Brave is she who is afraid, but still enters the field of battle.
"I sometimes sent thank-you notes after getting rejection letters. Resistance is good. It toughens you up."
This is how Manyar I. Parwani introduces the female protagonist of his first feature, "When Heaven Falls". She is a warrior battling her own past. Not because she’s a typical heroine or feels no fear, but because you sometimes have to take action, no matter the cost. Certain situations require a violent response, even for someone who is insecure and has a hard time taking responsibility for her own life.
As Parwani tells me – on a chilly December day in one of Zentropa’s small director’s cabins on the outskirts of Copenhagen – it was important for him to tell a necessary and distinctive story, when he entered the battlefield of Danish features on the heels of his acclaimed shorts "In My World" (2006) and "Ibrahim" (2007). He wanted to debut with a splash. People should feel his film, and he wanted it to advance Danish cinema.
“It was important for me to ask myself the question: What can I do for Danish cinema? How can I add something new?” Parwani says. “If you’re too afraid of doing something stupid, your film gets boring. You shouldn’t just play it safe. Instead, be challenging! In that sense, Thomas Vinterberg really shook up Danish audiences with his dogme film "The Celebration". In Denmark, we make films for government funds, and I think it’s important to make films that people want to see, but they should also deal with important things. I didn’t want to sneak out a polite debut film and be, like, ‘Thanks for having me.’ I wanted to make a film that makes a difference to those who see it.”
The screenplay for "When Heaven Falls" began as a multi-plot story titled DK-Land in the vein of films like "21 Grams" and "Syriana", but along the way, another story kept elbowing in. It was a story inspired by an ongoing Danish criminal case, the so-called Tønder case, involving the sexual abuse of two sisters in a small provincial town and scores of people.
The protagonist in "When Heaven Falls" is a young woman, Sara (Mille Hoffmeyer Lehfeldt), who was taken from her biological parents at age eleven and placed with a foster mother in Copenhagen. She has never come to terms with her past. When her biological mother dies, she makes a first trip back to her hometown to attend the funeral. Neither her father (Dick Kaysø) nor her older brother (Marcus Nicolas Christensen) recognises her, and she decides not to reveal her identity. When Sara discovers that she has two young sisters, she finds it hard to tear herself away, because she suspects they may be suffering the same abuse she once did. The question is: Can she save them? And is anyone in the small town even interested in getting involved?
Parwani wrote the script over two years based on extensive research into the criminal case and on studies of neo-Nazi milieus, which also play a prominent part in the film – both of which he knew nothing about at the time. A major challenge was getting close to people he had no immediate understanding of, plus finding the right way to tell a very tough story in a film.
“The story, as I see it, springs from pain,” Parwani says. “Perhaps the rest of us can, in time, forget about the case, but the victims in the Tønder case will never forget. These are things that permanently ruin lives. I wanted to show that by telling the kind of story that’s usually never told.”
The story in "When Heaven Falls" springs from tragic events, but Parwani adamantly did not want the film to be tragic-looking. The story should have visual power and energy, centring on a female protagonist who decides to take action.
“I gradually discovered that I wanted to tell the story of a woman who can take care of herself,” Parwani says. “Even though her soul is scarred. Even when things get dangerous. She’s a warrior, precisely because she overcomes her fear and walks alone into the heat of battle. Even then, her innocence remains the driving force. The film might very easily have degenerated into an unambiguous tale of vengeance, and I was always struggling to include the many complex emotions. As when she asks her father, ‘Did you ever love me?’ She is looking for answers, not just vengeance. She needs to understand certain things.”
GO FOR THE UNFAMILIAR
“It took a long time to find a suitable form for the story and the right visual style,” Parwani says. “In the process, I ran into a lot of opinions about what you can and cannot do. Eventually, that almost became a kind of guideline. When someone told me, ‘You can’t do that,’ I knew I was on the right track. If you have very fixed formulas in your head, I think that’s limiting. The way I see it, variety makes art stronger. We don’t all need to think and work the same way,” Parwani says.
The leading role of Sara is played by Mille Hoffmeyer Lehfeldt, who previously had minor parts in Jacob Thuesen’s "The Early Years – Erik Nietzsche Part 1" and Ole Christian Madsen’s "Flame & Citron". Parwani deliberately picked actors who weren’t already familiar from a lot of other films.
“I wanted to put people in my film who were really hungry to tell a story. They really had to want to do the film. I was fortunate to get some incredibly committed actors, and I’m deeply grateful to them. Especially the two small girls, whose parts were
YES I CAN!
Manyar I. Parwani, who was born in Afghanistan and has lived in Denmark for 23 years, feels neither Afghan nor Danish. He just wants to be Manyar and tell stories that touch people across cultures. He has wanted to be a filmmaker ever since he worked as an usher in a Copenhagen cinema and dreamed about seeing his own name on a poster over the ticket counter. He didn’t take the well-travelled path through the National Film School of Denmark. Instead, he simply made a lot of movies and never stopped to ask himself, if he could.
“Only very late in the game did I ask myself, ‘Can I do this?’ I think that has been very important in getting me where I am today. I made films without knowing the business, powered by tremendous desire. I got many rejections in the process, and the people who rejected me were usually right. I sometimes sent thank-you notes after getting rejection letters. Resistance is good. It toughens you up. I always wanted to learn from other people, and to support my films, I just had to get even better and do something they simply could not refuse,” he says.
"When Heaven Falls" is supported by the New Danish Screen talent fund. Parwani hopes he has made a film that audiences can’t refuse. He’s proud of his film and eager to put it out there, ready to fight for the audience’s favour in the cinema arena.