Exclusive Interview With Filmmaker Laurentia Genske

Laurentia Genske is a German Documentary Filmmaker and Cinematographer. She attended the Academy of Media Arts Cologne from 2010 to 2016, with an exchange year studying documentary film at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión, Cuba between 2012 and 2013. She received several awards for her documentary “AM KÖLNBERG”, co-directed with Robin Humboldt, amongst others the German Documentary Film Award 2015.

Her most recent project “Im StÄdtle” is currently in post-production. This feature documentary follows two Syrian brothers who are caught in a constant struggle between their own transsexual identity and different cultures. Finally, they can live freely in Germany, but at the same time, they face struggling with feelings of sin in the face of their Muslim environment. Bianca Garner caught up with Laurentia to discuss her career, the challenges of being a documentary filmmaker and the project that saw her living in a Cuban jungle without electricity for three months.

Hello Laurentia, thank you for joining me today. Would you mind introducing yourself to our readers and tell us how you got into documentary filmmaking?

Laurentia:  I’m a documentary filmmaker based in Cologne, I mainly work with social topics and my films are about people and the environments they find themselves in and where they are facing struggles. How I got into documentary film is a long story. When I was seven years old my Dad gave me a camera (an analogue photography film camera) and I was really happy with this gift. I started to take black and white photos of the people who surrounded me, as well as people on the street. I really wanted to become a photographer originally, but when I became eighteen years old I thought it might be more interesting to focus on the moving image, film. 

I love to work with a small crowd of people and photography can be quite lonely as you’re in a dark room on your own. When I was eighteen I made my first documentary film which was about a transexual woman and their family. I was grateful to have this possibility to explore other people’s lives through the use of documentary filmmaking. I now had the opportunity to step across a border and into the lives of others with this media. Since then I knew I wanted to become a documentary filmmaker.

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I really found your film Am Kölnberg” to be such a fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary, how did you get involved in this project and how did you gain the trust of the residents who allowed you to film them and also opened up to you?

L: We were drawn to this project as we were fascinated by the atmosphere between the buildings, and the first time I was walking around the buildings, there were hundreds of children playing outside and it was actually very beautiful. We were surrounded by all sorts of music, Turkish music, Kurdish music; there was such a strong sense of all the different cultures there. On the other hand, there were the prostitutes on the other side of the street, this hidden life. It was so close to my own home, I actually live 25 minutes away and I had never been to Kölnberg and it’s this hard social burning spot. I wanted to find out about people who lived there and what stories they had. 

My co-director and I were working in a food bank there as many people cannot pay for groceries. We felt it was important to get to know the people there personally, as the media often come to Kölnberg and make very bad films about the place and exploiting the residents. At first, it was very hard to gain the trust of the people and to get them to become involved. When we were working at the food bank we asked people who we found interesting whether they wanted to be featured and the people we asked mostly said yes. We started to film ten people but in the end, it was just four. There was one woman who was a drug addict who also wrote poems, and she was so positive and full of energy which I could see through her poems. 

What I loved about this film was the fact that you managed to capture some really beautiful moments, like when the camera focuses on the outside of the block and we see all the people in their individual flats and when we see children lighting the fireworks. What sort of response did you receive from both the residents and the audience? 

L: The people who were featured really loved the movie, they actually turned up to the premiers. We wanted to ensure that the viewer would get to understand the people we filmed and also portray them in the right light. The editing process was actually hard as we had to consider which scenes we showed to avoid them being too disturbing for the viewer and also ensured the residents maintained their dignity. The residents really felt like they had been portrayed well. What was interesting was that the politicians in Cologne started to make a big event with this film, and asking “what can we do with this place” and they started to actually go there. 

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That’s what’s so wonderful about documentary filmmaking that you can manage to bring people’s attention to these places that have been overlooked and forgotten. Your wonderfully short documentary “El Manguito” is another example of bringing us into an isolated world. How did you find out about the village and its small group of people?

L: I was part of an exchange programme with a Cuban film school and we had one exercise which involved us going to a small mountain village and exploring the area that surrounded it within a 20km distance. I was speaking to a local fisherman who told me of this isolated place and a teacher who travelled all the way up the mountain to teach the only child who lived in this village of people who had been lost and forgotten about. And immediately I knew I had to go to this place. It was actually 40km or 50Km further, and I met the teacher who I found so fascinating. I asked the film school if I could film there but they said it was too far. I was actually the first tourist to visit El Manguito! 

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So, I decided not to make the film for that exercise but to come back at a later date. I ended up spending three months living with this family, and I had to plan the filming very well as there’s no electricity in the village. So, I took a camera which you wind up by hand and which doesn’t require a battery. For me it was so interesting to live without electricity for three months and being without any forms of communication, there wasn’t any internet or phone, nothing! You just have the mountains and this beautiful family for company. 

Your work is so different from the usual documentary format, there isn’t any voice-over narration and you just let the camera capture these intimate moments between people especially with “El Manguito”. Were there any scenes that you didn’t include in “El Manguito” or any shots that proved to be too challenging to capture on film? 

L: With “El Manguito” I only had 25 reels of film which could only hold three minutes of film so we had to think carefully about what to film. And sometimes the film would just go completely black so we didn’t know exactly what had been shot. It was very hard to edit this film because we had so little footage and that’s why I included the still photography in the film as it helped to tell the story. 

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With “Am Kölnberg” we didn’t include certain scenes because they were too tough and hard, because once you’re in this environment you were seeing certain things and people in certain situations that were too heavy. In the editing process, we decided not to include these scenes as it was already heavy and we wanted to keep these people’s dignity.

What films are you currently working on now and are you able to discuss them?

L: I am currently working on two films for the last four years now. There’s a new feature documentary (“Im StÄdtle”)  which will hopefully be released in theatres soon, it’s about two brothers struggling with their transsexual identity, they fled Syria with their family and lived in a refugee camp before moving to Germany. I followed them for four years when they arrived in Germany and began transitioning. It’s a really interesting project as their family is strictly Muslim, so they had trouble with their children transitioning as in their eyes it’s a sin and it’s forbidden. And, the environment in the refugee camp was hard too as other people were saying the parents were bad parents and made it a very hard time for them all. For four years of my life, I spent it with this family as it’s always important for me to be very close to the people I portray, in order to get these moments that are so intimate. 

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I am in the editing process of this film but there is another film I am working on which follows the mother. One day she came to me and said “Laurentia, I have two sons who live in Kuwait as when I was thirteen years old there was an arranged marriage and I had to move from Syria to Kuwait. I was married to a very old man and I gave birth to two children and it’s been 25 years since I have had contact with my sons.” She told me that she left after one year after having the children, and now she wants to go on a journey to find them. And I want to join her on this journey to find these children. 

You obviously go into very tough environments such as Kölnberg, have you ever experienced any conflict from people who you film?

L: No, the communities I went into were actually very open and they took me in as if I was a family member. What is perhaps more of a challenge for me was trying to keep the distance between my life and theirs. I have phone contact with the people I film and sometimes to step out of it. Trying to keep this distance is always a struggle because I feel for the people I portray.

Even when filming is over I still keep in touch with them, with “El Manguito” it won a big cash prize, so I went back to the village and gave the prize (the money) to the family. So now they have electricity and they’re really happy. I also wanted to go back to show them the film, it was so beautiful as they’ve never watched a film before. At first, they were completely silent and I was worried that they didn’t like it but then for days afterwards all they were talking about was the movie because it was so amazing for them! 

Are there any filmmakers both documentary and fiction filmmakers whose work you admire?

L: The filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi is someone whose work has influenced me, his film “Fuocoammare” (“Fire at Sea”) won the Golden Bear at Berlinale a few years ago. I really love his work and how close he is to the people he is documenting. Every time I watch his films I end up crying and also laughing, I always love when a film can make you cry and laugh as well, and touch you at the same time.

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers trying to get into documentary filmmaking?

L:  My best advice is to just do it! And, to make sure you spend the time with the people you are filming. Try hard not to think too much about it, and to just go into it with an open mind. Everyone has their own different approach, some documentary filmmakers have more of a fiction film narrative but I like to be more spontaneous. For me, it’s all about being open and not to be afraid to make mistakes. What’s most important is that you need to really fall in love with the subject and topic you’ve decided to film, sometimes it takes years to make the film and you have to find the right topic that grabs your attention and keeps a hold of it. Passion is the key. 

You can explore more about Laurentia and her filmography here: https://www.laurentiagenske.com/

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