Alice Agneskirchner

Darstellerin, Regie, Drehbuch, Produzent

Catching the special Moment

A portrait of director Alice Agneskirchner, German Films Quarterly 1/2014

"I was focused on becoming a theater director" is how she kicks off, "I was already an assistant director in a theater in Salzburg when I was 22 and realized I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life. I love the point of the moment and rehearsing continuously to make something reproducible for actors on stage took that away."

It was a TV documentary ("Back when we had only two or three channels, completely by accident, I watched a film from East German TV, called 'Zwei Deutsche!'") that was Agneskirchner’s defining moment. "It portrayed two lives, one in West Germany, one in the GDR, with no voice-over narration, and it grabbed me! I’d already experienced how people fell into conversation with me very easily, opening up and talking about their lives, and I like that."

Setting out to devour as many documentaries as possible, she discovered there was a small festival of DEFA films being held in Munich and made contact with some GDR filmmakers, one of whom, Helke Misselwitz, put her in touch with Lothar Bisky, the head of the then Potsdam-Babelsberg film school. Suddenly there she was, pre-Fall-of-the-Wall, accepted!

"Documentary is the fascination of everyday life," she explains. "When you look at it, from the outside and with an angle, it becomes extraordinary. I try to find out what this person loves most in life, is keenest to do, and then try to find if this connects with their dreams before and after. It’s a combination of what is their hope and dream and whether there is a discrepancy or combination. I get to know people and try best to give them a situation where they can shine."

One of the philosophical discussions about documentary, as a genre, is whether it is possible to be objective. As far as Agneskirchner is concerned, the answer is, "Never! No matter how hard you try! Even if you go for a journalistic approach you can only tell your truth or that of the people around you. There are different styles of documentary; political, human, even experimental, but you can never be objective. Even if the director is not in shot, they are still present."

And for anyone thinking documentary filmmaking is an easy option... "They can be a real hassle! I have just finished 'An Apartment in Berlin', a documentary about three young Israelis going on a filmic journey with me by renovating an apartment where a Jewish family lived until their deportation in 1943. It took me five years to get it financed and then I had six months to make it! I’m still recovering from it!"

What if the biter got bit? Tables and cameras getting turned? "I don’t think I’d make a good subject for a documentary. Part of me would want to make it! Create something! Go on a journey through meeting my protagonists!," she replies. The beauty of a documentary is there can be human drama to it, and that is Alice Agneskirchner’s standpoint: "Usually most of my films are character driven. I try to find someone who is a strong character, who has ability, not of judging their worth but to become a protagonist in a film. Most people are not like that. You need some one sure of themselves, who also has the possibility to have doubts. I think you can make a film about everything if you have the right protagonist, better the other way round: if you have the right protagonist first..."

It is not all about pointing a camera either: there is a sound business head on these shoulders, and she concedes, "It’s tough to be a documentary filmmaker these days. Docusoaps, like my earlier 'Cheerleader Stories', got worked to death. There had to be an episode a day and audiences came to think ordinary reality was no longer interesting. They thought there had to be drama or celebrity. But there is still the need to cover the rest: you need to find the human angle."

You also need to find the money! "It’s tough getting financed," she agrees. "Documentary makers are trapped in the system and it’s the only one we have to make films. I could persuade people to work for nothing but that’s not the point. These films should belong on TV, and many still get made, but budgets get slimmer and slimmer and the open mind gets smaller and smaller."

In terms of format she likes "to make long-running docs to see where the journey leads. You have more time, 25 days of shooting are better than five! It alters the dramatic structure entirely. It gives me more opportunity for a wider dramatic view. I find my structure on the way, I don’t set off with one, I change it most times too."

Unlike with a drama there is no writing a treatment to tell the whole film in advance. "I don’t like that since you don’t have the freedom to develop the person," she explains. "It’s my experience that I avoid the main subject before the camera is running. They like to tell the story and if they tell me in advance then it doesn’t have the freshness of the first time. This is why I want to keep them fresh. I can’t do a serious treatment, only pretending to know what they might say but then hoping they say something different!"

It sounds easy, this documentary making lark, but some words from the wise: "You need to be able to connect with people, understand the situation to be filmed," she explains. "You need to understand the moment for the right question, to get permits, to see the situation unfolding, all kinds of people and personalities, and you always need to understand what makes the best film. It’s a complicated business." She continues: "You need to be aware of how to make the film and cooperate with partners making it. You must get the experience to know when to push with a question and when to hold back. You can be trained to be aware of the right moment but if you don’t have the feeling for it then it’s much harder. Some know the story in advance and then film it but I would not like that since I’m then forcing people to behave in a certain way. I want to know the essentials they will tell me, their essentials, and then put the structure together to tell it. It’s my responsibility to tell their story the way I see it, but also to make sure that the editing, sound, and music all fit together."

Agneskirchner also has the ability to do stories on people shetotally disagrees with as well, "Like bank managers! I could stillunderstand their personal life whilst disagreeing with their work and this would be shown in my questioning and editing. I would still try to understand and give them the possibility to explain themselves, of course. I don’t judge, I let the audience judge: give them the rope and let them hang themselves!"

As an author and director she always works with a producer and is fortunate in that she has achieved a name and recognition, but she still needs "to pitch and think which commissioning editor, which channel, which slot. I’m constantly having ideas and trying to figure out where and to whom to present."

The one thing she refuses to do is "disrespect the audience. Dumbing down is increasingly prevalent, also when you use some one and do not show them as they are: the editing process should show different aspects of them to make them a whole person. Also celebrities are constantly creeping in to give comments, programmers believing more people will watch. They are celebrities, not experts. If you want an expert, get an expert."

Surely there are times when she has to get personal? "Some - times it’s good to personalize," she admits. "If it makes a difference then I’ll do it. A presenter, someone who gives the film a personality, which is not the same as a celebrity, does help to sell a film. I know I’m good for my opinion, but if you have to hand over the film, to instruct and inform some one else, it is no longer your film."

Would she, could she embrace fiction filmmaking? "I’m kind of trapped as I like to find the film during shooting," she admits. "But if I got a good script then it could maybe work. 'An Apartment in Berlin' is the most arranged thing I can do. I’ve done all styles of docs, fly on the wall, setting up situations, but I haven’t done reenactment yet." She pauses: "Yeah, offer me a script!"

What would a filmmaker be if they didn’t take advantage of an opportunity to push their latest projects? For Agneskirchner these are "Die andere Seite der Mauer" (a prison governess who believes punishment without therapy changes nothing), "Who owns Nature?" (about what happens when humans and animals claim the same habitat), and "The Mountain King who is a Queen" (Lilja Loftsdottir, the first woman to be chosen as one of Iceland’s Mountain Kings, responsible for leading one of the country’s massive sheep roundups).

What Agneskirchner would really like to see, however, is German public TV "going a new path in not only looking at ratings and rankings. New documentary formats, series and fresh approaches are challenging. The good old reportage is a great way of telling something about reality but, on the other hand, the long-running doc, 90 minutes, should not be forgotten either. The Third Programs do a lot, but in ARD we have only around ten, shot in the summer when there are no talk-shows. I think they should do better by their audience who are also their funders. I very much hope they really find a way here or there is no reason to pay this kind of tax for the TV. Documentaries always reach out for the niche – never the majority. That’s what they are. And as any public or governmental film funding in Germany requires a TV contract first, we are trapped. Maybe it’s time to re-think the regulations of funding documentaries as they are the declarative memory of society."

Author: Simon Kingsley

Source: German Films Service & Marketing GmbH