|Caroline Link, director of Exit Marrakech. Photo: Adrià Guxens|
When Caroline Link (Bad Nauheim, Germany, 1964) started her studies at the University of Television and Film in Munich she couldn’t imagine that only fifteen years later she would win an Oscar. It would be for her film Nowhere in Africa (2001), a very particular portrait of a Jewish family that moves to Kenya to escape from the Nazi regime. With no doubt, the African continent has caught her, since she has now come back to shoot Exit Marrakech, a film that talks about a young man (Samuel Schneider) who decides to experience a liberating trip to get to know himself better and break the chains that tie him to his father (Ulrich Tukur).
You studied documentary filmmaking and television journalism, but you haven't directed a documentary since 1989. Fiction surpasses reality?
Oh, no. I would never say that, but to tell you the truth, I only applied for the documentary department at the film school in Munich because in that year, I think it was 1986, I found that program more interesting than any other, so I cheated and I just answered the application questions to get into that film department. I've always wanted to make feature films, but first I needed a way to sneak into the film school and, therefore, have my first contact with the movie industry. I never wanted to make documentaries! [Laughs] I always wanted to work with actors.
But do you like to watch documentaries?
Of course, I find them very interesting and I love to watch documentaries, but my passion is to create situations with actors. When I did my only one documentary we were chasing behind the emotions with the camera and to me sometimes it felt so humiliating to the people. I don't like to film anyone who is emotionally that involved. I'd rather speak with actors and create something.
Exit Marrakech is set in Africa, but it is not the first time you shoot in this continent [she made Nowhere in Africa in 2001]. Why do you feel it so appealing?
For me, Morocco and Kenya are two complete different worlds. It is Africa, but they are completely different. In Morocco we have an Islamic culture, and a very different cultural feeling. But I feel very attracted to Africa because in my soul it stands more for the ground, the earth, the pragmatism, in contrary to Asia, where many people are more interested in the spiritualism feeling of life. For me, Africa is a continent where I feel comfortable the moment I get off of the bus, the train or the plane. I like it, but as I said, there is not very much that you find in common between Morocco and Kenya.
Was it your first time in Morocco?
No, I went there 20 years ago. I did a very long trip and I had a very special time with new boyfriend, who is my husband, now. That was when the Second Golf War started and all the tourists left the country, because we all were warned to leave the Islamic nations. However, we stayed and we were in many places the only tourists. It was a very special feeling because I was madly in love, but at the same time there was the feeling of danger. And you really didn't know how to read these people and what would they think about the Americans bombing the neighbor countries, but I felt very fascinated and attracted to Morocco.
I bet it was very different, back then...
It was very different but still if you go out of the big tourist areas, you will find a very traditional country. I wanted to come back and see in which way it changed, and it changed in the big cities but didn't change that much in the countryside.
You shoot a lot in real places instead of using a set. Would you say the landscape is another actor of your films?
Yes, especially in this story. I think Morocco is the third protagonist next to the father and the son. This story would not have worked in Germany, because the plot is very simple, since it talks about the reality of millions of teenagers who don't know their fathers very well or they live with parents that are separated. This is no big story, but I wanted this normal conflict in this world where everything becomes existential and in which the father and the son start to see each other through new eyes, because they see each other in a new environment.
So the scenery changes them…
Yes. Ben discovers that his father becomes older, and that he is weak, in moments, too. And the father has to learn that the son is not a little boy anymore. He's a young man and moves very safe-securely through this country and he feel a bit afraid and helpless. And at home, the father is the boss as long as he stays in his comfort zone, but as soon as he leaves that place of control, the dynamic between them changes too. And sometimes this is very helpful. Even when I travel with friends I see them in new eyes because the landscape changes us. Then, I see how they treat people from different cultures, so you get to know somebody very well when you travel, I think...
Have you ever done a voyage that has been a liberating experience like Ben does in your film?
I never had to because my parents always opened all the doors for me. They said: “Go, go, go and discover the world!” So I never had to run away from anything. And when I was young I put myself in absurd danger because you are so naïf and you go with people, but I would not be able to travel like that anymore, because when you are 50 you have a complete different experience and you become careful and you don't do the things you did when you were young anymore. I think the time when you are young is very precious because you don't worry that much.
You tend to work with young actors who have very little experience. Is it difficult to work with them on set?
Well, if you choose the right person it is not very difficult, but you have to be very careful with the casting. You cannot take a child that is sweet and lively for that. He or she has to be really able to concentrate for a very long time, but if you have the right person it's just playing and having fun with kids. For me, unprofessional actors are great because they are not so aware of how they appear and they don't worry so much about what they do for what effect. When I work with children, when they did one or two movies they are already bad because they now when they put this face they look like this or where they do that move they look cool... But when they do it for first time they are innocent and forget the camera. And for an actor is very difficult to forget the camera and be unaffected by the crowd. That's why I enjoy working with unprofessional actors.
Was it difficult to shoot with Moroccan Actors due to the different cultures?
No, the actors are very professional there. Morocco is a country where many people all over the world shoot a lot they come there to shoot. In addition, they know what we want and how that works, but you have to be careful when you approach people on the street, because they don’t like those Western people who think that money can buy everything; they don’t want to be just a background decoration, they are sick of it. There have been too many Europeans and Americans that have behaved badly with them. Those people don’t know that with respect you can get a lot from the others.
In your movies we hear a lot of different languages, namely German, French, English, Arabic, Swahili... Is it difficult to handle?
It's not difficult. I mean, you need an interpreter sometimes, of course, because otherwise you are not understood, but you always have subtitles in my movies. And in Germany this is not a problem as long as not the whole movie is subtitled, but I think it's important for the authenticity of your film that you let people speak their own languages.
Here we have a lot of dubbing...
We have that in Germany too. Every movie is dubbed. People don't really like subtitles.
At the beginning of the film a professor criticizes Ben for his bad behavior despite being one of the most brilliant students. Where you also rebel during your teenage years?
No, I was pretty nice, I think. It changed when I became a little bit older, when I went to film school. But I think I was never a rebel because I had no reason to grumble about anything [Laugh] However, I have been always very curious, which has led me to walk into interesting situations.
How do you see the current young generations?
Well... There are idiots and there are great people. I have no problem. I try to really not to judge too quickly because I think it makes you a lonely person. If you travel, if you meet young generations, if you go out of your world and judge too quick it is not helpful. I think you should always watch and see and then understand where those people come from. It's the same when you are in a village. If you sit in Morocco and watch the things you have around, you already have your opinions of everything: “The women should not wear scarf”, “the men should not do that...” And it's not helpful to think you know everything. If you think you know everything then you better go to sleep [Laugh] I think you should always be open to what's happening. Let yourself be surprised.
Your stories tend to talk about the bond between two or more people, which are often family members. Why are you so interested in having family as the main theme?
Through the eyes of children I think you can talk a lot about the society, about the generation conflict, the communication conflict. It says a lot about the world that we are moving and living. We owe everything we are to our family: all our complexes, our nightmares, our happiness and our beautiful moments. I think family can be the back decoration for every story, the background for everything.
Ben's dad asks him if his short story is based on him and he agrees. Is Ulrich's character based on your father, too?
No. Not at all. My father was not an intellectual, but I know somebody in my life who is somewhat like him, but not my father.
We can find a lot of characters that are artists in your films. In Exit Marrakech there's a musician and a theater director; in Beyond Silence a musician; in A Year Ago in Winter a painter and a dancer... Is this a tribute to art?
It is a bit, maybe, because I know more about those people than I know about a bank director. Ben's father could have been somebody else, but I have met too self-centered and vain intellectuals from the art scene, who don’t really are so excited about giving up their careers when they become parents. And I had the feeling that maybe I know more what I was talking about than if I chose to have the manager of a big oil company as my lead.
Nowhere in Africa is a film where you touch the Nazism theme. Do you think this is a must for a German filmmaker?
No. Americans always love that, but I don't think all the German filmmakers have to make a movie about Nazis. I mean, it is our history, we can ever forget it, but I was only fascinated by Nowhere in Africa because it took place in Kenya and had a family displaced. I wouldn't have made that movie if it was this typical brown uniform Germany Nazi story. I wanted to make it because I was interested in how does it feel as a lawyer or a judge to run a farm in Kenya. I think these kind of conflicts are very strong for cinema.
You won an Oscar for this movie. Where you dreaming to win it since a very long time ago?
No. I never dreamed of making movies in Hollywood.
So you didn’t think about moving to the United States after earning the award?
Well, maybe I thought about it once I won the award, but the think is I had the Oscar and my baby in the same year. I actually was offered a movie in America; a big movie based on a Somerset Maughan book which was set in the China of the thirties with great actors [she is talking about the remake of The Painted Veil, film that finally directed John Curran in 2006 starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts]. The problem was I would have to go to China for half a year and I couldn't do that with the baby. I would do a movie in America if I really had the feeling that is a great story, with wonderful actors that I would like to get to know, but if it's just an average screenplay I don't have to do it in America, just to shoot it in America. Shooting there is not a big dream for me.
You were the second woman to earn an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film [the first one was Marleen Gorris on 1995]. After you we find Susanne Bier and Kathryn Bigelow, who won Best Director for The Hurt Locker. Do you think that the distance between the figure of the male director and the female director is getting shorter?
No, it's still a problem and I don't really know yet why. I cannot say from my point of view that men like to step me for making films. I don't think that my male colleagues or the money people are the problem in Germany. In America it might be different. I hear that studio bosses don't really believe so much of female directors. But ours is a very, very tough job and you have to work in continuity and not make one nice movie and then it's done. Every time I want to make a new movie I have to fight again. And sometimes women have, unfortunately, the tendency to give up too early, especially when they have children. Even for me who started successfully and won an Oscar, still is difficult to create this continuity of moviemaking. And I have the feeling that women tend to doubt that they are good enough, they tend to be too shy to insist. They don’t say: “I can do, it give me money”, like the guys, who step forward and say: “Give me money, it's the best movie”. And women are sometimes too humble.
In fact, you have a very strong leader in Germany, in the eyes of the rest of the world: Angela Merkel.
Oh, yes... [Laugh] But still you have a lot of racism in America despite having a black President, you know? But, yes, fortunately we have these exceptions...
Do you feel that in Europe, European Cinema is losing the battle against the American films?
Well, it will never be able to win against the American film industry, but one good thing is that it's possible to make movies today for very little money. Young filmmakers can shoot 90-minute feature films with their photo camera. And if you are willing to explore new technologies, nobody can stop you from telling stories, if these are good. They can be moving, or entertaining, or artistic, but they'll find their audiences. Maybe being able to make movies with less money it's a good thing.
Do you know which will your next project be?
I'm writing, but it's not so much... I can't talk about it yet. It's not finished.
You tend to spend between four and five years to make a film. Is this the time you need to have the story mature?
Well, it takes a while to get a film made and I have to combine this job with being a mother, so it's good for me to be at home, sometimes... [Laugh] My husband is a filmmaker too and he works very much, so we can't be gone the two of us.