There are no giraffes in Scandinavia. Right? Wrong. Anna Sofie Hartman opens her second feature with two of the animals looking directly into the camera, towering above a forest of evergreen firs. Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is photographer and ethnologist researching the transformation of the landscape before it is carved up by a large construction project. A major tunnel will be built to connect Denmark and Germany, and before that happens Dara scours the topography, documenting its memories contained in objects, letters, diary entries.
One couple threatened with expropriation fill their house with small collections. In the second shot of the film they sit below a small framed image of a giraffe during an interview with Dara. It presides over conversations about their imminent geographical and emotional upheaval. Giraffes never appear again, not explicitly at least. Yet, the film is punctuated by unexpected encounters only a truly globalized world could produce. Moments of incongruity give the film its unique bent. A love affair with a Polish migrant worker (Jakub Gierszał) is catalyzed by a lightning storm at sea. Rocks resurface on the field of farmer, the seem to have fallen from the sky.
In this way, the magnificent beasts tower over the film. It is perhaps what you cannot quite see at the furthest point of Hartmann’s elaborate mise-en-abyme. Following Giraffe‘s Locarno premiere, I spoke to the director on the joy of happenstance. And yes, we were in the company of a giraffe: The tattoo on the inside of her wrist.
NOTEBOOK: Can you explain the interest in the tunnel and why you wanted to create a drama about a transnational construction project instead of something local?
ANNA SOFIE HARTMANN: The tunnel project is setting up the frame to tell a local story, but at the same time it’s a microcosmos of globalization. It is being built so that goods can be transported quickly between Gothenburg and Hamburg. I thought it was interesting that you have this local area where there is nowhere in the world that is not affected by globalization.
NOTEBOOK: The setting is your parents’ neighborhood. How did it feel to return there when researching the film?
HARTMANN: I moved away from the small town I come from further west on the island when I was eighteen, so returning I got to know it in a very different way. I got to know more about people I’d never met before—farmers, migrant workers. It was a way of opening up the world but also meeting my homeland in a way I hadn’t before.
NOTEBOOK: Is reflected in Dara’s character? It’s her exploration that directs the film.
HARTMANN: I knew that I wanted a main character that takes us by the hand. She’s not facing us, she’s walking a little bit in front of us. In that sense she’s a guide. But yeah, the roles of an ethnologist and documentary filmmaker are not so different, she is taking us to meet all these people.
NOTEBOOK: Dara’s ethnographic work involves huge amounts of archival resources. The documents and diaries she finds are read aloud in a voiceover. Is the material truly archival or did you produce it yourself?
HARTMANN: What’s read out in the film I produced myself, but in the research I also found diaries and images. I had the feeling that if I start taking real diaries, I have a responsibility to be true to that material because there’s a person behind it. What she’s doing in the film, reading a private diary is crossing a boundary. So that is all fiction, but that contrasts to the objects [Dara and her team] photograph. I like that we surround ourselves with objects. Objects have memories to them, they belong to someone who touches them. They are the things that survive us. They are silent and secret. My grandmother died a few years ago, I still have the wooden spoon she cooked with.
NOTEBOOK: Dara dwells in the past, among ghosts. This experience of the past is rocked by her encounter with a younger man, played by Jakub Gierszał. Can you speak about the process of developing his character?
HARTMANN: The experience of transience can be very depressing, the feeling that after we die there’ll be nothing left. I asked myself, what is the opposite of that? A lot of things, but I specifically had this interest in the Polish workers and having these two characters meet seem very natural. They aren’t rooted anywhere, you’re in one place, you meet and touch each other and then you’re gone again. It was also a way of joining separate threads in the narrative and the bigger theme of transience. Their relationship is very short and intense before it disappears.
NOTEBOOK: The film is set near the ocean, and Maren Eggert plays a worker on a cruise ship who makes a comment about how couples on the ship are going to separate. I thought something interesting happens when we hear this character’s voiceover. Perhaps she sees something we can’t. Her voiceover contrasts with Dara’s. Maybe it’s necessary to have this other voice, otherwise we are too far in Dara’s imagination or desires. Why did you cast Maren?
HARTMANN: I know her from much German cinema. I think she brings this sense of calm to that character. She’s observing everything and when she starts speaking she’s like a storyteller. She’s in that place where people are moving back and forth. Where people are passing through. And they’re recording stories. I liked having a third character there to open up a new form of storytelling.
NOTEBOOK: We’re tunneled into the image through entrances, thresholds, windows, and doorways. It adds another dimension to the film: it’s not linear but rather kind of lateral. I wondered if you could speak about your visual approach.
HARTMANN: I am very interested in how bodies related to space or move through space. We talked a lot during the shoot about how close we would get to Dara. In the hotel room there’s a threshold and then a sort of ante-room. Across this, things come and go. We spoke a lot about how to put a space together but also how fragment it. The world goes on outside of the frame.
NOTEBOOK: One of my favorite moments in the film when a farmer that Dara is interviewing finds these rocks in his field and tells her different mysterious theories of how the rocks got there, perhaps because the rotation of the earth pushes them out of the ground. But it’s just a potato field with rocks in it, what is going on there?
HARTMANN: [laughs] Ah, it was so great because the scene was meant to be so different. We had met him through someone who knew someone who knew someone. It’s a very small piece of information but it’s so brilliant that we just had to have this story in the film. He told us these theories about the rocks. They’re fascinating. His farm is so huge he has to spent three weeks getting rid of these rocks.
NOTEBOOK: It’s also related to the archaeological side of Dara’s work: what comes from the earth and what goes back into the earth.
HARTMANN: Yeah, there were all these small connections everywhere and I like that there are these small jumps of connections.
NOTEBOOK: What were your “stones”? What were your unexpected discoveries, things that fell from the sky or came out of the earth?
HARTMANN: Well, the stones story [laughs], yeah, but also meeting all these people. Filmmaking is such a long process that the time spent making it is so important. They are such incredibly generous people, they’re, they’re…
HARTMANN: Yeah, joyful. Even though I lived in a small town I had never known a farmer before. And getting to know him we spent several afternoons together. Or the elderly people, or the Polish guys—they’re all so great. So fun. That was really, really nice to go back to where I come from and meet people that I had no common grounds or no common world with before.