When “Red Trees” opens this Friday at the Quad Cinema in New York, among other theaters in the country, viewers will become well-acquainted with Marina Willer’s work – as immediately as the lobby. A graphic designer whose work was commissioned by Charles Cohen to help bring renewed vitality to the theater as part of its restoration earlier this year, Willer has an exacting eye and a gift for reconfiguration of imagery we’ve seen before, which leaves no wonder why her feature debut “Red Trees” feels so arresting and so different. (And it was thanks to a nudge from Cohen that Willer, who launched the project as a short on Kickstarter, turned it into a feature.) Returning to the sites where her father Alfred found refuge after fleeing Europe to escape the Holocaust, Willer retraces the footsteps of her own family to imagine the journey for so many political refugees that have been dislocated in recent years.
Filmed evocatively in part by “City of God” cinematographer César Charlone, the film traverses through Prague and Brazil, with Willer creating a parallel between her father’s memories of the places he once lived and how they exist now, some ominous, some vividly summoning the triumph or tragedy that took place there. While the past and present commingle to create new meaning both for Willer and the audience, the filmmaker also learns what she’s consciously and unconsciously inherited from her family, whether it be her grandfather who, as one of the chemists behind the invention of citric acid, contributed to keeping them safe, or her father who later became an architect in Brazil, applying the wits he used to survive to envisioning the creation of unique spaces. Shortly before the film hits theaters, Willer took the time to answer a few questions via e-mail about “Red Trees” and the unconventional approach she took to recount her family’s personal history and speak to contemporary times.
Why was this the right time for you to tell this story?
The world is in turmoil with refugee crisis and xenophobia is growing. My father is getting older and is much more fragile. Suddenly, I felt there was an urgency for me personally to look at the past and learn from it to understand the future and also to reconnect with my father.
Did the notion of telling this story through places come immediately?
I have always been interested in many artists that looked at empty spaces and how those contained the stories that happened there. I also love Iranian cinema, which is very contemplative and finds beauty and poetry in simple, pure imagery that allows you to listen and think, not to be manipulated by special effects. For example, when you go to a synagogue in Prague, which is as pure a tribute to all lives of the Jews who were killed in that region during the war, that space is telling you a story. It’s very sad, but that tribute is really beautifully done.
What was the collaboration like with your cinematographer Cesar Charlone and what was it about his work that made you think he’d be right for this?
We are friends and I had worked with Cesar in commercial work before, and he had told me he wanted to make a film with me. He is very talented and also as a Latin American, he cares about injustice. He improvises and creates beauty with very little, like projecting light from a mobile phone on a puddle of water on the road under the rain. I also had a very dear friend, Jonathan Clabburn, doing a significant part of the cinematography. He collaborates with me a lot and we work together really well. He enjoys the minimalist approach, so he was happy that I got so involved with photography, which is a passion for me.
[Since] I am also a designer, I love making images, and for this film, the imagery had to create a lot of space for the audience to listen to the narrative, like reading a book on the screen. I wanted to make a slightly different format of film, like when you listen to the radio and imagine the story. As we are talking about such dramatic, tough moments of history and the loss of so many lives, I wanted it to make a very delicate tribute, not exaggerating with imagery or any clichés as the content is already charged, keeping it visually evocative, leaving space for imagination, silence.
It’s curious since you film your father that you have Tim Pigott-Smith give voice to the recollection of his memories. Why separate the two?
It was a difficult decision as I love the authenticity of my father’s voice, his accent, his age, but I think people would really fall asleep if my father had done it all. [laughs] He has Parkinson’s and directing and recording him was a long process that was difficult for him. I also thought that Tim Pigott- Smith would bring gravitas and dignity to that character who represents not only my father but the entire generation. So many of them have had their lives taken away. Tim was a wonderful man, with so much integrity, and that was why we also chose him. It was so devastating that just before we finished the film he passed away, making this his last film. He never got to watch the film, and he so much loved the story and what he got to see of it, he would always cry when he came to record.
Did your family keep a lot of the sketches and other documentation you see throughout the film or did this require a fair amount of digging?
Yes, we were lucky that my father brought with him many of those, including the formula for the citric acid!
What was it like to premiere in Cannes, and additionally, now to have this as a time capsule for yourself, having your family committed to film now in this way?
Cannes was beautiful. I felt small, of course, amongst all the masters and the subject of the film is very present. I’m really happy with all the screenings we have done so far. But I never actually thought of Red Trees as a film for my family, as wonderful as it is. That would be too self-indulgent. It’s great, of course, for my children, or how much I connected with my father and brother. But I really hope it can reach as many people as possible as my humble contribution towards a world less intolerant.
“Red Trees” opens on September 15th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and in New York at the Quad Cinema.