By • Aug 25th, 2014 •

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Michael Glawogger championed the inhabitants in the world who were subjected to harshness and cruelty toiling in the fruitless labor that bore only the bare minimum to survive. His humanitarian spirit is reflected in his films that served as an outreach; the cinematic equivalent of consoling – to those – the exploited, the everyman and woman, whom he dignified by offering a voice in a painted celluloid picture. 

He found success as a filmmaker. Glawogger’s observations in his documentaries were not as a spectator, generic, and distant, but with compassion and understanding. He possessed a unique view and artistic vision. His ability to shroud a young prostitute in a veil of candle light in a saintly manner, giving solace to a bruised and disgraced empty soul, offered a moment of effulgence to a dark existence.

In death, perception of the deceased is skewed and eulogies of praise are delivered. In the case of Michael Glawogger, all praise of this good man ring true. My panagyric is testament to this. Michael Glawogger’s commitment to film and to his salt of the earth subjects is a great loss to audiences and to the people whose lives will never be touched by him. Ironically, Glawogger died a death suffered by the downtrodden in the poorest African nations. Death from Malaria in Kenya took away a person that used film as a tool to offer hope and understanding.

After the release of WHORES’ GLORY, I had the opportunity to meet Michael at Kino Lorber’s office. 
We only met once, which was followed by email correspondence. Michael offered me the use of his residence in Bangkok to pursue my Muay Thai film endeavors.

Special thanks to Rodrigo Brandao for his assistance in always accommodating Films In Review.


A Champion of the People

Michael Glawogger: I was born in the south of Austria in the city called Graz. That’s close to the former Yugoslav and Slovenian border. It’s the second largest city in Austria. I grew up there, but, there was no possibility to go to film school. We had a little film club there because all of the normal, regular cinemas played the kind of movies the public wanted to see.
 After high school I went to study at the San Francisco Art Institute. I was more interested in experimental filmmaking or the connection of film and fine art, making the stills a part or a trace of a style that you could see now and then in my films. Then I went back to Austria and started to work there.

Franco Frassetti: Was there any government censor in Austria regarding the making of your films?

MG: No. Europe is quite an open system because we don’t have an industry in that sense. All countries in Europe speak a different language so the market is pretty small. Most of our films are government and TV subsidized. You have to collect the money from different venues, which a producer does. But, the moment they approve you – which is not easy and there is not a lot of money – you can do pretty much what you want.

FF: What do you consider your first big film success?

MG: I did a couple of films, but when I created my style and when people really became aware of my films was MEGACITIES. That was an essay-like documentary. Also, the style that I explore, one theme in many places around the world, had its premiere in front of five thousand people. That was like, ‘Wow. Finally, people do see what I do.’ It created my style and that’s how I started.

FF: WHORE’S GLORY is the third in a series of films. What were the first two films?

MG: That was MEGACITIES and WORKINGMAN’S DEATH. People called them the global documentaries. Each explores different fields in many places around the world. That was pretty new at that time. When I made MEGACITIES – I think I shot it in ‘96 and it came out in ’98 – it was new at that time. I read the word “globalization” the first time about my film. Now they call it the Globalization Trilogy. I stick to that because it was very fruitful in many ways,

FF: What was the first country, other than the United States and Austria, that you shot your film?

MG: That was Mexico. I always go back to Mexico. I like Mexico.

FF: Do you speak Spanish?

MG: No, but I understand a fair amount. I always have my co-workers as translators and directors, so I am always shielded.

FF: How do you cut the cost of making a documentary like MEGACITIES?

MG: My documentaries are not so cheap, but with documentaries you can always find a way. When I shoot feature films, and my feature films are in American terms pretty small, they cost between two and four million dollars. You have a crew of about 50 to 70 people. So, the production is very slow and you really have to know what you are doing beforehand and it’s very structured. Actually, I first did a feature film like that and I almost got frustrated with this kind of method of working. When I had two million dollars for a documentary and only seven people, I had a lot more freedom to move, freedom of thought, of where to go, how to do it. So, actually, I enjoyed that way of working because it’s more open.

FF: What kind of mind-set do you have that enables you to secure funding?

MG: I have no idea. Maybe, because I have worked at it for more than a decade. MEGACITIES came out in 1998 and there hasn’t been a single year around the world where this film has not been screened since then. There is a long lasting thing about this movie. It doesn’t go away. And now that the trilogy is put together they are screened again. So, they stay there. Maybe, that’s why people think this has a long-lasting effect on things and that’s why I can make it. To be honest with you, I wouldn’t want to be a newcomer now in that field because I think it’s very tough. Everybody thinks a film can be done with an I-Phone and you just blow it up to 35 mm and it’s a movie. It’s what’s called the “democratization of the documentary field,” but it’s a little arbitrary. Of course, everybody can shoot a film cheaply, but then it hardly ever can be put into a format where you can screen it. Is it being distributed? Is it being shown? It’s even more difficult to get your work shown than it was ten years ago. So, I really don’t see where the democratization is really at work. Maybe, on the internet, but it’s not that easy. Even if an artist says to the people, ‘let’s put the idea out to the Internet’ and people pay for the film to get made, if you do that you have to give everybody who paid a ticket. So, it’s like the cat biting its tail. I don’t know. I come from a more old fashioned approach. I film on film. It will change and I also will change. You have to change, otherwise you become a nostalgic kind of filmmaker.

FF: How did WHORE’S GLORY come about? What was the incubation period?

MG: Actually, it was because of the two other films that the whole subject of prostitution came up. The workers are always saying, “When we carry our big loads and we work so hard, next week when we get paid we go down to the next city to meet the prostitutes. It makes us very happy.” Also, in MEGACITIES there is this scene with the burlesque theater stripper, and all the men are allowed to touch her. It was one of the most talked about scenes in the whole film. So, I will always say that the children were asking the questions. There was something open still. There was something I wanted to know more about. I became really interested in that.

FF: Why did you choose Thailand and Bangladesh?

MG: It started out with Bangladesh because I always hire photographers to work with me on my films because, later on, I also put out a book with pictures and text. I do a lot of photography myself. I had a very, very, good photographer from Bangladesh. I talked with him about doing a film about prostitution. He said that his country has the most amazing prostitute quarters, but it was hard to get access. He showed me one of those places and that’s how it all started. After long difficult obstacles when I could film there, it became a much bigger part than I would have ever thought. It’s this place with 600 women. It’s huge, it’s a ghetto. So many stories, so many lives, that I thought that it’s not going to work like in MEGACITIES. Suddenly, I had almost a film, but I didn’t want to do that; just make a film about prostitution in Bangladesh. I also saw that it had a lot of impact in connection with sexuality and religion. So, I said to myself, Coming from all this influence of Fine Arts that I want to do a triptych which is an altered painting. It has a very clear structure. It has a huge middle part and has wings to it and they are made of different things. I wanted to have the left wing being a little more lightweight, being a little more almost charming as a Buddhist part. I also wanted to have a very strong Catholic part that is closer to death or hell. I actually made this anachronistic thing off of three religion triptych. A triptych is only something that is only in Catholic or Christian culture. That is how the three parts came together.

FF: What were the biggest hurdles in each country in accomplishing your project?

MG: The hurdles were that in these realms or premises you are not welcome. Government is not very pleased when you do a film about the pimps, the mafia, the girls, nobody wants you there. So, there are a lot of hurdles or obstacles. Sometimes it is even surreal. Like in Thailand, the Thai King would say that there is no prostitution. You have a hard time going to somebody and saying that you want to make a film about this and they’d look at you and say, “It doesn’t exist in our country.”

FF: Did you place the picture of the king over the time clock?

MG: No, it was there. They love their king. So, if he said there is no prostitution, there is no prostitution.

FF: Was there anything that you were shooting and you had to shelve because they said you couldn’t shoot there anymore?

MG: Sure. There are places in the world that I would have loved to do things for that film, but I couldn’t. There was a lot of control. I think it would be a pretty tough thing to make something in the United States because it is outrightly forbidden.

FF: At any point during the time you were shooting – especially the young girl in Bangladesh, who is just staring, obviously she is just broken. Did you ever want to retaliate?

MG: You can’t do that. If you are a filmmaker, you are not a social worker. You are not a policeman. I’m friends with many people that appeared in my film. The stripper in MEGACITIES, I am the godfather of her child and I visit her every year. There are personal connections, but you cannot behave like a policeman.

FF: Have any of these women seen the film?

MG: All of them, except those who I couldn’t find anymore.

FF: What were their reactions?

MG: Sometimes there were very strange reactions. The Mexican women would get very upset about the Thai part. They said that these girls had to sit behind glass, ‘It’s very horrible. We couldn’t work like that, and we thank God that we live in Mexico, because we can talk to the customer.’

FF: Did it appear that the Thai men had more reverence towards the women than the Mexican men?

MG: They’re pretty tough there. But, that is an unexpected reaction, which is why I like to tell it. Sometimes when you show people the film their reaction is totally different from what you expect.

FF: I understand that in Mexico where you shot, there is a gate manned by the police. 
Are these woman free to leave at will?

MG: They can leave, unless they are criminals. Some people who live there are because this is almost like a touch free zone. It is a very traditional thing, it goes back to the American-Mexican War. Before they were driving cars through there, they would go on horses. It became something like, if you live inside there, you cannot be touched and they don’t do it. There is no law against the police going in to arrest somebody, but they don’t do it. If you choose that kind of life, even if you are an American and you commit a crime you can live in the zone, they will keep you there.

FF: How far from the border is the zone?

MG: Two blocks.

FF: From the U.S. border?

MG: Yes. It’s practically on the Rio Bravo. A lot of Americans used to go there. Now they don’t go because of the drug war. There is also a high-class brothel in the zone; enormously expensive. There used to be a white dove in that area that Americans would love to hunt. When they went hunting they would also go to the brothels. But all of that doesn’t work anymore, partly because the white dove is almost extinct. They wanted to go to the brothel so much at the time, when this white dove hunting was going on, that even more working girls would come from all over the country because they needed so many prostitutes there. Now, in comparison to those times, the thing is almost in ruins, and because of the drug wars the Americans are afraid to go. But it was the kind of thing like in my country. There are brothels across the border in Czechoslovakia, so all the people go there. They like to do their hair across the border cause it’s cheaper, and then they go to the brothel. It’s the same thing. All the Americans were driving down to Mexico in their vans for the cheap prostitutes.

FF: Production wise, in each country, what was the size of you crew ?

MG: In the case of WHORE’S GLORY we used an Arriflex Super 16. MEGACITIES and WORKINGMAN’S DEATH were analog blow ups. This was the first time that we made a digital blow up. It was shot on film and the crew is between five and seven people depending on the situation. We used no light. All we do is exchange light bulbs to stronger ones or put a second neon where one neon is. That’s how it’s shot. It’s pretty quickly shot. The whole movie is shot in thirty days. But, it has a very long period of research, of getting to know the people, them to know you, building trust. The normal documentary style of closeness that you need.

FF: Your stills photographer, was he the key person in getting Bangladesh?

MG: Yeah. I always … invite a local still photographer. I tell them they could do their own project, but be around me. I work along with these people very well because they have the same look as I do on things; the same approach. They know their country well, they know how to handle the people, which is always very fruitful, it’s like a dialogue thing for me. Also, there are a lot of pictures in my film that appear with the film in a book, or in promoting the film. The pictures do not one hundred percent reflect images that are in the film, but they give a broad description of things.

FF: How long was the research process for Thailand ?

MG: In Thailand it was extremely long because there are many many fish tanks in Bangkok, hundreds of them. But nobody actually wanted to let us do it. I had a list of my five favorite places where I wanted to shoot and in the end there was only one that allowed us to do it. It was a very high risk operation. He could have closed us down any minute. He didn’t, but if that had happened, I wouldn’t have known where else to go.

FF: Did you change any of the fluorescent bulbs in the fishbowl?

MG: No, he wouldn’t allow it. There is no touch up whatsoever. He wouldn’t allow that. Not one lamp.

FF: I found Mexico to be the most vile, as opposed to Bangladesh where they appear almost motherly. What is your opinion?

MG: The Mexicans are most philosophical about the whole thing. I could connect to them the best. The girls there are the toughest, but I really like them. It was a pleasure for me to go back there with them to see the film. Talk with them, drink with them. They are good people.

FF: The lighting is rather stark within the rooms.

MG: Yes, it looks like a wild place. It is a wild place, but as I said, Mexicans have a lot of “animal,” they have a lot of heart. Even if they kill you, they kill you with a heart.

FF: In Bangladesh, the woman had a candle beside her; it looked like a painted image.

MG: That’s the strange thing about this place, it’s so dirty and wild and lower class, but the women dress up so beautifully like any Bollywood movie. There is a glamour in there. It’s In the wildest places or in the dirtiest places. It’s a contradiction.

FF: Is the reaction to the film very different from men than from women?

MG: Men are more scared of this film. It sort of deglamorizes. It’s not so easy for them to take and women know what it’s like. Some people get depressed when they see the film. I think that the people in the film are very strong characters.

FF: How did you get permission to film in Mexico?

MG: I asked the women. I said I do this film now for three years or longer and always they close the door in my face. Brenda said okay. I said you choose the customer.

FF: Did you have to ask him also?

MG: She asked him. I think she thought that he was cute.

FF: He was all right with it? Did you give him his two hundred Pesos?

MG: Yeah. Actually, when I came back to show them the film, they were a couple. The experience was so nice, they stayed together. He’s her guy now. I went into the sauna and the first thing I saw was that guy holding Brenda’s hand. She said they had seen the movie and it was special for them and they stayed together.

FF: Did you have the distribution company in place before you shot the film?

MG: No, no. The distribution company saw the film in Toronto. After Venice it went to Toronto.

FF: Are you working on any future projects?

MG: At the moment, I am preparing a 3-D documentary for television. It’s called, WHEN BUILDINGS TALK. Each director in that series does a portrait of a building. I’m doing the library at St. Petersburg. Besides that, I will do a film called, THE FILM WITH NO NAME. And, it will be about nothing. I think that the biggest enemies of documentary filmmmaking are theme and issue. I want to travel the world for a year and film what I like. I want carte blanche.

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