Get tickets to see Family Instinct, playing at the Old American Can Factory in Park Slope TOMORROW!

Tomorrow’s Rooftop show is the New York Premiere of Family Instinct, which our Program Director Dan Nuxoll describes as: “one part Borat, two parts Eastern Bloc Gothic, and three parts documentary tragicomedy.” He continues, “if you don’t feel a little uncomfortable watching this film, there is something dead inside of you. And yet Family Instinct remains undeniably engaging throughout, making for an unforgettable and surprisingly entertaining movie-watching experience.” We talked to Latvian filmmaker Andris Gauja about making “the most insane documentary” you will ever see.

Rooftop Films: Describe the film for someone who hasn’t seen it.

Andris Gauja: At the first glance, it may look like a film about social issues – incest, alcoholism and poverty. But it is actually not about that. To me, it’s just a setting for a more general, more universal theme, it’s about a paradox that refers to everybody – our being trapped in our small ‘social circle’, a ‘bubble’ that we live our lives in, and we would probably want to change our lives, fulfill our dreams, but it’s so hard to get out of our micro society we’re so used to be in. At the same time, I do not believe that the most part of audience will catch this message, most of people will probably watch this as ‘one of the most insane documentaries’ they have seen. But if the viewer is capable of identifying with the characters at least a little bit, I will be happy about it.

RF: What made you want to make this film?

AG: Some years ago, I had no money, and one of the Latvian television channels asked me to make some TV documentaries. I suggested some topics to them, and Zanda’s incest family was one of them. So, I was supposed to make a cheap TV documentary, based on interviews and cut-away shots – a retrospective feature story about how the whole thing happened. When I finished the rough cut of it, I somehow gave the DVD of it, by mistake, to a film director Juris Poskus. He said that the story was worth much more than just to be aired at our TV channel. So, I started to work on in as a creative documentary. Was it my destiny that made me to mess up those DVD’s? (Andris smiles.)

RF: Explain the process you went through in finding Zanda and her family? How difficult was it to gain access into such an isolated community?

AG: I think that sometimes it can be much easier to get the access to people who feel like being isolated and lonely – because they lack communication with the ‘normal society’ and they lack acceptance. I just went to Valdis and Zanda, without a camera, and said to them that I am REALLY interested in everything that’s going on with their lives and I was honest about it. But the difficult part of the story was – understanding them, as their lives are probably bit more chaotic than ‘ours’. But as my background is screenwriting (that’s what I studied), I tried to structure this chaos as much as possible. This is the main reason why the film probably, to some extent, looks like a narrative film. My brain is really damaged with all those structural rules. But probably it helps to make a film.

RF: How would you describe the film’s main character, Zanda? Do you see her as representing Latvian women in general?

AG: I can see that a lot of your questions are like – is life in Latvia really like this? (Andris smiles again.) No. Zanda’s case is a special one, and a similar story could probably happen in US as well (probably not in Manhattan, but you always have places that are a bit ‘out of control’. But, again, to me it wasn’t like a sensation, I would say that I am just really interested in situations that cannot be solved. It’s not Zanda’ s fault that she was born as one of 10 children in drunkards’ family. It also wasn’t her fault that she, just like Valdis and all the other children, was separated from her family. That was the stupid and cruel social policy during Soviet times. Actually, this incest, in my opinion, happened exactly because they were separated, send to different orphanages (boarding schools), and weren’t brought up together. Zanda and Valdis met as they were sexually adult, and their being siblings was just a fact, with no emotional meaning to them. From that point of view, Zanda’s case is exceptional. But I tried to focus the story on her ‘mission impossible’ to run away from the society that surrounds her and her both children. I think, lots and lots and lots of people do actually have the same ‘impossible choice’.

RF: The film contains a number of shocking aspects yet seems to imbue them with a sense of surrealism. Was this done so as to distance yourself and the film from its subject matter? Were you at all reticent about exploring any of the subjects which come up?

AG: Many of us have read or have been practicing meditation. There are different types of meditation, but generally it means to spend a certain time, concentrating your mind, and having BOTH distance (clarity) and hearing/seeing/being aware of everything what is going on around you. To me, that seems to be a very important paradox. Actually, that’s because of the right distance between you and the world that surrounds you. You are both static/silent AND really compassionate about others right at the same time. Interesting, right? So, that is EXACTLY the mechanism that works in every good movie, in my opinion. The filmmaker (and afterwards the viewer) has to feel both empathy/compassion against the characters, be ‘in’ the story, and at the same time he must have a very stable and deep, calm feeling about what’s going on, he has to keep the right distance just to understand what’s going on. It’s just like reading a book. You have to find the right distance between your eyes and the book, the story, to read it. And you have to sit down and read peacefully to be able to ‘run’ together with the characters inside the book. But now, I think, I am talking too much!

RF: One of the most startling elements which your film exposes is the extreme poverty which exists in the Latvian countryside. Do you think your film offers an accurate portrait of life in Latvia?

AG: Every country has people that don’t fit into the society. A similar story, with just a bit different ‘setting’ could happen even in the most wealthy countries. But for Latvia poverty is quite a huge problem, especially in some rural areas like the one shown in my movie. The village that we see in my film was established around a collective farm. During Soviet times, we had this collective farm system, and once the whole system collapsed, people in such villages lost their economical basis, they lost their job, lots of them started to drink, became violent etc. etc. So, yes, my film reveals some of the consequences of the Soviet system. But, generally, Latvia is not a the most disastrous place on Earth at all – we are part of the European Union and in downtown Riga you will see a lot of wealthy people driving expensive cars (Andris laughs.) Actually, you should just come to Latvia and see it. For example, I personally would like to stay in Latvia, I am ready to travel and work on my films abroad, but I want to be based in Latvia, I love my country a lot. Even if lots of Latvians hate me for making Family Instinct, because it’s damaging Latvia’s image….

RF: The filmmaking which you use in Family Instinct is intensely striking; the way the film is shot is clearly reminiscent of a certain tradition of Eastern European filmmaking. Yet there are also noticeable allusions to directors such as Lars von Trier and Harmony Korine, particularly in certain scenes which contain tragicomic, grotesque aspects. Did you consciously set out to construct the film in this way or did you find that the characters and subject matter lent themselves to this particular mode of filmmaking?

AG: I love Lars von Trier’s approach. Couldn’t say that I love all of his films but you guessed it right, he is really an example for me. With a few exceptions like Manderlay, every film is a new experiment. This is something I really expect from a filmmaker. Harmony Korine’s Gummo made a strong impact on me, I guess. I love watching powerful films – I mean the power of truth, or probably what Werner Herzog would call the moments of ‘ecstatic truth’. I think the viewer has to get disturbed in a way, has to be seriously challenged, has to feel ‘spontaneous compassion’, can you use such a word in English?

RF: Absolutely! I think that’s a great phrase. The use of high definition is at times seemingly at odds with the gritty subject matter, this along with other aspects of the film seem at times to place its authenticity into question. In making Family Instinct, to what extent did you wish to break with documentary convention? Is the question as to the authenticity of the film ultimately important for its overall impact?

AG: Everybody talks about the ‘blurred line between documentary and narrative film’. I think it’s just a matter of time when the line could actually dissapear. There willbe films in the future that will not let us know what is true and what is false there. There’s a lot of staged, recreated or even fully constructed scenes in Family Instinct, but there’s also a lot of totally real scenes. And everything that’s staged there, is based on true events. So, I wouldn’t promote this film as a “Documentary called Family Instinct”, I would say that’s “A film called Family Instinct”. I just tried to penetrate the viewer with an authentic and almost tragic story that you have to believe in. And I also wish that the viewer, after watching this movie, wants to avoid violence and at least wish to become at least a bit more compassionate. I am in no way teaching people how to live, but I am trying to make them feel a bit of empathy in an ‘invisible’ way.

RF: As a Latvian director do you feel it’s important to expose the reality of life in your country? Would you like to continue to concentrate on this in future projects?

AG: As I said, the poverty, violence in the local village in rural Latvia – to me, that’s just a setting for this film. I am portraying people, trying to learn more about the nature of human being, we see a lot of disturbing emotions in the film – but that’s the point, we are largely ruled by our disturbing emotions, we just don’t notice it. In this film, we see the same disturbing emotions in just a slightly exaggerated way, but we all have some sort of fear, anger, envity and all other sorts of that kind of emotions. And we have to watch at them from a distance to identify them. Hey, I am really talking too much. Let’s just watch the movie! Oh, my next movie – yes, it will be about exactly the same (laughing). But with COMPLETELY different setting. The film will be called Graduation Year and it will be a documentary and narrative fusion, where one storyline will deal with a 32 years old woman, who after the collapse of her family, becomes totally devoted to her teacher work, but, having not resolved her inner conflict, she falls into impossible relationship with one of her students. And the second storyline will be a documentary about a young man, the same age, who, after the collapse of his family, becomes totally devoted to his profession – filmmaking. But, having not resolved his inner conflict, he falls in love with his actress, and, as she is unresponsive, things get complicated. The making of the film becomes more important for the director than the film itself. So, can you guess who is this director? Yes, this is me…

Read our Festival Manager Chantel Elassaad’s impassioned argument for why you and everyone else should see Family Instinct.