Our Specially Curated Season for Art of The Underground’s Canary Wharf Screen is now in Phase II: The Present. Each week, we interview one of our filmmakers about their film and their involvement in the programme.
Eva Weber is a German director who works in both documentary and fiction. Her award winning films have been widely broadcsat and screened at numerous international festivals, including Sundance, Edinburgh, SXSW, BFI London and Telluride. Her film The Solitary Life of Cranes (2008, 27″) was described by The Observer as ‘one of the most absorbing documentaries of the year’. Part city symphony part visual poem, the film explores the normally invisible life of a city; its patterns and hidden secrets, seen through the eyes crane-drivers high above its streets.
Our programme manager Elhum Shakerifar interviewed Eva about the film and her work as a director.
> I love the idea of the people working at the top of London city will be meeting with those who work under the city over the course of the next month. Could you tell me about how the film idea took shape, what made you look up to the sky and wonder what was happening up there?
I originally got fascinated by the idea that there is almost another world above London; yet most of us never look up to notice cranes or their drivers. The drivers in turn can see everything going on below them, yet their only way to connect with the world they are building is by watching it from a distance. One of the drivers describes in the film how he can see the same person in a building every day and it is almost like this person becomes part of his life, yet when he sees the same person in the street, they would not know him.
Once I started researching the film further, I was also just blown away by the sheer beauty of being up on a crane and seeing the world from such a different point of view. I am a great believer that the theme and subject of a film should go hand-in-hand with its aesthetic. When I set out to make a film, I have a very clear idea of the themes I want to explore and this informs the whole filmmaking process for me, from the interviews, to the visual style, to the way I approach the sound design. In many ways, The Solitary Life of Cranes builds and expand on themes touched upon in my last film The Intimacy of Strangers – the conflict between being intimate yet distant; and how our lives are shaped by our urban environment. It is a film about the space that separates us from others, and I felt the visuals should hint at our characters’ isolation in the environment they inhabit. In the process of making the film, I decided very early on that I wanted to divorce the image and sound in the film to reflect the way the drivers are separated from the world they are building below. My aim was to make a film that transcends individual stories, and for me, the detached stylistic approach invites the viewer not only to engage in the portrait of individual people, but to recognize in them bigger, more universal emotions and experiences.
> The film is very observational – how did you build relationships with the men in the film?
At the start of my research, I literally went to the biggest construction site near my home, and asked if I could talk to some of the drivers there, and in turn, they put me in touch with other drivers. In terms of interviews, I normally try to have preliminary chats with all my characters before the interviews, to get some background but mainly for them to get to know me and get a sense of what I’m hoping to achieve with the film. I tell them about the film, but also about the process and what I like to do in interviews. I try to approach the interviews more as a conversation between me and my characters, as I want their answers to sound like observations or internal monologues, rather than formal interviews. I also tend to do audio interviews, as I find them less intimidating and more intimate, therefore, allowing the characters to relax more and open up.
> How long did you film for, and what were the practical challenges?
In terms of filming, this was definitely one of the hardest film I ever made so far. Getting access to construction sites proved to be an incredibly slow and difficult process, not helped by the fact that at the time there were a number of accidents involving cranes in London. The filming itself proved to be no less complicated. We soon found out that there is no easy way to bring a HDCAM (and initially a S16mm) camera kit up a 40-metre high crane. Whatever way you try, it involves a lot of climbing up ladders.There was also no telling who had the stomach to work up on a crane. Crewmembers who felt they would have no problem with the height, ended up not being able to take the movement. The tower of a crane twists and turns sideways as they slew round, and bends forwards and backwards as they lift up a load. Being up on the tower, hearing the crane creak and seeing the metal of the structure twist in front of you, can be a rather unnerving experience.
Overall, it probably took me longer to make this film than for the drivers to put up a 50-storey building. Yet, regardless of the difficulties of organising the filming and carrying the equipment up on the crane, there are still very few moments that beat being up on a tower crane for the first time. Even now, endless climbs later, I am still amazed at the view of the world you have from up there. Walking down the back jib, looking through the thin, perforated metal floor at the ground below, is both exhilarating and nerve racking. In the end it were the reactions of the drivers that made it all worth it both at the screening, and via e-mails and text messages after the first screening. One driver e-mailed me that after his family watched the film they finally understood what his life is like up there.
> Birds Eye View is a platform that spotlights women directors – what advice would you give to women starting out in film?
I feel that, in particular, when you start out, it is important to go out and attend markets and festivals and to meet distributors, sales agents and financiers as much as possible, to understand what they are looking for and to build your own network of contacts and friends. I remember attending Docs for Sale at IDFA with one of my first short documentaries, The Intimacy of Strangers. The film didn’t get into the festival, but I decided to attend the market nevertheless, not so much in hope of selling the film but to make contacts and maybe get accepted into other festivals. I can honestly say that I am still benefiting from this today; and that I am still in touch with a lot of the people I met then for the first time – and have started working with some of them since then.
My only other advice would be – question why you want to work with people and choose your collaborators carefully. In the past, I tended to be so grateful anyone actually wanted to work with me that I didn’t ask enough questions about what this would mean in practice, about expectations and whether we actually wanted to make the same film. Trust your instinct if something doesn’t feel right. If a relationship breaks down, not only is this very painful on a personal level but the film suffers in the long run—and that’s the one thing I hate more than anything else.
“A little slice of heaven” (Daily Express), “Graceful and revealing…once seen, won’t be forgotten” (The Observer), The Solitary Life of Cranes, will be screened at the Canary Wharf Screen from 19th June to 16th July.