‘India has great creative potential’

Walk of Courage is a thrilling short film that resulted from an Indo-German collaboration. It was made for the ongoing ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ celebrating 75 years of India’s independence. In this interview, Johannes Olszewski talks about his creative vision and the challenges he faced while making it

Ganga, the14 year old trapeze artist from Mumbai who is the central figure of the short 'Walk of Courage'

Photos: Azra Sadr

Director Johannes Olszewski has a knack for creating dramatic and powerful moving images. A self-taught filmmaker, his previous production Building Bridges won multiple awards at numerous festivals such as the Manhattan Film Festival, Wasatch Mountain Film Festival and the WYO Film Festival. Central to the film is the sport of slacklining, which is similar to tightrope walking except that the strip of webbing is not stretched tight but left slack.

 

Excepts
1. Tell us about the vision behind Walk of Courage. How challenging was it to find the right narrative for the short film?
A. First of all, I wanted to create a cinematic portrait of Delhi. My goal was to set the tone with wide shots in the afterglow of the evening, going through the night with all the colourful lights and noise, and then start the main narration in the magic hours of Delhi’s peaceful mornings.
I remember my first days in India very well. I was quite overwhelmed and also intimidated by some things—mostly by the pace of life and the traffic. Also, I experienced this somewhat romantic and melancholic feeling of urban loneliness, especially at night, and that was something I tried to share.
When I stood in front of the iconic Signature Bridge on one of my first days, I was overwhelmed by the endless amount of colourful lights around me. It was like facing a pulsing giant animal, never sleeping, always awake, just thoroughly restless.Walk of Courage
Together with the screenwriters Cody Christensen and Luisa Buellesbach we read lot of Indian poetry, speeches and short stories, trying to set the right tone. The final text is written in way it can be understood as an analogy to independence, but most of all it is a homage to take risks in life and be brave, either as an individual or as a nation.
The overall setting of the film is the 75th anniversary and celebration of Indian Independence—the ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ celebrations. We wanted to create an authentic project that highlights the close bond of friendship and cooperation between India and Germany by showing old and modern parts of India. By closely working together with the local slackline community, we were able to include a raw and modern sport, the values of which perfectly matched the principal goals of our project: trust, friendship, togetherness, diversity and cooperation.
The beginning of the film features the extremely powerful, original footage of the Independence celebrations from 1947 and also quotes Nehru’s ‘A Tryst with Destiny’ speech. It was important to me that, within the first seconds of the film, the audience gets hooked and is also able to understand the context.

 

Q2. What prompted you to particularly opt for slacklining for this?
A. I personally started to practice the sport of slacklining when I was 13 years old. My mother was very worried at first, but the bigger and more spectacular my projects got, the more she started to believe in its merits.
At one particular moment in my own athletic career, I decided to focus more on capturing and conveying the spirit of the sport. I put my attention more towards the message of the sport and what it means to me, rather than only chasing heights (though that is something we also still do in a different way). Nowadays my passion and what fulfils me the most is developing a good story and creating a beautiful visual way of telling it. I believe that the symbolism of slacklining is very strong and can serve as a great metaphor for transporting things of a bigger meaning.

 

Q3. Was it very challenging?
A. The production was very demanding, but I had the best team that one could imagine. Getting the right permissions to film at our selected locations was very demanding as was setting up a 30-metre-high slackline across the Red Fort. Sebastian Fuchs, spokesperson of the Embassy of Germany, gathered all the permissions that were required. I would also like to express my gratitude to the officials of the Ministry of External Affairs and the Archaeological Survey of India. Without their help and trust, we could not have realized our project.

 

Q4. What kind of conversations did you have with Sebastian at different stages of the project?
A. Sebastian and I made a great team. Already in the earliest stages of pre-production, we called each other on a daily basis and made sure to align on all big topics such as creative direction, production and the event curation. What I like the most about him (besides many other things), is his hospitality and the fascination he has for India. Unfortunately, we have not been able to travel together yet.

 

Q5. What was it like to work with Indian slackliners as well as the internationally renowned Alexander Schulz?
A. India has this big and constantly growing slackline community. It was a big honour for us to work together with the local slackliners. The Indian slackline community is very well connected and does amazing projects all over the place. Alex and I have worked closely together for years and we are very excited to see the development of the sport in India over the next years.
Actually, Alex has already booked a ticket back to India again and cannot wait to come back. Also, other than the slackliners, we also teamed up with many other creative people for the film, including Mohammed Abood from Boxout.fm, Yogesh Saini from Delhi Street Art, a 14-year-old trapeze artist from Mumbai named Ganga who is the central figure of the film and Sagar Singh, a creative artist.

Director Johannes Olszewski (Right)

Q6. How satisfying has the project been for you?
A. Well, I am never completely happy with my work. But I am really proud of what we have achieved together as a team. What I like the most about the piece is the power of the historic part in the beginning, the aerial photography, and the flow of the exploration of Chandni Chowk, among other things. I really hope that our film will play at different film festivals in India and has a chance to be seen by more people.

 

Q7. How do you look at the ongoing ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ celebrations?
A. I am very excited. My heart is with India for this amazing anniversary, all its amazing people, its insanely beautiful nature — and I am so excited about the next coming years. The people we worked together with were a big inspiration for me and I never experienced a country with such a giant creative potential.

 

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Murtaza Ali Khan has been a film critic since 2010. He has curated and presented retrospectives and film festivals for various embassies and high commissions in New Delhi. He has also served on the jury for a variety of film festivals. He tweets at @MurtazaCritic