A Conversation w/ Sarah Noa Bozenhardt
The following email conversation took place in October 2016, upon the acquisition of Medanit (Cure) (2015) directed by Sarah Noa Bozenhardt for active Video Out distribution. The interview was conducted by Matthew Ballantyne for a University of British Columbia undergraduate co-op placement with VIVO Media Arts Centre.
MB: Matthew Ballantyne
SNB: Sarah Noa Bozenhardt
MB: You describe your film Medanit as a “poetic documentary” – what does this mean to you?
SNB: To me this means opening up a space within the documentary that is driven by the power to imagine, to dream, and to rely upon symbolism. Instead of treating the film as a tool to represent reality, I wanted the process of production to open up a space wherein all participants where invited to voice their hopes and wishes – even if these may not translate to their everyday life. Aster’s wish to rename her child, for example, is deeply rooted in her dreams. Whereas it is in fact very difficult for her to officially change her daughter’s name, this was possible within the framework of the film – Aster could use this space to articulate her hopes and her choice to call the girl Medanit, using this decision as a symbol for her independence. To me this is poetry.
MB: What sort of trust issues arise when telling someone’s story?
SNB: Especially when telling someone’s story within a cultural framework that you aren’t truly a part of (no matter how long you have lived there), it becomes all the more important to build a strong connection and treat trust as a number one priority. Considering the type of media that is often produced about the global south, I felt that it was crucial for me to first build a strong and respectful relationship with everyone involved. I didn’t want to make a film about Aster – I wanted to make a film with Aster. To me this meant, not filming for many months, organizing video and sound workshops, writing poetry together, washing laundry – meeting and getting to know each other properly before beginning the production. Through this sense of collaboration, we formed a space wherein the participants and I myself felt safe. I didn’t feel a pressure to succeed. I could openly articulate when I was lost, as could Aster. That way I think, we learned to trust each other.
MB: What brought you to Vancouver?
SNB: Back when I was living in Addis Ababa, I attended the International Community School and obtained an American High School Diploma and International Baccalaureate once I graduated. I had gotten so used to education within an English-speaking context that I was set on continuing my studies abroad instead of returning back to Germany.
SNB:When I was looking at schools online, I came across Emily Carr University of Art + Design, which struck me as a perfect place to explore my artistic passions before committing to one subject, as it was the case in the UK for example. Their courses in the realm of creative writing caught my interest in particular and I felt that I could experiment with different forms of storytelling. When my acceptance letter reached me a few months later, there was no question. My gut feeling told me right away: you are moving to Canada!
MB: What place feels most like home to you?
SNB: To be honest, this may be the biggest dilemma of my life. In German, we have two words to differentiate the places we consider to be home. The first one, Heimat describes the place you have your roots at, the place you will always return to and the place you connect to your early childhood memories. For me, this is without doubt Freiburg, a small town in southern Germany, where I was born and raised and where many of my oldest friends and family still live.
But after so many years in Ethiopia and later in Vancouver, I find myself floating between homes. It takes great effort to reconnect with present-day Germany as my home. I feel more comfortable, safe and connected in Ethiopia. I feel like spending my teenage years in this environment has greatly shaped who I want to be, and since my parents still live there, I am constantly drawn back to our beautiful home. Ethiopia, in that sense is my zu Hause – the second term describing home in German: a place that evolves and changes as I do, but the place I want to call home for a long time to come.
MB: Does the editing process feel like a limitation or does it open up the boundaries?
SNB: Personally, I believe that editing a film pushes you out of your comfort zone like nothing else in the process of producing a documentary does. It is a continuous exercise, which forces you to rethink your entire project, embrace change, acknowledge mistakes, and let go. At the same time, it’s magic. You are gifted with time and get to relive moments of your life over and over again. Within that personal space, you manage to detect subtleties that you tend to overlook within the rush of a current moment. That’s what I love about editing – the continuous element of surprise.
MB: Do you mourn or fret over pieces of video that find themselves cut from the final project?
SNB: In the moment of editing, this can, in fact, be very difficult. It is hard to let go of your “darlings.” I always tend to push them here and there for quite some time, refusing to accept that they need to go. However, there is always a point where I can’t continue lying to myself, and I need to have a conscious moment to say good-bye. Sometimes this means taking a break – crying a little. But when I look at the result, and the film suddenly flows, stands as one stronger piece, although my favourite scene is cut out, I smile and treasure the bits and pieces I know will remain with me – like a little secret I carry along every time I share the film with others.
MB: Did folk songs play a part in your life growing up in Ethiopia?
SNB: Yes, when thinking about it, I feel like they did. When we first moved to Addis Ababa, I understood almost nothing that was being said around me. The language was very foreign to me, but the songs and tunes I heard over and over again engraved themselves in my memory. I began to feel connected with my environment when the morning tunes and the songs of the priests and imams woke me up every morning.
Similarly, I remember a moment where I was maybe five years old and my parents and I were on vacation in Ethiopia. It was Christmas Eve and we were all gathered around a fireplace by a lakeside. Along came a man with a traditional Ethiopian guitar and began singing and composing lyrics about my mother, in the same way Fasika is composing songs in Medanit as she is cooking. Again, I didn’t understand a word, but those moments stay with me until today.
Later on the cheers of our basketball team at school in Addis Ababa, acted as a connecting element. We chanted and danced and although for a while I didn’t know what I was chanting, I was feeling connected. I think these moments of folk songs transcend language and culture. That’s why I love them.
MB: Do you feel like documentary can transcend cultures?
SNB: Yes, I do. I think if done openly and treated as a dialogue and not a one-way point and shoot scenario, a documentary can be a great opportunity for people to get to know each other’s backgrounds. By making this film, I was invited into Aster’s home and culture, but she too got to travel to Europe for the premiere in Germany and got to know my way of life there and in Ethiopia. As different as our worlds may be, we learned from each other and it was a truly beautiful experience and encounter.
MB:What sort of personal bonds arise after spending time with subjects in such intimate situations?
SNB: Friendships – I think that word sums it up. I have found friends that have shaped and impacted my life greatly. At the same time, I feel responsible for them and it’s difficult sometimes to deal with the distance that naturally occurs in our lives. I continue my education abroad, and the women go on with their lives. We shared something special, and now we continue, always making sure to see each other when I am back in Ethiopia.
MB: Is a filmmaker equally vulnerable as their subjects?
SNB: I don’t know, maybe – but in a different way somehow. It takes a lot of courage to open up your life, thoughts, fears and dreams to someone holding a camera. It means sharing your inner self with people you will never meet. I find that incredibly courageous and I don’t know if I could ever do the same. But of course, I am also very vulnerable when I am working on a project. I have to embrace the situations and fully commit to listening. One you begin, there is no turning back, not to me anyways. Many of things that I heard when speaking to the women of this film hurt me deeply. They shared much of their pain with me, things I never included in the final film because I felt they were too personal for anyone to hear, but I will carry these images and feelings with me for a very long time to come.