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Director Manu Riche on Raindance Opener ‘Problemski Hotel’: ‘There’s a Lot of Real Humor’

According to founder Elliot Grove, the Raindance festival’s international submissions have more than doubled in the last year, and it’s a reflection of this new seam of riches that this year’s opener, Manu Riche’s “Problemski Hotel”, is a very cosmopolitan beast, being a Belgium film shot in English, Russian and Arabic. Says Grove, “It’s a very gritty look at the problems that an immigrant or a refugee from the Deep South or the Deep East is facing in trying to get themselves to Britain and safer soil. It’s very fitting, with all the Brexit stuff and the immigrant crisis going on, and to do that in a non-linear narrative style, with occasional touches of laugh-out-loud humour, is the reason it was selected.”

Inspired by the 2003 novel of the same name by controversial Belgian novelist Dimitri Verhulst, “Problemski Hotel” is the story of Bipul (Tarek Halaby), an immigrant who is happy to stay where he is, in an asylum centre in Brussels, until his pregnant girlfriend Lidia (Evgenia Brendes) announces that she wants to move on, ideally to London. Better known as a documentary maker – his 2012 film “Snake Dance” told the story of the atomic bomb – Riche worked with British writer Steve Hawes to create a surreal and affecting story about people in transit and the issues of bureaucracy, roots and identity that affect us all.

When did you first decide to make “Problemski Hotel”?

I read Dimitri Verhulst’s novel quite a few years ago, and I started with the project five years ago, more or less. The point was, I felt that [coverage of] the whole issue of migration and the asylum-seeking problem was so biased towards misery tales. I’m not saying mine is not a misery tale, but I wanted to make something that would go beyond that, and I found that in the novel. It’s not that I completely adapted the novel, but I felt the tone and the atmosphere would be a good starting point for a film.

How faithful is it to the novel?

It’s a loose adaptation, because the novel is really several tableaux. It’s not a straightforward story, and we had to somehow compose a story out of that. There are some lines that we took right away, but other things were not in the novel. It’s not a classic A to B story, it’s something that slowly grows, just by observing the different characters.

How did it come together?

Since I’m a documentary maker, it was a very long process ­– I was really looking for the right people and not only the right actors. My leading actor is a dancer who is from Palestine. He moved to Durban and finally ended up in Chicago, so he already had experience of migration himself. And a lot of the actors did too. The lead actress is more or less telling her own story. So what we did is find the right person – sometimes they were actors, sometimes not – and then we adapted the screenplay for the people that we found. So there was a lot of rewriting. In the novel, the character Mahsun is coming from Pakistan, but the actor we found comes from Kurdistan, so we adapted all these things.

Did you cast many non-professionals? Did your documentary background encourage you to be bold about that?

I think so. I mean, we had a casting director with a theatre background, and she worked a lot with actors from everywhere in Europe. But that was a good starting point. She worked with Palestinians and Syrians, so I met these people and finally made a choice. After a long while, actually.

Was there much improvisation?

Constantly! But on the other the hand it was quite strict. The script was written with Steve Hawes, who is British, and we worked for a long time on it. As a director, I never plan the way I’m going to shoot. So in the morning we would start with some scenes, and then we would try different things. I’m more of an observer than a director, and I was always interested in seeing what actors and non-actors are capable of. And that was a wonderful process.

It’s also quite a funny film. How did you approach that?

It’s a tragically humorous film. The whole point of it, and the novel also, is that there’s a very bleak humour in it, a very harsh one. It’s not about jokes – the tragedy of humanity is that it is very comical, and that is what we tried to show. What I hear from audiences is that when they come out of the cinema, they don’t know if they want to cry or laugh. That’s the feeling we wanted to achieve. There’s a lot of humour, but it’s real humour, not comedy.

Obviously this story is unfolding all the time. Did you have to switch off from the news, or did you incorporate things as they were happening?

Not really. We shot the film three years, and the novel was written in 2001. Already in the novel you had all these problems – they were not new. That was also the reason why I started to make the film, not because of the migration crisis in Europe nowadays. These things were happening long before the media knew about the people that were drowning in the sea. The stories in the news were not the inspiration. It’s important to wait a little bit, because the media is jumping on everything, and there is no real reflection on what is actually happening. I’m not saying that we don’t have to make films about it, we have to make intelligent films about it, and I think it’s worth waiting.

Did you find it easier to make a fiction film than a documentary?

The reason I didn’t make a documentary about this subject is because I could only make a dramatic fiction about it. But it is very documentary in a way – it is a documentary fiction, even though it is a completely scripted story. But I always have two edges in my film, in that sense.

How did you feel about being selected for Raindance?

That was a big surprise! We had some good festivals – Rotterdam and others – and we were surprised to be the opening film, a very nice surprise. As far as I’m concerned, a very good choice! On the other, it’s not an easy film to start a festival with. That’s quite brave of the organisation.

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