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The Making of Kunduz - the Other Side of the Truth
by Marinell Haegelin

The historical facts upon which Kunduz is based was a blip on the world screen; retrospectively, the air strike represents the gravest post-WWII German military mistake with, incredibly, many of those responsible still in their positions. In June 2010, after being threatened by a lawsuit, the German government paid 102 families of identifiable civilian victims $5,000—approximately 20,000 Afghanis—albeit without admitting liability. Minor, compared to the lives senselessly altered forever in hamlets along the river. Stefan Gieren, writer and co-director, admits that perhaps if he were an industry veteran he might not have been so daring, but having just graduated from film school he followed his heart. “I am convinced that filmmakers have an important responsibility in a democracy. A feature film can give a face to anonymous historic incidents. It gives the audience the opportunity to change perspectives and to rediscover the story behind the headlines and common prejudiced opinions.”

Which is precisely what the directors aimed for. Directors Stefan Gieren & Simona Gieren assembled like-minded committed filmmakers sharing the opinion that complacency shouldn’t be tolerated. Stefan’s screenplay—the first draft was written in four days and nights during Berlinale 2011—is based on eyewitness reports. As a budding stage director Simona began rehearsing with the actors during script-development. “We’ve learned an incredible lot about the characters in this process.” She articulates, “It may be uncommon for a film to rehearse so intensely, but we realized at a very early stage that this project would be all about the actors. This film features so many intense dialogs and long monologues.” The stellar performances bear credence of well-spent time.

Stefan’s Afghanistan connection is strong; since 2006 he has supervised the development of an educational TV-station network in the Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif provinces. Seven days of the four weeks they spent in Afghanistan (usually German filmmakers substitute Morocco) was dedicated to shooting B-roll, i.e. supplementary footage. “While searching an area for an establishing shot, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a minefield. Such a production can only be done with the support of the local chiefs and they were surprisingly welcoming.” Cinematographer Sin Huh adds, “… the landscapes, the people – are so unique that you can immediately tell (cinematically) the difference.”

Principal photography, i.e. all scenes filmed inside the original Tupolev plane (these are still in use in Afghanistan) at Finowfurt with extras from the German–Afghan community and with Faisal’s girlfriend took ten days, using a two-camera perspective. The editing process, interrupted several times, took almost a year. Other situations popped up: A more than two-month hiatus while preoccupied with the Academy Awards; a stint as Executive Producer attached to a thriller film with a (big) budget. Although it may have taken one-and-a-half years to finish the film, Stefan expounds, “Kunduz needed the time to grow and evolve even during postproduction. The tone of the film has changed a lot (especially) in the last weeks before the premiere.”

Kunduz had its European premiere at Filmfest Hamburg (FF HH) 2012; it was a push getting the English subtitles added in time, and you don’t want to know how “down-to-the-wire” it came for that theatrical screening copy’s completion. However, a last-minute editing decision (last scene first) enhances the opening sequence.

Simona’s stage background in symbiosis with Stefan’s skills as a producer and writer powerfully imprint their first feature-length film. “I knew what, possibly, would be really good for the film, and Simona knew how we could get the (desired) result.” The Film Commission of Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein (FFHSH) funded this low-budget project. While often low-budget productions make compromises—Kunduz was shot in entirety for below 100,000 USD—this team opted for a different approach. “We tried to let the budget follow the aesthetics and dramaturgy and not the other way around. I think that if we had had more money we would not have made a different film … the film’s strength is in showing how war affects people, not the cruel (news) images.” Stefan enthuses, “This has been an enormous team effort. So many talented people committed themselves to this adventure because they believed that there was a story that had to be told.”

Two weeks before the FF HH premiere, Kunduz had a US premiere at the NuArt Landmark Theatre, Los Angeles, California. Interestingly and quite unexpected for Stefan was that a lot of American military veterans attended and after the screenings the discussions were noteworthy. Which transpired following the three FF HH screenings: “I was overwhelmed by the audience’s reaction. I’m aware that this is a very intense film and a challenging one as well. In terms of dramaturgy, we took a rather experimental approach. Yet people loved it and they stayed long after the screenings to talk about the subject. It’s an incredible experience as a filmmaker if your film really moves people.” Plans are now in place for an independent theatrical release in late 2013, as well as actively submitting to film festivals worldwide.

Proficient and passionate about filmmaking, Stefan’s projects in the pipeline include:
— Developing films with low- to medium-size budgets, which happens to be the development phase he loves most. “The AA nomination gave me the opportunity to talk to a lot of talented young directors and I’m really looking forward to the creative discussions ahead.”

— Stefan’s just finished the script about a teenage boy falling in love with a girl suffering from leukemia. Summer Love’s storyline is how the boy, busy rehearsing with his band for a contest that might earn them a record contract, now has to struggle with a love that might only survive a single summer.

— A project being co-developed with Simona, and again blending stage and screen, is called The Crash. A multi-perspective drama, five peoples’ stories collide when they are delayed in a traffic jam on a remote German highway, and the action takes place within the first 15 minutes of the bottleneck. The filmmakers’ goal is to shoot everything on a single day by carefully rehearsing beforehand, then staging the five different stories and shooting simultaneously with numerous cameras.

Stefan expresses, “However, all projects will involve a good portion of humor—"Kunduz" had no room for comedy and I’ve been really missing it....”

Following FF HH, the Gierens’ flew to Los Angeles, California, where Stefan’s (Executive Producer) film On Air ended up winning Best Editing at Screamfest Horror Film Festival. After receiving the Bronze Medal at the 38th Student Academy Awards 2011, Stefan’s (Producer) Raju, about illegal child trafficking in Calcutta, India, was one of the five nominations for the Live Action Short category 2012. Simona is an artist, and her theatrical background includes working with children of war zones, i.e. therapeutic theater. This husband and wife epitomize first-class teamwork, which bears keeping an eye on in the future.