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Anja Dornieden, Juan David Gonzales Monroy

Anja Dornieden Juan David Gonzales Monroy
Although aurochs, the ancestors of today’s cattle, died out in the 17th century, some people have tried to resurrect these legendary, prestigious beasts. Lutz Heck, a German zoologist and friend of Hermann Göring with whom he shared a love of hunting and the dream to repopulate Europe’s forests with these horned creatures, tried to do so. Using manipulated photos, sliding intertitles onto transparencies in a documentary approach whose seriousness is the guarantee of a tacit but profound critical irony, the meticulous filmmaking duo takes us through the illustrated works of this idiosyncratic savant. But they also introduce us to some modern-day scientists from the Netherlands who share a similar dream. A meditation on celluloid (another endangered species) about survival, this film, to the delight of viewers, never shies away from the (albeit ghostly) powers of beauty.
(Jean-Pierre Rehm)

Interview with Anja Dornieden et Juan David Gonzales Monroy

You are interested in the extinction of the Aurochs and the attempts in the 20th century to recreate the species artificially. How was this project born?
We heard about the back-breeding project undertaken by the Heck brothers to recreate the Aurochs in Germany. Their project had been supported by the Nazi regime and the war had brought it to an end, but we found out that descendants of their recreated aurochs (now known as Heck cattle) could still be found in different parts of Germany. Our first impulse was simply to go and see these cows. We found a small, privately kept herd in Thüringen and decided to film them. We first thought that perhaps that would be enough for a film but we realized that we couldn’t really tell what made them different or special in comparison to other forms of domesticated cattle. We came to the conclusion that we had to do more research and find more cattle to see if we could get closer to the original. The owner of the herd put us in contact with
Willi Schmidt, who also kept Heck cattle and called himself “the cow whisperer”. Around that time, we heard about the Taurus Foundation and their project in the Netherlands to try to create a new aurochs. Looking at this new project gave us a chance to see what a project of this type looks like in the present with the knowledge and technology that is now available. This project also allowed us to bring the historical events into the present to explore to what degree our human interventions into our ecosystems have (or have not) changed over time.

You proceed to an investigation where historical elements linked to the German Nazi past and current research on the hopes of recreating an extinct species intervene. How did you work the conversation between two periods with opposite ideological foundations?
We found a book written by Lutz Heck called Animals – My Adventure (Tiere – Mein Abenteuer). In the book, along with the project to breed back the aurochs, he recounts his experiences hunting and collecting animals all over the world to bring back to the Berlin Zoo. These stories are accompanied by photographs of the animals. We thought that these images and how they were presented said a lot about his position and his relationship to other animals. We decided to use the book and these photographs throughout the film as a kind of bridge that allowed us to continuously bring the past into the present. Also, the book leaves out the information about Heck’s affiliation with the Nazis and their support of his projects so we felt the need to include that information. The fact that he left that information out spoke of the way ideologies try to edit
out the past to create the present. We thought it was necessary to show that the past does not go away and has an effect on the present even when it’s hidden, ignored or relabeled.

You explain the reasons and tools for the making of the film, such as the problems linked to the analog film and the questions of the script choices. Why this choice?
We knew that once we focused on the aurochs, we were dealing more with an idea than with a real animal. The animal went extinct in the 17th century and nobody who is alive today has ever seen one, so our film was going to be a kind of impossible portrait. In other words, from the start our film was meant to fail since we could never show a real aurochs. So, we decided to be transparent about our failure. We wanted to give a detailed account of trying to do something that was not going to work, at least not in the sense of creating something whole or complete. It also seemed to us to mirror some of the processes that the scientists and artists we met were going through while trying to create a complete image of the animal. Notwithstanding how much knowledge or tools they have, they are never going to get a real aurochs. They are all dealing
with interpretations, either of data or fossils or paintings.

You have chosen a chalky black and white. What were the reasons for this?
The first footage we shot was black and white 16mm film. We’ve only ever worked with analog film and at the time that we started the project we had some black and white material available. Our original plan was to shoot that small herd of Heck cattle on black and white film and develop the footage by hand. Once we found the book by Lutz Heck and saw his images of animals in black and white it felt right to continue our film in black and white. Also, like we said, since we knew that our film was going to be incomplete, it felt right to use a type of film that inherently leaves out information.

The film was shot in 16mm. Analog film is your working tool. You are also very involved in the Labor Berlin, dedicated to the work around the analog film.What are the stakes for you today to shoot on film?
We tend to say that we like film because it feels alive, in the sense that it is an organic material that one can touch and interact with physically but also because it seems to have a will of its own. But today, it seems to us that film is alive because it is dying. Not just in commercial terms. Every piece of film is in a constant state of decay and we can access this decay with our eyes and our hands. The film dies before us and this is an important aspect of experience in our present state. So many living things around us die and disappear invisibly or hidden from us and the effects are only felt much later. But for us, working with film and seeing it slowly die reminds us of how precarious our situation is as living beings. If we take care of the film, we can prolong its life and give it some communal use but it has to go through a natural process that can’t be denied. To be present for that process is important to us.

Interview by Claire Lasolle

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Technical sheet

Germany / 2020 / 76’

Original Version : English, Dutch.
Subtitles : English.
Script : Anja Dornieden, Juan David González Monroy.
Photography : Anja Dornieden, Juan David González Monroy.
Editing : Anja Dornieden, Juan David González Monroy.
Sound : Anja Dornieden, Juan David González Monroy, Christian Obermaier.
Production : Anja Dornieden (Ojoboca GbR), Juan David González Monroy (Ojoboca GbR).
Filmography : Enthusiasm, 2021. The Skin Is Good, 2018. Comfort Stations, 2018. Heliopolis Heliopolis, 2017. The Masked Monkeys, 2015. Wolkenschatten, 2014. Gente Perra, 2014. Come and dance with me, 2013. A flea’s skin would be too big for you, 2013. Eigenheim, 2012. The Handeye (Bone Ghosts), 2012. Oro Parece, 2012. Awe Shocks, 2011.