Dana Knight talks about love with documentarian Jonathon Narducci at Berlinale 2015.
Can people find love through the modern “mail-order bride” industry? Or is the international romance business just a scam? Sincere and unflinching, Love Me follows Western men and Ukrainian women as they embark on an unpredictable and riveting journey in search of love. Each character’s experience exposes the myths and realities of this unique industry, while also exploring the much deeper, human story that is too often overlooked.
Forget everything you think you know about “mail-order” brides and get ready for an outrageously funny, touching and unforgettable look at the extreme lengths people travel for love.
Love Me is being distributed by Gravitas Ventures and debuted on all VOD/Digital platforms beginning February 10th, 2015.
Dana Knight: Very interesting and culturally relevant choice of subject-matter for a documentary, what sparked your interest in “mail-order brides” and men “scouting” for love in foreign lands?
Jonathon Narducci: When I was in college studying film, I received a spam email from A Foreign Affair—one of the international matchmaking companies highlighted in my film—and that is when my curiosity about the topic really took off! This email basically asked if I would like to find my own Russian Bride. At the time, I was totally intrigued and interested by the phenomenon, because it was something new that I had never seen before. This was over 10 years ago when Internet dating and social media were basically non-existent. The topic stuck with me over the years, and when I finally had the time and resources to make the film, I decided to look more into the industry. I found an amazing opportunity to tell a story about a unique type of niche dating and marriage.
DK: What were the criteria for selecting your male “protagonists?” Could you briefly introduce them?
Narducci: For this project, I did not choose my characters per se, in fact, I almost feel like they chose me. The whole process was completely organic without any castings. I went on as many Romance Tours as I possibly could, over the span of a year and I filmed as many men as I feasibly could, while on these tours. The whole process was very intense for me because, in a very short time period, I had to identify various narrative arcs that these men were experiencing and document them to the best of my ability. We shot around 50 men initially, but as their stories trajectories became clearer, we were able to narrow it down to just 12 men to focus on. We ended up including six male protagonists in the story: Mike is a South African widower, who lives in Australia; Travis is a middle-aged dairy farmer from Wisconsin; Bobby, an avid video gamer, is also a government employee; Ron is a very successful retiree, who enjoys staying active; Eric is an engineer from San Antonio; and Robert is a construction foreman, who builds highways in California. My goal was to have a narrative structure that showed both the successes and failures that surround this type of dating, but to also show a variety of people. There was a huge range of men on these tours, and while filming I had absolutely no idea who would be successful and who would fail, so I just had to cast my net as far as I possibly could, and see what happened. For that reason, making this film was kind of a gamble, since it was real life and I never really knew what was going to happen.
DK: It was very interesting to see that most of them had a “character arc” such as in a fiction film, e.g. one of them is disillusioned with American women but at the end of the trip, after some romantic misadventures in these foreign lands, he comes to appreciate American women more. Same for the others, they seem to learn and grow from this experience.
Narducci: Whether a man succeeds or fails, learns something new or ends up right back where he started, it was pretty clear to me that, once each man’s story started to develop, he would have one of only a few potential outcomes. I tried my best to highlight different scenarios that occur through this type of dating. It was interesting though, because sometimes I was sure a relationship would fail, when it actually succeeded, and other times, I was sure it would succeed when it actually ended up failing. I never really knew how a situation would unfold, but my job was to document everyone throughout the process, so that the film could show various narrative arcs that occur within this niche dating industry.
DK: How difficult was it to document such an intimate subject? I noticed you were asked to turn the camera off on a few occasions. Did you negotiate your freedom as a filmmaker versus their personal freedom and personal space beforehand or was it an ongoing negotiation?
Narducci: I had pretty unlimited access while filming this project, both from the men and the two companies that the film highlighted. Of course there were moments when people did not want the camera there, but overall it was pretty easy for me as a filmmaker to gain access to these people’s lives. I think over time they honestly forgot I was there, since I filmed them all so often. I tried my best to always give my honest opinion to these men, about what I thought was happening in every situation, but often times they chose not to listen, or didn’t care what I thought. If a situation blew up in their face, that was usually when they didn’t want the camera there. In my experience, most people are very open to being filmed, unless they have something to hide or are embarrassed by a situation.
DK: Have your own views about the subject changed during the making of this film? In what ways?
Narducci: You know this whole process was very interesting for me. Like I said before, I had my own perceptions of who I thought would be successful and who I thought would fail, and some predictions ended up being correct and others were completely wrong. I think I was skeptical of the process in the beginning, and I think I still am skeptical, however, I have learned certain things about this type of dating throughout filming. For example, if the parties involved in these relationships are honest and forthcoming about what they want, then they have a real shot of dating and getting married. On the other hand, when individuals romanticise a situation, or are completely delusional about what is happening, then problems arise. I am not sure my general perceptions changed too much, but I do know that this process is a lot more complicated and unclear than I originally thought it was.
DK: Although one of the protagonists is successful at finding love abroad, the film comes across as more of a “cautionary tale,” is that fair to say? I’m thinking of the Angelina Jolie-looking woman of mystery, she obviously wasn’t for real, was she?
Narducci: There are definitely successes and failures through this type of international dating. The film probably overemphasised the positive stories, compared to the actual percentage of successful couples. The majority of the men we met did not get what they were looking for, and we really had to search hard for those who did. I think that the agencies involved in this industry feed on the stereotypes surrounding the business and use it to market the opposite sexes to each other. On the one hand, the men are told that Ukrainian women want to flee the country and want to marry them only for green cards. Conversely, they are also sold the idea that these women, who put family above all else, don’t like Ukrainian men because they are alcoholic scumbags. On the other side of the story, the women are told that American men do not commit adultery, that they don’t drink alcohol, and that they are family-oriented and emotionally open. Both sides of this industry—both the men and the women—can use these stereotypes to prey on the other’s desires. Most of the “scams” or cautionary tales that I witnessed happened because an individual would take advantage of another individual by exploiting their vulnerability and desperation for love, to ultimately get what they wanted—whether it was a free dinner or to make extra money by chatting online. Of course you have to be cautious with this type of dating, and of course there are men and women who will feed off of these emotional desires, but it doesn’t mean that every situation will end badly. Every scenario is different, but do I believe that there was dishonesty on the part of the particular woman you mentioned? Yes. Do I think it is all her fault? No. There is a larger system at play that dictates a lot of the rules of engagement with this type of dating.
DK: What is love? Since you open up the film with this question…!
Narducci: Good question! I think it depends on whom you ask. What I learned is that love is something different for everybody. For some people it is having a companion, for others it is just a feeling, and I think that’s the thing, it depends on who you are asking and what they are looking for. I think Love Me shows a lot of different people’s perceptions of love, which ultimately influences their romantic lives and decisions. I know that love is hard to find and relationships can be extremely complicated. The characters in this film are examples of how far people will go to find love.