“It’s Good For You To Experience Disasters”: Oliver Laxe on His Forthcoming Feature Las Mimosas
Currently in post-production, Oliver Laxe’s second feature, Las Mimosas, is an ambitious follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut feature, You All Are Captains. Shot in Morocco, where the French-born Spaniard has lived for the best part of a decade, the film has been four years in the making. Produced by Zeitun Films and co-financed by Rouge International (France) and LaProd (Morocco), Laxe’s sophomore feature also received support from several funding schemes at film festivals, including Torino FilmLab and CPH:Forum.
With Zeitun Films aiming to unveil the film at another major festival in 2016 (Captains debuted at Cannes in 2010), footage of its production was recently incorporated into Ben Rivers’ latest film, The Sky Trembles and The Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers. Filmmaker caught up with Laxe at the twelfth edition of Curtocurcuíto, an international short film festival in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain. In town to lead a three-day workshop entitled “Cinema and Haiku,” Laxe spoke to us about cinema as an art of submission, how he sustains confidence on set, and how making a movie like Las Mimosas in the current economic climate is a miracle.
Filmmaker: Parts of The Sky Trembles are more fictional than others. I’m particularly interested in the first third, which is a more conventional documentary about the production of your own film. How closely does Ben’s film capture your experience of making Las Mimosas?
Laxe: It’s not very close, because Ben is very generous in his portrait of me. I think it’s a beautiful homage to our profession. When I saw the film, I was very happy because it has this distance, and it’s a beautiful portrait of a filmmaker. I say that he’s too generous because I really was a filmmaker with problems. The shooting was crazy. It was too much. The thing is, we made a script for nine weeks of shooting but we had to make it in five weeks. Shooting was very short and too stressful. We were looking for problems.
Filmmaker: Because problems inspire you as a filmmaker?
Laxe: When I have problems, the film makes itself. What is interesting about cinema is that it is an art of submission, an art of frustration. Nothing that you want to do, you will do. And this is a problem, but it’s very interesting because you can produce something that is not you but that is more interesting than you.
Filmmaker: Is that something you learned from making You All Are Captains?
Laxe: Yes. When you are more courageous behind the camera, life gives you more things, more gifts. You really have faith. For Captains, I was obliged to act, because I wanted to provoke, I wanted to play, I wanted to make fiction. But the only way to make fiction — because I had no money for actors — was to be myself.
Filmmaker: From Ben’s film, Las Mimosas looks like an old-school Werner Herzog film, with a foreigner directing a cast of locals in an exotic location.
Laxe: From a logistical point of view, to shoot on the locations where we were, was not a good idea. Near my home, in Ouarzazate, you can find places, but they are not so sublime. It was clear for me: shoot near to home and to our base, so that we will have more time and more energy. I think you need a kind of unconscious, a lack of conscious[ness], and at the same time it was part of the prayer that we were making, to really go to these places. It was a kind of a prayer. It was important to do it that way. I also think that you have to deserve things.
Filmmaker: How do you get to deserve them?
Laxe: You know, just with a camera, by just shooting these places, you are saying, “Thank you.” You are saying, “This is very important, this is a sacred place.” We are outsiders. It’s like we have to take off our shoes and display a sacred behavior in these places. I mean, I was not conscious of this all of the time because it was a film. It was crazy. On the second day of shooting we couldn’t shoot anything. For one week, we’d been paying some people to arrange a stone road, but we didn’t notice that a bridge, which was 10 kilometers away, was not suitable for the trucks, so on the second day of shooting we couldn’t shoot anything, because the trucks were stopped on the bridge. Imagine, you have five weeks to shoot and on the second day you didn’t shoot anything. It was a very critical moment, when you see that you are working on a project for four years and because you were maybe too ambitious you are making a disaster. I was asking myself, “How did I bring all of these people to this place?” It was crazy.
Filmmaker: How do you sustain confidence when that happens?
Laxe: I have no confidence! [Laughs] At the same time, everyone is saying, “I told you! I told you!” I don’t have too much experience but enough to understand that those are the moments when life asks, “Who are you?” Those are the moments when you have the good answers and the good attitudes and the good gestures. You don’t have another way. I had four moments when I thought I had made a disaster. For me it was obvious. At the beginning it was a shock, and I said, “Okay, you deserve that.” It’s good for you to experience these disasters, as a filmmaker and a person. One night I didn’t sleep. Nobody slept, and they said, “Yesterday was very quiet. What you shot had very bad results. It’s too crazy, shooting in these places, traveling for hours on donkeys.” In the worst moments is when you have to change the attitude, to communicate more. I’m very proud that in the more critical moments we were good.
Filmmaker: Does that happen naturally, or do you have a process that you employ or drawn upon?
Laxe: When I say that cinema is an art of submission — I’ll define submission. The theology of Islam is to give you to the way. You are accepting [of] everything. In all the traditions and spiritual paths, you have to detach and accept what providence gives to you. So that’s what I like about cinema, and as a human being and filmmaker it’s something that you understand. When you have a problem, when you have an obstacle, this saves you from a bigger one. Everything is perfect. So the exercise is to understand that when you are in the middle of the shooting, it’s maybe not what you wanted. But it’s a question of faith. It has to be a good thing. It’s difficult. I have a big ego, so I have a lot of fears. You want to impose yourself onto the reality but it’s absurd.
Filmmaker: You were born in France and your parents are Spanish, and you’ve lived in Morocco for nearly ten years. Do you feel like there’s a kind of cultural triangle at work here? Do you feel like a tourist when making films?
Laxe: No. We have to attack this subject from a different point of view. First, I think any artist is a foreigner — and this is a good thing. When I was born in Paris, I was Spanish, and when we came back to Spain, I was French. Of course, you suffer through adaptation, but with time you realize it’s a good position, a good distance from which to watch things. You have to be a foreigner. I’m a foreigner in Morocco too — and not. My parents are of the first generation who broke a kind of orbit, of people working on the land. I had a chance to taste that, in Galicia, to get to know my grandparents etc., so when I went to Morocco it was not a kind of orientalism or romanticism about the past. It was a continuity of these images, of values that are in my family. They were not believers, but they had a relationship of humility with the landscape.
And another thing we can speak about is that when we have a little bit of historical conscience, historical perspective, cultures are bastards, they are mixtures. In Spain this is something very present. Of course, people are not so conscious but we have a strong heritage from Andalusia and from Europe also, even South America, as just one example. One of the things I like about Las Mimosas is that it’s a very de-territorialized film. I don’t know whether it’s a good movie or not — for me, it’s a question until spectators see the film — but I like it because it is not a Spanish movie, it’s not an American movie. It’s very European, it’s a Muslim movie too. It’s not what we expect of a film today.
Filmmaker: You’re working with Zeitun Films again, as you did on your previous feature. How has this time been different?
Laxe: On Captains I was producer, teacher, actor, filmmaker — I was doing everything. It gives you some freedom. You have more time to hear. You have more time to really be, to dance with reality. At the same time you can really manage the group, and build the energy of the team, so that you can provoke things. I remember that in the morning I had to go to the [shooting location], to see the politics of the village where we were shooting, to be with them for one hour, and after that we could begin to shoot. I had no system, as a director. I was the producer of everything. It was difficult but I had more intimacy. Mimosas was the opposite. I could shoot traveling shots, I could shoot with a quad [bike], I didn’ have to think too much about production. It was very frustrating, for me. I didn’t enjoy shooting it. It was a shoot without grace. We were re-writing all the time. It was a very difficult film to produce.
Filmmaker: At what point did Rouge International and LaProd get involved?
Laxe: LaProd were [involved] from the beginning. We met them in 2012 in Cannes. I really liked the way they are with the filmmaker. They share with you their creative process. I really felt they were near. We didn’t get money in France. We presented the project to Cinémas du Monde, but we didn’t [succeed]. But for me it’s not a question of money. For me a producer is someone who works with you. In Morocco, you are obliged to have a local producer. But in this case it was also very beautiful because it’s not the typical service. In Morocco, producers don’t exist too much. Filmmakers produce themselves, and the only producers who produce other filmmakers just offer services, and they give money for that. With LaProd it was different, they are part of the creative process. We presented the movie as a Moroccan movie to the national grants [board]. It’s the first foreign movie that has grants from the Kingdom of Morocco. It’s the first time in history. We got €100,000. Morocco is a country with a very good system. They copied the French model: three times per year you can present your project, they give you really good feedback, very good commissions. Very serious, very good. And now, they want to help foreign filmmakers who can energize local production. This is very smart.
Filmmaker: So Morocco is looking to invest further in foreign co-productions?
Laxe: Yes. But I’ve been living in Morocco since nine years ago. I speak the language. They know me. They saw me grow and they know I didn’t write my script in Madrid or Paris. This is important. There is a truth, you know? This is one of the things I’m happy with when people say this is an orientalist film or a foreigner’s film. I think this is more Moroccan than most Moroccan movies. I’m quite happy about that.
Filmmaker: How important was it for Zeitun Films to pitch the project at Torino FilmLab and CPH:Forum?
Laxe: To be honest, I don’t know if this was good or not. The process was interesting. I was with [producer] Felipe Lage all of the time, and we were testing the health of the project. I don’t know. You have to be very careful with these projects, with pitching and writing. You have to be really sure of your project because it can be like the circus, when you have this thing with the mirrors, which deforms your image. One makes you more fat or more thin. It’s quite schizophrenic at times. In general, my opinion of grants — national grants, and those kinds of initiatives — is that it’s dangerous, because we are formatting. I think they format, basically. We are making everyone make the same movies.
Filmmaker: When I spoke to Felipe in Slovenia last year, he said Zeitun was healthier than ever but that general funding opportunities were diminishing. Would Zeitun be able to produce a film now without co-production investment?
Laxe: Yeah, in Galicia, it’s more and more difficult because television doesn’t want to invest in these kinds of movies. The conditions with the grants are very complicated. They give you the money at the end. In Spain they don’t want to spend money on that. The idea that they had was to finish with this [financial] help. When the new government came [in 2010], they wanted to [end it], but because of my movie they had to keep it, because it was the biggest success in the history of Galician cinema. They invested thousands and thousands of Euros in cinema. We made Captains with €30,000 and went to Cannes. And look at the films of Lois [Patiño]. He’s showing Galicia to the world. I remember with Captains people were asking me if it was Catalan, because the names are strange, the titles are not in Spanish. I had to explain where Galicia was! I hope that after Lois and Eloy [Enciso, director of Arraianos] things will be easier.
Filmmaker: You’re heading to London Film Festival to promote The Sky Trembles. How will that film’s existence affect the marketing strategy for Las Mimosas?
Laxe: When we finished shooting Mimosas, I had burnout for three months, and one day I received a message from Ben saying, “I finished the edit! The film will go to Locarno!” I was like, “Wow, good.” I knew that his film was more fragile in terms of the industry than mine, and Locarno is the place for him. But I was afraid of expectations. This maybe works against my movie. Because you told me, for example, you thought I was shooting for years, not five weeks. When people see the movie, they might say, “All this work, all this challenge, for that?” But again, what is important is the gesture, that we made it. Today, to make a movie like that is a miracle — with this taste of adventure, like the old masters. There’s this lineage. That’s very important for me.