Sally Potter┬┤s life has always been full of interesting and beautiful art projects. She left school at sixteen to become a filmmaker, joining the London Filmmakers Co-op to make experimental short films. She later trained as a dancer and choreographer at the London School of Contemporary Dance, before founding her own company, The Limited Dance Company. She went on to become an award-winning performance artist and theatre director, with shows including ┬┤Mounting┬┤, ┬┤Death and the Maiden┬┤ and ┬┤Berlin┬┤. In addition, she was a member of several music bands working as a lyricist and singer.
The internationally acclaimed ┬┤Orlando┬┤ (1992) brought Sally Potter┬┤s work to a wide audience. Starring Tilda Swinton, the film was based on Virginia Woolf┬┤s classic novel (adapted for screen by Sally Potter). In addition to two Academy Award nominations, ┬┤Orlando┬┤ won more than 25 international awards. ┬┤The Tango Lesson┬┤ (1997) and ┬┤The Man Who Cried┬┤ (2000) were the follow-ups with which she established her name as one of the most successful female filmmakers.
Her latest film ┬┤Yes┬┤ transcends the political conflict between the West and the Middle-East using the metaphor of the love between an Irish-American woman and a man from the Lebanon.
AVIVA-Berlin: What was the initial idea for the script and the film?
Sally Potter: I wanted to make a kind of conversation between the East and West. The impulse to create that conversation came out of 9/11, where in a way it was evident that all conversation has finished. I created a short scene which became later on in the film the scene in the carpark, where the two lovers are having a big argument. It was the first scene that I wrote. An American woman and a man from the Middle East are talking deeply from the heart about the pain and the difficulties of their individual experiences and the conflict. Not turning away from the differences, but in the end having the love that they feel for each other transcend the difference. That gave me the idea to develop a film which belongs in a way to the genre of love story, but is otherwise dealing with big global and political ideas.
AVIVA-Berlin: Do you think it┬┤s possible for two people with such different cultural backgrounds to have a chance for a long-lasting relationship?
Sally Potter: I know people who have relationships and come from very different cultures. Of course it is not without difficulties. Such relationships, whether they are marriages, friendships or work, are such enriching experiences. I certainly experienced this for example in the work itself. In the cast we had people from completely different backgrounds. Simon Abkarian comes from the Lebanon, Joan Allen comes from America. They were other people from many, many different nationalities, beyond the camera Alexei Rodionov from Russia, the production designer came from Argentina, and the sound team was French. We had a very international crew. Everybody found that this experience made life richer. I think it is an illusion that we can only really love and understand people who are similar. It is very exciting to get to know people who are different.
AVIVA-Berlin: But what about the different mentalities?
Sally Potter: There are so many varieties. As I went to Argentina to make ┬┤The Tango Lesson┬┤ I had to learn how to adapt to a different rhythm. If I stayed in my own rhythm, it would be hopeless. For example at the beginning it disturbed me that people were often late and did not really apologise. But then I adapted and I found there were many things that I could learn from these different attitudes. It made me think differently about arrangements, the time of the day. I became a night person myself and found myself new. So I think it is to put the attitude towards the difference, that is the key, not the difference itself.
AVIVA-Berlin: Why did you choose not to give the female and the male main roles names but rather call them ┬┤She┬┤ and ┬┤He┬┤?
Sally Potter: Well, I don┬┤t think the language of love needs a name. I wanted it to be clear that it could be any man, any woman. The difference happens to be these differences I just mentioned - we all have these problems in common. However, when some people read the script they found it problematic and I tried a version where I gave them names: Carolyn and Ahmed, something like that. I looked at it and thought, "Who are these people?" This isn┬┤t right. They are called ┬┤He┬┤ and ┬┤She┬┤! (laughs) I realised their names had become ┬┤He┬┤ and ┬┤She┬┤, names that transcend individual languages and cultures.
AVIVA-Berlin: ┬┤He┬┤ is a refugee from the Lebanon, who lives in America. ┬┤She┬┤ is originally from Northern Ireland. Have you had your own experiences with refugees?
Sally Potter: I have known many refugees in my life as friends, exiled in one kind or another. I often felt like a refugee from my own culture: Don┬┤t fit in, don┬┤t be like anybody else. That matures by the conditions of being an artist, to feel being kind of outside, a little bit. That combines with some particular factors inside my own family. I feel identification with people who don┬┤t fit in.
AVIVA-Berlin: Could you say something about the role of the housemaid?
Sally Potter: She is a kind of an intermediate between the drama and the audience, like a Greek chorus. She is also the witness who I think that is what a cleaner is, a kind of witness to the betrayal, to the dirt, and all the other things we don┬┤t really want other people to see. But a cleaner has to see. And therefore cleaners become a kind of invisible underclass. So I pushed that idea as far as I could. The cleaner becomes in a way the All-Seen-Eye, the philosopher, perhaps even the scientist of the film. She is asking the big questions about small things.
AVIVA-Berlin: The narrated inner voices reminded me a bit of the Wim Wenders movie about the angels in Berlin: ┬┤Wings of desire┬┤.
Sally Potter: I think it┬┤s a wonderful film. I love Wim Wenders┬┤ work. I remember that moment in the beginning when the little child looks up and sees the angel on the statue very well. But I don┬┤t think there is an echo particular in ┬┤Yes┬┤ - the feeling of the hidden voices of the angels watching humans. In ┬┤Yes┬┤ it┬┤s more about the everyday hidden voices that we all have, a constant stream of thoughts which are private.
AVIVA-Berlin: You wrote long parts of the speech in iambic pentameters. They sound very beautiful, very poetic for film dialogues. It┬┤s surprising they are so easy to understand. Was it very difficult to write them?
Sally Potter: Strangely enough, for me no. It was coming out like a rhythm, far too much. I had to cut masses of it away. But my own history with writing is that I always written poems since I was a little girl, and many, many song-texts because I used to be a songwriter. It had become a natural outpouring. But I think it┬┤s more important that it seemed to be the necessary way for these kinds of speech, to say the kind of things to say, the dimensions of existence they were trying to put into language which in normal speech might be too heavy, too complicated or too academic. In the verse form it straightened, comes out in a more natural way. To talk about god, dust, dirt, America, sex, science, all mixed in which each other ÔÇô verse allowed me to do that.
AVIVA-Berlin: Which scene do you like most?
Sally Potter: I can┬┤t really separate one scene from another but I enjoyed very much my exploration of the nature of dust and dirt. That gave me a lot of pleasure. The work with humour is very important to me and makes it possible to digest the other themes which are in there. But the scene in the car park, which was the initiation for the film, remains the most powerful sequence in the film.
AVIVA-Berlin: You left school at sixteen to be a filmmaker. Was that a passionate decision, and do you think we should make our decisions more with passion than with rationality? Anthony - the husband of ┬┤She┬┤ - who is ultimately left by his wife, seems to be very rational. Could you say something about that?
Sally Potter: Anthony in the film wanted to be a rock-star, but became a politician because he wanted to change the world. Some day he found out that he has become his own enemy, imprisoned, in a way. With this character I wanted to explore how it is to be a white middle-aged man who gets blamed for everything, his solitude in that position. So I had a lot of compassion with that character who apparently made a wrong decision. We all make wrong decisions sometimes.
But to my own decision to get a filmmaker: It wasn┬┤t so much a decision, it was a desire, an overwhelming desire. But I didn┬┤t know how in earth I could get there. At that time there wasn┬┤t a trainee, a film school in London. So I left school, had a job as a cleaner, then in a restaurant cooking and dish-washing. Then, little by little, I taught myself how to make films just by doing it. I did have training as a dancer, and then I worked as a musician. I did a little bit of everything.
But to answer your question about passion and rationality: I find that thinking is good. Trying to be rational, to find reasons, to make decisions - the brain is a wonderful organ, a great gift that is good to use. But I think instinct is also really good. Instinct is another way of thinking that sometimes goes deeper than conscious thought. It┬┤s very important to respect our deepest desires and impulses, even when we sometimes can┬┤t understand. Often people gave up on their dreams very early on, out of a lack of self-confidence, out of discouragement from society as a whole. When I travel around to show the films I try to encourage people not to give up on their dreams what they really want to do. We┬┤ve only got one life.
AVIVA-Berlin: How important is it for you as a female director to see women differently?
Sally Potter: I think that the job of a male director and a female director is to emphasise the particularities of the male and the female parts. You have to be equally responsible for all the characters you have. It┬┤s very clear that women has been under-presented in films for a long time unless the writer has really been taken the time to imagine what is like to be female or even to imagine what a female could be interested in. It┬┤s important to me to develop interesting female characters. It should be fifty/fifty. We share this world, so let┬┤s share the films as well.
AVIVA-Berlin: Could you tell us something about your future projects?
Sally Potter: I wish I could. I┬┤m working on a lot of different things but I don┬┤t know which of those will come to the front. That is what always happens when I finish one film, I have to let it go. There is this moment, kind of crisis, about wondering which direction to go.
AVIVA-Berlin: Sally Potter, we wish you every success. Thank you very much for taking time out of your brief stay in Berlin to interview you.