Jan Soldat is a German filmmaker who documents and explores alternative lifestyles and sexual behaviours in a way that aims neither to judge nor to explain his characters. His work has been regularly shown at film festivals around the world, including the Berlinale, Oberhausen, Rotterdam and Viennale.
Apart from that, Jan Soldat is also a regular at VIS Vienna Independent Shorts and was responsible for the festival trailer in 2012 and part of the jury in 2014.
His new film COMING OF AGE was presented at VIS 2016 in the program Those We Love. In June, during his month-long residency at Q21, he has been doing research for his next documentary film project.
VIS: Before being a filmmaker, you first studied math and engineering. How did you make the transition to cinema?
Jan Soldat: I think when I was younger I didn't think so much about what I was doing. I was good in math so I went to study math. But it was too strange, very abstract, and I thought to myself "Ok, this is too theoretical, I want to do more practical things". So I decided to study mechanical engineering. After one or two years, I saw the people around me and said, "Ok, this is not who I want to be". And then I quit that as well. At this point I was without something to do and that was when I saw two younger girls on the street with a camera, asked them where they got it from and made a one week crash course on how to use a camera. Since then, that was august 2006, I make short films.
VIS: And how were those very first experiences?
JS: It was something very emotional. My first films are very angry and kind of self-destructive. And I think 10 or 15 years ago that was my mood, also in my hometown, so for me film was a way to transform things or to get over them. It was not too rational. We had fun.
VIS: What attracted you more to doing documentaries as opposed to fiction film?
JS: I think my narrative films were also a kind of documentary. Mostly they were straight fiction, in what the story is concerned, but how they were made was no different from my documentaries if you think, for instance, of how the camera is set. In my fiction films I always did a lot of improvisation and the camera was always reacting to what was happening so in this sense my method was always close to documentary. The first actual documentary I did was before film school, about a friend of mine. He was or wanted to be a painter, and he wanted to have a portrait of himself. I tried to do it, although I wasn't really that interested at the beginning, but after I saw it, I really liked the fact that it was in a way more direct or honest and also deeper than my fiction films. A little bit stronger. I like to get in contact with the people. I was not so good in scriptwriting, wasn't really interested in the psychology of a protagonist, and I thought with documentary we can work on it together more. During filming, it was more about reacting to one another, discovering new things. I get bored really fast when I know too much, but in documentary I am more curious, I think. With fiction, after writing the script I get so bored.
VIS: You were talking about how you like the honesty of documentary, which is really a very fragile thing. How do you keep this honesty intact during the shoot and post-production? For instance, it seems like you really allow the people to have some power over how their story is presented.
JS: It's a big question... I think my films are very manipulating in a way, that they build up this situation where everybody feels comfortable, in which you can relate to my protagonists. During the editing process, for example, I cut out some negative things so that you, as a viewer, have a chance to identify with this special subject. I think we always work together, me and my protagonists. I ask them what they want to show, I tell them what I want to see and so we find a solution together. It's not that intuitive as many people think because I know really well where I want to put the camera and what I want to show but even so it's always open because there is no storyline. With documentary we can react to what we are doing. We do what we want to do. It's very organic, I think. Although, my films seem very strict to some people.
VIS: In what way?
JS: That my camera work is very strict. It's very simple, very direct and concentrated but I think it's not that strict in the sense that I order everyone what to do. People are always free to do what they want. Only the framing I choose is very...not strict, but fixed and that is what I like because then you focus on what is in front of you.
VIS: Why do you try to nurture this focus in the viewer and how does that shape how they see your protagonists?
JS: I think the main thing is that I chose people which are at the border of society, people most are afraid of or don't know about. I try not to use this as a "special effect", but show it as normality. So I leave out everything that argues against it because in society you always have this idea that people like those I choose as my protagonists are mentally ill or that there is something strange in their past. I try not to force a psychological red line in the films. They're more open so that you can find out by yourself, I don't force you to see it in a certain way because it's very anticausal, non-linear. I try to disconnect these connections to the psychological so that it's not a puzzle but a mosaic. Also, I try to show this in a way that you can relate to them. My films of are a little bit utopic. They're more like a projection, they represent what my protagonists are trying to develop. But the film is also our meeting, or relationship, because the protagonist is always reacting to me and the camera, and we are always reacting on him. In "The Incomplete", for example, every frame is in a way equal because you mostly have the same type of framing. So eating in the kitchen has the same priority as getting hit in the slave camp. This is what I wanted to create. I as a filmmaker don't really use close-ups because every time it's used it's like "this is really important" and I try not to do it. Especially when it's about pain it's important to take a small step back; not because I'm afraid but I think then you, as a viewer, can feel more comfortable when you have this distance. No red asses bleeding. It's what I was saying about "special effects", but I do try to show it for as long as possible so that you can overcome your own pain and that in time you manage to open up to what is happening and see how they are reacting, that there's communication between them.
VIS: What is really impressive in your films is how you use distance to allow yourself to connect on an emotional level rather than on a rational level. It's very human, somehow.
JS: Sometimes I'm able to reach this and sometimes not. It has to do with my own mood, of course, because it depends on how near I am to my own emotions. It's like in every relationship, you can feel how close I'm allowed to come. It's an exchange.
VIS: Is it very difficult to talk to the people and gain their trust so that they're open about their lifestyles?
JS: They're not open about every part of their lives, although they all have to have their own motivations to be in a film, and I always choose people who want to be shown. I think people are always very proud that they are approached. They feel very sovereign in front of a camera because they can be what they want to be. Maybe it's about trust. It's not that I try to spend so much time with them to get a better movie or something. Klaus from "The Incomplete" I had only met once before we said ok, we want to do the film together. And so the film is, and most of my films are, our getting to know each other. It's in the film. Most films do it before shooting, while I do it during the shooting. For me it was more honest that you can see how we come closer. Also, with Klaus I tried not to follow what I think is best, I tried to follow what he thinks is best for him.
VIS: This seems like a very personal encounter. From your point of view, what would you say intimacy is?
JS: I don't know. Over the years I realized there are very different kinds of intimacy and also very different kinds of trust. In the beginning you don't know each other well and each is curious about the other and tries themselves and I think that is what I am using for my films. And I think some people criticize that in my work that I am only showing this beginning because all my films are kind of starting a relationship with the protagonist, while this deeper trust and intimacy are things I mostly don't get to.
VIS: And when you read about this criticism, did that make you feel like it could be interesting to go back to some of the people that you filmed before and continue the relationship?
JS: Not really, but I tried to do get in deeper in the next films that I maybe spend a little more time with them but mostly it's not possible. For example, when I did a series of films in a private prison where they torture each other and where people can chose to be prisoners or wardens, time was always limited so it's not possible to come that close. People are there for only two to seven days so of course there's another type of intimacy, on another level.
VIS: What about your residency in Vienna?
JS: I'm doing research for a project about cannibalism. This is no role-play, it's about real people who meet each other and want to kill one another or want to eat or slaughter one another. I try to come in contact with them, I'm writing them, and reading about the topic. It's good to be here because it takes a lot of energy and time since it's a very hard topic. I took a big break for six months or so because it was too much and so I was getting kind of depressed or afraid. But now I am starting again because I cannot let go. Apart from this, I also had some other meetings, for example a guy who is doing military boot-camp role-plays here but there was nothing to film.
VIS: Tell us one belief that has kept you back.
JS: I think I have never not done something. When I really want to do it and I can feel it, then I go for it. Maybe I didn't do it in the best way or maybe the film wasn't that good but I did it. Although that doesn't mean that I am not afraid or shy. However, there were films I didn't do but it was because I thought that I am not the right person for it. For example, I did a film about two men who have relationships with their dogs. Before meeting them I met other people who had relationships with their animals. There was one guy who said, "Ok, I want to do this film with you", but I decided no. His house was a little bit dirty and he was living with his dogs underground so showing this would be presenting him and the subject in a negative way. Of course I liked him but then I thought, everybody will say he's a sick person. I don't think so but I thought if I presented him like this, it wouldn't be good, not for the topic and not for him. So I decided against it and searched for people to whom you can relate more. It was more a decision of responsibility, I think.
VIS: How about one belief that has kept you going.
JS: I don't want fear to have power over me. The most difficult for me is when there is something that maybe I cannot control, but is controlling me. Fear of death and society is so strong, I want to come closer to them, so that I can handle them a little bit better. I want to overcome my fears because I think that generally what you have in mind is much more intense than reality. Not death, because you cannot know, but for example BDSM is not as rough or as strange as you imagine. With "The Incomplete" I really tried to divide my own fears from the rest because when I was with Klaus in the slave camp it was very hard for me. After shooting it, when I was at home there was a kind of dark energy or I don't know what, which then I realized was only my own fear. What Klaus was trying to build up, this state of being controlled 24 hours a day, became too real for me. I wasn't thinking about it as role-play, but as reality and I became afraid. But it had nothing to do with him or the film, it was only my reaction.
VIS: My last question, if you were to pick an alternative lifestyle to experiment with, what would it be and why?
JS: I can't talk so well about things that I didn't experience but I think there are many things that I want to try out. I'm really not good at speaking about them before because I cannot grasp it now. There are things I feel but know very little about so I can't express them... ...maybe this power thing which is in every relationship, these ideas of active/passive, or submission/domination. Most people think it's sexual or it's political but I think it's a bit everywhere. I think in every relationship in the beginning you negotiate, ok, I want this, or I want that. Sometimes these roles are very different in sexuality and how you are in daily life and it's not as obvious as many people think. They go, "ok, he is the dominant type", but being dominant is always very passive. For example, Klaus: he is the active one, he is the dominant one, he's only playing the submissive part. He is the creative character. He says, "ok, I want these masters around me and this is what they should do." He is creating his own slavery. So obviously he is the slave and submissive but under this role he dominates everything. There are different layers. And of course I am discovering this for myself, in my relationships and in my sexuality and so I cannot answer your question because I am still in this process of discovering how I function.