Interview with Merle Kröger and Philip Scheffner
A cruise ship encounters a rubber dinghy carrying refugees. This event is the starting point for the novel and documentary film Collision. Author Merle Kröger and filmmaker Philip Scheffner talk about their extensive research which began with a YouTube video.
The film Havarie is based on a YouTube video. What went through your head when you saw the video for the first time?
Merle Kröger: It was different to anything I’d seen before. Especially at that time, before all the media images which came via the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. Then there were two kinds of images: those from western news channels and NGOs, and images from people who were fleeing and had uploaded their videos to the internet. What we found disturbing was that the YouTube video fitted neither of these categories. We wondered what kind of material this was and where it was filmed from.
Philip Scheffner: Exactly. You really don’t exactly know. Is it filmed from the land? It can’t be a helicopter. Only when the camera pans, you realise that it was filmed from a cruise ship. This made our hair stand on end! At the same time the image is strangely peaceful. It doesn’t have the urgency of other pictures of refugee boats.
What happened after you saw the video?
Philip Scheffner: We tried to find out who put it onto the internet, and why. It turned out that the video came from Terry Diamond, a 50-year-old man from Belfast who was on the cruise ship.
Merle Kröger: After two emails it became clear to us that he didn’t make this video from a sensationalist viewpoint but rather from a feeling of solidarity.
Philip Scheffner: He was very empathetic with the people who were there on the boat. That had to do with his own history, with his experience of war in Northern Ireland
This three-and-a-half minute film clip was not only the inspiration for Merle Kröger’s crime novel ‘Collision‘ (first published in German under the title ‘Havarie’), in which she presents the encounter between the boats from different perspectives. The YouTube clip was also vital for Philip Scheffner’s documentary ‘Havarie’, to which Kröger contributed as screenplay writer.
For the film Scheffner extended the three-and-a-half minute video to 90 minutes. At one-second intervals the little boat floats across the screen, frame by frame. Accompanied by radio messages between the sea rescue operator and the cruise ship, and interviews held by Scheffner and Kröger on their research trip, a film unravels which had actually been planned in quite a different way.
After you’d located Terry, how did your research continue?
Philip Scheffner: We researched which people were directly involved in the event. We contacted the cruise ship and talked to the sea rescue service in Spain. We know the names of the men who were on the boat. They were all going to Spain and within one month were deported to Algeria. In Algeria we broke off our research activities at some point as we would have had to work together with people with whom we didn’t want to work.
What was your plan at that point? How should the film look?
Merle Kröger: Our plan was to reconstruct a meeting in a metaphorical sense, at which we would bring into contact five or six people who normally wouldn’t share a common space, but are connected through this event – the encounter of the cruise ship with the refugee boat. From the cargo ship captain who always sails this route to someone who has crossed the Mediterranean in a rubber dinghy.
You already had a lot of film material when you decided to fundamentally alter the film. Why was that?
Philip Scheffner: True! We had filmed in Algeria and in Spain, in France and Belfast on a container ship, a cruise ship and a sea rescue boat. Really great material! And then we returned and wanted to edit the film. That was 2015 – the high point of the so-called refugee crisis.
Merle Kröger: We felt an increasing sense of unease creeping in. We had the feeling that the media world was roaring around us and we weren’t getting to the point we wanted to make at all! So we looked at each other and said: we need to get back to the image which sparked it all off – the video by Terry Diamond.
Philip Scheffner: We then decided to concentrate on this image, which was the key element for us, and its special characteristics. We used all the things which we had already filmed. Not the images, but the sound.
Merle Kröger: This creates a large, wide space that does not bombard the audience with pictures, stories and a simulated proximity. As a spectator you can also really lose yourself in this space. But that is a productive ‘getting lost’ because you are always recaptured by the selected stories of the people in the film. This gives you the room to really reflect and find your own standpoint.
How did the people who were included in the film react to the new concept?
Philip Scheffner: When we made the decision not to use the images, we talked very intensively with the protagonists about the film. There were two discussions: one with the sponsors and the TV channel in order to communicate this decision. The discussion with the protagonists was at least just as difficult though. So when Terry Diamond said ‘Sorry, how long were you at my house in Ireland? One week?’ And not one image out of this will be shown! That was of course difficult. We discussed this intensively via Skype and we sent excerpts. And in the end everyone went along with the decision and were then also enthusiastic about the reactions of the people. At first perhaps people thought: as my image is not there, I’m less present. But it’s actually the other way around here. Because you have to imagine the person, you engage much more intensively with what he or she is saying.
Frau Kröger, you wrote the novel of the same name: Collision. The film is a documentary essay, based on interviews with real people. How much fact and how much fiction is there in the novel?
Merle Kröger: Everything is fiction. The book further develops a researched documentary into fiction. Of course there were interviews beforehand. Of course there are intentional connections with the film throughout the novel. In the end one person emerged from the book after many observations and conversations. Being on all these ships physically also helped. Whether you are on a cargo ship or a cruise ship – the difference is like that between day and night.
The film seems very slowed down and the book very fast-paced. Is that down to the genre or was it intentional?
Philip Scheffner: That has to do with the very different dramaturgies of time, because the film works with the 90 minutes of real time. That also plays a role in the novel, but it is in the nature of things that you can read a book and then put it down again. On the other hand, the book plays with quite different levels of time which the film can’t afford to do.
Merle Kröger: The inner dramatic composition of the works is different. During the research the situation – the so-called refugee crisis - strangely intensified. And I returned with a great anger in my gut and began to write this book. There was an incredible pressure which was discharged into the novel. I wanted to write a book which gripped the reader. Once I was asked whether I wanted to deny my readers their comfort zone. And I think I did want that because I also denied it to myself!