Award-winning Slovak documaker Peter Kerekes (“66 Seasons,” “Cooking History,” “Velvet Terrorists”) dips a toe in the fiction world with his rigorously researched Venice Horizons competitor “107 Mothers,” set inside a women’s prison in Ukraine. Made over five years and 86 shooting days, it reveals a cloistered world populated only by women: inmates, nurses and wardens, wives and widows, daughters, sisters, pregnant and with children. Without the distinctive colored uniforms indicating their status, it would be difficult to distinguish inmates from staff.
What attracted you to this project?
It’s a long story. In the beginning, we wanted to make a documentary film about the last censors. Most censorship today is done by software algorithms. We were interested in censors as human beings. Long story short, while researching this project we met Iryna, the operational officer from the Odessa Female Prison. Part of her job description was to read and censor the prisoners’ letters. Through Iryna, we had a unique opportunity to have an uncensored glance into the world of the female prison where the mothers are incarcerated with their children.
What made you decide to turn your material into a fiction film?
During our long research, we found a lot of interesting characters and stories. There was a moment when I realized that it is more important to feel the film, rather than just tell the tale. This was possible only through fiction, even though all the situations are based on true stories.
What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
Even though the film was roughly scripted I was led by permanent inquisitiveness. There were very few scenes which were just fulfilling the text of the script. Most of the scenes were a surprise, had a life of their own.
My challenge was to give the female protagonists space and not to crimp the story as a director.
For the inmates it was a change from the daily prison routine, but also the possibility to confess. They enjoyed the filming. They were coming up with ideas about what to film, scenes, dialogue. Of the 400 prisoners, only three were not willing to participate.
Almost everyone in the film is a real person. Iryna is still working in the prison. Lyubov was released from prison at the beginning of production, she plays herself. It was funny, she was returning to the same prison where she served her seven-year sentence, now as an actress. Lesya, the main character, is portrayed by the talented young actress Maryna Klimova. [And] Iryna’s mother is played by my favorite actress from Odessa State Yiddish Theatre [Riasa Roman].
Was it difficult to get a woman to allow you to shoot her live child birth?
Everything is possible in Odessa.
The birth was filmed outside the prison. It was the most wonderful moment of the shoot. We felt very privileged to capture the birth of a new life for our film.
What’s next for you?
I am working on an Italian documentary, “Wishing on a Star,” once again focusing on women. I also started on a film adaptation of the magnificent book “Dancing Bears” by Witold Szablowski.