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Meet the Filmmakers: Bartek Konopka--'Rabbit à la Berlin'

By Tom White

Over the past couple of weeks, we at IDA have been introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, currently running through August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Bartek Konopka, director/writer of Rabbit à la Berlin.

Synopsis: This documentary is a fascinating history lesson told through the eyes of animals--the unknown story of the thousands of wild rabbits who lived in the Death Zone of the Berlin Wall. For 28 years, the strip of earth enclosed between the two walls was their safest of enclaves. Full of grass, no predators, guards to ensure that no one disturbed them. But sadly, one day, the wall fell...The rabbits' fate serves as a guise for an allegorical tale of a totalitarian system.

IDA:  How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Bartek Konopka: I started working for TV stations 12 years ago as a reporter. Then I got the chance to make a short docus for different programs, quite a lot of which were the best film schools for me. With a couple of them, I had no problem entering film school later on.  

IDA:  What inspired you to make Rabbit à la Berlin?

BK: Information that thousands of rabbits were living free and happy, enclosed between the Berlin Walls. I realized it is a unique chance to tell about the history of communism and about the fates of my parents and friends, in a very surprising and meaningful way.

IDA:  What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

BK: Nobody had done this kind of documentary before. We had to invent this fairy tale-allegory-docu genre, and it had to find its own language--and it took us four years to complete. 

IDA:  How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

BK: Our first idea was to make a fairy tale docu narrated by the Esterhazy Rabbit, an animated character taken from a book famous in Germany. Then we changed it into the story about the GDR [German Democratic Republic--East Germany], with people talking about their lives. Finally, we came up with the purest idea--a kind of nature film about rabbits living in very special conditions. All the rest became clear for the audience... 

IDA: As you've screened Rabbit à la Berlin--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

BK: The biggest satisfaction was when the old people in Poland or Germany told us, "Yes, this is about us. We lived like rabbits; now that we can see it clearly, this is terrifying. The western audience told us, "We haven't expected one can make a history film in such a way." Andrzej Wajda, Oscar winner, told us, "I realized those rabbits were smarter than people surviving communism. They look at the GDR soldiers with such a peace and wisdom..."

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

BK: Werner Herzog-- Lessons of Darkness, Wild Blue Yonder; March of the Penguins; Microcosmos; and Zelig by Woody Allen.

Rabbit à la Berlin is screening at the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.