An Interview with Film Maker Barbara Oettinger
by Barbara Oettinger Searle
Barbara is the creator and director of Who Said We Did Not Know?, a film centered around immigration dialogue and debate that is commonplace in the United States. She has participated in various exhibitions and screenings in cultural centers, galleries and museums around the world.
How did you get into the art of filmmaking?
I began my career studying painting. Over time, I started working in photography because painting wasn’t giving me what I wanted. Photography was more accurate for me to start telling stories. I realized that I was very interested in telling stories, researching about people, situations or places. One thing led to another and I ended up doing film too.
How long have you been doing this?
For a long time. My bachelor’s degree was between 2002 and 2006. The first years were only about figuring out who I am and what I wanted to do. You’re very young when you start your bachelor’s degree. In my case, I was just trying to find my own identity as an artist.
Later on, I did a masters degree in Chile at the Pontifical Catholic University. That was in 2008-2009. I was very interested about doing research addressing issues concerning internal conflicts, conflicts between people, families, and society. I think my work has been ever evolving.
Nowadays my work explores questions of displacement and uncertainty as it relates to and affects the knowing of identity. I am interested in how individuals understand themselves through their connection to their country of origin and current location, how they struggle (or search) to define language, history, traditions, their culture.
How did you get into international conflict in the US and particularly what’s happening with the immigration issues here?
I applied to Pratt Institute in New York in 2015, so I traveled to New York in the fall of 2016. I started studying my MFA in Integrated Practices. That means film, sound, and installation, centered around political and social engagement work. That’s why I was interested in that program in particular.
In 2015, I started working with issues of immigration in Chile. I did a film about a man from Haiti who was working in a bakery, making a very typical bread in Chile, called “marraqueta”. I was very interested in this person who comes to a different country and works with his hands doing something he did not know how to make, while he narrates what he had to do to come to Chile, and how difficult is to immigrate too. I mentioned his work because it’s very important for the rest of the work I did at Pratt. I was a foreigner, I was not a citizen. But I was very privileged--I had a scholarship and I was making art. I started thinking of the people, the communities that are not from there, and the communities that are from the US or New York. There are so many different communities coming together, which was very interesting to me: how people from different places can be and live together in peace, or at least try to.
What inspired you to make the film “Who Said We Did Not Know?” Can you describe what you were doing in making this film?
This film is part of my MFA thesis. I did another film before (part of the exhibition) that I shot in Sunset Park--a Latin American neighborhood in Brooklyn. This is a film about a woman who works as a street vendor cooking quesadillas in the street. Also, I did a research about the neighborhood, and the food she was cooking. From that film, I started researching how Trump was banning everyone and trying to send immigrants away, but based on the people that was right there, in that neighborhood. Additionally, I researched about the detention centers for immigrants, the language media uses about immigration, and immigration particularly between Mexico and the US. I was reading the news and it was very upsetting and sad. I told myself I needed to do something about it, so I started writing the script based on what I was reading on social media and testimonies found on the news. I was shocked. At the same time, I felt privileged, so I had an internal struggle over whether I should do this or not. I spoke with my professor and she supported me.
Writing the script was very hard, especially because English is not my mother language.
I didn’t want characters to have voice over because I wanted people to read it. If you read something, it becomes part of you--you are making it yours with your own voice, it touches you more deeply.
Who inspired the voices in the film? It’s like a conversation that my friends and I have sometimes. Is that something you had in mind? Is it like a dialogue between a few friends, between yourself and someone in particular…
It’s very open. Initially, I thought it was an internal dialogue. Sometimes we can be very rude to people. Tolerance can sometimes break very easily. I was very interested in how we can be very tolerant and a good person and the next second you can be a bad guy.
That's why I didn't want to use voiceover because it could be anyone. It could be two people, a group of friends, your own internal thinking. I was very interested between this thin line--friends and enemies, different and similar... you're different so you're my enemy...
In the beginning, I was uncomfortable because it's a hard issue to talk about and conversations can get very confrontational. It involves this person who doesn't give a fuck and the other one who has more of a mindset who says, "Hey, we are all immigrants and nobody is from nowhere." My parents came from Germany, England, and Spain, but I’m from Chile. Yes, I have a homeland, but I don’t feel patriotic.
I think the thing that impacted me most was the people who post things on the internet--it’s insane. There’s a lot of hate and paradoxically, that inspired me. How language creates reality and how the media is flooded with news about this topic leading to the development of a cycle which powers itself with more hate. I was struck.
Can you share the process that went behind making the film? There’s so many really strong, shocking images that you used. Some may have been taken off the internet, some were your own original footage--how did you go about putting these different pieces together?
I used found footage. I didn’t shoot any of the footage for this film. I searched on Google. All the pictures are from newspapers and the footage is from YouTube. That’s why it’s so interesting to me, because it’s right THERE. In the end, all the footage was found by typing. I just put it together. The text was my own interpretation of what I read, but the information was already there.
I used pictures as flashes because I wanted to leave the image in the spectator’s brain for longer. When you close and open your eyes, you still have that image and it doesn’t go away. Then I found some footage on YouTube of surveillance cameras of people walking in the desert. I thought it’s very interesting because the surveillance cameras give no identity to a character. It could be anyone. And you can tell that it’s a huge number of people, a shocking number. It’s such a strong vision I thought it was perfect for this film.
This is not the first time I make the sound myself. Sometimes I work with other people. I really like the idea of working with others and collaborating, but this time I made it by myself. Because the images were so strong and shocking, I tried to make the sound a little bit easier to hear, but strong enough to have a tension during the whole film. Then I added these little sounds to make a little bit more soundscape or to have more layers of sound, to point to different changes in the rhythm of the film. It’s not an easy film to watch.
What were some of the challenges you had when you were making this film?
Writing the script in a language that is not my language was very hard. I thought of it as a challenge and something that was going to help my film and understanding as a foreigner living in New York, in a very particular way. When you have very local ways of saying things and that has to be translated, you have to find the best way to interpret it...whilst I was writing, I was thinking in Spanish, but had to write in English.
Another challenge was that I know I’m Chilean, I’m not from Mexico, I’m not from the US. But I had to be accurate and respectful with the information I was using and reinterpreting. Being ethical with what I want to say in my work. For example, I made a film of this woman in Sunset Park and I never showed her face, I never told her name, because she didn’t want me to. And I understood and agreed. Sometimes I question myself: What am I doing? How can we work with tragedy and make it a work of art? It’s hard. I always feel very conflicted in that area. And it’s a big challenge because I want to be respectful and ethical. I don’t know if i always get it, but I try.
What do you think you succeeded in making this film?
This film works as an open door for me to continue my research. In Chile, I’m not going to say that immigration is new, but it’s an increasing phenomenon that’s going on right now. I want to continue working with these issues here in Chile.There's a lot of hate, misunderstanding, people who are afraid of difference, people who think that those who come from another country are bad. It’s interesting on how i’m going to continue my research in this context.
How did you come up with the title of the film?
I think I read something very similar somewhere when I was doing the film and I was trying to come up with the title. I read something very similar to “We Didn’t Know?” and thought to myself, “This could be a very good title”. Who said we didn’t know? The information is there! The information is everywhere. That’s why I chose this name: because WE KNOW.
So you’re working now in Chile, and I know from our back and forth through emails that you’re putting this film out to a few festivals. What are you up to these days?
I submitted the film to some festivals and I applied for funding to continue doing research about these current issues in the Chilean context. I plan to continue working with a friend or some friends to organize some exhibitions too. I like the idea of making more things, getting artists to make more films or exhibitions, to work with them. I’m still very focused on trying to do my work and I hope that the money will come. But if it doesn’t come, I would still do it anyway.
What kind of advice would you have for some of the readers we might have who are working with communities, immigrant communities, in the field of social justice and city planning as they think about sharing their work with others?
Try to be ethical. It’s very hard to work with communities. You have to be very respectful and it takes a lot of time to get to know people. My advice would be to be as respectful as you can. You have to ask, you have to talk. They have to give you permission. If you have their permission and are very honest with them, that is a priority for me. Even if they said they don’t want to have their voices to be heard, you have to agree.
Do you feel in any way, and if so, how your personal identity and background is impacting your filmmaking at all?
Maybe this sounds weird, but I don’t feel patriotic about Chile in anyway. As I mentioned before I loved the idea of being a foreigner living in NYC (like everyone else). I know I’m talking in a very privileged way, so I assume that background.
My current projects are encounters with dialogues, with a focus on testimonies that retain historical meaning, while telling of the psychological experience. Testimonies that are not only based on the supposed immediacy and accuracy of the historical source, but also on the subjective construction of different narratives.
Thank you for taking your time to share with us!
For more of Barbara’s work, visit http://barbaraoettinger.com/2018-Who-said-we-didn-t-know.