Interview by Danielle Winston
When I Dance is a documentary about the artistic research of four dancers interpreting the stories of refugees. On your Kickstarter page you talk about the dance-theatre project called Connecting Fingers that began as an experiment and eventually turned into this documentary film project. Can you tell us about how this evolved into your film project?
I have to say that when I started working on Connecting Fingers I was considering turning it into a movie. I was really interested in the exploration work the dancers do and in their individual way of getting closer to this theme. They didn’t meet the refugees unfortunately, because it was very hard to move them from the camps and some of them didn’t know if they would still have been in Germany the week after our meeting. I was very sorry about this because I am sure this encounter would have influenced the show. I would have also liked to have featured it on the film but it couldn’t be.
Anyway, coming back to your question, when I started the focus of my project was never just the show or the performance, it was the process—how we arrived at making the show. There has been a change in all of my dancers, in the way they reflect about the refugees through their personal experiences, and we wanted the audience to experience this. One of my dancers said that even if the performance had already had a premiere and the piece was defined she was still going through her research and was ready to go on exploring. This is the point of the film, the reason I think we have something to say.
In your campaign video you say, “Body language is universal and can build a bridge between different cultures.” Can you talk more in depth about that and about your background in film and dance?
The reason a body creates a connection between cultures is that it is “just” a body. We don’t recognize ourselves as a nationality or as an ethnicity when we see a dancer. We watch a body tell us a story. The spectator knows that the show in the theatre is about refugees, but what she sees is a story that can belong to anybody. Talking about dance and body language, I also mentioned movement memory: through dance everyone recognizes something she has experienced in a unconscious way. It was funny because some weeks ago I was talking about this with a good friend of mine, who is a musician. She said, “I know what you mean, I really understand how the body feels when you watch another body moving in a particular way. I never thought I could express this experience with the word memory. Thank you.”
I started as a theatre actress and I was practicing contemporary dance and contact improvisation since college. I did my thesis in anthropology, looking at contemporary dance and maybe this explains also my interest in how dance can become a way to research identity and to speak about identity in general, because the experience of this confrontation with the refugees is also a way to rediscover ourselves. This film is very different from my last one. I directed a fiction short film, The Birthday, with a queer theme. I had the feeling I could control everything because I wrote the script and I had a clear idea on how to interpret it. A documentary is a work that you can’t control as much as you want. In this work I started from an intuition and then I tried to follow this and I discovered that I had to deal with so many components that didn’t depend on me. There was a different development from my original idea, where I wanted to involve the refugees more actively in the performance with the dancers and I expected to have more meetings with them. But even if it turned differently, I am happy about the new direction the work took.
The dancers in When I Dance, are male and female. As a female filmmaker, did you ever consider telling a story of the women refugees’ POV, separate from the men’s?
Well, this is a good question and something I thought about. At the beginning I thought I wanted to just work with them. I contacted an organization that is working just with women refugees, I followed up for many weeks in different events and finally I got in contact with one of the organizers. After some emails she asked me to come to a meeting but then she said she didn’t want me to interview the women refugees there. They had had very traumatic experiences and I guess she was scared the interview could be detrimental to them. I was really sad about this but I respected her decision and decided it was not the right moment for me to tell that kind of story. I haven’t given up, however. I’m sure there will be another time to work on this specific topic. It is really something that I would like to explore.
Give us some background on the refugees this film will be about. Are they linked in any way? Tell us what inspired you to create a film about them.
We can definitely say they are linked because most of them are from Pakistan. Some were living in the same camp, some were friends back in their home countries. Thanks to a cultural mediator I was in contact with two refugee activists: one has a permanent visa now and he is supporting other refugees, trying to help them get lawyers and doctors. He regularly goes to the camps and he was the one who brought me there. The other was living in a camp on the south of Germany and when we met he was visiting some friends in Berlin and decided to be part of this project as well.
How I was inspired to create the film/performance was very interesting. I was planning to make a performance about migration in Europe and I contacted my cultural mediator, Katrin Janeztki, who tried to get me in touch with another person, but we kept talking about her work with the refugees. Then she gave me articles to read, involved me in meetings, and told me many powerful stories. She was meeting a lot of refugees every week and I decided I wanted to meet them too and changed the focus of my research to tell their stories. I really wanted to know more about them.
Talk about your research and how you came to gain a window into the experiences of the refugees. Did you interview them?
Yes, the interview was a really important part of the work. My original idea was to create an intimate situation with every interviewee. I wanted to explore personal things from their life before delving into any kind of political situation. I was imagining that I would meet with them many times and earn their trust to allow them to talk to me in a more personal way. With some of them, however, this was not possible because I didn’t know if I could meet them a second time, they were all waiting for their asylum response and transfers happen often during this waiting period. So with many of them this personal conversation in the terms I was imagining didn’t happen because we were meeting in crowded rooms and many people were curious and kept listening in. As a result, the interviewees were not always relaxed—but they were quite friendly and wanted to have the interview anyway. I tried to use all the elements I had from the interview to work on the choreography for the dancers: in the dramaturgy work, it was important for me to also show the tension the refugees experience, their silences or the ways in which they spoke. There was a very shy guy who almost didn’t talk with me until the interview, but once we started shooting he spoke fast and without stopping, like a river, as if he hadn’t talked with anybody for a long time. He really needed to share his story.
The four dancers have never met the refugees and only know their stories through interviews. Tell us about the dancers, how you found them, and how they are able to relate to their characters.
I met the dancers at the beginning of March 2015 after they answered my ad. I didn’t know them before but I liked their presence, how they looked, how they were inspired by the project. I think they are really communicative, not only in the way they dance, but in the way they observe others and talk. They have intense faces and I thought this was an important aspect to consider for this kind of work. They are quite different from each other and they have a different quality when they dance, so I thought they could work well together. I also worked with them separately and chose the dramaturgy for everyone, trying to combine it with their essence.
They each had different reasons for deciding to get involved with the project. One is also working at a prison for minors and found the work so inspiring that she insisted in being part of the performance even if she had to travel from Spain to do so. Another one has a refugee background and so the topic was meaningful to her. The other two were so emotionally involved even though they didn’t have any connections with the refugees that we had a lot of interesting material to work with.
Is the dance process improvised, choreographed, or both? How much freedom did the dancers have to create?
When we started the rehearsals we worked on improvisation together and I tried to understand how every dancer was working individually. Then I gave them a dramaturgy I wrote for them, combined with different materials. We worked with an object, with some photos, with poems I researched that I found connected to their stories, with voice. I guided them to their solo, but, of course, there was an important interpretation component and much freedom. I could tell them which part I wanted to stretch more, which kind of rhythm I wanted for the piece, and where they needed to change the solo. It was half-improvised and half-choreographed. We also had the important collaboration of choreographer Alessio Trevisani, who helped us prepare the final piece.
Can you explain the visual style of the film and how you plan to interweave narrative with the refugees’ interviews and dance?
My mind is running all the time across the footage of those days and I’m thinking how I can cut it in a meaningful way. I still think there are many possibilities to make this a good film because I find the material we have to be very beautiful. I know there is a “gap” between the dancers’ work and the refugees’ stories. I say a “gap” because I realize it could be interpreted as such by those who are not dancers or not familiar with the dance field, and I would like my audience to include non-dancers. And I can imagine that this kind of work could sound too peculiar or far from their experiences. I will try to use the dance moments as passages between the refugees’ stories and the dancers’ thoughts. Also the refugees’ stories don’t portray just the political situations they experienced but they say something about each one of them as people. That was my first aim, to know more about each one of these human beings. Of course we will hear about their political experiences, but we will also hear them as normal people, what they remember, what they want to share of their lives with us.
Since a documentary’s story is often told in the editing room, do you plan to edit When I Dance yourself? And if not, how closely will you be involved in the process?
I learned to edit while working on my last film. It was in Mandarin and I had some difficulties finding an editor who could manage the language with the budget we had, so I had no other choice than to learn to cut. It was hard, but I was happy in the end. I’ve decided I will do it by myself this time too. It would be another film if I passed it on to someone else.
Why do you feel it’s important to tell this story now? You say on your Kickstarter page, “my aim is to change the belief that being a refugee is a permanent condition.” Tell us how your project When I Dance intends to achieve this.
The thing that is important for me, and the reason I chose to use dance as an abstract instrument to achieve this, is to make it easier to reflect who we are. I think we could all potentially be refugees one day, and maybe our ancestors have been refugees already. I guess refugee is an easy word to call these people. I want to allow ourselves to see them as human beings and not just as refugees, because they will hopefully go back to a normal life at some point and if we change the way we indirectly judge them, we can be part of their success in achieving that transition.