We got the chance to catch up with David Bartlett the director of MOUSIE, a live action short film and Oscar Contender that you will completely fall in love with!
Congratulations on making such a beautiful film.
Thank you very much! We are proud of it, and delighted and humbled by the resonance it seems to have enjoyed so far.
Your little girl in the film is outstanding, what was it about her that made you realise she was right for the role?
We auditioned several youngsters, and found that some could act, and some could dance – but doing both proved to be an elusive talent. We also came across some who were a little too stagey. Seven-year-old Sasha Watson-Lobo arrived via a self-tape of her tap-dancing. She was clearly a remarkable dancer, and her talent brought tears to my eyes. She was angelic, but with attitude! On meeting her, I discovered that she had never acted before. A robust and challenging conversation with the little soul revealed her innate sensitivity, intelligence and imagination. The concentration in her eyes was enough to allow me to cast her… It was a gamble, but I felt that her emotional intelligence and imagination would allow this child to shine in the role – and make it her own.
For those who haven’t seen MOUSIE, please tell us about the film.
Mousie is a 17 minute short film. Part horror, part hope, it depicts the plight of a little seven-year-old Roma girl in Berlin in 1936 – designated an enemy of the state by dint of her culture and skin colour alone. Her fleeing mother givers her into the care of another woman, one she believes may have a better chance of protecting her. Hidden in a wardrobe in a decaying Weimar Cabaret club by a dancer, the little mouse scurries around behind the scenes, grabbing any chance she can to soak up the sights and sounds of the brave, resilient artists still trying to work, to entertain. Then a Nazi officer turns up… And the child is faced with a life-and-death challenge…
What was it about the subject of the film that made you want to create this film?
A few years ago, I felt that I needed to make some comment on the appalling situation that seemed to be unfolding in the West… Rank nationalism, xenophobia and – perhaps most grotesque – the flagrant demonisation of refugees. Even child refugees. (The Syrian child Aylan Kurdi who washed up drowned on a beach in Turkey in 2015 was a particularly horrific example of how those in peril were being abandoned or actively targeted.) The West seemed to be sliding towards something that the lessons of history seemed to be warning us about. I just felt strongly that “we have been here before”. The misery and cataclysmic bloodshed of World War Two (which killed 56 million people) began with division, xenophobia and the demonisation of ethnic groups. So I created Mousie as a reminder. But the film is also about hope… It is set in a cabaret club where the artists continue working, struggling unarmed against a state that seeks their destruction… And it is ultimately art that the child wields as a sword against the brute oppressor, in the form of music and dance. Compassion and art are two of the most important pillars holding up the roof of our civilisation… Without them, we are in darkness.
The film has received a lot of accolades not only as prizes from film festivals including your recent director award, but from high profile people like Emma Thompson and Derek Jacobi. What does this mean to you?
The film was a passion project, emerging as it did from places of anger and love and artistry. To be able to use one’s skills to create and tell powerful stories is always a privilege, but to find that the end product has resonance – with festival audiences and experienced cinema artists like Emma and Derek – is truly humbling and rewarding. I am thrilled for me, but also for the incredibly talented producer Will Poole, and for our magnificent and generous cast and crew. And I’m delighted that this sheds more light on the refugee charity we made the film in support of, The Separated Child Foundation.
Have you had a chance to see the film on the big screen with an audience, if so what was the reaction like?
When the film was screened at the 24th Dances With Films Festival in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre – arguably the most famous cinema on the planet – none of us were able to attend, owing to pandemic restrictions. But it was thrilling to have the reaction to Mousie described afterwards – very emotional! However, the film’s public premiere was a magical moment that allowed me the auditorium experience. It happened at Germany’s oldest cinema, the Moviemento Kino, at the Ake Dikhea Festival of Romani Film in Berlin – where the film is set – with Roma holocaust survivor Zoni Weiss present. It was incredibly emotional and very inspiring.
Tell us more about the shooting process, how long did it take to shoot and where did you make the film.
Fortunately, we needed only two locations. Restored music hall Hoxton Hall (in East London) provided the interiors of the Weimar Cabaret Club; and we shot part of the fabulous 200-year-old site of Chatham Historic Dockyard as a 1936 Berlin street exterior. Since both locations are functioning venues and museum sites, scheduling was very tricky! But the staff at both were incredibly accommodating and enthusiastic.
I had worked with the Cinematographer, Editor, Composer and First Assistant Director before and they were on board from the start. We then found our Production Designer and Costume Designer, and brought in trainees to work with them – and indeed in all the departments. This film had no institutional or government funding or support, so the budget was VERY tight. (Generous “sponsorship-in-kind” from many companies and individuals was key to the production.) A lot of our crew were “stepping up” and many had never set foot on a film set before. We felt that made the whole shoot more exhilarating and valuable.
Working at very fast pace, we shot the club scenes across two and a half days. And we shot a harrowing flashback – where the child is taken from her mother – and the street exterior finale scene across a day and night in Chatham. There are many time directives laid down by the law re working with children of Sasha’s age. So, between the child licence provisions and cast availability and HoD availability and Hoxton Hall availability, and dance rehearsals, we had little in the way of contingencies. Everything came together, but like a house of cards… Precarious! We always knew this would be a very ambitious project.
There were probably many stories like this during the war, did you do a lot of research before making the film and if so, did you come across any similar stories?
Hélène being part of the Romani community emerged from the research I did. I started out wanting to tell a story about a child who goes from victim to resistor, to show the brutality and also the stupidity of the oppressor. Researching the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, I realised that the Roma and Sinti of Europe had been stripped of their rights and victimised just as the Jews had, all of them considered to be “of impure blood”. I realised that the story of the Romani “porajmos” (Romani equivalent of “holocaust”) has been largely forgotten. It is now believed that between 500,000 and one million Romani travellers were killed by the Nazis. I came across accounts of atrocities against the Romani people, but no one story that relates to the one I created for Mousie. I was amazed to meet Zoni Weiss at the film’s premiere, who had hidden as a child for much of the war after his parents and siblings were grabbed and murdered by the Nazis. Another little mousie, but unknown to me when we made the film…
How did you get such a magical performance from your young lead actress?
Seven-year-old Sasha really had no idea what “acting” was. None whatsoever. So we just talked… And imagined. While avoiding any mention of anything too ugly or perverse re the threat to her character, I talked to Sasha about what an unfamiliar world may feel like… Without Mum and Dad, without the cat, without what you’re used to. The character Hélène is no expert in trauma, victimisation or Nazism or racism… She is essentially dislocated, as all refugees are. And bewildered. And, as it turns out, courageous. And these were the notions that Sasha and I discussed, which she could access. Drawing her out, asking her how she imagined something would feel… I invited Sasha to relate moments and feelings in the film to moments and feelings in her own life… And gradually she found herself entering the mindset of little Hélène. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, and due in no small part to Sasha’s innate intelligence and discipline. She was wonderful to work with, a joy.
What is next for you?
I have three feature screenplays awaiting development, and I am privileged to be working with novelist and screenwriter Michael Marshall Smith on another feature project.
We hope this beautiful film wings its way to the Oscars.
ARTS MUSE MAGAZINE