Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Film: "In the Mirror" Retells Snow White In An Age of Selfies and Social Media

The most frustrating thing about In The Mirror is that we have no idea when we'll be able to see this intriguing retelling of the fairy tale. In this time of a pandemic, with social-distancing and lockdowns, when we are forced to experience much of life outside our homes through a lens, it's very timely to see a fairy tale being retold with this focus. (The film is, however, Latvia's official Academy Awards selection for the coming year, so fingers crossed it will be available for the general public to see somewhere online soon.)

The award-winning, Latvian film director, Laila Pakalnina, who also wrote and produced the film, had the idea of retelling Snow White through the lens - literally - of the selfie, after spending a lot of time getting messages from her distanced daughter and realizing its potential as a very different form for creating a feature film. Pakalnina also realized that using the communication form of social media - while generally thought of as a film and photography medium - is actually very different from film in general and provides a very unique set of technical challenges to create film quality selfie-stylizations, as well as making for a very interesting reflection of current societal values - a theme that dovetails perfectly with Snow White. 

From an interview with Cineuropa:

Cineuropa: How did you start developing In the Mirror?
Laila Pakalniņa:
 At first, I had the idea of exploring selfies as a form. Somehow, my daughter started communicating with me through selfies – she wasn't sending me still portraits, but short video messages. Then I understood there was something to dig into there. But working with mobiles wouldn't have been interesting enough for me. For sure, I knew I needed professional cameras, horizontal framing and, most probably, anamorphic lenses because I like to work on the mise-en-scène, not just on someone's close-up. I realised it was a very interesting form that could be used to communicate and show people the world through a self-portrait. The next idea that came to me was a fairy tale, Snow White. I somehow realised that what this stepmother was talking to was a mirror, so it was already a selfie! I wanted to offer that tool to all of my characters

Using selfie-culture for a narrative is just as much about what the screens capture in the images as it is about what's actually being said in any dialogue, perhaps even more so, and it requires a completely different mindset and approach from regular filmmaking. It's a bold experimental film, playful and contemporary, which requires the audience to give up their usual way of watching movies and to see the story unfold largely via "selfie shots" (think stills/photos as well as short Tik-Tok-length videos) with the actors talking directly to the camera, but even more intimately than one would see in a documentary. In this film, the actors were required to be in contact with the camera (and the Director of Photography), almost hugging it as they delivered their lines or hit their marks, or, for example in the case of running, having the camera attached to them.

It effectively uses the stark contrast (and fairy tale appropriate) colors of black and white, all while the actors deliver their dialogue as directly to the audience as anything ever done before. There's no doubt the audience is being made to feel uncomfortable on purpose, with the high stylization, but it underscores the story it's telling so very well.

From the Cineuropa interview, again, essentially commenting on how black and white is a great shorthand for retelling a fairy tale in film:

What about the choice of filming it in black and white?
Usually, when you film in black and white, it's easier to organise framing, as it's not that chaotic. We weren't looking for an easy way to do things, though. But this is a fairy tale, and black and white leaves the viewers some room for fantasy. I believe that when you watch something shot in black and white, perhaps you see it as it is for the first few minutes, but then you can unleash your imagination and see the colours.

Take a look at the trailer - and remember: there will be selfies! (it takes a bit of an adjustment on first viewing):

Pakalnina also chose to set her contemporary take in a gym, of all places, which, at first, sounds absurd, until you begin to realize all the implications of fitness, body image, youth-obsessed culture, and our continual preoccupation with self-image now that smartphones and social media are central to much of society. The cast she chose is full of athletes, dancers, body-builders, extreme sports players, and other non-professionals, all making for a "carnivalesque" atmosphere. Snow White herself is played by Elza Leimane, a renowned prima-ballerina in Latvia, something Pakalina says (in her Q&A for the film festival) was invaluable in having to take her challenging and very unusual direction for this approach to filming.

In The Mirror is billed as a darkly comic fable, which has shown to make for lively screenings at festivals. Here are some notes from reviewer Stephen Dalton at The Hollywood Reporter, who attended the Black Nights Festival in Tallinn, a.k.a. PÖFF24 (which we assume was social distanced, considering all the interviews and presentations were done via zoom and similar tech - something Pakalina commented on as being oddly appropriate and on theme when being interviewed!):

Smartly using a 200-year-old folklore story to satirize the narcissism and body fascism of our social media-saturated age, it consistently breaks the fourth wall in witty and inventive ways.

... this Latvian-Lithuanian film (Ed. - created with English subtitles) is mostly shot on agile hand-held cameras and clothed in lustrous monochrome visuals. Even if the storytelling is disjointed at times, In the Mirror never looks less than ravishing, while kinetic editing and a pulsing techno score help to keep energy levels at a maximum.

This foray into fairy tales is not the first for filmmaker Pakalnina. The summary on the PÖFF24 festival film site explains a little more of her approach to combining tales with social commentary:

Fairy-tales are stories which we are told as children and which we recognise in all sorts of characters around us as adults.

With her creative works which determinedly experiment with the language of film and the narrative, director and screenwriter Laila Pakalniņa has become renowned both at film festivals far away and right here at PÖFF last year with her documentary "The Spoon". Her film "The Shoe" intertwined fairy-tales with social criticism at Cannes as early as in 1998. After "Cinderella", she this time takes on "Snow White" We can all remember the evil stepmother whose sinister nature manifested in boundless self-admiration as she demanded daily praise from her reflection? Today, people talk to their reflection regularly multiple times more than the evil stepmother ever did throughout the entire fairy-tale.

...In this story, everyone talks to their reflection, which playfully comes from the perspective of the viewer. What does a person who only looks at himself see and what goes unnoticed on the background of all that? "In the Mirror" proposes answers at a high artistic level, while also daring to use the piquancy of absurd humour.

 And expanding a little on how the filmmaking style reflects the tale, in the review from THR:

Pakalnina and her cinematographer Gints Berzins consistently conjure up arrestingly surreal images: a team of strongmen lugging a burning car through a blizzard, a man asleep under a giant rock, the underside of a squirrel perched on a glass roof. Even when they make scant narrative sense, these quirky tableaux serve as dreamlike symbols in the spirit of Fellini, David Lynch or Sally Potter. Berzins also makes dynamic use of depth of field, shifting dramatic emphasis by switching from crisp to blurry focus. But most of the film's striking close-ups were actually shot by the actors themselves using digital cameras mounted on a custom “selfie stick,” a bold new kind of collective collaboration. 

The film reportedly follows the fairy tale narrative fairly closely but it's more how it's told that surprises and makes it fresh, rather than how the plot is modernized. Here's an example of how the tale is told via Cineuropa:

Overall, the piece works on two levels. On the one hand, it arouses the viewer’s curiosity to find out how certain aspects of the original fairy tale will be staged (and manipulated) within the bizarre characters’ world; on the other, it prompts an obvious reflection on the pervasive role of smartphones in our life, ready to document every single moment (even a successful round of burpees), to ramp up our levels of narcissism and to make our emotions appear more spectacular. In this respect, one of the initial scenes – the one set at the funeral following Snow White’s mother’s passing – is a good example of said dichotomy, as we see the father filming his own despair with the coffin in the background, followed by a number of relatives and acquaintances approaching him one after another and almost glad to be in the frame.

The Q&A with the filmmaker (spoken in English for PÖFF) is definitely worth a watch. Pakalnina explains her inspiration and challenges in creating a film this way, which is unusual at least, and possibly groundbreaking, and provides much food for thought. It certainly makes us want to hunt down her previous reworking of a fairy tale in The Shoe*. Scroll to the bottom of the Festival page and hit the play button under the Q&A with the filmmaker (right above the social media icon links). 

(For extra-interested fairy tale film-buffs and filmmakers among our readers, click HERE for a brief, but informative, behind-the-scenes peek at the filmmaking on Instagram. We also recommend reading the rest of the Cineuropa interview for specific filmmaking techniques used for the "selfie-aesthetics".)

Good news for US audiences: Los Angeles-based Oration Films signed up world sales rights ahead of the film's Tallinn premiere. We'll be keeping an eye out for this one!

DVD with English subtitles available for purchase in the US! Summary of the film HERE along with an interesting interview with Writer-Director Laila Pakalnina, and her very different Cinderella.

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