Interview with Robert Decani

In this interview, Robert and Leda talk about one of his most recent finished projects, a seventeen minute documentary film, Von Sternen – Im Himmel wie auf Erden (Of Stars – In Heaven as on Earth), which tells a touching story about a mother and a nurse to her only child, that is her most precious thing for far more than just the obvious reasons. They also touch upon more philosophical issues of authenticity, realism and the nature of people, all of these aspects of life that can be discovered through documentary filmmaking, which Robert explains why it attracts him so much. 

We hope you enjoy this interview as thoroughly as we have enjoyed conducting it. The love and interest for movies, the creative process, people and the world around us is as captivating as it is contagious, so at the end of the interview we hope you take away some of that with you also. Enjoy!

Interview with Robert Decani

Thank you Robert for deciding to have an interview with us and allowing us to have a sneak peek at your working process and you alone also. So to start from the beginning, you are a young,aspiring filmmaker. And most of your work is with documentary filmmaking, how come? Why exactly documentaries? What draws you in? 

 → I think it is the most authentic way of making films. And that’s something to strive for, in my opinion. I think as an artist you want to come as close to the truth as possible. And the truth is not easily defined. It is just my way of portraying the truth. Documentaries are the most authentic, most real way to get to this point, I think. That is why I am so drawn to it. And yeah, I guess I could also mention that from a young age I am always observing everything around me, and I think that is a trait every filmmaker has to have.

  • Great. So how do you go about it? When making the films, especially documentary films, is there a certain way you need to act in order to capture those special moments? 

→  Yes, with my first documentary I realized you are just there with the camera. On set and for example as for this movie, The Sternen – Im Himmel wie auf Erden, since I was also the camera man on the production, I followed her 8the main character, a nurse) around for a couple of days and then it’s just a matter of reacting. You see something that strikes you and then you just need to get your lens on that and that’s it. And you can’t really plan everything. I do plan now, but you can’t plan out everything. Two years ago, when I was just starting, I didn’t plan anything, and that’s why most of my films sucked. I think though, I am not sure. Hopefully. And now I really want to plan everything and have a clear structure, but documentary filmmaking only works to a certain extent this way that you have everything structured. I am capturing moments. I am capturing the truth perhaps, those little everyday moments. And that’s such a rewarding thing to do if you are there. For example, I remember a scene, which also made into the final cut, I met with that nurse at five AM at her house. She did her morning routine and I just followed her around with my camera, and it was so hectic. So my boom operator didn’t even bother to come, so I just put my microphone on my camera and followed her around. And she was also so great, I just needed to direct her just a little bit. And it was really natural. And I was thinking how this is something unique, I have to capture this, have to capture who she is. And there was a scene, so something that was really important in the film was the relationship between her and her kid. There is a scene where her 5 years old kid gets out of bed and then, and she did almost everything for him. So putting his close on, brushing his teeth, and he would say something like yeah I can do it myself, and she would say okay, but let me have a look afterwards. And this was just her connection of being overly protective, over-caring of her son. This really defined her relationship to him. The character is this nurse is really altruistic, she puts everyone before herself. And then I structured the film so that we only get to know her, her profession, and her life story later. 

  • So the main premise of the film is…

Robert: She lost her husband in a car accident, and only later did she later find out that she was pregnant with his kid. The opening scene of the movie, is her doing the earlier mentioned morning routine. And then by the end of the film you, the audience know her story, and perhaps as an audience you also think differently about her. You finally understand why she was so overprotective of her son. Her son is everything that she has left of her late husband. The love of her life. This child. It all makes sense then. And I knew it before, of course I knew her story. And when I saw this I immediately made this connection. I thought this is basically my film. This makes my film. I also framed it in such a way that it was all very natural. It’s not my best film, it was my first documentary, my lenses weren’t really expensive. The film doesn’t look very good, but this was like some moments, like movie magic in a sense. Everything comes together and everything is alive. It is in the hard work that you can find those moments. This is what I love. And then once you find it, you think to yourself, alright this is something I have to do for the rest of my life and that’s so great. (Life-affirming chuckle.) Yeah, and that’s something that I think only documentary films can give to you, as a filmmaker. 

Interviewer: Wow, thank you for this great and elaborated answer. I also wanted to add that I honestly, really like this movie.

Robert: Thank you. 

  • Interviewer: So, for you documentaries are the genre of films that can give you this feeling of naturalness, but at the same time the feeling of something special and unique being presented on screen. Why?

→ Robert: Because it’s such an authentic experience. It’s not actors doing magical stuff. You see how the situation unfolds while the filming process is happening and you think great, they brought me this thing I was looking for, but it’s something you don’t expect and now everything makes sense, and you think I have to capture it. Which I don’t think happens in fiction filmmaking. 

Interviewer thoughtfully: Hmmm Interesting. I did not see it like that before, but I guess yes, I agree with you when you capture those unscripted, sort of rare moments in life, that this is where the magic lies. Because you can always write fiction, and it’s going to be great- but this. This is something that you can’t predict and it’s real life. And it’s cool if you get to capture it. 

Robert: Yeah. I mean, for me as a filmmaker I want to aim for authenticity. In a sense, it’s an easier form to do documentary filmmaking. But, when I am doing fictional films I strive for the same goal. This means that I am also doing a lot of research for real people, and basing my characters on real people I’ve met. And the stories are set in the real world. 

  • Interviewer: Do you make a difference between authenticity and realism? Or is realism going into the same bubble with the authenticity that or is it somehow different according to you? Because recently we talked about it in one of the assignments for university and I remember you commented on that. 

Robert: I mean, is realism and authenticity the same thing? I don’t know. 

Interviewer: True, we are still students, afterall. (Nervous laugh)

Robert continuation: ‘I mean what I wrote about it was, as I said before, I am looking for truth, but even more so my truth perhaps. Because it’s my subjective view of the world, and I want to capture that. I think realism is more objective. 

  • Interviewer: Oh, so you want to capture your own truth. Right? So, if you would  like to capture the reflection of your mind in what you are making then yes, it’s more about the authenticity and capturing the truth through your own perspective, it doesn’t necessarily need to be the real thing.

→ Robert: Yes, I think so too. And this hopefully connects to your comment, I think there are two types of filmmakers: either you are trying to tell stories set in your/our own world, so you are observing the world around you or you create your own world. Right? I am thinking about Wes Anderson films. Those aren’t the films set in our world, but he creates very creatively and I love his films, his own world. It is very distinctive and it’s his voice, his spark reflected. And then there are other filmmakers, for example Paul Thomas Anderson and he, I would say, does films set in our world and tries to get his view of the world into ours. It’s a little abstract.  

  • Leda: So does it always have to be an either-or situation for you?

→ Robert: I think generally as a filmmaker, you are either drawn to creating something new or telling a story that is set in our world. But, it is definitely not a clear-cut situation. No. It’s my general statement. It is not a rule. I just see that in a lot of filmmakers, I think. 

  • Leda: Yes. True. Fair point. So, to come back to your documentary, Von Sternen – Im Himmel wie auf Erden ,…

→ Robert: I actually thought of renaming that movie, but she, the nurse I mean, really loved the title. She actually called me and said I love the title so much, and I thought well okay then, I can’t change it now. So, I left it. At first I liked it, but then  a couple of days later, I thought it’s too pretentious. Because, eventually she says a line in the beginning of the film when she talks about a patient who had a disease of some kind, and he needed to get a blood test and he is afraid that the blood test isn’t going to come out good and then she says to him, it’s fine, if it doesn’t work out, we can take my blood. And this as well really defines her character. It’s sort of a joke when she says it, but she really puts herself last. She would do anything, she would literally give her own blood to help this old man. And that’s what I thought would be a better title. thought it would be nuanced. 

  • Leda: It is nuanced and catching, but I love the first one for several reasons also. First, because of the credits song at the end of the movie. With the sky as background, it just rounds up the whole movie, it’s a great reference. Where is the song also? And secondly, there is more of an enigma to what is this film’s actual subject and how does it connect to death, love and well, the sky.  

→ Robert: Yes, the song is from Ad Astra. I mean, I haven’t watched the film in over a year, but I really thought it was a bit of an overkill. Because it is such a Hollywood score. But I still went with it, because when I was choosing the song I thought that this is such a human story, but also a universal one. I wanted to have no music, no music at all in the film. And then at the very end have this big, orchestral score. To really end on a high note.

And you really did. The film is captivating. How long was the production process of it?

→ It looks like a whole day in the film, but it’s actually 5 filming days with them. 

Interviewer: Is there some other specific scene that stayed with you, from that shoot?

→ Robert: Yes. It comes at the end of the day and film also, when she picks her son from kindergarten and then afterwards they are playing. I was just waiting there for an hour while they really enjoyed playing, they were really into it. They got used to me being there with the camera, I really got authentic shots and performances. At that time I thought I was filming them in this late position and I thought they would look at the lense. But they never did. They were so into their own world, they just went along, playing. Then I got the shot, and I was really satisfied and knew that was the closing shot. You can start rolling the credits. Hahaha. She said this one, really nice, metaphorical sentence, which was such a great line, I remember thinking I should’ve wrote that. After she said it, I thought okay, this is the moment to close this film off. It was an equally great moment to capture it. Now that I am talking about it, I want to do a documentary again. 

Leda: Sounds so great, and yes you definitely should. So do you have some new projects in the making?

→ Robert: Yes, I actually have two projects I wanted to do, but I couldn’t finish them, because of Covid. In Germany, there is one documentary that is based on a Japanese film called Afterlife. It’s a fictional feature film and it is about dead people and limbos. In the Japanese culture, limbo is a place where dead people go before going to hell or heaven immediately, it is sort of a stopping place between Earth and Heaven/Hell, basically. In the film, these people come to this place that is an old high school. There are other people working there, and so the people that just died, get there and are interviewed. For a week before transcending to the afterlife, these people are held there and they have to answer what was their favourite moment on Earth. They need to remember their favourite memory. Based on the answers of those people, the working people there make a short film that is based on that memory. This film will hopefully help them to feel the emotion of this moment again and then the Afterlife is the emotion you lived through in that moment. So if you were happy or excited, this is your afterlife. A little abstract, because they don’t really say what exactly the Afterlife is. It is truly an amazing film, made by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Pretty great. And I thought just the concept of asking people about their favourite memory, it seems a pretty easy question at first perhaps, but to answer it with just one answer is really hard. 

Leda: The concept sounds amazing and really enticing, but isn’t it natural that almost all people would answer a moment that madde them happy? So for everybody the emotion would be happiness? Or something close to that?

→ Robert: Yeah, but what is your favourite/happiest memory? That is difficult. You can’t answer just happiness, what was the exact moment that produced such emotion?

Leda: Yes, sure the source might be different since the memory differs from person to person, but the emotion or the effect is going to be almost universal. Right? But, still a very interesting concept. I will definitely watch the movies, both that one and yours of course. 

→ Robert: True, but you are still really going to need to search for a memory where you were aware of the emotion.

Leda: Wow, yes, that is true.

→ Robert: So, to connect this back to my documentary ambitions, basically I thought I am going to ask different people, from children to old people, the whole spectrum of society basically, this kind of question, this concept, and then film their reactions, and make a documentary about it. 

Interviewer: Oh wow! I definitely want to see it now! Very excited about it. 

→ Robert: I started it, I had 5 interviewees in Germany so far, but then I had to stop because it was November, and the cases got higher so I couldn’t do that anymore. Interestingly, young people are pretty easy to approach. But 85-year olds or kids are much harder to approach and talk to. This was the best thing I could do with my time during all of this. So this is something I really want to continue doing after the situation gets better. This is an opportunity for me to talk about personal topics with people and I can just learn so much about them. I can get this knowledge which I can then use for writing and anything else. (says that with a proud smirk) It’s research as well. 

Leda: It is a great opportunity to learn about people as much as it is about filmmaking and documentaries, indeed. Alongside this project, what is your second one that you mentioned in passing? 

→ Robert: Oh yes. I am actually writing a script right now based on a documentary from before, because I really want to continue the story with the nurse and her patients. So when I was researching the patients, I did it both with and without the camera. In 2019 we already did the research and wrote down the concept and then last January I shot it. We went through the patients, the whole day, and it would either last 5 minutes or 45 minutes and I also interviewed all those people. Of course, with a written and signed paper where they gave their consent that I can record, film them or not. And there was one guy of 70-something that was really interesting. He had a breathing machine attached to his throat, this was obviously before Covid, but I still needed to disinfect my hands before coming in. At first, he was a little hostile, but also fascinating. He said I can ask questions and I can take photographs, but he was still very guarded. I remember thinking how this man has something more to offer, if he is letting me in, despite being so hostile. Why would he allow all these things if he is that guarded? He was also very relaxed, in a sense when the nurse had to wash him and he let himself be filmed. I have so many intimate moments of people receiving all kinds of treatment.

Leda: Wow. Amazing really, that he was so guarded, but yet again, let you film him while he was washed by a nurse, I imagine a very intimate, and humbling moment. 

→ Robert: Yes, but he was cool with me being there, but he was again, so cold. He didn’t talk to me at all. Such a weird situation, because now I have this old grumpy guy standing before me naked, getting washed by a nurse and I am there with a camera.

Leda: And he still allows you to be there?!

→ Robert: He allows me, yeah! And at that moment, I couldn’t talk, I didn’t know what to say. I was muttering and stuttering. Questioning what I should do. And then there was one moment where after the nurse washed him, and put the cream on his body, which was pretty cold, he screamed and he said: ‘You should’ve captured that.’ That was a really funny moment. And I remember thinking this guy is something else. After he was dressed and I took some pictures of him I thought I now have a couple of moments to go through his flat, which was really nice. His apartment was right next to the river, a really cool modern apartment. And then I went through his living room and saw some old books and pictures, and I saw Moby Dick lying and The Snow over Kilimanjaro lying there. And I just read both of those! I thought okay, awesome now I just need to connect with this man and I started off the conversation, I talked about those books a bit. And then, he came back and then he opened up completely. Yes, so we first talked about Moby Dick and then Hemingway, and then it turned out he was a teacher. A professor of German and English. So after 20 minutes of awkward silence, he just opened up to me. I asked him further about his pictures and about the people in them. And then he told me that those are his children, a daughter and a son. He started talking about them proudly, he was a very proud dad. His son is a manager at some firm, and just signed an important deal. He was beaming with pride. Turns out he lives in the US, and his daughter in Bavaria, in the south of Germany, and he was also very sick. But, somehow he hasn’t seen them for years, and he was so stubborn that he didn’t call them and they weren’t in contact at all.  

Leda: So even though they had a bad relationship, he was still a proud dad? 

→ Robert: Yeah, it seemed so. But, I am not sure, because I only met him for two days, for 45 minutes. But, yes and I didn’t feel like I was in a position to tell him that he should call his kids. You could really see that it bothered him a lot. It was really an interesting case, because all of a sudden I got to know this guy completely. His dreams, his fears for the rest of his life. And so the next day when I came, I thought to myself alright we are buddies now, but no. Just no. 

Leda: He was closed off?

→ Robert: Yes. And it took me again, around 15 minutes to get him to talk to me. And then it was cool and easy again, but he had this guard, and I was like yes that’s probably why he had this difficult relationship with his kids, since he was so distant, so guarded. He was such an interesting guy, I should have kept contact with him, but I didn’t. And I shot the film one year later and then we talked with the nurse and then he died one month later. And I don’t know if he ever called his kids.

Leda: Wow. This really ended on a cliff-hanger. Such an enticing story with a great potential. Can’t wait to see it, along with your other work. Really, thank you very much for this insightful interview. We, the Publishing Committee appreciate it very much and also wish you goodluck with your further filmic endeavours. 

Robert: Thank you very much. 

Interview conducted by Leda Spiranec