Emma Rozanski’s Papagajka, takes place in a quiet neighborhood in Sarajevo, where the mysterious Tasya (Susanna Cappellaro) appears one day, and subtly invades the life of the reclusive Damir (Adnan Omerovic). The film’s dreamlike quality and its dark sense of humor, announce the arrival of Rozanski as a truly unique voice. She developed the film under the mentorship of Béla Tarr, and is showing it at SXSW. I had the opportunity to speak with both Rozanski and her leading lady Cappellaro, who talked about the film’s creepy elements and creating enigmatic characters.
What made you decide to do your first feature?
Emma Rozanski: I had written another feature, which hopefully will be my next feature, but I put it on the shelf to go to film school in Sarajevo, as soon as I was there I was trying to find ways to make a feature cause Bela wanted us to make one as soon as we could. Soon I found the location, an idea that could be sustained for a feature and then I took the leap. It had to be soon because I was only there for two years, but I think I’d been ready to make a feature for a little while.
The movie is very, very creepy, and I went nuts wondering what genre to put it in. Were you looking to do something post-genre?
Emma Rozanski: I write character based films, and when you write like that, the story tends to develop from the personalities of these people you’re creating, which means I’m not writing from a plot point of view. In this film in particular I was interested in the psychology of the characters, so the story came from that, I didn’t try to force it upon them, or stick it in a specific genre.
The film is essentially about memory, Bela’s films in a way are also about memory and how we remember, was this something that stuck with you from what he taught students?
Emma Rozanski: In terms of his mentorship he was never as specific as that, because he knew we were all very different people, with different tastes and backgrounds, and he was trying to push us to find what was meaningful for us personally. He would always emphasize it’s about the people and the place, you find that first and the story comes from that. He was very adamant about that. My style is very different, but when you touch on the existential elements I would say I also like to create images and moments that have different meanings and can be stripped down to thoughts about humanity and metaphysical or existential questions. You can find great questions in things as simple as people eating a potato.
I like that you brought up the place, because the film feels very architectural if that makes sense, your use of lines and the spaces adds to the creepiness even…
Emma Rozanski: The building helped a lot, it exists, it’s there and I was told the architect, who is no longer with us, was given artistic free rein, and just walking there you get a sense of his personality, I wish I could’ve met him. The DP and I decided to start very static and then add more movement, I’m glad the creepiness comes across, some of the locals told me it was actually built over a cemetery.
The characters are so mysterious, and I wondered if as the writer you had developed entire lives for them, before and after what we see in the film…
Emma Rozanski: For me yes, I think it’s important for a writer to know that, because all the subtext means something to me, but in terms of how I directed, I don’t like telling the actors what I think their characters are, I’d rather let them create something for themselves and let them be. In my head, which I will never reveal to anyone, I do know who the characters are, where they came and what they did. It’s nice to hear what other people think of the characters too, the actors, the crew, now the audiences...because a lot of the things you do are from instinct as well, and maybe it will take me a few years to know what everything means.
Susanna Cappellaro: It depends on the character, in this one I had nothing in common with her, and tried to build a different person, how she moves, how she behaves, I think a little bit of you will always go into the character though. This script was too surreal and magical and open to interpretations, Emma told me nothing about what she thought of the character.
Something about the look of the character reminded me of Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, and I wondered if the look came from the screenplay and the costume people, or if you had any input…
Susanna Cappellaro: I’m really happy with this question, because it was all decided by me and Emma, she gave me lots of freedom and I decided this character was a very neat and precise person, that is why she has this very precise haircut. Her wardrobe is what she chooses to try to fit in that society, not what she normally wears, but what she chose to fit in, in Papagajka.
This character could have easily been a typical movie villain, but you keep her so restrained. Was this also a conscious choice made for the character?
Susanna Cappellaro: Absolutely, I think maybe there was a moment when I was trying to be creepier, but Emma asked me to tone it down (laughs), I trusted her and she was right. Tasya is like an animal, she’s very feline, so she’s always getting ready for the final attack.
You’re also a journalist, so as an actress and a journalist, is the experience of being at SXSW more surreal because you’ve been on both sides?
Susanna Cappellaro: Yeah! Actually when you’re asking me questions right now, part of my brain is thinking “this is a cool question, I should ask them too”. It’s very weird, but it’s also so relaxing to be an actress, you brought your work and it’s there for people to judge, when you come as a journalist you need to be more analytical about everything. I don’t think I will ever turn off that part of my brain, watching movies I’m very analytical and critical.
Papagajka is playing at SXSW.