Interview with Henrika Kull

Sophie Charlotte Rieger
Sophie Charlotte Rieger

EWA Network meets Henrika Kull

Henrika Kull's debut feature Jibril, tells a love story between a single mom and a male prisoner. Set in the Arabic community of Berlin, Jibril examines the power of romantic silliness as well as the longing for a “normal life” – whatever that might be.

The film premiered at this year's Berlinale in the Panorama section. A few months later it also entered the competition of the International Women's Film Festival Dortmund / Köln. EWA blogger Sophie Charlotte Rieger, fell in love with the film at the Berlinale, and therefore met Henrika Kull in Köln for an interview in the lobby of their hotel—discussing how this student project came about.

Jibril was the film you presented upon graduating for your Bachelors in film directing. I hear you did the editing yourself as well, how come?

Because my editor left the team, due to a family accident. And there I was—with 90 hours of material—I didn't know what to do. I desperately looked for someone. But as we didn't have a single cent of budget, we couldn't afford professional editors. As for the less experienced ones, they had never edited feature films before. I guess they didn't dare taking up the task. We shot in a very particular way, very free, without any regular takes, and that made them feel insecure. So I had to do it myself.

How do you produce movies in film school: Is there a budget for these films or do you have to come up with funding yourself?

There is a budget for movies produced at school, but for the graduate projects they prefer short films. I successfully fought for my project but that didn't give me more money.

So you did a feature film with a short film budget?

Exactly. I was lucky to get a bit of money from the equal opportunity commissioner, but it remained a ridiculously small amount for a feature film.

What about actors and equipment? How do you pay for that?

The actors usually work for free and you can use the school's equipment.

Didn't you try to get some public funding?

Yes, I did! As we were shooting in a prison in Hessen, I wanted to apply for funding at the respective regional fund. But they advised that I talk to Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg, because my film school was in Brandenburg. The Medienboard on the other hand does have a special program for graduate films which is called „Leuchtstoff“, but it only provides funding for Master students. And I was a bachelor student. So I couldn't apply there either.

Why did you choose a prison as the setting for your love story?

I've always been interested in prisons. So I ended up doing some research and met a group of men, who are also in the film. They told me about their personal relationships, it was very interesting for me to follow up on this aspect of their private lives. Often it's the inmates who break up with their partners. They can't bare being confronted to the outside world—they feel weak due to their imprisonment.

Why did you choose an Arabic background for your protagonists?

During my research I was getting interested in the women as well. So I spent some time in front of a prison in Berlin and just talked to the women who went there to visit their boyfriends. And that's where I met Yasmin who told me her story and also invited me into her home. I ended up doing a short documentary just about her, Absently Present. We got really close, I met her family and daughters, who are playing the three girls in Jibril. I also learned quite a bit about the Arabic culture.

Apart from the three girls and the men in prison, did you work with professional actors?

Most of my actors are non-professionals. My main actress didn't have any movie experience but played in the theater before. Malik, the main actor, had played minor parts in German television and in a music video. But most of my cast I found on instagram or on the street even.

The acting is very natural. Did the actors improvise a lot?

Not really. We shot quite chronologically, they knew what was happening in the scenes and they had read the script at some point but they were not allowed to have it on set. Surprisingly, the movie remains very, very close to the script anyways!

What about the prison chaplain?

That's Tobias, a friend of mine, who is an actual prison chaplain, criminologist and sociologist. We shot five days in an actual high security prison in Hessen, where he works.

Did you face any problems being a female director working with male prisoners?

As I was with Tobias, who was highly respected, I didn't have any problems. They liked me very much. Also because when I first got there, I didn't enter the prison as a director but just as someone interested in the place and its people. So they trusted me right away.

On one hand, Jibril is a romantic movie that inspires us as an audience to be romantic ourselves. But then again you use cheezy Arabic soap operas, that your characters like to watch, to ironically undermine the romance.

Being in love and in a romantic relationship is the most important topic in my film. I was interested in the decision between a real, every day relationship and this romantic exaltation of having a crush on someone who is not available. That's why I liked the setting of the prison: It's like a metaphor for a long distance relationship. We see a woman looking for romantic exaltation who at the same time, due to her culture, has this yearning for „how it's supposed to be“: a stable relationship, a family, living together, spending your lives together…

Where does the movie go now? Will it be in cinemas?

We are invited to screen at various festivals, but we don't have a distribution company yet. I wasn't really aware of how important that is, actually. A lot of journalists have approached me saying: We would love to write something about your film… when it comes to cinemas.