Cinema Australia Original Content:
Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras has delivered one of the year’s best films, and one of Australia’s great feature film debuts. We caught up with Maras to discuss the brutally violent and frighteningly real, Hotel Mumbai.
“You have to put on your emotional armour for this film.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Hotel Mumbai had its world premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival. What was the reaction like?
Adelaide was a really important screening because that’s my home town. Half of the audience were probably family and friends, so I’m sure that whatever was up there they would have complemented. [Laughs]. In all seriousness, I think the film really resonated at the Adelaide Film Festival which has been a very intricate part of my career because they have supported my work since my first proper short film about refugees in detention in Australia. It was a real honour to screen the film there.
What’s your first memory of the Mumbai terrorist attacks?
I was at home in Australia and I saw a bunch of burning buildings on the television and I thought, “another terrorist attack?” I knew very little of it beyond that. It wasn’t until I learnt more about what was going on behind the walls and behind other areas of Mumbai that the story started to really sink in. The documentary Surviving Mumbai really opened my eyes to what was going on behind the attacks. It taught me something that I hadn’t realised before. In the Taj in particular you had people from every conceivable background. People from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, religious backgrounds, ethnicities, social status, you name it. They were all caught up in this hell, and to see how they reacted to it and to see the selflessness and cooperation and to see people overlooking the fact they came from all these different places and helping people get out of this situation together was incredible. I think a huge part of that was the example that was set by the staff of the Taj Hotel who were real unsung heroes of that day. Here you have ordinary people in a hotel to do their particular type of job. They had their own lives, but in pretty much every case they remained at the hotel to protect their guests. In some instances staff would sneak guests out of the hotel, and they could have remained outside, and yet many of them chose to turn around and come back inside to help get more people out. Those stories lit a fire in me and I was determined to learn more about these people. That was the starting point for me.
Did you make Hotel Mumbai to honour of those people?
There are many reasons someone makes a film. I felt a sense of obligation to have the story do justice to both the plight of the guests and staff who are still living with these memories, but mostly for the families of the victims. That sense of responsibility was there from the outset and it was something that we grappled with hourly while making this film. Beyond that there were many other reasons I wanted to make this film. When I found out more about the perpetrators of these attacks and the young gunmen I decided that their story was worth exploring. I found out that there was a sole surviving gunman of these attacks who was caught, tried and executed in India for what he did. Before that happened there was a long court case and there are thousands of publicly accessible documents going through what he did, and on top of that there were intercepted satellite phone communications between the gunmen and their handlers back in Pakistan which gave an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute report of what the gunmen were reporting back to their superiors and what they were being told to do. The testimony of the sole surviving gunman and these transcripts allowed a real visceral and immediate look at what was going through their heads at the time. That’s very rare for a terrorist attack. What drove these gunmen is an important part of why I wanted to make this film.
You met with and interviewed survivors from the attacks. What’s the one account from those survivors that shocked you the most?
It’s difficult to pick one. We interviewed dozens of people and I was surprised by something from each interview. There were a number of things that grabbed me. In the documentary Surviving Mumbai you had an Islamic couple from Turkey who were caught up in these attacks. They basically spoke no Arabic other than a prayer they had learnt for a father’s funeral service. They didn’t speak the language of the gunmen who were from Pakistan, but when they were tied up in the hotel as hostages there was an order from the handlers of the gunmen to execute all the hostages. The gunman who was ordered to do it went through the room and carried out what he was told to do. This woman started reciting this funeral verse. Reading about what the gunman did when he heard this verse was something that really drew me in. While he was busy executing all these people he was conflicted when he thought he had to execute a Muslim because she was reciting this verse. His superiors tried to hurry him along and in that moment you saw a crisis of conscience of someone who walked through those doors with clear intent of what he was about to do. What happened next is something you’ll have to see for yourself in the film because I don’t want to give too much away. [Laughs].
Some people are going to find Hotel Mumbai very difficult to watch. As far as the screen violence goes there’s not a lot of difference between this and something like Wolf Creek for example. What do you have to say to people who are questioning seeing Hotel Mumbai because of that violence?
We never tried to shy away from what it was like to live through this experience, which was a difficult one. At the same time, you do have a sense of responsibility to make the film in a way where the violence doesn’t feel gratuitous. It’s a judgement that I have made, but obviously it’s something that audiences are going to have to decide for themselves. If you actually analyse the film, there’s not a lot of violence in the film in terms of blood and guts. It’s brutal in its execution in some parts because that’s how the attacks were. I think though that there is another focus and that’s that despite the violence and the immense hardships that these characters went through there’s also a strong story of resilience, of hope and a story about people pulling together for the benefit of one another. Those are things that we also tried to capture. Wolf Creek is a terrific film, I love it, but we didn’t set out to make a horror film. The situation is horrific while we didn’t shy away from the brutality of what happened without focusing on gratuitous violence. You have to put on your emotional armour for this film
Hotel Mumbai is in cinemas from March 14.