Films are people, character is everything

Fedor Sendak (the Netherlands, 1975) has a background in film, art and theatre. He has a BA in Film Directing from NFTA. Sendak has made some short fiction films, dance films and an installation. He founded 'Filmnetwerk', MeccaPANZA and owns the internet company Film People.

Other people’s choices in life: what makes them so interesting? What makes it so fascinating to watch another person’s intimacies safely from the dark? Using examples from the films I have seen at the Rotterdam Film Festival 2012, I will try to answer how, for me, 'character' plays an important role in appreciating any narrative fiction film.

Why do we like peeping so much? One of the reasons must be that it is great to watch someone we are able to identify with. Another person to look up to, to sympathize with or to criticize. If we can relate aspects of it to our own life, it might make us feel less lonely. Moreover, it will provide us with ideas how to deal with the highly personal difficulties we encounter ourselves. It would mean that other people’s secrets give us new ideas and comparison material. We can learn from it, see things metaphorically, or compare things one-on-one. I believe we always relate the characters’ lives to our own, because we can not keep ourselves from doing so. Watching a narrative fiction film must therefore consist first of all of watching characters. Sure, there is a lot of other things to see and hear. However, I think it all comes after this essential element of character we long to see. Therefore I do also think interesting characters should be enough to make a film worth watching. Let me try to illustrate this notion by briefly reviewing 4 films I watched at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. I will focus on this idea of character and you might find out if this idea makes any sense to you or not.


Character of the director

L, Babis Makridis (Greece 2012)

In the title of this nicely composed film, L stands for Learning. The director might be aware that learning is at the root of our drive to watch films, and that learning works well by the use of metaphor. In the film Makridis creates an absurd world for us. His main character, a middle class “Man” is stuck in his car. This person’s whole life simply takes place in this vehicle. Is it a mid-life crisis? For sure he does not know anymore 'where the wild things are'. He seems detached from his emotions. Stuck in his car he dreams to be a bear. Even when he screams in despair it still sounds sterile. Babis made a heretical and absurdist film. His typical style makes me think and laugh. Its possible metaphor I internalize into my own life or the life of other people I know. By watching this film I was given a strong experience, and in my view it originated in the interesting character of the filmmaker(s).

Authenticity and character

About the Pink Sky, Keiichi Kobayashi (Japan 2011)

When we see 'About the Pink Sky', it is harder to fall in love with the film itself. We might get bored by the meandering style of the film. The cinematography is poor and the movie is too long, nevertheless the director did a great job. What impresses is the main character the filmmaker managed to create: Izumi. We fall in love with her. His character study of Uzimi is precise and that seems simply enough to make a film. He portrays this young girl with virtue. Teenager Uzimi uses her own tools and ethics to deal with the world around her. She talks bluntly, is creative. She looks so confident at moments, but at the same time she is incapable of standing up for herself to her girlfriends. It was great to get acquainted with Uzimi and in a way she became part of me. Enough to make the film worth watching, just for the Uzimi character.

The way character is shown

Neighbouring Sounds, Kleber Mendonça Filho (Brazil 2012)

The film 'Neighbouring Sounds' is very different all together. Experienced Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho uses an effective script, refined cinematography and smooth editing. But what touches me is how he sketches the different characters in the film. So who cares about the plot? Indeed plot has to move the film forward in order to suck us into the film, but it is the way the director shows us different personalities and their relations which is so wonderful. For instance I will always remember the visually stunning scene in which young mother Bia smokes pot. She is using a vacuum cleaner (to hide the smell) and is exhaling into the machine, which creates a wonderful image. It seems both beautiful and meaningful. I will also remember how the same Bia has an private orgasm on a trembling washing machine, not because of the orgasm as such but simply because it was directed with sensibility. I was there with her, feeling close and not as if I was peeping her. Therefore Mendonça Filho seems a sensitive director to me.

Creating character through the actor

Sur la Planche, Leïla Kilani (Morocco/France 2011)

Last breathtaking example is 'Sur la Planche' by director Leïla Kilani. This talented Moroccan filmmaker has made some documentaries in Tanger before and now shot a feature film in the same 'arena'. This wonderful character driven film is simply impossible to imagine without the actress that plays main character Badia. And her great acting is impossible without a dedicated director having a close working relationship with her. Yes, the film has also a very interesting context. It might have a political meaning and cinematographic qualities too. All great. But what keeps me in is this character of that one girl Badia.

A boyish, anxious, high-strung girl, impossible to erase from your memory. Brave, creative, fast, focussed. We want to follow her struggling with a harsh life. We can not wait to see what she is up to next. Her character takes us places we would not go, and Badia probably does not even want to go there herself.


While peeping at characters on, or through the silver screen at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2012, I realised how character plays an important role for me in films. Character is the most personal component of any decision we make in life. Watching others, we can identify only with characters we can understand in some way. These four filmmakers whose films I mentioned showed me (their) touching character(s) in their films. I believe it is the main reason why I like their work. It stands apart from the other impressive qualities or skills the makers might have. Also, the significance of character seems to count for both the filmmaker and the characters / personages he or she presents to us. To exhibit interesting character - one way or the other - seems essential.

Fedor Sendak