[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
German filmmaker Uli Gaulke first entered the film festival scene with his 2000 feature, “Havana mi amor,” which won prizes at Cinema Reel and the Munich Film Festival. He followed it up with “Heirate mich-Casate conmigo” in 2003 (co-directed with Jeannette Eggert), taking the audience prize for best doc at the Arhus Film Festival. Gaulke’s latest, “Comrades in Dreams,” celebrates what Sundance describes as the “noncommercial essence of the cinematic experience by discovering and exploring the most alternative, ‘independent’ strain of [cinema].”
The film tells the stories of cinema from four continents, from a traveling tent cinema in India to a North Korean “film club” in addition to a Wyoming woman’s local film group and an oppen air-cinema in Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest countries. The doc captures “a sense of the universal humanity that the fundamental act of ‘cinema’ evokes in each of its characters.” “Comrades in Dreams” will screen in the World Cinema Competition: Documentary section at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival.
Please tell us about yourself…
My name is Uli Gaulke and I was born in the former GDR (East Germany). I was never really all that interested in the cinema as a kid; I wanted to be a physicist. While I was doing my national service in the East German army, a friend showed me how to project films, which were shown by the army every Sunday. I can still remember how packed the place was when they showed the “Flying Eye,” an American action film. Our pilots were a little bit jealous of the great helicopters shown in it.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
When I was studying and in need of a bit of cash, it occurred to me that I had a bit of experience in showing films. I went on to work as a projectionist for the next seven years. Then I founded my own cinema in Berlin in 1994. At some point we screened “Urga” by Michalkov and that was it… I started to develop my own ideas for little films and to keep a video diary. I shot [my] first two short films on 16mm and put all the money I had into them, I was absolutely obsessed. Whenever the camera was on, I held my breath because I knew that something extraordinary was occurring. From then on, my life was filled with the scent of dreams and celluloid.
Did you go to film school?
In 1995, I passed the entry test for film school with one of my short films. Up till then I had financed all my own films with the money that I earned from being a projectionist. So of course, it was fantastic to find myself at film school, as it was packed with technical equipment and there was money available to make little films. I was approached pretty early on by commissioning editors, offering opportunities to work together. So I received money from a TV company to shoot a short documentary feature in Cuba during my second year of studying. It went on to win awards at festivals, and got me a foot in the door in order to make my first long film “Havana Mi Amor,” which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival [and] was sold to a number of countries and won the German LOLA (Oscar) for Best Documentary. It’s important to develop your own “handwriting” and to try to keep working constantly. In Germany, the system of film funding that exists is a big help.
Please tell us about your film, and how the initial idea come about.
The film tells the story of cinema makers from four countries, all of whom share a common dream in spite of their completely different cultural backgrounds–that of enchanting their audiences. Their cinemas are community centres, “agony aunts,” political talking shops and meeting points all rolled into one. The departure point for the film was my memories of the time when I myself had a cinema in Berlin. I was utterly captivated then by the idea of being able to draw people into darkened rooms and to release them again in a happy, sad or deeply affected state. “Comrades in Dreams” is intended as a monument to those dreamers who put their heart and soul into doing their jobs, into making people happy and giving cinema that special aura that makes it so unique.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences as well as your overall goals for the project.
My films all have a highly personal element to them. A memory, an experience, a special time in my life. I shot three films in Cuba because after the GDR collapsed I wanted to examine a social model which had utterly shaped my entire childhood and youth. I am always trying to discover how people in different cultures attempt to achieve happiness, make their dreams come true and manage their lives. I try to build bridges between cultures, [and] to raise consciousness of the lives of others. For me filmmaking is all about listening, spending time with people, submersing myself in alien lifestyles and walking a mile in the shoes of my characters. I let them lead me by the hand and try to achieve personal encounters that can lend my life some new direction too. “Comrades in Dreams” is a world voyage through dreams, taking the audience on a trip through the fascinating worlds of on-screen stories and daily reality. And it is an homage too to classic celluloid films and their makers.
How did the financing for the film come together?
My research was funded by the Nordrhein Westfalen regional funding board: I had won a scholarship to carry out research with my project proposal. In addition to that I received capital in the shape of the prize money from my last film. The TV station ARTE/ZDF put money in and more funding followed. My producer, Helge Albers of Flying Moon, has a good hand for finding this and is able to put my ideas forward in a convincing manner. We’ve grown as a team and have undertaken all my projects together since we were at film school.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
The biggest challenge was getting permission to shoot in North Korea–I had a lot of help in doing this from the Goethe Institute in Seoul. And it was a big adventure to find ANUP, one of the 500 tented cinema owners who roam India. I just had a couple of photos from a book with me and only knew that he was travelling around Maharashtra somewhere. It took two weeks until I was finally standing in front of him. We liked each other immediately. I thought he was a great guy and getting all those thousands of people to flood into his tent–what power!
What do you hope to get out of the festival and what are your own goals for the experience?
I’ll be interested to see how the audiences react to my film in cinema-crazy America and in particular, how they respond to the story of the North Korean Ms. Han. There are so many misunderstandings and so much prejudice on both sides and I’ve tried to tell a human story [in order] to build a bridge between Penny and Ms. Han, to give them both a chance as it were. I was fascinated by these women; they were both lonely in their own way and full of a deep melancholy. I was really touched by this and I’m eager to see how audiences view this.
Please describe the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance, where were you, and how did you react?
I was in a hardware store, looking for a lamp when my cell phone [rang] and the producer gave me the fantastic news. I must have expressed my joy very loudly: suddenly all the customers in the shop turned to stare at me in wonder.
What is your definition of “independent film?”
For me it means having a producer who gives you the freedom to work in a concentrated way and to offer my own personal view of things. In exchange, I offer him strong stories and an unmistakeable handwriting with which he can increase his profile as a producer and which have–touch wood!–so far been well received by critics and audiences. It’s all about having the freedom to bring audiences closer to a piece of my life, my dreams, my visions and to hopefully enchant them with these. The author and director must be identifiable in every independent film, they must be able to find God in the details and bring just a little madness to the pot. They shouldn’t be afraid to take risks.
What are some of your favorite films, and your picks for 2006?
“Volver” by Pedro Almodovar was an undisputed highlight of the year for me. I always shed the most tears in the films of the Spanish maestro as they tell stories which cover every facet of how people live together through the eyes of the characters with enormous weight and imagination. I love Ken Loach‘s films too as they have a documentary style and I’m a huge fan of Jim Jarmusch‘s films because his stories are very complex and yet are told lovingly and in a familiar guise (absolute favorite, “Night on Earth“). I’m also a fan of the laconic humour and the melancholy present in Aki Kaurismaeki‘s films (“Ariel“). As a documentary filmmaker, I’ve been strongly influenced by Heddy Honigmann (“Metal and Melancholy“) and the films of Chris Marker, Joris Evens and Frederick Wiseman.
What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?
I’ll be busy giving my wife all the support she needs to have our second child.