EDN Member of the Month - Sascha Schöberl
In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. Our EDN member of the month for May 2013 is Sascha Schöberl, director / DOP / editor, saschafilm.com.
Sascha Schöberl originates from Germany, but is now having the whole world as his work place and home. He is working both as director, DOP and editor of documentary films and primarily divides his time between Europe, Asia and the USA. Sascha has a BA in film-making arts and has worked in the business since 2004. His filmography includes among other titles the documentaries Yakuza, Radioactive Detective, The Unseen, Adventure Ocean-Quest and In Search of Good Food plus a range of imagefilms, commercials and TV shows.
EDN has talked to Sascha about working as a DOP, living across the globe and his current project Dreams Without a Home.
EDN: Can you start by telling a bit more about your background and how you started out in the documentary business?
SS: My home base is the DOP work. At first I worked more for commercials and cooperate movies but I always felt drawn to real stories. When I was a teenager I hitchhiked all over Europe. I often had a small video camera and photo camera with me and collected different stories, just for myself. Some of the trips even had some kind of themes. Naturally, I became more involved with documentaries as a DOP and editor. This passion and commitment for documentaries and real stories captivate me even more now. Now I work with different producers and directors on different continents and also started directing as well.
EDN: You work primarily as a DOP but also as director and editor. How do you divide your time between these different functions and how do you make it work when you take on all 3 roles on the same project?
SS: It really depends on the project I work on. I am involved in different projects in different positions. It often depends on my past relationship with the specific director/producer. Since I have originated from the camera background directors often approach me to fill the DOP position. Typically, our work relationship will continue in future projects. With some producers/directors I cooperate as an editor. Recently I also started directing documentaries. It does need extensive time management of course. Depending on the position the involvement in one movie can depend from a month to years. But especially for documentaries I try to keep the positions separate. If you get too close to the subject, too close to the story it will not necessary help the story in the end. I really appreciate the different angles from the different positions and team members though at times circumstances can merge these positions together. For the project Dreams Without a Home I prefer to have a small team on set just because we film very intimate moments in limited spaces.
EDN: Do you have a favourite part or role and do you have a preferred style, theme or genre within the documentary?
SS: It depends on the film, of course. But I really love to dive deep into a story, be where it is happening and make the pictures. For me it is always important that the picture language goes with the story. Furthermore I often try to give the real story a cinematic look. In the past I also worked with cameras, which are not that common for documentaries, like the REDs for example. But in the end it paid off and we were happy with the results. In terms of themes or topics, I am very open. I do like cultural and personal stories where we can learn something about ourselves as well in a poetic way.
EDN: You are currently working both as producer, director and DOP on the project Dreams Without a Home. What is this project about and how did you come across this story?
SS: I am getting producers on board right now for Dreams Without a Home. It is the very personal story about Burmese refugee children who live on a landfill in Thailand. Some of them are even born on that landfill and have hardly seen the outside world. But the children's point of view changes everything. The mountains of trash turn into an adventure park and trash into treasures. Yet within a very short time these children have to mature a lot and find themselves in the harsh reality. It started around three years ago, when I did a research trip in and around Burma. I have worked with them ever since and I hope the shootings will be finished beginning 2014.
EDN: How did you win the confidence of the refugee kids in the film?
SS: Until a certain age they are playful, happy and curious children like anywhere else. They soon invited me into their world and this is where I found this bittersweet contrast between their happy children’s world and reality. I think it is also important that the community realizes that you are more involved than just taking pictures. Helping them in their daily struggle has always been part of it
EDN: What are your thoughts about your own involvement and responsibility towards the characters, when working on a subject like this?
SS: In this case it is important to find a balance in being the filmmaker and the humanitarian worker. I definitely did not want to make some kind of poverty porn, where you keep on shooting and leave without real help or positive impact on the community. Nevertheless it is important to stay strongly connected with the story and the pictures of the film otherwise the film won’t work in the end. A genuine, honest and respectful relationship with the community is the basis.
EDN: Will you say that you have as much an “agenda” as a creative vision with this film?
SS: Of course I hope the film will raise attention and therefore help the children. If the film helps them improve their situation and living conditions, then I see this project as a success. But also, as a passionate filmmaker I see it as important to put a lot of energy in my creative vision to achieve a compelling story able to gain attention.
EDN: Does the title Dreams Without a Home also reflect your own situation – always being on the road with new projects? How is it living out of a camera bag without a permanent address?
SS: I like this question. It is true. I have not had a permanent base since more than 6 years. I do not know in how many different hotel rooms, apartments, couches, airports, hammocks, tents I have slept during this time. But of course this raises the question of “where is home”. I think if you live a nomad live you need to be able to be at home in yourself and where you are. If you have a craving for a certain space or location, this lifestyle would be pretty unhealthy. In this way I also don’t need a lot of stuff and learn to appreciate simple things. I choose to live this way because of my curiosity and my passion for film and adventures.
EDN: Which advantages and disadvantages does it have to work and live like this?
SS: I am extremely flexible and free. I like the intensity. In this way I am able to enter so many different worlds and surprises are part of it. It can be exhausting and addictive though. There are many good byes, but also many reunions.
EDN: One of the latest projects you worked on as a DOP was the 90 min documentary Yakuza about the Japanese “mafia” directed by Alexander Detig. You were one of the first foreign DOPs to film with high-ranking Yakuza members. How was this experience and how did you manage to get close and not get killed?
SS: This was a very exciting project. The Yakuza is a very complex topic. Most of the time it is very obvious who is a Yakuza. There is an entire Yakuza culture - tattoos, films, books, comics, the way they talk, the way they dress themselves, the way they threaten you. To understand the Yakuza you need to understand the Japanese society and culture. The contact persons were essential to be able to film with different high-ranking Yakuza. With this access we were able to get these rare pictures and moments. Yakuza also likes to show off and that helps as well when you want to get them on camera. I only got threatened and once attacked by low ranked Yakuza who did not know our relationship to the bosses. Furthermore the Yakuza tends to use more psychological violence than actual physical assaults, at least towards non-Yakuza. Since we filmed with different clans it was also very important to be aware of the current relationships between these clans. In an environment where honour is a very high value and where you easily step on someone’s foot, the peace between these clans can easily be shattered.
EDN: How do you manage the shift from having a nice sake with a Yakuza member to suddenly pointing a camera on him?
SS: I think as a DOP it is important to be able to understand what is happening. You have to be very sensitive, socially and culturally. Sometimes we would just drink sake and beers in Yakuza hideouts and talk. The camera had to remain off. In other situations I could be more frank and enter big head quarters with the camera rolling. Once the big bosses agree on being filmed everybody obeys and I could work more freely.
EDN: Do you ever get the feeling while filming that you are intruding too much into people’s life? How do you keep a good balance also when collaborating with a director?
SS: I stay very connected to the story. This is the best guideline for which moment is essential to have on camera. I talk everything through with the director before we start shooting. I need a very clear understanding of the story, the style and the vision of the director. I work very closely with the directors. In this way we are on the same track and the story and my pictures are taking the same direction. For me DOP work is more than just taking pictures. Even when the camera is not rolling you work with the characters and the story and this can determine the moments you get on camera.
EDN: How do you find new projects to work on?
SS: I constantly run into new interesting stories, furthermore friends and colleagues talk with me about possible stories. We talk it through, research and think a lot about it. During this process it becomes clear which story could be the strongest. I also go with my guts and passion. If a story feels right and I love the pictures in my head then it fires me up, and that is a good sign as well to start this specific project.
EDN: Last but not least – which projects and travels lie ahead for you?
SS: I have some DOP work coming up in California. After that I will shoot for a Canadian production in Toronto/Beijing and after that we start the first shootings for a documentary in the mountains on the Philippines. I am really excited for each of the projects. In the fall of 2013 I plan to be back on the landfill to keep on shooting with the children for Dreams Without a Home.
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