As it tracks the daily lives of Lebanese siblings Hassan, Lial and Maradona Akkouch, Neukölln Unlimited takes Berliners into the streets of one of the city’s most notorious districts. The teenagers are unusually talented but, fatherless and financially strained, they must constantly fight to extend their residence permits – despite the fact that their family has lived in Germany for 18 years.
We sat down with Dietmar Ratsch and Agostino Imondi, the brains and camera eyes behind this penetrating documentary.
Did you choose the place or the family first?
Agostino Imondi: While I was doing research for another film, I was invited to an event that was taking place in Neukölln, at the Rütli School. There, I got to know Maradona and eventually his family, too: I found out their story, what they had undergone, and decided that I really wanted to make a film about them. So yes, we chose the protagonists first and the area came with them.
Dietmar Ratsch: Exactly. If the family happened to come from Lichtenberg, we would have filmed in Lichtenberg. The topic brings the protagonists – the family – along with it. Where their daily life happens – that is where the film takes place.
Your film gives off a very positive image of Neukölln: it makes it look like a really nice place to live. That’s quite a contrast to the negative hype in the German press.
AI: When I first visited a youth club near the Rütli School, and explained that I was a filmmaker and wanted to make documentary about young people, they weren’t at all happy to see me. They’d had a lot of journalists visit and many bad things had been printed about the school: journalists had apparently even paid pupils to throw rubbish bins out the windows so that they could produce an extremely negative image of Neukölln – and that obviously exacerbated the negative hype. But really, if you have visitors from London or Paris and tell them about Neukölln’s notoriety, they laugh in your face. In comparison with areas of London or Harlem or the Bronx in New York, it’s really quite safe.
Was Maradona very excited about the film?
AI: At the time we started, Maradona was 12 years old, and he was very enthusiastic about it right from the start. Hassan, on the other hand, was pretty skeptical. He was like, “I’m not sure – we’ve been in the media too much already. We need to think about it.” So I rang him up quite a few times and sent him DVDs of my previous work to show him that I’m not just one of those journalists who wants to find a quick story… I also met up with him a few times, and told him about my own background – my story’s not dissimilar to that of his family’s. Finally he said, “Okay, we’ll make a film with you, but it’ll be the very last thing we do about the topic of deportation.”
Did you particularly want an immigrant family?
DR: I consider it to be of the utmost importance to try to create an exciting story over the 90 minutes. When you’re working on a cinema project, you don’t want people to get bored. So you take what is emotionally very important for the film – the existential difficulties within this family. Right from the outset, you have to establish that this is a family that is fighting against deportation and being torn apart.
What is the family’s status now?
DR: Throughout the filming period, there was always the threat of the family being deported… Unfortunately, it’s still the case that they have temporary status – they could be deported any day.
AI: And the permission to stay can be extended by one year or one day. The problem is that the police can just as easily deport you today or tomorrow or next week – they just ring on your doorbell and that’s it. Psychologically, this is very damaging, especially for the younger kids.
Hassan and Lial don’t have a permanent residency permit either?
DR: Because they’re 19 and 18 and they’re still in education, they’re fine. But even if they did manage to get vocational training and don’t have to be deported, they might be separated overnight from their family. This is brought up relatively early on in the film – the two ask one another, “If the [rest of the] family is deported, will you go with them or stay here?” For a 17-, 18-year-old, that’s a huge responsibility.
You used animation to depict the family’s deportation back to Lebanon. Why did you choose this form?
DR: Their deportation story is described by Hassan in the book he’s writing, and his descriptions were so visual and strong that it soon became obvious that we should use animation to do that part. Various influences come together: hip hop, graffiti and comic-strips.
Have the Akkouchs become a kind of pin-up family for Neukölln?
DR: Well, a huge poster was, in fact, made for the film – it’s about 12 metres tall – and put up in the Neukölln Arcaden near Rathaus Neukölln… That certainly has pin-up qualities! And when you see them, you realise they are Neukölln: when they walk along the street, they know and are greeted by everyone. Because of this, the film has become a kind of Heimatfilm, and that’s due to the protagonists.
Music plays a huge role in their lives. Did the Akkouchs inspire the film’s soundtrack?
AI: A lot of the music in the film is original and recorded by composers specifically for the film. The idea was to reflect Neukölln life with its hip-hop, breakdance beats, and the traditional Lebanese culture as well. To mix them together and, with that combination, to reflect not only Neukölln, but also how the Akkouchs live, and the boys’ coming of age.
DR: It was very important for us that the music be an integral a part of the film as the camera cuts. It’s not only about how they express themselves: it’s about a philosophy… Their motto is “dancing to forget” [“tanzen um zu vergessen”].
The relationship between the brothers is nicely depicted. You can see that Maradona is also just a normal 14-year-old boy, and it’s quite common to have problems at that age…
AI: Yes, that’s true, too. I was bad at that age – my brother was even worse. There are very few youngsters who don’t cause mischief at that age. But with foreign youngsters, it’s suddenly a whole different matter: people think they’re bad… But there are just as many badly-behaved Germans, or English, or Swiss, or whatever, and you don’t say to them “You’re badly integrated!” What is ‘well integrated’, anyway? I hate that word, ‘integrated’ – even the sound of it drives me mad. It’s a word politicians introduced when multi-kulti became a swear word. Suddenly, it was all about ‘integration’. But what should I do to be ‘well’ or ‘better integrated?’ Put on some lederhosen – should I speak perfect, accent-less German? Who decides, anyway, whether someone is well or poorly integrated – and on what grounds?
NEUKÖLLN UNLIMITED opens in Berlin cinemas on April 8. A version with English subtitles will be showing at Central Kino from April 9.