Cultural Paradigms

Zachary Cotler, a poet and professor of literature, and Magdalena Zyzak, a film school graduate-turned-producer, make their directorial debut with Maya Dardel. The film stars Lena Olin in the title role: a reclusive poet who announces on radio that she intends to end her life and male suitors may compete to be the executor of her estate. We talk to Cotler and Zyzak about the inspirations behind this unique work.

ASFF: Where did the inspiration for Maya Dardel come from?
It’s based on our experience in academia with powerful female professors. I think it started at a constellation of points, and some of these points would be gender non-reversibility, poetry, literary games, psychological games, the generational battle…we have an elegiac fondness for Maya’s generation. We are sad to see them leaving their positions of power and usurped by Gen X professors!

MZ: Maya comes from the generation that took writing for granted, writing and literature as these cultural forces that last forever. But that’s no longer true. It’s not literature that creates the dominant narratives in our society now.

ZC: I would say the Baby Boomers were the last generation with a regular cultural attachment to literature. Now it’s attenuated. It exists, by no means is it extinct, but it’s attenuated by digital culture, by many forces.

ASFF: Do you think we live in a culture of nostalgia now?
MZ: I don’t think we’re nostalgic; we’re a culture of fetishists. We pick and choose whatever it is from the past and we bring it from today. Everything is about recycling previous fashions. We have a sense that we have come to the end of culture; nothing new can be invented. Of course it can. But culture is experiencing a malaise.

ASFF: Are you concerned that literature doesn’t hold the sway it once did?
ZC: It’s not that it will be left behind. I think it will just transform into the next paradigm. It won’t be eliminated completely. The oral tradition of Homer still exists. But it’s not at the centre of culture anymore. I strongly believe literature is heading toward VR now.

ASFF: What made you choose Lena Olin to play Maya?
ZC: She was our first choice. Especially because of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. [Milan] Kundera is not so easy to do and he’s one of our favourite novelists. So that was easy. Apparently her husband, [director] Lasse Hallström, told her to take the role.

ASFF: Did you work on the character with her?
MZ: Every actor brings his or her DNA into a role and we spent almost a week rehearsing, and developed mannerisms, gestures, and little tics to enrich the role and made it more neurotic.

ZC: Also, Lena’s personality is the opposite of Maya’s. Sometimes you cast into a type and sometimes you cast against a type and she is a very sweet person. She loves her comforts and she loves to be warm and happy. She’s not a cruel person in any way.

MZ: I think she was Maya for a while when she left. I think her husband was complaining!

James Mottram

Maya Dardel plays at London’s Raindance Film Festival on 23 and 24 September. For more details, visit:

1. Still from Maya Dardel.