Valerie Blankenbyl is an Austrian documentarian. He previously directed the feature documentaries “I Am Jesus” and “A Mother’s Dream”.
“The Bubble” begins screening at the DOC NYC Film Festival 2021 on November 12th. The festival runs from 10 to 28 November.
W&H: Describe the film in your own words.
VB: “The Bubble” is a film about the largest retirement community in the world and the people who live in and around it.
It is a film about how to live and grow old in a world that neither accepts nor respects age. This creates spaces that are very separate from each other in many different ways, influencing the society, nature and culture of entire communities.
W&H: What attracted you to this story?
When my parents started thinking about retirement, I realized that for many people getting old and retiring was a challenging phase in life and not much talked about. After some time looking for different spaces where retirees loved to spend their time, Swiss producer of “The Bubble”, Dario Schoch, discovered The Villages. As we didn’t have many retirement communities in Europe, we soon decided we had to see the place for ourselves.
It was quite clear after my first visit with cinematographer Joe Berger that this was the place for our film. We were struck by the unreal and cinematic quality of this place, by the openness and contentment of its inhabitants. and also by the absolute separation between the inside and the outside of the “bubble”, as the residents jokingly call it their home.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after watching the movie?
VB: I hope people think about their own bubbles that they and all of us live in and what effects this has on us as a society. I would like them to ask themselves how many friends they have who are not their age. “The Bubble” does not intend to point the finger at those who choose to live in a retirement community. I have a lot of understanding for that decision and I think our audience will too.
After the screenings of the film “The Bubble”, we often have interesting discussions about how we want to live in the future, not just in terms of aging. Do we want to live apart from each other? Convenient in small affinity pockets? Surrounded by people of our age, our skin color, our politics? Or maybe in a more colorful version of the future? A future in a society strong enough to withstand the friction that makes the difference. I hope people find the courage to come out of their bubbles every now and then.
I will be attending the screening on November 17th for a Q&A session with co-producer Karin C. Berger and we can’t wait to hear what our US audiences think.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
VB: The biggest challenge in making the film was the time it took to finance it. We started researching in 2014 and shot the film in 2019, releasing it in 2021.
We all had to be very patient to get things started. but once we got the funding, I was extremely lucky with a fantastic team where everyone involved was simply experts in their field. Sounds silly, but once we left, I was even grateful we had a hard time.
W&H: How did you finance your film? Share some information about how you made the film.
VB: The film was produced as a Swiss-Austrian co-production (70/30%), which opened the doors to both Swiss and Austrian funding. Quite early in the development of the film, we luckily met Karin C. Berger at Golden Girls Films, and once the funding for the Swiss film came, the Austrian side did too.
Our film funding system is based on state and regional funding bodies and television funding.
W&H: What prompted you to become a director?
VB: I grew up without TV but I have always loved going to the cinema. Later, I discovered my interest in documentaries by watching the films of Werner Herzog, Michael Glawogger and Kim Longinotto. The teaching of Babak Payami, Sabine Gisiger, Christian Frei and Jennifer Fox got me on my way as a director.
In my first smaller projects I realized that pointing a camera at people not only gives you the opportunity to ask cheeky questions, but creates a concentrated space between the person speaking and the person listening. When you shoot with someone there is trust and closeness, sometimes even friendship.
Documentary filmmaking combines everything that makes life interesting for me: writing, traveling, meeting and working with fascinating and talented people. It also gives me the rare luxury of spending years thinking about the same subject. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s a big part of what I love about making documentaries.
W&H: What is the best and worst advice you have received?
VB: Best advice: only enter the cinema if you can’t do without it.
If you hear something, the audience will probably hear it too.
Trust in the documentary process. That no matter what, with patience, something useful will happen.
Worst advice: You should only make movies about what you know.
This isn’t exactly advice, but more of an impression that I think you get from looking at the film industry, especially the European film industry and more specifically, the documentary industry. One gets the impression that people can make a living from directing documentaries. Maybe if I had been warned, I wouldn’t have listened, but I was a little shocked at how difficult it is to survive making documentaries.
I have no idea what it’s like in the US, but the worst advice I’ve been given is this omitted and vital fact: that so many people who make films in Europe are able to make them because they have other sources of income. This probably counts for many artistic disciplines.
As a film student, this doesn’t really matter, but later on, when you want everyone to get paid properly and you want to do this job sustainably, it becomes increasingly difficult to overlook the often (self) exploiting nature of the film industry. This also means that only people who can afford it make long-term movies and that means that only certain voices are heard.
W&H: What advice do you give to other directors?
VB: Being underrated as a woman and perhaps as a person who is not the loudest person in the room has often helped me while making films. Things that are seen as a disadvantage don’t have to be. Be brave and remember that anyone who makes films is likely to be insecure about themselves at times – and if they aren’t, they probably should be. Questioning is a vital quality in a director.
W&H: Name your favorite female movie and why.
VB: “The Nine”, by Katy Grannan.
This film shows the director’s love and respect for her subjects. It shows that he spent a lot of time with them and that the film is a collaboration between the director and the protagonists. Not only does it represent a world that is difficult to access, but it also manages to find a wonderful balance between reality and poetry. It’s a perfect example of the beauty that can happen when you look and listen.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you maintaining creativity, and if so, how?
VB: I have two young children, which was a total blessing during the pandemic. I didn’t have much time to worry or think about the effects the pandemic was having on my business or industry. There are always two little beings who need my full attention when I’m not working. And when I work, I need to be completely focused and I can’t waste time worrying.
The pandemic affected the editing and post-production of “The Bubble”. The wonderful publisher Nela Märki lived in one country, the producers in another, the DP, the color grader and the mixer somewhere else, and of course we didn’t expect that we wouldn’t be able to travel. Also, it was difficult to work creatively during the block because at some stage some of us weren’t even allowed to go out for a walk. It slowed things down, but in retrospect I think the slowdown actually made the film better.
Releasing the film during the pandemic wasn’t and isn’t easy either, and I was very impressed by our entire team at how inventive and optimistic everyone was handling it. We are fortunate that the film is showing and that we have also had an adequate theatrical release in Switzerland and Austria.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of under-representing people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing and creating negative stereotypes. What actions do you think should be taken to make the doc world more inclusive?
VB: I think most of Europe is different from the United States because studying cinema – or whatever – is much cheaper, even free in Austria. So at least there isn’t a big financial barrier to getting into cinema, which I think is a big factor in terms of inclusion. That said, the resources are still not evenly distributed.
At the moment the Austrian film industry is fighting for regulations that ensure that women and men get an equal amount of film funding and that the Austrian inclusion pilot becomes mandatory. It is currently voluntary. I think such regulations can be a great tool to change the level of inclusion of all types in any sector.