Sara Logan Hofstein: Cultural memory, tolerance, family filmmaking, and feeling inspired by women directors

Sara Logan Hofstein

Filmmaker Sara Logan Hofstein is currently crowdfunding for Refuge, a “short film about a Jewish American woman and an Ethiopian refugee reconciling Austria’s past with its present.”  #DirectedbyWomen spoke with her recently about the powerful themes in her film, how it feels to co-create with family (her parents are on her creative team!), and a few of the women film – and TV – directors she finds inspiring.

DBW: Can you share something about how your short film Refuge first emerged as a possibility?

SLH: Cultural memory is a very powerful thing and studies have shown that trauma can be transferred to generations long past the events that caused such pain. Refuge’s story is influenced by my life as a Jewish woman in Austria, a country that considers itself a victim of World War II rather than a perpetrator, and a country that is following down the same path it did prior to the Holocaust.

I am constantly reminded each day of that horrible history. Former Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said, “Refugees put on trains in the belief they are going somewhere else entirely brings back memories of the darkest period of our continent.” I experienced what Refuge’s protagonist Rachel experiences: Cultural “flashbacks” to the Holocaust caused by the current treatment of Syrian refugees. When I walk in the shadow of a flak tower, or hear the way the far-right speaks about Syrian refugees, I grow afraid that the past is bound to repeat itself.

DBW: And what’s at the heart of this story?

SLH: My goal in making this film is to expose the parallels between European attitudes towards Jews in the years leading up to the Holocaust and the current climate in Europe surrounding the refugee crisis. It is paramount that Europeans face their history and understand that they can do better and they can be better. I hope that Refuge will be that wake-up call for them.

Just recently, the Austrian Chancellor stepped down because of the rising power of the far-right political party. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg stepped down in 1938 due to the rise of another far-right party: the Nazis. The FPÖ, the far-right party of today, focuses their rhetoric on non-white immigrants and refugees. The film serves as a warning to Europe to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

DBW: What did it take to create a script that handles the societal complexities you’re exploring, while maintaining focus on what’s unfolding in your characters’ lives?

SLH: Much of Refuge’s story is told in visual parallels by comparing the protagonist’s cultural memory to the events of modern day. For example, today’s anti-refugee or immigrant graffiti echoes the anti-Semitic graffiti of yesteryear, and Rachel, the protagonist, visualizes those parallels. We will also be highlighting the similarities by using archival footage from 1938 during Hitler’s visit to Vienna and news footage covering the FPÖ. The dialogue is used by the characters to process the visuals, and to understand what’s going on in the world around her.

DBW: What was your process for casting your leads in the film?

SLH:  The choices were very natural and easy. I knew who I wanted all along. Charlie is a fantastic actor and has been working towards her goal for as long as I’ve known her. She has spent the past year on really honing her craft in the UK. I recently saw a play of hers in Cardiff, Wales, and she embodied her character so well; I see how her skills have grown.

As for David Wurawa, I was very afraid he wouldn’t agree to be in it or that he wouldn’t have time because he’s a well-known actor in Austria and we’re doing this for practically no budget. I was so nervous that he wouldn’t like the story. As the writer, it was very important to me that his character be fully-formed and not relegated to the stereotypical black character of being a sounding board for the white protagonist or as the sidekick. That was what excited him about the project.

DBW: Did you know from the start that you wanted to direct the film yourself?

SLH: Yes, I always knew I wanted to be the director, because I want to expand my own abilities as a filmmaker. My ultimate goal is to be a producer, and part of that job is understanding that filmmaking is a team effort.

DBW: Your parents are on your team – your mother is producing, your father is your DP. Anything you can share about the process of working creatively together as a team? Have you discovered things about yourself and about them that surprised you?

SLH: I like working with my family because I have a lot I can learn from them and I’m privileged to have two parents who have “made it” in Hollywood. They’re my family and I trust them implicitly, but that’s compounded by knowing that my father is a great DP and my mom’s an accomplished producer. Because they have many more years on me in the business, I know that if I mess up, they will guide me to make better choices. Sometimes I’m unsure of my decisions and my father knows exactly the right type of pep talk to give me.

I’ve worked on many productions, but this is the first one that I’m really helming and it’s a lot to juggle. Thankfully, my parents support me completely. Even though we live on two different continents, I can call them up at any hour and ask for advice about Refuge. Working together has helped us evolve from a family who loves one another into a real team that supports each other personally and professionally.

Filmmaking is a tough business. They don’t coddle me because I won’t become a successful filmmaker if they are easy on me, and I appreciate their “tough love” approach. They listen to me thoughtfully, but then tell me when I have a bad idea or when something won’t work. They want me to succeed more than anything, and they’re giving me the right tools to do that. I think this film is proving to them that I can be a filmmaker in my own right, and because of that they’ve begun trusting me with expanded roles on their own projects.

Hofstein family

DBW: Why does this film matter? How can film lovers help your crowdfunding campaign succeed – in addition to backing the campaign? And how can they stay in the loop on the project and be sure to see your film when it is complete?

SLH: Tolerance is one of Refuge’s core themes; I want to encourage tolerance and acceptance in European communities. I am currently reaching out to Jewish museums around the world to exhibit the project, and after the film has completed the festival circuit, we will release Refuge online, which we will announce through our social media channels. We’re on Twitter with @sloho_1 and @EuroPacificFilm, and we have a EuroPacific Films Facebook page. I currently manage where I post information about the cast and crew, inspiration for the film, updates on the refugee crisis, and reactions from Europe’s people and politicians.

As part of the project, we are including a video series recording the stories of refugees, just like the experiences of Holocaust survivors were recorded. These will be released on YouTube as we film them through the EuroPacific Films YouTube channel. People can help support this project by getting the word out about Refuge!

DBW: There’s a growing community focused on cultivating appreciation for the work of women filmmakers. Who are some of the women film directors whose work you have found particularly inspiring?

SLH: Much of the “Women in Film” movement focuses on, well, films. I’ve noticed that this push does not tend to mention television directors, and they work just as hard as their film counterparts. I admire the work ethic of directors like Kate Dennis, where they direct a show for eight days, hop on a plane bound for another show in a different location, and all the while their vision is dictated by previously established parameters in order to create uniformity between the episodes.

As for film directors, I really love Amma Asante’s work, and I cry every time I watch Belle. It’s the Jane Austen-eque romance that our time needs and deserves. Sam Taylor-Johnson is another director that I really like ever since I saw her debut feature Nowhere Boy. The studio gave Fifty Shades of Grey its best shot of overcoming a terrible story with a terrific team behind the camera by pairing her with Seamus McGarvey, one of my favorite cinematographers. My writing partner (and Refuge’s lead actress) Charlie Gillette and I find a lot of inspiration in Sofia Coppola’s films for our own scripts. We love her aesthetic. I’m following Ava DuVernay’s career with interest, as she jumped onto the directorial scene with Selma, and now she’s been tapped to direct A Wrinkle in Time. And of course, this list must include the queen of directors, Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman to ever receive an Oscar for directing. I love her work because she directs “man” projects. Female directors are often relegated to rom-coms, family flicks, melodramas, and the like, but Kathryn Bigelow directs action pictures. And that is very inspiring.

Support Sara Logan Hofstein’s REFUGE IndieGoGo campaign project here