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“I want to destroy the boundaries between documentary and fiction”

— Jonas Erler

interview by Verena Bracher

Jonas Erler

At the 33rd FILMFEST DRESDEN, the initiative ‘Connecting Talents’ made young filmmakers from Germany and the Visegrád states come together to exchange ideas, present their work, find inspiration and build up a network. Filmmaker Jonas Erler from Chemnitz has taken an active part in this exchange. Having produced various short films in partnership with Marian Röder and as part of the Asymmtry Collective, he presented their film project ‘Essentiel – A Portrait’ at the festival’s Open Film Night.

‘Essentiel’ is a portrait about Alexandre Dujardin, a Berlin Tattoo artist who works under the name of Densha Tattoo and specialises in hand poke tattoos. After the screening, Erler talked about the experience of working on a ‘memory project’, the portrait as an artistic category, and about crossing the line between fiction and documentary.

Verena Bracher : This film originated as a ‘memory project’ for the tattoo artist Densha Tattoo. How did you become a part of this?
JE: A friend of mine got a tattoo by Densha Tattoo. He told her that he is going back to France and would like to somehow preserve his time in Berlin, just like in a time capsule. It seemed natural to record this visually — cinematically or photographically. This friend then approached me and we interviewed him. In terms of our philosophy of producing art, we just fell in love with each other. It was a great compliment for us that he chose us.

VB: So, this was sort of a commissioned work for Densha Tattoo. How did that influence what you were able to capture in terms of images?
JE: It didn't really influence the film at all. It was the backdrop somehow, and we had the goal that hopefully, the film would be a nice memento for him. But that did not influence the way we told it or how we orchestrated the pictures. He didn't have any demands, except for a few good photos. We took a lot of photos, and since we have the background of filmmaking, we used that. He was really moved and touched because the film naturally preserved and captured his experience of life in Berlin, and of being an artist there.

VB: In the beginning, how clear was it to you which structure you wanted the film to have?
JE: That's what the craft of editing entails, that you can completely rethink things in the montage. The directing and the editing have a very strong influence on the way I deal with the narrative. For example, this structure in chapters, we only added that in the edit. But, of course, we realised during the shoot that when we create a portrait like this, we want to learn various key facts about Densha Tattoo and his craftsmanship in the interview. And of course, we also wanted to document the processes of his work. It made sense to take such an episodic narrative approach and to use that as a stylistic device.

VB: You used the keyword ‘portrait' to label your film, which isn't an established category or genre in filmmaking.
JE: I draw quite a lot of inspiration from the photographic portrait. I find it very exciting visually, or in terms of content, because you can somehow get very directly in touch with an individual, for example, through a photograph or painting. We wanted to do that in the film as well. Actually, documentary portraits rarely exist as a film genre, but we explicitly created it that way.

VB: You also added various elements, which one would not typically allocate to documentaries. For example, an animated section that seemed much more experimental. Do you see your film as genre-fluid?
JE: These stylistic devices come from the passion for working with innovative means. We come from an experimental direction, and that's where the love for graphic elements came from. I think it's good to work genre-fluid. For me, it's this boundary between documentary and fiction that's very interesting. I want to destroy it, so to speak. A lot of staged material often has a documentary aspect to it. Everyone has to find their own truth there. Densha Tattoo himself also is an enactment of a personality. For example, we then wrote 'Alexandre Dujardin is Densha Tattoo' in the credits, making it seem like it's an actor, which he is not.

This text was developed within the Talking Shorts Film Criticism Workshop during FILMFEST DRESDEN in July 2021, with the kind support of International Visegrad Fund, Deutsch-Tschechischer Zukunftsfonds and Landesdirektion Sachsen.