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An interview with a documentary film director

May 28, 2010

I interviewed Kim Nelson the director of Berliner, a documentary film following the lives of muslim women living in Berlin and their everyday struggles and her task as a new documentary film maker.

1. What was the inspiration for this film?

I was interested in this topic because of the general interest in Muslims post 9/11 and the feminist issues that are so often central to discussions around Islam in the West.  I am Canadian and in my country, particularly in the French-speaking province of Quebec, there is a raging feminist debate over accommodation and religious freedoms for immigrants, or minority cultures, particularly around issues of veiling, versus protecting the codes and values of the majority culture, or Leitkultur (A German word and part of the German debate). The impetus for this particular film came from an NPR interview I heard one morning. I live in Windsor, 15 minutes from Detroit and divide my radio listening between CBC (Canadian public broadcasting) and NPR.  I listened to a compelling interview with a woman of Turkish descent living in Berlin who had been subject to incredible violence because of her assimilation into “German” culture. This was the inspiration, and four months later I was sitting at a café having lunch with her, discussing her role in my documentary. She agreed to be in the film but I could not work within the conditions she subsequently set about the tone and other characters I could include in the film. So weeks before filming began I abandoned her as a character and followed another story that became Berliner.

For more detail about this transformative shift in focus you can read my director’s note at the Berliner website. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.

2. What was the most difficult thing about filming this documentary?

The most difficult thing about this documentary was raising the funds. I think the most difficult thing about making any film as an independent filmmaker is finding a balance between artistic integrity, autonomy and personal (fiscal) bankruptcy. (And the issues for non-independent filmmakers can often be more profoundly difficult if they do not have absolute creative control…).

3. What was the most interesting thing about filming this documentary?

The most interesting thing about filming the documentary was learning in detail about these women’s lives. I was particularly interested to learn about the Turkish community’s ambivalence, or fear, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. I was equally astounded by the level of class distinction that still exists in Germany particularly in relation to the stratification of the school system. Although I admire many aspects of contemporary German society, their school system seems somewhat Victorian.

Another thing that I found fascinating, but is not in the film because it did not fit the trajectory and structure of the cut as it was unfolding in the editing process, came in an interview with a group of women in their 50s and 60s who were taking adult German language lessons because of new German language laws passed by the state. Many of the people I talked to in the film found these laws to be racist and draconian but to the women in the class, who had all raised their children in Germany and had been in Germany for decades, this law was completely positive. The women described the fact that they never would have taken the language lessons if not for the new laws and now they were finally learning the language around them, they could read street signs, they could understand what was being announced in the subway, and it was very freeing and liberating. It was just another example of the complexities of every issue, a perspective I really tried to explore in the film.

4. What is your background in documentary making?

This is my first documentary film. My background is in short fiction and screenwriting. I tried to bring the screenwriter’s sense of narrative structure and character to the film and also tried to create meaning through character, subtext, and nuance rather than through plot or observation.

5. Was it difficult filming about such a controversial topic?

The only thing that was difficult about addressing this topic is that I felt that some interviewees worried about how I might portray them and their culture on screen. I think that it is a healthy concern however and every documentary subject should be wary about how a filmmaker will edit their comments. On the other hand because I purposely avoided focusing on the most controversial aspects of this conflict: honour killings, extreme nationalism, religious fundamentalism, in favour of what I considered the untold story of real people’s everyday lives, their personal struggles with their own sense of self and belonging. I think that this made the filming more comfortable for everyone.

6. Did anything unexpected happen while filming?

No. I approached the filming process as a discovery and I did not have a thesis that I set out to prove. I let the film’s content come from the women’s (and Mutlu’s) own perspectives as drawn out through our conversations. I am a pretty big believer in Murphy’s Law, “What can go wrong will” in life in general and especially on film sets, so I try to never prejudge people or situations. In this way I protect myself from thwarted expectations that could become a setback in filming. The only thing that really surprised me was the openness of Berlin. We did not have any permits to film in the city at all. It was all very guerilla that way. We were questioned a few times about what we were doing with our big camera, but never were we stopped from filming. I think this makes Berlin an incredible city. Berlin was such an interesting backdrop for these issues because of its incredibly loaded past, as a center for arts and creativity, especially in the late 20s and early 30s, as immortalized by Christopher Isherwood in his book Goodbye to Berlin (which became the film Cabaret with Liza Minelli), and of course the city is probably most associated with traumas of the twentieth century: the Berlin Wall, and as the political center of the Third Reich, mission control for so many atrocities of the Second World War. Part of Berliner is a love letter to the Berlin of today from the perspective of its Turkish minority.

Actually, come to think of it we were kicked out of a couple of Turkish weddings (one that we crashed by accident, looking for a wedding we were allowed to film at… and then we were kicked out of the one we had been invited to…) but we played the clueless foreigner card and got off fine.

7. What is the most rewarding thing about film making?

I love the editing process. I feel that editing is an essential part of authoring a film although many directors do not edit their own work. I understand the benefits of having another editor cut the film, someone not beholden to the issues around the production phase, but for me editing is too crucial to the creation of the film to hand off. As a director I really come to understand what I have, and what I can do with it, through the process of watching all of the footage and being the person who makes all the painstaking decisions about how to structure the film, what to include, what to cut, and what order to put it in. For me having another person edit my film would be like writing a rough draft of a novel, turning in 5000 pages and then having someone else produce a 200 page manuscript. Editing is so crucial to the whole process and it is so creative. Editors really are unheralded as their creative imprint on a film, particularly a documentary, is huge.

And of course showing your film to other people who appreciate it is what it is all about. That is incredibly rewarding and when I show the film to someone who really loves it I feel wonderful. Putting your work in front of an audience is after all the whole point. I know that some people who have seen Berliner have told me that they will not look at a woman in a supermarket wearing a headscarf in the same way again and that makes me feel very happy because I think that is evidence of the profound and meaningful impact of the film.

8. How was it meeting with the women that have been subject to many difficult cultural issues?

I really enjoyed speaking with all of the characters/people in the film. There were tense moments with some of them when they became wary about the direction of my questions. I think many of them were unsure about my motives for speaking with them, nonetheless I found them all to be open, thoughtful and charismatic.

9. How did you gain access to film such a controversial topic?

I gained access to the interviewees in Berliner in different ways. I met Emi at the market near my apartment in Berlin, the same market we see her at in the first scene of the film, and I asked her to participate. I heard about DJ Ipek through Dr. Yasemin Yildaz, a professor I met at a conference about Europe and Islam held at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I got into contact with Emel Zeynelabidin, Özcan Mutlu,  Ülku Sinak and Gülden Kesci through a “fixer”/journalist in Berlin and I met the rest through the filming process.   I made a conscious effort not to seek out voices from the extremes. I feel that documentaries often reflect extreme perspectives because of the inherent drama in extremes, or quirky characters on the fringes, but I wanted to make a film that was about understanding within the norms of society. Making a film about the reality of the “clash of civilizations” on the streets, in everyday life, between Islam and Western society, in a way that deals with issues and avoids caricature, melodrama and the maudlin was a challenge to explore in film but also very important.

10. What is your favorite thing about Berliner?

My favorite thing about Berliner is the characters. I find Emel’s story fascinating. For me she is a heroine from a Thomas Hardy novel, (a Thomas Hardy novel that doesn’t end in abject tragedy however). I love the way Emel takes a stand on the issue of the headscarf, religious organizations and integration but then reveals with complete frankness the details of her own story on both sides of these issues. I feel that Berliner is a film about people and personalities, about subtlety, compassion, empathy and I feel that anyone watching the film who lives in a society that confronts the merging of East and West will be changed through the experience of watching the film.

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