Stienette Bosklopper of the Netherlands’ Circe Films and Meike Martens of Germany’s Blinker Filmproduktion have boarded “Do Fish Sleep With Their Eyes Open?,” the latest film from director Nele Wohlatz, whose 2016 documentary hybrid “The Future Perfect” won best feature in Locarno.
The co-production partnerships add European support and financing muscle to an Argentine project produced by Buenos Aires’ Ruda Cine, which has already attracted a Brazilian partner, CinemaScópio.
In “Do Fish Sleep With Their Eyes Open?” German filmmaker Wohlatz continues her examination of the immigrant experience via a feature film set in the bustling Brazilian city of Recife.
The project, which is taking part in the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s CineMart co-production market, follows three young Chinese travelers, two immigrant workers and a tourist, and explores themes of belonging and constant movement.
The film’s protagonists don’t event “try to make Recife a home, since tomorrow they might go somewhere else, if they are needed somewhere else,” Wohlatz explains. “They kind of lost their sense of belonging, or are losing it.”
Experiencing a dystopian version of the city of the future, the immigrant laborers move between their place of work, warehouses full of cheap import products that they sell in Recife’s historical old town, and the exclusive high-rise in which they live, a generic building that could be anywhere in the world.
“The reality of life of these immigrant workers is to go elsewhere from one day to another,” Wohlatz adds. “This is against rules of storytelling, against the journey of the hero. This contradiction is central to the film.”
Zhang Xiaobin, the non-professional actress who played herself in “The Future Perfect,” plays two main characters in “Do Fish Sleep With Their Eyes Open?”
The new project will be more fiction and less hybrid than her previous work, Wohlatz says. She notes, however, that she is again working with non-professional actors, “and their stories will keep informing the script. During the casting, I will keep rewriting the film, so at the end it will be written exactly for the people who are acting it out.”
The film’s entire structure is fictitious but is based on extensive research of real events, she adds.
Wohlatz, a native of Hanover who spent the past 10 years in Buenos Aires, is in Berlin after getting stuck in Germany due to the pandemic, and is waiting to return to Recife. The experience has been both interesting and useful, she says, “also because my film is about people who go from one place to another, who kind of lost their sense of belonging, or question it, or try to redefine what belonging actually means.”
While working during the pandemic has been challenging, Wohlatz says her project has gained further urgency as a result of the crisis.
“It is a wild time for all of us, and also to work on the film without knowing when we will be able to go back into the real world. Yet, as far as I can see, the pandemic reinforces tendencies that already had been in surge, like social division and xenophobia. And that makes the need for this film to be done actually much stronger. It ultimately reaffirms my wish to keep doing what I am doing.”
The ongoing crisis has also provided the filmmaker with more time in developing the script.
“I try to use the large distance to Recife, where the film takes place, and to the people I work with, to get the narrative structure of the film very clear.”
Ruda Cine’s Violeta Bava adds: “The time of the pandemic led us to rethink and redefine the production strategy, not only because the calendar was altered, but because we considered that this time was a good opportunity to generate new alliances, join forces with other partners and strengthen the project in all its aspects. In fact, it is from that perspective that we applied to CineMart and it is in that spirit that we hope to meet potential partners – producers, sales agents and other possible allies – to join and launch our film.”
The film’s producers also include Emilie Lesclaux of Recife-based CinemaScópio and Rosa Martínez Rivero of Ruda Cine.
John Hopewell contributed to this report.