Audiences respond to movies at the Munich International Film Festival much like the way popcorn is served — sweet or salty.
It’s a relatively peaceful festival, with neither chaotic ticket lines nor crowded after-parties. But pouring out from small dark cinemas into the summer sun, attendees quickly share ruthless but straightforward critiques, a la Roger Ebert thumbs-up or down. This definitive sweet or salty response to a film feels standard among the German crowds. It’s certainly an effective method for rating movies. But when I need some time to marinate after watching Uisenma Borchu’s world premiere of Don’t Look At Me That Way, a group of German journalists seem annoyed by my tight-lipped unwillingness to offer a candid thumbs-up or down.
In fact, I feel as if I unintentionally annoy a lot of Germans during my time at the Munich Film Festival. Drinking tap water and searching for wi-fi is the surefire but amateur approach. I go the extra mile by violating the mandatory quiet law that goes into effect throughout the city at 10:00PM. Twice I’m gently reprimanded, and once I witness a nearly physical noise-related altercation. Ultimately, when I hear how a crowded outdoor beer garden sounds more like a small picnic, I calibrate my sound barometer to German settings and cease unlawful nighttime ruckus once and for all.
I learn the extent to which German quiet laws are in fact enforced after watching Marie Wilke’s Civil Servants, a compelling documentary about young police officers in their first year of training at a German academy. And yet, the reality of the quiet law isn’t nearly as surprising as evidence of police diplomacy is refreshing. Wilke’s film joins Borchu’s Don’t Look At Me That Wayin the New German Cinema section of the festival. Both world premiering films are also first time features for Berlin-based Wilke and Munich-based Borchu, who ultimately wins the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film in the 18-slate competition.
Learning to heed the quiet law in Munich was actually a simple adjustment and a cultural modification I’ve begun to appreciate. But I don’t think the mindless decision to select my popcorn preference resembles the calculated ja or nein response to a film. Now that time has passed, after meeting with both filmmakers in Munich, and eating a lot of salty popcorn, my final thumbs up for Wilke and Borchu couldn’t seem sweeter.
Filmmaker: What do you remember about moving as a child from Mongolia to Germany?
Borchu: There were so many contrasts between where I’m from in Mongolia and where I moved to in Germany, and I’ve lived the contrast ever since. I’ve always been a person between cultures. I had to find my own way, and surprises came all the time. I moved to Germany one or two years before the Wall fell, and I was in the east side, in the GDR. Being socialized in the GDR definitely made me more aware of my Mongolian heritage. I was confronted very much with racism. But it’s all relative. Everybody has trouble in life, so for me, it was interesting to have this profiling to get a sense of who I am.
Filmmaker: Do you plan to stay in Germany?
Borchu: I’ve been living in Munich since I started film school here, and I’m graduating now. You have to know yourself before you can make films, and I’ve discovered that I’m very open to different cultures. I’ve found that African culture isn’t too dissimilar from Mongolian culture. When I went there, it felt like home to me. Sometimes I do think about living in South Africa or Paris, but I don’t know yet. I’ve also been back to Mongolia for film projects, and I plan to go back for more. My uncle and my brother are also filmmakers there, so we’ll see.
Filmmaker: This is your graduating thesis film. Did you get additional funding outside of the University?
Borchu: I don’t think of this film as radical, but my funding was declined. Especially because I’m a woman, they said the film wasn’t “sellable.” But the team was already set and the crew and actors were there, so I just decided to do it anyway and not rely on the money. It was made with my film school department budget, but nothing else. I had to exploit all the people around me, including myself.
Filmmaker: Do you think it’ll be a challenge to finance your future projects?
Borchu: I do think about whether I’ll get funding for my other films. But no matter what, I’m not going to deform or modify myself just to get money. I only have one life and I just want to stay true to myself. We have so many people in our world who are oppressed, and since I have the luxury to choose, I choose not to feel oppressed by money.
Filmmaker: Where there’s a will, there’s a way…
Borchu: To make films, you have to take the risk, and if you don’t, you better do something else.
Filmmaker: How much does the story of this film draw from your life?
Borchu: This film is very autobiographical and I feel very connected to the character I play, even though she is very different than I am. I wrote out the story but never wrote any dialogue. Everything was improvised. I wanted it to feel as rough as possible.
Filmmaker: How was acting and directing simultaneously?
Borchu: I want to get beyond the word “filmmaking,” beyond just the typical notion of sitting on a stool with a camera. It was a challenge for me to be in front of the camera. And even though it was my first time acting, it gave me this sense of emotional filmmaking, a bigger sense of filmmaking.
Filmmaker: How did you prepare for your debut performance?
Borchu: Both Catrina Stemmer and I are non-actors, so we had to just use our freshness and our connection as people. I have a son and spend a lot of time around other moms and observing women. I found myself feeling very curious about how women have changed over the years and throughout history. How did we go from being human beings to being socialized as women? When did the costume of “woman” become normal?
Filmmaker: Are 21st century women changing the social construct?
Borchu: When I read female writers from over 60 and 70 years ago, I think we are busy with the same problems and the same feelings. I think we should be further.
Filmmaker: What do you want people to walk away from the film feeling?
Borchu: I would like people to be feel provoked by the characters — to not have an answer about who is right or who is wrong. I hope people can reflect on their own lives and how they communicate and express themselves.
Filmmaker: Do you find the sex scenes in the film provocative?
Borchu: I’m sure some people will be shocked by the explicit scenes. I like sex. I like the intimacy of two people because I think it is the most exciting thing, but it is also the most normal thing. Fundamentally, we are here to fuck each other, so sex should be depicted as normal and natural. But, I think society today is developing back to a very conservative thing. In some respects, we are more open, but I really feel as a young woman that we are going backward. Sex and nudity on screen should be as normal as washing dishes so that we can get away from taboos and become more loose as a society.
Filmmaker: How does it feel to premiere the film in Munich?
Borchu: I’m very excited for the premiere tomorrow. I’m curious about how the people will respond. I know already that many will say “it’s crap,” but I know what the film means to me, and the people I’ve already showed it to. Maybe it’s not the best film, but it’s an important one.
Filmmaker: How did you start working in film?
Wilke: My mother was the manager of a cinema for one year when I was a kid, and from that time, I knew I wanted to work in the movies. But I didn’t know how to do it. When I worked as a film projectionist in a cinema, watching movies all the time, I thought I’d do nothing else. But I decided I wanted more so I went to film school in Italy, where I made my first documentary. Then I moved back to Berlin and was an editor for five years. I’ve also worked at the Film University Babelsburg for ten years in the directing department as a lecturer and I’m also a lecturer in Italy. The hope is to balance freelance lecturing while making films.
Filmmaker: Because of your experience editing, do you prefer to edit yourself?
Wilke: Editing is like writing in reverse. On this film, I worked for a year with an editor. We connected right away, but in the end it didn’t work out because I think I have to be driving at the editing table. I ultimately had a second person as an editing consultant because I like to have someone to work with, but I like to do the actual editing.
Filmmaker: What led you to make a film about a police academy in Berlin?
Wilke: I’ve always been interested in films about institutions, about where people and society clash. I found the process of becoming a law enforcement officer so captivating. Police officers become the state in a way — they have to shed their personalities and represent something else, so that really interested me. I researched the project for four years and then I interviewed all the entry test candidates — about 100 of them — and selected about 20 people who seemed most open. I feel like I had a year of police training. I was there so often, and we all really got to know each other.
Filmmaker: What were the shooting conditions?
Wilke: We were shooting during the night for thirteen hours and then I was teaching at the University the next morning and it was like two worlds, not even on the same planet. I had this feeling that it took two days to adjust to the normal world after the crazy night shoots. The timeline was what I expected — six months training and six months on the street — but what happened on the street, some of the stories, it was all really surprising. The shooting ended up being physically hard, and even though I loved it, I kept looking forward to the editing. And then the editing was even harder.
Filmmaker: Why was editing harder?
Wilke: I had a clear image of what I wanted, but I was always scared that what I had in mind wouldn’t work. It was a long and difficult editing process mostly because I was also working at the University. It took two years.
Filmmaker: Did you think about quitting?
Wilke: Yes, but I couldn’t because of the family and my child, and I needed to work —
Filmmaker: No, I mean quit making the movie?
Wilke: No, I would never! When we were shooting on night duty, I saw people who were really suffering, so me? No, I was fine in comparison.
Filmmaker: When you shoot, do you want your subjects to ignore you and the camera?
Wilke: For me, it’s important that we are really there. I use a big camera. I never want to hide because I think that’s not honest. People sometimes think it’s authentic when it looks like the camera isn’t there, but that confuses me because we are there and we are a part of what’s happening, affecting the situation. I don’t mind if people react a bit to the camera or are aware of the camera.
Filmmaker: Do you direct like you would for a narrative film?
Wilke: There are some scenes in the film where I set the stage but I’m never directing what’s happening on that stage. For me, there’s not a separation between documentaries and narrative films. I haven’t made a narrative film, but I’m influenced by everything. Sometimes I think of a story, but then I think that reality is more interesting. I just love the method of documentary filmmaking because you really have the experience of being there and you have to deal with things on the spot.
Filmmaker: How do you think the film will be received?
Wilke: This is first time we are showing the film. I don’t know how people will respond because I don’t know what people expect from a film about police training in Germany. How do you think Americans will see it?
Filmmaker: Well, I think Americans would be interested to see law enforcement training in America.
Wilke: Two of my protagonists had a practicum in Florida and they said it was completely different — the weapons, the cars, the action.
Filmmaker: Will the film be released in the U.S.?
Wilke: Not yet. I don’t have any experience with international distribution, but we’ll see. At the end of August, we have a theatrical release in Germany. I didn’t expect it because this is really rare for a documentary in Germany. It is also rare to get funding for a documentary in Germany, but I got lucky and had a lot of freedom artistically to do the film the way I wanted to.
Filmmaker: What’s next?
Wilke: My next film is in Germany about the relationship between politicians and journalists. It’s not so investigative, but is more observational about the love/hate relationship between them and how they influence each other.