Ruth Mader about WHAT IS LOVE


«I wanted to maintain distance, because in certain circumstances that can create more intimacy than getting extremely close.»  Ruth Mader talks about What Is Love her new film selected for the  Forum section at the 62nd Berlinale 2012.

The film’s title is formulated as something between a question and a statement. Which occupied the foreground for you at the beginning?
Ruth Mader: It’s a question and provides five examples of how people love, how they can be happy.

Documentary film normally describes phenomena that are out of the ordinary, provides background information, or points out some kind of problem or injustice. Could this theme be termed “anti-documentary,” since the film attempts to document existence per se, or “normality”?
Ruth Mader: From the very beginning I wanted to portray normality. I didn’t want to show either freaks or stars, but normal people, because for the most part not much attention is paid to normal people. “Normal” was however nothing more than the approach, and then you see an ambivalence in this search for happiness?how it can be only partially successful or not at all.

What were the ideas and requirements you went into casting with?
Ruth Mader: It wasn’t simple, finding people who were good for the film and who really wanted to participate. By that I mean people you can identify with and who are interesting, too. What I demanded of them was a willingness to permit an authentic look at their lives. And they read the screenplay beforehand. Each scene was planned out and they knew what to expect.

How can each scene be planned out in detail for a documentary?
Ruth Mader: At first I performed research on them and observed how they live, and then chose scenes that are representative of their lives. For the most part research lasted two days that I accompanied them in their daily lives.

That doesn’t sound like a simple task, filtering out the essence from two days of research so that it can be used to prepare a detailed script for each shoot.
Ruth Mader: Actually, it didn’t take long. The phases of this project that involved a lot of work were the search for suitable protagonists and editing. In most cases, what was very important was finding the right order and rhythm for the portraits, because a slight variation could change a great deal, and it did. Shooting itself was a great experience and not difficult at all. We shot five days with each of the five protagonists.

Your formal approach is extremely rigorous and clearly defined. Wasn’t it an almost photographic challenge, portraying an individual or a family in ten to twenty minutes with solely visual means?
Ruth Mader: I think it was the right approach, telling this story in images with this kind of precision. I wouldn’t have been able to produce the same results with a shaky handheld camera. And my formal approach was “portrait.” What does “portrait” mean in film? That interested me a great deal, because film portraits are rare.

Is there anything in the field of photography that inspired you?
Ruth Mader: I modeled my film on classic photographic portraits: Walker Evans and August Sander. In my opinion they create extraordinary clarity and intimacy. They manage to create intimacy with their subjects without getting too close. That was my approach for WHAT IS LOVE: I wanted to maintain distance, because in certain circumstances that can create more intimacy than getting extremely close.

Did you shoot a great deal of material and then create a portrait by editing what you had?
Ruth Mader: No, we didn’t shoot very much material, there was about the same amount as for a fiction feature. And shooting was organized in the same way, with a shooting schedule and scenes laid out in a screenplay. Ultimately, WHAT IS LOVE represents a tightrope walk, and it’s not easy to say whether it’s a fiction or documentary film.

How would you describe the structure of the film’s five episodes?
Ruth Mader: There are five different episodes dealing with marriage, family, happiness in life, solitude and satisfaction.

Does this film have a great deal to do with Austrian society, or does it make a universal statement?
Ruth Mader: I think that it’s a film about Austrian society in Austrian social environments. Of course, certain elements are universal, and the discussions involving relationships could be found in other places. You can only say something from the point of view of a realistic environment, and that leads to themes that are more universal.

Do you think that WHAT IS LOVE represents an arc to Struggle in that both represent social observations?
Ruth Mader: I’ve always been interested in social observation and the semi-documentary approach, which was employed in Struggle also. Authenticity is always an important theme in the films I make.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
November 2011