DOC NYC 2021 Women Directors: Meet Valerie Blankenbyl – “The Bubble”

Valerie Blankenbyl is an Austrian documentary filmmaker. She previously directed feature length documentaries “I Am Jesus” and “A Mother’s Dream.”

“The Bubble” starts screening at the 2021 DOC NYC Film Festival on November 12. The fest runs from November 10-28.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

VB: “The Bubble” is a film about the world’s largest retirement community and the people who live in and around it.

It is a film about living and aging in a world that doesn’t accept or respect age. This creates spaces that are very separate from one another in many different ways, affecting society, nature, and the culture of whole communities.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

When my parents started to think about retirement, I realized that for many people, growing older and retiring was a challenging phase in life and one that isn’t much talked about. After quite some time researching different spaces in which retirees liked to spend their time, the Swiss producer of “The Bubble,” Dario Schoch, found out about The Villages. Since we didn’t have many retirement communities in Europe, we soon decided that we needed to see the place for ourselves.

It was quite clear after my first visit together with DP Joe Berger that this was the right place for our film. We were struck by the unreal, cinematic quality of this place, by the openness and contentedness of its residents. and also by the absolute separation between inside and outside of “the bubble,” as residents playfully call it their home.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

VB: I hope that people think about their own bubbles that they— and all of us— live in and what effects this has on us as a society. I’d like them to question themselves about how many friends they have that aren’t their age. “The Bubble” doesn’t intend to point a finger at anyone who chooses to live in a retirement community. I have a lot of understanding for that decision and I think our audiences will too.

After film screenings of “The Bubble,” we often have interesting discussions about how we want to live in the future, not just in terms of aging. Do we want to live separately from one another? Comfortable in little pockets of like-mindedness? Surrounded by people our age, our skin color, our politics? Or perhaps in a more colorful version of the future? A future in a society that is strong enough to take the friction that difference produces. I hope that people will find the courage to step out of their bubbles every once in a while.

I will be attending the screening on November 17th for a Q&A together with co-producer Karin C. Berger and we are both looking forward to hearing what our U.S. audience thinks.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

VB: The biggest challenge in making the film was the time in took to finance it. We started to research in 2014 and shot the film in 2019, releasing it in 2021.

We all had to be very patient to get things started. but once we had the financing sorted, I was extremely blessed with a fantastic team where everybody involved was simply the expert in their field. It sounds silly, but once we got going I was even grateful for having challenging times at all.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

VB: The film was produced as a Swiss-Austrian co-production (70/30%), which opened the doors to both Swiss and Austrian film funding. Quite early on in the development of the film, we luckily met Karin C. Berger at Golden Girls Films, and once the Swiss film funding came through, the Austrian side did too.

Our film funding system is based on state and regional funding bodies and TV financing.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

VB: I grew up without a TV but always loved going to the cinema. Later on, I discovered my interest in documentaries, watching films by Werner Herzog, Michael Glawogger, and Kim Longinotto. Being taught by Babak Payami, Sabine Gisiger, Christian Frei, and Jennifer Fox sent me on my way as a filmmaker.

I realized on my first few smaller projects that pointing a camera at people doesn’t just give you an opportunity to ask cheeky questions, but that it creates a concentrated space between the person talking and the person listening. When filming with someone there is trust and closeness, sometimes even friendship.

Directing documentaries combines everything that makes life interesting for me: writing, traveling, meeting, and working with fascinating and talented people. It also gives me the rare luxury of spending years thinking about the same topic. That certainly isn’t for everyone, but it is a big part of what I love about making documentaries.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

VB: Best advice: Only get into filmmaking if you can’t help it.

If you feel something, the audience will likely feel it too.

Trust in the documentary process. That no matter what, with patience, something worthwhile will happen.

Worst advice: You should only make films about what you know.

This isn’t exactly advice, but more an impression I think you get when looking at the film industry, especially the European film industry, and more specifically, the documentary film industry. You get the impression that people can live off directing documentary films. Perhaps had I been warned, I wouldn’t have listened, but I was a bit shocked at how hard it is surviving off making documentaries.

I have no idea what it is like in the U.S., but the worst advice I was given is this omitted and vital fact: that so many people making films in Europe are able to make them because they have other sources of income. That probably counts for many art disciplines.

As a film student, this doesn’t matter so much, but later on when you want everyone to get paid properly and you want to do this job in a sustainable fashion, it becomes harder and harder to overlook the often (self-)exploitative nature of the film industry. What this also means is that only people who can afford it make films in the long run and that means that only certain voices are heard.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

VB: Being underestimated as a woman and maybe as someone who isn’t the loudest person in the room has often helped me while making films. Things that are seen as a disadvantage don’t have to be one. Be courageous and remember that probably anyone out there making films is sometimes unsure of themselves — and if they are not, they probably should be. Questioning yourself is a vital quality in a filmmaker.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

VB: “The Nine,” by Katy Grannan.

This film shows the director’s love and respect for her subjects. It shows that she spent a lot of time with them, and that the film is a collaboration between filmmaker and protagonists. Not only does it depict a world that is hard to access, but it also manages a wonderful balance between reality and poetry. It’s a perfect example of the beauty that can happen when you watch and listen.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

VB: I have two small kids, which has been a total blessing in the pandemic. I didn’t have much time to worry or to think at all about what effects the pandemic was having on my work or my industry. There are always two little beings that need all of my attention when I’m not working. And when I am working, I need to be fully focused and can’t waste any time worrying.

The pandemic has affected the edit and post-production of “The Bubble.” The wonderful editor Nela Märki was living in one country, the producers in another, the DP, color grader, and mixer somewhere else, and of course we didn’t expect that we wouldn’t be able to travel. On top of that, it proved difficult to work creatively during lockdown because in phases some of us weren’t even allowed to go outside for a walk. It slowed things down, but retrospectively I think slowing down has actually improved the film.

Releasing the film during the pandemic wasn’t and isn’t easy either, and I’ve been very impressed with our whole team at how inventively and optimistically everyone was handling it. We are lucky the film is being shown and that we even had a proper cinema release in Switzerland and Austria.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing— and creating— negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make the doc world more inclusive?

VB: I think most of Europe is different to the U.S. because studying film — or anything else — is much cheaper, even free in Austria. So at least there isn’t as much of a financial barrier to get into filmmaking, which I think is a big factor in terms of inclusion. That being said, resources still aren’t fairly distributed.

At the moment the Austrian film industry is battling over getting regulations in place that will ensure that women and men get an equal amount of film funding and that the Austrian inclusion rider becomes mandatory. It is voluntary at the moment. I think regulations like that can be a great tool to change the level of inclusion of all kinds in any industry.

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