"Between documentary & fiction": Karim Aïnouz talks about 'Mariner of the Mountains' in Cannes

When Brazilian-Algerian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz embarked on his first journey to Algeria to discover his paternal roots, he took his camera with him. The resulting film, a Special Screening at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is sheer perfection. We interviewed Aïnouz about it, as well as his upcoming first English language project.
"Between documentary & fiction": Karim Aïnouz talks about 'Mariner of the Mountains' in Cannes

It was not even twenty minutes into Mariner of the Mountains when I realized that although filmmaker Karim Aïnouz might have set out to make a film about his personal family story, he actually managed to create the perfect documentary about the history of humanity. Told in first person, spoken in his soothing Portuguese voiceover and while writing an imaginary letter to his late mother Iracema, Aïnouz takes us on the journey of a lifetime -- and ruined for me every other film I've watched since Mariner of the Mountain.

Born of a Brazilian mother and an Algerian father named Majid, Aïnouz doesn't shy away from disclosing the ins and outs of the challenging voyage that has taken him from Fortaleza to New York City, back to Brazil and finally to Algiers -- but also the personal path which has made him a world class filmmaker, with awards and accolades to show for it. In Mariner of the Mountains he opens up, raw and totally exposed as a vessel for his storytelling. In the end, through his film, we come to understand the meaning of "Calentura" (literally a kind of fever which drives sailors crazy when coming into tropical climates) in our own lives, but also finally come to term with the mirages that create roadblocks to our successes and the family choices around us which are part of our emotional DNA.

From his arrival in Algiers, to Aïnouz's journey into the mountains of his father's tribe, the Kabyle people, we the audience feel like we are let into a very special secret, allowed to travel on a voyage that answers questions about the filmmaker's life, and begs us to ask more about our own. The central query is one that addresses those circumstances beyond our control which end up forging who we are. Such as Majid Aïnouz's decision to return to Algeria to support the Revolution, abandoning his young family and thus altering forever the lives of Iracema and her son Karim. Would a Karim who had grown up in America or Algeria be different from the Karim who grew up in Brazil? By the end of Mariner of the Mountains, if we watch carefully and listen to all the clues Aïnouz sprinkles masterly throughout every frame of his beautiful film, we could even find the answer to our own paths, and lives.

I caught up with the filmmaker while he was in Cannes and the resulting interview is one I cherish, as a journalist but also as a fellow human being. Aïnouz is kind, generous and the perfect blend of the heritages and choices that have made him who he is.

Do you think that your film is political?

Yes, and I think that all my films are in a way and I think this one is particularly political because it's really interested in sort of the history of colonialism. For me, it’s not only that the film is political, but I feel that I learned a lot politically during the film, about things I was not aware of.

It's so funny, I was having lunch with a friend of mine who is also Algerian but lives in France. And we were talking about how much we were prevented of the knowledge. So for example we talked about Frantz Fanon. And I know his work and I had read a bit but diving into it was something else. I think this film also allowed me to be more educated politically and I think it somehow is in the movie as well, you know. Because ultimately I think that the film is about how colonialism, or post colonial Algeria shaped my life, so I think it is certainly political.

Why did you make this film when you made it? The idea must have been with you for quite a while, but what was the moment when Karim said, "I need to make this film now."

I think the first question was, I need to make this trip now — before making the film. And then the idea of, can I make a film out of this trip, you know, is this trip worth making a film about? The idea before the film was the idea of the trip and I really always wanted to go there. So those two thoughts — and this was always something that was on my mind but I never really felt comfortable going there without my mother. And there was a moment when she really wanted to go when I was a child but we couldn't afford it. And then, when I became an adult that coincided with the Civil War that was happening in the 1990s in Algeria… And then, you know, time passed and she couldn't go anymore. And I don't think she wanted to go anymore. So, the moment I decided to take the trip and therefore make it into a film was after she passed away, which was in 2015. Because I felt if I did it when she was around, it would not make her happy.

As I told you, I think the big question about this film, and it’s funny you're talking about political, because the question was always, is this worth becoming more than a travel diary that I will keep to myself and I think that's when it became political.

What I was actually looking for when I was traveling there was to know the story of the Revolution, to know the history of the Revolution — to experience this country that has been through this incredible movement. I think the political mess of it was really the DNA, you know, of the decision to make it into a film, to make that diary into something that was not something private but something that I could share with others.

What makes the film such a touching watch is the fact that you start from this very personal diary and you're writing a letter to your mom, while you're traveling. So is she with you on this journey?

She is and you know it was a funny thing because it wasn't like that when I started to do the journey and I started to travel. It was more so my observations about this place but as I was editing, it became very clear that this was something that I wanted to tell her. And even if she's not around anymore, at least for me, it was very important that I could share this with her even though it was something fictional, in that sense.

Were you alone on this journey or did you have a DoP with you?

That's a “dispositif” (a “device”) and basically it's an artifice that I used. There was a DoP with me, there was a sound person working two days with me, not for the whole shoot. There was also a fixer, there was a driver, for example, so this film was also a bit of a sell fiction, you know, because not everything that's there was manufactured the way it seems it was manufactured.

There was one image for me that was very important to register which was the arrival in Algiers, because it's an image I dreamt about my whole life.

But the film, I prefer to call it something in the crossroads between documentary and fiction because it is fiction as well. Like some of the sounds we hear that’s a sound we designed after the editing. So there are a lot of fictional elements.

I think this was there from the beginning, this feeling. There was a man on a voyage and how that voyage was actually captured a lot of it was by me and by my camera and by my cell phone and by my sort of photo camera. But let’s say I was there for six weeks, seven weeks and I was accompanied by a DoP for two weeks. So it's a mix between what I shot and then what he shot when he came. There was not a proper crew as we would say, but there was a documentary crew — you know there was a driver and there was a fixer. And the thing too that is very important to remember is that it's impossible to make a movie in Algeria without a lot of bureaucracy. I needed to get permission at every moment, every time I stepped out of the car. So there was a structure around it, that was very present, but it was not present on the screen. What I was telling you before like there were moments that it was quite visceral, the way that I looked at the city, the way I discovered the city. So there's a lot of that, my sensation expressed through the way that I held the camera — what I was looking at and what I was listening to. I would say it was more like 70% I did, and then 30% was done by the DoP, who was very important in the grading of the film. This film is very painterly and there's a lot of colour in there so a lot of the time we spent together was about finding a proper tone for the film visually.

When did Walter Salles come on as a producer?

So Walter is a very old friend. When I made my first film, which was 20 years ago and it was a film that actually started eight years before that, Madame Satã, Walter was a producer on the film. I actually spent seven years trying to finance that film and it was impossible. Then he came on, and he helped me produce it. And then we did a second movie together with his company which was my second feature [Love for Sale]. And then when I started to think of this story, this film has somewhat the sort of DNA of a first film as well. For me, there is a sense of first arrival, of discovery. And I thought of him and we work closely together in development of other projects at his company and other projects of mine, so he seemed like a natural partner. Because he was the partner that actually brought me to film production in a way, so it was a very natural exchange. And he just seemed a beautiful, affectionate companion for this journey. So he's been there since the beginning.

Karim Aïnouz, fourth from left, surrounded by the film's delegation in Cannes

What do you feel is the side of you that is most Brazilian and what is the side of you that is most Algerian?

You know Algeria is a little bit like a biological country I would say, as much as we can talk about the biological father, you know. I didn't grow up with it, I am where my memories are -- so I am very Brazilian. My memories of growing up were in Brazil. I also lived in New York for many years of my life so I have New York also as a sort of motherland, but not really, as I moved there when I was 20. The country is fascinating but what for me was the biggest and the strongest sensation of doing this film was the Algerians and the people I met there. You know there was a real sense of recognition, which is very uncanny. Do I belong here? I don't but you know, at the same time I feel like I'm part of it, and I think I’m part of it, not only because of biology but coming from a country like Brazil, there's a real sense of Third World-ness, which is a concept that was very much coming about at the time of colonial struggles, in post colonial moments. So I think there is a sense of a shared history. More a sense of lived shared history than a sense of a biological shared history.

So, I think I'm learning to be Algerian, more than I’m feeling Algerian. It’s been a discovery, and I think a sense of recognition, that you actually belong to a bigger family and that family is a family you didn't know before. But I think what was really beautiful was the discovery of these people that really remind me of the people I grew up with in Brazil. So there was a sense of familiarity, which I think is a sense of our shared history.There was a sense of solidarity that I think was something that was very strong when I was there, but I really felt engaged with the people.

When you go through immigration in Algeria, you say that for the first time in your life when you told the officer your name, you didn't have to spell it. That was a very special moment in the film, of belonging, of finally exhaling in a place that recognises you…

There is one question I didn’t ask in the film that I should have asked which is if my name had not been this name, if I had not been given this name, I think my relationship to Algeria would have been very, very different.

Because I could have simply somehow erased it, you know. I think that there's something about the fact that my father chose my name, and that name in the country I was born and raised was a name that really stuck out — it was a name that people couldn't really pronounce. So I think there was a sense of, and I think the movie does as well, the sense of not having to explain why I was assigned that name. It was a real feeling of not relief, but of understanding why that choice was made and what was the context of that choice that was made. I've never met anybody who has not asked me "so your name is Karim? Where are you from?" And I say Brazil, and they ask why is that, and then I have to explain. And it's a story that's hard to explain because it’s very Romanesque. And then people constantly ask me "why don't you speak Arabic?" So, to answer those questions I would say, I have to tell you the story of my life.

But I was telling the story of my life without knowing really what that history was. And now I think I can say that and own that history. Which is a really incredible feeling.

The last question is about your next project Firebrand --are you excited to do something in English?

I’m very excited, it’s a totally new adventure to do something in English. To make a portrait of that character, and to do something so far away, removed in time, which is the 1500's. It's a bit as if I was doing something in the year 2100 you know -- it's a bit, I don’t know if the word is Sci-Fi but there's an element of Sci-Fi in this project. There's a tradition in England of people actually rewriting British history, of working on British history, being a foreigner. I mean, think of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility or Baz Luhrmann.... And I'm actually very excited to be able to use the tools of representing this period, and what I'm really excited about is making a portrait of this character. She was introduced to me by a British producer and she really tapped into something I've always wanted to do, ever since watching Tess for the first time, you know, or Wuthering Heights.

I thought oh my god, I would love to do something in that environment because especially Henry VIII, it is part of our mythology in the West. So for me it was also the possibility of adapting a classic myth, and to own it in a way that for me was something new.

I think the central question is my love for Katherine [Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII] as a character and how she somehow reminds me of women that I really admire. And I think that the key point -- I know it sounds a bit intellectual or a bit theoretical -- is the fact that she is the one who forged Elizabeth I. And there's something about women in education, in forging it... I just talked about legacy, I think the legacy of Katherine was a very generous legacy. It was not about her becoming the queen but sharing and educating the children around her and Elizabeth was one of them. So I think this is really exciting.

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