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“… A Person Deprived of a Legal Status is Further Denied a Voice and an Image”: Philip Scheffner and Merle Kröger on their Berlinale-Debuting Europe

Europe (Photo: Zohra Traumwohnung, © Grandfilm)

World-premiering in the Forum section (February 13) at this year’s Berlinale, Philip Scheffner’s Europe is a work at once as simple and complex as its title might imply. “Europe” is the name of a bus stop in Europe (specifically in the small French town of Chatellerault) where the main character Zohra, an Algerian citizen, catches a ride from her housing block flat to her job sorting secondhand clothes at an NGO-run warehouse and also to various doctor and physical therapy appointments – her reason for coming to France in the first place.

Fortunately, the numerous surgeries and treatments for her debilitating scoliosis have now paid off as she’s finally able to stand up straight and pain-free. Not so fortunately, as a result of being “healed” Zohra is no longer eligible to stay, her residence permit renewal coldly and bureaucratically denied. And this regardless of her legitimate employment, the many family members who live nearby, and the family reunification visa that she’s been waiting on to bring her husband Hocine over to join her.

And then there’s the fact that she doesn’t exist, rendered invisible by the state — and also by the director, who inventively cuts Zohra out of the frame for a large chunk of the film once she loses her right to be recognized. But this is also where abstract metaphor meets harsh reality; Zohra is played by Rhim Ibrir, whose own life story is pretty much identical to that of her character’s. Indeed, what began as documentary ended as a troubling work of “state enforced fiction.”

Which is why Filmmaker was particularly keen to catch up with the German director (whose Havarie likewise played the Berlinale Forum in 2016) and his co-writer Merle Kröger to learn all about working within a government-provoked genre they never intended to create.

Filmmaker: So how exactly did “state enforced fiction” influence the film’s composition? Why were you able to shoot a narrative work but not a nonfiction film?

Scheffner and Kröger: In 1999, we created a theme night for ARTE entitled “Kein Mensch ist illegal” (“No human is illegal”). Since then we’ve been working continuously with the idea that a person deprived of a legal status is further denied a voice and an image. She has very limited freedom of representation. Very few people in that position can take open action.

For most, like Zohra, fiction or a fictional future becomes the space of resilience. In a nonfiction film, we would have been forced to work around this situation of invisibility, all the time dealing with the risk of being “uncovered.” So we, like Zohra, felt that fiction was the way to focus on the key moments of the situation Rhim Ibrir was facing.

Filmmaker: Soon after we encounter Zohra she literally disappears from the frame, which made me wonder if Rhim had been deported and thus you had to shoot around her. But then Zohra suddenly appears again, and others become absent. So was this (almost theatrically staged) construct an aesthetic decision or a circumstantial one?

Scheffner and Kröger: For us, the circumstantial decision is always causing or provoking any aesthetic decision. Political filmmaking means not just to work on a certain topic, but also to find the one cinematic language which is appropriate for this specific film.

The core team of Europe, including Rhim Ibrir, has been working collaboratively on the creation of this language. Philip wanted to create a screen reality in which the cinematic space reflects the political reality: The camera observes how Zohra is literally removed from her place in society. Borders are drawn that massively restrict the scope of action of the people concerned, and place them in a space of social fiction. In the third part Zohra conquers this cinematic space – which is certainly similar to a theatrical stage – and she turns the angle, so that the audience is left with their questions of what is real and what is fiction. So, like in all our films, we try to use the cinema space between the screen and the audience as a place of negotiation, an offer to question one’s own position as viewer.

Filmmaker: How involved was Rhim in the production? Did she actually help craft the script? And was she comfortable revisiting real-life situations in front of the camera? How much “reality” was too much for her?

Scheffner and Kröger: Rhim has been involved in all phases of the production. From the previous film Havarie we had documentary footage with Rhim. Conversations in the park, situations in the kitchen, walks through the neighborhood. In the process, Philip learned a lot about her biography — the place in France where she lives, her friends and family. It was a very intense encounter.

We were fascinated by her presence in front of the camera. So after the release we asked her if she would like to work together on another film based on her story. We all went many times to Chatellerault to work on the script; and to get to know the suburb Ozon, which stretches out from the residency block “Europe” where Rhim’s family lives.

Slowly, as we started to work with Rhim, other people from the community joined the project. So the script was moving on with the research and the rehearsals. Right before shooting we had an intense three weeks of rehearsals, rewriting the script at night. So Rhim basically took it step by step to grow into the role of Zohra. Rhim has appropriated this space of fiction, conquered it. She has filled it with new facets of herself. Rhim became Zohra, and both influenced and changed each other – the transitions between film and reality blurred.

For example, Rhim describes the scene in which she goes to the prefecture and realizes that she has actually lost her legal status as her biggest challenge. This scene — which she had lived through and experienced as if you slowly climb up a very high mountain, and suddenly you find yourself thrown back to the ground — she wanted to perform as convincing as possible. So she forced herself to go back emotionally into that traumatic situation.

Filmmaker: What impact has the film had on Rhim’s life, including her legal status in Europe?

Scheffner and Kröger: That Rhim can come to Berlin today to present her film at Berlinale shows one difference. A film officially creates work relations, and work creates a different status regarding your residential permit in Europe.

But actually the impact is much more basic. As Rhim explains it, through the film she had the chance to get back to a life as described in the first part – the part which looks most “naturalistic” to us. Before and during the shoot the “artificial” reality, as shown in the later parts of the film, describes very much the reality as she experienced it.

Filmmaker: There’s a cruel irony in the fact that Zohra overcomes physical pain through French medical intervention – and thereby loses the right to remain in France, which in turn causes her emotional trauma to begin. The state giveth and taketh away. So do you view Europe as a specifically activist film — a call to change certain government policies?

Scheffner and Kröger: Yes, of course. The film has a clear demand: It’s exactly this “give and take” that Europe has to rethink. The right to “give and take” has been the ruler’s rule for many centuries. It’s the colonial mindset that we still cannot or do not want to give up. If decolonization is a serious political matter it has to start here. And, by the way, this is also true for filmmaking – and the “give and take” of cultural production.

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