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'I didn't know I had this in me:' Young Belgian actress gets discovered internationally

Celebrities smiling and walking on red carpets: There will be a lot of that when the 'Berlinale' Film Festival opens in Berlin. Among them will be a young woman from Belgium who was only just discovered as a film star.

Gangs, guns, violence – and love: That's at the heart of 'Black,' a movie by Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilal Fallah. It is a Romeo-and-Juliet-type story set in Brussels, a city in which many young people have no work, but have gangs instead. And so when Mavela, a girl with ties to the 'black' gang, and a member of a rival Moroccan gang fall in love, that doesn't go over well.

Martha is the name of the young woman who plays Mavela, and who – like many of the cast – had never done any acting prior to her role in 'Black.' Martha's parents are from Angola, and she grew up in the French part of Belgium before moving to the Dutch-speaking part. The young woman speaks Portuguese, Dutch, French,Spanish, English – and a few words of German.

DW's Andrea Rönsberg met Martha at a café in her home town of Mechelen, between Brussels and Antwerp, shortly before she aws set to depart for Berlin. She is one of the ten young actors chosen as "European Shooting Stars" who will be presented to the film industry over the weekend. None of her family works in film, she says, but when she told her uncle in Angola about being in a movie, he started reading poems to her he had written himself – "so I think we all have an artistic strain somewhere in us," Martha says, laughing.

DW: Since you were not into acting before you starred in 'Black', how did you even learn about the casting?

Martha Canga Antonio: The movie is based on a book by Dirk Bracke, which is very well known among Flemish people and which I read. A few months later I saw a post on Facbeook saying that they were making a movie out of the book and that they were looking for actors, including ones with no prior experience.

And the story in the book had really touched me, so I wanted to be a part of this.

What was it about the story that touched you?

It showed a world which I didn't know, but which at the same time is very close. I live in Mechelen, and I didn't know anything about youth gangs, and didn't know there were so many in Brussels, so in a sense, that was a new world. But, on the other hand, this world is right here, in Brussels, only forty minutes away.

But it's also a very beautiful story, a love story about this young boy and girl who are so alike and so different from each at the same time, and who fall in love and do everything for this love.

How did you prepare yourself for the role?

I think I prepared myself through trying to understand the character, Mavela. Even though I didn't know anything about youth gangs, I do know what it's like to be fifteen, and in love, and to think you know the world, and try to fit in a place.

Belgian actress Martha Canga Antonio

Watching the movie herself made Martha realize she really wanted turn a one-time engagement into an acting career.

It's a very intense and violent movie. Which moment was the most difficult for you when the film was shot?

Everybody expects me to say it was scene in which Mavela gets raped, but it wasn't. It was the scene right after the rape scene, in which she is at a friend's place, taking a shower. It's the moment in which she realizes what has happened and completely loses it.

I had always sort of flipped a switch to, in a sense, turn from Martha into MaveIa. But during this scene, it was very difficult to flip this switch, and it was very intense.

scene from the movie Black (2015)

Some of Martha's younger siblings have not seen her sister in the movie - it's only allowed for those older than 16.

Do you feel that it has changed you?

Yes, because I have learned things about myself. When you are acting, you are the character, but you also have to give a part of yourself. You have to dig deep within yourself, and that made me grow.

What was it that you learned about yourself?

I didn't know that I could flip that switch, that when the say 'Action!', you let go of yourself. And I was afraid I couldn't do that.

The first day, first action, was the fighting scene with the girls. I was so surprised about myself. It was my first fight (laughs).

You have put your university studies of communication management on hold to pursue an acting career. Why?

During the shooting, it was like discovering a new passion, I really enjoyed it. But the moment I decided I had to do something with it was when I saw the movie. I mean, during the production, I was giving everything without quite knowing what for. But when I saw the result, I really thought I had to keep doing this.

Whats great about having been selected as one of the actors presented to the film industry as 'European Shooting Star?

It motivates me a lot. I mean, they see really good future actors in us, and that's crazy. (laughs) I only started thinking of myself as an actress a few months ago.

Where do you hope it will take you?

Even before being an actress I've always said I wanted to see the world, so I hope that this will take me to see the world.

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