Interview with María Pérez Escalá and Anne von Petersdorff, Directors and Producers of Wanderlust
Interview by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Editing and Posting by Sabrina Hirsch
You two did something we rarely see even in independent film by embarking on a project where you share the directing, producing, and editing of your work. What is your background in filmmaking and how did you decide to work together on a feature film?
María: I studied film at the University of La Plata for five years. During this period my work always leaned toward documentary filmmaking, and for my final project I produced a documentary portrait of my grandmother. In my second year of college, I became a lecturer for the introductory film production class, a job I still hold today. Having finished my studies, this position allows me to remain in contact with the university and continue to study film from a more academic point of view. I have also worked on larger film sets that were successful on a national and international level. My most important experience related to filmmaking, however, came with a trip I took to Cuba, where I participated in a documentary filmmaking workshop. I met Anne there.
Anne: I learned filmmaking in an autodidact way while I was completing my masters in Media and Cultural Studies in Germany. It was also during this time that I met María at the workshop at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión in Cuba. We produced our first short film together, Cine Encanto in 2011, for which we shared the directing, producing, and editing.
María: This experience taught us a lot about our cultural differences, but also about our common interests. It also taught us about the richness of being able to tell stories from multiple viewpoints.
Anne: I think the decision to embark on a feature documentary together has much to do with that previous, very positive experience of creative collaboration in Cuba. However, I also think that it has to do with the topic of the film. We wanted to document the experience of women travelers and it seemed very important to both of us that this topic not just be treated from a Western perspective, especially when considering the cultural baggage and legacy of Western travel representations and their role in legitimizing oppression and exploitation of Others. The decision to make a bi-autobiographical film called for a genuine collaboration, which also meant that it would not be enough to just collect the footage of this journey from two perspectives, conduct interviews with each other, and then leave the editing process up to one person. It was necessary for both of us to be involved in the process of telling our story through images, sound, and music.
Wanderlust tells the story of how you traveled together from Egypt to Germany by land and sea. What made you decide to take this journey through 13 frontiers and to film the experience?
María: In 2014 we traveled to Egypt for a meeting with other documentary filmmakers. For me, traveling to Egypt meant going far away from home. For that reason I thought that I could not go home right after the meeting, but that I should stay and keep traveling. I saved money for a year to take that trip, and when I told Anne about my idea to continue traveling, she proposed that we travel from Egypt to her home in Germany and record our experience along the way. We both had traveled alone in the past and felt the need to document our experience as female travelers. We started to discuss the importance of not taking planes, but to travel close to the ground, crossing the borders with our body, to feel time and space, and be in contact with different cultures as we tried to find alternatives to the options that are usually predetermined for tourists.
Anne: We knew that we wanted to make a film about the female travel experience that would focus on social spaces and power relations at border crossings. The journey from Egypt to Germany, via Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, Turkey, and Eastern Europe provided a culturally, historically, and geographically diverse route to shed light on different aspects that influence the experience of women traveling (e.g. cultural expectations, dress codes, language, political situation, etc.). Specifically, the different types of borders we had to cross called attention to various aspects of the female travel experience, such as the politically charged borders in the Middle East, the Mediterranean sea as a geographical border, the divide between southern and northern Cyprus, the city of Istanbul – which bridges European mainland with the “Orient,” and the seeming dissolution of national borders as we entered the Schengen Area.
As you made your way through the streets of various countries where you clearly stood out as outsiders due to the way you look and dress, how did you navigate the complexity of filming each other and the inhabitants of the places you were visiting?
María: I felt the biggest culture shock in Egypt. The first few days I had to really convince myself to go out. We were in a place that was dominated by men, and as women, and as foreigners, with a particular way of dressing and with our cameras, we attracted a lot of attention. Overall I think it was a process of getting used to each place and understanding the people and ways of behaving.
Anne: It was interesting how that dynamic changed from country to country, and often even within the countries themselves, depending on the situation we were in. In Egypt, for example, I found that it was almost like my camera served as a shield and as a mirror at the same time. A shield because I felt like filming protected me from – or rather diminished – the male gaze; at the same time the camera served as an eccentric mirror in which we also recognized our gaze, a fascination with everything that was unfamiliar to us.
María: It was also not easy to be filming all the time. There were many times when we were tired or concerned with resolving external issues. In those moments the filming became secondary. I think we incorporated the camera to the point that we often forgot it was there, but, of course, with other people it was a lot more difficult to generate that kind of trust and intimacy. Also, I think that the camera makes the Other feel even more ‘other,’ which made it particularly difficult to incorporate the camera in the more intimate way we managed between the two of us.
How different or similar are your cinematography styles and what has the process of editing these two visual voices into one film been like?
María: I think we could say we have similar styles of filmmaking, and that was one of the things that brought us together from the beginning, when we started working in Cuba. Coming from such different places and different backgrounds, this was something very special. We have common interests and references, and this made a dialogue possible in which we could understand each other and reach precise formal agreements. We are both interested in the image as material, as texture, as a relief, and how filmic images can create a visceral, embodied sense of time and place.
Anne: I feel like we have a similar style, but María’s camera work is a little calmer than mine, which probably has to do with her background in photography. She spends more time choosing a specific part of reality and she is a more patient observer. I tend to follow the action, I am more restless. Something that, I think, also reflects my personality.
María: The editing process was very hard and tedious, but since we agreed on the main ideas, most of time we were able to overcome conflicts and misunderstandings. The editing took a lot of time and went through several phases. It was like editing three times: first from one perspective, then from the other, and finally combining the two viewpoints. From the beginning we knew we wanted the film to be built on these two perspectives, with the two voices clearly discernible and not as a synthesis. That is why we decided create a dialogue between Anne’s voice and mine by means of the voiceover.
You’ve been working on editing the film together for a few months now. What is your process for collaborative editing?
Anne: We would usually talk about a section first, before we assembled the footage. We would discuss our experiences and the things that called our attention. Based on a loose chronological order and thematic focus we arranged the footage and started writing the voiceover. This voiceover then became the first draft, which again inspired and modified the order and type of images. Accordingly, we would then alter the images and let the voiceover be inspired by the images. The new voiceover would then influence the images again, and so on. With this technique we reached a first cut, which was roughly four hours long.
María: In this very long first cut we constructed the film from the beginning to the end. We needed to create this long, detailed version of the film for us, but also for our editor, Yaka Herce, whom we asked to join us at that point. We understood that we had gotten to a point where it was very important to seek out a more distant perspective. We, as filmmakers and protagonists, did not have the necessary distance to always see the film instead of the experience we had lived through. So what we started doing at that point was working between the three of us. We watched an edited a segment and then discussed and corrected that segment with Yaka. In a way, the film was rewritten once again at that point.
You’re currently running a crowdfunding campaign to complete the film. What will the funding cover?
María: Besides some generous funding that Anne received from Michigan State University, where she is a doctoral candidate, we funded everything ourselves, including the trip. When we reached the four-hour-version, however, we realized that we needed to incorporate other people into our small team, and we needed to find a way of paying them for the work they do.
Anne: We need this money to pay our editor, who is working with us to reach a first cut of approximately 90 minutes. The funding we’re seeking covers the cost of editing and we believe that the rough cut will open other doors to finance the remaining parts of postproduction.
What have you learned about running crowdfunding campaigns from this experience and what feedback do you have for others hoping to do the same?
María: Personally, I learned that a crowdfunding campaign requires a lot of time and dedication. Especially the way we are doing it, which is fully independent and without any of the big crowdfunding platforms. It needs constant attention and engagement, so I think it is very important to ask yourself, before starting the campaign, who you are targeting and how ambitious the number you want to reach should be. In our case, it was possible to do our campaign independently and kind of ‘homegrown’ because we do not aspire to raise too much money.
Anne: I agree that it is an extremely laborious process, but beyond that I also found it enriching in the sense that you are forced to put your film and your topic out there before it is finished. In campaigning, I’ve started talking to media, like going on radio and live TV shows in Argentina, in order to create awareness of the film. During this process, I became more articulate about the political and cultural importance of the topic, which also helped me in my creative work on the film, as we were working on tightening the focus, deciding which scenes to include and which ones to leave out. Finally, I also realized that a crowdfunding campaign is a great way to mobilize people who find the topic important enough to support it. In other words, it becomes a kind of activism tool that you can capitalize on in order to further your cause (which goes beyond the mere fact of producing your film).
Wanderlust provides some of the most emotional and aesthetically engaging images of women behind the camera I’ve ever seen. Do you think your film will make visible these experiences of being a woman filmmaker, and if so, are you hoping it will inspire other women to also pick up the camera?
María: First of all thank you for the compliment. If we were able to create these “emotional images,” it means that one of our challenges as filmmakers has been fulfilled. From the beginning we knew we were searching for sensitivity in the images themselves and since we talk about the experience of women travelers, we also wanted to show that traveling with a woman’s body is different from traveling with a man’s body. Accordingly, being a traveling woman behind the camera is different from being a traveling man behind the camera. I believe the intention to make this visible has less to do with creating a gender binary, and more with the wish to shed light on a perspective that is situated in a different place. I do not think that men do not have this sensitivity; sensitivity is genderless, but being a female filmmaker determines where you direct your gaze, where you stand, and from what standpoint you look at the world.
Anne: I certainly hope that this film will inspire other women to document their lived experiences—be it in the context of travel or another one—and I would like the film to be inspiring in general, both in form and in content. If we manage to get this topic out where it can be discussed and disseminated, I think we’ll achieve one of our main objectives.
Collaboration can be difficult, especially under stressful circumstances like crossing national borders. What strategies did you use to make sure you were able to effectively work together as you shot the film?
María: I agree, it is/was both difficult and stressful, but I don’t think it’s much more so than non-collaborative work. For example, it is not as lonely as it can be when you’re working by yourself.
Anne: During the traveling and the filming I always felt like it was easier to stick together and to work through this experience together. The more stressful the external circumstances became, the more we clung to each other. I personally found the postproduction process to be more stressful than the actual filming, mainly due to the initial geographical distance between us and the different languages in the film (English, Spanish, German, Hebrew, and Arabic), which really complicated the editing process.
María: The truth is that we never had the assurance that what we were planning and doing was going to work out. Most of the time we were improvising, instead of following a master plan in terms of how we worked together. The interesting thing is, however, that even with many cultural differences and many kilometers between us, we always found ways to understand each other. Illustrative of this approach is something that we said several times throughout the entire process of making this film: “We were not quite sure what we were getting into until we were in head-over-heels.” I think this whole process would not have been possible without the openness with which we approached each other. Another important factor is that we were both very flexible. We learned how to let go of rigid ideas and to listen to each other. We know that our movie is what it is because it is a genuine collaboration between us.
What have you learned from each other throughout this process and what are you hoping people will get out of watching the finished product?
Anne: Among many things related to my professional development as a filmmaker, I feel like I have been able to expand my intellectual empathy capacity by putting concrete examples to abstract concepts thanks to our collaboration and our shared travel experience. For example, the trip changed the way I now approach intersectional feminism. I knew in the abstract that a woman from a different cultural background, a different ethnicity, who speaks a different language, etc. might have a different experience than I would crossing borders. However, it was not until I lived through some of these experiences with María and worked through them in an attempt to translate them into aesthetic representations that I felt I understood them on a deeper level.
María: I think making this film meant a constant learning from the “Other” in the sense of the personal and the professional. I hope that people will find our experience useful and helpful to them. Whether this is because they are wondering what it is like to travel as a woman, as a European or as a Latina/o. I would like to see that this way of telling a story from two different perspectives serve as an invitation to reflect on the impossibility of objective perspectives in documentary filmmaking. Above all, I would like the film to be an igniting spark for other women travelers.
For more information about Wanderlust visit their website. For more about their crowdfunding campaign, click here. You can also find Wanderlust on Facebook. If you would to help finish this film but don’t want to use PayPal or transfer the money directly, please get in touch with María and Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit Alexandra’s profile here.