Skip to main content

Aussie Emma Rozanski's Sarajevo film, 'Papagajka'

Emma Rozanski, writer/director Papagajka
I’m convinced that it’s essential to follow crowdfunding campaigns to learn what’s new and exciting about women in film, that women-directed and crowdfunded films are the most likely to change the gender imbalances, not films that women direct for Hollywood, with its profound ambivalence (at best!) towards women who make films and towards women and girls in films. Crowdfunded and women-directed films are where we’re most likely to experience complex women and girls and exciting stories about them. That's also where we'll be challenged and engaged by experimental work that makes us think and feel, I reckon.

For me, it's easiest to access crowdfunding campaigns on Twitter. That’s where I first heard of Afia Nathaniel, whose Dukhtar (Daughter) premiered at Toronto this year, because she created such a beautiful campaign. I first heard and loved Ana Lily Amapour’s distinctive voice when she tweeted about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, during her campaign. Jennifer Kent crowdfunded for The Babadook, too.

When I can, I contribute the price of a ticket to projects that attract me and as often as possible I add the campaigns to my dedicated Pinterest board and tweet at least once, at a time that I think will work best.

I fell over Emma Rozanski’s campaign for her first feature, Papagajka. As you do.

Live or be lived.

Short Synopsis

A stranger arrives in Sarajevo and barges into Damir's reclusive world. Little by little she takes over his life, even absorbing his dreams, until finally he ceases to exist.
According to Emma–
Papagajka is a cautionary tale about apathy. Thematically I’m interested in exploring how people transform under psychological conflict, and how the mind adapts to survive in different environments. We all change in fundamental ways under society's scrutiny.
Intrigued, I learned that Emma’s an Aussie, from the Queensland Institute of Technology, where she studied stage and drama. Saw that she’d been through a bunch of talent labs. Looked at the pitch clip, read the rest of the info, enjoyed her mood boards. I saw that Emma’s doing her masters in Sarajevo, being mentored by Béla Tarr at his Film.Factory and by an astonishing group of others– Palme d'Or recipients Cristian Mungiu and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, award-winning auteurs Carlos Reygadas, Guy Maddin, The Brothers Quay and Fred Kelemen. (I also learned that she was at the Reykjavik TransAtlantic lab with the lovely Matthew Hammett Knott, whose own feature, Bonobo, is out any day.)

Then I found that Emma's Campers (which I haven’t seen) screened at Bluestocking 2013 – the short film series that showcases complex women characters in film and requires films to be Bechdel Test-compliant. I watched her short The Storymaker (below), “born out of a daydream and the frustration of what I saw was an imbalance of ‘business’ versus creativity in the film industry around me”, a short that fits within a diverse tradition of women-directed films about women's creativity and the economies that affect it– Sally Potter's The Gold Diggers; Julie Dash's Illusions; Destri Martino's short The Director; Campbell X's Stud Life; Kate Kaminski's The Crew. That got my attention. So did her Ian Scott Kettle fashion film, her short The Whisper Stop, her Faces music video. I love the beauty and the mystery of it all. Here’s one to watch and listen to, I thought!

Q How did you get from Queensland to Sarajevo?

I’ve always had a very strong imagination and made up stories for as long as I can remember. Film got firmly planted in my head somehow and I imaged that I would act in film, because I didn’t know anything about how a film was made or that there was a director etc. But even when I was twelve I remember reading a book and thinking that I would turn it into a film. Similar ideas just grew and became stronger and after pursuing being in front of the camera for a while I dabbled with looking through it, and it was a passionate fit for me. Acting seemed superfluous from then on and I wrote. I moved to Sydney after university and there I disciplined myself to write, to organise and to constantly step forward, even if the steps were small. I worked on other people’s films, I did short courses. I saved and spent my money directing my short scripts. I developed a love of making music videos and fashion films. Then I moved to London because I’d always wanted to live there- I love big anonymous cities.

In mid-2013 I had just finished writing a low-budget psychological horror set in a London terrace and had started trying to find a producer. I set a date in my mind that if I hadn’t found a producer then I’d produce it myself– it’s an easy low budget film to make. Then I read about Béla Tarr’s film.factory and toyed with the idea of doing my MA there. It seemed such a wacky idea that I decided I should apply and see. Then I got an email from Béla (which was such a surreal moment) and I had three weeks to pack up and get to Sarajevo for the start of semester. Yes three weeks. I had to go, you don’t really say no to that, I thought. So I jumped. Much like I’m doing with this film- I’m just going to do it and it’ll be an exciting challenge. It’ll be another step forward.

Q Your films aren’t simple. Do you have a sense of continuing obsessions and if so where do they come from?

I definitely have a sense of continuing obsessions and I feel as if I see the world through and obsessive gaze. A very particular one. These obsessions also come in cycles and seem to stay until I’ve exhausted them in a film or a screenplay– then another obsession arises from somewhere. I guess they come from the filter of my personality, from the layers of people and places I’ve known, and they go into the stew of whatever I’m currently making and come out as some new thing with flavours of what went in. When I have a larger body of work they might seem more connected, that these obsessions were part of much larger explorations.

Q What’s your present position on the imbalance between creativity and business?

I have very strong feelings about the imbalance between ‘creativity’ and ‘business’. It’s something that endlessly frustrates me about the world– that ‘business’ has to put things in boxes, to break things down to the lowest common denominator. This is such a destructive force because it’s coming from a complete disregard for what makes something unique. It breeds boring lifeless work with no personality and the mark of the maker gets replaced with a copy and paste brand. My short The Storymaker was I’m sure a kind of venting of this frustration in many ways. It won’t be the last film of mine to say something about this either, I’m sure. Papagajka in fact does comment on apathy being a destructive force, and to me this is all interconnected. But I have great hope for ‘business’ when it’s used as a force for helping creativity flourish and grow. I want to be part of that kind of film business.

Q Do you have particular concerns about the way you want to portray women?

I don’t think I have concerns about the way I want to portray women. I feel like all of my characters are so much a part of me that whoever they are, they come from somewhere textured and human. In my opinion that can only be a good thing- to explore and ask questions about human diversity, complexity and psychology- no matter what the ‘gender’.

Papagajka exterior

Q Where did Papagajka come from? Was it entirely inspired, written and developed at the Film.Factory?

Papagajka came from an obsession with these glass security boxes that are scattered around Sarajevo, and with the building named Papagajka (The Parrot) here, [designed by Mladen Gvozden]. This comes from one of my obsessions– architecture. I developed and wrote the script in my summer holiday, although it’s been playing at the back of my mind since moving to Sarajevo. All of the students at Film.Factory work in different ways and bring their projects to Béla at different stages of development- I like to have a complete script first and solid ideas for style and detail. I gave Béla a 2nd draft I think and from there he’s been mentoring me through my re-drafting and casting and locations. Asking me questions, making sure I know what I want and why, I guess is a simple way to put it. I’ve been producing it with my own production company, as for many reasons it’s easier that way. So I’m fundraising on Indiegogo to raise the small amount extra I’ll need for the production that isn’t being donated or borrowed.

Papagajka interior

Q It’s remarkable that Tilda Swinton is the only woman I can see who’s associated with the Film Factory. All your mentors are men and some have even contributed to your Indiegogo rewards. I imagine that they’ll advocate for you as Papagajka moves out into the world, too. Does it matter that they’re all men? Have you had women mentors, do you have women mentors, within or outside film? Do you have conversations about your work as a woman portraying women, do you need/have a women’s community where you can explore those issues?

I know a lot of women filmmakers who are my contemporaries, people who are at a similar stage in their careers to me- and I learn from all of them by watching their progress and their work and sharing things. And of this group of people there are perhaps four or five women – producers mostly – who I bombard with questions sometimes. I feel like they are filmmaking mentors to me in this way.

I have belonged to WIFT in Sydney and London and there was a nice sense of community, especially in London as it was such an active chapter. It’s nice because even if you set ‘gender issues’ aside, the sense of purpose and connection makes for a feeling of strength and support– and in this industry I think those things are essential for survival, wherever you find them. Actually I have applied for mentoring schemes with WIFT in the past but haven’t got through– so I guess Béla got luck of the draw by inviting me to his film.factory! And I have really loved all our mentors here, I’ve learnt such a great deal from them and they’ve made me feel very supported and I’m sure that will continue through my career which is great.

There are two women teachers we’ve had here who have made a strong impression on me- Jytte Jensen (a curator for the MOMA film department in NYC) and Tanja Vrvilo (a performer, filmologist and film curator from Croatia). There are some exciting women who will hopefully come next year though.

Annika Summerson
Q I’m interested that you have a woman cinematographer, Annika Summerson. Are you consciously developing a female gaze in your work? Are you building ongoing partnerships with women as your crew?

No I don’t consciously develop a female gaze. I’m always going to choose people who I think will be the best creative fit for a particular project and who are nice to work with, and whose talents make the film a better film. But I absolutely want help to bridge the ‘gender gap’ in the film industry, so consciously or unconsciously that will probably play a part in some of my crew choices throughout my career. Annika and I worked together on my short Campers, and she has such a beautiful eye – I thought her unique mark would suit this film perfectly and we work well together. Also, working on other people’s films over the years, the shoots that have been the most fun and relaxed, have mostly seemed to be more gender balanced. I think balance is a healthy thing in many aspects of life.

[Sadly, Annika had to pull out a couple of months before the shoot, so Emma had to find another DOP, Malte Rosenfeld, a London-based DOP from Germany/Ireland – he studied at the Lodz film school in Poland. Emma hopes to work with Annika in the future.]

Papagajka exterior

Q Among other things, Papagajka is a highly specific response to a building called Papagajka in what’s for you a foreign country. Can you write a little bit about working in another culture, responding to another culture’s architecture? Do you feel the weight of Sarajevo’s history and is this film partially a response to that?

I do feel a weight of the history in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but I think Papagajka is more my response to contemporary Sarajevo, and my perception of the lifestyles and attitudes of bureaucracy and the youth and the expatriates who live here. Not just here though, around the world. I’m sure there are ways that the layers of history of this city have affected this film, but perhaps I won’t see them all clearly until I’ve finished it. I think also it’s a response to the local attitude towards the building- people mostly tell me they hate it and can’t understand why I’d want to film it. But then there’s a secret excitement and pride coming through- that contradiction is fascinating. Working in another culture is a huge challenge, but I’ve always been very self-sufficient by necessity so I’m well-practiced at improvising and overcoming obstacles (which seem to be in endless supply here although it’s also the nature of filmmaking I guess).

Q Can you write a little bit about your scriptwriting process, especially for Papagajka?

Papagajka is the fifth feature screenplay I’ve written so I’ve developed a way of working now that suits me and that I really enjoy. Papagajka was a little different because it’s the first time I’ve known that it would be made straight away. I do feel that pressure but the fact that it’s not my first screenplay helped me have the confidence to know I could do it and know HOW I would do it, which is often quite scary because blank pages are scary.

To start, I usually know the beginning of a story vividly and often the ending too. Then I’ll have a few key moments- not plot moments necessarily, but a character trait or a location or a strong visual concept will appear in my head. Then I spend a lot of time thinking about the world and the characters. In the case of Papagajka this was mostly done on the back of a motorcycle in Italy, travelling from Abruzzo to Puglia with my partner driving– I definitely recommend putting your head in a helmet for concentration and inspiration! After the thinking time I’ll have dozens more moments and character traits that fit loosely together. Then I sit down and write to a very strictly timetabled schedule until I have a first draft– I just let the characters play out and they kind of show me the way. Then I re-draft and then I get feedback from maybe three people I trust and so on– it gets more layered and the concepts solidify and the visual world forms more precisely.

Q (from Bluestocking's Kate Kaminski) Will Papagajka somehow manage to pass the Bechdel despite its emphasis on the two main characters?

Unfortunately Kate, I don’t think you’ll be able to invite my film to your festival this time. There are only five characters in Papagajka– three women and two men. One woman and one man don’t speak at all. And when you see the film, you’ll understand why the other women don’t/can’t speak to each other. I would argue that there’s another way the film could be read that might cause technicalities to be debated, but I’ll have to leave that to some imaginations after viewing perhaps.

Q (also from Kate) I'm always intrigued by complicated, even evil, women characters that go against 'acceptable' behaviour (and Tarr's women characters are always complicated too!) So I'm wondering about the origins of Papagajka’s main character, who seems to me to be a sort of succubus. I'm very taken with succubi...

Tasya is definitely very complicated. If you go back to how I was describing my writing process, her origins are many and various. Both her and Damir developed hand in hand, forming each other as my mind imagined them reacting to the world I was creating– and reacting to their opposition, their desires. In a sense I can’t separate them, even though they are very different people. The fact that they start having the same dreams explores this line of thought and the environment itself starts to react. I like it when lines are blurred, when meaning and metaphor play with all aspects of a film. So the creation of any character in my film is also a manifestation of this fascination.

Emma at Papagajka, with László Rajk 
Q Have you sought funding from Screen Australia, or other state funders, in Australia or the UK or Europe?

Yes I’ve applied for funding in Australia and the UK to no avail so far. I was told that one script of mine caught the attention of Creative England last year when I applied for a scheme so that’s progress– hopefully I’m on some to-watch list now! Actually Metro Screen in Sydney did give me some in-kind support for a short once– and sadly I think they’re under threat at the moment. I haven’t applied for European funding outside the UK as yet.

Q You’ve cast Papagajka. You have a crew. You’re pretty much good to go. What do you still need, as well as the Indiegogo funds? A distributor? What are the challenges you’re facing now?

A UK post-production house coming on board with in-kind support for colour grading and mastering would be amazing. My biggest Bosnian challenge currently is to get permission to shoot a couple of scenes on the Papagajka rooftop as we’ve encountered some unexpected resistance. More money would help that problem I think! And the shoot itself will be an intense schedule so I’m just working at being as prepared as I possibly can be and having ten different back-up plans (a necessity here) for everything. A distributor would also be great, yes. A couple of sales agents have already expressed interest in seeing a teaser and an early cut when we’ve shot the film so that’s encouraging. And I wait at the ready for all the fresh and unexpected challenges that come with making a film!



Popular posts from this blog

After the Waterfall—

above: Antony Starr as John

After The Waterfallis the only New Zealand feature in the New Zealand International Film Festival that a woman—Simone Horrocks—has written and directed. It premiered in Beijing earlier this month, as part of the 5th New Zealand Film Festival in the People’s Republic of China. Here's Simone speaking at the premiere.

Simone first attracted international attention when she was a semi-finalist for the prestigious Sundance Institute/NHK Filmmaker's Award in 2001. She has written and directed several short films, notably Spindrift, winner of the Best Panorama Short Film award at the Berlin Film Festival, and New Dawn, commissioned by the Edinburgh Film Festival to mark the launch of UK Film Four's Lab. I knew almost nothing about her. So I peppered her with emailed questions. And was truly delighted with her generous responses.

Dana Rotberg and White Lies|Tuakiri Huna

Cushla Parekowhai and I went to previews for Dana Rotberg's new feature White Lies/Tuakiri Huna – Cush in Auckland and me down here in Wellington. And the film excited us. White Lies/Tuakiri Huna, described as 'a story about the nature of identity: those who deny it and those who strive to protect it', comes from Medicine Woman, a novella by Witi Ihimaera, who also wrote Whale Rider. (Witi is Cushla's cousin. Witi's father, Tom Smiler, and Cush's grandmother, Pani Turangi, were raised in the same household in Manutuke.)

Dana wrote, in the book that accompanies the film, that after she read Medicine Woman –
...Paraiti, the medicine woman, was a stubborn presence who refused to leave. I felt that was a clear sign that the story...was speaking to me from places other than where the original work had come from. Places that belonged to my intimate family history and my most unresolved conflicts as a person in the world. It was a call from the core of my origins to l…

NZ Update #17.1 Safety Revisited

(This is easier to read over on Medium)

Back in October, just before the #directedbywomen screenings in Auckland, I tumbled down a steep flight of wooden steps in Auckland's Ayr Street Reserve. Cracked one ankle and broke the fibula in my other leg. Missed spring gardening. Missed all of Wanuri Kahiu's visit (but not some beautiful responses from the many people she inspired and revitalised).

Couldn't transcribe or edit my #directedbywomen Skype interview with Isabel Coixet. Couldn't edit and publish other almost-ready interviews I cherished. Couldn't organise more screenings that filmmakers had requested, with the films' directors beamed in to Te Auaha's small treasure of a cinema for Q & As, also via Skype.

After two months almost entirely at home, half-way down a pedestrian-access steep zigzag, I'm fully mobile again. With thanks to the Accident Compensation Corporation's (ACC, our universal no-fault accidental injury scheme) fine services; to…