I’m interested in exploring the situation where humans and animals are challenged by the unpredictable spirit of nature. I want to tell a story where all protagonists – man, animal, nature – have a strong influence on each other. That‘s why my story is situated on the steppe. Location becomes a metaphor rather than a place. Contrary to how it is often described, I found the steppe not to be a place of ‘big skies’, but an almost claustrophobic environment for those who live there. It is a place of symbiosis, but also of an eternal struggle with nature, which determines human life from the earliest years by forcing people to make choices about their future.
It has always been critical for me to maintain the authenticity and roughness of the story, characters and place. I couldn’t imagine making this film with professional actors. From the very beginning I was looking for and working with non-actor nomads who would convey the story I wanted to tell but also enhance it with their flesh and soul to achieve the realism I was aiming for. Without them and their personal experience, real emotions and moreover their collective memory of the steppe they shared with me, the film wouldn’t happen.
CONVERSATION WITH MARTA MINOROWICZ
How did you first decide to tell this story and how did you approach the subject?
I wanted nature to be ingrained in the film, I wanted it to have a similar equivalence of character as humans. This was my starting point. I then built on this idea, wrapping it into layers of possibilities, until I came across the story of children participating in Naadam, the horse races that take place throughout Mongolia. I had never been to Central Asia but I intuitively knew that this was worth exploring; it was something that could provide my ideas with a proper body.
Nature and wilderness are important elements also of your previous shorts: what is your cinematic approach to that?
In my shorts nature has always taken on the part of the Greek choir, to comment on the character’s emotions or actions. In ZUD I wanted to develop this further, to depict nature as important as the human characters and to show how the magic triangle that exists between humans, animals and nature works. All decisions derive from this initial goal. My cinematic approach to nature is linked to the fact that I consider nature to be a spirit, a divine force that dictates the rules. That’s where the condition of dependence came from – where the family depends on a wild horse for its livelihood. In the wider context the taming of the wild horse is a taming of nature itself. It fully reveals this eternal struggle and misery we as humans find ourselves in when nature says “No”. In this way nature is not just a character but a hyper-character.
I was concerned about how to coherently depict this cinematically. That’s why the location with its vast, unlimited space is actually a paradox: the steppe feels acutely claustrophobic because you can’t escape from it. And most important, the steppe has the kind of harshness that reduces the human experience to bare essence.
A lot of situations depicted in the film are the result of mere observation. I spent a lot of time observing with my director of photography, Paweł Chorzepa. This is now the third film we‘re making together and I know we have the same taste. We understand each other without talking, even in difficult situations. He just knows how to catch the atmosphere of a place and render it through stunning imagery.
How did you choose the protagonists of your film and then work with them?
I collaborated closely with our Mongolian production manager before travelling there. Then we organised a journey through the provinces where we visited primary schools and met with many children. This is how I came to know Sukhbat and his family and Baljaa, Sukhbat’s friend.
At first we were just getting to know each other, getting a feel for one another. We also didn’t have a full time translator with us so we had to communicate using body language. As much as this was a source of frustration, it also provoked humorous situations, which brought us closer with every funny misunderstanding. After this first trip I knew which aspects of reality could serve as the narrative frame of the film and what would need to be rearranged. This process of elimination shows you what you don’t want and what’s not interesting to you as a filmmaker.
When I returned to Poland with more developed ideas and research footage, I was lucky to find producers who made it possible for me to return to Mongolia regularly over the next two years to continue working on the film. At home in Poland I worked on the direction of the film with my writing partner while shaping the script, so that when I returned to my family on the steppe I knew what I wanted. Sometimes it was rearranging scenes that I had previously observed, other times it was provoking new situations. Finally, I asked them to take on the challenge of acting and following the written script. This is how they became my actors. Although even while following the script, they were allowed the freedom to express the meaning of the scene in the way that felt most comfortable and appropriate to them.
ZUD has a naturalistic approach, and there are scenes of great intimacy with the protagonist of your film: how did you reach this closeness?
Well over the few years of my small team going back and forth we managed to build a strong bond of trust and friendship with the actors. Partly this came about naturally since during the shooting we faced their real life troubles with them, for example, when they fell ill or had problems with animals. Such difficult experiences always forms bonds bet- ween people. But regardless of what we did and how we worked – acting, rearranging scenes or just observation – I always tried to stay close to the authentic identity, or even a super-naturalism, of my actors in an effort to remain true to those who experience the steppe every day.
Who are your masters or films that inspired you?
This has always been a problem for me, even during the process of financing the film. I find it difficult to point to sources of inspirations or refer to films and film directors that reflected what I wanted to do. Undoubtedly I take a lot from my documentary film experience stylistically. My master of film is Tarkovsky because he managed to transcend the materiality of film and turn it into something immaterial so that the viewer has a ritualistic, spiritual experience.
How did you first react when you heard the film was selected at the Berlinale in the Generation section?
At first we were all surprised. I always thought that I made a film with children but not for children. The film is dark and brutal, without compromises. However, the film depicts a key moment in the life of an 11-year old and I do understand that this is something younger audiences can relate to.
This film is the child of three countries: Germany and Poland as production countries and for cinematographic tradition as well as Mongolia for the story, the location and the spirit. So I am quite happy to discover that this mix of roots has given life to a film which can reach a mix of audiences, both older and younger.