Eline Gehring began her career as a camerawoman and editor for German news formats in Paris, Prague, Kiev and Berlin and worked for Deutsche Welle in Cairo, among others. From 2009 to 2010, she made a number of short films, documentaries and social spots for NGOs in South Africa, including the Center of Creative Education in Cape Town. She studied Directing at the DFFB – the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin.
Tara Karajica talks to Eline Gehring about “Nico,” her debut feature about a vibrant and carefree German-Persian nurse who finds her world permanently shifted when she becomes the victim of a xenophobic attack, that is screening in the Europe! Voices of Women in Film program at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, as well as film and feminism and her next projects.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Eline Gehring: Absolute cliché: When I was twelve, my parents gave me an analog camera. Since then, I recorded and edited everything I could. So, after graduation it was clear – I had to go to film school! Completely naively, I packed my first car and traveled East. After all, there was this “Babelsberg thing” next to Berlin where people study film. Confronted with reality, I first started to work in television in order to gain as much experience as possible on various cameras. Also, they had a wide variety of editing programs. So, I graduated in Media Design and packed my first camera and a laptop to travel around the world to use my knowledge by making image films for several NGOs. After a year, I missed not only a base, but also the artistic aspect a lot. So, I sent an application from Cape Town to Germany’s film universities and got on the plane a few weeks later to start my studies. And here we are!
How did Nico come about?
E.G.: Sara Fazilat, who plays the lead role in Nico, is also the producer of the film. And, because we started studying at the German Film and Television Academy (DFFB) the same year, we found out early on that we want to make films together. Over the years, she produced almost all of my short films. But since our first film, we shared the dream to make a feature where she also plays the main role – not only because she is an amazing actor, but also because we both felt the need to change the stereotype casting of main roles in Germany. Germany has many more faces and visions than what is currently visible. We wanted to counteract this with Nico from the start. To make a film that is ultimately as diverse as our audience. But not only diversity in terms of origin, but also in terms of body and sexuality must be represented more naturally in the German film and television landscape. We grappled with our anger and helplessness about the fact that in 2021 racism and sexism are still part of our everyday lives, and we started to write the script together.
Nico deals with xenophobia, PTSD, loss of safety and self-confidence, self-empowerment and starting over and the sense of belonging (and the duality that comes with two nationalities). Can you comment on that?
E.G.: Sadly, we are all approaching the topic of racism just by opening the newspaper or scrolling on our social media devices. Also, the topic of sexism is one that every woman knows by heart. For the three of us, Sara Fazilat, Francy Fabritz and myself, as women, we were quite driven to make a film about it. In the beginning, we just talked a lot, shared our experiences, our points of view, our anger, our fear and this helplessness. But the most important thing for us was that we are really done with seeing women in a victim narrative. We needed to focus constantly on how to show bitter reality, like falling in depression, becoming isolated, angry and very sad while staying proud and dignified at the same time. Nico needed to empower herself by leaving her comfort zone and facing her inner pain like we also somehow had to with our way of filmmaking.
You choose not to show explicitly the brutality of the act of violence and are more interested in depicting the emotional damage rather than the physical scars. Can you delve a little more into this choice?
E.G.: A camera that adapts to the events as improvised as possible, but also allows space for cinematic moments, has always been very important to me. Usually, the camera department is the most present on a film set. Large tripods, lots of lamps, monitors and various assistants. This creates an intimate space in which a lot is possible, but also can restrict the authenticity of a scene and its characters. After a few test shots, it was clear to me that the film needed a camera that could move freely and work without assistance. Francy Fabritz, co-author and camerawoman on Nico then worked out a concept with me, with which the desired project could actually be realized. So, we both stood in front of the action all alone being able to follow the actors freely and uninhibitedly. But we also shot a few takes from the racist group in the beginning of the film; we were very clear about the fact that we want to stay as close as possible to Nico’s face, to not lose a single second of her feelings and emotions. We tried to transfer Nico’s fainting to the audience.
Can you talk about Nico? How do you see her?
E.G.: Nico is a woman who has both feet on the ground. She is positive and very self-confident. A woman you can count on. While she is doing her job as a nurse, she’s not only caring about her patients, but she is also their friend. Someone who listens. She is a German-Persian who grew up with both traditions, but it does not feel at all that she is not belonging. Until that xenophobic attack tears her from her self-determined everyday life. Waking up in the hospital, she realizes that she doesn’t seem to be a part of it after all. But she makes a decision: regaining her self-confidence. On her way, she will ask herself how to deal with the anger and helplessness that the attack has created in her. I feel very connected to her and these emotions.
Can you talk about the shooting process?
E.G.: It was not only a matter of the small budget, but also getting that intimacy, so we mostly shot completely on our own. The first scene for example, when you see Nico cycling through the streets, Francy was sitting in the back of my car, while I was driving it, trying to direct Sara through the back mirror. Sara even did her own makeup while I was trying to keep track of the script continuity concerning Nico’s state of recovery. I also think it’s worth mentioning that Sara learned karate months before shooting and started to be as authentic as she could be and is now even wearing the blue belt. Authenticity was a key focus from the start. That’s why we developed some of the scenes exclusively dramaturgically and often left out dialogues. During the shoot, idioms and dialogues could develop that I could never have imagined this way. Authenticity was also the reason I had so much fun during the editing process. I spent months in the editing room. Not always seeing the same sentence in ten different takes, but being spoiled for choice felt extremely satisfying. The work I usually do with actors to prepare a scene was in this case a completely other thing. Someone who is not used to opening up in front of a rolling camera and just letting go without any working tools most actors are used to work with, needs a lot more trust work before and after a shooting day. In the staging part, for example, it was overwhelming for me to work with non-actors like for example Brigitte. She has this authenticity you find a lot in Berlin-Neukölln, but she also stays authentic when the camera is rolling – that was thrilling for me to experience. Every actor needs a suitable counter play in order to be able to develop to the maximum. We also, of course, worked with professional actors like for example Sara Klimoska for the role of Ronny. After a few auditions and test shoots to find the right person, the decision absolutely clear about Sara Klimoska, who was fortunately in Berlin as a Berlinale Talent at this time. I still remember the casting very clearly. That moment when everyone knows: This is it! That fits! Summarized: everything I learned about big film sets and many departments in the last years, I had to forget and just trust my own intuition.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does this inform your filmmaking?
E.G.: Feminism means a million things to a million people. For me, it’s about respecting diverse women’s experiences, identities, knowledge and strengths, and striving to empower all women to realize their full rights, however they look, wherever they come from and whatever roots they have. That’s why I criticize classical cinema for its stereotyped representation of women and men. As a filmmaker, I aim to adequately represent female subjectivity and female desire on screen, because cinema is more than just a reflection of social relations in that it actively constructs meanings of sexual difference and sexuality. It’s also about learning and understanding the ways that inequality affect women and men and remembering that we’re all in this together. True equality leaves no one behind. Even if I live in the “Berlin bubble,” surrounded by many feminists, I often miss men trying to understand what it’s all about. What would always be helpful is dialogue. Back in the days, I found myself in many of these dialogues, rubbing myself up. Nowadays, I prefer to make films. Not only for people who do not support the idea that there should be equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women, whatever roots they have. Even more for people who can identify with being underestimated, people who are not taken seriously, discriminated against or are survivors. There are still too many who feel we’ve already arrived at equality. By the way, I see the rights of trans people and trans women in particular as an integral part of the feminist struggle for all women’s rights.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in the film industry these past four years. What is your take on the matter? How is it in Germany?
E.G.: The film industry in Germany is still hierarchical and patriarchal. It is riddled with structural discrimination. Many filmmakers and actors experience sexual harassment or endure racist remarks. But not only are racist issues worrying me, but also the fact that many homosexual or opposite-sex filmmakers are denying their sexual identity for fear of being disadvantaged. Eighty percent have experienced sexual harassment in a work context. The portrayal of Arab people, for example, is often clichéd. Also, women with Asian roots are often portrayed as over-sexualized. The funding institutions are in demand. Fortunately, some of them already have diversity checklists in the works. Some production companies have even made their own commitment. Attention is also slowly being drawn to this within television networks in general. But “the white person” is still at the center of the stories. So far, most film stories have been told from a Eurocentric perspective. Due to social change, we need new narratives. The key people need to be made aware of this. We live in a diverse society – the film industry must finally face this change!
Sara Fazilat, for example, is on the board of directors of Pro Quote Film. This non-profit association is the voice of filmmakers in Germany who want to work in a diverse, equal and innovative film and media industry and who are ready to campaign for change. Pro Quote Film holds broadcasters, sponsors and film schools responsible for increasing the proportion of female filmmakers to fifty percent.
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?
E.G.: What drives me the most at the moment, is showing women who empower themselves. I am so done seeing male heroes and their stereotype strength, being supported by women. If there are some women heroes in film, they are mostly sexualized or white or they are not able to show their fears and wounds. With my films, I not only want to reach women, by trying to say that they can achieve everything they would like to no matter how they look, no matter what their roots are and what sexuality they identify with, but also to reach men to maybe rethink their behavior and try and help to make this world a little bit more tolerant and equal for all of us.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
E.G.: What a good question! Because there are so many brilliant films by brilliant female filmmakers. If I had to choose one of them, I would definitely go for Céline Sciamma. I not only saw all her films a few times, but I also read her scripts – she studied Screenwriting at La Fémis – and I listened to a lot of masterclasses she gave. One in particular was about her film Portrait of a Lady on Fire that she gave at the Tel Aviv Film Festival, while I was researching for my new project in July. Honestly, I prefer the script to the film, but my favorite film of hers is Bande de filles. It’s directed in a brave way. I can only pull out my hat to it.
What are your next projects?
E.G.: Honestly, I really love survival films with, of course, women in leading roles. I spent this spring in Crete to research my current project. There will be a woman and a canyon and a lot of empowerment.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Eline Gehring.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: