Interview: Wim Wenders Talks Pina

Never mind what you may have thought about 3D, or dance, up until now. Wim Wenders' Oscar-nominated documentary Pina promises to turn your 3D-damning and ballet-dreading world upside down. Using gimmick-free 3D technology Wenders pays tribute to legendary choreographer, the late Pina Bausch. A woman with a revolutionary approach to dance that will make you forget all about falling asleep in the Swan Lake performance your girlfriend dragged you to last month.

During our interview with Wenders, we peered into the past (the conception and making of the movie), as well as the future of documentary filmmaking.

Christine Champ: What inspired you to devote a documentary to Pina Bausch? What does dance mean to you?

Wim Wenders: Dance meant nothing to me. I wasn’t into dance at all. It was not my cup of tea. Classical ballet couldn’t scare me away more. Modern dance wasn’t for me, I didn’t have the antenna until one night my girlfriend at the time dragged me to this double bill of Pina Bausch and it changed my life. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The most emotional thing I’d ever witnessed on stage, on screen, anywhere. I cried through the entire evening and realized that something very big was happening there and that there was a whole new world that I had no idea of and that this unknown woman Pina Bausch knew something that nobody I knew who was making theater or dance or movies or music knew about. I realized I had to meet her, and I did meet her and we became very very close friends. That’s why I wanted to make the film from the beginning. I wanted to pass on the virus I caught that night and that really changed my life. I felt more people should know this beauty and should know that this language was out there.

CC: What dances did you see that night? Were they featured in the film?

WW: Yes, I saw a double bill of two short pieces Café Muller and The Rite of Spring. They are both in the film.

CC: Did you start filming while Pina was alive?

WW: No, no, of course we wanted to. We prepared the film together, we talked about it for 20 years and then we finally actually agreed to make it. It took us so long because I had these hesitations and scruples because I felt my craft didn’t really have the goods to do justice to Pina’s work. It was only the arrival of 3D that made me feel I finally had a tool that was good enough. So we wasted 20 years so to speak, but actually in those 20 years I don’t know how I could have made the film. Then when we were finally ready and had written a concept and prepared the film in 3D together Pina passed away, which was of course the unthinkable. As far as I was concerned the movie was finished, done. I walked away from it, pulled the plug.

CC: So what changed your mind, and convinced you to continue with the film?

WW: Who changed my mind is really the question—the dancers did. 'Cause they didn’t walk away, they continued performing. Even on the night of Pina’s death they went on stage in tears performing because they knew Pina would have expected that. Then a few weeks later they decided to continue as a company and perform and fulfill all the contractual obligations the company had taken under Pina. That’s how they all actually started to, two months later, rehearse the four pieces Pina had put on the agenda so that we could film them. That’s when I realized that the film we had dreamt of was no longer possible and there was no more movie to be made with Pina, but there was maybe another movie to be made for Pina and together with these dancers. And that this film could also be our way of saying goodbye and thank you because none of us had been able to say either one. That became the driving force of the film we ventured into without much of a concept, without much of an idea of how we were going to do it.

CC: So in the end it became a tribute. If Pina were still alive when you made the film, what would it have been then? How would it have been different?

WW: It would have been an entirely different enterprise. We had a very clear idea, an elaborate concept. We would have had lots of rehearsals. We would have filmed these same pieces that would have been the backbone, but we would have been present at rehearsals. Pina was present at each and every performance of her pieces and the entire next day, the next morning was dedicated to corrections. We would have been able to shoot that, to see her work. My intent had been to see Pina’s eyes at work and find out how she was able to see so much more than anybody else and decipher body language so much more accurately and deeply than anybody I’d ever met in the film or dance or theater world. We would have accompanied Pina and the company on two tours to South America and to Brazil and Southeast Asia. That was the plan that was laid out for half a year. That had become impossible so the film that now exists is a totally different film. It was one that was based on the fact that the dancers and I felt we should do something to deal with the loss and we should do something to pass the virus that I had gotten 20 years earlier.

CC: What about the dances in the film that were staged in everyday real-world locations, for example on a street near a traffic intersection, or in a field? Where did those dances come from?

WW: This was the result of collaboration—the dancers and I ... it was a slow process towards the end of the film that we shot over a period of one year. In order to fill the hole that we could not shoot with Pina we had to find something else that the dancers and I could do together and it dawned on me that as much as I wanted to film Pina’s eyes at work I was left with the dancers. But after all some of them had had Pina’s eyes on them for 30 years. So I realized I could still make a film about her gaze but I could only make it with these dancers and I could only make it if I adopted Pina’s very own methods as much as possible. Her own unique way of developing all of her pieces had been to ask the dancers questions. She knew what each new piece was going to be about, she knew the subject, she had a feeling for it and then she developed a catalog 30, 40, 50 questions all in the context of the subject of this piece and she asked them to her dancers. They were not allowed to answer with words but strictly and only entirely with movement and gestures and dance. Pina would look at these answers and be very demanding to be more precise and more personal and not so much of a cliché but really get the dance answer to the question as good as possible. She worked on these answers sometimes for weeks and months. So at the end of this long period of developing the piece she would have like 100 hours of material that were all answers to questions around that subject. From that she made her piece.

CC: In the film one of the dancers mentions that Pina asked him to create a movement that expresses joy and it became a dance sequence.

WW: We did the same thing. I asked the dancers questions about Pina, and about Pina’s eyes and how Pina had seen them. How she had seen things in them they didn’t know about themselves. So I asked them questions about Pina and they answered with dance. Not with improvisation as I’m not a choreographer. So I asked them specifically to answer with something that Pina had had their eyes on out of the rich treasure that some of them had from endless hours of material they’d worked on with Pina. Some of it was from former pieces, some of it was from rehearsal work, but it was all something that Pina had seen and that became the bulk of the film in all the outdoor locations. Everything that’s shot outdoors is our common efforts to describe Pina’s territory, describe who Pina was.

CC: What moved you about Pina, what was the virus that you caught and you hope documentary audiences catch?

WW: It was clear to me, but not in the beginning, my mind didn’t grasp it. It took years and it took our friendship to understand that it was her very process, the one that I just described, that had moved me so much. That I was witnessing something in each of her pieces, seeing something that I felt was not invented, was not an aesthetic art form, but was coming out of these people out of their bodies, out of their experiences and was from life and about life. It was about me just as well as it was about the person sitting next to me. It was that incredible connection to life and to emotions that had started these dances to begin with that had caught me that I feel still feel and know is the core of her work the great invention of, the revolution that Pina brought to dance. She really put dance upside down.

CC: So an experience entirely different from watching a traditional ballet like Swan Lake ...

WW: Yeah there are athletes on stage that do something that has nothing to do with them—they learn it. With Pina it was the opposite. They expressed themselves and then they learned how to do it better. Pina’s maxim was, she said it in a nutshell and it’s amazing if you consider that a choreographer says it... "I’m not interested in how my dancers move, I’m only interested in what moves them". And to see dance is something that shapes us, shapes our bodies, shapes our consciousness and that expresses it, and can talk about it so that everybody understands, that’s a whole different approach to dance.

CC: Usually people see dance in theater, why make a dance movie? How does that alter the experience?

WW: Well nothing beats a live performance , that is still the privileged way to see it, but then again I feel that seeing Pina’s work in our film is even more privileged because you can be really on stage. You can be there in a different way and the physicality on Pina’s work was never before accessible.

CC: One difference that struck me was ability to see the dancers' facial expressions. It's difficult, if at all possible, to see them in a live stage performance.

WW: Oh yeah and you feel the pain, and you hear them breathing and you’re close to them with the 3D. I mean it’s a different way for you as an audience to be there but also for these people to come to you and appear in front of you not just as cut outs. Until now we’re used to seeing a close up like a photograph. We can distance it from ourselves because we know it’s not real. A three-dimensional representation of a person in front of a camera is an altogether different thing. It has a very different presence and the body for the first time has a volume. That never happened in movies. You never saw a face as a landscape. That is why I think that 3D is the future of documentaries because it takes us into the presence of other people in ways like films never were able to.

CC: Do you consider this film in any way experimental?

WW: I don’t think it should be called experimental. Well, we didn’t have experience and we had to make lots of mistakes and learn from scratch because none of us had ever done this, but then again I also think of it you could call it quite classic in the way it is made. Well nothing like this has ever been made, but I wouldn’t call it experimental. I don’t know.

CC: But you do think 3D is a new approach that is the future of documentary ...

WW: I think it is definitely the future of the documentary genre and that form. I’m very certain. Because if you just go back 10, 15 years in time, until then all documentaries were shot on film ... then in the mid 90s there was this new tool in movies and like 3D it started with the big studios. They used digital effects, and in commercials and expensive video clips. The first time I heard the word morphing was in a Michael Jackson video. I knew with the money they did that video I could have made a movie. So digital was expensive and in my book was used to blow up the world for special effects. And before you knew it a few years later that technology single-handedly saved the documentary form. Buena Vista Social Club for example, was the very first all digital film that made it to the screen and I could not have done it on 60 mm. Today there is no documentary that is not done digitally. So I think with 3D it’s a little bit the same. It maybe got out of bed on the wrong foot. Everybody thinks it’s only made for roller coaster rides. But that is the first impression, it’s a wrong impression. 3D can be a very natural way to represent things. It doesn’t have to be effect-driven at all. It can really try to emulate what our two eyes are doing and our two eyes are not necessarily cutting everything we see every two seconds. When we don’t have things flying all over us our two eyes are two very peaceful instruments. 3D can be a very peaceful instrument.