Interviews

Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers

The Whistlers is a crime drama about a corrupt cop and a femme fatale, but it's not set in the black and white shadows of a film noir. Instead, Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu chose the sunny Canary island of La Gomera, where the inhabitants communicate through a whistled language, as the scene of the crime.

Silbo, a whistling language, might seem like it was made up for this film, but it is in fact a real phenomenon, native to the island of La Gomera. When did you first discover this language?
"I came across it by accident, on a French television broadcast. It's mainly restricted to the island, which is small and has only 20,000 inhabitants. It took some time for me to find more information. There was one book, but that was in Spanish, so I had to have it translated."

"The weird thing is that, although this language is specific to La Gomera, there are like twenty places in the world where they have a whistling language. They can be found on every continent. For example, there are villages in Turkey and Greece, and in France they have it in the village of Aas, in the Pyrenees. The origins are unclear, but what they seem to have in common is difficult geographical conditions. It seems to me that it’s something like pre-language, something primitive."

"Can I speak it? No. I tried to learn it, and took some classes alongside my actors, but had to drop out because by then I was busy preparing for the shoot. But I understand the principle, and with enough practice, I'm sure that something would come of it."

Your film is an ingenious crime thriller, filled with secrets. Do you have to have a criminal mindset to be able to tell what exactly happened?
Laughs: "No, but maybe you should see it twice. Or even better, three times! I myself saw the film numerous times, of course. I spent maybe seven months editing it! During the editing I took out almost half an hour of material. I got rid of some scenes, which would have made the film more explicit, but they didn't fit the rhythm. At the same time, I think the film benefits if the viewer feels a little bit lost in the middle section."

"The confusion is intentional. The whistling becomes a way to communicate for the main character in the surrounding chaos. The language also informed the flashback structure of the film. Had I presented it chronologically, the Silbo wouldn't have been introduced until halfway."

"To cut a long story short, I wanted to make a film about a guy who has to learn this language in order to do something bad. The Whistlers is about people who have a lot to hide. Like the character of Gilda – this is not her real name, but something she borrowed from other films she watched. She plays a role, even in front of the police or the gangsters. When you do a film about people who double cross each other, who lie all the time, of course you return to the classic film noirs: The Big SleepThe Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. But it all started with the language."

Criminals use whistling as way to communicate, safe from police eavesdropping. You’re from Romania. Wouldn’t this kind of secret language have been useful during the communist regime in your country?
"In fact, in my hometown us kids had some kind of secret language, in which we moved the end syllable of a word to its beginning. A code that's easy to crack, I guess, haha!"

"In The Whistlers I also wanted to play with the idea of the camera, not just as a device to tell a story but as a surveillance tool. Because that's what we use cameras for more and more, in daily life. We even do it ourselves, exposing ourselves on Facebook and YouTube."

As a festival preview, your film will work as an appetiser for IFFR. How important are festivals for a film maker like yourself?
"In Romania, the film is already released. It did quite well, and attracted more viewers than my previous films. At the same time my biggest audiences are abroad. After the revolution, the old communist theatres were closed down. They were all transformed into pizza restaurants and disco bars, and now we don't have many cinemas left. Due to the political and sociological condition of our country, cinema was pushed to the periphery. Film attendance in Romania is the lowest in all of Europe."

"Coming from a small film culture, festivals are a way to reach a bigger audience. For my kind of films, word of mouth and critics' reviews are essential. That's because we don't have the movie stars, nor the budget to really sell a film. It's all marketing, you know. At the end of the day, that's not my job. My job is to make films and tell stories.” Laughs: “I'm writing and directing, and there are times that I find that already a little bit too much."

Photo in header: Corneliu Porumboiu (IFFR 2014)