Tami Liberman is a filmmaker, film editor and visual anthropologist. Her film, “Napps – Memoire of an Invisible Man”, which screened at this year’s 9th Ethnofest, tells the story of Mr. X, but his identity, and his face, are never revealed in it. Mr. X is a West-African asylum seeker living in Berlin without a work permit. As his exposure might put him in danger, he is the one holding the camera instead of appearing in front of it. We sat down with Tami to talk more about her and Mr. X’s process whilst making the film.
The interview was conducted by Lillian Dam Bracia, Traffic and Programme Assistant at Ethnofest.
Ethnofest: So your project was a graduation project at Freie Universitat Berlin for the MA of Visual and Media Anthropology and it’s a very unusual story in the sense that you don’t hear it from that perspective very often – usually you have a representation from the outsider anthropologist, defining what’s important to show or not. You can see through the film how Mr. X had a different intuition and feel for what the film should be about than you as a director anthropologist and that somehow the initial idea changes throughout the film. Could you tell us a little bit more about your process?
Tami Libermann: Well, the whole concept came organically with my encounter with the protagonist, Mr. X. At first when we just started conversing, I had a whole other idea for a different kind of film, and slowly, I gradually figured what his political status was, and in our first conversation I told him wait, if I understand it correctly, you cannot be filmed? And he said no, I cannot. I remember I just offered at the spot and I told him well, what do you think about shooting the film? And he was excited about this – as he has been himself an amateur photographer and journalist in the past. And then I ran home very excited about this idea and I started to figure out what, how I imagined the film to be and even then, it kept on changing as we began to create the film. But after that conversation we kept meeting for about two months and having two hour conversations every time in which he would share his life-story with me and at some point I would start sharing ideas that I had for scenes in the film. I kept thinking for ways we could reconstruct the experiences that he had, in Berlin, even though his experiences never happened there before. And then, as we started shooting, conversations about the camera and about the imbalance that we had politically and the representation itself started surfacing and that, made the film began to become even more complex and that was a big part of the fun for me, a big change through the dialogue that we had.
Ethnofest: Exactly. I loved that the film wasn’t just about how hard life is for a refugee but also about his relationship with filming, which really was not what you would expect from the beginning when it started.
Tami Libermann: Absolutely. I thought, I hoped he would really enjoy being the person who is seeing and cannot be seen and- he does find great joy in cinematography and photography but it was a complete surprise for me. Even though it should have been in a way obvious but the way that he articulated how a person is affected by the way they cannot be seen, in a way that they cannot be represented, was something that for some reason I couldn’t have foreseen and that became one of the favorite moments in the film. Generally speaking all of my favorite moments in the film were moments that came out of him. More than me, moments that he really chose to be in control.
Ethnofest: Did he have an agenda while making the film?
Tami Libermann: Yeah, I’ll say two things about this…first of all he aimed this film for Africans who were thinking of moving to Europe and he wanted to show them that their dream is sort of divorced from reality. That what they thought they would experience is very different from the freedom from the experience outside of Africa. That was a very strong agenda for him. I think that generally speaking and I feel a little bit uncomfortable speaking on behalf of his name, because it really was something that he should be the one to express rather than me. But from what we had in the film, it helped me to understand that extremely ambivalent and rich in one hand but very confused on the other, rich experience of a migrant, and especially the experience of a migrant that is not accepted in a new place. Because there’s no doubt that he was fascinated that he enjoyed discovering new places. And there’s no doubt that there are parts of Berlin that he loved, he loved the music that he found there and people that he met and seeing new places that many of us enjoy. But at the same time, he had all the hardship that’s impossible to anyone to understand who’s privileged enough not to suffer than a person who is not accepted in a country has. And those two sides, at least I’m happy to say that they are manifested in the film. You can see that on the one hand he says how – and I was quite at surprise when he said that- he says well, what can we do, there’s a law and we have to keep it and on the other hand he says he’s very unhappy with the situation. A film, almost tends to push and organize a linear narrative into a living situation that’s not as linear as that and we do have a story arc and there is a catharsis in the film but I hope that it doesn’t simplify a situation that is just not that simple, which is very, very complex.
Ethnofest: And are you still in touch with Mr. X, how is he right now and is he doing another project?
Tami Libermann: Mr. X right now is amazing! He was granted a work visa in Berlin and he now works as an educator, he’s an educator for groups with other African migrants and asylum seekers and refugees, in Berlin, in Kreuzberg. And when I heard that I went aaaah (laughs) which is just, I just can’t explain the bliss – you know… it’s one very lucky story but not just very lucky, it’s a story of a person who’s very strong and really fights for, you know, he fights all the time but, naturally this story is very different to many other stories of people who are not as lucky.
Ethnofest: That’s really incredible. As a last question, for the students of visual anthropology now, what advice do you have for those doing their graduation project, especially those wanting to take a collaborative approach, from your own experience?
Tami Libermann: I would say two things. And these also come from my own mistakes, of mistakes I made. Be ready to relinquish control and let dialogue decide things for you. That is very hard and it can be very scary and it can even be depressing at times. But if the dialogue has that bit of magic and if that chemistry is there, than just trust it. Things will work out miraculously and you will not even understand how you just get in this kind of synch with another person that you work with. That’s the magic of art and creativity in filmmaking and I would say, my other advice is almost a repetition of what I just said. Listen. Just be attentive. Don’t come in with a fixed idea of an answer to a question that is already made. Just keep the question and refine it as you go. Develop it. The question is much more important than just having a final answer to it. And that will allow you to see the people in the field that you’re studying as individuals, rather than just representatives of a whole culture.