‘Nightsiren’ Director Tereza Nvotová on Witches, Folklore, And Superstition
Nightsiren is set in present-day Slovakia, but takes place in a village straight out of the Middle Ages. The residents live in the wooden cabins, some even without electricity, and believe in literal witches. This is very bad for Sarlota, a nurse in her early twenties who has returned to the village for the first time since she was a child. Along with Mira, a young free spirit that Sarlotta quickly befriends, she is accused of witchcraft for violating the local traditions and customs. This leads to alienation and violence.
A disturbing but enlightening exploration of the viciousness of superstition and how it reinforces patriarchal norms, Nightsiren is transcendent in the way of Bergman, Ozu, and Tarkovsky. The camera lingers, allowing the audience to truly study the madness and misogyny that is inflicted on Sarlota and Mira and, to an extent, all the women in the village.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to Nightsiren director Tereza Nvotová about her fascinating film.
Dread Central: You’ve done a feature, but you’ve also come from the world of documentary. Do you feel like that influenced Nightsiren at all?
Tereza Nvotová: Oh yeah. I think in a way definitely because I started to do fiction because I realized there are stories and moments that I can’t shoot as a documentary. And vice versa. My first feature was about a 17-year-old girl that is raped by her math teacher. I didn’t want to make that as a documentary because I didn’t want the character to be someone that we pitied. I wanted the character to be someone we become as an audience. So that’s why I started to do fiction.
At the same time, because I was doing documentaries I was always looking for very realistic and authentic filmmaking, in terms of acting, but also in terms of camera. With Nightsiren, it was similar in a way that I went a little more wild with, “Okay, let’s maybe check out the genres.” You know, just widen the palate. But at the same time I knew that if we were doing this crazy movie about witches and all these beliefs and history, I still want to have it very grounded. I still want to put it into a place and I want to use characters that are grounded, that we’d believe they’d exist, and that we happen to be very close to.
So a lot of our choices for the camera were very—many times we were shooting the whole scenes. There wasn’t much pickup like you do with fiction—also for the actors to feel more inside of the scene. But there was some improvisation going on, too. I kind of freed them in certain moments. Yeah, so I’m always trying to look for real life in front of the camera. And if I don’t see that I’m trying to see, “What am I doing wrong, here?”
DC: What was the initial spark of inspiration for Nightsiren?
TN: It was actually my co-writer Barbora Namerova. She came with this book which is called The Enemy Within. This book is a scientific/anthropological book where the person who wrote it did this research around the villages in modern Slovakia and found out that people still believe in witches, which was quite surprising. But at the same time when you look at the world we’re living in today, it’s not that crazy. So that was the first inspiration for Barbora to start writing.
And then we set it in a place both of us know really well because both our fathers bought this cabin in the woods when they were young, and we always used to go there since early childhood. And this cabin looks very much like the cabin in Nightsiren. The village where it’s above is actually the village in the movie. So I know these mountains, I know these villagers. They also played in the movie. So I know this place. And also, you were asking about the documentary influence, yes, I’m using non-actors very much. I knew the main characters needed to be actors because they have quite an emotional arc, but for the small characters, I was using locals. And that was really nice.
So the second inspiration was the place. And the third was mostly living life as a woman [laughs].
DC: Wow, I would have thought everyone was a trained actor. They were all very good. If you had asked me which ones were a trained actor and which ones weren’t, I would not have been able to pick them out.
TN: Well that’s good! Because I love to mix things. I did it with my first feature, too. And usually, you can get a better performance out of the actors because they’re like, “Oh my god, these people are actually real!” And the non-actors get this vibe like, “Oh, these actors actually believe that this is real,” so they start to believe it, too. And the combination is really, really good.
DC: Did the locals have any reaction to the material as far as Nightsiren being about them in a way?
TN: Well, I did a screening of Nightsiren before the premiere in the village. Women were singing before and they were cooking goulash for everyone. It was kind of an event. And, of course, before the movie started I went out and said that I was really happy to show the movie to them first. But at the same time, I want to tell them that this movie isn’t about this specific village. This village was in the movie as an actor [laughs].
We screened the movie and they liked it. Some people got very drunk and we carried them out [laughs]. But after the screening, there were many people who came to me, even after they saw this movie, and they were like, “Yeah, I know these witches from here, and this village has this kind of witches.” People still told me many stories about the witches around. So, yeah…
DC: I would love to know about your two leads, Natalia Germani and Eva Mores. Excellent, captivating performances. So how did you find them and what was it like working with them?
TN: It was a long process of auditioning. Both of the characters are very complicated, and I knew they have to have quite a range. Also, you’re looking for this range in very young actors. So that’s why my auditions were long and I was really trying them hard. But also in terms of the relationship, I need to make sure the chemistry works, because the chemistry between them is the most important part of the movie, for me. So I did a mix and match and I found them after about a year, looking at every single actor in Slovakia. Because we’re a very small country. You get to know everyone [laughs].
This was Eva’s first performance on camera, and Natalia shot movies before, but never as this huge character. So both of them were very much into this movie. They just wanted to give it their all. And I felt very lucky that I have them because it’s not easy to find actors that just give you everything they have, and even more.
And now we’re still friends. This process got us very close. I took them to my cabin before we shot the movie. Even before we shot Nightsiren there was a lot of preparation with the actresses to get into the characters.
DC: In the process of making the film, because it’s very starkly realistic, were there any scenes that were emotionally difficult for you to film?
TN: Hmm…that’s an interesting question. I think all emotional scenes are difficult, but that might be the reason I’m doing it, in a way. Because my way of directing things is just to be emotionally connected with the character. I know only through my own emotions if the actor is doing it right. So when I am crying with them, when I am laughing with them, when I’m watching them, I know that it’s real because I feel it, too. I have to have this direct direction. So I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, I would say that’s just my job. And of course, there are moments that are difficult because you’re showing very difficult situations. But in a way, I think it is therapeutic to both me and the actors. Because I don’t have to go through it in my real life then. [Laughs]
DC: Was it shocking to you to realize that people still believe in this idea of evil witches so thoroughly?
TN: It was shocking only to some point. It’s shocking that we haven’t moved an inch since the Middle Ages in a way. That’s kind of shocking. We always think, “Oh, civilization is going forward, everything is getting better, people are getting smarter.” And then you see we didn’t really change the way we think. We might know more about the world, but the way we think about the world hasn’t changed. And I think that’s the biggest problem in this world. And for me, it’s not just about witches or these ancient beliefs, but we can kind of see how they’re transforming into today’s language through conspiracy theories. You look at QAnon and they’re talking about eating children or sucking the blood of the children. It’s the same as if they were talking about the witches.
In terms of how society looks at women, I think this is one of the big topics of the movie. I’m coming from a country that is very, very Christian and very conservative. It’s hard to be a woman in such a society because there’s so much expectation of what you’re supposed to do, and what you’re supposed to be. And when you look at statistics, more than half of people in Slovakia think that women belong to the house and taking care of children, and that’s the main role of the woman, which is quite sad.
But it’s not just Slovakia. You look at Poland, you look at Southern states of the United States, it’s similar. In the Czech Republic, there were children who had Halloween pumpkins and some priest just came and stomped over it because that was evil. Sometimes it’s funny, but it’s not funny if it takes your freedom. If you can’t decide whether you want to have children. If you can’t decide about your own life, that’s when it starts to be hard. And the hardest part, I would say, is to realize that. To realize that I am free. I don’t have to do these things that they told me from my childhood that I’m supposed to do. That’s why for me it’s about searching for freedom within yourself, then within the society.
DC: So there’s a sort of timelessness to this film because sometimes a computer or a cellphone will intrude, but those things feel like they’re arriving from the future or something. Why do you think it’s so jarring to see things like cell phones in the middle of this village that seems almost out of time?
TN: I put the story in the present time because I think this belongs to the present time. And that’s partially what I’m trying to say. This isn’t something that’s gone. It’s still here with us, this kind of mindset. I think the story is timeless, but at the same time, it is happening in today’s world. And I understood that maybe for people outside of my country, it would be harder to grasp.
That’s why I put, in the beginning, this sentence, “Even in modern Europe in certain lonely villages, superstition, and folklore is still a way of life.” Just to make the audience understand that [this is] today. This is not the past. And this is how the village looks today. And, sure, people don’t live in these wooden houses up there, but these houses are still there. I go there for vacations even though it is quite a survival trip, because there’s no electricity or running water. But it’s not that far from reality.
DC: Do you think that there will come a day anytime soon when there’s another Sarlota who feels more free to be her true self? Is that day coming?
TN: Well, I take this as a hypothetical question, and I think that’s where the movie ends. I don’t want this interview to reveal the ending, but it’s quite a happy ending for me.
Nightsiren is out now on digital and VOD.