Beyond The Forest: How the Director Of Red Trees Brought Her Family’s Survival Story From Short to Feature Doc

There I was, in the presence of a rock ‘n’ roll lawyer, palming through a contract. “Well done, sweetie,” the lawyer said as I signed on the dotted line.

My small project that started life as a crowdfunded short film had grown beyond recognition.

I never planned to make a feature film. Not in a million years. The thought alone of undertaking such a vast endeavor seemed too excruciatingly complex to properly consider, let alone whether or not I was actually capable of making something decent that people would want to see.

I had always wanted to tell the story of my father and his family. The first time I started thinking about Red Trees as a short film, albeit vaguely, was about 15 years ago; my brother and I had visited the Czech Republic with our father to learn about the things that he went through during the war. Loved ones, relatives, and friends were taken to concentration camps. His family was one of only 12 Jewish families in Prague to survive after the Nazi occupation during World War II.

Flash-forward to the last couple of years, with so much anger and xenophobia in the air, I suddenly got the courage to get my stuff together and tell the story. The idea was researched, the script fleshed out, and the Kickstarter campaign launched. The campaign did well and I was feeling good about my little project.

The title Red Trees refers to the moment when my father discovered that he was color blind as a child, drawing trees with red leaves. It makes reference to a world where we would maybe not judge people by their color or origin. The film tells the story of my family’s survival and journey to a new life in Brazil, how they went on to become a real mixture, or “fruit salad,” as my father would say. Brazil is the most racially mixed nation on earth—and it has been a real gift for my family.

What happened next was lucky: Charles S. Cohen spotted the campaign, got in touch and persuaded me to turn the project into a full feature-length film, which would then be distributed by his company, Cohen Media Group.

Red Trees Director Marina Willer with DP Fabio Burtin

Flash-forward again to this year’s Cannes Film Festival. There I was, getting ready for the first screening of Red Trees. The event was low-key and modest, and I felt a bit like Forrest Gump. However, it was a great honor to be showing Red Trees next to Agnes Varda’s stunning new film, also brought to the world by Cohen Media.

A film is made not in the moment you are behind the camera or coming up with the script, but in all those nerdy years you spend accumulating crazy strange things, images, books, films, poetry, “politics,” Iranian Cinema, more strange things, and Icelandic films with subtitles that my husband wanted to divorce me for dragging him through. Making your first feature is like running naked through the streets—you show all of your imperfections.

I am a designer by trade. I have worked on the brand identity for places like Tate Gallery and Serpentine in London, charities like Oxfam and Amnesty International. I love doing all that. I make short films, now and then. Film is normally something I do on the side, even though it’s a real passion. Despite all of that, making my first feature was hard because it’s like nothing I’ve ever done before.

I had a small budget so I had to play many roles: creating the concept, co-writing, sourcing the soundtrack, and researching the subject matter—it felt a bit like writing a thesis in some ways. I found it lonely and difficult to know when I was right or wrong.

Making Red Trees was beyond crazy and overwhelming. In parallel I was busy being a mom of twins and working in my role as a partner at Pentagram Design. I couldn’t afford a regular assistant director, so many decisions had to be taken employing guess work, imagining a film in my head—some days I could not remember who I was.

But I would do it all again.

Willer with her father, Alfred

I am very happy with Red Trees. It’s a film made completely from love. It’s a story of acceptance, hope and light in such hard times. The real treat is when you discover strong relationships, wonderful people that give so much time and talent and create beautiful things. There is a real magic in the making and making together. I am so grateful to everyone who believed we could do it.

Make a feature was a big decision for me. My motivation came from something very close to my heart; I had a burning need to tell a story that I felt would be important to share. Only something that I really care about will make me climb that mountain and persuade a bunch of people to go with me—the view from the top has to be truly special. MM

Red Trees opens in theaters September 15, 2017, courtesy of Cohen Media.

1 Comment

  1. Tom Luca

    September 14, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    Great story. I’d love my film to get crowd funded http://Facebook.com/lunchsfx

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