Mia Hansen-Løve is one of my very favorite directors working today. Her infinitely wise films about the passage of time, the beautiful characterizations of the people who inhabit her work, as well as her willingness to always expand her cinematic universe at whatever the cost, leaves me in awe. Her new film Maya isn't an exception to this rule. Structurally daring, logistically ambitious but always heartfelt, Hansen-Løv is reaching a new height. I got a chance to talk to her while she was in New York for Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Stuck in traffic and suffering from a cold, I was about ten minutes late for our appointment, but she was so accomodating and kind to me. I thank her from the bottom of my heart.
Here is how our conversation went:
Screen Anarchy: Throughout your filmography you try to do something different and something bigger, grander in scale each time. I like that about you.
Mia Hansen-Løve: Oh thanks for saying that. Not many people notice that.
Gabriel, one of the main characters in MAYA, played by Roman Kolinka, is a war journalist. Is he based on anybody?
Not really. I got some of… my inspiration from a former hostage but it stops when the trip to India starts. The only thing you could say is his story was inspired by true events and it has to do with captivity but the film doesn’t deal so much with that. I mean it’s just the starting point of the film. But this trip to India to me is mostly an inner journey. And the film is really about invisible transformation... of not anyone in particular, maybe it only pertains to me, in a more indirect way. But the character is not certainly inspired by someone in particular.
Speaking of something that is more personal and has more direct relationship with you, does India and especially Goa, have a special connection to you?
It does. I’ve been traveling to India for the last ten years or so. I’ve been there almost every year. I’ve written one of my films there. But I’ve been attracted to India since I was in my 20s. Of course it had to do with me wanting to move on and do something different and so on. But I actually needed it, both as a person and as and artist. And at some point it made sense to me to try to confront my sensibility to India. It wasn’t like I wanted to make a film about or taking place in India then make up the story. This story for the film came to my mind first.
The story and characters came first and I thought it would make sense at this point, especially after Things to Come which was a such a ‘home movie’ in a way. (laughs) In another way, but you know what I mean. I wanted to go to a very different place and take that risk. I think risk somehow always excites me too. It was a way to get close to India and to go further in my relationship to India and not stay on the surface of it. Because you go there as a tourist, even if you go many times, it’s hard to go beyond the surface, unless you live there and….
But I thought to myself what’s the best way to know india better? Maybe to shoot a film there. That’s a great way to experience the place - to know places and people and experience things that I would never get to do otherwise. It’s challenging but also very exciting. I think it’s a very good way to go deeper into different culture and a country.
Did it feel like that when you were shooting part of EDEN, in New York?
I think all of my films somehow have been ways to get deeper into a certain world. They are never documentary because I am really into fiction but somehow there was always this dimension in my films using fiction and making films as a way to further my experience and my knowledge. I think that’s what films should do anyway.
Right. Definitely. I have to tell you that EDEN is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s a masterpiece and I really really love that film.
Oh thank you. I will tell my brother (Sven, whose DJ career was the basis for Eden) will be happy to hear that.
How was shooting in India?
I think it was both amazing, extremely how do you say…joyful and also very tough. I mean it was actually amazing to be so far away to work with Indian people, to work with an Indian actress - just to lose myself and immerse into such a different world. I got so much from it and I feel I am so much stronger since I made that film.
For me there is before and after Maya. So the experience will stay forever with me. But on the other hand it was tough. When I started shooting I was already exhausted. both physically and mentally. I had tons of health issues at that time.
Oh sorry to hear that.
Nothing really bad but you know when you have that and when you are about to shoot a movie in India, it's not the best moment to have these kind of issues. Mentally also because the film was so difficult to finance. I felt huge responsibility toward my producers. I felt I had to not to do any overtime…, I'm always pushing for time. I felt I had great weight on my shoulders because all the risk they had taken to make that film. Maybe that was the most difficult thing on that shoot - this guilty feeling on some level. (laughs) But months after shooting, looking back what stays the strongest is a what unique experience it was.
It’s a unique movie too in a lot of aspects.
Oh thank you.
How did you find this beautiful actress, Aarshi Banerjee, who played Maya?
It took me some time to find Aarshi. We spent months looking for girls mostly in Mumbai but also around Mumbai, Maharashtra, but also in Goa and even in London, because we had some connections there, so we were looking though the Indian community- I was looking for a girl who speaks English. So it was casing but also in Facebook and social media. In many videos I got, I thought the girls were too much like actresses and too elegant. And I received this video of Aarshi where she filmed herself in a living room with a dog and she was so raw… I mean on the one hand she is extremely beautiful, in my head the character had to be, but on top of that she was so direct and so authentic. She moved me a lot with her maturity and depth and authority but at the same time she is also very much rooted…how do you say in…
Grounded, you know? she is really into her Indian reality. She’s not like ideal or romantic figure. she’s a real girl. And because my character Gabriel is a such a ghost when he arrives in India, I felt it was important that she shouldn’t be a ghost. She would have to be very real. I love the fact that she has a very timeless beauty but she also has a very contemporary quality to her. I think I used that a lot in her character.
That makes a lot of sense because I was wondering about the title because it could well have been Gabriel. Because the film starts with him and it’s his journey. But talking to you it makes sense that it’s called MAYA.
I think it is a poetic choice. The film doesn’t have to… the film is not a summery or… The title of the film is Maya and it says something. She brings something essential to the film and yes the main character is definitely Gabriel and you could say she just passes through the film, but she brings him back to life somehow. She bring him grace in his life. I thought it was beautiful to call the film Maya - the beauty and the fragility and youth that she symbolizes. She is the direction. She is the starting point. He might be the main character but she’s what the film looks at.
Is that also about that special person when we think back our lives there was this one person who changed the course of my existence somehow, that Gabriel can be that person for Maya by meeting her?
Totally. Maybe that was the starting point of the film. Also when I look back on my own life I think of some persons I have met when I was a teenager and maybe they made me suffer at some point but they meant so much too and they helped me grow up and become aware of who I was and… So I am happy to hear that you understood that because that’s what the film is about. It’s a love story in a way but It’s more than a love story. The film is less conventional than that. Of course there’s love involved but even more than that, it’s about just what you said. Like how at some point two people who are very different who can’t really live together or make a couple… why they had to meet, why, there is something crucial that has a deep impact on your life coming out of this encounter, even though they go separate ways at the end.
That’s how I took it when I watched it. Why I admire you as an artist is that your film;s scale is getting bigger even though your theme - time passing and meeting someone important in your life. You always try something that is more difficult to achieve. You once told me that you were having a hard time financing these films because they are grander in scale.
It’s the guilt I feel when I make these films because they are not financially viable. I obviously don’t want them to be expensive but the fact is I fight for shooting on 35mm film which is personally very important to me. And I struggle to keep a certain time, to have possibility of minimum of time because I have so many locations, I keep running from one place to another. I mean they are still cheap compared to 90 percent of films that are being made in the world but economically viable while still being free creatively like some other directors I know, I’m not smart on that side of things yet. I know I should be because it is vital to keep doing what I love doing.
No I think with all your films you show the audience that you really suffer for your art. I am grateful for it. I am grateful for watching these.
Thank you so much. Because it makes it all worth it when people tell me this. It gives me courage and confidence and we actually need it.
Keep doing it by all means. I don’t want to downplay the importance of this film but I’d love to see a sequel. The way it ended, I want to see more of Maya since she is just starting her life.
I don’t know. it is hard to predict for myself what I’m going to do next but I enjoyed so much working with Aarshi and Roman that one thing for sure is I’d very much work with them again at some point. I still feel frustrated about not getting enough from them.
Goa, the way you portray it, it’s going through a radical transformation with all the new constructions and all that. Is it actually happening? That the gentrification of Goa is real?
It’s maybe one thing that I’m the most proud of of the film. How faithful it is to today’s Goa. It’s a fiction and definitely not a documentary. But I’d like to frame it in such a way in fiction that I reflect the reality and capture the moment in time. I’ve seen Goa change a lot within the last 15 years and I’m not sure if I would go back there again anymore now because of these changes. Goa is certainly not a paradise but more like paradise lost. And that’s what I tried to show because there are still beauty and charms in many ways but you have so much mixed feelings when you are there because I think there are still a lot of poetry there in its heterogeneity in cultures and people all mixed up and magical because it’s still india but it’s ruined by tourism and corruption. It’s spoiling away literally both physically with pollution and mentally. I think in a way the film was my goodbye letter to Goa.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com