Marrakech Film Festival: Interview with Sudabeh Mortezai

After world-premiering at the Venice Film Festival in the Giornate Degli Autori sidebar, where it already won two prizes, Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy has gone on a veritable victory tour of festivals. A Special Jury Prize in Chicago, Best Actress winner in Sevilla, Best Picture in Vienna, and the icing on the cake, the top award at the BFI London Film Festival. Wherever this film about Nigerian prostitutes and their madams, themselves former victims, in the underbelly of Vienna goes, it wins something. The film’s latest ‘victim’? The Marrakech Film Festival, where it won the festival’s top prize, L’Étoile d’Or.

You can read our own ICS review of the film here, and in Marrakech Cédric Succivalli interviewed the Austrian director and writer of the film, Sudabeh Mortezai.

CS: You’ve come a long way after winning two major prizes in Venice, taking the top award at the BFI in London among others. Tell me a bit about your experience with Joy in London and also so far here in Marrakech.

SM: London was fantastic. Already before we arrived there was a bit of hype, great reviews in blogs and on Twitter. London was very good for Joy and for me as a filmmaker, it gave a lot of visibility to the film. What really impressed me here in Marrakech is that both screenings were almost full, and one room is around 1500 people and the other about 700. And it was not just people with accreditations but also a lot of local people. At the second screening there was a large group of male students, and they stayed for the Q&A and all, which was interesting to me since it’s such a female film. I loved that. The Q&A’s were very good, they were long and the questions were very specific.

CS: Can you tell me how you investigated the topic of prostitution and human trafficking, and what was the driving force for you to do the film?

SM: The original idea came when I read a very good and well-researched book about human trafficking from Nigeria by two Austrian journalists. The book is over ten years old, but unfortunately still relevant. When I read that book, what immediately triggered me is that the madams were former victims of sex trafficking before they became madams. This is a vicious cycle where the victim becomes the exploiter, and that horrifies me as a woman, but it also interested me that the pimp is a woman but also a victim. I wanted to really understand what the story of a woman is who makes this transition. So I did a lot of research in Vienna first, with women who have been victims of sex trafficking. Then I went to Nigeria, and that was really essential. Before I went there I had a first treatment of the film, a lot of elements were already there, but the real spark, the real understanding was missing. Once I returned from Nigeria literally within less than a month I had finished the screenplay. That trip was so intense, and it gave me a feeling that I finally understood and could connect the dots. And then I also knew I could not have an optimistic ending. Before I had planned an empowering closure, but when I came back knowing the situation in Nigeria and what the women go through, the pressure society puts on them and their circumstances, it would have been so hypocritical to have a positive ending.

CS: The scenes in Africa towards the end, were they indeed shot in Nigeria?

SM: Yes, in Nigeria. The film is mostly shot in Vienna, but the first and the last scene were done in Nigeria, in Benin City, the capital of Edo state where these women come from.

CS: When you did the research, did you also meet Nigerian prostitutes in Vienna?

SM: When I started the research I met some of them in Vienna indeed, and later I met more people who had slowly gotten out of the system. In the beginning it was very hard to get to talk to someone, because many people are scared to talk. But slowly while getting to know people, word got around and it started to open up a little bit.

CS: Did you ever consider to have any of them play a supporting role in the film?

SM: I never wanted to mix that up, in a way, because it is a fiction film. It is very strongly rooted in reality, but I didn’t want to expose people’s private lives, and I didn’t want to endanger or humiliate them in any way. I wanted to make a fiction film from the beginning anyway, not a documentary. But another reason to not make it a documentary is the question how you would do that without re-traumatizing or exploiting these people.

CS: And how did you come across Joy and Precious  during the casting process?

SM: We did a lot of street casting, and went to a lot of Nigerian churches and shops and such. I was looking for a new face and a specific energy in a person, that is the way I work. It does not interest me that much if they have experience, they have to have the right energy. We had a very open casting call, with very little info beforehand. Then at the casting I would explain a little bit about what the film was about, and then let them improvise. We found Joy very early, which was a lucky coincidence because in my head the film was always going to be called Joy. Precious we found six or seven months later. I was looking for a very young girl. Not too young, because I didn’t want a 14-year-old to play the role, that would be tacky. She came with her mother actually, and they came both to the casting for different roles. And they were so professional about it when they had to improvise together. So her mom improvised the madam and Precious did her own role, and we were completely blown away. It was important to have them both, because I knew there was a rape scene in the film. She was 16 going on 17 when she was cast, so it was good to have the mother there because of parental consent and such, and I could explain everything. Normally I explain everything only on set, and give the actors very little info beforehand. I shot chronologically, and none of them had read the script beforehand, outside a bit of background on their characters. So there was always surprise. But with that rape scene, of course I knew I had to prepare Precious for that, so we talked about it with her and her parents, about how I wanted to shoot it. We even chose the apartment specifically for the rape scene, so I could film that scene in that way.

CS: The night shoot in Vienna, did you encounter some resistance or reluctancy from people in the neighborhood, who possibly were sex workers themselves?

SM: We shot it really close to where the women are walking the streets, just around the corner in a side street. Initially I wanted to film at the actual place, and everyone from the production thought I was crazy, getting us into problems with the pimps. Then we went location scouting, and we found this small alley that looked even better than the real one, because it was smaller which helps with the lighting and the mise-en-scene. There is one scene where Joy is in a car with a guy, and in the background you see the actual prostitutes. Really blurry, but they are in the film.

CS: The film is extremely timely; what is the current situation for these women?

SM: It is still exactly the same. All over Europe there are thousands of women, Italy being the center because that is where these women first arrive in Europe. The sad thing is that in different European countries, no matter what their laws are, the situation is more or less the same.

CS: That is why your film is so important, not just for its creative qualities but also for its timely subject. That’s why it is good that it is screening everywhere, and winning prizes anywhere.

SM: That is the reason I’m personally so happy about the awards, not for me but for the film, because then we are back in the conversation again and it gives the issue visibility and gets people talking about it.

CS: Sadly, I have to ask you about Richard Lornand, the publicist of the film and also the PR of the Marrakech Film Festival, who passed away recently. If you want, can you tell us about your personal relationship with him?

SM: It makes me choke up a little bit, I have known him for such a long time. In my first job after university I worked for the Viennale in the press office, and he was then the head of guest relations. We worked together for several years there before we each went our own way, and I have very fond memories of him. He was a mentor and I learned so many things from him, he had such an incredible personality. We didn’t see each other for some years, and then I made Macondo, and Film Boutique told me they were very happy that Richard had agreed to do the press for the film because he only did it for films that he really loved. And I was so happy then. I saw him in Venice this year, and I didn’t know he was sick, so that shocked me. Shortly before the Viennale I wrote him a message to have a coffee there. He told me that he sadly couldn’t come to Vienna, but he said he was looking forward to meeting me here in Marrakech. Sadly, a few weeks later I heard he had passed away, so it felt very weird for me to come here.