Delphine Girard’s 16-minute Belgian thriller “A Sister” gave this year’s MyFrenchFilmFestival (MFFF) shorts competition a shot in the arm earlier this week, when the film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.
Shot from the backseat of an unnerving rural car ride and across the desks of an emergency call center, “A Sister” unravels for its viewers as it does for the protagonist, a late-night operator who gets what initially seems a mistaken call. On the other end is a shaky-voiced woman having half a conversation that doesn’t make much sense until small clues in her dialogue make it clear she’s in an unsafe situation, but unable to talk about it.
Despite the film’s positive critical reception and high scores across online aggregating sites, its modest festival run and lack of major competition appearances at events like Clermont-Ferrand or Cannes – common among other MFFF players – could have been reason for the film to be overlooked in this year’s impressive lineup. At least, that is, until the Oscar nomination.
“A Sister” is Girard’s third directorial outing and produced by Versus Production, a big player on the Belgian indie scene recently responsible for festival fare such as “The First Last” – Berlin, “Eldorado,” “The Giants” – Cannes, and “Duelles” – Toronto.
Yours is the only competition short at MFFF from outside of France, although in past editions Belgium and other countries like Canada have been well represented. What’s the scene like in Belgium for young filmmakers?
Belgium is a small country with a small industry full of vitality and where everyone knows each other. For a young Belgian director, I think that the challenge is first to find one’s allies in terms of production and team, and then to develop their project using public aid, support from channels, different grants and sometimes crowdfunding aided by the energy of friends. I find that there is real solidarity between young filmmakers in Belgium.
Can you talk about the writing process for this film? Where did the idea come from?
I started thinking about this project after stumbling upon a recording of an American 911 call in which we could hear a young woman in a car, pretending to call her sister for help. This call, the disguised emotion of the young woman, and the intelligence of the operator stayed in my mind for several months before I decided to start writing. I needed to identify what touched me so much, beyond the horror of the situation. It was the idea of building a story of empathy and sorority that inspired me. This real call was my foundation to build the scenario, then little by little I moved away from it. I created all the backstory of the characters and I tried to push different issues. For the character of Alie, it was necessary to find a discrepancy between what she was seeing and what she could say about it, for the operator the challenge was to find out how she communicates and plans with someone she can’t see.
Do you have first-hand experience in a call center? If not, what kind of research did you do?
During writing I got in touch with call-center services and some police who agreed to meet with me and read the script. They taught me certain regulations and the order in which things would be questioned. Then, during the preparation, Veerle and I went to spend an afternoon in a call center where we could observe several operators taking calls and chatting with them about their daily lives. It was extremely interesting, and I saw Veerle recording all the gestures and attitudes which was extremely exciting.
Veerle Baetens’ performance is vital to the effectiveness of your film. How did you get her on board?
I met Veerle on the set of Olivier Masset-Depasse’s “Mother’s instinct.” I was the child coach of the little boy who plays her son in the film. There was immediate chemistry. It is an immense privilege to watch her work. When thinking about the operator I knew I wanted it to be her. I offered her the script and we started to chat. I admit, I was thrilled when she accepted the role. The film largely plays out on her face and I knew that Veerle would give the depth and the subtlety that I dreamed of for the character. It was a wonderful gift she gave me.
Another key to telling this story is the camerawork. The way you leave faces half hidden, follow characters around and pick up on subtle movements when the dialogue can’t deliver what you’re trying to say. Can you talk about the work your team, and particularly DoP Juliette Van Dormael, did on this film?
When we started working with Juliette, the idea of putting the camera behind the two characters seemed the obvious choice, but we couldn’t really say why. The master plan for the car was over the shoulder, so Juliette sat herself on a small rail (slider) at the back which allowed her to move with fluidity between the two actors and to modify what shot take after take, which offered us the possibility of improvisation between the actors and the camera. We also did a front shot of Alie in a traveling car. It was a rough night, it was snowing, the plans didn’t suit us, filming from outside the car completely changed the feeling. During assembly it became obvious we would only use the shots filmed inside the car, even if that seemed quite extreme at first. It seemed right to stay with Alie, to give the feeling of the cold fear as it crosses over her and to give the spectator the same point of view as the operator, trying to understand what is playing out in the car.
What’s next? Any plans for a feature?
I am currently working on a feature and a series – initiated with Veerle. Both projects are in the writing stage. I don’t know what will come of them yet, but I’m really looking forward to shooting again.