From the 5th Lakeside Doc Festival, Naukuchiatal, 14-17 April 2017
Thomas Lü chinger's filmography is generously sprinkled with philosophical ideas, particularly those of Buddhism and the Baha'i faith. At the 5th Lakeside Documentary Festival held in April 2017 in Naukuchiatal, Uttarakhand, we spoke to the Swiss filmmaker and the co-editor, Samuel Kellenberger, about their latest film, Being There (Da Sein).
Thomas, you began your career as a professor of visual arts and then moved on to filmmaking. Was this shift anticipated by those around you or were you aware that you might pick up filmmaking eventually?
I think for about fifteen years now, we have had very good film schools in Switzerland. Young students now have a chance to get a great education and learn what they need to in order to become filmmakers; there are a lot of young filmmakers in Switzerland now. But things were completely different when I started. A lot of people decided to do it in the same way as I. Many anthropologists, sociologists became interested in filmmaking, with a focus on social issues. Things have changed now; a lot of young filmmakers are interested in teaching film.
Anja Bombelli was a consistent collaborator on your early films as an editor, but you later moved on to editing your films on your own. Could you describe your working relationship with her?
Anja Bombelli is a very well-known editor in Switzerland. We just wanted to make a movie; we never had any plans to make our first documentary a part of ‘Cinema’. She was a tough editor, and I learnt a lot from her. I had never edited such a long film before. I learnt to become a filmmaker not through the process of filming, but through that of editing because only then could I see my mistakes, realise what I was missing, and think about ways to rectify those errors. She, therefore, became a very important guide and teacher to me. We had arguments at the editing table. I realised the importance of working with an editor. In a way, she was controlling me, and I was controlling her because her point of view was completely new. I always thought of the film in terms of time, while she thought of it in terms of the story. If you are too closely involved with the story, it is very difficult sometimes to find an abstract point of view because the way I make documentaries — they become movies at the editing table. I don’t work with a script around which my film revolves. The final film might be very different from what I initially had in mind. Editing, therefore, is the most difficult and crucial process which affects how you tell a story. A secondary perspective can be very inspiring.
Samuel, how would you describe your experience of editing Being There with Thomas?
SK: The difference between Thomas and me is that he read a lot of books and did his research on the subject of death and caregiving, while I did not do that. So I approached the film with completely ignorant eyes — ignorant in the sense that I knew nothing at all, but I had an interest in learning and discovering, and that made for quite a good combination. If the editor does not have an extensive knowledge of the subject, he is akin to an audience member in the theatre who comes without being prepared. So the editor has to ask himself, ‘How can I tell this story to the audience in a way that s/he understands?’
TL: Yes, this is what I meant by the importance of a secondary perspective. For us, the most challenging part was to consolidate 180 hours of footage into a proper structure because you can easily get lost in all this material. It was, therefore, very helpful for me to have an editor like Samuel who prepared everything so clearly. We had a lot of interviews which needed to be translated and transcribed. Finally, we began to choose the most important quotes from the protagonists, and that is the way we started structuring the film because we knew that the message of this documentary could only be conveyed through the spoken word. The four portraits made for a three-hour-long film, but we were aware that we had to shorten it to about ninety minutes, which was very hard to do. It was only at the end that we started to weave the four narratives together, for which we had another person (Rolf Lang), who provided us with yet another perspective from the outside. The whole process was very intense and took us one year.
You mentioned that you picked up certain quotes from different protagonists. These are very interestingly interspersed with visual imagery of nature, such as the sky and the sea. To my mind, it contrasts our smallness as human beings against the vastness of the universe and lends a very refined visual texture to the film. What kind of equipment do you use to achieve this technical finesse?
We told one story at one level with the protagonists being interviewed and looking after dying people. We tried to tell a second story with the use of images such as trees, the empty bed at the end, a lot of images from nature. It was a whole other structure in a way, and this is very important because firstly it is about transmission — going from one thing into another — like the coming and going of waves. Ron (the American protagonist) talks about this in the film. Secondly, it conveys the idea of how people need space, how we need to create a space for the dying. It was thus a way to give the audience a space to digest the film, so to speak, to give them time to think.
Most of the shooting was done with Alpha 7S because I knew I would have to film in dark locations. We carried a microphone boom and a tripod as well. I had a very simple kit to move the camera around. When we were in Rio, we went up to the favelas, which are very dangerous because of the crime rate. Everybody was scared to move around because these areas are controlled by the drug mafias, and they don’t like cameras at all. I was almost unable to film up there, so I had to cover my camera with my jacket so that nobody could see it. I would shoot for perhaps a minute and then immediately cover it; it was very intense, and for that reason, I was very happy to have such good quality in a very small equipment.
Did you come close to encountering any sort of trouble? Were there any incidences?
Not really, but there was a lot of tension. Once some people with walkie-talkies showed up because of us. I was so naïve in a way because I didn’t feel afraid since I did not know the situation, but they knew it, and they were much more afraid than I was. I felt quite safe because we had four people to guide us all the way into the favelas with cameras.
While watching the film, I could not help but think of Martin Heidegger who, in his book Being and Time, explores the concept of da sein, of being there. He writes that the philosophy of ‘being there’ has a central paradox in the sense that while our existence has meaning in relation to other human beings, in the end, we are essentially alone with ourselves. I observed this with regard to Elizabeth at the beginning of the film as she is trying to find her position in the world, and she only finds meaning when she begins to tend to others. By the end of the film, Ron echoes the same sentiment when he mulls over the prospect of his own death. How do you think one can reconcile these contrasting ideas?
(Smiles) I would need a lot of time to talk about that, but I can tell you about my impression of the protagonists. All of them talk about their suffering — Elizabeth went through a lot; Ron escaped being shot to death. He mentions that he was a lost boy, became an alcoholic and a drug addict, and got involved in criminal activities. After he got in touch with this ALS patient, he went through something quite interesting. This ALS patient, who was suffering because of his disease, gave Ron a chance to transform himself. He took Ron to a desert for twelve days where he fasted for five-six days under the guidance of the patient, the sick person. After that, Ron started to care for him. For me, it is an incredible story. To paraphrase what His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said: the best way to become happy is to make someone else happy. To me, all the four people in my film exemplify this wonderfully because, in spite of their own difficulties, they help others as they face the end of their lives, and in doing so, they redeem themselves. Actually, this is not so much a film about dying as it is about living, about being there.