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[InC-terview] Documentary Filmmaker Michael Schindhelm!

By Flora  /  29 Apr 2017 (Saturday)

InCinemas had the chance to speak to multi-hyphenate documentary filmmaker Michael Schindhelm who is also a writer, performing arts expert and a cultural advisor for international organisations. 

His latest documentary, “The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg” which will be screening at the 27th European Union Film Festival on 16 May, documents the Uli Sigg’s live as an entrepreneur, a diplomat, and most importantly, the renowned collector of Chinese art. Both Michael and Uli Sigg will be in attendance for a post-show discussion

27th European Union Film Festival
Date: 11-21 May 2017
Venue: National Gallery Singapore
Ticket Pricing: $12

(Purchase your tickets at Sisitc!)

InCinemas: Hi Michael, share with us, how did it all happen? 

This documentary “The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg” is like the second chapter on our two films about China. First was about the making of Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, ‘Bird’s Nest – Herzog & De Meuron in China”. 

I got to know Uli Sigg in the early 2000s when I was shooting the first film and was able to visit his house and see his storage of art pieces. Throughout the journey with Uli Sigg and other artists, you can see that he was very respected by other artists and he is already thinking what he wants to do with the art pieces in the future. 

While I was shooting my first film, there was already an idea about exploring more about this man obviously because he was so instrumental, no only in the art world, but also the social engineering between the West and China. I got to know about his story and history during the process. He is someone so unique! He was the first person to collect art pieces from China in a philanthropic way, and in an enormous amount of artwork which otherwise would have been disappeared because no one at that time cared about art. He not only started collecting the art pieces, he even started promoting them.

Uli Sigg’s biography and achievements were great topics to make a film. We spoke about this in early 2012 only started shooting in 2014, which was completed towards the end of 2015. 

InCinemas: What were some of the challenges making this documentary? 

First of all, like always, money. For a film like this, you need close to a million US dollars, which is not easy to find. Because the film is produced from Switzerland, there is a lot of cost involved in travelling with a crew. And for a documentary in particular. as this is not something commercial even if it enters the movie theatres or sold to TV stations, you may not even break even. It took us some time and effort to get some TV stations onboard to air our documentary. 

Second, Uli Sigg himself has a rather complex biography with different layers. He was a manager, a diplomat and an art collector. A lot of it happened some time ago so there isn’t much of a digital archive about him before 1995 or so because there was no internet. He was also never really a photographer, so there was no imagery to tap into. It was difficult to sort of reenact the world that Uli Sigg had entered in the late 70s, but I am very confident that the artwork itself will bridge this gap. The artworks help to tell the story visually because it’s very visual, almost replacement to almost non-existing documents like film and photography. 

For that, I had to convince the artists to not talk about their artwork, but their lives instead. I had to find people who are willing to talk to me in that way and that needed some kind of intimacy, and trust from their end to open up also. It’s not comfortable for everyone to talk about their lives, that’s why it took me quite some time. It’s important to establish some kind of trust and relationship with these people. Sometimes, we can talk and shoot over a few days, but only use about 10-15 minutes of footage. 

InCinemas: What was the relationship between you and Uli Sigg like? 

Today, he is a friend. We’ve known each other for quite some time now. We accompanied each other and visited each other all these years, and  I think in some ways we have something in common. Coincidentally, the day he moved to China was the day I moved to the Soviet Union. Though I’m younger than him, we had this somewhat kind of similarity of having a kind of interest in another culture and adventure, not forgetting the risk you take by doing this. 

I suggested this whole project to him, and obviously, you can’t do the film without him. He was rather open from the beginning and had some trust in me that I was able to tell the story in the way he will accept. It was important to allow me to get really close to his life also to his private and personal life. A lot of rapport and trust were needed. It was a very open and sincere relationship.

I do believe Uli Sigg has achieved something so amazing but of course, there will always be people talking about another side of the story. There were people who were critical about Uli Sigg’s donations to Hong Kong in particular, but no one was willing to stand up in front of the camera to say so. I actually tried really hard to find critics… but it was difficult. 

InCinemas: This documentary is after all, about Uli Sigg. Can you share more about balancing his views on the subject, and with your direction as a filmmaker?

It was first and foremost, my film and Uli Sigg understands that. Of course, I will explain to him that it has to be my film. “You are the subject, but I am the author… I am telling your story.” 

We started spending days together not doing anything else but him telling me his story again and again and he had to remember because he had no documents, no diary, nothing of those. And that was without the camera and just audio recordings. I had recorded about 13 hours of conversation between us. I learned all of this and probably got my own picture of his biography. 

Photo Credit: ulisiggmovie.com

(Win tickets to EUFF 2017!)

InCinemas: What have you learned from filming “The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg”?

During the preparation of the film, I’ve learned about the recent history in China, more about the 80s. It was for me about the possibility of telling a story which was already about to occupy my mind for quite some time. It was like the completion about two chapters about China. 

I learned certain subjects like the industries, factories and the people behind working in these factories. Getting to know the layers of society which you may not be able to be exposed in your own lives. So as a documentary filmmaker, it’s an opportunity to learn about other professions in the other countries and cities. To travel throughout China to see the urbanisation coming and all of those are really eye-opening for me. So I think documentary filmmaking is always great for widening your horizons. It forces you to navigate in uncharted territories.

Don't miss the screening of 'The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg' on 16 May 2017!
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