Voyager between Worlds //
Documentary filmmakers are inquisitive. They explore foreign countries and the peculiarities of their own countries. They transcend boundaries and discover the beautiful, the curious and the sad. With their films, they involve their viewers and encourage them to become explorers too. This can only work, however, if they manage to narrate a story as perceptively – and often with a fine sense of humor – as Susan Gluth from Hamburg, Germany. And it doesn’t matter whether she is portraying Sudanese refugee children or the retired inhabitants of Sun City in the USA. One of her most powerful films is her documentary “Urmila – My Memory is My Power,” released in 2016. The film portrays the fight of a young woman against the now prohibited child slavery in Nepal. This is an issue that friendly hunting also cares about. Not only do we produce all our clothing in Nepal, we also run a small orphanage in Kathmandu.
We invited Susan Gluth to join us in our Peterhof offices and talked to the award-winning filmmaker about her work, her travels and about what it feels like to be setting out an exploring the unknown over and over again.
In order to produce your films, you travel to the most remote locations of the world and witness terrible living conditions and immense injustices. How do you manage to accept these realities?
I indeed often find it very difficult to accept the situations I am confronted with, because I grew up in freedom and affluence. But acceptance is part of the job. I don’t visit the countries to change them. I arrive there as a guest, and I document and analyze what I see. In the regions that I visit, I often discover very low standards of living. I am always very impressed by how people manage with the little that they have. I admire how they tend to find an inner peace and just accept and enjoy what is. So I am in no position to make judgements when the people themselves find a way to deal with their poverty. After a few weeks or months, I board a plane and return to my wealthy world. And I return full of rewarding and enriching experiences.
How do you process awful memories?
What’s really bad, and what sticks with you, are experiences or accounts of torture, war or killings. You have to learn to deal with that too, but I often end up feeling dumbstruck or angry. But experiencing injustices makes me become active rather than reclusive. Perhaps that prevents me from becoming morose or destructive. Actually, it’s almost the other way around: when I return to Germany and see how dissatisfied people are here, that’s what gets me thinking and brooding.
When you’re shooting a film, an atmosphere of closeness and intimacy develops. Is it hard to let that go at the end of a project?
Yes. There are film shoots where you travel somewhere for a couple of weeks and know that you’ll never see each other again. That’s hard. For the last ten years, I have been missing the two refugee girls from Chad whose story I recorded in „Shadows of Fate – a refugee childhood.” I wish I knew how they are, where they live, and what they do.
On the other hand, I take home so much material, so many thoughts. While I work with the material in my cutting room, a lot of what I experienced stays with me.
Do your protagonists later have a chance to see the finished films?
The protagonists almost always approve the rough cut of the film. I return and show them the project, and people give me their very honest feedback and opinions. After that, I know that I can release the film into the public. There are no gross “inaccuracies.” This sort of confirmation process doesn’t take place when I don’t meet the protagonists again. In those cases I never truly know whether the film has taken the ‘correct path.’ But I’m not a journalist who is dedicated to portraying an objective truth. That definitely helps.
In your experience, do documentary films have the potential to move and change something?
For me as a filmmaker – definitely. But I assume you have the viewer in mind?
My films don’t ‘uncover’ anything in a journalistic sense. They just point out connections and try to reach the viewer emotionally. They often show a piece of the world that we might not be aware of yet, or they create an understanding for different types of realities. Often, the people starring in the films stay on our minds for quite a while after we’ve left the cinema. That is how I would summarize the audience’s feedback. And that’s quite a lot. Whether films can actually make a difference in the world? When I was young, I used to really believe that.
Are there any films that have influenced you personally?
Various kinds of quite diverse documentary films have managed to move me and make me change concrete habits or my thinking. Hubert Sauper’s “Darwin’s Nightmare” for example opened my eyes and made me stop buying Lake Victoria perch. And Michael Moore films have their very own way of explaining issues and raising awareness. At the same time, they help me to better understand the Americans. “Bombay Beach,” by Alma Har’el is an exceptional example for experimental documentary films. This film somehow manages to be forceful and graceful at the same time, compelling me to look at the world in a different and new way. The film is seductive and intoxicating. In the end, I learned a lot about the American underdogs and about poverty and environmental destruction, but also that each and every one of us better get down to it and celebrate this life that we have.
How do you find your topics, or do they find you?
So far, they’ve always come to me… For example: I was on a flight, returning from India, and I was reading a mini-article in the New York Times about the war, displacement and genocide in Darfur. After having travelled in India and Bhutan for six weeks, I was very receptive regarding these kinds of issues. I started my research the very next day. This led to the film “Shadows of Fate – a refugee childhood”
Another time, I’m in a concert that I didn’t even want to go to at first…After the show, I went straight to the manager of the band and enthusiastically asked him whether I could interview their guitarist. This encounter is now turning into a long-term study of Dominic Miller.
So topics just seem to pop up and cross my path. Something about them bewilders or fascinates me – and the process starts.
How do the people you film lose their inhibitions in front of the camera?
I don’t think they feel that self-conscious – otherwise they wouldn’t agree to be filmed in the first place.
Do you prefer filming alone or in a team?
That depends on what I need. Since I love observing people, filming alone tends to work better. But if the sound is important, for example, then I need experienced colleagues to work with me on that. Or I might need an assistant who helps me with the organization.
How do you communicate with people?
That usually works out quite well – often without words, which is important when you don’t speak the same language.
Have you experienced any dangerous situations in countries such as Sudan or India?
Yes, I have… but there have always been guardian angels, it won’t work without them.
Please tell us: what should one always bring along for these kinds of trips to remote locations?
Pretzel sticks, granola bars, a flashlight, clothes pegs, a snap hook, medication plus instruments/syringes, a pot and a spoon, a pocket knife, soap and a good book.
How do you ground yourself when traveling wears you out?
I try to find time alone in order to clear my head. I find a structure and plan for the following day. I write everything down, I eat well and – wherever that is possible – I find a good (cold) beer to drink at the end of the day.
You tend to be away for weeks on end. What’s the best part about arriving back home?
Doing my laundry, enjoying home-cooked meals, and not feeling responsible for everything (for a while).
And how long does it take until you start feeling the itch to travel again?
That depends on how intense the experience of the previous trip was – sometimes only a few weeks go by.
Susan Gluth studied at the University for Television and Film in Munich and today is one of the most renowned female documentary filmmakers in Germany. Among her films are “Nulla Si Sa, tutto s’immagina… secondo Fellini,” “Shadow of Fate – A refugee childhood” (2006), “Water and Soap“ (2008), “Playing Hooky – getting old is not for sissies“ (2014) and “Urmila – My Memory is My Power” (2016). She also works as a camerawoman, university lecturer and as a jury member at film festivals. Additionally, she founded her own film production company gluthfilm (http://susangluth.de). Her films have been shown all over the world at festivals, in museums or on television, and they have won numerous prizes.