Homing Instinct


Léa Pool’s new film, Set Me Free, conveys the fervent longings of adolescence through its sweet, lonely, and insatiably tactile 13-year-old protagonist, Hanna. “When you’re young, you have these strong feelings, but they are not differentiated yet,” says Pool. “For instance, my four-year-old daughter said two months ago, ‘Mama, it’s a pity you are a woman, because I would marry you.’ She wasn’t concerned that I was her mother; she was concerned that I was female,” Pool says with a laugh. “Of course, she’s four, but at 13 it’s still not clear. It’s not confusion—it just is.”

The real confusions addressed in Set Me Free stem from a turbulent home life. Pool based Hanna’s remote, mysteriously troubled mother and volatile father—an unpublished poet and Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust—on her own parents, who raised Pool and her brother in Lausanne. Two decades ago, when Pool was 25, she moved to Montreal, where the film transpires. “I was filming in one place using the memories of another, which was a passionate combination for me,” Pool explains. “When I was figuring out how this young girl forms her identity, I also thought of the second identity I made for myself when I came to Canada.” (Pool is represented in the Walter Reade’s current Canadian series with her 1991 film La Demoiselle Sauvage.)

For Pool and her movie’s alter ego, the emergence from girlhood into adulthood was shadowed by her father’s unfathomable experiences during World War II. “There are very few films about the second generation of the Holocaust—who are the children of the survivors?” Pool says. “You carry his pain as a child, his suffering, and his madness too.” When Pool presented Set Me Free at the Jerusalem Film Festival, several of her cousins living there came to watch. “They understood Hanna—they understood me—because they had the same experience with their parents. We could be beaten for nothing and embraced in the same minute. How one should behave was never clear as a child, because my father didn’t know any limits. Something had been broken.”

Pool’s way of piecing together her tumultuous childhood has always been filmmaking—during the final scenes of Set Me Free, Hanna begins recording everything she sees with a small movie camera, including her unreachable mother. This last reel closes a full circle for Pool. “All this time she’s tried to get her mother to be some kind of presence in her life, and she doesn’t succeed,” says Pool. “But through a camera, she can have her mother. When I started making films, I also succeeded in doing this. Creation, in my case, has had a lot to do with the emptiness of a missing mother. You always try to create something that you cannot have.”