AMSTERDAM — It’s hard to predict where Austria’s Nikolaus Geyrhalter will go next. “Pripyat” (1999) saw him investigate the radioactive legacy of Chernobyl; 2005’s food-processing doc “Our Daily Bread” took him all over Europe, while “7915km” (2008) involved a mini-tour of Africa on the trail of The Dakar Rally. His latest film, though, is a little closer to home. Making its international premiere in competition at IDFA, “The Border Fence” visits the Brenner Pass, a tiny strip of land between Austria and Italy that suddenly became a media hotspot in 2016, after a deal between the European Union and Turkey officially closed the “Balkan Route” that was being used by refugees. With that road closed, Austrian authorities feared that illegal migrants would cross at the Brenner Pass instead.
The result was a proposed border fence, although all those involved with its development and construction were reluctant to call it that. And when work finally started, Geyrhalter visited the site almost immediately to conduct interviews with the area’s local people: Villagers, café owners, farmers and – most surprisingly of all – the local police, who hold surprisingly compassionate views on the subject. All are given time to articulate their often highly nuanced thoughts in a sympathetic, non-judgmental setting.
Variety spoke to Geyrhalter as he prepared for his first screening.
What was the timeline on “The Border Fence”? It seems like it came together very quickly…
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: Yes, that’s true, it was a very quick reaction [to the issue]. I simply couldn’t believe that Europe was starting to build fences against refugees, and, obviously, we couldn’t set things right, but I thought at least we could document it for future generations. Actually, the original idea was about building fences in Europe, but we missed the first fences because they were just too quick, and, as you know, financing a film takes a bit of a time. We were able to get the money pretty quickly, but still we missed the first bunch of fences. Everybody expected the Austrian government to build a fence at the Brenner Pass, so we decided just to observe those operations. We didn’t know at the time that the fence would never really be constructed. So the idea of the film stayed the same, it just changed a little bit, and it became more of a film about our society, about what just the announcement of a fence does to us, and how we react to it.
It’s a very simple film, both formally – you use long, static takes – and in terms of its interview content. Was that a conscious decision?
It’s formal because it’s still a documentary for the cinema. But what we did is, we simply went there and talked to the people. And they were a little bit angry with the media, because when we started to film there, it was a media hotspot – a lot of TV crews came there, and they made their report, and they stayed for some hours, and then they left again. So we tried to convince them that we were really interested, that we would come back, and then come back another time, and they understood that we really wanted to present another kind of story, with a different interest. And so on the one hand we wanted the local people just to cooperate with us and we tried to convince them. But on the other hand, it’s my feeling that every documentary film that is made for the cinema is also made for the archives, so it should be presented in a kind of universal language. I mean, many of the films today, they look kind of modern but they will look old in ten or 20 years, and so what I try to do is present a film that, in the end, can still be read by future generations in at least 200 years time. It’s a little bit closer to the very first documentaries that were shot, like, 100 years ago. It’s a very cinematographic, pure kind of language.
Do you always work in the same way?
Basically the work is always the same. I try to organize to get as much time on location as possible and then be patient, because being impatient just leads to lots of fragments of material. I think it’s more important when you’re on location to, first of all, look around you, listen to the people and then decide who it is you want to work with. And it’s better to work with fewer people in a more intense way for a longer period of time than to interview 50 people and have just two or three sentences from each. So a lot of the time that we had for this project went into the research and the pre-selection of potential protagonists. But, other than that, it’s a very small area. It’s a very small town. So once you’re there, many things just happen by themselves. You can’t miss them.
What kind of crew did you work with?
In this specific case , it was a very small team. It was my assistant, Eva Hausberger, who did the research and sometimes even the sound, and there was a camera assistant with me. That was basically it.
What did you do to gain the townspeople’s confidence?
Be present, and still be present on the next day and even the day after. Y’know that what people see – they see a difference between journalists who just jump in and jump out again and journalists who don’t. These people saw that we came back after a week, and after a month, and even after a year, and in the end we returned even after two years to finish the film. I wouldn’t call it friendship, but you do get to know people and you talk about private stuff between shoots. As I said, it’s a small village, and once some people accept you, they will hand you over to other friends or to neighbors. So once, once you have your foot in the door, it either works or it doesn’t work. But once it works, it works well.
You give a lot of time to your interviewees, and they don’t just give easy soundbites…
I hate to edit interviews. I never do this. I decide to frame [the interviewee] correctly, within [a set-up] that also tells you something about their life circumstances and their environment, and once I’ve done this, it’s like portrait photography. And then I film them talking. It’s about making decisions: the decision for the person, the decision for a setting, and then you just go.
The film’s original German title – “Die bauliche Maßnahme” – doesn’t translate as “The Border Fence”. Why did you change it?
Because, even in German, it’s very complex. It’s a creation of words by authorities that basically means “a border fence”, only they didn’t want to call it by that name because they were afraid [of the reaction]. So this title worked only in German. It was a quote from an Austrian politician who wanted to say, “We’re thinking about building some fences,” but they didn’t dare to say this. So they were talking about “constructional measures” – something like that would be the correct translation. It means actually nothing. But we realized that it wouldn’t make sense internationally, because it would be too complex and dense. But I like it as a title, because it’s a title about an idea. Everyone expects a border fence, but, until the end, you never see a border fence. So it’s more about a fence in your head.