Sarah Adamson Interviews Filmmaker Ralf Schmerberg
If you happened to attend The Chicago Film Festival this past October you may have heard the buzz surrounding this extraordinary one-of-a-kind film. “Problema” posed 100 questions to 112 influential people from 56 countries at an oval table meeting in Berlin.
Schmerberg explains the process in the interview, his thoughts behind the making of the film, and most importantly, what the event has done for people worldwide.
“We started with over a half a million questions and agreed on 100….”
The event was filmed and edited by Schmerberg and is being offered free, beginning December 6, on the Internet. Check the website www.droppingknowledge.org for further information.
Sarah Adamson: I’m curious as to why you are offering the film free on the Internet?
Ralf Schmerberg: A lot of films usually fail now in the world when they try to go through conventional doors. So I think with the Internet and the free release thing, it is a new chance to meet an audience.
S.A.: That sounds wonderful. And, you’re right; I think it is a groundbreaking way for a lot of people worldwide to be able to view your film.
S.A.: This sounds fantastic. I want to ask a few questions about the film itself, but before I do that, could you explain to us, Ralf, the concept of your film, a little bit about what it’s about?
R.S.: Good question. The intention of the film is to have a chance to learn, to listen to questions and to look at things. The film is a collage of an event that happened a couple years ago in Berlin called the Table of Free Voices where we brought together a group of hundred people across the world, 66 languages, half women half men, many different experiences.
A lot of people who have lived through difficult experiences in the world, a lot of people who deal with all these issues, we brought them together at a famous place, where Nazi leaders burned books of compelling thinkers that they didn’t like. We thought this was a nice healing process for Berlin, to have new thoughts arrive and have freethinking happen.
S.A.: Sure, sure. Just an amazing event and you also attracted an American actor Willem Dafoe. What was his role in the film?
R.S.: We brought Willem in to read some of the questions. He has a wonderful way of reading the questions, as he’s an excellent actor and delivered them in a way that never felt like he was taking over.
S.A: Oh that’s great, it’s such an interesting concept. I just can’t imagine how you really brought this all together. Did you have a team that helped you accumulate the questions?
R.S.: Oh yeah, nothing in this process I could have been done by myself alone. This project is done by hundreds and hundreds of people. We had a huge Internet aspect and it’s a huge translation aspect. It’s a huge organizational aspect; there was a huge fundraising aspect behind this.
S.A.: Oh my goodness. That’s incredible. I’m wondering, because you had so many questions, did you have some sort of criteria for selecting the final one hundred?
R.S.: Yes, we kind of at that point to date had about a half a million questions posted on the website from all around the world from all topics of life. Uh, we had a very cool computer program that could kind of identify in what kind of group the questions belong.
R.S.: We could cluster them. And then we had people reading them and they boiled it down to let’s say maybe like a thousand questions. Together the whole group discussed which of the hundred should go on the table. An idea with the hundred questions was to try and represent the whole five hundred thousand.
S.A.: Yes, yes. Oh my goodness, I had no idea! Over half a million! That’s fantastic!
R.S.: And you can go on the website. You have all the questions there, you can search the questions, can search the answers from people.
S.A.: Sure. What is your website?
R.S.: The website is w-w-w, I don’t think you say anymore these times, dropping knowledge.org.
S.A.: Sure, dropping knowledge. Www.droppingknowledge.org. Oh gosh, this just sounds fantastic.
R.S.: And you can view all the 900 hours of the original material from the table.
S.A.: Great. Do you mind telling us a few of the questions that were really meaningful to you? Or, maybe some, you know, you can’t help but have a few favorites that you liked.
R.S.: Absolutely. The one question I really liked was, “When is it necessary to break the law?” That’s a question that sticks with me forever, also asked on the table.
R.S.: It’s like for time we live in, a very open question. Any question that is very open, what does it all mean?
R.S.: Also everything that has a human touch, that cares about others, I love these kinds of questions. Then the questions from, when traced and by being one we faced already, tell a lot how we are conditioned in thinking, like, “What if all Chinese people drive a car?” (Laughs)
S.A.: (Laughs) Oh yes, yes…
R.S: Yeah, it’s a funny question on one side.
S.A.: Yes, exactly. That is one of the questions that resonated with one of my staff members who attended the film. That was one that she thought was just amazing. Another one that she thought was amazing was, “Should people be allowed to live wherever they’d like?”
R.S.: Absolutely. And this has such meaning, these questions.
S.A.: Yeah, just…
R.S.: I mean it’s a big story all over the world. It’s not like a national issue; it’s a global issue. You know, everywhere people want to move somewhere. Everybody, people have to move from places even in order to survive. It’s so massive. And it’s sad that we live in a time where so many people are homeless.
S.A.: Yes, oh gosh. Well, did you achieve what you set out to achieve by making this film?
R.S.: Ah, with this expression, I don’t think it’s about achievement, I think it was more the intention that the project would go. I’m flattered and it makes me humble and I feel like my ego is a bit cracked from this project than it was before.
S.A.: Oh gosh.
R.S.: But, its intention is to show a bit embrace of world society, a way to look at things, and what’s good about it. Today I think my biggest issue is we talk so much bullshit everywhere. We speak so many unnecessary things. When we have dinners, I don’t know what people talk about, you know. There are so many things to speak about that are more difficult than simple conversation. I think that’s my wish, for people to bring in their day-to-day lives, things that they really care about, to bring it on the table.
R.S.: Into families, into societies, into universities, communities, whatever.
R.S.: It’s not parliaments who need to discuss how we want to keep on living, it’s everyday people who need to discuss it, and I think this is a big intention of the film – to say like, hey, everybody’s good enough to have questions and everybody’s good enough to give answers.
S.A.: Sure. Exactly. Do you foresee your film as possibly being used in classrooms, high school classrooms?
S.A.: Or college?
R.S.: Yeah. It happened already because the whole iPad exists, its quick time so people can cut with (it). A lot of students, they take the footage from originally, not from the movie, and do their own collages and use them for their own lectures and things like that and so, absolutely. I think this is a perfect film for class to look at and have a good discussion afterwards.
S.A.: Well, I just want to thank you so much for chatting with us tonight. Your film, I’m sure, is already making a difference in people’s lives. And just allowing people to have a voice, I think, is so important. So, I commend you on that, and, I want to thank you for being a guest on Sarah’s Backstage Pass.
R.S.: Thank you. It was a lot of fun for me. Have a lovely day.
S.A.: Thank you. You too. Good luck with the film. I am a former teacher myself, Ralf, and I taught many years in the classroom. I feel that questioning is so important, and it really is an important skill. I wish you the best of luck with this film. It is amazing what you’ve done.
R.S.: Thank you.
Interview Sarah Adamson. Questions developed by Adamson and Tina Cline.