Berlin: Director Karim Aïnouz Discusses ‘Central Airport THF’

Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz is back at the Berlinale this year with “Central Airport THF,” a documentary chronicling the lives of refugees living in the German capital’s famed former airport that was built by the Nazi government.

The Panorama premiere marks Aïnouz’s return to the Berlinale four years after his Brazilian-German co-production, “Futuro Beach,” starring Wagner Moura (“Narcos”), unspooled in competition.

In telling a story of people fleeing the horror of war and finding shelter in Tempelhof’s cavernous hangars, the Berlin-based Aïnouz says he sought to make a film about human beings, about solidarity. It was also an effort to present another side to the story that was being depicted in the media. The ubiquitous images of hundreds of people jumping fences and hopping on trains characterized what Aïnouz describes as the “hysterical media coverage” of the refugee crisis in Europe.

“These are human beings, you know?” the filmmaker stresses. “I was very lucky to have people who were generous enough to share their stories.”

While the documentary is about a shelter in Germany in 2016, it’s not insignificant that it also happens to be in an old airport built during the Nazi era and that still impresses with all its monumental splendor. “The irony is all there,” says Aïnouz. “But the red line is really about somebody fleeing from war, trying to make a life living in an airport.”

Aïnouz originally set out to make video installations about Berlin’s four airports in 2012 to coincide with the impending closure of the city’s Tegel and Schönefeld airports and the opening of the new Berlin Brandenburg International Airport, but the latter’s constant delays put the project on hold.

A former student of architecture who is “obsessed with airports,” Aïnouz then decided to just focus on the historical site of Tempelhof, which closed in 2008, and its use as a public space and city park, but in mid-2015, the refugee crisis began.

Aïnouz was alarmed by the media coverage. “I felt really compelled to do something about it because I felt the way the mainstream media was covering the arrival of people in Europe was just really, really dangerous — the people jumping from trains, this whole feeling of panic. I was really getting worried about it. The more people came, the more hysterical and crazy the coverage became.”

“Central Airport THF” focuses on two individuals, an 18-year-old boy from Syria and a 35-year-old man from Iraq who was forced to flee before he could graduate form medical school.

“These are two men who are somehow trying to make a life here, fleeing war but from very different perspectives, one has a whole life ahead of him, the other has a dream of becoming a doctor,” Aïnouz explains.

In making the documentary and telling the story largely through visual narration, Aïnouz also explored new territory as a filmmaker. “I have never done an observational, sort of classic documentary in my life before and it was amazing — it was totally a first for me.”

Aïnouz will next re-team with “Call Me by Your Name” producer Rodrigo Teixeira on “The Invisible Life,” a feature film set in 1950s Rio de Janeiro that follows the lives of two sisters and set to go into production in May. Teixeira also produced Aïnouz’s 2011 drama “The Silver Cliff.”

The director is also planning a documentary about the Algerian revolution and his own family history that will take him to his father’s native country for the first time. “My dad is Algerian, but I’ve never been there for different reasons — that’s one of the subjects of the film. It’s a complicated family story, but it’s a good one.”

“Central Airport THF” was produced by Felix von Boehm’s Berlin-based Lupa Film and is being sold internationally by Fiorella Moretti and Hédi Zardi’s Paris-based Luxbox.

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