By Linus Ignatius
10.12.2014 / Exberliner
Daniel Wetzel of performance group Rimini Protokoll explains the trio’s “multi-player video piece” Situation Rooms, coming to Berlin December 14.
Guided by a video playing on an Ipad, you wander through a film set as you follow the perspectives of real people whose lives have been shaped by weapons: a drone pilot, a war photographer, a shooting champion at a gun range. Chosen for this year’s Theatertreffen but not shown in Berlin until now, Situation Rooms is the latest of Rimini Protokoll’s site-specific, informative pieces modeled after current events. The founders – Wetzel, fellow German Helgard Haug and Swiss Stefan Kaegi – have received numerous awards worldwide for their contributions to theater, including the German Faust prize (2007) and the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale (2011).
What inspired you to create a piece on the arms industry?
We were examining the paradox of producing and selling weapons. We thought, we want to learn more about why it is like that. So we started from the German viewpoint. But you can’t just discuss it nationally; it’s actually a European question. And then we decided to make a model of the whole world in these 20 rooms. It’s about many, very different viewpoints on the fact that there are weapons and violence everywhere in the world.
How did you choose your characters?
We wanted to talk to people in the industries. It’s not so easy, the further up you go. You can enter a shop and talk to the person that sells guns. But if you talk to lobbyists, they give you half an hour, they know what they want to say and they don’t listen to you. Talking to manufacturers – no chance. They’re not interested! They say, “Look, the theatre audience is the liberal left. Why should I stand there like an idiot and explain why my product is important? There are regulations. If you don’t like them, change them. Otherwise I will do my work. There is no reason for dialogue.” But in the end we managed to work with what you would call a lobbyist of the German weapon industries, a Swiss salesman of defence systems and a man who has been manufacturing canon tubes and other high precision parts throughout all his career at the belt.
How did you continue your research when you encountered these roadblocks?
One journalist said to us, “If you want to talk about weapons, you can think about the weapon or the wound.” So we also started research from the side of those who had been affected by violence. We spoke with refugees at Oranienplatz and people from Doctors Without Borders.
What kinds of people did you encounter?
I’d never spoken to a drone pilot before, or a lawyer who defends victims of drone strikes in Pakistan. I’d never spoken to someone responsible for cartel killings in Mexico, or refugees from Sudan who had to escape Libya because otherwise they would be slaughtered by rebels. You know these faces from TV or media, but it’s something else to meet them and learn what they have to share.
Is there anyone who stands out particularly strongly?
I was very busy with this refugee from Syria. He sits in front of Facebook watching every video that pops up in this propaganda battle. The only thing you can say for sure is yes, yes, people are dying in a very brutal way – younger than 10 and older than 80. And he is just watching this all the time to feed his hate and despair.
What was the intended effect of getting so close to people, and bringing the audience into that proximity?
In German when two people have a conflict, and one wants the other to see it from their point of view, we say “versetz dich mal in meine Lage”, or “put yourself in my shoes”. This is the main thing in Situation Rooms. You enter their situation. And every seven minutes and 20 seconds you change situations and enter the situation of someone else. We’re not claiming that these seven minutes will give you information in such a concentrated way as a news article. The information is something else. It’s a more physical and more emotional memory than facts.
Could you describe the films? How does the audience experience the story?
We were experimenting with this format of simultaneous shooting. Every film was shot simultaneously within just seven minutes inside the film set. There are 20 films, but each audience member sees only 10. That means you jump back in time nine times, starting at the beginning of those particular seven minutes. If you want to see the entire thing, you come twice. But this is not our intention. It is fractured. If you had made 400 rooms, with 400 stories, it would still be a fragment of the world. So many others could have shared their experiences with us.
There’s an element of almost childlike excitement for the audience as they move through the film set. But there are also moments in the films that are disturbing and upsetting – do you want to create a dissonance between these two feelings?
You are really under tension in this piece, especially in the beginning. You enter and you learn how the game works. You realise, I’m not outside the game. I don’t sit in front of the screen, just playing. I am a factor for others. But it’s not so horrible. There are moments when you get told really bad things, and you see what happens when people kill other people. You see chopped-up limbs, yes, and you see fragmented bodies. I’m not saying any of this is not super tough. But it’s more tactile, and compared to what you hear in reports and see on BBC or in documentaries, our stories are relatively modest.
What about the genre: film set, documentary theatre, and you called it a ‘game’…
“Multi-player video piece”, we’re calling it. But for us it’s important to always cross genres – that’s the fun of it. That’s the drive, the motive. What haven’t we done, what would be a new kind of experience? A project should always be an adventure. For us, theatre is a place where you can constantly try to reinvent the reasons we come together, and how we want to share stories. It’s a big laboratory that doesn’t work without the interest of the people that come and see it. So we always try to take the next step. For us, and for you.