Seasoned Danish writer-director Birgitte Stærmose, recently credited for the Netflix show “In From the Cold,” Starz’s “The Spanish Princess” and Göteborg 2023 closing pic “Camino,” is due to bow at the Berlin Film Festival’s Dokument program her hybrid pic “Afterwar”.
Variety has secured in exclusivity the trailer for the helmer’s anti-war pamphlet produced by Magic Hour Films in Denmark (“Burma VJ”) in co-production with Sweden’s Vilda Bomben Film (“Excess Will Save Us”), Finland’s Bufo (“Fallen Leaves”) and Kosovo’s Kabineti.
More from Variety
A meditation on the long-term effects of war, “Afterwar” is the feature-length spinoff of Stærmose’s short film “Out of Love.” The story of a bunch of street kids in Pristina trying to survive in the aftermath of the Kosovo war, snagged multiple awards in 2010, including a Berlinale Generation 14Plus Special Mention.
15 years in the making, “Afterwar” was co-created with four of the amateur actors in “Out of Love”– Gëzim Kelmendi, Xhevahire Abdullahu, Shpresim Azemi and Besnik Hyseni.
Through a similar fusion of documentary and fiction, built on staged performance and raw realism, the helmer provides a closer look at the lives of the kids turned adults, as they still struggle to survive. Haunted by their past, they dream of a better future, for themselves, their families and humanity as a whole.
“Making the short film with them as children was an experience that changed me as a human, and as a filmmaker,” says Stærmose who kept contact with some of them over the years, and followed others on social media. “I was very curious to find out how their fate as children affected them as young adults,” she tells Variety, while expanding on the genesis of “Afterwar.”
“What does it mean to grow up poor and to grow up in a post-war society? Can you escape that fate? I wanted to tell a story that was closer to the truth about the type of limbo that war can leave people in. That war is not just a moment in time. Its effects live on in the people that survived the war, for generations. The human consequences of war are enormous, and we tend to ignore that. It is too hard for us to really face that fact,” she states.
On her hybrid cinematic style, Stærmose says she is first and foremost a fiction helmer, but Kosovo’s reality which she found “intense and fascinating” when she first experienced it in 2006, sparked her desire “to be formalistically daring”. “It was as if the ‘Production Designer’ had not arrived. In Copenhagen where I live, the ‘Production Designer’ has been working overtime for decades!” she quips.
The raw material for the narration was based on interviews with the cast about topics, altogether abstract (such as ‘what do you dream of?’) and realistic, inspired by the Proust questionnaire. The content was then staged as written scenes and monologues, created in full collaboration with the cast.
“I work intentionally on elevating reality,” explains Stærmose, stressing that she has “almost not filmed anything that happened in reality, only the staged material.” “I have made up elements in the storytelling and I have used actors mixed seamlessly with ‘the real cast.’ Sometimes a family member is the real person, sometimes an actor.”
The locations were also used as a tool to heighten reality and turn it into something bigger. “It is a confrontational style of filmmaking, but I wanted to make sure the audience could not meet [the protagonists]’s statements with mere pity,” she adds.
The main themes in “Afterwar” of dignity, shame and dreams, grew out of the questions asked in the interviews, but most importantly, they reflect the protagonists’ current lives, says the helmer. “When you are in your twenties, you struggle for your identity, to gain respect from others, and you have immense hope and dreams for the future,” she insists.
While “Out of Love” was penned by the celebrated Danish screenwriter and playwright Peter Asmussen (“Breaking the Waves,” “Day and Night”), his death in 2016 forced Stærmose to follow his footsteps with “Afterwar”.
“In the short, Peter and I had worked from the principle of giving the children bigger words than they maybe would use themselves, feeling that they contained these big unexpressed feelings and inner emotional life. When I had to write the new script, I tried to stay closer to the interviews and their words than Peter had in the original film,” notes Stærmose. “I was afraid of losing authenticity, and I also felt the words of the kids turned grown-ups had to be used pretty exactly, to honour their grown-up ability to reflect on a larger scale.”
Next to the staged monologues, she added acted scenes with dialogue, creating full fictional storylines for each of the characters, “fictional storylines that were somehow rooted in their collective reality,” she states.
Asked about the biggest challenges during filming, Stærmose finds it hard to pick one particular aspect. “It was an incredibly difficult film to make, so I don’t know where to start!” she comments, before itemizing filming in the streets, in the mountains under minus 20 degrees, doing fairly big ambitious fictional scenes with a small documentary crew, getting COVID day one of shooting the last instalment, keeping the project going through a pandemic on a very small budget, having to be incredibly flexible and improvisational at all times, while still maintaining a stringent cinematic goal, trusting in the experiment and trusting the process during such a long period.”
Fully supporting Stærmose’s vision was producer Lise Lense-Møller, founder of Magic House Films who teamed up with co-producers Visar Arifaj in Kosovo, Fredrik Lange in Sweden, Misha Jaari, Mark Lwoff in Finland, and Norwegian associate producer Andrea Berentsen Ottmar (“The Worst Person in the World”). At press time Lense-Møller was negotiating global rights with an international sales agent.
“Afterwar” is one of 20 titles competing for the Berlinale Documentary Award and its handsome $43,000 cash prize.
Best of Variety