“We have a problem in feminism I think – the idea now is to be independent and earn money, be part of the system. But the question should be: what kind of system are we in now?”
TATJANA TURANSKYJ ABOUT TOP GIRL AND THE DRIFTER
EXBERLINER – INTERVIEW – by Camilla Egan October 21, 2014
German-Ukrainian director Tatjana Turanskyj’s Women and Work trilogy explores its themes with a wry sense of indignation. The second installment, Top Girl or La Deformation Professionelle, follows single mother Helena as she attempts to reconcile her hopes and plans with the practical and structural constraints of her job in the sex trade.
What was the idea behind the trilogy?
When I made the first film, Eine Flexible Frau, I was thinking that the idea of women and work is so embarrassing here in Germany, because we’re still in the breadwinner system – the man works and the woman has the kids. People pretend that it’s different, but when you see the statistics, women earn 23 percent less than men in some areas. Men have executive positions, or sometimes get to work more hours than women. So then I decided to make this trilogy and I was still thinking…. It’s because in today’s employment climate we are not “workers” anymore, we areDienstleister, service providers, and so I was thinking of the sex industry, because here they also say they are now service providers. And there’s a distance between the sex and the service, so that it’s really a question of wording. The whole world is really a question of wording these days. I was really thinking about how to get the violence into the film, but not into the sex. So that’s why it comes at the end.
And why was it important for you that violence is in the film, but not part of the sex?
Because, first of all, I didn’t want to shoot it. And sometimes film violence is so much of an end in itself. I don’t like to see that. The sex is an intimate situation – but the structure of prostitution is a violent system, for me. In feminist theory, there’s always two groups talking about prostitution – for some of them it’s the breaking open of patriarchy, and for others it has a basis of patriarchy.
Where did the image of women picking their way naked through the forest and the idea of the hunting game come from?
This picture was in my mind for a really long time, because I had read a book, Angélique ou l’enchantement, maybe 20 years ago by the writer of Last Year at Marienbad [Alain Robbe-Grillet]. There was one part based on an anecdote from Uruguay, where First World War soldiers from all over the world – some of them German – met, and were apparently buying girls from the poorest, poorest villages, and then they had a hunt – but they really hunted them to death.
The most open feminist rhetoric in Top Girl comes from someone selling a certain cosmetic procedure that that is kind of hard to reconcile with feminism – vaginoplasty.
[laughs] Yes… The idea that I can do what I want – it’s the slogan “my body belongs to me”. We have a problem in feminism I think – our idea is to be independent women and earn money, be part of the system. So the question is, what kind of system are we in now? Is it the right way for feminism, the Sheryl Sandberg feminism for example, just to get into the capitalist system, and to make it much stronger so that we all fit in… Lots of this feminism has nothing at all to do with real emancipation. This surgery also doesn’t have to do with sex for the woman – it has to do with theimage of sex for the woman.
How about the men in Top Girl? Even though they’re the ones with the money and the power, they don’t always have much dignity.
It’s a question of how I see this situation between men and female sex workers. But David, the main male character – with him I think it’s different. He stands by his idea of sexuality, and that makes him very strong and I think he has lots of dignity. I wanted to show that in this situation there can also be a connection, just in the moment, an intimate conversation and connection, a little bit of desire…
Yes, tension – which makes it interesting for both sides.
And how did you come to the Porn Film Festival?
I think I might be the first German filmmaker ever who is in the Feminist Film Festival and in the PornFilmFestival [Laughs]. That is quite funny. I know Jürgen [Brüning, the festival's founder], from the collective hangover ltd.*, and our 2008 film Petra. I was talking to him, and he said, you know, our festival is not about porn. It’s about how to deal with sex in film.
In independent filmmaking in Germany, or in Berlin at least, do you find there’s much of a gender divide?
Actually, I’m involved in a new community of 340 female directors who are coming together to campaign for more money – ProQuota Regie. We are working for a quota for German women in film and film funding, because there’s a big gender gap there.
Some people criticise the idea of gender quotas.
It’s an economic instrument, and it has nothing do with quality – if it were about quality, then women would already work! And we think that the quota is also good for diversity in film. Because if you have this quota, maybe you can also have others – age quotas, migrant quotas. We can maybe see more themes through that, because creating films is so subjective. Why should just the men be able to tell their personal stories? We’ve heard that already.
So women need more of a chance to be culture creators and to steer the discussion?
Exactly. The quota is an opener for more discussion. If you can’t work you can’t join the discussion.
INTERVIEW ABOUT “THE DRIFTER”
At the center of the film are a woman and a city. The film interweaves female biography and urban topography in many ways: it is a women’s Berlin film. Where did you get the idea for this constellation?
At first I wanted to make a film about a woman who drifts through Berlin, tracing the city’s changes. Then I decided on this unemployed architect, a drifter investigating the city’s changes while conducting architectural research in order to “do something.” An important question was how artificial this female character and the film ought to be.
I realized from the beginning that I had to work with the ultra-new image of Berlin. I didn’t want to reproduce Berlin as a backdrop, but to show how Berlin has been tidied up in the last ten years and how much of what characterizes the city – or characterized it, at least for me – has been and is being destroyed and torn down. With my film, I wanted to launch a debate about this destruction, which is pushed by a conservative lobby. It became a Berlin movie in which one does not always recognize Berlin, because in some scenes the city looks like a model. What is ugly has to be shown.
Your film deals prominently with the image of the city, on the basis of current urban theory discourses. How would you describe the importance of Berlin’s architectures (Humboldt Forum, townhouses, Finance Ministry, etc.) for your film?
It’s interesting that you mention the Finance Ministry. It’s an example of how history is treated in Berlin. Significant sites are taken over, renamed, and reoccupied. Other sites, like a castle, are rebuilt; artificial significance is created, but a different palace is torn down. Or take the townhouses on Werderscher Markt. There land is being subdivided like in the 19th century and a kind of TV soap opera backdrop is being built. But these new architectures and buildings are the public space and a wonderful film backdrop, because they represent the spirit of the times. These architectures are my heroine’s antagonist carved in stone, if you will. And she struggles against them like Don Quixote. So it’s a hopeless battle. But she’s not naïve. She knows that she, too, would immediately build townhouses if she had a job in an architects’ office that happens to build them. That is the dilemma of our present.
In the course of the film, your heroine, the unemployed architect, conducts a tour de force with numerous stations. How did you develop this route, and what was your intent?
From the beginning, I wanted to interweave three levels in my film: first, a narrative level, the story of my heroine Greta; second, a feminist level of commentary, originally connected solely to the Internet blogger “Kluge”; and third, a documentary level. While working on the script and film, I kept struggling to connect the levels meaningfully. In addition, there was the contradiction between a stringent dramaturgy of decline and a laconic drift through Berlin with “genuine, authentic” chance encounters in the city of women. For example, my fictitious heroine would attend a party convention or an award ceremony from the Association of Female German Entrepreneurs – rather bizarre events. But fortunately my budget forced me to concentrate, i.e., to first work through the stations that seemed necessary, to be able to adequately localize the heroine’s situation: her social situation, her private situation, and her societal situation as a jobless woman.
But perhaps the fiction of documentation – the idea of “reality” of some kind – is more my thing.
Your film draws a precise picture of the times and society, without working with the conventions of Social Realism. On the contrary, there are actual anti-illusionistic performances. And the characters’ speech and diction is often emphatically inauthentic: empty phrases and quotations whose quotation marks are also spoken, as it were. What led to this decision?
Thanks for the compliment, but I think I draw my personal, subjective idea of an image of the times and society. I notice that more and more people say “one” when they speak of themselves – so they are split off from themselves and their feelings. Also, on the job, the word “unprofessional” is usually used when someone has expressed himself too emotionally. It’s happened to me, too. I wanted to depict that: the norming of language as a “sign of professionalism.”
Film is often reduced to pure content, the story. My film’s story is as simple as can be. A 40-year-old woman loses her job and has problems. Here, the form is interesting. I’m also interested in the post-dramatic discourse, the explosion of narration, fissures, and counteracting commentary. These are often confused with lack of emotion, but of course that’s wrong. A film can be emotional, despite commentary and self-referentiality. Discourse and cinematic emotion are no contradiction. There are plenty of examples.
What references were important to you while making your film?
Lots of things. I used to make films with a collective. I had to emancipate myself from it, but also had to consider what aspects of our approach to work had proven themselves and should be retained. I also watched many films centered on a leading character. I analyzed how much personality and individuality the other female characters need.
To work out the film images, I cut up my Vogue collection, put a mood book together, and illustrated almost all the scenes with fashion photos. The actresses’ poses, the make-up session, the call-center girls – it’s all from Vogue. For example, there is a series of photos with businesswomen in the desert. It really inspired me. I’m also interested in the Western, or the images the Western produced. The solitude of the hero against the rest of the world. That’s a motif that seems very interesting to me for representing women and is well-suited for reloading for that purpose.
The film collects and comments on various contemporary (self-) designs and types of women. The feminist filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s delved intensely into the “theme of women’s images.” What led you to work in this terrain again now?
The “theme of women’s images” was, is, and remains important. Today, popular series and films that target a female audience, without being political or feminist at all, appropriate vulgarized feminist themes. I didn’t want my film to serve this kind of images of women in any way. On the contrary, my female characters are not role models. So I take up the tradition of feminist film. The context is merely shifted.
The driving force of the film is the state of acute unemployment and its effects on self-image and self-confidence. How important to you was this sociopolitical dimension of the film?
The situation of so-called modern women in today’s service economy is central to my film. Although women in our society earn about 25 percent less, they are considered the “winners” of the current crisis. Why? Because most of them work as flexible service personnel in low-wage sectors. That’s just cynical! But my leading character comes from a male-dominated profession, a high-wage sector, and is not willing to adjust to this service model, i.e., to function in contemporary society. At the same time, she doesn’t at all question her own dependency on the complex of “work, status, and money.” And precisely this difference interests me. I also wanted to depict how uncertain living and working conditions make biographies “precarious,” which is typical of Berlin and our time.
Your film’s tone of voice is similar to its protagonist: witty, impudent, combative, willful, and extremely sad. In this context, how should we view the excerpt from Hölderlin’s “Hyperion”?
I was looking for a quotation for the last encounter. I just stumbled over Hölderlin; I admit it was coincidence. His language moved me, and the quotation brings a strangeness into the film, a consolation from another era.
Interview: Birgit Kohler, Berlin, January 2010