Stephan Hilpert is a documentary filmmaker based in Berlin, Germany. His films ‘Deutsche Bahn - Last Minute’ and ‘Mitsubishi - A World Without Electricity’ have won a number of critical accolades. In his latest film ‘Congo Calling’, he deals with one of the most vulnerable regions on earth. The film had its international premiere at the recently concluded 25th Kolkata Film Festival. Hilpert spoke to BE’s Aritra Mitra.
Q. What made you choose Congo and the interactions between aid-workers and locals as the subject for your documentary?
A. Raúl, one of the protagonists of the film is an old friend of mine. We studied together a long time ago. He is a social scientist and has been working in eastern Congo for years for his research projects, about, among other things, rebel groups. He kept telling me about the situation in the region, the location of the deadliest conflict since the World War II. It is not only about the unstable situation of the place itself, but also about the situation of many foreigners from the western world who work there as aid-workers or are doing research and about the great doubts that many of them have about their own role. As we dealt with these issues, it quickly became clear that we had to make a film about the complex and ambivalent relationships of the Europeans with this place and its people.
Q. How did the shooting experience impact you?
A. I spent several years working on this film project. I got to travel to Africa for the first time in my life when I went to do research for this project. I got to know many impressive people, both Congolese and foreigners who work in the development sector. This experience has broadened my horizons and impacted me in many ways.
Also, when you go to such a foreign place to make a film, as a documentary filmmaker from Europe, you are of course forced to think about your own approach. Are we exploiting the people in the Congo to make this film, what do they get out of it? And when we film poverty, or things that seem exotic to us from a European perspective, are we simply reproducing Western stereotypes about Africa? It was of course very interesting that our protagonists had to deal with similar questions in their work.
Q. Do you think that documentary filmmaking is emerging in the mainstream as a style of story-telling?
A. Life itself can sometimes be much more interesting and surprising than any story that I could possibly invent. I do have the impression that documentary films are getting more and more attention and I am very happy to see that people are appreciating the power and qualities of real-life stories. And of course, just because it’s a documentary, it doesn’t mean that a film necessarily has to be very journalistic or fact-based in its style. Our film, for example, is not a journalistic film about the topic of development cooperation, but approaches this theme through the protagonists’ very personal experiences. So it’s also a film about love, about friendship, about getting older and the search for the right place in life – and maybe doesn’t feel too different from a fiction film.
Q. What are the challenges in funding that you face for your projects?
A. In Germany, compared to most countries in the world, it is probably relatively easier to find funding for a film. There are TV broadcasters that commission quite a lot of TV documentaries. However, it is still quite difficult for an observational feature-length documentary like ours, which is not made for a standardised TV slot, but for the cinema, in a different style, without a voice-over commentary for example. Also, this kind of project involves a lot of insecurities in the production process because the approach was to follow the protagonists over a very long period of time, so we couldn’t really know at the beginning what would happen. In the end, we were lucky to get funding from a public film funding institution in Germany and from a TV broadcaster.
Q. How do you think that the people of Kolkata will relate with your documentary as you decided to release your film at the Kolkata International Film Festival?
A. Our film follows Europeans who live and work in Congo, and so it’s a film about encounters between Europe and Africa. I am curious to see how people from another continent will react, and to see if they have a different perspective on the film. Of course, when you look at the European involvement in Africa, the context of the colonial past is always in the background and given India’s colonial past, I’m particularly curious to see how people in India perceive this film.