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The real faces of Tempelhofer Feld

INTERVIEW! An interactive documentary about Tempelhofer Feld has just been released in English. We meet the filmmakers behind this project, who tell us why the stories they heard are much bigger than Berlin.

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An interactive documentary tells the story of Tempelhofer Feld through the eyes of those who know it best. (Photo by ronjafilm / Field Trip GbR.)

For Berliners, Tempelhofer Feld means many things. A place to exercise, fire up a grill, lay about or even tend to your personal garden, it’s likely the only airport most of us have visited over the past few months since most flights out of the city were grounded. Field Trip, an interactive documentary released in German last year, has recently been translated into English. It’s a  92-minute collection of short films and interviews, displayed in non-linear fashion, exploring the experiences and perspectives which have intersected and overlapped in this sprawling, open space. And with guided tours of Tempelhof running once again after pausing for the coronavirus lockdown, the release is timely.

Field Trip tells the history of the field through personal stories from throughout the decades, contrasting past experiences with those from today. We meet an 89-year-old Polish woman who visits the field for the first time since she was held captive and forced to work by the Nazis. Then there are lost dreamers who visit to watch the planes fly away to unknown places, along with radical planters who cultivate the urban gardens in an attempt to break away from food-dependence. There’s also a French sex worker who comes here to escape and even a controversial investor who wants to build flats on the field and make it the site of a new Oktoberfest.

Earlier this week, Leander Jones visited Tempelhof Feld with Frédéric Dubois (author, interactive producer) and Eva Stotz (author, director, producer) to learn more about their film.

[Watch the film here.]

Why did you make a documentary about Tempelhof?  

Eva: The Onlookers, my first documentary, was the starting point. I shot it in 2004, when Tempelhof was still an airport. It showed Tempelhof as a place people projected their dreams onto – a place where people came and dreamed. It was a story that needed to be continued.

In the first film, I tried to find out what the people dreamed about when they stood there. I wanted to know how it is for people now regaining that space, and breaking that boundary of an airport being an exclusive place only for people who travel.  We now have this extreme, open, inclusive place. This was the friction that made us continue Field Trip

Did you find the same people to speak with again?

Eva: No, most of them don’t live there any more. You could see they were working class, and now this neighbourhood has changed so much – a lot of people moved away. 

What was the main question you were trying to answer with this film?

Eva: We talked a lot about this “core question”, because the place is so vast and the stories are so big, it was difficult to pinpoint one question. But what kept on coming up is that this place has seen so many different episodes in Berlin, in world history. A lot of stories present this place being either exclusive or inclusive .

It’s a microcosm that stands for much more than just Berlin history or German history. A lot of world history has left its traces here.

It’s a microcosm that stands for much more than just Berlin history or German history. A lot of world history has left its traces here. And we tried to find out how, when we really focus on this moment, and also on stories of the past, how we could envision the future. To really look at this microcosm, to try to find out how we live, new ways of living together, new ways of thinking about the city outside of the usual capitalist system, because here suddenly there was a new model. 

Frédéric: For me, the core questions were, “How do you live in a city?” and “What do people do when they get complete freedom, or creativity, to do something with a space like this?” Then, over time, we got to know the field some more, and found out that it’s not that free at all – there are a lot of rules. There are park rangers, people need to leave in the evenings and there are limits to what you can do. You can’t build anything here that isn’t temporary. But still, I wanted to deal with that, while not forgetting the historical part. So, for me, it was important to look back at what happened here. 

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Filmmakers Frédéric Dubois and Eva Stotz at Tempelhofer Feld. (Photo by Leander Jones.)

What were your first experiences with Tempelhof?

Eva: My first experience was when I made the film about the people looking through the fence as part of a film workshop at film school. I kept coming back because I felt a strong connection to the people dreaming, needing the big sky. When I first stepped onto this vast openness I felt like I was at the sea somehow. And still, when I’m here for a day, when I come home, I feel like I’ve spent some time at the sea.

Frédéric: My first experience was in a plane. I took a flight from here to Brussels in 2006/7. When I moved to Tempelhof, I started really enjoying the field. In that period, I met Eva at a film festival in Munich, and she was pitching the project. I had already been researching the field, so I knew I wanted to work with her as soon as I heard about her plans. I wanted to convince her that this needs to be an interactive piece. She knows how to do linear films, and once we met up she also got into the interactive idea. And this is how Field Trip took shape. 

Why was making an interactive film important?

Frédéric: We wanted to connect with an audience that doesn’t know Tempelhof. When you know it, there are different entry points onto the field, and you meet different kinds of people all the time. This is the normal modus operandi on the field. We wanted to translate that into a media format that would translate that not only through the content, but through the form – that would make you feel like you bump into people, like you rub against different layers of history. So we wanted to mimic the real life experience. 

We tried to make the field the main protagonist. In contrast to other documentaries, which are usually very character driven, we tried to put the single protagonists in the background.

Eva: Plus the aspect of the story being told in layers. There were threads happening in the past that rub against threads happening now. There are refugees now staying in the place where  refugees from the GDR stayed. All these kind of stories that layer on this ground that has never been built upon. So this idea of being able to dive into another moment of time – that was the idea with the interactivity. And that was the perfect form for it. The interactivity makes it much more intuitive and exciting, because every user decides herself how to track that path. 

How did you find people who were willing to talk to you?

Eva: I’m always amazed how open people are. All you need is a microphone and a camera and people will instantly tell you their dreams. I mean it’s changing a little bit – people are becoming a little more media-aware, and try to protect their privacy and these kinds of things. That wasn’t the case 15 years ago. But, generally, if you come across as someone who is genuinely interested, people open up.  

Why was it important to include the investor?  

Frédéric: He came via a lawyer neighbour of mine. We were lucky, because this guy came relatively quickly, and he was very generous with his time, and open, and ready to share his point of view without being sorry for it. 

The investor doesn’t come across as the smartest, most informed kind of guy. His arguments are nonsense. But it’s important to let the viewer decide.

Eva: The investor doesn’t come across as the smartest, most informed kind of guy. His arguments are nonsense. But it’s important to let the viewer decide, because I’ve met people at screenings in favour of what the investor says. We wanted to have the openness for the viewer to decide. This is what we liked about the architect. There are millions of ideas about architecture for the field, but what we really loved is to see the other way of imagining the city. What if this remains in the hands of Berlin, and is taken out of the capitalist law that the ground needs to raise in value? This was the thought that we wanted to include.

Do you have a favourite story?

Frédéric: We tried to make the field the main protagonist. So in contrast to other documentaries, which are usually very character driven, we tried to put the single protagonists in the background. 

Eva: I think all the protagonists are equally important. I couldn’t say what’s my favourite. They all have a colour. 

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An evening shooting session. (Photo by ronjafilm / Field Trip GbR.)

What were the main difficulties?

Frédéric: Sound recording was difficult because of wind and airport interferences. Getting the permit to film here took a year. A private company, Grün Berlin GmbH, runs Tempelhof not actually the city of Berlin, and so they had to get all the local councils to agree. We set up a story box at the garden and it took us eight months to get approval for that. So there were tonnes of difficulties.

That’s quite a contrast to the freedom of the place.

Frédéric: Exactly, that’s what we discovered. It’s much more complex than we thought, and less free. It’s an interesting finding. Some protagonists were not available, others didn’t want to be on camera. Other people didn’t want to engage with our creative commons, open-source approach. We felt indebted to the community to give back the content to the community.

The story-box was interesting. People could leave a message on the answering machine, and we could match that with any footage we had. One of the people was a French sex worker, who was just there in the winter time, escaping from her reality for a second. There were many little bits like that that we really appreciated. The stories were touching.

I’m always amazed how open people are. All you need is a microphone and a camera and people will instantly tell you their dreams. 

Eva: It was not an easy project, because of this mix of forms. It’s too creative to be just a documentary film, and it’s too interactive to be funded by film funds.

Frédéric: It’s not interactive enough to be a game, so no game funding. It’s a bit old-school, in that the interactivity we have is quite simple, and so it’s already not really well fitted to commercial platforms. And  it’s not a documentary about one message, so it’s quite hard to sell it. It’s more of an open experimental project. We fought a big fight, and I’m quite proud that we managed to pull it off.   

Is there a part of you that’s still always looking for stories?  

Eva: No, but I had that for such a long time. I’m happy to let go now and do new projects. 

Frédéric: One thing in the grand plan that hasn’t come together is that we initially wanted it to be a living documentary. Something that can evolve over time, and isn’t a finished product, like a film. It’s something that can really change, where we or other people can add episodes or stories to it.  

Eva:  I think it’s still possible. I guess there will always be moments where attention moves back to the field. The structure is made for growing, so it’s technically possible to be enlarged by new episodes, and I would love that.

Perhaps people could freely add their own films?

Eva: We considered it, but we wanted to maintain a certain standard. We realised that would mean a lot of editing, a lot of curation. But if another film team would be up for adapting this style, it would be wonderful to enlarge the project.