Jakob Preuss

Jakob Preuss
© Weydemann Bros.

Jakob Preuss, born 1975 in Berlin, is a documentary filmmaker. His last film "When Paul came over the sea" won the Golden Goblet at the 20th Shanghai International Film Festival in 2017 as Best Documentary; the European Civis Media Prize in the category Information 2019 and was also nominated for the German Film Prize and the Grimme Prize.
Together with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Goethe-Institut Kigali showed the film "When Paul came over the sea". The audience then discussed with Jakob Preuss and IOM Rwanda staff about his documentary film and the subject of flight and migration.
Prior to this, young documentary filmmakers from Rwanda worked together with Jakob Preuss on their projects during a two-day workshop.


In your film "When Paul came over the sea" you accompany the journey of Paul, a fugitive from Cameroonian Camp. Why did you want to tell his story?

The idea for the film was already born in 2011, a few years before the so-called "refugee crisis". At that time I was mainly interested in borders. I myself experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a 14-year-old West Berliner (there are photos and even postcards of me sitting on the wall with schoolmates on 10 November), which had a great impact on me.
Afterwards I studied in France and Poland, with both countries the border controls were abolished by the Schengen agreement. My original question was "Where are the borders today? "Are they my borders? "What do they look like?
I did a lot of research in Greece/Turkey, on Malta, but also on the Polish-Ukrainian border. The border agency of the EU, Frontex, also played a bigger role. In the beginning it wasn't even sure if there was a migrant or refugee in the film. That was also because I had the feeling that perhaps as a white privileged European I was not the right person to tell the story of a fugitive. When watching "refugee films" I often had the feeling that they were shot from above and tried to exploit human suffering. Also, refugees often could not tell their story honestly, because they were dependent on decisions of the authorities and therefore understandably not always honest.
When I met Paul, my point of view changed, because I met a very reflective, humorous and strong person, whose story I could tell in an exchange at eye level!
At the very beginning I had another protagonist, a young man named Ali from Guinea. Ali had no money for the crossing in the boat and wanted to try it over the fence. But Ali made it over the fence while I was still waiting for a permission from the Moroccan authorities (which I never got), so that my protagonist "jumped off" me. Otherwise the movie might have been called "When Ali jumped over the fence". There's always some coincidence. After that I spontaneously decided to shoot in the camp in Cameroon, where I had been several times during the research. Here the boss of the village (Irene with the baseball cap) introduced Paul to me. If they thought that it could be useful to know someone on the other side in Europe because Paul doesn't have anyone there, I probably won't be able to know. That's why at the beginning I ask the question "did he choose me, or did I choose him? In any case, we were quickly sympathetic and when Paul unexpectedly made it to Spain during the shooting, he became the sole protagonist.

What was the biggest challenge in film production? What experience did you particularly memorize?

During the shooting there were many difficult and moving moments. The biggest challenge was the relationship with Paul and the other protagonists, the balancing act between distance and closeness. At first, I was very surprised at how much vitality and humour many people encountered their fate and how many of them were very interested in differentiated discussions. Quite a few of them had a school-leaving certificate or had studied - like Paul. Of course, it was difficult not to raise false expectations, and many migrants in the forest were very demanding and wanted money. We helped again and again with food or medicine, but did not pay anyone to participate in the film project. That would question the nature of the documentary film. Also the pictures of Paul's crossing were drastic for me. We all know the pictures of fugitives on boats, but if you recognize someone you were with shortly before, if you gave them your jacket, then that's something else. As I describe in the film, the "trembling hands" don't get out of your head so quickly. So the question of closeness and distance in the editing room has become a core topic and I try as openly as possible to point out my own dilemma. I make the profession too long, in order not to have made my decisions very consciously. When I decided to help, I knew it was a long-term decision that would go far beyond the end of the film. But I think that you can maintain objectivity and distance if you help. I'm annoyed a lot about Paul and the film doesn't think it can answer the big political questions, but it can ask them - the balance between individual case and humanity and the normative.

During your workshop you had the opportunity to share your knowledge with future Rwandan filmmakers. What motivates you to teach filmmaking?

I myself never went to a film school, I studied law. I learned filmmaking mainly through such small workshops and masterclasses at the edge of festivals, making films myself and with colleagues, especially cameramen and editors. Maybe that's why I like to pass something on to young filmmakers, especially if they work in a difficult environment, like in Rwanda.

How did you approach this workshop?

I tried to remember what was important to me when I was still at the beginning. A good mixture of practical tips but also some theory. But it was clear to me that I first had to understand how much experience the participants already had, so that I could "pick them up", as the saying goes. It turned out that some documentary films were confused with image films, but from this basis we were able to discuss and understand a lot together. I took extra examples from other African documentary filmmakers or from films from and about Africa, which often had to cope with little means and where the participants were able to classify what was shown well. Watching films together and analysing individual scenes are particularly important to me.

Do you have any tips for future Rwandan filmmakers?

Don't try to send a message or deal with a topic first. Look rather for strong characters and their life worlds, through telling stories you will always get a political or social message conveyed if you want to. Start with small stories and concentrate on narrative - what happens during my film? Get close to the people and take the time and last but not least - never forget the humor. You can find it everywhere, even in hopeless situations.

Do you already have an idea what your next film project will be?

I'm always pretty exhausted after such a film and its exploitation and since I know that a film project often accompanies me for many years, I'm particularly careful this time to quickly start something new. But at the moment I am fascinated by the world in Sub-Saharan Africa with all its challenges and above all its huge potential. I like being here very much and feel very connected to the people - this is a good starting position to work for several years! I also don't want to completely rule out that there is a sequel to "When Paul came across the sea", something like "When Paul broke away from German asylum policy" or hopefully with a more positive title.

Which memory from Kigali do you take home with you?

Rwanda impressed me very much, it breaks with so many clichés. It's clean, safe, relatively well organized, people hardly smoke and it's green and mild. Nevertheless, the story still lies leaden over the country and makes you shiver at the thought of it again and again, these are memories of conversations and memorials. The memory of the two-day workshop remains great. It was a very intensive exchange, which was a lot of fun and I remain in contact with some participants and hope very much that they can realize their projects.

Thank you, Jakob!