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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2020 New Directors

Christian Johannes Koch • Director of Spagat

Spagat is not a movie about ‘sans-papiers’; it’s a movie about society as a whole”

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- Cineuropa met up with young Swiss director Christian Johannes Koch at San Sebastián to talk about Spagat, his first feature film

Christian Johannes Koch • Director of Spagat
(© Alex Abril/Festival de San Sebastián)

Christian Johannes Koch comes back to the San Sebastián Film Festival after having presented his first student fictional short, Über Uns Elektrizität, at the same festival, but in the Nest section, back in 2013. Spagat [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Christian Johannes Koch
film profile
]
tells the story of an impossible couple – a story that brings to light the contradictions of an entire society.

Cineuropa: Where does the idea of the film come from?
Christian Johannes Koch: I have been concerned about the existence of inequality in a welfare state, such as Switzerland, for years. I had been thinking a lot about how to put it into a movie without simply making a social drama. The film is also about relationships, the situation of depending on someone else and having someone else depending on you. In Spagat, I wanted to extend this relationship of dependency to a specific society, a specific country, and it was at that stage of the process that, step by step, I developed the story of Marina. All my work up until now has been focused on the issue of identity, but also on social and economic systems. It’s very interesting for me to be part of the society I’m talking about; in a way, we are trapped in it, but we can also change it.

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Given that there are already several other recent Swiss movies talking about immigration, were you not afraid of taking on a similar topic? What’s new in Spagat, compared with what has already been done?
Well, the topic of “illegal immigration”, a term that I don’t like, and how people cope with it, was partly unavoidable because I like to treat people first and foremost as people. I really wanted to make a movie about relationships and the privileges they provide, and this is something I haven’t really seen in a movie so far. The thing is, people without papers live completely integrated in societies such as Switzerland without having any prospects or any chances. This is especially true when it comes to children because in Switzerland, there’s a law – well, a human right – allowing them to go to school, but at the same time, these same children are not allowed to live in Switzerland. In my opinion, this is a huge contradiction, something to think about: how do we handle it as a society?

I also decided to have a lot of different protagonists. I don’t want to say that Spagat is a multi-perspective movie, because in the end, it tells one single story, but we have this addition of different narrative strands from characters stirring up different questions, expressing the desire to be themselves. Of course, Spagat is a movie about immigration, but it’s also a movie about love, loyalty and betrayal. And it’s also very important to say that it is not a film about “sans-papiers”, because otherwise I would have chosen a completely different story and style of filming. It’s a movie about society as a whole.

Your approach to the mise-en-scène is quite sophisticated. What are your sources of inspiration as a director?
Well, I have a lot of references, but I think they can be summed up in three different styles of cinema: Bergman, Bresson and Claire Denis. Maybe let’s start with my choice of mixing professional actors, like Alexey Serebryakov, who is quite a superstar in Russia, with non-professional actresses: we have a lot of young adults in the movie. The rehearsal process was quite long. We developed the universe of each character together before shooting. We mixed a lot of the actresses’ personal feelings, memories or experiences in with the characters. I knew from the beginning that I needed a cast willing to give a lot of themselves. The different points of view retell the story, in a way. I have to say that I was very lucky with the casting because if you decide, like I did, to make your film in Swiss German, well, your options are quite limited, especially if you need a teenager who does gymnastics, and who speaks Russian and Swiss German.

What happened with Alexey, who impressed and moved me deeply in Leviathan [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
and who was stuck in my head, was quite surreal. Like I said, in Russia he’s a superstar, and now he lives in Toronto. At first, I thought it was impossible for me to reach him, but then, three months before shooting, I decided to take a plane and fly to Toronto, where I knocked on his door. I spent the afternoon and all evening with Alexey and his family; we had a lot of good discussions – and vodka – and by the end of the evening, it was clear that he would agree to be part of my movie.

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