‘107 Mothers’ Director Kerekes Reflects on His Venice Film

Of the 400 prisoners, only three were not willing to participate. They were coming up with ideas about what to film, scenes, dialogue. They enjoyed the filming. For the inmates it was a change from the daily prison routine, but also the possibility to confess.
Everything is possible in Odessa.
What attracted you to this project?
My challenge was to give the female protagonists space and not to crimp the story as a director.
What made you decide to turn your material into a fiction film?
We felt very privileged to capture the birth of a new life for our film. It was the most wonderful moment of the shoot. The birth was filmed outside the prison.
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’s next for you?
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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.
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.
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. During our long research, we found a lot of interesting characters and stories.
Was it difficult to get a woman to allow you to shoot her live child birth?
[And] Iryna’s mother is played by my favorite actress from Odessa State Yiddish Theatre [Riasa Roman]. 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. Lyubov was released from prison at the beginning of production, she plays herself. Iryna is still working in the prison. Almost everyone in the film is a real person.
What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
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. We were interested in censors as human beings. In the beginning, we wanted to make a documentary film about the last censors. Most censorship today is done by software algorithms. 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. It's a long story.

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