Ideas from the dark side

Julia Libiseller brings light and darkness to the Forum with her latest animation that premiered at the opening ceremony on Wednesday. Conor McMahon finds out more.

Tyroleans ask each other one question: Were you born on the sunny side of the mountains or in the shadows? The answer says something about their perspective on life.

Artist Julia Libiseller was born in the shadows of the Tyrolean mountains and used her upbringing as the inspiration for the short animation, In the Light or in the Shadows, commissioned by the European Forum Alpbach.

Using a playful stop motion technique, Ms Libiseller’s film explores the notion that those living in the light do not always understand what it is like to live in the shadows, an idea that fits well with the inequality theme of this year’s forum.

“What can you see if you stand in the light?” Ms Libiseller said. “You don’t see much in the shadow.

“Art should make people think about life. I don’t have the answers. I just wanted to start the conversation.”

Ms Libiseller was inspired by the topics covered in this year’s seminars and used them to shape the script.

“I tried to pick some of the main subjects and look at little scenes through light and shadow.”

Ms Libiseller believes that we need both light and darkness in life. “I wanted to show that the darkness can also have its good sides.”

How is this communicated in the film?

I hope you will get it from what you see,” she said. “I think you have to watch and everybody will see other things in the little scenes.”

You are invited to decide the meaning of the film yourself — watch below.

“In the Light or in the Shadows” by Julia Libiseller | European Forum Alpbach 2015 from European Forum Alpbach on Vimeo.

Refugee stories written in stone

The round, glassed inner courtyard of the Alpbach Congress Centre is undergoing a “subtly dramatic” transformation ahead of the Built Environment symposium, Conor McMahon reports.

From now until the end of the Forum, seven social design students from the University of Applied Arts Vienna will occupy the space for one hour every day as part of The Great Transfer performance art piece, which aims to illustrate the concept of home for refugees living in Austria.

“There are several layers to what we are trying to achieve,” said Cosima Terrasse, one of the performers. “If we talk about a Built Environment, we don’t only talk about buildings and architecture, we also talk about people’s stories.”

The Great Transfer timelapse from European Forum Alpbach on Vimeo.

The students interviewed 13 refugees from Syria, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia. The transcripts of these interviews will be read out and inscribed on each of the 2,500 stones inside the courtyard word-by-word and in a series of lines.

“It’s very structured,” said Alejandra Loreto, another performer. “The lines, the stones. Everything was really precise so that the whole stories and the whole interviews would fit there. The lines also represent movement. Going from one place to another.”

The project adopts a minimalist approach to tackle a complex issue: “By interviewing [the refugees] about a simple description of their homes,” Cosima said, “we not only have an idea of how a home and architecture influences a thought process, but also of how essential it is to have a home and to be able to go back to it.

“By interviewing [the refugees] about a simple description of their homes,” Cosima said, “we not only have an idea of how a home and architecture influences a thought process, but also of how essential it is to have a home and to be able to go back to it.

“It’s very interesting how just a simple description shows how a culture functions differently. Small descriptions help you understand something more deeply.”

The performance comes at a time when Austria is struggling with incoming refugees: while travelling to the Forum, journalist Teresa Reiter was angered by the comments of fellow passengers, who witnessed the police removing refugees from her train.

The Great Transfer will be presented by Anton Falkeis, the head of the Social Design programme, on Wednesday, August 26 at 7pm in the Congress Centre, and again, at the opening session of the Built Environment Symposium on September 3.

Miriam Fassbender talks about ‘Foreign’

Here is another article from my time at Alpbach Media Academy. This was written with Florian Peschl.

Miriam Fassbender
Photo by Luiza Puiu

German film-maker Miriam Fassbender spent six years making the documentary, Foreign.

It tells the story of a young Malian called Mohammed on his attempted migration from Africa to Spain in the hope of finding a ‘better life’ so he can provide for his family.

In the so-called no-man’s-land between Morocco and Algeria he meets the Cameroonian musician Jerry. Together they want to overcome the last and biggest hurdle — the final leg from the Algerian-Moroccan border to Europe. With the experience of already having tried a few times before, they realise that their attempt will be highly dangerous. The film uncovers the true struggle of seeking a life free from poverty and challenges our perception of immigrants in Europe.

Fassbender decided to make the film after she met some migrants from Maghnia in Algeria when she was working on another project in Casablanca. “I met them on their way back to their home country after they had realised that Europe wasn’t really welcoming of them at all – they were shocked,” she says. After speaking to them, she quickly realised “how absurd it is to block the borders like this – to construct walls and to block all these people who have quite similar expectations of life as we do”.

The concept

She met them again in Algeria and screened a rough cut of footage shot in Mali in 2005. They liked what they saw and they felt Fassbender understood their situation so they agreed to take part in the film.

Fassbender found a producer, Max Milhahn, and spent one year researching the migrant situation after securing some funding for the project. “We started shooting in 2006. When I arrived in Mali, I realised all this research didn’t help at all – only to know where lots of migrants passed,” she says.

Just as the research was abandoned, the original plan changed as well. In the beginning, Fassbender intended to only “shoot in sub-Saharan Africa in one place where lots of…’economical refugees’ come from. But then the concept changed after I met one of my protagonists, Mohamed. He was a much stronger character, story-wise, than the others had been”. In the film, Mohamed – the eldest of seven children – doesn’t want to leave Mali, but his family want him to travel to Europe, ‘a paradise’, so he can provide them with more money. Turning back was never an option because his parents had to sell their cows to finance his journey and he wouldn’t have been able to live with the guilt.

“I was never sure if this film would ever be made”

Film maker Miriam Fassbender
Miriam Fassbender talks to Florian Peschl. Photo by Luiza Puiu

There were many moments when Fassbender thought about turning back on the film. It took over six years to complete, and even in the editing process, she almost gave up twice. “I was never sure if this film would even be made,” she says. But just like in Mohamed’s case, turning back was not on the table: “You’ve got a responsibility towards your purpose and your protagonists,” she says. “These guys are individuals and you have to tell their stories individually so that all this post-colonial ignorance [in Europe] stops. If you see them suffering because of our political influence in Africa, I really feel ashamed. You can see that economical interests in Europe are really destroying sub-Saharan Africa – especially in Mali.”

The struggle to complete the film is almost a paradox to Mohamed and Jerry’s arduous struggle to get from Africa through Algeria and Morocco to Europe: “If someone had told me that it would take six years [to finish the film], I probably would not have done it because I wouldn’t have thought that I would have the energy to stick with the subject and this theme all that time,” she says. “And it’s the same with the migrants. If someone told them it would take 10 years to reach Europe, then maybe they would stay in their own countries and try to establish themselves there.”

Participatory video

In order to capture footage of the migrants on their journey without jeopardising everything, Fassbender provided them with digital cameras. “I asked them to film…and I told them if they ran out of money and couldn’t buy food, they should sell the camera but keep the tapes,” she says. “In the end that happened – all the cameras were sold. But I got some tapes back when I was in Morocco two years later.”

Getting permission to shoot footage was not a huge problem. In fact, it was hardly even considered because Fassbender was filming people who were officially illegal. So to keep the film on track, the team was kept to a minimum. “I can’t take responsibility of decisions of someone else, if someone doesn’t want to do something that is illegal, you cannot blame someone for not wanting to do it,” she says. “So I thought I am going there alone because I know I can trust myself. I know what I can do and what I can’t do, but I can’t take the risk of someone else.”

Erwin Wagenhofer talks about ‘mis-education’

Conor McMahon with filmmaker Erwin Wagenhofer
Me and Erwin Wagenhofer. Photo by Luiza Puiu.

In August 2013, I travelled to the Alpine village of Alpbach in Austria. Along with 12 other young European journalists, I took park in the Alpbach Media Academy, which was headed by Michael Fleischhacker, a prolific Austrian journalist and editor, and Georg Renner of Die Presse newspaper.

For three intense weeks, we interviewed politicians, economists, scientists and artists who came to the village to attend the 68th annual European Forum Alpbach (EFA). Thanks to communications officer Veronika Hopfgartner (who earned the nickname ‘Lady of Steel’ thanks to her unbelievable ability to get shit done in a short space of time), we had access to pretty much everyone who attended EFA, whether they were a Nobel prize winner, a respected statesmen or a talented comedian. It was fantastic and a very valuable learning experience.

One of my favourite interviews was with the Austrian filmmaker Erwin Wagenhofer, which I conducted with Katrin Nussmayr.

I was only vaguely familiar with Wagenhofer’s documentaries, which tend to be carefully paced with long scenes, and apart from a quick Wikipedia read, I knew nothing about the man himself. I presumed that Wagenhofer would be something like his films: quiet and controlled. How wrong I was.

From the moment he stepped into the foyer of the Alpbach convention centre, Wagenhofer was animated, excited and energetic.

Throughout our 20-minute interview, Wagenhofer spoke with great urgency and passion about the damage the education system has caused to creativity (the subject of his latest documentary, Alphabet). It was riveting to meet a person so fanatic about his work.

Since my time in Alpbach, the concept of creative learning and what Wagenhofer calls “mis-education” has come up a lot — in college lectures, casual conversation, newspaper articles. So I thought it would be a good idea to republish this article on my blog.

So here it is, me and Katryn’s interview with Erwin Wagenhofer.

Erwin Wagenhofer at Alpbach
Photo by Luiza Puiu.

Alphabet is the final instalment in Erwin Wagenhofer’s documentary trilogy on the current state of economic affairs. His 2005 film We Feed The World explored the origins of mass produced food; Let’s Make Money (2008) investigated the development and elitism in the global financial system; and 2013’s Alphabet looks at how education (and mis-education) determines our view of the world and how we shape it.

Ahead of its official release this October, Alphabet was screened exclusively at the 2013 European Forum Alpbach. Conor McMahon and Katrin Nussmayr caught up with Wagenhofer before the screening.

Media Academy: In the tagline for Alphabet you say that when children are born, 98 per cent of them are highly gifted. But after they finish school, it’s only 2 per cent. Why is this?

Erwin Wagenhofer: It is very easy to see why this is going on – it’s because of standardised testing. That’s the problem. That’s the killer. You have multiple choice questions. You don’t even have to write one sentence. When people are 25 years or older, it’s over. They don’t have any idea of what they can do. They think there’s just one way to do things. But maybe you have a thousand other ways. This is where creativity comes from. The most important things we create in the world – in science, in the arts, in crafts, in social things – come from playing.

MA: Have we lost this playful element?

EW: Yes, that’s what they are doing with us. You can measure it. When children go to school it stops immediately – their own power, their own talent. The only thing you do when you go to school is get an education and be a member of this economy and bring growth and growth and growth. And no fun. And nothing else. That has happened in the last 30 years.

MA: In the description of the movie you say performance culture kills talent. How could this talent be preserved?

EW: The schools of the future will be places where the children gather together in the morning to create a project. The teachers will not be like trainers, they will be accompanists. It’s a question of relation. We need relationships. Not “This is wrong, that’s wrong”.

MA: Still one could argue that children could be spoiled this way, that they might not learn anything.

EW: No, they should play. They should learn everything by playing. Every artist, every inventor – learns by playing.

MA: What about hard algebra?

EW: Do you need it?

MA: In a way, Konstantin Novoselov, who speaks at the Forum on Thursday, won the Nobel prize through “playing”.

EW: Yes, through trial and error. It is so important. Relationships, as opposed to education. In German we have a word for the best student: “Musterschüler”, which means a person who studies everything according to the “Muster” [Engl: pattern] – nothing new. And normally the pattern is from yesterday.

MA: So we need a more playful approach to education. Is there anything else that we need?

EW: That’s just the first step. The next step is that people do things best when they do the things they love. That is when they are in their element. Maybe your element is to be a singer or a craftsman. Whatever. You have that one talent where you are the best. And when you work in this element, you are at your best. It’s really simple. What we have in the economy is everyone fighting against everyone – because of hard work, competition, performance. Everything is made of fear. If you don’t do this, you won’t get a job. You’re an asshole. That’s what we are telling children. There is something wrong.

MA: What you are saying is that playful education and promoting individual talent would prepare people to tackle the problems we now have today – like climate change or the economic crisis?

EW: That’s a good question. This crisis we are having, let’s take the last one, the so-called financial crisis – which is the wrong word because it is not a financial crisis – it is a crisis made by the financial industry. It was made by people who were studying in Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and the best universities in the world. They are not criminals or “the unintelligent guys from the woods” – all of them are in the city of London, which is the most important financial district in the world. Every person who works there is highly educated, and what are they doing? They are making the problems! They are making climate change!

MA: So are we over-educated?

EW: No, it’s not a question of education; it’s a question of attitude. And my movie is not about education, it is about the attitude that is behind education. And we have to change our attitudes. We have to change our targets. What is our target? Of the European community, what’s the target? More, faster, higher? What kind of target is that?

MA: What should be the target?

EW: I don’t have the answer. I’m not the messiah; I’m just a simple filmmaker. This movie is a very simple contribution to a big discussion. One small wheel. A movie can’t be the answer. It’s not the Bible. It’s a long process, and we are all part of this process – if we take democracy serious.

MA: Let’s talk about your job as a filmmaker. Do you have any underlying wishes? Is there anything you want to change, or do you just do it for the sake of doing it because it’s your job?

EW: I think that most filmmakers are not interested in messages. There was a famous saying from the ’60s, from Roman Polanski, whose films I really like. He said: if I had a message, I would be working at the post office. And my approach is the opposite: if I didn’t have a message, I would be working in the post office.

MA: What’s your favourite scene in Alphabet?

EW: The beginning and the end. It’s very poetic. It starts in Death Valley and ends in Death Valley. And Death Valley is a metaphor. It’s a desert. It is the hottest place in the world, and there is nothing growing, because it doesn’t rain. But in 2005 it rained in the wintertime – seven inches. And in spring, Death Valley was coated with spring flowers. And it’s the same with human beings. If we have the right conditions, we can bloom.

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