Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Wolfgang Widerhofer about 7915 KM


«The film is road movie which was created during our journey.» An interview with Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Wolfgang Widerhofer

What role did the Paris-Dakar Rally play in development of the film?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: The Rally itself hasn’t started in Paris for some time, and now it’s just called the Dakar Rally. The initial images in 7915 KM are from the press conference in Paris, where the route was presented to sponsors and media people. The race provided us with the hook, because I think that making a film about Africa is extremely difficult. The Rally’s route provides a clean line which should be followed precisely. Then you aren’t tempted to look for “extreme stuff”; we had to make do with what happened on a certain route. At times, there wasn’t a whole lot. On the other hand, that gives the film a great deal of peace, which reflects the reality. Africa isn’t just the extreme images and starving people that we imagine, on the contrary. We had lots of good discussions on this route about the relationship between Europe and Africa, which is the film’s actual content in my opinion.

Why was the decision made not to use any footage of the Rally?
Wolfgang Widerhofer: The Rally was with us the entire time. However, it turned out to be difficult to assume the Rally’s perspective first and then suddenly switch to the people along the way. They tell us what they saw. For us it was more important that the bystanders serve as the initial source of information and tell us about the Rally. We weren’t really very interested in the cars. You set foot in Africa, and you’re immediately in the Rally’s wake. We never try to participate in the spectacle itself. All its ideas and images were already provided by the Paris press conference at the beginning of the film.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter: Originally, we wanted to begin with the Rally instead of using anything from the press conference. It’s the opposite now, but I think this is more interesting because they’re images of the Rally that have been manufactured.

The Rally’s route is different each year; how were you able to prepare?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: A few years before shooting started, we drove along part of a previous route in Morocco, because we wanted to make sure that we were able to read the roadbooks and that amateurs like us could handle the route. That was not a problem. Except for a few sections through dunes, the route consists of existing tracks between villages that look a little different afterward. During shooting we were faced with a new, unknown route, which was the great thing about it. The film is road movie which was created during our journey. With very few preplanned elements. Our preparations concentrated on technical aspects, so that we were equipped to travel the route without starving along the way. In a sense we needed equipment for an expedition. As far as the content’s concerned, I was sure about a few subthemes? I didn’t want to ever explicitly address the hegemonic hierarchy of power in the relationship between Europe and Africa, instead depicting it through minor details. Which images of the other side are created by the media? Which images are remembered after a Rally has passed through? What do Africans say when they come to Europe? Each side’s ideas about the other?even when they’re never expressed explicitly?reflect a colonial past and a considerable amount of responsibility on our part.

How far was the film crew behind the Rally?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: We were in Lisbon when the Rally started, and we were shooting when it crossed the Mediterranean to Morocco. We filmed the Rally’s first bivouac, and also the first section. Then the distance grew, and we were still in Morocco when it ended in Dakar. We needed four months to cover the route, and the Rally, I think, lasted two weeks. We had hoped that the temporal distance would grow. In the same way that the tire tracks gradually disappear, the film moves in a completely different direction.

How were the locations where you stopped and filmed chosen?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: We roughly calculated the amount of time available and the progress we would have to make in a week. Then spontaneous decisions were made, depending on whether we met interviewees we thought were interesting. Many of the stops were logistical, when we bought provisions in a town, got gas or had a car or truck fixed. Basically, we enjoyed complete freedom. The only thing that was more or less certain was when we had to cross a country’s border. At times we got sidetracked on a 50-kilometer section, then we cut out 200 or 1000 kilometers. We wanted to do at least a little shooting in each country.

The film begins and ends with “secondary images”?the Rally promotion on the projection screen and then images of refugees picked up on a radar screen. During the film we encounter a film projectionist, and television is mentioned several times. In all, 7915 KM is also a reflection on manufactured images.
Wolfgang Widerhofer: That’s the framework in which the film plays out. There are two clichés of Africa: adventure and an exotic atmosphere on one hand and fear on the other?from AIDS to refugees. Those are the images in our heads?manufactured images. Who produces these images, and how? Literally, an attempt is made between these images to examine, slowly and in episodes like in a travel essay, extract a tempo and find different images. This is a decision concerning how something is taken in, and this decision involves looking precisely and deceleration, just as Nikolaus does in all his films. In this case the attitude with regard to the protagonists is one of slowness. That’s the decisive element.

How was the extremely matter-of-fact title chosen, one that excludes the context of the Rally completely?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: We did a great deal of thinking about the title. I think that this title does provide a context. It’s open enough so that it’s interesting, and this kind of precise indication of distance reflects the fact that a specific route is involved rather than just a Sunday drive. At some point I felt that 7915 KM is the most straightforward title possible, the one that best fits the narrative, where a precise indication of the kilometers accompanies every border crossing. And when “7915 km – Dakar” appears at the end, the viewer is aware of having arrived. It underlines the narrative, helps the viewers orient themselves, and it indicates precision. Another interesting thing is that it sounds like a long distance at first, but when you think about it, you realize that it’s not very far at all. Seven thousand kilometers, that’s really just around the corner. That’s why I like this title, because it plays off an ambivalence between distance and great proximity. We’re constantly seduced into seeing and finding the Other, and the exotic. We look for the familiar and proximity rather than the unfamiliar, and then meet at eye level.

Did you, as a result of working with the material, also have the impression that the editing makes the similarities more obvious than the contrasts?
Wolfgang Widerhofer: I think that this film contains both: the unfamiliar, things we don’t understand, and things that are quite similar to our world. I wanted that to be balanced. There are things that are referred to only subtly, some of them involving culture. We see, in a village in Mali, a marabou giving an interview. In our culture we aren’t familiar with what he does in the course of his daily life, and this knowledge isn’t made available to us. I like the fact that the film provides space for it as a short episode and then continues, because it isn’t able to explain everything. I had about 150 hours of footage, and the most important part of my work was moving things along from episode to episode. The interviewees were chosen according to the chronology of what happened. At some point the Rally was removed because it wasn’t so very interesting anymore, and I tried to address other themes until something new comes up. I knew from the beginning that the film would change in nature, that it’s actually two films. It began as a film about the Rally, then turned to dust in the tire tracks, and slowly, a second film arose from the Africans’ stories.

A recurring theme in the film is children; why were they given such an important role?
Wolfgang Widerhofer: On the one hand it’s about the next generation, and on the other the reciprocal relationship is strongly reflected in the children, in the images of Europe that they see and their proximity to Europe. The scene showing the children playing with tires reminded me of these boyhood dreams that make adults race through the desert and across the continent in big cars when they’re older. The intention wasn’t to make everything self-explanatory in the film, but the children are extremely important. Children are a recurrent theme in the film?children who go away or stay behind because their parents are working abroad. What will happen with the next generation? That’s an extremely important topic, especially in poorer parts of the world. There are lots of children there who don’t really grow up with a certain ideology, but who have very different values, so that you don’t really know in which direction it will develop.

All political and social motifs aside, you covered almost 8000 kilometers in the course of shooting. How can all the diversity in this stretch of country be captured?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: Africa is, of course, a trap for all photographers. It’s extremely seductive, inviting you to take “pretty” pictures, even more so because I decided on a Cinemascope format for 7915 KM. To avoid this “danger” we filmed the sectional scenes, which were “attractive” in their changing context in terms of the landscape. Though I like these images a lot, the section always remains the focus?with wide tracks, narrower tracks, at places it was destroyed by tires, sometimes not at all. We used that as a central thread during shooting, other than that there are hardly any images where the landscape itself is the sole element. Wherever the landscape appears, there’s a path running through it. And so, I think we managed to avoid the trap. I decided on Cinemascope because the landscape required it. The film wouldn’t have been possible any other way. Cinemascope isn’t such a great thing, it’s just another format, and I’m happy about this decision.

The end is actually an epilogue that provides a clear resolution and at the same time creates an arc back to the beginning.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: I always wanted the film to end like this. We knew that Europe stations planes in Dakar to get refugees out of their boats. Dakar is an important harbor that boats of refugees leave from. Claims are made that these surveillance flights save lives because the boats are caught right away, but in fact the refugees are robbed of an opportunity to apply for asylum, which they have a right to do as soon as they reach European waters. If refugees aren’t able to get that far in the first place, it saves Europe a lot of trouble.

Wolfgang Widerhofer: On top of that, Dakar has a historical burden because of the slave trade. Ships with hundreds of thousands of slaves left there to sail across the Atlantic.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter: On the monitor in the plane you can see precisely those images that we are familiar with from television, and the imbalance in the methods that are employed is clearly demonstrated. At this point in the film the images have entirely different associations. They aren’t just anonymous refugees anymore, the viewer knows a great deal more about why these people risk their lives.

Wolfgang Widerhofer: I think that this conclusion puts the ball back in Europe’s court; at the film’s end Europe is subjected to a critical examination. We leave the African context and reassume the European mechanical perspective like in the beginning with the video clip of the Rally. I like it a lot that the question returns in the opposite direction and is aimed at finding out what Europe is doing the entire time. In this sense the film represents a parallel montage of two different positions: Europe’s view of Africa and an African reality that’s looking back. I think it’s extremely important that the film assumes a moral position here.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter: What is Europe spending lots of money on? Going down there with a Rally and then huge investments in surveillance flights intended to catch the people who want to come to Europe to improve their lives, and preventing these individuals from emigrating. Europe seems to need this blockade for its self-image, but I don’t know what we’re afraid of. The amount of money Europe spends on defending itself is excessive, and even more funds have just been allocated in Strasbourg for the Frontex program. Those are things that viewers can and should think about after seeing this film.


Interview: Karin Schiefer