Olanda

Bernd Schoch
2019

08.02.2019 19:30 Eng. subtitles CinemaxX 4
10.02.2019 12:30 Eng. subtitles CineStar 8
14.02.2019 17:30 Eng. subtitles Kino Arsenal 1
16.02.2019 19:30 Eng. subtitles CinemaxX 4

154 min. Romanian.

A rampant mycelium. A starry sky above Romania’s Carpathian mountains. These first two images define the dimensions of Olanda: Details and fine structures on the one hand, constellations and the vast whole on the other. The film revolves around a seasonal product of the local area – the mushroom – and mainly stays with those who collect it, with the humans to whom it comes closest, on the forest paths, in tents, on car journeys and in conversation. From here, it keeps on branching out like so many rhizomes, following each new pathway, all of which relate to money: to local and international traders, to an improvised shoe market in a clearing, to gambling among colleagues. The film narrates these industrial cycles by taking on a mushroom-like structure itself, without ever losing its theoretical centre along the way. This is not only an analysis of economic structures, but the sensual document of the rhythm of daily life in the forest as experienced by the mushroom collectors, the first link in the supply chain. In the cinema, it becomes an audiovisual mushroom trip into the magical world of the Carpathians. (Alejandro Bachmann)

Bernd Schoch was born in Ettlingen, near Karlsruhe, in 1971. From 2000 to 2007, he studied media art at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design. From 2008 to 2016, he was an artistic assistant at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg. Since 2008, Bernd Schoch has been a member of the collective Dokumentarfilmwoche Hamburg (Documentary Film Week Hamburg). He lives and works as a filmmaker in Hamburg.

Conversation with Bernd Schoch: “The mushroom is much more than a profane economic commodity”

Alejandro Bachmann: The title of your new film, OLANDA, appears only very late and as a surprise, in the middle of a scene that condenses a level of thought which is connected with the mushroom: a series of surreally shifted shots, accompanied by synthesizer music by Pete Kember, brings together rather associative images and motifs, creating the impression of intoxication, of a trip. Was this element one of the original starting points for the film’s preoccupation with mushrooms, mushroom hunting and the economic cycle?

Bernd Schoch: It all started with an enigmatic picture. In 2012, I took a round trip with my family on the Transalpina road and, after a long, uneventful stretch through the forests of the Carpathians, we arrived at this intersection in Obârşia Lotrului. From my car, I saw people who were cleaning tonnes of porcini mushrooms that were piled high on tarpaulins on the ground, then transferring them into baskets and wooden crates. Then I also discovered the tents and homemade dwellings at the side of the road. We parked our car a hundred meters farther on to take a look and understand what was going on. 
Our expanded gaze, no longer limited by the car window, shifted from the obvious, hectic market activity to its margins, where we saw many more tents, wooden constructions, campfires, and people grouped around them. There were children playing and laundry was hung up to dry on lines stretched between trees. There was a brook nearby. The whole forest seemed to have transformed into a temporary camping ground. We came to this place precisely at the moment when a romantic-seeming camping site at a tourism destination revealed itself in its economic necessity. This ambiguous scene did not let go of me. The intoxicating aspect that you describe came later, through further dealings with the mushroom in the film. 
I grew up in the Black Forest and know the mushroom as a sought-after treasure from my own experience. As a child, I sought the edible mushrooms that are also identifiable by a layperson; psychoactive mushrooms containing psilocybin came later. During this time, the second half of the 1980s, I listened to a lot of psychedelic music, mostly from England. My Bloody Valentine, Loop and especially Spacemen 3. Psilocybin mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms, work wonderfully with this music. That really expanded my horizon and perception. I also wanted to have this aspect of the mushroom in the film, in addition to the fact that the mushroom is much more than a profane economic commodity – even though nothing seems to be outside the sphere of capitalist utilisation and thus this drug is also a trade good – and that the mushroom has always been used as an intoxicant throughout human history. 
In North Africa, late Stone Age rock paintings were found in which figures with mushroom-shaped heads can already be recognised; these are interpreted as mushroom spirits or people in mushroom-induced ecstasy. The Aztecs used psilocybin mushrooms to contact the ‘supernatural’ and their ancestors and gods, or to launch ritual celebrations etc. Just the fact that, from a taxonomical perspective, mushrooms have their own kingdom, between plants and animals, fascinates me. And if you use the mushrooms’ mycelial structure as a narrative scaffolding, then the mushroom’s intoxicating dimension is a part of it. 
As for Drone by Pete Kember (aka Sonic Boom, formerly a member of Spacemen 3 – Ed.), in addition to its psychedelic quality, there is also another intersection with the work of mushroom hunters: the repetitious pattern. The constant repetitions in the work processes, the forms and patterns of the forest floor on which they gaze without interruption, and the shape of the mushrooms follow the hunters even in their dreams. In conversations, many of them told me that they dreamed of mushrooms and certain green and brown shades.

But this intoxication, or at least the shift in sensory perception, shapes the whole film, does it not? The first images – getting up in the night, the fire-red spots in the middle of the nocturnal black, the trudging through the forest with its sometimes extreme slopes, the resulting dizziness, then later a drive with the camera on the truck bed, where we see the men and in the background the huge tops of the trees against the sky – already have something surreal about them, something uncanny, and they show a perception of the world that is sensual, delirious and at the same time very clear and concentrated.

The point is a sensual-physical transmission of experience into the movie theatre. The work of the mushroom gatherers is very strenuous and also dangerous. Less because of the many bears, which some have encountered, than because of the difficult terrain. It is easy to break a bone, and the closest hospital is in Petroșani, 50 kilometres of rough road away. All the nocturnal images with the flashlights and the campfires may have a slightly surreal effect on us. For the people who live there, it is their accustomed everyday life and a condition they have to accept. But that there is so much such footage has to do with the visibility of the mushroom, that is, with the fact that we can only see a fraction of it, namely the fruit body. The rest, the many hyphae that form the mycelium, remains hidden from us. For us, transposing these thoughts into images meant that we wanted to work with voice-overs and with the darkness of the night. In itself, gathering mushrooms, roaming through the forest in search of these scattered gold coins, has something of ‘not seeing the forest for the trees’ – a figure of speech that I associate with sensory overload. In terms of camera technique, this could be represented through extended, shallow focus tracking shots in which the camera for the most part followed the protagonists through the forest, staying in close proximity and capturing them in a wide angle.

This kind of camerawork has something extremely involving about it. The way the background moves around the people sometimes disturbed me. The space seems constantly present, surrounding everything and everyone, and is itself like a network or mycelium that never permits complete orientation. The film integrates another network into this physically perceptible network: that of the mushroom trade and the interconnections of the money tied to it.

Yes, money. I have seldom been anywhere where it was discussed this much. For people who have none, it is a constant topic. You seldom hear other people talk about it. And that is also why I felt that this place, Obârşia Lotrului, was predestined as a stage for a cinematic treatise on our neoliberal present.
Today, people speak of the Anthropocene Era: there is nowhere on Earth that is not thoroughly shaped by human beings. And along with humans comes this broken capitalist system with its relations of class and exploitation. What we see in Obârşia Lotrului is tonnes of forest product that has been snatched from so-called nature – rather, it is understood as a storehouse of raw materials – and wandering banknotes that come together in thick bundles in the hands of a few. Accumulation begins directly on site, where middlemen, called collectoris, sell to other middlemen even before the goods land in the mushroom factories where they are cheaply processed for the Western European market. These alienated goods then land on our plates for a price many times higher than the one the hardworking gatherers get for them. Furthermore, the system on site is very complex, due to the large number of players and interests. This is alluded to several times in the film. 
Along with the mushroom economy, there is tourism and above all the timber industry. The ownership relations on site are already opaque and a problem for the gatherers, who must struggle anew each year for a spot where they can pitch their tent. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, an American anthropologist, wrote a very good book about the matsutake mushroom whose subtitle is already telling: ‘On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins’. This survival as sole valid narrative corresponds to the fact that most people can more easily imagine the world ending with a meteor collision than the creation of a different societal system not based on the exploitation of resources. 
Here, the mushroom may offer an alternative narrative of cooperation and interaction, of symbiosis in the form of mycorrhiza, which ties the porcino mushroom to certain species of trees to exchange nutrients. Transposed to film, this means establishing what is systematic about the system through a certain interchangeability of the actors and, at the same time, despite all the difficulties that become visible and the gatherers’ rough tones of voice, to make their loving, cooperative and helpful dealings palpable. 
But this film also needed an aspect of self-empowerment among the gatherers. When it is not mushroom season, many of them work as alienated seasonal workers in Western Europe. Only during mushroom season do they have a certain degree of control over their labour power, over how much and how long they work and to whom they sell the collected goods at what price. Ultimately, we have to reflect on filmmaking from the point of view of money and exploitation. For me, that means making myself available, offering myself, acting cooperatively and in solidarity, and paying people as well as possible.

There is a very significant cut in the film. We see an excited gatherer with a can of beer, presumably at the end of a day in the forest. He reproaches the middleman for not offering price security, and the middleman answers by blaming the consumer and his unwillingness to pay more than a certain price. Then the film cuts to two axes, one of which is getting sharpened. Class relations or class struggle? And how is your solidarity expressed?

Yes, the cut is striking and consciously so. That is where the improvisation, which I so value in documentary work, ends. That is where we can show where we stand by using a different cinematic device: the cut. The knives have been sharpened. Even if that is more wish fulfilment than fact. Although, I was told that a few years ago the gatherers actually did rise up against the middlemen. The gatherers joined together and beat up the collectoris for wanting to exert shameless downward pressure on the prices. For me, the axe here also functions as a kind of revenge fantasy. On the other hand, the previous scene shows that the middlemen are of course also subject to certain conditions and constraints, that they are but small cogs in the big money machine.
During the three months we spent on site, our role kept changing. At first, the gatherers mistrusted us, even though a year earlier I had already spent three weeks researching and making contacts. We were there long enough for them to get to know us better. We went into the forest with them and in the evenings we ate and drank together around the fire. For a while, my 10-year-old son and I stayed with them in one of the camps. But because of our technical equipment – the batteries had to be constantly charged etc. – we also rented a room in a guesthouse in the valley. At any rate, the people saw that our work demanded physical and psychological effort from us. At first, they still laughed when we said we wanted to film them while they gathered mushrooms in the forest: ‘You won’t endure it, you’ll get lost or hamper us in our work!’ 
When they realised that we were serious about the film and stuck to it, gradually we gained their respect. Interesting was the moment when our camera, originally a machine for recording, became a means of defence. The gatherers were frequently repressed and sometimes attacked by the police, the foresters, or the owners of the forest, who wanted them to dissolve their camps. When the gatherers saw that the presence of our camera meant that these people no longer showed up, they made use of it. We were happy to allow ourselves to be used for this purpose.

All these dimensions of OLANDA are supplemented by the voice of a Romanian-speaking woman who has something omniscient about her: she reports on the history of the Carpathians, but also sometimes talks about the gatherers from the perspective of the mushrooms. Who is really speaking here?

Here I really ought to bring in André Siegers, who wrote much of the texts. On a purely practical level, there was an understanding that the complex situation on site demanded an expanded viewpoint. Whereas the visual part of the film moves more on a horizontal plane, the voice-over texts move vertically, sometimes as deep drilling, sometimes as a view from outer space, whence we can think in other temporal dimensions. One idea was to make the location of this voice ambiguous, so that the viewer cannot always be certain who is speaking. Quite practically, however, it was about giving a form to the experiences and to the stored knowledge that enrich the film and direct the gaze. From the beginning, we looked for an amateur speaker who came from this region. It was a lot of fun and it was fascinating to discover how Ileana Mănicea, whom we ended up choosing, appropriated these rather quirky texts. That was another one of those moments when I thought that the people must think we are nuts. But that was not the case. They were perfectly able to get something out of the texts.

(Interview: Alejandro Bachmann, January 2019)

Production Karsten Krause, Frank Scheuffele. Production company Fünferfilm (Hamburg, Germany). Director Bernd Schoch. Screenplay André Siegers. Cinematography Simon Quack. Editing Bernd Schoch. Music Thomas Weber. Sound design Roman Vehlken. Sound Orest Skakun. With Marian Mâruntelu, Mihaela Mâruntelu, Sorin Tânarie, Ileana Manicea, Victor Prodescu, Marius Prodescu, Adriana Prodescu, David Remus.

Premiere February 08, 2019, Forum

Films

2004: Nachtwache, 15. September (musik video, Kammerflimmer Kollektief). 2005: Slide Guitar Ride (80 min.). 2006: Onset/Offset (77 min.). 2007: Casinoul Poporuliu (Mixed Media Installation, with Heiko Sievers), Brand New World – Stufe 1 (with Holger Lauinger). 2011: Aber das Wort Hund bellt ja nicht (48 min.). 2014: Kurze Ecke (95 min.). 2015: Zurück zum Beton (Version) (musik video, Kammerflimmer Kollektief). 2018: Action 1 Lucid, Imperial Beach (musik video, Kammerflimmer Kollektief), Vor der Sperre (83 min.). 2019: Olanda.

Photo: © Fünferfilm