Exclusive interview with Jessica Woodworth

Jessica Woodworth’s “Luka” opened the 20th  Golden Apricot in Yerevan. It is a joint production of Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Bulgaria, Armenia. The world premiere took place at the Rotterdam festival. Armenian actor Samvel Tadevosyan is one of the leading actors in the film, along with famous Hollywood co-stars Geraldine Chaplin and award-winning actor Jonas Smulders. “Luka” was supposed to be filmed in Armenia, but due to the war and covid, it was decided to choose another location: Sicily.

Angela Frangyan (DoKino) was the producer from the Armenian side. Unfortunately, she was not physically present at the Yerevan premiere of “Luka”, as she is now in Artsakh blocked by Azerbaijan. However, Angela Frangyan addressed the guests of GAIFF online, announcing that “Luka” will be screened in Stepanakert as part of Sunrise Stepanakert.

“Luka” tells the story of a young soldier who receives shelter in the legendary Fort Kairos where heroic warriors defend the remains of civilization, and wait for a mythical enemy from the North. Luka wants to fight, he accepts the Kairos code: obedience-endurance-sacrifice, and becomes a sniper. However, over time, Luka starts to doubt whether the enemy is real.

It should be stressed that the story unfolds in a future where Earth is facing serious climate problems.

“Luke” is extremely relevant now, when humanity is experiencing a serious crisis due to its own stupidity: irreversible climate changes, wars and confrontations in almost every corner of the world, deepening differences between nations and people. It also has a special context for the Armenians… the heroes of the film live in fear of an impending war, surrounded by uncertainty.

This black-and-white movie proves that people, like animals, yearn for war and are ready to sacrifice their own lives for their militant ideology, to obey the senseless orders of the high command. And only the strong-minded ones are able to understand that wars are pointless, and that the authorities thinks about keeping power only. At some point, Luka realizes his own delusion, the absurdity of his existence, and turns his head saying “no” to the war, not even being afraid to be killed by other warriors. Luka leaves away the only fictitious meaning of life: aggression.

Perhaps the most important question that arises while watching “Luka” is: who is the enemy, does he/she/it really come from the North or is the enemy already inside the castle? And Virginia Surday’s camera with that claustrophobic scenes and terrifying details escalate the uncertainty. She sometimes breaks the fourth wall and makes us feel that cosmic loneliness on a physical level. “Luka” also seems to be a tribute to Tarkovsky, Bergman, Bela Tarr, Pasolini, whose cinematography obviously inspired the authors of “Luka”.

Luka is an adaptation of The Tartar Steppe” by Dino Buzzati. As for me there are a number of interesting ideological differences. I will list them, you can agree or disagree. “Luka is a film about waiting for war, and the novel is about waiting for life. The hero of the novel despairs when realizing what happened and loses the meaning of life, in the movie Luka realizes that war is pointless and finds freedom. There are also differences on who is the real enemy.

-The book can actually be interpreted in multiple ways obviously. The end of the book can also and often is interpreted as a possible hallucination. It can be that the enemy does not exist. The book pulls characters through 30 years of life. This is one of the crucial things I changed. I did not want to age actors. I did not need to pull the story through time in the same sense to arrive at the emotions I wanted to evoke.

Waiting for life and waiting for war – even Luka can be interpreted in multiple ways, and I want to keep that freedom. And another thing. As soon as you start to understand something, it evades you. You cannot grasp it, and that is the beauty of the experience – just like in life. I did not provide any apparent windows into the inner psychology of the main character, I want it to keep very physical, because usually the way we operate is driven by self-concise and desires, and hunger. I wanted to make the audience – also through the camera – feel all that physical aspect.

-The movie was supposed to be shot in Armenia, but then you chose

-All the locations were secured, but we knew that it would be challenging because Aragats – the main location – was very difficult in winter. Because winter and cold were the main figures in the storytelling. The partnership was super solid and everything was greenlighted. Then the conflict came with Azerbaijan, and Covid. So, we looked Italy as a co-production partner. In Sicily, the critical moment was to check out the location. I found a dam and it took 9 months to get permission to film there. And dam speaks more to the story because I had the movie in the drowned zone which is better for the story.

Because the future we’re facing the water was one of our principal terrors, dangers.

-Could you tell about cooperation with Armenia, in particular with Angela Frangyan and Samvel Tadevosyan. How you met?

-Through BarsMedia, which was my first partner here. Angela was working with them. Then we became very close and went through this whole process together. We both were heartbroken when we saw this gonna be too difficult to film in Armenia. However, the coproduction with Armenia was already secured and I wanted to keep it. Then I said to propose some actors or maybe an editor or composer. She proposed some actors, but their English was poor, and she says “here is a young guy”, we spoke online. He sent tapes and I knew he was perfect.

-You mentioned that “Luka” was a complex project. What difficulties you faced apart from the location issue?

-Time, budgets. And there were fires all over Sicily. But this is not interesting, nobody cares, we had so much fun anyway. The real problem was the lack of time, we could not afford enough days to shoot it the way we wanted to. Keeping the cast solid and united – that was my job. Everybody knew we were working on something exceptional. Also I know that if shooting in Aremnia, we would have a different film. It is also interesting.

-All the actors are men, and then we see Geraldine Chaplin. Why did you choose her?

-I chose her because she is such a brilliant actress, not because she is female. I love her spirit and I love her, and her face. She is so powerful. She is beyond gender. I said – you have to play a man. We thought she was playing a man. And only in editing, we started to look at it differently. There was no conversation about gender. It was just Geraldine – a great actress, so tremendous.

-Your film is extremely relevant now, when the whole world go through senseless wars, as the heroes of the film do. Will we one day succeed in overcoming obedience like Luka did?

-All of us can. One can just disappear, or you could raise your voice, or rally people around you when witnessing injustice. Most of us are not capable of stepping aside from our daily struggles and doing whatever we find very important and monumental. Because we are just small. Filmmakers and storytellers have the huge privilege to cook up things that actually make people think and look at their lives in slightly different ways. But we not gonna change the world. We just film.

For me, the whole film is built towards two things: one – when he says we are the North, which is was so obvious from the beginning. I mean – we are our enemies. We are the ones who want to destroy the world. That will never change, that is our human nature. Second – what he does when he immediately returns his back. That was the only heroic act in the whole film. He knew he could be killed, but he eliminated his existence maybe in the hope that others would follow and they do. So many revolutions started from this kind of small gesture. It is hopeful.

-There is an opinion that “Luka’s” storytelling is inferior to visuals and that it is too How will you respond to such an opinion?

-That is a question of how you experience the film. Like when you go to dance or listen to music you go with a specific frame of mind. Your mind should be open. And cinema is so cerebral, plot mechanisms dictate everything, here we have dictatorship of the script, it is so sad. But the script is everything that happens in between action and words – all the unspoken – like real life, all the important things are unspoken. If you accept it like a different language and let it settle into your body it is much more satisfying.

And duration – in the film Luka is looking for something all the time. Time is an important factor in the story. These guys are sitting there and being eaten by time. If you as a viewer do not experience any of that uncomfortable sensation, you miss the story. That nothingness is their terror. They are going nowhere, they are standing nowhere.

If we all have to make films in a common way then cinema is dead.

-What movies can you single out an recommend to watch?

-“Marketa Lazarová” by František Vláčil, “Gerry” by Gus Van Sant, “Diamonds of the Night” by Jan Němec. They are specific movies. And a “Great Dictator”. There are so many.

-What further plans do you have? Maybe new cooperation with Armenia?

-I would like to work with Armenia again and develop a project here. Now I have a project, I was hired as a director to do a thriller. And another one I am writing is a musical comedy about autism. Because we have to move on and look for other borders. I am not interested in creating the same world as other directors. The hardest thing to do in the world is comedy. It used to be much more respected. To make people cry is easy. But to make people laugh is incredibly hard and at the same time satisfying.

-“Rules keep us civilized”- said one of the heroes. But Luka broke all the rules and found inner freedom. So, it turns out that the rules actually prevent humanity from becoming civilized?

-Never thought about that… That depends on who makes them. We need structure and borders of behavior. But I think they should not be imposed by governments. Rules should be freedom-oriented.

By Diana Gasparyan