About six years ago, Mila Zhluktenko and Daniel Asadi Faezi met as students at the University of Television and Film Munich. From the beginning, their disparate histories and common adoration for cinema, helped create artistic resonances and philosophies about art and film that hold everything together in this very rich collaboration. Daniel also studied directing at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. Both focused their film studies on nonfiction and experimental storytelling, and while they’ve worked on feature-length projects, their admiration of the short form has taught them many valuable lessons in how to craft immersive moving image and sound work. Their first co-directorial effort called Aralkum (2022), screened and was awarded at numerous film festivals, including the Jury Prize for Best International Shortfilm at the 53rd edition of Visions du Réel in Switzerland. Their most recent collaboration, waking up in silence (2023), premiered at the 73rd edition of the Berlinale this past February, and won the Special Jury Prize of the Generation Kplus competition.
They first worked together on Daniel’s film The Absence of Apricots (2018) shot in Pakistan. Mila did the sound work, along with Ali Atif, and she was also the film’s editor. Daniel produced Mila’s short film, Opera Glasses / Binokl in 2019, shot in Kyiv at the National Opera House of Ukraine. That film won DOK Leipzig’s Golden Dove in the German short and animation competition. Daniel says that: “We have always supported each other in whatever way we could, but not restricted to a certain department, just when a helping hand was needed, a fresh eye to watch a rough cut.” The two also belong to a group of other filmmakers with whom they regularly collaborate called the Babylon ’13 Film Collective. Based in Kyiv, the Collective was formed in 2013 by Ukrainian filmmakers and students during the Revolution of Dignity. Mila and Daniel met the collective in 2016 in Kyiv. As well, they also frequently collaborate with their cohort from the Munich school.
Born and raised in Schweinfurt, Daniel is the son of an emigrant Iranian father and a German mother. Mila was born in Kyiv to parents born in the former Soviet Union and emigrated to Germany in 2004 when she was thirteen. On a Munich-Helsinki Zoom call one recent morning in May, we talked about their dedication to the collaborative approach and the ways in which the dualities of their cultural backgrounds and dedication to experimental approaches to cinema enhance their ability to see beyond the perspective of just one specific set of cultural cues, thus enabling them to engage with a wider idea of who their spectators might be.
Pamela Cohn (PC): How did your first co-directing collaboration come about for Aralkum? How did that opportunity shift the ways in which you work together?
Daniel Asadi Faezi (DAF): I was invited to Uzbekistan for a kind of competition offered by the Tashkent Film Festival. I told the organizers that I would only participate if Mila and I could come together. Part of this was because of the language barrier. It wasn’t ever really planned to co-direct until this particular opportunity. We directed, produced, and edited the film together. When we were there shooting, Mila was responsible for the communication in Russian with everyone on the crew since they were all from Uzbekistan and didn’t speak English. As we watched our rushes in the evening, we talked about the structure of the film together and in the edit, we shared cuts back and forth through rough cut to fine cut.
Mila Zhluktenko (MZ): Since film school, we’ve watched each other’s work, and we’ve also watched films together, so we are shaped by a common canon. There’s always been a strong bond in what we like artistically in film. Watching a lot of films together is very important to an artistic practice where there is this kind of collaboration. I feel that the responsibility of a film is really huge, so it’s always so much better to share it, to be open to criticism and to benefit from a communal thought process where you can better shape your idea because of this kind of reflection from those who share similar values in filmmaking. It also has a lot of positive effects for the film itself.
PC: Mila, you said something quite poignant and thought-provoking in an interview you did in the beginning of this year about your co-editing process during the Covid pandemic with Ukrainian director Roman Liubyi – also a member of Babylon ’13 – for his film, Iron Butterflies. The film examines the fallout of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down by Russian forces as it passed over eastern Ukraine in July of 2014, killing all 298 passengers on board. You said you felt eminently qualified to work on this hybrid film because you feel like a “hybrid creature.” What are some of the ways in which this becomes an advantage for crafting films?
MZ: The possibility to shift perspectives is absolutely more exercised if you live in multiple cultures, speak multiple languages, if you’ve experienced having to adapt to all of that. Being from Ukraine offers an even broader cultural experience because my parents were citizens of the Soviet Union, a country consisting of so many differing cultures that were swallowed by this conglomerate of states under the influence of Russian culture. Growing up steeped in Ukrainian culture, I was also touched by Georgian culture, Armenian culture, all the other states that were once part of one huge communistic country. This makes one bendable, able to shift easily, although of course it can also have its downsides. But there is the ability to simultaneously see something from, at least, two different perspectives. With Iron Butterflies, this duality was so visible to me, the poetic Ukrainian part of the film, as well as imagining how a Western European audience would watch it. What links were missing to help translate what Roman wanted to say to an audience that doesn’t have that cultural background? It’s always ambiguous but I feel very enriched by having these different perspectives.
On the other hand, you never feel complete, always a bit lost, and sometimes not accepted because you’re foreign. I often feel foreign in a group of Germans even though I’ve lived here for a long time. I don’t have the same childhood references. I’ve had to learn what the German sense of humour is, or why they don’t understand my jokes [laughing]. This also translates to making films. When we were in Uzbekistan, we were in Karakalpakstan and had to familiarize ourselves with what their particular socio-economic position is, the struggle to preserve their own suppressed language overridden by the “official” Uzbek language. Ukrainian was also repressed for a long time so I felt that I could quickly connect to their struggle in that regard. This connectivity shapes your work because you can imagine in cinematic form how you will translate what you have seen, which aspects you really want to show because you’re able to notice these details in higher resolution.
DAF: Even though our experiences are very different, I can also relate to these feelings. We are both very sensitive to things like losing your culture, migration, those bigger topics that do feel universal somehow. So that even when we shoot in a country like Uzbekistan, maybe we can relate to certain topics and convey them into the language of cinema from our point of view. We really try to be responsible when dealing with these humanistic things. The human-to-human approach is super important. It also helps us understand one another. I remember when we first met in film school, we’d have hours of conversation about our different migrational backgrounds and found they’re somehow linked. Mila’s mother was born in Azerbaijan and my father is an Iranian Azerbaijani. There were these weird links. Given the tone of these days, it even started to politicize our relationship because both Ukraine and Iran are in very difficult political situations, which of course influences both our private and professional lives. waking up in silence is an example of those two perspectives quite directly influencing each other. We shot in my hometown in Germany and follow a group of Ukrainian children that have Mila’s back story. Her migration story wasn’t the result of a war, but her age was similar so she could identify with those children in our film. And I knew the place very well. For the feature we’re working on right now at those same barracks, we want to integrate the Afghan refugees. The Dari and Farsi languages are similar so those regional barracks in Schweinfurt somehow intersect at a core point in what we’ve been trying to do in the last years of working together.
PC: Your works somehow deal with borderlands of some kind, undefined territories, if you will, or contested landscapes that are either in the process of disappearing or are already gone. In Slowly Forgetting Your Faces, Daniel’s father and uncle use the only remaining artefact of their migration from Iran which are these letters from home saved on fragile paper to tap into distant memories. You craft a narrative that is very specific to your family, but also to broader themes of worldwide migrations and movements. I’d love for you to talk about this preoccupation in the ways in which you build narrative because you use the freedom of experimental cinema that leaves a lot of room for the spectator; one can dream while watching your films and reflect on more personal narratives and this, to me, is the best of what cinema can do like no other art form can.
MZ: Our first documentary professor at the film school, Heiner Stadler, is very visually driven. He’s a DoP, as well as a director. He would always ask us: What would your film look like as a silent movie? It’s a very simple question, which can be answered in very different ways, but for me, it was always pushing me to think of the visual component as compared to the other components in a film. I was exposed to films that also invited me to dream and to think in that way you describe. The films were somehow proposals to the spectator, one with an impulse but also as providing that free space, a creation of your own dialogue with a film. It was a huge mind opener, and I knew that that’s what I wanted to try and do in my own work. Anything that overexplains is somehow uncinematic, in a way; it makes the landscape of the piece somehow too clear so that you can’t wander about. It’s too stable and cemented. When we develop our projects, we always are thinking of where those islands of free thinking are and how the spectator can interact with the images. I can say that all this was realized most fully in the short works we would see.
DAF: Neither one of us comes from cinephile families and that kind of set us apart from a lot of our film school colleagues. I had the feeling that most of them already had this cultural vocabulary that was new for me and Mila. Our parents didn’t watch the films of Godard or Truffaut.
MZ: My father really loves Hollywood musicals. This is what I was raised with. [laughing]
DAF: When I was around eighteen or nineteen, my interest in Iran really started to arise inside of me and I started to watch a lot of Iranian fictional cinema and that heavily influenced me. I discovered the importance of landscapes. Landscapes, in general, gave me this freedom to think and project those spaces we’re talking about. My own films started to grow in my mind while watching these other films. From this proposal of Heiner’s to think of our films as silent movies, my next question was, what can I do with sound, the combination between sound and landscape? Our first collaboration, The Absence of Apricots, was where I started to use landscape and aural storytelling that expressed the mythologies attached to those landscapes and the humans living there. A new lake was formed because of a landslide that took away their land, gardens, and houses. The universality of a loss of a lake in my film, where we used to swim, could also describe losses of people near Lake Victoria, for example. Or more abstractly, a displacement because of that loss of land. I really could relate to that.
Mila mentioned noticing this more in the short films we’d watch, and I agree that the short form gives so much freedom to experiment and work in a more conceptual way. We discovered this by going to a lot of shorts festivals with our own work and being able to watch a lot of short films. It helped us understand the psyche of it – for instance in the show you curated in Kosovo last year, Pamela, of the works of Maryam Tafakory and Morgan Quaintance.
MZ: Yes, it was also like a new world opening up for me as well.
DAF: What these artists do in short filmmaking is so beautiful. The question was never, can this be a feature, or can this be a stepping-stone to making a longer work? For us, as well, we can imagine continuing to make short films whenever we can. Even my current feature contains conceptual approaches that come from short filmmaking, the restriction of using just one room and one concept, all that comes from experimenting in the short form.
PC: What happens between the act of looking – at a landscape, at a person, an object, a building, etcetera – and what you choose to frame? The “familiarity” or “foreignness” of whatever it is notwithstanding, it’s always fascinating to see what a maker’s frames finally contain and hold – and what they do not.
DAF: We talk about this a lot, asking ourselves why we took that approach, and what we want to do differently in our next works. We do notice how different each film is from the other and we’re always trying to find new approaches. Yet there are some elements that move through all the works, somehow. Whenever we find a place that resonates with us, we want to come up with a form that is suitable for it. We want to continue this practice of re-inventing ourselves with both the moral and artistic compasses we already have.
MZ: Maybe it’s not re-inventing the self so much as re-inventing the way of observing. What Daniel said also resonates a lot with me, that we try never to come to a place with a feeling of knowing what we want already in place. It’s important to feel the impact of movement, light, sounds, the place itself, and then from that impulse the form follows the story, in a way. But you’re never just an observer. You need to pay attention to your influences, your wishes for cinema and let what you encounter impact you first and not the other way around. Then those filters of who you are, of course, can come out in the act of what you decide to frame.
DAF: It helps so much to work together throughout this process of openness and reflection. For both Aralkum and waking up in silence, I think we found an interesting working technique. I didn’t really do this before – going to a place and talking about what I see and learning what the other person is seeing. Instead of trying to make sense of it on my own, we can reflect on these things together, taking the time to be there and not just have an aim or something to fulfill. For waking up in silence, when we went with this idea of seeing what would happen over the course of two weeks, steadily reflecting on what’s happening, what we’re capturing, we were already shaping the film before we even started shooting.
MZ: This comes with also looking at these possibilities with a sense of responsibility. Is it a good thing to make a film here, or not? The ethics of our work are also a big part of the process.
PC: Daniel, earlier in the conversation, you acknowledged this question of how to develop rich soundscapes for your visuals. Can you both elaborate a bit on that and how that helps to immerse a viewer?
MZ: At Lucrecia Martel’s master class at Visions du Réel, which I just attended in Switzerland, she was talking about image and sound, how you can close your eyes against the image. And even though you can’t see what’s going on, the sound will still hit you, because it’s a wave that’s more impactful to our bodies. It hits your body, but it also hits the walls of the cinema space and comes back to your ears. Daniel has developed some new techniques with his ways of recording sound with various devices.
DAF: On a more abstract than technical level, we really care about sound and know how to use it in a subtle way. Image is so direct. In a feature-length film, in general, it can tend to be more in sync, what you see and what you hear. But we also want to continue to experiment with this gap between sound and image. We can make another meaning out of an image in the experiments we might do in our sound design. Starting to make more comprehensive field recordings helped us to understand the possibility of a more immersive cinema and that’s something we’ll continue to elaborate on.
MZ: Every place has its own sound DNA. In Opera Glasses, I had the good fortune to work with a great sound recordist, Andrii Rohachov. He did a lot of this type of field recording for me in that space. So now we, too, go to places with just our recording equipment and spend the whole day collecting sound. For both Aralkum and waking up in silence, we had days solely devoted to sound editing and experimenting with what a soundscape can do – how it can support, but also how it can push against, the image in juxtaposition to what is seen.
PC: We are all now watching moving image work in all kinds of ways, through our different devices. Being admitted cinephiles, and ones who think a lot about the cinema space, how is that impacting the way you make work? Or does it?
DAF: It does. Along with making films, we also publish a German-language journal called Revü, where we write about films that touch us. For the latest issue, I wrote a text about El Mar La Mar [2017, Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki]. Josh recently moved to Munich, and we’ve become friends. The whole philosophy of our magazine is based on the fact that we are all young filmmakers in our 30s and the films we write about are films we feel need to be seen on the screen and that we need to hear them on huge sound systems and yes, in this sense, we are a bit nostalgic. But it’s okay to be nostalgic. Whenever we talk about screening conditions for our works, we put a focus on the sound, but of course it’s not always possible to go to a festival that has the capability to have that same German cinema standard. But it’s really not about trying to use sound and image in any kind of manipulative way. All we want is to create the space of thought for the audience.
Pamela Cohn is a Helsinki-based critic, writer, film & video curator, story structure consultant, and festival moderator. She’s the author of Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers(OR Books, New York & London, 2020), and co-producer and host of The Lucid Dreaming Podcast: Conversations on Cinema, Art & Moving Image. http://www.pamelacohn.com/