IndieWire’s Springboard column profiles up-and-comers in the film industry worthy of your attention.
A regular guest at Berlinale and other prestigious film festivals that screen his films, the German filmmaker Jan Soldat is a quickly rising star in the world of short films. His documentary films have a reputation for being edgy, as his main topic of interest is alternative sexual practices and fetishes such as S&M bondage, prisonplay, diaper fetish and zoophilia, among others, which he likes to film attentively and explicitly. But far from making his films for shock value, Soldat is using the film medium to discover sexualities, relationships, bodies and passion in all of their forms – and in this way, to have another look at what it means to be human.
If conventional romantic dramas or comedies often like to explore the eccentricities of romance, Soldat’s films seem to find romance in eccentricities. By showing the funny, amusing, and above all, the everyday and the ordinary in these practices, he makes it obvious that the world of his protagonists is not a different world to the one he, we, or anyone else is living in.
The element of political assertiveness is key to his films: In “The Incomplete,” the 60-year old Klaus Johannes Wolf, who decided to live as a slave, chained naked to a bed, looks straight into the camera and says that he knows he is different or, that the society says he is different, but that he likes himself and that he finds himself beautiful. In “Law and Order,” the elderly gay couple who have been together for decades and are into BDSM, are bickering constantly and endearingly while one is putting the other into bondage. And in one of Soldat’s most shocking (and best-loved films), “Be Loved,” a slender, gentle 30-year old confesses his romantic love for his dog, whom he trusts to never leave him or betray him like people would.
IndieWire spoke to Soldat about his intriguing body of work at the 13th Vienna Independent Shorts Film Festival, where among an array of fascinating fiction, documentary, and avant garde animation shorts, his films are regulars. In cooperation with the Vienna Q12 – MuseumsQuartier, Soldat is also this year’s artist in residence.
I got the idea for “Be Loved” when I was watching another documentary about a group of men who had sex with horses. One of them died as a result. I saw it and felt really sick at first, but then I asked myself, why do I feel like this? – I had never met people who had sex with animals. I wanted to meet them, so I decided to do a documentary about people and animals.
I wasn’t really thinking about how to get my protagonists to open up and be intimate in front of the camera and the film crew. I was very open-minded and very curious to see what they are doing. I think this made them feel comfortable, in a way. Most people tell them that they’re sick, that they’re perverts, to stop doing it. And when I came to them, I asked: “What is it like? What is your relationship like? Can I see it?”
They could feel I wasn’t judging them. We also had a lot in common: Rhe same sense of humor, the same age, and at the time, I wasn’t so happy with my relationship with my girlfriend, so I told them about it. It was very close to what they ended up saying in the film: Rhat they want to feel safe, and want to have somebody who will stay with them forever. It’s a little bit pathetic, but at that moment, I felt the same. So we bonded over those feelings.
They weren’t afraid of other people’s reactions to what they saw in the film. They’re used to being despised. At some point Jens, the slim one with the long hair, said: “I have nothing to lose.” I think that was a major point. But we didn’t speak about it much.
We made the film for us, it was a kind of an exercise. At first, I only got their permission to show it at a small screening, and I submitted it to film festivals only later. By then, we had some positive reactions, so they were fine with it.
But the risk is also one of the reasons why I mostly film men, especially older men. At some point, I couldn’t find heterosexual couples anymore – they were afraid of losing face, of risking their jobs and their social position. Though gay men are afraid, too, they can also be more open. It also might have to do with the fact that they’re mostly elderly – they don’t have a job and have nothing to lose. It’s easier for them to show themselves.
Another reason why I film mostly men is probably very anatomic. It also has to do with the male sexuality, especially the gay sexuality, because it’s about emancipation and coming out; you have to show it and you have to stand for it. But every protagonist of mine had a motivation to come out in front of the camera. They tried to shed a positive light on their sexuality. They want the mainstream society to see it. It’s not only me that is looking for them anymore, they are also coming to me now, wanting something from being in the film.
I find people on dating sites, forums, platforms, everything. I write them, saying I’m a filmmaker and have already made several films and that I want to do a documentary portrait. That’s because most people assume I want to do porn, that I’m hiding behind the camera and that I really want to have sex. I tell them I only want to do the film, bu I never put much effort into convincing them.
If they’re having doubts about appearing in front of the camera, I don’t do it. I never try to persuade anybody, that would just backfire. If the film isn’t successful, they could change their mind and that would obviously be bad. Because I only choose people that want to be in front of camera, both parties are safe.
I’m interested in this kind of marginal male culture, which is not your typical gay scene. It’s something, that is usually in the background, like elderly bodies being sexual and having sex. The protagonists of my films are very relaxed and comfortable in their bodies, no matter their age, sexuality or physical appearance. That’s because I want to endorse this in my films, I think people should feel more comfortable with their bodies in general, so I edit my films accordingly and to promote that view. I think it’s of existential importance, really, to find some kind of a sexual expression.
Formally, my films have to do with closeness and distance. A scene from a distance has a certain dignity. It enables me to show the protagonists of my films as proud of themselves. If I did too much close-ups, it would be too much for the audience, especially in the painful moments. By trying to keep a distance, the viewer can enter the film without the desire to leave. In “Law and Order,” every scene is framed equally, which makes it more neutral, without the film saying one thing is more important than the other. As a viewer, you have more freedom to decide. That’s why I like it.
My films are about authority, control and power. It’s not just about dominance and submission, it’s also about being active and passive. These stories are very abstract in a way; they make what a power relationship is very obvious. Most people say their their relationship is not about these things, but I think every relationship is. We have to confront them, call them out for what they are.
Once I screened “Law and Order,” a documentary about the elderly gay couple that play the roles of the master and the slave, at a seminar where the participants were in their sixties, mostly. I was really afraid of their reaction. Because I’m 30 years younger than they are, I was afraid that they would condemn me for what I’m doing, that what I’m showing to them is too extreme. In fact, they were very open. I realized I had so much prejudice. Of course they had also had sex, of course they’ve been naked before. They are used to this kinds of things.
In general, some people are disturbed, but some of them open up as a result of watching my films. I think the typical reaction is a positive one. Because most people aren’t used to these topics, they’re afraid, or they think they’re about to see something nasty. When they see it, they open up in a positive way.
My goal is to show there is nothing dangerous about these people. My position to them is very empathetic because I like them – I wouldn’t do the film if we didn’t like each other. They can be amusing, too, but I would never make a film to make fun of them. So when something is funny, I am never laughing at them from a superior position – we are laughing together. It makes it clear that it’s perfectly possible to understand them, it’s possible to relate to them. In my films, I show exactly that – the relatable side of them. I think the effect of that is that you find love in places you would never have expected it.