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4 August 2011

“Getting people to trust women to make big movies is not easy“

Director Julie Bertucelli on grief, exile, and why it will be 100 years before women are as prominen

By Samira Shackle

The Tree, the second feature film by French director Julie Bertucelli, famously gained a seven-minute standing ovation when it closed the Cannes Film Festival last year. The film, which tells the story of a child who believes her dead father is speaking to her through a tree outside her house, and how her mother gets caught up in the fantasy, is in UK cinemas from Friday 5th August.

The Tree is an adaptation of a book. How did you come across it and what attracted you to it?
At first, I wanted to adapt another book — Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, but it was impossible because Calvino decided before he died that none of his books would be made into films. I was looking for tree story, and I found a French translation of this book and fell in love with the story.

An Australian producer already had the rights to the book. She said she was making an adaptation but had no director. We told them I was interested, and she saw my other movie and agreed.

I made my own adaptation from the first screenplay. I changed quite a lot of things from the book, even though it’s really great. There was a lot of flashback which I removed. The book has only the point of view of the little girl, but I decided to have the perspective of both mother and daughter. In the book we hear the voice of the father, but I wanted to always have doubt and to never hear the voice. I wanted it to be on the line, in the middle between reality and the imagination.

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Your last film, Since Otar Left, also dealt with grief. Was that intentional?
I didn’t initially make the link. Maybe it’s because I wanted to talk about life and when you talk about life you have to talk about death.

I like stories when there is a big drama, but the characters are not victims – but use this drama to develop something or react imaginatively. In my first movie, the young woman started to be a writer, to invent another life to her uncle, and write fake letters. In The Tree, Simone develops her own world.

The tree itself is central to the film. Was it difficult to find?
For me, it was the main character, so we made a survey but it was more like a casting. We spent two years looking. I never wanted a fake tree. I wanted to have a real one, to have the reality, organic life. I don’t think they expected me to find a tree that was so big, so tall, so gorgeous. We needed one that stood alone, not surrounded by other trees, so it was a big challenge but in the end we found it and it was like when you fall in love.

Your background is in documentaries. Why did you make the shift into feature films?
My first movie, Since Otar Left, was based on a real story. It was impossible to make a documentary about this story because of the intimacy. It was a strange story – I could not film this grandmother knowing that there was this lie. I decided it would be better for fiction, and discovered that I could be more personal in this medium. But I love to make documentaries, and still do some between feature films.

How has that background affected your feature films?
It gives me a lot because I am very interested in all the detail. I like to use non-professional actors, and take a lot of time doing the survey and preparation. I look at everything, trying to put the real thing inside the film. Also because I’m shooting in foreign countries, I have to make my own documentary process to be as close as possible to the country.

Both films were set in different countries. Was that difficult?
It’s difficult for sure because it’s a completely new crew, you don’t know anybody, the language isn’t always the same, but I managed. It gave me more freedom because I’m far from my house, all my referents, and it’s a big challenge, a big. I make documentaries in my own country, but I think now all my features will be far away. I like it a lot.

In this film, the mentality of the exile was useful. When you are far away and alone, you remember your own country or roots, but you have to make a new life, to be very strong. It’s like when you miss somebody – you have to keep your memories but also move on. The two sentiments are very close. It’s why I preferred to have a French mother in the tree – Charlotte Gainsbourg – while in the book the mother was Australian. Having no family around means she is more alone in this grief.

You said once it would be 100 years before women would be as prominent in the cinema as men. Why is that? Is it difficult working as a female director?
In France, there are a lot of women directors, but international cinema is very hard – there are fewer women than men. Economically, getting people to trust women to make big movies is not easy.

The cinema is a young art, when you compare it to literature or painting, so what I meant was that step by step we will come, I hope, to equality. Maybe fewer films are made by women, but there are also less producers, critics, or festival judges who are women. I haven’t been interviewed by many women, because in newspapers, there are fewer women. I don’t think there is difference between men and women’s films – that is another question. It’s more an economical and political issue.