Five years ago, at the peak of the #MeToo movement, Tyrolean former alpine skier Nicola Werdenigg caused a media storm when talking about sexual violence in the professional skiing world of Austria. When did you realise that you wanted to turn this story into a film?
Truth is often even stranger than fiction. I met Nicola Werdenigg by chance ten years ago while on my honeymoon, and my wife and I have stayed in touch with her via Facebook. Then her husband died, she spoke up, and I left her alone for the time being. But one year later I asked her, “How are you feeling with everything that’s going on?” We met up, she told me more about the background of it, and that was the moment when the whole topic gripped me and wouldn’t let go. It is one of those stories where you feel that you simply can’t outrun fate.
In fact, she had considered the whole thing over and done with for 25 years – after years of therapy, a good marriage, children, sexual fulfilment. But two days after her husband’s death, there was a very specific reason to bring it up again: sexual harassment at the hands of a neighbour. Just hearing her tell the story gave me goosebumps.
Nicola’s story is also a family story. Her mother Erika was also a successful alpine ski racer and exposed to the same system …
That was the aspect I was truly getting at. That is why my screenplay focuses particularly on that transgenerational trauma, and builds on it. I’m interested in what children are burdened with, both consciously and subconsciously. What gets propagated through generations of a family, and why does everything have to be dealt with behind closed doors even though psychoanalysis has been around for 100 years now?
So “Persona non grata” is not primarily about #MeToo?
No, but the movement plays a part, of course. As does the fact that the whole #MeToo debate still isn’t about the people affected, not really. We keep worrying about maintaining the system and fail to see the people getting caught up in that very system, and ruined by it. This has got to stop at some point.
To make sure that someone affected who speaks up about these grievances no longer becomes persona non grata, as already hinted by the film title.
There is a line of dialogue in the film spoken by my character, Andrea Weingartner, which is extremely important to me: “We’ve got to stop worrying only about how we could possibly protect the perpetrators.”
Yes, some things simply must be said out loud. That’s not always easy in screenwriting. You don’t want to come off as patronising, you actually want to make people feel something, you want to ask questions rather than make statements. Dealing with hard facts in film is always a death sentence. But in this case, I really believe it must be said out loud.
I’m really glad we’re doing this. I was really preoccupied with what Nicola said back then in the interview with the Standard: that she had been blaming herself for years. Until I got involved in this project, I didn’t realise how much our society still tends to marginalise people who have suffered sexual abuse, saying, “This has nothing to do with me.” But when these things happen, they have everything to do with all of us.
I also wanted to show how such an attitude of repression just creates new problems. And what a relief it is to confront something this painful. Only then can life go on elsewhere, and it becomes more varied all of a sudden.
My generation already benefits from that even now. There has never been more awareness of sexual violence. That is also why the #MeToo movement was such a giant leap, and so important. It is thanks to the generation that came before us, thanks to many brave women, that we realise much faster now when a situation gets critical, and we are more likely to have the courage to say “Stop.”
There is an incredibly important scene for the relationship between my character, Andrea, and her daughter Sara where Andrea owns up to her wounds with utter candour and presents herself to her daughter completely transparent. As if she was saying: “I’m showing you everything I am.” To me, that is the ultimate act of love, and a lot changes because of it.
Yes, that is when the cards are finally put on the table. Prior to that, Sara is just groping in the dark. Because a child will always feel when something is wrong. One line of dialogue in the script which I think is essential is: “When you don’t know what you’re afraid of, but you feel that there’s something, then you’ll be even more afraid.”
How much of Nicola Werdenigg actually went into the character of Andrea Weingartner?
Nicola didn’t want her story to be recounted, so we created a fictionalised character. A lot of it is based on her life. You can always expect some reality bites in such a biopic: the #MeToo movement, the Austrian Ski Association ÖSV, the behaviour of the media … But the whole thing is by no means a biography. Moreover, Andrea Weingartner is in a completely different state of mind than Nicola. Nicola Werdenigg was only able to carry out her media work with such aplomb because she had already disassociated from that trauma after years of therapy. As an affected person, she would never have been able to deal with that pressure.
So Andrea is much more of an affected person?
In fictionalisation, we need drama. We need a suspense curve, we need pros and cons, opposition, development. It’s not enough to just tell the story of somebody smoothly sailing through it all. Nicola has read every draft of the script, and everything she felt was too private was cut.
So even though it is a fictionalised version of her, you still feel responsibility towards her?
Of course. But I also feel responsibility towards the key players in the ÖSV, for example. I’m not looking to put anybody or anything down. I want to look into the future and bring about a positive change. The challenge is to make the film in such a way that it doesn’t cause them to shut down completely. After all, we’re trying to get a Trojan horse into the Tyrolean fortress. And that fortress is very stalwart.
What have their reactions to your film project been like thus far?
At first the ÖSV was very non-committal, but eventually they allowed us to use their logo in the film. I guess they didn’t really know how to gauge the impact such a project may have on the association. And ultimately, we don’t know that, either. How the film will be received and interpreted is a whole other story.
That’s what I love about the film: that it will hopefully cause an incredibly broad range of reactions and debates. Because everybody will handle the things we’re working into it differently.
You were shooting on location here in Ratschings for twelve days. Why South Tyrol and not Tyrol? After all, Nicola Werdenigg is originally from Mayrhofen.
We did want to shoot in Tyrol, but they didn’t want the film there. That’s why I’m shooting in South Tyrol for the first time now, where people were really listening to us – and showed an interest in supporting culturally sophisticated cinematic content.
How difficult is it to create such sophisticated cinematic content in times of Netflix and Co.?
Arthouse cinema isn’t dead yet. But of course, private providers and streaming services are intent on dominating the market. They’re also not exactly lining up to include arthouse cinema in their programmes because they know it’s not going to make their audience ratings skyrocket. So if we want to continue to deal in culture – and I mean “culture” in the sense of societal discourse here – then we need a film fund which isn’t only aiming for mainstream content and viewing figures. Even more so because film budgets have become quite expensive with the inflation due to COVID.
You are the writer, director, and producer of this film, and you also act in it. Is that normal for you?
(laughs) Yes, that’s a normal afternoon for me. I’m a Formula One driver in the mornings! Well, a few things did come together in this project. You don’t do that every year. But after Nicola gifted me with her story, I basically wove myself into it. I also really wanted to be on camera together with my daughter Maya for once. And it is about a topic very close to my heart – that warrants giving it everything I have.