Austrian born director, Barbara Eder did a student exchange year at Hanna High School in Brownsville, Texas, on which she based her first feature film, INSIDE AMERICA.
Previous to that she studied film directing at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna and made numerous short films like SLEEPLESS (2002), TOD, TEUFEL & KOMMERZ (2004) and short documentaries including HIMMEL, HÖLLE, ROSENKRANZ (2005) and HARALD SERAFIN AUF HOHER SEE (2006).
The INSIDE AMERICA Director talks about her firsthand experience living in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, the process of how the film was made and how she was compelled to tell the tragic stories of her classmates.
HEYUGUYS: When most people think of high school exchange programs, exotic and foreign lands come to mind. Usually a pleasant high school experience in a big city.
How does an Austrian born filmmaker end up in Texas, a small border town such as Brownsville? It seems difficult to find on a map, especially in 1994 with no Google Maps.
BE: Believe me, I never wanted to end up in Brownsville. I was dreaming of New York, San Francisco or New Orleans. I was with an exchange programme back then and right before I left Austria, they assured me a guest family in New Orleans. I remember, I was so excited about it and really looking forward to it. I got on the plane, travelled for almost a day, when I finally arrived at the airport in Louisiana.
There, I was told that my guest family decided to get divorced and that they already found a substitute guest family in Texas. When I heard “Texas” I really wasn’t happy. I thought Texas means cowboys, Bush and nothing to do. I couldn’t use google maps in 1994 but there was a map on the plane. So, on my flight to Brownsville, I, of course, looked for Brownsville on the map. What I found didn’t really cheer me up. To me it seemed the dead end of my journey.
HEYUGUYS: Did you know anything about Brownsville before getting on the plane, and were you at all surprised when you arrived? Did you find integrating into the culture difficult at all?
BE: I didn’t know anything about Brownsville. When I landed at the airport, I only knew that it was at the very end of Texas. That was it. My expectations were very low and actually it took me a while to accept that Brownsville was the place where I was going to spend a whole year. Also, I didn’t really get along with my host family. And finding friends at school was super difficult due to the fact that most students spoke Spanish. So, in the beginning I felt very lonely.
I think the process of integrating into a totally different culture is never easy and takes time. I came to the U.S. with the will to live the life of an American, to make new experiences and to learn something for my life. Still, it took some time for me to adapt. But by the end of the year, I didn’t even want to go back. I found it hard to leave my friends. And after the year, back in Austria, I even had problems to re-integrate in my own culture. Things had changed, I had changed.
HEYUGUYS: At what point did you begin documenting your experience in Brownsville, and when did you begin forming these stories as a film?
BE: When I came to Brownsville, I had left my family and all my friends behind. Back then, facebook or even using the internet for communication was no common thing. All I could do to keep in touch with my loved ones, was to write letters and once in a while calling on the phone with a time change of 7 hours. So, basically, I felt very isolated.
In addition, I felt not quite accepted by my host family and couldn’t really talk to them. And, of course, in the beginning you have no friends because you’re just about to get to know people. So, right after my first day in Brownsville I had this urge to talk to somebody about it. So, I started a diary. I wrote every day for a whole year and stopped writing when I left Brownsville. After that I never wrote a diary again. My diaries (couple of books) became one of the most important sources for writing the script for INSIDE AMERICA.
I came back to Brownsville lots of times and a year after a trip to Brownsville in 2005, I met film producer and friend Constanze Schumann for a coffee. I just talked to her about Brownsville and about my exchange year when I was seventeen. Constanze was actually the one that was so overwhelmed by my experiences about Brownsville and ensured me that my stories would make a wonderful film. So, I went home, took out my old diaries and started reading them again. That was the beginning of INSIDE AMERICA.
HEYUGUYS: Why did you choose to tell these specific stories?
BE: Because these stories were the ones that enclosed what I formerly thought were cliches but discovered to happen in real life. Also, these stories don’t represent the heroic successful lives of a few but the tragic lives of many. I thought, they were more honest.
HEYUGUYS: How did you go about finding your actors? They seemed quite convincing in their respective roles. Were they mostly non-actors, and was there a lot of improvising?
BE: Everything was improvised. My script included only scenes but no dialogues. I wanted the people to talk in their own language. Some scenes I tried out with the actors in rehearsals, some I would just shoot to keep the scene alive and fresh and sometimes full of surprises.
I made a call for auditions at Hanna High School and all over the town. What I was looking for were people whose lives or attitude was very close to the characters in the script. So, e.g. I was looking for a girl who would take part in beauty contests and was very caring about her appearance. And I found a girl who was doing that in real life. Same with the gang guy, the Mexican girl etc. Also, most teachers are real teachers, no actors. Even the police cops were real police cops. Actually there was no professional actor in the movie.
HEYUGUYS: Is there a reason why you chose not to tell the story from the perspective of an exchange student? Or add a character to represent yourself within the film?
BE: I did not find it necessary. I mean, my first few months of Brownsville had a lot to do with watching, observing, listening. I would just absorb all these new people and situations, without having to say “this is good”or ”this is bad”. And that’s what I actually wanted to give to the viewers. The chance to just watch and absorb. Also, I wanted to keep a distance to me as a person. But not as a filmmaker.
HEYUGUYS: Given the style of the film, where it seems like the viewer is watching a documentary, it’s easy to forget that the film is not a documentary. How true is the film to actual events?
BE: There are lots of real documentary scenes in the movie. For example, the school scenes were shot this way. The teachers did their jobs and we would just film it. Many scenes were a mix between documentary and fiction. For example, I would set up a situation, like kids from a gang hanging out in the backyard and the cookie-selling kid coming by to sell his cookies for fund raising. I would tell the cookie-selling kid to just do what he would do in real life and I would tell the gang kids the same (except for hurting the boy!!). And then we started shooting. Nobody really knew what to expect but we just did it and shot it. A lot of scenes were done this way.
HEYUGUYS: As your first feature, what did you find the most challenging about making the film?
BE: Most challenging was finding the right cast. My stories are what someone could point out as cliches. I knew that only the right cast and the right staging could make these stories believable and alive and show that these cliches do exist in real life. Also, the process of making the movie, with such a low budget and only a team of 5 people who don’t even live in the U.S. was a big challenge. There was not lots of sleep but lots of pressure. I am proud of my team and proud of myself staying focussed and taking the journey to an end.
HEYUGUYS: The film ends in a way that leaves the viewer guessing. What do you want the viewer to take away from the film?
BE: The movie gives a chance to see the struggles of different groups of citizens of Brownsville and at the same time gives you the chance to reflect and think about your own. The way it is shot, I don’t judge or prefer any group to the other. I just show it the way I experienced it. And I am giving the chance to get your own picture about it.
HEYUGUYS: What’s next for you after Inside America?
BE: My next project is a documentary about the private lives of Criminal Profilers. I’m dealing with the question:”What does a profiler talk about with his wife when he comes home from work and has dinner?” I’ve done one year research, travelling around the world to find the right profilers for my story. Satisfied with the outcome, I am already shooting this year.
Inside America has its US premiere at this year’s SXSW Festival.
11:00 am, Monday March 14, Vimeo Theater, 501 East 4th St
3:00 pm, Wednesday March 16, Alamo Lamar B, 1120 South Lamar Blvd
5:00 pm, Saturday March 19, Alamo Lamar B, 1120 South Lamar Blvd