Of course it’s obvious – and yet: Why a project on migration and with refugees right now?

For me and for HKW it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the “summer of migration.” The three projects we’re showing in Soundtracks don’t pretend that the refugees appeared all of a sudden overnight. As a critical migration researcher, I’m much more interested in the long-term approach. I’m skeptical of projects and actions that work only in the acute moment, because they fall short. That being said, I think that we should take advantage of this moment when so many people are suddenly open to grappling with migration. Suddenly, names are being pronounced correctly by the media, translators and experts can be found for topics that until recently were conspicuously underrepresented. It seems like discussions can finally be reinitiated. That’s why it’s so important that, within this field of tension, our projects be positioned with sensitivity.

We’re talking about films and audio installations that are sometimes highly documentary. How do you ensure that the refugees involved really retain their own voice?

Through constant diligence. One good example is the gardening project Die Gärtnerei at the Jerusalem Cemetery where refugees, activists and experts work together. There was a moment when some of the participants really felt like exhibits. Accordingly, the documented conversations in Constanze Fischbeck’s video Terra Nova – Preview show how important negotiations on self-determination and the often-existential problems of those involved are. Hopefully, the camera’s observational gaze not only captures the filmmakers’ material, but may also give the urban gardeners new perspectives on their situation – as well as the people who live around the cemetery who can enter into the discussions through this documentation.

But the underlying problem remains: Time and again, refugees are currently being exploited for art and other projects.

The production of cultural capital is a problem; there’s no question about it. That’s why it’s so important to avoid victimization and not to put people on display. Soundtracks’ participants should not be paraded as representatives of a particular problem. I’m interested in the normality of people’s lives, in managing how much they reveal about themselves. Exactly that was the focus in the collaboration between filmmaker Philip Scheffner, Colorado Velcu and his family, who recently came to Germany. It was a long process of coming together that had already begun during the making of another film. In Revision, Scheffner had reviewed the case concerning the death of Colorado Velcu’s father in an alleged hunting accident at the German-Polish border in the 1990s. The Velcus’ very justified guardedness wasn’t let down until Scheffner and the family discovered their mutual love for Bollywood movies. From then on, Colorado in particular had a say in the direction of the camera and the way things were being filmed. In the current film And-Ek Ghes… the input of his views and production ideas are even stronger.

So ultimately the film was co-directed in a way?

Actually, it was from the beginning; in his films, Philip always leaves room for negotiation. And-Ek Ghes… observes the arrival of the Velcu family in Germany, but it’s a collaborative process. One that has a lot to do with what’s grappled with in autobiographical, ethnographic and documentary film. Usually, when a Roma makes a film, the levels of projection can overshadow the actual message. But this film shows something different. It’s a very personal portrait of Colorado’s life as a single father, about his wife, who’s in prison in Romania, and about the different ways of organizing a family that lives across many countries.

It’s probably also about making specific experiences of marginalization visible?

Sadly, that happens all by itself in this story. Even though the film is more about the right to one’s own story, about the art of storytelling. But it also demonstrates that the Roma and Sinti – often citizens of the EU – still have very few rights. It’s a huge scandal that they are still being shifted into deportable status. That they have rights on paper to which they have virtually no access. In the film, this is also addressed by describing the difficulty in accessing school and various other institutions. So it’s very much about exclusion, in other words about the politicization of arrival. Because for many people it means they can’t simply arrive and stay any more. So films like this may perhaps convey how important it is today to think in such transnational terms.

 In this context, is it also important to think and name the topic of racism?

Absolutely! In the 1990s, it still had to be explained – even within universities – that racism is indeed an important concept. Things have changed since then, but given the racist violence these days, it doesn’t seem like nearly enough. Although migration and racism are historically very tangibly interlinked. There are still so many everyday examples. Like the many children with non-German names who don’t receive upper-level high school recommendations. The bad thing is that the people affected still think that they’re isolated cases. Because if racism is addressed as a topic at all, then almost exclusively in a sociopsychological context – as an issue about attitudes and personal problems. Not as a structural social one.

 As you said, there are overarching historical correlations. Is that one of the reasons why your approach also suits the framework of the 100 Years of Now project? 

I think so, because in the end, my project is also about continuities of the present and the past. I’m dealing with the fact that it’s active repression if the acute migration situation comes as a surprise to us. That we still believe we overcame the major global conflicts in the 20th century. Because the fact is that the circumstances now are as bad as they were at the beginning of that century, only configured differently: the questions of inequality, of geopolitical upheavals, of wars and civil wars. For me, that’s why the historical reference also means we have to steer the focus to the possibilities of the present – to use the opportunity to think differently, to perceive new and different perspectives.

Is this what unites the three Soundtracks projects?

Not only this. Another uniting element is their examination of listening. Julia Tieke’s work Recording in Progress! is a listening game about the polyphony in our society and the question of whose stories are currently being noticed in the media and whose aren’t. As it is, also Philip Scheffner’s works are characterized chiefly by his ability to listen. And in Constanze Fischbeck’s videos, it’s ultimately about entering into conversations. About situating oneself in the conversation. About the politicization of listening.

Translation: Faith Ann Gibson