Her Name Was Europa: Impossible Image of Non-existent Animal. Interview with Ojoboca

The filmmaking duo Anja Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy is based in Berlin. They make films and film performances that would be most probably called experimental, but through poetic, documentary and even narrative procedures they easily permeate different frameworks and thus also multiple screening spaces. They reach audiences from the international alternative scene to more traditional film festivals. Their film “Her Name Was Europa” was premiered in February this year at the Berlin International Film Festival – Forum Expanded. Besides questioning the relationship between human and animal, they cast doubt upon the cultural means of representation, including the medium of film. I asked them about the origins of their newest film, and also about their creative process and conditions of filmmaking.

How did the topic of your latest film “Her Name Was Europa” emerge? Could you describe the research you did into the topic? 

It started with us learning about the back-breeding projects carried out by the Heck brothers and finding, through research, that descendants of the cows that the Heck brothers had bred still existed in Germany. We wanted to visit them to see what they looked like. We found a person who had a small herd in Thuringia and we traveled there and got footage of their cows. The owner of that herd told us about Willi Schmidt, who went by the nickname Yakwilli and described himself as the cow whisperer from the Rhön. We contacted him and he invited us to come to see his herd. Our research also steered us toward the work done in the Netherlands by the Taurus Foundation to breed back new aurochs. While we were there, we met Remie (who built a life-sized model of the aurochs) and Marleen (who is an artist and expert on cattle breeds), both of whom are part of the film. Through the Taurus Foundation, we learned about the genomics lab at Wageningen University, with which they were collaborating to trace the traits in the new breed through DNA markers. That also became one of the spaces we filmed. We were getting new information with each encounter and following these leads to see where they would take us. In the end, it took a long time to contact the different people and organize visits, so it was a really a process of happenstance and patience. 

Her Name Was Europa,” similar to your other films (“The Handeye (Bone Ghosts),” “Gente Perra,” and “The Masked Monkeys,” to name but a few), focuses on the fate and role of animals in a way that is not merely zoological or ethnographic. Has the relationship between animals and humans become a strong cinematic focus for you?

When we look back at the films we have made, we can see that this has become a common thread. But we didn’t start out with this in mind, and we’ve never decided to focus solely on animals. In hindsight, we can see that we’ve always had an interest in encounters with the nonhuman. It seems to us that we were looking for ways to expand our point of view beyond the human as the only worthwhile area of investigation within cinema. In the last couple of years, we’ve become more intentional in our search for modes of existence that are outside the human realm or that call into question the position of humans within a certain environment. 

While watching your film, I was constantly reminded of John Berger’s essay “Why look at animals?” Berger states that the national zoos appeared at the moment when the animal lost its place in industrialized society and when it stopped accompanying man in the daily routine. Do you think the fact of extinction is an acceptable impulse or excuse to reinvent the animal?

It’s true that for us, personally, our relationship with animals on a daily basis is very removed. Because of the way our industrial societies are structured, we don’t have to be involved in the day-to-day decisions of how we will act with or toward animals in a broader sense. However, as societies, our relationship with animals has to be continuously addressed. There are individuals that have specialized in particular fields and have dedicated their lives and careers to trying to figure out the parameters of this relationship. We wanted to know more about their experience. The aurochs allowed us to explore multiple manifestations of this type of experience from different fields and across time.

What we were able to see by spending time with different people dedicated to thinking about the aurochs was that the aurochs (as an animal and as a symbol) have always been in a constant state of reinvention ever since humans first made contact. It was never a static thing exterior to humans. Through hunting, domestication, and storytelling, it has become inextricably linked to humans and helped shape the definition of what we consider to be human. We also realized that, because of this interconnectedness, its extinction was never the main impulse or the only excuse for bringing it back. There have been (as with the Nazi ideology behind the Hecks’ project) and there continue to be diverse reasons and incentives in the present for wanting to breed this animal back into existence. 

The fact that there wasn’t one simple reason was a big part of what engaged us with the topic in the first place. We wanted to parse out the different discourses about this animal and see how they coexist with one another. So it would be very hard for us to say whether extinction is an acceptable impulse to carry out this kind of project since what we found were myriad and often-conflicting impulses.

The first attempt to bring back the aurochs by the director of Berlin Zoo during the Third Reich period, Lutz Heck, fitted very well into the aesthetics of monumentality and supernaturality of Nazi ideology. More broadly, it reminded me of Leni Rieffenstal’s films and the architecture of Albert Speer. In the context of the scientific rescue programs, do the aesthetic and ideological frameworks really differ from the historical hubris and conviction of superiority?

There is a significant difference between the projects that were sponsored by Nazi Germany and the project we came into contact with in the Netherlands. Early in our research, it became clear that the Nazi project was interested in manipulating nature to support their fabricated ideology. They wanted to make their own fantasies of dominion a reality. The aurochs was a symbol of strength and European purity. And, as we state in the film, they were also interested in having large game back in Europe so they could hunt it. So hubris and anthropocentrism were at the center of their justification.

In the case of the Taurus program in the Netherlands, its impulse is to have large bovines back in Europe so that it will be possible to have sustainable wild forests. Large, wild bovines are a necessary part of a wild forest ecosystem. What we found from talking to the people involved in this program was that they were much more humble about the prospects of the project. From the beginning, they made it clear to us that they would not be able to recreate an aurochs (something that the Heck brothers claimed to have done with their experiments). They were clear that they were trying to make a creature that was similar but not a true copy. The aurochs was a wild animal that was native to Europe and adapted to the conditions. So in that sense it’s logical to use it as a model to try to approximate. Nonetheless, because of its relationship with humans over thousands of years, it has acquired its own myth. It still maintains symbolic power. We were intrigued by how this symbolic power can influence the process of wanting to make an approximation of the aurochs, especially when nobody alive has ever seen one.

Thinking of Europe (and Northern America) as Flusser’s Western project, the role played by technology is a defining factor. The technological paradigm implies the “undo” button. It’s maybe not so easy as to press a button, but the hubris on which this decision and strategy are based consists in the contradiction with all natural processes. The animal itself becomes a perfect machine that’s always reversible. Did you intend in your film to deal with such an ethical question?

One of the larger questions for us is how do we define this so-called “nature.” What is a “natural process?” We don’t really have a concrete answer to this, but it seems to us to be a worthwhile question at the moment, especially if you consider the human position. How do you define “nature” from our perspective? Is it something separate from us that we have access to, or does it include us? And, if it includes us, and all our activities, then does it really exist as something we can look at and understand? Perhaps it’s a concept that’s beginning to lose its relevance or at least we should reconsider it.

Nonetheless, we’re constantly defining “nature,” and how these definitions manifest themselves is something we’re interested in. Lutz Heck’s work reflects a position on nature. A place like Tropical Islands reflects a particular idea of what nature is as well. The scientists at Wageningen University, through their work with DNA mapping, also represent a notion of nature. Technology plays a role in all these practices, but in different ways. For us, the physical manifestation of these notions holds the most interest. 

Rewilding Europe” is a very expensive and demanding project, so it seems to me that such a rescue plan can be implemented (again) only in the wealthiest part of the world. It is profoundly exclusive and follows a very limited mythology. Does the film also reflect on Western white man’s relation to the world? On some national conception?

It was important to us to spell out the imposed limits or boundaries of these projects. They are designed based on the notion of a European region that is the center of action. But you have to consider the actors and the historical moment. You would have to ask under what notion of Europe a particular person or group is acting. There are geographical boundaries, of course, but Europe itself has a symbolic meaning. 

It’s also true that there are economic factors at play that reflect on larger structural differences. Wealthier nations in Europe such as Germany or the Netherlands have the resources and infrastructure that allow for these types of projects. The aurochs was not only native to the region that is now defined as Europe. It was also native to Asia and Africa, but somehow it became a symbol for an image of European nature. 

Very often, you work with voiceover (sometimes provided by an artificial voice), but it is definitely not the most important common thread and can also cause confusion. In “Her name was Europa,” instead of a voiceover you use inter-titles that inform spectators about a rich tapestry of context. But far from objective, it represents a subject behind the camera materializing via your hands placing each inter-title under the objective while your subject even appears in the text itself, which by the end of the film also appears as a protagonist of the artificial paradise. Can you talk a bit about this procedure of narration in your films?

We’re interested in the subjectivity of the speaker and what happens to it when it gets transposed, through photochemical and mechanical means, into film. Who is the author and who is the speaker in a film? And what are either of them actually saying? Or what do they think they’re saying? What if they’re speaking without really knowing what they’re saying?

Generally, film has been seen as a tool for communication. In a broad sense, there’s some kind of message that’s being transmitted and received, with or without a narrator. Depending on the type of film, particular devices are used to support the integrity and consistency of the message. But what if these devices are hiding an intrinsic error? What if the message was corrupted all along? Narration, in its many forms, is a tool that allows us to play out different scenarios in which the message breaks down. We want to know what happens to a film once this occurs. If it’s no longer effective as a tool for communication, what else can take its place?

At one moment in the film, when you follow the experiments in the laboratory, you reflect on the film stock used to shoot these scenes. Did you point to the act of filming to question the means of representation and therefore the viewer’s situation of seeing? Isn’t it also a metaphor for representing and re-imagining the extinct animal?

From early on, we realized that as we were trying to make a film about an animal that no longer exists, we had no real image of the animal that we could capture. So our film was also a reconstruction of sorts. In that sense, there is a parallel with the different breeding projects. The difference is that we’re using the medium of film. Our goal was to approximate an image, not to create the real thing. We thought it would make sense to show clearly the development of our process and to emphasize the medium of film and the artificiality of what we were trying to do. From the start, we wanted to make clear that we weren’t going to be able to present an accurate image of the animal.

Analog film also lends itself to this idea since it is a medium that involves a lot of uncertainty. When you shoot film, you have to wait until the film is processed to see if what you got is any good. In the case of the scene you’re referring to, that’s what happened with our footage. We shot at the university laboratory with a certain film stock. We had problems with it in our camera and we didn’t like the way the footage came out. We decided to go back and shoot the whole scene again. Afterwards, we decided to include both results. It made sense to us since it was part of our process and we were trying to bring our own process into the foreground (including mistakes and setbacks), namely trying to create a portrait of this lost creature. 

In other films of yours, you point toward the cinematic apparatus. In “Wolkenschatten,” you work on the ideology of cinema itself. For me, this film was an introduction to your work and therefore to (H)orrorism. Could you explain this practice denouncing the constructions of reality? 

We’ve always felt that film is primarily an illusory medium. It’s artificial and constructed but, at the same time, like any good illusion, it’s very good at hiding its own artificiality. The space between being aware of its unreality and being caught in the illusion is very rich for us. We appreciate the illusion, but we don’t want to be consumed or dominated by it. So with our films we like to move between these two levels of awareness. In this way, it relates to hypnotic or trance states. Everyday awareness is always moving between the conscious and the unconscious, but we are never exactly aware of these turns since we’re preoccupied with all sorts of other activities. Cinema affords us a chance to address these different states of perception directly and play with them.

The cultural practice of cinema has tended toward hiding the components of the illusion. It likes to present coherent realities. Narrative is one of its main mechanisms to achieve this. But for us there are always inconsistencies beneath the coherent story. The loose ends, the errors, and discrepancies can be very rich territory. In our experience, they can act as openings toward new paths.

Orrorism as a practice is concerned with the communal experience of cinema. So with each project we try to find ways that directly address the mechanisms of this experience, of this ritual. 

In some ways, your moniker Ojoboca seems to be transparent (with „ojo“ and „boca“ meaning „eye“ and „mouth“ respectively)… to devour by the act of seeing? It reminds me also of the child’s gesture of seizing what he sees, the eye-hand-mouth gesture. What inspired you to adopt this moniker?

When we chose it, we liked the name Ojoboca because, within the realm of film, it immediately suggested many possible interpretations. In its original use, it was a name used by Pasolini to describe the film camera. He said it was an eye that speaks. For us, there are many other possible readings within and beyond that description.

How does the photochemical and mechanical apparatus of film influence your thinking and the way of filming? Do you feel any danger of extinction?

The process of working with photochemical film is very important to us. It has really shaped how we work. On the one hand, it’s a process that’s graspable; you can access all of its aspects. From shooting to developing and printing, you can learn all these techniques, and the equipment is relatively simple. In that sense, it is accessible and, in a way, transparent. At the same time, working with analog film is an inherently uncertain process. The chemical side of it guarantees that there are always mysteries to what happens. We found that this play between transparency and uncertainty is really conducive to what we’re trying to do. 

That being said, we aren’t precious about analog film, or any technology for that matter. We don’t fear extinction. We don’t think that what we do needs to be tied solely to a medium. Film, in essence, is just a play of light, and there are many ways of playing with light that don’t require the photomechanical apparatus of film, or any digital equivalent for that matter. Maybe it’s possible to divorce the cinematic experience from any technology. Light and sound are all you need. Perhaps even less than that. 

LaborBerlin, an artist-run film lab, is a self-managed reservation for photochemical film practice. It is an international encounter between different artists. How does it function for you?

LaborBerlin has been very important to us, not just in terms of the work, but also with respect to having a community of peers with whom to share and collaborate.

We knew that the type of work that we wanted to make was not going to be meant for the commercial arena, but we still wanted to find a way to make it sustainable for ourselves. With LaborBerlin, we found a model for how to exist as independent artists in a world that is quite hostile right now toward most activities that are not motivated by profit or self-promotion. 

There is a large and growing network of filmmakers all around the world working with analog film in the context of artist-run film labs such as LaborBerlin. This has provided many artists with the resources to make their own films, and also with venues where they can showcase their work and people with whom to share it. We want to be part of the effort to exist outside of the logic of capitalism. Our encounter with this community showed us that it was possible to create, within larger structures of exploitation and division, spaces of freedom. 

The potential to create this space of freedom has been, for us, one the main appeals of experimental cinema as a practice. It has always been amorphous ecosystem. One aspect that has a large impact in this field right now is the fact that the world is much more connected. Exchange between different artists in different countries and scenes happens much faster and more fluidly. Perhaps this is making film more homogeneous in some aspects, but there are always new strategies and models emerging all the time. If it weren’t for the fact that there came a historical point when analog film seemed to be outdated and on the path to extinction, there might not have been this resurgence and interest in keeping it viable, and this whole community might not exist. In a sense, obsolescence was a gift and we’re thankful for it.

Her name was Europa

16mm | 76 min | b/w | 2020

Viennale; Vienna, Austria 2020
Cinematik Film Festival; Piešťany, Slovakia 2020
New York Film Festival – Currents; New York, USA 2020
IndieLisboa; Lisbon, Portugal 2020
20 Sunsets, Haus der Kulturen der Welt; Berlin, Germany 2020
PREMIERE: Berlin International Film Festival – Forum Expanded; Berlin, Germany 2020

Ojoboca: Anja Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy

Anja Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy are filmmakers based in Berlin. They work together under the moniker OJOBOCA. Together, they practice Orrorism, a simulated method of inner and outer transformation. They have been members of the artist-run film lab LaborBerlin since 2010. They produce films and performances as well as host workshops. Their work is regularly screened at festivals such as the Berlinale, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Ann Arbor Film Festival, 25fps (Zagreb), EMAF (Osnabruck), Milwaukee Underground Film Festival, etc.

PIC film stills from Her Name Was Europa


TRANSLATION Alexandra Moralesová