What did you do to gain the townspeople’s confidence?
What was the timeline on “The Border Fence”? It seems like it came together very quickly…
The film’s original German title – “Die bauliche Maßnahme” – doesn’t translate as “The Border Fence”. Why did you change it?
As I said, it’s a small village, and once some people accept you, they will hand you over to other friends or to neighbors. I wouldn’t call it friendship, but you do get to know people and you talk about private stuff between shoots. So once, once you have your foot in the door, it either works or it doesn’t work. Be present, and still be present on the next day and even the day after. But once it works, it works well. Y’know that what people see – they see a difference between journalists who just jump in and jump out again and journalists who don’t. These people saw that we came back after a week, and after a month, and even after a year, and in the end we returned even after two years to finish the film.
His latest film, though, is a little closer to home. “Pripyat” (1999) saw him investigate the radioactive legacy of Chernobyl; 2005’s food-processing doc “Our Daily Bread” took him all over Europe, while “7915km” (2008) involved a mini-tour of Africa on the trail of The Dakar Rally. With that road closed, Austrian authorities feared that illegal migrants would cross at the Brenner Pass instead. AMSTERDAM — It’s hard to predict where Austria’s Nikolaus Geyrhalter will go next. Making its international premiere in competition at IDFA, “The Border Fence” visits the Brenner Pass, a tiny strip of land between Austria and Italy that suddenly became a media hotspot in 2016, after a deal between the European Union and Turkey officially closed the “Balkan Route” that was being used by refugees.
Variety spoke to Geyrhalter as he prepared for his first screening.
But on the other hand, it’s my feeling that every documentary film that is made for the cinema is also made for the archives, so it should be presented in a kind of universal language. I mean, many of the films today, they look kind of modern but they will look old in ten or 20 years, and so what I try to do is present a film that, in the end, can still be read by future generations in at least 200 years time. So we tried to convince them that we were really interested, that we would come back, and then come back another time, and they understood that we really wanted to present another kind of story, with a different interest. It’s formal because it’s still a documentary for the cinema. And they were a little bit angry with the media, because when we started to film there, it was a media hotspot – a lot of TV crews came there, and they made their report, and they stayed for some hours, and then they left again. It’s a very cinematographic, pure kind of language. And so on the one hand we wanted the local people just to cooperate with us and we tried to convince them. It’s a little bit closer to the very first documentaries that were shot, like, 100 years ago. But what we did is, we simply went there and talked to the people.
Do you always work in the same way?
You give a lot of time to your interviewees, and they don’t just give easy soundbites…
Was that a conscious decision? It’s a very simple film, both formally – you use long, static takes – and in terms of its interview content.
And then I film them talking. It’s about making decisions: the decision for the person, the decision for a setting, and then you just go. I decide to frame [the interviewee] correctly, within [a set-up] that also tells you something about their life circumstances and their environment, and once I’ve done this, it’s like portrait photography. I hate to edit interviews. I never do this.
What kind of crew did you work with?
Everyone expects a border fence, but, until the end, you never see a border fence. So they were talking about “constructional measures” – something like that would be the correct translation. It was a quote from an Austrian politician who wanted to say, “We’re thinking about building some fences,” but they didn’t dare to say this. But we realized that it wouldn’t make sense internationally, because it would be too complex and dense. So this title worked only in German. So it’s more about a fence in your head.” /> Because, even in German, it’s very complex. But I like it as a title, because it’s a title about an idea. It means actually nothing. It’s a creation of words by authorities that basically means “a border fence”, only they didn’t want to call it by that name because they were afraid [of the reaction].
You can’t miss them. So once you’re there, many things just happen by themselves. But, other than that, it’s a very small area. It’s a very small town. I think it’s more important when you’re on location to, first of all, look around you, listen to the people and then decide who it is you want to work with. I try to organize to get as much time on location as possible and then be patient, because being impatient just leads to lots of fragments of material. So a lot of the time that we had for this project went into the research and the pre-selection of potential protagonists. And it’s better to work with fewer people in a more intense way for a longer period of time than to interview 50 people and have just two or three sentences from each. Basically the work is always the same.
The result was a proposed border fence, although all those involved with its development and construction were reluctant to call it that. And when work finally started, Geyrhalter visited the site almost immediately to conduct interviews with the area’s local people: Villagers, café owners, farmers and – most surprisingly of all – the local police, who hold surprisingly compassionate views on the subject. All are given time to articulate their often highly nuanced thoughts in a sympathetic, non-judgmental setting.
It was my assistant, Eva Hausberger, who did the research and sometimes even the sound, and there was a camera assistant with me. That was basically it. In this specific case , it was a very small team.
So the idea of the film stayed the same, it just changed a little bit, and it became more of a film about our society, about what just the announcement of a fence does to us, and how we react to it. Nikolaus Geyrhalter: Yes, that’s true, it was a very quick reaction [to the issue]. I simply couldn’t believe that Europe was starting to build fences against refugees, and, obviously, we couldn’t set things right, but I thought at least we could document it for future generations. We were able to get the money pretty quickly, but still we missed the first bunch of fences. We didn’t know at the time that the fence would never really be constructed. Actually, the original idea was about building fences in Europe, but we missed the first fences because they were just too quick, and, as you know, financing a film takes a bit of a time. Everybody expected the Austrian government to build a fence at the Brenner Pass, so we decided just to observe those operations.
What did you do to gain the townspeople’s confidence?