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LOCARNO 2022 Competition

Helena Wittmann • Director of Human Flowers of Flesh

"When I am writing a scene, it’s really about the moment"

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- The German filmmaker and visual artist reflects on her artistic approach and the investigative drive behind her second slow-paced hypnotic feature

Helena Wittmann • Director of Human Flowers of Flesh

We spoke to Helena Wittmann about the Mediterranean as a borderless space, the advantages of small film teams, and the hints of hidden realities around us at the Locarno Film Festival where her film Human Flowers of Flesh [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Helena Wittmann
film profile
]
is locking horns in the International Competition.

Cineuropa: Both feature films you made so far – Drift [+see also:
trailer
interview: Helena Wittmann and Theresa…
film profile
]
and Human Flowers of Flesh are closely related to the sea. Where does the maritime connection come from?
Helena Wittmann: I have the feeling that we all have a certain personal connection with the sea, especially since I've made Drift. And the nature of this connection depends on whether we were born by the sea or far away from it. I come from a place located 300 km inland. In 2005 I moved to Hamburg where through the port one can feel the bonds with other seas and oceans as well, so in Drift I tried to explore this space of economic but also environmental exchange. But so many questions came up and few of them I could focus on in this one film only, so I needed to continue. In Human Flowers of Flesh the sea has a different aspect.

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It certainly does. In your second feature, you seem to explore various conditions of humans and nature through contemplation and I can’t help but think of your experience as a visual artist, since many episodes recall video art. Is it a well thought-out concept or an intuitive decision?
It’s less of a concept but rather my approach to understanding and closely observing the world. When you have time for that, you realise that it’s all there and it’s telling a story, or many stories, or history. I strived to find out how to capture, frame, and layer it. Maybe the world we are living in is a bit out of energy for this observation. Through Human Flowers of Flesh I understood that everything was fluid and interconnected and that borders do not really exist. Organisms in the water are in contact all the time, mixing and changing their places. In the Mediterranean, everything is in a state of flux, including human beings. It’s one environment basically, very vivid and in constant movement while not so divided. I wanted to bring this on screen, and cinema seems the perfect tool for exploring it. In the art space we don’t receive the opportunity to concentrate in this way.

How was life behind the camera and the atmosphere on this boat set?
We shot the main part continuously in 2020 for six weeks. COVID-19 made it difficult, especially with this international cast and crew. But the team was quite small and I liked it this way because it preserves a certain intimacy. We had an additional boat but we never used it in the end, so we were really few, 16 people actually. I had a similar experience with Drift and wanted to keep it like that because it does something with perception and with the way characters make exchanges and influence each other. Sometimes it felt like a utopian space maybe also because it was a weird pandemic time. We had a script, of course, but we could not shoot in Algeria as we'd envisioned due to restrictions, so the last part was shot in Morocco – Rabat, and Merzouga in the desert.

The characters lack biography; their sailing around the Mediterranean feels like a metaphor for their free-floating through life. Did their “liquid” state lead you to the decision not to bring up any personal history?
I am very interested in situations. When I am writing a scene, it’s really about the moment. I don’t believe so much in causality, it somehow bores me. For this reason, I wanted to free them from the baggage of their past. There is something generous and beautiful in their instant interaction of sharing moments together, like reading poetry etc. The important for me is the common context, the community they create here and now.

On the other hand, the main character’s growing interest in the French Foreign Legion refers to history and raises a very important political question – why is this military structure from the colonial past still functioning there? Maybe because colonialism is not past?
I’m happy you saw it like that because this was my intention, to make viewers wonder about this. I also thought they were already belonging to the past before I saw myself those soldiers in Marseille and questions started popping up in my head. There’s not a clear answer as to why they are still here. Could be a remnant of the colonial relations between France and Africa, but also, they are trained as combat fighters in order to enter direct confrontations. For me, it’s like a hint at the possibility of a civil war or another type of conflict but it's really my personal speculative opinion so I am not engaging the audience with such an interpretation. Also, there are so many war conflicts around the world but here in Western Europe we often forget about that. The military context is underneath the surface and is part of reality.

Angeliki Papoulia’s Ida seems very determined to get in touch with this reality but when in the end she sits in the room of Denis Lavant’s character who belongs to the legion, she is not asking questions; they interact on a human level only. Why have you decided it that way?
Because I am more interested in questions than in answers. It opens up space for thinking for myself but also for the viewers. The ideal outcome would be that the audience researches the facts after the film, so they draw their own conclusions. 

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