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Whistling as Code in The Whistlers

THE WHISTLERS is Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s (POLICE, ADJECTIVE, 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST) new mafia thriller about a corrupt cop who is taken to the Canary Islands in order to learn a new coded form of communication—a whistling language. This is based on a real-world language that is indigenous to the Canary Islands. The film stars Vlad Ivanov (SNOWPIERCER), Sabin Tambrea (LUDWIG II), and Catrinel Marlon. It made its world premiere at Cannes and its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, which Sloan Science and Film attended. THE WHISTLERS will make its New York premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 6.

THE WHISTLERS is Romania’s entry into the 92ndAcademy Awards. We sat down with writer and director Corneliu Porumboiu at the Hyatt in Torontoto discuss his inspiration for the whistling language in the film.

Science & Film: How did you first hear about the whistling language?

Corneliu Porumboiu: I saw a documentary on French television about ten years ago about the whistling language and I got interested right away. I started to read about it. [The whistling language] is a return to something from the beginning. It was quite a long process because it was right in between a few other scripts, and I came back to it after THE TREASURE.

Image courtesy of TIFF

S&F: Can you say more about why the whistling language interested you?

CP: I saw that there are a lot of places in the world where people are whistling. The Canary Islands were colonized in the 15th century by the Spanish so we don’t know how the whistling [sounded] was before. At one point it was for me a speculation about a primary language and after that, to use that in modern day life…

S&F: I thought it was a pretty ingenious encrypted code. We have all these technologies to encrypt messages, but there is always a way to hack them. Speaking a language that nobody else speaks is actually more cryptic and simple.

CP: It’s also like bird [songs]. So if you don’t know, you are on the street and are listening, you don’t realize someone is speaking [laughs].

The main character knows all the codes, he doesn’t express too much because he’s followed, and all he is doing is coded. He lives in a world where they use language to have power—it is used like a weapon. So I said, okay, he will have to learn a code but it’s a double code. That’s why I was thinking to structure the movie around the process [of learning].

S&F: I was going to ask if you set the film on the Canary Islands, because canary and birdsong, but it sounds like the whistling language is indigenous to the region?

CP: Yeah. It is a UNESCO Heritage site so they are teaching the whistling language in schools—with cell phones they started to lose it so they protected it that way.

S&F: Did you learn it?

CP: I was at the school. They say, this is like a gun, put it in your mouth. I think this inspired me [laughs]. It inspired me a lot. We were in touch with the head of this program [to teach whistling] and he came to Bucharest to train the actors. He spent two weeks with the main actors and then kept up courses on Skype. But me, I wanted to take classes but had something else to do on the film at the time.

S&F: But the actors really did learn?

CP: Yes. It was very hard to fake in a close-up. If he doesn’t know the breathing rhythm…I’m glad I didn’t [use a] double.

S&F: Have you shown the film to anybody on the island?

CP: Yes, at Cannes. The teacher has a small part in the film. He was at the premiere. He whistled. It was funny.

THE WHISTLERS will be distributed by Magnolia Pictures, and will open in U.S. theaters in February 2020. It will make its New York premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 6.