It's okay for a documentary to stage reality – any documentary will always be a personal interpretation of reality anyway, Birgitte Stærmose says. In "Out of Love", the first documentary by this award-winning fiction director, Kosovar-Albanian street kids in richly atmospheric locations recite monologues about their lives, memories and the challenges they face.
The feeling of an almost too-real reality convinced Birgitte Stærmose to try her hand at documentaries. In 2005, she had been invited to sit on a jury at a film festival in Kosovo and got her first experience of life in a post-war country. So many places and landscapes there had a mood of secrecy about them that fascinated her.
"I didn't want the film to be about the children's personal situations, and I definitely did not want to make it about feeling sorry for them."
"I have always been interested in things that are secret. Pristina is a place that people can't leave, and no one goes there without a special errand," Stærmose says. "That makes for a heady atmosphere. I was an outsider and everything seemed extremely real to me while I was there. To me that was a very 'documentary feeling' and I got the urge to work with that in a staged form of some kind, making a film that can lift that atmosphere out of reality, while also putting reality to good use." During the festival, Stærmose struck up a partnership with a local filmmaker and he suggested making a film about the local street kids. The idea immediately appealed to the Danish director.
"I liked the idea of working with kids in the city," she says. "I wanted to do a film with testimonials by them as they walk through some of the amazing places in the city, as a way of letting us experience fragments of their everyday life. I have done work before interviewing people and staging the interview material, both on stage and film. It’s an interesting procedure, because it comes with a number of limitations but also allows for some liberties.
"I had no desire to do a more traditional documentary. That doesn't interest me, and perhaps I don't have the patience for it, either. To do that, you need to be interested in being in a situation and observing it for a long time. I would rather compose something from my observations," the director says.
In 2007 Stærmose returned to Kosovo to talk with a number of street kids. Her partnership with the local filmmaker had deteriorated in the meantime and instead she got together with another local filmmaker, Kaltrina Krasniqi, who would help her overcome her project's many language and culture barriers. Together they interviewed 11 street kids based on a far-ranging list of questions about the kids' everyday concerns as well as their memories about the war.
"I didn't want the film to be about the children's personal situations, and I definitely did not want to make it about feeling sorry for them," Stærmose says. "This process involved finding ways to go against the sense of pity these kids initially evoke in you. Pity is one way of relating to them – it's a way of protecting yourself. Of course, you feel sorry for them and they are victims, but I didn't see the point in making a film about that. I wanted the film to deal with the human aspects of what was going on inside of them.
"The questions concerned both their day-to-day lives and their memories. The stories that are in the film are the stories they told us. Precisely because they are kids, their memories are really interesting. Children tend to notice other things than grownups do. They don't have the same filters. They just see something and register it. Their memories were a way to get some images of a war I hadn't experienced. Also, it was a way to get other, more interesting, images than we usually get from the news media."
"Out of Love". Photo: Marek Septimus Weiser.
Once Stærmose had her interview material, she got the idea to ask the playwright and screenwriter Peter Asmussen to write monologues for the kids, based on their statements. Stærmose was working on another project with Asmussen at the time and she sensed that he would be able to give the material a lift by transforming the interview statements into more literary texts.
"Peter is good at writing big words and I wanted the kids to be making big statements," Stærmose says. "That was part of the construction. They should be saying things that were greater than their own words, because something greater is involved. Only their inability to express themselves gets in the way. The monologues would amplify something real that usually has a documentary feel. The language should be literate and narrative and rich in imagery but not irrelevant to them, because it builds on their stories.
"The monologues also help shatter the impression that the children were telling their own private stories," she says. "I was never interested in presenting any one child’s personal experience in the film. What I was interested in was their shared experience and their shared situation. Everyone is telling everyone's story. They have a shared history, and their stories have a lot of characteristics in common."
In the film's monologues the children talk about everything from their after-school work selling cigarettes in the streets to their experience of returning to Pristina as small children after the war: how watching TV suddenly became meaningless, how the tall grass growing between bombed-out buildings provided a semblance of paradise, how they sensed their feeling of worthlessness. They speak directly to the camera, sometimes in an intimate whisper. Sometimes they are alone, sometimes they are with other people.
"The idea always was to have the kids be in real situations and have them say things no one would ever say in that kind of situation. It shifts the balance of what we expect. This isn't the kind of film that purports to have serendipitously caught something on camera. The film acknowledges that we shaped reality. We willed reality to conform to our design: this is exactly how it had to be," Stærmose says.
"My cameraman Marek Wieser and I put a lot of work into the visuals. Also, we really benefited from having a casting session with the kids. We saw how interesting it is when they whisper, how exciting it is to use a wide-angle lens to go super close up and achieve a sense of physical proximity to the kind of kids you usually don’t get close to," the director says. "We saw we had lovely sequences of kids just looking into the camera. Moreover, we deliberately worked with the feeling of being close to someone when they aware that you're looking. We had no urge to be observational. The film is very tightly composed. I was inspired in part by Roy Andersson and his use of long takes. When you hold a frame that long, there has to be something there. So you have to carefully arrange and stage the shot."
I'm the One Telling Somebody Something
Very few of the kids ended up telling their own stories. Stærmose put children and monologues together, and the kids were paid to be in the film. Stærmose made it a point to have a clear agreement that the kids were there to do a certain piece of work.
"The kids are participating in something that’s mine," she says. "I put them in situations that I made up. I choose what they say. I have met documentary filmmakers who say it's more interesting to hear what the children want to say. I know what they want to say: they don't want to say anything. Nothing! I want to tell you something, but they don't want to tell you anything. They are not interested. I didn't make this film for the children's sake or to give them a voice."
"As a director, you should acknowledge the fact that you're making a film, that it's something you want to do," Stærmose says. "In that sense, it's a narcissistic project more than it's about other people. Sure, a film can deal with a worthy issue and you can take a journalistic approach, but when you make a film you need to acknowledge that's what you're doing. You are making a film. You need to own up to the fact that you're the one who wants to tell somebody something."