The Director’s Note for Venice Film Festival
My name is Sonjja Baram, I was born in Southern Brazil as the seventh of ten children to a single mother after the death of my father. I grew up around simplicity, with little money to buy toys, so creativity and imagination was a must to help my siblings and I entertain ourselves. When our TV would break, my brothers and I would climb on the neighbor’s window to watch “The Three Stooges” or sexy Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot,” and my favorite, “Gone With the Wind,” which made me look into the intrinsic strength of women in always rising up with innovation and grace.
“Hannah, Can You Hear Me?” is about a single mother who went through the struggles and discrimination of mental illness, poverty, and raising a child on her own; a creative artist trying to make it in an era where women’s talent were not recognized. She still managed to make a huge impact on the lives of her children, resembling my own upbringing and my resilient mother struggling to survive.
When I came across the story of the mother of the number one, most inspirational film maker of all time, it was like I went back in time to my childhood, not only remembering my mother struggles in raising us, but also the Sunday afternoons that we’d all spend together watching Charlie Chaplin on a tiny television. The memory I see is not only of what was going on the TV, but also my mother sitting there, laughing the loudest, and I’d sit there and look at her in amusement, watching her enjoy it the most. When I learned that Hannah Chaplin was the true inspiration of her son’s talent I started doing research and got intrigued by the story that was never told. I believed that people needed to know about the fascinating childhood story of the genius that made us all laugh and cry; he was telling the story of his life, we just didn’t know it.
After writing the story, I spoke to a few film makers I knew to help produce and direct the movie and kept getting the same answer, “nobody cares about Charlie Chaplin’s mother!” So, I decided to direct it myself. Our budget didn’t allow us to go and film in the original locations, but we were able to scout perfect places in New York City that resembled London in 1894. We tried to keep the late 19th century style of filming in Central Park, South Street Sea Port and old theaters and pubs in New York City.
We wanted to keep the integrity of the silent film era, so we decided to shoot the movie with a simple Sony a7iii and mirrorless camera, which would give us a feeling of the birth of cinema, emphasizing the importance of capturing all the details and expression of the time, especially facial expression at the time of fear and desperation without words. Most of the music is original and meant to capture feelings of limelight, City lights, but also bringing out a satirical taste of Scott Joplin. We used only instruments that were major influences of that time period; accordion, violin and piano.
The scenes in color represent joyful moments like the park scene resembling the impressionist style like that of Renoir. The interaction between mother and child, which is funny and emotional, represents Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedies. A lot of research went into costume design in order to bring the values and traits of the time period, but still keep the essence of Hannah, who was like an earlier version of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Despite not having food and money to pay rent, Hannah continued being marvelous, keeping her elegance and grace with long dresses with laces, ribbons and hats.The art direction was inspired by the bohemian flare in the late 19th century when European artists started to express themselves more freely. The painful reality that mother and son went through in the asylum and orphanage was captured by the noir style of German Expressionist Silent Cinema.
This project was fascinating to create and I hope you will find this picture inspiring. Let it take you back to the birth of cinema; the beginning that was so mysterious, seductive and mesmerizing.