By Yun-hua Chen.
Premiering at the Berlinale Generation 2018, Cobain is a film about the eponymous hero, a 15-year-old boy in Rotterdam played by the first-time actor Bas Keizer. As his drug addict and expectant mother Mia is unable to take care of him, Cobain is sent to a foster family from the children’s home. Yet he runs away from the world of comfort and security in search of Mia, who seems to be abandoned by everyone around her. He thus visits Mia’s old acquaintances in dingy dwellings of drug addicts in town and ends up working for the brothel of Mia’s former pimp. Carefully paced and stunningly performed, it is coming-of-age story about a teenager who is forced to grow up too fast and who learns to come into terms with harshness of reality on the street, as well as an unflinching look at the marginalized world within a well-to-do society.
Yun-hua Chen took up the opportunity to have a chat with the director Nanouk Leopold during the Berlinale about her film world.
How did you come across the story and how did you develop the script?
This is not my own script, and it’s something new for me. Normally I write myself, but this script was actually written by my producer Stienette Bosklopper. I have worked together with her for 18 years already. We made six films together. Initially she was a bit secretive about the script because she was afraid that I wouldn’t like it. In the end she showed it to me because she wanted to listen to my opinion and ask me to help find a young director to make a debut film out of it. As I really like the script, I asked her if I could make it myself. In fact, after five films, I was looking for some new influence. I wanted to make something that I have never done before. The character in this film is a 15-years-old boy, which is something very new for me. The milieu is also very different from my previous films which mostly had a focus on more middle-class people. What I like most is that there is such a clear line from the beginning till the end. I wanted to try to use a story like this with such a clear and straight storyline to have more freedom of improvisation and make scenes that are in the periphery of the main story.
How did you get into the milieu yourself?
The film was shot in Rotterdam, where I live, so I know the places where people use drugs or where homeless people stay. It’s not a very big city, so sometimes you know faces of people who live on the street. We have a special place in Rotterdam with facilities for people who are homeless or have drug problems. They can have a meal and coffee there and do some activities. We spent some time there to talk with them. It’s a nice way to see how they dress, how they talk, what their stories are. And then we asked if they would be willing to work with us on the film. That’s how many of these homeless people appear in the film. In the football scene and the barbeque scene, for example, most of them are real people who are homeless or with drug problems. They are very nice to work with.
How was the casting decision made? The dynamics between Bas Keizer who plays Cobain and Naomi Velissariou who plays Mia is fascinating. They are at the same time mother and son, elder brother and younger sister. And, how did you work with an actor who was so young?
I saw 500 boys before we found Bas Keizer. During some workshops during weekends, I worked with a small group of 12 boys. They were actually all in the film, acting as Cobain’s friends in the football game for instance or in the house where he lives. We decided that Bas would be the best choice because he has a very special face. He has the quality of being a child and a man at the same time. He is in-between and has a softness in his face which makes it possible to go in somehow, as if you could feel his emotions. That’s the quality that you cannot teach an actor, and it’s wonderful. As preparation, we hung out with all the actors in the film and did some scenes together. I wanted Bas to feel comfortable with all the people he would work with. Naomi, the one who plays the role of the mother, has the quality of being at the same level as Bas. They communicate like friends. They bond really well. As you can see in the film, they are more like friends than mother and child. I think it is very important because she is not the mother. She doesn’t know what a mother is, and she has never been a mother. Cobain in the film is 15 years old and the mother is 30, so she must have been 14 when she got pregnant. There is a whole story behind what happened to her. It’s important that I don’t judge her. It’s not about being a bad mother or a good mother. It’s just a person, and we are all trying.
What fascinates you in family-themed films? You have worked on this subject matter a lot in your previous films such as Oben ist es still (2013), Wolfsbergen (2007)?
All the families are like small societies. It’s like a micro-world. What I like most about these films is that somehow they change their places; a child is taking care of a parent, and the parent is somehow a child, being much more irresponsible and vulnerable in a way. For me it’s a very universal theme. When there are difficulties, children are forced to be too much of a grown up. On the other hand, that is what makes you the person that you are. I didn’t want to make it very heavy. I also wanted to show that Cobain survived, he can help himself become a better person, and he can save himself in some way.
There is also an undertone of Cobain’s exploration of sexuality.
It’s part of becoming a grown-up. When he starts to move in with Wickmayer, the former pimp of his mother, he becomes more of a grown-up with more responsibility. It feels like he is trying to blend in to the environment. When he makes love for the first time, he puts on make-up as well, as if he is somehow both the girl and the customer at the same time. I think that’s what children do. My son is now 10. When I talk on the phone for my work, he would take a little toy to mimic my movement. So, it’s not only about his own development from a boy to man, but also a way of surviving in the world where he lives in and adapting accordingly. What is most important for me is that at the end when he goes back to children’s home with other children, you feel that he has grown as a person, but he still has the chance to be a child again. At the same time, you can imagine that all these boys have a story. They are not living in children’s home without their parents by choice.
The ending is very surprising. It feels like a horror film. The audience could sense that something is bound to happen, but no one could predict what would actually happen. Without spoiling the film, I wonder how you decide to end the film this way?
It’s difficult to talk about it without giving away what actually happens. There is a very harsh moment at the end when Cobain has to do something difficult. I wanted to show why it is difficult and to what extent he has to do something in order to save himself and to save the future of his baby brother. If you don’t show the scene as it is, it is too easy. It’s actually a huge contrast with what happens afterwards. It’s about the wonder of life and the way life and death are always connected.
That was a very nice optimistic note at the end.
I hope so. To be optimistic at the end, you have to go through the deepest depth of horror, but I want to be optimistic and to show that he has the power to survive.
How was the audience’s response in Berlin?
It was the premiere in Berlin and I was very scared. Before the premiere, I have only shown the film to colleagues and film professionals. The first time in front of an audience is always very exciting, and you don’t know if they would laugh at good moments. When we watch the particular moment at the end of the film, there was a rush among the audience in the entire room. I thought that they would stand up and walk out or do something. It felt as if everybody stood up from their chair, but they didn’t. The strange thing is that right afterwards there were some extremely quiet moments. It was very beautiful to experience it with all these people. When they applauded, I felt that they gave me the permission. During the Q&A, there were a lot of questions for Bas because everybody wanted to know how it was like for him to be in such a story, being someone who is not a trained actor. He was like a rock star.
What is your next project?
I am now writing a story about a woman who is in her 50s working as a professional hunter in Canada. She becomes entangled in a situation when she helps a young girl hide from her family. Hunting in the beginning of the film is something cultural and relaxing, whereas at the end of the film people hunt each other as a matter of life and death. I try to make something like a thriller, with a female central actor, a power woman.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.