Fred Baillif on La Mif: “Social work is the best film school for storytelling”

The director of La Mif, screening at the upcoming BFI Future Film Festival, talks about how his rebellious adolescence and background as a social worker informed his film about teenagers in social care.

La Mif (2021)

Ensemble drama La Mif is a riveting look at the inner workings of a Swiss residential care home for at-risk young people, which is undergoing a shift back to being an all-girls facility, following an incident where one 16-year-old initiates sex with an underage teenage boy also living there.

Written and directed by Fred Baillif, who is a former social worker himself, the film stars an entirely non-professional cast of people with direct experience of social care. Aside from the seven main teenage girls, this also includes the mesmerising Claudia Grob as their main social worker.

Ahead of a preview screening at BFI Southbank, an event with Baillif at the BFI Future Film Festival and the film’s UK release on 25 February, Baillif spoke to us about how it all came into being.

How and why did you get into filmmaking?

I was in my twenties when I was studying social work. There was a class where they were teaching us to use all kinds of art as a tool. They call it a mediation tool to work with young people, or whoever you work with in social institutions. There was a camera class. I fell in love with it, and I started making films – shitty documentaries. But it was the spark.

When I finished school, I went to New York and worked as a PA on all kinds of filmmaking projects: documentary series for Bravo, stuff like that. And then I went back and made my first documentary about a Swiss musician who lives in New York. This was my first film that looked like a film, and I sold it to Swiss TV. After that, I made a second documentary which was at Visions du Réel, a very important documentary film festival. And then I decided to be a filmmaker and left that social work part of myself behind; I was so proud to be a filmmaker.

Then when I started making fiction eight years ago, with my first feature, I went back to this social worker background as a filmmaker. I decided unconsciously to put those things together to make films, which is the best thing I’ve done, I think, because the social work experiences I’ve had, working in prison and things like that, really taught me a lot. And it gives me a point of view now for my work. All the experiences I’ve had as a social worker … it’s the best film school for storytelling.

How did you get involved with social work in the first place?

I did it because I had a problem as a teenager with adults. I thought they never understood me, [which wasn’t] true. Some really did and some really didn’t.

It wasn’t conscious, but I think now I did not understand how they could not just listen to me. I had a problem with the fact that they treated us as inferior to them. This is the reason why I’m trying to make films today that put everybody on the same level, and this film does. It’s really something very philosophical for me. Treating kids like human beings.

The school system told me that I wasn’t smart enough, which is not true, but I believed it was true for many, many years. Just because I had bad math grades, which is nonsense. I really was an angry kid.

Could you explain the title – La Mif (The Fam)?

It’s slang that the girls use. In French, slang is reversed words: ‘la famille’, ‘la mifa’, ‘la mif’. They reverse the words and make them shorter.

This title, like the dialogue in the film, really comes from the girls. One used that expression when she was living in the home. When we shot it, she used it in a sort of ironic and desperate way as dialogue in the film.

How I understand it from her point of view is that whatever you do – you professionals who are taking care of us – you’ll never be what we need. You’ll never give us what we really need, which is actually love. The institution is here to protect, but the institution and the people who work in it are not allowed to give love to those kids, which is exactly what they need. And as a professional, this is exactly the problem I’ve had. I wanted to be close to the people I worked with. That’s what they need.

How did you select the girls?

This is why it’s very difficult to finance my projects because I don’t have a script. I don‘t do it like everybody does: write a script, cast, shoot. What I do is I meet people who will be the cast, whoever they are. Even if someone is very shy, the fact that she’s not comfortable says something. And I will use it.

In the film, we have this girl who’s coming from an immigrant background. She’s 18, she can’t have a refugee permit and so she will have to leave. In the improvisation workshop she was very absent. So, I thought, “Okay, we will try to do something with her and see what happens. Maybe we will use it, maybe not.”

I start from them. I did interviews with them about their personal lives, [but] have to make sure that nothing from their personal life will be used in the film. So, I have to know them well.

And then from there I write a script, because it‘s research, like a documentary film. I write a script and I work with the same people, but they don’t act scenes with things that really happened to them unless they want to. Nothing’s imposed, everything is discussed: “You okay with doing that? Is it all right for you? Is it safe?” Only then can we do it.

La Mif is in UK cinemas from 25 February 2022.

There’s a preview screening + Q&A with Fred Bailiff and actors Anaïs Uldry and Claudia Grob at BFI Southbank on 19 February.

Fred Baillif also joins the BFI Future Film Festival on 19 February to discuss the telling of stories through film based on people’s real-life experiences.

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