Olmo and the Seagull: A play within a film, an ultrasound of a life

Soha Elsirgany, Friday 20 Nov 2015

The Brazilian-Danish film delves into women’s anxieties during pregnancy in a poignant fiction-documentary hybrid

Olmo and The Seagull
Still from Olmo and The Seagull (Photo: Olmo and The Seagull Press Kit)

The Brazilian-Danish film Olmo and the Seagull has been screened several times as part of the Critics Days programme at the 37th Cairo International Film Festival, and on Tuesday the screening was attended by the film's Brazilian director Petra Costa and its Egyptian director of photography Muhammed Hamdy.

The film follows the story of Olivia, a theatre actress, who is rehearsing for the leading role in Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. Along with her boyfriend Serge, who is co-starring in the play, she learns excitedly that she is pregnant.

When her initial hopes of performing and working through her pregnancy are crushed by several complications, she is forced to take a back seat, and the audience is taken on an intimate journey into her thoughts, insecurities and insights during her pregnancy.

Prior to their collaboration the two directors, Brazilian Costa, who wanted to make a fictional story, and Danish Lea Glob, who wanted to make a documentary, were both used to making existentialist films with personal subjects, each in her own style.

The two directors were brought together by CPH:LAB, a programme that is part of the Danish CPH:DOX film festival that pairs international directors together and supports their production.

The resulting film is a hybrid of fiction and reality, with Olivia Corsini and Serge Nicolaï, who are actors at the Theatre Du Soleil, acting out their real lives during the time of her pregnancy.

The film emerged from a fluid creative collaboration between the actors, directors and editors, Costa explained at the Cairo screening.

“There was a structure we had prepared for the film as a skeleton, but then the flesh shaped up as we filmed, and there was a lot of improvisation,” Costa said.

Although the initial plan for the film was to have Olivia and Serge perform their own lives, the pregnancy was a surprise – one they decided to capitalise on.

Olmo and The Seagull is one of very few films ever made to tackle the subject of pregnancy in an honest, intimate way. In the modern world where pregnancy is a choice, women who chose to have children face a set of anxieties and sacrifices, awakening questions of identity and gender roles.

“There’s only one horror movie on the subject; Rosemary’s Baby. It is surprising how little it is talked about although this is something very present in our real life,” Costa says.

Drawing a parallel between Olivia’s story and Chekov’s The Seagull was a directorial choice.

“The play has two strong female characters, Nina who is fearful of slipping into madness, and Arkadina who is struggling with her ageing, and Olivia sort of relates to both at once,” Costa told Ahram Online.

In The Seagull Nina was also locked up at home by her father and stepmother, not unlike Olivia who feels trapped in her home because of the baby. Additionally, Olivia shares a profession with Arkadina, a theatre actress who was once young, beautiful and famous.

The title of the film bears more layers. Olmo is Italian and Spanish for Elm, a tree that in Italy symbolises the revolution.

“There was also a film on the subject titled 1900 by Bernardo Bertolucci with a revolutionist character named Olmo Dalcò,” the director adds.

In Olmo and The Seagull, Serge reads a text referring to Olmo, and afterwards uses the name on Olivia, teasing her about her rebellious and sometimes difficult nature.

Lines are blurred between stage life and personal space at home; the beautiful cinematography takes us between the play’s rehearsal scenes, Olivia's time alone and with Serge, and old home-video footage.

A lot of the filming in Olivia’s home is shot in close-up, focusing on details in her house or the activity of her hands. It is almost as claustrophobic as Olivia feels, yet enriches the story’s intimacy.

“I was thinking how to shoot things that reflect and emotional state, rather than the story or an event,” Muhammed Hamdy told Ahram Online.

As the film progresses and the character develops, the scenes open up to wider angles to capture the activity happening in Olivia’s life, as she steps outside and meets with friends.

The scenes shot in her home are largely accompanied by Olivia’s narrating voice.

“We gave her a voice recorder, to use like a diary. It became a companion in this personal journey that was a very lonely moment for her,” Costa says during a discussion after the film screening at CIFF.

The scenario, bouncing between narration and conversation, exposes all the thematic layers. At times one can’t tell if they are her thoughts or lines from a play, as both expose truths from the reflective nature of a theatre actress.

Yet this sensibility is contrasted with Olivia’s fiery, restless and demanding nature. Playing herself, she lets the audience in and confesses a fear of her own intensity and depths.

“It is this silence that makes me uncomfortable,” Olivia narrates. Her pregnancy imposes time alone that forces her to honestly face herself in new ways that often scare her.

“You are sheltered from everything if you work in theatre,” she says, questioning which is her true identity, the one attached to her passion for theatre and her freedom, or this new person she is forced to become.

“I used to think I was so dependent on the love of others, I’d never be able to fall in love. Always, always acting, doing everything I could to be loved…I used to think I couldn’t live without the gaze of others,” says Olivia.

At the age of 34, she reflects on how she changed over the years, comparing her maturing love for Serge with how her ex-boyfriend embodies everything she lost.

We follow Olivia through the months, after the initial excitement wanes, and she is hit by these looming realities. The baby is an abstract idea to her at first, an imposition on her life, even though it was her choice, which leaves her hounded by fear of what it is doing, or will do, to her life.

“Her house becomes the theatre,” Costa says.

For a theatre actress, perhaps the line between character and self is always thin enough to crossover. In one of the scenes, Olivia examines her reflection in the mirror, reflecting on how performing certain characters has affected her features, her jaw hardened by the life of one character, her eyebrows sloped from the sadness of another she played for many years.

In this moment, we hear the director Costa interrupting Olivia’s thoughts, provoking her with a question about infidelity.

“As directors we decided that we will be present in the film, because in reality we were always there as this disturbing aspect, invading their privacy,” Costa tells Ahram Online

She remains unseen, yet this is the second moment Costa’s voice breaks into a scene, alerting the viewer of the director’s presence and also adding yet another layer to the script by her interference.

“I feel that those moments that I speak to them, the mask drops. Caught off guard, they stop the version they want to portray and it is like a Freudian slip that reveals more,” Costa says.

Ironically, the film itself represents a balance the actress found between her art and her personal life, a salvation from her fears.

Ultimately the film, which has a pensive beauty, portrays a very subjective, yet very universal journey of how one woman bridges her inner worlds and comes to terms with her multiplicity.

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