The documentary was developed at Ex Oriente Film 2006. Its producer Anna Wydra presented the film as a case study at the Ex Oriente Film workshop in Jihlava, on Wednesday, October 27. Rabbit à la Berlin’ is also among the Silver Eye award nominees.
Interview with B. Konopka (BK), P. Rosolowski (PR) and A. Wydra (AW)
Hana Rezková (HR), Institute of Documentary Film
HR: In one scene an evolution biologist explains that although there were occasional fugitives running from one side to the other, they were running so occasionally that they couldn’t disturb the peaceful life behind the wall. This scene, among many others, offers the audience a switching button, so they can take the rabbits’ side. Not only does it support the whole metaphor; it also shows the audience how easily one can switch to someone else’s point of view…
BK: Yes, this turned out to be the key for building the film. Step by step, one minute after another, month after month we put it together from such small pieces. Strictly sticking to the rabbit's p.o.v ., although there were hardly any images and facts having to do with rabbits from the wall. Don't forget it is not a documentary, it is all fake :)
AW: He never loses his sense of humor – even after 4 years of hard work.HR: There is a short scene in the original trailer where a young man looks around him with a mixture of some anxiety and a reserved and naïve curiosity. Both his clothing and haircut, together with this face expression, literally shout “I’m from the GDR”. Even though this short scene doesn’t appear in the film, it makes me wander whether you experienced some differences between perceptions of the film in the post-Soviet countries and everywhere else that your film was screened.
BK: nobody was eager (bold) enough to say how funny people from the GDR look. Or from Poland, the Czech Republic, etc. This film is supposed to cover them, to show how much they suffer, in what kind of nasty experiment they took part as “labo rabbits”.
HR: You participated in Ex Oriente Film with a different project – just shortly before the East European Forum, when you realized you weren’t able to make it, you came with another idea, but there was a moment of hesitation. Then you pitched Rabbits, the film was taking different shapes, and in the end you chose the most crystalline and original one. And maybe the most difficult to shoot.
PR: Frankly speaking, for a very long time we didn’t know how to tell the story of Rabbits from the Berlin Wall. This is what we knew: the film should be told from the rabbits’ point of view, it should have the original narration, but the right way was found during the long editing process. Parallel to that we continued shooting interviews and collecting the necessary archive footage.
BK: In short, it was a nightmare. No more animal parables in my life :).
HR: As one of your film protagonists says, the younger generation that leaves the wall early enough can then easily adapt to the new world. That’s our generation. What was your experience of facing the new world while growing up? Are there moments when you realize you still carry something with you?
PR: The childhood in the so-called Polish People’s Republic was a kind of a gift for me. As a child you don’t really see the disadvantages of living in dictatorship, and when you finally grow up, it makes you richer. When I was a teenager, general Jaruzelski was gone, borders were open and a couple of years later I hitch-hiked from Poland to France. The way the people lived there was so much different from what I knew that I felt almost like one of those rabbits after the fall of the wall.
BK: I had to fight for many things, I have to fight with my own complexes, so I appreciate a lot when I win.
HR: The film includes a wide range or different visual materials – photos, real archival footage, fake – artificial archives. What was the key to the composition – what served as a skeleton and at which stage did you make up the additional artificial archives?
PR: I think that the harsh and brutal reality had an important influence on what we achieved. First we searched for original archives with real rabbits from the wall, but after a couple of months of research we didn’t find much, so the next stage was to search for shots which could be used as the rabbit’s perspective, like low angle shots of the death zone, but there wasn’t much either. The real change came when we decided that we didn’t have to be so orthodox; if you establish the right narration in the film, you can even show J.F. Kennedy or Fidel Castro at the wall and tell that the rabbits had seen them. The problem was we still didn’t have enough takes with real rabbits from the wall (frankly speaking, almost no one filmed them), so we decided to use archive material from Scotland, Australia (some of the takes were found on Youtube), and mix this footage with archives from the wall. The goal was to create a visible metaphor, which would be impossible to achieve using only original footage.
HR: The material originates in 12 film archives and 13 photo archives. Did you have any external researcher?
AW: From the very beginning Bartek and Piotr were looking for archival materials on their own. They watched every possible DVD available on the market. They got a scholarship from Nipkow Programm and were supported by our great researcher in Berlin Elwira Niewiera. In addition we found different organizations in Germany with a great amount of archival footage. As it turned out during the editing phase that we needed much more archival material than we expected, and as we needed very specific shots (from the rabbits’ point of view), we decided to ask a professional researcher from a German archive to help us. At the same time we contacted other sources in the UK and Australia to get materials with wild rabbits.
HR: Are there any films or photos that you didn’t manage to get in the film?
PR: There is really a lot of documents, photos and films about the wall in many different institutions. The main problem was to make a selection and go through all this, because in none of these archive institutions one can find the key word ‘rabbit’; you can find files named ‘border guards’, ‘barb wire’, ‘Honecker’ but not ‘rabbit’. Maybe after this film someone will make one.
HR: How did you find the NVA Guard and persuade him to take part in the film?
PR: It was very difficult to get in touch with former border guards, but we had a charming girl in our team - she was our researcher. She made it.
BK: Wait, wait. The most important NVA protagonist is Roland Egersdoerfer. It was easy to convince him because he has enough sense of humor to understand our idea.
HR: Do you know how he sees his involvement from today’s point view?
PR: I don’t know, can’t answer this question.
HR: On the production side – how did you proceed with the co-productions and how did you get the broadcasters involved?
AW: We took part in two great workshops: Ex Oriente Film, organized by IDF, and Discovery Campus Masterschool (now Documentary Campus Masterschool). The project was presented to commissioning editors at the pitching sessions closing both workshops. After Jihlava 2006 (Ex Oriente) we had MDR, YLE and Lichtpunt on board. In Leipzig 2007 (DCM) we confirmed the broadcasters who were already interested, and RBB/ARTE and VPRO got into our project. It was the first step.
Having 3 German televisions and shooting in Germany, we needed a German co-producer: ma.ja.de Filmproduktion. In Poland we talked with two broadcasters, and finally we have TVP (public TV) as co-producer. In addition, ‘Rabbit a la Berlin’ is supported by the Polish Film Institute, Media Programme (TV broadcasting) and A. Wajda Master School of Film Directing.
Was it difficult? Getting all parties involved was not really difficult. The idea of the film was so strong that after one, two sentences people knew if they wanted to be part of it or not. What was difficult for me as a beginning producer was to operate in a widely international environment – but it was a useful lesson and, what is most important, very fruitful.
HR: Any obstacles during the production phase and after?
AW: Time and deadlines. To find the best way to ‘tell history of the Berlin Wall through rabbits’ eyes’, we needed time (Piotr was talking about it already). At the same time the contracts were signed and there were deadlines. At the time we were supposed to give delivery materials to broadcasters (Autumn 2008), we had just started to be sure how we wanted to do our film. Patience from all parties was very needed.
The other obstacle was in managing archival footage because of its quality, quantity and extent (one week we did transfers in UK, Australia and Germany).
We had many small obstacles every day of the production, but we overcame them because we worked as a team, a real team of people who were supporting each other in weak moments. We were looking for partners, not workers, for every step of the production process (in between we found hard-working and very efficient researcher Elwira Niewiera, great and patient editor Mateusz Romaszkan and ‘feeling that times’ composer Maciej Cieślak).
HR: After winning the Best Mid-Length Documentary award at Hot Docs 2009, you achieved something that hardly any East European documentary film has achieved. You were selected for the IDA’s DOCU Weeks, and therefore fulfilled the Oscar nomination criteria. How did you find out about this option?
BK: It’s easy. You just need to find such a creative (weirdo in a way) producer as Andzka. Are there many of them? No, only one. She had enough craziness to think we can grab the Oscar with a tv docu, to complete their rules in one week, to find the extra money for a 35mm print and promotion, to risk a lot asking all the commissioning editors to postpone broadcasting.
AW: Yes, yes, yes, technically speaking, when I came up with the idea to fight for an Oscar, I just googled: ‘Oscar for documentary’ and one of the first results was the International Documentary Association’s web page with information about DocuWeeks. Of course I found it just after the deadline to apply. It took me some time to convince IDA people to give us a chance. They did, and now we are all very happy.
HR: You have recently been selected among eight semifinalists for the Oscar nominations – what does it require from you and what does it mean in very practical terms?
AW: The most needed is the passion and faith in the film and, of course, a great film itself.
To be eligible for the Oscar nomination you need to have a one-week run in a US cinema either in Los Angeles or in New York, at the end of August at the latest. Another important rule is that the film can’t be broadcasted within the next 60 days after this American run. As attachment to the application we had to send 30 DVDs with the film in NTSC, and now, after this great news about the short list, we sent another 40 DVDs and 2 Digital Cinema Packages with the film. And mostly that’s it. Of course we are doing some promotional work to make the film more visible, but nobody knows if it can help. Personally I believe that Academy Members will select the best films for nominations, and I hope that they will give a chance to the only one from outside the US (the 7 other shortlisted films are American productions).
HR: And what are you shooting now?
BK: A feature debut ‘The Fear of Heights’. The script convinced the best Polish actors and crew people, in 8 months we covered the budget of around 0.8 million Euros, we can shoot on 35mm. A completely different story – personal, based on emotions. Unfortunatelly I can not sell it in one sentence like the rabbit film.
AW: But trust me, it will be another wise and beautiful film.
PR: I am looking for an interesting project...
AW: Together with three great Polish filmmakers: Jolanta Dylewska, Agnieszka Holland and Andrzej Wajda I’m working on a feature length documentary essay based on a book by Marek Edelman and Paula Sawicka ‘And there was love in the ghetto…’.
HR: Which films in the past two years can’t you stop thinking about?
BK: ‘The Secret Life of Ants’, Lion from Siberia’, ‘Deep Blue Whales’
PR: ‘The Rat-catcher’
AW: ‘March of the Penguins‘, ‘End of a Myth: Interacting with Sharks‘
HR: Thank you.
Hana Rezková, Institute of Documentary Film