For those familiar with the work of Nicolàs Pereda (Minotaur, Summer of Goliath) or Andrea Bussmann (He Whose Face Gives No Light), the territory of their collaborative feature Tales of Two Who Dreamt may seem familiar: It's that space between documentary and fiction, with a game-like playfulness and contemplative pace. But the directors' willingness to surrender the filmmaking process to their subjects gives the film a spontaneity and idiosyncrasy all its own. The unexpected result of what was initially conceived of as two films, Tales is set in a housing block in Toronto where an asylum-seeking Hungarian Roma family tells stories, including the Kafkaesque plot of a boy who wakes up to find he has transformed into a bird, as they await the verdict on their residency status. But the act of storytelling is repeatedly interrupted, and more quotidian aspects of their lives emerge, in what becomes an abstract vision of immigrant life, articulated autonomously from the country that you can hardly tell surrounds it. The family’s limbo-like state and the film’s own fragmented identity—two films merged into one, transferred from digital to 16mm—find points of intersection in the deconstruction of notions of representation and translation.

I spoke to one of the film’s directors, Andrea Bussmann, not long after its Canadian premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Adam Cook: Can you tell me about how Tales of Two Who Dreamt came to be? It started out as an entirely different project.

Andrea Bussmann: It was originally conceived of as two films: a fiction film that Nicolàs Pereda had written, and my project, which was more documentary in nature. We had imagined the films would screen together, in a kind of dialogue. Nicoàs began to edit his film before I did, but after trying to complete his half, he decided to abandon the project. Shortly afterwards, he watched my footage and we talked about putting it all together to make one film. Several years passed, until I decided that the film could work together. I wasn’t interested in my footage becoming a document of a place and its relation to a “failed” film. Instead, I decided to link the films together by using Kafka’s Metamorphosis to explore themes of subtitles, representation, and translation.

Tales of Two Who Dreamt

Cook: How was working with the family in the film? Was it easy convincing them to do the movie?

Bussmann: It was wonderful and challenging. We met them in a very organic way. A couple of years prior to filming we were living across the road from the Parkdale Public School in Toronto. Our son was four and we would take him to the schoolyard in the afternoons. Many Roma refugee families were living in several buildings that also backed onto this school. Families would bring their children to play in the yard, as we did. Over time we started interacting with them. The challenge was that most of the adults couldn’t speak English, and we didn’t speak Hungarian. We had only known the younger couple and the children that appear in the film, we had not met Sandor and his wife yet. When we approached them about making a film, we were told that we had to meet Sandor and that he would decide for all of them. He expressed interest in acting in the fiction film too, and Nicolàs thought he would be great.  They negotiated their salaries and we begun filming shortly afterwards.

Cook: The film takes place in an apartment block in Toronto, but there are very few giveaways about this being in the city, or even Canada. Can you talk about the location and how within the film it operates outside of a specificity of place?

Bussmann: The main locations are the apartment buildings that were home to many refugees, Roma and others. The spaces and architectonics of these buildings were familiar spaces to me from my childhood, as I grew up in a part of northwestern Toronto where the government housed refugees in the 1990s. I was interested in the stories and events that were part of the memory of these buildings. I learnt a lot of the stories heard in the film from spending time with children in the hallways. These spaces act as an extension to people’s apartments, as there may have been a family of four for example living in a bachelor apartment. At the end of Nicolàs' shoot, I told him different stories the children had spoken about, and we decided to record the adults telling their versions of the children's stories, and learnt many others as well.

When we merged our footage into one film, we chose to transfer both of our footage to 16mm and turned it into black and white.  We believed this would give the film a more timeless and placeless feel.  Both Nicolàs and I are concerned with the representation of people in our films, and by creating a surreal, dreamlike world where time and events repeat themselves, we attempt to construct a film that doesn't represent a particular group or location, but where issues, events, stories, and people intermingle and add to each other.

Cook: The film is very aestheticized, very staged, but still plays with ideas of documentary. Could you talk about blurring those lines, and what interests you about working in this form?

Bussmann: Sometimes we carefully arrange things in the frame, sometimes we film people, things and places just as we find them. Sometimes it's a mix. In all cases we are completely aware of our subjectivity. The screen is not a window to reality, it's an interpretation of reality. We use as many formal approaches as we see fit, and use tools from both documentary and fiction worlds, but we don't consider sections of the film documentary and other sections fiction. Every frame has a deep connection to reality, and at the same time it's been manipulated in one way or another by us.

Tales of Two Who Dreamt

Cook: Could you elaborate on the ideas of translation and representation?

Bussmann: I wanted to explore how subtitles are viewed as something outside of the film itself, as opposed to being part of the film itself. I wanted to construct a film that would challenge conventions in relation to text on screen, and that would at the same time engage the viewer with a reflexive game.  With this as a starting point, I decided to use Kafka’s text of Metamorphosis as a unifying thread, which allowed me to explore issues of representation, mythmaking, and translation. In relation to representation, I wanted to challenge the pervasive Social Darwinist-like discourses that linger on in Western society and are often used in reference to refugees. For example, I remember listening to interviews in which Europeans were saying the belief systems of refugees that were coming to Europe were barbaric, “different” from ours, medieval, etc.  Just to extend this example, when we started to engage socially with the Roma at our local park, our neighbors “warned” us about them. The irony is that our neighbors were Indian and Chinese migrants, people who prior to coming to Canada had no contact with the Roma, yet pervasive stereotypes of “gypsies” had affected them as well. Questions arose of how to dislocate storytelling and image-making from normative discourse to challenge these kinds of representations on screen. In our case, we engaged with time—surreal dreamlike, repetitive, etc.—and reflexive storytelling devices—Kafka, subtitles, translation, spaces of agency etc.

Cook: And Jorge Luis Borges is an important touchpoint for some of these ideas.

Bussmann: I chose Metamorphosis as the main story, because when human beings turn into “non-humans”—plants or animals, for example—we invert the evolutionary process. We break down linear time and social evolution, and bring about a level of surrealism, which helps to encourage a more complex engagement with those on screen. The theme of metamorphosis extends into translation as well.  I was very influenced by the work of Borges and some of his ideas on translation. Many people will recognize this from the title of our film. Like Borges, I wanted to use translation less as a tool, but instead as an act of creation. Borges would willfully adopt, adapt, and transform the work of others, but he would also recreate and transform his own originals as well. Translation then becomes more a means of enhancing—not simply the transmission of information—where the author becomes much less important than the work itself. This is a beautiful idea, because in cinema there is still so much importance placed upon the director. If we understand that the original has no more advantage than the translation, a film/text becomes increasingly a collective enterprise, where the importance of any one individual—author, viewer, or translator—is diminished.

Tales of Two Who Dreamt

Cook: Could you talk about the crisis the family was facing, and the way it serves as a peripheral element of the film?

Bussmann: The particular family we worked with had already had their refugee hearings finished by the start of the filming. Not all members of the family had their refugee status rejected, but some did.  They are a very large family, and several members had already returned to Hungary. Those that did have their application accepted decided to go back anyways. This happened in the case of many families we heard. The federal government at the time used statistics of people returning back to Hungary as evidence that people didn’t need Canada’s protection, which of course couldn’t be further from the truth. People returned because families didn’t want to split up. When Nicolàs learnt about how the status of Timme and her family was rejected, he decided to ask them to discuss this experience with Sandor, as if it just happened. This is one of the only scenes from the original fiction that remains in its original form and with a “proper” translation of the text. As I edited the film together, I liked how this scene came about in the filming process, and how more scenes in both our footage began to be shaped by the families themselves, and things they wanted add to the film. We both think it is important to work with people, and create spaces of agency for them. Another important aspect for me was the feeling of uncertainty that permeated the entire atmosphere of the building and its inhabitants, because everyone was facing one crisis or another.

Cook: When it comes to representing the family in the film, what questions do you ask yourself as a filmmaker? What is the filmmaker responsible for?

Bussmann: Our responsibility is with the family. We hired a translator and explained to them our intentions as clearly as possible. They understood from the start that this was not a traditional portrait of their family. They knew that we would mix fiction stories with their personal lives, and that they would play at once fictional characters and themselves. We paid them for their work and they approached it as a job. They told us what they wanted to tell us, and didn't do anything they didn't feel comfortable doing. They don't see us as the messenger of their stories and their struggles, and we don't see them as representatives of their larger community, but as individuals like any other.