GAIFF opener looks for acts of defiance in a climate of war

English Daily #1
The twentieth edition of GAIFF opens with Luka, a dystopian feature film by Belgian filmmaker Jessica Woodworth. Having visited Yerevan earlier for the 2012 screening of The Fifth Season, Woodworth decided to make her most recent film here. “I brought my concept for Luka to Armenia in 2017 and immediately found astounding locations. The universe of the film was imagined up on Mount Aragats and in the salt mine in Yerevan”, remembers Woodworth. Although the story of Luka exists beyond time and space, the geopolitical arena of the region would bring an extra dimension to the film. “This state of waiting, the long shadows of the past tragedies and the anticipation of the future strikes seemed to be a state of being,” explains the director, “that reflects the state of the characters: poised, purposeful, pained.” Later, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the war in Artsakh made it impossible to shoot the film in Armenia, so the production team had to move to Sicily, Italy.

Co-produced by Belgium, Netherlands, Armenia, Bulgaria and Italy, the film is a loose adaptation of Dino Buzzati’s literary classic The Tartar Steppe. In it, the young, battle-hungry soldier Luka (played in the film by Dutch actor Jonas Smulders) embeds himself in an isolated fort where men have been waiting for ages for a mythical enemy to strike. “The book excellently balances the sensation of enchantment and unease and I wanted to honor that delicate and fragile symmetry in the film. I wanted the viewer to follow the character of Luka through these mysterious and potent spaces, both physical and existential, along the fine line between hope and despair”. There was never a storyboard, but hundreds of photos to help guide the team, endless conversations with the heads of department and the actors. They would spend lots of time together on location. “We needed to grasp the emptiness and the silences, the vast scale of the locations, to sit on the slopes of Etna and feel small. Luka was driven by the wish to keep the process very physical and immediate. ‘Does a moment work?’ was the only essential question.”

The emergencies of current times are embedded in the film. The High Command of the fort succeeds in maintaining order by using the instrument of fear, fearing a ferocious enemy is what keeps it standing. “This all is so familiar because nowadays we live in a climate of war,” remarks Woodworth. “Sometimes the only act of defiance that an individual is capable of, is something so simple and humble, as turning your back towards it. This is the one heroic act of Luka on which the story pivots.”

Sona Karapoghosyan