di Gabriele Ottaviani
Now in Cannes with his marvellous, powerful, intimate, delicate, intense, empathetic, elegant and sophisticated Coby, a movie about an American girl who decides to change sex, Christian Sonderegger shows great directing qualities: Convenzionali has the great pleasure to interview him.
Why did you decide to make this movie?
Jacob is my half brother. I grew up in Europe far away from my birth family. Even if I’m not appearing in the film, as a family member I was of course concerned by his transition. When our mother, Ellen, told me that Suzanna (Jacob) wanted to change gender and become a boy, at that time I didn’t know anything about transitioning. Like every other family member, I was stunned and afraid too. I told her to leave her small village in the Middle West and move to Paris, France. As a lesbian in Paris, nobody would pay attention to her. She could live almost a normal life without having to change gender. But Suzanne didn’t want to move away. She chose to transition under everybody’s eyes, her family, her friends, her working colleagues, her neighbors. She began to document her transition through videos posted on YouTube. After a few years watching him transitioning, I realized that there was a story to tell, a film to shoot. But not another dramatized testimony about the struggle and the pain of a transgender seeking for freedom. More an intimate, profound story about the slow chrysalis of Suzanna. A chrysalis also concerning her close relatives and friends.
Which is the most important thing to do when you start telling a story?
In my own creative process, the most important is to find a strong point of view. Something you absolutely need to talk about, that you want desperately to show to an audience. I need a theme, strong characters, interesting sets to be ready to stick to for a few years. Because, I know it’s going to be a very long and difficult process. Then I begin to imagine scenes that can build up the story, even if it’s going to be a documentary about real life with real people and not actors. I need to think in terms of narrative, to be excited by some major scenes that could happen for real in front of my camera. Of course, the big difference with narrative films, is that the structure and story is entirely rebuilt after the shooting in the editing room. You just have to pay attention to all the footage you’ve brought back from the shootings, forget your first idea of the film, and see, listen and feel what the footage is really about. It’s a kind of psychoanalysis of yourself through the careful observation of your shooting material. In this kind of documentary, editing is like writing a screenplay. It’s perhaps more challenging and exciting than editing a narrative.
Which is the right balance between images and words in a movie?
A very tricky question. As a younger man I would have answered: a film is first pictures, sound and then, if you can do without these two things, you can ad dialogues. Getting older, I became less dogmatic. The story line of this documentary is based on dialogues, on words. Pictures, sound and music, are metaphors of those dialogues, they complete them. So “Coby” is a dialogue-driven film based on interviews and videos of an intimate journal. When I first began to shoot interviews of my family members, I thought they would not appear in the final edit. It was supposed to be research material, a first approach of the subject. But what happened during those interviews was so intense that I felt the need to include the interviews in the film. I had to change my mind about the balance between picture and word. The words became the basic structure of the documentary.
If you watch Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films, the balance is different in each of them. “Winter sleep” is just about dialogues, the cinematography is very classical. “Once upon a time in Anatolia” is more about picture and sound. But they are both incredibly strong and profound narrative films – no doubt about that.
Which is the message that you’d like to give to your audience?
Listen carefully to your heart and do what it is asking for. Even if it’s a drastic change, a risky move. Don’t struggle against the inescapable changes life is telling you to go through. Overcome your fear of those changes. Face them. In this case it’s about transition. It’ s about listening to your body. It’s about invading your hormonal system with medicine to become a Man. Eventually, you will survive it. You will feel better, more complete. And everybody around you will survive it too. That’s the lesson I learned from my half brother’s transition. Don’t lie to yourself or to others. Face it! And the world around you is going to face it too and see things differently, just like you.
Who is Coby for you?
Coby is the transitional name that my half sister Suzanna took for the time of her transition. It helped us to gradually shift from Suzanna to Jacob. Now her official name is Jacob. Jacob has an athletic young man’s body, a thick beard, a dark voice, and no breasts or uterus anymore. But he still has a vagina, and a clitoris and even one ovary that the surgeon left in his body for medical reasons. Yet he did not get plastic surgery to get a penis. So physically speaking, he still looks partly like a woman, even if for his close relatives and friends there is no doubt that he is a man. From my point of view, Jacob is still Coby. I mean, he is still a mix of both genders, of two different world experiences. And I strongly believe it’s a definite power rather than a weakness.
How it was working with Jacob Hunt and Sara Mound?
I’m a half brother who was raised in France, far away from him. So I didn’t really know him until he was 12 years old and still a girl of course. But when I asked Sara and Jacob if they would agree with me shooting a film about their intimacy, they were enthusiastic. It was perhaps a way for us to become close for a time as we had never been before. The first day of shooting I decided to do the bed scene: he lies naked in his bed, wakes up and walks naked out of the frame. He did the job without blinking an eye. On the first day, the first shot, he opened up the door to the most intimate part of himself. So did Sara later in her interviews and in the beach scene. They both gave me and my team a great gift.
Cannes film festival: what kind of experience is it?
For this kind of singular film, it is the best place to start one’s career. The metaphor of the Cannes films festival could be that of a Native Indian sitting on a hill and drumming for a whole week to call the rest of his tribe. If your drumming is powerful enough, there is a good chance of some members of the film world listening to it.
Which is your favorite movie? And why?
It’s very hard to choose one movie. But there is one profound and luminous film that I really love to see again and again: “The Woman of the Dunes” 1964 by Hiroshi Teshigahara. Everything I like in movies can be found in this film. A profound team about the power of women and womanhood. A great visual metaphor of human struggle: the landscape of a sand desert with big holes where people are trapped for all their lives digging in the sand. A very intimate, simple storyline with a two characters. A mature cinematography with an expressionist sound track that contains essential questions about the human condition. And even now, it’s still a very modern film. For sure, you’re not the same man after watching it.
What is cinema for you?
It’s a place to hide from real life. A place to experience life. And a place where you create life too.