Interview with Nikolaus Geyrhalter (director / cinematography) and Wolfgang Widerhofer (editor / dramatic advisor)


The Paris-Dakar Rallye is the starting point of your sixth joint documentary. What first got you interested in the race?

Geyrhalter: The race itself never really interested us. From the very beginning we wanted to take a look behind the fašade produced by the media. But it was obvious that that alone couldn’t be the film’s sole content: The echo of the race and the relationship between Europe and Africa would be juxtaposed, with the Rallye serving as a central thread that would prevent it from becoming arbitrary.

How did you approach this central thread? How did you do the research?

Geyrhalter: Three years before shooting started we made a research trip along the route to southern Morocco. We wanted to find out whether we would be able to follow it. And we also had the Rallye organization send us a roadbook. Those are books showing the route with it represented by rune-like symbols. Finding the way with this roadbook and is part of the race for the Rallye teams. For us it was difficult more than anything, but we had to find out whether amateurs like us would be able to find our way along the routes at all and whether we could find them.

The first time you traveled the entire route was really when the film was shot?

Geyrhalter: That’s right. We went to Morocco with the Rallye teams in January 2007, on a chartered ferry. In Morocco we then lost sight of them, according to plan. The racers cover the entire route in 14 days, it took us four months. We started shooting immediately as we went, without knowing the route or doing any previous casting at the locations. We mainly had to rely on chance.

What were the logistics on location like? How did you transport a film crew and equipment through the desert?

Geyrhalter: We had two off-road vehicles and an old Austrian army truck. The food and camping equipment was in the truck, and while we were filming it was on the way to our next camp. The truck’s driver also advised us about a number of technical matters and was our cook, camp chief and mechanic. There was a work room on the truck where we copied the footage in the evenings and translated. All in all, there were about thirteen people on location, with the interpreters and location managers.

The 2008 race has been cancelled because of terrorist threats. Did you need protection in the Sahara?

Geyrhalter: Never. We always had workers from the country where we were shooting who gave us all the necessary information. Of course, we were vulnerable - we camped right on the route. Nothing ever happened. But just before shooting started we were robbed in Vienna (laughs).

The Paris-Dakar Rallye, or Lisbon-Dakar in 2007, is traditionally dominated by white, male drivers. How did you deal with the paradox of representing a critical stance on the one hand and on the other covering the route as a white man with a large fleet of vehicles?

Geyrhalter: Of course, I was aware of the contradiction. That’s why I thought it was important not to travel with a purely white crew. My assistant director and our location managers have roots in Africa, and then there were a number of local line producers and interpreters. 

Was finding female interviewees difficult?

Geyrhalter: That depended on the country. In Morocco our line producer had a female intern, and we asked her to do some of the interviews. That helped a great deal. 

In the Western media’s hierarchy the African continent is dealt with in connection with Paris-Dakar primarily as an exotic background without its own voice. How did you confront this hierarchy of representation?

Geyrhalter: The counter-hierarchy developed by itself because we were interested in the people along the route, rather than the drivers. Of course, though we could never completely assume the ‘other’ side’s point of view, we wanted to get close to it at least. We were at eye level with the people we met. And not with the drivers.
Widerhofer: The film addresses this hierarchy of representation directly. What are Europe’s views of Africa and vice versa. At the beginning, the European image of Africa through the Rally is shown, as an exotic location for vacations and adventure. And the other European view is presented at the end: the fear of refugees that’s being stirred up. Those are the two images of Africa that are dominant in Europe. The film begins with these two poles and then tries to discover a more differentiated and complex view of the continent.

You’ve been making documentaries together as a director and editor since 1994 (ANGESCHWEMMT / WASHED ASHORE). What’s this collaboration like as a cutter, using this project as a concrete example?

Widerhofer: I’m responsible for things involving structure and make the decisions on that level, such as that sequences that have already been shot, in which the race is shown on location, don’t fit the film’s dramatic structure. For example, I wanted the race to be conveyed through the people who talk about it. Excluding the race means that the people along the route are necessary as the initial source of information. With this project the first time I got to examine the footage and see the direction it was developing was after three weeks of shooting. We talked about it and took that into account for the remainder of shooting. Up to now, shortly before completion, editing has taken a year and a half.

Didn’t you agree on an editing concept before shooting began?

Widerhofer: Nikolaus had a clear concept, the journey, the concentration on people along the route. And there was Nikolaus’ shooting style, sequence shots with extreme visual precision. A travel essay and portrait were part of the project from the very beginning. There are 6,500 minutes of footage and 70 interviews. That’s a lot. And I chose things from that. 

Where would you put '7915 KM' in the context of your other joint films?

Widerhofer: I think it’s interesting that in the beginning the film picks up where 'OUR DAILY BREAD' left off. The latter’s about highly technological production of food. And '7915 KM' begins with another product of advanced technology, the Rally, which was exported to West Africa from Europe. But the film quickly moves away from that background. It begins with this technology, then slows down and changes perspective. You could say that all your films so far praise slowness, both in their content and formally in particular, with their uncommonly long takes.
Widerhofer: Form and content can’t be separated at all in our films. The two must always go hand in hand.

In the final analysis, '7915 KM' is also about the political significance of accelerated or decelerated means of production, communication and of course the means of transportation a society employs. Does speed have a formal political significance in your films too?

Widerhofer: The political stance that’s expressed formally is taking a close look at things. The length of time this takes is a political category. Viewers are given space to think, space is provided for an experience to develop. And that’s always political in a way. You could exaggerate and say it doesn’t matter what a film’s about: If you just look long and hard enough and take time for the people, something like the truth will always come to light.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter und Wolfgang Widerhofer in an interview with Maya McKechneay