«Emotion is my métier.»

After displaying a fascination with the ruthless working lives of profilers in her last documentary, in Thank You For Bombing Barbara Eder takes a closer look at the everyday existence of war reporters. Her new film premieres in Toronto as part of the Contemporary World Cinema section.

In your previous work you have made documentaries that border on the fictional, while this time you seem to have change the emphasis slightly to tell a fictional story which has a core of authenticity.
BARBARA EDER: Thank You For Bombing was originally conceived as a documentary. I wanted to film it in Afghanistan as well, although not exclusively with real individuals. During the course of my research I go to know some very interesting reporters and photographers who work in war zones. Their experiences were very personal, and at some point I realised that it wasn't possible to take an honest look behind the scenes without risking damage to the professional lives of these people. They work for major TV stations, and a reporter in that situation can't say what he thinks what he thinks about the job of a war correspondent  – and I can't show somebody who needs to take Valium on a constant basis just to get through the day. I spent a year doing research, in Beirut, on the border between Lebanon and Syria, and in Afghanistan, and I was able to get a good impression of the community of war correspondents. I also came away with the certainty that these experiences would have to be processed in a fictional context.
How would you describe the research that you did?
BARBARA EDER: I made a point of targeting people I had researched previously on the Internet. People who had experienced and photographed extreme things. Then I made contact with them there. When you get above a certain level in war reporting, the community is actually quite intimate. Everybody knows everyone else. On the TV you always see the reporters in close shots, and you don't see what is to the right or left of them. I also did a course in Germany with the Army, which took the form of role-plays to prepare people for service abroad in war zones. How do you deal with the military forces? How do you handle situations when a place has been completely looted? I'm sure the most significant experience for me was when we had just arrived in Afghanistan and a bomb went off very close to us, and for the first time I felt the shock wave of an explosion. In that situation I was very glad I'd done the course. I knew what I should do, and I could act one step at a time. Other people in the team found it all too much to handle.
Did you shoot the film in authentic locations in Kabul?
BARBARA EDER: I really wanted to shoot in Kabul. But certain things simply weren't possible, so we had to move to Jordan. I did choose actors for the roles, but I attempted to bring in as much reality as possible. It was also obvious to me that improvisation was the right approach to making the film, and as a result the actors had to be thrown into the situation. One thing that meant for me was going to Kabul in order to speak to journalists there. Basically there wasn't any set dialogue: the actors were forced to react. I would choose extras or people or environments, and I would present the actors with situations that you can't always prepare for.
What did the screenplay look like? Are the three protagonists in the three episodes a kind of prototype in this world of experiences?
BARBARA EDER: Yes. They are three war correspondents in different stages of their careers. One of them is about to retire: he has it all "behind him" and doesn't go to war zones anymore – but suddenly he is given the mission of going to Kabul. The second episode revolves around a young, ambitious female journalist. The main point here is what it's like to be a woman in this profession. In the third episode we focus on a correspondent who has achieved his aim and become very successful. But now he begins to have doubts. The three of them are prototypes but also extreme types. The stories are extreme, but at the same time they are based on things I have experienced. In most cases I created one fictitious character from a number of real people. The reason for this dramatic structure, with three episodes, is that it represents the three stages of the career of a war correspondent.
You need good people for good improvisation. Episodes two and three are acted in English. How did you find your actors?
BARBARA EDER: I held a lot of auditions: in New York, on location in Afghanistan and Jordan, and in Austria. The casting process took a very long time. I found Manon Kahle, the protagonist in the second episode, thanks to my casting expert Marion Rossmann, who looked all round Europe for possible people. Manon’s personality struck me as extremely fascinating, especially with regard to the question of how much personal issues and private aspects of a person's life can be brought into a part without you being able to say that she's just playing herself. How far can an actor go in order to capture a character?

I suppose the two professions aren't completely dissimilar anyway?
BARBARA EDER: That's right. Performing in front of a running camera, making a breakthrough, captivating the audience. Absolutely. In casting Thank You For Bombing, parallels to the personality of the actor certainly did have a role to play. Shooting wasn’t simple, because a lot of things only came into being on location, even though it may seem now as though it was written in advance. Apart from the episode at the airport, I wanted to have the film set in Afghanistan, and to film there. But that wasn't possible. With just three weeks’ notice we had to reorganize everything so we could shoot in Jordan, because conditions in Kabul had become too violent. Our car was wrecked, we were surrounded by a mob – at some point the producers had to make a decision. I think I personally (she laughs) would have tried to carry on in Afghanistan. But I guess it's a good thing to have supervision like a production company, someone to take responsibility. I’m still the kind of person who grabs a camera and rushes outside.
You're always drawn to borderline experiences.
BARBARA EDER: And of course I do sometimes wonder what this work does to me. After all, you also experience the misery of the people there, you see how few chances they have of improving their living conditions, and on top of that the war causes so much destruction. It gives you an awful lot to think about. Perhaps the reason it doesn't affect me quite so much is that while we’re shooting, my focus is somewhere else. I want to explore more deeply, to feel more closely, what a human being is capable of, what being human actually means, and what feelings could arise inside you when you are confronted with certain horrors. Being human also means bearing a great deal of suffering. I consider it important that when you are in a good state, you should have the ability to see this suffering, to withstand it and to ask yourself: how am I going to do this? How do these people deal with it? The war correspondents go to these places partly because it's the job – but partly because they need the kick. Maybe I need that too. I think I'm not so unlike those people, even if what interests me is the feeling that arise inside you. Otherwise I wouldn't be a film-maker. Emotion is my métier. 
Correspondents’ reports from war zones shape our image of the world. Here you indicate the extent to which "news", one perspective on the truth, is a commodity which is sold, used and instrumentalized. What basic questions are you raising?
BARBARA EDER: "News" is just one small perspective that you see on TV. News bulletins tell us what we should be interested in, where we should direct our attention. There’s a huge apparatus at work here, and the person standing in front of the camera in a war zone is just a tiny cogwheel.
The title has an ironic undertone, which could also be cynical, depending upon your interpretation.
BARBARA EDER: On the basis of my research, the title was absolutely clear. There have to be bombs going off, and somebody has to tell us with a pained expression how terrible everything is, and how the government there is dealing with the situation. And hidden deep down in the people who work in this field slumbers the desire for there to be lots of explosions. Then you can file a report, then you can be successful, then you can see some meaning in what you're doing. There has to be bombing, things have to be terrible: that’s what the big news stations demand. And in the final analysis we also want to be shocked about what's happening in the world, and we want to be able to turn it off and conclude that everything within our four walls is in order. It makes us feel even better that we're doing just fine. This idea is also contained in the title.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
August 2015

Translation: Charles Osborne
«And hidden deep down in the people who work in this field slumbers the desire for there to be lots of explosions.»