Edited transcript of an interview with Mario Pfeifer in September 2018, Florence
Mario Pfeifer’s two channel video Again Noch Einmal – https://www.aboutnow.info/ – is a closer look to pervasive racism in Germany. It stages the reenactment of a court case that arouse strong contròversy in Germany.
Saxony, East Germany, July 2016. Four men drag an Iraqi refugee out of a supermarket where, they say, he’s having a threatening behavior against the cashier. Once out, they use plastic ties to tie him to a tree. The entire scene is filmed by a witness and the video is published on Youtube, where it goes viral. These are the facts that Pfeifer is reconstructing, by restating the supermarket scene in a garage, where actors are playing back the entire incriminated facts.
To tell the story, Pfeifer uses two interlòcutors as the narrative device, a man and a woman. They are part of the scene, they are two consumers of the supermarket and through their dialogue we – as much as the jury that is listening to the facts – get details and different perspectives on the crime. They first meet at the checkout, the man tries to start a conversation and he asks the woman: Where are you from?
MP_So there are two moderators as I installed them in the film, a woman – Dennenesch Zoudé – and a male actor – Mark Waschke – both very known in German tv and cinema and they are installed in a supermarket setting in which an everyday scene of – you can say – ordinary racism takes part. The male character asks the female character ‘where are you from?’ because she is of afro-german descent. That is giving a sort of introduction to the subject of the entire project: in our lives, somehow we are all able to observe or to let through an everyday racism. So somehow I wanted to set the tone that this concern us all and we might have experienced such a situation in a supermarket from the one or the other side.
Q_These two figures are accompanying us through the entire story. Are you suggesting us, from the beginning, to be aware of their own positions in the story?
MP_Of course as a visual artist working in film, I differentiate myself from a film maker and so I do not only follow a story that unfolds but I also reflect on the conditions of my own productions. I casts actors but I’m also interested in the symbolic meanings they have and also, in a certain way, which position they symbolize in a society. I also look at my actors as tools for a larger project, it’s not about making a good film with good looking actors, it’s also about who are these actors and what they do stand for by nature.
Q_ Let’s talk about the green-masked figure we see on stage? It’s there but not really, we do not see her? Face and I was wondering if it is part of the production apparatus or part of the story itself.
MP_Again Noch Einmal, the video we are discussing, is heavily based on a youtube video that was filmed by an unknown person inside the supermarket, documenting the violent attack of four men against the Iraqi-Kurdish refugee. We assume it is a female who filmed that video that went viral on Youtube because at the end of the video we hear a female voice. We do not see the person who filmed it, also all the investigations by the Police, the Court, did not reveal who that person is. So the only way to reflect on that and to say, ‘well there was somebody filming that incident that we’re reenacting’, was to have a person installed in the film, filming what was going on in front of the camera, from her point of view. And because you can’t show a person’s face if you do not know who that person is, you need to hide that face and we decided for a Chroma Key green body suit because the face and the body are denied and from a technical point of view, green is the color you can erase through Chroma key softwares. On a symbolic level it is also the color that you can project on, so if you have a green screen body suit in a green screen studio, you can project something on it so, somehow, we could project technically anybody, which means, it could be anybody.
Q_So, who does know who this person is?
MP_The police might know it, I’m sure the court knows it and I think also the cashier knows it. Anybody who was in the supermarket know this person because she was even greeted in the Youtube video but nobody came forward to say this is the person who filmed it. She would be a key witness. That in itself is a very interesting moment in the entire project, that we have a witness that videotaped the all thing but nobody knows who she is and she never came forward and nobody asked who she is…. Why is someone documenting a scene that even doesn’t take place then? because, you know, she started filming two minutes before the violent attack happened so she was clearly in the position to film something that she knew was going to happen but well….I would assume and I’m not the only one who assumes that, that this person is somehow connected to the four men who committed the attack, because otherwise why would you stand in a supermarket filming a ordinary situation and then at the end of the video say ‘oh it’s a pity that we need a vigilante justice group’… She’s even giving a commentary at the end of the video. I would assume that nothing comes by chance and she might be involved in the plan, let’s say, and I think her video also should have played a different role in the media than it played out in the end because it was uploaded ten days later and then, only then, it became viral and the case came about and there was mainstream media being interested in the case, so it was all based in the video but it was uploaded to more right wing political areas than leftwing. It all looks a bit like somebody had a plan and this plan somehow boomeranged in a certain way, but also not really, because all the media attention that this video created did not really bring these people into a situation where they were sentenced, to a situation where they were spoken free but it created a lot of attention, but attention for what? If there is no result, then it is also very problematic for a society.
Q_ If the video had not been uploaded on the internet, the case would not have been of public interest: this is one of the reasons why the judge dismissed the four persecutors, but now everything is televised and shared, for bad and for worse. How do you approach this found materials and the online platforms that amplify them, as an artist and as a citizen?
MP_It’s undeniable that social media are tools that are heavily used for political campaigning and for manipulating political campaigns; for the freedom of speech but also for the abuse of freedom of speech; somehow they’re uncontrollable news outlets and that makes it difficult for an ordinary citizen to evaluate things nowadays. Which it also means that it’s not enough anymore just to speak and to listen but you need to contextualize what you speak, whom you speak to, what you’re listening to and where it is coming from. That makes it very very difficult and in some areas even very dangerous….In this specific case we have an amazing witness video that comes out probably of the network of the same people who committed the crime, in my point of view. Nevertheless the judge has not being able to determine this evidence and the authorship of this evidence because, of course, it’s not an anonymous video, it is made by a person that was present and somehow that person was never present in court. This shades a dark light on the German Justice system. And then of course the video got at least fifty thousand clicks or shares or likes and it was heavily used in right wing networks to publish ideas about civil courage, you know, [to show] how people take action in order to prevent the crime. On the other hand, there was a raised awareness among leftist networks, NGOs and politician; and at least, in the end, the police and the justice system had to say ‘well, maybe we have to check wether a crime is committed or not’. I mean, the video was the only evidence people have because anybody who was present in the supermarket seem to be not bothered enough to call the police or file a lawsuit, so the video itself proves how important social media are to document things in public space but it does mean that a video that goes viral, that documents a violent attack, brings justice to the people who committed it. That’s also a consequence of that case.
Q_By presenting the four men as a civil right group, the witness is already pre-defining what is going on; in this sense it a manipulating propaganda video, there was the intention of turn this ordinary day scene into a spectacle…
MP_Again, if you look into the traces, who uploaded the video and how it was first shared…there is a picture being drawn that you can say, well, it was used as a tool to defend civil courage among patriots, it was not in favor of the man who was attacked. In my reading, it is very clear that it was not a video to find the truth. And that’s why I say it was a boomerang because at that moment people, including me, tried to find out what was the truth. They labelled it, they proposed one reading of it and they underestimated that any visual document might have different readings.
Q_Civil courage and vigilantes justice are easily confused with one another. After having met many right and far-rightwing supporters [for his video On Fear and Education, Disenchantment and Justice, Protest and Disunion in Saxony / Germany, 2016] and listened to their perspective and socio-political concerns, do you think there is a common ground there or are they two separate behaviors?
MP_In my personal opinion I think civil courage and vigilante justice are two very different things but looking at the society I live in, East Germany, my birth place, the case of Again Noch Einmal documents how close these terms can get. A cashier is threatened and four men bind a refugee who doesn’t speak German on a tree and they claim: civil courage. Whereas the woman who documents the scene, calls it vigilante justice and she means civil courage, because the vigilante justice somehow seeks civil courage because the state doesn’t act out the executive power, let’s say the police protecting the citizens…In rural areas, where these case happened, you do not have permanent police presence, because you know, it might not be necessary or there is not enough money to host a police station every village. However, I think civil courage would have been if someone in the supermarket had said stop, you can not be violent here, this man is maybe threatening somebody maybe not, let’s step back, give me the wine bottle, let’s deescalate the thing, very easy. At least calling the police or saying stop is a duty every citizen should have and that, in my point of view, would been civil courage. But if four men come with cable binders, literally, and black t-shirts ,this is the wrong premise to act as civil courage. That’s like a prepared action that uses violence and threat to take care of somebody who might not be able to defend himself.
This accident has to be considered in a larger context: there is a foreigner in our supermarket and he’s causing troubles. And we don’t want it because, in the larger context of this little village, they were discussing a home for refugees, like a shelter, like a hostel for people to be taken care of, like it happens all over the country and these four men and many others in this village fought against it and they used a symbolic situation in order to make very clear ‘if you bring more people with a migrant history or refugees or asylum seekers into our village, we will be defending our village and if necessary, we will use violence’. This is the sub context of it, no question. So it’s not four people against one individual, it’s about a part of the society against another group. It’s a village case but you could extend it to a country like Germany and even to a continent like Europe.
Q_I’d like to talk about On Fear and Education, Disenchantment and Justice, Protest and Disunion in Saxony / Germany [Pfeifer conducted interviews with nine people, giving them the room to speak. Each is asked the same questions, each is allotted the same media space and time. The speakers remain anonymous, their functions unspecified, but the viewer quickly gathers: most of them are from Saxony, they helped found Pegida. All of them share their thoughts on German society today with the camera, telling stories of their disenchantments and insights, their involvements and their hopes for society]. How did you get in contact with these nine persons and how did you win their trust in order for them to speak so openly?
MP_Usually I take a lot of time to research my project, so let’s say the part of the production is much shorter than the part of research. And since I deal with people, time is a matter, respect is a matter but also a certain openness. Somehow I guess the society I work in, gives me a lot of space as an artist to do whatever I need to do and in a certain way I would grant this to the people I work with, meaning that I’m interested in whoever, doing whatever, saying whatever. I’m ok if I do a project to listen to somebody for a long time and I’m also interested to listen political opinions that I might not share but if I decide I’m interested in somebody I would grant this person total freedom. So I met these people, I would say, I was hanging out with them and I was listening to them more that talking to them. I would say, well, this is the project I propose I’m interested in your agenda, your ideology, in the way you think, in your emotions and I’m interested in how you would like to see a better future for our country. And I think, just the minimum respect with which I’d like to listen to somebody who in the past might not have had too many encounters with people who want to listen to them, it’s already a huge gain for them. There is a divide in our society because a lot of people don’t feel understood or they just feel lonely maybe, it also depends on the private situation the people are in. And I found well, maybe it’s a good learning lesson for me to listen to a lot of people. And of course I went to their houses, we had coffees, beers, tees, cakes, dinners, we had anything. I learnt this methodology in far away places, in Chile, Brazil, India, to be able to be passible but very active in listening, it’s also fascinating if somebody explains you the world and yes, wow, I would not think this way but it’s interesting and in that sense I believe I built a very interesting relationship to all the protagonists, I never judged them for what they’d say. I made clear that we should not discuss things with terminologies that are against the constitution but beyond that I’m totally open to anything you have to tell me. I want to understand that person, so how can I make him speak, and that means that on a personal level we have to connect.
Q_Once you established a connection, how did you work with them during the shooting? Did you create a kind of open-mic situation or did you work on a fixed format?
MP_It was not an open mic, it was very concentrated, I invited all of them to a film studio, they all had the same conditions to speak in: a neutral objective space, a little bit of light, but it was also about the framing, we shot with a very long lens in order to show the person, the human being. Despite the political ideas, we still talk about human beings and they have emotions and I was equally interested in the emotions when they speak, when they blink, when they stutter, and when they move the head and the hands, and they think and they do not know what to say. Because in a political discourse it’s also good to humanize them again, because in the end of the days, these are people with feelings, kids, partners, they might be divorced and all these factors play into their politicizing speech. So for me, as an artist, I can put emphasis on the emotional context of a person, always, it’s kind of my role to say well, these are heavily political shifts we go through right now, they are made by people and maybe the society did not treat everybody equally in the past 30 years, and maybe this is an indicator that these people form a group and this group is very strong and loud and they have something to say, so in my point of you, it’s wrong to ignore them.
Q_You had been invited for a solo show at the Kunstsammlungen in Chemnitz, East Germany, next year, to show Again Noch Einmal and On Fear and Education, Disenchantment and Justice, Protest and Disunion in Saxony / Germany, two films that deal with racism, anti-muslim movements, self justice and civil courage, as we’ve seen. Last August, in Chemnitz, a man was stabbed to death by tow men from Syria and Iraq and the case was immediately instrumentalized and thing escalated so far that around 6000 people from the far right wing spectrum demonstrated by shouting against the migrants and saluting Hitler. In the light of these facts, Frédéric Bussmann, the curator, asked you to anticipate the show to next week, early October. How do you feel about the forthcoming opening?
Given the situation that these works are existing and they also discursively investigate this scenario, of course, I would say, yes, it’s a great move, let’s do the show earlier and hopefully this show will have an impact on the discourse, because now we have a discourse among politicians, citizens, among the media and everybody is shouting and nobody is really having a vision, nobody is having an agenda, like ‘how to deal with that’ and I believe that art and a museum can be a contemplative space to discuss these things beyond the structures we already have, which is the parliament, which is the street, the market place, and I can only hope that my project is moderate in a certain way that we can only solve this things together I can not exclude a group of people that I really do not share a political view with but I think they are part of the society and they are potentially part of creating certain issues because they suffer under other issues, so through art I can only show how a societal discourse could also happen and if I need to choose a side, I would choose the side to straighten civil courage because I think also part of the problem is that these crimes and attacks happen because there is not enough civil courage, because people look away.
And I think, even the civil society has to take a stand against our justice system if it is not able to differentiate between vigilante justice and civil courage.
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