There is something prescient about the films of Philip Scheffner. While news teams chase down the stories of the moment and documentary opportunists vie to be the first at the hot-topic buffet, Scheffner is the guy who walks in the opposite direction and stands quietly below the basket or beside the goal not knowing but perhaps sensing that the ball will come to him. When it does, he scores a film (or two) that nobody could have anticipated. And just when it matters most. The Halfmoon Files (2007) revisits forgotten POW audio recordings that attest to a complexly multiethnic dimension of World War I Germany. The Day of the Sparrow (2010) examines the curious intersection of ornithology and war, particularly Germany’s role in Afghanistan. Revision (2012) probes the mysterious death of two Roma men along the German-Polish border in 1992, a time of upheaval and xenophobia in the newly unified Germany. Scheffner digs out and methodically uncovers bits of the German past and present that are unsavoury yet essential to a nuanced understanding of German society and its 21st-century web of transnational connections and global responsibilities. And he stands at these excavation sites, not with the impatience of someone who is trying to make waves, but with the tenacity of a researcher, of someone who is in it for the long haul and whose arguments emerge not only within, but also between, films.
At the 66th Berlin International Film Festival, Scheffner’s new documentaries And-Ek Ghes… and Havarie – both dealing with migration – premiered in the Forum of New Cinema. Following Germany’s surge of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe since the summer, this year’s Forum was rife with co-created documentaries and hybrid fiction films addressing war, revolution, violence, longing, and the here-and-there-ness of displaced lives and rerouted dreams. But it wasn’t this programming context alone that foregrounded Scheffner’s work, which has consistently appeared in the Forum; it was the aesthetic risks he took and what those risks mean in the German production landscape, in German society at large, and upon the platform of an A-list festival.
It is too bad that the impassioned Critics’ Week conference “CINEMA IS MADE BY OTHERS – Why German Films Party on Their Own”, in which I took part on the eve of the Berlinale, singled out the insularity and festival failures of recent German mainstream narrative films. Because in the spaces where filmmaking modes shift, dissemble and blend, oddities like And-Ek Ghes… and Havarie – films that say much more about the state of Germany today than the most recent historical melodramas à la Third Reich – have the freedom to appear, even in a national film industry mired in funding bureaucracy and television politics.
Originally a video artist, Scheffner the documentarian makes the unseen visible and the unheard audible – a Roma family in And-Ek Ghes…, the power dynamics of the open seas in Havarie. A longtime member of the video collective dogfilm, he speaks of his filmmaking process in a creative “we” that includes members of his Berlin production company Pong (his co-writer and producer Merle Kröger as well as producer-filmmakers Caroline Kirberg and Alex Gerbaulet), regular collaborators (like cameraman Bernd Meiners) and key protagonists (like And-Ek Ghes…’s Colorado Velcu, the head of the family who also became the film’s co-director). Pong, which is also a platform for Kröger’s books, their combined sound work, and various independent projects, provocatively claims a space for the “production of documentaries on the border to the arts”, work supported largely by cultural institutions rather than film funding boards.
Embracing a methodology that’s closer to scholarship and artistic research than the high stakes of the well-funded documentary, Scheffner can risk open-endedness, discovery and a revised thesis. In And-Ek Ghes…, he hands over the camera to Velcu and his family, the descendants of Grigore Velcu, one of the Roma men whose deaths sparked Scheffner and Kröger’s research for Revision. With Havarie, he made the radical decision – in light of the current refugee crisis – to replace the 90-minute visual track of the film with a 3.5-minute cell phone YouTube video of Algerian refugees adrift in a tiny boat in the Mediterranean – an image stretched in slow motion over the entire duration of the film’s soundscape.
In And-Ek Ghes… Colorado Velcu, his children, and his sisters’ families arrive in Germany from Romania, and Scheffner films them moving into their apartment building in Essen. But quickly his efforts to “document” their migrant experience give way to a migrating camera and migrating subjectivities. Structured by Velcu’s voice-over reading passages from his journal, the film roves between Scheffner’s footage, Velcu’s footage, the footage shot by various family members and friends, and what becomes an increasingly fictional and fantasy-laden strand of scenes scripted and improvised by Velcu and his children as they relocate to Berlin. This new take on the entfesselte Kamera (unchained camera) demonstrates the digital-era dexterity of lightweight audiovisual technology that changes hands, crosses borders, drifts fluidly between documentary, fictional, and experimental modes, and obscures the class divide between amateurism and professional filmmaking.
In Havarie, the rules of the game require the patience to contemplate. The still frames of a vacationer’s shaky cell phone footage (which Scheffner and Kröger found online) reveal a boat that sometimes seems to approach and sometimes recede from the camera, while the blue sea, the vessel, and the distant, indistinct human forms aboard function as a painting, a deferred hermeneutic exercise, something at once familiar and unknowable. The boat anchors the spectator’s gaze as diverse languages and viewpoints on the soundtrack and in the subtitles discuss the waters, the plight of refugees, other maritime forms of migration and transnationalism on cruise and container ships, the desire for Europe, memories of crossing, of home, loss, and longing. There is nowhere else to look, no opportunity to “hear away”, and then something extraordinary happens. After 47 minutes that make James Benning’s two-hour, four-shot, statically framed Stemple Pass (shown in Forum in 2013) feel like an action film, Havarie’s camera suddenly pans, betraying its (and our) position on a cruise ship. The film’s established imagery now gives way to a confrontation between supplication and agency in which spectators must acknowledge their cinematic privilege, a stand-in for their privilege beyond the movie theatre. But the confrontation of positions is also an opportunity for exchange, for thought, for communication.
Scheffner relishes such points of contact, where film exceeds its role as entertainment and information to effect real change. He takes up the audiovisual tools of filmmaking as if they were a microscope, telescope and stethoscope trained on humanity – aids to our sight and hearing – ways to notice and deconstruct our world while also participating actively in it. I remember showing Revision to a film class of mine in Indiana. In one scene, Scheffner and Meiners stand in the German cornfield where the two Roma asylum-seekers were shot. They discuss the lighting conditions and the seasonal height of the corn on the day of the killings, as Meiners adjusts the camera accordingly. The view through binoculars and the view through the lens invite spectators to rely on their own senses, to come to their own conclusions. Did the two men resemble wild game or human beings? Were they shot on purpose? Indiana students, who grew up in America’s heartland, knew something about corn and something about guns. New to the study of film, they grew animated by the challenge Scheffner had posed to them. Some had grown up hunting, some had just returned from war zones. The view from the crosshairs and the height of the corn mattered. Equipping diverse groups to see and realise that is precisely Scheffner’s cinematic philosophy.
We met on 4 February 2016 in Berlin for the following conversation.
When you first met Colorado Velcu during the filming of Revision, did you have some sense that he would make a good partner behind the camera?
I met him for the first time in 2010 or 2011. One year earlier, we had gone to his hometown of Craiova, Romania to see if the family would be willing to participate in our film. At that time only his brother was there. We had the feeling that the family had agreed to be in the film. Then, when we arrived in Craiova with the whole film team, Colorado was there. As the older brother, he’s the head of the family. He wasn’t so persuaded by the film and its relation to his father. I remember meeting him for the first time and being very impressed by his very direct and serious way of asking questions. In the beginning, he didn’t want to participate at all in Revision. And of course we were under a lot of pressure. I tried to answer his very direct questions in an equally direct way. There was no bullshit. After a long discussion, he agreed to do the film and then was very concentrated. In one scene, we’re trying to do an interview with him, his brother, and his mother sitting together on a sofa. Suddenly he interrupts and says, “I think we should do the interviews individually.” And then he says something I really liked: “You as a director know how this works.” It was like, who’s the director now?
How did you re-establish contact with Colorado?
After he came to the Berlinale for the Revision premiere in 2012, we stayed in contact. At a certain point he informed us that he and his two sisters were planning to move their families to Germany. That had nothing to do with us. Many Roma families from Romania were moving to Germany in part because there were fewer possibilities to work in Spain after the economic crisis. Living in Romania was very difficult for them. They had contact to some people from their community who already lived in Essen and decided to go there. He called, and I went to visit him.
But it seems that you had some kind of instinct to bring along a camera . . .
I wouldn’t call it an instinct. It just seemed normal. I asked him of course if I could bring the camera and film a little bit, and he said yes. We met through filmmaking. For me, having a camera around was the most natural way for us to be together. Being there just as a visitor would have created more tension because there would have been all these questions like, “What is he now? A guest? A friend?” But when I came with the camera it was like, “Okay, that’s Philip with the camera. He’s just filming.”
There are several shots in the film in which the family is gathered around a laptop, looking at images that have been shot. There’s a discourse about images – those you’ve shot and those that they’ve shot – that runs throughout And-Ek Ghes…. How did this participation in vetting the images – and becoming critical spectators of their own story – come about?
None of that was planned. It was a very natural process. I went to Craiova once with my camera. We already had a strong relationship to Colorado’s oldest daughter, who’s now 13. It was her birthday, so we gave her a little photo camera with a video function. She was thrilled and started filming with it. When we met the next time, we looked at her footage and realised that not only she had been filming but so had Colorado and her brothers. We liked what we saw. It was unexpected and very strong. That was a moment where our relationship changed a little bit. Suddenly, the idea that “I am filming you while you film me” became the norm. There were problems with the flat in Essen, and they had the chance to come to Berlin. All three families came – about 22 people, maybe more.
We felt that this situation was so unique that we should ask if they wanted to make a film together with their images and my images. There was a family discussion about what that would mean and which kinds of responsibilities each person would have. In the end, they said they’d love to do it, and we said we’d try to find some money to finance the project.
And when you talk about financing, do you mean covering the cost of the cameras or actually paying the family?
First we decided that we’d need a real video camera – not just the one photo camera – for each family. There were also expenses. For example, if they were going to spend time with us, they’d be investing their time in something. We needed to find out if we could offer them some kind of honorarium because it would be time when they couldn’t work. We also needed money ourselves. It was pretty obvious that we couldn’t go the normal route for financing a film: film funds, etc. That process takes too long, and we had to film in a way that was very spontaneous and current because we weren’t sure whether the family would find work and stay in Berlin or else leave. We needed to fund the film immediately. And we had the possibility through the TV station RBB (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg).
That surprises me.
We were surprised, too. I’ve been living in Berlin since 1986 and have been making films for 20 years and have never worked with RBB before. But we met some commissioning editors there who were very open. We said, “This is an experiment. We don’t know what will come of it. There’s no storyline. We have no idea if the family will be here tomorrow, which members. But we think this is a very unique project.” We edited something for that meeting. So in the scene you mention, the family is watching a combination of different scenes, which I shot, but also that they shot. It’s exactly what the commissioning editors saw when they agreed to give us the money. It was a small amount, but it was at least enough to get us going.
In And-Ek Ghes…, you have all these different subjectivities capturing the images. People of different ages, from different parts of the larger family and sometimes just a camera mounted on a tripod or a handy object. There’s a sense that something is being collectively written – something that is neither structured fully by you nor by Colorado. The film’s form and playful reference to a future cinematic exhibition space demonstrate on an epic scale how the lives of the Velcu’s relate to the lives of the arthouse audience. Is this a political choice?
My main concern is to create a space that is negotiable both for the people on the screen and for an audience interacting with what’s onscreen. It’s an active process. And that space is not fixed. It’s mobile and porous. There are many films that have a political topic, but I wouldn’t consider them political films. The topic has nothing to do with whether or not something is political. It’s more about what the film does with the audience. This creates a political space in which we can maneuver. In And-Ek Ghes…, what would the political issue be? We never wanted to make a film about a Roma family. It was a very particular family. The fact that they’re Roma wasn’t at all the angle for us. The angle was that we got to know each other via another film and got interested in each other. We realised that a relationship was growing and evolving – between the two films but also in And-Ek Ghes…. In the beginning I was the director, but in the end I wasn’t filming at all. Why should I? Colorado was doing it perfectly. He was creating something that I never would have been able to create. That space shifts all the time. I hope that’s clear in the film.
Maybe the film’s politics emerge in who gets to speak, who gets to tell the story . . .
But also in how the story is told. Of course And-Ek Ghes… and Havarie are totally different films. But if they have anything in common, it’s the urge to create an eye level. This is something that’s difficult to create because it’s not a given. In And-Ek Ghes… Colorado and I meet at a certain eye level, which is not always equal but which is equal sometimes. At those points you can see that it’s an active process of negotiating and trying to find a common space. And that’s political.
The eye-level for refugees, migrants and their stories isn’t often available, shared and discussed this way in contemporary German cinema. But in your film Colorado stands around with his friends and props up his camera on the roof of a nearby car. The sound is really bad, but the technical qualities of that shot are not important in that moment. More important are the conversation and Colorado’s choice to make this situation visible to audiences with whom he might not normally interact.
There are many levels in that. One is who decides what is important. Of course it is very tempting from my perspective to film somebody who is struggling with German bureaucracy, which everybody does, including myself. But Colorado struggles a lot more because he doesn’t know the language. Of course it was very tempting to follow him to the job centre. And of course I did that at some point with my camera. But it felt totally wrong. Whereas Colorado would never think of filming at the job centre. He would prefer to go out and film a barbecue because at least there’s something to see. Or in the scene you mention, a discussion with other guys about bringing their families over to Germany. That’s a scene he would film. Not bureaucracy. But that shows a very different idea of what is an important image that portrays or characterises “our” life in Berlin.
So you never asked them to film specific aspects of their lives? How did you process all the diverse footage you received?
Of course I did, but they never followed up on this. Colorado and I would meet once a month to watch material, and that was a very intense process because of course I didn’t understand a single word. The family spoke only Romanesque. Our translator couldn’t help because she only translates Romanian into German. Luckily Colorado and I discovered that we had a common language: Spanish. He had lived in Spain for a long time. And I had had some contact with Spain and Latin America. But actually neither of us speaks Spanish. Not knowing the same language created a certain bizarre fantasy language, which we used to communicate – which is mainly based on Spanish mixed with some German and English. We’d sit in the editing room, and he’d be translating what people were saying. And we’d notice the points at which one of us laughed. Naturally some scenes stood out – scenes we both considered very important. Very often we’d look for scenes that surprised us, scenes we didn’t expect. There’s one long seven-minute scene, in which Colorado and his friend are sitting in the kitchen as Colorado reads from his diary. When I first saw the footage, I just saw two guys sitting in the kitchen. I had no clue what they were doing and talking about. I imagined that he was reading something about their problems living in Berlin. It turned out that he was reading a very precise description of Berlin’s Museum Island. The different museums. How it felt to be there. That totally surprised me. I didn’t expect that place to be important for him in Berlin.
When did the shift happen from documenting the family’s lives and struggles in Berlin to creating fictionalised scenes?
It was a process. Once we had a scene, we started to think, “Well shouldn’t there be another scene that goes in a different direction that would link this scene to that one?” So of course that was a lot of work. Work in the sense that filming the daily routines suddenly became more structured, more focused on a scene’s function in the film.
Did the family have a sense of who their audience would be?
In one scene when Colorado is filming, he addresses the people who will watch the material as “Dear people and Roma.” So he’s addressing his own community but also the non-Roma community. And this is very important because the film has many audiences who are different and see different things and who are addressed differently. In an interview, Colorado said that for him this is a film predominantly for Roma people. Which is interesting.
Not only does the film have different subjectivities and potential audiences; it also speaks different audiovisual languages. Its aesthetic starts out as the documentary of a documentarian, gets taken over by the Velcus’ growing interest in cinematic storytelling, and by the end, through the high production values of the family’s music video, transforms into more classical narrative entertainment: a fantasy, a dream.
That kind of filmmaking was a link from the beginning. When we were in Craiova shooting for Revision, Colorado and I were talking about films. He and his family watch a lot of Indian films, predominantly Bollywood films. I like Bollywood films a lot, and so does Merle [Kröger]. Suddenly we had a reference point, something Colorado and I could both be fans of. We could look at something from the same position – as fans – discussing Shah Rukh Khan, etc. And that was important for us when we talked about And-Ek Ghes…. But the whole project only worked because Colorado is Colorado. He’s so serious, and he has a feel for the whole thing. That scene you mentioned, where he puts the camera on the car to film his friends on a street corner – it’s a perfect shot. It’s a beautiful image – the framing, everything. He knows what he’s doing.
Through his participation in filmmaking, Colorado enters a privileged space in Germany. Because of the way you use and delegate the power of film, you create situations in which power relations can change. In a lot of documentaries, this is not the case. The camera does not matter – intrinsically – to the filmmaking the way it does in your work.
I agree, but I think it’s important to say that it’s not because I gave Colorado the camera. It’s because we used the camera to negotiate our space together.
Yet you provided the means and the access to the Berlinale, etc.
Of course. But it’s a mutual thing: me giving him the camera, him portraying his life. In the end I feel I have more authentic images. But giving him the camera has nothing to do with authenticity. Because giving the protagonist the camera is very common now. Sometimes you have to be very careful because this also means giving away responsibility. Like “Oh, he’s filming, so . . .” But this wasn’t the case. We were meeting via the camera. We were meeting with the camera. We were doing something together with the camera, with the material. In the end something else was created – not from my perspective, not from his perspective, but from a perspective we could agree upon, one that developed through making the film.
How did you come to the idea of having Colorado read from his diary? This becomes a structuring element, a kind of voiceover.
I knew he was writing a diary. He didn’t do this because we asked him, but because he writes and is a good writer. He writes in Romanian, so it’s more linked to the idea of writing for publication. And at some point he agreed to give his writing to the Romanian translator, who translated it into German. We did that while we were working on the film, not at the end. And this helped me to understand what was on his mind. Then I wondered how the film would change if he became the narrator linking certain scenes. Since other people filmed some of the scenes, we thought it would be good to have some kind of narration, but definitely not my own. In the end, parts of the narration come directly from the diaries. At other parts, we both thought it would be nice if he tried to write something to link scenes. So it was a mixture of a documentary archival approach and a possible narrative structure.
Colorado and one of his sons also provide a song for the film. How did you come to incorporate their music into the narrative?
Music plays an important role in their family. Colorado’s son Parica sings all the time. That’s what he wants to do in life, and he has a beautiful voice. But I was never sure whether they just sang or actually wrote songs as well. We were discussing the song sequence – which would be like a classical Bollywood musical number – and Colorado said, “I wrote a song.” I knew Colorado played the piano, but I didn’t know that he also wrote music.
The musical number is so interesting in the film, also as an image of Berlin. Suddenly all the family’s fantasies about what life could be crystallise into a glossy professionalism akin to music videos, Bollywood films, romantic comedies and dramas. The Velcus not only share their story; they become the stars of their own fairytale of arrival and success in their new country.
It’s also about reclaiming the city, reclaiming certain images of the city, putting yourself in front of these places and taking a selfie. Of course, everybody does that. But you don’t see this kind of space in other films. We hijacked the images of Berlin through the formula of a Bollywood musical sequence. Contacts who work in that industry gave us advice about these strict formulas. You have to put your protagonists in front of the high-class, rich, shiny images of the city – places like the Brandenburg Gate. But you need to include other locations that are more accessible like a park with two lovers rowing a boat. Audiences who may not have access to the Brandenburg Gate can still row a boat in a park. We tried to follow that advice.
It was a proper shoot for something like five days, and we shot with the same team that filmed Revision. Bernd Meiners is a very good DP, and because he already knew the family from that film, there was a certain trust between them. We made a scratch track of the song with Colorado playing it on the piano and his son singing. Then we sent this version to a friend who’s a composer in India and asked him to make a proper arrangement that doesn’t sound too much like Manele music – considered Roma music in Romania. Rather there’s a sitar in it and some other Bollywood elements. My friend sent the mp3 back to us, and then Parica sang it again. It was a very bizarre exchange between India, Romania and Berlin.
For me one of the most touching moments in the film was interfilmic: a scene in which Colorado and his children are picnicking at the side of a road. The field behind them resembles the cornfield on the German-Polish border where Colorado’s father was killed – the case you explore in Revision. I didn’t know where I was – if the road was in Germany or Romania, if that space was the present or past of your own filmmaking and Colorado’s life. There’s just this feeling that Colorado and his children will prevail, despite the adversity they face.
I wasn’t involved at all in the scene, but it marks a very unique moment. It’s shortly after they visited Colorado’s wife [not pictured in the film] who’s in prison. And there’s silence. But it’s true. When I first saw the scene, I was also directly transported to the field in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern where we shot Revision. Everybody is who has seen Revision. Even Colorado. For him, that film connection is less important. But in And-Ek Ghes… suddenly everything goes haywire.
Yes. Suddenly you see the film’s stakes from a wider perspective, also temporally. But this wider perspective is also important for your film Havarie. How did you arrive at the premise for a film about the politics of seafaring and at an aesthetic approach that stretches one wide shot over the duration of the entire film?
It was really by accident. There was no plan. Merle and I saw this YouTube clip, and it was very unique material. It’s 3:36 minutes long in real time. But it’s an excerpt of a time slot that was actually 90 minutes. That’s why we extended the 3:36 minutes to 90 minutes; it was roughly the amount of time that the small boat and the cruise liner were next to each other. Somewhere in that period of time, someone shot that small piece of video. It took 90 minutes to wait for the Maritime Rescue Unit to arrive at that location and rescue the people in the small boat. After this, the big cruise liner could continue its voyage. The cruise liner saw the small boat, informed the Rescue Unit, asked if they should take the refugees on board. The Maritime Rescue Unit told them to keep visual contact with the small boat and to stay put since it would be easier to locate a big ship. It took a lot of research to find out all that, but it was also thrilling since 90 minutes is the classical feature film length. We were trying to explore the inherent dramatic structure of this situation.
And this was a cell phone camera? How did you piece together the context?
Yes, something like that. The person who filmed the footage is Terry Diamond, whose wife had given him the gift of a Mediterranean cruise for his 50th birthday. They were out on the deck when the news of the little boat came, and he filmed it. Once we saw the video, we were trying to understand the situation, who filmed it, etc. Then we began a huge research process. We contacted Terry, who’s from Belfast, Northern Ireland. We went there to meet him and were really impressed by his whole approach. He immediately talked about his own biography and growing up with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. His best friend had been killed by British soldiers. All this was part of the atmosphere, part of the baggage with which he was looking at this boat. Then we tried to find out who was in the boat. We contacted the Maritime Rescue Center and went to Spain. We went on the cruise ship and filmed there. We found out that the people in the small boat were Algerian, but we couldn’t find them. Then we decided that shouldn’t be the main point but that we should focus on things we discovered in our research process. We contacted someone who had made the voyage from Algeria to Spain several times in a small boat. One step led to another.
Did you film all of these people right away?
We were lucky to have a research grant, so that we could make contact with most of the people without filming them first. And then we had long interviews, sound recordings. Out of all this we were trying to develop a concept for a film. In the end we filmed everybody. We had more than 30 days of filming. In Belfast. In Spain. On the cruise ship. Twice on a container ship. In France and in Algeria. And it’s beautiful material.
You were collecting material from June 2014-February 2015, long before the refugee crisis that escalated in Europe this past summer. Just before our meeting I read your open letter to the funding boards, explaining why you changed Havarie’s visual track. How did you come to the radical decision to eliminate all this material you shot in favor of Diamond’s footage?
Originally we wanted the YouTube clip to appear again and again in the timespan of the 90 minutes. We wanted to film people in their normal surroundings talking about biographical events and to combine that with the YouTube footage and the radio traffic of the Maritime Rescue Center. This chronology defined the 90 minutes. On paper this concept looked great, and filming was very interesting and intense. But something had changed. Of course people dying in the Mediterranean Sea is nothing new. But when we started looking at our footage, we realised that the representation of people on boats in the Mediterranean had changed a lot. The images were everywhere. On every news channel. Not the action itself but the representation had changed. We had the feeling that we had to react to that. Very often in documentary films and all well-intentioned, you follow individual cases like a refugee in a boat. You can identify with that person and understand that he or she has had a hard life. But as you’re doing that, you very rarely question your own perspective. You feel empathy for that person, which is good. I’m not saying that it’s a bad approach. But at a certain point, I said, “But what about our perspective? What do we actually see in these images that are right there in our living rooms? And how can we include the questioning of our own way of seeing these images? How can we bring this into the film?” We were really struggling with this in our initial concept and felt that we had to change it.
So you just took the 3:36 minutes and extended it in slow motion over the entire 90 minutes?
Yes. It’s a very extreme slow motion, so in the end there are around 5400 single frames. And it was another one of those little coincidences that this turned out to be close to 1 frame per second. So you see . . . frame . . . frame . . . frame . . . frame. This created a sense of the passage of time. It’s not a smooth movement; the changing frames really mark the seconds.
Havarie almost feels like watching or contemplating a painting that’s accompanied by a soundscape. The variety of voices on the soundtrack creates that same kind of layering and empowerment that you developed in And-Ek Ghes…. Like, whose Sea is it?
Of course the important thing is what do you see? By listening to the voices and sounds, you always have to reinterpret the image. It takes on totally different associations. Things seem linked, but then this connection disappears. So you have to question again and again and again how you interpret what you see. You’re not sure, and you can’t be sure.
But you also provide a structuring perspective on what spectators are seeing. I was surprised to realise that the one pan in the film comes in minute 47, almost directly in the middle. This pan suddenly calls the spectator’s position in the hierarchy of power into question. Suddenly seeing and being able to see align us with the deck of a massive cruise ship.
When I saw the original clip, the pan was the moment where I felt, “Pow!” As you said, the pan puts you into a position, and suddenly you understand your position. And that’s the beauty of the image. In the beginning you can’t be sure. The first time I saw it, I couldn’t figure out the perspective.
A dock? A Coast Guard ship?
Or it could also be land because the position is very fixed. Yes, the camera is moving, but you see that it’s the hand that’s moving and not the ground. I wasn’t sure if the footage was filmed from a ship. Then you see the camera focusing and zooming out, and you realise that it’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s no land at all. It’s just blue. And then the pan comes along, and you feel like, “Okay, here we are. But maybe I don’t want to be here.” It’s a harsh moment.
And you underscore that with the music that comes from the ship. If the music weren’t there to emphasise that contrast, that moment would still be strong. But the music makes the pan even more effective.
The music was something we found via our filming and research. We first encountered the song on the cruise ship because there was a Filipino band covering all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll music. We saw the band and liked them and asked them to play a song they play for themselves, not for the cruise ship audience. There are all kinds of restrictions on what they’re allowed to play, but we asked them to play something they really like. They asked if it could be a Filipino song, and we said, “Sure.” So they played a very beautiful song that’s a Filipino mega-hit from the 1970s. We were very moved and felt something happening. Later on, when we were filming on a container ship that had a Filipino crew, we found out that they always met for karaoke in the evenings. We asked if they happened to know the song, and they said, “Of course we know the song. That’s the song.” So they turned on the karaoke machine and started singing the same song. In the film the two versions of the song are intercut – first the container ship crew, then the band of the cruise ship.
Something about that moment struck me. Once you’ve been “placed” on the cruise ship and realise that you can’t help the people who are out at sea in that vast body of water, your own position as a spectator becomes destabilised once again; it’s not clear if the soundscape refers to the cruise ship or the container ship. There’s something uncomfortable in that slippage. Maybe the position shifts between an assumption of leisure on one hand and the sense of power being defined by being on a ship at all, also one racing cargo across the Mediterranean.
This dichotomy was important for us. It’s not as easy as the rich are here, the poor there. The people on the cruise ship are not the super-rich. They’re middle-class people who save money to do this. Terry Diamond is an absolutely normal guy. The clichéd idea of who takes a cruise doesn’t really work. When you meet him and hear about his background in the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it’s just not as simple as all that. This was important to us. We wanted to go on the cruise ship and talk to people – not to show that this is decadent. But still, there’s the perspective, which is totally hierarchical. The footage is filmed from the top floor of the cruise ship downwards. When we first saw the YouTube clip, the initial idea was to ask how we could alter this perspective. How can we create a space where this hierarchy is not denied? How can we show it but also make it more fluid?
I’m thinking of the concept of “international waters”, a point at which the water doesn’t belong to any one country and has only vague geographies of ownership, where all boats are welcome but not necessarily equal.
And there are the time layers. It’s all there in the image, and it’s a very beautiful image. We wanted to highlight the beauty of this image, which triggers all kinds of desires. For all the people out there. For the guy navigating the cruise ship but also for the people in the small boat. It’s a space of desire, a space filled with beauty, yet there are boundaries that you can’t see, borders you can’t see.
The container ship that we filmed on regularly travelled from Algeria to Spain, so it took the same route as the small boat. They could have seen each other. The people on the container ship were allowed to travel. And then on a cruise ship the purpose of the journey isn’t to reach a destination, but just to travel. The voyage itself is the reason to be there. Whereas the people on the small boat wanted to reach a destination.
It’s so different from the way that airports handle human beings. There everything seems to be about efficiency and sorting and keeping track of people and keeping them moving. Ship travel, the more analogue option, seems to still provide spaces of invisibility.
That’s also what the Ukrainian captain [of the container ship] is talking about. They have a lot of experience with stowaways, who can cause a lot of problems for them. Container ships have to keep to a very strict timetable. Stowaway problems prevent the ships from entering the port, which limits their time there. It’s a very stressful life.
When you and Merle Kröger started making documentaries, how did you come to focus on films that uncover, open up, or discover lost stories – lost in the past or in the midst of the present?
It’s very difficult. I see things that interest me, that surprise me. Certain elements reappear but not on purpose. It just happens, and I’m like, “Oh, hey, we’re here again.” We have a certain way of working, a certain method, a certain way of thinking with film. It’s the idea that film itself is a political language. That I have to reflect on my own aesthetic tools – and to do this in a political way. But this is something I’ve internalised by now. Whenever we see something, the process starts all over again. Maybe that’s why And-Ek Ghes… and Havarie look very different on the surface. But many ideas and approaches link the films. I’m not searching for a particular style. I don’t give a shit about that.
There’s a similarity, as you said, in the methodology. Maybe also in terms of what you want to give your spectators: a process, a journey of discovery.
What I like are things that aren’t fixed. The whole world is fixed. The minute you enter the space of cinema, you have the possibility to rearrange things, to put one thing on top of the other – also as a viewer. You try to find your way, a way to not just be placed in a seat passively, but to become active. For me, that’s not work. It’s a fun, productive, and active way to approach reality.