VIKTORIA Szemeredy’s short film Butterfly Daughter brings the subject of children’s safety on the internet into sharp focus by telling the cautionary tale of a 12-year-old girl who falls into the trap of an online predator.
With this important film being shown at the Raindance Film Festival (6 October), Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Viktoria about Butterfly Daughters and the dangers facing children.
Q: Butterfly Daughter deals with extremely dark and troubling subject matter. Did you want to open up a dialogue about the type of young girls who are vulnerable to online predators?
A: EXACTLY, though during my research phase I came to the sad conclusion that many types of children – the gender is not particularly relevant – are endangered.
Butterfly Daughter is inspired by a true story of an emotionally neglected 12-year-old girl who started to chat with an online predator. She was ready to run off with the man only to be rescued by a relative she met on the way to the meeting point. The uncle called the police and it turned out the man was a child-trafficker who wanted to sell her.
What hit me when I first heard her story was the bait: the man offered her hot chocolate in bed every morning. I have talked to many children and parents since I began writing a script based on this little girl’s story. The scary thing is that without proper communication with the family or close friends literally everyone at this age can be a potential victim.
So my aim is to open a dialogue about relationships and care. Bori [the 12-year-old lead character of Butterfly Daughter] starts to reflect on her situation only after Juli [Bori’s older sister] has shared her own trauma with her. Only then can she see who is the real protector and the valid mother figure in her life – this revelation helps open her eyes for a deceit.
Q: Can you tell us more about the character of Bori and her circumstances?
A: THE most important detail in Bori’s character is that she is an emotionally neglected child. In this case her mother is a prostitute who – according to Juli – is ready to put her daughters on the market as well.
In the beginning of the film, Bori leaves the care institute she was taken to after she had escaped attempted abuse. Juli takes her to their grandmother’s in the countryside where they can share a boring, but relatively safe life. But in the beginning Bori doesn’t get closer to emotional stability. Juli is seemingly not ready for the role of a mother, taking care of the child all the time. And the grandma’s personality is already destroyed by the shame her daughter had caused in the village, therefore she practices loving kindness only theoretically in her prayers.
Q: Izabella Rea plays Bori. How careful did you have to be in casting for a film that deals with such an emotionally heavily topic?
A: FIRST I talked to the mothers of the girls I casted and asked their opinion about their children. Some of the girls around this age still live in the world of fairy tales, but some of them are more knowledgeable than an adult. So I sent the script to the parents, and all of them were comfortable giving it to the girls. They strongly supported the necessity of making the film for the obvious reasons.
Still, I had to be extremely careful because it is a delicate topic. In the film we never get to know the real intentions of the man. I leave it to the worst fantasies of the audience. But obviously I had to talk to the girls I casted about their fantasies.
Q: How did you help Izabella navigate the role?
A: IZABELLA was the perfect partner to work with. We broke down the script together and started to talk about it a lot. I let her arrive to the conclusion of the essence of a scene and then we started to play with it. I specifically asked her not to learn her lines so we could improvise around an encounter freely. I was also extremely fortunate working with wonderful, experienced actors who taught Izabella a lot and helped me keep up a playful vibe throughout the rehearsal and the shootings.
Q: Why did you decide to film in black and white?
A: MAINLY because of budget reasons. We shot at locations we didn’t have the budget to alter in any way.
I walked into the classroom of the village school we wanted to shoot in with Péter Szatmári, our exceptional cinematographer, to see what I was working with. We saw an interesting range of colours that did not match at all. There was bubble gum pink there, light yellow and a weird frog green – and I am still talking about only one wall! That was the moment we decided to film in black and white. I had a palette in my mind, but we couldn’t afford it.
Besides that, the monochrome images reflected the gloomy atmosphere of Bori’s new home, the loneliness she experienced in the school and the hopelessness of breaking out of this environment perfectly.
Q: I believe prior to being a director you were a doctor and psychologist. Why did you decide to make this career change?
A: WELL, I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but my family put me onto a different track. I started to work in the field of emergency and intensive care, but what kept me awake at night were the stories of my patients. I followed this passion by studying psychology and spent my days listening not only to what they recalled, but beyond their
At some point I had a lot of female patients who experienced domestic abuse. I felt the need to help them on a larger scale. Pintu, my first short film was born from this urge in three months. I realised then where my real passion lied.
Q: How has this past shaped you and type of films you want to make?
A: MY past formed me into an attentive listener, someone who prefers to question all the dogmas and axioms we live with. I have similar intentions with my films. I don’t necessarily want to spoil the audience with answers. I want them to raise questions and look beyond what is seen and seems to be obvious.
Q: Do you want to continue making serious and challenging films, like Butterfly Daughter, in the future?
A: I do. I just finished a short script about young dancers and the cruelty they can treat each other with when an opportunity arises for a scholarship. I find this topic an important one, again, because bullying between girls can be more manipulative, more traumatising, and at the same time completely hidden.
I am also working on a feature script where a young woman has to fight her way out of the transgenerational, almost genetically encoded law of female martyrdom.
Q: What does it mean for you to have your film shown at Raindance?
A: THIS is the question I still can’t find the words to answer. It is a great honour and also an opportunity to express my gratitude towards my closest mentors – Ruth Paxton and Stephan Mallman – and the incredible industry professionals I was blessed to work with – Tamás Hutlassa, Péter Szatmári, Réka Lemhényi and many others.
Q: Do you have a message for UK audiences who will see the film at Raindance Film Festival?
A: IF I could, I would beg them to read, play board games and take long walks with the children around them, so they don’t spend hours in front of the screen. But even if they do, I would the raise the importance of having regular, honest conversations with them – preferably in a joyful atmosphere. This is the only way we can protect them and get them
prepared to be able to protect themselves.