Portrait of Lena Karbe (LMH, 2011)


Director Lena Karbe (LMH, 2011) talks about working in the film industry, her time at Oxford and her new award-winning documentary

Published: 12 August 2022


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What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently in the distribution and promotion phase of my feature documentary, Black Mambas.

What’s the timeline been?

My last shooting phase was in May last year, that’s when we finished filming. The post-production lasted about six to seven months and was finished in December. The film premiered in Copenhagen at the CPH:Dox Film Festival in March this year.

What's involved in the promotion stage?

In our case it involves a festival tour with international festival premieres in different countries. We are very proud to have the UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival on 16 August and then it will be showcased at the Bertha DocHouse in London starting from 26 August.

During the festival tour we have about two to three countries per month, where we are invited to participate in the Q&As after the screenings. Then there is a cinema release and after the cinema release, there is TV and other releases. Before the cinema release in Germany this November, there will be a four-week cinema tour for me, with promotional and press work.

Before we discuss Black Mambas, can you tell us what the process has been like and how you're feeling at the moment?

It has been incredibly rewarding. It definitely feels like a privilege to be able to complete the film during the pandemic and now to be able to share it in person with different audiences in different countries. As we’ve learned in the course of the last couple of years, anything can happen. It’s a great opportunity for me today, talking about it, to think back, and to put me again into the context of my studies. It has been ten years since I’ve graduated. So it’s easy to forget how you have come to what you’re doing now. For me, it has always been a dilemma whether to continue working in academia or to make films. Because making films is such a time-consuming process. It’s almost impossible to do something else, but I very much hope that I can find a way to unite both worlds – that of academia and of filmmaking – at some point in my life. I already do it to an extent with the documentary filmmaking and the research, since some techniques and working routines are similar. But I also love teaching and would love to be able to teach film at some point in future.   

I think in the film industry, it’s very important to remind yourself that there is no one right way, or no one right career path. It is unusual to start making films after academic studies. The usual way is to start very young and look for practical experiences, like working on a set for example. This is a way to do it. Or you go to a film school very young. I wanted to take a different approach. It is probably true for every industry, but especially in the creative industry, and it is important to remind yourself that there is no one right path to do it. There is also a cult of youth in the film industry too. There are different reasons for that and it is important to keep focused and not get discouraged. It is just crazy, I remember at Oxford (I was 25 at the time), I was told by several filmmakers on different occasions that I’m already too old to be starting in the industry. People usually project their insecurities on you when they say these things.

My fellow students and professors were very open-minded and supportive. My Oxford environment gave me crucial impulses for my career and it remains a key part of my journey and of where I am now.

How did you make a film like Black Mambas? What was the driver for you, the inspiration?

What I’ve always found fascinating about the medium of film is that it has so much power to influence people, often without them realising it. I was always interested in the specific mechanisms, how it manages to work like this. Film is something that you not only appreciate intellectually, it’s something that you perceive with your whole body, it’s a profound visceral and emotional experience. I grew up in the ideologically confused (and confusing) space of a recently dilapidated Soviet Union during the very turbulent times of the early 90s. One of my fondest childhood memories was how watching films with family and friends became a collective experience of emotional connection. We had an obsession with French and Italian cinema. That was my first experience of how this medium can give you a sense of identification and space for connection.

One of the questions I began asking myself during my studies was how certain dynamics and situations we find ourselves in now, are informed by our history. I believe that it’s important to understand these mechanisms. In my undergraduate studies I was writing about post-colonial French cinema and how some films of the post-colonial era continue to use the same tropes and tools the films (and to some extent other media) of the colonial times used in order to reinforce “the Othering” of the Colonised. Let’s not forget that the medium of film is also an invention of the Coloniser.

Black Mambas basically continues this questioning, but in a filmic form. It actually does exactly that: it deconstructs our perception of what we see or think ourselves seeing. Because that is the question that was always fascinating to me in the film – what do we look at, what do we actually see and what it does to us. These are the questions. Black Mambas is a story of an anti-poaching female unit in South Africa. What you look at are strong, amazing women, protecting nature in Kruger National Park. But what does it do to us actually, what do we see? We have a feeling that there’s much more to this story, and maybe something is off about it. It is constructed in a way that it starts like you expect it to start and then it gets deconstructed. Then what you see is becomes something different. You see the disconnect between local population and nature. You hopefully begin to empathise with it and you begin to understand the reason why there is this disconnect between local communities and national parks in the first place. I believe that we – in the countries of the “Global North” – do not look enough at conservation from the post-colonial perspective, but we should be. There is a huge difference in the perception of conservation in these countries and where it actually takes place.

Tell us about the production of the film?

In this particular case I’m the director and also the main producer on the film. So my first point of contact at the idea stage was my friend, a former investigative journalist and now a documentarian Tristan Coloma, who co-wrote the script with me. The next step was approaching key creatives and financial partners. The choice of potential partners for the project is an important creative process, not only a logistical one. These choices will be crucial for what will become of your film. I am very grateful for everything the project did to me personally, everything I’ve learned because of it, new acquaintances I’ve got and the opportunities I’ve had because of Black Mambas, to enjoy working again with some old colleagues and the chance to meet some amazing new ones.

We’ve already had a treatment based on the first telephone conversations with the Black Mambas rangers. The first re-write came after the research trip, and in-person interviews, and considerable time together with the protagonists. After that – it is basically a constant re-write on paper or in your head that continues in the editing room.

Documentary scripts are quite different from fictional ones, but not because there is less dramaturgy. On the contrary, the structure is maybe even more important. The main difference is the way of working on the script. I personally like to be very well prepared, be very clear about the vision and to have strong anticipations, but the key is to remain flexible and to improvise during the shoot. I would describe it as a state of “relaxed concentration”. In my experience, it is much easier to improvise when you are well prepared. In that case you know your story and how to treat the unexpected situations, to develop them further or to discard them.

From the beginning my decision was to have several shorter shooting periods. Partly because in between I could have a look at the material in the editing room and to see what's working and what’s not. Another important factor I wanted was for everyone to speak their mother tongues. Even though the ladies speak excellent English, it’s still a big difference what language you speak when it comes to really intimate topics. In between the shoots I also could have it translated completely, so that by the time we went there the next time, I was very well prepared.

How much was instinct to do production that way, versus what you may have learned in an academic setting or even what you may have experienced in the industry?

Well I think in this case it was definitely both. Doing it this way made the situation a little bit more controllable.

What has it been like for you as a female filmmaker, from your experience of the industry during your academic time to where you are now, successfully producing an award-winning documentary?

The film industry has always been and still is – the same as conservation – very much a "white man’s thing". I now live and work in Germany. The situation in the industry is still far from perfect, especially because often it’s being treated like, ‘Oh now the problem is solved, because now we’re all talking about this’. But it’s still not that great. The film school students' gender ratio, if we simplify here and talk in binary terms, is about 50/50, but when it comes to actual industry representation, the numbers get much worse. For the scrips that made it to the screen, written by solely female writers, for example, the ratio is only about 20%. It’s a structural problem. Cinema is a powerful identification tool and we all want to recognise ourselves in what we see on screen. I remember I was already in my 20s when I was watching Homeland and realised that for the first time I’m strongly identifying with the main female character. I realised my whole life I’ve actually been identifying with male characters on television and didn’t even notice it. It felt incredibly rewarding. It is very important to become conscious of the fact how we have been socialised. Film and television play a huge part in this process. We have been flooded with a certain perspective and internalised a lot of this “male gaze” and misogyny. You know, in politics, if in the room of people working on a policy no one looks like the people who will be affected by this policy, something is clearly wrong. It’s the same thing with film. I’ve started my career in production and I’ve heard a lot of these conversations, how producers are putting writers' rooms together, for example. There is unfortunately still a lot of tokenism, when it comes to engaging women and non-binary creatives or people of colour. To me only a diverse creative team can do justice to the reality of the world that we live in today. If you look at the decision makers, board members and managers of big companies, you see that there is still this structural problem. To me, 90% of the barriers are systematic and maybe about 10% are mind-set barriers. As for the latter, it’s also very important to talk more about the specifics of certain occupations in film and lift the veil of the mystery. It is definitely a big part of my purpose and personal motivation, to get stories and perspectives outside the status quo to be seen and heard on screen.

You spent a year at Oxford for your master's degree, what was your time like?

It was amazing, really amazing. And to me, I think one of the most genius parts of it is the college system, where you get to meet people that are not necessarily from the course. This was the first time where there was the possibility to have a mix, to have very mixed friends and mixed social context. And I felt that this was just amazing. The course I studied was on film aesthetics, so the idea was that it’s very concentrated on this. Because before that I studied performing arts, with a focus on film. But it still was never so concentrated on one thing particular. The course was like a puzzle, putting together film aesthetics from different times and different countries to have this better understanding and that’s exactly what interested me: how this medium is used exactly; how do you analyse films; how do you watch films?

Finally, how did Oxford change you?

I’ve always strongly felt that there is no one right way to do certain things in life and the most important thing is to figure out for yourself what you want to do, and not fear people telling you that is the way to do it. I felt Oxford actually embodied for me this goal in life – to figure out what interests me and then pursue it on my terms. I felt that it was one of the most challenging years for me. But also, I was somehow in my comfort zone at the time. I felt the environment was so supportive and this is not how I felt with the other very competitive studies or courses that I did. It was a very unique experience. I felt that the aim was not to discourage you, or not to break you, which is how film school can feel. At Oxford, I really had this feeling that the aim is to bring the best out of you. To reinforce and encourage you to find your definition of success and then pursue it. Because these studies that break you, I mean, surely the professors, they have some idea in mind when they do it, but I just know that a lot of people actually do not make it after that. At Oxford there was a feeling – first of all, you already made it because you’re here and now we enjoy this year. We think together, what is next, and how you’re going to get there.

Lena's UK premiere of Black Mambas is at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival and you can also see the film at the Bertha DocHouse in London from 26 August.