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My Journey to the Oscars: Laura Wandel, Director of Playground’

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In a new series, Variety catches up with the directors of the films shortlisted for the International Feature Film Oscar to discuss their road to the awards, what they’ve learned so far, and what’s taken them off guard.

Laura Wandel is the auteur behind “Playground” (“Un Monde”), her first feature, about the reality of schoolyard bullying. The film stars newcomer Maya Vanderbeque as seven-year-old Nora, who struggles to know what to do as she witnesses her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) bullied at school. The story is told through Nora’s eyes, including all the cinematography, which is captured at waist-height.

Congratulations on being shortlisted! What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar?

Well of course, this is totally immense, gigantic. It moves me in the sense that it means that the film will be seen [throughout] the whole world. And that is amazing for a film as radical as mine. I’m extremely proud to have my name next to great directors like [Asghar] Farhadi or [Quentin] Tarantino and all the others. It’s an amazing experience for me.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your campaign thus far?

Probably just the fact that I don’t speak English properly and it’s kind of frustrating for me [Wandel was speaking to Variety via a translator]. But I don’t know if that’s a very good answer.

Also I cannot do the [Oscars] campaign in real life [due to pandemic restrictions]. I would have loved to travel and feel the energy of the American audience and to be able to discuss the film with people.

Although you’re shortlisted in international feature category, the best picture category has been devoid of non-English language features. “Parasite” (2019) was the first winner in history. Do you feel international voices are siloed in media and film criticism?

I’m not sure I’m really able to answer this question because you know, this whole campaigning thing, it’s brand new to me. But then it just seems logical for me that there would be a category for domestic firms and one for foreign films. And it’s the same for the Césars [in France] and in Belgium for the Magritte so, you know, it doesn’t really bother me.

I really don’t feel that because my film is not in English that it will travel less or get less recognition. I don’t have that feeling.

When trying to get consumer audiences to watch an international feature, there seems to be a focus on the length of a movie, but when something like “Avengers: Endgame” gets a three-hour runtime, Marvel fans are ecstatic and say they could go longer if they wanted to. Is that fair?

Well, for me [this was not the case]. No, not at all. The script was actually quite short from the start and in the editing process it also naturally went that way because there were scenes that we had filmed that I felt did not have the place in the final film.

The Academy has favored European countries, with Italy and France winning triple the number of times than a country like Japan. How can we encourage more diversity from all countries globally?

I guess maybe because, you know, those countries traditionally have bigger marketing budgets. But then I think that what’s extraordinary is the recent development of having a film from Bhutan which is already shortlisted and everything, so it must mean that things are changing.

[Wandel’s translator adds: “I would add as a translator and also a marketing person that France has Cannes of course so can put the French films in in the spotlight.”]

You are representing your country to an American awards body (although there are voters who are international). How do you feel about being that representative?

I’m extremely proud of this. And also I’m really proud that this is a 100% Belgian film, because it was financed by both communities, both the French speaking and the Flemish speaking bodies. And so I’m really truly proud to represent my country.

As your country’s representative film, is there any government grant/fund you can access for the campaign?

We have ridiculously small budgets. We have something like €20,000 ($21,000). So you can’t really do anything with that. And it’s even more amazing that the film got shortlisted as we had so little money and no chance to have a real campaign.

Why did you want to make a film about bullying and playground politics?

Well, this is something that was really important to me because we all went to school and we all experience going to school for the first time. And this is a period we sometimes forget about later in life. But this is the period of life that decides who we become as adults and it really builds our characters. And also the playground is actually a mirror for all human societies in general because schools are a microcosm of what happens later in life and as adults what we experience later.

Part of it is based on personal history and things that I experienced. But I wanted my film to be more universal than that and so I did a lot of research. I talked to teachers, to parents, to children. I spent a lot of time in schools watching the playgrounds.

The movie was all filmed at waist height – what challenges did that present?

I wanted the technical part to be as uncomplicated as possible, to be as light as possible, because I wanted to be just at the service of the children. So we just strapped the camera to the waist of the DOP and then I had a little screen and I was just walking around next to him with my little screen. That was a way of having the children forget that we were there. If we had more gear it would have been more difficult.

There was hardly any lighting at all. And in terms of sound all the children had little mics. But then the two main characters, they had [boom mics] that were indeed following the two main characters [Nora and Abel].

And then there was a gigantic work of post-production with the sound.

Oscar nominations will be unveiled on Feb. 8.