Ruth Beckermann on her essay on escape and volatility, THOSE WHO GO THOSE WHO STAY

... It's less a matter of wandering around lost and much more a case of sauntering through the labyrinth. Sometimes you find yourself wandering around, searching more for questions than answers.» Ruth Beckermann talks about  her essay on escape and volatility, THOSE WHO GO THOSE WHO STAY.

The introduction to the film is a short text referring to Greek mythology: the Greeks relate that Theseus was given a thread by Ariadne. By using the thread, Theseus was able to make his way through the labyrinth, find the Minotaur and kill it. The myth makes no mention of the trails that Theseus left behind as he wandered around the labyrinth. Does the film depict the many trails you created in order to produce this film? Or is film-making in itself a process of wandering around a labyrinth?
Ruth Beckermann: Film-making itself is one theme of the film. It's less a matter of wandering around lost and much more a case of sauntering through the labyrinth. Sometimes you find yourself wandering around, searching more for questions than answers. The film begins with questions about telling stories and making films. Looking around is what matters, and what I stumble across on the way or find round the corner attracts my attention just as much as the search I have embarked upon. I don't like tightly-packed theme films that attempt to cover a theme purely with information. That's more of a journalistic approach, which might be right for the moment but could well be invalid in a couple of years. I'm more interested in questions that are always relevant. It's about moving the eyes, but it's also about the voluntary and involuntary movement of people.

Your opening shot is through a window pane which is covered with drops of rain. What does this consciously "impure" perspective allude to?
Ruth Beckermann: It's a window in an apartment in Paris. That shot was particularly important for me, because it was there that I decided to make the film in this way. I was in this apartment in Paris by myself, it had been raining, and I was wondering how to make a film that is so fragmentary, it jumps around geographically as well as through different times. I didn't want to go outside, so I started filming inside the apartment. The raindrops on the window, and those very distinctive Parisian rooftops, also expressed my condition. There was a certain coherence in beginning the film there. An addition, it was a very important moment in that I decided to stand by my own camerawork, and – at least sometimes – to like it.

One of the working titles for this film is Die Flaneurin. You begin the film in Paris, the city where Benjamin’s figure of the flâneur first began to evolve. One of the first shots is out of the window and into the window of the apartment opposite - from inside to outside and then back inside. To what extent is your work a repeated homage to Walter Benjamin‘s Arcades Project?
Ruth Beckermann: That's certainly the case. On the one hand passages are themselves a theme, and not only with reference to places: Zorro’s Bar Mitzva deals with a “rite de passage“. Those who go Those who stay takes as its theme the moving onwards and passing through, also in open, fragmentary form, which Benjamin chose to write about. And it is because of him that it's also important for part of the film to be shot in Paris. Another reason I chose Paris is that, apart from London, it's the only city where people blend together to such an extent. The incredible mixture of people in Paris is fascinating. I was also concerned with the picture of Europe. We are not very aware of how greatly the picture of Europe has changed in recent years, purely in physical terms.

Georg Stefan Troller describes an idea he has never actually dared to put into practice himself: to create a film portrait of the 10th person who happens to cross his path on the Champs Elyssée.  To what extent have you allowed yourself to be guided by the principle of chance?
Ruth Beckermann: The film wasn't shot chronologically. I've always been interested in the Surrealists’ automatic writing. The most fascinating aspect of it is that by writing down a sentence you set so many things in motion: you can let yourself be driven along, it branches off like a rhizome, and you don't even know where you are heading. You can do that with writing, but it's very difficult in film because of the practical production aspects. When I'm making a film I don't like the idea of everything being put down on paper, with too little opportunity for surprises. And I like the kind of feature film where you can sense something is breathing, there's room for unplanned things to happen. I tried to put that into practice this time, and I'm very happy with it. I filmed things without knowing where they would find their place in the film. And I didn't just film new things: I also found things I'd filmed before. I would often wake up with the feeling that this or that belonged in the film, and then I’d set off to search through my not very organised archives. On the one hand that approach was frightening, because it wasn't certain if a film could really grow out of it, but it was incredibly exciting.

One theme that runs through the fabric of your work in films concerns materials, the textile trade, and its development. Why?
Ruth Beckermann: When I was younger I used to accompany my father on buying trips to textile factories in northern Italy. In those days they were family businesses. I wanted to see how much that world had changed. The level of textiles runs through the entire film – from the quotation at the beginning, through material and clothes. It's a childhood story for me. My parents were connected with the textile business, and as a child I myself wanted to be a fashion designer. For me, material and fabrics aren't really comparable to film, but they do wander as well. The silk you see in flea markets in Israel has been brought there by people who migrated at some point from Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. It's their old clothes that end up in the flea markets at some point. Textile production in Prato, in Italy, is run by the Chinese. For me, that was a different form of wandering, which also has a great deal to do with the Jewish textile merchants I have already featured in Paper Bridge. I've been thinking for a long time about making a text. The textile level was, in a very encoded form, a substitute for the commentary level.

How did the fabric of the film take shape, bit by bit?
Ruth Beckermann: The original film concentrated more on Italy. When a film is finished, I try to avoid making the next film with the same structure. After American Passages I had the feeling it wouldn't be appropriate to film only in Italy. I was more concerned with Europe, and with a form that is slightly documentary and permits me to jump from one time to another. A theme that is particularly important to me is comparison without establishing equivalence. So we have my mother's escape from Vienna in 1938, we have Palestinians, Nigerian refugees in Sicily, various refugee movements, and I think it's important to talk about the different terrible events that force the people to escape… but you mustn’t equate them with each other. These days it is officially admitted in Vienna that the situation in 1938 was terrible, which is the theme of various memorial events – but I think that's too easy. You have to talk about what's happening now and adopt a stance to that. The catastrophe that left 500 people dead off the island of Lampedusa just recently is one terrible example. I filmed there, I saw how close it was to the coast that the boats sank. Nobody can say he didn't know anything. In Those who go Those who stay there is a pan where you see the sailing yachts, and the refugee boats are in the far corner of the harbour, so you can hardly see them, which means you can't film them, either. But not-seeing is so tragic, in my view. The Red Cross visited Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, and they got the impression that the people were fine there. They didn't see anything. There are so many things we don't see, and if I hadn't been filming, I wouldn't have noticed either. Probably I would only have looked at the fine sailing boats as well. Johannes Hammel, the cameraman, had to stand on the gangplank of a boat in order to get a shot of the refugee boats, and he only just managed it. You could think that after the experience of the Nazi period, people are more sensitive today - but it's not true, and everything is done to distract your attention. For me, Those who go Those who stay is also an expression of bewilderment about the condition of Europe and the surrounding area. Where is it all going to lead?

In the film we have an expression of “transition as a permanent condition”. Being aware of the transient, and at the same time making its transient nature visible, is a theme you deal with in all your films, and ultimately it expresses something about the state of being. Would you agree with that?
Ruth Beckermann: It's also the most difficult thing in life, to clutch hold of something which is transient and then to let it go, whether it's a matter of love, children, parents or material things. The title Those who go Those who stay has a lot to do with this. The verb "to go" also refers to dying. I become increasingly aware of how transient everything is. And as a result I don't even take what I do particularly seriously. I think it's a good thing that these films exist, but I'm always most interested in what I'm doing at the moment. What matters to me is the process of creation and production.

You said at the start that you had finally managed to accept your own camerawork. Why was that difficult? What would you describe as unusual about your camerawork?
Ruth Beckermann: It was difficult because after a few initial attempts I’ve always worked with professional teams. I'm very much inclined to accept people's professionalism, and camera, editing and sound are individual professions. Not everybody can do everything. For that reason alone it wasn't easy for me, as a camerawoman who had never had any training, to pick up the camera and then regard my work favourably, not just as a way of taking notes. The disadvantage of this situation with professionalism is that lots of things can't happen when a team is involved. It's different if you're out and about with the camera by yourself. Of course you can organise to film a shot of the rain at the window, and then stand there with the team and wait for it to rain. But that goes against my temperament and my approach. That's not to say that I'm going to shoot every film myself in future, but sometimes I will. I think I’m pretty good at framing I did study photography, and I've rediscovered something I had neglected for a long time.

In conversation with Barbara Taufer the word "yearning" arises, as well as the question of which word best express the emotion conveyed in Those who go Those who stay. Isn‘t it actually much more the music of Eleni Karaindrou which succeeds in doing this?
Ruth Beckermann: I had never before felt certain at such an early stage about the music I wanted. I was determined to have this music, because it captured the emotion of the film so well. And I also wrote" In Memory of Theo Angelopoulos", because for me, his films convey this search and this emotion. I'm also pleased that it’s Greek music. The film ends in Istanbul, with the little boy on the tram. During the 1950s there was a terrible pogrom in that street, and almost all the Greek businesses were destroyed. The Greeks are also people who have been driven out of homes in the Mediterranean region again and again. I was glad to play that music again on the main street in Istanbul, and to observe the little boy with the question - where are you going? Which Turkey will you grow up in?

Is the feeling conveyed by the music and the film one of melancholy?
Ruth Beckermann: No; it's a time of transition which is closely associated with a sensation of uncertainty. For me, melancholy is too maudlin, too associated with the past. At certain points in my film there is the feeling of pain. One thing that film is particularly good at is showing the world through an "objective" lens and presenting pictures we would otherwise not see, because we're distracted. Although when I look at the quality of the material in the modern textile industry, which is produced in huge quantities in Italy by Chinese people, some of them living like slaves, and which floods markets throughout the world, then melancholy really is an appropriate emotion. Incidentally, I also tried to film in Prato, without any success of course. There is a factory which the Italian owners have rented for a huge sum to Chinese people. Hundreds if not thousands of families live and work there illegally. What's the point of making films when we're not allowed to film in the places where something is happening? It brings you up against the limits of the documentary film, and of observation in general. Lampedusa is just one example. It is necessary to make the “hors-champ“ much more powerfully visible. Maybe it would be a good idea to make a film about everything that you can't film.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
October 2013