LILLE, France — “I must go down to the seas again,” Amaré, an teen African illegal immigrant, reads aloud in a poetry lesson at a refugee center near the beach in Greece.
Thoughts of wander-lust seen comically out of place. Amaré has just been seen in the prolog to “Eden” leaping out of a dinghy beaching on a Greek beach, to the dumfounded puzzlement of its tourists.
He and the other immigrants in “Eden” are never, moreover, in a position to escape constraints: The wait for residence permits, menial jobs even for the highly-qualified; the pressure to make the academic grade in a new country; above all, the past, which often leaves huge emotional and ethical hostages to fortune.
One of the biggest canvas European drama series on show at Series Mania this year, “Eden” weaves five character-driven, and sometimes-converging, stories.
There’s Helene, the chic but principled French head of an Athens run-for profit refugee center, who is bidding for E.U. co-funding; a guilt-riven Greek security guard at the center; a Syrian doctor, Hamid, who secures political asylum in Paris, with his wife and daughter.
Hamid’s story is linked – painfully, in a way which is gradually revealed – to that of Syrian schoolboy, Bassam welcomed by a family in Germany’s Mannheim who watched Amaré’s arrival in the dinghy in Greece; Amare’s hugely punishing, solitary epic crossing of Europe from Greece towards England, because it’s the land of Yaya Toure, the Manchester City soccer star.
Produced by Arte France and Arte Deutschland, SWR, ARD Degeto, Lupa Film, Lagardère Studios’ Atlantique Productions and Port Au Prince Film, this is a European co-production between the E.U.’s biggest TV industries, in France and Germany, a text-book case of Arte international co-production, co-written and directed in its entirety by a notable Euroesn film auteur, the French-German Dominik Moll (“Harry, He’s Here to Help,” “Lemming”) and written by a combined German-French team.
It takes on “the biggest crisis the E.U. faces since its creation in 1951,” says Heléne, at the beginning of “Eden.” Its humanistic take seems incontrovertible. Many will find it moving.
Series Mania has certainly bought into “Eden,” selecting it for its main International Competition, staging the world premiere of its first two episodes on Sunday, March 24 with Moll, co-writer Constantin Lieb and actors Juliane Köhler and Jalal Altawil in attendance. The whole series will screen Saturday March 30 in Lille with a Dominik Moll Masterclass.
Variety interviewed Moll in the build-up to Series Mania.
I get the sense that one of the guiding principles of “Eden” was not just to depict immigration but give human individuality to a figure – the immigrant – who is often just glimpsed in newsreels or as part of a statistic. Could you comment?
It isn’t easy to tackle such a serious topic as the refugee crisis in a work of fiction, and it is certainly impossible to give an overall view of such a complex subject in a series. We felt that the best way to bring this topic close to the audience, was to single out a few individual stories, and thus show that behind the general and anonymous term of “refugee” or “immigration” there are individuals, with their fears and hardships, hopes and longings for a better life. As Melina, the Greek camp manager says in the series: “We are talking about people here.” In the news, one is often confronted with numbers, not with people, not with individual stories.
Also, you suggest that immigration is not just a geographic but emotional journey, where characters struggle with the horrors and tragedy of the past while battling for a very different future. Those struggles- emotional, ethical, of identity and loss – lie at the heart of “Eden.” Again, could you comment?
One often forgets that refugees are fleeing war or misery or both, and just long for a peaceful life. So of course the emotions they go through are very strong, as they are often linked to survival, to matters of life an death. This is what Florian, the German teenager becomes aware of, when Bassam, the young man from Syria, tells him about crossing over from Turkey in an overcrowded dinghy boat.
”Eden” is not just a portrait of immigration but an ensemble thriller. There’s a sense that one won’t work without the other…
We were very conscious that we were making a work of fiction and not a documentary. As much as we wanted to be respectful of the reality of things, we also wanted to play with suspense, humor, emotion, in order to keep the audience hooked. I like well-constructed stories. I found it interesting to give a different color to the five storylines. The Syrian storyline has the tonality of a Bergman drama mixed with Hitchcockian elements; the German storyline is one of intrusion; with Hélène we have a moral dilemma about business and ethics; the story of the guards in Athens is a miniature Greek tragedy; and Amare, the secret hero of the series, goes through an epic journey. But what links them all is their emotional journey.
It’s essential for a series on immigration to give a balanced sense of the phenomenon. How was the process of research?
After taking over the project, I insisted on the fact that I wanted “Eden” was based on serious research. I felt that we owed that to the people who have been and are still going through all these hardships . We talked to refugees, camp managers, NGO members and read a lot of articles and books. Some of the actors had personally experienced what it means to flee one’s country and struggle to build a new life elsewhere. We learned a lot from the discussions with them. This documentation process allowed us to build on a solid groundwork, but it also gave us quite a few ideas for fictional situations, for instance the fact that Nelson provides the smugglers with refugees in order to get a free passage for himself. And the opening scene of the series is based on an amateur video that I found, showing refugees landing on a beach filled with tourists, which for me is a perfect starting point, as it shows the meeting of two worlds who should never have met and who now have to deal with each other.
”Eden” came from an idea by Jano Ben Chaabane, Felix Randau, created by Edward Berger, Nele Mueller Stöfen, Marianne Wendt and then written by Constantin Lieb, yourself, Laurent Mercier, Felix von Boehm, Nele Mueller Stöfen, Edward Berger, Pierre Linhart, with you directing the whole series. It’s spoken in Greek, German, English, French and Arab. How was the writing process?
When I was asked to take over the series, Edward Berger and his team of writers had already been developing the project for two years. With the new writing team (Constantin, Felix and Pierre), I wanted to take a different approach, closer to the characters, with more emotion, and based on serious research. So we kept the idea of the five storylines but adapted them differently. We didn’t have much time and we still continued the writing process while we were shooting, which was sometimes a bit stressful!
It was very important to me that every character should speak his own language. We wrote the French, German, and English parts directly in the original language. The Greek and Arabic parts were written in English or French and then translated. The translators were present on the shoot and we also adapted the dialogues with the Syrian and Greek actors to make sure that they were comfortable with it.
What was your approach to directing the series?
The same as with directing feature films: Work as hard as possible in order to create a work of fiction that might hopefully interest and move the audience. We didn’t have a huge budget of course, but as soon as we started prepping, casting and location scouting, it became clear that the variety of countries and locations, the variety of actors of so many different origins, some professionals and some not, and also the multitude of languages would bring a richness to the series that money couldn’t buy.
And directing such a varied cast?
Very challenging and exciting. I was a bit nervous about directing actors in languages I didn’t understand (Greek and Arabic), but as long as you have a common language in order to communicate (English or French), and as long as you establish a work relation based on trust, it’s not so difficult. After a while you get a sense of the musicality of the language, begin to understand certain words (one of my favorites being the Greek “tipota,” which means “nothing” ), and get a pretty good sense of the quality of the performance. You feel if the emotion, the intensity and the truth come across. And with the devoted and talented cast we had, it did indeed come across. I want to point out how lucky we were to find the 15-year-old Joshua to play Amare. Joshua has an incredible natural acting talent (although he is more interested in soccer than in acting!!): He brings a lot of emotion to the series.