen letters by candlelight to her daughter. There is a problem here, certainly; the daughter has a problem, she seems to be recovering from something. But perhaps this older woman has a problem too?
Škafar’s film proceeds essentially without incident and barely without dialog. Instead, we watch this mother be—thinking, feeling, and remembering—in the film’s bathing light, tremulous by day and austere with night’s candles. The sense of memory is almost tangible: with little causal connection between most shots, Mother doesn’t present itself as a story but more as an evocation of a relationship, at a remove that lends a tenor of reflection to each small moment, to the order these moments. How lost is this mother in the past? Or are we lost with her not in the past but remembering the past? A few illusions push us further into this delicate tone of in-between, interior time: the mother’s face splashed with water dissolved into the reflection of her daughter, and later, laying in a meadow, the mother’s solitary repose becomes momentarily communal when an image of her daughter's slumbering body fades in. How much love is there in memory—and memory in love?
Yet this is not the mood piece of a lone soul. Mother complicates and enriches its emotional chamber piece—with its modest echoes of films by Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov—with the imposition of a nearly documentary element which provides more concrete context for what the daughter, mostly a spiritual rather than physical presence until the film’s final act, is going through. Seeking advice, the mother goes to a monastery and speaks to a real-life priest, and also goes to a kind of therapeutic commune where we see and hear other troubled young adults speak of beginning to overcome difficulties in this productive group seclusion. The film’s style tones itself down for these unexpected, more casual observations, tempering its slender, effusive and glowing images with suggestions of a world exterior to the mother's meditation, wistfulness and pain. The possibility for recovery (of something, for both mother and daughter) is introduced at the same time the seriousness, the extent of possible damage, seems most strongly implied. From here, the film cedes some of its sensitivity to the girl (Vida Rucli), who has an interiority to match her mother’s but completely her own in tenor. We briefly feel the force of another sensibility, another spirit and soul, and the film completes its open-ended poem of that which is, on the surface, unspoken.
At Rotterdam, I sat down with Mother's director, Vlado Škafar, to discuss his film further.
NOTEBOOK: I very much wanted to talk you about your sensitive and beautiful film, but during your Q&A with the audience at Rotterdam I sensed trepidation about wanting to discuss certain things.
VLADO ŠKAFAR: We always have to try to put things into words. It's our obligation for the gift that we are human beings. To use words—not just to hide behind feelings.
NOTEBOOK: This film has so few words in it.
ŠKAFAR: That's another story—because it's cinema—and this is now a conversation.
NOTEBOOK: I haven't seen your first three films, but it sounds like they include stories about children and about a father and a child. And now Mother is about a mother and a child. Is this an absence you felt needed to be filled, the mother's side of the story?
ŠKAFAR: Not so the mother's side, because to me I'm interested in what's going on inside each human being and not so much what's going on between human beings. I think that the true story is what's going in each individual, inside. So, not from this point of view. I did feel that Father  is half of a film, not because it misses women or a mother, but because I was not able to express myself fully in that film. I agree that Mother accompanies those films, and makes them complete, in a sense, but not because of relationship, not because of story, but because of something that I wanted to put into images. In Father, I could only get that far at that moment. For me, when I watched Mother for the first time after it was edited I felt like all of my previous films were running into this one like little creeks and I was very happy to see this.
NOTEBOOK: Why do you think that is?
ŠKAFAR: It became natural. There was never a clear thought about this or a concept. But the way the film is conceived—very naturally in all aspects—I think that this completion of my film journey also came naturally. Some things that were not resolved or executed well or not thought of in the previous films—but were inside of me—came out here in a little bit a different form, but it can resonate. In case you have a chance to see my other films, it would be nice to see this dialog between the films.
NOTEBOOK: You said at the festival that Mother didn't start so much in the form of a screenplay as it did as a diary. Can you talk more about that?
ŠKAFAR: In the way I make films, a screenplay doesn't make sense and it can be a distraction from what we really want to accomplish. I write a script at some point of pre-production because you have to apply for the funds, so the script exist—but more because of this administrative need. To me, the conversation with myself is not in the form of a regular script, because a regular script, first of all, is pretty boring as a form. In the end, even in the case with the people who try to follow the script closely, they discover that the script disappeared. The existence of the script makes no sense except for maybe communicating to co-workers—but I believe I can communicate with them on another level which is a more poetic level, more philosophic level, or however you want to put it. Simply, the level of natural conversation. But the...let's call it the material with which I try to sculpt the film...I prefer that it doesn't come from me, but that it comes from meeting with other people. People who are in front of the camera and also my cameraman—like this. I believe that the themes that I'm interested, if they materialize in this way, can be more powerful and more sincere.
Actress Nataša Tič Ralijan and director Vlado Škafar on set.
NOTEBOOK: How did you find these two actresses, Nataša Tič Ralijan, who plays the mother, and Vida Rucli, who plays the daughter?
ŠKAFAR: The one who is in the role of the mother is actually an actress. I put some energy and an approach to her so that she forgets that she's an actress. I don't think that cinema, especially this kind of cinema, is very fond of actors. It prefers human beings who understand the exact moment when the camera is on. She came to my attention when I saw something on television about her—she had a very serious illness about ten years ago and almost died, and then she recovered from that, and after she was the most popular Slovenian television personality as a sexy blonde comedienne. But on the street she is like you see in the film. I was intrigued by this, that she's such a powerful comedienne that attracts the whole country, and on the streets she's such a fragile human being.
The daughter, she is somebody I met when I was searching for locations. Everybody else in the film came to the film through meetings that occurred while I was searching for locations in Italy. The locations are near the Slovenian border, some in Slovenia, some in Italy. There is a beautiful, small festival called the Station of Topolò—they don't like to call it a 'festival,' they call it a 'station.' It's in a very special and mostly deserted village in the hills. People from all over the world come there on their own expense to create and present their work there. It can be music, films, sound, painting—whatever. I was invited to this station a couple of times with my work. I knew the mother of this girl, because she's the director of this festival.
NOTEBOOK: The mother and the daughter in the film only communicate—or try to, at any rate—through the written word. Through letters. I was wondering about the power of the written word in cinema. In your film, we do not read the letters ourselves.
ŠKAFAR: Yeah, but we would like to.
ŠKAFAR: We would like to get more letters than we get, I think. It's a big desire or yearning that somebody writes to you. It's something that this society of the last ten, fifteen years, misses very much, knowingly or not knowingly. But the important thing about this is that direct dialog, which you see in dramas—and in life—has certain limitations. In direct dialog, there are some areas and aspects of your being and your communication that you cannot reach. But you can reach these levels with indirect dialog: If you read books or look at paintings and share it with other people. Letters are very special, very powerful way of communication, because like a woman says in the film, there is a zone of silence at the beginning and at the end of your writing a letter. This is something that is hard to create in a conversation. Everything is very condensed in a letter, and everything comes in a different form because if you are writing a letter or reading a book or watching a film, you hear yourself much better and more clearly. There is no other disturbing factors. If you write a letter, you are a much more beautiful and powerful being than you are in conversation.
NOTEBOOK: It's something I was thinking about in the film, because for me there was a very strong ambiguity in the letter writing. It seemed like a beautiful way for the mother to express herself to her daughter. It seemed a beautiful practice to do. But at the same time, perhaps because the movie spends the most time with the mother, and she's so often by herself and is so hands-off with her daughter, that I felt like there was always a danger that her letter writing was for herself and not for communication. That maybe what she was communicating mostly was herself rather than searching for a meeting point. I really liked this gap between knowing just how these letters were being received, how much of this woman was suffering for her own suffering and how much was suffering for her daughter.
ŠKAFAR: That's exactly it. It's always about you. You can be as generous as you can be, but it's always about you. It's the way we are made. It's great if you can share this with others and make some sort of sense for the both, but the most meaningful conversation is always with yourself. If you liberate this conversation with yourself to the level that, let's say, the letter can offer you, then you enter the other person much stronger. And more liberated. In the letter, a lot of the fear is transcended. Fear is something that disturbs the direct communication with even the people that you love and even with the people that you're comfortable with. In the letter, it transcends into something else which is not the obstacle any more to you and to the other person. When people in a family fight, let's say, mother and daughter, the first step after the big fight is not a phone call. It is a letter or in today's situation a text message or an email or something like that, because there's too much fear to be direct. These indirect forms are more liberating.
But also the structure of the film is indirect. What I like about this film is that the film is in constant dialog with itself. It doesn't follow the goal, but it talks to itself all the time. You can be just an observer of this communication, how the film talks to itself. The structure is also the structure of indirect communication. Each scene communicates with other scenes indirectly. This is what I believe in most: you can get a better sense of beauty in this structure because it is not there to understood or consumed, but it is there to be discovered. The things that you discover resonate in you much more, because you feel like an explorer. That you are the creator of the film, you feel almost that you are communicating through some sort of transcendence. In my experience, indirect forms of communication are the ones that can get to the most beautiful levels of what we are capable of with our soul, our mind, and our heart.
NOTEBOOK: Is that a part of the reason you want to shift styles in the film, to include the section that has a documentary-style approach? In order to introduce, as you say, a dialog within the film between different aspects of the film?
ŠKAFAR: I like this crossing of borders that are not real. The first idea that I had was, "okay the film starts as something that the viewer can see as a fiction film." And then, if you put something that looks like reality or that will be perceived as reality, because it's the way that people are used to perceive certain things, that maybe afterwards, when the fiction continues, this fiction will have a different face. This fiction will have the face of reality. And the daughter will not be the daughter of fiction, and also not the daughter of reality, but maybe the daughter of truth, and the mother of truth. Suddenly, they become true—for me. Because of this sequence. That was one interesting part. In the first cut, this was even much a more documentary-like sequence, but then I changed it into what we can call a 'documentary meditation,' to be closer to the sensibility of the film. So that it doesn't stand out too much, that it silently takes this function that I said before. Another thing has to do, again, with different forms of indirect communication. By watching other people in the community and hearing little bits of their stories, you learn much more about the daughter than even if you knew her personally. So whatever I would do in the storyline or the dialog to get you to know the dialog would not be able to compare with the power that you can get yourself with watching other people that you feel are like her.
NOTEBOOK: I want to go back to something you said earlier, about expressing what's inside a person. So much of this film is observing the mother do "nothing," these incredibly beautiful and insightful snatches of her psychology, spirit, thought. I wondering what your relationship is like with your actress in a moment where she is sitting at a window and just thinking—or just being. How do you conjure that moment between you and her and the camera?
ŠKAFAR: When I decide who will be in the film, I usually spend a lot of time with them. Talking, provoking, manipulating. We were doing this for two years. I encouraged her to write, I encouraged her to read. And already through writing she started to get this powerful feelings of communication with her children that she never had before. This always happens. If you write something to your child, you feel the power, you feel what it's all about. It doesn't matter what you write about, you know, you can write about this building [gestures around], but if it's meant for your child, then this is all you need to understand what is your relation. So, this is how I prepare, and I trust the feelings that slowly come through this sort of communication, this sort of relationship, will come alive when the camera is on.
I prepare the scene, I prepare the atmosphere, I prepare the setting. But I don't give any instructions, because if I give instructions I destroy everything I worked for two years with people. I give just the basic ideas, but again in a more philosophical form, to my director of photography. He has to deal with that [laughs]. Fortunately Marko Brdar, my DOP, is a philosopher—he studies philosophy—so it's very easy. He prefers to shoot nature and animals than human beings. This is an advantage for this film, because this is where my relationship with Marcel Proust comes into play. I wanted to try to portray human beings as creatures of nature. How to do this in cinema—which is very strict form, you know, the camera is on, the camera is off, the crew, the money, the production—how can you peacefully observe the situation and your characters like wild horses or birds in this sort of environment? Thanks to the DOP, I'm happy with the result. We both felt that there is not a big difference between the mother and the donkeys and the grass—or the trees. That they work in a similar way
NOTEBOOK: Or the light, too. I feel like the quality of light in the film, whether candlelight or sunlight coming through a window, is a very tangible character. It had real immanence to it. Yet, during your conversation at the film screening, you intimated that you weren't sure that Mother was 'cinema.' Which I must admit is baffling to me, since the movie seems in fact to be close to the idea of 'pure cinema.' What did you mean by that?
ŠKAFAR: Unlike Dad and especially The Girl in the Tree , which is the film I made in-between, my initial wish was that I would create something more classical, more stable. That it could stand against anybody. Against an audience who is not used to poetry, poetic cinema. It could talk to the people who watch soap operas or anything like that. Unfortunately, I was not able to do that. At the end, I almost destroyed the film because I tried to force to put the two forms together that didn't work—or at least, I'm not capable of making them work. Most of the people who saw it, couldn't make much sense out of this film. Then I started thinking that maybe there was a mistake, that I didn't understand what I made. Maybe I took one step too far away from what cinema is supposed to be. I'm still not sure...
I'm not happy about the fact that this film will be something very hidden, something that will come to very few people. You can never be happy about that, putting so much effort into it. But, on the other hand, for those people who can appreciate this film probably it's like the greatest gift that cinema can give you [laughs]. It's a little bit sadness for one part, and thankfulness for this other part. I'm happy that there were a few people in Rotterdam who expressed this sort of effect that the film had on them, so that I can be a little bit more in peace with myself. But there will always be a little bit of sadness about this, a little bit the feeling of un-accomplishment. But to me, some moments of this film are really a miracle of cinema. I'm not ashamed to see it like this, because in the end this is not my property, this film. I'm a viewer of this film as much as you are. I can be transcended—and not be ashamed to admit it—by some parts of this film every time I see it, some little piece of it.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of regrets and Proust, a tangible feeling of memories really overlays your film, and I really liked its sense of time—or, more precisely, its lack of a sense of time. One could re-arrange the film in many different ways in one's mind, and understand many different scenes as existing in several different moments of life. I was wondering if you were thinking about memory specifically in the creation of the mother's character and sensibility.
ŠKAFAR: It's so great hearing this from you, because I didn't know if this comes across. At one point, my idea of treating time in this film was much more complex, but it interfered with other aspects of the film and I had to cut it down. I was always, again, feeling a little bit sad about something that was maybe the most important thing—because time is the most important thing for me. It goes even beyond what we talked about before. Because only with a deep sense of time anything that you feel makes sense; without it, it's very senseless. If you have a powerful feeling about time, then you know life becomes, on the one hand, incredibly painful, and on the other, it suddenly gets such great beauty that the senselessness of life suddenly makes sense. You saw some things there in the film that I thought that I had lost. That I had them in my mind, in my desire, and we filmed them, and I thought that maybe I cut too much out and maybe it doesn't come across any more. I don't see them so much, I see different things. It's great if this comes across.
NOTEBOOK: I'm curious about your use of music in the film. Mother struck me as a film that feels open and hands-off from a filmmaking point of view, and using music is a very strong, hands-on choice, especially this music, including the remix of the Stabat Mater. Including music in this context is such a forceful gesture on your part.
ŠKAFAR: This is the first time that I use music in my films. In my previous films, I just use the music, some jazz song or pop song—some song from the past—for the end credits. To create this space of silence, because music that you know is not directly connected with something brings you in a nice situation which is like a comfortable silence, let's say.
Here I knew from the beginning that I would probably use some music. I never dared to go for newly created music because, again, using something that is already made it is much more free, it is again part of this indirect communication, so that you are not forcing your ideas, but you are just putting things together that can work—like found footage, in a way. After the shooting, for half a year, I didn't watch what we shot. Then, I started watching the rushes because my perfect way of filmmaking is that I would not make my own images, but they would be made in some sort of dream factory somewhere and I would discover them in some room and it would be exactly to my notions and feelings, and then I would edit that. That would be the perfect way. Unfortunately, the more realistic scenario is you shoot your imagery yourself—but at least then I wanted to fake the approach that this was found footage. I go away for half a year, I came back almost if I had nothing to do with these images, and tried to approach them as something I'm discovering for the first time.
With the music, one inspiration while the film was developing in my mind was Stabat Mater, especially from Vivaldi. But already before we started shooting I knew that going back so many centuries is not the way to go for this film. Again, through this lady that runs this station, she introduced me to the music you hear in the film at her home, because the lady who is singing, Iva Bittová, she's a big star of this modern classical interpretation and traditional folk song interpretation. And Vladimir Godar is the author of the music. It was like a sign: he has the same name as me, the name of this CD is "mater," which is "mother" in Czech. I tried very timidly to incorporate in some parts to see how it works, but then in the editing of the sequence in the sanctuary, suddenly this music was born again with these images.
When I first came to this monastery it was completely empty, and music was playing in a way that you couldn't say from where, because there is always a little wind and there are speakers hidden in the bushes. The wind, the hidden speakers, the natural resonances of such a place made it an incredible environment. We of course couldn't use it in this way because then the dialog would be dirty, but it was something that I kept in mind all the time with this scene, that there has to be music, even if it's not my way. Once we started editing this scene suddenly the images erupted—this is how the film was born, in the editing. Through this sequence I said "okay, now!" Because at one point I didn't know if I wanted to make a film or make just an exhibition of the images. We actually did, a half year ago, an exhibition in deserted houses of these shots or even some scenes I edited for the occasion. On loop in the empty houses—it was great, really. It's the perfect way for these images to communicate and work, because you accidentally enter the building and it's there.
NOTEBOOK: You say the film was born in the editing, but for me it seems born from the first sequence, the first two shots, where we see the mother and the daughter behind the reflective glass of a car windshield. The rest of the film seems to pour forth from this moment. Can you talk about how this opening came to you?
ŠKAFAR: The opening shot was the first shot that I had in my mind. For quite a long time it was the title Mother, nothing else, no images, no ideas—nothing. But the first image that came out of this word was the image of mother and daughter in some sort of vehicle, some sort of transportation, and from the faces you see that they are in different worlds, and that the daughter is not there by her own will. She's there against her will—that's the image. Then, together with the DOP, we developed it, and what you see on the screen is incredibly, unbelievably close to what I had in my mind. We were never sure we could pull it off, because it's quite a difficult technical shot and you need a lot of luck to accomplish it. When we made this shot, I said, "okay, this film is made," because it was the first thing we did, the first shooting day. Also, now, all the story—not only the story, but all the film of their lives is condensed in this one shot. Everything you need to feel about them, everything you need to know about them from the previous twenty years of their lives, is condensed in this one shot. This liberates, then, the film so that it can begin in a free way, without too much explanation. Unfortunately only for some of the people [laughs], not for most of the people. But this is what I believe in, and I like these shots that seem like the whole film is condensed in one shot.