Women On Film – Global Lens Filmmaker Teresa Prata – Jenny Halper interviews

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Filmmaker Teresa Prata discovered Mia Couto’s “Sleepwalking Land” on a library shelf in Berlin. Prata, just beginning her film studies, was a newcomer to Germany and to cinema.

“You could say I didn’t find the book, the book found me,” says Prata, indicating that Couto’s novel about wartime friendship was an immediate, stay-up-all-night reminder of her own childhood in civil war-torn Mozambique.

Some eight years after “Sleepwalking Land” found Prata, the film version – which she wrote, directed, and cast largely with first-time actors – has been acclaimed in 24 festivals worldwide. This month, it opens Global Film Initiative’s 2009 Global Lens series at New York’s MoMA.

A magical and emotionally tough film, “Sleepwalking Land,” is set against the background of Mozambique’s Civil War (1975-1992), and traces the development of two relationships–one between a young boy and the old man who rescues him from near-death, and another between a young man and a mother who’s been separated from her son.

Prata and her movie describe Mozambique’s civil war as a “ghost war,” one lacking leaders but rife with innocent victims–those who don’t carry guns, particularly women and children, suffer most.

But the filmmaker is quick to point out that despite the film’s stark nature, her adaptation of the novel takes a hopeful approach. In her screenplay, the boy may find his mother, a drought is ended by a magically appearing river, and the novel’s roughest images (including a major character’s setting herself on fire) were excluded.

JENNY HALPER: As a woman director, are you particularly interested stories that reveal the horrors faced by innocents caught in the crossfire of war?

TERESA PRATA: It doesn’t have to do with whether I’m a woman or a man. The subject I shoot, I shoot because I’m a person. I’m a filmmaker; I’m not a woman filmmaker. I’m interested in the story because of the story.

HALPER: The film strikes a wonderful balance between magical realism and realism. Was that something you found in the novel when you read it?

PRATA: The novel has elements of magic realism–some I push up and some I leave out. This is part the process of adapting a book for film. In the novel the two stories never come together. But, in a film, if you open a second storyline, you need to connect it with the first. Then I had the idea to build the river–this doesn’t exist in the novel. I remember how happy I was when I was in my kitchen writing and I had the idea of the river, and then built a story with other elements of the sea, too.

HALPER: Your own story has a rich mix of elements. You’re Portuguese by birth, were raised in Mozambique and Brazil and now live in Berlin. It’s understandable that Cuoto’s magical multi-plot novel struck you and stuck with you…

PRATA: Since ’95, my first winter in Berlin. I couldn’t speak German and I found that library with some Spanish books. I wrote the writer a letter saying how much I liked the book, and when I was in my last year in university, I asked my school for an option on the book. The book is marvelously well written. It opened my heart. But my screenplay diverges from the book–for instance, I wanted the film to start very harshly and move slowly towards magical realism. And I made this choice because the book is from the beginning already in a magical realism way of writing. I wanted to begin with hard war stuff and go slowly, slowly, slowly into the poetical world, and I did this with making the dialogue very harsh at the beginning, then more poetic. And also with the music.

HALPER: Does the relationship between the boy and old man have a similar arc?

PRATA: For me, what the old guy learned from the boy is to dream again, and the boy learned from him…everything. He’s not a father, he’s an angel. When he realizes the little boy can already survive on his own, the old guy dies. Of course, I wrote the script so he dies from malaria, but for me it’s when he realizes he already taught the boy how to survive: how to bury somebody, how to be with a woman–and all the things that make someone grow up.

HALPER: It seemed as though the old man worried that the boy was too kind – that having too big a heart could be dangerous, during war. Did you see it that way?

PRATA: No. He makes the kid grow up in all aspects. He’s a completely philosophical human being. The whole dialogue is very like Plato’s way of teaching philosophy. Plato used to walk with his students, have dialogues with students to teach them things. All of the work of Plato is a dialogue.

HALPER: The scene in which the man teaches the boy to masturbate could surprise, maybe shock, American audiences….

PRATA: This scene is very representative of Mozambican culture. When you see a movie that is not your culture, you need to see that it has aspects of a culture that you don’t know. In Mozambique–until today–there are initiation rites. All parents send their kids when they are twelve, thirteen, to be initiated by old men or old women.

HALPER: Were you initiated when you were that age?

PRATA: No, because my parents taught me like a European women. But my actress, she has a boy of fourteen, and she sent him for initiation. This is normal. In Europe, parents tell kids to use a condom. In Africa, we have more than that–the old person explains everything clearly. They are isolated for one week, just girls with old women who have experience. It’s the way of teaching. This is not masturbation scene, it’s an initiation scene. The old guy teaches the boy how to survive and how to be a man.

HALPER: When did you leave Mozambique?

PRATA: When I was seven and a half. While I was writing the script, because the main actor is a kid, I remembered a lot of small things from when I was the kid’s age. For instance, while I was in Berlin, I realized that when helicopters fly down on first of May, it disturbed me (because) when I was in Mozambique during the war, there were a lot of helicopters coming down.

HALPER: Was that a memory you didn’t know you had?

PRATA: Yes, memories came because of my story, because when I was writing I put myself in the place of the small kid. We left because of the war, my whole family. I remembered a lot of things, I remember each time I went with my father to work, a guy asked if we had weapons. This helped me to understand my main character when I was writing.

HALPER: Nick Lauro Teresa, who plays the little boy, is wonderful….

PRATA: I found him two days before shooting. He saw an announcement in the newspaper. It was a kind of miracle because although he was ten years old he could act and understand like an old guy.

HALPER: Were there any films that influenced you before or during filming?

PRATA: When I had doubts about the project, the film that helped me during those seven years before shooting was “Go and See” by Elim Klimov. Because it’s a film about war, and because of the personal story of the director – it took him ten years to make it. When I had doubts that I could make my own movie, I watched parts of his movie and it helped me to go on.

HALPER: “Sleepwalking Land” gives audiences a glimpse of Mozambican culture. Do you think it’s also universal?

PRATA: The boy is looking for his parents. The background is war, and that is how they come together. In the beginning they are not and comfortable with each other, but in the end they are. Yes, it’s all universal.

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Jenny Halper

Jenny Halper is the film editor of Spare Change News, a Cambridge bi-monthly dedicated to empowering the homeless. She's written for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Now, NewEnglandFilm.com, amNewYork, Beliefnet, Cinema Confidential, Park Slope Reader, and Knit Simple Magazine, among others, and has served as a film critic/entertainment reporter for Track Entertainment and ClickFlicks.net. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Smokelong Quarterly and New England Fiction Meeting House, and has been a finalist for prizes from Glimmer Train and the Sonora Review. A graduate of Northwestern University, she is currently earning an MFA at Emerson College.