Directors discuss their foreign-language front-runners

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Caramel (Lebanon)

Writer-director Nadine Labaki tells the story of five women who meet regularly in a Beirut beauty salon in this Roadside Attractions film.

"The starting point was something very personal. Women around me were not very happy with the way they are -- at ease with their movements, with their bodies.

"And I felt that way, too. I used to feel there is a lot of self-censorship. I was torn between the image of this Western woman who is very free and does exactly what she wants, and someone who is scared of how people judge her, with the weight of religion, education. I live in Beirut, and we seem to be a very modern people. But this freedom is only an appearance.

"I was inspired by the stories around me -- like, a woman who had this operation (to hide the loss of her virginity). Then there was an old woman who lives in my neighborhood and goes around collecting paper from the ground, and I used her story in the film. When she was young, she fell in love with a French officer. Then he left the country and kept sending her letters, but her parents were opposed to this relationship, so they hid the letters. After that, she became a little crazy, and now she is over 80 years old and still looking for the letters.

"It took at least a year of looking in stores, in restaurants, and putting ads in newspapers to find the actors. The old lady who plays her, I found in the same street. She is 85 and never got married and has regrets about it. She was very lonely. But now that the film has come out, everybody talks to her and says, 'You made us laugh so much!' This has changed her lonely life, and she is very popular."

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Romania)

Writer-director Cristian Mungiu's film, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and is being distributed by IFC Films, is a suspenseful drama about two women trying to arrange an abortion in Ceausescu-era Romania.

"I wanted to make a film about my generation. I belong to a special generation -- born in 1968 -- one of these baby-boom children that were generated by a law banning abortion. It resulted in the biggest generation of children in Romania. We are called back home 'the children of the decree.'

"Initially, I wrote another screenplay about that period, 'Tales From the Golden Age.' This is the name the propaganda gave to Ceausescu's last 15 years, and it is quite ironic because it was the worst period in the history of the country.   

"I wrote that, and a young actor told me because this involved lots of humor, it must have been very funny to live then. I was shocked and decided I needed to attach something that would be more sober to keep a balance.
   
"I started thinking of stories from the period, and then I ran across this girl who told me this story about getting an abortion -- a true story, and it happened pretty much as you see it in the film. Everything in the film is based on fact; the only part that is fictional is the background of the characters. All the parts involving the abortionist (who forces the women to have sex with him) are very accurate.

"It was very personal to me because we were quite close. When we met and she told me this story again, I felt like the first time I heard it and felt all these emotions."

The Counterfeiters (Austria)

Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzy's film, from Sony Pictures Classics, tells the story of a real-life counterfeiting operation that the Nazis set up in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Ruzowitzky had personal reasons for wanting to make the movie.

"As an Austrian, the whole thing about the Nazis is a big issue. My grandparents on both sides were Nazis. They weren't leading figures, but as far as I know they sympathized with the Nazis. This was difficult to find out about because when I was old enough to ask questions, they weren't ready to answer them. Whenever there was a discussion about the Nazis, my grandmother would leave the room and say, 'You have no idea what it was like then.'

"I'd never wanted to make a Holocaust story, but I felt this was something I hadn't thought about: a crook, a jailbird, a professional counterfeiter in a concentration camp. Doing research, I'd found all these autobiographies written by intellectuals with a bourgeois, academic background; but this was about a guy who's a jailbird and has had quite different experiences.

"When I read about the concentration camps, I found the system was organized around an idea: that the inmates would torture and kill one another -- especially the criminals there, who were given extensive powers over life and death. The concentration camp wasn't a place that would bring out the best in men, but just the opposite. People who were starving to death forgot about ideals and their ideas of humanity. The wardens would stand back and watch them torture each other."

The Orphanage (Spain)

Director Juan Antonio Bayona's film, distributed by Picturehouse, is a ghost story about a woman whose son disappears in mysterious circumstances related to the orphanage where she grew up.

"I got the script from (screenwriter Sergio Sanchez) in 2000. He was looking to finance it, and he couldn't find anybody interested. People were telling him it was an impossible mix of genres: melodrama and horror.

"I was very interested in the idea. The story of Laura is the story of a woman who cannot deal with the responsibilities of adult life. That made the story human to me. I needed to find a humanity in the horror, to bring life to it, because I wasn't interested in just horror.

"A strange thing happened: When Sergio was working on the script, he was isolated in a house in the mountains, and he called me at 2 a.m. and told me, 'I am not alone.' I said, 'I don't understand. What do you mean?' He said, 'My grandmother, who died in the bed I am lying in -- she just came in and said, "I am here to warn you: Someone is going to enter the room right now." Then all these strange people came in! Very tall people.' He was so scared, he hid himself under the blankets.

"Do I believe him? I don't know, but five months later his brother saw the same ghosts in the same house. And when we shot the film, in a house on the northwest coast of Spain, there were stories about it. There was a dark legend because the son of the owner had died there and they abandoned the house but kept it exactly the same as it was 30 years before.

"One night the soundman was trying to get some ambient sound, and he went there and heard these strange noises, and we put them in the seance sequence in the film.

"I used to say I don't believe in ghosts. But I am afraid of them."

Persepolis (France)

This animated film from Sony Pictures Classics is based on the graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi (who directed with Vincent Paronnaud) and tells her life story, starting with her childhood in Iran.

"This is based on my life, but it is certainly not a documentary. If my life could fit into 40 pages of a comic, I must have had a very miserable life! It is an impression, a feeling; it is not so much to serve reality -- that is the work of a journalist.

"I grew up in Tehran in a middle-class family. We had a nice life: We could go to Europe, and my parents had their own car. Then things changed, and war happened, and they sent me abroad.

"In 1994, five years after I left Iran, I had enough distance to be able to write this story without feelings of revenge and hate and violence. I started doing a comic strip. I never believed anyone would read it, and it became this international success.

"I didn't have any idea of turning that into a movie. But a friend of mine wanted to be a producer. I said, 'I'll do it, but I want it to be in black-and-white, and I want to work with my best friend (graphic novelist Paronnaud), and I want Catherine Deneuve!' He said yes to all of this.

"It was like diving into the water and --shit! -- we don't know how to swim. We started writing and thought the best way would be to take material directly from the books. But that was a mistake, and we had to create the story (fresh).

"The thing I learned is: Everything is possible. All of the film is hand-drawn, even the inking. If you came to our studio, it looks much more like the studios of the 1950s. Vincent and I are so bad with computers -- he doesn't even know e-mail! And a machine makes things too perfect; we wanted to keep the shake in the line."
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