Spotlight: An interview with LAFA winner Otis Birdy ("Jiyan")
Otis, before we talk about Jiyan, please tell us a bit about your background. Were you always based in Bern, Switzerland and how did you become interested in visual storytelling?
I trained as a graphic designer in Valais (a French-speaking state in Switzerland), so I was able to quickly develop a sensitivity to everything related to the visual and the transmission of an idea. After this school, I decided to move to Bern (where a Swiss-German dialect is spoken – that was a real challenge for me! haha).
Besides filmmaking, you're also an in-demand graphic designer for music covers, posters, products and more. Does that kind of work offer your more creative flexibility?
You are well informed! Hahah - Swimming between design and audio-visual (via strategic design consulting) allows me to learn more about the creative terrain so I can connect it more effectively. So, yes, this offers me more creative flexibility. My goal is to become a talented art director one day (talent = +90% hard work!).
Who are your favorite filmmakers, and what is it about their work that inspires you? One of my biggest inspirations: Barry Jenkins with “Moonlight”. The story, the actors, the shots, the colors, the music... a slap in the face! + This film deals with all the points I presented previously. With Moonlight, Barry Jenkins brings so much humanity and sensitivity and creates a real attachment to the characters. No need to have completely improbable or epic stories, superpowers and a huge budget to surprise people when there can be juste a strong, authentic story and touching characters that we can sometimes find ourselves in.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE & Only God Forgives are also big inspirations for me: the atmosphere, the minimalistic visuals, the colors, the characters, etc…
In your opinion, what makes a film great?
Just according to my tastes: When a film ends in an unpredictable way by appeasing, saddening or frustrating the viewer. Basically, when his heart is emotionally touched. Personally, the ones that have an ending that frustrates me emotionally (e.g. the death of a character who really didn't deserve his fate) touch me the most. It's also a daring thing to do by the director! I like daring things. I think the Japanese are very good at it. When everything is smooth until the end, it leaves me wanting more.
Why did you decide to tell the story of Nerol, and why were you personally passionate to bring this story to life?
"Making what is unknown more familiar."
It happened spontaneously. I shared some great and deep moments with Nerol that inspired me to create this movie. What was untold was that the character of "Renaud" - who is Nerol's educator - is originally me. All the scenes presented with Renaud are moments that I really lived with Nerol. Only, the name and personality of the character have been changed so that Laurent Matthey can fully play his own.
I wanted to create a meeting between immigrant/refugee people from another culture and Westerners through a film. I was lucky enough to spend more than a year making encounters with some of them, but this is not the case for everyone. So I wanted to bring this kind of opportunity to the viewers.
In a nutshell, when I spent 13 months working as a French teacher and educator in a home for unaccompanied minors (immigrant/refugee minors arriving without their parents in a country), I was able to live an incredible experience and meet exceptional people. Following this, I was able to develop a very good relationship and story with Nerol and found his background and ambitions very interesting to convey.
Your directing was exceptional, and what's even more exceptional is that this is your debut narrative feature! What was the most challenging aspect of directing this film and how was it different from music videos you've directed?
This goes straight to my heart. Thank you so much for your words!
Indeed, at that time I had no experience in filmaking and I had not really started to direct music videos. So, I shot half of the film myself. Pentamedia, who helped a lot with the production of the film, were able to join me for the other half in order to bring the film to a higher level technically! For the sound recording, I took a young boy from the youth center who also had absolutely no experience (I love it hahah).
I knew that 'Jiyan' had to be about authenticity and the human touch. So those elements had to be flawless. As for the set, I just needed an urban environment and natural/city light (as I have no technical knowledge of lighting haha).
As I couldn't get any financial support from the culture department (had not enough credibility with this project), I had to start with zero budget, a good camera and some sound recording equipment (thanks to Pentamedia for the equipment).
What scene of Jiyan was the most meaningful for you and why?
The finale. I can't say too much so as not to spoil this part: Nerol's great acting and Nicolas Bianco's powerful music form together an intense emotional cocktail (and yes, I dropped a tear several times while working on the post-production montage, these rude boys made me cry!).
Mohammed Mohammed delivered a phenomenal performance, for which he won Best Actor in an Indie Film- was that his debut film as an actor? How did you find him and how did you work with him to achieve this fantastic result?
This young boy - who I met at the home for unaccompanied minors where I worked - is incredible. He had absolutely no experience in acting. But that's not all: at that time, he was still learning French (as for all the other boys in the movie)! And the scenes were shot without any acting training beforehand (because I had a 100% job on the side and therefore not much time for that).
This boy has a great talent. One of my dreams would be to get him spotted and act in big movies! - To the directors: keep an eye on him! He could bring you something very interesting and authentic!
Your producer, Saroo, has been an integral part of the project. In your opinion, what makes a great collaboration between a director and a producer/a production company?
Well, I can't really answer this question for 'Jiyan' because is a creative label that I founded myself! So, it's really homemade with the partnership of Pentamedia.
For me, it's important that the producer is fully receptive to the director's project and looks in the same direction as him. He can of course commit to taking the project further if needed (and if the director stays tuned). I am personally very convinced by my creative visions but I am constantly listening to the partners to bring the details even further!
The cinematography was a collaboration between you, Vincent Savoy, and Benjamin Brahovic. How did you work together to make sure the shooting style is consistent?
It was really nice to be able to work with these talented people! They joined me about halfway through the production phase. So there was already some work done, allowing them to visualize the direction of the film. But even if they had come in at the beginning, I think they would have had total confidence in the project and my vision. There wasn't really a hierarchy between us: they were the technical experts and brought the details further, I had the vision and knew how to bring this project to life. This mutual respect made the experience very pleasant.
From a technical standpoint, how long did the project take from the first screenplay draft to the final screener? In a previous interview, you've mentioned you had received some help from the local community, can you elaborate a little bit about that?
I think that in a professional environment, the whole projet could have been done in only a few weeks. However, we all had full-time jobs. Finally, from writing to completion, the film took 4 years. Yes, 4 years instead of a few weeks!
Here's why: in addition to the lack of availability, there was the role of Claire that was abandoned twice by actresses. On top of that, we could only play in winter. We had to wait for the return of winter to be able to do new takes and find someone who could fit to the role. Finally, the third actress (Elena Luthi) took the role. In the end, I am really happy that the film was made with her. She brought a presence beyond my expectations for the role of Claire! So, as they say in French: "Jamais deux sans trois! (never two without three)
About the financial support, I had to make several calls with a brief presentation of the film project. Finally, the ‘Population and Migration Service of Valais’ kindly funded the sound mixing/mastering phase of the film and other post-production needs.
What was your approach to the score, and what was your scoring process like with composer Nicolas Bianco?
A little bonus aside if you want to include this somewhere:
Funny story full of spontaneity.
Nicolas and I had formed a rock band during our teenage years that had lasted only a few months. About 6 years later and without any contact, I randomly bumped into him at the train station in Bern.
I ask him what he is doing in this city. He explains me that he is at the music university of Bern. I explain to him that I'm making a film and I offered him to join the project if he was interested.
In less than 5 minutes of conversation and 6 years of silence, Nicolas Bianco joined the project. I was already very sure about this spontaneous invitation because I knew that this person had an immense talent for music!
It was ‘carte blanche’ for Nicolas. I knew he had a lot of talent and that the results would match the different scenes and atmospheres.
I just had to brief Nicolas in detail for each scene (the idea, the direction and the atmosphere). He quickly assimilated the whole musical direction and presented me with musical gems!
Nicolas was able to take the film to a whole new level without me having to do much. I love working with talented people, it makes everything more enjoyable when you trust them!
You scored the trailer on your own! Could you tell us a little bit about your musical talents and aspirations?
Yes! When I was back from two months of solo backpacking in Asia, I spontaneously composed the music for the trailer and then edited the video in one day (on my bed hahah). I had a burst of inspiration that led to the current trailer.
I started producing music on programs when I was 16 years old. Ten years later, I never stopped and it became my routine.
For the film Jiyan, I preferred to give the role of composer to Nicolas Bianco in order to create a new experience and to take the project even further!
Today, we co-founded FENEX Music (www.fenexmusic.com), a music agency specialized in branding and film. We are always open and motivated to work on new projects and challenges!
What message were you hoping to convert with this film, and how was it received by audiences so far?
As discussed earlier, I wanted to make what’s unknown more familiar in regards to immigrants/refugees who have fled their countries to come to us as refugees.
I wanted to create an opportunity for the viewer to partly meet these people from elsewhere through the film.
It was very important for me to remain neutral about the theme and not to idealize the character of Nerol. It is precisely by presenting his flaws and faults that I was able to bring out the human side that each person has. Empathy is more authentic if it is in front of someone imperfect who shares the same pains.
The film was surprisingly well received! I still can't believe that we have already received more than a dozen awards worldwide (not counting nominations and other selections). We really didn't expect this. It's amazing! It feels great to have our work approved by people in the film industry even with no experience and no money. Sounds unreal to me…
If you could have one filmmaking superpower, what would it be and why?
To create the most detailed and beautiful storyboards to accurately convey my vision for the movie.
What are you currently working on, and what do you aspire to accomplish in the future?
I am currently in the process of finding additional funding for what we still need to do to promote the film and to find a distributor who would be interested in working with us.
Besides that, me and Nicolas Bianco have founded FENEX Music (www.fenexmusic.com), a music house specialized for brand and film music. We want to keep a foot in the audiovisual world with music through this agency.
In the future, I aim to develop my label 'saroo and also start writing a series (one-shot) that could interest streaming platforms...
Is there anything you'd like to add or anyone you'd like to thank?
There are so many people I would like to thank! First of all, I would like to thank Pentamedia for having had blind trust from the beginning of the project and all their investment that allowed to bring the project to its end.
And what can I say about Mohammed Mohammed (Nerol) and every actor who seriously invested themselves without really knowing how this independent project would end up! Without them, none of this would have been possible.
I also want to thank the one who put the cherry on the cake: Nicolas Bianco. This young man knew how to bring a powerful soul to the film without which there would not have been so much emotion in this film. Amazing work!
Finally, behind this technical team and these actors are still other people who have been kind enough to volunteer their work spaces and services for the various scenes of 'Jiyan'. I would like to thank them very much.
In short, I feel so lucky to have been able to be among such beautiful and talented people! To have been able to achieve such results with them is a wonderful gift.
Where can our readers follow more of your work? (Social media links, website, etc?)
I'm a bit scattered everywhere!
'Jiyan's Website and official instagram page: www.jiyan-film.ch/en
'FENEX' Website (our music agency): www.fenexmusic.com
'Pentamedia's website: www.pentamedia.ch (IG: @pentamedia.ch)
People can also stream the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack of ‘Jiyan’ on Spotify and other platforms! https://open.spotify.com/album/4e58zcelbwlTuApq5McnKS?si=DdGAVvRCRwGKhrKq5JayJg&dl_branch=1