Ilaria Borrelli, is an Italian actress, novelist, screenwriter and director. Her third feature film, Girl from The Brothel, is about a Western woman who risks her life to rescue three kids from a Cambodian brothel.
As a writer/director, what's the most thrilling aspect of making a movie? Is it thinking about story lines... directing actors... the moment you say action?
By far, managing to make an actor really cry. Also, evoking truthful emotions in a child. As a director, I use techniques I learned years ago at the Actors Studio. I think there's nothing more moving than to guide another human being into his or her deepest, most intimate state - which is also the closest you can get to a universal truth.
I see a common thread in your novels as well as films, i.e. the often humorous mishaps of a woman on the path to self-determination in work and love, who finds herself fighting sexism, ineptitude and being misunderstood by everyone around her. Now you've made a film that explicitly takes on politics and human rights. How did you get here?
Since becoming a mother, and also since traveling to very poor countries, I've understood that there's a lot more useful work to be done than exposing the sexist, bigoted, provincial aspects of Italian culture, which used to make me so angry.
Now I know that there are so many people who are so much worse off than we are. Places in the world where hardcore, institutionalized sexism thrives in situations of extreme poverty and injustice. Where not only is there absolutely no respect for women, but where this lack of respect extends to children.
I couldn't look the other way, so I began investigating situations where human beings are traded on the sex market, exploited in wars. Little girls forced to marry at 12, then dying because forced to give birth at 13, when the body isn't ready.
As we move on in life I think we all have to come to terms with what really makes the world go round. Internet and accessibility to remote places have uncovered monstrosities that just 20 years ago, could be swept under the carpet.
Why did you choose to make a film specifically about child prostitution?
I've been following certain organizations that deal with violence against children for years. In particular, I was struck by images that New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof shot in Cambodia with a hidden camera: children under 10 years old, offering him oral sex for 5 dollars and telling him that if he didn't like it he didn't have to pay. I felt such rage, and also such pain and indignation on behalf of the human race. How can there be people willing to incarcerate children and force them to have sex with, in some cases, 20 men a day? It's unimaginable, and yet it happens.
Writing is the only way I can deal with that shock and that disgust: putting the pain black on white. And then making a movie out of that becomes an obsession, maybe because no other art form can transmit emotions as powerfully as film.
The language of emotion is the only way to reach other human beings in the hope of effecting lasting change - beginning with ourselves. It could even be a tool for pedophiles to see the secret aspects of themselves reflected in others, to realize the evil that is being perpetrated on children, to feel the suffering that they bring upon other human beings. It's just an idea, but it's worth trying.
I believe film can be cathartic. It can help a murderer mourn, a victim empower him or herself. And there is nothing like film, the kind that really moves people, makes them react emotionally, to instigate this process.
Have you changed as an artist since having your children?
Yes. Of course, I've always wanted to change the world, make it a better place. But now I'm thinking, "I don't have any time to waste, what's the most useful story I can tell?" The energy it takes to make a movie is enormous: which story is most worthy of that investment - sexism in Italy or the exploitation of children in the third world? I'm more at peace with myself since having my children. Taking care of them forced me to be more aware of others in general, to come out of my shell. Life has dealt me some terrible blows, but if I think that somewhere out there, children are being raped 20 times a day as we speak, my own pain disappears. I literally don't have any more time to waste on it. Deepak Chopra says that when we suffer we mustn't follow our natural inclination, which is to shut down, but on the contrary reach out to others who also suffer. There's so much to be done to help those who can't defend themselves. Women, and especially children.
After a significant career as an actress, you went on to study directing in New York, where you also shot your first feature. What did you learn from the Americans?
They taught me the most important aspect of the artistic process: how to create emotion. The Americans are all about that. I was in awe of Susan Batson, who is one of 14 lifetime members of the Actors Studio. She made me understand that my pain was a strength, if I knowingly integrated it into my art - if I could stop being subjected to it, detach from it, then use it in my writing and my acting.
What directors have inspired you the most?
When I was younger I adored Pietro Germi and Mario Monicelli, and screenwriters like Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli. I was electrified by their razor-sharp wit and irony, their way of brutally exposing our faults. Lately I've begun to appreciate directors like Alejandro Amenabar and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. They render the profound pain we experience at certain key moments in life. Seeing one's own suffering reflected on the screen is priceless, because it makes us aware of the torment that we inflict and that is inflicted on us - helps us understand where it is, what it looks like. I call it film as mourning.
Tell us about Cambodia, where you shot Girl from The Brothel. What struck you the most? What did you learn?
Cambodians are a very sweet, very gentle people and maybe this is why it's so easy to lure children there into prostitution and in general, to lure people into illicit activities. I've thought a lot about this sweetness of theirs, which as Westerners we find so pleasing. Unfortunately guilelessness and simplicity can also be misfortune. You have to learn to defend yourself in life; to be conscious of the horrors that human beings are capable of. It would be nice if the stronger, more industrialized countries could realize that this openness and naivete that still survives in some places in the world should be protected on a global level. I'm thinking of the Tibetans, the Burmese, and the Nuba, in Sudan. All of them populations that are being slaughtered, purely for economic gain. But once we've wiped out every last sweet and peace-loving people on earth, that innocence, that cleansing example, will be lost to us forever. We will no longer be able to reconnect with the more beautiful and spiritual part of ourselves. The only ones left will be the cynical, ruthless, materialistic cultures, and we will all be sentenced to becoming more and more monstrous.
Tell us an anecdote from your Cambodia shoot, which included some pretty extreme locations: jungles, rivers, uninhabited islands, slums...
Well, for starters, the leeches that crawled up our legs and into our underwear are unforgettable. But let's not forget the unexploded bomb we found a foot away from the camera on our last day of shooting, or the dysentery and the vomiting, which had become a part of everyday life, or the war with Thailand, which broke out just as we were setting up in a tiny village near the border: there was a blackout, and all the villagers fled into the hills in fear of an imminent invasion, while we kept shooting, using our generator. (SF)