‘An Impossible Project’: Hear from the moving documentary’s director
The death of Polaroid seemed imminent at the turn of the 21st century. But one determined man refused to see analog film die out for good. Florian “Doc” Kaps will go down in history for forming The Impossible Project, which became the Polaroid we know today.
An Impossible Project, produced & directed by Jens Meurer, explores Doc’s mission to save the analog film we all know and love. While we know how the story ends (Polaroid is still around isn’t it?), that doesn’t make the documentary any less moving. Meurer has brought Doc’s story to life in such a unique way you can’t help but cheer every step of the way.
We spoke with Meurer about his filmmaking career and what drew him to work on An Impossible Project. You can read our entire interview with the director/producer below.
Tell us about your history in filmmaking. How did you start your journey?
It really began with my grandfather being a Super 8mm aficionado: Our Christmas’ always took place in blinding movie brightness, when he turned on the glaring Klieg lights just as the family was launching into Silent Night around the German Christmas tree.
I shot my first ‘documentary’ when I was 14 in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa. On Super 8mm – and later used the material in a feature documentary Egoli – My South African Home Movie.
My actual start came when I decided at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism not to become a journalist, but a filmmaker. My first film – made with the Red Dot Team – was called Harlem – A Dream Deferred.
And the next one – already working with my long-term partner Bernd Fischer (Babylon Berlin) – took me to the Soviet Union for four years – shooting a documentary series on 35mm (because they couldn’t afford Betacam).
Who were your biggest filmmaking influences growing up?
Honestly? Alan Parker – Midnight Express and especially Fame. Also Mel Brooks – The Producers. In non-fiction German documentary guru Eberhard Fechner.
You’ve helmed documentaries in South Africa, Israel, America, and the Soviet Union. How much does your approach change depending on the subject?
My films are people-related, so there is always the process of getting into their lives, winning trust, reading them. Beyond that, it’s more story- than approach driven. I do like that my films are ‘warm’ human films, with humour, even with ‘difficult’ subjects such as civil rights (Black Panther doc Public Enemy) or racism (Jeckes – German Jews in Israel).
What initially drew you to An Impossible Project, Florian “Doc” Kaps and his mission to preserve Polaroid?
It wasn’t that I was a Polaroid-fanatic or similar.
I was drawn to Doc’s quixotic mindset, of not simply giving up in the face of the digital deluge of the last 20 years. Of standing up for what you believe in – against all odds. Just because you believe it is the right thing to do. In this case the cultural and political value of ‘analog’ technologies and activities. And to do it all with a great, unrelenting sense of cheeky humour.
I found that very inspiring and actually political. I wanted to broadcast that sense of possibility Doc exudes even if his projects at first sight seem rather impossible. Such as a Viennese spider-eye biologist setting out to save that American icon Polaroid. Ok, sounds impossible at second sight too! But they did it (he wasn’t alone, of course)….
The doc delves into the analog world and the importance of preserving Polaroid. Did you have preconceived notions about analog vs digital prior to filming?
Well, it’s important to say that I’m not a luddite. Of course, I grew-up with and learnt working on classic film, all the way to editing on a Steenbeck. But I also produced the first digital film that really left a mark – Russian Ark by Alexander Sokurov, which is the first ever single shot film with no editing.
That movie could only be done digitally because it is an 86 minute long entirely uninterrupted shot which simply could not be on chemical film. Twenty years ago, when it was conceived, this really took an open mind and excitement about digital possibilities.
2013, when I started An Impossible Project, it had become a different world. Real film was being left for dead, as if digital were the second coming. And that’s something that didn’t make sense to me: Why give up on such a beautiful, tactile, tried-and-tested art form? Just because digital is a bit cheaper (at first sight)?
So, in a way, my documentary is kind-of ‘method filmmaking’, mirroring my protagonist’s story by putting it to the test, whether real film documentaries were still possible. And it was my partners at Arri who convinced me to shoot on 35mm rather than classic Super 16mm – not because that is better than digital, but because it is its own inimitable thing.
Don’t get me started – I could go on about this …. I found working on film very liberating.
Did working alongside Kaps change your perspective on the subject?
Well, for me it was never about the analog technology as such. After all I use digital possibilities all the time, as we all do. But Doc (and many of the people I met through him) was inspirational, showing me (by example) that it’s about protecting choices.
It’s great – and healthy! – that we can still listen to music on vinyl or read printed books, but only because some people stood up for such technologies and others for using them. Imagine 100% of the world were Facebook and Google!
Can you tell us about working with Kaps and sharing in his journey?
Crazy. Unpredictable. Inspiring. Those are words that come to mind. Never boring, of course. I suspect it might be easier following Doc as an observer than actually working with him! Stubborn is putting it mildly. He will not let go. But he is driven by creating good, and we need more such people
Do you have a focused plan on a documentary shoot or do you prefer to leave room for spontaneity/unexpected developments?
Interesting question. Shooting on 35mm of course requires more planning, the equipment is bigger, as is the crew, the stock limited, the process somewhat more convoluted. That impacts on the structure and spontaneity.
But it’s a choice! I chose to see it as an advantage and to use the 35mm approach as a tool to do the opposite of what you’d expect (ie. unwieldy, static, cumbersome), and really get into people’s lives, say by showing them the effort we are making on their behalf.
For example, the only way we got to film inside Facebook just at the time the shit was hitting their fan, was because we were on 35mm. What happened then was totally spontaneous.
As most of the Impossible/Polaroid story was unfolding, we did not know what to expect. Most of the time we feared that their project would go horribly (but valiantly) wrong. I did not foresee that a very young person, Oskar Smolokowski, would take over and be the one to actually bring back Polaroid itself.
You’ve produced acclaimed films like Russian Ark and The Last Station. Has your experience on these sets changed your directing style at all?
Directing a documentary is a very different kettle of fish to producing a fiction film, no matter what size. What I love on both is the sheer artisanal procedure of making a ‘motion picture’, which to my mind is much enhanced by working with physical film.
They way departments have to interact, how real life always interferes, one person’s idea can change the course of the entire juggernaut – pure magic. Much of Impossible is observational, spontaneous, but it’s a theatrical documentary and I do believe such a film can also have larger set-pieces, such as Sascha Peres’ 40-piece jazz orchestra performing our films’ actual score live, as we are filming the very score.
How much input do you give when you’re producing? Do you prefer to be hands-on with production or do you leave creative choices to the director?
I love the team work which inevitably goes into making a film. It’s a privilege for Jens the producer to be able to back someone else’s vision as a director. To be honest, actually easier than carrying the whole load oneself.
Between writing, directing, and producing, which role do you enjoy most?
Are you asking which is my favourite child? Or are you referring to my three-way schizophrenia? Fortunately, in the world of documentaries, they are three sides of the same coin.
Ultimately it’s all about finding and implementing the vision. And, in reality, not so much a question of ‘favourite’, but a question of which fire to put out first – the one started by the writer, or the one lit by the director. Usually it’s the producer who drives the fire engine. All in aid of telling a story, of course.
Do you feel you need to have a personal connection to the subject of your films?
Good question. I dream sometimes of working on a challenging project with no personal connection. It seems it would be so much easier… But it hasn’t happened yet. And in hindsight that’s a good thing. Because whether a film is ‘successful’ or not, once it’s out in the world, for me it is the personal connection that is lasting reason for making films.
As a great German producer once said: “There are only two good moments in filmmaking – the moment you start with an idea and one years after the premiere, when all is dusted and one. The time in between is just painful compromise ;-)
What is the core theme you want audiences to take away from An Impossible Project?
You have a choice! Impossible doesn’t look like a political film at first sight, but I believe the knock-on effects of the digital world we have made for ourselves, have profound consequences on our happiness and freedoms.
We all feel this, but it’s hard to escape from the “tyranny of convenience”. My film isn’t preaching that “analog” is better, but it does make the case for keeping alive an analog mindset, of slowing down, thinking for yourself, using all five senses. A simple remedy against digital overload. That’s super topical and necessary. The people who saved Polaroid are keeping options and a choice alive – and that’s deeply political.
You’ve also worked on narrative films – do you enjoy one medium over the other or what do you find to be their unique challenges
I mainly produced narrative films, and directed documentaries. I like the control of the narrative process, with a script and a film set. Magic. But I love the lack of control of non-fiction filmmaking, with the surprises and passion that real people will bring to a true story.
Real life will always outperform fiction. In the case of An Impossible Project that was the improbable visit to Facebook headquarters and their Analog Research Lab.
Do you find it difficult to juggle producing and directing duties on the same film?
Yes. It’s Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Jekyll and Hyde, love and hate – all in one project.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
Seaside Special is my new film, a documentary tragi-comedy, an homage to England’s last End-of-the-Pier Variety show during the year that Brexit came upon Britain. Imagine Martin Parr, Ken Loach and Monty Python teaming up to do a documentary. Shot on glorious Super 16mm film.
What do you consider to be your greatest professional success?
I’m hopefully working my way up to it.
Having kept a company (sort of) going for 29 years must count for something; Russian Ark was a success, at least that it got made in the first place. And I’m fond of an experimental film documentary I made for the Opening Night of an opera festival in Munich, projected onto the opera stage on 16mm, Kraftwerk der Leidenschaft.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I’ve had – and still have a great mentor – in famed film executive Daniel Battsek. Mentoring is highly recommended. Don’t think about it too much, you can always reach out to people you find interesting, just write them a letter (not email), asking for ten minutes. Do some research on their work first, though.
What advice do you have for aspiring producers/documentarians?
Documentary shorts are a fascinating medium. Just start. But have no illusions, it’s like ballet, only do it if you really have to. Ok, it’s not completely like ballet, you can make documentaries until you’re 100.
What is the one documentary you wish you had directed?
Only one? Koyaanisqatsi? A Brief History Of Time? Playtime – ooops, that’s not a documentary but Jacques Tati said it all. My Doc is his M. Hulot, just thirty years later and in real life.