Alice Nellis, the writer and director of the awarding-winning feature Tajnosti (Little Girl Blue) will next week see the release of her highly-anticipated new film called Mamas & Papas, a story of four couples whose lives, intertwined, are changed through parenthood (or aspects of it), events both within and outside of their control: childbirth, adoption, abortion or loss. The couples, connected but also “atomized”, all deal differently with their situation to greater or lesser degrees of success – and no solution in the film is ideal.
No hope or desire is completely fulfilled or satisfied, although some come fairly close.
I asked director Alice Nellis why she was attracted to the subject of parenthood, in its different aspects:
“I think at a certain age everybody has to think about it, even if that thinking would mean I am going to decide not to have kids, or we already have some and can’t afford more, or I want to have kids but I can’t. Or harder things such as dealing with the loss of a child. Everybody is a ‘possible parent’ and more and more I see people in my age group around me trying to deal with this question and running into problems. Once you get there, everything begins to revolve around it. Having a kid changes everything; but deciding not to have one changes a family or relationships as well.”
One of the characters who is most tested in Mamas & Papas is played by Zuzana Bydžovská. ‘Iva’ is a middle-age maternity specialist who suffers the worst that can ever happen to a parent. Her little girl opens the film spending time at her mother’s workplace, looking at goldfish and fresh parents leaving with their newborns, just hours before she sets out for an ill-fated school trip. Alice Nellis:
“The beginning was trying to see where everything starts. Her daughter is observing fish, near to Nature, seeing it with colour, and starting to see the world, and finding out what parents are all about. She will never be one. The way Iva – the mother - comes back to that vision, her whole idea throughout the film is ‘I want to be with my daughter’ no matter where she is and eventually she somehow connects.”
Although Iva’s loss of her daughter is the most difficult to watch and accept, the dilemmas and stories of all fours couples, from problems such as the inability to conceive, dire financial straits, career decisions, are given equal footing, and no single character dominates: all are treated with clarity, sensitivity and depth. One reason? Remarkably, during the project, none of the actors saw a single page of script; it was Nellis’s aim to familiarize them only with their characters, their needs and their expectations, but never to give them the comfort or reassurance of knowing what ould come next Kind of like in real life. Director Alice Nellis told me more about the unusual method she used in Mamas & Papas:
“The reason was that it is a very intimate theme and also the fact that I was trying to show a wide variety of people from different social backgrounds. Also, I don’t only work with actors but also with non-actors. And this method when they do not know the script (although we rehearsed who they were and they fully knew their character’s backgrounds) they were able to go with each situation step-by-step. Like in life. It made them more focused and more free: it was not just my words I had written, too. And I was very lucky because I found producers who understood my reasoning. Quite often 60 percent of what you see on the screen is the first take, one reason why we used two cameras, so we could cut into the scene when we needed. When we did do a second take the actors were able to build on their emotions, which is what they are supposed to do, but because it was right after something they had just done for the first time, it was always fresh.”
One of the producers who was enthusiastic about the project from the get-go was Jeffrey Brown of UFO Pictures, approached by his colleague who had already read a 50-page script that outlined the story but contained no dialogue. When I spoke to him he told me more about the Czech expression his team coined to market Mamas & Papas: ‘intimní velkofilm’. Intimní means intimate but velkofilm translates as blockbuster. In the case of Mamas & Papas the expression makes perfect sense.
“Intimní velkofilm is the idea that the film is powerful, it’s big, it can be overwhelming, a lot of people cried when seeing it. Most people do. At the same time, it is shot in a very intimate way. For me story and performance are what are important – not explosions or any gigantic shoots or special FX. That is what was very exciting for me: getting back to the basic parts of storytelling and of making film.”
Another emotional but partly minimalistic element of Mamas & Papas is its original score by Jan Ponocný. Producer Jeffrey Brown again:
“On the one level it is shot in a very documentary style. The music is, I wouldn’t say flat, but a bit removed. It can still be very dynamic, it’s just very subtle. I think Jan Ponocný did a great job on it and I do think that it opens up much more later. Once we hit the ocean it really does open up a lot, together with the visuals. It’s a structure and it wasn’t by chance: it’s very much been thought through.”
The ocean that producer Jeffrey Brown refers to is the seaside that Zuzana Bydžovská’s character Iva – unable to get over her loss – retreats to at an unnamed North African country there she stays with the family a colleague. Learning to scuba dive opens up a new world and brings her closer to her daughter, although whether she will choose to survive is very much an open question. Meanwhile, other characters in the film struggle to find their way through life with children of their own – or without. A young couple must decide between child and career, a couple in their 30s sees their marriage strained to the limits by their inability to conceive, and a Ukrainian man and wife, living in Prague, must decide whether to put up their new born immediately for adoption because for lacking enough funds to raise a third child.
All of the stories are compelling and the director’s skillful use of method and reliance on actors both well and lesser known, make the stories fresh: are funny moments as well as sad and Mamas & Papas is a film that shouldn’t be missed. It premieres in the Czech Republic on April 15th.