«A sensation of being adrift.»

Moscow's inhospitable streets and the stray dogs there have once again inspired Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter. In DREAMING DOGS, Dingo and his homeless mistress Nadja form an inseparable team; the filmmakers accompanied them over three years of an unstable existence. Against the harsh background of financial collapse and loss of livelihoods, a narrative emerges which engages fully with the animal and its impulses, attempting repeatedly to shake off customary connotations.
The beginning of DREAMING DOGS establishes in a few brief moments a link to your first film, Space Dogs. To what extent is this a continuation of the earlier work?
The genesis of DREAMING DOGS grew entirely out of Space Dogs. This film contains a lot about the connection between humans and animals, about their view of us and our view of them. It was during the filming of Space Dogs that we met Nadja, the main character in DREAMING DOGS, and her dog Dingo.
Does that mean the images of DREAMING DOGS originated in the same phases of filming as Space Dogs, or did you return to Moscow at a later date?
There are very few sequences that we had shot previously. In contrast to Space Dogs, there is a chronology in DREAMING DOGS that’s rooted in the season. Everything that is green comes from the Space Dogs era, while everything else is from the new shoot. Space Dogs is about taming. Each scene is about one creature trying to get a grip on the other and control it. In this sense, DREAMING DOGS is a further development, because it's a lot about dependency. Once you have tamed each other, the new state of dependency arises, and you first have to come to terms with that. In DREAMING DOGS, every scene is also about the attempt to achieve liberation from that.
DREAMING DOGS features an intro that starts with Once upon a time... even though it refers to very factual events: the closure of factories that saw many people lose their jobs. Why is there a reference to the genre of the fairy tale in this situation, which is not at all like a fairytale?
We shot this film over several years and collected the material over a longer period. In subsequent conversations with Nadja, one thing we noticed was that no matter how much worse the situation gets politically, time seems so unimportant. Everything is always in motion. This timelessness, which isn’t anchored anywhere, opened up for us an even freer perspective than in Space Dogs, so a loose, far more experimental texture was possible. We spent a lot of time with a group of people and took some inspiration from their dreams.
Did you talk to these people about their dreams of life or the dreams they dreamed?
No, I don't remember that happening. The nice thing for us was that everything was always about the immediate present. We spent a long time looking for ways of giving people watching the film a feeling of how those people live. They always rejected any attempt we made to introduce some biographical element. Their lives and those of the dogs always consist of what’s happening right now. And there’s something very unforced about that. Every morning they faced the same problem: how to obtain the bare essentials to get through the day. In the evening around the fire, they’d briefly review the day. And then all that matters once again is the next morning.
What does their microcosm consist of?
We shot again and again in the period from 2017 to 2020. These factories form a huge wasteland, and a lot of people are taking shelter there. There are many people and dogs, similar groups trying to survive almost in nomadic fashion. They are all people who have ended up on the streets, not necessarily as a direct result of the factory closures, but due to the general economic upheaval in the country since the 1990s.
How did Nadja become your protagonist?
She had such an incredibly strong bond with Dingo, no matter how many other dogs and people were there too. She told us several times that everything around her was less important than living with this one dog. We actually thought it was dangerous for her to project everything on to the dog. It’s almost a stranglehold, for the dog too, and it distances her further and further from the possibility of returning to a social environment.
Simply following stray animals has something of a very purist documentary approach. How can stray dogs essentially become protagonists?
When we started working on Space Dogs, we didn't want to influence anything, but at the same time we are very controlling directors. We have a fairly precise idea of where we want to go. With DREAMING DOGS we were a bit freer, because it was more the case of the film coming to us rather than us actively looking for it. But at the same time, we talked to Nadja a lot and made definite decisions about which parts we were interested in. We took our cue from Dingo and asked: What does he care about? Where does he react particularly strongly? Then we followed that.
How did you secure the allegiance of the dogs?
Interestingly, it was more difficult with these dogs than with the Space Dogs pack, where there were no humans to distract the dogs from us. Dingo didn't follow us. He didn't interact with the camera very much; no matter how long we shot with him, he would still watch to see where Nadja was going. We had to orient ourselves to the dog-human structure. When he was apart from her, he would become agitated, and then filming with him was very difficult. We first had to learn how Nadja and he moved together. It was our impression that he watched us for a long time to see how we related to her. When he had the feeling that we were good to her, he let us get closer.
ELSA KREMSER: As with Space Dogs, the main factor for us was time. It took a very long time for Nadja and the group to trust us entirely and understand our intention. It was similar with the dogs, who had a protective instinct and could reasonably assume that we might harm the people and the place. In any case, we spent a year establishing a relationship of trust, and only then did we start shooting.
How should we picture the camera device which Yunus Roy Imer used to follow the dogs at eye level? How were you able to accompany them as a team?
Nothing fundamental has changed in terms of camera technology since our last film. The camera and the stabilization system had to be extremely light, so it could be held by hand. We shoot for a long time or wait a very long time until we shoot. The difficulty about composing the shots related to the question of when and how to look people in the eye, even though we are practically never at eye level. It was important that people didn’t gain the upper hand; we wanted them to play a role, but with the dog still setting the pace. Concealing the fact that we were filming wouldn’t have helped at all with our way of working. We wanted to let people feel clearly that this was a shooting day. It started with the cabling. We wanted transparency and openness. That communicated a greater awareness of what it is we do.
LEVIN PETER: Nadja's first question was always: What are we doing today? We often asked her: Well, what are you planning? We once accompanied her when she went shopping, and that developed into a beautiful scene where the pack encounters hostile dogs. Then there were more planned things. She had told us that she sometimes goes to apartments and disappears for a while. We wanted to be there for that.
Nadja would tell people I'm an actress, and we thought it would be good if she herself had the feeling that what we were filming wasn’t her everyday life but something made up. We think that's a more honest approach for our work in the documentary sector: to say we're making cinema here rather than pretending we're not there at all. It’s a way of being more open towards her.
Several times you create dream sequences using double exposures. What was the background idea there?
The idea of double exposure is connected with making dreams possible. Dingo disappeared for a week, and we were afraid he was dead. In the second dream sequence we depict him alive, finding his way back. There are very simple motifs in the dreams; we see them as transitional points where it’s left open whether the animal is dreaming or whether you’re dreaming, as the audience.
Nadja makes it clear how animals immediately become the recipients of projection from us humans. Did the narrative for DREAMING DOGS come about in the editing process? Did it develop in the course of your observations, or did you also impose narrative projections on your shots? 
As with Space Dogs, we tried to create free spaces so you get to a point where logic is no longer the defining element. Since people play a central role, there was always the danger that the film would slip away in a direction that was too narrative, too biographical and social. We were interested in a circular movement, a loose construct. We spent a very long time on the editing, because the material included many other films. Getting this unobstructed view was more difficult than with Space Dogs, because as a human being you are quickly tempted by visual conventions not only to interpret dogs but also to classify people. People are always looking for explanations, for connections. We wanted to keep these questions in a minor key, so at various points there would be the openness to a sensation of being a stray, of wandering around and being adrift, and of being threatened.
LEVIN PETER: We were more interested in the questions: What does the dog think? What is he dreaming of? How does he see us humans? It takes a lot of work to make it possible for people watching the film to consider these ideas. As soon as we can connect emotionally with something, as viewers, the free space we built up vanishes again. The day Nadja disappeared into that house was one of the most exciting days for us, because it was completely open for us how Dingo would behave. Our fantasies were exceeded. In those few seconds of filming, which can never be repeated and which took so long to achieve, Roy captured our favourite shot: the dog looks at the door where Nadja disappeared, and he stays motionless for such a long time. You suddenly have an incredible number of questions in your head for this animal. It’s moments like those that we work towards.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
May 2024

Translation: Charles Osborne

«There was always the danger that the film would slip away in a direction that was too narrative, too biographical and social. We were interested in a circular movement, a loose construct.»