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We speak to film director Mirjam Unger about her film Fly Away Home

By Say Peng  /  15 May 2018 (Tuesday)

Austrian filmmaker Mirjam Unger first encountered the work of fellow countrywoman and children books’ writer Christine Nöstlinger in a play she had watched that was adapted from  Nöstlinger’s poems. Curious to find out if Nöstlinger had written any books for adults, Unger visited a bookstore and the store manager recommended Fly Away Home, Nöstlinger’s autobiographical novel, published in 1975.

Told from the perspective of 8-year-old Christel, the book, set during the tail end of World War II when the Germans are retreating and Russians are taking over, follows Christel and her family as they move into a new house after their own got bombed and have to navigate life whilst living under the same roof with Russian soldiers who have decided to set up base in their new house. After Unger, screenwriter Sandra Bohle, and the actors read the book, they unanimously agreed to make a film from this “powerful Austrian war story.”

What drew Unger and Mohle particularly to Nöstlinger’s book was that it was told from a young girl’s point of view, which was something new for Unger. She had heard World War II stories from her parents, grandparents, teachers, and many other grown-ups, but never from the perspective of a young girl.

The young girl, Christel, is played by then newcomer Zita Gaier. It was through luck that Gaier was found. Unger, who was desperate to cast Christel, had asked her brother, who also appeared in the film and was casted first, if he had any sisters. He did, one sister. When Unger saw Gaier for the first time, she knew she found her Christel.

While the film is predominantly Christel’s story, it is also a portrait of female survival seen through the lens of class. The two other major characters are Christel’s working-class mother, played by Austrian actress Ursula Strauss, and Mrs von Braun, the bourgeois, gentile widow of a Nazi, who lives together with Christel’s family, played by German actress Bettina Mittendorfer. The film depicts the different ways in which they cope with living under the same roof as the Russian soldiers. Unger and Bohle said that through history, cinema has always been more interested in the hero’s journey, but they were interested in the “heroine’s journey.”

Strong female presence extends not only to the main cast, but also to the crew. In addition to the director and screenwriter, the film boasts a female producer, cinematographer, editor, costumer designer, and production designer. It is an effort by Unger and her team to try to address the gender imbalance in their industry.

The film premiered at the Diagonale film festival in Graz, Austria, where it was warmly received and where Ursula Strauss won the Diagonale Prize for Acting.

Did Christine Nöstlinger like the film? According to Bohle, Nöstlinger, who is very reserved, smiled and said that the film was “not that bad.” Unger took it to mean that Nöstlinger probably liked the film very much.

Fly Away Home will screen at the European Union Film Festival this Thursday. Get your ticket here: https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/ceuff0518
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