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Sundance 2017 Interview: “My Happy Family”

“If you feel bad, call a doctor. Not your relatives.”

These are the wisdom-filled words of Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), the calm but strong-willed protagonist at the heart of “My Happy Family,” a superb, feminist dramedy co-directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross (the duo shortly goes with “Nana & Simon”). A contemporary woman in her 50s living in Tbilisi, Georgia, the long-time married teacher has always led a traditionally Georgian life: in an apartment with her husband, parents, children and their spouses, where she is often an afterthought, even on her own birthday. Her household is filled with chaos, her daily mundane tasks are interrupted by frequent arguments and the dinner table conversations seem no different. But one day, she quietly and matter-of-factly announces to her hectic, visibly shocked family circle that she has rented a small apartment and will be leaving to live on her own.

With “My Happy Family,” programmed as part of this year’s World Dramatic Competition at Sundance, Nana (the sole screenwriter) and Simon put forth a multi-layered character study, centered on a complex female. Through long takes, rich dialogues and exquisitely managed indoor traffic that brings the films of Asghar Farhadi to mind, the film is first and foremost a playfully sharp critique of patriarchy in Georgian society, and the camaraderie of generations of women that battle against it. In that, it very much shares the themes of the duo’s previous film “In Bloom” that also traces familial relationships and female bonding, but from the point of view of a younger generation and with the backdrop of the 90s.

Below is an interview we conducted with the filmmakers in light of the Sundance premiere of “My Happy Family."

Congratulations on making it to Sundance with “My Happy Family."

Simon: Thanks. It's a big step, because the life of the film actually starts in Sundance. We don't know what will happen. I mean, you never know after such a long time of working and so many difficulties. You have your ideas on what the story is and how it should be received, and in the end, you will know when you see and hear the audience. It is really exciting.

I inevitably approached “My Happy Family” from the lens of my own Turkish culture, in terms of how similar familial relationships are. But it’s changed dramatically in Turkey. So I’m wondering if you observe that in Georgia, too. Are families taking a more independent direction?

Nana: Yes, absolutely. It's still not [as independent as] in Germany or in Europe, but it's also not like in my childhood. Western influence, Internet, and everything that happens around the world change things and have an influence on Georgia.

Simon: There have been big changes [when compared to the terms of] previous presidents. Mikheil Saakashvili [current president] ispushing very much towards the West. It's not going always in one direction. I would say the church, which is an important player, didn't change so much. The [negative] position of the church towards women is quite similar to the 1990s.

Do a lot of extended families live together in Georgia as portrayed in this film?

Simon: This is really quite a typical situation that you have up to three generations in a three or four room apartment and everyone's living together.

Nana: Even if they have money, I heard stories that they buy a bigger house and move in together. Of course there are couples that want to be separated from the families. For example, once people [live abroad for a while] and experience to live independent, when they go back, they cannot imagine living with the mother and father and the grandfather in a one apartment. In the 90s, if one person was earning money, it was quite normal to share with others to buy food and to pay bills and so on. In the 90s, this kind of family structure saved us all somehow. Those were very difficult times in Georgia.

I love the generational play in the film. When she speaks to a young student of hers, who just left her own husband, Manana’s decision to leave gets accelerated.  

Simon: Yeah. This is actually quite typical in this generation. Young people marry quite early. Not as early as in the 90s where girls sometimes married at 13, 14, 15. This doesn't happen so often anymore but still, it happens like 17 to 19. Then they also get divorced soon, which is quite new I guess. When this pupil tells her story to Manana, it surprises and triggers her because she is much older and struggling with the same questions this girl touches.

One of the many wonderful things that jumped out at me in this screenplay is; I noticed, while Manana never quite articulates her troubles, we know what she’s experiencing based on the things that build around her. But no one else in her family seems to know.

Nana: That's correct, what you said. Even Manana doesn't know exactly what's wrong with her and why she wants to move out. Sometimes in life, you can’t explain things but just know [that] things feel wrong. You're searching and [think], “I need space for me. I'm an adult woman and I see another option in my life, to go some other way.”

This kind of character, who [does not quite have] an aim from the beginning [but] who goes her way, is interesting to me. She has an inner aim maybe. She is a really sensitive person and someone who hesitates, has thoughts and feelings. It matters what her student says to her. [The kind of mood] at home, where she lived for over 25 years, matters. This kind of women in Georgia and in other parts of the world … they spend their lives in one space with their mom and father, and other family members. One day, it becomes like a cage. [Then], your weapon of [being able to explain things] doesn't exist any more. But your inner feelings and inner will to break free exist.

After Manana leaves her home and gets her own apartment, I couldn’t help but think about women I personally know in Turkey. So I am wondering if she is based on someone real that you personally know.

Nana: She's fictional, but we know a lot of women also in my family who are like her. They spent most of their lifetimes serving for other people in a family: husband and children... Their life is not as important as the life of the family. Of course when I was child, it was normal for me to see that my mother was doing everything. It changed in our family when we started to talk about it. When my sister and I grew up, we asked my mother, “why are you doing this? You should do something for yourself.” My mom was also young and we grew up together. The story comes from that inspiration of [many women] who live family life and somehow miss their individual life. Also, in Georgia, we hear a lot about Georgia's patriarchal society and critical words about men, and how they interfere in a woman's life. We think it's interesting [to also look at] what women do for women. What mothers do for their daughters and how the relationships are between women in one family. This is very important to break this circle somehow. [This is true about most cultures.] Women are more responsible for all things that happen in a family.

Simon: [Manana’s mother Lamara] didn't do this in her life to break through in a way, and she's also saying that she could never do what she wanted. She was serving the family all her life. With this generation of Manana, who’s now in the beginning of her fifties, it starts to change a little bit. She is still a very rare case I would say. We don't know a woman at her age in Georgia who had done this.

It is an interesting moment when Manana’s mother says, her husband is a good one, because he doesn’t drink and he isn’t violent. As if those are things to compliment a man for.

Nana: Indeed. In Georgia, women need to do a lot to be accepted. We should have better grades in school, we should [have good professions], etc. But a man is already a man. And it's an achievement, this male thing, you know? When women want to separate from their husbands, I heard these kinds of arguments a lot. He is a man: if he is not violent, if he is not drinking and is a good father, it's enough.

Thematically, “My Happy Family” is very much in conversation with your previous film, "In Bloom." They tackle similar themes around family, patriarchy and generations of women in Georgia. I'm wondering, is an unofficial trilogy on the way?

Nana: Somehow, yes. You're the first person who really touched on this topic. There are of course a lot of stories, but we're thinking of a third one, also on [women and family], but from another perspective and also [from the point of view of] another age (not teenage and not Manana's age). It's too early to talk now, but it's possible to continue this topic.

Simon: There's no master plan. [We didn’t] draw an outline like ten years ago or anything like that.

I'm really in awe of your compositions and the amount of, sort of choreography you have, both “In Bloom” and in this. You work in confined spaces of apartments, there's a lot going on, both on and off screen. And, all of that, you capture in long takes. What’s your process of preparing for and breaking down those scenes?

Simon: A big part, or sometimes even the biggest part is rehearsing. It starts with a long process of casting where we’re already trying to work with scenes. In this film, we had a long rehearsal time after the casting. We had quite a long time in this apartment, which was almost ready to shoot in. Then we did rehearsals and started to build up the mise-en-scène.

Nana: We think this kind of choreography and mise-en-scène is also good for actors. You let them play and don't interfere because they know what to do and how they should move through the space. They feel free. We let them be free and work around them to catch really good and important moments. Of course you cannot show everything. Also in life, you have one perspective. [We determine] what to show. Maybe show less but [make] you feel more.

Simon: [This process addresses] a big part of the editing early on, because you need to make decisions [in advance that you would normally make] during editing. You have to decide how long one actor will be in one place before he moves to another. As Nana said, “what you want to show?” If you have two actors talking to each other and they are standing opposite of each other, then you obviously cannot show both, which means you have to make decisions much more than in a classic way of shooting. This is of course risky, because when you later see in the editing that you made a mistake, you cannot correct it. At the same time, this forces you to [focus more] on the set.

So, how do you work as co-directors? Do you direct all scenes together, or do you have another method of collaboration?

Nana: This is our second time as co-directors and third film where we work together. Basically, we do everything together. When we have script, we cast together and build a team together. It's not easy to describe. We know each other now for about 13 or 14 years. If I'm talking to team members or to actors, I'm basically saying what Simon also would say. It’s also the other way around. We don't have to repeat ourselves. It happens [organically].

Simon: I think the main thing is to really have the same vision. If you don't have the same vision and you need to discuss the vision on the set, it will not work. [Joint vision] grows during the writing and casting is also again a big phase where we have time to discuss things, to try things out with different actors and then do the rehearsal. Step by step, we build this vision together. When it comes to shooting, [everything is] clear already.

Nana: When we shoot, we often do playbacks [and communicate after each take]. By each take, we have some things that we want to improve on. Maybe nobody understands what we are talking to each other about, because it happens very fast. But we have our lists of points [after seeing the takes and realize] we have most of the same points.

Simon: It really helps to have four eyes basically. We add to each other. And sometimes we disagree and then we discuss it. We know what we want.

In terms of honing in your joint vision, do you ever discuss filmmakers that influence or inspire you? I somehow thought of Asghar Farhadi movies a little during this, but perhaps that didn’t cross your mind.

Simon: We love cinema and we watch a lot of films, but we don't usually discuss other films when we discuss our own film. It's not like a set rule, but instead discuss what we want to do. It grows from the story.

Nana: I would say during our working process, we really forget about other films. It happens automatically. When we are [involved with] our characters, we are talking mostly about life rather than about the cinema.

Simon: That's a good point. [We discuss,] “Does it really happen like that or did it happen in a family we know?” We look more to the connections in the real life. 

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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