The Oscar-nominated short film Raju is something of an enigma. A German student film shot, not in a crew member’s backyard, but in India, the film’s small budget meant that, for director/co-writer Max Zähle, paying the cast wasn’t an option—but he snagged two A-list German actors, Wotan Wilke Möhring and Julia Richter, to star all the same. And, of course, it’s a student film that’s been nominated for an Oscar… and that’s not something that happens all too often.
In Raju, Möhring and Richter star as a German couple who travel to India to adopt a child, only to become entangled in the illegal adoption epidemic—where children are stolen from their parents and sold to couples through phony adoption agencies—that plagues the country. Zähle took the time to chat with MovieMaker about how he managed to snag A-list talent for his student film, the challenges of filming in India and his feelings on Raju‘s unexpected (but certainly most welcome) Oscar nomination.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): You made Raju while you were at the Hamburg Media Institute. The film is a lot higher quality than what people typically imagine when they think of a student film. How much did it cost you to make the film?
Max Zähle (MZ): The film school, the Hamburg Media School, is funded by the Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein, [a German film fund that assists film and TV projects]. So we got around $40,000 to shoot our film…. [we only had to get enough] to pay for film stock and things like that.
MM: With that money, you were actually able to shoot it in Kolkata (Calcutta), where Raju is set. What challenges did you face while filming there?
MZ: There were many, many challenges. When I was 21 or 22, I got inspired by Robert Rodriguez and how he made El Mariachi. I’ve always believed that it works if you really work hard for it, so that’s what we did for Raju. The actors didn’t get paid, because we put all the money to the flight, hotels and the film. And we didn’t have any trams or dollies. Our visuals for that film were like shooting a documentary, so we wouldn’t have really needed them. It makes it authentic, but not unprofessional, in a way.
MM: Your film’s lead actors are very big names in German cinema; how did you get them to be in your film?
MZ: [Getting them] was actually the best thing that could have happened. I was a film student, and I actually [just] sent them the script. That was it! I sent the script to the agency, and they passed it through to the actors, and they just wanted to meet me and see, “Who’s this guy going to go to Kolkata without money to shoot this film?” We got along very well, and then they were in!
MM: The film’s been really successful on the festival circuit; it even won a Student Academy Award. Still, did you ever imagine that it would be nominated for an Oscar?
MZ: Never. Over one-and-a-half years ago, we were standing on the streets of Kolkata. We never would have believed we would go so far—with Raju as a film and us as filmmakers. That was the biggest honor—the biggest payback—for the crew, the topic and the people who helped us get so far. It’s an honor. We were rewarded with [Raju]. I never thought it [would get nominated], and I still kind of don’t believe it.
MM: Are you going to continue making short films? Or do you have any plans to do a feature in the near future?
MZ: I want to do a feature. I love shooting shorts, it’s such an art form. But when I was writing Raju, there was so much stuff I couldn’t put in, so much interesting information, just because of the matter of time. I’m actually working right now on a feature.
MM: Can you tell me anything about it? Are you planning to both write and direct it?
MZ: I love writing, but also love to direct and to [collaborate with another writer]. You know, just to throw the ball back and forth. I do have a co-screenwriter on my feature film, and I will direct it on my own. I have a very good guy I’m working with right now on this script. It will be a tragicomedy, not a drama, set in the Northern part of Germany.
MM: How did you learn about the issue of illegal adoption that serves as the centerpiece of Raju? And what about that issue made you want to make a film about it?
MZ: I was researching [topics for my] film and found out about a situation where children get stolen out of the country. The [foster parents adopting them] want to do something good, but it’s bad, it’s illegal. So I started to research, and I found out about this global, massive, child-trafficking illegal adoption problem, and it really touched me. How far is a couple willing to go to get a child? On the other hand, who has the right to have a child? Those were the questions that really interested me as a filmmaker, finding out how far a person would go, what the moral order of a person is if they want to have a child [so badly].
MM: And if they knew where the child had come from, would they do the right thing in returning it to its real parents? I thought was one of the most interesting parts of Raju, how the wife didn’t want to give the child up, but the husband did.
MZ: That was actually the whole drama. Because even the woman, she’s not a bad person. It’s heartbreaking, because she doesn’t want to do anything bad, but they just want the child so badly that it gives them this moral dilemma.
MM: How has your moviemaking career changed since you were nominated for an Oscar? Or has it? I imagine it spreads awareness of both this issue and you, personally.
MZ: I’m just starting right now, getting into films, getting into the film business. For me as a person and as a filmmaker, it is the best thing that could have happened. There’s so much attention on me as a filmmaker, and the project’s ability to get me a feature and get me financed is much bigger since the nomination. It’s a dream, actually.
To find out more about Raju, visit www.raju-film.com. The film is currently playing in theaters as part of ShortsHD’s annual screening series of Oscar-nominated shorts, presented in conjunction with Magnolia Pictures. To find out if you can catch this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts in a theater near you, visit theoscarshorts.shorts.tv.