Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions.
British filmmaker Rex Bloomstein directed “KZ,” screening in the World Cinema Competition: Documentary section. Bloomstein goes beyond recounting the crimes that occurred at the Mauthausen concentration camp, instead choosing to focus on the reactions of visitors to the camp today. Bloomstein has explored the themes of prison life, the Holocast and human rights abuses in his previous documentaries.
What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker? How did you learn about filmmaking?
The moment I knew I wanted to make documentary films was whilst watching “7 Up,” which so brilliantly captured the British class system and really resonated with me. I was 15 and from the working-class district of Hackney in East London. College or university was barely an option, so I delivered letters; became an assistant floor manager; a unit manager; a production assistant; a researcher and eventually learnt the craft of documentary filmmaking as a director at the BBC through the ’70s, having succeeded in getting an attachment to the documentary department as it was then. The ’80s were spent at Thames Television as a producer/director and the ’90s, like so many others, as an independent.
How did you finance your own film?
As an independent filmmaker, I’ve always had to rely on broadcast commissions to fund my films and hence never had the opportunity to own my own work or have total editorial independence. It is a reality and sometimes a sad one; not having ownership over one’s own creative output is something you have to come to terms with. But in 2004, I had that rare opportunity of meeting someone who is profoundly interested in documentaries and who wished to invest in my work. Rex Entertainment is the result of our collaboration and “KZ” our first production. It has been a remarkable experience.
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
It was the oompah band playing. The sausage and beer flowing. The men and women in lederhosen dancing and singing. We had broken for lunch and stumbled across this typical pub party in rural Austria. Having eaten, we walked back some 400 yards to the quarry in which we were filming — the main quarry where so many prisoners had been systematically worked to death only 60 years before. This was Mauthausen. It was 1995, and I had been making a film about the liberators of the Nazi concentration camps.
The disjunction of those two scenes remained with me — the carefree laughter of the pub garden and the silence of the quarry. Some 10 years later the film that I have made explores this disjunction.
“KZ” is a film that it is set in the landscape of a concentration camp but is a film about today, a film about us.
What are your biggest creative influences?
The American school of documentary filmmakers, such as Fred Wiseman. The humanism of the East European cinema. The matchless humanity of Satyajit Ray.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
Countless documentaries about the Holocaust have been made since the revelations 60 years ago, of Auschwitz, Dachau, Belsen and Sobibor. There is talk of “Holocaust fatigue” as if such a subject can ever be exhausted. What is true is that successive generations must find their own way to deal with the “tremendum” as one philosopher has named it. For many questions continue to haunt any endeavour to understand the essence of the concentration camps. What are our reactions to the horror that engulfed millions? How can we respond to the incredible plan to obliterate every last Jewish man, woman and child from the face of the earth and dehumanize and enslave whole other races and groups of people?
“KZ” is my attempt to meet this challenge by concentrating not on a conventional documentary historiography fixed on the perpetrator or the victim but [by] shift[ing] the focus to the present.
Today thousands of people come from all over the world to visit Mauthausen. Curious and compelled by what took place 60 years ago, they walk through the concrete buildings where the SS administered the camp, the inmate blocks that housed prisoners from all over Europe as well as American POWs, the gas chamber and crematorium, the execution corner. They clamber up the 186 steps that prisoners were forced to climb with knapsacks full of bricks from the quarry.
What do they think? What do they feel? What are their questions?
This is our focus: the tourists, the sightseers, the curious wandering about the camp; those who have come specifically; the tour guides leading groups of school children and parties of older people; Mauthauseners going about their daily lives; Mauthauseners who were young at the time and those who have become Mauthauseners by deciding to move to the area.
As the project developed I realized that the film had to be more austere in its approach, and that I would have to jettison most of the fashionable tools of documentary filmmaking. So there is no commentary, no music, no reconstructions with actors.
“KZ” is stripped down. There is no attempt to sentimentalize or overtly manipulate the emotions. The survivor is not there to give his unique perspective, the historian to contextualize, no black-and-white footage of the liberation of the camp, no piles of corpses. All have been seen. It is in the reactions of the visitors, young and old, that the challenge lies. It is in the universality of that experience.
“KZ” is a film about the interface between now and then. What do the meanings of the camp experience convey to all of us who were never there? How possible is it for our imagination to grasp the enormity of the crimes committed there? Why should we remember these events when we have our own contemporary genocides and wars?
What will we remember?
In “The Gulag Archipelago,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?
As I understand it Sundance remains a beacon for independent thought and innovation in world cinema and that it also includes world documentary is a source of inspiration. To be selected is an honor and recognition that the uncompromising film I have made will have the possibility of [having] a festival audience. It is something I have often thought about but have not experienced before as my work has been primarily for television. The possibility of a cinema release, so that people can experience the film in this way, is most exciting.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
A film whose sources of finance are not state inspired or controlled.
What are a few other films you’re hoping to see at Sundance?
I am very pleased that there are other British docs at Sundance, and I would love to see them. There are too many other fantastic films to list, but I’d like to try and see as many as possible.