Life & Culture

An artist’s quiet kind of activism

An extraordinary family story of flight from East Europe to South America is at the heart of film-maker Yulia Mahr's work with her husband composer Max Richter, she tells Elise Bray


Trauma passes down through families,” says Hungarian film-maker and visual artist Yulia Mahr over Zoom. It was her maternal grandmother’s story, of fleeing Nazi persecution to Chile aged 21, while her great grandparents remained, hidden in the back of a neighbour’s apartment, that has inspired the themes of her work.

“I have letters from all the family to each other during that time,” she recalls. “It’s just heartbreaking reading about what they were going through. She was an incredible woman. She’s inspired my whole life.”

While in South America, her grandmother worked on social welfare projects and translated for Che Guevara, before eventually returning to Hungary. When Mahr was born in Budapest, where she was raised on empanadas and the Spanish language, the family flat was covered in Unicef posters. “She instilled in me this tremendous idea of internationalism and looking for positive social outcomes.”

From Mahr’s beginnings as a theatre director to Voices, her latest major audio-visual project co-created with husband and artistic partner, the Grammy-nominated, million-album-selling composer Max Richter, responses to human rights abuses have always been the core. “I was really keen to explore these stories that I felt strongly connected to,” she says. “There’s a quiet activism to everything I’ve been involved in.”

Voices has hope at its heart. A full-length film was planned for release, but Mahr is waiting; she didn’t want to make a film about coronavirus. What she’s released instead are evocative “poem films” to accompany the project. Mirrors, the first video from the second part, beautifully depicts rejuvenation as flowers bloom.

The concept of Voices originated some 20 years ago, in the wake of 9/11, when the couple found themselves talking even more fervently about human rights issues, post-truth politics and troubling global affairs such as the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

“We’ve never stopped talking about human rights,” says Mahr. “The stories of my own life merged with these political realities of the time.” They started to search for hope in the darkness, and found it in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They realised that while people had heard of it, few were familiar with its “inspiring and aspirational” text, so they pondered how they could create “a piece of art that brings it to life for people”.

“We found tremendous hope in this beautiful document which came out at this moment when people wanted to put the evil of World War Two behind and find some consensus to move forward with a more humane world,” she says. “I feel that we can do better. History is not inevitable.”

Storytelling runs in Mahr’s blood. Her father was a film director, her mother a fine-art photographer, while her great grandfather worked in theatre. For Mahr, creativity was sparked by a childhood uprooted by a move to London’s Southfields during the Cold War, where she was the only child at school who couldn’t speak English. “They used to chant at me ‘better dead than red’ because they thought I must be a communist. It was difficult. So all of that story of the last 100 years of my family has fed into Voices.”

An only child, isolated and bullied by classmates, she turned to art, poring over her mother’s photography books. “I became quite dreamy and I disappeared into pictures, especially photography. That started a love of telling stories through images, and has carried on throughout my life.”

While reading politics and history at the London School of Economics, she preferred to focus on theatre. “I really didn’t study very well,” she laughs. “I was there for the artistic people around, and that’s never left me.”

It was through theatre that she met Richter, one of three people in the audience for her show at the Edinburgh Fringe. “He saw me and he liked me a lot,” she smiles. They met again a couple of years later, when she was working for the company Brian Astbury ran for young people breaking into theatre (Rufus Norris, artistic director of the National, included), and have been together ever since. When they needed a composer, Mahr suggested Richter.

Family was also an inspiration for the couple’s first major joint project, 2015’s Sleep, an eight-hour opus intended to relieve the pressures of the digital age. The idea was born from Mahr’s exhaustion after looking after the couple’s young daughters while Richter was off on tour.

“For years, we had no money,” she explains. “So when Max went away, we didn’t have any budget to take me.” Mahr streamed the concerts as they were going on around the world, but different time zones meant she was often watching in the middle of the night. “I’d been looking after the kids all day and I was totally wiped out.” As she drifted in and out of sleep, she became fascinated by the idea that she was listening subconsciously, through her bones. She excitedly shared her idea with Richter on his return, only to discover he’d been plotting something similar. “It was a really lovely moment for us.”

If you imagine the pair sat around the table engrossed in discussions on world issues and artistic concepts, you’d be right. But it’s not always calm.

“It’s lovely to find somebody you can connect with so strongly,” says Mahr, beaming. “It doesn’t happen all the time, does it? We’re very different human beings, and we approach things very differently, so it can be quite fiery. But it’s very comfortable in that we have a real freedom to explore ideas together. And that’s great.”

She sums up their differences as “the stereotypes”. “He’s north German, so he can be quiet. Max is very shy, and he’s an introvert. He expresses himself through his work, he speaks through music. Whereas my family is quite loud and boisterous, and talkative. We’re all extroverts.”

Mahr passes on her family’s stories of survival to their inquisitive daughters, now aged 22, 21 and 13. And she believes that Richter’s work has improved since having children. “It got really deep and rich in a way that it hadn’t been before,” she says. “I absolutely think that having children wakes you up and makes you reevaluate everything. I think it’s quite unusual for artists to have three kids. But for us, it’s been a really rich experience.”

After eight years in Berlin, the family moved to a countryside farmhouse five years ago — a culture shock for Mahr who has always been “a city girl”. She bursts into laughter as she recounts how countrified she has become, with “the chickens, the rabbits and the dogs…” During lockdown, she spent hours walking in the woodlands becoming absorbed by the landscapes surrounding them.

The couple’s next joint project soon to see fruition is their woodland studio. They’ll have adjoining studios where Mahr can work on her photography and visual-arts installation planned for later this year. Some pieces will be rooted in the natural world. “I think it profoundly changes any artist to be based in the countryside,” she says. “It’s given me renewed energy.”

Voices 2 is out now

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