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Meet the Oscar Nominated Films: Elegy in 3D: 'Pina' Mines the Language of Dance

By Denise O'Kelly

Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the films that have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar® nomination. This piece was originally published in the December issue of Documentary magazine online.

As one of the leading representatives of New German Film, Wim Wenders ranks among the most experimental directors in world cinema. Armed with a rigorous education in an eclectic range of pursuits--medicine, painting, engraving, photography, philosophy and rock 'n' roll--he embraced the New American Underground in the style of Warhol, and thereafter evolved his trademark unconventionality.

The approach of an affectionate observer persists throughout his oeuvre, curious to exhibit each layered wonder of the striated worlds that surround us, with the overwhelming power of unconditional love rooted as a quoin stone of his work. In Wings of Desire (1987) and Faraway, So Close! (1993), he rendered a cinematic fairytale; Paris, Texas (1984), an existential road movie; The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), a tragicomic tale of friendship and betrayal, based in Los Angeles; Notebooks on Cities and Clothes (1989), an exploration of avant-garde fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto's singular artistry; Willie Nelson at Teatro (1989), a concert film; Buena Vista Social Club (1999), the profound interplay of music and musicians; and If Buildings Could Talk (2010), a 3D video installation that aspired to show just that.

In Pina (2011), Wenders' evident reverence and tenderness for the eponymous subject is affecting: "Until now, movement as such had never touched me," he admitted, in a tribute that delivered in Frankfurt in 2008 when Bausch was honored with the Goethe Prize. "I always regarded it as a given. One just moves. Everything moves. Only through Pina's TanzTheater have I learned to value movements, gestures, attitudes, behavior, body language--and through her work learned to respect them. What treasure lies within our bodies, to be able to express itself without words, and how many stories can be told without saying a single sentence?" 

Wenders responded to our questions via e-mail, as he was flying back to Europe from Los Angeles.


©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release.

Documentary: Pina Bausch once said, "Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost." Perhaps you would expand upon this quote? 

Wim Wenders: Pina really meant this literally. For her, dancing was actually an answer to all hardships and adversities of life. And once you enter Pina's world, you can share this perspective, even if you have nothing to do with dance. Her art has an incredibly positive energy and healing power. That comes across in a most emotional way in our film, too, as I can say now after having watched it over and over again with audiences all over the world.

D:  Albeit being an artist yourself with esoterism as your hallmark, what were the challenges of making a documentary about Pina, a fellow artist, with the admirable objective of doing full service to her work?

WW: You will allow me to disagree a bit with that stamp of being "esoteric." Films like Buena Vista Social Club, Wings of Desire or Paris, Texas have found mainstream audiences. Then again, I know what you mean. Being solidly "independent" might, in fact, have become an almost esoteric calling.

Pina is in fact, a tribute to the work of the great German choreographer, and does everything in the book to do justice to her work and make it appear as beautiful as possible. Well, we didn't have to embellish it; we just had to show it like what it actually was--full of magic, surprise and contagious energy. In order to do so, I really had to step back and put everything, all our efforts, in the service of Pina's art. Which is one of many possible documentary approaches, and maybe the one I am most attracted to. Buena Vista Social Club, for instance, was carried by a similar method and desire: to give access to as many people as possible to the boundless joy and the purity of these old Cuban musicians, and let the movie be a direct connection, not something that gets in the way and pulls attention to itself.

The main challenge in Pina was certainly the use of a new technology, 3D. That had not been tried out in a live-action shoot as ours, especially as we were doing our film in the infancy of the new medium, and basically had to find out everything about it from scratch. (Which also meant making our own mistakes.) Then again, we would not have done the film without 3D. Pina Bausch and I, we had looked for years and years for an appropriate language to bring dance to the screen, and were convinced that 3D finally was the answer to that long quest.


©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release.

D: How did shooting in 3D transform what you wished to achieve in this elegy?

WW: In our case, 3D had been the condition for making the film. We really needed it. It gave us access to space, and that seemed to be a condition to really be with the dancers, in their own element. And the result surpassed all our hopes. I had a hunch that 3D and dance would have this affinity to each other, and would bring out the best in each other. But 3D not only delivered "space" and "depth"--both so important for the perception of dance--but the medium also gave us "volume," which was an unexpected additional enhancement. Bodies were round, no longer cut-outs or surfaces. The bodies of our dancers really had a different presence than you ever saw bodies emanate on the screen. This way, Pina Bausch's art became so much more physical, so much more immediate. As a spectator, you could almost touch these dancers. Their bodies are there in a new way, at least for a documentary film.

D: What was the process of rethinking the project due to her tragic passing in 2009?  Did your approach alter?

WW: I was so shocked by her sudden passing, I immediately canceled the project. It seemed unimaginable to continue it. Pina and I had dreamed of it for too long together to think of continuing it alone now.

The decisive force in jumpstarting the film after all, two months later, was the dancers. They made me understand that not making the film was the wrong decision, and not in Pina's interest. They had decided together to fulfill all the obligations for touring and performances all over the world that the company had agreed to under Pina. (And they still do.) We could obviously no longer make the film with Pina, but together we could do a film for Pina. In order to do so, we had to let go of the entire concept that Pina and I had developed together over a long period of time. We actually made a very different film together, the dancers and I. It became a journey into Pina's universe, an homage to her. I didn't want it to become a film for "insiders," though, for people who already knew Pina's work and loved it. I made the film with those people in mind who never had a chance to see any of Pina's pieces and who had no particular affinity to dance. I was one of those myself, before I got to know Pina...

D: Berlin and Cuba have featured as primary hubs for two of your previous films. In this documentary, the locum of creation within one's soul appears to be the site of focus, offering the inspirational as nigh-on tangible. Was that the goal?

WW: You could formulate it like that. My own words would be a bit less high-flying, though. I wanted to do justice do somebody else's work and vision, and open that up to an audience where even dance--inexperienced or untrained eyes would see and understand enough to be emotionally touched.

 D: Can you speak to the absurdist influence, via Beckett and Ionesco, for example, on her work?  

WW: Pina's dance theater is inspired by lots of things that Pina was exposed to in the dance and theater world. But most of all, Pina was inspired by things she experienced directly, by life itself. She was the most ardent observer of contemporary life I ever encountered, and that was the main source of her influence. Pina could watch for hours and hours, insatiably.

D: Did this affect how you choreographed the editing of the project?

WW: If any, I choreographed my cameras in response to Pina's choreography. The editing process was a way to discover a logical and emotional path through the immense wealth of material we had shot over the course of one year. As in many documentaries, we had to find the narrative thread in the editing room.


©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release.


D: Reviewers have cited this documentary as being "exhilarating," "unpredictable," "ravishing," "wondrous," "thrilling."  My sense is that those sentiments mirror the essence of its subject, too. Do you agree?

WW: Pina is certainly like nothing I ever did before. And those words you quoted might describe very well our feelings in the course of making the film. As for the question if these expressions meet the essence of the movie, I'm going to have to leave this to the critics.

D: There was a delicacy in how Pina exerted her influence. Her legendary status appears to have come as much from how she encouraged her acolytes to access the creativity within themselves as what she taught them directly. Your interviews with her Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers displayed their appreciation of her distinctiveness by showing their physical responses with voiceovers. How did you consistently capture such heartfelt responses? 

WW: For the dancers, making this film was a very important thing in their lives. None of them had been able to say goodbye to Pina Bausch, and some had spent their entire professional lives with her--10, 20, even 30 years. Our shoot was in many ways a process that helped them--well, all of us--to come to terms with the loss, and the grief. The film became our goodbye, our thank you to Pina. Her spirit was extremely present, every day. That's what the film still radiates.

D: To create an immersive experience for the viewer, plunging them into both the process and prowess of Bausch, as interpreted by her devotees, is no mean feat. As with her work, you created interior and exterior space, using visual textures of soil and water, "a space where we can meet each other."  Would you share one of your experimental techniques?

WW: The technique, if any, consisted in being as truthful as possible to Pina's work, and also, to make the optimal use of the new language, 3D, for it. One always had to find the ideal POV in order to show the work in the best possible angle, so people could really see the "architecture" of her choreography and the spirit of Pina's work in a privileged way.

D: You manage to render the intensity of images with profound emotional vibrancy.  How did you develop this documentary to show and incorporate, with such inventive clarity, the sensual, physically flirtatious--by turns rigorous and playful, mesmeric and visually stunning-- elements of each collaborative piece?

WW: You see, I was always myself most impressed by what I saw, and by what Pina Bausch showed me (through her pieces that we filmed) and by what the dancers offered me (through her personal contributions and their "danced answers" to my questions about Pina). A little bit like with Buena Vista Social Club, where I was utterly moved and taken by the music of these old Cuban gentlemen, I was mesmerized in the course of Pina by the continuous flow of beauty and the truth in front of my cameras. Doing them justice, without imposing myself--that was the constant task, for each and every shot.

D: As a director, apart from the personal, what was it about this project that was particularly distinct for you? Did you learn anything new? 

WW: I learned more than in any other film before. Both worlds, dance as well as 3D, were new to me. One amazing thing, certainly, was how far one can go without words. But the most humbling lesson: As a film director (and maybe I can speak for my entire profession), as film directors we think we know a lot about "body language." After all, we have actors in front of our cameras, sometimes even famous ones, and we tell them what to do. Move this way, move that way, do such and such gesture. After all, the actor's "presence" in front of the camera is his (or her) body language. So us directors, we fancy ourselves as knowledgeable, maybe even as specialists in that field. And then you see somebody like Pina Bausch at work, see how differently she deals with that body language, how rich her vocabulary is, how complex her grammar, and then you realize: You are nothing but an illiterate in this field, at most a beginner, but not more. That is humbling, and a great lesson.


Filmmaker Wim Wenders. Photo: Donata Wenders




Pina opens December 23 in New York and January 14 in Los Angeles, through Sundance Selects.

Denise O'Kelly is a writer and editor living in Santa Monica.