Anna Sofie Hartmann made his second feature film with “Giraffe”, a beautifully framed portrait of a love story between an ethnologist and a young Polish worker in the middle of a tunnel construction and homes demolition narrative.
WEEKEND: “Giraffe” tells the story of a real tunnel being built between Denmark and Germany. Can you tell us why you chose to use the tunnel as a frame for your story? What is the connection between the tunnel and the message of the film?
The Femarn tunnel, when finished, is meant to increase the transportation of goods from Scandinavia to Mainland Europe. To me that is the perfect material manifestation of good old global capitalism, which is, whether we like it or not, the structure in which our world functions. It’s interesting how these forces are inescapable, even in the most innocuous places like Lolland. And I believe those forces and mechanism ooze into our daily lives and affects our relationships, be it with other people, with the world around us or with ourselves.
That’s the bigger picture sort to speak. Having demarcated Rødbyhavn, where the tunnel will be built, as the place of interest made it easier to look for the specific stories where these conditions become visible or at least tangible: Leif and Birte who have to leave their home, Lucek and the Polish guys who work away from home, or Dara the ethnologist, who moves from project to project. It’s (all) about how we live and create a life for ourselves in the world of today.
The tunnel project literally spans decades and slowly but surely the new will destroy the old. Using the project as a point of departure became the frame to talk about bigger questions and to create echoes and built connections in the film to the overarching theme, the high note that lies like a thin blanket over everything: impermanence. Be it of beings, things, relationships and the self.
Your debut film “Limbo” also takes place at the southern Danish island of Lolland, where you grew up. In “Giraffe” you return to Lolland and your childhood neighbourhood. What keeps you going back to this setting?
On a pure practical level my mother still lives there, so I inevitably return to Lolland more or less frequently. I love the empty beaches in the summer, the enormous skies towering over the fields and the calmness of my mother’s garden. I simply like being there. On a societal level I see in Lolland our post-industrial world: as in many other rural or industrial areas in the West, opportunities for living and working are diminishing, depopulation results and old social structures change. This is not unique to Lolland, it could be Brandenburg in Germany. It’s a European transformation…. It again ties back to the conditions of our shared world, at this moment in time.
To me the question that arises from these structurally challenged areas (as it’s called in Germany) is when I can’t stay where I come from, where do I belong? I find it extremely fascinating how our increased mobility and communication have reshaped how we relate to home, family and community.
"I find it extremely fascinating how our increased mobility and communication have reshaped how we relate to home, family and community."
“Giraffe” is a falling-in-love story between Dara, an ethnologist, and Lucek, a Polish worker, which sets the overall narrative of the film. Why did you choose these characters to tell your story?
Dara the ethnologist made meandering possible, so the film could meet different people and places. Her job is based on a real job done by the local museum and although I expand her field of interest in the film, it was the perfect character to send into the world I wanted to portray.
Lucek also came about through research, I knew about the Polish migrant workers on Lolland at the beginning of the 20th century, but not about the migrant workers living there today – I felt there was a need to make these members of our society visible. The same way I wanted to portray the area of Rødbyhavn, to give visibility to people living there.
As to their shared story, I knew from the beginning I wanted to tell a falling-in-love story in the midst of all the other interests in the film. Falling-in-love is like the antidote to death, it makes the present rich, colourful, light. Connecting with another human being is the most exhilarating thing I can think of. Both of them being in Rødbyhavn for a clearly defined time played into the theme of impermanence. Theirs is a relationship that is bound to end, by the nature of why they’re there in the first place.
Dara is very thorough documenting the houses planned to be demolished. Her work involves a great amount of documents, letters and diaries, she collects. How much of this reflects your own method as a filmmaker?
It echoes my method for sure. I start the writing process on a film by going out into the world with a vague sense of an idea. I take a lot of photographs. I visit places to sense what feeling I get. Ideas grow from reading, from driving around, from research and from my imagination. I collect fragments and then try to connect them. I try to communicate a feeling about the world, about people and places. It becomes very personal in many ways.
In “Giraffe”, you both worked with professional and non-professional actors. Can you tell us how your process was and how you worked with the script?
A lot of work is before the actual shoot. Meeting with the actors several times. They get a sense of who I am, and I try to explain how I work and what I’m looking for in a particular scene. We get to know each other, we get to trust each other. In the context of shooting, the work is very different if it’s a scene with Lisa (who plays Dara) and Knud (the farmer) where certain information is needed, or if it’s a scene with Mariusz and Jakub (who plays Lucek) where the focus is to observe and describe an atmosphere, their relation and a place.
As for the script, all the scenes are written, but mostly as placeholders as to what they need to communicate, but not necessarily how the scene should be played out. For the scenes with the non-pros I will never use the written dialogue. For scenes between actors and non-actors it’s basically navigating through a pre-agreed basic direction and content of the scene. Which means I needed actors who knew how to move within that method and were willing to let go of control. That demands a huge amount of trust on behalf of everyone.
For the scenes between the professional actors the approach was slightly different. The scripted dialogue was used as a point of departure. Again, the emphasis was on what was being said, and not the how. So we would rehearse and search for the right dialogue together, then I would rewrite. Sometimes on set right before shooting, trying to react to the developments from the previous shooting days and/or from the morning rehearsal. Sometimes we ended up in ridiculous drama, but that’s okay, we laugh and we move on and try a different direction. When you can create such an open atmosphere together then it’s possible to really explore.
That’s the most important lesson for me from this film: it’s all based on trust. Getting to know one another and trusting each other, be it “pros” or “non-pros” or the crew, trusting that the whole circus is moving in the same direction.
“Giraffe” explores big themes such as identity and the feeling of belonging in this ever changing world - in a very intimate and local scale. Can you elaborate on your thoughts behind this?
There are the obvious stories I’ve mentioned already, Leif and Birte who have to leave their home, the Polish guys who leave their home country to work abroad, Dara who moves around for temporary work, even the giraffe of the film is transported outside of its natural habitat. There are senses of loss in those stories, but also a hope for a different future. How do we build roots? What does home mean? There’s the question of how a place influences your sense of self and how your sense of self is shaped when that connection, the feeling of belonging, fails or changes.
"How do we build roots? What does home mean? There’s the question of how a place influences your sense of self and how your sense of self is shaped when that connection, the feeling of belonging, fails or changes."
The question also leads me to an aspect of the film I haven’t spoken about yet: Agnes. Agnes and her house tell about belonging. Agnes made a home for herself and Dara happens to come across that house. That allowed me to play with the idea that spaces contain visible and invisible traces of the people who inhabited them, the idea that memories are bound to certain spaces - almost as if past and present can coexist at the same time. The next natural thought is then, what happens when those spaces disappear. Do the people disappear as well? To me, in that sense, Agnes’ house becomes an anchor point, both for the film and for Dara. For the character Dara it’s what she finds, in the diaries, photographs and artefacts of Agnes, as in sitting in the spaces she once inhabited, that give her a sense of connecting to someone, possibly to herself and perhaps to a possibility, an idea, that maybe you can find your own place.
In your film, you frame the spaces in a way that brings a lot of calmness to the film. Can you tell us how you worked with this visually?
Concretely, it's a lot of leg-work. Before Jenny Lou Ziegel (the cinematographer) and me started working together, I’d already visited and photographed many of the locations, but we really just looked for new and revisited the old, and kept going back over and over again, to look for the images a place would give us. Jenny Lou is very intuitive and very physical in her approach to images, she also feels a space. We work well together that way.
We knew that we wanted a certain realism and we knew we wanted to break it at times. So it was about finding visual ways to allude to portraits, or landscape paintings, to be able to insert images disjointed from the flow of the “natural” space-time continuum. The visual equivalent of striking a bell and suddenly everyone looks up from what they were doing, before the story flows on.
Then there was the question of closeness - what is our distance to Dara and the other people. It was clear that Dara is visually the anchor point of the film, but not necessarily the centre. She eludes us slightly, she leads us through the film, but still allows us to look elsewhere.
The pacing is very important, and I give great attention to how bodies move and relate to each other within a frame. Often the topography of a scene is as loud a communicator as the dialogue, so I knew I wanted to emphasise bodies moving in space which often meant long shots or long pans. It’s a question of what space your create through the image, and that what’s happening outside of the frame is sometimes as important as what’s happening inside.
With two very local stories as your first and second fiction feature, what can we expect from you next? Do you have any future projects you would like to share with us?
It’s in the very early stages, but with my next project I want to be ”Hautlos” – without skin, like the feeling of raw flesh. It’s possible it’ll be about female desire, but I can’t really say much more than that at this stage. I feel the need to work more intimately and on a different scale than I’ve worked so far... and basically the need to challenge myself. I guess that’s very normal when starting something new.