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CPH:DOX 2018

Karim Aïnouz • Director

"I wanted to remind viewers that these refugees don't come to Europe because they feel like it"


- Cineuropa met up with Brazil's Karim Aïnouz, whose new film, Central Airport THF, is currently on the programme of CPH: DOX festival in Copenhagen

Karim Aïnouz  • Director

After competing at Venice, Berlin and Cannes with his fiction films, the Brazilian director of Algerian origin Karim Ainouz (Fortaleza, 1966) is back with the documentary Central Airport THF [+see also:
film review
interview: Karim Aïnouz
film profile
, in which he films a year in the life of refugees at a temporary reception centre located in a legendary derelict Berlin airport in the heart of the German capital. The film was screened at Berlin in February and is now on the program of the documentary festival CPH: Copenhagen DOX.

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Cineuropa: One of the objectives of your documentary is to show Arab men in a positive light. Why did you choose Ibrahim, a 17-year-old Syrian, to give unity to the story? 
Karim Ainouz:
 I wanted the story to be guided by someone who has the typical profile of a victim of discrimination. My father is Algerian, and I spent my teenage years in France, where there is permanent conflict with immigrants. It was hard, and I remember well how French newspapers treated young Arabs, as if they were all criminals or dangerous people. I was particularly upset by what they said about the death of one young man in Lyon: that he was "shot dead," when he was just a kid stealing cars. And it's starting to happen again now. When I read articles about what is happening in the Mediterranean, they seem like science fiction stories. Like Mars Attacks.

The other character who stands out, and who is very different, is Qutaiba, a 35-year-old Iraqi who had to stop his medical studies to travel to Europe.
Ibrahim is at the beginning of his life, whereas Qutaiba gave me the opportunity to show another side to things: people who arrive when they already have a life, which has been split in two. They have to rebuild their dreams and have left a lot behind. It's a way of reminding viewers that these refugees don’t just come to Europe because they feel like it, because it seems like a great place. It’s not a choice.

Was it more difficult to obtain filming permissions for this film than for your previous films?
It was a lot more complicated. I thought I wouldn't be able to do it. The German authorities didn’t want me to film in there, which is understandable. Initially, they only gave us a few hours of filming, but little by little, the centre managers gave us more access, and they never supervised the shots we filmed. They understood the importance of documenting what was going on. However, before that, at the mid-point, there was a moment when I thought of throwing in the towel, in the face of bureaucratic issues. I’ve been living in Germany since 2004, so I’ve had time to realise that bureaucracy is a national sport in this country.

What about financing?
The project was initially conceived as a video installation, so a German public fund covered the costs, especially as we had a reduced team of only four people. Shortly after the shooting started, the television channel ARTE joined, then we went to Sundance. Everyone had doubts because a lot of films have been released in recent years on the subject of refugees. The most complicated thing was convincing them that it was a different story, which spoke about a specific place, a very special place called Tempelhof. It's usually difficult to find money for documentaries, because everyone wants to count on certainty, but it's a genre takes you places you never thought it would.

This airport was used by the Nazis and then, during the Cold War, it saved millions of people from being isolated on the side of the Soviet bloc. Now, its buildings and spaces also host music festivals and fashion shows. The history of the place obviously appealed to you. 
Absolutely, because film itself is trying to reinvent itself. Tempelhof, just like Berlin as a whole, has this energy with a feeling of evolution, of constant recycling. It’s a place that gives the story a certain resonance, and also a certain irony. The irony is obvious – that a symbolic place from the Nazi era finds itself welcoming in refugees.

How did Ibrahim and Qutaiba feel when presenting the film at Berlin Film Festival, with the red carpet, cameras and all the lustre that goes with it?
It worried me a bit. Before the festival, I continuously told them that this whole film situation was a passing thing that was going to end very quickly. I call Ibrahim every week to see if he is going to be able to continue his studies. I also saw Qutaiba last week, and he told me that his German life was back to normal. He has a job he doesn’t like and is waiting for an opportunity to work in a hospital, because that's what he wants to do. The positive side of the Berlinale is that we’ve been able to get in touch with people who might be able to help them with their projects. I'm optimistic, I think they'll both be able to get what they want. In addition to ARTE, the film will be released in Germany in May, so a lot more people will get to know their story.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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