Godka Cirka (A Hole in the Sky), and an interview with co-director Alex Lora

In Somalia, a young shepherd girl named Alifa enjoys the tasks of her daily life. Tending to her animals and understanding their world is a skill and love handed down to her from her mother and grandmother. But something looms -- an important day draws nearer, bringing with it an act whose details remain in the shadows of her imagination until the moment is at hand. After the act, her future may feel like a parched earth. She will soon be next to undergo genital mutilation.

This short film is as touching and beautiful to watch as it is extremely uncomfortable. There is something about the way the creeping approach of the day hems in the joy or ideas of the future for Alifa, or any of the girls of Beerato who undergo the traditional practice of female genital mutilation.

The film screened at this year's Sundance. I was honoured to get such a candid interview with co-director Àlex Lora on how such a difficult film was made, and about the creative unrest that's fuelled his art.

Miriam Lee: Why did you choose this topic for the film?

Àlex Lora: Antonio Tibaldi shoots for the UN. He met Amina Souleiman, a Somalí activist in the UK, who lived in Beerato and still comes back every year to help there. Her great grandfather, grandfather and father are buried in the village, which gives her privileged access. There are several issues going on in Beerato: the access to water is one of them, but given that Amina has a daughter, we were also interested in understanding female genital mutilation, which we thought might be one of the reasons why she originally left. Every single one of the girls in the village have to undergo this ritual that, contrary to common belief, has more to do with tradition than with religion.

ML: What was your experience like as men being in the village and speaking with Alifa? Why does she not appear on camera?

AL: Many people ask us this question. The truth is, that there are several reasons why Alifa doesn't appear in camera. First of all, we wanted to create something more poetic, a bit far from the journalistic approach (which we don't have anything against), and thought that just the voice could give the audience the possibility to recreate their own reality, the image of their own person and feel her closer, even making her voice the own voice of the viewer.

We think this actually works -- I've seen people kinda scared, and even a friend of mine confessed to me that she was crossing her legs tightly with anxiety at the end. So, our wish was to create this kind of communion between the spectator and the voice, and I think you always tend to create some distance when you see the real person on the screen because it becomes a representation. In semiotic terms, we thought that was interesting to omit the referent and give more importance to the thought or the reference and the symbol of it. In the first rough cut, we had Alifa looking straight to the camera at the end, and even if it sounds more powerful, we thought it didn't work as well. Then there's also the will to explain the story of all the girls of the village, all of them have to undergo FGM, so the voice could be the one of any other girl who lives there. We actually used Alifa's story but Khadija's voice worked better than Alifa's, so we asked her to tell Alifa's story based on what her friend Alifa says.

ML: Were you there for the ritual?

AL: No, we were not there, and talked a lot about that during the post production and with Amina. The idea of creating this short film was to create some awareness and get some funds to come back and make a documentary about it, so there were things that we didn't want to explore until we go to shoot the feature.

ML: What kind of reactions did you get from the audience at Sundance and other festivals where the short has screened? It's very powerful, and I found myself scared for her before the end of the film when I saw the women preparing the hut.

AL: We are happy because so far the reactions are interesting. The short film deals with a complicated topic, and after the screenings there's always debate and questions. People agree that we dealt with it with respect and with an observational point of view, trying not to intervene, somehow stating that the change should come from within. But at the same time, there's some reconstruction based on the idea of making the film a bit poetic. In this sense we used some sentences that Amina had in her diary, like in the opening in which she was talking about her daily life as a shepherdess, and we decided to put those words in Alifa's story. So there's also a conversation about what the boundaries of the documentary are, the role of the editing and this kind of stuff.

ML: I really liked Only Solomon Lee and Mirada Robada. Where does your inspiration come from in
developing your stories, or in selecting writers to collaborate with?

AL: My inspiration usually comes from stories I have lived. I'm not saying that my movies are all autobiographical, but there's always an element that connects deeply with something that happened in my life. I usually deal with several topics but there's one that can be found in all of my shorts in different ways. Maybe it's the main one but impossibility, incapacity or inability are always there. I like these concepts because they are polyandric and have a lot of dramatic elements to play with, different kinds of inabilities or (dis)abilities: physical, emotional, social. The other reason I'm interested in this is because I lost one arm and deal with it every day. That said, the preparation for the "amputation" and the way you have to deal with it is something that I experienced in a different way, but you can also find it in Godka Cirka. There's the inability to connect and feel different, and feeling weird and lonely, which you can find in Only Solomon Lee.

In the case of Only Solomon Lee and Mirada Robada there's another element that I experienced during my adolescence: I grew up in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, near the Chinese one, and back then there was a lot of prostitution, heroin addicts, pickpockets, so at the end of the day that becomes an influence. Afterward, during my first year of college, some friends would steal laptops, and then, before selling them, they would ask me to delete the passwords and format them. This was a punishable crime and we were all dump kids, but at least, if I would do it, I could burn the information off the hard drives, find the addresses of the owners, and send them the dvds, so they wouldn't lose everything. Of course, my friends didn't know about this and I'm not justifying anything -- it was still was wrong. Once I kinda felt this silly platonic love with the images, videos and texts of a girl I found in one of those laptops and that's something you can find in both short films. I even have a treatment of a feature about that topic, so making the short films was a way to explore that dramatically.

Regarding the collaborations, I like to share these things and it allows you to get some distance, plus it's a way of not feeling that lonely in the creative process. It's nice to feel that somebody else cares about the project too. "Co-parenting" isn't as tough.

ML: How would you describe yourself as a filmmaker?

AL: I think the same way I'd describe myself as a person: I'm nostalgic, chaotic and intuitive. Sadly during my daily life, I procrastinate more than I'd like and leave a lot of things for tomorrow. Applying that to filmmaking terms I guess we could say that I try to fix a lot of stuff in the editing room. I would love to find a better balance and prepare things better before the shooting, but I guess I gotta accept myself the way I am and find good producers... In film, that sometimes translates into spontaneity or authenticity, but some others in an absolute fail, but I also think than in short films with no budget like the ones I do you gotta take risks, try things and fail... fail more... fail best...

ML: What has been your favourite moment so far as a filmmaker?

AL: That's a good question and I don't know what to answer. Being a filmmaker is closely related to the type of person you are, so you gotta think about what you give to see what you get back. This is like Murakami's tale about one of the tree brothers having a difficult life on the top of the mountain in After Dark: lots of hours of solitude in a room in front of a computer, researching, writing, editing, getting frustrated, followed by weeks of shooting, thinking about an idea and losing perspective on the world outside. Long, mono-thematic conversations about a random issue in your movie that no one but you cares about. You work for free, you lose girlfriends, you lose friends, just to walk in the shadows of the short-filmmaking world. Long trips to film festivals to promote yourself and your work; you are tired, you get sick, you deal with a lot of egos and don't feel appreciated by investors or producers, just to realize that you can be as pretentious as they are with the immature dream of spending another whole year of your life making a feature. Apparently it doesn't make any sense to do what we do unless there's something really good in exchange, right?

A favourite moment! Well, I don't think there is one, beyond the bad things it's difficult to chose just one in this kind of roller coaster. Maybe those apparently insignificant, but most of the times they don't seem important, those moments when you feel that strange love towards what you do, and you believe it, and don't question if it's worth it, and they become the spark to start dreaming again.

ML: What other projects and films do you have coming up?

AL: Well, you gotta put a lot of seeds to see if at least one blooms so... many projects. I'm working in another short film we will shoot in June called either Where Are You Staying? or Anything I Can Do and also have to edit a feature that my friend Carmen Vidal will be directing in July called Transitos. It seems those two things will happen and beyond that, Antonio Tibaldi and I are trying to get funds to see if we can shoot the feature version of the documentary at some point. My producer in Spain (Valérie Delpierre at Inicia Films) is looking for funds for a feature I already wrote Atopia. I have an Indian producer pushing a project call Santiago to be shot in Goa that is very interesting. There's an intimate sci-fi story about Mars that I'm sharing with my friends Ivan Kotevsky and Martin Rosete, who are trying to find investors. Finally, I'm also working in a personal story about relativity, hurricanes, crisis and immigration which I would like to be my first feature with the provisional title The Full Bright and the Empty Dark.

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For more on Àlex Lora, don't miss his website where you can contact him directly for access to view all of his films online. For more information on female genital mutilation, start learning on the World Health Organisation's site. My thanks again to Àlex.

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