Berlin: Lisa Weber on Empathy and Courage in Her Panorama Doc ‘Running on Empty’

Nineteen-year-old Claudia lives with her mother, brother and four-year-old son in a public housing complex in Vienna, with no job, no prospects on the horizon, and the present slipping by in a series of uneventful days. But in “Running on Empty,” which premiered Feb. 25 in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival, director Lisa Weber finds a family capable of evoking empathy, laughter, shock and love as they struggle to make ends meet.

Following Claudia and her family for more than three years, Weber eschewed the tawdry voyeurism of reality TV for a documentary approach that offers a revealing portrait of her protagonists, while exploring all that happens in daily life when nothing really seems to be happening.

Weber spoke to Variety in Berlin about the long genesis of her movie, the challenge of putting a boundary between her and her subjects, and the universal truths revealed by her intimate approach to filmmaking.

You met Claudia in the courtyard of the building complex where she’s lives many years ago, when she was only 11. How did that relationship evolve as you decided to make a movie about her life?
The truth is, I was just a very, very curious girl [at the time], when I was 19. I was right out of school, and it felt like the world is mine. Before I started film academy, I was running through the streets with my little camera, and filming everything that was interesting to me. When I met [Claudia], I already had a little camera with me. I was always “Lisa with the camera.” This was a thing from the very beginning, it wasn’t something I introduced to her later.

Back then, I wasn’t looking for something or someone to film. I just got to know her by accident, and I really liked spending time with her. Maybe it’s my hobby to go to places I’ve never been, and to talk to people that you wouldn’t meet normally in your little bubble. Being around them I experienced a lot of things that I couldn’t describe with words, but I really wanted to share them.

You filmed some very intimate moments in their lives, even some uncomfortable ones. Was it difficult for you to film those scenes, or to keep a boundary between yourself and a family you had come to know so well? Did you worry about how they might come across to the audience, and if people would look at them in a negative way?
It’s really a question of perspective. My own perspective changed so much, depending on if I’m there with them, or if I’m in the editing room. Our editor [Roland Stöttinger] was a good filter, because he really only had the material. It was hard work to find a good balance. The goal was to create something that for the viewer feels like the experience I had when I was there. I think it’s really nice that some people experienced in 90 minutes what I experienced in three and a half years. But I didn’t think about the audience while editing, because I feel like that’s something you can’t control. For me, it was important that the film was open enough so that it doesn’t tell you what to think or feel.

There is something very universal, and very current, about the struggles of a single mother “running on empty,” just trying to get by, that seems to tap into a much larger theme. Is that something you were conscious of while filming?
I didn’t set out to do that, but I feel like the more close and honest you are, the more universal it gets.

Has the family seen the film?
It was very important for me to show it to them before [the festival], so we rented a cinema in Vienna. It’s called Hollywood Megaplex. We were there with big boxes of popcorn. It was really nice. After the film, they congratulated me. We talked about it, and they said it really depicts the truth, it shows the ups and downs. They felt that the film was true in a sense. I was surprised they were so honest with themselves. It’s not easy to watch yourself. I think what they expected was like some reality TV [about] a young, pregnant, teenage girl. I feel like everything you see in the film is nothing new to them. They live this life every day. You have to be courageous to say to yourself that this is the truth.

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