Caterina Mona • Director of Semret
"We wanted to concentrate on the people and the camera had to follow them"
by Teresa Vena
- The Swiss filmmaker discusses her film, a portrait of an Eritrean woman's delicate balancing act between her wish to preserve her old habits and her need to integrate into her new culture
Swiss filmmaker Caterina Mona presents her debut feature at this year's Locarno Film Festival (3-13 august) in the Piazza Grande section. With Semret [+see also:
interview: Caterina Mona
film profile], she tells the story of a mother who will give everything to prevent her daughter from going through the same painful experience she did. We spoke to the director about her connection to the Eritrean community in Switzerland, her inspiration for the plot and her ideas for the visual concept of the film.
Cineuropa: Semret is you first feature-length film. How did you find the story you wanted to tell?
Caterina Mona: One of the topics I care most about is trauma and how people cope with it. I already talked about it in my short film. We know that trauma can be passed down families to several generations. It is necessary to break the circle. I first met people from Eritrea six years ago. I learned about their country and history. There is a community of Eritreans in Zurich, a part of it lives in my neighbourhood. Our children met and go to school together. I realised that people from Eritrea are shown in the media in a one-sided way. It was therefore important for me to show a woman I know, one who tries to cope with everything and does her best to assimilate, one who wishes the best for her children.
Was it difficult to find women who would share their story with you?
It was a long but also a natural process to get to know the women who inspired the main protagonist. I learned that several of them had a similar experience and are in a similar position. The women I met were quite open and it is important for them to talk about what happened to them. They don't want to be stigmatised.
Why did you make the protagonist a midwife?
There is a very personal reason for it. Before I turned to cinema, I wanted to become a midwife myself. I know exactly what Semret goes through. But besides my own link to the topic, I think this choice has something very symbolic to it. She doesn't work in one of the typical fields people with a migration background work in. She doesn't work in a canteen or as a cleaning lady. She looks for the challenge, she is ambitious.
Wasn't it complicated to have dialogues in several languages?
We did castings and were searching for actors from Eritrea who speak German. We soon realised that it would be very difficult and thought, finally, that it would be OK for them to learn as much as necessary for the film. This was the case for the main actress Lula Mebrahtu. She is from London and a very good actress. She had an acting coach to get into the character since she is a rather wild, extroverted woman, in comparison to Semret. I like Lula's physicalness. As for the youngsters, they grew up mixing languages and it was very natural to them.
Did you develop the dialogues in Tigrinya together with the actors?
Actually, a very fascinating fact is that the adult actors have been away from home for too long now and do not speak the language fluently anymore. Or at least, they are not used to everyday slang anymore. We had a native speaker who translated the dialogues from German and the actors discussed a lot of details with her. Once they talked about one word for half an hour. I wrote the dialogues, they were translated and the actors spoke them. There was not much room for improvisation.
You use a documentary aesthetic. Why was it important for you?
It was very important for me that the actors be able to move freely. I didn't want to use a handheld camera all the time, so we also have scenes that are more static. But overall the form shouldn't be to present. We wanted to concentrate on the people and the camera had to follow them. We put a lot of effort in creating Semret's apartment. We had a completely white flat and decorated it with colours and textures, using wallpaper, clothes and flowers. It was important for the flat to feel alive.
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