Interview mit der Filmemacherin Nina Menkes - Aviva - Berlin Online Magazin und Informationsportal für Frauen Interviews im März 2024 - Beitrag vom 04.10.2008

Interview mit der Filmemacherin Nina Menkes
Margret Müller

Ihre Filme sind anders: nicht Wort, sondern Bild steht im Vordergrund, nicht Mann, sondern Frau. Zeit und Handlung sind nicht linear, sondern richten sich nach Vergangenheit und Zukunft zugleich aus

Die dabei entstandenen Filme sind anspruchsvolle Avantgarde. Spezifisch sind die tief bewegenden Bilder, oft mit unbewegter Kamera gefilmt, in sich perfekte Bildkompositionen und das völlig unlineare Verständnis von Zeit. Die Protagonistinnen der Filme sind Frauen in Zwischenzuständen, die sich auf eine Art spirituelle Reise begeben. Sie setzen sich mit Einsamkeit, Entfremdung und Exil auseinander. Diese Themen haben teilweise Bezüge zu Nina Menkes´ persönlichem Hintergrund: Ihre Eltern flohen vor dem Nationalsozialismus aus Deutschland und Österreich, kamen als Jugendliche nach Jerusalem und emigrierten nach ihrer Heirat in die USA. Nina Menkes wuchs in den 1960er Jahren in Berkeley, Kalifornien, auf. Sie studierte an der UCLA Film School in Los Angeles. Mit ihrer Abschlussarbeit - ihrem ersten Spielfilm – Magdalena Viagra gewann sie den Los Angeles Critics Award. Von der Los Angeles Times wurde sie als "eine der provokativsten Filmemacherinnen unserer Zeit" bezeichnet. Sie folgt keiner filmischen Tradition und keinem Lehrer, sondern verfilmt intuitiv und ohne Storyboard, was sie fühlt. Damit ist auch sie künstlerisch und ökonomisch "einsam".
Menkes lehrte an der University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts (USC), am California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts), am Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) und am Filmdepartment der Tel Aviv University.

AVIVA-Berlin traf sie anlässlich der Retrospektive ihrer Filme zum Gespräch über Filmen als Frau, die Essenz ihrer Werke, deren persönliche Motivation und das Verarbeiten der Vergangenheit ihrer Eltern, die Holocaust-Überlebende sind.

AVIVA-Berlin: You once called your work a journey to "Shadow Feminine". Can you describe the meaning the words "Shadow feminine" have for you?
Nina Menkes:
There is a traditional way women are portrayed in cinema, and this is mainly as sex objects, eye candy for the male viewers. This is true across all national borders, and stules of films, from Hollywood, to Godard, to Wong Kar Wai, etc...."Experimental" films are quite accepted as long as they contain sufficient sexist images of women.
To answer this question fully would be an long essay, but in short, my films show sides of the feminine which are generally not shown and even not openly felt - the anger, the pain and the deep wounding of what it means to be female in a patriarchal world which devalues the feminine on multiple levels.
In my films sex scenes are shot from the subjective perspective of the woman and show her feelings and her experience. Her body is never displayed as an object so someone can feel dominant and happy at her service position.

AVIVA-Berlin: In some interviews you mention women´s difficulties to release their movies, because mostly men are the decision makers. They tend to call women´s work "experimental or slow". How do you see the future of female film directors?
Nina Menkes:
Well, I do not have a lot of hope, but somehow I keep going. In truth the producer for my last film Phantom Love(2007) is a man - Kevin Ragsdale - and he has been tremendously supportive of me all the way. But, as Foucault has so beautifully explained, the webs of oppression are ever-present, intricately marbled within every level of our society, and it is hard to overcome this. Still, for example, the fact that I am having a retrospective here in Berlin must be cause for some optimism on my part.

AVIVA-Berlin: Why are there so few female film directors?
Nina Menkes:
There are not few - there are many but most don´t get the chance. In film schools in the USA you have 50% women, but after they leave school, I think its 2% atually directing. This is because of what I was mentioning above –Foucault and the webs of oppression etc.

AVIVA-Berlin: You do not use any storyboard, it is not the pictures filling the story. Pictures come up to your mind and build some narrative. So actually you start working on a movie dealing with spontaneity and during working process story or message develop. How do you cope with that tension of not knowing what will happen?
Nina Menkes:
It´s not a tension for me, it´s a wonderful process of self discovery, and I trust the process, so I allow it to happen quite naturally and with happiness, I await the outcome.

AVIVA-Berlin: You are often described as an experimental filmmaker. You seem not to like that. Why?
Nina Menkes:
Mainly only because in Los Angeles it´s a dirty word meaning—incomprehensible films that cannot make any money. Maybe in Europe there is a better feeling connected to this word.

AVIVA-Berlin: Do you feel difficulties in fundraising your movies, specially lately since available money for art has been shortened in the States?
Nina Menkes:
Yes, it is very difficult and it continues to be difficult, Plus at the moment, the USA is I don´t know what will happen. For sure it has become harder and harder to have "normal" theatrical distribution for unusual, non Hollywood films.

AVIVA-Berlin: In your movies The Queen of Diamonds and Phantom Love the heroine is working at a casino and in both movies central scenes are focused on the heroines work. Why is that?
Nina Menkes:
The casino is a great symbol for me, of totally alienated labor, where the worker is not only alienated from the product, but in fact - there IS no product! There is just losing money as entertainment and pure profit for the corporate casinos. There is no natural light and no time inside the casino, so it is a perfect image of Hell for me...

AVIVA-Berlin: Which of your movies do you like most?
Nina Menkes:
I think The Bloody Child. It explores the issues of violence and the problem of being a woman in the masculine world and all of the other issues that I am always exploring. (laughs) It is based on a true story, but what I did with it is quite dreamlike, severe, it is not like a story but very fragmented and abstract. This is a very powerful and my most radical film. It is a hard film, I think even my hardest.

AVIVA-Berlin: The Bloody Child is also very special because of being cut backwards...
Nina Menkes:
I point out that I did that before that became popular. A few MEN did it, like Gasper Noé he made this film Irreversable, long after I did it, And there is Memento by Christopher Nolan. They got a lot of credit for thinking of backwards, but I did it before them.

AVIVA-Berlin: What is your new project about?
Nina Menkes:
I have a new script. It is also about two women, two sisters. So it is close to the story of Phantom Love, in a way, but different. It will be shot in Los Angeles and Cairo. Right now I am talking to some German actresses, I was hoping to cast some German women speaking English as a way to connect to my story of the German part of my family. Even though it would not be an obvious story point - as nothing in my films is.

AVIVA-Berlin: Your work is very personal. You pointed out, that you film what you feel. Do you find it hard to read reviews about your very intense, personal work?
Nina Menkes:
(Laughs) That is pretty strange and maybe a reason for me being stressed out. The screenings of my films in Berlin are in two days. I am always very nervous although I showed some of these early films hundreds of times. I am never calm and not caring what people might think.
On the other hand the films are - though personal and about my interior experience - also very cinematic on a formal level. Each film is very much about the cinema in its essence and deals with the question what cinema is . On that cinematic level, hopefully sophisticated reviewers can appreciate it, since the films themselves are very sophisticated cinema.

AVIVA-Berlin: What does cinema mean to you?
Nina Menkes:
That is a big question.
Most feature films focus on dialogue and story but I am more interested in the actual visual picture, the flat picture with light screaming through moving and time. This quality of images moving through time is the essence of cinematic art form. Tarkovski called it "Sculpting in time".
It has something to do with the moving of images through time and at the same moment timelessness. Unlike a theater piece it is eternally there. But there is also horizontal and vertical time. Horizontal time is: today, tomorrow, yesterday. And then vertical time is transcendental, spiritual, eternal time. To me cinema is this intersection. When it hits both of those times, that is exciting. I try to always hit that point where eternal and linear time meet in my movies, hit that point and stay there. That is the point where my films are consistently hitting that point of always transcendental time and also commenting on the whole construction of time. My films also deal with that place where time exists with inner psyche. There is no past, present, future within our emotional world. All of our experiences coexist at the same time and effect us all the time.

AVIVA-Berlin:The heroines of your movies come across as lonely and alienated from their environment. They seem to be in some special reality. You also said, you film what you feel. I read that in the last years your view on the sources of these feelings have changed. Can you tell us something about that?
Nina Menkes:
I realised many different aspects of the sources over the years. Different reasons surfaced. Everything in you is always present but you are not always conscious of it.
One thing is the position of being a lone woman refusing to fit in the way you are supposed to be and the following terrible loneliness, going on your own way and having no comrades on this path. The way of women in a men´s world.
And then I also realised that the history of my family is a reason. The whole family of my father´s side was murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust and he was the only survivor. His despair and alienation were so extreme and I was totally unconscious of how much I had absorbed all of that until quite late. I did not even realise this until ten years ago.
All kind of things come together in a big ugly stew, this is quite a package.

AVIVA-Berlin: Your characters go their way. But they do not seem to enjoy the way they go. What about pleasure?
Nina Menkes:

I do not know how to answer that. The real core alienation is the spiritual alienation from God, whatever you want to call God. In that core alienation – as long as you are cut off from that light inside, that is pure love – there is no pleasure. I do not believe in sexual pleasure as some great thing. It is fine, but I always want the REAL DEAL. Because all those other pleasures come so tied up with pain, that is what Buddha said. So as long as we are trapped in our illusions of what is real and what love is – which is usually just fear and the need for security and the need for pleasure – it is not really love. So you are in the state of alienation or I am in the state of alienation. I make films about it. It is just my own condition. But I can find some joy these days. (laughs).

AVIVA-Berlin: So do you think until we do not have the real happiness it is better just not to be happy?
Nina Menkes:
No, it is better to have whatever happiness you can find. But I have a hard time finding even these small happinesses. Personally I do not have family, nor children, so I dedicated myself to my work which has its own deep happiness. I just try to make it through each day.

AVIVA-Berlin: Your father grew up in Vienna and was saved as the only family member to Jerusalem, whereas his whole family was murdered by Nazis. Your mother flew from Berlin to Jerusalem. How do you feel about the appreciation you receive in Berlin and Vienna these days?
Nina Menkes:
It is hard and intense. My father was rescued in 1939 at age 13 from Vienna and taken to Jerusalem. And the rest of his family was deported and gased. I found their names in Yad Vashem and it says they were deported to Yugoslavia and then "died" so they were murdered and are gone.
To go back to Vienna, as a guest of honour, since they did a retrospective this year having me like a princess made me happy but it is very intense. Same in Berlin now.
My mother was born in 1930 and left for Jerusalem in 1934. So, of course, it´s a very intense place for me. I am trying to explore my feelings and not be afraid to feel the terrible horror, so that I can feel it, and that perhaps release it from ruling my interior existence.
I walk through the streets of a beautiful, normal city and everything seems fine. It is crazy to think about what has been here. It is not reality now. I am here to show my films and I am a guest of honor in Berlin.
I also went to the place my mother lived at in Berlin, at Olivaer Platz. It was intense. A new building is now there. In a way so little time has passed. It is a whole mystery.

AVIVA-Berlin: Did you have any bad experiences being in Germany and Austria?
Nina Menkes:
In 1991 or 1992 I showed Queen of Diamonds in Munich. I was there with the German distributer of my film and we went on a field trip to Dachau. When coming back to the hotel I was supposed to meet the distributor for dinner, but there was no message in my hotel room about dinner.
I started to freak out. I had this little psychotic thing happening to me: I thought he is not calling me because I am a Jew. I thought this is how it starts, you are not invited to dinner and pretty soon you end up there in the camp, and you are burnt. I went completely insane being absolutly sure, he did not call because I was a Jew. When he called, about 45 minutes later I just started crying and told him.He laughed.
But this one hour of mental warp was a strong turning point for me in terms of racism. Because in terms of my own family being from Israel you tend to have fears and ideas about arabs. This story changed my attitude towards arabs and racism. It is heavy. I am still trying to deal with it. Trying to release it, I do not want to carry this around my whole life.

AVIVA-Berlin: You have been teaching at several Universities in the past and will be teaching at the film department of Tel Aviv University from November on. Is this a special challenge for you? With what goals are you heading to Tel Aviv now?
Nina Menkes:
Basically because my films are so radical and they do not make a lot of money, in order to live I have been supporting myself by teaching for a long time. In the States I teach at the California Institute for Arts and this year I am invited to teach at the Film Department at the Tel Aviv University. I think it is a great department, they are quite experimental and open minded. It is very special for me, although I do not have exactly goals going there. I am very connected to Israel and speak Hebrew, but I never lived and worked there and I wanted to see how that felt. I also have some very dear friends in Israel and for a while been wanting to leave the States.

The heroine of your movie The Queen of Diamonds is working at the "Wheel of fortune" in a casino. If you could tell the "Wheel of Fortune" your wish, what would it be?
(Laughs and thinks)
Well, this is going to sound stupid and romantic. But I really would like to find real true love, a partner, I could really love. I do not know if that is just a fantasy, but if it existed, I would like to find it.

Weitere Infos auf AVIVA-Berlin unter:
Shadow Feminine – die Filme von Nina Menkes

Weitere Infos zu Nina Menkes:
Programm von "Shadow Feminine" im Arsenal


Beitrag vom 04.10.2008