Laurentia Genske was born 1989 in Cologne, Germany. From 2010 to 2016, she studied Documentary Film Direction and Camera at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne (KHM). In 2012, as a part of a KHM scholarship, she completed a year of study at the International Film School in Cuba (EICTV). During her studies, she led the camera for several student projects and documentary films of the Cologne-based production company A & O Buero. In addition to some short films as for instance “El Manguito,” during the course of her studies, she made two full-length documentary films, “Afuera” and “Am Kölnberg,” which were invited to renowned festivals. The documentary “Am Kölnberg,” co-directed with Robin Humboldt, was released in German cinemas in March 2015 and has won numerous awards, including the German Documentary Award. Her short film “El Manguito” won the 3sat Supporting Award at the 63rd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen and the Seal of Approval “Highly Recommended” in 2018. For the past three years, she has been working on her debut film “Im Städtle” (AT), a documentary about two transsexual Syrian siblings who find themselves in a constant conflict between cultures in the search for their own identity: the realization of a long-awaited freedom in Germany and the feeling of sin in front of their Muslim environment.
Tara Karajica talks to Laurentia Genske, one of this year’s Berlinale Talents, about her career, women in film and her next project.
How did you get into film? Why did you choose that particular field?
Laurentia Genske: When I was seven, my father gave me an analog camera. I was fascinated with making portraits of people in black and white photography. When I was eighteen, my interest in moving images grew and I made my first documentary about a trans woman. The opportunity to capture moments in eternity through film and photography appealed to me a lot.
You completed a year of study at the International Film School in Cuba (EICTV). How did that experience shape your filmmaking and what did it bring to you on a personal level?
L.G.: Studying at the International Film School in Cuba (EICTV) broadened my cinematic horizons. Students from various countries, mainly from Latin America, work on their films with great passion. I met great filmmakers such as Claire Simon, Fatih Akin and Boris Gerrets who have inspired me and my work a lot. It was also a special experience to get to know the socialist country and to get close to the people from my documentary films Afuera and El Manguito.
During your studies, you led the camera for several student projects and documentary films of the production company a&o buero. Can you elaborate on that experience? What did you learn?
L.G.: Occasionally, I work as a cinematographer for various directors. I think it is a beautiful experience to lead the camera for different documentary films. This enables me to try new ways of working and to refresh my own view of things. Each film has its own handwriting and I think with every film that you make, whether you are directing, doing a camera or editing, you always learn something new, because every film brings new challenges. I always find it very inspiring to work with other directors.
You also shot the short documentary El Manguito as well as the feature documentaries Afuera and Am Koelnberg. Can you talk about these films and what they mean to you as a filmmaker?
L.G.: In my films, I am always looking for people who are in a special situation, who have an inner conflict, or who are looking for something new and unknown. I often accompany people in my films who have a special connection to the place where they live.
In my short documentary El Manguito, I accompany a family in the Cuban Sierra Maestra whose place of residence seems to have been forgotten. Cut off from the outside world, Idael lives with his extended family in El Manguito, a Cuban village without electricity and infrastructure. After the sawmill was closed, the village was forgotten, as were its last inhabitants. Only one teacher still comes there regularly to teach Idael’s youngest son to read and write about Fidel Castro’s exploits. I spent several months in the Sierra Maestra filming El Manguito and lived with the family I portrayed in the film. Since there was no electricity in the village, I had to take a camera with me that could be cranked up by hand, so I shot on an old Bolex camera with 16mm film material. It was an unforgettable experience for me to live far away from civilization, without electricity, cell phone, Internet, or supermarkets because you realize how little you need to be happy.
In the documentary Afuera, I accompany the life of two “Jineteros” (male prostitutes) who are looking for a love from Europe to escape their home country of Cuba in order to build a new well-off life far away. Anyone who can do something tries to earn something in Cuba, to sell or to benefit from the tourists. My protagonists of the film are two young men from Baracoa who try their luck with the foreigners. Yohan, above all, is a dreamer who believes in what he has put into tactics when he speaks of love. But Europe is his greatest longing. During my stay in Cuba, I had the desire to make a film that is dedicated to the shadow economy of today’s Cuba and tries to give an insight into the lives of people trying to benefit from tourism.
Over a period of two years, I accompanied four people who live in the Am Kölnberg high-rise complex. The documentary film Am Kölnberg portrays their life with all the ups and downs. They all have one thing in common: the dream of a fulfilling life, far away from Kölnberg, because the high-rise settlement of Am Kölnberg has a bad reputation. In addition to refugee families and immigrants from all over the world, people who have landed on the outer edge of society for a variety of reasons live here. Unemployment, drug abuse and prostitution are part of everyday life for many. Consisting of nine high-rise buildings, the settlement was built on the flat field in 1974 on the southern edge of Cologne. It quickly became a socially troubled area. It’s best not to talk about Kölnberg, and when it is talked about, you only read lurid headlines. It was important to me to look behind the negative reporting and get my own picture of Kölnberg and its residents.
In that sense, your films examine how society holds together. Can you talk about that?
L.G.: The residents of the mountain village of El Manguito do everything they can to maintain their place of residence because they cannot imagine a life in the city. Even if the food deliveries of the Cuban “Libreta” such as rice, cereals, salt and sugar often fail to appear because they live in the forests too isolated and the rain makes the paths impassable, they stay afloat with vegetables that they have in their fields to harvest. Everyone helps each other; they eat together and tell jokes by the fire in the evenings. This is the only way they can deal with the severe poverty and give each other strength. Idael, the head of the family from El Manguito, partly goes to the fields with broken shoes to harvest corn and coffee as he has no rainwear. His only possessions are a few forks and plates, and yet he is the most generous person I have ever met, who unconditionally helps other people who, for example, have no roof over their heads. That impressed me very much.
For four years now, I have been working on a feature documentary about two Syrian brothers who fled the Syrian war and who are transsexual, seeking gender-sensitive surgery. Together with their parents and siblings, they live in a refugee accommodation in Stuttgart. Since their parents are Muslims, in the beginning, it was difficult for the brothers to reveal their secret and to confront their parents with the topic of trans sexuality. However, their other trans friend encouraged them to come out and gave them confidence. So they gradually dared more and now feel more comfortable in their bodies. It was very moving for me to see how important friendships are and what strength the trans community holds in Stuttgart.
Can you expand on your interest in people in marginalized communities such as poor suburbs in Cologne in Germany or the fate of two transsexual Syrian refugees in Germany you have just talked about?
L.G.: I am very fascinated by strong personalities, by people who hold on to their dreams despite their suffering and their precarious living situation. Those who stand up for themselves and their wishes and do not allow themselves to be led astray. I am interested in parallel worlds that you actually have no insight into because they remain closed. I find it fascinating and very enriching to get access to hidden people and places with the help of a documentary and to discover new things that might otherwise have been avoided.
How do you choose your projects and/or your subjects for your documentaries? What inspires you?
L.G.: Sometimes it is a topic, or a place, or a person I meet, who casts a very strong spell on me so that there is no other way than making a film about the person or the place. So far, I haven’t looked for a topic for a film; the topics came to me through encounters with people, through newspaper articles, stories that someone told me. In my opinion, you really have to fall in love with a film topic, you have to be passionate about it. Because you often spend several years with a film, you are connected with the people and the place for a long time. You have to be passionate about it, otherwise you cannot stick to a topic for so long. Most of the time, I am interested in places and people who are far away from my own world and at the same time have something to do with me.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in the film industry in the past two years. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in Germany?
L.G.: So far, I have been lucky that I have not been treated or paid less because of my gender, but I know many female film directors who find it difficult to get well-paid jobs, especially in the feature film sector, or whose projects are less funded. In Germany we have the “Pro-Quote-Film,” a non-profit association that works to increase the proportion of women in all areas of film production. Major German film festivals such as the Berlinale and the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film have now introduced the quota, which I think is a very nice development for the future of women in the film industry.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
L.G.: Agnès Varda is my favorite female filmmaker, and my favorite film by a female filmmaker is Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold.
What are your next projects?
L.G.: I am currently in the editing phase of my new documentary about the two Syrian transgender siblings. We don’t have a title for the film yet. The film will be finished in June this year and then go on a festival tour. I am also currently working on three short documentaries. After four years of working on the feature film, I find it refreshing to dedicate myself to small work that may lead to a long film.