It is All An Illusion: Malgorzata Szumowska on The Other Lamb

Cults are in vogue right now. No, not joining them, but absorbing all you can learn about them, and trying to understand the psychology of charismatic yet manipulative cult leaders. But in focusing so heavily on the man who runs such a group, true-crime fanatics have lost sight of those directly impacted by such manipulation. The followers often become a monolith, a group of faceless and nameless people who are seen as tragic figures. 

Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska aims to shift that narrative with her first English-language film, “The Other Lamb.” Written by C.S. McMullen, the movie follows Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a teenaged girl living in an all-female cult led by a man simply named Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). She and the rest of her Sisters are Shepherd’s fanatical devotees, living a secluded life deep in the woods where they can worship without consequence. However, Selah begins to realize that Shepherd may not be the messiah they’ve always assumed he was. 

Szumowska is a seasoned filmmaker with seven feature films under her belt. With "The Other Lamb," she has created a poignant and empowering coming-of-age tale about recognizing and fighting back against abuse. Szumowska spoke to RogerEbert.com over the phone about making her English-language film debut, the fascination surrounding cults, and what it means to be in a cult.

What was it like working on your first English-language film?

You know, I got some offers [to make English-language films] before, and actually, I must say that I passed on them, because I wasn't feeling ready. You’ve got to learn the language. In my career, I made a film in French with Juliette Binoche. And I don't speak French. But that film is real, and that’s when I realized it's possible. It’s important to know the system. If you are making an international film, it's a different system, it's a different transaction than in Europe. 

Also, I'm not the writer. Usually, I’m a writer of my films, most of the time. So when I read “The Other Lamb” I was really frustrated by the [gender dynamics], such as separate cars, only women, one man, and the journey of a teenager who became a woman. I found all of this very fascinating. I said, “let’s give it a try.” Plus, Raffey Cassidy had been cast and Stephanie Wilcox came onto the project. Then I said, "Yes, of course." And that's the project. It was very different than what I was doing previously, but now I must say I can achieve these things. Right after I shot my own film, a German-Polish film, I went out [to shoot “The Other Lamb”]. It’s a completely different system of working, of shooting, and those sort of things.

But it was a challenge which I appreciate. I put myself together, with five days of prep, and 45 days of shooting. I had to be a very fast decision-maker all of the time. I must say that I'm totally open to doing another [English-language film].

What do you think is so fascinating about cults?

I think what I find fascinating is how do these people continue to follow such a leader and not hate them? Maybe there is a kind of, I don't know, a metaphysical dimension something which we can't touch with the regular life because we are afraid of dying, we are afraid of sickness, we are afraid of so many things. Dying is huge. But in a cult, suddenly there is no anxiety, there is no death, there is no fear. It is all an illusion. I think that people need this. All this is fascinating. The people need something like this because it makes them safe.

In directing this film, how did you want to create a different vision of a cult and one that was more focused on a coming-of-age woman rather than the charisma of the cult leader? What was that like to create this kind of unique vision of a cult?

I was trying to evolve a little bit past thinking about why they are following him and all the back story. I think it's not that interesting. I was more interested in the dangers of the situation, where they are always following someone and they don’t actually know why. Then, they are discovering, step-by-step, that he's abused them and they are following him because he is attractive. They don't understand that it's abuse because some of them are very young. They also don't know how to get themselves out of the situation. They don't know where to go, they don't know how to live. I think there is a more interesting dynamic between Selah and Shepherd. [“The Other Lamb”] is more about the dynamic of the cult and relationship dynamics.

Actually that's my next question—the chemistry between Raffey Cassidy and Michiel Huisman is creepily electric and fascinating to watch. What was it like directing the two of them together, particularly in intimate yet really uncomfortable scenes?

It is hard but only in the sense that it's always hard with those scenes. You have to be very precise with what you are doing, especially with Raffey at that time because she was a minor. You have to be really careful with what is allowed and what is not allowed. We faced many legal sanctions and restrictions, so we had to adapt the scene to the fact that our actress is a minor. But at the end of the day, it probably was better. When you have the kind of limitation you have to do something that is maybe more interesting, more original than something that obvious. The limitation was good for that.

How closely did you work with the composer? The score is so haunting and it fits the tone of the film so well.

This is an interesting story because it was two composers attached to the film. One composer, who's a young Belgian composer [Rafaël Leloup], sent me more atmospheric music, more like ambiance, than in a regular movie. And then I have a friend in Poland who’s a very famous composer, Pawel Mykietyn. After the shoot has ended, I went to his concert. I heard his symphony and I said, "Pawel this is amazing, you have to give the same color to our film." And he said, "No problem." I said, "Do a symphony." But he had to go through a very complicated process to get the orchestra, which required more money for the money, but I did it. And I'm very, very proud I have Pawel involved in this film.

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