We all direct our own memories

Ruth Beckermann on europamemoria - An interview with Stefan Grissemann

How did the project europamemoria come about? What gave rise to this idea of constructing memory, history and reminiscence from 25 individual voices?

On the one hand, europamemoria is of course a consequence of all the work that I have done before. On the other hand, there was a formal consideration right from the start. After a screening of my film 'Jenseits des Krieges' ('East of War') at the Théâtre Nationale de la Colline in Paris three years ago, I was confronted with the proposal of adapting the filmed reminiscences of the former Wehrmacht soldiers for the stage, for the theatre. That triggered a process within me and allowed a new idea to emerge; it suddenly seemed more interesting to set this sequence of scenes - various people in the same exhibition - not on the stage, but in a room. Yet because I never want to repeat myself and therefore do not like to work with old material, I grew more detached from 'East of War'. After all, the film was completed as early as 1996 and the status of debate about the NS regime has changed: the taboo of talking about the people's participation in the crimes of the Nazis has been broken and there is also more elucidation of a great number of areas - even if the most essential question, namely that of the actual fascination of National Socialism, will remain unanswered. That is why one will always have to fight against the revisionists.

On the other hand, what has increasingly interested me for some time now, also through living in Austria and in France, is what one might call 'European reminiscences'. Here, too, it is a 'battle of memories' between the victims and the perpetrators, the victors and the losers, the east and the west, the well-established and the new arrivals.
'East of War' and europamemoria are indeed applied forms of reflection: both of these works record individual fragments of memory, a personal coming to terms with history. One could even imagine 'East of War' as an installation and europamemoria as a film.

I, too, can imagine europamemoria as a series of 25 short films, as films lasting some five minutes which could be shown on television or as short films at the cinema. europamemoria would probably not work as a continuum, as a long film. 'East of War' was shot in one room in which suddenly the whole world seemed to be gathered together, and that went far beyond the Wehrmacht. This real space with its neon lights and the black-and-white photographs in the background can be presented in film, since it becomes perceptible. europamemoria turns this principle on its head: I wanted to bring people together who live dispersed in quite different places in one space, in the exhibition. That cannot be done as a film, because the visual unity of the place is missing. After all, I don't show anything other than people in their rooms, somewhere in Europe: that was also the reason why I left the background space almost completely blank. Through the extreme close-ups, the question of where becomes superfluous. Instead of that, these people now have a common location in this exhibition space.

According to which criteria were the narrating participants selected?

I wanted to portray people who live in Europe today, yet no longer where they were born. A migration had to have occurred at some point in their lives, a migration within Europe or to Europe, for whatever reasons it may have been. Of course, the most prominent roles were played by National Socialism, Communism and colonialism. For me it was a matter of Europe as a territory: what kind of people live in Europe at the present time? That is the actual idea: Europe as space, today, where very different people with very different memories live. I present this space in a radically individual way: as a Europe of individuals. That is a ius solis in extremis: because they are here, it is their Europe, regardless of where they were born or what nationality they have. That fascinates me. I am not so naive as to believe that it would be possible in real political terms; yet as an art project, as a design, as a dream, it is possible. I believe that, in real terms too, we in Europe have reached a point where we have to throw away all the history books, all the national narratives and write new ones, because they no longer correspond to the memories of considerable sections of the population. In Austria, schoolchildren, a good many of whom are Bosnian, Serbian or Turkish, are taught Austrian history, yet that was experienced in a very different way elsewhere, from another perspective. If one speaks about the Second World War, children from a Serbian family will have heard different things about it, compared children from an Austrian family. Something starts to change when the old narratives are no longer valid. There are five million Muslims living in France, so that one can no longer speak about the Algerian War in the same way as one did twenty years ago, when these people were perhaps already there, but still did not have a voice of their own.

Isn't it asking rather a lot to simply replace the old accounts of history with a radical openness of many voices and stories? Can one teach a ten-year-old about history in that way?

No, certainly not. This is of course only an impetus. It is a matter of changing the perspective: so that one begins to also see the point of view of the respective others - whether they are Jews in Austria, Algerians in France or the people from the former Belgian Congo. One has to take into account the history of the victims. I believe that this shift in perspective is now taking place. If we want to achieve a new Europe, then colonialism will once more become an influential subject, but now in Western Europe, where the children of the former colonised countries will once again remind us of history. And at some time perhaps, even the history of the monarchy in Austria will have to be told in a radically different way.

Yet isn't it true that whoever writes history writes it from his or her own point of view?

Yes, history is the history of the powerful, but that can be changed, according to how well the groups of former victims organise and articulate themselves. The history of the Crusades, for example, will soon be related differently, because it will be told by the second and third generations of Muslim immigrants.

Is europamemoria in this sense also an attempt to narrate history in an alternative way, by having 25 individuals present their own particular stories?

These 25 people are not narrating history, they are relating their own reminiscences. One has to differentiate between history and memory. History is that which a society is able to agree about at a certain point in time, memory is individual. In europamemoria I place, for example, the memories of a Sudeten German beside those of a Polish Jew, which is of course regarded as taboo. It is more convenient to keep each of them in their own compartments. Nevertheless, history is the basis and background of the memories in europamemoria. It is the background; yes, the oldest narrator in europamemoria tells of the decay of an Austrian family during the First World War, the youngest, a 15-year-old Iranian girl, tells of her decision to leave Teheran on her own, in order to be able to lead a life of greater freedom. The history of the past six decades forms the background of most of the life stories: the persecution of the Jews, the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans and of the Italians from Istria, the Spanish Civil War, Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968, Dien Bien Phu, the consequences of British colonialism in India and in Africa or Palestine... Europe suddenly becomes pretty large.

How did you select what would be narrated? Was it easy to shorten the descriptions?

There is always the story of a migration, that is the decisive point. Sometimes that was easy to shorten, sometimes less easy: people narrate in completely different ways and that is also something I like very much about it. Some are very quick and to the point, others narrate only a part, then digress.

In the choice of the stories that have now been presented, tragic stories are mixed up with ones that are much less dramatic. Was it important to retain this mixture?

Definitely, although for me it was not a matter of being representative, i. e. of allowing the inclusion of as many groups, languages or countries as possible. However, it is fascinating that there was nevertheless hardly any repetition in the stories. At first I asked myself: how do I shoot that, whom should I film? I then decided to ask my friends and acquaintances to bring me into contact with people whom they thought might be interesting for such a project. I met a number of people, whom I then asked to tell their stories in front of the camera. The interviews themselves were made without any preliminary discussions. In February 2002 I began shooting in Belgrade, in April I was in St. Petersburg, later in the Netherlands, then in Italy, London, Germany, Austria and France. After each of the interviews I didn't touch the tapes at all at first and only watched the recording after a few weeks. In doing so, I noticed that the material changed in the process, often becoming more interesting than the way one remembered it. Since during the shooting I did everything on my own, even the technical things, and was often pretty exhausted, I sometimes had the feeling after the interviews that they had not been good; later I was then often astonished how exciting they were after all.

What questions did you use to get the narratives going?

Ruth Beckermann No questions, at least no concrete questions, rather direction instructions. I arranged the picture, turned on the camera and then once again described my project. I explained what I was trying to do with europamemoria and that everyone could tell their own story however they want to: from the beginning to the end or even whatever happens to come to mind, or only a short excerpt from it - however they want. I didn't ask anyone to introduce themselves, but it is interesting that some of them did anyway. That is after all one possible way to start. I usually ask as few questions as possible.

A central idea of the project is that of being alone: the spectator is in the cabin alone with the story, just as the person portrayed is alone in the frame. Is europamemoria also a work about loneliness?

Not at all. This stringency is rather my reaction to television. What I find increasingly hard to bear is the way television incessantly mixes everything up together. Even in my other films I have always tended to work with separation rather than with combination. I prefer to show things separated, one after another, rather than, for example, cutting them together so that they are parallel. I went to a lot of trouble for the video segments of europamemoria. Booths were made out of expensive materials for every single narrator, for each of these stories. It is important to take people seriously, to give them as much space, money and opportunity, to not cut them together one after the other or simply show them on monitors in one room. Of course, the spatial situation of europamemoria also has something to do with the film context, namely with editing. Because one goes from one to the other, one assembles one's own film. Movement in film arises above all from cutting, much more than through camera movement. With a cut you suddenly move elsewhere, into another time, another foreign language.

One might say that the kind of editing presented in the exhibition is less authoritarian than that which is usual in film. It also leaves us more scope for chance.

Yes, I like that a lot. And for me, chance and surprise are anyway two of the most important reasons for making documentary films. I try to choose concepts which make surprises possible, I want to be surprised and seduced myself by what happens. If I were able to control everything, film-making would be rather boring.

europamemoria is a more interactive form of documentary film-making: the viewer is activated, not quietened down. Nor are any subtitles added. In that way, too, the viewer is forced to do some of the work.
I am slightly bored by the way videos are usually shown in art galleries and museums today: they are becoming more and more like little perfectly edited feature films, which one sits and watches and asks oneself why one is not at the cinema. One thing I like about exhibitions is the movement. The idea is not for visitors to stay for a long time in one of my booths, but rather - also due to the shortness of the individual contributions - to be animated to stroll around and be active. Connections should be made between what can be seen and what can be heard. In the process, quite surprising parallels emerge, which sometimes hardly have anything to do with the stories themselves, rather with the medium: connections between, for example, the light and the pictorial composition.

europamemoria not only presents a variety of narratives and ways of narrating, but also very different relationships between the speakers and the camera. Was it also a matter of showing how all oral history is also influenced or alienated by the presence of recording equipment?

Yes. Every narrative is a construction, even without a camera or without being recorded. The presence of the camera and the detail of the frame, in which the faces move in such astonishingly different ways, reinforce the constructed aspect still more: then, in montage, once again only one piece of this construction is selected. Artificiality is therefore a fact. And memory changes, it depends a lot on the moment in which it is reproduced. Today, one tells a story about one's childhood differently from the way one would have done so, say, ten years ago, or will do ten years hence, because it is seen from a different perspective. The men in 'East of War' who relate their experiences during the war would not have done so in that way ten years beforehand. It is a matter of self-deception and convenience and it also quite simply depends on one's mood and state of mind on that day: on some days one might be feeling unconfortable about things that one has experienced, on other days one might be above them, or perhaps even find them amusing. One woman I interviewed told me a few days after the recording that what she had narrated in front of the camera had not corresponded to the truth, because she had told it all in a cynical way and left out the pain. For that reason she did not want me to use the video. I found it a pity, because it is not a matter of being true for ever. On that day her story had happened to present itself in that particular way. The next day it could have been quite different. One would have to ask people to tell their stories in front of the camera three times, on three different days, in quite different moods. That is precisely the point: We all direct our memories.

What characterises people between cultures? Are there connecting characteristics?

Of all of them it is true to say that they have one facet, one shade of colour more to their lives than most other people. I also believe that these people are looking for something different than those who were always only in one place. They seem to me to be not so concerned with preserving things, what is representative is perhaps less important for them. I have the impression that production is more important than conservation for them, it is a matter of finding something that one can do together. Away from the questions of "Who am I?" and "Where do I come from?" and towards "What can I do?", "What do I want?" and "What can we do together?".

Does the external movement - the migration - always also lead to greater flexibility of thought?

Of that I am convinced, absolutely. Someone once said that he could only think when he was walking; the moment he stood still he couldn't think anymore. Spatial and intellectual movement are one, I really believe that. They can't be separated. I am fascinated by the idea of movement - i. e. of moving towards one another, or of being able to create something together, despite the fact that people are very different - or precisely because of that.

One question runs through the whole of europamemoria: Is the recognition of not being at home anywhere really liberating? In the case of most of the people portrayed here, the desire for open spaces, for open mental spaces does not seem to have been satisfied.

I believe it varies a lot. I see the mixing of cultures as something very positive, that is also why I was not looking for the typical stories of suffering, although I did not exclude these: if someone had brought me a person who was deeply sad, I would have interviewed him or her. But that didn't happen. And I did want to show people who had made something out of their altered situation. However, the connecting element is the fact that there is always this ambivalence, this pain and loss, for each and every one. Usually it has something to do with landscape, with light and sun, with childhood, with everything that is missing where one happens to be at present. Yet that is where other spaces open up, spiritual territories. One obtains something new, new acquaintances, another culture. However, to do so one has to leave one's tribe, one's people, because one can also live among one's compatriots in a foreign city and build up a ghetto there. To leave that behind requires courage.

One of the very human contradictions which europamemoria demonstrates has something to do with assimilation: one loves the cosmopolitan aspect of one's own existence, yet still has the desire "to be like all the others". Does assimilation necessarily take place?

If one wants to live in a place, one has to learn the language that is spoken there. Otherwise one doesn't have a chance. The children have to have the best possible education. In the course of these interviews, I noticed how people's feeling for life was very much influenced by the country which they went to. People who went to France sang the praises of that country, people who went to Vienna tended to speak a lot about the rejection that they experienced there. Those who went to London also found a society there in which they could move up. Success stories of Indians in Great Britain, or of North Africans in France are much more frequent than those of Turks in Vienna. The society into which one comes plays a big role and today it is easier in those Western European countries which used to have colonies. Assimilation not only makes new things possible, it also erases other things.

But the great thing is that something new develops, that a mixture arises. If one were to maintain the old for ever, then everyone would have to stay in their own ancestral communities, remain forever where they were born. The most difficult thing is of course to leave this community and also to see it critically. Each of these groups, whether it be the Jewish, the Turkish or the Roma community, is incredibly narrow-minded. To be a minority within a minority, that is the most difficult thing of all. But that does not mean adapting to the majority. It takes great courage to leave one's "tribe", including the courage to lose something in order to win something else.