Danish director Bille August is one of the few filmmakers whose works have won two Golden Palm awards at the Cannes Film Festival. The first was for "Pelle The Conqueror" in 1988. This film is about a father and son who immigrate to Denmark in the late 1800s to build a new life. Aided by the powerful performance of Swedish actor Max von Sydow as the father, "Pelle" also won the Oscar for best foreign film. August won his second Golden Palm in 1992 with "The Best Intentions," a film based on a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman that describes the legendary filmmaker's difficult relations with his parents. The actress playing Bergman's mother was Pernilla Wahlgren, whom August later married.
August, 59, is heading the judges' panel at the Haifa Film Festival's Israeli Film Competition this year. He says he is yet to see an Israeli movie, and that he is excited to do so through the competition. In honor of his participation in the festival, his new film, "Goodbye Bafana," (which has been purchased for commercial distribution in Israel) will be screened there. This film is based on the memoirs of James Gregory (played by Joseph Fiennes), the white South African prison warden who guarded Nelson Mandela (Dennis Haysbert) for years - both when Mandela was first imprisoned in the Robben Island jail, and later when he was transferred to more comfortable conditions. The film begins in 1968, as Gregory arrives at Robben Island along with his wife Gloria (Diane Kruger) and their children, and ends with Mandela's release in the early 1990s. Gregory's memoirs convey how South Africa gradually loosened the bonds of apartheid.
August says he received the screenplay for "Goodbye Bafana" before he had read Gregory's book (whose authenticity has been in question since its publication in 1995. Critics claim Gregory's position afforded him illegal access to Mandela's correspondence, and that Gregory fabricated the story of his close friendship with the future South African leader).
"What interested me about the story," says August, "is that this is the tale of a relatively simple young man who, at the beginning of the film, staunchly believes in the apartheid laws, and all he wants is to lead a normal life and take care of his family. He changes, however, after meeting Mandela. [Gregory] is living proof that people can ideologically and morally rehabilitate themselves, that they can change."
What led you to believe that in 2007, people would still be interested in the story of apartheid, which already belongs to the somewhat distant past? What makes the story relevant today?
"All I believe is that if a story intrigues me and touches me, it will intrigue and touch others, too; that if it tells me something, it bears a message for other people, too. This is my guiding instinct, and I cannot do otherwise. In addition, I believe there are great similarities between what happened during that period in South Africa and what is happening today in Iraq. South Africa was on the brink of civil war prior to the 1994 elections, but Mandela's leadership, wisdom and vision managed to prevent it. We need men of vision today no less than we needed them in South Africa. I believe that if Iraq were to have its own Mandela - a man with a broad perspective - the situation there, and in other places around the world, would be different today."
Here in Israel, too?
"Yes. People have expressed their amazement at how the first issue Mandela addressed upon his release was the need for forgiveness; how, after 27 years in jail, he had not become a bitter and angry man. I think, however, that Mandela's long imprisonment was for him a long meditation, during which he prepared himself for the bloodless creation of a new South Africa."
Your film is a confrontation between two figures: One has familiar human weaknesses, and the other, Nelson Mandela, is an icon, a legend, one of the most admired men in the world. How did you navigate between such different characters?
"It was not easy, and this is the reason why, even though there have been many attempts to make a film about Mandela, most of them never made it. It is hard to make a movie about a larger-than-life person while maintaining the ability to depict him as flesh and blood. What helped me in making this film is that the story is presented through Gregory's eyes. In a certain way, my film follows the same pattern as the play and movie "Amadeus," which tells Mozart's story through Salieri's eyes. James Gregory is my Salieri."
Have you met Mandela?
"Unfortunately, no. Before filming began, I sent him a letter detailing my ideas for the film and how excited I was about making it, but I did not expect a response. I heard through his close associates only that he was very concerned that the film not distort what really happened. Indeed, all the scenes involving Mandela are based on historical fact. The movie has not yet been released in South African theaters, and I imagine that some viewers will claim it has not enough or too much Mandela, that it is too political or not political enough, but this is inevitable."
August, a graduate of the Danish Film Institute, began his filmmaking career as a cameraman. He directed his first film in 1978, and his second one only five years later. He won international acclaim in 1985 with "Twist and Shout," a teen comedy. Since his two Golden Palm awards and his Oscar, August's career has taken several turns, not all of them successful. His subsequent films included "The House of Spirits" in 1993, a star-studded international production whose cast featured Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder and Antonio Banderas. August says he learned much from that film and the difficulties in producing it. In 1996 he directed "Jerusalem," based on the novel by Selma Lagerlof. August visited Israel for the first time before filming began, but for economic reasons, the movie was ultimately shot in Morocco. His next film, produced in 1997, was "Smilla's Sense of Snow," which was not a success, even though it was based on a best-selling book. This was followed by another box-office failure, a 1998 remake of "Les Miserables."
"After 'Pelle the Conqueror,' I received a slew of offers to make films about immigrants, but I decided I already had made my immigration film," says August. "I wanted to make different films gradually, and to portray what really interests me. I do not want to make political films. I believe politics belongs to the politicians. Still, I believe good films can infuse a political situation with a heart and soul. I think it is too easy to use the cinema for political declarations. To me, there is no magic in that."
How important is it to you that your films have a unifying personal signature?
"When you are making a movie, you cannot think about that. You can only try to make the film in the fairest possible way. Even so, I believe that in choosing the story and molding the characters, you make your personal mark on your films. Of course, some movies are more important to you, closer to your heart."
How did your collaboration with Ingmar Bergman come about?
"The phone rang, and the person on the other end identified himself as Ingmar Bergman. He told me he had written a screenplay he wanted me to read. At first I thought it was one of my friends, playing a prank on me, but slowly I realized that I really was speaking with Ingmar Bergman.
"I set two conditions: that if I did not like the screenplay I would not make the film, and that if I directed the film I would not be Ingmar Bergman's assistant - I wanted to be the film's director. I read the screenplay, and of course I liked it very much. I traveled to Stockholm to meet with Ingmar, and the first thing he said to me was that I would be the director, he would be the screenwriter and he had no intentions of interfering with my work. And that's how it was. He did not interfere even once.
"We spent a few months together, discussed his childhood, his life, filmmaking. I remember that for some reason Ingmar hated Christmas, and there was an occasion when he really did not want me to leave him to go celebrate the holiday with my family, because he hated Christmas. We kept in touch, and now he's dead. This has been a great loss for me."
Do you still consider yourself a Danish director?
"Not really. For example, I would not be able to direct a film about Denmark's young people today, because I no longer know them. I do not understand them. I live in London and Denmark, but most of my time is spent traveling the world. Every time I direct a film in a certain place, I feel I belong to it."