‘Life Is Not About Words,’ Ana Rocha, Director of Venice Film ‘Listen,’ Says

Before she moved to the U.K. to take an M.A. in filmmaking in 2010, Ana Rocha left behind a long and respectable acting career in her native Portugal. This year sees the first fruits of that career change with her directorial debut “Listen,” which premieres Tuesday at the Venice Film Festival, competing in the Horizons section. Shot last summer in London’s East End, the film deals with the little-known issue of forced adoptions and tells the story an immigrant couple, played by Lúcia Moniz and Ruben Garcia, whose deaf daughter (newcomer Maisie Sly) comes to the attentions of social services after a misunderstanding at school.

How did you come to write and direct this film? What inspired you?
It really just came from my feeling of urgency about this subject matter. You could say it was a film that just sort of ‘happened,’ in the sense that I was looking for the right subject matter for me to dive into, because, to me, that’s always the most important way to start [a new project]. At that time I was living in Lisbon, and I heard some news about some real cases that were happening, so I started researching the subject matter. I thought it was very relevant.

How would you describe “Listen”?
It’s a drama about a Portuguese couple, living in the outskirts of London, who are fighting to keep their family together, in spite of interference from the British social services. Now, I don’t want people to think that I’ve made a film that’s against the U.K. – that’s not the point at all. It’s based on cases that are still happening today, but it’s fiction. It’s a film about the importance of love and family, and what can happen when a mistake happens – and mistakes happen all the time in all places, everywhere. My focus is on justice and portraying what can happen when an injustice happens. At first, everything seems very unfair, but then you start realizing, ‘No, this system is wrong for all the right reasons.’ The system is just trying to protect children, and we all have a duty to do that.

Why did that interest you?
Y’know, my point is that sometimes things are not exactly what they seem. My father was a judge, and my relationship with justice is very deep. I was brought up with a sense of trying always to be fair, and always positioning myself to try to understand right and wrong. And [right and wrong] is not black and white, of course. Life is not black and white. Ever. So finding that balance can be very hard sometimes, and that’s what interests me.

Did you do a lot of research into this subject?
I did, even though this is not a portrait of a specific case, because, of course, when you’re making a film like this, you need to study [the subject]. And at first I felt, ‘Oh my God, this is all so unfair, everything that is happening.’ But then I started to realize, ‘Oh, wait, there are reasons why these things are happening.’ And then I was very surprised to find that you can’t reverse the process. Well, you can, but it’s not the rule, even if it’s proved later on that a mistake occurred. That to me, was very shocking. Now, of course we need to protect these children, there’s no doubt about it. But being focused on the best interests of the child, to me, doesn’t mean separating the family. That should be the very last option.

How important was it to find the right cast for this?
Well, because of my background as an actress, [casting] is very important to me, because I think the connection and the communication between the director and the actors is one of the most important things [to establish]. But it was very difficult at the start, because we had a deaf actress, and, because I am not very comfortable with sign language, we had to use an interpreter. At first I was scared about being able to reach her, in a way that would benefit the film. But Maisie is amazing. She’s an amazing child, and she’s absolutely fascinating. It was a very beautiful journey, in that sense, because you totally understand that life is not about words. You look at a child like her, and a beautiful connection can happen without words and even without gestures.

What would you like people to take away from the film?
I’d like them to think deeply about the possibility of seeing different perspectives of the same subject. I don’t believe that there’s only one truth – each one of us has their own truth. So with this film, and any film that I make, I want people to be touched, and to think and ask questions. I’m not here trying to convince anyone about anything. I’m not one to do that. I don’t have the answers, y’know?

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