FID Marseille Journal

Interviewed by Rebecca De Pas

The origin of the project: a newspaper frontline?

Philip Scheffner :The origin of the project was actually very much as it is told in the narration of the film: In November 2005, the news of two events which took place outside of Germany were transported via a newspaper to a living room in Germany. A story about a sparrow being shot in the Netherlands and a story about the death of a German soldier, killed by a suicide attack in Kabul – both stories on the same news page. I remember reading both stories and then looking outside my window. A sparrow was hopping from tree to tree. A peaceful day. I couldn’t identify any signs of “war” in my Berlin backyard. So it was very easy to connect to one story but very difficult to find a connection to the other. Afghanistan seemed to be very far away. On the other hand, the German defense minister was declaring that “Germany’s security is defended at the Hindukush” – so I thought one should see “something”. “Something”must be there - and if this “something”is invisible one needs to develop strategies to readjust one’s perspective, to develop a certain sensibility so that connections could emerge. It took quite a while till this vague impression was turned into a concrete idea for a film project.

Is bird watching the genre of your film and has it influenced your work as filmmaker?

P.S: Since the age of eight, I have been watching birds with my binoculars. A hobby that has become an obsession in the meantime. In subsequent years, I increasingly swapped my binoculars for a microphone and camera.There are some similarities in the work of a documentary filmmaker and a bird watcher. In both cases, the doctrine is that the less a person (the birdwatcher, the filmmaker) is seen or heard, the better the result. The body is clenched in odd positions, breathing slows.The minutestmovements,which in turn trigger sounds and disturbances,are avoided. In the process of observing, the observer attempts to become invisible or rather to camouflage his presence. He is not involved. Actually, he isn’t there at all. Of course all these strategies usually fail.The question I ask myself is how long can such a condition be maintained, and what happens when the pseudo-neutral observer suddenly becomes part of the recording. The film tries to question this position of the “observer” – and together with the DOP Bernd Meiners and the sound recordist Pascal Capitolin, we were trying to reflect this in the way we shot images and recorded sounds. So the film mainly consists of wide angle landscape shots and close ups – similar to the way a birdwatcher is perceiving the world: silently sitting,waiting, suddenly recognizing a small disturbance... And then trying to locate the source of that movement or sound with the binocular.The observer is not changing his / her position.The distance to the observed object is bridged only with a tool – the binocular - not with a physical movement towards the object of desire.So even if e.g. the bird appears in a close up – the sound is still that of the location of the birdwatcher – who is maybe sitting some 100 meters away. So we were trying to integrate und use these perception patterns in the film.To create a situation where the audience is “observing” the film rather than “watching” it.

The narration of the film seems in constant evolution, how did you work on the script?

P.S: There was a long research phase. Before the actual shooting, co-author Merle Kröger and me were traveling to the different locations taking photos,talking with people etc. Out of this we created something like a script which then was the basis for the actual shooting. The actual spoken narration was then developed during the editing. I had a microphon next to the editing suite and tried out differentways of narration in the editing process. So the film was growing slowly – and so did the narration.

Merle Kröger (producer) : In terms of drama structure we had two starting points: One was the personal, which is the Baltic Sea, where both of us spent our childhood, in this eerie atmosphere between the peace of a happy summer day and the sound of the missiles hitting the water surface. The other was the intellectual point – the research for the places where this war is actually produced.During the first research trip we were surprised that most of the barracks are located in landscapes as beautiful and somehow “representative” for Germany as the Baltic Sea training area.We spent a lot of time at these places,watching these different landscapes, listening to the sounds, talking to people passing by,and – of course – looking for birds.This drama structure we tried to translate into the final film, doing the whole trip once more with our team. Itwas a strong experience, which completely changed the way to look at the world for all of us. It was not just as if one would change the lense in front of your eyes (and ears),but it created the effect of deceleration. It even stayed with us for a while after the shooting was over. The drama point where this observing perspective collapses, is when the story line of the activist starts. It reflects the way these events broke into our personal life while working on the film. Suddenly the filmmaker himself becomes an object of observation, and he is unable to go on with his usual methods. The third structuring element is the constant communication with the Bundeswehr, which in fact went on for almost the whole process of the film production.

The film raises the question of the information and how this is managed by the political agenda. What can be the role of documentary filmmaker in this over controlled system?

PS: If we talk about the war in Afghanistan and Germanys involvement in it,we always have images of Afghanistan in mind.Tanks on a dusty road, etc. Of course these images are highly controlled by the official side. But what is more important and problematic for me is that these images always refer to something “over there”,something far away.They hide the fact that this war is also planned and supported here (meaning e.g. in Germany). So what do we see in our own personal surrounding? There are few traces of war – neither is it visible, nor clearly located. The film tries to work out how and at what points do breaks open up the seemingly peaceful surface.Moments when war is visible,when the interfaces between civil life and military action blur. For me these points cannot be enumerated through a “realistic”, classic documentary way of working. It is about developing a filmic language that steers the focus to irregularities, which undermines familiar hierarchies of attention, which traces the small displacements in a seemingly homogenous image.With Der tag des spaztzen,I would like to create a filmic space between image and sound, analysis and imagination, which questions the apparent casualness of the current war – and our own relation towards it.

MK: I think the news footage of the war we get to see, not just recreates the physical distance over and over again, it also comes with a certain urgency and speed that makes me feel dizzy and reduces my ability to act. Therefore, it was our aim to open this filmic space as a space of slowness, a space of contemplation, where you can actually enter and stay for a while.

Can you talk about pong and the production strategies that you have followed to finance the film?

MK: pong is a small Berlin based production house run by Philip Scheffner and myself since 2001. Before, we had been members of the filmmakers’ collective dogfilm for ten years. dogfilm worked along the borders of video art, documentary and fiction,constantly developing new formats and ways to connect the subject of a cinematic work with its visual and narrative methods.At the time, there was a broad range of artistic spaces to experiment – from galleries and art institutions to ARTE and ZDF Das Kleine Fernsehspiel. Seeing these spaces shrink,we decided that pong should be a platform not just for films, but also for our parallel projects in the fields of sound art and fiction writing. By now pong has produced about five feature length documentaries – and it somehow came as a surprise to us that with these films we slowly rediscovered the classical cinema space. Especially The Halfmoon Files and Der tag des spaztzen actually need the big screen, and the exclusivity of the dark cinema, to unfold. Having this in mind, we decided to try out a kind of experimental production strategy for Der tag des spatzen. Knowing that no funding agency alone would take the risk of financing an experimental documentary for cinema these days, we first decided to co-produce the film together with two other German production companies of our size, worklights media and Blinker Filmproduktion. It turned out to be the right decision, as we became a strong team in terms of production and creative input. Sharing our credits and contacts, we were able to convince altogether six regional and federal funding agencies to support the project.Then,ZDF/ ARTE joined us as the fourth coproducer, in person of Doris Hepp, commissioning editor for one of the last remaining “islands”of artistic filmmaking,“La Lucarne”/ “Spätvorstellung”.The luxury we had during this production,was the time we spent shooting (33 days), the team we were able to afford and with whom we developed the audiovisual language of the film, and the freedom to use a kind of “mainstream technology” (HDCam Dolby Surround) for an experimental film.

Interviewed by Rebecca De Pas