Dialogue: Luigi Falorni

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Italian-born, German-based director Luigi Falorni has sidestepped state censorship, production nightmares and a homegrown lawsuit to bring his debut fiction film on child soldiers, "Heart of Fire," to the screen. The co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary "The Story of the Weeping Camel" used his nonfiction experience to cast and shoot the adaptation of Senait Mehari's best-selling autobiography. Falorni spoke to The Hollywood Reporter German bureau chief Scott Roxborough about civil war, one-day whirlwind casting and seeing the world through the eyes of a child.

The Hollywood Reporter:
Let's start with the controversy surrounding Mehari's book. She has been sued for defamation by some of her fellow child soldiers who say she made much of her story up.
Luigi Falorni: My position is in spite of all the controversy surrounding the details of the book, the basic story is historic fact. There have been child soldiers in the Eritrean Liberation Front. The thing with my film is when I was writing the script, I put the book away and thought about what inspired me about the story and tried to put the essence of that in the film. The result was a more universal story about the need to belong -- a fictional story set in the historical context (of the Eritrean civil war in the 1980s).

THR: How did you cast the movie?
Falorni: I started looking a long time before we were supposed to begin shooting. We first went to Nairobi and did extensive castings in the Eritrean community there. There were all nonactors, so we were looking for people who were the characters, not who could act the characters. We cast the movie and then, one week before the shoot, people started calling and saying they couldn't do it. One by one, they all backed out, except for the character of the young girl. They were getting threats from the Eritrean embassy because you know their official line is that there were no child soldiers in the war. So a week before we were set to start shooting and we had no cast. The producers were getting very nervous. The film was very close to being canceled. That's when I flew to Kenya and went to an Eritrean refugee camp. We had one day to cast the movie. I just ran around with my video camera, from one person to another, explaining what I was doing then getting them to do a scene. It was like jumping into cold water. But by the end of the day we had the cast, and on Monday we started the shoot. On schedule. Strangely, it turned out the cast was even better than the one I had so carefully selected before. It was almost as if, being in a refugee camp, so close to the reality of Eritrea, gave them an authenticity that came through in the film.

THR: Was it a quest for authenticity that led you to shoot this film in Africa in the original Eritrean?
Falorni: I think it comes from my background as a documentary filmmaker. I wanted to get as close as possible to the historical reality. That's why we cast Eritreans who lived through the conflict, who knew what things were like.

THR: Why didn't you shoot on location in Eritrea?
Falorni: We tried to. I wrote to the Eritrean government and offered, in addition to producing the film there, I would start up a sort of film school for local people who want to make films. I said I would go there regularly to hold workshops. But the government turned me down because of the subject. Their official line is there were no child soldiers in the war. But it is a shame because I think it is sort of a scandal that someone like me, coming from Europe, is making this film and not someone from Eritrea. But I hope this film will start a discussion among the Eritrean community and maybe inspire some people to tell their own stories.

THR: Do you consider this a political film?
Falorni: I am surprised how political the film has become. I originally wanted to tell a very personal story of this one little girl (who becomes a child solider). The original idea was not political in any way. But then I realized how much political force there is in telling the story of war from the eyes of a child. It's like the fairy tale of "The Emperor's New Clothes," when the child says, "The emperor is naked." The child's view goes to the core of conflicts like this because a child doesn't see the global aspects or the "political necessity" of a war. A child looks directly the core of war and says, "This is wrong." The adult world could learn a lot if it more often looked at things through the eyes of a child.

VITAL STATS:
Nationality: Italian
Born: Jan. 4, 1971
Film in Berlin: "Heart of Fire"
Selected filmography: "The Story of the Weeping Camel" (2003), "Fools and Heroes" (1997)
Notable awards: DGA Award outstanding directorial achievement in documentary, "The Story of the Weeping Camel" (2003); Bavarian Film Award best documentary, "The Story of the Weeping Camel" (2003); European Film Awards best documentary, "The Story of the Weeping Camel" (2003)
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