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The Birthday received a 4 star award at BIAFF 2008.
An old lady is alone in her house and she doesn't want to open the door for anybody. It is a birthday and she is preparing the feast.
My latest film NAROZENINY (The Birthday) was born out of frustration. The previous one was very elaborate - the script called for more than 50 scenes in some 40 locations, spread over nearly 4 months of shooting, actors having to travel from north and south of the Netherlands which meant very complicated planning. The editing ended in the seventh version. Now, the next one had to be very simple. One actress in one location. But - as I suspected a long time ago - there is no such thing as a simple film.
I have some very old friends in Prague from when I lived there before my
emigration to the Netherlands after the Soviet invasion in 1968. Nina
Divíková has been a prominent actress and she is experiencing
the second peak of her career. She plays in several Prague theatres and appears
in Czech feature films. Her husband Jan Kacer is a well-known theatrical
director and actor. He used to be a film heartthrob in the sixties. I didn't
see them for 15 years during which time I could not travel to Prague, as
I was a refugee from the communist regime there and only in recent years
can I visit them now and then during my trips to Prague.
|Nina let me rearrange the furniture in her house according to our wishes. She patiently cooperated between all her commitments, which were obvious from frequent phone calls from colleagues and directors. I felt compelled to ask her: "Why are you doing this?" Her answer: "Because of our old friendship." That is something to be cherished.
I always find that I need a partner with whom to discuss a new film idea. A sounding board for ideas. My film friend André is extremely busy with his own work, but this time he found some time for me.
Last year I had some health problems and was obliged to take some potent pills, which tended to shorten my sleep at night. I would wake up at three not being able to help thinking about the problems of this world as well as my private ones. In these waking hours during which ghosts roam I came upon the idea for the ending of the film. I promptly sent an e-mail to André with the subject: "Film Pills". When he hadn't reacted about a week later, I gave him a call and asked him what he thought about the idea. He didn't know what I was talking about. Predictably, he didn't read my mail and deposited it straight in the recycle bin with all the other offers of Viagra and other pills.
Eventually we did get together and after some exchange of ideas I managed to write a script which interested André enough for him to be willing to participate in the shooting of this simple idea.
I have tried to show a lonely old lady who is unable to come to terms with the loss of her husband. She will eventually break out of her enclosed world inspired by the new generation. This offered an opportunity to make a very visual film, without dialogue.
|The script of my film was written with Nina in mind, but I was determined to make it with somebody else if she were unavailable. We asked Nina if she knew a suitable young boy for the role of the little teaser who knocks at her door each time he passes her house. Her grandson appeared to be very suitable for the role. He brought two of his friends along with him and our cast was complete. Add to it Nina's husband, who played himself in what surely was the smallest role of his career and one of her daughters who appears at the door as a neighbour and we really made a family film.
The first problem was finding a suitable time in Nina's very busy schedule
when the three of us, film makers from Holland, could be in Prague. As it
turned out André was unable to join me on this trip and Jan Houtman
took his place, then there was Emile de Gruijter and myself. My brother lives
in Prague and was able to offer us accommodation at his home as well as some
assistance on the location.
|The location was Nina's house. Just before the shooting they had the old wooden steps to their front entrance torn down and replaced by concrete ones. When we were filming it still didn't have a completed railing and we had to be careful not to tumble down with our tripod and camera from the top end of it. Most of the action takes place in Nina's and Jan's living room. We had to reposition the furniture so that I worried that Jan would not recognize his room when he came home late at night.
During the shooting several events threatened the successful completion of
the movie. The children had to take part in a class outing by bus from their
school and we had only one day with them. They had to be driven to their
destination a day later. Jan Kacer had a disturbing health problem and had
to visit a doctor, Nina's daughter had a planned operation, her husband's
car, which we used to transport our equipment, broke down, and my brother's
daughter gave birth to her second child.
|We spent four days filming. The logistics worked out so that we left our film equipment on the location and parked our car near my brother's house, where we were accommodated, at the other end of the city. We traveled across Prague by tram every day to Nina's house. I would have liked to have had more time and perhaps an extra person to watch over the continuity. But that would have made the room a bit overcrowded. I prepared candles in different lengths so that they would show the passing of time.
|We tried to light Nina in contrasting light. For the night scene we had to cover the windows with sheets of black plastic because there wasn't enough time to film during actual darkness.
We ended with 28 minutes of usable material and produced 7 edited versions, each shorter than the previous one. The final version is 15 minutes long. The film is about waiting. The delicate problem is to express this without making the audience impatient. The whole idea is borne by our actress whom we left to improvise a few sequences. The pace of the film is important and I feel it is right. In the final version we decided to stay with Nina indoors to amplify her isolation from the world outside and not to use the shots of the visiting people outside the house. We are outside the house only when the little boys come calling.
I asked a friendly Russian lady in Amsterdam Marynka Nicolaï, who acted in two of my previous films to compose a few themes especially for the film. Marynka is a very busy musician and composer and waiting for her availability took some time, but in the end she very kindly and successfully obliged and together with her friends made a music track with a piano, cello and flute.
I am never quite satisfied with my end results. This film may not be quite understood by some viewers, they may feel it is too slow. However, I feel it conveys the feeling which I was trying to express.
Vladimir Murtin, May 2008