HISCOX FILMMAKER Q&A: BERLIN REBEL HIGH SCHOOL
What inspired you to come up with the idea for the film? Why did you want to tell this story?
The reason why I shot this documentary was the horrible time I had when I went to school. I grew up in a small and conservative town in the south of Germany. From day one I felt unhappy attending class. It was all about competition, discipline and performance. I was a shy child and suffering from many domestic difficulties. My mother was a depressed house wife and my father was busy with his job. My own sadness made me a perfect victim in school. The rude boys from the village were bullying me and the teacher’s didn’t care a lot. No wonder – they were busy trying to control my 28 fidgety classmates. Over the years I evoked my self into my own world and while the others were following the lessons, I was daydreaming and looking forward to the afternoon when I would go out and play with my best friend in the forest. When I was 16, I dropped out high school and didn’t know what to do. Eventually a friend told me about that crazy school which apparently existed in Berlin… After the first talk I had with a teacher I registered at BERLIN REBEL HIGH SCHOOL. Three great years later I finished with my high school degree and started to study at a university in Berlin… this was 17 years ago and since then I’ve directed many documentaries for German Television and cinema. Three years ago I had a discussion about the miserable school system we have in Germany and then the idea of making a documentary about the school which made me love to learn came to my mind…
How do you relate to your characters or subjects?
As a documentary filmmaker you depend on protagonists who really want to do the film. When you follow your folks for more than two years with the camera you need a strong commitment. So the most important thing is to create a powerful relationship with your characters. So the first thing I usually do is to try to find out who has got a real desire to be part of a documentary. Besides that, I just try to follow my own curiosity. I talk to people, observe them and try to find out what drives them. Those who fascinate me most I try to meet many times in different circumstances. It is important to know about their background and to understand how they act or could act once we start to shoot the film. During the filming you get very close to your protagonists and it’s important handle the right balance between closeness and distance.
What aspect of the story changed the most during writing and production?
As a documentary filmmaker you are always scared that your protagonists drop out before the film is finished. In my case, I was horrified by the thought that all of them could potentially leave the school. Fortunately none of that happened. What changed was the financial situation of the school. When I was writing the script, everything was going well and the teachers were in a great mood. After finishing the script and the finance, one of the teachers called me and said that they were running out of money. Suddenly, I was not sure if the school would still exist when I started to shoot. Looking back, that turned out to be a great opportunity for me to get even closer. Since everyone was now looking forward to the publicity the school would get with my film, they allowed me to film things I would have never imagined before.
Were there any risks that you faced during production and how did you find a way to embrace them?
The highest risk in producing a documentary like this is losing your protagonists during the shooting. No one can force anybody to be part of a shooting period for more than two years. Since my protagonists had already dropped out several times from many schools, it was obvious how likely it was that they could do it again. I had many sleepless nights thinking about what to do if all of my protagonists were to suddenly disappear.
What influenced the visual style of the film?
Since my documentary is about young outcasts who attend a quite crazy school, I decided from an early stage to choose a very emotional and music-based style. I tried to make the audience feel the vibe of that alternative Berlin which shaped this city for more than five decades. Music plays a big role in the movie and that’s why all the songs were individually composed for the film.
What risks did you take to tell your story?
Apart from the normal risk to develop a script before you get the funding together, the risks were quite limited. Since I got special and unique access to the school because I was a former student, I wasn’t scared that someone else could tell the same story in the same moment. This is a typical risk that every documentary storyteller faces.
How would you encourage others to tell their story or manage through the process of screenwriting or film producing?
I think it’s important to think deeply about the subject of the story BEFORE you begin to write. Writing and developing a story is a lot of work and the production even more so. It takes several years of your life. Check out your subject thoroughly! If you have doubts, don’t push them away. Ask colleagues or friends for advice. If they all have doubts, change the setting or the subject before you are in the middle of the writing process. Then it might be too late and you won’t stop because you have already put too much energy into it.
Grab your badge to catch this great film and many more at the 23rd annual Austin Film Festival!