There is no film industry where German director Barbara Ott hails from, but as an adolescent, she loved watching the “Making the Video” series on MTV and found the position of the director fascinating. At school, she was part of a theater group, but the teacher was too shy to be a director. This particular trait of character proved to be a real hinderance as they were never any good, according to her. In fact, during rehearsals, Ott would always find herself thinking: “Tell us more about our characters. What do we want, think, feel? What’s our background? Where are we from? Where are we headed? Why is our character acting the way he/she is? These thoughts – that are essentially a director’s thoughts – troubled her from a young age.
Born in 1983 on the German-Czech border, Ott holds a degree in Fiction Directing from the Film Academy Baden-Württemberg. Her graduation film, “Sunny,” successfully toured the international film festival circuit and won numerous awards including the Best German Short Film Award, the FIRST STEPS Award, the Studio Hamburg Newcomer Award and the German Camera Award.
“Kids Run” is her debut feature about a former boxer being tested to the core as he attempts to keep custody of his three children and provide for them while struggling as a day laborer.
How did Kids Run come about?
Barbara Ott: I watched a documentary about an American Amateur Boxing Championship. There was a guy – no money, always in trouble – who reminded me of some boys I used to know when I was younger. Another one wanted to win the championship, hoping his love would come back. Somehow, I felt connected to them. I wanted to tell more about their characters. But the biggest inspiration was my experience as a child. I had a friend who was a Sinti and Roma and his mom was a single-parent – two facts that made you a minority where I grew up. We were only four or five years old when I found out that people faced him with their prejudices and that he would never have the same chances in life as I. This former friend is my inspiration. He’s my main character. Somehow, I’m still trying to fight for his rights and protect him. That’s why, deep in my heart, I made this film for guys like him.
Among many subjects, the film tackles (the importance of) family, responsibility, but also the tropes of the unfit mother and being with the wrong people. Can you comment on that?
B.O.: There was a thought that affected me: imagine a woman who forbids the father of her children to see his children. We often know about stories like this. But a father who forbids a mother to see her children: everybody would yell, or cry out. So, I wanted to show a father who fights for his children like a lion, like a mother usually, in our minds, does. You are asking about being with the wrong people. I think it’s often your decision which way in life you want to go. Of course, people around you, especially the social milieu in which you live and move plays a major role in this regard. You have to decide to go with or keep your distance from the people around you. But your decision is also always dependent on a variety of options. In Kids Run, Andi’s friends are both. His support, but also part of what goes on to ruin him. So, what should he do?
In that sense, you create a picture of a cold and merciless world that feels more like a transit area than a place to live, a world where destitution breeds injustice and leads to nothing but a dead end. Why was it important for you to show this? And tell this story the way you did?
B.O.: Mostly, where there is poverty or a large proportion of migration, the places lack the quality of life, livable housing and heating. There are no offers for youths or young parents and if they exist, they often do not reach them. They have to travel long distances, pass industrial, noisy and dangerous streets. Many people have no other option than to live in areas like these. It is not their fault; it is a consequence of our capitalist urban planning and the fear and selfishness of the rest of the population. Many lack perspective and a better future. It is hard work and often impossible to escape from your current situation, especially when you have never had the perspective of being able to make it in another world, too. Andi is one of these guys, who has probably never heard that he is alright the way he is, that someone was proud of him. He has never had the experience that he can achieve anything. So, all he has is himself. And his children. He is a guy who fears the authorities, who cannot ask for help, who doesn’t dare to ask for help. Where can you get a perspective from? How can you visualize things, if you have never had it exemplified? How can you fight for something if you don’t have the words to find arguments? And there is another aspect: I was born and grew up in the countryside. Wide spaces, lakes and fields surrounded our small city. But it is also an area where people aren’t rich. They are often low-income shift workers in the glass or porcelain industry. Our garden bordered a field, but our front door looked over at a big factory. It was a world between two settings. In my work, you will always discover these two worlds. In my films, I always try to bring in both of these aspects. You are talking about a dead end. I don’t think there is a dead end. There is hope in this story. A lot of hope. Andi realizes that he cannot do the same mistake as the mother of his children does. He is a lovely father and he realizes that he is able to provide for his children.
Exactly. On the other hand, it is contrasted by moments of warmth between Andi and his children whose eyes radiate unconditional love. Can you elaborate on that?
B.O.: I like the tough guys, with the hard shell and soft core. And I passionately remove layer by layer to look into their souls. As a child already, I was fascinated by the tough, lonely guys. They are like a force of inspiration and creativity for me. I like to tell their stories. It is probably my way of fighting for equality, against class discrimination and against prejudices against minorities. No matter where we come from, no matter how we look, no matter how much money we earn, we all feel the same.
Let me tell you a story. One night, in Berlin, at one of the screenings of the Berlinale, there was a very tough guy, a kind of guy that you usually do not see at a film festival. He came out of the theater after the film, crying his eyes out. It was great for me to see that, honestly. It was like meeting my own Andi. And I got the opportunity to show Kids Run in a German prison to a room full of prisoners. It was a big honor to have the opportunity to show the film there and to come into such close contact with these guys. It was very touching indeed. The guys were very touched by the film. We had a long chat afterwards and they told me that all of them have experienced things like that. For me, it is a great gift that the film touches these people. And it was like: “Yes, you are these guys. You are the audience I made the film for.” Guys like them feel the hope the film wants to give them. The film tells you that you can make it even if the journey is difficult. You are able to love even if you are a tough guy. You are good for your children. You can be soft and give shelter even if people don’t think so. And if the women you love don’t love you back, stay fair and hold it together. You are still a family, even if it’s not the kind of family you once imagined it to be.
You create the above-mentioned world with a restless camerawork, restless images, and hard cuts. Can you talk about the film’s aesthetic?
B.O.: I worked again with D.o.P Falko Lachmund and editor Gregory Schuchmann that I had worked with on my film, Sunny. We already know each other very well and we know that we want to stress the inner feelings and restlessness of Andi’s character. Everything should be on a really tough and dynamic level. Like a punch in the face or high blood pressure. I was also looking for a certain setting – a transit area – located anywhere in Europe and not assignable to any particular district or country. I wanted to have the combination between industrial area, demolished industry and nature. We found it around Cologne and especially in Belgium.
How was the shooting process?
B.O.: We had a very cozy and warm atmosphere during the shoot – especially between Jannis, the children and myself. We were like a family. The children got along very well. They had a lot of fun and were highly motivated every single shooting day. It was awesome and a great gift for me. Jannis Niewoehner is a wonderful human being and actor. He was so calm, sensitive and funny with the children. They loved him. And he is also a very disciplined actor. He trained really hard a couple of months before the shoot with a private boxing trainer and he built at least 20 kg of muscles. It was enormous. We had some very tough and aggressive scenes in the script. So, for these scenes, we literally played together, like for example when the father grabs him hard and throws him and presses him on the sofa. Actually, it was just a game for the children. We did martial arts. It was one of the children’s favorite games: to lift them up and drop them on the bed or the couch. This is all we did during the rehearsals and the shoot. This is how we practiced that tough scene. One of the most important things for me was to let the children play, not to restrict them too much and write situations where they can move naturally. So, the children found it very interesting to get so close to their characters, to children who don’t enjoy as many privileges as they do. So, they felt safe during the shoot and had a lot of fun, singing and with the baby and a trailer full of sweets. We even came to a point where I forbid sweeties during the takes. It became too much!
Can you talk about the title of the film, “Kids Run”?
B.O.: I wanted a short title – hard and fast. They are always on the run, out of the house, running to the school bus, or to grab something to eat. Andi’s fight for custody for his children is a run and so are his struggle for money and his wish to win back his ex-girlfriend. They are damned to run because life’s hunting them.
Can you talk about the two women in the film, the unfit mother and Sonja? How do you see them?
B.O.: I wanted to talk about people with serious weaknesses, but I wanted to treat them with respect. I never felt contempt for them, instead I simply accepted them as they are. I wanted to show a mother who is unable to provide for her children. But I never wanted to blame and judge her for that. It’s just the way it is. And she is totally fine. She is what she is; she is simply not a mother. Maybe more of a friend to the children. The children have to deal with it, just like the father. And he certainly does. It wasn’t easy for me, as a woman and a feminist, to portray two women, one of whom is mentally ill and another who says: “He can buy everything my baby needs,” but I didn’t want to show it in one-dimensionally, so instead I focus on the emotions behind the words. Both women are very strong women. One has decided not to be a mother and the other one has a clear and straight way she wants to go. They are no victims.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does this inform your filmmaking?
B.O.: Yes, of course I am a feminist! When I read scripts and think about new stories, I am very strict with the point of view and the representation of women. But I also like the perspective of a man in typical women’s situations. I like to throw the father in situations where he has to handle the children, the household, the job, everything by himself. It’s interesting that it is still a typically female thing, by the way, to handle the children, the household, the job… But I also believe that there ARE some men who do that. Men are able to do what women do, just like women are able to do what men do. It is very interesting that we are still talking about that. That we have to.
What subjects interest you and that you would like to tackle in your work? What would you like audiences to come away with after watching your films?
B.O.: Well, first of all, I like it when the audience take their own individual concerns and interests out of a film. Actually, I just make the film. In Kids Run, I just wanted to tell Andi’s story. But I experienced that some people are very touched by the moments between him and the kids and others are familiar with his passion to fight for his love, although it’s already over. And these are the two main topics for me as well. For me, the soul of the film is the unbreakable bond between the father and his children. But I also wanted to tell that parents, no matter if they are still together as a couple, living separately, as a patchwork, or whatever, and are mentally able to take care of their children, it matters for the children that they somehow stick together. Children need a place where they can feel safe and loved. Even if it’s not always the easiest way, and even if the ex-partner no longer fits into the concept of life, the children still have a right to all of their parents.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
B.O.: There are a few: Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey), Cate Shortland (Somersault), Alice Rohrwacher (The Wonders), Jane Campion (The Piano, Top of the Lake), Valeska Griesebach (Western), Maren Ade (Everyone Else). And I adore Jill Soloway (Transparent).
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in the film industry these past two and a half years. What is your take on the matter? How is it in Germany?
B.O.: I support ProQuote Film, a political movement that advocates for equality in terms of contracts and funding. ProQuote Film was the main reason why editors from broadcasters and producers became aware of the fact that there are female filmmakers as well, but there is still a long way to go before reaching equality. Let me show you some facts and figures: in 2019, in Germany, there were 50% of female filmmakers in film schools. 10% of the nationwide film funding went to projects by women directors. 8% of the fictional film productions of the two largest German public broadcasters were shot by female DoPs. There were 6% of female screenwriters in 2018 and 2 % of female DoPs involved in the Tatort film series in 2019. I often hear: “We want to work with a woman,” when people ask me to read their script. But it still feels like a special status. I hope that at some point it will level out and people will, of course, be looking for all genders at the same time and will give them the same budget and the same salary! It has to be equal!
What are your next projects?
B.O.: I am currently writing a tough family portrait, a bit more mystical than Kids Run. Somehow, I am still not done telling family stories. And I had a very lovely story about two girls who were best friends since they were children, but whose friendship ends in their late twenties. It was a script that I didn’t write myself. However, due to the pandemic, it was unfortunately postponed until next year.
Photo credit: J. Matjasko.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: