BUSAN, South Korea — Dreamland portrays the grittiest of human emotions — despair — as a delicate glimpse through the eyes of four middle class residents of Zurich, and the foreign prostitute who crosses paths with all of them.
Zurich, one of the richest cities in the world, and Christmas Eve, a time for love, joy and celebration, create the landscape for this supposed dreamland. However, in the opening scene, the audience sees a Christmas Tree, a traditional symbol of peace and happiness, engulfed in flames falling from the window of a tall apartment building. In the first minutes of the film, this foreshadowing sets the tone for what will be a very grim holiday for everyone.
Lena is a wealthy wife and mother to a young boy, with another on the way. Maria is a lonely, religious Spanish widow who’s daughter lives abroad. Rolf, a caring, middle-aged, recently-divorced father who is estranged from his daughter, seeks companionship from hookers. Judith works for an organization that provides aid to a community of sex-workers, but allows herself to give into her own sexual fantasies while sabotaging her own relationship. These four seemingly unrelated lives are all affected by Mia, an 18-year-old Bulgarian prostitute who dreams of freedom and returning home to see her one-year-old daughter.
This is the International Premiere of the first cinematic feature by Swiss-born director Petra Volpe, who has been working in the industry for 10 years. While attending school in Zurich, Volpe said she lived in the middle of the red light district and was affected by what she saw. She said that the contrast of student life in the area and that of the system of women who came from poor countries to service primarily Swiss clients both angered her and peaked her curiosity. This experience eventually inspired her to approach people and learn their stories. She spent one year researching the film, interviewing the working girls, johns, pimps and social workers, and then another five years writing the story.
In her research, Volpe said she met many of the girls and they all share a very similar story — one where they come from poor countries, leaving very little children at home, to work in Switzerland where they believe they have control over their situation because they think it is a safer place to be. However, for many of them this is not the case. For Volpe, the film’s central protagonist is a metaphor for people who are the lowest in the social hierarchy and who receive the least respect.
Volpe was greatly affected by seeing the difficult life of these women living in the ‘same world’ as her, but lacking the same opportunities she was given based simply on the fact that she happened to be born in Switzerland, and these girls were born in poor countries.
Volpe, who did a short stint as a phone sex operator while in university, said she has always been interested in ‘the thematic of sexuality.’
‘I was always curious about exploring how people deal with desires and rejection, denials, sexuality and relationships, and how this all comes together. So for me this is also personal, and for me I think this is also a political story as well.’
Dreamland manages to paint a rather unique portrait of Zurich, one that doesn’t look like what you would see in your Lonely Planet guidebook. An intersection of five very different lives, shows us that what we see on the outside is not actually a reflection of the inner truth.
Lena’s life seems perfect, but the tensions between her and her husband quickly become apparent. Discovering that her husband has been cheating on her with prostitutes becomes the catalyst for the destruction of her stability and emotional well-being. Desperate to understand why her husband would do such a thing, she drives to pick up a prostitute who can give her the answers she desires. Watching her question Mia ‘in the place where (she) takes the men’ is almost painful. Her despair as she tries to comprehend what this means for her and her children is contrasted by Mia’s hope when she tells us about her daughter.
Rolf’s emptiness is more obvious, yet the cause of this fate is unclear. He seems eager to please the people around him, yet his wife has left him, and both his father and daughter reject him. Prostitutes become his only companions and his odd portrayal of kindness earns him the nickname ‘the sandwich man’ from Mia.
Judith’s story was the least dynamic but also the most complicated in my opinion. She is a social worker who helps street walker. She lives among the destitute helping the girls to make smarter decisions, but makes some poor choices herself. She has desires that are not being met in her current relationship causing her to seek them from an unusual source. Her tightrope act seems to be working for her, until her boyfriend catchers her texting another man cryptic messages and leaves her desperately awaiting his return.
Maria seeks solace in the Catholic Church. Initially she seems strong, but becomes desperate for a man’s love again. When her attempt at finding romance again fails, her moral superiority leads her to make a decision that hugely impacts Mia and blurs the line between right and wrong.
When we first meet Mia, it is 5 a.m. Christmas Eve and she enters Judith’s streetwork project to get out of the cold and have a cup of tea after working. We see a girl who appears simultaneously blank and full of tragedy. Her next appearance is in a scene with her elderly neighbor, Maria. Mia speaks to her neighbor with malice and says some words you should never say to your grannie. Her lack of respect left a bad taste in my mouth, and I certainly did not expect my initial judgement of the character to change much throughout the film. However, each scene in which she stars, I find her playing with my emotions, testing me to see where my humanity lies, whether she should be judged based on her actions or her inner emotions that she is unable to communicate.
These five stories are all intertwined together throughout the film, culminating in a truly unforgettable scene. It is left open ended for personal interpretation, something Volpe decided was important for people to be left alone with their own thoughts and perspectives for reflection.
‘Everybody has their own thoughts about it, and it’s very engaged,’ Volpe said. ‘I tried not to make a very simple image that lets you out of the cinema very easily, and lets you forget about it very quickly.’
As complex as the web of lives is portrayed, I was surprised to learn that the film was not initially conceptualized as an ensemble cast. The story began with just the prostitute, but little by little Volpe realized that she wanted to tell the story not just from Mia’s perspective, but also from the people she encounters. She then started to write down the stories of new characters she met during her research.
Volpe, who says she ‘trust(s) actors a lot’, revealed that the dialogue was not rigid or rehearsed, but she allowed the actors, many of which come from strong theater backgrounds, to breathe life into their own roles after talking about the character. She added that over-rehearsing ‘kills the moment’ and the most important part of directing and getting everyone to do their best for the film is building trust with the actors and also the whole team.
‘I don’t believe in this very bossy or authoritative directing style. I think that’s very old school,’ she commented. ‘I am more interested in collaborating and using all the creative talents of everybody in the cast and on the team.’
This was one film that I initially hadn’t planned on seeing, but ended up being thankful for the traffic that made me miss what I intended to see. If you are like me and prone to crying in movies, make sure to bring some tissues, so the strangers next to you don’t have to offer you their popcorn napkins.
The final BIFF screening is tonight at 7:30 p.m. in CGV followed by a guest visit.
Photos: BIFF Press, Bro
Director: Petra Volpe
Running Time: 98 minutes
Date of Production: 2013