×

‘Deathless Woman’s’ Roz Mortimer on Documenting Far Right Violence Then and Now

In Roz Mortimer’s “The Deathless Woman,” a main competition entry at the 23rd Ji.hlava docu fest, a British woman becomes increasingly obsessed with answering the call of a Roma Holocaust victim whose soul is seemingly reaching out from an unmarked mass grave in Eastern Europe.

The film, which mixes interviews with Holocaust witnesses, evocative Romani-language voice-over, archival material and performance, sets out to provide closure to the restless spirit of one woman who refused to die easily when gunned down by the SS. “I’ve been here for a long time,” the Deathless Woman intones – “plenty of time to think. To feel my rage swell.”

So how did you decide on this particular war crime as the subject and this particular victim to drive the project?

She found me. I was doing some field research into unmarked Roma graves from World War II and a strange series of events led me to her grave. She was the matriarch of the Kwiek family, who were murdered by German soldiers in 1942. I felt that she had drawn me to her grave and I began to write in her voice – it was almost like a possession. That was back in 2012 and those pages in my notebook eventually became the basis for this film.

The technique of mixing performance, archive materials and field footage is an outgrowth of a form you’ve been working in for some time – what did you want to add to this mix here?

This film feels like pulling all the strands of my previous work together – the theatrical tableaux, performance, first-person testimony, field research, the political intention. Working in a scripted long form was new, as was the scale and breadth of the story.

Did you know first you wanted to do something about the rise of the far right in Eastern Europe or were you more interested in the untold stories of the Roma Holocaust first? Did one idea lead to including the other?

I started by simply looking at unmarked sites of atrocity in Europe – I was interested in what happens in society when atrocities aren’t historicized and was thinking about how this might link to present-day prejudice and intolerance.

I was developing the film at a time when there was this surge in fascism in the U.K. and across Europe and once I started to dig deeper into the situation for Roma in Europe today, the rise of the far right became the driving force behind the film.

It shifted from being a film about the past to being about the here and now.

The voice-over in the Lovari dialect of Romani is quite powerful and characterful – how did you come across this voice actor and what did you feel she would bring to the film?

It was important to me that the Deathless Woman spoke in Romani language and we had a long search for the right Roma actor. Eventually we found Iveta Kokyova in Czechia [Czech Republic] through a social media search.

She had never acted before but sent me an extraordinary audition tape. As soon as I heard her voice I knew Iveta could bring the restrained intensity necessary for this character and during the recording she brought a lot of her own ideas, emotion and life experience to the role.

The list of sites of Roma attacks and killings in the end titles is quite breathtaking. Were you surprised in your research how much violence this group continues to face in Europe?

Yes, it was surprising and deeply upsetting. Particularly how much of the violence appeared to be state-sanctioned. I had to do the research for the list in batches as it was overwhelming. Likewise, for the research into the hate speech. All of this took me to some pretty dark places and it felt important to put it on screen for everyone to witness.

You have the impression your lead actress, Loren O’Dair, is presenting evidence at some kind of formal proceeding – but also defending the whole idea of researching unmarked Roma mass graves. What was your thinking in writing these scenes?

The Seeker is defending her methods to an unseen panel of historians. They are not exactly hostile but the Seeker’s research methods are unconventional. She is teaching them as much as being interrogated by them. History and historiography have failed the Roma and maybe there is something to learn from her alternative methods.

What appealed to you about the symbolism of the lost Polish bird and the Seeker being pursued by messages from beyond?

These are the things that happened to me and around me when I was first thinking about the film. The birds, the uncanny events that led me to the grave of the Deathless Woman and many other strange things that I can’t rationally explain.

I have always worked with animals in my films, often as symbols or ciphers. In this case, the animals are messengers from the Deathless Woman – they draw the Seeker to see the right things.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Minyan

    'Minyan': Film Review

    Best known for the unexpectedly soul-shattering San Francisco suicide doc “The Bridge,” indie filmmaker Eric Steel came out and came of age in 1980s New York at a moment just before AIDS devastated the city’s gay community. Such timing must have been surreal, to assume something so liberating about one’s own identity, only to watch [...]

  • Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches

    Film New Roundup: Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches North American Distribution

    In today’s film news roundup, “The Queen’s Corgi” finds a home, the Overlook Film Festival is postponed and the California Film Commission adjusts its tax credit rules due to the coronavirus. ACQUISITION Freestyle Digital Media has acquired North American rights to the animated family comedy feature “The Queen’s Corgi,” and plans to make it available on DVD and to [...]

  • APA Logo

    APA Sets Salary Cuts and Furloughs in Wake of Covid-19 Pandemic

    Following in the steps of several agencies dealing with the coronavirus, APA has informed all offices of upcoming salary cuts along with possible suspensions and furloughs for employees due to the pandemic’s economic effect on the industry. APA board of directors will make the largest financial sacrifice. The move has been made to avoid layoffs [...]

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    DGA, SAG-AFTRA, WGA Scramble to Keep Residuals Flowing During Coronavirus Pandemic

    Hollywood’s creative guilds have been working overtime to keep residual checks going out to members during the coronavirus crisis. Even though most of the staff members of the Directors Guild of America, SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America West have been working remotely, the guilds have stepped up efforts to maintain the flow of [...]

  • Hannah Marks, Dylan Sprouse. Hannah Marks,

    How a Bart Simpson T-Shirt Delayed Dylan Sprouse’s Movie ‘Banana Split’

    Long before the release of “Booksmart,” actress Hannah Marks set out to make a movie that would be the female bookend to “Superbad.” She started writing the script eight years ago, at 18, based on a real-life story about how, in high school, she befriended the girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend. Many drafts followed for “Banana [...]

  • Ryan Reynolds'6 Underground' film premiere, Arrivals,

    Ryan Reynolds in Talks to Star in 'Dragon's Lair' Film Adaptation for Netflix

    Ryan Reynolds is in talks to star in and produce a live-action feature adaptation of the ’80s arcade game “Dragon’s Lair” for Netflix. Roy Lee will produce through his Vertigo Entertainment with Trevor Engelson of Underground Films. Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and Jon Pomeroy are also producing. Reynolds will produce through his Maximum Effort production [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content