"The moment when our camera was instrumentalised from a piece of recording equipment to a means of resistance."
A conversation with Bernd Schoch.
Alejandro Bachmann: The title of your new movie - Olanda - appears very late, and then surprisingly, amidst a scene that opens up another level of thought associated with the fungus: a series of surreally shifting shots, set to the synthesizer piece by Pete Kember, rather associatively collects images and motifs and thus creates the impression of a rush, a trip. Was this element from the beginning one of the intellectual starting points in dealing with mushrooms, mushroom foraging and the economic cycle that the film describes?
Bernd Schoch: It began with a picture-puzzle. I was driving along the Transalpina with my family during a round trip in 2012 when, after a long and uneventful route through the forests of the Carpathians, we arrived at a crossroads in Obarisa Lotrului, where i could see, from the car, people who were cleaning and loading into baskets and wooden boxes huge piles of porcini mushrooms which had been piled up on tarpaulins, forming enormous heaps. Then also the tents and home-made dwellings on the roadside. We parked our car a hundred yards away to look around and see what was going on. The extended view, not limited by the car window anymore, spread from the hectic market scene in the foreground to the edges, where there were many more tents, wooden structures, campfires, and people grouped around them. Children playing and drying clothes hung on cords stretched between the trees. There was a stream nearby. The entire forest seemed as if transformed into a temporary camp. The moment we arrived at this place was exactly the moment seemingly picturesque camping at a tourist destination revealed its economic necessity. This shifting figure did not let me go. The sense of a rush or a trip, that you describe, came into the film later, through further preoccupation with the fungus. Having grown up in the Black Forest, I understand the mushroom as a treasure to be found. As a child, I looked for edible mushrooms, recognizable even to laymen, and much later also psylocibins. At that time, in the second half of the 1980s, I listened to a lot of psychedelic music. Mainly from England. My Bloody Valentine, Loop and, above all, Spacemen 3. The Psylocibins, also known as Magic Mushrooms, worked wonderfully well with this music. That was a truly consciousness and horizon expanding experience. It was important to me that this aspect was addressed in the film; that the fungus is much more than a profane asset (although there seems to be nothing outside the sphere of capitalist exploitation and therefore this drug is also sold and dealt with); that the fungus in human history has always been used as an intoxicant. Rock paintings from the late Stone Age, discovered in North Africa, already show figures with mushroom-shaped heads, which are interpreted as mushroom spirits or people in a mushroom ecstasy. The Aztecs used mushrooms containing psilocybin to contact the "other-worldly," their ancestors and gods, or initiate ritual celebrations, etc. So, in addition to my personal experiences, there was also a great desire to immerse myself in the extended kingdom of mushrooms. The mere fact that fungi, taxonomically, represent a separate kingdom between plants and wildlife, I find fascinating. And if one then uses the mycelial structure of the fungus as a narrative framework, then the mushroom as an intoxicant is simply an important part of it. As far as the drone of Pete Kember (Sonic Boom, formerly Spacemen 3) is concerned, in addition to the psychedelic quality, there is also an overlap with the work of the mushroom foragers through the repetitive pattern. The constant repetition of the work processes, the shapes and patterns of the forest floor, upon which they constantly look, and the shape of the mushrooms, follow the foragers into their dreams. In conversations many told me that they dream of the mushrooms and certain shades of green and brown.
Alejandro Bachmann: But the intoxication, or at least the shift of sensory perception, characterizes the whole film, right? The first pictures – the getting up in the night, the fiery red dots in nocturnal blackness, trudging through the woods up the sometimes extreme inclines, the resulting dizziness, later a ride in the car, the camera on the cargo area, we see the men and in the background the huge tops of the trees in front of the sky. There is something surreal about this, something uncanny, a perception of the world that is sensual, delirious and at the same time very clear, very focussed.
Bernd Schoch: It is about bringing a sensual and physical experience into the cinema. The work of the mushroom foragers is very exhausting and dangerous. Not so much due to the many bears that some have encountered, but rather due to the difficult terrain. Bones are easily broken and the nearest hospital is fifty bumpy kilometers away in Petroşani. The many nighttime images of the flashlights, or the campfires, may have a slightly surreal effect on us but for the people on the ground this is simply part of their every day that they have to come to terms with. The fact that there are so many shots like this has something to do with the visibility of the mushroom. With the fact that we can only see a fraction of the mushroom, the fruiting body. The rest, the many hyphae that make up the mycelial netting, remain hidden from us. To apply this idea to the image, meant for us that we wanted to work with the off and the darkness of night. The mushroom picking itself, the roaming through the forest in search of the scattered gold coins has something of "not being able to see the forest for the trees" to it, which I associate with a sensory overload, a limit to the perceivable. In terms of the camera work, this could be achieved by using a telephoto lens for the tracking shots, though we opted to use a wide-angle lens, close to the protagonists while following them through the woods, most of the time.
Alejandro Bachmann: Yes, and this kind of camera work has something extremely involving in terms of how the background moves around the people. It created moments of anxiety for me where the space seems to be permanently present, surrounds everything and everyone and is itself also something netlike, like a mycelial braid, never allowing total orientation. And into this physically tangible network, the film introduces another network, the network of trade with fungus and the interconnectedness with the associated money ...
Bernd Schoch: Yes, money. Bresson went straight ahead and named a film after it. Rarely have I been to a place where it was as often the topic of conversation. For people who have none, it's a permanent issue; the others are rarely heard talking about it. That is also why I saw this place, Obarsia Lotrului, as a predestined stage for a contemplation on the state of our neoliberal present. One speaks of the Anthropocene these days. No place on earth that is not shaped by humans. And with the human being this broken capitalist system with its exploitation and class relations, comes into play. So what you see in Obarsia Lotrului are the millions of forest fruits that have been torn from so-called nature (more like raw material storage) and wandering banknotes, which in the hands of the few, add up to thick bundles. The accumulation begins right on the spot, where middlemen, called Collectoris, sell to other middlemen before the goods land in the mushroom factories, where they are processed inexpensively for the Western European market. These completely alienated goods then land on our plates at a multiple of the price the foragers get. In addition, the system on the ground is very complex due to a large number of players and interests. This is touched upon several times in the film. In addition to the mushroom economy, there is also tourism and, above all, the timber industry. Alone the issue of ownership on the ground is confusing and a problem for the foragers, as year after year they have to fight for a place to pitch their tents. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, an American anthropologist who has written a very good book on the Matsutake mushroom speaks of "Surviving in the Ruins of Capitalism." in her sub-header. This survival, as the only valid narrative, also equates to the statement that most people are more likely to imagine the end of the world by the impact of a meteorite, than the creation of another social system that is not based on one-sided resource exploitation. Here, the fungus may offer an alternative narrative of cooperation and collaboration as a symbiosis in the form of mycorrhiza, which connects the cep with certain tree species in the exchange of nutrients. In terms of working this into the film it means establishing the systemic through a certain interchangeability of the protagonists while at the same time, despite all the hardships and the rough tone of communication, showing the affectionate, cooperative and helpful ways the foragers interact with each other. Necessary for this film was also the moment of self-empowerment of the foragers. Many of them work as seasonal workers in Western Europe outside the mushroom season, and to some extent it is only during the mushroom season that they have some control over their own labor force. That means how much and how long they want to work and to whom and at what price they sell the collected goods. And finally, filmmaking itself must also be reflected in terms of money and exploitation. For me that meant being at their disposal, offering to act cooperatively and in solidarity and paying people as much as possible.
Alejandro Bachmann: There is a very meaningful cut in the film: We see an excited forager, with a can of beer, probably at the end of a day in the woods. He accuses the middleman of not providing secure prices, and he responds by blaming the consumer and his willingness to pay only a certain price. And then the film cuts to two axes, one of which is being sharpened. Class relations or class struggle? And how is your solidarity expressed? The interesting thing is that the film always returns to the foragers. After we begin with them, we move for a short time into the van of a middleman, and the impression is given, that not only will we encounter new protagonists but we will also spend time with them, pass through space with them. But in the end it's all about the foragers who are closest to the mushrooms, which returns us to the term of the "estranged commodity" that you use.
Bernd Schoch: Yes, that cut is striking and deliberate. That's when the improvisation I cherish so much about documentary filmmaking ends. Here we position ourselves by means of another cinematic means; the cut, the edit. The knives are sharpened. Even if that is more wishful thinking than fact. Although I was told that a few years ago there was actually an uprising of the foragers against the middlemen. The foragers had joined forces and beaten up the Collectoris, because they wanted to push the prices in an outrageous way. The ax works for me as a kind of revenge fantasy, similar to what Albert Serra did in La mort de Luis XIV. Even the powerful have to die, and he then lets Luis XIV die for 115 minutes, so that as a viewer you are constantly thinking: just go ahead and die, Motherfucker! On the other hand, the scene before shows that, of course, the middlemen are also subject to certain conditions and constraints and so are only small cogs in the wheel of the big money machine.
Our own role changed again and again over the three months we spent on location. While we were understandably scrutinized at the beginning, even though I had researched and made contacts over three weeks the previous year, the foragers had the opportunity to get to know us better due to our long stay. We joined them when they went into the forest and we ate and drank together by the fire in the evening. For a while I camped with my ten-year-old son in one of the camps. But because of the technical equipment, the constant charging of the batteries, etc., we took a room in a guesthouse in the valley. In any case, people saw that our work also requires physical and psychological effort. They had laughed at the beginning when we said that we wanted to go mushrooming with them in the woods. “You'll never cope, you'll get lost or you'll hinder us in our work!” When they realized that we were serious and coping, they began respecting us. The moment when our camera was instrumentalised into a means of resistance rather than just being a piece of recording equipment was also interesting. The foragers were repeatedly harassed and sometimes attacked by police, foresters or forest owners in certain camps in order to force them to dissolve them. When the foragers noticed that the presence of our camera made sure that these people did not show up, because they didn't want their actions recorded, they used us for this purpose. In this instance we were happy to be instrumentalised and gave them our telephone numbers. We show in our film how they use their smartphones for different purposes: as a means of protocol of their earthly treasures and as a means of countering unfair treatment.
Alejandro Bachmann: All these dimensions - the physicality of mushroom foraging, the structures of trade and exploitation - are complemented by the voice of a Romanian-speaking woman, who from time to time we hear speaking over shots of the landscape. She has something omniscient about her; she knows about the history of the Carpathians, but sometimes also speaks of the foragers from the perspective of the mushrooms. And although she somehow floats above things, acting multi-perspectivally, she is a proper character, marked by emotions, humour, empathy. Who is speaking and how did you develop the voice - both in terms of what she says and in terms of forming a personality?
Bernd Schoch: For this question, we would really need to consult André Siegers, who wrote most of the texts. On a very practical level, there was an understanding early on that the complex situation on the ground requires an expanded perspective. One idea was not to situate this voice definitely. While the visual part of the film tends to move on a horizontal plane, the off-text moves on the vertical; sometimes directed to deep underground (mushrooms), sometimes as a view from space, from where other time dimensions can be imagined; so that as a spectator you can not always be sure who is speaking, and so find yourself on uneven terrain. However, it was also simply about giving the experiences and the accumulated knowledge that shape the film and direct the view, a form, and also about taking a step back from the immersive moments rhythmically. We spoke to a lot of people and there is some great material but that would be a different film. I imagine that would work better in a TV version. There, many of the purely cinematographic elements, would not work. And in terms of the voice itself, we were, from the beginning, looking for someone who comes from there and is not professionalised. We recorded two people on location. Sorin Tănase, who has a very deep bass-heavy voice, and then Ileana Mănicea, who is now in the film. It was a lot of fun and exciting to see how they appropriated these somewhat quirky lyrics. That was another of those moments where i thought the people must think us stupid. But that wasn't the case. They enjoyed working with the texts. What I really like about it now is that in addition to the very pleasant gentle sound of her voice, you can also hear the work that is put into it.