Spanish filmmaker Ainara Vera is a wonder woman. There, we got that out of the way. It would appear challenging enough, for someone looking in, to understand how to be a director, coordinating all the various aspects of making a documentary film. But then, to add to that shooting the project, editing it, after having written it, on top of directing and producing it, well, those are feats for a super heroine -- not a mere mortal.
And yet, there is a vulnerability to the way Vera makes films that betrays her inner tenderness, under that armor of strength and structure that is required of her to be a successful filmmaker. That is what makes Polaris a stunning work of cinematic art, and Vera a filmmaker to watch.
Vera's first short documentary Sertres, world premiered at Locarno Film Festival in 2014 was awarded with the Navarre Young Artist award. Her follow up, the sixty minute film See you tomorrow, God Willing! world premiered at IDFA in 2017 and selected in a multitude of festivals including Dok.fest Munchen, Doc NYC, Cartagena de Indias, Punto de Vista International Film Festival or DocsBarcelona among others. She also worked as Assistant Director and editor on Victor Kossakovsky's films Varicella, Aquarela and Gunda -- a six year collaboration that led to her meeting the subject of Polaris.
Polaris is Vera's first feature length documentary, and it is a wonderful mix of impressive images and intimate feelings. At the centre of the film we find the relationship between two sisters of Algerian background, Hayat ("life" in Arabic) and Leila ('night time") who grew up taking care of each other in France -- with no one else there to help them in life. As Leila gives birth to a child, a daughter named Inaya ("solitude"), the duo now faces their responsibility to the next generation, in making sure this little bundle of beauty and joy doesn't face the same destiny as their own. And that her name doesn't end up sealing her fate.
But Polaris isn't just an intimate tale of two sisters and a baby. The backdrop for their story is the cinematic Arctic Sea around Greenland, where Hayat is the captain of a boat, which turns Polaris into a stunning commentary on the environment around us, that delicate place we seem to so easily abuse, but also our own personal need for space and quiet to truly find our inner strength. Between the sisters, a lifeline of communication remains open, even with Leila being in Montpellier, and Hayat on the Northern Sea -- miles apart and a world away. They chat by phone whenever Hayat is in a port town, or somewhere where her mobile phone works.
The result is a roadmap to our collective soul as true human beings, all belonging to one race, the human race. And a film that remains deep in the viewer's heart long after having watched it.
How did you decide to film this story, about two women, sisters but also about the world at large and our ailing environment?
Sometimes you do not choose the films we make but the film chooses you! I met Hayat while working as a first assistant director on Aquarela by Victor Kossakovsky. We made a very challenging sailing trip from Portugal to Greenland. Hayat was the skipper on that trip. One night, while she was night-watching, I decided to accompany her. We chatted all night and she shared something very painful with me: her sister was in jail and she was not emotionally prepared to visit her. How such a strong woman was not capable to do something as easy for me as talking to your own sister? When we arrived in Greenland and said “bye,” I knew that one day I would be accompanying her to France to meet her sister. The rest of the process was a mystery, but I guess the three of us needed to make this film.
What were the biggest challenges of filming this story and what was most satisfying about the experience?
For me, making documentaries has to be a transformative experience. The transformation might be at times painful. In this case, my relationship with Leila and Hayat made me develop as a person and I will always be grateful to them. For a while, we created a sisterhood, we helped each other to become better.
Does your work as an editor help you in telling a story, particularly in a documentary format?
Definitely! When I film I edit and when I edit I film... in my mind. When I start making a film I know the direction of it but don't know how is going to look exactly at the end: I allow myself to improvise, to be open to reality, to change routes... But in order not to be lost, I edit while I film so little by little the film takes shape.
What was your crew like when filming in Greenland?
I have the privilege to work with the Greenlandic DoP Inuk Silis and Mikael Lindskov. They not only contributed with their technical and artistic skills but they brought the Greenlandic view to the project. Working with them made us, the rest of the filmmaking and the sailing crew, respect the place even more! Then Jérémie Halbert was in charge of the direct sound in the Greenlandic part. He is not only a sailor but a very sensitive person, so he had the perfect profile for Polaris. It was a pleasure to work with all of them!
There is a lot of visual poetry in your film, and I read somewhere that you didn’t want the documentary to be a sort of “reality show” — often the trap when filming subjects so unclose. How did you stay true to your dharma?
To me, it was very important not to betray the characters. I was never interested in the daily day struggles but more in Hayat's deep spiritual journey and my goal was to capture that in the film. But the path to achieve is full of dangers! On a practical level, in moments of doubt, I did intense yoga sessions that helped me to be truthful to myself and my purpose.
How was it premiering it in Cannes’ ACID? And what are the plans in the future for the film?
To premiere in Cannes was the best that could have happened to Polaris. Leila and Hayat have felt invisible since they were born by their biological family, by the social system, and by society in general. They also have never felt that they belonged to France because of their Algerian family’s background. Therefore to show the film on one of the most prestigious screens in France was poetic revenge; a beautiful way to make them visible.
What would you like your audience to walk away feeling from the film?
I would like them to have the wish to love more and better.
How would you describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?
I think this poem by Mary Oliver describes my spirit very well:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
Polaris is produced by Point-du-Jour and Les Films du Balibari in France and Greenland’s Ánorâk Film, with The Party Film Sales handling international sales.