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BLACK NIGHTS 2019 Competition

Christoph Gampl • Director of Man from Beirut

“If you don’t have any money, the least you can do is be original”

by 

- We spoke to German director Christoph Gampl, who adds some noir to the main Tallinn competition with Man from Beirut

Christoph Gampl  • Director of Man from Beirut
(© Efe Art)

Set in Berlin, Man from Beirut [+see also:
interview: Christoph Gampl
film profile
]
sees (ahem) blind hitman Momo (Kida Khodr Ramadan) forced to deal with the unexpected outcome of his last “job”: a young girl (the actor’s daughter, Dunya Ramadan) he can’t bring himself to kill. Before he makes up his mind, they need to flee, with other professionals tracking their every step. Cineuropa met up with director Christoph Gampl on the occasion of the film’s screening in competition at the 23rd Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (15 November-1 December).

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Cineuropa: When we first got in touch, you referred to your team as “street fighters”. You didn’t have the support system that some other filmmakers do, right?
Christoph Gampl:
What we made is a film noir, and it’s hard to get genre films funded in Germany. We knew that. At one point, when the script was done and we had the first actors attached, we had to decide: wait one or more years for financing or just go for it. At the end of the shoot, we got a call from Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, telling us they would like to support us. It really helped us during post-production. I didn’t have to do it in my living room!

You are really embracing the fact that it’s a film noir — from the title alone, which made me think of Our Man in Havana, to the retro-looking fonts. And yet the story you decided to tell is contemporary.
I was standing in my home once, holding a DVD with Le Samouraï in one hand and The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi in another. At that point I was still wondering where our story should go. Then I thought: “Maybe it’s a fusion of these films?” We decided to set it in today’s Berlin, but there is a blind swordsman, played by Kida. I just love these old movies. And as we didn’t have anyone standing by our side, telling us we couldn’t shoot in black and white, we just went on and did it.

The central pairing of a hitman and a young girl brings to mind recent complaints about Léon: The Professional. Why did you decide to focus on such a makeshift family, brought together by the most unlikely of circumstances?
When we first pitched the story, many people went: “Oh, that sounds a lot like Léon.” Our girl is too young for it to become inappropriate, I hope, and what we actually had in mind was John Cassavetes’ Gloria. In that film, you had a tough woman and a little boy, but because it was clear from the start that I wanted to work with Kida, the main character needed to be a man. All my actors have a very different approach – someone said that we have a lot of gangsters playing actors playing gangsters. That’s where they come from, that’s what their characters are about. I like it when people downplay the emotions and with Kida, his presence is the main aspect of his acting. If the story works, it can be more interesting this way – you can put in more of what you are thinking. Everything that creates that mystery, that’s what I like about movies.

Did you always want to have Arabic and Albanian characters in the film? There are so many people coming from different paths of life here.
Once we settled on that story, it became clear that we didn’t have many of the so-called “true Germans”. Our story is based in Berlin, but it’s about a different environment. We all know these discussions about migrants, about how they should behave and so on. We just started to follow people who stand on the other side. I wanted to show how they view this city and that’s why some say our film is politically incorrect. Many think that all these people should be “grateful” to be in a place like that. But some have fled the war, some are just stranded like Momo. He doesn’t like it and many others would surely share this sentiment, although they wouldn’t say it out loud. In our film they do. Maybe that’s why, while it’s set in Berlin, it’s not a German story.

Voiceover can be an interesting tool for a director, especially when, as in the case of Momo, it’s the only way in. He is so difficult to read otherwise.
It’s part of the genre convention. Momo is not a philosopher, but I tried to give him a little bit of that. When we thought about how to illustrate his emotional philosophy, if you will, we came up with the sounds and images of the sea, for example. I wanted to interweave them with his thoughts, to give us an idea of where he might be coming from and where he is trying to get. In the end, it was an interesting process.

My next film probably won’t be in black and white, and it won’t be another noir. But if you have the kind of freedom I had on that project, you should at least try to cross some new borders. And have fun doing it, even when others tell you it will never work and you should focus on creating a product instead, because that’s what the market needs. I don’t want my films to be streamlined. If I am really honest, it’s very simple: if you don’t have any money, the least you can do is try to be original.

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