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Director Tom Tykwer brings Kenyan slum to German cinemas

Top German filmmaker Tom Tykwer recently released "Soul Boy," filmed with young people in a Kenyan slum. Working in Africa helped him appreciate the value of being flexible, he told Deutsche Welle.

Tom Tykwer, Hawa Essuman, Billy Kahora

Tom Tykwer trained young filmmakers in Kenya as part of the project

Known for films like "Run Lola Run" (1998) and "The International" (2009), director Tom Tykwer has established a name for himself both in Germany and abroad. For his recent feature film "Soul Boy," he conducted a workshop in Kenya's Kibera slum where a handful of film professionals worked with a group of young trainees. "Soul Boy's" plot links local mythology to modern-day problems, telling the story of a young boy who embarks on an odyssey in order to save his father's lost soul.

Deutsche Welle: You've filmed big-budget movies in Europe and worked with top Hollywood stars. Your experience in Africa must have been completely different.

Tom Tykwer: It always amazes me that in making a film there's a small inner circle where a bunch of people concentrate like crazy on the tiny details that are supposed to make up a whole. When that works, then that area of concentration becomes a place where people from all different cultures can interact.

When people from completely different backgrounds find themselves in that situation, they suddenly become similar to each other - at least at the artistic and social level. That's fascinating!

Originally, you went to Africa for the One Fine Day project that your wife, Marie Steinmann, initiated. How did you come up with the idea of doing something with young people who love cinema and want to learn about filmmaking?

My wife had already worked there in a seemingly improvised but unbelievably effective way. She came into contact with hundreds of children who were able to discover their own creative potential for the very first time.

By working together, the children were challenged to examine this new side of themselves and to develop. For many of them, it was really eye-opening. Having the chance to experience this live was really moving - especially considering that, here, that kind of facilitation takes place much earlier and is part of a pedagogical tradition.

I was won over for the project, which works on a very low budget and is entirely privately funded. It relies completely on donations, which means it retains a great deal of independence and isn't hindered by a large bureaucratic apparatus. The energy behind it was really contagious!

A scene from the film Soul Boy, by Tom Tykwer

"Soul Boy" helped release creative potential in the kids involved

What did you get out of it as a filmmaker?

What I definitely learned is being able to work in entirely different contexts, under entirely different conditions and in completely new social and interactive procedures.

Communication has to change. It's all about learning to deal with seemingly challenging circumstances in a flexible and relaxed way. For the people in Africa I was working with, this is totally natural. For them, it's normal that a lot of things don't work right away. This reality is part of their everyday life. Wherever you go, there's always something that doesn't work.

The people are familiar with this situation and they deal openly with it. They're very skilled at improvising and approach set ideas with a relaxed attitude - of course, that's also because they don't have much choice.

How did that have an impact on your work?

For the artistic process, this unpredictability can be a problem, but can also be a great opportunity. In practice, that meant for me suddenly having to look somewhere else. If we had planned to film in a certain direction and there was suddenly a fire or a demonstration, then we just changed and filmed in the other direction.

Under normal circumstances, that wouldn't happen; I would cancel that day of filming. Here, you just have to film, no matter what happens - and often the results are better, freer and more inspiring.

After your project in Africa, you filmed "Three" back in Germany, which is opening this month in German theaters. Did you approach that film any differently after your experience in Africa?

I don't know; others have to answer that. I think that those were relatively fundamental experiences [in Africa], which flow into my communicational nervous system. Every film that I make in Germany, or anywhere outside of Kenya, is always a completely new adventure, because every film is different and brings different challenges with it.

I suspect that I managed so well in Kenya because I value a strong, people-oriented, and open approach and I take teamwork very seriously. So, I was able to build on previous experiences. But the freedom to not only cope with alternatives, but to make the most of them with creativity and a positive attitude - that's something I definitely want take with me for my future work.

"Soul Boy" opens this month in German cinemas.

Interview: Jochen Kuerten (kjb)

Editor: Gavin Blackburn

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