Bicultural Urbanite Brianna Biotonnen and Chilly Bins: An interview with 'Lifeswap'
‘Lifeswap’ is an online animated series that explores the cultural idiosyncrasies and differences between Germany and New Zealand. Jörg and Duncan trade places for a year and regularly touch base via Skype to help each other decipher the mysteries of potluck dinners, checkout chicks, sorting domestic waste and the sanctity of Sundays. But rather than simply sending up tired stereotypes, ‘Lifeswap’ lovingly analyses and celebrates these two cultures from a fresh new perspective. And in the upcoming episode, Australia is added to the mix.
The charmingly naïve Duncan and Ordnung-obsessed Jörg are the alter egos of the show’s creators William Connor and Steffen Kreft. Steffen is a designer, animator and marionette maker. His partner William is a teacher, writer and puppeteer who loves the logical, mechanical nature of German: “it’s like putting Lego together, it clicks”.
I caught up with William for a chat about how Lifeswap creatively catalogues the joys and frustrations of embracing another culture.
BANGING UP AGAINST CULTURAL DIFFERENCESWilliam and Steffen met at a house party in New Zealand and have been bouncing back and forth between Berlin and Wellington for several years. Their relationship provides a rich supply of material for the show. In fact, all the cross-cultural encounters and misunderstandings are based on real life experiences. “We thought we’d invent these alter egos, because we noticed we’d been jotting down a whole list of things that kept coming up in our relationship that were sometimes funny and sometimes irritating. We’d bang up against them again and again, and we realised that it wasn’t to do with our personalities; these were invisible cultural assumptions based on our different backgrounds,” explains William.
Despite being immersed in both cultures for so long, William says it’s still easy for him to identify new quirks and traits: “When I go back to New Zealand, I’m observing all the time, noticing the little apologies, the little awkwardnesses that go on. [Steffen and I] are both fascinating by it, so we talk about it quite a lot. We spot little moments and talk about them before they flit away.”
STRADDLING THE DIVIDEWilliam believes much of Lifeswap’s success lies in the audience’s delight in seeing their own culture reflected through the eyes of a foreigner. He says the show builds a bridge between the two cultures that we can “use to go over to the other side and look back at ourselves.” After all, we don’t always have this perspective when we’re living in our countries, surrounded by our own version of normal. Like the air we breathe, culture is all encompassing and usually taken for granted. Often we have to step outside our national bubble to realise the bizarre or arbitrary nature of our cultural practices and behaviours – and discover the possibility of doing things differently.
William and Steffen are the creative minds behind Lifeswap's Duncan and Jörg. | © Goethe-Institut Neuseeland But despite the bridge, William remains Kiwi to the core. “I’m definitely not eingedeutscht,” he maintains. “Lifeswap has connected [Steffen and I], but I don’t feel like I’ve crossed over. In moments when we’re stressed or tired, we always revert to our native cultures. I want to make a little joke of the situation, go ‘haha, look at this, we’re in a stupid situation, we’re in a rush’ and Steffen goes ‘no, we need to get this resolved and then I might laugh about it later. But it’s not like one approach is better than the other.”
EMOTIONAL MATURITY AND DEPTHFrom his bicultural perspective, William has great praise for what he views as the Germans’ emotional maturity, thoughtfulness and depth. “I really appreciate the loyalty, the sense of justice and about what’s right and wrong socially, politically and emotionally. There seems to be a real maturity in personal relationships and romantic relationships. Even young Germans seem to have an understanding of human rights and a capacity to be philosophical and thoughtful. Whereas I feel that there’s a real immaturity in New Zealand around those issues. There’s a real kindness and warmth, but it hasn’t got that kind of depth to it.”
Semantically, too, Kiwis tend to skim the surface and dance around the edges. In stark contrast to the German tendency towards direct confrontation, Lifeswap explores the twisted maze of small talk and über-politeness that comes so naturally to Anglos. In episode 7, Duncan gently explains to a rather discombobulated Jörg that when someone you’ve just met says “you should come round for dinner sometime”, this is simply Kiwi for “you seem quite nice”. William notes that “[in New Zealand] you say things to lubricate the interaction or to be nice or come across in a certain way. But Germans take what you say seriously. And when a German invites you somewhere, they mean it and they actually want you to come.”
JÖRG’S AUSTRALIAN ADVENTURESo what’s next for Lifeswap? In the forthcoming episode, which will be released by the end of the year, Jörg travels across the ditch. In fact, after our meeting, William rushed off to record the voices for the Aussie instalment. “We’re meeting a whole bunch of Australians in Marzahn, who are going to be Dazza, Gazza, Bazza and Taneal,” he says. “The Australian Embassy in Berlin has agreed to jump on board with the Goethe-Institut to fund this latest episode, so we’re pretty happy about that.”
There’s also talk of turning the project into a feature film. “The New Zealand Film Commission asked us if we would consider turning Lifeswap into a film, or taking the spirit of it and the approach and the humour and turning that into an animated feature,” explains William. “Steffen went ‘yay!’ and I went ‘noooo!’ …I’ve never done a feature length film before.” But if it happens, they hope to invent some new characters, explore the gay aspect in addition to the cultural differences, and create a deeper narrative “that isn’t just a smattering of funnies”.
[Editor's note: meanwhile, the video has been released]