Henrika Kull “Current prisons are inhumane institutions”
The graduating project of German director Henrika Kull, called Jibril, is inspired by a short documentary that she filmed in 2015, Absently Present, about the relationship of a woman with an inmate. “I have always been interested in longing, physical contact and the places where extreme social conditions take place; my curiosity took me to research sexuality and intimacy in prisons. With time, I discovered that it is not the family members that end their relationships, but the inmates, that become increasingly more distant while the sentence take place”, comments the filmmaker.
In her debut, she presents a fictional story about the eager love drive between a divorcee, mother of three girls, and a convicted man, sentenced to six years. The actors, who also debut in this film, offer honest and emotional interpretations of a relationship hindered by difficulties. “In all love stories there is a projection side, and I was interested in researching how this notion is reinforced by the prison factor”, explains Kull.
Why that personal interest in speaking about longing, physical contact and places where extreme social conditions take place?
I love intensity and I think people that do everything well are pretty boring. Perhaps it is because I grew up in a very suffocating city in the south of Germany, in an environment where everything that wasn’t conventional was immediately judged. When I moved to a large city and I got to know all types of environments -not just those related to my studies in Sociology-, I became fascinated by what they provoked in me, and by the closeness I suddenly felt. Perhaps that is why I researched prostitution houses or prisons, and I enjoyed the intensity of the interactions and creating friendships with all types of people.
The origin of the movie is the short documentary film Absently present, how did this previous investigation help in the feature film production?
I researched a lot, not just for the documentary Absently present; I also spent a lot of time in prison and spoke to many inmates. All the observations I made there for years literally absorbed me. After that it was easy to write a script with natural dialogues and real-life scenes. This also helped me a lot while directing.
What did you discover about life in prison that you didn’t expect?
The first time I entered a prison I was very excited. I entered alone and I thought the amount of testosterone in the atmosphere was crazy. In Germany, many prisons are still built following a panoptic system, a very brutalist type of architecture, especially compared to the current standards. They are very intimidating places, especially on a first visit. I associated it to a vision of tigers in cages. I soon realized, however, how these men wanted to be seen as human beings, and not just as criminals. I returned time and time again and met very interesting and intelligent people. I still think current prisons are inhumane institutions.
What challenges and difficulties did you go through during the production of the film?
I had a good script, great actors and amazing locations (for example, a real prison), but I had no funds for the film. I knew I couldn’t wait for years for funding, I had to film soon and I firmly believed that it could be done without money, because I could use the camera equipment of my school. Of course, it was complete madness, but thanks to my professor, Angelina Maccarone, who was a fan of the script and who always believed in me, I got permission from the university to start the project and I assumed the script writing, directing, producing and editing.
Slowly, I built a small but incredible team, formed by the wonderful filmmaker Carolina Steinbrecher, who took over big responsibilities, and the great stage designer Theresa Reiwer. They both worked for free. It was clear that I would need someone to help me with the production, and fortunately, Sophie Lakow joined the team. The fact that those women, and of course the wonderful main actors, especially Susana Abdulmajid, were part of the team, finally made the project possible. During the filming I was in charge of the catering, the search for extras, and even ironing the clothing for the shots, which unfortunately took time away from real work with the actors. However, on the other hand, as we were a mini-team, we had a lot of flexibility. Taking everything into account, I can say that, although we hardly had any money, we were extremely free and could be very creative.
Jibril does not look like a graduation project film. How does the German education system assist in the production of debut feature films?
Oh, thanks! My university is not a fan of feature films for graduation and, as I mentioned before, I had to fight for it. I ended up filming it with the average budget destined for graduation films. That is to say, with the budget of a short-film. In almost all film schools in Germany a small budget is and camera equipment are provided for all graduating film projects.
The main characters of your film were making their debut as actors and you decided to film many close-ups. How did you manage such natural performances, based on glances and gazes?
Wow, that is a great compliment…. I always wanted the film to be like that: natural. I wanted to use a portable camera that gave a feeling of intimacy and authenticity, and I knew I needed strong characters and strong faces for that, as well as a filmmaker that paid attention and was sensitive to those moments.
I spent a lot of time with the casting and worked very intensely with the actors and their characters, so they knew what their needs and intentions were. I always knew it was a challenge. Thanks to the perceptive camera work by Carolina, the concept worked out…
Why did you decide the main characters should be Muslim?
They are German, but of Muslim origin. They live surrounded by other Germans with other religious heritage. That is how I experience Berlin and that is the story I wanted to tell. I didn’t want to make a movie about Muslims, I wanted to make a movie about two people that fall in love.
What additional contribution do their migrative origins add to the story?
For me, it’s a universal love story. Of course, my characters are looking for something, and perhaps they are experiencing [their intimacy] in a more pronounced or conscious way due to their origins. However, in my opinion, they both have very unique personalities, regardless of their origins. They both have ways in which the bite at the patriarchal structures from within and rebel against them.
Throughout the movie we can see Maryam following a soap opera on the TV. How do you think romanticism offered by conventional audiovisual media influences the perception of love that women have?
Maryam knows the soap opera is dumb, but she also longs for something big. Her friend Sadah, happily married, also shows her something different. Maryam is looking for a particular kind of romance, different from what she sees on the TV. She creates her own soap opera…
Have you been able to answer the question of when it is love and when it is a projection?
I would, more accurately, ask: to what extent do I love the other truly or just the image I create of the other? Or, better yet: how much do I like how love makes me feel? Of course, it is all about narcissism, about how I like to see myself. Maryam feels better about herself, she feels ‘perfected’ when she is in love. Her life works without Gabriel. But knowing that he thinks about her makes her life more exciting, more inhabitable… so it is also all about hedonism. She calls it Jibril, and Jibril becomes the perfect version of Gabriel, the version that can complete Maryam.
The question of ‘what is love and how does it work?’ motivates me. In my new film I address this issue in a much wider sense, but the characters go further, they try to go past hedonism and narcissism and find true happiness…