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Windowflicks: Bringing kino to the courtyard

INTERVIEW! Olaf Karkhoff’s community project, using powerful projectors to screen movies on bare walls for entire apartment blocks to enjoy, has caught the world’s attention. Our film editor hears the origins of this game-changing idea.

Image for Windowflicks: Bringing kino to the courtyard

Olaf Karkhoff’s Windowflicks nights are turning apartment blocks into cinemas. (Photo supplied by Windowflicks.)

Coronavirus has turned film fans into housebound streamers, and with things gradually starting to reopen but no date on the horizon for cinemas, people have been getting creative. That’s the case for Berliner Olaf Karkhoff, an architect for 30 years and managing director of the firm Metagrey, who has managed to bring the joys of cinema to those who miss it most. He has set up Windowflicks, a company that brings the movies to the courtyards of Berlin free of charge, every Thursday and Saturday. They project films onto bare walls as people sit on their balconies or lean on windows, recreating a sense of community and simultaneously supporting the endangered local Berlin kino scene by collecting donations for the Fortsetzung Folgt (To Be Continued) appeal.

We spoke with Olaf Karkhoff about his facadekino initiative, creating neighbourhood spirit and the increased importance of sharing and solidarity.

Tell us about the name of this project, Windowflicks, which brings to mind a mammoth-sized streaming platform?

The idea was to play with the Netflix name, but this time the people are not sitting behind their solitary screens and instead they’re at the window. For us, it’s like the picture of an opening window, and with it, you open your mind and your heart at the same time, and you see what’s outside. It’s about staying at home yet being with other people, connecting with neighbours whilst being safe.

Where did the idea come from?

Well, Metagrey is my architecture company but I work with other people who are teaching at the TU Berlin (Technische Universität Berlin) and I had the idea to work on lights. We did research on lighting, and one of our projects involved a projector for simulations. When the pandemic started, we asked ourselves what we could do. We wanted to change and recalibrate our current project in order to do something for the community and the stay home campaign. Because what we saw was that the politicians started early, which is good, but they didn’t give off a sense of awareness of the pandemic on a personal level. We wanted to help people, and make sure they didn’t have to feel isolated. Since no one can get to the cinemas and because we were already working with projectors, we thought we could bring the movies to the courtyards. We’ll bring the cinema to them.

There’s also a socially engaged dimension to the project.

I always think about social engagement, and through my new company, Metachrome, we worked with and supported Exit-Deutschland – the programme for people who want to exit the right-wing radical scene – to work against the extreme right. For Windowflicks, it is engaged because we had the idea to help and support Berlin’s varied cinema scene. The small cinemas have the Fortsetzung Folgt (To Be Continued) appeal, and Windowflicks supports the campaign by setting up donations for their platform. All the funds go to them.

The To Be Continued crowdfunding campaign aims to raise over €700,000. How much money has been raised or pledged thus far?

So far, we’ve managed to raise about €130,000, which is not bad. I can only hope that the attention can be shifted from politics to culture, and that those like me, who are in a position to give something, do. We really have to see how important these cinemas are to Berlin’s identity, and how we need every one of them.

Image for Windowflicks: Bringing kino to the courtyard

How does the actual process of getting a screening to your courtyard work?

It’s very simple. You write an email to windowflicks.de with a picture of the wall we can project on and the address, so we can do the location scouting. And that’s it!

Sounds simple enough! Are there any specific requirements for the façade?

What we really need is a frontal projection – it’s not possible to do it from a 45° angle, or the image will be distorted. And we try to avoid very high trees! (Laughs) But, that’s about it. The wall can be black, brick… It’s not important, because our projectors are very bright.

With regards to your film catalogue, how many films do you currently choose from for the projections?

At the moment, seven. But we’ve had offers from certain film distributors and companies – DCM, StudioCanal, Weltkino, X Filme – that have said we can choose any film in their catalogues. But we have to select carefully because it has to be suitable for children and our choices depend on the FSK classifications.

It shows that Berlin isn’t this hard place and that not all Germans are cold rationalists!

The screenings are free. Do you have any sponsorship or financial support for this project?

No, not yet. We are the sponsorship for the kinos and the To Be Continued campaign. As a Berliner, it felt important to give back. I started from nothing and in the last years, I’ve had a lot of luck, because Berlin has a lot of luck. We have to share and we have to be aware that there are a lot of people out there who don’t have that luck.

Have you had people reach out to you for support?

Yes, at the beginning we were making some popcorn ourselves, and then Knalle Popcorn got in touch and they offered to bring the popcorn. But everything else in the organisation, the technical aspect, etc – that’s us. We don’t have any sponsors for that. Of course, we are looking for some, but then that will go directly as a donation to the cinemas. I don’t want any money from this project.

You’ve done about a dozen screenings since end of March and the reactions have been impressive. There’s even been some international press coverage.

The attention has been very surprising. We thought we had a good idea for the people, and we didn’t expect so many positive echoes. It’s like a gift for us, because all the national and international press attention is good for the cinemas, too. I love Berlin, and the fact that this project can be news in Europe and on an international level is important. It shows that Berlin isn’t this hard place and that not all Germans are cold rationalists. They also have a heart, and they can do something for another people.

Have there been any reactions that particularly moved you?

What’s the most moving are the situations in the courtyard and actually doing the evenings. The first projection was Wings Of Desire, and we even got a video from Wim Wenders, giving his blessing and support. That was an extraordinary moment. But there was one evening which was very special – one courtyard had a family from Sweden, and it was their little girl’s sixth birthday on the evening of the projection. They’d been in Berlin for only one year, and the father was afraid that his daughter wouldn’t be able to have a birthday party. Obviously, nobody could come, but the whole neighbourhood organised a small party from their windows, with candles, and they’d put a table in the courtyard with gifts. She was very excited, and the father said that he couldn’t imagine a better place to be than in Berlin at this moment. It’s a big gift when you see these kind of reactions.

We have to find another consciousness and society has to change a little bit. We have to learn to share.

We talked to several owners of independent kinos in Berlin, with one stating that they’re facing “an existential crisis”.

Absolutely. It is. We are in constant contact with Yorck Kinos and have had contact with other independent cinemas, who have kindly sent messages of thanks for helping out. But, sadly, even before these times of crisis, the kinos were facing struggles. And it’s a shame, because as I said, they are very important for Berlin.

And when they do open, there’ll be further struggles, as they’ll have to put distancing measures in place.

Yes, and it’ll only be with a third of the spectators. It’s expensive for them. I think we really need other initiatives and to think about other organisations for culture. We have to find another consciousness and society has to change a little bit. We have to learn to share.

Image for Windowflicks: Bringing kino to the courtyard

Things are starting to reopen gradually, and there are even talks of there being a Freiluftkino season, with spaced-out seating and distancing on site. Do you think it’s too soon to ease the lockdown?

We started early, and I stopped my office on the March 10 – nearly a week before the shutdown – with everyone doing home office. I’m not an expert or a scientist, but I do think it’s too early. I hope I’m wrong, but I think we risk another shutdown in Autumn again. When the politicians talk about reopening everything now, in people’s mindsets it feels like it was not really a crisis. That’s not the right frame, and people were very responsible at first. Opening too early might be a mistake. But, however, I understand it. You need perspective, and a lot of people are out of work. Businesses need to survive, but I don’t know if the solution is to open all shopping malls so that people have their minds on other things. You can do other things to give people perspective and a certain positive power, and for me, reopening so soon feels like a lack of creativity.

You’re going to be doing Windowflicks every Thursday and Saturday until the kinos open – afterwards as well?

Yes, I think so. We haven’t really thought about an exit strategy. Like I said, our idea was to give something back and do something for the community. There are no plans to expand, but it could exist after the crisis. Yorck Kinos and Arte are thinking about Windowflicks being one part of the cinema scene now in Berlin. I like this idea, but I don’t want to earn money with this. Right now, it’s all about getting sponsors and thinking about other initiatives.

Any you can share with us?

I’ve had a lot of requests from Belgium and from Italy, asking if we could do this from somewhere else or give them support. I would like to do that, because this was also one of our ideas – to inspire people all over. One of my dreams would be to do one concert over 100 courtyards simultaneously. But it’s challenging on a technical level. The other idea would be to have a concert broadcast in Berlin courtyards and also in five other cities, like Athens, Rome, Paris, Madrid and London, to show European thinking and initiative, but also to collect donations for Greece and the refugees who are there in the camps. My hope is to inspire people to think like this in times of crisis, to not remain stuck in a “I cannot do anything” mentality. We have to look at the people who are really in a big crisis right now and not forget about them.

Visit Windowflicks here, book your evenings, donate, and support your local independent cinema scene any way you can.