“It’s Always night, or we wouldn’t need light” - An interview with Ivette Löcker
by Zdeněk Blaha
Night Shifts, awarded as the Best Austrian Documentary Film at the Diagonale 2011, is an insight into the mysteries of contemporary urban nights. By following several people who decided to move under the cover of the night, either as a necessity of their job, as a decision to be alone or simply to not be seen, Night Shifts reveals the night as a magical place with its mysteries but also as a place that no longer offers a shelter, since our society is more and more under constant surveillance. We discuss night and control with director Ivette Löcker, the director of Night Shifts, one of the nominees for the Silver Eye Award 2011.
1/ Night Shifts came out at the same time as Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Abendland, which is very similar in a lot of ways. Geyrhalter’s film is more abstract and observational, showing us how we live now. But I think the same is in your film, but on a more personal level thanks to your main protagonists. I guess your film must be compared to Abendland a lot at the moment?
It is an interesting coincidence that both films came out at the same time – the night seems to be in the air! Though Abendland and Night Shifts share the night as their main topic, they approach it from completely different angles. Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s film is more of an essayistic view of the changes of European societies, continuing his exceptional style of observational documentary filmmaking. Whereas my intention was to focus on different characters who live in the night and with the night. The film follows their paths through the night in a big city and asks about the motives for the shift in their life rhythms, connecting their portraits in an associative way of narration.
2/ What attracted you to the topic of night? What exactly the night represents for you?
The night offers us an alternative world where we can change into somebody else; where we can be free of daily restraints, where we can come close to our desires and dreams, but also to existential fears. I am attracted by this ambiguity between freedom and fear, by the tension between the magical sides of the night and its dangers. Since childhood, I've been fascinated by the different sounds and the quietness the night brings out.
3/ There are many surreal, almost magic, dream-like moments, like the one with the fox and the goose. And there are parts like that in the whole film. How long did you shoot the film, to have material like that?
We had 24 shooting days, within a shooting period of six weeks in winter 2010. Thanks to my wonderful crew – Frank Amann (camera), Gailute Miksyte (sound) and Caroline Kirberg (location manager) – we managed to stay on schedule. We were constantly looking for magical moments in the everyday life of our characters but we also needed a big portion of luck to film the fox and the goose. We knew beforehand that wild animals sometimes show up in the area of our location, but of course we didn’t know if we would "catch" them on camera. During our filming we encountered some more foxes in Berlin, strolling even through the city centre, reclaiming urban territory at night...
4/ How did you choose your characters? Because I think the film could be read also as a commentary on our society through various characters representing different positions in the society.
In the development process it became more and more clear to me that the focus is on people who are invisible to the ones who do not care for the nocturnal world. So I was looking for people for who the night is a shelter, a new home. Like for Ines, the security guard who has chosen to work and live only at night to be alone with her animals. For others the darkness is a cover for their secret and illegal actions, or the space and time to fulfill their desires and enjoy the freedoms. In contrast to them we discover the other dominant force of the night is the control, represented by the police and the social workers, monitoring life at night from above and on the ground. For our modern societies it is crucial not to lose control over the order of the night: living and moving at night is still suspicious.
5/ This polarity between the law and order (the police helicopter, the night guard) and the other, more subversive side (DJs, graffiti sprayers...) creates the main suspense in the film, especially in parts where the stories intersect. Even though our lives today are driven by work stretching throughout the night, we are still getting charmed by the magic of the night despite our state of consciousness.
My intention was to look for the mysteries of the contemporary urban night – do they still exist in our urban societies where everything seems to be illuminated 24 hours a day? Are there still dark places where we can hide and enjoy our secrets? The discovery of the magical and the dark sides – the ones in us personally, and the ones of the society as well – is opposed to the sober, pragmatic everyday routine. It was very important for me and Michael Palm, the editor of Night Shifts, to create this peculiar tension between work routine and the mysterious, poetic aspects of the city night.
6/ The magic of the night is one of the key elements of your film. But your film also suggests, this may be slowly fading away, since we are under the constant surveillance. Don’t you think we are slowly losing the night as a place for secrets and privacy? After all, Michael Palm also pointed this out in his recent film Low Definition Control...
Yes, definitely. To my opinion, our societies are undergoing big changes: work hours expand into the night, the surveillance gets more and more refined – you realize that when you walk through the night and pay attention to all the cameras you even do not notice at daytime. I see my film also as a declaration of love for the night – for all the qualities we hopefully will never lose: the possibility to live an alternative life, the special kind of intimacy which I find essential for us as human beings. I was always thinking of this quote by Thelonious Monk, the jazz musician: “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.”
7/ Did you have problems with your protagonists? For example how hard it was to get the trust of the graffiti sprayers to go with them on the locations and shoot the film?
Naturally, the graffiti sprayers checked us out before they agreed to be filmed. They then liked the idea that the film would show all the hardship and work that is connected with their nocturnal activity. A big problem was the huge amount of snow on the roof, and the graffiti sprayer was wearing very thin sneakers, so I had to cancel the first shoot on the roof and we repeated the scene some nights later. The biggest issue though was the controversial discussion with the press officers of the federal police if we are allowed to include the rather delicate material from the helicopter’s infrared camera. This discussion affected ethical questions you face in documentary filmmaking: When do you infringe another person’s rights? When do you cross the border of what you can show or want to show?
8/ It’s interesting how you made your way to documentary film. Night Shifts is your second film. As far as I know, you didn’t study film in the beginning. What brought you to film? Could you tell us more about your new projects?
I studied Russian Philology and History in Vienna and already had worked on student films when I was asked by Nikolaus Geyrhalter to work as an assistant director for Pripyat – a chance to combine my language skills and my passion for documentary films. It was a great experience for me that evoked the wish to make a professional career in this field and to eventually realize my own films as a director. I like to listen to people’s stories and see it as a very special gift that you get in return: the insights into absolutely different, fascinating new worlds. With the next project, I will actually return to my "Russian past": I want to explore certain consequences of the political changes of the 1990s in Russian society, seen through existential changes that took place in families in St. Petersburg.
Nachtschichten , Austria, 2010, 97 min, 35 mm, Culture, Personal View, Portrait, Society
They are not just awake; they live at night and with the night. Night Shifts is a portrait of an alternative world. The film follows the trails of people in Berlin who are invisible during the day, accompanying them on their nocturnal paths through the metropolis, which are marked by pragmatic routine, desires, and dangers. "It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light." (Thelonious Monk)
CINEMA KOMUNISTO AND SILVER EYE NOMINEES AT DOC LISBOA