Foreign Oscar hopefuls drawn from life

Some of the year's most provocative foreign-language submissions take their cues from real events.

At the beginning of the 2006 school year, director Laurent Cantet knocked on the door of Francoise Dolto Junior High in Paris' 20th arrondissement and recruited 50 ordinary students to attend improvisation workshops on Wednesday afternoons. By the end of the year, the group had winnowed itself down to the 25 teenage cast members of "The Class," the 2008 Palme d'Or winner and French submission for the best foreign-language film Oscar.

"I always work like that," Cantet says. "I always try to use the experience of life, of all the actors, to build the film. (I did that) especially here, because I wanted them to improvise part of the film. It was important also for the teachers. I'm not a teacher, and they can speak of their work and their situation much better than I can. It is important for me to listen to all of them and to pay attention to what they feel, what they like, what they fight for."

The students assumed personas inspired by characters from the semi-autobiographical novel "Entre les murs" (Between the Walls), written by former teacher Francois Begaudeau, who also stars as a version of himself. The resulting film captures what Werner Herzog calls the "ecstatic truth," a spirit of verite that doesn't rely on slavishly recounting the facts.

Several of this year's contenders have equally complicated relationships to the true stories and historical realities that inspired them. An animated documentary about suppressed memories of the first Lebanon War, Israel's "Waltz With Bashir," combines eyewitness accounts from veterans with exuberant musical, fantasy and dream sequences. Brazil's "Last Stop 174" and Canada's "The Necessities of Life" use historical events as jumping-off points for largely fictional stories, while Sweden's "Everlasting Moments" and Germany's "The Baader Meinhof Complex" attempt to stick closer to fact. But talk to the directors of these films, and they are acutely aware that expressing truth is never simple.

"It's not that you want to copy reality," says Uli Edel, director of "The Baader Meinhof Complex," an adaptation of Stefan Aust's book about the infamous terrorist group's operations in Germany between 1967 and 1977. "For me, it wasn't so important to do it one to one. You don't get closer to the truth or to any truth by being too literal. The film creates its own truth."

This didn't stop Edel from doing extensive research, digging up news and documentary footage, interviewing former terrorists, and recreating scenes based on photographs. Often, his own memories of the time would catch up with him on set.

Directing the attempted assassination of left-wing student activist Rudi Dutschke "was emotional for me," he says. "I remembered it very well. It's something you remember like you remember the shooting of JFK. You know exactly where you were and what you felt when the news came through the radio or TV. It was my birthday, by the way, the 11th of April. And it was extremely shocking that something like that would happen in Germany. It was just days before Martin Luther King was shot. Weeks later, Robert Kennedy was shot. Half a year earlier, Che (Guevara) was shot. It all happened in this one year. And it was these feelings I remember that I tried to re-create in the movie, too."

When preparing to shoot "The Necessities of Life," Benoit Pilon's research inspired him to add a crucial scene that wasn't in the original screenplay he co-wrote with Bernard Emond. Set during Canada's tuberculosis epidemic of the 1950s, the story follows an infected Inuit man named Tivii who is separated from his family and sent south to Quebec City for treatment. Through his research, Pilon discovered that the Inuits received their medical examinations on board ships, and those who tested positive were never allowed to disembark. "I actually wrote a boat scene after I did my own research," he says. "I added that to the script, because I thought it was important to show that right from the beginning."

Pilon's research skills may come from the years he spent making documentaries. ("The Necessities of Life" is his first narrative feature.) But his nonfiction background has also attuned him to the realities around him in far subtler ways. "There is some kind of reflex that you develop when you work in documentary that you can easily apply to fiction," he says. "All the things I learned about, like reacting to what's in front of you when you're actually shooting, being aware and being sensitive to the person that's in front of the camera, be it an actor or just an ordinary person."

During one scene, Tivii nearly freezes in a sugar cabin. "There were a few moments in this shot where I could have just said, 'OK, cut,' " Pilon says. "He just stops, and he almost looks like he's dead for a few moments. Probably, when I was younger, before doing documentaries, I would have said, 'OK, well that's it. He did it. It's over.' But then, after three or four seconds of nothing, he suddenly just moves his head, and he takes some air through his nose. He has this wet nose, and he looks almost like an animal who's about to die. And I thought, 'Wow.' To me, it was just so strong, this moment. And it was good that I didn't cut, that I was there waiting for him and being with him, trying to live the scene with him."

Swedish director Jan Troell, who has made several documentaries, also knows the value of letting the camera roll on his actors. "Everlasting Moments" chronicles the life story of Maria Larsson, Troell's wife's great-aunt, who found relief by looking at her hard, working-class life through the lens of a camera. Larsson also bore a houseful of children. "It was difficult, of course, in a way, because we had so many children present in so many scenes," Troell says. "But at the same time, it's very inspiring to work with children, and I try to work almost like in a documentary with them. I only tell them what is necessary for the scene, and I try to use their spontaneity."

Troell was first drawn to actress Maria Heiskanen, who plays Larsson, by her natural, true-to-life quality. "I made a film in 1990 called 'Il Capitano,' which was based on a triple murder that took place in Sweden in 1988 where two Finnish young people, a man and a woman, were involved," he says. "And when we were casting that, I wanted to work with nonactors and young people that didn't have any training in the theater school but had complicated lives so they could identify with these characters. She was only 19 years old then and had no experience at all in film acting."

Troell also lets touches of reality seep into his films by shooting on location as much as possible. Even though "Everlasting Moments" is set in the early 1900s, he managed to avoid spending much time on a soundstage. "I prefer working on location, because you can use things from real life that you haven't thought of when you read the script," he says. "To find locations from 100 years back is not easy in Sweden today, but we did find a couple of places that were very suitable for us in southern Sweden in Malmo and also a nearby city called Lund, a university city."

Bruno Barreto, director of "Last Stop 174," took a similar approach, casting many nonactors and filming on location in the only two slums in Rio de Janeiro that aren't controlled by drug traffickers or the militia. Many of the film's extras and day players were also recruited from these slums, and even the two leads -- Michel Gomes and Marcello Melo Jr. -- were nonprofessional actors who came from community theater.

"I wanted actors for this film that were going to be,not to act," Barreto says. "So my biggest challenge as a director was to actually make sure that the professional actors were in the same key as the nonprofessional actors. Because you could be Laurence Olivier or Fernanda Montenegro in (1998's) 'Central Station,' but if you're acting with a child or a dog, (it's difficult). ... That's why dogs and children always steal the scene, because they're not acting, they're being. The main condition for the professional actors was, 'OK, are you willing to workshop with us for a month?' "

"Last Stop 174" takes as its starting point the bus hijacking that occurred in downtown Rio de Janeiro on June 12, 2000. Jose Padilha's documentary about the event, "Bus 174," revealed that the teenage hijacker had been adopted by a woman whose son had disappeared years before. "It didn't make sense, but she became convinced that he was her son," Barreto says. "So I called Jose Padilha, and he said, 'Bruno, you're right on. The story of this woman is a documentary by itself.' "

But instead of researching the life of this adoptive mother, Barreto and screenwriter Braulio Mantovani created a fictionalized version of the triangle between her, the son she lost, and the child she adopted. "I didn't want to fall into the traps of the docudrama," Barreto says. "Reality was a point of departure, not the point of arrival. It was about using fiction to start to make sense of reality."

Though Israeli director Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir" is the only one of these Oscar hopefuls to qualify as an actual documentary, it doesn't hold up a straightforward mirror to reality. Five years ago, Folman, a Lebanon War veteran, applied for an early release from his country's reserve army. "They told me I could have the release if I go to see the army shrink and tell him everything I went through during my service, and this is what I did," he says.

Before long, he realized that he had repressed many of his memories from the war, and he put out an Internet advertisement recruiting his fellow veterans to talk about their experiences. He filmed these men on a soundstage, and then hired animators to illustrate the interview sessions along with some of the incidents, dreams, and feelings they described.

"I'm always on the verge between reality and dreams," Folman says. "And when you deal with memory, you can't skip dreams. Because if there are suppressed memories, they will emerge somehow as dreams anyhow, so you have to use it. I don't know if it's truth, but of course it expresses something."

Even though the film hinges on the tragedy of the Sabra and Shatila massacre and depicts war as pointless, it didn't cause any controversy in Israel. "Of course it's an anti-war movie," Folman says. "But it's a very personal story, and it doesn't have to do with a lot of politics."

The same could be said of all of these films, despite their grounding in painful histories and tough social realities. It wasn't a Baader-Meinhof political tract that convinced Edel to make his film; it was the thought that his two American-raised sons knew nothing of this chapter of German history. Maria Larsson's love of photography appealed to Troell, who had a closet darkroom as a child and still serves as his own cameraman and director of photography. And as the son of two teachers, Cantet virtually grew up in the classroom.

"The school was my house," he says. "I used to play in the playground of the school. My mother taught me to read. It was my world. And the other point that influenced me is that I'm a parent of two kids who are in such a school. My children are spending their day with children that have a very different type of life. And it's important for me, for them. It's opened their minds and helped them realize that they have to take into account all the other ways of thinking, all the differences. And my children have a better view of the world than the one I had when I was their age."

Amin Matalqa on 'Captain Abu Raed' (Jordan)
In writer-director Matalqa's first feature, children find refuge in the fantastic tales told by an airport janitor who they think is an airline pilot.

"I grew up around aviation. My father was a pilot for Royal Jordanian Airlines for almost 40 years, and my brother became a pilot. We used to travel the world with my father. Every summer we would travel with him, going to Europe or the U.S. After we moved from Jordan when I was 13, we lived five minutes from the airport in Columbus, Ohio. We used to go there to watch the airplanes fly overhead.

"I worked in telecommunications for five years in Columbus. I was a robot. And I was stuck in suburbia. That was very much what this movie was about; this airport janitor who was just a Jetway from the rest of the world. In 2003, I decided to move to Los Angeles to make movies.

"In the summer of 2005, I wanted to write a movie before starting film school at AFI. I was sitting with my producer, David Pritchard, who said, "Make a Jordanian film. But do something that's universal, not political, or about religion. And do something that Charlie Chaplin would want to be in," because I am a huge fan of Chaplin.

"When I was a kid, they put Charlie Chaplin shorts on TV in Jordan. I would watch Chaplin alone, sitting in the living room, watching a little television set. Chaplin haunted me. There's something about Chaplin -- that combination of laughter and sadness. And then I wrote this movie at the Starbucks on La Brea right near Chaplin's studio -- I think the aura of Chaplin hovers around this film.

"Also, my grandfather had passed away in Jordan in 2005, and he was very much an inspiration -- his innocence, the way he looked at life, his simplicity, and his storytelling."

-- Tom Roston

Matteo Garrone on 'Gomorra' (Italy)
Writer-director Garrone shows the criminal world from the bottom up, depicting the foot soldiers and victims of the notorious mafia of Naples, the Camorra, in this Grand Prix winner at Cannes.

"I read the book 'Gomorra,' by Roberto Saviano, and found it very powerful. It showed me the possibility of making a movie that was different from all the other mafia movies.

"The book was written from the inside of this world. And so I wanted to shoot this movie in the same way and to show the life of criminals, and how it is different from the life of the criminals that they see on the screen.

"I was a painter before I was a filmmaker. So when I make a movie, the visual image is very important to me. I decided to shoot this movie like reportage of war. I wanted to give the audience the impression that they were there.

"There is no glamorization in my movie. 'The Godfather' (1972) is a masterpiece, just like the (Martin) Scorsese movies are masterpieces. They are masters. This is not a critique of their movies, but I realized that there is a contradiction in what the people love in cinema and what real life is for them.

"The movie came out in Italy in May. It's been amazing; the book and the movie together have made many things change. No one could ignore it. There have been a lot of arrests.

"One month ago, the police discovered a plot to kill the writer, Roberto. They wanted to put a bomb in the car. He had to leave Italy. He's a symbol of the fight against Camorra. It's different for me. I am a filmmaker who made a film about Camorra, but I was not interested in using names or denouncing people.

"I live in Rome, not in Naples. I didn't know that so close to my house that there could be a place like that -- it's a territory of war. Of course, the situation is very dangerous, but I hope that everything will be well for me."

-- Tom Roston

Roberto Sneider on 'Tear This Heart Out' (Mexico)
Writer-director Sneider's epic mid-20th century film portrays the life of Catalina, from being a girl eager for experience to the wife of a domineering and brutal politician.

"This is a story about po