Julia Oelkers, “One has to respect people’s privacy”

©Katerina Oikonomakou

©Katerina Oikonomakou

A documentary film maker with an interest in immigration related issues, Julia Oelkers is the director of  “Can’t Be Silent”: the story of five musicians from different parts of the world, who are residing in temporary lodgings in different German cities. When all they want to do is to be allowed to make music. Together with the German songwriter Heinz Ratz and his band Strom & Wasser, they name themselves The Refugees and go on tour around the country. That hasn’t been as simple as it sounds. Julia knows about it. She went on the road with them.


What is the story of “Can’t be Silent”? Did The Refugees themselves approach you with the idea of making a documentary ?

No, not at all. I had gone to a concert here in Berlin and I happened to see Sam, one of the band’s members. He was on stage together with Heinz Ratz, with whom I was already acquainted. I had my camera with me and was filming, but that was with another project in mind. When I was introduced to Sam, he seemed very reserved, even shy. But that was off stage – when he went on stage, I was confronted with a completely different man. He had this great presence, he was a natural performer and a wonderful musician. That night I learned that Heinz Ratz had come up with the idea to make a CD with five musicians who were asylum seekers living in refugees’ reception centres in various German cities. That was in January 2102 and the plan was for the band not to just record a CD, but also to go on tour around the country. It seemed like a great story for a documentary. Initially, I had a televion feature in mind, something around 45 minutes long.


But you ended up with a much longer version. Did you change your mind during filming?

At the time I came up with the idea for a TV feature it was January and the band was going to be on the road already in May. That left me with a mere three months to write an exposé and pitch the project. That was an extremely tight schedule. Yet I did talk it over with two editors who said that even though they were very fond of the idea, they had already decided upon their annual budget. So I talked it over with my colleagues in autofocus and we all agreed that since this was a good and worthy story, we should somehow pursue it further.


You went on filming without any guarantee that you would eventually secure some financial support?

That’s right. At that point, we still saw this as a 45’ TV feature. But time went by, we went on filming and were still unable to land a contract for a TV documentary. We had to make a fast decision, anyway. So we said, OK, we are filming the last rehearsal of the band, as well as their first concert, we’ll make a trailer and take it from there. At the same time, the band itself would be able to use our material in order to advertise their tour. That first round of filming, in Hamburg and Osnabrück, lasted three days, during which we got to know all the musicians. It was the first time all of them were together at the same time. It was clear these were going to be truly good protagonists. The atmosphere was very lively and warm, it was really exciting work. Those three days seemed like a very promising beginning. A couple of weeks later, we joined the band once again, in order to film one more concert.

But without a contract, the original plan for a 45’ feature did not make sense anymore. However, the protagonists were so good and the story so powerful, that the idea of a full length movie documentary came naturally. We talked about it again and again, and finally agreed to go ahead and do it. In the meantime, the colleagues who were working with me on the project were not getting paid, since there was no money. They said OK, this is a very good subject, let’s do it anyway. We were always able to scrape up just enough money to pay for the cameras, the cars and the gas, but never the people who were putting in all the work. In essence, my colleagues were actually donating their time and work.


What did the protagonists themselves think about the documentary? Were they enthusiastic about the idea or did you have to talk them into it?

All of them are professional musicians, so they were actually very pleased to be finally able to go onstage and perform for a crowd and the cameras. Naturally I also followed them offstage, during their everyday life. They agreed it made sense; it was only fair to show the difficult circumstances under which they are living as asylum seekers. However, as any one can imagine, this was not at all easy for them; it could even be quite uncomfortable at times. There came moments, for example, when Sam decided he did not wish to be filmed anymore. He said he didn’t want to be interviewed, he just needed to be left alone. Later, after he felt better, he would change his mind. Sam is the kind of person who may succumb to a depressive mood, independent of the circumstances, let alone having to deal with all the hardships he had to deal with. I respected that, of course, even if it meant that our work was full of too many surprises. Then there were instances when I didn’t know, until the very last minute if one of the musicians would actually be able to appear or not.


 Sam, 29 years old, comes from Gambia. He's been living in Germany for five years now. © Neue Visionen Filmverleih

Sam, 29 years old, comes from Gambia. He’s been living in Germany for five years now. © Neue Visionen Filmverleih


You mean that it was difficult for them to always be there for the band’s concerts? Why was that?

Each musician had to apply for a special travel permit, that would enable him to leave his place of residence for a few days. That was a process that they had to go through before every concert. Apart from that, these people have to go through court for their asylum claims’ hearings. Their reality is too complicated, so they were never 100% sure that they could join us.


The filming lasted from May 2012 until the end of November of the same year. Since then, the lives of your protagonists must have changed a lot. Where are they, as we speak?

All of them are still living in Germany, albeit still temporarily. Sam is the only one who has obtained a residence permit because he and his German girlfriend had a baby; so in his case one may speak of a private instead of a political solution. The rest of the musicians are still awaiting hearings and court decisions and have to go on living in a kind of limbo, with their prospects uncertain, unable to make concrete plans about their future.


During the recent months you have also been travelling extensively throughout Germany to promote the documentary. What have been the reactions of the viewers?

I believe that people were sincerely touched by what they saw on screen. It has a lot to do with the music and the fact that they were watching the musicians narrate their stories in their own words, with their own melodies. Very often, after the screening people would approach us and ask how they could be of help to the asylum seekers. What we have been asking of them, was that they donate the money for a cinema ticket, so that other asylum seekers may actually afford to watch this documentary too. It is very important for the refugees to go out into the city, to leave the reception centres for a few hours and go to a real movie to watch “Can’t be silent”. Because what we have realized is that one of the worst parts of their experience is isolation. That’s what we would like to help them break out of, by providing them with the chance to simply go to the movies.


Hosain draws from his life experiences to write his songs. © Neue Visionen Filmverleih

Hosain draws from his life experiences to write his songs. © Neue Visionen Filmverleih


In your experience is showing a social documentary in the movies a form of preaching to the faithful, or do these stories manage to find a way to the eyes and minds of people who are indifferent or hostile to such issues?

It’s only natural that those who come to the cinema to watch “Can’t be silent” are already interested in the subject. Yet quite often they admit they were not familiar with the circumstances under which the refugees have to live day in day out once they make an asylum claim. It helps that the documentary received some truly very good reviews. And then it makes a difference that the audience is not only watching a documentary about a serious issue, they are also listening to some very good music by a pretty cool band. By the way, this brought many school kids to the screenings. They found the film exciting, while at the same time it got them thinking. I have already been contacted by two students who told me they would like to do their final school project on The Refugees. This is obviously a good thing. Of course I always hope that after having watched the documentary, people will go out and talk about it with their friends and especially with those who have no knowledge of the subject.


In the meantime, what have the musicians been doing? Are The Refugees still performing together?

They’re now recording a new CD and they’re doing concerts until the end of the year, by which time the whole project is coming to an end. Starting in 2014, each musician will pursue his own project, and there is always the hope that after having been performing for so many months, they will have made some useful contacts and will manage to go on working.


As a film director, have you worked with immigrant issues before?

I have done so, yes. While I was still a student I collaborated on a documentary that had to do with an attack against immigrants’ housing complexes in Hoyerswerda and Rostock. That happened in 1991; it was right after the reunification of Germany. Many people from Angola and Mozambique had been living and working in the GDR for many years, under labour contracts signed between East Germany and their home countries’ governments. So in 1991 the place where the African immigrants had been living was being badgered for days on end by a furious local mob who was demanding that all foreigners abandon their lodgings. All the immigrants from Mozambique were literally driven out of town. Then came the turn of the asylum seekers, who were living in another building. In the end, there was not one foreign person in the city! This had been going on for many days, things had been out of control, with the police simply standing by, watching this mob hunting people down.


Hosain Amini and Julia Oelkers during filming. ©autofocus

Hosain Amini and Julia Oelkers during filming. ©autofocus


After the reunification, what was the status of these foreign contract workers of the GDR?

These people from Mozambique had already been living in the country for years -a few of them even more than ten years- and were suddenly left in a sort of limbo, with contracts that in essence were not valid anymore. One of the undersigned parties -the GDR- had ceased to exist. A great number of people were now unemployed. They may have had work and residence permits, but they were in no way secure. And after the reunification many former GDR citizens were protesting that the immigrants were competing for jobs that rightfully belonged to Germans, and that they were robbing them of their means.


These were the immigrants’ former colleagues and neighbours? They had been living and working side by side before the fall of the Wall?

Yes, they were their colleagues. However, they never were on good terms, or shared any kind of relationship for that matter. The so called “friendship” between the East German people and the immigrants was a lie enforced from the top down. According to the official story propagated by the Communist Party the immigrant contract workers were the people’s socialist brothers and sisters; naturally there were some friendships between the immigrants and their German colleagues, but this was not the rule. After all, the foreign workers had always been living in separate housing complexes, among themselves, and their contracts were valid only for a specific time period.


In your opinion, was there a racism problem in the GDR?

There definitely was. I do not mean to imply that there was no racism in the West, but let me explain the difference: The Gastarbeiter who came to West Germany might have initially been planning to return to their home countries but as time went by they started bringing over their wives. Then they started raising families, their children were born here, went to school here, made friends and lived normal, everyday lives. Immigrants were a part of the society, even if racism was not wiped out. Now in the case of East Germany, immigrants were bound by very strict, temporary contracts and, with very few exceptions, they were not allowed to rent a place of their own or have a family. When a Vietnamese woman would get pregnant, she was shipped back to her country. And it was extremely rare to see an African man have a German girlfriend, it was generally discouraged. After all, visitors going in and out of their buildings were being monitored. The men didn’t even have separate rooms.


Sam on stage with "The Refugees" © Neue Visionen Filmverleih

Sam on stage with “The Refugees” © Neue Visionen Filmverleih


In what way did you approach this story for that first documentary about the attacks in Hoyerswerda?

We did an interview with Manuell Alexandre Nhacutou, an immigrant from Mozambique, who had been living in that housing complex that was attacked in Hoyerswerda. He had been living in East Germany for fifteen years. After the reunification all the contracts of the immigrants were overtaken by the West German government who came to an agreement with the government of Mozambique: The people would receive a compensation and return to their home country. So they went back only to find out that all the money that had been withheld from their salaries in order to finance their pensions, was turned over to the state of Mozambique which simply held on to it. Our protagonist was a man who had come to East Germany at a very young age, when he was seventeen or eighteen, and fifteen years later, he had to go back to a land where he had no prospects anymore. After that pogrom in Hoyerswerda he had made his way to Berlin and that’s where we met him.


What do you look for when you decide to do a documentary?

I cannot say exactly what it is, but a lot depends on the main characters; picking the persons who will be the protagonists of any story is crucial. On top of that, what I always look for are contrasts. For instance, let’s take “Can’t be Silent”; in this case I already knew how the refugees’ housing looks like, I knew how the refugees suffer from their isolation and I was also aware that it’s extremely hard to show this – how does one show isolation? By filming a person who sits there for hours on end, doing nothing? But when one is able to contrast this very real picture of isolation with the scenes from the normal everyday reality of that same person when he is allowed to go on with his life as a musician, then it becomes obvious how debilitating isolation is.


How much research did you do on each of your protagonists’ stories?

I had to be very careful. These are people who have made applications to be granted asylum and their cases are being heard in front of a court, so one does not want to make them reveal more than they should. It is not advisable that they speak about the routes they have followed in order to reach Germany. There are two young refugees who say how they came through Greece, where they spent some time before moving on, but it is OK to say this since they don’t run the risk of being sent back there. Germany does not send refugees back to Greece -as the case would be under the Dublin II Regulation- because Greece is not considered a safe host country and does not respect the refugees’ rights to a just asylum procedure. But if a person has gone through another European country, they refrain from naming it. In many cases asylum seekers do not wish to talk about their flight from their countries out of fear they might be putting their families and loved ones at risk. In general, I did not wish to pose question about such sensitive information, one has to respect people’s privacy.


Eighteen-year-old Afghan rapper Hosain Amini and German musician Heinz Ratz during rehearsal. © Neue Visionen Filmverleih

Eighteen-year-old Afghan rapper Hosain Amini and German musician Heinz Ratz during rehearsal. © Neue Visionen Filmverleih


What is the story of the autofocus Videowerkstatt ?

The group was founded in the early 1980s, as a video – collective. It was the age of the squatters’ movement, many of whom would use video in order to do movies, because film was so expensive. Many activist video collectives were born of that movement; as was a wave of alternative journalism and anti-mainstream publicity. The autofocus Videowerkstatt goes back to that time. Since then, the members have been working together collaborating on producing a good number of independent films, while at the same time pursuing their separate careers and projects.


If you could suggest a film to somebody who wants to get to know the real Berlin, which would it be?

I’d recommend Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis to anyone interested in this city’s history. And then, moving on to recent years, I’d say Neukölln Unlimited is a movie that successfully deals with immigration.  And Oh Boy, which was shown last year,  is a true Berlin film. Berlin has so many faces for one to explore.


Interview by Katerina Oikonomakou, October 2013          BerlinInterviewslogo



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