‘Xoftex’ Film, Asylum Seekers, AI, TikTok, KVIFF 5

Syrian and Palestinian asylum seekers in a Greek refugee camp awaiting updates on their status. That is the world director Noaz Deshe (White Shadow, which was executive produced by Ryan Gosling) chose as the setting for his second feature film Xoftex, which had its world premiere at the 58th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival on Monday night.

“To pass the time between interviews with the immigration office, Nasser and his friends film satirical sketches and make preparations for a zombie horror flick,” reads a plot description shared by the festival, which has also posted a film clip online. “Except that the reality of the camp could be taken for a horror scenario itself. The tension between its inhabitants gains momentum and every conflict removes one more brick from the wall which divides reality from dream – or, indeed, nightmare.”

The story is infused with experiences and inspirations of people in a camp that the filmmaker first visited years ago, along with his own. Deshe, who is also known for his work as a director of photography, made a name for himself with his feature debut White Shadow, about a young Albino getting hunted, which won the Lion of the Future Award at the Venice Film Festival 2013. He wrote the screenplay for Xoftex with Babak Jalali, the director of KVIFF 2023 best director award winner Fremont.

Deshe talked to THR about how the movie came about, a related film that he has in the works, a graphic novel he has been working on for a long time, his music work, and the divisions caused by social media.

How did you come up with the idea for Xoftex?

I started as a volunteer on the Libyan coast with an organization called Cadus, which works very closely with Sea-Watch, filming their missions, helping them to get funded. I did a few of those and saw what’s happening on the water for people from Africa, Syria, Palestine trying to escape all kinds of conflicts. The world on the water was shocking, just absolutely devastating in every possible way. They were just trying to find people with binoculars before they drown.

Eventually, I felt I had earned some kind of approval to approach people in camps. And I was invited by a a person that built a camp in the north of Greece, an example camp that was safe. People there had rooms, which was exactly the opposite of everything that was happening elsewhere. I went there to see what happens if there is proper planning and funding and used that as a launchpad with the people from that camp to go to other camps and see what the the situation was there. And it was horrific. There were camps on Mount Olympus with people freezing to death in UNHCR tents in the winter that needed to be evacuated. There were camps in small villages where the local mayor let his 18-year-old daughter run the camp surrounded by the military in order to steal half of the money for food and pocket it. It was such chaos.

I asked people in all these camps and people that work in these environments where is the worst camp? Which one has the toughest condition? And everybody said Softex, which was an old toilet paper factory. That was burned and became a wasteland and abandoned, outside of Thessaloniki, next to industrial train yards. And when you went there, there were tons of problems just because of its geography. Everybody who didn’t get recognized by the asylum system was sleeping in the broken trains behind the camp, and then there were gangs, smuggling operations, and conflicts in the camp because of that. And then the Minister of Migration of Greece was caught giving the franchise to run the camp to his cousin for €9 million ($9.65 million), but only €1 million was spent. The rest of the funding disappeared. It was surrounded by the military. There were lots of riots there. It was a very tough environment. So I went there one night and kind of stood outside and saw people smoking outside a hole in the fence. And I went to talk to them.

What did you find out from them?

I was looking for somebody that could be a liaison. I knew that in environments like this the person who
interprets everybody’s problems to the Red Cross is a great person to meet. Because he knows everybody in the camp. So I met this young kid who was brilliant. We sat down for a coffee and just started speaking about the camp. His name was Bahjat and we gathered people in the Red Cross tent at night.

Within five minutes, everybody was telling each other ghost stories. And we started filming a short film. And we went to the broken trains and they chased each other. Within seconds, all this hardcore, harsh environment turned into a playground for doing something different. And we discussed how we could continue this. I had to get an official way to get into the camp because I was there illegally.

There was a great small NGO called InterVolve that was doing the social work in the camp, such as food distribution and special problems. There was a woman from Lebanon working with that NGO separately, her name is Lamya Karkour [who is working for women’s rights and empowerment], and she was like the angel of the camp. She would run the social meetings, solve people’s problems, did conflict de-escalation. It was incredible work she was doing. I showed her the footage I did on the boats for my previous film and explained the way I would want to work with people by creating a workshop environment and seeing where it goes. I told them I’m going to document the process and see what we could do with this.

Luckily, at the time, there was a visit of one week from the Italian theater company Theater of the Oppressed. I joined them, took over with a class, and we collaborated. And when they left, I was like “this needs to be a regular thing. It can’t be just for one week.” So I worked with a friend of mine from Athens, Nassos Chatzopoulos, who joined me, and we just made a curriculum. For many months, we went to the camp every day and spoke to people, and twice a week we had a class and brought people out from their caravans. We started rehearsing a play. I even have a Hamlet scene that I filmed. And at some point, I met this group of young guys, Ali Abbas and his brothers who are credited on the film [with an “inspired by” line].

How did they stand out for you?

Through the workshop, I gave an assignment, a task that everybody had to make a film trailer for a fantasy film, and they wanted to make a zombie film. And because they wanted to make a zombie film, another group wanted to make a gangster film. And another group said, “Oh, we are going to make a love movie.”

So suddenly, different groups in the camp were living in another fantasy realm and there was something to do because they are in purgatory. They don’t know when the asylum call is coming. But suddenly they are busy with other things. This is where the idea came from watching these people completely transform their experience into something else. They started doing sketch comedy. I was just very inspired by them.

Is some of that footage worth a documentary?

I kept filming them and I’m still filming them right now. We are planning on going to some Palestine protest together in Malmo [in Sweden] and finishing filming with where the world is today. Because since the camp in 2016 until today, a lot has happened. Now they are married. They have experienced either integration or isolation in their new countries. So, the other film, which is a mirror film of this movie Xoftex, focuses on that road. We are in post-production on that film as well. It is called Ghost in Radar.

For Xoftex, how did you decide how much real-life and how much fiction to focus on? The closing credits say it is “based on theater workshops, research and volunteer work in Greece 2016-2019.”

It is a search that involves the people you work with and a lot of workshopping with the actors to find a very special frequency, because you are trying to tap into a world that is not here and not there. The camp itself is a universe that is constructed by circumstances that are very specific, and it has its own rules, and those rules are not functioning in the real world. It’s another type of fantasy. It’s a combination. It’s not really a jail, but it is self-imposed.

Yesterday, we tried to find the logline for the film, and I had two ideas. I said I can either be very abstract, or I can be a bit more serious. And I sort of like the idea of going both ways.

What are those two possible loglines?

In the press kit, I’m going to write: It’s a borderline film about borders, the ones imposed on us, and the ones we believe. But at the same time, I’m very tempted to say: If a cow falls in love with a dolphin, she knows what’s best for her. Come and watch Xoxtex – it has nothing to do with that. Because there is a level of absurdity.

Originally, we had a lot more comedy that we decided to take out because it was leaning too much towards another character. It was very tempting because we had wonderful scenes with that actor, such funny scenes. They were so crazy. But the more we edited the film, the more we realized that our main focus was the state of mind of the main character and that that’s what would make the movie more special – this trying to tune into a state of mind.

I was feeling shaken after watch the film with its mix of dramatic, funny and scary elements. Was that your goal?

What I could do is try to give you the feeling of being in such a condition. So you might at some point in the movie realize that while being an outsider you had an experiential event where you joined the character and could empathize about some things, and antagonize with others. If you have an immersive experience you can conjoin a character emotionally and feel how it is to be in a place where things could change so rapidly. And where you can go from comedy to tragedy. The only way to deal with tragedy is comedy. In essence, I want people to feel they are not dealing with somebody who is going to see himself as a victim, nor should they be seen as a victim. Because that is a way to distance yourself from people.

‘Xoftex’ film still

Courtesy of Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

That’s an interesting thought for me. Can you maybe explain that a bit more?

Look at the media. Today we have a really huge issue where most people consume their news from an algorithm that’s partially not even human at this point. Its main source of nourishment is hate and anger, and negative emotions and perpetuating them. And showing images of misery, destruction and death without balancing a conversation at all. And TikTok is an influencer delivering scripts. So, we are in a world where either actors tell the news or comedians try to tell the truth. We have no shared sense of reality.

The best thing you can do is try to document the dream. This is my first interview about this film, and I’m thinking “how am I going to do”? I mean, the fantasy of how I’m going to do is no less than the gravity of reality of me talking to you. Will I be able to document what’s going through my head? There is the level of importance or responsibility that I feel to deliver information, and no less my ability to do it in words in order to be truthful to the events. It’s the same when you approach a documentary or fiction. I don’t think today there’s a huge difference between the two.

In terms of cinematic form, because of the tools we have, and because cinema demands we use those tools more to be more intimate and discover more ways to tell cinema, you are very free today to almost join reality as if it were fiction.

The reality we are living in used to be a fantasy that we saw on TV. And now we can’t tell the difference. We manifested this reality, and everything that was science fiction only years ago exists.

Like AI?

We are going into another realm now where the exponential development of these things is unpredictable. I don’t use ChatGPT. And that’s very important for me because I can tell the difference. I mean, it’s good to use it perhaps for googling. It’s good to use it for punctuation and commas. But if you remove the mistakes from your creative process, you are removing the best part.

Any example?

I can’t make anything that I don’t feel is a total disaster. And then I try to do my best to the best of my abilities within what I can at the time. It’s very hard when you are very involved in every element of it, you only see the mistakes. In a creative process, you need to be able to embrace your mistakes or the things that fail your original plan, as gifts. So if your cinematographer during COVID can not shoot the film and leaves the week before the shoot, and you end up with the camera in your hand, you have to embrace it. Or if an actor doesn’t show up, and you have to cast somebody else, and that person ends up being perfect for the role, then you go with that. Or if on your day of a shoot, you have to completely change your schedule, you have to look at the benefits of why the movie wants to do that to you. You are working for the film. The film is an organism that hired you in some way, or allowed you to manifest it. And you are going to work for the film, like everybody else. Your job is to make sure that this organism exists and lives and eventually doesn’t need you at all.

You enjoy working with people who aren’t trained actors. And you mentioned that Xoftex came out of meeting and doing workshops with people in a refugee camp. How many of your cast members in Xoftex are professional actors?

In this case more than last time because there were a lot of asylum seekers who were actors. So it felt okay and correct for the film to hire people who are in that condition and are also actors. I’d say half. For the lead [Abdulrahman Diab who plays Nasser], it is his first time on film. And most of the people have never been in a feature film, but have done shorts with friends. We accessed this wealth of people thanks to Majd and Osama Hafiry. They are young filmmakers from Syria who were asylum seekers in Berlin and had a wealth of knowledge of the world of theater, cinema and artists who have recently immigrated from Syria and the Arab world. Thanks to them, we were able to talk to some of the most brilliant actors like Muhammad Al Rashi, Amal Omran, Ramadan Hamoud, they are actors. And at the other end of it, we could bring in a lot of people who have never been on film and have never acted to have this balance. A balance of freshness, and having a first experience, with theatricality which is like life – some people in life are theatrical and some people in life are more subdued. So that’s a good mix.

Humanity and limiting people’s humanity is one key theme of the film. I also thought a lot about identity after seeing the movie. I heard you were born in Israel, have traveled a lot and lived in different places. Is identity something that you think about a lot?

I don’t have a particular need to feel like I belong to a place.

You were born…

We want to avoid that. The only citizenship I have is Romanian. My only passport is Romanian. And I have been living in many, many, many countries. I grew up with a traveling theater. So I always felt like I live on a planet, and we should share it that way. My hope is that the whole idea of national identity in terms of patriotism in the form that separates us is something that humanity really can evolve out of and beyond and be more about cultural identities that unite us. Because it’s such a liberating thing to work beyond borders with as many diverse backgrounds as possible and to stand together against occupation, against tyranny everywhere in the world, and send a message out of artistic collaboration that this is the way.

For many years, people asked me: “Where are you from?” And I would say: “From the future.” That is a much quicker way to get into the fun part of the conversation.

I’m very proud to work with the people I get to work with and there’s a diversity of people from different countries. We have a Palestinian Syrian. Other people are from Algeria, Iran, Syria, Germany, Romania, and Argentina. The whole universe is in the team.

And where do you live these days?

I am based in Athens and in Mexico City. I have been spending more time in Latin America in the past few years, especially after Ukraine.

I read somewhere that you might have also been working on a graphic novel?

It’s been going on and taking forever. Lea Walloschke, who is this amazing production designer who did the original planning of Xoftex together with me and the storyboards, worked on a film project that I started shooting in Berlin in 2008. And then the market crashed and took all my funding. And we ended up just making a graphic novel, but have never published it because it needs more work. Some of it is massive paintings of a meter and a half by two meters. I think everybody has something that they never finish. This is one of my closet animals.

Anything else you are working on?

There are other things we are doing. We are working on a soundtrack for an Italian film. I try to do a lot of different things. So it’s not just directing, but sometimes writing, and sometimes music. I really enjoy making music. Music was my entry point to making films. I started by making shorts and I did some music videos. But when I met Babak Jalali, I did the soundtrack for his movie Frontier Blues and I also edited some. Somehow, it opened the door for me, and later, his producers financed White Shadow. And I fee like he brought me into a world. He has been a huge influence. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch his film Fremont.

I’m also editing another film that I have to submit a version of in less than three weeks. Because of our funding structures, we have to deliver a version of it soon.

What’s that film about?

It’s a film I shot in Ukraine in the past two years. It’s mostly a documentary that documents people’s dreams and love relationships that I’m working on together with Beau Willimon and Peter [Pyotr] Verzilov. He was a founding member of [performance art] group Voina [and Pussy Riot] and is the person who put on a police uniform and ran onto the pitch [during the 2018 FIFA World Cup final in Russia], and then [Russian president Vladimir] Putin poisoned him. He was flown to Berlin, he was in prison in Russia, and now is one of the main figures behind Mediazone and the Russian-speaking free press in Canada. We went together in the beginning of the invasion, in the first week of the war. And in the past two years, I have been there on and off while I was editing Xoftex. I have been in Ukraine every few months.

Any festival or other plans for that yet?

I try not to think about festivals because I think it pollutes your creative process if you are thinking about the result. So it’s better to just do the best you can with the stress of trying to hit certain deadlines. And you have to find a tone that allows it to be humorous while also dealing with things that are very serious. So it’s a very specific tone and balance you need to find.

How cool is it to world premiere Xoftex in Karlovy Vary?

I’m super excited and grateful for Karlovy Vary. It’s an amazing place to see the film first. I have seen important movies there in the audience. It was where I had my first time seeing a Roy Andersson film. I have been going there as an audience member. So it’s a dream come true.

Anything else you’d like to share or say?

People are still in camps. The dehumanization of people with refugee status is still a massive problem. There are NGOs doing crazy, brave work on the Mediterranean but are getting prosecuted for saving people from drowning. The entire way we treat people in such a situation needs to change. There is this surrealism of it.

At the height of the Syrian conflict, I was living in Neukölln [in Berlin], and I went to the Hermannplatz Station. There was a man sitting on the edge of the platform, holding his baby, about to jump in front of a train. So everybody ran to stop him, and the people from the [public transport company] BVG dragged him back. Then the police arrived. And they thought the BVG was stopping this guy from getting on the train. And then the platform filled up and people thought that the police were harassing this Syrian man, and it turned into a riot. And I was thinking the poor guy in the middle of this was doing the most desperate thing. But it just shows you that it’s very hard to develop an approach and have a perspective and understand that other people see different things differently.

It’s a very complex thing. And yet, we’re not treating people like human beings when they arrive. And the people who came from the Middle East did not get the same treatment as people who came from Ukraine. And even if it was a Europe paranoid because of the Islamic State, it was not managed in a humane way. And that also leads to anger later and disenchantment and many other problems of integration.

We’re experiencing a very violent, right-wing shift in Europe, partially because of bad policies that had to do with how we accept people arriving, partially because of the bad policies of governments and how they try to integrate people. It’s a very complex issue, and some countries did better than others. Germany did a lot of good too, and the conditions of camps in Germany are much better than the ones in Greece. But still, there’s a lot of work to be done, especially psychologically, how we embrace people into a culture.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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