FLORIAN HABICHT

New Horizons Film Festival, Poland – The Place to Catch Up on the Buzziest Titles of the Festival Circuit This Summer

New Horizons Film Festival, taking place every July-August in the beautiful city of Wrocław, Poland (home to the oldest restaurant in the world, legend has it), is the perfect example of what I would call a boutique film festival catering for a discerning audience. Unlike most film festivals, that are usually spread out all over a city, almost all the Nowe Horyzonty film screenings take place in one venue, making it possible to maximise on your viewing time, a precious asset for a film journalist.

The programme is diverse and bold, as far away from conventional cinema as possible, with a penchant for personal, provocative films from all over the world, experimental and hybrid works,  films made by artists from other artistic disciplines, forgotten and underrated works, yet atypical and searching for something fresh and innovative.

Nowe Horyzonty

If you’re lucky to be invited, the festival will put you up in a nice hotel (I stayed at the delightfully minimalist Puro Hotel last year) and invite you to all kinds of exclusive film gatherings & art/music events every evening. Last year I had the chance to meet some new independent filmmakers whose films were making a lot of buzz on the festival circuit, such as  People That Are Not Me, a personal film about millennials struggling with love and relationships, from Hadas Ben Aroya, a young female filmmaker I would describe as an Israeli Lena Dunham, as well as catch up with filmmakers I’d already met and interviewed before, Florian Habicht being one of them (read my previous interview with Florian here).

His latest film, Spookers, a documentary about New Zealand’s only haunted attraction theme park, is as spooky as it sounds. Set in a former psychiatric hospital, the film is a multi-faceted portrait of the fascinating people who work there. The film also touches on mental illness and includes a fascinating, in-depth interview with one of the former patients who was hospitalised there for years suffering with schizophrenia.

Below is my interview with Florian Habicht from Nowe Horyzonty 2017.

Spookers Park in New Zealand is known as one of the biggest scare parks in the world. What drew you to this place?

I was actually asked by Mad Men production company if I wanted to make a film about this place.  I knew about it but I was too scared, horror is not my thing. It’s been going for 10 years, it’s open on Friday and Saturday nights, half an hour South of Auckland. It’s the only scare park in the world where the scarers are allowed to touch you.

This time I had a feeling I should go and check it out. When I got there all the performers were putting on their make-up and masks and prosthetics and…what I got was a lot of joy and excitement.

Did you get to know them before starting shooting?

Yes, on camera, I spontaneously gravitated towards certain people and they ended up being the main characters in the film. That was quite strange, out of 200 people who work there, the people I went to at the beginning, or came to me, ended up being the main characters.

200 people work there but not on the same night?

No, it’s 60 on a night.

And you focus on 10 main characters in the film. Talk a little bit about them.

I think they are a very special group of people because they are very brave, very young, honest, which makes great artists. They are ready to share very personal things.

FaceBookCoverSpookers

And they are all actors, right?

Yes, they are all actors but they haven’t been trained. They auditioned to work at Spookers and then they learnt the job by scaring people. Then they taught each other…

Some of the people in the film refer to themselves as freaks. They are very unusual characters, it’s probably what drew you to make this film.

They are unusual characters, like you and me.

And everyone else!

Yeah!

 

Who fascinated you the most?

The first who fascinated me was David, who is Zombina. When I saw Zombie Bride in the dark, we met in the dark in an alley way, I thought it was so amazing. Then I got to know him and he’s the most soft and beautiful person…He only dresses up as a female character at Spookers. The character is totally his creation, the clothes, the make-up. He’s such an amazing performer.

The dance you captured in the film is astonishing…

Yes, they had techno music for Halloween once at Spookers and he was dancing like that.

Most of them have deep issues that resonated with the film…and they opened up on camera. Did that surprise you?

Yes it did. Almost everyone has an interesting issue and then the masks, a bit like myself with my video camera, I saw a similarity there. It’s something that lets you be more free, more who you really are.

You found a former psychiatric patient, Debra, who was hospitalised there for 18 years. Tell me her story…

She’s remarkable. For me, she experienced the horror of life but also the magic of life, all in one body and soul. Right now she’s teaching mental health at an university. She lectures there and she’s also helping people who hear voices. She heard voices when she was young and was diagnosed with schizophrenia later on. Her doctors told her patients that their visits upset her and they stopped visiting. But she was not upset by that, she was upset for being there. Now they changed the whole system in the way they deal with mental health patients, now it’s community care. There are still psychiatric hospitals but it’s not for long term, only for short-term.

Debra was adopted twice. Her first adopted parents gave her back and then she was adopted again. You need so much love as a child, and being adopted is hard enough for adopted people, imagine being adopted twice!

In your interview with her, she came across as someone so vibrant and optimistic, she totally blew me away.

Me too. And she only got out because the place closed. She only got well  afterwards. The electric shock therapy didn’t help her at all, it was the community that helped her recover.

Half of the people there are Māori and islanders. As a New Zealander, I love Māori, they are amazing on camera, very natural. Most of them don’t have much money. In  New Zealand, there’s a problem with poverty. I live in a city and where I live it’s money, money, money, it makes me depressed. It used to be the colourful, artistic, cool part of town and now it’s the trendy, money people. And most of the people in the film have so little money. The park makes money but the actors work only twice a week there. But the background where they come from.

What I found interesting is that this place is a family business. 

Yes, the idea was to have a maize, then they asked the local bank manager if it was OK to dress up and scare people with a chainsaw! And there was this guy, a friend, the mayor of the city and his wife Beth, who had the brains. And when that bank manager was chasing people with a chainsaw, the people just loved it, they went crazy for it. And it was supposed to be just one show. Then they realised they can make a business out of it. So they got other friends involved, to dress up, put on masks.

So that was the pilot…which became a series…

Exactly. That’s when they relocated to Auckland and they were looking for a building.

Was it a coincidence that they chose this former psychiatric hospital as their location?

They say it was, yes.

Is it true the place is haunted?

Yes, everyone who works there experiences supernatural things. For me, I could feel the energy was very heavy, different rooms felt different, vibrations or whatever you call it. But other people hear things, see things…There were a lot of intense things that weren’t allowed in the film.

But you didn’t capture any ghosts on camera?

No. (laughing)

Ghosts or no ghosts, there’s a very dark side to this documentary. 

Yes, and come to think of this, New Zealand has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Every day, one and a half people kill themselves. And the government cut funding to mental health. There was a line you ring if you’re feeling depressed and the government took the money from them, they needed to give more money to the rich! We have a very right-wing government that is very money-focused.

I thought Scandinavia had the highest suicide rates…

Actually there’s a Scandinavian country where men live very long and it’s because every night before they go to bed they meet each other and they compliment each other: You’re so wonderful, I love your jacket…And those men live 10 years longer. That would make a good subject for a future documentary!

A LOVE STORY LIKE NO OTHER FROM KIWI FILMMAKER FLORIAN HABICHT

In case you didn’t know what it means when a woman is holding a piece of cake, LOVE STORY will give you the answer! A truly original self-referential documentary/
romantic comedy based on a collaboration with complete strangers on the streets of New York, the film has been a hit with audiences and critics alike around the world. More than a love story, the film is a joyous ode to the Big Apple and its vividly engaging and delightfully eccentric inhabitants.

Inciting factor: In late 2009, Auckland Arts Foundation offers Berlin-born Kiwi filmmaker Florian Habicht the Harriet Friedlander New York Residency Award worth $80,000. Florian is already an established filmmaker at home, being responsible for some of this decade’s most original New Zealand films. His début feature Woodenhead (2003), a Grimm inspired musical fairytale, quickly became a cult hit being renowned for the innovation of recording the entire soundtrack before shooting the visuals. This was followed by the iconic documentary Kaikohe Demolition (2004) which won best digital feature at the New Zealand Screen Awards; Rubbings From a Live Man (2008), a hybrid documentary  performed by and based on the life of performance artist Warwick Broadhead;Land of the Long White Cloud (2009), a documentary about a five-day fishing competition held on 90 Mile Beach in the North of New Zealand…Once in New York, Florian is under no obligation to do a lot of work but for him, making a film is a total adventure and great fun so why not…

Main Ingredients:a double dose of contagious feel-good factor mixed with despair that money is running out and the NYC residency is coming to an end; a psychic reading that tells you NOT to go in front of a camera overridden by the compulsion to do the opposite; feeling inspired by a mysterious girl carrying cake met on the subway;seemingly absurd idea to shoot a film without a narrative, without actors,without casting anyone, without the slightest idea of what might happen next; seemingly crazy idea to track the girl down and persuade her to play in your film; but what film??!; start asking for love advice from complete strangers you meet on the street, and also from your dad via Skype, then act it out with Masha, the lovely cake-carrying girl; surrender directorial control to your audience and rely on them to drive the plot forward; inject humour, a lot of humour and blur all boundaries, between fact and fiction, between art and real life, between being and acting, between love and the illusion of love; add jazzy and clichéd  romantic score from Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone that mocks traditional romantic film conventions to perfect the confusion. End result: a truly original and beautiful love story, but no story as you know it!

Watch the trailer here:

Love Story screened at the 2012 LONDON FILM FESTIVAL on the 11, 12 and 14 October. The following interview with Florian was taken at Filmmakers Afternoon Tea, Mayfair Hotel, London, 12 October 2012

Dana:”Please tell me a little bit about the creative process that went into making a film like this”.

Florian: “I decided to shoot a film before I went to NY, and I arranged to shoot with my DOP Maria Ines Manchego and my editor PeterO’ Donoghue from Sidney who were going to fly to NY. And I told them it would be an improvised feature film and that in three weeks time I’d tell them what the story is. And three weeks later, I still didn’t know…and I sort of felt like a version of Marcello Mastroianni, like having to pretend that he knows what he’s doing when really he doesn’t have a clue. And that’s when I started asking random people I’d met in New York  on the street and told them my problem, my dilemma, that I’ve organised this shoot and that I really don’t know what to do. And they started helping me, giving me ideas. And at that point I always had a camera in my bag…and when I watched the footage I really fell in love with it, I thought wow, I can really make a film out of this”.

Dana: “So how much did they contribute to the film, the people you met?In terms of directing the narrative, ideas etc”
Florian: “I’d say half. And also my dad via Skype, he was very excited I was shooting a film in NY, he was always in New Zealand checking the weather forecast in NY and if it was supposed to rain he’d skype me and give me his ideas, his film ideas…He’s an amazing photographer, he documented London in the 60s, he’s got a few beautiful books out, on London. He actually wanted to be a filmmaker but he wasn’t allowed to by his parents…”.

Dana: “So you made his dream come true…”
Florian: “Yes…He’d give me his ideas and I was like yeah…”
Dana: “Did you give him a credit on the film?”
Florian: “Well, this is the terrible thing, I didn’t give him a writing credit, I totally forgot…”
Dana: “That IS terrible…”
Florian (laughing): “yes, very…I totally forgot…but when I’m with the film and presenting a Q&A I make sure I mention that…”

Frank Habicht began his career as a photographer in 1960 and soon published a book, “Young London, Permissive Paradise”, a social document on London’s youth. He also worked as a stills photographer for film directors Bryan Forbes, Jules Dassin and Roman Polanski.

Dana: “Who is the girl in the film? How did you meet her?Was she a friend?”

Florian: “Her name is Masha Yakovenko and it was a chance meeting encounter…”

Dana: “So that bit is true.”
Florian: “Yeah, I met her for like five minutes maybe…And because I didn’t have a budget for this film, it meant I was the boss, I could do anything…And I was a bit taken by her and I said ‘Would you like to be in the film?’ and we arranged to meet so that I could tell her about it…so she said let’s meet up”
Dana: “Were you casting at that moment?”
Florian: “My whole year in New York, at the back of my mind I was casting, and I had a few different film ideas too but I didn’t really find the right person until I met her and I immediately was like yeah…and we arranged to meet so I could tell her more about it. A few days before meeting at Mars Bar, which is the bar in the film, which is an awesome NY historical place, I emailed her and I said ‘I’ve got this idea, do you mind if we film our meeting and if you decide you want to do this film we could use it as part of the film’…And she was pretty into taking risks so she agreed to that…”
Dana: “But she’s not an actress, is she?”
Florian: “Well I don’t know but she was studying acting and she was really up for the challenge and she didn’t want to watch any of the rushes of herself…”
Dana: “She totally trusted you…”
Florian: “Yes she did, she didn’t even want to watch my early films…I gave her a whole lot of dvds, and yeah she didn’t watch them. Which is kind of strange but yeah…so she didn’t see anything until right at the end.

Masha is studying acting in New York and she currently involved in a project with theatre company Waxfactory.

Dana: “So you say you were stuck in that Mastroianni moment, feeling a bit lost in your project, but once you started making it, did you encounter any difficulties after that?”

Florian: “After that things went really smoothly, it was amazing…There were a few days when I was in a bad mood, or a little sick or grumpy, and on those days I could spend the whole day walking around with my camera and I wouldn’t take one interview or footage…like there were no sparks or anything…But in terms of the process, everything flowed. Getting funding for post-production was a bit of a struggle but enough people came on board to support the film, the New Zealand Film Festival, the New Zealand Film Commission, and getting the music right, to that amazing Italian soundtrack, that was for me like a miracle”
Dana: “How long did the filming take?”
Florian: “It was spread over four months and we had a long break in the middle.”
Dana: “And how many people did you interview in total?”
Florian: “Twice as many as in the film.”
Dana: “You were very lucky, they were very friendly and willing to talk to you.”
Florian: “Incredible, yes”.
Dana: “You couldn’t have made the same film in London, I don’t think so.”
Florian: “I agree, New York is really special like that…I was wearing these pants (points to his pink hipster trousers)…
Dana: “Yeah I remember…”
Florian: “and if people smiled at me, I would pull out my camera…so half the people in the film cast themselves, like they made the first eye contact…”
Dana: “Except the woman in the cab…”
Florian (laughing); “Yeah yeah…”
Dana: “She was a bit aggressive…I hope you didn’t get beaten up by anyone…any other aggressive encounters?”
Florian: “Only one, I knew that you aren’t allowed to film children without the parents’ permission and once a group of children ran towards me and I was just excited and I started asking them questions about love and then the father came, then I got in trouble with the father being caught filming young kids and it was totally my fault…so that was the only time…otherwise yeah it was amazing, and I didn’t ask people, I was just there with my camera, recording, it was like being at a doctor’s being given an injection, if you don’t see the injection coming, it’s a lot less painful, whereas if you see the doctor preparing it, and you’re watching it, it really hurts…and I found that with filming,  people were just natural and it wasn’t a problem, whereas if I explained to them what I was doing, they might not have been as good…”.
Dana: “Overall, your film reminded me of Catfish, only that Catfish is more like an “investigation” whereas yours is more of an “experiment”.
Florian: “That’s amazing because I went to a screening of that and that was my main inspiration for making a film like this…the way it was made in the now and didn’t know where it was going to go…”
Dana: “Have you made any shorts previously in your career? What is your relationship with the short form?”
Florian: “Yes but I moved on to features really fast, I made a lot of low-budget experimental features, always mixing documentary and fiction, all my films do that…I find a short film hard because when I love a short film, I’m sad that it’s over so fast…”

And so was our interview over too fast but if you want to indulge your curiosity about Florian and his LOVE STORY, click here for more information.

KAIKOHE DEMOLITION, one of Florian’s previous films and an equally unique and striking works of idiomatic cinema, is available to watch online here.

To make sure you didn’t miss anything, meet Florian as the artist introduces himself.