Karim Aïnouz on how he changed his focus from Berlin’s three airports to refugees.
Zentralflughafen THF isn’t the Brazilian director’s first Berlin film (in 2011 he already paid tribute to his newfound Neukölln Heimat with Sonnenallee), but his first “classic documentary”, as he calls it. This engrossing feature works both as a tribute to the iconic airport, and a document of everyday life in the refugee camp inside it – with a result that some have called too cheerful to be accurate. Benefiting from the buzz surrounding the transformation of the old Nazi landmark into both a hipster hangout and an emergency refugee shelter, the film caught the limelight at this year’s Berlinale and again last month at Achtung Berlin. Hitting cinemas May 24, THF is set to find its audience among both concerned citizens and Berlin lovers.
What drew you to Tempelhof as a topic?
It kind of started in 2014; I’m an architect and I’m actually addicted to airports, I love them [laughs]. The project was supposed to be an installation about the history of Berlin through the documentation of three airports in three different phases: Tempelhof, because it was discontinued; Tegel, because it was about to close; Berlin Brandenburg… well you know, that one that was supposed to open in 2011, because it was the future.
What made you then focus solely on Tempelhof instead?
Whilst we were waiting for permission to shoot inside the [three] airports, I started filming on Tempelhofer Feld. In the meantime, Tegel didn’t end up closing, and the people who had said yes originally at Berlin Brandenburg said no. Then one day [towards the end of 2015] I ended up going into the hangars because I heard refugees were living there. It felt very precarious; people had to take buses to go to the toilet, and because it was an emergency situation, the fate of the shelter inside was literally decided from one day to the next. I was really taken by the situation inside for two reasons; I found it quite ironic that these buildings and tents, built for military purposes, were housing people that were fleeing war. Then throughout the whole summer [of 2015], I got mad at the way the refugee stories were told in the news – it made you feel like you were watching a sci-fi film where martians were attacking the planet. The only images I saw were people jumping from trains and crossing on boats. There were no images of the people actually living here and nothing showing how they were being hosted. So that was the trigger for the film you saw… I left the conceptual project behind and dove into filming Tempelhof.
Was it easy to shoot inside?
Not at all. The German media had been focusing on this picture from above with the cabins, and consequently neither the inhabitants, nor the organisation taking care of the camp, wanted cameras inside anymore, which I could understand. My initial feeling was, “I need to document this, this is an important moment in history”, but I had to wait until July 2016, when I finally got a permit to shoot for three hours at a time inside — I guess the topic wasn’t as hot anymore. I had been going inside for six months, so people trusted me.
What did you want to show?
It was important [for me to show] that it was an emergency shelter that became a home for people, so I wanted to follow a whole cycle, whether that be a year, or four seasons… we ended up shooting until August 2017. It was my first “classic” documentary, so I didn’t really know where I was going, but I just knew that it needed to be done for a certain period of time so that I could understand the process.
How did you go about choosing your two protagonists, young Syrian Ibrahim and Qutaiba, the doctor/translator?
I have to say that, until December 2016, I was still searching for my characters. With the attack on the Christmas market in Berlin in 2016, one of the first suspects was a guy living in Tempelhof. So the police went in and there was a massive break-in between December 19 and 21. But I felt I knew these kids, it was just so unlikely that one of them would have done this. They were accusing a guy from Pakistan and it felt like racial profiling, because the Pakistanis were among the most ‘lost’ there. That’s when it became clear to me that the film should be about a young Arab man, and that’s when I started to follow Ibrahim. These men are sort of the devils of contemporary culture and I wanted to show a different side.
Zentralflughafen THF opens in Berlin cinemas on July 5. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.