One day, one of you doesn't come home.
The 727 Days Without Karamo is a documentary about bi-national couples in Austria, and the cruel aspects of immigration that some of them have to endure while at the mercy of the government.
I am an American married to a Norwegian. While the laws in Norway are nowhere near as strict as they are in Austria, we had to jump through many a paperwork hoop in order to get settled here. And as the immigrant partner, learning a new language, culture shock, periods of illness, and all the other hidden difficulties of moving abroad made the adjustment process beyond tough for me. I can't imagine what it must be like for the people in this film.
The laws around bi-national marriages and immigration in Austria are reasonable, in theory. Sure, any government would want to prevent false marriages that cover up illegal activity. And yes, one should have some amount of money to care for themselves when starting out in a new place. But in practice, enforcing these laws is excessive. Two examples: random house checks that include looking through clean and used laundry, and high expectations on monthly income, which cannot fall below the margin in any way. Otherwise, the immigrant partner is deported immediately, often without prior notice. All this makes the bi-national couple feel an incredible amount of psychological and personal strain. They are made to feel like criminals, up against a system that wants them to fail. Add to that the implicit racism involved, and you're getting the picture. It's absolutely astonishing.
Not every single story in this film is about catastrophe. But it is no small feat to bring stories like the ones in 727 to light and make people care, regardless of their familiarity with the situation. This is a magical, powerful documentary that is poised to make some big changes. I was very happy to have a conversation with Anja Salomonowitz on the making of the film.
CR: How did this project come together? Are the people in the film actors or are they telling their own stories?
AS: I was working with Ehe Ohne Grenzen, a kind of NGO in Vienna, where Angela Magenheimer is the head. [Angela is also the woman who explains some of the laws and stories in voice-over in the clips above and some other parts of the film.] At EOG, people can learn more about getting married in Austria, how the paperwork works, and can get some general guidance on how to navigate this crazy process. Angela works there once a week, and people can meet with her to discuss their situations and ask questions in more detail. She works very closely with them. I told her my idea to make this film, and it was clear that it was not like a TV-style documentary, that it would be very well-researched and told from the point of view of the people involved. She really loved it and wanted to help me, so I asked her if she would ask the people she worked with if they wanted to participate in the research interviews.
These interviews were so hard because the people are very brave but went through so much, and it was very hard for them to understand how or why they had to struggle so hard to work with a government that seemed to be working against them. There are families who have been torn apart -- for example, one woman talked about how her husband had gotten deported right as she was two months away from giving birth to their child! Everyone really wanted to tell their stories and tell the world about their situation. Out of the initial group of interviews I invited some of them to be part of the film. The interesting thing about the interviews was that people talked about very personal things, but some things also overlapped. Many thought everything was tough before marriage but that afterward that everything would be better but this was not the case. So the idea to do the film with many different people in it was to show that these things can happen to anyone, and to show how the law destroys some of these lives and love stories. Everyone in the film tells their own stories and in their own words. All the rooms are from their own flats, almost all their clothes are their own. Many people ask if the film is completely "real", since most are not used to a documentary on this topic made with special attention on the aesthetics, lighting, and colors.
CR: What did the participants think when they saw themselves on the big screen?
AS: I showed it to the participants before anyone else of course, to make sure that it was okay for them. It was interesting because one of them said you have to show it to the immigration authorities, and to this group and this group. So they really wanted to get the film out into the world, for people to see their situations and they loved it. They were very pleased.
CR: Did you get any commentary or reactions from the Austrian government because of the film?
AS: Not yet, it's coming out in the autumn. We want to release it together with events, discussions and forums to be able to talk to the public so that the movie is not just alone in the cinema, but that it functions as a part of a larger subject, which is the law and the lives of the people in the film, and others who have to go through the process.
CR: Did you ever find out how everyone's stories turned out in the end?
AS: The man deported from the wedding was a story I found out about through Angela, so she probably knows how it turned out in the end. But I do keep in touch with the other participants. I keep them up to date with the film and we've developed a good relationship, so they usually keep me up to date with their cases. In the case with the woman married to Karamo, her husband is still gone. There is another woman featured at home talking with her two children, whose husband was also deported, and her husband has been allowed to come back again.
CR: It's so sad that all this just keeps happening. It would be one thing if the laws were somewhat recent and there was a trial and error process that was a bit more conscious or responsible, but the whole thing seems built on a massive invasion of privacy.
AS: The government says it is to prevent fake marriages and so on. But I really wanted to show how the rules affect the whole picture of these people's lives, beyond their marriage. Because the government does not take into account what the rules do to people. And you never know who is going through this, you know, your neighbor could be going through it for example. So it's important for people to know what is going on.
CR: Your work is generally known for its aesthetics and how you work with certain colors for certain moods, and the music also works to this effect. In 727, the music plays a role in the film itself, because the sounds of people's jobs in the film become repetitive in the soundtrack. This is something really interesting, especially because when you take a job as the immigrant partner it's no longer just a job, but it is essentially what is keeping you in the country in order to be with the person you love. How did you go about creating the sound design?
AS: Bernhard Fleischmann is an electronic musician here in Vienna, and I love his work. He did the music while we edited, and then during the final cut he matched it to the different scenes. The sound design was done by Veronika Hlawatsch, who studied with me in film school. The idea was to use the sounds to strengthen or reinforce the pressure coming from the laws in the person's daily life. So for example, the sewing machine is sampled and repeated while Mario is talking about the language-learning process, to show the rhythm of the system. It's like a metaphor for the unending process of immigration, language, money, looking for work, and so on. It's the hammer that wakes you up every morning.
CR: In this film and in your others, like It Happened Just Before and You Will Never Understand This, you often make use of voice-over or off-camera narrative. Why?
AS: For 727 I wanted everyone in the film to speak with "one tongue" so to speak, that's why some of the voices are whispered, sometimes they are normal, but in the end the voices don't always need to be attached to the images or the person speaking. They are one voice talking about one topic, one system that is hurting or destroying their lives. This was the only way to really discuss an ephemeral system without actually filming it -- because of course, you can't film the system itself. It all comes together as a warm-hearted portrait of these people, all of whom I liked very much and who were brave enough to do the movie. The voices were also a way to carry the blame away from the people, in a way, to show how it can happen to many different people at any time, and it's no one's fault. There isn't just one person or family telling the story and essentially "carrying" the problem/film on their shoulders.
CR: What other projects do you have coming up?
AS: I have started two new projects simultaneously, in part out of hope that at least one of them will turn into something solid [laughs]. There's one film called Play With Me, about young families and the raising of their children. It focuses on how much the man/husband does as opposed to the woman. How they share responsibilities. It is a very personal and emotional look into their lives, and it also looks at the legal standpoint -- how much is the husband/man legally expected to be involved in the upbringing of the children. The idea comes from my own life right now and people I know. I have two young children and this is a conversational point that comes up a lot among parents when I go over to the daycare. The other film is a fiction film about a young Jewish woman who loses an arm in a car accident. I started learning about and making film in Vienna and Berlin. I've always liked watching films, and believe in the two realities that it covers -- the one you're living and the one you're dreaming. I love telling the story from between these two places.
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For more on the film, visit 727days.com. For more on Anja and her work, visit her webpage. And don't miss this interview with Anja and Karin Schiefer for more details on the initial development and work to make the film.
My thanks again to Anja!