Being in the World Together with People and a Camera: A Conversation with Annik Leroy

Terms like Heimat, Nation and Border have always been under threat of abuse as pure instruments for politics of exclusion and violence. An aesthetic, sensual and cautious approach to the actual realities those abstract terms refer to is much more than important; it opens one’s eyes for what could be, and not only in cinema. Annik Leroy’s Vers la Mer, a film following the course of the Danube, made at the end of the last century is as much about the present as it is about the past. Most of all, it shows that everything is connected and nothing exists in a vacuum. It is an experience of freedom and an experience of attentiveness and care at the same time.

On a sunny day in early spring I had the chance to talk to the filmmaker on the telephone.

© Annik Leroy

Patrick Holzapfel: I wanted to start our conversation by asking you about Danubio by Claudio Magris. Have you read the book, do you know it?

Annik Leroy: Yes, I know the book very well. I had it with me every day and every night during the making of the film. It is a wonderful book and I took a lot of information and inspiration from it for Vers la Mer. For example, the first person we meet in the film, this old lady who lives at the source of the Danube in the Black Forest is a person Magris writes about. When I read about her, my interest was piqued and I wanted to find her. However, I was not sure if it was fiction or if it was someone he had really met. But I found her, so he didn’t invent her. And she hadn’t moved.

PH: She is amazing.

AL: Yes, she is.

PH: Am I then right in assuming that you really travelled along the Danube searching for stories or was it a journey you prepared before knowing exactly where to go and whom to meet?

AL: Well, we travelled to the locations in stages. I looked for some places Magris mentions, but also for other places. During the scouting I met some people living close to the river. There were people like Maria in the Black Forest, someone I knew from the book and then there were many other people I met along the way. The only other people from the book that are in the film are the two old ladies in the Kafka Museum close to Vienna. I was very curious to meet them. So it was a mixture of researching in books and then going around, meeting people and so on. I don’t quite remember but I think all in all we had 3 or 4 location tours for the film. The first time we went to Germany and Austria, then we also went to Slovakia and Hungary and we went on a very long journey to Romania and Bulgaria.

PH: You mention a “we,“ but one of the things I find so intriguing about your film is that it kind of embodies this romantic notion of a filmmaker travelling the world, alone with her camera, collecting images and sounds. But then, of course, you were not alone. So maybe you can talk a bit about this „we“.

AL: Our way of working was very free. We were two people. Marie Vermeiren and I. While I did the filming with the camera, she recorded the sound. In some countries, like Slovakia, we had someone from the country with us, someone who could speak the language. There are so many languages along the Danube that it was impossible for me to do all the interviews alone. In Austria we had a very nice collaboration with Michael Pilz. And Michael Michlmayr was our assistant. In Romania we also met great people via colleagues and friends. But this was all. We were 2 and sometimes 3. It makes you more flexible, there is more freedom. When you shoot with 5 or 6 people at the kind of places we went to it immediately becomes something different. Sometimes I needed a lot of time. People told me that I can film them but not today, perhaps next week. You have to take your time with people. That is why I think there are some quite interesting moments of conversation in my film. I never use the word “interview,“ for me it is an exchange between people.

PH: That rings very true. The people we meet in your film don’t seem as if you put them in front of the camera, it is more like a gathering, a meeting. I also wanted to ask you about the format. You shot the film on 16mm. Maybe you can talk a bit about this choice of format?

AL: I am coming from a kind of history of the experimental and documentary film and when I first started this question did not even exist. Video became practicable for these kind of films a bit later and I am also not fascinated by digital images. I still long for a certain kind of materiality. So, for me, it felt very normal to go on shooting on 16mm, I also shot my last film Tremor: Es Ist Immer Krieg with my Bolex. It has always been a legendary camera. I also prefer the way of working since you take more time when shooting on film. You know that the material is expensive, so you have to be good each time you make a shot. There is more concentration. You can’t waste hours and hours of film. So you take more time to prepare a shot. That is very important to me. It creates another mode of being in the world together with people and a camera.

© Annik Leroy

PH: Are there still labs in Belgium where you can develop the film?

AL: Actually there is one. It is a very old lab but it is still running. It is not far from Ghent in the Flemish part of the country. Developing film is not a problem but afterwards it gets tricky, you have to make a choice because if you want the film to be shown today you have to make a digital transfer. So you have to finish the film as an HD-File or a DCP and that’s the choice that I make now because otherwise it becomes very difficult. If you don’t make a DCP nowadays you will have no projection or at least only in very small places that are very involved with analogue film. Furthermore, it is actually very expensive to make a copy for projection and there are a lot of challenges concerning the sound. You have to go to London to make an optical import of your sound as there is no place in Belgium or France any longer where you can do that. There are still some labs in Berlin.

PH: Can you remember how much material you shot for Vers la Mer?

AL: I shot around 10 hours. It seemed too much for me. But there were some conversations that I filmed that didn’t work and so on. For Tremor – Es ist immer Krieg. I only shot 4 hours.

PH: In Vers la Mer there is an idea of Europe I want to talk about. It is an idea concerned with different cultures and languages living together, next to each other, with each other. For me, there is a sense of utopia to it, especially when we look at today’s realities of the borders you cross in the film. Is this stream in your film something you wanted to have there from the very beginning? Or did you find it along the way?

AL: Well, it is an utopia but it was also a kind of hope during the period I made the film in. There was an opening of all these countries in Eastern Europe. That is also why I made the film; because it was possible to go to Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and so on. Before that it was so difficult to get into those countries with a camera without special papers. But there I was in a period where everything was open, nobody imposed any rules on us. There was chaos in all those countries and that made it very easy to get in and to work. So I found a kind of European hope there, a utopian vision of a united Europe. Yet, of course, reality is not like that. A couple of years later I was very disappointed about it. Things changed very quickly. Magris also writes about the utopia of a Danubian Republic in his book. It was an idea people had at the beginning of the 20th century. So now we are closing again, we are building new walls in Europe.

PH: Yes, that is true. Parallel with that utopia, working its way through your film, a river is running its course. I am really fascinated by this approach of following a river as you already have a beginning and an end, you have space, you have time. Maybe this question is a bit too abstract, but how did you conceive the river in terms of dramaturgical structure? I am also asking this because you made another film following a promenade, for example. Those are solutions that are not very common, not even in essayistic film-making, whatever that is.

AL: I think if you look at a landscape or meet a person in a village there is always a relation between what you see and how the people live, their environment and, in this case, the river. I think every shot in Vers la Mer superimposes the past and the present. It is never just a tree or just a light or just a flowing river. No, it is a river running past Mauthausen. And Mauthausen has a history. There are links connected to every place I filmed.

PH: Since we are presenting your film in Vienna I ought to ask something about the sequences of your film shot in Vienna. Actually I never saw Vienna like you filmed it. I think it has to do with what you just described, a certain consciousness concerning the history of the places you visited. Maybe you can talk a bit about how you approached Karl-Marx-Hof, for example.

AL: In preparation I also read a lot about Vienna, especially Red Vienna when Social Democrats had the majority between 1918 and 1934. Magris also writes about that. So I searched for traces of a Vienna that doesn’t exist anymore. I mean, a Vienna which doesn’t exist anymore in terms of politics. So I found the Karl-Marx-Hof, I also found its beautiful construction. I spent a great deal of time in this part of Vienna talking with people, asking a lot of questions and I found that many things still do exist there. I am talking about the place for the old people, the garden for the children and so on. I am also very fascinated by the trams. So I found it very nice to film the Karl-Marx-Hof from a tram, especially since there were these very old trams still running in Vienna. They made a lot of noise. The other thing in Vienna were pastries. I like them a lot. So we found this little shop in which a very old man and his wife had worked for years and years making pastries. They owned a very small and cozy coffee house, a typical place for Vienna, I think. It was very interesting to meet them but the conversation was very difficult. He was prepared to talk about a lot of things, about Vienna and also Red Vienna in the 1920s when he was very young, its political meaning and so on but his wife was against it. So it turned out to be a rather short conversation in the end. Sometimes people change when a camera is present. I couldn’t have the same conversation with him that I had a couple of days before. There was also another incident like that with a very interesting man on the Austrian border. When I wanted to film him he was very nervous and also drunk. I couldn’t get anything from him. So there is a sequence when the Bolex is in the middle of a snow tempest and you hear the interior sound of a coffee house. And that is actually his place but the conversation is completely lost.

PH: So your first visited the places without a camera?

AL: Of course.

PH: In connection to that, maybe we can talk about the last sequence of the film in Romania.

AL: Well, it is connected to the joy of making a film. I was there and I was uncertain about what I would find. It was the very last village before the river runs into the sea. And I was just so lucky. The person we met was a photographer. A touching man who came back to the village to live there despite its being completely empty. It is a lost place, a dead village. People there do nothing but try to survive. He still had the feeling that he had to come back. Since he was very fond of photography he created a little studio for people if they needed a picture. So we stayed a couple of days in this little village. We looked around, made some images from time to time and suddenly I found this old woman and we shot the end of the film in about 15 minutes. We began to talk to her and I immediately said that I want to make a picture. The translator I had with me was very intelligent, she was very good and understood what I wanted. She started a conversation with her and I filmed and filmed and we had it. Afterwards I understood that this was the end of the film.

April 10th at Filmhaus am Spittelberg

Die Donau rauf-Peter Nestler-1969/Vers la Mer-Annik Leroy-1999

© Annik Leroy